It was night in the nursing home and, his hairy feet slapping the tiles, the electrician raised his long arms over his head and danced in a white gown through the empty hallways. He passed a row of thick windows, the sky black and smooth outside. He twirled past the brooding televisions and hard sofas, breathing in the chemical smell rising from the floors. Every few steps, the electrician would reach up and touch one of the lights, the globe exploding into white luminescence, then move on to the next, a trail of white light snaking from his body to the other end of the nursing home.
Light cutting into their rooms, the residents rolled in their blankets and ground their teeth. They turned away from their doors, but could still feel the light on their backs. Thin fingers stabbed call buttons. Hands fumbled around the sides of beds, grabbing things—oranges, cell phone chargers, bedpans, flower vases, cups of urine—to throw at the dancing man.
The electrician didn’t feel the objects hit his back. He was lost in the rapture of electricity. He grabbed another bulb, cold in his hand, before heat sizzled through his fingertips and lit it like a match. He felt electricity leave his body and shivered.
The night nurse and her boyfriend brought the electrician down by the cafeteria. Sitting on his back, she told him that he would be sent away in the morning. They strapped him into a wheelchair and rolled him toward his room. The whole way, he reached for the bulbs above, unable to see or understand anything but the potential for light.
The electrician walked out of the trees with a spool of electrical cable on his back and came to a village in the woods: a dirt lot, clusters of old trucks, and dogs and children rolling in the dark under trailers. From inside their dim houses, the people watched him arrive. The electrician dropped his heavy spool of cable, stood on top of it, and said, “I’ve come to bring you light.”
A preacher glared at the electrician from the awning of a tin and plywood church. He was wary of silver-headed men carrying cable. He locked the doors and windows, stood alone at the pulpit, and flipped through his Bible searching for passages on the evils of wandering electricians.
The electrician climbed onto the trailer tops and ran a spiderweb of power-lines out over the village. He wired up night-lights in the trees around the town, punched holes through roofs and dropped in metal light sockets on the ends of wire. He called the children to him and gave out light bulbs from his pockets, stacking them like eggs in their small hands. The kids took off their shoes, tied the laces, and threw them onto the lines. The electrician smiled and knew that this was right. It was nearly midnight when everything was ready. Standing in the middle of town, the electrician told the power to come, and the thin houses shuddered when hot yellow light punched them from the inside, pouring from the windows and seeping through cracks in the walls.
Rubbing fists into their eyes, the people ran outside and met in clusters under the alien glow of the night-lights. The electrician opened his arms like a father. “What did you see?” he asked.
They told him. One woman saw that her son didn’t love her anymore. Her son saw that he didn’t know what love was. One man saw that his children didn’t have anything, that he could never work hard enough to give them what they wanted, and that they would always resent him for it.
The electrician put his hands in his jean-pockets and shook his head. He went to another group of people. “You,” he said. “What did all of you see?”
One man saw why his wife had left him. A woman saw that she would never be happy here, but was too afraid to go anywhere else. Two parents saw it was their fault that their infant daughter had died. One man saw that the new truck he’d bought was going to break down soon. A woman saw that her husband loved someone else, but he would never leave.
The electrician wrapped his arms around himself and stared at the dirt. He passed a hand over his silver head and told them that he was sorry.
The woman who knew she would never be happy told him that the kids were all hiding underneath their beds. They wouldn’t come out until their parents had everything cleaned up so they wouldn’t have to look at it anymore.
The electrician saw a section of the heavy black cable moving in the wind, an artery disappearing into the trees. “I can make the light go away.” He’d never said that before.
“It won’t matter.”
The electrician went from person to person, shaking them and demanding they tell him what he could do to fix it.
There was a noise in the trees behind them, and everyone stopped talking. Two wide men in suits came walking out of the wood-line and into the porch light. They slapped up meters on every house, wrote out bills and stuffed them into mailboxes.
