Beast Fiction: Christopher Bollen’s ‘The Destroyers’
‘What’s so bad about us really? Is it because we’re successful? We built the highways in the Middle East.’
I’ve never known the specifics of Charlie’s family’s wealth. Like pools or country houses or fathers with healthy, poorly hidden porn collections, money was just a condition that some kids had and others didn’t.
That’s not to say I didn’t realize early on that the Konstantinou fortune trumped my own—that I was a votive candle set beside a bonfire. Their residence was a labyrinthine, low-ceilinged duplex on the forty-eighth floor of Fifth Avenue and West Fifty-ninth Street, its brown-tinted windows glazing all of Manhattan with a high-desert varnish. The front rooms were rearranged and redecorated with the same seasonal restlessness as their corner view of Central Park: flocked wallpaper gave way to raw muslin; oily Regency chairs lost favor to skeletal Italian minimalism. The only permanent décor was a collection of tiny silver-framed pictures of skinny children and overfed dogs.
Charlie’s family had staff—real staff, housekeepers and au pairs and drivers and a Portuguese chef who, for reasons unclear, insisted on buying meat at a certain kosher butcher (Saturday was their night to eat out, and the chef’s night to chain-smoke on the balcony). Orders were relayed in subtle, inscrutable eye movements. During my visits, there was always someone dressed in unobtrusive black to provide drinks or snacks or movie times or alibis for Charlie’s older brother, Stefan, who was more a constant point of conversation than an actual presence in the house. Meanwhile, my mother and I, living post-divorce in a garden apartment on Riverside Drive, had a pudgy Peruvian cleaner who would come for three hours every Tuesday, begrudgingly paid for by my father. When I phoned Charlie there was very little chance he’d be the one to answer; it was the rare kind of New York home that took five minutes of waiting on the other end for him to be tracked down. When he called me, I was right on the line 90 percent of the time, turning “hello?” into a life-or-death question.
We were all spoiled kids, no question. Whatever dim connection Buckland Academy maintained to its Protestant roots reminded us that we were all born with unfair advantage. Some of us were just more spoiled. I knew even at age nine that Charlie’s money was the kind generated from larger reserves than baby food. It was a strange pocket of America in which I was raised: children whose ancestors reached the shores of this country already loaded. The Bledsoes are a Michigan breed, devoutly modest and thrifty, proud of owning their own snow shovels. My family goes back several midwestern generations, but we are first-generation millionaires, and my father despised ostentation wherever he encountered it (especially in his son). He was a New Yorker by trade and not by social observance. The Konstantinous, on the other hand, seemed to revel in their fortune: trips to Biarritz or St. Barts or Greece or Palm Beach were treated as migratory necessities rather than as vacations, something one couldn’t not do, and there was always a new cause or artist or wetland they were subsidizing with the giddy thrill of an illicit romance. I grew up alongside Charlie’s wealth, I made a second home in it, and, as with anything introduced so young, I never really questioned its source. Both of our fathers were “businessmen focused on the global economy,” which was similar to calling them “sharpshooters”—a designation that didn’t lend itself to particulars.
Over the years, though, I did learn certain crucial details. Mrs. K was a quiet, stout woman with deep wrinkles running from her eyes like two palm trees blowing in separate directions. She had the curious habit of cracking open little half-and-half creamer containers in her kitchen and knocking them back like whiskey shots. “For calcium,” she’d say. She was kind and eloquent and had a tic of rotating the clasp of her earring, and she treated me with the sincere appreciation a mother bestows on a friend who might be a positive influence.
“Now how is your mother?” she’d drawl in concern, without ever remembering that her name was Helen. Mr. K, at least fifteen years older than his wife, was bald and brown. He had the round, boneless face of a seal, and he sat cross-legged on the sofa, his pant cuff pulled up to reveal the spot where an argyle sock met his hairless leg. He laughed with his shoulders and asked a scatter of questions, which I rarely understood because of his thick Greek-Cypriot accent. Charlie would quickly intercede. “No, Dad, Ian isn’t doing lacrosse this year either. I told you, we’re committed to after-school chess club.” Occasionally, though, words and sentences did leap out with clarity, and the Konstantinous enjoyed talking about their homeland over dinners of expensive kosher lamb needlessly slaughtered according to Jewish decree. This is the story I managed to piece together: Mr. K and his father had built a construction empire in Cyprus in the late 1960s. When the 1970s oil crisis cut American businesses off from the Middle East, Konstantinou Engineering took full advantage, becoming the region’s premiere construction company, partially due to its ties with the West. I also learned that after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, the family abandoned Nicosia for London and then New York. In the 1980s, Mr. and Mrs. K briefly moved back to have their two sons, Stefan and Charalambos, before resettling permanently in New York.
