Tiding at Windmills.
It took me two sleepless nights to connect the new winds with what I saw earlier that week: the convoy trucking the long white turbine blades through the streets like an army mobilizing for war. When assembled, those towering, three-armed fans whirred like locusts inside my brain. The wind turbines, blowing west, had an altitudinous effect on me. I could never get enough air, nor did my feet seem to touch the ground. A zephyr of nausea followed me like an abused dog wherever I went. Shadow flicker and strobing crept up the walls at the same hour each day. I could feel sound. The only description of it: pure sound. The sound of the wind right through me. Time slowed.
It may have been Columbus Day. I decided to celebrate by walking into someone else's house and telling them I live there now. I picked the house in the Tudor style across the street, where I'd seen lights on inside before. Maybe the power company, for whom I punched a clock on the nightly grind at the Powell Avenue steam plant, kept the Tudor's lights glowing as an act of charity. As a tax write-off we kept the lights on at the Alabama Theater, Colonial Bank and a few area hospitals like Cooper Green. One of these nights, I told myself, I was going to really punch that clock and time would be wrecked and undone.
I crossed the street, looking both ways before crossing, not that there was any traffic, but pedestrians had been killed on our street before, the wind at my back. I knocked, waited. No one answered. I reached for the knob and the front door was open, so I let myself into a windless flag-stoned foyer darkly lit.
A single abstract oil painting hung on the wall. I read the artist's name: Robert Motherwell. Some simian with a brush I'd never heard of. A somber and moody painting, graywash turpentine-thinned background, pensive splashes of black in the upper left corner. The gray color field was centered by a rectangular construction open at the top, the bottom line dripping black. I wondered how much money the owner had paid for this color philosophy on canvas.
I parked my carcass on an antique empire couch, framed in gleaming golden oak with a diamond pleated back upholstered in academy fabric, a rococo object crafted for looking at, not sitting. At least it looked antique. Not everyone with money has taste. A woman, rococo as the couch, emerged from a room, bath towel wrapped around her like a short skirt and her hair darkened by water. The mirror on the wall steamed from her hot shower.
--Who the luck are you? she blurted when she saw me sitting on her precious couch.
--I'm Columbus. I live here now.
--I'm calling the police.
She seemed more agitated than alarmed or threatened by my intrusion, almost bored as she covered a yawn with a delicate white hand. I could see the curving fold of flesh where her breasts bunched up beneath her hands.
She did not seem to feel the self-consciousness that the toweled experience before the wholly dressed.
--You aren't even going to ask how I got in? I asked, crossing my legs.
--I left the front door open. You walked in, dummy.
--Why do you leave the doors open for strangers to walk in while you're showering?
--I thought the neighborhood was empty. Most people moved out, or the power company bought them out.
--How do you stand the turbines?
She stopped in the doorway to the next room, leaning against the jamb in roomy darkness.
--The blades. The wind.
--O, those things, she said diminishingly, as if they were mosquitoes or household pests. -I keep the blinds drawn. What did you say your name was?
--I said it was Columbus and I live here now.
--Why is that funny?
--Don't you know what today is?
--I guess it's the first Monday of the month. I heard them testing the tornado sirens this morning. Or maybe it's Wednesday, I can't tell anymore, I confessed more to myself than her, looking at my dark, wavy reflection in the window across the room.
--That's right. We're celebrating. I came here to celebrate. Did I tell you I live here now? Get the hell out of my house.
She laughed through her nose.
--I said get the fuck out of my house before I call the cops.
--Look ... Columbus. I don't know who you are, but the news said there's a serial rapist on the loose in this part of town and I haven't seen the police sketch, but you need to leave. If you go quietly, I won't call the cops, even if you already raped some other woman in a bath towel.
Then I heard the turbines whipping the air softly, which seemed to remind her of something.
--Wait. I know you. You're the guy who killed that couple with steam, she said with a deer in headlights look.
I thought perhaps she recognized me from the local news station, unless the Birmingham News had already done me the favor of printing my obituary.
--I didn't kill anyone, I said, defending myself.
But their death was partially my fault. I'm the safety engineer for the steam plant and the steam I regulated was the steam that killed the couple, boiling them in their car. Call it dereliction of duty, but I couldn't shirk accountability.
--Yes, it's you. I thought so. Your photo was in the paper.
--They're saying I killed those people?
--They're saying you had something to do with it. Negligence. Oversight.
--Why don't you just pour cold water on me and ruin the celebration for everyone.
She shifted her weight against the doorjamb and her movement reminded me of my situation. I had waltzed into this woman's house, a neighbor who I had never seen up close before.
--Didn't there used to be a woman living with you? What happened to her? A wife?
