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Issue 21/22, Summer 1998

Feet in Smoke

On April 21, 1995, the anniversary of Mark Twain’s death—a date that now seems not entirely coincidental—my brother, Worth, put his mouth to a microphone in a garage in Lexington, Kentucky, and was electrocuted. His band, The Moviegoers, had stopped for a day to rehearse on their way from Chicago to a concert in Sewanee, Tennessee, where I was at college. Just two days earlier, he’d called to ask if there were any songs I wanted to hear at the show. A newer song came immediately to mind, one that I’d heard him play late at night, on an acoustic guitar, after a holiday meal at our grandparents’ house. I don’t remember which holiday, probably Christmas; they all end the same way, with my brother and me half- or wholly drunk and trying out our songs on each other. There’s something almost biologically satisfying about harmonizing with your brother. We’ve gotten to where we communicate through music. I don’t mean we speak in notes—we’re not twin savants or anything like that—but we use guitars the way fathers and sons use baseball: as a kind of emotional code. Worth is seven years older than me, an age-gap that can make siblings strangers, and 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 room at our house in Indiana, where I was trying to teach myself how to play “Radio Free Europe” on a black Telecaster he’d forbidden me to touch.

The tune I requested on the phone, “Is it All Over?,” doesn’t sound like a typical Moviegoers song; it’s a bit simpler and more earnest than the winningly infectious geek-pop that is 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 scannin’ the paper/for someone to replace her”—when a surge of electricity arced through his body, magnetizing the mike to his chest like a weak but obstinate missile, searing the first string and fret into his palm, and stopping his heart. He fell backward and crashed, already dying.

Forgive me if you knew most of this. I got my details from a common source: an episode of Rescue 911 (yes, the one hosted by William Shatner) that aired about six months after the accident. My brother played himself on the show, which was amusing for him, since he has no memory of the real event. For the rest of us, the re-creation is difficult to watch, and it took me three years to get around to it. In fact, it was only as a kind of research for this essay that I played the tape, but I’m glad I finally did. Though it tells a different story than the one I know to tell, one that ends at the moment we realized my brother would live, the show offers a healthy reminder of the danger involved in talking too much about “miracles.” I’m not down on the word—the staff at Humana (now Jewish 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 all the human skill and coolheadedness that go into saving somebody’s life. I think of Liam Davis, my brother’s best friend and fellow Moviegoer, who refused to freak out while he cradled Worth in his arms until help arrived, and who’d warned him to put on his Chuck Taylors before they started practicing, the rubber heels of which were the only thing that kept Worth from being zapped into a more permanent fate than the six near-deaths he did endure. I think of Captain Clarence Jones, the fireman and paramedic who brought Worth back to life, ironically with two hundred joules of pure electric shock (and who responded to my Grandmother’s effusive thanks by giving all the credit “to the Lord”). Without people like these, and doubtless others whom Shatner forgot to mention, there would have been no miracle. My brother would have met his Maker in a scene that played like cutting-room footage from Spinal Tap, except that it would have left dozens of people devastated and lost.


The first word I had of the accident came from my father, who called me from Florida that afternoon to tell me that my brother had been hurt. I can still hear the nauseating pause before his “I don’t know,” when I asked him if Worth were dead. My girlfriend drove me from Sewanee to Lexington at ninety-five miles an hour, getting us into the city at around ten o’clock that night. We were met in the hospital parking lot by two of my uncles from my mother’s side—fraternal twins, both of them Lexington businessmen—who escorted us to the ICU and filled us in on Worth’s ambiguous condition. They very calmly explained that he’d flatlined five times in the ambulance on the way to Humana, his heart locked in something Captain Jones called a “systole,” which Jones describes on Rescue 911 as “just another death-producing rhythm.” As I understand him to mean, my brother’s pulse had been one continuous beat—like a drumroll—but feeble, not actually sending the blood anywhere. By the time I showed up at the hospital, Worth’s heart was at least beating on its own power, but a machine was doing all his breathing for him. The really bad news had to do with his brain, which displayed one-percent activity—vegetable status.

One of the nurses who’d been there when they brought him in, a heavyset woman who introduced herself with the pleasingly thick accent you hear in small towns around Lexington, led me through two automatic glass doors and 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 at once that only the machines were alive, possessed of some secret will that wouldn’t let them give up on this particular dead man.

