Image: Nikola Tesla at his East Houston lab in New York City, reading in front of the spiral coil of his high-frequency transformer.
July 1920: The millionaire-son of a late inventor wanders the halls of his Walkerville home in search of sleep. His housekeeper thinks he should get out more and take advantage of the electricity in the air.
I remember sleep, how good it was, real sleep, not passed out drunk or full of pills sleep but sleep like a baby sleep. Sometimes I think if I set my cheek upon my pillow just so and conjure up peaceful enough thoughts, I might actually fall gently asleep and stay that way until morning. But like most nights I’m lying here in the dim light, staring at the floral pattern on the wall and listening to the gentle whirr of an electric fan that’s slowly shaking its head at me. I’ve tried warm milk and counting sheep. Warm milk turns my stomach and the last time I counted sheep I got to seven hundred before finally giving up and going downstairs to make myself a sandwich.
I can’t think of anything I should be losing sleep over. I live a comfortable enough life. When my father died he left me with some money. I say he left me with it; he didn’t exactly leave it to me. I discovered uncashed cheques in his desk drawers and stock certificates in one of his toolboxes. That was four years ago. I spent an afternoon at the lawyer’s office while he explained it all - the will, the accounts, the assets - and pushed endless pieces of paper towards me to sign.
The story goes something like this: my father invented things, or he at least improved upon them. He hailed from Montreal, an only child who lost both his parents in a flash flood and was raised by an elderly aunt. I sometimes go over details like these while I’m lying here. People tell me I should be writing all of this this down, but I couldn’t pretend to write a postcard.
He was first employed with the phone company, assembling telephones in Bell’s factory in the early ‘80’s. Being young, bright and unencumbered, he was recruited to help engineer the wiring of cities from Montreal to Toronto, later Toronto to Hamilton, and then further and further south. By the time he reached the Border Cities, he was bored with the work and full of his own ideas. Seduced by the long, hot summers and seeing opportunity at every turn, he remained here.
One seventeen: about the time I usually get up and look out the window. I step into my slippers, don my bed robe and shuffle on over.
It’s a full moon and there’s not a cloud in the sky. I gaze down onto this sleepy neighbourhood intersection and it’s as still as a photograph – save for the cat that’s prowling around the hedgerow. To the east, towards Monmouth Road, I can almost see the home my father lived in when he settled in Walkerville. That was after he left the phone company and started working in local factories and machine shops. He made a name for himself very quickly and was soon called upon to assist in the development of an electric streetcar. When the line was eventually completed, it ran from downtown Windsor along Riverside Drive to the ferry dock just a few blocks north of here. I don’t think he ever rode it. He walked everywhere, briskly, as if something or someone were chasing him.
One twenty-one: time for my late-night constitutional.
There’s enough ambient light that I can see my way clearly through the hallway – though I still can’t resist gliding my hand along the banister. On my left are my parents’ room, the guest room, and a spare room that was furnished but is never used. I have Mrs. Gillespie keep the curtains drawn and the windows open in fair weather. I read somewhere that a house has to breathe. My hand stops at the acorn atop the post. The finish is worn from years of me gripping it as I turned to descend the stairs.
When I said my father invented things, I didn’t mean gramophones or motion picture cameras. I meant the little things, the almost invisible things that make everything else possible, like relay switches, capacitors and coils. It wasn’t long after the streetcar project was completed that he was asked to help engineer the conversion of gas streetlights in the area to electric. And before that project was even finished, he was coaxed back to the telephone company to help install switchboards across the Border Cities. For a while it must have seemed like my father was knitting the world – or at least our corner of it - together with wire.
It was around that time that I – and come to think of it, this house – came into being. When my father registered his first patent, he got himself a lawyer. When his patents started making money, his lawyer advised him to get an accountant. His accountant offered him two pieces of advice: invest in real estate and hire a secretary to manage the day-to-day affairs. And so the next day my father hired a secretary and consulted a real estate broker. Some three months later he married his secretary and broke ground on this property.
