glam-grandma, by Avi Naftali

The seagulls were strung like irritable white pearls across the Los Angeles sky. They floated through the alleyways, complaining and complaining. It was the hottest time of the year.

This weather always attracted grandma-who-kept-her-name. The alleyway behind my apartment would fill up with passionflower vines. They bristled thick in the heat and strangled each other for fence space. Their rotting fruit accumulated in the alleyway behind my apartment, and I’d keep running into grandma-who-kept-her-name stirring the squashed fruit with her cane, poking through the sweet red pulp. Reading fortunes again.

glam01“A war comes,” she said to me without looking up. “A king is hanged. A scarcity of barley. You look thin, you should eat more.” I ignored the last part. All of the grandmas thought I was too thin. I said, “Anything good?” I could see where dozens of passionflowers had been torn from their vines and thrown to the side, their stamens twisted out of shape. She said, “Nothing good in the flowers. Stock market tips. Unreliable.” Their heavy gold pollen was smeared across the front of her blouse. She waved her cane to shoo away some seagulls edging inquisitively towards her pile of pulp.

I said, “I can’t stay for long. I only came down this way because I’m meeting glam-grandma for brunch.”

She nodded and pulled herself up with her cane. “She still gatecrashes brunches.”

I shrugged a shoulder at her. There wasn’t much to say to that.

Abruptly she was in front of me, pulling me close by the collar of my shirt. Her breath was disgustingly close to my face. “They’ll kick her out forever. She’ll wander the streets of the city till she drops from the heat and her heels tumble off her feet—” She paused, pulled back, and spit to the side. She grinned. “But I’m only guessing. Let’s know for sure.”

She tore a passionfruit off a vine and smashed it against the tarmac. She pounded it with her cane and peered into the seedy mess. “She’ll travel. She’ll be successful. She’ll find love in strange places. She’ll write a screenplay but no one will read it. Even so, they’ll toast her name and toss back champagne like it’s New Year’s Eve for the last time.”

I laughed. “You should write for fortune cookies.”

She grabbed a passionfruit and threw it in my face. “I didn’t keep my name to put up with your flippancy.” She began to make her way slowly down the alleyway. She called without turning her head, “Just for that, I’ll see you in two months. No, four months. Longer, maybe. I’m not sure yet. It can be fun to sulk.” Her cane swung right, swung left, tapped echoes into the street. I believed, for just a moment, that she’d been blind all along.

But then a seagull flew too close and quick as a whip she smacked it sideways with her cane.

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glam02Still, as I sprinted for my life out of a Hollywood Hills gated community, I couldn’t help but feel a little doubt. Behind us, the baying of dogs was getting louder. “Shit,” screamed glam-grandma into my ear, “they’ve got Dobermans! Toss the salami!”

I threw my handful of catered meat into the air. The salami discs sailed over my shoulder, and the barking broke off for just a moment. That was all the time we needed for glam-grandma to pull open the doors of her white Volkswagen and shove the key into the ignition. I leaped into my seat, and before I could even close the door, she kicked her foot against the gas pedal. The engine burst into life, and we shot down the road.

To me, the escapes were half the fun. When we came to a red light, glam-grandma tossed a cigarette into the air and caught it in her mouth, like a peanut. She lit up. “So,” she said, adjusting the padding in her bra, “I hear there’s a brunch happening at the Beverly Hilton right now. Want to give that one a try?”

If Sophocles had written a tragedy called glam-grandma, it would be analyzed by high school students for homework. They would be asked by their teachers to identify glam-grandma’s tragic flaw, and the popular answer would be: she desired too desperately a place among the old ladies who brunch. After some consideration, I decided such a goal was noble and right for a grandma who lived in Hollywood. And, even as I listened to her mumbled curses at other drivers as we sped downhill, I couldn’t help but feel for her. We root for the underdog.

She parked the Volkswagen on a side street behind the Hilton and we walked through the parking lot, dodging shifty glances from the valets. “Bet you there’s a brunch on the left,” she said as we stepped into the pink marble lobby. “They tend to happen to the left of things, I’ve noticed.”

It was like something a terrible gambler would say, like Bet you it lands on eight, it always lands on eight, but for once in her life she was right. We wandered through a crowd of bridesmaids inspecting a vast empty ballroom, and smelled the coffee and fresh bagels before we saw the propped-open doors.

We linked arms and strolled casually in.

