Fiction: Micah Nathan
AS THE OLD GREEKS WOULD SAY
I found my cousin Sarah in Delfino, a small bar at the end of Kairos Street. She wore a short white dress and was barefoot, with tawny calves and thin wrists, the sort of girl you expect to see in a vacation brochure. As far as I knew, Sarah didn’t drink—maybe a sip of ouzo with her evening fish, or a dash of vodka in her morning orange juice. Still, she looked at home in that place, tucked into the far corner of the room, ashing her cigarette and waiting to be entertained. She reminded me a little of a character in one of my earliest stories: Isabella, the wife of a pipe-smoking Falangist named Esteban, the sort of young woman who refuses to see anything bad, looking into the bottom of her wine glass at the first sign of argument. The penultimate scene with Esteban stalking his rival’s retarded older brother remains one of my favorites: picture a sun-lit park; a mother pushing a carriage with squeaking wheels; the retard (hands splayed, half-smile, wearing a yellow cap) strolling past a giant mechanical gazelle; then the slow reveal of a pistol and a hollow pop. Half-smile still intact, yellow cap tilting insouciantly, the retard sinks to the ground, clutching his neck, believing this all to be some part of an elaborate game.
Anyway. My name is Teddy Wheeler, I’m twenty-two, and I spent last summer in Paris studying Russian literature. This was an attempt to make my writing more serious. I figured there was nothing a few plague-ridden villages and poisoned wells couldn’t fix. Was I wrong. France is a terrible place to study Russian—butter and pastry and wine dispel the sort of chapped-skin disappointment necessary to appreciate Dostoyevsky. After Paris I returned to New York, with some paperbacks, my little notepad, and a shoulder bag full of Gogol homages. I was convinced my half-completed novel Of Empty Men and Cupboards would be pecked at and fought over by numerous agents, like sparrows darting for crumbs. Six months passed; the half-finished novel remained half-finished. I took a job as a waiter at a dusty hotel in the West Seventies. I slept with three women, two of whom I’ll call attractive, and suffered one heartbreak courtesy of a Jewish girl named Rebecca. Despite everything, it was, on the whole, not a bad year.
Some history before we return to Delfino: A month after my 22nd birthday, Aunt Jackie and Uncle William threw a party at their Westchester home. I suffered through the usual—loud jazz, guests frantically searching for drink coasters because every piece of furniture is known by its designer—until Aunt Jackie cornered me between the Rahm chair and the Hummel sofa.
She asked if I’d heard the news about Sarah, and I said I had. Then she paused, eyes reddening, hand pressed to her chest. She looked away.
“I never imagined Sarah would actually want to stay on Therios,” she said, finally. “Her teachers are beside themselves. Do you realize she’s missed over three months of classes?” She grabbed a glass from a passing tray. Her hair—kinky, rebellious—wavered in the air conditioning. “Your uncle and I don’t even know who our daughter is these days. I never should have let her go.”
Idiotically, I said, “Well, don’t blame yourself.”
“But I do.” She sighed and sipped. Her lipstick left a crescent on the rim of the glass. “She was persuasive. Very persuasive. She takes after her father, that way. No more than three weeks, she promised. Postcards every Friday, she promised. How could I have been so gullible?” She cleared her throat. “I have such a headache, and my foot is throbbing. How is your mother? Is she still angry we didn’t make it to your graduation? I wish we’d had the time. But William committed to that benefit dinner, and I was only eight weeks out of ankle surgery. As you may have heard, there were complications. Nothing life-threatening, though I was later told it could have swung that way. Amputation was mentioned, albeit briefly. I blame it on the stress.” She grabbed my hand. “Did you get the fruit basket we sent?”
“It was wonderful.”
“You always loved fruit, ever since you were a child. I want some dapples, you used to say. Oh, here comes William. Very good. We need to ask you something.”
He tottered over, clutching a highball, ponderous, breathing heavily, the way I imagined an old bear would move. His hand enveloped mine.
“Enjoying the party?”
“Delightful,” I said.
“That’s Maine shrimp.” He rattled the ice in his glass. “Had it shipped this morning.”
“Fresh,” I said. “Very fresh.”
“You working these days?” he asked.
“Uptown. I’m waiting tables.”
Aunt Jackie frowned.
“It’s temporary,” I added. “And it’s a French restaurant. Very chic. They allow dogs.”
She closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. “This reminds me of the time when you and Sarah went fishing off our dock. Do you remember that summer? You had a broken wrist. Or was that Sarah?”
