A STORY BY TOM COLE
IT WAS April, and they were driving across Greece in a Fiat, two young Americans, a sculptor and a poet, both fellowship winners. They had come from Rome, and they were on their way to Athens. Rounding a curve through the silver of Peloponnesian spring, they abruptly came upon an array of fabrics in strips along the roadside, all the colors of autumn and of fire waving in the wind. They saw shawls, blankets, saddlebags, crude tapestries — red, burnt orange, mustard bordered with scarlet — all, beyond suspicion, the work of hands native to this valley, as the sculptor immediately knew, bellowed, in fact — Holy Christ! — and sitting by that clothesline of raging splendors, an old man. His face, as they flashed by in the sun, seemed carved, Sophoclean. Behind him there was a hint of whitewashed walls, a suggestion of chickens; then it was gone.
On they drove, but not far. The poet’s forehead almost went through the windshield as the sculptor slammed on the brakes.
“That’s it!” announced the sculptor. “That is the work of the human hand! See how it comes out of nowhere? Like a storm. A vision!” He banged the heel of his hand against his head, and in general made hectic and meaningful tableaux.
They were stopped near two mountains and three goats. With the ignition off, they could hear, beneath the wind, downhill water — springs, brooks, streams that had still been snow when these travelers had left Rome. Above them to left and right, then falling continuously below, the world curved and coiled in fields of young wheat, olives, pale grasses: a shifting play of green and silver down into the sun, dotted here and there with a bent black crone.
“That’s what we’ve come for, Rick,” said the sculptor.
“That’s you’ve come for, Slugger.”
The sculptor gave back an ominous look. His face was, curiously, his family’s face, of southern California money, sunburnt and bellicose beneath sandy thatch. With a slight twist of his soul, Slugger could have been at this moment sounding off in a locker room instead of seeking the work of the human hand in the Peloponnesus. The thought of that possible twist in his soul could drive him mad.
He launched into an effusion, and Rick disconnected his eardrums, letting his mind sail out upon that landscape for which his nostalgia was lately getting out of control. He wanted to dive face-first into that young wheat, to let his body soak into the curve of a hill, to hear passing bells, wind, the plodding of beasts, never again to write a prizewinning ode On Reading a Letter From Alice James to Her Brother Henry in Mount Auburn Cemetery During Warbler Migration, never again to be bright, cocky, irreligious, ambitious, indifferent, shallow, all the things he felt himself, somewhat unfairly, to be.
“— good look at his face?” Slugger was asking, with dangerously accelerating veneration.
“The old man’s face?” said Rick.
“Well, yeah. What did you think?”
Rick said, cautiously, that the old man’s face, what he had glimpsed of it, seemed good, patient, handsome.
“Ricky, it was a work of art! Carved out of stone. Nothing extra. No fat, no cowardice, no greed. Just that pride, that dignity these people have.”
It was an obsession of Slugger’s.
The only people left in the world with natural dignity were the Greeks and the Spaniards. And that, only in the deep countryside. He had recently discovered the Spanish Civil War, and spent half a year constructing a towering bronze To the Spanish Dead. Now he was sketching faces, bent bodies, coiled landscapes toward another mountain of bronze, To the Greek Living.
“Why do you think he had all that stuff hanging out there?”
“Maybe for the world to see. Leaves, bright feathers. I doubt they’re for sale.”
Rick was not in the mood to bargain with another penniless octogenarian.
“What do you say?” asked Slugger, already shifting into reverse.
Rick laughed bleakly as the Fiat lurched backward. It was a chance in a lifetime; they just had to talk to that old prince (that is, Rick had to talk to him: his Greek was primitive; Slugger’s, nonexistent); they had to see what the hands around here could still make (which was, of course, Slugger’s major obsession: soon there was going to be nothing in the world made by human hands). What they had found in Greece so far were cynical imitations, which could almost fool Rick but not Slugger. He had fumed and raged through Delphi, Arakhova, Olympia, Sparta; only in one or two villages hanging under the bleak eaves of Arcadia did he begin to see what he needed: through dark doorways to shops where the mountain folk came to haggle, crude magnificence hanging from wooden pegs. But he was a hard bargainer, although Rick, whose preference was always to overpay with a winning smile, had to do the talking. Not to bargain hard, according to Slugger, was to let real Mediterranean people down. To pay too much, to tip too easily, was to sap their dignity — that priceless treasure — in return for a handful of filthy pennies. He was sick of Europe pimping and grimacing and scraping and lying for money — worse than America; in Rome, where he had been sculpting that year, worst of all — and he had worked himself into a frenzy of premeditated reverence for the Greeks as the last Men in Europe, natural princes every one, at least in the mountains, who could not be bought off, who had pride, whom Hemingway wnuld still have admired, with the result that he squeezed every last drachma, in the name of Greek dignity, until it howled.
