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Synopsis

A young girl is inadvertently pulled into the chaotic life of a grandmother she thought she knew.


Robinette Alcorn slept poorly at fourteen; her body did not seem designed for comfortable repose. When she lay on her side, her bony hips grew sore. The back of her head grew numb when she lay supine. Phantom itches sprang up on the backs of her thighs, the soles of her feet. She sweated or froze. Come morning, she left for school puffy and sullen, red creases in her face, her hair awry. Weekends, she slept until noon, waking ferocious and unrested. This morning, Saturday, she had been awakened a little after nine.

“Get dressed,” said her mother, Louise, “and not that skirt, you know which one. We’re going to see Grannie.”

“But today’s not Sunday.” Robinette pouted into her pillow.

“Well, we’re going. And your father too. I just had a call from Mrs. Von Bukus. Grannie’s had another stroke or something.”

“Oh no!” Robinette bolted from her bed in her long, baggy red T-shirt. She was nearly five feet ten already, with budding breasts, long arms and fingers, a thin, swanlike neck and a small, close-cropped head with large blue eyes and full lips. “Is Grannie going to die?”

“Who knows?” Louise picked up a sweater from the floor and folded it in three quick jerks. “I have a million and one things to do today, and now this.”

“Don’t break down with grief or anything.”

“And don’t start.” Louise was a tall, hippy woman with straight, shoulder-length brunette hair and an incongruously beautiful face, weary and exotic, like the faces of cinematic European spies. But behind the dark, sloe eyes lived a cypher. To Robinette, her mother led a meaningless existence, obsessed with the strategic details and machinations of her boss at work, a woman she called “The Red Queen.” Louise would spend hours on her phone or email concocting strategies with her office allies, plotting coups, trying to outguess and outmaneuver their adversaries.

“Ten minutes, Missy,” Louise called back over her shoulder as she departed.

Robinette rose and drifted to her window, lifting the shade. The morning sun shone gold through the brilliant green fronds of the palms across the street, like Pearl Harbor just before the attack. Robinette placed herself there, in Hawaii, beneath the palms at night in a strapless peach organdy gown, sipping rum with a doomed young pilot. The ocean shimmered in the moonlight, beneath a sky innocent of warplanes. Robinette constructed the pilot’s face carefully, a blend of Pete Bestrom, her school’s football captain, and Rupert Brooke, the poet. Pete-Rupert gazed at her steadily above the rim of his glass. His eyes dropped to her swelling bosom. Soon, they would be lovers, and tomorrow morning, The Attack.

“You always get like this,” came Louise’s voice from downstairs. “You guilt-trip me into visiting her week after week and then get utterly vile when I suggest you take some responsibility on yourself.”

“I suggest,” said Alvin Alcorn, “you shut up and let me eat.”

“That woman never gave me a good word in her life. And now who’s her only visitor? Me. While her precious son sits in front of that TV all weekend like a goddamn Buddha.” From the staircase, Robinette saw her father lurch from his chair, hitting his thighs on the underside of the table, which heaved upwards, jolting the pitcher of grapefruit juice. Louise caught it in time, but Alvin’s chair teetered backward and fell with a crash.

“Have a tantrum,” shouted Louise, hurling her spoon onto the table, “but you’re coming today. She’s your mother, for Chrissake.”

Alvin kicked at his upturned chair. “Piece of shit.” He set the chair on its legs and lurched from the room. The torn air reverberated, as if following a gunshot, traumatized molecules dashing around pell-mell. Frowning, Louise peeled an egg.

“It’s not Grannie’s fault she’s in the nursing home, Mom,” said Robinette, descending the stairs cautiously.

“That’s just it. It’s not. But he can’t stand her, is the sad truth, and she has to be visited, so he sends me. God forgive me, I can’t stand her either. Why do you think we moved down here, back when your grandpa was still alive? To be away from her.”

“Mom.”

