So, to recap: Sourmelina Zizmo (née Papadiamandopoulos) wasn’t only my first cousin twice removed. She was also my grandmother. My father was his own mother’s (and father’s) nephew. In addition to being my grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty were my great-aunt and -uncle. My parents would be my second cousins once removed and Chapter Eleven would be my third cousin as well as my brother. The Stephanides family tree, diagrammed in Dr. Luce’s “Autosomal Transmission of Recessive Traits,” goes into more detail than I think you would care to know about. I’ve concentrated only on the gene’s last few transmissions. And now we’re almost there. In honor of Miss Barrie, my eighth-grade Latin teacher, I’d like to call attention to the quotation above:ex ovo omnia . Getting to my feet (as we did whenever Miss Barrie entered the room), I hear her ask, “Infants? Can any of you translate this little snippet and give its provenance?”
I raise my hand.
“Calliope, our muse, will start us off.”
“It’s from Ovid.Metamorphoses . The story of creation.”
“Stunning. And can you render it into English for us?”
“Everything comes out of an egg.”
“Did you hear that, infants? This classroom, your bright faces, even dear old Cicero on my desk—they all came out of an egg!”
Among the arcana Dr. Philobosian imparted to the dinner table over the years (aside from the monstrous effects of maternal imagination) was the seventeenth-century theory of Preformation. The Preformationists, with their roller-coaster names—Spallazani, Swammerdam, Leeuwenhoek—believed that all of humankind had existed in miniature since Creation, in either the semen of Adam or the ovary of Eve, each person tucked inside the next like a Russian nesting doll. It all started when Jan Swammerdam used a scalpel to peel away the outer layers of a certain insect. What kind? Well . . . a member of the phylum Arthropoda. Latin name? Okay, then:Bombyx mori . The insect Swammerdam used in his experiments back in 1669 was nothing other than a silkworm. Before an audience of intellectuals, Swammerdam cut away the skin of the silkworm to reveal what appeared to be a tiny model of the future moth inside, from proboscis to antennae to folded wings. The theory of Preformation was born.
In the same way, I like to imagine my brother and me, floating together since the world’s beginning on our raft of eggs. Each inside a transparent membrane, each slotted for his or her (in my case both) hour of birth. There’s Chapter Eleven, always so pasty, and bald by the age of twenty-three, so that he makes a perfect homunculus. His pronounced cranium indicates his future deftness with mathematics and mechanical things. His unhealthy pallor suggests his coming Crohn’s disease. Right next to him, there’s me, his sometime sister, my face already a conundrum, flashing like a lenticular decal between two images: the dark-eyed, pretty little girl I used to be; and the severe, aquiline-nosed, Roman-coinish person I am today. And so we drifted, the two of us, since the world began, awaiting our cues and observing the passing show.
For instance: Milton Stephanides graduating from Annapolis in 1949. His white hat flying up into the air. He and Tessie were stationed at Pearl Harbor, where they lived in austere marital housing and where my mother, at twenty-five, got a terrible sunburn and was never seen in a bathing suit again. In 1951 they were transferred to Norfolk, Virginia, at which point Chapter Eleven’s egg sac next door to mine began to vibrate. Nevertheless, he stuck around to watch the Korean conflict, where Ensign Stephanides served on a submarine chaser. We watched Milton’s adult character forming during those years, taking on the no-nonsense attributes of our future father. The U.S. Navy was responsible for the precision with which Milton Stephanides ever after parted his hair, his habit of polishing his belt buckle with his shirt sleeve, his “yes, sir”s and “shipshape”s, and his insistence on making us synchronize our watches at the mall. Under the brass eagle and fasces of his ensign’s cap, Milton Stephanides left the Boy Scouts behind. The Navy gave him his love of sailing and his aversion to waiting in lines. Even then his politics were being formed, his anti-communism, his distrust of the Russians. Ports of call in Africa and Southeast Asia were already forging his beliefs about racial IQ levels. From the social snubs of his commanding officers, he was picking up his hatred of Eastern liberals and the Ivy League at the same time as he was falling in love with Brooks Brothers clothing. His taste for tasseled loafers and seersucker shorts was seeping into him. We knew all this about our father before we were born and then we forgot it and had to learn it all over again. When the Korean War ended in 1953, Milton was stationed again in Norfolk. And in March of 1954, as my father weighed his future, Chapter Eleven, with a little wave of farewell to me, raised his arms and traveled down the waterslide into the world.
