When I originally wrote this story and sent it to a magazine I thought might be interested, I got it back with the note they rejected it solely on the basis of its being about a writer. Further, this editor said, his readers deserved better than to have to read stories about writers. I knew then he had not read further than the first paragraph or two before returning it, as he did not also note that while it is true Sparks May wrote two mystery novels before his twenty-fifth birthday, he was primarily a musician who never picked up a pen again.
This editor said nothing about the love story or the ghost story which are of first importance in a tale that has the added value of absolute truth. If you do not believe in love or in ghosts, that won’t matter to the story; if you don’t believe in writers, I don’t know what to say to you. I would like to note the irony that this periodical had issued a call for stories from none other than writers.
I have, for twenty years, since I was the age of Sparks when he wrote his first novel, had a constant concern for the lives of writers; my main complaint of Sparks is that he stopped writing and spent every moment since the productive years playing saxophone with the Sparks May Quintet. So, my dear sir, this story is not about a writer but about a man who shed his writing as easily as some men lose their hair—including this editor of whom I speak, whose photograph reveals a pate so shiny I needed sunglasses for a closer look.
Had he read any further, this competent crank, he would have known this without my having to tell him in this brief preface. Now, I have always disliked a preface—get to the action I tell my writers—but I have always cared about those writers in whose lives I became involved; I assure you that they are as human as anyone else. Dismissing a story on the basis that the main character once wrote two novels is a travesty of editorship. As an editor, I know this to be true.
So, this true story I am telling you now is not only a love story of sorts and a ghost story of sorts, but also the story of a bond between a father and his son, descendants of Armenian immigrants, and about a young man with more talents than he knew what to do with. I am appalled at the ignorance of an editor who would not read on because the subject had actually produced two of the finest mystery novels I have had the pleasure and privilege to publish. Though it makes me peevish to read his note, I do so on a regular basis, just to remember what it is an editor should and should not care about.
How, you might well ask, does it come to pass that a person who writes two excellent novels, available in bookstores and online at any reputable bookseller, can walk away from such a prodigious talent without looking back? It does not now surprise me his first novel, Imagining the Dead, simply leapt from his fingers fully formed, a gift from the genre gods, or that the second faltered almost from inception. I have no doubt he would have been a one-book author had his father not intervened with an ingenious idea for a combination love and ghost story to weave into a plot not strong enough to carry a second novel, Deadly Imaginings. But the unusual element here is that his father died before offering his fortuitous critique, and this alone is the reason I am writing to tell anyone interested about how this occurred. As odd as this might seem to the stranger, to the family of the writer it has become commonplace.
I met with Sparks a few times to refine Imagining the Dead but stayed with his family for many lengthy discussions on the course of his second novel when it became clear he had difficulty completing the book, in part due to pressure for which I may be responsible. Early on, I recommended that he complete the book swiftly to capitalize on the previous success, however moderate. In my defense, Sparks felt as much pressure from himself for many reasons, not least among them his fear that Imagining the Dead had been more flash-in-the-pan than tour-de-force.
With the modest goal of five hundred pages, he had produced a thousand at his father’s initial death, of which eight hundred had to be discarded. When I speak of pages, I mean page after page in tight, spikey handwriting; he wrote using a fountain pen and college-ruled notebook paper, so the lower edge of his left hand always had a blue discoloration. As he wrote his first novel, he enjoyed full support from his father and his mother. Even cousin Klaus did not yet object to his writing, since it had not interfered with his participation in their little combo in any serious way.
During his initial period of joyful creation, Sparks took time out to play with The Kraus Boys and had become the primary draw of the group. Sparks grew his signature chin beard at the behest of Klaus, a cousin from the German side of the family who played keyboard, xylophone, and accordion. At our first meeting, Klaus informed me his last name meant curly-haired, a fact he found humorous because he had not a hair on his head—or his chin, for that matter. He wore a faded orange newsboy cap when he played, about which he was superstitious. One story had it that when the cap went missing before a performance, his brother Hans found Klaus shivering in the bathroom, whispering, “Nein, mutter, nein,” and he would not come out until Hans returned the hat he took as a prank.
