Man, like the universe, is a machine. Nothing enters our minds or determines our actions which is not directly or indirectly a response to stimuli beating upon our sense organs from without.
As Nikola Tesla’s mother pushed him out, light cracked through the troposphere, tumbling to the ground, illuminating the heavy sky above.
The midwife caught the child, slick in her palms, “This will be a child of the storm.”
His mother panted, “No. He will be a child of light.”
Shelby County’s detention facility in Memphis, Tennessee, carves out a small fraction of Shelby Farms’ four thousand acres of forest and pastureland. From the road, one can see buffalo roaming the fields in the spring and summer months.
Inside the holding room, light streams, not in the way the sun’s warmth gives definition to shadow and form, but in the way fluorescence lingers on cracked faces, open sores. Women lean across the line of seats bolted to the floor, mouths open. You breathe in their stench: dirty smoke, marijuana, chemicals, vomit.
“Listen, you’ll be okay. Just don’t cry,” the old woman seated across from you says. Her hair is knotted, gaunt cheeks wrinkled. “They’ll put you in there,” her eyes move toward a cell, artificial light leaking through the cell door’s small window.
They call you back to a sterile room one at a time, insert a needle into your arm. The point is dull where it pricks you, and the blood seeps up into a vial. The woman who performs the procedure doesn’t look at you—only speaks to ask you if you have HIV or are pregnant.
“No,” you say.
“Are you sure?” she says. You don’t respond anymore.
Even as a boy, Nikola Tesla understood power in brilliant flashes of light through the momentum of the world around him. He kept a picture of Niagara Falls next to his bedside, and could feel the expanse of water rushing over, crashing against the jutting rocks, the mist roaring upward, electrifying the synapses in his brain.
He was fascinated by the feats of tightrope walkers, and came to idolize Charles Blondin who resisted the force of rotation to propel his body over while blindfolded into the surge of the Niagara Gorge.
In Las Vegas, the lights blurred as you walked down the strip behind your stepfather. You were fourteen that summer when your mother and stepfather had planned to take you on vacation. Two days before the trip, your mother’s psychiatrist prescribed an immediate regimen of electroshock therapy. Still, they’d already bought the tickets, so your stepfather took you anyway while your mother stayed behind.
Short, Hispanic men lined the sidewalks where he walked in front of you, and your shadow blended into his in the lowered light of 6 PM. You focused on the multiple pops when the men smacked cards onto the backs of their hands as he passed by. He shook his head, but their hands still lingered outward. You picked a card up in the ditch where the asphalt met the concrete in a wet plaster of grime, studying the lips pursed, round breasts hoisted over black silk, legs and taut skin poised over a phone number.
When Tesla first came to America in 1884, he worked for Thomas Edison, redesigning Edison’s direct current generator. Edison offered him fifty thousand dollars to complete the task, so Tesla set to work, only pausing to sleep and eat—merging with the machine sparking him onward. In Edison, he thought he’d found someone who finally believed in him—in the potential of a transplanted Serb to aspire to greatness. This is what America is, Tesla thought, a place where dreams become reality—a place full of people willing to give you a chance to prove yourself.
When he finished the project, he asked Edison for payment. Leaning back in his chair, legs crossed, laughing, Edison replied, “Why Mr. Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor.” He offered a raise instead, and Tesla quit the company, bitter and disillusioned.
You keep picking up the phone, notice its smoothness in your palm, the wire coiling into the wall. It’s warm against your ear, but no one answers. There are no clocks, so you ask a guard the time. When you ask again, she sighs over her paperwork, eyes rolling, “I’m putting you in there till my shift is over.” She leads you to the cell door, and you stumble while the women laugh. The bench you sit on is cold and light surrounds you—so bright it’s hard to focus on anything. You don’t know how long you’re in there, but at some point you just lean into the blankness, the buzz of electricity.
After leaving Edison, Tesla built the first alternating current induction motor in his own laboratory. He decided that at least if no one else believed in him, then he would believe in himself. When George Westinghouse bought his patent, Tesla finally understood that the American dream wasn’t about ideology—just about money. Westinghouse understood that type of power—that owning Tesla’s patent would make him very rich. Tesla didn’t mind Westinghouse becoming richer as long as Tesla had the funds to keep building the myriad of machines still churning in his brain.
