Like People Who Hadn’t Laughed For Years

Layoffs. There’s something good about them. You get to know people. You go out, say, on the balcony for a smoke and someone says: Hey, you’ve heard the news? They sacked Lycos1. And you ask: Lycos who? The bad one? And they all turn and stare at you and then someone says: No, you jerk. Lycos the electrician. Tall guy, long hair. The one with the limp. And now you’re trying to remember if you know who that Lycos is. But you can’t – you don’t remember him at all. Three hundred people work in here, how the hell are you supposed to know them all? So you keep your mouth shut, while they keep talking about Lycos like he’s already dead. Nice guy. Hard-working guy. He had two kids and a mortgage and his wife got sacked, too, three months ago; she was working in a slop shop or a shoe store – something like that. And then someone’d say: Well, lately he was too careless. Talked too much, squabbling all the time. He had changed lately. He was paying no attention at all, even though he’d been warned. And then they stop talking, and one of them sighs and says: Damn it, it’s still June and it’s getting hot already, and another one says: Come September who knows how many of us will be here – who knows how many of us will be here then, smoking and chatting and sipping coffee. And then they dump their paper cups and put out their cigarettes and go back in their cages. And you’re left all alone and you smoke another cigarette, watching the cars passing by and the birds flap around the wires. A dog sleeps in the shade of the mulberry tree. A woman comes out to the balcony across the street and shakes off out a tablecloth. On the sidewalk a kid passes on a bike, then an old man with a stick, and two girls in low-back tops and denim shorts, already tanned from the sun. You watch the world spinning, full of bustle, heartless and indifferent, and you say to yourself that, after all, life is good. And somewhere deep inside – or maybe not so deep – you feel glad that your name isn’t Lycos, you’re not tall, you don’t have long hair and a limp, and your wife wasn’t fired from a shop that sells clothes or shoes. And then you take a deep breath and put out the cigarette and go back to work. And you decide to do everything in your power so you never find yourself in the position of Lycos. You decide that, after all, in a world full of wolves, you’d better be a sheep than a wolf. A lame wolf.

And then, the next afternoon or the afternoon after that, Lycos comes back to pick up his stuff and say goodbye. And it happens that you’re out on the balcony again and someone says: Hey, that’s Lycos. That’s the guy who got sacked yesterday.

And you look at the man who climbs the stairs slowly and you say: That’s him? This is Lycos? But I know him.

And then you remember that snowy night last January – or maybe it was February. You remember you had stayed late at work again and when you went down to the parking lot you found your car covered in snow – eight or ten inches of it. And you stood there in the freezing cold, staring at the untouched sheet that sparkled in the twilight, and you hated yourself for having to spoil it. But you had to do it. You had to clean the snow off the car and get inside and start the engine and leave – you were so tired and wanted to go home to eat, to get warm, to watch TV, to forget, to fall asleep, to fall into a heavy, dreamless sleep, watching TV. So you started cleaning the snow off the windshield, but your hands were naked and quickly they froze. And you stood helpless in the cold, rubbing your frozen hands, feeling your heart go numb with despair, until you saw someone coming over – a tall guy with a cap, scarf and gloves. And he asked: What’s going on, pal? You told him that, so he went to his car and opened the trunk and took out a dustpan and told you to start your car and set the heat blowing on the windshield – not the air conditioning, just the heat. Then he bent over the windshield and began to wipe the snow off with quick, sharp movements. Then he cleaned the side and rear windows. And you, sitting into the car, enjoying the warmth, watched him working silent and solemn, his breath steaming out of his mouth; and you wondered who that guy was and why he’d bothered to help a stranger, a wuss like you. When he finished he lifted the wipers off the windshield and rubbed the hardened snow. Then he nodded – all set – and told you to be careful on the road and waved his hand and left. You didn’t even have the chance to thank him, because his kindness made you feel more numb than the cold. And on the way home you kept thinking about him and wondered. And then, as soon as you got there, you forgot all about it, just like you forgot so many things, so many people in your life.

