"My Cousin, the Caryatid"
The Classical world was making a comeback. Funny thing was, it was the Persians who started it all. History described battles where Western civilization and baubles like freedom and liberty hanged in the balance. Everything worth living for would be kept intact by defeating the Eastern threat. Including the man-boy love.
My accountant Shirin rocked a periwinkle toga. Couldn’t speak Greek for shit. Great with money, though. Knew how to diversify, and when. “Wanna fig?” he offered, pointing at a compote full of those overrated sticky nuggets.
He coughed, cracked his neck before attacking my portfolio with keyboard and mouse. “Suit yourself.”
I preferred to stand while he updated me on my fund’s progress. I felt it braced me better for the harsh reality of the market as opposed to sitting on his lavender yoga ball, the only other furniture in the room. Expect worst, hope best, all that. His face consolidated into a death mask of surprise. He looked up at me. “Did . . . did you recently take out a large chunk of your 401(k)?”
“Uh, yeah,” I shrugged. “Relative in need.”
“You know I strongly advise against that, right? No matter what?”
I shrugged again.
“Eumonymphactides, are you familiar with the myth of Sisyphus?”
“No,” I muttered, “of course not.”
Eumonymphactides wasn’t even my real name. It wasn’t even a nickname. My birth name was Ryan Taylor McCormick.
The Grand Re-Opening of the Oracle at Delphi was in a week. The Pope was going to do the ribbon-cutting. A pair of opal-handled shears had been commissioned to be made by a Greek arts and crafts manufacturer. Per EU directive, everyone had to do his or her part in Hellenizing oneself for the betterment of the global community. All of Brexit had been undone--yet the bloke with the goofy hat got to retain his monotheism. Tauroskata.
The Pythian priestess was some dark-haired, drop-dead dime-piece who in a show of solidarity with her country’s austerity measures (going on twenty years now) let herself be blinded for her new vocation. She took a vow of chastity and enunciated everything in a hoarse whisper. My cousin, Thrasiphrenia, had put in for the gig but got summarily turned down. Wasn’t hot enough, they said. Not sufficiently endowed up top. But they didn’t come more callipygian than my cousin.
Callipygian. A fine word. Look it up. I guess that’s what people like about Greek: its pithiness. I’d just as soon say my cousin packs heat down below. More syllables. So?
“Because those two Homeric epics the world refuses to slough off are shining examples of brevity,” I scoffed at Shirin over lunch.
The side of his mouth bulged with gyro juice and lamb. “Hellenophobe,” he grumbled.
“There’s that language again.” I ate a burger and fries.
Shirin took another large bite. Mouth full, he said, “That 401(k) withdrawal could have fetched you a nicer outlook. They’re doing miracles with the hippocampus these days out at PhrenTech.”
My cousin needed boobs bad. I tried on countless occasions to discount that fact. The only way to properly perform a size assessment was to stand directly behind her and tightly brace her hips with my elbows and, forearms vertical, hold them in my palms. “Why do you always breathe heavily in the nape of my neck?” she asked last time I did an evaluation. I exhaled. Wisps of auburn hair shuddered across her olive skin.
“To render the molecules in their immediate vicinity more objective, by which I can then properly determine their relative sizes in accordance with the average twenty-two-year-old.”
“Molecules,” Thrasiphrenia giggled. “Molecules and atoms. Do you know that Epicurus, known mostly nowadays as a gourmand, was the first to propose the idea of atoms? Indivisible, minuscule units of matter? Genius. Just genius.”
Don’t let the jargon fool you. Thrasiphrenia was as sharp as a sack of pita chips. And it was what I found most charming about her. That and the heat packed down below—tactful handling thereof possible only with a genius level of self-confidence. And the waist. And the hips. And the thighs. And the pout.
“Epicurus was a hack,” I said. “I doubt he was the first to propose the idea of atoms. Someone else, likely an Asian, came up with it first. He may have just been the first to go public about it. Schmuck didn’t know about neutrinos and quarks though, did he? Genius. Just genius.”