“But what does your dad build in the Middle East?” I’d ask Charlie. He’d shrug. “Things that need building.” “But what’s their specialty?” Charlie had been taught to be oblique, and he’d dutifully change the subject. He remained oblique even when, once in high school, protesters besieged the lobby of their apartment building, accusing Mr. K of traitorous oil deals and the mistreatment of Burmese laborers. Mr. K could be found forty-eight flights up, cross-legged on the sofa, an argyle sock snug against his calf, and his shoulders shaking in mirth. “Dehors eastos raskhish anix?” “No, Dad, Ian can’t stay for dinner.”
There were threats made and suspicious packages destroyed without ever being opened. For a month, Charlie was assigned two bodyguards to shadow him, a cause of bewilderment even in the halls of Buckland (where the sons of disgraced dictators included their familiarity with the political process as campaign planks during student-council elections). I found Charlie sitting on one of the benches in the school locker room, nude and slumped, wiping his face with a towel. The bodyguards were lingering somewhere out of sight, the whole subterranean room as steamy as a prep kitchen in a Chinese restaurant. I couldn’t tell if he was crying or just taking a minute to compose himself. But he looked up at me just then, his brown eyes defiant, his naked body so vulnerable and strong. He said in a slow voice worn-out by its own rehearsal, “What’s so bad about us really? Is it because we’re successful? We built the highways in the Middle East.”
That was it, all I knew of the Konstantinou wealth, and maybe, dimly, all that Charlie knew. We never discussed our parents’ dealings. When you look for the monsters tearing at the seams of the world, you rarely examine the people who love you. So we went on, teenagers, shoplifting at CVS and attending black tie benefits at the Harvard Club. We wanted our own lives to be pristine, untouched by anyone before we slid across them. We talked about girls and ate microwave pizzas and got into the idling town car and saw a movie. Normal things. My father made baby food, and his father built the highways in the Middle East.
The concrete dock is runny with soap and hose water. Fetid rainbows collect in the puddles. Compact cars and supply trucks lumber out of the ship’s hull and disappear like gleaming hammer-heads into the crowd. Leather-skinned women hold color photos of rooms for rent and deep-sea shots of tropical fish as reminders that rooms needn’t be luxurious. Everyone is in finding mode: the locals studying the new arrivals, and the arrivals scanning the locals and the taxis streaming on the cobblestones and the chalk-white buildings of Skala. Already stretched octopi are drying on the lines. Red bougainvillea cracks from alleys and creeps along the sides of stores, its flowers a fluttering parrot red that jars the sleepless and the slept. I search the street for Charlie. I do what he told me to: I look. But so many people are weaving around the port or filling the seats of outdoor cafés, loud with the clatter of cutlery and lounge music. I read signs for my name and walk up to a woman holding the photo of a yellow room in her hand.
“Good bed. Fresh towels. Free TV.”
“Excuse me. Do you know—”
“That hotel no good, has bugs,” she says angrily. “My place, new AC!”
“No, I’m trying to find—”
“Bledsoe,” a voice yells. “Bledsoe.” It rolls smoothly through the air from someone accustomed to calling it. I see Charlie forty feet away, leaning against the back of a mini truck, its empty flatbed a series of thin wood planks. As I walk toward him, I take in what five years have done. His black hair is longer and wavier than I remember it, curling around his forehead and ears like boiling water, and his shoulders are wider by an inch. The years have dissolved the fat from his face, chiseling out a man of thirty, with high cheekbones and tight brown lips. He wears faded pink shorts, the drawstrings hanging limply, and a loose white T-shirt with the glimmer of a silver chain at the collar. His legs are hairier, scribbles of black, and he holds himself up on the bumper with his ankles crossed. Ratty white boat shoes have been pummeled into slippers. His deep tan whitens his teeth.
