by Jack Somers
My dad pointed up at the mountain. The limestone peak stabbed into the aquamarine Athenian sky like a glittering white spear. “Let’s climb to the top,” he said.
It was exactly the sort of stupid, macho thing he would want to do. Wherever we went together, he was always pulling stunts like this. When we went to Pamplona a few years back, he wanted to run with the bulls, and he did, nearly getting skewered by one. In Germany, he wanted to drive on the autobahn, and he did that, too. At one point, he got our little German rental car up over a hundred and twenty. He only slowed down because my mom threatened to divorce him if he didn’t. And now he wanted to climb to the top of Mount Lycabettus, the tallest mountain in Athens. Lycabettus wasn’t Kilimanjaro, but it was high enough and steep enough that I thought it unwise to attempt the ascent in our sandals.
“If you want to get to the top, let’s just take the funicular,” I said.
My dad shook his head, his gaze still fixed on the peak. “I’m not getting in anything called a funicular.”
“Well I’m not climbing that mountain.”
He looked over at me. Our eyes were on the same level now, which I was still getting used to. “Why not?” he said. “What else do you have to do?”
I didn’t have anything else to do, and he knew it. If I weren’t out here with him, I’d just be back at the hotel, lying on my bed, listening to my Discman—the same thing I would have been doing if I’d been back home in Cleveland. I never went out to parties or hung out with friends. I didn’t have any friends. I had just finished my freshman year at a new school. When I’d arrived at the school the previous August, I’d found all the kids already broken off into well-established, rigidly structured, wholly impenetrable cliques. The only way in was by invitation, and no one was extending an invitation to the gawky, acne-ridden new kid who didn’t play sports or a marching band instrument. At lunch, I sat with the chess club kids, but I could tell even they wanted nothing to do with me. I think they just tolerated me because they knew I wasn’t going to make their reputation any worse.
My dad walked to the base of the slope and began trudging upward.
“This is a bad idea,” I said.
“Then don’t come with me,” he said.
But I had to come with him, if only to make sure he didn’t kill himself. I found myself thrust again into a role that had become all too familiar to me over the past few years: the parent of the parent. It seemed the older my father got, the more reckless and impulsive and childlike he became. Or perhaps he’d always been like that, and I was just becoming more aware of it. Whatever the case, the man needed supervision, and I was typically the only one willing and able to provide it. Mom wouldn’t say anything unless the situation really got dire—like on the autobahn. She didn’t want any unpleasantness. I was glad she’d decided to stay back at the hotel and nap. She wouldn’t have wanted any part of this.
I groaned loudly to let my dad know I wasn’t happy and then followed him up the slope. We had to ascend through about a hundred meters of pine forest before we hit the limestone rock wall. My dad powered up the forty-five degree wooded incline like it was nothing, and I did my best to keep up. It wasn’t easy. My dad was pushing fifty, but he had the strength and stamina of a much younger man. Every morning before breakfast he did twenty-five push-ups and a hundred sit-ups and then went for a two-mile run. I wasn’t in such great shape. The last time I’d run a mile was on the first day of gym class at my new school, and that hadn’t gone particularly well. I’d crossed the finish line in seven minutes and thirty seconds and collapsed in a gasping, delirious heap by the side of the track.
By the time we reached the base of the rock wall, my face was hot and slick with sweat. My thighs ached, and my heart was doing drum rolls. My dad’s bald forehead was shiny, so I knew the climb hadn’t been a total cakewalk for him, but he wasn’t breathing heavily, and he was already looking for a place to put his foot to begin scaling the rock.
“I don’t know if I can make it to the top,” I said, squinting up at the peak. “I don’t think I have the energy.”
He took a step away from the wall, pulled off his tank top, and jammed the shirt into the waistband of his utility shorts. His chest hair, a dense jungle of kinky gray fuzz, gleamed in the afternoon sunlight. “It’s only about two hundred more feet,” he said. “I think you can do it.”
“It’s two hundred feet almost straight up.”
“Follow me,” he said. “I see a path up that shouldn’t be too tough to negotiate.”