“I suppose Jackie told you the news,” Uncle William said.
“She did,” I said.
Aunt Jackie patted my hand again. “I remember—we’d bought that horrible trampoline. Six weeks it took Sarah’s wrist to heal. Even now it still clicks.”
“There’s dozens of islands,” Uncle William said, “but lucky for us Sarah picked the smallest. The police chief told me he’s seen her puttering about on a blue moped. No helmet. Barefoot. Wearing a bikini top. Isn’t that something? One loose patch of gravel and those pretty little legs aren’t so pretty anymore.”
I nodded, tried to turn it to a shrug, then gave up and tipped back my drink. Uncle William leaned in close; he smelled of cologne and scotch, sardines and sweat.
He went on. “What sort of reputation do you think a seventeen year-old girl who rides around town barefoot, wearing a bikini top, has? Do you think she’s known for her cultural acumen? For her conversational skills?”
“She’s such a young seventeen,” Aunt Jackie said. “Some of her opinions are so absurd.”
Uncle William lowered his voice. “Between you and me, I’m not sure if she’s intact. Get my point?”
“So you appreciate the urgency of this situation.”
“I’m beginning to.”
“A blue moped.” Aunt Jackie gulped the rest of her drink. “She could at least afford one of those tiny foreign cars. Something safer. Something…I don’t know. Enclosed.”
“Couldn’t you cut her off?” I asked.
Aunt Jackie frowned. “Cut her off?”
“Freeze her account, I mean.”
“Why the hell would we do that?” Uncle William said.
“She’d be forced to come back home.”
He breathed heavily. “Are you suggesting we abandon our daughter? That we sever her lifeline?”
His questions had the intended effect; I sipped my drink.
“It’s bad enough we don’t know the sort of medical care available in Greece,” Jackie said. “Cash-in-hand is a matter of safety.”
Then Uncle William said, “Jackie and I would like you to visit Therios, as a representative of the family. You’re the ideal candidate: Sarah trusts you, we trust you, and you have experience living overseas. Where was that, again?”
“Paris,” I said.
Aunt Jackie smiled. “Paris has the most wonderful cigarettes.”
“I’d provide you with a place to stay,” Uncle William continued. “And a generous per diem. You’ll have plenty of time to enjoy the beach, flirt with the locals—whatever it is young folks do these days. Think of it as a vacation. When was the last time you saw Sarah?”
“Eight years. I doubt she’d even recognize me.”
“Of course she would. You were always her favorite cousin.” He grabbed my shoulder and squeezed. “I’m sure your French restaurant will understand.”
I only knew Sarah as a little girl, a child who existed solely during the summer: blue-eyed, blonde-haired, thin as a stick with a high voice and scabby knees. I remembered she suffered from night terrors, she was afraid of dark water, anything she couldn’t see the bottom of, and her tongue was perpetually stained purple and orange, from an endless supply of popsicles that Aunt Jackie kept in a huge plastic sack in the basement freezer. But as I got older Sarah became nothing more than a name from the side of the family we rarely saw, popping into existence only long enough to provide an update. Sarah is starring as Rapunzel in her school play. Sarah broke her leg skiing. Sarah skipped two grades.
Teachers labeled her an artistic prodigy starting at age seven. Her sculpture Apple Impaled on Glass was acquired by the Rothberg Gallery, making its debut on Sarah’s tenth birthday. The Lowe’s sent us a combination birthday party/gallery opening invitation, which my newly-widowed mother politely declined.
Sarah received a write-up in The New Yorker later that year. I stuck it to our refrigerator door, where it remains, yellowed and curling, marked with water stains and food smears:
When Ichiro Ohi, recently visiting New York for the first public viewing of the lithograph series on Nikita Khrushchev, saw Sarah Katherine Lowe’s sculpture Apple Impaled On Glass, he proclaimed: “This is either the work of an unfettered genius, or a child has done this, and is putting us all on.” Sarah Lowe’s earliest piece, Hunched Woman With Candle, has been called “Rodin with a flirtatious wink.” Apple Impaled On Glass can be seen at the Rothberg Gallery…
Sarah had sent us a postcard during her junior year, from the Lowe’s annual Hawaii vacation. She pasted a photo of herself over the front, lying on her back on the sand. She wore a white bikini top, her head floating in a pool of swirling blonde hair. The photographer—based on the hulking outline I guessed it was Uncle William—cast a shadow across Sarah’s stomach. Later that week I caught myself staring at the photo, reading, re-reading, tapping the card’s edge on the kitchen table. Sarah had written one sentence in thin black marker, not on the back of the card but on the front, across her tanned legs:
Wish you were here but then it wouldn’t be “here,” would it?
