DEATH EPISODES — Shmavon Azatyan
He gave the taxi driver the directions and settled into the back seat. No chatting with the driver. In Yerevan, taxi drivers typically chatted up the passengers. The company didn’t charge them with misconduct. The drivers told stories of their lives, or prattled on political doings. He didn’t want to chat. He needed to think. Problems at work. Three incidents of tardiness in a row last month. Now a new project. He wanted to focus on a few details, maybe jot some stuff down in his notepad.
“You from here?” the driver said.
The taxi driver’s eyes in the rearview mirror imparted surprise. A male passenger sitting in the back seat?
“I thought you’re from another country.”
The passenger started scribbling the order, in which he had to present. To get organized. He’d need to present his perspective confidently.
The driver braked the car and cursed. A pedestrian ran across the road.
“Our society will never learn to cross streets at crossing signs,” cried the driver and sought the passenger’s eyes in the rearview mirror.
“I’ve been driving for decades,” the driver said, shifting the gear. “By the way,” he turned around and extended his right hand, with the other steering the wheel. “I’m Hovhanes. It’s my pleasure to serve you this morning.”
The passenger shook Hovhanes’ hand reluctantly, his eyes looking at the road in panic. The driver didn’t watch where he was going.
“In the Communists’ times they were scared to cross at the wrong places,” Hovhanes went on telling his story. “But many did anyway. Back then they got fined. But now we have these foot bridges and underground walkways. Why the hell don’t these people understand that it’s for their safety?” The driver addressed the passenger looking at him in the rearview mirror: “Ain’t I right?”
“Sure. They don’t care about dying.”
“Oh brother, death can be such a nonsense sometimes. And it’s such a pity, it makes you wanna cry.”
The passenger sighed as a sign of being disturbed.
“Listen to this story,” Hovhanes began, his hand at the wheel, focused on the road, but checking with him intermittently. “My friend is a professional swimmer. His name is Garik. He told me once a curious story. There was this guy, a real hero among the high divers at the Olympic Gym. You know, the one on Kochar Street. It was back in the ‘80s. It’s a shopping center now. He could dive from the highest platform. Made his way to the USSR Olympiads, won a couple of silver medals. Anyway, once Garik and this guy were abroad, some tournament. I think it was the Red Sea. Garik says the sea was difficult for swimming. All corals along the coast. You had to jump into the sea from a pier or a boat to be able to swim. So they went out to the sea a few times. And this champion dude taught Garik how to high dive. The sea was beautiful, with all types of fish swimming in there. They had fun.”
Hovhanes made a left, shifted the gear and drove on.
“That day, they were going on a filming and research tour out in the ocean. It was commissioned by the Soviet government. The divers were going to help the research team with picking up samples, photographing and filming the ocean floor terrain. It was a special treat for the divers to practice, plus they could see the beauty of the Indian Ocean.”
Hovhaness stopped at a red light. The passenger was dragged willy-nilly into the conversation. He had to put on a serious look as if he was listening. Out of politeness.
Hovhanes turned half around and continued the story: “This champion guy fixed it for Garik to go diving with him. So they went into the ocean. They were accompanying the camera man, picking up stuff from the ocean floor… Suddenly huge a manta ray came up. It wasn’t dangerous or anything. They were a bit scared, but the camera man gestured that it was a harmless fish. And yeah, they don’t eat humans, but what do you know? As this manta ray was swimming by the champion, with its wing-like fin it hooked the champion’s lifeline on that big crest-like thing, you know, divers have on their faces. And that jerked the champion up towards the surface too quickly. My friend says he rocketed upward, literally. It gave him the bends, which he died from.
Their eyes met in the rearview mirror.
“Can you believe it?” said Hovhanes.
The story rang a bell. The passenger tried to remember who had told him that story. And then he recalled that the hero was Amatuni, his friend’s relative. If he wasn’t mistaken, his friend’s brother-in-law. The pen slid across his notepad and got lost between him and his briefcase.
Hovhanes got cheered up: “Ah, what a small world, eh?”
“We used to hang out with Amatuni. And one day my friend told me he had died in an accident. But I didn’t know he had died abroad.”
“Well, the KGB didn’t reveal such circumstances.”
“It’s funny, though, how this Amatuni, at every party, told us the same anecdote about drunk policemen dying from riding on the roundabout in Monument Park the whole night.”
“Oh Lord, it’s a true story!” cried Hovhanes, managing to swiftly turn around and grin at him and back to driving.
