January 13, 2000

What It Means to Be Electrocuted

By: David Skinner

Kevin wanted to have a glass of ice water and a night of sleep once he reached his apartment, no doubt already sweltering. Maybe the Climatair, which he’d left on, was finally working and had brought the temperature in his bedroom down to a nice chill. Turning onto his block and parking the Mustang, he looked forward to washing his face and brushing his teeth.

He mounted the front steps that led from the street corner to the two-family house that his landlord had divided into four apartments, the upstairs quarter on the right side being his own. Halfway to the door, he turned around at the sound of his name. He looked up and then down the street, casting his eye over the parked cars for any he recognized.

A door opened on a boxy old Mercedes, parked under a tree near the opposite corner of the intersection. Swinging out and onto the pavement were a pair of slim, brown legs, extending down from a pair of white shorts. Then came a narrow torso that stood up into squarish shoulders in a sheer black top. Before realizing it was Athena, Kevin had admired almost every inch of her.
Her eyes fastened onto Kevin as she made her way along the sidewalk and up the stairs. She did not giggle or blush. She smiled, carefully, sociably. Surprise and joy within him streaked across his face in a silly grin.
When Athena came to within arm’s reach, something about her directed Kevin’s eyes to and fro, across her face and neck and down the gently pronounced curves of her waist. The shape of her came alive to him. He felt her presence in his chest like the burn of the whiskey he’d been drinking; her body, as if he was holding it.

She didn’t advertise desire the way other women did — glittering and painted with color, compressed into skin-tight clothing, made to seem long and pointy at both ends with their feet in heels and their hair teased high. Her lipstick was red enough to make Kevin shudder, but there was nothing really flashy about her. Athena would not have looked all that different in a photograph from the fifties wearing a long skirt, bowling shoes, and a scarf — though one would miss the sight of her legs.

Perhaps it was only a few seconds that they stood there in silence, but it was long enough for Kevin’s giddiness to pass and for astonishment to take its place. She, this beautiful, likable creature, knew what he was like and wanted more. Leaning in, Athena placed a kiss on his cheek.

They chatted about the nice time they had had on Saturday. Kevin watched as Athena lightly dragged the toe of her sandal in a semi-circle over the cement walk. He realized there was something slavish in the way he fawned over her every gesture. But she was in charge, even here, on his steps.

She had run into the deli, she was saying, to see if he was working; a guy named Heff told her where Kevin’s apartment was, so she drove by to see if he was around.

“I wondered if maybe you had called or something. Well, I hoped you had called, but sometimes my father withholds messages or just forgets. And, if my grandmother answered the phone,” Athena said, rolling her eyes, in a sweet comic manner, “she’d hang up on you.”

Kevin thought tonight might be the best night of his life.

“Actually,” he replied, proud to say that he’d done more than call, “I stopped by your house on Sunday. With flowers.”

She laughed at him. “But I was home almost the whole day Sunday.”

“Well, I was at your door for about five minutes, speaking with your father.”

“What did my father say to you?” Athena asked, no longer laughing.

Kevin paused. He knew he didn’t want to have this talk on his stoop. But it would be less than hospitable to bring another person into the scorched heat of his apartment. Then again, the air outside wasn’t so pleasant either. The fumes of something burning, something unnatural — something plastic — were getting stronger every second. Maybe his apartment wouldn’t be so bad, he thought, maybe the good old Climatair . . .

Kevin spun on his heel. His stomach clenched. He knew what was happening before he even turned the corner of his house to look up to his bedroom window. Still humming, though unevenly, the Climatair blew forth a dark gray ribbon of smoke, the air conditioner clearly on fire.

“I’ll be right back,” he said as he dug out his key and opened the front door. He bolted up the stairs and into his apartment. The front room wasn’t filled with smoke, but the air was almost unbreathable. He raced into the bedroom, worried that something might have caught fire. Nothing had. He pushed the Climatair’s on/off button, but the motor kept running. Considering his options, he decided to unplug the Climatair and push it out the window. But Athena was standing outside, not far from where it would land. But, but, but — he realized in a quick succession of thoughts — she was also near the garden hose. Kevin ran back outside to tell her to watch for the falling Climatair and to get the garden hose to put the fire out once the Climatair hit the ground. “Whatever I can do,” she answered.

