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Feet In Smoke: A Story About Electrified Near-Death

John Jeremiah Sullivan

The following is excerpted from Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan's new collection of essays, which Deadspin cannot recommend enough.


On the morning of April 21, 1995, my elder brother, Worth (short for Ellsworth), put his mouth to a microphone in a garage in Lexington, Kentucky, and in the strict sense of having been "shocked to death," was electrocuted. He and his band, the Moviegoers, had stopped for a day to rehearse on their way from Chicago to a concert in Tennessee, where I was in school. Just a couple of days earlier, he had called to ask if there were any songs I wanted to hear at the show. I asked for something new, a song he'd written and played for me the last time I'd seen him, on Christmas Day. Our holidays always end the same way, with the two of us up late drinking and trying out our new "tunes" on each other. There's something biologically satisfying about harmonizing with a sibling. We've gotten to where we communicate through music, using guitars the way fathers and sons use baseball, as a kind of emotional code. Worth is seven years older than I am, an age difference that can make brothers strangers. I'm fairly sure the first time he ever felt we had anything to talk about was the day he caught me in his basement bedroom at our old house in Indiana, trying to teach myself how to play "Radio Free Europe" on a black Telecaster he'd forbidden me to touch.

The song I had asked for, "Is It All Over," was not a typical Moviegoers song. It was simpler and more earnest than the infectious power-pop they made their specialty. The changes were still unfamiliar to the rest of the band, and Worth had been about to lead them through the first verse, had just leaned forward to sing the opening lines—"Is it all over? I'm scanning the paper / For someone to replace her"—when a surge of electricity arced through his body, magnetizing the mike to his chest like a tiny but obstinate missile, searing the first string and fret into his palm, and stopping his heart. He fell backward and crashed, already dying.

Possibly you know most of this already. I got many of my details from a common source, an episode of Rescue 911 (the show hosted by William Shatner) that aired about six months after the accident. My brother played himself in the dramatization, which was amusing for him, since he has no memory whatsoever of the real event. For the rest of us, his family and friends, the segment is hard to watch.

The story Shatner tells, which ends at the moment we learned that my brother would live, is different from the story I know. But his version offers a useful reminder of the danger, where medical emergencies are involved, of talking too much about "miracles." Not to knock the word—the staff at Humana Hospital in Lexington called my brother's case "miraculous," and they've seen any number of horrifying accidents and inexplicable recoveries—but it tends to obscure the human skill and coolheadedness that go into saving somebody's life. I think of Liam, my brother's best friend and bandmate, who managed not to fall apart while he cradled Worth in his arms until help arrived, and who'd warned him when the band first started practicing to put on his Chuck Taylors, the rubber soles of which were the only thing that kept him from being zapped into a more permanent fate than the one he did endure. I think of Captain Clarence Jones, the fireman and paramedic who brought Worth back to life, strangely with two hundred joules of pure electric shock (and who later responded to my grandmother's effusive thanks by giving all the credit to the Lord). Without people like these and doubtless others whom I never met and Shatner didn't mention, there would have been no miracle.


It was afternoon when I heard about the accident from my father, who called and told me flatly that my brother had been "hurt." I asked if Worth would live, and there was a nauseating pause before his "I don't know." I got in the car and drove from Tennessee to Lexington, making the five-hour trip in about three and a half hours. In the hospital parking lot I was met by two of my uncles on my mother's side, fraternal twins, both of them Lexington businessmen. They escorted me up to the ICU and, in the elevator, filled me in on Worth's condition, explaining that he'd flatlined five times in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, his heart locked in something that Captain Jones, in his interview for Rescue 911, diagnosed as "asystole," which Jones described as "just another death-producing rhythm." As I took him to mean, my brother's pulse had been almost one continuous beat, like a drumroll, but feeble, not actually sending the blood anywhere. By the time I showed up, his heart was at least beating on its own power, but a machine was doing all his breathing for him. The worst news had to do with his brain, which we were told displayed 1 percent activity, vegetable status.

In the waiting room, a heavyset nurse who looked to be in her sixties came up and introduced herself as Nancy. She took me by the hand and led me through two silent, automatic glass doors into Intensive Care. My brother was a nightmare of tubes and wires, dark machines silently measuring every internal event, a pump filling and emptying his useless lungs. The stench of dried spit was everywhere in the room. His eyes were closed, his every muscle slack. It seemed that only the machines were still alive, possessed of some perverse will that wouldn't let them give up on this body.


I stood frozen, staring at him. The nurse spoke to me from the corner of the room in an unexpected tone of admonishment, which stung me at the time and even in retrospect seems hard to account for. "It ain't like big brother's gonna wake up tomorrow and be all better," she said. I looked at her stupidly. Had I not seemed shocked enough?