--My wife? No. Girlfriend.
--Sure. Your girlfriend.
--Because of you? she said knowingly.
--Because of because, because of her, because of me, because of the turbines. I have trouble distinguishing between the turbines and myself these days. What was your name again?
--I never gave you my name, and don't try to change the subject.
--What should I call you then? Isabella of Castile?
--Ellen. It's Ellen, Columbus.
--Thanks for visiting.
--You're in my house, she said again.
--You seem less perturbed by this than you ought to be.
--How do we celebrate?
--I take whatever I want.
--Let me put some clothes on before you pillage.
Ellen crossed the room on the balls of her feet, and I watched her ass wag beneath the white cotton towel and disappear through a door and I adjusted my crotch. Happy Columbus Day.
I got up from the couch and browsed the room. Crockery and sterling tableware and Wedgwood in a glass display case, family heirlooms. A parlor grand piano I hadn't noticed before in a corner, under a sheet like a car under a tarp. I doubted she could play it. I used to play myself. I looked at my fisted right hand, opened and closed the fingers. Punch a clock. I sensed the wind pick up outside as it blasted the side of the house and rattled the fenestella glass that was set high up in the wall. I fetched some earplugs from my shirt pocket and crammed them into my ears.
I wandered easily into the kitchen, opened the fridge. The light was dim, but I made out a menu of recherche wines, olive and cheese. Why is it that the rich always seem to live on wine, cheeses and olives? The kitchen was flooded with light reflecting off an island glasstop stove, high windows overlooking a ravine running precipitously through the back. There was a copy of Don Quixote open on the kitchen table. I read aloud, hearing my own muffled voice as if the mumbled words were argued through a fan:
'Though you flourish more arms than the giant Briareus,' I will make you pay for it. So saying, and commending himself with all his heart to his lady Dulcinea, begging her to succor him in his plight, well protected by his little round infantryman's shield, and with his lance couched, he advanced at Rocinante's top speed and charged at the windmill nearest him. As he thrust his lance into its sail the wind turned it with such violence that it smashed the lance into pieces and dragged the horse and his rider with it, and Don Quixote went rolling over the plain in a very sore predicament.
I closed the pages on the bookmark and put the book down on the granite countertop while spinning shadows flickered across the wall as though a helicopter was landing on the lawn. The oscillations, shadow to light, light to shadow, such that the two became indistinguishable, produced a buzzing vibration in my head. The long white blades I saw lorried through the gridded streets weeks before: Alabama Power was maneuvering to corner the wind market. Their engineers had installed a wind farm on the ridge of Red Mountain to catch the wind, just a thousand feet above my turf. The steam plant where I was gainfully employed was being phased out for safer, greener forms of energy. Safer, greener, windier.
Ellen re-emerged, sweeping into the kitchen like a tempest, having exchanged the white towel for a backless dress. I wondered why she bothered to get dressed at all, but women have more complex ideas on the subject of foreplay.
She stalked up behind me and pulled the orange earplugs out of my ears and said she was happy to have me as a guest. She seemed not to walk, but to mortally whirl, opening cabinets, banging around in cupboards, then decanting red wine into two long-stemmed glasses.
--Cheers, she said, holding up her glass.
--Cheers, I returned. -To Columbus Day.
She had polished off the second glass and was pouring a third behind my back as she wrapped her arms around me.
--You're a very handsome rapist, aren't you?
Ellen rested her pretty head over my heart that rhythmically beat with the darkled pulse of the shadows dancing like Shiva across the walls.
We sent a man and his wife to the burn unit after an underground steam pipe burst and boiled them alive like lobsters. Freak accidents happen; you can't plan for everything. Birmingham is a city of freak accidents. The idea, what I'm paid for, was to plan for the accidents so that you can control them. Whether its designing a guardrail around a hairpin turn so a motorist doesn't go throttling over a cliffside and into the treed darkness below, or drafting a comprehensive safety plan that anticipates all known hazards based on real-time experiences, the industry's stock of accepted facts.
Everyone secretly hates a safety engineer, because he is always the harbinger of bad news, the way the solitary survivor of a crash is secretly loathed by the family members of the departed.
This doesn't work, that design has to be modified to comply with codes. Sometimes I think they want people to get hurt on the job so they can justify cutting you a check. If someone breaks a leg, that means you're not doing your job, but they need to keep you on anyway so no one else breaks a leg. Software, toxicology, mechanical problems, statics, fluid dynamics, redundant systems, federal and state safety requirements, social statistics, all in one day. Safety engineers have a certain level of professional immunity from disaster. Freak accidents happen, you explain to attorneys and family members; progress has a social cost, they didn't read the hazard signs, whatever excuse gets the job done.
