COMING IN FALL, 2023
George stared at the pretty girl at the adjacent picnic table. She sat with her family, all of them blond and perfect, the men in boots and starched jeans, the women in western skirts. In contrast, he sat with his family, eleven Greeks, enough for a football team. They wore their ethnic uniforms—floral dresses for the women and khaki work pants for the men. The only variation was One-Eye, his great grandmother, who always dressed in black.
The girl stared back.
He tried not to get excited, assuming she was looking at something behind or beyond, and he only thought she was staring at him. That was how life worked. You got all stirred up by the proximity of all that beauty and interpreted events from your own pathetic bias and escalated from staring to gawking to outright ogling only to realize she was looking at the big, strapping high school fullback who happened to be standing behind you.
There was no one else around, though. She laughed like she knew what he was thinking,
A breeze gusted off the bay and rippled through her hair, which was wild and free, not like the coiffed helmet hair of the other women at her table. She wasn’t dressed like the others either. She wore faded jeans and a white muslin cotton blouse that rustled in the breeze along with her hair. She looked like—a hippie.
He sat fused between Mother and Uncle Nick. The Holy Trinity they were. Nick checked his Rolex, and Mother checked her Lady Seiko. While the white people had better clothes, the Greeks had better watches. Nick swapped marijuana for them, and everyone had a good one, even One-Eye, who could barely see and was too senile to tell time.
George looked at his, a Timex chronograph with dials, a stopwatch, and a display of the phases of the moon. It was almost time to meet the courier, so he ratcheted up the flirtation, leaning toward the girl and smiling big.
She smiled too.
Mother noticed the drama and raised an eyebrow. When Nick saw what was happening, he shuddered. In their Pantheon, skinny blondes were right up there with demons, and they did not want George tempted. He, The One with the Precocious Vocabulary, would be needed in the inevitable battle with their sworn enemy, Lazarus.
Bold action was needed if he were to get her phone number. Rising from the cement bench, extricating himself from the suffocating embrace of family, he unfurled himself to his full five foot seven inches and fixed a steely, manly gaze on her.
She looked him up and down, and he started toward her.
She stood too!
Everyone at both tables froze, their mouths in mid-chew, forks in mid-air. It looked like a tableau on the Parthenon. Only One-Eye didn’t know what was happening. Her empty socket, permanently shut from glaucoma surgery, faced the girl, so she didn’t see a thing, and she kept yakking in Greek about some dispute over olive groves back in her village when she was a girl. Finally, even she realized there was a problem, and she turned and focused her good eye on George and then at the temptress. When she realized the girl was a xenia, a stranger, her mouth dropped open in shock.
An older man, had to be the girl’s father, stood and grabbed her wrist to keep her in place, and a young man jumped up and stood in front of George. About George’s age, but a full head taller, he wore fancy snake-skin cowboy boots and a bright blue shirt with pearl snaps. What a caricature of a cowboy. He had a square jaw that jutted forward; his pearl snaps glistened in the sunlight. He leaned forward and scowled. Was he her boyfriend? That square jaw beckoned, and George was about to punch it, knowing the guy wasn’t expecting it. How surprised would he be when his head got knocked back? His eyes would roll up in their sockets, and his body would crumble and fall to the ground.
Merriment reigned in the rest of the park. People sang happy birthday at one table, men drank beer and turned steaks on a grill at another, teenagers threw a softball in an open field, children played tag, squealing with delight.
But that was all far away. All that existed was that jaw. And the girl. What would be the outcome of that blow? A race riot? Would the others in the park be drawn into the melee, choosing sides based on skin color? Would the hostilities escalate into the looting of nearby stores? Would it rival the Detroit race riot of the previous long hot summer? Would it be called the Greek vs. Cowboy Fourth of July Barbecue Riot?
“George,” the voice of reason called. It was Mother, standing behind him, talking in his right ear, putting herself at risk if the punches flew. “What are you doing?”
What was he doing? Fighting over a white girl he didn’t even know? The laws of the cosmos were immutable, set in concrete, etched on stone tablets. White people stayed with white people. Brown people stayed with brown people. Blacks stayed with blacks. And Greeks remained with Greeks. He would be a fool to chuck two thousand five hundred years of collective Greek history into the wastebasket to chase after a white girl.
He stormed past everyone and headed toward the bay.
But when he looked back, she was looking at him. Framed by the green grass and blue sky, she hadn’t moved.
That made him stop.
Who said everything was preordained? It was 1968, for God’s sake. The world was going crazy. Boys were letting their hair grow long, and girls were burning their bras. Kids were smoking pot and listening to rock and roll records and fucking people they barely knew in the back seats of their parents’ cars. Why couldn’t he have a girlfriend who wasn’t Greek?
Her father had a firm grip on her wrist, though. She squirmed, but he wouldn’t let go.
Lest he turn into a pillar of salt, George turned and kept walking, lust bubbling inside him like he was a cauldron.
The fragrant salt air and sea breeze calmed him. He walked past the jetty to the crowded pier where fishermen hawked their wares. One fisherman, big and burly, stood in front of his boat. His face was sunburned and peeling, one of those pale faces that probably never tanned but went straight from white to red. He had a gap between his two front teeth. A younger man, barely older than George, stood behind him and scowled to reveal an identical gap between his front teeth. Had to be father and son.
“Help a good ol’ Texas boy out,” Gap-Tooth the Father called out to a young couple strolling the pier. “Buy a few fish from me. When I fill out my income tax, I can’t put that my occupation is a lady’s man. I’ve got to make at least a few sales to stay legitimate.”
The couple laughed and gave him money. The Father wrapped the fish in newspaper, but they didn’t like the smell and shoved them back. They let him keep the money, though. What a sweet deal. Gap-Tooth could report the cash or not report it. He could eat the fish or resell them. There was no way for anyone to know if there had been any fish at all.
Was this something his family might apply to their own business?
