Buried Treasure: William Saroyan
And his powerful early short story “The Living and the Dead”
September 3, 2019 | by Alec Mouhibian
Sometimes treasure is buried in plain sight. Few writers were more visible in their time than William Saroyan, the Fresno, California boy who wrote The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze (1934) and then became such a literary sensation that he could hardly fill out a race-sheet or a divorce filing without it being published in at least a hardcover edition. His stories were everywhere. His plays were Broadway gravy. His films won Oscars then became bestselling novels (The Human Comedy). He wrote a hit song (Come On-a My House) that you can hear right now in a McDonald’s-Uber Eats commercial. He wrote memoirs about his experiences writing other memoirs. Hard to imagine a prose writer living today who would not trade career situations with Saroyan, even if it meant living in Fresno.
But what was Saroyan really about? Was it the spirit of “Christian anarchy” that critic James Agee noticed? Was it “the way the world would be if it conformed to the feelings instilled by drinks” that critic Edmund Wilson identified? The answer worth taking home to grandma lies in his early short story The Living and the Dead, the first two sections of which are reprinted below. Deprived of its conclusion, the story could just as well be called The Communist and The Grandmother. Saroyan felt that he had failed to pull this tale off. He was correct. There is a third act, in the story as in Saroyan’s career, that never quite comes together. But the first two are so good that one cannot begrudge the human comedian his early retirement.
— Alec Mouhibian
The Living and the Dead
By William Saroyan
I was in my room fast asleep at three in the afternoon when Pete the writer came in without knocking. I knew it was Pete from extra nervous way the door opened and I didn’t need to open my eyes to make sure who it was after he was in because I could smell it was somebody who needed a bath and I couldn’t remember anyone I knew needed one, expect Pete, so I tried to stay asleep. I knew he wanted to talk and if there was anything I didn’t want to be bothered with at that hour of the day it was talk.
When you are asleep at an hour when everybody but a loafer is supposed to be awake you understand how foolish all the activity and talk of the world is and you have an idea the world would be a better place in which to suffer if everybody would stop talking a while and go to sleep. You figure sleep is one of the extra special privileges of the mortal. You figure not being able to sleep is the basic cause of man’s jumping around in the world, trying to do stuff.
It was a warm day and the light of the sun was on my face, going through my shut eyes to the measureless depths of the rest of it, the past of my life, the place where the past is assembled, lighting up this vast area inside, and I was feeling quiet as a rock and very truthful. Try it sometime. Maybe you have no idea how far away you’ve been from where you are now, within your skull and skin, but if you are alive and know it, chances are you’ve been everywhere and seen everything and have just reached home, and my slogan is this: What this world needs is a better understanding of how and when to sleep. Anybody can be awake, but it takes a lot of quiet oriental wisdom to be able to lay your weary body in the light of the sun and remember the beginning of the earth.
Pete isn’t a bad guy and in his own way he can write a simple sentence that sometimes means what he wants it to mean. Ordinarily, in spite of the smell, he is good company. He is excited, but that’s because he is trying hard to say something that will straighten out everything and make everybody get up tomorrow morning with a clean heart and a face all furrowed with smiles.
Asleep, I am a profound thinker. Awake, however, I am a picture of good breeding.
There were two quart bottles of cheap beer on the table, a bottle-opener, a glass, and a package of Chesterfields. Pete opened a bottle, poured himself a glass, took a gulf, lit a cigarette, inhaled, and I sat up and yawned, my only form of exercise.
God Almighty, Pete said, how can you sleep at a time like this. Don’t you realize the world is going mad? How can you stretch out in this hole in the wall and sleep? Do you mind if I have a drink?
I told him anything I had was his, and he said: The true bourgeois, all kindness, but you can’t fool me, That sort of charity isn’t going to stand in the way of revolution. They are trying to buy us off with their cheap groceries and their free rent, but we’ll rise up and crush them.
I yawned and opened the window. A little clean air moved past the curtain and I breathed it and yawned again. Who do you want to crush? I said?
Don’t be funny, said Pete. This tyranny’s got to end. They’re trying to cram Fascism down our throats, but they won’t get away with it.
