By John Marlowe
Chris sat katty-corner on a wood and straw taverna chair in Paralia's most disreputable kaffenion and eye-balled Costa who sullenly used a worn straw broom to smack debris across the dirty terrazzo floor, raising clouds of dust, doing little to improve the over-all ambience of the joint.
Chris saw too much anger rise off the deformed man's stale clothes. The malaise twisted his scruffy face, and compounded the bends and dips of his damaged physiognomy. Chris hated Costa the moment he laid eyes on him twenty minutes before when he, the radio reporter, had staggered into the kaffenion under the full weight of his and Kate's luggage and laid his blood shot eyes on the village sweeper. Chris swayed and sweat under the load of Kate's luggage. Kate if anything was good at luggage.
As exasperated and exhausted as he was by the events of the morning, Chris felt the lingering, familiar thrill of a coming into Paralia, a new venue, a thrill that never diminished: That quickening of the pulse, tightening in the chest, split second liquid run in this gut, and the sudden affliction of a slight stutter. Arriving in a new place was the most exciting thing he knew. Not knowing where a street went, seeing new stores, nodding at unknown people, hearing different music out of different windows, all thrilled him deep to the bone, and Paralia was no exception even though purpose was now more important than place. He had told Kate as she left with her cousin, with their combined luggage ---- seven pieces, four big ones for him to carry and three for Kate to lug ---- spread around him like dead calves around their pole-axed mother, that he was as excited as when he first entered Beirut. He was to be formally introduced to her family as "something". No decision as to what exactly that would be. Husband, maybe. Father of the baby I am carrying? Perhaps. My friend? Could be. A man I met? Who knew?
Of all of the kaffenions in Greece, this had to be the dirtiest. No Greek pride. No crisp blue and white paint. No graceful intersection of curves and straight walls. No clever arrangements of cats and flowers. No folksy signs of ouzo and coffee. No mustached men with glass thimbles of muddy Turkish coffee. Not a hint of charm. Not a chance of a souvenir photograph.
With sweat muddied by the residue of Athen's pollution on his forehead oozing into his eyes, he watched Costa limp and stumble around the high ceilinged room, scattering waste and raising tiny dust storms. Maimed legs moving slowly, the broom swiping briskly, if ineffectively. The crippled local, working in spite of only one hand, the right, which had few digits, steering the broom nestled in the bend of his practiced elbow a left arm that ended in a pulpy stump.
Kate had told Chris that the unfortunate man had, as a teenager, 30 or 40 years ago, fished Paralia style, tossing dynamite over the side of the boat and skimming the dead fish off the surface of the deep purple water. "Not very sporting," Chris had observed, only to be told by Kate, a certain tone in her voice, that sport takes a piss poor back seat to food. One of Costa's tosses had missed the sea, the hitting of which Chris had observed was not much more difficult than being able to grab your ass with both hands, and the short fused explosive landed in the boat with a great explosion that sent Costa and a few of his parts in several directions. His brothers took him to the island's major city, a village, and he was mended a little. At least, everyone agreed, he lived.
As Chris watched the man slowly slap at the cigarette butts and ice cream wrappers like crummy hockey pucks, he recalled that Costa's brothers also had argued as to whether or not to kill him rather than let him live an incomplete life of pain and suffering.
"Just let him die?" he had asked her.
"No, shoot him in the head."
Unsettling. Better to let this hopeless prick die. But, he corrected himself, that was harsh and wrong-headed. What could more difficult that deciding the fate of a brother? He sat watching a poor man putz around with the sooty debris, a man with brothers who almost put a bullet in his head. It was bad enough coming to the island to meet the remnants of her family, to be introduced as the husband-to-be or something, some vague thing, to, in effect, have the aunts walk around him and look at his teeth, pinch his butt and weigh his genitals in their cupped hands. To pull a Mandango on him. He did not want to think about a family that would kill their own out of compassion. What would they do out of anger?
Costa swept close to Chris's rickety table and the dazed traveler moved his feet and, scooting his chair backward, stopping when it seemed like it might collapse from the movement, let the sweeping continue. Muttering sounds of any or no language, Costa slowly passed, knocking the debris ahead of himself until close to the wall, slacking off from hockey puck velocity, he gently brushed it under a bench where old, dry, filthy cigarette butts, ice cream wrappers, bus receipts, telephone bills, beer labels, pages from cheap magazines, lie in dry confusion.
