"You guys like those meetings, don't you?" my father asked. I think there was mild wonder in his voice.
"Yeah!" I said. "We did about a thousand Bible drills tonight, then went out back on our sleds! Mrs. Jacobs, she sledded, too, only she kept falling off!"
I laughed and he laughed with me. "That's great, but are you learning anything, Jamie?"
"Man's will should be an extension of God's will," I said, parroting that night's lesson. "Also, if you connect the positive and negative terminals of a battery with a wire, it makes a short circuit."
"True," he said, "which is why you always have to be careful when you're jump-starting a car. But I don't see any Christian lesson in that."
"It was about how doing something wrong because you thought it might make something else better doesn't work."
"Oh." He picked up the latest issue of Car and Driver, which had a cool Jaguar XK-E on the cover. "Well, you know what they say, Jamie: The road to hell is paved with good intentions." He thought for a moment, then added: "And lit with electric lights."
That made him laugh, and I laughed with him, even though I didn't get the joke. If it was a joke.
Andy and Con were friends with the Ferguson brothers, Norm and Hal. They were what we called flatlanders, or folks from away. The Fergusons lived in Boston, so the friendship was ordinarily restricted to summer vacations. The family had a cottage on Lookout Lake, only a mile or so from our house, and the two sets of brothers met at another church-related event, in this case Vacation Bible School.
The Fergusons had a family membership at Goat Mountain Resort, and sometimes Con and Andy would go with them in the Fergusons' station wagon to swim and have lunch in "the club." The pool, they said, was about a thousand times better than Harry's Pond. Neither Terry nor I cared much about this--the local swimming hole was fine by us, and we had our own friends--but it drove Claire wild with envy. She wanted to see "how the other half lived."
"They live just like us, dear," Mom said. "Whoever said the rich are different was wrong."
Claire, who was running clothes through our old washing machine's wringer, scrunched her face into a pout. "I doubt that," she said.
"Andy says the girls who swim in the pool wear bikinis," I said.
My mother snorted. "They might as well go swimming in their bras and underpants."
"I'd like to have a bikini," Claire remarked. It was, I suppose, the sort of provocation girls of seventeen specialize in.
My mother pointed a finger at her, soap dripping from one short-clipped nail. "That's how girls get pregnant, missy."
Claire returned that serve smartly. "Then you ought to keep Con and Andy from going. They might get a girl pregnant."
"Zip your lip," my mother said, cutting her eyes in my direction. "Little pitchers have big ears."
Like I didn't know what getting a girl pregnant meant: sex. Boys lay down on top of girls and wiggled around until they got the feeling. When that happened, a mysterious something called jizz came from the boy's dink. It sank into the girl's belly, and nine months later it was time for diapers and a baby carriage.
My parents didn't stop Con and Andy from going to the resort once or twice a week during the summer in spite of my sister's dog-in-the-manger barking, and when the Fergusons came up for February vacation in 1965 and invited my brothers to go skiing with them, my parents sent them off to Goat Mountain without a qualm, my brothers' scarred old skis strapped to the station wagon's roof right along with the Fergusons' gleaming new ones.
When they came back, there was a bright red weal across Con's throat. "Did you drift off-course and run into a tree branch?" Dad asked when he came home for supper and saw the mark.
Con, a fine skier, was indignant. "Gosh no, Dad. Me n Norm were racing. We were side by side, going like hell's kitchen--"
Mom pointed her fork at him.
"Sorry, Mom, like heck's kitchen. Norm hit a mogul and just about lost his balance. He stuck out his arm like this"--Con demonstrated, almost knocking over his glass of milk--"and his ski pole hit me in the neck. It hurt like . . . you know, bad, but it's better now."
Only it wasn't. The next day the red mark had faded to a necklace-like bruise, but his voice had gotten hoarse. By that night he could hardly speak above a whisper. Two days later, he was completely mute.
