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Ophelia In Death

ISSUE:  Summer 1978

There was Ophelia in a painting at a gallery in London, dead, pallid, her skirts billowing, flowers in her hands as she drifted downstream. Next were tank convoys on the Marathon highway, a Russian warship in the bay, Greeks on the corners counting beads, and skinned goats hanging from hooks in the windows of markets.

I could rave about the beauty of these oaks with their prickly leaves or the mossy pond that smells like dead dogs, sing ballads of lost sons, recite from the Rubaiyat and laugh in despair, or strain for the strength to lift this Norton off my crushed legs and drag myself to Susan to kiss her young lips for the first time. But I must keep my humor. What did I expect from a crackpot and wasted world, a den of losers and pious toads. I’ll run it all back, keep my eyes off her, and talk to this fool tape recorder, My father was a handyman, claimed we needed things to break so we’d have things to fix. It seems like half a day now I’ve been banging on the case, poking around in the gadgetry, spitting on the heads, scraping the crust off the batteries. The reels turn, but it won’t play back. It might be recording, I don’t know.

On a bench by Ophelia I scored a lid from Oscar the drummer. He brought me to Potter, lead guitar, promoter and manager, a pushy little fruit with a nose wart and the Thames van that carried us all down to Athens. British rock bands were strong, and we booked most of the clubs in the city and all the American bases. A cracked-skinned widow took me in, shared her bunk on her sloop at a yacht club in Rraeus. She was old as Lucifer and twice as nasty with a fetish for twisted positions she had learned in a Swedish clinic, but she bought me crabs and squid in the wharf cafes, tossed me spare change for cab fares and tips, and promised to sail me around the Mediterranean when the coup lifted the ban on foreign flags leaving the harbor.

I’d show up at clubs five minutes before gigs. Potter would stomp and fume that I was late, loaded, and had missed rehearsal. I’d smooth his bangs, pat his cheek, and promise to kiss him someday. Then the sad herds would straggle in, females with short skirts who bent when they danced so their soft little targets lay open for bulls-eyes, bald men flown in on economy tours who toasted the philosophers with wine coolers, sailors who moped in the corners because they had a year left of their hitch or swaggered around as if homesickness were a rash.

In the military clubs the staunch mothers and pregnant wives dragged in and out from the laundromat or left between sets to go bowling. The enlisted men nuzzled on the sidelines with the rare young girls, dependants of chiefs and lieutenants, who managed to slip away to the clubs to drink sodas which their suitors spiked with vodka, The girls stood with shoulders back, nipples tight on their halter tops, hips rolling in time to my bass line, dreaming away their innocence. At breaks they sat at our table while the servicemen grumbled and threatened to splinter our instruments. Potter tried to chase them off, afraid we’d lose the job, but we shoved him away, touched downy thighs and bare waists and wondered if we really could take these child beauties.

Susan was one. She was Christ’s sweet mother, mad Ophelia, the mermaid on the tuna can, brown from sunning at the base pool, her hair tawny with limp curls and ringlets around her shoulders. Her back was strong, her waist trim, her hips wide and firm with high dimples, legs muscled as a swimmer’s and soft with virgin blond hair. Her eyes were green as an Aegean cove and blinked away the gruesome world, Her low Virginia drawl passed lips as red as the whites of a drunkard’s eyes and blue in a pout as an orphan’s tears. Sit up, Susan, damn it all! I have to explain!

I knew you’d ruin us both, me what was left and everything of you, and I swear I resisted. Wasn’t it three weeks that we played in the club, you there most every night while your old man tinkered with his Norton in the machine shop? Didn’t I leave, pass on to the next club without cornering you in the dark or giving you my slip number at the harbor? If you hadn’t come to the Monasteraki, if you hadn’t lifted that album, if the clerk hadn’t yanked you by the hair and ripped off your coat as if you were just any shoplifter, I’d have gone on my way, be on the open sea, playing my widow’s delirious games. But I saw omens and fate, believed against hope and hoped against knowledge that the world was more spacious than I’d seen.

Humor, Ramsey! But what’s the use? If it weren’t for the pain, I’d lie back on these miserable oak leaves and try to sleep it out. I might find a dream of those days when I met her in Nea Makri at the school bus, and we cut down the side-streets past the produce trucks, through olive groves and mulberries, past the hotels to the Greek beach where the black-haired schoolgirls primped on the sand. Clear of the sailors and their snooping wives she talked about Pink Floyd, Bozz Skags, Warren Beatty, macrame, and her sister’s baby’s latest words. I’d leave her on the highway, hike to the base to find a sailor to sign me on. I’d jive with the Greek bartender, wait for the movie to start, squeeze across the dance floor to find Susan in front with the children and her girlfriends. I’d sit by her feet, brush her bare toes, laugh when she tickled my ribs. After the movie she’d leave on the back of the Norton, her arms around the bastard as if he deserved such a child.