In the engineering investigation--there's always an "investigation"--an overlong, overweight and overwrought document that is dilatory to develop a final sequitur, I blamed the superheated steam escaping to street level on a series of faulty relief valves, a half-truth and therefore only a half-lie in this city of half-light, where everything remains unfinished or underground. If you flame the steam in scientific terms it seems more innocuous, controllable. Superheated water phases into steam. The steam spins a turbine driving an electric generator.
It was an open secret that the relief valves were older than anyone who worked at the plant, and it was only a matter of time before that subterranean steam sought relief and made its explosive way to the street under somebody's parked car like a geyser. I never used the words "boiled" or "lobster" in the report. In a landlocked city, I hate seafood. Ducking the wind nausea and the tossing days spent sleepless and agog before the accident, I cited budget cuts, explained that it's costly to retrofit safety improvements into an inherently unsafe system. I blamed everyone and everything, but I did not blame the turbines, nor name the true author of the disaster.
Bill, the plant's foreman, complained that his game of golf had not been the same since the horizontal-axis wind turbines completed their first revolution in September and were blowing his balls all over the green. The guys laughed heartily at that. I expected the foreman's white balls to disappear into the skies, galed westward into the upper atmospheres and splashing down in some rich bitch's martini.
--Why don't you go around the corner and get everyone hotdogs for lunch, Bill said, just days after the steam accident.
At least they still trusted me to buy their lunch safely. I thought this might be Bill's idea of a sick joke, making me stand at the lunch counter to watch an overweight man in a butcher's apron boil hotdogs behind the counter. I loped down Powell Avenue, stepping around a toilet that had been left on the sidewalk, Caterpillar earthmovers rowed along the graveled street.
A rental fence had been thrown up around the lot. Men in yellow hardhats stomped the earth. The construction site stretched for blocks in flat ruination. A surveyor squinted into the sunshaded lens of a dumpy level mounted on a tripod that made me think of a three-legged dog. I see everything as injured or unfinished or incomplete. Above the surveyor, I spotted a young man I might have mistaken for myself at a younger age, toeing the bottomless air below the viaduct, an officer half-heartedly trying to talk him down from the ledge. Just far enough to break a leg. I looked closer. The kid on the viaduct ledge was holding a college diploma and a cardboard will work for food sign around his neck. I'd have bought the graduate a hotdog if the restaurant hadn't been pushed into the earth.
As always, I was the harbinger of ill news to the plant. I found the foreman in the engine room loitering over a generator.
--Bill, they're out of hotdogs.
Bill, pipe wrench in his hand, was built like a smokestack. Schooled by the knee-jerk and the bottom-shelf, although he didn't earn anything more advanced than a bachelor's degree at a tech school, Bill possessed the junkyard genius' robotic intuition of all things mechanical. I do not believe he ever passed a day sleeplessly staring at the ceiling.
--What do you mean they're out of hotdogs? Bill said bearishly. --It's a hotdog place, how can they be out of hotdogs? That's like us being out of steam, we're a steam and power place.
--The building is gone. Only a dent in the ground where it stood.
--Are you sure you didn't get lost? You've been out of sorts lately.
--No, like it's gone. They bulldozed it. Go see for yourself.
--Christ, I'm hungry. Where the hell are we gonna get hotdogs now?
--I think the wind knocked it over.
--That's rich, Lee. Real rich.
I followed Bill into the boiler room, the bowels of the power plant. Power is the same thing as energy per unit of time. Because of power, because of energy, because of time.
I turned around to face Bill in the industrial light of the boiler room, pipes clanging around us. I worried that he'd noticed the bruised half-moons that had set in under my eyes.
--Maybe it's none of my business, but shouldn't you take some time off? You're our number one man here. You keep us safe. Everything good with you?
I paused, disconcerted by the prescience of Bill's questionings. Bill wasn't a man I had pegged for being discerning or even caring about the private lives of his second string subalterns.
--Yeah, everything's fine. Everything will be fine, I howled, convincing no one.
It was time to go underground with the steam. After Bill left me in the boiler room, I went to his office and found the work schedule on a clipboard. I put my name down for the graveyard shifts. I couldn't sleep anyway, and I needed to escape the turbines, and the turbines needed to escape me.
The wind wanted blood. Njord's hecatomb lamb came in the form of a Jaguar XF waiting at a red light over a manhole cover. The fancy couple in the Jag should've run the red light. Why, for god's sake, didn't they run the light? But a traffic engineer would say that red lights are made for traffic safety. One safety negating another. If you run the red light you might hit an oncoming car. I wasn't even supposed to be there that morning, but had taken over the other safety's shift.
