It doesn’t thunderstorm in California. Not like those from my memory of home. I listen for them at night when the sky half-promises, but it rarely delivers the noise I need. This I know: If you count the time it takes between the flash of a Kansas lightning bolt and the crack before the roll and peel of thunder–If you time the lag, Dad would say, you can tell how close you are to the lightning. He and I often lingered in the pre-storm, beneath a green-soup sky, dwelling in the pause between cause and effect. The neighbors too. All of us gawking at our potential demise, counting intervals between what was and what will be. And if there is an objective measure of a “split second” it would have to be close to the time between the flash of intimate lightning and the sound of its ear-stunning crack, a noise that tingles up from your toes, and ripples through your belly—a sound the body hears before the ears; or maybe it is similar to that time I sat on the porch swing at the lake, and heard the lodge dinner bell ring itself, the clapper vibrating like an ear-bone, a split second after a flash and strike to the metal tower; or the time between a blue racquetball’s jump off the wall and the sound of its impact; or the gap between when your ear hears a noise in the house at night and the second your brain registers it as normal and safe (the sound of a dog dreaming, the rattle of the refrigerator) or something different, maybe dangerous (the wheezing croup cough of your baby, the jiggling of a doorknob, a simple phone call in the middle of the night); or perhaps a split second is a more subjective measurement, the kind of tiny gap where I lose myself again and again in memory. Finally untethered, I drop this loss into the space between my father and me. I try to let go of that rip in his voice over the telephone almost twenty years ago, and the interminable pause after the words rolled out, It’s Matt. Your brother. There was an accident, and just before the crack of the plastic phone settling into its cradle, because in that lag, that brief second between what he said and the impact of what it meant, it was possible that things would always sound the same between us.
Steven Church is the author of The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst, Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents, and The Guinness Book of Me: A Memoir of Record. He teaches in the MFA program at Fresno State and is a founding editor of The Normal School.
Photo by Ryan Rodgers