THE LIGHTNING MAN
by Anna Schaeffer
The Lightning Man came to the town of Maryanne during one of Oklahoma’s fiercest thunderstorms. He burst into Kelly’s bar soaked, wild-eyed and dying in nothing but his bright white fruit-of-the-looms and a pair of dress shoes.
Bill Rockwood had never considered himself to be easily flustered, but he sat frozen in shock with a bite of coleslaw held to his open mouth as the man teetered, swayed and fell to the ground with a wet thud.
Like grackles startled by passing footfalls, Bill Rockwood and the patrons of Kelly’s bar exploded into a fluttering chaos. The room itself seemed to have begun a crazy rotation, like a carnival ride spinning around the semi-naked man splayed before them.
“Somebody get him a pair of pants!” Nancy Wallace wailed.
“Chrissake, Nancy, you think he needs a pair of pants?” Bill said back to her, he struggled to make his way towards the man elbowing past his fellow diners.
“Somebody get a doctor!”
“I am not calling a doctor for some sick exhibitionist!”
“Kayleen, will you stop taking pictures of this man?”
“Bill, can you get an ambulance over here?” Roxy said to Bill. His wife was the last person to stand up from her seat, but the first one to really approach the man. Roxy slipped right through the unhinged carousel of panic to squat down beside him.
Bill had his cellphone pressed to his ear and the he dial tone thrummed directly into it, rattling his eardrum.
“Uh-huh. Bill said, “Just waiting for them to pick up.”
“Good,” Roxy said, “Jesus, I think this guy might have been struck by lightning.”
Bill slipped his phone back into his pocket and suppressed a sigh. Had the stranger waited just a few minutes to make his grand entrance, Bill could have finished his damn coleslaw. Instead, the Lightning Man laid in fleshy melodrama on the floor of the bar. He looked like something that had been dragged up from the bottom of the sea, a rare, deep-sea fish, gasping for breath on dry land.
“No ambulance,” the Lightning Man said. His voice was curdled, urgent and Bill’s skin crawled at the sound of it.
Roxy used to say that Bill’s mind and heart were as calloused as his hands, and he supposed it was true. Over the years, Bill had simply become accustomed to death. He’d found his animals frozen solid with wide-open eyes and gasping mouths the morning after a snowstorm. He’d seen his cattle mauled by desperate packs of coyotes. Bills had watched his brother die at twelve years old from an asthma attack when they were too far afield to come home. Yes, he was used to death. Bill knew the signs and smell and feel of it. As he stared at the pale little man on the restaurant floor, Bill knew the ambulance would be too late, whether he wanted one or not.
The crowd seemed to sense this too. They stood around Roxy and the Lightning Man like worshippers at some strange ritual. Even Ricky Connors, a hulking, ginger haired man who spent his days laying cement and pavement, held his hat with unusual delicacy over his broad chest.
“Should I get him a glass of water, Rox?” Caleb Ray asked from his place behind the bar. Caleb’s words slipped into the tender silence.
“Don’t think that’ll do much good at this point, Caleb.”
Roxy drew the Lightning Man up close. For a moment of horror, Bill thought Roxy might kiss the man, but she only grasped his hand in her own and squeezed. His lungs spluttered and revved like a flooded motor. Roxy just kept holding on.
Later on, Bill figured it was that moment that started the whole thing. For the first time in his life, Bill felt out of place. Without warning, Bill had become an intruder, a voyeur witnessing something not fit for his own eyes. It was more than that, though. Something incommunicable, no, downright supernatural was happening. The air was charged, crackling and clenched tight like a fist. No one said a word, but Bill could have sworn that everyone in the room flinched when the stranger died, like they could feel his heart stop in their own chests.
