It turned out that my introduction to Greenville would come not by means of any self-guided exploration, but by way of a neighbor I met the following Friday as I wended down the driveway from our Italianate house in hopes of taking an afternoon stroll along the shaded street and through the adjacent park.
By then, as Patrick predicted, I had already extended my reservation at the Westin through the coming weekend.
Thomas Estes parked his cream-colored Lexus along the curb and scaled his own driveway when he spotted me. He looked to be in his late twenties—about my age. A broad smile eclipsed his face as he held out his hand to shake mine still some ten yards away.
“New to town?” he asked as I introduced myself. I answered in the affirmative and explained that my mother had bought and established herself in the house a few weeks back.
“I live next door,” he said, thumbing a gesture over his shoulder at the modernist rendition of a Tudor cottage that I could make out through dense foliage. Not quite heavy enough to shield three foreign luxury cars parked in a row adjacent the front porch like champion horses aligned in their stable. Thomas didn’t seem to mind that his Lexus was relegated to the street. His parents and brother and sister shared the house, he said, and thus he was game to play by their rules.
Right away I pegged Thomas as the outgoing type; his expressions were animated, and his eyes lit up when he spoke. He explained that he had been born and raised in Chicago and came to Greenville in his early teens. After college he returned to the city and made a living as a commodities buyer in its robust automotive industry.
When he asked how I was adjusting, I replied that I flew down for a short visit but had still seen relatively little of the city. Thomas’s stocky build went well with thick auburn hair and a sturdy jawline. His whole face alighted at my confession.
“Then it’s a stroke of good fortune that I pulled up as you left and we bumped into one another. I have a small collection of friends that share my interest in the city. We call ourselves the ‘Greenville Club’. I’ll introduce you to them at some point. Do you have any plans tonight?”
I insinuated that my calendar was clear, and Thomas shot me another enthusiastic grin.
“Perfect. The guys and I have a busy weekend ahead of us. I can’t think of anyone better to show you what Greenville’s all about. There’s a wedding tomorrow afternoon and I have a plus one that I have no intention of using. Are you interested in going?”
Having no reason to decline, I replied in the affirmative. As luck would have it, I’d packed in my luggage out of paranoia that traveling without one would be remiss. Thomas gave me the details and we parted ways with a promise to reconnect later. I offered for him to join me on my walk.
“I work half days on Friday,” he explained. “Once I get home, I eat a late lunch and take a nice long nap so that I’ll be well rested for the weekend.”
We met later that evening at the Greek Festival. I came upon the corner of Townes Street and Elford as the sun set and found the entire city block surrounded by idle police cruisers and teeming with pedestrians of all ages. Parents pushed strollers or pulled children across the street while police directed the flow of traffic. Groups of high school kids and young adults filed through a gap in the high fence that surrounded the church’s parking lot.
St. George Greek Orthodox Church itself was an impressive collection of two bulbous, blue domes over a tiered limestone structure attached to a squatty, square building that gave off the appearance of a gymnasium or rec center. I handed over the ceremonial one dollar donation mandatory upon entrance and squeezed inside the festival amid a gaggling group of women enjoying a ladies’ night out.
I met Thomas in the shadow of a broadening line for the gyro stand giving off aromas of smoked lamb that became harder to resist by the second. We passed several more stands displaying Greek cuisine and wares and stopped to buy beer under a white tent at the corner of the lot filled with blue-shirted volunteers and a parked trailer lined with taps.
“We come to the festival every year,” Thomas explained. “The other guys are on their way.”
“Do any of you have a connection to the Greek Orthodox church?”
“Not a chance,” Thomas laughed. “We like the food and enjoy the atmosphere. Ever since I moved back to Greenville, the Greek Festival has always marked the start of summer in my mind. Between May and September is when you’ll see Greenville at its best.”
I remarked that the timing of my visit had been advantageous. We took a tour of the remainder of the celebration, all of which occurred inside the church’s spacious parking lot. At its center—adjacent the popular gyro stand—twirled a traditional Greek dancing ensemble giving a show for a few hundred onlookers plastered on a grassy hill that rose to where the church itself sat. I ventured that we should explore the interior of the sanctuary and Thomas agreed.
“They give tours every twenty minutes. I’m on speaking terms with a member of the clergy; I’ll introduce you if I can get ahold of him.”
He led me along a tree-lined walk around the church’s side to the open front doors where two dozen people milled about in an antechamber that gave off the dusty fragrance of age mixed with sweat brought on by the late spring heat. I waited in the rear next to Thomas and admired a long wooden table with elaborate etchings supporting four rows of unlit prayer candles.
Presently, a wrinkled man of obvious Mediterranean persuasion with thick glasses and a few wisps of silvery hair clinging to his scalp appeared in the doorway and beckoned us inside the domed nave.
I eased down along a pew on the left side of the nave equidistant from the gilded altar and the vacated antechamber. As glass doors closed behind us, I could already make out a few newcomers signifying the next group beginning to congregate. Overhead, a larger than life frescoed Jesus Christ looked down on our assembly from a field of blue filling the dome. Thomas slid in beside me.
The wizened man who led us inside and who I took to be the priest now stood before the altar and addressed the crowd in a raspy voice burdened by a heavy Greek accent. I became quickly disinterested in his rambling dialogue; which seemed destined to encompass everything from the Greek Orthodox church’s formation to minute specifics on its beliefs and teachings. Thus, relief washed over me when Thomas nudged my arm. I looked around.
He fixed his gaze on another figure in black—much younger than our geriatric tour guide—who stood in an unassuming doorway leading off from the transept. Drawing as little attention to ourselves as possible, we stood and made our way to the side door before the priest could break stride and call us back. I stopped myself from glancing over my shoulder as we disappeared to glimpse the slack-jawed faces still dotting the rigid pews.
