All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.
Edgar Alllan Poe
Dinner at the Shadigians was theatrical, near baroque in its eccentricities. The seating plan was the principal responsibility of Emma Shadigian, who took pains to ensure guests were properly paired. This required intimate knowledge of alliances and enmities, recent spats and enduring estrangements; who would be content to stay in place and who might ask to be reseated. Uncommitted neutrals were situated in key posts to deflect insulting comments before they could reach intended targets. Mutterings and musings were countenanced, both on account of their general abstruseness and because the din of conversation drowned out all but the most insistent voices. Emile, Emma’s father-in-law, the patriarch, always sat at the head of the table, wife to his left and grandchildren to his right; Emma sat at the opposite end, to be close to the kitchen and out of earshot of the patriarch. Emma’s husband, Gurgen, sometimes George, sat at mid-table, his mild manner and quick wit at the ready to smooth out rough patches in conversation. Years of practice had produced some tympanal organ capable of detecting bad vibes. The whole affair was carefully orchestrated. But it was not without flaws.
A dinner served late, a cocktail hour extended produced irritable children and caterwauling adults haphazardly self-seating in violation of the plan. And so, it was that the patriarch’s nemesis, Rose Berberian, found herself one chair away from the old man. Not long after, just as the table was being cleared, a small unpleasantness began between the long-warring friends. She viewed him as a latter-day Mephistopheles turned diabolical by cruel fate. He found her hopelessly naïve, given to crazed notions of earthly good. He was desperate to overpower the past while she was eager to abandon it, embrace the new. She had no idea what the new meant, she knew she didn’t want to get caught in some halfway house of identity, one foot lunging forward the other stuck in the past. She was uncomfortable with the contingent nature of things. She craved rootedness, as did her contemporaries.
The rhubarb was so commonplace it left the two aging immigrants stranded at the table while others repaired to a porch from where they were afforded a stunning view of the city just a few miles to the east. The distance between Boston and their town was more than a function of geography, there was the matter of wealth, and of origin, and of footing on the status ladder. The city’s power brokers, the old Yankee families who bought and sold Irish pols, were not much interested in the torments of newcomers from obscure corners of Christendom.
Uprootedness was among the countless subjects that excited the passions of Emile and Rose. She believed equality was a natural right, he believed in the iron law of oligarchy. She was a big fan of Jack Kennedy, he was horrified when Nixon lost. She believed in negotiating with the Reds, he wondered why Truman hadn’t dropped the bomb on China. She was a socialist granddaughter of a card-carrying member the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. She was still active in the labor movement and a union leader at the Underwood meat packing plant in East Watertown. He considered himself a Republican, although he wished the party would free itself of liberal internationalists. She loved the town and the working people who had finally found a place where they could live in peace. They weren’t all her people, but they were all bound by a history of hardship, displacement, a longing for safe harbor. The town was not enough for him, not by a damn lot.
He knew what it meant to make it. He saw how the penny pinchers among the newcomers had put together enough money to open dry goods stores, and their sons had opened bigger “businesses.” They made enough money to finance libraries and endow university chairs, and their sons finally were admitted to top tier schools and became “professionals” who made their money in law and medicine and moved out of the town and into big houses further west with lush lawns, wood-paneled libraries, laundry chutes and live-in help. And they acted as rooted as the old money, the tennis and golf set. Their names changed from the patronymic to short forms suggesting British ancestry. They ate cucumber and mayo on crustless bread and drank martinis at poolside. They supported the symphony, museums, and downtown teaching hospitals. They subscribed to The Wall Street Journal and graced coffee tables with Architectural Digest and Vogue.
This was understood as validation by Emile Shadigian. Worldly success would show he hadn’t been beaten. No starving DP, he. He would not countenance pity. Pity was for victims, he was a survivor. He was better than the whole lot, the old world savages that had turned him out and the new world do-gooders who would do him in. He saw immediately how the system worked. Lineage mattered but slap enough greenbacks on the table and you could buy respect, even if it was grudging. They may keep you out of their downtown clubs but they can’t keep you from buying real estate in the Back Bay. Show them the money: bespoke suits, fancy limousines, Locke-Ober dinners, and spend the whole goddamn summer on Cape Cod.
