Lot of people have back stories. You know, shady or sad pieces of past, tucked out of sight. I think I can realize that as well as anyone, seeing as many memories of my past could easily be made into a Lifetime movie.
The point is, first meetings don't mean shit. Second or third, either. Because you think you know a person, and then they casually mention how they once broke into a house or flushed a very alive goldfish down the toilet because feeding it became a hassle.
You'd think I would've learned my lesson after the events of my childhood, but, sadly, I didn't. Instead, I became a cynic, not caring about people's stories or dubbing them as dull and uninteresting right off the bat. Sometimes, in a world full of so many people and feelings and ideas and recollections, things fall to the wayside. You meet a person, put him in a category, and become surprised and flustered when he dares to do something you think is out of the ordinary.
So, hypocrite that I was, I did just that. And it wasn't until one summer and one person turned everything upside down that I changed.
Erma Levithan doesn't look like a crazy, lust-filled, impulsive harlot. For one, she's my grandma. And, as grandmas go, she has a lined face and silver hair, veiny blue hands and a godawful name. The second reason is that she's considered by the general customers—the poor, the yearning, the huddled mass, flotsam of the sea, etc.—to be a veritable saint.
But, as people generally go, there is more to her than meets the eye. And, as a young woman, she was a crazy, lust-filled, impulsive harlot.
She's not shy about her past; if you ask her about it she'll tell you. Which I never understood, seeing as it was the kind of past most people would prefer to kept privy to themselves.
At the ripe age of eighteen, she left Rhode Island with her new, rich husband—Floyd Levithan the Third. She and Floyd were young and carefree, choosing to move to Florida for the sunshine and beaches, plus to avoid their familial relations. Both families disapproved of the other, making their marriage a good, old-fashioned Romeo and Juliet romance.
Erma and Floyd lived happily, she being the toiling housewife expected of her, he attempting to open a fish and pet store (yes, you read correctly. Even as a millionaire heir, they lived simply as he invested in his dream of Floyd's Fish Emporium).
Erma still swears Floyd was the love of her life, which causes the rest of her story to make no sense. Because, nineteen years old and pregnant with my father, she left Floyd and ran off with Melvin McConnell, a boat engineer.
They lived together in Louisiana for twenty-three years, long enough to have three more children—my two uncles and an aunt—and raise them. Long enough for my father, knowing he was not a true McConnell, to travel to Rhode Island and find the Levithan clan. He worked his way into their greedy, distrustful hearts and was given a job at the family business: Levithan Banking.
Is it weird enough for you yet? Erma leaving her true love and taking his child with her so could live in a trailer, dirt poor and with four squabbling children? Not to mention the twist on family dynamics—I have no idea what my relationship is to Melvin or any of his children, although I call them my aunts and uncles.
Anyway, after twenty-three years of living together, Melvin died of a sudden heart attack a few years after his fifty first birthday. Erma was heartbroken, but stuck around long enough for all of her children to marry—eight years—before leaving. And returning 'home.'
That's right. At the fifty-year mark of her life, she packed up, sold the trailer and drove all the way to Florida. Thirty-one years she had been away, but found her way easily to the small, two-floor house and adjoining store where Floyd had hoped to start his career.
I don't know what she expected. Had she thought that Floyd would walk out, see her, smile—and ask her, dear, would you please make me some lunch? But when she got there, the store was dusty, the house vacant. Erma asked around a little, learned that about four months after she left, poor Floyd built himself a raft, went out early one morning and paddled out as far as he could go. He then set it alight, probably wanting to go out the same way the Vikings of old did. However, when he washed ashore the next morning, the autopsy revealed that the official cause of death was drowning. How ironic that it wasn't the fire of his pyre that did him in, but a factor he hadn't even considered was a problem. The only other objects investigators found was his wedding ring, still on his left hand, and a piece of charred driftwood with the letters 'ERM' burnt but visible. Erma was late. Not only too late by a whopping thirty-one years, but too late by thirty years and eight months. Such an old occurrence held indescribable grief for her.