And I was all alone.
Events in the years before my birth: after dancing with Zoë at my parents’ wedding, Father Mike pursued her doggedly for the next two and a half years. Zoë didn’t like the idea of marrying someone either so religious or so diminutive. Father Mike proposed to her three times and in each case she refused, waiting for someone better to come along. But no one did. Finally, feeling that she had no alternative (and coaxed by Desdemona, who still thought it was a wonderful thing to marry a priest), Zoë gave in. In 1949, she married Father Mike and soon they went off to live in Greece. There she would give birth to four children, my cousins, and remain for the next eight years.
In Detroit, in 1950, the Black Bottom ghetto was bulldozed to put in a freeway. The Nation of Islam, now headquartered at Temple No. 2 in Chicago, got a new minister by the name of Malcolm X. During the winter of 1954, Desdemona first began to talk of retiring to Florida someday. “They have a city in Florida you know what it is called? New Smyrna Beach!” In 1956, the last streetcar stopped running in Detroit and the Packard plant closed. And that same year, Milton Stephanides, tired of military life, left the Navy and returned home to pursue an old dream.
“Do something else,” Lefty Stephanides told his son. They were in the Zebra Room, drinking coffee. “You go to the Naval Academy to be a bartender?”
“I don’t want to be a bartender. I want to run a restaurant. A whole chain. This is a good place to start.”
Lefty shook his head. He leaned back and spread his arms, taking in the whole bar. “This is no place to start anything,” he said.
He had a point. Despite my grandfather’s assiduous drink-refilling and counter-wiping, the bar on Pingree Street had lost its luster. The old zebra skin, which he still had on the wall, had dried out and cracked. Cigarette smoke had dirtied the diamond shapes of the tin ceiling. Over the years the Zebra Room had absorbed the exhalations of its auto worker patrons. The place smelled of their beer and hair tonic, their punch-clock misery, their frayed nerves, their trade unionism. The neighborhood was also changing. When my grandfather had opened the bar in 1933, the area had been white and middle-class. Now it was becoming poorer, and predominantly black. In the inevitable chain of cause and effect, as soon as the first black family had moved onto the block, the white neighbors immediately put their houses up for sale. The oversupply of houses depressed the real estate prices, which allowed poorer people to move in, and with poverty came crime, and with crime came more moving vans.
“Business isn’t so good anymore,” Lefty said. “If you want to open a bar, try Greektown. Or Birmingham.”
My father waved these objections aside. “Bar business isn’t so good maybe,” he said. “That’s because there’s too many bars around here. Too much competition. What this neighborhood needs is a decent diner.”
Hercules Hot Dogs™, which at its height would boast sixty-six locations throughout Michigan, Ohio, and southeastern Florida—each restaurant identified by the distinctive “Pillars of Hercules” out front—could be said to have begun on the snowy February morning in 1956 when my father arrived at the Zebra Room to begin renovations. The first thing he did was to remove the sagging venetian blinds from the front windows to let in more light. He painted the interior a bright white. With a G.I. business loan, he had the bar remodeled into a diner counter and had a small kitchen installed. Workmen put red vinyl booths along the far wall and reupholstered the old barstools with Zizmo’s zebra skin. One morning two deliverymen carried a jukebox in the front door. And while hammers pounded and sawdust filled the air, Milton acquainted himself with the papers and deeds Lefty had haphazardly kept in a cigar box beneath the register.
“What the hell is this?” he asked his father. “You’ve got three insurance policies on this place.”
“You can never have too much insurance,” Lefty said. “Sometimes the companies don’t pay. Better to be sure.”
