by David Walls-Kaufman
Liberty Island wanted a story for Halloween and what came to mind was my wonderful Grandmother Lloyd and my childhood visits with the family every year to Puerto Rico to see her. She was always a bit mysterious and more than her share of bad things piled up in her life before she died of cancer in 1980.DAVID
We never knew some things about my gentle Grandmother Loyd. She kept those things secret. Darkly secret. Black secret.
Halloween stories are ridiculous. And I say that as a man who has had probably four run-ins with ghosts, not including this one. But this all happened.
My earliest memory of her was of her sweet, loving face beaming at me when I was three and leaving with my friends to Trick or Treat down Southwood Road in Austin. She wore a 1950s pleated sleeveless, collared dress and waved goodbye to me and said, with music light as a wind-chime in her voice, “I’ll see you again after you go around.” Only years later, after the unlikely deaths in Puerto Rico around our vacation home, her old home, did the prescience in those words strike me.
My grandmother was born on the rolling Kansas prairie in the town of Ellsworth. Her father’s last name was Wolf, and he was an odd turnabout. Kind of a ghost, since he spent a lot of time away working various jobs in the 1910s. But my grandmother adored him and she knew without a doubt that the bright smile on his handsome taciturn face meant he was the sort of father that would hug his little girl all day long if he could.
But then he died when she was only four and her mother had to marry the local sheriff in the neighboring town of Black Wolf. This sheriff was a widower with two small kids his own, a boy and girl, that he already didn’t much care for. Turns out, the sheriff was a bastard to all, my grandmother in particular. Anyway, something terrible happened at Christmas, something so awful my grandmother would go dark over it, saying not a word. The thing was terrible enough that Christmas was ruined for her every year after for the rest of her life.
She was a pretty girl and bright at school, but her home-life with the sheriff shooed the smile permanently from her fine features. You can see this in the only picture of her. Only one photo. How many snapshots do you take of your kids?
My mom later after my grandmother died went into the county records and tracked down this stepbrother of my grandmother. Grandmother Loyd told us he had run away from home at age 12 or maybe 13, which would have been 1917 or so. “Yes,” he told my mother over the phone, in 1990, “I run off at 13. My father was bad. Things were rough for your mother. She was nice, and to her he was especially rotten.” My mother never asked for specifics. People from Kansas wouldn’t. My mom was too afraid to really learn what might have happened to my wonderful Grandmother Loyd.
She shined in my eyes. Her tenderness, her love, the way she tipped forward and laid her hand over her heart when she laughed as if to keep it from spilling out, I have never forgotten. How she beamed the nights we flew in to Puerto Rico. How could anything have really gone wrong in the life of such a happy, loving woman? And her generosity. Like when my parents had difficulty buying the house of their dreams and my grandmother gave them a Christmas envelop with a $5,000 check for the down payment. A fortune in 1970. My step-grandfather, Breedlove, put no hand in that. That was her money. Money from her Aunt Gert.
Grandmother Loyd I think maybe thought I was gay because I loved art so much and was so good at it that once my whole second grade class gathered over my shoulder to watch me draw a herd of horses descending a path along a waterfall. I was nine years old when she told me about her closest little friend back in Black Wolf, a playful boy that she knew even then something was “different” about him. Out of the blue she told me about him. I knew she loved him. I was nine. I didn’t know what a homosexual was, and she never mentioned the word, but all these years later I know what she was telling me—“If you’re different that way, it’s okay.”
Anyway, that poor little boy died of blood poisoning after the kids were teasing him and chased him into a fall-down old building and he got injured somehow and the infection ran away and took his life within two weeks. That night, over my first cup of coffee-milk at my child’s red vinyl folding-table, with grandmother in my room, I saw hurt crowd behind her eyes. I wish I had been older to go into the pain with her.
My grandmother married young to my Granddaddy Howard. I loved him to death too. The quietest, shyest man that ever drew breath. More shadow than man, that way. The whole world scared him so much that, even so young, I was saddened how little ambition he had. He sold paper products out of a series of ancient trucks that changed model every few years I visited him in Wichita. I drove all around central Kansas with him selling a roll of adding machine paper here, a roll of price machine paper there, 25c at a time. How did he ever make a living? He never stopped traveling the road selling paper products from his jumbled hoarder’s warehouse that was formerly a diner he rented in Great Bend.
My grandmother felt he was drifting away from her after they had two children and this saddened and mystified her until she found a desperate love letter in the pocket of his drab-smelling plaid wool blazer. A lady told him she loved him and how gentle his love-making was and how she counted minutes for him coming back to Hays.
