The Queen of Astoria

The Prounis family had the time of its life. Maybe a lot of the other people, even well-meaning friends, were looking down on them with disapproval. The Asimakopoulos’, for example, all thought the Prounis’ were getting too carried away, that the new ways which weren’t their ways had gone to their heads.
Not that the Asimakopoulos’ weren’t real Americans like everyone else; the wonderful John Asimakopoulos had died at Bataan, for heaven’s sake! But dying for your country didn’t mean forgetting what’s important to your own people, or behaving like giddy teenage children. John Asimakopoulos’ descendants would always gladly break bread with the Prounis’, but sometimes they seemed to need a warning.
Others could think no wrong of Nick Prounis, his wife Eleni, their sons John and George, the lovely daughter Joyce, and Nick’s brother Ari, who you’d think lived more at Nick’s house on 34th off 31st Avenue than at his own place closer to Steinway St. The enthusiasms of such people as the Prounis’, so figured the Panagiotopoulos’, the Kapochunas’, even the Papadopoulos’, who were in some ways as old-fashioned as the Asimakopoulos’, couldn’t be so very bad after all. Who were they hurting? It might not be how they themselves would ever feel comfortable living their lives, but what was so indecent? Nothing at all! The Prounis’ were good neighbors, ever since they moved over from Nauplia.
You could say a certain respectful forbearance reigned among their detractors, while the approbation of their supporters was not without a faintly heedful anxiety. A lot of the people figured it was Ari who made the Prounis’ a little different. It was interesting that it didn’t really matter how long people were over here. The Asimakopoulos’ came to the United States a long time ago, since before the 1930s, yet sometimes they still acted like people who pulled water out of a cistern. The Prounis family was here less than twenty years, but they had Ari, and Ari had a real flair for America. Sometimes he was also critical of what he saw, not so much of how Americans behaved as of how people lived here, as when he compared linoleum to tile. “Remember the way our floors used to look, and how they were colorful and looked like a human being had made them, and had real dignity even when they got dirty,” he declared once at the diner after a third or fourth whiskey. “They felt so fine and chilly against your bare feet. And they were pretty. The blue tiles on the yellow, and the white ones at the baseboards.”
Life here was too much linoleum. The home supply stores on Steinway that vended the endless sheets of the stuff oppressed Ari just to walk past, especially since he knew there wasn’t much point trying to use anything better. Unless you were a rich man, the aesthetic struggle was wholly intractable. It was, for example, no use painting the apartments fresh every year because the dirty light and dust wore down the sheen in just a few months. Meanwhile, the facades built up inexorable accretions of soot, block after Samish block. No way to freshen or change them. Once he went to see his friends the Donleavy brothers who lived with their grandfather Al on 30th St. It looked just like his own apartment except smaller. The sight of the place as you walked in was like an unpleasant modern painting because all there was to see were three rooms that weren’t very big, with each of the three bordering floors a different color of light-toned linoleum.
But the way Ari kept telling it to Nick, there was still a great life here waiting to be lived, and it wasn’t just the money you could make. It was all the thousands of miles in every direction, with people everywhere and room for more, having adventures and never knowing what the next day would bring. That was why people kept coming here, and why Joyce, who was an angel, was old enough at eighteen to go to the dance after the big dinner. Everyone from the neighborhood and others they never saw or met before from Long Island City and even Manhattan would be going, all except the Asimakopoulos’, who would let their three daughters only go to the dinner. The Kapochunas’ were undecided and said they’d wait as late as Friday before making up their minds about Antigone.
Eleni Prounis giggled a little when she looked at Ari and Joyce, only pretending she’d be on their side in case Nick had second thoughts about Joyce going to the dance. Beautiful Mama! When Eleni called Ari on the phone, what she had to say filled him with gladness. “I saw a beautiful dress on 31st Ave. It was very elegant and it wasn’t too expensive. It’s a dress that if Joyce wears it on Saturday everybody will remember.”
“That will make old man Asimakopoulos think twice!” exclaimed Ari.
“Like the whole world is going crazy!” laughed Eleni.
“And passing him by!” said Ari.
