Anna Burmeister, single mom and lapsed radical, is a Swiss expat living in Piraeus, Greece. Ramadi, her four-year old, is named after his late Iraqi father, Mahmoud Al Ramadi, who sired him on his deathbed in Turkey. To know why they were there, how he died, and why she’s so remorseful, you’ll need to read more of the story. But Mahmoud’s not totally out of the picture. Languishing in limbo, his spirit remotely views people and places he knew in life, especially Anna, whom he knew by her activist nom de guerre, Katrina. Throughout the book he pops up, invisibly, with soliloquies only we can hear. In this chapter, besides Mahmoud, Anna’s fear of retribution for certain misdeeds to comes back to haunt her.
Chapter Three: Anxious Activist
Teleportation isn’t easy. It takes a lot out me to will myself anywhere, and then I can see dimly but not hear. Perhaps with practice sound will come. Until recently all I’ve been able do is to visit extended family, and then only if they haven’t moved. As in learning to ride a unicycle, it takes concentration and practice to follow the road. After many failed attempts I managed to visit Piraeus long enough to learn that Katrina still occupies her little house and now has a boy who must be my child. The last time we made love was the night before I passed. That was close to five years ago, if Aunt Sheba’s Calendar is up to date. Each time I visit Katrina, I see things a little more clearly and can hold on for a little longer. I praise Allah for allowing me to get acquainted with my son, even if he cannot know me.
That unseasonably warm October day marked the first, but not the last, time Anna leaned on Andreas to mind the boy. She tried to minimize the inconvenience, rewarding him with bottles of wine, home-cooked meals, and Swiss cheek kisses. By the following autumn, she’d stashed a playpen and stroller from a thrift shop in his storage room for his convenience, she told herself. Andreas said he didn’t mind keeping the items and now and found the playpen a handy restraint, but drew the line at strolling.
Ramadi quickly outgrew the contrivances, solving the problem. He had gained five kilos by the time he could walk without stabilization and six more by age four. By then he was displaying what Anna of course considered above-average agility, intelligence, and linguistic facility.
She taught him to call her Mueti in Swiss German, Mamá in Greek, as appropriate, and his absent father Vatter and Pateroúlis, respectively, but became uneasy when he called Andreas Pateroúlis, although not as alarmed as he. So she told the boy to call Andreas Onkle as a sign of respect, saying Herr Andreas didn’t sound quite right. As he rather liked the lad, Andreas didn’t lodge any objection to the honorific and it stuck.
At home, at daycare, and in places in between, Ramadi’s command of both German and Greek steadily arced toward fluency. Anna’s concern that he would speak in a hopeless polyglot jumble proved to be for naught; somehow the right brain connections were being made and he seemed to take his cue from whatever tongue was currently on tap, including Greek gay patois at the hair salon. English could wait, she had decided, until his memory banks sufficed to meet his conversational needs.
Possibly owing to Ramadi’s limited circle of peers and adults, he rarely got sick. The few times he did, palliatives were sufficient for him and his immune system to bounce back. But then came a nasty sore throat and a persistent cough that worried Anna enough to drag him to urgent care.
It was almost the Vernal Equinox and the air was warm, dry, and turbulent. Spring’s signature tulip gardens, baby animals, and Easter pastels notwithstanding, that most optimistic of the seasons doesn’t always come calling with a smile on its face. Nor was there one on Anna’s as she auto-piloted Ramadi along a blustery Piraeus sidewalk en route to the free clinic. Oblivious to the plastic bag fluttering just above them and the dervish of leaves swirling above the gutter that delighted the boy, she worried that the recent spate of what the Health Ministry had dubbed “a mild transitory outbreak of late-season flu,” might be neither.
At the next intersection, a fierce gust of wind flipped back the hood of the boy’s black sweatshirt marked Property of Nobody in bold white letters to flutter his unshorn locks. The blast also blew away Anna’s musings to deposit her in the moment. Thrust off balance, she clasped a spindly shade tree with one hand and clamped her beret with the other as her open fatigue jacket slapped at her torso. A baseball cap scudded by, tracing an erratic course that the young man pursuing it vainly mimicked. Invisible tendrils of wind frolicked through the street, banging shutters, pinning newspapers to lampposts, and piling debris into doorways, peppering it with grains of African sand.
