The Costume Party
by K.D. Alter
My Uncle Bobby likes to say if you live long enough you’ll see everything, but I never thought I’d live long enough to see a 60-year-old man, ex-military at that, yelling “Go f— yourself!” to his wife’s folks who’re in their eighties or nineties maybe who stood there trembling like kittens. Duke was mad as hell on account the folks were asking him and Charlene to move off the ranch and he’d gotten into telling himself this was his place and not theirs. When they told Charlene (who the folks call Charm, and not sarcastic) she began hollering and storming about the place knocking things over, including some relics Grandpappy brought from Korea when he was in the service. When they walked out, Duke cornered them and stood about a foot away cussing their faces off. Grandpappy is still half a head taller than Duke but that doesn’t make a difference when you’re like 90.
Duke’s not his real name but Jean, but that name doesn’t fit his hat, boots, or 4 x 4 Ram 2500 Laramie with the jacked-up suspension which he bought off Ray Santos for a thousand bucks because Ray’s old lady left the windows down when they went away for a week and it rained every day and the truck got molded out. Duke spent all summer stripping and changing out the inside. He didn’t lower it down though, even though he’s always saying only a moron would jack it up that high. That and the driver’s door is jammed so you have to climb in from the other side. But Duke seems to like sitting up there. Maybe also he keeps it that way to keep Charlene from driving it because she has a hard time climbing up into it. I offered Charlene to fix it once and when Duke heard he took me out behind the barn and said, “You ever do that again and I’ll rip off your head and shit down your neck.”
I personally think the folks might’ve had better sense than to lay the news right to their face but could’ve called from Reno where they live most of the time. Right now, they were stuck out by the redwoods Grandpappy planted when he was a kid and I heard Grandma’s words choking in the wind, “I can’t take this, Henry.” Grandpappy was standing looking like he was trying to solve an arithmetic problem but Grandma was pink in the face, scared and angry and sorry all at the same time. The wind was blowing like mad and Grandma’s cape was flapping around like a tarp. Even Admiral, which is Duke and Charlene’s Newfie, was steering clear. He’s old and wise and can sense a bad situation.
Now I’m just the hired man and I’ve been told it’s not my place to butt in, but when I saw the folks standing so pitiful and Duke stomping around, I picked up a fitting I was working on and jammed it in the wrong way and went up to Duke to ask if he could help me set it right. I knew he’d yell at me, so I made myself goofy and I walked right up and held out the fitting and I go, “I know you’re busy but could you undo this thing because otherwise my whole hour’s ruined.” There’s nothing in this world Duke hates more than a wasted hour. It’s the folks’ money but he still can’t help himself. Sure thing he fell for it, his goatee getting right in the grease because his jaw does this funny back and forth on account of his Parkinson’s. The folks turned around and ran back in the house.
Duke and Charlene’ve been living up here since their house got foreclosed down in Orange County. From what I heard, they lived for two years rent free even though they could afford to pay, but the house got under water so they just stayed until the sheriff came and hauled them out. I’d sooner live under a bridge than in a house with a foreclosure sign on it, it’s a kind of disrespect to yourself. But Duke’s a skinflint and never misses an opportunity to get something for nothing. Charlene goes to the food pantry every week for groceries. When she pulls up in her 2010 5.7 liter Sequoia when everyone else is in some pathetic beater truck, she tells them it’s not for her. But she just brings it all home and then ends up throwing half of it out. Sometimes she offers some to me and Cherry, but we never take any.
After they got chucked out of Orange County Charlene begged the folks to let her stay up here. The folks agreed to it and moved out of the ranch house where they lived 22 years and they set up to stay down in the bunkhouse which was never really a bunkhouse but a single-wide that they busted out with an extra room and faced with old lumber so that it looked like a regular house and pretty nice at that. The ranch house is sweet but apart from the extra bedroom the folks added it’s just an old shotgun and it’s always a question about whether it’s better to put lipstick on the pig or tear it down and start over. The place holds lots of memories so they poured money into it over the years and it was pretty generous of them to move out to let Charm and Duke and Chatamoise (pronounced Shamwah), their daughter, move in. Grandpappy worked as a radar engineer for the military in LA until they retired up here full time. Grandpappy kept his souvenirs and photography stuff down at the bunkhouse and figured that’s where he’d work on them so they might as well move down there. That’s the same time they bought a second place in Reno so they could be near doctors.
