Spring 1989, Volume 6.1

Old Jim

In the 1980s no one was alive who knew the tragedy first hand except an old man in his late nineties who had been ten, eleven, or twelve years old at the time. He had never been certain of his age. When he and his young uncle left their Greek mountain village to come to America, his mother, father, the doddering midwife, and the priest who had neglected to record his baptismal date, all offered different dates. The exasperated mayor wrote down ten on his emigration papers.

On holidays the Greek church women brought him baskets of fruit, sweets, and toiletries, and the young priest came to give him Communion on the great days of the church. Otherwise, no one visited him in the nursing home. All his friends had died and he had never married: by the time he had sent enough money to his parents to dower his sisters, he had been inducted into the American army to fight the Germans; then he had to establish himself in a little store; then the 1930s Depression came; then the next war; and then it was too late. Also, he had been afraid he had bad blood from frequenting brothels. As he sat in his cubicle in the nursing home, he remembered vividly the first time he had gone to one and the terrible beating his uncle had given him. He had been either fourteen, fifteen, or sixteen and as fate would have it, his uncle, who should have been sleeping in preparation for the graveyard shift, was entering the brothel as he was leaving it. Ach, the past.

Old Jim often stared across the hall into a four-bed ward where he would be when his money ran out and he would have to go on Medicaid. He could see one bed from where he sat; children and grandchildren visited the old man curled up in it who couldn't remember their names.

The nurses and aids called him Old Jim. In the village he had been called by the diminutive Dimitrakis, then after a few years in America Dimitrios, then the American James or Jim, and at last Old Jim. Sitting in the heavy reclining chair left by the previous client, as the social worker called patients (And how is my client today?), Old Jim reviewed the double tragedy almost every day, speaking aloud to the bare wall ahead.

He began with the same words and in Greek-the closer he came to the end, the fewer English words he spoke: "It would never have happened if a Greek woman had been there. But Yiannina," he said of the first Greek woman to come to the mining town, "didn't come until the next year, in 1902. If she had been there, she would have served us the fish dinner after the funeral. We would have sat around and talked about the forgiven one and passed the evening, but she hadn't come yet." Sometimes he would pause, forget his story, and dwell on Yiannina.

When Yiannina arrived in the mining town, she had been angry at learning the laborers and water boys on railroad gangs and in mines lived in tents and shacks. The men had built the shacks themselves out of blasting powder boxes. Neither the shacks nor the tents had water or privies, which did not bother her; they had neither in the village. She had walked a mile each day to bring back a jug balanced on her head, and bushes were the village privies. It was the lice in the clothes, in the boys' hair. She ordered the boys' relatives and villagers to throw clothes and bedding over her fence once a week. With a long stick, because they were crawling with lice, she dropped them into a large pot of water boiling over an outdoor fire. She lectured the older men to wash their hair and, cowed by a woman who was forgetting in America the subservience of women, they did. Once a week she had the boys line up in her backyard and used plenty of kerosene and soap on their heads. Old Jim, then called Dimitrakis, liked to be first in line. Afterwards she served them stews and sweets that weren't luxuries in America. She never smiled.

Yiannina took charge of the boys while she gave birth to a child every year. New water boys replaced the older ones who then went to the railroad YMCA for showers. With a faint smile Old Jim gazed at the wall while he thought of Yiannina.

At other times he told the story straight through. In 1901 a steamship agent came to their village. He was dressed in storebought clothes and a brown derby; he smoked thick cigars and had shaved off his mustache. Men and boys gathered on the village square to ask about America. There was not a question the agent could not answer. After being in erica a ew years, t e men remembered some of his foolish answers. For one thing, he had said, yes, American women were also required to have dowries.

His mission was to hire men to work in mines and on railroads in the American West. The agent worked for another Greek, he said, who knew all the mine and railroad managers there, and he would advance ship and railroad fares and deduct the cost from the men's wages after they got to the West. The first to sign up was Dimitrakis's young uncle. His three friends immediately followed. First Stavros, his special friend; they often spent weeks together on the m ountainside tending their families' few sheep and goats that browsed among scree and holly oak. Villagers praised his voice, a wonder compared with the old chanter who croaked along and had even as a young man. Next Evangelos laboriously wrote his name although he was never called by it, but by either Slavos because of his wide Slavic head or Squash when he did something stupid, which was often. Last to sign was Nondas, the acclaimed dancer of the village. On feast days the villagers crowded about the square to watch him jump and twist while he shouted his joy.

