Herewith a strange and lurid scene from the bar life — gangsters, music, and a quasi-ritual violence — in Piraeus, after the ravaging of Smyrna during the 1922 Greco-Turkish war (one of the many Greco-Turkish wars) in Tess Fragoulis‘s brand new novel The Goodtime Girl (Cormorant Books). The scene is foreign, surprising because it lets the reader see, in its details, the mix of cultural history in the land that is often called the cradle of Western civilization while, at the same time, letting us know that gangsters are kind of like gangsters wherever they are — strutting cockerels with a peculiar sense of social harmony — whether they inhabit Isaac Babel’s Odessa or Mario Puzo’s Las Vegas. Tess Fragoulis, the author of two previous books, the novel Ariadne’s Dream and a story collection called Stories to Hide from Your Mother, writes and teaches teaches in Montreal. You can read the first review of her novel here.
You strut up to me
with a double-edged blade
Who’s your business with wise-guy,
what debts must be paid?
It was early evening and the taverna was empty except for a few members of the band escaping their wives, and a gang of codgers who wouldn’t last past eleven. They were playing endless hands of kseri, drinking retsina and reminiscing about the good old days when the taverna was their territory and no one came in without a brick of hashish as an offering. Now they were harmless granddads, coughing with every inhale of the narghile and gossiping about the preening young manghites with as much indulgence as disdain. Kivelli liked the taverna at this time of day, before the atmosphere was choked with grudges and bravado. She sat by herself, drinking coffee and waiting for the air to shift, for the old men to cede their places to the young.
To pass the time, she turned her little white cup onto its saucer and watched the muddy grounds ooze out the side while her future was being etched on the inner walls in lacy patterns. Barba Yannis claimed he could read palms, though everyone knew it was just an excuse to hold women’s hands and make predictions that gave him some sort of advantage. He’d already taken turns with Kiki and Lola, as well as several of the other girls because they liked what he saw in their future. He didn’t read cups, however, which was the territory of old ladies with black dresses and headscarves, their evil eyes usually aimed in his direction. As Kivelli peered into the cup’s miniature abyss at something that might have been a flower or a fallen sun, she sensed someone behind her and looked over her shoulder.
A short, skinny man Kivelli hadn’t seen before stood there, erect as a post, his nervous blinking the only sign he was alive. He wore an impeccable grey serge suit with a burgundy bow tie, and a black fedora pulled down over his forehead and ears, which made him look as if he had something to hide. He smelled familiar, however, of lemon verbena and fine tobacco, like her sleek-haired suitors in Smyrna, though he was nowhere near as handsome with his flaccid skin and thin, pale lips. When his mouth began to move, Kivelli couldn’t hear his words over the din of old men nattering and musicians fooling around with their instruments. She narrowed her eyes and cupped a hand by her ear.
“I am the Smyrniot,” the man repeated testily and paused a moment, waiting for a reaction. So many guys had adopted that nickname since the Catastrophe — whether they’d come from the city or a nearby village — it had become meaningless. Kivelli studied his grim face, but it told her nothing. He wasn’t distinct enough to be remembered. Even now, standing before her, her memory resisted him.
“What can I do for you?” she asked, not impolitely, but not graciously either. He threw her a sharp look that in the past might have frightened her, but now only made her more defiant. She compressed her lips and folded her arms over her chest, her eyes hard as diamonds. If he really wanted trouble, she could call the Cucumber. For a few uncomfortable seconds, they looked each other over with equal doubt. But before either could make a move, Barba Yannis rushed over and slapped the Smyrniot on the back, then shook his hand vigorously. Kivelli had seen that happy dog look on her boss’s face before: he was both impressed and slightly unnerved by the presence of the man he called Panayotis.
“What brings you here, my friend?” he asked Panayotis the Smyrniot, who pulled on the brim of his hat until his eyes all but disappeared. With an almost imperceptible tilt of his chin, he pointed in Kivelli’s direction. Barba Yannis looked as thrilled as Kyria Effie had on the day he’d arrived with his proposition. “You should be very flattered, girlie.” He then winked at the Smyrniot. “Don’t ask about the hole I found her in …” And with that he left, blissfully unaware that his taverna was just a different type of hole.