It was nice that she was ready to help, but it was infuriating that he had to even think of another person right now. All he had wanted was some effing cold air in his goddammed apartment and instead he has to be mortified in front of the girl of his dreams. Or was it that all he wanted was the girl of his dreams and she had to appear here, in his life, now, tonight? Or, rather, any night would have been fine, because it was always like this. Why couldn’t she be the girl of someone else’s dreams? No, he didn’t mean that, but why couldn’t the girl of his dreams drop by and his apartment be filled with some goddammed effing cold air?

The muscles above his knees swelled as he bounded back up the stairs and into the airless chamber of his apartment. Holding his breath as he entered his bedroom, he needed to stop for a moment — in order to think, to get his plan clear in his head. It was important to start getting the smoke out. He put his hand on the plug, but it was burning hot. Well, then the Climatair had to just go, kit and caboodle. He raised the lower window pane, which held the air conditioner in place. Immediately, it slipped off the ledge and out the window. Two columns of sweat socks stayed where they were, taped to the window frames as insulation.

As he descended the stairs, Kevin thought he should already hear the sound of the garden hose. But it was silent outside. Athena called his name. Coughing and hungry for air, Kevin hurried out the door.

Standing on the lawn, with the garden hose gun in her hand, Athena was looking upward. She laughed. “Do you realize what happened?”

He looked up. The air conditioner was hanging out the window, held up by its electrical cord. It was still spewing smoke.

“Should I spray it?” Athena asked, fighting back a smile.

“No, not yet,” Kevin said. ” I’ll go upstairs and get the plug out. When it falls to the ground, spray it then. Otherwise, don’t spray — unless it catches the house on fire.”

Kevin ran back up the stairs, his concentration wiped out by Athena’s laughter. It wasn’t enough that she should witness his humiliation. She had to laugh. But this was how his stupid life went — trying to fight back the summer heat, trying to keep the building from burning down, his complete and utter inability to make the simplest thing go his way, trying to have some kind of civilized existence, and it was all like some kind of fall-on-your-face comedy for the pretty girl standing outside.

There seemed to be less usable air in his apartment than before. Breathing hard, he couldn’t run any more. Besides, the muscles in his legs were throbbing. He walked awkwardly, like an exhausted sprinter.

The plug was heavily coated, a thick, old-fashioned piece of work. It had three prongs and looked to be practically indestructible. On a good day, trying to pull it out would probably cause a hernia. Today, of course, was not a good day. From the way the cord ran tautly up the wall and out the window, Kevin judged that all the pressure from the hanging air conditioner was actually holding the plug in. He tried pulling the head of the plug from the socket, but it was still too hot and when he tried it with a T-shirt in his hand, he couldn’t get a grip on it. And again he was out of breath. But he hadn’t the energy to go up and down the stairs again. Fresh air seemed too far away until it occurred to him that he was standing at an open window. Thinking no more about it, he stuck his gulping head out the opening and sucked in a mouthful of acrid burning plastic fumes.

Coughing and heaving, Kevin felt his way into his kitchen, where the air was slightly better. No amount of spitting, though, would cleanse his mouth of the gunk he had just sucked in. With his eyes fully teared up from the smoke, he looked for something to cut the cord. It was near impossible to open the utility drawer for all the crap that was jammed into it. After several two-handed, yanking pulls, the drawer finally burst open and spilled its contents onto the floor. A whisk, several books of matches, extra car keys, pennies — must have been two pounds of them — electrical tape, packaging tape, scotch tape, a roll of bandaging from the time he sprained his wrist. No pliers, no heavy-duty scissors, no wire cutters.

