Mary leaned back on the fire escape’s handrail and gripped it tightly with each hand. Her short wool dress hung loose. Her violet headscarf clung tightly to the dozens of course black ringlets pinned up into a mass on top of her head. Her nose was long and when she blinked, her large eyelids shimmered like copper pennies. She smiled at the camera. A thin gap between her front teeth stood proud like a black column. Josef focused the lens and triggered the exposure. The moment embalmed.
He lowered the camera and they looked at each other. The beeping of motor scooters, the growls of automobile engines, and the intelligible echoes of refracted alley conversations billowed up to the third story of the Athenian apartment. Mary removed her long tool-like hands from the rail and pulled a cigarette from a crumpled soft pack that sat lifeless on a wooden table beside her. She put the cigarette in her mouth and stood there looking at Josef. She sighed and pushed her hip to one side and flicked her eyelashes like whips at her young nephew.
Josef, as if pulled from a frozen lake, snapped immediately back into consciousness and instinctually pulled a lighter from the inner pocket of his wool two-buttoned blazer. He paused, stricken because he knew the contents of a jacket he had never worn before. Cigarettes, a lighter and foreign coins he’d never owned. He stepped towards her, reached in and engulfed her cigarette tip in flame until it crackled. He stepped back and smoothed his hands over the black lapels of the foreign jacket that seemingly had always been his, and the thin tie that looked familiar only from imagination. The silver lighter tucked inside his curled thumb tapped against his tie clip and pulled it loose. Mary gripped her cigarette between her thin lips, walked across the fire escape to Josef, and grabbed his tie. She yanked it gently and his attention crawled up from his chest to her eyes. She fixed his tie clip and adjusted his knot like she was the one that had dressed him that morning.
“You got handsome while I’ve been dead.” She said, exhaling a cloud of smoke that quickly curled and disappeared into the Athenian smog. Josef was confused.
“You got beautiful and younger in death? Nineteen?”
“Oh, shut up. Eighteen.” She smiled, having enjoyed the morbid complement. “To think that I really wanted to die and turn into a crow. Ha!” She exclaimed. “Better to be young!” She paused. They looked into each other, the first time ever as adults. She had died when Josef was thirteen. “How’s your dad?” She asked.
“He’s okay.” Josef said.
“Is she still driving her brothers crazy?”
Josef looked puzzled. Uncle Mike had been dead for seven years.
“You know that Mike died, right?” He said.
“Yes dear, I’m aware that my husband is dead.” Mary said with an element of playful impunity and sass. “Old habits die hard. I’m talking about Paul.”
“Mom still enjoys giving him a run, but Paul’s good. Donna’s sick though.”
She didn’t react.
“So, do you see uncle Mike?” Josef asked.
“On occasion.” She said. “He sits with me on the rail.”
“This rail?” Josef pointed to.
“What other rail are you thinking of?”
“I don’t know, I just thought…”
“No baby, this is it. I’m just a chain-smoking teenager on an Athenian fire escape.”
“And uncle Mike?”
“He’s a crow.” She said then turned away and looked down the busy street.
Josef didn’t know quite what to say. He detected a hiccup of annoyance in her body language and so let the subject sit for a minute. He looked down the same narrow street that she was facing ahead of him. He watched the automobiles dart like painted flies into the grids of white boxes within boxes that were nestled within the bigger boxes and blocks that made up the city. The permutations made him dizzy. He switched his attention to Mary’s back. Her creamy shoulders looked rich like butterscotch and the tattoo of a stained glass butterfly enriched its amber surface. The butterfly wings, embossed with flecks of purples and greens inscribed on her youthful skin, relayed to Josef a message of the temporal spectrum of permanence that counterbalanced the idea of a fleeting present. A tattoo in the face of the afterlife didn’t hold any sense of permanence at all, and he wondered how far the present could be stretched.
In general, Josef didn’t believe in an afterlife, but always felt that if there were one, Mike and Mary would be together in it—victorious over disease. But, now eternity seemed even more complicated than he had already imagined, complicated with spirits still jockeying for meaning. That Mary missed Mike made the afterlife a let down. To think, the drama of life never ends, that death itself can’t settle life’s twists of fate. Disillusionment unsettled his stomach and Josef wanted a cigarette.
“May I have one?” He asked.
She passed the packet over her shoulder without turning around.
“You know crows.” She said after he lit up. “They’re always working.”
“Working?” He said, trying not to choke on the razors he felt he had just inhaled.
“Honey, hadn’t I taught you anything?” She condescended. “The sun dance?”
“In North Dakota, where you and uncle Mike used to go to during the summer.”
“Crow’s talons,” She said, “pinching spirits by the collar like laundry. Moving them from one world to the next.” She looked up and around her. “It’s busy work. He enjoys it more than the title insurance company.”
Her eyes appeared to change color—to violet.
“Do you still see him?” She asked suspiciously.
“Once or twice. Though it’s hard to know if I’m deceiving myself.”
“Of course you are, baby.” Mary turned back to face him. “So what’s bothering you?” She put a fresh cigarette in her mouth and crossed her arms like she needed to protect something. Josef stepped into her and gave her a light. She blew smoke in his face, but it didn’t smell like anything.
“Dean died.” He said.
“How do you know?’
“Because word travels fast in the afterlife.” She said, deadpan. “…Because the little piece of shit has been sneaking up on me.” She meant it lovingly, Josef saw. It was still her way of loving.
“Sneaking up on you?”
“Scared me shitless. You know what scares dead people?” She asked.
“What?” He smiled. Earnestness had always been a part of her humor.
“Other dead people when they don’t know that they’re dead; scares the shit out of us.” She wasn’t joking after all.
“He doesn’t know he’s dead?”
“You know your brother.” She said as she bent down to ash. “Would you expect any different?”
“Did he say anything?”
Mary studied her nephew’s face. His urgency gave away something big, perhaps something bigger than she had been aware of.
“Please don’t tell me he has visited you?”
“I don’t know. It’s like I said about Mike, it’s hard to tell if I’m not just making things up.”
“No honey,” She said sympathetically, “you’re not deceiving yourself. Maybe about your uncle, the asshole never knew how to properly keep in touch with anyone, but Dean…”
Josef turned and gripped the fire escape’s rail. He searched for any thought or thing to occupy his mind to keep Dean away. Dean’s issues weren’t his problem.
“So this is Athens in the 60s?” He asked rhetorically, looking down into a little Greek grocery with sharp clods of Greek letters stamped on its large front windows.
“Well, it’s what you think it looked like.” Mary said.
A loud oscillating hum registered in Josef’s ear.
“What’s wrong with Dean?” Josef asked, unable to ignore the issue.
The hum turned into a pulse. The razors in his lungs spun like a thousand propellers.
“This was real.” She said calmly. Josef barely could hear her.
“What about Dean?” He asked.
She pinched the end of her cigarette close to her face and smiled.
“Coffee or tea.” Her lips smacked.
“What?” He said as he watched her lose color, and the shadows between the white boxes of buildings stuck between other boxes and blocks grow warmer and deeper. The black crevasses split and grew like ink in a fish tank, overwhelming the city. Athens was dying—this made sense.
“Finally,” He though, “something meaningful to mourn.”
She was gone again.
“Coffee or tea?” The impatient cabin attendant repeated.