But he was too old to start building wealth on unfamiliar soil. His only son need be the trailblazer. Emile would serve as the impresario, orchestrating Gurgen’s methodical climb: a Reza to Mohammad, a Joe to Jack. His chief worry was Gurgen lacked the requisite preparation. He had wasted valuable time on a college degree only good for low paying jobs in social work. He hadn’t been smart enough to get into doctoring or one of the other high paying rackets. He worked hard enough all right, but he was living paycheck to paycheck, driving a battered Nash Rambler through Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan. Call it a career, but it was a dead-end grind better left to women with Sister School degrees and few professional options. Low pay, kids, a mortgage, wife at home, the formula for lifelong triple-decker living in a factory town.
Real estate was the ticket out.
The Shadigians bought a building in a less tony section of Boston where students, cash-strapped retirees and day laborers made their home. It was offered at a bargain price because all thirty-eight units that comprised the property suffered from neglect. The patriarch thought it was a good investment because of its brick construction. Brick held a special attraction. It was the sine qua none of durability. Glazed brick still stood in the ancient palaces of Darius, it was to be found on the Appian way and in the temples of Tigray. Having scraped together the bare minimum for a down payment, they were mortgaged to the hilt, and could ill afford to carry even a single vacancy. Anyone able to bundle a security payment with a month’s rent had a return address on the spot.
Emergency after emergency sapped what resources the Shadigians could scare up to buttress the tottering red elephant. Meanwhile, cash flow was being diverted to support a phony-rich lifestyle in a posh suburb. Emma knew it was a façade, worthy of Grigory Potemkin, as did a close-knit circle of confidants, but her father-in-law dismissed naysayers as frightened small-timers doomed to live constricted lives like that mousy Rose Berberian whose son, he noted with undisguised scorn, had changed his surname to Barber. The patriarch was an unstoppable force, arrogant, confident, convincing. Gurgen, who already shared some of these characteristics, slipped over the edge when the accelerating force of the mad enterprise rendered resistance futile. Hurtling through a one-way tunnel at high speed they were left two options, die quick or by a thousand cuts. They made the wrong choice.
Failure is a deeply personal matter, hard to blame on larger forces. And the Shadigian men believed in individualism above all else. They attributed failure to lack of drive, risk aversion, temerity. The point was to beat the odds, to will success. This did not require a complex business plan, just dogged determination. They were partners in a dangerous trapeze act. It kills the poor souls who lose a grip and fall to ground because they failed to erect a safety net.
The Shadigians lost ground to bill collectors. Cash flow dwindled even as maintenance was deferred and the building dilapidated. Unlicensed handymen were enlisted to jerry-rig failed plumbing, city inspectors were bribed to overlook wiring flaws, friends of friends were asked to climb up teetering ladders to pour an ocean of sealant on a leaky gravel roof. To his credit, Gurgen soldiered on, a broad smile and disarming charm his only hedge against looming disaster. What escaped notice was the havoc deceit was wreaking within. Persistent, severe abdominal pain led to a specialist and a biopsy that recommended exploratory surgery. Days later, the doctors told him they got most of the tumor and his prognosis was good. The word “most” was troubling. Why couldn’t they say “all,” Emma wondered. What harm would it do to raise his hopes? Optimism was the equal of their cold science.
She could not wait for him to be discharged, to take him home, feed him something more substantial than consommé and Jell-O, heal him with tanapoor. But even a brush with mortal danger could not shield him. The mood of the old man had turned sour. With no one to blame but his son, he came down hard on “boys” playing out of their league, lacking the vision to effectively address business challenges, bereft of grit and determination. He wondered aloud what was missing in the son in whom he had invested so much. Maybe he had backed the wrong horse, maybe his daughter had a talent for business. He quickly dismissed the thought when she chided him for reckless overreach.