My Grandmother Loyd put down the letter and packed up the two kids and left the house and drove straight away to Laredo, Texas. They went so far because my grandmother’s sheriff stepfather had left her in the hard cold one day when she was so young with her tender small fingers. She got so severely frostbitten that her hands suffered Raynaud’s Syndrome every year ever after. Her hands became as useless as porcelain and she shivered in a shawl until the attack passed. His betrayal shut her off of Kansas. She never returned except when her rich Aunt Gert died and she came back for her share of the estate. But she arrived to find that her ex-father-in-law, the banker, and his friends, had cut up the estate among themselves so that my grandmother received little of what Aunt Gert meant her to get of thousands of acres covered with Donkey-pumps bringing up Kansas sweet crude all day long. She took what was left that they said was perfectly fair and never went farther north than Laredo ever again.
Back in Laredo, she met an Air Force Lieutenant named Breedlove, a Texan, because only Texans are ever named Breedlove. He himself was a divorce who had left his wife and young daughter. They married, and in 1955, Breedlove was transferred to Ramey Air Force Base in Puerto Rico with a golf course by the sea that was Eisenhower’s favorite in the whole world. They built a Frank Lloyd Wright house off-base on five acres over a limestone cliff on the shore. The long peninsula of Rincon swept to the left with the lights of Aguadilla harbor twinkling along it, where legend says Columbus landed for fresh water flowing out of the lumpy green hills.
My grandmother’s Aunt Gert money bought the Finca, the farm, since Breedlove’s civil servant salary didn’t reach that far. My grandmother’s passion was art and Frank Lloyd Wright. The low slung, one-story house with glass cubes in the ceiling let in natural light and she surrounded it with sea grape and orchids. The architect warned them to build far back from the cliff because the rust-red soil and limestone couldn’t be trusted. The patios looked out at Rincon and, straight out, the shark tooth island named Desecheo, or Goat Island, where pirates buried treasure and left goats so the pirates could hunt fresh meat.
We went every year and stayed a month each visit. Grandmother’s Finca was paradise. We crawled down the cliff to the rocky beach and never saw anyone besides local fishermen at the crack of dawn because Puerto Ricans in those days never swam. The sea was a grocery store, not a place of recreation.
Each wave at the base of the cliff made a tiny ground-shake that suggested the graceful power of the ocean. I remember cocktail hour for the adults being a respite of rum and fresh lime from the garden, and sunset reaching across grandmother’s perfect repose through the redwood slats into the house. And the lovely stray dog as gentle as my grandmother was, that she named Plumy, for the long white fur on her tail. The Finca became grandmother’s redoubt to make her stand against cancer after her diagnosis in 1960. She had to be strong back then to tell doctors no to chemotherapy. Instead, she fought with her diet, and so she ordered much of her food from Walnut Acres in Vermont. She was the first person I knew to fight cancer naturally. She did fine until the late 1970s. Then she started losing weight, her chest collapsed. Cancer had greedily returned.
Cancer’s return marked another bruise to her life at the time. Dear Plumy was poisoned by local boys with eyes on the Finca when we drove seven hours to San Juan. Finding Plumy’s limp stiff body in the grass by the avocado trees stung my grandmother so badly that I heard her breath catch. She swayed, I think. I could see her fury over the waste, the cruelty. Her health worsened. Breedlove reconnoitered a gravesite for the two of them at a cemetery by the ocean in Old San Juan.
“Oh, Mommy,” Breedlove enthused when he returned to the Finca. “It’s such a perfect spot. The ocean. Sunset. Beautiful! You’ll be so happy there.” Breedlove was well over six feet, straight as a mast, with a crew cut and pencil mustache. His speech pattern and gestures effused a distinctive emphatic rhythm that made every Puerto Rican upon meeting him ask, “—Are you Cuban?”
“Oh, Breedlove!” my grandmother mocked him, putting her hand over her sunken rib cage. “I can hardly wait!”
My mom was there and laughed with her. Breedlove never got the joke.
Crime on the island grew infamously worse. Each year, I watched bars put on balconies climb a story higher on a certain San Juan apartment complex we always passed from the airport. Bars on that apartment building became my barometer for island crime. My last trip back for a while, when I was fourteen, bars reached to the fifth floor. I took this to mean that desperados were scaling five stories up to bust into apartments. When I came back again fifteen years later, the balconies were barred all the way up to the top floor. On that trip I came back to try to talk my mom out of selling her share of grandmother’s properties to Breedlove and his new wife, Virginia, whose greed knew no sentiment even when family was involved.
Grandmother Loyd died in 1980. I couldn’t believe Breedlove had not told us she was this far gone so that we could come say goodbye. I hadn’t seen her in six years. She deserved to have her two grandchildren snuggled by her side to weep and tell her how she was the best grandma that ever lived. Breedlove brusquely told us he would have no funeral. “Because all her friends are gone.” We were appalled. How could he behave like this? I don’t really know how my mom took all this upset. I was away in Iowa at college and I was never much for communication.
