The One You Keep

by M. Rachel Branwen

NANA HEFTS HERSELF OUT of the passenger seat of my car. In her
left hand, she holds six American Express gift cards worth $500 each.
They are to bail my cousin out of jail. Her right hand is shaking.

“I need a cigarette,” she says. “Have you got the cards?”

“They’re in your hand.”

“Ah, fuck,” she says, with a lot of emphasis on the “f.” It sounds
bad when she says it. Wrong.

Back at her senior living facility we get into the elevator. I press the
down button.

“We’re going up,” she says.

“We’re going down.” We have this conversation every time I visit.

She says nothing. The door opens and a soft recording of a woman’s
voice says, “going down.”

“I guess we’re going down,” she says.

When we get back to her room, I call Sergeant Parker and read off
the numbers on each of the six gift cards, along with the security
card on the front, the security code on the back, and the expiration
date. I feel proud of my clear articulation. I think to myself that Sergeant
Parker must be glad to speak to someone who is so easy to
understand. My grandmother continues to talk to me while I’m on
the phone with him, breaking my concentration.

“He’s such a nice man,” she says. “Ask him if we can talk to Nikki.”
I shush her.

“She must be so scared,” Nana says, her throat catching. “Poor little
thing.”

I leave the room and shut the door behind me. I need to concentrate.
Sergeant Parker is explaining that it will take 30-45 minutes to
process the transaction, and then he will call back to take down her
mailing address so they can send her a check when my cousin turns
up for her court date on Thursday.

My cousin lives in Arizona. That morning, she went to work with
a cold. She asked her new coworker to give her a ride to the drug
store to get some medicine and, on the way, the coworker ran a stop
sign and was pulled over by a policeman. They asked to search the car
and found five pounds of cocaine in the trunk. “That’s about $50,000
worth,” said Sergeant Parker. Nana wailed when she heard this.

At about half past ten, Nana’s phone rang. It was Nikki calling
from jail. She sounded awful and was crying hysterically. That’s what
Nana said. She herself was pretty hysterical by the time Sergeant
Parker was explaining to her how to post bail and she had me get
on the other phone to take notes. He told us that if we were local,
we could drive down to the police station with cash or a cashier’s
check. If we were out of state (we were) we could do a bank transfer
but it would take twenty-four hours to process and they’d have to
keep Nikki overnight. They aren’t allowed to take credit or debit card
information over the phone—by law they are not allowed, said Sergeant
Parker—on account of fraud. So he recommended that we buy
American Express gift cards in the amount of $3,000. Those, he could
take immediately over the phone.

It took us less than an hour to collect the gift cards. I drove Nana
down to CVS and the whole time she said over and over, “I’m so glad
you’re here. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without you.” And
then, beginning to cry, “Poor little Nikki. And so sick, too!”

And the whole time I was thinking, Arizona is so backwards that
the best system they have in place for posting bail is gift cards?

Once I am off of the phone with Sergeant Parker, I try to reach
Nikki’s boyfriend. Finally, I track down his phone number and send
him a text message. It says:

If you aren’t in the wilderness can you call me? It’s important.
Five minutes after that, I get a text message from Nikki.
Hey, it says. Is everything okay? I’m at work until 4
Then, I know.

***

Nana is small, round, and anxious. My grandfather has been dead
since 2006, since the night Nana heard a great thump and came
down the stairs to find him on the kitchen floor in front of the cabinet
where he kept all of his health supplements—shark cartilage, vi-
tamins b12-k, glucosamine, resveratrol, fish oil, psyllium husk. None
of them could save him. A massive heart attack, they said. They said
he was dead before he hit the floor. I wonder how she spent the time
between her 9-1-1 call and the arrival of the ambulance, frantic, in
her nightgown, unable even to turn him over.

She stayed alone in that house until 2012. Six years of falling
asleep with the TV on, of walking up and down a huge flight of stairs,
of doing laundry for one. Six years of cooking breakfast across and
around that spot on the kitchen floor where Papa died.

These days, her hair smells always unwashed, and I don’t see her
clean her dentures the whole time I am in town. Each night she
laments that she didn’t have time to shower, but she showered yesterday,
she says, so it’s okay. I don’t have the heart to tell her that she
didn’t shower yesterday. Or the day before. Her grasp on time is ever
more tenuous.

