We had our date. I picked Julie up at her studio in Kreuzberg. I wanted to see her work, but she wouldn’t let me. And so we went to dinner at a place called Austria.
Austria is like a hunting lodge. The walls are covered with mounted deer horns, maybe fifty or sixty sets. These horns look comically small, as though they come from animals you could kill with your bare hands. The restaurant is dark, warm, woody, and comfortable. Anybody who wouldn’t like it is someone I wouldn’t like. Julie liked it.
“Since you won’t show me your work,” I said as we sat down, “can you at least tell me what it is?”
“You probably don’t want to tell me of what.”
“Let’s have a drink first.”
Julie Kikuchi is thirty-six. She looks twenty-six. She is short without being small. She is irreverent without being crude. She used to see a therapist but stopped. Her right hand is partly arthritic, from an elevator accident. This makes it painful to hold a camera for a long period. “I need an assistant,” she told me. “Or a new hand.” Her fingernails are not particularly clean. In fact they are the dirtiest fingernails I have ever seen on such a lovely, wonderful-smelling person.
Breasts have the same effect on me as on anyone with my testosterone level.
I translated the menu for Julie and we ordered. Out came the platters of boiled beef, the bowls of gravy and red cabbage, the knödels as big as softballs. We talked about Berlin and the differences between European countries. Julie told me a Barcelona story of getting locked in the Parque Güell with her boyfriend after visiting hours. Here it comes, I thought. The first ex-boyfriend had been summoned. Soon the rest would follow. They would file around the table, presenting their deficiencies, telling of their addictions, their cheating hearts. After that, I would be called on to present my own ragged gallery. And here is where my first dates generally go wrong. I lack sufficient data. I don’t have it in quite the bulk a man of my years should have. Women sense this and a strange, questioning look comes into their eyes. And already I am retreating from them, before dessert has been served . . .
But that didn’t happen with Julie. The boyfriend popped up in Barcelona and then was gone. None followed. This was surely not because there weren’t any. This was because Julie isn’t husband-hunting. So she didn’t have to interview me for the job.
I like Julie Kikuchi. I like her a lot.
And so I have my usual questions. What does she want from? How would she react if? Should I tell her that? No. Too soon. We haven’t even kissed. And right now, I’ve got another romance to concentrate on.
We open on a summer evening in 1944. Theodora Zizmo, whom everyone now calls Tessie, is painting her toenails. She sits on a daybed at the O’Toole Boardinghouse, her feet propped up on a pillow, a pillow of cotton between each toe. The room is full of wilting flowers and her mother’s various messes: lidless cosmetics, discarded hose, Theosophy books, and a box of chocolates, also lidless, full of empty paper wrappings and a few tooth-scarred, rejected creams. Over where Tessie is, it’s neater. Pens and pencils stand upright in cups. Between brass bookends, each a miniature bust of Shakespeare, are the novels she collects at yard sales.
Tessie Zizmo’s twenty-year-old feet: size four and a half, pale, blue-veined, the red toenails fanning out like suns on a peacock’s tail. She examines them sternly, going down the line, just as a gnat, attracted by the lotion perfuming her legs, lands on her big toenail and gets stuck. “Oh, shoot,” Tessie says. “Darn bugs.” She sets to work again, picking the gnat off, reapplying polish.
On this evening in the middle of World War II, a serenade is about to begin. It’s minutes away. If you listen closely you can hear a window scraping open, a fresh reed being inserted into a woodwind’s mouthpiece. The music which started everything and on which, you could say, my entire existence depended, is on its way. But before the tune launches into full volume, let me fill you in on what has happened these last eleven years.
Prohibition has ended, for one thing. In 1933, by ratification of all the states, the Twenty-first Amendment repealed the Eighteenth. At the American Legion Convention in Detroit, Julius Stroh removed the bung from a Gilded Keg of Stroh’s Bohemian beer. President Roosevelt was photographed sipping a cocktail at the White House. And on Hurlbut Street, my grandfather, Lefty Stephanides, took down the zebra skin, dismantled his underground speakeasy, and emerged once again into the upper atmosphere.