If I saw him this way in a photograph, I’d say, Yeah, that’s Charlie, handsome and unhassled, the same as he always was. But in the sharp sunlight and mounting heat, under the blue blaze of sky, I feel like I’m closing a great distance, that we’re strangers meeting on an island who have only some half-forgotten past in common. It hits me that we’re men now, still young, but men separated from each other by all the nights and days that make long deserts out of years. I’m nervous and dazed and my throat catches and, for some reason, I can’t summon one joke or funny memory to tie us to the kids we were. Before I went to Panama to work for Kitterin, my father advised me always to have my first sentence ready, the clever, crack-shot opener that determines whether you’re just another man in the world or whether there’s a world inside a man. He also told me to stick my hand out and force others to lunge to shake it. “Like your arm is a sword and they could impale themselves on it.” I never shared his bloodlust for the baby-food business.
Charlie remains leaning, stone still, and I can tell he’s assessing how much I’ve changed since he last saw me. He squints like a man studying an orchestra recital for the slightest instrument out of tune. His tongue flickers across his teeth; one of his incisors has a tiny chip in its corner. He waits until the last second to push off from the bumper. He creeps forward, his back bent, taking enormous, goblin-like steps, and springs. He wraps his arms around me and knocks my suitcase to the ground. His palm presses against my cheek. I can feel his heart beating against my chest and catch the faint smell of fish and tobacco on his breath. His eyes are the same, deep and brown, like two pennies dropped in fountain water. His hand moves from my cheek and slides around the back of my neck.
“God, it’s good to see you,” he whispers, staring directly into my eyes. He squeezes my neck. “I’ve missed us.”
My hands are on his hips like we’re slow dancing. I feel as if Charlie is the first person I’ve touched in weeks, or maybe it’s just his way of holding me, like I’m something that belongs to him. One early memory does come to mind, an indecent one—both of us at twelve in his bedroom, Charlie’s face glowing with pride, the waistband of his sweatpants pulled down in the front, showing off his first pubic hair; it was a tiny black corkscrew, a hesitant too-early flower, and for some reason I reached toward him in that moment, and Charlie jumped back wincing. “Don’t you dare pluck it out.” I might have reached out because I wanted him in some way I couldn’t have understood at that age, or I needed him to take me along in his teenage ascent, or perhaps I was trying to pull him back. We spent that afternoon applying his father’s Rogaine to our crotches and the proceeding weeks providing regular updates on follicle growth. It would be another year before I farmed my own. How many prayers have been sent to heaven over a single wisp of hair? How many mornings have made apostates by their answer? A few years after that, Charlie was responsible for the loss of my virginity. He threw a small party at his place when his parents were out of town and invited a clutch of young models from lonesome tornado states who were in New York on go-sees. I knew her name, but we referred to her later by a promotion on a sign we saw advertising weekend brunch specials: Endless Mimosa. She took a bizarre, entirely unearned interest in me, the act was accomplished in Stefan’s bedroom, and her teeth were caked black from her personal stash of pot brownies. For the next decade, Endless Mimosa haunted me, showing up in retail catalogs and advertisements for better wireless service, and a brief fever of guilt and dread would overwhelm me during those surprise visitations. Did Charlie pay her to do that? “Of course not,” he said when I confronted him. “You’re out of your mind. Christ, what a question! As I recall, you two just liked each other. Give yourself some credit.” I never knew whether to hate or love him for that, and, like most first experiences, it grew so vague and abstract in my head it felt intrusive for me to return to it for a cheap moment of pleasure or shame. My first time, and still Charlie’s fingerprints were all over it.
The sun is leaking down my face. Charlie grimaces. “I’m sorry about your father. Are you all right?”
I step back and wipe my forehead. Holding Charlie while thinking of my father spread out right now in a funeral home brings me too close to the brink. “I’m fine. Really, I am.”
“When I lost my mother, it took a few months for it to register that she was gone. It’s not the kind of pain you can count in days.”