Who are you talking about? I said.
The bosses, said Pete, the lousy bosses.
You haven’t done an honest day’s work in ten years, I said. What bosses?
The rats, said Pete. The blood-sucking Capitalists. Morgan and Mellon and them big pricks.
Them guys are just as pathetic as you are, I said. I’ll bet ten to one if you could meet Morgan you’d appreciate how close to death he is. He’d give two or three million dollars to be in your boots, just so he wouldn’t have to be a writer. He’d give every penny he has to be as young as you are. Morgan’s an old man. He isn’t long for this world. He’ll be dead any minute now. You’ve got a good forty years ahead of you if you don’t fall down somewhere and bust your head against a fire hydrant.
That’s all bourgeois talk, said Pete. I am talking about twenty-five million hungry men, women and children in America.
He poured himself another glass of beer and spilled some of the foam on to his vest and wiped it off and said he wished to Christ I wouldn’t be a Fascist and be an honest Communist and work toward international goodwill among men.
I’m no Fascist, I said. I don’t even know what the word means.
Means? Said Pete. You don’t know what Fascicm means? I’ll tell you what it means. It means muzzling the press. It means the end of free speech. The end of free thinking.
Well, that isn’t so bad, I said. A man can always get by without free speech. There isn’t much to say anyway. Living won’t stop when free speech does. Everybody except a few public debaters will go right on living the same as ever. Wait and see. We won’t miss the debaters.
That’s a lot of hooey, said Pete. Do you mind if I have another cigarette?
You’re excited, I said. What’s on your mind?
Confidentially, said Pete, I’ve been sent out by the local chapter of the Party to get a dollar from you.
Oh, I said. I thought you were really upset about the poor.
I am, said Pete.
What do they want a dollar for? I said.
To help get out the next number of the Young Worker, said Pete.
Young Worker, my eye, I said. Young Loafer. You babies never worked in your lives, and what’s more you don’t even know how to loaf.
I got a story in the next number, said Pete.
That cinches it, I said. I hope they never raise the money to get the paper out.
It’s the best story I ever wrote, said Pete.
And that’s none too good, I said.
It’s the sort of story that will tear out their rotten hearts, said Pete.
Have another beer, I said. Open the other bottle. That’s what you think. You’ve got twenty or thirty dopes down there who want to be writers. Communism is a school of writing to you guys.
I say plenty in this story, said Pete. I talk right out in this one.
What do you say? I said.
I say plenty, said Pete.Wait till you read it. It’s called No More Hunger Marches.
I’ll wait, I said, gladly.
You’ve got to let me have a dollar, said Pete. I haven’t collected a dollar in six weeks and they’re checking up on me.
Suppose you never collect a dollar? I said.
I’m supposed to be an active member, said Pete.
A militant number, I said.
Yeah, said Pete.
You boys are fighting some war, I said. Here’s a dollar. Get the hell out of here. Bring me a copy of your story when it’s printed. You may be Dostoyevsky in disguise. You smell bad to be somebody great. When are you going to take another bath?
Day after tomorrow, said Pete. Thanks for the dollar. Do you think I like going around this way, dirty clothes, no money, no baths? Under Communism we’ll have bathtubs all over the place.
Under Communism, I said, you’ll be exactly the way you are now, only you’ll be just a little worse as a writer because there won’t be anything to tear out their rotten hearts with and there won’t be any rotten hearts to tear out. I was sleeping when you busted into this place. Why don’t you guys send out circular letters instead of making personal calls?
Can’t pay the postage, said Pete. Do you mind if I take three or four cigarettes?
Take the package, I said.
He went to the door and then turned round a little more excited than ever.
They want you to come to the meeting tonight, he said. They asked me to extend a special invitation to you to attend tonight’s meeting.
You guys make me laugh, I said.
This isn’t one of those boring meetings, said Pete. This is going to be better than a movie. We’ve got a very witty talker tonight.
I’m going to be playing poker tonight, I said. I can learn more about contemporary economics playing poker.
I’ll be expecting you at the meeting, said Pete.
