Virgil has me thinking about human energy. The idea comes with its own set of
popular depictions and textbook iconography. At times, it seems simple enough to
describe the achievements of civilization using only things (the hanging gardens, walls
of Troy, lighthouse of Alexandria, a wrecked Carthage winking in the dust)––things
made and used before being gathered up into a spent pile, collected by the currents of
Material metaphors like this help, especially when shuttling above the continents at an
altitude high enough to place human development into abstraction. It is a symptom of
this vantage, I’m convinced; one invariably has to confront how brief and perishable our
creations are. Our plane is a form of this energy. My job encourages me to regard the
livelihood of nations as a material thing, something that can be built up, improved upon,
measured in resources. I am surprising myself with the ambition of these thoughts.
Nine hours ago we left the known world, climbing through the cloudscape in hushed
darkness. We’ve past the last longitudes of the west. I try to think of hemispheres and
numbers, somewhere between 25o and 30o. Numbers help. We took a commercial flight
from New York to London, then London to Kiev. A light aircraft is taking us the rest of
the way. Virgil has been sleeping since take off, cross-strapped in his seat. Even in a
dream state he keeps a bored and slack-shouldered expression, the kind of a young man
who regards his elders as having no inherent wisdom or authority. At twenty-seven, he
is an architectural genius, an energy theorist, one whose designs will change the
industry, the caliber of genius someone like myself has to admire. He holds a degree
from a high-profile west coast school. Berkeley, most likely. I think he holds degrees in
a few other things as well. Being employed by a multinational construction company
means that I travel the globe frequently. This is Virgil’s first time outside of the United
The plane sweeps sideways out of a wide arc, dipping toward the undawned horizon
behind us before adjusting rightly into a descent. We fly over snowpacked steppes and
local fields dotted with copses and wheat bales and then later over an expanse of deep
prussian blue. I scan the sea floor below, the less frozen and half frozen waters
runneling between floes that lie still and fissured like continental shale. Their shape is
that of large irregular things, the kind that doesn’t exist in any smallness of nature.
The pilot lets me sit with him for a while. I enjoy asking him questions about the hull
and the reliability of aerodynamics. I make him get technical. Though I don’t
understand, his ease and fluency of jargon places me in a secure and confident mood.
As we level out I wake Virgil, pulling his shade up, the sun a mute burnt flare against the glass. I spot several bay villages, cool-inlets and cliff faces, white-rigged, down-looking––some red-roofed homes and standing cypresses along the bank. He points out coastlines and mountain ranges and small riverside towns and pronounces them badly, Americanly, making no effort at a foreign intonation. The Slavic tongue is difficult to
put on convincingly. There’s something slightly annoying to the fact that he took the
time to look up these landmarks simply so that he could point them out for the brief
moment when flying over them.
From the ground, the Eurasian steppes appear endless, a terrain everywhere slow to
exposure––so flat you feel that if you stood on a can you could almost catch the earth’s
curve. Virgil applies his jacket with a choreographed flourish, a dramatic move suitable
for a dress rehearsal or a performance of war. In his blue jeans and basketweave blazer
he looks as lean and top-heavy as a toothbrush. The outfit matches a photo I saw in his
wallet the day we met, cut from a magazine, a young man in grayscale, leaning on a
shop window, smoking a cigarette and starring off at something the camera can’t see.
The image held a curious warmth. He seems to wear the same expression waiting on the
Olga is our driver for the weekend, a woman of middle-ish age with soft freckled
features and a limp on her left leg. She greets us each by name. She pronounces Virgil’s
with a rolled V, summoning its ancient texture. I say his name as much as I can––it has
an old-world authority to it that I enjoy, and when matched with his upbringing as a boy
from rural Illinois it takes on an especially American ethos. It sounds like the name of
an early president, a conqueror, a name of revolution and empire. Because it is evening
in Odessa we won’t be able to drive out to the site until early tomorrow morning. Olga
loads our bags into the van, doing so with a grace and dignified struggle that seems at
once to exemplify the hardship and perseverance of all eastern European life.
