I guess, you know,

December 31, 2005

Hovagim Saroyan

I remember staying overnight at your vineyard on the north side of Fresno, to which my brother Henry and I traveled with you in a carriage drawn by an old horse. I know the distance from our house at 2226 San Benito Avenue to your vineyard was only four miles, as I have made the journey recently several times, but it seemed to us a far greater distance.

Henry and I sat in the back like passengers, and you sat on the higher seat up front, none of us speaking, perhaps because your language was Armenian and ours was English, although we could speak Armenian, too. But mainly we were not speaking because we were glad to be together, traveling. It was late in the afternoon of a hot day, and you came to our house and said to our mother, “Takoohi, let me take the boys to the ranch, I will take them jackrabbit shooting, we will have supper, we will listen to old country records, and I will bring them back tomorrow in time for church. I don’t want to ride home alone.” And my mother said. “Hovagim, if you want them to go with you, take them.” And so we went.

It was 1917, exactly five years ago, perhaps this very same month, July, and you were alone out there on the vineyard. Your wife and two sons were in Bitlis or near there or far from there, if they weren’t dead, if they hadn’t been killed, or hadn’t died of hunger and thirst on the long march from Bitlis to the desert which so many others made and in which so many died. But even if they were alive, you hadn’t heard from them or from anybody who had seen them. Perhaps the boys were alive, but didn’t know who they were, having been too little to remember, having been taken to an orphanage and given new names.

I used to know you were alone, even before I heard about what had happened, heard my mother telling somebody.

You came to America, to work, to send money to your wife, so she and your sons could come, too, but it didn’t work out that way. You sent money and letters, and your wife replied, and then she didn’t reply, and a whole year went by, and then another whole year went by, and you didn’t know what had happened. You had an idea, but you didn’t know for sure. You were alone everywhere I saw you, even in the Arax Coffee House full of card players. I knew you were alone the first time I saw you sitting in our parlor sipping a cup of coffee, so when you said, “I don’t want to go home alone,” I knew what you were talking about, the way a small boy will know such a thing and never be able to talk about it.

Riding in the back of your carriage, on our way to your vineyard and your little house there, I kept wondering what it was that had most made you alone, and I thought it must be from not having your father with you, because that’s how we think, I guess, out of what is true for each of us, out of whatever each of us knows that makes us alone. Your father and my mother’s father were brothers, and I knew my mother’s father had died in Bitlis and, dying, had said to my mother’s mother, “Get the family out of here, leave this place, go anywhere else, but do not stay here any longer, go to America if you can manage.”

And of course she did manage, although it wasn’t easy: the people who control the papers and the rubber stamps had to be bribed with gold one by one, and then transportation had to be paid for, first by donkey train over high mountains along narrow roads from Bitlis to Erzeroum, where my brother Henry was born in 1905, and from Erzeroum to Trabizon, where a ship carried them to Constantinople, and then to Marseilles, where they all; had to work to raise money for the train ride across France to Le Havre, where again they had to work until there was enough money to put everybody on the ship that sailed to New York — a long crossing, far below in the ship, in steerage, where hundreds of families prepared their own meals and made sleeping places on the floor, followed at least by the fear and terror of Ellis Island. Everybody was “bono” except Lucy, my mother’s mother herself, and somebody with a rubber stamp said she would have to go back to Bitlis. The whole family went mad. The situation was unbelievable for hours, in which the heard died in everybody, and the old woman, then scarcely forty years of age, said, “Do not despair. God will put forth his hand.” And the next day her eyes were examined again, and almost as if it meant nothing, nothing at all, somebody else with a rubber stamp stamped her papers and said, “Bono.” And thus the family was not deprived of its force, authority, intelligence, wisdom, and faith.

What had made you so alone? I kept wondering what had made us all so alone, even when many of us were together, and what it was, I felt, was at least partly the people with the power, with the paper, with the rubber stamps, the enforcers of the rules and regulations, a whole world full of such people. They scare a man. They are killers.

After we finally arrived at your vineyard you took us to your cow and milked her and invited us to drink fresh milk. It was warm and seemed all right, but an hour later, while we were out jackrabbit hunting, we both threw up. We saw a couple of the big loping jackrabbits but they were too far away to shoot, and then we came back to your little shack house, and you served us a good dinner of stuffed tomatoes, bell peppers, and cucumbers, with flat bread and yogurt. Ad then we sat down in your parlor while you played Armenian records on the wind-up phonograph. The music was proud, beautiful, and lonely. And then we both began to fall asleep and you took us to our beds.

Hovagim, sleeping in your house was something I couldn’t understand when I woke up in the morning. There was a smell of sorrow and loneliness in my nostrils, and I couldn’t remember where I was, but I knew I wasn’t in my own bed in my own home. And then I remembered, I was at Hovagim’s house. I got dressed and went out and ate figs straight from the big tree, and them my brother Harry came out, and he ate some figs, too. And he said, “It feels funny sleeping on somebody else’s house, doesn’t it?” And I said, “Did you feel it, too?”

Pretty soon we saw you coming from tour ditch where you had been guiding water to your vines, and you said in English, “All right, boys, now we eat.” And you fixed us tea and fried dough, or new bread, into which we stuffed white cheese, and we ate boiled eggs and slices of dried beef, and lots of parsley and mint and fresh tomatoes and cucumbers sliced lengthwise.

And then you harnessed the hold horse to the carriage ad we set out for home. That’s all, Hovagim. But it was one of the great experiences of my life, don’t ask me why. It just was. I guess it was your kindness and aloneness. It certainly wasn’t the milk fresh from the cow — that stuff’s poison.

I saw you around town for a couple more years, and then all it was was a matter of remembering.

I hope both of the boys got out of it alive, even if they lost their names, because under any name I think they would be O.K.