At this point, I was more worried about myself than him. I envisioned myself fainting halfway up or losing my grip—both scenarios that would result in instant death. And if I died, my dad would never forgive himself. It would serve him right for making me do this. Of course, I might not die. I might make it to the top in one piece. I thought I probably could. I didn’t feel faint or dizzy—just tired. And I’d come this far. I might as well see the view from the top.
“Are you coming?” My dad curled his fingers over a cleft in the rock and pulled himself up onto the first low ledge.
“Yeah,” I grumbled and plodded over to the wall.
It took us about twenty minutes to reach the top. There were a few close calls—I stepped on some lose rock and almost went plummeting, and my dad tried to pull himself up by a root that came right out of the cliff face in his hand—but in the end, we made it more or less unscathed. At the top, I turned and surveyed Athens. From this vantage, the city looked like a vast floor mosaic, each white, sunbaked roof a tiny square piece of the composite image. At the center of the mosaic was the Parthenon, small enough from here that I could hold up my hand and completely cover it with my thumb. Far off in the distance was the Aegean, a hazy cerulean line no thicker than a pencil.
“Look at that,” said my dad, his voice going up an octave in surprise.
“I see it,” I said. “It’s an amazing view.”
“No. Behind you.”
I swiveled around and saw below us an enormous modern amphitheater. At the center of the theater was a circular orchestra area, and just beyond that was a raised stage overhung with lighting rigs. To the left of the amphitheater was a parking lot. I didn’t see any cars, but there were a couple hundred people there, standing around, apparently waiting to get into the theater.
“There’s something going on down there,” I said.
“Want to check it out?”
But it was too late. He was already moving along the narrow ridge that led down to the parking lot, his arms thrust out at his sides like a tightrope walker. I fell into step behind him, eyes on my feet. If I tripped, I knew I was done for. There was no good place to fall. If I fell right, it was a hundred feet down to the amphitheater. If I fell left, it was two hundred feet down to the base of the rock wall. And if I fell forward, I would go barreling into my dad, and we’d both go hurtling to our doom. I just tried to concentrate and go one step at a time. As we got closer to the parking lot, the ridge widened, and I relaxed. I lifted my head to get a better look at the crowd. I could see that they were mostly young people—kids my age and a little older. Now I had something new to worry about: being humiliated by my old, shirtless, excruciatingly uncool father.
“Dad!” I called out to him. “Put your shirt back on.”
“Fuck no!” he called back. “It’s a hundred degrees out here. I’m sweating like a newborn Borneo pig.”
“You’re embarrassing me,” I said.
He stopped and looked back at me. “Because I’m not wearing a shirt?”
“What do you think?”
He jabbed a finger in the direction of the crowd. “Some of those kids aren’t wearing shirts. Nobody cares.”
I peered past him at the crowd and saw that he was right. A few guys weren’t wearing shirts. The difference between them and my dad was that each one of them was a bronzed Greek Adonis, and my dad was a pale, middle-aged, hairy-chested tourist from Ohio.
He kept moving forward, and I grudgingly trailed behind. Soon we were at the edge of the parking lot. For a minute or so, we just watched the motley throng of teenagers milling about. Then one of the kids, a statuesque girl with a mane of black ringlets, broke off from her group and asked my dad something in Greek. He shook his head. “I’m an American,” he said apologetically. “I don’t speak Greek.”
The girl smiled and pointed to his wrist. “Do you know time?”
“Oh,” said my dad. “Sure.” He looked down at his wristwatch. “It’s a little after six.” He pronounced each word slowly and loudly.
“Thank you,” said the girl.
She began to turn around. My dad reached out and touched her on the shoulder. “What is going on here?”
The girl’s dark eyes darted over to me and then back to my dad. “There is concert tonight.”
“Who is performing?” asked my dad.
“Smashing Pumpkins,” she said. “You know them? Yes?”
My mouth dropped open. Smashing Pumpkins was my favorite rock group and had been for years. I had picked up their new record, Adore, in the duty free shop at JFK and had been listening to it nonstop for the past week.
Right then I forgot how embarrassed I was by my father. I forgot how much he was irritating me. I forgot he was there at all. All I could think about was getting into that concert. I had never seen the band live. “Where can we get tickets?” I asked the girl.
