Cape Cod

By the time Alecko Mavromatis arrives home from work on Friday evening, later than usual, Frosso has packed for the Cape and, as instructed, placed the boxes and suitcases in a row just outside their third-floor apartment. Their building is on the west side of de l’Epée, in Park Extension, where there is never parking when you really need it, so Alecko is forced to double-park, flashers on, cigarette smouldering in the ashtray.

Inside the building, Friday night cooking fills the air. Alecko storms up the stairs, taking steps two at a time and leaping over the waiting boxes to shout at the kids to turn off the damn TV and get a move on. The sound of his shouting and stamping bounces up and down the dimly lit steel-and-terrazzo stairs and causes the building’s hollow-core varnished doors to thrum like guitars.

The widow in the next apartment, Mrs. Zakinthatos, opens her door a crack. At that moment she sees Alecko wedging the first box under his left arm and picking up two bags with his right.

He glares at her. “Would you like to help, Mrs. Zakinthatos? Because if you would…” The widow shuts her door.

Still handsome and athletic from his playing days, if thickening at the waist, Alecko flies up and down the stairs with boxes and bags, taking fierce pleasure in his strong limbs. He won’t spare even a moment to change from his greasy garage uniform. They’re late.

“What’s your rush, my dear Alecko!” cries Frosso, from behind the diminishing barricade of luggage. “There’s plenty of time to get to the motel…”

He silences her with a look.

The van is soon packed, the kids settled in the back and they’re on their way. With Kazantzidis picking scabs on the cassette deck and the day’s last light draining into the horizon, Alecko’s cares are in retreat. By the time they are well out of the city, Frosso, God bless her, is feeding him hardboiled eggs and slices of bread and tomato. The week’s fatigue and stress gradually uncoil and fall away, and Alecko takes a long breath and begins to forget the garage and its clamouring customers. A release is owed, he feels.

This idea of release, of escape, often occupies his thoughts, as it had before his best matches, when he was a young man. A release that was a kind of joyful drunkenness. No one could touch him when the divine drunkenness was upon him; no one dared to. Alecko was a man apart on the pitch, respected and perhaps feared. But what of it? Now he bites his tongue at the garage and at the dinner table, kisses the priest’s hand on Sundays and consents to have his chin wiped after the sacramental wine. His divided soul sees all this but submits, for Frosso and her church and foolish heart have also saved him since his playing days.

Alecko loves his family, even if his son is turning out to be a thin, weedy little specimen. But does he love his son, specifically love his son? He glances at Frosso because the thought unsettles him. The boy’s startled eyes, matchstick limbs, mobile lips quivering on the edge of panic. Alecko has waited for Themi to fill out; has waited for some measure of the belligerence he associates with hot, red-blooded boyhood. The sword, the gun, the hammer. The thirst for mayhem and mastery.

But no, the boy is a disappointment. He collects dusty flowering weeds, wraps them in tissue and cries when the flowers die. Then hours of oblivion sorting scraps of cloth from his mother’s sewing. Then late afternoon perorations on the balcony delivered to no one there. Weak, small, strange.

Frosso says the boy is only nine, and what can you expect?

But by the time he, Alecko, was nine, he’d set fire to his grandmother’s chicken coop and pushed his teacher into a ditch. Oh, he was a devil! Once, he’d caught the family cat and forced half a walnut shell onto each paw. At first the cat just stood there, gingerly tapping and staring at him. Then suddenly skittering and scraping across the terrazzo floor, reduced to a scrap of orange fur and crazed eyes. Until the yowling and laughter attracted his mother’s attention and she burst in and hauled up Alecko by the ear. It still makes him laugh to think about it, and about the beating he got.

Katina, though, the daughter. She is made of sterner stuff. A year younger than Themi and already climbing fences and declaiming the Greek national anthem at the top of her voice. Imperious, scowling, severe in her pleasures, like him. She often scolds her father until he weeps with laughter. The high spirits he’d expected from his son are instead concentrated in the girl. Alecko will have to keep a watchful eye on her.