This was a strange turn, for Slugger by nature was almost imbecilely generous, the despair of his wife and his gallery, giving away work, sketches, Mexican treasures to anyone he cared for (a numberless horde), while Rick himself, that gusher of alms along the road (“Take. Eat. This is my body, this is my blood, this is a 30 percent tip”), was a skinflint among his own, never committing a semicolon to paper without payment on the spot, inscribing his name large in books he lent to his mother. By now, they were both a mess about money. Slugger had refused to be driven above two dollars in one Arcadian haggling, when the equivalent of three would have brought him a peasant masterpiece unobtainable anywhere else in the world, and could only nod his head, grim and huge, while Rick tore the marginal thirty drachmas into shreds and threw them out the car window, to float a thousand feet down upon flocks and poppies: a curious rain. Rick was then put in charge and emerged, yesterday, from the shop of a blatant old tourist-trapper in Nauplion bearing a rug and a smile. Slugger took one look, characterized the rug as “machine-made” and the smile as “shit-eating.” The rug had cost twentyfive dollars, which was as nothing compared with the cost of the smile, payment exacted by sculptor from poet; but today was another day, at least for Slugger.
UPON seeing the same car approach twice on the same afternoon, this time backward, the old man bestirred himself.
Slugger was bulky, Rick lean, the old man taller than either of them and his posture straight as an archaic charioteer’s as he held his arms forward. “Young men,” he said. “Welcome, young men.”
Slugger nudged Rick, who said “Good-day to you, sir” in Greek, clumsily, smiling in selfdeprecation.
“Sir,” chuckled the old man, and gestured them toward his place.
Then he chuckled again — “Sir!”—delighted with his private reflections. His jacket and trousers, both black, were frayed into shininess; his shirt was open at the throat, letting escape tufts of white hair, which also sprouted from his ears; and his neck, cheekbones, forehead, chin were spare — thongs and bones and print of wind — nothing excessive, as Slugger had said, except perhaps the venerable vagueness of his eyes, which Rick might have called a trifle overdone. On his pure white shock of hair the country cap sat so high that the sun from behind blazed into an aureole for it to float upon.
Slugger was beside himself.
“Sir,” Rick began again, and then joined in the chuckle for reasons that escaped him.
Both young men pointed to the brilliance of the weavings as their explanation. Seen at close hand, the colors and patterns were less startling, not so pyrotechnical, but deep, domestic, strong.
“Beautiful,” the poet said. “We saw. On the road. Beautiful work.”
“Yes, indeed it is. Family work. We have fine hands in the family.” The old man held his hands up into the sunlight with grave emaciated fingers spread as if they were the loom, to which Slugger responded with such nods and convulsions of empathy that one of the hands came down to pat him on the shoulder. Men of hands. Toilers, carvers, builders. They understood each other.
There was a pause. Domestic beasts cackled and groaned. The birds of spring held forth. Beyond, the earth fell away in grains, groves, and ravines. The sculptor nudged the poet.
“You sell?” Rick said, his face abysmal with tact.
“I sell?” repeated the old man.
“Because, we buy,” said Rick.
“I sell, you buy?”
The old man burst into laughter. He still had his teeth, not all of them rotted. The cords of his throat quaked, until his wheezes subsided into an apology. Now he patted both of them on the shoulders, saying, no, no, he did not sell, but asking, courteously, whether the young men were not, perhaps, Americans?
He pointed to himself. “Woo-stir.”
“Woostir, Mass.” His English clipped them like a sniper’s shot. “I been there twelve years, boys.”
They laughed uneasily while the old man wheezed again into the face of the sun. “Oh, yeah, boys. I left in thirteen. Right before the big war, over here. Whaddya think of that?”
“Fifty years ago,” the poet said.
“Oh, yeah. Fifty-one years I been satin’ here.”
Through gaps in the gorgeous fabrics, they peeked at the family’s hamlet. There was a medlarpear tree and a thick, dark table against the limed wall, yards scratched and meager; beyond, a mountain slope scrolled partway up with green, flecked at the top with ice.
