Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Excerpt from novel-in-progress Thracian Tales

Share |

I finished writing my novel Mount Royal last fall and Tightrope Books will be publishing it next spring. Since I can no longer obsessively tinker with that manuscript, I'm now working on two other novels, Thracian Tales and The Straight Life.

The Straight Life is in an early 2nd draft stage. It's an off-the-wall satire; Political, cultural, sexual and whatever else - an outlet for certain kinds of madhouse writing.

Thracian Tales is further along at about four-and-a-half drafts. The novel is largely set in that region of southeastern Europe my forebears hail from. I began going to Thrace at age nine and returned every year till 14, mostly staying in my mother’s village, Sahldyk (Lavara in Greek) and my father’s nearby town, Soufli.

I’d be there for five or six months at a time, a kid running wild, terrifying everyone by going down to look at the usually muddy but sometimes churning Hebrus River - or riding these huge hogs at my uncle small farm just south of town.

At fourteen I was allowed to go off on my own and wandered through Thrace in all its iterations - Greek Thrace, Turkish Thrace and Bulgarian Thrace. The harsh and unforgiving mountainous Thrace, the sweet rolling green valleys of Thrace, the dusty, arid and desultory Thrace, the magnificent Bosphorus Thrace.

I looked up distant relatives. Armed with vague directions, often only rumors, I found cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, sometimes as families or partial families, sometimes as oddball loners living marginal lives. I found them in remote mountain hamlets, in towns and in cities. Places like Mega Derion, Kastanies, Dnupita, Stara Zomina, Svilengrad, Chanakalay, Dedahgatch (Alexandroupolis) Varna, Burgas, Orestiada, Khomotini, Xanthi, Plovdiv, Hadrianoupoli (Edrine, Adrianople) and the mighty, wondrous Istanbul (Constantinople, Byzantium), where you will find the road to the garden of Allah…

Many of these distant relatives welcomed me as if I was a long lost love who’s bitterly assumed to be dead, gripping me to their bodies with terrible sobs the moment I introduced myself. Their sudden passion was overwhelming. Almost all of them, especially the older ones, gave me the symbolic spitting, followed by a smiling wag of the head and tut-tut-tutting the word “garlic.” It must sound absurd to those unfamiliar with the gesture, so far removed from Western convention.

The pungent strength of garlic, the great healing power of garlic, the incredible history of garlic, the oil of garlic like napalm sticking to anything and everything, the prejudice and disgust surrounding garlic. One way or another, garlic cannot be ignored. Garlic unites and creates divisions, garlic promotes long life and rank but healthy gas emissions, garlic is fertility, garlic is an aphrodisiac and garlic is a soother - and a virile lover.

And that non-saliva spitting. It's a gesture meant to counter any sort of evil eye pointed at you, any bad intent you're being subjected to. The entire gesture is a loving way of saying: "Look at you, aren't you something!" But with connotations of white and black magick.

During my trips to Thrace, I wrote observations, recorded conversations, stories I was told, genealogies, local myths and so on. I filled a pile of notebooks, along with stacks of loose papers, finally tied together with twine into several bundles. I feel guilt because many of those people I'd met were older and are now long dead. I feel guilt because their voices ended up in some cardboard boxes and were dragged around for years, their contents forgotten for ages while I pursued other highly repetitive and mindlessly self-destructive activities. How many circuits of the hamster wheel? I lost count somewhere around… well, it doesn't matter - let’s just say a lot, far too many.

So after writing Mount Royal, which was also born out of those boxes full of old notes and ramblings, and then being shocked by those priestesses at Tightrope Books asking to publish it, I am now trying to do the same with Thracian Tales. If I can manage to finish this book, it will assuage my guilt a little, but more importantly, all those people and their voices might live again.

Below is a rough excerpt, which is not exactly how the novel will run, but more a compendium in which I try to indicate a couple of the main story arcs. I'm also trying to combine the past and present tense in some sentences - as a way of getting across the idea that Thracian Tales is a story that takes place in both the past and present and how earlier experiences deeply affect present behavior. I'm not sure if it works. Since this is a rough draft, there are most likely some typos and other grammatical issues but hopefully not too many. Also, there is some conversational profanity so please keep your own counsel. But I figure that compared to the madness of the 'real world' we're all exposed to every single day, my offenses border on the whimsical and romantic.
So here’s the excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Thracian Tales.
Comments, etc are most welcome...

FOREWORD

It was my chance to travel, leave Montreal for a good stretch. The Federales had an election on the way and were keen to prove non-Francos do indeed live and breath in Quebec. As a result, they handed out all kinds of grants, particularly if you were an “Allophone”, a “hyphenated-Canadian”, the son or daughter of economic refugees who’d swarmed into this frozen wasteland from hick towns the world over. Perfect.
The Feds sent me a cheque for almost eight thousand dollars, to do some “Explorations.” A faked Ontario address got me another three grand. I was set - but determined to take one very serious step. Rather than turn this latest wad of grant money into a drug addled blur, which had been pretty much SOP till now, I decided to hit the road and booked a ticket for the ancestral homeland; Thrace, Thracia, the Thrax. As a refresher I looked up some material on the region.

According to the Greek historian Herodotus…

Among Thracians, to do no work, but to live by war and rapine, is accounted to be most honorable. Tilling the soil is highly despised. Of gods, they worship only Ares, Dionysus, and Artemis, the gods of war, wine and the hunt.

That sounded like my relatives, all right; a bunch of hard-headed men and women who’d much rather break necks than break soil. And from my battered old copy of the Columbia Viking Desk Encyclopedia (L-Z)…

Thrace (thräs), region, SE Europe, occupying SE tip of Balkan Peninsula and comprising NE Greece, S Bulgaria and Turkey in Europe. Chief cities are Istanbul (formerly Constantinople and Byzantium), Plovdiv and Adrianople (Edrine). Region is largely mountainous with agr. the chief occupation. Early Thracians were comprised of many war-like tribes that continually fought among themselves. They were often employed as mercenaries and widely known for their gladiatorial skills. Originally inhabiting an area extending W to the Adriatic; early Thracians were pushed E by the much more numerous Illyrians (c. 1300 B.C.) and the Macedonians (5th cent. B.C.) Although Greek colonies were founded (e.g. at Byzantium), Thracians did not absorb Greek culture and regularly sacked surrounding city states. Philip II of Macedon subdued (342 B.C.) war-ravaged S Thrace; Lysimachus ruled (after 323 B.C.) most of the region. Roman rule (after 1st cent. B.C.) greatly benefited Thrace with long period of relative peace. Since barbarian invasions (3rd cent.) it has remained a battleground. N Thrace passed (7th cent.) to Bulgarians, Ottoman Turks ruled the entire region after the fall of Constantinople (1453). Thracian warriors were valued as enlistees in Ottoman Janissary forces, many rising to high rank. During decline of Ottoman empire, Bulgaria annexed Eastern Rumelia (1885) and term Thrace referred only to S part of region. After BALKAN WARS (1912-1913), Turkey held E Thrace and Bulgaria W Thrace. During World War I, Greece gained part of Bulgarian Thrace and most of E Thrace, but was later required (1923) to restore E Thrace to Turkey. In World War II, Bulgaria occupied (1941-44) most of Greek Thrace, but previous boundaries were restored after conflict.

In other words, a real dog’s breakfast.

ONE
Thrace, Spring 1991

Gidika was my cousin-in-law, about 40 years-old and in good shape. A gregarious guy with a nice head of thick black hair and the standard gut roll you find on most middle-aged men hereabouts - a sign of their prosperity. We sat on the patio of the leftist café at the edge of the main square in my mother’s village, Sahldyk. It’s a small collection of houses, shops and farms on the western banks of the Hebrus River, about halfway between the Aegean to the south and the Greek-Turkish-Bulgarian tri-border to the north.
An ancient Mercedes bus wheezed to halt in the square, followed by a billow of dust. This local service ran through here twice a day, coming up and then going back down the northern branch of what was originally a Roman road, the Via Egnatia, and terminated in Istanbul.