A hyperextension of the neck resulting in a stretched laryngeal nerve. That was Dr. Renault's diagnosis. He said he'd seen them before, and in a week or two, Conrad's voice would begin to come back. By the end of March Connie would be as right as a trivet. Nothing to worry about, he said, and there wasn't. Not for him, at least; his voice was fine. This was not true of my brother. When April rolled around, Con was still writing notes and making gestures when he wanted something. He insisted on going to school, even though the other boys had started making fun of him, especially since he had solved the problem of class participation (to a degree, anyway) by writing YES on one palm and NO on the other. He had a pile of file cards with more communications written on them in block letters. The one his classmates found particularly hilarious was MAY I USE THE RESTROOM.
Con seemed to take all this in good spirits, knowing that to do otherwise would only make the teasing worse, but one night I went into the room he shared with Terry and found him lying on his bed and weeping soundlessly. I went to him, asking what was wrong. A stupid question, since I knew, but you have to say something in that situation, and I could say it, because I wasn't the one who'd been struck across the throat with the Ski Pole of Destiny.
Get out! he mouthed. His cheeks and forehead, studded with newly arrived pimples, were flaming. His eyes were swollen. Get out, get out! Then, shocking me: Get the fuck out, cocksucker!
The first gray began to appear in my mother's hair that spring. One afternoon when my father came in, looking more tired than usual, Mom told him that they had to take Con to a specialist in Portland. "We've waited long enough," she said. "That old fool George Renault can say whatever he likes, but I know what happened, and so do you. That careless rich boy ruptured my son's vocal cords."
My father sat down heavily at the table. Neither of them noticed me in the mudroom, taking an inordinate amount of time to lace up my Keds. "We can't afford it, Laura," he said.
"But you could afford to buy Hiram Oil in Gates Falls!" she said, using an ugly, almost sneering tone of voice I had never heard before.
He sat looking at the table instead of at her, although there was nothing on it except the red-and-white-checked oilcloth. "That's why we can't afford it. We're skating on mighty thin ice. You know what kind of winter it was."
We all knew: a warm one. When your family's income depends on heating oil, you keep a close eye on the thermometer between Thanksgiving and Easter, hoping the red line will stay low.
My mother was at the sink, hands buried in a cloud of soapsuds. Somewhere beneath the cloud, dishes were rattling as if she wanted to break them instead of clean them. "You had to have it, didn't you?" Still in that same tone of voice. I hated that voice. It was as if she was egging him on. "The big oil baron!"
"That deal was made before Con's accident," he said, still not looking up. His hands were once more stuffed deep into his pockets. "That deal was made in August. We sat together looking at The Old Farmer's Almanac--a cold and snowy winter, it said, coldest since the end of World War II--and we decided it was the right thing to do. You ran the numbers on your adding machine."
The dishes rattled harder under the soapsuds. "Take out a loan!"
"I could, but Laura . . . listen to me." He raised his eyes at last. "I may have to do that just to make it through the summer."
"He's your son!"
"I know he is, goddammit!" Dad roared. It scared me, and must have scared my mother, because this time the dishes under the cloud of suds did more than rattle. They crashed. And when she raised her hands, one of them was bleeding.
She held it up to him--like my silent brothe
r showing YES or NO in class--and said, "Look what you made me d--" She caught sight of me, sitting on the woodpile and staring into the kitchen. "Buzz off! Go out and play!"
"Laura, don't take it out on Ja--"
"Get out!" she shouted. It was the way Con would have shouted at me, if he'd had a voice to shout with. "God hates a snoop!"
She began to cry. I ran out the door, crying myself. I ran down Methodist Hill, and across Route 9 without looking in either direction. I had no idea of going to the parsonage; I was too upset to even think of seeking pastoral advice. If Patsy Jacobs hadn't been in the front yard, checking to see if any of the flowers she'd planted the previous fall were coming up, I might have run until I collapsed. But she was out, and she called my name. Part of me wanted to just keep on running, but--as I think I've said--I had my manners, even when I was upset. So I stopped.
She came to where I was standing, my head down, gasping for breath. "What happened, Jamie?"
