By Hrach Gregorian
We are all asleep and dreaming, you know. If we could
ever actually comprehend our true position, we would
not be able to bear it, we would have to find a way out.
0630 – Maestro is jolted awake. He has survived the night. How many more? As is his wont he wakes with a sense of dread. Was it ever not so? When did Sundays and holidays and picnics, when did they not lead, always eventually lead to the same sense? There are dreams he little remembers, those that wake him with a start, and dreams he can’t shake, those that fix on his fears: failure in small things, like making money, and things large, like making art. He keeps a mental ledger crowded with disappointments. Not nearly enough time to balance the books. Each day a new tide of setbacks washes over the old. He is world-weary and bitter but clings to faint hope that through some act of creation he will find grace. He composes, he conducts, he teaches; he is the center of a small circle of loyal admirers. His penchant for criticism drives away the rest. His father was the same way and died alone in Tehran, in 1957. Maestro wonders if his condition is hereditary, artist’s melancholy, his friends whisper, or borne of life’s vicissitudes. What difference? Both are too deep to reach without doing more harm, shrapnel near the heart. What is the time? He must get up.
0640 – Maestro shuffles down a narrow staircase that leads from his bedroom to a small kitchen overlooking a yard of tufted brown grass framed by a fence of galvanized steel, silver-gray like fish scales. This is the perimeter of his drab property in the east end of town. He is stooped, barefoot and robeless. In his faded black and white striped pajamas, he leaves the impression of an aging convict. He sweeps a shock of white hair away from his forehead.
The kitchen is a perfect square, walls of knotty pine wainscoting and old-fashioned wallpaper, roosters pecking in a farmyard. Worn linoleum shines from daily waxing, surface depressions made by heavy metal furnishings.
This is his wife’s domain, and she keeps it immaculate. The deep porcelain sinks shine dentine white, chrome faucets scoured with baking soda and bleach, buffed so patches of nickel show through. The stove on which a kettle rattles for maestro’s tea looks factory-new, boxy contours the lone intimation of its age. Maestro’s wife moves silently, efficiently, from cupboard to table, laying out the morning’s fare: bread, butter, jam and sugar. Maestro takes five teaspoons of sugar with his tea, Lipton, in bags, from the Star Market on the Cambridge-Watertown line. He doesn’t give a fig what the doctors say, about the sugar, about the weight, about the smoking. He takes great care slathering butter and rose petal jam on a sliced baguette, covering the surface within a hair of the crust. The aroma of the jam transports him to his father’s garden behind the house in Tehran. He remembers walking behind him on narrow stone pathways overcome by the scent of freshly watered soil and rose buds. He exchanges not a word with his wife.
The furnishings in the rest of the house tend toward the traditional, crushed velvet sofas and loungers in gold and dark maroon, rococo chairs in lighter fabrics, a deep mahogany dining table with ornately carved seats and matching hutch. A grand piano serves as the centerpiece of a living room whose walls are colored dull albescent, the black lacquered whale dwarfing all other objects in a sea of white. Several oil paintings with musical motifs hang on the walls. There is a portrait, placed above the mantlepiece, a contemporary painting of a little boy smiling with a mischievous look in his eyes.
0710 – Maestro exits the kitchen as if leaving a restaurant. His gaze is fixed on a point beyond the horizon. He is thinking of the new house. Behind him rises the sound of clinking dishes and silverware. Folded newspaper in hand, the Hairenik Weekly, Maestro repairs to the loo. He places the paper on the commode and takes a look at himself in the wood framed mirror. An old man stares back. This man is a stranger. He has lived a life much different from the one Maestro imagined for himself. He has witnessed the winds of fate shift against him each time there was a glimmer of hope. He flips a switch and the room is filled with light, turn of a faucet and a basin fills with water. He is of a generation that finds these conveniences remarkable.
Maestro shaves with no enthusiasm and runs a brush through his hair. He moves to the bedroom where he dons wrinkled trousers and an ill-fitting sport shirt draped carelessly over a chair, reminders of the previous day’s labors. His stomach is distended, forcing the shirt to rise above his wooly midsection. He will tug on the slippery fabric the day long.
