Thebes, 1

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

Thebes is tucked away in the northeastern corner of the Catskills, more or less where Washington Irving set the story of Rip Van Winkle, and even as a child it wasn’t hard for me to see why Irving chose that location. As you drive east on the only road that leads into Thebes, the mountains seem to close their gray shoulders behind you, cutting you off from the rest of the world. The valley looks older and stiller than the rest of the country, as though the land itself were asleep. There are billboards for things no one sells any more, their photographs bleached blue by the sun, and signs for Summerland, a resort that closed a few years before I was born. It isn’t a place that promises great excitement, and in fact, with the exception of my last two summers there, when marvelous and unprecedented things happened, my memories of Thebes have a Rip Van Winkle–ish quality to them, as though I and the town and everyone in it were not so much living as dreaming.

In fact the town was bigger than I remembered, and richer. It began with a sign for the Snowbird ski resort, then the self-storage complex, the graveyard, a stand of trees, a bar called Fire and Ice, a bed-and-breakfast decked out prematurely with orange Halloween bunting, and the ski shop, which had taken over the house next door to it and become a kind of sports emporium. Across the street, the Kozy Korner gift shop and the Kountry Kitchen, then Arturo’s, the Italian deli, which had a new sign with golden letters carved into a green oval of wood, then a video store and the Country Barn Antique Emporium, the crossroads, the gas station, the church, the public library, a branch of the TrustFirst Bank, which I didn’t remember having been there before. Just past the bank, on the lot which used to be a drugstore, there was an organic grocery. An organic grocery! When I was little, you could barely get vegetables in Thebes unless you grew them yourself. Now there were bins of late-season tomatoes, apples and squashes, all faintly luminous in the late-afternoon sun.

I wondered what my grandfather had thought of it. When I was a child, he was always telling me about how things used to be in Thebes. He spoke of the town, which was founded by his ancestor Jean Roland in the early part of the nineteenth century, like an heirloom that had passed into the hands of strangers who were treating it badly. He knew what everything had once been: the Kountry Kitchen was the lunch counter for workers at the Rowland Mill until the mill closed in the 1940s, and Arturo’s was a smithy. Sheep had grazed where the ski shop stood, and I got the impression that my grandfather would have much preferred the sheep. He reserved his greatest displeasure, however, for Snowbird, the ski resort. Not only had it disfigured a swath of Mount Espy; it brought outsiders to Thebes: not workers who would buy houses and send their children to the public school and be humbled and annealed by the long winters, but seasonal people who had no respect for the town’s history or its way of doing things. It didn’t help that Snowbird’s owner was Joe Regenzeit, a Turk. My grandfather had never been to Turkey, and surely he exaggerated the Turkish people’s fondness for winter sports, but to him the resort was un-American, maybe even un-Western. It was the intrusion of a foreign culture into the deepest, best-hidden fold of his native land. And not just any foreign culture, but the Turks, hereditary enemies of the French ever since the Battle of Roncevaux in 778 C.E., which was the historical basis of the Song of Roland (and here I hear my ex-housemate Victor, the medievalist, correcting me: those weren’t Turks who slew Roland, they were Basques—but be quiet, Victor). “The Turks don’t understand what these mountains are for,” my grandfather complained. “The Catskills aren’t the Alps. They aren’t the Rockies. These are old mountains. You can climb them, but you can’t ski them. It’s ridiculous.”

Compared to the rest of the town, my grandparents’ house was reassuringly unchanged. A white Colonial three stories tall, with flaps of black tarpaper on the pitched roof, gray shutters, and a gray porch with white posts, the exterior almost entirely devoid of color, as though it belonged to an era before things had been colored, or, more accurately, as if it were one of the Greek temples that had once been gaudily painted but were now worn down to a white austerity that they seemed, in retrospect, always to have possessed. The old oak tree that menaced the house was larger than ever, its leaves a dusty late-summer green. There was a pickup truck parked in front of the garage, with rowland’s towing and salvage painted on the driver’s door in yellow cursive: my uncle Charles was there. The kitchen door was open; I went in. The white linoleum floor was tracked with muddy footprints, which my grandmother would never have allowed; the radio was tuned to a call-in show. “OK, OK, I’m going to admit it,” the caller said, “I really like fat women. The bigger, the better.”

“Say it!” shouted the host. “Let it out!”

I called out, “Charles?”

