Although I too have gone to seed, the birds still prefer the sunflowers. In this world it is not enough to have a big head and limbs. There is an art to being stationary. The spiders, though, are tempted. So are the bees. The lacewings. The crane flies. The breeze. The crane flies. Whither, stranger, dost thou roam? Have you news from home? And he soars, and spins, and cries, like an echo . . .
The following story turns me inside-out every time I read it — first with laughter, then with tears. By now, I suppose I should know better, or at least see it coming, but the poetic reality of the piece is too powerful to resist. It might be wishful thinking on my part, but I think the broken-English narration and the accuracy of the characters and their observations make the tragedy that defines them the reader’s own — which it is, because we are all inextricably bound, whatever our background.
Farming is very hard. For us, the bad year is 1932. That year, something bad happen on our patch of watermelon.
In the morning, when we go out to see melons, we find here and there great big melon with holes in it, like somebody using piece of wire or toothpick. We don’t know what to do. Juice is everywhere. How do we fix?
Is strange. I ask my brother, Haig. He says, “Maybe is kids, fooling around.” I say, “Kids steal melons, not make holes. Make holes take too much time.” Then Haig says he don’t know. He rolls cigarette, goes to work, says, “I got to water the melons.”
Next day, we go out, and right away find more holes. I say to Haig, “Pretty soon, we have no melons.” Haig, he rolls cigarette. Poof, poof. He goes to work, says, “Is very hot today, I got to water the melons.”
So. Each day, problem is getting worse. Each day, Haig is rolling cigarette and putting more water on melons. I don’t know, does he care, is crazy, or what.
Finally, we start asking neighbors about sick melons. Torigian, is blind almost, says maybe needs manure. Setian, from Yozgat, says we got big problem with jackrabbits. Diran Gulian says, maybe ground is sick. Says, “Better to call farm advisor. Mr. Kennedy. He was born here. He will know.”
So, I call Mr. Kennedy. Next day, he comes. He drives nice car to the watermelons and stops. Right away, he finds bad melon. He looks on his knees, then stands up. He goes few feet, finds new melon, looks on his knees, stands up. He goes again. I follow. We go all over the field. Finally, I say to him, “Mr. Kennedy, what are these holes,” and he says back, “I don’t know, Mr. Torosian, I never seen nothing like it.” Babam. He should know. Why he is being paid?
Anyway. Pretty soon we see Haig. Haig is standing by ditch, holding shovel and poofing on cigarette. I say, “This is Mr. Kennedy. He says he don’t know what is wrong with melons.” Then, Haig says to Mr. Kennedy, “Maybe is some kind of bug. Spider, maybe, or grasshopper. I don’t know. Something.” But Mr. Kennedy, he laughs. He laughs and says no, he don’t think so, maybe is snake. “Snake!” I say. “You crazy, or what? What kind snake is going to make hole in watermelon?” And he says, “I don’t know,” and he laughs some more, like big jackass.
All the way to car, Mr. Kennedy is laughing. Then, he gets in car and says he is coming back in one week. I say what you going to do, and he says he is going to read book. “What?” I say. “What kind book? The melons are here, not in library.”
Anyway, he goes. Now, Haig is laughing. Says, “I know what we do. We pick all the bad melons, and take to Mr. Kennedy’s house.” Then he rolls cigarette.
Haig, he goes to work, holding his shovel. I don’t know. Maybe is crazy, all the time drowning the melons. Or, maybe is kids, fooling around. Maybe they come at night, the German boys from Grand View School, to make holes in nice, ripe Armenian melons. Who can tell? Am I born here? No. Yes Bitlis dznadz em. In Bitlis, we don’t see holes in melons.
So. Now is Fourth July. Price of watermelon is one cent. I go to see Armen Besoyan and tell him is time to pick, but we got problem. “What kind problem,” Besoyan says, and I say, “This year, we got holes.” “Holes,” Besoyan says, “what kind holes?” I tell him is holes like wire, or maybe is make some fork. I tell him, juice is coming out. Besoyan, now he laughs. “What,” he says. “What you mean, juice. Melons is wet?” I tell him wet spot is small, maybe nobody is going to see.
