I gave the eulogy at my mother’s funeral. I did not see Lightning Jim right away, though there were only about a dozen or so old folks in the pews at the service – more would come to the viewing that night, in the way of small towns.
Lighting Jim’s real name was James S Richardson II. When he was young, everyone called him Jim S to distinguish him from his father who went simply by Jim. But when he got struck by lightning that was the end of Jim. S. and the beginning of Lightning Jim.
No one actually saw him get hit but Kelly at the Post Office confirmed he was treated for burns over at the hospital. There were some – my father among them – who said he got them from him getting drunk and climbing a utility pole on a bet to himself. We kids didn’t care. In the way of kids we figured the truth didn’t matter since either way the nickname fit.
I don’t know about the lightning part but the drunk part was true – if not that night, then a hundred others. Lightning Jim wasn’t exactly the town drunk, but he had a problem that kept him from working steadily which was why we kids felt free to address him by a nickname.
We wouldn’t have dared do that with a farmer or working man. Our dads with their overalls and their John Deere hats pushed back on their heads and their stern voices that brooked no backtalk were authority personified. Lightning Jim just seemed more like one of us. Even his clothes had the childlike quality of costume – a battered flat brim cowboy hat and thrift store suit with an Indian arrowhead string tie.
Unlike our fathers, Lightning Jim had the unstooped shoulders of a man who could go where he pleased, when he pleased, which he did – sometimes he was outside the tavern but just as often he’d be walking the tracks, cutting across the town square, or walking along Route 1 in that purposeful but relaxed way of his. Sometimes he’d be running an errand for one of the ladies in town for the price of a cold lunch and a dollar he’d use to buy a quart of beer. But just as often he was on some private mission of his own.
I was surprised when I discovered Lightning Jim was only a year older than my dad. The occasion for this revelation was also one of the few occasions my dad was ever angry enough to hit me. It was also the only time I ever saw him cry.
I didn’t spot Lightning Jim right away at the funeral because of the girl sitting next to him.
The girl’s hair was so black it winked blue in the afternoon sun that came steaming in through the church’s skylight. Even from where I stood I could see that her lips were a dark plumy red without the aid of lipstick, as if she’d just finished chewing a mouthful of the mulberries that grew in brambly tangles next to the railroad tracks
After staring absently at her round face for a moment I saw a man’s arm snake behind her plump, dusky neck. The arm belonged to Lightning Jim.
He saw me looking and nodded. The girl glanced up at Jim, then back to me. She gave me a shy smile, white teeth peeping at me and then disappearing behind those juicy lips.
I read the passage from Matthew that the pastor had provided and wondered where Lightning Jim had found a Mexican girlfriend. Elmwood Illinois is a town smack in the middle of a bunch of corn fields smack in the middle of a state that’s smack in the middle of the country. The border is a long way away.
As for Lightning Jim, his skin was more leathery and he looked very thin, but otherwise he looked much the same. His second hand suit was antique black and a couple of sizes too big for him. His iron gray hair stood up in cowlicks despite the water he’d obviously slicked on to tame them. The Indian arrowhead string tie had been replaced with a big piece of turquoise that sat at the base of his neck like a huge green eye. I wondered if it had been a present from the girl.
It was my first trip back to Elmwood in nine years. My job with an international bank in Hong Kong makes it difficult to get back, though I talked to mom about once a month. This would be a short visit – the funeral, settling the estate, arranging for the sale of the little brick house on Reel Street, and then back to the familiar anonymity of airports – O’Hare to San Francisco to Beijing and the wife and kids for a few days before returning to Hong Kong, work. Camilla.
At the end of the service I spoke to the brogan brigade – old ladies in print dresses and sturdy black lace up shoes that looked like they weighed a pound apiece – who’d come to pay their respects and get the goods on me so they’d have something to talk about at their next hen party. Lightning Jim hung back, ‘til the last had shuffled out.
“That was a real nice service,” he said. “Your mom was a good woman. She was always neighborly to me. I remember once I was walking by and she offered me an egg salad sandwich. Even invited me inside to eat with her, right at the kitchen table.”
I smiled. “She always did make great egg salad.”
Up close, the girl had surprisingly full cheeks. The broad forehead and slight upward tilt at the outermost corner of her eye spoke of an Incan or Mayan perched in the uppermost branches of the family tree.
Under my gaze she glanced down demurely. Her dark lashes cast little half crescent moon shadows.
“Your mom was real pretty back in the day,” Lightning Jim reminisced. “Too pretty for the likes of me, a course. Not that she was stuck up or anything. I didn’t have what you’d call good prospects.”