The Mavromatis family vacation on Cape Cod is the same every year. Alecko worked it out long ago. Drive after work on a Friday evening, take bathroom breaks at the same rest stops in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and check into the same motel on the Cape after midnight. This avoids the Saturday gridlock at the U.S. border and on the approach to Buzzards Bay Bridge. In the morning they’re already in Yarmouth, with an extra morning on the beach and, at two o’clock, always the first to pick up the keys to their rental cottage.

The rest of their party from Park Ex, no matter how early they set their alarms, are always late. Every year Alecko savours the moment when the other families from Park Ex, hot and irritable from the long drive, finally pull up. Every year, freshly shaved and beaming, Alecko raises a cold beer in greeting and laughs good-naturedly at their misery, before offering to help unload.

Only halfway through New Hampshire and Frosso’s head is already bobbing.

“Hey,” Alecko says. “Making me do all the work while you sleep, eh? It’s not enough that I work all day like a dog.”

“Sorry, my love,” Frosso says, rousing herself instantly. “Of course you’re right. If I could drive, you know I would help.”

“And kill us all, I suppose,” he laughs. “Never mind. Go back to sleep.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” says Frosso, now wide-awake and twisting around to check on the children. Both are sound asleep.

“Never mind about them,” says Alecko, glancing at his rear-view mirror and remembering about the boy. “You’ve done enough. Especially with Themi. I don’t know what’s wrong with him, but when I was his age…”

“There’s nothing wrong with him,” Frosso says sharply.

Alecko glances over, but lets it go. It isn’t enough that the boy’s mother has spoiled him, but she’s liable to fly into a rage when the damage is brought to her attention.

Alecko counts the white lines for some minutes.

“He talks to himself,” says Alecko. “On the balcony. Where everyone can see.”

“Lots of children do that. He’s playing. Didn’t you ever pretend you were someone else?”

“What for?” he says. “Just stands there. Talking. Everyone can see.”

* * *

The next day, after a good night’s sleep on clean sheets, Alecko splurges on a restaurant breakfast and they go to the beach.

Feeling refreshed and a little sorry for how he spoke during last night’s drive, Alecko spends the better part of the morning building sandcastles with the kids. Katina commands both buckets while Themi pushes wet sand toward her and contributes shrill advice, which she ignores. Under a blue beach umbrella and low wheeling gulls, Frosso makes lunch and watches her husband with the kids. Her heart swells with happiness.

Two weeks near Yarmouth, surrounded by friends and family from Park Ex. Frosso’s brother and his family will join them this year, along with some new neighbours and friends from work. They always rent adjacent cottages. Some years their group occupies a dozen cottages or more.

Women cook and men fish and smoke, as shrieking children with runny noses skitter into and out of the water all day, chasing gulls and filling their bathing suits with sand and seaweed. In the afternoon, the women gossip and rinse out the bathing suits and hang them on the clothesline, alongside the towels. Later, the men gather around the barbecues, blinking in the billowing smoke and fanning the charcoal with flattened cereal boxes. Later still, after dinner, the men play koum-kan or slap backgammon pieces on the wooden boards until the light fails. Then they drink beer and murmur in low voices and their cigarettes glow in the gathering night.

And every year Alecko consolidates his position among the men. A few saw him in his glory days, when Alecko played semi-pro in Greece. By general agreement there was nothing beautiful about his play; just a cruel efficiency. A punishing force on the pitch from which opponents learned to shrink, to shy from tackling too hard and risk notice from his blazing eyes. He scored goals and brutalized men bigger than himself, standing over their writhing bodies and laughing. Laughing and daring the referee to notice.

Alecko’s knees gave way by the time he was twenty-two; and that was that for his playing days.

Fifteen years on and even the men who never saw Alecko play treat him with awed courtesy, and a little fear.

* * *

By the second day on the Cape the vacationers from Park Ex have all arrived and settled into the familiar routine. The fridges are full and the toys still unbroken.

