ANTONIS | PRINCETON 1988
Antonis knew he was running out of time. He pulled down the hatch and climbed up the ladder. He tried to remember the last time he was in his mother’s attic. Was it when he played with the figurines of Achilles and Hector; facing them off against one other as if the attic was a Trojan battlefield? Was it when he helped his mother move the filing cabinets full of excavation notebooks up from the basement? Or, was it the time he played hooky from school and searched in the attic for clues of a father he never knew?
Rebecca’s memory was shot, so when the American Institute of Archaeology requested his help with her life-time achievement award, he knew right away it would be up to him to ask questions, organize documents, sort through letters, and somehow summarize his mother’s reputable career. He had given up on Castor long ago. Castor never was interested in their mother’s accomplishments, or for that matter, interested in anything pertaining to anything other than himself.
He pulled the string to turn on the light and let his eyes adjust. It seemed as though nothing had changed since he was a child: the musty odor, the damp air, the thick wooden beams running across the ceiling, the three round windows with thick panes. Still a place where silence reigned. The walls were built of cedar and the ceiling height seemed lower than it was when he was younger. Achilles was there, this time hiding behind his old catcher’s mitt. He swept the mitt away with his foot and picked up the figurine and looked into its beady eyes. As a child, Antonis spent hours imagining his father wearing Achilles’ armor, fighting alongside hoplites and arguing with Agamemnon.
He had been walking though the city park on his way to Rebecca’s house when he received the call from the director telling him that she would be the recipient of the distinguished award. They were aware of her dementia; she wasn’t in any shape to attend the convention alone. He feared it wouldn’t’t be long before her memory was forever lost, so he agreed to help prepare her acceptance speech and travel with her to Cincinnati; he had always tried to be a good son. He was also asked if he would prepare a synopsis of her curriculum vitae. Rebecca was not just an ordinary scholar living an ordinary life.
He hoped the CV would be somewhere in the attic. He recalled reviewing it once with his mother: page after page documenting her career from the time she graduated from the University of Virginia up until her last excavation in Greece in the summer of 1985; the year her disease was diagnosed. He remembered feeling overwhelmed as he turned through the pages listing her education, fellowships and awards, teaching positions, publications, conference papers and more.
There were boxes stuffed with papers, stacks of field-notebooks, forgotten souvenirs from Greece, old paperbacks and magazines sprawled across the floor, his high school and college yearbooks, baby clothes in a clear plastic zipper bag. Castor’s comic books were piled against an oil painting of the Parthenon. He searched for Hector, but knowing he was an enemy of the Greeks, he wondered if he might have tossed him into the trash years ago. Castor had always said it was a “Greek thing.”
Filling cabinets, labeled by year, lined the wall; Rebecca had always been a stickler when it came to organizing and keeping things in the right place. He sat crosslegged on the floor, opened the 1985 cabinet, searched through the files and found the CV. He took it from the cabinet and placed it on the floor. Noticing that one of the cabinets had been pulled away from the others, he scooted over to it and saw that it was the 1967 cabinet. He opened it and flipped through the files that were labeled by month; the farther back through the files he went, the deeper in time he went. April was the thickest.
He stood and pushed the cabinet back, aligning it with the others. As he stepped back he felt the crunch of breaking glass. He had stepped on a framed photograph of his mother. She looked to be around thirty. She wore a scarf around her neck, her hair tied behind her neck. He picked up the frame and carefully removed the pieces of glass. He turned the photograph over and behind it was a faded yellow piece of paper folded in half. He unfolded it and saw that it was a telegram.
Cairo, May 1967
My dearest Rebecca,
I have tried contacting you so many times, but still no reply. I can’t get that night in the National Gardens out of my mind. I only wanted to protect you. He never told you he had a wife and child. I had to turn him in. I will carry that night in the Parthenon to my grave.
I love you forever,
His stomach tightened and he wiped the sweat from his forehead. He needed to sit back down. He stared at the telegram. Who was this L? What does it all mean? He looked across the room: the painting of the Parthenon, the filing cabinets, Castor’s comic books. The windows and darkened. He heard the wind chimes rattle on the back porch. Why had she kept it from him? He would have to handle it delicately. He would need to be patient with her. When he stood, he had to lean against the wall to gain his balance. After a few moments, he folded the telegram and put it in his pocket, reached down and picked up the CV, turned out the light and climbed back down the ladder.
ANTONIS AND REBECCA
The following day Antonis went back to his mother’s house. He picked up the Daily Princetonian from the sidewalk. The paper was heavy, soaked from rain. He could barely make out the headlines; something about Russia withdrawing from Afghanistan and Sonny Bono being elected mayor of Palm Springs. He shook off the water from the newspaper, tucked it under his armpit, climbed up the steps, and knocked on the door. He knocked again, then again.