On the counter in a small woodblock was the Blixen Blade, the chef’s knife his mother had given him for Christmas two years ago. She had been dating a guy who was really into food, a total jerk who at any moment might lecture you on the difference between Mexican and Texas chili or what “real chefs” thought about those handy kitchen appliances sold on television. The knife had been his idea. It was one big piece of shimmering stainless steel with little panels of wood for a handle. That Christmas morning when Kevin received the Blixen Blade, he looked up at his mother and her stupid boyfriend and was about to say that there were things his kitchen needed even more than a knife. “Like food,” he was going to say, but didn’t.

Huffing and puffing brought no relief. He needed to get outside. His mouth tasted of tar and dried phlegm and he was on the verge of a major coughing fit, perhaps with some vomiting involved. Now was the time.

He tried to judge the weight of the knife as he walked into the bedroom, wondering if he might get away with just one big chop. He bent down and realized this was a bad angle. He tried it anyway, sidearming the blade directly into the cord. A hairline incision appeared in the plastic coating. Kevin tried again and again and several more times before the coating started to give way.

He could see the wiring breaking up. He decided to finish the job by cutting back and forth across the cord with a saw-like motion.

If ever you find yourself in an ambulance going to Borough hospital, you should open the back doors and jump out. A guy once said that to Kevin. The guy was an accident-prone drunk and maybe not the most reliable judge of quality medical services. But still, it struck Kevin as a bad sign that Borough was the only hospital he could remember anyone criticizing.

The advice made little difference because Kevin had no chance to jump from the ambulance, being strapped to a gurney the whole ride. When they arrived, the paramedics rolled him through a set of enormous sliding doors and parked him just to the side of what must have been the unloading dock for the emergency room. No doctor was there to meet them, so the paramedics had to run around and inquire about who was caring for this patient. In a few minutes, they came back with someone. Kevin couldn’t tell if the woman was a nurse or a doctor. She briefly examined his feet and then his right hand. The paramedics moved him to a hospital gurney. Someone came by with a pill in a little paper cup and some water.

Within a few minutes, Kevin was alone. It strained his neck to see what was going on around him, but glancing below his feet, he saw a young man in a plastic back brace talking with a male nurse.

“Use only traditional mainstream practitioners,” the nurse was saying. “What happens if you get to court and their lawyer asks you, Ã?Â?Ã?¢Ã?¢?Ã?¬Ã?Â??Are you sure it wasn’t your chiropractor who caused your back problems?’ No, you don’t want that. You want an MD.”

There was mumbling here, sobbing over there. A wheel squeaked on some gurney or maybe a wheelchair. This was like sitting at the movies with your eyes closed. Kevin tried to recall enough high-school Spanish to understand a screaming match between a mother and a son. Matter-of-fact nurses interviewed devastated patients. Paramedics entered through the sliding doors and barked information. After an hour or so, he had heard quite a bit, none of it addressed to him.

He began to suspect, and then grew dead certain, that the hospital staff had forgotten all about the patient Kevin Burns. Finally he wondered if it was too late to unstrap himself and make his way to another hospital. Maybe he could find a cab outside, where some other unsuspecting idiot might be paying his fare and letting it go — perhaps at this very second. He waited ten minutes more and spent the time silently cursing the medical profession. After that, he waited about twenty minutes more, cursing the nursing profession, paramedics, and the city’s hospital system. He had moved onto cursing his cheap landlord with his malfunctioning air conditioner when a nurse came over and, asking if he was Kevin Burns, said a doctor would be with him in a few minutes.

Another half hour later, a different nurse came over to take his blood pressure and listen to his heart. She asked if he smoked, how often he drank, if he had taken any drugs in the last twenty-four hours, if he had any longstanding health problems and a dozen other questions. She wrote his answers down on a clipboard. He had received an electric shock, she said, but it didn’t look very serious. “One of your friends in the waiting room said you don’t have insurance. Is that right?” Kevin nodded that it was. “Well, a doctor will be along shortly, to look you over.”

