[img_assist|nid=8232|title=House of Fog by Lee Muslin © 2011|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=297|height=396]Persephone Samaras can’t wait to escape the oppressive heat of the pizza ovens. She’s off to see her cousin Vasili in the hospital, that sterile, air-conditioned sanctuary. Before she’s out the door, her husband, Phillip, his thick dark arms already, at ten a.m., dusted with flour, can’t resist reminding her that she’s leaving him again, that he won’t be able to manage lunch today without her. This is his latest version of flirting-laced with resentment and provocation, which she pacifies with a smirk and a quick puckering of lips. "You’ll survive," she teases, knowing that in Phillip’s self-absorption there is no thought of Vasili-not that there is any hope.
When she enters Vasili’s hospital room, the doctor, ungloved, is tracing the unblemished skin on Vasili’s foot. Five nickel-sized lesions zigzag along the shin.
Persephone imagines Vasili’s secret, boiling beneath the purple skin that refuses to scab. Lately she’s been thinking that maybe the trick to healing is coming out with the truth, even though it wouldn’t be news to anyone, especially not to the men of the family, who laugh at the lie Vasili has invented for his mother, something about a woman in New York. He has never had to confess the truth to Persephone, not in explicit terms, anyway. Theirs has always been a special, unconditional bond that, for her, seems stronger for the miles and years that have separated them. Holding so much in for so long must have had some kind of damaging effect. But Vasili doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone-not even to Persephone; that’s what she’s always envied most about him.
This past Sunday at her cousin Spencer’s name-day dinner, the men of the family shared their wisdom. Before ringing the doorbell, Phillip, suddenly religious, said, "You don’t test God, Persephone," as if Vasili’s fate should somehow serve as a warning to her. "Remember the Korean fellow he was bringing home years ago?" he added. "Did he think we didn’t know? It’s hubris, is what it is." Persephone wondered whatever happened to Vasili’s Korean friend, Ted. She also wondered where Phillip had picked up the word hubris, not to mention when he had turned into such a philistine-a word she’d recently picked up from Vasili. Later, reaching for beer in the garage refrigerator, Spencer called Vasili’s illness "God’s revenge on the gays." Persephone had her hand on his back as she searched the freezer for ice cream. "I stopped taking Communion," Spencer boasted, and called the church "behind the times" for serving with the same spoon from the same chalice.
Persephone wants to tell the fools they can all go to hell-actually, she wants Vasili to tell them-but if he can keep his mouth shut, so can she.
Of course, she will never give Spencer the satisfaction of knowing that Vasili stopped taking Communion in church years ago when he was first diagnosed. Nor will she confess she’s been secretly careful herself, checking only the unmarked section of Vasili’s forehead for fever.
She is relieved, watching the doctor’s bare hands.
"You’re looking good," she says, approaching Vasili’s bedside.
"I’m getting eaten alive inside." Vasili sips from a glass of water. His eyes grow wide as he takes her in. "You’re looking good. My God. That skirt. Foxy!"
"You like it? It’s a hundred degrees out there."
"Like it? Am I not a man?" He grins.
The doctor pulls the sheet over the leg and offers a weak smile before exiting.
Persephone sets Vasili’s glass on the tray at the foot of the bed. Scrambled cafeteria eggs and honeydew melon remain wrapped in cellophane.
With the doctor gone, Vasili’s tone shifts. "I want to talk to you before Father Kosporis arrives."
"Father Kosporis? Why is he coming?" Persephone says. "I don’t want to see him today."
"I should think not-in that skirt."
"Funny," she says. "Is he bringing you Communion?"
"My last rites." He winks.
She shakes her head.
Years ago, the last time Persephone and Vasili were in church together, Father Kosporis made his Communion policy clear. "Let me ask you to consider again that this is truly the body and blood of Christ and that you should refrain from Holy Communion if you are not at peace with God. We are asked to stand here worthily. So, if you are in an adulterous relationship, a pre-marital sexual relationship, an unnatural relationship…" Persephone was shocked by this improvisation. Vasili grinned and said, "Well, that about covers all of us, doesn’t it?" She hesitated, and then rose to join him.
She wonders, now, what has kept his faith intact all these years, while something has been chipping away at hers.
