poly-phy-let-ic-\päl-i-(,)fi-'let-ik adj. [ISV, fr. Gk polyphylos of many tribes, fr. poly- + phyl tribe--more at PHYL] (1875): of or relating to more than one stock; specif: derived from more than one ancestral line.
--Merriam Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary
Once upon a time, many thousands of years ago, a mortal named Sisyphus offended the ancient gods on Mt. Olympos. Although the exact nature of his offense is somewhat obscure, his punishment has been well documented. Sisyphus was doomed to spend eternity rolling a huge boulder up a steep hill, only to reach the top and watch it careen back down again. A never-ending, thankless task was Sisyphus's. Then the Greeks discovered the restaurant, and the rock was rendered obsolete.
So it was that my husband, Nick, a descendent of the wretched Sisyphus himself, was once again toiling at his rock--that is, the Oracle, our cafe in Delphi--when the door opened and trouble sauntered in. The badge glittered in the morning sun, and the man who held it next to his shoulder smiled humorlessly.
"Let me call my husband," I said, backing away from him. I scurried through the wait station and into the kitchen. Nick was on the floor with a plumber's snake, twisting it into the floor drain. The expletives were flowing thick and fast. Although I didn't know their exact translation, I caught on to the spirit quickly enough.
"Nick, we may have a problem."
"We do have a problem." He pulled the snake back, coiling itas he pulled. "Otis. I've told him and told him to sweep the floor before he hoses it down. I don't know how he does it, but he can force more garbage through this grate--" He struck his bare arm down into the pipe and pulled out a bottle cap, holding it up for me to see.
"Look at that! He must be taking the grate off before he hoses it down. If I catch him ..."
"Nick, there's another problem. He's waiting for you in the dining room. You have to come now. Now, Nick!"
"Who is it?"
The man himself stood behind me in the kitchen door. Nick scrambled up, grabbed the snake, and tossed it onto the skirt of the dish machine. "I'm Nick Lambros."
The man held up his badge again. "Richard Fortunata. Internal Revenue Service."
His voice had a godfather rasp to it, and he pronounced his name in thick Bronx--Faw-chu-nah-tuh. Nick extended his hand, but Fortunata backed away, flipping the badge case closed and returning it to the breast pocket of his jacket. He stared pointedly at Nick's hand.
"Just a minute," Nick said, stepping over to the hand sink. He lathered his hands and arms thoroughly. Fortunata, meanwhile, stayed in the doorway, but his glance roved over the kitchen as though he were taking inventory: one double convection oven, one Hobart dish machine, three stainless steel work tables ... I imagined numbers ringing up in his eyes, like a human adding machine. Nick dried his arms and hands on a clean bar mop and beckoned Fortunata back out into the dining room.
"Can I get you some coffee?" I said, following them.
Fortunata shook his head somberly. He laid his briefcase on the family table and popped it open, withdrawing a thick manila file and dropping it on the table. Inside the briefcase, a picture ID wasclipped to an inside pocket. The face that stared out of the picture was dark, swarthy, stern to threatening. A face without humor--an agent who would take no prisoners.
Although they were not visible in the photograph, his most outstanding features were the long, black hair he wore in a heavy ponytail at the nape of his neck, and the single gold earring--a thick, filigreed hoop--that dangled from his right earlobe. I thought his resemblance to Blackbeard was not entirely incompatible with his job.
"Nick, I need to find Spiros and discuss, um, the ... um ... Lions Club meeting with him."
"But it's all worked--"he called to my retreating back. When I glanced over my shoulder he was glaring at me. DESERTER was scrawled across his handsome features.
I don't like badges. My hands shake whenever I pass a sheriff's car on the road. My legs dissolve to grits when the deputies come in for lunch. Brown cars, brown uniforms, blue lights--they all evoke that same knee-knocking terror. One day in jail was all it took, conditioning me to fear authority figures from that time forward. B.F. Skinner would have had a field day with me.
I hurried back to the private dining room, dropped into a chair next to Spiros, closed my eyes, and tried to swallow my heart back down where it belonged. Our big cook didn't even seem to notice. He was poring over the morning copy of The Delphi Sun, just as he does every day.
I don't know why he does this, since he speaks very little English, never mind reading it. But as soon as the Buffaloes and the rest of the breakfast crowd clear out, Spiros grabs a mug of coffee, tucks the paper under his arm, and heads for the back dining room. There he carefully studies the printed word, grunts meaningfully as he turns it page by page, scrutinizes the world weather map, and ends with the daily horoscope. The latter, he scrutinizes at considerable length, often copying it word for word into a small notebook he carries in his breast pocket.
After the lunch rush, he returns to the table with his Greek-English dictionary and carefully translates the predictions for Aries--the sign he shares with Nick. It strikes me as a laborious task--especially when Nick would willingly translate it for him--but Spiros is highly superstitious and seems to feel that, when it comes to his horoscope, confidentiality is of the utmost importance. I have not pointed out to him that millions of people are reading the same words, probably at the very same time of the morning, right along with him.
