Excerpt from Jerry Burger's THE SHADOWS OF 1915
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- Published: Thursday, 08 August 2019 05:28
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Backstory needed to follow these chapters: It's 1953, Fresno California. Mihran Saropian has recently introduced his non-Armenian girlfriend, Teresa, to his mother--a survivor of the 1915 Armenian genocide--and to his community. The cultural celebration ends badly, though, when Mihran's older brother, Arak, tells a group of young Turks they are not welcome at an Armenian picnic. Later, when Arak and Mihran are driving home, Arak sees a couple of the Turks and deliberately crowds them off the road, causing a serious accident. He flees the scene of the crash, and the brothers then seek out an uncle who is a community leader. Uncle Henry advises them to say nothing to anyone about the crash, and, if necessary, to lie about it. Mihran is deeply disturbed by his brother's actions. [Publisher's note}
Mihran watched from the couch as Teresa prepared gin and tonics in the kitchen. They had avoided the inevitable discussion to this point, observing an implicit agreement to keep their meal as pleasant as possible. He had taken her to the Cathay Inn on Van Ness and insisted that she do all the ordering. Chow mein, sliced pork, and even the deep-fried battered shrimp that he had yet to develop a taste for. Although his knee still ached, he was determined to hide the limp he had struggled with the past two days. As far as he could tell, Teresa had not noticed any difference in his step.
She turned on the radio, turned down the lights, and set the drinks on the table in front of him. Nat King Cole’s velvety voice filled the room.
“I think it’s time you told me what’s going on.” Teresa sat on the opposite end of the couch and curled her legs up underneath her so that she could face him. “You know. The Turks. The accident. Arak. You.”
“Sometimes people are better off not knowing things.” Mihran took a long sip of his drink. “And I honestly think this is one of those times.”
“Does Serena know the whole story?” she asked.
“I’m sure she does not.”
“Then it’s just who? You, Arak and your Uncle Henry?”
“That’s right. And they expect me to keep it that way.”
“So it’s a matter of trust.”
“In a way,” he said. “And you need to trust me that I’ll deal with things appropriately. I wouldn’t keep anything from you that you needed to know.”
“Trust works both ways,” she said. “How much do you trust the woman you plan to marry? Enough to share everything with her? For better or worse? ’Til death do us part?”
“Can you accept that I’m looking out for you? That the decisions I make have your best interest at heart?”
“I want to believe that.”
“You want to?”
“Trust isn’t so easy for me.” Her voice was suddenly softer.
“And why is that?”
“Sometimes the people you believe in let you down.” She folded her arms across her chest. Her eyes were distant and sad. “But I still need it. Maybe that’s why I need it. Maybe even more than most people. I don’t want to always wonder if I’m getting the full story from you or just a convenient part of it.”
For the first time since he had known her, Teresa suddenly seemed small and alone. A child curled up on the end of the couch in need of a warm lap and reassurance.
“OK,” Mihran said.
“OK what? You’ll tell me?”
“I will.” He set his gin and tonic on the table. “But remember trust goes both ways. I need you to keep this just between the two of us.”
“Agreed.” She took a deep breath. “Thank you.”
And then he told her. About the encounter at Vincent’s grocery. About the accident on Clovis Avenue. About the discussion between the three Saropian men that followed.
Teresa was silent for a long while before responding. “That poor couple,” she said. “This is so horrible.”
“I don’t understand your brother.”
“Arak didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”
“Of course, he did,” she said. “Maybe not the way it turned out.
But don’t say he’s not to blame.”
“Absolutely he’s to blame.”
“And what about you? Why didn’t you stop him?”
“You’re going to blame me?”
“You were there. You saw what Arak was doing.”
“I pleaded with him to stop.”
“What about the steering wheel? Couldn’t you have grabbed it?”
“That would have been crazy. I might have killed everyone.”
“You could have reached the gear shift. Thrown the car into neutral. Or into reverse.”
Mihran calmed himself before answering. “I did everything I could think of at the time to stop him. You’ll just have to believe me on that.”
“I’m sorry,” Teresa said. “It’s just very upsetting. You said you talked with the police?”
“And what did he say?”
“He denied knowing anything about the accident.”
“And what about you?”
“I haven’t talked to them yet,” he said. “But I expect to soon.”
“And what will you say?”
“What can I say? I’ll back up Arak’s story. If the only two witnesses agree on what happened, there’s not much the police can do about it.”
“So you’re going to lie?”
“I’m going to support my brother.”
“What if they have evidence you don’t know about?” Teresa asked. “What if they have a witness?”
“There’s no witness.” “You don’t know that.”