Pondering this, he hiked back. Mother and Nick waited at the picnic table, pacing like they were outside a hospital emergency room, both obsessively checking their watches. As soon as they saw him, they waved frantically. “Time to go,” Nick yelled.
Only fossils of the girl remained. Half-eaten platters of barbecue, a Styrofoam cup with lipstick on the rim, crumpled-up napkins.
Nick owned a Greek-blue 1958 Olds. George settled into the back seat and waited for them to say something about the girl. Any second, like predators, they would pounce. They never yelled, never hit. They relied on shame. A head shake and a disapproving glance punctuated by the word for shame—dropeé— hurt more than a punch.
Mother turned to him. Her face was grim. He braced himself.
“Lazarus’s brother got out of Joliet prison today. We got word right before the picnic.”
This wasn’t what he expected. He knew Lazarus had a brother, but he’d been in prison forever. They rarely talked about him.
“His name is Joey, right? And Lazarus and Joey are identical twins, right?”
“Yes,” she said.
He waited for her to elaborate, but she didn’t. And she never said anything about the girl, either.
They stored the marijuana at Nick’s house, a massive two-story Victorian on a tree-lined boulevard of meticulously maintained mansions in The Land That Time Forgot. Once the homes and second homes of oil millionaires and rice farmers, this one had fallen into Nick’s hands. George didn’t know what he’d done to get it, but you didn’t get big houses for selling watches and marijuana.
It had grown steadily more dilapidated over the years. The porch sagged, weeds choked the yard, and most of the gingerbread and spindle decorations had fallen from the roofline. Desperate to hang onto their village roots, they maintained a chicken coop alongside the house, unfazed by the fact that the neighbors would have nothing to do with them and never even said hello.
Nick ran inside, carefully stepping over a loose board in the steps, and emerged a minute later with a burlap bag slung Santa-clause style across his back. The next-door neighbor, a perky young woman, peeked out her blinds of them.
George sank into the upholstery. The world was a dangerous place. The neighbors were suspicious of them; he was lusting after a xenia; Joey was out of prison.
George and Mother lived a few miles away in a modest, two-story wood-frame house on a narrow lot between two bungalows. Its best feature, and the reason they’d bought the place, was its detached garage, which sat at the end of the driveway, and was barely visible from the street.
There was a padlock made of case-hardened steel on the side door to the garage. The neighborhood might burn down or get knocked all to hell by a hurricane, but that lock would survive.
George unlocked it and put it in his pocket, then helped them stack the marijuana bricks in the storage cabinets at the back of the garage. When the car with Illinois plates arrived, Nick raised the overhead garage door. George went into the house and watched from a window to ensure no one disturbed them. The hillbilly neighbors on one side weren’t home. Their hound dog napped on the porch. The childless couple who lived on the other side wasn’t home either. No one walked the street.
Time passed. Five minutes. Ten minutes. The padlock weighed down his jeans. He took it out and played with it, locking and unlocking it, and then accidentally dropped it. It hit his big toe. Boy, did that hurt, even though he wore tennis shoes. You could bash someone’s skull in with that.
The side door opened abruptly, and Nick tromped out scowling and raised the overhead door. He looked at George and shook his head. The courier drove away, a smirk on his mouth. Mother, also scowling, came out with two brown paper sacks with the outline of a box inside each one. Way too big for watches. They came into the house, and she set them on the kitchen table.
“Cameras,” she said. She might as well have been talking about lumps of coal. “They sent cameras instead of watches. No one up there in Chicago said anything about cameras.”
She slid a sack across to George, and he pulled the box out and set it on the table. It was a Nikon camera. He spun it around to examine each side. Maybe, if one didn’t sell, he’d get it. “Wow, this is neat. I bet it’s expensive.”
“That’s the problem,” Nick moaned. “Watches are one thing. Everyone wants a watch or jewelry, and we sell them so cheap compared to the stores that we can sell as many as we get. But these are expensive cameras. Who’s going to spend a lot of money on a camera? Maybe if we got a load of Brownies or Polaroids. You pay a few bucks for one of those, more for the Polaroid. You take them out of the box, and you get good pictures. But these cameras, Nikons, you got to pay a lot for these, and who the hell knows how to use them. Boy, Chicago got the better end of the deal on this one. They must have gotten them and didn’t know what to do with them, so they dumped them on us.”
Mother and Nick looked at each other.
“Lazarus,” they said simultaneously.
“He is behind it all,” she said. “He fixed it so this delivery would be on the same day we heard about Joey.”
The afternoon shadows grew long and melded with their gloom. One ray of light fell across the table and highlighted his skin. He was a shade lighter than everyone else in the family. That coloration had to have come from his father. He’d been told his father’s name was Mike, but he’d never met him, didn’t know if he was alive or dead, never seen a picture. He was an ancient myth. Mike came down from the heavens with wings on his cap and sandals, got Mother the Beautiful pregnant, and flew back up into the clouds.
He looked at his skin and then their darker skin.
“Lazarus is blond-headed and light-skinned, right? So I guess his twin brother is too.”
“Yes,” she said.
“Why was Joey in prison?”
“Murder,” she said.
She hesitated. “We were all involved. Lazarus, me, Nick, Joey. Joey took the fall. He and Lazarus blame us. It’s how Nick got the big house. It’s why we moved down here.”
“And the murder happened right about the time I was born?”
“Do you have any pictures of Lazarus or Joey?”
“We left Chicago with barely the clothes on our back,” she said. “There are no pictures.” She paused. “Look, George, there might be a fight with Joey out of prison.”
“Is there any way to avoid a fight?” George asked. “Maybe we could talk to them and negotiate.”
“You can’t trust Lazarus,” she said. “Even if he says he’s with us, he’ll stab us in the back.”
“Maybe there’s something new we could offer them to make peace,” George said. “It’s 1968. Time for change. Every day on the radio, it’s the same message. Times are changing. We have to change with them. The Beatles and The Doors and the other groups are the new prophets.”
