Tesla and Wife

By Lydia Millet

I knew a great man once. At the same time I knew a great man and a woman who loved him.

When I first met Mr. Tesla he looked like Count Dracula — tall and painfully thin, with cheeks sunken in. It was during the Second World War at the Hotel New Yorker. I was a maid there at the time: my first job out of high school, the first time I paid my own way. He was ancient, his skin as white as his hair.

He had been on the cover of Time magazine when he was seventy-five but later, when I knew him, he was living on scraps from old admirers. For decades he had lived in hotels; it was a suite at the Waldorf for years, but in the New Yorker all he had was a shabby room on the thirty-third floor.

He had invented electricity. Lights, one of the bellhops told me my first day on the job. Maybe the radio, except Mr. Marconi took the credit. He let companies steal his ideas, said my friend Pia. She was the one who loved him. He should have been very rich, she said, but he was not concerned with money.

He knew important people, and now and then some of them came to visit him. Some were squat men from Europe with square heads and bellies that stuck out; some were American. He told Pia he was inventing a Death Beam. That was why the men from the government came: we were fighting the Germans, and the FBI and the War Department wanted the Death Beam.

He kept his pigeons in his room with him. We were only allowed in to clean when his fear of germs grew stronger than his need to be alone. I was glad when he let us in. I didn’t want him to live badly. He was strange but very kind, when he remembered to be.

He called the pigeons his best friends. His “most sincere friends,” as he said. They came to the window and he fed them, and a lot of them roosted there. He had nesting baskets for them and cages custom-made by carpenters; he had a curtained shower for them to bathe in and casks of his favorite birdseed mixture, rapeseed and hemp and canary. On the floor and on the furniture was the evidence, feathers and white messes. I would go in with my cart and hear birds cooing in the shadows.

He kept a photograph of a pigeon that had died some twenty years before. Sometimes he called her the white pigeon, other times the white dove. In certain languages, he said, they used the same word for both. She was his true love, he said, a white pigeon with gray on her wings … later I would read that he had said he loved her as a man loves a woman. He never said that to me, but he did say other things. He said she filled his heart with happiness, and that when he’d realized how sick she was he stayed with her, waiting for her to die. When she died a light emanated from her and his eyes hurt from the brightness. He knew then that his work on earth was ended.

A pigeon might seem serene, he said, but that was a trick of the feathers. The feathers were soft but beneath them it was bloody. That was beauty, said Tesla: the raw veins, the gray-purple meat beneath the down.

I should have died when she died, he went on, but death, I think it slipped by me.

Some people made fun of him for saying he loved the pigeon like a woman, though I never thought it was funny. People love their pets but the love is tinged with sadness. Because the love is for a pet, they are ashamed of this. They want the love to seem as small as a hobby so no one will have to feel sorry for them. Tesla was not ashamed. He was never ashamed. People did not understand that and they called him perverted.

Pia loved Tesla like he loved the pigeon.

Since I knew Pia sometimes I have thought: I would have liked to know that love.

She thought he was as good as a saint — a saint or even more. She had her own problems. One of them was a harelip. Tesla had so much knowledge, she said, that it was as though he was God himself. And like God he could not pretend he was human. This was why he failed despite all his ideas, why other men lived in comfort with wives to serve their needs and he was alone and poor.

Why God sent his son down to die for our sins, said Pia, was he could not come down himself. He would not have known how to talk to regular people, she said. Pia was part Catholic and part something else, a religion from her parents’ village in Cyprus. I was brought up Methodist and didn’t know much about it.

In my church we had God, of course. We also had God in my church. But He was all the feathers, downy feathers and none of the dark blood.

How the dust gathered! — on the dark file cabinets, the cupboard, the large safe in the corner and the desk. Tesla forgot the surfaces of things. He didn’t need to write down his ideas for inventions, he said, because he could keep them in his head. He did use paper, though; he liked to draw pictures of places he dreamed about. The pages had a few words as well as drawings but hardly any math on them. I didn’t know much back then but I had seen an equation or two in high school, and I was pretty sure you would need math to invent a Death Beam.

He called me “Mees.” He called all the maids that.

Every day he went to feed the pigeons outside the library. He went with duty and an aspect of hope. If he was sick and could not feed the birds he had a boy do it for him, a boy named Charles who raised racing pigeons. He walked with a cane by the time I met him, because he had been hit by a car two blocks away. His first thought when he got back to his room, with three ribs broken, was that someone had to do the day’s feeding for him. He sent out a bellhop with his bag of seed.

Anyone else might have gone to the hospital but Tesla had no truck with doctors.

When I first cleaned his rooms I thought the birds were disgusting. I would avoid the rooms whenever I could and leave them to Pia. She was a harder worker and didn’t turn up her nose at anything. But after a while Tesla began to talk to me. He told me how smart some pigeons are, how they see ultraviolet light and remember things for years. He told me homing pigeons were carrying messages for the army and saving the lives of soldiers, how vast flocks of passenger pigeons had been shot out of the sky for the pleasure of shooting and five billion turned to none. He said it was a little boy who shot down the last of the passenger pigeons.