Did she tell him, while he beat her, that I only touched her slender and fidgeting fingers while we skipped up the market streets on the days I snatched her from the school? Did she tell him I offered, like a doting father, to buy her anything, refused to let her stash loot under her shirt, beneath the belt of her baggy jeans? I’d have loved to watch her steal, seen her rebellion and adolescent bravado, but I checked my desires. Did she tell him I took her for speedboat rides and harbor cruises, that I bought her the specialties at seafood cafes, though we might have met my widow who was growing suspicious, charging me with tossing her cash to the broad-hipped hookers who pandered the fleet? Did she tell him about Molly, the niece they had snatched with no right in the world from their own daughter, Susan’s own sister, and left the poor sister, 19-years-old, her sailor long gone, to deal five-card draw at a skid row card room in San Diego? Did she tell him I took the baby, a year old, swollen eyes and blood in her stools for the past three days, to a Greek doctor because an incompetent medic had prescribed only rest and kaopectate? And all I asked was a smile and a “Thank you, Ramsey.”

And what will I be but damned for it? I should beg forgiveness, tug my crushed legs to kneeling, bow my head in shame, and rant about how repentant I am, how I suffer at the memory of my sins. But could there be a God so stupid as to give account to the wheedling of a con who knows for certain he’ll never have another shot at temptation, a God who wouldn’t tip his hat to the atheist in the foxhole and kick dirt in the eyes of the craven convert? It would take an angel as lovely as Susan, or Ophelia turning back upstream, to let me play such a fool, to make me beg now.

Take it easy, Ramsey, Blood rushes to your head. Think about happy things, like a Yugoslav bumpkin of a border guard, cussing his job as he tromps through the mulch tracking me down, finding Susan too cold and beaten to rape, drawing a bead on my nose with a machine gun built in some hick town in the Urals, where the field hands work half-time in factories, squeezing to fire and finding the clip has jammed. Think about Potter’s wart, or the night he howled once too often when I showed up late wired from a high-speed cab ride up the Marathon highway and crosstown to the club. I wrenched him by the bangs, crushed his nose, and broke my middle finger.

I never was much with a flatpick, but I played out the night. In the morning I found a Greek bassman I knew and sold him my share of the group’s equipment. My widow splinted and bandaged my finger and sprang the news that the coup had lifted the harbor ban, that she had taken on another deck hand to share my duties, that our first port-of-call would be Iraklion on the north coast of Crete. When I told her to push on without me, she chased me up the docks jabbing me with a curling iron, called for her new deck hand to give me the thrashing such an ingrate deserved, but he was just a boy and no more loyal than I.

I was out of a job, out of a home, banished from the sloop and from the boarding house suite, that Potter kept. I had sent my last checks home to the joint savings account I had kept with my sister for years. The widow was threatening to lie to a yacht club crony, an Athens detective, that I’d scored a crate of Libyian hash and was selling to locals as well as to the fleet. I raided the boat when the widow and deckhand were gone, snatched some small change and my gear. I put my bass in pawn, hitched across town and caught the Marathon bus, too late to meet Susan that day.

I made camp in a cave on the beach cliffs north of the base, a mile from the campground at Katosouli. In the mornings I met the school bus in Nea Makri. We spent a day at the ruins of Ramnos, climbing the fallen pillars, slinging fragments of German mortar shells off the cliffs to the canyon. Another day we bused to Corinth, crawled through the tunnels of the hilltop fortress, shouted in the caves for the echoes. Susan muttered a prayer by the rubble where Saint Paul had preached and blushed when I noticed.

There came rumors of war in Cyprus and a three-day alert at the base. Now a guard rode the school bus, Greek sentries patrolled the school grounds, and the base was off limits to visitors. I spent my days whittling sticks, scraping the marrow from the old bones of goats, and crouching behind a fruit cart in the square, to intercept Susan on her way home from the bus. When they called off the alert, the sailors laid siege to the town, closed the tavernas at 5 A.M., slept in the parks and side roads. Susan’s old man and his gang left for a run up to Delphi. Her mother took a ladies club tour to Mikonos.

