by William Michaelian
The last of my father’s uncles died the other day. Ara was ninety-five years old, smoked three packs a day, gargled with whiskey, and held a magnifying glass over the Fresno Bee each morning, his great Armenian nose casting a shadow larger than fate across the editorial page.
Ara’s favorite pastime was sitting at the kitchen table and listening to the old opera greats, singers like Caruso, Gigli, and Bjorling. He had no taste for Pavarotti, or Domingo, or Carreras. He called the three tenors “three pompous balloons,” and said they were always afraid they’d lose their voice. He especially hated Pavarotti. When Ara could still see, and would try watching Pavarotti on public broadcasting, the grand waving of the handkerchief always got to him. “God damn it,” he’d say, “who’s he waving at?” And then, “He’s sweating because he’s fat, not because he’s working! All night he’s been protecting his voice. A great singer sings from the bottom of his soul, not through his nose.”
In his younger days, Uncle Ara sent poems and stories to the Armenian papers, which the Armenian papers in turn always printed. They did so not because Ara’s writing held any particular literary merit, but because the editors knew Ara. The men drank coffee and played tavloo together every afternoon, and they knew how lonely he was. Anyway, his stories were harmless enough, and there was always a need for something to fill out the odd corners in the papers every week.
The best thing about Ara, though, and what made it easy to print his stories, was that he never took political sides. Ara didn’t believe in politics. He believed in the rivers and birds and trees of his lost homeland, and that’s what he wrote about. He revealed his heart without shame, and with a childlike simplicity, and in the process of expressing himself he was temporarily relieved of his burden.
Eventually, though, like a recurring nightmare, the pain would return. He would remember the day the Turks came to his family’s village and killed his father and all the other men of fighting age, and how he and his mother and his brothers and sisters were herded out into the desert to die.
It was then, in the depths of his nightmare, that he would go to his cupboard for his bottle and a glass, sit at his table, and write.
Ara tried everything in this country to live. He picked grapes, packed figs, drove a tractor, made boxes, worked in a bakery, and hauled trash. Finally, he fell into the printing trade. He had his own small shop, where most of his customers were Armenians who needed business cards or wedding invitations.
The printing work suited Ara. Not without mechanical ability, he was able to keep his two small presses running, and even to make small modifications to the machines when he needed to coax a job out of them that they weren’t originally intended for. And Ara was a perfectionist. To my knowledge, no job was ever returned for any reason, and his work was always done on time or slightly ahead of schedule.
As a boy, during the summers, my father would let me hang around Ara’s shop. He taught me all about printing, and, if the truth were known, all about drinking as well. He never gave me anything to drink, but watching was all it took for me to catch on. When he was busy talking with one of his customers, it was easy enough for me to take the bottle from its “hiding place” on the shelf where he kept spare parts, and taste the harsh, pungent liquor inside.
I also learned to smoke in Ara’s shop. “No sense learning it on the street,” he would say. “Go on, take a puff.” Then he would hand me his cigarette, put his hands on his hips, and watch. I was allowed only one puff, which I was a long time in swallowing, because I hated to choke in front of Ara.
Once, when my mother came looking for me in the back of Ara’s shop with some sandwiches, she caught me with a cigarette in my mouth. When I saw her, my mouth must have fallen open, because the next thing I knew the cigarette was on the floor. Then I felt the sting of my mother’s hand on my face.
“You will never do this again,” she admonished. “Never. Or this will be the last time you see the inside of your uncle’s shop.”
My mother jumped at the sound of Ara’s voice, because she hadn’t seen him anywhere about.
Then Ara’s toilet flushed and the bathroom door opened. He had been only five feet away when my mother had hit me.
“One cigarette won’t hurt him,” Ara told her firmly.
My mother’s face paled. “I just don’t think it’s good for him, that’s all,” she said apologetically.
“Never mind, Ma,” I said. “I won’t do it again.”
“There, see?” Ara put his hand on my head and ruffled my hair. “Nothing to worry about. Your boy is as good as gold.”
“Here,” my mother said. “I brought you something to eat.”
She reached into the bag she had brought.
“Put it here,” Ara said, clearing a corner on one of his work tables.
My mother set the bag on the table, reached inside, and pulled out a large, ripe tomato.
“A princess,” Ara said.
“A tomato,” my mother said, now regaining her composure.
“And cheese,” Ara said. “Well, my boy, our starving days are over. Look at these sandwiches.”
Later that afternoon, while Ara was out on a delivery, I smoked my first whole cigarette.
From time to time, I would go with Ara to the cemetery, where his wife and their only daughter are buried. They were killed on a foggy Sunday morning on their way to church when they stopped at a railroad crossing to listen for an oncoming train. In a tragic accident, Ara’s wife, an inexperienced driver, realized too late that she had stopped directly on top of the tracks. As fate would have it, a train did come; when it appeared suddenly out of the dense fog, she was unable to back the car away in time, and mother and daughter perished in the resulting tangle of wreckage.
The cemetery was a beautiful place and I liked to go there. It was rimmed by rows of ancient poplar trees on the north and west sides, and powerful, solitary redwoods grew at intervals along the main drive that led in from the road. The grass was green and well kept, and the entire grounds were immaculate. The older grave stones bore inscriptions written in Armenian.
We never went to the cemetery without bringing something to eat. It seems funny now, but that’s what we did. Breaking bread on our loved ones’ graves, eating peaches and cucumbers, we quietly passed the time.
Now and again, Ara would speak out loud to his wife. But when he asked her advice about matters pertaining to the print shop, I would always start to cry. When I did, Ara would look up at me from behind his dreaming eyes, and I could see the loneliness and pride that was driving him on, that was still shaping him, like the raging current of a river.
