Chapter One – At the End of the Day
At the End of the Day
“In Levesko’s debut novel, a deep-thinking young man ponders life and love in Paris and beyond…Alex’s journey from irresponsible unfocused youth to a more thoughtful maturity will resonate with anyone who’s struggled with questions of how to live in the world…an overly philosophical novel at times, but one that captures the turmoil and excitement of the late 60s.”
The envelope was postmarked Kabul, Afghanistan, and it was addressed to me in Paris. There was no date stamped on it as to when it had been mailed. Inside, there was a letter in small, neat, delicate, writing—a woman’s handwriting. It was dated June 3, 1968, about two months earlier. It read:
I apologize and regret to be the bearer of tragic news. Chris is no longer; he died three weeks ago here in Kabul. I thought you would care to know what happened. He always thought very highly of you and among his papers, I found your address. I pray that my letter gets to you and finds you in good health. I am terribly sorry I did not write sooner, but I do hope you will understand.
The letter was signed: Anne. No last name, no return address, no other additional details were given. Nothing about what he had died of, or how.
My good buddy Chris, gone! What a shame—damn shame. Good old Chris. Man, life truly is impenetrable. All kinds of memories suddenly came rushing back to me. How long had it been since I thought about him? In the last postcard I received from him, he wrote he was on his way to India. Anne must have been the English girl he was supposed to go with. I immensely regretted how lax I had been in trying to keep in touch with him.
Sudden news about a friend’s death shocks your soul. Part of you dies and the ache and emptiness in your heart are made worse when you are left to wonder how it happened. You want to stop your life, go back and do the things you did not do and say the things you should have said. The heart suffers from remorse. The personal disappointment at not having been the person you thought you were or the friend you should have been is devastating. It makes you feel like a fraud. It shatters the idea you have of yourself.
There are two inescapable and simple truths in life: birth and death—no room for ambiguities. With the sad news coming on the heels and in contrast to the other things that had happened and which were presently shaping my life here in Paris, it got me thinking about the tricks the cosmos plays on us and how paradoxical life is. We never know when the good or the bad will come knocking on the door. All we do is ponder and wait. About the only certainty we can count on is the total uncertainty of it all.
I had met Chris some sixteen months earlier in Athens, Greece, through Cleo, in the late spring of 1967. Cleo, born in Egypt of Greek parents, had opened up a boarding house for errant tourists, mostly Americans. Chris’s father had emigrated from Greece to America eventually settling down in Ohio, where he had gotten married and where Chris was born and raised. Cleo and Chris, though citizens of other countries, always thought of themselves as Greeks.
After an all-night drive from Yugoslavia, I arrived in Athens early one morning and went to the American Express office to replace some lost traveler’s checks, wire money to a friend in Istanbul, and pick up my mail. My plan was to stay in Athens for just a couple of days, as my final destination was the island of Hydra. Through the efforts of Milo, a friend in Paris, I was on my way to meet an Italian film producer who had hired me to help him write a script for a film he wanted to make.
Upon returning from a recent visit to Japan, I had written a rather whimsical story about sumo wrestling meant to poke fun at how serious the Japanese are about this old and very traditional all-male sport. The producer had read it, liked it, and wanted me to work with him. I was surprised that anybody knew or was even familiar with the story. Anyway, this was going to be my first foray into that strange and murky world of celluloid and make-believe.
I was looking through my mail outside the American express office when I struck up a conversation with an American couple who had also just arrived. They were on their way to Cleo’s and suggested I go with them since I, too, needed a place to stay while trying to get in touch with the Italian producer. When we got to Cleo’s, breakfast was being served on a terrace at the back of the small building overlooking a vacant piece of land where an excavation was taking place.
Two young soldiers with their M-16s lazily draped over their shoulders were standing by the site. Greece was then under the control of a clique of army colonels. They had organized a coup d’état and had installed a military government. Greece’s king had fled to England, and rumors had it that the junta would not let him come back. In the meantime, the king was supposed to be plotting to get rid of the colonels from his forced exile in London.
Cleo was a handsome woman, probably in her late fifties, who radiated an Old World charm that made it possible to like and trust her. She told me she did not have a single room available just then, but that if I did not mind sharing a room with another American, I was welcome to stay. Sharing a room with someone I did not know, however, was not high on my priority list. I had also left Paris because I did not want to continue sharing quarters with my girlfriend.
“Cleo, you’re asking me to share a room with a total stranger who is not even female.” She got a kick out of my saying that. “Let me get some breakfast first, and then we’ll see.”
The modern city of Athens reminds me of Burbank, California—bland. Like Burbank, it is made up of apartment buildings without distinguishing features. Both cities seem to be missing something; however, it is in the ancient ruins that Athens is different. Nothing can prepare a first-time visitor for the majestic beauty of the Parthenon or the other ancient monuments still standing in the city. The chattering of the crowd that early morning at Cleo’s got me thinking about the other Americans sitting there. Everyone seemed to be in high spirits. I felt old among them, though I was just a few years older than they were.
A European friend of mine has a pet theory about most Americans and the way we behave with strangers when we first meet them. He says those first few minutes are critical due to our tendency to tell people we have just met the story of our lives, without being asked, after which we seem to run out of topics of conversation. It makes us look frivolous, immature, and self-centered, he argues. He also claims that most Americans know the rest of the world through a distant, benign, but pervasive television watching.
That is how we remove ourselves from life’s realities. It is also how we construct our own view of the world: through the narrow confines of television viewing. We do not read books or newspapers. We are oblivious of others in the world. It does not seem to impact us at all. We are what he jokingly calls “the best-informed-ignoramus-citizens around.” We exhibit a self-centeredness blinding us to the place we occupy in the world. It deforms not only our view of it but also our place in it. But he still loves the U.S., he says.
Around me, I could hear all sorts of comments and ideas from the people sitting there. All I had to do was close my eyes, and I was back in the States at a crowded college cafeteria during lunch hour. Everyone was making plans. Plans about everything! The bits of conversation that drifted my way spoke of a great sense of adventure, excitement, youthful enthusiasm, and curiosity about the world at large. I was not totally convinced my friend’s criticism about Americans was fair.
I found myself reflecting upon the many reasons why I came to Greece. It was true I was going to attempt to write a film script for this producer, and that my girlfriend and I had had enough of each other. It was also true that lately I had been feeling restless and in a bit of a rut. I guess my ennui was an accumulation of many things that individually did not amount to much. When I added them up, however, it resulted in a sense of annoyance and a longing to make some changes in my life—though I was not sure just what kinds of changes were necessary.
I needed to filter my restlessness through a different prism, hoping it would help me understand what was happening. I was looking for simpler things, different things. A change of geography and atmosphere or ambiance, as the French would put it, might help me clarify the confusions and contradictions, presenting me with new ideas, new perspectives.
Soon just about everyone left the terrace except for a man sitting at a corner table with a dog by his feet, and a man and a woman sitting at another table. The man with the dog ordered a couple of fried eggs, which the waiter brought him. After smelling them, he shook his head and sent them back. A few moments later, the waiter brought him another pair of eggs. The man smelled the eggs and seemed satisfied. He then placed the plate by the dog.
At first, the dog did not bother looking at the plate. Finally, it got up, sniffed the food, looked at the man, and shook its head clearly indicating: No! The man moved his head up and down sternly indicating: Yes! Dog and man stared at each other without moving. It was a standoff! After a few moments, and with weary energy, the dog began eating ever so slowly while giving the clear impression his heart was not in it.
The dog finished and licked the plate very delicately. The man then took a piece of toast, and after spreading butter and jam on it put it on the dog’s plate. The previous routine was repeated with the dog finally eating the toast with the same weary lack of energy. Only when it was done did it acknowledge the man by wagging its tail furiously. I had the strange impression that, in the game they were playing, the roles of master and pet had been perverted.
The woman from the couple got up and walked over to pet the dog. She was tall, probably in her forties with certain hardness to her looks, yet when she spoke, her voice was soft and very pleasant. There was something asymmetrical and incongruous about her demeanor, as the voice and looks did not seem to come from the same person. She said her name was Mary, and her friend’s was Evan. They came from Australia. She also added that while she and Evan were sharing a room they were not lovers but just friends.
I could not guess why she felt the need to explain that. The man with the dog said his name was Stewart, the dog’s name was Percy, and they came from England. Cleo came back a few moments later to find out what I had decided. The breakfast and the prospect of having to go out and look for a hotel had made me tired, so I told her I would be willing to share the room with her other guest after all.
“His name is Chris. He’s American, but you can’t meet him because he’s in jail.” Her voice and manner suggested she was not comfortable sharing too much information with me. “He’s a good boy, and I’m very worried about what may happen to him,” she added.
“What did he do?”
“He didn’t do anything. It’s this damn fascist government,” she said, with a sense of disdain in her voice.
“Have you tried the American Embassy? That would be his best bet.”
“The American Embassy?”
A frown appeared on her face and she looked at me as if I had suggested something foolish like tying up a hungry dog with a long chain of freshly made beef sausages. I told her I had a couple of contacts in Athens who could perhaps help, but what I really needed was rest. Once my head was clear I would try to give her a hand. She said she understood and then took me up to the room I would be sharing with this jailbird. I went to sleep right away, which was somewhat unusual for me.