0730 – The doorbell rings. The Artist has arrived. The Artist is wearing his signature beret, tilted to the side. The Artist and Maestro nod in each other’s direction. They are well acquainted. They have strong opinions. They are allies and adversaries in a constricted world where small differences matter, each worries he will lose the other to success. Such concern, in the face of repeated evidence to the contrary, keeps the two going. It offers a glimmer of hope.
0740 – The doorbell rings again. It is Maestro’s nephew. Every Armenian family has a mule. He taxis relatives to and from the airport, delivers trays of baklava to the church bazaar, carries heavy loads come moving day. In Maestro’s family it is his stocky, sweat sodden nephew. Because he is fatherless, and a student come to American without means, Maestro’s nephew enjoys the beneficence of an extended family. In return, he is expected to be at their beck and call.
Upon hearing his voice, Maestro’s wife emerges from the kitchen to greet the nephew, and to offer him breakfast. He is expected to decline, and he does. “Ok sirelis” (my darling) she says; a rote endearment. She eyes him with apprehension, “drink a lot of water, it is going to be a long day.” And it will be. Nephew and the Artist are to help Maestro transfer his prized possessions to a new house in Belmont, a step up in the pecking order west of Boston. It is not a big step, it is not like moving to mansion-filled Belmont Hill, but it makes a difference. He can walk to Brigham’s in Cushing Square, find a corner booth and order a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich and a frappe. He can do this anonymously in the middle of the afternoon just after the schoolkids have cleared out of the ice cream shop, then walk a couple blocks to slip into the Studio Cinema for a matinee.
0815 – Nephew and Maestro head to the service station on Belmont Street to collect the small utility trailer that will be used for the move. The station owner always treats Maestro with deference, even if Maestro complains regularly about his prices. The station owner knows Maestro’s family, he comes from the Ghala region of Tabriz, where Maestro’s father was a leader in the cultural revival of a nearly obliterated community. The station owner has done well. He lives in a large house in Lexington. He has a small summer cottage in Falmouth. The family takes regular vacations to Disneyland, and he has been known to frequent high stakes poker rooms in Las Vegas. A devoted family man, he loves his tightly corseted wife, and he keeps his hands off other women.
Unbeknownst to all but a small circle of confidants, Maestro and wife are deeply ambivalent about his band of devoted admirers. On the one hand, the good burghers are contributors to the church, they are generous supporters of the arts, and they sponsor musical events at Symphony Hall and Tanglewood, especially that feature their people. Without them, Maestro’s professional orbit would shrink to a mere instructional post at the conservatory and the insufferable tedium of private lessons. On the other hand, the rising classes are unlettered and coarse. Maestro’s wife can barely conceal her contempt for the tradesmen in shiny suits with dirt under their nails who insist on a post-performance audience with the conductor; praise his interpretation of “the theme from the Lone Ranger.” Were such simple souls patrons of high art in Europe, subscribers to la Scala? Did the popolo minuto so easily gain entry backstage? Were musicians obliged to give more than what they left on stage? Did the benefits of patronage include viewing the spectacle of sweaty artists quickly toweling down and donning their coats to get the hell out of the stifling concert hall? Maestro’s wife knew the answer to these questions. Post-performance she was tired and eager to be rid of the throng of perfumed well-wishers. She smiled, nodded, and guided them to exits as much with her eyes as with her hands. They complied, but not without silent protest. They did not want to let go of the moment, the feeling of exaltation, of being part of something greater than the wearisome constancy of their daily lives. Who could blame them?
Maestro and Nephew drive to a lot behind the station bays where a handful of old trucks and trailers are parked. Maestro has his eye on the trailer that is on offer for $19.99 a day. He has planned far in advance. He gets out of the car and begins to carefully inspect the small trailer. He will record every ding lest that climber dupe him into paying for damages. The station owner has spotted the two familiar figures on his property and approaches them with a wry look and an extended hand. Nephew takes the hand enthusiastically. This annoys Maestro; sensing his displeasure, Nephew draws back and busies himself inspecting the assembly in front of the trailer.