I didn't say anything. She put her fingers under my chin and raised my head. I saw Morrie sitting on the grass beside the parsonage's front stoop, surrounded by toy trucks. He was goggling at me.
"Jamie? Tell me what's wrong."
Just as we had been taught to be polite, we had been taught to keep our mouths shut about what went on in the family. It was the Yankee way. But her kindness undid me and it all came pouring out: Con's misery (the depth of which I'm convinced neither of our parents comprehended, in spite of their very real concern), my mother's fear that his vocal cords had been ruptured and he might never speak again, her insistence on a specialist and Dad's on how they couldn't afford it. Most of all, the shouting. I didn't tell Patsy about the stranger's voice I had heard coming from my mother's mouth, but only because I could not think how to say it.
When I finally ran down, she said: "Come around to the back shed. You need to talk to Charlie."
Now that the Belvedere had taken its proper place in the parsonage garage, the back shed had become Jacobs's workshop. When Patsy led me in, he was tinkering with a television set that had no screen.
"When I put this puppy back together," he said, slinging an arm around my shoulders and producing a handkerchief from his back pocket, "I'll be able to get TV stations in Miami, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Wipe your eyes, Jamie. And your nose could use a little attention while you're at it."
I looked at the eyeless TV with fascination as I cleaned up. "Will you really be able to get stations in Chicago and Los Angeles?"
"Nah, I was kidding. I'm just trying to build in a signal amplifier that will let us get something besides Channel 8."
"We get 6 and 13, too," I said. "Although 6 is a little snow-stormy."
"You guys have a roof antenna. The Jacobs family is stuck with rabbit ears."
"Why don't you buy one? They sell them at Western Auto in Castle Rock."
He grinned. "Good idea! I'll stand up in front of the deacons at the quarterly meeting and tell them I want to spend some of the collection money on a TV antenna, so Morrie can watch Mighty 90 and the missus and I can watch Petticoat Junction on Tuesday nights. Never mind that, Jamie. Tell me what's got you in such a tizzy."
I looked around for Mrs. Jacobs, hoping she'd spare me the job of having to tell everything twice, but she had quietly decamped. He took me by the shoulders and led me to a sawhorse. I was just tall enough to be able to sit on it.
"Is it Con?"
Of course he'd guess that; a petition for the return of Con's voice was part of the closing prayer at every Thursday-night meeting that spring, as were prayers for other MYFers who were going through hard times (broken bones were the most common, but Bobby Underwood had suffered burns and Carrie Doughty had had to endure having her head shaved and rinsed with vinegar after her horrified mother discovered the little girl's scalp was crawling with lice). But, like his wife, Reverend Jacobs hadn't had any idea of how miserable Con really was, or how that misery had spread through the entire family like an especially nasty germ.
"Dad bought Hiram Oil last summer," I said, starting to blubber again. I hated it, blubbering was such a little kid's trick, but I couldn't seem to help it. "He said the price was too good to turn down, only then we had a warm winter and heating oil went down to fifteen cents a gallon and now they can't afford a specialist and if you could have heard her, she didn't sound like Mom at all, and sometimes he puts his hands in his pockets, because . . ." But Yankee reticence finally kicked in and I finished, "Because I don't know why."
He produced the handkerchief again, and while I used it, he took a metal box from his workshop table. Wires sprouted from it every whichway, like badly cut hair.
"Behold the amplifier," he said. "Invented by yours truly. Once I get it hooked up, I'll run a wire out the window and up to the eave. Then I will attach . . . that." He pointed to the corner, where a rake was propped on its pole with its rusty metal tines sticking up. "The Jacobs Custom Antenna."
"Will it work?" I asked.
"I don't know. I think it will. But even if it does, I believe the days of television antennas are numbered. In another ten years, TV signals will be carried along the telephone lines, and there will be a lot more than three channels. By 1990 or so, the signals will be beamed down from satellites. I know it sounds like science fiction, but the technology already exists."
He had his dreamy look, and I thought, He's forgotten all about Con. Now I know that wasn't true. He was just giving me time to regain my composure, and--maybe--himself time to think.
