My eyes, switched on at last, saw the following: a nurse reaching out to take me from the doctor; my mother’s triumphant face, as big as Mount Rushmore, as she watched me heading for my first bath. (I said it was impossible, but still I remember it.) Also other things, material and immaterial: the relentless glare of OR lights; white shoes squeaking over white floors; a housefly contaminating gauze; and all around me, up and down the halls of Women’s Hospital, individual dramas under way. I could sense the happiness of couples holding first babies and the fortitude of Catholics accepting their ninth. I could feel one young mother’s disappointment at the reappearance of her husband’s weak chin on the face of her newborn daughter, and a new father’s terror as he calculated the tuition for triplets. On the floors above Delivery, in flowerless rooms, women lay recovering from hysterectomies and mastectomies. Teenage girls with burst ovarian cysts nodded out on morphine. It was all around me from the beginning, the weight of female suffering, with its biblical justification and vanishing acts.
The nurse who cleaned me up was named Rosalee. She was a pretty, long-faced woman from the Tennessee mountains. After suctioning the mucus from my nostrils, she gave me a shot of vitamin K to coagulate my blood. Inbreeding is common in Appalachia, as are genetic deformities, but Nurse Rosalee noticed nothing unusual about me. She was concerned about a purple splotch on my cheek, thinking it was a port-wine stain. It turned out to be placenta, and washed off. Nurse Rosalee carried me back to Dr. Philobosian for an anatomical exam. She placed me down on the table but kept one hand on me for security’s sake. She’d noticed the doctor’s hand tremor during the delivery.
In 1960, Dr. Nishan Philobosian was seventy-four. He had a camel’s head, drooping on its neck, with all the activity in the cheeks. White hair surrounded his otherwise bald head in a nimbus and plugged his big ears like cotton. His surgeon’s eyeglasses had rectangular loupes attached.
He began with my neck, searching for cretinous folds. He counted my fingers and toes. He inspected my palate; he noted my Moro reflex without surprise. He checked my backside for a sacral tail. Then, putting me on my back again, he took hold of each of my curved legs and pulled them apart.
What did he see? The clean, saltwater mussel of the female genitalia. The area inflamed, swollen with hormones. That touch of the baboon all babies have. Dr. Philobosian would have had to pull the folds apart to see any better, but he didn’t. Because right at that instant Nurse Rosalee (for whom the moment was also destiny) accidentally touched his arm. Dr. Phil looked up. Presbyopic, Armenian eyes met middle-aged, Appalachian ones. The gaze lingered, then broke away. Five minutes old, and already the themes of my life—chance and sex—announced themselves. Nurse Rosalee blushed. “Beautiful,” Dr. Philobosian said, meaning me but looking at his assistant. “A beautiful, healthy girl.”
On Seminole, the birth celebrations were tempered by the prospect of death.
Desdemona had found Lefty on our kitchen floor, lying next to his overturned coffee cup. She knelt beside him and pressed an ear to his chest. When she heard no heartbeat, she cried out his name. Her wail echoed off the kitchen’s hard surfaces: the toaster, the oven, the refrigerator. Finally she collapsed on his chest. In the silence that followed, however, Desdemona felt a strange emotion rising inside her. It spread in the space between her panic and grief. It was like a gas inflating her. Soon her eyes snapped open as she recognized the emotion: it was happiness. Tears were running down her face, she was already berating God for taking her husband from her, but on the other side of these proper emotions was an altogether improper relief. The worst had happened. This was it: the worst thing. For the first time in her life my grandmother had nothing to worry about.
Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in “sadness,” “joy,” or “regret.” Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, “the happiness that attends disaster.” Or: “the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.” I’d like to show how “intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members” connects with “the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age.” I’d like to have a word for “the sadness inspired by failing restaurants” as well as for “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.” I’ve never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I’ve entered my story, I need them more than ever. I can’t just sit back and watch from a distance anymore. From here on in, everything I’ll tell you is colored by the subjective experience of being part of events. Here’s where my story splits, divides, undergoes meiosis. Already the world feels heavier, now I’m a part of it. I’m talking about bandages and sopped cotton, the smell of mildew in movie theaters, and of all the lousy cats and their stinking litter boxes, of rain on city streets when the dust comes up and the old Italian men take their folding chairs inside. Up until now it hasn’t been my world. Not my America. But here we are, at last.