Dimitrakis and other boys gazed longingly. Dimitrakis wondered if he would ever go to America. His uncle looked at him and smiled. "I'll send for you when I get settled," he said. Dimitrakis did not return the smile or nod. He'd heard villagers say too often that America swallowed up young men; they left and were never heard from again. Suddenly his uncle said to the agent, "Can I take my nephew with me?"

"Yes," the agent said, "he can work with you." With those words, Dimitrakis, heart beating crazily, ran after his laughing uncle and friends down the mountainside, trudged to the seaport four days distance, vomited bile for three weeks in steerage, and rode a coach over an endless land of prairies and mountains to the western mining camp.

The labor agent had accompanied them. Well dressed, like the steamship agent and with a diamond ring on his little finger, he had explained what the words strikes and strikebreakers were. He would send money orders to the village for them for a fee of a dollar, and he would show them where the red-light houses were.

In the camp tent Dimitrakis cried for his mother every night. He had to cry silently or be cuffed by his uncle. Most of the time it was too cold to undress. One morning he opened his eyes and saw a sheet of something moving from the bottom of the tent to the top. Lice.

At night he went to the coffeehouse with his uncle, Stavros, Squash, and Nondas. Two other boys his age were always there, and the kafejiz let them sit close to the big pot-bellied stove and gave them a pair of dice to play barbout. In their villages boys would not have been allowed to hear their elders telling ribald stories and forgetting their dignity, but in America anything went. Although the men had not yet seen gypsies in America, they were afraid if they left the boys alone, gypsies would find and kidnap them. Also the Americans did not like immigrants, and who knew what they could do to the boys if they found them alone. And so while the phonograph creaked out old songs of heroes fighting the Turks and the men sang, danced, played cards, and sometimes fought, throwing chairs about and jumping on each other, the boys sat near the stove, pretending not to hear and see, and told exaggerated stories about pranks they had played in their villages.

Two weeks after they arrived in the mining camp, a thunderous reverberation riveted Dimitrakis inside a room of coal. The bucket fell, splashing water on him. Then screamings, scurryings, whistle screechings set him running over the rail tracks toward the mine entrance. Half way there miners were lifting big pieces of coal and handing them to others who carried them off. Then their carbide lamps made diffused yellow circles on Nondas's mashed body. Dimitrakis's uncle, Squash, and Stavros shouted, obscenities, railed against the saints, called down curses on the coal, on America, and on their country whose poverty had forced them to leave it. Dimiirakis's uncle led him out of the mine, but he could not speak the rest of the day.

The labor agent appeared at the coffeehouse that night - and told the men he had telephoned a priest from Chicago to come for the funeral. He also said he would write a letter to Nondas's family for a dollar. "No!" Din-titrakis's uncle shouted and the labor agent, taken aback, lifted his pink palms in acquiescence.

The next morning the men went to the station to meet the priest. He stepped off, wearing black robes and a tall priest's hat. The men led him to the miners' hall while men and women on the boardwalk turned to stare and boys followed snickering. Nondas lay with blackened face and flattened nose in the coffin. Because he was unmarried the men had done their best to follow native custom and bury him as a bridegroom. Dimitrakis had followed his uncle up a mountainside where they found white sego lilies at the base of a boulder. Tears wending down his face, his uncle placed these about Nondas's misshapen head in lieu of a wedding crown. In his lapel the coffeehouse owner had put a sprig of basil, and all the miners had contributed to a wedding band. The labor agent called in a Mormon photographer to take the final picture for Nondas's family

In the barren hall the priest gave Dimitrakis the censer and told him to swing it; the acrid blue smoke made his throat swell and he was in a panic that he would not be able to breathe. After the liturgy for the dead, the coffin was placed on a wagon drawn by two white horses with black plumes on their heads. Suspending their strike hostilities for the day, Italians wearing band uniforms led the procession while playing a dirge. A crowd of boys and a few girls followed at the side, grinning and looking at each other, saying something to Dimitrakis that he did not understand. He looked at them with hate.

At the open grave the lid of the coffin was lifted. The priest chanted the closing prayers, dripped three drops of consecrated oil and sprinkled three pinches of dirt over the body. The coffin was lowered and the men shoveled the rocky, alkali dirt over the coffin. Dimitrakis shivered at the sound of rocks hitting the wooden caset. He kept swinging the smoking censer a although it evidently

not necessary because the priest took it from him. Then his uncle, Squash, and Stavros pounded a black wooden cross into the mound. On the arm was Nondas's name in white Greek letters.

