CHAPTER ONE: SKOPELOS
Just before noon on a perfect July day in 1974 the ferry docked in the harbor of Skopelos. Nick Flannigan gunned the throttle of his 1970 BMW R 600, lurching precariously forward down the landing plank. As he struggled to gain control, an old man carrying a basket of lemons scurried out of the way to avoid being hit.
"Malaka!" cried the man, shaking his fist at Nick.
"Sorry," called Nick, as he maneuvered past him.
He’d just purchased the motorcycle from a German painter living in Athens. It had a lot more kick than the Suzuki 65cc he drove back in college and he was still adjusting. Nick stopped on the wharf, lit a cigarette, and surveyed the town teeming with tourists, eating, drinking, laughing, and smoking. Smoking seemed to be the national pastime of Greece, a country where only frappes, yogurt, and motherhood were as universally cherished as tobacco. He hardly ever smoked, but decided that a cigarette completed the t-shirt, jeans and motorcycle James Dean image he had cultivated for the trip. Dress like an icon, he reasoned, and be treated like one.
Nick locked his motorcycle by the bus stop, strolled the promenade, and wandered into a bustling outdoor taverna sheltered by huge plane and mulberry trees. He looked up at the small homes around the harbor with roofs of blue slate and red tile pitching down the slopes of the steep amphitheater surrounding the harbor. After several minutes of observing indifferent waiters hurrying past him, one dropped a menu on his table as if by accident without breaking stride, like he was running to catch a bus.
As Nick waited for service with the patience of an ancient philosopher he watched a steady stream of fishermen bringing in their fresh catches of octopus, eel, and fish. Day-trip cruisers were returning from their morning excursions. As the tourists stepped onto the pier, Nick picked up conversations in French, German, Italian, and Swedish. He finally ordered from a fat waiter with a thin moustache who kept looking at a busty red-haired girl at a nearby table. Nick had no idea if the waiter had heard his order, or cared if he got the order right.
A quartet of young Brits were sitting at a table drinking a deadly mixture of beer and ouzo and debated about what city in England had the best football team. The smell of Greek food tickled Nick’s nostrils. He conjured memories of making mousaka and dolmades with his grandmother, Evothoxia, back home in Pacific Beach, California. She had told him so many stories of growing up on the island, and now it seemed surrealistic to Nick, who had never ventured east of Denver, that he could be where his grandmother was born and lived until she was eighteen. Three weeks ago some Dean at UCLA had slapped an English degree in Nick’s palm and sent him out on the great life adventure. The thrill of the open road was greased with a modest amount of money he’d inherited from his grandmother.
The simultaneous ringing of dozens of church bells filled the air. The tourists listened with delight. The Greeks, on the other hand, spoke even louder above what seemed merely a distraction. A moment later the waiter brought Nick a heaping bowl of yogurt covered with fresh fruit and honey. He watched the honey gracefully dripping down the fresh bananas, melon and strawberries, then picked up his spoon and took a bite, smiling with satisfaction.
As Nick swirled the honey onto his spoon, he studied the old men play Tavali, sip thick Greek coffee, and argue politics responding to a television broadcast of Colonel Stylianos, one of the military leaders running the government. A female voice rose above the others. It was a deep, throaty, but oddly musical voice. Nick turned and was surprised to discover that the voice belonged not to a beautiful young girl who appeared to be in her early 20’s. Her dark hair was long and wavy; her eyes were blue and penetrating: and her skin white and pure like clouds after a rainstorm. As she pounded the table in protest to the television broadcast, her friends tried to calm her. A brawny young Greek man, maybe a little older than the girl, was obviously disturbed by her behavior.
"Segas, segas," he repeated. "Slow it down."
That pushed a button and she shifted her wrath from the television to the young man who had dared to give her unsolicited advice. Nick didn’t understand what she was saying, but he did hear her call him a malaka, which was the second time he’d heard that word in 20 minutes. The Greek laughed as the young brawny man flushed with embarrassment. He jumped to his feet and shook an angry fist in her face.
The young woman rolled her eyes as if to say, "You are such a child," then got up and stormed away. The brawny Greek followed her as she strode past Nick’s table. He spun her around by the shoulder, grabbed her arms, and berated her. She looked him in the eye with fierce defiance and tried to pull away, but his grip was tight. Nick was surprised that nobody interceded. He’d heard that Greek men were pretty tough on their women and now he was watching one who was getting abusive.
"Excuse me... signomi," said Nick, with a diplomatic smile. The young Greek glared at Nick who noticed that he was built like an Olympian wrestler. The young woman kept her eyes fixed on the man. She jerked her arms, but he had her in a vice-like grip. "Do you speak English?" asked Nick, his voice cracking. The man looked at him. "Do you speak English?"
"Yes, I speak English," snarled the young Greek, with a very thick accent. "Fuck you!" he said, sticking an emphatic finger in Nick’s chest.
"That’s pretty good" said Nick, feeling his sphincter tighten.
"No, fuck you, Speros," the Greek girl said. "Leave me alone. I never want to see you again!"
"I leave you alone when I feel like leaving you alone," said the imposing man.