“Sure? Each one of these is for more than this place is worth. We’re paying on all these? That’s a waste of money.”
Up until this point, Lefty had let his son make whatever changes he wanted. But now he stood firm. “Listen to me, Milton. You haven’t lived through a fire. You don’t know what happens. Sometimes in a fire the insurance company burns down, too. Then what can you do?”
“We need three,” insisted Lefty.
“Just humor him,” Tessie told Milton later that night. “Your parents have been through a lot.”
“Sure they’ve been through a lot. But we’re the ones who have to keep paying these premiums.” Nevertheless, he did as his wife said and maintained all three policies.
The Zebra Room I remember as a kid: it was full of artificial flowers, yellow tulips, red roses, dwarf trees bearing wax apples. Plastic daisies sprouted from teapots; daffodils erupted from ceramic cows. Photos of Artie Shaw and Bing Crosby adorned the wall, next to hand-painted signs that said enjoy a nice lime rickey! and our french toast is the toast of the town! There were photos of Milton putting a finishing-touch cherry on a milk shake or kissing someone’s baby like the mayor. There were photographs of actual mayors, Miriani and Cavanaugh. The great first baseman Al Kaline, who stopped in on his way to practice at Tiger Stadium, had autographed his own head shot: “To my pal Milt, great eggs!” When a Greek Orthodox church in Flint burned down, Milton drove up and salvaged one of the surviving stained glass windows. He hung it on the wall over the booths. Athena olive oil tins lined the front window next to a bust of Donizetti. Everything was hodgepodge: grandmotherly lamps stood next to El Greco reproductions; bull’s horns hung from the neck of an Aphrodite statuette. Above the coffeemaker an assortment of figurines marched along the shelf: Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, Mickey Mouse, Zeus, and Felix the Cat.
My grandfather, trying to be of help, drove off one day and returned with a stack of fifty plates.
“I already ordered plates,” said Milton. “From a restaurant supply place. They’re only charging us 10 percent down.”
“You don’t want these?” Lefty looked disappointed. “Okay. I’ll take them back.”
“Hey, Pop,” his son called after him. “Why don’t you take the day off? I can handle things here.”
“You don’t need help?”
“Go home. Have Ma make you lunch.”
Lefty did as he was told. But as he drove down West Grand Boulevard, feeling unneeded, he passed Rubsamen Medical Supply—a store with dirty windows and a neon sign that blinked even in the day—and felt the stirrings of old temptation.
The following Monday, Milton opened the new diner. He opened it at six in the morning, with a newly hired staff of two, Eleni Papanikolas, in a waitress uniform purchased at her own expense, and her husband, Jimmy, as short-order cook. “Remember, Eleni, you mostly work for tips,” Milton pep-talked. “So smile.”
“At who?” asked Eleni. For despite the red carnations in bud vases gracing each booth, despite the zebra-striped menus, matchbooks, and napkins, the Zebra Room itself was empty.
“Smartass,” Milton said, grinning. Eleni’s ribbing didn’t bother him. He’d worked it all out. He’d found a need and filled it.
In the interest of time, I offer you now a stock capitalist montage. We see Milton greeting his first customers. We see Eleni serving them scrambled eggs. We see Milton and Eleni standing back, biting their lips. But now the customers are smiling and nodding! Eleni runs to refill their coffee. Next Milton, in different clothes, is greeting more customers; and Jimmy the cook is cracking eggs one-handed; and Lefty is looking left out. “Give me two fried whiskey down!” Milton shouts, showing off his new lingo. “Dry white, 68, hold the ice!” Close-up of the cash register ringing open and closed; of Milton’s hands counting money; of Lefty putting on his hat and leaving unnoticed. Then more eggs; eggs being cracked, fried, flipped, and scrambled; eggs arriving in cartons through the back door and coming out on plates through the front hatch; fluffy heaps of scrambled eggs in gleaming yellow Technicolor; and the cash register banging open again; and money piling up. Until, finally, we see Milton and Tessie, dressed in their best, following a real estate agent through a big house.
