By Marty Malin
Noise from a delivery truck dieseling in front of his house dragged Earle out of a recurring erotic dream involving a much older woman with fire-flecked opalescent eyes. He could never remember the details once he reluctantly gave in to wakefulness. The steamy imagery would evaporate, leaving only his rapidly faltering arousal to validate that he had been engaged in something transcendent and possibly illicit.
The noise from the truck was insistent. Earle untangled himself from Brandy and scrambled out of bed. He made his way over to the bedroom window, pulled apart the narrow slats of his blinds, and squinted into the daylight. No mistake. The driver had turned off the engine and was climbing down from the cab.
Earle scrambled to pull on his underpants and drag yesterday’s too-small yellow “Robots Rule, Humans Drool!” tee shirt over his head just seconds before the doorbell rang.
“Back in a jif, Brandykins,” he said, bounding downstairs toward his front door. “Don’t go ‘way.”
He answered the bell as if it were completely unremarkable that he was only half dressed. The driver pretended not to notice.
“I got a 300-pound crate on the truck for an Earle Winston Bradlee the Third. That you?”
“Yep,” Earle replied. “That’s me.”
“Where you want me to put it, buddy?”
“The driveway’s fine,” Earle said.
“By rights we’re not supposed to take it past the curb, but I don’t suppose there’s any harm dropping it in the driveway, just so long as we don’t have to bring it into the house or nothing,” the driver said, trying to keep his eyes on Earle’s face and off his pale, scrawny legs. The tee shirt stopped short of covering his underpants completely.
Earle stood in his bare feet, scratching his backside absentmindedly.
“Thanks,” Earle said.
“Right,” the driver said, holding out a beat-up aluminum clipboard. “You’ll have to sign for it.”
“You guys should get tablets,” Earle said, as he reached for the clipboard.
“I guess it’s coming to that,” the driver grunted. And maybe you should get some pants.
“How’s about I give you fifty bucks to roll it into the garage as long as you got it on the dolly?” said Earle.
“White Glove Service is an extra hundred bucks,” the driver said.
“Well, I’m not exactly asking for White Glove Service. Fifty bucks to just drop it inside the garage instead of the driveway. I’ll unpack it myself.”
“Sure. Fifty bucks. Why not?”
“Okay. I’ll open up. Meet you in the garage.”
Earle closed the front door, took the stairs to the bedroom two at a time and quickly pulled on his jeans and sandals. He hustled back downstairs, out the kitchen door leading to the garage and raised the overhead door. The driver was lowering the lift gate, standing beside the crate already loaded on the hand truck.
“Thanks,” said Earle, handing the driver the cash once the crate was inside the garage.
“No problem. Have a good one,” the driver said, heading towards his truck as Earle lowered the garage door.
Earle went up to the bedroom, ripped off his clothes and crawled back into bed with Brandy.
“The Old Woman has arrived!” he said. He hadn’t been this excited since Brandy was wheeled into his garage three months ago.
“Now don’t be jealous, Brandykins,” he said. “She’s nothing like you. You know you’re my special girl.”
Brandy was indeed special. Earle had specified every detail of her 5’1”, 34-24-35 silicone body. She had fair skin dusted with a smattering of freckles and cranberry-to-tangerine ombre hair.
Earle had sprung for prosthetic-grade green eyes. He had ordered a custom wheeled tripod for storage. Leaving her lying down too long would distort her beautiful curves.
“Well,” he said to Brandy, getting out of bed for the second time this morning, “I can’t just leave the old gal in the garage. Sorry, foxy lady, but you’ll have to excuse me.”
He picked Brandy up, his hands interlocked under her breasts, and positioned her on the tripod next to the bed. Still naked, he padded downstairs through the kitchen into the garage.
A crowbar and mallet made short work of uncrating his new treasure: a life-sized torso in a refrigerator-sized dark oak and glass cabinet trimmed with antique brass.
She was exquisite, despite the fact that her clothes were moth-eaten and her nearly bald head was badly cracked, with a sizeable chunk missing. Still, her elegant Romani face was captivating. Earle was smitten.
When he first spotted her in an on-line auction, he knew he had to have her: a genuine 1929 “Grandmother’s Predictions” fortune-teller with the original #29 wax head, hand crafted in Dresden, Germany. She was the automaton of his dreams, the original “Cleveland Grandma,” as the cognoscenti called her, built by the now defunct William Gent Vending Company in Cleveland, Ohio.
Over the next few weeks, he restored “Grandmother’s Predictions” to her original splendor in his garage workshop. It had been straightforward enough to repair her mechanical action, turning the odd metal part on his lathe, truing up the supporting rod and escapement, rebuilding the motor and refinishing the cabinetry and fittings.
He had done much more complex restorations at the Musée Mécanique. He had loved working at the museum, near the old Sutro Baths and the Cliff House, with its lovely old San Francisco feel. Yes, it was out of the way and slightly seedy, but the museum’s collections were part of a rundown, slightly seedy past.
Aside from the Musée Mécanique, working for a living had never been one of Earle’s strengths. He had just managed to graduate from high school. College was out of the question. His father tried his best, using his business connections, to help Earle “make something of himself.” Most of his attempts had failed.
Once he had helped Earle land a job at a bicycle repair shop in the Mission. That lasted for almost three months before Earle decided he’d had enough of sprockets and derailleurs. A job at an automotive dealership seemed promising, once Earle moved from the sales floor to the grease racks, but Earle found changing oil filters and rotating tires boring. He soon chucked that job as well.
Earle stumbled into the job at the Musée Mécanique by accident. As a visitor, he had found the automatons fascinating and he had a talent for spotting small mechanical problems with the machines.
This one had a sudden judder that occurred in a predictable pattern. That one squeaked annoyingly or swallowed his token without delivering the promised performance. Such malfunctions annoyed him greatly.
Earle would flag down some hapless employee and direct his attention to the offending machine. He also typically offered his diagnosis and prescribed steps that might be taken to remedy the problem.
Often as not, the response to Earle’s careful analysis was to pull the plug and hang an “Out of Order” sign on the machine. When that happened, Earle would demand to speak with the manager. After a few such encounters, the manager decided the best way to get Earle out of his hair would be to hire him. It was the first job Earle had gotten without his father’s intervention.
Before long, he was helping with minor repairs and one or two of the craftsmen began to share the secrets of their trade with him. Earle soaked it all up.
He was a natural. Soon, he was able to figure out what was ailing the machines and how to fix even the most complex malfunctions. The Musée Mécanique paid Earle only a meager salary but, with a generous subsidy from his father, he moved out of his parents’ house into an apartment in North Beach.
Earle’s star was on the ascendant. Even better news came on his 25th birthday. On that auspicious day, Earl learned from his grandfather’s attorneys that he was a trust fund baby. Earle’s grandfather had made a lot of money in the old San Francisco both he and Earle idolized, and Earle had inherited it all. The money would never run out.
The first thing he did was to buy a house closer to the Musée Mécanique in nearby Sea Cliff. When the Musée Mécanique moved to Fisherman’s Wharf, with its slick facades and hordes of gawking tourists, Earle wanted no part of it. He declared himself to be retired at the age of twenty-six.
Earle began to work full-time acquiring and restoring arcade machines for his own collection, which was rapidly taking over his rec room. “Grandmother’s Predictions” would be the crown jewel of his personal arcade.
Grandmother’s wax head had been the most challenging part to restore. He repaired the crack and replaced the missing piece, building up the wax layers meticulously. He had anchored silvery human hair strand by strand in the wax scalp and swept it back into a bun.
He wanted her clothing to be authentic. It had taken a bit of time to find suitable fabrics from her era. He had hand stitched a pleated, cream silk blouse and trimmed it with fabric-covered buttons. He had appliqued handmade lace at the throat and the sleeves and draped her shoulders with an antique Belgian lace shawl. A marquise-cut amethyst pendant, teardrop pearl earrings and a gold wedding ring set with a circle of diamonds completed her jewelry. Delicate gold wire-rim spectacles accented her fire-flecked opalescent eyes.
When he was finished, he carefully moved her from the garage to a place of honor in his rec room arcade. When he plugged her in, the motor whirred, and the lights came on.
She looked splendid.
Until now, his most prized possession had been a triple-monkey barrel organ automaton, featuring a monkey magician and a pair of monkeys playing stringed instruments.
He also had a vintage ESCO “Sex Appeal Meter,” a “Popeye Arm Wrestler,” and a “Zoltan” fortune-teller. Next to Popeye in the arcade was a 1947 D. Gottlieb & Co. “Humpty Dumpty” pinball machine, the first ever to incorporate flippers.
In a nod to modernity, he had acquired an arcade model “Space Harrier” console. It was flanked by some of his oldest and most beautiful machines, hand-cranked clam shell Mutoscopes from the early 1900s with interchangeable peep show reels.
The Mutoscopes featured such titles as “What the Butler Saw,” “After the Bath,” and “Late at Night in the Bedroom,” all with their original faded advertising cards. He had learned how to make far more explicit reels for these old Mutoscopes with the assistance of YouTube instructional videos. He had even cobbled together a passable Philadelphia Toboggan Company “Laffing Sal” from painted, horsehair strengthened papier-mâché and mechanical parts salvaged from non-functioning units.
Earle’s tenure at the Musée Mécanique had served him well. “Grandmother’s Predictions” had shipped with a deck of 30 original fortune cards. More were available on eBay, but for now these would do nicely. He unlocked the cabinet concealing Grandmother’s mechanical innards and stacked the fortune cards neatly in the dispensing mechanism.
He put a nickel in the brass coin slot near the top of the cabinet and Grandmother came to life. Her hand moved left, then right, then left again, back and forth, hovering above a fan of tarot cards on the baize-covered table in front of her.
