When it thunderstorms, I cannot help but think of the man who went outside on his porch, cursed God, and was promptly struck by lightning. I’m not sure he was real, as his story was relayed to me by my grandmother, and I have never had independent corroboration of his grisly death. Nonetheless, I have always imagined him as an older man, thin and weak, with a small and veiny fist—a fist he must have shaken furiously at an unresponsive sky, seconds before its great reply. I imagine too that his smart wire-rimmed glasses fogged up with the steam of new rain, something I saw happen often to my grandmother. He was wearing a v-necked tee shirt and work pants, standing on a porch that was worn and rickety like hers, I’m sure. His name was Tom or Al or John, and he was alone, some tragedy having robbed him of all he had. Or his name was something simple and noble like Mack, but he was ignorant, and so he cursed God just because it was raining. I always thought he must’ve died, although death was fuzzy to me at the age I was first told this story, having only taken a grandfather I never knew. I do not know if TomAlJohnMack really existed, nor what the circumstances really were of his unfortunate yet fuzzy death — if it even occurred and he wasn’t just taken some years later in his sleep by a house fire or a heart attack. His story was not told as a cautionary tale to keep my sister and me from cursing God or taking His name in vain, but as a story to keep us off the porch in thunderstorms. My grandmother was unintentionally ironic that way.
“There was also a little girl who was struck twice,” she said.
I would be much older before I learned that this was rumored to have happened to Alice Cooper but hardly anyone else, so I didn’t have a clever retort. My grandmother would have thought Alice Cooper was just the name of the little girl anyway. The old man had never appeared on the Lawrence Welk show, her main form of Saturday evening entertainment. We just stared at her wide-eyed when she told us this, taking in her squint face, all wrinkles and cloudy eyes behind her massive and unhelpful glasses, while she nodded self-assuredly. She could still stomp and holler and wave broom handles around. We feared her.
“She was on the porch too,” she added, as if the sad old man story wasn’t enough.
This trait of sharing the worst information you possibly could with others is passed down through the women in my family, like a nose shape or an eye color, and was a part of my grandmother that never changed. She once told me about a friend of hers who had died, and her daughter-in-law discovered it when she came up to her, thinking she was asleep in her favorite faded wingback chair, and kissed her on her forehead.
“She was cold!” Seeing a lack of shock on my then twenty-year-old face (how could she know—she was legally blind and congratulated herself on detecting the color of my shirt when she could), she tried again.
“STONE DEAD!” Her wild hair made her small shrill shout even more powerful. I wondered when was the last time anyone had taken her to get a perm. I’d brush her hair before I left, I decided, my face still — from her perspective, unpleasantly placid. I glanced at her matching sweat suit; it was clean. She’d had a bath last night, so I could just wet her scraggly fuzz down a bit.
“Do you hear me, Rachel-girl?” Her trademark singsong lilt was back, but the annoyance remained at the edges.
My grandmother, I later learned from my mother, was wrong about the circumstances of such a death kiss. The woman had kissed her mother-in-law after she knew she was dead and had already been loaded on the funeral home stretcher. She had loved her very much. That could’ve been the high point of the story, not the horror of discovering a death in an act of intimacy. Correcting her, however, was useless. She repeated the story at least five more times that I know of, leaving the misinformation completely intact. I’m sure there was a reason for this too: fear of her own death, grief over her friend. Sensationalizing something ordinary to make it less so. I wonder sometimes how she would relay the story of her own death. Would her last slow breaths be boiled down to the grotesquerie of the final gasp she made almost two minutes after what we thought was her last breath? The gasp that scared the shit out of all of us standing by her bed, happening right when we were ready to call those absent, ready to prepare her gaunt body for pickup by the clown-eyed funeral director? Is it genetics that makes me recount this moment even now?
My mother is equally guilty of these sins, as if I need to prove even more that I am not an anomaly in this habit of relaying the ghastly horrendous in regular conversation. Stories have power. My mother, a pastor for twenty-plus years after several years of chaplaincy, made this obvious in her career and as a mother. It was all about the elements of the disturbing.
As a pastor: car accident, blood on a Bible, one survivor.
(I’m also fairly sure this is a Randy Travis song.)
As a mother: dead mule, shovel, drag marks, crying five-year-old watching from a barn door stoop.
This story is one she told my soon-to-be husband in order to illuminate for him what her childhood was like. The point — that she was a dirt floor poor farm girl — was cliché, but the story was anything but. I watched him react with horror, he of wide-eyed suburban innocence. Later, he would become ill at certain periods in our marriage due to a chronic disease, and his shock at the disgusting (vomit and diarrhea, often at the same time), heavily ironic (the kidney stones resulting from iron he was told to take), or sickly gnarled (in the case of his own bowels) would lessen.
