A short story based in Athens, Greece

Badly Paid Job

For as long as I can remember, I was the guy left in the corner at parties still holding a badly wrapped gift that somebody else picked out for me in order to give to the birthday boy or girl. An idiotic gift, most likely one of those desk organizers that my mother used to buy for me. A cheap plastic thing that one can use to arrange paper clips separately from stapler nails. It almost always contained a tiny ruler and a pair of scissors with rounded edges. An item that pretends to be something useful but barely efficient. Later in life, my parents picked an equally useful career for me in the public sector. I was never particularly good in anything let alone deciding, so I went along with it.

When a woman, any kind of woman shows the least amount of interest in me and asks what I do for a living, I envy my cousin Aris to death. He is an artist. In short he is an in and out mental patient that comes to every family gathering with a different chick. He always replies to questions elusively“I do life for living”. And when they ask him if it pays off he hastily replies “You know it is a badly paid job but it has its perks”. The suburban girl that will soon abandon him for another tormented soul to pose for one of her paintings, videos, or gods knows what else — she now looks bemused. The night goes as usual in Athens with pointless drinking and smoking as Aris is treated as king everywhere.

Aris nowadays has a new girl for longer than usual. She is usually busy filming him with adoration. As he is now trying to walk on the edge of a bridge she whispers to my ear, “Look at him, he is unique”. “He is mental” I mutter hastily between my teeth but as she is busy admiring his long-lined figured dancing on top of the highway she notices nothing else. The wind goes through his long hair and I can see in the monitor of her tiny camera the glimpse of a black and white image that defies gravity. A week later he is on the floor falling apart, down on all four, his face covered in wet oily hair in tears, she is at some art camp somewhere in a forest in Germany. No one to film him now. He is even lucky to have me picking up his pieces. I give him 6 milligrams of our grandmother’s medication and I put him to bed. The girl is still nowhere to be found.

When she returns she had eyes only for her end exam piece and surprisingly enough — for me. One night after visiting Aris, whom she now finds dull and depressing, we had an awkward encounter at the stairway. But my morality, a sick fruit of my mother’s religious views, led me once again alone to bed. I now watch porn on a tiny netbook, hoping that no one will listen. The house is dead quiet. The older they get, the earlier my parents turn in. I can’t sleep so I climb the stairs to the terrace. On top of our house, there is a tiny apartment with a small bathroom. Aris lives there. He also can’t sleep so we drink a beer together.

I want to ask him about the girl but his phone rings and yes it is yet another art chick interested in painting him wearing her mother’s nightgowns or something. A comment on cross-gender politics or something. When he mechanically accepts I sigh with relief. Life is back to normal. Aris does life again and I have to wake up early to work once more in a stinky office before I am assigned to something.

In front of me, there is an amazing amount of paperwork. I am turning old; I have a bit of grey hair, all the warning signs of a forthcoming beer belly, fixed income and I am alone and terribly bored. Today is Monday and tomorrow will be Tuesday and the day after will be the day I was born thirty-seven years ago.

I think of my youngest nephew. A few summers ago I used to be his superhero for working at McDonald’s. He would brag to all his classmates that his uncle works at Mcdonald’s and now he can have all the Happy Meal toys. We have the same name so when I quit I gave him my name tag. He wore it almost religiously for a year before he lost it somewhere playing at the seashore.

We all live in a ‘family’ building. The tenants are mostly old men and women so sometimes when the elevator is out of order walking till to the fourth floor seems more like visiting a retirement home. The color of the walls used to be white but now it’s of a strange yellowish tint. Old brown rugs lay outside the doors, the names on doorbells are written with faded purplish ink and a penetrating rotting odor flies in the air mixed with the smell of bleach. Death doesn’t stay far from here. It comes quietly in its lippers like the soft paced tenants of this building.

I live in a small apartment together with my parents and my grandmother. A floor above us in a copy-paste living quarter lives Aris’s family; His sister with my nephew, a forty-year-old divorcee that we never had much to say. There is also an extra bed for his parents when they come to stay during winter time, when their stay at the island becomes unbearable with its wind and isolation. Aris, the lucky bastard, lives on top of us all,all alone. In his defense, he will protest that the house has no heating and almost everything is out of order in his place but still having a bit of privacy in modern Greek society is a blessing that anyone accustomed to the family way of living is furiously jealous of.

Today I am envying his privacy more than usual. It’s the worse day of the year, in short — my birthday. My mother will get me another sweater that she ‘ll later complain I never wear. My father will say almost nothing. Later he will drink too much beer and fall asleep on his favorite chair snoring next to the dog. Aris will try to set me up with a weird girl that he will later sleep with. His sister Maria will make an inedible ‘health’ cake of some short while her son will run wildly all around our house breaking a thing or two. At least my grandmother will give me twenty precious euro from her pension and tell me to have a good time, winking.

