The Greeks

An excerpt from "The Blue Bourbon Orchestra"

I didn’t end up going straight back to San Antonio though.

I was still in Michelle’s dad’s roomy slacks, and when I was

putting my braided leather belt back on I’d missed a loop so that it

was softly sawing into my belly, making it ragged and red. Full of

the same ideas as a priest with a thorny whip or a teenaged vampire

with a razor blade, I left it there.

After a day of travel we had an hour and a half stop in Columbus,

Georgia. The food cart was only selling bone meal so I

decided I’d explore the surrounding city, try the local cuisine and

pick up another bottle while I was at it. The whole area around the

bus station was pretty industrial and I had to walk for over twenty

minutes before I came across a street level window. I passed a

burnt out pizza parlor and a do it yourself carwash before I found

a little Mexican place called Maribelle’s.

Since I trust just about any restaurant named after somebody,

I went right in and ordered cheese enchiladas and a Corona. The

enchilada sauce tasted like Spaghetti-O’s, but what do you really

expect from a Mexican place in Georgia. I wasn’t planning on dessert

until the waitress said, “Sopapiallas.” I hadn’t had a plate of

sopapiallas for many, many years so I ordered some.

I sat there nursing beer number three, looking back from time

to time over my shoulder at the clock in the juke. Twenty minutes

went by. My bus was leaving in fifteen. I called her over. “Any idea

how much longer it’ll be?” I asked.

She checked with the kitchen, came back and told me they

were changing out the oil and it would be just a little longer. I sat

there and waited. Soon I realized there was no way I was going to

make it back to the bus station in time. And I truly didn’t give a

shit. I just wanted my dessert.

The sopapiallas came out ten minutes later and were well

worth the wait. Big, crisp bubbles of dough fried in virgin oil, even

the steam was sweet. After I paid the bill I lingered there so the

waitress could see the big tip I’d left her. “Dear,” I said, “Could I

trouble you for directions to the nearest liquor store.”

For some kind of consistency, I drank the same brand I was

drinking in the Lamp Lighter. I started following my feet around.

I walked on air. A pair of dark and scabbed hands asked me for

two dollars and I gave them three.

The next time I looked up I found myself in a nicer part of

town. It was dusk. There were several tall buildings with poured

concrete columns and an unusual number of young people about,

many with their noses in books. It was college—a campus. I was

exhausted and thoroughly drunk so I found a birch tree and slid

down its papery trunk for a nap.

I was awoken by three whooping young men, two of them

with shoulders as wide as oxen yokes. “Hey dad, hey dad,” they

said, thrusting a bottle into my hands, to my lips. One’s shirt was

printed with symbols from another time and place. They were fraternity

brothers, and I linked my arms with theirs and stumbled

into the night. First they bought me a shrimp po’ boy and then

they brought me to a house party.

As we walked away from it all swollen fulla cheap beer and

mirth, one of them asked me, “Where’re you staying?” And I said,

“Nowhere.”

So they brought me home to their worn-down old craftsman

with letters from the same dead alphabet mounted across

the porch. One laid me out on the giant sectional while another

shouting “Geronimo!” threw blankets and pillows from the second

story.

I didn’t leave that couch for a month, maybe longer. I’m not

quite sure how long it was I stayed with these fortunate sons in

drunken incubation. My time there was all blurred and blotted

over. Any kind of clarity came along with a big heap of anxiety

now, so any time it rose up I’d just hammer it right back down. I

was riding one long bender and these muscular boy-men encouraged

it from every angle. It’d been a long time since I’d been able

to impress anyone with my drinking and it felt good to be able to

do it again. “Way to take it down, Dad,” they’d say, instantly supplying

more.

They called me dad because they said that’s what I’d been

mumbling when they discovered me at the birch tree. I guess if

I couldn’t hear my own son saying it then these boys would have

to do. Even then I could never remember what they called themselves.

Betta Kappa Omega? Maybe there’s more than one kind of

family I thought to myself, resting out on the splintery front porch

with their wet towels and drip-drying beer bongs.

I don’t know how they managed all the drinking while working

on their various college degrees. Maybe college was easier than

everybody was always making it out to be. These frat brothers sure

made it seem that way. Every day as soon as the sun began to set,

those without evening classes started playing drinking games that

lasted late into the night. I was always losing at these games, which

seemed like winning since it meant you got to drink more. Drink

was all I had, and as I pounded my red cup for a refill, no patience

for the ping pong ball to drop in, I shouted it at them. “This is all

I’ve got, you fucks!”

Of course the jokers joked me some, but I’d hardly call it hazing.

One morning one of them served me a giant cheese omelet

with a green string bikini cooked inside. They all laughed like jackals

when I discovered it, louder even when I cleaned my plate.

Though I was mostly just a silly and temporary sort of mascot

to these guys, there were a few remaining optimists that actually

thought me wise. I guess with my age they couldn’t help but imagine

the face of a sage behind the graying beard and big, greasy

glasses. Sometimes when they were sunk deep in hangovers they’d

seek me out, slide into the hot tub across from me and ask me

questions about life and love. And when I didn’t answer they’d

stare into my face like I was hiding the answers somewhere in my

befuddled expression. I’d shrug. I’d say, “I don’t fucking know, man.

Don’t ask me.”

