The Emotional Life of Electrical Wires

My thanks to decomP magazinE for publishing my short story, “The Emotional Life of Electrical Wires.” I excerpt the introduction here along with a link to the magazine, which, with the April 2017 issue, celebrates its 13th anniversary.

Matthew was a wood carver, homeless and a full-blooded Anishinaabe, whom everyone knew in the downtown neighborhood of a big city where I once had a pointless cubicle job. As I gained knowledge of my surroundings, I became aware of Matthew, who would strike up a conversation with anyone willing to listen. He always carried several small blocks of wood with him, which, as I learned later, he picked up here and there from people who had learned of his considerable skill as a carver. He carved with a three-blade pocketknife, which he’d inherited from his grandfather. Matthew would carve something interesting, an animal figurine or a human face, and return the block of wood to the person who’d given it to him. People paid him money, and he always made a show of refusing payment until, with a theatrical gesture, he threw up his hands in concession and pocketed the bills. That’s what he lived on, and what allowed him to get gloriously drunk whenever it suited him.

Several weeks before I got to know him well, Matthew sat next to me at a public fountain near my office. I was in the habit of having my lunch outside when the weather was nice. At first I thought Matthew was going to ask for spare change, and I looked around to see if there was a more suitable spot. But it was a beautiful May day and the square was quite crowded with people who had escaped their cubicles and shops, thirsty for sunshine after winter’s parched darkness. So I remained at my spot as Matthew talked to me.

“Too bubbly, ain’t she?” he said.

I was new to big city life—I was raised in a small town and educated at a small Midwestern liberal arts college in the heart of nowhere—and friends had warned me not to look directly at street people or engage them in conversation. But there was something about Matthew’s voice I found inviting, so against my better judgment, I responded. “Pardon me?”

“The fountain. A little too bubbly, ain’t she? Too blonde and bouncy and cheery. Like a homecoming queen who’s addicted to exuberance. Makes you tired just bein’ around her, huh?”

I learned from our ensuing conversation that Matthew not only made lovely detailed figurines out of wood, but he also had a special relationship with ordinary objects on the street. I’d once taken a sociology class and remembered Max Weber’s concept of “elective affinity.” That’s what Matthew had, an elective affinity, or resonance, with things. In short: he talked to them, and they talked back. The fire hydrant, a lamppost, a shop window—he engaged them all in conversation.

My first thought was that the man should be on medication or even institutionalized. I asked around in the office about Matthew, wondering if he was a little “off.” Newcomers shrugged with disinterest. But the old-timers took umbrage at my suggestion. They’d developed a deep affection for Matthew, and wouldn’t hear of his being mentally unbalanced. Instead they insisted he had an insight into the world of material objects that was uncanny. Several colleagues with whom I’d discussed Matthew had a number of his wood figurines on their desks.

I became curious about Matthew, the wood carver who talked with the material world. I began seeking him out at lunchtime. Most days I found him in the vicinity, and if he wasn’t already chattering away with someone, I made a point of striking up a conversation. Soon I began bringing him small blocks of wood, which I’d bought at a local woodworking shop, and after a few months I had several of his figurines on my desk. There was a Labrador retriever’s face, which Matthew carved after I’d told him I still missed a Labrador I’d had as a kid. There was a gnome, which I thought was so artfully done I sent it to my mother, who I knew would find a place for it with her other figurines and knickknacks on the mantel at home. At times, it was frightening to watch Matthew wield his small carving knife. There was alcohol on his breath and his eyes were glassy. His speech didn’t slur—he was always quite articulate—but there was nonetheless something about him that made him both present and distant, there but not there. Still, his cuts were perfect, his dirty fingers moved with grace, and as he described what he was doing, a small elegant figure would emerge from a rectangle of maple or pine.

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