The conversation between Maestro and the station owner grows animated. Maestro’s voice is loud enough to carry across the small lot. It turns out the trailer advertisement had not mentioned a charge for the tow hitch. This cunningly concealed expense irritates Maestro. The station owner is clearly enjoying his reaction. Nephew quickly steps in to prevent matters from worsening. Nephew knows Maestro is all bluster, but there is too much at stake on this day to risk a contretemps. He quickly thinks of an alternative to the tow hitch, if only the station owner is willing to bend the rules for what is to be a very short haul.
0900 – The Artist has stayed behind, and now strikes up an easy conversation with Maestro’s wife. This is a common occurrence when the conductor is away. He asks her how she feels about the move; does she mind being at a greater distance from the church? She says she doesn’t care. In any case, the new house is just an extra few miles. He nods slowly, pensively, as if this is a meaningful observation. He has difficulty keeping his eyes away from her breasts. Large, firm, protruding…they are stretching the button line on her blouse, offering a glimpse of the intricate stitching on a full cup. He studies figures on a daily basis. He has developed a clinical eye, and yet there is something unusual about her body. It is quintessentially Victorian. Among the middle-aged women he has painted over the years, few have been endowed with both an ample bosom and a wasp-like waist. But there she is, her impossible hourglass figure leaning on the edge of a chair, ready to spill onto a vintage Mashhad.
The living room is almost bare, but a boy’s picture still sits on the mantelpiece. He is dressed in a blue sweater and dark dress shorts with suspenders. He is sitting on a piano chair, legs crossed. The flash in the photo studio was especially bright, creating a halo effect around the child’s head. He has an impish look, this Peck’s bad boy, the apple of his father’s eye. Maestro is never happier than when he is engaged in playful banter with the boy. Eyes locked, they are drawn to one another as if magnets, north and south, attracted by stored up energy, a magnetic field of undiluted love, a blood bond primeval.
0930 – Maestro and the nephew return carrying cups of coffee and donuts from Linda’s on Belmont Street. Maestro takes pleasure in café au lait and heavy sweets — painkillers. The Artist feels relief upon their arrival. He can redirect his nervous energy. A one-sided story is told of the encounter with the shrewd mechanic. Nephew’s clever solution is recounted; eyebrows rise. Maestro’s wife takes her leave, gliding weightlessly past the sugar trough where the men are making quick work of the pastry. She barely glances at them. She feels the Artist’s gaze.
She loves Maestro, but not as she used to. Art, she thinks, sapped him of passion for her. It proved an unyielding companion, a lover more powerful, an intoxicant. He heeded its call and abandoned good sense. It could not be otherwise. She was left a conservatory widow with young children. They became her chief consolation, particularly the little one. Each day she would awake to his cheerful chirps and each night fall asleep reading to him, or more often telling stories fashioned from fragments of Armenian lore and poetry. She favored Tumanyan, Aghayan, Sevag.
She walked with the little one, hand-in-hand, to the markets in Coolidge Square, basked in the attention showered on him by the church ladies in black, the green grocers, the newcomers from Beirut, Damascus, Alexandria, their mouths full of gold. She would take him for ice cream at Dairy Joy, buy him small toys at the wondrous L&M five-and-dime on Mt. Auburn Street. He would dart up and down aisles, drawing nervous looks from the genial owner, a swarthy man with dark, bushy eyebrows.
The boy’s energy exhausted her. She gave him free reign in closed spaces, but held him tight when out on the street. He was a small top that might spin away in an instant, and he did, on the one occasion she crossed their small street to speak with a neighbor. She didn’t notice him following her down the long steps and running behind her and in the path of a vehicle climbing over a hill. The driver did not see him. The hill, his height, the sun all prevented a timely response. She could not remember if she heard his or her own scream at the moment of impact, but she saw him tossed like a rag doll to the side of the road. There he lay motionless, so small, and the world went dark. The aftermath was a compressed series of silent frames, her knees buckling while she cradled the lifeless child, ambulance to Mt. Auburn Hospital, emergency room pandemonium, horrorstruck faces, husband a limp marionette, legs dangling, arms locked around others carried into the hospital.