Nick crossed himself. “God, save us! What’s wrong with the old prophets? Moses and Noah and all those guys? What kind of crazy stuff are you talking about?” He looked at his Rolex. “We’re late, we’re late,” he said like the White Rabbit. “They’re waiting for watches at The Silver Bar, and we’ve got to try to sell cameras. Come on, George.”
They’d never allowed him to go to The Silver Bar. “But I’m underage.”
Nick chuckled. “Like you said, it’s time for change. It’s time for you to go to The Silver Bar.”
As the rough beast slouching to Bethlehem, George was coming of age.. BUY NOW
The fun continues in George: The Lost Year, the second novel of THE SAGA OF GEORGE trilogy. Abandoned by his beloved Kelly, George gets drawn back into the family business. He and Mose, a junkie, drive a load of marijuana cross country. At the end of his odyssey, he will wed a girl he's never met in an arranged marriage. George: The Lost Year tells the story of a mob boss in training. BUY NOW
George took the last puff off the last joint and wondered when, or if, Uncle Nick would arrive. Three days had passed. Very Biblical. And way too long. It was only a two-day drive from Houston to Colorado. Something bad had happened. There was only one explanation. Lazarus had killed Nick and, any second, he would break down the door to George’s motel room and shoot him too.
The roach glowed a bright red as he puffed. Little more than an ember, it stuck to his thumb. He tried to shake it off, but it wouldn’t come loose. Staying perfectly still despite the searing pain, he took careful aim with the nail of his middle finger and struck it full force. It shot forward, still burning, veered to the right, and landed in the garbage can overflowing with crumpled paper sacks and half-eaten carryout meals.
The last thing he needed was a fire. He would have checked on it, but squeaking wheels distracted him. They rolled down the cement breezeway outside his room, growing louder as they approached. It had to be Lazarus. He had come with so many guns that he needed a cart to carry them all, and they were so heavy that the wheels strained under the weight.
He got Original Sin from where he’d hidden it between the mattress and box springs and tiptoed to the peephole with his finger curled around the trigger.
It was only the maids with a cart full of towels and sheets.
A shower would calm his nerves and help him figure out what to do. He laid the gun on the bed and dropped his clothes on the floor. The warm, soapy-smelling steam enveloped him, and, like mighty Zeus, he drifted in the clouds in the celestial realms, joining Apollo, Athena, and, last but not least, Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry. There were some other Gods, but they didn’t wear name tags. A pack of hippies crashed the party. They brought lots of dope to smoke. And Kelly materialized in the mist dressed in white robes. “I’m going to give you another chance,” she said. “Don’t fuck it up.” Oh, he was glad to see her.
Feet marched down the breezeway, the sound vibrating through the thin wall. They were heavy, clunky men’s feet in hard-soled shoes. They stopped at his door. Knuckles rapped on the wood.
He crept out of the shower dripping and naked, picked up Original Sin, and put his eye on the peephole. A swarthy man in khakis and a white t-shirt stood outside. He had to be Greek, but that didn’t mean anything. There was a stain on his T-shirt, like tomato paste. That didn’t mean anything, either. Lazarus could have sent an assassin who worked as a cook when he wasn’t killing people. Life was an ongoing existential crisis. An enemy would look exactly like a friend. You never knew the truth until later, and then it didn’t matter.
Nick stepped up next to the man. In an uncertain universe, there was one constant: family. They would never betray him. George slid Original Sin back under the mattress, put on his jeans, and unlocked the door. Like a soldier on a dangerous mission, Nick stepped inside and surveyed the unmade bed and the clothes and trash on the floor. “You remember Minas, don’t you?” he said in Greek, the Marlboro in his mouth bobbing up and down as he talked. “He works here in Durango at The Golden Flame. You met him at the wedding when we met Maria’s family.”
George had only been fourteen at the time of that wedding, so he didn’t remember him, but Minas would be insulted if he said he didn’t. “Oh, yes, of course.”
They hugged like best friends.
Nick sniffed the air. “Something’s on fire.”
George smelled it too. It wasn’t the sweet fragrance of marijuana. It was a harsh, acrid odor.
A plume of smoke rose from the trash.
The roach had set the leftovers on fire!
Nick kicked the can over, scattering the rubbish across the floor, and he and Minas stomped on the embers like they were dancing the Kalamatiano.
In the room below, someone banged on the ceiling. “What’s going on up there?” a voice yelled.
While Minas continued stomping, Nick gathered the clothes strewn around the room. “The money? Did she take the money?”
“In the bottom of my suitcase. It’s all there. Fourteen thousand. Kelly didn’t take even a dollar. She’s a wonderful person. I’m in love with her, and she’s going to have our baby.”
When George had called for help, he hadn’t mentioned the pregnancy. Nick and Minas stopped, then started working faster than ever. Nick threw the clothes into the two suitcases, randomly mingling Kelly’s clothes with his. Minas stuffed all the garbage into a plastic laundry bag, moving frantically, sweeping up every last crust of bread and piece of lettuce, and even wiping the carpet clean with napkins.
When they finished, Nick snapped the suitcases shut, catching a pair of George’s underwear in the lid of one of them. The white fabric stuck out.
“Stand up,” Nick told him. George wobbled to his feet, and Nick took an Orthodox cross out of his pocket. It was beautiful with fluted gold ends. “From now on, you will wear this. We’ve got some tough times ahead. It will protect you.”
He put it around George’s neck like he was knighting him. The cross, still warm and damp from being in Nick’s pocket, settled into his chest hairs. It did seem to transfer heavenly energy. George crossed himself and put on a T-shirt.
“Let’s go,” Nick said. He hefted the trash bag over his back like Santa Claus and led them out. The sun blinded George. It was an Allegory-of-the-Cave moment. The Enlightenment was too much. When he reached the end of the breezeway, he grabbed the railing to keep from falling and looked down the steps to the ground a million miles away.
