by William Michaelian
My dear, sweet, angelic, hefty, carefree, larger-than-life Margo: You would be proud of me. In your honor, and in record time, I have just consumed an entire leg of lamb and a veritable mountain of cheese, olives, and baklava here at Hobos, the trendy new Greek restaurant downtown overlooking the river. I wish you were here � not that I lack credibility in my bloated trench coat Irishness, but I always enjoy a meal more when I am able to look up into your big, round, dark, half-Greek eyes.
The waitresses here are skinny, pitiful things � not so much Greek as they are haunted and morose. I feel sorry for them. Though they are pretty in a petite and tortured kind of way, these are not the irresistible, earthy girls you want dancing in your vineyard. But, that�s America for you. One way or the other, we are all watered down. We�ve traded in our defiant Ellis Island voices and noses and eyebrows for the generic glaze of a talk show audience. All we have left is food, and a handful of people who, thank God, still know how to cook it. The Greeks, bless their olive-oily souls, load it on, as do the Basques, who know a thing or two about lamb chops, and the Italians and Armenians, who are likewise fearless in their application of garlic.
I�m waiting for my coffee. I�ve ordered the thick Greek kind, and promise to read you my fortune, though I know it�s against the rules to decipher one�s own. But, in the absence of bearded aunts from the old country, what else can one do? If they want to, the Greek Coffee Society can issue a reprimand. For that matter, they can spank me and pour cockroaches in my shorts, or threaten me with wilted eggplant. Whatever � as an ignorant outsider, I know my rights. I am entitled to a little cultural transgression now and then.
By the way, I read your flattering review in Sunday�s paper. Thank you � even if it wasn�t deserved. The fact is, I�m on a roll, and you know what that means. It means it doesn�t matter � for the time being, at least � what I write. Which is why, these days, I feel more like a fry cook than a novelist.
�Richly complex,� is what it says on the dust jacket. �The work of a many-colored artist.� It�s come to this, has it? �A novel by M. Connor Flaherty is a welcome event.� For Pete�s sake. A novel by M. Connor Flaherty is more like a submarine sandwich than anything else. And yet, do I say anything? Of course not. I�m afraid to rock the boat.
I�ve told you how it was, how as a kid our family all but starved to death in San Francisco. Poverty is what I ought to be writing about, Margo, dear, not spy rings. I should be telling the story of my alcoholic father shaking on his bed, his teeth rattling all night long, keeping us awake. I should tell the world what it was like for my poor mother, who sat up praying to a bored god who didn�t care.
In those days, in our household, a potato was a thing of wonder; the lump of fat in a can of pork and beans was a prize worth fighting for.
Once, when I was fifteen, I saw a young couple sitting in a restaurant. In front of them was a bottle of red wine and two enormous steaks. I stood on the sidewalk, breathing on the window, until the husband or boyfriend or whatever he was waved me off. But I couldn�t move � I wanted so much to be in the company of those steaks. The woman stared at me, then looked down at her plate. The man said something to her and left the table. I waited. The woman stood up. She picked up her plate and walked with it to the door, opened the door, and came outside. She asked me if I was hungry. I said no, that I was just tired and had stopped for a rest on my way home. �Oh,� she said. �I thought you were hungry. So I brought you this.� She held out her plate. The steak was steaming in the cool evening air. I wanted to grab it and run, to hide in an alley and rip it apart like a wild animal. Nothing in the world would have made me happier.
I was about to take it and offer the lovely lady my thanks when the restaurant door opened again. �I�ll have to ask you to leave,� a man, obviously the owner, said. �You are bothering my guests.� Beside him was the man who had been sitting inside. He was smiling, but his smile was not a kind one. He was still looking at me when he addressed the woman: �Mary,� he said, �don�t be foolish. This boy doesn�t need your encouragement, he needs to get a job.�
I glared at the man. A job, he said. A job? He couldn�t have been more than twenty-five. His hands were smooth, and he was wearing a black tie and a beautiful white shirt with cuff links. Hell � I mopped floors, I delivered papers. I hauled trash and moved pianos. Even at my age, I could have picked him up and thrown him into the street. I could have broken his legs � and would have, I think, if it were not for Mary.
�He needs something to eat,� she said. �Maybe he�d like to join us.�
�Mary!� the man said. �What are you doing?�
�Being human,� Mary said.
�Why don�t we all go inside,� the restaurant owner said, to everyone and to no one. �It�s getting chilly.�
�Of course,� the man said, and he applied his soft, white hand to Mary�s arm. �Come on,� he said.
�I�m terribly sorry,� Mary said helplessly. �I really am.�
�Me, too,� I said.
The restaurant owner stepped forward. He relieved Mary of her plate and then turned and opened the door, thus ending the situation.
I went home. But I took the long way, stopping periodically to curse and chew on my sleeve. The closer I came to my own neighborhood, the more depressed I was, until the appalling sadness of my life had left me numb.
Imagine, all of this nonsense and embarrassment because of a stupid steak. It was medium-rare. Oh, yes! I still remember. Only I didn�t know what �medium-rare� was in those days. But the color, the juice, the aroma � these things I understood, by sheer instinct.
That night, at home in bed lying next to my unbathed and snoring brother, Matthew, I made a solemn vow. I vowed, through ignorance and hunger and determination and shame and regret and loneliness and anger and despair that I would one day be rich and famous and thereby never have to expose myself to such humiliation and degradation again. Margo, I honestly made this vow � though in reality it probably went more like this: �I�ll show those fucking bastards � just wait.�
More than anything, I was tired of being hungry. I resented going to bed with a growling stomach. And I resented life for making my dear mother nurse the same damn soup bone for weeks on end.