“Nice stuff, huh?” The old man extended a Sophoclean arm toward the fabrics. “Shirts, clotes, bags ...”
“Clotes?” Rick repeated.
Slugger, quiet and serious, said that it was more than nice stuff. It was the best, strongest, most alive work of this kind they had seen anywhere in Greece.
The old man took down one of the smaller shawls and a bag, and settling into his straight chair that faced the road, spread them across his lap. The sun beat fully into his eyes and upon that splash of colors in his lap.
Rick said that he knew some girls at Bennington who would sell their souls, if any, for that one bag.
Smiling, the old man accepted the compliment.
SLUGGER was bent over the weaves, tracing out the patterns across the rough wool with his fingertips. There were subdued diamonds of blue and brown that he hadn’t noticed from a distance. And staggered borders of black, crosses of dark green running through and around the scarlet stridencies, transforming mere stridency into brilliance — as he explained to Rick, who listened with half an ear.
But the old man nodded gravely as Slugger held forth; then asked whether he, in America, was a weaver.
Slugger laughed as he said no, patted their host on the crown of his country cap, called him “old-timer,” all of which pleased the old man immensely. Again he pointed to his chest.
“I weave,” he said.
“You wove these?”
“No, no. In Woo-stir, boys. Mill hand. Then I started doin’ fine. Then I got poor.”
There was a silence.
“Oh, yeah, boys. Bad luck. I’ll tell ya . . .” He shook his head. “Bad luck,” he said again, this time in Greek.
Silence again. All three shook their heads.
The sun beat down on the empty road; the weavings fluttered.
Rick finally produced the oration he had been rehearsing for the past five minutes: Sir did not sell these things. Now they understood. But what they did not understand was: Why were the things out under the sun? For the world? To see?
The old man crinkled his brows, staring slyly up at Rick. Then he beckoned him closer, poured a flood of Greek and an ancient mustiness into his face. Rick grinned foolishly, shook his head, until the monologue began to end with fragments about his not trying any longer to pretend (the old man joyfully wagging a linger at him): he should admit it: he was a Greek boy, or at least of Greek parents. Rick, whose hair was pitch black, whose face was lean and olive, protested, shook his head again with a smile, started to say something in broken Greek, which set the old man off into yet happier circles, embellishing his totally incomprehensible arguments. It began to be clear that there were eavesdroppers somewhere behind the arras, for whose benefit, partly, the old man was building his delicious scene.
“What’s he saying?” asked Slugger.
“I haven’t the foggiest,” said Rick, playing the Englishman abroad.
The old man turned to Slugger. “Come on,” he said, with another finger-wag. “Your friend. He’s a Greek fella. Right?”
“Everybody seems to think so,” said Slugger. “Same thing in Italy.”
“Also in China,” Rick said.
Now the old man was in splendid spirits, but Slugger was growing ominous, with his arms hanging at his sides. (“Banter,” he had been known to say, “is not my line.”) He raised his right arm, in which the muscles played, but noticing the attentiveness with which the old man eyed it, grew embarrassed and nodded his head instead toward the weavings. “I was wondering why you have all this fantastic stuff out here.”
“Funny you should ask that.” said Rick.
And the old man told them. There was a girl in the family, his young niece. It was a long time for her to marry. But where can boys be found around here? In the village they all went away, at least all the good ones, just as he himself had once left. Now they had a boy coming to see. from the north. This boy (“A suitor?” Rick interposed. “That’s it,” said the old man), this boy would come to see what the family had to offer. First he would look at all the family’s things (the old man leaned forward, lowered his voice: now they were three Americans in mockery of the Old World). He would count the sheep. He would look at the teeth of the horse. He would feel the chairs. He would ask what the . . . thing was that they could give him (“Dowry,” Rick interposed again, and Slugger nudged him to shut up). But, this family was poor. Their only treasure was the weavings the women had done. Beautiful work, as the boys said. Fine family work. So, that is what they could give, and it was out in the air today to make it fresh. Then if the boy liked the sheep, the horse, and the shawls, he would say, “OK. Where’s the girl?”
The old man called out, peremptorily, and from a few steps away a woman appeared. “That’s her,” he said to Slugger and Rick.
She was in the compulsory black, with apron and kerchief and heavy socks. Her face, pleasant but perhaps too strong, almost masculine, was already lined. The Americans bowed, and she smiled shyly, with powerful teeth.