By noon Susan found my cave. I hoisted her above the waves, raced her to the buoy, rubbed oil on her back while she wriggled in shallow water. On the beach she cradled Molly, her sister’s baby, put her to sleep in the shade of the cliffs, then lay beside me. She unsnapped her top, let the straps fall and closed her eyes against the glare off the water. She dozed while I watched, then rolled sleepily to her side, forgetting her bare breasts. My pulse raced, I was thankful and proud, as if I had carved her from marble.

At dusk there was music from the campground, and Susan begged that we go. I feared meeting sailors, but we found only Greeks, skewers of lamb, kegs of retsina, children at games, men dancing their quivering spins to the tunes of bazookis. Women brought us bowls of meat and salad and pastries, men passed cups to Susan and me. We were bargaining with a local barber for a ride back to town when we heard the rumble of motorcycles on the trail from the highway. Susan dashed for the pickup where the baby was sleeping, then ducked to the shadows of olive trees. I followed her and we watched from the grove. A Greek cook from the base approached Susan’s father.

They caught us before we made the beach. They tackled me and yanked Susan ferociously so the baby dropped from her arms. Her old man kicked her as she stooped for Molly. I flew at him, caught him crossbody, but the crew tugged me off, lashed back my arms, crunched my face, kicked at my nuts while he shouted orders and backhanded Susan’s delicate cheeks, her precious ears, the baby still bundled in her arms. He pushed her ahead of him back toward the bikes, pausing to score a kick to my head, another to my ribs. The olive trees stooped to bury me. I crawled and stumbed back to my cave, bruised and bleeding but finding nothing broken.

I curled up in the dark, wound my body in knots, and raged like a Cyclops. I dreamed of oar-driven ships, harpies and minotaurs, the ghosts of murdered kings. Through the course of my dreams I was the puzzled hero, flogging the enemy with a limp sword, drawn as if on a leash through time and space, bungling across the waters, calling the mutinous oarsmen to push on, outraged at the sight of injustice, tracking a wealth of beauty, a fortune of blessings.

Where I came from we drove to work on machines, built machines at our jobs. At nights we watched machines or listened. One weekend a machine carried us to playgrounds where we drove machines for kicks, the next weekend we fixed the machines which broke the week before. Now I’m pinned beneath one, confessing to another, this fool tape recorder which answers only with an occasional crackle. Both, all machines, are doomed from their conception to malfunction, like myself and this hideous world.

In the morning I washed in the surf, cleaned my wounds, and limped off looking for Susan, It was a Greek holiday. In town joggers in gray sweats panted past the lumbering tanks and battle-geared infantry who strutted behind, leaning to whistle at schoolgirls in Sunday clothes. Farmers and clerks leaned against shop walls and jammed the doors of tavernas and cafes, children roamed the flat rooftops. A siren wailed, there was a buzz like hornets, then the first of the sport cars made the turn.

The Norton was gone from Susan’s front yard. I slammed on the door and waited then went around back. Susan’s curtain was open, her room littered with broken records, torn blouses and jeans, a tipped over dresser on a heap of underwear. I ran back to town, pushed through the crowd, climbed the trees and rooftops to spot her, stopped to watch dizzily the sport cars blast through and make the turn up the mountain to Kifisha. I checked through the fence at the pool on the base, searched the beach past the tourist hotels, the commercial docks, the fishing pier, past the Greek beach, and on up to the southern harbor. I made a dozen circles through town. At dusk I sat behind grape vines across the street from her house, watched for lights, listened for the bike, then fell asleep in the dirt between rows. I woke in the morning to a woman standing above me with her hoe cocked. It was late, and I caught the local to the school and waited by the gate.

She was last out of her classroom. I caught her in the hall, her hips trembling in baggy jeans, her cheek damp against my neck.”Look at me,” she sobbed.”Will I ever be pretty again? There’s bruises in places I can’t even show you, Ramsey, big black and blue things, they’re so ugly, and my face, I don’t even want you to see me like this, I’m not going back there. I brought my toothbrush and a comb and a bar of soap, I even have my passport and 20 dollars I saved. I packed them yesterday after the third time he beat me, before he dragged me away. Ramsey, he locked me up in a smelly little room in the machine shop all day and all night, he just let me out this morning. I didn’t do anything, I told him I didn’t. . . .”

Her eye was cut, he had beaten her again, her jaw popped when she opened her mouth wide, there were scabs beneath her hair, he had beaten her a third time, her neck was red as if it had been strangled. Still there is a cut on the ridge of her swollen cheekbone, and through her torn clothes a violet blotch on her ribs, another beneath the limp arm that drapes across her waist, a welt at the crease where her thigh meets the rise of her hips. I see her now as if clouds had come between us. A jaybird has landed on the front wheel of the bike and spins the thing like a joyride.

