PROLOGUE

At the heart of a story like this, The Kurd told me, there should be love—a man and woman, or friends, two people, anyway, who, amid the destruction, find in each other what may be worth dying for, what may even require it. As the city burns, imagine them at the kitchen table with cups of coffee, an atom of intimacy in a galaxy of waste. Watching the ashes drift, they might still speak of another life in another place, certain that if such goodness between two people were possible then all was not lost, even if all might be destroyed.


7.  Our dog Pierre, a black French poodle, came to us from a wealthy acquaintance of my father ( we learned a little later, Dad had also borrowed money from him). He was well behaved and groomed in the shape of an hourglass but after only a few months he resembled a bushy sheep. From empty fields we trekked through he got thistles and thorns and fleas. Every few months we’d dump some laundry detergent on him and hose him down for a shower. When we camped out in the backyard in the summer, Pierre slept between us, a kid brother. My brother and I would fight over who loved him best: He’s my dog, I’d tell him; He’s my dog, he’d tell me.

 

A year after we got Pierre, my dad told us that the owner wanted him back; “The bastard,” my father muttered, “over a few lousy bucks.” The next evening, the man rolled up in a big car. My dad slipped a finger beneath Pierre’s collar and dragged him outside. I heard the two men exchange words. Then my dad walked back in the house with Pierre.

“He’s yours for keeps.”

We cheered, and jumped on Pierre: “Thanks Dad!”

My mom came out from the bedroom, where the shame of our family debt had sent her.

“What’s happening?”

“I’ll be frank with you all. The guy took one look and kinda choked; I guess ol’ Pierre is so shabby looking he don’t want no part of him anymore.”

 

We must’ve had Pierre two three years before he got sick. His poop was the color of charcoal and the back porch was crisscrossed with bloody skid marks. His stopped eating his dog food.   Lying there on his side he’d take us in with an eye and sigh. He seemed to be saying, “Help.” At night he howled. So that he wouldn’t wake the neighbors, it got so that we had to shove him in the garage at night, what we’d nicknamed “the dungeon.” Come morning we’d run out to fetch him from “the dungeon.” Pierre, Pierre, we’d sadly sing. He’d meet us at the door, his tail wagging barely, shivering all over.

 

It was a Saturday morning when we found him dead in “the dungeon.” My dad came out of the house to make sure. We cried~~our world would never be the same without Pierre. We grabbed a couple of shovels, and start digging next to the fig tree. We planned to go six feet, but stopped at three, plenty deep, it seemed. Now we had to get Pierre, still in the dungeon into the hole. My brother said he’d do it.  I was relieved because I didn’t know if I had what it took to carry his corpse. When he stepped out of the garage with dead Pierre in his arms, I was in awe of my brother’s courage. He dropped Pierre in and we start shoveling. When the dirt reached our feet, we packed it all down with the shovel’s flat side, and out of two sticks and twine, we made a cross and drove it into the ground.

I asked our Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Chamichian, where animals go after they die.

“Since they have no souls,” she said; “nowhere.”

“Even dogs?” I asked.

“Yes.”

Did this mean that I’d never see Pierre again?

“No. But you will see your grandparents, and uncles and aunts.”

When we got home, my brother and I yanked out the cross above Pierre’s grave. Since he had no soul we were afraid it was a sin to leave it there.  After the winter rain, I thought, after all the earth gets churned, there will be no spotting Pierre’s grave. The seasons will erase his resting place. After we are gone, nobody will know he is there. All we’ll be able tell the next set of kids is, “Pierre, our dog, is buried beneath the fig tree.” But who knows whether they’ll believe us, no matter what we say, what matter what history we leave behind. Who knows whether they’ll even care?

 

8.  Around age ten, we got real guns for Christmas; a revolutionary addition to our arsenal, which up until then was confined to slingshots. From a small cylindrical carton we’d pour BBs into the barrel’s spout and with just a few ratchets of the handle the gun would get pregnant with enough pressure to kill.  Its like we were sorcerers, the guns our magic wands, and the bb’s our evil spells.  We would strike things down from a world away.

 

Sparrows were all over the yard. From one branch to the next we’d watch them hop, their tidy little bodies turning this way, then that. The first one I shot fell from the tree and hit the ground like an overripe peach. We hardly found a mark on the bird; only a bead of blood swelled from its breast. I was disappointed: I expected something more dramatic. It hardly seemed worth it. Outside of its twiggy legs, politely folded up against its chest, it was unremarkable, common looking as the dirt upon which it lay. After turning it over and studying it’s every feature, we buried the sparrow. Above us, in the trees, dozens of its fellows were busy doing whatever it was that birds do. Strange how they hardly noticed when one of their own was gone.

 

9.  On TV, the Vietnam was on. It was part of our lives, like the San Francisco Giants, except the war respected no season. They showed bodies lying in a field, or in a ditch. It was always raining, and looked very far away.

“What a shame,” my Dad said.

When they posted that day’s score, it was never close: we always killed twice as many as they killed. I kept waiting for the Americans to win. In any game I played, either time ran out or there were no more pieces on the board. How else did you decide when the game is over?

