In a small New England town, in the early 60s, a shadow falls over a small boy playing with his toy soldiers. Jamie Morton looks up to see a striking man, the new minister, Charles Jacobs. Soon ...(more)
Jacobs's electrical workshop was in West Tulsa. I don't know what that part of town is like now, but in 1992 it was a forlorn industrial zone where a lot of the industries seemed to be dead or dying. He pulled into the parking lot of an all-but-destitute strip mall on Olympia Avenue and parked in front of Wilson Auto Body.
"It was standing empty for a long time, that's what the Realtor told me," Jacobs said. He was dressed in faded jeans and a blue golf shirt, his hair washed and combed, his eyes sparkling with excitement. Just looking at him made me nervous. "I had to take a year's lease, but it was still dirt cheap. Come on in."
"You ought to take down the sign and put up your own," I said. I framed it with hands that were only shaking a little. 'Portraits in Lightning, C. D. Jacobs, Proprietor.' It would look good."
"I won't be in Tulsa that long," he said, "and the portraits are really just a way of supporting myself while I conduct my experiments. I've come a long way since my pastoral days, but I've still got a long way to go. You have no idea. Come in, Jamie. Come in."
He unlocked a door and led me through an office that was empty of furniture, although I could still see square clean patches on the grimy linoleum, where the legs of a desk had once stood. On the wall was a curling calendar with April 1989 showing.
The garage had a corrugated metal roof and I expected it to be baking under the September sun, but it was wonderfully cool. I could hear the whisper of air conditioners. When he flicked a bank of switches--recently modified, judging from the makeshift way the wires stuck out of the uncovered holes where the plates had been--a dozen brilliant lights came on. If not for the oil-darkened concrete and the rectangular caverns where two lifts had once been, you would have thought it was an operating theater.
"It must cost a fortune to air-condition this place," I said. "Especially when you've got all those lights blazing."
"Dirt cheap. The air conditioners are my own design. They draw very little power, and most of that I generate myself. I could generate all of it, but I wouldn't want Tulsa Power and Light down here, snooping around to find out if I was volt-jacking, somehow. As for the lights . . . you could wrap a hand around one of the bulbs with- out burning yourself. Or even heating your skin, for that matter."
Our footfalls echoed in all that empty space. So did our voices. It was like being in the company of phantoms. It just feels that way because I'm strung out, I told myself.
"Listen, Charlie -- you're not messing with anything radioactive, are you?"
He grimaced and shook his head. "Nuclear's the last thing I'm interested in. It's energy for idiots. A dead end."
"So how do you generate the juice?"
"Electricity breeds electricity, if you know what you're doing. Leave it at that. Step over here, Jamie."
There were three or four long tables at the end of the room with electrical stuff on them. I recognized an oscilloscope, a spectrometer, and a couple of things that looked like Marshall amps but could have been batteries of some kind. There was a control board that looked mostly torn apart, and several stacked consoles with darkened dials. Thick electrical cords snaked every which way. Some disappeared into closed metal containers that could have been Craftsman tool chests; others just looped back to the dark equipment.
This could all be a fantasy, I thought. Equipment that only comes alive in his imagination. But the Portraits in Lightning weren't make- believe. I had no idea how he was making those, his explanation had been vague at best, but he was making them. And although I was standing directly beneath one of those brilliant lights, it really did not seem to be throwing any heat.
"There doesn't seem to be much here," I said doubtfully. "I expected more."
"Flashing lights! Chrome-plated knife-switches sticking out of science fiction control panels! Star Trek telescreens! Possibly a teleportation chamber, or a hologram of Noah's Ark in a cloud chamber!" He laughed cheerily.
"Nothing like that," I said, although he had pretty much hit the nail on the head. "It just seems kind of . . . sparse."
"It is. I've gone about as far as I can for the time being. I've sold some of my equipment. Other stuff--more controversial stuff-- I've dismantled and put in storage. I've done good work in Tulsa, especially considering how little spare time I have. Keeping body and soul together is an annoying business, as I suppose you know."
I certainly did.
