Long Island, 1905. Construction of Tesla’s crown jewel, Wardenclyffe Tower, grinds to a halt as costs exceed their budget. TIME Magazine reports
Always someone wanting it all
and losing it. Isn’t that right?
Let me begin again: Welcome
to Tesla’s Million Dollar Folly!
It is another gray New York day
and the structure’s damp balsa-wood
scaffold — open like an unfilled
ribcage, scalable even for children
and crowned with its copper mushroom
dome — rings like a tin cup begging
hail. Beneath the grassy knoll
its foundation goes at least one mile
down, some umbilical meant to pull
whatever hot-blood eddies in the Earth’s
belly up. Unseen controls await inside
but here all is quiet. No telltale
whine of Tesla’s ether distillery.
Only the blind mole fleeing its haunt,
the albatross above spying its land
barren of mice.
John Pierpont Morgan. Long Island, 1907. Upon learning Tesla’s intent to transmit wireless electricity without fee, Morgan withdraws all financial support from the venture.
Could have flung signals across the Atlantic.
Could have been dandy-all in high society,
lived out life at the ball. Could have traipsed
trip-footed around the world without ever leaving
home, conjured a wizard’s whispers to trick
the big purse lushes into bed. What waste. Chief
of all I’ve learned: among Earth’s pidgin lingos,
its curses and hoodoo magic, there’s none
can conceal a bad investment. These sky-
eyed dreamers never learn. The promise of a product
is its myth. When I was young, I made a boom
selling rifles: ruined guns bought cheap, spit shined,
and marked up for profit. I blew the thumbs off
entire troops of soldiers. A kid can grift a nation.
I’m the proof. Industry is like steel: pliant
only in its kiln. The gun isn’t the bottom line.
It doesn’t matter if it fires, the trigger blows,
years later we’re a nation of thumbless bastards.
Aim the black steel barrel where men see
their lives swallowed whole. Urge them
faster toward its bullet.
Katharine Johnson. Long Island, 1910. Katharine watches while construction crews secure the tower’s grounds for foreclosure.
There are days when I think you did it —
freed energy and just as quickly lost it.
Tonight, the windows of my building
hold a staring contest with their neighbors.
Behind curtains, couples kiss awake to whisper
new endearments: Baby, let me turn you on.
Eyeing the rubble perhaps
you are just now learning:
you can touch these rocks
but not the forces they corral.
Walk through Lower Manhattan
into any vacant home struck
by flu or fire. The oven,
abandoned. Screws turned
rusty in toolkits filled with water.
Maybe there’s some power
in up-and-leaving a thing behind
but there they sit, waiting.
Dorothy Skerritt. Manhattan, 1915. As Tesla’s secretary, Dorothy sees his strange compulsions deteriorate in the wake of recent failures.
In the garbage pail out back: bits of hair,
unstrung pearls, a dustbin. Wreckage
from yesterday’s storm. I keep my hair tied tight. A bun. Check
for glitters in the mirror. My first day at work I got sent home.
No jewelry Nikola said. A magnetic thing, I figured. Too much
metal. But that’s not the rub. It’s something about women.
About how hair dies when it falls out. About pearls.
Grit in the belly turned to beauty. I had to explain
to my lover, then, a thick, meaty man that, no, he couldn’t
barge in and win a fight with New York’s Thor.
So once I’m plain enough — I’m ready for the day.
I stick to the library when I can. Dimly lit,
sure, but brighter than his lab that’s always dark. Black
sail-like shades stretched taut. Blue-blue instruments
mouth-breathing in the shadows where I don’t care to look.
That’s not to say the curtains never open.
When there’s thunder he’ll throw the windows wide.
Lay on his couch and monologue. You’d think
a scientist can’t be good with words, but the second
thunder cracks — he’s off. Serbian poems. Unsent letters.
Speeches he won’t give. I’ve never known a man
who didn’t love a storm, but Nikola’s the worst.
