Thebes, 3

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

Charles came over that afternoon to help with the packing. “God damn, this place is an icebox,” he said. “Don’t you want to turn on the heat?” I explained about the hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Charles snorted. He took his cane and limped down to the basement. He studied the furnace, sniffed, lit a match and stuck it into a hole near the base of the big cylinder. With an explosive whumph the heat came on, grumbling and grinding its way back into the house. I said we didn’t have central heating in San Francisco, I’d never needed to know how it worked before. “OK, Mr. California,” Charles laughed. “Let it go.” I wanted to tell him not to call me that, but I was afraid we’d start to fight again. We went upstairs and sat in the kitchen, looking awkwardly past each other. All week I’d been thinking of how to apologize to Charles, but now he was here the words wouldn’t come, and it was my uncle who spoke first.

“I’ve been thinking about you. How it must have been hard for you to grow up without a father. And with the twins, jeezus.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I never grew up any other way.”

“Still, I guess you have the right to be angry.”

“I’m not angry.”

“Come on,” Charles said. “Even I’m angry at him.”

“At my father?”

“Sure. At what he did.”

“Because he killed himself, you mean?”

My uncle shook his head. “I’m talking about when he was alive. Richard Ente was the biggest hippie bastard that ever lived.”

“A hippie?” Goodbye, Sean Connery, I thought. “But he was my grandfather’s age.”

“He was. He was an old hippie. Or maybe just an old man who wanted to be young again. I don’t pretend I ever understood him. I’m just telling you, he did things that no one should ever have done, definitely not someone his age. I’m not offending you, am I?”

“Go on.”

As Charles spoke, the father I’d built from a few sentences, a word here and there, a shrug, a frown, was drowned under the mass of his words—it was, to change metaphors, as though the currency father was devalued, and my savings were worth nothing. If that was all the father I had, I might as well have had none at all. And here, striding up out of nowhere, came the new, high-denomination Richard Ente, a fifty-year-old hippie who smoked pot and inclined his head to get a better view every time one of the Celestes bent forward.

“He didn’t even try to hide what he was doing,” Charles said. “ Oliver, he said, you have two lovely daughters, I’ll buy them from you for a dozen camels. Like he was some tribal Jew in the desert, which is really what he should have been. I bet he would have done all right in the desert.” Richard Ente told bad jokes at the dinner table and got food in his salt-and-pepper beard. He came to Thebes by bus because he barely knew how to drive a car. He didn’t wear deodorant, he didn’t cut his nails, he didn’t wear socks. He ended sentences with the word dig. And from the first he was after the Celestes. “You know how he got away with it? I’ll tell you. Richard was very shrewd, and one of his talents was to guess what you were dreaming, not like in your sleep, but what you wanted, and then he’d say that thing out loud, and be, like, that is certainly going to happen. And since you heard it coming from another person, who didn’t know you’d been dreaming of it, you thought maybe that meant it would happen. He got us all that way.”

Richard Ente made promises to everyone. To Oliver he promised victory, and not just that; he said that if the lawsuit went the way he thought it would, Joe Regenzeit would pack up and leave. To Mary, my grandmother, he promised the world. “She’d always wanted to travel,” Charles said, “but she’d never been able to, on account of Oliver not having enough money, and being generally tied to Thebes.” To the Celestes he promised fame. “He was like, you girls are geniuses, and you aren’t getting what you deserve here, and I know some people in New York who would really be into what you’re doing. Why don’t you let me introduce you? He told them he was friends with Andy Warhol!” There was, apparently, no lie of which my father was not capable. And the Celestes, who were smart, and should have known better, believed him. “He said he’d get them a loft in New York. He told them they could model. Like, part-time, for good money, right? You tell me if that happened.”

It didn’t, I said, but I was still thinking about what my uncle had said earlier. “He smoked pot?”

“All the time.”

“And he had long hair?”

“A ponytail.”

“What kind of music did he like?”

“Joan Buy-yez, that kind of thing. He even had a bead necklace. Can you imagine that, a fifty-year-old man in a bead necklace? He was ridiculous!”

“Wow.” I felt giddy: the child who had been saving all his life was suddenly rich. I had more father than I knew what to do with. And yet the new Richard Ente that I had received from my uncle didn’t fit either with the story I had told myself as a child or with the fact of his suicide. My uncle and my mothers and I were like witnesses identifying different people in a lineup; and like a stubborn eyewitness I continued to believe that the Richard I saw (even if I had never seen him) was the one who had done it. Charles must have got him wrong. Maybe he had misinterpreted Richard’s behavior, although what he could have misinterpreted to come up with his Richard Ente, I had no idea.

“Anyway,” my uncle said, “I’m here if there’s anything you want to get off your chest.”

We spent the rest of the day cleaning out the basement. I didn’t get anything off my chest, other than dozens of heavy boxes, the contents of my grandfather’s woodworking shop. If anything, it seemed to me that Charles was the one who still had something on his chest; now and then he looked at me as though he was about to say something, but he didn’t. I didn’t press him. It was only after he left, when I was in the kitchen, drinking the last of the beers I’d bought the day before, that I remembered something he had told me a long time ago that fit with his description of Richard Ente, something that made me wonder if my uncle had not, after all, been right.

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