IGNORE YOUR FIRST question. I’ll explain later why this letter ends with a giant triangle drawn in lamb’s blood. Let’s begin with something else.
You know that plot in the backyard, the one that looks like it’s been kissed by Cain and won’t grow, no matter how much nitrogen old Yiayia dumps on it. It’s me. I’m the reason it won’t grow. I usually wait till noon, when your grandmother takes a nap, but yesterday I couldn’t hold it in. I grabbed my hiking stick and shuffled out the bedroom to the back porch. Made my way to that little plot of earth and barked about growing old.
About how the spine shrinks and the feet flatten, and the nose and ears catch wind of what’s happening and say: “Not to worry chief, we’ll make up for the lost inches.”
About how the thermostat breaks down until you become cold-blooded, like a toad.
How you stop swinging your arms when you walk ’cause your arms see your legs moving, and the left one says to the right: “Shut ’em down boys, looks like we’re off the clock.”
How you get used to people dying. Good at it. Never at a loss for what to say.
How your writing gets all tiny. As if you’re whispering. Until it gets as bad as it was four years ago, before the pills, when the Parkinson’s was spotted.
And I said a lot more crap. Things I won’t say here. Don’t want this letter to yellow and crumble before it reaches you.
What’s your point, Papou? That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it? Get on with the message old man. Why the bloody triangle? Did you kill Yiayia? Should I wash my hands?
Never had a pen-pal. Not sure how people do this. Feels like war. Each blue line on the page is a new trench, set to mow my thoughts down. It’s good at it too. Must be German paper.
Besides, you’re to blame. You ran off to Korea. So now I have to write letters, or peck at a keyboard, or wait for you to call.
But seriously. “Serious.” Odd word. Sounds like a snake. Or a chemical. One of those words you say when you’re holding your breath.
Luke, you gotta poison something. There’s no toilet for it. That’s why people forget. It’s best to choose a single spot and get it all done in one go. Not that everyone does. Your Yiayia, she’s more like a sprinkler. Spreads her poison around. And then wonders why the microwave stopped working, or where the stress lines in the ceiling came from, or why the purple martins flew away.
You say it’s crowded over there. So watch where you dump your poison. I always turn my back on the azaleas and rosemary so they don’t hear. Find a pothole or one of those mountains outside Gwangju, and let it all out.
About how you’re adopted.
About how your mother had you in prison.
How you want to find her.
How Marina was barren and found you. And had you shipped from Korea to L.A.
How Marina’s ex was such a malaka that she moved you two back in with old Yiayia and me.
How you stood out. And everyone told you. ’Cause Greeks are a bunch of malakoi.
How you finished junior college last year and left for Gwangju to teach English.
How you and Marina haven’t spoken in two months. Since she said you were an ungrateful brat, and you said it was too late for a refund.
How you want to lose her.
I’m not defending Marina. That’s not what this is about. Luke, it goes back to what I was saying about poison. Your mother, she holds it all in. Until she’s constipated. All piss and vinegar. And then lashes out at the nearest thing.
It’s my fault, really. After the first two girls were born, Yiayia let me know she was done with children. But I wanted a son, and so I pleaded, “One more, kamari mou, one more!” and nagged my wife about how the third time’s a charm. I had proposed on our third date. She had accepted my third proposal. But Yiayia, she carried little Marina like a boil in her belly. Hated every minute of it. And I think some of that trickled down to your mother. At seven months, Yiayia started going on death marches down Granby Street. Marina slid out, three weeks early.
I said I wasn’t going to defend Marina. But maybe I will. Just a little. We both know she’ll never be mother-of-the-year. After divorcing Captain Dunderhead, Marina was always trying to get her life back together. Law school. Bills. Moving in with us. Boyfriends. Stewardess school. Bills. And so she wasn’t always there to pick you up after practice, or help you with your homework and explain why your penis didn’t look like the circumcised picture in the textbook. Still, couldn’t have been easy for Marina to hear from her son that he wanted to find his real mother. “Real.” It’s a blunt word. Flattens things into pancakes where there’s a golden side and a burnt side. And who likes hearing they’re the burnt side?
So that’s it? You’re done with being a Bakouvarakis? Can’t blame you. We’re no Kennedys. Although we share one thing in common. There’s something suspicious about our past. My father was just a boy when he got to New York, so maybe he didn’t know the whole story. But I think the Bakouvarakis clan was fleeing from something more than just hunger. The one time I went to Greece—with Yiayia in the 70’s—we visited your great papou’s home town, a small fishing village outside Corinth. There, we ate at a tavern, and when I asked some locals what they knew about our family, an old man sitting all alone in the corner drinking metaxa stood up and said: “Bakouvarakis? I hate all Bakouvarakis!” We were taken aback. The man had a face like a lobster, all red with beady eyes. We tried talking to him, but he stormed out without saying another word. The locals told us to forget about him, that he was just a senile old sailor. Didn’t seem that way to me. Seemed like something deep down in his memory triggered that day. A wrong done by our ancestors. Something real cold, heartless. Ever since, I haven’t been able to shake the suspicion that somewhere in that village there’s a family that begins each meal by cursing our name.
