The Pinball Kingby Ersi Sotiropoulos
Translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich.
from Landscape with Dog and Other Stories, forthcoming from Clockroot Books, November 2009.
There were four of us in the Fiat, the Italians, my brother and I. We had set out for Delphi in the early afternoon, driving that wreck of a car for hours along a rural road that wove this way and that through the mountains, the asphalt gaping with potholes. I don’t remember what year it was. It must have been right before Christmas or just after the holidays, or perhaps one of those anonymous days of brief lethargy between Christmas and New Year’s. I hadn’t eaten since the night before, but I felt full. The indigestion had stuck in my head like a permanent cramp, a heaviness brought on by the repeated sight of roast turkey, mashed potatoes, and kourabiedes.
At regular intervals the headlights would illuminate a road sign, usually faded or plastered with the photograph of some local politician, or mutilated and crumpled as if it had been hit by lightning; the Italians, a couple in their forties, would make some witty comment and we (my brother and I) would continue the joke from the back seat. By now it was evening and outside the car the horizon was gathering in on itself, low and misty, and signals from distant villages glimmered briefly in the dirty light. At a crossroads, after a moment’s hesitation, we took a narrow road that sloped downhill, winding into a ravine. The only sign we saw warned of rockslides and showed three black boulders sliding down out of nothing and falling into nowhere.
“Everyone put on their helmets,” my brother said, snickering, but the Italians didn’t respond.
The road was becoming increasingly steep, with a cliff on one side and on the other thick shrubs that obscured the way ahead. Soon we turned onto a dirt road and soon after that we were lost. Ugo drove for a few more kilometers, bouncing on his seat, leaning into the curves and embracing the wheel with his whole body. Then suddenly he stopped short. We were facing a clearing. The road ended there.
“Scouts, forward march,” I ordered, but again the Italians said nothing. My brother looked at me conspiratorially and smiled faintly in the twilight.
For a few minutes no one spoke. The windows had fogged up from our breath and we wiped them off with our scarves and glove. Outside night was falling fast, enveloping the deserted landscape in black smoke. Ugo switched on the overhead light and started to fumble around in front of him, behind him, under his seat. Then he emptied the plastic bags of fruit and magazines. He was looking for the map. It was badly printed, on cheap, shiny paper, stuck to the back cover of a guidebook we’d bought at a gas station on our way out of town. When he finally found it, he hastily unfolded it and spread it out on the steering wheel. My brother and I leaned over his shoulder to look. Whoever had drawn the map rated archaeological sites according to a system involving tiny figures of Hermes, and seemed to think Kallanista—a village near Amphissa adorned with four lopsided, angry-looking little gods—was of greater archaeological interest than Delphi, which had only three. Whoever had drawn the map also seemed to think we had passed Delphi a while back and were now headed for Agrinio.
“Could be,” Erica said with that ambiguous, slightly absentminded air that female intellectuals often acquire after thirty-five.
“Does this seem to you like the road that leads to Agrinio, Timbuktu, hell, or anywhere at all?” Ugo burst out.
“How about we get out of the car?” I said.
“How about we stay inside?” said my brother.
Years earlier, when we were living together in Florence, my brother figured out just what button to push to make me do things I didn’t want to, and even make it seem as if they’d been my idea from the start. Of course we’d had good times, too.
It’s spring. I remember him in a white t-shirt. I’m reading Hegel. I see him slipping soundlessly into the room we share. He’s calm and fresh, he never sweats, his shoulder blades open and close gently like the wings of a stork. He walks past our beds, two cots pushed against the wall, and stops in front of the table, directly opposite me. Now he’s next to the Durst printer. He thinks for a while. The light is full of lilacs. A gleaming blade of sunlight crosses the room from the open window, slicing the table and separating the two of us. Pigeons are cooing in the airshaft; it must be their mating season. A light breeze is blowing. My brother covers the Durst with a sheet of plastic about two meters long. He walks off, hesitates, comes back again. He looks at me sideways in the linen light. I don’t look at him, but I know he’s watching me. He takes a few steps, stops, then comes back to where I am.
