By: William Saroyan;
excerpt from his novel: A Human Comedy
ONE BY ONE the members of August Gotflieb’s Secret Society returned from their escape from old man Henderson and gathered in front of Ara’s Market to wait there for the arrival of their leader. At last the great man was observed by his devoted followers coming around the alley holding the hand of Ulysses Macauley. The members of the Society waited silently for the arrival of the leader, who was soon among them. The face of the leader was searched by each of the followers and then the one named Alf Rife said, “Did you get an apricot, Auggie?”
The leader looked at this faithless one and said, “You don’t have to ask that. You saw me in the tree. You know I got an apricot.”
Now, all the members spoke in one voice. (All, that is, excepting Lionel, who was not really a member at all.) They said with great admiration, “Let’s see it, Auggie. Let’s see the apricot”
The little boy Ulysses watched everything, still completely unsure of the mysterious values involved but still certain that whatever these values might be they were surely of greater importance than anything else in the world-at that moment, at any rate.
“Let’s see the apricot you stole, Auggie,” the members of the Society said again. “Come on, let’s see it.”
August Gottfieb quietly fished into the pocket of his overalls and brought out a clenched fist which he thrust before him. His followers gathered around and looked directly upon the fist When everyone was appropriately quiet and respectful, August Gottlieb opened his fist.
There in the palm of his hand was a small green apricot the size of a quail egg.
The followers of the great religious leader smiled at the miraculous object in the palm of his hand, and Lionel-the kindest of them all, even though he was not a bona-fide member of the religious sect-lifted Ulysses so that he too could see the small green object. Having seen the green apricot, Ulysses squirmed, got down, and then ran for home, not disappointed, only eager to tell someone.
Now, out of his store, stepped Ara himself, the man who had established Ara’s Market in this neighborhood of Ithaca, California, seven years ago. He was a tall, lean-faced. melancholy yet comical man who wore a white grocer’s apron over his plain business suit. He stood a moment on the small porch of the store to look down at the new Messiah and his disciples and to listen to their delighted expressions of adoration for the Holy Image.
“Anggie, you!” he said. “You, Shag! Nickie! Alfo, you! Lionel, you!-what you call this? United States Congress Washington? Go some odder place hold important meeting. This market, not Congress.”
“Oh, sure, Mr. Ara,” August Gotflieb said. “We’ll go across the street to the empty lot. Do you want to see an apricot?”
“You got apricot?” the grocer said. “Where you get apricot?”
“Off a tree. Want to see it?”
“Is not apricot now. Apricot come in two more month. In May time.”
“This is a March apricot,” the leader of the whirling-dervishes said to the grocer. Again he opened his fist, revealing the small hard green object. “Look at it, Mr. Ara,” Auggie said, and then paused. “Pretty?”
“All right, all right,” Mr. Ara said. “Pretty. Very fine apricot. Now, go hold meeting United States Congress Washington some odder place. Today Saturday. Market open for business. Don’t crowd small store first thing in morning. Give chance. Small store get scared, run away.”
“O.K., Mr. Ara,” Auggie said, “we won’t crowd your store. We’ll go across the street now. Come on, you guys.” Mr. Ara watched the small migration of the religious fanatics. He was about to go back into the store when a small boy who resembled him came out of the store and stood beside him.
“Give me apple,” The boy said to the man. He spoke earnestly, almost sadly.
The father took the son by the hand and together they went into the store to the counter where the fresh fruit was stacked in piles.
“Apple?” the father said to the boy. He took an apple from the pile-the very best apple in the pile-and handed it to the boy. “All right, apple.”
The father went behind the counter of his store to wait for a customer, and in the meantime to look upon his son, surely as melancholy as himself, even though there was a difference of at least forty years in their ages. The son took one enormous bite out of the apple, chewed it slowly, swallowed it, and then for a moment seemed to think about it, while the father himself thought about it, too. The apple did not make the boy happy. He put it down on the counter in front of his father and then looked up at the man. There they were, in Ithaca, California, probably seven thousand miles from what had been for centuries their home in the world. Naturally there was a loneliness in each of them, but no one could know for sure that the same loneliness might not be in them had they been seven thousand miles away, back home. There on the floor of his store stood the father’s son, and the father looked at the son-at his own face in the boy, his own eyes, and beyond the eyes surely his own character. There was the same man, only younger. The father took the rejected apple, attacked it with an enormous crackling bite, and stood chewing and swallowing. He might have been tragic Lear himself, judging from the swiftness and noisiness of his stentorian chewing. An apple was too good a thing in the world to be wasted, and therefore if his son would not eat it, then he must eat it, even though he had no passion for apples or for their flavor. He simply knew that it was wrong to waste anything. He continued to bite into the apple, to chew, and to swallow, as if in dramatic soliloquy. At last, however, it was a little too much-there was a little too much apple. It would be necessary to waste some of it. With recklessness and perhaps a small amount of regret, he flung the remains of the apple into the garbage can.