“I can’t wait until you see it,” said Eleni. She described it vaguely: a little low cut, just a little, but the white lace at the bosom made her seem an angel. Swirls of braided beige overlay snaked on down to her ankles. “It’s a little revealing,” admitted Eleni, “but it’s decent.”
That evening when he visited, Ari shook his head sternly in mock disapproval. He clucked his tongue and told Joyce her Mama had told him all about the dress for the party, and that he and her father were both outraged. Nick, playing along, affected a sour, tragic face as he put his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “After all my hard work,” said Papa, “you turn out to be such a bad girl!”
Joyce was that day wearing blue jeans and a sweater, just like all the girls from Astoria and Long Island City who’d already gotten started in the public school when she and Mama and Papa were still in Nauplia. She picked up the cue. She scowled with her hands on her hips. “Shame on you, shame on you both! I’m a good girl!”
“We’re sending you back right now,” said Ari. “You’ll go home and marry a fisherman.”
“And your mother, we’re sending her back too!” exclaimed Nick.
“So I’ll have a nice cruise!” Eleni called out from the kitchen, where she’d gone to see to dinner. “Send me to Thera.”
Ari was bursting with joy inside. It could have been the sense alive within him that, in the ten years since he came to New York, this was the very first time he was really embracing the new life and feeling himself a part of the great hurly-burly. Not that Greece hadn’t made him feel alive too, especially around the islands, or when he went as far as Heraklion, where he was friendly with a prostitute who confided her secrets whenever he visited.
He was a small dark man whose rugged lined face was always a little stubbly. It was his wont to jostle things affectionately, like this very way he enjoyed teasing his beloved niece. Nick often played along, but Nick was a much quieter and less ambitious man, ambitious in the sense of how some men always want to swallow up life. Ari was a conqueror by nature, in the best sense of the word. Ever since he’d landed in the United States, he felt almost a responsibility to gorge on life here too, and to feel it just as keenly as when he used to sail the other side.
Ari’s dream was to drive a car clear across to California, but he knew he’d never get away long enough from the liquor warehouse in Maspeth where he worked. That was a shame. He wanted to see the Grand Canyon and the Mississippi River. The squat grime of Queens didn’t fit, never could fit, he knew, the bursting emotion that was the rest of the great city, the real city, much less the endless wonderment of the whole big recumbent country itself. It had been awfully frustrating, to be here and yet not quite taste it.
Joyce was a way to taste it, especially since, although he loved adventure, he hated being away from his family. He was pulled in two directions, and his family usually won him over. But Joyce was both adventure and love, the deep tie to the family that grew even deeper after she was born, a joy in the heart when she was a child, always happy and tugging at you, she was, at your face and nose and shirt collar. Now that she was a lady, it was as if the family had accomplished a great thing, because something had flowered here which, even in Greece, might have gotten lost in ancient linen and perpetual custom and the smell of new paint on old clapboard. That this lovely thing was Nick’s, was his brother’s own, made their bond yet stronger, and caused him too to love his brother’s wife as if she were his own sister. It was such a joy to be so close to a beautiful woman like Eleni, so physically close, without lust intruding or being allowed to intrude. What an achievement for a man, to feel that way so close beside a beautiful woman-- and, as she got older and her figure grew wonderfully full, Joyce too. The smell of her was also intensely like a woman’s.
Let’s have a party before the party,” Ari said. “A family party, to celebrate your beautiful new dress. Just us and your brothers and maybe the Panagiotopoulos’. Invite them for Thursday. A preview!”
“I’ll be embarrassed,” said Joyce.
“It’s a rehearsal,” said Uncle Ari. “There has to be a rehearsal. One step at a time. Soon you’ll be a star, the first girl since Maria Callas to marry a billionaire. You’ll marry Onassis!”
“He’s dead, and when he was alive he was fat,” pouted Joyce. “I want to marry Mel Gibson.”
The Panagiotopoulos’ came, toting the Croat who’d married Melina Panagiotopoulos’ sister, and who drank too much. He did so again tonight, leering at Joyce even before she put on the dress. No one cared much. There was gaiety in the air, and the Croat was a pathetic soul. The usual thing was to feel sorry for his wife.
“Last year the dinner was fine but the party later got too wild, I think,” said Melina, referring a little suggestively to the upcoming event, but not, really, with all that much concern or censure in her tone.
