It’s 1963. I’ve quit my teaching job ($4,000 a year) at Fresno High to try working full time as a commercial artist. Got a new home (Trend Homes by Spano, $12,000). Decide my birthday party needs a bottle of red wine (about a half gallon of Gallo Chianti, the kind in a husk basket because I think it will look good with my books on their plank and cinderblock book case.
I drive a couple blocks to Jackson Jones Liquor on the corner of Shields and West, park an old gray Chevy sedan I’ve named Moby, walk in, head straight for the wine display. Wow. Only one left down there on the bottom shelf. Just about to grab its dusty neck, when a huge hairy-knuckled hand beats me to it. Really it’s a tie, but I give in.
“All yours,” I say, “Mr. Saroyan.” For I’m looking straight into the fire and ashes of the legend’s face. First encounter with the man I’ve chased, spotted and missed in the Mecca Pool Hall, Blackstone Billiards, Ryan’s Arena, The Fresno Public Library. At The Big Fresno Fair, the Stockton, Pleasanton and Del Mar Race Tracks. Duke’s Place, Janofsky’s Pub, The Old Fresno, Duggan’s Yack and Snack, Darby’s Tavern, the Greyhound Bus Terminal, the Bike Shop on Shields and Wishon, The Fresno YMCA (the day Abe Davidian was shot to death down the block), and twice in San Francisco on what proved to be bogus leads.
He’s off to another display. No smile or thank you. Off before I can thank him for his body of work. Off before I can share a story about one of the bookies we have shared. One who’d cheated us. One we busted. One like Papa Joe who forgave us the juice when we were busted. God knows I’ve been told the stories. But, man, it would be great to hear one from him.
No such luck. I choose another bottle of wine. Unadorned. Probably not even a cork. Fuck it. I don’t care any more.
“Can I see some I.D.?”
It’s a new girl behind the counter, checking me out.
“You’re kidding, right?” I spread my wallet out in front of her. “I’m thirty-one, for Christ’s sake.” I hold the proof up for her and a few gawking patrons. “Five. Five. Thirty-two.”
From one of the people in line waiting behind me. Big voice. Like thunder. “Cinco de Mayo.”
I find him easy. “Right,” I say, “Cinco de Mayo, Mr. Saroyan.”
“Happy birthday,” he says.
Driving Moby back home, I must have been thinking how I would tell about meeting the Big One someday. I must have put a hundred strokes to it, giving it a little English here, a little follow-through there. Making sure I didn’t scratch. No worry though. I can pass for younger than I am. Saroyan’s so strong he’s scary. No one can kill us.