The happiness that attends disaster didn’t possess Desdemona for long. A few seconds later she returned her head to her husband’s chest—and heard his heart beating! Lefty was rushed to the hospital. Two days later he regained consciousness. His mind was clear, his memory intact. But when he tried to ask whether the baby was a boy or a girl, he found he was unable to speak.
According to Julie Kikuchi, beauty is always freakish. Yesterday, over strudel and coffee at Café Einstein, she tried to prove this to me. “Look at this model,” she said, holding up a fashion magazine. “Look at her ears. They belong on a Martian.” She started flipping pages. “Or look at the mouth on this one. You could put your whole head in it.”
I was trying to get another cappuccino. The waiters in their Austrian uniforms ignored me, as they do everyone, and outside, the yellow lindens were dripping and weeping.
“Or what about Jackie O.?” said Julie, still advocating. “Her eyes were so wide-set they were basically on the sides of her head. She looked like a hammerhead.”
I’m working up with the foregoing to a physical description of myself. Baby pictures of the infant Calliope show a variety of features on the freakish side. My parents, looking fondly down into my crib, got stuck on every one. (I sometimes think that it was the arresting, slightly disturbing quality of my face that distracted everyone’s attention from the complications below.) Imagine my crib as a diorama in a museum. Press one button and my ears light up like two golden trumpets. Press another and my stark chin begins to glow. Another, and the high, ethereal cheekbones appear out of the darkness. So far the effect isn’t promising. On the evidence of ears, chin, and cheekbones I might be a baby Kafka. But the next button illuminates my mouth and things begin to improve. The mouth is small but well shaped, kissable, musical. Then, in the middle of the map, comes the nose. It is nothing like the noses you see in classical Greek sculpture. Here is a nose that came to Asia Minor, like silk itself, from the East. In this case, the Middle East. The nose of the diorama baby already forms, if you look closely, an arabesque. Ears, nose, mouth, chin—now eyes. Not only are they widely set (like Jackie O.’s), they’re big. Too big for a baby’s face. Eyes like my grandmother’s. Eyes as big and sad as the eyes in a Keane painting. Eyes rimmed with long, dark eyelashes my mother couldn’t believe had formed inside her. How had her body worked in such detail? The complexion around these eyes: a pale olive. The hair: jet black. Now press all the buttons at once. Can you see me? All of me? Probably not. No one ever really has.
As a baby, even as a little girl, I possessed an awkward, extravagant beauty. No single feature was right in itself and yet, when they were taken all together, something captivating emerged. An inadvertent harmony. A changeableness, too, as if beneath my visible face there was another, having second thoughts.
Desdemona wasn’t interested in my looks. She was concerned with the state of my soul. “The baby she is two months old,” she said to my father in March. “Why you still no baptize her?” “I don’t want her baptized,” answered Milton. “It’s a bunch of hocus-pocus.” “Hokey pokey is it?” Desdemona now threatened him with an index finger. “You think Holy Tradition that the Church keep for two thousand years is hokey pokey?” And then she called on the Panaghia, using every one of her names. “All-Holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorified Lady, Mother of God and Ever-Virgin, do you hear what my son Milton is saying?” When my father still refused, Desdemona unleashed her secret weapon. She started fanning herself.