“I do know what would happen to Arak if I tell the police every- thing,” Mihran said.
“You’re putting yourself at risk for your brother’s sake.” “I’m aware of that.”
“What if there’s a trial?” she asked. “What if you lie under oath?
That’s perjury. And then there’s leaving the scene of an accident.”
“I’m aware of the risks.”
“What about the Turks? What if they die?”
“I hope that doesn’t happen.”
“And if it does? Will you still protect your brother?”
"Would putting Arak in prison bring them back?”
“Listen to you,” she said. “You’re always talking about justice. Justice for the innocent. Justice for all the Armenians slaughtered during the atrocities.”
“Don’t even begin to compare that situation with this one,” he said. “There’s no comparison. None.”
“Why? Because they’re Turks and you’re Armenian?”
This time Mihran could not suppress the wave of anger that over- took him.
“Nobody slaughtered innocent women and children last Sunday.” His angry voice filled the small apartment. “No one was tossed in a river or left to die in the desert. Words were exchanged. Things got out of hand. Way out of hand. I wish it had never happened. But it did.”
“Two people might die.” Teresa picked up their glasses. “I guess that qualifies as getting out of hand.”
She disappeared into the kitchen. Mihran sat quietly and listened to his words played back in his mind. It was the first time he has raised his voice to Teresa. Several minutes passed. He knew she was standing in front of the sink thinking, like he was, about what just happened.
“I’m sorry.” Teresa’s soft voice wafted from the kitchen. She returned empty handed and settled back onto the couch. “The whole story just kind of caught me off guard.”
“I’m sorry too,” Mihran said. “It’s been a difficult time.”
“How long does this go on?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Not much longer. A week. Maybe more.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Are you going to teach our children to hate Turkish children?”
It was a question too important to answer right away. As Mihran considered his response, he slowly became aware of other people in the room. There was an old man dressed in a billowing arkhaluk. He was stooping forward and had deep folds in his dark, leathery skin. Then the outline of a boy emerged. He carried a cloth sack over his shoulder. Then a young woman in a stained blue dress holding a small child in her arms. The visitors seemed to be watching him with great patience, as if they had all the time in the world.
“Hate is not a solution,” Mihran said. “But neither is forgetting.”
The banging on the front door thundered through the house. “My Lord.” Tarvez stepped into the living room holding the towel she had been using to dry the breakfast dishes.
“I’ll get it, Mom,” Mihran said.
He waited for his mother to return to the kitchen before moving to the side of the door and glancing through the front window. How hard would it be for the Turks to learn his name? And from there, a phone book or maybe just a few questions to the right people could lead them directly to this address. Through the narrow slit Mihran could see a man’s dark pant legs. From what he could tell, the man was alone.
The pounding started again. Mihran opened the door with cau- tion.
Anaforian, in uniform, barged into the room. “We got to talk.”
Mihran gestured Anaforian back onto the porch and closed the door behind them.
“The Turks are dead,” Anaforian said. “Happened early this morning. First the man, then his wife. About two hours apart.”
Mihran stood in place for several seconds while he struggled to process the message. The defenses he had constructed to keep this moment at bay came crashing down. He was adrift in an empty emo- tional space, at a loss for what to think or how to feel.
“Both of them, just this morning,” Anaforian said. “Gone.”
“Now what?” Mihran’s mouth was dry, his voice unsteady.
“Shit’s gonna fly,” Anaforian said. “After what happened to you the other day. And the damned Turks already talking to the newspaper. Where’s Arak?”
The question helped Mihran focus. “Probably at the farm. You know, picking season.”
“You better go tell him. Henry, too.”
“What happens now with the police?”
“I’m meeting Logan in half an hour,” Anaforian said. “He’s got to move fast. You know it will be in the Bee this afternoon. Shit’s gonna fly. You can bet your ass on that. Shit’s gonna fly.”
“What else?” Mihran asked. “Tell me what else I can do.”
Anaforian pointed a finger that stopped just short of Mihran’s chest. “Your testimony just got a lot more important. If I was you, I’d give that a lot of thought. I’d make sure I knew exactly what I wanted to say, and then I’d stick with it.”
Arak spent the morning working with Leon and two young farm- hands loading rolls of dried grapes into crates and onto the truck bed. He had always made a point of working with the farmhands. Pitching in not only assured that the job would be done correctly, it sent a message. Arak knew what hard work was, and he wasn’t above getting his hands dirty. The payoff was respect from the farmhands and their support and loyalty when he needed it.
