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Concrete

Twin Destinies - First Look

Chapter 1

1946: Brave Little Warriors

“You see the tree there, boys? You see the highest branch on that tree? I will hang you from that branch if you ever disgrace the family name!”
 

As little boys, Pete and Mike stared up into the canopy of the old oak tree where their father pointed, its branches twisting and turning like the arms of a giant octopus waiting to ensnare them should they dishonor the family in any way. Years later as they sat in the school office waiting for their father to arrive, they remembered that tree and those words well, because in a few minutes they would together face the wrath of both the principal and their baba, their father, John Pappas, whose words and promised action were chiseled into their memories like hieroglyphs into stone.


With their bruised faces, torn white T-shirts, scratches up and down their arms, and their grass- stained, torn blue jeans, they knew they were in trouble, although they were sure that today’s school problems probably wouldn’t upset their mother the same way as their father. She would dismiss this problem at school as boyhood mischief, but seeing those tattered blue jeans—the same jeans they begged their mother, Katherine, nicknamed Titika (Tee-tee-kah), to buy from the five-and-dime store—would be very upsetting to her. The pants were not the name brand of Levi’s the boys wanted so terribly, the ones that made them feel just like the other kids, the Americani, the American kids who weren’t sons of poor immigrants. But their mama, wanting to make them happy so they felt American and prosperous, cut other corners in the family budget so her twin boys, Pete and Mike, could have their treasured blue jins, as she would call them in her Greek-tinged English. Their mother understood their need to look nice, to be accepted, to have things kenooryo, new, not anything old or used or unattractive. She had that need, too. These two scrappers were her sons, so of course she understood. Pete and Mike’s little faces glowed, like brightly lit streetlamps in the middle of a moonless night, when she got them those pantalonia, pants. They weren’t Levi’s, but they would do for now. Their mother had faith they would be successful and own a closet full of kenooryo blu jins, all of them Levi’s, and she was sure to tell Pete and Mike, and all her friends at church, this fact at every opportunity. Her cubs were not like the other litters born to the average lioness—runts and weaklings. They, like their ancestors, were fighters, and they would win every battle they were forced to fight.
 

She would make sure they did so.


Both Pete and Mike knew what their mother and father went through every day to survive, with their father toiling in the hot San Joaquin Valley sun as a farmworker and their mother doing all the physical labor required of mothers in the 1940s, so they were thrilled with their new jeans, even if they weren’t Levi’s.


Now, those jeans were close to ruin and their father was on his way to the principal’s office. The major rule of the Pappas family was to not get into trouble in school or anywhere else, especially if it meant that John Pappadojiannis, shortened to “Pappas” at Ellis Island when he landed in New York City in 1914, would come to the school from the fields to attend to his fighting boys. This visit to the twins’ school in the middle of the day cost him wages and embarrassment in front of his other immigrant coworkers, especially his fellow Greeks. Bruised and bleeding from their schoolyard brawl, the twins were prepared for whatever punishment the principal, Mrs. Crier, would dole out: after-school detention, extra schoolwork, expulsion, perhaps even paddling. Nothing she could do to them, however, would be as scary as facing their baba.


John was a man of strength and old-world virtue. He wouldn’t tolerate misbehavior that could cast shame upon the family and its good name, especially after the sacrifices he made in the past to preserve the family honor.

The two of them were of one mind. Destiny had blessed Pete and Mike by placing them in their mother’s womb together. They had been gifted with one another, each with the security of knowing that they would be loved by someone forever—best friends, twin brothers. Though they weren’t allowed to speak to each other, they knew what needed to be said. It had always been that way for Pete and Mike—knowing what the other felt and thought—and they were hopeful that baba would understand.


They were shaken from the silent dialogue of their thoughts the moment their father walked into the principal’s office. Standing big as an old olive tree, his white hair set starkly against the sunbaked brown of his skin, he commanded their love, respect, devotion, and, yes, there was a bit of fear there, too. He stood before the principal’s desk, not looking at the pictures of past winning athletic teams and spelling bee champs that lined the institutional-green walls of the office. Instead, he glared at Pete and Mike, the unmistakable look of a questioning parent.