It was past noon when I woke up. Though I travel a lot, and have slept in countless strange rooms, I still cannot get used to waking up in unfamiliar surroundings. The building seemed very quiet. After taking a shower, I went down to the terrace. The man was still sitting at the same table as earlier, alone and playing solitaire while the dog rested by his feet. I had the impression they had not moved at all.
Cleo and a man were sitting at another table. She invited me to join them for lunch. I had given some thought to helping her friend Chris. A few years ago, I had met a Greek guy in Bangkok, while I was in the army, who had told me he knew everyone worth knowing in Greece, and to look him up if I ever came to Athens. His name was Demetrios. I still had his address. The only problem was that he happened to be a mercenary.
The thought of calling on him to help Cleo’s friend get out of jail was kind of iffy since I did not know the details of the incarceration. I also did not know how Cleo would react to the news about Demetrios, and what he did for a living. So I decided to keep some details to myself and see how things worked out. We had a long and leisurely lunch, during which the conversation was of no consequence, topped off with some wonderful strong coffee and a cognac.
“So what about this Chris, why is he really in jail?” I asked her.
“It was a silly incident. It was the government’s fault. He doesn’t deserve to be a prisoner. I’m worried about him.”
“How bad is it?”
“He insulted some government officials using bad words.”
Since a military government was in charge, this had caused problems for Chris with the authorities; however, Cleo did not seem interested in giving me any more details.
“I told you I know someone who lives here in Athens. He said he had some connections. He might be able to suggest a way out of this—that is if I can find him,” I said.
“I have asked some people here to see if they can help, but they’re afraid. You would be a nice man if you try to help Chris.”
She gave me a big smile and held my hand, which was kind of surprising. I showed her Demetrios’s address.
“You’d better get a taxi to take you there. I’ll pay for it,” she added.
“You don’t have to do that.”
She then gave me walking directions to the nearest post office, as I needed to send a wire to my Italian producer informing him I was in Athens. At the post office, I did manage to make myself understood in a mixture of French, English, and hand gestures. The woman behind the counter reassured me the message would get to Hydra. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow, but it would get there.
Athens was sticky and humid at that hour of the day, with very little traffic. But I was able to get a taxi, and the driver had no trouble understanding where I wanted to go. It turned out he had lived in Atlanta for a couple of years and spoke English. The first words out of his mouth after he found out that my home was in San Francisco were:
“Frisco! Then you know Thanatakis?”
“No, I don’t know him.”
“You don’t know Thanatakis?” he was surprised.
“No, who is he?”
“He’s my cousin.”
It seemed normal to him that I should personally know his cousin or about his cousin if I had lived in San Francisco.
“Everybody knows him!”
“Well, I’ve never met him.”
I could tell he was clearly disappointed I was not among his cousin’s best friends.
“I’ll give you his address because when you go back you must meet him. Tell him I sent you.”
“OK. Before taking me to where I’m going, I want you to drive by the Acropolis.”
“I want to see it.”
“This is the time only for tourists. If you want to be like the rest of the Americans who come here and visit the Acropolis and think they are now experts in Greek history, you’re crazy.”
“I want to see it, and I know something about Greek history, too.”
“Typical. You think you can look in the Yellow Pages or buy a Sears and Roebuck catalogue and you know everything. What should I call you now? Professor?”
“The Yellow Pages and Sears and Roebuck don’t sell history or travel guides. Anyway, why are you busting my chops?”
“No normal person drives by to see the Parthenon at this time of day.” He was very adamant. “If you want to see other tourists you go there, and you’ll see them with their stupid Kodaks, and hear their vulgar, loud talk. If you want to see the Parthenon, you must see it early in the morning or at night with a full moon shining on it. Now, that’s something.”
“I have no idea when the next full moon is going to take place. And even if it’s this evening, I want to see the Parthenon now. But if you don’t want to take me I’ll get another taxi to do it.”
“The problem with you Americans is that you don’t know the difference between a hole in the ground and your own assholes,” he said.
Then he started to mutter in Greek as we drove wildly over to the Parthenon. After we got there, I saw how right he was. The place was swarming with tourists and their ubiquitous Kodak cameras.
“Happy now?” He asked.
He was obviously relishing his victory over me, after which he drove to Demetrios’s place at what can only be described as at Formula One, Grand Prix speed. He now seemed in a happier mood as he started to hum a song.
“Where are you staying?”
“Oh, you wouldn’t know it.”
“I know everything!”
“It’s a small place called Cleo’s.”
“I know it. I’ll come to see you later,” he said, as if I had invited him to do so.
I dismissed his idea and paid the fare. He refused to take a tip and probably burned off half of his tires when he drove away. He had dropped me off in front of a modern building, several stories high, on the outskirts of Athens. The apartments each seemed to occupy entire floors.
Looking at the expensive cars parked on the street it occurred to me that whoever lived on that street was either in the shipping business or the drug business—or both. I thought the cars would certainly have brought joy to the heart of any run-of-the-mill Beverly Hills car thief on the prowl. For a moment, I hesitated; I was not sure what the hell I was doing there.
I crossed the street and looked at the directory. Of all of the names listed, two of them were in English. Demetrios’s was one of them. Finding his name so openly listed surprised me. If you are a mercenary, the last thing you want is to have people know where you live. His neighbors most likely did not know what his profession was.
I pressed the buzzer a couple of times. Finally, I heard a woman’s voice as if I had woken her, then a man’s tired voice. After I identified myself, there was some hesitation from the man. I imagined him going through a mental Rolodex looking for the name, finding it, and matching it with some hazy memory, then concluding I was not a visitor from hell—from a best-forgotten past—coming back to collect a personal debt.
Demetrios had not changed much from what I remembered. He sported the same big hairy chest and the strong arms and hands he once boasted he used to kill men. He was wearing a golden-colored robe that was much too small. It made him look like a half-naked bear, which made me laugh. Right behind him was a very attractive young woman with a classic Greek profile rubbing the sleep from her eyes. She was wearing a robe—probably his—that was much too large for her.
“Alex, you bum, where have you been?” He had a big smile on his face.
“I’m sorry I woke you up.”
It suddenly dawned on me that no self-respecting Athenian would be expecting or receiving visitors at the siesta hour.
“It’s about time you showed up.”
He gave me a bear hug as if I was his lost cousin from America. It felt as if he was expecting my visit. This was a crazy idea, as he had no way of knowing I would show up. The apartment was large, bright, cool and comfortable, tastefully decorated with antiques mixed with African sculptures and safari trophies. The whole set up sort of jolted me because mercenaries deal with death; however, the apartment was anything but deathlike. The living room offered a wonderful view of the sea.
“Meet Helen, the most beautiful wife in the whole world,” Demetrios said, turning to the young woman who smiled a shy, embarrassed smile. I shook her hand.
“Welcome,” she said, then excused herself and left the room.
He was genuinely happy to see me and immediately poured a couple of double whiskeys. We toasted to life and Greek women. Helen came back a few minutes later carrying a tray of sweets, some strong Turkish coffee for Demetrios and me, and his robe, which she placed right next to him. She had exchanged his robe for a lovely, feminine and stylish one that gave the impression she was wearing very little under it, but it was not cheap or vulgar. As she sat next to him, he absent-mindedly started to stroke her legs.
“Things have surely changed,” I said. “The last time I saw you in Bangkok you were staying in that rat-infested firetrap, remember?”
“Bangkok! I love Bangkok,” he gave out a big loud laugh that shook his entire body. “That’s where we met,” he said to Helen. Her smile seemed to suggest she was familiar with the story.
“Yeah, I loved Bangkok, too.”
“But you didn’t like Vietnam?”
“I hated it. I can’t say that it was an exhilarating experience.”
I did not know why he had mentioned Vietnam. He looked at me and seemed about to say something, then looked at his wife and shrugged his shoulders. Maybe the look on her face told him that it was not a pleasant subject to be discussing. I certainly avoided it if I could help it. She probably saw it on my face.
I was uncomfortable, and I did not know if it was the simple fact that I was not sure what I was doing there. Or that I suspected Helen knew that I knew she was half-naked under her robe, or that Demetrios was partially showing his private parts through the small robe he was wearing. From deep within the apartment, I thought I heard a baby cry, though I was not sure. Demetrios wanted to know what was going on with my life: Was I working as a journalist as I had once told him I was going to do? I said I had not done it for a while.
“There are too many guys calling themselves journalists. Vultures are what you call them, right?” I said. He laughed when I reminded him of that. “My aims are simpler now. I just want to make a few bucks.”
“You don’t want to save the world from bad guys anymore?”
His own words seemed to amuse him, as he had once accused me of having my head up in the clouds. He was happy to learn I had been hired by an Italian producer to write a film script, and he wanted to know the details. My friend Milo had convinced the producer to hire me. I had been surprised when he did because I did not consider myself much of a writer, more of a hack really. On the other hand, I was willing to work for cheap. Demetrios greeted this part of the story with hearty laughter that made his large stomach shake.
“I wrote an article about you,” I said.
“You did?” He looked at me, surprised.
“Yes. Remember you asked me to do it?”