The village’s lone cigarette and newspaper kiosk, at the far end of the square, was still shut up tight from the afternoon siesta. Gidika muttered darkly about dragging its crippled owner out of bed, throwing his crutches at him and forcing the guy to open the phone-booth sized business at the advertised time - which had been about half an hour ago. Gidika suffered from a long-standing newspaper addiction and wanted to get started on the evening editions.
The Greek mania for both publishing and reading newspapers is well entrenched here in Thrace. In Athena alone, something like twenty-six daily papers are produced, some of them printing two or three editions every day, including holidays. There are also dozens of weeklies, monthlies, fortnightlies, quarterlies, one-offs, pamphlets, tracts and single-sheet pronouncements. They cover every possible political stripe; from wild-eyed anarchists and Pol Pot damn-the-caves-back-to-the-trees absolutists to the most severe Stalinist, Maoist and fascist organs. And although a few have stepped into the modern age with tabloid sized editions and high-resolution color photos, most are still printed on massive broadsheets made from thin onion-skin paper. A line of men sitting in a café with arms spread wide, holding the edges of their beach-towel sized newspapers is a common sight. The most politically zealous publications often use vibrant inks to make up for their lack of color pictures. The ultra-extreme Maoist paper, Our Chairman’s Brilliance, is done entirely in fire engine red; headlines, text, coarse dot-filled photos, everything.

Up in these parts I’m known as Vash’eil, a Thracian bastardization of the Greek Vasseilios, my given name, though many people feel a certain worldliness using my English appellation, Bill. Gidika and I spoke in Thracian dialect; a mixture of Greek, Turkish, Arvanite, Slavic, Latin and some Old Thrax.
He glanced around the dusty square and blew out a thin jet of smoke.
“So. Your aunt tells me you’re here looking for a woman.”
“I wish she hadn’t done that.”
”Come now, Bill, she’s just trying to help. Who is it? Maybe I know her.”
My mouth tasted sour. I turn toward the barkeep to see if he’s anywhere near finished preparing our coffees. “Gidika, please. I’ll deal with it.”
”No, seriously. You’ll make a fool of yourself and get nowhere, probably scare her off. I know how to deal with these peasants here-abouts, and I can be discreet.”
“Just drop it.”
“Anyway, why are you here searching for a woman?” He held out his hands like an impresario. “You’re from Montréal!” He pronounced it Moan-ray-ahl with a butchered French accent. “I stopped there years ago when I was on the oil tankers. I’ve been around, Bill, and I tell you, it’s well known as North America’s most European city, very beautiful and very cosmopolitan.”
“You sound like a tourism brochure.”
Gidika leaned across the table and dropped his voice. “Montréal is also well known for its worldly and stunning women.” He casts about, disgusted. “Not like these money grubbing provincial hags. Jesus and the Virgin, you must have women by the armload back there.”
“It’s not like that.”
“What, you’re telling me you’re a monk?”
“No… I have some women friends and we keep company once in a while. Nobody gets dramatic.”
Gidika leers at me. “Very bohemian. When can I visit?”
“Any time. A guy like you would fit right in.”
”You really think so?”
“Are you kidding? You’re a classic Montrealer; a lazy hedonist with a very forgiving world view.”
“That’s quite a compliment coming from you, Bill. So there’s no particular woman back there?”
“Well… sort of. But she doesn’t consider us as something exclusive.”
“And you want her to.”
“Let’s not go into that right now.”
“Fair enough, I’ll play your game.” Gidika nodded tiredly. “You want everything your way. Don’t we all?” He straightened his chair and continued. “Now, about this woman you’re hunting down. What’s her name?”
“Maria, and I’m not ‘hunting her down.’”
“Whatever you like. What’s her surname?”
“I can’t remember her surname.”
He rubs his palms together, considering. “So… Maria. That’s not a Thracian name, or for that matter, a very Greek name. Are you sure?”
“Yes, Maria.”
“Very well. I need some background. When did you meet?”
”About twenty years ago.”
”Twenty years ago!? Why the devil did you wait all this time!?”
”I’ve been busy.”
”Busy? Sure, busy living in Montreal. So why now?”
“I don’t know… I’ve dreamt about her during the past few months.”
Gidika’s incredulous. “You’ve dreamt about her? My God.” He sighed then threw an annoyed look at the bartender, who was yawning loudly. “Fine. Maria. What’s she look like?”
“As a girl she was very fair with light blonde hair and green eyes, freckles on her nose.”
“So where did you meet?”
“In Dedahgatch.”
“Then what are you doing up here?”
“A relative of mine who lives down there, she told my aunt that a woman who matches Maria’s description might live in the Crow’s Nest.”
“Which relative?”
“Her name’s Koralou. Her husband’s Kamboura. He’s her second husband.”
“I know them. They live in the Workers’ Colony, next to the old docks.”
“No. They live under the mossy minaret, near the fishing boat shacks.”
“You’re mistaken, Bill."
"But I was just there."
"Perhaps they've moved. Kamboura is my uncle, twice removed, on my mother’s side. He was adopted by my mother’s third cousin, Kolovalvida, who was the policeman whose wife accidentally poisoned him.”
“Wasn’t that up in Sidero?”
“No, no. You’re thinking of Aspropetsa, the godson of your grandfather Vash’eil’s best man, Kolovlima. He was done in by his third wife, Demeter. She buried a knife in his throat while he slept. Aspropetsa never had a chance. But he was a bastard, deserved every bit of that blade. He’d lash her up like a dog and sodomize her if she cooked badly - any excuse to show her who’s boss. That guy was evil through and through. So they shut her away for a few months to satisfy Aspropetsa’s kin. You know - prevent a clan war from starting up. Once those vendettas get going, they’re hard to stop. Plus her brothers had to pay a couple thousand obols restitution. That settled matters. I was a boy when it happened. I felt badly for Demeter after she was forced to marry that asshole. Used to happen all the time around here, especially among the Arvanites, your father’s people. Demeter was a fine looking woman. Sharp-tongued, true, but very playful, always sweet to me, bringing candies and so on. I think you’re confused because Aspropetsa was also a cop - a sergeant in the agricultural police.”
“Maybe so. Can we get back to Maria?”
“Of course. So you met in Dedahgatch. In what circumstances?”
“Well, that’s where things get difficult. I was fifteen and staying with Thalia, my mother’s friend from when they were girls, and Achilles, her husband. He used to be a soccer coach.”
Gidika nodded. “I know them too.”
“Good. Maria was also staying at their house because her parents had taken her younger brother to see a specialist of some kind in Saloniki. But the thing is - I saw Thalia and Achilles about ten days ago - on my way up here - and they don't remember anything about Maria, and neither do their kids.”
Gidika lit another cigarette and flicked the wooden match at a pigeon. “Was she a neighbor or something?”
“No. I remember seeing her in the dark hallway at night at Thalia’s house, outside the bathroom, in her nightgown. I could see right through it in the moonlight, her beautiful silhouette.”
“Very romantic. She obviously made a big impression.”
“I was fifteen and she was fourteen, a very sensitive girl. We walked around the shoreline a lot. I remember it as being empty, very few people. We found a couple of secluded spots.”
“The beach in Dedahgatch empty during summer? Impossible. You’re idealizing. But who doesn’t. Were you a virgin?”
“No.”
“Was she?”
“How would I know?”
“Well, didn’t you have sex with her?”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean anything.”
Gidika became offended. “How can you say it doesn’t mean anything?!”
“What I’m saying is you can’t always tell just by having sex. At least I can’t. Bodies are different.”
“Don’t be so airy fairy. They’re not that different.”
“Anyway, she didn’t say whether she was a virgin or not and I didn’t ask.”
“Well, did she seem to know what she was doing?”
“I don’t know. I was only fifteen. I didn’t really know what I was doing, at least not the finer points. Besides, what difference does it make if she was a virgin?”
“None. I’m just curious.”
Gidika seems suddenly irritated at all this virgin talk, as if he’d been cheated but wasn’t sure how.
“So. This Maria of yours could be living in the Crow’s Nest, eh? That’s only eight or nine kilometers from here, just south of Soufli.”
“Yes, I know.”
“I’m warning you, Bill. If she’s in the Crow’s Nest, she’s no free spirit. That place is even meaner than this dump. There can’t be more than a four or five hundred people there and I don't recall any blonde, green-eyed beauties.”
“Maybe you don't know her.”
“I know every last soul in the county. Okay, let's say Maria is living in that hell hole. She’s probably married to some pig farmer, has pushed out a few brats and grown an ass big enough to show a movie.”
“Don’t talk about her that way.”
“I’m sorry, but you’ve got to face facts. She’s not going to be that lovely young child anymore.”
“Still, I’d like to see her. She'd only be about thirty-four now. Maria was very intelligent, she loved books.”
“Well, then she might be a spinster teacher.”
”Thirty-four doesn’t make her a spinster.”
“Around here it does. Look, I’ll make some discreet inquiries. You keep your beak shut.”
“All right, but don’t talk to her. Just find out where she lives.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t spoil your surprise.”