He picked me ‘cause I’m slim — don’t think that I don’t
know it. I write his patents for him. Can catalogue
every trinket he’s invented. I could break him
into map-able mechanics if I wanted. But there’s
something lovely about blind-genius.
Pretending to sate with work.
Inside, he’ll throw the switch,
a quiet click. Then the screams
of turbines come alive. He’ll stand beneath his metal planets —
just taking it — and I wonder what he looks like. Small,
probably. His little rod swelling and shrinking
with the alternating flow. And in the lobby
I pull pearls from my purse. Brush hairs from my head.
Ground them into tile. He can’t stop
the storm that passes every time I click my heels.
He lives for it. When it’s over I sweep up
these pieces of myself. Another day at work.
He emerges smelling like a furnace just extinguished.
Claims electricity curbs his appetite.
Sharpens memory. The shocks can even kill
disease. So how’s he standing there then, tired-like,
like he never knew energy in his life?
Nikola Tesla. 1920. Tesla reflects on his career, lifelong celibacy, and epistolary affair after Katharine severs ties as her health, and her husband’s health, declines.
Katharine says air
is boundless, a repository
we drown with our secret shames
and prayers, and this is the noise
we hear in the dead
space between frequencies.
How to prove for this hypothesis?
The many missives dropped
and trampled underfoot — no.
She means the letter that goes
unreturned each day until the act
of responding itself seems too much,
too heavy, better to let it be,
and in this manner such tenderness
gets trammeled into hush. I have slicked
silence through my hair, channeled
shimmer from my bones to honor whatever
conduit carries our accumulated want
into space’s rolling tides, and still I
succumb to yearning each time
Katharine lifts her skirt — ankles
flashing, sight unseen made visible —
to tuck her feet beneath her
on the couch. Look. Secrets are stored
under the tongue like socks
in the sock drawer.
I open my mouth.
I offer you these —
Like two poles repelled, I have never touched
a woman. Their magnetics left my compass
wheeled as pigeons in the square.
What happens when the invention
you’ve created grows into itself?
Kinetoscopes slicing the world
into frames, technology overtaking
the failsafe? I recall
my mother’s barnyard contraptions.
Levers for removing ax from stump.
Coils for shearing maize. Even her children:
antennas tuned to squall. A boy, then,
I would empty lungs for flight
before jumping from the roof.
That leap — now my head hangs
from its sway, a galvanic cell blown out.
I was not always rubber
meant to ground what sparks
I flamed. Once,
I remember —
squawk of turkeys
in the yard — hoof and paw
stomping in the stables — creatures vexed
by the girl’s scent, my want —
and hair a-swish
aloft the hay,
my gaze above
the barnyard floor —
Try shrugging the shoulders
from the shoulders, weighing the voice
on a scale. Try removing the arms —
the body still reaches. Soon, all of you
tugged forth: the penis with its obvious functionality,
coitus and its natural right angle.
It is common human longing
to seek the self’s solution. Before the end
I sought to take myself to the source, unzipped
of stimuli and sensors. The jolt
of a woman’s hand slipped slyly
into mine, I would bind this force
in cords with which to whip this world
forward, or else set it free to pasture.
Still I tick on like the gears
of a good clock. What I am
perseveres without me.
Love, if you can —
Walk out into your life.
We will meet once more
in your speaker’s idle hum,
a thrum that one night warms
to song — distorted, a dirge
from the Earth — but song nonetheless,
fueled by nothing but sea
salt and wind.
And we’ll dance.
Are you listening?
Perry Janes is a writer and filmmaker from Metro Detroit, Michigan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Indiana Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, The Adroit Journal, The Michigan Quarterly Review, and The Pushcart Prize Anthology XL, among others. His film and media work has toured international film festivals, featured during IFP Film Week, and received accolades that include The Student Academy Award from the AMPAS. He currently lives and works in Los Angeles, California, where he is an MFA candidate in poetry at Warren Wilson College.