Thaddeus Rutkowski
Making Contact


On a clear day in the summer, I got up early. My father and siblings were still sleeping, but my mother was in her white uniform, getting ready to leave for work.

When she asked what I was going to do for the day, I said I was going fishing.

"We didn't fish when I was a child," she said. "But our city had a pond, where people thought a dragon lived. Boys would dive into the water and take messages to the bottom. Some of the boys angered the dragon and drowned."

*

Before I went to the stream, I needed to collect bait.

The ground was too dry to dig for worms, so I brought out my worm shocker--a metal curtain rod with a lamp cord attached. I pushed the rod down through the lawn as far as it would go, carried the plug into the house and stuck the prongs into a wall outlet.

Only one strand of the double-sided cord was spliced to the rod, so there was a fifty-fifty chance that electricity was reaching the earth.

To find out if I had a live connection, I laid my hand on the grass next to the rod. I felt a slight tingling, but I couldn1t tell if it was just the roughness of leaves. So I poked a finger into the soil. The cool dirt sent a buzz up through my hand and into my arm, and I knew that juice was flowing for worms.

After a few minutes, a couple of slick night crawlers lay in the sun. I put them in a plastic box, unplugged the shocker, gathered my tackle and hiked to the creek.

*

Later, I saw my brother and sister walking toward me along the stream bank.

“We came to find you,” my sister said.

“How is our father?” I asked.

“At first, he was sleeping, but now he's angry.”

“Is he really angry,” I asked, “or just a little angry?”

“Medium angry.”

“Why?”

“We were making noise,” my sister said.

“He called me a braying bastard,” my brother said.

The two of them didn't have fishing rods, so I wound in my line and walked home with them.

*

My father was in his studio with his door shut, so I went out to visit my neighbor.

The boy took me to his garage. Inside, we sat on folding chairs on a cement floor.

“I1ll show you something I made in shop class,” the boy said.

He brought out a small board with two coils of wire and a battery mounted on it. The coils had leads that went to two metal rods.

“Hold these in your hands,” he said, giving me the rods.

The metal objects were lightweight and fit comfortably in my palms.

The boy touched a battery terminal with a bare wire, and a wave of oscillation went into my arms and across my chest.

I jumped from my seat.

“What’s this called?” I asked.

“It started as a door buzzer. Now, it’s a people shocker. If you bounce up and down, it’s easier to take.”

I jiggled in my seat as the boy delivered more current.

*

I took a walk to the schoolyard and saw my brother on the empty play field. He was holding a football.

“Let’s run toward each other,” I said. “You carry the ball, and I’ll tackle you.”

He shook his head. “You don’t want to do that,” he said.

“Yes, I do,” I said.

We paced away from each other, then turned and charged.

I made a beeline for my brother, with my arms pumping and my hands clenched like claws. He ran straight toward me, without swerving or making any evasive moves. Shortly before contact, I lunged. He stepped to the side and ran around me as I hit the ground.

“Let’s trade places,” I said.

“Not a good idea,” my brother said.

I took the football from him, walked away, clamped the ball in a flexed arm and sprinted.

He didn’t run; he just stood in my way. When my knee met his leg, I flipped to the ground. I lay there, unable to move.

“What is it?” he asked. “Is it your bread basket?”

“No,” I gasped.

After a few minutes, I got up and limped away.

*

Later, my mother told me a story.

“When I was a child,” she said, “my brother and I were playing a game, like hide and seek. Our house had a dirt floor--most houses in southern China had dirt floors--but our living room had curtains.

“I saw the shape of my brother behind a curtain, but he couldn’t see me, so I hit him. I heard him cry out and realized I’d hit him in the eye.

“His eye swelled and oozed and didn’t heal for a long time.

“Confucius says, ‘Don’t blame anyone.’ And you shouldn’t.”

*

In the evening, a friend of my father’s came to visit. The man had long hair and a beard.

After a few beers, my father invited me and his friend to his studio. The three of us stood in front of a painting and looked at it. The image was of a nude man, standing sideways, with a small erection.

“There’s a revolution coming,” my father said. “When it gets here, I’ll be ready.”

“Remember what happened to Che,” his friend said.

“I don’t care about trends,” my father said. “I just want to have enough ammunition when the shooting starts.”

My father’s friend picked up a ukulele that belonged to me and my siblings and started to strum it.

“Some people have a flair,” he said. “Those people should follow their flair.”

I left the studio and went to bed.

*

One day, I borrowed my father’s home-movie camera and brought my brother and sister to an empty area next to the town’s firehouse. The clearing would be the site of a carnival at the end of the summer.

I positioned my siblings in front of the skeleton of a Ferris wheel and gave them bedsheets and cardboard masks to wear. One mask was triangular, with fierce, black-outlined eyes. The other was spherical, with slanted eyes and horns.

“Kneel on the ground,” I said, “and turn your heads toward me and away, toward me and away.”

They followed MY direction, swiveling their heads and fixing their painted eyes on me. I crouched and moved, catching their pantomime from different angles.

Next, I walked through the town by myself, focusing on houses and clicking the film forward one frame at a time. I wanted the effect of animated architecture.

When I got home, the family dog was in the yard. I walked toward the animal, and it sniffed my camera. I filmed its nose swinging up toward the lens.

*