***

A couple days later I was up at Gidika’s house in the Byzantine town of Twin Walls, seven or eight kilometers north of Sahldyk. We’d eaten lunch and it was time for the afternoon siesta but I couldn’t sleep. He was already out cold on the couch, shirt open, belly exposed, shiny black chest and stomach hair. His wife, my cousin Tota and their three young girls, were away in Dedahgatch for a few days to see her sister, Pepi, who’d married another photographer. Thrace seemed to have an abundance of professional shutter bugs but no one could explain why. Although, those posed Hollywood-style photo-portraits, with one hand resting on the other, leaning forward slightly, like a young Frank Sinatra - they appear to be very popular. Or a seated young woman, all coiffed up, her man in his best suit standing behind her, protective hand on her shoulder - that type of thing. You see them in every house.
Gidika snored loudly as I crept down the steps, shoes in hand, putting them on in the stairwell. The other shops in the narrow street outside his photo store also had their steel roll-down doors shut tight. Eddies of dust blew by in the sun-blasted heat. It felt like a forsaken Mexican backwater.
I begin to wander and end up in the gypsy quarter. Rancid, fly swarmed garbage is piled here and there, filthy kids rampage about, a few on cannibalized bicycles. They looked at me from a distance then lost interest, probably deciding I wasn’t well-dressed enough for a mooch.

I came to a small, cobbled street of crumbling yellow plaster houses that had once been grand, maybe the homes of Marranos or Ottoman merchants. Now their walled gardens were overgrown with vines and abuzz with insects, a few vagrants squatting here and there. Many of these structures were flush up against the newer of the two Byzantine walls that surround the old quarter. The more ancient wall encircles the citadel, way up in the town’s heights.
While taking a few pictures of these decrepit homes with their overhanging second floor bay windows, I come across a storefront with a weather beaten sign that spells KKE in big red letters. The acronym of the Communist Party of Hellas (Stalinist). Inside it was dim and sparsely furnished. Stacks of dog-eared pamphlets are against one wall, yellow and brittle, a bunch of wood and straw chairs piled haphazardly down the other side.
A man of about seventy sits at a rough-hewn table near the back of the single long room. He was completely bald, red-faced and hard-bitten, dressed in clean but well-worn workmen’s shirt and pants. His large hands are spread flat on the tabletop as he studies a single sheet of paper before him. A single bare bulb hung low, casts his shadow across the table. At the man’s left was an old Soviet era phone – so big it seemed to be out of a nightmare. I stood before him.
“Yes, what do you want?” he asked, already antagonistic.
“Sir, my parents are both from these parts and I’m visiting from Montreal. I have an interest in local history, the Civil War.”
“Why do you want to know about that?”
“I’ve been told the partisan leader Kriton hid in the cellar of my grandparents house in Soufli.”
“What’s your grandfather’s name?”
“Burula.”
“Never heard of him.”
The old Soviet phone let out a slow burr. We both looked at it. He picked up the huge handset and listened for a moment then mumbled, “Mnogo dobre” before hanging up.
He looked up at me. “Is there anything else?”
“Could you tell me a little about who Kriton was, maybe some-“
“As you can see, I am extremely busy. Perhaps another time.”
“When?”
His back straightened. “Another time.”
“I just need to know one thing. Was Kriton an educated man, a speaker, or was he an illiterate peasant who happened to be brave and charismatic?”
His eyes got fiery. “Who told you he was an illiterate?”
“In Sahldyk, some men.”
“Loyalist shit hole…” His fingers hung off the edge of the table, just the nails showing, big and work-flattened. His eyes moved about. “Very well. Would you like a coffee or a gazoza?”
“A gazoza, please.”
The man half stood and held out his hand. I hadn’t realized how large he was. Big boned, with thick arms. He gives me the traditional greeting. “I am Hector Vaphiada and you are Vlasak Burula’s grandson.”
“Yes, I am he.”
“What is your name?”
“Vash’eil.”
“Ah… so you’re the grandson of Vash’eil the Turk. I’d heard you were around - Vash’eil the American.”
“I’m Canadian.”
He looked at me like tomato tomahto. “Your namesake, your mother’s father, he was a piece of work, a real bastard. But your other grandfather, Vlasak, now he was a patriot. And his wife, your grandmother Stamatia, tremendous woman, very learned.” He stood erect, as if in tribute. “They live?”
“No, she passed away eight years ago. Vlasak a couple years before that.”
“She was a teacher.”
“Yes, I know.”
Hector Vaphiada’s face knotted with impatience. “No, I don’t mean a teacher in some classroom.” He brought together thumb, index and middle fingers to make a point. “Stamatia was a true practitioner. As a young woman, she took her exercise books and a donkey and went into the hills and mountains, the Rhodopés, all the way to the Iron Castle - to teach the children of the proletariat how to read and write.” He was yelling by the end of his statement.
“Yes, she taught me Thracian and Greek.”
Hector didn’t hear. “She also provided many sons - your father and uncles.” He smiled then drew a thumb across his throat, that much-loved Thracian gesture. “Good lads, killers all. Ach ach ach… Good lads...”
Hector Vaphiada reached for the big Soviet phone and waved at the pile of furniture against the wall. “Get a chair and sit.” He dialed three digits. The phone labored round with a loud clicking.
After a few moments I heard a buzzy voice yell through the receiver: “Speak!”
“Bring me a gazoza!” Hector ordered. “I have a guest. And a Turkish coffee for me.”
I dragged a chair over as he went to a battered green wooden cabinet in the corner.
“Yes… good lads…” Hector chuckled over his shoulder. He wagged his head in that Middle Eastern way, as if to recall something mischievous and immensely pleasurable. “Ach, ach… Vash’eil, it’s easy when you’re young.”
He sits back down with a disintegrating old paperback - locally produced, I’d guess - some early Communist tome full of poor typesetting and crummy photos. The cover's made of dog-eared gray cardboard and the pages had mostly turned brown. Hector licked his fingers and leafed through it, stopping occasionally to murmur to himself.
“Here, let me show you.”
He spun the book round. A very grainy image, not much contrast, three men with rifles, a shorter one in the middle. They look like Wild West comancheros, big handlebar moustaches and goucho hats, bandoliers across their chests. Hector’s finger laid onto the page, pointing to the smaller man. “This is Kriton. And here, next to him, your grandfather, Vlasak.”
“They look very proud.”
Hector frowned and pulled the book away. “Proud? What else would they be?”
“Well… the Loyalist forces did prevail in the end and-”
“Filth!” he barks at me, standing to his full height. He aims a finger at the door. The words came out low, slow and dark, gradually rising in volume.
“GET OUT - you running dog lackey! You imperialist parasite… coming here! Exploiter! LEAVE!”
“Just a minute, I was only-“
“OUT!”
He reached for the big Soviet phone. I didn’t know if he meant to call for reinforcements or beat me to death with the thing.

