Pulp.net - Goodbye Fort Knox

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November 2008
GOODBYE,
FORT KNOX

Nimer Rashed
In the summer of ’95 I got a job sticking flyers under the windscreen wipers of parked cars. The flyers were all the same – solid purple card, expensive, stencilled with jagged, bright gold lettering that read
goodbye-rashed-

‘2-4-1 FRIDAY NITES @ THE ACROPOLIS!!’

The phrase was flanked on either side by blurry black and white headshots: one of George Michael looking pained and one of Anthony Quinn. In case these visual clues were insufficient, someone had thoughtfully added the words ‘Greek Taverna/Restaurant!’ underlined twice in black felt tip.

It was a perfect match. I needed the cash, and Mr Leoussis (known universally as ‘the Don’) needed the customers. Every morning I’d cycle to the restaurant with an empty backpack, a walkman set to auto-reverse and a mix tape bursting with Mingus. I’d make my way up the alleyway, past the black bags bulging with leftover moussaka and knock on the side door. Eventually the door would creak open, and slowly the man himself would emerge: eighteen stones of gastronomic expertise ballooning out of bright blue pyjamas.

‘Hey Pedro,’ he’d say, blinking into the sunlight. ‘How’s Fort Knox?’

‘Fine.’

‘Good,’ he’d say. ‘That’s good.’ Then he’d hand me a plastic bag full of flyers and watch as I knelt down and stuck them in my backpack. Sometimes the door would close right away; other times he’d politely wait for a moment as I strained to click the buckle, idly scratching his testicles or making a noise with his nose like a horse chewing carrots. Then the door would click shut and off I’d fly.

I don’t know why he called me Pedro. I do know that right from the beginning, from when I answered the ad in the window of Mick’s, the local newsagent, that the Don had avoided the question of payment with ruthless cunning.

‘Oh Pedro — not on empty stomach,’ he said to me over the phone.

‘My name’s not Pedro,’ I said, peering at the ad in my hand, worried I’d got the wrong number.

‘Oh Pedro, Pedro,’ he said. ‘Come to my restaurant, then we talk.’

It was my first visit to the Acropolis. I’d been past it a hundred times, but in those days my family didn’t eat out much, and I’d never been inside. I had a great lunch that afternoon — soft, juicy dolmades and tender lamb souvlaki — but when I asked about how much I’d be getting paid all I got was a waved hand and more stories about his family back in Thessaloniki.

Two hours later, sated with one of the richest, most satisfying meals I’ve ever had, the Don wiped his lips and told me he had something for me. He disappeared for a moment. I looked around me at the red walls, the glowing chandelier, and listened to the gentle thrum of lute, tambourine, and zither. This was heaven, I thought. I sat back in my chair, and was pouring my third cup of coffee when the Don returned carrying a small plastic bag filled with water. Inside it was a fish, bright red, with white fins that gleamed in the Acropolis’s silver light.

‘I call him Fort Knox,’ he said. ‘Pedro — take.’

‘Thank you,’ I said. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that I was being railroaded, hoodwinked, that the last thing I needed was a fish for crying out loud, but then no–one had ever given me a fish before. I said ‘thank you’ again. The Don shook his head, shrugging a little, as if to say, ‘this is how we do it in the Old Country, kiddo,’ or maybe, ‘hey, Pedro — it’s only a fish.’ Either way, I was so humbled at this kindness that the prospect of bringing up the subject of money again was quite out of the question. I stumbled off into the night consumed by olive oil and ouzo, watching streetlights twirl like Zorba, blissfully unaware that I’d been played, expertly, like the sucker I was.

The next fortnight went by quickly. One of the joys of mindless jobs is not having to think — but when you’re fourteen and it’s summer there’s plenty to be thinking about; like girls and how to get them, as well as more penetrating matters such as the obtaining of women and the acquirement of lady-friends. I already knew the basics; that all you needed was one quality that’d make you stand out from the crowd, and I’d decided that my mine would be music. For a while I threw myself into learning jazz piano — Monk, Evans, Hancock, Tyner — before I eventually realised that girls weren’t impressed by jazz, women were, and since such creatures belonged to a world of late night gin joints with ‘Members Only’ stencilled above the door, I’d be better off taking up guitar and learning the intro to ‘Under The Bridge’ like everyone else.

After two weeks I’d left out so many flyers that the streets were beginning to look like Cadbury’s tinfoil. When I’d finished with wipers, I posted on lampposts. When I finished with lampposts, I posted on doorknobs. After the doorknobs came the letterboxes, the windowsills, the flowerpots and the washing-lines, and when, one Thursday evening, my final flyer went to a flea-bitten dog licking a fire hydrant with flagrant, rabid joy, I ran out altogether.

I decided to head back to the Acropolis. I hopped on my bike and hit play, sliding straight into the first track of Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus. Sixty seconds of spidery bassline kicked in. A sprinkling of horns. A hiss of snare, a squawking wail of trumpets, and before I knew it I had reached the alleyway. The air smelled warm, and sweat trickled down my back. I’d been on my feet since morning, and felt that mixture of achy weariness and quiet satisfaction that marks the completion of a hard day’s work. I left my bike in its usual spot and tapped on the door. When no reply came I tapped again, harder, and the door gave way, creaking as it opened.

