Direction by Michael Onofrey
I’d hear bleating and look out the window and see the old lady who rented out the room milking one of three goats, and this was how I woke in the morning—Paleochora, southwestern Crete, a long time ago.
Two cots, a wooden table, two rush-bottomed chairs. A black cord, snaking up a concrete wall to the center of the ceiling, carried current to a bulb. But I had bought candles in town, and it was candles that I used instead of the lightbulb.
At first I was on the beach, Libyan Sea lapping, but as more and more naked bodies departed when September began, I took to the hills, where my walks got longer and longer because I continued to think about direction.
Africa, just over the horizon, brought thoughts of Durrell’s Alexandria, and at times I thought I could smell that vast continent, a warm breath from the south. And then I’d look east, and even though I couldn’t see it or smell it, I knew it was there like a calling—Asia. I had been once before, the overland route, India and back, and I dwelled on those recollections, local transport and what that meant. I wondered if Cretan winters came from that direction—Asia, specifically Turkey. In back of me was Europe, its art, its food, its majestic buildings. And of course, aside from these considerations, there were any number of discount travel agencies in Athens that sold tickets to the United States, which meant returning home.
I was at a crossroads, a junction, a southern outpost where Europe left off. No matter which direction I chose, commitment was required. Yet at times it felt like it didn’t matter, and I wondered what I was waiting for.
I continued to pay for the room by the week. I traded paperback books with people I’d meet at the town’s central café, the bus to Chania arriving and departing nearby.
And then there was one day when I came down from the hills and went to the café for a bottle of beer and found Fran, who was standing in the doorway of the kitchen—late afternoon, summer crowd diminished, autumn having begun. Of those who remained, their usual hour at the café was in the evening.
I had seen Fran around, but it was two nights previous that put her in my mind indelibly, for she had sung Danny Boy—twice.
An upright piano was in the café, piano battered but playable. A man with a goatee and thin arms had sat down at the piano and had struck a couple of notes. It was how things usually began, someone fooling around before getting into a tune, but this time a woman rose and went to the piano. She wasn’t stumbling, but her body was pitched to the right. When she reached the piano, glass of retsina in hand, there was nothing in particular that called attention to her presence or purpose. She might have walked over with nothing more than curiosity on her mind, or she might have been on her way to the restroom. The piano player was still feeling out the keys, but the drift of the tune was coming. Fran’s head took a downward tilt. Perhaps she was cocking an ear. Dry brown hair fell from her head to her shoulders in broken pleats. She seemed flabby, but she wasn’t fat, wasn’t overweight. She was slim, yet her skin hung like bunting. Perhaps she had been ill and had lost weight. Her complexion was a roughish brown, weathered maybe, but between folds of flesh there were hints of yellow. She looked to be forty, but was probably much younger. I thought she was drunk—until she started singing.
Glasses and bottles and conversations stopped. Passersby were soon at the windows and doors of the café. Fran’s head had risen and she was looking at some place across the room, voice weaving in and out of the piano, but this obedience changed as the tune progressed. She went beyond the piano player by establishing a certain mood as if by dictation, yet spontaneous. She held her glass of retsina limply in her one hand, piano player glancing up at her now and then. The sounds coming out of her mouth lingered, and when the song ended there was residue like something remembered.
Her dark eyes gave up on that vague spot across the room. She looked right, she looked left, head moving cautiously, applause having begun. She seemed to be trying to find where she was. She brought her glass up and looked at it. She took a drink, piano player watching her. She reached for the piano player’s cigarette that was in an ashtray on top of the piano and she picked the cigarette up and brought it to her lips and inhaled. She took the cigarette out of her mouth, hand with the cigarette falling to her side. She set her glass of retsina down on top of the piano and gave her head a jerk to clear strands of hair from over her right eye. She looked up, smoke easing from her mouth, applause fading.
It was a spacious café, twenty tables or so. Fluorescent tubes were on the ceiling. A black-and-white tableau.
She began again. Same song, Danny Boy, but from a more recessed place at the back of her throat. The piano player hurried to come up behind her, for even though it was the same song it was different, a stronger degree of hazard, a further delving into some sort of past, some sort of psych that elicited disturbed corners. At a certain point the piano player’s fingers eased off the keys, which left Fran all alone, one arm at her side, cigarette between her fingers smoldering, other arm slightly cocked with her hand on the edge of the piano. The café was quiet, her raspy, smoky voice prevailing. Toward the end, where the lyrics turn to “grave,” the piano came back.
Applause began, but even that was different than before.
Fran brought her hand up and looked at the cigarette and took a drag. She walked back to her table and sat down. At that table more questions arose, for along with Fran there were two other people, a man and a woman, but it wasn’t clear if the man and woman were a couple. It might have been that Fran was with one of them, with the man or with the woman. Or it might have been a three-some. The man had long hair and was late twenties, the woman short hair and a little older. The man stood up and went to the piano and got Fran’s glass of retsina and brought it back and set it down on the table in front of Fran.