Tousling her outerwear was Livas—known to her compatriots as Foehn, to the French as Mistral, and to Californians as Santa Ana—one of the insistent, pestilent airstreams that barrel down mountainsides, often marking changes of season. One of the Greek god of wind Aeolus’s sub-deities, Livas was said by ancient Athenians to be responsible for southwest winds like this one, which yesterday he had gathered from dusty Libyan peaks and today propelled down the leeward slopes of the Peloponissos to harass the metropole on its way to agitate the fields of Thessaly.
Her fretting disrupted, she remembered the boy of whom she had let go to steady her beret, hoping he hadn’t been airlifted down the block. She found him planted behind her, rakishly canting into the gale, hood billowing, arms outstretched, burbling engines noises, a black windsock of hair fluttering in his slipstream.
“Ground control to Jay-Jay,” she announced, “turn around and fly us down the block.”
His motor stopped its purr. “Where we going?”
She had told him but he’d been half asleep. “To see the doctor. Your cough isn’t getting better. He can give you medicine.”
He stamped a tiny Adidas on the pavement. “No, Mueti! No Medicine! Let’s go home!” He seemed to have perked up.
She sighed, took hold of an outstretched wing and rotated his fuselage northward. Livas obliged, propelling them up the sidewalk, the boy’s protestations unabated but unavailing. When they turned onto a sheltering cross street, he asked, “Mueti, does medicine taste bad?” A cough rumbled his chest. She squeezed his diminutive hand, hoping his condition was nothing serious.
“Not at all, Ramadi. It might taste…like cherries, or grapes maybe. Sweet, like you, love.”
Their destination, the medical clinic Anna had frequented while expecting, materialized around the next corner. Thanks to Livas, its glass door was currently dressed in cardboard and surgical tape. As they edged past a pile of menacing shards in the vestibule, the pesky demigod slammed the door shut behind them, snapping at Ramadi’s heel.
The doctor was out. Having volunteered there, Anna understood that finding him was hit or miss. Since their last wellness visit, a new nurse-practitioner in headscarf and scrubs had come on board. Fatma, according to her nametag, greeted them and solicited the boy’s symptoms in Greek accented unlike Anna’s. At the mention of a sore throat, she extracted a wooden tongue-depressor from a jar and started gyrating it above the boy’s head, spiraling it toward his puckered mouth.
“Open please, boy. Airplane coming in to land now.”
Having recently been an airplane himself, he obligingly opened his hangar door for it to glide in. After peering down his throat while he sat stoically quivering in mom’s lap, she stabbed in a cotton swab and deftly corked it into a tube before he finished flinching. “You brave boy,” she said, appreciating the lack of complaints.
The nurse clipped a thermometer on Ramadi’s thumb and after a moment told Anna it was close enough to normal and then donned a stethoscope she applied to his chest with “Breathe, boy. Again. Cough please.” She planted the earpieces on his ears, telling him “Here, you listen yourself,” and to mom, “Might be virus, probably not flu, but we check for strep. Does boy have spring allergies?” Not that she knew of, came the reply. She scribbled on a pad and handed over two pages. “Go get these at apotek. First to relieve congestion, other to soothe troat. Get linden-blossom tea, give him morning and before bed.”
She swiveled around to a desk cluttered with file folders and cleared away enough of them to locate a keyboard and open a form on the computer lodged behind. “We make record for visit. Name please, first you, then boy.”
“We’ve come here before. In fact, I used to volunteer here. Last name is Burmeister. I’m Anna, he’s Ramadi.”
As the nurse hunted and pecked to locate the boy's file, Anna said, “Thanks so much. See, Ramadi, that didn’t hurt. You’ll feel better soon. Ramadi, tell the nice lady thank you.”
“Tank you nize lady,” the boy hoarsely obliged, and received a non-medicinal lollipop in return.