“Do you know what she used to do? When your father and I were just married, she used to snoop through my closet and read the labels on my clothes. ‘A Pendleton sweater, aren’t we the fine lady,’ she said once in front of the whole family, all those pinch-faced hausfraus from Minneapolis. ‘How can you afford Pendleton sweaters on my son’s salary?’ And those were my sweaters I bought with my own money before I was even married. Sure, I had nice things when I was single.” Louise, mouth full of egg, burst into tears.

Robinette rolled herself a breadball and sank her teeth reflectively into the dense gluten. It was hard for her to imagine Grannie as anything but bedridden and null. There were pictures, of course: the young Melissa (Missy) Dahlen, born 1925 in Minneapolis. Grannie at five years old was a solemn, blue-eyed child in a sailor suit, blonde curls in corkscrews tumbling down her shoulders. And teenage Grannie perched on a splintery-looking front porch rail with her brother during the Depression, looking like Bonnie and Clyde. Grannie’s stockings had seams, and her hat was tilted over one eye.

At eighteen, Missy had married Chuck Alcorn, a cabinet maker of great precision, thrifty, tyrannical and dull. He had been saved from war service by the loss of three toes to frostbite as a child. Two years later they had moved to Santa Cruz, California, where they lived out a joyless, provident domesticity, canning produce, clipping coupons and bickering over issues trite and unresolvable.

They had had four children: Robinette’s father, his younger brother, Sam, and two girls who had married and moved far away, to Delaware and Florida, so that Robinette rarely saw her cousins. Uncle Sam had gone to Vietnam and returned an alcoholic. He lived in Minneapolis because they had “good program” there, meaning Alcoholics Anonymous. Every time Sam fell off the wagon, he would call Robinette’s father in L.A. and rant and sob by the hour. When he finally hung up, Alvin would call an ambulance in Minneapolis and get Sam to the Veteran’s Hospital.

Grandpa Alcorn had died five years ago, and Grannie had lived on in the Santa Cruz house alone, seldom visited. But after her stroke, Robinette and her family had driven up from L.A. and moved Grannie down to the Casa Contenta, close to their home.

They had found Grannie’s house crammed with paperback novels of passion, duplicity and scandal, some dating back to the forties. While her parents sorted through furniture and mementos, Robinette had closeted herself away with the books. On the covers, ruby-lipped adulteresses and wanton barflies with massive cleavages gazed provocatively at blue-jawed detectives. Remote Caribbean jungles teemed with lustful colonists’ wives in ripped blouses, luring muscular overseers in bulging jodhpurs. Reading the fragile yellow pages, Robinette had wrinkled her nose at the clumsy language. She knew this was bad writing, but it seemed to flow pretty well, holding her attention despite herself: “’Even murderesses need love,’ Rae whimpered at me. I never could resist the tears of a blue-eyed broad, so I gave it to her all that night, and a little extra in the morning, because I knew that where she was going, men would be in short supply.”

Los Angeles seethed and simmered in its midday miasma. Despite the air conditioning, the sun came hot through the windows of the Buick. Traffic crawled bumper-to-bumper both ways on Santa Monica Boulevard; indifferent faces peered from creeping, honking Volvos and BMWs. The homeless wandered along Veteran Avenue, pushing carts or dragging bags. Robinette turned and looked out the back window; in the distance, more cars sat stalled on a web of freeway overpasses.

Cursing, Alvin Alcorn turned into a small parking lot and stopped the car. He took a deep breath and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. He smoothed the sparse blond hair back from his temples and took another deep breath. When it came to Granny, Robinette thought, her father was a sort of human hand grenade. Alvin worked as a surveyor for the City of Santa Monica. He intended to get a civil engineering degree, but that was not “coming together for him right now,” was what her mother said to friends. That was how people in her mother’s world talked to each other, using English words that were somehow another language entirely. They said things like “we may have to elevate this,” instead of “I’m mad at you.”

