Here in that state of mind known as Geezerville, Valentine’s Day is often sentimental, melancholy, and analogous to Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway of Love,” where many of us went too fast, too slow, took the wrong exit, crashed, or simply ran out of gas.
It is ironic that the last meal my stepfather and I would have alone together was on Valentine’s eve. A few months later, my parents’ brief and by then loveless marriage would end, done in by the demons of greed, deceit, and ennui. That night, Dad insisted on cooking. He had a limited repertoire of one dish—ham and eggs. But they were very good ham and eggs. He had a way with them that I could never duplicate.
As we sat at the kitchen table enjoying our sunny-side-up and porcine delights, the red wall phone rang, and Dad became irate. He bellowed, “What kind of inconsiderate idiot phones at dinner time?” That mystery was solved when he answered the phone. “Oh, hi Mama. Yeah, Gil and I are eating. What’s up? He did? He is? Oh, marrone! (Damn!) When can we see him? Tomorrow afternoon? No, I can’t go, I’ll be out of town, but I’ll send Gil, and he’ll call you. Don’t cry, Mama, Mingo’s a tough old fart, and he’ll be all right. Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow night. Bye.”
I braced myself for the bad news that was coming, and for my role in it. Dad sat down. He grimaced and said, “Uncle Mingo had another heart attack and drove himself to Alameda Hospital. He’s in intensive care tonight, but he’ll be in a recovery room tomorrow afternoon, and we want you to go and see him, because everyone else is busy.”
I felt miffed, because I was busy, too—but not too busy and selfish to help another family member. Poor Uncle Mingo. If it was Nonna Kate in the hospital, my dad would forsake everything to keep vigil at his mother’s bedside. On that gloomy Valentine’s eve, I also had no love left for my stepdad.
I was perplexed about Uncle Mingo’s sudden affliction, because two days earlier, we were mowing Nonna Kate’s lawn, and he said he felt great, and was excited about buying a brand new 18-foot fishing boat that he was getting for only $5000, including the trailer. He talked of the fun we would have that summer, cruising the estuary and trolling for striped bass at his spot near the old Fruitvale swing bridge.
On Valentine’s Day, I entered his shared room in the new west wing of Alameda Hospital. He was asleep, and I was warned by his nurse not to wake him. His doctor was on rounds and would be arriving soon. I held back tears as I looked at his thin, ashen face, which had been so happy and animated just hours before.
As I turned away, his roommate, a large, handsome man with short, curly gray hair, said, “Hey, young brother, are you Mingo’s nephew? He was talkin’ about you. He said that you was big enough to jack up those fools that ripped him off. By the way, my name’s Isaac, but folks call me Ike.”
I was stunned. “Yeah, Ike, pleased to meet you,” I answered. “I’m Gil, his nephew. What about him being ripped off?”
Ike looked contemplative, then answered my question. “When they brought him in here, he was yelling, ranting and raving ‘bout about some woman that had stolen his money and his boat, and had really taken him for a fool. He told me the whole story before they had to sedate him, because his blood pressure was off the hook.”
“So what happened?” I asked with apprehension.
Ike began his story. “Mingo said he answered an ad in the classifieds for a brand new 18-foot fishing boat and trailer, for only $5,000 cash. He was gonna bargain and offer them $4,000, but they wouldn’t budge. The couple with the boat said they were from out of town and were gonna meet him at the Linoaks Motel (where the main library is now).”
Ike continued his story. “Mingo went to the bank and got the cash, drove over to the Linoaks at 10 a.m., and saw a very pretty young woman standing near her room, smiling at him. Mingo was thinking all this old school stuff like ‘hubba hubba’ when he smiled back and parked his car. She walked to the car and asked, ‘Are you Mingo?’ Mingo answered, ‘Yeah, here to buy a boat!’ She said her name was Jenny, and she invited Mingo into her room.
“After they were in the room,” Ike went on, “she said that Kyle, her boyfriend, was over at the Alameda Marina, getting the boat into a slip so that they could all go for a test sail. Then she took out the photos. ‘Here’s the boat,’ she said, as she handed the large prints to Mingo. Mingo looked at them and said, ‘Wow, beautiful, and so is the gal in the little polka-dot bikini standing next to it.’ Jenny giggled and said, ‘That’s me, silly.’ Then Mingo jokingly asked, ‘So you come with the boat?’ Jenny smiled, tossed her hair back, and answered, ‘Well…’”
I was aghast. “Oh no!” I moaned.
“Oh yes,” Ike answered. “You want me to stop?”
“Please!” I begged. “Just tell me how he wound up here!”
Ike continued his story.
“So, by the time they were through,” he said, “Jenny had traded Mingo a bill of sale and the boat’s title for $5,000. Then the room phone rang. Jenny answered, said, “Got it,” dropped the phone handset, and just bolted from the room. Mingo tried to run out after her, but she was gone. He knew he’d been swindled. Then he started having chest pains, so he drove here, and here we are.”
I stood and spoke to Ike. “No one else can hear this story, Ike,” I said. “Not my family that’s coming later, or anyone else. I was never here. Mingo doesn’t deserve such humiliation.”
Ike nodded and said, “I understand, young brother. My wife and I got swindled back home in Lafayette, Louisiana, by a cemetery. Her daddy died, so we called this small undertaker and cemetery for the services. At the funeral, I noticed that the casket he was in had a chip in the finish. So, a year later, my momma died, and we called the same cemetery and undertaker. At her funeral, I saw the same chip in the casket. I didn’t tell my wife, ’cause I knew she’d come unglued. The undertaker eventually got caught after an attorney wanted a body exhumed, and when the grave got opened, there was no body or casket. The undertaker never buried anybody he just cremated them. The caskets got put in the grave, then dug up, cleaned up, and sold again. Ain’t that some BS? Almost as bad as Mingo’s BS.”
Then Ike looked at the clock and exclaimed, “All right, it’s four o’clock and my sweet baby will be here soon with my favorite Valentine’s Day supper. Short ribs, stuffing, collard greens, sweet potatoes, and cornbread. Lord can that woman cook! I always tell her, ‘Girl, it’s your cookin’ that’s kept this old hog rootin’ around you for 40 years.’ That woman is my life, and we got three beautiful daughters and six grandbabies to prove it.”
I felt wistful when I saw how Ikes’s face glowed when he talked about his wife and family. Ike noticed and said, “Don’t worry, young brother, someday that kind of love will find you.”
It took almost a lifetime, but it found me, here in that state of mind called Geezerville.