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The little store on Bleecker Street.

Was it so wrong for a man to cling to his memories?

In the 15 years since the end of the Second World War many changes had come to Bleecker Street. The Quality Delicatessen, which had once specialized in a fragrant potato salad, had been joined with a lunchroom and a small hand laundry to form a glistening supermarket dominating the street. Banners with great red letters and numbers were splashed across the windows, and shiny shopping carts rolled in and out of the parking lot all day. Farther down the street, the little dusty tailor shop of Max Feldman, who claimed at one time or another to have pressed the pants of every male within radius of Bleecker Street, had been demolished along with a radio-repair shop and a candy store to make a bright and gaudy drive-in cleaners operated by his sons.

Of all the stores that had existed on the street before the war, only the small grocery of Kostas Stavrakas remained unchanged except for concessions to the miracles of modern packaging.

Kostas, ignoring the trend to health breads and protein breads and enriched breads, still baked his own loaves as he had baked them for 30 years in the oven in the back room of his store. He carried an assortment of Balkan spices and Greek and Bulgarian cheeses, white as the foam on fresh-whipped milk. Although he had accepted the utility of neon lighting and had purchased a small sign to hang in his window, his store stood out at night by appearing almost an island of darkness beside the flaming, garish splendor of the rest of the street.

What little business he did came mostly from the older people who had traded with him for years. As they died or moved away, there was nobody to replace them. In the meantime he did some business in the morning before the supermarket opened and in the evening after it closed.

He did not mind the leisurely pace of his trade. For some years now his legs had begun to bother him, and he wore shoes slit along the sides to case the swelling of his feet. But he could not conceive of existence away from the store in which he had spent 30 years. When his wife was alive, they had planned together for his retirement, but after her death of a stroke, a few years before, this dream had lost relevance. He lived with his married son and wife, who had a two-year-old daughter whom Kostas adored. This family and the store with the warm, familiar scents of spices and cheese and yeasty bread hot from the oven were the boundaries of his life.

The afternoons were long and quiet, and shortly after lunch he would be joined each day by his old friend, Max Feldman, the tailor whose shop had been surrendered to the ambitions of his sons and the cornucopia of progress. They would gravely set up the checkerboard within arm's reach of the briny pickles in the barrel.

"Where does the count stand?" Max asked, and puckered his thin, dry lips and wriggled his crooked ears. "I must be leading by a dozen games this month."

"No more than three," Kostas said. "You have no conception of the difference between addition and multiplication."

Max shrugged that off. "This will be a short, sad game," he said. "Five, maybe six of Feldman's murderous moves and, pfft! you will be gone."

"Your best game is with your mouth," Kostas said. "If hot air counted, you would be champion checker player of the world."

"Play!" Max cried. "Today I have no mercy!"

They made their first moves and settled down to the game, staring intently at the board. They played in a tight silence until the door of the store opened and a little bell jingled. A gray-haired heavy woman entered. Kostas rose from his chair to serve her.

"Don't cheat," he said in a soft warning whisper to the tailor. Max looked outraged.

"Good day, Mrs. Lanaras," Kostas said warmly. "How is your fine son, Thanasi?"

"Still growing," Mrs. Lanaras said, "and eating enough for three grown men. How is your family?"

"Excellent, thank you." Kostas smiled. "At two years of age my granddaughter is as beautiful as Aphrodite. Can I help you?" he asked.

"A little cheese, I think," Mrs. Lanaras said. "A half pound of feta and a loaf of bread. Thanasi takes four sandwiches for lunch."

Kostas packaged the items, rang up the sale, and Mrs. Lanaras walked briskly out the door.

"Yesterday, as I was coming," Max said, "I saw her and that lummox Thanasi carry two bags out from the supermarket. Bags loaded like that only giants should carry. Here she comes to buy a little cheese and a loaf of bread. Such customers should do you a favor and pass by without stopping here."

"She was good to come in for that," Kostas said. "The supermarket has a counter with cheeses from all over the world and varieties of bread. I am grateful she comes in at all."

Max looked for a long, searching moment at Kostas. "Tell me something," he said slowly. "Are you making expenses?"

"Certainly!" Kostas said in a shocked voice. "What kind of businessman do you think I am? Every month a small profit is made here, although I admit it is not what it used to be."

"What about your son, Nick?" Max asked. "Does he still come sneaking in with a carpenter and an electrician under his jacket?"

"They were in here again last week," Kostas said and smiled. "They took measurements for hours and scribbled a padful of figures. Nicolas is so excited. He wants to do so much. I tell him to wait. When I am dead he can do what he wishes with the store."