I know which friends will call or SMS me, or will post a silly video on my Facebook wall with a dog or another poor animal wearing a birthday hat doing something adorable. At work, they will at least try to take me out for a drink. The twenty euro will be spent on cigarettes and beer cans and I will end up alone, drunk and downloading weird porn. The next morning with the laptop still on my bed I will have the awkward realization that 30 something years ago plus nine months my parents had unprotected sex and obtained me in return. Bad deal I guess.

All I could say regarding my thirty-seventh birthday is that the day after my muscles are all sore, my mouth is drier than all the deserts of the world together, my head feels like a volcano ready to erupt and I could hardly make it on time for work. Page after page avoiding the subject of what I do for a living, I now must come to terms with it. You see, I am the awful guy that checks your bus tickets. Yes, that guy, the one that also gives you a terribly overpriced fine for not having one. And now at least you know why I never stood any chance with women. Most of them come without a ticket hoping to get away with it. And they mostly do.

Frankly, I hate my job as well as you might — at least the ones of you that have no ticket today. But mostly I despise the fact that people tend to think that I am my job and not just a man that gets paid to do what I have to do. Think of me as a modern executioner unlucky enough to not be given a black hood to go with the job. Especially nowadays I have developed a weird phobia that the next time I’ll cut a fine, somebody from the “I DO NOT PAY” movement is going to stone me.

So here I am in the bus 550 feeling yesterday’s alcohol reaching my pharynx. I sweat like a pig as it is almost forty-two degrees in here and the air conditioner is out of order. The bus makes a stop near Acropolis so a lot of tourists hop on and off regularly but in such an outrageously warm day I hope to only see regular everyday complaining people. I hate to see sunburned faces of people that actually have a life. Inside the bus, I managed to cut a fine or two and I leave Babis, my colleague, to deal with the people protesting against it. He is better in that aspect.

Surprisingly, he was quite compassionate for my venomous hangover as he is a regular drinker himself. I try to concentrate and go on with the inspection to the rest of the bus but unfortunately, number 550 buses are extremely long so I am getting nauseous at every little vibration the horrid vehicle makes when Babis calls me. ‘Let’s get out’ he yells too close to my ear. ‘I got a tourist without a ticket’ he informs me rapidly as we exit from the double sliding doors. ‘Don’t let that one go too’ he practically shouts at me while he’s heading to the nearest kiosk for some Marlboros. He knows my habit of letting tourists get away without ever cutting a fine well enough and he is dead set against it.

I take a look at her. She is staring at me quite angrily but I decide to pass. She has no papers to show so she just asks me in English “How much” and almost orders me to follow her to the next ATM, cursing audibly in her language. She is much taller than me and wears high heels. As we walk I see other people’s looks of admiration. She is not that pretty either as she is approaching her mid-forties but there is something about her proud pace that hypnotizes me. We stop at an ATM. I wait behind her, she is not in a hurry. She takes the money out of the machine and she counts it twice before she hands it to me.

My stomach is still a mess. When she turns I try hard not to vomit but it’s hopeless. Ten beers and a couple of whiskey shots are not willing to postpone their triumphant exit just because a hot red-hair is here. The woman looks at me even more angrily than before but she is not shocked either. I feel terrible so I try to mention that yesterday was my birthday. She gives me a white tissue avoiding to look down. I do not blame her for that. I am trying to apologize again but every time I feel weirder and weirder. I mean I had just taken a hundred euro from her a moment ago. I take a deep breath and before I manage to say anything more embarrassing she asks me to join her for a coffee. “You need one” she orders and I gladly follow her. It seems it is still my birthday.

What happened afterwards goes as follows. Babis returned from the kiosk to find no one as the woman and I had disappeared. He yelled and cursed as his phone was out of battery while I was walking triumphantly behind a beautiful woman across the tiny paths that lead to Acropolis. We sat in a crowded cafe with fans that spray water. Tiny droplets of water sprinkled on top of you in a warm day like this are a blessing of some sort.

A waiter approaches us and before she could react I place the money from the fine back to her purse. She tries to protest, our hands touch and I sweat. We don’t talk. There is really nothing to say. I am trying to explain myself in my head but nothing comes out. She drinks her coffee and avoids to look at me. She frowns before she starts speaking in half broken Greek, ‘I am not a tourist, I am a prostitute.’ I do not react and she repeats herself in different words to make sure that she is understood. “You know what I do?” she insists. ‘A badly paid job’, I reply as we keep staring at Acropolis.