“What, `wild’?” argued Ari.
“Some of the Irish kids were fighting outside in the parking lot,” laughed Eleni. “They had bloody noses, but now they’re friends again.”
“I know their family,” intoned the Croat. “The Riordan family. Good people.”
Ari rested his eyes on the icons in high relief on the part of the kitchen door jutting into the living room. In the other corner of the kitchen, John and George were watching an old Perry Mason rerun on the small TV by the window. A buzzer sounded for Eleni to take the food out of the oven. Joyce helped with the plates. The saffron-smelling seasoning she given the big casserole of orzo and lamb seemed a little foreign to the house, as if from another part of the world.
“Things like that fight,” warned Nick, “give Asimakopoulos something to worry about.”
“So let them look down their noses,” said Ari.
“Asimakopoulos is a good man,” said Melinda.
“I didn’t say he wasn’t,” answered Ari.
“Maybe Greeks stick together too much,” commented Nick, without bitterness.
After dinner, they called for the dress. Joyce hurried off, a little embarrassed but savoring the attention. It was a chance to conspire with her beloved uncle against the whole world. The Panagiotopoulos’ sat back to wait. “Put them all to shame,” Ari called out toward the bedroom where Joyce was changing.
“We don’t need you, you bum, to tell us what a beautiful girl this is,” said the old grandmother, Helen Panagiotopoulos, who lived in New Jersey but, for some reason, came and stayed for month-long visits every spring. It was one of those strange family habits that no one ever quite understands or asks about, but it made Ari squirm a little like it was something odd, both old-fashioned and oddly compulsive, that was too often accepted without question. Maybe Greeks do stick together too much, thought Ari, even more than the Italians.
Joyce was lovely! As the beige braid work followed her long legs to the floor, the elegance of the thing seemed to work on her own mind, and on her whole notion of herself. She even arched her back in a grander manner than the family was used to. The beginnings of her breasts were visible but not lurid, more like how statuary shows anatomy if the stone could be made warm and slightly dark to the senses. Her black eyes glimmered, proudly, and a little mischievously.
What excitement there was in the neighborhood the night of the dinner that the masons had been sponsoring every year for the past six years, along with the special gala party for the younger kids which the local Astoria order threw separately at the party hall on 27th St. Even strangers on the street seemed to sense an effervescence that carried over from school into the diners, and to the cafes where a younger alien but friendly bunch of young people who worked in Manhattan lately gathered, mainly on the weekends. To Joyce, at least, its life abounding was ubiquitous.
That very night, though, Joyce would frighten herself a little, because she couldn’t stop looking at herself naked before she put her dress on. Such an intimate moment with herself she’d only have once in a while on certain nights just before going to sleep or right after taking a warm bath. A few hairs dangled around her nipples, and she reached for scissors to snip them. But then she blanched. Why should she be doing this now? It shouldn’t make any difference whether there were hairs there or not. She was a good girl, and she blushed naked for a second or two as she dashed the guilty thoughts out of her mind.
She put the dress on and felt it cling to her undergarments. The bravado she’d shown for Uncle Ari and the Panagiotopoulos’ at the party before the party was gone. She was excited, but a little bewildered. She heard Mama open the apartment door for Ari. Her thoughts went there with them, relieved, feeling alive because the beloved and incredible uncle was with her now and she wouldn’t need to be worried or ashamed about anything.
Uncle had come to wish her a good time. “It’s like you’re brand new!” he exclaimed, his eyes jubilating up and down the dress, like to feast on the silken fibers. “You won’t be a wallflower tonight. That would be wrong.”
Beautiful Mama was right behind him. Her head was lowered a little, and she was smiling a warm little smile that, at one moment, suggested a joyful giggle inside her also, coyly, trying to hide. “Ari,” she said to her brother-in-law, “it’s not girls’ fault when no one wants to dance with them. Some just aren’t so attractive.”
“It is their fault when they don’t want to be a success,” said Ari. “Or when they dress so old-fashioned, nobody wants to dance with them.”