Max shook his head somberly. "Believe me, they can't wait," he said. "Don't I know? Twenty-seven years in one location they should let a man walk out, but from my store they shot me like a shell out of a cannon. They came to me one afternoon and said, `Papa, tomorrow the wreckers will be here.'" His lips curled with contempt. "A drive-in cleaners they wanted. So lazy louts never lift their rumps from the car. A girl they got in a short skirt and naked legs to take the clothing right from the car. Believe me, they can't wait."

"You admit yourself they are making a lot of money," Kostas said.

"Money, money!" Max cried. "Do me a favor and stop talking about money. A little money a man should make to live, but with dignity." He flung his arm up and cut the air violently. "Imagine! A cleaners with a girl in a short skirt and naked legs to take the clothing from your car!"

The door of the store opened, and the bell jingled again. Nick Stavrakas came in. He was a tall, thin young man with a serious twist to his lips and black curly hair and intense eyes.

"Hi, papa," he said. "Hello, Max."

He stood for a moment balancing on the balls of his feet. He looked up to the ceiling and a shadow of annoyance crossed his cheeks. "Papa, that light is still burned out. I thought you were going to get Leon to fix it?"

"I forgot to tell him yesterday," Kostas said quickly.

Max smiled slyly at the young man. "Tell me, how are all your friends?" he said. "The carpenters and the electricians."

Nick frowned at the old tailor. "If you don't mind, Max," he said. "I wanted to talk to my father alone for a minute."

Max sighed and rose slowly from his chair. "I'll take a walk to the park and watch the pretty nursemaids for a while," he said. "There is one Bathsheba who is like a juicy strudel."

"Sit down, Max," Kostas said. "We have no secrets from you." He looked gently at his son. "You have some more estimates?"

With a final despairing glance at Max, Nick pulled a sheaf of papers from his pocket. When he spoke, his voice was vibrant with excitement. "Papa, these estimates are the best yet!" He motioned eagerly with his hand. "This plan would almost triple the area usable and let us stock three times the items we carry."

"How?" Kostas asked.

"By knocking down that wall," Nick said, "opening those partitions in the rear and utilizing the lost space."

"What about my oven in the back room?" Kostas asked.

Nick shook his head fretfully. "That would have to go," he said. "That takes up space and yields nothing."

Max gave a sharp, pointed laugh and looked intently at the checkerboard. Kostas looked quickly at his friend and tried not to smile.

"Papa," Nick said, and his voice rose a little, "you know that oven is outdated. It costs you 40 cents to bake a loaf of bread that you can't sell for more than 30. In the supermarket, people get their choice of 40 different kinds of bread."

"Fifty kinds," Max said sagely. "Once, I counted them."

"I have been baking bread for families here for 30 years," Kostas said.

"Papa," Nick said excitedly. "That kind of business you can afford to lose. We've got to streamline this store. Do you know that Tony Manteno, the real-estate broker, was telling me this block is a gold mine for business? This block draws a fantastic number of people. We've got to get our share."

"We do a fair business," Kostas said. "We make a fair profit on the items we sell."

"Not one-tenth the business we could if we remodeled." Nick said. "Papa, I've racked my head to plan every step. I tell you we can't lose. We would have our additional investment back in a couple of years."

Kostas did not answer for a moment. "I know there is truth in what you say," he said slowly. "Let me think about it a little more."

Papa," Nick said in exasperation. "You've been saying that for three years, and you haven't made a move."

Kostas walked from the counter to the window. He stood silently for a moment, looking at the people walking past.

"Thirty years is a long time," he said finally. "Children who stood with their eyes open like big saucers before the jars of three-for-a-penny candy are grown into adults and married, with children of their own. Friends who once came in and sat and smoked and sipped a glass of wine have grown old, and some have died. This store has many memories."

Papa," Nick said, and a softness entered his voice, "memories are fine, but you can't live today in a dream of the past. You've got to keep up."

"They can't wait," Max said somberly, as if he were speaking to himself. "They can't wait."

Kostas turned back to his son, "All this new business," he said, "will mean additional help. I have always managed this store alone. People who come in here expect me to look after them."

"We would need some help," Nick said. "You could begin to take it easy and supervise everything. Sort of keep your eye on the whole operation."

"Tell me," Max asked sharply. "Do you think you might use a girl in a short skirt with naked legs?"

Nick looked at him in irritation. "What does that mean?"

"Nothing," Max said innocently. "I just happen to know where there is one such girl available."

"Nicolas," Kostas said. "We will talk further this evening. We will examine the figures together." He nodded at Max. "This boy has a marvelous head for figures," he said proudly.

