The Bean

“I went to confession.”

“What for?” I asked naively, though I knew my father had made it a habit to go to confession before taking communion since his youth.

“Well, it wasn’t actually for a confession. I was so mad at Priest Dimitri for what he had done to me I went there to wring his neck.”

I was so taken aback by what I heard I didn’t say a word. I knew my father for a peaceful and harmless man, and a most devout one to boot, but subject to occasional fits of temper, so I let him complete his thought.

We were both sitting in the living room in a rented house, in St. Augustine, Florida, where he and Sophia, his second wife had come to stay for a few months. The hostess, Laura Swanson, was recently divorced and needed the money, so she rented her home, leaving the two bedrooms to my father and Sophia, so she would make do with the bedroom remaining and “live around them,” as she put it. Her home was roomy enough for all three, anyway, and they seemed happy together. I went to visit my father every afternoon as soon as I was back from school, and we usually spent an hour or so before dinner chatting, usually about his past, which he was kind enough to let me tape once in a while, when there was something interesting to say. This time he had started a tale of his persecution–as he called it–by the police. I didn’t quite know what he was talking about, though he had made more than one allusion to this event, and I finally asked him to tell me the entire story.

“It was like this,” he continued, sipping his coffee, which Sophia, always hospitable, brought us in a tray, keeping up with the Greek custom–coffee in the afternoon, and gossip.

“I had been slandered by a guy in the police force, a wretch of a spindly little fellow, hook-nosed and shriveled who was known to the town folks mainly for his ridiculous name. He was called the Bean[1] (I don’t remember his first name). I absolutely had nothing to do with him, although I knew who he was by sight–mainly because he was so ugly-looking. Of course I wouldn’t care less whether he was called bean, or pea, or cabbage–I had my troubles at that time, trying to settle things up with my pension, for I was a TEKE pensioner, and someone told me I could change to IKA,[2] which had better benefits. I went to lots of places, the mayor’s office, the tax collector’s, and finally I was asked to bring a certificate from the police saying I was a ‘worthy citizen.’ Remember that was the time of the dictatorship of the colonels,[3] when everyone and his cousin was suspected of being a communist and you needed such certificates to get through any kind of transaction with the government. Who issued them? The police, of course, and they had a file on everybody. Well, I went to the very place I needed the certificate from, and there he was, Bean, sitting behind a desk, and he asked me what the certificate was for. He was the issuing authority. I told him. He looked at me with his little beady suspicious eyes, and then said dryly. ‘You can’t get it yet. We have to investigate you first.’ ‘What in the world for?’ I asked, a bit irritated. ‘I’ve lived in this town all my life. Everybody knows me. Ask anybody.’ ‘No,’ he said and sniggered, revealing his yellowish, pointed teeth. ‘These things take time.’

Sophia came in with another cup of coffee, and two or three large Greek cookies. She always thought my father would die of hunger (he always ate little) and she fed him relentlessly, most of the day. My father shrugged her off with a motion his hand, but I said, “Thank you,” not to hurt her feelings.  I took a cookie, for the same reason.

“He didn’t even try to be polite,” my father went on, after a sip or two. “Well, I went back a week later. The same answer. Then another week passed, and nothing came out of it. It took months, and then I gave up. I waited for the dictatorship to end and those stooges gone, and then I would go back and do business with legitimate authorities. But the dictatorship, as you may know, lasted for seven years!”

“And you were without a pension all this time?”

“No,” he continued. “But I was getting the TEVE pension, which was just peanuts. Six thousand drachmas a month, just enough to buy a kilo of sardines once a week.” He seemed tensed, and I could understand his bitterness.

“So what happened? What does Priest Dimitri have to do with all this?”

I had known Priest Dimitri when I went back to the island for a summer vacation, after an absence of twenty years from the island. He was short of stature but very lively, well educated with a diploma from the University of Athens, and a nice fellow, though I thought him a bit vain, for he showed off his mellow but thin voice when he sang at church. He also had some high-flown ideas about culture, the arts, theater troupes in the island and other things not commonly heard from a priest. But those were harmless peccadilloes and I didn’t give the matter much thought. But my father’s impassioned talk about him had aroused my curiosity.

“Wait a minute. I will tell you.” I knew this was going to be a rather long and complicated story, so I let him talk. I sipped some coffee and crunched another of Sophia’s cookies.

