Learning About Electricity


(Hawthorne, CA, 1983)


I come to work at seven-thirty. I start and seven-thirty and finish at four. We get half an hour for lunch.

As you walk down the corridor it gets shabbier and shabbier: the carpet turns from light green to dark; the rooms get darker; the carpet ends and becomes tan and pink lino; the tan and pink lino ends. Our lino is two shades of grey. Our office is woodwork-teacher furniture, old typewriters and four time clocks. All the time clocks are wrong.

The first thing I do is photocopy the conference schedules for the day, dig the corresponding files out of the cabinets. The Attendance Office has been open since seven; kids are bringing notes and other clerks are writing re-admission slips, tickets the kids have to have to get back into class after being absent. After delivering the files and schedules to the Counselors I open the last office window and write re-admission slips. The time clocks are for stamping the backs of the slips so the kids can’t forge them. Despite the windows the office is dark.

The photocopier’s in the Records Office, where the kids’ grades are kept.

This morning I walked into the Records Office to copy the conference schedule and Bobby was there, Eva’s younger son. Eva’s the Records Clerk. Bobby’s there every morning because Eva drives him to school later; she gets him in the afternoons as well. The office was crowded. It always is, teachers and kids at the copier.

Bobby’s hardly spoken to me since Christmas. I don’t know why. Last year he was a little boy who liked us all; he hung around in the afternoons and talked to us. I told him about my brother taking me to the zoo when I was little, how he’d always buy me a peacock feather on the way out and then how, floating along the river on the boat on the way home I’d stare, half-hypnotized, so soothed by the glaze of light on the water and the soundless ripples from the boat I’d drop the feather, always drop the feather, how it fell and spread into the surface of the water and sank and dimmed as the boat took us further and further away.

Bobby grinned and giggled and talked about candy and fishing and drew pictures of us Attendance Clerks, warty witches and skullduggery pirates all. We made copies of his drawings and put them up. The Administration came by at night and pulled them down. They eventually announced that pictures like that would encourage the kids not to respect us.

This year Bobby looked at us with contempt, and said nothing.




I saw him looking at me in Eva’s office and went to say good morning. I wanted him to smile at me. But. Christ, I thought, begging an eleven year old to smile at me: I don’t have to start the bloody day with my dignity in shreds. I turned my back and waited while the World Studies teacher copied his weekly test on nasty Communist countries and the Band teacher’s assistant copied Modern Harmonies for Brass. I started copying.

Bobby thought at me. I could feel it. It was a hot and gritty day and hot in the office. People were brushing against me on the way out, a brushing almost sore, almost rasping. I dropped the last schedule onto the glass plate, lowered the cover and pressed the button. Then Bobby was next to me. His short hair was like some trustful, furry animal’s. Without quite looking at me he barely breathed, “Do you want to see my electric light?”

“Oh?” I took the original and copy and stepped over to his mother’s desk. Bobby didn’t look at me; I didn’t look at him.

Inside a cardboard box there were two six-volt batteries, a jar of wrinkled glass with a cork, two alligator clips and a wire. Bobby pressed something. The wire glowed a black and dirty red, like the bar on an old and dirty single-bar radiator.

My mouth was swamped with a sharp, metallic taste: my time was being wasted, my old good will abused. I realized vaguely they must have used different wire for real electric light, for that flowing, sublimating plenitude of white, shining incandescence.

Bobby stood next to me, in front of my left shoulder, looking down at the electricity-box. The field around him was tense, black, unlit. He wanted me to say something. To learn a lesson. To realize what he’d done.

“Oh.” I’d read something about it in a kids’ science book years ago. “Oh,” I said. “Electric light is when you make electricity run through a wire, and it glows.” I couldn’t be bothered fixing the grammar.

Bobby grinned. His teeth were very white. “Yeah.” Out of the corner of my eye short Bobby-hair, white Bobby-teeth. The Bobby-face shining at his electricity, electricity he’d made and made work and understood; electricity he operated and owned.

