HARRY MARK PETRAKIS
Editor’s Note: We are all in debt to others, writers especially, who knowingly or unknowingly helped show us the way. I owe more to Harry Mark Petrakis than he or anybody else will ever know. There may never have been writer Norbert Blei, had there not been writer Harry Mark Petrakis. He helped define the territory for me. Set the boundaries, shape the story, speak the language in both nonfiction and fiction.
I read him first in the Chicago newspapers. Short pieces filled with love and laughter about ‘his’ people, ‘his’ neighborhood: the Greek-American community. In my early twenties, I was struggling in my westside Czech neighborhood to find the words to become a serious writer of existential proportions; I was struggling to toss aside my homemade life and head for Paris, dwell entirely on excess and passion living and rewriting the life of Henry Miller.
Then somewhere along the way around that time (in college, studying to become a teacher but dying to become a writer), I read Harry Mark Petrakis’ first published short story, “Pericles on 31st Street”, (April, The Atlantic, 1957), and Harry began to truly speak to me. It would still take years for me to clarify the direction, fashion the art, but here is where the story begins, I discovered: in the heart and soul of the “ethnic.” Here is family, comfort, conflict, humor, pathos, confession, hope, humility, spirit, life, death. Here is everybody, ethnic or not.
We are old friends by now, who seldom share the same table these days (distance, age, health) the same wine, the same food and friends in Greektown. But I need only remove any book of his from my shelf, any book of his stories which I still love so much, and I hear Petrakis’ compelling voice resounding in my head, bringing laughter and sometimes tears to my eyes. The old Greek storyteller who won’t let you go.
He will hold you fast with any of his books, including his latest, CAVAFY’S STONE and Other Village Tales, Wicker Park Press, 2011, where his spirit returns to the Old Country in fifteen linked stories that have Petrakis’ steady storytelling hand all over them. A simply beautiful book.
Petrakis and I may differ, slightly, on the idea of ‘ethnic’ writing–the downside of provincial. He sees and believes in the greater art—the universality of the story. Which, to me, is a given, so long as the story is told well. But the bloodline, the godhead…the myth… We all, ‘it’ all comes from there.
In Harry’s COLLECTED STORIES, Lake View Press, 1987, he begins each story with a short history, a personal memory of how and where or even why a story was written—something both helpful and valuable to readers and other writers.
About one of the stories, “Zena Dawn” he has this to say:
My mother was a compassionate woman who devoted a considerable portion of her life to serving needy families and unfortunate individuals. One of those she aided was a lonely little seamstress in her late fifties suffering from a terminal illness. After we had finished a holiday dinner at our family table, my mother would fill a small basket with food for the seamstress, who lived in a furnished room some miles away. I resented having to leave the party and deliver the basket.
Later I found myself reluctantly involved with driving the woman back and forth to the hospital for treatments. When she required drugs for which she could not pay, used my own money, begrudgingly again, because a free lancer’s incomes precarious.
When I complained to my mother about the time and expense involved in caring for someone who was, after all, a stranger, she reprimanded me. “You want to write about life,” she said. “This dying woman is life.”
Of course my mother was right. When the seamstress died, a few weeks later in a ward at the county hospital, moved and remorseful I wrote “Zena Dawn.” When I sold the story I recouped many times over whatever that poor woman had cost me in money and time.
Prefacing the story, “Dark Eye,” re-printed here for your enjoyment in its entirely (only 5 pages) the author as this to say:
We lived for about two years in Los Angeles while I worked on a couple of screenplays, including one for my novel A DREAM OF KINGS. We made friends then with some Greek actors, who eagerly joined us to share my wife’s tasty Greek meals. These dinners were always climaxed by some hours of vigorous dancing and singing, led by the character actors Nick Dennis and Chris Marks, with the versatile Jim Harakas playing a spirit-stirring guitar.
Late one night they performed a Karaghiozis play, the old Turkish-Greek puppet theater I had not seen since childhood. Something of their voices and gestures caught me, and several days later I began writing the story.
Since one cannot dedicate a story when it is published in a magazine, I have the chance now to acknowledge my debt to Nick, Chris, and Jim for “Dark Eye.” They were wonderful friends, and I miss our buoyant and salubrious parties.
Harry Mark Petrakis
My father was a drunkard. Every two weeks when he received his wages from the owner of the grocery where he worked, he’d begin making the rounds of the taverns on the street. In the normal course of his journey/ we would not see him for the weekend and even the following Monday. But by ten o’clock on those Friday nights he did not come home, my mother had a neighbor look after me and then went out to find my father. This wasn’t a difficult search because there were only a certain number of taverns he frequented. When she located him he would be furious at her before his companion sots. She endured his tirade silently, until, momentarily purged by his outburst and after purchasing several bottles as hostages for the weekend, he allowed her to lead him home.