“I need a walk,” she says.
"You’re not leaving me already."
She hears the echo of her husband and wonders why the men in her life must convey their affection with such unbecoming desperation.
"No. Just-some fresh air," she says.
He is on to her, but she doesn’t bother to come clean.
"The cafeteria," she says. "Coffee."
He mirrors her strained smile.
Coffee is as obvious a lie as fresh air, given the heat.
When she reaches the door, he says, "Promise me you’ll be strong."
"What?" Persephone laughs. "I’m strong."
"I want you to be free, Phoni"-the name only Vasili still uses. "Let them know who you are," he cheers.
"Vasili!" She feels insulted. Why don’t you? she thinks.
"You’ve never really gone anywhere, or done anything. Don’t let Phillip-"
"Stop it. I’m free. You have no idea."
"I know, I know." He pauses. "New topic. My funeral dinner."
She grimaces. She can’t pretend-not about this. "Not now."
"When you get back. After you have your coffee," he adds, grinning, seeing that she has one foot out the door. "Foxy."
She rushes toward the cafeteria, eager for the relief that the company of strangers will provide. This has all come on so fast. But even that is a lie. She has had more than enough time to come to peace with this. It has been five years since the night he told her he was sick, in the kitchen, after Aunt Anastasia and Uncle Mike had gone to bed. It hadn’t occurred to her immediately what "HIV" was. He might have announced that he was off to Europe for a while. "A few months ago," he said, as if answering a question, "but I wanted to make sure. It’s dormant. Mom and Dad know. I’ve lost some weight." These were prepared pieces of information. "It hasn’t affected my playing." He contemplated his hands, his precious fingers. She remained dumbfounded, even as reality settled in. "The priest in New York gives me Communion in private." Then he answered the unspeakable question: "A friend from the orchestra, he had a house in the Hamptons. There were parties, after concerts, on the weekends. I’ve been careful since the AIDS scare."
The AIDS scare. She hadn’t shared in this fear that, to him, bonded everyone.
She has never been this close to anyone else-other than her husband. When they were kids, Vasili was the one who could make her feel buoyant and lovely.
Late last night, after returning from the hospital, she decided to assemble photographs of Vasili. She was heading to the family room, toward the cabinets filled with albums, when she stopped at the mirror in the vestibule. She took a deep, satisfied breath. Six pounds in six weeks. It was odd to feel so light, having just spent hours in the face of her cousin’s wasting disease-virus?-the two of them, together again, as thin as they’d been at eighteen. Standing there, hot-despite the air conditioning-she recognized Vasili’s imminent death as true, not just as a fact to which she had finally resigned herself, since he’d arrived home over a month ago, but as Truth, with a capital T, part of the flow of life and death that in recent years-since turning fifty-she had been trying to understand is neither good nor bad.
Phillip was asleep beyond the slightly open door at the top of the steps. The sound of his breathing heightened her sense of ownership-this body was hers to fatten or starve. She headed to the basement in search of old clothes, to test small sizes. She had always been what they call petite, but she’d puffed up after giving birth to three boys. With her two youngest moving out this summer, she’d decided it was time to return to form. Too skinny, Phillip would say. Still, in bra and panties she dragged boxes across the concrete floor, out from the cedar closet, and, fitting snugly into old shirts and skirts, felt not just a little bit, well, foxy.
After circling the wing, Persephone returns to Vasili’s room empty-handed.
"We must have strawberries," he announces.
It takes her a moment to remember where they left off. The funeral dinner.
"And asparagus," he adds. "Promise me."
He has said he is lucky to get closure like this-not everyone gets it, you know.
"What else?" she asks.
"At my viewing play Mozart’s Requiem. The Vienna philharmonic-you can find a recording of it."
"I don’t mind open casket for the family, but then I want it closed."
Suddenly she wants to say: you ran off to be free, and now it’s killing you.
"Oh, and I want nice, fresh fish at the dinner. Snapper, I don’t know, whatever’s good now. And don’t worry about money. This will be the wedding banquet I never had."
She takes his hands into hers.
"Promise," he says, as he sinks into sleep.
He turns toward the metal box whispering to his right. She has barely paid attention to the thin tubes that curve out from his nostrils and disappear beneath the bed sheets; she recognizes them now for the job they are doing, thankful for their transparency and their discreet path to their source.