Two weeks after the party I quit my job, unearthed my little notepad, and took a business class flight to Athens. The half-finished novel pleaded to come along. It was a futile gesture—if cafes and long walks at dusk along the Seine hadn’t worked, then greasy-haired merchants and the stink of fish would be the final thrust of the spathē in whatever remained of my writer’s heart. Greece is not what it once was for artists—name me one author of any merit after Menander.
From Athens I took a ferry to Therios, sharing a bench at the prow of the ship with a trio of fat American men, all of them swigging beer from green bottles and spitting olive pits at the seagulls that rode the air currents. Uncle William got me an apartment in town, a small, white, stuccoed cube atop a grocery store, with a kitchen tiled in turquoise mosaic. I bought a bottle of ouzo and stored it in the freezer, next to a pint of strawberry ice cream. This became my breakfast: shot of ouzo, bowl of ice cream. Sometimes I wrote lousy poems while sitting on the patio. I swam in the ocean, tanned myself caramel, and flirted to no avail with the local girls.
After a week of this nonsense, I found Sarah. On a Friday afternoon, while walking through the village square, buzzed from four shots of absinthe bought for me by a loud German, I stumbled into the path of a moped. It swerved, tires squealing. I shouted a curse. Then I recognized her: the long blonde hair, the high cheekbones, the faux-naif comportment by way of wide eyes and a hair-trigger pout; she chained the blue Vespa to a lamp post near the Koriakos church and, helmet tucked into the crook of her arm, sauntered down an alley. I lost her amid the flap and whip of hanging laundry. A grotesque old Greek woman stared at me from between two shutters. I waved to the old woman. She did not wave back. I resisted the urge to pick up a stone and hit her between the eyes. Ο πολιτισμός καθιστά όλα τα άτομα ευγενή; I’m guessing Menander had the same urges.
Over the next few days I saw Sarah’s moped everywhere: at the north beach, near the jewelry stands selling rings that flaked gold when you scratched them, parked outside Delfino, and behind the cinema running an Alain Delon festival. I discovered our apartments were within looking distance—a pair of binoculars revealed Sarah’s preference for vodka-spiked orange juice. I’m proud to admit I didn’t scan her bedroom during evening hours, and I ignored the various men sunning themselves on her patio, their chins tipped to the morning light, cigarettes dangling from between their fingers. They were all decades older than she. This came as no surprise.
I waited and watched, finally deciding to make my move on a Wednesday night. I followed Sarah to Delfino. She sat in the back corner, by herself, smoking a thin cigarette, picking at a plate of horta. I simply walked to the table and sat down.
She ashed her cigarette and smiled one of those curt little lip-raises, the kind that lets you know you’re only being tolerated because it’s the polite thing to do.
“Nicko saw you,” she said.
“He was sunning himself yesterday, and told me there was a man watching us with binoculars. You don’t own the only pair of binoculars on this island, you know.”
I nodded, wondering if Nicko was sitting close by. After a quick scan of the room, I asked her if she had another cigarette. She offered me the pack.
The two of us puffed away, smoke curling above our table. I said, “You can guess why I’m here.”
“To bring me home.”
“Honestly, I’m not sure how to go about this. Your father—”
“You mean he didn’t write a speech for you?” She plucked an olive from her plate. “I’m surprised. He’s very good at speeches.”
I pulled a folded paper from my shirt pocket. “He instructed me to recite whatever I’d like.”
“Give it to me, please.”
“I don’t think he necessarily wanted you reading—”
She held out her hand. “Let’s have it.”
I hesitated; she snatched the letter and sat back. After a few moments she sighed, crumpled the paper, and dropped it on the table.
“So I have two weeks left,” she said. “Before he closes my account.”
“I don’t think he’s bluffing.”
“Maybe you could loan me some money.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because I might prostitute myself. There’s no shortage of men on this island who would pay handsomely for a night with a seventeen year-old American girl. Especially a blonde.”
I laughed. “You’re lying.”
“Am I? Maybe. The idea has crossed my mind, though.” She crushed out the cigarette and pushed her plate away. “Would you like to go for a walk?”
