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Lust Voltage, Our Religion

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My late uncle Duff once spent Christmas in jail for bigamy. It was a misunderstanding more than anything else, although from what my cousin Sam has been able to find out, Duff really did get a new wife before divorcing the first. He was a Korean war veteran, and his defense in the bigamy case was that he had a metal plate in his head so he forgot things, but the newspaper clippings and military files that Sam has been gathering since his father's death say nothing about an injury. The townsfolk must have joked about how he got caught.

I describe the bigamy as a misunderstanding because that's how I consider much of what's happened in my family over the years. We didn't understand each other any better than we understood people in the outside world. It's still that way. Sam is trying to know his father posthumously, in a retroactive fashion. I have doubted that's possible but my friend the professor Hadwin Zale says it might be, since chronological time is only an illusion of our human senses. According to Hadwin, everything is happening at once on the subatomic level, and therefore Duff might be as much among us as ever.

Hooey, I would have said until lately.

At the time of Duff's Christmas in jail, a time long before he met and married the woman who would become Sam's mother, his home was 60 miles north of here in East Gary, Indiana, later known as Lake Station. The night of December 24 was quiet and cold, meteorological records indicate, with a light snow falling on the trees, bushes, and street lamps outside his windowless jail cell.

East Gary's constables must have picked up a few drunks that night and driven them home instead of hauling them to the slammer, but Duff was already in, and in he stayed. During his two weeks of confinement before the trial, neither of the people who might have visited him showed up, not even to gloat. Both must have thought the other might be there.

What did he think about? Maybe he pretended he was a prisoner of war (which he'd never been, as far as Sam has been able to discover) and spent the hours steeling himself for the arrival of his captors with their torture devices. Or maybe, since he was inside a jail for the first time, he thought about crime. Serious crime, I mean--not taking vows with one woman, somehow losing track, and doing the same with another down the road a few years later. That's hardly death row material, if you ask me. But in Duff's case I'd be willing to pardon almost anything.

He had some interest in crime, if only as a student. I know this because while he was in the army he compiled some papers in a loose-leaf binder. I found it in a box in my mother's attic before I sold her house. Did he give the book to his wife's sister for safekeeping or to impress her? This is a question among those not answered by newspaper clippings. I can tell you he admired my mother, he gave her little gifts of earrings and perfume. I was a boy.

In the book are bombing tables from the Defense Department's Ordnance Office--stamped RESTRICTED and printed with fluorescent ink on black paper so they can be read in the dark by ultraviolet light--and equations related to the falling velocity of released explosives that Duff apparently wrote himself.

He also composed the "Generalization of the Theory of Relativity for Explanatory Purposes," potentially helpful in the bombardier's life, which runs just over one page and ends: "This can be stated simpler by saying, 'If you sit with your girl in the park for an hour, it seems like a minute. If you sit on a hot stove for a minute, it seems like an hour.'"

"I've tried it and he's right," Hadwin said when I read the passage to him. "Give me that book," he said, snatching it from my hands.

Single spaced and smudgy, banged out by Duff on the same manual typewriter as the other material, are Duff's "Criminology Notes." These have to do with botched investigations of faked suicides and well-plotted felonies that foiled the best efforts of detectives. Duff was skeptical of law enforcement.

"So-called tangible evidence is often useless and moreover can be EXTREMELY dangerous, if not downright misleading," he wrote. Here he sounds just like the man we knew in peacetime--a warrior who would rather face extreme danger than be misled. Even so, it is "a known fact that every criminal leaves some loose end to his preparations which, in the end, betrays him," Duff wrote, and he characterized this leaving behind of the telltale clue as "a conventional superstition of implacable avenging nemesis." The phrase rings with poetry "scarce elsewhere in Duff's work," Hadwin said. After one afternoon with the binder, my crackpot scholar of a neighbor was referring to my dead uncle by his first name.

They likely would have got along in real life. Duff was a congenial, gravel-voiced, potbellied man over six feet tall with monstrous biceps, hair the color of a new penny, and faint freckles everywhere, who got along with almost everyone except, in wartime, the gooks. He surprised them outside their tents and chopped off their heads with a machete. That's what he told us.

During the Christmas Eves I spent around him, Duff ate handfuls of fruitcake and drank tumblers of rum. He told my mother filthy jokes that made her blush. He roared with laughter and stomped around the house, festively terrorizing the children.

"Pick up all these goddamned toys!" he'd yell, waving his arms. We stared. The floor was clear of toys, uncluttered as it always was, amazingly in that household of six kids. Duff insisted on it.

