Pale Surface Of Things

A novel by Janey Bennett

Chapter One

It was ten o'clock. The Cathedral bells thudded through the hot, still air. Tourists emerged from their hotels to buy mementos of their holiday in Crete before the day grew so hot they could do nothing but lie on a lounge chair near the hotel swimming pool. The lucky ones landed at Big Kosas' taverna at the top of the old city for breakfast.

Three Danes, shaky from the night before, were drinking their breakfast: several lagers with a chaser of tsikoudia. Singly and together, they asked Kostas, “Where’s the Amerikan?”

The American they wanted was Douglas Watkins, who traded free room and board for chatting up Kostas’s tourists every night. Kostas was also wondering where Douglas was. The boy was late for his own wedding.

August 18th. The wedding party that assembled in the mayor’s office lacked only the groom to proceed with the ceremony. The hour of the wedding was linked to the departure of the cruise ship the couple would take for their honeymoon.

At one-minute intervals one guest or another went down the black-and-white-striped marble stairs to the foyer to look for the groom. The guests were the entire staff of the George Hanson Institute of Minoan Archaeology, based in Chania but supported through Laronwood University, a small, private college in the outskirts of St. Louis, Missouri. The waiting bride was Denise Hanson, daughter of George and niece of Les Hanson, Dean of Laronwood U. The tardy groom had been in Crete for ten weeks on a student fellowship with the Institute, digging for signs of a missing Minoan palace.

At that very moment, he was running toward Kostas’s taverna from the seawall.

Kostas yelled at him, “Hurry up, you’re late.”

The Danes yelled, “Come and talk to us!”

Douglas yelled, “I can’t. I’m late,” and he ran up the wooden staircase to his third floor room. As he went, he yelled down, “Hey, Kostas. Call the Institute and tell them the truck got towed, will you?”

“What happened to you? Where you been?” Kostas yelled up the staircase.

Douglas’s voice came back down, muffled by the clothing he was putting on. He came clumping down the stairs in new leather shoes. He was nearly into a new tailor-made summerweight worsted suit, grey, very nice, white shirt, not yet buttoned at the collar, turquoise and grey silk tie in his hand, short hair damp, and face red.

"You go to the digging place today? Why? She’ll be mad. You know?”

“I know. I had to check the gate against goats. I forgot yesterday.” He paused in front of an Irish Stout mirror to tie the necktie.

The Danes lurched to their feet and toasted him. “Skaal! Douglas!” They sank back into their chairs in a cascade of laughter.

“Where’s the truck?”

“Take me to the mayor’s and I’ll tell you.”

The morning grew hotter. The two men ran to Kostas’s red Honda minibike. Kostas kickstarted it and they were off, down Theotokopoulou Street crawling carefully between the tourists and then bumping down the sloping steps the Venetians built for their donkey-carts.

“Did you reach anyone at the Institute?”

“Nobody home. Too late. What happened to it?”

“Highway construction. Big hole in the paving. No barrier. The axle broke.”

“You got to face them cold. Just say ‘I do and I broke your truck.’ Here you go.”

He pulled up in front of the Dimarchion, the City Hall. Douglas leapt off, said, “Thanks for the ride,” and ran to the door.

In the mayor’s office upstairs, the mayor of Chania stood to one side, regarding the wedding party. He knew it was a bad idea to have an American wedding in his lovely office. He murmured a prayer to the Holy Mother of God that she should see to it these people would not spill that sweet punch or the soft goat cheese onto his beautiful deeply padded blue carpet, especially that soft cheese, or if they did, that they wouldn’t grind it in.

He had decorated the office himself, covered the walls with chrome-and-glass bookcases which he enhanced with photos of himself with celebrity visitors and his collection of crystal paperweights.

He should have never agreed to this.

The bride was a perky young blonde in a backless dress the color of mustard flowers. Her substantial parents were taking up most of the air in the room. The bride’s father was in some big clothing business. The mayor guessed that was why the bride and her parents looked so unwrinkled, as if their clothing had just come from a shop instead of in suitcases flown half way around the world.

The bride’s mother was in lime green linen, a well-bred dress and jacket, with a single strand of large pearls at her throat. Her hair was smooth, like sheet plastic. The father, Mr. Big Shot, paced back and forth in a lightweight blue blazer and white slacks with a red and blue striped tie.

The rest of the guests were wrinkled. A number of young men were milling about, wearing the only clean clothing left in their backpacks. Were they workers? Mr. Hanson’s staff? Of what? Which one was the groom? The bride seemed to ignore all of them.

There was one older man who was wearing a khaki drip-dry travel suit. He spoke Greek with a strange accent. Hovering around him was a Cretan woman who seemed to be his caretaker.

Every few minutes the bride checked either the wall clock or her wristwatch. Her smile froze on her face, and frown lines appeared on her tanned forehead.

Her mother talked to the guests. She explained to some of them, sotto voce so the mayor wouldn’t hear, that they had found this adorable young Orthodox priest who was from San Francisco—with perfect English too!—and they had wanted him to perform the service, but he’d gotten coy about doing it, so they’d just refused to negotiate. The mayor would have to do.

Denise interrupted her. “I still think if Daddy had offered him a little more money he would have done it. I mean, to be married by a man dressed in an outfit like that, on a windy empty beach, would have been like in a movie. So romantic.”

The bride’s father had heard this scenario before. He leaned into the conversation and said, “There aren’t any empty beaches on Crete in August, Denise. And the priest said no. Then you asked to have the service in those locked Minoan ruins in the center of town, remember? Well,” his teeth gleamed, “it didn’t work out. So be happy with this wedding, honey. You’ll have the big church wedding in October, back home.”