And this was what I remembered, nothing more, for right after that I left the café. I wanted to walk back to my room with the night surrounding me, quiet and almost chilly, because I wanted to take that second rendering with me. It was in my head and I didn’t want to disturb it. I wanted to sit in my room with a candle burning and with a glass of red wine, and I wanted to listen to that song again and again in my head.
And now here she was, Fran, standing in the doorway of the kitchen of the café. I went to the doorway and squeezed by her and asked the man in the kitchen for a beer. Fran looked at me, but didn’t say anything. The man handed me a bottle of beer and I paid for it and left the doorway to go into the café’s main room, the room with the piano. I sat down at a table and lifted that cold bottle of beer and drank, and as I lowered the bottle I watched Fran walk across the room, large glass of retsina in hand. When she got to where I sat, she stood and looked at me.
“Would you care to have a seat?” I said and gestured.
She sat down across from me and said, “I’m Fran, but my real name is Flannery.” She brought her glass up to her lips. A pint-size glass, yellowish liquid drifting into her mouth.
“And the family name?” A strong lilt was on her pronunciation.
“Gail?” she questioned. “Is that Irish? I know you’re not from Ireland. I can tell by the voice, but I mean the name?”
“I don’t know. I was told that it’s got just about everything in it. There might be some Irish.”
The day had heated up, temperature in the café comfortable. Fran was wearing a blue shift and her hair was stiff, probably from saltwater. From a pocket of the shift she took out a pack of cigarettes and a box of matches. She lit a cigarette and then, as if it were an afterthought, offered me a cigarette, but I turned it down because I don’t smoke.
“Leonard doesn’t smoke, either,” Fran said. “Do you know Leonard?”
“Not by name.” She drew on her cigarette. Outside, clouds were building in the eastern sky. I could see the clouds from where I sat, view through a window that was in back of Fran. Perhaps there’d be a thunderstorm like the previous day, a brief explosive storm.
“I heard you sing the other night, Danny Boy. It was beautiful. Are you a professional singer?”
“Pubs ‘round County Cork.”
Fran drank some retsina. The skin on her neck was wrinkled.
“Danny Boy was actually written by an Englishman,” Fran said.
“Most people don’t know that.” She drew on her cigarette and took in more retsina. I sipped beer.
“Have you ever seen,” Fran began, “when the bus stops at one of those towns, one of those villages, one of those places along the roadway, and the driver gets out and goes inside for his tea, and the dirty-faced boy, who works on the bus, calls out for customers, while cripples hoist themselves up onto the stairwell at the front of the bus and then onto the floor of the bus, so that they can drag themselves along that filthy aisle for everyone to see—mangled, maimed, mutilated, twisted? Sometimes someone sets them up there at the front of the bus with a special cup to grip in their teeth, while their hands, if they got any, lever their body along the aisle, a tooth coming out their upper lip, tin cup below it, face smeared as if a hot iron had swept it. They come along the aisle on stumps, hands and legs gone. There’s this sound, and there’s this sight coming at you at the same time. It’s a spectacle put in front of your eyes for the purposes of revulsion and disgust. It’s a means, a way, a strategy for eliciting sympathy, compassion, and maybe even empathy, if that were at all possible. A quest, a mission, a task, an assignment. They are outfitted with a tin cup. Children are not spared. Quite the contrary, girls and boys alike. And then there are the mothers who come along and show you their babies.”
Fran’s head was at a tilt, but she now straightened it to drink some retsina. My bottle of beer was on the table in front of me. Fran inhaled from her cigarette.
“On the train it’s the same,” Fran picked up, “writhing down the aisle of the carriage, always facing you, always in the direction where you have to look at them. Calculated, planned, deliberate. A short crutch fashioned from a stick, one leg gone, the other twisted and with a lump of a foot at its terminus.
“And then there are the insane babbling, drooling, turning in circles, smelling of feces. Nothing is overlooked, no humiliation unexplored. It’s a catwalk of revulsion.
“The bus driver comes out of the teahouse and steps into the bus and climbs onto his seat and starts the motor. Cripples are trying to get off the bus, dragging themselves to the rear exit, scrambling like flopping chickens along the aisle, and the boy pulls them down the rear stairwell to the ground, and that’s where they are left, out on the dirt, dust swirling as the bus pulls away. Sometimes it’s snowing.”
She’s stumbling on her speech. She reaches for her glass of retsina and gulps, but then sputters and takes a swallow of air. She goes forward toward the table, body bent and shaking. She brings a hand to her face and stands up. Her chair skitters on the floor briefly. She’s weeping.
I get to my feet as Fran staggers toward the door, clouds darkening in that direction. She steps down onto the street. A woman in flower-print dress stops to look, upside-down chicken hanging from the woman’s one hand. Fran goes up the street and leaves my sight. The woman looks in that direction, the direction Fran has taken.
Michael Onofrey grew up in Los Angeles, but currently lives in Japan. His stories have appeared in Cottonwood, Evansville Review, Kestrel, Natural Bridge, Terrain.org, Weber —The Contemporary West, among others. His novel, Bewilderment, was published by Tailwinds Press in 2017.