text by Tessa Fontaine
Dr. Frankenstein holds the hammer. He has the metal moon of a nail’s head protruding from his nostril, which he taps in a little deeper. The flat head rests one inch out from the entry to his cavity, the metal flaring the soft nostril tissue wide. With the hammer’s forked prongs, he hooks and slowly pulls out the nail. It glistens. Only the audience members right up front can see the sheen of snot coating the nail, but the rest are practiced in the art of imagination.
“You want more?” he asks the audience.
“Yeah!” they yell.
“You’re sick,” he says, pounding the nail in to his nostril one more time, bowing a little with the nail inside so they can see that he is filled up, that he is real, that they may now applaud. We are at the Wisconsin state fair, three months in to the sideshow season. Our girl, me, Tessa Fontaine, is behind Dr. Frankenstein’s curtain, down five stairs and staring out at the neighboring Crazy Mouse roller coaster, her heels sinking slightly into the softening grass. It has just started to rain. She listens for screams.
She is the electric woman.
“It’s entirely safe,” the Boss had said as he showed her the electric chair a few days earlier. “You won’t feel a thing. We used to have the girl light a cigarette off her body, and you won’t even have to do that. Health nuts these days.”
Our girl nodded, always perfecting her fearlessness, the nod of the act of fearlessness.
She sees the flash of a child’s face in the front seat of the Crazy Mouse stilled in panic, snot and tears, hair plastered to his head from the rain like a useless helmet. The delight of terror. There she goes, up the first of five steps up to the stage. Rain makes a soft hush outside.
“The only problem with the electric chair,” the Boss had said, “is when it’s raining outside.”
“What happens then?” our girl, you, asked.
“Usually nothing,” he said. “If it’s flooding, we’ll cut the electric chair act. If it’s just raining, there can be some small surprises.”
“Little ones. But they don’t feel like you think they would. They’re soft.”
You take the second and third step up the stage, hear the dim plops of rain hitting the vinyl tent, hear Dr. Frankenstein say, “This next act will also take place on this stage, where you see this fine and most unique piece of furniture. Every prisoner on every death row affectionately calls this thing Sparky.”
You take the fourth and fifth step as you hear, “Let’s welcome Miss. Electra,” and part the curtain like this moment is your nineteenth rebirth of the day.
The vinyl curtain has fallen closed behind you, our girl, and now you stand beside Dr. Frankenstein, forty or so people looking back and forth between you two, a handful looking at their phones, looking at the freakatorium across the tent. One is asleep in a stroller. One is crying.
Over 8 million bolts of lightning strike the earth each day. There’s so much wattage out and above. “Do you know who invented the electric chair?” Dr. Frankenstein asks the audience. Silence. The big chair sits on stage, suggestive. “Thomas Alba Edison. Do you know how many are still in use? Forty-seven.”
Electra, you are smiling with one eyebrow arched. You know this game. You know they know that you are about to be filled with something that can kill you. Why does this turn them on? You stand with your legs parted.
“I wonder,” you had asked the Boss when he first showed you the chair, “if there’s any chance the electricity might stay inside you?”
“You won’t become your act,” he said.
Did you mind if you did? What was better, to be safe or to be special?
“Let’s flip the juice,” Dr. Frankenstein says. I step forward, swinging my hips, wink, take four sideways steps, hinge and sit down on the electric chair on top of my flattened palm. I adjust my angle so I look like a sunbather on a ship’s chaise. My palm’s skin against the metal plate beneath me acts as a direct conduit for the electricity, might be warm and buzzing. New audience members duck into the tent and shake their wet umbrellas into the grass. Rub their eyes like cartoons.
The rain continues outside.
He flips the switch.
“Will this hurt?” I’d asked Dr. Frankenstein the first time I sat down in the chair.
“Pain is entirely mental,” he said.
At night, from space, all that is clear is the earth’s electricity. We are glowing cities. The show runs for thirty minutes, act to act, back to back, each new, identical show starting exactly at the moment the previous show ends, city after city after city.