The six-volt batteries were new. Blue batteries, blue printing. Brushed-steel-coloured tops. They’ve bought them for him for this, my eyes said. At the back of my mind, wonderment. They’ve bought them for him for this.

Behind me people were still jostling around the copier; Eva was bobbing and weaving through the office, taking change-of-grade forms, clearances, names and addresses for sending transcripts. Kids were clamouring at the windows of the Attendance Office, were talking and laughing and squealing outside the entire set of buildings. They’ve bought them for him for this.




Eva emigrated from Germany when she was ten, gave her mother hell and then married into an Irish family she found maddeningly unambitious. She’d had to push her husband into going to school, she said.

She couldn’t understand them.

They had no initiative.

They’d let anybody tread on them.

They were satisfied with what they had.

They were happy to be clerks with Master’s degrees.

When she sees them she just wants to scream. What is the point of an education, she says, if you’re not going to do anything with it? She’s fat, on a diet, and wants the Data Processing job. It pays more.

A couple of days ago, just before knock-off time, she’d leant across the counter that separates the Attendance Office from the corridor, as she often does when she’s bored and wants somebody to harangue and boast to. For some reason that day she was telling us how much sick leave her husband had accumulated. And how he earnt – she stopped to calculate, and then announced, squinty-eyed and accurate – four times what she did.

The Records Clerk works twelve months a year, so she has to be pulling fifteen thou. So her husband must be pulling sixty. Between them they’re limping along on seventy-five thousand a year, and when it was all boiled down, according to Eva, they were no better off than a bunch of (mouthed, not spoken) blacks on welfare.

Over weeks and months at the counter Eva says:

The government gives all these low-interest loans to the Vietnamese. What about Americans?

All these foreigners who come over here and bitch about America should go back where they came from.

Bobby’s motorcycle shoes cost a hundred and twenty dollars a pair.

Bobby’s driving-style wrecks the transmission on his motorcycle. He doesn’t want to ride mine.

I give him ten dollars for every A on his report card. Between them my kids cost me a hundred and twenty dollars last semester.

All these Blacks loafing on welfare. They should go out and get jobs. Why should I work my butt off to support those lazy so-and-sos?

All these damned Mexicans and illegal aliens. They just come here and use our hospitals and collect welfare, and what is the government doing about it? Absolutely nothing. That’s what the government is doing about it, and we are paying for it.

By his mother’s filing cabinet one day Bobby grins and says, All I care about is me, my money, and getting rich.




I stared at the batteries behind Eva’s desk. They’ve bought them for him for this.




I tried something like that once. I had a book of science experiments for kids. The only batteries we had were the ones in Dad’s torch, or in my brother’s transistor radio. I followed the diagram but they didn’t work. I put the batteries – standard red Evereadies, 1.5 volts – back into the thin silver metal cylinder of the torch that still seemed to hold the touch of Dad’s hand. The torch belonged in the third of what my mother called her “miscellaneous drawers,” in among Dad’s ironed, folded handkerchiefs.

I used to iron them when I was little, before I started going to school. I scorched one, one day, and tried to wash the mark away. I washed the handkerchief over and over again and spreading it on a bush to dry, waiting for the sun to draw the mark out, giving the sun another chance, another chance, another chance. I cried when Dad came home because his handkerchief was still scorched, and I’d ruined it.

And so I put the torch back into the third of my mother’s drawers, among Dad’s cool, folded handkerchiefs, cotton washed so many times it was almost like silk. The handkerchiefs touched the backs of my fingers almost the way my mother’s did, when she touched my temples when I had a headache.

I closed the drawer. My father was at work and couldn’t help, even though is furniture and clothes were all around me.

The batteries from my brother’s hard black plastic radio didn’t work, either, so I sighed and put them back, and, like everyone else I knew, stared at electricity in diagrams in books, turned lights and heaters on and off as I had to, and never understood one damn thing about how or why they worked. The Engineering students I taught later used to grin at my ignorance. They had already learned that it was money and gadgets and force that ran the world.