On the way to the hotel I make benign comments about the weather. It’s not even
supposed to snow here, I say. I try to keep the conversation pedestrian with him, discuss
the news and current events––enough to show him I that I know but without getting too
politic. When we first met he spoke about things like “productive capacity” and
“enclosure.” Yesterday we got into an argument about austerity measures that I was
unfit for. It is difficult when the knowledge of someone so young has already outraced
you. He is a product of the academic module. I resent his accelerated intelligence and
the quickness of his world experience.
We pass squat concrete bungalows and mortar sheds and empty plots and nameless
fenced compounds stockpiled with industrial tubing; yellow flags line the roadside at
odd places along the gulch, suggesting underground work. At the hotel we stick to our
rooms, which are connected by a set of French doors. I review contracts and shop
drawings and keep the television at a moderate volume. I always request a room on a
high floor. One of my favorite things to do when I travel is order food service and eat in
front of the window. Odessa is one of the few cities within the region that remains
untouched by Soviet aesthetics––no mark of forced living or brutal futurism. Its
character is far more Mediterranean: pastel tones and stucco facades, campaniles and
baroque public offices, the Potemkin steps, and a lighthouse fixed to a long breakwater
arm that swings out into a clean dark bay.
Three hours later Virgil calls me.
“Do you feel it yet?” he says.
“It’s like homesickness, except its not homesickness, it’s something else.”
“You mean have I felt it before, or if I feel it now?”
“Maybe. It’s here though. I first felt it on the plane. It’s written into everything. In the
streets, in the smell of these rooms. Does your room smell weird too?”
His voice over the receiver sounds like an echo chamber, disembodied and decayed.
There was a proximity to the sound. He was calling from his side of the room. I put
down the phone and listen to him speaking through the wall.
“Its like the feeling you have after getting something you’ve wanted for a really long
time. I remember when I was eleven I wanted this stunt bike––wanted it desperately,
yearningly. I pushed everything else away. It seemed to be the only thing I was working
towards that whole year. On Christmas day I rode it around the neighborhood in my
pajamas as the snow came down. The joy of this consummating experience was
obvious, but there was an emotional undercurrent to it unknown to me then, one of
sudden loss. It was a celebration that concealed a deeper, frustrated longing.”
I picture him on the bike, cruising through wide Midwestern suburbs in long johns and
a coat bearing the name of some Chicago sports team, passing old men leaning over
shovels and windows lit by single artificial candles. The image itself seemed to describe
a kind of sadness.
“That is the only thing comparable I can come up with. It’s like that feeling.”
In our rooms we review bids and site plans and shop drawings and go over the budget.
I will submit my estimates at the end of the week. An architect’s attendance is not
mandatory for on-site inspection. Virgil has come to see the thing he’d sketched in
pencil being raised to a physical reality. He crawls around on his hands and knees,
unfurling tubes of grid paper and then standing on the bed to take an overview of them.
He wears a maroon polo that bears the insignia of a laurel wreath over his right breast;
its gold stitching occasionally catches the lamplight and flares. I use it as an occasion
for conversation, noting its rich history of contest and adversity and success, how it was
worn by emperors and olympians in moments of triumph. The Latin origin of the sign,
he tells me, means victory. I take his word for it because it feels intuitively true.
The building we are inspecting will be the home of TerraCaptial, one of the many
asset management operations currently being established across the region. I envy the
complexity and density of knowledge required for understanding world markets. I know
that Virgil knows, but I have never asked him to explain any of it to me. TerraCapital
has a contracting history with the parent company that owns SENICA, the British
multinational construction agency I represent. Virgil’s design was chosen for its
efficiency and sustainable features. It was decided early in the drafting stage that the
Ukrainians would provide the bulk of the labor, and that most of the crude materials will
be shipped in by train from Russia to reduce costs.
Virgil has noted how corruption is being monitored in other firms throughout the
region. Last year, a French investment company recently installed in Moscow was
deemed a threat to the domestic market and national security, with two separate chief
officers being imprisoned for an unspecified fraudulence. One of them died
mysteriously in prison a week before his trial.