With the money he’d saved from the auto-erotica, he put a down payment on a building on Pingree Street, just off West Grand Boulevard. The above-ground Zebra Room was a bar & grill, set in the middle of a busy commercial strip. The neighboring businesses were still there when I was a kid. I can dimly remember them: A. A. Laurie’s optometrist’s shop with its neon sign in the shape of a pair of eyeglasses; New Yorker Clothes, in whose front window I saw my first naked mannequins, dancing a murderous tango. Then there was Value Meats, Hagermoser’s Fresh Fish, and the Fine-Cut Barber Shop. On the corner was our place, a narrow single-story building with a wooden zebra’s head projecting over the sidewalk. At night, blinking red neon outlined the muzzle, neck, and ears.
The clientele were mainly auto workers. They came in after their shifts. They came in, quite often,before their shifts. Lefty opened the bar at eight in the morning, and by eight-thirty the barstools were filled with men dulling themselves before reporting to work. As he filled their shells with beer, Lefty learned what was going on in the city outside. In 1935 his patrons had celebrated the forming of the United Auto Workers. Two years later, they cursed the armed guards from Ford who had beat up their leader, Walter Reuther, in the “Battle of the Overpass.” My grandfather took no sides in these discussions. His job was to listen, nod, refill, smile. He said nothing in 1943 when talk at the bar turned ugly. On a Sunday in August, fistfights had broken out between blacks and whites on Belle Isle. “Some nigger raped a white woman,” one customer said. “Now all those niggers are going to pay. You wait and see.” By Monday morning a race riot was under way. But when a group of men came in, boasting of having beaten a Negro to death, my grandfather refused to serve them.
“Why don’t you go back to your own country?” one of them shouted.
“This is my country,” Lefty said, and to prove it, he did a very American thing: he reached under the counter and produced a pistol.
These conflicts lie in the past now—as Tessie paints her toenails—overshadowed by a much bigger conflict. All over Detroit in 1944, automobile factories have been retooled. At Willow Run, B-52s roll off the assembly line instead of Ford sedans. Over at Chrysler, they’re making tanks. The industrialists have finally found a cure for the stalled economy: war. The Motor City, which hasn’t been dubbed Motown yet, becomes for a time the “Arsenal of Democracy.” And in the boardinghouse on Cadillac Boulevard, Tessie Zizmo paints her toenails and hears the sound of a clarinet.
Artie Shaw’s big hit “Begin the Beguine” floats on the humid air. It freezes squirrels on telephone lines, who cock their heads alertly to listen. It rustles the leaves of apple trees and sets a rooster on a weather vane spinning. With its fast beat and swirling melody, “Begin the Beguine” rises over the victory gardens and the lawn furniture, the bramble-choked fences and porch swings; it hops the fence into the backyard of the O’Toole Boardinghouse, stepping around the mostly male tenants’ recreational activities—a lawn-bowling swath, some forgotten croquet mallets—and then the song climbs the ragged ivy along the brick facing, past windows where bachelors snooze, scratch their beards, or, in the case of Mr. Danelikov, formulate chess problems; up and up it soars, Artie Shaw’s best and most beloved recording from back in ’39, which you can still hear playing from radios all over the city, music so fresh and lively it seems to ensure the purity of the American cause and the Allies’ eventual triumph; but now here it is, finally, coming through Theodora’s window, as she fans her toes to dry them. And, hearing it, my mother turns toward the window and smiles.
The source of the music was none other than a Brylcreemed Orpheus who lived directly behind her. Milton Stephanides, a twenty-year-old college student, stood at his own bedroom window, dexterously fingering his clarinet. He was wearing a Boy Scout uniform. Chin lifted, elbows out, right knee keeping time within khaki trousers, he unleashed his love song on the summer day, playing with an ardor that had burned out completely by the time I found that fuzz-clogged woodwind in our attic twenty-five years later. Milton had been third clarinet in the Southeastern High School orchestra. For school concerts he had to play Schubert, Beethoven, and Mozart, but now that he had graduated, he was free to play whatever he liked, which was swing. He styled himself after Artie Shaw. He copied Shaw’s exuberant, off-balance stance, as if being blown backward by the force of his own playing. Now, at the window, he flourished his stick with Shaw’s precise, calligraphic dips and circles. He looked along the length of the shining black instrument, sighting on the house two backyards away, and especially on the pale, timid, excited face at the third-floor window. Tree branches and telephone lines obscured his view, but he could make out the long dark hair that shone like his clarinet itself.