"Yes, I realize that," I said, and asked to be alone. When the door closed behind me, I went up to the side of the bed. Worth and I have different fathers, making us half brothers, technically, though he was already living with my dad when I was born, which means that I've never known life without him. Nonetheless we look nothing alike. He has thick dark hair and olive skin and was probably the only member of our family in the hospital that night with green as opposed to blue eyes. I leaned over into his face. The normal flush of his cheeks had gone white, and his lips were parted to admit the breathing tube. There was no sign of anything, of life or struggle or crisis, only the gruesomely robotic sounds of the oxygen machine pumping air into his chest and drawing it out again. I heard my uncles, their voices composed with strain, telling me about the 1 percent brain activity. I leaned closer, putting my mouth next to my brother's right ear. "Worth," I said, "it's John."


Without warning all six feet and four inches of his body came to life, writhing against the restraints and what looked like a thousand invasions of his orifices and skin. His head reared back, and his eyes swung open on me. The pupils were almost nonexistent. They stayed open only for the briefest instant, focusing loosely on mine before falling shut. But what an instant! As a volunteer fireman in college, I had once helped to pull a dead man out of an overturned truck, and I remember the look of his open eyes as I handed him to the next person in line—I'd been expecting pathos, some shadow of whatever had been the last thought to cross his mind, but his eyes were just marbles, mere things. My brother's eyes had been nothing like that. They were, if anything, the terrified eyes of a man who was trying to climb out of a well: the second he moves, he slips back to the bottom. Worth's head fell back onto the pillow motionless, his body exhausted from that brief effort at reentering the world. I put down his hand, which I'd taken without knowing it, and stepped back into the hallway.

* * *

Worth spent that night, and the second day and night, in a coma. There were no outward signs of change, but the machines began to pick up indications of increased brain function. The neurosurgeon, an Irishman, explained to us (in what must have been, for him, child's language) that the brain is itself an electrical machine, and that the volts that had flowed from my brother's vintage Gibson amplifier and traumatized his body were in some sense still racing around in his skull. There was a decent chance, the doctor said, that he would emerge from the coma, but no one could say what would be left; no one could say who would emerge. The period of waiting comes back to me as a collage of awful food, nurses' cautious encouragement, and the disquieting presence of my brother supine in his bed, an oracle who could answer all our questions but refused to speak. We rotated in and out of his room like tourists circulating through a museum.


"On the third day" (I would never have said it myself, but Shatner does it for me on the show), Worth woke up. The nurses led us into his room, their faces almost proud, and we found him sitting up—gingerly resting on his elbows, with heavy-lidded eyes, as if at any moment he might decide he liked the coma better and slip back into it. His face lit up like a simpleton's whenever one of us entered the room, and he greeted each of us by our names in a barely audible rasp. He seemed to know us, but hadn't the slightest idea what we were all doing there, or where "there" might be—though he did come up with theories on the last point over the next two weeks, chief among them a wedding reception, a high school poker game, and at one point some kind of holding cell.

I've tried many times over the years to describe for people the person who woke up from that electrified near-death, the one who remained with us for about a month before he went back to being the person we'd known and know now. It would save one a lot of trouble to be able to say "it was like he was on acid," but that wouldn't be quite true. Instead, he seemed to be living one of those imaginary acid trips we used to pretend to be on in junior high, before we tried the real thing and found out it was slightly less magical—"Hey, man, your nose is like a star or something, man." He had gone there. My father and I kept notes, neither of us aware that the other was doing it, trying to get down all of Worth's little disclosures before they faded. I have my own list here in front of me. There's no best place to begin. I'll just transcribe a few things:

Squeezed my hand late on the night of the 23rd. Whispered, "That's the human experience."

While eating lunch on the 24th, suddenly became convinced that I was impersonating his brother. Demanded to see my ID. Asked me, "Why would you want to impersonate John?" When I protested, "But, Worth, don't I look like John?" he replied, "You look exactly like him. No wonder you can get away with it."

On the day of the 25th, stood up from his lunch, despite my attempts to restrain him, spilling the contents of his tray everywhere. Glanced at my hands, tight around his shoulders, and said, "I am not … repulsed … by man-to-man love. But I'm not into it."

Evening of the 25th. Gazing at own toes at end of bed, remarked, "That'd make a nice picture: Feet in Smoke."

Day of the 26th. Referred to heart monitor as "a solid, congealed bag of nutrients."

Night of the 26th. Tried to punch me with all his strength while I worked with Dad and Uncle John to restrain him in his bed, swinging and missing me by less than an inch. The IV tubes were tearing loose from his arms. His eyes were terrified, helpless. I think he took us for fascist goons.

Evening of the 27th. Unexpectedly jumped up from his chair, a perplexed expression on his face, and ran to the wall. Rubbed palms along a small area of the wall, like a blind man. Turned. Asked, "Where's the piñata?" Shuffled into hallway. Noticed a large nurse walking away from us down the hall. Muttered, "If she's got our piñata, I'm gonna be pissed."