The neighborhood of Indian Village lay just twelve blocks west of Hurlbut, but it was a different world altogether. The four grand streets of Burns, Iroquois, Seminole, and Adams (even in Indian Village the White Man had taken half the names) were lined with stately houses built in eclectic styles. Red-brick Georgian rose next to English Tudor, which gave onto French Provincial. The houses in Indian Village had big yards, important walkways, picturesquely oxidizing cupolas, lawn jockeys (whose days were numbered), and burglar alarms (whose popularity was only just beginning). My grandfather remained silent, however, as he toured his son’s impressive new home. “How do you like the size of this living room?” Milton was asking him. “Here, sit down. Make yourself comfortable. Tessie and I want you and Ma to feel like this is your house, too. Now that you’re retired—“
“What do you mean retired?”
“Okay, semiretired. Now that you can take it a little bit easy, you’ll be able to do all the things you always wanted to do. Look, in here’s the library. You want to come over and work on your translations, you can do it right here. How about that table? Big enough for you? And the shelves are built right into the wall.”
Pushed out of the daily operations at the Zebra Room, my grandfather began to spend his days driving around the city. He drove downtown to the Public Library to read the foreign newspapers. Afterward, he stopped to play backgammon at a coffee house in Greektown. At fifty-four, Lefty Stephanides was still in good shape. He walked three miles a day for exercise. He ate sensibly and had less of a belly than his son. Nevertheless, time was making its inevitable depredations. Lefty had to wear bifocals now. He had a touch of bursitis in his shoulder. His clothes had gone out of style, so that he looked like an extra in a gangster movie. One day, appraising himself with severity in the bathroom mirror, Lefty realized that he had become one of those older men who slicked their hair back in allegiance to an era no one could remember. Depressed by this fact, Lefty gathered up his books. He drove over to Seminole, intending to use the library, but when he got to the house he kept on going. With a wild look in his eyes, he headed instead for Rubsamen Medical Supply.
Once you’ve visited the underworld, you never forget the way back. Forever after, you’re able to spot the red light in the upstairs window or the champagne glass on the door that doesn’t open until midnight. For years now, driving past Rubsamen Medical Supply, my grandfather had noticed the unchanging window display of hernia truss, neck brace, and crutches. He’d seen the desperate, crazily hopeful faces of the Negro men and women who went in and out without buying a thing. My grandfather recognized that desperation and knew that now, in his forced retirement, this was the place for him. Roulette wheels spun behind Lefty’s eyes as he sped toward the West Side. The clicking of backgammon dice filled his ears as he pressed the accelerator. His blood grew hot with an old excitement, a quickening of the pulse he hadn’t felt since descending the mountain to explore the back streets of Bursa. He parked at the curb and hurried inside. He walked past the startled customers (who weren’t used to seeing white people); he strode past the props of aspirin bottles, corn plasters, and laxatives, and went up to the pharmacist’s window in the rear.
“Can I help you?” the pharmacist asked.
“Twenty-two,” said Lefty.
“You got it.”
Trying to reclaim the drama of his gambling days, my grandfather started playing the West Side numbers. He started small. Little bets of two or three dollars. After a few weeks, to recoup his losses, he went up to ten bucks. Every day he wagered a piece of the new profits from the restaurant. One day he won and so went double or nothing the next, and lost. Amid hot-water bottles and enema bags, he placed his bets. Surrounded by cough medicine and cold sore ointment, he started playing a “gig,” meaning three numbers at once. As they had in Bursa, his pockets filled up with scraps of paper. He wrote out lists of the numbers he played along with the dates, so as not to repeat any. He played Milton’s birthday, Desdemona’s birthday, the date of Greek Independence minus the last digit, the year of the burning of Smyrna. Desdemona, finding the scraps in the wash, thought they had to do with the new restaurant. “My husband the millionaire,” she said, dreaming of Florida retirement.
