Issue 187, Winter 2008
On a hazy summer afternoon in Los Angeles, while my wife was at work and our children were napping, I answered the ringing doorbell to find my grandmother, two months dead, standing on the stoop. She gave me a happy smile and then turned and waved to a black car with dark windows that purred at the curb. The car pulled away.
“Liliana,” I said.
“Darling!” she said.
She reached for my face, so I bent to be kissed, thinking that the woman I was kissing should be dead, her ashes sealed in an expensive vault. But her lips on my cheek were warm, and she smelled like her old perfume and new wool.
“Are you going to ask me in?” she asked.
I stepped back from the door, and she clicked past me on high heels, carrying a small black handbag. She looked great for eighty-seven, let alone for being dead. Her blond hair still seemed plausible, and she held her face in the alert, wide-eyed attitude in which it looked youngest. Under her coat she wore a black cocktail dress, as if she had come from her own funeral. But there had been no service, yet.
She stopped in the living room. “So this is how you live,” she said, surveying the piles of half-read newspapers, the children’s jackets hanging on doorknobs, the stain from a wet glass on the leather couch. She spun to face me, then dropped into the big yellow chair.
“I’m very tired,” she said. “They lost my bags.”
“Do you know what they’re saying about you?”
“It’s all a mistake,” she said.
I nodded, and thought about what that might mean. “But,” I said, “there was an autopsy.” I didn’t want to offend her, and here she was, but there had been an autopsy.
“Some lemonade would be nice,” my grandmother said.
I went to the kitchen for a glass of cranberry juice, which was what I had besides the kids’ boxes of Juicy Juice, and when I returned, Liliana had taken her shoes off. The way she took the glass and drained it seemed very corporeal.
“The obituaries are here somewhere,” I said. They were from English papers and they described her impoverished London childhood with a German mother and an English father, and her flight at sixteen to become a cabaret girl in Berlin. She had appeared in two movies under the Nazi studio system, and left for Switzerland in 1939. The articles ran briskly through her marriage to a Swiss industrialist, her brief move to the United States, and the five additional husbands she outlived or discarded. They described her famous parties and her expensive houses, and ended with her death as an aged socialite at her remote house in Spain. Men loved her, and she made quick use of them. With the only American husband she had a child, my father, and variously unsuitable nurses and nannies had raised him. My father loathed her, though that wasn’t in the obituaries. They mentioned his early death of a brain tumor. He would have hated appearing with his mother in print.
Liliana brushed the suggestion away with one hand. “I’ve seen them all,” she said. “Not a word about what I did for the animals.”
“The animals,” I said stupidly.
“Not a single mention,” she said. “Isn’t that rich? I gave them everything. And now they don’t want to give the money back.”
I had tried not to think about the money. There had been a lot of it, and it had gone in its breathtaking entirety to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. An apologetic lawyer had told me on the phone that in Spain, two-thirds of an estate had to go to family members—and here my pulse started to race—but that as a British subject, Liliana was exempt from the rule, and I would get nothing. The call left me shaken. I didn’t see Liliana often. Mina hadn’t wanted her money, and I told myself I hadn’t counted on it, but that was a lie. The photography magazine I worked for had folded, and we were living on Mina’s teaching salary while I took care of the kids and looked for a new job. Even a small inheritance—some forgotten sweepings from the giant pile of cash—would have made such a difference. How much did the dogs and cats really need?
“It’s so silly,” Liliana said. “My lawyer has been my friend for so long, and he was never on time for a luncheon in his life, but now he sets speed records. He pays the Spanish taxes, and sells my house, and gives away the money. And the RSPCA didn’t even write a press release. They’re not getting a cent from me next time.”
“When I really die.”
“Ah,” I said, fighting a surge of adrenaline, but I also heard Mina’s voice saying, Don’t get your hopes up. Liliana was likely, next time, to leave it all to the Royal Ballet.
“I had friends in Los Angeles,” Liliana said, gazing out the window at our weedy backyard. “King Vidor, you knew him?”
“No,” I said.
“And Darryl Zanuck—who was a pig. Garbo and Chaplin, of course. They’re all dead.” She sighed for her lost past. “It’s so different now. I was here ten years ago, when a few of my friends were still alive, and we went to Trader Vic’s. At the very next table, there were six gay Negroes. Can you imagine?”
I couldn’t tell if she had been thrilled or horrified by the sight. It could have been either. I was going to tell her not to say Negro but instead I asked, “How did you know they were gay?”
She looked at me with pity, as if I were simple. “How is your mother, darling?” she asked.
Since my father’s death, my mother had been living in an ashram outside New Delhi. She sent us postcards about how deeply at peace she was, in the land of the caste system and the dowry murder. “She’s fine,” I said. “She’s in India.”
“India,” Liliana said. “How unpleasant. I hope she has those little hand wipes.”
