by William Michaelian
Every afternoon, the old man named Seto sat on his porch and smoked cigarettes while the neighborhood children played in the street. The kids all knew him and thought he was crazy, though certainly not dangerous. When their ball bounced off a tree trunk and rolled into the weeds in his yard, the boy who ran after it was sure to be showered with curses uttered in a comical mish-mash of Turkish, Kurdish, and Armenian. Once the ball was safely in hand, Seto waited for the boy to wave. If the young invader didnít wave, there would be another round of curses. Sometimes, the older, more mischievous boys would skip waving on purpose just to make Seto mad. Then, the rest of the day, they would imitate his swearing.
What the boys didnít understand, though, was how much Seto enjoyed the attention, or why. Since he could no longer get around very well, watching the children and cursing at them had become an important daily activity ó so important, in fact, that when no one was outside, he was quickly overcome with loneliness and despair.
During his long life, Seto had known much grief. Even now, that grief prowled about, waiting for a chance to seize him by the throat. His grief was beyond tears. Instead, it strangled him and left him breathless, wanting to die. But Seto didnít die. Something prevented it. Then the sun would come out, and with the sun the children, and with the children a temporary reason to go on living. In their innocence, the youngsters thought he was cursing at them. But Seto was cursing at the past, and at the whole unreasonable universe. While he understood life and accepted it on a basic level, he was still upset to find himself sitting on a wooden porch thousands of miles from home.
To be sure, the smell of fresh bread coming from the Armenian bakery up the street was a comfort. So was the occasional sound of Armenian being spoken by old women gossiping along the sidewalk. There were even times, if he closed his eyes and listened long enough to the dull roar of his heartbeat, that he felt like he was in the old country. But those times never lasted. Desperate for company, he would turn on his radio, only to find the strange music unsettling. Or he would become preoccupied with the noise emanating from the city, the wailing sirens and incessant clang of metal against metal. When that happened, he felt trapped inside his own skull.
Seto did have a son and daughter-in-law, but they had almost forgotten him. Their visits were limited to a handful of church holidays, at which time Seto was expected to put on an uncomfortable suit and accompany them to the red brick church a few blocks away. While he was there, he saw other old men who had been dragged into public. After church, they stood outside and talked about the price of grapes, a boring subject Seto hated. As the talk droned on, he paid more attention to the pigeons lined up on the church roof than he did to what was being said. Then, none too soon, it was time to leave. After an impatient afternoon meal at his sonís house, Seto was taken home and left to contend with his quiet, meaningless life.
How long can he live there like that? A week? A month? A year? The old man needs help. Have you smelled him lately? He doesnít even bathe properly. All he does is sit there on his porch, screaming at the children. One of these days, the police will come and put him in jail. Then what will we do? Crazy old man sitting in jail, eating beans and potatoes. You know and I know, something has to be done.
So they bring Seto to their house and have him sleep in the den. In the morning, no one says hello. His daughter-in-law gives him boiled eggs or a bowl of mush, then goes out to talk to her neighbor. He is an old man, she says, what can we do? He canít take care of himself. Have you seen his house? Drive by there someday, youíll know what Iím talking about. In the meantime, my hands are full. But, you know, itís the right thing. Anyway, how long can it last? A few months at the most. Then weíll sell his place and put the past behind us.
It doesnít take long for Setoís hands to start shaking. Sometimes, it takes him five minutes to light a cigarette. He spills his coffee and stains his clothes. But the worst thing is, he cries for no reason at all. You would think a man his age wouldnít do that. What does he have to cry about? Heís being taken care of, isnít he?
Seto, come here. Sit down. No, Seto, donít do that. Iíll do it for you.
Donít yell at him, heís my father.
Iím not yelling. Anyway, you take care of him. I need a break.
Come on, Papa. Relax. Iíll light your cigarette. Eh? Whatís that? No, no. Donít cry. Please donít cry.
Come on, Papa. Weíll go for a drive. Letís look at the old neighborhood. See? Thereís your house. You know, someone should clean up those weeds. Okay, now weíll stop at the bakery. Wait here while I go inside. Iíll be back in a minute. Papa, youíll never guess who I saw in the bakery. Do you remember Asbed, the tailor? I saw his son. Heís really put on some weight. Anyway, he asked about you. He says to say hello. How about that? You never know who youíre going to see around here, do you?
Papa, please donít cry.
How is your father-in-law doing? the neighbor asks. I havenít seen him in quite awhile. Is he sick?
No, just weak. I hate to say it, but I donít think heíll be with us much longer.
Oh, thatís a shame. Still, heís suffered enough, hasnít he? How old is he now? Ninety?
Ninety-four. And to tell you the truth, sometimes I feel as old as he is.
I know it must be hard for you.
But pretty soon it isnít as hard, because all Seto does is sleep. He sleeps in his chair, he sleeps on the couch, he sleeps at the table. Then he loses his appetite, forgets how to eat, forgets food ever existed, doesnít know, doesnít care, doesnít realize. Does he even remember who he is? I donít know. Who can tell? He doesnít say anything anymore. It used to be, he had an opinion. Or heíd say something, like, look at that bird, or, isnít that the telephone? These days, though, nothing. Nothing at all. Itís driving us crazy. Poor old man. Poor Seto. Why does God have to be so cruel? Canít He see, enough is enough?
Many years from now, I knock on the door of Setoís house. Long ago, he answers. Many years have passed since we were strangers, but we still recognize each other. Come in, he says.
We sit together at Setoís wooden table. He cuts into a ripe, golden pear and sets it bleeding before me. Eat, he says. And once upon a time, a time so long ago that I can no longer remember, I eat. And Seto smiles.
In a future not yet dreamed, I remember a past that never was. It is a past littered with bones, and soaked in blood, and crushed by sorrow. In a dream that is far too real to bear, I drag myself through a raging desert.
In a boyhood I never had, I kick a ball into Setoís yard. And Seto showers me with curses. Come here, he says, in a language I no longer understand. There is something I want to tell you.
Many years later, I smile at him and wave. But the rest, I canít remember. The rest, I donít dare to remember. The rest, I cannot forget ó that the past belongs to Seto, and that nothing belongs to me.
In between, did anything really happen? Or did Setoís grief plant too many blood-red flowers in my heart? His house is gone, my house is gone, and our lives have become nameless mountains no one ever climbs.
William Michaelianís 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 Michaelianís other books and links to this siteís other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.