For the first time ever, Lefty consulted Desdemona’s dream book, in the hope of calculating a winning number on the abacus of his unconscious. He became alert to the integers that appeared in his dreams. Many of the Negroes who frequented Rubsamen’s Medical Supply noticed my grandfather’s preoccupation with the dream book, and after he won for two weeks in a row, word spread. This led to the only contribution Greeks have ever made to African American culture (aside from the wearing of gold medallions) as the blacks of Detroit began to buy dream books themselves. The Atlantis Publishing Company translated the books into English and shipped them to major cities all over America. For a short time elderly colored women began to hold the same superstitions my grandmother did, believing, for instance, that a running rabbit meant you were coming into money or that a black bird on a telephone line augured that somebody was about to die.
“Taking that money to the bank?” Milton asked, seeing his father empty the cash register.
“Yes, to the bank.” And Lefty did go to the bank. He went to withdraw money from his savings account, in order to continue his steady assault on all nine hundred and ninety-nine possible permutations of a three-digit variable. Whenever he lost, he felt awful. He wanted to stop. He wanted to go home and confess to Desdemona. The only antidote to this feeling, however, was the prospect of winning the next day. It’s possible that a hint of self-destructiveness played a part in my grandfather’s numbers-playing. Full of survivor’s guilt, he was surrendering himself to the random forces of the universe, trying to punish himself for still being alive. But, mostly, gambling just filled his empty days.
I alone, from the private box of my primordial egg, saw what was going on. Milton was too busy running the diner to notice. Tessie was too busy taking care of Chapter Eleven to notice. Sourmelina might have noticed something, but she didn’t make many appearances at our house during those years. In 1953, at a Theosophical Society meeting, Aunt Lina had met a woman named Mrs. Evelyn Watson. Mrs. Watson had been attracted to the Theosophical Society by the hope of contacting her deceased husband, but soon lost interest in communicating with the spirit world in favor of whispering with Sourmelina in the flesh. With shocking speed, Aunt Lina had quit her job at the florist’s shop and moved down to the Southwest with Mrs. Watson. Every Christmas since, she sent my parents a gift box containing hot sauce, a flowering cactus, and a photograph of Mrs. Watson and herself in front of some national monument. (One surviving photo shows the couple in an Anasazi ceremonial cave at Bandelier, Mrs. Watson looking as wisely lined as Georgia O’Keeffe while Lina, in a tremendous sunhat, descends a ladder into a kiva.)
As for Desdemona, during the mid-to-late fifties she was experiencing a brief and completely uncharacteristic spell of contentment. Her son had returned unhurt from another war. (St. Christopher had kept his word during the “police action” in Korea and Milton hadn’t been so much as fired on.) Her daughter-in-law’s pregnancy had caused the usual anxiety, of course, but Chapter Eleven had been born healthy. The restaurant was doing well. Every week family and friends gathered at Milton’s new house in Indian Village for Sunday dinner. One day Desdemona received a brochure from the New Smyrna Beach Chamber of Commerce, which she had sent away for. It didn’t look like Smyrna at all, but at least it was sunny, and there were fruit stands.
Meanwhile, my grandfather was feeling lucky. Having played at least one number every day for a little over two years, he had now bet on every number from 1 to 740. Only 159 numbers to go to reach 999! Then what? What else?—start over. Bank tellers handed rolls of money to Lefty, which he in turn handed to the pharmacist behind the window. He played 741, 742, and 743. He played 744, 745, and 746. And then one morning the bank teller informed Lefty that there weren’t sufficient funds in his account to make a withdrawal. The teller showed him his balance: $13.26. My grandfather thanked the teller. He crossed the bank lobby, adjusting his tie. He felt suddenly dizzy. The gambling fever he’d had for twenty-six months broke, sending a last wave of heat over his skin, and suddenly his entire body was dripping wet. Mopping his brow, Lefty walked out of the bank into his penniless old age.
