Let me qualify my previous statement: It was next to impossible for me to get fired from Smart Aid. Any other employee would’ve been out the door a dozen minor infractions ago. It was my first lesson in politics. There are three Smart Aids in Englewood, the small, somnolent beach town where I live. There are twenty-seven in Sarasota County, and one hundred and fifteen in all of Florida, spreading across the state like some untreatable rash. The reason I couldn’t be fired was that my uncles owned every single one of them. The reason I couldn’t quit was that working at Smart Aid as your first job had long been a hallowed family tradition. All my campaign of self-sabotage had earned me was an unwinnable feud with Shelley and the deep and abiding resentment of my coworkers—who, let’s face it, were going to resent me anyway, because no matter how many displays I knocked over or customers I short-changed, one day I was going to inherit a sizable chunk of the company, and they were not.
* * *
Wading through the diapers, Shelley poked her finger into my chest and was about to say something dour when the PA system interrupted her.
“Jacob, you have a call on line two. Jacob, line two.”
She glared at me as I backed away, leaving her pomegranate-faced amid the ruins of my tower.
* * *
The employee lounge was a dank, windowless room where I found the pharmacy assistant, Linda, nibbling a crustless sandwich in the vivid glow of the soda machine. She nodded at a phone screwed to the wall.
“Line two’s for you. Whoever it is sounds freaked.”
I picked up the dangling receiver.
“Yakob? Is that you?”
“Hi, Grandpa Portman.”
“Yakob, thank God. I need my key. Where’s my key?” He sounded upset, out of breath.
“Don’t play games,” he snapped. “You know what key.”
“You probably just misplaced it.”
“Your father put you up to this,” he said. “Just tell me. He doesn’t have to know.”
“Nobody put me up to anything.” I tried to change the subject. “Did you take your pills this morning?”
“They’re coming for me, understand? I don’t know how they found me after all these years, but they did. What am I supposed to fight them with, the goddamned butter knife?”
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard him talk like this. My grandfather was getting old, and frankly he was starting to lose it. The signs of his mental decline had been subtle at first, like forgetting to buy groceries or calling my mother by my aunt’s name. But over the summer his encroaching dementia had taken a cruel twist. The fantastic stories he’d invented about his life during the war—the monsters, the enchanted island—had become completely, oppressively real to him. He’d been especially agitated the last few weeks, and my parents, who feared he was becoming a danger to himself, were seriously considering putting him in a home. For some reason, I was the only one who received these apocalyptic phone calls from him.
As usual, I did my best to calm him down. “You’re safe. Everything’s fine. I’ll bring over a video for us to watch later, how’s that sound?”
“No! Stay where you are! It’s not safe here!”
“Grandpa, the monsters aren’t coming for you. You killed them all in the war, remember?” I turned to face the wall, trying to hide my end of this bizarre conversation from Linda, who shot me curious glances while pretending to read a fashion magazine.
“Not all of them,” he said. “No, no, no. I killed a lot, sure, but there are always more.” I could hear him banging around his house, opening drawers, slamming things. He was in full meltdown. “You stay away, hear me? I’ll be fine—cut out their tongues and stab them in the eyes, that’s all you gotta do! If I could just find that goddamned KEY!”
The key in question opened a giant locker in Grandpa Portman’s garage. Inside was a stockpile of guns and knives sufficient to arm a small militia. He’d spent half his life collecting them, traveling to out-of-state gun shows, going on long hunting trips, and dragging his reluctant family to rifle ranges on sunny Sundays so they could learn to shoot. He loved his guns so much that sometimes he even slept with them. My dad had an old snapshot to prove it: Grandpa Portman napping with pistol in hand.
When I asked my dad why Grandpa was so crazy about guns, he said it sometimes happened to people who used to be soldiers or who had experienced traumatic things. I guess that after everything my grandfather had been through, he never really felt safe anywhere, not even at home. The irony was, now that delusions and paranoia were starting to get the best of him, it was true—he wasn’t safe at home, not with all those guns around. That’s why my dad had swiped the key.
I repeated the lie that I didn’t know where it was. There was more swearing and banging as Grandpa Portman stomped around looking for it.
“Feh!” he said finally. “Let your father have the key if it’s so important to him. Let him have my dead body, too!”
I got off the phone as politely as I could and then called my dad.
“Grandpa’s flipping out,” I told him.
“Has he taken his pills today?”
“He won’t tell me. Doesn’t sound like it, though.”
I heard my dad sigh. “Can you stop by and make sure he’s okay? I can’t get off work right now.” My dad volunteered part-time at the bird rescue, where he helped rehabilitate snowy egrets hit by cars and pelicans that had swallowed fishhooks. He was an amateur ornithologist and a wannabe nature writer—with a stack of unpublished manuscripts to prove it—which are real jobs only if you happen to be married to a woman whose family owns a hundred and fifteen drug stores.
Of course, mine was not the realest of jobs either, and it was easy to ditch whenever I felt like it. I said I would go.
“Thanks, Jake. I promise we’ll get all this Grandpa stuff sorted out soon, okay?”
All this Grandpa stuff. “You mean put him in a home,” I said. “Make him someone else’s problem.”
“Mom and I haven’t decided yet.”
“Of course you have.”
“I can handle him, Dad. Really.”
“Maybe now you can. But he’s only going to get worse.”
I hung up and called my friend Ricky for a ride. Ten minutes later I heard the unmistakable throaty honk of his ancient Crown Victoria in the parking lot. On my way out I broke the bad news to Shelley: her tower of Stay-Tite would have to wait until tomorrow.