To anyone who never personally experienced it, it’s difficult to describe the ominous, storm-gathering quality of my grandmother’s fanning. Refusing to argue anymore with my father, she walked on swollen ankles into the sun room. She sat down in a cane chair by the window. The winter light, coming from the side, reddened the far, translucent wing of her nose. She picked up her cardboard fan. The front of the fan was emblazoned with the words “Turkish Atrocities.” Below, in smaller print, were the specifics: the 1955 pogrom in Istanbul in which 15 Greeks were killed, 200 Greek women raped, 4,348 stores looted, 59 Orthodox churches destroyed, and even the graves of the Patriarchs desecrated. Desdemona had six atrocity fans. They were a collector’s set. Each year she sent a contribution to the Patriarchate in Constantinople, and a few weeks later a new fan arrived, making claims of genocide and, in one case, bearing a photograph of Patriarch Athenagoras in the ruins of a looted cathedral. Not appearing on Desdemona’s particular fan that day, but denounced nonetheless, was the most recent crime, committed not by the Turks but by her own Greek son, who refused to give his daughter a proper Orthodox baptism. Desdemona’s fanning wasn’t a matter of moving the wrist back and forth; the agitation came from deep within her. It originated from the spot between her stomach and liver where she once told me the Holy Spirit resided. It issued from a place deeper than her own buried crime. Milton tried to take shelter behind his newspaper, but the fan-disturbed air rustled the newsprint. The force of Desdemona’s fanning could be felt all over the house; it swirled dustballs on the stairs; it stirred the window shades; and, of course, since it was winter, it made everyone shiver. After a while the entire house seemed to be hyperventilating. The fanning even pursued Milton into his Oldsmobile, which began to make a soft hissing from the radiator.
In addition to the fanning, my grandmother appealed to family feeling. Father Mike, her son-in-law and my very own uncle, was by this time back from his years in Greece and serving—in an assistant capacity—at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church.
“Please, Miltie,” Desdemona said. “Think of Father Mike. They never give him top job at the church. You think if his own niece she no gets baptized it will look good? Think of your sister, Miltie. Poor Zoë! They no have much money.”
Finally, in a sign that he was weakening, my father asked my mother, “What do they charge for a baptism these days?”
Milton’s eyebrows lifted. But after a moment’s consideration he nodded, confirmed in his suspicions. “Figures. They let you in for free. Then you gotta pay for the rest of your life.”
By 1960, the Greek Orthodox congregation of Detroit’s East Side had yet another new building to worship in. Assumption had moved from Vernor Highway to a new site on Charlevoix. The erection of the Charlevoix church had been an event of great excitement. From the humble beginnings of the storefront on Hart Street, to the respectable but by no means splashy domicile off Beniteau, Assumption was finally going to get a grand church building. Many construction firms bid for the job, but in the end it was decided to give it to “someone from the community,” and that someone was Bart Skiotis.
The motives behind building the new church were twofold: to resurrect the ancient splendor of Byzantium and to show the world the financial wherewithal of the prospering Greek American community. No expense was spared. An icon painter from Crete was imported to render the iconography. He stayed for over a year, sleeping in the unfinished structure on a thin mat. A traditionalist, he refrained from meat, alcohol, and sweets, in order to purify his soul and receive divine inspiration. Even his paintbrush was by the book, made from the tip of a squirrel’s tail. Slowly, over two years, our East Side Hagia Sophia went up, not far from the Ford Freeway. There was only one problem. Unlike the icon painter, Bart Skiotis had not worked with a pure heart. It turned out that he had used inferior materials, siphoning the remaining cash into his personal bank account. He laid the foundation incorrectly, so that it wasn’t long before cracks began to branch over the walls, scarring the iconography. The ceiling leaked, too.
