public service announcement

December 22, 2005

Lucy Garoghlanian by William Saroyan

My grandmother came into the room and stared bitterly at everything, grumbling to herself and lifting a book off the table, opening it, studying the strange print and closing it with an angry and impatient bang, as if nothing in the world could be more ridiculous than a book.

I knew she wanted to talk, so I pretended to be asleep.

My grandmother is a greater lady than any lady I have ever had the honour of meeting, and she may even be the greatest lady alive in the past-seventy class for all I know, but I always say there is a time ad place for everything. They are always having baby contests in this crazy country, but I never heard of a grandmother contest, and I like her very much, but I wanted to sleep. She can’t read or write, but what of it? She knows more about life than John Dewey and George Santayana put together, and thats plenty. You could ask her what’s two timers two and she’d fly off the handle and tell you not to irritate her with childish questions, but she’s a genius just the same.

Forty years ago, she said, they asked this silly woman Oskan to tell about her visit to the village of Gultik and she got up and said, They have chickens there, and in calling the chickens they say, Chik chik chik. They have cows also, and very often the cows holler, Moo moo moo.

She was very angry about these remarks of the silly woman. She was remembering the old country and the old life, and I knew she would take up the story of her husband Melik in no time and begin to shout, so I sat up and smiled at her.

Is that all she had to say? I said. Chik chik chik and moo moo moo.

She was foolish, said my grandmother. I guess that’s why they sent her to school and taught her to read and write. Finally she married a man who was crippled in the left leg. One cripple deserves another, she said. Why aren’t you walking in the park on a day like this?

I thought I’d have a little afternoon nap, I said.

For the love of God, said my grandmother, my husband Melik was a man who rode a black horse through the hills and forests all day and half the night, drinking and singing. When the townspeople saw him coming they would run and hide. The wild Kourds of the desert trembled in his presence. I am ashamed of you, she said, lolling around among these silly books.

She lifted the first book that came to her hand, opened it, and stared with disgust at the print.

What is all this language here? She said.

That’s a very great book by a very great man, I said. Dostoyevsky he was called. He was a Russian.

Don’t tell me about the Russians, said my grandmother. What tricks they play on us. What does he say here?

Everything, I said. He says we must love our neighbours and be kind to the weak.

More lies, said my grandmother. Which tribe of the earth was king to our tribe? In the dead of winter he went to Stamboul.

Who? I said.

Melik, she shouted. My own husband, she said bitterly. Who else? Who else would dare to go that far in the dead of winter? I will bring you a bright shawl from Stamboul, he said. I will bring you a bracelet and a necklace. He was drunk of course, but he was my husband. I bore him seven children before he was killed. There would have been more if he hadn’t been killed, she groaned.

I have heard he was a cruel man, I said.

Who said such an unkind thing about my husband? said my grandmother. He was impatient with fools and weaklings, she said. You should try to be like this man.

I could use a horse all right, I said. I like drinking and singing too.

In this country? said my grandmother. Where could you go with a horse in this country?

I could go to the public library with a horse, I said.

And they’d lock you in jail, she said. Where would you tie the horse?

I would tie the horse to a tree, I said. There are six small trees in front of the public library.

Ride a horse in this country, she said, and they will put you down for a maniac.

They have already, I said. The libel is spreading like wildfire.

You don’t care? She said.

Not at all, I said. Why should I?

Is it true, perhaps? She said.

It is a foul lie, I said.

It is healthful to be disliked, said my grandmother. My husband Melik was hated by friend and enemy alike. Bitterly hated, and he knew it, and yet everybody pretended to like him. They were afraid of him, so they pretended to like him. Will you play a game of scambile? I have the cards.

She was lonely again, like a young girl.

I got up and sat across the table from her and lit a cigarette for her and one for myself. She shuffled and dealt three cards to me and three to herself and turned over the next card, and the game began.

Ten cents? She said.

Ten or fifteen, I said.

Fifteen then, but I play a much better game than you, she said.

I may be lucky, I said.

I do not believe in luck, she said, not even in card games. I believe in thinking and knowing what you are doing.

We talked and played and I lost three games to my grandmother. I paid her, only I gave her a half-dollar.

Is that what it comes to? She said.

It comes to a little less, I said.

You are not lying? She said.

I never lie, I said. It comes to forty-five cents. You owe me five cents.

Five pennies? She said.

Or one nickel, I said.

I have three pennies, she said. I will pay you three pennies now and owe you two.

Your arithmetic is improving, I said.

American money confuses me, she said, but you never heard of anyone cheating me, did you?

Never, I admitted.

They don’t dare, she said. I count the money piece by piece, and if someone is near by I have him count it for me too. There was this thief of a grocer in Hanford, she said. Dikranian. Three cents more he took. Six pounds of cheese. I had five different people count for me. Three cents more he has taken, they said. I waited a week and then went to his store again. For those three cents I took three packages of cigarettes. From a thief thieve and God will smile on you. I never enjoyed cigarettes as much as those I took from Dikranian. Five people counted for me. He thought I was an old woman. He thought he could do such a thing. I went back to the store and said not a word. Good morning, good morning. Lovely day, lovely day. A pound of rice, a pound of rice. He turned to get the rice, I took three packages of cigarettes.

Ha ha, said my grandmother. From thief thieve, and from above God will smile.

But you took too much, I said. You took fifteen times too much.

Fifteen times too much? Said my grandmother. He took three pennies, I took three packages of cigarettes, no more, no less.

Well, I said, it probably comes to the same thing anyway, but you don’t really believe God smiles when you steal from a thief, do you?

Of course I believe, said my grandmother. Isn’t it said in three different languages, Armenian, Kourdish, and Turkish?

She said the words in Kourdish and Turkish.