Deacon George Papadakis led us down a cramped flight of stairs to a much less formal hallway underneath the church’s vast worship space.
“Father Terzi can be a little dry for newcomers,” he intoned, raising his voice as they descended further from the echoing nave. “He’s been giving that same speech to visitors coming to see the church during our festival for the last twenty years. No one ever had the heart to tell him that the guests can’t understand a word of it.”
“What inspired you to become a deacon?” I asked as he led us through a room plastered head to toe in Greek Orthodox regalia. Folding tables laden with timeworn artifacts and literature concerning the church had been covered in tablecloths and pushed against the walls for, I imagined, this very occasion.
Deacon Papadakis did not wear glasses under his crop of slicked, dark hair, but still possessed the air of a thoughtful man. He laced his long fingers together as he met my eyes.
“I was always interested in a profession that involved helping others,” he confessed. “Did I know that would entail helping them walk along the path of light that ends in Jesus Christ and salvation? No, but growing up Greek, even in America, means living with a certain focus on piety. It’s inescapable. When my father, a devout Greek Orthodox Christian in his own right, suggested I become an accountant, I rebelled and did the only thing that seemed sensible—dedicated my life to the church.”
“Did you ever marry?”
The deacon shook his head. “Our house of worship is not home to the largest congregation in town, but its members are all the family I need. I am proud of the fact that we have existed in Greenville since 1936.”
Thomas half-listened. He checked his phone while wandering aimlessly around the low-ceilinged room bedecked with literature and artifacts. This meeting, I understood, was much more for my benefit than his own.
“Greenville has bloomed into a diverse city in the last two decades,” the deacon explained. “It may not look it on the surface, but dig a little deeper and you will see many cultures thriving amongst one another. Take the Greek Orthodox community, for example. Our strong familial bonds have held us together all these years. I don’t think I’m remiss in saying that, while global church attendance may be dropping, our community remains as resilient as it’s ever been. Just think about all the traditional Greek restaurants springing up all over downtown.”
I confessed that I was new to Greenville and had sampled none of them. Deacon Papadakis gave me the names of two less than half a mile away that he promised would be life changing. He led us from the room and directed our small troupe down another corridor when Thomas announced that he needed to step outside for a moment—members of the notorious Greenville Club had arrived and he needed to greet them. I assured him I would be fine alone with the deacon and we watched him depart.
Immediately after he left, the still, musty air in the place plummeted a few degrees. Deacon Papadakis’s expression, which had been pleasantly hospitable while he showed us around, turned grim like a storm cloud converged over him the moment Thomas walked out the door. Curious but struck by a twinge of worry, I nonetheless followed as he led me down an adjoining passage with bare walls and into a plain office with a lacquered desk and two rigid chairs.
Two miniscule windows framed the corridor, but no one was coming. I remembered the deacon’s own words as I sat and watched him pace about the small room.
The Greek Orthodox church suddenly seemed less like a resilient family and more along the lines of an authoritarian society with no escape. Jarring images thudded home of a congregation bound in this groupthink enclave where individuality or snubbing their traditionalist ways meant being shunned or cast out. A morbid thought that I rationalized probably lay far from the truth.
When the deacon finally sat, he looked years and a lifetime of stress older. “I have something I wish to confide in you,” he began in steady tones.
I nodded, unsure what loomed. I didn’t have to wonder long.
“We have a member of this congregation, a woman, born and raised in Greenville from second generation Greek immigrants. She’s been a devout Greek Orthodox practitioner all her life.”
“What’s her name?” I asked, unsure why it mattered but still wanting to know all the same.
“I’m going to omit her surname for reasons of discretion. Her first name is Tanya.”
I nodded and let the deacon continue.
“Tanya is in her late thirties, married but childless. She confided in me years back that she is unable to bear offspring. I’m not sure if that has anything to do with what I’m about to tell you, but take from it what you will.”
He sat his elbows on the desk near a closed laptop and a folder labeled ‘Expenditures Year 2017’ and laced his fingers together.
“Tanya has not gone missing in the normal sense. She works for a financial firm a few miles from downtown and has still been showing up to work every day—with explicit instructions not to let her husband inside the building. It’s as if, the best way I can describe it, Tanya checked out from her life. She won’t go home. She won’t come near the church or speak to any of the congregation, many of whom she once considered her closest friends. Her husband is worried, but not enough to inform the authorities. He’s been tracking her credit card purchases, and every so often she sends a cryptic text message. I confess, I don’t know what to make of it.”
I overlooked the question of why Deacon Papadakis confided in me, a relative stranger, and stayed on topic.
“It sounds like she’s having marital problems.”
The deacon shook his head. “Her husband, Greg, claims their marriage was stronger than ever. Before all this began you couldn’t find a happier couple.”
“Some women are good actors. And sometimes husbands lie. Could it be drugs?”
“Like most Greek women, Tanya enjoyed wine, but she never showed the slightest proclivity toward anything heavier. I had the pleasure of knowing her quite well for many years. I’m very worried.”
“Is there any chance that blackmail may be involved?”
Clouds of concern once again gathered over the deacon’s face. Evidently distressed, he replied, “I suppose it can’t be ruled out, but I’ve never known Tanya or her husband to get involved in such things.”
We spoke for a few more minutes without getting anywhere before the deacon rose and accompanied me outside via a side exit to rejoin Thomas and the others. His troubled expression turned congenial and carefree when a group of festival goers passed by and greeted us with smiles and waves. The worried creases in his brow were more sluggish in vanishing.
I promised to give the matter some thought, and Deacon Papadakis passed me a card with his phone number and email address before we shook hands and he slipped back down the tunnel to his office.