As I said, I came back with mom in 1985 when Breedlove wanted to buy out her and my uncle’s interests in both the Finca and the Spanish plantation-style townhouse in Old San Juan, also purchased with grandmother’s Aunt Gert money. I begged mom not to sell. The upsetting thing was that Puerto Rico has the Napoleonic Code. This misogynist decree prohibits the wife from dividing her estate as she wants, even if it’s all her money. All goes to the husband—though the reciprocal is not true if the husband dies first. All other parties receive no more than 1/8th of the estate split between them. Grandmother was not happy with Breedlove by the end, nor with this legal snare. Breedlove had already begun seeing Virginia. So my mother and Uncle Tim only received 1/16th apiece. To make matters uglier, in 1985, Breedlove sat with my mom and I at the bar of the La Mallorquina lunch counter in Old San Juan, a restaurant rich with family memories, and Breedlove went Rambo on my mom, his stepdaughter since she was nine, pounding out of her every last penny he could.
“Don’t worry about it,” my mom consoled me, “Breedlove is only doing it to consolidate the estate for Virginia.”
This grasping, childless Puerto Rican spinster turned out to be devoted to her nephew, a child of privilege my own age. I pleaded with mom to hold out so that we had a tie to the Finca and also, frankly, to haggle with Virginia and Breedlove from a position of strength over consolidating grandmother’s estate. But this was the first my mom showed her spendthrift tendency, and I’m sure Grandmother Loyd spun in her grave over that too. Grandmother had seen what Aunt Gert left her plundered by the Ellsworth Chamber of Commerce, and now Breedlove, with blood and grandmother counting for absolutely nothing to him. The whole business was so disgusting.
Grandmother Loyd was indeed buried in the cemetery by the sea. But she would be there on her lonesome after Breedlove informed us by letter that he would instead be buried with Virginia. That killed me. Grandmother, out there alone. My feelings involuted in ways that made me imagine I could channel my grandmother and her anger. Of course, this was sentimental nonsense except for my own judgment of Breedlove’s weakness.
So, Breedlove skinned mom, and mom soon burned through the little bit of Aunt Gert’s money that fell to her. Had I known how fast she was spending I would have implored that she keep some aside. One of the most painful experiences must be seeing your parents handle their monetary affairs so much more irresponsibly than you would.
Breedlove rented the Finca to a lady doctor who ran a Medicaid mill and the woman let the property go to seed. A chain link fence for her dog glinted around the Frank Lloyd Wright house, and flies and dog shit smell abounded. Then Breedlove sold the Finca for $400K to a Puerto Rican Medicaid neurologist named Pamela Ruiz whom no one in the village could stand, and who’s husband had already made two suicide attempts. Why had Breedlove sold? Why didn’t he ask if the family wanted to buy it? Ruiz’s architect drew up plans for a grand three-story rococo palazzo spanning from grandmother’s house to scant feet from the cliff. The palazzo’s corner turret left only a hair’s breadth to the drop-off over the surf-strewn rocks below. Looking down from the Italianate turret was a camera shot straight out of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Wrecking crews walked over Plumy’s grave by grandmother’s old vegetable garden and applied the wrecking ball to the concrete post and lintel frame Breedlove had built with the help of a boy, Manolo, from the village, who stayed with grandmother loyally to the last. Say what I might about Breedlove, his concretework didn’t budge. Ruiz had to call in her San Juan architect, and he could not believe she lacked the taste to see that she should have expanded on the Frank Lloyd Wright concept rather than put her palazzo on top of it.
“I didn’t know this was here!” He looked at her with open incredulity.
He informed her that, since grandmother’s house could not be razed without dynamite, they needed to incorporate the footprint into the palazzo. And so, grandmother’s house stuck halfway out, at an angle, her garage providing the same service for the palazzo, as the palazzo went up like a sand castle with Roman columns and arches. Dark, empty and pointless, the Frank Lloyd Wright house looked like a hernia someone forgot to remove. I slept in grandmother’s bed that October in the late 1990s when I came down for my cousin’s wedding. The exquisite, hand-carved redwood headboard was still in place, a lovely hybrid style between Craftsman and Scandinavian. But the headboard and so many other choice details in the house showed cigarette burns and carved initials from Ruiz’s bong-smoking kids and their friends. The conditions reminded me of a story a friend told who worked at the car dealership where Mike Tyson serviced his cars, and how the burled elm in the consoles of Tyson’s Rolls Royces were defaced by a pen knife.