She made a long face, thrusting out her glossy lower lip and raising her perfectly penciled eyebrows. “No more tickets,” she said. “The concert start in two hours.”
My head drooped. My whole body sank. My dad patted me on the back. “I’m sure we can find some scalpers.”
My dad and I spent the next ten minutes weaving through the crowd, looking for someone who would be willing to sell us tickets. I think my dad would have kept on asking people until show time if I’d let him, but I grew tired of tapping strangers on the shoulder and saying “Tickets?” Begging for tickets made me feel just like I felt in school—like a pathetic outsider futilely looking for a way to get in. “Let’s get out of here,” I said. “I’m sick of this.”
“All right,” said my dad. “If that’s what you want.”
At the end of the parking lot we found a paved road that wound down the side of the mountain. It didn’t look like it led to the side of the mountain our hotel was on, but neither of us felt like going back the way we had come, so we took it and made it to the bottom in no time.
“We’ll have to remember that road if we ever go back up,” said my dad as we came to the broad thoroughfare that circled the base of the mountain.
“I’m never going back up,” I said.
My dad put a hand on my shoulder and waited until I made eye contact with him. “Hey, partner,” he said. “I’m sorry we couldn’t see the band. If we’d known, we would have gotten tickets ahead of time. We just didn’t know. You’ll have other chances to see them.”
I shrugged him off and moped all the way back to the hotel.
When we got to our room, we found my mom sitting on her bed. Beside her, face down on the faded orange comforter, was the paperback tome she’d been slogging through for the past week. She perked up when she saw us, but her eyes still had that fuzzy, far-off look they always had right after she woke from a nap.
“How was your adventure?” she asked, smiling dreamily and smoothing out her dress with her sunburned hands.
“Terrible,” I said.
My dad plucked his tank top out of his shorts and pulled it back on. “He’s bummed because that band he likes—Smashing Pumpkins—is playing up at the theater on Lycabettus, and we couldn’t get tickets.”
My mom’s smile dissolved. Her face softened into a mask of sympathy. “I’m sorry, honey. How disappointing. I know how much you like that band.”
“Whatever,” I said. “Nothing we can do about it.” I flopped down on my bed and pressed a pillow over my head.
“So what do you want to do for dinner?” said my dad.
We ended up just eating at the restaurant on the roof of the hotel—a small patio with a bar, five tables, and one waiter. During dinner I didn’t say anything, and I didn’t eat much. I didn’t feel like talking or eating. I didn’t really feel like doing anything but going to sleep. I kept thinking about all those kids up on the mountain. By now, I assumed, they were all pouring into the theater, shuffling past security, buying drinks, looking for their seats. In an hour the band would walk out onto the stage and erupt into their first song. I wondered what it would be? “Cherub Rock”? “Frail and Bedazzled”? Maybe it would be something from their new album—“Ava Adore” or “To Sheila.” I guess I’d never find out.
After dinner, we went back to our room. My mom planted herself in the armchair by the window and dug back into her book, and my dad sprawled out on the bed and switched on the TV. I collapsed onto my bed, rolled onto my back, and began studying the swirls in the stucco ceiling. I tried to get my mind off the concert, but I couldn’t, and the more I thought about it—the more I thought about what I was missing—the sadder I became. I felt tears gathering behind my eyes. My bottom lip started to tremble. I turned on my side with my back to my parents. I knew I was about to lose it, and I didn’t want them to witness my breakdown.
I heard my dad flip through six or seven channels before turning off the TV.
“Let’s go back up there,” he said.
I blinked back my tears and rolled over to look at him. “What?”
“Let’s go back up there.”
“How are we going to get in without tickets?”
My dad grinned. “We’re not going to get in,” he said. “That whole theater is surrounded by a cliff. We’ll just climb up to the top and watch from there.”
“I’m pretty sure they have security to prevent people from doing that,” I said.
“Maybe,” said my dad. “But maybe they don’t. I’m willing to bet we can sneak up there without anybody seeing us. It’s dark now, and part of that ridge is covered in trees.”