He snapped his notebook shut, returned it to his pocket, and methodically refolded the newspaper before rising. "Poli zesti stin Athena,"he said, fanning himself with his hand. I was not especially interested in the heat in Greece.
"But." He held up an index finger. "Today, Zulia," he solemnly announced, "world still ex-kwee-zeet." With that, he took his cup and returned to the kitchen.
Spiros Papavasilakis is from the island of Crete, which, Nick tells me, distinguishes him from other Greeks in countless ways. He approaches every new task with the determination of Theseus facing the Minotaur. As a merchant seaman for many years, he learned to speak several languages fluently. English, unfortunately, was not one of them. But on the evening of December 31, as the clock tolled twelve times, Spiros announced his intention to spend the next year learning to speak English as well as the Queen Mum herself. Toward that end, Miss Alma had given Spiros a word-a-day calendar, thinking that it would broaden his grasp of the language. It had, instead, created some very perplexing situations in the kitchen.
If I was guessing correctly, I could go into the kitchen, check his calendar on the wall, and find that exquisite was Spiros's word for the day. He would have tried to find its equivalent in his extremely inadequate Greek-English dictionary, and failing that, would have translated the definition word for word as best he could. One of the definitions of exquisite would be fine, thus "today the world is still fine."
I had to give him credit--he was certainly trying to learn. Infact, not only did he practice his word for the day, but he kept a lexicon of his new words at the ready in his notebook. He did not try to conjugate these words, nor was he always clear on their part of speech, but I had found, early in the game, that trying to explain the finer points of English linguistics usually added to the general confusion. I was leaving that task to Miss Alma. Revenge is sweet.
Well, maybe the world was exquisite, but I wasn't doing too well. What did the IRS want with us? We filed our quarterly reports on time. We never cheated on our expenses. We withheld regularly from our employees' paychecks and always got their W-2s out before the end of January. But Richard Fortunata had not just stopped by for a cup of coffee and a little chat. Whatever he was here for, it was serious business.
And I was not going to think about it. I may be a Yankee, but Scarlett O'Hara and I share certain idiosyncrasies that I consider valuable for self-preservation. Get busy. Do something else, get your mind off it. Read the paper.
I snagged the Sun and spread it out on the table in front of me, wishing I had a cup of coffee but loath to return to the wait station to get it. The board of education was still fighting over redistricting. What could he possibly want? A professor at Parnassus University was being accused of sexual misconduct by a female student. Any other time, that might have made interesting reading. But not today. Maybe it has to do with tipping. Tammy probably isn't reporting all her tips. It would be just like her.
I flipped over to the horoscope for Virgo. "Day revolves around work. Get your priorities straight. Stay in touch with friends." Nothing new there. And how about that Aries message? "Obtain clue from Virgo, Sagittarius messages. Do not be sidetracked by trivial problems. Concentrate on the task at hand." Not a word about employees, taxes, badges. I returned to the front page, but couldn't work up any real interest in school redistricting.
Life in Delphi being a somewhat insular and self-important existence, world news was encapsulated in a single column on thesecond page. Trouble in Bosnia again. A minor earthquake in China. The First Lady's newest hairstyle was, once again, big news. Who cares, when the IRS comes knocking?
Billy's byline caught my eye. The headline read "Trouble Over Funeral Splits Mount Sinai Tabernacle Church." Above the article, two faces stared solemnly at me from a stark photograph taken in front of the little church. I knew one of those faces, the white one. Billy has been working on his writing style. The article was brief and to the point.
Trouble broke out at the meeting of the congregation of the Mount Sinai Tabernacle Church last night, when the pastor of the church, Reverend Allen McNabb, took the part of his daughter, April Folsom, over the burial of her stillborn child. Mrs. Folsom and her husband, Davon, appeared before the congregation to plead their infant son's right to be buried in the church cemetery.
The opposition, led by Walter Fry, a deacon in the 650-member church, claimed that it was not an issue of race, although Mr. Folsom is an African-American, but a matter of tradition.
"It's just always been that way," Fry declared. "You go to a black congregation and ask them to be buried in their cemetery, why, they'd laugh so hard they'd wake the rest of the dead! They got a perfectly good cemetery out there in Markettown. No reason the Folsom baby can't be buried there. There's a lot of us would even go to the funeral."
Asked to comment on the situation, Louis Thatcher Humphries, attorney for the Folsom family, stated that the church's refusal to allow the Folsom child to be buried in the Mount Sinai Tabernacle Cemetery is in violation of federal statutes.
"If the congregation persists in this position, I will have no recourse but to file charges of discriminationagainst the church. I don't want to do it, but they may leave me no alternative."
Fry responded to Humphries's allegations, stating that he would consult with the church's attorney before the congregation voted. Reverend McNabb was unavailable for comment. Reaction among other area churches was unanimous in its shock and condemnation of the position of Mount Sinai Tabernacle Church (see sidebar).
I skimmed the sidebar before my gaze returned to the photograph--to the narrow, girlish face of April McNabb, her fair complexion turned sallow, her pale eyes underscored by black bruises of grief. Next to her, with his arm over her shoulder, stood her husband, Davon. So they had married after all. And had a child. And the child was born dead. How much more tragic could life get?
