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Frailty, Thy Name

Anca Vlasopolos

I wish I could say it happens every time I hear one of those incandescent tenor voices that melt your spine. But the truth is that I think of it only on those rare occasions when the notes float on a shaft of late afternoon sun, and even then only when I'm in a wistful enough mood to recall my single encounter with my Scottish uncle.

It was the summer of '68. I had just graduated from high school and thought that the green fishnet stockings I had bought on 42nd Street would go just fine with my new hip-hugger mini skirt. It was late August and too hot for stockings, but by late September, when college would start, they would be just fine. We didn't live in Manhattan, more was the pity. That was why we were standing on this corner some fifteen blocks north of Columbus Circle, on the then unfashionable side of Central Park, map and notes in hand.

It was our second vacation here, our third passage through the cement-and-glass island where the throng let us lose our palpable foreignness amid its indifferent surges and ebbs. Some time earlier in the week my mother decided to track down my father's long-lost brother, who by all accounts had lived in Manhattan for several decades. She looked up the Scottish surname he'd adopted when he fled the Continent for England. She armed herself with a couple of dollars' worth of dimes and systematically ticked off each McLeod as she went down the list she'd copied from the phone directory. On the sixteenth dime, she found him. Whether she extracted an invitation or whether my uncle was intrigued by this blast from his escaped past I don't know. All I remember was my fidgeting in an agony of teenage embarrassment as my intrepid mother interrogated each McLeod about his Greek origins.

So the day after the telephone call, my mother and I stood on that corner, taking in the dilapidated neighborhood and wondering who my uncle, living on that block we were reluctant to broach in broad daylight, had become since his flight from home some forty years before. We braced ourselves and went up the street, then up the cement steps of the tenement, then up four flights of creaking wooden stairs to his apartment. The building, such as it was, had an intercom, so when we got to the fourth-floor landing, he was waiting, door open behind him. My uncle was taller than I expected, as tall as my stately mother, and very pale. I expected him to have a beautiful head of hair like my father's, but his was so wispy that he appeared bald without being so. He wore wire-rimmed glasses that, I realized when my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, were held together where the arm met the right lens by a small Band-Aid.

He ushered us into a living room made almost dark by the shades drawn against a pitiless western sun. In the shadows, almost invisible, was a figure to whom he introduced us with what struck me, the most Americanized of them, as exaggerated pomp and woe. "My dear dead brother's widow and his child," he said. "Our Aunt Anna, eldest daughter to Grand-Uncle Menelaus, may the soil over his grave be light." For a moment I felt we were on stage, part of some kinship tragedy my ancestors had been so fond of.

He made us sit down, my mother in an overstuffed armchair, me in an old straight-backed chair. My new-found great-aunt Anna kept her seat on a kitchen chair, in the corner almost behind the door, while my uncle seated himself on the sofa, facing my mother and me, scrutinizing us.

"You'd look terrific if you put on an extra ten, fifteen pounds," he said to me, and I couldn't help but look at my mother, who was nodding triumphantly.

My weight was a constant bone of contention between us, and if that wasn't enough, among the whole Greek community we frequented on the east side of Detroit. "You're all skin and bones," they all chimed in, and I can only thank my lucky stars that I came of age long before the popularization of eating disorders. I'm convinced everyone who knew me then would have acquired an instant psychiatric degree and diagnosed me as anorexic or at least bulimic.

Because I knew what I knew: My hips were so small that my waist seemed one of a piece with them. I had a flat, small behind, slim thighs, nicely turned ankles, and a bosom that threw everything else off. My ribcage, like the rest of me, was small, so that I needed a 32 in a bra, but the cup size seemed enormous, a C when I could get away with it, but mostly a D. To make matters worse, there were hardly any 32D bras on the market, what there was looked like bandages for the mummy in the old horror movies, in addition to which no saleswoman let my disproportions go uncommented upon.

"Don't worry," my mother would say. "When you get married I'll take you to Athens for your trousseau, and we'll go to a lingerie maker. You'll get a dozen bras custom-made."

Little did I know, in my late teenagehood, that a few years thence I'd be going without a bra altogether and that my first lover, a small-breasted woman, would find my "deformity" pleasing. But in Manhattan on that afternoon I felt so clear-sighted about my failings that I had little patience with , it seemed, all the grown-ups' blindness to theirs.