“Old KGB practices are still very much in effect,” he says. “The Federal Security
Agency probably already has TerraCapital on their list. They could be watching us
Virgil talks about how the eastern republics are handling independence.
“Do you think people here are happier now than they were before the end of the war?”
I ignore this. I try not to give too much attention to what he says. Statements like this
have a way of amounting to nothing.
“You should ask the people,” I tell him. “Go down to the lobby. Knock on doors.
Conduct a survey here in the hotel.”
“Like, in a way our uncertainty about the war became in itself a kind of stability. It
organized us. We understood the pressures and demands and found out how to handle
them, and where and how to direct our attention.”
I try to observe the boundaries of a professional relationship during our time together.
I try not to learn too much about his life or his opinions outside of work, or at least give
off the impression that I don’t wish to know too much. I respect decorum and the
pleasure of distance. And it is for precisely this reason that his candor bothers me. On
the day we met he asked how old my children were.
“Twenty-three and twenty-nine,” I told him. “I think the oldest is twenty-nine.”
“So, they’re old enough that they’ll be able to remember, then” he said, letting this
stand. What was this supposed to mean? I resented the abruptness of this remark and his
refusal to explain himself further.
The way he speaks suggests a need for friction, or discord, as if he desires it on some
existential level. I don’t think of my life as being informed by such needs. The events
that make up my work and life are sufficient. I’m happy with this. That’s the point, I tell
him. He stands on his bed, unmoving. He has been in this position for the last hour,
reading and eating protein bars.
“Some would find such happiness oppressive,” he says, not looking up.
Remarks like this assume a familiarity that can’t be said to exist between us. This is
the first and only project we will work on together. I will never see him again after this
weekend. I don’t want to get to know him in this way. I steer clear of the intimate
thoughts of men in contemplative moments. I stick to figures and math and maps––
concrete things. The building’s cylindrical shape will reduce the wind load on the
structure and provide a natural ventilation system. The decision to place the stairwell in
the center around the bank elevators will maximize space on each floor and provide
greater accessibility from level to level. The greenhouse we will install in the roof will
reduce the total electrical costs of the building by thirty-five percent. There is an
emphasis on efficiency and the solidity of physics in construction. These things make
one feel stable because they don’t require higher flourishes of speculation or
abstraction. They can be sorted out and executed in front of your eyes.
In the morning we drive out to the project site. I found Virgil on one of the couches in
the lounge area, watching the house TV; he had spent all night in the lobby, probably
falling in and out of sleep. I chalk this up to the six hour difference between Odessa and
New York. I also find it difficult to sleep in hotel rooms, regardless of time change. I let
him know I have pills.
In the car he says, “I feel fine.”
We stop at a set of railroad tracks on the far side of town. The train looks pre-war and
is tagged with slogans in a quick Ukrainian scrawl, their messages unknown to the both
of us. I consider asking Olga to translate them. Materials being shipped in and unloaded
excites me––watching a line of linked flatbed cars carrying coils of steel, lumber and
metal crossbeams, and knowing these things will be handled and put to use.
Virgil stares at the rolling cars.
“Human energy,” I say.
“Means of subsistence,” he says.
We stand at the base of the hollowed substructure, circuits of rebar and trellised steel
surround crossbeams and rising concrete monoliths. Virgil holds open a folio of
sketches, occasionally raising his gaze to the unmade landscape with a closed eye, as if
attempting to find a pure angle, or maybe overlaying the scene with a mental blueprint
that gives shape and form and substance to its surroundings. The facade has a fractal
grid design––triangular panels interlocking between ribbons of extruded aluminum. He
conceived the building to have a series of airshafts to create a double-glaze insulation,
together with a system of lightwells in hexagonal formation. At its completion it will
resemble a spiraling glass column that narrows at the top into a bottlenose vault. The
style recalls the work of Buckminster Fuller, the great architect and energy theorist of
the twentieth century.
He seems genuinely pleased by this. It is the first recorded moment of joy on this trip. He asks me to take a picture. I photograph him head on, from the breast up, against the southward wall. From this angle he somewhat resembles a bust sculpture, high- shouldered, a stern but languid and dead-eyed stare with features hard and clean as marble.
