Fall 2007, Volume 24.1
John Lindgren has been a publishing writer for close to eight years. His work has recently appeared in Agni, Paris Review, The New Yorker, Chelsea, The Sewanee Review, and numerous other journals.
He sat framed against a green evening sky. A man in his late sixties perhaps, a sinewy frame with a thin angular face, high cheek bones, a large hooked nose and eyes clear as the water in old reservoirs. His grimly knuckled hands lay restlessly in his lap, involved in some elaborate task like somnambulists trying to untie the knot of their own sleep. At first glance I took him to be a transient, but as there were no other vacant seats on the bus I stowed my bags in the overhead compartment and settled in beside him for the long ride ahead.
I had just returned from Italy to the States and was on my way to my ex-wife’s wake, her funeral having taken place a week before. I hadn’t seen her in over fifteen years. We had been married two years. In the beginning there was no time for remembering. Everything, including our selves, was new. We had met in graduate school where we were both studying Art History. She had black hair and was blessed with smooth olive skin, emerald eyes and small hands that were almost musical. She loved everything spontaneous. Ideas thrilled her as much as new people. And she was capable of a sort of self-abandon that had always filled me with wonder and guilty envy. I remember she had the ability to laugh without self-conscious restraint, uninhibited as water. Walking at night on a street she would release my hand and gambol away, swing on a lamp post like Gene Kelly, or skip along in some imaginary game of hopscotch, lost in a private fantasy.
We bought a small house with money her parents had lent us. It was when she had begun talking about our future together, children and making plans, that a dread awoke in me, the fear of the heavy industry that is domesticity. At first we tried to rediscover the spontaneous flair of those first few months. But no matter how hard we tried it all felt like a rerun. I began living in the third person, living my own life vicariously. Yet, neither of us could bring ourselves to those final painfully convulsive statements. So we continued, existing on sheer momentum of routine.
Though I did not know what it was, I felt that I still had something to accomplish in life. That I had to leave something permanent to be remembered by. Dreaming is the only enterprise that does not close the doors to one’s possibilities. But then again, they are not doors through which one can pass. In some deep mineshaft of my being, some great black machine began to sputter and turn. Imperceptibly at first, in my mind domesticity had become synonymous with complacency and the prison of conventionality. I had made the mistake of imagining that happiness and freedom are mutually exclusive concepts. In truth, I was afraid of the pain involved in human affections, one’s dependence upon them, and the joys and disasters of living.
I began resorting to small sabotages. She would come home from work to find me sitting on the couch in the dark staring through sunglasses at a dead television, assuming a brooding Slavic silence. I created distances faster than I could demolish them. I accused her of infidelities, no matter how ridiculous and implausible. I even started believing my own fiction. Yet, in spite of my acts of cruelty, or even because of them, I was in love with her. In truth, I ultimately couldn’t be counted on for the long haul.
After the divorce I took a job as a travel writer in the mistaken and all too common assumption many expatriates make—that by moving to some remote exotic country one can continuously escape and reinvent oneself, and in so doing escape the inexorable mandates of time.
Now, as I tried to recall her, I found the memories disconnected, frozen, devoid of any life, like looking at photographs of yourself as a youth. I had heard through acquaintances that she had remarried, that there were children, but as I tried to imagine her life the effort swallowed the attempt. It occurred to me that not only was she buried, but my memories of her were also interred, as though her shadow itself were now forever locked six feet under ground.
Telephone poles leapt one by one against the wheat beyond us, then disappeared. The lights of houses and barns floated like buoys in the darkness. As always after a transoceanic flight, the change of continents was too sudden. I had just come from Italy, with its deep cobble-stoned streets that go on like complex, intricate narratives opening unexpectedly upon bright piazzas with their bubbling fountains and cafes. The manicured hills of olives and grapes, the blue and misty pine forests that fade in the distance, the neatly terraced farms. And now the vastness of the States, the grandeur of its landscapes, filled me with a sense of primeval awe and insignificance.
I looked at my companion again, his faded denim jeans and leather boots. It was then that I noticed he was wearing a worn leather jacket, scuffed at the elbows, like an aviator’s jacket from the Second World War.
"Were you in the military?" I asked.
"Korea." He answered flatly. Then, taking this as an opportunity to start a conversation he continued, "the forgotten war. I was a bomber pilot. Flew a B-29."
He did not blink, but from time to time the lids closed under a delicate gravity over his sky-blue eyes. He seemed to be envisioning, or being summoned by some vibrant recollection.
"I don’t remember much of the war, not much to see that high up but a quilt work of fields, some rivers like silver ribbons when the sun hit just right, and a few dirt roads. You deliver your load over some illiterate town, watch their eerie flowers burst far below, then return to some provisional base. That’s about the extent of one’s contact with the enemy: reading some reports on attritions, statistics and so on, before being assigned to your next mission.
