Legend of Zankou
In a mansion in the hills above Glendale, a man named Mardiros Iskenderian rose from bed one recent morning and put on a white silk suit he hadn’t worn in twenty years. He stuffed a 9-millimeter handgun into his waistband and a .38-caliber revolver into his coat pocket and walked step by small step down the stairs. His wife, Rita, who had fallen in love with Mardiros when she was twelve, couldn’t believe it was him. For a man who was so near death, cancer everywhere, he looked beautiful. It had been months since he had ventured outside by himself, months since he had driven one of his fancy cars, and she fretted that he was too weak to go anywhere. He told her not to worry. He was feeling much better now, and besides, he was only going to Zankou Chicken to see an old friend.
He had lived his life like one of those princes of Armenian fable, maybe Ara the Beautiful or Tigran the Great. The fable began in a tiny storefront in Beirut, where his mother wearing her apron hand-spooned the fluffy white garlic paste that would become their fortune. From Hollywood to Anaheim, he had opened a chain of fast-food rotisserie chicken restaurants that dazzled the food critics and turned customers into a cult. Poets wrote about his Zankou Chicken. Musicians sang about his Zankou Chicken. Now that he was dying, his dream of building an empire, one hundred Zankous across the land, a Zankou in every major city, would be his four sons’ to pursue. In the days before, he had pulled them aside one by one—Dikran, Steve, Ara, Vartkes—and told them he had no regrets. He was only fifty-six years old, that was true, but life had not cheated him. Everything he had ever wanted to do, he had done. He did not tell them about the one piece of business that still remained.
There was one son, the second son, Steve, who always seemed to know what was on his father’s mind. He was the son most like Mardiros–his smile, his temper, his heart. Had Steve been home that day, he might have sensed trouble or at least insisted that his father not go alone. But Mardiros had sent Steve off to the local mall to fetch him a slushy lemonade, the only thing he still had a taste for. By the time Steve got home, the lemonade still icy, his father was gone. The boy would forever question whether it was design or chance at work that January day. Was this errand a ruse, part of his father’s last plan, or had he simply failed to hurry home fast enough?
“Steve, something bad has happened,” his mother cried at the door. “There’s been a shooting. At your Aunt Dzovig’s.”
“What do you mean, he’s gone?”
“He took the car. He said he was going to Zankou. But I don’t believe him now. They heard shots at Dzovig’s.”
Dzovig was Mardiros’s younger sister, as pretty as he was handsome. She lived in a big house on the other side of the Verdugo Hills with her husband and two sons. She managed a pair of Zankous for Mardiros and had taken on the chore of caring for their mother. Of course, everyone knew this was no chore at all because the mother, Margrit Iskenderian, the creator of the garlic paste and most every dish worth tasting at Zankou, was a woman who pulled her load and the load of three others.
The drive to Aunt Dzovig’s house that winter day in 2003 was a winding seven miles. Steve ran every stop sign, racing down one side of the canyon and up the other. As he rounded the bend and the Oakmont Country Club came into view, he could see the TV news helicopters circling like vultures.
“No, Dad,” he shouted. “Please, Dad, no.”
Up the hill, where the canyon oak gave way to palm trees, neighbors were spilling out of their million-dollar estates. Police were everywhere, and his aunt’s house, front to back, had been cordoned off. He jumped out of the car and made a dash for it. He could feel himself running with the lean of a man who had every right to whatever reality existed on the other side of the yellow tape. A detective halted him short.
“Who are you?”
“I am Steve Iskenderian.”
“Who are you looking for?”
“Mardiros Iskenderian. I am his son. Is he inside?”
“Is he dead?”
The cop wasn’t sure how to tell it to the son, so he told it straight, answering only the question posed to him. “Yes,” he said. “He’s dead.”
For a moment, Steve felt a strange relief that only later would he attribute to his gratitude that his cancer-ridden father had finally found release from his suffering. Then, almost in the same instant, it occurred to him to ask the question that he already knew the answer to.
“My grandmother and aunt. Are they dead, too?”
The cop stared into his eyes and nodded. “Yes, they’re dead too.”
The police had questions, and Steve tried his best to answer them. On the drive home, he had to forgive himself for allowing his mind, at such a moment, to consider the family business. Who would take over now that his father and grandmother, the heart and soul of Zankou Chicken, were gone? His mother, Rita, by design, had never worked a single day at Zankou. His older brother, Dikran, was a born-again evangelist whose fire took him to street corners, and a younger brother Ara was addled by drugs. And no one was more lost than Steve himself. Just three years earlier, he had been charged with shooting at a prostitute and her pimp and had faced a life sentence. The case, as luck would have it, ended in a mistrial. He did have two cousins, Aunt Dzovig’s sons, who were capable enough. But how could they be expected to work beside the sons of the man who had murdered their mother and grandmother?
“My God, Dad,” he said, climbing the hillside to give his mother the news. “What have you done?”