“Yeah, you didn’t forget.” He turned to look at Helen. “So now I’m famous!” he said, laughing. She smiled.
“Can I read it?”
“I don’t have a copy with me. But when I get back to Paris, I’ll mail you a copy.”
“Yeah, I’ll send it to you.”
“You’re still a masterpiece,” he said.
This was a joke between us. Greek men constantly use the word malaka or “masturbator” to address each other. Demetrios had changed the word the first time we met and had called me a “masterpiece” instead of a “masturbator”. He had been concerned about my “American puritanical sensibilities,” he explained. I had told him to shove it “where the sun don’t shine.” After laughing and hugging me, he had declared that, for an American, I was OK.
I now explained the situation about Chris. He listened, his face emptied of emotion. His eyes held a neutral look. For a moment, I thought he had not understood. He put his glass down, refilled it, and signaled to me to do likewise, but I declined. Then another young woman suddenly appeared in the room. A minute ago, she was not there; I blinked, and there she was. It was almost as if a magician had made her materialize out of thin air.
She was carrying a small baby who was perhaps about three months old. Now I understood why I had heard a baby’s cry a few minutes earlier. The young woman could have passed for Helen’s sister. An innocent yet not so innocent beauty about her made me hesitate to look in her direction.
There was, also, something mysterious, fleeting, wistful and indefinable about her. It was as if she was there, yet she was not. That made her attractive and forbidden at the same time. The way she looked at me with her dark penetrating eyes felt like she could read my mind. She scrutinized me, looking not at me but through me, questioning why I was there, my secrets, my desires, who was I?
Something passed between us. It was pleasant, but unnerving. No woman had affected me like that before. I had the strange sensation of being in the presence of a woman of many secrets, mysteries, and hidden truths. The effect was hypnotic, magical, ephemeral—and odd.
“This is my cousin, Iris,” Helen said.
“Vous parlez français, Monsieur?” Iris asked.
Iris’s serious demeanor and her use of formal French to ask if I spoke French, sort of took me by surprise. I do not know why. We shook hands. Her hand was warm and slightly damp.
“Enchantée,” she said.
“Moi aussi.” Of course, I was enchanted to have met this sloe-eyed beauty.
She handed the baby to Demetrios, who started making faces. The baby cooed and gurgled in response. He handled the baby with a great deal of care and fatherly love. In Demetrios’s big hands the baby seemed fragile, naked, tiny—almost like a toy. I could not help thinking what he had said about using his hands to kill people.
Both women looked at the doting father with pleasure. He handed the baby to Helen, who immediately put the baby to her breast. For some mysterious reason her breast seemed to glow in a nice, warm, strange way. It was as if she had a light inside it. Iris then left the room as softly as she had come in, and I felt agitated, though I could not tell exactly why.
Watching Helen nurse her baby and seeing the bond between mother and child made me feel disconnected, alone, rootless. The whole world belonged to me but I belonged to no one. No one claimed me. I also wondered if I would ever be lucky enough to find a soft and comforting breast to rest my weary self on. Demetrios got up and left me in my reverie alone with Helen and the baby. The only sound heard in the room was the baby suckling happily. Mother and child had eyes only for each other.
Demetrios came back. He had changed into street clothes and had strapped a small revolver to his waist. A crazy thought ran through my head: How dangerous is it going to be to get this Chris character out of jail? Demetrios stood right next to Helen, watching her and the baby. He said something, and she gave him a big smile.
“Come, we pay someone a visit,” he said, to me.
I said goodbye to Helen and followed him out of the apartment. His brand new Jaguar had the latest gadgets. He slipped a cassette of the Beatles into the deck, and with the sound of “All You Need Is Love” going full blast, we tore out of the garage.
“We’re going to see the ex-chief of police,” he shouted over the music.
“We need the new chief,” I shouted back.
“The old chief is related to the new one, very convenient.” I got a look that one gives to the uninitiated. He smiled a cobra smile.
I asked about the present political situation in Greece, and he answered that he did not want to talk about politics. As far as he was concerned, politicians were the scum of the earth, and they should all be shot without mercy.
“I can be satisfied to kill a few for peanuts,” he said, and he laughed again.
“Are you still freelancing?”
“We do not talk about it.”
I felt detached sitting next to him as we drove through Athens. My thoughts drifted to Cécile back in Paris, and I wondered if she had gone to see her old ex-boyfriend. It seemed every time we had a quarrel or she went into a funk, I would not see her for a few days. She always went to stay with her ex.
At first, it had surprised me—until she explained, it had nothing to do with sex. They no longer had or wanted that kind of relationship. It had more to do with seeking comfort in old surroundings with old friends when things got wacky. Thinking about Cécile I made plans to wire Milo instructions to give her some money—she could use it.
Then I wondered about Demetrios’s wife. Where did he find her? Did she know what he did for a living? I wanted to ask him about Iris, too. Maybe later, I thought. We were driving erratically around Athens. It was almost as if we were trying to shake a tail. He had said to me that in his line of ”business” you had to pretend to be “cool”—the words he used back in Bangkok—when in fact all of your senses were constantly focused on making sure there would be no surprises waiting for you around the next corner.
“This is no throw of dice. You want to know results before you enter room,” he had said.
“How do you do that?”
“People have it, people don’t. When you don’t, you don’t know because you’re dead before you know you don’t have it.”
His English seemed tortured, but I understood what he meant. Today, however, he did not give the impression that we were being shadowed. Perhaps it was just an old habit, a tic, though in the kind of business he was in I suppose it never hurts to be on the alert; one gets to live longer.
Then he talked about the new baby and Helen. He also mentioned he had two other boys much older from a previous marriage, shouting all this over the din of the Beatles’ music. He did not get to see his sons much because his ex-wife did not want them to have much contact with him. Of course, whenever he was late with the monthly check she let him know right away.
“Don’t get ever married,” he said.
“Wait a second; this is your second marriage.”
“I’m a romantic fool,” he said, and laughed aloud.
I did not remember that he had mentioned his sons when I met him in Bangkok. He did not provide many details about how he had become a mercenary. He said he had spent a great deal of time in Africa, where the CIA had recruited him. Although he never mentioned the name, the way in which he referred to the “outfit” left no doubt he was talking about the American spy agency.
He had gone to Vietnam and had done several short tours. “Going fishing,” was the expression he used to describe what he did there. Demetrios did not preach politics and never pretended he was doing God’s work. The people he was paid to kill deserved to die. Period. He had also said that by staying in his line of business the chances of collecting his old-age pension were next to none. It was not fatalistic or morbid as much as accepting that such a reality came with the job.
“One morning you get up, it’s the last time you see the sun,” he had said.
“And it doesn’t bother you?”
“That’s the life,” he said, and shrugged his shoulders.
Surprisingly, he did not think he had any personal enemies. He loved the whole world! I never knew if it was his or my own warped sense of humor that made me believe he really did not have any enemies.
“Of course he doesn’t. He has exterminated them all,” said the editor—in a typical editor’s sarcastic fashion—of a story I had submitted about Demetrios. I hated the bastard for saying that.
The business with Chris intrigued Demetrios. I told him I knew very little other than he was an American whose father was Greek and who was in jail because he had insulted the junta.
“So what about Chris, this malaka? You’re working on a story?” His voice was filled with suspicion.
“No, it’s just a case of wanting to help a fellow American. Besides, Cleo is troubled by it, and she struck me as being a nice lady who wants to help a friend.”
We drove into a small square with outdoor cafés and tables all around it. We stopped. While he went into a café to make a phone call I sat outside, drank a beer, and listened to the sounds of Greece around me. The memory of an old professor I had in college came to me. He was a Greek scholar teaching a course in classical mythology. His method was unorthodox, really off the wall. We studied the Iliad, but we did it backwards. He started with the end first.
“In ancient times everyone knew the story,” he had said. “The ancient Greeks recognized that the magic and beauty of the poem, the drama, were in the journey it took us through and not in the outcome. That’s why it is as fresh today as it was then.”
Most of the class did not quite get the idea at first, but we went along out of fear that if we did not he would flunk us out. Very often, he got us to assemble at some place other than the classroom and, usually, the meetings would be held at night.
One time, we met just before dawn in his backyard, drank champagne, and quietly watched the sun as it emerged from the shadows of the night. He challenged us to imagine, as the ancient Greeks had done, that the sun was the god Helios in his golden chariot traveling across the vault of the sky every day. Miraculously the professor got everyone to come join him so early in the morning, but we were never the same afterward. We had experienced something new, mysterious, everlasting, and powerful.
Nobody complained after that. And we met everywhere! In parks, warehouses, football fields, restaurants, churches, parking lots, libraries, courthouses, hospitals, synagogues, gas stations, supermarkets, coffee shops—you name it. We even met at a mortuary; that was spooky. The Iliad is also about death, he reminded us.
Once, we met on the beach around midnight. It was a beautiful, clear evening, the sky filled with shiny and distant stars. As we sat on the sand surrounded by darkness and sounds of waves softly lapping the rocky shore, he started to recite parts of the Iliad in classic Greek.
The professor had said the poem had been kept alive, in those ancient times, through the tradition of oral storytelling. As I was looking up at the sky and listening to the words, the story of the Trojan War became alive in a way I had never experienced before or since. It felt like we were right in the middle of it, filling our imaginations with poetry, fantasy, and magic.