The rest of what constituted our so-called home life put the icing on the cake. For instance, my sister was a prostitute � and not the kind who does it for money, either. It was just a goal of hers to give herself to any man who would have her. I can�t tell you how many times I found her groping with some low-grade cull in one of the darkened, trashy doorways in our neighborhood. It was a standard, ho-hum practice. If you didn�t approve, then it was up to you to turn your head. Some guys had sisters who took piano lessons and helped with the sewing � mine groped.
And then there was Matthew, my red-haired, red-faced brother. He loved and admired our father so much that at the age of seventeen he decided to take after him in the drinking department. Between the two of them, our apartment smelled like a brewery.
Margo, why am I telling you this? Assuming, that is, I don�t burn it in the fireplace when I get home. That would be the right thing, I know � the kind, honorable, merciful thing to do. But picture in your mind, if you haven�t already, an overweight Irishman (as if the Irish part could possibly mean anything) sitting at a small round table near a gleaming floor-to-ceiling window, in full view of the people strolling down below, who now and then look up and espy a pair of stumpy legs clad in gray, baggy trousers. I am writing on a small yellow pad, forcefully enough to jiggle the water in my glass. It is a fairly quiet evening � or, I should say, the crowd is quiet. Most of the tables are occupied, though the one in front of me is empty. It was just vacated by a refined-looking young couple not unlike the couple whose steaks I admired all those years ago. So maybe we should blame this on them. I want to say there is music playing, but there isn�t � not even Zorba the Greek, which is a great, comical tune, especially when you think of Anthony Quinn dancing to it on the silver screen, and remind yourself that he is a Mexican and not Greek at all. I am alone. I know this is obvious, but I state it here nonetheless. It is an important fact. I have always been alone, and have been ever since I can remember. It is a natural state, though not always a pleasant one. Being alone is also what has driven me to write, though I suppose I could have been a grave digger like my Uncle Tom, or an embalmer like my Uncle Liam, or a gardener-slash-chimney sweep like my dear, drunk father. At any rate, for some reason, being alone, this evening especially, feels significant, even more so than usual. Maybe it�s my age. Forty-nine can be a lot or a little, depending on how you look at it. Maybe it�s the fact that I�ve never been married, and all these years of going home to a cold bed have finally caught up with me. Or, maybe it�s the nagging feeling of uselessness that has dogged me the past few months. I look at the books I�ve written and all I can think is, �Eh, so what?� I make a damn good living by them, it�s true; and I have managed to avoid the humiliation and degradation I mentioned a few minutes ago. But does anything I�ve written really matter? I honestly don�t think so. How could it? It�s very easy to imagine it suddenly not existing at all, and the world not bothering to notice. For heaven�s sake � the same thing is happening to the real greats, to the likes of Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, and Guy de Maupassant. Why is this? I feel like an idiot for even trying to write after all they�ve accomplished. Why don�t the black, moody dreams of the nervous, pacing Russians mean anything anymore? Because we have Nintendo? Because we have shiny, tight bicycle shorts, and a damn uniform for everything else we do? Or is it because now we all live on cement, and have forgotten what it means to walk on bare earth, and to look up at an endless, starry sky? And if we have forgotten, then what?
Funny, isn�t it. A grown man on top of the world, whining. All the same, I wish you weren�t so damn far away. I�ve never told you before, maybe because I�ve never realized it before � but you are the best, the only friend I have in this world. It�s true. You are the only one willing to listen, and to be honest with me, even though you are professionally dishonest when you praise my books.
Oh, my dear, sweet, Margo. My lovely, big-hearted, half-Greek literary prostitute. I�ve never asked you how you came to be in the book reviewing business, but, Lord, I am eternally grateful. I only wish we could spend more time together. More than that, I wish you could see yourself married to a fat gas-bag writer like me, an adoring ox who would worship you for the rest of his stupid life. Who knows, then, what I might write. Maybe my books would be worth something after all. Or, maybe I would stop writing altogether, and be a grave digger like my uncle. Either way, I�d be happy. Either way, I�m tired of being alone, tired of pretending to be something I�m not. I am not a many-colored artist. I am a guy who writes because he doesn�t know what else to do, and because he hates like hell to be hungry.
Well, so much for this letter.
My coffee has come and gone. It tasted great. It was sweet enough to stand in for dessert, though I�ll probably be in the mood for a piece of cheesecake later on.
But wait. I said I would read my fortune, didn�t I?
Very well. Let�s see, here. . . .
Ah. . . .
Oh, my. . . .
Margo? Are you still with me? I hope so, because this is absolutely amazing.
Here in my cup, I see what looks like a burning world. I see a man, and the man is walking through great tongues of fire. He is holding his face upright. This is a good sign, because it means he is not afraid. Along the perimeter of the cup, in the distance, lie the ruins of a city. These ruins represent, I feel quite certain, the man�s former life. But the important thing is that he has turned his back on the ruins, and is now focusing on what is in front of him. The way he holds his head, his hands, his shoulders, shows how very determined he is. In fact, if I didn�t know better, I�d say he was going to walk right up out of the cup. . . . Wait a minute � there he goes. Margo, this is fantastic! He�s on the table! Now he�s walking across my yellow pad. Ouch! He�s taking . . . ugh . . . my pen . . .
I�m coming to New York.
I�ll fax this tonight and be there in the morning.
Oh, and don�t worry � I�ll dump Flaherty.
William Michaelian�s newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelian�s other books and links to this site�s other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.