The afternoon of my last day there they spray-painted one of

the dining room chairs gold and fixed a bunch of plastic jewels

to a Burger King crown and stuck it down over my head. Then

they seated me in the chair, lifted it up high onto their shoulders,

and carried me around the house in a ramshackle sort of parade

singing, “Dad, Dad, Dad.” It hadn’t been meant as a sendoff but

that’s what it ended up being. There was a guy banging some kind

of drum and a banner stretched between two broomsticks that I

couldn’t read since its back was to me. “Dad, Dad, Dad,” they sang.

Across the street a woman around my age with a small white dog

tethered to her wrist stopped and watched me go by. The next time

we came around she was gone. Somebody came and wrapped a

long flag around me. Somebody else handed me a bottle of beer.

The next morning I awoke at the bottom of the front steps. I

couldn’t remember anything from after the parade, but from the

awkward position of my body and the aching of my vertebrae, it

seemed like I’d been dragged out here. My glasses were gone and

there was a gash between my big toe and the next. And when I got

up and walked into the house, a young man was sitting there waiting

for me with a chair placed directly before him. He was one of

the smaller guys, unusually well-dressed in an Oxford knotted tie,

and holding a long, antique walking stick painted like a barber’s

pole. I think this meant he was in charge. Even with my glasses off,

I could see that the living room was a mess.

“Sit, Dad,” he said.

I sat in the chair and he leaned forward and handed me something.

My glasses.

“Look around,” he said.

I put them on and took in the details of the severely trashed

room. I saw several fraternity members ducking in and out of

doors and hallways, one peering from the kitchen with a spoon

in his mouth.

“Do you remember doing this?” The boy asked, gesturing

about the wreckage with his stick.

“No,” I said.

“Do you remember the names that you called us?”

“No.”

“Okay. Well, I’m not going to repeat them, but let me just

tell you one thing, Dad. And I want you to remember it. Life is

hard for everybody. Wherever you come from, life is hard. I’m sure

you’ve got a tough road to hoe, but so do we.”

I nodded.

“You don’t have any idea what kind of pressure we live with.”

“No I don’t.”

He nodded, pushing the walking stick into his bottom lip. By

the way he handled it, I was convinced that it was some sort of

powerful Greek totem. My canvas sack was neatly packed and sitting

on the couch. He nudged it with the stick. “We packed your

bag for you. It’s time for you to leave.”

“Okay,” I said. And when I reached for it, the young man intercepted

my hand and shook it with the cold hand that was destined

to become a chairman or politician’s. This was like a practice

firing. “Goodbye,” he said.

As I walked away from the fraternity house, I looked back

just once over my shoulder. Now that the hostile agent had been

removed, the place was full of life again. Like ants, the fraternity

brothers were working together to put the living room back to-

gether and making quick work of it. I don’t remember any one of

their names. Probably a Jeff in there somewhere. Maybe a Ben.

Somebody friendly must have packed my bag for me, because

there were several new bottles at the bottom with a note that read,

“For the road, Dad.” I drained half of one down, stumbled out

to the mouth of the greater highway and tried to thumb a ride.

Nobody was stopping and soon night fell. I turtled up into my

flannel and kept at it. A police man threatened me with his siren

and lights, and I ran off into the brush.

Two days later the fuzz made good on their threat. I was arrested

for public drunkenness after collapsing into a public fountain

and splashing some babies. I spent three nights in a stinky

little parish jail before I was carted over and loosed on the eastern

edge of Ladonia, the next town over. They’d loaded me and a

whole other bunch of bums into a paddy wagon. As they unshackled

us they told us never to return to Columbus. “My grandma

lives in Columbus,” one guy kept saying, but the cops didn’t even

hear him.

“Where are the nearest railroad tracks?” I asked one of my

wild-eyed brethren.

“Looking to hop a freighter?”

“Looking to take a nap and get flat.”

We all dispersed, some in groups of two or three, myself alone.

That night I found the little main drag, a liquor store. I cupped my

hands against the tinted glass to spy where the beer cooler was in

relation to the clerk. I dashed in, grabbed a twenty-four pack, and

dashed right back out.

I ran into the nearby town square, slid in under some holly

bushes, and started slurping them down. I thought I was in the

clear, but about an hour later a small posse headed by the clerk

came around stomping their boots and shining their flashlights

everywhere. They were whistling, big voices booming, “Where you

at? Where you at, thief?”

It scared the hell out of me.

The next morning I found the Western Union, called Guy and

told him that I was stuck in Ladonia without a cent.

He told me they were out of money too.

“What about Uly. You think Uly’d help us out.”

“Uly and I,” Guy said. “Uly and I aren’t in contact anymore.

I had a similar idea, and yeah, the kid was all talk.” Then, after a

pause, said, “Just hold on. We’ll get some money for you. Don’t

worry. Just hold on.”

Five hours later the money came through—enough to fill my

gut and get me back on a bus. Two days later I was back in San

Antonio, and twenty-five steps off the bus, back in Guy’s truck

and riding back to New Braunfels.

“It’s a good thing you came back,” Guy said. “Joe and I should

not be left alone together.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing particularly noteworthy. Just a mood I guess.” He

turned to me. “What I mean to say is that we’re glad to have you

back.”

“I’m glad to be home,” I said.

This is an excerpt from “The Blue Bourbon Orchestra.” You can purchase the novel in it’s entirety at carsonmell.com