Within the substandard construction of the Charlevoix church, literally upon a shaky foundation, I was baptized into the Orthodox faith; a faith that had existed long before Protestantism had anything to protest and before Catholicism called itself catholic; a faith that stretched back to the beginnings of Christianity, when it was Greek and not Latin, and which, without an Aquinas to reify it, had remained shrouded in the smoke of tradition and mystery whence it began. My godfather, Jimmy Papanikolas, took me from my father’s arms. He presented me to Father Mike. Smiling, overjoyed to be center stage for once, Father Mike cut a lock of my hair and tossed it into the baptismal pool. (It was this part of the ritual, I later suspected, that was responsible for the fuzzy quality of our font’s surfaces. Years and years of baby hair, stimulated by the life-giving water, had taken root and grown.) But now Father Mike was ready for the dunking. “The servant of God, Calliope Helen is baptized in the Name of the Father, Amen . . . “ and he pushed me under for the first time. In the Orthodox Church, we don’t go in for partial immersion; no sprinkling, no forehead dabbing for us. In order to be reborn, you have to be buried first, so under the water I went. My family looked on, my mother seized with anxiety (what if I inhaled?), my brother dropping a penny into the water when no one was looking, my grandmother stilling her fan for the first time in weeks. Father Mike pulled me up into the air again—“and of the Son, Amen”—and dunked me under once more. This time I opened my eyes. Chapter Eleven’s penny, in freefall, glinted through the murk. Down it sank to the bottom where, I now noticed, lots of things were collected: other coins, for instance, hairpins, somebody’s old Band-Aid. In the green, scummy, holy water, I felt at peace. Everything was silent. The sides of my neck tingled in the place where humans once had gills. I was dimly aware that this beginning was somehow indicative of the rest of my life. My family were around me; I was in the hands of God. But I was in my own, separate element, too, submerged in rare sensations, pushing evolution’s envelope. This knowledge whizzed through my mind, and then Father Mike pulled me up again—“and of the Holy Spirit, Amen . . .” One more dunking to go. Down I went and back up again, into light and air. The three submersions had taken a while. In addition to being murky, the water was warm. By the third time up, therefore, I had indeed been reborn: as a fountain. From between my cherubic legs a stream of crystalline liquid shot into the air. Lit from the dome above, its yellow scintillance arrested everyone’s attention. The stream rose in an arc. Propelled by a full bladder, it cleared the lip of the font. And before mynouno had time to react, it struck Father Mike right in the middle of the face.
Suppressed laughter from the pews, a few old ladies gasping in horror, then silence. Disgraced by his own partial immersion—and dabbing himself like a Protestant—Father Mike completed the ceremony. Taking the chrism on his fingertips, he anointed me, marking the sign of the Cross on the required places, first my forehead, then eyes, nostrils, mouth, ears, breast, hands, and feet. As he touched each place, he said, “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Finally he gave me my First Communion (with one exception: Father Mike didn’t forgive me for my sin).
“That’s my girl,” Milton crowed on the way home. “Pissed on a priest.”
“It was an accident,” Tessie insisted, still hot with embarrassment. “Poor Father Mike! He’ll never get over it.”
“That went reallyfar ,” marveled Chapter Eleven.
In all the commotion, no one wondered about the engineering involved.
Desdemona took my reverse baptism of her son-in-law as a bad omen. Already potentially responsible for her husband’s stroke, I had now committed a sacrilege at my first liturgical opportunity. In addition, I had humiliated her by being born a girl. “Maybe you should try guessing the weather,” Sourmelina teased her. My father rubbed it in: “So much for your spoon, Ma. It sort of pooped out on you.” The truth was that in those days Desdemona was struggling against assimilationist pressures she couldn’t resist. Though she had lived in America as an eternal exile, a visitor for forty years, certain bits of her adopted country had been seeping under the locked doors of her disapproval. After Lefty came home from the hospital, my father took a TV up to the attic to provide some entertainment. It was a small black-and-white Zenith, prone to vertical shift. Milton placed it on a bedside table and went back downstairs. The television remained, rumbling, glowing. Lefty adjusted his pillows to watch. Desdemona tried to do housework but found herself looking over at the screen more and more often. She still didn’t like cars. She covered her ears whenever the vacuum cleaner was on. But the TV was somehow different. My grandmother took to television right away. It was the first and only thing about America she approved of. Sometimes she forgot to turn the set off and would awaken at 2A.M. to hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” playing before the station signed off.
The television replaced the sound of conversation that was missing from my grandparents’ lives. Desdemona watched all day long, scandalized by the love affairs onAs the World Turns . She liked detergent commercials especially, anything with animated scrubbing bubbles or avenging suds.
Living on Seminole contributed to the cultural imperialism. On Sundays, instead of serving Metaxa, Milton fixed cocktails for his guests. “Drinks with the names of people,” Desdemona complained to her mute husband back in the attic. “Tom Collins. Harvey Wall Bang. This is a drink! And they are listening to music on the, how you say, the hi-fi. Milton he puts this music, and they drink Tom Collins and sometimes they are, you know, dancing, one on one, men together with the women. Like wrestling.”