Hot steam misted up from the underworld, the new day mildly summery for October and the upper tips of deciduous trees yellowed as their photoperiods changed. Some birds chirped in the tress. The pleasanter details as vivid as the steam.
My wind sickness was especially bad that early morning and just around cockcrow I had stepped outside the plant to get some fresh air instead of monitoring the pressure gauges on the relief valves. The foreday air was windless and hushful, the turbines unspinning and stable on the summit of Red Mountain. Soon the advent sun would bud up behind the smokestacks and the new day's light would spill upon the streets of Birmingham and shadows would dim behind the western faces of the banking towers.
The traffic light was painfully slow to change, the result of poor signalization. I had just plugged up my cars when the steam started whistling up to a boil and I heard the manhole cover impact the underbelly of the Jaguar. Ardent steam plumed and billowed out of the ground beneath the Jaguar and clouded its interior, the way steam from a hot shower will flood a bathroom. A woman emerged from the steam. How did I know it was a woman? A parboiled woman carrying a man in her arms. At first, I did not process what I was seeing; they didn't look human. Or rather, they still had the form of human, without the content. The Jaguar was invisible now beneath the steam. At temperatures like that steam will liquefy anything organic. Her steamed skin dripped off the bone, the whites of her eyes pleading with me to do more than I could, her muscles and sinews published for the whole street to see, although I was the lone witness. The birds in the trees silent now, the wind dropped strongly calm as sea breeze.
I have seen parts of a woman's anatomy no man is supposed to see, the muscular darkness of her organs exposed to the searing light of an autumn day. Probably, she had been beautiful moments before the steam. I leaned against the wall of the steam plant, and I felt the steam plant lean away from me as I heaved onto the sidewalk. Like the college kid on the viaduct, there was nothing I could do for them. I am an expert in industrial safety, and there was nothing I could do. Steam plants produce power, and I was powerless before the wind.
Before the steam, my performance was at an all-time low, and it just snowballed downhill until the accident.--What's the matter with you? You look like hell, Bill said.--I can't sleep.
--Drink more. Take sleeping pills. You shouldn't beat yourself up so much over this, Lee, these things happen, Bill said disconsolately.
--These things happen, I repeated, trying to convince myself of its lame truth.
--Why don't you go home, Lee. Get some rest.
Bill had told me to go home the day of the accident, my symptoms worse than ever before. I should have listened to Bill. I should have gone home that day, never borne witness to the steams sacrifice to a clearer version of itself. But home was only a black box through which the wind grunted, coming and going as it pleased.
Most of my neighbors had already abandoned their homes, taken the quota of ransom the power company had offered them in exchange. FOR SALE signs staked into the uncut grass of every front lawn. They couldn't take the wind, the shadow flicker across their bedroom walls, the rattled windows. I think a few couples, stable and happy before the turbines, divorced. It's a small neighborhood. People cave to boredom and jaw a lot. The power company wanted to buy me out, but I let their letters pile up unopened on the coffee table.
I started a shower, turning on only the hot water, and pulled my shirt over my head. I hadn't used the plumbing at my own home in a while and the water creaked through the pipes and then flushed out through the showerhead and swirled down the drain in a ferrous bloom of rust.
Though the wind's buffeting of the house was softly drowned out by the watery din of the shower, I forefelt a woozy collapse coming on. I lowered the toilet seat and sat down. Even in the bathroom I couldn't escape it. I thought of the grisly misfortunes and human costs sanitized by the media. A parachutist who drifted into the blades of a mill in Iowa. Towers toppling onto a work crew. Entire herds of cattle mysteriously chopped up. A suicide in Oregon who sprinted into the blades. What drives a man to that?
And what was energy? I could recite the textbook definition: the ability of a physical system to perform work upon another physical system. But that seemed like defining ice by saying it was cold. There were different types of energy: kinetic, potential, radiant, numinous. And scales, from metabolism and photosynthesis on up to continental drift and gamma ray bursts, the universe was one vast big bang of energy. We were producing energy and using it up faster than the wind turbine blades were spinning round and round.
I revived childhood memories long displaced or withheld: mother boiling water in a kettle on the stove. The phone rang shrill and strident above the steam hissing. She caught the phone between ear and shoulder, pouring roiling water over black tea, and then scalding herself when the voice with no body reported Dad had perished in some strangely monstrous and sublime industrial accident at McWane Pipe. There's only one way to enter the world, Dad once told me, but there's a thousand ways to leave it. Short upon the closed casket, mom convented herself in a lesbian or sexless gloom of poison and privation. She may yet live somewhere, or safe in heaven dead.
