Negative ghost

October 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

I don’t pretend that I believe everything I remember. I mean, I remember it – but I also know that I have many, many reasons to lie to myself. Much of my memories are constructed from stories others told me, or remembered through a haze of chemical abuse quite vast for a person to have survived. There was also quite a lot of physical trauma, including head wounds, at least one case of a fractured skull that wasn’t treated at the time, and a few concussions.

But the real truth is, I lie to myself because to look at the truth, to try and remember things as they were, is agony. Not hyperbolic agony, not the agony we write poems about when we’re callow, just a deep and abiding pain that will not recede and must be suppressed, walled over, buried at any and all costs. I have lost too much and mourned too often to gladly remember. And so, I have my half-true stories, which I tell in place of facts, because it’s easier.

Here is one of them.

In my defence, it was a very beautiful watch.

I don’t recall exactly how old I was – perhaps as young as six, but more likely closer to ten. I was old enough to know how to do things badly to maximum effect.

We had a lot of fairly complicated and powerful equipment in the garage. The house on the island wasn’t a farm yet, but it had been a Boy’s Town before I was born, a camp with a working kitchen and farm equipment and other devices, war surplus my grandfather had purchased for his own inscrutable reasons. Much of it rusted within writhing vines. But we had a tractor, a big old John Deere, and so we had a gigantic battery charger. It looked like a black and yellow avatar of machinery. However, it wasn’t the most impressive device in the garage to me.

The most impressive device was the arc welder.

I’d watched my father use it to attach new teeth on the old bulldozer, from behind smoky green glass in an ancient visor, and I thought that crackling snap-hiss of dancing blue light was magic itself. Electricity was always a subject of interest to me, with rules that always seemed to smack of the arcane – a dangerous living thing, caged within the welder, eager to be free. Eager to bite. I knew it wanted to hurt me. I’d been told many, many times to stay away from the welder, I’d read the warning on the side in many languages with words like Achtung and Peligroso written on it in stark black letters. There were red exclamation points and everything.

So I knew it wasn’t to be trifled with. It was a magic thing. It was a cage, and a monster lived inside it. A monster I saw my father use to make metal mate to other metal. I knew that clamp, so like the ones we used to jump-start the truck battery, was how the monster got out. And I knew we had the big, big battery charger, that yellow and black monster, so close to it.

But if John had never shown me his watch, I might never have done it. Or I might have used an old clock. But the watch – plated in gold, with dials and clock hands, and even a digital time face, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. He told me he’d gotten it from the Navy – for all I know, that was even the truth. I didn’t really pay attention. He and my dad were drinking, telling each other ludicrous and untrue stories I barely understood – stories of women and hunting and unsavory behaviour. Stories I’d have loved were I a few years old. And so, as they grew ever more distracted, I took the watch and left the room, the house.

It was a shockingly cold day for August. Cold enough that I shivered on my way to the garage, but that may just be me remembering a shiver I didn’t have then, but do now. I took that watch out to the garage, and I clamped the battery charger to the band, and I hooked the arc welder champ around the body of the watch. Then I stared at it all, blinded by anticipation. I knew that the electricity made things work. I knew that it was magic. And I knew that watch told time.

I don’t know what I expected it to do with that much power. Travel in time? Tell me secrets? Explode? I knew I wanted to see what would happen so, so much. And so I turned everything on, and I saw the watch spark like a fork in a microwave.

I didn’t see the transformer that brought power up from the trunk line (a cable run across the floor of Narragansett Bay from the mainland) explode. I heard it explode, and I knew the lights all died at once, because the room was as dark as closed eyes and I heard the sound of fire starting from the sparks of the exploding transformer, but all I could see were dancing green negative ghosts of that watch floating in the dark spaces of that cement room.

Sometimes I still see them, almost thirty years later. So in a way, it worked.

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