“One day,” my father went on with his narration, “while I was sitting at a coffee shop in Saint Menas’s square, talking with your Uncle Epaminondas–you remember him (I didn’t but I let him talk)–I vented my feelings about the pension and my frustration with Bean, who wouldn’t give me the certificate though he knew nothing about me and a fellow like that who doesn’t even have a last name that you can hear without laughing. Just imagine someone called ‘Bean’ telling ME that I’m not a worthy citizen! I said all that, and much more, when I turned around and saw that Bean was sitting behind us with a couple of other fellows and from his look I understood he had heard the whole thing. His beady little eyes were full of hatred. I didn’t give the matter much thought, though, for what could he do, sue me for calling him his own name?”

“What happened then?” I was beginning to feel that an unusual ending was coming up to this unusual story.

“Wait, wait. A few weeks later I noticed that some people I knew very well, friends of mine for years, decades, stopped greeting me. When I said hello or good morning, they turned their faces away, and pretended not to see me. This went on, and more and more people I knew wouldn’t speak to me. I got upset and curious, so one day I decided to go to Father Dimitri and confess–as I did on a regular basis–but this time I  told him the story of people in my own town who knew me for a long time had stopped talking to me.”

“So what happened?”

“Wait,” my father said and took another sip; in fact two or three together, for Sophia was a relentless coffee server. “Confessions are supposed to be total secrets, right?”

“I guess so,” I said, still in the dark as to what he was driving at. But his story had gained certain momentum, for it’s not every day that someone tells you he was going to strangle a priest.

“Well, he didn’t keep his sacred duty and obligation. He went and told the Bishop my whole story–every word of it, I learned later. And the Bishop went straight to the police chief in town and repeated my father’s story to him, stressing the fact that it was a shame a citizen like me who’s more worthy than a couple of dozen people put together was being slandered by a man in his force. Well, the chief of police reprimanded Bean severely, believing that the matter was settled. But Bean was a vicious, vindictive little creature and started spreading the story around, to his colleagues first, then to other people in town, and gradually a silly little story became as big as a mountain. People not only stopped talking to me, they spread rumors in turn that I had insulted a policeman–and, you know, a police force at times of a dictatorship has awesome powers. Everybody fears them. I’m sure that most people who refused to greet me in the streets knew who I was, that I had never harmed anyone, and that I had lived my life like a good, God-fearing man, and yet they were afraid to talk to me, or even say hello, because they might be accused of disloyalty to the regime, and that meant they might be refused certificates of worthiness in the future.

“So, I go back to Father Dimitri for another confession, but in reality I wanted to tell him how much damage he had done to my name by being indiscreet. ‘Oh, you exaggerate,’ he said immediately. ‘Everybody in this town loves you, and you know that. If a few idiots don’t say good morning to you, just ignore them. They are not worthy enough to lick your boots.’ Since he put it this way, I tried to heed his advice. After all he was a priest and I a layman.”

“Then what?”

“Wait. Not only things didn’t stop, but they got much worse. Rumors went around, and I heard them from people I could trust. So what happened? I heard soon from reliable source, that Priest Dimitri had gone back to the Bishop and told him how worried I was, and if he could do something. And the Bishop went back to the chief of police and begged him to let me off the hook, for he was ruining the reputation and the peace of mind of a good man. The chief of police went back to Bean, and this time he gave him a stern warning. But Bean, though he assured his superior he would stop talking about me, actually renewed his vengeful slanders. And things kept getting worse, and I went back to Priest Dimitri, and he went back to the Bishop, and he went back to the chief of police, and so forth. And things were going around in a circle, and I was going crazy. That’s when I decided to go back to Priest Dimitri one more time, this time being really mad at him.”

“And would you have strangled him?”

“I was tempted. But I didn’t have to. That day the dictatorship of the colonels collapsed and our country was ours again and we were free citizens.”

“And what happened to Bean?”

My father, who didn’t even know what the word irony meant, being always serious even when he told jokes, said with a sly smile.

“Oh, Bean? He was cooked.”[4]

[1] “Fasoulis,” in Greek, means bean, or the son of a bean.

[2] Both of these were acronyms for two branches of Social Security, in Greece.

[3] 1967-1974: The years when the Greek government was taken over by several army colonels.

[4] Strangely, this idiomatic expression is the same in Greek.