When I told Daniel the lime margarita tasted like a menthol cigarette, he asked me what that even meant.
"Astringent. Sharp. Antiseptic."
"Are you a teacher?" he wanted to know.
"Why do you ask that?"
"Because you sure know a lot of words."
I didn't know these people and I was only there because their mail had been delivered to my grandmother's place. When Daniel had opened the door, he was holding an empty wine glass and sweating profusely, as if getting drunk was exercise.
"I brought over your mail," I said, handing it to him. "It was sent to us by mistake."
"Would you like a margarita?" he'd asked.
Drinking with him should have been out of the question since he looked about fifteen, but being naturally depressive, I never turn down a drink, a toke, or any chance to improve my mood. He had dark hair, blue eyes, and a definite Timothee Chalamet vibe.
The house was a run-down bi-level, the living room so messy, it might have been ransacked; plus you had to wade through toys strewn all over the floor. It was 103 degrees out and the air in there felt as dank as ether. A cat and dog slept together near the blower fan, stretched out as if they were dead.
Aside from drinking margaritas, we sat on the couch watching the Home Shopping Network which he said his Nana had left on. They were selling designer teddy bears and the toddlers in the room were mesmerized.
When I told Daniel my grandmother lived in the mobile home park, he wanted an invitation to the pool.
"You really don't want to go," I said. I found it kind of disgusting myself, seeing the seniors half-naked with all that withered flesh dripping out of their bathing suits. "They just sit in the pool like hippos. Trophy hunters should really shoot them instead of endangered species, but they're too ugly to put on a wall."
"My mother's fat," Daniel said, and I blushed, not sure if he meant to embarrass me or not.
He showed me her picture on his cell phone as if he was proud of her. She was a very plump, baby-faced blonde with heavy makeup and skin like white marshmallow.
"She's pretty," I said, "She looks really young." She could have been his sister.
"Does she live here, too?"
"She's living with her boyfriend in Bakersfield. She's not that fat, anymore. She had liposuction."
"On her stomach?"
"All over. She did a Gofundme for 'life-changing surgery,' but no one donated so her boyfriend paid for it. Nana chipped in, too."
On HSN, an English lady with a pert accent and bowl haircut was still showing her teddy bears. They were actually kind of gruesome with long, sloth-like fur and mute, stunned eyes as if she was holding them prisoner, but she and the hostess were hawking the hell out of them, insisting they were 'absolutely precious.'
A customer called in and raved about how soft they felt.
"I own so many I've even had nightmares about them and my husband used to say, 'why do you collect them if they scare you so much?"
The hostess and the English lady tittered a little uncomfortably.
"Well, I'm a widow, now," the woman went on. "I'm going to order mine and wrap it up, then give it to myself for Christmas."
Daniel burst out laughing, but I thought that was sad. My grandmother had come to California after she was widowed because of a deluded stubbornness. She was suddenly determined to live in California before she died and she didn't care where. She just wanted a California address and Pottersville was the only city she could afford. The median income here is like poverty level and meager as her retirement is, she's still in better shape than most. Her mobile home is modern and she has central air conditioning.
One of the two toddlers crawled over to Daniel, pointing to her ass because her pamper was full.
"Forget it," he said. "I ain't changing you. Wait for Nana."
I didn't volunteer, either, and the little girl stood up, whining, and I stroked her arm, sympathetically. She was adorable, a towhead with huge blue eyes. Her sister, maybe a year older, still sat on the floor in front of the large screen tv, enrapt in the teddy bears, with a binky in her mouth. She was also blonde, but her hair was curly and her complexion, the color of maple syrup.
"Are they your sisters?" I asked.
"Cousins," he said.
I was about to ask him what their names were when his Nana opened the door. She was a stocky woman in her sixties, wearing shorts and sneakers. Her lank gray hair was in a pony tail and she carried a tote bag.
"The bus never came," she announced, and Daniel said something to the effect that they changed the schedule every day because the drivers only worked when they felt like it.
She looked at me and smiled broadly. "Well, aren't you pretty."
"She don't see very well," Daniel whispered and smirked.
She had a few side teeth missing, but didn't seem self-conscious, maybe just glad she had enough left to eat with.
The little girl with the poop in her pampers hugged the woman's hefty legs and Nana felt the child's rear end.
"Somebody needs a change." She fetched a fresh diaper from one of the bedrooms and changed the little girl on the floor.
"What's your name, honey?" she asked me.
"Millie. Short for Emily," I said.
"I knew an Emily as a child, but I never heard her say one word. Now, I think she might have been mute."
"She's a teacher," Daniel said.
"I'm not a teacher," I said, annoyed. I was only a few years older than he was, though too old to let him paw me which he'd been trying to do ever since I sat down. "I'm in college."
"Where?" Nana asked and seemed truly interested.