 

10.  Up from our house the miser Madame Hovanessian, who handed out walnuts for Halloween, lived. Her stockings, the color of rubber bands, gathered in rings round fat ankles, and she had several wiry whiskers sprouting from her chin. Three stubby palm trees where pigeons, plump as cantaloupes, roosted ran alongside her driveway, and even though you couldn’t see them, the whole crown of the tree boiled with their voices. We’d gather rocks on our way home from school and from the alleyway we’d sling them into the fronds. After a week of trying, not only had we failed to kill a pigeon, not a single one even flew away in fright. Only their warbling suddenly stopped. One second the air was full of their voices, and the next second it was dead quiet, just like when a teacher suddenly hollers at a classroom of kids. After a while, we couldn’t care less if we killed the pigeons. This was another kind of game. Silencing them.

 

 


1. My brother and I loved to torture and kill things when we were kids. With a pair scissors we’d snip off the wings of butterflies and moths until only their stubby bodies were left. With the same scissors, we’d bring the “praying mantis” to its knees, its little body flopping forward from the sudden loss of its big head. Someone told us that caterpillars and worms grew back the part you lopped off. We tested one after another until lay scattered on the dirt like cigarette butts. Who would have guessed that with a sprinkle of salt a snail would bubble up and melt like the Wicked-Witch-of-the-West? In the summer, when you could cook an egg on the sidewalk from the heat, we’d take a magnifying glass and steady its pinpoint beam over ants. Smoke would rise as their little bodies shriveled up. Our backyard in Fresno, in old Armenian town, was chock full of fruit trees. Birds found it a good place for putting up their nests. We had Easter egg hunts all Spring long.

2. There is a Polaroid of us standing at the end of a walkway that stretches to the front porch of our house. We look just shy of school age, four and five years old. Shadows stretch from our feet, and on the curb in back of us a black Buick is parked. We wear tidy white shirts buttoned to the neck, roomy shorts, ankle length socks and shiny dress shoes. Our hair glistens as though a wet comb has just been run through it, and we are standing at attention with toy army rifles at our sides. My best guess is that we were on our way to Church, and with a few minute to spare our mother probably thought “how cute” and ran in to get the camera. We in turn fetched the rifles. Go ahead, mom—- you shoot first.

3. I felt sorry for the Jews, enslaved to the Egyptians that way, but I felt pretty bad for their enemies too. First, you had the flood; then the Tower of Babel. The people of Canaan and Bethel were all slaughtered, but worst of all is what happened to the citizens of Sodom: burned alive. When the Jews took a city, they even killed the animals, cows and goats and pigs, as though they had something to do with it. There were so many wars and killings I couldn’t keep track of them. Our Sunday school teacher taught us: “Thou shalt not kill,” and then we sang songs about the people in Jericho getting buried alive.

I was happy when Jesus came around. He didn’t kill anybody. Only himself, sort of.

4. Why were people afraid to die if they were close to God? The bible said they were going to the bosom of God. How many people could fit in one bosom? Maybe they were scared they’d suffocate in there.

5. On Thursday nights, we watched Wild Kingdom. Marlin Perkins was the fearless host of that show. He bravely stalked savage animals, all in order to give us a window onto their world. Sometimes he would show how beautiful the wild was; a field of Flamingos, all on one leg; antelope coursing over the plains like a river; giraffe with necks long as palm trees loping into the horizon where the setting sun was colossal and turned the whole sky blazing pink. Mostly, though, these were backdrops for what we all wanted to see: one animal killing another. I remember the lion waiting in the grass, crouched. How, low to the ground and with stupendous patience it crept and suddenly bolted. It pounced on the gazelle, went for its throat, and within minutes the bucking and kicking stopped, and all on the Serengeti was calm. Then it began feeding, remorselessly. The way it calmly stared at the camera, its muzzle all covered with blood, left no doubt: it had done what it had done, and it had the right.

6. Murder: when someone bad kills someone good.

Capital Punishment: what they do to murderers where the president lives.

Massacre: when a whole bunch of people gets killed at the same time.

Genocide: what they did to the Armenians.

Slaughter: what they do to animals (or people who they think are animals).

Execute: when someone shocks you to death

Suicide: when you kill yourself.

And now what happened to Robert Kennedy—-assassination: killing someone important.

It was in the newspaper, a picture of a man cradling Kennedy’s head in his arms. It reminded me of the way the Virgin cradled Jesus when he was pulled off the cross. A dark cloud descended over the whole school. The Mexican kids were so upset you’d think they were relatives of Kennedy. Some of the girls cried on their desks. Later, I learned that they like Kennedy were Catholic—all of them went to Catechism.

“The Kennedy family is cursed. I feel bad for Jackie,” my mom said.

Dad said the Kennedy family, way back, made their money “bootlegging liquor.” It had to do with how every bad thing you do eventually comes back to get you.  Martin Luther King died the same year on a balcony. King was the one who told us “I have a dream.” His face was child like, but his voice was big as a river. Even my dad said, “He was a good man, King.”

I’d barely heard of Robert Kennedy or King before they were assassinated. Now everybody talked about them. I was amazed at how important people became after they died. I thought it was unfair that they should become famous without being around to appreciate it.  My dad said it always went that way.

“Not only that,” he added, “but the meanest people live the longest.”

He named a few of the meanest people he knew, and said that they had strong “constitutions.”

Just like America, I thought.