Regenzeit, 1

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

That afternoon, instead of getting to work on the house, I picked up Progress in Flying Machines and read about M. Hureau de Villeneuve, the permanent secretary of the French Aeronautical Society, who built over 300 model flying machines, all of them with flapping wings. His experiments culminated with the construction of a giant steam-powered bat, which was connected by a hose to a boiler on the ground. When M. de Villeneuve turned the machine on, it flapped its wings violently and did, in fact, rise into the air—at which point M. de Villeneuve became afraid that it would pull free of the hose, and switched it off. The bat fell to the ground and smashed one of its wings, and the story ended with M. de Villeneuve waiting for someone to invent a lighter motor so he could resume his experiments. I wondered what, if anything, the early-aviation community had learned from his failure. Don’t make any more giant bats? Hose-tethered flying machines not a good idea? The hard fact of it was that ornithopters, machines with flapping wings, were a digression from the path that led to the airplane. No matter what motor you used, none of them would ever really work. M. de Villeneuve had devoted his life to something, but I couldn’t think of exactly what it was: flight’s penumbra, maybe, the weird shadow of hopeless invention against which the Wrights’ brightness defined itself.

After a few pages my attention wandered, and I found myself thinking again about my grandfather. I remembered how he used to entertain me and my grandmother with stories from the Catskill Eagle: a police station was opening in Jewett, there was an art fair in Woodstock, the new pizzeria in Hunter was a big success. “Run by actual Italians, that’s their secret,” my grandfather said, as though we were the owners of a rival pizzeria wondering at our own sluggish business. “Apparently they import their flour from Italy.” My grandfather reflected on what he had just said, and frowned. “Not that there’s anything wrong with American flour. Mary, don’t you bake with American flour?” My grandmother affirmed that she did. “Perfectly good flour,” my grandfather said. He considered how much more he should say about it, or whether he ought to praise my grandmother’s baking. Instead he said, “It must be a question of technique. The Italians have been making pizza for a long time, you know.”

My grandmother rolled her eyes. “Do tell. Did the ancient Romans have pizza?”

But my grandfather was immune to her teasing. “I don’t believe so,” he said, “at least, not the kind we have today.” And he was off, explaining to us that the tomato, a relative of the deadly nightshade, was thought to be poisonous until the eighteenth century, and as for our modern pasteurized cheeses, the Romans had never known anything like them. I wondered when my grandfather had developed his taste for puns. I thought about how life turns people into the opposite of what you would expect them to be, as it had with Charles, and now with Kerem. I wondered if I seemed as strange to Kerem as he did to me, and, if so, what I was the opposite of.

It took me a long time to decide what to wear to dinner. All my clothes were wrong, and in the end I put on a white button-down shirt and one of my grandfather’s jackets, which was tight across the stomach but all right if I left it unbuttoned. I looked like my advisor at Stanford, a portly ex-Jesuit named Schönhoff. What was worse, the jacket smelled like my grandfather’s closet, like naphtha and wool and ever so faintly of aftershave. At various points in the evening I would catch myself sniffing my own shoulder, wondering if it still smelled, and whether Kerem and Yesim could smell it too.

Kerem greeted me at the door. He was wearing a black sweatsuit that made him look even older than the business suit had, and at the same time recalled his athletic youth. He hugged me and I pulled back, trying to protect him from the jacket. “You’re looking great,” he said. “Come in, hey, you didn’t have to get dressed up.”

The house had changed, but my memories of it were too old to say how, exactly. The black leather sofa and the enormous television were certainly new, as was the tiny silver stereo playing almost inaudible jazz. But the rugs were the same, and the smells, too, of cumin and cloves, onions and meat.

“My sister’s cooking,” Kerem said, “but don’t think it’s like this every night. We’re a take-out family, most nights we eat the most amazing junk. Do you drink martinis?” He came back with two of them, big ones, in highball glasses. “Sit.”

Kerem lowered himself into a black leather recliner that tried to open up its footrest. “I’m a lazy bastard,” he said. “What can I do?” He kicked the footrest back. “Welcome to Thebes!”

We drank. Kerem explained how they had come back to the old house: after he flunked out of Cornell, he’d scraped through SUNY Purchase and got a law degree from Villanova. He’d married a lawyer named Kathy and they had a son, Max, who looked down on us from a brass-framed photograph on the windowsill, a small fair boy with an overbite. Two years ago Kerem’s father was diagnosed with a cancer of the pancreas that was fatal in about 95 percent of all cases, but not Joe Regenzeit’s. It was a miracle he lived, and when the cancer went into remission he had a, “What could you call it? A mid-death crisis,” and decided that he was through with America. He and his wife returned to the village where his ancestors had come from, “a town in Anatolia with about three goats and a well,” and he lived there to this day. Yesim had already moved back to Thebes to take care of her father, and when he went off to this village, which was called Akbez, and really was so small you couldn’t find it on most maps, she stayed on and took care of the ski resort. At first Kerem had helped her only a little; then he became interested in the business, and then, “I had this idea, I want to take what we’re doing here in a new direction. I can’t talk about it yet. You understand, right? You can’t show anyone until it’s finished?” He moved back up to Thebes; Kathy stayed in Philadelphia; they agreed to separate. “I have to tell you, I miss the hell out of Max, but I’m happy here. And it wasn’t good for my sister to be alone. Now,” he concluded quickly, as if he regretted having told me so much, “what about you?”