Strong. She will be strong.
"I promise," she says.
This morning Phillip asked where she’d found that old skirt.
"You don’t like it?" Persephone set her cup in the sink, her back turned.
"Yes, I like it. Are you kidding me?" He clasped her thigh, his thick thumb shocking her, sending her spinning like a schoolgirl. "How old is this thing, Skinny?" He slurped the last of his coffee.
He flipped up the skirt, and she welcomed the surprise, figuring-rightly-that for a few minutes she might forget herself and what was in store for the day. In this old skirt she was eighteen again-for better and for worse: she could see herself, newly married, in the Orange Street pizza shop, the first of the three they would own, kneeling on a booth cushion and setting a poinsettia on a windowsill, her hair falling from a small rounded cone, as Phillip surprised her from behind.
She knows she hasn’t changed much since then, or accomplished anything all her own. The restaurants don’t count. They are Phillip’s, though she plays partner dutifully and together they have thrived. Raising the boys-that’s her accomplishment-or at least Bobby, secretly her favorite, in his third year of medical school in Virginia. Phillip would claim the younger sons for his restaurants.
She has decided it is not too late to set her own path, and to revisit certain long abandoned ones.
Several days ago, Persephone raced from the hospital to her parents’ house-to get closure-to ask her father why he’d never protected his daughter from his wife.
"What can we do about it now?" he said.
She had planned to tell him the story of the night she nearly ran away-the night she’d lain on the couch, a box of frozen spinach pressed to her cheek. When Stephen Kouros had called after dinner, Persephone had stretched the phone cord into the dining room and whispered, "You may not call me here, Stephen," then quickly hung up and returned to the dishes in the sink. Persephone didn’t defend herself when her mother called her vroma-stupid whore.
Persephone planned her conversations with her teachers-all recycled lies: she’d been sick with bronchitis; it was impossible to stay after school because she had to work at her father’s sandwich shop. The excusal notes had become routine. She’d write them, faking immigrant English-Persephone no talk because she has sick throat. To the American secretaries, the notes seemed authentic if they were poorly written. Her father would sign them without reading.
Persephone picked up the pen from the coffee table. She doodled, making loops. She got carried away with the thought of being an artist, mused about what it would be like to paint pictures all day and get paid for it. She addressed the principal, Dear Mr. Gingrich. She wrote one sentence, then crumpled the first draft, not because she’d spelled bronchitis with a "k"-she knew how to spell it correctly; it was the immigrant spelling-but because she didn’t want to use the same excuse too often. She started again, stating first that the mark on my daughter’s eye is from my wife hitting her while I was at work. Persephone reread the sentence; it had felt good to write it, so she continued. Last night my wife told my daughter for the millionth time that she was a stupid whore.
Frank Sinatra albums leaned against the stereo-and-television cabinet, his sparkling blue eyes and shameless smile tempting her to think about love. She walked over and picked up Songs for Young Lovers and imagined filling the house right now with My Funny Valentine or, better yet, The Girl Next Door. Amused, she pictured her bewildered mother descending the steps.
Caught up in the world of the Young Lovers album cover-gas-lit streets, couples strolling-she decided to call Stephen Kouros. She picked up the phone on the corner table, happy, shivery, believing for a moment that she truly would call.
Instead, she called Vasili. He’d just finished practicing, he said. He was in the kitchen, eating chocolate-covered strawberries that his mother had bought at the market. The TV was on in the background. Vasili asked if she was all right, and she said, "Yes."
"Is anyone else home?" he said.
"Are you in the family room?" she whispered. The TV got louder-The Honeymooners.
"Friday I told Gingrich your throat was swollen and you couldn’t talk."
"Thanks." She pictured Vasili sitting on the step that joined the kitchen and the family room. She could see Uncle Mike’s belly rising with every breath. Aunt
Anastasia wore a white robe with pink roses and paged through Redbook, considering lipstick shades and listening for the rumble of the dryer in the basement to stop. Jackie Gleason barked. Vasili’s teeth cracked through moist chocolate.