In the weeks and months and years to follow, five years to be exact, the Armenians of Glendale, Hollywood, Montebello, and Van Nuys, and their cousins up and over the mountains in Fresno, told and retold the story. “Let’s sit crooked and talk straight,” the old ladies clucked. There was no bigger shame, no bigger ahmote, than an Armenian son taking the life of his own mother. And who could explain such a shame from a man like Mardiros Iskenderian? He was the same son who had honored his mother on Mother’s Day with lavish ceremonies at the church, celebrations in which Margrit Iskenderian, short and plump, her salt and pepper hair cut in a bob, was invariably crowned queen. Wherever they went as a family, he made his wife take a seat in the back so his mother could sit beside him. For twenty five years, she had lived with Mardiros and Rita and their children, her bedroom the master bedroom, where a single photo of her and her son, in 1950s Lebanon, graced her dresser. Each day at 6:00 p.m., when Margrit returned home from her long shift cooking at Zankou, Rita was there to greet her at the door. So why, after all those years of devotion, did Margrit Iskendarian leave her son and move in with her daughter Dzovig, a breach so complete that mother and son would share words only one more time–the words that preceded the gunshots?
The old ladies gave answers, some less cruel than others: The cancer that filled Mardiros’s body had gone to his brain. He was thinking like a crazy man. No, it wasn’t cancer, it was the scars from growing up in Lebanon with a father who was the drunkard of Bourj Hamoud and a mother filled with bitterness. No, haven’t you heard the talk about the Pepsi company offering the family $30 million for the Zankou chain and trademark? Greed, at last, split the family house in two.
Others insisted there was no sense to be made of it because life made no sense, death made no sense. Yes, we Armenians were the first people to accept Christianity as a nation, way back in 301 a.d., before the Romans, before the Greeks. But to answer this question of why Mardiros Iskenderian killed his mother and his sister and then himself, Armenians had to reach back to their pagan past, to a way of seeing older than the Bible itself. Pakht, they called it. Fate. Jagadakeer, it was muttered. Your destiny is etched into your forehead at birth. What is written no one can change.
Thus, from Turkey to Beirut to Hollywood to Glendale, from the genocide to the garlic paste to the mansion to the murders, it was all foretold.
“There was no missing him. He always came and went with big noise,” Rita said. “His reputation as a playboy was very bad. Arab girls, Maronite Christian girls, Armenian girls, single girls, married girls. For me, he was the most beautiful guy in the world. Nobody was like him. His smile was gorgeous. His hair was gorgeous. He wore the most beautiful perfume. He was always dressed in Pierre Cardin or something. And when he would open his mouth, out came the charm. What more did a young girl want?” Her parents had forbidden her from seeing any boy, much less a man with his associations. A few years earlier, Mardiros had been implicated in a notorious jewelry store heist and murder, an inside job by three Armenians who had killed the handsome scion of one of Beirut’s wealthiest Arab families. Not knowing that his friend was one of the three robbers, Mardiros let him use his apartment. Only later did he discover the stash of jewels in the attic. His testimony ended up sending the trio to prison, and from that day on, alert to revenge, he carried two pistols wherever he went.
The gap in their ages seemed to narrow as Rita blossomed into a tall beauty with big round eyes. They began meeting on the sly, Mardiros tossing her messages in an empty cologne bottle from the roof. For three months, they kept their relationship hidden, until a nosy Armenian neighbor saw her riding in his car and told her mother. It became a big family scandal, with lots of threats back and forth. In the end, her parents knew they were deeply in love. She was nineteen; he was twenty six. Their wedding came amid the fierce fighting of Lebanon’s civil war. She wore a full white gown, but he wanted no part of a tuxedo. His Angels Flight pants touched so low to the ground you couldn’t tell if he was wearing shoes or not.
They shared a two-bedroom walk-up in the crowded Armenian quarter of Bourj Hamoud with his parents, his two sisters, and his mother’s mother, a survivor of the Armenian genocide. Right below was Zankou Chicken, the take-out they had named after a river in Armenia. There was no cash register, no table, no chairs. They used every square foot to clean and salt the chickens, roast them inside a pair of rotisserie ovens, and keep the golden brown wholes and halves piping hot. Customers parked on the one-way street, ran in, handed the cash to Mardiros’s father, and ran out with their steaming birds and dollops of pungent garlic paste.
“It was a drive-thru before there were drive-thrus,” recalled Garo Dekirmendjian, a Beiruti Armenian who befriended the family. “The mother would be standing in the mezzanine in her apron, cleaning the garlic cloves and whipping up her paste. And the father was a cash machine. All day long the same movement, his right hand stuffing wads of money into his left shirt pocket and pulling out the change. Mardiros was helping turn the chickens when he wasn’t having fun.”
Rita understood that Mardiros’ position in the family–first child, only son–gave him an exalted status. The prince. The pasha. In time, it would shoulder him with a great burden. But she was confounded by the degree of devotion between mother and son. “Before we married, he told me, ‘I am going to live with my parents my whole life. I will never leave my mother.’ I figured this was my pakht. But it was too much. ‘My mother. My mother.’ She was the queen of the house, not me. Next to God, it was his mother.”
Unraveling the family dynamic was not easy. Her father-in-law, a smart and generous man, disappeared on long bouts drinking. Day and night, from bottom floor to top floor, her mother-in-law worked. Even if she was compensating for her husband, her capacity for labor bordered on the maniacal. Rita wondered if Mardiros simply felt sorry for his mother and sought to honor her service. Or maybe deep down he understood that no one who worked so hard did so for free. He had watched her punish his father with the guilt of indebtedness. Maybe Mardiros feared that his own debt would be turned against him if he didn’t pay her back with absolute allegiance. Whatever it was, Rita felt swallowed up by their world.