‘Hello?’ I said, peering inside. ‘Mr Leoussis? It’s Pedro.’

Inside it was dark. At this point, I was faced with two options: hop on my bike and forego the happy rustle of crisp notes on my way home, or step inside and request what I’d rightfully earned. I decided to step inside.

Immediately I wished I hadn’t. The room was entirely black. From the quiet hum I assumed that this was the kitchen, but I couldn’t be sure. I walked for a few moments, arms outstretched, until I reached cold tiling. I followed this for a while, shuffling to my left, hoping to happen across a light switch as I fumbled into emptiness, until the silence was broken by a loud, hi-hat, clattering crash. I stood still for a moment, unsure what to do next. A moment later, I heard the sound of footsteps rapidly descending a stairwell. The footsteps got closer, then stopped.

‘Who’s there?’ said a woman’s voice. ‘I’m calling the police!’

‘I’m, uh, the leaflet guy,’ I said. ‘The Don — Mr Leoussis? He hired me to hand out leaflets. When I ran out I—’

The door opened, and light came flooding in. I shielded my eyes.

‘You don’t look like a Pedro’ said the voice. Slowly its owner came into focus. It was a girl, about my age, with pale green eyes and thick black hair, lips like I’d never seen before, hips that made my eyes swirl, and legs that curved towards the floor ending in perfect curls of feet framed in elegant black sandals. She stood in front of me, arms crossed, tapping a sandal on the floor, uncertain what to make of me. I wondered if she liked jazz.

‘What’s your name?’ I said.

‘Apphia,’ she said. ‘Everyone calls me Pippi.’

‘Hi,’ I said, holding out my hand. ‘Sorry if I scared you.’

She looked at my hand for a moment, then shook it. ‘Do you work here?’ I said, keen to keep the conversation going as long as possible.

‘Do I?’ She rolled her eyes. ‘When I was five they had me stuffing vine leaves between episodes of Playbus. While my friends were kissing boys behind the bike sheds, I was at home buttering baklava. I’m like a prisoner.’ She stood there for a moment, twirling her finger through her hair, making ringlets.

‘Sounds awful,’ I said, full of understanding. We stood there for a few moments. Unsure what else to say, I knelt down to pick up the casserole lid I’d knocked on the floor. I took my time on the way up.

‘I’m sorry if I scared you,’ I said again.

She smiled and looked into my eyes. At that moment my heart went into a freewheeling, hard-bop, Live at the Village Vanguard Again tailspin, notes flying in all directions, the melody flailing madly, uncaring.

‘Do you, uh — do you like jazz?’ I said.

Her smile grew larger. I knew it. Her eyebrows tilted towards the ceiling, her eyes shining. She opened her mouth and—

‘Apphia!’ boomed a voice from upstairs. ‘Who are you talking to?’

The smile was gone. ‘Quick!’ she hissed, ushering me towards the door. ‘He’ll be here any minute!’

‘But can’t I just—?’

‘He’ll go mental if he sees you. Please.’

‘But I still haven’t been—’

‘Now,’ she said, pushing me outside. I stood on the step and watched her looking over her shoulder. She turned around and peered through the door. For the first time I understood the whole Helen of Troy thing.

‘You’re sweet,’ she said, blowing a kiss. Then she closed the door and was gone.

I stood in the alleyway for a moment, dazed. Then, reasoning that now was probably not the best time to find out just why everyone called Mr Leoussis ‘the Don’, I hopped on my bike and pedalled silently into the dark.

Two weeks passed until I worked up the nerve to go back, but by the time I did the Acropolis was already boarded shut. It turned out the Don wasn’t such a great businessman. Hiring me to blanket the town in advertising had been a last-ditch effort; the restaurant had been in the red for months. Some said he’d gone back to Thessaloniki with his family. Others said he’d moved to Iver Heath. After a few months, the restaurant was replaced with a chip shop, then an Apollo Video. Now I hear it’s a tanning salon.

For a few months, whenever I was passing by on my bike, I rode up the alleyway leading to the side entrance, hoping to catch a whiff of rotting moussaka in the air, or to see a man in bright blue pyjamas having an early morning cigarette. Once, the side door flew open. My heart stopped, and I looked up hopefully as a young guy in a purple shell suit tossed out a rubbish bag, barking into a mobile phone about placing twenty quid on Legolas the Brave. I never went back there again.

Sometimes I like to think that somewhere out there the Don opened another restaurant; that it’s thriving, teeming with customers clinking glasses of sambuca and smashing plates into the small hours, holding hands as they sing along to the folk songs of Dionysis Savvopoulos. That there’s another kid out there who spent his summer covering his neighbourhood with tastefully designed flyers, but who actually got paid for the trouble.

I thought I saw Pippi once. I was in a record shop, browsing, and a woman with thick black hair picked up the latest Brad Mehldau CD. If it was her, I hope she’s happy. I hope she managed to escape the family business.

Fort Knox died a week ago. I named my new fish Pedro.





© Nimer Rashed 2006
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