What was I to Desdemona but another sign of the end of things? She tried not to look at me. She hid behind her fans. Then one day Tessie had to go out and Desdemona was forced to baby-sit. Warily, she entered my bedroom. Taking cautious steps, she approached my crib. Black-draped sexagenarian leaned down to examine pink-swaddled infant. Maybe something in my expression set off an alarm. Maybe she was already making the connections she would later make, between village babies and this suburban one, between old wives’ tales and new endocrinology . . . Then again, maybe not. Because as she peered distrustfully over the rail of my crib, she saw my face—and blood intervened. Desdemona’s worried expression hovered above my (similarly) perplexed one. Her mournful eyes gazed down at my (equally) large black orbs. Everything about us was the same. And so she picked me up and I did what grandchildren are supposed to do: I erased the years between us. I gave Desdemona back her original skin.
From then on, I was her favorite. Midmornings she would relieve my mother by taking me up to the attic. Lefty had regained most of his strength by this time. Despite his speech paralysis, my grandfather remained a vital person. He got up early every day, bathed, shaved, and put on a necktie to translate Attic Greek for two hours before breakfast. He no longer had aspirations to publish his translations but did the work because he liked it and because it kept his mind sharp. In order to communicate with the rest of the family, he kept a little chalkboard with him at all times. He wrote messages in words and personal hieroglyphics. Aware that he and Desdemona were a burden to my parents, Lefty was extremely helpful around the house, doing repairs, assisting with the cleaning, running errands. Every afternoon he took his three-mile walk, no matter the weather, and returned cheerful, his smile full of gold fillings. At night he listened to his rebetika records in the attic and smoked his hookah pipe. Whenever Chapter Eleven asked what was in the pipe, Lefty wrote on his chalkboard, “Turkish mud.” My parents always believed it was an aromatic brand of tobacco. Where Lefty obtained the hash is anybody’s guess. Out on his walks, probably. He still had lots of Greek and Lebanese contacts in the city.
From ten to noon every day my grandparents took care of me. Desdemona fed me my bottles and changed my diapers. She finger-combed my hair. When I got fussy, Lefty carried me around the room. Since he couldn’t speak to me, he bounced me a lot and hummed to me, and touched his big, arching nose to my little, latent one. My grandfather was like a dignified, unpainted mime, and I was almost five before I realized that anything was wrong with him. When he tired of making faces, he carried me to the dormer window, where, together, from the opposite ends of life, we gazed down at our leafy neighborhood.
Soon I was walking. Animated by brightly wrapped presents, I scampered into the frames of my father’s home movies. On those first celluloid Christmases I look as overdressed as the Infanta. Starved for a daughter, Tessie went a little overboard in dressing me. Pink skirts, lace ruffles, Yuletide bows in my hair. I didn’t like the clothes, or the prickly Christmas tree, and am usually shown bursting dramatically into tears . . .
Or it might have been my father’s cinematography. Milton’s camera came equipped with a rack of merciless floodlights. The brightness of those films gives them the quality of Gestapo interrogations. Holding up our presents, we all cringe, as though caught with contraband. Aside from their blinding brightness, there was another odd thing about Milton’s home movies: like Hitchcock, he always appeared in them. The only way to check the amount of film left in the camera was by reading the counter inside the lens. In the middle of Christmas scenes or birthday parties there always came a moment when Milton’s eye would fill the screen. So that now, as I quickly try to sketch my early years, what comes back most clearly is just that: the brown orb of my father’s sleepy, bearish eye. A postmodern touch in our domestic cinema, pointing up artifice, calling attention to mechanics. (And bequeathing me my aesthetic.) Milton’s eye regarded us. It blinked. An eye as big as the Christ Pantocrator’s at church, it was better than any mosaic. It was a living eye, the cornea a little bloodshot, the eyelashes luxuriant, the skin underneath coffee-stained and pouchy. This eye would stare us down for as long as ten seconds. Finally the camera would pull away, still recording. We’d see the ceiling, the lighting fixture, the floor, and then us again: the Stephanides.
