Friday, May 16, 2014

The Tallest Portuguese in the City

Some fiction for a change:

When you wait at the Sasoonsi David Station, you don’t have to wait long; the trains north to Tbilisi originate there. The platform is like all Soviet platforms. It’s very long and rusted. There are hulks of old trains taken off the tracks that are set back in the distance. The sun sets over there, behind those trains. Their Cyrillic letters are flaking off, gold in the setting sun. A ж like a rusted snowflake, about to fall. On the platform, everyone is speaking Armenian, but as soon as you get on the train, it’s all Russian. Everyone on the train is Armenian, but they’ve put themselves in an international context by getting on the train. Mellifluous Armenian, spoken mostly in the front of them mouth, turns and hides in back-of-the-throat Russian. The train crackles with the sound of spreading newspaper, no one is reading; it’s food being opened. The newspaper speaks a language of its own.

Back outside the station, a man is shopping in the stalls. He is looking for a small bottle of Avshar vodka. No one in the market has the smaller bottles. The bottles they have are all liter-sized. There is a picture of a wolf on the Avshar bottle: a huge gray wolf. The man stands there considering the liter-size. The woman at the stall scowls at him and clucks her tongue. There are a few small snowflakes in the sky that are almost impossible to distinguish from far-off stars, until they are right on top of you. I was sitting there watching them when I noticed the man at the stall. He stuck me as interesting. Let me explain to you why I felt this way.

I have lived my whole life in Yerevan. I grew up in a large apartment only eight blocks from the hospital where I was born in the Komitas area. My father named me Artashes, after the great fighter and my grandfather who lived with us. It had not, nor has it ever been the tradition of Armenians to put on airs and give their children Russian names. All the Yuris I grew up with were Russian. All the Tigrans were Armenian. That’s how you knew who was who.

I was born shortly after the Soviet takeover. Well, maybe about 15 years after, but, relatively soon anyway. When I was born, our once Oriental city with its camels, souks and beautiful Armenian script had already been modernized. The poor place has never really recovered.

My dear city! The pictures I have seen of her in the past are so mysterious and ancient. It looks like Ur or a Pataliputra. The Russians built the metro, but they turned our ancient city into an airport, only the pink tufa stone says anything. Where once the whole city whispered and swore it now only mutters and it is only the tufa that mutters. I can’t understand anything it says. It speaks Turkish, don’t ask me why. Ottoman masons, I guess.

My cousin and I used to tell our parents we were going to watch a parade and we would take a marshutki to the square and pilfer sujuk from the stalls even though we could get whatever we wanted at home. We weren’t bad kids; only testing the limits of our world. It was around that time that I first began to hear the city speaking.

At night, back then, the city still spoke in an Old Armenian, like what they spoke in church. I didn’t understand it and sometimes it scared me. It reminded me of my neighbor, an old man who had had a stroke. I would give my liver to hear that sound again now. Anything would be better than the braying of these damn Turk rocks.

When I finished school, I took a job as a taxi driver. I don’t think they were called taxis back then but I can’t remember what we used to call them. Something beautiful.
There are lots of words I can’t remember anymore. Too many tongues have named the same things over and over. All I hear is babble.

By now, you’ve understood what it is with me. I hear things. I don’t know if any of them are right or if they mean anything. I might be crazy, but if I’m crazy I never bothered anyone so my craziness isn’t the bad kind of crazy. I’m only crazy to myself.

But the night I heard the young man trying to buy the vodka outside the train station, I had to do something. I’ve heard lots of things that I haven’t understood in languages I couldn’t identify. Mostly, the languages come from things, old things and old places, but they can come from people, too. The speaking doesn’t actually come from the mouths of the people, it just emanate out of people who are usually confused or thinking very hard about something. There are some people, I can’t explain it, that have terrible looks on their faces, but the speaking that comes from them is completely euphonious. I have gone and looked up all these words about pretty-sounding voices; none of them are right, of course, but they are the best available. There are no words for the sound a bad copy of a Modigliani made one night in the Vernishage market when I was about fourteen. Or the things I heard the tanks singing when they rolled out in ’89. They sung, they sung like they must’ve been Portuguese and in love and drinking wine in the highest apartment in the city wriggling their toes out the window and they were tanks, hulking, looming, blasting tanks!

