Visiting Uncle Dikran (an Armenian story)

Every night, when he lies in bed, Hagop hears the same sounds that cross the thin walls of his bedroom: his parents’ voices rising, decreasing, rising again. He doesn’t understand the language they speak (Armenian) but he follows the tone (up and down), a rough melody of words he does not grasp. Of course he could bury his head under the pillow and try to sleep as quickly as possible, but instead he plays a frustrating game of guessing, tracing the intonations and the exclamatory syllables. The dialogue becomes even more confusing when his mother and father don’t take turns but overlap in the conversation. Sometimes an unexpected clue bursts into the middle of the riddle: for lack of translation or because it is more convenient for them to use, one English word is thrown in to Hagop’s relief; he does not need more than one indication to win his spying game. Last night, it was “dollars” that kept coming and he knew his parents were arguing about money, as they often do. Another time, they were planning to go to a movie theater in town and “movie” easily summarized the topic. Hagop is also attentive to spot a first name, an easy hint, for instance “Dikran” his uncle on his mother’s side, who is in jail for repeated drunk driving. Once a month, they visit him in the state prison located about forty miles away from their home town of Monroeville. Dikran is the shame of the family, unable to abide by the law of their new country, the United States of America.

The child of immigrants, Hagop was born in the-big-land-of-unlimited-opportunities where a bright future awaits you if, but only if, you work hard and you stick to the rules, unlike poor Dikran who fell on the wrong side of the tracks. (His fault actually, so you shouldn’t feel sorry for him although he will always be part of the family; for that reason you can’t let him down and must dutifully go see him in his walled-in home.) Of course such a stain on the immaculate road to “Ameriga” has to remain a secret. What if the neighbors knew? Worse, what would the school teachers or the colleagues at work say if, God forbid, they heard that such a close relative showed so little respect for the country that sheltered them, giving every member of this uprooted family much-needed protection? Synonyms for disgrace, prison and jail have long been erased from the family’s dictionary, as if the mere fact of uttering the infamous words triggered a contagious disease. The secret is being kept under the cover of the Armenian word, bant, which has not only become the code for Dikran’s scandalous dwelling but also Hagop’s unusual introduction to Armenian vocabulary. In a language class, the teachers would make the beginners repeat with the proper pronunciation be or bed or brother. Here you start with bant. Not bang, not boom. Bant !

So far, except for that one exception, Hagop never thought he would try to learn a language that he he’s been hearing at the dinner table but has remained incomprehensible since his parents, on their forceful cruise to assimilation, have never uttered directly to him. What for? English is so much more convenient, not only because Hagop is good at it as his school grades show, but also because everybody speaks it in the entire world (or the family so believes), the language of business, movies, diplomats, researchers. In other words the key to success and wealth. Whereas Armenian… Truth be told, for a long time, Hagop couldn’t care less about the idiom and the land of his ancestors, a far away place he didn’t relate to. Besides, he can’t play tavloo, the national board game his parents brought over when they came to America, which now remains hidden, almost forgotten, on the top shelf of a closet; furthermore Hagop knows nobody over there because all family members, even distant cousins, have fled to Western areas supposedly rich and beautiful like Glendale, California, or Southern France. Of course the ties with the old country are not entirely cut and one does not need to go far to find them. Enshrined in Hagop’s name is the very link that attaches him to his forebears. Recently he was late returning his books to the school library. The lady at the desk (an imposing-looking woman in her fifties) checked the notebook where she keeps in longhand the records of the borrowed books. She then took her glasses off, looked at him and his dark hair and said, “The books are overdue, Hagop Eljian.” And she repeated, “Hagop Eljian. You’re Armenian, aren’t you?” She had recognized the Armenian sounding name. At first it bothered him that he could be easily identified and unmasked as it were; he envied the anonymous Patrick Jones, a blond guy who sits next to him in biology class and who probably doesn’t even think about his origins: Wales, Ireland, England, or whatever.