Chris was powerfully effected by the enormity of the high walled, tin ceilinged room, the square tables, the rustic chairs, all so ancient and sad; he understood for the moment that his accumulated fuck-ups led to this desolate, star-crossed, fuzzy, dirty kaffenion. An American who played basketball in public parks in Independence, Missouri, who worked for The Gap in San Francisco, who interviewed Stevie Ray Vaughn and John Updike for the same radio show. What could be more American? And here he was in an end of the world kaffenion. The mother of his only --- as far as he knew --- child was off crying with some cousins who would just as soon lock her in a basement like some horrible dwarf monster baby.
True to his own cracker past, Chris raised his hand from its lethargic position on the back of the chair next to him just enough for the bombed nut to see him waggle his fingers at the two empty bottles to indicate one more.
Costa The Malevolent swept on.
Chris stood, walked to the scummy refrigerator, with not so much as a glance at the deformed man, reached in and took out a megalo brown bottle of beer of a bowling pin size that pleased him immensely just in the heft of it.
Costa snarled something about drachmae that Chris took to be around one hundred which he handed to Costa, fully expecting him to chew it and whack off.
It was all a horrible mistake. She could have the baby. Raise it herself. She was modern, competent. He would be a distant, but dedicated, modern father. Send money. Visit. Be responsible. Have the little fucker for vacations. No marriage. Too scary. Kate had too much past, too many family members standing historically in back of her. A white trash American who had only visited his grandparents on either side occasionally was too far out of this league in this family-intensive environment. Costa here was at least a cousin, maybe a brother, who knew? The heritage was too thick for Chris's thin peckerwood blood. Their baby would look like Costa. Its arms and legs would be weak and lacking due to some mystical passing of tragedy in family bloodlines, an accident passed on in the genes.
The hell with it. Split. Meet her in Athens later when she got it straightened out, let her take care of family. She carries the baby, she has the family. She must have an answer in her bones, let her deal with it. He would find a way out and take it. See you later. I'll get back to you. I'll write when I get work. But, just as he decided to take a hike as he poured beer into his dirty glass, she was huge in the sun-lit doorway; stopping his heart, her big-bellied outline blocked the light of the damned door.
So much for leaving.
"What happened?" he asked as he leaned forward to greet her, wanting to be on his feet, but she was so quick witted and quicker footed she could turn any situation so she was not beholden to anyone anytime anywhere. She could be in charge of any situation faster than anyone else could even figure out what the situation was. What a mother for a kid of his to have, he told himself in a flash of insight that was only vaguely registered and not even remembered.
"It was awful." she said and snapped her elegant fingers at Costa who came stumbling. Her fingers were finer than this village deserved.
A cowed Costa meekly asked how he could help her and she told him to get a Sprite and some mezedes, small hors d'oeuvres, a minimal as peanuts, as lavish as octopus. Costa regressed and snarled and mumbled an arrhythmic Greek reply. She shrugged him off.
"What's he pissing and moaning about?" Chris asked, bruising a drop of sweat from the edge of an eyebrow.
"Something about not having mezedes. Christ, he could find a bag of potato chips. Stevie Wonder could find a bag of potato chips." Her shoulders shook and she sniffed the air in an unfamiliar, disconcerting way. "The bitch left me at the platea." she said with sudden passion.
Chris asked, "Who bitch?"
"Maria. Five or six streets from here."
"To get home to fix her husband's dinner before his nap."
"Five blocks wouldn't hurt to take you. Christ, it's hot out there."
"My own damn cousin." She trembled; sobs came from deep within, contracting her ribs, so she was repeatedly smaller-larger, smaller-larger.
The sudden change frightened and weakened Chris. He had never seen her cry. He could not find a proper place to hold her. This crying was best saved for funerals. Doing what he did best in time of crisis, he stayed seated, stretched out his legs and looked at his feet.
As she slowly stopped, he handed her a gritty napkin, and she wiped her eyes and nose, giving a blurry smile as she said, "Sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry for."
"This is awful."
"Not to worry."
"That bitch. Clear over by Manoli and Maria's house. What an insult. When she came to Phoenix, I drug her Hellenic ass from mall to mall, and she drops me off pregnant, by Manoli and Maria's. God damn her. In the sun, too. I hope she gets throat cancer."
Chris wanted to tell her to relax. He couldn't and she didn't.
"And the bitch adds insult to injury: no room because her cousins from Pireus are here. Hell, I'm her cousin from America. I'm family."
"It's me. They don't like strangers."
"Greeks' whole schtick is strangers. They have to like you. It's a law."
She lowered her face into her palms. "Oh, Chris, I'm so embarrassed. I feel so cheated. Relatives must accept and take care of me. They can't ignore me."
He put his clumsy arm behind her, drawing her close. She leaned to him, shuddering softly. "It's just the heat," she whispered.
Did the crying include emotion about rooms? Not knowing, he asked. "What about rooms?"