A door shut above me, feet on the stairs. “Well, hey! It’s Mr. California!”

We embraced, and I breathed in Charles’s atmosphere of cigarettes and Dial soap. “Thought you’d be tan,” Charles said.

I explained that San Francisco wasn’t always sunny, and besides I didn’t spend that much time outside. I didn’t say what I had expected him to be, the Uncle Charles I remembered from my summers in Thebes, a giant in an undershirt, with a walrus mustache and red stubble on his chin, who chewed tobacco and spat in a coffee can outside the kitchen door, to the great disgust of my grandmother, who told him that one day he’d go out to spit and wouldn’t be allowed back in. He was no longer that person. There was a bend in his back that hadn’t been there the last time I saw him, at my grandmother’s funeral, and as he led me in he picked up an ugly black cane and leaned his weight on it. White hairs poked up north of the collar of his undershirt, in the hollow of his shrunken neck.

“So, you were out of town when Oliver died?” he asked.

“Camping,” I said. “I’m sorry I missed the funeral.”

“Don’t hold it against yourself. Hell, I’m surprised the twins came. Not that they stayed. No. It was, whup! Shovel of dirt on the coffin, whup! Off to the train. You’d think they were afraid the ground would catch fire.” He laughed at his own turn of speech. “They didn’t even stay for the reception, not that I blame them. You know, they don’t speak the language.” Charles meant this literally. The old people in Thebes have their own vocabulary, a couple dozen French phrases handed down from the original settlers. Langue d’up, my grandfather called it jokingly, langue from the French for language, and up for upstate. Further evidence of how tightly the Thebans cling to the past.

“Anyway,” my uncle went on, “it was just a bunch of old Thebes farts talking about the nice things Oliver Rowland did for them in the long ago and far away. For example, Mo Oton made a joke about how Oliver was generuz de son esprit, generous with his spirit. What Mo meant was, he was a skinflint. His spirit was the only thing he ever gave away! Gabby Thule told a story about how he came to visit her in the hospital when she had her gallbladder out. And how he brought her the nicest bunch of wildflowers. Of course he did! Nothing’s free like wildflowers!”

“He got us each a beer from the refrigerator. “You’re still living in Frisco, am I right?”

“San Francisco. No one who lives there calls it Frisco.”

“Is that so?” Charles lit a cigarette and blew smoke at the ceiling.      “You know, I had my heart set on going out there, back when. San Francisco, or Big Sur, more like it. One of those hippie places right on the ocean.”

“You were a hippie?”

“I wasn’t anything. I was just a kid.”

“Why didn’t you go?”

Charles coughed. “Things got in the way.”

I wondered if he meant the war. Around the time I was born, Charles had enlisted in the Army, against the wishes of my grandfather, who wanted him to become a lawyer, or a banker, something commensurate with the family’s status in Thebes. Instead he went to Vietnam. No one in the family was entirely clear on what he’d done there; all we knew was that he came home knowing how to fix cars. With money grudgingly loaned him by Oliver, he opened a garage in Maplecrest, the next town over. The business grew quickly; by the time I was old enough to know anything about it, Charles had four tow trucks, a half dozen drivers, and a pretty secretary named Mrs. Bunce who gave me sour-cherry sucking candies.

“You should come visit,” I said. “I’ll go to Big Sur with you.”

Charles looked at me in a way that I didn’t understand, as if, I thought, he’d known what I was going to say before I said it. “Maybe in a while,” he said.

He left a few minutes later. I walked him out, and when he saw Norman Mailer’s car in the driveway he stopped, transfixed by horror. “Holy Jesus,” he said. “Tell me you didn’t drive across the country in that.”

“It runs OK. It just makes a grinding sound when it goes uphill.”

“I’ll bet it does. What is it, a seventy-seven?”

“Seventy-six. It used to belong to Norman Mailer, the Norman Mailer. My ex-girlfriend thinks I was stupid to buy it, but it turns out to be a pretty good car.”

My uncle laughed. “At least you aren’t gay.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, or even why Charles would think I was gay, until I remembered that he hadn’t seen me since I moved to San Francisco. No gay man in the city would have thought for even a second of dressing like I did, but my uncle couldn’t be expected to know that.