Of course it was obvious that we didn’t fit. Glam-grandma spent time on her makeup, but she could wash it off at night, and the ladies who brunched could tell. And there was also me: my hair was too short. I wasn’t the only grandson there, and this was the summer when the Hollywood fashion for teenage boys was these styled nests of hair, with bangs that swung into your eyes. So all the other boys had their hair done up in dutiful nests. If it had been up to glam-grandma, I am sure my hair would have looked just like that, highlights and all. But grandma-from-Leningrad had gotten to it first. She’d taken me to an old Russian man who cut hair in his building’s parking garage, and he’d cropped it short with an electric razor for five dollars. That was the problem with having nine adoptive grandmothers. Their agendas sometimes worked at cross-purposes.

Glam-grandma sat herself down at a half-empty table by the door, and I quickly got up and went to look at the croissants. It embarrassed me a little to hear the things she would say. Well I probably look familiar because of that film I did in the seventies. It was such a hit… I focused on the croissants. They gleamed like parquet, stiff with polish and gloss. Hollywood croissants. Glam-grandma’s spiel floated over the roomful of chatter. You wouldn’t believe the letters I got from fans. Some of them were really quite naughty…. I brought my hand close to the bagels. They were fresh from the ovens. I could feel their heat without touching them.

In the end I chose the medallion-sized quiches. Miniature food is hard to resist.

When I returned to the table, the conversation had progressed to the part where one of the ladies shifted her posture, her empty espresso cup dangling from one finger, and she stared at glam-grandma, waiting for her to stutter and run out of things to say. It would be another minute, I figured, and then we’d have to run. I looked for the platter of cold-cuts. There it was, at the other end of the room. I was already half out of my chair, preparing to load up on salami, when I noticed that the chatter was fading away. All the ladies in the room were turning their heads towards the door. Glam-grandma stopped talking and sat unmoving for a moment. Then she turned to look as well.

I watched the ladies’ mouths. They were shriveling up like sea anemones poked with a finger.

An elderly woman had entered the room. She was all in green. Emeralds and diamonds dug into her neck, into her wrists, descended in points from the lobes of her ears. Her dress stunned me. Even I could tell it was too much. Green circles of fabric were layered like the scales of an artichoke, their ends curling up and pointing to the chandeliers. Each scale shivered in delight from every movement the woman made.

The ladies who brunched did not say anything. They did not need to. Already the dress was disintegrating in front of their eyes. The leaves of the dress were jerking out of their seams in a rustling flurry, collecting into a suspended cloud. Her gems flared and flickered and died. Her shoulder pads wrinkled and shriveled away. She continued walking through the room as if nothing was happening, accompanied only by the rat-tat-tat of a thousand snappings of threads. She stepped out of the cloud of green and left it behind her, frozen perfectly in the air. You could see the affectionate furrows wrinkling her breasts. Her mascara was painted in savage lines that jutted from her eyelids. Her mouth was darkly red with paint. She went calmly, nudely to get herself a plate.

The mouths of the old ladies unshriveled themselves. If there was a test, she had passed. They turned back to their tables and a murmur of conversation once more filled the room. A custodian brought in fresh pots of coffee. The green cloud moved out the door leaf by leaf, very slowly. It had turned into money. Money blowing out the door.

glam03Something like this had happened at a brunch two months ago—a little boy pointing at a lady, her dress dissolving into frothing sprays of sea foam that dripped all over the carpet. Or, the brunch some weeks before that, when a lady had laughed too loudly—her dress flying off her body like a startled bird, leaping through the window and cavorting into the sky—she was left in nothing but her lipstick and crocodile heels. The ladies who brunched were, I learned, prone to sudden disintegration.

After the excitement of the dress, the ladies forgot we were at their table. They talked over our heads as if we weren’t there. Glam-grandma pretended it didn’t matter to her, but kept shooting hurt little looks over her shoulder. She took her time finishing her croissant, fussing with the butter, dipping the end into her coffee. Finally she could put it off no longer. She dabbed at her mouth with a napkin and rose to leave. I rose with her. As we passed the still-disintegrating cloud of green, she reached out, plucked a few bills and stuck them in her purse. She murmured, “Always nice to have a little help with the bills.”

We linked arms and strolled casually out.

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Glam-grandma liked to take me to the Hollywood Bowl on Tuesdays for the evening performances. I always got home late, and my mother didn’t like that. I said, “She’s a responsible adult and it’s educational and eleven-thirty isn’t really that late anyway.”

My mother said, “But don’t you think you should maybe be hanging out with friends your age?”

