I’m behind the wheel of our two-door Sentra, barreling toward the sunset, when a smile stretches my lips. I’m thinking: Joe is alive! He’s alive and when we get to his place I can talk to him and we can laugh together the way I feel like laughing now.
This is right after Karen, his wife at the time, called to say Joe had been electrocuted. There was no other word for it. He had taken a lethal 400-plus volts. No one could explain why he wasn’t dead.
So, when Sloane and I arrive, I go to shake my friend’s hand.
“Not that one,” he says and gives me his left. “The other one’s still a little sore.”
He’s lying on their couch, that big brown thing they got such a deal on, and he looks tired, like his limbs are too heavy to lift. He speaks in his normal voice, though, and tries to joke as if nothing serious has happened.
Finally we get the whole story:
They were setting up a conveyor, trying out a new idea for streamlined processing of . . . cauliflower, I think. Anyway, some guy forced the plug into a high-voltage outlet where it didn’t belong, and when Joe went to reposition the conveyor, 400 volts grabbed him. He screamed once and tried to get free, but it was useless. The electricity lifted him off the ground and put him back down.
That’s all he remembers.
Witnesses — and there were lots of them, bosses and workers — say Joe was bounced twice and then hurled, head high, for a distance of about fifteen feet. His body went into rapid convulsions.
At the hospital, doctors looked for entry and exit burns but found none. They gave him a tetanus shot for all the scrapes he suffered hitting the pavement, examined him, and sent him home with a complete recovery expected.
Joe’s sister, Katie, a nurse, can’t believe they didn’t want to keep him overnight for observation, but here he is at home already. He lets Sloane compare one arm to the other, and she says the right arm is still warmer to the touch. Some of the voltage is still coursing around in there.
“I guess the good Lord wanted to keep me around a little longer,” Joe says.
His mother, Thelma, a compact woman with dark curly hair, is in the kitchen cleaning up after their Kentucky Fried dinner. She lost her first husband, Sam, in an on-the-job accident. Katie is there, too. She was in nursing school when Thelma drove down to deliver the news, and so the job of telling Joe — it had to be in person, not by phone — fell to me, his best friend.
He tells me now that he needs to go back to the plant, see the scene, and actually touch the conveyor.
“That’ll be hard,” he says.
“Have to get back on the horse that threw you, huh?”
He doesn’t answer me, just nods blankly, and I wonder if he’s thinking about the trip we made to the plywood mill to see the machine that struck down his father. He insisted on seeing it; I’m not sure why. To make it real, I suppose. He was having trouble accepting it could happen — and did happen.
He told me once he was glad it had been me who broke the news; he couldn’t have taken it from anyone else. I had lost my own father to cancer so I knew what it was like and I guess that made all the difference.
Now I’m thinking, What if Joe had died today as, by all rights, he should have? Who was going to tell me, without warning, that he was gone? Who was I going to be able to take that from?
Here he is, though — blinking, breathing, speaking.
Questions of life and death and why are swept aside because here in front of me is something I can accept without question: My friend is alive.