“Now watch Ms. Electra illuminate this bulb with the very tippy top of her little head,” Dr. Frankenstein says as he brushes the glass across my forehead. My face goes erect in tiny mountains as the glass slides across my skin. Not pain, exactly, but a sharp flick that translates internally instead of externally, a pinch that makes me feel very awake and sit up a little straighter, force my sit bones down a little firmer against my hand to be sure my full flat palm is connecting with the metal plate, soaking up every electron that is pumping into my body. I don’t exhale any of it out.
Why didn’t she call the act off?
Why didn’t you even call your boss out of his trailer to show him the rain?
Dr. Frankenstein walks across the stage, a voice screams outside, and I put the light bulb I’d been hiding in my shorts into my mouth. Press my tongue against the ceramic insulator, around the base, my teeth clamping around the fuse. Would it be so bad to become all the way electric? I know this may not make sense, but the rules of physics and fantasy were performed away on those stages.
Can you sell a story for that long and not believe the story a little yourself?
My tongue connects and my mouth fills with static and my teeth shake in their skin clamps and a small peal of blood, no, water, grows from the side of the tent onto the stage and I hold the light bulb in my mouth, lighting it up bright, feeling the tickle of something great passing through me.
Can you imagine what it feels like?
Here’s another scene: a beach at dusk, cold wind, reeds bending sideways. A girl, me, 8 or 9, sitting on a picnic blanket beside her mother. The mother is facing the ocean. Her face is turned up to the sky where the purples are moving in, eyes closed, making herself into a painting that she might recreate later. There is electricity brewing in the sky, potential energy collecting behind the purple clouds. This is 16 or 17 years before the mother’s brain will be flooded with blood and she will no longer be able to walk or talk or know the daughter anymore, does she know the daughter anymore? The ocean has trails of thin white foam like fat through a steak and the sand lifts in thin small gusts by wind.
“Do you feel that?” the mother asked, her eyes closed and facing the water. “Close your eyes. You can feel more.”
I closed my eyes. Waited to feel more.
“Mmmmmm,” she said.
“What? Where?” I waited. Peeked over at her, and there was some sort of private smile across her mouth I’d never seen before and it scared me a little. I tried again, but I must have been doing it wrong.
She was right beside me, we were in the same wind and our skin was stung by the same sand and she was also elsewhere, feeling more. I wondered for the first time what it meant to be living side by side with a person you loved, but also living in separate universes.
The seagulls walked in slow circles on the beach and moved toward us like predators and the mother thought nothing of being wrapped in an old, torn coat that smelled of sweat and campfire, thought nothing of peeing mostly in view, waving and smiling as she walked away from where I sat. She winked at me and then walked off alone down the beach, turned to wave once but then walked further and further until her size was halfed and halfed again, a retreating body meeting the last light on the ocean. What I’m saying is that she already knew how to travel away. I had already lost her. I had never had her.
The evening drops its yellow ball straight ahead. Dim stars behind already. The cold wind and the cold salt smell. I imagine that the mother sees herself swimming to the next coast. How it would feel to be inside that Pacific water for days or weeks. How far she would go.
What I’m saying is, of all the things that happened later, of losing her, and getting her back, and then trying and failing and trying again to learn who this new, tender person was, there was this one moment on a beach with electricity overhead and a woman feeling things I could not feel. An impossible beauty. A person who I did not possess, who did not possess me, walking slowly down the cold beach, touching things I couldn’t see on the sand. I only knew her a little at that moment. I wasn’t part of the multitude she was experiencing, her ocean, her sand, her crabs, her shells, her memories of a time, perhaps before I was born, her fears, all that electricity humming its perfect, separate self. How would I ever be able to find that kind of humming?
Where would I have to go to be filled with that electricity?
Tessa Fontaine ran away with a circus sideshow. More essays about that adventure can be found at The Rumpus, and one recently won the 2016 AWP Intro Journals Prize in Nonfiction. Other recent work appears in Creative Nonfiction, The Normal School, Seneca Review, DIAGRAM, and more. Tessa lives in Salt Lake City, where she chases her dog as he chases snakes, and is a PhD student in prose at the University of Utah. Find more work at on her website.