Her head moved up and down, to one side then the other, fixing Earle with her gaze. Her chest breathed in and out under her silk blouse. And then her hand stopped, hovering above the Queen of Cups. He heard his fortune drop into the brass receptacle with gilt lettering above it announcing “Your Answer Is Here.”
Worry turns the hair gray and breaks down the
health and never yet has done a person any good.
Don’t worry over your money matters, just work,
work, work. Work will keep your mind off your
troubles, make you more cheerful; cheerfulness
brings sunshine; sunshine brings happiness;
happiness brings a clear mind, and a clear mind
brings good work; good work brings good money
and money makes more money.
A bright life is in store for you if you will just work
and work and stop worrying.
Drop Another Nickel in the Slot and I Will Tell You More
Why not? Earle smiled to himself. He deposited another nickel and Grandmother began to move again. His fortune was delivered below.
Slow methods and hesitant execution of
business affairs will plunge you into deeper
misery if you do not wake up and learn to act
quick. You possess good instinct and fine
business abilities. Beware of people who
approach you with schemes whereby you will
get rich quick.
You are on the road to fame and fortune.
Do not let your opportunity pass you by.
Drop Another Nickel in the Slot and I Will Tell You More
Earle was beyond happy with his restored automaton. Unlocking the cabinet, he replaced the fortune cards in the dispenser and went up to his bedroom. He peeled off his clothes and dropped them on the floor, lifted Brandy from her tripod and trundled her into his unmade bed.
Unable to sleep, he headed back down the stairs toward the kitchen for a bedtime snack. He polished off a couple of chocolate donuts, grabbed an open carton of milk from the refrigerator and sniffed it. Convinced it had not gone sour, he chugged the dregs straight from the carton, belched, wiped his mouth on the dish towel and went into the arcade.
He cranked one of the Mutoscopes through a homemade porno reel, fondling himself half-heartedly, then giggled good night to “Grandmother’s Predictions.” Back in the bedroom, he crawled in beside Brandy.
“Isn’t she a marvel, Brandykins? Oh, right! You two haven’t met yet. Probably better to keep it that way. But don’t ever forget that you are my special girl.” He gave one breast a desultory squeeze, rolled over and fell asleep.
Earle rarely bothered to get dressed when he got up and the next morning was no exception. He made himself a mug of coffee, which he gulped standing up, playing a round of Humpty Dumpty Pinball.
He went to the kitchen for a second mug and a chocolate doughnut and then went back into the arcade for a serious encounter with “Space Harrier.” He rarely got past Level 16. But this time he made it all the way through Level 18. “Yes!” he whooped, pumping the air with his fist. “That’s how the game is played, right Grandmother? Master of the Universe! Bow down, bitches!”
He strutted over to the ESCO Sex Appeal Meter, dropped a penny from the cup he kept on top of the machine into the slot, squeezed the handle and let go. The dial spun around to“Overrated.”
“What?” he shrieked in mock horror. A second penny produced an even worse result. “Ice Box? No effing way!
“You see, Grandmother,” he said, moving in front of his prized automaton, “I get no respect around here.
“Brandy,” he yelled toward the stairs, “you hear what they’re saying about me? ‘Ice Box?’ Time to seriously buff up.”
Buffing up entailed the most vigorous physical exercise he planned on getting that day, an all-out competition against Popeye’s mechanical arm.
“C’mon, Popeye, old man,” he said. “Let’s wrestle.” A quarter produced a scratchy rendition of “Popeye the Sailor Man (Toot Toot).”
“I ain’t no ‘Spinach Eater’ or no ‘Bluto Beater,’” he said to the assembled machines, those being Popeye’s two most difficult levels. “How’s about a ‘Muscel Man’ or a ‘Spiflicator?’ he mused, considering less difficult levels he knew he was not up to.
“Probably not,” he concluded. “Come on, sailor man. You want a piece of me? Here comes ‘Sardine’ or maybe even ‘Junior Popeye.’”
Reluctantly, Popeye gave up “Sardine.” Earle scowled and inserted another quarter. The outcome was even worse. “Not even ‘Sardine’ this time? Shit! None of the above? Not wasting any more quarters on you, Sailor Man.
“I definitely need more power credits,” he said, heading for the kitchen to refill his coffee.
“What? No spinach? Well, okay then. Another chocolate doughnut if you insist!
“Now then, Grandmother,” he said returning to his arcade. “What you got to say for yourself this morning, you gorgeous old woman you?” He dropped a nickel in the slot.
“Grandmother’s Predictions” moved through her elegant routine, pausing her hand over the King of Pentacles. His fortune dropped into the “Your Answer Is Here” slot.
A wise old owl sat on an oak
The more he sat the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard
Why can’t you be like this wise old Bird?
Yes, my friend your greatest fault
is that you talk too much. Learn to
keep a secret. A friend will urge you to
take a trip. Don’t do it. Your best
interest lies in staying at home.
I’m depending upon your good sense
to lead you on the right path.
Drop Another Nickel in the Slot and I Will Tell You More
“Grandmother, Old Girl, you’re going to bankrupt me with all these nickels,” Earle chuckled. He couldn’t resist another go.
Oh speed on. Speed on my little dove.
Carry a message to the one I love.
Tho a cruel fate has us two parted
I know that the future has in store
Greater happiness forever more.
You are an imaginative person given
to exclaim in ecstasy if things please you.
Drop Another Nickel in the Slot and I Will Tell You More
“Wise Old Owls? Little Doves? Brandykins, I think Grandmother’s flipping me the bird.”
He chuckled at his own wit, making his way upstairs to his bedroom.
“She’s right about that last thing, though. I’m definitely ready to exclaim in ecstasy if things please me. Ecstasy, here I come! I hope you’re ready to please me, Brandy. You just put me to sleep last night, you naughty girl,” he giggled.
Earle crawled into bed with Brandy. She did everything he wanted. That’s one of the things he liked most about her. And when he was finished, he fell headlong into post-coital dreamland, despite the sugar-bomb chocolate doughnuts plus three mugs of coffee.
When he crawled out of bed it was approaching noon. He remembered he had promised to meet Noah Meltnick for lunch. Noah was a colleague who still worked at Musée Mécanique and was one of the few remaining people in Earle’s life, now that he was retired.
He hung Brandy up on the tripod, pulled on some clothes and requested an Uber on his cell phone. A few minutes later, he met Noah at “The Dancing Crab” on Pier 45.
“You’re serious?” Noah said, looking up from his Crab Louis when Earle told him the news. “An authentic 1929 ‘Cleveland Grandma’?”
“The original item, restored by yours truly, complete with a deck of old-timey fortunes,” said Earle. “Wanna come over and meet her?”
Noah glanced at his watch. “I have to get back to work. I’m closing up tonight, but I could be at your place after that, say 9:00 or 9:30?”
“Works for me,” Earle said.
When the check came, Noah took out his phone and punched up his Venmo app. “I got it,” Earle said.
“Yeah. No worries. Grandfather’s money.”
“Okay. I’ll bring over a bottle of something tonight. I still can’t believe it. An original ‘Cleveland Grandma.’ You’re one lucky bastard,” he said.
“Ain’t it the truth?” Earle said. “See ya later.”
Noah was at Earle’s door at nine o’clock sharp carrying a bottle of Old Grand-Dad 100.
“Old Grand-Dad for the Cleveland Grandma,” he said when Earle opened the door. It was just the sort of wit he thought Earle would appreciate.
Sure enough, Earle grabbed the bottle and cradled it in his arms, waltzing around the arcade as if it were his dance partner. He presented it with an elaborate flourish to “Grandmother’s Predictions.”
“Grandmother,” he intoned with mock solemnity, “may I present Old Grand-Dad.”
“How do you do, Mr. Grand-Dad,” he replied in an exaggerated falsetto.
“And Grand-Dad,” he changed voices again, “may I introduce the lovely ‘Grandmother’s Predictions’ who, rumor has it, hails from the William Gent Vending Company in Cleveland, Ohio. Born sometime in 1929, although as a well-bred lady she would never discuss her age.”
“She’s a stunner,” said Noah with genuine admiration. “The restoration is exquisite. I love the clothing and the jewelry.”
“Here,” Earle said, setting the bottle down. “Take a little peek under her skirt if you’d like.” He opened the service panel on the cabinet exposing the automaton’s machinery.
“You two get acquainted,” he said. “I’ll get us some glasses. I gotta pee first, though.”
Noah had always been envious of Earle’s collection and the inherited wealth that permitted him to acquire these rare pieces. He loved his work at the Musée Mécanique but he was pushing sixty and there was scant chance he would be retiring any time soon.
Noah examined the automaton’s mechanisms. They had been as carefully restored as the Grandmother mannequin herself. Noah had taught Earle a lot about these old machines and Earle had been an apt pupil.
He looked around the arcade and at the machines Earle had so expertly restored. Like Noah, Earle understood exactly what they needed to keep them humming. But Earle seemed to be connected to them, and their makers, on some deeper level than most of his colleagues.
Noah had been sorry to see Earle leave Musée Mécanique. Most of Earle’s colleagues had not. They found Earle crude, insensitive, and largely devoid of social graces. His hygiene was less than stellar, and he had virtually no ability to empathize with anyone. Still, Noah found Earle intriguing.
He continued to poke around the arcade, waiting for Earle to return. The clamshell Mutoscopes, with their ornately painted and gilded cast iron housings, were Noah’s favorites. He dreamed of owning one, but the last time he checked online, Mutoscopes like Earle’s went for north of $20,000.
Of course, it was the reels with their window into the past that made the Mutoscopes so enticing. Vintage Babe Ruth and Charlie Chaplin or flickers of the great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake were guaranteed to entertain.
But the Mutoscopes really existed to display naughty peeps. The old peeps still had a certain charm. The naked ladies in “Women’s Night in the Harem” or the “Artist and Model” might have been racy enough to get your grandfather’s motor revving, but by today’s standards they were tame. The models looked demure, almost innocent.
