Read White Vespa Online

Authors: Kevin Oderman

Tags: #General Fiction

White Vespa

Table of Contents
Also by Kevin Oderman
How Things Fit Together
Ezra Pound and the Erotic Medium
for Keith Oderman
And how with Orion's gold sword
Is scattered and spilled aloft
Dust from the dreams of girls
Scented with mint and basil.
—Odysseus Elytis
The writing of this book was informed by the thoughtful observations of many friends and colleagues. I am especially thankful in this regard for the comments of Keith Oderman, David James Duncan, Diana Abu-Jaber, Winston Fuller, and the sage Bob Mooney at Etruscan Press. I am indebted as well to Philip Brady, Starr Troup, and Julianne Popovec at Etruscan, who made of my manuscript a book. And Sara Pritchard, who makes my life better every day. How lucky I am to have found her.
Work on this project was supported by grants from the Fulbright Scholar Program and from West Virginia University. They gave me time and opportunities.
The epigraph is taken from the poem “Aegean Melancholy,” by Odysseus Elytis, as translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, who also co-translated the line from Angelos Sikelianos' “First Rain” quoted in the text.
Greece, Dodecanese 1996
7 Sept.
I stood on a chair, looping a string over a nail high up on the wall, then got down, playing out string enough to hang the photograph at eye level. I'd wanted to leave it behind on Sými, but when Yórgos, thinking I'd forgotten it, raced around the harbor to get it to me before the ferry cast off, I took it back, thanked him, and shook his small hand one last time.
“Mr. Myles,” he said,
“good luck on Níssyros.” He was still a boy, his wide eyes gleeful and looking innocent. I wanted to believe Yórgos, and Váso too, had emerged untouched, that Paul for all his trying had failed to sully them.
The photograph looked good in its new location, maybe a little austere, but good. The owner hired an old woman to whitewash, inside and out, when I dropped out of the blue to rent the house last week. I watched the woman whiten the place, the lime in a plastic tub, applied with an old broom. She poked at the walls, everything about her intent on the job, moving fast, and wherever she passed the walls were renewed, white again.
While she worked I made three runs on the Vespa into Mandhráki to collect my luggage from the pension where I'd slept while hunting out a house. A couple of days later, I hung the photograph. I took it last summer, on my first trip to Sými. My old Nikon had jammed, and I'd sat down on a step to clear it. I had the camera in my lap, fiddling with it, not paying attention to much of anything but my own problem. I was dimly aware that a man had pulled up on a white Vespa at the bakery across the alley and gone inside. He was coming out of the shop door just when I thought maybe I'd cleared the jam, and I brought the camera up and focused as he kick-started the Vespa and began to move. I snapped off a shot without thinking, testing, more than anything, to see if the thing was going to work. I forgot all about that shot until I developed the roll back in the States.
Even as the image took shape in the tray I felt it taking possession of me. A picture of a man in white on a white Vespa. He wears a battered straw hat with a wide brim just bending up as it catches the wind. He wears a loose canvas sport
jacket over a white shirt open at the neck and white boat pants frayed at the cuff. He looks comfortably rumpled and not overly clean. He wears dark, wire rim glasses. He wears a dark beard and has dark hair almost to the shoulders, both a little grizzled. He is leaning forward and into the turn he is just beginning, the Vespa under him white and old, softly battered. Two baguettes, pinned under his arm, press ahead of him into the free air like an open beak. He is framed by the door of the bakery, the shop dusky within, but the figure of the man on the Vespa is suffused in white light, glows.
Later, I enlarged the image to 11” x 14” and dry-mounted it on foam board. I leaned it against a shelf of books over my desk and often caught myself gazing at it. Just an image, I told myself, black and white, but somehow it set me yearning for a different kind of life than the one I was leading. That man looks so sure of himself: free of all doubt, leaning into a curve, into the trajectory of his life, serenely confident.
I made the photograph, but slowly it began to remake me. I found myself sorting through the attic and throwing things away. I had a garage sale, then auctioned off some old Mission furniture and a collection of antique kilims and rugs, things I'd thought I'd never sell. One day, sitting at my desk, the “white Vespa” in front of me, I realized that I was packing up, closing up shop on a life I'd hardly inhabited for ten years. And now, after only three months on Sými, three months, I've packed up and moved again.
“Mr. Myles,” he meant to stay.
On Níssyros, I am just stopping, here until I can't stand to be here anymore. Perhaps I'll stay through the winter, as long as the rent is cheap. I need to understand what happened and, even if I can't understand it, to accept it.
I spend my days here quietly, alone. This village, Emborió, was near ruin until recently, when a few of the old houses were bought up by rich Athenians and other off-islanders and restored as summer homes. Now, in September, there are very few residents, and most of them are very old. No one knows more than a few words of English, and I only know a few words of Greek, so talking is limited to pleasantries and purchases at the one small market. I am alone.
In the evening, I slice up tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and onions for a salad. I eat a little féta and a few olives and drink a small bottle of the local retsina. Sometimes I eat at a table on the roof that overlooks the caldera, the floor of the volcano's crater far below. Sometimes I sit in the walled garden on the other side of the house, set my food and wine on a great four-square stone, a block of white marble from some building down long ago. If I open the garden door I can see out
over terraced hillsides down to the sea. Most of the living space is outside. Inside, there are only two rooms, a bedroom in the back and a living room in the front. There's a small fireplace in the corner of the bedroom and a large one on the wall facing the crater. They swell out into the room in soft, almost human curves. There are pieced, slate floors throughout. Cooking is done on a gas ring connected by a hose to a large blue canister. There is an old stone sink, a few open shelves, and a plate rack on the wall. There's a wood-fired oven out the backdoor, built of field stone and red tiles. And fruit trees, oranges and figs.
But the house is small. There's not much room for pacing. So I take my thoughts outside. I take them for long walks under the olive trees, remembering. I wonder how people leave things behind, wanting to, sometimes. Often, by the time I put my key in the door, I am exhausted from talking to people who aren't here, to Anne and to Jim, and to faces that return to me like reflections on gliding water, the faces of my long ago wife and lost son.
8 June
Anne opened her eyes.

