at mays urging, I recently agreed to buy an Edison music machine. The Fireside model. It cost an unimaginable twenty-two dollars. She tells me the way it works is that singers up North holler songs into an enormous metal cone, whereupon their voices are scarified in a thin gyre on a wax cylinder the size of a bean can. I imagine the singers looking as if they are being swallowed by a bear. After digestion, they come out of my corresponding little cone sounding tiny and earnest and far, far away.
May is relentlessly modern, which makes me wonder why she takes care of me, for I am resolutely antique. Her enthusiasm for the movies is beyond measure, though the nearest nickelodeon is half a days train ride away. Sometimes I give her a few dollars for the train ticket and the movie ticket, with some money left over for dinner along the way. She comes back all excited and full of talk about the thrill of the compact narratives, the inhuman beauty of certain actresses and actors, the magnitude of the images. I have never witnessed a movie other than once in Charleston, when I dropped a nickel into the slot of a kinetoscope viewer and wound the crank until the bell rang and put the sound tubes like a stethoscope to my ears and then bent to the eyepieces. All I perceived were senseless blurs moving tiny across my mind. I could not adjust my eyes to the pictures. Something looked a little like a man, but he seemed to have a dozen arms and legs and seemed not to occupy any specific world at all but just a grey fog broken by looming vague shapes. For all I could determine of his surroundings, the man might have been playing baseball or plowing a cornfield, or maybe boxing in a ring. I lost interest in the movies at that point.
But I understand that a movie has been made about my earlier life, and May described it to me in enthusiastic detail after it played in the nearest town. The title of it is The White Chief. I didnt care to see it. Who wants every bit of life youve ever known boiled down to a few short minutes? I dont need prompting. Memories from those way-back times flash up with great particularityeven individual trees, dead since long before the War, remain standing in my mind with every leaf etched distinct down to the pale palmate veins, their whole beings meaningful and bright with color. So why choose to enter that distressing grey cinema fog only to find some lost unrecognizable phantom of yourself moving through a vague and uncertain world?
In summer i still rally myself to go to the Warm Springs Hotel, a place I have frequented for more than half a century. Sometimes at the Springs Im introduced to people who recognize my name, and I can see the incredulity on their faces. This example Im about to tell happened last summer and will have to stand as representative for a number of similar occurrences.
A prominent family from down in the smothering part of the state had come up to the mountains to enjoy our cool climate. The father was a slight acquaintance of mine, and the son was a recently elected member of the state house. The father was young enough to be my child. They found me sitting on the gallery, reading the most recent number of a periodicalThe North American Review to be specific, for I have been a subscriber over a span of time encompassing parts of eight decades.
The father shook my hand and turned to his boy. He said, Son, I want you to meet someone. Im sure you will find him interesting. He was a senator and a colonel in the War. And, most romantically, white chief of the Indians. He made and lost and made again several fortunes in business and land and railroad speculation. When I was a boy, he was a hero. I dreamed of being half the man he was.
Something about the edge to his tone when he said the words chief, colonel, and senator rubbed me the wrong way. It suggested something ironic in those honorifics, which, beyond the general irony of everything, there is not. I nearly said, Hell, Im twice the man you are now, despite our difference in age, so things didnt work out so bright for your condescending hopes. And, by the way, what other than our disparity of age confers upon you the right to talk about me as if Im not present? But I held my tongue. I dont care. People can say whatever they want to about me when Ive passed. And they can inflect whatever tone they care to use in the telling.
Excerpted from Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier Copyright © 2006 by Charles Frazier. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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