She didn’t wave. She made no sign—other than smile—that she heard him at all. In neighboring yards people continued what they were doing, oblivious to the serenade. They watered lawns or filled bird feeders; young kids chased butterflies. When Milton got to the end of the song, he lowered his instrument and leaned out the window, grinning. Then he started again, from the beginning.
Downstairs, entertaining company, Desdemona heard her son’s clarinet and, as if orchestrating a harmony, let out a long sigh. For the last forty-five minutes Gus and Georgia Vasilakis and their daughter Gaia had been sitting in the living room. It was Sunday afternoon. On the coffee table a dish of rose jelly reflected light from the sparkling glasses of wine the adults were drinking. Gaia nursed a glass of lukewarm Vernor’s ginger ale. An open tin of butter cookies sat on the table.
“What do you think about that, Gaia?” her father teased her. “Milton’s got flat feet. Does that sour the deal for you?”
“Daddeee,” said Gaia, embarrassed.
“Better to have flat feet than to be knocked off your feet forever,” said Lefty.
“That’s right,” agreed Georgia Vasilakis. “You’re lucky they wouldn’t take Milton. I don’t think it’s any kind of dishonor at all. I don’t know what I’d do if I had to send a son off to war.”
Every so often during this conversation, Desdemona had patted Gaia Vasilakis on the knee and said, “Miltie he is coming. Soon.” She had been saying it since her guests arrived. She had been saying it every Sunday for the past month and a half, and not only to Gaia Vasilakis. She had said it to Jeanie Diamond, whose parents had brought her last Sunday, and she had said it to Vicky Logathetis, who’d come the week before that.
Desdemona had just turned forty-three and, in the manner of women of her generation, she was practically an old woman. Gray had infiltrated her hair. She’d begun to wear rimless gold eyeglasses that magnified her eyes, making her look even more perpetually dismayed than she already was. Her tendency to worry (which the swing music upstairs had aggravated of late) had brought back her heart palpitations. They were a daily occurrence with her now. Within the surround of this worrying, however, Desdemona remained a bundle of activity, always cooking, cleaning, doting on her children and the children of others, always shrieking at the top of her lungs, full of noise and life.
Despite my grandmother’s corrective lenses, the world remained out of focus. Desdemona didn’t understand what the fighting was all about. At Smyrna the Japanese had been the only country to send ships to rescue refugees. My grandmother maintained a lifelong sense of gratitude. When people brought up the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, she said, “Don’t tell me about an island in the middle of the ocean. This country isn’t big enough they have to have all the islands, too?” The Statue of Liberty’s gender changed nothing. It was the same here as everywhere: men and their wars. Fortunately, Milton had been turned down by the Army. Instead of going off to war he was going to night school and helping out at the bar during the day. The only uniform he wore was that of the Boy Scouts, where he was a troop leader. Every so often he took his scouts camping up north.
After five more minutes, when Milton still had not materialized, Desdemona excused herself and climbed the stairs. She stopped outside Milton’s bedroom, frowning at the music coming from inside. Then, without knocking, she entered.
In front of the window, clarinet erect, Milton played on, oblivious. His hips swayed in an indecent fashion and his lips glistened as brightly as his hair. Desdemona marched across the room and slammed the window shut.
“Come, Miltie,” she commanded. “Gaia is downstairs.”
“Practice later.” She was squinting out the window at the O’Toole Boardinghouse across the yard. At the third-floor window she thought she saw a head duck down, but she couldn’t be sure.
“Why you always play by the window?”
“I get hot.”
Desdemona was alarmed. “How you mean hot?”