Sly watched Nick the Greek start down the steps with a garbage sack slung over his shoulder. For sure, it was him. He hadn’t gotten a good look at his face before, but there was no longer any doubt.
Terrified that Nick would recognize him, even though he wore dark sunglasses, he slumped down in his seat. Then, curiosity got him. What was in the garbage sack? Drugs?
He peeked over the dashboard of his rented Chevy.
A skinny kid with uncombed curly black hair was right behind Nick. It had to be the kid Lazarus wanted him to kill. He was young, really young. Probably not even twenty. He didn’t look like a badass at all, not at all what he had expected. Why was Lazarus so worked up over him?
The kid wobbled as he walked like he was really stoned. He gripped the railing and looked down at the ground like he wasn’t sure he could make it. Nick looked back up at him.
Sly should have made his move earlier when Lazarus had called with the room number. The kid had probably been alone up there. It might have been easy to kill him. But he had expected a badass barricaded in the room with guns. Sly, after all, was not an assassin. He was a singer in a rock-and-roll band, a good-looking, Mick-Jagger-lookalike with a shag haircut that made the girls scream. Demo records of his song “Chick in Slacks” were out everywhere. So far, no record producers had shown any interest, and Sly couldn’t understand why, but someone would recognize his greatness sooner or later. Sure, he’d had that setback when his enemies stole all his band’s equipment because he couldn’t pay his coke debts. They should have been more understanding. No equipment meant no gigs. No gigs meant no money. No money meant no coke. That desperation had led him to Lazarus and that dark alley, the whole thing happening so fast he hardly realized how serious it was when Lazarus gave him the gun, and he blew the guy’s brains out. He hadn’t minded killing the guy, messy as it was, but he hadn’t understood until later that Lazarus owned him after that.
The other guy followed the kid. He carried two suitcases. Since Nick and the guy had their hands full, and the kid was stoned, none of them could react fast. What if he ran up and shot all three? Would that make Lazarus happy? He never could tell how Lazarus was going to react.
What was in the suitcases? Drugs? Why else would Lazarus want the kid killed? The kid had stolen drugs from Lazarus. What kind of drugs? The sack Nick carried might hold pot, but not enough to be worth killing someone over. The suitcases might have powders, though. Maybe coke. That would be worth killing someone over.
Something white stuck out of one of the suitcases. A piece of cloth or wrapping paper? He’d seen a shipment of coke with all the plastic bags wrapped in white butcher paper. That was it. It was coke, and the wrapper around one of the bags had come loose and gotten stuck in the suitcase lid. He imagined the plastic bags. It had been almost two days since he’d had any coke, and he stared lovingly at his snorting kit on the seat next to him. He picked it up and looked at himself in its mirror. How handsome he was. Whenever he felt low, he looked at himself in that mirror and felt better.
The gun lay under the seat. For coke, he would run a risk. He put up the kit and gripped the gun.
George kept looking down the steps, not sure he could make it. He scanned the lot, hoping to see the beacon of solace and stability: Nick’s pride-and-joy 1958 Greek-blue Buick with the worry beads hanging from the rear-view mirror. The lot, which had been packed when he and Kelly checked in, was almost empty. There were three cars: George’s Jeep, a bright red Cadillac Seville parked next to it, and at the opposite end, a new-looking Chevy. But no Buick.
There was movement in the Chevy. A guy popped up in the front seat and peeked over the dashboard. He looked kind of like Mick Jagger with sunglasses. George rubbed his eyes, and he didn’t see him when he looked again. Maybe he was hallucinating.
The sun sparkled in his eyes; afterimages danced in his retina. Don’t turn into a pillar of salt, he told himself. One foot in front of the other. Focus on your feet. With a firm hand on the railing, he started down. His knees felt weak, and he wobbled, but he made it to the bottom without falling.
“Where’s the Buick?”
“It broke down,” Nick said, leading them to the Cadillac. “That’s why I’m so late getting here. I was getting ready to hit the road when it broke down.” He wiped a tear from his eye. “I loved that car, but look at this.” He caressed the Cadillac’s fender. “This model is restyled in the Eldorado image.” He sounded like a salesman. “The rear is extended to give it a longer look. The hood is extended too. By two point five inches.”
George ran his hand along the gleaming steel. “Wow. Very cool. Like a winged chariot. Like time’s winged chariot.”
Nick looked at him like he was crazy.
“It’s from the Marvell poem. ‘At my back I always hear, Time’s winged chariot drawing near.’ It’s a great poem. ‘To My Coy Mistress.’ By Andrew Marvell.”
Mick Jagger popped up over the top of the dashboard again and looked at the suitcases. What was so fascinating about bags filled with dirty laundry?
“There’s a guy in that car,” George said.
Nick and Minas turned to look, but the guy ducked under the dash. They turned back to George.
“He’s there. I swear.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Nick said. “Give Minas your car keys. He’s going to drive your Jeep to Austin, and we’ll pick it up there.”
When Kelly had walked out on him, he had been in emotional freefall and had done what any self-respecting Greek would do: call his mother. He hadn’t thought of the consequences. The Jeep had been his passport to a new life. By handing over the keys, he would be reabsorbed into the family. He would drive the Jeep again, but it would become part of the family motor pool, an appendage, one of many tentacles. When he had picked up the motel phone to call for help, he had willingly relinquished free will. Handing over the keys was merely the formal transfer of title.
“The keys,” Nick repeated.
What choice had he ever had?
They glistened in the sun. Nick looked at them. Minas wiped his hands on his t-shirt, evidently sensing the act's deep symbolism. Somewhat reluctantly, as if he too were making an unalterable commitment, he took them and drove off in the Jeep.
Suddenly, George remembered Original Sin.
“The gun. I left it in the room.”
“I thought you were going to get rid of it.”