First of all, Lefty. Still dapper despite stroke damage, wearing a starched white shirt and glenplaid trousers, he writes on his chalkboard and holds it up: “Christos Anesti.” Desdemona sits across from him, her dentures making her look like a snapping turtle. My mother, in this home movie marked “Easter ’62,” is two years from turning forty. The crow’s-feet around her eyes are another reason (aside from the floodlights) why she holds a hand over her face. In this gesture I see the emotional sympathy I’ve always felt with Tessie, the two of us never happier than when unobserved, people-watching. Behind her hand I can see the traces of the novel she stayed up reading the previous night. All the big words she had to look up in the dictionary crowd her tired head, waiting to show up in the letters she writes me today. Her hand is also a refusal, her only way of getting back at a husband who has begun to disappear on her. (Milton came home every night; he didn’t drink or womanize but, preoccupied with business worries, he began to leave a little more of himself at the diner each day, so that the man who returned to us seemed less and less present, a kind of robot who carved turkeys and filmed holidays but who wasn’t really there at all.) Finally, of course, my mother’s upraised hand is a kind of warning, too, a predecessor of the black box.
Chapter Eleven sprawls on the carpet, wolfing candy. Grandson of the two former silk farmers (with chalkboard and worry beads), he has never had to help in the cocoonery. He has never been to the Koza Han. Environment has already made its imprint on him. He has the tyrannical, self-absorbed look of American children . . .
And now two dogs come bounding into the frame. Rufus and Willis, our two boxers. Rufus sniffs my diaper and, with perfect comic timing, sits on me. He will later bite someone, and both dogs will be given away. My mother appears, shooing Rufus . . . and there I am again. I stand up and toddle toward the camera, smiling, trying out my wave . . .
I know this film well. “Easter ’62” was the home movie Dr. Luce talked my parents into giving him. This was the film he screened each year for his students at Cornell University Medical School. This was the thirty-five-second segment that, Luce insisted, proved out his theory that gender identity is established early on in life. This was the film Dr. Luce showed to me, to tell me who I was. And who was that? Look at the screen. My mother is handing me a baby doll. I take the baby and hug it to my chest. Putting a toy bottle to the baby’s lips, I offer it milk.
My early childhood passed, on film and otherwise. I was brought up as a girl and had no doubts about this. My mother bathed me and taught me how to clean myself. From everything that happened later, I would guess that these instructions in feminine hygiene were rudimentary at best. I don’t remember any direct allusions to my sexual apparatus. All was shrouded in a zone of privacy and fragility, where my mother never scrubbed me too hard. (Chapter Eleven’s apparatus was called a “pitzi.” But for what I had there was no word at all.) My father was even more squeamish. In the rare times he diapered me or gave me a bath, Milton studiously averted his eyes. “Did you wash her all over?” my mother would ask him, speaking obliquely as usual. “Notall over. That’s your department.”
It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome is a skillful counterfeiter. Until I reached puberty and androgens flooded my bloodstream, the ways in which I differed from other little girls were hard to detect. My pediatrician never noticed anything unusual. And by the time I was five Tessie had started taking me to Dr. Phil—Dr. Phil with his failing eyesight and his cursory examinations.
On January 8, 1967, I turned seven years old. 1967 marked the end of many things in Detroit, but among these was my father’s home movies. “Callie’s 7th B-Day” was the last of Milton’s Super 8s. The setting was our dining room, decorated with balloons. On my head sits the usual conical hat. Chapter Eleven, twelve years old, does not join the boys and girls at the table but instead stands back against the wall, drinking punch. The difference in our ages meant that my brother and I were never close growing up. When I was a baby Chapter Eleven was a kid, when I was a kid he was a teenager, and by the time I became a teenager he was an adult. At twelve, my brother liked nothing better than to cut golf balls in half to see what was inside. Usually, his vivisection of Wilsons and Spaldings revealed cores consisting of extremely tightly bundled rubber bands. But sometimes there were surprises. In fact, if you look very closely at my brother in this home movie, you will notice a strange thing: his face, arms, shirt, and pants are covered by thousands of tiny white dots.