I may drop around, I said. If I lose at poker, I’ll be sure to drop around. If I win, I’ll want to stay in the game and see if I can’t win enough to get out of town.
Everybody wants you to join the Party, said Pete. Communism needs guys with a sense of humor.
They want dues, I said.
Well, you could do at least that much for your fellow man, couldn’t you?
I always tip the barber and the bootblack and the waitress, I said. Once a week I give a newsboy a half-dollar for a paper. I’m doing my little bit.
That’s bourgeois talk, said Pete. I’ll see you at the meeting.
If I lose at poker, I said.
He closed the door behind him and hurried down the hall. I opened all three windows of the room and breathed deeply. The sun was still shining and I stretched out again and began to sleep again.
Then my grandmother came into the room and stared bitterly at everything, grumbling to herself and lifting a book off the table, opening it, studying the strange print and closing it with an angry and impatient bang, as if nothing in the world could be more ridiculous than a book.
I knew she wanted to talk, so I pretended to be asleep.
My grandmother is a greater lady than any lady I have ever had the honor of meeting, and she may even be the greatest lady alive in the past-seventy class for all I know, but I always say there is a time and place for everything. They are always having baby contests in this crazy country, but I never heard of a grandmother contest. My old grandmother would walk away with every silver loving cup and gold or blue ribbon in the world in a grandmother contest, and I like her very much, but I wanted to sleep. She can’t read or write, but what of it? She knows more about life then John Dewey and George Santayana put together, and that’s plenty. You could ask her what’s two times two and she’d fly off the handle and tell you not to irritate her with childish questions, but she’s a genius just the same.
Forty years ago, she said, they asked this silly woman Oskan to tell about her visit to the village of Gultik and she got up and said, They have chickens there, and in calling the chickens they say, Chik, chik, chik. They have cows also, and very often the cows holler, Moo moo moo.
She was very angry about these remarks of the silly woman. She was remembering the old country and the old life, and I knew would take up the story of her husband Melik in no time and begin to shout, so I sat up and smiled at her.
Is that all she had to say? I said Chik, chik, chik and Moo moo moo?
She was foolish, said my grandmother. I guess that’s why they sent her to school and taught her to read and write. Finally, she married a man who was crippled in the left leg. One cripple deserves another, she said. Why aren’t you walking in the park on a day like this?
I thought I’d have a little afternoon nap, I said.
For the love of God, said my grandmother, my husband Melik was a man who rode a black horse through the hills and forests all day and half the night, drinking and singing. When the townspeople saw him coming they would run and hide. The wild Kourds of the desert trembled in his presence. I am ashamed of you, she said, lolling around among these silly books.
She lifted the first book that came to her hand, opened it, and stared with disgust at the print.
What is all this language here? She said.
That’s a very great book by a very great man, I said. Dostoyevsky he was called. He was a Russian.
Don’t tell me about the Russians, said my grandmother. What tricks they played on us. What does he say here?
Everything, I said. He says we must love our neighbors and be kind to the weak.
More lies, said my grandmother. Which tribe of the earth was kind to our tribe? In the dead of winter he went to Stamboul.
Who? I said.
Melik, she shouted. My own husband, she said bitterly. Who else? Who else would dare to go that far in the dead of winter? I will bring you a bright shawl from Stamboul, he said. I will bring you a bracelet and a necklace. He was drunk of course, but he was my husband. I bore him seven children before he was killed. There would have been more if he hadn’t been killed, she groaned.
I have heard he was a cruel man, I said.
Who said such an unkind thing about my husband? said my grandmother. He was impatient with fools and weaklings, she said. You should try to be like this man.
I could use a horse all right, I said. I like drinking and singing too.
In this country? Said my grandmother. Where could you go with a horse in this country?
I could go to the public library with a horse, I said.
And they’d lock you in jail, she said. Where would you tie the horse?
I would tie the horse to the tree, I said. There are six small trees in front of the public library.
Ride a horse in this country, she said, and they will put you down for a maniac.
They have already, I said. The libel is spreading like wildfire.
You don’t care? she said.
Not at all, I said. Why should I?
It is true perhaps? she said.
It is a foul lie, I said.