The ambulance arrived long after The Lightning Man stopped breathing. The bemused EMTs concluded that the cause of death indeed had been a lightning strike, one powerful enough to blow the man’s pants, shirt and jacket right off his body. They found those later, in a charred and sodden heap on the side of highway seventy-seven where he’d been walking during the storm. Bill didn’t know what to make of that. The strange man must have been stupid or on some kind of drugs to be walking along a wide, flat highways in the middle of a thunderstorm.
No sooner had be been zippered up into the black bag and wheeled from Kelly’s restaurant, rumors swarmed around The Lightning Man’s death like vultures. In a small, but highly viewed press release, the chief of police stated that no one had come forward to claim the corpse and that it would be kept at the county medical examiners while an investigation was underway to identify him. The people of Maryanne were already churning out possibilities of how the strange man had arrived in town. People clustered in corners of coffee shops and grocery stores, swearing up and down that the lighting man had been in the Mafia, or that he was a disgraced politician on the run from the law, a Russian diplomat fleeing from federal agents. Roxy and Bill came back to Kelly’s a week later to see Ricky Connors entertaining a crowd of young women who’d flocked around him with an embroidered version of the story.
“There was blood everywhere,” Ricky said, “And he was groaning and rolling around on the floor with this great big, lighting-shaped gash on his chest where he got zapped…”
“Ricky, shut your mouth, you know it didn’t go like that,” Roxy said.
Ricky flushed, “Well, not exactly, girls, but pretty damn close-”
“-Alright now, that’s enough, isn’t’ it?” Bill said, he hadn’t even gotten to the first bite of his burger without hearing about the Lightning Man and it was the third time that day he’d overheard the story being told. All three versions had been wildly different.
“A man lost his life here,” Bill said, “Let’s have a little respect for the dead.”
Caleb just rolled his eyes and Beverly smooshed up her face at him and continued to whisper to her friends over the milkshake she’d ordered.
At first, Bill thought it was the gossip that bothered Roxy. Coming from four generations of wind-beaten Oklahoma stock, Roxy had never been thin-skinned, but she hadn’t been finishing her coffee in the morning.Instead of chatting with the farmhands Roxy was tight-lipped at work. Bill often caught her deepening the line between her brows and staring at nothing in particular. Over dinner one night, Bill felt almost silly asking Roxy if she had something bothering her.
“Nothing in particular, Bill,” She set her fork down traced a pattern on the table with her fingernail.
“I just can’t understand it,” she said at last, still drawing an invisible pattern on the wood, “You’d think someone would have come for him by now.”
Roxy stood up to refill her half-empty glass of water before he could press her any further. She wouldn’t have said anything if he did. Even when he’d first started to court her, Bill had noticed that some small part of Roxy was elusive, like an unscratchable itch. Because even with all of her straightforward, unbeguiling ways there remained a reticence about Roxy, something old-world and curious to Bill that he’d never quite uncovered, even after nearly twenty-odd years of marriage.
Late one night, Bill woke up for a glass of water to see his wife lying wide-awake next to him. She’d gone to bed early that night, saying she was tired.
“What are you doing awake, Rox?” Bill said.
“I can’t sleep,” Roxy said, “Jesus, Bill I just can’t stop thinking about that poor guy…He’s got a mother somewhere doesn’t he?”
Bill scrubbed sleep from his face.
“I dunno, I guess I would think so…”
“He wasn’t that old, you’d think that someone would care, that someone might notice he was missing…”
“Stuff like this happens all the time Roxy, some folks just fall through the cracks like that.”
“No.” Roxy said, sitting up in bed, “There’s gotta be at least one person out there. I’m going to the police station tomorrow, tell Juan he can pick up some extra hours. I’m gonna see if they’ve found anything out about him.”
Bill groaned, “Don’t, Roxy, it’s a waste of time,” he said.
The following morning, Roxy was gone from the house before Bill even woke up, and he’d never been a late riser. She didn’t even return in time to make dinner when Bill came back home from his day’s work. She came back late in the evening after the sun had set.
“You find anything out about him?” Bill asked his wife. He no longer even needed to specify who the ‘him’ was.