The experience went from tragedy to tragicomedy to outright farce on a sliding continuum, so it's hard to pinpoint just when one let onto another. He was the most delightful drunk you'd ever met—I had to follow him around the hospital like a sidekick to make sure he didn't fall, because he couldn't stop moving, couldn't concentrate on anything for longer than a second. He became a holy fool. He looked down into his palm, where the fret and string had burned a deep, red cross into his skin, and said, "Hey, it'd be stigmata if there weren't all those ants crawling in it." He introduced my mother and father to each other as if they'd never met, saying, "Mom, meet Dad; Dad, meet Dixie Jean." Asked by the neurosurgeon if he knew how to spell his own name, he said, "Well, doctor, if you were Spenser, you might spell it w-o-r-t-h-E."

Another of the nurses, when I asked her if he'd ever be normal again, said, "Maybe, but wouldn't it be wonderful just to have him like this?" She was right; she humbled me. I can't imagine anything more hopeful or hilarious than having a seat at the spectacle of my brother's brain while it reconstructed reality. Like a lot of people, I'd always assumed, in a sort of cut-rate Hobbesian way, that the center of the brain, if you could ever find it, would inevitably be a pretty dark place, that whatever is good or beautiful about being human is a result of our struggles against everything innate, against physical nature. My brother changed my mind about all that. Here was a consciousness reduced to its matter, to a ball of crackling synapses—words that he knew how to use but couldn't connect to the right things; strange new objects for which he had to invent names; unfamiliar people who approached and receded like energy fields—and it was a good place to be, you might even say a poetic place. He had touched death, or death had touched him, but he seemed to find life no less interesting for having done so.


* * *

There is this one other remark:

Late afternoon of April 25. The window slats casting bars of shadow all over his room in the ICU. I had asked my mom and dad if they'd mind giving me a moment alone with him, since I still wasn't sure he knew quite who I was. I did know he wasn't aware of being inside a hospital; his most recent idea was that we were all back at my grandparents' house having a party, and at one point he slipped loose and went to the nurses' station to find out whether his tux was ready. Now we were sitting there in his room. Neither of us was speaking. Worth was jabbing a fork into his Jell-O, and I was just watching, waiting to see what would come out. Earlier that morning, he'd been scared by the presence of so many "strangers," and I didn't want to upset him any more. Things went on in silence like this for maybe five minutes.


Very quietly, he began to weep, his shoulders heaving with the force of emotion. I didn't touch him; I just let him cry. A minute went by. I asked him, "Worth, why are you crying?"

"I was thinking of the vision I had when I knew I was dead."

Certain that I'd heard him right, I asked him again anyway. He repeated it in the same flat tone: "I was thinking of the vision I had when I knew I was dead."


How could he know he'd been dead, when he didn't even know we were in a hospital, or that anything unusual had happened to him? Had a sudden clarity overtaken him?

"What was it? What was your vision?"

He looked up. The tears were gone. He seemed calm and serious. "I was on the banks of the River Styx," he said. "The boat came to row me across, but .. instead of Charon, it was Huck and Jim. Only, when Huck pulled back his hood, he was an old man … like, ninety years old or something."


My brother put his face in his hands and cried a little more. Then he seemed to forget all about it. According to my notes, the next words out of his mouth were, "Check this out—I've got the Andrews Sisters in my milkshake."

We've never spoken of it since. It's hard to talk to my brother about anything related to his accident. He has a monthlong tape erasure in his memory that starts the second he put his lips to that microphone. He doesn't remember the shock, the ambulance, having died, coming back to life. Even when it was time for him to leave the hospital, he had managed only to piece together that he was late for a concert somewhere, and my last memory of him from that period is his leisurely wave when I told him I had to go back to school. "See you at the show," he called across the parking lot. When our family gets together, the subject of his accident naturally bobs up, but he just looks at us with a kind of suspicion. It's a story about someone else, a story he thinks we might be fudging just a bit. And after all, he made a complete recovery—it's almost hard for anyone to believe he was ever so badly hurt.


When I can't sleep I still sometimes will try to decipher that vision. My brother was never much of a churchgoer (he proclaimed himself a deist at age fifteen) but had been an excellent student of Latin in high school. His teacher, a sweet and brilliant old bun-wearing woman named Rank, drilled her classes in classical mythology. So maybe when it came time for my brother to have his near-death experience, to reach down into his psyche and pull up whatever set of myths would help him to make sense of the fear, he reached for the ones he'd found most compelling as a young man. For most people, that involves the whole tunnel-of-light business; for my brother, the underworld.

The question of where he got Huck and Jim defeats me. My father was a great Mark Twain fanatic—he got fired from the only teaching job he ever held for keeping the first graders in at recess so he could make them listen to records of an actor reading the master's works—and he came up with the only clue: the accident had occurred on the eighty-fifth anniversary of Twain's death, in 1910.


I'm just glad they decided to leave my brother on this side of the river.


Excerpted with permission from John Jeremiah Sullivan's collection of essays, Pulphead, which you should buy immediately. Top image by Jim Cooke.

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