“What’s up, aren’t we going for coffee?” he asks.
I look at him over the pages of my book. He seems so innocent. His expression says, Aren’t you the one who suggested it? I know what’s going to happen, and since I don’t want it to, I get up and follow him.
We play pinball like maniacs. We’re in the deafmutes’ bar, as always. It’s where we go for coffee, where we arrange to meet friends, where we make up. Every day. Pinball seems to have a soothing effect on us both. At first everyone thought we were twins. “No,” I’d say, “we’re engaged,” and my brother would walk off and wait at a distance, ready for a fight. I knew it pissed him off, but I could never resist the temptation. One Sunday morning when we came in, still half asleep, we saw on the display panel of one of the two pinball machines the number 153,000, and beneath it the words NEWSPAPER MAN, and beneath that, in thick black marker, THE PINBALL KING. It was the guy who sold newspapers on the corner, a thin redhead who played like crazy on Saturday nights. For a month we struggled valiantly, separately and together, to beat his score. I got as high as 123,000, my brother a bit lower, and together we did terribly. I think that defeat affected us both. Months later, going into the bar, we would head automatically for the other machine. We couldn’t bring ourselves to play under that inscription, THE PINBALL KING. We never talked about it, either.
It’s spring again. I’m working on my thesis, I’ve fallen behind. Again the stroll around the Durst. Again the glances, the feints, the shuffling back and forth, and then Froth on the Daydream, the book he chooses from the bookshelf and pretends to read. I don’t look at him, but I know he’s watching me.
“So, are we going to the movies?”
“Don’t you want to?”
“But weren’t you saying that today…”
I’m standing calmly on hot coals.
“Are you losing it? Don’t you remember what you said this afternoon?”
That was going too far. He realizes this and turns pale, then tries to find an easy way out of the drama that’s already beginning. He plays dumb, his usual move. I start hitting him. I don’t know how to hit. I spin around unbelievably fast, throwing punches, not caring where they land. I bellow, roar, cry, he tries to immobilize me with his arms but can’t. He falls down. He gets up again. I kick. I have a runner’s calves. When we were kids we’d fight for hours, me on the bed, him upright and flushed, hands against feet. I kick like a four-legged beast. The rage rises in my throat, floods my brain. Then through my haze I start to see him again, trying to defend himself, adjusting his moves so as not to really hurt me, since we both know he’s stronger. He seems surprised, sincerely surprised, his cowlick waving in the air. He must be wondering where I found this terrible strength. His whole expression is one of unease, eyelids fluttering, mouth staring, pink lips parted. But now it’s too late, far too late, I can’t stop. I keep spinning. And I hit him, hit him. Much later, after an eternity of strangled instants, of coughing, sweat and shortened breath, I see him before me again, I see his astonishment, the stork’s wings, the worry, calm down, it’s over, that’s it, calm down, his childish face, scrawled all over with clumsy question marks. Okay, I tell myself, enough, stop. I lie back on the bed, try to breathe normally, fix my skirt. My hair is on fire and he’s still there, shaken, slightly hunched and very innocent. Five minutes later I’ve pulled myself together, though I’m still quivering a little. I put on my poncho, he gets his jacket, and we go to the movies. Yes, we go to the movies.
What I’m saying is, things weren’t always so rosy. Between my brother and me.
It had started to rain. Not a downpour, but a fine, monotonous rain that creaked as it fell and turned the soil into mud.
“Let’s look on the bright side,” Ugo said.
“You mean in a positive light?” Erica asked, with a hint of irony.
“Let’s get out,” I said.