“Not exactly,” Roxy said, “but I managed to get a look at some Oklahoma missing person files and I took some notes,” Roxy waved a college-rule notepad in his face.
“Notes? Roxy, since when do you take notes?” Bill said. In her absence, he’d ordered a pizza and it sat in the middle of the table like an ode to bachelorhood.
“I’m getting to the root of this thing, Bill. I gotta do my homework. Somewhere out there, that kid’s mother might be looking for him.” She said.
Bill rolled his eyes.
“He wasn’t a kid, Roxy, he was at least thirty.”
Roxy waved the matter away, “If I’m old enough to be his mother, then he’s a kid.” she said.
Bill just grunted and took a bite of his pizza even though his stomach had done a somersault. Bill tried to stay away from the topic of children with Roxy, it made his usually even temper pop unpredictably like hot oil. Years ago, before she’d even met Bill, Roxy’d had a child of her own. That’s how Bill liked to think of it anyway, that Roxy had simply manifested a child in her belly with no male interference whatsoever.
Bill looked at his wife. She rolled her bottle of beer around in her hands.
“Rox,” He said, “You know there’s no way-”
“-I know!” She said, “It was a figure of speech.”
Somewhere far away outside, a dog howled.
For the first time since his early youth, Bill felt dormant envy stirring inside of him, and he couldn’t place just who or what had roused it. Bill went to bed early and fell into a tangle of feverish dreams; a giant fish with a gaping mouth swam through the prairie, a gremlin perched on the end of Bill’s bed, and a bug-eyed alien wrapped it’s bony, gray fingers around his throat.
A week later, Roxy took yet another day off work to drive down to the police station. She came back with a stack of manila folders filled with missing persons reports from the entire Midwest. Just the sight of the pale yellow files made a green snake twist through his stomach.
“Why do you even care about this crap, Roxy!” Bill said. It was the first time he’d raised his voice to her in so many years, but just the night before he’s found her sitting in the unlit living room in the blue glow of her laptop, searching, he knew, for the Lighting Man.
“How would you feel Bill?” She said, “If it was you, or if it was your son?”
“Well, he wasn’t, Roxy,” Bill said, “And I’m sure as hell not planning on taking a suicide stroll down the highway anytime so it ain’t gonna be me either.”
“That’s not the point, Bill,” Roxy said, slapping the manila folders onto the counter, “Wouldn’t you want someone to care about you? Care that you died? He’s got nobody.”
Bill hated to admit it, but Roxy wasn’t wrong. The police hadn’t made much headway in identifying the man, he didn’t even have a drivers license on him. It seemed that the Lightning Man had simply dropped from the sky, unconnected to any other human in the world. It was strange indeed, and Bill took comfort in knowing that Roxanne wasn’t the only person interested in the mysterious man. The town hummed with talk of him, it drove Bill nuts. A man, a stupid man, probably strung out on drugs anyway was struck by lightning and died. End of story.
Four days before the Maryanne County Fair in early October, news of the Lightning Man came back again with the morning paper. The police had made headway on the case. While the authorities still had not identified him, it turned out that the people of Maryanne were not the first to see the Lightning Man. He’d been walking up Highway seventy-seven for some time. Reports of a small, pale man in a dark suit had been traced as far as New Mexico in late June. Roxy took it upon herself to contact every New Mexican restaurant, dry cleaners, and motel about a strangely dressed man with a briefcase. Her research kept her up late at night, Juan picked up more and more hours from her when she took time during the day to sleep with the blinds snapped shut and the door locked in their bedroom. It was Roxy who’d found the very last piece of evidence in the case; a short video clip gleaned from a Lincoln County convenience store in Nevada. The video was only thirty-nine seconds long, but clear enough to recognize the Lightning Man walking up to the register with a heap of chocolate bars and a bottle of water. Roxy watched the video over and over again until Bill snatched the laptop from her.
