by Hrach Gregorian
He felt that in this crisis his laws of life were useless.
Whatever he had learned of himself was here of no avail.
He was an unknown quantity. He saw that he would again
be obliged to experiment as he had in early youth. He must
accumulate information of himself, and meanwhile he resolved
to remain close upon his guard lest those qualities of which he
knew nothing should everlastingly disgrace him.
Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage
Vartges died after a short illness. It was a shock. To his bar mates he seemed fit as a butcher’s dog. His passing left two boys fatherless and a willowy wife, Anahid, seemingly adrift. The family was of modest means. Anahid, the only child of aging pensioners, Vartges, the orphaned son of an Anatolian village laid to waste by assassins. Inside the nave of the cavernous church a clutch of parishioners gathered to bid him farewell. Tragic though the occasion, it was not heavy with grief. Vartges had not been a model husband, father.
He had been admitted to hospital for abdominal pain. There was every reason to expect a full recovery. A sturdy man just shy of forty, he often worked double shifts at the rubber plant. Doctors were puzzled by his rapid decline. After a late-night visit by his wife he fell into a deep sleep and was gone at first light.
At her insistence, there was no autopsy. The thought of it repelled her. Robbing the dead of dignity, she said, casting a shadow on the living. Best to turn everything over to the lady undertaker, she would arrange a tasteful valediction. There was an elaborate protocol involving practiced hands in matters funerial. The casket would be closed and visiting hours would be kept to a minimum. Her temper could not endure more. He was buried in the town cemetery, under a simple tombstone, the work of an apprentice cutter. It all struck her as a good deal.
Anahid lived in a housing project in a factory town upstream from Boston. It was a place too rough to countenance illusions, and yet she trafficked in them. Unwashed waifs screamed and pawed and peed in stairwells that spilled into the dirt yards of squat three-story boxes the poor called home. Torn and tattered, unloved by tenants, they bore the familiar scars of forsaken estates. Metal doors bowed by angry kicks led to hallways dimly lit, lonely light bulbs dangling from peeling ceilings. Mailboxes jimmied open with metal shanks refused to stay closed, and railings remained anchored to walls by dint of a single, stubborn screw.
The assembly line work that drove her husband dull barely kept the family fed. Many a night they crawled into bed with only bread and mayo curdling in their belly. The old man rarely ate at all. He would stumble in late, utter the odd complaint and repair to a small porch illegally winterized by a handyman friend. No one in the neighborhood cared about the porch, about building codes, about heating and plumbing and maintenance. The drab room contained a lumpy couch covered with worn sheets patterned in a juvenile motif. Cowboys and Indians on horseback, weapons at the ready. To the side of the couch was a rickety nightstand supporting a rough-hewn lamp of a type schoolboys make in woodworking, the wax paper shade charred by high voltage bulbs.
Strewn across the room were cheap paperbacks with covers torn off like you buy for a nickel at the corner spa. Not bad stuff, Hammett, Chandler, Cain, mostly mysteries with hardboiled characters, fast-paced tellings of sex, murder, betrayal. The old man was many layered. Conservative in dress and demeanor, his heart beat with revolutionary fervor. He slipped a sawbuck every month to local reps of the Armenian Revolutionary Party, more if he was dry.
He stuffed his head with words, words he forgot upon putting a book down, so a small library sufficed. The point was to keep his mind occupied. He would not wallow in regret, ponder what might have been. His mission was to avoid a reckoning, however long the ledger grew.
Early on a Sunday Anahid’s boys might find their father at the bottom of the stairwell twisted inside his wool coat like a sleeping cat. A lump on his head said there had been a small accident just short of the front door. He would come to long enough to feel the dull pain gathering in his temple. He would open a swollen eye and upon spying the boys force a crooked smile. The boys would drag him to the side of the stairwell to accommodate neighbors off to early services. They weren’t much bothered by the churchgoers’ indifferent stepovers. These were not callous souls, it’s just that there was a mass to celebrate and such scenes were all too common in their neighborhood.
Anahid had a faraway look. Tall and gaunt, she moved with a wry expression, eyes on the horizon, girl in a chemise. The boys would ask, repeat, shout, pull at her smock for attention. They called her by her given name, not mother, she insisted. She would send them off to school with an empty lunchbox, leave clothes in the dryer at the laundromat, accidentally kite checks. She rarely left her dark kitchen. She found peace washing underwear in the sink, reading the paper, frying eggs in bacon fat. You could sit in her living room for hours, a TV was always on, without catching a glimpse of her. Walk into the kitchen and there she was, completing a crossword puzzle with a carpenter’s pencil, asking if you remembered who ruled Egypt before Nasser.
