The Legacy of Leontis
HARRY MARK PETRAKISbroke into print in theATLANTICwith his first story, “Pericles on 34th Street,” which won a Benjamin Franklin Magazine Citation and an Atlantic ”First” Award for 1957. His novel,LION AT MY HEART,a view of Greek — American life published last year, was taken for television production onPLAYHOUSE 90.
LEMARNAS married Angeliki when he was fifty-eight years old. She was twenty-four. She had been in the United States only a little over two years. All that time she spent working from dawn to dark in the house of an older brother who had paid her passage from Greece. Her days were endured scrubbing floors and caring for his children. In addition, the unhappy girl did not get along with her brother’s wife, who was a sullen and unfriendly woman.
Leontis was not aware at that time of how desperately Angeliki wished for liberation from her bondage. When he visited the house in the evening to play cards with her brother, she released upon him all the smoldering embers of her despair. He would have been ashamed to admit that he mistook her attention for affection and her desperation for passion. He was bewildered and yet wished ardently to believe that a young and comely woman could find him attractive. He could not help being flattered and soon imagined that he was madly in love.
In the twenty-eight years since Leontis emigrated from Greece to the United States, he had made a number of attempts to marry. Several times he almost reached the altar, but in the end these efforts were always unsuccessful. Even when he was a young man the bold girls had frightened him, and the shy sweet girls to whom he was attracted lacked the aggressiveness to encourage him. He was without sufficient confidence to make the first move, and as a result always lost his chance.
Sometimes despair and restlessness drove him to women that he paid for affection. As he grew older, however, these visits became much more infrequent, and when he realized they burdened rather than satisfied him, he gave them up.
A year came when he was forced to concede to himself that he would never marry. This caused him a good deal of remorse and self-reproach, but secretly he was also relieved to be spared additional disappointment. His mother, of whom he often said, God rest her departed soul, had affirmed that keeping busy prevented melancholia. He became active in a Hellenic lodge and sponsored the education of several war orphans overseas. He rearranged all the stock in his grocery at least twice in each six months. On Sundays, the hardest day of the week for him to sustain, he rode the trolley from one end of the city to the other. He visited museums and spent many hours at the zoo. He was strangely drawn to the monkey house and quietly marveled at his apparent resemblance to one somber old male in a corner of a cage who seemed untouched by the climate of social amiability that prevailed all around him.
During the week, after closing the store in the evening, he sometimes played cards with fellow members of his lodge. In the beginning, this was his reason for visiting the house of Angeliki’s brother. Afterwards, although it took a while to admit it to himself, he went only to see her.
Later, in remembering that time, Leontis often considered how ridiculous his conviction that Angeliki loved him must have appeared to her brother. Perhaps he saw their union as an answer to his concern for the future of his sister. But whatever his reasons, her brother gave his approval and completed the alchemy created by the loneliness of Leontis and Angeliki’s wish for freedom.
In the early spring of that year, with the first buds breaking in slim green shoots upon the trees, Angeliki and Leontis were married. But it did not take long for the poor girl to realize she had merely substituted one form of despair for another. He could offer her every advantage but the one of youth to match her own. Leontis knew she must have considered him ancient and unattractive, but his presence in the rooms in which she bathed and slept must have created in her an awareness of her body, and perhaps excited her as well. She could see that he admired and adored her, and at the same time he could not blame her impatience with his fumblings.
She could not comprehend how difficult it was for him to value himself as participant in the act of love. He had too long lived vicariously on the perimeter of life. Yet he desired her fervently and made a valiant effort to play the role of lover. On a number of occasions he did manage to fulfill the functions expected of him. But Angeliki grew petulant and bitter at his inadequacies and began to ridicule his age and appearance. A day came when his own long-suffering patience wore thin, and they exchanged hot and furious words.
“You married me for my money!” he said, and he knew that was not true, but anger selects its own truth.
“No.” She laughed bitterly. “I married you because you were voting and handsome.”
He felt the black bile of despair through his body, and he was tempted to strike her but understood helplessly that she could not deny herself the release of some of her frustration.
“I married you because you were handsome!” she shrieked. “A Greek god with a golden body!”
“Enough,” he said, and suddenly his anger was gone and he was only weary. He saw in that moment the absurdity of his delusion and how much more he was to blame than she.
He fled down the stairs. In the store, Thomas Sarris, the young man who worked for him, was stacking cans of coffee. Leontis was ashamed and wondered if Thomas had heard them quarreling.
Upstairs, Angeliki slammed a door, a loud and angry slam. Thomas Sarris pretended he did not hear.