She pouted and looked over her shoulder back at me. Instant satyriasis.
“The bank is open today,” she said.
“I know. I’m going there after this. Please don’t rush me.”
The bank I headed to, the First Sycophantic Bank, also happened to be the one she hoped to work at. Four nubile specimens graced the portico, holding up a super-lightweight pediment. The four girls alternated with four Doric columns. Being a living caryatid was certainly peanuts compared to being the seer of the Delphic oracle, but it was good, honest work. They had great benefits: Medical, dental, and vision. You got vested with a pension after five years. Labor union, even. But you had to have a supple upper body. Objectification, I know. Why do you think I hated the Classical world so much?
As for myself, there was no glory in being an errand boy for the Academy. Something told me my get-it-done-and-shut-up attitude would be misappreciated as a lofty ideal not unlike that evinced by the likes of Odysseus. I was more like Penelope--chief bow-bender being my boss, Cleomantia.
A real ballbuster, she. Which was why the Academy loved her as head talent scout. Any whisper of original philosophical chatter, and she was on it like a hawk. An electrical lineman or roof shingle installer couldn’t spout a smidgen of wisdom without her pouncing on the scene with a sleek black pant suit, Prada sunglasses, and a business card.
See, Cleomantia underwent gorgonification. The newest advancements in laser-eye surgery offered a basilisk setting. If she saw you eye to eye, you’d be done. Hopefully, you’ve done deadlifts and Pilates for the perfect posterior, because you’d be gracing the topiary/statuary-strewn avenue leading from the Academy to City Hall for all eternity. A dozen of those poor, petrified souls made the mistake of crossing Cleomantia—a few even daring to become her lovers. A shirtless fireman with chiseled abs stood at an intersection. A secretary at a dental office, in scrubs, holding a clipboard, stood next to him. On the other side of the avenue, down a ways, were two bartenders who claimed to have had original outlooks on Neoplatonic ether but were shameless rip-offs of Plotinus.
I arrived at work. “Eumonymphactides,” chirped my boss, craning her neck through the opened door of her office. A dark shock of slithering hair framed her sunglasses.
“Yo,” I said, grabbing a Styrofoam cup of water at the cooler.
“What’s the latest on the leper who reminded you of Diogenes?” Her eyebrows arched patronizingly over the Pradas.
“I didn’t get the lead until yesterday. You know, cuz, Porsenaiades had jury duty.”
“I need results, Eumonymphactides,” Cleomantia said, “not excuses.”
Slowly, over the span of a few weeks, I had been pushing the envelope on defiance. I was surprisingly getting away with most of it. “It’ll have to wait until Lupercalia, when the lepers come out and celebrate. Their colony rarely crosses the freeway overpass to this side of town.”
She tapped her desk with long, black fingernails. Clickety-clack-clack. Eyebrows relaxed.
“Tomorrow,” I dared.
She began lowering the Pradas.
Later, Cleomantia bugged me on my mobile. “Excuse me, ah, Eumonymphactides? When you were at the office earlier, when I asked you about the leper lead, did you say ‘Lupercalia’?”
“I believe I did. So?” A triumphantly defiant ‘so.’
“That’s Roman. Not Greek. You may have had Eleusis in mind? Cross paths much?”
“Uh . . .”
“I suggest you get your act together. Any other slip-ups and I’ll have to dock your pay.” She hung up.
Post-op Thrasiphrenia made me hyperpriapic. I stood behind her, elbows at her hips. “Careful,” she said, looking over her shoulder at me, pouting. That pout. “They’re still scarred. Two more weeks. Do you think I have a shot at the caryatid sisterhood? Do you recommend pushups? Or planks? Or both? They do eight-hour shifts with only a thirty-minute break.”
I slid my palms up to her triceps. “You’ll be fine.” I breathed into the nape of her neck.
“Eumo,” texted my accountant, Shirin, “I’ve just made up—more than made up—for your withdrawal!”
“Market surge?” I texted back. “Because of what? The austerity measures? Petroleum futures?”