Noah wasn’t exactly shocked when he turned the crank on one of the cast iron beauties and encountered one of Earle’s more modern home-made porn reels. He couldn’t fathom why anyone would go to all the work of converting a run-of-the mill money shot downloaded from PornHub into a Mutoscope reel.
Then again, there were a lot of things he didn’t understand about Earle, including why he chose to share his bed with a hyper-realistic sex doll rather than a warm cuddly girlfriend.
Earle returned to the arcade with a couple of glasses and some ice. “Here’s to Old Grand-Dad and the Cleveland Grandma,” he said, pouring three fingers into his own glass and handing the bottle to Noah.
“A toast to two legends in their own time,” said Noah. “Cheers!”
Old Grand-Dad 100 is not one of those Kentucky bourbons for the faint of heart. But tonight, Earle and Noah were neither faint-hearted nor solicitous of their livers. The bottle was two-thirds gone by midnight when Noah phoned up an Uber, finally making good on his promise to head home after finishing one last drink.
Earle locked up behind Noah and shucked off his clothes in the arcade, leaving them on the floor where they landed.
“So, Grandmother, some party, hey?” he slurred. He was still just coordinated enough to put a nickel in the slot.
Grandmother obliged in her usual fashion. She looked straight at Earle as her hand came to rest over the Devil card.
Somehow, though, her eyes looked different. More earnest. Perhaps even a little put out. The fortune dropped into the slot.
“Naked came I out of my mother’s womb,” said
the Prophet Job, “ and naked shall I return thither.”
Grandmother cradled you lovingly when you emerged
naked into the world and instructed you as a growing boy
in the display of proper modesty. When Grandmother
discovered you swimming naked in the pond with
the neighbor’s daughter did she not guide you swiftly
back to the narrow path? Now that you are a man you have
lost all sense of propriety. You commit the sin of Onan
in Grandmother’s presence as if you were a
naughty child. Grandmother grieves for the children
that will not be born from the seed you spill with a
Cease this Devilish behavior and turn towards the Light.
Drop Another Nickel in the Slot and I will Tell You More
“What the fuck?” said Earle. “What kind of sick shit is this! This has to be Noah’s doing. There’s no other explanation. Noah must have done this while I was in the bathroom.”
Actually, once you get over the shock, it’s really pretty funny, Earle thought. I wonder what else he sneaked in there. He fumbled with the key, opened the cabinet, and removed the stack of fortunes from the dispenser flipping through them one by one.
There was nothing new, just the original fortunes that came with "Grandmother's Predictions." Earle replaced the cards and closed the cabinet door.
“Brandy,” he shouted, leaving the arcade and weaving his way toward the stairs, “Did you catch all of that? Fucking Noah! What an asshole!”
A mechanical whirring from the arcade stopped Earle dead in his tracks. He turned around, went back into the arcade and stood transfixed by “Grandmother’s Predictions.”
Grandmother was not finished with him, nickel be damned.
She was moving her head up and down, from side to side, her chest breathing in and out, her hand moving back and forth over the cards.
Grandmother’s hand hovered over the Judgment card and stopped. She fixed Earle in her beseeching gaze. Another fortune dropped into the slot. Earl hesitated for a moment, then retrieved the card.
“What do you think?” asks Saint Matthew.
If a man owns a hundred sheep and one
wanders away will he not leave the ninety
and nine on the hills to look for the one
that is lost? Poor lost lamb! Why do you
stray so far from the flock? You are
enslaved by unholy passions. Your idleness
and perverted lust will not bring
Grandmother more lambs.
Turn, turn away from your selfish wandering,
lost lamb, and hasten back to the fold.
Drop Another Nickel in the Slot and I Will Tell You More
Earle was mute with terror. He dropped the fortune on the floor and yanked Grandmother’s power cord from its wall socket. He stood there, cord in hand, staring bleary-eyed at the unplugged automaton, trying to understand the madness engulfing him.
This could not be happening. “Grandmother’s Predictions”was a machine. If there was anything Earle understood it was machines and he did not understand this.
Grandmother jumped back to life, her head and chest moving as before, her hand stopping above the Hanged Man card. She looked at Earle, her eyes compassionate. Earle looked at the plug he was holding. The fortune dropped into the slot.
Earle stood frozen to the floor, unable to retrieve the fortune. No matter. Grandmother was speaking it aloud, her quiet cadences measured and pedagogical, her inflections tuned for the ears of a small child, one for whom she had long been accustomed to providing patient instruction and correction.
Oh Dear! The Hanged Man is a very complicated
card but Grandmother will explain.
You know you must move on, but you can’t.
You are upside down, running in molasses.
The way you see the world and yourself
has been all wrong. The trick is to right yourself.
Your heart and your feet are as heavy as lead.
You want to run away but you can scarcely
move. Where would you go? It is pointless to
struggle. You might as well be an insect stuck to flypaper.
Help is in sight if only you will take it.
A close relative may be of assistance.
Put Another Nickel in the Slot and I Will Tell You More
Earle’s flesh crawled. He was trapped. Fortune cards shot wildly from the “Your Answer Is Here” slot. Grandmother’s eyes were turned to Heaven; she warbled a reedy, nasal hymn of supplication,
“Rock of Aaaages, Cleft for Meeeee!” The other machines piled on. The triple-monkey barrel organ tootled a spirited rendition of “Give Me That Old Time Religion.” Space Harrier’s synthesizer belted out “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom.”
Popeye’s arm swung menacingly to the strains of “Run for Your Life” and the flippers on the pinball machine launched ball bearings at bumpers and bells. Laffing Sal overlaid the chaos with full-throated, diabolical cackling.
Earle, drenched in cold sweat, naked as the day he came into the world, tore out of his house and ran down the block, laughing hysterically, stopping under a street light, hugging the post for support.
A neighbor leaned out an upstairs window and invited him to “shut the fuck up,” muttering something about “fucking crackheads,” and threatening to call the police as he slammed the window shut.
Earle staggered back to his house, too terrified to go back inside, and slumped down on the sidewalk outside his front door, shaking uncontrollably, his deranged laughter interspersed with wracking sobs.
It was there Officers Ravi Gupta and Mariposa Flores found him when they rolled up to his house. A few cautious onlookers had gathered.
“What’s going on, sir?” asked Officer Gupta. No response from Earle.
“Have you been drinking, sir? Can you tell me your name?”
Earle was of no help.
“Anyone inside the house, sir?”
Officer Flores retrieved a blanket from the cruiser. “Anybody know what’s going on with this gentleman?” she asked nobody in particular. Nobody did. “Okay then, we’d appreciate it if you would all disperse while we get him some help.”
The onlookers retreated a decent interval, but it was all too exciting to go very far. Things like this didn’t happen very often in Sea Cliff.
The officers covered Earle with the blanket and Officer Gupta called for an ambulance. Officer Flores knocked on the open door of Earle’s house.
“SFPD,” she announced. “If anybody’s in the house, identify yourself.” No reply. She went inside to have a look around, flashlight in hand.
“You won’t believe that place,” she said a few minutes later when she came back outside.
“He obviously lives alone. There’s a dozen or so old arcade machines in there, some of them creepy but nothing illegal. It’s all neat and clean. There’s an open bottle of booze on a coffee table, pretty much dead, with a couple of used glasses.
“Looks like he’s been drinking, but no sign of a drinking buddy or anybody else inside. I didn’t see any drugs lying around. Probably all inside him by now.”
“Can we ID him?” officer Gupta asked.
“His wallet was on the kitchen table with his keys. CDL says he’s Earle Winston Bradlee III. His DOB makes him twenty-seven. I’ll run him for priors and warrants,” she said reaching for her radio.
“Oh, yeah,” she said, turning back to her partner. “There’s a really fancy sex doll up in the bedroom that must have set him back a few grand, not that I know all that much about that kind of thing. Thought for a minute we had a body when my light hit it. Hanging up on a stand, right next to the bed.”
Officer Gupta laughed.
“Not funny, Gupta,” Officer Flores said. “Seems like everyone’s some kind of pervert these days.”
The ambulance arrived and a paramedic gave Earle a once over. She didn’t find anything that particularly alarmed her.
“No obvious injuries but his pressure’s through the roof. He’s pretty hammered, but it looks like more going on than just that,” she said.
“You think?” Officer Flores said.
“Looks like a customer for the Psych Emergency Team at the General,” the paramedic said. “You write a 5150?”
“Here you go,” said Officer Flores. “One Earle Winston Bradlee III, age twenty-seven,” she said. “Apparently lives here alone. Nobody else inside. Didn’t see any drugs. Dispatch says he’s clean. We’re not charging him.”
Officers Gupta and Flores coaxed Earle onto a gurney and the paramedic strapped him in for the ride to San Francisco General Hospital.
“We secured the property,” Officer Flores told the paramedic. “Here’s his keys and wallet.”
“I guess he won’t be needing his rubber girlfriend tonight,” Officer Gupta snickered. Officer Flores shot him one of her looks. The paramedic looked puzzled.
“He’s got a sex doll upstairs in the bedroom,” Officer Flores said.
The paramedic shrugged. “Takes all kinds, Officers,” she said.
“We got all kinds,” Officer Flores replied.
When the ambulance arrived at the hospital, Earle was still babbling incoherently. Medical staff drew a tox screen and helped him into a gown. They gave him some Ativan and placed him on ten-checks.
When he woke up the next evening, Earle was vaguely aware that someone, a nurse perhaps, was checking his vitals. He had no idea why.
“They found you naked in your front yard last night, Mr. Bradlee, laughing and rocking back and forth,” the nurse said. “They brought you here so we could take care of you.”
“Where’s here?” asked a still groggy Earle, propped up in a hospital bed, starring at the wall.
“San Francisco General Hospital, Mr. Bradlee. You’re in the Mental Health Unit under a 72-hour hold for psychiatric evaluation, but the doctor can tell you more about that in the morning.”