She snorted. “Come. Gaia brought you cookies.”
For some time now my grandmother had suspected the growing intimacy between Milton and Tessie. She noted the attention Milton paid to Tessie whenever Tessie came over for dinner with Sourmelina. Growing up, Zoë had always been Tessie’s best friend and playmate. But now it was Milton whom Tessie sat in the porch swing with. Desdemona had asked Zoë, “Why you no go out with Tessie no more?” And Zoë, in a slightly bitter tone, had replied, “She’s busy.”
This was what brought on the return of my grandmother’s heart palpitations. After everything she had done to atone for her crime, after she had turned her marriage into an arctic wasteland and allowed a surgeon to tie her fallopian tubes, consanguinity wasn’t finished with her. And so, horrified, my grandmother had resumed an activity at which she had tried her hand once before, with decidedly mixed results. Desdemona was matchmaking again.
From Sunday to Sunday, as in the house in Bithynios, a parade of marriageable girls came through the front door of Hurlbut. The only difference was that in this case they weren’t the same two girls multiplied over and over. In Detroit, Desdemona had a large pool to choose from. There were girls with squeaky voices or soft altos, plump girls and thin ones, babyish girls who wore heart lockets and girls who were old before their time and worked as secretaries in insurance firms. There was Sophie Georgopoulos, who walked funny ever since stepping on hot coals during a camping trip, and there was Mathilda Livanos, supremely bored in the way of beautiful girls, who’d shown no interest in Milton and hadn’t even washed her hair. Week after week, aided or coerced by their parents, they came, and week after week Milton Stephanides excused himself to go up to his bedroom and play his clarinet out the window.
Now, with Desdemona riding herd behind, he came down to see Gaia Vasilakis. She was sitting between her parents on the overstuffed sea-foam-green sofa, a large girl herself, wearing a white crinoline dress with a ruffled hem and puffed sleeves. Her short white socks had ruffles, too. They reminded Milton of the lace cover over the bathroom trashcan.
“Boy, those are a lot of badges,” Gus Vasilakis said.
“Milton needed one more badge and he could have been an Eagle Scout,” Lefty said.
“Which one is that?”
“Swimming,” said Milton. “I can’t swim for beans.”
“I’m not a very good swimmer either,” Gaia said, smiling.
“Have a cookie, Miltie,” Desdemona urged.
Milton looked down at the tin and took a cookie.
“Gaia made them,” Desdemona said. “How you like it?”
Milton chewed, meditatively. After a moment, he held up the Boy Scout salute. “I cannot tell a lie,” he said. “This cookie is lousy.”
Is there anything as incredible as the love story of your own parents? Anything as hard to grasp as the fact that those two over-the-hill players, permanently on the disabled list, were once in the starting lineup? It’s impossible to imagine my father, who in my experience was aroused mainly by the lowering of interest rates, suffering the acute, adolescent passions of the flesh. Milton lying on his bed, dreaming about my mother in the same way I would later dream about the Obscure Object. Milton writing love letters and even, after reading Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” at night school, lovepoems . Milton mixing Elizabethan metaphysics with the rhyming styles of Edgar Bergen:
You’re just as amazing, Tessie Zizmo
as some new mechanical gizmo
a GE exec might give a pal
you’re a World’s Fair kind of gal . . .
Even looking back through a daughter’s forgiving eye, I have to admit: my father was never good-looking. At eighteen, he was alarmingly, consumptively skinny. Blemishes dotted his face. Beneath his doleful eyes the skin was already darkening in pouches. His chin was weak, his nose overdeveloped, his Brylcreemed hair as massive and gleaming as a Jell-O mold. Milton, however, was aware of none of these physical deficits. He possessed a flinty self-confidence that protected him like a shell from the world’s assaults.
