BODY OF WATER: Coney Island
Tom wanted a Cadillac Eldorado but his cousin George said he’d cut him a deal on the Lincoln and when it came to family that was that. Where George had gotten the Lincoln, who knows? His cousin was full of mystery. An entrepreneur, is what George called himself. He loved to lord his vocabulary over Tom, challenge him, stretch out the syllables. On-tra-pri-noo-er.Restaurant manager, realtor, car salesman. Why pin yourself down? George said. A little bit of this, a little bit of that, dabbling his fingers in the air. Master of none.
It was amazing for a family that had no concept of privacy—Tom would be standing in the middle of his bedroom, door closed, naked as the day he came, and blam, Aunt Bessie would bust in on him—that no one questioned George’s sources of income. Bootlegger? Bookie? Possibly, but Tom didn’t like to think about it. Or rather, he liked to think about it all the time, but some questions were best left unasked. And George seemed to like this enigmatic fire he’d started—especially when it came to talking up the lady customers in the restaurant—and Tom didn’t want to have anything to do with fanning those flames.
Flames. Tom was standing over the grill. Beads of sweat grew into marbles and shot down his spine, pooling at the small of his back. He slid his spatula under each of the patties and watched George through the pick-up window, strolling around the front of house as if he owned the place. Like any kid of the next generation, George wanted to talk about what he did more than he liked doing the thing itself. Truth was, he was a peon. He would be nothing without his father’s restaurant, but in George’s eyes, the restaurant was nothing if he couldn’t stake a claim in its ownership. Manager was the term George coined for himself. Tom watched George’s lips flapping away, talking up his cars, his property management, his so-called “side” projects to every customer who’d listen.
If by properties he meant the six-unit apartment building in Bay Ridge where his dad sent him on the first of each month to beat on tenants’ doors and collect the rents, okay, Tom would give him that. It was embarrassing to watch him. Publicly, the customers nodded politely when he yammered on about this and that money-making venture. Privately, they thought things. The kinds of things that Tom thought but didn’t ask. Bootlegger. Bookie. Didn’t he know he was propagating the stereotype of the Greek thug? George’d say he was anything but what he actually was. A hostess. A big baby thug, living off his father’s dime, in his parents’ house, working in his father’s restaurant. Admit it, you fucking baby, you malaka.
Mind you, Tom lived in the same house as George too, with Aunt Bessie and Uncle Mike, but still, his situation was different. He didn’t have a choice. He’d been sponsored, wasn’t totally legal yet, couldn’t afford his own place, and a Caddy would be the closest thing to a little taste of freedom, and isn’t that what this great land of theirs promised? He could steal away between shifts, cruise in it, enjoy himself, kick up his heels, smoke, ash out the stub in his own ashtray, listen to his own radio, maybe find a girl. Somebody other than the girls his Aunt Bessie was always inviting over for Sunday dinner. Tom could barely choke his soup down those nights, sitting across from them. A nice Greek girl with a five-o-clock shadow and eyes so black you knew there was nothing but misery in that future.
He wanted a Caddy but Aunt Bessie had badgered him into the Continental.
“You hef to help little Georgie,” she said. “He hef good car, you need car. Lincolns, they the best.”
God bless her, but Tom couldn’t say no to her. It would break her heart. Little Georgie, on the other hand, his heart he could break. Gladly. Tom crossed himself as he thought this, looked up to the kitchen’s ceiling as if he were looking at the Pantocrator himself.
“It’s okay,” the Almighty seemed to say, his face melancholy but stern, his hand held aloft as if about to bless him. “You do this for family. It’s okay.”
Uncle Mike went so far as to let them off work early that day to test-drive the Lincoln, doing his part to make the deal happen for his son. “Go,” he said, pushing them out the door of the restaurant at the end of the lunch shift. “Go.”
Tom was surprised by how good the Continental felt. Sixty-eight.
“Good year,” George said, palming the dash, twisting the rearview around so he could smooth out his chops.
George was always doing stuff like that. Every morning before work, walking into the bathroom after him, Tom had to scan it like a crime scene. Streamers of toothpaste clung to the edge of the basin, piss all over the toilet bowl, George’s underwear in the wastebasket. Just like a baby, Tom thought, shaking his head. And in some twisted version of motherhood, Tom plucked the toilet brush from its perch next to the bowl, used its bristly end to pick up George’s underwear by the waistband, and dropped them into the hamper. He could feel his anxiety kicking in just thinking about these little injustices, that familiar tightness in the chest every time George showed his ignorance.
Tom grabbed the rearview out of George’s hands, readjusted it with great drama and settled his sightline on the horizon. He sighed deeply. They were heading south, out toward Coney. Mid-week, middle of the day, not too much traffic. Sky grey as cement.
Although Tom hated to admit it, sometimes he wished he could be more like George. No sense, no qualms, no guilt. It would make his life easier. But that’s where the car came in. It was a fucking cliché. Immigrants and their cars. You could walk around the neighborhood and see dozens of men, alone in their parked vehicles, taking a break from the wife, the kids, the expectations.
