Moodswing - A Big Shock

Apply hug to victim as needed

My ex-neighbor George looks damn good for someone who was electrocuted last year. I saw him yesterday with his wife Judy, smiling like he always does, and I would never have known that, fairly recently, he fried the holy hell out of himself trying to fix an old air conditioner. And I still feel a little bad about laughing when I heard the news, but you have to understand, I’d been nagging those two for missing my wedding reception for an entire year, and it wasn’t until now that Judy finally told me why.

“Well,” she said almost sheepishly, “George got electrocuted.”

How do you not laugh when someone says that? That is a funny-ass reason for missing a wedding reception, and there George was, sitting right next to me smiling and looking about as un-electrocuted as can be. I hugged him very tight right then, which I hear is what you’re supposed to do with shock victims.

George and Judy used to live upstairs from me in an old renovated telephone factory. They used to sell furniture out of their truck back then. Now they own Paris on Ponce, a giant antique and retro-furniture labyrinth that reminds me of what the attic of Andy Warhol and Anne Boulin would look like if they ever got married and birthed a brood of poets and circus performers. George and Judy always put out a big tray of complimentary cookies and cider for paying customers, and considering how rarely I fall into that category, I’m amazed they don’t ever slap my hand away. I used to go in there when I was 100 months pregnant and chow on that tray like it was my personal trough, complaining the whole time how hot it was in there.

Now I feel guilty, because it was when George finally got around to installing an air conditioner, (which he probably excavated from underneath car wreckage at the bottom of a dried river bed or something) that he went and electrocuted himself. Evidently he was standing there buggy-eyed for quite a while, paralyzed by the voltage running through his body, before he got tired of waiting for someone to save him and somehow mustered the oomph to wrest himself free from the current. Afterward his shoes were all melted and it looked like someone had taken a blow torch to his armpits. “He couldn’t come to your wedding reception with burned-up armpits, now could he?” Judy said, and I had to laugh again.

I am so happy George didn’t die, because until now I always equated electrocution with certain death. As a kid I was terrified I’d one day be falsely convicted of murder and have to face the electric chair. I once confessed my fears to my father. “Damn right they’ll electrocute you,” he said, “they’ll flip the switch as easy as a burger.”

My mother yelled at him not to shock me like that. She’d barely rebounded from the time I was 5 and came across the childbirth edition of Life magazine and opened it to a picture of a naked lady with a big blue head popping out of her poontang. “That lady has a head coming out of her peehole!” I wailed.

My mother carted my crying ass away from the magazine and acted all concerned about the possible shock I had just endured. She was forced to tell me about the facts of life right then. She tried to make it sound nice, but she wasn’t all that adept at euphemisms. “That’s just where babies come from and yes it hurts like hell but you’ll live,” she said, and hugged me so tight she flattened two bubble-gum cigars in my front pocket.

A decade later she had another shock to impart. She came home and asked me to sit down. From the look on her face she obviously had something important to announce and didn’t know how to ease into it. “I’m leaving your father,” she blurted, waiting for my traumatized reaction. When it didn’t come, she continued. “When you get back from school today, I’ll be gone,” she said. “Gone.”

But I was not shocked at all. My whole life I knew she was leaving. For 15 years I’d witnessed the simmering fury between my parents, it hung in the air like a heavy fume, with each of them blaming the other for the calcified casket of emptiness their lives had become. Every day I’d seen my mother long for a life she felt my father denied her, and every day I’d seen my father saturate his sorrow with booze and bold proclamations. But my mother thought she had done a good job of protecting me from this and hadn’t realized her misery was as transparent as a shattered windshield. “I mean it,” she said, “I’m gone.”

“I know,” I said lucidly, and at that my mother crumbled like an autumn leaf. All the tears she’d kept hidden behind the basket of broken dreams in her heart broke free right then, and she lowered her head to her hands in shame. “I’m so sorry,” she wept, her shoulders shaking with the weight of her regret. I wanted to ask her what she was so sorry about, because I didn’t see how this was anyone’s fault, but instead I just went to her and hugged her very tight, which I hear is what you’re supposed to do with shock victims.

Hollis Gillespie’s commentaries can be heard on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” To hear the latest, go to Moodswing at