Now, the son spoke again.
“Give me orange.”
The father selected the biggest orange in the neat pile of oranges and handed it to the boy. “Orange? All right-orange.”
The boy bit into the peel of the orange, then began to finish the job of peeling with his fingers, working slowly but efficiently at first but after a moment accelerating his effort with such an intensity that even the father began to feel, as surely the son felt, that beneath the peeling of this growth of tree would be not simply the flesh of an orange but the heart’s final fulfillment The boy placed the peelings of the orange on the counter in front of the man, broke the orange in half, peeled off one section, put it in his mouth, chewed and swallowed. But alas, no. It was truly an orange, but it was truly not the heart’s final fulfillment. The son waited a moment, then put the rest of the orange in front of his father. Again the father took up the unfinished work and silently began trying to finish it But soon the limit was reached, and a little less than half of the orange went into the garbage can.
“Papa?” the boy said after a moment, and again the father replied,
“Give me candy.”
“Candy? All right-candy.”
From the candy showcase the father selected the most popular five-cent bar of candy and handed it to the boy. The boy studied this manufactured substance, removed the wax paper, and took a big bite out of the chocolate-covered candy and again slowly chewed and swallowed. But again it was nothing-only candy-sweet, yes; otherwise, nothing, truly nothing. Once again the son returned to the father another substance of the world which had failed to bring him completion. Patiently the father accepted the responsibility-to avoid waste. He picked up the candy bar, started to bite into it and then changed his mind. He turned and flung the candy into the garbage can. He felt bitterly angry, and in his heart he cursed some people seven thousand miles away who had once seemed to him to be inhuman, or at least ignorant Those dogs!l he said.
“Give me banana.”
The father sighed this time but did not abandon all faith. “Banana? All right-banana.” He examined the bunch of bananas hanging over the piles of fruit and finally discovered what he believed to be the ripest and the sweetest banana of the bunch. He plucked this banana off the bunch and handed it to the boy.
At last a customer came into the store. The customer was a man Mr. Ara had never before seen. The storekeeper and the customer nodded to one another in greeting, and then the man said with an accent all his own, “You got cookies?
“Cook-ies?” the grocer said eagerly. “What kind cook-ies you want?”
Another customer came into the store. This customer was Ulysses Macauley. He stood to one side, listening and watching, waiting his turn.
“You got cookies, raisins in?” the man said to the grocer.
“Cook-ies, raisins in?” the grocer said. This was a problem. “Cook-ies, raisins in,” he said again, almost whispering. “Cook-ies, raisins in,” he said still again. The grocer looked around the store. The grocer’s son put the banana on the counter in front of his father-rejected.
The father looked at the boy and then spoke very swiftly. “You want apple, I give you apple. You want orange, I give you orange. You want candy, I give you candy. You want banana, I give you banana. What you want now?”
“Cookies,” the boy said.
“What kind cook-ies you want?” the father said to the boy, not forgetting the customer, and in fact, speaking to the customer, but at the same time speaking to his son, and at the same time speaking to everybody, everywhere-everybody wanting things.
“Cookies, raisins in,” the boy said.
With furious restraint the father almost whispered his reply to his son, but instead of looking at his son he looked at the customer. “I got no cook-ies,” he whispered. “No kind cook-ies. Why you want cook-ies? I got everything, but no cook-ies. What’s cook-ies? What you want?”
“Cookies,” the man said patiently, “for small boy.”
“I got no cook-ies,” the grocer said again. “I got small boy too.” The grocer pointed to his own son. “I give him apple, orange, candy, banana, lots of good things.” He looked the customer straight in the eye, and almost as if he were angry, he said, again, “What you want?”
“My broder’s boy,” the customer said. “He’s got influenza. He cry-he want cookies. ‘Cookies, raisins in,’he say.”
But every man lives his own life and every life has its own theme, so that again the grocer’s son looked at his father and said, “Papa?”
But now the father refused to look at the boy. Instead, he looked at the man whose nephew was ill and wanted cookies with raisins in them. He looked at the man with understanding, with sympathy, and yet with a kind of peasant rage, not against the man but against the world itself, against illness, against pain, against loneliness, against the heart wanting what it can never have. The grocer was angry at himself too because even though he had established this market in Ithaca, California, seven thousand miles from home, he did not have cookies with raisins in them,he did not have that which the sick boy wanted. The grocer pointed at his son and spoke to the man.