Stuck inside the apartment with baby Dikran, she could smell the aroma of Zankou floating through the cracks. This was as close as she would come to the business. Her job, set down by custom, was to raise her children and tend to her mother-in-law’s mother. So each day, without complaint, Rita finished rocking the baby and listened as the old lady told her story of survival, of the Turks rounding up all the Armenians in her village of Hajin in the spring of 1915, and herding them on a death march to the Syrian desert. Was it jagadakeer? Her mother-in-law said she came upon the skull of a dead Armenian and picked it up. She looked at the forehead to see if any words had been written there, but there weren’t any. “She said she learned that day that there were no words to read. For her, the only words were God’s words.”
The survivors had streamed into Beirut by the thousands and formed a new Armenia in the “Paris of the Middle East.” They built sixty Armenian schools and published ten Armenian-language newspapers and held sway far beyond their numbers. Without them, the Muslim Arabs would have ruled the country. With them, the Christian Arabs kept a narrow edge. It stayed that way until 1975, when the civil war upended everything. The Iskenderians, like so many other Armenian merchants, didn’t want to leave. Zankou was a gold mine, and they poured the profits into rental properties throughout the city.
Then one evening in 1979, the war struck home. Mardiros was sitting outside one of their empty storefronts, not a block from Zankou, when two men on motorcycles sped by. He had no reason to suspect that a dispute over rent with an Armenian tenant, a man connected to a political party, would turn violent. But the motorcycle drivers, wearing masks and clutching AK-47s circled back around. They fired dozens of rounds, hitting Mardiros with bullet after bullet, sixteen shots in all. They say it was a miracle he didn’t die right there.
One thing was certain. His parents, looking for something easier, wanted no part of the food business. There would be no Zankous in America. They settled instead on a dry cleaning shop, only to find out that the chemicals made Mardiros sick. Father and son traveled to Hong Kong to explore the trade of men’s suits, then decided the business wasn’t practical. The deeper Mardiros journeyed into Los Angeles, the more he bumped up against the growing pockets of immigrants fresh from the Middle East. No restaurant seemed to be dedicated to their cuisine, at least none that served it fast and delicious and at a price that would bring customers back. So in 1983 he went to his parents and pitched the idea. His father resisted. His mother cried. They threatened to return to Beirut. In the end, sensing their son’s resolve, they consented.
He picked a tiny place next to a laundromat on the corner of Sunset and Normandie—could there have been an uglier minimall in all of Hollywood?—and erected a sign with block letters in blue and red. ZANKOU CHICKEN. Before long, the Arabs and Persian Jews and Armenians found it. So did Mexican gang bangers and nurses from Kaiser Permanente and the flock from L. Ron Hubbard’s church, who methodically polished off their plates of chicken shawarma, hummus, and pickled turnips and returned to their e-meters with a clearness that only Margrit’s paste could bring.
This wasn’t Beirut. Mardiros put in long hours. He tweaked the menu; his mother tinkered with the spices. It took a full year to find a groove. The first crowd of regulars brought in a second crowd, and a buzz began to grow among the network of foodies. How did they make the chicken so tender and juicy? The answer was a simple rub of salt and not trusting the rotisserie to do all the work but raising and lowering the heat and shifting each bird as it cooked. What made the garlic paste so fluffy and white and piercing? This was a secret the family intended to keep. Some customers swore it was potatoes, others mayonnaise. One fanatic stuck his container in the freezer and examined each part as it congealed. He pronounced the secret ingredient a special kind of olive oil. None guessed right. The ingredients were simple and fresh, Mardiros pledged, no shortcuts. The magic was in his mother’s right hand.
Word of a new kind of fare, fast and tasty and light, spread to the critics. The L. A. Times called it “the best roast chicken in town at any price.” Zagat anointed Zankou one of “America’s best meal deals.” No one was more breathless in his praise than Jonathan Gold, the guerrilla warrior of city chowhounds. Gold called the chicken “superb, golden, crispy skinned and juicy,” but declared that nothing in heaven or on earth compared with the garlic paste. “A fierce, blinding-white paste that sears the back of your throat, and whose powerful aroma can stay in your head—also your car—for days. Go ahead, Ultra Brite; go ahead, Lavoris; go ahead, Car Freshener. My money’s on the sauce.”
The hole-in-the-wall was raking in $2 million a year, half of it pure profit. In Mardiros’s mind, the family was growing and the business needed to grow with it. This is America, he told his parents. We’ve got something good. Let’s duplicate our success. His parents, hands full with one Zankou, were dead set against an expansion. Mardiros kept pushing, though, and in 1991 the family agreed to a split. Mardiros would take the Zankou concept and build a chain across the region. Any new restaurants he opened, success or failure, would belong to him. In return, he would sign over his stake in Hollywood to his parents and two sisters. The split was hardly a parting. The garlic paste still would be prepared by his mother and used by all the Zankous. And as a favor to sister Dzovig, he would pay her a salary to manage some of his new stores. Nothing, he assured them, would change at home.