The old man ordered her to withdraw, then called another order to her back.
“So that’s it, boys. She’s twenty-four, see?” Fie peered for a reaction, which they did not give. “My wife’s brother’s son’s daughter,” he said, looking questioningly at Rick.
“That’s it. If she gets married this time, that’s nice. Up north, it’s nice. If no, then you see those ladies out in the fields? Thirty, forty years workin’ on the ground, then under it.”
There were the makings of another silence. But a Mercedes passed, and they could have talked about war or German tourists if the grandniece had not reappeared, carrying a tray with a bottle of white wine and tumblers instead of the expected Turkish coffee.
“Like retsina?” the old man asked, and nodded toward his kaleidoscopic lap, where the woman carefully placed her tray. She began to remonstrate with him, pointing to the wine and the weavings, but he waved her away.
She paused to look at them. “Ametikaniki?”
Rick answered that they were.
“Good,” she said, very slowly, as if for children, “good !” — gesturing toward them and to her greatuncle and back again, giggling. The old man again raised his hand, and in a flurry of affirmation she was gone.
Three brimming glasses were ready. The old man held his high to admire the sun pouring through in an amber shaft, illuminating the mists of sediment that swirled faintly before his eyes. He asked, half apologetically, whether they knew Greek wine, which was very strong and had the taste of the resin.
“We know. We like it.”
They toasted each other’s health, and drank. The young men had thirsts from the road, eliciting a wheeze from the elder. “Hey! We’re not in Woostir, boys. Here we don’t do like that. Insult if the glass gets empty. Here.”
Again they studied the wine motes in their tumblers. The Americans were free to move about in the light, whereas the old man was imprisoned in his chair, beneath shawls and tray, with the sun blazing into his face, probing every crevice in its hide, and surely, said Slugger (beginning to move his chair about), hurting his eyes. The old man waved him off. It seemed that he preferred trying to outstare the sun, and he wanted them in front of him so that they could talk.
SLUGGER had now begun to study the old man’s face with bald intensity. The victim was half amused, half puzzled. He adjusted his cap, held his refilled glass up into the sun again, and peeked around to see whether the fixed stare was still upon him. It was.
Rick laughed. “My friend wants to make a portrait of your head.”
“Picture? Sure. Got a camera, boys?”
“No, no. He’s a sculptor.”
“Sculptor?” The old man smiled, in docile incomprehension.
He and Rick had made a game of the gaps in his English.
The young man molded the air with his hands. “You know, you know. Sculptor — glyptos!”
“Oh. Glyptos. glyptos. Sure. But what you wanna make my face for, boys?”
Slugger was already at work with charcoal pencil and sketch pad. “You’re a very beautiful old man.”
“Hold still, now.”
“OK,” said the subject, very happy.
Afraid to move, he pointed to the wine tumblers, which Rick made to brim again.
Now there was not a silence among them, but a moment of justified quiet. Slugger’s pencil scratched back and forth while he murmured occasionally those soothing words that good portraitists and doctors know: “good . . . that’s fine . . . just hold that . . . just a bit more . . . there.”
Rick was free to prowl about, savoring the spell of spring and retsina, studying rocks and fabrics, medlar pears and mountains. He chased a few chickens, stared at rapacious silhouettes (eagles? vultures?) that wheeled against the sun, exchanged cynical glances with the goat, and waved to the grandniece, who smiled blindingly and disappeared, seeming to leave her teeth behind. He wandered back to the road, admiring his friend’s crouched concentration and wondering again that nature made provision for such present rage and potential cruelty to be expended through the point of a pencil or into the hammer’s head that beat on bronze. They had taken this trip on the urging of Slugger’s wife, who said he was growing “completely impossible” cooped up in Rome. All the bronzes that he cast out of his private agony had recently fetched “handsome prices” at a New York show. The danger that he might wax rich and famous was apparently rousing his demon. So he and Rick (“you’re his only sane friend”) had jumped from rock to rock, from an archaic smile to a golden lion, watched the sun rise from the walls of Mycenae and watched it set through the doors of a Byzantine chapel secluded amid its collection of cypresses, frescoes, hawks, sea, and clouds, and they had haggled over crafts, and now the great forearm instead of threatening a wife was sketching a relic. Rick himself studied the time-ravaged face as it tipped up toward the sun that had burned it into leather and bleached its eyes. He looked at it carefully, for the first time, and then at its version on the sketch pad; and he grew troubled.