Persephone lay on her side, eyes closed. She fantasized what her life would be like if
Aunt Anastasia and Uncle Mike were her parents-planning for college next year, winning scholarships, as Vasili was. She would be a dancer, performing in the kitchen, while Vasili, the prodigy, played the piano in the living room.
"You should call Steve Kouros," Vasili said.
"I should do a lot of things."
"What are you worried about? You’re the prettiest girl in school."
She loved Vasili more than anyone. "He must think I’m crazy," she said.
"What do you know about mysterious?"
He said, "I know about mysterious."
Her father’s Cadillac pulled into the driveway, then into the garage. The car’s hum filled the house. Her brother’s Mustang rumbled in the street. The engines stopped; the car doors slammed.
"What am I going to do next year?" she said.
"Vasili!" Father Kosporis beams, pink-faced and perspiring above his collar.
"Maybe we can do this before Mom gets here," Vasili says.
"As you wish." Father Kosporis sits down and unsnaps the locks of his briefcase.
Persephone waits for official papers to appear. Instead, on the tray at the foot of the bed, Father Kosporis sets a book, a miniature chalice, a gold spoon, a small bottle of red wine with a screw-on cap, and a hunk of thick-crusted bread in a sandwich baggie.
"You can take Communion with Vasili," Father Kosporis says to her. "But…" He looks at Vasili. "You understand she can’t be here for the Confession."
"I’ll wait outside for your mother," Persephone says.
In the hallway Aunt Anastasia is already approaching, a dark silhouette but for her pale face still featureless in the distance.
Last night Persephone called her cousin Spencer to ask him to bring their aunt to the hospital in the morning. She explained that it was difficult for her to be transporting their aunt as well as running back and forth between the restaurant and hospital several times a day. Spencer said he couldn’t take the smell of impending death; then he sighed and said, okay, he would drop her off.
"Father Kosporis is here." Persephone hugs her aunt. "For Confession and his last Communion."
She leads her aunt to the lounge, where they sit on a couch facing the hallway. Persephone recounts the morning’s events-breakfast, the nurse, the doctor, the priest-and describes Father Kosporis’s portable sacrament kit. Her aunt stares at the door across the hall. They sit quietly, holding hands.
"He always loved you," her aunt says. Her cheeks tremble.
"It’s all right, Ma." Ma-she doesn’t correct herself.
Vasili’s door opens. Father Kosporis steps into the hallway and looks both ways. A nurse hurries toward the speechless priest.
Inside, Vasili thrusts his head back into the pillow, lifting his chin as if to straighten his throat for air.
"What is it?" Persephone rushes to the bed.
Aunt Anastasia holds Vasili’s hand.
Father Kosporis stoops for his briefcase.
Vasili groans, his eyes opening wide.
Aunt Anastasia makes room for the nurse, who inspects the tubes and feels Vasili’s forehead. The nurse glances at the machines and whispers that Vasili should relax. The miniature chalice, spoon, and sealed baggie sit on the tray, apparently untouched. Persephone tries to read Vasili’s mind. His gray eyes shoot toward his feet, and she covers his toes. Vasili’s groan deepens.
"What is it, my son?" Aunt Anastasia strokes his arm.
"What happened, Father?" Persephone says.
Father Kosporis gathers up the chalice, spoon, and bread. "I’m sorry."
Air hisses from Vasili’s throat. He tosses his fingers, like wet flowers, toward the doorway.
When Father Kosporis leaves, Vasili begins to breathe more easily.
He confessed, Persephone realizes. Vasili knows the rules, and he knew Father Kosporis had no choice in the matter. Vasili never wanted Communion today-only the last word.
With his remote control, Vasili lowers himself a few inches, shifting his eyes back and forth between Persephone and his mother, who sit opposite each other on the bed.
"What was it, Vasili?" Aunt Anastasia seems convinced that Father Kosporis provoked in her son some grave revelation.
"It’s okay, now," Persephone says.
When the nurse turns to leave, Vasili’s arm shoots out to make a barrier.
Aunt Anastasia combs fallen strands from his forehead. "What now, Vasili?"
His eyes are nearly shut. He seems to be sustaining one last efficient breath-neither inhaling nor exhaling. He waves his arms, his fingers tangling in oxygen tubes.
"Okay," the nurse says, and folds his hands on his chest.