The house was completed in the summer of ’97. No expense was spared in the William Morris-inspired décor. I understand my mother had everything to do with that. My father opted out of making it his masterpiece of modern conveniences. At any rate it’s a handsome pile, brick from top to bottom with variety in its layout and an interesting roofline. And it’s become quite picturesque since the ivy and rose bushes have filled out.
I like being able to knock around the house like this without Mrs. Gillespie scurrying about picking up after me. I’m pausing to enjoy the cool of the marble floor here in the foyer. To my right is the library where I read by the soft light that ripples through the lead glass, and to my left is the salon - floor to ceiling windows overlooking the perennial garden. This is where I will often attempt a nap in the afternoon. I'm not always successful.
The lack of sleep does catch up with me, and usually at the most inopportune time: during last year’s Victoria Day celebrations (I collapsed in front of a marching band); at the soda counter at Lanspeary’s drugstore; or five minutes into a double-feature at the Walkerville Theatre. I’ve seen every doctor in the Border Cities. Half of them say I’m a narcoleptic while the other half say I’m an insomniac. I’m not quite sure in whose waiting room that leaves me.
Yes, I spend a lot of time alone. No, I don’t talk to myself, not exactly. Instead what I find myself doing is leading imaginary conversations with people in my head - or telling myself stories. One thing tends to lead to another. I might ramble a bit but I think I'm at least entertaining.
When Gordon McGregor struck the deal with Henry Ford that brought the automobile industry this side of the border, my father saw a new place to channel his energies. Mother and the automobile more or less displaced each other. To be quite honest, I don’t remember much about her except that she had red hair and smelled of lilacs. And she was always traveling with an aunt. The lawyers contacted her when my father died. They needed to make sure she still wasn’t interested in any of his money and she wasn’t. I think she’s still living in California.
The way outside at this time of night is through the kitchen, and the way to the kitchen is down this narrow hallway that runs alongside the stairs. Clean white tile on the walls and floor. Lingering dinner smells. An empty milk bottle with a note in it. I’ll leave the light on for myself.
This back door, where Mrs. Gillespie takes the deliveries, is another way to the garden. I let her have an inconspicuous corner of it for her vegetables – tomato plants, radishes, cucumbers, those sorts of things.
The night is so full: the scent of the rose bushes; the on-again off-again glow of fireflies; the cacophony of crickets; the feel of the dew on my ankles as I step off the flagstone and onto the lawn. I’m reminded of the time my father tried to explain to me the electricity in the air and in our bodies. I asked him what that might have to do with the birds and the bees and my feelings for a girl at Sunday school and he changed the subject to the great geomagnetic storm of 1859.
The gate in the wrought iron fence creaks but all I have to do is lift it slightly as I pull it open and it’s silent. One of my little tricks. It’s a few steps to the corner and then I think I’ll turn down Devonshire Road.
I have no explanation for the way my mind works when I’m in this state. It jumps around with random thoughts and reminiscences and before I know it my nerves are frayed to the point where I want to crawl out of my skin. This walk is meant to forestall that. At my worst moments, my mind seems to be working against my body. I’ll drift off to sleep and then my mind will jolt my body back awake as if to say, ‘oh no you don’t!’
When Britain declared war on Germany and Canada followed her into battle I was told that because of my asthma I had to ‘sit this one out,’ which made it sound more like a football match. I still have mixed feelings about that. I remember standing in front of the newsstands, reading the headlines and then going home with as many newspapers and magazines as I could carry. I wanted to at least try and make some sense of it all. But I couldn’t. I lost most of my friends in that football match.
What made even less sense to me at the time was my father dying of cancer. Like so many other things in his life, it happened so quickly. My father, the perpetual motion machine, had suddenly stopped working. The doctors said it had something to do with the materials he was using in his basement workshop. Upon their recommendation, I had it emptied and scrubbed clean. Nothing remains. Though, I still have one of the toys he made for me: a handle with two metal rods coming out of it, parallel, forming a sort of question mark and connected at the end. A disk with a magnetic axle rolls up and down, over and under the rods with a flick of the wrist. The faster the disc moves, the brighter the sparks inside it glow. I have no idea what powers it and I don’t wish to know. I’ll take whatever magic there is left in the world.