A last hope appeared in the form of an old family friend from the Middle East whose firm had struck gold in petrochemicals. It was rumored that Aghabeg Toumanian was looking for investment opportunities in America. The Shadigians cooked up a plan that was sure to attract Toumanian’s interest. A real estate partnership that would require little more from him than pumping capital into a joint venture to revitalize the property and boost its value, which could then be leveraged to pry cash out of reluctant bankers, leading to the acquisition of more property and eventually a portfolio large enough to yield serious returns.
It was suggested by Emma that they come clean with Aghabeg, reveal how dire the situation was, appeal to him for help to repair the property so it could be sold at a modest profit. They had been close in the tight knit community of Vanetsies in Tehran, survivors of Ottoman massacres. They shared a fence in a housing estate on the outskirts of the city. He would surely want to extend a lifeline, especially if there was a little money to be made. But the men would have none of it. They were too proud to be bailed out by a childhood chum whose family had been far their inferior. No, they would lure Aghabeg with the appearance of success. And so, against Emma’s advice, Emile and Gurgen rented fancy furniture to adorn the Shadigian house, leased a new Cadillac, and crafted fictions to inflate their net worth. It was a doomed gambit. Why they thought they could dull a veteran bazaari’s instinct for the real deal was never clear, not even to them.
Aghabeg never really bit. He sized up the situation early on, took a private tour of the Shadigian property and determined there was even less there than he had suspected. He would have said as much had Emile and Gurgen been direct with him, but the longer the ruse went on the more annoyed he became. In the end he decided to simply walk away, wishing the Shadigians continued success in their promising venture. He was not a particularly cruel man, not by the standards of the day, but he was also not above salting self-inflicted wounds.
Soon after his departure, the phony edifice crumbled. With bankruptcy looming, the apartment building was unloaded at a fire sale price, the house bought in Emma’s creditworthy name sold off, and a few remaining assets quickly liquidated. At a final dinner party Emile and Rose Berberian got into another row. “So, I heard you took a real bath on that real estate deal. How much did you lose?” He told her they did fine, that this was no concern of hers. She knew he was lying. “I heard about that lamebrain scheme of yours to get money out of Toumanian. Boy did he leave you high and dry. What are you doin’ wasting your time with guys like that?” She wasn’t really asking. He said she was out of her depths, it pertained to business matters she wasn’t equipped to understand, she would be better advised to focus on things she knew, maybe on the workers of the world, corruption in the labor movement, unions robbing people of the right to work – nothing she hadn’t heard before. This time she knew she had him by the short hairs and she would not let go. She asked why if he was such a savvy businessman he hadn’t been a better mentor to his son, taught him the tricks of the trade? He asked her what risks she had taken at her factory job, her sinecure. How had she created wealth by punching a clock at nine and then again at five, sharp? How had she helped the laboring class by running her mouth at the union hall like other idlers? The more the old man insulted, the less she took offense. She started to soften but she would not allow herself to feel pity. She told him it was time for him to apply all that self-help pap he had been peddling. What was his plan to extricate them from this fiasco? How would he will them to recover? The old man had no answers, but he wouldn’t admit defeat. He said they had other real estate investments that were yielding good returns. “You can’t even afford to keep this house,” she scoffed. He knew he had to leave the table lest he choke her blue. He rose slowly, his legs heavy, his face flush. Emma, always alert, saw his compromised state. She took his arm and urged him to get rest. He held her by the shoulders and thanked her for everything, as if he was about to set off on a journey. She knew what he meant and smiled. He made his way to the bedroom and lay on the covers without removing his clothes. Sometime between the farewell to Emma and the start of the new day his heart stopped.
With the old man gone, Emma and Gurgen were free to make the best of what remained. They packed up the kids and headed west. It was near Detroit when they took a really deep breath. They stayed with college friends in Dearborn. Over drawn out meals of fattoush, sujuk, lamb soup they reminisced about lives lived as foreign students in America. As happens with the telling of such stories, mischief and mayhem reigned supreme. Much of it was unknown to the Shadigian children; they were transfixed, made giddy by successive revelations. This was a welcomed turn, one that signaled freedom, adventure, nonconformity. For once they failed to interrupt except to urge on the older set. It was a cathartic moment for the family. They made haste to move on to Chicago, the gateway to the central plains. Beyond rose the Rockies with a magnificence that was transformative, stone curtains opened to reveal a new world of possibilities. They set a course to the deserts of the southwest and the majestic Pacific beyond. The trip changed Gurgen before the children’s eyes. George, he now insisted, seemed to grow taller, gain confidence, conduct himself with a new sense of purpose. He drove the car instead of Emma, who had chauffeured them for years due to his failing eyesight. The new patriarch had vision.