She loved baseball, mostly she loved the Red Sox. The air in the kitchen lightened when a broadcast came on. Game days she was hunched over a small table sweeping ashes off an oilcloth cover pitted with burn marks. Late innings she might doze off leaving a spent Parliament tottering on the edge of an ashtray. Her team was perennially in the middle of the pack. She didn’t care. Her love was the sound and rhythm of the game, the crackling and hissing of broadcasts from cities in the heartland. It was all in muted shades, the way it came over the radio, night games especially. You could see the men in the stands in dark suites and fedoras, the visitors in gray, the bad lighting of nighters, the ballpark a brume of floodlight and cigarette smoke.
I liked sitting with her, especially when her boys were out of the house. The dim light shrouded in clouds of rising smoke was reminiscent of Sunday mass. Unlike the Latins, we had no confessionals, but I understood the solace that comes from unburdening. Can’t say why she bothered. We spoke in code. Nothing forward, just enough to get the point. She listened, nodded appreciatively, drew on a cigarette, and let out a smoky laugh. She didn’t blow out the smoke so much as allowing it to escape through the sides of her mouth.
She had been well educated by the nuns in a parochial school. This was unusual for a girl from her dried-up village, recompense by a grateful order for the high price paid by her grandmother in an incident that nearly ended her life. Working for the nuns in a grist mill she caught a sleeve in a wooden gear that pulled her headlong into the machinery. Were it not for the strong hand of a nearby miller she would have suffered more than the mangling of her left side. Her once sturdy frame compromised, she could no longer work. She was given to bouts of melancholy leaving her bedridden for weeks. The order made every effort to help the family. Anahid’s mother could not, would not, take advantage of their beneficence, but when her bright daughter reached school age, she was quickly sent to study with the sisters. Her father was relieved, one less mouth to feed and an outside chance of financial gain.
The nuns offered a classical education. Reminded of the modest curriculum at my school, I asked if she actually studied Greek and Latin. “For a while,” she answered, quickly dropping letters into the puzzle. She knew word roots, she would have scored 800 on the verbals. From me, a close reader of TV Guide, she needed the character in a humorous series played by Tuesday Weld, six letters. She would record my response with a frown before turning to “the prince of ancient comedy,” filling boxes as deftly as you would a scorecard.
She loved early Renaissance masters, especially the Florentine, Giotto. She would pad back and forth to her bedroom and bring weathered catalogues from the Uffizi, the Arena Chapel, the Met. She was fond of Boston’s art museum, visiting Wednesday afternoons when admission was free. She would lecture me on the jewels of these collections. I didn’t much care for the religious subjects, what drew me to the page was the vivid colors, the shiny gold that illuminated each panel. It seemed elevated, like you could scratch it off. “He was quite the sight, this Giotto, if the histories are to be believed. No matter, no history is to be fully believed.” I nodded and smiled. Mostly I was infatuated with how she spoke, the distinctive way she combined vowels. Accents in my immediate circle rarely signaled high-mindedness.
“So,” long draw on a Parliament, “Giotto was a tiny man, really small. As some tell it, barely over four feet tall, a dwarf. Boccaccio described Giotto as the ugliest man in Florence. He made a lot of money and a lot of ugly children. Dante visited Giotto when he was painting the Arena Chapel and saw his children playing around the place. He asked how a painter of such beautiful pictures could produce such unattractive kids, Giotto replied, ‘I made them in the dark.’” She stopped and waited for my reaction. She laughed and asked if I got it. I smiled. “Doesn’t matter, it’s all a legend, no one knows for sure what he looked like, the sequence of his paintings, where he was buried, et cetera, et cetera,” except she said excetera, excetera. “It’s curious, history. People imagine it as something fixed, especially if it is recorded in a book, where it remains for all time the same as when it was first written. A thing captured in its totality, with fixed parameters, timebound — like a single flower cut from its roots and dried between leaves of a book. But it’s not like that at all, is it?” Was I supposed to answer? “No, like everything else it has the meaning we assign to it. And this changes as we change, as new eyes are cast upon the thing. Even a rock has different meanings depending on the beholder. What is more fixed, more permanent, more concrete than a mountain? This we can agree on. But what is the meaning of the mountain?” Here her voice rose an octave. “To some it’s a deity, to others an outcrop of earth’s crust, to still others an opportunity to seek glory, to conquer, to overcome.” She was coming to her main point, I thought, finally. It had to be about art. “What matters is these pictures, what they do to us, how they lift our souls, make us feel exalted, more than a mere dot in the universe. Through such creation we mortals become godlike.” I didn’t get all that lifting stuff, but I understood what it meant to be a dot.