“Nope,” Shirin responded. “A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Come to my office and I’ll explain.”
The first thing he did once I was over was show me this strange, disk-like device with turning wheels and cogs. “The fug?”
“Antikythera. Just like the one found in 1902. But this one, made by my nephew, predicts the algorithms of the stock market.”
“That’s impossible. The market’s ultimately random.”
“No, it’s not. Really, nothing ever is. Bro, we’re going to be rich.”
My first order of business being rich was to convince my cousin to give up that silly caryatid deal and marry me. She had no problem with the incest, but getting her to ditch her lifelong aspiration was another matter. “I’m perfect now. Don’t you agree?”
“You always were,” I said. She became the Platonic archetype of coy. I, hyperpriapic.
My second order of business was to put in my two-week’s notice at the Academy. Cleomantia didn’t take it well. Despite the Pradas, her face froze in grief, with its downturned mouth and furrowed brow.
She said nothing for some time. “You know, Eumonymphactides, I’ve always found you to be cute, besides fleet-footed. Why can’t we stay in . . . touch?”
“Company policy prohibits fraternizing.”
“Come on, two more weeks and it’s all good. By the time anyone catches on, you’ll be gone.” A raised eyebrow. She was stunning in her black pant suit, do-me high heels, and ophidian bob.
It turned out that hubris was subjective—entirely a matter of perspective. I didn’t act untoward or unscrupulously (maybe so in relation to my cousin, but all that was consensual). I just went about my day, refusing to do the bidding of someone to whom I owed nothing legally or morally. Didn’t matter.
“The Diogenes leper, Eumo,” Cleomantia chirped in my phone. I could hear her fingernails arpeggiating on her Formica desk.
“I must say, boss, I don’t feel comfortable frequenting that side of the freeway, seeing I’ve only three workdays left. Maybe another lead is available for me to work on? Something more local? Tidier?”
“Never mind that, then.” A pause. She drew breath like a maid drew a bucket of water from a deep well, deliberately and devoid of all joy. “It’ll be happy hour soon at Alcibiades’s Bar & Grill. You been? Kabobs to die for and ouzo on tap. My treat for your going-away.”
“I’ll have to take a rain-check, boss,” I gulped. Though I was days away from no longer being her subordinate, I still feared her. She was, after all, a gorgon.
“Eumonymphactides, are you of the Athenian persuasion?”
“What impertinence,” I shot back. “I suffer from satyriasis like the best.” She wasn’t used to being turned down. I understood why. She was arresting. But she wasn’t my cousin. “What about those Neoplatonic bartenders?” I subject-changed. “Can we bring them back for a second run?” A jibe at her turning them to stone.
“Do you know what your problem is?” she blurted into the phone.
“I’m a tease?”
Another laborious sigh. “No. You’re too Aristotelian for your own good. Get a clue. I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow at the office.” There were various hissings, then she hung up.
“Late,” I spat, and flipped the mobile onto the kitchen counter-top. It spun midair and landed face first, the screen shattering. Nemesis.
That wouldn’t be all of it.
I stood facing the entrance to the First Sycophantic Bank. Despite the name, it was a bona fide credit union. They had great customer service and didn’t rape you with surcharges or overdraft protection fees. Shirin recommended I open a Roth IRA there. I would get around to it in time. I was there for another reason. Finally, my cousin got accepted into the sisterhood. She was on the far left of the portico.
“I don’t think I can withstand this,” she moped from atop her plinth. “This is horrible. Arms ache. How did Atlas manage all those years?”
“Just look at your peers,” I said, nodding at her three fellow caryatids—stuck-up tramps, all. “They seem to be getting along just fine.” Why my cousin wished to be regarded among them was beyond me.
“Look at them,” she said. “They’re less top-heavy. I think the surgery made it harder to do this.”
I assessed their breasts. Their breasts assessed, they heaved in defiance. The pediment actually shook. Not good.
