"West of West" by Benjamin Woodside Schrier



***


You may be surprised to learn it is still possible to send a telegram. I was certainly surprised when, not so long ago, a boy in a cobalt uniform rang my doorbell and handed me an envelope with a telegram inside. His uniform was the same color as the front door and at first this was unsettling. It was as if he’d been stuck inside the door and I’d set him free by popping open the latch. But the weight of the envelope in my hand was reassuring. So were his peaked cap and the shiny buttons on his blouse. They recalled the golden age of railroads, and milk deliveries, and the sort of pudgy, neutered policemen who appeared in movies before the Second World War.

Of course, nefarious characters have also dressed this way. I remembered, from my history books in high school, the photographs of the Gestapo in their immaculate livery. The men smiling with their eyes but not their mouths. Rank for some reason inversely correlated to height. But here in Los Angeles, on a cool summer morning, the dew on the lawn glistening, soon to evaporate, the hooded orioles wheeting and chucking in the palm trees, the boy could only mean well. There could be no tyranny in this city on the edge of the desert, other than the tyranny of drought.


The boy didn’t wait for a tip. He gave a little bow, turned smartly on his heel, and crunched away across the gravel. I opened the envelope carefully, without tearing the flap, and read the message inside:


DEAR DR. CLAIRE GOOD MORNING STOP OR PERHAPS WHEN YOU GET THIS IT WILL BE AFTERNOON OR EVENING STOP I HAVE LEARNED OF YOUR SEARCH FOR A CERTAIN PAINTING STOP I BELIEVE I HAVE WHAT YOU ARE LOOKING FOR STOP MEET ME AT SEVEN O’CLOCK P.M. THIS SATURDAY AT 808 IN EAST HOLLYWOOD STOP WELL I SUPPOSE IT IS ON THE BORDER BETWEEN EAST HOLLYWOOD AND SILVER LAKE STOP YOURS IN ADVENTURE SARKIS HARUTUNIAN M.A. (CANTAB)

I did not know any Sarkis Harutunian. Naturally, for the next few days, I thought of little else besides his message. In idle moments the jumbled letters of his name rose to the surface and arranged themselves in the hot red soup between my ears. Especially his first name. The sibilance interrupted by a voiceless velar stop. It had to be a masculine name. And Armenian, I assumed.


This was confirmed at the Los Feliz branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, where I found a yellowed copy of Kapan’s Encyclopedia of Armenian Names in the back near the potted ferns. Sarkis means shepherd or protector. Harutunian means resurrection. This seemed redundant. We get it, I wanted to tell his parents. Your son is a Christian. Yes, they would have replied. And did you know Armenia was the first Christian country in the world? In the reign of Tiridates III… And so on. Most Armenians you meet will eventually tell you such things. They know their history because so much of it has been lost or taken away.


I couldn’t find any trace of him on the Internet. I read about Sarkis Harutunian the personal injury lawyer in Newport Beach, and Sarkis Harutunian the used Audi salesman in Glendale, and Sarkis Harutunian the fourth-place finisher in his age group at last year’s Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot in Calabasas. I knew right away from their pictures they couldn’t be him. The lawyer may have helped secure one of the largest jury verdicts in Orange County history; but he’d never been anyone’s in adventure, not even his own.


It occurred to me that I might check the phone book. The literal physical one. There’s something about a man who sends a telegram that suggests he may be listed there. The newest edition the library had was almost a decade old, but it didn’t matter. There he was, filling a third of a yellow page:


HARUTUNIAN & HARUTUNIAN: PURVEYORS OF FINE ANTIQUES AND ARTWORK. PAINTINGS, SCULPTURES, STAINED GLASS, ETC. WATCHES TOO. NO ONE IS MORE EXPERT. TRAINED AT THE WORLD FAMOUS CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY IN ENGLAND. SE HABLA ESPAÑOL.


I called the number. It rang until the beep. I’d have to wait until Saturday to meet this man who sold ancient things in a city where classic means the 1950s.