Charles said he’d come back in a couple of days to see if I was still alive. He climbed into his truck. I wanted to stop him from going, because it hurt me to think that after ten years apart we had made such poor impressions on each other, and also because I was afraid to be alone in the house, but it was too late; his truck honked and was gone, two red lights dropping into the deep blue of twilight in the country. The radio was still on in the kitchen. “Speaking as a woman of generous proportions,” a caller said, “I just want to let everybody know that I feel good.”

I opened a can of chicken noodle soup and heated it on the stove. Outside, the wind whispered in the oak tree. In my hurry to leave San Francisco I’d packed only one book, Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, which I’d been meaning to read for months; but as soon as I started it I realized that I was not in the mood. Reading a novel, especially a contemporary novel, with its small stock of characters and situations, felt like being stuffed into a sleeping bag head-first: it was warm and dark and there wasn’t a lot of room to move around. I looked through my grandparents’ books and eventually chose Progress in Flying Machines, a purplish hardback with a winged contraption stamped on the front cover in gold. My grandfather had liked reading to me from it when I was a child. Published in 1894, it was, he said, the book that inspired the Wright brothers to build their airplane. What this meant was that none of the flying machines described in Progress in Flying Machines had ever flown. The book was a catalog of failures: giant wooden birds with flapping wings, aerial rowboats beyond the power of any human being to propel, corkscrew-crazy helicopters which under the best of circumstances never left the ground. I often wondered why my grandfather thought this was appropriate bedtime reading for a child. Maybe he hoped the book would teach me the importance of hard work and persistence, and give me faith that what looked like failure could be transformed, by history’s alchemy, into magnificent success. Perhaps he was also preparing me for the likely if not delightful possibility that the success would belong to someone else. As he didn’t tire of telling me, “Remember, it isn’t just the successes who matter. Even the ones who fail get us somewhere, if we learn from their mistakes.”

He meant this to be reassuring, but I found it sad: even as a child I suspected that the person he was reassuring was himself. And in fact my grandfather’s history, like that of many of the so-called pioneers of flight, was largely the story of his failure to get off the ground. My grandparents lived on the rent from properties they owned in Thebes, but over the years my grandfather had tried to increase this income by means of various schemes, not one of which did anything but fail. My mothers told me about them with acid glee: there was the time your grandfather bought real estate in Catskill, they said, he took a bath on that. There was the time he sold seeds from your grandmother’s garden! Even Mary couldn’t believe it and she loved those plants. And then of course there was the lawsuit, the great battle with Joe Regenzeit, which he lost. Oliver was not discouraged. That was what irked my mothers most of all: to see my grandfather fail, and fail again, and not give up. It wasn’t just that my grandfather’s hopefulness reflected badly on his common sense; it also made him unbeatable. No matter how high my mothers climbed, they could never have the satisfaction of getting above Oliver, who was always, in his sober way, hoping for something better.

My soup was ready when I came back to the kitchen. I opened a beer and sat down to read. At midnight, half drunk and far from sleep, I called Alice. Her voicemail picked up again so I read it a sentence from the book in front of me: “If one had an unlimited height to fall in, affording time to think and to act, he would probably succeed in guiding himself at will.” I added: “Hi, it’s me. Just wanted to let you know I got here OK. The house is a disaster, it’s going to take like a hundred years to clear it out. And my uncle is dying. Miss you. Bye.” I made up a bed on the sofa. The bedroom where I used to sleep was full of boxes, and I didn’t want to sleep in my mothers’ room, because I was haunted by the memory of what had happened there thirty years ago.

The sun was already high over the mountains when I woke up, my neck and back frozen at bad angles from sleeping on the sofa. I washed my face and drank sulfurous water from the tap. By day, the house didn’t seem haunted, only cluttered. Four generations of Rowlands had lived there and as far as I could tell not one of them had ever thrown anything out. Cigar boxes and tobacco tins from the early twentieth century were heaped on a table in the hall, teapots, hat racks, mugs, pens, bowls full of buttons and pins, vases, stacks of old magazines, china statuettes of shepherds and milkmaids, candlesticks, bundles of letters, books, albums, records, telephone directories, ashtrays, bottle openers and pens given away by businesses that no longer existed, framed photographs of long-dead cousins, sewing kits, skeins of wool, coasters, place mats, watercolors of the Catskills that my grandmother had painted in her youth, road maps, paperweights, letter openers, seashells, lamps. Every horizontal surface in the house was heaped with stuff; every cabinet was full. There was no separation between the priceless things and the worthless ones: in the parlor, the silver inkwell which supposedly came over from France with Jean Roland was full of paper clips.

