I keep coming back to that night like you keep looking at a tree on a dark street, sure it was something else a moment ago. But its shape is simply different from the corner of your eye. It was the last time I saw Katie and the first time I’d seen my half-brother Jesse in months. “I’m getting out,” he said simply, as if that held everything within it. He’d been living in a van in the Sunset but I figured wanted to escape that weather. We were standing in front of my open garage drinking tallboys and watching the night come in. If I tried hard enough, I could imagine the sound of traffic on the 101 was the sound made by fog swallowing Potrero Hill.
Katie came out of the house wiping her hands on her jeans, which were the right amount of tight. “Thanks for letting me pee,” she said. I held a beer toward her but she shook her head and pulled back like I’d leaned in for an unwanted kiss. We’d slept together two nights before and now it was this veil between us.
“You know this fog,” Jesse said after a bit, motioning with his beer toward Potrero. He was talking to her. “It wasn’t like this before Treasure Island.”
“The weather patterns?” They were each lit on one side by the dim light of the garage, half-masks in the dark.
“Well. Not exactly. You know, the Navy owned Treasure Island during World War II. They used to do research over there, had it all locked down. It’s all landfill.” He lit a cigarette and his face briefly floated above his cupped hands before vanishing again. He said, almost to himself, “God knows what’s buried.”
“What type of research?” Katie asked.
“Well. They had this idea for wallpaper.” Katie laughed and Jesse loved that she laughed. “No, wallpaper that could hide a ship. They got the idea–”
“Hide a ship from radar?”
“Radar and sonar. They would cover the warships with this material that could absorb and disperse the waves. So the scientists said, ‘We can do it with sound and with radio, why not light?’”
“I remember this story,” I told him. I looked at Katie but she was studying the dark form of his face. Did she see me there?
“Like when you put a straw in a glass of water,” Jesse continued. “Or the way a fish will disappear near the corner of its tank. What if you could put a tank of water around a ship?” He exhaled and was briefly gone behind his smoke.
Katie said, “Or a plane.”
“Well. This was the forties, they needed massive amounts of power for this–huge generators, too big…” he started to trail off while he went into the garage for another beer. “Ever hear of a Faraday cage?”
“Well, power generators get this special metal cage. If there’s a surge, it takes the electricity and spreads it around the outside, but it’s totally safe inside. So these scientists figured out that with enough power and the right materials you could route light around a cage, just like electricity.”
“To hide the ships?”
“Not at first,” Jesse said. “At first it just shifted them. They could make a ship appear ten yards off, then a hundred. Torpedoes couldn’t reliably find the target. It was a success but they wanted to go further. So they built bigger generators, big enough that they needed a bigger ship. Until one day they made a three-hundred-foot destroyer”–he stretched his arms wide and dropped his beer, which started to spray out onto the street–“completely disappear. Two-hundred men aboard.”
“Like heat on a summer day.” He crouched to pick up the beer can. “That’s what witnesses said, that it looked like heat above the highway. Or a thin fog. There was the ship. Then a roar like a wave breaking. And it was gone. Then they turned some knobs and brought it back.” He stood up again and waited just long enough for her to want to respond. “But even that wasn’t enough–they wanted to go bigger. So next they did an aircraft carrier. One minute it’s floating in the Bay and then the sailors said it was floating in a cloud of gray nothing.
“But the thing is,”–and here was the part that had kept me up at night as a child the one year that Jesse lived with us and told the story repeatedly, cruelly, at bedtime–“the thing is that eventually the generator got so massive that it didn’t just bend light waves. It bent everything. The ship was warped. The machine was twisted beyond repair. Some men were dead, some lost circulation in their limbs where their veins had shifted, some had completely vanished. And some–some were trapped in the metal of the ship itself.” He contorted his face into a frozen scream.
“Fuck off,” Katie said and laughed lightly and freely against the mood that had settled upon the driveway. I wanted to touch her and share in that but wasn’t sure where her silhouette ended in the dark.
“I don’t think she’s going to return my calls anymore,” I said later. Jesse and I were still in the driveway with low clouds swirling above us. We were both well drunk now.
“That’s the thing with this fog,” he said. “You never see those people around. Or when you do see them they’re half-invisible still. These poor bastards that survived never stopped vanishing.”
We’d shut the garage so I couldn’t see him at all now, save the light of his cigarette. I had always hated this fucking story. But Jesse would be on the road in a few hours trying to break the orbit of the city he’d lived in for 34 years. So for the first time in all its tellings, I asked, “What the hell does any of that have to do with fog?”
I could feel him looking at me in the dark, but maybe was just imagining the orbs of his eyes.
“We’re the sailors,” he said. “This whole goddamn city is the ship.”