"People will be amazed at first, then they'll take it for granted. They'll say 'Oh yes, we have telephone TV' or 'We have earth satellite TV,' but they'll be wrong. It's all a gift of electricity, which is now so basic and so pervasive we have a way of ignoring it. People like to say 'Thus-and-such is the elephant in the living room,' meaning a thing that's too big to be ignored, but you'd even ignore an elephant, if it was in the living room long enough."
"Except when you had to clean up the poop," I said.
He went to the window and looked out. He clasped his hands at the small of his back and didn't speak for a long time. Then he turned to me and said, "I want you to bring Con to the parsonage tonight. Will you do that?"
"Sure," I said, without any great enthusiasm. More praying was what I thought he had in store, and I knew it couldn't hurt, but there had been a lot of praying on Con's behalf already, and it hadn't helped, either.
My parents had no objections to our going to the parsonage (I had to ask them separately, because that night they were barely talking to each other). It was Connie who took convincing, probably because I wasn't very convinced myself. But because I had promised the Reverend, I didn't give up. I enlisted Claire for help, instead. Her belief in the power of prayer was far greater than my own, and she had her own powers. I think they came from being the only girl. Of the four Morton brothers, only Andy--who was closest to her in age--could resist her when she got all pretty-eyed and asked for something.
As the three of us crossed Route 9, our shadows long in the light of a rising full moon, Con--just thirteen that year, dark-haired, slender, dressed in a faded plaid jacket handed down from Andy--held up his notepad, which he carried everywhere. He had printed while he walked, so the letters were jagged. THIS IS STUPID.
"Maybe," Claire said, "but we'll get cookies. Mrs. Jacobs always has cookies."
We also got Morrie, now five and dressed for bed in his pj's. He ran directly to Con and jumped into his arms. "Still can't talk?" Morrie asked.
Con shook his head.
"My dad will fix you," he said. "He's been working all afternoon." Then he held his arms out to my sister. "Carry me, Claire, carry me, Claire-Bear, and I'll give you a kiss!" She took him from Con, laughing.
Reverend Jacobs was in the shed, dressed in faded jeans and a sweater. There was an electric heate
r in the corner, the elements glowing cherry-red, but his workshop was still cold. I supposed he had been too busy tinkering away on his various projects to winterize it. The temporarily eyeless TV had been covered with a mover's quilt.
Jacobs gave Claire a hug and a peck on the cheek, then shook hands with Con, who then held up his pad. MORE PRAYER I SUPPOSE was printed on the fresh page.
I thought that was a little rude, and by her frown I could see Claire felt the same, but Jacobs only smiled. "We might get to that, but I want to try something else first." He turned to me. "Whom does the Lord help, Jamie?"
"Them that help themselves," I said.
"Ungrammatical but true."
He went to the worktable and brought back what looked like either a fat cloth belt or the world's skinniest electric blanket. A cord dangled from it, going to a little white plastic box with a slide-switch on top. Jacobs stood with the belt in his hands, looking at Con gravely. "This is a project I've been tinkering with on and off for the last year. I call it the Electrical Nerve Stimulator."
"One of your inventions," I said.
"Not exactly. The idea of using electricity to limit pain and stimulate muscles is very, very old. Sixty years before the birth of Christ, a Roman doctor named Scribonius Largus discovered that foot and leg pain could be alleviated if the sufferer stepped firmly on an electric eel."
"You made that up!" Claire accused, laughing. Con wasn't laughing; he was staring at the cloth belt with fascination.
"Not at all," Jacobs said, "but mine uses small batteries--which are of my invention--for power. Electric eels are hard to come by in central Maine, and even harder to put around a boy's neck. Which is what I intend to do with this homemade ENS gadget of mine. Because Dr. Renault might have been right about your vocal cords not being ruptured, Con. Maybe they only need a jump-start. I'm willing to make the experiment, but it's up to you. What do you say?"
Con nodded. In his eyes I saw an expression that hadn't been there in quite awhile: hope.
"How come you never showed us this in MYF?" Claire asked. She sounded almost accusing.