“Not really. It’s an urban legend.”
“Oh Lord, I know that story. From someone who was there. They were three or four policemen. It was in those bad years during the war.”
“You must be kidding,” the passenger said. “Amatuni said these morons were on duty that night. On the watch for the Monument Park. They had gotten some money. Bonus or something.”
“They had gotten the money from blackmailing one of the residents in the neighborhood for stealing electricity,” corrected Hovhanes. “That guy had hooked the electricity wire of his house up to the power station in the amusement park.”
Hovhanes frantically turned the wheel to pass a car blocking the way.
The passenger continued the story: “Anyway, they got drunk celebrating their bounty in a nearby restaurant and when they came back to the park they decided to have some fun. They turned on the carousel and got on it. It went on a few minutes. They were all drunk and felt dizzy and wanted to stop. But who would be able to get off the spinning carousel? Idiots! They span the whole night and were found dead next morning.”
Again a red light. Hovhannes turned around and said solemnly:
“There was a passerby. He helped them. I knew him. His name’s Misak.”
“Misak?” The passenger browsed his memory bank.
“Yeah. He used to live near that factory… Don’t remember the name.”
That was the name of somebody Amatuni used to mention sometimes in connection with the story. “I know that name, but I can’t remember what he was saying about this Misak,” the passenger said.
“Probably that he was the rescuer,” Hovhanes replied.
“No, not that. Something else.”
“Let me tell my brother what really happened,” Hovhanes said easing into the narrator’s posture again. “When the carousel slowed spinning, this Misak says, the two policemen dropped to the ground. He thought they were dead. He approached them, felt their pulses, they were alive. The other two or one, whatever it was, I don’t remember, threw up, mumbled a few things and lay back down. Misak went to the nearest police station and reported the accident. Afterwards they were ok. But someone told the story to the Chief of Police, and the policemen got fired. You know, our society likes changing words in stories, so ‘fired’ became ‘dead’ while circulating across town.”
Suddenly Misak flashed through the passenger’s mind – his neighbor long time ago. That neighbor Misak worked for the police, so the passenger and his wife had a theory that Misak was one of the policemen who was on the carousel that night. It might be that Amatuni had said that one of the policemen’s name was Misak, as a joke or something. Or maybe he talked about another Misak.
“We always joked about this Misak,” the passenger told Hovhaness, “saying he was on duty that night. But we were certain that the policemen had died.”
Hovhanes’ expression became business-like.
“Where do you live?” he asked and steered the wheel for a turn.
“At that time we used to live in Third Quarter.”
Hovhanes said softly: “I think I know your neighbor.”
“He stole cable from the factory,” said the passenger.
Hovhanes braked the car as if somebody crossed his way.
“He was a good man, living with his sister and wife,” the passenger continued ignoring Hovhanes’ negligent driving. “One day I blurted out to a friend about his stealing cable. I didn’t mean harm. And my friend happened to be the cousin of the factory owner. To cut it short, they didn’t turn off the power supply. And Misak got killed.”
Hovhanes pulled up. He turned around and looked at him with eyes imploring something unknown.
“What’s the matter?” the passenger cried.
Hovhanes was pale. He said something, but it was inaudible. He drove on.
The passenger continued his story: “That was terrible. He was tar black in the coffin. I got sick, when I went to the service. His sister fainted when she saw him like that.”
Hovhanes pulled over, leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes.
“Are you sick?” the passenger asked and shook Hovhanes’ shoulder.
“Your story is… ”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have told you that. I’m really sorry. No more words.”
Hovhanes’ neck was perspiring profusely. He sat upright and said: “But… How… This is a true nightmare.”
“I’m really sorry! Let’s get back to road, please,” the passenger said tired of stories. “I’m in a hurry and I need to complete something on the paper before I get to work.”
Hovhaness started the car, and they mingled with the traffic once again.
The passenger’s fingers groped for and seized the pen from under his bottom. He tried to focus on each idea in the bullet points he had made before Hovhanes inveigled him into participating in his stories. But Hovhanes drove so callously that the pen and the paper slipped from under his hands. The car wobbled from left to right. The starts and stops were too sharp. At one time the taxi slithered through a few cars on the road, because Hovhanes wanted to overtake two cars forwards of him. The passenger didn’t know what to say. Could he comfort this man who he had just sickened with his story?