I Skyped into Delphi, scheduled three weeks in advance. I had to be quick and to the point, lest I overextend my allotted five minutes. I opened my digital wallet and extracted a CozyCoin, loading it onto the virtual tripod. Deeming the offer worthy, the Pythian priestess began a sultry moan. Smoke from nearby coals or a hot spring all but clouded the screen on my tablet. Then the words emerged in Arial font:
Kin to be finally installed
Arms now worthy
Nemesis by the bucket-load
Naivete to think lacking hubris
And the screen went black. I felt short-changed. Whatever excitement I had to be in the exalted company of the one and only oracle Alexander, Themistocles, Pericles, and Julius Caesar consulted fizzled out in a piddle. A CozyCoin for gobbledygook. Add that to my cousin’s breast augmentation, and I was thirty-five-hundred pounds in the hole. Luckily, I was mad rich.
My cousin wanted for us to go over the Delphic conundrum together over a romantic dinner at a sushi restaurant. I hitched up my toga and headed toward the bank. She’d be getting off work in twenty minutes.
“Yo,” said a raspy voice somewhere to my left. I looked around and saw at a bus stop, peeking from behind the stone bench, a bum with piercing blue eyes beneath a crusty black beanie.
“Yo, you,” I shot back.
The hobo stood up. He unfolded into a tall, spindly being in a sackcloth shift and tattered loincloth. Heroin arms. “Word on the street is, you’re a talent scout for gutter philosophy.”
“And you are?”
“Memnamnesius. He who remembers to forget, in order to retain perpetual wonderment. I tell you again: Memnamnesius. Lest you forget to remember.”
“I’ve heard of you. You’re that Diogenes wannabee everyone’s yapping about. Hotshot hobo who tells good people to stop blocking the sun.”
“Screw the sun!” he yipped. “And screw Diogenes. While we’re at it, screw you!”
I looked around to plan an escape route. Aggressive hobos freaked me out. And this one was fast-twitchy. Flakes of skin flew off him as he shambled around from behind the stone bench.
“Aren’t you supposed to be on the other side of the freeway? Offense.”
“Taken. I like to move around. I’m a peripatetic. A peripatetic cynic.”
“You’re cynical of moving around?”
“No. The cynicism moves around. Sometimes so far that it’s gone completely. As a result, I become decidedly uncynical. Earnest.”
“What good has your philosophy served you? You’re a vagabond and clearly in pain.”
“Wrong and wrong,” he said, chuckling. The smile sent a piece of his bottom lip to the sidewalk. He bent to pick it up. “If home means being surrounded by four walls and mistaking it for security, then I’m not interested. As for pain, meh. Neurons nearly gone. Any residual pain coming in only serves to remind me that I’m alive, which is a gift.”
“So what do you want with me?” I needed to get to the First Sycophantic Bank.
“Could you get me into the Academy?”
“I’m afraid not, bro. I no longer work there.”
“Did you get fired? Or did you quit as a phobosopher?”
“One who fears wisdom. One not likely to deal well with wisdom’s implications. Of the ostrich brigade.”
“I can’t help you, pal. I’ve got some incest to commit.” He looked shocked for a quick second, then pleased. I went on my way.
He didn’t follow me, but he yelled out, “Come back here, sisterfucker! And make me famous!”
Thrasiphrenia looked scrumptious there, holding the pediment of the First Sycophantic Bank. She was comelier than the other three, and they knew it.
“Eumo,” she yiped upon seeing me. “I can’t take it anymore. My arms are burning.”
I ignored her. That’s what men of the Classical world seemed to always do to complaining women. “Do you prefer sashimi or California rolls? Two places specialize in each one.”
I don’t care,” my cousin muttered, sad. “Sashimi, I guess. Anywhere dimly lit. Eumo, my triceps.” That pout.
I pretended to be engrossed in the hard decision of sashimi versus California rolls, but my mind was on something else. Finally, she’d be mine. Three hours from now, I’d be in a refractory period, vaping Butterscotch Breeze, arm slung around her shoulders.
“There he is!” erupted a voice behind me. “The phobosopher!”