“Your mom? Oh, god, I didn’t know.” Kind Mrs. K, dead, like a stamp marked over the image of her in my mind, final, paid, no further action required. I had spent years speeding past their Fifth Avenue building, picturing her high up in its glass, guzzling creamer and packing and unpacking between trips. “When?”
“Two years ago. Breast cancer. I didn’t write you about it?” I shake my head. “She spent most of her last months in Switzerland for treatment. It was important to be with her at the end. One of the most important experiences you can have, don’t you think? Like walking through a door labeled adulthood, no reentry. We buried her in Nicosia. If we had done it in New York, I would have called you.”
“I wish you had called me anyway.”
“Yeah, well, now it’s just the Konstantinou men. It was good to be around family at the time.”
“I couldn’t handle the rest of my family. I didn’t see the point of the funeral. No one wanted me interrupting their hard-earned grief. I guess I didn’t earn it. You know, after Panama, my father and I weren’t close. We weren’t close before Panama either. You remember how it was.”
“Well, you’re here now. And I’m family.” He smiles like a shot of sun through cloud cover and picks up my suitcase. “Kalosorisma. Welcome to Patmos. What do you think?”
I examine the port town again. Already it seems calmer and more navigable. Dry, dirt roads wind through the hills with the haphazard logic of ant tunnels. The sea sways forth and back. Possibilities magnify: the cold drinks and the thin legs of backpackers and the yachts along the dock teeming with hectic crews. It’s a loud, greedy paradise hardening white in the morning sun like an egg in a frying pan.
“It’s nice,” he huffs. Then he repeats the Athens taxi driver’s description. “Holy island. Some people say they can feel it vibrating. We get our share of crazies. They arrive crazy and then they blame it on the island.” He drops my bag in the truck bed. “My god, I can’t believe you’re here. Look at you. You’re still so—” He searches for the right word and comes up empty. “You haven’t aged at all.”
“I feel like I have.”
“All you need is some rest. And a swim. We can take the boat out tomorrow. You don’t get seasick, do you?” Charlie’s accent is different, lighter on the vowels, less drying-concrete American. He chops the edge of his hand against his palm, a gruff Mediterranean gesture to indicate decisiveness or that we’re running late. He turns to the white buildings and waves his arm. An old man with silver hair jogs toward the truck, carrying grocery bags and a case of beer. The man is beetle brown from a lifetime roasting in the sun. “That’s Christos, my captain. He’s been with us forever. You can trust him.” He looks over and winks.
“Who can’t I trust?” I ask.
Charlie yawns, as if the excitement of our reunion has already subsided and he’s feeling his early wake-up.
“You found the red hair,” Christos grumbles as he plants the groceries next to my suitcase in the truck bed. “I look but not find.”
“I’m used to finding Ian,” Charlie replies. The captain offers his hand, and I lunge over the side of the truck to shake it. His stubble and chest hair are the color of Christmas tinsel, but his taupe skin is magically unlined. The hollows of his cheeks suggest missing teeth.
“Where’s Helios?” Charlie asks. And to me, “That’s Christos’s son.”
“He down by boat. He working. He remove . . .” But he can’t think of the word. Both Charlie and Christos are speaking English for my benefit, and the captain grows frustrated. He finishes in Greek, and he and Charlie continue their conversation in the island vernacular. Charlie ties my bag to the truck bed with a rope, and Christos climbs into the driver’s seat. There isn’t room for three inside the tiny vehicle.
“You’re not too tired, are you?” Charlie asks me.
“No. I need to get back on a normal clock anyway. I should try to stay up.”
“Good. Christos is going to take your bag to where you’re staying. See, he’s even stocking your fridge.” Charlie shakes a ball of white cheese and returns it to the grocery bag. He knocks on the truck twice to signal departure. “We can get a taxi to my house.”
“I thought I was staying with you.” Worry floods in, as much because I don’t understand the geography of the island as because I don’t want to be separated from my suitcase. I think of the cash in its plastic bag without even a lock on my luggage.
Charlie shakes his head. “Full house, I’m afraid. It’s August, high season, and the place is exploding with family. If you’d come any other month, there’d be plenty of room. Sonny wants to boot them into a hotel, but you can’t kick out family.”