Lately, as if he carried, unaware for a long time, a somewhatdistinctive mark of nobility, Hagop has established a new relationship with his own name; he now enjoys uttering it and spelling it: E-L-J-I-A-N. He is discovering the pleasure, forbidden so far, of being different from his class mates. He doesn’t need to remain amid the crowd; he can stand on the side, not far away mind you, but in a unique position that might attract the girls tired of hanging out with guys so boringly similar. Maybe Deborah, his next-door neighbor for whom he has a secret attraction, would understand, and even appreciate, that he’s not everybody else’s twin brother. And, now, slowly, at 16, he thinks it’s too bad his parents never sent him to an Armenian school where he would have learned the language. He’ll have to find another way, by himself, maybe a self-help method, unless his parents agree to hire a private teacher (they could ask the Armenian priest, whose broken English always made Hagop laugh when he was younger). Of course it might be difficult, but he’s sure he could do it and it would make more sense than struggling for no obvious reason with French and with his unbearable teacher who keeps saying, “On ne vous entend pas. Répétez s’il vous plaît.”

In his head Hagop, the player preparing the cards he is going to lay on the table, is rehearsing his future conversation with Deborah:

“Hey, Deb, you know what? I decided to learn Armenian.”

“Oh, that’s great, but why would you want to do that?”

“Because Armenia is the country where my family comes from…”

 (He’s not going to explain to Deborah the country is actually Turkey and that the Turks chased the Armenians, that many died in the massacres, etc, etc. Too tragic, and he is convinced she wouldn’t like to hear such a gruesome story.)

“My mom is Russian and my dad is Norwegian. I can’t choose between them, so I stick to English. It’s easier…” says Debbie in a somewhat regretful tone.

“Sure. That’s normal. But, see, I don’t have the same problem because we are totally ethnic…”

“Totally ethnic? What do you mean?”

“I mean we have no mixed heritage. One line only!”

“This only happened by chance…”

“Not by chance,” he interrupts her. “In the old days, an Armenian guy was supposed to marry an Armenian girl and nobody else. And that’s exactly what my dad did.”

“And that’s also what you’re going to do ? Really?” she asks. She looks disappointed and, at the same time, ready to make fun of him, wondering: How in the world can someone live in such a traditional environment?

“Of course not, Deb. What do you think? I’m American. The rule doesn’t apply here, in a free country.”

Deb seems satisfied with this answer. Hagop is not the total stranger he appeared to be. She still has some questions to ask him:

“Learning a language takes a lot of time. Are you sure you want to do that? What for? Is it worth the effort?”

(At that point in the conversation, Hagop could stop answering Deborah. He could keep silent for a moment and try to extend his hand and hold her hand, hoping she won’t pull it back, or, worse, get up and leave. One never knows, and he has no experience. Maybe this comes too soon and he shouldn’t interrupt the conversation. Words are more reliable than gestures. He can try to touch her, and even kiss her, the next time he sees her. For now, he prefers to stay put behind the safe cover of the conversation.)

“Yeah, it’s difficult, but it’s worth trying. First of all, I’ll have to memorize the Armenian alphabet…”

“Oh, an alphabet different from English? That’s great! I tried Cyrillic and I almost got it. It’s like discovering a treasure and unwrapping it.”

(She smiles at him and he finds her so attractive that he has to refrain from taking her in his arms.)

“And your parents, what do they think of your wanting to learn the language?”

“I haven’t told them yet.”

“How come? I’m sure they’d be happy to hear that. My mother would be if I decided to pick up Russian; that’s for sure.”

“If I learned Armenian, my parents would have no secrets anymore because I’d understand what they always try to hide from me.” A lull, and he adds. “ Like my uncle Dikran’s wrongdoings. He’s in jail… Bant in Armenian. It’s the only word I know!”

(Hagop realizes he has talked too much, but doesn’t care. He’ll explain to Deborah he is sharing a family secret that she should keep to herself. He is certain she will.)

“Things would have been so much easier if your parents had spoken Armenian when you were a baby. Why didn’t they do it?”

“They thought it would be too confusing to pick up English and Armenian at the same time! They were wrong of course, but it’s never too late. Now I can hyphenate!”

“What do you mean? I don’t know that word.”

“Deb, you know what a hyphen is, don’t you?”

“Yes, but I still don’t understand what you’re saying…”

“If I learn Armenian, I’ll be able to help my parents get around when they have problems filling an official form or when they miss a word in the news. I could be the link between the old country and the new country.”

