Fatima, My Fatima

by Willard Manus

I’d passed the shop countless times but hadn’t ever paid much attention to it, until the day music suddenly blared from it–-plangent, hypnotic music. Greek music.

The shop was small, no bigger than a hole in the wall. But its shelves were filled with musical instruments in varying stages of repair. Sitting behind the counter was a man with a thick, bushy moustache playing what he later said was a baglama. The tiny stringed instrument looked like a toy in his hands, but what sounds he got out of it-–wild rushes of notes, then slow, climbing passages, then back to the note he started on, and again and again. He kept hitting that note as if he couldn’t get free of it, and broke off, only to catch it again, this time beating out the rhythm with his foot.

Finishing with a dramatic flourish, he put the baglama down and asked in a gravelly voice, “What can I do for you?”

“I heard the music and wondered about it.”

He was the Charlie of the front door sign–-“Charlie’s Music Shop.” But his real name was Charalambos and he was a Greek from the island of Rhodes by way of the cabarets of Athens and Piraeus.

“For twenty years I played in those cabarets,” he said, over tiny cups of Greek coffee which he had bubbled up on a hot plate. “Every night, from nine pm until three in the morning.”

“Why did you leave Greece?”

“I saw in the newsreels the man who had just taken over in Germany. I could tell from the way Hitler spoke that he was fanatical and dangerous. I realized he was going to set Europe on fire. So I gathered my family, sold all of my belongings, and sailed off to Nea Yorkie.”

Charlie had been here ever since, making a living selling new and used Oriental instruments, and playing on weekends at a Greek restaurant on Eighth Avenue.

That was how I became an habitue of the Acropolis Bar & Grill, which sat a few blocks from Madison Square Garden, along with several other Greek joints. The Acropolis was a large, seedy but congenial place. When you entered you were hit with a blast of music (played by Charlie and three other musicians who sat perched like crows on a small, narrow bandstand). Then you came upon a display case packed with Greek delicacies: taramosalata, feta, eggplant, tzadziki, butter beans, octopus, squid, tiny meatballs, sardines, and more.

Prices were reasonable, portions were generous, wine was drawn from a barrel and served in beakers: reds, whites, and roses, plus a noxious potion called retsina. I found myself eating with gusto and watching people dance to the spirited folk music. Twice a night an Egyptian belly-dancer named Fatima came flouncing out.

She was tall, voluptuous and exotic, with kohl-rimmed eyes, long, lustrous black hair and fire-red fingernails. Clad in a veil and pantaloons, an embroidered brassiere and coin-decorated belt, she swept round the dance floor, clacking her castanets, undulating to the sexual beat laid down by Charlie’s band. I was mesmerized by her, especially by the glittering rhinestone in her navel.

I pleaded with Charlie for an introduction, only to be turned down. “She’s not for you,” he said.

“How do you know that?”

“Take my word for it,” he snapped. “Stay the hell away from her.”

I persisted, though, and kept after him. “I’m crazy about her,” I said. “I dream about her.”

“Bah!” was his scornful response.

I soon learned that Charlie looked down on belly-dancing as a foreign aberration which had no place in traditional Greek pop music. “It’s strictly a tourist attraction, a gimmick!”

He also saw danger in my infatuation with Fatima. “She’s the girlfriend of the owner of the Acropolis, Diogenis Markiou.”

“Wait a minute. Isn’t he married with kids?”

“So what? It’s a rare Greek male who doesn’t have a mistress.”

“Including you?”

“Including me, except my mistress isn’t a woman, it’s my music. It always comes first with me.”

Because I was young and fearless–-make that foolish–-I paid Charlie no mind. I insinuated myself into Fatima’s orbit, sitting front-row every Saturday night and tucking a ten-dollar bill into her belt as she came close, belly undulating as if it had a life of its own. I watched her every move, eagerly, hungrily.

Finally, after weeks of cajoling, Charlie caved in, muttering,

“All right, I’ll make the introduction. But remember this, you have been warned–-Markiou is a very hard man and should not be trifled with.”

* * *

Fatima and I met for coffee on a Monday morning, at a café in Little Italy. “Ordinarily I don’t mingle with the patrons of the Acropolis, but you stood out with that smile of yours and your generous tips. So when Charlie vouched for you I decided to break my rules and spend a little time with you,” she said.

I learned a few things about her. Her name, for example, was not really Fatima, but Mary. Mary Antonio. And she had been born, not in Egypt, but here in Little Italy. She had grown up wanting to be a ballet-dancer but had flunked out because she was too tall and heavy by classical standards. So she became a chorus girl instead, a hoofer who was willing to take whatever jobs came her way.

“My agent said he could get me a hundred bucks a night if I learned to belly-dance, so what the hell, I figured it was worth the try. I took a few classes, bought some gear, and voila, turned myself into Fatima, an Egyptian hootchie-cootcher,” she said with a self-deprecating laugh.

She’d been working Greek ever since, building up a following...and eking out a living.

“Now tell me about yourself,” she said.

“There isn’t much to tell. I got out of college last year and have been living in Greenwich Village ever since, working on a novel.”

“How do you support yourself? Do you have a job?”


“Are you a rich kid with an allowance?”

I smiled at that–-and told her my secret.

“I get by on unemployment insurance–-seventy-five bucks a week. I swung a deal, you see. I asked a friend of mine, who runs a mail-order company, to put me on his payroll. He doesn’t actually pay me a salary, but the state doesn’t know that. I stay on my friend’s payroll for as long as it takes for me to qualify for unemployment. That gives me nine months to work full-time on my novel.”

She smiled. “So you’re a scammer, a guy who knows how to work the angles.”

