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BOOK EXCERPT : MY FATHER'S MURDER : A Son Sets Out to Find the Killers. What He Discovers Is the Father He Lost and a Hometown He Never Knew

February 04, 1996|Mark Arax | This excerpt is from Arax's book "In My Father's Name," to be published this month by Simon & Schuster. Arax covers Central California for The Times

On a cold January night in Fresno in 1972, when the tangerine tree in our backyard was pure sugar and the air smelled smoky and was full of fog, two white men in their early twenties walked into my father's nightclub wearing gloves. It was Sunday and the bar was empty, and he was working on the quarterly taxes in a small office in the back. They ordered two draft beers, played a game of eight-ball that took them past the open door of his office, left, returned 10 minutes later and, without provocation or a demand for money, shot him to death. The only witness, a female bartender, was unhurt. They left behind two half-full glasses, absent fingerprints, and a dollar bill.

It was one of the most sensational murders in the history of our town, partly because my father, Ara Arax, had been a local football hero and a prominent grocer before he bought the bar. And it was never solved, leaving behind endless speculation about drug smuggling and corrupt police and the Mafia.

I tried to reconstruct my life but no one, not my mother or father's brother nor the cops, could tell me how to put back the pieces. If there was a lesson to be learned, they didn't know that either. So I did what any decent 15-year-old son would do: I ignored the rumors and made holy my father. In bed at night, surrounded by his athletic trophies, I devised ways to get even. I tried to picture the killers, not the two young men who gunned him down but the ones who presumably hired them. Did we know these men? Was it a plot dark and hatched? Or were they strangers bearing some petty grudge? I practiced the detachment with which I would coldly announce my name and calmly pull the trigger, and then I fell asleep.

Through high school and college and a career in journalism at the Baltimore Evening Sun and the Los Angeles Times, I never stopped fantasizing about revenge, even as the questions became more tangled. How could my father move so easily between worlds, the Little League diamond by day and the bar and its underworld figures by night? What side was he on and what did I, his oldest child, owe him? My father taught me baseball and football and table manners. He professed clean living, didn't smoke or get drunk and hated drugs. But I was just a kid, what did I know?

On a foggy night in January, 1989, I quit my job and came home to Fresno to find the truth of my father's murder. I returned a wary man, a husband and father, 32 years old, with an assumed name and the first gun I'd ever owned. I was hunting for more than killers. I was trying to understand a life, a family, a town. I wanted to know my father, shorn of rumor and myth. I wanted to reclaim that part of him, and me, that had nothing to do with murder.

We moved into one of the new gated apartment complexes built on fig orchard land. I checked the list of tenants before moving in. I burned my notes rather than trust the communal garbage bin.

Night after night I sat and lingered in the past. I discovered there were four murders in my family, one in each previous generation. Two of us victims. Two of us killers. Murder is what brought us to America from Armenia. Questions of murder have become questions of family and questions of family have become questions of history. Time has played its trick, Dad. The space between us has so narrowed that we are more like contemporaries now, more like brothers. To answer these questions, I am drawn back to where my knowledge of you first took shape, back to our origins, the birth of our people and family and me, back to where your fate became my fate and the murder was like a giant river that swelled through my life, you on one distant bluff and me on the other, carving a way across.

*

My father bought a bar in Fresno in the spring of 1965 when he was 33 years old and I, his "Markie," was 8. He was a grape grower and a grocer. He knew nothing about bars. He told my mother not to worry. The bar business wasn't so much a departure from the grocery stores, and The Apartments wasn't so much a bar. It had been built as a cocktail lounge and dinner house and he would continue serving lunch and dinner. Grandpa Arax would count the money and pay the bills. Highway 99 would deposit a steady flow of customers.

The Apartments. The name confounded me. Instead of clearing up the confusion, Dad personalized it: Ara's Apartments. I never understood why he kept the name and changed everything else. The food was the first to go.

The rhythm of the bar, its throbs and upside-down time, became the rhythm of our home. New music, the blue-eyed soul of the Righteous Brothers, blasted from the big Philco in our den. In the grocery business, Dad left for work in the early morning, hours before I awakened, and returned at dinner. We had him for the night. The bar, however, demanded his presence each night right after dinner.

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