Posts Tagged ‘Christmas story’

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Monday, May 22nd, 2017

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Twelve by Todd

“The grand essentials of happiness are: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.” Allan K. Chalmers

I was nearly forty when it first occurred to me to write anything other than fiction and poetry and plays. At thirty-nine, I still thought of myself as a moderately successful novelist and short story writer. Furthermore, I rarely read non-fiction; and so in 1989, when Melinda Welsh, the editor of the brand new Sacramento News & Review invited me to write essays for her paper, I accepted her invitation with little understanding of what such reportage entails. Now, thirty years later, writing essays is my most persistent writing habit.

When my fiction and screenwriting ceased to bring home the bacon, so to speak, writing essays became a source of much-needed income, and I have no doubt that without such financial incentive, I would never have become habituated to writing non-fiction. Which is not to say I ever earned vast sums writing essays. Melinda paid me one hundred and fifty dollars per essay for the Sacramento News & Review; and for the entirety of my eight-year tenure writing a weekly piece for the Anderson Valley Advertiser, I was paid twenty-five dollars per. Nowadays I am paid by the knowledge that at least a handful of people look forward to my weekly offerings.

Melinda Welsh was a wonderful editor. She generally liked my take on things, appreciated my senses of humor and irony, edited my lines with a light hand, and rewarded me for my non-fiction efforts by paying me relatively large sums to write the News & Review’s annual Christmas story (fiction!) for several years running. One of those Christmas stories, The Dreidel in Rudolph’s Manger, was syndicated after appearing in the News & Review, and appeared in dozens of weeklies and dailies across America. Eureka!

In those pre-internet days, I belonged to a lucky little population of writers in America who made actual money writing original works for actual three-dimensional publications. Then seemingly overnight (but really in a few shocking years) our numbers were reduced to virtually zero by the advent of the worldwide web and the simultaneous and astounding (to me) discovery by magazine and newspaper editors that most people cannot distinguish good writing from bad. Therefore, why should those editors pay good money to good writers when, for little money or no money, they can avail themselves of quasi-readable chunks of verbiage yanked from the internet?

When I moved to Berkeley in 1995, I submitted essays and stories to four different Bay Area weeklies, but found no editorial champions and so ceased writing essays for the next eleven years. Instead, I wrote hundreds of short stories, forty-two of which became my book Buddha In A Teacup (recently issued in a lovely paperback edition by Counterpoint Press), and another hundred of which became my novel of stories Under the Table Books, winner of the 2009 American Indie Award for Best Fiction.

In 2007, the year after I moved to Mendocino from Berkeley, I sent an essay entitled Sister to Bruce Anderson at the Anderson Valley Advertiser, and Bruce published the piece. He then invited me to become a regular contributor to the AVA, a regularity that produced four hundred essays and gave me the ongoing pleasure of hearing from readers who enjoyed my work, as well as the ongoing displeasure of hearing from readers who were adamant my essays were a blight on the AVA.

As of mid-May 2017, my AVA career a memory now, I continue to write a weekly essay and post it with an accompanying photo on my blog at Underthetablebooks.com. Shortly thereafter, Dave Smith does me the honor of presenting my article and photo on his admirable web site Ukiah Blog Live.

And today I am pleased to announce the birth of Sources of Wonder, a handsome coil-bound collection of eighty-three of my favorite essays culled from the aforementioned four hundred, available exclusively from Under the Table Books. Among the stories in Sources of Wonder are Sister, Of Onyx and Guinea Pigs, The Double, Three Presidents (and a First Lady), What’s In A Name, Her Children, and My Butt (The Musical)—all the essays in the collection having elicited heartfelt responses from readers.

“The artist spends the first part of his life with the dead, the second with the living, and the third with himself.” Pablo Picasso

Speaking of heartfelt, as I was putting the finishing touches on Sources of Wonder, I was given a book of essays by the Scottish poet and nature writer Kathleen Jamie, and I was thrilled to discover an excellent living writer, writing in English, who is not even close to being old or dead—an experience for me akin to coming upon a living and breathing unicorn who allows me a good long look at her before she winks slyly and saunters away into the mystic. I highly recommend Jamie’s books Sightlines and Findings.

If you have never purchased any of my coil-bound self-published works, I hasten to tell you that each copy of Sources of Wonder is signed and dated and numbered, the whimsical numerals sketched and lavishly colored by the author to make each volume a collector’s item and an ideal gift for friends who love to read and enjoy pondering the divine and mysterious and hilarious and fascinating interconnectedness of everything.

As Mr. Laskin says to Derek at the end of Under the Table Books, “I refer to it as chumming for synergy. There is nothing the universe appreciates more than action. Do you know why that is? Because action is the mother of the whole kit and caboodle.”