Sleep, if not rest, came and went. Kevin woke up moving, as his gurney was being pushed down a hallway by a tall black man in those lightweight, green hospital clothes. The man helped Kevin change into a hospital gown. Kevin then fell asleep again. The next time he awoke the doctor was standing over him and saying his name. Athena was there, and his friend Billy too.

Kevin tentatively opened one eye; the doctor, a girlishly slight Indian man with a British accent, said, “You’re doing fine, Kevin.” Athena stood next to the doctor, looking worried and maternal. Kevin closed his eye. Anything but pity, he thought to himself. The shame made his body tired — especially his legs.

Relief came soon enough, as exhaustion sucked him back into sleep. But as his body rested, his thoughts accelerated in pursuit of some larger meaning to the events of the last few hours. Settled truths became troubling revelations.

Interpretations went to war against each other. A new order of meaning came to power, gaining control over all ideas and memories. What everything came down to, what his whole life came down to, was the question of what it means to be electrocuted.

It means the stunning beauty found you stiff on the floor of your low-rent apartment. She stood above you on those wonderful brown legs, while you were frozen, half-conscious, sprawled out on that grimy brown carpet which hasn’t been vacuumed in months. You could see what was going on, but were practically a vegetable, a helpless weakling thrown by a wild bucking surge of electricity. She opened some windows and called an ambulance. In response to something said on the phone, she checked to see if you were still breathing. You were.

It means a new respect for her, the beauty, as when she tried the one phone number you have on speed dial. That was smart. Billy answered and must have figured out who Athena was and Athena figured out who Billy was. Billy must have raced over to the apartment, where you all waited for the ambulance. You, the girl, and your old buddy — the skeleton crew of your life right now. No family, just two people who volunteered for the job because they like you. How long will that last?
It means a new stack of unpayable bills on the kitchen table, or rather it will mean that as soon as they get around to sticking it to you. How long then until you’re again begging your father for money? At least Billy told the hospital you didn’t have insurance. And you’ve heard that makes all the difference in how long they keep you and how much they bill you. Still, it doesn’t mean you’ll get off scot-free. They just won’t get you for every last service, fee, and extra they might squeeze from an insurance policy.

It means you’ll have to sell your car and walk to work. Go home at night to your apartment, which no longer has air conditioning, and stay there. Never go out again. Give up love. Give up friendship. Give up Kevin Burns. Become like one of those old women on welfare who spend all their money on cat food. Except you don’t have a cat. Which is even better, even less expensive. You’ll drink tea. Spend your evenings drinking tea and being good. Read the Bible. A life of pure thoughts. Pure means cheap. A different life. A less expensive life. Say goodbye to the things you love.

Kevin woke up. Billy was looking down on him with a mixture of mockery and concern. “Hey, Kev,” his friend said, “why didn’t you call me to help you? I could’ve brought over a tub of water — you know, for you to stand in while you were cutting the live wires.”

Kevin and Billy were in some kind of stall behind a curtain. Athena, it seemed, was gone. Something smelled like Kevin’s toaster, the crumbs on the bottom pan that burned every time he used it. Not like smoke, although there was a little of that acrid plastic stench. But in his mouth and throat and in his nasal passages, there was the presence of something burnt. He tasted ash.

There was a lot of bleach in the air, like a bar bathroom after years of patrons throwing up and employees mopping up. Except for the beer stink; there was no beer stink. And damn, it was noisy. There were at least two different patients receiving treatment from different doctors just a few feet to his right and left, behind curtains of their own. It was maybe three or four in the morning and this part of the hospital sounded like rush hour.

“Hey,” Billy said loudly as Kevin continued to come around, “tell me something.”
Kevin squinted and blinked and yawned, finally focusing on the familiar blue eyes, baby mouth, and fleshy cheeks of his friend.

“How come,” Billy demanded, “a girl like Athena gets interested in you? She could do so much better.”

“She leave?” Kevin asked.

“Like an hour ago. I told her to get some rest,” Billy said, smirking. “And that I’d be over to her place later.”

“Thanks a lot,” Kevin answered.

