Molly and the Geezer
and the Death of Grandma Claire
A joyful look at the highest of human values: greed, double-crossing, poor parenting, love, spite, and come-uppance!!
Copyright 2012 Michael Spooner
All rights reserved. Feel free to share a link to these pages,
but do not copy the text, print, or re-post it on any other
site, personal or public.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of characters herein
to persons living or deceased is purely coincidental.
“You like it?”
Rhinehart held up an unframed painting for Grandma Claire to inspect. A milkweed in shades of brown, rust, and gold, was full to the point of bursting, and a few feathered seeds were escaping into the breeze. Above and around the milkweed, the artist had lettered a poem, over and over in a riot of overlapping lines, inks, and styles of lettering.
“It’s calligraphy,” said Rhinehart, rather pleased.
“I can see that,” Grandma Claire replied. She bent close to study the lettering. “It’s fun. I love its energy. Who is the artist?”
“Have to look him up,” said Rhinehart. “Some guy name of Barber Reed Yale. One of them three-last-name types. East coast, I figure.”
Molly looked at the signature. “No, it says ‘Barbara.’”
“Hmm. Wonder why he uses a girl name.”
“Ignore him, Molly,” put in Grandma Claire. “He’s yanking your chain.”
Rhinehart grinned. “We can look him up later.”
“Her!” Molly snapped.
“Whatever. I got a good deal on the painting.”
“Really?” said Molly skeptically. “How much?”
“Swapped that old .22 magnum to Pete Peterson. This here’s worth way more, and it’ll only get better.”
“Rhinehart!” protested Grandma Claire. “That gun had rust all down the barrel. Besides, it was mine.”
“You hate guns, and Pete will clean it up good. Plus, he was happy to get rid of this. Gladys never framed it. Too weird for her, but I kinda like it.”
“I do, too. And since you traded my gun, then this painting is mine.”
“Yep. Sure is. Where do you want it—tack it up by the Shaggle till you frame it?”
“It’s sha-GALL!” Molly wailed. “Chagall is famous, Rhinehart!”
Grandma Claire groaned. “He knows, Molly. He does this on purpose.”
“Impossible,” said Rhinehart firmly. “If a man can buy a Chagall lithograph at a St. Cloud swap meet, there’s somethin seriously wrong with the world. Even a ugly little one like this here. Besides,” he winked at Molly. “You tell folks it’s only a Shaggle, maybe they won’t steal it.”
“Rhinehart, nobody wants to steal from me,” sighed Grandma Claire.
“Can’t be too careful.”
Rhinehart could drive people crazy, especially Molly. Molly expected her elders to be predictable. If they were also fun, like Grandma Claire, that was a bonus. But Rhinehart wasn’t fun; he was impossible. Sometimes, like when he was lecturing Molly on home safety, or inventing math problems for her to solve in the truck, she’d be lulled into believing she had him all figured out. But he was just as likely to discuss the virtues of different cheeses that one could leave to go rotten under the pews at church.
“Lot of people go for brie just because it’s easy to spread. But you can freeze a pat of limburger and slip that behind the hymnal at the closing prayer. It don’t stink till it warms up, and by the time they find it . . . whoa, Nelly.”
Or “helping” with her English assignment.
“Looky here. You type in ‘capital punishment,’ and this website will dump out a perfect five-paragraph theme in three seconds. Which is all this assignment deserves.”
This was not how old men were supposed to behave.
“Rhinehart lost his job during the Reagan years,” explained Grandma Claire. “It made him hate authority figures. Nearly turned him into a Democrat.”
“I don’t even know what that means,” said Molly.
“Well don’t worry about it, honey. Rhinehart is just Rhinehart. We’re not going to change him.”
When Rhinehart lost his job, he began reading the alternative press. He took a correspondence course in commodities trading. He planted the farm in artichokes, and started to buy and sell grain futures. From there, he began to play the stock market. He made a pile of money at this, but no one knew. Rhinehart wasn’t exactly into bling. On the other hand, he wasn’t up to his hairy earlobes in debt, which made a lot of people suspicious. But in Henderson Falls, you didn’t ask people directly about personal things. You found out by devious means.
“How come Rhinehart never got married?” Molly asked Grandma Claire.
“Who says he didn’t?”
They were watching the DVD of Pirates of the Caribbean, Grandma Claire’s favorite movie. Grandma Claire held the remote in one hand and a rum cocktail in the other. She hiked her housecoat almost to her knees and crossed her large ankles on the coffee table. Her doctor in The Cities had told Grandma Claire she should stop drinking, but Grandma Claire didn’t see the point of that.
“Good behavior isn’t going to make me live any longer now,” she said with a wink. “Besides, I need to use up these swizzle sticks.” At a yard sale years ago, Rhinehart had bought a case of brightly-colored plastic swizzle sticks. Grandma Claire used them to spear cherries and pineapple chunks for what she called her “afternoon fancy drink.” It would take two lifetimes to use them all.