Something in his captured expression is disquieting. It is the look of a man who
still has everything ahead of him––the look of someone with no history because they are
too young to have a past.
It has been long enough now that we begin to find ourselves nostalgic for how things
were before the fall in Berlin, but also for the fall itself––all its dramatic pathos and
grandeur and shared elation and sense of a mutual perseverance. No doubt Virgil had
seen the wall come down. He had most likely watched it on TV and seen the same
spectacle as the rest of the world––the candlelight processions and song circles and the
men beating their chisels in incantation and the old women lifted out of her wheelchair
up onto the rampart and that kid of about his age who swung that first sledgehammer
blow to the graffitibombed barricade. I’m convinced the sudden affinity for these
images is not my own. I’m convinced Virgil gave them to me.
The financial district has a holiday silence. On the street, people pass around the
perimeter fence, occasionally looking through slats in the woodwork. Above us hang
windlasses and support towers, derricks and winches crosshatching a low sky. I take an
earth sample for myself, loosening the packed dirt with my heel and scraping it into a
tuna can. I like to collect foundational soil from the different places in the world where
I’ve overseen operations.
“She has a club foot,” Virgil says.
“Our driver. She was deep in snow when we first met her so I couldn’t tell. But I saw
her in the hotel lobby this morning––she took her boot off and was rubbing it.”
“And you say it was clubbed?”
“It didn’t look like a club. It was more gnarled and in-turned, like a claw.”
“And she was rubbing it––in front of everyone?”
“It must get sore, like any other kind of deformity. The cold can aggravate a bad knee,
why not a disfigured foot?”
“I wonder how it happened.”
“Maybe it’s a product of years of nuclear tests––radioactivity. Or something more
“I don’t know.”
“Is it so implausible? Consider the U.S.S.R.’s human rights record. Stalin killed over a
million Ukrainians in the course of one winter.”
“I can believe it. Whether or not it’s true.”
He enjoys this––an occasion to smash my unwitting. A quiet smile draws parallel to
his jaw line, suggesting he is rehearsing some inner monologue, gathering facts and
people’s names for a measured and concise blow. In moments like this, I suspect he is
“I’m saying it’s a possibility,” he says. “Consider the ream of experiments the Soviets
practiced on their own people––they built fission reactors close to towns to see how
much radiation people could withstand, they inoculated people with chemical cocktails
to catalogue potential physical advantages and disadvantages, fed them vernalized crop and then starved them to see how long they could go without food. The isotopic decay in the soil beneath this site alone probably has another hundred years before it’s no longer hazardous. For all we know there could mass graves somewhere around this very
His pace became somewhat impatient, trailing off. He appeared disappointment by this stockpile of violations, as if he had never placed them in such close and rapid arrangement.
“Or it’s the opposite. Maybe it’s a put on and she’s a spy,” I say, feeding his desire for
espionage and intrigue.
We discuss concepts and toss around terminology. Architecture has contributed a more
luscious vocabulary to the English language than any other discipline. I want an excuse
to speak the words aloud: crenellation, cupola, cantilever, shell structure, tensile
membrane. Our job in the time we are here is to make civilization more beautiful, I tell
him. He seems not to hear this.
“Superstructure,” he says finally. He builds a silence around the word, as if forcing me
to contemplate it.
“Creativity,” he continues, “artistic expression, family, spirituality: the value we give
to these things rests upon a foundation of labor and raw materials; without which, they
wouldn’t have the meaning for us that they do. A painting is the product of a cultural
surplus. But architecture is the one and only area of civilization where beauty and
production can become the same thing.” In moments like this his voice seems to take on
a trans-Atlantic timbre, like the quasi-British lilt affected by movie stars in the cinema
of the forties and fifties.
We analyze our shop drawings, comparing them with what is before us. Watching a
crude schematic take on real geometric form in three dimensions yields an unspeakable
elation. Zone 6, I say to myself, locating it on the map. “Zone 6,” I say, pointing it out
in front of us. The building will be a welcome addition to the cityscape; its futuristic
design will look good against its neoclassical surroundings.
I’m convinced we are doing a good thing.