It turned out that, although Erma had spared him no consideration for three decades, Floyd was still giving after death. All of their joint belongings he had left in the house. Before he died, he paid in advance for both the house and the store for fifty years. Fifty years for his Erma to return and reclaim what was, technically, still hers. They had never divorced. The sheer cost of insuring the two buildings for so long must've been a fortune, but he was a Levithan, after all. When she looked into their joint checking account from days long past, she found enough money in there to support herself indefinitely.
Erma wasn't stupid (or so she says, upon retelling the story), so she moved into their honeymoon house, disregarding the gossip surrounding her long overdue return, and opened Floyd's Fish Emporium.
By the time I came to live with her, she hadn't yet made her underground Mother Theresa fame. I was her first stray.
No one really believed it when I got sent to live in Florida with "Evil Erma." My parents knew her as well as anyone, and when she was mentioned they'd always exchanged amused glances, failing to describe her to ignorant people outside of the family ("My mother is…eccentric," was my father's favorite term.). So after my parents died, I was shuffled around to the many Levithans and Corals that lived in Rhode Island as we waited to hear who my parents had named guardian.
Even as a child, I could recognize people only out for themselves. And, seeing as my father was a billionaire, most of my relatives (primary Melvin's trailer-trash children) were only too willing to take me in during my time of grief. I knew they were jockeying to get on my good side, but I didn't really care. I secretly hoped I'd be living with Aunt Jane, who at least was a woman (my other aunt, Cameron, was a 'woman' too, but that's a completely different story).
Erma didn't even come to the reading of the will, as she was that convinced that my father couldn't have entrusted her with anything. Everyone else was under just the same impression—no one considered her competition. So we were all startled when her name was given to care for me until I reached the age of eighteen. The day I left for Florida, my relatives showered me with invitations to come and stay with them if I ever needed a place to go. Enough invitations to fill a thimble.
Erma and I started out with an understanding. I thought she was weird, she thought I was spoiled. She called me by my full name, which I hated, and I called her Erma, because the endearment 'grannie' had never seemed farther off base. I climbed into her old station wagon and knew that my life was never going to be the same again. She showed me no pity for that. The same night I got to Florida, her first uninvited guest came. He got the nice bedroom upstairs. I got the smaller one by the kitchen.
By the time I was thirteen, Erma had a regular halfway house going on. At least three out of seven days of the week someone came—a down on her luck woman, a homeless man, a struggling family with small children. Some stayed only for a night, others stayed for as long as two weeks. On the nights with many people, Erma made me give up my room and sleep on the couch. Those were the nights I was positive I was going to be raped by one of Erma's beloved homeless houseguests.
Erma provided them with everything. Toiletries, meals—even money, if they needed it. I, being the one she put in charge of Floyd's Fish Emporium, constantly told her handing out money to any sad face that came by basically meant the store made no profit. But she didn't care. Maybe she just thought I was bitter because I was her first and longest-staying orphan.
Sometimes the people paid. A twenty left on the counter in the morning as they tried to leave quietly (never fully accomplished, seeing as I was either on the couch or in a bedroom right by the door). Sometimes all they could give was a grateful smile and a promise to repay the favor "someday." Others lefts in the dead of night, shameful and not even saying thank you. I could spot those kinds of people a mile away.
Regardless of how they left, they all came the same way. Late at night, so the neighbors probably thought Erma was a drug dealer. Showing up on the doorstep with an apologetic or surly or hopeful face as the sun set behind them. Erma normally would call me excitedly from wherever I was—working the store, in a dead sleep—like I would be so happy that we had houseguests, again. It got to the point that I started to lock the door to my bedroom so she'd finally get the hint. Another night of trying to make the guest feel right at home, pretending to listen to their sad sob stories. Whopee.