The Smyrniot looked left and right, as if plotting his escape. He was becoming more agitated by the minute; he fiddled with something in his pocket Kivelli hoped was neither a wedding ring nor a pistol. Barba Yannis was sitting with the old men, whispering and staring and whispering some more. There was a rumble of laughter, and someone began plucking a baglama, yowling between notes.
When the Smyrniot spoke again, he lowered his voice as if he feared being caught in an indiscretion. “Miss Kivelli,” he began, his words tentative, forced. “I have a song for you. Come to my house tomorrow afternoon if you want to try it on for size.” He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to her, then scurried out of the taverna without waiting for her reply, or pulling on the narghile, or talking to anyone else — not even Barba Yannis. His address was outside the neighbourhood, over the bridge and up Castella Hill, in a better part of Piraeus. Kivelli stared at the piece of paper in her hand, then crumpled it and stuffed it in her coffee cup. The place was starting to fill up, and it was time for her to disappear into the storeroom so she could later make her entrance. Barba Yannis hurried over, his eyebrows twitching eagerly.
“What did he say, what did he want from you?” He wiped his forehead with a white handkerchief edged with pink embroidery.
“Who knows … something about a song … to each his own.” Barba Yannis looked at her as if she’d fallen on her head.
“Are you crazy? The Smyrniot wants to give you a song and you flick him off like lice? What’s the matter with you? Don’t you know who he is?” This was the first time he’d ever scolded her, and the strain soaked his handkerchief with sweat.
Kivelli admitted she didn’t know, and she didn’t care either. As far as she was concerned, he was one of a dozen newborn Smyrniots, and nobody to her. Barba Yannis plucked the crumpled, coffee-stained paper out of the cup, smoothed its wrinkles against the table. He held it at arm’s length to read it, then pressed it into her hand. “You go there and apologize, Miss Kivelli, or don’t bother showing up tomorrow night. I have no room here for women who live on the moon.” He then spelled it out for her and walked off to tell the other musicians, who had a good laugh at her expense.
This Smyrniot was Panayotis “The Smyrniot” Doukas, one of the most renowned musicians in Smyrna. Kivelli had heard his name and had danced to his music at balls and private functions where his orchestra played, but had certainly never met him. His were not the circles she travelled in, neither there nor here. The band hardly ever played his songs at the taverna; they weren’t raw or hard enough for the regular crowd, even when the lyrics were about hashish and prison and heartbreak. The music raised a different spirit — too happy, too romantic, even in its melancholy. Kivelli knew a few of his hits — “Maria, Stop Your Nagging,” and “Someone’s Stolen the Wine” — and sang them on request when one of her compatriots who could afford it was in the audience, which was not very often. They had their own clubs where they tried to recreate what they had lost, places named after Smyrna’s richest neighbourhoods — Bella Vista, Cordelio, Bournova. The mere thought of going there made Kivelli as sick as bad wine.
But now that she knew who the Smyrniot was, she was curious to hear what kind of song he thought was cut to her measure, and to find out how he knew, since she’d never seen him at the taverna. Though, admittedly, he could have been lurking in a smoky corner all along, testing and assessing her, or standing right under her nose, unremarkable and easily forgotten.
There was still this night to live through, however, and tomorrow seemed a thousand years away, during which the sun might be extinguished once and for all, if not for her, then for someone else. This had become a given since the Cucumber’s gang had taken up residence at the taverna. Notoriety had to be fed with flesh and blood, or it went somewhere else. So incidents of the kind that were never reported to the police escalated, and it was left to the manghes to sort things out, using their own code, imposing their own sentence.
At around two in the morning, a young swag from the neighbourhood sauntered in, high as Jupiter. Crazy Manos dropped in on most nights to flirt with the girls, exchange barbs with the guys. He was lean-faced and handsome, with dark blond hair and the green eyes of a wildcat, wary and always halfway shut. Rumour had it that he slept with ten women a day and stole from them all, which was how he could afford his fine suits and enough hashish to keep him flying most of the time. He collected his allowance throughout the day in exchange for a kiss on the forehead, and blew it all by dawn. Kivelli hoped it was worth it, but she had her doubts.