He laughed and put a hand on the back of the girl’s neck. “I was a late bloomer, aint’ that right, sweetheart?” And to me, by way of introduction: “Ain’t she a sweetheart?”
I smiled at her and wondered how old she was. “How do you do.”
Wild roses bloomed in her dusky cheeks. She looked hard at me and then turned to look at the bier. She took my hand in both of hers – and pressed it quickly.
“Thank you,” I said to her. “It’s a sad time, but she had a good life.”
The girl gazed at me steadily. Her eyes were so dark it was hard to discern the iris from the pupil.
“I’ll miss her,” I said. Surprising myself. And realized it was true. I smiled a little and the girl smiled back, her teeth flashing a quick startling white.
“Say,” Lightning Jim said. “You should come out to the place tonight, get some home cooking in you. Rosa here can make a mole make you swear off sinning forever.”
The girl whispered something in Spanish and Lightning Jim nodded.
“We can have some mescal, help your mom cross over to the spirit world in style.” Lightning Jim said, winking. “Maybe she’ll have a message for you.”
I couldn’t tell if he was joking.
“Come on out. I got a place on Town Hall Road, second gravel road as you come from town, then about two miles in. Can’t miss it. Look for the wild carrots growing in the culvert.”
We shook hands and I thanked them for coming. I noticed as he left that he now walked with a stoop, cupping his stomach into his spine as if it contained a painful secret. He kept his hand on the girl’s shoulder to steady himself. They opened the door and the southern Illinois sun burst in hot and yellow, turning them into black outlines of themselves. Then the door shut and it was just me and mom and the sickly sweet scent of flowers that would be dead soon.
After the viewing and settling with the pastor I was restless. I drove around the cornfields watching the sun getting ready to set and thinking vaguely of stopping for a beer when I realized I was on Route 1, or Town Hall Road as it is also known. I turned before I could make a decision whether I wanted to and found myself bumping along a deeply rutted road.
I liked navigating the potholes; it was good to have a concrete problem, something that could be solved by simply giving it my undivided attention.
The road was abutted by woods on either side and dappled heavily with shade that had the purply cast of twilight. After fifteen minutes or so, the road simply ended at an incongruous patch of neat green grass.
I expected a ramshackle affair, maybe a trailer up on blocks, rusty and shedding shingles like a leper loses skin. But Lightning Jim’s place was a neat little wood frame house with a front porch that looked sturdy despite a pronounced sag in the middle.
There were no rusted out cars or derelict lawn furniture, but there was a surprisingly large herb and flower garden marching along the south side of the house, watched over by a pink flamingo with a propeller wing turning steadily in the breeze. In town that sort of plastic fantastic kitsch would announce white trash, but out here in the silence of the woods it gave a touch of homey civilization.
Lightning Jim was on the porch, his legs covered by a blanket. Up close like this, in natural light, I could see how gray and loose his skin was. He looked the way dad had looked at the end, when the pancreatic cancer finally got him.
We had a beer and talked about people in the town – or rather, Jim talked. I was glad to listen. I was tired of being the center of attention, tired of telling people how I liked China, tired of trying to find a way to explain my job in layman’s terms. It was good just to sit there, drinking in the beer and the peace and the quiet and a rediscovered acquaintance. Sometimes I think you can only be known by people who are from the same place as you. Not liked, necessarily – but known.
In the distance, heat lighting flickered, though the evening was mild. Then again I was used to the raging hot humidity of Shanghai and Hong Kong; perhaps I’d simply forgotten the heat of my past, my youth.
While Lighting Jim talked the girl came out and silently handed me a plate that smelled deliciously of chicken. The mole sauce was subtle with garlic and onions, the chocolate giving the sauce a velvet texture that seemed to stroke the quivering surface of my tongue with each swallow. I ate hungrily while Jim and the girl watched, smiling, speaking occasionally to one another in Spanish.
When I was finished the girl brought out a tray with a bottle and three short glasses. The light was fading fast but I could see that the bottle wasn’t from any liquor store. It was deep amber and oddly shaped, with five shoulders. Also, it had didn’t have a label.
“Oh, hey…” I said., in the same tone one uses to spout phrases like “Look at the time!” I told myself I was thinking of the pain of a hangover on the long flight back. But I think maybe even then I was thinking of the way liquor might loosen our tongues enough to utter those three dread syllables that had been rattling in my memory like the BBs in those games I used to play with as a kid. The one where you tipped a picture – a clown maybe, or a hula girl – and the BBs trapped in the case would roll around and come to rest in little divots in the picture – the clown’s eyes, the coconuts decorating the hula girls bikini top, whatever.
