Reported In The Northeast Kingdom
Two days into a full-on ice storm, I drove the
forty-five miles north and east from Burlington to Red Green's
house in Newport, Vermont. All along the way, the woods were a
winter war zone. Trees splintered from the weight of the ice,
scattering limbs and trunks on the frozen snow. Blue sparks arched
out of severed high-tension wires, onto the icy blacktop.
Temperature shifted by the minute, changing from rain to snow to
ice, back to rain. My mind mirrored the storm, fierce addiction
raging, beating my brain with baseball-sized hailstones of
chemical need. I thought about turning around, thought about
getting high at Red's and kept going. The drive, normally
fifty-five synapse-screaming minutes in good weather with a
crystal meth tailwind, took six hours.
For the past four years - really since late 1993 - I made the
drive from Burlington to Newport twice a week. A friend of a
friend, that worst of all bridges, hooked me up with Red. I had
just started working at the medical waste facility in South
Burlington. Red suggested he might be able to salvage some
pharmaceutical-quality drugs from the plastic biohazard containers
I stuffed into the industrial autoclave every night. Twice a week,
I made sure two full waste containers found their way into the
back of my truck. Red was always happy and so was I - four
containers a week paid for all my drugs. Back then, it was mostly
a lot of hash and a little heroin, with the occasional jolt of
some high-octane crank to make sure I functioned during the day.
All with as much beer as I could swallow for a chaser. Red stuck
to harder stuff than that. Angel dust and liquid cocaine, mixed
with dental anesthesia. He was a tweak freak too, and then he'd
apply the heroin brakes for a week. The containers I brought would
sometimes yield a gold nugget - a half-used bag of morphine or
Haldol drip, a pound of bright colored, professional-strength
get-high chiclets. Red had connections and customers for all of
it. I never really knew where he got his other stuff. Anybody with
crystal meth usually has biker friends, but I never saw any bikers
at Red's. Twice weekly, I'd get high at his house, then take the
rest of my new stash back to Burlington. Four years of this
arrangement had bumped me up to angel dust and meth, until I
needed heroin to dampen the evil hum that became my internal theme
The storm peaked as I reached the outskirts of Newport, ice
pellets machine-gunning the truck's windshield under huge
irregular booms of thunder. Red Green's house was on the edge of
Lake Memphremagog, the inland sea of the Northeast Kingdom, that
region made up of northern Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and
parts of Canada. I followed the old shore road around the giant
frozen lake until I was in front of his house. It was a one-level,
white shack, with a concrete block for a front step and pink
insulation stuffed inside the front window. As I got out of the
truck, I pulled up the collar of my barn jacket against the ice
pellets and made a dash for the back door, which faced the lake. I
could smell wood smoke. Thunder boomed and lightning struck the
lake a hundred yards from the back porch. Right where the
lightning struck, I saw three balls of lightning. The balls rose
off the ice and traveled about thirty feet, each one hissing,
until they dissipated into nothing. Just the sight-echo of three
bright spots, which stayed on my eyes. I opened the back porch
Red Green was lying on the couch wearing a dirty flannel shirt and
a pair of jeans, with logger's boots. He had red hair and a thin
face, the type of face you get from too many cigarettes and drugs
and not enough food. The fireplace was going full blast, the
flames providing the only light in the room. As close to the fire
as he could get without being burned was a long, brown,
shorthaired dog. He was a pretty big dog, probably close to a
hundred pounds. He had a blanket over his butt and he was shaking,
his collar and tags jingling. The dog was a new addition since my
last visit. I nodded at Red and he pointed to the table on my
left. I pulled a chair out and sat down and smoked a fair amount
of hash and angel dust before I turned to speak to him.
"What's wrong with your dog?" I asked.
"He can't stand the cold, and thunder makes him
nervous," Red answered. We both looked at the dog, still
shaking under the blanket close to the fire.
"What kind of dog is he?" I wondered.
"Rhodesian ridgeback," Red said.
I shook my head. "I never heard of that."
Red pointed to the floor and I noticed a stack of books, all with
identical blue bindings. "Look it up. I got some
encyclopedias the other day. A guy knocked on the front door and
said he was selling them. I got him high and he gave me a
I looked at Red. "He was really selling encyclopedias
door-to-door out here, in this weather?"
Red shook his head. "He wasn't selling encyclopedias
door-to-door. He was selling these encyclopedias; this is the only
set he had. He just bought them for his wife and now she ran off
to Florida, so he wanted to get rid of them. He's local, I've seen
him before - you'd know him if you saw him. He's got big bucked
teeth. I think his name is Dixon."