Virgil doesn’t have to be here. This makes me think that his attendance is to share this
same rapture. It is one that never gets old. I suspect he quietly feels it in the same way I
do. I never speak these feelings to him.
“Does this job ever fill you with a sense of optimism?” he says.
“Seeing buildings go up. Knowing people will work, perform tasks inside them.”
“Good to see cranes in the sky, yes.”
“And having made something, help produce the conditions for future human
“And do you at times feel the distress of this––of not knowing where, or to what end
your efforts and this sense of optimism is being directed?”
“I don’t think in such terms.”
“But it’s more than that. See, it’s a grand and reaching optimism, one that guards us
against despair, despair about the future. We hope for the best, sure, but in doing so we
are secretly and painfully aware of the fact that we feel this way because we have to,
because it is the only positive response we have. It is an attitude we put in place because
we can’t commit to the gravity of our apprehension. That’s why people take to making
jokes at funerals. It is the way we choose to deal with the end of things.”
Perhaps it is because of his midwestern upbringing that he developed a fancy for
architecture. Hours of flat fields and split-level homes and open quartered spaces must
make the simplest pleasure of a tall building into an elaborate fantasy––a fantasy of
power, of big decisions and important people, of global politics and international
commerce. He is from a part of America where such phenomena feel far removed from
the experiences of the everyday. Buildings are in many ways the simplest expressions of
our desires––demonstrative, theatric, attention-seeking, a management of time and
space; they are the first things by which we judge a place we’ve never been to, and they
are the first things to be torn down when wishing to illustrate an opposing desire.
I imagine Virgil crouching under a small steel desk, fetal curled, hands strapped to his
head, the sound of a township doomsday siren and a teacher’s slow guiding gestures. He
never lived through the bomb drills. He never saw the campaign ad of a little girl on a
hillock tearing petals off a gladiolus, waiting to be a noiseless casualty, or heard the
news broadcasts that filled each living room on each hollow evening. It only takes a
moment to recall decades-full of possessed desire and global organization, every success and failure, every intelligent and counter-intelligent maneuver, every treaty, alliance and levering act, every DEW line operator, every transmission and foot of data that could circle the planet; every demonstration and BAN THE BOMB rally, every
tapping and surveillance, every warehouse stockpiled with unused weaponry, every development of physics and its pseudo-scientific offshoots––vaccination scares, fluoride spikes, ape-men super species, miracle crops––the war rooms and underground meetings, the abandoned supercollider beneath Waxahachie, every astronaut and
satellite launch, every gallon of napalm, every Hollywood film and comic book and stand-up comedian, every pathetic speech and late-night prayer, every paranoid fabulist and national fantasy, every angry anthem and longhaired child and apocalyptic couple, every project and collective human exertion gathered together into the stream of this
shared experience. We can forget about these things now because our efforts are spent in new places.
I hand him the polaroid. He opens his wallet and places it next to the black and white
photograph of the man in identical costume, the same I had seen the day we met. I ask
about the ubiquity of this image, what function it serves in his life.
“It gives me a sense of closeness his says. Like the feeling of being home.”
I look at the boots and the blue jeans and the basketweave blazer on the man in the
photograph and then on the man in front of me. The style of dress was popular among a
group of kids I went to school with in London in the 70s.
“They travelled in packs, like a gang,” I tell him. “We called them suedeheads.”
After our inspection Virgil has Olga drive us thirty miles outside of the city proper. He
leans over the center console, speaking to her in the few phatic phrases he’s picked up
“It’s a park. I looked it up before we left,” he says. “I need to see it.”
We break from the highway and follow a slip road through woodshed hamlets and a
small town built up around a single gas station. Curtains of snow drift across the plain,
layered and dense and settling deep into the bluegrey middle distance of late afternoon.
I try to imagine this landscape in a more idyllic form, in the summertime, fields five feet
tall and packed with waves of wheat, setting a golden edge against an aquamarine sky. I
feel somewhat robbed of this experience.
