Illegal Dancers at the Panagiri

from Spearfishing in Skatahori by Matt Barrett

When we arrive at Victor's house, Andrea, Elaine, Niko, Cora and James are drinking gin and tonics on the verandah listening to some kind of medieval Spanish church music that is so ponderous that all I can think about is The Inquisition. Andrea is furious that we are late and Elaine comments that the three beers we have brought with us are hardly a generous offering so I don't tell her that we planned to drink these on the way up. Then with barely a word Elaine, Andrea and Amarandi leave me with Victor's music and memories of their anger. It's not a pleasant combination and while the others embark upon a spoken journey through the wonders of Victor's opinions and observations, I wait impatiently for the appropriate moment to get a word in that will permit me to follow my family and save what's left of my relationship with them. A word like 'Bye'. It's very difficult because Cora is more than eager to fill in any gaps in Victor's oratory. Meanwhile Mitch and Niko are off on a magical journey of their own, discussing free-market economy and telecommunications, which leaves me in a kind of limbo, battling recent memories of my family and their anger and my own guilt about my own behavior or more likely my guilt about not feeling guilty. Finally I can take it no longer and tell them that I'm leaving. Victor insists I stay longer because the Panagyri won't start until after ten and the best part of the piece is yet to come. But I have already made up my mind and in fact I'm already out the door and half way up the hill.


    When I get to the panagiri all the tables are  full and Elaine and Andrea are fighting for a place in the food line while dealing with a demanding Amarandi. When they see me I am given instant penance, provided I stand on the food line for them. Recognizing a bargain I wade into the fray, battling old women half my size. The dinner is a choice of chicken or goat. The girls want goat. There is also cold french fries, salad, feta and bread, all provided by the generosity of Takis Taverna who are charging a hefty sum There is no wine, only cans of Amstel Beer. The new blood of Christ. I carry the huge tray to the platia where Elaine has captured a newly arrived table that has been wedged between the party of Mister Octopus and the large table belonging to the new generation of beautiful Greek-Canadian girls. Panayotis, the fisher of kefalos, is also next to us with his family. We could not have asked for better placement had we made the seating arrangements ourselves. We are close to the dance floor, which takes up half the platia, in front of where the band is set up but not yet playing. The katsiki(goat) is delicious, though by the time our forks reach the last few pieces the fat has congealed and is inedible to all but the most carnivoris member of our party. Andrea has relaxed her hostility towards me and Elaine, who never really holds a grudge, brings me back into the fold with a few comments and criticisms of our friends and neighbors. I'm home again.


    Eventually Andrea leaves to go home and read and the band starts. While old Mitsos, his father, sits silently, fiddle in hand, young Kosta burst forth a staccato of bouzouki fire that blows out the eardrums of the old men and women sitting closest to the speakers. Each band member begins the doodling that will eventually lead into the first song, if it isn't already the first song. Kosta begins to sing, loud and unintelligible as his microphone feeds-back, his bouzouki drowning out the rest of the band. He is sending a message. This has been his father's band for a quarter of a century. Now Mitsos was old and frail. It is time for the next generation to step forth insuring a continuity in sound of what could probably be called the worst village band in all of Greece.


    While Kosta thunders through several almost recognizable tunes, his father sits patiently and awaits his turn. When it comes he does not disappoint the hundreds of fans who had taunted and laughed at him for fifty-five years, as they had his father, and his father before that. A squealing screaming, screeching cacophony of sour violin notes greets his friends and detractors with such force that they fall off their chairs with laughter. Old Mitsos is back for one last show. He is going to give the villagers an evening they would never forget. By the fourth or fifth song the band is smoking. Mitsos plays the crowd like a violin, perhaps a little better as he winks at the girls and nods to his old cronies who try their best to ignore him.


    There is a famous Skatahori story about some of the men who were sitting around their restaurants in Chicago, reminiscing about life in the village when they came upon a great idea. Why not bring old Mitsos over to entertain them? They put their money together and sent him a round-trip ticket for two weeks in Chicago. By the end of the first week he was ready to stay forever and they were eager to send him back. Now, tonight, many of those men were in the audience reliving the fun of that first week and the anguish of the second as Mitsos leads his band through the next of many songs all sounding like the last.