Theodora’s physical appeal was more obvious. She had inherited Sourmelina’s beauty on a smaller scale. She was only five foot one, thin-waisted and small-busted, with a long, swanlike neck supporting her pretty, heart-shaped face. If Sourmelina had always been a European kind of American, a sort of Marlene Dietrich, then Tessie was the fully Americanized daughter Dietrich might have had. Her mainstream, even countrified, looks extended to the slight gap between her teeth and her turned-up nose. Traits often skip a generation. I look much more typically Greek than my mother does. Somehow Tessie had become a partial product of the South. She said things like “shucks” and “golly.” Working every day at the florist’s shop, Lina had left Tessie in the care of an assortment of older women, many of them Scotch Irish ladies from Kentucky, and in this way a twang had gotten into Tessie’s speech. Compared with Zoë’s strong, mannish features, Tessie had so-called all-American looks, and this was certainly part of what attracted my father.
Sourmelina’s salary at the florist’s shop was not high. Mother and daughter were forced to economize. At secondhand shops, Sourmelina gravitated to Vegas showgirl outfits. Tessie picked out sensible clothes. Back at O’Toole’s, she mended wool skirts and hand-washed blouses; she de-pilled sweaters and polished used saddle shoes. But the faint thrift-store smell never quite left her clothes. (It would attach to me years later when I went on the road.) The smell went along with her fatherlessness, and with growing up poor.
Jimmy Zizmo: all that remained of him was what he’d left on Tessie’s body. Her frame was delicate like his, her hair, though silken, was black like his. When she didn’t wash it enough, it got oily, and, sniffing her pillow, she would think, “Maybe this is what my dad smelled like.” She got canker sores in wintertime (against which Zizmo had taken vitamin C). But Tessie was fair-skinned and burned easily in the sun.
Ever since Milton could remember, Tessie had been in the house, wearing the stiff, churchy oufits her mother found so amusing. “Look at the two of us,” Lina would say. “Like a Chinese menu. Sweet and sour.” Tessie didn’t like it when Lina talked this way. She didn’t think she was sour; only proper. She wished that her mother would act more proper herself. When Lina drank too much, Tessie was the one who took her home, undressed her, and put her to bed. Because Lina was an exhibitionist, Tessie had become a voyeur. Because Lina was loud, Tessie had turned out quiet. She played an instrument, too: the accordion. It sat in its case under her bed. Every so often she took it out, throwing the strap over her shoulders to keep the huge, many-keyed, wheezing instrument off the ground. The accordion seemed nearly as big as she was and she played it dutifully, badly, and always with the suggestion of a carnival sadness.
As little children Milton and Tessie had shared the same bedroom and bathtub, but that was long ago. Up until recently, Milton thought of Tessie as his prim cousin. Whenever one of his friends expressed interest in her, Milton told them to give up the idea. “That’s honey from the icebox,” he said, as Artie Shaw might have. “Cold sweets don’t spread.”
And then one day Milton came home with some new reeds from the music store. He hung his coat and hat on the pegs in the foyer, took out the reeds, and balled the paper bag up in his fist. Stepping into the living room, he took a set shot. The paper sailed across the room, hit the rim of the trashcan, and bounced out. At which point a voice said, “You better stick to music.”
Milton looked to see who it was. He saw who it was. But who it was was no longer who it had been.
Theodora was lying on the couch, reading. She had on a spring dress, a pattern of red flowers. Her feet were bare and that was when Milton saw them: the red toenails. Milton had never suspected that Theodora was the kind of girl who would paint her toenails. The red nails made her look womanly while the rest of her—the thin pale arms, the fragile neck—remained as girlish as always. “I’m watching the roast,” she explained.
“Where’s my mom?”
“She went out.”
“She went out? She never goes out.”
“She did today.”
“Where’s my sister?”
“4-H.” Tessie looked at the black case he was holding. “That your clarinet?”
“Play something for me.”
Milton set his instrument case down on the sofa. As he opened it and took out his clarinet, he remained aware of the nakedness of Tessie’s legs. He inserted the mouthpiece and limbered up his fingers, running them up and down the keys. And then, at the mercy of an overwhelming impulse, he bent forward, pressing the flaring end of the clarinet to Tessie’s bare knee, and blew a long note.
She squealed, moving her knee away.
“That was a D flat,” Milton said. “You want to hear a D sharp?”
