You jump into this business of a new country cautiously. First you choose a place where English is spoken, with doctors and bus lines at hand, and a supermarket in a centre d’achats not too far away. You ease yourself into the city, approaching by car or bus down a single artery, aiming yourself along the boulevard that begins small and tree-lined in your suburb but broadens into the canyoned aorta of the city five miles beyond. And by that first winter when you know the routes and bridges, the standard congestions reported from the helicopter on your favourite radio station, you start to think of moving. What’s the good of a place like this when two of your neighbours have come from Texas and the French paper you’ve dutifully subscribed to arrives by mail two days late? These French are all around you, behind the counters at the shopping centre, in a house or two on your block; why isn’t your little boy learning French at least? Where’s the nearest maternelle? Four miles away.
In the spring you move. You find an apartment on a small side street where dogs outnumber children and the row houses resemble London’s, divided equally between the rundown and remodelled. Your neighbours are the young personalities of French television who live on delivered chicken, or the old pensioners who shuffle down the summer sidewalks in pyjamas and slippers in a state of endless recuperation.Your neighbours pay sixty a month for rent, or three hundred; you pay two-fifty for a two-bedroom flat where the walls have been replastered and new fixtures hung. The bugs d’antan remain, as well as the hulks of cars abandoned in the fire alley behind, where downtown drunks sleep in the summer night.
Then comes the night in early October when your child is coughing badly, and you sit with him in the darkened nursery, calm in the bubbling of a cold-steam vaporizer while your wife mends a dress in the room next door. And from the dark, silently, as you peer into the ill-lit fire alley, he comes.You cannot believe it at first, that a rheumy, pasty-faced Irishman in slate-grey jacket and rubber-soled shoes has come purposely to your small parking space, that he has been here before and he is not drunk (not now, at least, but you know him as a panhandler on the main boulevard a block away), that he brings with him a crate that he sets on end under your bedroom window and raises himself to your window ledge and hangs there nose-high at a pencil of light from the ill-fitting blinds. And there you are, straining with him from the uncurtained nursery, watching the man watching your wife, praying silently that she is sleeping under the blanket. The man is almost smiling, a leprechaun’s face that sees what you cannot. You are about to lift the window and shout, but your wheezing child lies just under you; and what of your wife in the room next door? You could, perhaps, throw open the window and leap to the ground, tackle the man before he runs and smash his face into the bricks, beat him senseless then call the cops . . . Or better, find the camera, affix the flash, rap once at the window and shoot when he turns. Do nothing and let him suffer. He is at your mercy, no one will ever again be so helpless—but what can you do? You know, somehow, he’ll escape. If you hurt him, he can hurt you worse, later, viciously.
He’s been a regular at your window, he’s watched the two of you when you prided yourselves on being young and alone and masters of the city. He knows your child and the park he plays in, your wife and where she shops. He’s a native of the place, a man who knows the city and maybe a dozen such windows, who knows the fire escapes and alleys and roofs, knows the habits of the city’s heedless young.
And briefly you remember yourself, an adolescent in another country slithering through the mosquito-ridden grassy fields behind a housing development, peering into those houses where newlyweds had not yet put up drapes, how you could spend five hours in a motionless crouch for a myopic glimpse of a slender arm reaching from the dark to douse a light.Then you hear what the man cannot; the creaking of your bed in the far bedroom, the steps of your wife on her way to the bathroom, and you see her as you never have before: blond and tall and rangily built, a north-Europe princess from a constitutional monarchy, sensuous mouth and prominent teeth, pale, tennis-ball breasts cupped in her hands as she stands in the bathroom’s light.
‘How’s Kit?’ she asks.‘I’d give him a kiss except that there’s no blind in there,’ and she dashes back to bed, nude, and the man bounces twice on the window ledge.
You find yourself creeping from the nursery, turning left at the hall and then running to the kitchen telephone; you dial the police, then hang up. How will you prepare your wife, not for what is happening, but for what has already taken place?
‘It’s stuffy in here,’ you shout back. ‘I think I’ll open the window a bit.’ You take your time, you stand before the blind blocking his view if he’s still looking, then bravely you part the curtains. He is gone, the crate remains upright. ‘Do we have any masking tape?’ you ask, lifting the window a crack.
And now you know the city a little better. A place where millions come each summer to take pictures and walk around must have its voyeurs too. And that place in all great cities where rich and poor co-exist is especially hard on the people in-between. It’s health you’ve been seeking, not just beauty; a tough urban health that will save you money in the bargain, and when you hear of a place twice as large at half the rent, in a part of town free of Texans, English and French, free of young actors and stewardesses who deposit their garbage in pizza boxes, you move again.
It is, for you, a city of Greeks. In the summer you move you attend a movie at the corner cinema. The posters advertise a war movie, in Greek, but the uniforms are unfamiliar. Both sides wear moustaches, both sides handle machine guns, both leave older women behind dressed in black. From the posters outside there is a promise of sex; blond women in slips, dark-eyed peasant girls. There will be rubble, executions against a wall. You can follow the story from the stills alone: moustached boy goes to war, embraces dark-eyed village girl. Black-draped mother and admiring young brother stand behind. Young soldier, moustache fuller, embraces blond prostitute on a tangled bed. Enter soldiers, boy hides under sheets. Final shot, back in village. Mother in black; dark-eyed village girl in black. Young brother marching to the front.