Tesla told me that he chose not to marry. He said love could be all right for working people, and maybe also for poets and artists, but not for inventors like him who had to use all their passion for invention. He was friends with Mark Twain, who was devoted to his own wife. I think maybe that’s why he said writers could get married and still do good work: he didn’t want to hurt Mark Twain’s feelings.

Pia said he was chaste, and that was why he was not interested in women. Never once did I see a woman in his suite, except for Pia cleaning. Her husband beat her so badly she went deaf in one ear; her left eyelid drooped from when he flicked it half off with a knife tip.

Women could not tempt Tesla, she said.

One time Pia came into work after a bad night and Tesla asked if she would go out and feed the pigeons with him. She was limping from a kick to the knee. Marco was handsome and slept with girls he met in bars; sometimes he brought one home and made Pia sleep on the couch while he took the girl into their bedroom. Then Pia would have to listen to them. I was very fond of Pia but no one would have called her a good-looking woman. Mostly it was the harelip, since otherwise she was fine, warm brown eyes and a nice figure. I think that’s why Marco picked her, because he knew she would feel lucky to have a man at all and he figured he needed someone who would work for her keep and would never leave him.

Tesla seemed to believe her stories, how she fell down the stairs, etc. One time she claimed her nose was broken by a children’s ball that burst through her kitchen window. I heard her tell him this because we were doing his rooms together. He nodded politely. But I happened to know her kitchen had no windows.

Tesla had close women friends, though none were his girlfriends. He believed women were as smart as men, and that one day they would be just as educated and maybe even more so. Back then, in 1943, it was rare to hear anyone say such a thing. He also said that one day people would all carry little telephones in their pockets, telephones without wires.

Anyway, the morning Pia was limping Tesla invited her to go feed the pigeons with him. She said she couldn’t leave work. He said he knew a way she could sneak out if she wanted to meet him in the park. He said “Please, Mees,” and looked at her solemnly.

I was scrubbing the inside of his windows with balled-up newspaper. I said “Go, go,” and promised I would cover for her. Pia never got to walk in the park. At least for me, on my way home to my apartment, I could take my time if it was still daylight, I could wait to get on the bus until the park was behind me with its cool greenness and its shade in the summer, or in the winter its sloping fields of light snow. Then I dreamed as the bus carried me, dreamed as I was carried along in the warmth above the cold road below. I read cheap novels and I dreamed, but Pia did not know how to read.

She and Tesla went out and were gone for a couple of hours. I scrubbed hard, tore around trying to do twice as much as I could so that I seemed like two women. It wasn’t hard to get fired back then and I didn’t want it to happen to Pia.

When they got back she looked happy. At the time I thought it was the fresh air that did it, having the sun on her face when she was almost always inside. I asked her how it had been and she half-smiled, which she hardly ever did because it called attention. But she didn’t say much.

It was three days later that I knocked on Tesla’s door with his new bags of birdseed on a handcart. The different seeds had to be mixed according to his recipe. There was a Do Not Disturb sign hanging on the doorknob and it had been there too long and was alarming me, so when he didn’t come to the door I went in with my key.

He was lying facing the wall, pigeons clucking around him. It was so cold in his room I could see my breath. A small mourning dove strutted back and forth on his arm and I heard the faint sound of traffic; when he didn’t notice the dove walking on him I knew he had gone away.

He had been gone for two days, they said when the doctor left. He was eighty-six after all and chest pains had bothered him. Sometimes he fainted. Before I knew it the body had been removed. Later I found out someone made a death mask of his face. But it looked nothing like him.

When I saw him on the bed, nothing but a slight rise on the sheets, I knew I would leave the hotel behind. An idea came to me of a warmly lit house.

We were shut out of his rooms and from the end of the hallway watched government men come and go. They wore trench coats and didn’t take off their hats. They carted away practically every piece of paper in all of the rooms. There were policemen with them, standing around in the halls and cracking jokes and smoking. They held the elevator forever and dropped their cigarette butts on the floor, left burns on the carpet where they ground out the burning stubs with their shoes. They took a lot of other things too, the heavy safe, the cabinets and bookshelves and every stick of furniture. When we went in later to clean the rooms they were completely bare. Only a few downy puffs in the corners, and long gray droppings down the walls where the cabinets had stood. The wallpaper had to be stripped.

The mayor read a eulogy over the radio, and people came from all over to attend the funeral at St. John the Divine. Over two thousand of them, we heard. Even Mrs. Roosevelt sent a condolence note. Pia and I wanted to go but we couldn’t get off work; she said a prayer and lit a votive candle.

But I think, even then, that she had left it behind. By it I mean the regular world — the Hotel New Yorker and me. She had already gone; she had gone after Tesla. She had no use for a world without him.

And the next time I saw her she was in jail. I went to visit her after she was sent up the river.

She told me the poisoning had been painful and she was sorry for that. She hadn’t wanted Marco to suffer, she said, because suffering wouldn’t have changed him. But all they had in the house was strychnine, to kill the rats that shared the basement with them.

I was so used to getting along with her that I really wanted to nod, to say “What can you do?” To say that we were still friends. But my mouth was shut. I was almost struck dumb.