Nana's faded blue eyes visibly glowed. "Are you from New Jersey? Me, too. Where do you live, honey?"
"What a beautiful town! I lived right near there in Little Creek as a child. I don't know what it's like now, but everything was green and the temperature never went above eighty. In those days, we played outside from dawn till dusk."
People think California is the plushest state in the union, but it just shows how hopelessly shitty this town was that she talked about New Jersey as if it was Eden. The closest beach here is over a hundred miles away and the sun is different than in the North. There, you welcome it, but here, it stalks you like a predator.
I couldn't wait to go home. I was good and pissed at my parents for making me visit my grandmother while they vacationed in Tokyo. My mother never said much about Pottersville. She always said grandma had "retired to Northern California' whenever anyone asked. She almost made it sound swank.
Daniel's nana had changed the channel to the local news and they were talking about a young man who'd broken into a house just to take a shower since there was a water shortage in his neighborhood because of the drought.
"You know, I wouldn't have even pressed charges," Nana said. "I would have just told him to put his clothes on and please leave."
"You're all heart," Daniel said, and she didn't reply as if she hadn't heard him and maybe she hadn't.
"At least, we're not near those horrible fires."
It was just like a book I'd read for a Lit course. The book was called The Day of the Locust and the main character was an artist who was working on a painting called 'The Burning of Los Angeles.' It had been written in the nineteen-thirties, though it wasn't sci-fi.
Nana turned back to the shopping network and David Bowie's widow, Iman, was hawking an ivory dress from her fashion line. She was very persuasive, demonstrating how the dress had been made so that it hit the model's legs and cinched her waist at the most flattering angles. She called it "the Goddess dress."
"Marilyn Monroe wore that dress. It's the exact same pattern," Nana said. "Do you even know who Marilyn Monroe is, honey?"
"Sure, I do."
"I really try not to buy anything," Nana said, almost apologetically. "The women are just so pleasant to listen to and I don't hear much adult conversation. I have gotten rooked, though. I ordered a topaz ring once that was surrounded by starfish. It looked so pretty and the way they talked about it, I just had to have it. I was scared it would sell out. It was blue like the ocean and reminded me of Cape May. We used to go there every summer when I was a child. Well, in real time, that ring was so gaudy I never wore it. Now, that my eyesight's bad, it might look better."
"What are you drinking, anyway?" she asked.
"I made lime margaritas," Daniel told her. "You want one?"
"Not now, dear. I'm going to try to catch the bus again, in a little while. Millie, have you ever had a dreamsicle margarita?"
Daniel made a gagging noise.
"Well, I think they're delicious," she said. "Tequila, orange juice, and vanilla ice cream."
"Her taste buds are shot, too. You should try her cooking."
I scowled at him, but he waved his hand. "She can't hear. She listens to your tone of voice like a dog. If you told her you won the lottery and said it in sad tones, she'd feel sorry for you."
"Daniel, are you talking about me?" Nana asked. She'd taken off her rubber band and was letting the little girls brush her loose hair to amuse them.
"I gotta take a whiz," Daniel said and got up to use the bathroom.
"I guess you think I'm terrible letting him drink around the little girls, but I'd rather have him here than somewhere I don't know about."
"This is my other grandson, Luis," she showed me a picture on her cellphone. "Right now, he's the pick of the litter. He's at cadet camp."
I wondered if 'cadet camp' was a euphemism for a white supremacy compound, but the boy's name was Luis and he looked Mexican. He was slim with fine, dark features, even better looking than Daniel. In the picture, he wore some kind of khaki get-up with a military beret.
"He's really handsome," I told her.
"I think he's going to join the marines when he graduates school. Daniel– well, Daniel's a puzzle. He never leaves the house, but maybe that's a good thing with all the drugs out there. Still, he'll have to leave the house to get a job, someday."
"Isn't he too young to work?"
Here, I thought he was in high school when he was two years older than I was.
Daniel returned and asked if we were talking about him.
"I just mentioned how we're out of everything, but it's really too hot for you to walk all the way to the Save-Mart," Nana said.
"Damn right," he agreed.
"Honey, do you drive?" Nana asked me.
"Sure," I told her.
"You think you could drive me, there?"
"I don't have a car." I wasn't about to ask my grandmother for hers.
"Oh, we have one. It belongs to my daughter, Samantha."
"She's in jail," Daniel said, "for not paying parking tickets."
"You can go to jail for that?" I asked.
"She's using and they know it, so they got her for parking tickets."
"That's enough of that, Daniel," Nana said.
"I'll drive you to the Save-Mart," I said to change the subject. I could only assume that neither of them had a license.
"Well, aren't you an angel?"
The car was parked in the driveway, a blue, banged-up Saturn with duct tape on one of the fenders. Nana got in on the passenger side and gave me the keys.
"You sure this is no trouble?" she asked. "I can call Luis' father, later, but he's at work right now. He works at the casino."