The nurse spoke to me from the corner in a tone of near-admonishment that angered me at the time and that I’ve never been able to understand since. “It ain’t like big brother’s gonna wake up tomorrow and be all better,” she said. I looked at her stupidly. Did she think the situation didn’t look quite grim enough?

“I know,” I said, and asked her to leave the room. When I heard the door close behind me, I walked to the side of the bed. Worth and I have different fathers, making us half-brothers, technically. Although he was already living with my dad when I was born, so that I’ve never known life without him, we look nothing alike. He has thick dark hair and olive skin, and was probably the only member of our blood family in the hospital that night with green, and not 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 were no signs of anything, of life or struggle or crisis, only the gruesomely robotic sounds of the oxygen machine pumping air into his chest and sucking it out again. I heard my uncles, their voices composed with strain, telling me about the “one-percent brain activity.” I leaned down farther, putting my mouth next to my brother’s right ear, and spoke his name: “Worth...it’s John.”

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. Then his head reared back, and his eyes swung open on me. The pupils were almost nonexistent, the irises sea-green with flecks of black. His eyes stayed open only for the briefest instant, focusing loosely on mine before falling shut. But my God, what an instant. When I was a volunteer fireman, I 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 ember of whatever thought had last crossed his mind, but they were just marbles, mere things. The eyes into which I’d just caught a glimpse had been nothing like that. If anything, they were the eyes of a madman. It occurred to me then that a condition parallel to the systole, which had seized Worth’s heart and nearly killed him, must have effectively taken over his mind. What the machines were reading as vegetable activity was really chaos, the fury of an electrified brain fighting to reassemble itself. I had seen all that unmistakably, and it had been like looking down on a man trying to climb his way out of a moss-grown well; the second he moves, he slips back to the bottom. Worth’s head fell back on the pillow, motionless, his body exhausted from its efforts at reentering a world that his mind couldn’t possibly fathom. I put down his hand, which I had taken without realizing it, and ran back into the hallway. I remember burning to tell my family what I knew, but quickly deciding against it, trusting my instincts but not my ability to deliver the news convincingly. I spent the night in another hospital room with my sister, my girlfriend, and my mother, who prayed us all to sleep.

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 waves. A doctor 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 inside his skull. There was a decent chance he would emerge from the coma, but no one could say what would be left; no one could say who would emerge. That day of waiting comes back to me now 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, 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 us by our names in a barely audible rasp. He seemed to know us all, but he hadn’t the slightest what we were doing there, or where “there” might be—though he came up with several theories on that 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 horrifyingly Kafkaesque holding cell.

I’ve tried so many times to describe for people the brother who emerged from that electrified death, the one who remained with us for about a month before he went back to being the Worth we’d known and know now. It would save me a lot of trouble to say, “It was like he was on acid,” but that’s not quite true. Instead, he seemed to be living one of those imaginary acid trips that we used to pretend to be on when we were in junior high—you know, “Hey, man, I think your nose is, like, a monkey or something”—only better, and scarier, and altogether more profound. My father and I kept notes, neither aware that the other was doing it, trying to get down all Worth’s little disclosures and moments of brilliance before they faded beyond recapture, or became indistinct against the backdrop of their own abundance. I’m sitting here now with my own list. There’s no appropriate place to begin, so maybe I should just transcribe a few things:


Squeezed my hand late on the night of the 23d. 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 him?” replied, “You look exactly like him. No wonder you can get away with it. ”


On the day of the 25th, stood up from lunch despite my attempts to restrain him, spilling the contents of his tray everywhere. Glanced at my hands, tight around his shoulders. Said, “I am not...repulsed...by man-to-man love, but I’m not into it. ”


Day of the 26th. Gazing at own toes at end of bed, remarked, “That’d make a nice picture: Feet in Smoke.”


Referred to heart monitor as “a solid, congealed bag of nutrients.”


Night of the 26th. Tried to punch me while I worked with Dad and Uncle John to restrain him in his bed, swinging with all his might and missing 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 some kind of 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. Asked, “Where’s the piñata?” Shuffled into hallway. Noticed a large nurse walking away down the hall. Turned and muttered, “If she’s got our piñata, I’m gonna be pissed.”