“Look,” I told her. “You and dad didn’t leave me any grandmas, so I’ve had to go and find some of my own. I’m just trying to be a good grandson, is that such a problem?”

So off I went to the Hollywood Bowl to listen to an orchestra butchering Mozart. “This might not be the best introduction to classical music,” said glam-grandma as she tossed popcorn into her mouth, “but goddamn it if I don’t find this entertaining.” I suppose that if you’ve listened to beautiful Mozart concertos all your life, hearing it done horribly can be diverting.

According to glam-grandma, the Hollywood Bowl was a terrible place to go if you cared about the music. Nearly one hundred years ago, it had been a natural amphitheater: a bowl-shaped valley with angelic acoustics. No one had needed amplification. People had sat on benches, or on the grass, and enjoyed outdoor performances in the sun. The atmosphere had been like a picnic.

The atmosphere was still like a picnic, and it was still outdoors. But the bowl had become the Bowl. The stage was ensconced in an iconic hemispherical shell made of increasingly large white arches—this was the Bowl that had gradually erased the bowl from memory, so now most people thought the shell was where the name had come from in the first place. The seating had expanded to nearly eighteen-thousand seats. It was the largest amphitheater in the country. Everything was amplified because you could barely hear the stage anymore. I knew this to be true because of the night when the power went out, just for a few seconds, but in those seconds I’d struggled to make out the orchestra scraping furiously away below. Big screens hung from the tips of the white shell and broadcast close-up shots of the performers. Only the closest seats could see them on the stage as anything but blurs.

Glam-grandma and I brought along our usual basket loaded with wine, sandwiches, blankets, and binoculars. We bought the one-dollar tickets along with most everyone else and climbed up to the X-Y-Z benches. We waited till the show started. Then, the moment the lights went down, we in the top rows snatched up our things and darted down to the more expensive M-N-O benches far below. The ushers could care less about enforcing seating, and everything from M and up was always pretty empty. After all, it’s hard to sell out eighteen-thousand seats every night.

Still, there were those who sat right up near the stage, dressed much finer than glam-grandma and I were, and certainly not wrapped in old blankets to keep off the evening chill. But the real luxuries were the boxes. They weren’t as close to the stage, but they were proper boxes instead of wood-and-concrete benches that stretched unbroken for hundreds of feet. The boxes had little doors, and you could reserve them for a whole season, and you could specify a need for tables, or a pack of cards, or catering. You could tell when it was a clan of well-off retirees in the boxes because they chatted enthusiastically, laughing and dropping olives onto their tongues, pointing to things on each other’s programs and waiting for their favorite part of a symphony that they knew half by heart.

Glam-grandma pulled her blanket tight around her shoulders and stared yearningly at a box we could just barely see, where four old ladies who brunched were toasting the fifth lady with baby bottles of Riesling while the timpani in the background pounded out a savage solo.

glam04“One day,” she shouted into my ear over the sudden trombones, “I’ll be sitting in that box with them. They’ll be toasting my birthday, but I’ll deceive them about my age. So they’ll be toasting to a lie. That’s how you’ll know that I’ve become one of them at last. What fun it will be! Now pay attention, that cellist is about to embarrass herself.”

But the cellist must have done something right because glam-grandma raised her eyebrows and made no comment, just took a bite out of her chocolate bar instead. I threw my head back and stared up at the sky and listened to the song of the cello. I could barely see any stars from all the surrounding lights. Not too far away, a helicopter vibrated its way through the night and I could hear its thrum growing over our cauldronful of music. I tried to make out the color of the helicopter, but whether it was helicopter-grandma or just an ordinary helicopter, I wasn’t able to tell.

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There were things glam-grandma loved besides brunch. She loved the street signs in Burbank where, instead of letters, they just had the Warner Brothers logo and a distinguishing number. “Imagine living on that street! Oh, I know it’s just a studio avenue pretending to be a street, but still, think about it. Anyone who sent you a letter would have to know how to draw.”

Or: “I love the idea of Universal CityWalk. Someone took the path leading from this parking lot to that theme park, and they said, hey! Let’s turn that walkway into a glamorous outdoor shopping mall!” And nowadays people came just for the CityWalk; it had drowned its origins so well. We went there sometimes during the day and listened to the huge advertising banners snapping in the wind. We strolled past shoppers and workers and the occasional living statues with hats laid at their feet. The shops were a frenzy of competitive advertising, trying to grab attention any way they could, and even the juice stand was having a go, with huge models of assorted fruit popping out of its roof, twice as large as the stand itself. Glam-grandma joked about it. “I pretend to myself it’s a tribute to Carmen Miranda.”