Earle didn’t respond.
“Meanwhile, let’s get you cleaned up a bit,” she said untying his gown. “Are you hungry? Need to pee?” The questions didn’t make any sense to Earle.
“Let’s just get rid of this,” she said sweetly, covering him with a sheet and removing his gown.
She handed him a warm washcloth. Earle had no idea what to do with it.
She took it from him and began washing his face and neck gently. “Does it hurt anywhere?” she asked.
Earle turned and looked at her for the first time. He jumped out of bed screaming in terror and bolted for the door only to be intercepted in the hallway by a Psych Tech twice his size.
“Easy now, Mr. Bradlee,” the Psych Tech said. “Nobody is going to hurt you.”
He restrained Earle gently but securely and maneuvered him back into his room and into bed. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a syringe of Ativan, rolled Earle up on his side, and had the calming injection in Earle’s butt before he knew what was happening.
“That should help you relax, Mr. Bradlee,” the Psych Tech said, gradually releasing his hold.
“You just try and take some deep breaths, Mr. Bradlee,” the nurse said. “You need to lie here now and not try to get up because that shot will make you woozy and you might fall. We’re going to take good care of you.
“Come on, now. Lie back and try to relax. You’ll feel much better in a little bit,” she said, guiding him onto his back and covering him with the sheet once again. “That’s it. Easy does it,” she said. She pulled up the side rails. The Psych Tech went on his way.
Earle was spinning. He gripped the mattress and closed his eyes tightly.
“That’s better. Deep breaths. Everything’s fine, Mr. Bradlee,” she said, covering his right hand with hers.
“Sorry I didn’t get a chance to introduce myself earlier. My name is Mary. I’m the Nursing Assistant who will be taking care of you tonight. Most everybody here calls me Grandmother. Maybe it’s because I fuss over the patients a little more than they think I ought to,” she said with a lilt in her voice, “or maybe it’s just the glasses.
“I really am a Grandmother, you know,” she said, making idle conversation to soothe him, “although I’m not as old as all that despite my hair. It’s been silver for as long as I can remember, though it was a shade darker before I moved here from Cleveland to go to nursing school back in the day.”
She continued his bed bath as she talked. She’d already wiped down both arms and was working her way down his chest.
Earle was staring at the ceiling, eyes glassed over.
“Grandmother predicts everything will be just fine in a few days, Mr. Bradlee. You’ll be back in the game before you know it,” she said as she lowered the sheet below his navel and washed his belly.
“Now don’t be shy,” she said, wringing out the warm washcloth again and offering it to him. “Do you want to wash yourself down there or do you need Grandmother’s help?”
Earle was catatonic.
“It’s okay, you poor lost lamb!” she said lowering the sheet further.
“Nothing to be shy about. As they say, ‘We’re all naked when we come into the world and naked we shall be when we leave.’ Not that you’re going anywhere just yet.”
Earle had already left the world as he previously knew it.
She pulled the sheet up to his neck, covering his chest and abdomen, and continued on her southward journey with the washcloth. Grandmother had the situation firmly in hand.
“Now you need to get some sleep,” the nurse said, helping him into a fresh gown and covering him with a clean sheet and a light blanket.
“All better now,” she said. “You just rest now, and I’ll sit with you for a little while. Nothing to worry about. Grandmother’s here if you need her.”
Earle juddered, not unlike one of the malfunctioning automatons at the Musée Mécanique, waiting for an attendant to unplug him and post an out of order sign.
Copyright © 2020. Harold Martin Malin, Jr. All Rights Reserved.
Originally published in the collection “Grandmother’s Devil & Other Tempting Tales.”
PINK DOLPHIN OIL
By Marty Malin
Lupita wakes early, before the first rays of the sun set fire to the surface of the muddy Rio Itaya flowing lazily beneath her bungalow built on stilts in the shallow floodplain. She’s up and dressed in sandals and a pink cotton shift before grandfather and grandmother or the small children stir on their mats.
Mother is dozing, nursing the baby. Her father snores softly on his mat beside them.
Carlitos lies on his mat apart from the others, his body turned facing one of the thatched walls, the thin blanket dancing on his hips, covering his busy hands, losing the battle once again to the spicy phantasms colonizing his thirteen-year-old imagination.
Lupita’s heart goes out to him. Her own body sometimes makes demands she would prefer not to honor but has little power to control. Especially when she thinks of Felipe. She hopes he will come to her stall today, as he often does, when he guides the turistas through the safer parts of the sprawling Belén mercado.
She will remind Carlitos when she returns home this evening that he must not forget to confess to Father Raul on Saturday about his busy hands, before Sunday Mass. Her prompting will be unassuming. She would not want to shame him, although his face and chest always turn crimson when she mentions confession, nor does she say anything in front of others. She does it so his soul will remain clean. She knows young boys often forget.
She will hug him and smother his forehead and cheeks with kisses, not allowing him to escape her embrace, reminding him his name, Carlitos, means “manly” and she will swear God is in the process of making him the finest, most handsome young man in Iquitos. She will hold him tightly, not letting him escape, until the blushing is washed away by giggles and kisses. She will continue to overwhelm him with love until he stops struggling and melts into her embrace as he has always done, since he was a small child.
Carlitos likes Father Raul. He will not think Carlitos’ transgressions overly serious and will treat him compassionately. Still, unconfessed sins pile up, like dust on a floor that is not regularly swept. Everyone’s soul needs to be dusted at least once a week. Even Lupita’s.
It is sometimes necessary for Lupita to lie with one of the fat white turistas that infest this rainforest city to earn money for her family. Or submit to one of the soldiers garrisoned in the city who nobody dares deny, though they never pay. Father Raul understands these things and is as gentle with her spirit as he is with Carlitos’. His penances are light and understanding of the realities of life in this place.
She recites her Ave Marias and paternosters, forgiving in her heart the men who profane her, except for Coronel de la Garza who she prays the Devil or Anaconda Woman will swallow whole, expunging his evil from the cosmos. When she is finished with her penance, she prays for everyone in her family, especially Grandfather who has the sickness in his lungs, and her beloved brother Carlitos.
Lupita will tell you the gossip about her is false if you ask her politely; otherwise, she will ignore you. The false chamans in the Pasaje Paquito gossip that she is a bruja—a witch or sorceress. She will deny it gently, gaze directed downward so as not to worry you that she might cast the evil eye to steal your spouse or your lover.
She will demur she is only a curandera , a traditional healer skilled in the remedies of the rainforest. It is not her fault the nostrums sold by the charlatans in the Pasaje Paquito have no effect. Their potions dishonor the plants they plunder from their homes, the plants who do not consent to be part of their elixirs. Plants that have been pillaged will refuse to bestow their gifts upon on the sick and dying.
Lupita knows where the rainforest plants are most strongly infused with medicine spirits, the roots and tree barks most powerful. She knows the ikaros of respect and welcome to sing to the plants, so they will come with her willingly, to fortify her medicines. The plants in her medicines have not been kidnaped or forced into servitude. They dwell in her elixirs contentedly, eager to relieve pain, distress, and the danger of slipping toward death.
When your baby or your mother-in-law is sick, and the potion you bought from the false chamans in the Pasaje Paquito has no effect, Lupita will bring a cure. She will visit your sick child, your aging husband, your young daughter experiencing the pains of womanhood and heal them. She will come if you need her, to smile, sing, and apply her remedies and all will be well.
If you ask her about the young men who have disappeared without a trace, she will tell you she had nothing to do with it. If your husband has disappeared, you can no longer find your son, or your suitor is missing Lupita has not enchanted them, made them slaves to her passion, or bound them with spells that have eaten away their souls, despite what the charlatans in the Pasaje Paquito say.
Coronel Diego de la Garza, commandant of the garrison summons Lupita to his quarters at least once a week to interrogate her about the missing men though he knows she is not to blame. She is certain he knows what befell them and, in fact, had a hand it. His frequent interrogations are only a pretext for commandeering her body with a promise no harm will come to her or her family if she submits to his desires, so she participates in his ungodly ruse. She gives him what he demands and no more. He can force her to surrender her body, but not her soul.
The Coronel pays her 50 soles each time, half what the odious turistas pay, but she does not spend his filthy money. She places it in the poor box before confession, then tells Father Raul as much as she can, as much as is safe for herself, her family, and him. He understands why she doesn’t confess everything. His penance for dusting her soul each week, from the dirt tracked in by the Coronel and the turistas, is merciful.
As the sun rises, Lupita walks across narrow planks bridging the stilt village to the muddy shoreline of the Rio Itaya and the Belén mercado where she sells medicines from her stall. She stops first at a baño near the entrance to the mercado where for one sol anyone can use the toilet and shower. The price is more than she can afford but the proprietor’s wife is a distant cousin of her mother. They allow her to use the facilities without payment so she stops here every market day to bathe.
Lupita knows the proprietor peeks at her while she undresses and showers, but he is otherwise harmless. It’s a small price to pay, she thinks, for the opportunity to use the flushing toilet and bathe with running water.
She turns off the shower, wrings her hair dry and ties it up with a black elastic strung with red huayruro seeds, the same elastics she sells at her stall. She studies her appearance in the pitted mirror and nods with satisfaction.
The faithless mirror can’t diminish the beauty of her sleek cola-colored body, dancing deep brown eyes, frosty-white teeth, and glossy black waist-length hair sporting a neon pink streak. A little makeup can wait until she reaches her stall where she has a better mirror.
She replaces her shift with a fresh skirt and blouse she has brought from home. The magenta skirt slumps low on her hips as it falls to her ankles, covering the tops of her sandals. She tucks a plain white sleeveless blouse into the waistband. Before she opens her stall, she will make up her face and tie the shirt, open at the throat, under her breasts, revealing alluring curves and a plank hard belly. She will rub rose scented cream containing pink dolphin oil on her exposed flesh, smoothing it on her bare arms and torso until they gleam like polished hardwood. The gossips and soldiers who watch her walk toward her stall will not see the finishing touches. Only her customers, and she hopes Felipe, will be treated to the full measure of her beauty.