No one spoke. You could smell the tension in the car. I pulled on my coat, put up my hood, and got out. It wasn’t completely dark yet, and it was less cold than before. Huge shadows glided indistinctly over the slopes of the mountain, creating a puzzle in all the shades of black. A strong wind blew on the summit; somewhere branches broke with a pitiful meow. But down here everything was still. The creaking of the rain became less perceptible, then stopped altogether.
“Get in,” Erica called, “we’re turning around.”
But a minute later they were all outside, jumping in place to get the blood flowing.
“So what’ll it be tonight, a fish place or a meat place?” Ugo asked and started to laugh to himself, covered from head to toe in alpine gear.
He was in a good mood again, and soon Erica burst out laughing too, and my brother and I pinched one another and made faces in the dark.
“What does a Pontic Greek do before he gets into his coffin?” I asked the Italians, and proceeded to tell them the joke. It was the only one I knew, and I didn’t know it very well.
That got us into a discussion about the Pontic Greeks, of whose existence the Italians were entirely unaware, about Hellenism, the Asia Minor disaster, the Dardanelles and so on; the Golden Fleece even made an appearance.
“Serves you right,” my brother muttered.
He had a point. I hate serious conversations, especially ones with a beginning, a middle and an end.
We needed to make some decisions. Someone suggested we go back to the main road and keep going until we reached Delphi, someone else said we should just try to find the nearest hotel. For no reason, the tension had started to build again. Erica stared silently at her boots, hands jammed in her pockets, and at some point Ugo started to shout, his face bright red, the white pompom on his hat tracing figure eights in the dark.
“I’m not going to decide for you,” Erica said.
Her voice sounded calm and gentle, but beneath the surface you could hear the whetting of knives.
“I know what we can do,” I said, with nothing whatsoever in mind.
No one paid any attention. We were about to get back in the car when we heard a noise. From somewhere close by, in the foothills of the mountain or at the edge of the clearing, came the sound of innumerable little bells. I opened my mouth to say something about the Sirens, then closed it again as the jingling grew louder. A weak light trembled in the dark, then vanished, appearing a minute later ten meters ahead of us.
“Good evening,” said a shadow, approaching.
It was a goatherd with his flock, about thirty goats. He had a piece of black oilcloth over his head and shoulders and was smiling.
“Kalimera, efharisto,” said the Italians. It was the only Greek they knew.
“We’re lost,” my brother said.
The goatherd told us what we already knew, that we’d taken a wrong turn at the crossroads. He looked very young, but all his teeth were rotten and his back was hunched.
“Where are we now?” I asked.
“Five kilometers outside Kallanista.”
I translated for the Italians.
“Kallanista… Kallanista… it was meant to be,” they said, remembering the map.
“Are the lady and gentleman foreigners?” the goatherd asked.
He stood up as straight as his hunched back would allow and pronounced the words slowly, with a certain formality.
“Italians,” I said.
“One face, one race,” the goatherd said and laughed. A gold-capped canine shone in his mouth.
The goats were bounding around by the car, and he lifted his staff and gestured toward them, full of pride.
“Brrr… brrr…” he shouted in mock anger. “Brrr… away from the car.” He picked up a rock and pretended to take aim. “They’re just playing,” he said, turning back to us and letting the rock slip from his hand.
He offered to lead us back to the road to Kallanista, but first we had to stop at his house. Besides, it was right next to the fatal crossroads.
“Otherwise my wife will be angry,” he said.
I translated for the Italians. The goatherd stood waiting before us, watching keenly as we spoke.
“Why will she be angry?” Erica asked.
“What did the lady say?” the goatherd asked, his eyes burning with impatience.
“She’s worried we’ll be late,” my brother said.
“My wife will kill me,” the goatherd said, looking Erica in the eye.
I translated again, and without any more fuss we got in the car and set off. And so for two or three kilometers we paraded through the night, the goatherd out front with his prancing herd, us following behind, taking care not to hit any stray goats. Every so often one of them would run off toward the mountain and he would chase after it, and when he caught it he would nod reassuringly in our direction. Now and then he would turn and wave to us with his staff, his face small and dark under the black oilcloth that covered his whole body, though it had stopped raining a while ago.