“Check out the 8-track,” George said, popping a cassette in, and then, just as quickly, out again. “And the radio.” He tuned the dial with the nervous energy and attention span of a toddler. Skimming, crackle, skimming, guitar solo, crackle, Stevie Nicks, skimming.
“Jes tsooz,” Tom said.
“What?” George said.
“A stay-sion. Jes tsooz a stay-sion.”
“Easy there, cuz.”
Tom braced himself against the steering wheel, tightening his grip around its grooves. He hated it when George called him cuz. It was a reminder of who they were to each other. That their bond of blood and antagonism would hold them tight—beyond their living together, working together, eating together, buying cars from each other. They would take that bond to the grave and then beyond, the generations following them tapping at a family photograph during a holiday gathering and remembering them always, as cousins. There was no escape.
“You gotta relax,” George said. “And this car is going to help you do it.”
Of all people who couldn’t relax, George was it. Constantly fidgeting, shifting, picking, tuning, dialing, tapping, tucking, smoothing. As if on cue, George pulled out his komboloi and started clacking.
“Hey yero,” Tom said. “Maybe you relax.” He sensed he’d forgotten a word in that directive, but he couldn’t remember which one. The verbs and their tenses always messed him up. He shifted in his seat. The leather really did feel luxurious. Like floating on sheep’s milk. Okay, so it wasn’t a Caddy, but this, he could get used to. He stuck his arm out the window, letting the wind catch it, whip it back. The air ripped through the hair on his arms, giving him a prickly sensation that was equal parts pleasure and pain.
When he thought about it, it was exactly that balance that he wanted in his life. Starting now, he decided, he was going to seek out those things that brought pleasure into his pain. He turned to George. “So where you get the car?”
George fingered the worry beads, turning them over like possible responses. “Let’s just say I procured it from a friend who needed my assistance.”
There he went again with those big words. Ostentatious and unnecessary. A source of ridicule.
“Very good,” Tom said. Noble was what he wanted to say. But he couldn’t remember that word either.
“And now, in turn,” George leaned in, and in an exaggerated act of generosity, draped the worry beads around the mirror’s neck, “I’m assisting you.”
“You help me?”
“What do you mean?” George said. He shifted uncomfortably onto his left ass cheek, as if about to release gas, and then shifted back.
Tom reluctantly sniffed the air. “Way I see? I help you. Your mamá, she said…”
“Look at this,” George said, changing the subject. He gestured grandly out the window, his arm waving at the expanse of land and sea. “All Greek-owned.”
Tom looked at their surroundings. At the cinder-block projects, at the rusted Ferris wheel, at the parking lot full of low-rent rides. Coney Island. Where’d they get the idea that this was an island? Santorini? That was an island. Black sand, blue sea, beautiful women. Mykonos? That was an island. Corfu? That was an island. Not that he’d ever been to those places, but he’d seen them in postcards. He knew. This place had a tawdry, nauseating feel. Like something thrown together to make a quick buck, take advantage of the locals, and then beat it on back to wherever you came from. Come to think of it, it could have been Greek owned.
“Guy named George,” George said proudly. “Started with a restaurant out here. Family owned. Then built it up. Expanded.”
“George who?” said Tom. He’d never heard anything about Coney being Greek. Surely this was something that would have been talked about. Greeks took pride in each other’s accomplishments, if only so they could boast about them to Americans, feel like they had a part to play in a compatriot’s success, then criticize the shit out of them behind their backs. Burgers made out of sawdust. Place is full of rats. So on and so forth.
“Poulos, Pappas, whatever. You ever heard of a guy named George owned a restaurant who wasn’t Greek?”
No, Tom thought. No, he hadn’t.
“Yeah, I didn’t think so. Plus, look at the sign.” George pointed at a faded billboard. Steeplechase Park.
“An ode to the ponies,” George said. “Who would think to add a horsey ride to an amusement park?”
He had a point. Greeks liked the horses. Even Uncle Mike, honorable as he was, was known to make the occasional trip to the track, lifting a pile of twenties from the till when Aunt Bessie wasn’t looking. And Tom had heard people talking about casinos out here at Coney. Get a little gambling income going for the city. So, yeah, maybe the whole thing was Greek-owned.
Tom imagined what that would be like. To start small and really see it turn into something. But unless he broke from his Uncle, he knew he didn’t have a chance. The restaurant would go to George, even though he didn’t know a thing about work. George wanted the success but he didn’t want to give anyone the impression that he had worked too hard at it, that it hadn’t come naturally. He believed in the American myth. He had bought into those success stories of men who made it big through real-estate and luck. Of course they weren’t going to tell you how hard they worked. George didn’t want to see that part. He wanted to maintain an air of mystery—his little bit of this, little bit of that approach to life—so as not to reveal anything he might be ashamed of. As if hard work, the revelation of it, might be shameful.
