(This story first appeared in the Sacramento News & Review December 2011.)
Two mornings before Christmas on a brilliantly sunny day in Sacramento, Max wakes to his phone ringing and smiles in honor of his wife Celia who was always the one to answer the phone when she was alive.
“Ahlo,” he says, enjoying how deliciously warm he feels under his pile of blankets.
“Daddy?” says Carla, fifty-four, Max’s only child. “Did I wake you?”
“A lucky thing,” he says, sighing contentedly. “Today’s the day we go cut the tree.”
“Why not wait for us?” she asks with little enthusiasm. “Save your back.”
“I’m going with the Riveras,” he says, happy to think of Juan riding up front with him while Rosa and Hermedia and the kids enjoy the spacious backseat. “Placerville here we come.”
“Listen, Daddy, about tomorrow. We’ll just get a cab from the airport. Save you a trip in that horrible traffic.”
“But I like picking you up,” he says, disappointed. “The weather is gorgeous and we can take the river road. Dylan loves riding in the Rolls with the top down.”
“Well, but…Daddy, I don’t think that would be such a good idea. Not this year.”
Max frowns. “Why not this year? Could be raining next year.”
“Well…” She sighs. “Dylan is quite caught up in the whole Occupy Wall Street thing, and…”
“So now he doesn’t want to ride in his grandfather’s Rolls Royce?” Max chuckles. “I hope you assured him I am not among the evil one per cent, but well entrenched among the blessed ninety-nine.”
“Daddy, it’s…he’s eighteen and he’s in college now, and…”
“What about my mansion in the Fab Forties?” asks Max, gazing out his window at the bright blue sky. “Are you two gonna stay in a motel and meet me for meals at Denny’s?”
“Daddy, don’t. Dylan knows you and Mommy bought the house long before the Ponzi scheme bankers took over the country. And the Rolls…it’s just what that represents now.”
“Whatever you say, sweetie,” says Max, closing his eyes. “I’ll see you when you get here.”
Max is proud of his old car, a mahogany brown 1958 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud he rescued from the wrecking yard in 1997, the year he retired from the Post Office. Max is seventy-eight, a widower for five years now, and a most independent soul. He delivered mail for twenty-seven years before ascending to a managerial position, after which he was promoted seven times in thirteen years. A happy husband and father, Max’s consuming passions were restoring old cars, brewing beer, fishing, and playing the accordion. In his old age, Max no longer drinks beer and rarely goes fishing, but he still tinkers with his Rolls and plays his accordion; and since Celia’s death he has become a cover-to-cover reader of The New Yorker, his wife’s favorite magazine.
Truth be told, Max’s home really is a mansion, a two-story hacienda with a red tile roof on a huge lot on Forty-Third Street between J and M Streets, the front yard a vast moth-eaten lawn lorded over by a gargantuan oak, the crumbling old driveway terminating at a three-car garage, one unit housing the Rolls Royce, the other two units remodeled into studios for artists. Of the house, we will speak more later.
Dylan (named after both Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas) is a lanky young man with an impressive mop of brown curls. All his T-shirts and pants and sweaters and sweatshirts are black, but he possesses many colored scarves for which he is admired in Tucson where he lives with his mother Carla, a social worker, and where he recently matriculated at the University of Arizona with a double major in Design and Film. He has over two hundred subscribers to his YouTube channel whereon he posts videos of himself talking about his life. He loves watching himself talk and one day he hopes to make 3-D blockbusters featuring A-list actors portraying him talking about his life.
However, his dreams of a career in cinematic autobiography are currently on hold because Dylan has, for the first time, fully awakened to the unjustness of American society. He was already awake to the unjustness of being an only child with an up-to-the-minute politically correct mother and no father, but he was oblivious to the “one per cent versus ninety-nine per cent” phenomenon until the Occupy happenings began. Then just two months into his first year of college, he flew to New York with Maureen, his first real girlfriend (they have since broken up) and spent parts of two days hanging out with the Wall Street occupiers, a deeply moving experience for Dylan, one beautifully echoed and amplified by the revival of Hair he saw just hours before he flew back to Tucson.
Dylan removes his headphones on which he has been listening to impromptu speeches and discussions he taped in the park where the Wall Street occupiers were camping. He looks out the jet window at the snow capped Sierras, turns to his mother—she reading Mother Jones—and says, “This is so decadent. Flying to Sacramento in a gas guzzling ozone layer destroying jet to spend three days in a mansion when so many have so little.”
“Yes, honey, it is decadent,” says Carla, nodding sympathetically. “Certainly compared to the lives people lead in Africa and Iraq and India, but we didn’t want to spend two days driving each way, did we?”
“Why are we even going?” says Dylan, shaking his head. “Why can’t he come to us?”
