The man who had been nicknamed The Count wanted to know if I was a painter.
“Not really,” I said. But I could see why he would think that. I was standing in the middle of the alley holding a heavy painter’s brush and looking down on a row of dusty cans of Benjamin-Moore blue, and Sherman-Williams yellow among others. I had just finished covering the graffiti scrawled across the back of my dad’s garage the day before. But the white paint over the stucco wall seemed too clean for the alley. It needed to be scarred.
“Paint me. I am handsome, yes?” The Count said, then offered a wide grin. He placed the two plastic bags he had been carrying down, and struck a pose pointing one foot slightly forward, then put his right hand on his hip. He thrust his rounded chin out and cast his eyes toward the sky. Even in our worn down alley, where weeds sprouted from cracks in the asphalt, he reminded me of oil paintings of Napoleon, or George Washington.
“I don’t paint people,” I told him. “I just thought I would add some color.”
For almost two years since he moved into the neighborhood, The Count always dressed in a midnight blue, three piece suit. On colder days, he would wear a black wool cloak draped over his shoulders. A black felt beret always covered his head, and a long, thick, graying ponytail hung down the back of his neck. The Count always carried bulging plastic bags that dangled from his gloved hands. The bags came from the Walgreens nearby on San Fernando Road. Neighbors in the area had nicknamed him The Count not only because of the way he dressed but also because his eye teeth were long. He was like Count-Chocula in real life. The very sight of him coming down the alley made boys turn their bikes and skateboards around toward the opposite end.
The Count lived in a converted garage behind a house that belonged to an older woman I knew only as Mama Sarkis. She was at least 90 years old and she ate a lot of yogurt with diced Persian cucumbers. People said that’s likely what kept her strong and healthy enough to maintain a house and guest room on her own. The entrance to The Count’s room faced the alley and he had a clear view of the back of my dad’s garage from a small window just to the right of his door. Sometimes, boys dared each other to bang hard on the wall of his home hoping to catch a glimpse of The Count’s room before they ran. But The Count would open then shut the door quick, leaving most kids to imagine a coffin, candelabras, and cobwebs. I had watched him a few times from my bedroom window which also faced the alley. He always kept his eyes down and never spoke to anyone, which is why I wondered if The Count was experiencing a late case of spring fever. He seemed giddy as he struck a pose in the alley and his voice was nothing like I had imagined. It was kind of gravely, like that of a man who needed to clear the phlegm from the back of his throat. He spoke with an accent similar to my dad’s. He pulled a long, thin cigarette away from his full lips and smiled, exposing his yellowed eye teeth.
“That’s OK, my dear. You paint what you like,” he said, as cigarette smoke flowed from his nostrils.
“I don’t know what that is yet,” I said.
Before he paused to speak with me, I had been staring at the back of my dad’s garage for about a half hour, kind of hypnotized. They say if you look straight into a white wall long enough, you’ll get that way, like you’re stoned or stuck in a day dream.
“You have no school?” he asked. I was surprised.
I thought of The Count as someone everyone else watched, but who never gathered information on us.
“It’s summer break,” I said. “I’m supposed to be at a special arts and photography program in San Francisco, but my dad wouldn’t let me go.”
I’m not sure why I told him that, but I was still so mad at my dad that I think I had to complain.
“Photography? Will you take my picture?” he asked.
“No. I can’t,” I replied. I was trying to be nice, but I was annoyed.
“What kind of pictures do you like to take?” he asked.
“I want to be a photojournalist,” I told him. “But I probably won’t be.”
The Count had been standing in the sun while we talked. He placed the cigarette back between his lips, picked up the plastic bags he brought with him, and walked across the alley to stand under a rusted awning that hung above the door of his home. He stayed there for a moment, then changed his mind. He placed his bags on the ground again. He found an abandoned shopping cart nearby, pushed it over to the shade, then tilted it so that it sat on its side, its wheels suspended and twirling around. Before sitting on the cart, he lifted the tails of his suit, then folded his hands in his lap and looked up at me.
“I really can’t.”
“You do your best,” he said.
I kept going, every now and then turning around to memorize pieces of The Count’s face—the shadow under his bottom lip, slightly over the meat of his chin.