“Apple” the grocer said, “orange, candy, banana-no cookies. He’s my boy. Three years old. Not sick. He want many things. I don’t know what he want. Nobody know what he want He just want. He look at God. He say. Give me dis, give me dat-but he never satisfied. Always he want. Always he feel bad. Poor God has got nothing for such sadness. He give everything – world – sunshine -moder – fader – broder – sister – onkle – cousin – house, farm, stove, table, bed-poor God give everything-but nobody happy-everybody like small boy sick with influenza-everybody say give me cookies-raisins in.” The grocer stopped a moment to take a very deep breath. When he exhaled he said very loudly to the customer, “Is no cookies-raisins in.”
The grocer began to move with an impatience and a fury which were almost majestic. First he took a paper bag and snapped it open. Then he began to toss things into the bag. “Here’s orange, very pretty. Here’s apple. Wonderful. Here’s banana. Taste very good.” Now, gently, and with great courtesy and sincere sympathy for the man and for the man’s sick nephew, the grocer handed the bag to the customer. “Take to little boy. No pay. I no want money.” And then again he said very softly, ‘Is no cookies, raisins in.”
“He cry,” the man said. “He feel very bad. He say, ‘Cookies, raisins in.’ Thank you very much, but we already give small boy apple, orange, odder things.” The man put the bag down on the counter. “Sick boy say, ‘Give me cookies, raisins in.’ Apple, orange-no good. Excuse me, I go try chain store. Maybe they got cookies, raisins in.”
“All right, my friend,” the grocer whispered. “You go try chain store-but they no got cookies, raisins in. Nobody got.”
Almost shyly the stranger left the store. For a full minute the grocer stood behind the counter staring at his son. Suddenly he began to speak in his own language, Armenian.
“The world’s gone mad,” he said. “In Russia alone, so near our own country, our own beautiful little nation, millions of people, millions of children, every day go hungry. They are cold, pathetic, barefooted- They walk around-no place to sleep-they pray for a piece of dry bread-somewhere to lie down and rest-one night of peaceful sleep. And what about us? What do we do? Here we are in Ithaca, California, in this great country, America. What do we do? We wear good clothes. We put on good shoes every morning when we get up from sleep. We walk around with no one in the streets to come with guns or to burn our houses or to murder our children or brothers of fathers. We take rides out into the country in automobiles. We eat the best food. Every night when we go to bed we sleep-and then what are we? We arc discontented. We are sfitt discontented.” The grocer shouted this amazing truth at his little son with terrible love for the boy. “Apple,” he said, “orange, candy, banana, for God’s sake, little fellow, don’t do this! If I do it, you are my son, better than me, and therefore you must not do this. Be happy! Be happy! I am unhappy, but you must be happy.” He pointed to the back door of the store which led into the house, and obediently, very sober-faced, the little boy left the store and entered the house.
Now the grocer spent a moment trying to compose himself. At last he believed he was calm enough to speak quietly to the customer in the store, Ulysses Macauley. He turned to the boy and tried to be cheerful. He even smiled. “What you want, little boy Ulysses?”
“What kind mush you want?”
“Two kinds H-0, little boy Ulysses. “Regular kind, and quick-cooking kind. Two kinds. Slow, quick. Old, new. What kind your mama want, little boy Ulysses?”
Ulysses thought about this a moment and then said, “H-0.”
“Old kind or new kind?”
But the little boy didn’t know, so the grocer decided for him. “All right, new kind, modern. Eighteen cents, please, little boy Ulysses.”
Ulysses opened his fist and thrust his arm out toward the grocer, who took the quarter from the boy’s hand. The grocer handed Ulysses the change, saying, “Eighteen cents, nineteen, twenty, and nickel-twenty-five. Thank you, little boy Ulysses.”
“You’re welcome, Mr. Ara,” Ulysses said. He took the package of oatmeal and walked out of the store. It was very difficult to understand anything. First it was apricots on a tree, then it was cookies with raisins in, and then it was the grocer talking to his son in a strange tongue-but even so it was exciting. In the street the little boy kicked up his heel as he did whenever he was pleased, and began to run home.
By: William Saroyan;
excerpt from his novel: A Human Comedy, where ‘Mr. Ara is a chapter midway through the book.
William Saroyan was a prolific American novelist of Armenian descent during the early 20th century. His works are renown for their organic explanation of the human condition, and allowing for a simplified analysis into the reality of our own existence. His works include over 30 novels, and over 20 plays, some of which are presently studied in middle and high-school curriculums. Some of his works include the Pulitzer Prize winning novel – The Time of Your Life (1939) – which he subsequently refused the honor of, on the grounds that the “arts should not be commercialized.” Many of his works have been adapted into films, such as Hello Out There (1941), The Human Comedy (1943), and Man on the Flying Trapeze (1934). Saroyan was a proud Armenian-American who consistently drew upon the theme of assimilation into the American culture inspired by his upbringing as a child of Armenian immigrants.