He had intended to get rid of it. If he had, Kelly might not have left him. But it was the only remnant of Joey: the man who might have been his father. The man he had killed. What kind of screwed-up twist on Oedipus was that?
Surging adrenalin powered him up the stairs two at a time. A gaggle of maids were rolling the cart up to his room and stopped when they saw him. He scooted in front of them and jumped inside the room. The haze of marijuana and burned garbage lingered. He pulled Original Sin out from between the mattress and box springs, stuffed it down his pants, and raced out. The maids, frozen in place, watched.
The Seville waited at the bottom of the steps, engine running, Nick gripping the steering wheel. George bounded down the steps two at a time, feeling like he was about to jump into Time’s winged chariot or that he was the God Hermes with winged sandals and a winged cap.
Sadly, the adrenalin was draining out of him, bucket-with-a-big-hole style. His feet turned to lead, and he lost the Zen stride. The gun bounced free and flew into the air. He reached for it as if in slow motion; his fingers touched the grip for a second, but then it spun away. Off-balance, he tumbled head over heels down to the sidewalk, he and the gun hitting the ground simultaneously, the gun discharging with a loud crack.
Feeling no pain, he jumped to his feet, scooped up the gun, and jumped into the Caddy. Nick sped away; they both looked back. No one was around. The maids did not appear on the landing. No one ran out of any of the rooms.
“You okay?” Nick asked.
Expecting to see a bone sticking through his skin, or a bullet hole in his chest, he examined himself. There was no sign of injury, not even a scrape. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
Nick looked at him. “It’s the cross around your neck. It protected you. Don’t ever take it off.”
George looked back. The Chevy was rolling out of the parking lot behind them. “We got company. It’s a guy that looks like Mick Jagger.”
Nick glanced in the rearview mirror. “Who’s Mick Jagger?”
“A rock-and-roll star.”
“Everybody tries to look like a singer these days. I can’t tell them apart.” He looked in the mirror again. “We’ll drive on for a way. If he doesn’t follow us, we’ll stop at a payphone and call your mother. If he follows, well—”
Crack, crack, crack.
His wife and his petherá were cracking pecans in the kitchen, the sound louder as he approached.
They scowled when he reached them.
“What?” he asked in English, trying to sound innocent.
“We need to talk to you,” his wife, Maria, said in Greek.
He held up the attaché case with the monthly bribe money. “I have to go to the mall to meet Roberto. Can it wait until I get back? I won’t be gone more than a couple of hours.”
She laughed. “Yesterday, you left in the afternoon and said you’d get back in a couple of hours, and you didn’t get home until three this morning.”
They always assumed he’d been out with a girlfriend, which in this case, was true. “I know, I know,” he moaned. “There is so much going on. My trip to Chicago for Panayías. Then back here for the five-year memorial for your father. So much to do. I have been working long hours to tie up all the loose ends before I step on the plane.”
They cracked hard like they were smashing his nuts; their movements synchronized as if they were different appendages of the same being. Dressed in black, obviously mother and daughter, dark-haired and large-breasted, they might as well have been in their village in Greece with the donkeys braying outside and a church bell tolling in the distance.
The gardener roared past the window on their ride-on mower, leaving a wake of grass blades on their acre of manicured lawn. When the sound faded, George’s petherá—his mother-in-law—hissed like a rattlesnake. “Sit down.”
The petherá had her place in the universe along with the serpents, mosquitoes, cockroaches, and the various assorted plagues and calamities. George accepted God’s plan even though he did not understand it. He slid into his chair at the head of the table.
“We want to hire a band for the memorial,” Maria said. “We want Jimmy and the Corinthians.”
Few people deserved less fanfare than old, dead Manoli. Even his demise, a heart attack after gorging himself on lamb at a wedding and then dancing a fast Kalamatianó, left little to admire. The memorial wasn’t about him, though. It was about George advancing his career. “I think that is an excellent idea,” he said in formal Greek. “I wish I had thought of it. And I would love to have Jimmy. But he is a big shot. We won’t be able to get him on such short notice. Maybe we can get another band.”
Maria barely waited for the words to get out of his mouth. “He had a cancellation. He and his band are available. We have to pay for planes and hotels, but it will be worth it. My father will be so happy looking down from heaven to see him play.”
Even though he loved the idea, he didn’t want to give in to them too quickly. “I don’t know. We’re already spending so much. Filet mignons, lobster, shrimp cocktails, and a three-tiered cake. Do we need to hire a big band?”
Maria folded her arms across her massive bosom. “This is the five-year memorial! How many more times will my father be dead for five years?” She paused. “Plus, think how good it will make you look. Everyone who is anyone will come to town.”
He envisioned the scene with all his mob brethren, crammed into the Zeus and Hera Restaurant, smiling, singing the old songs, and complimenting him on how wonderful it was. “Okay, go ahead and put a downpayment.”
“I wired him the money yesterday. I tried to reach you. I called you at the Zeus twice. I called on your car phone. I called your art gallery. I couldn’t reach you. I was going to tell you last night—but you didn’t get home until three in the morning.”
“Our business is a tough one,” he said. “Long hours. Odd hours. You made the right decision to hire him. I am so lucky to have someone like you taking care of things here at the house while I am out earning a living.”
They scowled and started cracking again.
“What about Pano?” he asked, looking over at the large framed picture of his boss on the wall. “Will he come down here for the memorial?”
Maria shook her head. “I don’t think he’ll come.”
“Did you tell his wife I’ll pay for him and me to fly down here together in first-class seats?”
She nodded. “Yes, I told her. His doctor says he’s fine. But he’s not feeling well.”
“He’s not feeling well, but his doctor says he's fine? That doesn’t make sense.”
“Well, that’s what the doctor said.”
They cracked more pecans.
“Have you chosen Pano’s gift?” Maria asked.