“Nice lady name Fatma,” the nurse said in stilted Greek. “I am from Turkey. Where you from?”
Anna wasn’t about to let that connection pass unremarked. “No kidding? What a fascinating country! Just been there once but would love to go back. I’m Swiss, but I’ve lived here for, like, six years. His papa was Iraqi.”
“I see. You marry him?”
Anna cast her eyes on the pink and grey floor tiles. “Never had the chance,” she said. “He passed away before Ramadi was born. Worst day of my life.”
“I am sorry. How bad for you. May Allah keep him. So that’s why boy has Iraqi name.”
“Yes, it was Mahmoud’s last name, same as his home town.”
“We let you know about troat culture. Call anytime. Say me how boy does. Here is number.” She handed Anna one of the clinic’s business cards.
“Thanks so much. I’d like to stay in touch. Do you live here in Piraeus?”
“We wanted to, but no find place here,” Fatma told her. “We live up in Exarcheia in a house with many refugees.”
“I’m not surprised. People there go out of its way to shield them. You like living there?”
Fatma gave an affirmative Turkish head-shake. “Evet. People are very kind there.”
Anna slipped her phone from her back pocket. “So, do you have email or phone where I can contact you?”
“Evet, gmail on cellphone and clinic computer.”
By the time mother and child took their leave, Ramadi had finished his lollipop, Anna had learned that Fatma was also a single mom with an eleven-year-old daughter named Irmak, and the two had exchanged phone numbers and email addresses.
“Güle güle,” Anna bade Fatma on their way out, a farewell pleasantry she’d picked up in Turkey. Not fully comprehended was Fatma’s Turkish reply, “Allahaısmarladık; seninle tanışmak çok güzel”: Go with Allah; it was very lovely to meet you.
To foil Livas, in the vestibule Anna stuffed her beret in her shoulder bag and withdrew a ceremonial headscarf given to her in Turkey. She draped it over her head and tied it under her chin, but out in the street the demigod seemed to have relented a bit. She took advantage of the relative calm to escort Brave Boy first to a pharmacy for the prescribed potions, and then on to a café she frequented some blocks away to refresh him with promised ice cream and her with some well-earned coffee.
I search like a hunting dog pursuing its prey. But just as a scent lingers after a body leaves the scene, she could have come and gone. Is that what drew me to this café, where Andreas took me the day after my landfall? She just showed up and invited herself to sit with us. Neither is here now, but something tells me to wait a while. A wall clock tells me the time is 10:50, but what day—what year, even, is it?
Amazing. At 10:52 there she is, coming through the door, holding our son’s hand. He seems to be coughing, not that I can hear it. His eyes and hair are dark like mine. He really is a beautiful child I must say, please Allah. Were I able, I would weep tears of joy.
The Choris Onoma Kafeneío, aka No Name Café, had been Anna’s hangout for years. Commonly referred to as Nobody’s, it was the source of the Property of Nobody sweatshirt Ramadi wore that day. An anarchist collective had transformed the carcass of a defunct hardware store into a sizable, deliberately casual gathering place it had managed to operate it for eight years. A shifting miscellany of local artwork graced its tan walls, spottily illuminated from the decorative tin ceiling that some nihilist had painted black. Spanning the frontage was a plate glass window diagonally cracked in one corner, a magnet for posters for concerts, film festivals, and community affairs that regularly had to be scraped off to keep from completely blocking the view. Inside the repurposed facility, customers reposed at tables and chairs of assorted styles and vintage. An art deco display case housing inviting confections near the entrance fronted a surprisingly efficient kitchen improvised from a former stockroom. Of the five unoccupied tables, Anna chose the one closest to the window to distract Ramadi from his discomfort by observing passers-by, few of whom paused to drop euros into the paper cup beside the homeless man crouching out front.