The theme of the Iliad, stated at the beginning of the poem, has to do with the wrath of Achilles, the great Greek warrior who refused to fight for the Greeks. A young maiden, Briseis, who was part of his war booty, had been taken away from him by Agamemnon, the chief of all of the Greek warriors. Achilles got pissed and refused to fight. The Trojans took advantage of the situation and wreaked havoc among the Greek ranks.
The remarkable thing about the professor reciting the poem was that in the sounds of the words—even though we did not understand them—in the drum-like music of those ancient words, one got the entire sense of the story. It resonated with the personal drama of war, of men engaged in a giant struggle, brutal, deadly, and larger than their lives. It was loud, rumbling, deep, and warlike, filled with passion, overflowing with the fury of revenge, the brutality of the battle, and the agony of dying.
The professor said the Iliad was for everyone across mankind’s history because of the human emotions it portrayed. In those ancient words, as he recited them, we imagined an Achilles larger than life, like a caged animal in his tent, enraged, fuming at what he perceived an injustice done to his honor, dignity, and manhood. Achilles only goes back to fight the Trojans after his friend Patroclus is killed on the battlefield by Hector, the great Trojan warrior.
Achilles kills Hector, after which the Greeks were then able to win the Trojan War. Somehow, the sounds of Modern Greek I heard, as I sat in the café waiting for Demetrios, did not resemble the deep, rumbling, rolling sounds of the classical Greek I remembered when the professor recited the poem that night, at the beach—sounds that made such a lasting impression on me.
“We must leave, but I will meet you later,” Demetrios said.
He was standing right next to me. I had not heard him come back. It was uncanny how he moved. One would have thought a man his size would not be so nimble. To say he was not light on his feet would be like saying a ballerina had lead feet. He said he needed to go alone to a rendezvous and would come by Cleo’s later to take me to eat the best-tasting lamb chop sandwiches in this part of the world.
“I will have news about that pusty, Chris,” he added.
Pusty was also another word Greek males use constantly when addressing each other. It is derogatory. He dropped me off at the hotel. Cleo was happy and relieved when she heard about Demetrios’s efforts. I thought it best to keep certain facts about him to myself, as I did not want to have to give a lot of explanations. I reminded her that he was an old professional acquaintance of mine.
“Do you think he can get him out?”
“If anybody can, I think he can.”
Suddenly I felt tired. I had not come all the way from Paris to get some miscreant I did not even know out of jail, to find Demetrios, to be rattled by a young woman, or to eat lamb chop sandwiches—even if they were made out of ambrosia. I went up to my room to rest. Sometime later, Cleo came to tell me the Italian producer was calling.
The voice on the phone was of someone suffering from a cold. He was friendly, and expansive with a clipped British accent, and said they were not quite ready for me. He would get in touch in a couple of days. Before hanging up, he asked that if I needed money to let him know, and he would arrange to have his banker wire it. Afterward, I decided to call Cécile in Paris but realized I did not know where she would be. Instead, I called Milo.
He was out so I left a message with his housekeeper for Milo to give to Cécile—I knew she would be calling him—and to please tell her I was fine. I also asked Milo to give her some money. I knew this would upset her because she was always accusing me of wanting to buy her affection and loyalty. She argued this was a way for me not to face my own shortcomings. In a sense, she was right but not completely. I was sharing the money because I wanted to and not because I was trying to bribe her.
Cécile and I have lived through some interesting times. She has never wanted to settle down with anybody. She once said I was probably a good candidate, even if I was American, too self-centered, irresponsible, and unwilling to commit to love or to life. According to her, I was always drifting out of step with life’s rhythm, and it was by my own choice, never wanting or needing anybody, excluding and secluding myself from life.
“If I’m all of those things why do you stay with me?”
“Parce que je t’aime et je suis folle,” she said. “And I’m also crazy about you.”
When I was leaving for Greece, I had asked her to come with me. She said no.
“You know you don’t want me to go with you.”
“That’s not true.”
“Why didn’t you ask me to go to New York with you?”
“Because you say you don’t like New York.”
“That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask me to come with you.”
“But if I know you’re going to say no, what’s the point of asking?”
“You have to be chic, polite and have good manners.”
“I’m chic and polite and I do have good manners.”
“Excuses, excuses . . . typical male behavior.”
That she was unhappy when we were in New York—the very reason I had not asked her to come with me this time around—has never been part of her reproach. She had gone on to argue the only reason I was asking her to come to Greece now was out of guilt and dishonesty—it was a sham. It was not. It is hard to try to guess what anybody thinks, what Cécile thinks, or what any woman thinks.
Female companionship has never been a real problem in my life. The trick, my friends have always said, is to find the right one and hang onto her. I would like to know what the sign indicating just who the right woman is. In the abstract, one could argue any woman can be right for any man. After the phone call to Milo, I went back to my room. Sometime later, there was another knock on the door. It was the taxi driver.
“I told you I’d come to see you,” he said. Actually, I was glad to see him again. He said he was getting off his shift early tonight.
“I have come to invite you to eat the best lamb chop sandwiches in the world!” he added. I started to laugh. What is it with these malakas and their lamb chop sandwiches?
“Someone else has already invited me, but you’re welcome to join us.”
He seemed a bit disappointed and upon leaving made me promise to wait for him, as he would be back in a couple of hours. Suddenly, I had this crazy urge to call Demetrios’s house secretly hoping I could talk to Iris. Helen answered the phone. She said that Iris asked about me, and she laughed and thought it was all very charming and innocent. I lied when I told her that I had hardly paid attention to Iris other than to notice that they resembled each other, and that they were both very attractive women. The last statement was no lie, and I could tell she was pleased I said it.
She repeated they were cousins, that Iris was visiting for a few days, and that she came from Crete. Women from Crete are very passionate and strong, she said. I was not sure why she said it and was on the verge of asking but decided it was better to ignore her words. Whatever her reasons were, it was none of my business. We spoke in French, and she explained that she and Iris had lived in Paris for a couple of years as students. She attended the Sorbonne, and Iris the school of Sciences Po—Institute of Political Science. We talked about several Parisian cafés I knew very well, which were also favorites of theirs.
“J’aime beaucoup le Café de La Paix à L ‘Opéra,” Helen said.
I told her I also loved the Café de la Paix. I had spent many lazy hours sitting on its terrace watching the world go by while nursing a glass of wine. She added she had not heard from Demetrios, and she did not expect to hear from him. Most of the time he did not tell her what he did she said, somewhat wistfully.
The conversation with Helen lifted my spirits. Afterward, I felt a strange and happy sensation knowing I had made an impression on Iris. I wondered how people could go back and live in some small village in the middle of nowhere, especially after living in great cities like Paris. What did it take to do that? I tried to see myself returning to Daly City where I grew up, back in California, but I did not see how I could do it.
After dark, I went down to the terrace. The air was sweet and warm. The moon, not quite full, hanging in the sky was surrounded by transparent white clouds. The terrace was crowded, and the talk seemed to be about museums, excavation sites, old ruins that had been visited and catalogued—sweet memories to be stored away for those inevitable and future dreary days when living would turn into a blur and life would be filled with longing, regrets, sadness, and the inescapable cynicism.
Memories to be recalled when existence would overwhelm us with its bitterness, disappointments, and failures. When the heart, lonely, and in sheer desperation, searching for love and happiness, would long for the dreams that made it pure, that had sustained it. For life, in her inexorable march toward an outcome no one understood, would no longer be as happy, carefree, and innocent as everything was on this particularly spring night.
The couple, Karen and Ron, whom I had met that morning at the American Express office, came by to say hello. They were very cheerful. Came from Kansas City. They had met at the university, and now were engaged to be married. Both sets of parents had decided to spring for a prenuptial honeymoon trip just so the love birds would know for sure marriage was for them. So far, everything was working out as planned. There had been some minor squabbles but nothing major or drastic.
“We’re going to prove to our folks we’re adults,” Ron said.
“Yes, that we’re responsible and made for each other,” she said, and hugged Ron.
“Your parents must be pretty understanding,” I said.
“They have no choice. This is the 60s, the Age of Aquarius,” she replied.
Their lives had been scheduled down to the last detail. They would have good jobs. Ron had studied accounting. She was going to be a teacher. Karen would get pregnant when she became twenty-five years old—two kids was the limit—then she would stay home while Ron continued earning the bucks. Later, there would be a big house with a white picket fence, two fabulously well-behaved children, and money for the kids’ private schools and for the parents’ retirement.
Their purpose in coming to Europe now was to scout locations for that golden future retirement! Actually, it was all very innocent and sweet. They were twenty-two years old, though Ron was younger by a couple of months. Spain and Italy showed great potential. They had no opinion yet about Greece.
When I suggested that France would not be a bad choice they responded they did not like the French, though the food was better than in England. When I also suggested that back home there were some really nice and interesting places to consider they agreed, though the prospect of retiring in the States did not seem to thrill them.
They asked if I knew of a good restaurant not too far from Cleo’s hotel. They were leaving early the next day for Crete so it was going to be an early dinner, then to bed. I told them they probably knew more about Athens than I did. They had visited the place whereas I seemed to have spent most of my time since arriving trying to get some guy I did not even know out of jail.
