As I was standing there taking my grandmother in, Desdemona suddenly turned her head and noticed me. Her hand went up to her breast. With a frightened expression she reared back into her pillows and shouted, “Lefty!”
Now I was the one who was shocked. “No,yia yia. It’s notpapou . It’s me. Cal.”
“Cal.” I paused. “Your grandson.”
This wasn’t fair, of course. Desdemona’s memory was no longer sharp. But I wasn’t helping her out any.
“They called me Calliope when I was little.”
“You look like my Lefty,” she said.
“I thought you were my husband coming to take me to heaven.” She laughed for the first time.
“I’m Milt and Tessie’s kid.”
As quickly as it had come, the humor left Desdemona’s face and she looked sad and apologetic. “I’m sorry. I don’t remember you, honey.”
“I brought you these.” I held out the Epsom salts and baklava.
“Why Tessie isn’t coming?”
“She has to get dressed.”
“Dressed for why?”
“For the funeral.”
Desdemona gave a cry and clutched her breast again. “Who died?”
I didn’t answer. Instead I turned down the volume on the television. Then, pointing at the birdcage, I said, “I remember when you used to have about twenty birds.”
She looked over at the cage but said nothing.
“You used to live in the attic. On Seminole. Remember? That’s when you got all the birds. You said they reminded you of Bursa.”
At the sound of the name, Desdemona smiled again. “In Bursa we have all kind of birds. Green, yellow, red. All kind. Little birds but very beautiful. Like made from glass.”
“I want to go there. Remember that church there? I want to go and fix it up someday.”
“Milton is going to fix it. I keep telling him.”
“If he doesn’t do it, I will.”
Desdemona looked at me a moment as if measuring my ability to fulfill this promise. Then she said, “I don’t remember you, honey, but please can you fix foryia yia the Epsom salts?”
I got the foot basin and filled it with warm water from the bathtub faucet. I sprinkled in the soaking salts and brought it back into the bedroom.
“Put it next the chair, dollymou .”
I did so.
“Now helpyia yia to get out of bed.”
Coming closer, I bent down. I slid each of her legs out of the covers, turning her. Putting her arm over my shoulder, I pulled her to her feet for the short walk to the chair.
“I can’t do nothing anymore,” she lamented on the way. “I’m too old, honey.”
“You’re doing okay.”
“No, I can’t remember nothing. I have aches and pains. My heart it is not good.”
We had reached the chair now. I maneuvered around behind her to ease her down. Coming around to the front again, I lifted her swollen, blue-veined feet into the sudsy water. Desdemona murmured with pleasure. She closed her eyes.
For the next few minutes Desdemona was silent, luxuriating in the warm foot bath. Color returned to her ankles and rose up her legs. This rosiness disappeared under the hem of her nightgown but, a minute later, peeked out the collar. The flush spread up to her face, and when she opened her eyes there was a clarity in them that had been absent before. She stared straight at me. And then she shouted, “Calliope!”
She held her hand to her mouth. “Mana!What happen to you?”
“I grew up,” was all I said. I hadn’t intended to tell her but now it was out. I had an idea it wouldn’t make any difference. She wouldn’t remember this conversation.
She was still examining me, the lenses of her glasses magnifying her eyes. Had she had all her wits, Desdemona could not possibly have fathomed what I was saying. But in her senility she somehow accommodated the information. She lived now amid memories and dreams, and in this state the old village stories grew near again.
“You’re a boy now, Calliope?”
“More or less.”
She took this in. “My mother she use to tell me something funny,” she said. “In the village, long time ago, they use to have sometimes babies who were looking like girls. Then—fifteen, sixteen—they are looking like boys! My mother tell me this but I never believe.”
“It’s a genetic thing. The doctor I went to says it happens in little villages. Where everyone marries each other.”
“Dr. Phil he used to talk about this, too.”
“It’s all my fault.” She shook her head grimly.
“What was? What was your fault?”
She was not crying exactly. Her tear ducts were dried up and no moisture rolled down her cheeks. But her face was going through the motions, her shoulders quaking.
“The priests say even first cousins never should marry,” she said. “Second cousins is okay, but you have to ask first the archbishop.” She was looking away now, trying to remember it all. “Even if you want to marry your godparents’ son, you can’t. I thought it was only something for the Church. I didn’t know it was because what can happen to the babies. I was just stupid girl from village.” She went on in that vein for a while, castigating herself. She had momentarily forgotten that I was there or that she was speaking aloud. “And then Dr. Phil he tell me terrible things. I was so scared I had an operation! No more babies. Then Milton he have children and again I was scared. But nothing happen. So I think, after so long time, everything was okay.”
“What are you saying,yia yia ?Papou was your cousin?”
“That’s all right.”
“Not third cousin only. Also brother.”
My heart skipped. “Papouwas your brother?”
“Yes, honey,” Desdemona said with infinite weariness. “Long time ago. In another country.”
Right then the intercom sounded:
“Callie?” Tessie coughed, correcting herself: “Cal?”
