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Stratis' Remington by Paul Kennebeck

Paul Kennebeck was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant some time ago, based on a novel he published, along with a short story in Harper’s magazine entitled "Baldessari’s Dead Sea Flights," which was later anthologized. Over the years he has had short stories published in The Quarterly and some genre magazines and has published travel articles. A recently completed novel is in the hands of an agent.

When the writer Stratis Panotopoulos died, none of his editors knew it. 

For a long period, I believed Stratis was angry at being born. As time passed, it became clear he was pissed at the circumstances of being born, not at the act of being born itself. He was more than reasonable about it: “What can you do about being born? We have no say in it.”

He spoke with an accent. That was what he didn’t like. He was a well-read and clever man, but when quick wit emerges hidden in the brambles of a misunderstood accent, it is the accent that prevails. “Wit must be understood the moment it leaves the lips,” he told me. His accent was the reason he was not taken seriously.

“I come from a country of plosives, of glottal noises. Plus, any vagrant vowel looking for a home found a way into our language.”

He wrote stories. “My written stories don’t have accents. They only have the wit. But sometimes they don’t have that. So all you get is a story without an accent.”

Stratis wrote his stories on a card table in an area of the garage that had been cleared of garage-worthy implements: lawn mower, snow shovels, dirt shovels, pruning shears, brooms, rakes, grass catchers. These items were moved to the back patio, which wasn’t really a patio, more of a cement slab where there used to be brown grass.

Stratis said his wife allowed the yard implements to be stored on the patio because it had been her idea that he should work in the garage, out of the house. He told me some women would not recognize that because they ordered a man to move into a garage the items in the garage must be stored elsewhere. The garage was brick and concrete and had the cumulative odor of all the lawnmowers, shovels, and tires that had ever been stored in it. On the morning Stratis set up his writing table, he told me, “Plato believed there were ideal forms. An ideal chair. An ideal table. Somewhere there is an ideal garage with spilled oil, exhaust fumes, stacked boxes, paint cans, brooms, and herbicides.”

. . .

That might have been the reason his stories were seldom bought by magazines. At least at first. His characters quoted Plato and Montaigne. His stories had plots. Characters in his stories made themselves look foolish by purchasing used cars that would not run, by painting the outside window trim in a color that was on sale. His characters did not possess the skill to negotiate with shysters. They did not understand what had happened to them. The reader did.

Stratis typed his stories on a bulky, sturdy, black Remington typewriter built to last way beyond the technology that created it—so heavy he needed my help to lift it to his writing table. One time he asked me to help him find a store that sold typewriter ribbons. 

His stories were difficult to decipher because the typewriter’s letters—the letters that possessed open spaces: O, P, A, Q, U—had their open spaces filled with ink. The typewriter keys had never been cleaned. Then he asked me to help him find a store that sold devices that cleaned typewriter keys. 

I was behind on rent, living in a small brick home to the west of Stratis. The garage where Stratis wrote his stories was on the east side of his house. Marsha Lewing, who lived in the house next to the garage, complained about the noise of typing at night. Actually Marsha didn’t care. Her husband, a self-help professional, cared. So Stratis said he would close the garage door at night, a door that had been open to alleviate the heat and the odors. Stratis joked that he was going to write a story about Marsha’s husband. Apparently her husband regularly got on the phone and called in-laws and relatives and told them how much he despised them, carefully enumerating to them the reasons why they should be despised. Stratis thought it would make a good story. So did I. Because of all that happened, he never wrote it. Maybe I will. He told me the title: “If Families Were Countries, He’d Be Shot as a Traitor.”

. . .

Stratis mailed his ink-blotched stories to magazines whose addresses and editors were listed in the back of annual short story collections that he checked out at the Central Library downtown. He included a self-addressed, stamped envelope, put everything into a 9 1/2 by 12 1/2-inch brown envelope, and took it to the post office where it was weighed and mailed. Then he returned to the garage and started on his next story—more or less. He told me sometimes he couldn’t get started. “How do you begin a story?” he asked. 

