The lightning rod salesman has come to Green Town, Illinois. He is talking to two boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade: neighbors, best of friends, closest of rivals, one born light and one born dark. Halloween is coming, and something worse. He has given them a rod and says that lightning will strike one of their two houses:
But Will was staring beyond the man now.
“Which,” he said. “Which house will it strike?”
“Which? Hold on. Wait.” The salesman searched deep in their faces. “Some folks draw lightning, suck it like cats suck babies’ breath. Some folks’ polarities are negative, some positive. Some glow in the the dark. Some snuff out. You now, the two of you … I – ”
“What makes you so sure lightning will strike anywhere around here?” said Jim suddenly, his eyes bright.
The salesman almost flinched. “Why, I got a nose, an eye, an ear. Both those houses, their timbers! Listen!”
They listened. Maybe their houses leaned under the cool afternoon wind. Maybe not.
“Lightning needs channels, like rivers, to run in. One of those attics is a dry river bottom, itching to let lightning pour through! Tonight!”
“Tonight?” Jim sat up, happily.
“No ordinary storm!” said the salesman. “Tom Fury tells you. Fury, ain’t that a fine name for one who sells lightning rods? Did I take the name? No? Did the name fire me to my occupations? Yes! Grown up, I saw cloudy fires jumping the world, making men hop and hide. Thought: I’ll chart hurricanes, map storms, then run ahead shaking my iron cudgels, my miraculous defenders, in my fists! I’ve shielded and made snug-safe one hundred thousand, count’em, God-fearing homes. So when I tell you, boys, you’re in dire need, listen! Climb that roof, nail this rod high, ground it in the good earth before nightfall!”
“But which house, which!” asked Will.
The salesman reared off, blew his noise in a great kerchief, then walked slowly across the lawn as if approaching a huge time bomb that ticked silently there.
He touched Will’s front porch newels, ran his hand over a post, a floorboard, then shut his eyes and leaned against the house to let its bones speak to him.
Then hesitant, he made his cautious way to Jim’s house next door.
Jim stood up to watch.
The salesman put his hand out to touch, to stroke, to quiver his fingertips on the old paint.
“This,” he said at last, “is the one.”
Jim looked proud.
Without looking back, the salesman said, “Jim Nightshade, this your place?”
“Mine,” said Jim.
“I should’ve known,” said the man.
“Hey, what about me?” said Will.
The salesman snuffed again at Will’s house. “No, no. Oh, a few sparks’ll jump on your rainspouts. But the real show’s next door here, at the Nightshades’! Well!”
The salesman hurried back across the lawn to seize his huge leather bag.
“I’m on my way. Storm’s coming. Don’t wait, Jim boy. Otherwise – bamm! You’ll be found, your nickels, dimes and Indian-heads, fused by electroplating. Abe Lincolns melted into Miss Columbias, eagles plucked raw on the backs of quarters, all run to quicksilver in your jeans. More! Any boy hit by lightning, lift his lid and there on his eyeball, pretty as the Lord’s Prayer on a pin, find the last scene the boy ever saw! A box-Brownie photo, by God, of that fire climbing down the sky to blow you like a penny whistle, suck your soul back up along the bright stair! Git, boy! Hammer it high or you’re dead come dawn!”
And jangling his case full of iron rods, the salesman wheeled about and charged down the walk, blinking wildly at the sky, the roof, the trees, at last closing his eyes, moving, sniffing, muttering. “Yes, bad, here it comes, feel it, way off now, but running fast …”
And the man in the storm-dark clothes was gone, his cloud-colored hat pulled down over his eyes, and the trees rustled and the sky seemed very old suddenly and Jim and Will stood testing the wind to see if they could smell electricity, the lightning rod fallen between them.
“Jim,” said Will. “Don’t stand there. Your house, he said. You going to nail up the rod or ain’t you?”
“No,” smiled Jim. “Why spoil the fun?”
“Fun! You crazy? I’ll get the ladder! You the hammer, some nails and wire!”
But Jim did not move. Will broke and ran. He came back with the ladder.
“Jim. Think of your mom. You want her burnt?”
Will climbed the side of the house, alone, and looked down. Slowly, Jim moved to the ladder below and started up.
Thunder sounded far off in the cloud-shadowed hills.
The air smelled fresh and raw, on top of Jim Nightshade’s roof.
Even Jim admitted that.
Was a terrific movie too in 1983, with Jonathan Pryce in his first major role.