Nuclear Power and the Civil War Lizards
by Jeffrey Penn May
I was sitting here. In this office. And the two women standing in front of me became lizards. One moment, I was reading a “fact sheet.” The next? I looked up and saw them as lizards. The air-conditioning was broken. The day was hot and the humidity high. So seeing them as lizards seemed logical. Even so, I wrinkled my brow, twisted my lips, and scrunched up my nose.
My co-workers told me I looked sick.
“Yes, it is rather warm in here and there is a rain forest in my head. Must be something in the air.”
They responded in perfect unison, “Yes, must be,” and walked away as one. Murmuring.
Meanwhile, the lizards had gotten into a heated life-choice discussion, lashing long red tongues at each other, hissing, blowing off steam, and puffing on conciliatory cigarettes. “No smoking,” I said, but nobody paid attention.
“You’d better go home,” I heard.
I wanna go home! I wanna go home! I remembered singing those words eons ago while curled like a fetus, on the pavement and puking on a policeman’s shoe after running three stoplights, seventy in a thirty, and instigating a ruckus with my orangutan buddies. Those were the days.
“You’d better go home!” My boss was now a chimpanzee. His teeth were bared against me.
The ensuing scuffle was brief, as chimpanzees have five times the strength of humans, and I found myself out in the midday sun. It was good to be out of that office.
I ran across the highway, where only one car had to swerve. I climbed a chain-link fence and fell into Forest Park, where I found a nuclear power plant, a fully bloomed concrete erection next to the St. Louis Art Museum.
Clouds steamed from the cooling towers. The reactor sprayed a metallic-smelling mist, and it hissed as a horseman appeared in the clouds, a general from the Civil War: my grandfather. He galloped on thunderbolts from the huge cooling towers, wearing his pallid gray uniform, saber in hand, glistening steel, rage in his eyes as he attacked the clear blue sky.
He glared at me, reared back on his horse, then disappeared, only to reappear in the jungle of the park. Perhaps I watched six hundred of my grandfathers gallop with such virtuosity, accurate images of my ancestry, Tralfamadorian clouds.
“FORE!” came the battle cry, and suddenly I was in my Yankee uniform attacking the nuclear power plant on the battlefields of Forest Park.
Whirling dizzy in the smoke, the heat, running, the rebel yells, the whoops, battle cries, whoops whoops whoops! Another loud hiss and “FORE” I heard again, and “FORWARD,” I cried. Then whack! Like that! Suddenly, I was hit in the head and reeling into a blackout.
As I woke with a moan, there also came a sense of pride at being a fallen hero in battle like my ancestors. Then, abruptly, out of my realm, but aware to me in one of those subliminal fashions — I once liked a woman who wore a t-shirt with “subliminal” across her breasts — there came a vision. A golf ball ricocheted off my skull. It was an ultimate vision of spiritual orgasm transcending my normal life of lizards in the office and power plants in the park.
At that moment, I might have been converted to an up-and-coming religion called golf-ballism and its pleasures with the putter. Absolutely everybody had it pictured in graphic detail on their t-shirts. Except... my grandfather’s favorite battle poem flickered like neon in my mind. The repetition of his poesy saved me from such a frightening religious catharsis. It provided an artistic and honorable emission.
“All in the valley of death
Rode the six hundred.
Forward, the light brigade!
Forward, the light brigade!”
And so on, for seemingly endless repetitions while I lay beneath the cooling towers, searching for my Tralfamadorian grandfathers.
Two gray figures appeared over me. I could barely hear them.
“Is he dead?”
“I don’t know.”
“I think he’s dead.”
“I don’t know. He was hit hard. Maybe we should get help.”
As if those Rebs were going to help a Yankee. Then I noticed a rather strange emblem. An alligator or big lizard on the lapel of one of their uniforms. Must be a Louisiana swamp outfit, but why the hell were they carrying golf clubs into battle?
I must’ve blacked out again because when I opened my eyes, the two lizards were there. Above me. They were singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic in garbled lizard voices. As if their vocal cords were covered in phlegm.
Yet, something was amiss. I blinked once, then twice, and they became southern belles with clear voices, emanating vigor and health, literally attracting me up from the battlefield. I followed the singing belles to the Municipal Art Museum, now converted to a field hospital.
The wounded were shipped out on a Mississippi River towboat called the United States. The huge boat thrust a tow twelve barges long, four wide, through the ooze and slime.
We were spread out on the barges, and we were baking our wounds in the sun. My southern belles were there as nurses. They were awfully pretty. I was falling desperately in love with both of them.
The light-haired one, the one with a smear across her brow, she smiled at me as I lay dying, almost, on the hot deck. I was numb. But when she gently removed the bloodied red badge from my head and tore her own petticoat for a fresh bandage, I felt all her tenderness.
Yet, I still heard myself ask a pertinent question. “Are you a lizard from my St. Louis office?”
“Why no, poor dear boy, why no!” She held her palm next to my cheek. My eyes felt really open. Too wide. Eyes big as golf balls. And my emerging love was scary.