George took him a gift each year when he flew to Chicago for the Panayías holiday. Panayías, commemorating the Virgin Mary's death, was Pano’s name day, so the mobsters tried to outdo each other by bringing the best gift. “Yes. I have it at the art gallery.”
They stopped cracking and looked at him.
“That is one of the reasons I was out so late last night,” he lied. “I have the gift in the safe at The Crossroads.”
“What is it? An icon? Wine glasses?”
He smiled. “I’ll bring it home today, but you can’t tell anyone what it is. I don’t want Lazaus finding out about it and trying to outdo me at the last minute.”
They both swore secrecy, and then Maria took a deep breath. She looked at her mother and then back at him.
“The thing is—” She paused. “All the wives up there—are talking about how wonderful the celebration here will be. It has turned out to be so elaborate, and everyone is talking. Since we have invited so many—and since we have invited Pano—.” She paused again.
“What? What is it you’re trying to say?” He picked up a pecan and popped it into his mouth
“Since we invited Pano—I think we have to invite—Lazarus.”
It was as if a bullet had crashed into his chest. He slammed his fist down on the table. The pecans bounced into the air. “We can’t have Laz—”
The pecan caught in his throat, and he choked.
Maria and his petherá jumped to their feet and slapped him on the back to dislodge it. It flew across the kitchen and landed on the floor.
“Lazarus tried to kill me,” George said when he finished gagging. More than once. Have you forgotten? I will not allow him in this house.”
“There’s been peace for so long. Lazarus won’t cause trouble. Pano told him to stop trying to kill you.”
“He is just waiting for Pano to die, and then he’ll make his move.”
“There will be hurt feelings if we don’t invite him.”
“No, he can’t come here.” Anger built up inside him. “Have you already invited him?”
“No, we would never do that without asking you.”
“Have you called his wife?”
“No, I swear I haven’t called Lazarus’s wife.”
“Do not invite him.”
“I will not invite him.” She paused. “You know, if you’re worried about him, you need a bodyguard. I always tell you to get one, and you never listen.”
To George, “bodyguard” meant “chaperone.” He did not want anyone to know who his girlfriends were. Besides, Lazarus would never dare move on him as long as Pano was alive.
“And stop going to the mall. Everybody knows you own an art gallery there. If someone wants to kill you, that’s where they’ll try to do it. People think you’re getting soft with that damn Crossroads Art Gallery.”
His petherá tapped her head with her finger. “Your brains are soft like yogurt.”
George grabbed the attaché case and started toward the door.
“I’m cooking chicken and potatoes tonight,” Maria yelled after him. “Don’t be late. It’ll be ready at five. And I need you to pick up a tub of feta at the Zeus and Hera on your way home. I will make spanakopita for the memorial, and I need the feta.”
Reduced to an errand boy, he raced outside. The suffocating, humid air clubbed him. There was no breeze; the tyrannical yellow sun hovered over the spires of their Victorian house; moss hung straight down off the live oaks.
Sweat gushed from his body, and God’s plan became clear. Houston was a foretaste of Hell, where he was sure to spend all eternity.
The gardener rounded the house at full speed, looking like an Indy race car driver. Not wanting to kill the famed mob boss, he veered sharply, and a gust of wind, probably the only gust during the whole fucking day, caught the clippings and showered them on George. It was hard to look sophisticated with grass blades fluttering about you, but he never faltered in his practiced nonchalance as he sauntered forward and slid into his long, lean black Jaguar. Pressing the accelerator down, he escaped up I-45 to the mall, weaving through traffic, the air conditioner on high, all the vents pointed at his face.
His art gallery, The Crossroads, sat on a prime corner on the mall's second level. It was a light, airy space with abstract prints, mixed-media sculptures, and oil paintings of stark desert landscapes.
The clerk came up to him. “A woman came by an hour ago and asked for you.”
“What was her name?”
“She didn’t say.”
“What did she look like?”
“Sandy blond. Attractive. Fixed up. Late thirties or early forties.”
Just his type. “Anything else distinctive about her?”
“Uh, she wore a purple dress. An expensive-looking dress.”
Sounded delightful. “If she comes back, get her name and phone number.”
He entered his office, locked the door, and opened the wall safe. Inside was only one item: a wooden box lined with purple velvet. It contained an icon of the Virgin Mary. The iconographer had painted her face onto the cypress in the traditional Byzantine style. Each brushstroke, each color was perfect. Silver inlay radiated from her like a halo; the encrusted jewels and enamel glowed. Even though he wasn’t devout, he had trouble catching his breath and automatically crossed himself.
Specially made in Greece and shipped directly to the gallery, it was bound to be the best gift. Lazarus would not outdo him this time. Even if his petheráblabbed about how glorious it was, and word got back to Chicago, there was not enough time for his archenemy to find anything better. Feeling secure, he carefully placed it back in its box and marched out with it in one hand and the attaché in the other.
A purple dress caught his eye like a shiny lure that led a fish to certain doom.
An attractive woman stood outside the gallery looking inside through the floor-to-ceiling window.
While he loved women in all shapes, sizes, and colors, he particularly loved those who looked like Kelly, the girlfriend of his wayward teen years. And this one sure did look like her. She had a trim, athletic body and an exotic, slightly angular face, almost Greek.
He stopped and took a full, lusty drink of her beauty.
It had been twenty-three years since he’d seen Kelly. She was bound to look different, but, damn, he thought it was her.
A brunette walked up next to her and, motioning to another store, pulled her away.
He ran into the hall as the purple dress disappeared into the crowd. Shoppers blocked his path, their arms laden with God knows what—handbags, shirts, blouses, jeans, household knickknacks, cutlery, baby clothes, fine chocolate.
When he finally broke through, she was gone. He looked left and right; he raced forward, then doubled back. Then, he walked down each hall, peering into the stores, but never saw her or her friend. She had to be in one of them, and he even stepped into an elegant women’s store with displays of evening gowns because he thought that was the kind of place where she would shop.
She wasn’t anywhere he looked.