By the same token, it wasn’t as if people were looking down their noses at the half-dozen or so girls who did come to the dinner that night dressed conservatively in stitched wool sweaters, colorful but wholly covering the contours of their bodies. Such girls were inevitable parts of the scenery in this Greek neighborhood and were, for that matter, a welcome sight to some of the men who figured they’d ultimately be safer falling in love and marrying them than more modern types like Joyce.
Who would fall in love with Joyce? He’d be a teacher, maybe, someone who taught engineering in Athens, and was waiting for a job in the United States or was going for an advanced degree. He’d be very modern in his attitudes. Maybe he’d be a businessman, working for an American company rather than one of those slightly shady Greek entrepreneurs you’d see sometimes around the neighborhood visiting their parents. Joyce’s husband would expect her to think in a forward-looking manner. With such prospects before her, even the small and private moments of life ahead might be wonderful in a way many of her friends could never understand. Life would be exciting all the time. Sometimes, when she was alone, and was in the right mood, and wasn’t embarrassed to think about such things, Joyce thought about kissing and hugging, and what it would mean in terms of love-making to marry a forward-thinking man, and how modernity might improve on Old World models.
It was a consanguinity too close, perhaps, for Uncle Ari to approve of, but the Croatians, the ones living by the church on 33rd right off 31st Avenue (not the crowd of the Panagiotopoulos’ Croat, who was from Jackson Heights), were all seated together at the dinner. Papa probably wouldn’t approve either. “It’s our fault too,” she once heard him say, after a local confirmation party where some friends of the Papadopoulos’ had politely invited some Irish families, but who then huddled together in a corner by themselves throughout. “We share our food and our drink, but we don’t really give of ourselves,” he said.
The dinner was lovely. Mr. Papadopoulos kept nodding at her and smiling throughout as if he were happy to be with her even though she was dressed--as he had begrudgingly complimented her upon their being seated---”oh like a real society lady!” It must be admitted, Joyce was a little disappointed that the only people her own age at the table were Helen Papadopoulos, a numbingly silent 16-year old, and George Parisis, a neighbor of the Kapochunas’, a sweet boy but a little immature, who kept staring at her dress, particularly when she bent slightly to drink her egg soup. He always made very crude jokes. There was the one famous time he nearly got expelled from school because of a remark. They were reading The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton in history class. Mr. Parker asked a broad and challenging question: “Sum up for me, what is the Greek way?” George bellowed out something in reply about people’s rear ends. Not only was it gross, Joyce couldn’t imagine such things. No one she ever met would do that. Why did they say these things about the Greeks? Why did the Greeks say such things about themselves?
They had their choice of chicken or fish in big helpings with nice tomato sauces, although Joyce never expected cooking at restaurants or public gatherings to be as sumptuous as what people served in their own homes, including her own. She worried sometimes if she married someone who was forward-looking, and they moved to Manhattan, or to another city, maybe a foreign city, would they only eat delicious food when they came home for a visit to Astoria? On the other hand, she herself could always cook the good stews and broil fish like she was used to. But then she worried if a forward-looking man, even a Greek from a Greek family, would appreciate her kind of food.
She was able to circulate after eating and go chat with the Malanos twins at another table. Theo Kampani was there too, one of the more personable boys who’d already gotten early acceptance to go to Stanford University. She wished her family knew his better. Once she even planned to mention them to Uncle Ari in hopes he’d make an effort to cultivate their friendship. Not that the Kampanis stood out particularly in the neighborhood – Theo was the first Kampani to go to a great school like Stanford – but something about their company was invigorating and it was a treat to see the family at neighborhood gatherings. It was even in the way they smiled. Admittedly, Joyce felt, by way of contrast, a certain contempt for the Papadopoulos’ sitting through the dinner hardly speaking, or feeling much of an obligation to do so. Their attentions were focused entirely on the food, and the extent to which the meal enhanced the aggregate quality of their lives or failed to do so. That was a cautionary lesson, perhaps: maybe she herself shouldn’t be worrying so much about food when she pondered the future and envisioned the forward-looking man she’d someday marry.