I’m forming a plan. With this branch I can pry the bike off the duffel bag. I can turn far enough to dig out our matches. I’ll watch the tape reels spin, hear, because I remember so well, the forced runs of Potter’s guitar, the thud of Oscar’s drums, the cool scales of my bass. I’ll watch Susan fade behind a curtain of flames, deny him his daughter, the certainty that I’m dead, and the return of his precious Norton.

We chose the bike because we could take it cross country, We stopped at her house and fitted me into one of his uniforms and a navy cap. I shaved and she cut my hair, over the ears and high on my neck. We packed her clothes in a duffel bag and cut through the fields to the base. At the gate she ran ahead, teased the guard, peeled her blouse off her shoulder to show him a bruise, while I slipped behind the booth to the lot, kicked the starter, wheeled around front with my face turned aside.

We stopped at the cave, tossed some things in the duffel bag, strapped the tape recorder to the sissy bar, On the highway I ran through the gears and leaned on the turns finding a feel for the bike. I took paths across hillsides, gauged the right speeds for soft dirt and slick weeds, relearning old skills. By dark we made Lamia and Larisa by midnight, stars falling and the wind behind us, Susan’s fingers tight on my chest, breasts quivering against my back, eyes squinting just over my shoulder, thighs squeezing my hips while she hummed tunes to rock songs.

There are a million towns in the world, a billion villages, a trillion cottages, and one must be refuge. I could wire my sister for my share of the bank account, and she would lie to the F.B.I., knowing why I’d saved all these years. I could buy Susan books, bring her flowers, dress her in handmade gowns. I could be her lover, her father, her brother, whatever she pleased. If one day she loved some broad-shouldered peasant or straight-backed government clerk, I could let her go. In beauty was cause for heroics. If we could make the border by dawn, we might get through. They would look for us first in Athens.

We stopped at a taverna on the outskirts of Thessaloniki. Bleary-eyed patrons spun on their seats to watch my Susan stretch her sleepy frame. Overnight she had grown to a woman, like homeless and battered children of war, At first light we made the turn to the Yugoslav border. In sight of the line we rehearsed our story. We were bound for Dubrovnik by way of Pristina. Susan was my step-sister, bruised from a spill.

The guards wore brown, badges of rank, arms bands, pistols in black holsters. Inside a clerk stamped our passports and nodded us on. Outside a guard was rummaging through the duffel bag. He gave me a nod and Susan a leer. The clerk burst through the glass doors. I wound back the throttle, popped the clutch, and fishtailed away. We sped over a rise and cut into a field, aimed for a spiral dirt trail up a black peak ahead. Susan’s fists pounded my chest, she shouted above the wind.”Don’t stop, Ramsey! Don’t ever stop!”

I slowed for the mud of the watering hole, caught sight of two Land Rovers, one coming straight on, the other to the south as if to head us off, I swung north through olives and peat toward the trees of higher ground, thick woods where a car couldn’t travel. Susan’s cool fingers slipped beneath my shirt, her lips nipped my ear.”Do you love me Ramsey?” My heart throbbed, blood pounded my temples, I jammed the throttle open and spun a circle for joy.

The Norton sputtered, missed, and bogged down on a hill. I whacked on the gas to clean it out, grabbed in the slick dirt, and lurched up the hill. They fired as we crossed the tree line. We rumbled downhill through the thin corridors between scrub pines and burly oaks, a forest which looked to run to the mountain. I whooped like a boy at a rodeo, calling back to Susan, loose now and swaying, her breasts just brushing my back. A log blocked our path, hidden by moss and mulch. I hit it at 50.

Now she lies on her back like Ophelia in death, her green eyes open and alert, her hands cupped beside the legs of her baggy jeans, the track of a bullet through her neck looking no more deadly than her fading bruises. If I were a hero, I could bring her to life with a kiss. I can only take solace in the knowledge that neither she nor I will live another day in this grotesque world. If there were a heaven for creatures of beauty, and I had my choice, I’d sit in the lodges and watch, refuse when they called me to play. I’ve learned the horror of action.

But if they should find me here and fail to shoot, if they patch my bones and sew back my skull, if some slumping toad from an embassy should plead for my life, I’ll find a way to Susan’s old man. I’ll strangle him until his head glows and bursts for the bruise on her eye and the welts on her shoulders beneath the muslin frock I bought her from a cart beneath the Acropolis hill.


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