"She had cousins Tassos, Vassos, Sula, Tula, Rula and boola boola. Goddamn Greeks, no wonder my mother hates them. I understand why she never visits."
Costa made a pass with the broom, growling.
"Look," she said with a broad gesture of her hands to include the huge room containing emptiness, a crippled man lunging, smacking debris from one corner to another. "Anthony Fucking Quinn couldn't love this place. I hate this; I hate Greece." Costa looked up in sullen surprise, stopping, the broom under his chin, in a calm observation, as if the couple were a television program of mild interest.
As she stopped crying, Kate went back to her get-things-done personality. "We have to get a room somewhere."
"The hotel?" he wondered.
"That's a good start." She had a sharp tongue. Her witty, cutting remarks, her beauty and her inability to suffer fools immediately captivated him and shortened his breath.
When they first met in Athens three years before, he was trying to pick up some radio work about the continual crisis in Cyprus.
He was drinking with a Voice of America friend with the unfortunate name of Andy Williams under an olive tree in Plaka, the old section that spread as an apron under the downtown side of the Acropolis; dusk, the soft light softer from ouzo. Williams, a bore, a convenient job contact.
Chris had looked over William's shoulder as this incredibly beautiful Greek woman and a thin well-dressed man took a table nearby. Her beauty shocked him and he could not help but stare as he sipped his milky drink. When he looked her way, he caught her dark, big eyes and he immediately and incorrectly assumed she was annoyed by his horny, sweaty, bleary-eyed, drunk American gaze.
Williams had turned, tracking Chris's blatant stare." What's so bloody attractive?" Williams had then, surprisingly waved to the beautiful woman. Turning back to Chris, he had said, "That's Kate and Sebastian. Want to meet them?"
"Only her. To hell with him. What's their story?"
"Madly in love. Have been for a couple of years."
"She is absolutely beautiful." He added, impulsively, "The kind of beauty that makes me crazy."
"Yes, isn't it sad? That is the trouble with women: they own half the money in the world, and all of the nooky. And hers, and I don't mean the money, must be beautiful indeed. Too bad she is with Sebastian. He doesn't appreciates her. He's never sober long enough."
Because she had caught him staring so intently, he was not anxious to actually talk to her. She was just too beautiful, but Williams, as ungraceful people do, did not wait for an answer. He had pushed back his chair and, with a drunk's careful steps, walked over to the other table as Chris had watched him chat them up. When Williams had come back, he picked up his glass and the cold copper pot of ouzo, and had said, "They asked us to their table. You'll like them. She's as smart as she is pretty and he's interesting in a archeological sort of a way. An archeologist who made money in dope. Like a Mendocino dude that suddenly has a Beamer instead of a VW bus."
Chris had picked up the drink and reluctantly followed his VOA pal, avoiding her eyes, convinced she would embarrass him. After simple introductions and handshakes --- hers cool, dry and light, a feeling, rather than a scent, of perfume. Chris found Sebastian had indeed dug some in Cyprus and knew some people with interesting stories from the Greek and the Turkish side. Chris had asked if they might talk more later and plan some air time, perhaps more formally, and Sebastian had given him a personal card.
As they had talked, Katina, as Sebastian called her, sipped ouzo and nibbled food, separating herself from the conversation, offering bits of sausage and chicken livers to the cats that prowled their ankles. The archeologist had poured the ouzo, drank it down, smiled, laughed and told stories about his digs in Samos with no indication that the beautiful woman was in Athens, let alone at his side.
When Sebastian had ordered the third pot of ouzo and Chris's cheeks alternated between warmth and numbness and his tongue swelled in his mouth, she had stood. "Too much ouzo and testosterone. I'm going to Calliope's." She touched her lips with her fingertips and blew a demeaning kiss to Sebastian, gave a cool nod to Chris and Andy and walked, making Chris, who watched her hips, think of fruit: apples, watermelons, pears, the letter W.
A few days later, Chris had called Sebastian to say he was going to Cyprus, and to ask for names and introductions to people on the troubled island. Sebastian's voice had been thick and slow, but he was more than happy to talk. He gave Chris directions to their apartment in Kolanaki, the most expensive and fashionable part of Athens below Lakavettos, the small white church atop the whipped cream peak of a mountain looking straight across to the Acropolis.
Kate had opened the door in a sweatshirt and shorts, no make-up; her black, short hair was wet and curly from a shower. Chris's heart took an adolescent plunge. He had managed a few properly social words and asked for Sebastian.
"Sebastian has fallen on bad times."
Sebastian's voice came from what seemed to be several rooms away. "Tell him go fuck himself. He's only interested in you."