The same gossips in the Pasaje Paquito who daily defame her nod politely as she makes her way between the stalls flanking the main pathway. Despite their duplicity, she still enjoys walking among the vendors, scrutinizing their wares.
The stalls in Pasaje Paquito specialize in charms and potions. Plastic bins overflow with herbs, bark, twigs, and vines. Some vendors display ropes of jungle tobacco thick as a man’s arm. Lengths of San Pedro cactus are neatly stacked along the walls, awaiting buyers who will slice it and cover it with water, allowing it to steep in the sun until the water evaporates, leaving behind crystals of mescaline.
Repurposed jugs and bottles filled with sludgy-brown ayuhausca and jungle honey march along the earthen floors. She doubts whether Grandmother Aya still lives in this ayuhausca, since it should be prepared fresh before each medicine ceremony, but the honey looks sweet and inviting as it catches the morning light.
Animal skulls rest on tables next to desiccated boas and anacondas, festooned with red satin ribbon, tightly coiled, poised to strike. Caimán heads, eyes replaced with colored glass and semi-precious stone cabochons, regard her as she passes by.
Everything in this rainforest pharmacopeia comes with advice from the shop’s proprietors. The bottles of cane liquor with snake heads, for example, next to emerald-green tins of cow bile for liver ailments, will bring good luck if left in a cupboard or drawer.
She hears Felipe’s voice in the distance talking to the turistas he is escorting through the mercado this morning. She doesn’t look back but quickens her pace toward her own stall. She wants to be ready if he brings his group by her shop.
Lupita thinks Felipe is very handsome and he is.
He is of slender build and steps lightly around the refuse on the packed dirt of the mercado, his voice fulfilling the promise of his eyes as he describes the wonders of the Pasaje Paquito to his charges. He’s about five feet six inches tall, twenty-five years old, two or three years older than Lupita, with skin lighter than hers, neatly cropped dark brown hair, and a clean-shaven face set with laughing dark eyes. Of course, he will be wearing a nondescript t-shirt, beaten up sandals, and faded board shorts today as he does every day. Lupita would dress him more elegantly if he would allow it.
She can hear him nearby, from her stall just around the corner from the Pasaje Paquito, where she has been exiled by the charlatans and gossips who have forced her out of the main passageway. She arranges dozens of bottles bearing the distinctive labels of the El Otoranguito (Jaguar Cub) and Selva (Rainforest) brands of commercial elixirs in neat rows. Her own potions, like the cream with the pink dolphin oil, are displayed in jars she has hand labelled.
Felipe rounds the corner. He has an older white couple in tow, whose attire screams “American tourist,” and an attractive young woman about Lupita’s age, dressed more stylishly in a flowing white skirt, a blue cotton blouse ,and a colorful straw hat she has purchased in the mercado.
Felipe does not meet Lupita’s eye, intending to pass her stall by and get on with his tour, but Lupita has other ideas.
“¡Buenas, Felipe!” Lupita chirps sweetly. “¿No me vas a dar los buenas dias?” she asks innocently. “Aren’t you going to say good morning?
“¡Buenas dias, señorita!, he says embarrassed at not avoiding her trap. “Allow me to introduce my guests today, Bill and his wife Jill, from Sheboygan Wisconsin in the United States and their daughter Elizabeth.”
“Hola,” says Bill, extending his hand, proudly showing off one of his half-dozen words of Spanish.
“Good morning,” Lupita beams back. “Welcome to Iquitos and our little mercado. Elizabeth extends her hand and, reluctantly, so does Jill.
“I have something for you, Felipe,” Lupita says, her lilting voice matter of fact. Felipe hesitates and he is hooked.
He blushes as she hands him a bottle with the blue green Selva trademark labeled “Rompe Calzón.” She grins wickedly. "This is just what you need," she says. "New batch, extra strong."
Felipe takes a moment to compose himself. “It’s an aphrodisiac called 'Panty Ripper,'” he translates, handing it back to her. Elizabeth stifles a laugh behind her hand, enjoying Felipe’s discomfort. “No need for that unless you might be interested, Señor Bill,” Felipe says. Bill looks at his wife, who is avoiding his gaze, then his daughter, and chuckles.
Lupita doesn’t give up, offering Felipe a pair of El Otoranguito bottles labeled “Duro que Duro” and “Para, Para.”
"These are good too, when you need a little help," she says, affecting a straight face, having a great time at Felipe's expense. His face contorts in a half scowl that slowly dissolves into a full grin.
"'Duro que Duro' literally means ‘Hard So Hard’ and 'Para, Para' means 'Stand Up, Stand Up,'” he translates. “I certainly don’t need those remedies either," he says, refusing to take the bottles from Lupita. His charges, except for Jill, are enjoying the unexpected entertainment.
“That’s what all the huevónes say,” Lupita parries. “The pendejos, the ‘dudes’,” she translates. “But I sell a lot to their girlfriends. I’ll put these aside for you, just in case,” she says, scribbling “Felipe” on the labels with a marker. She winks at Elizabeth.
“Do they really work?” Elizabeth asks, prolonging the game. Felipe answers before Lupita has another opportunity to make fun of him.
“They’re just cane liquor infused with aromatic herbs and barks. They won’t hurt you but they won’t do anything for you either except get you tipsy,” he says.
“Perhaps the ladies would like some pink dolphin oil,” Lupita says, opening a small jar of what looks like rose colored hand cream and dabs a little on her wrists, rubbing them together. She offers a wrist for them to sniff. It’s lovely with the floral scent of damask roses, a touch of vanilla, and the sharp edge of limes.
She dabs a little more of the cream on her stomach and rubs it in.
“Would you like some?” she asks Elizbeth. The young woman lifts her shirt and Lupita dabs a little cream around her navel.
“It will help you find love,” she explains, as Elizabeth rubs the potion into her skin. “If you take a little on your finger and touch a man you like, you will make him fall in love with you.” Lupita feints toward Felipe with her index finger, and he backs away, laughing.
“But the pink dolphin can be very dangerous,” she warns. “He comes out of the Rio Negro at night dressed as a man wearing a white suit and a white hat, singing songs of enchantment, searching for virgins to ravish.
“If he makes a girl pregnant, she will become violently mad and die as his child consumes her from inside her belly. But if she cuts off his pinga,” she says, gesturing toward Felipe’s crotch, “and takes it to a sorceress, she will make a potion that remove the baby and make the girl wealthy.”
Elizabeth looks at Felipe and bursts into laughter. “You better be careful,” she says.
“Elizabeth!” Her mother scowls.
“Do not worry,” Lupita says. “I am not a bruja with power to turn pingas into money,” she says with a straight face.
“We should be on our way, folks,” Felipe says, clearing his throat. “We’re going to the stilt village and then to the Pilpintuwasi butterfly farm,” he tells Lupita. “Maybe we’ll see some pink dolphins in the river, but we’ll make sure to be home before nightfall,” he jokes.
Lupita selects a reddish walking stick from a basket by the entrance to her stand and offers it to Felipe. The top is roughly but unambiguously carved to resemble the head of a penis.
“The finest chuchuhuasi root from the jungle, harvested by a powerful chamán. Very good for back pain and that other problem you say you don’t have.” She grins.
“No? Okay. I’ll hold it for you, she says, caressing the root and polishing the carved head with her hand, “until you come to your senses.”
“Sure you don’t need one of these, Dad?” Elizabeth teases, selecting one of the walking sticks, polishing it as Lupita is doing, “You know, for your back pain?“
“What do you think, dear?” Bill asks his wife, trying his best not to laugh.
“Couldn’t hurt, Dad,” Elizabeth cajoles. “I don’t think you can buy something like this back in Sheboygan.”
Lupita and Elizabeth can no longer control themselves. Everyone is laughing except Jill. "Might come in handy," Bill says, paying Lupita for the chuchuhuasi root.
“Felipe,” Elizabeth teases, as they leave Lupita’s stall. “I think she likes you.”
“She thinks she is in love with me,” he says. “She has been trying to seduce me for ages.”
“And she’s failed? With all the magic potions in her shop? She’s very beautiful.”
“She sells more than magic from that stand, I fear. If I give in, I might need medicine of a different kind from a proper doctor to recover. But I agree with you. She is very beautiful and I am only a man, after all,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “I do not think she will give up. So, I keep visiting.” He grins like an adolescent at his first prom.
Lupita glows as she makes her way back to her bungalow at the end of the day. She is relieved she will have nothing of interest to confess to Father Raul on Saturday. The soldiers have not visited and the coronel has not insisted on interrogating her this week. She knows Father Raul feels the blessings of God for himself, as he invokes them for others, when he listens to her confessions and doles out such merciful penances.
After mid-day mass, on Sunday he takes Lupita aside. “I have wonderful news," he says. “Coronel de la Garza has been re-posted to Lima. I have spoken to the new comandante of the garrison. He knows about the evil the old coronel and some of his soldiers have visited on our community. The new coronel has assured me that will no longer happen on his watch, thanks be to God.”
Lupita crosses herself and breathes a prayer to the Virgin.
“The new coronel promises he and his soldiers will come to mass regularly, as often as their duties allow. He says I must be prepared for terrible revelations at confession and that he will pray for me, that I will be able to endure them.
“There will be no more unexplained disappearances of our fathers and sons. God has heard our prayers and put an end to this wickedness.
“And how is your young man, Felipe?” Father Raul asks, striking a sunnier note.
“He still lacks the courage to ask me to marry him,” Lupita says.
The priest nods his head sagely. “It appears I will need to talk with him also. Young men sometimes have difficulty seeing what God wishes for them.”