It is helpful to be disliked, said my grandmother. My husband Melik was hated by friend and enemy alike. Bitterly hated, and he knew it, and yet everybody pretended to like him. They were afraid of him, so they pretended to like him. Will you play a game of scambile? I have the cards.
She was lonely again, like a young girl.
I got up and sat across the table from her and lit a cigarette for her and one for myself. She shuffled and dealt three cards to me and three to herself and turned over the next card, and the game began.
Ten cents? she said.
Ten or fifteen, I said.
Fifteen then, but I play a much better game than you, she said.
I may be lucky, I said.
I do not believe in luck, she said, not even in card games. I believe in thinking and knowing what you are doing.
We talked and played and I lost three games to my grandmother. I paid her, only gave her a half-dollar.
Is that what it comes to? she said.
It comes to a little less, I said.
You are not lying? she said.
I never lie, I said. It comes to a forty-five cents. You owe me five cents.
Five pennies? she said.
Or one nickel, I said.
I have three pennies, she said. I will pay you three pennies now and owe you two.
Your arithmetic is improving, I said.
American money confuses me, she said, but you never heard of anyone cheating me, did you?
Never, I admitted.
They don’t dare, she said. I count the money piece by piece, and if someone is nearby I have him count it for me too. There was this thief of a grocer in Hanford, she said. Dikranian. Three cents more he took. Six pounds of cheese. I had five different people count for me. Three cents more he has taken, they said. I waited a week and then went to his store again. For those three cents I took three packages of cigarettes. From a thief thieve and God will smile on you. I never enjoyed cigarettes as much as those I took from Dikranian. Five people counted for me. He thought I was an old woman. He thought he could do such a thing. I went back to the store and said not a word. Good morning, good morning. Lovely day, lovely day. A pound of rice, a pound of rice. He turned to get the rice, I took three packages of cigarettes.
Ha ha, said my grandmother. From thief to thieve, and from above God will smile.
But you took too much, I said. You took fifteen times too much.
Fifteen times too much? said my grandmother. He took three pennies, I took three packages of cigarettes, no more, no less.
Well, I said, it probably comes to the same thing anyway, but you don’t really believe God smiles when you steal from a thief, do you?
Of course, I believe said my grandmother. Isn’t it said in three different languages, Armenian, Kourdish, and Turkish?
She said the words in Kourdish and Turkish.
I wish I knew how to talk those languages, I said.
Kourdish, said my grandmother, is the language of the heart. Turkish is music. Turkish flows like a stream of wine, smooth and sweet and bright in color. Our tongue, she shouted, is a tongue of bitterness. We have tasted much of death and our tongue is heavy with hatred and anger. I have heard only one man who could speak our language as if it were the tongue of a God-like people.
Who was that man? I asked.
Melik, said my grandmother. My husband Melik. If he was sober, he spoke quietly, his voice rich and deep and gently, and if he was drunk, he roared like a lion and you’d think God in Heaven was crying lamentations and oaths upon the tribes of the earth. No other man have I heard who could speak in this way, drunk or sober, not one, here or in the old country.
And when he laughed? I said.
When Melik laughed, said my grandmother, it was like an ocean of clear water leaping at the moon with delight.
I tell you, said my grandmother it was like an ocean of clear water leaping at the moon with delight.
Now she was angry, ferocious with the tragic poetry of her race.
And not one of you opegh- tsapegh brats are like him, she shouted. Only my son Vahan is a little like him, and after Vahan all the rest of you are strangers to me. This is my greatest grief.
Opegh- tsapegh is untranslatable. It means, somewhat, very haphazardly assembled, and when said of someone, it means he is no particular credit to the race of man. On the contrary, only another fool, someone to include in the census and forget. In short, everybody.
And when he cried? I said.
My husband has never known to weep, said my grandmother. When other men hid themselves in their houses and frightened their wives and children by weeping, my husband rode into the hills, drunk and cursing. If he wept in the hills, he wept alone, with only God to witness his weakness. He always came back, though, swearing louder than ever, and then I would put him to bed and sit over him, watching his face.
She sat down with a sigh and again stared bitterly around the room.
