Contact With Other Worlds, 1

A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance

I had just come home from a festival in Nevada, the theme of which was Contact with Other Worlds, when my mother, or, I should say, one of my mothers, called to tell me that my grandfather had died.

“I’ve been trying to reach you for days,” she said. “Where were you?”

I told her I’d been camping. I didn’t tell her I was at a pagan celebration where people danced around bonfires, a kind of dress rehearsal for the end of the world. I didn’t mention the huge glowing fish or the women with wings.

Celeste told me that my grandfather had died on Thursday morning, around the time when I was leaving San Francisco in my friends’ big white RV. My uncle Charles found him collapsed at his desk. He’d had a heart attack, the doctor said. His death was quick and probably not painful.

“That’s good,” I said, still dazed from the drugs I’d taken at the festival and the nights I’d gone without sleep. “When is the funeral?”

“It was this morning.”

“You had it without me?”

“We couldn’t wait,” Celeste said in the tone of voice she uses when eliding facts that might put her in the wrong. “Marie is closing an issue and she has to go back to work.” Marie is Celeste’s twin sister: by birth Marie Celeste, as Celeste was by birth Celeste Marie: another story. She works for S, a women’s magazine.

“But,” I began to protest, but Celeste wasn’t finished catching me up on what I’d missed. “We’re going to sell the house,” she said. “Do you want any of your grandparents’ things?” It would mean going back to upstate New York, she said, because the house was full from attic to basement with junk, and my mothers had no intention of sorting through it. They never got along with my grandfather, and my grandmother, with whom, to be honest, they also didn’t get along, had given them the few items they wanted before she died. Celeste said that unless I wanted to clean out the house myself, they would be happy to turn it over to one of the people who specialized in estate sales. Probably the antiques dealers would take a few pieces my grandfather had inherited from his parents, and the rest would be thrown away or given to orphans.

“Which orphans?” I asked.

“Whichever ones they have up there,” Celeste said. Then, as if she realized that she’d overplayed her frustration at not having been able to reach me, she asked, “Since when do you like camping?”

“I always liked camping.”

“You did?”

“Since I was a kid.”

Celeste hesitated. “Think it over,” she said, “but don’t take too long. The real-estate agent says, our best chance of selling is before the ski season starts.”

Our conversation ended awkwardly, and I stood in my kitchen, not sure what to do next. Eight hours ago, I’d been sitting in the middle of a desert, eating instant oatmeal from a plastic cup and watching the remains of a giant wooden structure called the Exosphere smolder. Now my grandfather was dead, and Celeste wanted me to return to Thebes, where I hadn’t been for ten years. It was as if my life had cut abruptly from one record to another, and my thoughts were still dancing to the wrong beat: that was the image that occurred to me after three days of watching DJs perform at the festival. I tried to feel grief at my grandfather’s death. I tried to imagine him dying, to see him being buried, but all I could see was Nevada, the long line of the horizon with sharp brown mountains rising up in the distance. A silver pinwheel turned slowly in the wind. I wondered if I was all right, if there was something wrong with me. It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot recently, and the answer I keep coming up with is, yes, something is wrong.

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