The next moment the passenger heard a bump; the car was flung right, and he hit his head against the roof handle and his nose – against the door window. And then he didn’t know anything. He faintly heard voices and sounds, but could not see.
He came to from splashes of cold water. There were men and women around him; a paramedic helped him to sit up; a policeman was towering over him; Hovhanes had a kerchief around his head, but seemed all right, though he kept cursing somebody, probably the other driver, or the pedestrian involved in the accident, putting all the blame on them.
“Sir, do you feel all right?” the policeman asked the passenger. “Can you answer a few questions?”
It was embarrassing. A group of onlookers stood over him.
“What happened?” the passenger said.
“The taxi you were in ran over a man. You are a witness.”
He was a little dizzy, but his nose had stopped bleeding. The paramedic helped him to his feet. He felt his head and face. It hurt.
“We will take you to hospital,” said the paramedic.
“I’m all right, thanks.”
“Sir, can you come with us to the police station?” asked the policeman.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Hovhanes approached him. He was holding a handkerchief against his nose. He had apparently cried for his eyes were still wet.
“You killed my brother,” Hovhanes said to him.
But it immediately occurred to him, like an electrical shock going through his body. A dreadful shudder. His body shook. He couldn’t overcome it. Misak alive. Misak a burned corpse in the coffin. If he hadn’t told that story… He stood aghast at the implication.
The policemen took note of Hovhanes’ words and demanded that both the passenger and Hovhanes go to the police station immediately.
“There’s more than just an accident,” the policeman reported on the phone. “An alleged murder.”
The passenger and Hovhanes were seated in different cars. The passenger was driven to the nearest police station.
He waited for almost an hour before he was called in to the Chief Investigator’s office. A Major – shoulder straps with one star – the Chief Investigator was a stout man in his forties, in a dark blue uniform squaring his physique, with a fancy cigar in between his fingers. The passenger wondered where he’d seen that grimace of slab steel cheeks and unblinking eyes. The Chief Investigator didn’t greet the detainee, just acknowledged his presence with a nod. Slowly moving to his desk, the Chief Investigator mumbled:
“Tell the whole story.”
The passenger was unable to overcome the goosebumps.
The Chief Investigator puffed on his cigar, attentively watching the smoke spiraling up, and then said: “The stories you and Hovhanes have been involved in.”
“I’m sorry… But this is too complicated.”
The Chief Investigator methodically arranged his high-back chair to settle into it. His eyes were searching for something in the detainee’s face, never locking in with the latter’s. A pause. And then: “First, give a detailed account of how Hovhanes ran over the pedestrian. Second, tell me about how you killed Hovhanes’ brother.”
The passenger tried swallowing. The story had never resurfaced officially.
“Sir, I’ve finished my story.”
The Chief Investigator’s eyebrows rose questioningly.
“I’ve quit that story,” the passenger tried to explain. “I’m not in there anymore.”
“Failure to give testimony is a criminal act,” the Chief Investigator informed.
There was a knock on the door. A police officer with a belly bulging out of his pants peeked in and barked: “The pedestrian died.”
The door closed.
“Well then his story is complete,” the Chief Investigator said and reclined in his “king-size” chair. “The taxi driver… What’s his name, ah, Hovhanes, will do his time.”
The passenger panicked. Something was wrong.
“What about me?” he cried.
The Chief Investigator’s eyes finally met with his. They were a machine of a weird kind tuned to X-Raying his brains.
“Tell your story.”
“I don’t know where to start.”
“From the beginning.”
“Where is the beginning?”
“How did you meet Hovhanes’ brother?”
“Major, I can’t start from there. I may have to tell you the whole story I’ve been in since this morning. Even more, I think I probably have to tell you stories from the past that I and Hovhanes told each other on my way to work. But it won’t make sense. I haven’t killed anybody.”
Ceremoniously, the Chief Investigator stood up and declared:
“Very well then! Keep it to yourself. Sleep on it. Eat it with something spicy and hot. You’ll be called to tell it in court.”
A deep sigh came up and forced itself out of the passenger’s nostrils and mouth.
“It can never be told,” he muttered.
Shmavon Azatyan was born in Armenia. He studied language and literature at Yerevan State University and then was conscripted and served in the Armenian Military Forces. Therefater Shmavon studied creative writing and literature at University of Lousiana at Lafayette, where he receievd his Master’s. Shmavon writes poetry, fiction, non-fiction and screenplays. His works have been published in magazines and anthologies in Armenia, America, Great Britain and Australia.