Excerpt from the novel “River Rouge”


John Jeffire ’85

In this selection, Armenian immigrant Haik Pehlivanian and his older brother Vahram begin American education at the Bishop Ungraded School in Detroit where they meet the future members of the notorious Purple Gang.

School. They had traveled to America in the dank hull of an oceanliner, rats crawling over them in the darkness, the stink of hundreds of other immigrants wedged into every scrap of inescapable space. They arrived in Detroit, a swarming city of jobs and every color of skin imaginable, their new life of promise ready to begin. After a year helping their father unload fruit, fish, and vegetables in Eastern Market, their father decided they needed to learn, so they ended up at the Bishop Ungraded School in Paradise Valley on Winder Street, an unruly, three-story madhouse. It was actually two schools, one for “academic” students, which Orlin and Gee-Gee attended, and the other, well, for anyone else. This was where Vahram and Haik were placed. 

Mayhem ruled Bishop. So unlike the schools in Armenia, where silence and work were required or discipline came with a cane, Bishop was a carnival of lunatics and lawless flesh and bone weapons.  “Shtarkers,” the Jews at the school called themselves, strongarm toughs. There was Sam “Gorilla” Davis, the “bug” with his wormy lips and slit, nearly touching eyes, little as a girl but lethal; the Keywells, Harry and Phil, tall and thin but unsmiling and always looking right through you; little Mikey Selik, quick with a grin and slick with his words, the first to instigate blood but always avoiding shedding any himself; Harry Milman, beefy and belligerent and willing to attack even when there was no threat or provocation and fueled by a hatred of Italians; and Ziggy Selbin, the slight one whose head was topped with greasy blond hair and always tilted like he wanted to ask you a question.

Their first day was an adventure. Shouting and laughing ruled their floor of the school. The bespectacled principal brought Vahram and Haik to their room, where all eyes seemed to mock them. They sat down quietly, arms at their sides. Mr. Tulloch, bow-tied and sporting a thin mustache, approached them.

“You geniuses speak any English?  Huh? You speak English.”

He was practically shouting.

“Yes,” Vahram offered, and the others all laughed.

“Shut up and work,” Tulloch commanded, but the laughter did not cease.  Selik grinned and Gorilla Davis would not take his eyes off them.

“‘Yes,’ well that’s a glorious start. Now here’s the lay of the land.  Are you following me? Good. You’re in here with the lowest of the low, loons, goons, misfits, and socially unacceptable incorrigibles. You keep quiet, though, do some work, and you might learn enough to not end up in jail for the rest of your life. Understood?”

Haik did not understand what Tulloch said, but Vahram nodded as if he did.  Haik knew the word “work” so he figured the teacher was demanding that both boys work and not cause trouble.  Tulloch’s one front top tooth was yellowy brown and his oily hair did not camouflage the scabs on his scalp. He opened a book on their desk and, with a bit of pointing and gabbing, instucted them to begin writing English letters. The symbols were mysteries. Haik and Vahram tried to draw them as best they could. It was pointless but Tulloch seemed to approve and retreated to his teacher’s desk.

“Who’s you twos?”

Milman sat a row over. He was already growing a mustache. Vahram bowed his head while Haik remained silent.

“You’s ain’t I-tal-yins, is you?”

Vahram gave a look to Haik that assured him he would handle the situation.

“No, no Ital-yoon.”

The others began laughing. Tulloch slapped a yardstick loudly on his desk and commanded them all to shut up. They complied and tried to look like they were working until their first break time.

On break out in the yard, Selbin and Gorilla Davis confronted them. Davis’ mouth was open, his puffed lower lip jutting out.

“Where you from?” asked Selbin, his voice high and whiney.

“We?  He and me, we from Armenia.”

“Nar-neen-ya?” 

They could barely make out what Davis was saying.

“Armenia. Yes. Our country name Armenia.”

“Nut nigh-na pwace id nat?”

Davis peered at them, his slit-eyes narrowing even more, as if accusing them of something. Haik always deferred to Vahram, who searched for an answer.

“Hello. We Vahram and Haik. We from Armenia.”

“Nat not what ni assed nu. Nu nink I’m stupit? Nu nink nat?”

There was an unreasonable challenge in his voice. He was a good half foot shorter than Vahram and even Haik looked down at him. Something began to burn in his narrow eyes.  What did he want from them?

He attacked.  He shot fist after fist up at Vahram, who stepped back in defense, narrowly avoiding the blows. Vahram was a strong wrestler, and he threw Davis aside, which ratcheted up his anger.

“Nu naffin’ at me?”

He squinted at Haik, who had not laughed or even moved. What was going on here?  What had Vahram said to ignite this fury? This was a school?  Where was Mr. Tulloch? 

Before he could grasp the situation, Davis was on him, landing a stone-like fist to his jaw, followed by another to his eye. Vahram moved to step in, but the tiny ape landed another shot to Haik’s nose, exploding it with blood. Vahram jumped on Davis’ back and drove him to the ground, smothering the whirlwind of rage.  He maneuvered Davis to his back and pinned arms down with his knees, but as he cocked his arm to deliver a clean blow, Milman and the Keywells descended on him, raining boots and punches.

Haik thought they would die right there on the playground…


"An Abandoned Motel, Gratiot Avenue" a poem by John Jeffire '85