Charlene’s main hobby in Orange County was going to estate sales and they never throwed anything out so they had literally a ton of dead people’s shit. The military moved it all up here for free. There’s lots of free things you get being ex-military people don’t know about. All I ever hear is vets bitching about their medical benefits, but in my opinion they’ve got it pretty sweet. Duke and Charlene are always running to the VA in Yuba. Charlene stockpiles all the medicine they give her. When me and Cherry go to the clinic we wait all day and only get a nurse who looks at us for like a minute and then ends up giving us antibiotics or painkillers no matter what we come in for. Anyway, when they came up here they didn’t have place for their stuff so they sold every stick of the folks’ furnitures in the ranch house, took down the pictures, filled it with their stuff and settled in like it was theirs all along.
Grandpappy’ folks were dust bowlers who came to California back in the day and though their furnitures weren’t fancy I could see why they’d be sentimental over seeing it all sold off for pretty much nothing. When they found out they went over to Jenna Ruth’s in town to try to buy it all back but most of it was gone already. I wouldn’t of blamed them for being mad as hell but Charm’s their only kid, or the only living one anyway since there was a brother who died young. The folks just sucked it up. They started spending most of their time in Reno.
Around that same time their old hand Devin died of hepatitis and they hired me to look after the place. Duke and Charm could’ve done it, but they don’t like to work. I heard them say to the folks lots of times, “You’re not gonna turn us into Devin.” Other times they call Devin a drunk and a bum. That’s not right because it’s Duke and Charm who’re lazy, watching TV and complaining how they don’t have any place for their stuff. Devin drank too much maybe but he did good work and they’re not half the man he was.
I bring lots of ideas to Duke and Charm about how to make money, sure-fire things like selling firewood, which’d also help against forest fires, or growing garlic—I know a guy up here makes 17 thousand an acre on garlic. I’d do all the work because I can cut trees, run cattle or farm in my sleep. But every time I bring something up they keep saying, “Oh no! That’d be too much work.” My theory is they got plenty of money because the folks pay for every lick up here and they’ve got pension and disability besides. Every time I pick up the mail there’s a check in it.
What changed was last summer when Grandma’s cousin came up from LA and set looking through the books and telling the folks they can’t afford to keep supporting “the kids”. I only know what I picked up from conversation here and there when I was walking around and the windows were open because it was summer, but something I heard the cousin saying is why can’t Charlene ever get a job because she never worked a day in her life and Duke’s been retired since he’s 39 when he finished his twenty in the navy.
It made perfect sense to me but Grandma especially kept crying how it was her fault and how they couldn’t just throw her Charmy off. They worried about where would Chatamois go. Chatamois’s twenty-one. She quit school when her folks came to live up here and she’s hardly ever off the hill. She doesn’t even know anyone, except for maybe me and a couple of the hippies who moved up here to grow weed. She hardly leaves the place except to go to the Red Bear to pick up smokes. She and her mom pretty much live in front of the TV. It’s a bone of contention between Duke and Charlene, him saying it’s no good for a girl to be stuck on her mom that way. I’m with him on this one, even though I also feel bad for Charlene. Chatamois’s her only friend in the world and Charlene won’t let her go.
I don’t mind talking to Chatamois, sometimes we go to the outdoor kitchen to smoke a J. She’s smart and sorta pretty too, but after a while she makes me feel uncomfortable because no matter who or what she’s always getting sexual. I got my old lady and I’m not interested in the least but I’ve seen Chatamois pull her shorts over her crotch right in front of Grandpappy, making like she was getting out an itch, but I could see she was enjoying his uncomfort and she was smiling and licking her teeth at me the whole time. I don’t want to look either but when I get fascinated by something I can’t help myself and the look she had on her face seeing Pappy fidget and look off like he was trying to solve a science problem in another universe is a sight my mind won’t let go of soon.
Anyway, after a fight at Christmas over the popovers when Grandma asked Duke to quit eating all the popovers before the meal and he and Charlene stormed out over it, I guess something clicked and the folks decided after all to ask Duke and Charlene to move out. They told them they had a year to do it, which in my opinion was as good as not asking them at all, but that’s what they did. I already told you about what happened on the day they told them. After the folks packed off I left too so I wouldn’t get interrogated by Duke about what the folks were saying in the house because he’s always asking me who said what about them and then making me swear not to repeat anything they say or do.