There’s something delightfully sinful about being out and about at night in one’s pyjamas and slippers. I feel like an escapee. Standing under a streetlight here at Wyandotte, where it’s usually bustling during the day, it’s silent and empty – except for a figure moving towards me from down near Argyle. Perhaps I’m hallucinating.
“Bill,” I whisper loudly, “is that you?”
The silhouette enlarges as it moves towards me.
“Mr. Falcourel? What are you doing out at this hour?”
The constable caught up to me.
“Stretching my legs, Bill. Care to join me in a late-night snack?”
“Come on, Bill. You still haven’t put that weight back on that you lost during the war.”
He looked up and down the four corners of the intersection.
“Trust me, the neighbourhood is in a deep slumber.”
“All right,” he said as he stroked his moustaches. “Let’s just say I’m answering a call then.”
“Let’s. But first - would you happen to have a cigarette?”
The constable frisked himself.
“Indeed I do.”
“I’ll owe you.”
I got the thing going with the aid of a matchstick and then we started our leisurely walk towards the house.
“How are your two boys?”
“They’re well, thank you, sir. When the weather’s fine – which it has been of late – they cool themselves in the river. On off days the wife sends them either to the library or to the pictures.”
“Oh - what do they like at the pictures?”
“Westerns mostly. I don’t know why. Must be the horses and the guns.”
That got us talking about the pictures coming up at our local cinema. When we got to the garden gate, I opened it for him and lead the way to the kitchen door.
“After you, Bill.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Before entering, I remembered to dispose of my unfinished cigarette beneath one of the flagstones.
“I’ll see what Mrs. Gillespie’s left for us in the ice-box.”
The constable pulled himself a chair at the old oak table and set his hat down.
“Ah – there’s still some leftover roast chicken. How does that sound?”
“Delicious,” he said.
“And to drink? Buttermilk? Perhaps a ginger ale or some lemonade?”
“A splash of lemonade would be fine.”
I pulled some plates and glasses off the sideboard and set the table.
“There’s cutlery in that drawer to the left of you.”
A pitcher of cool lemonade, some bread to go along with the chicken, and a few jars of pickled preserves.
“Most kind of you, sir.”
I always hate the way people talk to money, especially money as young and foolish as me.
“Please, call me Doug.”
“Right, Doug it is, sir.”
The constable helped himself to some of the chicken and I sawed off a few slices of bread.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” said the constable in a measured tone, “are you having trouble sleeping again?”
“Yes,” I said, a little embarrassed. “I was hoping the walk and some fresh air might help put things right.”
“You know,” started Bill between bites, “my wife sees a sort of specialist, swears by him. Of course I was a bit leery at first, but he really seems to have done the trick. What I’m saying is, he has a variety of ancient treatments for our modern maladies.”
“We’re not talking about one of those Chinese witch doctors are we? The fellows with dried herbs and ducks hanging in the window?”
“Well, yes. What she takes is a sort of tea that - .”
“Thanks, Bill, but I’ll sort myself out. I just need to fall into a better sort of pattern, the right kind of routine. A sort of re-alignment.”
“If you say so, sir - Doug.” Bill wiped some chicken grease off his plate with a piece of bread, which he then stuffed into his mouth. When he finished chewing, he said, “but I know what it’s like to go without sleep.”
“Are you talking about the war now?”
“Indeed. Huddled in a trench, being shelled for days on end. Some of the boys could manage sleep in all that, but I couldn’t. Why, I remember one time in the Ardennes…”
“Mr. Falcourel? Mr. Falcourel?”
“Wha - ? Oh.”
I was collapsed in my kitchen chair.
“You fell asleep.”
“So I did,” I said, blinking. “What time is it?"
Mrs. Gillespie checked the silver timepiece that always hung from her apron. A gift from me.