I moved to the floor and looked at the encyclopedias. I pulled out
the letter "R" and leafed through it. Under the entry
"Rhodesian ridgeback," there was a picture of Red's dog.
"What does it say?" Red asked.
"Those dogs were bred to hunt lions. Some people call them
The Lion Dog. They have a ridge of fur on their back." I
crawled over toward the fire and examined the dog's back. A sharp
line of short fur, pointing opposite the rest of his coat, rode
directly on the dog's backbone. I read further in the
encyclopedia. "It says that Rhodesia doesn't exist anymore.
It calls it "the former Rhodesia."
Red thought for a moment. "That's true about a lot of
things," he said. He leaned forward and snorted some white-ish
powder off the coffee table in front of him.
I looked at the "R" volume closely. Encyclopedia
International was engraved on the front cover, in cheap gold
script. Scripted in the middle of the spine was the letter
"R." At the top of the spine, written in gold, was the
year 1975. "These are old," I said. "These aren't
new. They're from 1975 - they're no good."
Red picked up a beer bottle from the coffee table, took a long
drink, and set it back down among the other empty bottles. He
shook his head. "What difference does that make, as long as
they're all there? How can they be no good?"
"They aren't accurate. The information is old and anything
that happened after seventy-five is missing." I crawled back
over to the pile of encyclopedias and put "R" back on
"Stuff doesn't change that much," said Red. "Read
me something that's changed. Start at the beginning, find
"A," and read me something that's changed a lot."
He snorted more powder off the coffee table.
I found "A" and opened to the first page of text.
"Okay. Here's something that's changed a lot." The fire
growled as it ate the wood and air.
"Read it to me." Outside, the storm wailed.
I cleared my throat. "It's information about Alcoholics
Anonymous, but they have this side story, a chapter out of a book
called Behind The Door Of Delusion. It was written in 1932 by an
author who calls himself Inmate Ward Eight. It's all about the
author being locked up in the Eastern Oklahoma Hospital For The
Insane, due to his alcoholism. He had been a successful
businessman, until drinking caught up with him."
Red looked at me. "How has that changed? People still do
that. I know people that have gone to the hospital for
"No, alcoholism treatment has changed a lot. Let me read this
to you. It says '...and the doctors would threaten the inmates
with the carbolic acid wash if they could not stop drinking.
Saltpeter was mixed in with all our food, to prevent us from
having strong emotions.' That's from the dark ages."
Red shrugged. "They do the same thing today, but with
different drugs." Then he nodded. "Okay, that's a
change, they don't talk about modern drugs. But that's not a big
change. They still put alkies in the bug house."
I continued to read. "My first day on Ward Eight, I was taken
to the hose room. The doctors chained me to the wall naked and
shot me with a fire hose for what seemed like hours. The freezing
water caused me to develop pneumonia, which took me a month to
recover from. After I recovered from my pneumonia, I received what
the doctors called temperate electric shock therapy. The
electricity was delivered to my skull through wires taped to both
of my temples. The shocks caused me to clench my jaw, breaking my
own back teeth. After I broke my teeth, I was allowed to bite down
on a thick raw steak, which was then removed from my mouth once
the shocks had been administered." I looked over at Red.
"This treatment continued daily for seven months."
Red nodded. "Okay, that's pretty bad. But I'm telling you,
even today, if they get you into one of those nut houses, you're
in for it." He took a drink of beer. "Those posh rehabs
you see on TV are for movie stars. Don't kid yourself - scum like
us get sent to lock-down joints."
I kept reading. "Due to the electric shocks, I no longer
remembered my own mother and father. My father died shortly after
my release and this triggered two terrible incidents. The night
before the funeral I slept in my old room on the farm. A dangerous
storm came up from Texas and swept across Oklahoma, the worst
lightning and thunder the county had ever seen. But the shocks had
removed portions of my learning; even though my father had
explained thunder to me as a boy, I had no recollection of it. I
ended up under my bed, urinating. The next day, in the middle of
the funeral, I had the distinct impression that I didn't belong
there, that I held no relationship to the deceased. Yet my father
and I had been on good terms up until alcohol called for my
committal. Before the service ended, I stood up and started
shouting that everyone there smelled of barley liquor and where
was my good father. Family members restrained me and I was
returned, briefly, to the asylum. I was so embarrassed by my own
behavior that I wanted to die for a time. Even though I gave up
alcohol, I was still drunk. Gradually, it passed and I wanted to
live. It took two terrible incidents to make me want to
Red nodded. "Okay, that doesn't sound so good. When I'm high
I'm high, but when I'm not, I'm not. The shit doesn't carry over
from one day to the next unless I get high again." He
listened to the storm. "At least I've got a full set. He
looked over at me. "Find "F," and look up
I came up with "F." "What's faro?"
