There’s always something to howl about

“It’s not the people, it’s the idea. The idea makes the people great, as great as they want to be.”

Happy Independence Day. This is me, fiction from The Unfallen:

Bel Canto is about halfway between Central Square and Harvard Square. When they emerged into the cool of the night, they turned left, toward Harvard Square. They walked along in a contented silence, and she felt very close to him for no reason she could name. His hands were stuffed into the pockets of his coat and his left elbow was sticking out there, like an invitation. Without asking permission she stuck her hand inside the crook of his elbow and kept it there. He looked down at her hand and smiled, so she knew it was all right. She knew they would look like an old married couple to the students pushing past them, one of those Yuppie couples who inhabit the high-rises on Mass Avenue. There’s a first, she thought, to be tickled at being mistaken for married.

Central Square is the shopping district for a number of blue collar neighborhoods. As you walk out of it toward Harvard Square, you see a little bit of everything — the Cambridge Post Office and city government buildings, free-standing houses, high-rise apartment towers, frat houses for both Harvard and M.I.T., cheesy little office buildings, restaurants, bars, fringe businesses — everything. But as you draw near to Harvard Square, Harvard asserts itself, and the eclecticism of the no-man’s-land between town and gown gives way to extremely absurd art galleries and extremely unappetizing restaurants and extremely fanatical radical bookstores and extremely incomprehensible retail stores devoted to every extremely incomprehensible pursuit or pastime known to the mind of man — or at least the Harvard man.

But even that can’t last. The real estate in Harvard Square proper is extremely valuable. If you cannot pay the rent, the landlord will direct you to a more suitable location closer to Central Square. In Harvard Square itself, absurdity is found only out of doors.

And it was out in full force tonight. At the Harvard Square station of the subway the plaza was rife with milling weirdness. Little teenage skateboarders with their strange haircuts and black street poets and homeless Vietnam veterans with stress disorder and a taste for the vine and middle-aged men in three-quarter-length raincoats thumping bibles and hectoring anyone who would cooperate by ignoring them. And everywhere, everywhere, everywhere little brown-haired Madonnas from Southie and Revere. Brown leather bomber jackets and big hoop earrings and way too much make-up and way too many Marlboro cigarettes. Sitting on walls and benches or standing around in twos and threes. Big-boned girls with big round breasts and big round behinds hanging around in Harvard Square looking for a shot at something better.

And big round brown eyes, Gwen knew, big like a horse’s eyes or a fawn’s or a dog’s. Big like an orangutan’s eyes and just as lost, just as searching, just as hopeful, just as hopeless. She felt her own eyes welling up and she squeezed Devin’s arm. She said, “I’ve told you one of my secrets. Now it’s your turn.”

He smiled and he placed his right hand atop hers for a moment and it was nothing and it was everything. He said, “I know how to roll cigars. Is that a good enough secret?”

“Not likely,” she scoffed.

“I really do. I learned when I was Hunter’s age, five years old. My grandfather taught me how.”

“Your grandfather taught you how to roll cigars? When you were five?”

“It’s the truth. He was unfallen I think, just wild and innocent. He grew up on the streets of Athens, and there was nothing he didn’t know before he had beard enough to shave. I was growing up on the streets of Boston and he thought I had the right to the same education he’d had. That was my youth, mostly, spending every afternoon with my grandpa. You asked for a secret and I’m giving you a history…”

“Well do go on.” She pulled herself a little tighter to him and he didn’t complain.

He smiled, a tight little wall of a smile that keeps things from spilling out. “Nicholas Demosthenes Constantopoulos, my mother’s father…”

“Yet another Demosthenes.”

“I don’t know how far back it goes. A long way. It’s Hunter’s middle name, too. It’s just one of those things that make a family. The family is who we say it is, and maybe the more we have to say, the more a family we are.” He smiled again, from joy this time. “My family has a lot to say.”

She laughed quietly. And she had the idea that he had pulled her still more tightly to him. They were walking the long way through the Square, looping around Brattle Street, walking very slowly. She put her left hand on his forearm, so now she was holding his arm with both hands. Her cheek was almost at his shoulder. She didn’t feel quite confident enough to put it there but she didn’t want to pull away either.

“My grandfather came to this country right after the first World War. He was fifteen and he stowed away on a freighter. Russia had gone Communist, of course, and Greece and Italy and all the Slavic countries were dallying with it, and he was convinced that if he didn’t get out then, he might be stuck there forever. Killed even, because he never could keep his mouth shut.

“Anyway, just after the war was the beginning of the end of immigration in America. ‘Give me your tired, your poor’ was secretly revised to read ‘Give me your blonde, your protestant.’ Nobody meant anything by it, I guess, we just fear the stranger. The toe-headed Episcopalians who ran this country thought it was being overrun by Irish Catholics and Russian Jews and swarthy Mediterraneans and greasy Slavs with thick ankles and thick accents. My grandfather spoke just enough English that he was able to convince the immigration people that he had a job waiting for him as a translator for a Greek language newspaper. That’s how he got in.