The horror continued at church, in the cemetery, and back home for too many days. She could not mourn in peace. The black crows descended on the little house, pecking at her, cawing over the lost fledgling. They found license in loss to gain entry without invitation. They brought steamed rice in large dented pots, meats stewed in greens and beans, layers of filo dough stuffed with cream, honey and nuts. She was near overcome by the scent of basmati, deodorant, and stale breath. She was nauseated, suffocated. She was alone, a hundred people could be in the house, but she was alone. Not a soul could connect with hers. No mortal could know the horror of night and the agony at dawn.
He is slouched in a velour armchair, head tilted, mouth drawn toward a sunken cheek. He has the look of disgust. He sees his father, he longs for the days before, for the scent of roses, for walks in the garden inside the high walls. The child runs before him, calls his name, he looks up, someone is offering him tea. He waves it away. He lights a cigarette, leans his head on his palm. He hears the clatter and rattle but he’s deaf to the voices. What does it matter? It’s over and done with. He will not be consoled. No one should dare minister to this sickness.
She steels herself in the face of unexpressed resentment. She knows what he’s like. He will not say a word about it but find warrant in little things to express anger and disappointment. He will become more distant, turn further inward, live like a stranger in the same house. She needs to protect herself, find a space in which to recover, find others with whom to share her grief. She needs to be loved, more now than at any time in her life she needs to be loved, but he is too damaged, too blinded by his own misery, to be of any comfort to her.
1030 – The sugar charged men begin the day’s work. Precious cargo is gingerly carried down to the street under Maestro’s watchful eye. He can do no more than watch; he is physically frail; his back is out again. Aging violins in peeling black cases, marble busts of German composers, boxes of rare scores and leather-bound books by Armenian masters,
1330 – All during the packing the Artist wonders about the curious solution to the absence of a tow hitch. Did the nephew really sit in the trunk of the Olds and hold fast the front assemblage of the trailer? Can this stunt be repeated with a full load, however light? Will the police not stop them? Is the whole risky enterprise worth a fifteen-dollar savings? How mad can this man be about trifles? Is money really at issue?
Worried by the prospect of an imminent disaster, he voices strong reservations about the human hitch arrangement. Nephew is now given to similar misgivings, especially in light of the experience guiding an empty trailer. Who is now going to sit in the trunk, and can he really hold on to a cargo-laden two-wheeler? These questions do not go unchallenged. Maestro feels put upon by the Artist and betrayed by his Nephew. The ingrate hungrily accepted his plaudits when the idea was first hatched, but now, when the moment of truth is upon them, he is backing away, aligning with the Artist, making a mockery of the trust he has placed in the boy’s advice. His judgment and good sense are now in question. He is not going to change course. A heated argument ensues. The Artist offers to pay for the rental of the hitch, which further insults Maestro. He waves away every suggestion made by the turncoat nephew. When it is clear he will not be moved, the Artist hits upon another idea, one that will capitalize on Maestro’s compromised physical condition and trap him in a cul-de-sac of his making. His infirm back leaves Maestro little choice but to accept the role he is assigned
They will wait until after midnight when traffic is lightest. Maestro is to be strapped into the trunk of the Olds with braided rope; the hitch secured with yet more rope tied around his upper body. He’ll steer the hitch slightly by pulling on the rope at either side of his ample torso. The center of the hitch is to be attached to the car with another cord to enhance stability. The plan will be fleshed out and refined over several hours, and not without additional wrangling. How much rope is sufficient, how thickly braided, at what length to maximize maneuverability without risking a sudden snap? These questions are about physics. Nephew is studying mechanical engineering. He has two semesters of math and science under his belt. It’s enough to know what he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know if these plans will bear fruit.
1800 – Harvesting the last of what is in the kitchen, Maestro’s wife prepares dinner. There is always rice, the foundation of a small feast consisting of yogurt and cucumber salad, tahdig (crisped butter-soaked lavash) and eggplant casserole. Sugar dusted lemon cake near fallen to dust and sweet tea cap the meal. The men move to the living room for a nap. They lie like felled trees on the plush carpet. Deep sleep renders them impervious to the snorts and farts and wheezing that fills the room. Maestro dreams of Mahler, “always an intruder, never welcome.” He remembers a year in Beirut when a “Phoenician” master of a conservatory asked him why Armenians treated Lebanon like a hotel. His simple answer: “it does not feel like home. No place but the land of our ancestors does. We are grateful for the hospitality, but we remain guests.” Did such thoughts disturb Mahler’s sleep when he was a guest in Jihlava? Was it his sense the Hebrews would return to a promised land from whence they were evicted but from which they never felt apart? Did Mahler, too, compose a lullaby for his dead child? What inspired “The Song of Lamentation”?