“She’s great.” Billy announced. “She was bossing the ambulance guys around, talking to the doctor. She was running this whole show. And she’s hot.”

“I’m surprised she stuck around after she found me frying on the floor,” said Kevin.

“Me too,” Billy said. “I was very surprised. I even asked her about it. Yup. While you were unconscious, Athena and I talked about some very important things.
Love, death, the afterlife. And we became very close. She told me she didn’t want you to get hurt. But . . . because of our little talk . . . because of our little time together . . . because of her being with me while you were unconscious or asleep or whatever . . . no, maybe I should wait for her to tell you the news.”


“She’s dumping you,” Billy said.

“Yeah?” Kevin replied.

“For me. Athena’s dumping you for me. She said, Ã?Â?Ã?¢Ã?¢?Ã?¬Ã?Â??Sorry, but I gotta life of feta cheese and ouzo ahead of me and Kevin Burns, you’re just slowing me down.'”

“What did the doctors say?”

“Everything’s about you, isn’t it? I mean that’s your whole problem, big guy.”

“Shut up and tell me what they said.”

“You can’t get out of this so easily, Kevin Burns, you can’t run away from yourself . . . or your selfishness.”

“Tell me what the doctors said.”

“That’s what Athena thought you would say.” Billy turned away and pretended to sigh. It was a recurring gag of his. He’d insult someone; they’d get angry; he’d pretend to be the one being bullied.

Billy turned back, smiling. “Okay, I’ll tell you. The doctor said you could have died.”

“He said that?”

“I asked him if you could’ve died,” Billy answered, still smiling. “He said yes. He
said you could have had a heart attack, but that you seemed to be okay. The first few hours are apparently kind of important, which must be why they’re paying so much attention to you. Yeah, right? He was looking at your hand.”

“Well my hand feels fine . . . actually, a little stiff.”

“Don’t worry, little trouper,” said Billy, “you’ll be jerking off in no time.”

A pair of brown hands, one holding a clipboard, parted the curtains and in walked the petite doctor in his hospital greens. A thin brown line of a man, he looked to be short on sleep.

“I see you are awake now,” he said. “Let’s see if we can’t get you home then.”

“Hi,” said Kevin.

“That’s right. We haven’t met. I’m Doctor Thadani. You are Kevin Burns,” he said, looking at the chart, “you’ve had an electrical shock. Not too serious I think. The burn on your knee is the easy one.”

Kevin looked down and for the first time saw the bandaging on his knee.

“That’s where the electricity came to ground,” the doctor explained. “People who suffer electrical shocks often suffer burns on their feet, but I gather you were on one knee at the time. And maybe you feel some stiffness in your hand, around your thumb and index finger.”

Kevin didn’t feel pain around the small burn mark.

“Well, if the burn had involved a higher amp, we’d have to perform some exploratory surgery, to look for necrotic flesh, which we would then remove in a procedure called de-breed-ment,” he said, sounding out the word. “But I don’t think it’s very serious. However, if you do not regain all feeling in your hand, we might consider it.”

The doctor checked Kevin’s heart rate and began timing his pulse.

“What does that mean, de-breed-ment?” Kevin asked, “To get rid of a breed, like a section of flesh?”

“Yes,” said Dr. Thadani, looking a little unsure of Kevin’s meaning, “something like that. It’s actually spelled d-e-b-r-i-d-e-m-e-n-t.”

“De-bride-ment, to get a divorce from my flesh?”

“Yes, like that, a divorce from the flesh — the dead flesh. But that shouldn’t be necessary. This accident was not serious. On a cellular level, it was a small massacre. But on a general health level, it won’t be much more inconvenient than a cold. You might be put out a little over the next couple of days, but you should be fine. Drink a lot of water and eat well. Do not remove the bandages for four days. Do you have any questions?”

“No, not really,” said Kevin.

“Well, I must go,” said Dr. Thadani, parting the curtain for himself. “You are free to leave.”

David Skinner is editor of Doublethink and an assistant managing editor of the Weekly Standard.

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