The earsplitting cry my grandmother let out when she learned of the disaster cannot be done justice in print. The shriek went on and on, as she tore her hair and rent her garments and collapsed onto the floor. “HOW WILL WE EAT!” Desdemona wailed, staggering around the kitchen. “WHERE WILL WE LIVE!” She spread her arms, appealing to God, then beat on her chest, and finally took hold of her left sleeve and ripped it off. “WHAT KIND OF HUSBAND ARE YOU TO DO THIS TO YOUR WIFE WHO COOKED AND CLEANED FOR YOU AND GAVE YOU CHILDREN AND NEVER COMPLAINED!” Now she tore off her right sleeve. “DIDN’T I TELL YOU NOT TO GAMBLE? DIDN’T I?” She started on her dress proper now. She took the hem in her hands, as ancient Near Eastern ululations issued from her throat. “OULOULOULOULOULOULOU! OULOULOULOULOULOULOU!” My grandfather watched in astonishment as his modest wife shredded her clothing before his eyes, the skirt of the dress, the waist, the bosom, the neckline. With a final rip, the dress split in two and Desdemona lay on the linoleum, exposing to the world the misery of her underwear, her overburdened underwire brassiere, her gloomy underpants, and the frantic girdle whose stays she was even now popping as she approached the summit of her dishevelment. But at last she stopped. Before she was completely naked, Desdemona fell back as though depleted. She pulled off her hairnet and her hair spilled out to cover her and she closed her eyes, spent. In the next moment, she said in a practical tone, “Now we have to move in with Milton.”
Three weeks later, in October 1958, my grandparents moved out of Hurlbut, one year before they would have paid off the mortgage. Over a warm Indian summer weekend, my father and dishonored grandfather carried furniture outside for the yard sale, the sea-foam-green sofa and armchairs, which still looked brand-new beneath plastic slipcovers, the kitchen table, the bookcases. Lamps were set out on the grass along with Milton’s old Boy Scout manuals, Zoë’s dolls and tap shoes, a framed photograph of Patriarch Athenagoras, and a closetful of Lefty’s suits, which my grandmother forced him to sell as punishment. Hair safely restored beneath her hairnet, Desdemona glowered around the yard, submerged in a despair too deep for tears. She examined each object, sighing audibly before affixing a price tag, and scolded her husband for trying to carry things too heavy for him. “Do you think you’re young? Let Milton do it. You’re an old man.” Under one arm she held the silkworm box, which wasn’t for sale. When she saw the portrait of the Patriarch, she gasped in horror. “We don’t have bad luck enough you want to sell the Patriarch?”
She snatched it up and carried it inside. For the rest of the day she remained in the kitchen, unable to watch the miscellaneous horde of yard sale scavengers pick over her personal possessions. There were weekend antiquers from the suburbs who brought their dogs along, and families down on their luck who roped chairs to the roofs of battered cars, and discriminating male couples who turned everything over to search for trademarks on the bottom. Desdemona would have felt no more ashamed had she herself been for sale, displayed naked on the green sofa, a price tag hanging from her foot. When everything had been sold or given away, Milton drove my grandparents’ remaining belongings in a rented truck the twelve blocks to Seminole.
In order to give them privacy, my grandparents were offered the attic. Risking injury, my father and Jimmy Papanikolas carried everything up the secret stairway behind the wallpapered door. Up into the peaked space they carted my grandparents’ disassembled bed, the leather ottoman, the brass coffee table, and Lefty’s rebetika records. Trying to make up with his wife, my grandfather brought home the first of the many parakeets my grandparents would have over the years, and gradually, living on top of us all, Desdemona and Lefty made their next-to-last home together. For the next nine years, Desdemona complained of the cramped quarters and of the pain in her legs when she descended the stairs; but every time my father offered to move her downstairs, she refused. In my opinion, she enjoyed the attic because the vertigo of living up there reminded her of Mount Olympus. The dormer window provided a good view (not of sultans’ tombs but of the Edison factory), and when she left the window open, the wind blew through as it used to do in Bithynios. Up in the attic, Desdemona and Lefty came back to where they started.
As does my story.