She knew some of the people behind the enterprise, envisioned as an anti-Starbucks by an anarchist collective of shifting composition as members dropped out and others shuffled aboard. The founders had stipulated from the outset that membership would be at-will and that the establishment should not trumpet their politics or disparage anyone else’s. Any profits would be equally distributed and tithed to help those in need. They had intended their alternative eatery to be a melting pot in which people of all races, creeds, and persuasions could peaceably commingle, and it had been reasonably successful at that.
By the tender age of four, Ramadi was already a habitué of Nobody’s, as his sweatshirt proudly attested. The morose young server (who’d strangely dubbed himself Phaeton after the Greek demigod who plunged to his death after ineptly piloting Zeus’s sun carriage) took Anna’s order for coffee and ice cream. When he abjectly placed it before them, to soothe Ramadi’s cough, Anna administered a spoonful of chocolate ice cream followed by one of chest medicine and then repeated the procedure with the throat medicine.
“See, Ramadi,” Anna prompted, “that wasn’t so bad. I’ll bet you feel better already,” and took his nodding “Umph, mmph” through a chilly mouthful as confirmation.
At a table near the back two men were passionately discussing something in Greek, their voices rising and falling. Anna pricked up her ears to get the gist of what sounded like a political argument, an uncommon event within these nonpartisan walls.
“They shouldn’t be bringing those Arabs from the islands to camps here,” she overheard a mustachioed middle-aged man saying. His white dress shirt was open at the neck, revealing a showy gold chain complemented by brown chest hair. “Too many get out somehow and overrun the city. We don’t need more people here who can’t support themselves. Our bums should be Greek bums.”
Straining to hear, Anna didn’t notice Ramadi slipping from his chair under the table. The man’s interlocutor, a younger curly-headed man in a black turtleneck with a brass hoop in his left ear, replied “I get it, man, but you know Italy gets all these refugees from Africa. They bring most of them to the mainland and help them get settled. Sure, some people resent it, but for the migrants it beats being sent back home after risking their lives and fortunes to escape from badass rulers, invaders, and brutal conflicts. They shouldn’t be treated as prisoners of war.”
The older man waggled an index finger, saying “Look, Greece has seventeen percent unemployment, the highest in Europe. Shouldn’t we be getting Greeks back to work instead of trying to be every foreign infiltrator’s best friend?”
Anna didn’t like where this was going and hoped it would stay civil. Attending to their sharpening words, she hadn’t noticed Ramadi wandering over to inspect the food counter, but caught sight of him as he approached the men’s table. She bit her lip as the older man regarded Ramadi, growling “What do you want, kid? I bet you’re one of them. Are you begging?”
Definitely sure she didn’t like where this was going, Anna rose from her chair as the man added “I got nothing for you, kid, so scram your immigrant ass out of here.”
Ramadi got the hint. Tears welling, he ran back to Anna. She took him in her arms, glaring at his tormenter across the room. The outburst attracted the attention of a bearded man with a black man-bun named Chris, the café’s democratically-designated shift coordinator. He stormed over to read the riot act, instructing the self-proclaimed patriot that his behavior was out of bounds; he must quit the premises and apologize to the boy and his mother on his way out. In solidarity, the man in the turtleneck arose with drawn mouth to press his knuckles on the tabletop.
The ousted customer shoved his chair aside and stalked to the front. Taking notice of Anna’s headscarf, he snarled “Go back where you came from, Muslim pórni, and take your brat with you!” Heads swiveled, ceasing their chatter and preoccupation with their phones.
Their accuser was middle-aged and heavy-set with a rounded midriff. A broom of a reddish mustache drooped over his upper lip. A matching fringe of hair hemmed his scalp, symbolizing to Anna how his nativism circumscribed his worldview. Though she feared people like him, his presumptive insult enraged her. Arms encircling Ramadi, she spoke with unaccustomed ferocity. “You assume I’m from the Middle East. I’m not. I’m Swiss and proud of it.”
The man stiffened. Before he could reply she asked, “So, are you a hundred percent Greek? Your DNA could be part Turkish, Armenian, Bulgarian, or who knows, even Arab. So apologize for looking down your Greek nose at me and for terrorizing my son, please.”