"An old-time card game." He drank some beer.
I found faro. "Here it is. It says 'card game played with an
ordinary fifty-two card deck, by any number of persons, for the
sole purpose of gambling'." A brief set of rules followed.
"A new encyclopedia wouldn't have that. That's an old-time
game." He nodded. "My mother used to talk about faro.
See, that's worth something right there."
I shook my head. "But important stuff is missing." I
leafed through "F." The only Ford listed was Henry.
"It doesn't even have President Ford."
Red sniffed more powder off the coffee table. "What do I care
about him? He's dead."
"No he isn't. See, that's what I mean, stuff is
missing." We sat silent. I got up and took some more dust.
The dog was still shaking.
"As long as I've got a full set, that's all I care
about," Red said.
I decided to tell him about the ball lightning. "Hey, know
what I saw coming in here?"
Red shook his head. "No, what?"
"Ball lightning," I said.
I crawled back over to the encyclopedias. "I'll look it up.
My father used to talk to me about it, how lightning can travel in
a ball if the weather is right." The "B" volume
didn't have an entry for ball lightning.
"Try weather," Red suggested.
"I'll try meteorology," I said. I started to go through
Red sipped a beer."What day is it?" he asked.
"I don't know," I said.
"I think it's my mother's birthday."
I nodded. "You should call her."
"I tried before, but the phones are out," he responded.
"Where does your mom live?" I asked.
"She used to live in Reno. She likes to gamble," he
said. " But I think she moved to Toronto. I should go visit
"You could wish her happy birthday," I said.
"How much does a ticket to Toronto cost?" he asked.
"I'll look it up," I said and pawed through the
encyclopedias. "T" was missing. "Red,
"That guy was such an asshole. I fucking said to him, Are
they all there and he said Oh, Yeah, all the letters. What a
bastard!" Red got off the couch and started to pace around.
"You better go. Leave. Lately, when I start to come down,
shit gets ugly. I'll catch you later."
"But the storm...," I started.
"I DON"T GIVE A FUCKING DAMNHELL ABOUT THE STORM!"
His words slammed around. "YOU'RE LEAVING. NOW!"
I got off the floor and walked out the back door. It was raining a
little, with thunder rumbling in the distance. Red followed me. I
heard him mumble "fucking Dixon" as he reached the
"Hey," he said. "Help me with the snowmobile. I can
drive to see my mother."
Parked next to the house was a snowmobile. I took the ice scraper
out of my truck and started smacking the ice off the mobile's
seat. Red came back with a kitchen knife and knocked most of the
ice off the dashboard. He sat on the seat and turned the key. The
engine sputtered and coughed, then stayed running. The headlight
came on. Red whooped.
"Fucking shit works!" he said. He pointed straight
ahead, over the icy lake. "That's Canada, right?"
I nodded and mouthed "yes" over the now-roaring engine.
"Here I go," he said. "The former Red Green."
He put his hands on the steering controls and gunned the throttle.
The snowmobile moved forward, then gained speed toward the lake,
leaving a choppy trail from its single belt track. Red flew, out
over the ice, faster, until he was eighty yards off shore. The
snowmobile broke through the frozen surface and the machine
disappeared into the water, taking Red down with it. I stared at
where he'd been. A faint glow from the snowmobile's taillights
filtered up through the ice, then faded. I knelt on the frozen
snow, as my high started to really kick in. I saw the ridgeback
standing on the back porch. The dog opened its mouth to bark, but
what came out was my voice, screaming.
I woke up face down in the snow, covered with a thick layer of
ice. The trail of the snowmobile led out onto the lake, and
abruptly stopped near a newly frozen patch. The rest of the icy
surface was intact. I shook myself off and climbed into my truck.
The ridgeback came out of the house when the engine turned over. I
opened the passenger's door and he hopped in, shaking from the
cold. And I drove back to Burlington. The road was the same going
in as it had been coming out, except that I was suddenly alive,
with a desire to stay that way. I never actually saw ball
lightning again, although I know it occurs from time-to-time. My
father told me so. If I close my eyes tight, the image of three
burning balls, floating, reminds me.
Scott Wolven holds a fellowship in creative
writing at Columbia University. In 1998-99, Wolven was awarded the
J.R. Humphreys Fellowship in Creative Writing at Columbia, where
he studied under the novelist Raymond Kennedy. During Fall Term
1999, Wolven was a Distinguished Visiting Writer at SUNY Oswego as
part of the Living Writers Series in the English/Writing Arts
Program. His fiction is forthcoming in Permafrost.