It’s my fault, thought Robinette. If I hadn’t been born, Daddy could have gone to school until the cows came home, and so could Mom. Louise would not have had to be a marketing secretary writing schedules all day long. She could have written a novel, which she insisted was her true calling in life. Robinette thought of Grannie’s novels. Writing those must have been fun in a forbidden sort of way. She decided to try writing one when they got home, as long as nobody found it.

Before them, sandwiched between a supermarket and a discount shoe store, awaited the Casa Contenta, a single story of spangled lime stucco with a flat roof and white trim. Two shrubs curried into lollipops protruded from a small lawn of bluish pebbles. A thin sidewalk bisected the pebbles, and just before the front door stood a black plaster gnome in a jockey cap with a ring through his nose.

“Take that look off your face,” said Louise to nobody in particular. “Hello, Mrs. Von Bukus, we’re the Alcorns, all of us for once.” She looked significantly at Alvin.

“Well, I guess I know the Alcorns by now,” said Mrs. Von Bukus, rising from behind a beige metal desk. “Nice to see you here, Mr. Alcorn.” Her mauve lips drew back to expose an arsenal of gleaming teeth. She wore a button on one lapel of her blue suit that was a pair of praying hands. The other lapel sported a happy face with one eye a winking slit. On her desk, in a heart-shaped frame, was a portrait in profile of her Doberman, with the word Schwanli underneath in Gothic blackletter. Alvin Alcorn, deadpan, studied the portrait.

Mrs. Von Bukus, smiling now with lips closed, picked up a clipboard and briskly led the way down a chilly iodoformed hallway lined with stainless steel dollies and bags of laundry. In the background, over Muzak, came occasional chanting, singing and ululating. They turned into a ward of four women, all of whose television sets were on different channels. The room was warm, sunlight pouring in through a glass wall beyond which Los Angeles retreated in hazy perspective.

“Look who’s here to see Grannie Alcorn,” bellowed Mrs. Von Bukus, and unexpectedly grabbed Robinette by the shoulders, thrusting her forward and down, so that her face encountered the brown tissue of her grandmother’s face, mottled and flaccid. One side was weakly animated with greeting, but the hemiplegia, dull and glum, kept its own counsel, staring half-lidded straight ahead.

“Hi, Grannie.” Robinette held her breath against the fusty old woman smell. Louise, smiling like a rictus, bent and kissed Grannie’s forehead. Alvin hovered in the background, starting forward, then stopping himself, swaying and nodding.

“Mom?” said Alvin Alcorn, “How have you been? They tell me not so hot.”

“Alvin!” said Louise.

“Goddammit, Louise,” said Alvin, bending to catch his mother’s eye. Grannie did not respond, but looked down and began plucking at her blanket with her good hand. Robinette glanced quickly at the other grannies in the room. Two munched their gums avidly, one without comprehension of the scene before her, one apparently with. Another, comatose, had tubes in her arms and nose. At a loss, the Alcorns gazed about them with false interest, peeking from the corners of their eyes at Grannie, who sat hunched and lanky and stoic, like an old lioness, ignoring them. Two minutes passed heavily in the hot, cacophonous room,

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” hissed Louise to her husband. “She won’t even talk to us.”

“Well maybe she can’t, Mom,” said Robinette.

“Jesus this room’s hot.” Alvin fanned his face with his hand. “Can’t they open those windows or something, let some air in? This can’t be good for them.”

“We get cold,” said one of the other women, “yi yi yi.”

“Louise,” said Alvin, “will you come outside for a minute? Ma, we’ll be right back, I promise.” Grannie did not acknowledge them. Robinette moved closer and sat in a chair beside the bed. She took Grannie Alcorn’s claw in her hand.

“I hope you feel better soon, Grannie,” she said. Grannie Alcorn did not reply, but a trickle of drool leaked from her mouth. Robinette dabbed at it with a corner of the bedsheet. “There’s this boy at school, Jack James,” said Robinette, “I used to think he liked me, but I found out he really likes Terri Kleist. All the boys like her because she’s developed.”

“He came to me last night,” Grannie Alcorn suddenly blurted.