He pulled back his shoulders, assuming a military posture that only served to accentuate his gut. Fists on hips, he replied, “Whatever. Look, Greece is broke. Foreigners keep drifting in. They’re ruining the country. We have to put our foot down.”
“Send them back to whatever country they were last in. Or shoo them north and let the traitorous Macedonians take care of them.”
She shifted Ramadi to her thigh to regard his accuser. “Greeks, Macedonians, immigrants, refugees, we all have problems. We should cooperate to solve them instead of scapegoating.”
“I’ll cooperate with whoever I want,” he snapped back, “especially Greeks who want to remove this plague of immigrants and foreign meddlers like you.”
Chris had followed the self-proclaimed patriot and had witnessed the exchange. Clamping his hand on the man’s shoulder, he reiterated his ultimatum. “Didn’t I tell you to leave? Stop hassling this woman and her son and get out!”
The man spun around with smoldering eyes, grabbed his accuser’s wrist, and shook off his hand. “Don’t you dare touch me,” he spat, “or I swear you’ll regret it! I’m a police officer and would be happy to haul you in for assault.”
Chris took a step back, colliding with Phaeton, standing with a knot of people who’d gathered in solidarity. Clasping Chris’s shoulder, Phaeton said, “Try to take him, astynomikós, and you’ll have to take us all,” nodding at the group behind them.
Several customer started to rise. Sniffling, Ramadi buried his face in Anna’s bosom. “Come on, Ramadi, let’s get out of here,” she said, fishing a ten-euro note from her pocket and smacking it on the table. “Here, Chris. This should cover our food and indignity.” She swept up her handbag and, still cosseting Ramadi, stalked away.
Someone kindly opened the door for them to leave. Outside, she lowered Ramadi to the sidewalk and through the window saw the men still facing off. Shaken, but relieved not to be followed out, she dropped some coins into the homeless man’s paper cup and took her son’s hand. Buffeted by Livas, they crossed the boulevard to slope up the sidewalk toward home.
Glancing over her shoulder, tugging Ramadi through four endless blocks, clutching his hand as if he would waft away, Anna recalled tangling with extreme nationalists who’d stalked her, threatening her life, five years ago. Like those misanthropes, the mustachioed man might be capable of hateful acts beyond his swaggering words. She and her comrades had managed to terminate that threat, but not the prospect of retribution. Even now, this or another antipathetic man with privy to her past could be an envoy of the angel of death.
I don’t understand what happened here but it alarms me. Why did this bald man yell at our son? Then, when she was comforting the frightened boy, more words were exchanged. I never saw this man before but I want to punch his jaw. Because I know his type and pray that he knows nothing of how we neutralized the nationalists who menaced Katrina, but there is no way to fix that. I can’t stand not being able to hear what went on or if she and the boy are in trouble. This is torture.
Continue reading Geoffrey Dutton's novel Her Own Devices. Click on the links below to read additional chapters published here in The Write Launch.
For his imminent fifth birthday Ramadi told Anna he would like pizza and cake and an airplane and certain of his preschool pals in attendance. That would be awkward, Anna explained, as Daria, the mother of Yasmin, the girl he wished to exclude, had volunteered her four-room flat for the festivities. Ramadi considered Yasmin a bit of a show-off, he had complained, who went on and on about the clothes she wore and the clothes she wanted next. The garments came from a resale shop where her mom worked part time, which gave her the pick of the litter at a significant discount; he himself sported such venerable threads. After explaining why dissing classmates was bad politics, Anna managed to persuade him to make it an open invitation.
For fifteen minutes Anna sat on the concrete wall, fingers interlocked, rhythmically rubbing her thumbs, until the curly headed man emerged onto the taverna’s patio. He was as thin as she had remembered, but taller, with that stooped bearing tall men fall into from peering down at the world. After briefly stabbing and stroking his phone, he put it in a back pocket, glanced in her direction, and sauntered down the sidewalk. Sensing he still hadn’t recognized her emboldened Anna to get up and warily trail after him. Then, feeling exposed, she fell in behind an older woman lugging a shopping bag.