“You’ve made him look like one of my grandfathers,” Rick said to the sculptor. “It’s uncanny.”
“He does look a little like my grandfather. The thin one.” And turning to the old man — “You look like my grandfather.”
“Where?” the old man said, smiling pleasantly. “Your grandfather?”
“Look like. You resemble him. Same face, except for the sunburn.”
“Same face? No kidding.”
“You know,” Rick said, “he came from a village. Probably like yours.”
“No kidding. Greek fella?”
“No, no, no. Don’t start that again. From . . . Slavic country. But he told me there were hills, and chickens.”
“Yeah? Well, that’s it. That’s what we got.”
“— last couple of lines here. Don’t move around too much, now . . .”
Rick was excited. “You know, he came as a mill hand, too. My grandfather. A weaver. It’s strange, the same story, but . . .”
“Bad luck?” The old man, eager, turned to Rick. “He got bad luck too?”
“No. No. As a matter of fact, he had good luck.”
Silence, except for the pencil’s rasp.
“He had very good luck. He made money, had a big family, got through depressions, wars.”
“I made money, boys!”
Slugger threw down his pencil, in disgust at talk, as the old man tried to pitch himself up from the chair but managed only to spill the wine bottle.
Only a few drops were left. All three watched the blots swell on blazing crimson.
“I made money!” the old man repeated.
He sat back, first closing, then covering his veined eyes. Slugger seemed abruptly anxious to go, Rick not.
“Business. I was a kid. Your age. Her age. Doin’ fine.”
Silence. Slugger, pacing.
The old man uncovered his eyes — vague, errant eyes. “What’s he do now?”
“He?” Rick said. “Oh. He’s dead. Dead for six years.”
The old man said he was sorry.
“No. He had good luck. Things worked out well for him.”
“Started as a mill hand. Like yourself. He bought some looms. Eventually he did very well, in ladies’ blouses. House in town, house in Maine. ‘Just like the czar,’ he used to say. ‘Summer Palace, Winter Palace.’ ”
The old man had ceased listening. He turned toward Slugger. “Luck. We had the store. I — work in factory, work in store. I’m the one, speak English for the family. Money. I want to come back here. Fight the Turks, see my mother. On a ship.”
“What happened?” said Slugger.
“What do you mean, lost it?”
“Lost it,” said the old man, and lapsed into vagueness.
SLUGGER lay his sketch — his blueprint of the old man’s physical dignity — on the tray, with a phrase meant to cover offerings, sympathies, and farewell. But Rick said, quietly, “What was it like, in Worcester?”
And the old man astounded them with a prose poem. With fragments, solecisms, and waning breath he composed a 1900 town of great singularity, where the snow was always filthy as it lay and the gray winter wind never ceased to howl, where a thousand city horses reeked in disease and confinement and people, pinched by work, grew mean while the racket of the factories hung everywhere about their heads. He told them how he wrote back, and later people wrote back to him, of the golden land where everything was fine, and it was a lie.
Suddenly his eyes were unveiled, and his face, amid its creases, was intelligent.
Then he kicked at a clump of poppies at his feet, and the hairs seemed to resprout from his ears. “Boys,” he said, “I’m poor.”
They still said nothing.
“Poor. Nothing, I got nothing. See?”
He did not pull out his pockets to wave emptily in the breeze as other men might, but held his palms forward for the Americans to see, one for the sculptor and one for the poet. He held them gracelessly before him, angling his fingers sharply downward to make the cords in his papery old wrists extrude and strain, and the Americans had time to observe that his palms, those blighted contour maps, were indeed empty, while his eyes, as occluded now as any Worcester winter, watched them.
So they were held for another long moment.
The poet cleared his throat, made tragic murmurs. The sculptor shuffled his feet. Eyes watched from a window. Goats rang their neck bells. Then the old man let his hands drop. “Yeah, that’s it, boys. That’s the way it is.”
“I’m sorry,” the poet said. “It’s a terrible thing.”
“Fifty years. Fifty years I been poor.”
“Terrible,” said the sculptor.
“Nothing here,” the old man announced, waving at the medlar-pear tree. “Hills and chickens. That’s right. That’s what we got. But he got the luck. Better man.”
“Luckier man,” said Rick. “That’s not the same thing.”
“Luck,” the old man said, staring down the valley. “He could give to his family. That’s what I wanted. That’s what’s good.”
