Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Electric Fence

The electric fence was always fascinating to Charlie. Maybe it was the power that such an innocent looking thing had. It was just a simple silver colored wire attached to wooden post after wooden post. It stretched the length of the farm, keeping the cows where they needed to stay. Maybe it was the fact that it was off-limits. “Don’t touch the fence,” he was told. “You’ll get hurt.” Charlie didn’t grow up in the country; he was a city-boy. Suburb-boy was a better definition. He never had any pets, let alone cows and chickens and pigs.

He looked up to his mother’s younger cousin. Ron was about ten years older than Charlie and he was still a kid at heart. He drank too much and he got in fights and he blew things up with firecrackers. Ron once made the mistake of setting his 22-guage against the fence as he relieved himself after one too many Budweisers. He stood there and laughed and talked with Charlie and didn’t notice that his stream hit the metal trigger of his gun until it was too late. Charlie had never heard a grown man scream that loud and that long in his life. Ron yelled for Charlie to go to the large group of cords and wires bundled together around a small transformer behind a stack of old tires and flip the large red switch from up to down.

The following year Charlie tagged along with his third cousin. Joey split his time between the farm and rural Pennsylvania and Virginia Beach. His family believed that working and living on the farm would get him to stop being the wild child he was becoming back home. This technique had been used on a few other family members in the past with poor results. Joey was no exception. He seemed to like having someone his age to hang out with, especially since Charlie was so eager to do whatever he asked. Joey and Charlie constantly tried to one-up each other by daring them to commit dangerous acts.

The most memorable dare involved the electric fence. Joey wanted to see who could hold on to it the longest. They stood behind the wine cellar, out of the view of their mothers and aunts and uncles in the farm house. The bull and the cows were all out to pasture, so there was no one within eye shot but the two of them. Joey insisted that Charlie went first. He told him to take both hands and grab on to the wire as long as he could, and Joey would count the seconds out loud. Anything less than thirty seconds and you were a girl. Anything less than thirty seconds and you were weak. Anything less than thirty seconds and you weren’t cool enough to hang out with.

Charlie took a breath and grabbed on to the fence as hard as he could. He remembered Ron getting his private electrocuted. He smelled the flesh of his palms burning. He listened as Joey slowly counted the seconds. Before the word “thirty” was out of Joey’s mouth Charlie let go and started rubbing his open hands on his shorts as Joey went around the building to see if anyone had come out of the house. Charlie’s eyes were welling up with tears, but he refused to cry. He showed Joey his hands: there was a bright red stripe across each of his palms. Charlie felt as though Joey had cheated by counting so slow, so he was determined to get Joey back. Joey licked his palms defiantly and grabbed hold before Charlie could give him to “go” sign. He smiled and acted like it was no big deal. Charlie counted as slow as he could without seeming like he was taking advantage of the dare. Suddenly their uncle Jack came strolling down the path between the tractor garage and the house. He startled them and started yelling at them, so Joey and Charlie took off running for the silo. When they got to the far side, out of the view of anyone, Charlie asked to see Joey’s hands. He refused. “I’ll show you later.”

Hours later, after everyone was finished with supper, Uncle Bill and Uncle Junior went out to round up the cows and put them back in the barn for the night. Junior and Bill had worked on the family farm since they were old enough to walk. They had both dropped out of school by third grade so they could spend more time helping their parents with the farming. This was the way it was back then. They knew the farm like the back of their hand. They knew the animals as if they were their children. So finding and corralling the cows wasn’t a problem. But finding the bull was. He had gotten loose somehow and was nowhere to be found. Junior saw the electric fence wasn’t working. Bill ran down to the barn and grabbed a handle to an old ax and went out into the field, on the far side. It was getting dark, and from the porch of the house it was hard enough to see Uncle Bill in his flannel shirt and green work pants, let alone a pitch black bull. Luckily Bill, who couldn’t read the newspaper enough to understand the headlines, was a natural at finding his bull. Within a half-hour the bull was back in the barn safe and sound. In the meantime, the mothers and aunts and uncles had come to the conclusion that Charlie and Joey were the cause of this whole mess.

They both denied the accusations up and down. They weren’t messing with the fence. Charlie explained that the fence was on when they were playing near it. To prove his case, he revealed to his mother his palms with the bright red stripes across the center of each. Everyone turned to Joey. His hands were shoved in his pockets and his face was slowly turning a bright shade of scarlet. He was caught. Joey’s mother ripped his hands from his pockets to expose perfect palms. No burn marks. No red lines. No evidence of any wrong doing.

This memory stuck in his brain for years and years. Charlie wracked his brain to figure out how Joey did not burn his palms. Was Charlie so much of a city-kid that his hands were too soft and more susceptible to the pain of the electric fence? Were Joey’s hands more rugged and callus-filled from working on the farm all those summers? Or maybe Joey, when he went to see if there was anyone looking after Charlie had completed his thirty seconds with the electrical fence, had simply flipped that big red switch from up to down.

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