Thebes, 2

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

My uncle was back early the next morning, making things move in the kitchen like an angry ghost. I groaned and wrapped the quilt around my head. He asked what had happened to me, and I said I’d been hit by a car.

Charles laughed. “I know that car.”

He made coffee, and when it was ready he shook my shoulder. Instant. Charles pointed at me with his mug. “So, you were just drinking by yourself, or what?”

“I was at the Regenzeits’.”

“Ah, our enemies,” my uncle said.

I felt dull and sick to my stomach. I wished Charles would leave so I could go back to sleep, and in fact I didn’t know what he was doing, coming over when the sky was still green with pre-sunrise light. Did he think that the world was full of people like him, angry men who drank bad coffee at dawn? “Why are they our enemies?” I asked.

“Because they’re Turks, that’s why. The Turks are an Oriental people. They’ve hated us ever since the beginning.”

“Turkey is a Westernized democracy. It’s even a member of NATO.”

“Believe what you like, the history speaks for itself. Think about the Ottoman Empire.”

“The Ottoman Empire ended just after the First World War. Anyway, Kerem and Yesim were born in America.”

“But they remember,” Charles said, “they all remember that we won. The Americans and the Western Europeans.”

“That’s not true, the Ottoman Empire collapsed under the weight of its own bureaucracy. That, and the rebellion of the so-called assimilated peoples.” I couldn’t believe I was discussing the fall of the Ottoman Empire at dawn in Thebes with a bad hangover.

“Assimilated peoples, my ass, it was us. We won, on account of our superior military technology.”

“You must be thinking of the Cold War, although even there…”

“You don’t get it,” Charles interrupted. “Snowbird is their revenge.”

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “Snowbird is a ski resort, and this is the late twentieth century. You aren’t going to convince me that Joe Regenzeit and his family have been holding a grudge ever since Mustafa Pasha’s defeat at the gates of Vienna, or, even if they did, that they would take their revenge here, in Thebes.”

Charles growled at me that I didn’t understand a damn thing about Thebes, and I said I understood enough, Thebes was just a small town in the mountains that no one cared about, and there were more important things happening in the big world, and wasn’t it time to think about something else, and he said, what something else did I mean, which something else did I want him to think about, when every day they ruined Thebes a little more, and the old families were dying out, and people were tearing the old houses down and building Swiss chalets, and a barn sold for two hundred thousand dollars, a barn, and I said, you wanted to move to California anyway, don’t tell me that you love Thebes, and he said, I wanted to leave, but I didn’t want this place to die, and I said, it wasn’t dying, and he said, you don’t know what dying is, then he started coughing in a way that left little doubt that on this subject at least his knowledge was vastly greater than mine.

“Do you want some water?” I asked.

He waved me away, stood up and went into the kitchen. I heard him washing his coffee cup. “What are you doing here, anyway?” he shouted.

“Packing up the house,” I said.

“Then pack up the house, and don’t get mixed up with people who hate us.”

The screen door banged shut. I sat in the living room, hurt by my uncle’s words. Was he really so confused, I wondered, that he thought the Regenzeits were out to get us? It was ridiculous. People like Charles were the problem, I thought, intolerant people who can’t let go of the past.

After a while, I went up to my mothers’ room and opened one of Celeste’s trunks. It was full of magazines and newspapers heaped up roughly according to size, the raw materials of her work. What the Rowlands had accumulated, Celeste cut up: worn back numbers of Scribner’s Magazine, McClure’s, Harper’s, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, mixed in with issues of Life and Vogue and Look. I used to look in the trunks when I came to visit in the summer, each time stealthily, as though I was breaking a rule; in fact no one said anything tome about the trunks and I don’t think my grandparents would have minded if they’d known. I liked the way the holes Celeste had cut in the pages of the old magazines acted as windows onto the pages behind, so that where the head of, say, a Bohemian fortune-teller was supposed to be, you’d see words or parts of words:

little known epis
the remarkable discover
ich it directly and indirectly
properly be regarded as m
the progress of thought
. The central figur
young woman
ome scoundrel
oor of her cot

Now that I was looking at them again, the effect was completely different. The magazines seemed to me typical of Celeste’s angry way of dealing with the world: she took what she needed with no regard for anyone else.

I opened the second trunk, where she kept her collages. Each white sheet was kept safe in a big black sheet of paper folded in half. I unfolded the top sheet and picked up the collage beneath. It had a woodcut of a feather, angled as if drifting toward the bottom of the page; above it a slender hand in a lace cuff reached down, either to let it go or to pick it up again. Below the feather, at the center of the page, set between quotation marks that had been pasted down separately, was part of a typewritten phrase: “ollow me.” Follow me, it must have been, or, just possibly, hollow me. The date was penciled in the bottom right corner, in neat, small letters, July 1970. I was about to be born. I had seen the collage before, but something passed through me as I sat on the floor, looking at the paper, a cool dark something like the shadow of a cloud. It was as if Celeste was about to tell me something. I opened the second folder. This collage was from April of the same year; it showed a pair of hands on the keys of an enormous typewriter, and, emerging from the top of the machine, the prow of an airship. Cherubs beckoned to the airship from above, while from the bottom of the page a Chinese dragon rolled its eyes angrily. The references to birth, to my birth, were easier to spot than in the other: the cherubs, the round head of the zeppelin poking out of the typewriter’s slot. The dragon might have been my grandfather. Still I was disappointed. Ollow me, the first picture said, and I wanted to ollow, to follow, but how could I follow when I didn’t know where it went? The collages led backward, further into the past, away from me and my time. Celeste’s style devolved, words and blocks of text appeared, floral borders, dancers, neckties and the heads of famous people. The collages retained their formal elegance but became, unmistakably, the work of a young person. Ollow me, ollow me. If only there had been another collage to show me where to go, but there was nothing, because, in May 1970, probably no more than a few days after she made this collage, Celeste and her sister left Thebes. They were seventeen and a half years old, and they took with them nothing, or almost nothing: a warm protrusion that would in a few months become a child.

© 2008-2014 Paul La Farge. All rights reserved.