Face still burning from the sun and taut from shaving, Alecko waits with a cold beer in his hand as the other husbands, also freshly showered and shaved, emerge one by one, in clean pants and short-sleeve shirts, from the surrounding cottages.

The evening air is pleasantly cool and the sun preparing to dip into a froth of pink clouds that could presage rain tomorrow. Dragonflies dart and hover, blue and red and pink, light on the backs of lawn chairs, dart up again, pause, fly on. This in-between time is Alecko’s favourite part of the day, and it fills him with deep satisfaction. The jumble of cartoon-themed towels and beach umbrellas, tepid drinks and gritty sandwiches and squalling sand-covered kids and blaring radios, has subsided. Order is restored. The party has separated according to sex and age, and the reckoning will soon begin over the fineness of the day’s weather, the sunburns and squabbles and the size and number of fish each man caught.

The women are in their kitchens preparing the communal dinner and, exhausted by the long day on the beach, the kids are also indoors, lined up on their bellies like a the day’s catch of fish, watching TV.

Only my worthless son is alone, reflects Alecko. Themi sits on a soccer ball in the middle of the central lawn, rocking side to side, facing the dark hedge that rings the property. Sickly, pale, asthmatic. Talking to himself, too, Alecko observes. He wonders if the other men are also watching, pretending not to watch. What are they thinking?

Granted, the boy lacks spirit. But it’s not as if he makes up for it in cleverness. He’s close to failing at school, shown no promise in any subject. His reading is abysmal and numbers confuse him. They bought him a guitar when he expressed some interest and hired a man to give him lessons. But then the boy cried because his fingers hurt on the frets, and soon after the man told them to not waste their money.

“Daddy, play soccer with me.”

Alecko turns. Themi is standing, right foot on the soccer ball. White bony knee, white t-shirt, white baggy shorts. Immaculate. Frosso makes sure of that.

“Please, Daddy,” the boy pleads.

“Soccer, eh? What do you Canadians know about soccer. Leave me alone.” He takes a pull from his Budweiser.

“Go ahead and play with him,” says Yiorgo. “Show him how it’s done. If you’re still a technician.”

Alecko places his bottle on the picnic table, squints at his brother-in-law, whom he despises. A moment ago he was going to send Yiorgo indoors to order up a platter of cheese and fried sausage slices. “Technician, eh?”

Yiorgo falls silent. The other men are also silent.

“Fine,” Alecko says to his son. “Themi, we’re on opposite sides. I’ll try to steal the ball from you. Then we’ll see if you can get the ball from me.”

“Okay, Daddy,” says Themi, pale knees pistoning excitedly. Giggling like a girl, too, Alecko observes. He glances over to see if the men are watching.

As Alecko approaches, the boy turns and dribbles the ball toward the far corner of the lawn. The instant Themi looks over his shoulder, Alecko feints right. The boy takes the bait and veers left, where Alecko is waiting. Themi crashes into his father and collapses to the ground, a heap of giggling limbs.

“Lesson number one,” Yiorgo announces. “Your father is a crafty devil. Now hurry and get the ball back!”

The boy jumps up and runs after his father, who abruptly steps over the ball, catches it with his trailing heel and pivots. The thing is so deftly executed the men cease their chatter to watch. Those sitting in lawn chairs get up. Themi goes limp with laughter at his father’s surprising dexterity. Alecko grins, as the boy follows. For a few moments father and son are joined in the game. A large man dodging and weaving and a small broken doll giving chase.

Alecko pulls the ball onto his instep, bounces it three times and gently kicks it overhead. Awed, the boy stops to stare at the sky. The men, too, follow the ball. Alecko catches the ball on his instep, casual as a juggler with a loaded gun. He stands frozen, leg extended, the ball seemingly glued to his foot. The watching men hold their breath. Alecko flips the ball up, bounces it on his forehead twice and lets it drop behind him, where he traps it in the crook of his leg. The men applaud. One of them whistles.