After several months, one of the self-addressed envelopes would arrive with a boilerplate rejection. Once or twice, a rejection letter arrived that was typed but personal, the editor saying he was sorry to reject the story and requesting Stratis continue to send stories to the magazine. Stratis loved those letters. He showed them to me and then pinned them to a stained cork placemat he had nailed to the wall above his worktable. Two letters were pinned there.

Then Stratis received a number of rejection letters that stated the magazines would no longer accept mail submissions; all submissions must be sent via email. 

Stratis had neither a computer nor an Internet connection.

. . .

Oregano was the odor I always associated with Stratis. He would sit on a folding chair next to me and lean in to watch as I tapped the computer keyboard and went to a magazine website, clicked on the submission guidelines, discussed the guidelines with Stratis, then clicked on the browse symbol, and uploaded his story. He must have eaten oregano at every meal.

What first got editors to look closely at Stratis’ stories was—Stratis loved a good combination of farce and fate—the story’s typography. Stratis’ stories were loaded onto my computer by being scanned on my printer and emailed to me. The stories were unlike the neatly typed Times New Roman or Courier New fonts the editors saw day after day. Stratis’ stories contained the darkened spaces on the As and Os and Ps. A few of the letters were slightly tilted. You could just see one editor turn to another. “What the hell is this?” And then looking at it, begin reading it.

. . . 

Stratis liked American beer. When I saw him sitting on a lawn chair on the patio next to the shovels and brooms, I would walk over with a six-pack of Bud or Coors. When he sat on the patio, he didn’t read or watch television or listen to the radio. He sipped his beer and closed his eyes. He liked the sound—the quick airy poof—of popping the top of a can of cold beer. He moved his chair a bit closer to me and told me about the man who invented that wonderful sound. And the bad luck that followed. 

A science fiction magazine in Canada published Stratis’ story about the man who invented that sound.

He got paid one hundred dollars.

One time when he sat on the patio eating avgolemono soup, I brought beer over and he entered the back door of the house and returned with a bowl for me. We drank cold beer with the soup. “The soup tastes angry,” he said. “It’s mad about something.” 

I thought the soup was excellent. I had never tasted it before—rice, lemon, chicken.

“Why can’t I skip a day?” he asked. He lifted the can of beer to his lips. “Too much. Too much. There should be a blank—a hole, a gap, a space—between days.” He sipped. “But no. They keep coming. Never stopping.”

A story titled “The Blank Between the Days” was sold to a science fiction magazine in the United States for two hundred dollars.

A story about angry soup was published by a literary magazine whose payment was ten copies of the magazine.

. . . 

Stratis used the pen name “Pano.” His surname was full of the vowels he so hated—Panotopoulos—so his stories were signed with a shortened version. “All great authors are known by one name,” he said. “Sophocles, Plato, Euripides.” Of course, the emailed rejections (and later the acceptances) were not sent to Pano. They were sent to BrandenS4@msn.com. The money was delivered to the BrandenS4’s PayPal account. Stratis watched me click through the maze of PayPal codes and passwords in silence. “The labyrinth of PayPal,” he said.

If he wrote a story about that, I never saw it.  

He spoke of the old country—its beauty and its treachery. Something happened in his village that he said he was writing about. “Village is family. Family is treachery.” He never said more except, “If families were countries…”

If he ever wrote it, I didn’t see it.

I grew to like these electronic submissions. So easy. I loved uploading a story and then clicking on SUBMIT. An editor was just a click away. Although it did take three months for the return click. 

The digital submission process was much better than the way Stratis described the old process—buying the large envelopes, copying the addresses and editors’ names correctly, preparing the stamped, self-addressed envelopes by which you were rejected, or if you wanted the manuscript back, preparing a large envelope for which you had to calculate the postage and place the proper number of stamps on it before folding it in half and sealing it inside the other large envelope with the manuscript. Then taking it to the post office and waiting in line.