"He means me?" Chris asked.
"And me. He doesn't mean it. At least when he sobers up he'll say he didn't. He only means rotten things like that when it's only about me."
"Should I come back?"
"Whatever. He's no good now."
"But he was fine on the phone."
"He's put away a couple of glasses of gin since then."
"You need help?"
"Beat him up for me?"
"I could try."
"Later. I'm going for coffee. I'll come back when he's passed out."
She had stepped to him and he had to move aside as she closed and locked the door. She had stood close, "Well?"
"Are we going?"
They had coffee. She had told him about being a Greek-American who grew up in Phoenix with her mother, a divorcee. Her parents had left Greece when her mother was pregnant with her. Kate had been back in Greece for four years, writing for a Greek-English newspaper and waiting tables. She would kick Sebastian out the next drunk he pulled.
Chris had told her about his itinerant ways, his occasional freelance radio reports from any one of the news hot spots. Working as a bartender in between, paid under the table. The conversation had pleasant silent spots while they just looked at each other. He left her at the coffee bar, and the next morning went to Cyprus.
He did not even know if she would be in Athens when he called upon his return, but she was and Sebastian wasn't. "Kicked his drunk ass out. You probably passed his boat going to Cyprus as you were coming back."
They went to a vegetarian restaurant in Plaka, chosen out of curiosity rather than conviction, near where they had first met. A bowl of pickled beets. Steamy cheese pies. Rice cooked with spinach and doused with the squeezing of a bright yellow jewel of a lemon. A hurried dessert of sliced apples and walnuts, covered with a sprinkling of sugar and cinnamon, and, it too, covered with the juice of symmetrical, magical lemons.
They had started the meal slowly, but as passion grew, they hurried through and raced to her apartment in Kolanaki. The next morning, Chris, deeply and lyrically in love, had gone back to his hotel for messages and to rejoice in his good fortune. In a lover's bashfulness, he had saved his morning rituals for the privacy of his own bathroom in the hotel. Good thing. Upon a casual routine check of such things, he found the toilet bowl into which he had stared, transfixed with terror, aswirl with bright reds and dark browns. He immediately knew he had shat blood. Slumped against the wall, he thought, "She will kill me."
A few moments passed as he pondered an early death, then he remembered the rich red beets of the night before.
"I gotta get this in perspective."
After the vegetarian dinner, he stayed at her apartment, planning to leave when he got wind of an assignment. He went to Poland for two months for no reason that he could explain to her, except the money, which he could make in Athens, but she did not mind.
No strings. No commitment.
Even when she told him she was pregnant, especially when she told him she was pregnant. He was sure the baby was conceived one late night when they made love on the floor of her apartment, the balcony doors open to the golden lights of the Acropolis, and as the spasm of pleasure curled his toes and stretched his neck almost to a howl, he saw an endless string of humanity walking from the ancient and magnificent ruin that overlooked the city that he was beginning to love.
"I will not emotionally black mail you into anything," she had said.
"You couldn't if you wanted to."
"I don't want to."
And here he was in a village so lacking in charm it was charming. Houses all brown stones, no blue and white travel poster dazzle, no picturesque boats and endless beaches. A simple lonely village stretched out along a rocky coast that could have been in Scotland if the skies were dark.
"I'll get us a room."
"I'll go with you."
"You don't have to."
"It will be easier."
"If you're not too hot."
"I am too hot. I'm too pregnant, but I can't possibly stay in this shitty hot hole for another minute."
"What about the luggage?"
"Leave it until we find a room. Hell, leave it here, and hire a ciaque to take us to the mainland. I'm kidding. We'll leave it here until we find a place."
"Will it be safe?"
"Of course. Costa will watch it."
"Costa will be the first to steal it."
"Not if we pay him." She straightened, cleared her throat and asked Costa to watch the bags. Chris understood the ill-formed young man to say they could wander the earth, but he would be stuck in this miserable village. Athens, Paris, New York, he would be sweeping the floor.
"Where's all this going?" Chris asked.
"Adequate drachmae will take the horror out of his life."
"Then drachmae it is." He took a five hundred bill from his pants' pocket.
"That's too much."
"I have nothing smaller."
"Find something smaller. This is my family's village. Do what's right."
"Giving him too much money is wrong?"
"It doesn't look right."
"Hey, I don't have anything God damn smaller."
She took the crumpled bill out of his hand and went to Costa who watched from a vantage point of leaning with his chin on the end of the handle on his broom, and she asked for change.
Chris watched the wheels turn greedily in the man's head. If he said he had no change, they might give him the whole five hundred, but that would risk them saying the hell with it and give him nothing.