The party on 27th Street was loud and warm and full of young people jumping and gyrating on the dance floor. The hall was decorated with big signs welcoming different youth groups: Welcome, 34th St. Wildcats. Welcome, Achilles Warriors. Welcome, Fighting 43rd. There were trophies everywhere and bright paper decorations fluttering, and helium balloons hovering. She’d felt a little overdressed at the dinner as if the splendid dress Mama and she picked out and tried on and paid (Joyce guessed) $200 or more for, had finally been only for the dubious benefit of the Papadopoulos clan. But here it was different. Here dark young eyes lit up at the sight of her. At first, she was a little nervous being so prominent, but many of the boys were friends of her, while other boys she’d just chatted with on occasion in school or around the neighborhood gathered around her for conversation. Other young men, she’d never met kept staring. What fancy fine pedigrees and great adventurous biographies they must be imagining in their heads to explain someone as elegant as herself! But it wasn’t her fault if they were misled. She wasn’t lying or misrepresenting herself. She was simply dressing well, and if people she didn’t know thought she was some kind of a queen because of it, well, she had no control over what they thought.
It was additionally thrilling because there were young people here from throughout the area, a variety the Astoria masons had arranged on purpose. They wanted their children mixing with other people’s children so everything wouldn’t always just be Greek, with a few Croats tossed in from time to time. You could tell most of the couples in the middle of the dance floor were Italians. That was sometimes a disadvantage in mixing, that some groups can’t help but start to take over. Joyce didn’t mind too much, though, especially when she recognized Tony and Joe Vecchio, whose father, the older man who owned the newsstand on Steinway, was always so nice. Tony and Joe were sorts of naughty guys, but they were always sweet, never obnoxious like George Parisis, and they meant no harm.
What if she didn’t marry a Greek? What would happen then? Uncle Ari might be happy, and she guessed Mama and Daddy would be too. But then what if there were some kind of trouble? What if they suffered marital discord? It would be like confirming what everyone predicted and would have warned her against had they felt at liberty to do so. The thought of her tail stuck between her legs because she’d married an Italian or an Irishman who turned out to not be worthy of her was just too awful. It would be like everything she had tried to be, everything she believed in, would be disproved to people who were too smug and small to ever believe in living differently from the way they were.
Tony and Joe made a big deal of her dress by starting in to tease her. “Hey, fox, you wanna move closer to Steinway?” called Tony. “Look who’d you’d be right next door to.”
“No kidding, Joyce, we wouldn’t let you go walking by yourself,” said Joe, “especially not wearin’ that thing. Whoa!”
Two others she’d never seen before were standing just behind Tony and Joe and smiling broadly. They seemed very nice. One appeared to be Irish or just plain American. The other had an Italian complexion, but she couldn’t quite tell. And then a third figure appeared, hard to see behind those two. “I’m surprised we’ve never met you before,” said the young half-hidden man. “We’re in this neighborhood a lot.”
“Yeah, I’m here a lot too,” said the Italian-looking one, his voice, unexpectedly, a most displeasing nasal twang. “I was in Greece once,” he continued. “Ever hear of Epidaurus?” The twang vibrated with a sudden pride in its ability to say the name of that distant and ancient place. “They got a big theater there where all the old-time people went to see plays. You go all the way to the back of the theater and they drop coins on the stage, which you can hear perfect from the all the way in the back. That’s how good the acoustics were even though it was in ancient times. You can sit there and even hear dimes.”
“Sure,” said Joyce. “My family is from Nauplia, which isn’t really too far from there.”
“Oh I was there too,” said the twangy guy. “They got really fresh fish there. I love real fresh fish,” he said as his companions smiled broadly and even a little strangely.
She started dancing with George Trypanis from school. George’s mother was once very close to Eleni before something happened, a mysterious and very personal dispute that Mama never talked about and no one asked about. Then Tony Vecchio cut in. As the music got faster, the American-looking guy she’d never seen before cut in and, as he gyrated, loomed real close toward Joyce. The tempo redoubled and Joyce flushed from the motion, then blushed at the sudden intensity with which she and the others were moving. She backed off.
“Sorry,” said the young man, nodding deferentially toward Tony as well. “I certainly didn’t mean to be forward.”
“You know them?” asked Jay Trypanis, George’s brother. She shook her head. “No one else here does either.”