And now, as you’re watching him climb the stairs slowly, dragging his foot on each step, you realize that on that snowy night you didn’t even notice he has a limp. You realize now that you let a lame man clean the snow off your car, without even thanking him. And you wonder if you should go down and tell him something. Remind him what happened that night and thank him, even now, so many months later, even if you don’t know what his name is –

Yannis, Kostas, Nikos, Takis.

That’s what you’re thinking you should do. But you won’t do anything. You won’t go down, you won’t go talk to him.

What’s to say?

So, you stay on the balcony and light a cigarette and, after a while, you see him coming out with a large box in his hands. He stops on the landing and takes a look around like he doesn’t know where to go. And then he turns around and stares at the huge building that stands in front of him; and you take a glimpse of his face and suddenly you shiver. It’s snow-white. Never before have you seen someone with a face so white. You shiver again. And then you throw away your cigarette and go running down the stairs – you won’t wait for the elevator – and catch up with him the moment he puts the box into the trunk. While you try to catch your breath, you talk to him about that night. Do you remember? you ask him. Remember that night in the snow? Do you still have the dustpan? Not that we need it now, of course. It’s June now, right? But then you never know what might happen in this goddamn place. Right?

Such stupid things you say and he’s standing there, looking puzzled, rubbing his hands that have gone red and swollen from carrying the box. But his face is still white. White like a blank sheet of paper. And his mouth, a black pencil mark.

Yeah, he says after a while. He nods. I remember now. The blue Nissan.

Black, you say. It’s black.

He stares at you for a moment, like he’s trying to understand if you are dumber than it seems you are. And then he says: Okay, see you around – and he shuts the trunk and goes inside the car.

Then you get this crazy idea.

Hey, how about a ride to Piraeus? you ask him. Drinks on me. You know, for the dustpan and all.

Well, most likely, he’ll say no. The man has just lost his job, for Christ’s sake – he has important things to think about, important decisions to make. He won’t go fooling around with a guy who doesn’t even know his name.

But maybe he’ll say yes. Yes. Maybe he’ll say yes.

And then you get another idea, even more crazy.

Wait here, you tell him, will you? I’ll be back in ten minutes. Okay?

You get into your car and speed away, without even caring that you’ve left everything loose in the office and everyone will wonder where the hell you’ve gone.

At home you load the cooler with ice and stuff in it two bottles of tsipouro with anise, some bread, cheese and tomatoes, whatever you find. On the way back your heart beats like crazy because you’re afraid that Lycos has already gone. But he’s still there, sitting on the hood of his car and smoking, his face white.

Come on in, you tell him. We’re off.fivedials_no27-18

On the way to Piraeus you have a little talk with him. And while you’re talking, you watch him out of the corner of your eye and keep thinking of reaching out and pinching his cheeks to make him blush a little. When you get there, you go down the rocky beach beneath the Cross and sit by the sea. And then you take the bottle and everything else out of the cooler.

While drinking and eating, you watch as the pallor fades from his face. Now he talks about the past. He says that in school everybody teased him for his name. Here comes the wolf, they’d say, and they kneeled down and lifted up their heads and howled.

That’s how I met my wife too, he says. At a Halloween party. She was dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood. He stares at you for a moment and then he starts laughing. You laugh too. You laugh together, loudly, for a good while. You laugh like people who haven’t laughed for years.

And then, just as you’ve opened the second bottle, he asks you to tell a story too.

Tell me a story, he says. I want to hear a story with a happy ending.

You light a cigarette and let the smoke stream out of your mouth, holding the glass in your hand, listening to the ice rattling. And you’re thinking of telling him that no story has an end, sad or happy. But you don’t want to upset him. So you keep quiet for a while. You smell the sea breeze, listening to the waves crashing against the rocks. You stare at the black sea, watching the lights of the ships flickering in the dark. And then you take a deep breath and start talking:

Layoffs. There’s something good about them. You get to know people. You go out, say, on the balcony for a smoke and someone says: Hey, you’ve heard the news? They sacked Lycos …

1.^Lycos means ‘wolf ’. It’s not an uncommon surname in Greece.