I turned my back to him and opened a few cans of paint. I poured drops the size of pancakes into my mixing tin. I played with the colors for a while, blending white with yellow, and adding some brown. I created a dark beige, then lightened it up again with white, and tapped in some red. What I made was a pretty good skin tone. I held my breath as I gripped the brush with the new color and began to dab it over the white stucco, feeling the hairs move over the tiny bumps of the wall. Little by little, dabs came together and I created a giant oval shape as tall and wide as I could reach, then brought my brush back to my mixing tin, caught some brown and a little black. I kept going, every now and then turning around to memorize pieces of The Count’s face—the shadow under his bottom lip, slightly over the meat of his chin. I grabbed more black for his thick, arched eyebrows. I started to feel good. I lightened the color for the nostrils set at an angle from his jaw line. I dipped my brush in again and found some red to create melon, the color for his generous lips. I ignored his teeth that jutted out. I took more brown and black for the shade of darkness under his eyes. His eyes. I hadn’t looked.
“You OK?” My mom had been standing in the alley watching, her arms crossed over her chest. She used her eyes to point at the man on the cart.
“Yeah, I’m just painting The Cou…our neighbor.”
My mom turned toward him for a moment. I knew she wasn’t afraid of him, but she didn’t expect to see me hanging out with a stranger. She kept her arms crossed, and I blushed with shame as she spoke to me in Spanish, asking if I really was OK, as if The Count was holding me hostage.
“My mom asked if you would like some water,” I lied to The Count.
“No. No, thank you,” he replied bashfully. As my mom walked away, she looked back, but I pretended not to see her. I didn’t want The Count to feel as if we were gossiping about him through our stares.
“Your mama is Spanish?” The Count asked.
“She’s Cuban,” I said as I painted.
“Ah, I visited Cuba once. Muy boe-nee-toe!” the Count said in his best Spanish. “I once sat in the place where Hemingway used to drink.”
“Yes…your father…Cuban too?”
“No. He’s Middle Eastern,” I said.
I felt the tips of my ears burn. For a moment, I wanted to put the brush down and walk away. Instead, I dabbed faster, harder, the anger resurfacing as I thought of my dad.
“From Iraq” I said. “He’s Assyrian.”
“Syrian? Me too! I am Armenian from Syria,” he said.
I kept on painting. I was going to let it go as I usually did because I hated everything about this conversation. I was angry that people kept asking me if I was part of a terrorist group. But I felt I had to correct him because I also was tired of not existing.
“No, he’s Assyrian. Uh-Syrian,” I said, then I paused to give him a chance to tell me he didn’t know what that was, or that Assyrians were a prehistoric race long gone as one librarian once said to me, or that there was no “Assyria” on any map according to my sixth grade teacher, or that a people without a country, who were scattered across the world, were as good as nobodies, as my dad always said after drinking two cans of beer.
When I told my aunt once I felt invisible, she nodded in understanding.
“We are a people who are the color of wet sand and hearts filled with sorrow,” she said. “To be one of us is to be forgotten by the world.”
But The Count’s expression changed.
“Ah, yeah, yeah…Ashouri,” he said with glee. “We call them Ah-ShOOR-ee. They are a very ancient people, once very good warriors. I knew an Ashouri once. He was my friend. We built big buildings together in Damascus. When I see your father, I will tell him, hello my Ashouri friend!”
I turned toward him and I noticed The Count was looking down. I could tell his mind was somewhere in Damascus, maybe even remembering the Assyrian.
“Were you an architect?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I built houses for dignitaries and generals. Mansions with many rooms and fountains in the gardens. They threw parties for me. I wore this suit…”
He had kept his hands folded on his lap the whole afternoon. His closed lips formed a slight smile, but I could tell he was choking on sadness.
“I came here because of the war,” he said. “My wife cried all the time in Syria. When we came here, I found no work. They told me I needed to go to school again to be an architect. I once built palaces. But here they won’t even let me build a garage. I wanted to go back to Syria, but my wife told me she wanted to be free. She took my daughter and went to San Jose. Now she lives with another man.”
A car passed through the alley as he spoke, forcing me to move my paint cans back and forth, but I continued to dab and add color. As The Count remembered his former life, I realized I hadn’t looked at anyone or anything in weeks the way I looked at him while I painted. I suppose there are worse things than to be an artist who isn’t allowed to see. When I was invited to attend a free summer program for young artists in San Francisco, I told my friend Anita, who warned me during lunchtime that I should forget about it.