Nana lives in a “luxury” senior living facility in Reno, Nevada. The
facility is built into the side of the hill and the elevator is intentionally
confusing, I think—with color-coded buttons arranged in a square
instead of a line—so the residents don’t realize they live on the “garden
level” when, in fact, they all do. She lives here with a minority
of old men and a bunch of old ladies. They have names like Ethel,
Catherine, Barbara, Frank and Roy. They also have that wilted, senior
smell. They are also confused by the elevator; none of them know
where they’re going.

When I visit, we do things like play Bingo, which is played like normal,
and “volleyball,” which is played by sitting in chairs and batting
a balloon back and forth across a net in the recreation room. You’d
be surprised at how much this activity raises your heart rate. We also
watch old movies, assemble large jigsaw puzzles on her dining room
table and, if I’m up for some real excitement, we go down to the casinos
and play nickel machines.

When I tell Nana she’s been scammed, her first reaction is disbelief.

“But I talked to her,” she says with conviction. “It was Nikki.”

“It wasn’t Nikki,” I say. I’m the one pacing, now. “She’s been at
work all day. She’s not in jail. She doesn’t even have a cold.”

Nana starts to cry.

“Oh god,” she wails. “I don’t have that kind of money.”

Nana, like most grandparents, lives on a fixed income. This a blow.
What kind of a monster takes money from little old ladies? Sergeant
Parker, you bastard, I think.

“Don’t worry,” I say, “if we can’t get your money back”—and I already
know we can’t get her money back—“the family will all pitch
in.”

“But it was Nikki,” she says again with a sniffle.

How did I fail to catch onto Sergeant Parker? In retrospect, of
course, I see all of the red flags. The gift cards, first and foremost.
The fact that when I called back the number he gave me, the recorded
voice didn’t say, “Thank you for calling the Gilbert Police Department,”
but “Please stay on the line. An operator will be with you
shortly.” But she was sure she had spoken to Nikki.

My phone rings. It’s Sergeant Parker. I can’t believe he’s called
back. He wants Nana’s address.

“Let me call you right back,” I say, making sure to keep my voice
level; making sure not to tip him off to the fact that I’m onto him and
fixing to bring him down.

He says all right. I hustle Nana back into the car.

When we get to the police station, I don’t want to touch anything.
Everything smells vaguely of grease and street dirt and drug addicts.
A man with only half a mouth’s full of teeth is talking through thick
glass to a receptionist of some kind. There is another window made
of thick glass and a man collecting some papers behind it. I tell him
that my grandmother has just been scammed for $3,000 but I am
supposed to call the scammer back in five minutes so if someone can
just trace the call, they can catch him.

The paper collector goes back for a detective and the detective
laughs dismissively. He tells me they don’t have the technology to
trace a phone call.

“Hasn’t that technology existed since the ‘70s?”

“What?”

“Can we call the FBI?”

He laughs again.

“Ma’am,” he says, “I’m sure there is a way to call the FBI but I don’t
know what that way is.”

I ask the detective what he recommends and he says we should try
to get a recording of Sergeant Parker’s voice. I try to think of how I
can get Sergeant Parker to leave me a voicemail. I call the number he’s
given us, but he doesn’t pick up.

***

That night, I accompany Nana to dinner with her friends. They are
fascinating if you can get them talking about their lives: their childhoods
in the 30s, the war in the 40s, their marriages in the 50s. I
particularly like asking them about their parents, people whose lives
and whose Americas are unrecognizable from my own. Although
they chide me about my tattoos, about my vegetarianism, about
the boyfriend that I live with out of wedlock, they revel in their own
youthful rebellions—high school sweethearts, late Saturday nights
at the sock-hop, hot rods. Such innocent sins.

But tonight, all Nana can talk about is how she was scammed.

“I tell you, Martha,” she says, spreading some margarine on a soft
roll and taking a bite, “this girl sounded exactly like my Nikki.”

“They got me, too,” says Martha, “exactly the same.”

The dining room has vaulted ceilings and short pile carpet with a
1980s geometric pattern. In front of Martha is a plate with a small,
half-eaten pile of rice pilaf, some roasted pork in a brown, gelatinous
sauce and stewed fruit. Soft jazz is playing.

“No!” says Nana, her surprise punctuated by a morsel of half-eaten
bread that flies out of her mouth and lands next to her water glass.