Lightning Jim ignored me and poured us a round.
“Your mom has passed over and we’re going to acknowledge that. Nothing wrong with a funeral but that’s for the living. This here, this is for the dead.” He held his glass aloft.
“To Rita,” Lighting Jim said.
It was funny hearing mom’s name like that. Like anyone else, I’d fallen in the trap of forgetting my mom had a name other than ‘mom’. Or, more accurately, “well, mom…” as in, well, mom gotta go; well mom, gotta get off the phone,; well mom, gotta get back to my life.
“To Rita,” we repeated, the girl giving a pretty little trill to the r sound. She immediately poured another round. And another.
It went like that until the bottle was gone: pour, toast, repeat. Lighting talked and the girl and I listened. She was so quiet perched there at his feet that I might have thought she slept except for the occasional white flash of her smile when she felt my gaze.
I didn’t feel drunk but of course I was. Plus the jet lag, the lack of sleep, the funeral, my own unacknowledged sadness – all of those things must have been affecting me more than I knew.That’s the only explanation I have for what happened next.
Lighting Jim talked. I listened carefully for any indication that his monologue would veer towards those three syllables, but it never did. Sometimes I felt very drunk, other times stone-cold sober. He talked about the moon of long nights and a warrior waiting for his spirit sign. He talked about the Day of the Dead when we welcome back to our homes the souls of the dead. He talked about the cycle of life and death that is human existence and knowing we are more than ourselves and that we are not soon forgotten.
In the deepening night the lawn glowed pale green against the dark demarcation of the woods. At times I saw shapes at this merging point; the great shaggy shoulders of a buffalo, the sweep of an owl winging away. A woman dancing. A semi-circle of men – not boys but men – facing towards us, their backs to the woods.
Lightning Jim never uttered those three syllables but it didn’t matter; by the time we drank down that bottle they were all I could hear or think of or see though I’d never once in all the intervening years spoken them, or consciously remembered that day in the quarry. It’s going to sound totally crazy, but I think Jim knew it.
My friends and I had been loafing around town on our bikes and decided to cool off with a swim in the old rock quarry. We swam naked, which was typical for us back then though I was starting to be aware that my friends were maturing faster than me; they had the dark beginnings of pubic hair while I was still hairless and smooth as a nectarine.
There was an old tire swing the high school boys had fixed to a tree jutting out over the quarry and we’d each had a least two turns swinging and jumping from it before we heard the laughter and realized we weren’t alone. I immediately grabbed my shorts and covered my crotch. At the time I thought the modesty was to hide my slow development, but later I wondered if I’d heard something in the quality of that laughter. Or maybe I’d registered the soprano note tangled up in all of those baritones.
By the way they got out of the water and pulled their shorts on, I thought my friends must have sensed something too. And maybe they did – but maybe what they sensed was informed by their development, because while I was ready to go running to see what the commotion was, they stopped me and, with fingers to their lips, crept on quiet feet toward the north side of the quarry where the junked cars rusted in the sun – where the laughter was coming from. Maybe their descended testicles covered in black pubic hair vibrated with a call or warning to them that I couldn’t hear. An electricity I could sense, but not yet feel.
The laughter sounded again, this time furtive. Now I recognized the odd honking bray of Lydia Lusk. Lydia was one year ahead of me in school though technically she probably never should have made it past fifth grade. She was a tall fat girl with straight black hair that was always greasy and a flat, doughy face. She was neither pretty nor sexy but that didn’t stop the boys from trying to get a look at her breasts: Lydia was an early developer, as they say, and whether because of her mental deficiencies or from a lack of attention at home, could sometimes be talked into taking off her top.
I hadn’t tried my own powers of persuasion on the unfortunate Lydia, but that had less to do with character than cowardice. I worried not that it wouldn’t work but that it would. That if she took her shirt off, the question would arise of what do to – of what next. I was a good student – mostly As and a few Bs – but I didn’t know the answer to that question.
I’d seen movie lovemaking and porn by then, of course, but I couldn’t associate any of those acts with Lydia or myself, much less Lydia with myself. I wasn’t attracted to her so much as by her, or what she’d do: a sort of revulsion/compulsion that left me sweaty and a bit nauseous, as if I were coming down with the flu.
Maybe I was more developed than I realized, because as we stole up I had a deep intuition I was going to get an answer – one of them, anyway – to the question what next.