There was no dust on Bobby’s batteries. They hadn’t been kept in a toolshed like my uncle’s can of oil, the one he kept ready for his bike and my auntie’s sewing machine. Bobby’s batteries were new. Six volts. No wonder Dad’s faithful red Evereadies hadn’t worked. Bobby’s batteries could run an early car.

It never occurred to me to ask Mum and Dad to buy me batteries. I knew what the answer would have been if I’d even begun to ask. We couldn’t be buying things we’d never use again, and if we couldn’t use them it would be wrong to buy them and let them go to waste.

You thought about the effects of what you did. What if everybody did that? What would the world be like if everybody bought batteries and only used them once?

We were comfortably off, my mother said, much better off than a lot of people. But you never talked about what you had. Other people mightn’t have as much, and it was wrong to hurt other people’s feelings.




I stared at the blue glass jar in Bobby’s contraption, the smudges of dusty fingerprint caught in grease on the side, the red wires running through punctures in the cork.

It was a jar like the jars my brother had given me.

I’d’ve given my eyeballs to buy a jar like that a few months ago, but I couldn’t afford it. My husband was out of work; my green card was still in the process. All my things were home. I was here, alien, neither visitor nor resident. I didn’t know anybody.

My green card came through. I walked to my first job past rusting tin sheds where rusting tin cars were fixed, past acres of asphalt and oil-soaked tailings dumped against cyclone-wire fences, past trailer-parks with rusty trailers growing out of weeds and weeds growing into the street. The Council was spraying the street-weeds with petrol. With the cyclone fences in the distance behind them, with the tailings in the distance gleaming like fish-scales in the sun, groups of Latino boys, eighteen or nineteen, in sweatshirts and pale blue washed-out jeans, would stand in the weedy gutters looking at clapped-out Volkswagens, slowly circling the things, staring at them to see if they could turn them into cars. On the phone at work retired vice-presidents from Rockwell remarked on my accent and told me what a great country this is.

At work they all had houses, livings, families; they were all already at home.

When I came to work here, at the school, I thought I might be able to talk to people, but they were retiring, they were negotiating for insurance; their kids were getting married, their kids were getting drunk, smoking pot, going to Europe. The women here had given birth among lashings of blood and scoopings of placenta, among ambulances, screaming red lights, and incisions; they had alcoholic fathers; they were buying tupperware; they had bladder infections; they were going on diets.

All I could do was sit and listen, and when I walked to the car-park in the afternoons I couldn’t separate the asphalt I was walking on from any I’d ever walked on, this heat from any heat I’d ever walked through. Everything I did alone I did in a mirage of total recall.




My brother works in a historic building. When I was little he taught me how to make sandcastles at the beach, and find the creek on picnics in the hills. At home we used to lie on the lawn at the side of the house, staring up at the globes of oranges in the orange-tree and into the deep blue sky beyond, where the juicy notes of the magpies’ songs appeared, but were clear and invisible.

As we got older he glared and yelled. I damaged my car. He said I’d never be able to pay for it. I left the Education Department. He said I’d never get another job. Every time we spoke he seemed to want to humiliate and jeer at me.

I gave up talking to him; he was reduced to reasoning about me. Every Christmas, which was when I saw him, I collected the things he reasoned I wanted. I didn’t want them. The things were always expensive; he was always remote.

The taste of those Christmases, gritty, hot, metallic. Grief, rage, impotence, resignation.

And then, the last year I was home, he gave me the jars. It was the first time he’d ever given me something I wanted. My brother could see what I saw, I thought; at last he understood me and liked me and wanted to talk to me, wanted me to talk to him.

The jars stood on the table between us, wrinkled and cool and smooth and filled with light. Wide smooth corks filled their necks, made of separate cylinders of cork fused somehow. They looked rough but were smooth, and soothed at a touch.




I came to America and the jars stayed home. I saw jars like them in Clark Drugs and couldn’t afford one. I couldn’t afford a piss in a public toilet.




They’d given Bobby the Clark Drugs jar. The label was half-scraped off the side. It was a jar they didn’t want any more, that could be used for an experiment because it didn’t fit the renovated kitchen with the thousand-dollar floor.

