Petra Kuppers is a Professor of English at the University of Michigan, teaching in performance studies. She also teaches on the low-residency MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts at Goddard College. Beyond her academic credits and a book of poetry (Cripple Poetics: A Love Story, Homofactus Press, 2008), she has published short stories in British and US journals like Visionary Tongue, Wordgathering, Tales of Terror, Quietus, Beyond the Boundaries, Cambrensis and beyond.
The Factory Roof
The factory roof stretches ahead of them, two parallel lines converging. About a third down the tarred roof stands the thick white ventilation shaft, lines anchoring it to the side of the roof. The lines are stretched into a star, fastened to a ring around the top of the shaft, and to the foot-high wall that surrounds the roof.
From one of those lines, a dark liquid drips down, congeals into a small pool, a long smear streaking off to the side, sliding over the left parapet.
They all sit, their backs glued uncomfortably to the line of windows that march across the west side of the factory proper. It is hot, and getting hotter, the sun rising toward its noon zenith, and the tar paper sticky beneath their old jeans.
Martha has lit up, finally. The other two had smelled the no longer familiar nicotine stench on her for days, all throughout their week-long intensive. On this Friday morning,
old memories flare up like dying birds. An hour earlier, they had assembled on this East Oakland roof, had agreed on parameters for their final score, a game of performance and poetry, to be played out in the cavernous spaces and long sightlines of the factory’s abandoned terrain.
Martha had stood first, the hot wind pressing dark linen against taunt and haggard limbs, had swayed slightly, her arms raising and flexing as if preparing for a marathon push-up session.
Amanda is slightly afraid of Martha, aware of her own lack of focus and ability to stand in time’s duration, offering her body to the imprint of her environment, senses wide open and ready to be ravished. But Amanda’s body has been transforming, responding to the stimuli they had amassed and assessed over the week.
They had lain on top of one another in a long narrow hallway, a lung caterpillar. She had felt the breath and heartbeat of the others pound and squish against her own sternum and back.
On another day, they had dribbled water on the long tarred roof, in the midday sun, had thrown it upward out of papercups. The water rose in long glistening arcs against the overheated air, against the stench arising from the nearby foundry.
Amanda tries to still herself, to sink into a slower heartbeat, a measured breath, as they had done most mornings, grounding themselves before their performance explorations. But the red flash stands vibrant in front of her, the coppery smell mixing with the stink of flux and overheated metal. She looks to the side, to David, who is ashen and grey, his dark skin mottled as if encrusted with the smoky fall-out. In his hands is a graphite knob, half smooth orb, half cupped encrustation, his fist strong around it. He is sketching, half-looking, eyelids flickering.
Amanda peers at the sheet on David’s lap. A bird, wings outstretched, a hint of motion in the long guide feathers that reach out across the page. She remembers a bird like this, strangling itself as it reaches toward flight, neck contorted and flattened. That bird had been crushed, compressed in the pages of an old book, an ochre expanse of stone its grave, holding its imprint millions of years after its last flight. It had flown in the age of the dinosaurs.
She remembers her father’s finger caressing the image in that book, the dusty smell that rose off the blunt-edged pages. Her father’s voice, full of wonder and longing for swamps and shallows where giant sharks stalked long-necked creatures of grace that trumpeted in their terror. At the end of these nights of storytelling, Amanda, worthy to be loved, had curled up in her pillow nest, imagining herself elsewhere, imagining herself at her father’s side, exploring jungles and finding flat stones that they’d split apart with a contraption like the car jack in her dad’s truck bed.
Her father was long gone now. He and her had never gone to Borneo, to the Badlands of Dakota, archeologists-in-training. He had gone into the microscopic carbon dust of the production plant, his lungs filling darkly, interior hairs stroking particles that might have been weaving ferns, once, a long time ago, on the edge of a lagoon, before pressure and heat had come down hard. The particles had become pearls, rogue cell layers welcoming them into the once pristine and pink bubbles of lung tissue. It hadn’t taken long, in the end. Like a fall from a roof, the quick sinking in the hospice, sparing her and her mother the sounds of his hacking in his last, drowning days.
Amanda blinks. The dark spot on the roof falls into her eyes again, crowds out memories and storylines, the scraping of David’s graphite lump on the paper, the smell of Martha’s cigarette. She stands up. There is no set step that guides the arc of her foot, the way that her weight comes down through her pelvis, her thigh and her calf. Amanda’s attention focuses forward, each step honed down to its intention, traversing the distance between the row of windows and the darkening stain on the roof, to the smear and to what may lie below, beneath the parapet.
David and Martha look up, their eyes alight, as they witness Amanda, walking, one step, another, toward her goal, graceful as a heron, stalking its prey on the heat of the tar.