“Why you boys here? What you do to get in trouble?”


They both stared up at him, expecting the worst but believing that how they had acted on the playground was right, regardless of the consequences. At the same time, Mrs. Crier sat behind her desk, smug in the knowledge that she was doing her job as school disciplinarian and that she was in the right. Before either of the boys could respond, Mrs. Crier spoke for them.


“Mr. Pappas, your sons started a fight in the schoolyard. We simply cannot have physical altercations…”


John looked at her quizzically.


“…fights between the children. I have no choice but to punish them. They will be expelled for one day.”

John looked at her again, not fully understanding what “expelled” meant.


“Mr. Pappas, I know you are new to our country and how we do things here.” She hesitated, not knowing how much he would understand. “They will be punished by not coming to school for one day.”


John worked long hours, leaving his family before sunrise and not returning until late in the day. He didn’t have the time modern-day fathers had to take his children to parks or throw baseballs in the backyard. First, he didn’t understand American sports. More important, though, he had to work for his family to eat, to keep a roof over their heads, to clothe them and to pay the bills. As it was, it took the efforts of both John and his wife to do so. Consequently, what few words he shared with them were what a good Greek father from Crete taught his sons: respect for the family name and reputation, the value of a hard day’s work, honesty, and integrity.


Being young boys in their little house, Pete and Mike felt so different from everyone else. Inside the walls of their home was “Little Greece” and outside was America. Children of immigrants, like Pete and Mike, were in school playing sports like football, basketball, and baseball, but at all times, Greek youths remembered not to disgrace their parents or in turn, their forefathers. Pete and Mike were mischievous, and yes, sometimes too questioning, but they were not bullies. He turned and looked at them again.


“Why you boys here? What you do?” he asked again, this time in his native Greek. “Yah tee eese etho? Tee ekaness?”


Pete jumped out of his chair to his feet and excitedly answered for the twins. “Baba, Daddy, we had to fight! They called us dirty Greeks!”


John paused. He took two steps toward the twins, pointing at them, his face reddening with rage. “Anybody call you ‘dirty Greek,’ you fight them!”

As he turned to leave the office, his business done, he motioned his sons to follow his lead. As they stood to follow their father out of the office and out of the clutches of Mrs. Crier, they heard her slam her hands on her desk as she stood defiant, angry at this immigrant father for encouraging his sons to fight, usurping both her authority and the rules of the school.


“Mr. Pappas! It is that attitude that has kept Greece at war for hundreds of years!”


“Yes,” he answered, as he turned once again to face her. “And that is why we are free!”


John turned back and the boys followed him out the door. Mrs. Crier sat down, frustrated at not receiving parental support for her rules but determined that, come the next school day, they were suspended from school, regardless of whether or not their father supported her authority or her rules. For her, this was just another disciplinary problem to be addressed, merely one of her many daily duties as an elementary school principal, made more difficult by these foreigners who didn’t understand American ways.


For Pete and Mike, though, the scene was one they never forgot. With one sentence, their father summarized the belief of every Greek, one born from hundreds of years of oppression and slavery at the hands of Persians, Venetians, Romans and Ottoman Turks, rooted in the philosophy of Socrates—that freedom was valued above all else, and came with a price. Perhaps as an American who
lives in a free land, Mrs. Crier had become comfortable and forgotten this fact. For John to expect his children to endure name-calling, especially “dirty Greek,” was to spit upon Greece itself and the people who had created the very idea of democracy, who fought and died for freedom and against tyranny for centuries. John Pappas’s children came from a rich heritage and a proud culture. If they fought to defend all that was Greek, he must defend them.


Their fight was just!