Once Sparks began working on his second book, the Kraus brothers alternated calling on him to join on a gig, Klaus promising that if he agreed to come back full time, they would add a percussionist and change the name to The Sparks May Quintet. Hans threw up his hands at last, but Klaus insisted his refusal was destroying the group and any possibility they had to make their living as musicians. Klaus Kraus’s initial distaste for me, partly due to my Italian heritage, grew into full-bloomed hatred at my insinuation into the life of the saxophonist he came to see as his personal salvation, even threatening to shoot me in my sleep.
In Klaus’s sense that I had blocked his path to greater musical success, he was not much deceived. I had taken Sparks’ hand-written manuscript, sent in over the transom, turned it into a marketable script, and seen it into print. At the time, I had no interest in anything but ingenious and masterful mystery or crime novels, and in Sparks I believed I had found a cash cow. Thus, I had stepped into a space Klaus imagined reserved for himself.
During this period, Klaus pursued his mania for body decoration. Beyond the piercings, including the hideous white loops inserted in his ear lobes that looked like nothing so much as hangers for a shower curtain, he sported tattoos of musical instruments and famous musicians on his right arm, up to his neck, and had begun on his torso, often going without a shirt to show them. I did find some merit in the massive accordion on his back framed as a jigsaw puzzle with spaces between individual pieces to show how they fit together. His bare left arm looked quite pale by contrast, as he had promised it to Sparks, having shown him a design of his own likeness on soprano sax if only Sparks would return.
Spark’s father’s belief in his son’s writing came in the form of financial and emotional support right from the moment he graduated from Ohio State until his own sudden death when Sparks was a year into the faltering second book. One rumor I will dispel here is that Taniel had been angered by his son’s adoption of a pen name. Taniel had the belief that no one would read a novel by someone named August Vardanyan, and they spent one leisurely afternoon arriving at a pen name. Both father and son were baseball aficionados in general, Indians (now, weirdly enough, The Guardians) fans in particular. They rarely missed an opening day no matter how cold; they took blankets and a thermos each of hot coffee laced with bourbon to warm up. Taniel had suggested the last name Mays because of his admiration for Willie Mays, even though he played for New York. Sparks edited this down to May because he liked the idea that his name sounded like the subject and verb of a sentence.
The thing that somewhat dampened Taniel’s spirits as his son started a second novel was the return of Millie from New York and Vermont. She had run to New York in the arms of a guitar player who passed through Akron as she graduated from high school. When that flame died, she went to live with Sparks’ adoptive Aunt Astrid in Vermont, whom she once visited with the Vardanyan family before the New York episode. With her short dark hair and hazel eyes, Taniel thought that Millie was too big for their house at only five feet two inches tall. She was a beauty, and that made her a potential threat in a home with a boy only one year her elder, and a boy with a spectacular future ahead of him if he stayed clear of girls.
Taniel had a history with the girl, for at her birth, her father Aren and her mother Anush had given Taniel’s parents, Barkev and Lara, the honor of standing as godparents at a time when that meant a great deal. In a further complication, Anush, Millie’s mother, had died of ‘inflamed’ heart, as Aren told it, when the daughter reached the difficult age of fourteen. The girl ran away from home at sixteen, getting no further than the Vardanyan front door, confiding in Anna that though she loved her old-world father, she would not live under the same roof, as his demands were oppressive for an American girl without a mother to soften his rule.
When Aren heard this from Barkev, rather than hit the roof, he begged his old friend to keep her for a short while, until her resistance dissipated. Barkev argued it would be unseemly for an old man with a sick wife to take a young girl into his lodgings, not to mention the heavy burden of responsibility for the grocery store he founded when he came to America. In truth, management of Kev’s had already passed to Taniel by this time, but Barkev panicked when he thought of taking responsibility for a teenage girl. Aren argued Millie could work in the grocery gratis, as she was both handy and a quick study, thus allowing him respite from labor.
As two bald old men discussed the fate of Millie, Anna, who had come to prepare dinner for Barkev and his incapacitated wife, came from the kitchen with a potato in the one hand and a paring knife in the other, scolding them for discussing the young woman as if her fate rested on their decision. This girl of sixteen needed a mature woman in her life, she argued, and concluded by informing them that Millie was, at that moment, asleep in the spare room of Anna’s house and would stay until she decided to return.