THE following spring, a son was born to them. Through the months of Angeliki’s pregnancy, observing her body curving incredibly into the shape of a pear, Leontis felt sure the doctor had made a mistake. For a long time he had accepted that he would never have a wife. The prospect of becoming a father had been additionally remote. Not until the moment in the hospital shortly after Angeliki returned from the delivery room was he able to accept the conception as real. He was shocked at the sight of her pale cheeks and her dark moist hair, combed stiffly, in the way of hair on a corpse. Fifty-nine years on earth without awareness of the struggle of birth had not prepared him for the emotion. He could not speak. A great tenderness for his young wife possessed him. He touched her cheeks softly and struggled vainly to find words to explain that he understood the ordeal she had endured alone.
When they brought the baby to Angeliki to he nursed, he was rooted with reverence and wonder. He had seen babies before, not quite as small and wrinkled, but that this baby should be a part of his flesh, a blossom of his passion, filled him with a wild strength. As if in some strange and secretive way he had cultivated a garden beyond the reaches of his own death.
Back at home, Angeliki was a devoted mother and cared diligently for the baby. She was dismayed and fretful at the disorderly abundance of affection Leontis showered upon the child. But he could not help himself. He worked in the store, and whether or not he was alone, a moment came when he was filled with an overwhelming longing to see his son. He would run up the stairs and burst through the kitchen into the room where the baby played. Angeliki would follow him, nagging fiercely, but he paid her no attention. He would bend over the baby and marvel at how beautiful he was. He would kiss the top of his soft head and kiss each of his tiny warm feet. The bell in the store rang endlessly.
Angeliki drove him finally from the room.
“You are mad! I will have you put away. You think of nothing but that baby. Your store, your wife — nothing matters. We will end up in the street!”
He kept a few feet ahead of her, and puffing heavily, he hurried down the stairs.
A few weeks before the baby’s first birthday they baptized him in the Greek Orthodox Church on Laramie Street. Leontis planned a gigantic party. He had several whole lambs roasted, and fifty gallons of wine, and forty trays of honey-nut sweets. He rented the large Masonic hall and invited almost all of the congregation of the church to attend. It was a wild and festive night, and everyone appeared to marvel at the way Leontis danced. Angeliki at last caught him in a corner.
“What an old fool! You will drop dead in the air. Everyone is laughing at you. They think you are crazy.”
But full of wine and Iamb and gratitude, Leontis just smiled. He danced and sang for love of his son, and he did not care what others thought.
Now, in that month of his son’s baptism, sleeplessness, which had troubled Leontis for years, grew worse. He lay wakeful and still beside Angeliki and stared into the dark, and sweats came, and chills, and strange forebodings rode his restless dreams. He went secretly to his friend Doctor Spiliotis. The old physician examined him silently and spoke without sugar off his square tongue.
“Have you made out a will? If not, go home and attend to it.”
“I have a will made,” Leontis said. “Thank you, old friend, for the advice.”
“No thanks to me,” the doctor said brusquely. “Thank that heart of yours, which has endured all the abuse you could heap upon it. Many men have weak hearts. They live long lives by taking care. You seem determined to leave as quickly as possible.”
“I have lived a long time,” Leontis said. “Looking back, it seems to me there is nothing but time.”
The doctor looked down and stabbed fiercely with his hand through the air.
“I only treat physical ailments,” he said. “They have specialists now for sickness of the mind. For aberrations of old men who marry strong young girls.”
“You should have been a diplomat, old friend,” Leontis said.
“Understand me, Leontis,” the doctor said. “The time is past for jokes. Unless you go to bed at once and move very little for six months or a year, I do not think you have long to live.”
In that moment, Leontis understood the tangled emotion a man feels who hears sentence of his death. At the same time, it seemed his decision was clear.
“Who will attend the store?” Leontis asked. “Who will walk my son in the park in the afternoons? Who will sit with my family in church on Sunday mornings?” He paused for breath. “And if I go to bed, can this ensure I will live a long time?”
“We can be sure of nothing on this earth,” the doctor said.
“Then I will wait in the way I wish,” Leontis said.
“Get out,” the doctor said, but the affection of their long friendship softened his words. “I will send you a wreath, a big one, fit for a horse. It will be inscribed ‘Athenian Fool.’ ”
“Save your wreath for someone less fortunate,” Leontis said. “I have lived long enough, and I have a son who will carry on my name.”
With the knowledge of his impending death, a strange calm descended upon Leontis. Recalling his sixty-odd years, as dispassionately as he could, did not permit him any reason for garish grief. He knew that, except for his son, there was nothing in his life worthy of exultation or outrage.
He was certain of Angeliki as a devoted mother who would love and attend the child. To provide them with economic security in addition to the store, he had been purchasing bonds in considerable quantity for years. Therefore, only the possibility of Angeliki’s remarriage to a man who might mistreat the child caused him anxiety.