My Big Trip, Part One

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2013)

“To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan but also believe.” Anatole France

In 1976, when I was twenty-six and working as a landscaper in southern Oregon, my big dream was go to New York and meet my literary agent Dorothy Pittman for the first time, and also say hello to the magazine editors at Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, and Gallery who had bought my short stories; and to rub shoulders, I hoped, with others of my kind. For those of you unfamiliar with Gallery, it was a low rent offshoot of Penthouse with lots of raunchy photos of naked women and quasi-pornographic letters-to-the-editor and the occasional marvelous short story by Todd Walton. I was somewhat embarrassed to have my stories therein, but thrilled to be paid for my writing.

Standing in the way of my dream was lack of cash. When I worked as a landscaper, I made six dollars an hour, which was good pay for physical labor in those days, but the work was sporadic and I often made just enough to cover my rent and groceries. Then one day my boss called to say he’d landed a contract to landscape both sides of a freeway overpass in Medford and would need me fulltime for two months, and since it was a state job he was required to pay me ten dollars an hour. So I moved out of my room in Ashland and into a bunkhouse adjacent to my boss’s house in Medford where I could live for free and only have to pay for food. I figured to clear over three thousand dollars and be able to fly to the Big Apple instead of hitchhiking. Little did I know the job would last three months and not only finance my trip to New York, but also keep me solvent for the next two years.

“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” Martin Luther King

I remember two things most vividly about those three summer months of landscaping that gargantuan freeway overpass—the remarkable increase in my physical strength, and the heartbreaking young prostitute who worked the northbound on-ramp from early afternoon and into the night.

I dug over eighteen-hundred-feet of deep ditch by hand, and I climbed up and down steep inclines carrying heavy loads for hours on end, six days a week. I went from being a trim 165 pounds to a heavily muscled 180, and by the end of that job I could pick up a ninety-pound sack of cement as if it was a modest bag of groceries. I slept the sleep of the dead from eight every evening until my boss roused me at six every morning, except on Sundays when I would sleep into the afternoon.

And every day that beautiful young woman with long auburn hair would come walking up the hill from the Motel Six—strong and graceful—dressed as the college girl she was pretending to be, with sensible shoes and long stockings and a knee-length skirt, a well-ironed blouse, and a sweater to match her skirt, her hair in a ponytail. She carried a notebook and what looked like a textbook to complete her disguise, and she did not hold out her thumb to simulate hitchhiking, but simply stood there waiting—and she rarely waited more than half-an-hour before a car or pickup truck would stop beside her, the driver—almost always a single man—would roll down his passenger window, and the young woman would come closer to talk business. And sometimes the young woman would get in the car and drive with her client down onto the freeway and have him take the next exit and circle back to the Motel Six, and sometimes the client would drive away without her and she would walk down the hill to meet him at the motel, and sometimes the man was dissatisfied with the price or whatever limitations she imposed, and he would drive away and she would resume her waiting.

We were intrigued by her, my fellow workers and I, and when we’d take breaks for snacks or lunch, if she was waiting there, we would offer her a cookie or a drink of water or a handful of nuts (no pun intended), and sometimes she would graciously accept, and sometimes she would politely decline. And one time our boss brought us cheeseburgers and fries and shakes from the nearby MacDonald’s, and when we told our girl we had more than we could eat, she sauntered across the road and ate a quick lunch with us.

“You guys are great,” she said, revealing a slight lisp and a sweet southern accent. “I like having you nearby. Makes me feel safe.”

To which I wanted to reply, “How can you ever feel safe having sex with strangers, so many strangers, so many men you know nothing about?” But I was speechless standing close to her, marveling at her beauty and bravery, so I said nothing and spent those moments memorizing her face and figure so I might never forget her.

“What things are the poem?” D.R. Wagner

About a month into the freeway job, Dorothy Pittman called to say my editor at Seventeen wanted to commission a Christmas story for which she would pay me five hundred dollars. She needed a three-thousand-word story as soon as possible, and I almost declined because I was so tired every day from my physical labors I didn’t see how I could muster the strength to write anything good. But I didn’t want to burn that little publishing bridge, so I accepted the commission and hoped for the best.

Now one thing about ditch digging, especially the digging of very long ditches, is that the mind is largely free while the body works, and so I used that laboring time to tell myself Christmas stories until one of the stories took hold; and then I told the story over and over to myself through the hours and days of digging, refining the tale with every telling until I had each descriptive passage and every line of dialogue just as I wanted them, the story memorized. And on a Sunday afternoon I typed the whole thing up, shipped the manuscript to New York the next day, and thought no more about it.

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

I decided to visit family and friends in and around San Francisco before flying off to New York in mid-September. Weary of hitchhiking, and feeling flush, I took the Greyhound bus, which in those days was an inexpensive and relatively comfortable way to travel, with stations and stops in thousands of towns and cities where today the buses no longer go.

My companion for eight hours of the ten-hour journey was a roly-poly guy in desperate need of a bath. He was forty-something with a baby face and curly brown hair and crooked brown teeth. He wore shiny brown polyester slacks, a faded T-shirt featuring green parrots, and red high-top tennis shoes. After we introduced ourselves and I learned he would be getting off in Sacramento, he launched into a discourse on the origin of humans on earth, his voice gruff, his narrative punctuated by bouts of coughing and chuckling.