    Elaine turns and yells to me, "Just listen to that beat", her hands clapping hopelessly out of time, as is Michali the drummer. I listen for it but soon give up, instead scanning the crowd for Mitch or my brother to share with me the burden of all this traditional enjoyment. I notice that the dancers are few and far between, in fact the only people dancing are Mister Octopus and Elaine. When she returns to her seat Elaine tells me the terrible naked truth. You have to pay to dance. I don't believe her so she has Panayotis the Kefalo Fisherman tell me it is true. It cost a thousand drachma per song to get up and dance.
    "Where are you going?" Panayotis asks me.
    "To the bathroom, to dance for free" I say.

    As more and more people stand up and join the circle of dancers, I begin to notice the glares that are directed at Mister Octopus and his friends as they dance among themselves off to the side. They are bootleg dancers. Dancing Pirates. Freeloading the music that everyone else has to pay for. In a way, they are criminals and I can see in the eyes of the people who had paid for the right to express themselves, that is exactly the way they feel about it. Hanging is too good for Mister Octopus and his renegade dancers. I smell trouble and there in the middle of it is Andrea's mom. I find Mitch and we grab Elaine and whisk her off the dance floor.
    "C'mon. We're getting out of here" I tell her, and off we speed before the men can un-sheath their daggers. Mister Octopus can take care of himself, I know. He'd teach those ruffians a lesson, laughing while he tosses them around like sacks of lentils. We'll hear all about it at breakfast. Right now it is my duty as a devoted son-in-law to keep Elaine out of harms way. She'd been running with a rough crowd playing a dangerous game. Dancing without paying was no laughing matter in the village. I can already hear my father's voice on the phone asking if it were true what he'd heard about Elaine from his reliable sources. "Once again you have brought humiliation to our family," I can almost hear him say. But I know that this time by acting quickly I have nipped it in the bud.

    As we walk down the mountain I decide to spare Elaine the lecture she expects. Let her mull it over on the way down. Sure, now she resents me from taking her away from her friends but by the time she reaches the bottom of the mountain and the safety of the paralia she will realize I have defused a volatile situation. Perhaps she will thank me by not speaking to me for a couple days.

        When we reach the bar, Niko the cop is waiting, several drinks ahead of me. "I saw your wife had to push your daughter all the way up to the upper village in her stroller," he lectures me. "Did you at least push her down?
    I choose my words carefully. " I can honestly say that I don't remember pushing my wife down. What I do know is that if you don't grab your gun and get up the mountain there could be a lot of bloodshed. Your pal Mister Octopus is dancing without a permit and it's only a matter of time before the villagers disembowel him, or worse."
    That is all Niko needs to hear. He orders another drink and settles into a dark corner for the evening, thanking me for the information.

    I go outside and join Mitch at a table closest to the sea. We talk about the difficulty of maintaining a relationship with the women we are blessed with.
    "The way I see it you have two choices. You can send your wife to a psychiatrist. Or you can go together and pretend that you need psychiatric help too, even though we both know neither of us needs it." We nod in agreement.
    "Or you can bite the bullet" says Mitch and we happily toast each other's misfortune. After discussing fourth and fifth options we part company. Mitch is planning on leaving tomorrow for Kos and Turkey. He will need plenty of rest for the trip, and I will need plenty of rest to survive without him, at least until my friend Jack returns.

    I can hear the wind blowing furiously all night. At one point I imagine I am being eaten by ants, only to awaken and find myself actually being eaten by ants. I go outside and sleep on top of the cistern looking at the stars. I'm thinking about my life, my habits, my dreams and my lack of desire for material things. I wonder about Andrea with her heightened sense of beauty and appreciation of art. I wonder if there is a correlation between that and her sensitivity to the things that bother her like the weather or the way I smell or her intolerance for things that are not in order or did not run smoothly. I think about myself, drinking, eating, carousing, telling vulgar jokes, killing fish and fearing for my life from the Bulgarian and now the curse of the smyrna. I am certainly made of courser material than Andrea, but does it matter? If sensitivity makes her more prone to suffering then doesn't it make sense to accept the way I am? To enjoy life and not feel guilty for not feeling bad? If there is a God who loves all his children does he love the ones who suffermore or does he love us all the same?

I fall asleep wondering what Thea Katina will make for dinner tomorrow night.


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