My parents divorced when I was five, my mother went back to work, and I had no permanent place. I was sent to live with my grandparents, but almost as soon as I arrived my grandfather ran off with a younger woman he'd met at the power plant. So I shuttled between two fatherless homes, spending a few nights of the week with my mother--who became steadily more sharp-edged and weary, smoking and drinking--and a few more days and nights at the empty home of my sorrowful grandmother, and as much time as I could at Sam's house. I became a drop-in member of his chaotic family. I was able to watch Duff. I studied him.

He had a factory job that brought him home late, cursing. He would shove aside the stupid, clumsy basset hound Aristotle at the door, deal with the kids as quickly as possible, greet his wife, stalk to the rear of the house, shed his clothes, and ease his weary body into a tub of steaming water. He hooked his arms over the sides. As the minutes ticked by, he let his big, unplated head nod onto his chest.

My mother once said Duff made up for his lack of refinement by not having any. Hadwin went further. "Duff Nash may have been short on savoir faire, but he was far from simple," he said at my kitchen table, resting his hand on the notebook as if it were the Holy Bible. Hadwin retired in 1997--something went bad at Columbia so he returned to the midwest--but he still lectures, often to me and sometimes to himself in his apartment two doors down. I've stood in the hallway and listened to him. I can detect movement behind his door, pacing, but I can make out none of the words.

About the book Hadwin said, "Duff anticipated in his writings the ideas of latter-day physicists such as David Bohm, who in Wholeness and the Implicate Order postulates an unrevealed arrangement of events at the subatomic level that becomes manifest to our senses only at particular moments of readiness."

He paused, as if to allow note takers to catch up. I thought about making a sandwich. "They manifest only then, you see--as if the invisible universe is thick with potential events that ripen and occur at the correct times. Until such moments, Bohm says, events are woven together with each other in hidden possibility," Hadwin said.

He nodded. He sneezed. "I have allergies," he said. "My cholesterol is in the quadruple digits and my prostate is the size of a baseball. Get me a drink."

I handed him a Fresca from the refrigerator--Hadwin doesn't touch alcohol--and he cracked it open with his usual ceremony, using the Swiss army knife that he keeps fastened to the belt loop of his pants along with a fat bunch of keys. There was sliced ham in the refrigerator.

"Our Duff is unmistakably in line with Bohm," Hadwin said, smacking his lips. "Yet Duff's material, if I get you correctly, predates Bohm's by at least 30 years! He asserts 'a point where laboratorian physics and cosmology meet. Rather, a series of such points, an irregular and intricate frontier,' and says in the criminology notes that 'even the most trivial event has many intimate and related serrated points of contact with other events which precede and follow it.' Pure Bohm."

Pure something, I thought. When Duff found out about what came to be known as the Warehouse Caper, he beat the hell out of Sam's older brother, Kip. I was there, and Duff didn't look like Einstein that night.

"Come on," Sam said that night, grabbing my arm. "Kip's gonna get it again." We stood in the backyard, watching through the screen door. Duff, in the kitchen, called for Kip, who appeared. He looked guilty. Kip always looked guilty. Before words could be exchanged, Duff tripped him and hurled him to the floor.

Kip yelped. Duff, hollering, kicked him hard in the ribs, once, twice, again. Kip scooted around on the linoleum like a windup toy gone mad and Duff knelt and whacked Kip's head with his knuckles, as if administering some horrible yet necessary sacrament, and then Duff stood and undid his belt and whipped it against Kip's arms as Kip tried to hide them from the lash while somehow using them to cover his body. He writhed on the floor and bawled for Duff to stop. Sam and I held our hands over our ears.

Nine blocks from Sam's house was the two-story building where Seipel & Sons kept its electrical supply inventory. Empty of humans most of the time, the warehouse was unlocked when its door wasn't standing wide open, and many of the neighborhood's roaming boys accepted its silent welcome. Some plucked small items from the shelves--screwdrivers, bundles of multicolored wire, odd objects we hid under our beds and retrieved for examination during idle hours.

Not me. Like Sam, I was afraid to steal. And I didn't comprehend the gadgetry by which electrical current is directed, regulated, and controlled; this was as mysterious to me as any adult goings-on. But Kip toted away whatever he could get his hands on. He took fuses, toggle switches, nonmetallic conduits with corrugated jackets, metal conduits, jug cords, non-kink braided flex cord, caddy clips, screws, locks, and tape (ordinary electrical and the self-amalgamating PIB butyl kind). He took soldering irons, crimpers, glue guns and drills, power bits, tubing, end caps, boots, data cables, and cord caddies.