“You won’t go,” she said, before she bit into a pita bread, feta cheese, and tomato sandwich.
“Your dad is too overprotective. Our parents don’t go for that shit.”
So I was ready to defy her and my dad. He was unimpressed when I told him I had earned a spot in the class. I had always sketched and painted. I started taking candid photos for the yearbook last year and I asked my teacher to help me apply to the program.
“Why do you want to go so far?” my dad asked, when I looked at maps on the Internet, eager to learn everything about San Francisco.
“You’re crazy,” he argued. “You have a house, a bed, and food. You’re 14-years-old. Everything you need is here.”
Yes, I was 14. But I didn’t care about boys or beer or the black tar heroin my classmates bought in the parking lot of the strip mall we called the tar pits. I didn’t spend hours at salons straightening my thick, dark brown hair, or waxing my eyebrows until they were perfect black strips across my forehead. I just wanted to go. So much so, that during algebra and history classes my leg shook up and down like a jack hammer under my desk. I twirled my pen around my fingers like I had seen drummers do in those music videos from the 1980s my mom liked to watch. I sketched in my notebook the girls who sat next to me or else the back of boys’ heads. My teachers complained that I was restless. But I was as focused as anyone could be. I wanted what I wanted and the only one in my way was my dad, who didn’t appreciate that I didn’t give him any trouble.
“I have to go!” I had yelled at him the day I was set to leave. Why couldn’t he understand that I needed to travel, to be in the world, to see it inside out, to capture people in motion, people living. I never asked for much, I told him. This is who I wanted to become. But he wanted me home, to sit and wait out my desires in the tiny Glendale home where I grew up, in a neighborhood packed with small houses and apartments where the pretty Armenian and Middle Eastern girls rarely ventured out and only met boys at church. He wanted the neighbors to know I wasn’t wild hearted, or that I had left because my family was bad to me.
“We are so few,” my dad had said with calm. “A family that is split apart is nothing.”
But I walked away anyway that day toward the bus stop with my backpack slung on my shoulder. I knew if I took bus No. 92 on San Fernando Road, I would get to Union Station in downtown L.A. There, I would buy a train ticket with the money I saved to San Francisco. I also knew as I walked away that I shouldn’t have looked back. But I did. There he was, standing on the corner of Irving Avenue and Glenwood Road where I used to wait for him to return home from work. He looked wounded, and even from where I stood, I could see his hazel eyes watered.
I was not as brave as I had imagined myself to be all those months before summer started, when I lay on my bed to stare at the dozens of pictures I had torn out of old National Geographic magazines that the library didn’t want anymore. In my mind, I was Margaret Bourke-White, documenting wars or else finding the remaining Assyrians in the mountains of Iraq my father told me about. I imagined I would be like Graciela Iturbide, discovering villages where roofs sagged under sun and dust. I would arrive into cities filled with people with expressions that revealed anguish or pleasure. I thought of myself walking through towns, cool and friendly and laughing as children pointed and stroked the camera around my neck. I even made up conversations I would have with locals while I drew them in my sketch book. They would invite me into their homes, offer me black tea and baklava. The photographs I would take would be featured on the covers of those same magazines I memorized. I wanted to make each man or woman I met a somebody to the world.
But he had always gotten his way. My father, who wasn’t even a very tall man, whose people had no country, whose language was almost dead, could hurt me with a few words and then silence. Even as I sat inside Union Station, a train ticket in my hand, his stare pulled me back. I stayed there only an hour before I took the No. 92 bus back home. It was too hard to hurt him. The Count was right: Assyrians were good warriors.
The first week into the summer I didn’t talk to my friends. I just kept to myself, and slept almost all day on top of the new, lilac colored comforter my mom bought for me because she thought it would make me happy. I listened as trains passed on tracks only two blocks away, their horns blowing loud as they sped by. I tried to imagine all the places where they stopped. My hands started shaking during the second week while I was unpacking the clothes from my backpack. My dad had come home from work, from the factory where he assembled airplane seats, and found me sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor. I rocked back and forth and cried. My legs felt weak even though I wasn’t standing.
“Why are you crying?” he asked. “No one has died. Come and have dinner.”