With so much time to myself, I planned evacuation routes and sketched diagrams of underground bunkers in crayon and colored pencil, just in case. These were in the days before The Wall fell. I padded the walls of my room with phone books, mattresses, cardboard and bubble wrap. After watching The Wizard of Oz, I devised an ingenious scheme to anchor the house to the ground in case a tornado picked us up from the foundation. Ships, I wouldn't even get on them. I got older and I always applied the emergency parking brake, even on flat land, and enlisted surge protectors against the haywire and psychotic quirks of electricity. But these turbines--what refuge was there in which to duck their blight?
I got up from the toilet and peered into the mirror above the sink and scrutinized my unidentical face while the silver steamed over. I hadn't shaved since the boiling. The bristled face of a man whose features had been sketched in sand with a stick, then blurred over by the incoming tidal eddies burbling in from the blue beyond Columbus crossed, aided by the manifest destiny of the trade winds. My shallow face was long as a windsock. I felt hollowed through, a hole cut out of a rock by wind, only proximally existent, a decrescent sandstone. The turbines had blown out an extra circle in hell, the cognitive distortions and slippery slopes, misleading vividness. It required an effort now to detect the locusts of the turbine blades: I carried them with me.
The bathroom was addled with the hot shower's brume and my mirrored face softly smeared and then eclipsed altogether in the obscure steam that settled in doldrums all around me like smoke from a bonfire.
I had to see Ellen. Since my accident, as she referred to it, we squandered days bedded together and at night when the winds were forte and my head racked with migraines I watched her dreaming, twitching like a cat. In the day, I never asked where she went. The doors were never locked.
I blew by the abstract expressionist painting lit up like a highway billboard in the foyer. Ellefts Jaguar was parked in the garage. How many did she have? Anyone who nets six figures every six months can own one. I returned exasperated and defeated to the high living room, where I saw the note pinned like a butterfly to a cushion of the oversexed empire couch.
I found her alone in a bar downtown, stirring a Bloody Mary with a celery stick.
--I got your note. Said you'd be at the Aeolian Bar. There's only one bar in town that serves Blood Mary's you'll drink. What are you doing down here?
She tipped her head in the direction of the TV mounted on the wall, indicating I should look at the TV, not her.
--The resurrection of the dead, she pronounced calmly.
These Chilean miners had been stuck under a half-mile of rock for more than two months. Another drunk in the bar cheered, -Hooray for the miners!
A pale, possibly deranged miner emerged from the Phoenix capsule and hugged the president three times and salsaed and skipped in a sort of saltatory rejoicing until a medic pinned him down to a stretcher and the miner gave a cameraman the thumbs up, universal symbol of escape.
--The president was just desperate to get re-elected, I commented cynically.
--What an awful thing to say, Lee.
--They were just saying that one of the miners ran six miles per day through the mine shafts to stay in shape. At first, they didn't even know the miners were alive, but they sent a note up. You know what the note said?
--"We are well in the refuge the 3Y' Notes from underground, Lee.
--Your note said I'm at the bar. I had to guess which one it was.
--I knew you'd just walk into the house.
--I knew you'd leave the door open for me.
--It's like they were brought back from the underworld. It's really great, Lee. Right now people are sitting in bars all over the world cheering for the Chileans. They're sitting in bars in New York, in Los Angeles, in Miami, in Paris, London, Rome, Shanghai, Johannesburg. Even right here in Birmingham. The global community coming together in one big Kumbaya. I want to hug someone too.
--And when it's all over we'll go back to fighting each other.
--I understand. You have your lobster people, your wind.
--Is it wind, or winds? Singular, or plural? I never know.
--The steam dissolved their skin. I looked into her eyes, steam still filling the Jaguar, and I saw death walking. This wasn't your miners come back from the atramental netherworld of coal, this was death walking 18th street in broad daylight.
--It happened at night, Lee. Just before dawn. And then your girl left you. Because you survived and should not have. Like the one survivor of a crash no one was supposed to survive, everyone hates you for surviving. You saw another woman beneath her skin. But these miners, everyone survived, Lee. Its making my head spin. Everybody down there must be delirious with joy right now.
--The miners were dead for two months.
--Lazarus wasn't really dead, I don't think.
--After the accident, I confessed, as if I was the victim,--I couldn't touch another woman without thinking of that flayed woman, all muscle and bone, her hair gone.
--Do you know the allegory of Plato's cave, Lee?
--What's an allegory? I said mocking her.
--Prisoners chained up since childhood, arms, legs and neck fixed so they are coerced into gazing only at the cave wall in front of them.
--I'm with you so far, and I let my hand wander under the table on the hem of her skirt.