Just before my birthday party had started, Chapter Eleven had been down in his basement laboratory, using a hacksaw on a newfangled Titleist that advertised a “liquid center.” The ball was held firmly in a vise as Chapter Eleven sawed. When he reached the center of the Titleist, there was a loud popping sound followed by a puff of smoke. The center of the ball was empty. Chapter Eleven was mystified. But when he emerged from the basement, we all saw the dots . . .
Back at the party, my birthday cake is coming out with its seven candles. My mother’s silent lips are telling me to make a wish. What did I wish for at seven? I don’t remember. In the film I lean forward and, Aeolian, blow the candles out. In a moment, they reignite. I blow them out again. Same thing happens. And then Chapter Eleven is laughing, entertained at last. That was how our home movies ended, with a prank on my birthday. With candles that had multiple lives.
The question remains: Why was this Milton’s last movie? Can it be explained by the usual petering out of parents’ enthusiasm for documenting their children on film? By the fact that Milton took hundreds of baby photographs of Chapter Eleven and no more than twenty or so of me? To answer these questions, I need to go behind the camera and see things through my father’s eyes.
The reason Milton was disappearing on us: after ten years in business, the diner was no longer making a profit. Through the front window (over Athena olive oil tins) my father looked out day after day at the changes on Pingree Street. The white family who’d lived across the way, good customers once, had moved out. Now the house belonged to a colored man named Morrison. He came into the diner to buy cigarettes. He ordered coffee, asked for a million refills, and smoked. He never ordered any food. He didn’t seem to have a job. Sometimes other people moved into his house, a young woman, maybe Morrison’s daughter, with her kids. Then they were gone and it was just Morrison again. There was a tarp up on his roof with bricks around it, to cover a hole.
Just down the block an after-hours place had opened up. Its patrons urinated in the doorway of the diner on their way home. Streetwalkers had started working Twelfth Street. The dry cleaner’s on the next block over had been held up, the white owner severely beaten. A. A. Laurie, who ran the optometrist’s shop next door, took down his eye chart from the wall as workers removed the neon eyeglasses out front. He was moving to a new shop in Southfield.
My father had considered doing the same.
“That whole neighborhood’s going down the tubes,” Jimmy Fioretos had advised one Sunday after dinner. “Get out while the getting’s good.”
And then Gus Panos, who had had a tracheotomy and spoke through a hole in his neck, hissing like a bellows: “Jimmy’s right . . . sssss . . . You should move out to . . . ssss . . . Bloomfield Hills.”
Uncle Pete had disagreed, making his usual case for integration and support for President Johnson’s War on Poverty.
A few weeks later, Milton had had the business appraised and was met with a shock: the Zebra Room was worth less than when Lefty had acquired it in 1933. Milton had waited too long to sell it. The getting out was no longer good.
And so the Zebra Room remained on the corner of Pingree and Dexter, the swing music on the jukebox growing increasingly out of date, the celebrities and sports figures on the walls more and more unrecognizable. On Saturdays, my grandfather often took me for a ride in the car. We drove out to Belle Isle to look for deer and then stopped in for lunch at the family restaurant. At the diner we sat in a booth while Milton waited on us, pretending we were customers. He took Lefty’s order and winked. “And what’ll the Mrs. have?”
“I’m not the Mrs.!”
I ordered my usual of a cheeseburger, milk shake, and lemon meringue pie for dessert. Opening the cash register, Milton gave me a stack of quarters to use in the jukebox. While I chose songs, I looked out the front window for my neighborhood friend. Most Saturdays he was installed on the corner, surrounded by other young men. Sometimes he stood on a broken chair or a cinder block while he orated. Always his arm was in the air, waving and gesticulating. But if he happened to see me, his raised fist would open up, and he would wave.
His name was Marius Wyxzewixard Challouehliczilczese Grimes. I was not allowed to speak to him. Milton considered Marius to be a troublemaker, a view in which many Zebra Room patrons, white and black both, concurred. I liked him, though. He called me “Little Queen of the Nile.” He said I looked like Cleopatra. “Cleopatra was Greek,” he said. “Did you know that?” “No.” “Yeah, she was. She was a Ptolemy. Big family back then. They were Greek Egyptians. I’ve got a little Egyptian blood in me, too. You and me are probably related.” If he was standing on his broken chair, waiting for a crowd to form, he would talk to me. But if other people were there he would be too busy.