“He does, honey, twice a year. He’s seventy-eight years old. And our spending Christmas with him is the high point of his life. I think we owe him that much, don’t you?”
“Why do we owe him anything?” asks Dylan, previously a huge fan of his grandfather, the subject of dozens of Dylan’s videos. “He drives a Rolls Royce and lives in a mansion. He’s the one per cent.”
“Don’t be simplistic,” says Carla, feeling a headache coming on. “Your grandfather…”
“He should be ashamed to have so much,” says Dylan, putting his headphones back on. “When so many have so little.”
When Dylan and Carla arrive at Max’s mansion in a taxi driven by a black man, Dylan is horrified to see a Mexican boy mowing Max’s front lawn, and a Mexican man waxing Max’s Rolls Royce.
“Wow,” says the cab driver, pulling up in front of the magnificent house. “Nice digs. Hey, didn’t Ronald Reagan live just a couple doors down here when he was governor before he was president?”
“I think it was one street over,” murmurs Carla. “Or two.”
“I can’t believe this,” says Dylan, shuddering with embarrassment. “Grandpa has servants now? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Honey, let’s not jump to conclusions. Your grandfather sometimes hires people to help him with household chores. That’s all.”
At which moment, Max comes out the front door wearing a Santa Claus hat, overjoyed to see his daughter and grandson.
“Wow,” repeats the taxi driver as he opens the trunk to unload Carla and Dylan’s suitcases, “that is some beautiful house.”
“Thank you,” says Max, coming to help. “We just gave it a fresh coat of paint. You want a tour?”
“Seriously?” says the driver, grinning at Max. “Love one.”
“I’m Max,” says Max, shaking the driver’s hand.
“Ruben,” says Ruben, delighted. “That’s a Silver Cloud, isn’t it?”
“1958,” says Max, turning to the recalcitrant Dylan. “My God, you’ve grown another three inches.”
“Not,” says Dylan, stiff and unresponsive as Max hugs him.
“Hi, Daddy,” says Carla, melting in her father’s arms. “The place looks fabulous.”
“Well,” says Max, holding her tight, “that’s because of what I haven’t told you yet, which is that the Rivera’s are living with me now, so there’s no shortage of manpower.”
And before Dylan and Carla can react to the stunning news, Rosa Rivera and her two lovely daughters, Maria, twelve, and Carmen, seventeen, emerge from the house, followed by Hermedia, Rosa’s mother.
“Not to mention woman power,” says Max, winking at Dylan. “And believe me, these are some powerful women.”
There are five upstairs bedrooms in Max’s house, four of which are currently occupied by the Rivera family—Juan, Rosa, their three children, and Hermedia—one of which is occupied by Max. There are also two bedrooms downstairs, both reserved for guests or for Max when he wants a change of scenery. The kitchen is huge and beautifully appointed, the living room gargantuan; and the magnificent library contains thousands of books and a most excellent pool table.
As Dylan unpacks his suitcase in one of the downstairs guest rooms, he is occupied by a host of conflicting emotions. On the one hand, he has fallen madly in love with Carmen Rivera. On another hand, he feels incredibly nostalgic about the upstairs bedroom he has considered his room for as long as he can remember; a room now occupied by Diego Rivera, the boy who was mowing the lawn. And clouding all his feelings are anger and chagrin with his grandfather for having live-in servants, a Rolls Royce, and a mansion.
Dylan frowns at himself in the mirror on the wall above the dresser wherein he deposited his black clothing and four colored scarves; and he is quietly rehearsing an indignant lecture on social inequity and injustice that he plans to deliver to his grandfather, when Max suddenly appears in the bedroom doorway.
“Dylan,” says Max, frowning gravely at his frowning grandson, “I need to talk to you. I need your advice.”
“About what?” asks Dylan, completely caught off guard.
“Several things,” says Max, nodding gravely. “Big changes afoot.”
So Dylan follows Max to the kitchen where Rosa, Hermedia, Carmen, Maria, and Carla are preparing a lavish Christmas Eve supper of Chile Verde, arroz y frijoles, a fabulous ensalada, guacamole, and pumpkin pie.
“Dylan and I are venturing forth,” says Max, inhaling the divine scents of simmering green sauce and roasting pork. “Any last minute requests?”
“Maybe more cerveza,” says Carmen, smiling boldly at Dylan. “Are you a beer drinker, Dylan?”
“I…um…yeah,” he says, dizzy with desire. “What kind? I mean…what’s your favorite?”
“Whatever you like,” she says in such a way that all the women smile the same knowing smile.
“We’ll take the Radio Flyer,” says Max, leading the way to the garage where a shiny red wagon with a long black handle awaits them. “Remember this? In which I used to drag you all over town when you were little? Going on our expotitions to Corti Brothers?”
This subtle reference to Winnie-the-Pooh does bring sudden tears to Dylan’s eyes, for Max is not only his grandfather, Max is the only father he has ever known.