She kissed him. “I am happy, Daddy.” She looked around again for her groom.

Quarter past ten. The bride asked for water. Someone brought her a cup of punch. The wedding guests stopped milling about and retreated to the space along the walls. A few began nervously nibbling on olives from the platters of local specialties placed out on the conference table. Apprehension settled over the room. George Hanson sidled up to the small man who spoke Greek, and, out of the side of his mouth, said, “Do something!”

Roland Ducor was Director of the George Hanson Institute of Minoan Archaeology. He was Belgian, a small man, dressed, as usual, in his khaki drip-dry travel suit, white shirt, and bow tie. In honor of this occasion, his suit had been pressed by the Chania Dry Cleaners, so he did not, for a change, look as if he had slept in it. He was sartorially respectful today because the bride’s father, George Hanson himself, was the principal source of funds for the Institute.

There was a slight chance the groom’s absence might be, in part, his fault. He’d had a nervous feeling when he’d said yesterday, “Douglas, I’ve sent Efthikas home sick, so you’re responsible for locking the site tonight. Don’t forget it.”

There’d been a little celebration at the end of the workday, and everyone had some beers and then wandered off to take Douglas drinking on the night before his wedding.

No one would be working at the site for the next week. Those goats got into things, even when people were there. If they got past the fencing and fell into the open pits, they would starve—unless they broke their necks in the fall. He would have to pay the shepherd.

It might have been better if Ducor had gone out to the site to check the fencing himself and left Douglas to his pre-wedding preparations. But Douglas was a responsible person. Mostly responsible. Ducor felt stifled by the heat.

He could not help acting officious every time George Hanson was around. The man made him nervous. Now something had gone wrong and Douglas was late. Ducor’s stomach fell and his skin felt crawly. He knew it was not the flu. It was fear.

He approached the mayor and asked to borrow the telephone. When he dialed the taverna where Douglas stayed, there was no answer. His breath began to come in short, irregular gasps. Another asthma attack. He looked for his secretary, Athina, who caught his signal and fished a puffer out of her purse. He shook it and sprayed it into his throat. She found him a chair to sit in, then stood by, watchful.

At that moment, a form appeared beyond the obscuring wire-glass door. The door burst open and a guest-sentry appeared, saying “He’s here, he’s here. He’ll be right up.”

The guests livened up. Ducor’s asthma attack stopped. People straightened their clothing and attended the door. Denise looked at the wall clock. Her face changed color. It went dark and her eyes flashed sparks. She stared at the empty wire-glass in the door.

A shadow crossed it, the door opened again, and the groom appeared.

His eyes searched for Denise. At first, he couldn’t focus. Then he saw the color of her dress. He jumped out of the way as a glass sphere came at him. It hit the door jamb and rolled elliptically to a stop. It was a rabbit. No time to think why a glass rabbit should come at him.

He said, “Denise, I’m sorry. The truck broke down. I couldn’t get back.”

Another glass thing came at him. He jumped to one side. “It had to be towed… ”

“LATE! You’re LATE!” Denise was sweeping the bookcase with her arm, reaching for another missile.

“But listen! I had to get a taxi and the tow yard is way out of town …nearly to Rethimnon, I think.”

The mayor placed himself between Denise and her target, and tried to pry the third paperweight from her hand. He was speaking sternly to her…something in Greek.

Denise was yelling, “LATE! LATE! LATE!!!”

Her mother’s hands were flapping.

The guests flattened themselves against the far wall.

George Hanson appeared next to Douglas, whose arm was suddenly in a grip so tight his hand began to throb.

“You promised you wouldn’t be late today, Douglas,” Hanson said, in a dangerous tone. “You’ve been late for every goddamned event since eighth grade.”

His hand closed tighter on Douglas’s arm. “Let me explain something to you, son…in case you didn’t get it before now. Mrs. Hanson and I have sunk years into grooming you because Denise wanted you. I made you into someone who could marry my daughter and take over the business.”

His face got larger and redder. It filled Douglas’s field of vision.

“We’ve done everything for you and you’ve dragged along like a goddamned cork on the water. Couldn’t you do your part—get here on time? Just once?”

A swirl of movement, green and mango, flew past. It was his bride and her mother, moving fast around the room. Denise was howling. Guests scrambled out of their way.

“I went to all your goddamned track meets. I sponsored you for the Junior Executive Training Corps. I was there for you. I was the father your dead father couldn’t be. Wasn’t I?”

Douglas was frozen to the floor. His eyes were open but he saw nothing.

“Wasn’t I?”

Douglas managed to nod. He was aware of the sound of constricted screaming.

“And what about Mrs. Hanson? That poor woman has cared about you! She cooked for you. She taught you to drive. The Hanson family has been good to you, Douglas.

“You pay us back like this! All along you’ve been forgetful. You’re late for everything. The only thing we asked was that you be on time and you still came late.

“Today is the wedding, your wedding, AND YOU’RE LATE! It’s not like you didn’t know when it was. We’re all here on Crete so you could do your archaeology thing. We could have been back in St. Louis!

“Now you have hurt Denise. Look at her!”

Douglas saw Denise and the mayor in a struggle for a large crystal paperweight.

“If I ever hear that you have hurt her again, Douglas, I swear I will kill you—and not quickly, either. I’ll kill you slowly, with a lot of pain.”

Denise let go of the mayor’s paperweight. She looked around for something else to throw. The guests scattered.

Douglas’s feet began to jog in place. Trouble stretched ahead of him, as far as his eye could see.

From some part of Douglas’s spirit, a small voice spoke to him. It said, Run. Run! Turn and run out of this office! Run! NOW!

So he did.