“You better get cleaned up. The car’s coming in ten minutes.”
“I’m not going.” I paused. “I’m going to stay here withyia yia. ”
“You need to be there, honey,” said Tessie.
I crossed to the intercom and put my mouth against the speaker and said in a deep voice, “I’m not going into that church.”
“Have you seen what they charge for those goddamn candles?”
Tessie laughed. She needed to. So I kept going, lowering my voice to sound like my father’s. “Two bucks for a candle? What a racket! Maybe you could convince somebody from the old country to shell out for that kind of thing, but not here in the U.S.A.!”
It was infectious to do Milton. Now Tessie lowered her voice in the speaker: “Total rip-off!” she said, and laughed again. We understood then that this was how we were going to do it. This was how we were going to keep Milton alive.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go?” she asked me.
“It’ll be too complicated, Mom. I don’t want to have to explain everything to everybody. Not yet. It’ll be too big of a distraction. It’ll be better if I’m not there.”
In her heart Tessie agreed, and so she soon relented. “I’ll tell Mrs. Papanikolas she doesn’t need to come stay withyia yia. ”
Desdemona was still looking at me but her eyes had gone dreamy. She was smiling. And then she said, “My spoon was right.”
“I guess so.”
“I’m sorry, honey. I’m sorry this happen to you.”
“It’s all right.”
“I’m sorry, honeymou .”
“I like my life,” I told her. “I’m going to have a good life.” She still looked pained, so I took her hand.
“Don’t worry,yia yia. I won’t tell anyone.”
“Who’s to tell? Everybody’s dead now.”
“You’re not. I’ll wait until you’re gone.”
“Okay. When I die, you can tell everything.”
“Bravo, honeymou . Bravo.”
At Assumption Church, no doubt against his wishes, Milton Stephanides was given a full Orthodox funeral. Father Greg performed the service. As for Father Michael Antoniou, he was later convicted of attempted grand larceny and served two years in prison. Aunt Zo divorced him and moved to Florida with Desdemona. Where to exactly? New Smyrna Beach. Where else? A few years later, when my mother was forced to sell our house, she moved to Florida, too, and the three of them lived together as they once had on Hurlbut Street, until Desdemona’s death in 1980. Tessie and Zoë are still in Florida today, two women living on their own.
Milton’s casket remained closed during the funeral. Tessie had given Georgie Pappas, the undertaker, her husband’s wedding crown, so that it could be buried along with him. When it came time to give the deceased the final kiss, the mourners filed past Milton’s coffin and kissed its burnished lid. Fewer people came to my father’s funeral than we expected. None of the Hercules franchise owners showed up, not one of the men Milton had socialized with for years and years; and so we realized that, despite his bonhomie, Milton had never had any friends, only business associates. Family members turned out instead. Peter Tatakis, the chiropractor, arrived in his wine-dark Buick, and Bart Skiotis paid his respects at the church whose foundation he had laid with substandard materials. Gus and Helen Panos were there and, because it was a funeral, Gus’s tracheotomy made his voice sound even more like the voice of death. Aunt Zo and our cousins didn’t sit in front. That pew was reserved for my mother and brother.
And so it was I who, upholding an old Greek custom no one remembered anymore, stayed behind on Middlesex, blocking the door, so that Milton’s spirit wouldn’t reenter the house. It was always a man who did this, and now I qualified. In my black suit, with my dirty Wallabees, I stood in the doorway, which was open to the winter wind. The weeping willows were bare but still massive and threw up their twisted arms like women in grief. The pastel yellow cube of our modern house sat cleanly on the white snow. Middlesex was now almost seventy years old. Though we had ruined it with our colonial furniture, it was still the beacon it was intended to be, a place with few interior walls, divested of the formalities of bourgeois life, a place designed for a new type of human being, who would inhabit a new world. I couldn’t help feeling, of course, that that person was me, me and all the others like me.
After the funeral service, everyone got back into the cars for the drive to the cemetery. Purple pennants flew from the antennas as the procession drove slowly through the streets of the old East Side where my father had grown up, where he had once serenaded my mother from his bedroom window. The motorcade came down Mack Avenue and when they passed Hurlbut, Tessie looked out the limousine window to see the old house. But she couldn’t find it. Bushes had grown up all around, the yards were littered, and the decrepit houses now all looked the same to her. A little later, the hearse and limousines encountered a line of motorcycles and my mother noticed that the drivers were all wearing fezzes. They were Shriners, in town for a convention. Respectfully, they pulled over to let the funeral procession pass.
On Middlesex, I remained in the front doorway. I took my duty seriously and didn’t budge, despite the freezing wind. Milton, the child apostate, would have been confirmed in his skepticism, because his spirit never returned that day, trying to get past me. The mulberry tree had no leaves. The wind swept over the crusted snow into my Byzantine face, which was the face of my grandfather and of the American girl I had once been. I stood in the door for an hour, maybe two. I lost track after a while, happy to be home, weeping for my father, and thinking about what was next.