***

Next to my Uncle Thanash’s store, on the dusty main drag of Sahldyk was the town’s right wing café, frequented by old men who’d been pro-Western Loyalists during WWII, the Civil War and the Junta; Greece’s sadistic military dictatorship from 1967 to ‘74. The café was furnished with the usual smattering of small tin tables and wooden chairs.

The lone waitress was a talkative brunette called Andromache, 27 years-old, with big brown eyes and long lashes, a natural beauty. Most people called her by the diminutive, Androula. She took zero shit from anyone and glommed onto me shortly after I arrived. Since my parents were from the area and my relatives near at hand, there was an instant familiarity and we could be seen talking. Not touching, mind you, but talking was okay. I took to calling her Andi, something she enjoyed and often repeated just for fun.
Except for the odd group of adventurous Germans or Swedes coming down by way of Eastern Europe to pass through in a VW camper, foreign visitors were fairly rare in the region so Andromache interrogated me continually. She wanted to know which films were currently popular in the West, which celebrities, magazines, books, clothing, political movements, music, all of it. She asked for my views on world affairs, my stance on major issues, the latest Balkan war - this time in Yugoslavia, NATO, the EU, my personal relationships, education and jobs I’d held.

With just a couple of government TV stations available hereabouts, and airing for only a few hours per evening, I knew how cut off Thrace was, so I’d brought along a few fashion and frou-frou type magazines for my female cousins. Andromache was elated when she got a crack at them, reading each one cover to cover several times and carefully studying the photos. She also tried the simple crossword in one of the mags and did okay. Her comprehension of written English wasn’t bad but she could speak only a little so we conversed in Thracian.
Within a week or so we’d become friendly enough that she began badgering me to rent a car so we could go to a huge outdoor nightclub - near the tri-border, about sixty kilometers north of the village.
“And don’t show up in some jalopy,” Andi warned. “No taxi either. Taxis are for whores. Rent something nice, and make sure it has a good radio.”
Taxis are for whores? I was tempted to ask where she’d heard such a thing.
“Where the hell am I going to rent a car up here?”
“Talk to Gidika. He’ll know. And if you’re going to get me flowers - no roses, especially not a single rose in one of those cheap cellophane wrappers. I find them depressing.”
A few days later Gidika took me down to Soufli where he knew a man who sold some cars out of his repair shop and would rent them to customers with the right connections and the requisite amount of dollars, marks or pounds. Gidika told the man I needed a car to impress a woman.
“What else?” the mechanic replied wearily.
He showed me a navy blue, ten year-old Lancia sedan in very nice condition.
“Don’t fuck it up,” he said. “Or you’ll have to buy it.”
It seemed clean enough but Gidika insisted I have the thing washed and vacuumed. He oversaw the job while I went across the road and bought a fresh bouquet of miniature daisies.

When I got to Andi’s, she was really dolled up, all in white. White pencil skirt, nice and tight on her full, curvy behind and showing off a few inches of thigh, starched white linen blouse, white lacey bra underneath, smooth tanned legs and white espadrilles. Her chestnut hair was up in a high ponytail with a white ribbon. She wore blood red lipstick and nail polish, expensive aviator sunglasses, tiny silver stars in her ears and had a white patent leather purse hanging from her shoulder. I was stunned. She looked glamorous as hell. I was glad Gidika had convinced me to shave carefully, wear a suit and tie.
Andi accepted the flowers with a kiss on the cheek then checked over the car. She grinned happily. “The Delta GT. I like.”
“You…” I stared at her, agog. “Jesus… you’re beautiful…”
“Don’t sound so surprised.” Andi walks around the front of the car and slides behind the wheel. “I’ll drive.” She fired up the engine and tuned in a Hadrianoupoli radio station that played Turkish pop songs. “It’s still early. We’ll stop by a little monastery I’ve been meaning to visit.”
“A monastery?”
“Don’t worry, Bill, I’m not getting religious. It’s up in the hills, west of Twin Walls, a very pretty place.”
Andi puts the car into first and we take off north on the Via Egnatia with a stylish chirp from the back tires. A handy pilot, she worked the gearbox well, making me wonder where she got all the practice, swerving here and there to avoid potholes, large turtles, scooters, donkeys, snakes, wagons and people.
Just before the outskirts of Twin Walls, she pulled a quick left between the oncoming traffic. We went along some dirt roads lined with cornfields, gradually rising up the foothills of the western Rhodopé range. A few old timers with their animals and carts glanced in our direction, some kids ran with the car for brief flashes, one of them threw a stone at us and missed. Andi slams on the brakes, twists round with an oath and throws her arm across the back of my seat. She went speeding in reverse, the car’s transmission whining. The kids stood there for a moment, gape-mouthed then scattered as we closed in. Andi swore she’d run them over given half a chance. I told her to cool it and got a cross look.
“Nobody fucks with me or my car!”

By the time we got to the monastery the sun was dropping behind the tallest hills, five or six kilometers away. This monastery couldn’t have been more than three meters square. A few narrow windows ran down the walls and a big arch-shaped wooden door took up almost the entire front. From outside, we could see a single candle burning at the altar. Perhaps lit by the old woman in black who was now scurrying up the road.
Inside, a group of primitive looking icons covered the rear wall. All sorts of tiny scrolled up prayers and appeals for miracles were stuffed into nooks and crannies while various amulets were strung over the icons’ frames. We lit the yellow bees-wax candles Andi had brought along. After standing them up in the tray of sand before the main icon of the Virgin, we both genuflected in the Orthodox fashion; thumb, index and middle fingers pressed together in the trinity, going from forehead to chest, then right to left shoulders.

The sun was falling quickly, a fiery edge on those distant hilltops, filling the small building with reddish light. Andi turned with a little smirk, her face lit up pink and amber. She pushed me against the door and our mouths touched, lips brushing then straining together. Letting out a coarse chuckle, she undid the buttons of her crisp white linen shirt and shrugged it off. I watched her reach round and hang it from a brass candle stand. She unhooks the front of her bra and hangs that up too. The sight of Andi’s dark olive skin and brown nipples, the smooth line of her neck going down into her collarbones - it was all too sudden.
“I can’t take this,” I mumbled.
Andi got sweet and sullen, whining a little. “C’mon, Bill… Be a sport. I’m stuck in this place. You can leave any time you want.” She kissed me on the throat while pulling down my tie and began to undo my belt. I looked around nervously and held onto her hands.
“What if someone comes in?”
“They’ll see us having sex. It’s nothing new.”
“But the village where that woman was headed, it can’t be very far. There might young guys about, those kids we saw. They could spy on us from these windows.”
“Maybe they’d learn something.”
She continued, opening my shirt. I swallowed and relaxed a bit.
“Well… I guess this is pretty blasphemous.”
Andi raised her eyebrows and smiled. ”I know. It gets me excited too.”
“You’ve done this before here?”
That made her laugh out loud. She kissed me, utterly incredulous. “You stupid American!”
Andi let me carefully unzip her skirt and squeeze it down past her butt. She kept her balance by hanging onto my hair as I slid off her panties then untied her espadrilles. Squatting before me, one of her hands held my chin while the other went between her legs. Her fingers came up to my mouth, wiping herself on my lips and my tongue, on my eyes and cheeks.
“Here,” she grinned. “For you.”
Her elixir got me woozy, some rare mixture of salt and earth. I fell on my ass and she giggled, pulling off my shoes and pants. The cool tile floor felt good as I turned her this way and that to see all of her in the dying gold sunset. Andi had a nice little roll at her belly, kind of stretched from having given birth - a lovely, lived-in quality to her body.
“C’mon, Billy. Don’t be shy…” She took me by the ribs and pulled me with her as she slowly lay back, ankles coming round my waist. “That’s it… Let’s have a nice hard screwing. There’s a good lad…”
The candles had sizzled down to nothing and only the stars and moon and night made shadows across Andromache’s face. She murmured in my ear and her lips took over my mouth, her tongue sucked on mine. She dug her nails into my hips, arched my back and took vicious bites at my ribs and nipples, making me cry out and call her my little whore.
“Yes, give it to your little whore!” she laughed. “Fuck the ass off your little whore!”
Andi drove her hips upward as we fixed on one another’s eyes. Her hand pulls and strokes between us, pushing herself further and closer, then backing away only to find ourselves in the one place we could be and a quaking rumble finally bursts from out chests and throats. We fuck harder and I let it all go, join in her coming, our mouths entwined and fighting and I catch a briny flavor as she bites down on my lower lip, my blood a sheen on her white teeth and I can hear reed pipes up in the hills, a lyre, a distant singing, something high and light and fruitful. I look out the windows at the dome of stars in the ancient Thracian night. Savagery and bloodlust in the air, men and women who’d tear open their shirts to howl, mad beasts aching for every sensation packed into every single moment, insatiable and barely human; undomesticated, uncodified, disdainful of letters and statuary and reason, worshipping only the gods of war and fucking.