“This is very interesting,” Karen said.
Ron said it was his turn to call the States, so he left to make the phone call.
“Are you a bounty hunter?” She asked a moment later.
“No. What makes you think that?”
“I don’t know . . . something. So what do you do?”
“I’m in the ‘leisure business’,” I answered, hoping to humor her and because I did not know what else to say. Besides, I always find that people who ask what you do right after meeting them are never interested in finding out anything else about you—who you are. All they seem to care about is listening to the sound of their own voices.
“And what is that?”
“You know, ‘ladies of leisure’ kind of thing.”
“That’s it, I knew it.” She said it as if she had just won a bet. She was looking at me in such a strange way that it threw me for a loop. “I told Ron I thought you were either working for the CIA or in some kind of funny business,” she added.
“What kind of funny business?”
“Something illegal, not very Christian,” she answered. I started to laugh, but she did not seem to appreciate my levity.
“What made you think that?”
“I don’t know. It’s just a feeling . . . the way you act.”
“And how do I act?”
“I have a sense about these things. I don’t know if I would trust you,” she said as if this had been on her mind for a while. Her attitude was a bit amusing.
“Why would you not trust me?”
“I can’t put my finger on it. You’re not like Ron.”
“How is Ron?” I asked, unsure if it were the right thing to be asking.
“Well, I don’t mean he’s better than you. I can’t figure you out. And I’m very good at figuring people out.”
“There isn’t much to figure out. Anyway, about the ‘ladies of leisure’ business, I was just trying to be funny.”
“I think you’re serious.”
“Come on, I’m not.”
“I don’t know,” she said, mistrust in her voice. “You escape me.”
I laughed. Without Ron around, she seemed very different. Poor Ron, I thought, he is going to have his hands full with her. The taxi driver then joined us. He had changed clothes and had apparently taken a bath in some kind of men’s cologne for he reeked of it, and he was a charmer. In no time at all, he had Karen laughing and listening intently to his wild adventures while living in Atlanta.
It was clear he had set his sights on her and was not about to let go. A couple of times I tried to interject that Ron was taking too long with the phone call, but it did not seem to make any difference. Karen had found a guy who was wooing her probably in a way she had never been wooed before. Silently, I sat listening to their talk. They did not take much notice of me.
Karen had changed. She no longer seemed the naïve, young, innocent, American abroad. Even her laughter had changed. It was throaty, sexy, filled with feminine mystery, excitement, and desire. It was no longer the laughter of an immature girl but was now the laughter of a young woman who perhaps, for the first time, sees herself as an object of desire to strange men. The metamorphosis was surprising and intriguing.
“You must be a dancer,” he said.
“How can you tell?” Karen was obviously flattered.
“Oh, it’s a feeling I have.”
“Well, I’m a good dancer but Ron is not.”
“We will teach him,” he said, and took her hand and kissed it. She was enthralled by his Scaramouch gesture.
The taxi driver really knew the game, and he played it with zest. One had to admire him for his audacity. I had to accept, however grudgingly, that here was a guy quite good at seducing impressionable young women. Karen was responding to his charm shamelessly—a combination of innocence and decadence—attracted by the forbidden fruit all mixed up with what mom said not to do. It did not seem too farfetched to imagine they were going to jump each other’s bones at any moment.
By the time Ron came back, Karen and the taxi driver were playing footsie under the table. He had placed his hand on her thigh, caressing it, and she did not seem to mind. I had to hand it to the taxi driver. I also had to admit Karen had fooled me. She introduced the taxi driver to Ron. His name was Manos. He stood and shook Ron’s hand. By way of introduction, Karen told Ron that Manos knew some great places to eat and dance, and she now wanted to go out and have fun.
“We have to get up early in the morning,” Ron said.
“Please. Manos will teach me how to dance to Greek music.”
“You too must learn to dance to Greek music,” Manos said to Ron and pretended to dance by himself. We all laughed.
I saw how pleased Karen was to find herself between two men competing for her affection, ready to do battle to be the chosen one. She already knew who would walk away with the trophy, because it is always the female’s decision. It has been thus since the beginning of time. They asked me to join them, but I told them I was waiting for a friend, that perhaps we could get together later in the evening.
Manos wrote something on a piece of paper, handed it to me with a kind of prizewinner look in his eyes, and they left. He no longer seemed interested in taking me to eat “The best ambrosia-like food in the world!” I laughed. The night might turn out to be interesting, indeed. Cleo came by later and said Demetrios had called. He had some news, was coming to see us, and wanted me to wait. Clearly, he had charmed her.
He did not show up until late in the evening. Two tall, beautiful, and classy young women, Lisa and Robin, accompanied him. They were twins who came from Minnesota by way of California. All three of them were in a jovial mood. He immediately started kidding me about Iris, his wife’s cousin. When I asked him why he had not brought her along, he said the only place he had permission to take her was to church on Sundays.
The other bit of news was that the twins knew Chris, our jailbird. I wanted to know the details but Demetrios wanted to go and meet Cleo. I told him she was probably in bed. He insisted we wake her up. I was not sure what the protocol was, though I did not think Big D., which was what I started calling him, was too interested in protocol. So off we marched to Cleo’s private quarters. She was not surprised to see us.
We all crowded into the small bedroom. Demetrios acted toward her with all the deference due someone of position and status. He promised he would get Chris out of jail that very night. With exaggerated politeness, he said he was giving her his word of honor. Tears appeared in her eyes. Demetrios’s eyes were also glistening. The twins looked embarrassed, uncomfortable, and I just wanted to laugh.
“You must come with us,” Demetrios said to Cleo.
“No, I will cry and embarrass everyone. All I care is that Chris will be coming home tonight,” she said, with the seriousness of a parent anxiously waiting to be reunited with a wayward child.
When we got to the police station, a rather nondescript building, I was not surprised to see Demetrios behave as if he owned the place. He greeted the policemen as old friends, shaking hands and kissing them on the cheeks in typical European fashion. The cops, however, had eyes only for the twins.
Demetrios talked to the man in charge who apparently did not know what was going on. It was obvious he had not been given the word. Though I could not understand the conversation, I could sense the man was not amused and certainly not interested in releasing anybody.
“He doesn’t believe me.” Demetrios said to me, somewhat perplexed.
“He’s got no balls,” he answered in a low voice.
Demetrios went back to talk to the man who still resisted the idea, and after arguing some more Demetrios seemed to convince him to make a phone call and tried to give him the paper with the number. But when the cop looked at the paper, he reacted as if Demetrios was handing him a piece of radioactive material or a message directly from hell. The man did not want to touch it. He kept shaking his head, while Big D. kept pushing the paper toward him. You could see on the man’s face that he was looking at his future, carefully weighing not making a phone call, against the outside chance the crazy character he had in front of him was telling the truth.
He got up from his chair and walked toward the door as if he had had enough of the whole affair. He stopped, turned around, and glanced at the other cops in the room looking for support. They all looked at him as if to say: It’s your balls; you make the decision; you are the boss. The man was not happy. I could see little beads of sweat on his forehead. The other cops also got very tense—the twins forgotten for a moment.
Demetrios winked and smiled at me, obviously getting a kick out of what was going on. The cop walked back to his desk, and after waiting a moment he picked up the phone, very gingerly, and dialed. The phone conversation was probably over in about thirty seconds. The man was relieved.
His worried air was slowly giving way to having a great burden lifted off his shoulders. He smiled, maybe at his own good luck. The other cops started eyeing the twins again. Everything went back to normal. Big D. walked up to the man and kissed him on both cheeks. The man was smiling and embarrassed.
“Now we are brothers,” Demetrios said to me, laughing, but without much conviction.
I had to admit, in spite of my own cynicism about these things, that the day would end with some kind of victory for Cleo and even Chris, whom I had now come to think of as someone I knew. The officer barked some orders, and two of his cops disappeared into the back of the building. Then one of the twins reached into her oversized tote bag, pulled out a bottle of French cognac, and tried to hand it to the officer. He did not want to take the bottle.
There followed an animated discussion among all the Greeks. It was a divided camp. Some of the men seemed willing to take the cognac while others were reluctant. Demetrios served as the referee. The whole incident was humorous for clearly the twins, the cognac, and the bonhomie—all were parts of a show Big D. had put together and it had worked.
Some glasses were finally produced, and we went on to toast to the love and friendship between Greeks and Americans when Chris walked into the room. My first impression was that he would rather be sleeping. He was about my height, six feet tall, with a lean frame that made me think he might be a boxer. He was not a bad looking guy, and his eyes narrowed a lot when he looked at us.
He was wearing crumpled inmate clothes, his shoes had no laces, and he had no belt for his pants. He was holding them up with both hands. He was a bit bewildered, and his face was bruised. It was obvious he had been beaten up. The twins were taken aback by his appearance. Demetrios walked over and gave him a bear hug. Then he started to talk to him in Greek. Pusty and malaka were the only two words I could identify. Big D. was giving Chris a lecture!
It was like the older brother giving the younger one a piece of his mind. Chris said something defiant to Demetrios and Big D. started to laugh. The other Greeks picked up the laughter, and soon we were all laughing, passing the bottle, and drinking from it—except for the twins. Then the head cop went to a closet, took out Chris’s civilian clothes, and handed them to him.