My mom fidgeted in her chair and put her book down. “John,” she said in her no-nonsense schoolmarm voice. “I don’t know that I’m entirely comfortable with you guys doing that. I don’t want to have to bail you out of a prison tonight.”
“Relax,” said my dad. “Nobody’s bailing anybody out of prison. We’ll be careful.” He got up off the bed and walked over to me. “Do you want to do it? If we leave right now, we can still probably catch most of the show.”
Once again, my dad was proposing that we do something dangerous and stupid. Only this time, my kneejerk reaction wasn’t disapproval or resistance or fear. This time, for the first time ever, I was one hundred percent with him. My whole body swelled with a desire to climb back up that mountain. Just the thought of doing it made me jittery with excitement. So what if we got caught and hauled off to jail? If I could hear even one song, if I could see the band in the flesh for even thirty seconds, it would be worth it. It amazed me that only a minute ago I was on the verge of tears. I felt nothing now but anticipation and adrenaline. I sat up in bed and rubbed my eyes. “I’m in,” I said.
Thanks to the paved road we’d discovered on our first trek, it only took us ten minutes to make it back to the parking lot outside the theater. Unfortunately, when we got there, we spied half a dozen security guards standing outside the gates and half a dozen more hovering near the foot of the ridge we’d followed down to the parking lot a couple hours before. We had planned on taking that ridge back up to the top.
“Come on,” whispered my dad, nodding at the pine forest that bordered the parking lot. “We’ll find another way up.”
We ducked into the trees and began making our way around the side of the mountain. As we crept along, I kept my eyes on the slope to the left, looking for a place to ascend that wasn’t too steep. A few minutes into our detour, I spotted a path up that looked promising. There wasn’t much tree cover, but there was a trail of closely spaced boulders leading to the top that we could climb like stairs.
I pointed out the path to my dad. “What do you think? Want to go up here?”
“Looks as good as any other place,” he said.
I nodded and began climbing the chalky slope. I climbed as quickly as I could. I didn’t want to miss any more of the performance than I already had. I could hear the band on the other side of the rock wall. The sound was muffled but not so muffled that I couldn’t tell what they were playing. They were just beginning the second song on their new album, “Ava Adore.” It was a dark, fiendish-sounding song—good background music for two people deliberately breaking the law. Just audible over the muddy thump of the music was the sound of my dad huffing and puffing. For once, he was struggling to keep up with me.
When I got to the top, what I saw there surprised me, though I suppose it shouldn’t have: gathered along the rim of the cliff were at least a hundred kids. All of them were crouching or leaning over the edge, peering down at the concert. A number were smoking. The hot air was heavy with the pungent reek of pot.
My dad clambered up beside me “Looks like we weren’t the only ones who had this idea,” he said. “Let’s try to find a spot.”
We walked along the rim until we came to a place where there was just enough room for one of us to wiggle between two kids.
“You go ahead,” said my dad. “I don’t need to see them.”
Cautiously, I stepped to the edge, got down on my hands and knees, and peeked into the chasm. A hundred feet below the band was grinding to the end of “Ava Adore.” In the center of the stage stood the lead singer, Billy Corgan, his long body draped in a black leather trench coat, his bald white scalp gleaming under the pale blue stage lights. The guitarist, James Iha, stood to his left, and the bass player, D’arcy Wretzsky, stood to his right. Behind them was the drummer—a stand-in for their usual guy who, as I understood it, was currently in rehab. Like Billy, the other three band members were dressed in black. From where I was, each of them looked about as big as my pinky. I didn’t mind being so far away from them. Seeing them at all was enough of a thrill.
After “Ava Adore,” the band played a few more songs from the new album. I could tell from the muted applause that followed each song that most of the audience wasn’t as familiar with the new material as I was. The crowd didn’t get noticeably worked up until the band played “Tonight, Tonight,” one of the biggest hits from their previous album. Cheers went up in the amphitheater as the band broke into the song’s opening bars. To my left and right kids whooped and clapped. I didn’t move at all. I was totally locked into the performance, transfixed by the power of the band—by the way those four little people down there could generate such a mighty, lush, rolling tidal wave of sound, a sound so huge and heavy that it seemed to me it might bring down the walls of the mountain.