You go in, pay your ninety cents, pay a nickel in the lobby for a wedge of halvah-like sweets. You understand nothing, you resent their laughter and you even resent the picture they’re running. Now you know the Greek for ‘Coming Attractions’, for this is a gangster movie at least thirty years old. The eternal Mediterranean gangster movie set in Athens instead of Naples or Marseilles, with smaller cars and narrower roads, uglier women and more sinister killers. After an hour the movie flatters you. No one knows you’re not a Greek, that you don’t belong in this theatre, or even this city. That, like the Greeks, you’re hanging on.
Outside the theatre the evening is warm and the wide sidewalks are clogged with Greeks who nod as you come out. Like the Ramblas in Barcelona, with children out past midnight and families walking back and forth for a long city block, the men filling the coffeehouses, the women left outside, chatting. Not a blond head on the sidewalk, not a blond head for miles. Greek music pours from the coffeehouses, flies stumble on the pastry, whole families munch their torsades molles as they walk. Dry goods are sold at midnight from the sidewalk, like New York fifty years ago. You’re wandering happily, glad that you moved, you’ve rediscovered the innocence of starting over.
Then you come upon a scene directly from Spain. A slim blond girl in a floral top and white pleated skirt, tinted glasses, smoking, with bad skin, ignores a persistent young Greek in a shiny Salonika suit. ‘Whatsamatta?’ he demands, slapping a ten-dollar bill on his open palm. And without looking back at him she drifts closer to the curb and a car makes a sudden squealing turn and lurches to a stop on the cross street.
Three men are inside, the back door opens and not a word is exchanged as she steps inside. How? What refinement of gesture did we immigrants miss? You turn to the Greek boy in sympathy, you know just how he feels, but he’s already heading across the street, shouting something to his friends outside a barbecue stand. You have a pocketful of bills and a Mediterranean soul, and money this evening means a woman, and blond means whore and you would spend it all on another blond with open pores; all this a block from your wife and tenement. And you hurry home.
Months later you know the place. You trust the Greeks in their stores, you fear their tempers at home. Eight bathrooms adjoin a central shaft, you hear the beatings of your son’s friends, the thud of fist on bone after the slaps. Your child knows no French, but he plays cricket with Greeks and Jamaicans out in the alley behind Pascal’s hardware. He brings home the oily tires from the Esso station, plays in the boxes behind the appliance store. You watch from a greasy back window, at last satisfied. None of his friends is like him, like you. He is becoming Greek, becoming Jamaican, becoming a part of this strange new land. His hair is nearly white; you can spot him a block away.
On Wednesday the butcher quarters his meat. Calves arrive by refrigerator truck, still intact but for their split-open bellies and sawed-off hooves. Thee older of the three brothers skins the carcass with a small thin knife that seems all blade. A knife he could shave with. The hide rolls back in a continuous flap, the knife never pops the membrane over the fat.
Another brother serves. Like yours, his French is adequate. ‘Twa lif d’hamburger,’ you request, still watching the operation on the rickety sawhorse. Who could resist? It’s a Levantine treat, the calf ’s stumpy legs high in the air, the hide draped over the edge and now in the sawdust, growing longer by the second.
The store is filling. The ladies shop on Wednesday, especially the old widows in black overcoats and scarves, shoes and stockings. Yellow, mangled fingernails. Wednesdays attract them with boxes in the window, and they call to the butcher as they enter, the brother answers, and the women dip their fingers in the boxes. Thee radio is loud overhead, music from the Greek station.
‘Une et soixante, m’sieur. Du bacon, jambon?’
And you think, taking a few lamb chops but not their saltless bacon, how pleased you are to manage so well. It is a Byzantine moment with blood and widows and sides of dripping beef, contentment in a snowy slum at five below.
The older brother, having finished the skinning, straightens, curses, and puts away the tiny knife. A brother comes forward to pull the hide away, a perfect beginning for a gameroom rug. Then, bending low at the rear of the glistening carcass, the legs spread high and stubby, the butcher digs in his hands, ripping hard where the scrotum is, and pulls on what seems to be a strand of rubber, until it snaps. He puts a single glistening prize in his mouth, pulls again and offers the other to his brother, and they suck.
The butcher is singing now, drying his lips and wiping his chin, and still he’s chewing. The old black-draped widows with the parchment faces are also chewing. On leaving, you check the boxes in the window. Staring out are the heads of pigs and lambs, some with the eyes lifted out and a red socket exposed. A few are loose and the box is slowly dissolving from the blood, and the ice beneath.
The women have gathered around the body; little pieces are offered to them from the head and entrails. The pigs’ heads are pink, perhaps they’ve been boiled, and hairless.The eyes are strangely blue. You remove your gloves and touch the skin, you brush against the grainy ear. How the eye attracts you! How you would like to lift one out, press its smoothness against your tongue, then crush it in your mouth. And you cannot. Already your finger is numb and the head, it seems, has shifted under you. And the eye, in panic, grows white as your finger approaches. You would take that last half inch but for the certainty, in this world you have made for yourself, that the eye would blink and your neighbours would turn upon you.
From This Time, That Place by Clark Blaise. Used with permission of the publisher, Biblioasis. Copyright © 2022 by Clark Blaise.