I met April only once, during my brief stay in jail. She was there purely to be harassed for having a black boyfriend, a ploy instigated, she said, by her own father, in the hope that it would scare her into giving up Davon. April didn't really know how she felt about Davon then, only how she felt about her father. It was, at the time, a matter of principle with her. A matter of doing the right thing--fighting bigotry. I wondered again, as I had then, where Davon--the living, breathing man with feelings, needs, and dreams--fit into the whole scheme. In the picture, he stood with his feet apart, his left fist clenched, his jaw set. But his eyes were large, liquid, and sad. My heart went out to them both.
April couldn't know how she had affected me that day, giving me the courage to stand up and fight for myself and Nick. I owed her something. I wanted her to know that I shared her grief. I turned over to the Obituary section of the newspaper and scanned the column for the name Folsom. It was there. Only a few lines, as there were no accomplishments to list--no schools, jobs, marriages, children. No life. The baby, the article had said, was stillborn. The family would be receiving visitors at Statler's FuneralHome tonight between seven and eight o'clock. I grabbed the paper and hurried toward the front dining room, Fortunata all but forgotten. I found Nick sitting at the family table, glassy-eyed as he stared at a white paper in his hand.
Out in the parking lot, Agent Fortunata opened the door of a nondescript white sedan, tossed his briefcase on the seat, and shrugged out of his jacket. He hung it on a hook in the backseat, turned and stared at the Oracle for a moment before climbing into the car. Probably doing a casual property assessment. He gunned the ignition and tore out of the parking lot, on his way, I supposed, to deliver more bad news to some unsuspecting taxpayer. I turned back to Nick, who sat in the same position, with the same glazed expression. I pulled out the chair next to him.
"Okay," I said. "Tell me what he wanted."
Nick handed me a paper and my glance went straight to the bottom line. "Six thousand seven hundred and twenty-three dollars!"
"And forty-six cents," he added.
"We owe them that?"
"So he says."
I let the paper drop from my fingers, staring as it fluttered slowly to the floor. "How is that possible?"
"Penalties. Penalties and interest, accumulating for three years."
"What? Accumulating on what? We've always filed on time, paid quarterly. How can this be?"
Nick shrugged and jerked his chin toward the empty parking lot. "He says we've owed it for--" he counted backward on his fingers. "--eleven quarters. Claims they've sent us letters and we've ignored them. He's going to file a lien. On the house."
"On our house?"
"No, Julia. On Spiros's house. Of course, our house."
"Wait a minute. We haven't gotten any letters from them. Did he say he sent them himself?"
Nick shook his head. "Some other field agent. Fortunata just took over our ... case."
I stared at the figures in front of me. It couldn't be right. They had us mixed up with someone else. But it was our name on the notice. And it was our address. Nick's normally olive complexion had turned a dismal ocher. I took his hand and squeezed it.
"It's just a mistake, Nick. We'll get it straightened out. Don't worry."
Nick could not accompany me to the funeral home that night. He was busy resurrecting three years worth of tax records from the attic. I left him surrounded by files in our little makeshift home office and swung through Markettown to pick up Miss Alma.
Alma Rayburn is a retired teacher and a dear friend. We met her through Spiros, who lives next door and has assumed the care and tending of this very senior citizen. I didn't want to go to the funeral home alone, and Miss Alma was gracious enough to agree to go with me.
"I saw it in the paper this morning," she said as she climbed into the car. "But I didn't realize you knew the family."
"I don't. That is, I met April only once, but I feel so ... sad for her. I guess I just want her to know that I care." Miss Alma accepted this without question. Although she knew about my jail time, and was instrumental in solving the crime that had put me there, it was something we never discussed. The experience was too humiliating, too painful, for me to want to relive it.
I pulled into the parking lot of Statler's Funeral Home a few minutes after seven. A battered pickup truck, a black BMW sedan, a shiny green Jaguar, and four or five less distinctive cars were lined up in the lot. Not an overwhelming crowd. Potholes and weeds pockmarked the asphalt, confirming what I already knew--that Statler's was not the nicest funeral home in town. Their hallmark was low-budget bereavement.
Just as we reached the peeling double doors of the building, one of them flew open, slamming back against the clapboard wallof the building. "Oh my!" Miss Alma cried, as a man brushed past her, knocking her precariously back against the doorframe.
"Hey!" I grabbed her elbow to steady her, and spun around on my heel prepared to give him a piece of my mind. But I only caught a glimpse of his back before he climbed into the Jaguar and slammed the door. We watched openmouthed as he spun the wheel and tore out of the lot, leaving the weeds trembling in his wake.
"Walter," Miss Alma sighed, and shook her head. "He always was so impulsive."
"You know that man?"
"Indeed I do. I taught him, oh ..." Miss Alma closed her eyes for a moment. "I guess it's been well over thirty years ago now."
"Who is he?"
"That, my dear, is Walter Fry. Deacon of the Mount Sinai Tabernacle Church."
GO CLOSE AGAINST THE ENEMY. Copyright © 1998 by Takis and Judy Iakovou. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.