These books, she said. I don’t know what you expect to learn from books. What is in them? What do you expect to learn from reading?
I myself sometimes wonder, I said.
You have read them all? she said.
Some twice, some three times, I said. Some only a page here and there.
And what is their message?
Nothing much, I said. Sometimes there is brightness and laughter, or maybe the opposite, gloom and anger. Not often, though.
Well, said my grandmother, the ones who were taught to read and write were always the silliest and they made the worst wives. This soft-brained Oskan went to school, and when she got up to speak all she could say was, They have chickens there, and in calling the chickens they say, Chik, chik, chik. Is that wisdom?
That’s innocence, I said in English.
I cannot understand such an absurd language, she said.
It is a splendid language, I said.
That is because you were born here and can speak no other language, no Turkish, no Kourdish, not one word of Arabic.
No, I said, it is because this is the language Shakespeare spoke and wrote.
Shakespeare? said my grandmother. Who is he?
He is the greatest poet the world has ever known. I said.
Nonsense, said my grandmother. There was a travelling minstrel who came to our city when I was a girl of twelve. This man was as ugly as Satan, but he could recite poetry in six different languages, all day and all night, and not one word of it written, not one word of it memorized, every line of it made up while he stood before the people, reciting. They called him Crazy Markos and people gave him small coins for reciting and the more coins they gave him the drunker he got and the drunker he got the more beautiful the poems he recited.
Well, I said, each country and race and time has its own kind of poet and its own understanding of poetry. The English poets wrote and your poets recited.
But if they were poets, said my grandmother, why did they write? A poet lives to sing. Were they afraid a good thing would be lost and forgotten? Why do they write each of their thoughts? Are they afraid something will be lost?
I guess so, I said.
Do you want something to eat? said my grandmother. I have cabbage soup and bread.
I’m not hungry. I said.
Are you going out again tonight? she said.
Yes, I said. There is an important meeting of philosophers in the city tonight. I have been invited to listen and learn.
Why don’t you stop all this nonsense? she said.
This isn’t nonsense, I said. These philosophers are going to explain how we can make this world a better place, a heaven on earth.
It is nonsense, said my grandmother. This place is the same place all men have known, and it is anything you like.
That’s bourgeois talk. I said in English.
These philosophers, I said in Armenian, are worrying about the poor. They want the wealth of the rich to be shared with the poor. That way they claim everything will be straightened out and everybody will be happy.
Everybody is poor, said my grandmother. The richest man in the world is no less poor than the poorest. All over the world there is poverty of spirit. I never saw such miserliness in people. Give them all the money in the world and they’ll still be poor. That’s something between themselves and God.
They don’t believe in God, I said.
Whether they believe or not, said my grandmother, it is still a matter between themselves and God. I don’t believe in evil, but does that mean evil does not exist?
Well, I said, I’m going anyway, just to hear what they have to say.
Then I must be in the house alone? she said.
Go to a movie, I said. You know how to get to the neighborhood theater. It’s not far. There is a nice picture tonight.
Alone? said my grandmother. I wouldn’t think of it.
Tomorrow, I said, we will go together. Tonight you can listen to the radio. I will come home early.
Have you no books with pictures?
Of course, I said.
I handed her a book called The Life of Queen Victoria, full of pictures of that nice old lady.
You will like this lady, I said. She was Queen of England, but she is now dead. The book is full of pictures, from birth to death.
Ah, said my grandmother looking at an early picture of the Queen. She was a beautiful girl. Ahkh, ahkh, alas, alas, for the good who are dead, and my grandmother went down the hall to the kitchen.
I got out of my old clothes and jumped under a warm shower. The water was refreshing to the skin and I began to sing.
I put on fresh clothes and a dark suit. I went into the kitchen and kissed my grandmother’s hand, then left the house. She stood at the front window, looking down at me.
Then she lifted the window and stuck her head out.
Boy, she shouted. Don’t be so serious. Get a little drunk.
O.K., I said.
Alec Mouhibian is the producer of the documentary I AM NOT ALONE, co-writer/director of 1915 The Movie, and Creative Armenia's VP of Programs and Productions.