Even Edison understood the potential of Tesla’s invention. Fearing the American public would come to embrace the new design over his own, Edison launched a campaign to smear alternating current. He told people that direct current flowed while alternating current rushed—that it was too dangerous to be used in the home. To demonstrate the dangers, he hooked an alternating current motor to a metal platform and placed a dog on it in front of an audience.
“Behold the danger,” he said, before flipping the switch. Electricity flowed to the plate, volts igniting neurons and bones. The dog staggered over, limp on its side to the horror of the onlookers.
When your stepfather took you to see the lights dance at the Bellagio, he said it would be one of the most amazing things you’d ever see. As dusk settled, you stood by him, pushed together in the crowd, the dry heat, and the burn of concrete.
He was a stranger to you still after living with him for only six months in a cul-de-sac of identical houses and absent trees. You knew he had a pension from the armed services, a child by a woman he met while stationed in England, and that when he married your mother, she didn’t have to work anymore.
The water sprouted color in time to the music, and you watched him look at it in awe along with the throng—cameras flashing twitches of energy out of sync with the rhythm. To you, it seemed mechanical and small.
In the Aurora Borealis, particles bombard the Arctic night, colliding in the thermosphere, painting the sky in wisps of light. Pink ascends the horizon then turns to green—billowing trails through a sea of stars—swimming in colored gas. The Cree called this fluorescence the dance of spirits, while Europeans took it as a sign from God.
Tesla was enchanted by this phenomenon. “If I could just see the Northern Lights once, I’ll die a happy man,” he often told acquaintances. He imagined the lights would warm him even in the chill of an everlasting night. Tesla coated his light bulb in the same fluorescence—charging mercury to emit an ultraviolet light that bounced off the phosphor-lined glass, effulgent. The uneven spectrum rendered certain colors different than when illuminated by the sun. When a fluorescent tube burns out, black seeps from one end, sparking orange, then blue, then black again, humming brighter and brighter then fading to a stain on white glass.
When they take you out of the cell, you assume morning must be breaking because they give you a tray—a brown puddle with white bread to sop it up. When they move you, they give you a plastic bag to put your clothes in. You change into orange pants, that are too small, and a matching top, before they lead you in handcuffs around hallway corners to a large, rectangular room with cafeteria tables. Cells with thick, steel doors stacked in neat rows like alphabet blocks line the longer sides of the main area. Natural light pours in from a plexiglass window in the center at the back of the room, high up near a metal staircase.
This room is called a pod, a guard tells you. There’s a number assigned to it like Pod 7 or Pod 8, but you forget what the number is by the time you sit down next to a woman with blonde hair, brown at the roots, and watch the glare of the sun on the television screen suspended from the wall.
“This is the same thing I’d be doing at this time if I weren’t in here,” the woman peers at you sideways during the commercial. “I always watch Reba at ten.”
Cirque Du Soleil is magical, he told you, and it was. The people glowed blue and red as they bent. Limbs curved like wires—faces painted in white masks, red lips. Appearing from the sky, they moved in lines streaking neon through the darkness.
During the intermission, the ring master came out, pointing to all the beautiful couples in the audience— including you and him—with a sweep of his wrist. You looked away from the stage then, and shielded your face with your hand.
In the final act, the strongmen balanced each other under a spot light at center stage. They were flesh and bones, grounded in their own muscle flexing, lifting the weight of each other upward with the tremor of a bicep.
In 1893, Tesla’s alternating current lit up the Chicago World’s Fair—white buildings glistening under a multitude of street lamps.
No one had ever seen man create anything so bright. They called the exposition “the city of lights” and the “city beautiful.” From that point onward, alternating current was the future.
At midnight on November 16th, 1896, the Niagara River flowed backward—the power of its falls funneled into an alternating current generator that electrified the street cars of Buffalo. Soon afterward, New York City was ignited—streetlamps glistened, letters sparkled on the sides of brick walls. Tesla wasn’t there to see it, because he already knew it would work. He had seen those lights flash so many times in the dark of his mind more brilliant than any reality.
When you left Las Vegas, he drove you to see his mother in Arizona in a rented convertible. Leaving the high rise hotels and city lights, you finally saw the landscape—a harsh sun leaning into orange mountains. You knew he liked to drive to burn off energy because back home after a fight, the front door always slammed with the jangle of car keys.
When you are older, after his brief marriage to your mother, you won’t be able to separate him from that anger—his red face, crouched over your dog’s blood-shot eyes, a metal chain dangling from the contracted knuckles of one hand, the excess nylon from her collar bunched in the other.