“See, Branden. They sent the rejected story back in the large envelope. Then I get another large envelope to mail the rejected story to the next magazine and inside that envelope, I put the manuscript and another large envelope to return the story to me. Branden, why couldn’t the first editor, when he rejected the story, just send it on to the editor at the next magazine? Make it easy.” 

. . .

When Stratis and Tula traveled to see their son in Astoria, I received an email from the editor at ChangeVerb asking if I minded if several paragraphs—which were quoted in the email—were deleted. The editor thought it improved the story. So did I.

. . .

On the concrete floor of Stratis’ patio and the garage were the magazine subscription cards that fall out of a magazine if a reader actually opened the magazine. “Tula knows the best thing about America is its magazines,” Stratis told me. “Glossy. All that color of perfect living rooms and perfect soufflés. Everyone knows perfect soufflés are impossible.”

When I removed some of the fallen cards on the seat of the lawn chair next to Stratis, I saw handwriting on them. Stratis caught me eyeing them.

“I sit at the typewriter in front of a blank page. As terrifying as hemorrhoids, a blank page. On the patio, I’m not writing. On the patio, I have a beer. A phrase pops into my mind. I remember a boy in the village who’d lost an arm. The typewriter in the garage is too far away. I’m too lazy. So I jot the notes on the subscription cards. The cards are white. Lots of blank spaces. They are a type of cardboard. Easy to scribble on.” He laughed. “In school? Ever have a million ideas for a paper and then sit down to start to write it and there are no ideas? The devil is at the typewriter. But the devil doesn’t know shit about subscription cards. I beat the devil every time.” 

Which is exactly how I explained it when the editor of ChangeVerb asked me (and all his other writers) to describe one’s method of composition.

. . .

Marsha Lewing attempted a block party. Some blocks shouldn’t have parties. Tula brought dolmades and spanakopita. She touched my hand. “Stratis was lost when the magazines stopped accepting post office stories. The stories keep him busy. Your computer saved him. And me.” She laughed.

We drank beer from the can. Marsha asked Tula how she and Stratis had managed to stay married for so long.

“We kept the gun unloaded,” Tula replied. 

“We Kept the Gun Unloaded” was Stratis’ most recognized story. His editor forwarded me many e-mails he received commenting on it.  

But the story that always seemed the most important to him was “If Families Were Countries. He spoke about it different times. What was unusual is that when he spoke about it, he spoke of a boy one time, a fish and a fishing boat another time, a small village, even his garage and his writing table. Who knew what the story would be? “I want to write a story of what families can do to you. Your cousin ruins you. Your brother robs you. Treachery. All those stories in the Old Testament? I could’ve written them,” he said. 

Something must have happened in Stratis’ village. Or many things. It wasn’t clear. “The village was sunny and the streets ran to the sea. But the streets were narrow, with shadows. So much can happen in a shadow in the height of the day.”

Mister Branden Scoles,

We loved your last story and are remiss we didn’t publish the previous story. One of our readers was an intern with certain personal biases and, well, enough said.

If you could resend the story about the angry soup (if it hasn’t been published elsewhere) we would love to publish it.

Please continue to send us your offerings, Mr. Scoles.

Stratis loaned me books. “Here. Take these. You’re family.” He didn’t just loan the books; he held them out to you, almost making you take them, explaining what the joy was in each. None of the books was of recent publication. They mostly were by European authors and, to be expected, included Kazantzakis, C.P. Cavafy, and the play about Oedipus. I asked Stratis what writers he liked. He said all of them. “Writers have magic,” he said. “Something to make you turn the page.”

“Read Waiting for the Barbarians,” he said. “Think of this: What if we’re the barbarians?” 

. . .

He was proud of one rejection letter in which an editor had complimented him on the story that was being rejected and pointed out to him that almost all the stories he had submitted to the editor hinged on a scene in which a character returns to a place to retrieve a pair of gloves or a pair of keys inadvertently left behind and, upon the return, stumbles across some action or bit of business that ends the story. I didn’t realize editors picked up on stuff like that. Maybe that is why they are editors. They read differently. 