“Two years ago,” says Martha. “Pretended to be my grandson in
Connecticut.” She nods slowly. “One thousand dollars.”

Ethel pipes up. Then Roy. It’s happened to half of the people in the
room, it turns out. This is not a new scam.

“I’m so glad you were here,” Nana says, turning to me. “I wouldn’t
have been able to do it without you.”

I picture her trying to take down Sergeant Parker’s instructions,
trying to figure out which gift cards to buy.

“Wouldn’t that have been better?”

“You were so calm. You knew just what to do.”

“I sure did. I drove you right down to CVS and had their money to
them in less than an hour. Best scam they ever pulled.”

Nana cackles, laying her hand on my shoulder, then takes a sip of
ice water. I’m glad we can already laugh about this.

Just then, a few different women enter the dining room, one walking
slowly, unaided; one leaning on a walker; one in a motorized
wheelchair. The woman in the motorized wheelchair is Catherine or,
as my grandmother calls her, “Catherine the Great.” She’s with us.
Catherine steers towards us.

My grandmother leans over and nods towards the other two.
“There’s Eleanor, a retired schoolteacher. Her husband was a judge”—
she gives Eleanor a little wave—“And that’s Ethel. We don’t speak to
Ethel.”

“Why not?”

“Is that your granddaughter, Betty?” Eleanor yells across the room.

“Yes, my granddaughter! Up from Los Angeles!” She gives my arm
a little squeeze.

Catherine parks at our table. Nana begins the scam story from the
top as Catherine flags down the waitress to ask for some decaf and
apple pie à la mode.

“What do you do for a living, dear?” she asks, turning to me. I’ve
told her many times, but I wouldn’t expect her to remember. I tell
her again.

“I’m a writer and an editor,” I say.

“She went to Harvard,” Nana interrupts.

“Only sort of.”

Now Nana shushes me. Our table is accumulating little old ladies—everyone
loves it when a grandkid visits and Nana is relishing
the opportunity to tell them exaggerated facts about my life so they
will know what a superior granddaughter I am. It’s the same spiel
every time: she alludes to the fact that I make a lot of money (false)
editing the Harvard Business Review (very false), and is sure to ask after
— and loudly— any of my friends who are moneyed, influential,
or remotely famous.

“What picture is that your friend was in? Titanic, wasn’t it? Dolores,
you remember Titanic? Well, you remember that gal—”

“It wasn’t Titanic, Nana.” If she hears me say this, she gives no
indication.

“Honey, who’s that fellow you know in the band?”

***

I lived with my grandparents in high school, not because there was
anything wrong with my own family, but because my relationship
with my grandparents was special. And because when they moved
to Reno it sounded like more fun than sticking around the suburban
Northern California town where my parents lived. These years were
happy. I did normal bad teenager stuff—smoked pot, snuck out on
the weekends and ate mushrooms; tried and failed to put the moves
on boys who played hackey-sack and listened to the Dave Matthew’s
Band.

Papa was a child of the Great Depression. His father abandoned
his mother with two small children, so the three of them moved
in with her parents, hardy migrant farmers scraping by in the San
Joaquin Valley of California. They were very poor. They lived in a dirtfloored
shack and he and his sister were teased because they didn’t
have shoes to wear to school. But he grew up tall and handsome. He
joined the Navy, the Merchant Marines, and he became a policeman.
Then he met Nana, the financially struggling and emotionally illequipped
single mother of three, recently abandoned by the Italian
lothario, Mel, to whom I am technically related. And for some reason,
he married her. He saved our family. Got my mother, aunt, and uncle—all
willful and rebellious adolescents—in hand and saved Nana
from the eventual Valley of the Dolls-style fate that surely awaited her.

Nana is and was a fun grandmother. You could generally find her in
the sitting room watching Price is Right and Wheel of Fortune in the
morning and soap operas all afternoon. When my highschool friends
came over in the evenings, it was Nana who joined us on the back
porch to smoke a cigarette and gab about jobs and boys and the latest
gossip. Then she’d retire back to the living room for long telephone
calls with her girlfriends while Papa braved the weather to pick her
up dinner or whatever else she needed from the outside world.