She loved the older movie theaters, especially the rude ones where the facade had fused with the theater, like Grauman’s Chinese or the Egyptian. She called them rude because, in her words, they were giant insults to China and Egypt. They were some of the first of the Great Grand Movie Palaces. They were precisely the color of their names. She’d chosen an apartment that was within walking distance from the theaters, so that on Friday nights she could take a little stroll and partake of their extravagance. Her apartment was just one block off Hollywood Boulevard, small and concrete and very cheap. No one wanted to live in the tourist traps.

glam05Above all, she loved her white Volkswagen. Yes, she’d switched her cigarettes to Benson & Hedges because that was what they smoked at brunch; she’d changed her taste in heels, she’d changed her taste in wine, she’d given up her taste for aubergine tints in her hair. But the Volkswagen stayed. Her partner in crime for twenty years, it remained her greatest friend from the pre-Hollywood era. I believe that for a time she loved it more than brunch.

“There is nothing,” she shouted over the wind pouring in from the windows as we sped down the 101 Freeway, “nothing like racing a truck on a three-lane freeway in a beat-up old Volkswagen.” As she said this, the truck began to fall back at last and glam-grandma whooped and let up on the gas. I’d been clutching at my seatbelt the whole time. I had nothing to say in response.

“But something that’s almost as good,” she said as she pushed down the gas pedal once more and I resumed my hold on my seatbelt, “is navigating a truck tunnel in this car.”

In front of us, two trucks drove placidly side by side, one in the lane to our right, one in the lane to our left. There were no cars in front of us, and glam-grandma shot down the middle lane, cigarette clamped firmly between her teeth. We were suddenly scarily in between the trucks. Their smoky bulk towered over our heads, and it was like a wind tunnel as we raced through. Old receipts whipped up past my ears and shot out the windows, and then we were abruptly past them, back on the open concrete of the freeway. I noticed that glam-grandma was minus the cigarette. It took me a moment to realize it had been snatched by the wind as well.

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The white Volkswagen broke down on the Cahuenga pass, on our way to another brunch. Together we managed to push the car to the side of the canyon road and out of traffic’s way. Then we stuck out our thumbs and hoped. I asked, “Is it all right to leave it on the side of the road? I mean, it might get towed.”

After a long minute, she said, “I can’t miss brunch.”

Some moments later, a blue Corolla slowed to a stop, and I smiled until the window rolled down and I realized we were being rescued by a lady who brunched. She pushed her sunglasses into her hair and said, “Where to?”

“Oakwood Apartments,” said glam-grandma, already opening the passenger door and inviting herself in, “I’m trying to get there in time for brunch.”

“Oakwood!” The woman tipped her sunglasses back over her eyes as we drove. “Do you live there too? I’ve never seen you before!”

“Oh, no, I was invited. You know. Friend-of-a-friend sort of thing.”

“Sure, I know how it is. Well, I hope you like our place. It’s a bit small, but it’s home.”

Oakwood Apartments, as we discovered, had a security gate and contained mounds and mounds of little hills dotted with tasteful condominiums. As we drove through its winding roads, our lady who brunched told us she lived in Neil Patrick Harris’s former apartment. Before that, she’d been in Queen Latifah’s old rooms, but she’d had to move. Her neighbors had been Disney Channel extras, and they were just too young and rowdy for her sleeping schedule.

There was a tense moment when our lady forgot whether the brunch was held at the south clubhouse or the north clubhouse. “Which one?” she asked glam-grandma, who said “Hmmmm?” and pretended she’d gone temporarily deaf, but then our lady remembered anyway. She parked the car, and we leaped out and hurried towards the double glass doors of the clubhouse before she could ask us any more questions.

As we sat at yet another round table with yet another plate of gleaming croissants, I wondered why it was always Sunday brunch. Briefly I toyed with the idea that the ladies who churched had been transformed into the ladies who brunched through contact with the desert air. According to grandma-from-Leningrad, when the Soviet government had deleted religion, people had found all sorts of odds and ends to take its place. I watched the ladies watching each other as they poured themselves glasses of grapefruit juice. It didn’t seem very religious. The air conditioner was cranking cold air out of the vents, but some of the windows were open anyway to let in a fresh breeze. I could see the seagulls strutting by the pool.