But this letter, it’s not about being a Bakouvarakis. There’s too many of us anyways. Every time I read about some dunderhead jet-skiing off Niagara Falls or getting swallowed by their pet anaconda, I think to myself: A Bakouvarakis? Must be related.
Luke, I have a hunch that our family goes way back. That Adam made the first Bakouvarakis from a bruise, a scab. And that the reason we’re not mentioned in all those books is the same reason oxygen isn’t mentioned. Of course there was oxygen. People had to breathe, right? Of course there were Bakouvarakis. Mistakes were made, right?
Luckily, there’s a way out. A secret society within the Bakouvarakis family that weeds out the dunderheads. And this society, we’ve talked it over, and we want you. This is a recruitment letter. Can’t say too much about who we are. Not unless you join. Like I said, it’s a secret society. I’ll tell you a little though, so you can know what you’re getting into. We call ourselves “The Arniá.” The Lambs. If you’ve ever seen me “baa” into the telephone, I was speaking to a flock member. We pick out promising members of the Bakouvarakis family and teach them our history. How, one day, one of our ancestors thought to himself: Didn’t choose this family. Chose my wife. Not her brother. Or my sister. Certainly not our cousins. Although I like Dimitri. Vanessa’s okay. What if a plague killed the rest? Or a flood? I’m not picky. Wouldn’t be so bad. Kind of nice.
And so that’s how it started. And this is where the blood and triangle come in. If you accept our invitation, tape this letter to your door at dusk on March 22nd. We’ve scheduled you an appointment for Passover. If you’re embarrassed, tape the letter to the inside of the door. It’s all the same. Angels see through things. But it’s up to you. You’ll get other offers. Smart kid like you. There’s even a few other secret societies among us Bakouvarakis who may come knocking. If you want my advice, I’d steer clear of The Sacred Order of Olives. They have dues and stupid hats.
Now, if you do decide to tape this letter to your door, there’s something else you should know. We Arniá, we’re all 25 years old. So if you see any of us hobbling about, you need to get your eyes checked for glaucoma. We’re 25. We don’t hobble. Or if we do, it’s ’cause we’re sore from yesterday’s triathlon. So in May, if you come home, you’ll notice I’ve been doing a lot of triathlons. Ignore Yiayia and the others. They help me to my seat. Pour my coffee. Butter my toast. Ask about my bowels. Make me old. But when you come in May—you’re still coming in May, right?—when you come, ask me if I want to go ice skating. Or hang gliding. Rock climbing. Scuba diving. Probably won’t be able to. ’Cause the triathlon the day before. Poor timing. But ask, and we’ll reschedule. And reschedule. I like having things on my schedule.
Marina mentioned your visit to the orphanage. Didn’t say much. So I don’t have the whole story. But the last time you two spoke, she says you talked about walking into your orphanage and seeing a young white couple holding their new Asian child and taking pictures with the staff. She says you stopped the couple and asked if they were happily married and reminded the couple that now would be a good time to confess about having any extramarital affairs. They didn’t seem to understand. English was poor.
Luke, I’ll start with the moral. That was stupid. Now here’s the story. One of those old emperors, he was always picking fights with his neighbors, building his kingdom up, one province at a time. But when the emperor defeated all his neighbors, he fell ill and had a tomb built for himself. A tomb decorated with an army of clay soldiers. When his advisor asked him why he needed so many soldiers now that he was finally going to rest in the underworld, the emperor said: “Rest? How can I rest? Everyone I killed is down there. Think they’ll be happy to see me?”
Fights have a way of going on and on. Don’t pick so many. You’ve got enough on your plate.
Marina mentioned one more thing. Said you talked about a certain toy, a plastic yellow airplane. How every kid at the orphanage had one of these toys. Apparently it was the same one you had when you came here to America. You told Marina over the phone that you held on to that plane for twenty years, hoping it was some key to the past, maybe even a gift from your mother. Only to discover it was just some hunk of plastic handed out by the orphanage, a toy they gave to every orphan to help them play at being shipped away.
