Sometime soon after I was 13 years old in 1921 I rode home from the heart of Fresno with a wind-up Victor phonograph under my arm, hitched above my hipbone, and one Victor record. On a bicycle, that is. The bicycle went to pieces from the use I gave it as a Postal Telegraph messenger. The phonograph developed motor trouble soon after my first book was published; and while I was traveling in Europe for the first time, in 1935, it was given to the Salvation Army. But I still have the record, and I have a special fondness for it.
The reason I have a special fondness for it is that whenever I listen to it, I remember what happened when I reached home with the phonograph and the record. The phonograph had cost ten dollars and the record 75 cents, both brand new. I had earned the money as a messenger in my first week of work, plus four dollars and twenty-five cents not spent. My mother had just got home from Guggenheim's, where, judging from the expression on her face, she had been packing figs in eight-ounce packs, which I knew was the weight and size that was least desired by the packers, because a full day of hard work doing eight-ounce packs, at so much per pack, meant only about a dollar and a half, or at the most two dollars, whereas, if they were packing fourounce packs, they could earn three and sometimes even four dollars which in those days was good money, and welcome, especially as the work at Guggenheim's, or at any of the other dried-fruit packinghouses such as Rosenberg's or Inderrieden's, was seasonal, and the season was never long.
When I walked into the house, all excited, with the phonograph hitched to my hip, my mother gave me a look that suggested an eight-ounce day. She said nothing, however, and I said nothing, as I placed the phonograph on the round table in the parlor, checked it for any accidents to exposed parts that might have happened in transit, found none, lifted the record from the turntable where the girl in the store had fixed it with two big rubber bands, examined both sides of it, and noticed that my mother was watching. While I was still cranking the machine, she spoke at last, softly and politely, which I knew meant she didn't like the looks of what was going on. She spoke in Armenian.
"Willie, what is that you have there?"
"This is called a phonograph.""Where did you get this phonograph?"
"I got it from Sherman, Clay, on Broadway."
"The people at Sherman, Clay-did they give you this phonograph?"
"No, I paid for it."
"How much did you pay, Willie?"
"Ten dollars is a lot of money in this family. Did you find the ten dollars in the street perhaps?"
"No, I got the ten dollars from my first week's pay as a Postal Telegraph messenger. And 75 cents for the record."
"And how much money have you brought home for the whole family-for rent and food and clothing-out of your first week's pay?"
"Four dollars and twenty-five cents. My pay is fifteen dollars a week."
Now, the record is on the machine, and I am about to put the needle to the revolving disc when I suddenly notice that I had better forget it and get out of there, which I do, and just in time too. The screen door of the back porch slams once for me, and then once for my mother. As I race around the house, I become aware of two things: (1) that it's a beautiful evening, and (2) that Levon Kemalyan's father, who is a very dignified man, is standing in front of his house across the street with his mouth a little open, watching. Well, he's an elder at the First Armenian Presbyterian Church; he isn't from Bitlis, as we are; he's not a Saroyan, and this sort of thing comes as a surprise to him. Surely Takoohi Saroyan and her son are not racing around their house for exercise, or in an athletic contest of some kind, so why are they running?
In a spirit of neighborliness I salute Mr. Kemalyan as I race to the front porch and back into the parlor, where I quickly put needle to disc, and hurry to the dining room, from whence I can both witness the effect of the music on my mother, and, if necessary, escape to the back porch, and out into the yard again. The music of the record begins to come from the machine just as my mother gets back into the parlor.
For a moment it looks as if she is going to ignore the music and continue the chase, and then suddenly it happens-the thing that makes the record something to cherish forever. My mother comes to a halt, perhaps only to catch her breath, perhaps to listen to the music-there's still no way of telling for sure. As the music moves along, I can't help noticing that my mother either is too tired to run anymore or is actually listening. And then I notice that she is very definitely listening. I watch her turn from the chase to the machine. I watch her take one of the six cane chairs that have remained in the family from the time of my father, from 1911, and move it to the round table. I watch her sit down. I notice now that her expression no longer suggests that she is tired and angry. I remember the man in the Bible who was mad and was comforted by somebody playing a harp. I stand in the doorway to the parlor, and when the record ends I go to the machine, lift the needle from the disc and stop the motor.
Without looking at me, my mother says, this time in English, "All right, we keep this."
And then in softly spoken Armenian, "Play it again, I beg of you."
I quickly give the crank a few spins and put needle to disc again.
This time when the needle comes to the end of the record my mother says, "Show me how it's done." I show her, and she starts the record a third time for herself. Well, of course the music is beautiful, but only a moment ago she had been awfully mad at me for what she had felt had been the throwing-away of most of my week's wages for some kind of ridiculous piece of junk. And then she had heard the music; she had got the message, and the message had informed her that not only had the money not been thrown away, it had been wisely invested.
She played the record six times while I sat at the table in the dining room looking through a small catalogue of records given to me free of charge by the girl at Sherman, Clay, and then she said, "You have brought home only the one record?"
"Well, there's another song on the other side." I went back to the machine, turned the record over, and put it in place.
"What is this other one?"
"Well, it's called 'Song of India.' I've never heard it. At the store I listened only to the first one, which is called 'Cho-Cho-San.' "
"What is the meaning of that-'Cho-Cho-San'?"
"It's just the name of the song, I guess. Would you like to hear the other one, 'Song of India'?"
"I beg of you."
Now, as the other members of the family came home, they heard music coming from the parlor, and when they went in they saw the brand-new phonograph, and my mother sitting on the cane chair, directly in front of it, listening.
Why wouldn't that record be something I would want to keep as long as possible, and something I deeply cherish? Almost instantly it had won over my mother to art, and for all I know marked the point at which she began to suspect that her son rightfully valued some things higher than he valued money, and possibly even higher than he valued food, drink, shelter and clothing.
A week later she remarked to everybody during supper that the time had come to put some of the family money into a second record, and she wanted to know what was available. I got out the catalogue and went over the names, but they meant nothing to her, so she told me to just go to the store and pick out something hrashali, the Armenian word for miraculous, which I was happy to do.
Now, as I listen to the record again, 42 years later, and try to guess what happened, I think it was the banjo beat that got my mother, that spoke directly to her as if to one long known, deeply understood, and totally loved; the banjo chords just back of the clarinet that remembered everything gone, accepted everything present, and waited for anything more still to come, echoing in and out of the story of the Japanese girl betrayed by the American sailor, the oboe saying words and the saxophone choking on swallowed emotion: "Fox Trot (On Melodies by G. Puccini, arranged by Hugo Frey) Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra. 18777-A."
After that, whenever other members of the family attacked me for some seeming eccentricity, my mother always patiently defended me until she lost her temper, hereupon she shouted, "He is not a businessman, thank God."
LISTEN to Cho-Cho-San Fox Trot by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra Recorded on May 18, 1921 (Courtesy of i78s.org)
Fiction: William Saroyan, The Saturday Evening Post, September 1983