While driving to the nightclub, Andi began to tell me about her nine year-old son. Before I could think of how to derail her, she launched into the whole melodrama.
“I shouldn’t have been such an arrogant young bitch - sleeping with his idiot father. Of course I knew it all and just wanted to have sex and Mitcho was so handsome. Then Eli was born and his handsome father ran off to the boats like a bloody coward. I heard he’s living with some whore in Kavala now, both of them on EU disability scams.”
She turned to me, earnest and searching. “Bill, honestly, I feel so bad for my boy. I don’t know what to do. He’s shy and withdrawn. Not a rascal or go-getter at all. He clings to me everywhere we go. I don’t know why he’s like that.” She studied the lights of some farmstead going by. “In eight or nine years, when he has to go into the army and do his national service, they’ll terrorize him, and I won’t have the money to protect him.”
I thought she was finished with this dismal crap but I was wrong.
“Bill, you’ve traveled, you’re educated. How can I make him a man without turning him into a beast?”
I pretended to think it over. “I don’t know, Andi. Maybe he needs books. He might not be physically intimidating but perhaps he’s very smart.”
She sat back, disappointed, fidgeting with the flowers in her lap. “No, I tried that. He’s not like you. He’s not interested in books or art, culture, any of that.” She shrugs and looks out the window again. “Maybe he’ll be a faggot.”
“And what if he is?”
“Oh, Christ, all you men are faggots deep down anyway. You get bored with women after a while. Once you’ve had it in the ass, what’s my little blossom going to do for you?”
“Your little blossom’s just fine.”
“You say that now. But these guys come out of prison or back from the army - or return from their bloody boats - and all they want is a hard cock. None of this wasting time with dates and flowers and talking, having to spend their money on some girl.”
“I don’t know why you’d say something like that. It’s not true. They’re totally different things. You can do both.”
She scoffs and shakes her head. “Listen to the chic and sophisticated American. Well, they do say faggots take good care of their mothers.”
“Look, don’t pressure the kid. Just make sure he feels secure and let him grow into whatever he’s going to be.”
“Don’t patronize me! You were born over there and live in Montreal! You can do whatever you want. In this place, Eli’s the bastard son of that waitress slut. You think anyone’s going to give him a chance?”
“Maybe you have to move away.”
She began to shout. ”Move!? Move where!? To be a waitress slut in Saloniki or Athena or abroad!? Bill, you know the world is made of money and connections and that’s all. Don’t treat me like a stupid village girl!”
I feel the ire boil up suddenly, the reflex to a thousand whining hags in a thousand shitty, claustrophobic relationships.
“What the fuck do you want me to say!? We hardly know each other and you corner me with this bullshit about your son. Okay, he’s fucked! He’ll never get a break and neither will you. Is that what you want to hear!?”
I drove on for a while, not sure where I was going. Our anger hung there, an ugly echo. We passed some sleazy looking cafes lit with dirty beer signs, then some roadside vendors. A few of them came right out into traffic to try and wave us down, their faces sudden and desperate in the headlights. I had to swerve to avoid an old Pomak woman who’d thrust herself out in front of the car while waving some kind of soccer shirt.
Andi finally turns to me. “All right… I know it’s not your problem. The whole thing just constantly plays on my nerves.” She whacks the dashboard with the heel of her fist. “Fuck the Virgin! How could I have been so stupid?! Before Eli was born I planned to give him up to a respectable family. We’d have both been so much better off. Then my mother, goddamn her, convinced me to keep him. Now we’re both finished!”
I’d had about enough. “Listen, Andi, I’m not a psychiatrist. Maybe I should just take you home.”
The silence came down again as she stroked her forehead with two fingers. She stared out the dark window. I was ready to turn the car around when she reached over and gently touched the back of my neck.
“No, please, Bill. Don’t make me go home. I never get to go out. I’m sorry. I’ll stop with this misery.” She gives me a helpless little grin and rubs the inside of my thigh. “We’ll dance at the club and get drunk, then we’ll screw outside in a field somewhere – like animals in the dark. C’mon, it’ll be fun.”
I can’t help but smile. “You Thracian women… Fucking insane.”
Andi gives me a half kiss then wipes the lipstick away with her thumb. “But we’re terrific lays, aren’t we?”
“Well, if it wasn’t for that...”
She giggles and punches me in the arm then twists about the rearview mirror to check her make-up, mood suddenly buoyed. She put on some lipstick, made a little smacking sound and smiled at me.
“We’ll have a nice night out, all right, Billy? Here, turn left just before the Shell station up ahead. We’re almost there. Can you hear the music?”

***

I was sitting in the Loyalist café next to my Uncle’s store when Gidika slid into the chair beside me. I lowered the newspaper I’d been reading, a wacko ultra right-wing broadsheet with royal blue headlines. It’s called The Eternal Battle and the editorial is demanding all Muslims and Catholics be forcibly expelled from Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo, preferably from the entire Balkans.
Gidika pulled in close and nodded at the small gash on my lower lip. “Had a little accident?”
“Oh, for Chrissake.”
He held up a hand. ”Don’t worry. She’s the one who told me. We’re old friends. I know how to keep quiet.”
Andromache glanced at us from behind the counter while doing a crossword puzzle. A group of old men sat on the other side of the café watching a pair of their cronies play chess. A few of them eyed us suspiciously.
I look back to Gidika. “Well, I guess it doesn’t matter. We have an understanding.”
“Ah, yes, Bill, you’re very good with these ‘understandings’, aren’t you?”
“Leave off, will you? She knows nothing’s possible. She’s got her life and I’ve got mine.”
“What life does she have, malaka? She’ll become old and unwanted in this hole. Her fucked up son will go looking for his father and never come back.”
“You two are ridiculous. She doesn’t have the guts to get out of here and suddenly it’s my problem. I’m sorry, I can’t save the world.”
“No, but you sure can fuck it, can’t you?” Gidika glimpsed back at Andi. She had a pencil between her teeth. Her eyes came up from under those dark bangs. “Look at that girl of ours,” he sighs. “If I wasn’t married to your cousin…”
“Married, my ass. More like if my cousin wasn’t sure to cut off your balls.” I snap my newspaper, straightening the pages. “Anyway, if you’re such good friends, you can take care of her when she’s ‘old and unwanted.’”
Gidika snorted. “Listen to the hard man.”
“So it’s my fault she lives in a remote Thracian village, doesn’t have much formal education and got knocked up by some buffoon who ran off?”
Our harsh whispers get a couple of the old men across the café peering at us with their mean little pig eyes. Andromache comes over with a big fake smile.
“What are you two fools bickering about?”
Now all the geezers are taking a hostile interest in these two punks talking to their waitress. If the old farts knew what happened last night, they’d be screaming for me to be castrated and slowly tortured to death in the village square.
Gidika sat back with his big sassy grin. “Bill here tells me he’s convinced those old stories are true. You know, that nonsense about Crusaders, Janissaries and what have you burying golden liras in these Thracian mountains of ours.”
“I hope you didn’t pay for that information, Bill. You want something, Gidika?”
“Yeah, I need to wake up. How about a nice Turkish? Medium.”
”You, Bill?”
“No, I’m good, thanks.”
One of the younger geezers was getting fed up with our chatter.
“Andromache!” he snarls. “You’re supposed to be working. Bring us more coffees!”
She replies without looking over, her tone weary but indulgent. “Yes, my Major, dear. In a moment.”
Before turning away, she picks up my empty cup and saucer, bending down to wipe the table and letting me see a tiny slice of where I’d been about a dozen hours earlier. Andi’s smooth neck is right next to my ear as she moves the rag about. I catch a hint of her scent, her body’s heat. I begin to get hard and feel a little faint. Christ, I’m thinking, she’s poisoned me. My fingers twitch as I fight a powerful urge to run my hand up between her legs.
“We’ll talk later,” she whispers.
But we didn’t talk later.