“And while we’re standing here beside the Rolls,” says Max, pleased to see he’s gotten through to Dylan’s sweeter self, “I wanted your advice about what to do with this old car. I restored it to perfection, but now I don’t want it anymore.”
“Must be worth a fortune,” says Dylan, shocked to realize he had hoped to inherit the Rolls when Max died.
“So I’m told,” says Max, nodding. “I suppose I could just sell it for the cash, but I was hoping to do something more creative with the old thing, something…transformative.”
“You could give it to the engineering department at Sac State or UC Davis,” says Dylan, grinning at the huge old car, “on the condition they turn it into a solar electric vehicle.”
“Brilliant,” says Max, pulling the little red wagon down the drive. “Problem number one solved.”
“Seriously?” says Dylan, catching up to his grandfather. “You’d just… give it to them?”
“Unless you want it,” says Max, nodding. “I’ll give you first dibs.”
“No, no,” says Dylan, imagining tooling around Tucson in the magnificent old car, shooting videos and giving rides to beautiful women. “I don’t want it.”
“Problem number two,” says Max, as they emerge onto J Street and turn left en route to the liquor store. “Juan and Rosa insist on paying rent now that Juan is working again, and I have no idea how much to charge them.”
“Oh…um…” says Dylan, aghast that his grandfather would consider charging his servants rent, “what’s the situation? I mean…I need a little more background.”
“Juan is a very fine mechanic,” says Max, nodding to affirm this. “That’s how we met. He worked on the Rolls for years and on your grandmother’s cars, too, and we’ve gotten to be very good friends. Rosa cooks at Quatro Hermanas. Her chile rellenos are to die for. Your grandmother used to hire Rosa and Hermedia to help when we threw big parties. Your grandmother loved throwing big parties, especially when you and your mother came to visit. Remember? Anyway…when Juan seriously injured his back and couldn’t work for several months, and they fell behind on their house payments, and the bank foreclosed, and they were scrambling around for a place to live, I insisted they move in with me until he got back on his feet.” Max laughs. “Now I don’t ever want them to leave. I was so lonely until they came to live with me.”
“Well, then…I think you should let them pay you whatever they feel is right,” says Dylan, feeling rather stupid for having cast his grandfather as a villain. “And if they give you too much, you can always give some back.”
“They’re very proud people,” says Max, pulling the wagon into the liquor store with them. “And isn’t Carmen the most beautiful young woman you’ve ever seen?”
“Yes,” says Dylan, nodding emphatically. “Yes, she is.”
“Wait until you hear her sing,” says Max, waving to the clerk. “Miraculous.”
Following a sumptuous Christmas Eve meal, a party ensues in the living room, with Max playing his accordion to accompany the decorating of the tree. Dylan films the party, with much of his focus on whatever Carmen happens to be doing. Juan ascends the ladder and drapes the lights on the tree as Rosa and Hermedia direct him, while Carla and Maria and Diego and Carmen hang ornaments and tinsel on the boughs.
When the tree is fully adorned, eggnog is drunk, See’s chocolates are passed around and devoured, and everyone opens one gift. As a capper to the evening’s festivities, Max accompanies Carmen on a soulful version of Silent Night in front of the tree, a performance beautifully filmed by Dylan and uploaded on YouTube moments thereafter.
ªWhen everyone else has gone to bed, Max and Carla sit at the kitchen table, the room lit by a single candle.
“Do you remember when you were a very little girl,” says Max, gazing fondly at his daughter, “all the people who lived here with us?”
“Not really,” she says, thinking back. “I know you had a commune here, but only because you and Mommy told me about it, not because I really remember.”
“We wanted to create a new way of living on the earth,” says Max, remembering himself with long curly black hair and a mustache. “We wanted to grow our own food and pool our money and live simply and make love and not war.” He sighs. “I watch the videos of the Occupy Wall Street people, and I even spent a day down at the park with Occupy Sacramento, and you know, Sweetie, it’s exactly the same thing we were trying to do, only we didn’t know how. We had no wise elders, no role models. And when we started having babies, necessity trumped experimentation and we soon reverted to the ways of our parents.”
“But you tried,” says Carla, taking her father’s hand. “You tried to do something different and better.”
“Your mother never stopped trying,” he says, ever aware of his wife’s spirit. “That’s why we always had two or three foreign students living here and artists using the garage. And you know, it feels like a commune again with the Riveras living here. They know how to do it. They know how to share.”
“I think you should leave the house to them, Daddy,” says Carla, surprising herself with the idea. “I already have the house you bought me in Tucson.”
“Well,” says Max, closing his eyes and seeing his dear Celia standing in her rose garden, the bushes ablaze with color, “you would always be welcome here. Of that I have no doubt.”