“Wow, it has been a long time.” Charlie grabs my shoulder to lead me from the truck, but I lock my legs, unwilling to leave my bag. “You’ll meet her. I also have a surprise guest for you. She’s staying out where you are, on the north side of the island, in some cabins I own. It’s quiet countryside, away from the tourist surge. You might even say romantic.” He grins deviously, an impression enhanced by his chipped tooth.
“I don’t organize surprises to blow them just before they’re revealed.” His hand pulls at my shoulder. The truck engine revs with an up-chuck of diesel, and my poorly tied suitcase lurches away. Charlie notices my panic. “Your bag will make it to the cabin fine. I told you, Christos is trustworthy. What do you have packed in there, your inheritance?”
I’m blushing. I can feel the betrayal of capillaries, and I compensate by walking swiftly toward the taxi stand. Charlie leans in and kisses me on the cheek. “Forever, together, friends make the weather,” he sings. “Fair warning. Sonny’s going to treat you as competition. I’m in love with both of you, what can I say?”
“Can I trust her?”
“Hell no.” He groans. “I often wonder if she’ll be here the next morning or the one after that. Every time she says something nice about me, I think she might be eulogizing, softening me up before the final split. I just hope she’s staying with me for—” He grows as flustered for the word as Christos did for “barnacles.” He flinches briefly and shuts his eyes. Charlie’s face has aged to thirty but there’s still the boy I knew lurking behind it; a scared kid hoping the goodness in others matches the goodness in him. Charlie can afford to be good. I’m beginning to think that duplicity is a necessity of hardship. “Real reasons,” he finally mutters. “Whatever those are.”
I’ve never known Charlie to be worried about someone leaving him. Maybe he has matured. I do what I can to comfort him and pat his chest. Charlie presses his hand against mine, as if forcing me to feel him up. It’s another game we played as kids, just before the turn of the century, pretending to be prepubescent lovers, holding hands or fake groping each other on the sidewalk to the shock of the last Upper East Side matriarchs taking their nurses and canes for a walk. It was hilarious in its obnoxiousness then, but now not so much.
Three young men in tie-dye T-shirts, their beards patchy like desiccated shrubbery, squint at Charlie and share bent smiles. Charlie growls as we pass them, a little animal motor through bared teeth.
“Do you know them?” I ask.
“I try not to. Jesus freaks are taking over Patmos. More like Apocalypse freaks, death heads, camping out on the beaches of Armageddon, just hoping to catch the last gnarly wave to the end of the world. Remember when surfers and hippies were all about peace and love? It’s a new world, Ian. Poor Jesus isn’t even safe in it.” He stops for a second in the middle of the road to point to the southern hills of the island. He seems oblivious to the lanes of traffic bowing around us. “Over there is the cave where John wrote Revelation. And up there, that giant gray fortress is the Byzantine monastery that looks after it. It’s right by my house. You can visit both of them. You should take . . . Oops, I almost said her name.”
I still have no idea who the surprise guest is. I’m too tired and dazed by time zones to figure it out.
We climb into a taxi, and Charlie directs the driver to a town pronounced H-O-R-A. A wave of nervousness returns, a wave cresting on the quicksand beach of personal Armageddon. I feel like we’re both avoiding mention of the help I asked for when I called him from New York, the desperate pleading that strips this visit of its aimlessness.
Charlie, you’re like a brother. I need your help. Please take me in. I’ll do anything. Just don’t abandon me.
“How have you been?” I ask him.
“I’ve been fantastic,” he replies, flashing a tuning fork of a smile, as if just enough time has elapsed mourning our dead parents to return to his natural ease. “I love living here. It’s so good for me. It’s rare to find a place in the world that draws an X and tells you home, but when you do—”
“It’s perfect weather.”
“Perfect,” he agrees. “Turns red when the winds pull up from Africa. And if there are rings around the sun that means three days of crap weather for sailing. Heavy seas. But no rings today.”
The taxi snakes along the waterfront of Skala. At the end of a row of T-shirt shops and shaded tavernas, there’s a boarded-up storefront, plywood sheets where windows once hung. The stone around the wood is scorched black, and fresh flowers are clumped on the ground, torn petals skidding in circles in the wind.