He began studying carefully the clerk in his store, Thomas Sarris. A young man of strong build and pleasant manner. On a number of occasions, Leontis had noticed him discreetly admiring Angeliki when she entered the store. For an instant, the thought of Thomas Sarris or any man replacing him as father to his son brought a terrible pang to his body, but reason calmed him. Thomas was not wild, as were many of the young men. He did not wish to be more than a good grocer, but he worked hard and would care for His own. He would know how to sweeten a girl like Angeliki and remove the memory of her bitterness in marriage to an old man.
He spoke cautiously to Thomas one afternoon.
“How old are you, Thomas?”
“Twenty-eight,” Thomas said.
“Twenty-eight,” Leontis repeated, and kept busy bagging loaves of fresh bread so that Thomas would not notice his agitation. “How is it you are not married yet? Many young men are in a great hurry to marry these days.”
Thomas easily swung a heavy sack of potatoes from the floor to the counter.
“I have not found the right girl.”
“Are you looking?” Leontis asked.
“I will be ready when I find her,” Thomas said. “But I am intent on getting myself established first. Get a store of my own.”
Leontis felt his pulse beat more quickly.
“Do you like this store?” he asked in what he felt was a casual voice.
Thomas shook his head enthusiastically.
“A wonderful store,” he said. “A fine business.
I would give anything to have one like it someday.”
Leontis turned away so that Thomas would not sec the sly and pleased smile that he was sure showed on his face.
From that day he brought the baby and Angeliki and Thomas together. He invited the young man to dinner and afterwards encouraged him to play with the baby. He was gratified when Thomas was gentle and tolerant with the child. And the presence of the young man seemed to act as a balm upon Angeliki. She spoke more softly and laughed easily, and there was a strange sparkle in her eyes. Sometimes, in the course of those evenings, it seemed to Leontis that Angeliki and Thomas and the baby were the family and he the intruder. Awareness of this jolted him. and forgetting for an instant that this was his design, he would flee with the child to another room. He would sit in the dark, holding the child tightly in his arms, and with the bitter knowledge of their separation roweling his flesh, he sometimes cried, softly, so that Angeliki and Thomas would not hear.
SUMMER passed and autumn swept brown crisp leaves along the streets beside the torn scraps of newspaper. In the morning, opening the store, Leontis felt the strange turning of the earth and endured the vision of the sun growing paler each day.
He knew that it was too late, but he suddenly look great care not to exert himself and called to Thomas to move even the smallest box. More and more often, he left the younger man alone in the store and spent most of the day upstairs with Angeliki and the baby. In the beginning she reproached him for neglecting the store, but after a while she seemed to sense his weariness and left him alone. He sat and watched her work about the rooms and listened to the baby make soft squealing sounds at play. Sometimes Angeliki brought him the baby to hold, and they would sit together by the window, looking out upon the winter street.
One afternoon when it rained and the dark heavy sky filled him with unrest, he spoke to her for the first time of what was in his mind.
“Angeliki,” he said. “If I died, what would you do?”
She looked up and paused in sewing a button on the sweater of the baby.
“What is the matter with you?” she answered sharply. “What makes you talk of dying?”
“I am getting older,” he said. “It should be considered.”
“I will not listen to nonsense,” she said.
“Would you marry again?” he asked. “I would want you to marry again.”
She did not answer, but bent again over her sewing.
“Thomas is a fine young man,” he said. “He works hard in the store. He is gentle with the baby. He would make a fine father and husband.”
Angeliki snapped down her sewing.
“What nonsense is this?” she said impatiently. “I have better things to do than sit here and listen to you talk nonsense.” She rose to leave the room, but a slight flush had entered her cheeks at mention of the young man.
There was a night he woke with a strange pain in his chest. He looked fearfully at the clock on the stand beside the bed, as if in some senseless way he hoped to arrest time. He was about to cry out, but the pain eased almost as quickly as it had come.
Later the baby cried in his sleep, a thin wail that echoed in the silent room. Angeliki got up and brought the child to their bed and placed him between them. In another moment, her breathing eased evenly again into sleep.
Leontis turned on his side and comforted the child and fell asleep with the warmth of the child within his arms. A noise within his body woke him. His eyes opened as if his eyelids were curtains on all of life. He cried out in despair.
Angeliki sat up in bed beside the baby.
“Leontis, what is the matter?”
He was bathed in a terrible sweat, and his heart seemed to be fluttering wings like a trapped bird to escape from the cage of his body.
“Leontis!” she cried. “Leontis!”
He knew he was dying. Not fear or anxiety, as he had known many times in the past months, but knowledge, swift and real as if scared in flame across his flesh.
“Leontis!” she cried. “You must not die before you forgive me!”
He touched the baby’s face. He felt his nose, small and warm, and his eyes, and the soft strands of his hair.
“Forgive me!” she shrieked. “Forgive me!”
Her hands were on his face and then they were lost within the crest of a mighty wave that tossed his body. He tried to hug the boy with all of his soul, and the last great swell exploded from his eyes.