My mother narrated that, as a child, she had sat on a stoop and watched as my grandmother and grandfather drag away a dead mule they had pulled from the barn. They dragged him/her (mules have no sex) into the woods and left it under a stand of trees.
“That’s what it was like,” she said triumphantly.
“Dead mules all the time? Really, Mom,” I chastised.
She nodded, quite sure of the story’s effect on my future spouse.
“Did they bury it?” he asked.
“Of course not. Why would you take the time to dig a hole large enough for a mule? They had to earn a living. Wasn’t worth spending the time on.” Then, fearing she had gone too far, “But I’m sure they covered him up with leaves.”
That very same evening I went to my grandmother. Despite knowing better, I wanted to be surprised and troubled that this was a story my mother felt explicated her entire childhood. I shared my concerns with my grandmother, and I should’ve known what kind of response I would get.
“Rhody was a good mule,” she said, shaking her head sadly.
My mother has many times started our long-distance conversations by telling me a story of a particularly heartbreaking death of one of her parishioners, like the man that fell out of his tree stand in his backyard just to come inside, sit in his favorite chair, and die five hours later from internal injuries. Or asking me if I knew a boy in school that she has read about in the local paper from my hometown. Whether I do or I don’t, she then provides me with the lurid tale of his death, or, if I’m lucky, maiming. Occasionally she tells me about marriages too.
When I was a child, if my uncle was unavailable, my grandmother would have one of us grandchildren read her the obituaries for that day out of the local paper, as well as the long list of names from surrounding counties in the paper from the larger city nearby. At noon every day when we stayed with her, my grandmother hushed us over a table of pinto beans, fresh cucumber and tomato slices, and biscuits, or some variation thereof, while she cranked up the volume on the radio in the kitchen. An instrumental rendition of “Beyond the Sunset” would play out from the radio, perhaps the worst recording they had ever made, the organ sounding mournful and wheezy. Then the announcer would say, too-loudly, that this portion was sponsored by Brooks and White funeral home. Unless no one had died at all in the last week (unlikely), the announcer, a local celebrity, would read the obituaries aloud, usually the same ones we’d already read, from the three funeral homes in town (Brooks and White being the best for all your death needs, of course!). On Saturdays, Mr. Small Town had his high school intern read them, usually with disastrous results. We would laugh uncontrollably, shushed all the while, when Mrs. Bee Rack would become Mrs. Big Rack, and John McDale would have worked with bull’s balls rather than for the Durham Bulls Baseball franchise, their deaths whittled to our amusement in the mouth of a nervous, mispronouncing, and stuttering kid.
When my grandmother died, they read her name and her obituary on WKRX at noon. Brooks and White handled her funeral, as they had that of her stone-cold friend. I’m sure they could’ve done a beautiful job with TomAlJohnMack, the little girl, and Rhody, and I know for a fact that they handled more than one of the boys from my hometown at the time of their untimely departure. The unintentionally ironic thing about this story I’m telling you is that I married the suburban kid two weeks after my grandmother’s funeral. The wedding had been planned for months, the funeral, obviously, only a few days. The same flowers cut from her garden for her casket spray were in vases in the vestibule of the church as I lowered my veil. Knowing these awful stories, I have laughed and made jokes when I’ve had, over the course of our marriage, to drain my husband’s surgical sites or hold his white-knuckled hand. Knowing what a last breath sounds like means that I have not shuddered when I’ve heard him breathe with a nasogastric tube in. I have not shied away from giving vitamin injections or talking openly about feces. I have thought of the worst thing I’ve ever heard, rather than fearing the current moment, always attempting to amuse myself with the irony of young age and illness in the same room, the same body. We are lucky.
Even so, my husband has disparaged my personal genetic disorder, my nasty habit, despite the saving grace it has been for my sanity.
“Did you have to tell me that?”
“What? I thought you’d want to know.”
“You thought I’d want to know your cop friend told you that in that bad accident on the bridge last week the driver’s heart popped out of his chest?”
“Not popped,” I corrected. “Shot out. And it’s weird because Ridgeway said he didn’t even think the guy was dead. He looked normal. But then there was a bulge under his shirt that turned out to be his heart.”
“Really, Rachel. That is awful.” The disdain and disgust are plain on his now-thin face. I’ll never get used to how little he is after the last major bout with Crohn’s took a hundred pounds off his body.
I think sometimes I have shared the worst things I’ve heard on the news, from a friend, or from my mother, with others in order to be comforted. Sometimes it’s just because it is too purely bizarre, and I must share it: someone else must know. I imagine that I am afraid that my own death or maiming will be either ordinary or so shocking I will get lost in it. I do not spend time in tree stands, I do not sit for long periods of time in wingback chairs, I do not say “cross my heart,” and although I cannot prevent what will eventually happen, I remain vigilant about not going out in thunderstorms.