Vasili signals with closed eyes, grateful for her understanding.
Once the nurse leaves the room, Vasili turns his glassy gaze at Persephone, his breath a distant whistle of wind in a tunnel. She tries to smile for him. Aunt Anastasia’s hand remains on his cheek. Persephone leans her ear toward Vasili’s mouth, as he strains to speak: "Forgive me, Ted. I didn’t have your courage. You should have been here."
Persephone lifts her face to see his, and, in a moment, she forgets herself: "I’m here, Vasili. It’s me."
"Sweet Phoni," he says, when his eyes meet hers, "I wish you could have really known me."
She decides he must be delirious, or even nearly unconscious.
Aunt Anastasia’s tears vanish in the bed sheet pulled up to his chin. "Father and I will wait patiently," he whispers. "Mitera sighoreseh me"-Mother, forgive me. He strains to keep his eyes open. "Opos o Theos me ehei sighoresei"-Forgive me as God has forgiven me.
"Oh." Aunt Anastasia presses her glazed lips over Vasili’s mouth.
His eyes close.
"You were always a good boy," she whispers.
His lips are oblivious and dry. His eyes open briefly, shifting toward Persephone, then toward the ceiling.
Persephone is still replaying his last words to her: I wish you could have really known me. She raises herself on the bed and pleads, "Vasili?" His eyes absorb all they can of these last moments. "Shhhh," her aunt soothes, as Persephone lowers her face to Vasili’s cool, damp cheek, praying selfishly for words to form from his thick breath.
"You’ll visit me in New York," he said. "Then you can move there if you want."
She imagined the city at night, endless glitter surrounded by dark water.
Outside, her father called to Peter, who dragged metal trashcans to the street.
"California," she said. "Right now."
"I’m serious," he said. "We’ll meet at the Jersey shore in the middle of winter. We’ll have the boardwalks to ourselves."
"I have to go," she said.
"Okay, fine-no Jersey shore. Somewhere nice. Cape Cod, the Hamptons…" Places she’d never heard of.
"My dad’s home." Keys jingled at the door.
"We’ll rendezvous, ride bikes-"
"Bye," she whispered.
The doorknob turned, hinges squeaked.
"You’re lucky," she added.
"Call him, Phoni," he said. "You’ll break his heart if you don’t."
Persephone hung up the phone and peered into the foyer. Peter made his way down the hallway toward the kitchen. She stood up and froze, remembering her bruised face. Her father peeked into the living room and lifted his hat like a gentleman. "Oh, hello," he said.
After hanging up his coat, he sat on the couch.
She lifted her face into the light.
His eyes drifted toward the stereo. "You like Frank Sinatra now?"
Vasili’s silver-framed photograph, the same one Persephone sent to the newspapers two days ago, sits on the corner table, awaiting its place on the casket, which, for now, remains open, as he instructed. Mozart’s Requiem trickles through lush bouquets into the dim room lined with chairs. Aunt Anastasia places her black-gloved fingers to her son’s lips and closes her eyes. Faintly frosted by the photographer’s lens, the picture-of a younger Vasili at a piano, squaring his tuxedoed shoulders and his broad, cleft chin for the camera-strikes Persephone, as it did this morning, when she saw it in grainy, newspaper black-and-white, as a dreamed-up version of her cousin. Similarly, the reported cause of death-a heart attack-both annoyed and relieved her for its fuzzy truthfulness.
"He looks good," Peter whispers.
"They really did a great job," cousin Spencer confirms.
Phillip adds, "He looks terrific."
Aunt Anastasia turns from the casket, smiles, and nods.
Persephone can’t deny that Vasili’s layered clothes-the bow tie and ruffled tuxedo shirt, the black velvet jacket with satin lapels-and the mortician’s tricks have had an animating effect. Still, to say he looks good is absurd, but she has the sense not to argue with them.
"Is this him playing?" Phillip asks.
"No," Persephone says.
"Does anyone have a tape of his?" Peter asks.
"That’s what I was thinking," Phillip says.
"It’s Mozart," Persephone says. "Vasili wanted this."
"I’ll go out to the car." Spencer steps away. "We might have something."
Phillip nods to Spencer. "It only makes sense."
"It’d be nice," Peter says. "For people to hear his music."