I used to hear some interesting things at the Sasoonsi David station. Back in the 70s I saw a Yezdi grandfather speaking the strangest language I’ve ever heard: Cuneiform. I thought he was clucking like a hen but he was speaking Cuneiform. Another time an anxious young mother from the Gegharkunik region was reciting a Zoroastrian prayer. God knows where she got that from! Other things have happened there too. I once heard someone’s market bag singing a popular Russian song at the time and a week after New Year’s Day, every year at about 6 o’clock, the bricks in the plaza sing a Tango in Spanish, something about fireflies watching us pass by or something.

I was there that winter evening waiting for the bricks to start singing like they did every year, but for some reason, it wasn’t happening. It was getting later and later and I was getting colder and colder. I knew my family would be worried. For some reason, my son is very nervous. I don’t remember ever meeting anyone as nervous as him. He worries so much there’s always this high squealing sound around him. I try not to make him worry, but dammit, I hate sitting around inside all day, or on the bench in front of the old building with all the other senile old fools. I might be crazy, but I’m not senile.

So, I didn’t want to make my son worry and I was starting to feel like I was going to freeze to the bench. I decided I would smoke one last cigarette and go. Sometimes cigarettes will say some interesting things, but it depends on the brand. I was about to light the thing when I heard every language at once. I know you can’t understand what I mean and I’m not even going to try to explain it to you. I’ll only repeat myself. I heard every language at once. You decide what it means.

I turned my head immediately in the direction of this newly erected Tower of Babel to find myself looking at one of the most foolish young men I have ever seen. The young man try to buy vodka had about two weeks of brownish beard growth, the hem of his blue underwear was sticking out and I could see that there was an obvious hole in the heel of his boot. He looked like a too-young version of an old drunk. What made it worse (and also much funnier) was that he was, actually, drunk. Very drunk, in fact. Oh, he could stand and all and he even ordered his vodka from the crone at the stall without a slur. But, great god, if you could hear the everylanguage that spilled out of him, a million voices, a billion accents saying a trillion things and every single one of them blind drunk! An old Avar woman talking about cooking the kidneys (I don’t know what animal), a Tamil saying something about his new shoes, something about armadillos in Guarani, “where is my 90 grams of marble?” a raspy voice asked in Maltenglish and a British voice swilled some nonsensical words of Mandarin around and then seemed to spit them out. “Sunglasses no!” the Mandarin from Leeds seemed to be repeating.

This and a galaxy of other voices. Of course no one else noticed. They never do. I listened enraptured. I looked up at the statue of David of Sasoon that sits on the plaza. I don’t know. I guess expected the bronze giant to tilt his head a little, but he was as still as ever. Was it possible that no one else noticed this man? Was it possible that every language could be spoken at once and the world not fall apart? How was it that no one else even felt the slightest difference? David remained immortalized on his horse as impassive as ever. Meanwhile the cloud of voices, of time, of sorrow, lost teeth and belches and sour imprecations moved further away from me toward the station. The young man had bought his vodka and was heading to his train. A woman’s voice yelled out from him “What the hell’s a walrus? in a Pittsburgh-accented American English and a thirteen year old said “It is and has always been!” in Tok Pisin.

I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t let this strange man and this wonderful event go. I had to follow him and at least to ask him if he knew that every language ever spoken was swirling around him like a cloud. I had to know what if there was anything to this dull and sloppy-looking kid, or if perhaps it was his extraordinary mundane quality that created this most incredible sound.

Before I heard this young man, I had never heard more than a cheap riddle in Arabic out of a drunk and even that was more of a limerick. I won’t repeat it here. As a rule, their bottles tend to say much more than the drunks themselves do.

Before getting up, I had to admit to myself that perhaps it was possible that I had finally become the other kind of crazy: the crazy that bothers people. “Well,” I thought, “as long as I am crazy in this way, I should act like it.” After all, if you are the kind of crazy that bothers people it is better to bother people. You should never hold anything in.

I got up to follow the young man, through all the voices, I could hear his boot heel flapping on the street. “Yeah, well why the hell don’t you take a swim?” a voice shouted out in Igbo and then made a sound like “oof!” The man was going to the train station. I knew he was going to get on a train. He was exactly drunk enough to be getting on a train.

“That’s not enough beans!” an incredibly raspy voice called out from the drunk in the Nam language as he opened the doors and disappeared behind them.

I bought a little green ticket. The price hadn’t changed much since I’d been on a train in ’81. I didn’t have to hurry to the platform, I could hear the drunken voices better than ever. The closer the man got to the train, the happier and drunker they began to sound. At least 24,000 of the voices were now singing. 16,000 songs about love, 2,400 patriotic songs, 900 people singing unintelligibly in languages that weren’t their own. A Russian sang about his brother. A Qutian sang about his mountains and a Hmong girl, about twelve, quietly made up the lyrics as she went. That Hmong was sad; she shouldn’t have been drunk so young, but from the words, I understood why she was.