After so many years playing the pampered son, Mardiros now saw himself as the patriarch, a role that became official after his father’s death. Over and over, he preached the same: success means nothing if we don’t stay as one. Greed must never rear its head. There is plenty for all of us. He loved Dzovig’s two boys like his own, and he knew she felt the same way about his sons. The boys were more like brothers than cousins. They lived only a few minutes apart in Glendale and attended the same private Armenian school. Dzovig would take them each morning, and Rita would pick them up. A gang of six, they climbed the hills, rode bikes, played video games. They had the coolest toys, the latest gadgets. If they were spoiled, and they were, it came with the turf. As the grandchildren of Margrit, each one was something of a food snob. No one’s cooking could measure up to hers. She made the best lentil soups, the best raw meat and bulgur che kufta. She wasn’t big on hugs or kisses; she could be downright stern, but she wanted her grandchildren to know what good food tasted like. When they turned up their noses at her sheep’s brain soup, she bribed them with $20 bills just to get them to take one sip.
Mardiros didn’t need to travel far to find his next spot. Glendale was a city made new by three successive waves of Armenian refugees, first from Iran, then from Beirut, and now from Armenia itself. He picked a less grimy minimall squeezed behind a gas station for Zankou number 2. As soon as it began turning a profit, he found a spot in Van Nuys for Zankou number 3. Then came Zankou number 4 in Anaheim and Zankou number 5 in Pasadena. His white house, way up in the Verdugo Hills, was now known as the home of the rotisserie chicken mogul. It sat higher than the mansions of doctors, lawyers, and investment bankers. Only a porn king looked down on him. He and Rita drove a Jaguar and a black Mercedes-Benz. They had live-in servants. Yet it wasn’t the kind of wealth that let them lounge around playing golf or tennis. When Rita wasn’t tending the boys, she was feeding and bathing Mardiros’ ninety-seven-year-old grandmother. As for Mardiros’s mother, Margrit, it was true she had high tastes and wasn’t afraid to indulge them. She had her own seamstress and dressed in the finest silks and wools. But more often than not, Margrit’s tailored clothes were covered by the apron she put on each morning at 7:30 sharp. When she finished preparing dishes for the customers, she began cooking delicacies for the employees.
As for Mardiros, he spent his days hopping from Zankou to Zankou. He did the payroll, made sure the food tasted right, and timed the customers from the second they walked in to the second they were served. When he wasn’t working, he was catting around with his gang of rich buddies. He went to Vegas with them, to Cabo with them. Every so often, he’d pile Rita and the kids into the Mercedes and take them to his favorite Chinese restaurant. This is what passed for family time. If he felt bad about neglecting his wife and children, he tried to make up for it by giving to the Armenian community. He gave to schools, dance troupes, and starving artists. He gave to orphans and widows and soup kitchens back in Armenia. He gave so often that a cartoon in one Armenian-American newspaper showed two doors leading into Zankou. One was for food, the other for philanthropy. All in all, he had done what he had set out to do. At night, out on the balcony, he sat in his chair and could see all the way to Catalina Island. He’d take his telescope and look up at the stars and then look back down at the twinkling lights of Los Angeles. He belonged here. This was his place now. He and his Zankous had become part of the map.
Each one of his boys, it was true, was struggling to find his place. Vartkes, the youngest and perhaps the brightest, was using his allowance to buy marijuana. Ara, pent up and quirky, was addicted to painkillers. Dikran, the oldest, had found the Lord and was preaching salvation during the day and telling his brothers at night, in bed, that they were all headed to hell. He had become a born-again after a scandal in 1997 that cost him his dream of being a lawyer. A top student at Woodbury University, Dikran had been caught in an elaborate scheme to cheat on the law school entrance exam. He paid a fine and served probation, but no credentialed law school would ever accept him.
For Steve, it was a different weakness. He had gone to the 777 motel in Sherman Oaks on a winter night in 2000 to meet a call girl. He didn’t know she had a listening device broadcasting to a pimp, who then stole his money. Steve gave chase down a freeway, and shots were fired at the pimp and the prostitute, hitting their car. Steve was charged with two counts of attempted murder and bail was set at $1.4 million. If the verdict didn’t go his way, he faced life in prison. As it turned out, the prosecutor made a small blunder during the trial, telling the jury about a prior crime that Steve had committed when, in fact, it was his brother Dikran. His attorney, Mark Geragos, objected, and the judge declared a mistrial. Steve pleaded guilty to a lesser crime, did a year of work furlough, and was let go.
In days that followed the news of his cancer, Mardiros couldn’t help but notice that his mother’s behavior toward him had changed. She would come home from work, Rita would greet her as usual at the front door, and she would walk right past him and into the kitchen without a word. No “How do you feel today? No “Are your treatments working?” She would pour a glass of water from the refrigerator, turn around, and walk upstairs to her room. He wouldn’t see her again until the next day, when she would stage her silence all over again. His hair fell out, he lost sixty pounds, but not once did she seem to notice. It didn’t occur to Rita that her mother-in-law might be miffed about Mardiros’s desire for his sons to take over the business. After all, Margrit had opposed the expansion from day one, and Mardiros alone owned Zankous 2, 3, 4, and 5.