Finally, he gave up and rode the escalator to the food court. Roberto waited. In a dark suit, tie, and a crisp white shirt, his high school buddy—now a State Representative—sipped an espresso at a bistro table overlooking the ice-skating rink.
An attaché case sat on the floor beside him. It was identical to the one George carried, except it had a dent. George had bought them to exchange money and documents, but then he saw a movie about accidentally-switched briefcases. He had agonized about the possibility of such mistakes, but the problem had solved itself when a drug runner went crazy, and George hit him in the head with one attaché, crushing his skull. The impact left a slight dent in the case, distinguishing it from the other.
“You’re late,” Roberto said, looking nervously one way and then another. As a kid, he’d gone by the nickname Beto but stopped using that name when he graduated from law school.
“I want to start meeting somewhere else.”
George thought to remind him who had bankrolled his political career, but he let it go. “Okay.”
“Is everything the same? The same amounts to everyone?”
“Yeah, no changes.”
Roberto snatched the case with the money and strolled off without saying goodbye or looking back. That was how things had become between them. Could he be trusted in the clutch? That was something to worry about another day. He put the box with the icon into the dented attaché and wandered the mall, looking for Kelly, finally working his way back toward his gallery.
There she was, standing by herself.
They moved to each other like magnets.
“Where’s your friend?” he asked.
“She had to go home.”
He couldn’t believe he was standing there with her. “It’s been twenty-three years,” he said. “We only live a few miles from each other, but I never see you.”
“Yeah, life’s a trip, isn’t it.”
“You talk like a hippie.”
“Not usually. Seeing you makes me feel like a hippie again. I remember when we eloped and smoked a joint on the Interstate.”
They stood there, inches apart from each other. The shoppers passed all around. He wanted to pull her close and kiss her. “Were you looking for me?” he asked.
“I came looking for you the last few days. And then today, my friend wanted to meet for lunch, so I told her to meet here.” She pushed her sandy hair behind her ear as she did in the motel on the highway when they sat naked and cross-legged on the bed and planned to elope.
“How do you know about my gallery?”
She laughed. “Everyone knows about the gangster that owns an art gallery. It’s not something you’d expect. A strip club? Yeah, people would expect a gangster to own a strip club. But not an art gallery. Why’d you buy it?”
“You know, I wanted to be a photographer and have my work displayed in galleries. My dream slipped from my grasp, along with you. The Crossroads is my consolation prize. The previous owner was in trouble, so I got it cheap. It’s a bad investment, but I enjoy seeing the art and meeting the artists.”
She shook her head. “That sounds like something you’d do.”
The dress clung to her taut, luscious body like Saran wrap. “You’re more beautiful than ever,” he said. “And my God, you are as adventuresome as ever to come looking for me after all these years.”
Her eyes twinkled. “I’ll never forget when we got off the road in the desert. I can still hear your boots crunching on all those loose rocks as you climbed up that hill.”
“It’s funny now, but it wasn’t funny then. When I got to the top, I looked in all directions. There were no roads, no sign of life. Only desolation and dust swirling around me in the hot, dry wind. I thought we’d die.”
She touched his face, letting her fingers rest on his cheek. “Oh, George, my life turned out bad. I never loved Clint, but it keeps getting worse.”
“What’s going on that’s so bad?”
She started to say something but then shook her head and let her hand fall to her side. “I shouldn’t have come here. But I’ve never stopped thinking about you. We always had a spark.”
An orchestral rendition of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” played on the overhead speakers, and he felt all sappy, like a stupid, lovesick punk teenager. A mannequin in a three-piece suit looked at him from a store window. Its sober face warned him not to be a sucker for her again. He had to keep his mind on business.
“Meet me,” she whispered, the smell of her perfume captivating him. “Meet me tomorrow. At six. Somewhere where no one will see us.”
No, no, no, he couldn’t meet her. His whole future depended on what happened in the upcoming days. He had to go to Chicago and sit with his mob brethren, and then he had to return to Houston and pretend he was mourning for his worthless father-in-law.
But it was like they were teenagers again, meeting in the park, leaving notes for each other, fucking in the backseat of her car. The blood rushed from his head, banishing rational thought, making him little more than an amoeba responding to an overpowering stimulus. The words came out of his mouth of their own volition. “There’s a place. Very private. Jean Paul’s.”
“Is that another one of your places?”
“Yes, I own it.”
“I know where it is. I’ll be there at six.”
She turned and disappeared into the crowd.
Lazarus laid the three guns on the kitchen table of his love nest, a second-floor walk-up in a Chicago brownstone. Which one to use to kill George? The Ruger Standard was a strong contender. With its blued carbon steel finish and wood grip, he was proud to have it in his arsenal. However, the Ruger MK II was equally impressive and accurate at a distance. But the Baretta 71 was excellent too. It was small and lightweight and could fit in a pants pocket. All three were cold and had never been fired during a crime.
Many guns had presented themselves to him over the years, but only these three had what it took to be finalists.
One and only one could be chosen, and with Pano about to die, the time had come to decide.
Their barrels were smooth. He ran his fingers over each one, hoping to get some signal from his twin brother, Joey. Nothing could break their connection—not even his death at the hands of George.
When he massaged the Baretta, he heard Joey’s voice from the other side.
Avenge my death.
Lazarus held the pistol aloft. “Is this the gun to use to kill George?”
He crossed himself. “I will avenge your death, my brother! You can count on me.”
His plan was a thing of beauty. He had been bribing Pano’s doctor for years, providing money and prostitutes, and never asked for anything but information about his boss’s health. When the doctor realized that Pano was near the end, he told Lazarus first, and Lazarus threatened him with a slow, painful death unless he told Pano he had years ahead of him.
George would never know what was coming.