She was taken out of school by her parents for talk like that. They worried she was wasting time on the godlike instead of God, that she was neglecting the practical arts that put food on the table. She was enrolled in a technical school where she received instruction in the physical and earth sciences. Her parents expected she would one day become a nurse; her teachers were much impressed by her aptitude for chemistry and foresaw a career as a pharmacist’s assistant. She graduated with high honors and could have been a scholarship student at university. But soon came marriage to a dashing young man with brains but no prospects. Her parents weren’t thrilled. Then came children, and managing a household, and attending to a demanding drinker. Before you knew it a decade had passed and with it schoolgirl dreams. She occupied her ruffled mind with puzzles and games. She was not much occupied with her sons, one of whom was my close friend.
ANAHID’S SON, ARSHILE, had only one tooth in his head, a pathetic yellow stalactite hanging from the roof of a shrunken mouth. His older brother, “Nish,” on the other hand, was movie star handsome and vain. He skipped school when he couldn’t get his hair to sit just right. He spent all the money he earned caddying at a golf club on silk shirts that clung to his barrel chest. His. He wanted to look like Victor Mature in Samson and Dalilah, so his girlfriend had to wax his front and back almost weekly. He used some secret cream to make his skin glisten. Teachers made him button up the fancy shirts on days he made it to school. They cut him slack because he was charming and the only player on the JV team who could throw a decent pass.
Even the poorest kids I’d known in the old country had better luck with their choppers than Arshile. We learned he suffered from a rare gum disease. It ruined his impish smile. I found it odd such an exceptional condition would be visited upon so ordinary a boy. One by one the spiked dents disappeared, leaving a pink cavity to issue threats as he fought for a prime position outside the rubber factory gates. At the factory, technicians would carefully examine his sneakers, a sole possession with value, and issue a new pair if fortune smiled and his was judged worthy of further study. They came close to expelling him from the program on one occasion upon discovering his footwear had been intentionally damaged.
Chastened, Arshile took to grabbing hold of slow-moving buses, dragging his feet to affect a more natural look of wear. There was something about the coveted sneakers that led to rash acts. Maybe it was the dearth of prizes in a pinchpenny town. Whatever the reason, the test had a social cachet outlier like me found irresistible.
We were in our last year of grade school.
Arshile was my entree into the world of what the cool called the sneaker test. We first talked about it at summer camp, in our school playground. Here we fashioned lanyards with gimp handed out by surly buck-an-hour high school kids with meager resources to keep us occupied. Our overseers were called counselors, but everyone knew this was no lakeside idyll. The playground was little more than a set of uneven playing fields that fronted a middle school, a red brick building with an incongruous 1950’s era attachment that looked like the neck of an enormous harp. Our world, for what seemed an eternity, was the field between a chain link fence fronting main street and the school.
Arshile was loath to let me into the fraternity of sneaker testers. His resistance only stoked my desire. Weeks of pestering led to a small opening. While skeptical about the prospects for admission, Arshile agreed to introduce me to his handlers. On a stone-cold day in early February he picked me up for what would be a fateful trip to the rubber factory. I looked up at the dome of grey rising from the far horizon and I was filled with dread. Rather than emitting light, this sky absorbed it, robbing our bleak town of what color it possessed.
My jacket was too light, and I started shivering almost from the first as we headed toward the imposing factory. Its grey-to-black palette actually produced a picture of hope. Buildings covering forty-five acres kept the town grounded. Long lines of presses and rollers churned out tens of thousands of sneakers, boots, and tires. The plant put food in the gut of starving immigrants. Its massive smokestacks spewed carcinogens that killed some. No one made the connection. Silent Spring had yet to cause agitation among those who had the means to stir. Those who passed through the factory gates were happy for the steady paycheck.