I got a seat next to the young man so I could listen better. I was worried that after he got on the train he would sleep. It was cold and dark and he’d been drinking heavily. It also must’ve taken at least some of his energy to keep all those voices going, even if he wasn’t aware of them. I assumed that if he went to sleep, the voices would stop. I had never heard that voices come from anything that wasn’t awake. Person or thing, they all slept and when they did the voices quieted.
I had nothing to worry about. The young man had drunk the magic amount of vodka. He was energized, but not so drunk that he would pass out, at least not yet. After the train began to move from the station, he took about a notepad and began to write what looked like a letter. He wrote furiously and as he did so, the voices grew querulous again. Some of them were beginning to sound much drunker. About 1/3 of the voices weren’t making any sense.

It’s not in my nature to be discrete. I don’t believe in it, too sneaky. If you want to stare at someone, you take a good damn gawk or you’re never going to be satisfied, you’ll always be wondering about things, but forever hiding your face. I never attempted to hide anything from this young man. I sat right across from him and craned my body as much as possible on my seat to face him directly. I all but shook my damn eyebrows in his face. My breath stirred the pages of his notepad. He never once looked up or paid me the slightest bit of attention. The conductors seemed to think that I was the unusual one. Asking if I were alright when they came for my ticket. Alright? Alright? How could I have been alright with what I heard? If they heard the 1/100,000 part of what I did they probably would’ve been hauled off to the nut house. I can only say that it was good that I had had my whole life to prepare for the moment. I don’t know how, but I managed to keep my sanity over the course of that long night. The things I heard and the places I heard them from. I am still sorting them out! My brain will be processing them until the moment I die and if I lived to be a thousand it would never finish.

Around the time that we had gotten to Kirovaqan, or whatever they call it now, the young man had filled about 10 illegible pages with his furious writing. You’d think he was trying to write down the voices from the feverish way that he scribbled and stabbed at his notepad. I tried once or twice to glance at his notebook but could make nothing out. It looked like upside-down Amharic.

He was still awake when we reached the border. I kept waiting for my opportunity to talk to him, but he never looked up at me. Never took his eyes of his writing, not even to take drinks from his Avshar bottle(which he tried to hide in his coat; embarrassingly, the neck of the bottle kept slipping out and spilling.) I was also afraid that if I did talk to him, I wouldn’t be able to hear his voice above the roar of the everylanguage around him and that I would stammer and look foolish. I couldn’t decide if I should venerate the scruffy young drunk or pity him.

Just on the other side of the border, after the border guards had checked the train for the nothing that is always on it and had taken our passports and stamped them with the blue stamp in the flying bird-shape of Georgia, the man began to drift asleep. As he did so, the voices too began to drop off. I heard Mongolian protests, vomiting sounds and Melanesian crying. By the time we were in Rustavi there were only a few voices left. One of them had an echoing, sober quality to it, like a voice that was having a quiet cup of coffee in a dark kitchen after being awake all night. I listened to this voice read things off the paper for a while and gradually I began to realize that this voice was speaking my own language, even my own dialect. The paper rattled and it said something else, something about the news. I recognized the opinion and then I recognized the voice: it was my own. I was one of the voices inside the man. Then I did something I had never done before: I spoke to the voice.

“Artashes?” I asked, not expecting to be answered, but unable to believe that I could ever ignore myself. The voice stopped for a while and I thought I had lost it. The young man was asleep; he had dropped his passport book on the floor. I leaned over and picked it up and set it on top of him. As I did so, I heard my own voice come from the young man’s chest, right where I placed his passport. “Poor reading, it said.”

“Artashes!” I cried out to myself. After a life of listening to the voices emanating from wire spools, basinets and old piano keys, none of them had ever spoken to me. Never had a personal word been spoken. The voice yelled my name back. It seemed to recognize me. I called back out to it. “How did you get in there?” I asked and then a funny thing happened. My voice responded in my language, but I no longer understood what it said. Like a beginning student of a language, I was only able to catch about 20% of the sentence. I heard. “I”, “always” and what I think was “dust” although it could’ve been “shoe” (in my language they’re pretty similar). Then I lost the voice completely. It kept talking, but all I heard was the sound. There was no sense in it anymore.