Such a large problem for such a small brain, Chris thought with malice.
Costa took the bill and, opting for safety, went to a drawer in a desk table in back of the empty refrigerated display case. He got a big hardcover beat-up accounts book and opened it. Chris saw it was used as a cash register drawer, separate bills between different pages. Costa peeled out five one hundred drachmae bills and handed them to Kate. She handed two back and told him something Chris could not understand. As they went out the door, Chris asked her what she had said to him.
"I told him I would cut off the rest of his fingers if anything happened to our luggage."
"Did he believe you?"
"What do you think?"
The heat beat down unmercifully. Sharp dark shadows stayed close to the buildings offering no relief from the hot, high, yellow-white sun. The streets were deserted. Most everyone except them and Costa slept through the hottest part of the day. They stayed close to the buildings, within the narrow shadows. The village's only hotel was full. Not only was there no room, the clerk, a sullen unshaven skinny man with a rough beard that could take paint off a ship, with ugly discolored buck teeth, was rude. Chris figured they woke him from his rightful nap. When Chris asked for a small room for a pregnant woman, the clerk kept raising his eyebrows and clicking his tongue in the Greek gesture for "no" that Chris found cute in an ethnic sort of way, but here in the high heat of the day, he wanted to smack the son-of-a-bitch. As Chris asked if there was anything else in town, the nasty man said maybe later and walked upstairs.
They walked to the sea. Chris felt he might die here. He was not sure how death would come, but it would involve sleeping without a room.
Many times he had slept on the beach, but now he had a pregnant woman with him. So what? We are still adventurous. We can do it. "Worse comes to worse, we take our sleeping bags down to the beach."
"In my mother's village? They'll think we're gypsies?"
"Could be worse."
At the end of the street, a blocky cement quay went out into the sea. Thick and wide, it extended into the calm water that was so smooth and placid, it seemed to bulge. Two boys in shorts and sleeveless T-shirts sat on the edge of the quay, hanging their legs over the side, feet not quite in the water. They were quiet, warned to honor the silence for afternoon sleep.
The quay went straight and blunt out into the purple water, making Chris think of a square tongue sticking into the sea. Though the kaffenion that faced the dock was closed for medsi meri the chairs and table were still out, many baking in the hot sun, a few in the shade of the old, gray olive tree that stood in front. Kate sat on an ubiquitous uncomfortable wood and woven straw taverna chair, putting her head on the table. Chris sat at the small metal table next to her and rubbed the back of her neck.
"Look," he said, to the top her head, working at the tight tendons at the base of her neck.
She twitched him off, saying into the table, "It's too hot to be touched."
"OK, here's the plan. I go back to the hotel and ask again if he knows anybody that can rent us a room, and I ask around the tavernas, and the police. If that doesn't do it, I go door to door."
"You'll find something?"
"I probably will, and if I don't, you and I will go from house to house. They'll never turn down a pregnant woman, especially one with an attitude."
"I don't have an attitude," she said, looking up, her eyes wet.
"I know you don't, but let's pretend you do."
"That should be easy."
"What did you tell your cousin about you and me?"
"I told them we're married?"
"Yah, it's easier here. I don't want all the hassles and the lectures."
"You want me to tell people we're married when I look for a room?"
"It would be easier."
As they talked, a middle-aged man came out of the kaffenion, smiled and asked if they wanted anything. Kate said she thought he was closed, and he said he was, but added they looked so hot he would be honored to get them something. With the best smile Chris had seen all day, Kate said, "I would love a fresh orange juice. With ice."
"And your husband?"
" A beer, a big bottle. Cold."
The man nodded yes, and for the first time since arriving in the village, Chris felt it would be all right.
"Why don't you go for a swim while we wait for the drinks?" she said.
"What a great idea." He kissed her on the forehead, and, as he pulled away, she pulled him back and kissed him on the mouth. "I love you."
"And me you," he answered, pulling his T-shirt over his head.
At the end of the dock, looking into the deep water, seeing clear down to the stones, as if he could see the future, he decided if she told people they were married, they were as good as, and he remembered statement about what women own told him by Andy Williams, his boorish friend from the Voice of America, and he thought to himself, "If what he says is true, I want to share her share."
Rising on the balls of his feet, he felt his weight through his legs. He coiled and pushed high into the air in a perfect rainbow, hitting cleanly, knifing deep into the cool water, tiny bubbles racing past his eyes, a sense of flying through water and time filling him. As he slid through the sea, he thought, "She is not killing me. She is making me live." He joyfully swam deeper and deeper, lost in the grand momentum of the plunge, and then gracefully turned to see the sun above the sea.