Tessie still had her hand over her buzzing knee. The vibration of the clarinet had sent a shiver all the way up her thigh. She felt funny, as though she were about to laugh, but she didn’t laugh. She was staring at her cousin, thinking, “Will you just look at him smiling away? Still got pimples but thinks he’s the cat’s meow. Where does he get it?”
“All right,” she answered at last.
“Okay,” said Milton. “D sharp. Here goes.”
That first day it was Tessie’s knees. The following Sunday, Milton came up from behind and played his clarinet against the back of Tessie’s neck. The sound was muffled. Wisps of her hair flew up. Tessie screamed, but not long. “Yeah, dad,” said Milton, standing behind her.
And so it began. He played “Begin the Beguine” against Tessie’s collarbone. He played “Moonface” against her smooth cheeks. Pressing the clarinet right up against the red toenails that had so dazzled him, he played “It Goes to Your Feet.” With a secrecy they didn’t acknowledge, Milton and Tessie drifted off to quiet parts of the house, and there, lifting her skirt a little, or removing a sock, or once, when nobody was home, pulling up her blouse to expose her lower back, Tessie allowed Milton to press his clarinet to her skin and fill her body with music. At first it only tickled her. But after a while the notes spread deeper into her body. She felt the vibrations penetrate her muscles, pulsing in waves, until they rattled her bones and made her inner organs hum.
Milton played his instrument with the same fingers he used for the Boy Scout salute, but his thoughts were anything but wholesome. Breathing hard, bent over Tessie with trembling concentration, he moved the clarinet in circles, like a snake charmer. And Tessie was a cobra, mesmerized, tamed, ravished by the sound. Finally, one afternoon when they were all alone, Tessie, his proper cousin, lay down on her back. She crossed one arm over her face. “Where should I play?” whispered Milton, his mouth feeling too dry to play anything. Tessie undid a button on her blouse and in a strangled voice said, “My stomach.”
“I don’t know a song about a stomach,” Milton ventured.
“My ribs, then.”
“I don’t know any songs about ribs.”
“Nobody ever wrote a song about a sternum, Tess.”
She undid more buttons, her eyes closed. And in barely a whisper: “How about this?”
“That one I know,” said Milton.
When he couldn’t play against Tessie’s skin, Milton opened the window of his bedroom and serenaded her from afar. Sometimes he called the boardinghouse and asked Mrs. O’Toole if he could speak with Theodora. “Minute,” Mrs. O’Toole said, and shouted up the stairs, “Phone for Zizmo!” Milton heard the sound of feet running down the stairs and then Tessie’s voice saying hello. And he began playing his clarinet into the phone.
(Years later, my mother would recall the days when she was wooed by clarinet. “Your father couldn’t play very well. Two or three songs. That was it.” “Whaddya mean?” Milton would protest. “I had a whole repertoire.” He’d begin to whistle “Begin the Beguine,” warbling the melody to evoke a clarinet’s vibrato and fingering the air. “Why don’t you serenade me anymore?” Tessie would ask. But Milton had something else on his mind: “Whatever happened to that old clarinet of mine?” And then Tessie: “How should I know? You expect me to keep track of everything?” “Is it down in the basement?” “Maybe I threw it out!” “You threw it out! What the hell did you do that for!” “What are you going to do, Milt, practice up? You couldn’t play the darn thing back then.”)
All love serenades must come to an end. But in 1944, there was no stop to the music. By July, when the telephone rang at the O’Toole Boardinghouse, there was sometimes another kind of love song issuing from the earpiece:“Kyrie eleison, Kyrie eleison.” A soft voice, nearly as feminine as Tessie’s own, cooing into a phone a few blocks away. The singing continued for a minute at least. And then Michael Antoniou would ask, “How was that?”
“That was swell,” my mother said.
“Just like in church. You could have fooled me.”
Which brings me to the final complication in that overplotted year. Worried about what Milton and Tessie were getting up to, my grandmother wasn’t only trying to marry Milton off to somebody else. By that summer she had a husband picked out for Tessie, too.