Walking out of the office that day, Pete and Mike looked up at their baba’s white hair (they never remembered ever seeing their dad without white hair), and they thought how brave a man he was, what honor he had—this old soldier who held their little hands in his weathered, brown, big ones; hands that had fought in the Balkan War and later tilled the soil; hands that held his children’s hearts. How tough it must be to face the unknown as he had in a new country, adjusting to it, living in it with seemingly everything and everyone against you, and still to stand up for your beliefs and your family.
 

The three of them walked down the newly painted industrial-green hall toward the family’s old Dodge, and even though the twins had been suspended, they had never felt happier. A battle had been won that day by their father, and somehow, the two boys knew it. In coming years, Pete and Mike fought anyone who called them “dirty Greek” and were never again afraid that their father would be angry if they did so. If anyone called Pete and Mike “dirty Greek,” the two boys went back-to-back as twin brothers and slugged it out with the kid calling them that name. If one brother was attacked, the other brother came to his defense. They were defending both their culture and each other, with every punch.


Pete and Mike felt so much love for one another. Like invisible chains, their love bound them tightly together. With each sunrise and sunset, they always knew every day how lucky they were to have each other—for Pete to have Mike, and Mike to have Pete, and to face all of life’s battles, sadness and loneliness, with the other brother standing by steadfastly, like an extra backbone whenever needed. Pete knew he could never live without Mike, and Mike knew he could never live without Pete. It was unimaginable! How lonely it must be to not have a twin, to go through life all alone. They never thought, for one moment, that they could ever be separated from one another.


As the Dodge, with its passenger door firmly attached by rope salvaged from scrap thrown out from the farm, made its way toward home, Pete and Mike sat in the back seat quietly, only the sound of their thoughts rising above the car’s motor and the cacophony of sounds heard through the open windows. The hot air blowing in on them, mussing their hair and toasting their skin like a giant blow- dryer, felt good as John drove past wood-framed houses scattered between rows of orchards and vineyards that lined the road, seemingly far into the distance.


Modesto, California was a rural place, with people whose lives, whether they worked the soil or were merchants, revolved around the thousands of acres of farmland surrounding the little town, with corn and cotton; orchards of peaches, nectarines, oranges, and lemons; trees heavy with walnuts, almonds, and pistachios; and grapevines whose crops were eventually eaten at the table, either fermented into wine or laid out in the fields, drying under the scorching sun, being transformed into raisins. The San Joaquin Valley was the goddess of this agricultural Olympus, and every new immigrant who came here to work saw the opportunities in every piece of produce birthed from her soil.


The trip home took just a few minutes but seemed longer to the twins, anxious as they always were to go home. Their skinny, olive-colored legs stuck to the seat, the sweat acting as glue between their flesh and the seat’s vinyl. Each boy took turns raising one thigh, then the other, as the intensity of the valley’s late spring heat was trapped in the car’s interior, the cracked window barely ventilating the oven-like space.


Mike leaned over to whisper in Pete’s ear: “What do you think is gonna’ happen when we get home?”


Pete’s smirk turned into a smug smile as he thought for a moment. “What’s gonna’ happen?


Nothin’! You saw! Baba stood up for us. They called us ‘dirty Greeks’ and we fought back like Greeks, so what’s gonna to happen to us? Teepohtah—nothin’—that’s what!”


Mike turned away from his brother and stared at his father, who was focused on his driving, unaware of the whispers between his sons. Mike looked back again at Pete.

“But what about Mama? Look at our pantalonia!! She’s gonna’ be mad!”


“Ah,” Pete answered, knowing how important it was that they not get into trouble with their parents or hurt their mother’s feelings. Mike was so much like their mother, too—his feelings easily getting hurt and him always being concerned about what people thought of him.


“For how long? She’s not gonna’ like that they called us ‘dirty Greek’ either! Titika Minerakis, the colonel’s daughter? She’ll probably reward us for what we did!” laughed Pete. “Maybe we’ll even get some extra sweets!”


Always the more serious of the two, Mike wasn’t so sure. “But what about the holes in our new jeans, Pete, Panayioti? What about the holes!”


Pete shook his head. “You worry too much. She can sew, right?”