Hirasuna had been the only farmer in the area with enough extra crates to replace the ones burned by the migrants. The old Jap knew he had Arak over a barrel and had insisted on thirty bucks for their use. The crates were filthy and splintering, probably ones Hirasuna had already replaced but hadn’t gotten around to burning himself.
When the last crate was loaded and the other farmhands moved on to their next chore, Leon stayed behind. He straightened a stack of frames, arranged and then rearranged some hand tools leaning up against the barn. Arak understood that Leon had something he wanted to say. He pretended to busy himself with something on the truck while he waited.
“Can I ask you a question?” Leon said after a few minutes had passed.
“Anything you want.”
“Them guys the other night. The Mexicans down at the pond. Do you know what happened to them?”
“You saw,” Arak said. “They got what they deserved. Don’t you think?”
“They sure did. But after we left. What then?”
“They’re gone, Leon.” Arak lifted and secured the tail gate. “Probably moved up north to start picking apples.”
“I heard they broke some bones.”
“I don’t know about that,” Arak said. “But they sure learned a lesson.”
“Right.” Leon shifted his weight back and forth from one foot to the other. “They learned a lesson.”
The conversation ended abruptly when Mihran drove up and bolted from the car.
“You weren’t at home or in your office,” Mihran said. “I tried calling.”
“Some of us work outside,” Arak said. “Even on a Saturday.”
“We have to talk,” Mihran said. “Alone.”
Arak signaled for Leon to stay where he was. He put a hand on his brother’s back and directed him back toward the car.
“What’s this all about?” Arak asked.
“The Turks, Arak. The man and the woman in the accident. They died.”
“This morning. Anaforian told me.”
“Did they ever recover? Did they say anything to the cops?”
“That’s not the point,” Mihran said. “Damn it, Arak. They’re dead."
“I heard you,” Arak said. “What do you expect me to say? I’m sorry? I am, you know. Sorry this happened. For whatever that’s worth.”
“This changes things,” Mihran said. “I didn’t think it would, but it does.”
“It changes nothing.”
“It’s more serious now.”
“Why?” Arak said. “Because a couple of Turks are dead? Seems to me that makes things a lot easier.”
“Now we’re talking about murder.”
“Who’s talking about murder? No one said anything about a mur- der.”
“The Turks did. That’s exactly what they told the newspaper.”
“Let them,” Arak said. “You heard Anaforian. A single-car accident. That’s not murder.”
“We’ve got to find Henry.”
“I’ll tell Henry when I see him.”
“We’ve got to talk about this,” Mihran said. “We’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do.”
“I already know what to do,” Arak said. “So does Henry. And so should you.”
Mihran called Teresa from a pay phone at the Atlantic Richfield station. He didn’t want to take a chance that his mother might over- hear the conversation.
Teresa responded to the news with silence.
“I just thought you ought to know,” he said after a while. “I suppose this raises the stakes.”
“I guess so.” More silence.
“See you in the morning?” Mihran said. “We’re still going to church, right?”
“Right,” Teresa said. “Church. Tomorrow morning.”
“I’ll come by around 9:30.”
The spot on the sidewalk normally reserved for the afternoon Bee
“When’s the paper get here?” Mihran called out to the Gideon.
“Pretty soon.” Gideon glanced at his watch and frowned. “They’re usually here a little early on Saturdays. You going to have your name in the newspaper?”
“Nothing like that.”
To keep his emotions in check, Mihran focused on the practical implications. Anaforian had said nothing about the man or his wife regaining consciousness or talking to the authorities. Logan would move quickly on the investigation, which meant Mihran would be talking with the detective soon. And then there were the Turks. What would they do now?
“What’d I tell you?” Gideon said.
A truck pulled up in front of the newsstand. A teenage boy tossed a stack of twine-bound newspapers through the open rear doors. The papers hit the sidewalk with a smack and skidded to a stop almost exactly in the spot Gideon had reserved for them. Mihran broke the string himself, grabbed a paper and left his nickel on the counter.
The story was on the front page, just below the fold:
Husband and Wife Die From Car Crash
But it was not the headline that captured Mihran’s attention. It was the photograph. Looking back at him from the front page of the newspaper were the faces of Emin and Hazan Aybar and their infant daughter. The picture appeared to have been taken at a professional studio. The young couple sat side-by-side dressed in their finest clothes. Their daughter wore a fluffy dress with lots of frills, the kind of thing a little girl might put on for Easter or Christmas. She smiled at the camera from the comfort of her mother’s lap. The girl’s name, the caption said, was Fidan.
Mihran tried to read the article, but he could not make sense of the words. He closed his eyes, but the picture remained. Fidan Aybar. A little girl with a heartwarming smile. No more than a toddler. And now, an orphan.