There were four of them, grouped in a loose semi-circle. Even with their backs to us I could identify two of them – guys that went to Muirville high school, the next town over. Their dads were farmers, same as mine. The other two I didn’t know though later I heard they went to the university over in Normal.
The four had their pants loosened; the bands of their underwear and the top of their butt cracks were showing. As we watched, the semi-circle tightened closer around Lydia. We could hear their voices murmuring, cajoling.
Their bodies blocked some of our view of Lydia but not all. We could see that she was on her knees. We couldn’t see her face, but we could see that she was topless, her shirt wadded up and tossed a few feet to the side. Her face was wet with tears.
Whatever it says about me then, I am able to admit now that my biggest fear was that one of us would make a noise, or Lydia would see us. That something would happen to make them stop, and I’d be none the wiser.
Her breasts – the naked daylight reality of them – were shocking to me. They were large and white with big brownish pink nipples that looked almost like eyes. Though Lydia was quite fat, her breasts were not pendulous; they did not duplicate the bovine promise of her face. They were conical, round and jutting. They looked almost…proud was the word that came to mind.
I felt hot and itchy with the desire to touch them, to heft them. To know if my hand would confirm what my eye was reporting, that their texture would be firm, but give under the pressure of my fingers.
Suddenly the thought of Lydia and I enacting the pictures in my hidden porn stash was not so repulsive.
One of the four shuffled forward and Lydia put her hands out and honked her moron laugh – or maybe it was crying. There was more laughter from the guys and another one stepped forward, his body curved forward in excitement.
I felt an urgency I’d never felt before. “Get away from her”, I wanted to shout. Not to release her – I wasn’t sure she wasn’t there by choice, not having thought that far yet (or so I tell myself). Not to release her but to see her. Her shining breasts.
We crouched behind the mulberry brambles and watched. It was a hot day. You could hear the flies buzzing around the garbage that had collected around the junked cars. A few birds called from trees but mostly it was quiet. Lydia had stopped with that braying honk; in fact, now she made no sound at all, except for an occasional low gagging sound. The four were still murmuring, but too low to make out what they were saying. Only a few minutes had passed but there was a sense of something about to happen; the semi-circle tightening, now all four had that funny curved stance.
When the shot rang out it was as shocking as the voice of God. But the voice that followed wasn’t God but Lightning Jim.
“Get away from that girl!”
And here he came, striding out from behind the junked cars, slightly to the right of where the four stood. They hadn’t seen him coming, their attention fixed as it was lower down.
In his ragged suit with the gun Lightning Jim looked like an Old West Sheriff ready to dispense a quick, brutal justice.
“Pull your pants up,” he said. The contempt in his voice made the blood rise in my own face.
“Get home and tell your daddy. I’ll be right behind you to see that you do.”
One of the four shuffled his feet. “I’m not telling him shit. You’re nothing but an old drunk. He won’t believe the likes of you.”
Lightning Jim laughed at this. “Your daddy was my best friend in high school. We’ve got more between us than you know, son. He’ll believe me over you any day. Believe it. Now get out of here, all of you.”
He made as if to fire another round and the four took off, pulling their pants up and buttoning and zipping on the run, their pale butts flashing pale in the sun. It was more or less the same view I’d had when they were grouped in their tightening arc around Lydia, but now things were different. Their daylight nakedness, their vulnerability to Lightning Jim’s gun (and our eyes) brought home the obscenity of what had occurred. I could feel my face go dark with bad blood. My friends must have felt the same, because none of us looked at each other.
I don’t know why we didn’t run. We’d already been made by Lighting Jim. It was time to see what next. But sometimes I wonder if it wasn’t the power of Lydia’s breasts held us there; that we were literally rooted to the spot until Lighting Jim handed her top and turned considerately away while she buttoned it up.
He used that time to stare us down. He didn’t say anything and he didn’t have to; that stare was saying a lot and none of it good. We didn’t pull any of the usual kid crap of trying to see if we could wheedle him out of telling our dads. We knew he would, as much by the hardness of that stare as the gentleness with which he helped Lydia to her feet and brushed the dirt off her knees.
She spoke to him, still honking that laughing crying sound, and the way he bent his head to listen to her and the quiet way he responded to her shamed me more than his stare.
Three weeks passed and I didn’t see Lightning Jim around town, but this did not give me the relief I expected. That’s a funny thing about guilt, I’ve learned: that you can learn to crave its secret sting, like holding a scorpion in your pocket. And though three weeks can seem like a long time to a kid, I never once kidded myself that I’d gotten away with anything.