Three knocks are an eternity when an aging mother takes too long to come to the door. At the window, he wiped away the rain, cupped his hand above his eyes and looked inside. He knocked on the pane. As he was about to go around to the back door, he saw her pushing the walker with one hand. She had her head bent down to an open book and when he knocked again, she finally lifted her head. It looked as if she was thinking about something in the book. Or maybe, he thought, she felt she had all the time in the world. He was relieved when he saw her smile, relieved when she walked toward the door. She unlocked the higher lock, then the lower lock and turned the bolt.
“I can’t believe they didn’t wrap it,” he said as he walked into the apartment. When his mother reached for the newspaper, he placed it on the seat of the walker. “I’m not sure you’ll be able to read—
“Have you heard the morning birdsong?” she asked. “It reminds me of Athens when we used to… She looked away and pulled what she was about to say inside. When she closed the book and set it on the newspaper, he read its title, Athenian Pottery, 480-430BC.
It hurt him how she would suddenly, out of nowhere and without clarity, drift back and forth between a far-away time and the present. He had learned how to be patient with her, especially since the doctor’s diagnosis.
“Did Mary come today?” he asked as he followed her pushing the walker down the hall toward the kitchen. Her pace seemed never-ending to him. He tried to be patient.
The hallway was a journey into his mother’s past. Her accomplishments covered the walls. Diplomas heralded milestones and academic degrees: Rebecca McVey, Boston University MA Degree 1963, Princeton University Classics Department 1964, American School of Athens of Classical Studies Degree 1969. Columbia University Ph.D., Agora Excavation, Teacher of the Year, University of Cincinnati.
“Was Mary here this morning?” he asked again. They sat at the kitchen table. Two coffee cups and two plates, each with fork and knife, had already been set.
“Mary seems to be occupied lately,” she said. “Apparently, her children are demanding more of her these days. They insist she move to Cleveland, of all places.” She reached across the table with the coffee pot and filled both cups.
“You need to call me if she doesn't come,” said Antonis. “Once a week shouldn't be difficult for her to handle.”
“I’ve told you again and again, I’m fully capable of taking care of myself,” she said. “Besides, it’s already April, so I can walk more through the park.” She turned her head toward the window as if she were watching someone watching them from outside.
She insisted on living alone. After she fell the second time, the time she dislocated her shoulder and broke her hip, she finally agreed to using a walker, finally agreed to move the washing machine and dryer from the basement up to the first floor, and finally agreed to hand over her driver’s license.
“Rebecca, yesterday I was in the attic searching for your CV.” Addressing her by “mother” never seemed right. “It would help me prepare for your award presentation. Do you remember?”
She was forgetting simple things: locking doors, turning off the stove, forgetting where she had gone after a walk through the neighborhood. It was obvious to him that time was running out. He realized she was turning inwards, somewhere between layers of confusion and denial.
If there were any hope of knowing what really happened, now was the time to ask.
He pulled telegram from his pocket and placed it on the table. “I have to ask you something before it’s too late. No matter how much it hurts.”
Rebecca lowered her head and looked it with moist eyes; their glint revealed a darkness that couldn't hide behind her fake smile.
“What do you mean “too late? I’m not going anywhere soon, as far as I know.”
“I don’t mean it that way. I’m concerned about your memory. If there’s something you would like to tell me, now is the time.”
“I have a memory like an elephant,” she said, “if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“While I was in the attic, I accidentally stepped on a picture and found a telegram behind a photo of you. The person who sent it simply signed it with an L. It must be personal, but would you like to talk with me about it?”
She walked to the window and looked out onto the park. The landscapers had left early, because of the rain. Shovels and rakes stood upright in mounds of dirt. A vegetable bed was roped off with a string on small stakes.
“Which site was it?” she asked. “Knossos… Pylos? I can't remember, but the strings tied to the stakes make a familiar grid. Maybe it was the Agora, or then again, maybe Knossos—
“Rebecca, try to remember. Who is L? Who’s the other person mentioned in the telegram?
Rain water from the roof made puddles of mud in the bed of peonies. A young couple under an umbrella walked hand-in-hand in the park.
“True love is only for the young,” she said looking out the window. “It’s been so long ago.”
“It was twenty years ago this month,” said Antonis. “Please try to remember.”
“Yes, it’s April again,” she said. “You must know by now that Aprils bring difficult times. It was April when Castor left. It was April when your father was executed. It was April when you and Castor were born.”
“Did Castor know about any of this?” asked Antonis.
She sat at the table and placed her hands in her lap. “It hurts more in April,” she said as she looked down at the telegram.
It was the first time he had ever seen his mother cry. “I know it hurts to bring it all back, but take your time and tell me. I need to know.”
“He was a young archaeologist during the Agora excavations. But… we were young.”
“Is he still alive? What happened to him?”
She raided her head and looked with bloodshot eyes. Her cheeks were moist from tears. “Do you think they’ll return in the morning?” she asked.