--Now, behind these fettered prisoners there's a big bonfire, and between the prisoners and the bonfire there's a walkway on which you have men passing back and forth, casting shadows onto the wall in front of the prisoners who can't turn around to see the bonfire or the walkway. All they can see are shadows, but they don't know they're shadows. Then Socrates wonders if it wouldn't be reasonable for the prisoners to take the shadows on the wall for the real thing, and not just shadows of the real? That's your mistake, Lee. You think shadows are actually cast by real things.
Ellen was finished with her Bloody Mary now and was poking at an olive with a plastic cocktail sword. I needed something to say. Too much morbid talk. I was losing her.
--Let's go to Vegas. We'll get a room and wake up wealthy.
Ellen raised her empty glass and the bartender went about mixing up another Bloody Mary. Ever since that day in Ellen's kitchen where I'd read about Don Quixote fatuously lancing a windmill he mistook for a three-armed giant, I had stayed at her place, avoiding the windy disaster of my own home.
I was old enough and had been through enough women by now to know that I was one of those men who would never be satisfied with oneness, union, sameness. Nor empire couches and abstract paintings. Willingly I counted myself among those helpless men who wanted a new car soon as the old one smelled like cigarettes and the next model rolled off the production line. A consumerist of the fair sex, sure. I get just close enough not to be a danger to myself and then flee dastardly from the scene of the accident. Ellen had her Bloody Mary now and seemed satisfied, ready to talk. Our knees bumped under the table.
--When I was a kid, Ellen shattered the bar's subdued silence with her birdsong voice,--I used to watch cockroaches mating.
I pushed my hand up her thigh just below the hem of her skirt.
--Weird kid. I bet you doused fire ants with gasoline and lit them on fire too.
The news station cut to a story about the recovery of the Gulf fishing industry after the spill and Ellen lost interest in the miners now that she knew they were safe. I saw the wind beating the trees outside the bar. The strongest winds in the solar system are Saturnian and Neptunian, saturnine and oceanic. Winds that would atomize me, insubstantial already I would be less than a vapor trail. I longed for it. I could not engineer the world safer than it already was. I envied the miners, trapped below the busy surface of this life in the quiet and windless dark, all mind. Bodies invisible, but of extension in the cave's dripping dark filling them like a substance. I met Ellen on Columbus Day. I live here now. The precise moment she leaned into me like the wind and her red mouth met mine. Her Bloody Mary tasted like corroded pipewater.
Why do I always focus upon the past, when she's sitting right here with me, open-skirted, our legs pressed together like leaves between the pages of a book? Sailing west with the baffling wind, Columbus was wrong about the longitudinal degrees that separated Europe from the Far East, as I had been wrong about the steam's safety valves, as I had been wrong about so many things. I could predict a lunar eclipse, like Columbus did for the Indians, saving himself and his crew from starvation, but now I could do little more than heed the rumors of the westing wind.
--Come back to my place, Ellen pleaded like the whites of the steamed woman's eyes.
--I have to be at work soon. Graveyard shift.
--I could see you as a gravedigger.
--That's the first compliment I've heard from you.
--That's not true. I said you were a very handsome rapist. Any sane woman would want to be raped by you, Lee.
I thought I heard turbines chopping the air, but it was only her hands running through my windblown hair, mistaken vividness. Really, I wanted nothing more than to descend helplessly into her oblivion and never return from the cave. To take her shadow for the real thing. I witnessed a V-shaped flock of migrating geese fly into the turbine, annihilated in an instant, Don Quixotes of the kamikaze sky. She bit my ear and lilted goodbye and I paid the tab, signing the receipt, Columbus.
Behind the wheel of my truck is the only place I feel in control. I aimed the wide hood at the two red-brick cooling towers of the steam plant in the distance and gunned it. Like the wind turbines, you can see them from almost any vantage in the city like darkened lighthouses that I followed through to the nightshift. The Railroad Park had just opened up across the street and during the day there was a flurry of peopled activity in midtown I'd never seen before. Twenty-five million dollar patch of grass for dogs to crap on, an outdoor living room they called it, missing only the empire couches curated in Ellen's estate room. I stayed away from the park. Picnickers and family reunions, sunbathers in bikinis, toddlers on tricycles. But the park was dark and empty now. I parked my truck on the street and headed for the plant. A cop pulled up on Powell Avenue and queried me.
I was standing by the roll door on Powell Avenue and I knew we were being videotaped. I could feel it like a pair of yellow-green eyes in the dark, the same camera that had caught the steam accident on tape, and which I watched dozens of times in a darkroom, an experience like watching Hitchcock's Psycho slowed down frame by flame so that it takes twenty-four hours to watch it once.