"After I was discharged I never settled down. I drank a lot. I got into pointless fights in bars. There were many women, I don’t deny it. I was soul-sick, you see. I was beginning to comprehend what I had done. I stayed in one town a spell, took an odd job, then moved on, until the next town made itself known. When I laid myself down on a bed in some flea-bitten motel, the whole experience of the war began to fade, becoming a blank, a hole. But a hole invariably is a hole in something. Then it hit me: I should become a long haul trucker; which I did."
The windows of the bus had become aquarium blue and the bus hummed through the twilight like a submarine. There was no moon, and a few stars were already tentatively blooming in the vast fields of sky. The steel steeples of power lines, like the spindly skeletons of colossal camels, formed a caravan across the dark plains, their red warning lights mixing into the constellations.
"I’ve traveled through every contiguous forty eight states, and I remember each one, in every detail. They call it eidetic memory. Know what that is, kid? Means I can remember every town, city or road I passed through. It ain’t a gift like violin playing or multiplying big numbers. It’s learned. Slowly. It’s a discipline. You see, it takes a lot to piece together the pieces of your life. First you got to memorize them."
Now his voice was excited and the words came fast—the lobes of his large ears moving as he spoke.
"It was in the seventh year of a particularly long haul that it happened, the idea. It came to me while I was crossing Kansas. It was a long haul and I had fallen into a kind of light, lucid trance, hypnotized by the monotony of the road and the endless seas of wheat that seemed almost clairvoyant in the preternatural twilight: Perpetual Motion Machines."
I sensed, by his curious choice of words, that he was a self-educated man, a man who, lacking any higher formal education, felt that he needed to use certain words and phrases to compensate for what he imagined was a handicap. I myself knew the rigid strictures that college can impose and how they can stifle the latent creativity of youth.
"I bought or rented every book I could find on the subject. When I stopped in a large city I visited the university libraries. I studied chemistry, the theory of gases, and even felt close when I’d discovered the magical properties of magnetism and light. This went on for years, until I felt I’d exhausted the subject. I was still no closer, you see. Then, by chance, I stumbled across the writings of the mystics and the alchemists. I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of the great Jesuit priest Taisnerius?" He asked with a slightly suspicious sidelong glance. "Or the alchemist Cornelis Drebbel?"
I simply nodded that no, those names were mysterious to me. Though he was hairless, I noticed that he’d begun absently stroking an invisible Van Dyck beard. I doubt he was aware of the gesture any more than he was aware of the clandestine task his hands were engaged in, and, not wanting to interrupt the flow of his narrative, I said nothing.
"It occurred to me one night, in a hotel outside of Reno, that all earlier attempts to construct a Perpetual Motion Machine have failed because they had employed the wrong science, the science we use now to construct trains, airplanes and bombs. Any machine created by our known laws of science causes a greater disorder in the universe as a whole. A bomb is just the most extreme and irrefutable example. So, instead of making laws about what cannot be done, scientists should instead invent laws that show us the ways things can be done. The negative character of thermodynamics is a case in point. Scientists nurtured in this climate of negativity have not, and never will, discover the secret of perpetual motion. They dismissed and jettisoned the awe and mystery of God. But the ancients were closer to the truth. So I began to construct in my mind perpetual motion machines. Not to pass the loneliness or the long hours you understand, but to come to terms with them."
I imagined airplanes the size of butterflies, jewel-encrusted wheels within wheels turning like miniature heavenly epicycles set in magic music boxes; delicate reticulate machines made of wood, intricate as the wings of dragonflies, sketches found in the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, while the small fuselage of the bus plummeted softly through a tunnel of darkness. Sleeping passengers sprawled awkwardly in their seats assuming angular, unnatural positions, like the photographs of the victims of some plane crash.
"The ancients, son, understood the music of the spheres. If God’s a perpetual motion machine, the devil is friction. There is no friction on the Ideal Plane. Friction is the downfall of all mankind. Friction, and its daughter, heat, wastes energy whenever a machine has moving parts. Even light is a form of heat, unless it is remembered light, or divine light, or the light that illuminates our dreams. So any perpetual motion machine would have to be cast wholly out of darkness, darkness in all of its various forms. There are as many kinds of darkness, my boy, as there are types of sleep. Therefore, we must get rid of all moving parts completely. The same goes with electricity. Whenever electrical currents encounter resistance, heat is generated, also wasting energy. So we must eliminate electricity."