This went on for more than a year, not a word spoken between mother and son. Mardiros might have taken it upon himself to ask what offense he had committed to deserve such treatment. But all he had left was his pride. Then one day, while his mother was away at work, he walked into her bedroom and reached atop the dresser and grabbed the photo of him and her when he was a child back in Lebanon. He could see that she had the faintest smile on her lips as she was leaning over to hug him. Her prince. Her pasha. He took the photo out of its frame, tore off the side depicting his mother, lit a match, and watched it burn. Then he folded up his side of the photo and threw it away. A day or so later, as it happened, the house caught fire. Flames shot up from the maid’s bedroom downstairs. He and Rita were stuck on the balcony, choking on smoke, when the fire fighters finally rescued them. They packed what they could and went to live at a hotel in Glendale while the house was being refurbished. It was the next to last time he would see his mother. She had taken all her possessions and moved in with Dzovig.
Over the following year, as he lay dying, his mother never once called him. Neither did his sisters or his nephews. His treatments had caused fluid to build up in his brain, and he was thinking all kinds of crazy thoughts. He told Steve about setting the image of his mother on fire, and how that image had come back to light the blaze that had burned the house. In more rational moments, he thought that a mother capable of disowning her son in the hour of his greatest need, a son who had dedicated his life to her, was capable of engineering great mischief when he was gone. Yes, the Zankous he had built belonged to him alone, and he believed the trademark was his, too. But how could he be certain that his mother and sisters wouldn’t challenge the inheritance of his wife and sons?
His head began to throb, the pain so severe that his sons had to take turns rubbing his skull with their knuckles. He told Steve he was certain that his mother and sisters were plotting against him. He could barely stand up, but each week he made Steve drive him to the two Zankous that Dzovig managed and open the safe so he could count the receipts. Steve, conflicted by his love for his grandmother, asked his father if he could ever find it in his heart to forgive her. “God will forgive the devil before I can forgive my mother,” he said. “Because this is a mother, not the devil.”
He maneuvered his black BMW down the steep canyon, looped along La Crescenta Avenue, and climbed the backside of the mountain until he reached the split-level brick and stucco house on Ayars Canyon Way. He parked out front, walked up to the tall entrance past two sago palms, and knocked on the door. He was now wearing a dark brown jacket with gray pants. Perhaps he had changed clothes on the way over, or maybe his wife’s memory had played a trick, dressing him for a last time in white silk. The housekeeper led him into the dining room where his forty-five-year-old sister, Dzovig Marjik, was standing. She was wearing blue jeans and a long-sleeved brown sweater. Her hair was curly like his, as if she had just gotten out of the shower, and it was tinted an odd red. She asked him to take a seat at the dining table and poured him a glass of lemonade.
He chatted pleasantly with her for a half hour as he waited for their seventy-six-year-old mother to come home from work. When Margrit Iskendarian walked in a little after 2:00 p.m., she was carrying a big box of food. She set it down on the kitchen table, put on her white slippers, and greeted his sister and then him. The housekeeper poured his mother a glass of lemonade and topped off his glass and the glass of his sister. Then she walked downstairs to her bedroom to let the three of them—mother, son, and daughter—talk.
His sister sat across from him, and his mother to his right. His voice was calm. Their voices were calm. He waited about five minutes, for the conversation to go from nothing to something, and then he reached for the gun in his waistband. He grabbed the handle, put his finger on the trigger and extended his arm across the table and over the pitcher of lemonade. He fired once into his sister’s brain. The bullet knocked her off the chair, and she fell face down on the granite floor. He then turned to his mother. She was screaming and running toward the door. He chased her down about fifteen feet short of it and stood in front of her. He raised the gun and waited long enough to hear her plead for her life. “Don’t shoot. Please,” she said in Armenian. “Please don’t shoot.” He fired once into her chest, and she staggered backward, falling flat and face-up on the floor. He stood over her, straddling her body. She looked up at him and raised her right hand. He fired a second bullet, a third bullet, a fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth. Each one he aimed straight into her heart. She was wearing a beautiful silk top, the color of eggplant, but he couldn’t tell. She had died with her apron on.
As he looked around the room, he could see his twenty-three-year-old nephew, Hagop, trembling halfway up the stairs. He didn’t say a word to the young man he had once regarded as his fifth son. He turned away and walked a dozen paces to the leather couch in the living room. Then he sat down, pointed the gun at his right temple, and fired one time.
She studied the movements the way she imagined her husband had scrutinized them from his perch inside each store, looking for signs that the service wasn’t fast enough, or the food good enough, or that a employee, God forbid, might be stealing. She had her cell phone at the ready in case her sons needed to reach her to discuss business or some difficulty in their lives. This had become Rita Iskenderian’s vigil, watching her stores and bird-dogging her sons for any sign of trouble. A life-size photo of Mardiros, mustache drooping, middle-aged body thick in a suit, handsome still, kept watch on her. She looked up and shook her head.
“I didn’t have time to cry. I had to get out of bed. I buried him and fifteen days later I was running this business. I was not a working woman. I had no position. No ground. But I know how important this business is. That is what my husband built. I have to be on top of it. I am doing for him. Everything for him.” Her English was broken by the backward phrasing and accent of a woman who carried Syria and Lebanon in her past. The smoke from two packs of cigarettes a day had turned her voice husky, and her whole manner had the weight of weariness. When a smile did come, she’d catch herself and put it away before anyone could notice. And yet she had managed to keep a sense of humor, a kind of gallows giggle, that life, luck, had turned out the way it had. Only when you got to know her well enough did she betray a hint of the anger she felt toward Mardiros. Her disquiet was not only for what he had done to her and her children and the rest of the family but also for what he had done to himself, the stain across his name.