Toward the end, Kip made off with a tube tester that opened and closed like a suitcase and had a handle. We made more than a dozen trips to Seipel & Sons, and it was during the tube-tester mission that some boys in a rival gang saw us--boys who had made forays into the building themselves. We saw them, too, but not soon enough.

In juvenile court, parents lined the benches with their kids. The judge spoke to each of us separately. He called Kip, the oldest and presumably most hard-core criminal, first. The idea must have been that he would break our ringleader and we, Kip's cohorts, would tumble like dominoes. Kip broke fast, but he never gave us away. Standing in front of the judge, he trembled. His skinny frame jerked a few times. He almost jumped, as if jolted by some unseen device, or as if he might begin a spasmodic dance for the man in the black robe with the bulldog face, whose sneering lips kept moving. We couldn't hear what the judge said.

"Kip's going to crap his pants," Sam whispered to me, delighted.

His mother elbowed him quiet.

Kip returned to his seat and Sam was next. The judge finished with him in much less time. Sam scowled when he turned away from the bench. He sighed. He pushed out his lower lip and jammed his hands in his pockets. He knew he was innocent, yet he was trying to look as full of shame and misery as he knew our audience wanted. In the brief trip back to his seat he went through a variety of expressions, hoping to hit on the most pleasingly abject for those who watched.

I glanced around. In that bleak theater of their children's humiliation, many of the adults wore subtle, almost prim smiles--as if some comeuppance at last were being delivered of which they were incapable. Yet they seemed removed from the scene, too, pleased to see the villain trounced onstage while half-ashamed of their lust for vengeance, possibly aware that no great trespass had been committed.

Duff was stone-faced, his arms crossed on his chest, perhaps remembering a faraway scene, some bloody battle where his comrades fell to enemy bullets and bayonets. He seemed displeased about the proceedings in a way that showed on the face of no other adult in the room.

The judge said to me, "You are going to amount to nothing, do you realize that?" I was not allowed to answer. "Have you ever been to jail?" I hadn't. "Would you like to find out what jail is like?" No. The judge went on and on. I stared at his red lips and yellow teeth. I gulped, clenched my jaw, and tried not to cry.

The upshot was a scolding and probation.

I'll never forget how Duff looked at me when my session in front of the judge was finally over and I turned around--he looked directly at my face, his arms still crossed, his chin lifted, his eyes sending me some kind of reassuring signal. But my clearest memory of him is not of that moment. It's from the kitchen in his house, long after the Warehouse Caper and our disgrace, the same kitchen where he had beaten Kip.

Duff had been wrestling on the sofa that night with all of us, laughing, hauling us up one by one--"Get over here, you rat"--and scratching our faces against his whiskers until we shrieked. Later he sat at the Formica table with a cup of coffee and called us each in from the living room. Our instructions were to stay in the living room and wait our turn. Wait until he called.

What he said to me was, "I want you to know I love you, whatever happens to me or the rest of us in this house, during the span of time we have together.

Do you understand that?"

I smirked.

He repeated it--"I love you, kid"--and kept his eyes on me. I stared back. It had to be another cornball Duff joke, like at Christmas. His eyes rested somewhere over my shoulder for a moment. "You know what I'm saying," he said, although I didn't. He smiled, called for Kip, and lifted the cup to his lips. It was a fragile thing in his big hands.

One night when I was visiting Sam a summer thunderstorm came up, a crashing fury that shook the whole house. The power went out right away. While the rest of us kids cowered in our beds, Sam was up roaming in his underpants trying to find Aristotle, who was moaning with fear.

Barefoot, Sam groped the walls. This was the broken-down place in Tinley Park they'd just moved into, the one with the high ceilings and the musty, spider-filled basement and floor stains the color of old blood. His parents' room wasn't far away, but his mother slept through everything. Sam figured if he was brave he could get to her or find Aristotle who, after all, probably was under her bed. Besides, he had to pee.

Flickers of blue through the windows offered him just enough guidance, a few steps more, until he started to feel almost sure about his bearings, nearly certain that he knew how to proceed if some hairy claw didn't reach from the shadows and grab him. He told me later that he thought he felt that claw brush his collar when there came a particularly illuminating flash, far brighter than anything before it--and then an explosion of thunder so loud he doubted any move he might make.

Bam! It was like a bomb perfectly aimed in accordance with Defense Department guidelines to strike Sam's dwelling place and obliterate him and his family forever, a natural wallop from God that made the roof jump a foot off its joists, rattled the fillings in Sam's teeth, and jiggled the jelly in his eyeballs.