The American-type returned to Joyce’s side and asked, respectfully, almost too respectfully, to dance with her again. Joyce was interested in being fair, as well in being open-minded, and she thought he was an interesting-looking sort, with a face kind of craggy beyond his years. He had on a string tie no one else in the neighborhood ever wore. As he led, wonderfully, Joyce caught sight of a coterie of Greek girls, each of whom she knew by name but never really conversed with, huddled together, whispering among themselves but mainly saying nothing. It was so strange to Joyce, as her partner whirled her to the music of the band and the appreciative scrutiny of the band members who were all crimson shirts and darkish ties and soft, almost effeminate faces with pronounced mustaches. So strange: these girls, one of whom she too might easily be but for circumstance, easily draped like one of them in a black dress, a pubescent widow. It was a staring dark conspiratorial circle but for the occasional girlish giggle.
The dance ended and Joyce accompanied her partner as he rejoined his friends. “How you getting home?” asked the Italian-looking boy with the twang.
“My father and uncle are picking me up at 12:30,” she answered matter-of-factly, pleasantly.
“And here I was, figuring to get a hot kiss goodnight,” said the twang, laughing as he said it and blushing a mite to boot. Joyce smelled beer on his breath.
Joyce moved away, put off and scared a little but excited at the same time. She sat, just far enough from George Parisis so they wouldn’t have to talk, on a small sofa by the wall where she could snatch a moment of her own to reflect and wonder if this was finally it: that she was a young woman now, that she’d entered a forbidden realm of talk and knowledge and unspoken messages that yet wasn’t so forbidden people like Mama and Daddy hadn’t themselves been here and known the feelings and cherished the memories. Repellent things, like the beer smell, were part of it too, something adults realized had to be accepted as part of life. George Parisis was different: her disgust with him was the disgust of an adult for a child. Maybe that’s why she’d chosen to sit down not far from him after the more intimidating presence of the Italian with the twang. George was only harmlessly ridiculous.
As she sat coldly ignoring George so as not to let his ridiculous presence obtrude on her burgeoning mood, she felt the dress slink up to a little over her ankles. End now, she thought to herself. Everything, the evening and the dance and life maybe even, end now while it’s all so perfect. End like this in one big bubble right here and now.
By midnight, she and the other girls from the school were out in the parking lot waiting for rides home. Others there, mainly a few young men who lived close enough to walk home, were dawdling and hoping to flirt. The young man in the string tie came up behind Joyce. “Can I see you again?” he asked, stepping so close she was taken aback. “I’ll show you around. I’ll show you Brooklyn Heights and parts of Manhattan you’ve never been to.”
Joyce was silent as he continued. “I’ll show you nightclubs in Brighton Beach where no one else goes to eat and dance except Russian gangsters. I’ll take you to live shows in Greenwich Village and Soho in New York where they do things too weird to do on Broadway.” Then he said his name, Robert Adams.
Next day, the Prounis’ were nonplussed when she told them about this invitation. These were adventures no one in the family had had, not even Uncle Ari, but they weren’t necessarily disapproving. Mama and Papa were even a little excited for her. It was five years since Eleni spent a whole evening in Manhattan. All she said was, “you’ve got to be careful in New York.”
“You used to go to Athens all by yourself,” Joyce reminded her. “Remember you told me about how a handsome French foreigner tried to talk to you at the cafe on Lykabettos!”
Mama blushed. “Oh, all he asked was what he should see in the city, and how to best get there.”
“What if Robert calls?” asked Joyce in a lowered tone, intent on getting a definite answer.
“You can go,” said Nick. His smile of gentle approbation!
The call came two days later. “I thought we could take in an early show at Radio City on Wednesday and then have dinner. Ever been to Rock Center?” He said `Rock Center’ in the blithe way a real Manhattanite would say it.
Excited, she phoned Uncle Ari, and he was excited with her. She put the dress on that very afternoon, not that she was necessarily planning to wear it on Wednesday, but it had such a feel to it, the way the white cotton clung, and the top of her breasts peeked out, and the braided thread migrated so pronouncedly to her ankles, that it made the excitement of life itself echo in the apartment. Only her generation among the clans had ever had such opportunities.