“The archaeologists, of course… out there… at the excavation,” she said, pointing to the window. “There’s more work to do, more preparations. Have they logged their notebooks? Were the sherds categorized in their correct boxes? I hope they remembered to photograph the grid”
Antonis rose from his chair and stood behind his mother. She had always tied her hair back with a bandana; easier to maintain during digging. Freckles ran across the back of her neck and down her shoulders. He placed his hands on her shoulders and leaned over and whispered, “Who wrote this telegram?”
“He was just an archaeologist with ambitions. Leonidas’ heart was somewhere else.”
“What is his last name?”
“His last name is Kontonikas.”
“Whatever happened to him?” Antonis asked.
“He ended up teaching in Cincinnati, I think… but that was long ago.”
As he massaged her shoulders, he felt them rise and fall as she breathed. She closed her eyes and allowed her head to lean and rest on his hand. It hurt him most when he felt the dampness of her hair and saw the thin lines tears had made on her cheek. After a few moments, he brought the walker close and helped her stand up from her chair. He then slowly guided her down the hallway to her bedroom and helped her in bed. It was only a few minutes before noon, but soon she fell asleep with the sound of birds chirping in the park.
LEONIDAS | CINCINNATI 1988
When Leonidas heard the knock on the door, he folded the page where Zeus sent Agamemnon a false dream. He put the Iliad back on the nightstand, closed his eyes, and pulled the bedcover over his face. I don’t want them to know I’m awake. Whoever they are, I hope they go away.
The antiseptic smelled like a mortuary basement. The light filtering through the window blinds painted a white picket fence on the wall. A plastic tube ran up his nose to some unknown place. Another tube connected his bruised forearm to a clear plastic bag dangling on a metal pole stand. He listened to the heart monitor beeping his life away; recording a faint heartbeat.
Where’s that fucking morphine pump? It was right here in my hand a second ago. The nurse had given it to him to use when he could no longer tolerate the pain. He pulled the cover down, just enough to squint at the Iliad. My companion after all these years. Rebecca had given it to him the day before the coup. She had written on its title page: Lycabettus Hill, April 20, 1967 Love, Rebecca.
Where the hell is that pump? Wait.. there’s the tube in my arm.. all I need to do is follow it… here you are, here’s the button.. ah, that’s nice.. there you go, just a little more now…
During the night the nurse had rolled in the medicine cart, propped his head on the pillow, raised his back, and reminded him to chew his toast and swallow his pills. When she left and walked down the hallway to the nurse station he heard the cart-wheels in rhythm with her footsteps. A clock hung on the wall at the foot of his bed. Four hours had passed since she left and that was when he tried to read the part at Aulis when Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia.
If I had only taken Clifton, and not McMicken…instead I took McMicken…I should have known better… Clifton is not as steep as McMicken… I should have known not to take McMicken—
Could it be the nurse at the door?
It was his second day in the hospital since the accident. The first day he heard the doctor tell the nurse that it was a miracle he was alive. The two of them discussed the broken seven out of thirty three vertebrae, the length of time his left fibula would take to heel, the twenty percent of blood he lost at the accident, and how his eyesight had gotten worse.
Why didn’t I do down Clifton? My therapist could have waited. I turned left when I should have turned right. I should have stayed and gone to that dreaded lecture on Cretan Middle Bronze age given by professor so and so what’s his name…shoulda , woulda, shoulda…
There was a knock at the door. Could it be the nurse? No, she wouldn’t knock. He closed his eyes pretending to be asleep.
When the door opened, Leonidas squinted and followed a shadow moving across the floor and onto his bed sheet. The shadow rested on his chest.
My therapist could have waited…I should have turned right instead of turning left…that damn driver of the BMW behind me blew his horn an nudged me through the traffic light…so, I chose McMicken instead of Clifton…
A man’s voice. “Professor, are you awake?”
No, I don’t ache. He rolled on his side and faced the window. It couldn’t be the doctor, they come in groups of three…that goddam idiot driving the pickup clipped my tire and I flew over the handle bars into the door of the liquor store….the Pakistani with the patch over his eye ran out and held my head until the ambulance came…
He pretended to be asleep. He heard the man walk to the table and listened as the man started to read. Why is he reading my book? Did he say Odysseus or Achilles? After a few moments, Leonidas fell asleep to the turning of pages and soft spoken words.
When he woke he felt something lying on his pillow, a few inches from his head. He opened his eyes, just enough to bring the image into focus.
“Professor, do you recognize her?”
When he first saw the blue eyes, he hoped she was laying there next to him. What took you so long to come back to me? He saw the scarf around her neck, her blond hair tied behind her head, and the freckles on her nose. It was only after the inscription on the bottom the photograph came into focus that he knew she wasn’t there. He also knew she would never be there. Never again.
Oh God, it’s all coming back. The pain of all I’ve done. I only tried to protect her. I remember…how she slept with her head on my shoulder…that night in the Parthenon…the breeze through the window next to oak-framed bed in her apartment off Omonia Square…