Because now Chapter Eleven, my five-year-old brother, and Jimmy Papanikolas are each holding a red egg. Dyed the color of the blood of Christ, more eggs fill a bowl on the dining room table. Red eggs are lined along the mantel. They hang in string pouches over doorways.
Zeus liberated all living things from an egg.Ex ovo omnia . The white flew up to become the sky, the yolk descended into earth. And on Greek Easter, we still play the egg-cracking game. Jimmy Papanikolas holds his egg out, passive, as Chapter Eleven rams his egg against it. Always only one egg cracks. “I win!” shouts Chapter Eleven. Now Milton selects an egg from the bowl. “This looks like a good one. Built like a Brinks truck.” He holds it out. Chapter Eleven prepares to ram it. But before anything happens, my mother taps my father on the back. She has a thermometer in her mouth.
As dinner dishes are cleared from the table downstairs, my parents ascend hand in hand to their bedroom. As Desdemona cracks her egg against Lefty’s, my parents shuck off a strict minimum of clothing. As Sourmelina, back from New Mexico for the holidays, plays the egg game with Mrs. Watson, my father lets out a small groan, rolls sideways off my mother, and declares, “That should do it.”
The bedroom grows still. Inside my mother, a billion sperm swim upstream, males in the lead. They carry not only instructions about eye color, height, nose shape, enzyme production, microphage resistance, but a story, too. Against a black background they swim, a long white silken thread spinning itself out. The thread began on a day two hundred and fifty years ago, when the biology gods, for their own amusement, monkeyed with a gene on a baby’s fifth chromosome. That baby passed the mutation on to her son, who passed it on to his two daughters, who passed it on to three of their children (my great-great-greats, etc.), until finally it ended up in the bodies of my grandparents. Hitching a ride, the gene descended a mountain and left a village behind. It got trapped in a burning city and escaped, speaking bad French. Crossing the ocean, it faked a romance, circled a ship’s deck, and made love in a lifeboat. It had its braids cut off. It took a train to Detroit and moved into a house on Hurlbut; it consulted dream books and opened an underground speakeasy; it got a job at Temple No. 1 . . . And then the gene moved on again, into new bodies . . . It joined the Boy Scouts and painted its toenails red; it played “Begin the Beguine” out the back window; it went off to war and stayed at home, watching newsreels; it took an entrance exam; posed like the movie magazines; received a death sentence and made a deal with St. Christopher; it dated a future priest and broke off an engagement; it was saved by a bosun’s chair . . . always moving ahead, rushing along, only a few more curves left in the track now, Annapolis and a submarine chaser . . . until the biology gods knew this was their time, this was what they’d been waiting for, and as a spoon swung and ayia yia worried, my destiny fell into place . . . On March 20, 1954, Chapter Eleven arrived and the biology gods shook their heads, nope, sorry . . . But there was still time, everything was in place, the roller coaster was in free fall and there was no stopping it now, my father was seeing visions of little girls and my mother was praying to a Christ Pantocrator she didn’t entirely believe in, until finally—right this minute!—on Greek Easter, 1959, it’s about to happen. The gene is about to meet its twin.
As sperm meets egg, I feel a jolt. There’s a loud sound, a sonic boom as my world cracks. I feel myself shift, already losing bits of my prenatal omniscience, tumbling toward the blank slate of personhood. (With the shred of all-knowingness I have left, I see my grandfather, Lefty Stephanides, on the night of my birth nine months from now, turning a demitasse cup upside down on a saucer. I see his coffee grounds forming a sign as pain explodes in his temple and he topples to the floor.) Again the sperm rams my capsule; and I realize I can’t put it off any longer. The lease on my terrific little apartment is finally up and I’m being evicted. So I raise one fist (male-typically) and begin to beat on the walls of my eggshell until it cracks. Then, slippery as a yolk, I dive headfirst into the world.
“I’m sorry, little baby girl,” my mother said in bed, touching her belly and already speaking to me. “I wanted it to be more romantic.”
“You want romantic?” said my father. “Where’s my clarinet?”