Of course, it was easy for my mother to talk about making me over. So tall that she towered a head over me, she was built along such perfect proportions despite her heft that, even though she never let me see her naked, I almost wept every time I caught a glimpse of her in her underclothes. And my uncle, like all the other Greek men I knew, had already appraised me for the market. What they would have liked for me was to gain those extra pounds in the "right" places--my ass, my hips, certainly not my breasts or my large, wide face that I got from my father's maternal side, the "uglies," as my mother called that tribe. I knew that no matter how thin I was, people would immediately focus on my moon face and my shelf of a bosom, so I did all I could to draw attention to my legs, my best asset, and, as my mother never tired of repeating, the one feature I got from her.

I couldn't stand to let my body become the bond between my uncle the stranger and my mother.

"Aunt Anna seems pretty skinny, and she lives with you. Maybe you should tell her to gain some weight," I said.

"What was that? What did the baby say," my great-aunt piped up in a small voice from her corner, making me sorry that I'd opened my mouth.

"Aunt Anna," my uncle scoffed. "She's an old woman. Nobody looks at her." Then, turning to my mother, he added, "Such a mouth on her. You can tell there isn't a father's hand."

"Ah," my mother sighed deeply. "If you only knew the half of it."

To my relief, they moved on to topics less painful than my self. He asked about people back home. He hadn't been in touch for years. What a great thing it was to get off that god-forsaken piece of rock, Ithaki. And on and on, until he began pulling out old scrapbooks with pictures and little newspaper write-ups about himself, man about town first in London, then New York. These interested me. I had an uncle Christos, no, a self-rebaptized uncle Donald, who had worn white tuxes and button roses in his lapel and escorted society ladies to functions! Uncle Donald was even more interested in the scrapbook than I was. Every time I turned it toward the light so I could make out his face, he'd start making large gestures and launch into boring stories about this or that Greek family who would have been green with envy to see him, who'd predicted that he'd come to no good. The last part was true, that was for sure. Every summer that mother and I went back to Ithaca, I had to close my ears to get away from the gloom and doom about my father's family: one daughter lost to the East, my father the best of them cut down in his prime, my no-good liar of an uncle abandoning his parents and never sending them so much as a care package during the War. That was another one, the War, with a capital W. My generation had its own war, and in a few months I'd be striking and marching against it, but for them there had been only one War, apart maybe from the war against the Persians two million years ago that they didn't seem capable of forgetting about either.

"So," my mother, who had hardly glanced at the scrapbook, said, "Do you hear anything from Chrysghula?"

Chrys, whom I refused to call Chrysghula, with that disgusting guttural that made it seem as if they were gathering phlegm for a good spit, was my father's sister, the youngest, who'd run off and married a rich Turk. For a while they didn't speak of her at all, then after they got lots of gorgeous presents and preserved food from her--she knew how to get on my grandparents' good side, unlike Uncle Donald--they began to reconcile themselves to the inevitable and blackmailed her, too, for allowing her back into the family.

At the mention of my aunt's name, my sallow-faced uncle turned red as a beet. He whispered fiercely, keeping his eyes fixed on my mother,

"Don't utter her name in this house. Anna thinks she's dead."

"But . . . " my mother tried to say.

"Nothing," he said, and his hand sliced the air horizontally in a motion at once threatening and conclusive.

I was surprised to see my mother silenced for once. Then, I suppose to cover up for the ridiculous outburst, Uncle Donald said, suavely,

"You're staying for dinner, of course, and we're having another guest for dessert." "Anna," he turned to my great-aunt, who got off her chair in a hurry.

They went out into the hallway of the tenement, and Uncle Donald returned, alone.

"Never mention Chrysghula's name in this house. It's an unbearable sorrow to her, and I thought it easier on her nerves to tell her my sister died."

He looked at my mother, who did no more than nod slightly. I waited for him to say more, like why was it harder on her than on Chrys's own parents. Didn't Chrys send Anna any packages or what? But neither my uncle nor my mother brought up the subject again. My uncle went on to make small talk about the enchantments of New York, and how sorry he was we hadn't given him notice we were coming so he could take us around.

"I had to look you up, Christos," my mother said, unforgivingly.

"Well, I don't know what I could have done to entertain you, what with my health," my uncle tried to wiggle out of it.

"What's wrong with your health?"

"You don't know?" he asked, seemingly stupefied that we, who'd just met him for the first time, weren't acquainted with all the details of his life. "It's my old War wound, from when I flew for the British Air Force," he said. "The schrapnel that broke through the skull," he added, touching the side of his head gingerly.