The men followed the priest to the coffeehouse. The kafejiz had prepared the funeral meal of dried codfish, dandelion greens he had gathered near a farm at the river bank, feta cheese, and Kalamata olives that were sent to him weekly from Salt Lake City by train. The priest had no time to drink a cup of Turkish coffee. He had another corpse to bury, another young man killed in a Gary, Indiana, steel mill accident.

The men put the priest on board a Denver and Rio Grande Western train and returned to the coffeehouse. They sat around the small round tables morosely. "Patridha, patridha," someone cried. Fatherland, fatherland. Dimitrakis and the two boys sitting with him near the stove began to cry silently. The men wept, groaned, called out words that would be heard often in the coffeehouse over the years. To die young, to be buried in foreign earth, to die without women keening the laments, to be in a coffeehouse far from home, to leave sisters without dowries, parents destitute!

After their litany about the miseries of exile, the men talked about the mine accident. Again Squash related how he had been working next to Nondas in the room of coal when he heard a faint sound. "It was a sound like mice scurrying. I knew it was a sign! I stepped back, but Nondas kept swinging his pick. Then I hear this big creak and Nondas looks up and coal falls on him! It was his fate that he didn't hear that first little sound. His days were used up."

Dimitrakis's uncle reached over the table and grabbed Squash by the lapels. "Why didn't you shout at him to run! You worthless donkey! Because you were scared shitless!"

Squash leaned back, afraid. The labor agent gently pushed the two apart, like the just and reasonable man he thought he was.

The men finished reliving the accident: how they came running and began lifting the heavy pieces of coal, how the foreman brought a pulley for the big piece, how they lifted the broken body onto a coal car pulled by a blind mule, how they followed outside and the doctor waved his hand without bothering to open his black bag.

Again the men were silent. A passenger train called as it disappeared through the narrow opening between the mountains. Inside the coffeehouse only the sound of water simmering on a portable coal stove could be heard. The silence went on. The labor agent sprang up. "Kafefiz!" he called, "a round of mastiha for my friends. We'll drink in memory of Nondas for the last time."

The men began to talk and laugh, just as they would have had they been in Nondas's village house to make his relatives forget their grief. Dimitrakis's uncle told the Peloponnesians and islanders about Nondas's dancing and his whistling that echoed across the valley. Then he related a humorous incident about Nondas as a boy, tending goats on the mountainside. Nondas had fallen asleep, dreamed he was being chased by Turks, woke up, and ran down to the village square shouting, "The Turks are coming! The Turks are coming!" Squash told a story about him and Nondas caught stealing cherries from the village witchs garden and roundly beaten by the schoolteacher.

The men moved restlessly; something was missing and Squash, the dim-wit, said it. "We should have sung one lament at least for him."

"I'll sing one," Stavros said, "the young shepherd who meets Charon near his sheepfold." The men nodded eagerly and Stavros began the lament in a clear yet heavy voice. Charon tells the shepherd God has sent him to take his soul. The shepherd will not give it up so easily. They wrestle on the marble threshing floor until, ex exhausted, the shepherd pleads to Charon to let him go: his sheep are unsheared; his cheese unweighed; his wife is young and should not be a widow; he has a son, an orphan would not become him. Charon will not listen.

The men hummed along and sighed deeply at the end of the lament. After a while, Squash said, hesitantly, because talk of vampires was spoken in hushed tones, "Do you think vrikolakes exist in America?"

Dimitrakis and his two friends stared with fright. They leaned toward each other even though the labor agent said with an authoritative shake of his head, "No, no, not in America. Did Christ cross the ocean? No."

"Still," the coffeehouse owner said, "it could be. Vampires go everywhere. They don't have to cross on a steamship."

The men knew the supernatural could not be found in such a strange place as America, but a great relief came with arguing spiritedly. Would a vampire try to enter the grave and take possession of Nondas's body?

"There is one way to tell," the labor agent said, "but I'd be too afraid to do it."

"What?" Squash demanded. "Tell me. I'm not afraid of vampires or anything else."

Even to Dimitrakis this was something to laugh at; he whispered to his friends that at a village wedding, Squash had run up the mountain in terror and later said one of the gypsy fiddlers had put the evil eye on him.

"All right, I'll tell you, but only the bravest of men would dare do it."

"Just tell me!"

"Well, then, at midnight go to the graveyard and see if vampires will try to enter the grave."

"I will!"