The young man unclasped the girl long enough to place his hand on top of Nick’s head and shove him down in his chair with a swift, powerful gesture.
"What the hell?" Nick protested.
The young Greek deftly picked up Nick’s yogurt and dumped it on his head. Nick was shocked, then furious, but his fury was no match against the young Greek, who punched the yogurt-drenched American with a powerful uppercut that sent him reeling. The girl pulled away and walloped the man with her purse sending him backward into the Brits, knocking over their table. The dazed Nick was vaguely aware of the sound of shattering glass.
"You wanker!" shouted a fat, freckled Brit, as he looked down at his beer-drenched lap.
He stood and shoved the Greek man, who was ready to rumble. Wham! He belted the Brit, who fell like a deflated soccer ball. The fallen Brit’s three mates jumped the Greek, who was getting reinforcements from a couple of his buddies. Two waiters, the owner, and a passing policeman struggled to break up the brawl.
Nick wobbled away, a sight for sore eyes. In his dazed state he was unaware of the honey-drenched fruit sticking to his matted hair. A grape rolled down his nose and hit the ground with a splat.
"Are you okay?" asked the Greek girl, as she followed Nick to the street.
"How do you say, ’I think he broke my jaw’ in Greek?"
The girl picked up a napkin and wiped the yogurt from Nick’s head. She saw the fracas escalating, grabbed Nick’s hand, and led him away just as another policeman entered the fray, wrestling one of the Brits to the ground. Patrons scurried from the melee; some cheering, others shouting obscenities. As the girl led Nick down the street he struggled to regain his senses.
"That was very nice of you to help me," said the girl, picking another grape out of Nick’s hair.
"Oh, it was nothing," he said, licking some yogurt from the side of his mouth. "Hey, I didn’t pay for my lunch."
Nick turned back to the taverna, reaching into his pocket.
"Never mind; we’ll come back later. Where are you going?"
"I have a room at the Taverna Limmonri. Is it far?"
"About nine kilometers," replied the girl. "How will you go?"
"I have my bike," said Nick, wobbling to his BMW, reaching into his pocket for his keys.
"You can’t drive. You will kill yourself. I will take you."
She took the keys from Nick, switched on the ignition, revved the engine, and motioned him to get on. He slid on to the back of his motorcycle.
"Are you sure you know what you’re doing?" he asked.
"Hold on." She kicked it into gear and sped off down the main street. "My name is Melina," she called, over the deafening roar of the engine.
"I’m Nick," he replied, as she weaved niftily around two cars and an oncoming bus.
A half hour later Nick was checking into his room at the family-run Taverna Limmonari located on a long wide beach with sharp white sand. The room was small, but comfortable with wooden walls and a private bathroom - first class by local standards. He looked into the mirror to see the bruise swelling on his jaw.
"Nice," he murmured, wincing as he touched the painful spot.
He removed some items from his backpack: a few UCLA t-shirts, a Hollywood t-shirt, a Disneyland t-shirt, an extra pair of jeans, sneakers, boots, a box of condoms and his harmonica. Finally, he gently lifted an urn tightly bound in bubbled plastic, and unwrapped it, placing it delicately on the chest of drawers.
A few minutes later Nick walked out to the beach wearing his mid thigh surfing jams that were a throw-back to the 1960’s. He loved the red and white paisley swim gear that had served him so well during his surf days off the shores of Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, and La Jolla. Melina was sitting at a table sipping coffee. She looked up and smiled as he approached.
"Ah, you survived death," she said, in her broken English.
"Yeah, that guy packs quite a wallop."
"Speros is such a malaka."
"I keep hearing that word. What does it mean?"
"It means hole of the ass."
"Asshole," Nick said, amused.
"Yes. Speros is an asshole!"
"He’s your boyfriend?"
"He was, but now he belongs to the history books. Fuck the queen."
"Fuck the queen?" repeated Nick, even more amused. "What does that mean?"
"It is when things cannot be explained. They are what they are." She shrugged.
"Any queen in particular?"
She shook her head. "No. All queens everywhere." She turned her attention to the kitchen. "Are you hungry? Let me buy you lunch for your help."
"I really didn’t do anything."
"It was your intention that counts."
"Yeah, I think it was your ex-boyfriend’s intention to knock my head off."
"Speros was a boxing champion."
"I wish I’d known that before I intervened."
"Would it have made a difference?"
Nick measured her question as he observed her delicate hands holding her coffee cup - the hands that had gripped the handle of motorcycle like a seasoned racing champ.
"No." Nick shrugged. "I guess not."
She nodded and summoned the waiter. "Do you like calamari?"
"Sure," replied Nick. "But you don’t have to buy me lunch."
"I do what I like," she said, with an emphatic nod.
An hour later they had consumed generous portions of calamari, octopus, lamb, Greek salad, and a bottle of wine. Several sunbathers were sprawled out on the beach and Nick was feeling good about life. He took out his Marlboros and offered her one.
"I have my own, thank you," she said, as she removed a pack of Karelia from her purse. "Try one." She extended the pack to Nick. He took one and she lit it with her Zippo. He took a drag, then coughed like he’d just inhaled a coal mine. She laughed. "They’re strong, yes?"
"Strong? I’m hallucinating."