The longer Alecko plays, the more the old skills return…and something else. A kind of awakening, ancient hunger rising. A release and a loose-limbed hilarity he hasn’t experienced for so long, now here, in Cape Cod, among these men and with this strange boy who is his son.

Alecko clears a space with his speed, balances the ball tantalizingly on his foot as the boy rushes forward, then flips the ball casually over the boy’s head. The boy is slow, clumsy. By the time he registers where the ball has dropped, his father is on it. Alecko is breathing hard, laughing in amazement at his own mastery of the ball and at the boy’s blunt inadequacy. Dark shapes bloom on his back and underarms.

Meanwhile a rasping sound has replaced the boy’s giggling and his face is flushed. A hinged, toggling marionette lurching after a laughing man. And always, the ball just out of reach. The boy always a step behind the leaping, darting man. The boy tries to quit but the man won’t have it. The man circles back lazily, dribbles close and baits the boy until an awkward lunge and the chase is on again.

But now ragged broken sobs issue from the boy and the chasing boy whips his arms in rage and frustration, as if to strike the always-receding father. But as the boy’s fury and desperation grow, so does the taunting laughter. As from a far place, the laughing man is conscious of a great approaching wickedness he is powerless to stop.

The chorus of men look away, uncomfortably shift their weight from leg to leg.

But the applause of a moment ago has already drawn a trickle of children from the surrounding cottages, Katina among them. She watches her father and brother with a stern expression. Several women also emerge, drying their hands on dishtowels and aprons. One of the women, Eleni, Frosso’s sister, goes back inside to fetch Frosso.

“Stop it,” Frosso says, the instant she recognizes the unfolding drama. “Stop it right now. You should be ashamed of yourself. A grown man, his father…”

But by this time the game is over. Themi has given up. He sits on the grass, facing a dark hedge.

“Wife, you are absolutely right,” Alecko gasps. Bent over, hands on his knees, gulping air. He raises a restraining hand to stop Frosso from going to the boy, to gain a few seconds till he can speak: “Sorry, got carried away. Forgive me, love.” He pauses, looks around like a man waking from a dream. “You hear that, Themi?” he calls in a louder voice, so everyone can witness the concluding act. “I am being put in my place. Deservedly. Daddy was not very nice. Your ball now, son.”

The narrow body in its white t-shirt, heaving. Then a small shudder.

Then Alecko dribbling the ball wearily around his son’s outstretched legs, then pushing it into the triangle of outstretched legs.

“Sorry, Themi. The ball is yours. Take it.”

The boy doesn’t move. But his lips are saying. A rushed secretive saying, a small stream of words, inaudible to the rest. Alecko squats and tries to catch the boy’s downcast eyes. The boy’s unaware fingers tear at the grass.

“Sorry about that,” says Alecko. “You know Daddy loves you. You know Daddy doesn’t want to see his boy crying.” All in a low voice only Themi can hear. “Please, my love, take the ball. Everyone is watching. Do not embarrass the family. Let’s play. Let’s show everyone that Themi doesn’t hold a grudge against his Daddy.”

Alecko stands, nudges the ball closer with his toe. Leans over to touch his son’s head.

Themi reaches for the ball but Alecko is too quick. The ball sails over the boy’s head.

“Hand ball!” roars Alecko. “Did you see that? Penalty kick!”

Shuddering heaves of fresh laughter. Powerless now, staggering, soaked with sweat, near collapse, drunk on his own wickedness. Alecko dribbles the ball in a figure eight and passes it to his brother-in-law, just as Frosso rushes forward.

The brother-in-law lets the ball roll by and into the darkness beneath the hedge.

* * *

In the morning Alecko is late getting out of bed. He is wearing a bathing suit and rubbing his hands together as he enters the kitchen. The others are already on the beach, except for Frosso and her sister, Eleni, who are picking up the breakfast things. Neither of them glances up.

“Good morning,” says Eleni. “I’m going to the beach.” She picks up a straw bag filled with towels and toys. She leaves. The screen door slams.

“You see?” says Alecko. “What did I tell you about him? Now the whole world can see.”