Charlene told Duke to quit worrying because the folks would change their mind. Eventually the ranch would come to them. Not that that would guarantee Duke’s security because Charm’s always threatening that as soon as she has the deed she’s going to find a new husband who doesn’t piss off the porch and have Parkinson’s. Charm’s a real piece of work all right. Grandma told me that when Charm was a baby she used to spread her poop all over the sofa. She also said, and she made me promise never to repeat it, that their son Eric, the one that died in high school, was really their favorite. It made me tear up to hear her say it, especially because the chances are Charlene knows it too, but that’s how families go on, I suppose.
Soon enough they all went back to drinking cocktails together, plastered and forgetting each other’s sins. No one ever mentioned Duke and Charm leaving again.
Until Halloween. I remember the day exactly because the folks invited me and Cherry for dinner down at the bunkhouse to celebrate. Halloween must be the family’s favorite holiday, because even though there’s nobody else to see it they decorate the bejesus out of the place. This year they went crazier than ever. Everywhere outside was blow-up monsters with lights and witch’s laughs coming out of them, skulls and bones, tombstones and a hanging mummy that really could scare you. Everything was even scarier because the wind was blowing like mad and the ghouls were straining at their ropes, leaping at us on our way to the door. Admiral wouldn’t even come near the place but stood about fifty feet out barking his brains out and looking like he couldn’t figure out why we weren’t out there with him. Inside you had to walk through cotton spider webs, rats with red eyes lit up and jerking all over the floor, and hanging from the chandelier was a canvas sack with a foot sticking out of it that twitched. I swear they must’ve spent a thousand bucks on decorations.
Grandma told me and Cherry to dress up. “Make sure you bring the right costume,” she said. I was too embarrassed to ask what she meant because Cherry and me’d never been to a costume party before. Cherry’s good at the sewing machine though and she fixed us up, me as a lumberjack, which isn’t that much of a costume once you think about it, and she dug up some of her gramma’s clothes and came as a country maid like from the 1980s. I brought an old axe I’d dug up the head to on a job over in Rackerby and I carved a handle for it.
Duke came as a Viking with a fur coat that went all the way to the ground and a plastic helmet with two horns. He also carried a shield and instead of an axe he brought a chainsaw. Me and him kidded around that we should trade tools but then we didn’t. Charlene came as a Mother Superior, with a habit, only with a joke crucifix that was about a foot long and jelly bean prayer beads. Cherry’s Catholic and whispered to me she was offended but I told her it’s all pretend and she should just make believe it’s funny but she said she couldn’t.
Grandpappy’ outfit was wild. He was the headless horseman, with a bloody stump made from a real pork chop at the top and holding his own head at an angle in front of his chest. He was about seven feet tall. I still can’t figure out how he got his head to stay at that angle. When he wasn’t using his hands he kept them around his head like it was someone else holding it. Cherry got pictures of it on her phone. Grandma came in wearing a homemade spider skirt that might’ve looked better on someone fifty years younger but she was kinda cute anyway once you got out of the habit of accidentally looking at her legs. She had cotton candy webs that she’d pick off with her fingers and eat.
Pappy is in his favorite mood when he’s fixing cocktails and even Charlene was helping in the kitchen. Me and Cherry were in a good mood too on account we had amazing news. I know Cherry didn’t want me to jinx it by telling too early but after one of those Moscow Mules Grandpappy makes I blurted out to everyone that Cherry and me were going to be parents. Everyone started clapping and laughing and I felt all warm toward the whole family, even to Charlene who hugged me and I could smell how loaded she was. She’s a happy drunk, which isn’t that much of a surprise because people usually become their own opposites when they’ve had a few. Duke shook my hand and said being a Dad was the best thing you could be in this world and he hoped for me it was a boy because looking after a girl was a full-time job. Chatamois, who acourse was dressed like a prostitute, went “Oh Daddy!” while pushing her tits up real flirtatious and everyone laughed the way you’re supposed to in a family and everything felt happy, if also a little weird.
Just when everything was cheery and I was hoping the family was finally healed, everything went to hell. I’ll tell it like I experienced it and then you’ll know how it happened.