Mama called upstairs to say she was leaving for Steinway to shop. Minutes later, Joyce felt it jubilate and bolt inside her, an impulse to show off again. She’d walk the opposite direction from Steinway, so Mama wouldn’t see her, traipse the repetitive side streets and drink up the quizzical, the few disapproving but mainly admiring glances from the workers on the street and the old ladies in their lawn chairs.
Outside, it was a cool spring day, and the breeze pressed with the cotton against her thighs. She was so conscious of her thighs...28th St. 29th, 30th, then an alley she had never seen before. The rutted asphalt wedged between two liquor stores. Beyond the stores, there was nothing, more asphalt and an empty lot full of weeds. Being alone in her dress was a pleasure all to itself as she strode majestically down the homely road, almost as if she were in a dream.
But she wasn’t alone. There were footsteps behind her, and she didn’t feel at all comfortable about turning around to see whose they were, not so much because she was afraid as from some sense that it would be improper to do so. Meanwhile, there was no one and nothing in front of her, and the brief alleyways on her left and right were likewise empty. Then she heard it, a kind of hollowness, an eerie empty clomp in the footfalls behind her. She felt a sudden terror, yet couldn’t bring herself to quicken her pace. Her legs were like ice. And she felt a kind of indecency, a terror at herself for having capriciously and without reason worn the dress. It covered her up, she wasn’t being a bad girl, yet inexplicably she felt like a helpless and audacious intruder in her own neighborhood.
She knew the alley would let out at last on a busy street. Yet it was as if space itself was weirdly funneled; she couldn’t see the point, only a few hundred yards away, where the lonely byway ended. She’d keep walking, arrive at last at some street or, who knows, some bridge or tunnel – but then where would she be? Someplace else, someplace strange when she craved the listless comfort of her own neighborhood. She was lost.
Joyce now resolved to turn around and walk back to where she’d started, but the hollow ringing footsteps were louder and more insistent now. There was no going back, so she forced herself to run and when she did, her worst fears were confirmed. The footsteps were running after her, faster now, until they were upon her. Then the dress was in tatters and the stuff that was softer than cotton and the cool inner cloth were rent and, before she felt hands upon her or a hot male’s rancid breath, she mainly heard the hissing sound of fabric being ripped. Then a sharp cut, a warm release--she couldn’t tell from what part of her body--and all was dark.
Nick Prounis faced away from the window, unblinking, at the edge of the wall framing the sill, away too from the murmuring people inside. Aristotle Prounis gazed full-faced out the window toward one of the dull trees squatting at the curb, planted some long-gone time ago in the history of the great city. Each sob audible behind him lay heavily on his mind. Virgins are so fine and clean, and Joyce was the sweetest and sunniest one of all. The defiled body lay a few feet away, posed in a white gown the funeral home had provided, very much the flower which lives only a few days before the first chill descends. If he tried hard enough, he could quicken his sense of smell to pick up something too faint for the others, but which he knew to be – but couldn’t bear to think of – as – decomposition. It was, at the very least, the end of his own hopes.
The Asimakopoulos’ filed in, dutifully somber, yet theirs were faces subtly self-justifying, as if, a wiser and more prudent crew, death and despair couldn’t touch them. Not just Ari, but Eleni too in her silent grief took note of it. A simpler person, perhaps, than her brother-in-law, it thus hurt her more, this invidiousness in such old friends. Who’d have expected her to have to bear another hurt on top of the indescribable hurt?
“She only wanted to live a little,” said John Prounis. Joyce’s brother sounded angry, although whether he too had perceived the tacit censure of the Asimakopoulos’, or whether it was the unspeakable fact of what had happened to his sister that enraged him, Eleni couldn’t tell. She wanted to comfort him. There was a hush as if people were indeed waiting for a comment from someone, a suggestion the blame did lay with Joyce and her family. Blessedly, none came.
“Saints don’t suffer like this,” said Eleni aloud, although her voice was surprisingly steady. Perhaps it was a little defiance that made her stalwart. Part of her was poised to defend the dead daughter who’d walked alone on the streets with cool cotton clinging to her brownish body.
Ari’s senses quickened. He rose toward his brother but Nick was buried in his trance, closing his eyes and hunching his shoulders closer to the wall as Ari approached. There was a violence inside Ari as he loomed above his beloved brother; he could only retreat back to his chair where he turned his attention, or, rather, hurled it, back out the window, toward the ungainly trees in their dry clumps of soil.
