Athens Ambuscade

Ya-Yá’s Dead Cat

I smoothed the wrinkles from my list and scowled
at the final mortifying task. Preserving the remains of
deceased felines wasn’t exactly my spiritual gift. In
fact, the display of animal carcasses goes against all of
my training.

What in the world had Ya-Yá been thinking? I took
a sip of my frappé, leaned back against the rickety
kafeneía chair, and let the brilliant Mediterranean sun
warm my face. Sour orange and lemon trees, as well as
the occasional acacia, shaded the bustling street where
I ate. If I closed my eyes and breathed deep draughts of
the salt and citrus wind, would the world make sense
again when I opened them?

I had spent five years saving so I could have one
more summer in Athens with Ya-Yá. Greece was my
second country, a mother to me. Stepping off the plane
in Athens made my heart beat stronger. Walking these
streets was like being swept into the hearty embrace of
a loved one. Only this time, Athens was without the
woman who had made the city live and sing for me.
My grandmother’s sudden brain aneurysm left me
with an incredibly odd list in her delicate script and no
Ya-Yá to tease about it. If she were here, I would raise a
questioning brow and point out every outlandish
feature on the jasmine-scented page.

Ya-Yá usually wrote from her old wicker chair in the garden. If she
had penned a summer letter I could always tell by
simply closing my eyes and breathing in the lingering
fragrance.

If she were here, Ya-Yá would shake her head,
pick some mint from the window box, and make me a
cup of tea to soothe my frazzled nerves. Then she
would push the plate of kourabiedes closer and explain
why her new tree house absolutely had to be painted
orange.

But I’d missed her by a month. When I’d stepped
off the plane in Athens, my Grandma, my Ya-Yá, was
buried and gone.

Ya-Yá’s lawyer wasn’t certain whether the list was
a collection of requirements for the new home owner
(that would be me, Jacqueline Mallory Gianakos) or a
misplaced to-do list. But it was found with her Will
and was now a legally binding document.

I’d sped my way through the first five items.

Sell my porcelain rooster collection and give the 
proceeds to Agneta so that she can get that purple awning 
she has always wanted for her shop. 

Build a tasteful wooden tree house in the Cypress tree 
out front and paint it orange. 

Clean the gutters. 

Dust and box up everything in the attic. Personally
deliver the boxes to the youth hostel next to uncle Etor’s 
grave site. 

Bake a watermelon pie and invite the pre-school fútball 
team over to enjoy it. 

But now Ya-Yá’s sixth and final task loomed
before me.

I had a bachelor’s degree in fashion
merchandising, a five-year stint as a bridal design
intern specializing in silk ribbon embroidery, and was
the only employee in the history of Pricilla’s Precious
Boutique who had ever received Pricilla’s nod of
approval for my attire on one hundred and five
consecutive work days. None of these
accomplishments had prepared me for the last item on
Ya-Yá’s list.

Have Chrysanthemum stuffed. Let the taxidermist 
know she weighed 32 pounds at the time of her demise. Find 
and use the coupon from that nice boy on TV. Look in the 
third drawer of the vanity dresser, or the cookie jar, or maybe 
behind the kitchen clock, or in my sock drawer all the way at 
the back. If no one can find it, have the neighbor boy check in 
the attic with all those cat food receipts.

Chrysanthemum was not my favorite feline. She
had been an obese white Persian with a palate like the
queen of France and all the forbearance of Genghis
Kahn. Ya-Yá’s neighbor owned Petunia,
Chrysanthemum’s identical sister. A British professor
had taken home the third white female from that litter,
so thankfully that particular animal had not lived close
enough to torture me.

The problem? Chrysanthemum liked to be petted
on the head and between the shoulder blades. Petunia
wanted to be stroked down the back from about mid-
spine all the way down her enormous fluffy tail. If I
petted Petunia on the head or shoulders, she would
hiss and strike out with her claws. Even worse, if I
petted Chrysanthemum on the back or tail, she would
growl low in her chest, whip around, and sink her
fangs into my hand. Instances of mistaken identity
gave me a loathing for anything white and fluffy, even
coconut cake and s’mores.