Michael Antoniou—Father Mike, as he would come to be known in our family—was at that time a seminarian at the Greek Orthodox Holy Cross Theological School out in Pomfret, Connecticut. Back home for the summer, he had been paying a lot of attention to Tessie Zizmo. In 1933, Assumption Church had moved out of its quarters in the storefront on Hart Street. Now the congregation had a real church, on Vernor Highway just off Beniteau. The church was made of yellow brick. It wore three dove-gray domes, like caps, and had a basement for socializing. During coffee hour, Michael Antoniou told Tessie what it was like out at Holy Cross and educated her about the lesser-known aspects of Greek Orthodoxy. He told her about the monks of Mount Athos, who in their zeal for purity banned not only women from their island monastery but the females of every other species, too. There were no female birds on Mount Athos, no female snakes, no female dogs or cats. “A little too strict for me,” Michael Antoniou said, smiling meaningfully at Tessie. “I just want to be a parish priest. Married with kids.” My mother wasn’t surprised that he showed interest in her. Being short herself, she was used to short guys asking her to dance. She didn’t like being chosen by virtue of her height, but Michael Antoniou was persistent. And he might not have been pursuing her because she was the only girl shorter than he was. He might have been responding to the need in Tessie’s eyes, her desperate yearning to believe that there was something instead of nothing.
Desdemona seized her opportunity. “Mikey is good Greek boy, nice boy,” she said to Tessie. “And going to be a priest!” And to Michael Antoniou: “Tessie is small but she is strong. How many plates you think she can carry, Father Mike?” “I’m not a father yet, Mrs. Stephanides.” “Please, how many?” “Six?” “That all you think? Six?” And now holding up two hands: “Ten! Ten plates Tessie can carry. Never break a thing.”
She began inviting Michael Antoniou over for Sunday dinner. The presence of the seminarian inhibited Tessie, who no longer wandered upstairs for private swing sessions. Milton, growing surly at this new development, threw barbs across the dinner table. “I guess it must be a lot harder to be a priest over here in America, huh?”
“How do you mean?” Michael Antoniou asked.
“I just mean that over in the old country people aren’t too well educated,” Milton said. “They’ll believe whatever stories the priests tell them. Here it’s different. You can go to college and learn to think for yourself.”
“The Church doesn’t want people not to think,” Michael replied without taking offense. “The Church believes that thinking will take a person only so far. Where thinking ends, revelation begins.”
“Chrysostomos!”Desdemona exclaimed. “Father Mike, you have a mouth of gold.”
But Milton persisted, “I’d say where thinking ends, stupidity begins.”
“That’s how people live, Milt”—Michael Antoniou again, still kindly, gently—“by telling stories. What’s the first thing a kid says when he learns how to talk? ‘Tell me a story.’ That’s how we understand who we are, where we come from. Stories are everything. And what story does the Church have to tell? That’s easy. It’s the greatest story ever told.”
My mother, listening to this debate, couldn’t fail to notice the stark contrasts between her two suitors. On one side, faith; on the other, skepticism. On one side, kindness; on the other, hostility. An admittedly short though pleasant-looking young man against a scrawny, pimply, 4-F boy with circles under his eyes like a hungry wolf. Michael Antoniou hadn’t so much as tried to kiss Tessie, whereas Milton had led her astray with a woodwind. D flats and A sharps licking at her like so many tongues of flame, here behind the knee, up here on the neck, right below the navel . . . the inventory filled her with shame. Later that afternoon, Milton cornered her. “I got a new song for you, Tess. Just learned it today.” But Tessie told him, “Get away.” “Why? What’s the matter?” “It’s . . . it’s . . .”—she tried to think of the most damning pronouncement—“It’s not nice!” “That’s not what you said last week.” Milton waved the clarinet, adjusting the reed with a wink, until Tessie, finally: “I don’t want to do that anymore! Do you understand? Leave me alone!”