“I’m sure she does,” I said. I was sure she didn’t.
“Listen, darling,” Liliana said. “I don’t want to impose, but do you have a room for me?”
I said of course we did. She could have our bedroom, and Mina could sleep with the children. I would sleep on the couch. Liliana’s house in Spain had seven guest bedrooms, or eight. A whole guest wing, where plates of fruit from the gardens appeared in the rooms: apricots and fat grapes. I tried to imagine who had bought the place. I told myself it was good I hadn’t inherited it. It would rot the children’s souls, sap their independence, destroy their work ethic. It was the most wonderful place I had ever spent the night. “I’ll just be a minute,” I said.
While I stripped the master bed and carried the sheets to the wash, I thought about Jesus and Elvis. People hadwanted them back, badly, and still do. But who would have willed Liliana back? Even Garbo and Chaplin had stayed gracefully dead, and Liliana had left no movies to love. My wife, whose family is Jewish, says that I tricked her into falling in love with me by withholding my grandmother’s Nazi-movie past until it was too late, which is entirely true—I’m not an idiot.
When the sheets were agitating in the washer, I found my grandmother curled up in the yellow chair, asleep. Her makeup was simpler than I remembered, her lipstick a little blurred, her face smoothed by surgeons and sleep. She looked like the cabaret girl she had been. But her hands gave her away, their spotted, swollen knuckles impossible to hide with heavy rings. She woke and stretched her arms, smiling.
“Cat nap!” she said.
I sat down and spoke carefully. “I just want to understand,” I said. “Your lawyer called me from France and said you had drowned in the pool.”
Liliana frowned, with her old disdain. “It was my caretaker’s wife,” she said. “She was wearing my clothes and my jewels, and she was drunk. She fell in.”
“But the caretaker?”
“He thought he was in my will. He fired all the servants, and told those idiot country police I had drowned. He was deranged, clearly. I was at a retreat in Bali, where the whole idea was to be out of touch, and it worked! It was madness on everyone’s part.”
There was a muffled thumping of small, socked feet in the hall. On her fourth birthday, Bethie had decided she was too old for naps. She would wake from them early, then shake Marcus, who was five but still willing to sleep. The children trundled in, blinking and shy, and looked in confusion at the lady in black in their big yellow chair.
Liliana held her arms out wide. “Hello darlings,” she said. “It’s your granny Liliana!”
I had told the children about their great-grandmother’s death. I thought it was important to be direct about these things. We had read a book called The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, about a beloved cat who dies and helps make the flowers grow up from the ground. Now my son stood and looked at his dead granny hard, as if enough thinking would make everything clear. Bethie burst into tears.
“Bethie,” I said, picking her up. “It’s okay. She’s just come to visit.”
“Didn’t she die?” Marcus asked me.
“They made a mistake,” I said. “She’s fine.”
Marcus turned his level gaze on the ancient blond in the living room. “Where are the doggies?” he asked. They had seen a picture of her by a blue swimming pool with three little white papillons with oversized ears, and it had made a big impression.
Liliana waved a hand in disgust at the memory. “Oh,” she said. “The caretaker drowned them in a sack.”
Now it was Marcus’s turn to tremble into tears.
“Darling!” Liliana cried, reaching for him. “I’ll get new doggies! As soon as I get my money back from the horrible RSPCA!”
Marcus backed away from her, and I gathered him and his sister into my arms on the couch. I told them it was all right. I told Liliana they were still half asleep. We were all sitting that way when Mina came home from work. Her voice in the hallway said, “Babe, I’m too tired to get dinner—” and then she saw us all and stopped. “You’re alive,” she said to Liliana.
“Of course I am.”
“I guess we’re not having pizza then,” Mina said.
“Pizza!” the kids cried.
“Mina dear,” Liliana said, standing to take my wife’s hand. “I haven’t seen you with this sapphic haircut. Your children are lovely.”
Mina’s hair was cut short because she had no time to deal with it, and I thought of it as gamine-like and sexy. “Thank you,” Mina said. “You look great. Especially under the circumstances.”
“It was all a mistake,” Liliana said.
“We could go out to dinner, to celebrate,” I offered, avoiding my wife’s eye. While I was out of work, we had established what we called the New Austerity, and its cardinal prohibition was restaurants.
“Pizza!” the children cried again.
“Pizza would be very nice,” my grandmother said.
Forty-five minutes later we were eating on the couch, in front of the television. Mina had changed into sweatpants, and she graded papers while she ate. Liliana still wore her black dress. She wanted to watch the news, to see if there was anything about her. She had always, when I knew her, employed a butler, a waiter, a chef, and a couple of housemaids, but she handled the plate on her lap with perfect ease. The children gave her instructions on eating the pizza.