My heart started to race as we neared the factory. I was feeling lightheaded. Things got worse as we passed the bakery where the kids with after school jobs, the poor kids, worked. Down a few hundred feet at the corner of Dexter and Nichols Ave. stood the housing project. Arshile, Tony D, the Flannigan brothers, all were penned there.
D was looking for me. There was the matter of unfinished business that had started in the schoolyard some days earlier. I had laughed at one of his malaprops. It was just too funny, and he was such a cartoonish figure, dense in muscle and bone, and with such vacant eyes. He felt disrespected. He called me out. I tried to make light of it, to brush him off. I wasn’t about to apologize as he insisted. He knew I wouldn’t risk fighting him, so he kept baiting me. It was child’s play turning his insults in on him, making him look even more ridiculous. A crowd had gathered, egging us on. I knew they wanted D to beat the shit out of me, to teach me a lesson about keeping my sharp tongue in check. They knew I would shy away from fisticuffs. This crowd was not made up of clever boys who aspired to membership in the National Honor Society; this crowd spent its days in shop, running lathes, casting iron, tuning engines. They weren’t dumb, no sir, just couldn’t see how you’d make a living readin’ Johnny Tremain.
It was just a block and a half to the local barber shop and pool hall, a welcome oasis, but each step in the neighborhood of triple-deckers adorned with lawn Marys felt like a slow march toward Calvary. Walking beside me, Arshile could have been a million miles away. There was no telling him about the chalky, white taste in my mouth. My legs were unsteady, and objects were moving away from me as if being sucked into some cosmic void.
The barbershop was a two-chair affair with three old fashioned slate pool tables in the back. It was, for many years, my favorite hangout. Win or lose we’d be sure we had a quarter left at the end of the day to buy a cold, square slice of pizza at the Italian bakery across the street. It wasn’t just the quality of the tables, or the enshrouding light that made the place so attractive, it was feeling the old man who owned the place cared about us.
He was a tall, dignified gentleman, a Giacometti figure, who commanded everyone’s respect. Even the roughs dared not defy him. Besides, outside of getting in trouble with the cops, there wasn’t a whole lot to do if you got thrown out of his place. He with scissors, nothing electric. Bottles of Clubman lotion in various unnatural hues, yellow-green antifreeze, cherry cough syrup, and LUSTRAY aftershave, emerald, menthol and blue, lined the glass shelves just below the wall-length mirrors. The disinfectant jars that looked like drinking straw dispensers were full of combs and scissors. They caught the light from the fluorescent lamps that gave the shop a silver blue glow. The old man had a National cash register he would crank every time we needed change, reminding us each time that gambling was not allowed.
We would come out of the poolroom covered with chalk, palms blackened by dirty felt, clothes reeking of cigarettes.
The pool hall couldn’t save us from what lurked outside. I had the runs. Arshile pulled me out of the bathroom hissing we would be late for the sneaker test. I told him I didn’t feel well. He wasn’t sympathetic, but the way he looked at me said he sensed something was amiss.
“Jeez, we gotta get them sneakers – on to Yerevan.” This meant run. It was a code for evacuation, a quick getaway. I much preferred it to walking, there was a good chance we could clear the area without running into D.
I nodded. Cold air pressed in from the Charles River as we hit the sidewalk. It seemed as if all the cars had abandoned the neighborhood and a strange quiet had settled upon the housing estate. D was in there. I hoped he was glued to a TV or getting the stuffing beat out of him by his old man. Maybe he’d put the whole schoolyard matter behind him, maybe I had imagined what he’d said about kicking my ass, maybe he was just showin’ off and no more liked fighting than I did. I had the comforting thought again; what were the chances he would be coming out of his building at the very minute we were sprinting by on a cold afternoon?
Turns out chances were better than even.
I couldn’t believe I heard his voice. My body was moving but my brain had locked down. He called out…
— Hey asshole.
— Is he talkin’ to you? [inhale, inhale, exhale, exhale]
— Yah, he’s talkin’ to me. [inhale, exhale]
— Well, you gonna let him call you that? [pant, pant]
— Come on man, whadaya think, I’m gonna fight the guy? [breathless]
— Ya fraid of um? [pant]
— No! [dizzy]
— Good, cause he’s right behind us. [slower]
— What? [stop]
I look up and see D, oh Lord the ogre is almost on top of me. I’m twelve years old, I talk a good game, I invent stories about my duels, I walk with a swagger but I’m timorous; a world better using my tongue than my hands. Right now, I want to cry. One blow would have laid me flat, as much from fear as from pain. But he was not content to let me off so easily. He was intent on humbling me, so he picked me up like a barbell and started spinning me over his head.