***

Laki was a relative from the city of Drama, near the Thracian/Macedonian border. He’d been driving trucks for most of his 55 years. My Uncle Thanash got word Laki was coming through Sahldyk on his way to Bulgaria and points beyond and would take me along if I was keen.
Laki’s M.A.N. tandem trailer was loaded with various “special goods” he would trade for local products in second tier cities like Svilengrad, Burgas and Stara Zagora, then on to Turnu Mägurele, Dupnitsa, Skopje and Strumica. Laki avoided major centers, telling me his network was built on long established relationships with local police and merchants in these hayseed towns. We would eventually return to Drama in about ten days time via the border crossing at a place called the Iron Castle. It all sounded far-fetched and utterly romantic.
As soon as Laki put the truck in gear and we lurched northward, he slapped me hard on the thigh and let out a ear-splitting holler. “Ah, Billy!” he yelled with an expansive gesture. “I ask you, what’s better than getting on the road with a good truck and a full load? You’re moving, you’re sitting up high! No boss, no nagging whore on your back. It’s going to be a helluva trip, Billy!”
Laki whacked me on the thigh again. Before we’d made the eighty kilometers to Trigono and the Bulgarian truck crossing, he’d given me the full scorecard on the sexual talents of various Balkan women.

“In my experience – which I’d like to point out is not insubstantial – none are what could be considered incompetent – like some Friesian or Alsatian bitches I’ve known. Them, I’d call meager. You know, the kind of cow who thinks she’s doing you a big favor to just lay there like a cold fish. Disgraceful!”
Laki was still going on like this when we finally got to the frontier about two hours later and joined the line-up of vehicles waiting to cross.
“I have found after many years of sampling a wide variety that Serbian women are far above their peers elsewhere.” He suddenly grabs my arm, deeply sincere. “I tell you, Bill, when you’re making love with a Serbian woman, she pours out her soul.” Laki pauses for a moment, a fist coming up to his chest. “However,” he continued, “it should be noted that in our territories, Vlach women have been known to let down the side. Well, Vlachs are dumber than goats, so it stands to reason their women don’t know how to do anything but get down on all fours…” he leans into my face. “and wait for it!” Laki looked at my expression and let out a long cackle. “Oh, Billy, you Americans are such fools!” He laughed until he was red-faced then glancing up ahead toward the border post, instantly froze with terror.
“Oh Christ, Razesh is on duty!”
”Is that a problem?”
”I had word he was off today. Fucking Thracians… Okay, don’t get out and don’t look at them. And don’t say a word. Just stare straight ahead and act like you’re not all there if they talk to you. Just smile. I’ll explain you’re an American relative.”
The two guards looked ready to eat nails. Laki pointed at the glovebox in front of me. “Open it up and give me the brown envelope.”
I handed it to him. He flipped through the money stuffed inside and quickly checked himself in the sideview mirror, straightening his driving cap. Pulling the truck into the inspection area, he put on his best shit-eating grin and climbed down to speak with the guards.
“Ah, dobre, dobre!” he greeted them, pulling off his hat.
Both were dressed in brown wool uniforms in the airless heat but didn’t appear to sweat. The younger one had an assault rifle strapped to his back while the guy in charge wore a big ugly revolver on his hip. He also had on spit-shined knee-high black parade boots. A couple of enlisted men peered from a small shack that stood nearby. They looked like POWs.
The boss guard snapped his fingers. Laki bowed his head and handed over a sheaf of papers - along with the envelope. Obviously a practiced ass-kisser, he grinned sheepishly, kowtowing, chuckling stupidly and affecting a pigeon-toed stance then slapping himself on the forehead. Sweat stains grew to cover his shirt from nipples to shoulder blades. Both guards remained stone-faced. When the younger one gestured at me with his chin, Laki waved at the truck like I was nobody.

After several minutes of this, they appear to fall silent. The senior guard taps the rolled up sheaf of papers against his leg, no doubt taking great enjoyment in pushing Laki to the edge of losing his bowels. The Chief Bulgar-in-Charge finally turns to a wheeled podium, grabs a big rubber stamp and rapidly slams his way through the documents. Handing them back to Laki, he gives his flunkie a short nod.
The guy raised the striped barrier. “Nazat!” he shouted. Quickly!
Laki clambered back in, grinning with relief. “The bastards really made me work for it,” he mutters. “I’ve been through this check point a thousand times and it still gives me the shits. If the post at the Iron Castle wasn’t so far west over all those goddamn mountains, I’d have gone there. I know them better and they’re more predictable. These fucking Thracians, they can suddenly turn on you after years of cordial relations – like rabid dogs.”
Laki got us going then reached over and slapped me on the thigh yet again.
“All right, Billy, onto glorious Svilengrad!”

This thigh slapping business would continue for the duration of our journey. At first I wondered if it was a preamble to trying to have sex with me, which would have been fine if it meant keeping him jolly, but it turned out to be no more than a neurotic reflex. Despite his constant babble about the freedom of the open road and a hot wench at every crossroads, Laki was one of the loneliest fuckers I’d ever met.

***

I sat with Uncle Kotchou at the leftist café on the main square in Sahldyk. He was my maternal grandfather’s cousin. I guess that made him my great uncle or something. Whatever he was, everyone called him Uncle Kotchou. He was eighty-five but still a tough little whip, five-six or so, with fierce gray eyes and a hard chin. He’d fought against the Germans in the resistance and on the Communist side during the Greek Civil War, eventually retreating to the Eastern Bloc when the Commies were defeated and staying there for forty years. He’d finally returned to Greek Thrace after the Socialists gained power in Athens a few years ago and declared an amnesty. It had taken four decades to officially end the civil war, a mere moment in this part of the world. Uncle Kotchou had a sharp memory and was good at telling stories.