Papa," Nick said, "I know talking about this makes you unhappy, but something has to be done. I've become the laughingstock of the street. Always estimates and figures and nothing more. Think of me."

Kostas looked for a long, silent moment at his son. "I am always thinking of you," he said softly. "Of you and Lucy and Katerina. The three people I care most about in this world."

Nick lowered his head to conceal the flush risen suddenly to his cheeks. "I'm sorry, papa," he said. "I know how much you think of us." He paused for a moment and tasted his defeat and could not resist one final assault. "Look now," he said, and his voice shook under an effort to speak quietly. "I've been in here almost 20 minutes now, and not one customer has entered in that time. Do you call this a business? It's more like a cemetery here now."

"I am a small grave on the hill," Max said wryly. "Before you leave, water my plot."

Kostas could not help smiling. Nick glared in sudden anger from one to the other. "Laugh!" he said shrilly. "Laugh and sit in this cemetery and play checkers all day. At least admit you aren't really in business. You don't want this place to become a business because it would interrupt your game. You sit in here, and outside the world has changed, and you go on playing checkers and ignoring burned-out lights."

"Nicolas," Kostas said with great concern.

"I'm sorry, papa," Nick said. "I'm fed up! I'm your only son and I love you more than anything else in the world, and I answer to God I want what is best for you and Lucy and the baby. I'm full of energy and ambition, and I want to repay you for all the good years- and take care of you, and all you can do is sit and worry about playing checkers."

He turned and stumbled once in his haste and then went quickly out the door.

"They can't wait," Max said grimly. "They can't wait."

Kostas returned to his chair and sat down and shook his head in despair. "Maybe we are the selfish ones," he said. "We have forgotten what it is like to be young." He paused and looked around the dimly lighted store, breathing the warm, familiar scents that came from the darkened shelves and the hidden corners. "Maybe the boy is right," he said. "Maybe this place is a cemetery."

Max shook his head violently. "Better a cemetery than a circus!" he cried. "A circus with a girl in a short skirt and naked legs so the lummoxes won't leave the car. Big, flashing neon signs and tinsel waving like every day is the Fourth of July."

"They are young," Kostas said sadly. "The world seems to move by quickly if they fall out of step. They cannot bear to be left behind." He shook his head in some stricken wonder. "Where has the time gone?" he said. "It seems like yesterday that we pushed their buggies in the park on Sunday afternoons and wiped their running noses and dreamed of their growing up to be president of the United States." He stared at the board without seeming to see the checkers. "Now my Ethel is gone, and your Sarah is gone. The babies are grown into men who live in a world different from the one we remember. And the time goes by so swiftly."

Max pulled out his handkerchief and blew his nose in a harsh trumpeting of sound. "Move!" he said. "It's your move for a half hour now. You are maybe planning to move sometime before closing? Do me a favor and move, why don't you?"

They finished their third game late in the afternoon. Max dozed a little in his chair, his bald and bony head nodding slightly. Kostas quietly swept out the store. When Leon, the maintenance man, came in, Kostas had him replace the burned-out bulb. A few customers came in for several small purchases.

As twilight fell across the street and Kostas turned on the window light, Nick returned. He brought his wife, Lucy, and their daughter, Katerina, sitting upright in her stroller.

Kostas saw them coming and held the door so Nick could push the stroller in. He looked quickly at his son's face to see what vestige of the morning's disturbance remained. Then he forgot everything in his pleasure at seeing his grandchild.

He lifted her squealing from the stroller. He kissed her warm, soft cheeks and raised her high above his head. She shrieked with delight, and he held her close and poked her gently with his nose.

Lucy, a pretty, slender, dark-haired girl, kissed him on the cheek. "We have lamb and green beans for supper tonight, papa," she said gently. "I fixed them especially for you. Nick and I came to watch the store so you can go home and eat while the food is still warm."

Kostas looked at Nick, and for a moment the young man did not meet his father's eyes. Then Nick managed a slight, repentant smile, and Kostas smiled in warm and grateful response.

"Lamb and green beans?" Max said, coming out of the shadows. "Is there perhaps enough for an old tailor who eats no more than a sick baby?"

"All sick babies should eat as well as you," Kostas said. "They would become well in a huffy."

"Always enough for you, Mr. Feldman," Lucy said. "You go along and keep papa company."

"There is plenty of food," Nick said. "Lucy cooks enough for six men."

"She knows lamb and green beans are my favorite," Kostas said proudly to Max. He patted his daughter-in-law's check with tenderness and affection. "I am a lucky man. I have a fine son, and he married a grand girl, and together they produced this incomparable child." He made a face at the baby.