“Now look, old-timer.” Slugger took a solid grip on the old man’s shoulder, that compilation of matchsticks. “His grandfather got into all kinds of tax brackets selling underwear. Huzzah for him. But did he ever take a boat back to fight the Turks? He never lived out here where the gods used to live. Spent his life in a place like Worcester; you haven’t missed a thing. He never saw these mountains, these eagles. He probably never found out what a good day’s work feels like in the sun. And you’ve worked.” Slugger turned over one of the hands and tapped its ancient callouses. “You can’t kid me, about sitting here. You’ve worked. You’ve seen the lambs, the new wheat, every year. Every year. Just look at this stuff around you.” He pointed again at the waving fabrics. “You’re alive. He’s dead. You’re drinking wine in your own place in the sun. He’s dead six years. So I’m not so sure who’s luckier.”
(Lies, thought Rick. You’re damn well sure this old fossil is luckier, because he slipped out of the clutches of the Industrial Monster. That’s your only and absolute standard.)
The old man was quiet for a moment, while spring, with wheat fragrance, birds, drifting silver clouds, outdid itself. The road was still except for a horse cart three bends below, and there was not a sound that Homer might not have heard.
“He’s dead for six years,” said the old man, and then with great dignity: “I’m poor for fifty.”
Slugger smote himself on the brow.
HEARTY thanks were offered, in two languages, for the wine, and praise, in one, for the excellence of this family’s skills. The old man stepped fragilely along toward the Fiat, disregarding thanks and praise. A knot of women, varied in sizes but all in black, materialized to watch from a distance, behind the abandoned chair and against the weavings.
For a chance to speak English to fine boys, for the “real fine picture,” the old man was grateful. He asked where they were going (Athens), and where after that (back to Rome), and where they had been (Paris, Istanbul, San Francisco, and so forth), and he pointed to himself, then to the hamlet with its beasts and fruit trees, saying there was the place he was going to, today, and tomorrow, and also where he had come from, and where he was highly likely to go the day after tomorrow.
“Poor,” he said.
He had the young men pinned now against the side of the car. To let the door open outward they would have had to push him aside.
It was as if he were enamored of the word itself. He tapped both their arms and again intoned it.
Slugger and Rick eyed each other. Their friendship was not deep, but its silent vocabulary could easily meet the challenge of a verb: give? and a noun: money?
Slugger’s southern California face clouded over.
“Wait,” the old man said.
He hobbled off impulsively to his chair, picked up the woven bag, then put it down and picked up the shawl instead, and returned with it to the Americans, who watched him and each other.
The old man stepped up to them, holding forth the shawl, which glowed, and looked straight into their eyes. His own eyes made their bleared demand in silence, while the sun again seemed to carve his face, casting shadows in the depths below his cheekbones, blazing on the white hair that escaped beneath his cap and on the ravages of his brow and the harsh stubble about his chin and neck.
Now they could give, thought Rick. They could give easily, and they knew it. And they knew they wanted to give, each in his own style: that was the right and generous and American thing to do (CARE packages and United Fund thermometers danced in his head). But poor Slugger’s notions of manliness, dignity, pride still existing in a few rocky corners of the earth, in proximity, at least, to certain museums and archaeological sites . . . that there were still men who wanted simply to be accepted as men and who would not be bought. And what would their five or ten dollars do for this man (surely they were not going to give him more)? Would they change the conditions of his life? Were they going to give equal amounts, in all fairness, to all the old men in the Peloponnesus? Wasn’t it merely to relieve themselves of a bad moment that they would plunk their bribe into his ruined old palm? To let themselves off the hook so that they could enjoy their taverna in Athens tonight? But it was so easy to give, if that’s what he wanted. There he was, waiting in the sun: Still Life With Shawl. So easy, if it would give him a sweeter week or two. How many did he have left? And probably he was corrupted, by Worcester. For half a century he had been a Sophoclean decoration for this roadside while through his head America was still spinning (time-is-money-what’sin-it-for-me-got-to-look-out-for-yourself, boys). A wedding gift for the grandniece. Tactful. A fat price for the shawl. Was that what he was angling for, after all? A bargaining, slightly elaborate with pathos? Right on the Athens road, how many tourist cars per week, all looking for handmade genuine, and sensitive to deprivation at 50 percent above the market price. But if Slugger were right: that all he wanted was a human ear once or twice in his dwindling life, a chance at the mysterious consolation of singing one’s sorrow in broken English to someone who listens and is gone, an exchange of hospitable wine for nothing but the blessing of talk —?