I told Kerem how I’d gone to Stanford for history, dropped out of the program, and gone to work at Cetacean, then Yesim called to us that dinner was ready. I followed Kerem into the dining room, pursued by the jazz, which could be piped, he explained, into every room of the house, including the bathrooms. The dining-room table was covered with dishes. Yesim was still wearing her business clothes, but she’d exchanged her contact lenses for large eyeglasses with square red frames. Her hair was restrained by a flock of bobby pins. Kerem maneuvered me into a chair to his right, and his sister sat facing me.

“Did you know he’s an Internet entrepreneur?” Kerem asked.

“How would I know that?” Yesim said. “He hasn’t told me anything.”

“I’m not an entrepreneur,” I said.

“I should have known you’d end up in the computer business,” Kerem went on. “Do you remember when I had that computer? You made it do the most amazing stuff.”

“Not really,” I said. “I just copied some programs from a manual.”

You wrote that game, didn’t you? We played it for days. We played it all summer.” Actually Kerem hadn’t played it at all. I was amused at what his memory was doing to the past, how he was making me grander than I had ever been. One look at Yesim and I decided to let his misrepresentations stand.

We finished the bottle of wine, and Kerem remembered another, a gift from the Karmans last Christmas. Soon I was telling Kerem and Yesim that content management was a misnomer, actually what I had managed was discontent, my own, mostly. Every project was the same, every client was looking for a way to turn the Internet into one of those ads you see on late-night television, for the carrot peeler that also makes soup. The only difference among them was that some clients wanted to give you the peeler for free and charge for the carrots, whereas others wanted you to pay for the peeler up front.

Yesim’s lips and teeth were stained purple. She wiped her mouth with her napkin, and our eyes met. She seemed to be asking me, what do you want? A question to which I had no answer.

Finally the meal was over. Kerem said, “How about some coffee, sis?” and Yesim carried our plates into the kitchen.

“We have this great Chilean coffee,” Kerem told me. “Can you believe it, great coffee in Thebes? We get it from the new grocery, they have everything.” Kerem grinned. “You know who owns that place?” I couldn’t imagine why he thought I would care, but before he could tell me, Yesim came in with the coffee.

I asked what she had been doing since I saw her last.

“Oh, me,” she said. “Actually, there isn’t much to tell. I was living in Albany, then my father got sick, and I came back up here. Now I’m a ski-resort administrator.” She looked at Kerem, as if, oddly, she were judging him.

I asked what she had been doing in Albany, but Yesim didn’t answer, and it fell to Kerem to wave his hand vaguely over his glass. “Yesim is a born manager. She’s the one who keeps things going. I like to think of myself as an idea guy, but the truth is, without Yesim, I’d be nowhere. Snowbird would be nowhere. Even my father admits it.”

“My brother is a little drunk,” Yesim said.

Kerem lifted his glass. “Drunk enough to tell the truth. To my sister!” But the glass was empty. “Yesim, there’s a bottle of Scotch in the cabinet over the refrigerator…”

“You can get it. I’m going upstairs.” Yesim touched my shoulder as she went past and said I shouldn’t leave without saying goodbye.

Kerem got the bottle of Scotch and two glasses and I followed him into the living room where he poured us about half a glass each. He used to hate the stuff, he said, but there was some kind of rule that lawyers had to drink Scotch. He stuck his hands into the tangles of his hair. “Holy shit, I’m a lawyer,” he said, and collapsed into his recliner. This time the footrest came up.

I slumped on the sofa, and we drank what he told me was a very good Scotch, from an island where they fertilized the soil with goat shit, could I believe that, goat shit? No, it wasn’t goat shit, really, you can’t trust what lawyers say, lawyers are always making up the most fantastic crap. The conversation slipped away from me. Kerem was talking about how his wife had been freaking out ever since someone broke into her Lincoln Navigator, and wanted to bring Max to live with Kerem in the mountains, the mountains, she said, as though these were real mountains, as though this was fucking Colorado, and of course it wasn’t going to happen, in a couple of weeks she’d calm down and tease him again for being a survivalist, which, in fact, she’d already called him, as though his move to Thebes had been part of some plan, Kerem said, as though he had planned any of this.

Then he was telling me about his sister, who was, he said, a poet, and had been in trouble. “What she needs,” Kerem said, “is encouragement.” He made me promise that I would encourage her. “We’re going to get through this,” he said, and he told me that, if I stayed around, I would see, the glory days were coming back to Thebes, but by this point the conversation had escaped from me entirely, and all I remember of it are images: rosy clouds against a pale-blue sky, trumpets, people dancing in a tent, things Kerem can’t have said. I had to go to the bathroom, so I stood up and hit my shin against the coffee table. The pain was unbearable. I hopped around the living room, and when I stopped I was sober again, but exhausted, as though I’d just sat through a very long film. Yesim had already gone to bed. I said goodbye to her brother and staggered across the little gulf that separated the Regenzeits from the Rowlands. I lay on the sofa, got up, took off my clothes and lay down again. I thought of Yesim, and what it would have been like if I had followed her into the kitchen, reached around from behind and cupped her breasts, and if I had just, and if I had only.

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