A little later Squash said he would go to the backyard to use the privy. Instead he went to his tent, took out his grandfather's pistol, and hid it inside his belt. While he was gone, Dimitrakis's uncle said one of them should be at the grave to frighten Squash when he got there. "That braggart! Too scared to tell Nondas to run." One man went off for a miner's cap with a carbide lamp; another, fortunate enough to live in a Slavic boardinghouse, smuggled a sheet off the bed. Then, who would go to the grave to do the job? Stavros said he would. "I've played tricks on him since we were children." He turned to the boys, each with a tentative smile on his face. "Now, if you give us away, I'll cut out your tongues!" Smiling still, but frightened, they shook their heads.

When Squash returned, the men kept up a banter of vampire stories. They laughed and leered at Squash. "Do you want to back down? You might mess your pants." Squash paled; sweat shone on his forehead. With his arms folded at his waist, he shook his head even more sharply each time. He did not notice when Stavros left by the back door. At midnight he stood up, put his shoulders back, and said loudly, "I'm off."

"We'll be waiting for your report," the men called after him, among other good luck wishes and sallies.

Squash hurried to the graveyard as if something were chasing him. The sky was black with whitish clouds sweeping through it. He stood for a moment at the entrance and looked among the gray headstones and black crosses for the fresh mound. He approached it, his hand on his belt. Then a white figure with a blinding yellow eye rose slowly from the new grave. "EEEeeeeee," the figure moaned. Squash fired at the eye, the figure dropped, and Squash ran all the way to the coffeehouse shouting, "There are vampires in America! I just killed one!"

Stavros lay in a coffin several days before the priest could return. He was buried next to Nondas, and the twin rocky mounds now had identical black crosses at their heads.

The men talked about Stavros's death nightly in the coffeehouse and daily in the dim mine. "Ooo, ach," they groaned from time to time, blaming themselves, castigating themselves for acting like fools. Yes, Stavros would be alive working next to them if they hadn't been such donkey-heads! Dimitrakis's uncle was obsessed with it. He would recount the details of that night, hitting his fist on the table, to see if an overlooked detail would shed a light on it, but he often stopped talking and looked about as if he didn't know what he had just said. He would grab his head and moan, "We didn't bury him as a bridegroom. We didn't sing one lament."

Then they stopped blaming themselves. Dimitrakis's uncle ranted at Squash for taking a gun with him, but, the men said, why shouldn't a man take a gun to protect himself against vampires? Yet wasn't it Squash who first brought up the subject of vampires? Also wasn't the kafejiz the one who said vampires could go anywhere; they didn't need steamships to cross the ocean? And the labor agent, hadn't he suggested someone go to the grave to see if vampires would attempt to enter it? The men began to look at the labor agent coldly. Dimitrakis's uncle despised himself for taking off his cap to him in the village when he signed up to come to America. He was hardly better educated than any of the laborers. And the diamond ring-bought with the bribes they had to pay him to keep their jobs.

Someone should put a bullet through his chest.

Squash left tearfully with the labor agent and no one was at the station to shake his hand. A few weeks later a wandering showman came to the coffeehouse with a puppet play and a painted woman who sang songs of hashish and forgetfulness. Dimitrakis and his friends were allowed to see the puppet play and laughed in near hysteria over the vulgar dialogue; then they were told to go back to their table, play barbout, and not look at the singer. The showman was told of the tragedy and he laughed uproariously, offending the men. When the painted woman passed around a tambourine, they grudgingly gave less than they otherwise would have. New immigrants who had not been in the coffeehouse the night of Nondas's wake also thought it was a funny anecdote.

The men stopped telling the story. Din-dtrakis's uncle decided to sign up on a railroad gang laying rails over the Sierras. "When I get settled, I'll send for you," he said. Months later he wrote Dimitrakis to come if he wanted. He did not order him. By then Yiannina had arrived in the mining town and Din-dtrakis put off joining his uncle. He would remain in the mining camp three more years until his uncle wrote him to come to Salt Lake City where he had found work in the railyards and a restaurant job for Dimitrakis in Greek Town.

A few months before Old Jim died, he no longer thought about Nondas and Stavros and vampires. He thought of Yiannina all the time. He remembered her taking hot loaves of bread out of her outdoor earth oven; there in his cubicle in the nursing home he could smell its wonderful scent. He remembered her clean house and how once she had made him stay on a cot in the warm kitchen because he was feverish. She undid his shirt, had him lie on his stomach, and put hot glasses on his back to raise the flesh and take out the sickness in his blood. She brewed camomile tea, heated wine with cloves, made chicken broth for him.

Old Jim was barely conscious when the priest came to give him Communion for the last time. "Yiannina," he said to the uncomprehending young man.