Literary Fiction Strange

Ball Lightning

By Karen Heuler
2,042 words · 8-minute reading time

seashore under nimbus clouds

Photo by Andras Kovacs via Unsplash.

From the author: A man hit by lightning develops perfect pitch and attracts love


 

 

 

 

 

Ball Lightning

 

My uncle Al was hit by ball lightning while watching his TV, which was near a window. The relatives said it wasn’t the window that brought the lightning, but the fact   that Uncle Al had put foil on the rabbit ears on his TV set to improve the reception. He was watching the Ed Sullivan show, and while Senor Wences was doing his act, the TV gave a little pop and a bright flash, and a ball of light swept out of the screen and ran straight across the room. Uncle Al said it came to the mirror, smashed it, and made a turn to the right before slamming into a wall and turning it black. He heard thunder as it whacked him on the side of the head—but he didn’t know if it was the thunder from outside or whether it was a noise from his own interior turmoil.

My aunts visited him in the hospital and they were suspicious. “Were you drinking?” Aunt Etta asked. “You’re always drinking. Could it be it was an alcoholic stroke or something?”

“Go look at my TV,” Unle Al said. His head was completely bald and he kept touching it.

“It will grow back,” Aunt Louise said. “Why did they shave it?”

“They didn’t shave it. It got burned or something, it all fell out. They hooked me up to electrodes to see if there was any brain damage.”

The aunts waited.

“I have the brain of a 19-year-old,” he said.

The aunts went to Uncle Al’s apartment, and indeed, the place was burned black in a line from the TV to the back wall and then in a V to the side wall. They looked at the chair Uncle Al sat in, and it had burned to a crisp. How come Uncle Al was still alive?

“I had just gotten up for a beer,” he said, “I don’t like Senor Wences that much. Besides, it was raining so hard just then that I wanted to check the windows were shut. I just got up. I was right by the mirror, I saw it coming straight at me. It just hit my ear. They say it’s a miracle.”

“I understand ball lightning isn’t as strong as regular lightning,” Aunt Etta said, pursing her lips. “Now if real lightning had hit your apartment, I don’t think there’d be anything left. If real lightning had hit you on your ear, I think your head would explode.”

Uncle Al glared at her. “My hair exploded,” he said angrly. “Every hair on my head exploded. Isn’t that enough?”

“You were losing it anyway, how much was really left?”

Uncle Al and Aunt Etta had always had a testy relationship. Uncle Al got the big bedroom, because he was a boy. Aunt Etta and Aunt Louise had to share a room, because they were girls. My mother had her own little room behind the kitchen, because she was the youngest by ten years. She was babied and petted and never part of the sibling rivalry.

“I can’t believe you’re jealous that I got hit by lightning and you didn’t,” he finally said.

“You didn’t get hit by lightning,” she huffed. “Just your ear. The ear is hardly even a part of your body. Not even skin and bones, just cartilage.”

“Lean over,” he said, “let me cut your ear off and see if it’s a part of your body.”

Aunt Etta didn’t lean over; but she wasn’t about to let her brother stay in the center of attention. In the next year, she traveled to Florida, Ohio, California and Maine. She went to the Museum of String, the Crystal Caves, the World’s Biggest Quarry, and the Last of the Sequoias. She had a list of all the people she’d met, and where they’d come from originally. She had it laminated.

On the first Sunday after Christmas, the whole family always got together and showed slides of important points in the past year. Aunt Etta had boxes of pictures; she showed herself sitting on a big rock, standing under a big tree, staring over a quarry ledge, and standing at the start of a string labyrinth.

Uncle Al showed the slide of his room after the lightning struck, and the headlines of a local paper, “Rare ball lightning attacks local man.” Then there was a TV documentary on strange but true cases, and they interviewed Uncle Al and his doctors. He got a reel from the producers and showed it as a home movie on the projection screen. Soon after that, Aunt Etta said she was thinking of moving to Washington state. She said no one ever talked about lightning over there, it was a matter of small interest and even less use.

My uncle Al was tone deaf until he was struck by ball lightning. When it happened, hewas knocked off his chair and lay on the floor. His ears were ringing. He was seeing lots of blue around him—boxes of blue hung in the air. He shut his eyes and the boxes became purple.

Uncle Al was single, but he had good neighbors. Of course, most people were home watching Ed Sullivan, and in fact, the ball lightning had shorted out all the wiring in the building. The people below him heard a crash, the lights went out, and they took their flashlights and ran upstairs to bang on the outside of his door.

Uncle Al crawled to the door and let them in. They thought he’d been robbed, at first. Uncle Al kept shaking his head slowly—he suddenly couldn’t hear anything—but then they noticed the TV, which had burst outwards and was still smoking.

They sent a kid to run down the street and call an ambulance.

Uncle Al was deaf for three weeks. Then, when his hearing cleared, he heard noises all the time. At first they bothered him, but then he realized something.