It was time to go to The Pink Stiletto, so he wrapped the guns in their colorful oilcloths and stored them in a cabinet over the sink. Constantly vigilant, he looked out the window down at the street. Nothing unusual. He shook the iron bars; they were secure. He went into the walk-in closet. A trapdoor led to a crawl space between his apartment and the one on the other side, but it was nailed shut. Solid and secure. Then, he walked to the front door and looked through the peephole. No one in the hall. No one on the landing.
As quietly as possible, he undid each lock on the door and stepped out into the hall. There was only one other apartment on his floor. He’d never met the tenant, but Lazarus only came in the afternoons and only two or three times a week.
He padded down the steps, surprisingly quiet for a big, beefy six-foot man, and slid into his Lincoln parked behind the brownstone. He swept his thinning blond hair back; his steel blue eyes scanned the alley. There was nothing unusual, nothing out of place.
People snapped to attention when he arrived at his strip club. He was Lazarus The Great. Everyone watched him, and he had to act like a silly, lovesick old man so no one would suspect he had murder on his mind.
The host escorted him to his table in front of the stage. A waiter brought him his ouzo and Greek salad as soon as he settled into his seat. Soon his moussaka would arrive. It had been the same for years. Chefs came and went; girls came and went. The food remained the same: burgers and ham sandwiches for the customers, off-the-menu Greek plates for him and his friends. Employment depended on how good the moussaka was. His blood might not be Greek, but no one loved all things Greek.
One of the new girls gyrated to disco music and glided to a stop on her knees in front of him when she finished. He appreciated her efforts and slid a hundred-dollar bill into her G-string. The next dancer was a cowgirl with boots and a cowboy hat. She knew how to shake her butt, which was also worth a hundred bucks.
The maître d marched to the microphone. An old burned-out junkie, he wheezed into the microphone as a waiter set the moussaka in front of Lazarus.
“And now, it’s time for Darla. You all know her. No one shakes it like her. She is—” He checked his notes. “—unrivaled. This is her new routine. We are debuting it this afternoon for all our loyal afternoon customers. Come back tonight for a repeat.”
The house lights dimmed, and a single spot focused on the stage door. Darla came out dressed as a Greek goddess, all wrapped up in white robes with her hair curled up on top of her head. She had told Lazarus that her outfit would be a big surprise, and it sure was.
Arms outstretched, she twirled around on high heels, the spotlight following her as Lazarus bit into the creamy goodness of the eggplant and noodle. She looked down at him, and he raised his glass to her.
The music started. It was a Tsifteteli, belly-dance music. She threw off her outer robe to reveal a sheer white see-through gown underneath. Dancing in time to the music, she shook out her long, dark, Greek-looking curls. The crowd went wild as she and her curls spun around.
Lazarus smiled big because people were expecting him to get all excited. He thought about the Beretta pressed against George’s skull, the steel pressing against the bone. “Thank you, Joey,” he said under his breath. “Thank you for showing me which gun to use.”
The music climaxed as Darla stripped down to a G-string. Boy, she was a marvel. Thin waist, big tits. The best body that money could buy. But the best thing about her was that she was a loudmouth. She blabbed every detail about their sex life. Now that Lazarus could finally get it up again, he wanted everyone to believe that sex was the only thing on his mind. No one would suspect what he was planning.
As her tits rotated in the same direction like propeller blades, he rose to his feet and clapped longer and louder than the others. He whistled and put a hundred-dollar bill on each side of her g-string and one in the middle. She leaned down and kissed him. The crowd cheered. For sure, they thought he was a lovesick fool.
When she ran off stage, he sat to finish the last creamy bites of his meal in peace, but wouldn’t you know it, Paul, his henchman, came into the bar.
It had to be bad news.
Paul wore cowboy boots and jeans like he always did since he’d first gone to Texas to spy on George. Lazarus had been born German but tried endlessly to be Greek; Paul had been born Greek and tried to be the Marlboro Man. Life was all fucked up like that.
“Pano may not go to church with you tomorrow,” Paul said, talking low, trembling with fear. He was endlessly loyal, but Lazarus had come to hate him because he looked a lot like George. “His wife just called me. She said he’s feeling horrible.”
That was the worst possible news. The old fart went to every Panayías service. His absence from even one would send alarm bells all the way to Texas. “Who knows?”
“Just me. The doctor told them it’s indigestion, but he’s not going. His wife wanted me to tell you because you always give him a ride to church.”
Lazarus lost his appetite; his fork clattered to the plate. The dark pit of his rage sucked him down, but he took deep breaths and clawed his way back up to the surface. After years of faithful church attendance, lighting candles, and doing his cross at the right time, God didn’t have the decency to let Pano last a few more days before everyone found out how sick he was.
“We strike now,” Lazarus said. “George will turn cautious if Pano misses any church services. Your spies are watching him around the clock, right?”
“Yes. Round the clock.”
“And Lemuel is there and ready?”
“Call Lemuel right now and tell him to kill George as soon as he gets the opportunity. Two bullets to the head. Tell him not to fool around.”
“Have you chosen a gun? You and I could drive down there right now.”
“I have chosen a gun, but there’s no longer any time. If George hears we’re not in church either, he’ll know something is up. We have to let Lemuel do it. Call him now.”
Paul hurried out of the Stiletto. Even though Lazarus had lost his appetite, he managed to force down some of his moussaka. As he had spies following George, George probably had spies following him. Everything had to look normal. Between bites, he whispered to his brother. Joey, I know you wanted me to kill George with the Baretta. But if we get a chance to get him beforehand, we’ll have to do that. I hope you understand.
He thought of the words from the Trisagion for the dead and clasped his hands together in prayer.
O Lord, give rest in a place of light, in a place of green pasture, in a place of refreshment, from where pain and sorrow and mourning have fled away.
He noticed that the guy with one hand was staring at him. He had been coming for years and always sat at a table near the restrooms. He came looking for pussy and hired the older girls who didn’t charge much. Lazarus had even seen him in church but never talked to him. He thought his name was Sotiri.