Bobby had punctured the cork to make a wire glow dirty dark red. The wire itself hung in the middle of a shadowy, bluish space, surrounded by dirty, smudged, cast-off glass that held no light of its own.

Eleven year old Bobby pressed his button to become a man, a rich, rabid American ruling the bloody world, owning it, operating it, while the rest of us, Latinos et al., stood staring at rust, dumps, weeds and clapped-out everything, wondering how we were going to be able to live.

Bobby pressed his button and grinned, demanding praise and collaboration from someone he couldn’t even be bloody well bothered looking at, let alone saying good morning to. They’d bought all of it for him for this, batteries and jar and bits of wire, teaching him he had the right to rule.




“Well, what do you think?” Eva hove to at my right shoulder, grinning. “His father helped him with the wiring. I am tired of all the prizes going to the damned Vietnamese.”

She turned to a student who wanted a transcript. I stared stupidly at the eddies of space she left behind. Helped him? There was nothing to Bobby’s contraption but wiring.

Bobby was waiting. Not looking, just standing there, tense and black as a wire.

I put my hand to my mouth and bent to his ear, so the back of his head and his soft, animal’s hair nearly brushed by lips. “Waste of a good storage jar,” I said. “There’s holes in the cork.”

He turned towards the filing cabinets and looked down. His mouth collapsed into speech.


I shrugged. “Waste of a good jar.”

“What was that?”

Eva was back from the vault. She wanted to know how I’d reacted to electricity from Bobby and the Dooleys, since Bobby had obviously reacted to electricity from me. She glanced at him. Bobby was still staring down, past the counter-top. His fingers flopped as he walked them along it.

“Just teasing.” I smiled and left.




I walked back to the Attendance Office. The bus had arrived: the screaming outside was a storm smashing on my window-ledge; the lines at the window were huge; the Main Clerk was telling us again about the busiest day they’d ever had.

I grabbed the files and darted into the momentary quiet of the corridor.

Boasting seems to be de rigeur among Americans, but among the Irish Catholic of South Australia, even among bone-lazy clerks with Master’s degrees who don’t want to teach anything, ever again, who are wasting their lives in junk-furnished school offices for the sake of the rent and the medical insurance – even among them, boasting is unconscionable.

You don’t talk about anything you’ve got because other people mightn’t have as much. Things, money, education, influence, brains. Whatever it is, you don’t mention it.

If you’re Irish Catholic from South Australia you open your window after you’ve delivered your files, you smile as you read notes, write tickets, time-stamp tickets and push them out under the grille; you gag on the hot, metallic taste of the morning as you wipe the wind-grit from under your hands.

You don’t boast. You can’t. It’s prohibited.

You don’t argue. You can’t. The situation precludes it.

You’re an alien. You’ve confirmed these women in their righteousness by coming to this hellhole.

So you jolt the wires out of an unsuspecting eleven year old because he’s got the batteries you never had, because he’s been taught to despise you and any social contract that doesn’t allow him to trample you and Blacks on Welfare and Latinos and Vietnamese and anybody and everybody else into insignificance. You short-circuit the kid because you can’t short-circuit his mother.

You do it subtly so you can smile and deny it. And gag on the taste of the morning because you’ve taken on the tincture of the brother who gave you some glass jars by chance one Christmas and jeered you into silence for a decade before that, and hasn’t written or spoken to you since.



M. F. McAuliffe, long-time resident of Portland, Oregon, co-founded and co-edits the Portland-based, completely multilingual journal Gobshite Quarterly and material for the Quarterly’s offshoot press, Reprobate/GobQ Books.

Her published books include The Crucifixes and Other Friday Poems, 25 Poems on the Death of Ursula K. Le Guin, and the long and short story titles Seattle and I’m Afraid of Americans.

M. F. recommends the Oregon Food Bank.


Edited for Unlikely by Justin Herrmann, Prose Editor
Last revised on Wednesday, June 29, 2016 - 09:37