Crazy Manos was a bit of a show-off. He strutted around the room, glass of wine in hand, laughing uncontrollably and flashing his new double-edged dagger with the polished deer stag handle. He slid it through his fingers, ran it over the insides of his wrists and hefted it between his hands. He was also throwing his weight around with the girls in the corner, but from their scowls and waving hands, Kivelli could tell they were not enjoying his attentions. Narella left the table and went to speak with Barba Yannis, who consulted a few of his buddies and then called over Mortis, the taverna’s only waiter.
The older manghes had nothing against Crazy Manos. They admired his looks, his luck with the ladies and his fancy blade. They’d all been young and high and crazy once. He was one of them, but there was no bigger anathema than a guy who called attention to himself for no good reason. If you took out your sword, you’d better be ready to use it. They tried to ignore him at first, but this only encouraged his strutting. When Mortis refused to bring him more wine, Crazy Manos stood on a chair and smashed the empty glass on the floor, then began laughing like a maniac. One by one the instruments stopped playing, Kivelli stopped singing, the men stopped talking and even the girls’ gasps were soundless. A group of Barba Yannis’s tightest friends surrounded Crazy Manos, who cursed and spat like the devil as they dragged him outside. Barba Yannis signalled the band to start playing again, but Kivelli could still hear the shouting and swearing through the thick wooden door.
After two or three songs the manghes returned, wiping their hands on their trousers, tucking in their shirttails, looking neither happy nor angry nor proud. They had done what was necessary because they’d been provoked. They took their places at their tables as if nothing had happened, resumed their conversations as if they’d never been interrupted. That was that, Kivelli thought, and after a few more songs she too had forgotten the scuffle, though the broken glass still lay on the floor, twinkling like ice that would never melt.
Then Crazy Manos stumbled back in. Blood running from his nose and mouth stained his white shirt, both his eyes were blackened, swollen, his jacket was ripped and his hat had been crushed. This did not make him look ugly, just wilder. Before anyone could stop him, he ran to the front of the room with his dagger between his teeth and began dancing like a woman, clapping his hands above his head and shimmying his hips. He waggled his tongue at Kivelli as the same group of manghes carried him out again. But within two or three songs, Crazy Manos was back, as defiant as ever, blowing kisses and offering wine to everyone in the house. Those must have been powerful drugs coursing through his body. Corpse-raising drugs. A lesser mangha would have crawled home to die in his mother’s lap.
The rest of the night was punctuated by this back and forth, this in and out and in again. When Crazy Manos did not crawl back on his hands and knees after the final bout, Kivelli was sure they’d killed him, and she felt bad for a moment. He was a young guy trying to have some fun, a handsome mangha, just a little bit reckless.
After the taverna closed and the broken glass was swept up, Kivelli searched for Barba Yannis, but he was nowhere to be found. All she wanted was to get paid so she could go home and consider the Smyrniot’s invitation, the memory of which had been almost entirely wiped out by the night’s main event. If it disappeared by morning, she would be relieved of the decision, though she was not certain how much longer she could bear the brutishness of the taverna. Narella walked over and said she’d seen Barba Yannis leave by himself, and that she too was waiting for him because they had their own bills to settle. “He read my palm and paid me a visit at Kyria Effie’s,” she confessed sheepishly. She’d hoped to make Crazy Manos jealous, to get back at him for his philandering, but things had gone too far. She wiped away a tear. Narella had a soft spot for that little butcher.
Just then Barba Yannis returned. He and Mortis were holding Crazy Manos up by the armpits, helping him to a table near the back. Narella ran to him, threw her arms around his neck. Crazy Manos cursed, but didn’t push her away. He was a sorry sight, his pretty face puffed up like that of a drowned man, his fine threads dark with blood and dirt. But there he sat, holding hands with Narella and drinking the cup of coffee Barba Yannis himself had brought him, while Mortis dusted off his jacket with a white cloth.
— Tess Fragoulis
Tess Fragoulis is the author of Stories to Hide from Your Mother (Arsenal Pulp, 1997), which was nominated for the QWF First Book Prize; Ariadne’s Dream (Thistledown, 2001), which was long-listed for the International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award; and is the editor of Musings, an anthology of Greek-Canadian Literature (Vehicule, 2004). Her latest novel, The Goodtime Girl, is published by Cormorant Books in Canada, and will be published in Greek by Psichogios Publications in Greece in 2013. She has also written for newspapers, magazines and television. She lives in Montreal and teaches writing part-time at Concordia University.