The whole spectacle went from tragedy to tragicomedy to outright comedy 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 room like a shadow to make sure he didn’t fall, because he couldn’t stop moving. He was a holy fool. He looked down into his palm where the fret and string had burned a deep red cross and said, “Hey, it’d be a stigma if there weren’t all those ants crawling in it.” When the doctor asked him the year, he smugly replied, “Um, wouldn’t that be 1994, Doctor?” Asked if he knew how to spell his name, he said, “Well, if you were Spenser you might spell it W-o-r-t-h-e.” Everything was a giant, melting metaphor in which the tenor and vehicle had become equally real. He looked at the wall sockets and said, “Look, the Axis armies fighting the Allies!” Examining his hospital gown, he wanted to know if he’d be allowed to “keep the cool jumpsuit.”

A nurse, 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?” And she was right; she humbled me. I cannot imagine a more hopeful or hilarious occasion than spying on my brother's brain while it reconstructed reality. Since roughly the age of sixteen, I had assumed that the center of the brain, if you could ever find it, would inevitably be a dark place. Whatever was good or lovely about being human, I figured, had to be a result of our struggles against everything innate, against physical nature. Worth 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 with the right things; objects that he had to invent names for; unfamiliar people that approached and receded like energy fields—and it was a fine place to be; you might even say a poetic place. He had touched death, but seemed to find life no less interesting for having done so.

Yes, death. There is one little remark that I didn’t include in my notes, since I wasn’t at all worried about forgetting it.


Late afternoon of April 25th. The window slats casting bars of shadow all over his room in the ICU. I had asked my mother and father if they’d mind giving me a moment alone with him, since I still wasn’t sure if he knew who I was. I did know that he wasn’t aware of being in the hospital; I believe his most recent theory at the time was that we were all back at my grandparents’ house having a party. Neither of us was speaking. He 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 having so many “strangers” around, and I didn’t want to upset him any more. Suddenly, very quietly, he started to weep, his shoulders heaving with the force of whatever emotion had brought on the tears. I let him cry. I didn’t touch him. A minute went by, and I asked him, “Worth, why are you crying?”

“I was thinking of the vision I had when I knew I was dead.”

Had I heard him right? I knew I had. But how could he have known where he’d been, when he didn’t even know where he was? And yet he’d said it.

“What was it?” I asked.

He looked up. The tears were mostly gone.

“I was on the banks of the River Styx. 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.”

He cried a little more and then seemed to forget all about it. I believe the next words out of his mouth were “Check this out, I’ve got the Andrew Sisters in my milk shake!”


There it was. We’ve never spoken of it.

How could we? My brother has a month-long lacuna in his memory that starts the second he put his lips to that microphone. He doesn’t remember the accident, the ambulance, having died, having come back to life. Even when it came time for him to leave the hospital, he had only managed 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 now, the subject of his accident naturally comes up, but he looks at us with a kind of disbelief. It’s a story about someone else, a story he thinks we might be fudging just a bit.

But what he can’t remember, I can’t forget. I’ve spent nights puzzling out that vision. The closest I’ve been able to come is a sort of quasi-Jungian reduction, based on the knowledge that my brother was never much of a churchgoer (he proclaimed himself a deist at age fifteen, meaning that I proclaimed myself one at eight) but had been an excellent student of Latin. His high school Latin teacher, a sweet and brilliant old woman with the undeserved name of Rank, had 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 myths would help him 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.

Where he got Huck and Jim from, though, defeats my best theories. I’m just glad they decided to leave him on this side of the river. 

Katherine Yungmee Kim

Katherine Yungmee Kim, a writer and journalist based in Los Angeles, California, was raised in New Jersey and South Korea. She studied English literature at Vassar College, Pomona College, and the University of California–Berkeley before receiving her M.F.A. in fiction from the Writing Division at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. She has been an editor at the Cambodia Daily, the Pacific News Service, and Alternet; a reporter for the Yonhap News Agency; and a contributing editor to the KoreAm Journal. Kim is also the editor of two publications on immigrant youth communities, Izote Vos: A Collection of Salvadoran American Writing and Visual Art and Quietly Torn: A Literary Journal by Young Iu Mien American Women. Her writing has also appeared in such publications as the Far Eastern Economic Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, New York Newsday, and the Chicago Tribune. She is the recipient of the Time Out Grant from Vassar College in 2013, a New America Media Education Fellowship in 2011, and a Columbia University School of the Arts Chair’s Fiction Fellowship in 2002. Most recently, she has been chronicling the history of Koreatown and Korean Americans in Los Angeles; she is the author of Los Angeles’s Koreatown (Arcadia Publishing, 2011) and the creator of a community photo/oral history project, K-Town Is Our Town. Currently, Kim is the communications editor at the Koreatown Youth and Community Center, the nation’s oldest and largest Korean American nonprofit organization.