The public face put on the hasty dash west was a good job offer and weariness with the cold climate in the Northeast. This was true enough, but a less happy subtext was hard to miss.
There would be a handful of good years, away from the climate of unrealistic expectation that had dogged him all his life. The new patriarch finally achieved peace of mind. War raged elsewhere in his body. Carcinoma had gained traction, invading vital organs in its blood feeding frenzy. He knew the prognosis was bleak when they started to reassure him with talk of new weapons in the fight, clinical trials, improvements in quality of life. Emma was heartbroken, but he was remarkably serene. The yoke of destiny was finally lifted from his shoulders, the future belonged to his maker. There were moments of grace, of dignity. One could see the relief on his face, the ripples in his forehead had smoothed. It was clear sailing ahead.
He was lifted by thoughts of Emma in the early years when everything seemed possible. How she persevered even as the dream soured. She had stuck with him without complaint, without blame, through sleepless nights, and long days of migraine headaches and aching joints. She would reassure him, cushion the rough edges. He wanted to thank her, to tell her what he did, all he did, he did for her. The words would not come. Images were growing gauzy, disconnected. So, this is how it ends, George thought. Actually, it didn’t really end, not in the usual sense of the word. The right word was transition, a seamless transition. He had always wondered if there was a sense of being in an afterlife. Did the soul have an appearance? Was it how we looked just before we died? Did we spend eternity in the ugly suit age hung upon us, or could we make a selection, something off the rack, bespoken? “So here you are in your early twenties. See anything you like? There are other options. How about this? Remember those days on the beach in Plymouth, the lower Cape? Select your favorite. Don’t like what you see? We can always start from scratch, take your measurements at any age, or design what’s in your mind’s eye. You can’t trust mirrors, and you can’t know what others see.”
He leaned back on the pliant cushions of an ottoman poolside in a small bungalow in a gated community in a sun-dried desert town with street signs bearing the names Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra. Scented fruit trees served as spiritual balm aided by opioids to induce nirvanic sleep. He was in the cave of Hypnos. His father approached. Gurgen knew instantly he was staring at the handsome man in a family photo album standing next to his young mother, in a three-piece suit with a white flower in the lapel. A confident man, staring beyond the camera to a bright horizon, satisfied with what he saw. He wished the man in the picture had stayed the same, that he had maintained the assured look, a grip on life as firm as the one he had on the woman. He had not known that man, perhaps there never was such a man – the apparition little more than a child’s longing. Well, the man in the picture stood before him now. Like him the man was a little stunned by the shock of recognition. What did he see?
– I don’t remember you looking that way, his father said.
– Yeah, it was well after you stopped paying attention; and I could never have known the way you look now.
– So how do I look?
– Young and in charge.
– Young and in charge. Can’t say I recall how that feels.
– So, is that why you behaved in such a despicable way?
– How I behaved? What was despicable about it?
– You behaved as a man scared, a man rooting around for something, anything that would offer validation. It couldn’t be people, they are too perfidious; no, it had to be things, rock solid, unmovable, undeniable things. Brick and mortar, precious stones, rare metals. Things you could shove in people’s face, lord over them, buy respect, settle for false affection. Was it worth the pain we suffered chasing a mirage? Why couldn’t we be content with what we had, why did we measure our worth against the net worth of others? You made me crazy with your expectations. I worked hard to achieve my dream, but it wasn’t good enough, you had bigger ones. You demeaned my profession, called it woman’s work, wondered in front of my wife how I could support her, the children. My college wasn’t selective, a word you had just learned, no science, all this sociology, soft stuff, my professional prospects dim. You said all this, and what you didn’t say your expressions gave away. I saw looks of disappointment at every turn; you have no idea how loudly you spoke. How long did we live under the same roof, thirty, forty years? In all that time did you lift a finger for anyone but yourself? You expected the women of the house, mother especially, to jump at your every command. Invariably they too failed you. My wife’s family was common. They lived in East Watertown, three floors of plywood and siding, near the factories. She spent too much on herself, didn’t know how to economize. The kids were too loud, the bathrooms too messy.
