(This short story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2012)
Ray, a slender man of eighty-two, his white hair sparse, gazes out the bus window at the passing fields. He is lost in thought, truly lost, unaware of who he is or where he’s going. Ray’s wife Vera, on the other hand, knows exactly who she is and where she’s going. A buxom gal of seventy-nine, her fantastically curly hair tinted pinkish blond, Vera is Flo’s mother and Otto’s grandmother, and she and Ray are on a Greyhound bus going to Ukiah to be with Flo and Otto for Christmas, which is only two days away now. She sits so her shoulder touches Ray’s as she knits an orange and black afghan, her mind crammed with gift lists, recipes, and words of wisdom for her grandson.
“We should have driven,” says Ray, frowning at Vera. “How are we gonna get around without a car?”
“We don’t have a car anymore, dear,” says Vera, smiling at her husband. “Remember? We sold it three months ago. Since I don’t drive and they took your license away, there wasn’t much point in keeping it.”
“Must you remind me?” he says with mock indignation. And then, straining to remember, “Why did they do that?”
“You had another accident. And thank God no one was hurt.”
Ray frowns. “The light was green. The light was not red. I don’t care what anybody says. The light was not green.”
Vera nods. “Yes, dear.”
Ray glares out the window and remembers the light was red and that he had every intention of hitting the brakes. But his foot went to the accelerator pedal instead of to the brake pedal and…he closes his eyes and braces himself for impact.
Vera watches Ray for a long moment before returning to thoughts of turkey and pies and gingerbread and all the stores she wants to go to when they get to Ukiah.
On the edge of sleep, Ray hears a man’s voice, a voice his doctor calls a primary symptom of Alzheimer’s. Sometimes Ray thinks the voice is God, but other times he knows the voice is his memory.
“Hello Ray. Would you like to be Santa Claus again?”
Ray shrugs and says, “Sure. Why not?”
Vera looks at her husband and sighs with relief to see him temporarily content.
Ray is a department store Santa again, sitting on his red throne, a line of children stretching out of the toy department and snaking past Sporting Goods before making a sharp turn at Beds, which is where Ray loses sight of the line, though he knows there are kids lined up throughout the store and out the doors and down every road to the sea.
A little boy climbs onto Ray’s lap and says, “Where’s my candy cane?”
Ray says, “Ho ho ho! Have you been a good little boy?”
The boy grabs Ray’s cotton beard and pulls off a big chunk. “You’re not really Santa Claus!” shouts the boy. “You don’t even know where I live!”
Ray wakes with a start. Vera puts a calming hand on his arm.
“I could kill him,” says Ray, looking at his wife, unsure of her name, wondering if she can be trusted.
“Time for your pills,” explains Vera. “That’s why you’re cranky. I thought we could wait until we got there, but we can’t.”
Otto, verging on seventeen, pushes the old station wagon up over seventy. His mother Flo arches an eyebrow. Otto slows the old wagon to sixty. He wants to stay in good with his mother because he needs the car tonight for his big triple date with Zak and Josh and their respective Awesome Babes.
“Think Gramps will like my blue hair?” asks Otto, making sure to signal when he changes lanes. “Remember when I had it real long and he said I looked Arthurian?”
“Fortunately, your grandfather is color blind,” says Flo, finding it impossible to relax when Otto is driving. “And your grandmother thinks anything you do is fabulous, so…”
“Um…” says Otto, clearing his throat, “about tonight?”
“I said you could have the car,” says Flo, rummaging in her purse for lip balm. “I want to take mom on the bus. That way she’ll be limited to buying what we can carry.”
“Um, mom?” says Otto, exiting the freeway at the suggested speed and hoping Flo is impressed by his magnificent show of self-restraint. “I was wondering about a slight advance?”
“On your inheritance or your allowance?”
“Very funny,” says Otto, flooring it through an intersection to beat the red.
Flo winces. “Since when is it a sin to stop at a yellow?” She clears her throat, remembering the family therapist’s admonition: Try not to be too hard on Otto. What with his father moving out and the ensuing emotional confusion…“How much do you need?”