That night, I saw every pore and delicate silver hair on my grandmother’s face stand out in eery close-up. Her Mamie Eisenhower bob, her narrow lips, always smiling in the old days, now were pursed in grim violation. But her eyes. Her eyes were the thing: the warm blue eyes were removed and in the sockets instead hung two stones the size and color of golf balls. They stared unblinking at all that had been done to her in her life, and to all the things she tried so hard to make beautiful and comforting. I saw through her eyes what savages we were. I saw the garbage and treachery people she loved brought to all her efforts to soften a life that could be so bitter without people like her. I saw her fury. I shared it, even as I felt ashamed to claim that I had been helpless to stop any of it. I saw the flame of hate in those cold stones for all the clumsy hands that had smeared palm prints over the many art pieces of her injured life.
The stone-eyes woke me in the cave dark of one house consumed by another. I sensed trouble was coming because somehow she was going to reach across.
That week Dr. Ruiz became a perfect bitch to us again, treating us like the poor relations trying to horn on her Finca. Millie had tried her best to make friends and keep open the lines of communication so that we could stop by if we were on the island. Millie also told me of Breedlove and Virginia throwing out all the treasures from our past in the San Juan house. Like the charcoal study of an old pine tree I gave grandmother that thrilled her because we both knew this was one of my best. Millie remembered the piece and saw my signature and snatched for the frame, but Carlos suspected something was up and thought the work must be from an artist he could make a buck off of. Millie tried to tell him the story behind the sketch but he wouldn’t believe her.
My cousin’s wedding was Halloween week. That night, my dream of grandmother came back, as well as Dr. Ruiz’s story to me about how she saw one day how fast her kids were growing up. Then she realized it wasn’t her kids, it was that her posture was collapsing because her spine bones were so softened by too many cortisone shots for her back pain. I couldn’t get the images out of my head. And the next day, in the cave of grandmother’s house, odd things happened. Like the living room bookcases trembling when my eye fell on grandmother’s favorite book—a photo collection of black and white snapshots from old Puerto Rico. Then the chair trembling under me when I sat down to look through the book. And then Granddaddy Howard’s old Army fatigue jacket from the War hanging in the closet where nobody ever touched it. The front was slashed to ribbons as if by an old fashioned razor. Millie would find out later that the Ruiz kids insisted this was not their vandalism.
After everyone but me returned home, things got really crazy.
On Halloween eve, Ruiz went into the hospital at Ramey. Her spine had collapsed again. I felt badly for her and went by the hospital to say thanks for letting me stay in the house. The nurses told me that her husband had thrown himself from the turret onto the rocks. He was still alive in another room. She was heavily sedated and the nurses let me look in. She was out of it, slumped forward like the neck of a squash in an utterly gruesome looking body brace with spokes into her head.
How Ruiz’s husband survived his leap makes no sense given the height. And that night, Halloween, back at the Finca, a storm blew in and threw waves against the cliff where he fell like none I’d ever heard or felt before. And on the spot where he had lain when they picked him up in a row boat not a few hours before, the whole cliff came crashing down, taking most of Ruiz’s Medicaid-built palazzo with it. In the storm, the sound came like the crash of an ancient tree or a thunder clap.
I woke to the perfect calm of the next day, and the sun blazed again on the windows and doors on the side of the house covered by the palazzo. In amazement, I opened the old patio doors and stood on what remained of the Finca cliff looking upon the white and black marble rubble below, resembling pieces of a broken chess board. The view from the house looked the same from our childhood days. Rincon, Desecheo, Aguadilla Bay, where a tidal wave made landfall 150 years ago and wiped out the entire town. My eye took in the familiar landmarks, but something was different: To my right on the turquoise water, the shining bodies of maybe fifty surfers curled over the lips of waves.
I had time before my flight, and something made me go back to the hospital. I found the nurses gathered at the door of Dr. Ruiz’s room. They stared in, touching their mouths. One of them wept. I noticed blood splashed high on the walls behind her bed where she was now pancaked flat, the head spokes on her knees. It looked like an explosion.
On my flight home, my paralyzed thoughts stared at what I’d seen: The wall. The nurses. The husband on beeping life support. Him maybe smiling when I stood in his room with pity on my face.
The rest we learned of a month after I got home. Mom got an odd call from Breedlove’s cemetery. Mom’s Spanish was a problem, but the caretaker’s office explained they had sent a bill for repairs to Breedlove’s and Virginia’s gravesite. Either the storm or vandals knocked over the twin grave markers and partly leveraged up both coffins so that the embalmed bodies were exposed. The office apologized for the inconvenience. No other graves were disturbed.
Millie went to San Juan to check on things. She said grandmother’s grave was fine, looking out to the sea.