Marius Wyxzewixard Challouehliczilczese Grimes had been named after an Ethiopian nationalist, a contemporary of Fard Muhammad, in fact, back in the thirties. Marius had been an asthmatic child. He’d spent most of his childhood inside, reading the eclectic books in his mother’s library. As a teenager he’d been beaten up a lot (he wore glasses, Marius did, and had a habit of mouth-breathing). But by the time I got to know him, Marius W. C. Grimes was coming into his manhood. He worked at a record store and was going to U. of D. Law School, nights. There was something happening in the country, in the black neighborhoods especially, that was conducive to the ascension of a brother like Marius to the corner soapbox. It was suddenly cool to know stuff, to expatiate on the causes of the Spanish Civil War. Ché Guevara had asthma, too. And Marius wore a beret. A black paramilitary beret with black glasses and a little fledgling soul patch. In beret and glasses Marius stood on the corner waking people up to things. “Zebra Room,” he pointed a bony finger, “white-owned.” Then the finger went down the block. “TV store, white-owned. Grocery store, white-owned. Bank . . .” Brothers looked around . . . “You got it. No bank. They don’t give loans to black folks.” Marius was planning to become a public advocate. As soon as he graduated from law school he was going to sue the city of Dearborn for housing discrimination. He was currently number three in his law school class. But now it was humid out, his childhood asthma acting up, and Marius was feeling unhappy and unwell when I came roller-skating by.
He did not vocally respond, a sign with him that he was in low spirits. But he nodded his head, which gave me the courage to continue.
“Why don’t you get a better chair to stand on?”
“You don’t like my chair?”
“It’s all broken.”
“This chair is an antique. That means it’s supposed to be broken.”
“Not that broken.”
But Marius was squinting across the street at the Zebra Room.
“Let me ask you something, little Cleo.”
“How come there’s always at least three big fat officers of the so-called peace sitting at the counter of your dad’s place?”
“He gives them free coffee.”
“And why do you think he does that?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? Okay, I’ll tell you. He’s paying protection money. Your old man likes to keep the fuzz around because he’s scared of us black folks.”
“He is not,” I said, suddenly defensive.
“You don’t think so?”
“Okay, then, Queenie. You know best.”
But Marius’s accusation bothered me. After that, I began to watch my father more closely. I noticed how he always locked the car doors when we drove through the black neighborhood. I heard him in the living room on Sundays: “They don’t take care of their properties. They let everything go to hell.” The next week, when Lefty took me to the diner, I was more aware than ever of the broad backs of policemen at the counter. I heard them joking with my father. “Hey, Milt, you better start putting some soul food on the menu.”
“Think so?”—my father, jovially—“Maybe a little collard greens?”
I snuck out, going to look for Marius. He was in his usual spot but sitting, not standing, and reading a book.
“Test tomorrow,” he told me. “Gotta study.”
“I’m in second grade,” I said.
“Only second! I had you down for high school at least.”
I gave him my most winning smile.
“Must be that Ptolemy blood. Just stay away from the Roman men, okay?”
“Nothing, Little Queen. Just playing with you.” He was laughing now, which he didn’t do that often. His face opened up, bright.
And suddenly my father was shouting my name. “Callie!”
“Get over here right now!”
Marius stood up awkwardly from his chair. “We were just talking,” he said. “Smart little girl you got here.”
“You stay away from her, you hear me?”
“Daddy!” I protested, appalled, embarrassed for my friend.
But Marius’s voice was soft. “It’s cool, little Cleo. Got this test and all. Go on back to your dad.”
For the rest of that day Milton kept after me. “You are never, ever, to talk to strangers like that. What’s the matter with you?”
“He’s not a stranger. His name is Marius Wyxzewixard Challouehliczilczese Grimes.”
“You hear me? You stay away from people like that.”
Afterward, Milton told my grandfather to stop bringing me down to the diner for lunch. But I would come again, in just a few months, under my own power.