The men capitulated with relief, and Millie came to live in the Vardanyan home with Anna, Taniel, and seventeen-year-old August. As Taniel was distracted by the duties of running this grocery kingdom, the primary care of Millie fell gladly on Anna. Though the immigrant grandfather had been the force behind the creation of Kev’s, Taniel multiplied it to three stores at the height of his powers, eventually closing the less productive store to expand the original. Kev’s had become a staple of the community, but Sparks had neither ability nor interest in one day taking over where Taniel left off. He wanted to be an artist. At this point, he knew not what kind, for he drew passing well, played the saxophone, and wrote illustrated stories for the delight of classmates who found them ‘cool as bones’, according to Millie. Taniel loved his son all the more because he was bursting with energy and talent.
Millie did prove herself the diligent worker at Kev’s. Customers liked seeing her behind the counter, in the aisles, stocking or rearranging or dusting shelves. She had learned the business over the two years she lived with Taniel’s family, but she made him nervous at home. She spent much of her time in her room, doing homework, he presumed, though sometimes laughing with Sparks. She liked to watch him practice one of three saxophones Taniel purchased for him when he saw the boy had a gift. Sparks joined the high school jazz ensemble at the earnest prodding of the director and developed a taste for the earlier saxophonists Steve Lacey, Sidney Bechet, and, of course, John Coltrane. His favorite recording, Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew,” they listened to together, and sometimes he played along. As Taniel became convinced that Sparks would never take over the stores, he handed Millie greater latitude in the running of Kev’s, for which he was grateful enough to pay her increasingly well despite her father’s offer of indentured servitude.
Anna thought her a lovely young woman, helping with the cooking and cleaning, though Taniel harbored a suspicion Millie knew all too well what she was doing. But if his Anna was pleased, he tried not to worry so much. One evening, however, when he took an inclination to look at news before bed, he went down to the basement rumpus room in his robe and slippers to discover a large, writhing lump on the couch. He took his glasses from the pocket of his robe, slipped them over his ears, and blinked to make sense of what he saw: Sparks and Millie, their arms around one another, one face locked on the other at the mouth.
As his mind cleared, the figures became more individual, as both teenagers stood before him waiting in silence. So confused was he that he could think of nothing to say besides, “I am going to watch some news. You kids, make yourselves scarce.” They galloped up the basement stairs as he mumbled, “We will talk about this later.” To his credit or his shame, he never knew which, he did not mention it again and never saw further evidence of what he almost doubted he had seen. As he sat on his side of the bed later that night, Anna slept soundly with her back to him. Climbing in beside her, he pulled the cover over him and his last thought before sleep was this was as much her fault for bringing Millie as theirs for giving into inevitable feelings.
Taniel slept on it that night and the next until the incident lost urgency and faded completely out of significance when August went off to college far enough away in Columbus to be safe. He did return at vacations to play with The Kraus Boys at gigs about town. When Millie graduated and ran off with the guitar boy, that, Taniel supposed, was it. Two years later, Sparks came home and told his father he wanted to write a mystery novel, and thus Taniel became enthusiastic about the new preoccupation, encouraging his son to write in the house where he grew up. Thus, Sparks began work on a first novel, and, miracle of miracles, presented him with a published copy with the inscribed dedication: “To my Dad, Taniel Vardanyan, without whom nothing that was made would be made.”
Taniel understood his son had been grateful for support and looked upon him as a source of life. This filled the father with slowly spreading warmth as the first year after the publication of Imagining the Dead went by, and then, one bright afternoon when he went out to the curb to wheel the trash and recycling bins to the backyard from the morning pickup, he did not come back. He lay there for half an hour before Anna missed him, and while she searched the house, Sparks came down the stairs and ran past her. Outside, at the curb, he found his father lying between the green trash and recycling bins on his side, as if asleep. When he looked back at the house, his mother stood in the front doorway, holding the door open.
At the same time, Millie leaned out of a window upstairs, having raised the screen so she could see better. Whereas Anna’s face, her white hair flared like a halo, had the look of having opened, Millie’s was closing. Sparks had difficulty taking his eyes off them as if everything he needed to know about what transpired was contained in this image. You no doubt recognize this moment as a scene in Deadly Imaginings. At this point, he had no idea what had happened to his father, whose body lay on the ground at his feet between the two large bins. He imagined a heart attack, a stroke, even though his father had no medical history to that effect.