The sight of the kids and their great-grandmother eating together was oddly thrilling. My parents and I had moved abruptly and often, kept late hours, and lived beyond our means. Liliana was only a fraught rumor, and a source of unpredictable gifts. Once I went to a friend’s grandmother’s house after school and she made buttered saltine crackers, baked in the oven on a metal tray. We sat on a worn green carpet with the hot crackers, careful not to let butter drip through the little holes onto our laps, and we watched The Brady Bunch with the grandmother, who told me to call her Nana. The house seemed like a bastion of stability and normality, and I was completely happy there. I had fantasies of my only grandmother inviting me to Spain, to eat buttered saltines.
When I finally did visit Liliana, on a Eurail pass in college, in defiance of my father, we sat in straight-backed chairs at a formal table. Silent servants brought our food, and a candle centerpiece made it difficult to see her across the table. I had arrived in a lull between more interesting guests, just missing an exiled prince, a gossip columnist, and a banker from Zurich who brought his own helicopter. Liliana was tired, and sated with flattery. She treated me like a lover she took for granted. When I asked about her German movies, she grew alert and looked at me shrewdly.
“Let me guess,” she said. “Your virtuous father has been calling me a Nazi whore.”
I mumbled a vague protest.
“One of the movies was a love story,” she said. “The other was a silly musical. I would have done more, if I could. It was such fun. There was a part in a comedy that I very much wanted, but they had a Bavarian girl with splendid breasts.” She mimed the breasts in front of her own. “She would have gone to fat, but at the time she made me look like a little English mouse. So I went back to singing. Then the war came. The Bavarian girl died in the bombing, I heard.”
She offered me a chocolate from a plate, and the silent waiter brought tiny cups of espresso. She said, “I was so happy your father was going to be an American. I always envied Americans. Their lives seemed so simple. But that was foolish. I don’t mean to put you in the middle, but it’s very tiresome, your father’s virtue.”
I mumbled something again, this time a kind of apology.
“Somewhere I have the musical,” she said. “A friend found it for me. You can see it if you like. I’m not terribly good. Now, sweetheart, I’m off to bed.”
She kissed me carelessly on the lips and we each went to our bedrooms in the vast, silent house. Outside was darkness: dark trees, dark sea in the distance. The next day, Liliana gave me a Betamax tape, and after dinner I watched the movie alone, on a television deep in the house. It was a banal musical about a convent girl in the big city, except that it was in German and therefore ominous and scary. At one point the girl was threatened by a gypsy. My father had made it sound like Triumph of the Will, and maybe it was, if you could understand what they were saying. Liliana had a sweet, clear voice and a fetching smile. I could see why men left their fortunes at her feet.
Years later, when my father died, Liliana—who had by then buried four husbands and divorced two—sent me a thick, cream-colored, black-bordered note of consolation. She gave her regrets for the funeral, and ended with the hope that I had not learned very much either from my father or from her.
Now my own small family, which I had built on the model of buttered saltines in front of the TV, was piled on our second-hand couch with that same distant grandmother. There was nothing about Liliana on the news, of course, but she seemed inclined to watch the sitcom that followed. Marcus and Bethie drew nearer to her as she giggled at the screen. Mina brought out praline ice cream, and soon the children were leaning sticky-fingered against their great-grandmother, one on each side.
“That’s what I wanted!” I told Mina in the kitchen. “A normal childhood, a granny to watch TV and eat ice cream with. I wanted it so much.”
“Why isn’t she dead?”
“It was the caretaker’s wife in her clothes.”
Mina rinsed a plate. “You have to explain it to me when I’m not so tired,” she said.
I made up our queen-sized bed with the clean sheets, and Mina loaned Liliana a nightgown. When everyone was packed off to sleep—Mina in the children’s room, to their delight—I lay on the couch and stared at the ceiling, thinking about my grandmother giggling on this couch and holding contests with the children to see who could stretch the mozzarella the longest.
In the morning, after Mina went to work, Liliana announced that she had a car coming and she was taking Marcus and Bethie shopping in Beverly Hills.
“Everything costs a fortune there,” I said.
“It’s where I used to go.”
“The kids don’t last long, shopping,” I said. “They start to melt down.”
“Well,” she said, “it’s time for them to learn.”
I watched the three of them climb into another shiny black town car, and wondered if my grandmother knew about taxis.
“Don’t lose my kids,” I said.
She patted my cheek.
I went back in the house and shaved close, to get rid of the gray in my beard, for my own morale. It was exhilarating to have a kid-free morning, and I pulled up my résumé on the computer and tried out new fonts with which to express my accomplishments. At noon, the doorbell rang and Marcus and Bethie burst into the house in a screaming tussle over a white yapping dog. My grandmother looked on, beaming.
“What is this?” I asked.
Marcus and Bethie, with their finely tuned receptors for parental opinion, froze. The dog kept whirling and barking, then stopped, confused.
“It’s a new doggy!” Liliana said, still beaming.