“Just after seven.” She started clearing the table. “You had company last night.”
I was rubbing my eyes and trying to remember.
“Bill Chisholm…a member of our local constabulary…he was telling me a story.”
“It must have been a good one. What time do you figure you dozed off?”
“I don’t know…two, two-thirty.”
“You must have needed the sleep.”
“Yes, I must have needed the sleep, Mrs. Gillespie.” She excelled at the obvious. “Is there coffee?”
“There will be.”
She was rinsing the dishes now.
“You have an appetite this morning.”
“Yes, I had this idea of taking the streetcar into Windsor to see what they know.”
“Will you be needing anyone to go with you?”
The last time I took the streetcar into Windsor I fell dead asleep halfway there around Langlois Avenue. I happened to have my lawyer’s card in my coat pocket and so, probably thinking I was him, a couple of the passengers spilled me into a cab and sent me there. I awoke to a panicked secretary fanning me with a legal brief.
“I know what you’re getting at. I’m a big boy, Mrs. Gillespie. I’m wearing long pants now.”
“You’re wearing pyjamas - and you’ve been out in the garden in your slippers. We’ll talk about that later.”
She got the coffee things out and set them on the table. Then she dropped a couple thick slices of bread into the Thermax. Ker-chunk.
“I think it’s a grand idea, you going downtown. What sort of trouble were you thinking of getting yourself into? Maybe while you’re there you could - .”
Here we go again, I thought to myself.
“Meet a pretty girl possessed with a certain wit and charm. We could have lunch together, get to know each other, and fall hopelessly in love. We’ll have a quick ceremony at City Hall and honeymoon up in Michigan.”
“That’s not what I was going to say.”
She was drying the dishes now, nearly rubbing the glaze right off them. Five-foot nothing and nearly seventy years old but I swear even the delivery man was afraid of her, and rightly so. I watched her drag a neighbour’s boy home by his ear after she caught him spitting on the sidewalk.
“Perhaps not, but you were thinking it.”
“And where’s the sin in that? Why, a man of your position, it’s a sin not to be - .”
“I know, I know.” I took a sip of my coffee and gave the conversation some breathing room. “Do I have a clean suit, something light-weight? If it’s going to be anything like it was yesterday I’d like to make sure I’m comfortable – and presentable in case I meet that certain someone.”
I gave her a wink.
"Let me finish with this mess before I move on to your wardrobe,” she said. “Just don’t dawdle – get down there before the sun melts the pavement.”
“All right. Is that the toast I smell burning?”
She started whipping the Thermax with her damp tea towel.
“Ach – these infernal machines!”
Mrs. Gillespie managed to tame the beast and salvage the couple pieces of toast from it for me.
“Yes, please.” I decided not to make an issue. I had more burning matters. Ha! She set down the butter and the marmalade. I started dressing my toast and said,
“I think I’d like to write about my father.”
She was shaking the crumbs out of the Thermax and into the sink.
“Don’t you think it would make a good story?”
“Who would read it?”
“I don’t know. Why’s anyone read anything?”
I could tell she was thinking about that and not just toast crumbs.
“Would you help me?” I asked.
“Help you with what?”
“Well, you knew him longer than I did. You’d remember things. You’d be able to provide some details, some insight.”
“You’re father was a very private man.”
“I don’t mean, you know, personal things. I mean, well, what was he like?”
White light is pouring down onto the Avenue from the top of the sky and my hat is providing no defense against the glare. I’m bumping into people: a man wearing a sandwich board that I can’t read; a nurse pushing a wheelchair – I think; girls walking arm in arm and singing a tune. I stepped off the Wyandotte streetcar about fifteen minutes ago, started towards the river and by the time I got to Park Street I was walking through a commotion. I crossed there to the west side and retreated into a sliver of shade in front of the Favourite Theatre, which is where I’m standing now. I know I should wait for my eyes to fully adjust but I’ve become impatient and so I’m moving on.
A fruit market…a florist. I’m relying on my other senses.
“Pardon me, ma’am.”