Grandma made a cake for her birthday because it’s on November 2nd. Everyone was so merry she said why don’t we have dessert first for a change and she took the cake out and everyone sang Happy Birthday. Then outta nowhere Charlene started screaming at her mom that all this waiting was making Duke sick because he needed to eat on time on account of his Parkinson’s. Sure enough, Duke was sitting in one of the easy chairs staring off like he was a Viking who died with his eyes open, though I swear that two minutes before he was singing Happy Birthday with the best of them. He still had the chainsaw on his lap.
Well, Grandma told Charm that she could’ve just gone anytime and fed her husband because it was her job to. Charm narrowed her eyes in a way that always chills my spine when I see it and said, “You don’t give a rat’s ass about Jean or me but only yourself.”
Grandma said, “Don’t you dare talk to me like that,” and then something like “You wanna blame me but the truth is you never feed that poor man when he needs it so you’ve got nerve coming to my house blaming me.”
The way she said my house told the whole story.
Charm looked like she was deciding whether to walk out or not. I was standing there waiting to see what would happen next but Cherry’s smarter than me, at least when it comes to people, and she said, “This has been really nice but I think we’d better be going,” and she took my arm.
Now Grandpappy was standing in the kitchen the whole time nursing his drink and trying not to get killed like an innocent bystander. “No one’s going anywhere. This is a celebration and it’s not getting ruined by anybody’s bad temper!” he said, and he was staring right at Charlene when he said it. Charm looked like she might cry because Pappy is usually sweet on her. “Everyone sit down!” he went on, and then he turned to Cherry saying he and Grandma had a gift for her and for our new baby and he wanted us to turn around so he could get it and it’d be a happy surprise.
Charlene forgot all about Duke who seemed to be wearing his so-called Parkinson’s mask for real this time, but Chatamois was in the kitchen fixing a pile of gravy ham for her dad and told him to hang in there. That perked him up a bit and he started drinking his Mule again. I leaned over and said maybe he ought to wait for the food because drinking on an empty stomach can make you sick and a lot of times when you’re taking medicine for your brain you’re not supposed to drink alcohol in the first place. Duke just said “Jackass” through his teeth. I joined my wife and turned around toward the kitchen with our backs to the bookcase like Grandpappy asked us to. I was feeling uncomfortable, I don’t like accepting gifts in the first place, but Cherry took my arm and I waited and smiled at Grandma who was sitting in the other big chair with her feet up cradling her drink on her round spider belly, breathing deep and not really smiling.
Cherry asked Grandma if she was okay and Grandma gave a weak smile and said, “Don’t look, Sweetheart.”
Now I know the folks keep a lot of cash hidden in a fake book they have which is a good hiding place because they have more books than a library and you’d have to spend all day finding the one that’s got the money in it, and that’s if you knew money was in one of them in the first place. I knew it was the cash they were going for when Cherry and me turned around.
We stayed turned around smiling until I heard a giant “What??!!” from Grandpappy. Grandma bugged her eyes out and her drink fell off her lap. Cherry bent down to clean up the mess. She reached to take Grandma’s hand, saying “Grandma, are you okay?” but Grandma took back her hand and didn’t say anything.
I figured it was okay to turn around and what I saw was Grandpappy holding the fake book with the flap hanging down at the same angle as his head and he said, all sober, like in a kind of church voice, “There was nearly forty thousand dollars in here.”
The whole place was like a bomb had gone off and no one could move. Everyone was looking at everyone else but more at me than anyone.
All I could think about was how when the well stopped working a couple of months ago and it was an emergency and Duke called Grandpappy in Reno saying they needed cash right away to pay the guy from the pump company, the two of us were in the bunkhouse and Duke went to the money book and he saw that I saw. I made like I wasn’t looking but he told me right then and there that if there was ever money missing he’d know who stole it. I told him to hide it somewhere else because I didn’t want to get accused and he just said he would and I never thought about it again until Halloween when the money was gone and I could see from where Grandpappy was standing and the empty place in the shelf that it never did move. Duke said, “Well, Carl, where’s the money?”
Now I’m the first to understand that blood’s thicker than water even when the blood is bad, and as soon as he said that I knew the folks weren’t going to be blaming Duke but me and I just stood there and went, “No way! Nobody’s pinning this on me.”
Grandpappy said, “No one’s blaming anybody—yet. Now’s just about figuring out where it is and putting it back because that’s a lifetime of savings and no one here wants to bring Grandma and me that kind of suffering.”
“Maybe you took it to Reno?” Charlene said.