When she got home from work the night of Tesla’s funeral, she told me, Marco was in their apartment, a dingy basement in a tenement on the Lower East Side. It was a ten-by-ten living room with a grated window at ground level, a sofa and a table; the bedroom was the size of their bed, and the bathroom was the size of a closet. Marco was drinking and listening to music and getting all revved up to go out and meet women, as he did every Thursday and Fridays too. Saturdays he went to see his old mother in Hoboken, who was still bitter that he married a harelip when he could have had anyone.

He yelled at Pia as soon as she stepped over the threshold, because his favorite dress shirt was wrinkled. He threw it at her to iron.

She was glad to iron the shirt, she told me. She had always liked the peace that came with ironing. It was a night like any other night in the routine, but for her it was entirely different. Because Tesla was gone and she was thinking of Tesla and how much she had loved him. She ironed and she remembered: dear Tesla with his gentle voice. She recalled his predictions and smiled to think of them, a world where such predictions came true.

By now the shirt looked perfect. Tesla, it seemed to her, believed in the goodness of everyone. Still they took all he had from him. They took things only he could give and ran away with them.

And then there was Marco.

She kept on ironing and smiling. At last a flatter shirt had never been.

Marco’s music was floating in from the radio in the bedroom — Tommy Dorsey, she said. Marco was shaving at the bathroom sink; they used straight razors then. She hung the shirt on a padded hanger and tapped some rat poison into his drink. Then she took the drink into the bathroom to him.

Nothing was ever, ever so easy, she told me. As easy as falling.

She looked so calm she reminded me of the small picture of the Virgin glued into her locker, except with a harelip. She’d thought he would die right there, she said, and she would have to watch it, but the poison took longer than she expected. She thought it would be instant but he was out the door not two minutes after she gave it to him, his hair slick with pomade, taking all the money from her paycheck. They told her later that he fell down in a crowded subway car, at the feet of two older ladies from Brooklyn, where he jerked and wriggled until the car was stopped at a station and they loaded him onto a stretcher. When the police came to her door it was only to give her the bad news, she said, but she nodded and went with them right away. She put on her coat, picked up her hand­bag and walked right over to the morgue, and then back to the precinct building.

“Why did you tell?” I asked. “You might have gotten away with it.”

I was sad it had come to this. Not for Marco — the one time I met him I knew he was a vicious kind of person and more or less deserved for bad things to happen to him — but for her. I wished she could have just divorced him, a thing that went against her beliefs even more than murder. Because she wouldn’t get out of Sing Sing anytime soon, I was thinking. She would be an old woman by then.

“It didn’t matter,” she said. “I already saw the dove.”

I was looking at the groove in her upper lip and think­ing how she was a better worker than I was. She worked without stopping and she always did exactly what they told her. If someone told her to wash the same wall six times, she would do it. Myself I would often stop cleaning and stare into the air, pretend I was floating in a cool lake or flying.

“The white dove?” I asked her. I figured she had pretty much gone crazy.

She said yes.

“I thought the white dove was dead,” I said in what I hoped was a gentle way.

“She was,” said Pia.

“Oh,” I said, and nodded.

“We were there on the steps,” she said, “with all of those birds. And in between them was the space where she wasn’t. Mr. Tesla showed me. ‘This was where she was once,’ he said. The third step from the top, I think. We just stood there and threw down the seeds. But I looked at the space. That was when I saw it.”

She grabbed my hands and pressed them. She was shaking, she was that agitated, and her hands were warm and damp.

“When Jesus died for our sins,” she whispered, “he turned into the universe.” She was hurrying to get the words out, as if she feared someone might come in and stop her from speaking. It all came out in a rush.

A minute later the guard came over and made us separate our hands. No touching was allowed. But by then I was almost relieved.

I never found out what happened to her in the end. I know she got an infection from some kind of internal injury; there had been rioting in the prison before she got there and it was still pretty rough. They beat her up worse than Marco had. She wrote and told me she was sick, and I sent a letter to her but it came back to me. By then I wasn’t cleaning anymore. I had saved my money for secretarial school and worked as a waitress in the evenings. I slept the rest of my hours away and had no time for friends, absent or otherwise. I thought of the house I would live in one day, with its flower garden and light shining forth from small golden windows.

The prison said she had been transferred but the second prison had lost track of her too, as though she was never there.

For me she did not disappear. I had her words and I could never shake them; I had her love for Tesla and his love for the bird.

My own love, it has seemed to me, has only ever been a love of feathers. However hard it tries, it never gets beneath.

She told me Jesus was the world. The sun was God’s eye, she said, the oceans were the water of his body, the rivers were the veins carrying his blood. Did I know that? The grasses of the field were his hair and the trees were his lungs, the doves and the birds and the animals were wishes of his heart. Each one a piece of his longing. The blood had run out of Jesus’s wounds, she said, and never stopped running. It ran into the oceans, over which the sun set.

All of this was Jesus and was God.

So did I see what that meant? Dead and alive were the same thing, she said. Dead and alive, they were exactly the same.