He drank steadily through Saturday and Sunday. I kept fearfully out of his way but he ignored me, hoarding his revilement for my mother.
“Tell me, woman!” he cried. “Tell me what devil’s blindness made me choose a wife like you, a dried fig, a bloodless stone, a deaf and dumb bitch!”
It seemed incredible to me, even as a child, that anyone might wish to abuse my mother. She was a slender and lovely woman with a complexion so pale and fine that tiny violet veins were visible just beneath the surface of her skin. She spoke softly and moved with a lucent grace. Sometimes, playing alone, I felt a longing to look at her and I’d go to find her in another room, sit close beside her for a while, warm and nested in her presence. The moments I treasured most were those we shared when she sat before her mirror at night, brushing her long glistening hair that was dark as a blackbird’s wing. I watched her then with a curious tension in my body.
My father was a tall, burly man who might once have been regarded by some as handsome, until indulgence and self-pity had scarred his face with weak, ugly circles. Whether drunk or sober, he moved in a shuffling and uncertain walk, defeat and failure rising like a fetid mist from his pores.
Although he worked at many different jobs, never able to hold even the menial ones for very long, he regarded himself as a Karaghiozis, the profession he had practiced in the old country, a puppetmaster of the shadow puppets once so popular throughout Greece. The art of the Karaghiozis was handed down from father to son and my father had learned his craft from his father. As a young man in Greece, he performed frequently at festivals and fairs, but the popularity of the plays declined. Just a few years after he married my mother, the plays were being requested only on a few special holidays. A new generation of children turned to other pursuits and only the old and infirm lamented the passing of the Karaghiozis.
My father must have come to America thinking that in the new country of myriad opportunities, he would be able to practice his craft. But the children who had never seen a Karaghiozis had other allegiances to Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and baseball. And their parents were too involved with the artifacts of home and the rigors of business to bother with an old-country art.
Once, when I was eight or nine, and this was the only time, I remember my father performing the Karaghiozis. It was in the week before Christmas and I sat in the assembly hall of the church with perhaps a hundred other children on long low benches around me. A scattering of adults sat in chairs along the walls. On a small platform in front of us was a rectangular screen of thin, translucent muslin.
When the lights in the hall were turned off, the room was darkened except for the radiant screen casting eerie flickering lights across the faces of the children. From behind the screen came a rattling sound, as if pieces of wood were being shaken in a sack. A few men clapped, and then on the glowing screen a palace appeared, a courtyard and gardens, and in the foreground, a fountain. The brightly attired figure of a soldier appeared. He pranced a few steps and then cried, “Karaghiozis! Wake up, Karaghiozis! The sultan is coming!”
From behind the fountain snapped a great bald head, the face in profile containing a single huge dark eye. The head drew back down for a moment and then the silhouette of Karaghiozis leaped swiftly into view. A powerful body with one arm shrunk to no more than a hand emerging from his chest, the other arm long and apelike.
The sight of the weird figure caused the children to cry out, and with a wrenching of my flesh in fear, I joined my shriek to their cries.
A frantic sequence of scenes followed, characters appearing who shouted, danced, sang, quarreled, laughed and beat one another. There were dancers and beggars, soldiers and wrestlers, fishermen and sultans, gods and devils, a rabid throng inhabiting the screen with a violent and teeming world that my father created and controlled. His nimble hands directed their leaps and jumps and somersaults; his voice delivered their cries, harsh, shrill, tearful, deceiving, demonic. Above all the players loomed the figure of Karaghiozis, his dark eye piercing the screen. It seemed to look directly at me and I screamed in terror even while the children around me shouted and shrieked in glee.
When the lights went on at the end of the performance, I sat mute and exhausted. A vigorous clapping brought my father from behind the screen, his face flushed with power and triumph as he bowed, acknowledging the cheers and the applause. He stood afterward in the center of a group of admiring men, who slapped his shoulders and shook his hands. My mother hung smiling to his arm. I went to her to be consoled for my distress, but even while she held me against her body, I felt her love directed only toward my exultant father.
He never performed the Karaghiozis in public again. In the years that followed, he kept the cardboard figures of the players, perhaps twenty-five or thirty of them, in a footlocker at the rear of his closet. Sometimes, when he was drunk, he would pull out the footlocker, open it and sit down on the floor beside it. He would bring out the mad Karaghiozis and all his companions. He’d spread them around on the floor, pick them up, move their heads and arms. They often spoke only in his head, but when he could not contain himself, he cried voices between them. In the end, exhausted and unfulfilled, he would store them carefully away and go lamenting to his bed.