“You’re kidding! Rhinehart was married?!”
On the screen, Captain Jack Sparrow waved his bottle of rum and leered at Elizabeth. He mumbled so badly that Molly couldn’t understand half of what he said, but she liked the good luck charms tied in his hair, and all the goofy faces he pulled.
“Oh my yes,” said Grandma Claire. “Rhinehart married a very cute little pirate from Grand Forks, North Dakota. Wealthy, wealthy, wealthy.” Grandma Claire cocked her head. Elizabeth cocked her head.
Elizabeth was about to get Captain Jack Sparrow so drunk that he would pass out. She flashed her shapely knees as she danced around the fire. Molly and Grandma Claire giggled.
“So what happened?” Molly asked.
“Oh, you know. She came from money, and he came from the farm—that kind of thing never works out.” Captain Jack Sparrow rolled his eyes and mumbled What the Black Pearl is, is freedom! Not a very good line, but he was drunk.
“Did he leave her or did she leave him?”
Grandma Claire was confused. “They’re not getting together,” she said. “Elizabeth marries Will.” She gestured with the remote.
“No. Rhinehart’s wife.”
“Oh, her. Well, you know,” said Grandma Claire, “Rhinehart worked at the college, but he never actually went to college. They say her family always thought he was too poor and too rustic. Plus, you know how he can be. . . .” Grandma Claire swizzled the fruit in her glass. “Anyway, his wife left him for a college boy with an MBA.”
The world was spinning for poor Captain Jack. Elizabeth made him drink till he couldn’t stand. His amazing eyes were rimmed with more liner than Molly wore, herself, and he rolled them skyward, dizzy and teetering. Elizabeth’s mind was on a handsome sailor named Will.
“So she married a rich man?” Molly asked.
“They did very well for awhile,” said Grandma Claire, her eyes on the screen. “But he took too many risks. A bit of a pirate. Anyway, they lost it all when the market crashed in Reagan’s second term. I think he’s a business professor now at St. Cloud State.”
“What about her?”
Grandma Claire waved the remote. “Oh, she left the pirate for a sailor in a mustache.”
The high warm sun shone down on Captain Jack Sparrow. There was smoke in the air. Jack Sparrow staggered upright, blinking and mumbling. He was covered in sand. His hair was a mess. He was out of rum.
“Was he sad?”
“Who’s that, dear?”
“Rhinehart. Was he sad when she left him?”
“Oh. He never mentioned it to me. You know Rhinehart.” Grandma Claire sipped her drink and adjusted her big pink feet on the coffee table. On the screen, Elizabeth had rolled huge wooden barrels onto the fire. She didn’t look big enough even to tip one over, but she had rolled a dozen from their underground hideout, and she had set fire to them all. Captain Jack Sparrow lurched toward her, shouting No! But the trick was done. She had bested him, and now she was destroying the one thing he loved best in all the world—after the Black Pearl. Not the rum! he begged. Yes, the rum! cried Elizabeth, and her column of smoke went a thousand feet into the air, signaling for help.
“Did you know him when it happened?”
“I’ve known Rhinehart since grade school.” Grandma Claire said. She tilted her chin. Elizabeth tilted her chin at Captain Jack Sparrow. A bottle exploded. But why the rum?! he demanded. Grandma Claire chuckled. Captain Jack had one bullet in his pistol, and he thought about using it on Elizabeth, then about using it on himself. He stamped away.
“Why didn’t you marry him?”
Grandma Claire paused the TV. “Marry Rhinehart?” she asked. “Molly, half the time, you don’t even like Rhinehart.”
“I know . . . but still, you could’ve married him before the girl from Grand Forks.”
Grandma Claire frowned. She stared at Captain Jack, frozen in mid eye-roll.
“Didn’t he ever ask you?” Molly pressed.
“Well, why didn’t you marry him?”
Grandma Claire looked over Molly’s head to the milkweed painting carefully tacked on the wall. She sighed.
“Honey, I’ve wanted to marry Rhinehart since the sixth grade. I always loved him, as weird and crazy and maddening as he can be.” Grandma Claire smiled. “I’ve always wanted to marry him. He knows me. He makes me laugh.”
“Well, why didn’t you?”
Grandma Claire switched her ankles. “When Rhinehart finally got around to asking, it was too late. I’d been dating Tom for a year, Molly—a whole year. And we had just told our families that we’d decided to tie the knot. Rhinehart was too late, and that’s all there is to it.”
Molly took the remote and turned it off. “So then he moved to Grand Forks,” she prompted.
“And when he came back?”