“But what an American he was! He did the dirtiest, filthiest jobs to accumulate capital, and he made little patriotic souvenirs, little flags and ribbons, by hand at night. He had a Singer sewing machine that he bought at auction. It’s powered by a foot treadle. I still have it; I intend to show it to Hunter someday when he decides he’s overworked. Nobody worked harder than my grandpa. He’d make his little souvenirs and take them around to the parks or the beaches on Sunday. It was a way to make extra money, but it was always just Sunday out in the world for him, too. All the other immigrants loved this country as much as he did, so he always sold out.

“That was his break, that was his big idea. He took all the money he’d saved and opened a little sweat-shop on Kneeland Street. He made little souvenir flags and big flags for houses and flagpoles and enormous flags for statehouse lawns. He’d do any American flag, federal, state or municipal, and any historical American flag, but he never once made a flag from any other country, not even Greece. During the second World War he turned down a lot of money from the Canadians because he wouldn’t make their unit flags.

“Before the war he married my grandmother and my mother was born and the Great Depression came and nearly wiped him out, but he didn’t lay anyone off and he never missed a payroll. And every Sunday, rain or snow or shine, he’d go to a park or a beach or an historical site and push a little cart loaded with patriotic souvenirs.”

Her cheek was on his arm by now and he either liked it or didn’t care or hadn’t noticed, she didn’t know which. “And where in all this did you fit?”

He smiled warmly. “I grew up with him. My dad — we’ve barely even talked about him — my dad was a nuc in Rickover’s Navy. He was away all the time, so we lived in my grandfather’s townhouse in Bayview — I still live in that house. I went to Saint Timothy’s, right around the corner from the house, and I’d go to my grandpa’s factory up the block after school. I’d do my homework there or listen to my grandpa argue with the neighborhood merchants or we’d play chess together — completely unpredictable and he could kick my ass.

“Here’s the secret. My grandfather knew this old black Dominican who had a cigar shop on Harrison Avenue. You could buy tobacco in the leaf there, Havana-seed tobacco from Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. But you could buy smuggled Havana leaf, too, if you proved you could be trusted. So my grandfather, a life-long anti-Communist, a dyed-in-the-woolen-underwear American patriot, defied the Cuban embargo so he could continue to roll his own Havana cigars. He never let me smoke one, because my mom would have killed him. But he taught me how to roll them, and I can still do it.”

He was smiling everywhere, just beaming. She said, “You loved him very much, didn’t you?” She regretted it at once.

Sadness dropped down on him like a curtain. “I miss him every day. Every day. Any time I need to see him, I can, though. I can see him laughing. Just wild and innocent and sweetly crude and gently rude and completely free in the shadows of the late-afternoon sun. Laughing from his throat like rocks in a barrel, laughing around a fat hand-made Cuban cigar…

“He used to take me with him, every Sunday, once I got to be about Hunter’s age. All week long he was a businessman. Not a big businessman, but quick and shrewd and clear-sighted and very decisive. On Sunday he was just a sweet old Greek with a push cart. Always had time to chat with old friends and new ones. More often than not it was my job to move the merchandise, because he was having too much fun just being out in the world. We didn’t need the money, it was just something he did. Something we did.

“We worked the Bicentennial together, and I’m glad we did because he… He died that winter. I was sixteen and too proud and then some, and it seemed like all spring and summer of 1976 he was rapping me on the back of the head and telling me not to be a horse’s ass. We’d go to Breed’s Hill or the Common or the Old North Church and all these ugly people in ugly summer clothes would show up and honor America by throwing tonic cans and gum wrappers at it. It offended me, particularly because my grandpa was the real glory of America and these corn-fed idiots just treated him like dirt.

“We worked The Esplanade on Independence Day that year, very big history-making day. Six-hundred-thousand drunken morons and The Boston Pops. And tall ships. And fireworks. We couldn’t push the cart, it was too crowded, so we just stayed where we were, selling stuff hand over fist. But I was in the blackest mood I’ve ever been in.

“My grandfather was the American dream, every page of that story. My father was a Captain in the U.S. Navy. I was a teenage physics god who was really going places. And these fat stupid beery people were treating my grandfather like an organ grinder and me like his monkey.

“There’s only so much you can say when a boy’s almost a man, right? My grandpa pursed his lips and let me stew. We shut everything down when The Pops started the 1812 and he pulled me tight to him. I was maybe four inches taller than him by then, but it didn’t matter, because he’ll always be bigger than me. It was loud, loud, loud and I knew he was trying to say something to me but I couldn’t hear him, I could just see the tears rolling down his cheeks.

“He grabbed me by the hair and pulled my ear down to his mouth. He said, ‘It’s not the people, it’s the idea. The idea makes the people great, as great as they want to be.’ And right then the cannons went off and the fireworks went off and the sky over the Charles was enflamed. And we stood there together crying, him for his America, and me for him…”


3 Comments so far

  1. Brian Brady July 4th, 2007 6:03 pm

    Excellent, Greg. A great piece of fiction that happens every year, in every burg, across this nation.

  2. David Saks July 7th, 2007 8:16 am

    “Love means never having to part with your stogie”.

  3. Joe Random July 18th, 2012 11:09 pm

    Wow. Stunning.