– What? You didn’t want a big house, a nice car, vacations, toys for the kids?
– I wanted happiness.
– You wanted happiness. Ok, what makes you happy?
– Love, peace of mind, professional fulfillment, these are some of the things that make me happy.
– Then you should have joined those boys who went to seminary.
– Really? Is that the only path to salvation?
– Of course not, you know you’re being too literal.
– And you are peevishly dissembling. Would you have approved the priesthood? Would it have comported with your vision of a life lived to the fullest? No, not by a long shot. I don’t think you find the men in cloth nearly as attractive as those in dark suits. The guys chasing the mighty dollar.
– Hah, the dream. The city upon a hill, and the rest of that Biblical hooey. I’ve heard it all by now. Look Gurgen, puritans didn’t build this country. It was madmen who conquered and tamed it, wiped out the natives, clearing a wide path for untrammeled commerce. Some of the early comers were learned to be sure, but they also knew what it took to live the good life and the value of cold, hard cash. Look at your heroes, that “founding father” Washington, he owned hundreds of slaves, he owned property, he made deals with the devil, he made a mint! Jefferson was clever all right, how do you suppose he found the time to do all that politicking, that writing, that inventing, that slave fucking? He ran his damn plantation like a business, that’s how. He had slaves doing all the heavy lifting, attending to all the menial chores, night and day; young black boys whipped to make nails in his factory, freedom’s sweatshop. It was free labor baby, and all these refined Simon Legrees were feeding at the trough. And what about those robber barons? Geez the gushing that goes on about those guys, even to this day. They would steal from their mother to make a buck. Now all these fancy foundations and university buildings are named after the sons of bitches. See, it’s OK to steamroll over people, exploit children as laborers, own entire communities, live higher than any emperor ever did, as long as you give back. It’s a form of absolution perfected by the American rich. The poor give alms to please God, to reserve a place in heaven, the rich have already seen heaven, and so they become gods on earth, buying veneration and immortality through philanthropy. They’re goddamn worshipped by the highbrows, the scholars and pedants in cushy endowed chairs that win grants to profess high-minded thoughts on equality and human rights. Do you think these eggheads ask how, say, Cecil Rhodes made his money, what a greedy megalomaniac he was? I read where he said he preferred land to niggers. The fucker wanted to conquer the US for Christ’s sake. Did you know that?
– I guess I never fully appreciated the depth of your cynicism Emile. But what does all this have to do with me? Who said I wanted to be a Washington or a Carnegie or a Rhodes?
– Pure and simple, in this country, in this world, you need money to get anywhere, and the more the better. You can buy anything. ANYTHING!
– You’re crazy. You’ve been driven mad by an unremitting obsession with respectability. You think money will smooth over all the imperfections in life.
– Not all, but a lot, an awful lot. Look at this donkey Sinatra. He made it, he lost it, made it again, all the while bedding hot broads like that Jefferson.
– It was never my goal to be Jefferson.
– Ok, ok, did you see the funeral Sinatra threw for his father? A Sicilian shoemaker turned prizefighter? Jesus, the old man could barely string five words together, but Sinatra threw him a funeral fit for Lord Curzon, the long limousines, the hundred-dollar wreaths, the mahogany casket, all those overfed eyetalians gathering in Fort Lee to pay their respect because he was Frankie’s father after all.
– Is that what you wanted, Emile, a showy funeral, burial at Mt. Auburn Cemetery alongside the bluebloods, a cortege?