“Deus ex machina,” said Ugo, rolling his window down for the fourth time and sticking a hand out to answer the goatherd’s wave.
“Nuisance ex machina,” Erica muttered, but fortunately they didn’t start fighting.
The goatherd’s house was built into the foot of the mountain, ten meters back from the dirt road. We entered a large, low-ceilinged room strewn with sheepskins and braided rugs. Coals were burning in a bronze brazier in a corner under a wooden iconostasis bearing tiny icons of saints. The space was warm and heavy with smells. There was a sweetish sense of enclosure and somewhere inside the house steam rose from a dish boiling on a propane burner.
“Sit down, sit down,” said the goatherd’s wife, coming over to us.
She was a plump girl, short, dressed in black, with a bright red face that looked as if it had caught fire. She seemed to be expecting us.
“Offer them something, woman,” the goatherd said and went back out to put his goats in the fold.
Sitting by the brazier, we drank cognac and ate olives and feta. We were all very pleased with the turn our adventure had taken. My brother took off his shoes and wiggled his toes in his socks, and soon the rest of us did the same.
“Brrr… brrr…” Erica said, looking at Ugo.
“Brrr…” he answered, laughing.
“I heard you two hours ago, passing in your car,” the woman said, and I translated.
She didn’t sit down, but stood beside us, watching and waiting. Ugo lit his pipe and she ran right away to get an ashtray.
“You think she’d sell that thing?” Ugo said, looking at the iconostasis. He blew the smoke away from his face and for an instant the figure of St. George disappeared, so that all you could see was the dragon with its toothy green tail.
“Shame on you,” Erica said, but her tone sounded encouraging to me.
My brother and I exchanged glances, and when he didn’t say anything, I explained to the Italians how it was impossible, because if we asked them for anything, they’d feel obliged to give it to us for free, and so on and so forth.
“Here comes our deus ex machina,” Erica said, putting an end to the conversation.
The goatherd came into the room, tossed off the oilcloth and walked over to us.
“You let these people go hungry, woman?” he said loudly, and, without waiting for a reply, sat down beside us.
He filled our glasses with cognac and made a toast to the Italians, saying that Italy was a beautiful country, like Greece, and that the Italians had been our friends during the war. “Buenasera, senorita,” he said to Erica and drained his glass.
In the light his face seemed even younger, almost childlike, with a long scar that ran from his left eyebrow to his ear. When he saw me looking at it, he said he’d been bitten by a mule when he was twelve, then told a story about a band of animal thieves who had been wreaking havoc on that part of the country back then. As he spoke, he slowly stroked his cheek with his thumb, as if to make sure his scar was still there.
We ate for two hours straight—bean soup, smoked herring, potatoes, raw onions from the garden, eggs from their hens, then all over again from the beginning. The wife would bring out a platter and go right back into the kitchen to prepare something else; the only time she spoke was to tell her husband to change his shoes, which were caked in dried mud.
“In the morning we’ll slaughter a pig,” the goatherd said, and raised his glass to clink it against ours. “Eviva… To our health.”
“To our health,” we all said. “Salute, salute.”
He poured us another round.
“Salute,” Ugo said and looked at his watch.
“Why are you in such a rush?” the goatherd asked him.
“It’s late and he has to drive,” my brother answered without bothering to translate.
The goatherd looked at us as if he couldn’t believe his ears.
“In the morning we’ll slaughter a pig,” he said emphatically.
One night in Florence as I was coming home, I saw a rat in the front entrance, staring at me, paralyzed with fear. It seemed lost, standing petrified under the arch of the stairwell, sniffing uneasily. Its glassy eyes blinked when I turned on the light and in the fraction of a second that we looked at each other, its expression reminded me of something that I couldn’t quite place. For a long time, that encounter left a certain aftertaste, not of disgust or fear, but like an event suspended between fantasy and reality, something familiar yet indefinable, like when you hear an echo of voices when there’s no one else in the room, or when you think you recognize a silhouette on the street and follow it for a few blocks, then turn down some other street without finding out who it was.