We cannot live, create, grow in terror, in constant fear for our lives, the lives of our kin. And yet we know, we always know, how fragile is the whole edifice. In an instant our worst fears become real, our lives turn to dust, our dignity is mocked. We are powerless, so we submit to a higher force, however distant and incomprehensible. This force is not benevolent. It exacts a great price for the gift of being. It tests, tests without mercy. To what end? How can we escape wrong? Even paradise was his creation. We were hoodwinked, set up for a fall, doomed for eternity. Did we invent ourselves? No. Did we ask to be born? No. We are playthings of a thing entirely unlike us, we are born of nothing headed to nothing, a pinhole in a black plane in a black space, unconscious and insensate. It is left to us to invent meaning. As Vostanik Adoian said, “Man creates, is not created.” He remade himself Arshile Gorky. Maestro has lost the godlike power of invention, loss has riven his soul, has turned his black hair white.
The Artist dreams of Gorky the mythologist, reinventor, devotee of modern culture, the central figure of the avant-garde. They sailed to America at the same time, Gorky and the Artist. Both stayed with relatives on Dexter Avenue, not far from the Watertown Arsenal, orphaned refugees displaced from the shores of Lake Van by the Young Turk genocidaire. They shared a love for the European masters, Cezanne, Picasso, Miro, and their paintings were largely derivative. Such affinities notwithstanding, their lives took radically different paths, and the Artist is haunted by deflating comparisons.
The Artist remembers Gorky in Watertown, the few years he spent with blood relatives before the move to Manhattan and his discovery by the taste arbiters at the center of the art universe. It was the early 1920s and Gorky affected the look of a bohemian walking Watertown’s dusty streets, attracting the attention of passersby. These Armenians are a sight, swarthy, scraggly, dark eyes with faraway looks. He is sitting on a dining room chair in his sister’s yard on Dexter Avenue filling a canvas with oils depicting a shingled saltbox, old New England charm. The triple-deckers to his left are a more familiar sight in the dingy industrial town. He looks bewildered, awkward, out of place. This is a familiar sight in the Artist’s dreamscape. He sees himself in the same state of suspension, neither here nor there, displaced and disoriented, soul adrift. Gorky loves the little community of Vanetzis in East Watertown. He craves the company of blood relatives, the picnics on the shores of the Charles, in the wood at Waverly Oaks; kids running amok, seeking protection from feigned serpent-ghosts, the hot grills covered with sizzling skewers of lamb, songs of ashoughs in the air, joke telling and argileh smoking.
Then, just like that, he was gone. The abandoned abandoning. A clear break to be reborn.
The compulsion to create exacts a high price. The lonely artist, and Gorky was always lonely, is not recognized in Gotham. It’s not just the art, the art world sophisticates are remarkably, willfully, ignorant about a world beyond their western bubble. He tries to explain that his people’s history is big; as big as Mount Ararat, as expansive as Lake Van, as important as any empire, first Christian state. His pride is dismissed as small nation chauvinism. He drinks and smokes and bites his tongue. In letters to his sister he laments, “my dearest, they know nothing of our songs and poetry, sculptures and carved cross-stones, miniatures, wood carvings, frescoes, mosaics, metalworks, textiles – I am hoarse from shouting! I buy apricots, pomegranates, figs; I eat alone, salting the fruit with my tears.”
The Artist is exhausted channeling the spirit of Gorky.