The band brought the intensity back down with their next song, a shoe-gazer from their new album called “Blank Page” and then followed that with a drum solo that was long enough and dull enough to snap me out of the hypnosis I’d been under for the past half hour. I remembered that my dad was with me and turned around to see how he was doing. He was standing a little ways down the ridge, talking to two girls who both looked about twenty. All three of them were smoking cigarettes. My dad took a long drag, tilted back his head, and blew out a plume of white smoke. He said something to the girls, holding out his free hand like a Shakespearean actor delivering a soliloquy, and they both burst out laughing. He laughed, too, and took another drag. I’d never seen him hold a cigarette before. He held it between his index finger and his middle finger, like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Standing there, smoking and laughing, he seemed so relaxed and loose and uninhibited. I didn’t think I could ever be so nonchalant in the presence of two girls. I couldn’t help but admire him a little. He was completely comfortable in his own skin—something I had never been and badly wished I could be.
He caught me watching him and waved me over. “Come here! These two young ladies want to meet you.”
I knew how my face felt when it turned red—hot and crawling, like there were a thousand tiny insects teeming under the skin—and my face felt that way now. I was glad it was dark so the girls couldn’t see it.
“Get over here,” said my dad. “They won’t bite.”
I got to my feet and padded down the ridge.
“This is my son, Matt,” my dad said to the girls as I approached. “Matt, this is Myra, and this is Irene.”
“Hello,” I said without looking at them.
“Myra and Irene were just teaching me how to swear in Greek. So the next time we run into a rude cabbie like that guy in Thessaloniki, I can tell him off in his own language.” He grinned at the girls. “How do you say, ‘Fuck you, asshole’ again?”
“Gamiso malaka,” said Myra.
“Gamiso malaka!” shouted my dad.
The girls cackled. They truly thought my dad was funny. They liked him. And what was more shocking was, at that moment, I realized I liked him, too. It was hard not to like someone who was so clearly enjoying himself, who so clearly enjoyed life and other people.
Irene, the shorter of the two girls, leaned over to me. “Your dad is cool,” she said.
She was right. He was cool—far cooler than I could ever be. I didn’t know why I hadn’t seen it until now.
“Hey,” said Myra, holding up a soft pack of cigarettes to me. “You want a cigarette?”
“Go ahead, partner,” said my dad, slapping me on the back.
“Okay,” I said, reaching out to take one. I knew smoking was terrible for me, but I thought one couldn’t hurt. I placed the cigarette between my lips, and Myra lit me up. I inhaled deeply. The smoke rushed into my mouth and singed the back of my throat. I wanted to cough, but I resisted the urge. I didn’t want to look like the total rookie I was.
The band broke into the rumbling, fire-and-brimstone beginning of “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.” It was one of my favorite songs, and I was tempted to return to the edge of the cliff, but I felt an equally strong desire to stay where I was and hang out with these girls. I had never hung out with girls close to my own age before.
I was working up the nerve to talk to Myra, to ask her if she was a big fan of the band, when a gangly young guy with long black hair and a beard stumbled over to her. He said something to her in Greek, shot me a quick, anxious glance, and scuttled away. Myra’s eyes grew wide. “He says the police are coming up the mountain,” she said. “They’re arresting people.”
“Look!” yelped Irene, pointing down the mountain. “Here they come!”
I glanced over and saw them immediately—a dozen uniformed men climbing towards us, nightsticks brandished. They were about fifty meters away and advancing rapidly.
My dad threw his cigarette on the ground, took a step toward the police, and cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hey,” he called out to them. “Gamiso malaka!” He whipped around, a broad grin on his face. “Let’s get the hell out of here!”
Myra, Irene, and I tossed our cigarettes and started scurrying down the mountain. I could hear my dad right behind us, hee-hawing over the commotion of scrambling teenagers. He thought this whole thing was hilarious and fun—and if we didn’t get caught, it would be.
Somehow we all made it down to the tree line without falling. Myra and Irene disappeared into the darkness of the forest just ahead of me, and I leapt after them. All around me I heard branches breaking and kids squealing and the menacing, insistent drone of “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.” I kept charging down the slope, dodging trees, hopping boulders, and jumping over craters and crevasses. I hoped my dad was still behind me, but I didn’t dare to stop or look back. I no longer heard him, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t back there. My guess was that he was just too tired to laugh.