“May you never know such sorrow,” Ara would say to me in the car on the way back from these trips.
I didn’t really know what death was until my own father died. By then, I was twenty-one years old and engaged to be married.
I didn’t know what sorrow was, until we took his body to Ara’s beautiful cemetery and laid it to rest in the shadow of those poplars, in the same place where Ara and I had picnicked together.
And, from that day forward, Ara and I had something other than blood to bind us together.
Once, when we were closing the shop for the night during the summer I turned sixteen, Ara said, “Hey, I know what we’ll do. Tell your mother to make us a lunch, and then let’s put gas in the car and drive up to the mountains.”
“It’s seven o’clock,” I said. “You want to spend the night?”
“That’s exactly what I want to do. Let’s get out of this crazy town and go look at the stars for a change.”
We left the dust and noise of the San Joaquin Valley behind, and, by dusk, had attained an altitude of 6,000 feet. We found a place to camp; the pines and redwoods were already silent as we built a fire in the remaining daylight.
In the ice chest, my mother had packed a large bag of yellow wax peppers from our garden. After the fire had died down somewhat, we put these on the grill to roast, and then buried three or four large red onions in the coals.
“This is paradise,” Ara said. “Just listen to this quiet.”
I listened, and heard the peppers puff and pop as the heat gradually penetrated their skins.
“I brought us something to drink,” Ara said. “I’ll be right back.”
He got up, stretched, and walked over to the car. He opened the door on the driver’s side, reached under the seat, and pulled out a bottle of his favorite whiskey.
“Go on, take some,” he said when he was back by the fire. He opened the bottle and handed it to me.
“I’d better not,” I said.
“Take it,” he said. “Take a little drink.” He motioned to the bottle.
I swallowed some of the whiskey and handed the bottle back to Ara.
Ara tilted his head back and took a long drink. Then he looked over at me and gave a little shrug. “What can we do?” he said, and then laughed. “Our lives are not our own. You know it, and I know it.” He took another, shorter drink. “Still, I’m happy, Alex. After all these years, after all these thousands of miles, I am happy. Ara, the Armenian orphan.”
We sat down again by the fire. The taste of Ara’s whiskey still stinging my tongue, I turned the peppers to keep them from burning. I rummaged in the ice chest for our sandwiches, unwrapped one, and handed it to Ara.
We ate our meal slowly, and for the next hour took turns with the bottle until most of the whiskey was gone.
The fire burned low. One by one, the stars came out. After rescuing our onions and wrapping them in a piece of foil, the two of us walked over to a clearing for a better look at the night sky. The blackness between the stars was as black as Ara’s printer’s ink, and almost as intense as the bright light from the stars themselves.
“Tell me, Alex, you are intelligent. Is there or isn’t there a god in heaven? Or is there neither?”
“Neither,” I said.
“Ah. You know, when I was a boy, my mother would have fainted if she heard those words coming from my mouth. She would have cried, she would have prayed, and then she would have rushed to church to light a candle. Of course,” Ara added thoughtfully, “she had faith.”
I started to apologize. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to — ”
But Ara didn’t let me finish. He held a finger to my lips and smiled. Then he pointed up at the sky.
In our best moments, in our happiness, we bring light to the world; when we are lost, when we despair of ever finding our way again, we are like a cloudy night without a moon, empty and dark. As children we are born, and then we live, and then we die, each, as the Armenians say, according to the writing on our foreheads. In between we look at the stars, and try to find our faces written on the night sky.
And so the world goes, dying softly, but living too, always, always coming back for more.
The other day, after Ara’s funeral, I paid two dollars to park my car in a dingy lot at the corner of Van Ness and Broadway and got out to have a look around.
Ara’s print shop was at 1626 Van Ness, just two doors down from an Armenian bakery. First thing in the morning, the bread smell used to make the entire neighborhood’s mouth water, especially Ara’s. And there were times, I know, when Ara lived on bread and whiskey alone.
These days, Ara’s print shop is a vacuum cleaner repair shop; but the Armenian bakery is still there, and is still owned by descendants of the original immigrants who built it. The old brick ovens have long since been dismantled, though, and modern, state-of-the-art equipment put in their place.
Feeling a little lost and a little lonely, I went into the bakery to buy some soft flat Armenian bread, as a small remembrance in Ara’s name.
The employee who waited on me wasn’t an Armenian. She was an American woman in her forties, and someone I had never seen before. When I told her that I had just come from Ara’s funeral, and explained briefly who he was, she said, “Oh, yeah, the old man who used to run the print shop. I heard about him. Did he die?”
“That old man was my uncle,” I said. But I wasn’t angry. Had she known Ara, she wouldn’t have asked about him so casually.
I handed her my money.
When I was almost out the door, the woman called after me.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t realize.”
“Never mind,” I said, managing a little laugh. And then, knowing it was meaningless, I added, “It was all a long time ago.”
A long, long time. And, as Ara had told me himself, thousands and thousands of miles.
Back on the street, bread in hand, no longer in the mood for the dead, dirty cement of a town that would never be the same, I walked back to the car. By the time I had my keys out and was unlocking the door, I had already decided to drive back to the cemetery.
When I got there, everyone was gone.
I followed my steps back to Ara’s grave.
His casket had been lowered into the ground.
I stood there for a long time, looking down.
“Ara?” I said, finally. “Ara, can you hear me?”
But I knew Ara wouldn’t answer.
A few minutes later, I went back to the car. When I got in, I noticed the bread waiting on the seat. I opened the package and broke off a piece. Looking out the window at Ara’s grave, I began to eat.
William Michaelian’s newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelian’s other books and links to this site’s other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.