She kissed me on the forehead, took fretful breaths, and attended to a soldier next to me. The soldier was a victim at Harrisburg, wounded in the testicles. My belle checked his pulse, casting affectionate glances at me and my still intact testicles.
The other belle, the dark-haired one, had tough, knowing, yet wondering eyes. She gave me water, and she kept me from death.
“Are you a Liz...” I tried to ask. But as I gazed at her, I knew she wasn’t. A Lizzy maybe. Or a young Liz Taylor. But not a lizard.
Near Baton Rouge it began to rain. My belles shielded me from the burning rain and its splattering acidity. Then they rolled the body of the Harrisburg soldier overboard. He disappeared into the ooze.
On the thirteenth day, I asked, “Where am I? Are we having a good time?”
“It’s New Orleans!” my belles responded. “We’ve made it in time for the Mardi Gras Marathon!”
That comment seemed a little weird, because Mardi Gras is in February and this was June. Also, it seemed harsh because I wasn’t in good enough shape to run a marathon. Those too ebullient entities would run like fleet-footed goddesses. I’d be unable to follow.
“No doubt,” I said, “Pheidippides will also be running?”
“Why of course, his ghost is always ahead of the masses. Don’t worry, you’ll run like Pheidippides.”
The dark-haired one, she whispered in my ear, “The finish line is at the New Orleans Nuclear Power Plant.” Then she grinned broadly, showing white, sparkling teeth from one pretty ear to the next.
“Why, honey,” the light-haired one said, “You’ve been sick so long now... But we know you’ll run well, we just know it.”
The Civil War soldiers were transformed into skinny young men wearing skimpy nylon shorts. Marathon runners, not soldiers, disembarked from the boat. I was one of them, healed and ready at the start of the marathon, poised next to my precious belles.
The heat mounted during the run and was devastating as we neared the finish. My goddesses ran as I knew they would, fleet and alive. I crumbled at the finish line, once again to be pulled by their attraction now into the crowds gathered at the New Orleans Nuclear Power Plant. The heat was tremendous. I was despondent, searching the clouds for my grandfather. It was a long way from Forest Park.
On a platform wobbling under the weight of people jumping up and down, a man stood, wearing a tight black turbine shouting, “No more nukes! No more nukes!” A short chimpanzee man stole the microphone, his blue long-sleeve shirt rolled up to show off his hairy arms. He leaned forward. He stared. He read the Gettysburg Address in Arabic. Odd, since I knew no Arabic. Yet now I suddenly understood more Arabic than the chimpanzee.
A huge spotlight suddenly brightened the stage, and a group of musicians dressed in black suits blasted electric light sound waves through the heat shimmering from blacktop parking lots and colorful oily pools.
The red-hot sun melted into the earth. Evening blackened upon us, and the bright lights of Bourbon Street beckoned me and my belles. My two loved ones and I frittered away the days of the June Mardi Gras in a ménage à trois.
Beneath the chaos, I loved them dearly.
I remembered them as nurses, so kind to me on the bloody towboat, perhaps as in A Farewell to Arms, only doubly romantic of course.
Yes. Doubly. Of course. It all made perfect sense. Not surprisingly, my belles became lizards lashing red tongues, and then they became the two women standing before me in the suffocating heat of this office.
I studied my work, an informational fact sheet, a pamphlet, but I’d forgotten the purpose, perhaps something about energy, air conditioning, and the world we were creating.
I handed them each a copy. And... of course... as I was looking into their expectant eyes, they soon became lizards. Who then became my belles. My belles. My belles, belles, belles. My belles. Do you not hear the bells? For whom do they toll?
I fought, bravely I think, to see them for who they were in reality, my colleagues expecting rational thought. They stared at my pamphlet.
“It’s to be read,” I said, “or not read. It’s optional.”
One woman read, “Free encyclopedia,” and the other read, “Wikipedia.”
Then they both read as one.
A Farewell to Arms is Ernest Hemingway in 1929, writing about a young lieutenant ambulance driver cared for by a nurse.
The Charge of the Light Brigade is an ill-advised cavalry charge, during the 1854 Crimean War Battle of Balaclava, not to be confused with baklava, the Turkish-Greek pastry of honey and nuts. Alfred, Lord Tennyson writes, “Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die,” and the charge is a symbol of both courageous and reckless warfare.
Harrisburg is well-known in 1979 for a partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, and authorities are discussing the accident. Should Harrisburg evacuate?
Liz Taylor is born in 1932 and is a Hollywood actress considered one of the most beautiful women in the world.
Pheidippides is running 26 miles or so to Athens after the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC and announces victory over Persia with the word “Νενικήκαμεν” which means “We were victorious!” and he is dying.
Tralfamadore is an anagram of “or fatal dream” in novels by Kurt Vonnegut, and it is a home planet for beings who exist in all times simultaneously, and thus know future events, including the destruction of the universe.
Tralfamadorians can live at any moment in their lives that they wish but cannot change their fate.
My colleagues stare at me and they know... I am forever fighting to live those moments I am falling in love.
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey Penn May