I took a long drag, letting the smoke leak from the corner of my mouth. That morning, binoculars lying on the small marble top table, strawberry ice cream melting in the white sun, I’d composed a poem, admittedly too Byronic (Oh! That we were forever keening/As lovers do at dawn/When night is surely passing/When the moon gives its last yawn) but it brought back memories of Rebecca, the one who’d broken my heart. She had the sort of Jewish features that made her face look as though it had been frozen in mid-melt—sloping nose, sad eyes, downturned lips—but she had a way with children, and she played the violin. I’d considered marriage. Her parents despised me.
Sarah and I walked to the ocean, picking our way down a steep bluff as cacti poked my ankles. We got to the beach and I unbuttoned my shirt, letting the wind dry my underarms. Fishing ships bobbed in a string of lights on the ocean. Sarah tried lighting another cigarette and gave up. She pushed a strand of hair off her face.
“Do you want to see the mass grave?” she said.
“The mass grave?”
We walked along the surf. “It’s from the war,” she said. “One hundred and thirty seven Italian soldiers. The Greek army used machine guns and just left them there. They commemorate the event every year.” She plucked a shell from the sand with her toes, brought it to her hand, inspected, then tossed it away. “Nicko says the place is haunted.”
“So you’ve seen it?”
“The bodies are all just white bones.” She pointed to a promontory farther down the shore. “It’s at the top of that rock. Some people bring candles.”
“I’ve never seen a skeleton,” I said.
“They’re beautiful. If you can get past the fact that they used to be actual people.”
We walked another fifty yards, then scrambled back up the cliff. At a guardrail I offered my hand but Sarah leapt over the railing. She stumbled and sucked air between her teeth.
“Goddammit.” She grabbed my shoulder. “Oh my God, that really hurts.”
I knelt and held her ankle. After a few pokes and prods—I had no idea what I was doing—I looked up. “Can you move it?”
She rotated her foot. “A little.”
“Should we head back?”
“No.” She glanced at the ocean. “It’s only a few minutes more.”
We found it in the shadows of cypress trees, a dark hollow banded with moonlight. Sarah took a couple of candles from her pocket and lit them; I kicked away an old beer bottle. It was difficult to see anything—an arm, a boot, maybe a skull. I swear—though it may have been my imagination—that a goat bleated not far from the grave.
“What do you think?” she asked.
“It’s too dark. Is that a rifle? Or a ski pole?”
“Daytime is better. You can see the skull’s expressions.”
“I didn’t realize skulls have expressions.”
“Well, they do.” She turned her candle upside down and watched the wax drip. “Nicko says there’s a gallery in Athens that wants two of my pieces. They haven’t shown me a contract or anything, but Nicko says it’ll come at the end of the month.”
“He sounds well-connected.”
“He knows everyone in Athens.”
“So you can take of yourself.”
“That’s the plan.”
“It’s a good plan.”
“You really think?” She rested her chin in her palm. “I thought you were going to tell me I’m being naïve.”
I squatted at the edge of the grave. “Maybe you are. This isn’t a bad place to be naïve. Better here than back in Westchester. I’m not sure what you’d do for money, though. Your father seems serious.”
“I don’t like my father.”
“I got that.”
“And my mother is useless. She talks all the time but doesn’t say anything. Do you like your father?”
“I did. He died.”
“Oh.” She lowered her gaze, for a moment. “I forgot. I’m sorry.” She pulled a joint from her pocket. “Interested?”
I hadn’t been stoned since my weekend in Lyon, when a young couple—picture a tall, rakish fellow with a Gallic nose and his equally-rakish girlfriend with ample cleavage the color of skim milk—complimented my hat, as I sat, notepad in hand, in front of the Gare Saint-Paul. We’d discussed the nouveau roman, then snuck behind the public restrooms. One hour later I’d eaten too much broccoli quiche and I threw up on the corner of La rue Saint-Jean, timing it so that right before I vomited, I declared: Voici ce que je pense d’Alain Robbe-Grillet.
We smoked. Sarah hummed something in the minor key, candle in one hand and joint in the other. I grabbed a cypress branch and ran my fingers along its needles. A slat of moonlight finally revealed a stiff boot wrapped around a leg bone. I decided it belonged Antonio Figarelli. From Palermo. The son of a mason, or better yet a cobbler. On the day Antonio received his marching orders, his father—a short man, fingernails stained black from polish—made him those boots. He slaughtered a calf and tanned its hide, prayed to the patron saint of first-born Italian sons that Antonio would return home a hero, and sewed a St. Maurice medallion into the right instep. Weeks later Antonio survived a rocket barrage on the Albanian border; on a Sunday morning he killed a sniper in a mountain village. He wrote his parents that night. The letter went something like this:
It has been a difficult month. We lost fifty-three men during two nights of sustained shelling from Greek forces. I held a friend in my arms as he died. His name was Nicko, and he was from Marsala. I admit his death filled me with rage—I became, as the old Greeks would say, blood-drunk. That is, I could not wait for revenge. It came to me this morning.