Deborah Ellestad looks at Hagop Eljian, the dark-haired boy, who speaks so seriously about his new role.

“Hey hyphen,” she says laughing. “That’s cool. You know what? I feel like having a vanilla fudge ice-cream. Why don’t you come along?”

He is about to accept Deborah’s proposal when his mother interferes in his imaginary conversation, reminding him to get ready. It is Sunday afternoon and in a few minutes they are leaving to go and visit Uncle Dikran. The trip to the state prison takes some time because Hagop’s father, not a very experienced driver, prefers to take the back roads. He is afraid of the newly built thruway although he won’t admit it, pretending the scenery is nicer off the main road: you get a close view of the red-roofed farms and the cattle grazing the fields, a picture-perfect scenery of the heartland, peaceful, so different from the troubled zone Hagop’s parents left three decades ago. On the car radio a young singer with an incredibly appealing voice sings “Blue suede shoes” and Hagop, in the back seat, tries to hum the tune and wonders who the performer is. Keeping the song’s title in his mind, he’ll ask Deb tomorrow when he sees her in school. It will give him a nice introduction to talk to her without being embarrassed. After two hours, they cross the Mississipi River and leave Iowa behind as they enter Illinois (“The great state of Illinois; visit the birthday place of Abraham Lincoln”). Now they are approaching the state prison and tension rarifies the air in the car. At the gate a guard, heavily armed, asked for the authorization families have to show while, at the same time, they must pull out their photo ID. Once they are cleared, they are allowed to drive to the visitors’ parking lot. Extending his right arm, the guard says ruggedly, “Go straight forward to the next available space.” Hagop notices his parents’ demure, almost humble, attitude, as if they were responsible for Dikran’s misdemeanor, scared to be arrested and kept in jail with him. They nod at the guard and Hagop’s father slowly drives the gray Ford to the indicated direction.

Now here he is, the notorious uncle, behind a thick glass window, wearing the prisoners’ gray uniform, in which he seems to drown because he lost so much weight. He holds a telephone in his left hand, speaking in monosyllables at first before he all of sudden becomes angry, accusing his sister, who is holding the other receiver, of not helping him. He yells in Armenian, speaking so fast that his sentences seem to knock each other in an uniterrupted flow, “You let me rotten in this jail. I’m cold, I don’t get decent food and I’m only allowed to take a shower once a week. The toilet is in the room and it stinks. I’m going to die here and it will be your fault. Go to hell.” Hagop looks at his uncle vociferating behind the window and wishes he could get out of this room where other families are gathered, some crying, some smiling and sending kisses to the inmates so close by, yet so far away. Hagop’s father takes the phone and, while talking, makes gestures, circling the air with his right arm as if it would give more weight to his point. He then turns to his wife and says in English, “Not a good day. Too many insults. Let’s go.” Hagop, at a loss, waves at his uncle still clutching the receiver in his hand as he watches them leave the brightly lit room.

Now they are back home, everybody busy doing his thing. The father tries to repair an alarm clock (you don’t easily throw away things: thrift is a virtue); the mother is peeling potatoes for supper; trying to remember the melody of “Blue suede shoes”, Hagop idly lies on his bed when the phone rings. He picks it up as he often does: it’s Deborah, asking if she could come over for a moment. She has trouble understanding the math assignement due the next day and would Hagop maybe help her. “Sure,” he replies, so glad Deborah needs him, hoping he’ll understand what the problem is all about. Five minutes, the girl is at the door, smiling. Mrs. Eljian greets her, in a somewhat distant matter. So far, Hagop’s friends were all boys, mainly Patrick Jones and Mark Lewitt, with whom Hagop plays ball in the yard. But now a girl, however polite she is. Deborah now follows Hagop into his room. They close the door and Mrs. Eljian does not hear anything. She finishes preparing the meal, sets the table (they always eat in the kitchen) and, after what she considers a long moment, she is about to announce that supper is ready when Hagop’s door opens. Mrs. Eljian looks at the girl. Deborah seems a bit out of breath and her hair is somewhat disheveled. She says goodbye and leaves. Hagop is silent. Mumbling a swear word, Mr. Eljian puts the unrepaired alarm clock on the coffee table; for Mrs.Eljian it has been a gray day.  Life in America is not always simple.