"My sons married monsters," Max said somberly. "Wailing harpies who cook like poisoners. Believe me, every meal at their table freezes my blood."

Nick took the child from his father and returned her to the stroller. He gave her some cellophane-wrapped candy canes to play with. A customer entered, and Kostas started behind the counter. Lucy waved him away. "I'll take care of the store, papa," she said. "You and Mr. Feldman get started now. The lamb will become cold."

Nick went into the back room and returned with his father's jacket. He held it for Kostas to put on.

"Papa," Nick said, and he spoke softly so that only his father could hear. "I'm sorry about this morning."

"It was not your fault you became angry," Kostas said quickly. "Max and I should not have laughed."

"No, papa," Nick said, and shook his head in muted despair. "I've been thinking about it all afternoon. I talked to Lucy for two hours. I've been fooling myself for a long time, but I got no right to change you or change the store. Anybody who has worked as many years as you have worked this store has got the right to keep it just the way he wants."

"Nicolas," Kostas said. "I am not saying my way is right."

"Let me finish, papa, please," Nick said. "I guess I'm not as smart as I think sometimes, but when I stop and figure it out, a light begins to dawn. I've been bothering you for three years, but you don't have to worry or become upset any more. Starting now, I'm through with estimates and figures. I'm going to leave you alone about the store. That's the way Lucy and I decided."

Kostas looked silently at his son for a long time and then impulsively embraced him. He held him tightly for a moment and then, suddenly self-conscious, stepped away quickly, looking to see if Max or Lucy had noticed. He turned his face slightly and spoke slowly and carefully. "This is my store," he said quietly. "And I have made up my mind what must be done. This place is a disgrace. It was fine for 30 years ago, but it has become a rusty bicycle on a street of fast new cars. Changes must be made."

"Papa," Nick said, shaking his head in wonder. "What are you saying?"

Kostas did not trust himself to touch the boy again. "I've made up my mind I want to see what you can do for me," he said briskly. "I am not that bad a businessman. I am satisfied you have looked into the matter thoroughly, and I put my faith and trust in you. Don't let me down."

"Papa," Nick said angrily. "You're doing this because of what I said this morning. You're doing this because of me. I won't have it."

"Will you shut up about this morning?" Kostas cried. "Am I a child that a few words spoken in excitement cause me to change my mind? I am not married to this old store. It has provided me a living and memories, but it has also given me swollen feet and aching legs. Now go and help your wife and let me go home and eat my lamb and green beans, and in the morning call the carpenters and electricians and make plans for the work to get started."

As he finished speaking, Max came silently to stand at his side. Nick turned on the tailor with enthusiasm. "Did you hear, Max?" he cried. "Papa and I are ready to go! We are going to make this the finest little store on the street! We'll show them all!" He turned fervently to his father. "Just wait! You won't be sorry! I'll make you proud!" He turned and walked quickly toward his wife.

"They can't wait," Max said softly. "And because they are flesh of our flesh, we give in."

Kostas watched Nick talking earnestly to Lucy. He turned on Max. "The trouble with you, Feldman," he said loudly, "you live in the past. You lack vision. Your sons were right to throw you off the premises. You have a brooding face that invites disaster and despair."

He started for the door, and after a moment of outraged silence Max followed. Lucy and Nick called to Kostas and started toward him, but he waved them away. "Later," he said. "The lamb and beans grow cold."

He fled to the street. Max followed him out, and when he caught up, the old tailor laughed dryly.

"Moses Stavrakas," he sneered. "So I lack vision. I live in the past. You rushed out of the store because maybe in another minute you would have been crying. Ha!"

Kostas glared at him and did not speak. He walked with as quick a stride as his swollen feet would allow, and the tailor had to half run to keep up with him.

"You know what this means?" Max paused for a moment to catch his breath. "The song is familiar. When all the painting and renovating has been finished, the only one antique left sticking out of place is you."

"I know," Kostas said. "I know."

"But do not despair," Max said, and he laughed a dry, ironic laugh. "I will be here to help you. I will teach you to sit in the park and watch the pretty nursemaids and argue politics with the Irishmen who sit like black roosters in the sun. I know the best benches for checkers, the ones shaded beneath the trees. And when it turns cold, there is always the public library with newspapers from all the big cities."

"Feldman!" Kostas said wrathfully. "Feldman, go to the devil!"

They walked on together without speaking. They passed under the bright flashing glitter of the signs and the neon night streaked with multicolored lights. As they approached the great, gleaming festival of the drive-in cleaners, Max fell a step behind and fiercely brandished his fist at the long window with flaunting banners, and with a violent gathering of his body he spat on the ground before the store.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Petrakis, Harry Mark
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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