“We’re like each other in that regard,” I said. “We’ve both got a nice little hustle going, don’t we?”

We talked more openly after that but it didn’t result in a date to meet again.

“I’m tied up with Diogenis Markiou,” she explained. “He pays my rent and then some. I’m not a free woman.”

“How long will that arrangement last? He’ll surely get tired of you, no?”

“Doesn’t matter. I need his help right now. You see, I’ve got a kid. He’s five. I’m bringing him up on my own.”

“Where’s his father?”

“He split when we got divorced, disappeared somewhere, so he wouldn’t have to pay child support.”

“What a bastard.”

“Tell me about it.”

I put my hand on hers.

“You’ve had a tough time with men, haven’t you? Well, it’ll be different with me. I truly do care for you.”

“How can you say a thing like that? You hardly know me.”

“Doesn’t matter. I am powerfully attracted to you. It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever felt this way.”

She sighed and said, “I’m flattered. But I’ve got to be honest with you. I can’t afford to get involved with a guy who’s scraping by on unemployment insurance.”

“That could change,” I said. “I might just hit it big with my novel. I might become rich enough to replace the rhinestone in your navel with a diamond.”

She laughed again. “That would be something, wouldn’t it? I’d love to transition from rhinestones to diamonds. But in the meantime I gotta be practical, I gotta do whatever it takes to get over.”

Her honesty derailed me for a while. I quit going to the Acropolis, ended my pursuit of her. But then, gradually, desire grew strong in me again. I returned to the Acropolis and began sticking ten-dollar bills in Fatima’s satin pantaloons once more. I also slipped her little gifts: flowers, perfume, a charm bracelet which I had found in the Lexington Avenue subway a few years earlier. She was tickled to receive those things, she told Charlie, but still refused to go out with me.

Then came the night when she arrived at the Acropolis sporting a black eye.

“What happened to her?” I asked Charlie.

“Markiou smacked her around.”


“She displeased him in some way.”

“Has this ever happened before?”

“It’s the first time, but it won’t be the last. That’s how bums like Markiou treat their women.”

Fatima sent word that she was now willing to have dinner with me. I knew she was doing this to spite Markiou, not because she was suddenly crazy about me. But I refused to let it bother me. I was happy for the chance to spend time with her, nibble on whatever crumbs she tossed my way.

We met at the Half Note Café on Hudson Street, where we had dinner and listened to Charlie Mingus and his sextet play wild, provocative jazz, all screaming horns and clashing chords.

We drank hard and began to get tipsy. “I’m mad about you,” I blurted out. “I feel all shaky inside when I think of you.”

“Stop it,” she said. “Don’t talk like that. It isn’t right.”

But we kept drinking and talking...and exchanging kisses. Finally, after much persuasion, she agreed to go with me to my cold-water flat on MacDougal Street.

It was four flights up and she was wheezing when we reached it. She looked round at the living room with its stacks of papers and books, its ancient kerosene heater, its grimy walls and windows, and said, “It looks like a goat cave. How can you live like this?”

“What do you expect for seventeen bucks a month–-the Taj Mahal?”

She laughed and then did something unexpected. She began to take her clothes off, slowly and provocatively, watching to see the impact it had on me. I stared at her nakedness, her beauty, and at the sight of the rhinestone in her bellybutton. It gave me a steel-like erection which would not quit. We sank down on my Salvation Army couch and began to make love. I was frantic with lust and began to pile-drive her. But then, with her long legs wrapped around me and her breasts pressed tight against me, she forced me to slow down, whispering, “No need to rush, sweetie. Take your time. Lots and lots of time.”

Later, as we lay in an embrace, she said, “I had a feeling it would be good with you. And it was. You gave me the longest and best orgasm of my life.”

* * *

When I let Charlie know what had happened, he looked askance and said, “You shouldn’t have slept with her.”

“Why the hell not?”

“I repeat. You’re playing with fire.”

We were sitting in his shop, over the usual cups of Greek coffee. Outside, September rain poured down in noisy sheets.

“It’s a good way to get warm,” I said flippantly.

“Don’t talk like a fool. Your infatuation with Fatima is a risky thing. It will have consequences.”

Once again I sloughed off his warning. I went to the Acropolis that evening, sat down and ordered dinner. This brought Diogenis Markiou over. He was a short, fat man in a mismatched suit and tie. There was a nasty look in his eyes.

“I don’t want you in my club,” he said. “Leave and don’t ever come back!”

As I began to protest, two waiters grabbed hold of me and dragged me to the front door. Charlie watched impassively from his perch on the bandstand. He held a smouldering cigarette in his left hand, tucked between ring finger and pinkie.

I didn’t go home, though. Instead I walked to Times Square, where I killed the next three hours watching “adult” films in a small, shit-smelling movie-house. Then I returned to the Acropolis and waited in the alleyway for Fatima to step out of the back door.

When she did, she wasn’t alone; she was accompanied by Diogenes Markiou.

I went up to her and said, “Come home with me. You know we care for each other. We’ll figure out how to make a life together.”

Tears came to her eyes. She made a sign of wanting to obey but then caught herself and turned toward Markiou’s waiting Mercedes. I tried to stop her only to be grabbed by him.

“Fuck off,” he said. “Fuck off, malaka!”

Then he punched me in the stomach, a vicious blow that caught me unprepared and dropped me to my knees.

* * *

Late the next morning I went to see Charlie again. He listened as I unburdened myself. Then he sighed, picked up his baglama and began to pick out a slow, deliberate, pain-soaked tune. He also sang along with it, first in Greek, then in English. The lyrics went like this:

“Ah, you bitch, you wound me so much

You make me a slave with your tricks.

You’ve sent me off my head

And I’ll never get my heart back again.”