THE sculptor had already accepted the shawl, clasped the proffered old hand, exchanged a forthright vale, and was in the car by the time Rick had drawn out his wallet and selected nine bills fresh from American Express - 450 drachmas, about fifteen dollars. These he placed in the old man’s left hand while he shook the right one (strong, but twig-dry), saying, “Good-bye. Here’s a bit of luck from my grandpa.” It came out badly. The old man said nothing, merely letting the bills lie in his upturned old claw, staring vaguely at Rick’s shoulder. The poet’s face burned as he slammed the door.
The Fiat roared off.
Slugger was too choked with rage to speak. Rick saw with astonishment that tears had welled up in his friend’s eyes.
Then his own forehead was almost grazing the windshield again. They screeched, stalled.
Slugger had hold of the back of his head —sweat-hot grip — and forced him to look through the rear window.
“Look. Damnit, look!”
Rick saw the old man with his back turned to them, reduced by distance, framed against the upland groves, his white hair catching the sun as he walked, stiffly. The sun was slanted enough to give each step its illuminated puff of dust, until he had passed through the crimson weavings, leaving his chair behind.
They stared at each other wordlessly; then Slugger released his grip on Rick’s neck and looked instead at his own palm, as if examining it for loathsome contagion.
The poet settled down to difficult thoughts as Slugger reached for the starter. The engine picked up its spark, gas was fed, and they were in motion again, backward.
“Slugger,” Rick said.
But he was talking to his friend’s neck and shoulders, which strained for rearward vision, while the voice, mingling with the engine’s whine, muttered out the window something about “nobility . . . apologize. . .”
“Pay attention now, Slugger. How about calling an end to this farce?”
But they had reached the scene of the crime, against the undulant curtainings. Engine off.
Slugger leapt out. He slammed the door so hard that the Fiat quivered on its springs. Then he was standing, triumphant, in the middle of the road, looking down at a handful of crumpled bills.
“That noble old bastard,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s what he thinks of your money. That noble old bastard !”
“All right, friend,” called the sculptor, too stridently for this mild valley. “Pick it up!”
“What do you mean, pick it up?”
“You heard me,” Slugger said. “The money. Get out, right now, and pick it up.”
“I believe you’re trying to sound like Marlon Brando,” Rick said.
Slugger bolted back to the car. His face had blotched with anger.
“You going to do it on your own?”
Rick searched his friend’s eyes for some sign of a human being. “No.”
And Slugger grappled him from the car, pulling Rick’s right arm with both hands. Rick was not so heavy as his friend, but neither was he alraid to fight him. He was simply unable to suspend disbelief. Slugger had his arm twisted up behind now, and half dragged, half pushed him to the middle of the road, where lay the lethal clump of bills.
“Pick ‘em up, Rick, and the farce is over.”
Now the arm was twisted up almost to his head. It began to interest Rick to know whether or not the sculptor was actually willing to break a Iriend’s arm in the name of an idea, but then the pain grew amazing, and he was being pushed down also by a heavy wet hand on the scruff of his neck. Slugger was forcing his face down into the little pile of paper as an enraged master pushes a dog’s nose into its own filth, to teach it. That is, to break it. The comparison interested Rick as he smelled the oil and dust of the road, but then the choice was simply to let his arm crack or to swing a wild left back into his friend’s crotch or to pick up the money.
He picked up the money.
After they had driven downward for a while through the valley, where spring was silver-green and the branches threw laceworks of racing shadows, Slugger said, “I’m sorry, Rick.”
The poet concentrated on light and shade, olive trees and rock.
“What I mean to say is, I’m sorry up to a point. I apologize for my bad behavior. You do the same.”
Rick looked back steadily. “I don’t recall any bad behavior on my part.”
The sculptor bristled: “Goddamn me for trying to smooth things out! You haven’t learned a damn thing from this, have you? About human dignity, about—*”
“Yes,” Rick said, “as a matter of fact, I have.”
Something in his tone finally quieted the sculptor. He looked through the windshield and down the road toward the next stage of his pilgrimage.
The poet opened his fist, where lay the fiftydrachma bills, much crushed and wadded three of them, to be exact, which were all, apparently, that had dropped from the old man’s hand, or that he had chosen to throw down.
Then Rick closed his fist again.