When Stratis was very ill in the hospital, Tula asked me (“You’re family, Mr. Scoles”) to go through the papers on his desk. I saw a list in his handwriting (no accent, but almost indecipherable) that consisted of items a character could return for:

handkerchief
recipe
schoolwork
book
personal papers
package
passport

His stories were magical and light. It was sad to discover such a prosaic list.

. . .

Stratis had told me that in the mountains on Naxos was an ancient kouros, maybe three thousand years old, carved out of stone, twenty feel tall, weighing tons. It had been laying on its back for three thousand years because the slaves, who were moving it from the quarry where it was sculpted to the dock where it would be loaded onto a ship, dropped it. It broke into large pieces. He said he always wondered what happened to the poor slaves who dropped the kouros.

That was the last story of his that was published. The story was told by an archeologist who gets into an argument with his wife on Naxos.

Stratis earned two hundred dollars for that story. I kept one hundred of it. I told him he had sold it for one hundred. He was so happy with the publication he didn’t seem to care about the money. 

. . .

At the turn of the new year, the tax forms arrived at my house from each magazine where a story was purchased, and the checks made out to Branden Scoles amounted to a little over two thousand dollars. I paid the tax on them. 

. . .

The funeral for Stratis—“Asleep in the Lord,” the priest said. “Asleep because of a loving but frail heart”—was held at a Greek Orthodox Church I had never seen before. In a small community room after the service, there was a meal of white fish, lemon rice, and a powerful drink labeled Metaxa. It seemed so familiar. This was a meal out of one of Stratis’ stories. I heard comments, turns of phrases, and I saw men and women who had argued and laughed in Stratis’ stories. I swear I recognized a flowered hat a woman wore. And boots. A man wore the brightly polished cavalry boots that a character had been wearing when he kicked a subordinate.

There were a number of women dressed in the black that Tula always wore. Tula introduced me to a white-haired woman in black and said, “Athena said her husband saw a story in a magazine by Pano. About a Greek fisherman.”

I smiled.

“Stratis never told me that one got published.” 

I looked at Athena. Her husband did not seem to have attended the funeral.

“In the bookstore where he saw the magazine he said he saw you there. Standing in front of a couple of rows of chairs. A party for magazine people.”

I started to put my drink down. She touched my wrist.

“I was invited to speak at the bookstore,” I explained to Tula.

“Stratis wanted to discuss his stories with editors. There was always his damn accent. A man who loved words. His hands tied by his tongue.”

Her hand was still on my wrist; she leaned forward. “I’ve eaten soup all my life. I never thought anything about soup. He wrote about angry soup. Who else could do that?”

I started to turn away and realized men Tula’s age stood by watching.

She said, “He could make up a story. People paid him for his stories. I loved that in him.”

I held my gaze.

“How many other stories are there?”

One of the men stepped forward. “Don’t worry, Tula. Whatever happened, at least the stories are copyrighted.”

How can you tell an Old World survivor in polished cavalry boots that the publishers never should have forced the story submissions to be through the Internet. The payment checks, the e-mails, the copyright, the praise, it all came to Brendan Scoles. How else could it be done?

Tears glistened on Tula’s pale cheeks.

“This is like the village,” she cried. “Did we bring the damn village with us?” She turned away. “Like the old country. It never ends.” 

. . .

A few days after Stratis’ funeral, an e-mail appeared from the editor of ChangeVerb stating he was planning an issue of stories related to Greece. He would reprint some of my stories. I thought it was a wonderful idea.

The editor wanted a new story from me to be the climax of the issue.

I wrote one. It was rejected. I thought of Stratis and all the rejections he used to receive. The editor was apologetic but said the story wasn’t quite up to my previous standards. 

He asked for another story. That one was rejected, too.