Every thought he might have been thinking, or might have been about to think, flew apart and dissolved. He retreated without turning around--the front of his foot touching the hardwood floor first, then the heel, then the other foot, until he was running that way, blindly in reverse. He was traveling at full stride in this strange but satisfying way when he felt the cool, rounded rim of something behind his knees. Then he was airborne, sailing like you do in dreams; the atmosphere endless, he was flying until he wasn't anymore and he landed with a colossal splash on top of his father, asleep in the tub. Duff sprang up, shivering, howling, and ready to kill.

Sam, thrashing, felt the cold water around him become warmer as his bladder released. Then cold again. To the rest of us, that part of the house seemed haunted by a pair of ghosts--one who swore and threatened, another who pleaded and whined--two ghosts hanging on to each other, who tried to keep their balance in the water and fell, laughing, and got up and fell again, laughing harder. They wrestled for balance. They fell, each of them submerged by turns and lifted up by the other.

Before our terms of juvenile probation could expire, the Seipel & Sons warehouse burned to the ground. Duff said he ran down the street when he heard the sirens (he was up late reading). He'd wanted to congratulate the arsonist but there was no one around. The fire marshal told the newspaper that eight fires had been ignited simultaneously at well-spaced locations on three levels inside the building; several perpetrators must have been responsible. Could it have been just one? Practically impossible, since every blaze sparked at the same time. Almost no clues were found. Tangible evidence, anyway, can be misleading.

"Listen to this," Hadwin said, his finger following Duff's lines. "The modern investigator of crime would doubtless deny that an artist painted a certain picture if there was produced circumstantial evidence that he had been otherwise occupied at the time. And yet such a conclusion would be quite preposterous. The picture itself would prove conclusively that one artist only could have painted it, and only one, because it bears that person's personality and genius, and his alone." Hadwin became quiet and nodded. He seemed to be gazing across rows of students, or a courtroom full of captured boys. "His personality and genius, and his alone--the same might be said of a life," he said, ending with his customary dramatic flourish. I rolled my eyes. He jumped to his feet.

"I have business," Hadwin said, and he was almost gone before I stopped him.

"The notebook," I said.

He said, "Oh," shuffled back, and placed it on the table, situating its corners as if to line them up with a chalked profile, and marched out. "Wait until he calls for you," I heard him say in the hallway, or so it sounded through the shut door.

Here's how they got Duff: His second wife stepped on the claw end of a rake hidden in October's leaves where Duff, remembering something he needed at the hardware store, had dropped it. The wooden handle smashed into her face, crushing her nose. She staggered to the fence. A neighbor saw her. In those days the local newspaper published all the ambulance runs, and when one Mrs. Duff Nash of East Gary read that another Mrs. Duff Nash of East Gary had been rushed to Saint Pelagia of Antioch Hospital with a broken nose, an implacable avenging nemesis came down upon Duff--whose name appeared a week later in the daily gazette, three columns over from the ambulance runs, among the arrests.

One rake, the townsfolk must have snickered, caught another.

I said at the beginning that the members of my family didn't understand each other or the world. I don't know about the rest of them, but my lack of comprehension--or my effort to overcome it, like I'm doing now by telling this story--sustains me better than any amount of knowing would. The last time I saw Duff, he had tubes in both arms, which lay spread at his sides. He was T-shaped, in some kind of vague parody, his last joke. He stared upward and wheezed with no outward vision left. They always get the wrong man.

I've waited for him to call, and he called for me today. I want to say: Love is a double or a multiple of itself, appearing in one place and another at once, shining along the intimate and related serrated points of contact that each event, each person has with another, to manifest small and sometimes terrible miracles. My mother cried more than anyone at Duff's funeral--I'd not seen her so sad since my father evaporated from our lives--but I crossed my arms over my chest and raised my chin. After the court hearing in the Warehouse Caper, she had taken me home. I wanted to go to my grandmother's or Sam's place but she insisted, and when I woke in the wee hours from a nightmare of peeled-back lips and accusing reptilian eyes, my mother sleeping in the next room was a comfort I didn't expect. Home.

But during our drive from the courthouse she gripped the wheel, staring straight ahead--parent of an eventual prison inmate, a bad seed--dumbstruck and chastened on my behalf in a way Duff hadn't been. I thought of him as we traveled through space, or seemed to, as I braced for whatever happens when time tricks us into believing in it. I stuck my head out the car window and the whistling air blew my tears away.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Paul Stroede.

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