me,” the voice sounded insistent, pushy. “
Anne saw him, some unkempt guy in a black T-shirt getting in a girl's face. The desire to intervene rose up in her, red and angry, but before she did the girl said, “Oh, oh,” and giggled, and Anne realized the guy had been trying to get the girl to correctly pronounce the name of the island, Sými. “Sim
,” she said tentatively, making it sound sure enough like she was speaking a foreign language, just not Greek.
Anne stood up, shoving her arms out awkwardly to keep her balance. The wind was blowing and the ferry rolled unpleasantly under her feet. She looked over the rail at the low waves and whitecaps. Then the ferry ran into the glassy water in the lee of the island and all the roll went out of it. Anne stretched, reaching up until her heels lifted off the deck and she felt a satisfying click in her back. She watched the island slip by, close now, the rocky hills dry and bare except for the ashy-green low scrub. No houses, no roads.
Ferries reminded her of her childhood, of Bainbridge Island and the ferry crossings to Seattle. But Sými looked nothing like Bainbridge, an island green and most of the time dripping wet. Still, the Puget Sound, too, had that sea smell, the same smell that was in her nose now, and ferries. She'd liked watching them best at night, glittering on the black Sound. Many a night she'd stood wrapped in a blanket at her bedroom windows looking out at the ferries crossing in the dark, from Seattle or Bremerton. Years ago.
She'd boarded this ferry in Rhodes in the morning, the sun already so bright it had bleached the color out of the sea and turned the sky almost white. But if the green world of Bainbridge seemed like another world, to Anne it didn't seem far away. Anne thought she'd never gotten off of Bainbridge, not really, though she hadn't set foot there in a long time. There had been years there
, good years, though she must have been lonely even then. A girl with a horse, little supervised. She remembered the long trail rides and walking
Pie back on the narrow paved roads to the big house. Sometimes on sunny roads but more often under a low sky or through white mists. Those rides had been good, whatever the weather. That was
, she thought. And she thought there hadn't been much happiness since then. Since Paul had hissed in her ear that if she told
he'd kill her, too. Since she'd heard that scream, a scream that still echoed in her head. A scream hers and not hers.
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