“They’re notes,” he told Aunt Louise, who liked to listen to show tunes. “I think I’m hearing scales of notes. Didn’t you used to play scales when you took piano lessons?”

“Sure,” Aunt Louise said. “Everyone has to play scales. Like this.” And she hummed some Chopsticks for Uncle Al.

He shook his head. “No. Not that.” He listened for a while and then he hummed what he was hearing.

“That’s a scale,” Aunt Louise said. “I think it’s a minor scale, but really, I only took four lessons. At any rate, it sounds good to me.”

Uncle Al went to music teachers then so he could learn to play what he heard in his head. Mostly, no one wanted to see him more than once, because he couldn’t play anything except what he heard—the notes in his head confused him if he tried to practice anything else. So the teachers became formal and disinterested. Except for Miss Gutcheon. She asked him to hum things, and then she wrote them down. And then she held his hands over the keys and made him repeat it. She taught him all the scales, and then she would call out a key to him and he would hum it. And then she wrote little duets based on what he heard. “You have perfect pitch,” she said. “It’s a rare thing. Of course you have to learn what the notes are called first, before you can sing them. But you’re perfect once you do.”

Uncle Al was amazed. “I never had it before,” he said. “Couldn’t hold a tune at all. People told me to shut up—at least my family did.”

Miss Gutcheon smiled. “But you sound beautiful now. I love to hear you.” She blushed.

Uncle Al told his sisters what Miss Gutcheon said, and Aunt Etta looked at him thoughtfully. “Perfect pitch? I’ve heard of it.” She thought for a moment. “But what good is it?”

Uncle Al was a machinist for the subways. He usually had oil on his hands (maybe that was why the ball lightning went for him?). He had never been interested in music, didn’t much listen to the radio, liked funny songs rather than good ones, and had no idea what the point of perfect pitch was. But he had it, and he was proud of it. He went to Miss Gutcheon’s recitals for children and adults, and he could tell when they played a wrong note. He knew what her range was: her laughter was in C, her disappointments in A, she soothed children in B-flat. His sister began to suspect he was in love.

And then one day he lost it. First his hearing had gone, and then it had come back in a wonderful way. And then the wonderful way cleared up as well. No more scales, no familiar pitches. When he heard music, it just sounded nice or annoying, not recognizable.

It was devastating. Miss Gutcheon was sympathetic, but without that one thing about him, Uncle Al didn’t seem all that exciting anymore. She was delicate about saying it, came up with pretty excuses not to see him, and little disappearances out of town, but Uncle Al knew enough to stop going to her recitals, and she took back the recording of medieval chants (pure human notes! she had once cried out) she had lent him.

So life went back to what it was. His sisters chipped in and got him a really good television, one that didn’t need tinfoil to pick up the signals. He never saw Miss Gutcheon again, as far as I knew, and that didn’t satisfy me. I would race down the block when I knew a storm was coming, and stand across the street, watching his window. When the thunder cracked and the sky got dark, I would see him open the window and lean out. Sometimes he’d hold out his hand. I found this unbearable, and beautiful, and I’d imagine that someday I too would be broken by a strike of love. I couldn’t leave it that way, however, so I took the wires I found from discarded lamps on the street, or useless toasters—any electrical appliance—and I made long, thin, uninsulated strands that I brought with me when I went to visit him.

When he went to the bathroom or to the kitchen, I’d sneak my newest wires out and attach them to the wires I’d already laid around his apartment. One line ran from the phone jack; another from his doorbell. One came from his floor lamp, another from the new TV’s grounding wire. All the lines ran toward the window, where they met in a single wrapped strand that I snaked out the window sill and then separated outside. There I extended them, pressing them into the ribs of the brick exterior, splaying out. I was careful to observe from across the street whether anything showed, but nothing did.

By winter I had constructed a kind of spider web around his window: wires wrapped around wires, thin filaments designed to give back to Uncle Al what he had once had: Magic. Love. Life.

Nothing ever happened. One or two of the wires were removed—I imagine one of the aunts found them and discarded them silently, quick to assume it was a clue to her brother’s mania.

I thought, for many years, that I had done him an immense favor, by trying to trick him back into the life he loved. It wasn’t until I myself was old, and knew that love wasn’t always magic, that I realized he must have known about some of it at least. He wasn’t unobservant. And I know, too, that until he died he went to the window whenever there was a storm, and looked at the sky, and placed one hand firmly on the wires I had had run through the window frame. He would have known that a second strike could kill him, even if I didn’t know it. But he let the wire reach his skin, let the chances arrange themselves in the thickening air, because even though he wasn’t strong enough to act, he was strong enough to believe. And he believed for the rest of his life, alone.

This story originally appeared in originally published in Oxmag online in 2008 and in Best of the Web 2009.


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Karen Heuler

Karen Heuler steps into the odd, fantastic, science-fictiony, and literary worlds around us.

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