“In the morning we’ll slaughter a pig,” the goatherd repeated. “Translate that,” he said, turning to me as if I were responsible for how the night would unfold.
I tried to explain the situation to the Italians. We were all a little drunk, and drugged by the bean soup and smoked herring. My brother was talking about some old roommate of his who’d been a champion burper and Ugo said something about Guiseppe di Salvo, a count and specialist in heraldry who also happened to be a champion farter, and they both kept at it, adding spice to their stories, the four of us laughing until tears came to our eyes, as across from us the goatherd read our lips, trying to understand.
When I told my brother about the rat, he said he didn’t care, it didn’t matter what the rat reminded me of, what mattered was that we were shelling out a pile of money to live in a dump.
“We have to tell the signora,” he concluded, then stood and walked out of the room.
“What does the one thing have to do with the other?” I called to his back.
“A lot,” he answered from the kitchen.
I heard him open the oven, pull out a pan and stir the dish with a metal spoon—it was giant beans in tomato sauce, I think.
“Because,” he continued, coming back in, “pretty soon you’ll start wondering what the rat thinks of you, and before you know it you’ll end up like that girl on the boat.”
The previous summer he had gone on a week-long sailing trip. One night when the waters were rough they had to anchor unexpectedly a half mile off an uninhabited island, Oxia, because the boat was in danger of smashing against the rocks. The boat belonged to a friend of my brother’s; there was another friend with them, and a girl from Athens. As soon as it got dark, she started ranting about the souls of people who die violent deaths at sea and return at night to the surface of the water to talk to the living. She looked panicked and at some point started babbling incoherently, saying that the ghost of some diver who had disappeared in those waters and whose body had never been found was going to come after her to settle the bill.
“What does that lunatic have to do with what I just told you? What does the one thing have to do with the other?” I asked. The rage was gathering inside me, pressing against my temples.
“What other? Why do you always need there to be something else?” my brother said and left the room.
I heard the front door slam behind him and his footsteps as he ran down the stairs.
“Now you know what the Dionysian spirit is,” Ugo said.
We were back in the Fiat, headed toward Kallanista. We’d left the goatherd and his wife standing in front of their house, waving and smiling, though looking a little baffled, as if they couldn’t believe we weren’t going to stay there that night and celebrate the slaughtering of the pig with them in the morning. During the whole of our long, drawn-out departure, as we stood in the cold exchanging wishes and thanks with the columns of our breath rising tremulously into the dark sky, only the occasional bleating of an insomniac goat disturbed the frozen solitude of the landscape. At last, when they were finally convinced that we were determined to go, the goatherd’s wife presented Erica with a big chunk of feta wrapped in cheesecloth and we set off.
“Why bring the Dionysian spirit into it, when all you really want to say is that they’re good people?” Erica said a while later.
“An endangered species,” my brother said.
“Simple, good people,” Erica stressed.
“And we’re pigs,” I said, and nervous laughter seized us all.
I had leaned my head on my brother’s shoulder and for a few minutes I pictured the pig snoring blissfully in its sty, unaware that the crucial moment was approaching.
“People often posit an opposition between the Dionysian and Apollonian spirits. But they’re wrong, totally wrong,” Ugo began again. “They present them as if they were two opposite poles. But that’s clearly a misunderstanding on the part of Western philosophers, particularly the Germans. Western thought is incapable of comprehending that Eastern quality. I mean, a more holistic approach…”
He was talking mostly to keep himself awake.
“This feta is dripping on my feet,” Erica muttered.
No one spoke after that and we continued on our way in a torpid silence.