--Hey buddy, the copper greeted me.--What're you doing out here?
--I work at the plant. About to start my shift.
--Used to be back in the day this plant powered the streetcars. Been steaming since 1895. I thought my knowledge of the plant would ease him off me.
--My old man used to ride them streetcars. But that was before Kennedy and the National Guard.
--Yes. I guess it was.
--There's no guessing about it. That's how it was.
--I guess not, I said, laughing.
--You be safe down here now. There's a rapist on the loose, and the cop handed me a police artist sketch that looked a lot like myself if I had been black.
--Is this rapist interested in men or women, officer?
--Just take it easy, the cop said, disappearing behind his window and rolling over the steam floating like angry wraiths above the street.
I ducked inside and went down to the engine room to get a first reading on the boiler's temperature gauges. Most freak industrial accidents happen at night, statistics pray-tell. Maybe they're not so freakish if they always happen at night in the caves. After a series of overhauls and retrofits I gave the go ahead on the steam turbines and we were pumping out over two million kilowatts of power. That's a good feeling, steam power. Cleaner than coal, but deadlier in other ways. With hours left to go on my shift, I made the mistake again of stepping outside for fresher air. I searched the street for the cop again, turned north onto 18th, no destination in mind, glancing up at the viaduct's golden eagles dated 1931, just after the economy plummeted and suits on Madison Avenue were jumping out of windows.
The viaduct underpass, just around the corner from the steam plant, luminescent with stark light sheering off the dingy walls, is a hole of mortal description. A drunk slumped within the elbow of an arch. Strange stains splattered like a crime scene against the wall. Dry leaves seasons old windrowed versus as a tallboy rattled hollowly in the anxious wind. My spine fluttered, feet disappearing into the ground, the beery skunk smell of urea as I held my breath and crossed into the darkness outside the viaduct. Trains rumble-grinding on the tracks above. A rattletrap Max Bus smoked by pulling out of Central Station, a Wells Fargo stage coach advertisement peeling off the side.
No matter where I went, still the wind dogged me, my forehead throbbing and the earth quaking beneath feet that felt no longer mine. Even here, in an Amtrak parking lot where boozy bums snoozed in sleeping bags, the wind afflicted me with its shadow syndrome and chatter. Its howling shrill decibels. I expected to seize at any moment, my tongue cut from my own mouth by my teeth. That heart raced in my breast, I hadn't slept since that first night at Ellen's, sedated by her wine. Please, windgods, spare a mortal who has seen death walk these city streets.
On Morris Avenue, I stood transfixed before a crumbling brick building covered by a blue tarp that snapped in the wind. I watched backlit shades come and go from Central Station. A second-floor light in the Young and Vann Building winked off. Insomniacs and haunted workaholics like myself. I scavenged a brown bag of roasted peanuts dropped in front of the Peanut Depot and felt better. A newly married couple were posing happily for wedding photographs against a brick wall floodlit by halogens. I was a menacing presence, as I listened to them gush about their upcoming honeymoon and I watched pigeons peck at the peanuts shells I tossed onto the cobblestones. I thought of what my own wedding day might be like, a country courthouse and a sober, twanging judge. We ate at a bed and breakfast, made love in moonlight, and then the thirty-three wind turbines came.
The posing bride, pileated hair piled on top of her head, in front of the red caboose now, turned to me and I did not look away, and I saw her squeeze her husband's hand. Other people's happiness leaves me winded. I emerged from the sullen steam of my despond and came out into the shadowy wind tunnel of 21st street by the John Hand Building, the moneyless safety deposit vaults, crisp leaves newly fallen tumbleweeding through the heaviest corner on earth. I might have been the last man on the walkway, so bereft and scarce were the windswept streets. I leaned into the wind, and the wind leaned into me.
I held my breath again watching a car pass over an ominous column of steam misting from the piped netherworld beneath the city streets. We are well in the refuge the 33. My chest burned, I felt adrift like a carrack without wind in its sails, bobbing carelessly on the winedark waves. So I did something I had never done before in this city. I jogged up to the bus at the next stop and boarded the bus without paying and the driver didn't stop me. The only white man on the bus, I felt out of place, a colonial among natives. But I had no ships, no smallpox blankets or royal charter, not even rapine of gold, only the wind in my sails blowing me westward, following the sun that had set hours ago. The driver seemed in a hurry to make up for lost time and the bus galloped at top speed through the empty, windwhipped streets of Birmingham and clopped over cobblestones and the scraped blacktop chewed up for repaving, jostling passengers--mostly black maids and nannies--out of their unbuckled seats. The night beyond the windows acheronian and sooted as I felt.