“It’s a shame that a man of this value has left behind this thing. Because he was a man who gave all his soul. He never said no to anybody. What his mother did to him, I cannot explain. What his sister did to him, I cannot explain. Can jealousy explain this? Can foolish pride? Five years later, it is still a mystery to me.”
She regretted not putting aside her own pride back then and visiting his mother and sister. Maybe she could have helped broker a peace and kept the whole thing from happening. What had taken place in those years since was its own crime. She and Mardiros’s surviving sister, Haygan, had been best friends since childhood. After the deaths, they had met and consoled each other, and Rita continued to make gestures of reconciliation. But then the lawyers marched in, and a war between the two sides broke out. If Mardiros had intended to erase family entanglements and leave the business to the next generation, he had left behind an even bigger mess.
His registration of the Zankou trademark had lapsed in 2000. Rita believed the chain’s good name belonged to her as part of the 1991 split. But during probate, she received a letter from lawyers representing Dzovig’s two sons who intended to challenge her claim. She filed suit and the matter went to trial. In late 2006, to the displeasure of everyone involved, the appellate court ruled that the trademark belonged to both sides. Rita’s in-laws and one of her nephews then countered with a lawsuit of their own, alleging wrongful death and seeking tens of millions of dollars from Mardiros’s estate. Their lawyers, however, had failed to file within the statute of limitations, and it was dismissed.
Rita didn’t discourage her sons when they talked about the love they still felt for their cousins and the desire to be one family again. But she was sure the other side was thinking up ways to take the Zankous from them. Indeed, her two nephews and sister-in-law, who would not speak publicly about the matter, were preparing a new lawsuit to not only take full control of the trademark but to wrest away one of the two houses owned by Rita and her sons. “It never ends,” she said. “It never ends.”
She opened her office door and walked down a long hall to the front of the restaurant. A giant map of Los Angeles, lifted from the pages of a Thomas Bros. guide, shouted a welcome to customers. Two Armenian cashiers, smiles from the old Soviet Union, took orders. Rita poured herself a soda, parted the black plastic curtain, and entered the main kitchen for all six of her Zankous.
Mexican men in yellow T-shirts with ZANKOU written in red were cleaning chickens, slicing chickens, marinating chickens, skewering chickens. They sent to the ovens 48,000 pounds of Foster Farms roasters and fryers each week, 2.5 million pounds a year. Blood dripped off their knives, down a gutter, and into a drain. On a big black stove, twenty stainless steel pots filled with garbanzo beans—next week’s hummus—bubbled on the fire. Bins brimmed with tahini, the sesame seed paste, and mutabbal, the creamy roasted eggplant dip, and tourshe, the long thin slices of pickled purple turnips. The skewers, both horizontal and vertical, were piled thick with beef and chicken. From the inside out, the fat sizzled, dripped down, and coated the meat, turning the exterior into a delicate caramel. This was the dish that Mardiros had invented, the best-seller they called tarna.
Against the far wall, a Formica table and chairs had been set up gin rummy style. Four ladies, two from Mexico and two from Armenia, sat all day performing a kind of circumcision. They took every clove of garlic that came whole and peeled from Gilroy and excised the tiny stem at the tip. Bud by bud, they cleaned 1,500 pounds of garlic each week. “You would think they stink of garlic,” Rita said, gesturing toward the women. “But get close and all you smell is soap.”
Of all the possibilities, no one had thought that the widow who had never worked a day at Zankou would be the one to step into her husband’s shadow. Her sons didn’t think she could do it. She wasn’t sure herself. Together, they had grown the chain by adding a store in west L.A. and one in Burbank, the fanciest of the bunch. For the most part, though, it was still a mom-and-pop. She took her workers into her extended family, for better and for worse. She paid them more than the minimum wage and provided free food for lunch. Many had stuck around for years; only a handful had left disgruntled.
She didn’t apologize for being a hard driver, a stickler for quality. Indeed, her insistence on using only the best and freshest ingredients, and cooking everything from scratch, was cutting into profits. The cost of tahini alone had doubled in the past year. Back in Mardiros’s time, profits from one store opened the next. In the case of Burbank and west L.A., Rita had to take out large loans on her house. She had no choice but to raise prices, so that a plate of chicken tarna now ran close to $10—the danger zone for fast food.
“Everybody thinks we are making millions,” she said. “Would you believe it if I told you that the one Zankou in Beirut was making more money back then than all of the Zankous put together today?” At age twenty-four four, Zankou was a survivor. Fending off challengers, some of them shameless in their imitation of Zankou, was nothing new. The Internet droned with foodies debating the chain’s “overrated” chicken or lamenting how the garlic paste had somehow lost its zest. “Zankou Chicken, I don’t get the hype,” one wrote. Another declared, “Arax is the best falafel stand in Hollywood. The only reason I go to Zankou now is when Arax is closed.” Zankou defenders shouted back: “What do you mean overrated? It’s better than ever.”
Rita quieted down talk by sons Dikran and Steve about bringing in outside investors to triple the chain, or about selling Zankou nationwide as a franchise. Look around, she told them. Koo Koo Roo, Boston Market, Kenny Rogers—the street was littered with small chains that grew into bigger chains and imploded because they forgot what good food tastes like.