“She was one of our beautiful devourers,” he barely nods, giving me a thin smile. “Her name is Periclea and her nom de guerre was ‘Rosa.’ She came back with the amnesty and now lives over by the old well, on the Hebrus river road just down here. Back then, even at twenty years old, she was unstoppable. During a skirmish near Orestiada, she took some shrapnel to the shoulder. When it got picked out piece by piece with nothing but some brandy, Periclea didn’t howl. She just watched and hissed and spit as our medic worked. She was dependable and didn’t her lose her head when things got tough. I gave her a squad of very own killers and I tell you, Vash’eil, they were loyal as bulldogs. Periclea never wasted a single man.”
He shakes his head, gray eyes opening wider. “And the girl’s strength was phenomenal, mostly driven by rage - like one of those high-strung mules that drags a full load out of sheer will. Many times I saw her toss a wounded man onto a wagon like a sack of corn. You could see it in her eyes - green as new grass.” Kotchou laughs and slaps the table top. He points a finger at me.
“It was a right farce when her parents tried to marry Periclea off to a petty merchant almost thirty years older. A balding little shit from Amorio - but with good holdings, a couple shops and houses he rented out, a small dairy, several fields and animals. He even drove an automobile - American, a shiny blue Cord with a white roof.” Kotchou’s eyes search the floor. “Yes… Periclea was fifteen and she grimly went along with it, her folks hurrying through the obligatory ritual and a paltry feast afterwards. There was no money around then and her groom - his name was Kolovalvida - him and his mother weren’t about to spend needlessly to show off so it wasn’t the kind of big village wedding you’d see sometimes in the old days. In a couple hours it was all done, her parents got paid off and he drove Periclea to his house, back in Amorio - ‘a bitch to breed’ as they say.”
Kotchou begins to chuckle then works up to a gasping laughter, tears running down his face. Heads turn toward us. I can’t believe he’s letting go like this. His demeanor is usually stoic, bordering on severe. But right now he can barely get the words out. “On the wedding night - ha ha ha! Kolovalvida - ha ha ha! - he’d gone into Periclea’s room after primping himself with oils and scents, ready to romance and make love to his young virgin bride...” Kotchou settles down, gives me an elfin grin and a broad wink. “You know, to instruct her in the ways of Eros…” He sits up straight and suddenly slaps the table-top, making crockery jump. “Then out of the darkness, she pounced on him! Thrashing and tearing at his night clothes, grabbed hold of him with nails and teeth, screeching like a panther to get between his legs! Periclea was on fire with lust and wanted her connubial due. Kolovalvida wrestled and fought with her, believing some kind of vampire or wild beast had slaughtered his young wife and was now attacking him! He finally broke free and went dashing into the lane in a panic, terrified, crying for help and covered in bloody bites and gashes, pieces of hair torn out. His old mother came running from across the way, armed with a broom, along with some neighbors awoken by the commotion.”
Kotchou wipes his eyes and blows his nose, still red-faced and laughing. “Christ and the Virgin, Kolovalvida looked like he’d been dragged through a field of thorn bushes! The next morning, his face all bandaged up, he took Periclea back to her parents and demanded a refund. Of course they were mortified and ashamed beyond words.”
Kotchou scowls at the memory. “Well, what did they expect? Anyone could see the girl was bloodthirsty through and through, unquenchable. They should have married her off to one of our strapping young fools.” He lights a smoke and waves off the whole idea. “Ach… Afterwards, her parents, they treated Periclea badly, leaving her some nights at the farm outside the village, with the pigs, acting like fucking martyrs, as if they were the ones suffering the worst of fates - a wild-eyed daughter. That made them dote on her spineless brother, the goddamn fairy. So it’s no wonder Periclea joined us in the resistance when the Germans got here - and thank Christ she did.”

***

I had some doilies to deliver.

Returning to Sahldyk after being away in Istanbul, Varna and Dedahgatch for ten weeks or so, I heard Andromache had suddenly packed up one day, took her son Eli and ran off to Athena. Her mother was anguished, waving her arms and slapping at her apron. I was headed down that way so she asked me to make sure her daughter got the doilies. The old lady also gave me a phone number. She’d had the temerity to try it once despite Andi’s warning to call only in the event of a death or a dire emergency. No one answered after many rings and her mother was afraid to try again.
So the old lady insists on reading my Turkish coffee dregs before I left for the capital. She studied the grounds and pointed out a twisted line and a Saint Andrew’s cross. The situation is fraught and very delicate, her daughter on a precipice, many malevolent forces surround her and I must not approach directly.
“Stealth,” Andi’s mother told me. “Go like a snake in the night, don’t make yourself known right away. And please, phone the kiosk here in the village with news. I beg of you, Vash’eil. She’s my little girl. I think of her alone in that awful place, all those people and cars, bad men everywhere. My soul trembles.”
I felt like telling her it’s those men whose souls ought to be trembling.

***

Once in Athena, I immediately call the number. Since Andromache’s mother told me she’d phoned in the morning, I try late at night. It was a bar, fairly noisy. Soon as the guy answered with the name of the place, Emphasis, I hung up and went round. It wasn’t far, near the gates of the Polytechnic, in Exarhia, Athena’s rundown boho neighborhood.

A black school bus loaded with riot police was parked on the edge of the local square. Even on dead winter nights when nobody was around, you’d see them quietly sitting there in full battle gear. Exarhia had been the site of desperate and bloody student revolts against the CIA-backed Junta, in the spring of 1967 when the army had used tank cannons to knock the Polytechnic’s radio station off the air, a lone voice beseeching Athenians to take to the streets.
“They’re stealing your country!”

I ask the bartender at Emphasis about Andromache. A hint of recognition, his eyes betray a soft spot. At 11 pm it was early for Athena and only a few patrons hung around playing backgammon. He pours us large brandies, then grabs a stool on his side of the bar, gets comfortable and extends his hand.
“Alecko.”
I leave my bribe wad in my pocket and shake with him.
“Andromache’s a good girl,” he began. “She talked about you sometimes - the American - said you might find your way here.”
“I’m Canadian.”
Like everyone else, he gives me the Tomato Tomahto look.
“She said you’re okay, that you know what’s what - but you’re not going to bother her, are you?”
“Bother her?”
“Oh, you don’t know? She’s landed some guy with a lotta money. He’s a fat old fuck who owns a rice pudding factory, makes a killing from the sound of it, has a big spread in Kolonaki, with maids and all that. Last I heard she’s trying to get knocked up by him but it hasn’t been easy. The guy’s got all kinds of health problems and Androula’s worried he might croak without getting her pregnant. His mother’s supposed to be a real gorgon. Androula says it was her rice pudding recipe that did the trick so the old bag owns half the company.”
“So you see her occasionally?”
Alecko’s melancholy and wants someone to know, staying mute about her has been killing him. “Rarely. We had a nice time together when she first got down here but, you know, a woman like her… well, she can do much better than this.”
He gawks round the bar as if he’s trapped inside a barrel at sea.
“Anyway, I don’t know exactly where she lives, or a number. She calls me. I do know she used to work at Floca and still goes there sometimes. Of course everyone there loves her as well and they keep their traps shut.” He grins sadly. “Hey, we’ll all crazy about our girl, right? Why wouldn’t we be?” He stares at his brandy. “I miss her.”

The next afternoon I went to Floca. It’s in that nice Belle Epoch style with a beautifully done interior of light hardwood, polished brass, mirrors and chandeliers. Out front there’s a large patio with expensive padded leather deck chairs all facing toward the busy boulevard, a small rattan table between each pair of seats.
I ask about Andromache but the waiter won’t budge. I lay some money next to him. He gives it a sideward glance then jerks up his chin. I put some more on top. A hand comes out like a swivel, quickly scooping the cash into his pocket. He leans toward me, voice in a low mumble.
“Normally, she comes by on Thursday afternoons, when we open after siesta, about five o’clock.” The waiter looks me in the eyes, pleading. “Please don’t tell her I said anything. She’d be so disappointed in me, I couldn’t live with myself.”

Two days later, Andromache shows up with three girlfriends at the predicted time. They all arrive in separate cars and park out front. The waiters had paid some street urchins to menace any driver who tried to take the appointed spots. Of course Andromache comes zooming up in a rare Alfa Romeo Zagato SZ Coupe, done in fire engine red with Momo mags and tan leather seats. She gives the throttle a quick blip before emerging. The car lets out a raspy grumble, just a hint of its fearsome horsepower. Her three girlfriends each came in their own sports cars. The urchins, awed by the overbearing luxury, immediately began to carefully polish the vehicles with linen napkins.
I watch from inside as the maitre d’ seats Andi and her friends on the patio with considerable flourish, chatting amiably. A good looking, wet-headed young vulture had paid today’s winning bid. He’s already been seated at a nearby table. Four other hustlers hung back, in their white chinos and loafers without socks, observing from the shade under the big canopy at the front doors. They wear cocky little grins and wait to see how their fellow lothario will fair.