But I felt like he was killing me inside and my mom understood. She had seen the way my foot shook under the kitchen table, how I popped chewing gum into my mouth, then threw it away and took another. In the meantime, dust began to gather between the lever and shutter speed dial on a classic Pentax K-1000 I had bought at a second-hand shop a few blocks from my house. I told my mom that if I couldn’t use it the way I wanted, there was no point in having it at all. She never was the type to listen to my dramatic proclamations. Instead, she had noticed the graffiti on the back of the garage and asked my dad if I could paint over it. I heard my dad tell my mom that the alley was no place for a girl. I knew he was imagining me getting dragged into a garage or beaten and robbed by tweekers. But my mother insisted. She said she would buy the paints for me herself. They argued like that for a while until she came into my room, winked, and gave me the thumbs up.
Both she and I knew there was little danger in the alley. The Count was like the neighborhood stray cat that chased away the mice. Only a few neighborhood boys had chosen to gather further down the mouth of the alley to smoke bidis or play kick ball with giant avocados that had fallen into the alley from an overflowing backyard tree. It was obvious many feared The Count because whomever spray painted on my dad’s garage was in too much of a hurry and wrote “Fuk d cops.” As I worked and tried to forget how I gave up and gave in to the familiarity of home, the dabs of colorful paint came together and the Count’s face began to surface from the stucco. But my arm began to hurt and I stopped.
“How can I know what to look for if I’m not allowed to go out there to see?” I said aloud to the wall.
“Nothing out there is different than it is here,” The Count replied.
I turned to him and he had stood up and lit a cigarette.
“But it is,” I said.
“You can find battlefields of suffering anywhere,” he said. “You can find the people you imagine in faraway places right around the corner. Everything and everyone you need is right here.”
I threw my brush down hard, and some melon-colored paint splattered onto my sneakers and the cuffs of my jeans. A drop hit the painting, right on The Count’s cheek.
“Maybe your wife left you because you didn’t let her live,” I said before I could stop. The words shot out of my mouth like a rock in the hand of a neighborhood bully who pelted anyone who came in his field of vision. The Count gave me a long look, then turned his back. He pulled a set of keys from his pocket, picked up his two plastic bags and walked to the door of his apartment.
I remember learning that it was the time of day known to photographers as the magic hour, when the sun dips below the horizon and there’s a gold tone to the sky, making the sharp edges of buildings look soft or the lines around the eyes or lips seem harmless.
“Wait here,” The Count said. What I told him just kind of hung over the alley along with the smell of my mom’s fried plantains from my house and the Persian kabobs on barbecues from neighbors’ backyards. Even though it was still light out, it was getting late. I remember learning that it was the time of day known to photographers as the magic hour, when the sun dips below the horizon and there’s a gold tone to the sky, making the sharp edges of buildings look soft or the lines around the eyes or lips seem harmless. The Count opened the door to his room. I froze, thinking that maybe he was going to get a knife or a gun. After a few minutes passed, I took a deep breath and walked toward the open door. As I got close, I felt cool air come from the darkness.
“Hello?” I said into the darkness. “I’m sorry.”
I tried to keep my eyes down in respect, but I couldn’t. I looked inside and saw dozens of boxes lined neatly against the walls, piled from floor to ceiling. The Count had disappeared into a maze of cardboard, so I dipped my head inside further. The boxes were all new. Each one contained some kind of small appliance, like a toaster oven or a clock radio and those mini-grills on special at the drug store. There was a blow dryer, a curling iron, a coffee maker, and Corningware dishes, all still in boxes. The Count emerged suddenly. He offered me a fresh, damp towel for my hands, but without a smile.
“Thank you,” I said, not looking at him. “You have a lot of things. Do you sell them?”
The Count ignored the question for a moment, then looked up at the mural of his face.
“I have no house and I have no wife,” he said. “All I have is a few clothes and this suit, and many things for my daughter who is getting married.”
I kept wiping my hands, wondering if he was a hoarder of some sort.
“Do you ever get scared someone will come and rob you?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “No one comes here.”
“Don’t you ever think of moving to a bigger place? It’s too small for you and your things. You deserve better than to live in this…hole.”
The Count shook his head, then smiled at me, his eye teeth resting on his full lower lip.
“My dear, we come out of a hole when we are born,” he said. “They put us in a hole when we die. If you have no one to love and no one loves you, you may as well live in a hole too.”