We’re sitting on the balcony of the hotel in Kallanista, looking out into the night. I came outside to smoke and then my brother followed. The Italians said goodnight and went to their room. The two rooms share a balcony, so we don’t turn on the light, in case we might wake them up. It’s cold. We’re sitting side by side in the dark, staring out at the thick black screen in the distance, on which the scattered lights from the village mingle with the pale stars. I think again of the incident with the rat, then about other moments from our life together in Florence. There are lots of things I’d like to ask my brother and I try to put my thoughts in some kind of order. Episodes from our childhood crowd untidily in my mind as we stare silently into the frozen night, not speaking because we have nothing to say, while from the other room come the first indistinct sounds of the Italians making love.
“Brrr…” my brother whispers, but I can’t laugh. “Brrr…” he repeats half-heartedly.
A rat is just a rat, I tell myself. Siblings will always be siblings. I breathe deeply and the cold air sticks in my throat like salt. I swallow, but the saliva won’t go down. I think about how there’s nothing to think about, no rat, just flashbacks of old photographs, scenes from birthdays, amusement parks, summer vacations. We’re two kids in a happy family, school’s out, we’re piling our furniture into the back of a truck and heading to the country, there’s no room for drama, I tell myself. We’re two adorable little kids in white socks eating fried eggs over spinach rice, with a seven-thirty bedtime and a live-in maid. That was the most anyone could dream of in the devastated Greece of the ’60s. My brother would wake up during the night and scream. If I cover my ears, I can still hear those frantic cries, can smell the panic moving from room to room like an electric discharge. The lights come on, the maid runs down the stairs, his body clenches and coils in his bed as he’s seized with spasms, his face distorted by pain. There’s no reason for these attacks. No reason? We’re allies in agony, I think, and glance at him. His profile seems stubborn, uneasy, like a crooked sketch about to be swallowed up by the darkness. We’re enemies in agony. That’s what the look in the rat’s eyes reminded me of. Enemies, enemies. What agony? There’s no agony. Don’t go digging up tragedies. The bottom of my mind is a smudged sheet of paper; the words get erased before I have a chance to read them.
Through the balcony door come Erica’s weak sighs.
“Bella, bella… come sei bella…” Ugo grunts.
Then there’s silence for a few minutes.
Now they’re talking, but too quietly for anyone to hear. Someone is crying. Crying or trying to come. Silence. Footsteps. They push the bed against the wall. Again we hear Erica’s sighs, at first like breathing, secret and congested, then louder and louder, with a screechy undertone.
“Bella, bella…” Ugo roars.
Then there’s a thump.
“Bella, you’ll fall,” my brother whispers, and our eyes meet.
For an instant I feel like he’s looking away, but I’m wrong because he keeps staring at me, then suddenly sticks out his tongue and we start to laugh. I hug him, he pulls me by the elbow and we go back inside.
We left for Delphi early the next morning. It was sunny. The windows were covered with fingerprints, and a wheezing winter sun slipped into the car and nipped at our skin through our sweaters. It was terribly hot, but the Italians didn’t want to open a window.
“Are you crazy? There’ll be a draft, we’ll catch cold,” Ugo protested, repeating his familiar theory that it’s better to be naked in Antarctica than to get caught in a draft in warm weather.
My brother and I looked at each other. In the stony white light his eyes were almost transparent, smashed irises under papery lids. The heat became more and more suffocating as we drove. Outside Delphi the goatherd’s package of feta began to stink and we threw it away in a parking lot on the side of the road.
Ersi Sotiropoulos is one of Greece's most beloved writers and the author of ten works of fiction and a volume of poetry. Her novel Zigzag through the Bitter-Orange Trees (translated by Peter Green) was published in the US in '07 by Interlink Publishing. Karen Emmerich has translated work by Vassilis Vassilikos, Yiorgos Skabardonis, Rhea Galanake, and a variety of Greek poets of the twentieth century. She has received translation grants and awards from PEN and from the Modern Greek Studies Association.