Lupita’s heart is light as she reflects on her visit with Felipe and his American turistas in the mercado, strolling from St. John the Baptist Cathedral to her bungalow the Belén stilt village in Rio Ataya. Carlitos and the other children greet her noisily. She has hugs and kisses for all of them, but especially for Carlitos.
“I told Father Raul,” he whispers in her ear, blushing. He is still wearing the white shirt, purple polka-dot bow tie and frayed chinos he wore to early Mass with his grandparents and father.
“Que guapo estas mi sonrojito,” she says hugging him tightly. How handsome you are my blushing little guy, you with your freshly dusted soul.
She kisses her grandparents, her mama and papa, and the baby who never seems to detach from his mother’s breast. She prepares lunch while the younger children play.
Carlitos has caught fish which she will season and cook with tomato and onion and serve over rice. It is his favorite dish and Grandmother’s too.
Perhaps it will become Felipe’s.
Copyright © 2023. Harold Martin Malin, Jr. All Rights Reserved.
By Marty Malin
It’s the first of October and I’m having those urges again. An increasingly pressing need to make plans, to spend my birthday away from home. I can’t tell you exactly why. It’s always been this way, for as long as I can remember.
My wife Justine doesn’t understand this. I don’t really understand it either.
“You’re creeping me out, Mitch,” Justine said. “There’s something going on here and either you won’t let me in on your little secret, in which case why not just tell me to mind my own business, or you’ve blown a circuit board.” Justine’s working on her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, so she often uses such images.
My psychiatrist, Dr. Morgan, is trying to help both of us understand, but she’s clearly fumbling in the dark, looking at pages in my family album that Justine has tabbed with colorful Post-it arrows. Dr. Morgan seems a bit flummoxed as she looks through the album. The pages Justine has marked with the Post-its are my birthday photos, 8 x 10 photos of me and my parents, from the time I was one year old until I turned eighteen last year. We’re always holding hands in a circle, in front of an open fire, our faces raised to the sky.
And we’re naked. Skyclad, as my parents used to call it. I’m mildly embarrassed, wondering how Dr. Morgan will react to seeing me in my birthday suit.
Maybe I don’t need to worry. The reason we’re in Dr. Morgan’s office is that Justine can’t see the pictures. Or rather, Justine thinks there aren’t any pictures. She’s betting Dr. Morgan won’t see any pictures either.
“What’s going on, Mitch?” Justine asked when I showed her the album. “Your birthday pages have nothing on them. They’re blank. Why are you telling me they have pictures of you and your parents?”
“What do you mean no pictures? There are eighteen of them, one for every birthday celebration I ever had.”
“Mitch, I’m telling you there’s absolutely nothing on those pages. Nothing. They’re blank. There are no pictures. Not even any mounting corners on the album pages, like the other photos in the album. Nothing: zip, zilch, nada. You’re seeing things that aren’t there. Either that or you’re trying to be funny. Which, by the way, you aren’t, so cut it out.”
I insisted there were eighteen large photos. What was wrong with her?
“We need to get you some help, Mitch” she said finally. “Maybe this has something to do with the upcoming anniversary of your parents’ death, or disappearance, or whatever the hell happened to them.”
And that’s how we ended up here with Dr. Morgan. Allow me to tell you a little more of my story while Dr. Morgan is pondering what might be going on.
Ever since I can remember, my parents and I have gone on vacation toward the end of October. My parents called it my “birthday vacation.” That seems logical since I was born on October 31, in the year of our Lord 2000.
Halloween. Or, as my parents called it, Samhain Eve. They explained that Halloween’s a Christian version of the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain with its ritual fires, seasonal foods and prayers. Most people think the fires are for chasing away ghosts. My parents said most people are wrong about that, as most people are wrong about almost everything.
My parents said we light fires on Samhain Eve to welcome the spirits of our ancestors on the night when the veil between the living and the dead is as sheer as a spiderweb. We’re not trying to scare them away. We’re helping them find us. The ancestors come looking for us on Samhain Eve to reassure us, to bless us and quiet our fears about death.
My parents chanted Samhain Eve prayers on my birthday, but they did not teach them to me. I never saw any ancestors either, but I knew they were there. My parents said I would understand more when I became a man but for now, all I needed to know was that my family loved me, and the ancestors also love and protect me.
I will explain all of this to Dr. Morgan when she finishes looking at the album. I don’t know if she will understand any better than my wife, but it’s the least I can do for her. I may tease her sometimes, but Dr. Morgan’s been an absolute godsend.
I don’t know for certain what happened to my parents, but they are probably now among the ancestors. We were on vacation last October as usual, somewhere in the South American rain forest, in Paraguay, I think. My parents simply disappeared into the jungle the day after my eighteenth birthday. The Guarani Indians who were celebrating with us told me my parents went dancing with the spirits.
Justine and I were engaged to be married soon so her family took me in while I wrestled with the loss of my mom and dad. Justine’s parents were the ones who connected me with Dr. Morgan. With her help, I got well enough to follow through with our planned marriage in June.
Things were going fine until my October urge reared its head. That’s when I dragged out the family album. I wanted to show Justine my pictures and explain our Samhain Eve tradition.
The first time my parents and I celebrated my Samhain Eve birthday together was when I was one year old. There I am in the picture, barely able to stand alone, the three of us holding hands in front of a huge bonfire. Mom said it was in Wyoming somewhere.
A couple of years ago, I asked my Dad who took these birthday photos. He and my mom just smiled. “We don’t know,” my mom said. “The photos just show up in the album. Likely, the ancestors have something to do with it.”
I thought she was just repeating family lore. Dad must have had a remote-controlled camera rigged up somewhere.
I could never remember much about these celebrations, even when my parents and I leafed through the album together. Mom would say things like, “Remember this birthday when you turned ten and we stayed in that old castle in the Carpathians? You said you wanted to be a vampire when you grew up. Of course, we just laughed and explained there was no such thing.”
Dr. Morgan looked up from the album. “Mitch, will you describe for me what you see on this page?” she asked, pointing to a page with a bright green sticky arrow.
“That’s me and my parents on my fifth birthday. I think we were somewhere in Cabo, someplace like that.”
Dr. Morgan and Justine looked at each other. Justine started to speak but Dr. Morgan silenced her with “that look.”
“And this one?” Dr. Morgan asked, pointing to the page with the pink arrow.
“That’s my seventeenth birthday,” I said. “I think we were staying in a dacha outside St. Petersburg, but I don’t remember much about that either.”
I reached for Justine’s hand. She was shaking. I moved closer and put my arm around her.
Dr. Morgan closed the album carefully. “I do not know how to explain this,” she said, “but I believe Mitch does see pictures on those pages where you and I see nothing. I simply do not understand his ability to do so. But I’m not comfortable concluding that Mitch is hallucinating. He seems completely in touch with reality. For the moment, it’s likely best that we accept that he is seeing what he says he is seeing and just leave it at that.”
“Well, I don’t,” said Justine, wiping tears from her eyes. “This is completely nuts.”
“I could refer you to another psychiatrist for a second opinion, if you wish. But nobody is in any danger, so I don’t think we need to be in a hurry about anything.”
Justine and I looked at each other.
“Do you want me to see someone else, Honey?” I asked. “Because if you do, I will.”
Justine shrugged her shoulders.
“Why don’t we all do some more thinking about it,” Dr. Morgan said. “I’ll confer with a colleague, with your permission, and let’s get back together next week and talk further. May I keep the album until then?”
The following week, when we went back to Dr. Morgan’s office, she was her usual collected self.
“I’ve been talking with Dr. Chambliss down the hall. She’s a trained anthropologist as well as a licensed psychologist and she has a lot of experience with shamanism and other cultural traditions. I thought we might walk over to her office together. Are you game?”
Dr. Chambliss’ office was a museum of anthropological curiosities. Six-foot high wooden tribal figures dominated the cavernous room. The walls were covered with elaborate fetishes and masks inlaid with shells and ivory. Museum cases, filled with exotic objects, rattles, jewelry and the odd skull were stationed around the room.
“Welcome,” Dr. Chambliss said warmly, as we entered her office. “Pay no attention to all of this,” she said, sweeping her arm around the room with a dismissive gesture. As if that were possible. The large desiccated crocodile lurking in one corner of the room seemed reason enough to pay attention. “Come, take a seat, be comfortable” she said, motioning us toward overstuffed chairs around a large low table in the center of the room. “Let me get some refreshments for everyone.”
We waited in silence broken only by the ticking of a grandmother clock standing between two carved wooden figures with outsized phalluses while Dr. Chambliss retrieved a tea trolley from a nook and poured steaming cups of mint tea.
She settled into her chair. “So, what do we think?” she said conspiratorially after a few moments. “As Dr. Morgan knows, gifted people in many cultures see things other people can’t see. And even in our own culture, as many as 3% of perfectly normal adults recall having unique perceptual experiences before the age of 21. We probably shouldn’t call them hallucinations.”
Dr. Morgan nodded her agreement.
“Let me ask you a question, Mitch. When your parents showed you these photos when you were younger, what did you think?
“I enjoyed looking at them, but my father’s explanation that the photos somehow magically appeared in the album and that the ancestors had something to do with it wasn’t completely satisfying. So, on my seventeenth birthday, I vowed I would find that hidden camera somewhere. But I didn’t find it.
“And on my eighteenth birthday, I tried again. I still didn’t find any cameras but after I got back home from the jungle, I checked the album. The photo was there, just as I expected it would be. The only explanation that made sense was that the ancestors took the photo and put it in the album as they always had!”
Dr. Chambliss nodded. Dr. Morgan was as still as the statues along the wall.
“So, I promised to tell you what I think,” Dr. Chambliss began. “I think there are images on that page that Mitch sees perfectly well, even if none of us can see them. In fact, I think only Mitch can see them now that his parents are no longer alive.”
“That just can’t be,” Justine said, shaking her head in disbelief. “Either the photographs are real, and we can all see them, or they’re not and Mitch can’t see them either.”