He knows that for two decades Gorky set the art world afire, his reputation and fame growing after his death. Gone again, the forty-four-year-old wunderkind. While the Artist painted portraits of the wealthy, his confrere became one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. The Artist stays busy, but he will not know greatness. He will not be immortalized by his work even if he paints for a hundred years. He sees Gorky’s death as yet more tragic than what is written in biographies. He died by his own hand, not because of cancer, a studio fire, a faltering marriage – all this and still we endure. He sees it in Gorky’s painting of his mother, the mother starved to death by her executioners. The elegant young woman abandoned by her husband who was an inconvenient hitch in the Ottomans’ modernization plans. In the picture he is standing next to her, a frail young boy staring into the abyss. His shoes are soft, like those of scholars and civilizers and priests. His eyes are coal black, they look out to fields of ashes. There is nothing abstract here, the story is told plain. It is of premonition, a tragedy foretold.
Nephew has consumed too much eggplant. He really should have taken a courtesy walk, but he is too tired, and he doesn’t mind offending the two masters in repose. His thoughts drift to images of a little two-room attic apartment at the dead end of a small street in Tehran. The one he shared with his mother. That was before he was sent to Boston to study and make good. He has been dealt a bad hand, but he will not wallow in self-pity. It’s among the countless luxuries he can’t afford. His lot is to spend long nights in the company of textbooks and slide rules, take the trolley downtown for night classes, live in his uncle’s house, share a room with a nasty cousin.
He thinks of the divan in the apartment in Tehran piled high with comforters, afternoons spent on a mountain of feathers turning pages in a thick album of Tin Tin comics. The captions are unintelligible, but the graphics offer a colorful contrast to the grey-black drawings in his school books. He longs for the freedom of his cartoon hero, uninhibited by adult constraints, who sets out on exciting investigative capers accompanied by his trusty dog and a band of grown- up eccentrics. He jumps into a panel in “The Search for the Treasure Chest,” leading a hunt for valuables stolen from a wealthy merchant in Kharput. Why Turkish authorities would allow him to conduct such an investigation is never made clear. It is beside the point. He is in charge of his world, with license to pursue the case he has his sights on. He is particularly tickled by the location of the investigation, by the buffoonery of local officials, many of whom are complicit in the crime, who try vainly to foil his search for the treasure. There is a madcap chase involving camels and donkeys which ends at a large castle with secret passageways and dark tunnels that tax every lumen in his flashlight and the sniffing powers of his wire fox terrier. Dozens of characters rush through the enormous structure often bumping into one another and finding themselves in one dead end after another. Boy and dog eventually fall through a trap door that helps them bypass the sentries guarding the treasure. They are startled by the jewelry and gold they find. The dog is drawn to a small door that opens to an underwater river that feeds the castle moat. They load the treasure on a raft docked by the side of the river and make their way out of the castle walls. There they rendezvous with agents of the merchant who transport the treasure to a small airplane hidden in nearby woods for flight to a location outside the country. A moonless night aids their efforts. It is a daft adventure for the boy and dog in a place peopled by corrupt, conniving adults. What appeals to Nephew most is being without family, as Tin Tin he is free to fashion a life that suits him, where he outwits the enemy on the site of the Hamidian massacres.
0000 – The full moon casts a cold light on the shadeless front room. Maestro’s wife appears at the stroke of midnight with unwelcome news. Moving hour has arrived. Like firemen at the ready, the fully dressed troika rolls side-to-front and up from an unsteady crouch. As is his habit, Nephew grabs hold of his snout and snaps it left and right to relieve irritated membranes. Sea passage has failed to rid him of allergies. Maestro buckles his pants and tightens his belt. The Artist dons his beret.
In no time, and with little fanfare, Maestro is fastened in the trunk with ropes extending from his upper body, a latter-day Gulliver upright in a rusty metal cavity, a puppeteer pulling and easing thick twine fastened to a rickety dray. The Artist takes the wheel and Nephew rides shotgun. Each looks back in nervous anticipation as the car begins to inch forward, a slow creaking fills the night air. To everyone’s relief, the first snap does not send Maestro tumbling, trunk out trunk, and in short order the vehicle accelerates to a slow trot. The Artist sticks his head out the window and shouts a query he will repeat at regular intervals, “Maestro, are you alright”? The answers at first are a quick yes, barely audible above the rumbling tires, but they become something quite different as the rough pavement causes the trunk lid to keep thumping Maestro’s head. A minor annoyance at first, the head slapping becomes quite insistent. Maestro’s head is bleeding, he is no longer answering the Artist, instead he is shouting, plaintively at the moon. The Artist hears joyful noise. He stops asking as they near the new house.