We are camped in the foothills of the Pindus Mountains, under the shadow of a monastery in a farming village. Goats are everywhere. My friends use them for target practice. During breakfast someone shot and killed our second lieutenant, and we thought it was a farmer until I saw sunlight flashing at the top of the monastery. I ran to the tower and crept up the stairs. In the belfry I found him—a little man with a big rifle, kneeling at the window, cigarette in mouth. I kicked away the rifle and demanded he tell me his name. Constantine, he said. I punched him to the ground and choked him until he stopped moving. Then we barred the monastery doors and threw torches through the windows. The screams were terrible.
Also, I think a piece of shrapnel has lodged itself in my right boot. Tomorrow I’m going to cut open the instep and see if I can dig it out.
Sarah and I met on the north beach the next morning. The sun was brilliant. She limped along, wearing canvas shoes and her white bikini. I could not believe the stares she elicited from those lecherous Greek men, as if they’d never seen a seventeen year-old limping through the surf. There were plenty of other young women to ogle, skinny girls with thick, olive-black curly hair, lying on blankets, smoking, laughing, pinching their boyfriends. I thought of Rebecca.
Sarah squatted in the water and yanked a piece of wood from the sand. “I’m having lunch with Nicko. You can join us if you’d like.”
“Maybe. My stomach has been bothering me.”
“Are you calling my father today?”
“I was thinking of sending a telegram.”
She turned the wood over, inspecting with one eye shut, then tossed it back. “Well, make sure you say goodbye before leaving.”
“I was thinking I might stay.”
This excited her. “Really? For how long?”
“I’ll start with a month.”
“Do you have enough money?”
“I have some savings.” This was true. “I could sell a few stories. Some New York editors are interested.” This was a lie—what editors? For what journals? More importantly, I hadn’t finished a story in more than a year.
“You could give a reading at one of my art shows.” She looked up at me, squinting. “I don’t know if that’s what writers do, but—”
“I’d be flattered,” I said.
I put my hands on my hips and gazed out. Sarah stood. A wave broke against our legs.
“Have you explored the other islands?” I asked.
“Just Santorini.” She hobbled in the breaking surf.
“We’ll have to visit Ios,” I said. “Menander vacationed there.”
I agreed to meet Sarah and Nicko for lunch that afternoon, and waited for an hour on the steps of the Koriakos church before giving up. I returned to my apartment and watched a cleaning woman scour Sarah’s porch. That night—full moon, warm breeze, more of the same—her apartment remained empty. I had lunch the next day at Delfino, finishing a bottle of wine and a platter of grape-leaf dolma, and stumbled home, imagining Rebecca with a new lover—an Italian, perhaps—the two of them riding through Rome on mopeds, scarves flapping in the wind, the whole bit. Then I imagined her on Therios, wearing a long, grey skirt, being rounded up by grim-faced Greeks, walking under the stand of cypress trees while goats bleated.
Three days later I was back in New York, asking for my old restaurant job. The boss even gave me a raise, impressed, perhaps, with my Continental tan. I unearthed the half-finished novel and wrote another five pages over the course of a month, milking the muse with a few joints bought from one of my co-workers, a middle-aged divorcé with a lisp and stained collars. I outlined a story about the Greco-Italian war, and started seeing a girl who danced for the New York ballet.
Sarah, as far as I know, is still on Therios, though there are whispers—dark and almost gleeful—that Aunt Jackie and Uncle William haven’t heard from her in months. I don’t know what to believe. I do know Sarah would never succumb to that most clichéd of endings, the ingénue walking into the angry waters, awaiting a Laocoönian fate. I prefer to remember her from our last morning together. She waded deeper, arms out, tilting her head back until her hair floated like sea grass. The girls on the beach pinched their boyfriends, the old men ogled—it’s irrelevant to describe anything else, though I did watch a father pulling his little girl on a raft, the girl screaming, the father determined to conceal his own joy.
MICAH NATHAN is a graduate of BU’s MFA program. His latest book “Jack the Bastard and Other Stories” will be available July, 2012.