The air grew colder, the wind blew through my ears; the ground was blurred as the spinning intensified. I was trying to form words, to talk my way to safety, but all that came out was grunts and shrieks. He was laughing and cussing, a marriage of joy and contempt. He would slow down, leer up at me, and start spinning again. I was a small critter toyed with by a wild predator. D spun me faster. I thought I would pass out. Where was this going to end? I knew Arshile couldn’t step in. His aid would lead to exile. There would be no place for me in the pitiless town.
Whether out of sheer terror or some deeply imprinted reflex I started kicking wildly; one of my heavy shoes caught D in the back of the head. He wobbled and then dropped me like dead weight. I think for a split second we both lost consciousness.
When I came to and lifted my head I saw a look of horror on D’s face. He quickly bolted out of the small circle of onlookers, older people robbed of an afternoon’s sleep by my cries. The assembled stared fixedly down at me with puzzled expressions, some shaking their heads, scaring me to death. “Call an ambulance,” someone said. “I think he split his head open,” said another. Now I had visions of Moses parting the waters, my forehead a red sea. I touched my face and sure enough it was wet; sticky fluid clung to my fingers.
I was picked up and ushered into the barbershop bathroom like a soldier taken off a battlefield. There was a look of deep concern on everyone’s face as I was whisked through. The boys had stopped playing and were standing still, cue sticks at their side. I saw tired Roman legionaries leaning on spears; I saw carnage, green fields covered with entrails, red, yellow, green. A bright light snapped on and I was staring into a dull mirror. The sight filled me with revulsion. The fall had opened a gash in my forehead and separated the skin over the bridge of my nose. I was covered in blood. What hadn’t congealed on my face had dripped onto my shirt, staining it rose-red. It had rolled to my scotchgarded corduroy pants. Water was splashed on the source of the rupture; still the bleeding could not be stanched. Someone repeated the call for an ambulance and I passed out.
I SLIPPED IN AND OUT OF CONSCIOUSNESS on route to the hospital. By the time they finished stitching me up, my mother had arrived, my sisters in tow, all of them relieved and a little annoyed: my mother because she wondered how I could have become involved in such barbarism, my sisters because they had been torn away from the bosom of Donna Reed. Arshile was nowhere to be found.
The medical wardens kept me at hospital overnight, and a good thing too. The thrill of survival having waned, the pounding in my head returned, and with such force I could hear it echo off the walls. I remember crying out, just once, my voice running down the hospital corridor like a night fog filling every room. To my astonishment, Anahid stopped by. She had on a crisp linen blouse tucked in a high-waisted dark skirt. She walked stealthily, like a leopard, in a pair of immaculate PF Flyers. Had she come all the way here from the sneaker test? As she moved closer, the blouse became a cornette, and a white sail atop her head turned into a habit. I wanted to ask how she had found me. Did the habit mean she had converted to another faith? Had she left our church? Why were we leaving and converting, and taking on foreign habits? Did we all have to pass the sneaker test?
I had many questions. I struggled to tear free of a heavy, asphyxiating blanket. I suspected a satanic force was preventing her from noticing my desperate effort to speak. She smiled gently, one hand stroking my arm, the other slowly inserting a needle into a vein near the crook of my elbow. In seconds I was free of pain, floating on a warm tide, swaddled in amnion, calm of body and soul. The angel of mercy was at work again. She was a practiced painkiller.
There was a knock, the door to my room opened again. It was Arshile. Leave it to the furtive boy to sneak in after visiting hours. His appearance was the very same as when we first met, save that he was now carrying dentures in an open hand, as if making an offering. We both laughed. He, because, he said, I looked like a turbaned sheik; I, because I saw in his empty mouth, in his ridiculous offer of surrender, the true nature of my friend. I felt no anger toward him. Not toward D, or others. My mind started a quickstep toward murky. In seconds it would go blank. Hold on. If I could just keep thinking. I turned to ask Arshile about the sneaker test. Was I in? He was gone.
Hrach Gregorian is a political consultant, educator, and writer. His work in the private and public sectors has mainly focused on international conflict. Gregorian holds academic appointments in universities in the United States and Canada. He was born in Tehran.