“So the smartest advisor to these highly civilized aliens on a planet way over there says to the emperor, ‘Sire, all these barbarians do is kill and kill, no matter what we do, your lordship, and so I ask you to let me transport them to the planet of the dinosaurs where they will be eaten.’ But then the dinosaurs got zapped by a meteor and humans bred like gerbils and…here we are.”

“Could those aliens who brought humans here,” I inquired, “travel faster than the speed of light?”

“Of course,” he said, nodding emphatically. “Through molecular reconfiguring. The military sees their ships all the time with infrared fiber optics, but they don’t want regular people to know about the aliens because the government is a front for the secret warrior clan that has ruled the world since before the Pharaohs and are at war with the aliens.” He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. “As a matter-of-fact, the aliens gave me mathematical proof of molecular reconfiguration in my dream. The equation is X over Real Time minus the Weight to Mass ratio per pound of Nega-Gravity doubling in Reversed Space in which slow is fast and vice-versa.”

“Nega-gravity? How…”

“I went to a psychic once,” he said, interrupting me, “and she said the main obstacle to my happiness is my mind and the gateway to freedom is to tell the world my dreams.” He closed his eyes and sighed heavily. “I haven’t slept in a couple weeks because they follow me everywhere since I got back from Vietnam because they know I know about their secret operations, so I’m gonna take a little nap and talk more later. Okay?”

To my great relief, he slept the rest of the way to Sacramento, waking when the bus driver announced, “This is Sac-ra-mento. We’ll be stopping here for fifteen minutes before continuing to San Francisco.”

“Do you remember the four things I told you?” asked my odiferous companion as he got his battered suitcase down from the overhead rack.

“Tell me again,” I said, smiling up at him.

“Acceptance, forgiveness, love and logic,” he said, frowning gravely. “These must be taught through all the media to ignite a revolution of thought to repel the forces of darkness.”

“Amen,” I said. “Safe travels.”

“Won’t help,” he said grimly. “I’m destined to meet the warlocks. Any day now.”

“What does it mean to pre-board? Do you get on before you get on?” George Carlin

My United Airlines flight to Newark, New Jersey was scheduled to lift off from San Francisco at midnight, but a few minutes before takeoff we were herded off the jet and told we would have to wait for another jet to arrive from Los Angeles because our first jet was experiencing mechanical difficulties. Thus we did not take off until three in the morning, and shortly thereafter my seven-mile-high snooze was interrupted by the announcement that “we will be landing in Chicago at O’Hare Airport in fifteen minutes where this flight will terminate.”

“Excuse me,” I said, trying not to panic as I hailed a stewardess. “I thought this flight was going to Newark, New Jersey. That’s what my ticket says and I’ve got a friend waiting for me there.”

“Sorry,” she said with a pleasant shrug, “they’ll fix you up with a new flight once we’re on the ground.”

O’Hare Airport is as big as a medium-sized city with myriad terminals located miles apart from each other, or so it was in 1976. When I was informed by the harried person at the United Airlines counter that if I wanted to continue to Newark I could do so on an American Airlines jet leaving in twelve hours or I could do what most of my fellow travelers were doing and change my flight to some other New York or East Coast destination. But since I was bound for New Jersey to stay with my friends Dan and Janka, and not being a savvy air traveler, I took the ticket he gave me and set out on the long trek across O’Hare with the intention of bivouacking at the appropriate American Airlines boarding gate until summoned to board.

Then a funny thing happened, and by funny I mean odd and perplexing. As I entered the vast American Airlines Terminal, I looked up at one of the many television monitors announcing flight arrivals and departures, and I noticed one of the departure announcements was blinking to indicate that flight would be departing in just a few minutes. And the number of the blinking flight was the number of the flight I had been told would be leaving in twelve hours—destination Newark, New Jersey.

So I ran as fast as I could for a good half-mile, thankful to be in such superlative condition from three months of grueling physical labor under the hot Oregon sun, and I arrived with my briefcase and knapsack at the appropriate boarding gate just as a dapper fellow in an American Airlines uniform was about to close the double doors to the ramp leading down to the soon-to-depart 747. He took my ticket, pulled off the appropriate pages, and sent me down the ramp to a smiling stewardess who ushered me into the virtually empty jumbo jet, empty save for me, four other passengers, the pilot and co-pilot, two stewards and five stewardesses.

Now that was a fun flight. Once we had attained cruising altitude above a vast sea of snowy white clouds, a stewardess invited the five passengers to move up to the First Class section—my one and only experience of such airborne luxury. We dined lavishly, were taken into the cockpit to say hello to the pilot and co-pilot, and I enjoyed a rousing game of Hearts with three of the stewardesses. Everyone was curious as to why I alone of the hundreds of United Airlines passengers had made it onto that jumbo jet that had been called up expressly to take us (and our hundreds of pieces of luggage) on the second leg of our journey to New Jersey.

And I said, “Just lucky I guess,” though in truth I felt angels were actively taking care of me.

Occupy Christmas

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

(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.”

fin