The casino was the main source of employment there aside from the Walmart.
"It's fine," I assured her. "Your grandkids are beautiful."
"My parents would turn over in their graves. Good people, but very prejudiced. Everyone was at that time."
I was mixed, myself; Scotch-Irish and Jewish, though Jewish counts pretty much as white now except to hate groups.
"My father's Jewish," I told her.
"I knew a lot of Jewish people in New Jersey. I had a friend who was Jewish when I was a child. Her name was Cindy. Once, she was playing with one of my dolls and I asked her if she wanted it and she looked so thrilled I gave it to her. I gave all my dolls away that day just because I wanted to make my friends happy. When my mother found out, she threw a fit. 'They're my dolls!' she yelled though of course, they weren't. I had to ask everyone for them back. They were all real mad at me, but just for that afternoon."
I could picture her affably parting with her dolls the way she'd cheerfully taken on her grandkids. She was afflicted with good will; I'd never met anyone like her.
"What he said about Samantha, her being in jail. You see, my husband died at a bad time," she spoke as if certain times to die were more opportune than others. "The girls were in high school and they just ran wild. I had no control over them. He was the boss of the family."
When we reached the center of town, she asked me if I wanted to come inside with her to the Save-Mart. I really didn't want to, but running air-conditioning in the car would waste money.
It was mostly geezers at this hour. One guy of about eighty, in the produce section, was trussed up in a contraption like a cage around his head. Probably, he'd broken his neck, but went shopping to prove he could still live alone so his kids wouldn't put him in a nursing home.
The store played the slushiest doo-wop possible, 'This Must be Magic" and "You Belong to Me," while the shoppers drifted around the aisles on walkers like invalids at a ball. Homecare aides were helping some of them shop and all the aides were Mexican. There were more Mexicans in this town than whites, but Trump had won here because illegals can't vote. Who did these old people think was going to help them if the wall got built? Daniel? He wouldn't change a baby's diaper, let alone theirs.
When Nana was done and we'd loaded the car, she mentioned how she needed a new phone since hers was dying.
"They're giving out free phones in town, but I don't want to stop now. Everything will melt."
I wasn't sure if she wanted me to come back tomorrow and drive her again, but I didn't volunteer.
"This was my car until I gave it to my daughter," she said. "I got into an accident and found out I had macular degeneration."
"My eyes are going."
"It's not really that bad. It's kind of like looking into water on a lake. I can still see colors, but they're soft and blurry, dripping into each other. Things kind of float."
What she described sounded like a mirage.
When we got back to the house, I helped her unload the groceries.
"Hey, you two," Daniel said, still planted in front of the tv. He made no offer to help, but it wasn't because he was mean or selfish. He just had a lame personality and you knew he'd be screwing up all his life.
Nana wanted me to stay for dinner, but I told her I really had to go, and her face fell. I honestly think she would have let me move in there and we'd just met a couple of hours ago.
She was now wearing that Cape May ring she'd told me about as if our earlier conversation had made her remember it. The blue stone was grotesquely huge on her short fingers, but I didn't say anything. She looked like a kid playing dress-up.
"I can't thank you enough, Millie," she said and hugged me, and the little girls wanted hugs, too. "I hope you come back and see us again before you leave."
For an instant, she looked exhausted, even faint, maybe because of the heat. She was definitely the type who'd drop dead right in the middle of doing a chore and then everyone would be shocked, because she'd seemed so active. I remembered what she'd said about 'bad times to die' and I knew that whole brood would go to hell if something happened to her.
I didn't get to say goodbye to Daniel. He'd retreated to his room while we were putting the groceries, away. I could hear video game explosions coming out of there.
I walked the half-mile back to my grandmother's mobile home park. Her powder blue unit was really quite pretty like a little cottage. Her place was fresh and cool inside and spacious with two bedrooms and two baths. It was also immaculate since she cleans compulsively as if cleanliness can stave off dementia. She equates messiness with mental illness, and Nana's house would have left her aghast.
She was sitting in front of the tv with her afternoon glass of Riesling. Aside from playing bridge or going to the pool, she doesn't spend much time with the other seniors. The ones she introduced me to had also come from up North and most of them were sorry they'd left. They even seemed dazed as if they'd been moved against their will. Maybe their sense of dislocation was practice for the final trek to the Great Beyond.
"You've been gone for hours," she said. "Those people must have been interesting."
"It was just this lady with all her kids and grandkids living in her house. She was like the old woman who lived in a shoe."
My grandmother was also watching the Home Shopping Network and it did surprise me since I'd never seen her watch it when she lived in New Jersey.
The hostess was hawking sugar cookies now, raving that the 'delectable goodies' were the exact same ones you remembered from childhood and I realized that was the hook. These old women watched in mortal yearning, idly trying to buy back their lives.