– Nahh…you’re not gettin’ the point. I admire Sinatra, a self-made man, a self-re-made man. No wonder he and Kirk Kerkorian pal around. Survivors, those two. Do you know what kind of will it takes to keep at it like that, to stay in the ring even after a bunch of head cracking knockdowns? Did you see how Kerkorian took Ted Turner to the cleaners? And Sinatra, he had the balls to tell the Kennedys to fuck off after the bastards snubbed him for having mob ties, never mind that Sinatra’s underworld friends had delivered the White House to the prince of Camelot.
– OK, so none of these guys was a saint, but is the dark side all you see?
– I see only light, Gurgen. It’s clear as day. I see you can buy the US Presidency. That’s what I said, buy the franchise. I understand the game. I just wanted a piece of the action for us. Do you think stayin’ out of the game changes anything?
– The game, what game? You make it sound as if everything’s a contest.
– Well in part it is, but I might have used the wrong word. I should have said system, yeah that’s it, there’s a system, and it’s quintessentially American. It’s quite heroic, actually. One guy through dint of ambition, hard work, brains, talent, luck, courage makes a breakthrough, makes money, clean or sodden, don’t matter, as long as there’s enough to crawl out of the muck and have an impact. He now has the wherewithal to connect with the powerful, to buy property, to move into a better neighborhood, get junior into the right schools by fattening an endowment. Uniquely American is the fact that little of this has anything to do with class and lineage. No one except penniless bluebloods asks about his family name, they look at how thick his wad is.
– Wait, are you saying there is no class-consciousness in the US, no bigotry?
– Of course not, but it’s beside the point, you can cut through that with money. I know what you’re thinkin’ but even the special case of the blacks will change when enough of them make big money, mark my words.
– Look pop, I won’t even get into the issue of those who don’t want any of this, or those who may not have the qualities you’ve listed. The most important question for me is what’s the point? Is money, power, prestige that important?
– Only to those that don’t have it. As Sophie Tucker said, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.”
– Come on get serious.
– OK, you want serious, I’ll give you serious. This stuff you scoff at buys protection.
– Protection, why do we need protection, from whom?
– From everybody. From our neighbors, who we hardly know, from the police, from the government.
– From the government? Are you forgetting this is a nation of laws? We have due process, constitutional guarantees, right to public trial, right to counsel, right of appeal – the protections just keep coming.
– Yeah, but they come in different degrees depending on the size of your wallet. Ask the people whose welfare you want to improve. Who do they think is better positioned to protect them, a caseworker or a ward boss?
– That’s a systemic issue that can be addressed through the legal system.
– Really? How’s that workin’ for poor folk? Don’t answer. At least you used the word system, so I think we’re getting somewhere. People keep banging their heads to change the system. All power to them, but they’re up against human nature, which is deeply flawed, and the system is a product of human nature. I accept all this. I understand the unwritten rules and play by them. Hear me well. Who do you think escaped the genocide, who do you think slipped the grip of the three pashas? Who was able to set up shop, even thrive in new lands? They that could buy quick passage at top dollar and they who landed with gold sown into their clothes. This is the chief protection I’m talking about. The protection you buy. It is the opposite of natural right. We have no country; we have no passport with Armenia printed on it. We are guests in strangers’ homes. Some treat us better than others, but we are guests. Now, we know it’s always better to be a host than a guest, but you can balance the scales with extravagant gifts, reciprocate in greater measure. Have them owe you. This is pretty good protection, and it builds on itself so one day you can offer it to others. Call it life insurance.
Gurgen was dumbstruck. The worldview on display was difficult to countenance. A damaged, paranoid, materialist vision made sensible by primitive first principles. Some kind of deep brain activity at work, an instinct for self-preservation. Christ, the guy had been made crazy by barbarism. Here was the drawn-out death rattle of a survivor. He could take no more. He willed the apparition away.
On a moon drenched night when the night-flowering cacti were in full bloom and the desert was quietly giving up the day’s heat, Gurgen was approached by an earnest candy striper who bending her angelic figure over his small frame asked how he was feeling. Eaten inside out by the cancer, made senseless by morphine, minutes from taking his last breath, Gurgen managed to lift his head an inch above the pillow and in a weak voice whisper, “I’m fine now honey. I understand.”
“What is it you understand, Mr. Shadigian?”