I didn’t see Myra or Irene in front of me anymore. I didn’t see anybody. It was too dark. But I didn’t need to see anybody. I knew that as long as I kept moving down the slope, I would hit the street eventually. And once I got there it would be easy to slip into an alley or the door of a restaurant or café.
Just when I started to think I’d been in the forest too long, that I’d taken a wrong turn, I broke through a wall of pine branches into the noise and neon glow of the street. I saw twenty or thirty other escapees lining the street to my left and right, waiting for an opportunity to cross over to the safety of the other side. Irene and Myra appeared beside me, smiling and out of breath.
“Where’s your dad?” asked Irene.
I looked back at the forest. A few more people came tumbling out, but my dad was not among them.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Do you think the police got him?” asked Myra.
“I don’t think so,” I said. I really didn’t. He was too slippery to get caught. And if the police did corner him, I didn’t think they would be able to subdue him—not unless they pulled guns on him.
Then I started to worry. What if they did pull guns on him? What would he do? Would he do the smart thing and surrender or would he rush at them? With my dad, it could go either way. He might just hurl himself at them thinking they wouldn’t have the balls to pull the trigger. If they did shoot him, what would I do then? How would I explain that to my mom? How could I explain the fact that I hadn’t been there to protect him or at least prevent him from doing something rash? I had to go back and find him. I had to rescue him. I had to get to him before the police did.
“I’m going back,” I said.
Myra and Irene looked at me aghast, like I’d just told them I was going to throw myself in front of a car.
“You’ll get arrested,” said Myra.
“I don’t care.”
Myra glanced at Irene. “We’re getting out of here,” she said. “Good luck.”
“Thanks,” I said. “It was nice meeting you.”
“Nice meeting you,” said Irene.
The two girls dashed across the street, and I gulped and started marching toward the forest. Just before I got to the tree line, my dad came bursting out into the open. He grabbed me as he went by and hauled me after him.
“Move your ass!” he hollered. “They’re right behind me.”
I wriggled out of his grip and together we tore across the street. Drivers honked and cursed. The police, out of the forest now, shouted at us and blew their whistles. We turned into the nearest alley, ran about a hundred meters, took a left, then a right, then another left, and kept running until I couldn’t run anymore. I slumped against a wall beside a rusted green dumpster, and my dad slumped beside me. Neither of us spoke for some time. A mustachioed man in a white apron strode out of a door to the right, slung a cardboard box into the dumpster, and strode back inside.
“Let’s not tell mom about this, okay?” said my dad.
“Okay,” I said.
He stepped away from the wall and wiped some sweat out of his eyes. “Whew,” he said. “Doesn’t it ever cool off in Athens?” He took off his tank top again.
I straightened up and yanked off my own shirt. “Doesn’t seem like it,” I said. I closed my eyes and savored the feeling of the warm breeze on my tacky, hairless torso.
“I’m all turned around,” he said. “Any idea which way the hotel is?”
I opened my eyes. “Not a fucking clue.”
“Whoa, partner,” said my dad, taking a step away. “You’re starting to sound like me.”
“That a bad thing?” I said.
He scratched his sun-spotted head. “Just don’t talk like that in front of your mom. She already thinks I’m a bad influence.”
“Maybe,” he said. He turned in the direction we’d been running and placed his hands on his hips. “Well,” he said. “Should we just keep going the way we were going?”
“That’s probably best,” I said. “We don’t want to go back the way we came.”
“Let’s go, then,” he said. “Don’t want your mom to worry.”
“Right behind you,” I said.
And together we tramped forward, lost and happy in the immense, ancient labyrinth of Athens.
Jack Somers’ work has appeared in WhiskeyPaper, Jellyfish Review, Literary Orphans, and a number of other publications. He lives in Cleveland with his wife and their three children. You can find him on Twitter @jsomers530 or visit him at www.jacksomerswriter.com.
(Pittaki Street photo from Atlas Obscura.)