“Is it yours?” I asked.
“No, darling, it’s theirs.”
Marcus and Bethie were on the verge of tears now, full of the misgivings they’d ignored at the pet store.
“We can’t have a dog, Liliana,” I said. “I’ll be going back to work soon and there’s no one to take care of it.”
“We’ll take care of it!” Marcus said.
“You’ll be in school,” I reminded him.
My grandmother looked around the living room, as if for the dog-loving servants who might be hiding behind the furniture. She looked back at me, wide-eyed. “Every child should have a dog,” she said.
“I’m sure that’s true,” I said. “We just can’t right now.”
“But the children are so happy!”
The children did not look happy at all. Here was their grandmother, returned from the grave, just to give them an animal they couldn’t keep.
“Have they had lunch?” I asked.
“Yes, of course!” Liliana said, then she looked at the children, considering. “No,” she said. “Perhaps not. I think someone at the pet store gave them a cookie.”
By the time I finished making sandwiches, the dog had chewed a hole in the seat of the big yellow chair. “We can just flip it over,” I said, trying to be magnanimous, but when I turned over the cushion, there was a hole chewed in the other side. I looked at Liliana, who shrugged.
“I had the same idea,” she said.
The dog kept peeing out of sheer excitement at having children to play with, and did so on the one rug that couldn’t be thrown in the wash. Then it became clear that Bethie was allergic, and angry red welts broke out on her throat and chin and wrists. She was brave, willing to suffer all manner of torture for the dog, but the hives were spreading.
When mina came home, she found one child in tears and the other desperately scratching at her neck. She gave Bethie a Benadryl, and we ate Chinese takeout from the good place, in violation of the New Austerity. Liliana sat archly beside me, her hair tied back with a pale blue ribbon of Bethie’s. When I met her eye, she raised her painted eyebrows, as if catching a stranger staring.
“Is there,” Bethie said, “a different doggy I can have?”
“One that won’t make her sick?” Marcus asked.
“No, babe,” Mina said. “No dog.”
That night I heard Liliana on the phone in the kitchen, speaking in French about the dog, and about flights to Paris. I did the math: it was five in the morning in France. She professed her love and gratitude before hanging up, and then saw me eavesdropping in the doorway.
“Everything’s been arranged,” she said. “I have a flight tomorrow at noon.”
“The kids are just getting to know you.”
“We have your daughter’s health to consider,” she said primly.
“The pet store might take the dog back.”
She looked astonished. “That would be cruel,” she said. “He has a home with me.”
“Where will you go?”
“My lawyer found me an apartment in Paris,” she said. “He’s very contrite. And the RSPCA is beginning to be reasonable. I’ll be fine.”
I had no doubt of that. Even when she was dead she had been fine.
In the morning, Liliana waited in her black coat, with her handbag packed, for the car service. The children were in the backyard saying goodbye to the dog: Bethie with socks over her hands and a bandanna tied over her nose and throat.
When the black car pulled up to the curb, Liliana stood and clapped her hands. The dog came running through the back door to her heels, as if it had always been hers.
“Come, darling,” she said to it. “We’re on our way.”
The children and I trailed her out, and watched as she eased into the car after the dog, swinging her high heels gracefully in.
“Can we come visit the doggy in Spain?” Marcus asked.
She laughed. “I’m going to France now,” she said. “Come give me a kiss.”
The children did, and then I did, too, leaning into the car. I smelled her perfume and her wool coat, and the faint staleness of the dress worn three days in a row. The dog climbed into her lap, and she rubbed its ears and cooed at it. She smiled her film-star smile at me, squeezed my arm with her elegant, twisted hand, and pointedly let go. I was blocking the car door, holding her up.
“Why did you come here?” I asked, risking annoying her.
She looked startled, and blinked once. “I wanted to see you,” she said. “To see how you had grown up.”
She tilted her head as if to see me better. “Well, you aren’t very much like your father, thankfully,” she said. “But you aren’t very much like me, either. Maybe there’s something your mother isn’t telling us.”
I could feel my face doing something unattractive, and I felt cold pass through me. “You think she was cheating on my father?”
“Oh, don’t be such a bore,” she said. “It was a joke!”
“Will we see you again?” I asked. I tried to keep the neediness out of my voice, but it wasn’t neediness; it was need.
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “I’m not dying.” She waved to the children. “Goodbye, darlings.”
Then she pulled the door closed, and the car slid away from the curb. While the children and I watched, her car cruised toward the end of our block and then disappeared around the corner. She wouldn’t be sending for us when she had a new house. She wouldn’t be calling for our social security numbers when she wrote her new will. I tried to say, like Mina, Good riddance, but I was not as sensible as my wife. We hadn’t made ourselves as vivid to Liliana as the fate of some unneutered cats. We had failed, even in overtime, and she was gone.