The War again, I thought, while my mother seemed happy to have found a topic about which both she and my uncle were passionate. I let my eyes wander over my uncle's crammed bookcases. There were a lot of old volumes, lots of Russian novels and other nineteenth-century stuff. It was a shock for me to see a slim, newer-looking volume of Elizabeth Bishop's poetry. I reached for it, but he suddenly went berserk again.

"You're here on a visit, my dead brother's only child, and instead of getting acquainted you want to read?" he shouted. "The child is insulting," he turned to my mother.

"Don't mind her, Christos," she said. Every time she called him by his Greek name a small spasm seemed to pass through him. "She's really Americanized."

That, in our community, was the worst thing they could say about you, and it appeased my uncle. Just about then Great-Aunt Anna came back, carrying grocery bags. I might have been Americanized, but it was I, not my uncle, who jumped up to help her as she staggered toward the kitchen.

"Don't bother," he yelled after me. "She's used to it--it keeps her in shape."

Then, as Aunt Anna started with the pots and pans, he came in to inspect the scene. He turned red again and started shouting like a maniac, so loud and so fast that my colloquial Greek could hardly keep up, about how she was a dolt and she never listened to him and she tried to shame him before the family. My mother's form filled the doorway.

"What's going on," she asked in a tone familiar to me, and I felt glee at the thought that my uncle was in for it now.

"This old woman never listens. She makes me look like I want to save by feeding her inferior food," my uncle explained. "I sent her for four steaks--porterhouse--top grade, and she brings home a lamb chop for herself."

"I like lamb," Aunt Anna uttered in a thin, small voice. Her eyes were filled with tears.

My mother put her arm around her and said to my uncle,

"Men out of the kitchen."

To my surprise he went back to the living room. The air seemed lighter after he left. Anna and my mother chatted about other boring things--there seemed to be no end of such subjects in my family--and I consoled myself by trying to imagine how Aunt Anna had looked in her youth. But I really had to make an effort. It seemed as if in Aunt Anna old age had vanquished every trace of possible prettiness--nothing was left, no light in her eye, no grace of movement, no prominent cheekbones. I wondered if my fat face would fall into itself like that, in the way of an apple forgotten in a dry room.

After dinner, which, having been cooked according to my uncle's directions, had been thoroughly American except for the scent of rosemary and seared flesh rising from Aunt Anna's chop, the guest arrived, another cousin, who looked a lot like me, although I quickly found out she was only the wife of a blood cousin who'd moved to Corfu in his youth. She was a youngish woman, but since she was a mother she thought she had the right to pinch my cheek and turn me about to examine me. At least she only expressed delight with what she saw, but then she was the bubbly type, happy with everything, even the hideous neapolitan ice cream served by Aunt Anna, who hid in a dark corner with a bakhlava that I coveted.

"So," she said to my uncle, "Where have you been hiding these relatives? And what a shame, family, staying in the hotel. Tomorrow you move to my house, in Queens."

My uncle waved her invitation away.

"Get out of here, Effie. Where would you put them up?" Turning toward my mother, he added as if poor Efrosinia weren't even there, "Nikos is no good, a bum, without a job for as long as I can remember. She carries the whole house on her shoulders, and with the two little kids, you can imagine."

I saw the most curious phenomenon as I glanced at Effie; she didn't just produce tears that gathered at the rim of the lower lids, ready to drop off, as did other people--her large, bovine eyes swam in liquid that seemed to well all around each orb, defying gravity. I wanted to congratulate my uncle. The evening was still young and he'd already made two women cry. My mother took over. She was good at smoothing things over, I have to admit, but then with the people she hung around with, she'd had a lot of practice.

"Efrosinia, my dear, next time we'll come and stay with you. And you come and stay with us in Detroit, and bring the children. There's a pool at my godmother's apartment. Maria goes there all the time, don't you, sweetheart?" she appealed to me.

"Yeah, all the time," I said.

Effie left soon after, small wonder. The sun was setting, and I could feel my mother getting nervous about negotiating after dark the lovely neighborhood where my uncle had ensconced himself.

"We'd better go, too, Christos," she said as soon as he came back from the landing where he'd said good-bye to Efrosinia.

"I'm going to say this in Engliss so the old woman won't understand," my uncle said. "As far as she knows, you're my only living relatives, immediate family," he added, a catch in his throat.