“But what if we postulate that they might not be photographs at all?” Dr. Chambliss said. “What if the ancestors have some different way of creating images? Images that were only meant for Mitch and his family to see?”
“Well, if that’s the case, why can’t I see them?” Justine said. “Mitch and I are family now and I can’t see anything on those pages.”
Dr. Chambliss nodded her head patiently. “What are your plans for Mitch’s birthday this Halloween or, perhaps we should say, Samhain Eve?”
“Well, since Mitch’s birthday tradition is obviously so important to him, I booked a house in the California high desert outside of Borrego Springs. There’s a fire pit where he can do his birthday ritual, a hot tub and …”
Mitch interrupted excitedly, “We can celebrate my birthday.”
“Right,” Justine continued. “If Mitch wants us to get butt-nekkid and hold hands by a fire, I’m game. What could it hurt? The stars should be beautiful in the high desert. It still feels kind of spooky, but if that’s what Mitch wants, and you and Dr. Morgan don’t think he’s completely crackers, that’s what we’ll do.”
“Sounds lovely,” Dr. Chambliss said. “I’ll be eager to hear all about it. For what it’s worth, you’ll be in good company. Thousands of Wiccans, neopagans and assorted others around the world will be celebrating Samhain Eve with their own prayers and ceremonies.
“Now, is there anything more I can do for you? Would you care for more tea?”
We politely declined.
The stars in the high desert were astonishingly beautiful. We had a spectacular view of the Milky Way. Maybe not all 400 billion stars and 100 billion planets but a slew of them.
Still, I was hesitant.
“What’s wrong?” asked Justine.
“What if we’re not supposed to do this? What if this was something only my parents understood?”
“You’re making way to big a deal about it, Mitch. It’ll be fun, dancing around the firepit like a couple of naked savages. We’ll probably freeze our asses off, but then we can get into our jammies and have hot cocoa and birthday cake.”
“I don’t know why I’m feeling like this. What if I get it wrong? I don’t even know the prayers.”
“Listen, Mitch, we don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. We can just go stargazing or we can stay inside and play Scrabble. What are you afraid of?”
“It’s not that I’m afraid. It’s another feeling entirely. No. I need to do this. We need to do this. Everything in my being is telling me that’s what we need to do tonight.”
Mitch took Justine’s hands. “Honey, do you think my parents will come tonight? I mean, the spirits of my parents?”
Justine was quiet for a moment. “I don’t know how this is supposed to work, Mitch. You know I’m skeptical about the whole ancestor thing. But if this is something you need to do, and it looks to me like it is, I’ll be there with you.”
I went outside to light the bonfire. The Milky Way splashed the sky with light and color. It was breathtaking. I went back inside to get Justine.
“It’s time,” I told her.
“Mitch, it’s barely 8:00 o’clock. Shouldn’t we wait until midnight?”
“I was born at 8:14 in the evening. This time seems right.”
“Okay. What do we do?”
“Let’s take off our clothes and go outside.”
I drew her close and kissed her. She was trembling.
“Are you cold?” I asked.
“No,” she answered. “I’m fine. Did I remember to tell you that I love you?”
I smiled and led her to the far side of the fire pit. The blazing flames warmed our backs.
“Look at the sky!” I said, taking her other hand, turning her gently to face me.
We held hands in silence. I don’t know where it came from, but I started praying.
Now is the night when the veil between
our world and the spirit world is thinnest.
Tonight is a night to welcome those who came before.
Tonight we honor the ancestors.
Spirits of our fathers and mothers, we call to you,
and welcome you to join us for this night.
You watch over us always,
protecting and guiding us,
and tonight we thank you, as we thank you always.
Your blood runs in our veins,
your spirits are in our hearts,
your memories are in our souls.
We remember all of you
And you live on within us
And within those who are yet to come.
We turned to face the desert and the mountains beyond. And we began to see them. Thousands of them, old men and women, young men and women, adolescents, children, infants. And in front of the throng, my mom and dad.
I started to call out to them, but they shook their heads. Again, we stood silently, regarding one another across the distance, across the thinnest of veils. I felt a warmth like I used to experience when my parents and I performed this ritual, before they disappeared in the rain forest. Later, Justine would tell me she felt it too.
I don’t know how long we stood there before the ancestors slowly dissolved into the desert night. And it was over. I drew Justine close to me.
“Did you see them?” I asked excitedly.
“Yes,” she said, squeezing my hand. “Oh Mitch, I still can’t believe it, but I just saw it, with my own eyes.”
Suddenly she tugged at my hand. “Let’s go back inside. I need to do something.”
We went back into the house and Justine went into the bedroom to retrieve the album.
“I’m almost afraid to look, Mitch.”
She sat beside me on the sofa and I opened the album. “Oh my God!” she said. “It’s all there, just like you said. Look at that one. You’re so cute, dancing all bare butt with your mom and dad.”
We went through the pages one by one. I told her what I remembered about each birthday, which was everything. Unlike before, nothing was hazy. I remembered each celebration, each location.
There was a photo I hadn’t seen before. Justine and me holding hands, skyclad, the fire at our backs, looking up into the sky. The ancestors had welcomed her into the family. We were loved and protected.
But there was something different about the photo and it took me a moment to see it. Justine saw it about the same time I did. There was a circle of light, about the size of a nickel, on Justine’s abdomen, a couple of inches below her navel.
We looked at each other incredulously as it dawned on us what we were seeing.
Still, we were completely unprepared as we turned the page. Our hearts melted and we dissolved in laughter, shedding more than a few tears of joy, when we saw the face of our yet-to-be-born child.
The ancestors had written a name and birthdate below the photograph. But I’m a little superstitious, so I’m not going to reveal anything more.
Copyright © 2020. Harold Martin Malin, Jr. All Rights Reserved.
Originally published in the anthology Carqinez Review 2020. Writings from the Carquinez Straight Shoreline Communities. Benicia Literary Arts.
TROUBLES MELT LIKE LEMON DROPS
By Marty Malin
It was a spectacular cake. Triple lemon cake, frosted with swirls of glistening Italian buttercream, sprinkled with shards of lemon drops, glittering like pale yellow diamonds.
Grandpa was dying. He looked thin, standing by his hospital bed. Together we smoothed out the wrinkles in the bottom sheet so as not to “fuss the nurse” who had “sick people to take care of.” Grandpa knew only one way: the Right Way; his way. Outsiders were best avoided.
His gown flapped open as they do despite everyone’s best efforts. He was a modest man, his body always covered by buttoned up, long-sleeved work shirts and pants over long-johns. Two pairs in the winter. He seemed no longer to care.
“I don’t have no appetite. About the only thing that tastes good is lemon drops,” he said, getting back into bed. We had brought some for him. Sneaked them past the charge nurse, her disapproving countenances puckered as if she had been the ones sucking on lemons.
He wouldn’t touch the tray they brought him. “Not fit to eat,” he said. “One reason I married your Grannie was her cookin’. Ain’t one person in a hundred knows how to season beans.”
Grannie had died three months earlier, just after their 70th anniversary. None of us thought he would last long without her. He said as much himself. Like food, he had no appetite for life.
He complained about his stomach. “It’s always sour anymore.” Getting grandpa, a man who “don’t doctor,” to the hospital for tests was a herculean effort. But the pain would not be denied.
His doctors told him it looked like his cancer was back. “Thank you kindly,” he said. “I’m feeling a little better now. I believe them lemon drops done the trick.”
They wanted him to stay overnight. He agreed. One night and that was all. He wasn’t expecting to get any sleep. “Those tomfool nurses wake you up to give you a sleeping pill and charge you a dollar.”
One of the “tomfool” nurses managed to get an IV into his hand. “I’ll take good care of you, darlin’” she drawled. Her southern charm soothed him. “She’s from Louisiana,” he confided. “I think she’s sweet on me.” Good care included morphine. Grandpa was destined to sleep fine.
We came bearing more lemon drops the next morning. We took Grandpa to our house with excellent pain medications. We knew his stay would be a short one but hoped he would make it to his 92nd birthday, a week away.
We asked the home hospice nurse about the lemon drops. “Let him have as many as he wants,” she said. “Lord knows at his age he should have anything he wants so long as it’s legal.”
We planned a party with his favorite cake. He was able to eat a small piece. “Mighty good,” he said. “Almost as good as your Grannie used to make. She’d say so herself if she was here.”
“Better than my Grannie could make,” the hospice nurse said, enjoying a larger slice.
“I think I’ll just rest my eyes,” Grandpa said. “Mighty good cake. I feel pretty good today. I do believe them lemon drops done the trick.”
We would not make the cake next year, or the next. Lemon drops. Madeleines de Proust. It was a spectacular cake.
Copyright © 2021. Harold Martin Malin, Jr. All Rights Reserved.
Originally published in the anthology Remember, When: Fiction and Memoir Tales of Memories and Times Past. Redwood Branch of the California Writers Club.
Drawing by Diane Slade
By Marty Malin
Grandmother sits in the fraying white wicker chair on a warm September afternoon, on the wraparound porch, a few feet from her open screened front door.
She sits on the comfortable cushion she has made, covered with material from a pair of faded curtains printed with bluebells that used to hang in the spare bedroom. Now the bedroom windows have lace curtains instead. The lace is yellowing but it lets in more light than the old curtains so the room is more cheerful and inviting, Grandmother thinks.
Grandmother’s glass of sugared tea, in her favorite glass with the stenciled lemon slices, rests on the white wrought iron table beside her, next to the Mason jar filled with fragrant lilacs she picked this morning. The ice in her tea has long since melted.
She sits with eyes lightly closed, slumped against the curving wicker backrest, her head with its swept-back silver-white hair tilting downward, chin resting between the top button of her dress and the yoke of her apron, her ample breasts sloping toward her soft belly. Grandmother made the green gingham apron, too, with its emerald piping, the one she usually wears these days to protect her favorite housedress.