Now Besoyan, I don’t know he is worried, or maybe he thinks is big joke. “I ride to your place,” he says. “We look at melons together.”
So. We ride back. I show Besoyan the melons. Same as Mr. Kennedy, Besoyan is looking the melons. Pretty soon, he finds big melon, maybe is forty, fifty pounds, with holes. Is two holes. We walk some more. Then, we see Haig. Haig is turning the water, fixing the pipe so water is coming from big ditch to melons. Water is running down. Haig, he stops, he rolls cigarette, then shakes the hand of Armen Besoyan. Haig, Armen, say how is doing to each other, how the kids, the wife, is daughter get married to Levon Ketenjian from Fresno.
Finally I say to them is too hot, how about the melons.
“Is ripe,” Besoyan says. “Ready to pick.”
“Babam,” I say. “What about the holes.”
Besoyan says, is lots of holes.
I swear to him in Turkish. Then I say, “Yahvrum! Is lots of holes, but what is making?”
Besoyan says, is vampire.
Haig, is quiet.
I say, “Bela Lugosi? He is biting the watermelon?”
“No,” Besoyan says, “Vampire is Sarkis.”
I say to Besoyan, which Sarkis. Is Sarkis Tekijian, or Sarkis Setrakian, or, maybe is Sarkis Manoogian. He says no, is Sarkis. I say who Sarkis? Lulejian? Aharonian? Tufenkjian? Hatzakordzian? Basmadjian? and he says no, no, no, is only name. Sarkis. I go crazy. “Sarkis,” I say. “He is biting the watermelon. Is vampire. Is no other name.” Besoyan says, is so.
“Sarkis,” I say. “We don’t know?”
Haig, he rolls new cigarette. Is say nothing, only hold the shovel and look the water. Is hearing, I don’t know, or is think, or dreaming the old country.
Finally, I get mad. Is too quiet. I say to him, say something. Say, or I will kill with my bare hand.
Haig, is poof, poof, very sad, is say nothing.
Besoyan, he says, “Sarkis is ghost. Is dead.” Now, is talking whisper, says, “When he comes this country, is 1916. Is thirteen years old, so is learn to make shoes in factory in New York. Everybody else, mother, father, is killed by Turks. Sarkis, is hiding. He sees. Father, is hanging in the town, then they cut the head, and head is on the road, and father’s eyes still looking. So, Sarkis comes to New York. In New York, he works, then Sarkis gets letter from uncle, says, come to Fresno. Letter says, is good to live in Fresno, is grapes and figs, like old country. Is little money in letter, so, Sarkis goes. In Fresno, uncle sees Sarkis, right away sees is sick with the lungs, is going to die, one month, maybe two. Is weak, so uncle brings to him some small piece watermelon, and Sarkis cries because watermelon is so sweet, and is first sweet thing he finds in America. So. Each day is coming the uncle and giving Sarkis the watermelon. Each day, is Sarkis crying. Then, is blood, is fever, and death comes for Sarkis. The uncle takes Sarkis to cemetery, but Sarkis leaves cemetery. Now, is ghost. No father. No mother. No country. No happiness. Is only tears for Sarkis, and sweet taste of watermelon.”
Now, Besoyan is quiet.
Haig, is quiet.
I look at the heaven.
I look at the watermelons.
I say, “Poor Sarkis.”
I say to Besoyan, “My brother, you come tomorrow. You pick the melons. The melons with holes, we leave for Sarkis.”
And Besoyan, he goes home.
Haig, he rolls the cigarette.
Next year, where the melons are, we plant grapes.
After that, Sarkis, I don’t know.
Early Short Stories, 1996, 1997, 1998
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Categories: Early Short Stories
Tags: Armenia, Bela Lugosi, Broken English, Brothers, Early Short Stories, Genocide, Ghosts, Grand View School, History, Memory, Poems, Poetry, Poor Sarkis, Short Fiction, Short Stories, The San Joaquin Valley, Turkish, Vampires, Watermelons