That was probably what made him really believe he was getting out. Another cop handed Chris the bottle of cognac, and he took a long drink. The Greeks cheered and clapped. One cop escorted Chris out of the room to show him where he could clean up. When he returned, Chris had showered, shaved, had changed back into his civilian clothes, and looked respectable. His hair was slicked back, and he had a big smile on his battered face.
He embraced the twins then walked over to shake my hand firmly. We shook hands with the cops then walked out of the room, down a long corridor, and out of the building. Even the two cops standing outside shook Chris’s hand. I was walking behind Chris, who had one girl on each arm, when I heard him say one of the cops standing outside had also been among the ones who beat him up.
I had been thrown in jail once in Africa. It is not one of my fondest memories. While covering a local guerrilla war, Gilles, a Belgian photographer working with me, and I were arrested by government forces. We had been crossing back and forth from guerrilla territories often, we thought we were safe; however, these guys evidently had not seen us before, or maybe they were just looking for live targets.
We could hear the soldiers laugh and talk among themselves as they stopped to reload their weapons. The shooting went on for about ten minutes—a lifetime for us—then suddenly stopped. The next thing we knew, we were surrounded by soldiers who were pointing their AK-47s directly at us. It was hard to tell who was in charge, because they were jostling and shouting half angrily, half mockingly at us.
I was pissed. I saw that Gilles, one of the coolest guys I have worked with, was also pretty pissed and was not about to take any shit from them. But there were more of them, they had guns, and there was no doubt they would kill us without a second thought. So I half-whispered to Gilles to keep quiet. He was not a happy camper, but he kept his cool.
They blindfolded us, and after a long walk, they shoved us into separate rooms. They pushed me into a corner and ordered me not to move or talk or I would be shot. I knew the threat was not an empty one. The stench in the room was overwhelming. Then the blindfolds were removed. A tiny, naked, lightbulb hanging from a long electric cord was the only source of illumination.
After I got used to the semi-darkness, I saw that the room was large, filthy, dingy, sinister, nauseating, and deadly—like a morgue. I also realized I was not alone. There were about two dozen or so males in the room, although I could not tell their ages. They did not act as if they had seen me at all; not a sound or a look came from them.
Though I had been to the African continent before, this was the first time I had actually covered a revolution. I always thought reporting on wars was something particular and peculiar to certain individuals. I never saw myself as part of this fraternity. The standard wisdom says war correspondents are the guys who can take the horrible things humans do to one another. I never considered myself that tough.
What I was looking for was the rationale as to why people commit genocide. My painful Vietnam War experiences had only added to my confusion, despair, and did not contribute a damn thing to clarify the nagging questions: Why do we kill each other? Where is our so called moral imperative? I thought there had to be something, some complicated element in our psyche that while not justifying the butchery would at least help explain it.
I was searching for some insight about humanity but mostly about myself because I did not want to accept one basic and brutal truth: Humans can get used to anything, even the gratuitous killing of others. It was not just individuals killing other individuals, but groups, countries, killing others. Not too long ago we had witnessed wholesale slaughter of innocent people simply because they were different or had a different religion.
I did not want to accept that we kill each other because we want to. There really is no other reason behind it. Man’s inhumanity to his fellow man is just another virus plaguing our daily human existence. It does not take a genius to recognize that pathological hate is pernicious, contradictory, and deeply embedded in our genetic code. It belongs to us. In some screwy and creepy way it makes us human—not the nice kind but human, nevertheless. We live in this mire of human indifference but I insisted in trying to find a clue, a reason, something to justify its ugly and depressing reality.
The more I looked the more I realized that no amount of agonizing, reflecting, or reporting on the terrible suffering humans inflict on other humans would make any difference. It would not change anything. The sun would rise and set every day; seasons would come and go; the universe would go on existing; humans would continue killing each other.
Nobody really gives a rat’s ass about why we butcher each other; we just do it that is all. We are programmed for violence from birth to death. To search for an explanation or a solution to such behavior is hopeless. It is an exercise in total futility because in the final analysis brutality and the slaughter of man—by his fellow man—are among the most characteristic of human traits.
An old man, a boy of about twelve years of age, and I ended up being the only ones left in that room. Throughout the night the guards came, took the others out, and never brought them back. This was always followed by muffled gun shots echoing in the distance.
Who were the boy and the old man? Were they related? What was going through their minds? How were their hearts feeling? They sat right next to each other but never said a word. Once, when the guards were not looking, I saw the young boy reach over and hold the old man’s hand trying to give him some comfort. The old man took the kid’s hand and kissed it. It was a gesture of such pure human beauty and innocense; an act defying the putrid, ugly, and vicious atmosphere that surrounded us.
Then the guards came back at dawn. Why always at dawn? The beginning of a new day should always be happy, glorious, carefree, filled with hope —not with the stench of death. The guards were talking very loudly and as they went to the old man first, he got up and blew his nose. The boy got up and very softly talked to the guards, mixing his own language with his broken English.
I can still hear the young, soft voice saying they should let the old man go. He had a right to his old age! It was not an argument or a plea but stating a fact, a cold logic belying the boy’s young years. He explained the old man was no threat to them; he should be allowed to go free.
Perhaps due to the lateness of the hour or that the guards only needed another kill to complete their quota before their shift ended, they did not take the old man. They took the boy instead. Before he left the boy pissed in a corner. The image of this young boy casually relieving himself before being murdered was so evil and disconcerting. They all marched out of the room, the young warrior leading the guards on a mission—his own execution!
My ridiculous hope that they would let him go was soon shattered by the awful, deadly, and much too brutally familiar and depressing sound of guns breaking the early morning’s silence. They threw the old man, Gilles, and me out of jail soon after. Through a partially opened door, I saw a courtyard with many bodies piled on top of each other.
The old man just kept on walking down the dusty road without ever looking back in our direction. The guards returned all of our possessions; nothing was missing. They even gave us back the film they had taken out of the camera. They made a great fanfare out of returning our belongings. Gilles and I had not been allowed to see each other that night. The room he was placed in was also emptied of people, he told me later.
“I hated what those pricks were doing,” he said. “Man, I wished I had had a gun. I would have wasted all those sons of bitches. You know, I think I will become a farmer. At least you get to see things grow instead of seeing life destroyed.”
Several days later, Gilles and I went out and got very drunk and finally talked about what had happened. It was not much of a conversation. We had been close but the event in Africa was the beginning of our drifting apart. We never worked together or saw each other again. I have always regretted we lost touch. I often wonder if he did become a farmer. The truth is that neither one of us found a way to comfort the other over the grief and the guilt we felt about what we had witnessed—nor how powerless we had been to prevent it.
As I was walking out of jail with Chris, the image of the young boy came back so hauntingly clear. The guards had not treated him with impatience or disrespect. In fact, the distinct impression I had when they all marched out of the room was he was leading them and not the other way around. Clearly, he had talked the others into replacing himself for the old man.
So many times, I wish I had made an effort to talk to the boy. It is a regret without limits. It is not that I was not afraid—I was. But I could have made an effort. I am not talking about nobility, certainly not my own. Could that have made any difference? Maybe trading places with him—probably would have gotten all of us killed, but still . . .
I knew the guards standing nearby would not have allowed me to talk to the boy. Their threats to kill me were very real, but at least I could have tried. To tell the boy it was not what someone his age should be doing. To take him aside and ask how he had achieved his force of character? What had he seen in his short life that made him act with such foolish bravery?
Deep in my own heart, I knew the young boy had traded his life for that of the old man. What kind of courage does that take? What was he hoping to accomplish? Did his youth and innocence blind him to what was going to happen? No, he had made a choice, and it was an amazing moment of truth for someone so young. Not a word was exchanged between the boy and the old man. Were they related? It was a muted and deadly farewell. It was not fair.
I had felt empty, but not angry. The whole event had seemed so ordinary, senseless, and banal. There really was no angle as to why people kill. They just do it as calmly as the boy peeing before being murdered. You could at least argue the boy had a physical need: his bladder was full; he needed to evacuate.
The boy’s memory is fresh in my mind. Who was he? He was somebody’s child; he was everybody’s child. It was so heinous, so disgraceful that human beings could inflict such vile acts on other humans. The good always seem to die young. The evil had not surprised me but had left me numb. Primo Levi had once written of his concentration camp experiences: “The worst survived, that is, the fittest; the best all died.”
Very often the memory of that young boy would come back and overwhelm me when I least expected it. It faded in and out of my psyche like a harsh and jumbled radio signal that I would never be able to triangulate. Here I was, a free man, walking down the street accompanied by two beautiful women and wanting to believe that the world is just a fine place to be, while Chris and Big D. were ambling ahead of us arguing in Greek. We were on our way to get something to eat.
How absurd life is!
I had told Big D. about Manos, the taxi driver. He had taken the paper that Manos gave me and said nothing.
“How did you end up in Greece?” I asked the twins.
“We visited it once with our parents when we were kids,” one of them said.
“So we came back to see what we missed,” the other added, laughing.
“And have you found what you missed?”
“That’s the big question,” one of the twins said.