Her veiny hands, with large molasses-colored spots, the skin soft and translucent from a twice-daily slathering of Porcelana, are nested in her lap where one of her many embroidered handkerchiefs has come to rest, slipping from her gnarled fingers.
Grandmother floats easily between worlds, most of them pleasant, none of them in as sharp relief as they used to be. When she was just a little girl, born in this very house, Luther’s family lived in a fine Georgia-style plantation home up the road. There were only five houses along the entire road then. Just a gravel road into town, interrupting the limitless prairie, with the houses set back a piece. Luther’s home looked out of place, despite the stately old sycamore in the front yard.
“Not a decent prairie home at all,” her Ma would grouse from time to time. “I guess some folks just need to put on airs.”
All the other houses except grandmother’s are gone now, replaced by fancy ranch-style homes strung out along a broad paved boulevard with a center divider planted with ornamental pears. Most everything had changed after the War. The missile defense base, with its underground silos a few miles away, brought new schools, a large shopping mall, and hundreds of houses on streets and lanes branching off the main boulevard. It is Grandmother’s house that now looks strangely out of place.
There isn’t much left of the old town anymore. The dull brick City Hall and the marble-faced Midland Bank Building, now the home of a small law firm and a title company, still stand facing each other on the north and south sides of Pioneer Square with its four WWI canons pointing outward from a central bronze statue of “The Pioneer Woman” with babe in arms and two children in tow, striding resolutely westward.
From the east side of the square, the fine neo-gothic Methodist church and campanile, built of limestone quarried in neighboring Kendall County, keep watch over The Pioneer Woman and her brood on their sojourn. But most of the businesses that thrived around the square during Grandmother’s youth have long-since closed up shop.
Luther’s family had one of the first Plymouths ever made. Luther’s father was generous, offering rides, but Ma and Grandma always declined. “No, thank you kindly,” they would say. And later, as they walked along the edge of the road, they would repeat a familiar litany. “Too fine a day for riding around in that car,” they would say, even if the weather was a bit unsettled. “A little rain (or snow, or wind) never hurt nobody. Prairie folks got no need for such fancy automobiles,” they would say. “Nothing wrong with riding shanks’ mare.”
Luther’s father would often pass them along the road on his way into town, where he worked at the bank, and toot the horn and give a cheery wave as he passed by. Sometimes, when Luther got older, his father let him drive the Plymouth on a weekend as he coached from the back seat. Luther would wave and Grandmother would pretend not to notice.
But one warm autumn day like today, as Luther was driving the Plymouth into town, this time without his father, he passed Grandmother walking by herself along the gravel road. He stopped the car and waited for her to catch up.
“Rose Marie,” he said, wearing a goofy grin, “I declare I have asked you time and again to take a ride with me. You gonna break my heart again today and keep on turning me down?”
“Luther Goodson,” Grandmother said not unkindly, “I reckon I’ll take a ride into town with you today if that will stop you from pestering me.” Luther’s soft brown eyes twinkled as he smiled and held the passenger door open for her. “I ain’t makin’ no promises,” he said.
Grandmother settled herself into the soft leather. Luther got in beside her and started the engine. “ Not too fast now,” she said. “I wouldn’t like it if you went too fast.” Luther motored gently along the road.
“Where you off to today, Rose Marie?” Luther asked.
“I’m just going to the Five and Dime for some more crochet thread. I’m almost finished with the pillow slips I’m making for Ma’s birthday next week and I’ve run out of her favorite blue.”
“I’ve got to pick Dad up at the bank,” Luther said. “We could give you a ride home when you’ve finished your shopping if you want.”
“Now wouldn’t that be something,” Rose Marie said, “you driving me up to the house, my Ma looking out the window. I don’t suppose I’d ever hear the end of it once she finished sputtering about what came over me. Thank you kindly, Luther. I’ll walk back home same as I always do.”
Luther just grinned, pushing a stray lock of hair off his forehead.
Grandmother remembered looking at him more closely once or twice during the drive into town. The fact that it was her first automobile ride hadn’t stopped her from noticing that Luther had missed a couple of places shaving. And there was no mistaking the scent of his father’s Bay Rum. A little too much, she thought, but not altogether unpleasant.
He was handsome, she thought. She remembered it all to this day: the intoxicating scent of the aftershave mixed with the smell of the Plymouth’s elegant leather upholstery, the steady hum of the engine, and the crunch of the gravel beneath the tires.
Luther managed to find other opportunities for Grandmother to ride with him. One evening she was sure that she saw her Ma staring at them disapprovingly from behind the lace curtains on the front window. Her Ma never said anything about it though, nor did she forbid Grandmother to ride in the Plymouth. But she thought it her obligation as a parent to pass along a little wisdom about life’s pitfalls to her daughter every now and then.
“Just remember, child,” these admonitions would often begin, “we’re not their kind. They’re rich folks.” Warming to her task she would say “They seem nice enough but they’re not workin’ people like us. His daddy’s bank’s got the mortgage to our farm. And you know that Scripture says it’s harder for rich folks to get into heaven than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Of course, The Psalmist sings to ‘Both low and high, rich and poor together,’ so I’m sure Heavenly Father has a plan for us all that we won’t fully understand until we meet Him in Glory! Not that we’re poor. The Good Lord always provides but sometimes I wonder why He has to cut it so close.”
Then came the Senior Dance at the District 11 High School gymnasium and a magnificent corsage. A tentative first kiss and the heart-stopping scent of gardenia and Bay Rum. More frequent and more skillful kissing in the weeks that followed and several clumsy attempts at going further, rebuffed, politely but firmly, as was expected of a young woman of Grandmother’s upbringing, though her heart was not in it. Finally, the summer after graduation, an awkward proposal of marriage, accepted without the slightest hesitation.
They lived with Grandmother’s parents after they were married. In those days, the house sat on much more land with well-tended walnut and fruit trees in abundance. Luther surprised everyone by becoming an eager and accomplished orchardist.
Her father died unexpectedly the following winter. Her Ma, unable to bear living on the farm without him, moved across town to live with her sister. Grandmother and Luther became the new owners of the house.
The arrival of Luther, Jr., and two years later the twins, Emma and Hanna, all born at home, multiplied their happiness. Then Luther went off to war and a man was hired to help Grandmother look after the orchard. On a snowy Saturday
afternoon, two men from the War Office delivered the sad news of Luther’s death in combat.
Time passed. The kids went off to college and settled in big cities across the country. Grandchildren joined the diaspora, visiting over the holidays and during school vacations. And now, the grandchildren had children.
“Ah,” Grandmother smiles without looking up from her reverie. “Here comes Cletus with the mail.”
The almost silent electric delivery truck pauses up the street, three houses away at the Yoshimotos, then two doors up at the Hollisters, then finally in front of Grandmother’s house. “Sounds like he has forgotten his push-cart again,” Grandmother thinks. “That man’s going to ruin his back with that heavy bag.”
Ruby Mae opens the gate in the low wrought iron fence. “Afternoon, Grandmother,” she says, climbing the painted concrete steps to the wraparound porch.
“Oh, Luther, is that you?” she asks softly, not opening her eyes. “I thought I had lost you. Have you seen the Jewel Tea man? He’s usually here by this time with our groceries.”
“It’s Ruby Mae, Grandmother, with the mail. Not much to deliver today. Here’s your Capper’s Weekly and the advertising flyer from Rexall. I’ll just put them here on the table.”
“The table’s just fine, thank you” she says slowly opening her eyes. “Luther will mix it all up if you take it inside. Is Cletus sick today?”
“Cletus retired over a year ago, Grandmother. He’s doing fine. Moved away with his wife to Arizona and left me to carry his route. He sent me a Christmas card last year with a Kodak of the mobile home park where he lives. Has a nice, nearly new trailer out there. He said to take extra special good care of you.”
“Cletus is a nice man. Tell him I hope he feels better soon and can get back to work. A man has to feed his family. It’s so nice of you to help him out until he’s better.”
“You take care now, Grandmother,” Ruby Mae said. “Is there anything you need?”
“No, I’m just fine. Got everything I need right here. Just waitin’ for the Jewel Tea. He’s such a nice man. Reminds me of my Luther. So handsome!”
“OK, then, Grandmother. Tomorrow’s Sunday so I’ll see you again Monday afternoon.”
Grandmother closes her eyes softly as Ruby May shuts the wrought iron gate. Ruby Mae’s mail truck glides down the road and stops in front of the Singhs.
“Luther,” she says quietly, “you should come out here and sit on the porch with me. It’s such a beautiful evening. We can just sit for a minute and then I’ll go inside and fix your supper. I picked the last of the tomatoes today and there’s some of my special cornbread in the skillet. There’s leftover ham hocks and navy beans too. We can come back out here later in the cool and have our peach cobbler with cream before bedtime. I got a good scald on that last batch of peaches I put up.”
Grandmother sits in the lengthening evening. The setting sun gives way to flashing fireflies and the songs of crickets and cicadas, then to the midnight moon and stars. Grandmother takes no notice.
“It’s so good to have you back, Luther. I’ve missed you so! How nice that you brought me my ice tea in my favorite glass. You always did know just what I liked. But, you know, I think I’d better go up now and rest in bed. Lots doin’ tomorrow, what with Church and all.”
Grandmother sits with her eyes closed on a bright Sunday morning, slumped in the fraying white wicker chair with the bluebell cushion on her wraparound porch. The screened front door is still open. Her undrunk tea, in the glass with the stenciled lemon slices, still rests on the white wrought iron table, next to the Mason jar filled with the fading lilacs she picked yesterday morning. She does not see the hummingbird hovering around her petunias, darting from blossom to blossom to gather nectar. Nor does she hear the distant bell in the campanile overlooking Pioneer Square summoning the faithful to worship.
Copyright © 2020. Harold Martin Malin, Jr. All Rights Reserved.