As he kneeled beside Taniel, he noticed a burn mark on top of his head and a gaping hole without the presence of bleeding. The stillness in Taniel’s wrist led him to set his fingers into his father’s throat. It occurred to him that someone shot his father in the head, but who would want to shoot Taniel? Perhaps some complication with Kev’s? A loan taken with sharks? It occurred to him that Klaus Kraus, who threatened to shoot me in my sleep, could have done this, which put himself as root cause, because he well knew Klaus’s animosity had grown to include not only Sparks’ writing and his editor, but Taniel for supporting his son’s ridiculous obsession when Klaus believed—correctly—that his true vocation was the saxophone.
When Sparks stood up, looking down at his father, he had no eagerness to confront the women on the porch and in the window. He stood a minute or two during which time his father sat up, one hand on his head, his eyes obviously not yet ready to focus. The hot flash that already had Sparks in its grip grew hotter. It clutched his head so tightly it made his hair bristle. He knew with certainty Taniel had died. As proof, his body still lay on the ground, as it had fallen, with a ragged hole in the head. But in the image of his father sitting up, out of his own body, the head had no such aperture. When his father’s eyes focused on his son’s face, he said, “Sparks,” as if surprised to see him. “I need to speak with you.”
The combination of the body on the ground and Taniel sitting up rendered Sparks silent. His mouth went so dry it would scarcely open, the inside of his cheeks and tongue stuck together with crazy glue. When his father asked, “What’s wrong, son?” it got worse. Heat flashed through his head so wild and hot that the only thing keeping him from falling was a desire not to join the body on the ground.
Sparks could only stare at the Taniel who stood before him, hands on his hips, wondering what had so confounded his son that he stood there with his mouth open. With some irritation, Taniel told his son, “I’m going in, unless you have something to say for yourself.”
Sparks followed his father to the door, which Anna held open for him, clearly avoiding the possibility that he might brush against her. Millie came crashing down the stairs to stand dumbstruck at the bottom, staring at Taniel with her mouth open so that Sparks registered a darkness inside her mouth he later doubted he had seen.
Still on the porch, Sparks turned back toward the body lying between garbage bins. He did not have the power of speech, though he now wondered what, if anything, he should do about the body of his father on the devil strip. Now, it returned to him that he had in fact heard a sound that first brought him to an upstairs window, where he saw his father lying as if shot. He heard that sound again in his mind, as he recalled it, and it shook him as it had before, like a bolt out of the blue. Had that been the shot that felled his father? And now he considered blaming Klaus for the shooting, though his mind swarmed with any alternative.
He looked about furtively, wondering if any neighbors witnessed what transpired, but the street and sidewalk and the yards seemed empty, as if they fell silent to make room for the death of his father, as if the death of his father had been the still eye of a storm, or the invisible space between lightning and thunder. On impulse, he grabbed his father’s left arm at the wrist and began backing toward the house. The body came without resistance, and because his father’s shoulders lifted off the ground, his head fell back, looking blankly at Sparks from upside down.
At that moment, he realized the reason his father seemed so light. Millie had the other wrist in her hands, pulling with him. They knew Taniel felt nothing. If nothing else, the image of Taniel entering the house ahead of them left no alternative. A man’s soul did not leave his body until he died. It left no blood trail, so, without discussion, they dragged the body to the door, and as his mother held it for them, they pulled the body through and kept going, even after the door slammed shut behind them. But the problem presented itself as to whether they should take the body upstairs or down, as it was clear it could not remain on the ground floor, where the family would have to continue the rituals of life. He did notice that his father sat at the end of the dining room table with his back to him, Anna on his right, keeping the corner of the table between them. Prior to going out to bring in the bins, he had been playing a game of Solitaire on this table, and he picked up where he left off, giving no heed to the shock on his wife’s face.
He did not seem to notice as Sparks and Millie dragged his body past the table on their way into the kitchen, though they both felt certain he knew what they were doing. The greatest difficulty arrived as they dragged his body down the basement stairs on its back, bumping on every step. At the bottom of the stairs, they took a moment to catch their breath. When Sparks pulled the arm in his hands taut, he said to Millie, “All right,” and they began pulling him across the concrete floor, past the washer and dryer, toward a corner where he would not be visible through basement windows. They dropped his arms and stood staring into each other’s eyes. Sparks moved around the body toward Millie, and they wrapped their arms around each other, holding each other tight enough that they might not have to consider what any of this meant.