“Forty?” he says, forcing a hopeful little smile.
Flo forgets all about the family therapist’s admonition and says, “Who do you think I am? Donald Trump? You think I’m made of money? I gave you forty dollars two days ago.” She sighs. “Long gone, I’m sure.”
“My skateboard was shot,” says Otto. “It’s how I get around. I needed…”
“Nothing,” says Flo, unable to restrain herself. “You get nothing more from me. And I want you to fill this car with gas before you bring it home tonight. Zak and Josh can chip in.”
Otto frowns deeply. “Are you serious? It takes fifty dollars to fill this old hog.”
“That’s right,” says Flo, her eyes narrowing. “And I work forty-eight hours a week. I bring home nineteen hundred and sixty-seven dollars a month, from which I pay the rent, insurance, utilities, food for you, clothes for you, music lessons for you, school supplies for you, an allowance for you.” She’s screaming now. “…and every time you take the car out, it comes back empty, which means fifty more dollars, doesn’t it? And every time you go out with your stupid friends you want forty dollars on top of the fifty I just spent to fill the fucking car. And I can’t afford it. Okay?”
Otto is confounded by the intensity of his mother’s anger. “So you want me to get a job? Flunk out of school?”
Flo squints furiously at him. “No. I want you to get a job, stay in school, stop watching television and diddling your cell phone every second you aren’t skateboarding, and start being some HELP!”
Otto thinks for a moment and replies, “Okay, then. How about thirty dollars?”
Ray sits up front with Otto, while Vera sits in back with Flo. Quietly, so no one up front will know, Vera hands her daughter a wad of cash—five hundred dollars. Flo kisses her mother’s cheek and whispers, “Thank you, mama.”
Vera holds Flo’s hand, gazes at Otto’s blue mop and says, “I find your coiffure positively daring.”
“You should see my friend Zak,” says Otto, relishing her praise. “He totally shaved half his head and dyed the rest magenta.”
“Daring, indeed,” says Vera, feigning delight. “Will we be meeting your girlfriend tonight?”
“You better believe it,” says Otto, winking at his mother in the rearview mirror.
“And her name is?” asks Vera, already knowing from Flo.
“Natasha,” says Otto, nodding emphatically. “Natasha Svetlana Jones. Her mother is like half-Russian and her dad is like Ukrainian or something, and, uh…I should warn you she’s got a massive gold spike in her right nostril.” He pauses dramatically. “Well…massive is like a relative term.”
“I can’t wait to meet her,” says Vera. “And I just love how colorful and poetic your speech has become.”
“Is this girl a cannibal?” asks Ray, unsure of what anybody is talking about.
“No way, Gramps” says Otto, grinning. “On the contrary, man, she’s actually a vegetarian.”
“So why the spike?” asks Ray, touching his nose and wincing.
“It’s the fashion these days, dear,” Vera explains. “A fashion statement.”
“Or something,” says Flo, rolling her eyes.
“A statement of what?” asks Ray, frowning at Otto.
“Like her personal statement,” says Otto, nodding thoughtfully. “You know, like her personal belief about being able to like…express yourself.”
Ray surveys the suburban sprawl and he thinks they’re in Los Angeles in 1976. He frowns at Otto and says, “Jesus, Frankie, we’re supposed to meet those guys on Wilshire in ten minutes. Step on it.”
“What’s he talking about?” asks Otto, confused by his grandfather’s confusion.
“Don’t ask her,” says Ray, slapping his grandson’s arm. “Listen to me. This deal is as good as made.”
“His Alzheimer’s,” says Vera, nodding sadly. “He thinks you’re his old business partner, Frank Lazuli.”
Otto looks at his grandfather and says, “Gramps. I’m not Frank. I’m Otto and it’s two thousand and twelve and we’re in Ukiah. Okay?”
Ray blinks a few times as he returns to the present, turns to look at his wife, and says, “Like I was there again, honey. Just like I was there.”