“She has to learn not to run away,” he told you. “This is a lesson.”
“But she came back,” you insisted.
In 1899, in Colorado Springs, Tesla created lightning from a two hundred foot antenna joined to a coil funneling electricity from the earth. An arc reaching one hundred and thirty five feet shot out, and thunder reverberated into the next town of Cripple Creek. Light bulbs flickered, sparks radiated up from the ground, and the grass hissed, glowing in a blue haze. The experiment ended when the surge blew out a power station generator, casting the town into darkness.
Tesla had been working on an idea to transmit wireless electricity between the ground’s fluid vibration and the ionosphere, where solar radiation tears electrons out of molecules. He calculated that the resonant frequency between these two points was six to eight hertz—the same frequency as flowers, the call of dolphins, and the human brain, scientists would later discover, realizing that all biological systems vibrate at the same rate.
Tesla’ idea for wireless energy was never embraced because Tesla had discovered that energy was free—flowing everywhere and into everything. Energy must come with a price, the businessmen told Tesla, so his idea was dismissed—lost in history as an absurdity.
He admired Tori Amos for her haunting rhythm, so you were quiet as her syncopation echoed through Arizona’s bare hills from the radio. Sometimes you could feel a connection to him in that silence that seemed out of place. You thought about when he drove you to school in the gray morning, light ascending before the windshield, and the raspy female vocals of Tina Turner or the 4 Non Blondes filling his car’s leather interior.
He broke the quiet on the drive that day only to tell you he knew these desert curves like the back of his hand—how he’d driven them everyday as a young man, before he joined the air force. You didn’t respond, but you wondered how anywhere without grass could feel like home.
At lunch, you can’t eat, but you drink the sweet tea. You give your tray of food to the old woman who sits down next to you, and she scrapes the food off the tray, layering it on top of her own. You watch her eat, chewing without tasting.
When they make you go back to your cell, they lock you in. Through a small window in between the bunks, all you can see is the fence line. You can’t see the position of the sun, but you estimate the time by how much light flows in.
Your cell mate is a pretty African woman in her thirties with high cheek bones.
“I hate feeling trapped,” she says. You ask her why she is here.
“I own a store, and I sold alcohol to a minor.” She shrugs a smile. “I guess I’m not good at judging people’s ages.”
“How old do I look to you?” you ask.
“You really aren’t good at that. I’m eighteen.”
You smile and she laughs before climbing to the top bunk, stretching a cover over herself, turning toward the white brick, feigning sleep. You lie down too, flat on your back, imagining an empty field of starlight and dewy grass . When they call her name over the intercom, and say she’s to be released, you smile at each other before she leaves.
In 1943, Nikola Tesla died alone at the age of 86 in a New York hotel room, in debt despite his accomplishments. He never married because he believed a woman was an unreachable aspiration—a glowing vision in need of too much devotion. He couldn’t muster that type of worship for another person.
When the hotel’s maid found Tesla strewn across the bed, white sclera peeking through half closed eyelids, no one had entered the room for two days. As she passed by on her daily rounds, she entered, ignoring the “Do not Disturb” sign because she could smell the rot coiling through the cracks in his door, seeping into the fibers of the hallway carpet.
Today, Tesla’s ashes are interned in a Belgrade museum, inside a sphere, gilded and shimmering at the top of the curve, shadowed at the bottom.
The first time you saw the Grand Canyon, was when he told you to look out the air plane window at thirty thousand feet, while you were heading back East from Arizona. The crevice was just a threaded line from your vantage point, surrounded by a cracked landscape slanting upward, bowing into the curvature of the horizon.
When you reached Memphis, the Mississippi met you, rising toward the belly of the plane as you descended—muddy waters as wide as the first time you saw it as a child— city lights behind you reflecting off the river touching the green flats of Arkansas.
Just before dinner time, you’re released. The cells are still locked, and your footsteps echo through the pod. Vomit stings your nose. The last cell is open. The woman who ate your lunch bends over on the bottom bunk, shaking, wiping the back of her hand, smearing puke across her face. A guard rushes over, while another inmate stands over the pool with a mop.
When you finally step outside, you see purple and orange bleeding into sky, steam seeping into the atmosphere from a brief rain that washed the hot asphalt. You get in the car with your friend and look out the window as she drives—patches of green running into each other, and the brown specks of buffalo chewing grass in the distant fields.