When the train pulled into the Tbilisi station, I didn’t wake the young man, I decided it would be best to let him sleep. The voices in him were silent. I walked off the train and out into the plaza. There was a big market that day and the mandarin oranges that come from the Black Sea coast were everywhere. I bought a bag of them from a vendor using hand signals; I didn’t even feel I could speak in Russian at that moment. I understood nothing around me. Mingrelian, Georgian, Armenian, Azeri: it all had the same torpid sound like a muffled washing machine. Walking down the street, I ripped the mandarin peels off and dropped them in the street. Snow had fallen during the night and seemed to mute even the obstreperous train station. The only thing I could hear was the soft cottony plash of the peels hitting the snow. I walked until I finished the bag and then I flung the thing into the street. Even the taxis weren’t making any noise. The silence was making me feel colder. I would’ve been happy even to hear the tufa back in Yerevan speaking Turkish again.

The snow was coming down much harder than it had been in Yerevan. I decided to go look for an Armenian church to go into to get out of the snow. I couldn’t find one so I had to go into one of the Georgian’s Russian-looking cathedrals. Everything in there was gold and there were icons burning, about ten per wall. I looked at them for a moment. There was one of Mariam. She had eyes like olive pits and fingers like grape vines. “Mariam jan,” I started to say, but then stopped, unsure. I smelled vodka not vodka, but vodka sweat. I turned around and there was the awkward young man with the beard. He was starting at the Mariam with his hat clutched nervously in his hand. There were no voices coming from him, but I could hear something like a river washing over its banks. The sound didn’t have a source. It came from all around me. It was the first thing I had heard since early that morning and it was beautiful, better than any song or assurance of love. It was something that would always be beautiful to anyone who heard it.

I waited until the lanky young man left the church. I followed him out, but I stopped at the door to watch him go. A beggar approached him in the street. The young man nervously took out a few coins, threw them into the beggar’s cup and was gone.

I stood there unthinking, hearing only that river and the satisfying chok sound it made when hitting the embankments. The beggar approached me. He shook his cup and I heard voices in his rattling coins, but they were all incomplete and flat. He shook his scrofulous head, made a vague gesture and walked off toward a side street where there were stalls with more mandarin oranges. It had begun to snow again and the oranges glowed like fire through the gloom of the wet bricks and the grey snow. My vision grew soft and blurry; only the oranges were clear. Everything around them was dark watercolor. I walked to the woman selling them. She was tall and bony and had a nose like something you’d put into a pot of soup.

“Woman, where do these oranges come from?” I suddenly found myself asking in Russian. My voice had returned.

“Batumi, where else?” She replied looking me up and down. Trying to decide what type of crazy I was.

“Maybe I’ll go to Batumi then.” I declared, putting a hand in my pocket like I was out to buy a train ticket from her.

The woman switched to Armenian. “You can go where ever you want, but you should go to your family. They’re probably worried about you.” She used the familiar form of address and I couldn’t tell if it was because she was unaccustomed to speaking Armenian or if she was patronizing me.

“Then I’ll go back to Yerevan, to my son,” I told her. “But better give me some of those mandarins to take back to him; they’re much better here.”

“Buy them at the voksal, papik jan. Then you won’t have to carry them so far.”

Apres.” I told her. You should live.

At the station, I bought a coffee and a potato pirozhki. I put my two kilos of mandarins under my chair while I ate. In the station, voices complained in Lezgin or spoke quietly in Tartar. All normal voices. When someone pushed back a chair, I heard it call out something in Frisian. When the people walked by their footsteps said either bir or adin, depending on how fast they were walking. Someone called out something for the Yerevan train and I got up.

As we pulled out of the station, I sat down in an empty compartment by the window. I watched the snow-darkened city chok by. It was cold in the car. I wished for a blanket. I watched Tbilisi spin past the window. I looked for the young man. I wondered where he was now, if he had gone to another church or if he was in a tavern. I imagined him drinking and eating somewhere warm and saw how our lives were connected. He would leave Tbilisi and go other places and I was going home. I knew I would never leave Yerevan again.

The sound of the river gradually rose from the sound of the train clicking over the tracks. The conductor came by to take my ticket. “Going to Yerevan? He asked me in Russian.

“Sasoonsi David,” I replied.

“Uncle, there’s only one stop in Yerevan.”

He punched my ticket and handed it back to me. I went back to watching the snow fall past the window. The mandarins shifted in their bag under my seat.

“Ssssetum,” they said.

“We’ll be home soon,” I told them.

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