In those days my mom would make an annual trip to visit her sister in Lovejoy twelve hours away. The evening of the morning we’d seen her off on the train dad heated up the meatloaf she’d frozen for us. I’d eaten less than half when he reached over and slapped the side of my face so hard my ears rang all night. I didn’t say Ow or Hey or What did you do that for. I’d been waiting for it, and he knew it.
We kept eating. The side of my head felt ten times its normal size, hot and sizzling. I looked at him but he wouldn’t meet my eyes; just looked straight ahead, his eyes shining with the only tears I’ve ever seen in them. We finished the meatloaf in silence. He sniffed once; it was a small sound, a sound as quiet as Lightning Jim’s gunshot over the quarry.
Later, in bed, that was all I would allow myself, too: one sniff. I thought we were sniffing over the same thing – the lost innocence of the other.
Lighting Jim talked and talked. He talked of dharma, the way things are, and the laws of nature that sustain the universe. He spoke names: Aruna, Joshua, Pahsuapati, Isaiah and Shammai. He spoke of the prophet who came as light into the world, so that everyone should not remain in the darkness.
I dozed and woke and listened and dozed some more. Sometimes the girl seemed to be with us, kneeling quietly. Other times she seemed to flit across the lawn or stand behind me with barely audible breaths. At one point I wept, and she held my hand.
Lightning Jim talked on. He talked about the poison that when drunk saved humanity. He spoke of the Buffalo Woman who taught the lesson of life to man. He talked of Ravana and the House of Hillel and the greatness of an open heart. He spoke of women sitting down to learn with men and forgiving seventy times seven. He spoke of jann and jinn, of shaiṭans and afrits and marids and all the while he talked the darkness roiled softly at the borders of the woods.
At some point I fell asleep for real; sometime later someone put a blanket on me. I awoke dewy but otherwise okay to see that Lightning Jim’s rocker was empty, the girl gone. I remember this, that I was already awake when the gun went off.
I scrambled up, expecting my legs to be heavy and stiff but they were not; it was actually their unexpected supple fluidity that tripped me up. Even as I blundered through the screen door shouting for Lightning Jim, a part of me noted that I was not hung over.
Above me the porch light flickered on and off. A whiff of cordite hung in the air.
I found them in the bedroom, Lightning Jim’s rifle – the same one from that day in the quarry- leaning on the wall next to the bed. The girl was caressing his cheek when I burst in. She did not look up; her eyes were fixed on Lightning Jim’s. Her neck was speckled with his blood. She was murmuring continuously in Spanish. Jim panted, the sound filling the room. Until it didn’t, and his eyes were just a pair of rheumy blue orbs looking out at nothing.
The girl pressed them closed with a motion that was gentle but brisk. She looked up, seemed to consider me. She gestured at the dark heavy blanked that covered Lightning Jim – a blanket that doubtless disguised a spreading blood stain I most definitely did not want to look at. She spoke slowly, in Spanish, watching me carefully.
“No hablo Espanol,” I said, stupidly. I wondered if she was trying to tell me some story about how Jim had shot himself, though the barrel of the rifle was easily six inches longer than his torso.
The girl sighed and then braided her hair. When she finished she rose and arranged Lightning Jim’s hands so that they folded together over the blanket. Before she turned to go she grasped my hand and turned toward the bed, just as we’d turned toward my mother in the church. Together we looked at Lightning Jim. The girl gave a small, teeth-peeping smile. I didn’t try to stop her as she walked out.
I changed my flight so that I would stop in Hong Kong before heading to Shanghai. Camilla was surprised, and though I could immediately see that she knew what it meant, she strove to keep her elegant face as neutral as possible. She didn’t ask about my trip and I didn’t volunteer any details. I gave her the ruby bracelet I picked up in Singapore, and she bowed her head slightly, and smiled a secret, sad smile.
I ran her a bath and took some pleasure in pinning her hair up, the way it glowed like banked embers in the candlelight. I made love to her so as not to seem churlish; I’m still not sure if this was a sign of my weakness or strength.
What I remember of that night was standing on the balcony looking out over the city. There was none of the heat lightning of central Illinois, a place that suddenly seemed as exotic and foreign as the churning lights of Hong Kong scattered like a carelessly dropped handful of jewels below us. We stood in silence, buffeted lightly by the breeze. A city like this never sleeps, really; the night has no real chance against the onslaught of a thousand neon lights. In the quiet between us I could hear – or thought I could – the sizzle and pop of a thousand individual lights burning themselves out.