The bus slowed and stopped, its pneumatic breaks hissing with big airy sighs at a small station. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t see any other structures besides the simple depot which made it appear as unlikely and strange as a church in the wilderness. Like all stations, this one had a puritan, almost ascetic quality—a bare metal bench, a rack of brochures and a vending machine that dispensed tepid coffee and pre-wrapped sandwiches. Neon lights sizzled in the dark, orbed in a halo of moths. I watched three passengers, still bleary with sleep, grab their bags and sluggishly disembark. One, I could tell, was clearly a farmer with his son. Both had on a pair of overalls. The other wore a drab pinstripe suit. He had a comb-over and could have been a door-to-door shoe salesman. There were no cars in the parking lot and not a soul in sight. ‘So this is the last stop,’ I thought to myself, ‘and no one here to meet you.’ Three more passengers climbed on board, their faces ruddy with the cold. The first to climb the stairs was a teenager who swaggered down the aisle with an insolent grin. He was wearing a light windbreaker with a Mets logo, low-slung baggy jeans and a Yankees baseball cap that he wore backwards. The other two passengers, pretty blond women in their early twenties perhaps, smiled pleasantly at each person they passed as they searched for their assigned seats. Their pleasantries were met with indifference. I immediately recognized the type: Europeans on a cross-country tour of the United States. Their suitcases were covered with stickers from different cities; Boston, New York, Baltimore, Columbus…
"I’m talking about perpetual motion son. You listening? Real work output requires input energy, sport, and that costs money. You can see where that line of reasoning leads. You follow me? We need a machine that produces only virtual work, a machine like love or forgiveness." He paused, sighing deeply, clearly spent by his disquisition. Then with a burst of energy, as though the thought had just occurred to him, he added, "such a machine, of course, being based upon the antithesis of thermodynamics, would have to be capable of dreaming. And of emotion, since the word ‘emotion’ has, as its root the word ‘motion’ to begin with."
The morning was approaching, a glow in the east, like light seen through the isinglass of old coal stoves. In the multicolored mists cows waited patiently, protean within the wombs of their shadows. I thought of my impending destination, how far I had come and how far I had still to go. And at that moment I never wanted to arrive anywhere, only to move ceaselessly, without destinations or ends. I was no longer moving through the landscape, it was flowing through me. My body became one with the motion of the bus, the engine droning in my blood, the hum of the wheels an electric current coursing through my bones, reaching my skull until my brain resonated with a delicious delirium. I was unattached, unencumbered by the mundane, fragmentary details of my life. Motion itself was the thread that seamlessly stitched together all of those unassembled unresolved memories. That sensation of existing outside of time, and being simultaneously at one with it, without questions or reservations, a rapture glimpsed only a few times in the course of a life, in moments of love or asleep. The only word I have ever known for this state is joy. It was what my wife had called it, on a road trip we had taken through a shimmering Vermont autumn, just after we were married, when the leaves trembled like butterflies. I reveled in the moment because it could not last, because I would wake up from this dream and again become chained with petty obligations, even though I had thus far lived in the illusion of escaping them.
My companion gazed wistfully out of the window, the lobes of his ears like blue shells. And then he said, almost to himself, in a voice remote as the sea: "And what would these machines dream of? Would their dreams remotely resemble our own? What could they tell us of our lives, of death? Assuming they had any desire to communicate with us in the first place. How could we ever know, except through some form of telepathy. Perhaps they already exist, in hidden government laboratories, or in nature itself.
"I’m not interested in immortality, mind you, in having my existence proved by an infallible clock. I have little to show for my life beyond the fact that I was here. And a gravestone is as good a testament as any machine. At my age I don’t really care about patenting it for a fortune, or saving the planet. The trick, my boy, is this." He turned for the first time to directly face me. His skin was drawn and translucent gray, his breath smelled vaguely of diesel oil and fresh-cut grass, but still his eyes burned blue as gasoline flames.
"If one could invent a perpetual motion machine, one could stay forever ahead of one’s self, of one’s sufferings, a trick, no, a feat not even love or dreaming in love can achieve." His voice came from a long inner distance, beyond immediacy or intimacy.
With this declaration he fell silent. For the first time he looked down with a look of surprise at his hands, which lay still and asleep in his lap. He turned and leaned his head on the Plexiglas, gazing out at the hills with an expression both weary and remote. And I felt suddenly a spectator to my own misspent years; years of rootless meandering with nothing to show but my age. The shock of my ex-wife’s death dawned on me, making me acutely aware of a youth already passed. She had been so vital and alive that it was my own inability to commit which had driven me first from her, then from place to place through the glissando of the years.
I thought of the dead in their caskets, their rouged faces, moonlight trapped beneath the skin, the hands folded ponderously above the funeral bouquets, their feet somehow impossibly large and heavy, the perpetual night. And now I was returning, to remember something of all that time and place, sitting in a bus with an intimate stranger, while the windows turned lucid and blue, and all about me the dawn showed its fires. And then I remembered the dark, and the endless, and the seas of clairvoyant wheat.