"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
It’s the third week of the garbage strike and Athens has begun to smell. Bright-colored trash bags fill the curbs and alleyways, and we have learned to step over the rubbish and avoid the blocks that had become unnavigable. We know which stretches are particularly foul — a stretch along Mavili Square, or the entire top end of Monastiraki. Odos Athinas is a sea of trash, and Omonia is ghastly but we don’t go there anyway. May has gone from unseasonably cool to raging hot, and the garbage seems to be melting. In front of the museum it’s like yet another installation project. When I arrive each morning I want to wretch.
My 5-year-old son, Alekos, sits on the balcony of our apartment. Visible from there are pine trees and details of other people’s lives, audible are the sounds of morning, the birds above and voices below. Evenings, Alekos lies on the divan on the balcony in his pajamas, watching the moon. He is obsessed with it, and his father made him a playlist of all the Greek songs that mention it. When he was smaller he’d stare at the moon until he fell asleep.
This morning, though, Alekos lies flat on the ground, peering down through the slats of the railing, staring at the trash. Next to him is his iPad – a gift from his father, and yes, I know, but his father doesn’t live with us and what can you do? — and now he favors bad pop music like the older kids at school. So I’m surprised this morning when I hear the sounds of Elmo counting. He’s embarrassed by this favorite YouTube clip – it’s for babies, he says – but it comforts him. The tension these days is overwhelming.
Alekos looks up when he sees me, furrows his brow, and tells me if he were a deputy like his father, he’d force everyone to clean up the garbage. “And to make a new government,” he says.
I tell him that would be nice.
“At least I can fly,” he says. He is wearing the Spider-Man costume my sister brought him from the States.
I tell him Spider-Man jumps and leaps and sticks to things. He doesn’t fly. “Besides,” I quickly add, thinking of all the balconies around us. “You’re not Spider-Man.” Even I have wondered what it might be like to jump from one to the next. I smooth his light hair, which is growing long. “You need a haircut,” I say.
I hold out two polos, one white, one blue, so he feels he has a choice. He pulls the blue shirt over the costume, and I hope that his teachers aren’t too upset by this because I am too exhausted to argue with him.
Outside, the trash has piled up, and Alekos can’t get into the car from the curb. I tell him I’ll pull the car up so he can get in without pushing his way through the refuse. He wrinkles his nose at the smell. But when I get to the driver’s side, Alekos is no longer standing there.
Instead he is floating 12 feet above the curb, his Spider-Man-clad arms stretched out like wings.
“Alekos,” is all I can say, “get down.” He swoops over to me, hovering just above my reach, and finally glides gracefully to my feet as if he has been practicing this move for months. Bending down to face him and gripping the straps of his backpack, I have the panicked feeling that if I let go he will fly away.
“How long has this been going on?” I whisper. “Tell me.”
One old man walks past us with his hands behind his back and says nothing. He barely notices us. Across the street a woman hurries along in heels, yelling into her phone. No one else is around.
Alekos shrugs, aloof, and looks away with those dark eyes, almost black, like his father’s. “I tried to tell you.”
“Does Babas know about this?” I ask, suddenly sure his father would keep this from me, just the way he failed to mention his girlfriend was staying the night, reading Alekos bedtime stories when he stayed there. Oh, the flying? I thought you knew?
“No,” Alekos says.
“Just at home, OK?” I say. I don’t want to alarm him, but I want to be firm.
He digs in his backpack and tells me he saw his father on the news that morning. This is one reason I don’t like him to watch television at all. For the rest of the drive, we’re quiet.
“I know I’m not Spider-Man,” he says finally, when we arrive.
“OK,” I say. “Do you fly at school?” I ask.
“No.” He looks at me in the rearview mirror, completely incredulous. “Nobody does.”
He gets out of the car and hurries off to meet some other kids, who admire his Spider-Man arms as if they are tattooed. I wait for him to turn around and wave but he doesn’t, and for a moment it seems his feet levitate off the ground. But maybe I am imagining it; he walks in, one foot after the other, like everyone else. I park at the metro station and take the train into the city center, turning up the ringer on my phone.
I call his father three times but get his voice mail. I text him to call me. He texts me an hour later — Ola kala? — and I trip over a split-open trash bag, as if these sidewalks weren’t already treacherous enough. I answer, Yes, everything’s fine. This will have to wait until we are face to face, which is not often.
We met when I was teaching art classes on Paros one summer. I soon got pregnant, and we didn’t get married, but I stayed in Greece. I think he still resents me for not marrying him. To be honest, I can’t even remember my reasons. It all seems like another lifetime, decades ago, when Athens felt proud and vibrant those few years after the Olympics.
A few more messages come from him but I’m busy and don’t answer. Then, when I’m outside the museum, finishing my installation, he shows up.
“You don’t call me three times in a row with no message,” he says, frustrated. “You barely call me at all, unless the kid is on fire.”
No, not fire, I think.
He surveys my project, one giant megaphone outside the museum, the size of a kiosk, with cameras inside that will film street activity and project it onto a screen inside. Tiny figurines in various stages of undress shoot out from the megaphone, suspended by invisible wire. I’ve compiled old Greek footage of both celebrations and protests, which will air inside the museum, and the outdoor footage will be superimposed on those old clips. I wonder if anyone is inside now, watching us, or what we’re matched with: a hectic street scene, a political rally, a brilliant August moon?
“I like it,” he says, in English, in that supportive tone he uses when he doesn’t know what to say about my work but wants to convey he approves.
“Oh, stop it,” I say.
“And with the garbage,” he says. “A nice touch.”
And the two of us laugh, the first time we have laughed together in a long time, since before the elections, since before the crisis, probably not since Alekos was an infant and we marveled at every smile and uttered “word.” Suddenly I think I should have thought to make those tiny figures children, with wings. I wonder why I didn’t think of it before, why it always takes the manifestation of something so crazy to make me realize something so simple.
“Let me take you for a coffee,” he says, “or something stronger? We can sit outside, where it’s quiet.” The trash stench is so bad that everyone sits inside, smoking.
“You have time for that?” I ask, knowing he doesn’t. I can hear his phone buzzing in his pocket. “I should keep working.”
One night, right before these last elections, he came to pick Alekos up and he kissed me when Alekos went to grab his toys. “Not yet,” I said. My attempt at self-preservation while the rest of the country implodes. It’s hard enough just to be friends.
“OK,” he said then. “We’ll get there, one day.”
Now, I lean into him a moment. Together we survey what I’ve made. I want to tell him, Our son can fly. I want to tell him, Stay.
“Are we there yet,” he says quietly, distantly, not as question but statement, and he rests his chin on my head and looks out into the street: the sleepy shops, the political posters pasted over the boarded-up kiosks, the hot afternoon sun beating down on it all. “Are we?”
And then my phone is ringing — it’s the school office — and I know of course what has happened. I imagine Alekos flying around his classroom like an angry bee, out into the schoolyard, beyond the trash, beyond the protests and our land in limbo. Or maybe he is more relaxed, gliding effortlessly the way I fly in my dreams, his superhero costume and sandy hair glowing in the afternoon sun, until he finds us here, his parents who don’t know where we are or where we’re going, and taking us up with him, catapulting us into the vast unknown. Our images would flicker on the screen inside, soaring above that old footage of our shattered, magnificent city.
Natalie Bakopoulos's first novel, "The Green Shore," will be published by Simon & Schuster in June 2012. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Ninth Letter, Granta Online, and The O. Henry Prize Stories 2010, and she is a contributing editor for the online journal Fiction Writers Review.More Natalie Bakopoulos.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)