The reason I'm telling you all of this is because as I went to work the store this morning, there Erma was, telling her tragic past. Probably the 547th time I'd heard it repeated. I let out a gusty sigh as I passed the kitchen where Erma sat with our latest stray, a teenager with a five-month-old baby in tow. From Arkansas. I seriously wonder how people hear about this place on the other side of the country. It makes me convinced that one of these days a criminal on the run or an illegal Cuban is going to be found in the kitchen and then everything will go to hell.
"Something wrong, Aurora?" Erma called from the table. I gritted my teeth. Just like I called her Erma, she called me by my stupid full name, instead of Rory, like I preferred it.
"Nothing at all, Erma," I grumbled, before ducking through the adjoining door to the store and giving it a loud bang. I heard the baby start to whimper. Erma would be pissed at me. Naturally, since she's God's gift to the homeless, I should share her exact feelings for them, right down to shutting doors softly so as to not disturb destitute baby Messiah's.
The Emporium wasn't that large, only a little bigger than one of my school classrooms. The walls were lined with fish food and knickknacks for the fish bowl, etc. We had a buzzing pop machine by the "staff room," which was basically Erma's warehouse for all things of Floyd's that she couldn't bare to part with. The far wall had empty bowls and aquariums for sale. It was the middle of the room with the fish, four broad tanks filled almost to the brim with water and overflowing with fish. They were also lidless, so any person could reach in and shoplift a fish (it's happened before) or capture one in a little baggy and purchase.
During the summer the tourists get a real thrill out of it, buying the fish to set free in the ocean or take home as a living souvenir. I never have the patience to tell them that a) the sea is not these fishes natural habitat, and b) they'd last in a plastic bag in a hot car for probably a total of one hour.
Tourists never seem to get any smarter as the years pass, buying their fish and informing me, as they dole out their money, that they're going to name the goldfish "Goldie" or the dogfish "Skip" or the clownfish "Nemo." They all think they're such wits as they tell me this, too, giving broad winks and laughing up a storm. Haha. I've never heard that one before. Good one. Not.
Anyway, I'm not in the store to work this morning, although I usually do. But it's the first day of school, and tourists are dwindling. The only reason I'm here is to get what's-her-face from Arkansas a fish.
Goodbye presents are really Erma's specialty. Since she frequently sees Jesus in every person's face and personalized "I love Erma" messages written in God's hand in the clouds, she must expect people to see the symbolism of the fish as she does, too. So as they walk out the door (if they don't sneak out, like some people), Erma pooh-poohs their thank-you's and tells them that she and Aurora loved it, and here—take a fish! Then she'll smile beatifically and say something along the lines of, "just try to be like a fish. When you start going under, remember you have gills." The person in question either gives her a weird look or bursts into happy tears like Erma actually said something important. I miss these interactions because I go vomit in the potted plant whenever she starts her fish eulogy.
I bagged Miss Arkansas a goldfish, sure there was plenty of water, and sealed it tight as I returned to the house. Erma was already by the door, waiting for the miraculous marine life so she could continue spreading the Knowledge of the Fish. I thrust the bag and a canister of food into Erma's hands, then hung back. I didn't know how to make it clear to these guests that I found random strangers pulling me into grateful hugs rather repulsive.
I watch in disinterest as Erma presents the fish, intones her philosophy, and modestly accepts the girl's awed hug.
"That's brilliant," Teenage Dipshit says tearfully. "Inspiring." She looks back at me. Maybe she thought I might be holding a plaque with Erma's words engraved onto it. I crossed my arms to make sure she didn't get any ideas.
"Thank you…thank you," she sobs. "I'll never forget the kindness both of you have shown me. I wish I could pay you back."
"Nonsense!" Erma says. "We don't expect anything in return." I can practically feel money limping out of her bank account at those words. The girl smiles, holding her baby close. The baby's chubby hand closes around the fish bag, giving it an experimental shake. Dead fish swimming.
The girl follows my gaze. She smiles, like she just thought of some clever joke.
"I'm going to name it Goldie."