I think maybe Grandma could’ve thought a little harder before she yelled back, “Why are you always treating us like we’re a buncha doddering old fools?” And then there was another long fight I won’t repeat because it gets boring after a while everyone saying the same stupid stuff. But I’ll say it was pretty hurtful because Charm accused her mom of never letting go of her dead brother and that after forty years she still loved him more than her. Grandma and Pappy both cried for a while and Grandma even said she wished she was dead. It was heartbreaking just to be there and I’m not even part of the family. Everyone except maybe me and Cherry seemed to forget about the money. But even though I’d of rather been anywhere else but there, I knew there was no way I could just say, “All right everyone, Happy Halloween, Cherry and me are leaving.”
It was a real brainteaser about the money because I knew I didn’t take it but to be perfectly honest I didn’t think Duke or Charm did either. Not that they don’t steal all the time but their routine is to do it only a little at a time so you can never pin it on them. And almost for sure Chatamois didn’t take it because she loves her gramma and grampa too much. When Charlene was making Grandma cry, Chatamois climbed into her lap to make her feel better and that stopped the fight. Charlene growled at her like a bear but Chatamois just dug her face into Grandma’s shoulder and she had to quit. Right now Chatamois was back in the kitchen poking the ice in her drink with her finger, looking bored like she’d been through all this before.
Grandpappy said we’d all better go looking for the money.
Acourse everyone knew there wasn’t much point looking for it in the house. No one would take it all out and put it somewhere else in the same house by accident. But we all went looking anyway because if we didn’t then all there’d be left to do was stand around pointing fingers at each other and not even Charlene seemed in the mood for it though she kept looking daggers at me.
Grandma didn’t get up but just stared like she was in the front seat of the firetruck watching her own house burn down. She kept saying “We’re ruined.” And Grandpappy also said like five times, “We’ll have to sell the ranch.”
It wasn’t maybe ten minutes again before Charlene yelled out, her face red and her arms stiff like she was filling her diaper, “This is bullshit! It’s obvious Carl took the money so why’re we putting on this charade? That imbecile’s always snooping around and he knows damn well where the money is.”
Then Duke got up like he was going to punch me or something (which is of course a laugh) and said that’s it he was coming over to my place right now to look for the money.
I knew I had to keep my cool because even though I never took the money, if I got all angry it would look like I was getting defensive. So I go, “You can come over and search my place for as long and hard as you like. But in my opinion,” I said to the folks, “I think you took the money to Reno and forgot. I’m going home now. Duke’s welcome to follow me home and spend all night looking to his heart’s content. If he finds any more than fifty bucks he can keep it. You people are crazy and I quit.”
Neither Grandma or Pappy said a word as me and Cherry were getting our coats. Duke wasn’t going to follow me home. Even if I did steal the money he’d never know where to look for it, and it wouldn’t of been my fault if my dogs tore his nuts off either.
Well now I’ll tell you a happy ending because that’s what you’d need to hear right around now.
Grandma and Pappy went back to Reno the next morning and sure enough they found not forty but forty-two thousand in a paper bag. Grandma remembered when she saw it that she took it last time they went to Reno. They felt bad about not trusting me and called to ask if I’d come back and work for them and how did a pay raise to twelve bucks sound. I said I’d never work for Duke and Charlene because they were plain nasty and I know they’d never move off the place and the folks would never make them.
I don’t usually say everything I’m thinking but that time I did. Grandma said I had every right to be mad but Charm was their only daughter. Every time they crossed her she didn’t speak to them for a year. Now when they weren’t long for this world, they couldn’t afford it. They weren’t going to sell the ranch because it was too much trouble and also Grandpappy wanted to be buried on the ranch near his folks and Eric. They still needed me and hoped I’d come back. They even said they’d give me thirteen an hour as a bonus for having to deal with Duke and Charlene.
I thanked them but said they’d have to find someone else because not even fifty bucks an hour would be enough to work for those people. I said I’m sure they could find someone because everyone is looking for work in these parts and I was planning on thinking of leaving the area anyway. Grandma told me she’d recommend me to anyone who asked. And you know what? About a week later I got a card from them in the mail with a money order for two hundred fifty hundred dollars for our baby’s college fund. I knew I never wanted to work for the family again, but like my Uncle Bobby also says, everything’s good that ends good, and I’m glad because as long as I live I never want to hold a grudge.
K.D. Alter lives in the United States. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org