But I heard it! My uncle the Scot said "in Engliss," just as my grandfather on Ithaca would say it, just as every greenhorn off the boat said it! I don't know exactly what he was trying to gain by telling us he'd killed off everyone else in the family for Aunt Anna, but I heard him, and I wondered what the elegant ladies on his arm and the guys renting him the tuxedos must have thought as he Greek-sibilated his way into the high life of London and New York.

A couple of months before our visit to my uncle, I was thrown together with a young guy from Sounion at the church reception for newcomers. Of course the adults had manipulated the meeting, hoping that forever dateless Maria would fall for the fatally attractive boy from home who waited on tables at old man Teranos's restaurant in Greektown. He charmed me by announcing, two minutes after we'd been introduced, "Americans are stupid."

"Yeah?" I said, hoping he'd notice my vast lack of interest in his opinions.

"As soon as I started the job, I knew they were stupid people, you know? I offer them the specials, and I say, lamb or chicken, and they look at the menu like they can't read, and they say nothing. I ask them again, they say nothing, then they point to the menu, like I can't understand Engliss," he added in English.

"What do you ask them?" I say.

"Lamb or chicken, you know," he says to me as if beginning to suspect I'm American, too.

"Let me hear you say it in English," I say in English, drawing my tongue back against my palate on the sh.

"Lemmotzike," he says.

"What?" I ask, and he repeats it, the exact same way.

"Lamb," I say, thinking for some reason that this guy is redeemable, "a as in hat."

"I know," he says. "E as in het."

Insanely, I continue, "chicken, ch, ch, ch," spitting out the sound with such enthusiasm that I'm spraying saliva over the trays with mini-bakhlavas and butter boats.

"I know, I know," he yells. And "Tz, tz, tz," he sputters like a distorted echo.

People begin to gather around us. I turn on my spike heels and leave him there, muttering to myself like a crazy person, "Americans are stupid. Lemmotzike." As I walk away vowing to myself that never, never, will they get me to meet another of their Adonises, I hear old man Teranos say loudly to his harpy of a wife,

"No wonder, with that bosom and those skinny legs, no guy's gonna go for her."

And here's my uncle, the greatest liar in the Northern hemisphere, thinking he can call himself Donald McLeod and talk in "Engliss." On the landing, he bends his bald-looking head toward me and whispers:

"Tell me your birthdate. I won't forget to send you a remembrance," and before I know it he grabs both my hands in his, and I look down, to give him a hint, like what does he think he's doing.

That's when I felt myself go faint. This tall baldie, with my grandmother's wirerimmed glasses, touches me with my dead father's hands! Suddenly, I began to feel a little sorry for him and his shabby place and his cut-out memories.

As soon as we were out of the stairwell, my mother started.

"So, Aunt Anna thinks the whole family's dead, does she? That's because he no doubt stole your father's and your aunt's part of Grandfather Grivas's Suez Canal shares. I know what he's up to. He disinherited you. I'm going to the lawyers as soon as we get back."

I try to calm her down, familiar as I am with the stories about the Suez shares and the War and the way my grandfather had foolishly relinquished them to Christos.

"Look how he's living," I say. "What's he got? He must have cashed them in long ago and spent the money. He's got nothing now."

"I don't care," my mother ranted, "I'll take him to court," on and on, but I could tell from her tone that she was beginning to come round and assess my uncle's lack of visible prosperity.

She herself began to pity him a little, especially later that fall, when he did indeed send me a few dollars for my birthday. But then he spoiled it all by calling to ask my mother's advice about a brain operation his physicians had recommended. She told him with the usual tact practiced among my relatives, "Go ahead and do it. What have you got to lose," at which my uncle again yelled like a madman. She hung up on him, and we lost touch again, this time for good.

That Manhattan summer evening, on the darkening street, long before the advent of an air-conditioner in every window, the sashes were thrown open and people hung out of the sills like clusters of dark grapes. My attention was riveted by a young beauty with ringleted auburn hair, which she was spinning dreamily on her finger as she leaned onto the street. My mother and I were making our way toward Seventh Avenue when we heard a limpid sound soar into the lilac sky. A tenor voice of unusual force and clarity was singing "La donna è mobile," and my mother and I both looked up at the windows, wondering which of those laughing, talking families was playing the magnificent recording. We were so taken with the resonating air that we almost bumped into him, the rag-clad drunk barely able to stand, feet planted wide apart, eyes closed, mouth open, neck thrown back to let the sound fly above everything that he had become and embrace the unreal light of that garish, polluted sunset.

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