Every Saturday for the remainder of the summer, Michael Antoniou came by O’Toole’s to pick Tessie up. Taking her purse as they walked along, he swung it by its strap, pretending it was a censer. “You have to do it just right,” he told her. “If you don’t swing it hard enough, the chain buckles and the embers fall out.” On their way down the street, my mother tried to ignore her embarrassment at being seen in public with a man swinging a purse. At the drugstore soda fountain, she watched him tuck a napkin into his shirt collar before eating his sundae. Instead of popping the cherry into his mouth as Milton would have done, Michael Antoniou always offered it to her. Later, seeing her home, he squeezed her hand and looked sincerely into her eyes. “Thank you for another enjoyable afternoon. See you in church tomorrow.” Then he walked away, folding his hands behind his back. Practicing how to walk like a priest, too.
After he was gone, Tessie went inside and climbed the stairs to her room. She lay down on her daybed to read. One afternoon, unable to concentrate, she stopped reading and put the book over her face. Just then, outside, a clarinet began to play. Tessie listened for a while, without moving. Finally, her hand rose to take the book off her face. It never got there, however. The hand waved in the air, as if conducting the music, and then, sensibly, resignedly, desperately, it slammed the window shut.
“Bravo!” Desdemona shouted into the phone a few days later. Then, holding the mouthpiece to her chest: “Mikey Antoniou just proposed to Tessie! They’re engaged! They are going to get married as soon as Mikey he finishes the seminary.”
“Don’t look too excited,” Zoë told her brother.
“Why don’t you shut up?”
“Don’t get sore at me,” she said, blind to the future. “I’m not marrying him. You’d have to shoot me first.”
“If she wants to marry a priest,” Milton said, “let her marry a priest. The hell with her.” His face turned red and he bolted from the table and fled up the stairs.
But why did my mother do it? She could never explain. The reasons people marry the people they do are not always evident to those involved. So I can only speculate. Maybe my mother, having grown up without a father, was trying to marry one. It’s possible, too, that her decision was a practical one. She’d asked Milton what he wanted to do with his life once. “I was thinking of maybe taking over my dad’s bar.” On top of all the other oppositions, there may have been this final one: bartender, priest.
Impossible to imagine my father weeping from a broken heart. Impossible to imagine him refusing to eat. Impossible, also, to imagine him calling the boardinghouse again and again until finally Mrs. O’Toole said, “Listen, sugar. She don’t want to talk to you. Get it?” “Yeah”—Milton swallowing hard—“I got it.” “Plenty of other fish in the sea.” Impossible to imagine any of these things, but they are, in fact, what happened.
Maybe Mrs. O’Toole’s maritime metaphor had given him an idea. A week after Tessie became engaged, on a steamy Tuesday morning, Milton put his clarinet away for good and went down to Cadillac Square to exchange his Boy Scout uniform for another.
“Well, I did it,” he told the family at dinner that night. “I enlisted.”
“In the Army!” Desdemona said, horrified.
“What did you do that for?” said Zoë. “The war’s almost over. Hitler’s finished.”
“I don’t know about Hitler. It’s Hirohito I’ve got to worry about. I joined the Navy. Not the Army.”
“What about your feet?” Desdemona cried.
“They didn’t ask about my feet.”
My grandfather, who had sat through the clarinet serenades as he sat through everything, aware of their significance but unconvinced of the wisdom of getting involved, now glared at his son. “You’re a very stupid young man, do you know that? You think this is some kind of game?”
“This is a war. You think it is some kind of fun, a war? Some kind of big joke to play on your parents?”
“You will see what kind of a big joke it is.”
“The Navy!” Desdemona meanwhile continued to moan. “What if your boat it sinks?”
“You see what you do?” Lefty shook his head. “You’re going to make your mother sick worrying so much.”
“I’ll be okay,” said Milton.
Looking at his son, Lefty now saw a painful sight: himself twenty years earlier, full of stupid, cocky optimism. There was nothing to do with the spike of fear that shot through him but to speak out in anger. “Okay, then. Go to the Navy,” said Lefty. “But you know what you forgot, Mr. almost Eagle Scout?” He pointed at Milton’s chest. “You forgot you never win a badge for swimming.”
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