It was only Isaac Partridge who lived in the big house. His father, a relation of the town founder, had his leg shot off in the Civil War and when he’d returned, he had married a widow in town with children of her own. They’d all passed on to their greater reward, and Isaac alone was left of the family. He was nearly forty, a bachelor. My mother wasn’t yet thirty. It was possible to tell she was beautiful even though she tried her best to hide it. She wore a black coat that covered her figure and tied her hair in a knot so she might look more responsible. But at night when she stood in the garden, she looked young. She looked the way she had when she killed my father in Brooklyn.

SHE KILLED HIM one April night. We had a house of our own. We were well-off. Money wasn’t the problem. My father worked for the new electrical company. He said in time the whole world would be lit up and it would all be his doing and that God would welcome him into a heaven that was lit by electricity. My father wore a suit and a hat when he left in the morning, but when he came home in the evening, he was drunk. My mother and I often hid from him in the vegetable cellar. To me, Brooklyn smelled like the sea and like root cellars. If you went out on our roof, you could see Sheepshead Bay. I didn’t like the word Sheepshead, but I liked to sit out and watch the blue horizon and listen to our neighbors and the sound of the streetcar. At some point, as twilight was falling, my mother would call my name and we would go down to the cellar the way some people do in towns where there are tornados, except in our house my father was the tornado. It was him we hid from.

Sometimes my father brought home women and we could hear them up in our house, and my mother would put her hands over my ears. Sometimes he’d be sneaky. He’d be so silent that we thought he was in a stupor, sprawled out on the floor, but instead he’d be waiting for us in the parlor. He did things I won’t speak about. We try not to remember his name, but it was William Wentworth. He was a vice president at the electric company, and he smelled like smoke. We try not to remember what he did to us, but those are the kinds of things you can’t forget. He worked for Edison, whom he called the great man. Electricity was everywhere, like a snake, lighting up the city. In January, it was used to electrocute an elephant in Luna Park in Coney Island. My mother had taken me to see that same elephant the summer before, and we’d fed her peanuts through the bars. Her name was Topsy, a funny name for such an extraordinary creature. She had been noble as she daintily lifted the peanuts from our hands.

Now people said that Topsy was difficult, spooky. She had trampled three of her trainers, at least one of them known to be cruel and abusive. People in the know whispered that he had burned her with cigarettes just for the fun of it, and that there were marks all over her flesh, but none of those reports were in the papers. My father was excited all that week. He was the one in charge. The event would prove that Edison knew more about the dangers of electricity than Westinghouse, whom my father called an upstart. It was a battle of the greats, and in the end a single creature who didn’t even belong among us would be proof that Edison’s method of electrifying the world was safe, while Westinghouse was a crackpot with liquid lightning that could fry us alive.

Thousands of people came to see Topsy die. My mother thought the desire to view such anguish was a sign of the innate cruelty of human beings. My mother and I weren’t like other people. For one thing, we preferred the dark. In the root cellar we saw by candlelight. We had no desire to be part of the audience, clamoring to see the poor creature die. We went because my father insisted. We were among the crush of onlookers who applauded, eager for the show to start, but we didn’t holler or clap our hands. It was a horrible sight. The elephant was tied up in ropes, hooked to a platform and a post. Wooden sandals with copper electrodes were attached to her feet. We were in the back of the crowd, but for an instant the elephant looked at me. Her look went right through me. I had to turn away. Later, my mother told me the elephant’s last keeper had been sitting on a bench nearby, weeping. She said she wanted a man like that, someone who understood sorrow, not someone who caused it.

After that, things got worse. My mother’s true feelings were there in her face. She didn’t have to say anything to show how she felt about my father. He reacted as you might imagine he would. Hateful was too small a word. I wondered if the electricity at Luna Park had seeped into his skin, and that was why his meanness grew, like a charge, burning brighter throughout the spring. Fine weather seemed to affect him adversely. But in all honesty he drank whenever there was rain or snow or wind or falling leaves. He drank and burned, and we paid the price. We often kept the lights turned off, though ours had been one of the first houses in Brooklyn to be wired. We kept a lantern beneath my bed.

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