The cars go too fast here.
Olivia and I play chess on the concrete patio of the Hostel Anna, which Panos owns. I’ve known her only a week, but this is what I know: Olivia is not good at chess. She moves her pieces with no strategy, as if whimsically rearranging the board in patterns she likes. A pawn here, rook there. We play at least once a day to pass the time. I usually win, so Panos thinks I’m good, and he tells me he’s invited someone better to play. His friend, this chess player, visits that afternoon, and only three exchanges into the game he looks across the board at me and says, you are not very good.
Every day since the accident I take a walk with Olivia. We search for Ralphy. We look in all the spots a dog might hide. But we haven’t found him.
Perissa is lonely this time of year, empty and desolate even at the scorching height of day. Few people stay the winter, and it is only now the beginning of spring. Panos says in a few weeks Anna will be packed, and every other boarding house, restaurant and bar in town filled, brimming with vacationers. We pass locals fixing up their businesses, slopping paint to the sides of buildings, preparing, taking stock of what winter did and spreading salve on the wounds.
Olivia thinks Ralphy’s dead. She thinks Panos lied to us. I tell her no, Panos drove him to Oia, like he said. A town on the opposite side of the island. And since it’s a cliff town—since it hangs perilously over the sea—there are no cars, no roads. Dogs don’t get hit in Oia.
There are too many strays in Perissa. Add the cars, you get a bad combination. Panos says Ralphy isn’t the first dog he’s driven to the other side of the island. I ask if that’s a euphemism, a Greek saying I wouldn’t understand. He laughs and says, no, the other side of the island’s just that, a place far from here.
He has no warm feelings for this place, and often talks of leaving, selling Anna. He’s been running it ten years, and the life has been difficult. He wanted a nice retirement. Live on an island, run a flop house for backpackers. But he found the island to be the kind of place newcomers aren’t welcome unless they only stay the week and eat a continental breakfast.
You have to ask yourself why. There’s only one paved road in Perissa and it ends at a steep rock face. Everything ends there. The beach. The town. The waves. All of it. So you have to ask yourself why drive that fast when you’re heading into a wall?
Maybe because there are so few straight roads on the island. Maybe when a driver finds a decent stretch, he can’t help but floor it. Maybe in Greek culture driving fast is a sign of disrespect, like flipping someone off, the trail of dust a long vaporous finger. Anna is the first building you pass driving into Perissa. Maybe it’s a message for Panos.
We go searching for Ralphy, but only find other dogs. Olivia’s given them all cheeky names. Dunce for the permanent guilty look on his face. Donkey after his slow, lurching walk. Sun Dog for spending all day on the beach, warming. And Running Dog, because we only see Running Dog chasing cars. After we watched Ralphy get hit, it was Running Dog who broke the silence, the pit-pat, pit-pat of his nails hitting the pavement, chasing down the guilty vehicle.
The sign is in plain sight, nailed to a post on the patio. It says PLEASE DON’T FEED THE STRAYS. Please, because Panos knows it’s hard. And because a hungry dog with food on the mind shuts down his better instincts, forgets how to cross a street. Panos says he’s seen too much. People do this too, he says. We go to the supermarket and fill carts with much we do not need, all for having skipped lunch.
Olivia named Ralphy, too. But after what? There’s nothing cheeky about Ralphy. The damn pup always knew that if he begged long enough she’d drop scraps, and when she did—each time—Panos would eye her from the door of his office, arms folded over his round potbelly, and Olivia would return him a long look that seemed to say forget.
Olivia’s been here longer than me. She says things like, you should’ve seen the rain three weeks ago. Or, you think this is hot. She’s a career wanderer. She holds a curtain around her life, talks of getting a job, staying the summer. Panos told her in a week the bars will hire, and in three tourists will come as if from an open spout and she’ll make a decent wage for a month, two, then have to leave when the tips dry up.
He says there is nothing here off season.
It is a town of ghosts, he says, cracking peanuts and tossing the shells and skins into a bowl. A few miss and lie scattered on the table. The skins—thin, red, some of them round, some of them broken—remind me of cicada shells.
Olivia looks off down the road, where some distance away a car is approaching. Though her eyes are open it’s as if she can’t see the headlights glowing, growing as the car rumbles forward. I’ve known her only a week, but this is another thing I know: Olivia sees nothing ahead of her, nothing behind. She is here and now—a job, a month, two, then on and on and on.
The car’s engine revs before hitting the straightway, and like a bad memory it accelerates and speeds past, a rusty blur. I shield my eyes from the dust, and then I hear Running Dog gathering speed, breaking into a determined sprint. We wait in silence for him to pass. It is a kind of ritual now. Car then dog. Fury, then hope.
Adam Lefton’s work has appeared in Water~Stone Review, Washington Square, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Hobart. He has an MFA in fiction from Purdue University. “Strays” originally appeared in Washington Square.