“She’s with God now,” added Timos Panagiotopoulos. Ari, his vision darkening beyond endurance, heard in that good man’s tone the slight lilt of someone glad it wasn’t his daughter butchered like an animal. The Kapochunas’ filed in late, with Antigone bewildered in her dark eyes. Her mother loosed a few platitudes. They had finally allowed Antigone to go to the dance after the party, but Ari assumed many years would now go by before that leash was ever loosened again. They had--what was the expression?--dodged a bullet, and were thanking heaven they’d been taught a lesson they’d never dare forget.
That morning, Ari had felt fear for himself, a cold sweat at the thought his own good name was to be besmirched behind his back, or, worse yet, his very presence spurned by openly hostile neighbors laying all the blame on him for the new, foolish ideas that had brought his brother’s family to this horrible ruin. Then grief for Joyce supplanted his fears, and, for all he cared, the world could drop its ax and eradicate him utterly--Ari swore he’d never dishonor Joyce again with anxieties about so paltry a thing as his own good name in a world of such mean-spirited peasants--yet how he couldn’t stop hating everything they stood for. Worse, if his dream still lived, there was no one to live it. His nephews John and George were fine men but too simple to dare it, especially since it seemed their charge now to mainly attend the devastated parents. Their lives were set.
And Nick? Ari couldn’t bear to let his imagination roam that future, so he squelched the clammy fear his brother would blame him too, though say nothing in the unbroken silence that would stretch on for decades ahead. And Eleni, whom he loved? Eleni, so little resentful by nature, could yet grow bitter with the years until time itself pushes her to find and flay some convenient, close-by paschal lamb. He stopped thinking about it all. There wasn’t the time now for these grieving premonitions of further loss. He’d bear them later, and bury now instead of the young queen in her virgin white.
It was when the Trypanis’ arrived, and the long-estranged Olympia Trypanis embraced her, that Eleni finally let go her nonpareil keening. The depth of it was greater, it seemed to Ari, for whatever old wounds had once separated the two women. Nick Prounis emerged from his trance long enough to glance in their direction; Ari, seeing him, thought to make another effort to approach. But it was no good. He was afraid, at least for now, to test his brother’s love, though his own was desperate. Again, he bent back toward the window and took up surveillance of the trees outside.
Melina Panagiotopoulos stood at the table and poured whiskey for her husband. “These days, it could have been anyone who did it,” she commented tersely.
“They’ll never catch him,” said her husband. Melina glared at him for the thoughtless remark, even though his point was already implicit in what she herself had just said. Ari saw his nephews tense up; their faces were like granite. Now, suddenly, he was hearing another awful unspoken supposition in the room: “What if a nigger did it! What if a nigger had her before killed her?” In a minute, not just rape and death, but a likelihood of primal defilement hung over the scene.
“Could have been anyone,” repeated Melina. “Even someone who saw her at the dance.”
“We’ll never know,” her husband said, still being thoughtless.
Nick Prounis, with such ineffable drama because he’d been so still and silent so long, spoke at last. “I hope it was a stranger,” he said. “Better that than one of us.”
Ari glanced passionately at his brother, who had stunned the room with this unexpected oracular pronouncement. His beloved Nick! Nick still understood how beautiful Joyce was, and how what Joyce wanted to become was always neither more nor less than another metamorphosis of beauty. Thank God, thank God for Nick! But the room was full of angry incomprehension. One of us? One of us? What does he mean?
Their silence was deep as death. Nick and Ari could see with the same eyes this population of pitiless creatures, their neighbors. Maybe, like himself, Nick could envision too that whole other new world stretched before him, its flickering bulbs in a million ranch homes in the dark nights of Kansas and Arizona, or track-house facades of suburban Virginia and Ohio just as dull but cleaner and bigger than Astoria, and full of untold condescending strangers crying crocodile tears for the sad family that tried but could not fit in. From Old World and New, the cry We Told You So rang down on the dead girl like a thunderbolt, as all that yet could be, the dazzling light, must now await some new Greek queen in clinging wind-blown cotton white.