“They are smart boys and in many ways they know this business much better than me. But when they say, ‘Mom, look at Starbucks. Mom, look at In and Out,’ I tell them, ‘Sure, okay. But these are places that are selling one basic item.’ It’s coffee. It’s frozen meat and potatoes. We are not those places.”
Dikran, the marketer who handled everything from menus to charity, seemed to understand. Steve took it personally. He was twenty-eight now and knew more about the food operations than any of them. He had Mardiros’instinct for the business, Rita agreed, and his taste buds too. He could take one bite of food and know immediately which spice was too much or too little. But he also had the curse of his father’s temper. Rita worried that he might get into trouble again. And when it came to managing people, she did not trust his judgment.
Five months earlier, Steve had insisted on hiring a supervisor for the Pasadena Zankou, a woman who had a long career managing fast-food franchises such as McDonald’s. After much discussion, Rita gave in. The new manager wasted no time making small changes (name tags) and big ones (hour-by-hour sales tracking). Steve saw an operation evolving from unprofessional to professional. Rita saw it going from friendly to sterile. It was a classic battle, pitting the virtues of smallness against the efficiencies of bigness. It turned ugly. The manager was fired.
Steve became furious with his aunt, Rita’s sister, who worked at the Pasadena Zankou and had complained bitterly about the manager. He confronted her. She was ten years older than his mother and blind in one eye. His mother wouldn’t speak of the details, but it was clear that Steve had gotten physical with his aunt. Rita felt she had no choice but to fire him and kick him out of the house.
“What Steve did to his aunt, I am too ashamed to talk about,” she said. “He is a good boy, and he’s got a big heart. But he has given me no choice. He has to learn how to control his temper. His anger, we will not accept.”
“Power ower is more God-like than anything in the natural world. Power’s crucial foundation is the ability to master your emotions . . . If you are trying to destroy an enemy who has hurt you, far better to keep him off guard by feigning friendliness than showing anger . . . Make your face as malleable as an actor’s. Practice luring people into traps. Mastering arts of deception are among the aesthetic pleasures of lying. They are also key components in the acquisition of power.”
Law 1 seemed easy enough: “Never outshine the master.” He was having more difficulty with Law 15: “Crush your enemy totally.” It didn’t occur to him that the tape, like his favorite movie, Scarface, was so over-the-top that another listener might find it comical. He wanted to believe in the message. Whether that message came down from Sun Tzu or Donald Trump or Tony Montana, he was willing to hand over his whole being to it. He saw himself as putty going in, a rich and beloved American tycoon coming out.
“My goal in life,” he said, “is to have as many people at my funeral, to have affected as many lives in a good way, as I can. I want to live a great life. I want to be a great person. I really enjoy hanging out with different people, intellectual people, important people. I know I really can’t do that unless I have power.”
He seemed, in some fundamental way, far too sweet a kid to become truly adept in the art of ruthlessness. Among Armenians and beyond, people were awed by his generosity in the same way they had admired his father’s. Zankou didn’t deliver, but there was Steve, bags of spit-roasted goodies loaded in his Lexus, heading to a school or charity that needed free food for its function. He was paying the monthly rent on a building in Ontario that a black preacher, a friend, had converted into his first church. Steve was the one friends called when they were nearing bottom and needed a push into rehab. He drove them there, nursed them through the cold turkey, and then monitored their recoveries like a hawk.
As for his own life, it was a mess. He had dark circles under his eyes and was thirty pounds overweight. His younger brother Ara, whose addiction to Vicodin had morphed into an addiction to exercise, thanks in part to Steve, was trying to work him back into shape. He kept skipping sessions at the gym to gorge on lobster and crab at the Mariscos Colima restaurant in North Hollywood. After one monumental meal, he caressed his belly. “Bro,” he said, eyes twinkling. “You wouldn’t know it, but underneath these pounds I used to catch a lot of ladies.” He was sure he was paying a price for all that softness. People saw him as an easy mark. The world played him for a sucker. No wonder his mother discounted his vision. “She thought the manager I hired was pulling the wool over my eyes. But she doesn’t know what it takes to move this business forward. Don’t get me wrong. My mother’s been awesome. She surprised all of us with her work ethic. But she doesn’t understand this business the way I understand it.”
He had been at his father’s side, watching and learning, since he was a kid. If only he were calling the shots now, the next move would be big. “I believe we can open a Zankou in every major city in America. But she doesn’t want to hear it. I have to sugarcoat everything. I have to walk on eggshells.”
Walk on eggshells? Had he been walking on eggshells a few days earlier, with his aunt?
“My aunt was totally provoking me the whole way,” he said. “They are making it like I beat her up, but I didn’t. They are insisting that I hurt her. And I didn’t hurt her. I lost—I lost my control, bro. I was mad. You know?”
So he hit her?
“I slapped her on the hand. It didn’t hurt, though, bro. I know it didn’t hurt.”
Now Steve wasn’t sure what to do. Should he stay with friends? Get a place of his own? Leave town? He packed his bags and headed north, past Santa Clarita and Bakersfield, straight up Highway 99. The grape fields all around him were in winter slumber, and he felt his mind begin to race. One image after the other, his life over the past ten years, came back to him. He saw Dikran, the older brother he so admired, walk into the bedroom they shared and whisper at night. “Steve, you’re going to hell if you don’t change your ways.” He saw the 777 motel and the call girl and her pimp. He saw the courtroom in Van Nuys and the prosecutor making the tiniest of blunders. He saw his father lying on the couch, a hat covering his bald head, and his grandmother home from work, walking past him as if he were already dead. He saw his father burning the photo and telling him he would never forgive her. “God will forgive the devil before I can forgive my mother. Because this is a mother, not the devil.” He saw his father asking him for one of those slushy lemonades from the Muscle Beach shop at the Glendale Galleria. He saw himself coming back home, the lemonade still icy, his father gone.