Andromache and her pals snuck a few looks at him then tittered to each other and made a point of turning their backs, asses pointed right at the guy’s face. After his weak and desperate smile was ignored, he stumbles to his feet and stiffly walked off, knocking over a water glass - a rookie piker with more drachmas than brain cells. The hustlers in the peanut gallery turn to one another with wide bloody smiles.
I moved out to the patio with my drink and sat several tables away. Andromache instantly noticed me. Her face hardened for just a moment while in the middle of light conversation. None of her friends caught it but one of them checked me over briefly, a fleeting half smile. After some time, Andi went into the restroom and returned to her table freshened up, giggling with the others.
When the waiter came over with my bill, a note was written on the back.
Café at Botanical Gardens, tomorrow 11am.
I paid and left, listening to Andi and her girls chirp and gossip as men walking past did abrupt double-takes.

***

She’s in the last booth at the Botanical Gardens cafe, facing away from the door, obscured by some cellophane-wrapped toy animals and candies piled up on a barrier. Her shtick makes me chuckle - the big Jackie O sunglasses and some kind of fashionable fedora pulled low.
I order a coffee and slip in opposite her.
She keeps her hands in her lap. “Do you have somewhere we can go?”
“Yeah, my garconiera, near Platea Amerikis.”
“What’s the address?”
“Knossou 17, on the roof.”
“Go out the side door. I’ll find my way.”

My tiny roof top studio apartment is a sweat box. A couple hours of sun and the walls vibrate with heat. There’s barely room for a day-bed, a desk and chair, small kitchenette and shower. But I do have the entire roof of the 6 storey apartment building as my personal patio. All of Athena is out there, under the endless floating purple and grey pillow of smog, like a filthy illusion.

The roof door creaked open and I hear Andromache’s steps rush over. She burst in, instantly pushed me onto the bed, laughing and pulled at my shirt.
“You filthy whore!” she howls. “I’ve missed you!” She kisses me full-mouthed, biting at my lips, my tongue. “I’ll rip you to pieces!”
She tore off her clothes and yanked at my belt and pants, getting us naked and entangled in a few moments and it was one of those times with no foreplay or dramatic build-up. She’s got me inside her in a hurry, both of us letting out the involuntary groans of lovers finally feeling one another after too much separation.
“Christ, it’s been a long time…”
Andi nods, looking down at me, sloe-eyed. “It has.”
We fuck soft and slow at first, rocking on the cheap bed springs and find our old tempo. It doesn’t take much effort to get the sweat pouring, a torrent running between our chests, drooling on one another, her nails gouge into my arms and neck.
Andromache concentrates on where our bodies meet down below. She sticks her fingers in there, whispers and swears as we move together and apart. Without having used in so long, everything spins in my head; want and not wanting, fear of coming instantly or not coming at all. A wave of dizziness rolls over me. It’s the heat. It’s her. It’s her and it’s the heat. Andi spreads her legs wider, sits up and jerks us off as we keep screwing, finally making us come into one another.

We sit in the bottom of the shower under a trickle of water. She faces me, her ass in my lap, as we drink vodka tonics.
“I suppose Alecko at the bar told you where to find me.”
“Yeah, he let me know what’s happening. Christ, Andi, you look so good. I guess the high life suits you.”
She grimaces. “Don’t mock me. I’m in trouble.”
“What, your husband?”
“No, his mother, the old monster. The doctor told me Stellio’s heart is very bad. God, I’m so close but she’ll throw me out the moment he’s buried.”
“So the pregnancy plan isn’t going well?”
“No. Like they say in Thrace, ‘If you can make a snake stand up straight…’ But, my friend Tassoula’s down here for a few months visiting and she brought some things that might help, from the old women in the village. I’ve been putting the stuff in his food and drink and it seems to help, makes him more interested, but he hasn’t gotten me pregnant yet.” Andromache smiles and strokes our bodies. She cocks her head. “But it’s the mother I need help with.” She takes my fingers and puts them to her cheek. She tisks, giving me a little girlie talk. “I’ve missed you, Bill...”
I pull my hand away and pour us more vodka. “You’re crass.”
“Oh, come on,” she whines. “We could be together and do whatever we want, travel. You could show me America. We’d have no worries.”
“I don’t know, these old bags are hard. You need a sledge hammer to crack that head. All Greeks, even the ones here in Athena, they’re tough under their moneyed bullshit. Very few aren’t one or two generations from the goat pen. Only Commies have any class and they turn into fascists soon as they’ve got a few dollars.”
Andi’s hand waves back and forth, eyes squeezed shut, getting annoyed. “Forget about all that right now! We have a real problem.”
“We?”
“Yes, we. I know you want to be with me, Bill. I can tell by the way we have sex, the way we’re together. I can see it in you, the way you soften around me - and Eli. He misses you so much.”
“Yeah, I miss him too.”
She pulls me close for a kiss. I can smell our sweat and come and it all begins to get me hard again. Her fingers work, voice seductive and purring. “Oh, Billy… think of the three of us. No bosses, no worries. And with all your knowledge of the world, of culture, we wouldn’t just be stupid tourists in foreign places. You know people - artists, performers, a better class of individuals.” Her eyes widen, smiling openly. “We could even go to those motorcycle races you love so much. What’s that place - Mugello?”
“Yeah, the Italian Grand Prix.”
“It sounds so chic. Wouldn’t it be exciting to just pick up and go, stay in a beautiful hotel?”
“What about the rice pudding factory?”
Andi’s mouth instantly hardens and her hand stops working on us. “That I’d sell. I’ve looked at the numbers and even though sales are increasing every year, some more than others, the long term trend is downward. Rice pudding is old fashioned. Greece is becoming modern and European. With the last tariffs being removed, all kinds of new things will come in and rice pudding will be something only babies and old people eat. I’d sell the business but keep the properties in Vouliagmeni. It’s a wonderful little resort town right now but it’ll be a rich playground in a few years. You can see the big villas already going in that direction.”
“You have this all figured out, don’t you?”
“It’s not very complicated.”
She’s more of a knock-out than ever, and still just the way I love to see her, without make-up. Her olive skin smolders, the natural pout with those tiny dimples at the corners of her mouth, that sweet and generous ass, her full breasts, she just breathes lust and desire and guile.
“So how do you want to do this?” I ask.
“I don’t know, you’re the big brain. Try to think of something easy, something natural. A fall down some stairs - or hit by a bus or a car.”
“Andi, you watch too many movies. Does the old woman take any drugs, medication?”
She thinks about it, tilting her head. “Hm… there are these pills… something to do with her thyroid.”
“Get a look at the bottle. Find out the name and strength, milligrams and so on. I know an apothecary.”
A thin cloud of revulsion passes over her features then quickly disappears. “I’ll let you know. But right now I have to get going.”
We share a kiss and I jot down a number. “You can call the café in the square below if need be. Leave a message. The owner’s a friend.”
“I take Eli to school at eight in the morning, same time Stellio leaves for the office. His mother’s driven to physiotherapy every day so she’s gone from nine until noon or so. I’ll find out about her pills and be here not long after nine.”
“I’ll be waiting.” I dig around and find the doilies. “Here, from your mother.”
Andi rolls her eyes at the village artifacts as she dries off with my t-shirt and quickly gets dressed, putting on her bra and reaching down to grab her panties off the floor.
“I think you should leave those with me.”
She puts the panties to her face for a moment, an eyebrow cocked. “I got soaking wet on my way over here. My perfume’s on them too.” She gives me a grin. “You can have fun thinking about us.”
“Exactly what I had in mind.”
Andi throws the panties onto my stomach and pulls her skirt on, zips up and shifts it round. “Here,” she says and bends over me. “I’ll help you get started.”
She slowly licks from my throat, down my chest, tickles me, making me giggle. Her tongue crosses my ribs with bites and murmurs, then along my abdomen right to the edge of my pubic hair - and stops. Holding away her long hair, she comes up to my lips, gives me a soft kiss and whispers filthy, bloody promises.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Basil Papademos

Basil Papademos is the author of MOUNT ROYAL: There's Nothing Harder Than Love, published in the spring of 2012 by Tightrope Books, also available as an ebook in all formats from all digital retailers. His earlier novel, The Hook of it is, was published by Emergency Press. His upcoming novel, How To **** Your Psychiatrist, will be published in the fall of 2013.

Go to Basil Papademos’s Author Page