Memory is an empty Greek restaurant on a Tuesday night. The cook and his brother, the lone waiter, are about to close when a group of five cousins walk through the door. The cousins haven’t seen each other in years. They are all in town for a family reunion. They live in huge cities that have so many Greek restaurants they never bother to eat Greek. Now they desperately want Greek food and this was the only place they could find in the phone book.
They all have fantastically loud staccato laughter. It makes the waiter wince. He wants to go home, talk to his wife. Five years in the Midwest and listening to English all day still exhausts him. The cousins don’t bother catching up on each other’s lives. They’ve heard the news through the grapevine. One’s recently divorced. The one who used to paint now works for an insurance company. One has a child graduating from high school. Some of them haven’t seen each other since high school. The one who used to be so serious – always writing about loneliness & Buddhist concepts of the void – her husband was killed by lightning last year. Now she has no time to be serious. One’s a raving alcoholic, though she thinks that part of her life has been kept a brilliant secret. Everyone else knows and doesn’t care.
Instead, they tell jokes. They are telling death jokes. Which is appropriate because Death himself is sitting at the table with them, invisible as usual. It’s not as heavy as you might think. None of them are going to die in the near future. It’s just that Death loves Greek food. Especially dolmathes that have soaked in a tin of brine so long they taste like paint-thinner. He loves Greek food and good death jokes.
The cousins order saganaki because they want the waiter to come out and light the cheese, shouting “Oopah!” They want something as dramatic and absurd as telling death jokes while sitting next to Death himself. Death orders a whole bottle of retsina. He looks around the restaurant. Curling airline posters of Greece on the walls.
Deep blue Aegean Sea, clear skies. Tiny roads winding up a rocky hillside, lined with brilliant white stucco houses.
It’s the Greece you remember if you’ve never been there: The Acropolis, ruins of Apollo’s gorgeous body, youths leaping over bull horns on the side of a vase. The cradle of a vacationing civilization.
It takes a long time for the food to arrive. The cousins don’t notice the time. They’re with Death and he doesn’t wear a watch. After seven cigarettes by the back dumpster, the waiter comes out with the saganaki. They watch him fumble with his lighter, his fingers stained yellow from years of rolling a blend of Turkish tobacco. He smells of nicotine. He snaps the lighter four times before it ignites. He mutters a tired “oopah” as he lights the cheese. No emotion. A bored monotone. As if he was responding to his brother’s endless nagging about his smoking with his usual “whatever” – the only English word he finds useful. The flame dies before he puts the platter on the table. He shrugs, walks off.
Dead silence from the cousins. They look at one another, raising eyebrows, tilting their heads, smiling, dumbfounded. Before the waiter even hits the kitchen door Death and the cousins burst out laughing. It was the best joke of the night! Everyone at the table is exhilarated. The waiter didn’t fake a thing! He didn’t even try!
The cousins love the waiter. The waiter hates the cousins. Death drinks his retsina and looks around, content. He likes the place. It’s the kind of place that wants to go sit outside on the front steps, watch traffic at the end of the day. Like a grandmother who’s finished washing all the clean windows in her daughter’s house. When her granddaughter finds her on the stoop, she puts her small head in the old woman’s lap. The old woman strokes the girl’s hair. Time begins ticking for the girl. Time stops for the old woman. Her hand smells of washrags and pickles.
This flash-fiction-prose-poem-thing was written many, many years ago in Boulder, Colorado. I remember spending half an hour one Saturday morning calling all the Greek Restaurants in the area to find out "the name of that thing you light on fire and then shout 'oopah'?" I found one restaurant open. The woman on the other end of the line found the brief exchange hysterically funny. "Saganaki! That's it!" It was published several years later (2005) in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet , a wonderful speculative and/or fabulist fiction magazine from Small Beer Press.
The Small Beer catalogue includes some of the best writers in the biz at the moment: Ted Chiang, Karen Joy Fowler, Kelly Link, Maureen McHugh, Geoff Ryman, on and on... They also have a Creative Commons on their website where you can download entire books from their catalogue FOR FREE (Of course, if you do this, and you like the book, you’re eventually going to buy one, right? I thought so.)
Now that three entertainment corporations control most of the large publishing houses, the small presses are pretty much the only ones publishing all the work that lies outside the tired-and-true marketing categories of “celebrity cookbook” or “celebrity memoir”.
All hail the small presses! Support them when you can.