An older woman walked stiffly out to check her mail, everyone watching. She took out the bill and read it. “We have to pay for this,” she told them, “and it’s expensive.”
The villagers started shouting. The company men slapped the electrician on the back. “You’ve done something no one else could,” they told him.
The electrician fell to the ground and rolled onto his side. He shook and kicked up plumes of dust. One of the company men picked him up, folded him over, and tucked him under one arm inside his coat. Cradling the electrician like this, the company men backed away from the village and receded into the trees.
The village sat in a pool of yellow in the middle of the forest. The villagers saw how strange the trees and their houses were in the light, how the shadows were thinner. They looked at each other and could see everything, no secrets between them anymore. They spread apart, not wanting their bodies to touch.
The electrician set out from the power-plant carrying a huge spool of electrical cable across his shoulder and back. He followed the utility poles for most of the day, until they stopped on the edge of a pine forest that went west as far as he could see. The electrician tied his cable into the main line and felt current race through the spool around him. Old nails and screws from the road flew to him and stuck to his skin. He pushed his way into the trees, going places other electricians did not go.
He climbed into the pine branches, wrapping the wire around their trunks, and leapt to the next tree, stringing a line of black cable high off the ground. He began to see houses here and there, chain-link fences and silver butane tanks gleaming in the trees. When he found his way to one of them and knocked, the man set his dogs on the electrician and told him to get the hell out. The electrician put down his burden of cable and kicked the dogs in their sides with his long feet. He chased them all across the yard, kicking them and popping them with his hat, and they cried. The man watched this for a few minutes, never having seen anything like it. The dogs ran underneath the house and barked at the electrician from the dark of the crawlspace.
The man shook his head. “You really believe in this, don’t you?”
The electrician wiped the sweat out of his gray eyebrows and said that he did. He spent that afternoon wiring up the man’s house. When he was done, the man asked what he should do now. The electrician handed him one round bulb wrapped in tissue paper and said, “Anything in the world.” He shouldered his spool of cable again and headed back into the trees.
That night, the electrician was walking though the woods, running into spider webs and coarse branches, when he came into a clearing and saw a young woman beside a telescope. He introduced himself and asked what she was doing. The woman said she was looking at the stars. She waved her hand at the sky and began to tell the electrician about Perseus and Cancer, Hydra and Leo. He looked at his shoes. He had been unable to see stars ever since he was a young man. He started telling her about halogens and fluorescents, black-lights and strobe lights. She laughed.
“You can’t be serious,” she said. “Have you seen Ursa Major? Andromeda?”
He frowned. “Solar cells. LEDs.”
They became angry with each other and shouted like this for almost an hour. Virgo. Traffic lights. Lyra. Mood lighting. Orion. Alarm clocks. Taurus. Heating lamps.
“The moon,” she shouted, throwing up her arm and pointing at it.
The electrician could feel its weight over his head. It hung, white and thick as a bowl of frozen milk. He had been afraid she would use it against him.
He collected himself. “Movie screens.”
She asked him to leave.
The company men sent the electrician to bring power to a whole city. He spent weeks going in and out of the sewers and train tunnels beneath the streets, pushing along his roll of cable, and wiring the buildings. He went into every home and business, carefully cutting holes in the ceilings and dropping wires down into the old kerosene globes and candle fixtures. A pretty clerk walked by in a black and white checkered dress. The electrician smiled at her and said that she wouldn’t have to worry about the smoke anymore. She gave him a tight-lipped smile and kept walking.
That night, the electrician went downtown, stopping by a bench where the streetlight had blown out to tell a man that this was a thing of the past. The man said that he had bigger problems than streetlights.
The electrician was sure that everyone would be grateful once they understood. He imagined the parade they would throw him. There would be a long electric tram, he was sure, with an entire laundromat inside, rows and rows of electric motors humming and spinning their drums. People would hang off the sides dragging raw electrical lines over the street, the current scarring the asphalt. There would be clowns carrying air conditioners on their backs, long extension cords trailing behind them, cooling the street to a perfect seventy-four degrees. He was sure that it would happen just like this.