I didn't even know where the bus was routed, or where I'd be able to get off when my time came. A young man in a basketball uniform bobbed his head to music and when he exited through the back door at the stop I took his seat. Through the back window I could see the new Wells Fargo sign diminish, downtown and the two red cooling towers of the steam plant slipped away as the bus went on tilting towards the mountain. Several times the bus driver turned around in his seat and yelled at somebody. When an old woman who walked with a cane boarded at the next stop, tapping her weary way down the rolling aisle, I stood up and offered her my seat and she took it shrewdly without a word. Some poor man's fishwife. We barreled by a park where I knew slatterns with battle-ax faces prowled the streets and when we bussed under the interstate and ascended the hill up Arlington Avenue I knew where we were going. The bus rounded a sharp uphill turn and I pulled the yellow cord behind my head and a bell rang and I felt the bus pitching forward as it slowly braked. ! fished some change out of my back pocket and coined them into the turnstile and got off the bus feeling that I had been spared some blacker fate.
I stood carless and stranded on the side of the road where Aberdeen and Cahaba converged on a grassy roundabout and watched the bus splutter and puff on up the mountain. Nowhere else to go, I took a goat path through flattened grass and walked a mile or so to Ellen's house. Without knocking, I let myself into the flagstoned foyer and the wind slammed the door behind me. I stood by the dark Robert Motherwell painting on the wall and called out Ellen's echoing name. My hollow voice of Ellen's name bounced back to me, unanswered among her objects, the empire couch upon which wine-drunk I had softly called her name and she had answered with my name, wineglasses in the sink, the tarped piano and a deer's head I had not noticed before mounted above the fireplace. The deer's glassy eyes seemed to follow me about the room like video surveillance cameras.
I stepped further into the house, went from room to room, hoping to find her in a steaming shower, strangely thinking of the miner who ran marathons underground. The guillotine windows open, papers strewn about the floor, the house ransacked by the wind. I wondered who had opened the windows. Ellen? Had the house been burglarized? I had the sense that someone else, some other keyless interloper besides myself had been in the house, the animal musk of a man's toilet water cologne commingled with Ellen's rosewatered muscadine.
I peeked into the garage. Her Jaguar was gone. Maybe she was at the bar still, sword fighting an olive at the empty bottom of her Bloody Maws, rapturously watching the Chilean miners restored to night and day, to politics and business as usual, earth and sky, wind finally, no more running marathons in the dark. Ecstatic in the alienation of her global community. Or maybe it was she who had left me reeling in the steam of my own accident, a will work for food sign draped around my neck and a worthless college diploma. I would learn later that Ellen did not have a key, and she did not have a key because it wasn't her house. Because of because, because of her, because of me, because the turbines. She was squatting in her ex-husband's house until he threw her out, and then her fascination with the mystery of the miners made sense, trapped as she was in her own bright underground I had walked right through and never known it. How often must we blunder on like this through one another's darknesses without knowing it, even when the canary dies? I suffered ... I suffered sweetly from the delusion that I could make the world safer by eliminating mechanical failure, but through no design or modification could I stop us from hurting ourselves or others.
It was time to confront the wind.
I left the door to Ellen's house yawning open and plunged through the ownerless neighborhood's wracked streets, the darkened windows darker than the city below, plywood appearing now where lost boys had thrown brick and stone through tall glass. Three-hundred foot turbine towers, stationed on a remote ridge, spired up above the treetops and I tracked up a dirt path aiming for them, and crosscut through an aisle of young pines. The wind was picking up.
I scaled the ridge through autumn trees yielding their resplendent leaves. The gloaming was lifting and pure and violent color scintillated in the early harvest sunlight as I topped the ridge. Strongly I felt the blades chop the air faster like aircraft propellers, dead yellow and orange leaves cycloning around me.
If I stood in the wind long enough, would it weather and sculpt me like sandstone? The aeolian process applied to a man, a shadow firethrown upon a wall. I knew that if the blades spun fast enough the turbine would fail without the safety brake that decelerates the blades in tempestuous winds, pitching the blades in a feathered position, minimizing the rotor's torque. The wind tower would buckle, and its blades would carve and cleave me. I would be sundered from myself. An oil spill oozes its tarry black sheen across the ocean like a shadow bubbling up from the earth, a steam plant boils lovers alive, and an ash pond breached blights the land my feet no longer touched with toxic fly ash slurry. The wind turbine only self-destructs, as the blades yaw and mill out of control, snapping a quixotic lance in half like a matchstick; the grid goes down and the city lights wink out block by block, and a final darkness falls upon Birmingham.--Spin baby, I prayed to the spinning metal gods of the wind.--Spin, baby, spin.