“Yeah.”


“Then, she’ll fix ’em right up.” Pete put his hand on his brother’s shoulder. Mike was such a worrier, always anxious. He wished that Mike would take things as they came and let problems, like leaves in a late-fall wind, blow away if they weren’t important. Pete could do that automatically—deal with a problem and move on—but somehow Mike held onto everything with the tight grip of a baseball player clutching a bat. It was as if, when God was handing out genes and dividing them up between the two of them nestled in their mother’s womb, he gave Mike the “worry gene” and Pete the “happy-go- lucky gene,” if there were such things. He smiled at the face that looked exactly like his.


“Don’t worry, Manoli, Mike, it’ll be okay, you’ll see. She’ll be proud of us. She won’t be mad at all.”

 

***

 

Always, every day, the best part of the twins’ school day was going home, running through the front door to the smells of their mother’s cooking, of garlic and lemon, of basil and oregano, and hearing the constant song of clanking pots and pans in her kitchen. As Pete and Mike burst through the door, the smells and sounds of their mama’s cooking wrapped around them like a soft blanket. They saw their beloved mother coming out of the kitchen in her once-pure-white apron, now colored with age and the remnants of a hundred love-laced meals on its cloth, her arms open and her smile wide to greet them—her two boys, her twin blessings sent to her by God.


“Pethakia mou, agoria mou, pos ese?” she asked. “My children, my sons, how are you?” They ran into her arms, waiting for the warmth and love that enveloped them, predictably and reliably, returning her love with equal fervor, holding her as they held each other. While she embraced them tightly, she looked up at John, her vibrant dark eyes questioning him without words.


“Olee eene kala, Titika,” John said. “Everything is fine.”


After hearing the events in the school office and being told the twins wouldn’t be going to school for one day as punishment, Titika, upset and indignant, didn’t understand the reason for it. How could children—especially her children, the children and grandchildren of freedom fighters—be expected to endure such cruelty and humiliation and do nothing about it? To not defend themselves? To not stand for what is right? It was one of many things she didn’t understand about Americans. This was a country founded on democracy—a concept created in Greece—yet her boys were being punished for defending Greece and their heritage? No, she didn’t understand this at all. Since she couldn’t do anything about their punishment, she accepted it, and took them, still clinging to her skirts with her arms about them, into her kitchen.


“Ella, palikaria mou, na fahme kati—ella stee couzina,” she said. “Come, my pride and joy, my brave little warriors, let us eat something—come to the kitchen.”

Hanging on her, swaying like ornaments precariously dangling from the heavy boughs of a tree, Pete and Mike obediently and gleefully followed their mama into her realm, her kitchen, running to the table and taking their seats, squirming and giggling with the energy that pulsates through the veins of twin nine-year-old boys.


Besides their games of pretending to be ancient Cretan warriors, defending their village from the ever-marauding, ever-evil invaders—the hated Turks—or playing army or cowboys and Indians, eating their mother’s food was the twins’ most favorite thing to do. Titika’s cooking talents were legendary, even among the local Greeks, and they were always happy to sample her Cretan pilafi, rice, cooked in chicken broth and dripping with butter, or her desserts like baklava, so good, bathed in honey and walnuts. Her food beckoned them like the sweet songs of the sirens, calling Pete and Mike to partake of the richness and decadence of every dish, with their mother’s love present in every bite. Getting expelled from school wasn’t so bad when they could come home and eat their mother’s delicacies earlier than usual.


The boys spent the afternoon playing outside then running in and out through the back door, taking breaks from their games of war (where the boys battled the dreaded Nazis) and hide and seek. After filling their bellies with their mother’s dinner meal (which she spent most of the afternoon preparing and cooking) in the early evening, and since there was no school the next day thanks to their suspension, Pete and Mike crept into their room, where the warm glimmer of the setting sun shone on the walls and bathed them with the fading rays of light. The heat added to the sweat cascading off their brows, and their eyes soon became heavy with sleep.

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