I wish I knew how to talk those languages, I said.

Kourdish, said my grandmother, is the language of the heart. Turkish is music. Turkish flows like a stream of wine, smooth and sweet and bright ion colour. Our tongue, she shouted, is a tongue of bitterness. We have tasted much of death and our tongue is heavy with hatred and anger. I have heard only one man who could speak our language as if it were the tongue of a God-like people.

Who was that man? I asked.

Melik, said my grandmother. My husband Melik. If he was sober, he spoke quietly, his voice rich and deep and gentle, and if he was drunk, he roared like a lion and you’d think God in Heaven was crying lamentations and oaths upon the tribes of the earth. No other man have I heard who could speak in this way, drunk or sober, not one, here or in the old country.

And when he laughed? I said.

When Melik laughed, said my grandmother, it was like an ocean of clear water leaping at the moon with delight.

I tell you, my grandmother would walk away with every silver loving cup and gold ribbon in the world.

Now she was angry, ferocious with the tragic poetry of her race.

And not one of you opegh-tsapegh brats are like him, she shouted. Only my son Vahan is a little like him, and after Vahan all the rest of you are strangers to me. This is my greatest grief.

Opegh-tsapegh is untranslatable. It means, somewhat, very haphazardly assembled, and when said of someone, it means he is no particular credit to the race of man. On the contrary, only another fool, someone to include in the census and forget. In short, everybody.

And when he cried? I said.

My husband was never known to weep, said my grandmother. When other men hid themselves in their houses and frightened their wives and children by weeping, my husband rode into the hills, drunk and cursing. If he wept in the hills, he wept alone. With only God to witness his weakness. He always came back, though, swearing louder than ever, and then I would put him to bed and sit over him, watching his face.

She sat down with a sigh and again stared bitterly around the room.

These books, she said. I don’t know what you expect to learn from books. What is in them? What do you expect to learn from reading?

I myself sometimes wonder, I said.

You have read them all? She said.

Some twice, some three times, I said. Some only a page here and there.

And what is their message?

Nothing much, I said. Sometimes there is brightness and laughter or maybe the opposite, gloom and anger. Not often, though.

Well, said my grandmother, the ones who were taught to read and write were always the silliest and they made the worst wives. This soft-brained Oskan went to school, and when she got up to speak all she could say was, They have chickens there, and in calling the chickens they say, Chik chik chik. Is that wisdom?

That’s innocence, I said in English.

I cannot understand such an absurd language, she said.

It is a splendid language, I said.

That is because you were born here and can speak no other language, no Turkish, no Kourdish, not one word of Arabic.

No, I said, it is because this is the language Shakespeare spoke and wrote.

Shakespeare? Said my grandmother. Who is he?

He is the greatest poet the world has ever known, I said.

Nonsense, said my grandmother. There was a traveling minstrel who came to our city when I was a girl of twelve. This man was as ugly as Satan, but he could recite poetry in six different languages, all day and all night, and not one word of it written, not one word of it memorized, every line of it made up while he stood before the people, reciting. They called him Crazy Markos and people gave him small coins for reciting and the more coins they gave him the drunker he got and the drunker he got the more beautiful the poems he recited.

Well, I said, each country and race and time has its own kind of poet and its own understanding of poetry. The English poets wrote and your poets recited.

But if they were poets, said my grandmother, why did they write? A poet lives to sing. Were they afraid a good thing would be lost and forgotten? Why do they write each of their thoughts? Are they afraid something will be lost?

I guess so, I said.

Do you want something to eat? Said my grandmother. I have cabbage soup and bread.

I’m not hungry, I said.

Are you going out again to-night? She said.

Yes, I said. There is an important meeting of philosophers in the city to-night. I have been invited to listen and learn.

Why don’t you stop all this nonsense? She said.

This isn’t nonsense, I said. These philosophers are going to explain how we can make this world a better place, a heaven on earth.

It is nonsense, said my grandmother. This place is the same place all men have known, and it is anything you like.

That’s bourgeois talk, I said in English.

These philosophers, I said in Armenian, are worrying about the poor. They want the wealth of the rich to be shared with the poor. That way they claim everything will be straightened out and everybody will be happy.

Everybody is poor, said my grandmother. The richest man in the world is no less poor than the poorest. All over the world there is poverty of spirit. I never saw such miserliness in people. Give them all the money in the world and they’ll still be poor. That’s something between themselves and God.

They don’t believe in God, I said.

Whether they believe or not, said my grandmother, it is still a matter between themselves and God. I don’t believe in evil, but does that mean evil does not exist?

Well, I said, I’m going anyway, just to hear what they have to say/

Then I must be in the house alone? She said.

Go to as movie, I said. You know how to get to the neighborhood theatre. It’s not far. There is a nice picture to-night.

Alone? Said my grandmother. I wouldn’t think of it.

To-morrow, I said, we will go together. To-night you can listen to the radio. I will come home early.

Have you no books with pictures?

Of course, I said.

I handed her a book called The Life of Queen Victoria, full of pictures of that nice old lady.

You will like this lady, I said. She was Queen of England, but she is now dead. The book is full of pictures, from birth to death.

Ah, said my grandmother looking at an early picture of the Queen. She was a beautiful girl. Ahkh, ahkh, alas, alas, for the good who are dead, and my grandmother went down the hall to the kitchen.

I got out of my old clothes and jumped under a warm shower. The water was refreshing to the skin and I began to sing.

I put on fresh clothes and a dark suit. I went into the kitchen and kiss my grandmother’s hand, then left the house. She stood at the front window, looking down at me.

Then she lifted the window and stuck her head out.

Boy, she shouted. Don’t be so serious. Get a little drunk.

O.K., I said.

Part II of ‘The Living and the Dead’ Three Times Three, 1936