When Chrysanthemum passed on three years ago,
I had breathed a private sigh of relief. But apparently,
Chrysanthemum was capable of tormenting me even
from the grave. The corpulent cat remained safely
preserved in Ya-Yá’s frozen storage unit.

With the exception of the local felines, Ya-Yá’s
house had been my childhood sanctuary. Despite the
financial burden and the ridiculous nature of her to-do
list, I would do whatever it took to keep her home
from being claimed by the bank.

But I am not gifted in taxidermy. Pricilla spent a
fair amount of sweat and blood (at least she would
have, if she were capable of something as vulgar as
sweating) in my training. She had taken a details-
conscious college grad and singlehandedly turned her
into a details obsessed wedding professional.

From twenty feet away, I can spot the single
flower in the ring bearer’s boutonnière that will clash
with the cummerbund of the back-up piano player. I
am able to transform a heap of silk ribbon into a
garden of roses, ferns, and daisies stitched across
twenty-five yards of satin. But turning off my
superpowers is difficult.

Through necessity, I have learned to keep my
fingernails long and stylish and never wear hunter
orange, puce, or chartreuse to work. Tackiness is the
unforgiveable sin at Pricilla’s Precious Boutique.
A stuffed cat was anathema to all that I had strived
to become.

But it was either stuff Chrysanthemum or lose Ya-
Yá’s house, and the coupon expired in two days. The
dreaded preservation needed to be immediate.
A handsome Greek waiter approached with my
lunch. I’d ordered a lamb kabob drenched in yoghurt
and served on fresh pitta bread. I looked down at my
plate then back up at the waiter.

“Um…Evzen?”

“Yes, Miss Gianakos.”

“I ordered the lamb kabob drenched in yoghurt.”

“Yes?”

I smiled at Evzen, hoping the blush on my cheeks
wasn’t as bad as it felt. Why was I the only one who
noticed all of these important details? “I believe that
my kabob has been drizzled in yoghurt rather than
drenched. Look.”

Evzen peered over my shoulder and slipped a
folded piece of paper under my plate. “I think you are
right, Miss Gianakos. That is most definitely drizzled.”

Why was he making this so impossible? “I wanted
mine drenched…please.”

Evzen grinned. “And so it is. My mother has
recently added the drizzle of yoghurt for aesthetic
purposes. The kabob is drenched before and during the
cooking process. She just thought it looked pretty. The
change was not meant to alarm you.” Evzen swept
back to the kitchen.

I attempted to hide my flushed features by
opening the slip of paper beneath my plate. Evzen had
been part of every summer I’d spent with Ya-Yá. The
son of a neighbor, the one who owned Petunia, we’d
spent countless hours playing soccer at the park,
hunting for buried treasure in the rocks below the
Acropolis, and having tea and baklava with his pet
tortoise under Ya-Yá’s juniper bushes. He’d recently
moved back to Athens when his father had a stroke. I
looked at the sentence scrawled across the paper.

Don’t get lost in the details, Jacqueline. You might miss
life.

He’d scribbled his phone number beneath that bit
of helpful advice. If only Evzen had been a dental
surgeon, I would have snapped up his offer. But my
true love would be a dental surgeon according to an
incredibly detailed study I’d completed in my final
semester of college.

I sighed. Evzen’s non-dental-surgeon-status had
reminded me of the least likely occupation possible for
my future spouse and the reason I sat at the kafeneía in
the first place. I took a bite of my yoghurt drenched
and drizzled kabob and zipped a silent prayer
heavenward.

Thank You for the food, Lord. It is delicious…but don’t
You think I could have lived my entire life without eating
lunch with a taxidermist? How can I grieve when I’m
worried sick over getting Chrysanthemum stuffed? And my
coupon expires in two days. I could use a little help, Lord.
OK, a lot of help. I spent the last of my savings on flying this
guy over here. Would You please make sure he doesn’t get
lost, or call me Ma’am, or arrive in flannel? As always, I
bow to Your sovereign will, Lord. Amen.

The sound of boots crossing the pavement in front
of the kafeneía made me raise my eyes. The footsteps
stopped.

A man in faded jeans, a cartoon T-shirt, and a red
plaid flannel leaned against the lamppost and grinned
at me.

The taxidermist had come.