byKerry Neville BakkenOrder now on Amazon.comRead excerpts below:
An excerpt from "The Effects of Light"
The air conditioning quit hours ago, so like dogs we stick our faces out the cracked windows of the bus, panting into the wind. Too many times we have had to stop at dingy gas stations for little cups of coffee, cigarettes, and greasy spanikopita. Or for pile-ups of goats glaring in the middle of the road, jangling their bells in admonition. Or once for the driver to take a slow deliberate piss into a field of yellow wildflowers. I admired his swagger as he reboarded the bus, shrugging, still working on his belt buckle.
Sarah emphatically did not. "Disgusting,” she said. All afternoon she has been staring into hills shaggy with cypress trees, then at the cliffs, the edges of Mount Zas and the sea. Her long blond hair is clipped up in an unbrushed tangle, her neck and cheeks flushed, sunburned. She looks lovely and alone, as if she's been traveling forever, like one of those colonial heroines lollygagging about India or Morocco, churning up the copper dust with her heavy skirts. Though Sarah is with me here, it is right that she appears as if she is not: we are divorcing. I no longer have a claim.
The rest of the passengers, the Greeks, have kept their curtains drawn against the sharp sunlight. Not Sarah. Of all people, Sarah, should know better. She, the expert on the effects of light, her life’s work, wandering from one small town museum or historic mansion to another, calculating the sun’s cumulative damage on textiles and watercolors, bleached sideboards and yellowed draperies. Now, though, her fingers curl and flex in the light as if she is trying to palm its energy, store it up.
I take up two seats, one for my ass, one for my leg. The widows on the bus tsk tsk my indolence, my American gall, then see the gangly crutches propped against the window, perhaps even notice my face blanch and tighten as the bus jounces over ruts. Do they hear the sharp intake of breath and turn, as Sarah does at a particularly bad spot of the road and my spine and knee and ankle summon up the fall once again down all those flights of stairs, the breaks, the unnatural angle of repose? I grit my teeth. All I can do is ride it out.
Sarah says, “All of that out there is broom.”
"Broom?" I ask.
"Those yellow flowers. They're supposed to smell like honey.”
A guidebook is propped open in her lap, notes scratched in the margin, things starred and underlined.
"Planning the Post-Suicide Deluxe Tour?" I ask.
She shuts it quickly, gripping it tight between her hands. Greek Islands 2003. Both current and specific. I try to imagine her wandering the travel aisle of some mega-bookstore, squatting before the Greece section. Sarah likes to arm herself with odd facts and statistics: broom and honey. It is her way to make sense of what she does not yet know.
"Jack, let me be clear,” she says. “I'm here to help you get through this, to manage with the getting around. But I'm not yours all the time. You know that, right? This is not save-our-marriage-through-shared-devastation-vacation. This doesn’t make us not end."
Again, the bus dips into some foot-deep pothole and I wince. My leg aches as if I’d crabbed these miles bare-kneed on stones like a medieval penitent Sarah relents, pats the top of her smooth knee.
I swing my leg over and prop it on hers. The muscles hang loose from my calf and thigh. Her fingers settle like birds where my bones and ligaments are anchored together by pins and screws. "It will be okay," she says, and taps a gentle rhythm. Then her hands, on second thought, fly suddenly away.
We both know it will not. Not for Kate. Not for me. For Sarah, yes.
I imagine that, in addition to the guidebook, there is also a journal she will fill with pressed flowers and neat columns of strange local specialties she will try once and once only (goat balls, sheep innards, unpronounceable, unidentifiable grilled meats). In her suitcase, I can imagine a rubber-banded stash of index cards listing obscure Byzantine shrines huddled in remote towns, their peeling frescoes and cracked icons, their collapsed barrel rooftops and empty windows, swallows roosting on the crossbeams, shitting all over what is left of the impassive, sun-bleached Madonnas. And of course, she will jot off postcards, carefully worded--Jack is doing as well as can be expected. Which is to say, not okay.