Virgil stands face to face with the sidelong gaze of Lenin’s head, quarter sunk in the
snow, the face bearing a smashed-in nose and veincracks and scuffs around the skull. It
is an elegant carving, authoritative and omnipresent. It lies among the others. The whole
field is a wreckage of propaganda, statues and symbolism, and it is easy to take the sight
on purely material terms, as spent human energy. I ask Virgil why he thinks they are
doomed to exist in such degraded form, as obsolete expression, when they could just as
easily be discarded to a sea-bottom, or perhaps they’re awaiting some new usage––to be
broken down and made into gravel or foundation. What becomes of monuments when
they are no longer useful as waste?
He doesn’t ask for a polaroid this time.
Around us lay half-broken stars and divorced sickles, coats of arms, lopsided effigies,
the image of “the great leader” streaked across the mouth with white paint. The collection seemed like it could be taken as both a failure and a success, holding every projection of hope and grief and all manner of pride and wishful thinking, together with a tender sense of loss.
“These are the discarded monuments among monuments,” he explains. “There is a
garden in Moscow dedicated specifically to this stuff. It’s a tourist attraction now. These
are the ones that didn’t make it. They weren’t exemplary enough to enter into nostalgia
or ceremonial kitsch.”
These parks are a form of longing. Virgil’s clothes are a form of longing.
“We are the last men of history,” he says at last. “You’ve felt it. You’ve experienced
time as an authentic human desire, a material force, an engine of emotion. Your children
felt the last of it. If they’re lucky they’ll retain it. My children won’t. They will live in a
hollow, homogenized time. In the future, past conflicts will be revisited as memorial
relics, like going through a box of photographs of your great grandparents––people
whose situation and fears and longings remain unknown to you.”
I let him continue.
“And the power that these obsolete days will retain is in their aesthetic appeal. When
we are incapable of understanding how things really were, we pile them up by way of
images and referential expressions.”
Virgil offers to take my picture. There is an earnestness to his request. I sense it is not
an activity. In front of us is a patinated monument depicting the glory of the red army;
on its pedestal, a woman in flowing ancient garb, bearing a torch in hand, and inset in the base the image of leaning snowbound soldiers, both vandalized in the republican
He instructs me to stand by the inscription.
“It’s important that it be you,” he says.
I ask him why.
“I need to put a human face to this. And it has to be yours.”
“You want my face, as if you understand anything about me. You stand there!” I put
my finger to the insignia on his right breast.
“It’s your place.”
“You think you know?” I say, ripping the camera from him. “You think you know?”
“Let’s not do this. To be in conflict doesn’t make sense anymore.”
I give the camera back to him and walk over to the base. It seems inappropriate to
smile. I have no wish to keep the picture. I’m happy to let him have it so that he can
receive whatever satisfaction from it he seeks. It seems more important that it be me he
sees when he looks at it, years from now, instead of his own image, with those sad and
still features retained in youth––the marble face and high cheek bones, the dark coiffed
hair pulled elegantly back, the big hands hung on boney wrists, the hunched longish
frame. He doesn’t belong in such a picture. Virgil’s photo already exists, one of a man
from a different kind of world, one he’ll never understand.
On our way back we pass the project site one more time, the low-hanging structure
shadowed and sleeping. Tomorrow it will be higher. It is not yet realized, ready, able to
be worked within. To a passerby, it would still appear an unfinished mass of engineering and crude resource, a display of human energy, easily mistaken for a
Virgil had found some sort of end-line in its construction, as if it represented the
realization of a millennia’s worth of progress, discarded systems and failed theologies––
one that required some essential change in nature that would enable us to look beyond
into the clear in order to achieve it. To turn an idea into a universal human truth is a
need we are often unprepared for, full of mourning and pain of growth; at least this is
what I see as I watch him watch a plane climb into a patch of sky above the cityscape
before banking left over the highway lights and stretching far out of sight, somewhere
“I’m going to miss it,” he says.
I’m going to miss it.
Jared Marcel Pollen was born in Canada, educated at Sarah Lawrence College in NY and now lives in Prague. His fiction and non-fiction has appeared in The Millions, Open Letters Monthly, 3:AM, and Eternal Remedy, among others. He has also recently completed his first novel.