As it turned out, there was a talent show planned for the younger generation. The custodians had set up a stage by the pool, and I was treated to the sight of a dozen long-haired girls and nest-haired boys playing piano and singing in wobbling voices. The talent show was a boon in the end, because it kept the ladies from noticing that glam-grandma and I did not belong. Instead they craned their necks to see whose grandkid was singing what, each waiting for her turn to smile at us and tell us about all the things they’d accomplished in their life so far. Then, when her grandkid was done and would wander up for a dutiful kiss, she would pull them into a hug and whisper things into their ear.

Glam-grandma whispered into my ear, “You’re more talented than any of them. Smarter, too. I know you’ll do what it takes to make me proud. Don’t you ever forget that.” It unnerved me how convincing she sounded. She leaned back, smiling like a judge, like one of the old ladies who brunched. For the first time it worried me that this was her ambition.

And then suddenly everyone was gone. The stage was empty, the tables were deserted. They’d all left for the other clubhouse, for post-performance celebrations, or maybe brunch number two. It had happened so quickly that glam-grandma hadn’t noticed which direction they went. So we stumbled out of the clubhouse into the afternoon heat and hiked up and down the hilly roads of the Oakwood Apartments. We searched the tarmac for a trail of bagel crumbs to lead us along, but it was just like the fairy tale; the seagulls must have eaten them all. A security guard approached us. His questions were polite but he did not smile, and I knew this was it. Glam-grandma got flustered and waved her hands around. It did no good. He led us kindly but firmly to the exit. It was the nicest eviction we’d ever had.

We found ourselves standing on the empty highway of Barham Road. Glam-grandma stayed there for a moment, staring at her heels, not saying anything. Then she patted me on my shoulder and on we walked, the opposite way we’d come, baking in the sun all the way to the Volkswagen waiting for us on Cahuenga.

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When I think back, I try to track the moment she became an old lady who brunched. At last she achieved her heart’s desire. But it’s hard to pin down the exact instant of transmutation. The best I could do was track a period of several weeks when I really should have seen it coming.

We drove in a lime-green Chevy, soaring down the 5. The Volkswagen had disappeared, sold to the junkyard to finance the new car. Maybe this was the first sign. Or perhaps it had been the moment she’d whispered to me in a voice so unlike her own that I was better than all the rest. Or, maybe, the moment she’d had to choose between the Volkswagen and the brunch. And she chose brunch.

She’d been unusually silent the whole car ride, her eyes fixed on the road. I’d been relaxing in the Chevy’s comfortable seats until I spotted two trucks ahead of us. I grabbed onto my seatbelt. Glam-grandma grinned and kicked her foot onto the gas pedal and we were accelerating once more, heading for the truck tunnel, the wind screaming in our ears.

glam06And then we were inside, and the trucks were roaring and I noticed the way glam-grandma’s dress was whipping away into silver clouds of tobacco smoke from the wind, the way the cotton wrap around her neck unrolled into crumbled old receipts and shot straight into the air. Her hair untangled itself from its plait and snapped free in a Medusa-like frenzy and we emerged from the truck tunnel. All that was left of her was her body and its make-up, the carefully painted strokes of red and black, the stamps of pink on her cheeks. The body turned to me and smiled and said, like someone commenting on a former childhood pleasure, “Well. That was pretty fun.”

And I knew it was the end. She would be evicted no more. This brunch, she would fool them. The act had become real. They would get her phone number. She’d get calls on Tuesday nights asking her to join them in their boxes at the Hollywood Bowl. I wouldn’t be invited. She’d be too busy to call me anymore, and she’d have a new grandson too. He’d live in Zac Efron’s former apartment. He’d have really nice white teeth and puffy lime-green sneakers to match her car. And though her body would still be there, driving and brunching, glam-grandma was gone forever, I knew.

I ask you, how could I not be happy for her? These things happen. People get what they want, and we have to sigh and move on.

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avi

 Avi Naftali moonlights as a fiction writer, composer, and sort-of essayist. He grew up in Los Angeles and currently works a nine-to-five in New York. He writes the Artichoke letters of the onionandartichoke blog, which can be found at onionandartichoke.wordpress.com.

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In the Rustle of Pages, Cassandra Khaw – “I’m sorry?” Li Jing says, voice firmer than one would expect. She fumbles for her hearing aid, finds it in a graveyard of yellowed books and colored fabrics. “What did you say?” / “We want you to live with us, Auntie. So we can take care of you. Make sure you have everything you ever want.”

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