“We’re still looking,” the other one said. “We’ll probably never find it, but it’s fun to look for it.”
There was a nightclub owned by an American woman and Chris, like the twins, had stumbled upon it a few nights ago. That is how the three had met. They got to be friendly with the owner. Demetrios knew the owner, and when he came by early this evening, Big D. met the twins and discovered they all knew Chris. Lisa and Robin had decided to accompany Big D., on a kind of a dare, when he told them about Chris—not really because they were worried about their fellow American.
Chris had struck them as someone who could take care of himself. It came as a bit of a shock that he was in jail. When I said I did not know Chris at all, that this was the first time I had met him, the twins thought I was a nifty guy to have gotten him out of jail. I reminded them that Big D. had done it.
“What about you, what do you do?” one of the twins asked.
Unlike earlier in the evening when Karen had asked the same question, I was not bothered by it.
“I’m doing it.” The twins laughed. ”A girl I met earlier today thought I was a pimp.”
“The charmed life,” one of the twins said. It was my turn to laugh.
“Actually, I’m going to write a film script for a producer, so maybe it is like being a pimp.”
“Oh, you’re a writer,” the second twin said, somewhat impressed.
“Writing a film script is not really being a writer.”
“I disagree,” said the first twin. “You still have to write the words down.”
“So the producer can change them later because they don’t fit the color of the leading lady’s hair,” I said. They appeared to think my words were funny.
The present situation had a surreal sense to it. Less than thirty minutes ago we had been trying to get someone I had never seen before out of jail. Now we were on our way to get something to eat, commenting and laughing about the whole episode. It was as if it had been the most natural thing to happen at this time of night in a strange city. One of the twins then suggested that I should take them to meet the producer. She added, a bit facetiously, he might like them enough to give them a part in his movie.
I kind of liked the idea of me showing up towing a couple of beautiful women. It might impress the hell out of the producer. The restaurant was crowded and smack in the middle of it were Manos, Ron, and Karen. There was a small band playing typical Greek music that struck me as sounding like Middle Eastern music.
Ron was sitting at a table while Manos and several other men, with Karen among them, were dancing. This was unusual, as most Greek men seem to dance with other men. And if it is a woman, it is most likely a foreign tourist.
Karen saw me, stopped dancing, and came over to embrace me. She was deliciously tipsy and having a wonderful time. A waiter appeared out of nowhere, and soon we were squeezed around a small table. Through the din of the music, I made the introductions. Ron was less tipsy than Karen was, but he also appeared to be enjoying himself.
Big D. was soon on the dance floor. I had to marvel, once again, at a man his size being able to move so gracefully. The music ended with a fast beat and crescendo, and the whole room erupted into loud cheers and laughter. Then Big D. walked over to the table, picked up a dish, and with a great deal of relish dropped it on the floor. The dish shattered into many pieces, and soon the whole crowd was throwing dishes on the floor.
It was crazy watching seemingly normal people smashing dishes on the floor in a frenzy, with some of them dancing over the broken pieces, while the café’s owner stood by with a silly look on his face as if it was the most natural thing in the world taking place. It was strange and fun, but there also was an edge to the crowd. High tension was in the air. It felt as if it would take very little to push the crowd in a dangerous direction.
Suddenly, three policemen walked in, and the crowd became abruptly silent, as if a switch had been turned off—a sharp contrast to how noisy it had been just a few moments before. The tension, however, remained. The policemen went to talk to the owner, and from the look on his face it appeared they were giving him a stern lecture. Most of the people in the restaurant gave the impression they would have preferred to be on another planet.
It reminded me of the room back in Africa and the men waiting to die. When the cops left, the crowd became lively again. Big D. said the whole thing had to do with the junta not wanting people to keep their traditions. In Greece, it was traditional to break dishes on the floor as a sign of joy, madness and freedom. When the junta took power, they tried to abolish this appetite for joy and liberty in fear of the free spirit of the people.
A new law had been passed, though it was not enforced all the time, that the public no longer had any right to smash dishes on the floor. But Demetrios did not think the cops were interested in arresting over a hundred people, many of them tourists. It would not look good as foreigners brought in much needed cash. Greece was now keen on changing its image as a fascist state. The need for revenue would override the need to control people’s lives. In true revolutionary fashion expediency prevailed over ideology, and money became more important than orthodoxy.
The music started again and soon the twins became the focus of attention for many males in the room. Several of them came by the table and asked the twins to dance. At first, they refused but eventually relented when Big D. and Chris got on the dance floor. Soon, we had the twins and Karen dancing in the middle of the floor with several men around them, having the time of their lives. I noticed that one of the twins was a graceful dancer.
Chris did not seem much worse for the wear from his ordeal. It was obvious that his jail-time had not crowded his style. He was having a wonderful time as if nothing had happened to him. I did not know if this was his denial period or if he really did not give a shit whether he stayed in jail or not. I did not know exactly why either, but his attitude pissed me off, which was the reason that when he came over to ask me to join them in the dance, I told him to go fuck himself!
By then he and I had put away many glasses of retsina, the smelly and rancid-flavored liquid resin from the grapes. It is indeed the dregs of the wine, and it took getting used to. But once the initial shock was out of the way, one could actually get to like the stuff and get very drunk in a short time. Chris started to laugh, and before we knew it we were both laughing.
“You really are a masterpiece,” he said. “Thanks for getting me out.”
“You should thank Cleo and Big D.”
“He calls you a ‘masterpiece’ and you call him Big D.”
“Well, he’s a big guy, isn’t he?”
“Yeah, he is. So where is Cleo?” Somehow, he expected me to know her whereabouts.
“I know she’s sleeping. What I mean is how she is?”
“How in the hell should I know?”
“She likes you,” he said, after a moment’s reflection.
“No reason why she shouldn’t.”
“I mean she just doesn’t trust too many people.”
“So she’s succumbed to my charm because I’m a likeable, trustworthy sort of guy,” I said, not so sure I was going to like him after all.
“She has to like and trust you; otherwise, she wouldn’t have asked for your help.”
“Are you related to her?”
My question surprised him.
“So what’s the big deal about you?”
“There is no big deal. I just got my ass in trouble for opening my mouth too much and too loudly, I guess.”
“That will do it every time.”
“I hear you’re in the movies.”
“You’ve heard wrong,” I said, wearily.
“Robin told me,” he said, more to reassure himself than me.
“What’s up with the twins?”
“Why, what’s there to be up about?” His voice was distrustful.
“I don’t know. Any plans about getting into their knickers?”
He sucked in some air and held it in, and then let it go with a loud hiss before answering. “I would like to, though that would be screwing up a good friendship.”
“Oh, that’s funny, very funny and clever.”
“Well, I’m funny, clever, sort of guy.”
“Touché! Boy, you missed your calling.”
“So why did you do it?” He asked after a moment of silence, apparently not wanting to discuss the twins anymore.
“Get me out of jail?”
His words now seemed to have a distant interest. I did not have an answer. In fact, I had no answer for many of the things that were now shaping my life. So much had taken place on this one day. Paris and Cécile seemed very far away—almost lost in another life. As I sat there, half drunk, their images in my mind were like a train moving along its tracks at a very fast speed in the middle of a dark night. Cécile and I would probably never get back together. The whole relationship had lost its magic and momentum. Now it was just staggering toward its inevitable end like a drunken sailor looking for a place to crash. We were no longer the same people, and it made me angry, sad, and resentful.
Cécile and I had met back in Paris at a wedding party we had both attended. When we first talked, I actually disliked her because like many French females she knew she was beautiful, arrogant, opinionated, sophisticated, difficult, elegant, full of herself, and did not have much patience with lesser mortals like Americans.
“Je suis Française,” she said, stating the obvious and certainly making fun of me.
“You could have fooled me,” I said, trying to humor her. “I thought the French were polite, open, kind and loved Americans.”
“Who told you that?”
“A little bird.”
“Well, your bird is not very intelligent,” she said, but she did smile.
“I guess not.”
Her attitude did not take away the fact that she had one of the best pair of legs in Paris. Even in the dead of winter, she always wore dresses. I thought that no female had the right to have such superb legs. It was a blessing and a curse. In typical female fashion, she complained men always looked at her legs first. They never took the time to figure out what she had between her ears.
“I want to insure my legs,” she said, to me one day.
“You know like the famous American movie star Betty Grable.”
“How do you know about that?”
“I read about it somewhere.”
“Now you want to be a movie star?”
“No, never. I just want to insure my legs. They are pretty, no?”
“They are beautiful.”
“OK, I will insure them. Un million de dollars pour les jambes magnifiques de Cécile,” she said, laughing.
“Cécile, you are crazy.” I said. On the other hand, maybe it would not be a bad idea for her to insure her legs for a million bucks.
When guys ignored her legs it was the worst insult heaped upon her femininity. You were damned if you did and damned if you did not. To be out with Cécile was probably akin to being a drug dealer. All the guys wanted to score. She was crazy about jazz. When I found this out I told her that as an American my opinion of her improved a lot, that there might be some kind of saving grace to being French after all.
“Quel chauvin,” she said.
“What? I’m not a chauvinist, and look who’s talking.”
