We don’t know where my Grandpa Julius is. He didn’t answer when we knocked on his door, Room 217 of the Chula Vista Holiday Inn. The desk clerk, an old white lady who’s only talking because Molly’s asking the questions, is ringing his room. Molly’s miffed with me. She gives me the quick sidelong glances that say Why am I the only one who ever talks when we’re dealing with clerks or cashiers? She doesn’t know how this old lady looked at me when we came in, like she’d already dialed six of the seven numbers for the cops and was just waiting for me to make one wrong move or say one wrong thing to dial the seventh. The last time I told her that, she asked if maybe I was being paranoid. I said, “Remember how mad you got when you told me about that movie director you picked up from the airport to take to the lecture who hit on you, and I said maybe he wasn’t? We didn’t talk for three days.” She remembered that, but I don’t think she took my point. Maybe I’m not as good at the silent treatment as she is.
The desk clerk hangs up. “He’s not answering.”
“Can you open the room?” I ask.
Molly shoots another look at me. I say with my look back, You wanted me to talk. I talked.
“What is this?” The desk clerk says.
“Ma’am,” I say, “That’s my grandfather in there. We’re supposed to pick him up, which means he’s supposed to be up and ready. If he isn’t, I need to know why.”
The old lady looks me over close, as if I have words written on me in type too small for her to read. When she’s done, she snatches a key from the hook marked 217 and says, “You two stay here. I’ll look.” Out of the lobby she goes.
“She and your Dad should go bowling.” I say.
“You’re sure your grandfather knew we were the ones who were supposed to pick him up?”
“I don’t know what he knew. I know what Dad told Mom to tell me.”
“You don’t think he’d try to walk there or something, do you?”
He might, I think. Once Grandpa Julius gets an idea in his head, it’s always hard to shift it. He might try it, bad leg and all, just because he got impatient waiting for us. We’re not late, but maybe he got bored hanging around, or this old lady pissed him off, or somebody next to him was playing music too loud. Who knows?
Back comes the old lady. “He’s gone.” She hangs the key back up on the hook.
“What do you mean gone?” Molly asks.
“He’s. Not. In. His. Room.” The old lady says.
“Did you see him leave?” Molly asks.
“I don’t have any interest in the comings and goings of his kind of people.” The old lady says.
“Are his bags still there?”
“May I use your phone, Ma’am?”
The old lady points a bony finger toward the pay phones in the corner. I pat my pockets for a dime. Molly hands me one from her purse, and I go over to make the call home. Mom answers my news with, “He probably did something silly like head out to eat before coming to the barbecue. He’s getting that age. Come on home. He’ll call. Your Dad can pick him up.”
Soon we’re back in Molly’s car. She says, “Can you believe that desk clerk? Who knew that’s how Lurleen Wallace is supporting herself these days?”
“Yeah, I can believe it.”
We get to my parents’ place, a ranch style adobe house with a masonry roof that my Dad will brag about to whoever listens. “The adobe keeps it ten degrees cooler inside. I save a bundle on electricity.” Molly doesn’t know that he will say this to her at least three times today. It’s hard to find parking close. Everyone’s already here. We end up around the corner and up a block. We walk down a few steps before Molly reminds me to get my movie out of the trunk. I go back, open the trunk and pull out of our cooler the can containing my print of Birth of A Living Dead Nation. I wonder if I left it in the car on purpose. Molly would tell me I should be excited to show it, but she doesn’t know that my family doesn’t really get me or what I do. They won’t say they hate it, but they’ll say they like it in a way that makes it clear how little they think of it.
When we get in and start greeting relatives on the way to my Mom, Molly seems at ease. I don’t know if she is at ease, but she seems that way. I’m glad. This is her first time meeting everybody here, and I was scared that, as liberal as she claims to be, she’d tense up. But no, she’s good.
Finally, we get to the living room, and there’s my Mom. I show her the can of film. “Good.” She says, “Your Dad has the projector and screen all ready in the living room. You can set it up.”
I turn around, and who do I see but Grandpa Julius, standing next to my uncle, both with coffee cups in their hands? Stunned, we greet him. He insists on giving Molly a hug. After that, I ask him where he was.
“Oh, I came here. I didn’t like that hotel. And your cousin Grace is staying with friends instead so there’s some room for me here after all.”
I ask Mom why she didn’t say anything. “Julius and Uncle Frank just got here. I didn’t know myself. But I’m okay with him staying.”
“But his bags are back at the hotel.” I say. “Has he checked out?” A shift in wind direction carries the aroma of the meat smoking in the backyard into the house, and I suddenly want to eat everything in sight. No. I need to focus.
Mom asks Grandpa Julius if he’s checked out yet. Molly shows me her watch. It’s 10:40am, almost checkout time. Molly volunteers to run back, get his stuff, and get him checked out. Mom takes the can of film from me and puts it by the projector. “Your Dad can set it up. He likes to show off how good he is at it,” she says. I’m not sure he is good at it, but I don’t have time to argue. Grandpa hands us the room key, and back we go toward the car.
When we’re outside, I notice my older brother Charles is walking close behind us. He’s thin enough you could almost mistake him for one of our shadows, and maybe that was his idea. “What do you need, Charles?” I ask.
“Can you guys give me a lift? I need to meet with somebody. It’ll just take a second.”
“We’re in a hurry, Charles.” I say. “Get somebody else to drive you.”
“But you’re going now. We can stop on the way back, can’t we?”
“The usual place.”
“Where’s the usual place?” Molly asks.
“It’s my car, so I have some say. Where?”
“I know where.” I say. She doesn’t know it’s his heroin dealer, and we don’t have time for me to explain in a way that won’t start a fight. We’ve reached our car.
“Can I at least ride with you?” Charles says. “We don’t get many chances to say hello. And I’m still your big brother, right?”
“In the back.” I say. “Hurry up.”