He kept driving through the California farm fields until he reached Fresno. That night, sitting in a friend’s backyard, he heard the story about the Armenian kid who had stolen a crate of raisins in the 1920s. Fifty years later, at the church picnic, the old ladies sitting in their lawn chairs pointed to a boy standing in the shish kebab line. “See that young man,” one old lady said. “That’s the raisin stealer’s grandson.” No one needed to tell him the moral. He was the son of the Zankou Chicken mogul who had murdered his mother and sister and then had the decency to kill himself. What struck him wasn’t the story’s lesson—that you can never escape the past—but what the storyteller had left out. Did those whispers reach the ears of the raisin stealer’s grandson? Or was he lucky enough to be standing just outside their reach? Did he manage to live his life never knowing the peculiar bent of his patrimony? Steve wasn’t so lucky. He had heard the whispers, and it made him think about the son he might have one day. Would the whispers follow him? Or would his son know the story because Steve had chosen to tell it from his own mouth?
For three days, Steve ate white bean and lamb stew, drank whiskey, and imagined living in a place such as Fresno, the land of Saroyan, far from Zankou, far from family. On the fourth day, he climbed back into his car and headed home.
This time, as the highway opened up, his mind fixed on a different image from the past. It was 2005, two years after the murders, and the grieving was finished. The family had decided it was time to honor Mardiros and open a new store in west L.A. Because he was the son most like his father, the job was given to him. You find the location, his mother told him. You find the contractor. One day, the store half done, he found himself unable to get out of bed. For ninety days, he lingered in a state of deep depression. Doctors prescribed pills, but he wouldn’t take them. Nothing could reach him. Not food or drink or sex. His mother didn’t know what to do. She was paying $15,000 a month in rent for a restaurant with no opening in sight. She finally persuaded him to see a psychiatrist, a Greek doctor who heard the story and could see where the problem was buried.
All his life, he had been told he was Mardiros’s son. And all his life, good and bad, he had done his best to make that true. The girls, the outbursts, the devotion to business, the loyalty to family, it became his way of honoring the father. But what it meant to be Mardiros Iskenderian’s son had changed irrevocably that day. It was one thing to be second coming of a patriarch beloved by family and community. It was another to know that all this legacy had been washed over by one act. Who was the father? Who was the son? How could Steve ever be expected to build a new Zankou in his father’s name, without ever owning up to what his father had done?
Usually he did not plan his visits to Forest Lawn. He went only when the impulse seized him, and that was rare. Truth be known, he wasn’t sure if he was strong enough. But that December day in 2007, as he barreled into Los Angeles, he decided he would do something different. Inside the cemetery gates, he visited the grave of his father, and then he headed to the opposite end of the grounds to locate the graves of his grandmother and aunt. He hadn’t gone to their funerals. He had never said a proper good-bye. “I know it sounds stupid, but it wasn’t until I was standing there, staring into their headstones, that it hit me for the first time. That my father had killed them. I never really looked at it like that before. He took two lives. He was going to die anyway, so I don’t count his life. But he took two lives with him. And those lives belonged to my grandmother and my aunt. There was no turning away from it. This is what my father chose to do as his final deed.”
He wanted to believe that none of it was truly planned, that his father, racked by rage and cancer, was not of sound mind. He wanted to believe that in the living room of his aunt’s house, his father awoke to his crime and felt immense sadness. He could only hope that his father had asked for forgiveness as he sat down on the couch and raised the gun to his head. What he didn’t know was that the coroner had checked for traces of salt beneath his father’s eyes and found none. Mardiros Iskenderian had shed no tears.
The son left the cemetery that day with the same questions he had been lugging around for five years. They were questions, he now knew, that had no answers. How could a woman who cooked with such love disown her son on his deathbed? How could a man so intent on passing to his sons the good name of his life’s work hand them this name, this act?
He drove up the canyon to the mansion that sat on a ledge in the Verdugo Hills. He parked his car and walked up the driveway past the koi pond in the entrance and knocked on the door. His mother and three brothers were waiting for him inside. There was Ara, who struck an impressive bodybuilder’s pose, and Vartkes, the university student who was still trying to finish a condolence letter he had been writing to Dzovig’s sons for five years. And there was Dikran, the uneasy patriarch, who felt the need to speak for them all.
“Dad wanted us brothers to love each other and always support each other no matter what. We are different, each of us, but we are one. We love each other, and we will die for each other. As his sons, we can never let money or outsiders tear us apart. To do less would be to dishonor Dad’s memory.”
Steve sat down on the couch next to his mother, leaned back, and closed his eyes. Rita took a puff of her cigarette and smiled. Her prince. Her pasha. Then she opened the family scrapbook to a page from Beirut, the year 1975, and she began to narrate. “To this day, I never see anybody as beautiful as your father was. I met him when I was twelve. Roof to roof, we passed each other notes. It was forbidden, but we fell in love.”