“Stop it!” He said, “You’re going crazy. He’s a dead man, Roxy. He’s deceased, he’s a goner,” Bill found himself grinning, “He’s pushing up daisies-”
“He was my son,” Roxy said, “You stop that talk, he was my son!” She said.
Bill’s insides flinched and he quickly reassembled his composure. “There is no way that’s true. Maybe that’s how you feel, but it’s not true. There’s no way. You don’t even know his name!”
“I don’t need to know his name, Bill. I looked into his eyes as he died and I knew. That was my son that died, Bill, my only son, whether you like it or not. And he was mine.”
Her words struck Bill like a hammer on a misplaced thumb.
“Roxy you’re raving, look at yourself,” Bill said.
“Don’t you dare say I’m crazy Bill, don’t you dare say it,” Roxy said, “And you give me that laptop back.”
Roxy made a wild grab for the computer. Bill jerked his arms upwards and out of her reach. The maneuver was well practiced from Bill’s childhood, and for a moment effective. That was until Bill fumbled the computer. His dry, calloused hands struggled to keep a grip on the smooth plastic finish of the laptop, but it smacked facedown on to the tile floors with a would-be satisfying crunch. The spine of the computer was split, like book ripped down the middle by an angry child and Bill could only stare at it.
Roxy stopped speaking to him after that.
After the discovery of the video, the police hit a dead end. The man simply hadn’t seemed to exist except to those who had seen him walking down the highway and the people of Maryanne. Roxy was the one who finally claimed the body of the man. Bill had raged and complained and shouted her down, but she did it anyway. Roxy bought a coffin and arranged a funeral for him. The service in early November drew a small crowd. Bill wasn’t surprised, most people in their right minds had moved on with their lives. Bill stood outside to smoke a cigarette while his wife gave the eulogy. The Lightning Man was buried in the Maryanne Cemetery underneath the crushingly dismal November sky. Bill wished that he’d been cremated; he didn’t like the thought of the Lightning Man’s body resting just beneath the surface of his town. Waiting perhaps, for Roxy herself.
After the service, Roxy and Bill ate their lunch in silence on the front porch; on the swing he’d built them for their eighth anniversary. It wasn’t a good afternoon for the swing; the clouds looks bruised and seemed to sag with the weight of coming rain. All that day, Bill felt stillness in his stomach where for the weeks before, strange poison had churned. With the stillness, however, Bill noticed, came prickles of shame. Bill looked back on the night when Roxy’s laptop had slipped from his hands and the memory made his face red and hot with shame. That wasn’t the only recollection that returned to Bill. No, Bill couldn’t even bring himself to turn his mind’s eye upon some of the things he’d said to Roxy.
Bill reached out to put an arm around his wife. Roxanne shrugged him away and moved to the front steps, staring up at that sickly gray sky.
“Roxy,” Bill said, “I’m sorry.”
She didn’t reply.
Bill looked over at the woman leaning against the handrails of the front porch. If he squinted, Bill could almost look through her.
He stood up and went inside. The Rockwood’s living room was situated adjacent to their porch, and from where he sat in front of the TV set, Bill could hear his wife’s footsteps knocking on the old wooden boards. Back and forth two times, then down the three porch steps and onto the he gravel path that lead to the main road. Each crunch of Roxy’s feet on the pulverized stone grew more distant and Bill felt each one in his stomach, but he didn’t stand up.
Over the incessant drip of water from the leaky faucet, and the grandfather clock’s steady tick, Bill heard another sound. A steady growl rumbled far above the roof. It was the sound of thunder. With it came wind and promise of rain.
About the Author:
I work as a Park Ranger in Maine. In my writing I like to explore how larger social issues manifest themselves into the humdrum of daily life when we are least likely to notice or adress them. My goal in my writing is to shed light on the ways that the same issues which our nation amd world face currently are often ignored when they show up in our daily lives, particularly when they relate to families, work and the household.