Susan Tepper is the author of four published books of fiction and a chapbook of poetry. The Merrill Diaries (Pure Slush Books, July 2013) is a novel in stories that begins in 1976 and follows a 21-year-old Merrill for a decade, over two continents and multitudinous adventures involving hit men, hookers, psychics, love, lust, and the music business. Tepper shares a Pulitzer Prize Nomination (with co-author Gary Percesepe) for their epistolary novel What May Have Been: Letters of Jackson Pollack & Dori G. Additionally she has received nine Pushcart Prize nominations. Her story “Distance” is on the notable stories list for storySouth Million Writers Award, 2013. Tepper is a contributing editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles where she conducts the author/book interviews UNCOV/rd. FIZZ, her reading series at KGB Bar in NYC, has been ongoing sporadically for 6 years.
A Chapter from The Merrill Diaries: A Novel in Stories
by Susan Tepper
Reprinted with permission from the publisher: Pure Slush Books
The Calm Before
Eventually things do calm down. This morning when I pushed back the heavy burgundy drapes to look outside, I could see people strolling in Syntagma Square, hanging around the benches, smoking and chatting, the police on horseback high and calm and stately as the buildings that lined the square. So much for chaos.
Whatever started the rioting is still a mystery. Not that I’m particularly interested. I’ve had enough drama—what with those spies, the burning down house, the getaway, then all those fucking flesh eating spiders. When I woke up to feel one crawling across my arm just may have been the straw that broke… Supposing… supposing Tom and I had lived in a nice flat in central London, maybe things would have gone differently. I wouldn’t have felt so left alone, so isolated. In the wrong movie on the wrong sound stage—not my best role. I’m twenty-four now. Time’s a-wasting. Bob Dylan said that you can’t trust anyone over the age of thirty. It got blasted all over the world. I saw it in the Telegraph, I think. Some English newspaper. Anyway, that only gives me six years.
In the large, overly marbleized lobby I spot the concierge. An old fat man who speaks pretty decent English and winks every time I come in or leave through the revolving door. This morning he winks then suggests I take some tours. He pushes pamphlets on me that I shove in my purse. “I’ll think about it.” I wink back.
“You will bring me some chocolates?”
I laugh. “All right.”
Outside everything glows in the sunshine. I decide to head over to the Plaka—bustling and crowded, with a good vibe. I’m actually humming the tune to Good Vibrations. Corny! But I’m happy! Strolling, taking my time, I stop to look at the Acropolis. Several Greek men try and sell me a tour of the ruins. “Another time,” I say, continuing on. I look in the shop windows at pottery and jewelry and clothing, in the windows of little cafés, the food stalls. A filigree bracelet, about two inches wide, catches my eye. Its dark tarnished silver seems to have a past. The shop clerk is happy to take it from the window, clamping it around my wrist. It’s gorgeous. Not very much money for something that looks so fine. I pay the drachmas and he starts to take it off me for wrapping when I shake my head. “No, I’ll wear it.”
Oh, god, I love this bracelet so much! I love how it looks on my arm. It’s the first piece of jewelry since my wedding ring from Tom. That band of polished platinum inset with small diamonds. I’ll admit I was rather fond of that ring. But when I politely handed it over, Tom didn’t say keep it. I was hoping… but no go. This bracelet is a good thing. No strings attached. It’s mine, exclusively mine. No matter what happens going forward, nobody can take it back.
I sit down to have tea in a café then switch to coffee. I’m done with England, all of that.
Greek coffee is dark and bitter, kind of smothers my taste buds. Will this be permanent? I sit here looking at my bracelet until I’m aware of someone else sitting close. Turning slightly in the chair I see a darkish man of about thirty. Looking. He’s going to start a conversation and I am so not in the mood. I’m only in the mood for me. Me, me, and more me. “Miss,” he begins.
“No, thank you.”
“I was wondering if perhaps you enjoy Greek music?”
I put on my annoyed face holding myself stiffly. The guy makes no move to clear out. Instead he clears his throat. “How could any person that is alive not like Greek music?” he says.