My father lost his job in the grocery, worked for a while in a laundry and then lost that job as well. During this period, my mother took work as a waitress to pay our rent and food. When he could not find money on which to drink, my father spent his time brooding.
I remember a night when my mother was still at work. My father had been locked alone in his bedroom for hours until he called me in. I found him on the floor beside the open footlocker with the Karaghiozis players spread around him. He wasn’t drunk then, but his face was flushed and a frenzy glittered in his eyes. He motioned for me to sit beside him and, frightened, I obeyed.
“In the old country/’ he said, “a father teaches the Karaghiozis to his son. In this way, it is passed from generation to generation. My father taught me and I will teach you.’
I trembled and nodded slowly.
“They don’t want the Karaghiozis now,’ my father said with bitterness, “but someday it will be revived. The crowds will gather again and cheer and laugh and cry out for Karaghiozis.’ He looked at me with burning eyes- “You must be ready for that time.”
He motioned to one of the cardboard players. “This one is Hachivat, Karaghiozis’ friend; and this is Celebit, the dandy; and Tusuz Deli Bekir, the bellowing bully; Tiryaki, the opium smoker; Zenne, the dancer… and this one, this one is Karaghiozis.’
He picked up the cardboard Karaghiozis and held him tenderly in his hands. I had never seen him look at any living creature with the warmth and love his face held as he looked at Karaghiozis. He moved slowly to hand the figure to me. “Hold him now and I’ll show you how to control his head and arms.”
The huge dark eye in the profiled face terrified me and I shrank away.
“What’s the matter?” my father cried. “What are you afraid of? He won’t hurt you! This is Karaghiozis!”
His anger fled and he tried to speak softly to reassure me.
“It will take time to teach you all the plays/’ he said. “You must learn them slowly and learn them well. Then you will be able to improvise plays of your own.” He stared at me with naked and earnest eyes, “Do you know that once I could continue a dialog between Karaghiozis and his friend, Hachivat, for more than fifteen hours? Do you know that once the mayor of our village, watching me perform, hearing Karaghiozis talk of politics, the mayor offered me a position in his office? Do you know… ?”
His voice trailed off as he looked sadly at my locked and frightened face.
“Get out, little bastard,’ he said wearily. “Get out of my sight. Go to bed.”
I hurried from the room to undress and climb shaking under the covers. I called to my mother when she came home and she came and sat beside me, consoling me by her presence until I had fallen asleep.
That night marked a change in my father, and he seemed more furiously bent on his own destruction. His credit was dried up at the taverns on our street and he made futile pilgrimages to other neighborhoods. When he could not bully or steal money from my mother or my cousin Frosos, he begged and borrowed from friends and strangers along the street. Abandoning all efforts to find any kind of work, he whirled in a wind of drunken despair.
Any redeeming memory I had of him, any bond of blood remaining between us was demolished in the blustering, whining, raging moments when he cursed fate, the misfortune of his marriage, the madness that made him leave the old country. And in his frenzy his voice altered, becoming shrill and hoarse, taunting and pleading, demanding and denouncing, as if all the myriad tongues of the Karaghiozis players were crying through his lips.
My mother suffered as he suffered, prayed for him constantly and accepted all his curses and imprecations in silence. On those evenings when his helpless rage seemed to be tearing him apart, my mother said my prayers with me and put me to bed. She closed the doors between my room, the hall and their bedroom. I still heard faintly my father shouting and cursing for a while. Then a silence fell over the rooms, an ominous and terrible silence, although I did not understand until years later the way in which my mother took my father’s rage and frenzy into her own frail body.
Once, only once, did I condemn my father to my mother. I was about twelve and it was after one of the worst of his rampages, when he had broken several dishes he knew my mother treasured, and finally, like a great beast, had collapsed in a heap on the floor. He lay sprawled on his back, his mouth open, harsh drunken snores erupting from his limp face. I whispered a wish to my mother that he might die.
She had never struck me before, but she beat me then. She beat me savagely with a belt while I screamed in shock and pain.
“Listen to me,” she said, her face white and her eyes like knives. “Say such a thing again and I’ll have the flesh hot from your back! In the old country your father was an artist, a great Karaghiozis. They came from villages a hundred miles away to see him perform. Now nobody cares for his skill and he rages and drinks to forget his grief and loss. Do you think a man whose soul is being torn apart can help himself? We can only love him and have faith in him. He has nothing else.’