“Is that where the bomb went off?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he mutters. “Did you see that on the news?”
“I heard about it in Athens.”
“Awful,” Charlie says flatly. “Killed eight people. They beefed up the police presence for a week or two, even brought in the military, but it could have been any island. I used to go there for coffee every morning.”
“Some Americans were killed, right?”
But Charlie isn’t listening. He’s staring at the boarded-up shell through the rear window, his lips contorted as if hit with a sudden toothache.
“Americans,” I say again. “Two died. That’s what my taxi driver told me.”
“What?” Charlie looks at me with confusion. His cheerfulness has been replaced with something darker and agitated. He tenses the muscles of his forehead, and when he relaxes them the wrinkles go white. When his voice returns, it sounds far away. “Yes. Two American girls. Vacationers. They were about to board the ferry.”
“Jesus, that’s bad luck.”
Charlie opens his mouth and keeps it open, like his expression is stuck.
“Aren’t you scared it could happen again?” I ask.
“No, I’m not scared,” he says. “It could have happened anywhere. Bad luck for anyone who dies like that.” And then he snaps, as if I’m blaming him for the force luck plays on the world, “It has nothing to do with me.”
“My driver thought it might be some antigovernment contingent.”
Charlie drops his hands in his lap and concentrates on the sea out the window. The taxi is twisting along the coast.
“Skala’s a shithole anyway,” he mumbles. “Too many tourists tripping over each other and expecting everything to be a postcard. Soulless shithole. It’s the hippies that ruined it. I pray I never find religion.”
Since the illusion of peace has already been broken, I decide to lay the facts down straight. There is nothing worse than the silence of expectation and all the plotting for the perfect second that never arrives. Plus, with all the August houseguests, I’m not sure when Charlie and I will speak again alone.
“There is no inheritance,” I tell him, my fingers pinching the seam of the vinyl seat. I don’t mean to sound pitiful but the pity is there, trembling in the words. “I went to see my father the day he died. I was going to ask him for a loan. For the first time I was going to beg him for money because that’s how bad things have gotten. And you know I’ve never asked him for a cent. But he died before I could, and he left me nothing. I guess I deserve that.”
Charlie doesn’t react. He continues gazing out at the blur of blue, here and there interrupted by the contrails of a speedboat.
“I just wanted you to know my situation.”
A minute passes, as if I have been talking passionately about breakfast.
“Don’t you think we’re too old to blame our deficits on our parents?” he murmurs to the glass. It’s a punch I’m not expecting, and I hook my fingers around the door handle to steady myself. Charlie, whose whole existence has been paid for by his parents, is lecturing me on financial maturity. In the backseat, I watch the future go dark. He isn’t going to help me. And all the money I have is tied to a truck heading in the opposite direction.
“I said a loan. I was going to pay him back. Don’t worry, I’m not here to ask you for a handout either. Forget I mentioned it.”
Charlie turns, his lips stiff and pained. I’ve seen that look before, on the corners of the Financial District, on the long sidewalks of Fifth and Madison, on every student of Buckland forced to work in a soup kitchen for volunteer credit. It is privilege encountering the mess of the weak, empathy offset with gratefulness. It isn’t pride. Pride is meaner and unguarded, sweeping into rooms rather than shrinking from them. This is the look of self-protection. I might as well be raving on about 9/11 in pajama bottoms while holding a cup for spare change. But Charlie makes a fist and taps it against my knee. He stares at me curiously, as if he only remembers my last outburst and not the entire conversation that preceded it. I have forgotten what a bad gauge Charlie has for censoring his thoughts. But I am still afraid of his eyes.
“Easy,” he says, loosening his lips into a smile. “I didn’t invite you all the way here so I could shut the door in your face. Things are going to work out. We can talk about it in a day or two. Can’t we have a nice time first?”
I nod, and he returns to the view.
“You’re planning on staying a while, aren’t you?” he asks.
“I’m here.” Here for as long as he wants me. For the rest of the ride we sit in silence, pretending to admire the water.
Excerpted from The Destroyers by Christopher Bollen.