“Oh, for godsakes! Then I guess I’m dead.”
“You are not dead.”
Hell. He’s leaning in closer, I can smell his breath. Cigarettes, mostly. Also there’s some bad cologne hovering.
“I would like to invite you to hear Greek music. It’s very close by, just a few streets. They also have refreshment. I would like you to be my guest.”
Sighing in a way that sounds growly, I swivel in the chair so we’re face to face. “Are you for real?”
I want to feel that I can look another human being in the face and size up the situation. Any situation. How many times have I been totally wrong? Too many. Maybe here in Greece I can become more than a chick singer, a candy seller, a short-term wife. Maybe here in this ancient mecca I can learn to trust my instincts. But isn’t that what gets me in trouble? Instincts? Of course I don’t believe a single word of any of this shit.
The Greek guy, even when he’s quiet, and still, has a relentless presence.
“So where is this place?” What the hell—it’s the afternoon. What harm could come of a little Greek music in the afternoon? He speaks good English. I could tap him for info on all the happening stuff.
He mentions a street address that doesn’t stick in my mind. “Can you write it down for me?”
“But I will escort you there.” He puts out his hand. “Dimitri.”
“I have some errands first. I’ll meet you there. What time?”
“I will escort you on the errands,” he says.
“Um… I don’t know.”
“I can take you wherever you wish.”
“Oh, god. Why me?”
“Because you are very special,” he says.
Uh huh. I drop some drachmas onto the table and stand up. He gets up too; like I might run out and he wants to be ready. “OK,” I tell him. “But only for a little while.”
“For a little while.”
Outside the sky is gray. I didn’t bring an umbrella which is kind of strange considering I just flew in from England where umbrellas are your third arm. Dimitri, meanwhile, is entirely focused on me. He’s like a low cloud about to burst. I feel the need to duck and cover. Chill out, I want to tell him. He takes the lead and we walk several streets ‘til I stop. “You said it’s nearby. This music place.”
“It is very nearby,” he says. We walk on. The atmosphere of the neighborhood changing. Fewer shoppers and business people. It feels like a poorer section of the city. Many of the balconies strung with washing. Only a few have potted plants. I notice a lot of stray dogs. He stops in front of a flat, low building that could be a factory in England. Holds the door open for me to go in first. I have to pass through a row of hanging colored beads. When I turn to look back he nods saying, “Keep going through.” His voice is different, more confident somehow.
I enter a very large room with rows of long tables facing a raised stage. The stage curtain closed. It’s lit to be dim and hazy, almost purplish, in a way that keeps the cigarette smoke circulating the airless air. Some of the long tables are partly taken up by people drinking, while others are completely empty. He moves ahead so that now I’m following him up to the front. He stops to pull out a chair for me. He does it roughly. “This is a good table,” he says.
What a dump, I’m thinking, staring at the line of cheap glass ashtrays down the rows of tables. A waiter who looks surly is speaking to Dimitri in Greek, while at the same time checking me out. Definitely creepy. “What did you order?” I ask when the waiter leaves.
“A very good wine. I am sure you will approve.”
“A Coke is what I really want. It’s too early for wine.”
“Not in Athens.” He pats my hand. Men have put a lot more aggressive moves on me, yet his simple pat makes me feel nauseous. While I’m debating about leaving, the waiter sets down two glasses of wine, muttering into my ear. Then he’s on to another table.
Dimitri hands me a wine clinking our glasses. I don’t clink back. Soft hidden music begins. I figure it must be coming from behind the stage curtain which is opening slowly to a cranking noise heard over the music. On the stage are several naked people and one dog. I count three men and two women.
I stand up. “This is a live sex show!”
People are hushing me in Greek. Someone yells, “Shut up American lady!” Dimitri gets up too looking only a little ashamed.
“You shithead!” Before he can answer I’m out, through the beads and on the sidewalk, trying to remember the route back, when thunder rumbles and lightning streaks a darkening sky.
Where do you think Merrill is headed? Is she naive? Or savvy beyond her years?