After supper, Otto’s girlfriend, Natasha, petite and pretty, her long hair maroon, her purple belly shirt revealing a big silver ring piercing the rim of her navel, explains the thrill of thrash dancing to Vera. “It’s like…” she says, staring into Vera’s eyes, “it’s a way to get past societal repression into a state of physical bliss. I mean…after I thrash for like ten minutes I’m just totally free. I’m like totally…uninhibited.”
“We had Elvis,” says Vera, taking Natasha’s hand. “And then going wild at the Fillmore with Quicksilver and the Airplane.”
Flo shows her father how to operate the automatic channel changer. She points the device at the big screen television and the images jump from starving Africans to the Marx Brothers to somebody selling used cars to a woman taking off her clothes to a Canadian weather report to Australian soccer and back to the Africans.
“Can’t I just get up when I want to change channels?” asks Ray, sneering at the little plastic thing. “It’ll be the only exercise I’ll get today. We missed our walk.”
“But dad, there are over two hundred channels to choose from. Part of the fun is channel surfing.”
“Fun for you maybe,” says Ray, reluctantly accepting the changer.
Otto, wearing his razor blade earring, ripped combat jacket and purple combat boots, gets the car keys from Flo and proclaims, “Hey everybody, be happy. I’ll be back by midnight for sure. Or so.”
When the young ones are gone, Vera says, “I like Natasha. She has a wonderful energy. Says she wants to be a veterinarian acupuncturist. Do you think they’re having sex?”
“What?” says Ray, glaring at the television. “Who?”
“Sex,” says Vera.
“Not now,” says Ray, winking at her. “I’m busy pushing little buttons.”
Vera and Flo catch a bus downtown, and when they are settled in their seats, Vera brings forth her list of things she wants to buy. Flo leans her head against her mother’s shoulder and says sadly, “He’s much worse, isn’t he?”
“Day by day,” says Vera, nodding. “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to handle him by myself.” She shrugs. “Two weeks ago, he got up in the middle of the night, went outside without his pants on and tried to flag a cab. He thought it was 1973, the year he lost a fortune on all that desert land.”
“What will you do?”
“What can I do? I’ll have to put him in a home.”
“Oh, mama, I’m so sorry.”
“Let’s not think about it now. It’s Christmas. Let’s spend some money.”
Back at the television, comfortable in a recliner, Ray is stuck on MTV, dazzled by beautiful young women with long legs and perfect bodies. He forgets he’s watching television and thinks it’s 1972, the Starlight Lounge in Vegas. He and Frank Lazuli and Murray Cornish are celebrating closing a big deal—a new shopping center. They’ve got money to burn. Vera and Tammy and Twyla have gone to bed and left the boys to blow off steam and chase girls.
The phone rings and rings and rings until finally Ray emerges from the past to answer it, a voice saying, “Gramps? It’s Otto. Is Flo there?”
“Flo lives in Ukiah now,” says Ray, feeling rather proud to have remembered this new information.
“You’re in Ukiah,” says Otto. “Remember? You came up for Christmas. We picked you up at the bus station today.”
“But of course,” says Ray, remembering nothing. “Hold on a minute.”
He wanders through the house, but finds no one. He vaguely remembers that Flo and Vera went somewhere, but by the time he gets back to the phone he thinks Vera has left him for another man.
“Hello, Frankie?” says Ray. “You still there?”
“This is Otto.”
“I don’t know. This is Otto. Your grandson. Is Flo there? My mother?”
“No!” says Ray, glowering at the television—someone dunking a basketball in slow motion. “And if you don’t stop harassing my daughter, I’ll have the police on you so fast you won’t know what hit you.”
And with that, he slams the phone down and goes back to the Starlight Lounge.
Otto, Zak and Josh come up with a plan for getting money so they can fill the station wagon with gas and take their girlfriends to a dance club in Santa Rosa. The plan centers on Ray. Otto parks the station wagon in Zak’s garage and jogs the seven blocks home. He finds his grandfather transfixed by The Empire Strikes Back. Yoda, a little green person with pointed ears, is speaking to Ray.