But most of my favorite memories from high school are with Papa.
Regularly, we stayed up late at night watching the History Channel,
Biographies on A&E, or Hitchcock movies; one time he surprised me
with a trip out to a horse ranch hours outside of Reno where they
rounded up wild mustangs; another time, we drove around the entire
periphery of Lake Tahoe, just because, with the sky so vast, and the
smell of pine trees and damp mountain earth so wonderful, and the
lake vistas so dramatic. And other things, too, things you don’t ever
think will form the foundation of your memory of a person when
they are gone: the smell of the Cream of Wheat he made every morning
for breakfast, always the same, with frozen berries that he defrosted
in the microwave and a float of Mocha Mix for creaminess.
The sound of his small kitchen am/fm radio with a black and white
tv screen that he used to listen to Rush Limbaugh while doing the
morning crossword over a cup of black coffee.

Once, we all went out to dinner, me and Nana and Papa. The fact of
us going out to dinner was not unusual. However, on this night Nana
and Papa had an argument, which was very unusual. I don’t remember
what Nana was saying, but Papa lost his patience with her. What
I remember him saying is: “Now, dammit Betty.” But maybe he told
her to shut-up. Papa was not a quick-tempered man. He was quiet
and patient and jolly, very much resigned to taking care of his small,
sometimes shrill, often high-maintenance wife who was, in many
ways, a perennially teen-aged girl trapped in an aging body.

Immediately Nana was sullen and silent. She pouted all the way
home and, when Papa parked the car in the driveway, she got out
without saying a word and walked two blocks to the park at the end
of our street. I followed her.

When I got there, she told me that she had never loved Papa. That
she had always been in love with some guy named Joe she worked
with at a deli in her thirties. He, not Papa, was the love of her life.

A lot was destroyed in this moment.

For one thing, I hadn’t ever thought of them as two separate individuals.
They were a unit. Nana could be demanding, yes, but we all
coddled her. That Papa coddled her was acceptable because she loved
and appreciated him. At least, I had always taken it for granted that
she did. And Papa? Well, in my little world, Papa was perfect.

I hadn’t ever considered that he would die, not all of a sudden one
evening when he was cooking dinner. Not before I was ready, whatever
that means. But then it happened, just like that. And when he
died, I was filled with resentment. All these years, he’d been taking
care of Nana—babying her, running errands for her—running himself
into the ground for her. And she didn’t even love him. Not he, but
Joe, had been the love of her life.

At his funeral, as my grandmother blubbered and cried and accepted
condolences, I felt enraged. I wanted to tell everyone not to feel
sorry for her, because she was a fraud. I wanted to tell everyone to
feel sorry for me. I had loved him best. I would miss him most.

At the funeral and ever since, she has referred to Papa as the love
of her life. So many times I’ve wanted to correct her: not Papa, Joe.
Joe is the love of your life, remember?

I have never forgiven Nana this. But I did keep loving her. You
don’t get to choose the one you keep.

***

It turns out that Sergeant Parker was just one hundred miles away, in
some shit-hole town in some shit-hole corner of Nevada.

He was not in Canada, which is where he would be if he were
smart; he was not in Nebraska, even though he had a fake business
set up in Nebraska at which he spent every bit of the $3,000 we sent
him and, of course, he was never in Arizona.

We know this because we were assigned a detective. We were assigned
a detective because, amazingly, Sergeant Parker did call us
back and I was able to get a recording of his voice, in addition to some
other legwork that I like to think makes up for the fact that I was
duped in the first place.

***

It is the last morning of my visit with Nana. She asks if I want to stay
for breakfast, but I think of the watery coffee, undercooked omelets,
shriveled hash browns and stewed prunes on offer and say that I’ll
have breakfast on the road. I collect my few bags and she walks me to
the elevator. We arrive and she presses the down button.

“Oh, Nana,” I say, giving her a hug.

“What now?” She says.

An elderly man wobbles up to the elevator, and also presses the
down button. We say good morning. Today, I will not correct them.

“Hey Nana?” I say. “Whatever happened to Joe?”

“Joe? Who’s Joe?”

“You told me you were in love with a guy named Joe.”

“From the deli? I said we were in love?” She waves her hand like
she’s swatting a gnat and laughs. “I barely knew the guy. He’s probably
fat and old now. Or dead! Who knows.”

I nod. Of course.

After a minute, the doors swing open. Nana tells me she loves me
and to come back soon. I promise her I will.

The man makes his selection on the colorful square keypad; I make
mine.

The doors begin to close. There is a moment of silence, then the
soft woman’s voice says, “Going up.”