My sister, Kate, is dead, by her own hand. The administrator in Athens, Ms. Maria Nikolaides, a stern woman who mentioned that her BA was from some business college in Indiana, said that I did not have to come all the way to Greece for the body and a suitcase of papers and clothes. Greece was a modern country. An EU country. Greece could certainly handle the respectful and efficient transport of a body and a suitcase.
“After all,” she said, “Greece is the EU industry standard in international waterway shipping!”
There were certain documents and authorizations needed before aforementioned body and effects could be released but she would see that everything was handled with the utmost proficiency.
“She’s my sister,” I said. “Her name is Kate. She’s not a fucking body.”
“Excuse me sir, but I’m reminding you I received my B.A. in Indiana at Lakeland Business Institute and I know such words so I’m pleasing you to not use such words.”
There was silence.
“Of course, sir,” she continued, “there are things better accomplished by a live person. But sir, I give you the EU promise and satisfaction that the body and the suitcase will arise at your doorstep in perfect condition.”
The last time I saw Kate, the live person arise: Kennedy Airport, Security Gate, her red hair cropped close to her skull, a blue jewel glinting in the side of her nose, a stiff leather backpack slung over her shoulders. I don’t know what she had in there except, of course, her medications that I’d bought since I had the money and she had no insurance. Three hundred and sixty capsules, that, taken in sufficient quantity, stop a body’s heart and brain, dreams and breath.
At twenty-seven, Kate was already exhausted and as she turned to wave, I thought there was something final and empty in her smile, though Greece and its promise of light and lightness still waited for her beyond that metal detector and the dour security agent, beyond the boorish pat down she was subjected to due to the alarm she triggered. Of course, that finality in her smile is only my retrospective knowledge. But still, the alarm sounded, the wand whined as it passed back and forth over her body.
I should have called Kate back. That’s what you do when you love someone, even when you’re exhausted, even when they exhaust you. But I was relieved to see her go. Final blue prints were due on an eight-bedroom house in East Hampton for an unnecessarily wealthy young couple. I’d been stalling, drawing one tedious, rambling shingled cottage after another, concentrating my efforts on getting Sarah out of her sister’s sixth floor walk-up, off the pull-out love-seat, and back into our one-bedroom, doormaned, elevatored apartment. The couple was about to pull the project from the firm—they, too were bored by what I’d been giving them, though that was what they initially wanted. So three days and nights on speed and no sleep equaled one clean, vacant, long windowed Philip C. Johnson rip-off and one swooning couple liberated from the Glen Plaids and inherited pearls. I, however, was spent and stumbled over to the walk-up, determined to bring Sarah back home, to make it right between us again.
It was as simple as this: four flights up I tripped, fell all the way back down.
We arrive at Moutsouna in the late haze of dusk, the very last passengers on the bus, and are deposited at the entrance to the town square that sits on a sandy bay. It is as Kate described in one of her letters: three old men at the kafenio, spinning their koboloi, smoking, drinking coffee and ouzo. Blue doors. Pots of red geraniums. Cats. Too many cats winding their tails around chair legs, mewling over fish guts. And dogs splayed out under trees, wrecked from the heat, from too many puppies sucking their teats.
Sarah is at a loss. Her guidebook has not prepared her for this. There are no women. No helpful women pointing the way, offering cold water and a bathroom. Only these old men eyeing her green shorts and my leg with suspicion. After all, the last foreigner through these parts may have been Kate, who'd gone and made an American mess of herself. And here we are with our matching red American Tourister suitcases, wedding presents that had traveled with us to Thailand, Italy, St. Lucia. After this final trip together, we'd divide the pieces: would she get the weekender, and I the garment bag? Would they ever meet unexpectedly on the tarmac, bump into each other on the baggage carousel? Hello former life, hello lost love.
But here we are now, side by side. The cripple and his-in-name-only-wife, with their matched luggage. An American Spectacle.