As was revealed later, in his first year at Ohio State, they made opportunities to be together, Sparks driving home and climbing to Millie’s bedroom above a small abutment in the roof where the kitchen had once been expanded. When her high school football team played in the championship game in Columbus, she went on the school bus but never attended a game, and they never left the hotel room except to call for food and wine. The itinerant guitarist had no idea what he got himself involved in when he absconded with his Armenian beauty. He came to suspect he had been a convenience to get out of town, away from the fellow she loved, and who he called her brother in their arguments before she went up to Vermont to stay with Aunt Astrid, her own father’s younger sister. Astrid taught music at the nearby university and was only too glad to take her in, though when she understood Millie’s dilemma, made it understood that Millie and Sparks, who she called Auggie, had no bloodlines in common, nothing but a common heritage of those who fled the Turks in years gone by. The families had not known each other before they showed up in Akron and became fast friends. Astrid told her if she loved the boy and believed he still loved her she had no alternative but to go back to Akron to see what sparks may flare-up.
When they hurried back up from the basement, where they left the body, they poked their heads into the dining room. Taniel and Anna sat talking and laughing, reminiscing of their love for one another. Sparks and Millie took each other’s hand, ran up the stairs, and disappeared into his bedroom until dark, at which time they showered and came down because they smelled dinner cooking. When they walked in the kitchen, Anna, at the stove, shrugged and said, “God’s ways are not our own. He’s waiting, Sparks. Millie, stay in here and help me for a moment?”
Sparks stepped into the dining room with trepidation. His father sat at the end of the table, a serious but enigmatic look on his face, as befits a dead man. Sparks took a seat and watched his father’s face as Taniel watched his. Taniel started to speak, thought better of it, and waited another minute or two while Sparks took in this new reality, finally asking his father the only question he could think to speak: “What are you still doing here?”
Taniel told him, “I read your novel yesterday and couldn’t keep out of my mind that it is not working.” Sparks remained silent. He did not want to interrupt his deceased father.
“When I went out to bring in the bins, it occurred to me like a bolt from the blue what you need to fix the book. It came in a flash. Maybe get your friend Joseph to come out so we may discuss it.”
Sparks nodded, and after dinner—by the way, Taniel did not eat—Sparks gave me a call. I caught a flight and shivered an hour or two as we conversed with a dead man. It was his idea to include both the ghost story and the love story that marked the novel as superlative.
The next day, we interviewed Klaus to determine if he had a hand in the death, but he had been in Cleveland performing at a restaurant. Sparks regretted giving up performance and agreed to a reduced schedule, gaining Klaus’s discretion. Work on the novel came fast and furious after this. Anna tended the body in the basement, which, though vacant, picked up enough energy to wake for dinner. She fed it soup once a day, and, as if by previous agreement, it did not begin deteriorating until the evening Taniel told her the time had come.
Before first light, at Anna’s direction, we took the body out and lay it where it had fallen, between the two bins. A week after his first death, at pick-up the next morning, sanitary workers discovered him. Taniel had finally gone where spirits of the happy dead must go.
The coroner discovered that Taniel had been struck by lightning, a bolt out of the blue. It had not been storming the afternoon the bolt split body from soul, but it hit him, nevertheless. It is my conjecture that at the moment he shook off this mortal coil, he had seen in a brilliant flash the completed novel. When this happened, he could not leave until he told it to his son. This second book, Taniel told Sparks, would be dedicated to Milena, who he would be free to marry, the one, he explained, they called Millie.
Deadly Imaginings came out to greater success than the first novel. Sparks and Millie Vardanyan married and welcomed into their lives little Daniel Aren Vardanyan, to the delight of both Millie’s aged father and Barkev, whose wife at last succumbed to devastating complications of Alzheimer’s disease. Grandma Anna and Millie do well with the remaining Kev’s, having sold the second to invest in yet another expansion of the original. They all live together in what they call their “little crooked house,” and Sparks plays regularly with The Sparks May Quintet, which has resulted in a number of fairly popular albums. Klaus followed through with his plans for the unadorned arm, and the result is a marvel. Anyway, that’s the way that second book came into its own. The novel wanted so badly to be born it came to Taniel on a bolt of lightning, so swiftly he had no time to die—not until he conveyed the message to his only son.
Robert Pope has published a novel, Jack's Universe, as well two collections of stories, Private Acts and Killers & Others (2020) and a chapbook of flash fiction, Shutterbug. He has also published stories in journals, including The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Fiction International, and anthologies, including Pushcart Prize and Dark Lane Anthology.