He disappeared back inside his home and closed the door. I stood there with the towel, waiting for him. I felt as if I had ruined our time together. I turned toward my painting. The sky began to darken. An alley light flickered on and I saw my father standing close by looking at the giant face. My dad had told me a story once about how his father had bought him a pencil for his first day of school. But when his father discovered that my dad used the pencil to sketch soldiers and racecars into his notebook, my grandfather yanked it from his hands. He slapped my dad across his forehead, and yelled that the pencil was only for school. I remember asking my dad how much that pencil had cost, if it was a fancy one that had to be refilled with lead.
“No, it wasn’t fancy,” my dad had said. “It cost only a penny.”
I asked him why my grandpa had gotten so angry.
“I think he was afraid,” my dad had said. “He was afraid of what I could do with that pencil. He was afraid my dreams would take me away from him.”
As I thought about that story, my dad studied my painting of The Count. He pointed out that there were no eyes. I told him I wanted to finish it into the night and just as he was about to argue, The Count opened his door slightly and peeked outside.
“Shlama Ashoury my friend!” The Count said. He laughed a little as he tried to greet my dad with the few Assyrian words he knew. My father went toward him, but with some caution.
“Barev, barev,” my dad said in the Armenian language.
The two men shook hands and stumbled around with each other’s languages for a few seconds until they settled on Arabic. I listened to them speak as I moved my brush to add strokes of highlights and shadows. Finally, I was ready. I read in an art magazine that people think it’s the color of the eyes that reveal the soul, but really, it’s the skin around them that tells you more; the droop of the lids, the fragile lines etched at the corners, the crease between the brows. And then it is the color that comes through, the light green, like that of sun-nourished spring leaves, surrounded by a hint of caramel brown.
“Soon, it is my daughter’s wedding day,” the Count told my father in English. “I have many presents to give her, but she does not want these things from me. I am nobody to her.”
My father spoke to him in Arabic again and I didn’t understand what they were discussing, only that it sounded as if they were arguing and my dad kept shaking his head.
The Count then sighed heavily and I turned to see that my dad nodded and the men shook hands again. The Count then closed the door.
“That looks good,” my dad said turning to me. “Come inside and eat.”
All night I thought of my painting, of what I could do better, where to add light to the iris, how much more depth I could give The Count’s beret. I fell asleep to the sound of the train’s horns blowing long and loud down on San Fernando Road.
In the morning, I dressed and went to inspect my work. The paint had almost dried and it seemed to me that the colors had dulled. It was early and I didn’t want to knock on The Count’s door. So I spent part of the day dabbing more color to add texture. I was still angry at my dad, but I also felt sad I had nothing to look forward to in the summer. In two months, I’d be starting high school and that made me wonder if I would change and leave all my dreams of going to faraway places behind. I wondered if my dad was going to win. I left my painting to look for finishing spray inside my dad’s garage, and when I came back to The Count’s image, I found three neighborhood women had gathered around and were speaking in Armenian. I knew they were all widows, because they all wore black. And they all wore their gray hair in buns.
“I am sorry. My English no good,” one said to me. “But it’s very good picture. Very good.” Another pointed a wrinkled finger at me.
“You come tomorrow and paint us. We three are friends since little girls.” She then pointed toward her house and told me they would wait for me there. I looked up the alley and imagined the back of each garage with images of the neighborhood.
As I went to tell my mom what had happened, I knocked on The Count’s door, excited about my news. It was late afternoon, but there was no answer.
“I’m worried,” I told my mom later.
“Maybe he sat outside in the sun too long and he’s tired,” my mom said. “Try again tomorrow.”
The next day I set up my paints and brushes ready to paint the three friends, but I couldn’t start. I went to see if The Count was home. I needed to ask him his name at least, something I was ashamed of not doing sooner. I knocked hard on his door. Nothing. So I turned the knob. The door opened. I hesitated when I felt the cool air on my face.
There was a smell of Pine Sol. I took a few steps into the maze of boxes until I reached a tiny twin bed. It was neatly made up with a pretty lilac comforter. My Raggedy Ann doll sat on a pillow and next to the doll was my camera. The space between the wind lever and shutter speed dial had been cleaned. Raggedy Ann held a note in her hands. The words were written in cursive.
“My dear,” the note began. “Me and your father talked. These things are yours to keep or sell. This place is yours to come and go for the summer. I was a nobody, but you made me into a somebody. Be patient. Listen. See the world with both eyes open even when you look through your camera lens. I promise, one day you will feel like you are part of the world. You will be a somebody. Your friend, William. The Count.”