“When he came back, Tom had died, and the kids were almost teenagers. Rhinehart and I started dating pretty often. I dated some other men, too, but I didn’t really like them.”
Molly giggled. “Oh, the guy with the porta-potty business!”
“How do you know about him?”
“I’m not sure,” Molly lied. “But he was wrong for you.”
“That’s the truth. And my girls didn’t like him, either.”
“Did they like Rhinehart?”
Grandma Claire smiled. “That may be the single thing that all three of my kids agreed about.”
“You mean they liked him?”
“They hated him.”
Molly gaped. “How could they hate Rhinehart?”
“Oh don’t be silly, Molly,” Grandma Claire snapped. “You know how he is. He’s no fun for kids—always lecturing, always correcting. He can be so stern and grumpy. He has no table manners, he won’t change his long johns all winter, and bless his heart but he smells like an old farm truck.”
“He does not!”
Grandma Claire leaned back to look at Molly. She smiled. “He does, Molly. And I wouldn’t have him any other way.”
Molly squirmed. “Well,” she scolded, “you sure don’t talk like it. I thought you wanted to marry him.”
“I did want to, dearie,” said Grandma Claire. “But you can’t marry a man if all your kids hate him.”
“I don’t hate him,” snapped Molly, “and I’m one of your kids.”
Grandma Claire laughed. “Well, you just turned out more like me.” She patted Molly’s hand. “But you came along too late to back me up, hon.”
“Why didn’t you just stand up to them?”
“Why are you giving me the third degree?” asked Grandma Claire, sipping her rum again. “You change plans more than Jack Sparrow.”
“I’m a kid!” Molly screeched.
“So was I!” said Grandma Claire.
“But he loves you now,” said Molly. “What’s wrong with now?”
Grandma Claire raised an eyebrow. “Does he?”
“Well, duh . . .”
“If he does, he’s never said so.” Grandma Claire’s face was showing a firmness that Molly didn’t especially care for. She pushed her cheek against Grandma Claire’s shoulder.
“Come on, Grandma Claire,” she wheedled. “Come on, big sweetie. You love crabby old Rhinehart.”
Grandma Claire swizzled her drink and glared at the dark TV. She sighed. “Yes, I do, honey. But Rhinehart and I had our chance a long time ago. We weren’t ready for it, and you really don’t get second chances.”
“Arrrgghh . . .”
Grandma Claire laughed. “You’re kind of silly today. Why does all this matter to you, Molly Tea Cup?”
“I just want you to be happy,” Molly said.
“But I am happy. I’ve got the perfect set up, don’t I? I see the boy I love every day. He takes care of me; I take care of him. We don’t need a marriage license for that. Plus, this way I don’t have to live with him.” She poked Molly in the ribs.
Molly wasn’t satisfied. “Yeah, but what if something happens to you?”
Grandma Claire sighed. “Something is happening to me, dearie. You know that. They’re not sure what’s wrong with me yet, and they don’t really know how to fix me. But don’t you worry; Rhinehart and I have it all worked out in case things don’t go too well.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’ve written up my will,” Grandma Claire explained. “When the time comes, Rhinehart will be sure that things are done the way I want them done.”
“But Grandma Claire,” said Molly, truly exasperated, “look. If you die, and you’re not married to anyone, what happens to me? I don’t want to be an orphan.”
“Oh, I see,” said Grandma Claire. She put her feet on the floor and turned to face Molly. “Well, what I’ve decided is that you will go to live with someone in the family. Not Rhinehart, who would be a disaster as a parent for you. Besides, a 14-year-old girl shouldn't live alone with a geezer.”
“Then who?” said Molly. “Nobody in the family even likes me.”
“Of course they like you, Molly. They love you, just like I do. You’ll see.” Grandma Claire took Molly’s hand. “Who would you rather live with? Aunt Sonia is right here in town; she might even move into this house so you wouldn’t have to change schools or anything.” Then she winked. “But living with Aunt Georgia might be a little more fun, to tell the truth.”
“Honestly, Grandma Claire,” insisted Molly. “They don’t like me. They’ve never liked me, and they say horrible things when you’re not listening. They call me Darkie, and Little Brown Orphan and worse stuff, and they talk about sending me to St. Ignatius.”
“Now stop it, Molly. That is just one of your stories, and I don’t want to hear it.”
“It is not a story!” Molly said, yanking her hand away. She stood up and faced Grandma Claire, hands on her hips. “You never believe what I tell you--not when it’s about your precious little brats!”
“Molly, control yourself,” said Grandma Claire sternly. “This conversation has gotten too silly for words. You’ll just have to trust me.”
“No, you have to trust me,” said Molly. “They hate me! Don’t leave me with those monsters!”
“Stop this!” Grandma Claire snapped. “If something happens to me before you’re of age, Molly, you will do as you’re told. End of discussion.”