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The Secret Goldfish by David Means

The following is an excerpt from The Secret Goldfish by David Means, published by 4th Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins, in September 2004.

 

The first time, he was fishing with Danny. Fishing was a sacrament, and therefore, after the strike, when his head was clear, there was the blurry aftertaste of ritual: the casting of the spoon in lazy repetitions, the slow cranking, the utterance of the clicking reel, the baiting of the clean hook, and the cosmic intuitive troll for the deep pools of cool water beneath the gloss of a wind-dead afternoon. Each fish seemed to arrive as a miracle out of the silence: a largemouth bass gasping for air, gulping the sky, gyrating, twisting, turning against the leader’s force. But then he was struck by lightning and afterward felt like a fish on the end of the line. There was a paradigm shift: he identified purely—at least for a few months—with the fish, dangling, held by an invisible line tossed down from the heavens.

•••

Lucy had languid arms and pearly-white skin—as smooth as the inside of a seashell, he liked to say—and he smelled, upon returning to the house on the Morrison farm one night, her peaty moistness on his fingers. He’d touched her—just swept his fingers into wetness—and now, unable to sleep, he’d gone outside to the porch swing to let the adrenaline subside. His hope was to score with her before he left for boot camp. A storm was coming. Sheets of heat lightning unfurled inside clouds to the west. Deep, laryngeal mumbles of thunder smothered the cricket noise. The bolt that hit him ricocheted off a fence twenty yards away. Later he would recall that he’d half-jokingly spoken to the storm, and even to God, in a surge of testosterone-driven delight. Come on, you bastards, give me what you’ve got—the same phraseology boys his age would soon be using to address incoming mortar rounds on East Asian battlefields. Come on, you bastard, try another one, he yelled just before the twin-forked purplemauve bolt twisted down from the front edge of the squall line and tore off the fence at what—in flawed memory—seemed a squared right angle. It hit a bull’s-eye on his sternum, so far as the doctors could deduce, leaving a mooncrater burn that never really healed. His father came out shortly to lock up the barn before the storm began (too late), a cheroot lodged in his teeth—and found his son on his back, smoking slightly. During his two-week observational stay in the hospital his teeth ached and sang, although he wouldn’t pick up the apocryphal transmissions of those megawatt, over-the-border Mexican radio stations. Upon his return home, Lucy came to his house and—in the silence of a hot summer afternoon—ran her hand down under the band of his BVDs.

•••

Just before the third strike, a few years later, he saw a stubby orphan bolt, a thumb of spark wagging at him from the fence. (Research would later confirm that these microbolts in truth existed.) When Life magazine ran a single-page photo montage entitled “Lightning Man,” the article said: “Nick Kelley claims he had a strange vision shortly before being struck. He was with two friends in a field a few hours south of Chicago, showing them some property he planned to develop. A small bolt of lightning was seen along a fence just before he was struck. Visions like this, possibly hallucinatory, have been reported by other eyewitnesses.” The photo montage showed him in the backyard with a barbecue fork, pointing it at a sky loaded with thick clouds. The report failed to mention the severe contusion along his cheek and certain neurological changes that would reveal themselves over the course of time. His love for Lucy had been obliterated after the second strike. With the third strike his friendship with Danny was vaporized. And in between the first two, he’d temporarily lost all desire to fish.

•••

The fourth had his name on it and was a barn burner, the kind you see locking horns with the Empire State Building. As it came down he talked to it, holding his arms up for an embrace. This was, again, in a boat, out in the middle of Lake Michigan, trolling for coho and steelhead. (He liked the stupid simplicity of fishing in this manner, keeping an eye on the sonar, dragging a downrigger through the depths of the lake, leaning back in his seat, and waiting.) The boat’s captain, Pete, caught the edge of the bolt and was burned to a crisp. Nick held a conversation with the big one as he took the full brunt. It went something like this: no matter what, I’ll match you, you prick, this story, my story, a hayseed from central Illinois, struck once, twice for good luck, third time, a charm, and now, oh by Jupiter! by Jove! or whatever, oh storm of narrative and calamity. Oh glorious grand design of nature. Rage through me. Grant my heart the guts to resist but not too much. Make me, oh Lord, a good conductor. I will suffer imitatone Christi, taking on the burdens of the current and endeavoring to live again.

•••

Shortly after his release from Chicago General, he began weekly attendance of the Second Church of God (or was it the Third?), where he met his first wife, Agnes, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Lucy (same peaches-and-cream complexion). When it came to his past and his history with lightning, scars aside, he had the reticence of a Cold War spy: the book was closed on cloud-to-ground, on hexes, on lightning rod drummers, and the mystical crowd. (He had been offered gigs selling Pro-teck-o-Charge Safe-T rods. LIGHTNING IS THE NO. 1 CAUSE OF BARN FIRES!!!! and from 1-800-Know Your Future.) The book was closed on media interviews, on direct one-on-one confrontations with big bolts. (He in no way worried about smaller variants of lightning, those stray electrical fields that haunt most houses, those freak power surges that melt phone lines and blow phones blank, or those bolts of energy that float bemused into farmhouse windows.)

 

From The Secret Goldfish by David Means. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission. 

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