But I could not understand, and for turning my mother against me, for the beating she gave me, I hated him more.
My father died when I was fourteen. During one of his drunken sprees in the coldest part of winter, he had stumbled and fallen in an alley. The snow began and the thick flakes covered him. He lay concealed for hours until he was discovered. They took him to the hospital and called my mother. For three days and three nights, while he struggled to die, she fought to hold him to life. On the morning of the fourth day, cousin Frosos took me to the hospital. We walked the long ward filled with beds and strangers, and at the end, behind a screen, my father was dying.
He was curled on his side, one half of his face hidden, one arm extended in a twisting grasp for something that seemed just beyond his reach. His cheek was unshaven, his huge dark eye open, staring straight ahead. My mother, her face worn like a river stone by tears, led me to the bed and put my hand upon my father’s hand, I felt the quiver of his flesh expiring under my fingers.
He could not turn his face to look at me, but the eye stirred restlessly. He looked no different than I remembered him many times before. He was helpless, the way I most favored him, because at those times he was unable to curse or to strike my mother.
Cousin Frosos led me away from the bed, and at the screen, I stopped and looked back one last time. A fly buzzed over my father’s head and the dark eye in the dying face burned in a frantic effort to escape and follow the wings’ swift flight.
I awoke that night to hear my mother scream. She was still at the hospital with my father, but I clearly heard the howl of desolation and loss that came torn from her soul. I knew my father was dead.
Through the following months, my mother grieved. Only forty, she seemed to age a year with each month. Still she worked and took care of me. I took a job after school and on weekends, and when payday came, I gave my mother every dollar that I made. In addition, there was a lodge insurance policy on my father’s death that provided us with a small regular monthly sum. Strangely, as survivors, we lived better than we had lived when my father was alive. We might almost have been happy then, for the first time in my memory, except for the way my mother grew swiftly older, quietly, irrevocably mourning my father’s death.
Sometimes late at night, when she thought I was asleep, I would see the light burning under her bedroom door. I would quietly open the door a narrow crack. She would be sitting on the floor, the open foot-locker beside her, the cardboard figures spread across her lap, her hands holding, her fingers fondling the wild, dark-eyed Karaghiozis.
When I finished high school, I received a tuition scholarship to a college several hundred miles away. My mother and I accepted the separation. I wrote her at regular intervals, telling her about my classes, the news of school, and avoided letting her know about my loneliness, the ways in which the past locked me in a shell I could not break. Her letters were brief, filled with admonitions for me to study and pray and live true in the eyes of God. Each time I saw her after the separation of a few months, I marked again the ravages of premature age, her hair grown dove gray, a web of wrinkles gathering around her eyes, a gauntness at her throat.
When I graduated from college and walked to receive my diploma in a black cap and gown, my mother sat in the third row on the aisle, an old woman watching her son in his moment of fulfillment. I went to hug her afterward, holding her slim, frail body in my arms, wanting her to share the achievement she had helped make possible. Yet, in that moment, I held only a fragment of her in my arms, and with a cold chill sweeping my heart.I realized how faint a hold she retained upon the earth.
It was only a few months after my graduation that my mother died. She was less than fifty and should have had many more years to live. But she had no relish for life, and after I finished my schooling, her last bond to the earth was gone. She fell ill in the spring, lingered only a day and died as quietly as she had lived for the past eight years. It was as if the shadow she became after my father’s death was suddenly brushed away by a light gust of wind.
I buried her, as she had wished, in the cemetery beside my father, one of two graves beside the stone fence. They would lie together forever, with no one to shield or console her against his abuse.
And on the same day she was buried, I carried the footlocker to the basement of the building in which we lived, and in the furnace, one by one, I burned the cardboard figures of the Karaghiozis’ puppets. Hachivat, Celebit, Tusuz Deli Bekir, Tiryaki, Zenne, the beggars, soldiers, sultans, wrestlers and devils, all consigned to the flames. Karaghiozis himself I saved for last, and when the final fragments of the others had gone up in ashes and smoke, I put him into the flames. I knelt before the furnace door and watched trembling as his arms and legs curled and writhed and darkened in the fierce fire, his limbs shriveling in a final anguished spasm, his glowing dark eye suspended for an instant of torment after the rest of the figure was gone.
My father was a drunkard, a bastard who beat and abused my mother. Yet she loved him more than she loved anyone else on earth, remained true to him for the death in life, and in the end, joined him for the life in eternity.
How strong the bonds of faith, how deep the abyss of devotion. And how terrible and unfathomable the love that welds a man and woman together forever.
Much more on Harry Mark Petrakis can be found on his web page by clicking the book covers or just go here…