Spencer rushes out, just as the undertaker enters the room. Persephone feels ignored, erased, but she won’t make a scene. She tells herself that Vasili’s music won’t be such a betrayal of his wishes-only his modesty would be offended. Before the double doors are sealed shut, she glimpses visitors gathering in the foyer. The undertaker, a blond man in a gray suit, walks slowly down the center aisle, inspecting the room. He nods considerately to Persephone’s parents, who are sitting in chairs against the wall. Beyond the ceiling, there is a rumbling Persephone realizes is thunder, not the dragging of chairs, or caskets, as she first imagines. She anticipates the arrival of her two youngest sons, who promised to be here, even if they had to close up the shops.
It occurs to her that some of Vasili’s New York friends must be out there among the attendants, including his old friend Ted-assuming he’s still alive. She wouldn’t recognize Vasili’s dearest friends from strangers.
Vasili was right. She didn’t really know him.
Her father rises slowly from his chair. He holds his hand out to his wife, who lifts herself. They trudge past Persephone and stand at the foot of Vasili’s casket. "He looks good," her father says. Her mother bows toward Vasili’s shoes.
The undertaker approaches Persephone. "We can start whenever you’d like."
Spencer, heaving, swipes a hand through his drenched hair, unbuttons his suit coat, beaded with rainwater, and, in triumph, holds up a cassette tape-"Got it!" -this man with arm outstretched over his head, so self-satisfied with success. He twirls his ring of keys on a finger as he hands the tape to the undertaker, who slips it into his suit coat pocket.
"We should leave it open," Peter says to no one in particular.
"No," Persephone says. "He wanted a closed casket."
"Leave it open," Spencer says.
Peter says, "What do you think, Dad?"
"It’s a nice idea," her father says.
"Very nice," her mother says.
The undertaker puts his hand on Aunt Anastasia’s shoulder. "It’s completely up to
you, Mrs. Manos."
"We should be proud," Spencer says.
Aunt Anastasia turns from the casket, nodding. "He looks so handsome."
As the undertaker bows and turns away, Persephone goes to the corner table and gets Vasili’s picture, which is to be placed on top of the closed casket. The undertaker approaches the sealed double doors.
The music has stopped, and for the moment, Mozart has been replaced by the murmur of people entering behind her, the faint thumping and fluttering of umbrellas shrinking. Her three sons enter first.
Aunt Anastasia waves for Persephone to join the family lining up next to Vasili.
As music-Vasili’s music-begins to play, Bobby rushes to her. "Mom, look at me." He grabs Vasili’s picture from her hands. "Mom, his goddamn boyfriend is out there."
"Bobby!" In a flash, she smacks her grown son’s mouth.
He raises his hand to his cheek. "What’s wrong with you?"
It’s the right question to ask.
Beyond her son’s reddening face, beyond the glistening mob, Persephone spots the sad familiar eyes of an aging Korean man. For a moment, she thinks of going to him. She could ask him to forgive her-as if he might know who she is and why she needs to be forgiven.
"I don’t know what to say," she tells her son. "I’m sorry."
His bewildered eyes press into her, the mark on his cheek refusing to fade. In the distance, Vasili appears ghastly, aglow, exposed. The family stands beside him, their faces full of sympathy.
The box of melting spinach and her horrible note sat there. In the mirror above the couch she saw her rosy cheek. Her father pulled his T-shirt out from his pants, about to snooze. He cleared his throat and leaned toward the coffee table.
He picked up the pen and signed his name to the note, then sat back and closed his eyes. "It’s cold," he huffed. She lifted the afghan from her shoulders and draped it over his chest and legs. "Good girl," he said.
She turned off the lamp. The room remained lit from the vestibule and the front porch light through the bay window. Her father was asleep. She stared at the note: his signed confession. A puddle had formed around the spinach. She would leave it all there until morning. God knew it would be there, waiting for her.
Jim Zervanos is the author of the novel LOVE Park. His short stories have appeared in numerous publications, including the anthologies Philly Fiction and Philadelphia Noir. He is a graduate of Bucknell University and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. He is a teacher of English and creative writing and lives in Philadelphia with his wife and son. "Communion" was a runner up in the 2011 Marguerite McGlinn National Short Story contest.