"But yes, I made some progress toward my ultimate goal. Now I need to think, and I don't believe I can do that when I'm turning half a dozen tips a night."
"Your ultimate goal being what?"
He ignored the question this time, too. "Step over here, Jamie. Would you like a small pick-me-up before we begin?"
I wasn't sure I wanted to begin, but I wanted a pick-me-up, all right. Not for the first time, I considered just snatching the little brown bottle and running. Only he'd probably catch me and wrest it away. I was younger, and almost over the flu, but he was still in better shape. He hadn't suffered a shattered hip and leg in a motor- cycle accident, for one thing.
He grabbed a paint-spattered wooden chair and set it in front of one of the black boxes that looked like a Marshall amp. "Sit here."
But I didn't, not right away. There was a picture on one of the tables, the kind with a little wedge on the back to prop it up. He saw me reach for it and made a move as if to stop me. Then he just stood there.
A song on the radio can bring back the past with fierce (if mercifully transitory) immediacy: a first kiss, a good time with your buddies, or an unhappy life-passage. I can never hear Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way" without thinking of my mother's last painful weeks; that spring it seemed to be on the radio every time I turned it on. A picture can have the same effect. I looked at this one and all at once I was eight again. My sister was helping Morrie set up dominos in Toy Corner while Patsy Jacobs played "Bringing in the Sheaves," swaying on the piano bench, her smooth blond hair shifting from side to side.
It was a studio portrait. Patsy was wearing the sort of billowy, shin-length dress that went out of fashion years ago, but it looked good on her. The kid was on her lap, wearing short pants and a sweater vest. A cowlick I remembered well stuck up at the back of his head.
"We used to call him Tag-Along-Morrie," I said, running my fingers lightly over the glass.
I didn't look up. His unsteady voice made me afraid of what I might see in his eyes. "Yeah. And all of us boys were in love with your wife. Claire was, too. I think Mrs. Jacobs was what she wanted to be."
At the thought of my sister, my own eyes began to fill up. I could tell you it was just because I was physically low and full of craving, and it would be the truth, but not the whole truth.
I swiped an arm across my face and set the picture down. When I looked up, he was fiddling with a voltage regulator that didn't look like it needed fiddling with. "You never remarried?"
"No," he said. "Never even close. Patsy and Morrie were all I wanted. Needed. There's not a day when I don't think of them, not a month when I don't have a dream that they're okay. It was the accident that was the dream, I think. Then I wake up. Tell me something, Jamie. Your mother and your sister. Do you ever wonder where they are? If they are?"
"No." Any scraps of belief that survived the Terrible Sermon had withered away in high school and college.
"Ah. I see." He dropped the regulator and turned on the thing that looked like a Marshall amp -- the kind of amp the bands I played with could rarely afford. It hummed, but not like a Marshall. This sound was lower, and almost musical. "Well, let's get on with it, shall we?"
I looked at the chair, but didn't sit on it. "You were going to give me a little hit first."
"So I was." He produced the brown bottle, considered it, then handed it to me. "Since we can hope this will be your last, why don't you do the honors?"
He didn't have to ask twice. I took two heaping snorts, and would have doubled down if he hadn't snatched the small bottle away. Nevertheless, a window on a tropic beach opened in my head. A mellow breeze wafted in, and I suddenly no longer cared about what might become of my brainwaves. I sat down in the chair.
He opened one of several wall cabinets and brought out a pair of battered, taped-up headphones with crisscrosses of metal mesh over the earpads. He plugged them into the amp-like device and held them out to me.
"If I hear 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,' I'm gone," I said.
He smiled and said nothing.
I put the headphones on. The mesh was cool against my ears.
"Have you tried this on anyone?" I asked. "Will it hurt?"
"It won't hurt," he said, not answering the first question at all. As if to contradict this, he gave me a mouth guard of the type basketball players sometimes wear, then smiled at my expression. "Just a precaution. Pop it on in."
I popped it on in.
From his pocket he took a white plastic box no bigger than a doorbell. "I think you'll-"
But then he pressed a button on the little box, and I lost the rest.