My grandfather was dying of lung cancer. I had traveled with my father to the remnant of the family’s tobacco farm in West Virginia where my grandfather waited to die. He had been a large man, six three and over two hundred solid pounds.
I didn’t know him well. He passed through the periphery of my life like a tall tale. He served in the navy during the Second World War and spent a large part of his life drinking, smoking and fighting. Eventually he found work as a bar bouncer, settling into his natural way of life.
Now he was a skeletal figure under thick layers of blankets, wheezing and coughing in a rundown trailer by a neglected county road. The old brawler squeezed out his last breaths as my father attended to the ragged edges of his rough life.
The trailer was dark, cluttered with pill bottles, old magazines and whispered voices. I stood and listened by the bed, not knowing what to do or feel. My grandfather nodded toward me a few times, eyes fixing on me for a moment, trying to recall then looked away. I couldn’t stand to be in that hot, stifling can, waiting for Death.
I wandered the old farm. I walked the hills and empty tobacco fields, a roving boy, summer wind in his hair and sun on his face.
The cattle-pond had long since filled in, becoming a low bog of rustling cattails and wild grass. I found box turtles in muddy burrows of brown weeds, their black, orange and yellow markings bold in the sun.
The tobacco barn leaned back on the hillside as if resting, catching its breath before completing the long job of collapsing.
I could still climb through its splintered timbers and rotting floors, a rat among the ruins. I found a barn owl nest, a clutch of old mason jars filled with sloshing mysteries, and a chest of rusting tools.
The house of my great grandmother was locked, the windows boarded up. I wondered why anyone bothered, there was nothing worth stealing inside. My grandfather had moved into the trailer because the house was little better than the barn. Even when my great grandmother was alive the roof leaked, the ceiling sagged, and the floor had holes big enough to step in. But she refused to leave. She never did.
Running my hand over the curled, chipping paint, I remember low ceilings, walking on the sloped, creaking floors early in the morning and watching my great grandmother. In the crisp morning air she tossing chunks of coal into the Franklin stove and pumped water for the day. I remembered huge breakfasts of steaming eggs, buttery grits, thick tomatoes, hot biscuits and black-strap molasses. Now it was over, dead as my great grandmother.
I sat in the shade of the porch on an old aluminum glider that squeaked with the wind. I was troubled, upset and felt as if something was weighing down on me from the hollow sky. I rocked and creaked and rocked some more, just listening without knowing what I was listening for.
I know now that the fleeting quality of life was just dawning on me.
We are born into the illusion of permanence and live sheltered in that illusion as children. A world of marriages that last, friends that remain, parents always waiting to tuck you in at night and grandparents on the outposts of life – unchanging.
Then reality knocks on the door of your childhood. You lose a playmate to leukemia, your father moves away becoming a small, broken voice on the phone offering counterfeit promises. Your parents take their place on the outpost walls watching for death, pushing it away with offerings of pills and old blankets.
Security fades and cracks like old house paint in the dry summer wind. It was always only for show, hiding the rotted boards and the termites below. Push it too hard and your hand comes back with paint chips and dust.
I walked to the side of the old house, stomping down tall dry grass like a hillbilly Godzilla until I saw something beautiful. An old electric meter dazzled in sunlight.
I stood on a pile of old pipes and fallen, copper gutters to peer beneath the glass. It was an enchanting sight. A precision sculpture of tiny cogs, brass wheels and gears laced together, fitted tooth by tooth, beneath a thick dome of protective glass. It was flawless, sharp, clean and permanent. It was like perfection in a mason jar, eternal and safe.
I had to have it.
From the barn’s old tool chest I carried a heavy hack saw to the gleaming meter. The wood beneath the meter was rotted. I could almost pull the screws out with my fingers. That only left the power cables. There was no electric in the house, it had been abandoned for years. And I figured the power company would just abandon the old meter to the rotting house. I only had to cut away the lines and that mason jar of perfect security would go home with me.
Balancing on rubble I began to saw. The rusty hack saw cut easily through the metal casing. Pipe and copper gutter moved beneath my feet. I pushed the blade deeper.
This was going to be easy, I thought…
I could smell the grass and feel a thorn beneath my cheek. I opened my eyes to browning stalks of grass. Pushing myself to a sitting position I shook my head confused, wiping mulch from my face, trying to get my bearings. I was sitting about ten feet from the house wall. My head hurt and I ached all over. I looked up and saw the meter – it came back to me.
I remember a bright flash, no sound, no feeling, just a white flash. Running my hands through the grass I found the hack saw. The blade was gone – rather there were only two lumps of melted metal where the blade had been fixed to the saw.
The sun was much lower in the sky and I had a sunburn on one cheek.
It was just after lunch when I started cutting and it was late afternoon now. Standing up on wobbly legs I noticed a burn blister and soot on the palm of my cutting hand. A bad smell hung in the air. The fine hair on my right arm had been scorched away to the elbow, leaving the skin red but unharmed.
The meter was staying.
It didn’t occur to the boy I was how close he’d come to being electrocuted. I didn’t know power was cut at the fuse box IN the house. I knew little about conductors or grounding, I was only grateful no one noticed my absence for the afternoon, that I had escaped a deserved punishment.
My father was the lucky one. He was distracted with the business of his father’s dying but it could have suddenly gotten much, much worse.
Security is like the house paint, it never lasts, unable to weather life’s harsh elements for long. Pursuing it, even glass-encased symbols of it, can get you killed before you’ve actually lived.
In time, we’ll all meet our end. It seems wise to accept insecurity, to expect chaos, failure and loss while living. That may seem hard, but the essence of living is found inside, not in the show surrounding us.
Security is only created within and projected out to the surrounding storm. If a person has mastered themselves, embraced virtue, lives by reason and learns to see the beauty and wonder in a changing world, they are always secure.
I don’t know if the jolt knocked some sense into me or if I just worked my feelings out subconsciously, but I was better after the shock, happier and more secure. I stopped worrying as much and began learning, one mistake at a time, to be me.
I still think the old electric meters are cool.