I turned to find facing me, about fifty feet away, the leper.
Accompanied by Cleomantia.
My erstwhile boss affected a power stance, the kind that instilled good vibes in a pant-suited go-getter like herself—a self-improvement junkie par excellence.
“I should have known,” she scoffed, nodding up to my cousin, the caryatid. “Well, at least you’re not an erastes as I had feared. In which case there’s hope for us two yet.”
“Lady,” I said, “I wouldn’t take you down if you paid me. I demand eye contact when crushing.”
That lit her up. Her eyebrows arched in fury. “This fine philosopher,” she said, placing a hand on the leper’s shoulder, “says you denied helping him. True?”
“True,” I said, folding my arms in defiance. “Why should I perform a job for which I am no longer to receive remuneration?”
“I don’t know,” Cleomantia wondered, shrugging. “The betterment of humanity?”
The leper nodded eagerly, eyes peeled wide.
“Throw a pickle of enlightenment into a shit-storm,” I said, “and you still get a shit-storm.”
“Nihilist!” accused the leper.
“A decisive, philosophical stance, albeit a negative one,” claimed Cleomantia. “You see, Eumonymphactides, when you decide to adopt—”
The leper interjected with a hand at her elbow. “May I?”
“But of course,” Cleomantia said, pleased. She moved behind her newest find—possibly her newest lover. What would happen if a gorgon mated with a leper? Would the leprosy offset the basilisk effect? Would his flaking skin be immune to the petrification? I wished to know these things.
“Mr. McCormick, do you consider yourself a philosopher?” he asked me.
“Of course not. Nor a phobosopher, as you’d have it. The stuff means nil to me either way.”
“So that’s your take?”
“That’s my take.” I looked back over at my cousin, who beamed with delight at my inchoate victory.
“You think it serves one to be unfettered by the constraints of an outlook, or world view?” The leper paced back and forth in front of Cleomantia like a barrister.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Your philosophy, then, is to be unphilosophical?”
“Yes,” I said. “No. No.”
“Yes,” asked the leper, “or no?”
“No? No philosophy?”
“That’s your advice, then?”
“Your advice to everyone?”
“You deem this a wise tack?”
“You love this tack? This. . .wise tack?”
“I see what you’re doing, leper,” I barked. “It won’t work.”
“But it already did!” he gesticulated, bent at knees, arms wide, palms up. He cackled hysterically, causing an eyelid to come loose.
“No Socratic syllogisms of yours can put yo’ ass back together again. Shame.”
The leper scowled, livid.
“Unfair,” Cleomantia blurted out. “I would like to see you under such dire physical circumstances.”
I thrust my crotch at her.
“Ooh,” she went, curious eyebrows way above the Pradas.
“As if,” I explained.
“Actually, guys,” said the leper, “I’m in no pain. I’ll soon dwindle to unsustainability, but I’m ready to be thrust back into the ether, whence we all came.”
“Doubt it,” I said.
“Eumo,” cried my cousin behind me. “A little help here.”
I turned to find her shaking. The pediment began to tilt on her side. The other three caryatids looked annoyed. Her triceps were giving out. Having her arms thrust straight up gave her an extremely becoming look of being quite well endowed up top. My heart raced.
“What’s the problem, sweetie?” Cleomantia asked, walking toward her, passing me.
“You say, then,” the leper addressed me, “that you would never bed your former boss if given the opportunity? Why not?”
“My desires are elsewhere.”
“In your cousin, the caryatid?”
“Correct,” I said. Damn it. Here we go again. I was determined to not fall onto his logical trap. I fortified my intellect, reminding myself to take each discursive step slowly.
“Incest is hubris,” he said.
“It’s consensual,” I fired back.
“Nevertheless. The gods look disapprovingly upon such a vile act.”
“Unless the quote gods unquote themselves indulge in such a thing. Then it’s okay.” The leper smiled. I was winning.
“Eumonymphactides,” Cleomantia said to me, looking over her left shoulder. “She’s a sight, all right.”