Her father was musician, and his love for jazz had been instilled in her from an early age. He had been a minor recording artist in Paris, but his only claim to fame was a couple of recordings he made with Django Reinhart, the great Gypsy guitar player. Her most precious possession was a large collection of 78-rpm records of the great American jazz figures, of the early twenties, that she had collected while a college student in Washington, D.C.
Cécile and I used to spend long weekends with friends just listening to those old records. Among them was a favorite of mine recorded by Reinhart and the violinist Stéphane Grappelli. Some of her fondest memories were of herself as a child standing at the recording studio listening to Grappelli playing old jazz standards, Broadway tunes, and repeatedly practicing his scales.
A couple of weeks after we met, someone gave me two tickets to an Ella Fitzgerald concert. So, on a wild hunch, I got Cécile’s phone number and called to invite her to go to the concert. The idea appealed to her, but I could also sense she was not particularly crazy about going with me. To try to impress her, I told her a story of something that had happened to me some time ago. Quite by accident, I ended up sitting in the balcony of a small theater at the American Center for Students and Artists on Boulevard Raspail by myself, while Ella and her ensemble were rehearsing for a TV show she was doing later that evening.
It was the middle of the afternoon, and the place was deserted. The center was a kind of refuge for students and artists. I had gone upstairs to catch a few winks, and I ended up catching something simply amazing. For over an hour, I sat listening to Ella and her group rehearse all the numbers for the show. In a magical way, she was singing to me while I sat in the dark like a little mouse, making no noise, just listening. It was a thrilling moment.
I remember thinking it was a shame I did not have a tape recorder with me. When they finished, I wanted to stand up and applaud but, of course, I did not. Anyway, my story did not seem to have impressed Cécile at all. To my invitation, she said no, but she did ask me for my phone number. Maybe her asking for it was a consolation prize to me for turning down my invitation. So much for my hunch, I thought. Then, a few minutes later she called and said she had changed her mind.
“Was my Ella Fitzgerald story that did the trick?”
“You made that story up, didn’t you?”
“No, it did happen.”
“I love Ella, but I was more in the mood for Nina Simone.”
“Well, let me call Nina and see what I can work out.”
“Do you know her?”
“Sure,” I said and I laughed. “We go a long way back. I know I can talk Nina into replacing Ella tonight, just for you.”
“You’re that good?”
“Americans are so full of it.”
“How many Americans do you know?”
“I was hoping to be the only one.”
“What an ego,” she said, laughing.
“So why did you change your mind?”
Her answer was that I had no right to ask such a question. As a woman, she had the right to be difficult and change her mind. That is the first lesson to be learned about women, especially French women. The second lesson: Never ask a woman why she changes her mind.
“Those are the two best lessons in life. Learn them and you will never have trouble with women,” she assured me.
From the evening of the concert, we became inseparable. It seemed she never left my apartment. I remembered those days so well because while we were together we lived as intensely as only two people who are in love can live. Much later, love—this rather strange, inexplicable, and powerful emotion that makes us believe that everything is possible, that invades our souls more than anything else in our existence—got tangled up with life and its vicissitudes. Everything went to hell after that.
So in spite of my alcohol-filled mind, I wanted to give Chris a clear answer to his question, but I could not. Somewhere, I had lost the thread, and I did not know how to find it again. What I was doing now was navigating in all directions going nowhere, going around in circles. First, I blamed me; then I blamed Cécile; then I blamed Cécile and me; then I blamed everybody else. Finally, I ran out of people to blame. I was beginning to get sober from thinking too much.
I glanced over to see Karen and Ron holding hands while Manos sat right next to Ron looking at him with envy.
“I didn’t get you out of jail. It was Cleo and Demetrios,” I finally said.
“True, but if it hadn’t been for you nothing would have happened.”
“Boy, talk about being funny.”
“OK. I have a right to one good deed in my whole life.”
“Only one?” Now he was mocking me.
“Yes, and I think I just blew it.”
“Shit, you’re probably looking for an angle so you can write about it and make money off me.”
“Not really. No one would want to buy the story or even read it.”
“What do you mean?” He was put off by my words.
“It isn’t interesting,” I said just to bug him.
“Boy, I’m glad I’m not your enemy.”
“Oh, don’t take it personally.”
“You really know how to hit below the belt.”
“I don’t know about that. Anyway, your story hasn’t enough gore.”
“First, it wasn’t interesting. Now there isn’t enough gore?” He sounded disappointed.
“That’s why I’ve got this movie gig.”
“I’d hate to see when you’re really pissed off.”
“Then. . . I’m much nicer.”
“You know, I’m going to like you even if you are a royal pain in the ass,” he declared after a moment of silence.
“Suit yourself,” I said, and we both laughed at our own drunken silliness.
Big D. came and sat with us. I had seen him drink a lot, but he looked just as sober as when we walked into the restaurant earlier. He wanted us to go to his place for a nightcap. I did not want to go. Eventually, I relented when everybody said I was being a party pooper. Helen did not seem surprised to see us showing up at such a late hour. Soon, food and drinks were produced and the party continued. Ron and I were talking when Iris walked in the room.
I had forgotten all about her and when I saw her again, I knew I was in trouble—deep shit trouble. By the way she glanced at me, I could tell she understood that in my mind I was undressing her. Watching her body language told me she knew precisely what I was thinking. It felt like we were doing a sexual but mental minuet; no, it was more like this long-silent-sensuous-filled-with-desire tango. During which the rhythm of the couple’s dancing and pairing would lead to something unique, thrilling, and unknowable.
My sentiments were probably all due to the alcohol now sloshing around inside my brain. I was in that strange state of mind: drunk but not totally wasted, when feelings and ideas are sharp, pure, as when in the middle of the night we are thinking about some decision we need to make. And it all seems perfectly clear and feasible until the morning arrives, and we discover all we have done is burn and waste billions of brain cells for nothing.
I walked out to the balcony because I needed some fresh air. The twins were beautiful and so was Helen. Even Karen was holding her own, but Iris was different. It felt as if Iris was testing me, daring me to enter her world before she vanished. But it also felt like she did not care one way or the other. I could see that Chris, Ron, and Manos were paying attention as men pay attention when they see a woman who encompasses all of their male fantasies and more—a woman who is also unattainable—fleeting may be a better word.
At first, I thought it was the drinks and the late night. But when I looked at Chris, Manos, and Ron, I also sensed we were all reacting to something different. Attractive women surrounded us, yet Iris had an aura about her: intense, cryptic, voluptuous, wispy, there, not there.
With her, it seemed like anything would be possible because in some mysterious way she could guide a man through the labyrinth. It also seemed terrifying, removed, and distant. Perhaps, a better description would be that she was challenging me to ignore her—as if that were an option. It is always a mystery the effect some women have on men. Manos came out and joined me on the balcony. He still smelled of the cologne of the earlier evening.
“Who in the hell is she?” he asked softly.
“I’m in love!”
“I thought you were in love early in the evening,” I said, trying to humor him.
“Puppy love. This is for real.”
“Watch out for Big D.”
“Fuck him. A man could kill for her.”
He was serious. I was getting sober while in another way I was also getting strangely intoxicated. Many ideas ran through my head and none of them made sense. I had to get away from this place, from her. However, why did I feel so damn vulnerable? I was not looking for romance or sex because I saw them as complications I could do without for the time being. The whole sentiment was getting confusing. Big D. came out to the balcony.
It was a warm evening with the moon perched high in the sky, playing hide-and-seek with the clouds. Manos, Big D., and I stood on the balcony quietly watching the moon, each lost in private thoughts. I wanted to be alone with Iris, talk to her, and have her explain what had never been explained to me by any woman before. I wanted to stop feeling so restless, anguished, and weary. I wanted to be somewhere else, really. Manos went back in.
“I think I’ll call it a night,” I said, to Big D.
“Chris is OK.”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Well, maybe a little crazy.”
“I’m not,” he said very formally.
“I’m sure you did crazy things at his age.”
“Not that kind of crazy.”
“By simple deduction all Greeks are crazy—just like the English.”
“I prefer to be crazy than to be English,” he said, smiling.
“I don’t blame you. What did you say to Chris in jail?”
“I told him to keep his mouth shut.”
“He wasn’t pleased by that.”
“He’s a malaka.”
“All of you guys are a bunch of malakas and pusties, anyway.”
“Thank you,” he said, and laughed.
“That bottle of cognac was a nice touch.”
“Yeah, anyway we got him out.”
“So how did you do it?”
“Somebody owed me a favor. It was nothing.”
“Yeah, I guess it wasn’t.”
When you are a mercenary, the only favor others owe you is because you got rid of their enemies. I was going to ask him what kind of favor it was but decided against it.
“Let’s just hope he stays out,” he said, without much conviction in his voice.
I brought the glass to my lips and took a long drink. The alcohol burned my throat.
“I’ve got to go,” I said.
“Why don’t you stay here for the night?”
His invitation came from so far out of left field that I really thought I had not heard it right. I was alone, and there was no one waiting for me anywhere. I looked at Big D., yet I could not tell why he had extended the invitation. It was something spontaneous. He saw my hesitation and smiled.
“For old times’ sake,” he added.
“OK, but only if you lend me your toothbrush.”
He laughed aloud and went back into the room. Suddenly, I felt as if a great burden had been lifted off my shoulders.
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