Concussed by blows to the head, Maestro has had a vision, a sighting of his dead son. The boy is alive! He has grown to become an imposing young man. Maestro is overcome with joy, but he is afraid to touch the boy, to hold him the way he has longed to for so long. He suspects the boy is an apparition, and yet his physical presence is palpable. He exudes a raw energy, a magnetism that fills the space between them. Maestro is content just to look at him, to hear his voice. It is deep, not the high musical pitch he remembers, but still unmistakable. Maestro ventures a first question, where has the boy been? The boy volunteers that he was incarcerated for many years, for aggravated assault, for carrying a concealed weapon, for second degree murder. Maestro cannot believe his ears. This cannot be his son, this is some cruel deception. Who dares mock his suffering? He falls silent, the boy goes on, insists on explaining, it seems as if this is a moment he has been waiting for.
The boy tells of making bad choices even before he entered high school, of minor skirmishes with the law, of truancy, of alcohol and drugs. He was not athletic, he was not studious, he sought other paths to glory. Maestro wonders where he was throughout all this. His other son, the older one, the one that is a mere shadow in this story now appears to recount what it was like to be forgotten when his younger brother died. He tells of how grief became Maestro’s lone companion. How he let his remaining son grow up with but one parent while he clung to memories of what could have been. “Well, this is it, this is what it came to,” says the older son.
The dead son does not hear this. He is collecting his thoughts, readying his story. “It was homecoming, fall of ’63, we played Arlington and after the game there was some shoving and pushing and threats made as they were leaving our field. None of this involved the two football teams, it was more a tough guy thing between two groups of glory seekers in the stands.”
“They challenged us to a fight that night at the park near Arlington Center, we said we’d be there and kick their ass. By the time night came, none of us really wanted to kick their ass but Jimmy Skendarian, you know, the nice kid who sang in the church choir, challenged us and we jumped into two cars and headed to Arlington. We were laughing and shouting on the way, getting our nerve up in case those guys were stupid enough to show up.”
“They were there alright. Worse, there were friends of theirs hanging around the park, sitting on benches, smoking cigarettes, pawing girls. We jumped out of our cars without a sound and ran towards them. At first, they were surprised and backed off, but no sooner was a punch thrown then they were on top of us, about ten of ‘em to our eight, then their friends jumped in and we were really outnumbered. I got hit a couple times and went down, now I was on my back with some huge guy pounding me with closed fists. I started chocking on my blood. I had no choice but to reach for a weapon I always carried, as only my brother knew. I had meant to impress everyone with it, I had no intention of using it. But there I was in what seemed like a mortal struggle. In a flash my right hand went into my pocket, it found the knife, my thumb unlocked the blade, and I thrust it full force into his side. Must have hit a soft spot because the entire blade disappeared. He fell off me with a thud, clutching the spot where his stomach had been pierced. His shirt quickly turned crimson. I wanted to apologize, to explain why I stabbed him, to acknowledge this was not fair, an act of cowardice — I was afraid he would kill me. The fighting continued until someone noticed he was lying motionless, face down, a pool of blood forming around his large frame. There were shouts and screams and everyone running helter-skelter, getting in each other’s way. I couldn’t move. Had it not been for my brother pulling me up and dragging me toward a car I would have lay there frozen until the police arrived. The incident was in all the papers. Our family was humiliated. All the resentment harbored by those who thought us too high and mighty was given free reign. Mother never recovered from the shock of it.”
“The kid died. I did fourteen years, first at Concord State, then at MCI-Walpole. Walpole was rough.”
The slapping jiggered Maestro’s brain cells. Something gone haywire in the neural circuitry. A bill of particulars delivered to a fading orb. He knew it was all a delusion, but so were his expectations. We live with vague dreams of what might-have-been, but the future is arbitrary.
0030 – Maestro wears a look of relief as the Olds turns down his new street. His companions pull to the curb thankful the journey has gone without a hitch. Motor off, they rush to the back of the vehicle to help untie poor Gulliver. He is bent, he is red, his head looks like a scored pomegranate.