The electrician turned on the power and watched the lights of the city flare on. It was brighter at first, and parts of the city that had been dark came into view. Then he saw the lights start to change. They shifted to reds and blues and crawled across billboards and signs. There was a sigh from somewhere under his feet, and great machines started to hum in the earth below the city. Things were moving that had never moved before. He walked in and out of every shop, no place in the city dark now. The electrician sat down on a bench, the streetlight burning clear and clean beside him, and watched people move under a sea of colored lights. No one had noticed.
It was his first job after becoming an electrician, and he was working in a park at night. There were stars burning white above him, so close he could feel their vibrations on the back of his neck, and the electrician loved them as much as he’d ever loved anything. He finished repairing the park’s night-lights and cut them back on. They were yellow and murky. The electrician couldn’t see the stars anymore because of the park lights. He walked away into the dark, wandering around on the grass and staring at the sky, but he was never able to find them again after that.
The young man walked to the power company to apply for the position of electrician. The building was gray, with funnel-shaped towers and smokestacks rising up from the flat earth. It was ringed by three fences. Two company men dressed in matching black suits met him at the door and took him inside. There were tests: they handed him a box full of bulbs and made him guess their wattage; they brought him naked wires spitting with current and made him touch them and tell what the voltage was; he was quizzed on every philosopher who had ever written on light and darkness.
After his tests were scored, the company men took him into a small room and removed their suit jackets. They rolled up their sleeves, took him by the shoulders, and dipped him into a tank of electricity. His body compressed and became rigid. A salvo of black and white shapes moved across his eyes. He did not feel so much that he was floating as he felt anchored in space, his body driven like a nail into this point in the universe. The company men pulled him out of the tank and called him brother. The electrician brushed down his hair and rubbed his arms and legs. He knew he was going to do amazing things.
Years before he became an electrician, the boy lived in a narrow wooden house with his parents. His mother was afraid of candles, so whenever they needed light, they stood in front of their windows. The boy brushed his teeth, dressed himself, and did his schoolwork all while looking at the brick street in front of their house. The neighbors were polite and tried not to stare.
One day, his father told him that an electrician was coming to bring power and light to their home. He went to school that morning and spent the whole day in the library, reading everything he could find on electricity. They didn’t allow candles in the school, either, and when a storm passed its black hands over the sun, the boy huddled beside the window with his book open, waiting for lightning flashes so that he could catch another sentence. He read about a man who discovered electricity with a kite and a key, then another man who improved on it with a bigger kite and an entire ring of keys. That man’s name had been Jones, and he had put his irradiated keys inside honey jars and sold them to everyone in the county. He kept reading, imagining that having electricity must be like having a giant bolt of lightning standing on top of your house, visible for miles and miles.
After school, he walked to the hardware store in the rain. He told the clerk what he needed and was shown to a shelf filled with light bulbs standing head-down inside egg cartons. Every one of them was different. The boy picked one that was perfectly round and the size of his fist. The clerk wrapped it in tissue paper for him, and the boy took measured steps the entire way home, holding the package to his chest.
All week, the boy stared at the glass globe, turning it so that he could see the filament inside, being careful not to shake it too hard or hit it against something. He laid it next to him on his pillow every night, and wiped the dust from it every morning.
When the old electrician came, spending hours outside with the grind of saws and the knock of hammers, the boy walked into the living room with his light bulb to wait. The door opened and the old electrician walked in. He took the light bulb from the boy, screwed it into a socket in the ceiling, watched the room fill with warm yellow light, and left—like it was nothing.
The boy and his parents stood in the living room together and pressed their faces close to the lit bulb. The longer they stared, the larger it became, seeming to expand into a sun in front of their eyes. It was then that the boy saw that anything was possible.