I went upstairs to my mothers’ bedroom, which looked just as it had when they ran away from Thebes in the spring of 1970. Embroidered bedspreads covered the twin beds; the trunks where Celeste kept her art things stood against the wall. There were two windows and two desks, and a poster tacked to the wall between them: Russian Folk Music, University Performing Arts Center, December 19, 1969. Their closet was a museum of fashion from the late sixties. Their bookshelf was the summum of thought from the same era: The Bell Jar, Being and Nothingness, Steppenwolf, The Stranger. The room had always seemed strange to me, and it was strange that my grandparents hadn’t done anything with it, the way they changed my uncle’s room into a study. It was as if they were still hoping my mothers would come back. But the room was creepy, and I could understand why the Celestes hadn’t wanted to come back. I felt like an idiot for agreeing to come in their place. I should have let them hire someone to get rid of everything. Without looking at my grandparents’ room, or the study, or the attic, my god, the attic, I got dressed and drove into town.

I parked in back of the Kountry Kitchen, took a booth by the window, and looked blankly at the big sign outside the ski shop, which said


There was almost no one in the restaurant, a couple of teenage girls in purple parkas smoking at the counter, and a large party at the other end of the room, it looked like a business lunch, three men and a woman in suits, their jackets hung on the backs of their chairs, their cufflinks gleaming. As I ate, I thought one of the men was trying to get my attention. He looked at me and raised his eyebrows inquisitively, and I wondered if it was because of my San Francisco clothes, my burgundy leather jacket and thrift-store shirt with the monkey Curious George depicted performing various activities against a yellow background. I nodded in what I hoped was a friendly, masculine way, as if to say yup, and went back to my lunch. Each time I looked up, he was watching me. I wondered if he was trying to pick me up, if he had come to the same conclusion about me that Charles had. A middle-aged businessman with curly gray hair and gold-rimmed eyeglasses, a dark-green suit a shade nattier than the suits around him, it was possible. My yup might have sent him the wrong signal; I didn’t know-how grown-ups communicated in this part of the world. It was too bad, the woman sitting beside him was attractive. I would have liked to look at her wide mouth, her thick red lips and narrow chin. Even the faintly perceptible shadow of hairs on her upper lip was enticing. She would probably have fine brown hairs all down her back and arms. Instead I had to look at my lunch special, a breaded pork chop snuggled against the flank of a mountain of mashed potatoes and bathed in brown gravy. Then, suddenly, the man was standing in front of me, leaning toward me, eager, worried, saying my name. “Kerem,” he said, and held out his hand. “Do you remember me?” It was Joe Regenzeit’s son, grown and changed, thick where he used to be thin, shorter than me now. We embraced and his chin hit my shoulder.

“What are you doing here?” I asked. The last time I saw Kerem, he was fifteen years old, and bound, I thought, for fame in the world of professional soccer or notoriety in the underworld of punk rock.

“Running the family business,” Kerem said, grinning. He put his hand on my back. “Come say hello to my sister.”

He guided me to their table, where the woman, who had looked mysterious and attractive before I knew who she was, transformed herself into Yesim, Kerem’s younger sister, the way a certain shape beloved of psychologists changes from a rabbit into a duck. The hairs on her lip multiplied; her eyebrows grew closer to each other; her thick black hair became unruly. She stood up and shook my hand.

“We heard about your grandfather,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

Meanwhile Kerem was introducing me to the other men, who were up from New York, “to give me a shot in the arm,” he said. They shook my hand and offered me truncated, almost furtive smiles, as though they could tell I was a negligible person, and regulations forbade them from associating with negligible persons while on duty. Still Kerem insisted on telling them who I was.

“We used to party together,” Kerem said, which wasn’t entirely true: we’d only gone to one party together. I kissed his girlfriend, but I don’t think he ever found out. Yesim looked at her brother anxiously.

“Are you in town long?” Kerem asked.

“A few days,” I said. “I’ve got to clean out my grandparents’ house.”

“Well, come have dinner with us. Come tonight!”

The city people glanced at each other. I wanted to warn Kerem that by talking to me he was reducing his importance in their eyes, but there was no way to do it and he wouldn’t have listened. Kerem had always been like that, generous when it would have been better to be selfish. I thanked him and paid my check. I looked back at Yesim, but she was talking to the city people, explaining that in a small town you were always running into people from the past.

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