I feel like a mole unearthed or a bear that slept through spring.
Albert J. Sellak, Merchant Tailor
I think my eyes are finally coming into focus.
Ha! I should go home with an engagement ring and let Mrs. Gillespie find it in my coat pocket.
City Book Store
They carry stationary – notebooks as well as recent and popular publications. I’ll come back. Don’t wish to be carrying all that around.
I must be coming up to London Street – and if I remember correctly, Pond’s drugstore is along here somewhere. I might be able to procure a pair of sunglasses from them. What’s this?
“Experience the Healing Power of RAW ENERGY.”
"Dr. Raymond’s Scientifically-Proven Methods Cure ALL.”
I think I have time to make a casual inquiry.
Walking up the narrow, dimly-lit stairwell to the second-floor offices of Dr. Raymond I can’t help but think of my other, countless trips to the doctors for asthma, influenza, eyesight, insomnia… Dr. Raymond’s name was on the frosted glass of the door but there were no clues as to what it was all about. Still curious, I opened the door and stepped inside.
“Good afternoon,” I said.
The waiting room was empty and also dimly-lit. My eyes are comfortable with this. A petite blonde is sitting at a desk with nothing on it but a telephone, a pencil and a blank notepad.
“Good afternoon. Do you have an appointment?”
"No, I was just - .”
She was flipping through her blank notebook.
“You’re timing is perfect. Dr. Raymond just had a cancellation.”
“Actually, I was merely wondering if, if,,,you – .”
“I’ll tell him you’re here, Mr. ?”
“Falcourel, Douglas Falcourel. But do you think you could just - ?”
“Please wait here, Mr. Falcourel.”
She got up and disappeared into the next room. And then she reappeared and held the door open for me with those six words at the sound of which every man cringes.
“The doctor will see you now.”
I could smell her perfume as I sidled through the door.
“Thank you, Miss...?”
The doctor’s work area was cluttered with strange gadgets, large and small. He was sitting on a stool opposite what looked like a dentist’s chair. His white, unruly hair was parted on one side and he wore a neatly pressed suit of the darkest grey.
“Please, Mr. Falcourel, sit down right here.”
I climbed into the chair and leaned back.
“Now, what can I do for you? What is it you are suffering from?”
“I’m sorry, doctor but I really wasn’t prepared to …I mean I merely wanted to - .”
“Come, come, Mr. Falcourel."
I looked around the room again and it seemed to be shrinking around me. I convinced myself I had nothing to lose and si I opened up to him.
“I have trouble sleeping. In fact, I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in weeks. Sometimes I …,” and I went on to give him minute details of my sleep habits.
“Fascinating,” he said. “Tell me, Mr. Falcourel, how much do you know about the healing power of electricity?”
“Electricity – that’s what you mean by ‘raw power’ ?”
The doctor smiled a broad, illuminating smile.
“Well, I know a little bit. As a matter of fact, my - .”
“Bio-electrics. A healthy individual has a perfect balance of positive and negative electricity in their system. An unhealthy individual does not. It’s as simple as that. This is no modern fad, Mr. Falcourel. It’s scientifically proven and has been known for decades. Only now are people beginning to understand and appreciate these facts. We live in a world of electricity. The air, our bodies,” and he gestured around the room, “these machines …”
“Do you think you can cure me?”
“I will have to give you a preliminary examination, of course.”
“Of course.” I paused for a moment and then asked the doctor what his secretary’s name was.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“I’m sure she told me once. I just can’t remember. May we proceed?”
“Yes, of course.”
As the doctor examined my ears, nose, and throat, I took in the various gadgets, gizmos - some of which looked familiar - and posters around his office. And then my gaze turned back to him and I noticed the bloodshot lightning bolts that cracked the whites of his eyes.
And then he sat back in his chair.
“I’m afraid there is nothing that I can do for you, Mr. Falcourel.”
I straightened up.
“What? Why not?”
“It is my professional opinion, Mr. Falcourel, that you are already asleep.”
copyright Michael Januska, 2011