“Who, Grannie?”

“He was in a blue Duesenberg,” said Grannie, “upholstered in kid.”

“Kid?” Robinette’s eyes widened. She glanced around for her parents, but they were nowhere in sight.

“He sat at the wheel, my Ramon, and his hair was so black and smooth. Oh my, he was handsome. And it began to rain. We were standing in the street then, but he wasn’t getting wet. And I got soaked.”

“Oh, that’s too bad.”

“Of all his women, why would he return to me?”

“I don’t know, Grannie.”

“They stabbed him fifteen times,” said Grannie Alcorn, “in broad daylight, outside a bar in Monterey.” Robinette’s mouth dropped open.

“Is that from one of those books, Grannie? Is that what you’re dreaming about?”

“Don’t be stupid. It was Chuck’s men. I know it was, sure as I’m alive. They murdered my Ramon. Murderers! Murderers!”

Robinette looked around wildly. “I’ll go get somebody.” She rose, but Grannie Alcorn reached out quickly and grabbed her arm, pulling her back into the chair with astonishing strength. Grannie’s covers had fallen away, and her bosoms lolled beneath her thin hospital gown. Her gnarled, varicose feet protruded from the covers at the end of the bed.    

Grannie Alcorn began to tremble. Foam appeared at her mouth.

“What is it, Grannie?” said Robinette. Louise and Alvin re-entered the room.

“Ma, what’s wrong?” Alvin peered down at her, his face distorted with alarm. “Louise, will you call the goddamn nurse?” Louise wheeled and ran outside.

“Daddy, she was talking just fine a minute ago,” said Robinette, feeling guilty; had she caused this?

Mrs. Von Bukus swept in, followed by a nurse. “Why, she holding your hand, isn’t that nice?” said the nurse. “C’mon, Grannie Alcorn,” the nurse leaned in close, “it’s Ruby who bring you cold soup that time.”

“Every time,” mumbled Grannie.

“You see?” said Ruby to Robinette, “she her old self. C’mon, Grannie, give us a little hell. Things ain’t been the same around here.” Ruby turned to Louise. “She must have had a little stroke.” Louise tugged at Robinette’s arm once, twice. The arm slipped from Grannie Alcorn’s grasp, and Louise walked her daughter quickly out of the room.

From the hallway Robinette looked back in at Grannie, who was shaking her head over and over, eyes closed. “Mom, who’s Ramon?”

“What Ramon? I don’t know. Ask your father.”

“I don’t think I will,” Robinette said.

“Suit yourself.”

“This,” some man was shouting in the corridor outside, “is the last time you put me through this hell.”

About the Author

Linda Boroff

Linda Boroff graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in English. She was nominated for Pushcart Prizes in 2016 and 2021. Her first novel, Twisted Fate, was published by Champagne Book Group in March 2022. Her Young Adult novel, The Dressmaker’s Daughter, was published in March 2022 by Santa Monica Press. Her short stories and nonfiction appear in McSweeney’s, All the Sins, Close to the Bone, Gawker, Cimarron Review, Moxy, BioStories, Shark Reef, Literary Heist, Parhelion, Crack the Spine, Writing Disorder, The Piltdown Review, The Lowestoft Chronicle, Eclectica, Glossy News Satire, Thoughtful Dog, The Satirist, Fleas on the Dog, Hollywood Dementia, Sundress, In Posse Review, Adelaide Magazine, Word Riot, Ducts Magazine, Blunderbuss Magazine, Storyglossia, The Furious Gazelle, The Pedestal Magazine, Eyeshot, JONAH Magazine, The Boiler, In Posse Review, Bound Off, Black Denim Lit, Stirring, Drunk Monkeys, Fictive Dream, The Chiron Review, Linnets Wings, and other publications. She wrote the feature film, Murder in Fashion. Her short story, “Light Fingers,” published in Cornell University's literary magazine, Epoch, is currently under option to Sony and Road Less Traveled Productions.

Read more work by Linda Boroff .