But, for now, Tom had to sit tight. With Aunt Bessie, Uncle Mike, his single bed in the corner of his low-ceilinged bedroom—a room that Aunt Bessie had used for storage until he arrived, the baoulos she’d brought with her from Greece thirty years earlier still stacked in the corner, with his shirts, trousers, and even his kitchen aprons starched and pressed and put on hangers for him by Aunt Bessie, with George’s indiscretions in the bathroom, with his own lack of privacy, what with Aunt Bessie hovering over him every second he was home—did he want a little more soupitsa? Could she make him a kafe? Should she turn the TV on for him? With Uncle Mike forcing him to do his time as dishwasher before he could move up to the grill because what would the other employees think? Like who? Tom thought. Like George?Who’d never even think to wash the silver spoon he’d been fed with his entire life? With the waitresses hassling him about their bacon and eggs and their hot-turkey sandwiches—it wasn’t even food, really—with the icon of, of all people, St. George fighting the dragon that hung on the wall of his bedroom, placed there by Aunt Bessie to keep him safe, that greeted Tom each night as he entered his room, bid him farewell each morning. On really busy days at the restaurant, when Tom was forced to listen to George blather on in the dining room, he returned home exhausted and stared at the icon. Instead of the Saint’s face, he saw George’s, with his sharp nose and the thinning patch of hair that betrayed his future ofbaldness. George’s fat, smug face. It taunted him, mocked him, baited him. Tom fantasized about taking that spear and stabbing George in the forehead, right between his stray eyebrow hairs.
Tom looked at him now. “How fast she go?”
“Fast,” George said. “Turn it around though, right? Head back?”
Back is the last direction Tom wanted to move in. Back meant the village and a ritual unfolding of the seasons and a predetermined destiny. With Tom’s foot against the pedal, something electric, a bolt of excitement and fear, a party of charged particles, rocketed its way through his toes, up his calves, through his crotch, and settled in his chest. He felt his lungs expanding.
“What the hell?” George screamed, reaching for the worry beads.
“Those no save you,” said Tom.
Blasts erupted from the Lincoln as they sped closer to the end of the pier, keeping time with the thumping of Tom’s chest. The car’s eight cylinders fired, the carburetor sucked in vast quantities of fuel, and the wheel became difficult to steer. Like a body in its last exhalations, the Lincoln rattled under Tom’s hands as he was suddenly gripped with a fear—not at the thought of going off the end of the pier, but at not going off the end. Of losing control and rocketing out sideways, of becoming some sort of comic relief for the cosmos, of being denied the glory of propelling off the pier in a swan-dive arc, of reaching for heroism but ending in humiliation.
And then it happened.
There was the rush of sweet and salty, feelings of safety and panic, nausea and elation. The sky seemed to embrace them, held them aloft, and then, just as suddenly, let them go. The car tilted forward, the sky pancaked into the horizon, and a wall of water pounded the windshield.
“Jesus Christ,” George cried, crossing himself. “Jesus Christ.”
Yes, Jesus Christ, Tom thought, nodding. He looked up at the plush roof of the Lincoln, just as he had in the kitchen earlier that day, and searched for the Pantocrator’s blessing. He was nowhere. For a split second, Tom felt disappointed, abandoned. But soon he realized this was the Pantocrator’s intent. To give him the nod, and then cede control to Tom. This act was his own doing, he realized. And suddenly his clarity amazed him. So this is what he would be like under extreme pressure. He liked it. He liked it very much.
Tom thought all this as he watched the brown, brackish water begin its ascent.
George pushed on the door, heaved and grunted. He scrambled for the window crank.
“You no open window,” Tom said.
“We’re going to die,” George announced. “Do you fucking get that?”
“I serious,” Tom said. “You know physics? You open window now, water break in. You no fight it. You want live?”
“Yes,” George said mockingly, “I want live.”
“Then we sit here. We wait. When water is here,” Tom drew a line across his eyeballs, “we roll down windows and we swim.”
“You’re trelos,” George said, rolling his rs with fury.
“We wait,” Tom repeated.
The water level rose slowly, torturously. It trickled in from the window seams and from somewhere at their feet. As they waited and watched, the car settled, and Tom took in the sights. Through the murk of the water, unexpected things slowly came into focus. On the water’s bottom, he saw what looked like lampposts. Living beings swam past.
“What this place called again?” Tom said.
“Steeplechase Park,” George replied.
“And what heppened?”
“Big fire. Was called Dreamland before that. The whole place burned down at the turn of the century.”
This too was in keeping with George’s story. Greek lightning, isn’t that what they called it? A little flick of the match, and insurance to the rescue. Tom wondered where the business had failed.
Dreamland, he repeated to himself as he waited for the water to hit his chin. He tilted his head back and placed his hand firmly on the window crank, steeling himself.
Nice name, bad outcome.
Helen Georgas is an editor of Underwater New York. She is a writer and librarian living in Brooklyn. Her work has been nominated for Best New American Voices, she holds an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and is currently at work on a collection of linked stories.