“Hey Gramps,” says Otto, full of false joviality, “you figured out how to use the DVD player. Cool.”
Ray says nothing.
Yoda says, “You will only find what you take with you.”
Ray replies, “Your color is bad. You should see a doctor.”
“So…Ray,” says Otto, “I’ve got a little business proposition for you. Interested?”
Ray clicks off the set, turns to his grandson and says, “Frankie, I’ve had it. Vera’s left me. I can’t do this anymore. The Wilshire deal wiped me out. Took me months to find a steady job. It’s not much, but it’s steady, and I want her back.”
“Okay,” says Otto, taking a deep breath, “but if you can front me a hundred dollars, I’ll turn it into ten thousand by Christmas morning and wrap it up in a little blue box and put it under the tree. Promise. It’s an absolute sure thing.”
“I’ve heard that line a thousand times,” says Ray, shaking his head. “Hell, I’ve said it a thousand times.” He grins at Otto and winks. “But okay.”
He fishes his wallet out of his back pocket and gives Otto all he has—five twenties. Otto tries to thank Ray with a kiss, but Ray shoves him away and says, “Don’t get queer on me, Frankie. Just make the deal, okay?”
“Okay, Ray. Okay.”
On Christmas morning, Vera is in ecstasy and Ray has become addicted to watching Otto play a video game in which he attempts to conquer an alien civilization. Flo is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
“We have some big news,” says Flo, smiling wanly at Otto as they gather in the living room to open presents. “Vera and Ray are moving to Ukiah, and so for a few weeks…until we get them settled nearby, they’ll be living here. Won’t that be great?”
“Here?” says Otto, shocked at the prospect. “We only have two bedrooms.”
“Oh, it won’t be so bad,” says Ray, winking at his grandson. “And now we can turn that ten thousand into a million. Right?”
Otto blushes, stunned that the old man remembered that two-day-old con job. “Whatever, Gramps,” he says softly. “Whatever you say.”
Flo hands the first present to Vera. She unwraps it carefully to preserve the wrapping paper.
Ray peers at the presents under the tree and sees no little blue box. He frowns at Otto and says, “So…things didn’t work out so well, huh?”
Otto stiffens. “I don’t know what he’s talking about.”
Vera shrugs. “Don’t worry, honey. It’s just his Alzheimer’s.”
“No, it’s not,” says Ray, feeling remarkably lucid. “I may forget a lot of things, but I don’t forget a business deal.” His eyes fill with tears. “You promised me, Otto. You promised me.”
“This is too weird,” says Otto, standing up. “I didn’t promise him anything.”
“I’m sorry,” says Vera, bowing her head. “Maybe our staying here isn’t such a good idea.”
Otto sits on his bed feeling guilty and cruel. He talks quietly to a large smoky quartz crystal, a Christmas gift from Natasha. She says the crystal has the power to convert negative reality into positive reality.
“I never should have lied to him. I hurt him. I didn’t think I could. I didn’t think it would matter to him. I always loved him when I was a kid. I really did. So please, please make this all okay.”
Having said this, Otto has a vivid memory. He is seven years old, walking with Ray along a beach at Lake Tahoe. Suddenly a huge dog rushes toward them, murder in his eyes. Otto wants to run away, but Ray holds onto him and says, “It’s okay.”
Now the old man squats down, holds out his hand to the dog, and makes kissing sounds. The dog becomes docile and friendly. Otto is astonished by the transformation of the beast. Ray explains, “They get aggressive like that because they’re afraid, not because they really want to hurt you.”
Someone knocks at Otto’s door and he expects his mother to come in, angry with him for robbing his grandfather, but it’s not Flo, it’s Vera.
She sits beside Otto, runs a hand through his blue hair and says, “We’ll only stay if you want us, honey. We certainly don’t want to intrude on your life.”
And Otto is about to confess his crime and ask for forgiveness when Vera adds, “Oh, and by they way, did Ray give you the money I gave him to give you? The hundred dollars? Or did he forget?”