I remember it, I know that toy. You wouldn’t let go of the damn thing for the first few months you were here. We were all afraid you would choke on it, but whenever we tried to pry it from your fists, you’d wail as if we were sawing off your fingers. I forgot about it. Thought you lost it. Or threw it away. But I guess you shoved it in some drawer and have kept it ever since.
It’s one of your charms. You’ve always been that way. Your grip is tight, to the point of strangling. When you skipped class to drive me to the doctor’s, and the doctor waved her clipboard and said: “Looks like Parkinson’s, run-of-the-mill idiopathic Parkinson’s,” I looked over at you. Your eyes were scanning the room for a weapon. I caught you eyeing the reflex hammer. I thought to myself: If I had a son, that’s what I would want him to do. Clobber the doctor. You always hear that it doesn’t make a difference. Killing the messenger. But it does. Feels better when you’re not the only one falling. Lessens the blow.
I never told you this, but that night, I dreamt of the doctor. She was dressed in white robes and riding a pony to a small mountain town. When she got to the town, she announced my diagnosis, as if she was selling my condition. Bells began ringing. Women shrieking. And then you came out of nowhere, all dressed up like a Spartan. Like Leonidas. You were armed with a spear and a bristling hat. You asked the doctor to repeat what she said, and when she responded, “Alexis Bakouvarakis has ordinary old Parkinson’s,” you kicked her down a well. And I laughed. Laughed so hard I woke up. And Yiayia woke up too. And she said to me: “You’re leaving us. And you’re laughing. You want to leave us, kamari mou, is that it?” And I stopped. ’Cause the way she put it, it wasn’t funny anymore.
Luke, when’s the last time you laughed? Having trouble myself. Think I’m losing the ability. What an odd thing to lose, right? Didn’t think it was possible. Kind of funny. Should be laughing. But the Parkinson’s, it’s got my face hardening into a mask. The kind you can’t take off. These days, I look the same when I’m bored as I do when I’m angry, happy, tickled, thinking, tired, scared. I’d be good at poker. I don’t play poker. Maybe it can’t be helped. You know that story about the clown and the doctor? I keep yapping about doctors. Anyways, so this clown, he goes to the doctor, and the doctor says: “You’re in luck, the circus is in town. Go and see the clown, and you’ll feel better.” But the clown replies: “Doc, that’s me, I’m the clown.” If Parkinson’s is a mask, it’s the mask of the clown. Come see how pathetic I’ve become. You’ll feel better.
It’s happened before. Remember when you started going through puberty, how you were so serious. Face like a stoic pizza. Hours spent in the bathroom, staring at the mirror, trying to touch your eyeballs so you could wear contacts and look handsome for the girls. Remember how you came and rummaged through the fridge and asked: “Who’s Mae West? And Betty Grable?” I had put the chicken breast from the grocery store in a paper bag and labeled it “Mae West.” And done the same with the chicken legs, tagging them “Betty Grable.” Yiayia sighed. The joke fell flat. But when you asked me, and I told you who the two actresses were and what parts of their bodies they were known for and how pathetic the joke really was, you laughed like a little kid. And then I laughed. ’Cause now it was funny.
Maybe that’s what happens when two clowns get together? They poke holes in each other’s masks.
I think that’s what we’re like. We’re like that old Buster Keaton gag, the one with two war veterans who are both missing an arm and sitting in a theater, watching a show. Neither of the veterans can clap by themselves. So they get frustrated when the rest of the audience is clapping up a storm and having a good time. With each round of applause, the two veterans sink lower in their seats. They can’t contribute to the show, so they just stare at their stumps and sulk. It’s only at intermission, when the veterans strike up a conversation about the war, that they realize they can clap when they put their hands together. By the end of the night, their palms are red.
Imagine the next scene. The streets are glowing in gaslight. Our two veterans are stumbling home after the show. They stop at familiar doors along the way. Smear their red palms over the knockers and onto the wood. They touch some of the doors, but it’s not because they want to mark them and save what’s inside. It’s because what’s inside isn’t worth killing anymore. Too much effort. Plagues take effort. Especially the kind that goes door to door. Better to let them go. There’s two kinds of Passovers.
My hand, it’s also getting red. Cramped. Hurts. Guess I’ll stop here. Besides, you’re young. Bet you’ve got young things to do. We can talk later. Even if you don’t join the Arniá. In the meantime, if you need somewhere to dump your poison, write me. Letters. Emails. Whatever. I’ll empty them in that little plot in the backyard. But quietly. So other things can grow.
Andrew Gretes is the author of the novel, How to Dispose of Dead Elephants (Sandstone Press 2014). His fiction has appeared in such publications as Witness and Fiction Fix. He is currently a doctoral student at the University of Southern Mississippi. His website is andrewgretes.com.