Friday, December 11, 2009

The price is right

My grandmother lived upstairs with her weekly gallon of Gallo Burgundy and her Zenith television set. She used to watch wrestling -- cheering for Bruno Sammartino and shouting at Bobo Brazil verwenden Sie Ihren Kopf schwarzer -- and The Price Is Right with Bill Cullen, with his thick fifties spectacles, crewcut, and shiny flat forehead. It was hot and airless up there in her little room even with the window fan on full. I would sit on the floor at the foot of her bed and listen to her guess how much things cost. Dining room table and chairs. $100. $400. $1000. Freeze. She was usually pretty close. Afterwards, when wrestling was over, she would shoo me away, take out her teeth, and place them in a glass of water on the bedside table. I'd slide down the bannister, pound the newel post with the flat of my hand and turn out the hall light. Goodnight, groƟmutter.

My grandmother lost her mind in her eighties and never knew that she had outlived her daughter.
Gestorben? Maybe god was being gentle with her. Or maybe she did understand what we had said and it was grief that threw her over the edge into silent madness. Sheep safely grazed on the hill behind the Masonic Home. When she wasn't sleeping, grandma stared at them through barred windows.

Nowadays everybody knows the price of everything.
Shopping is built into our cultural DNA, according to some blowhard radio savant. It's all online, where you can comparison shop with a couple of clicks, and get the best deal, though the prices say nothing about the actual thing to which they're attached. Hockey stick $44.99. $28.77. $32.99. Norah Jones CD $18.00. $11.99. $13.29. Measures of desire, perhaps, or units of social exchange. The necessary parameters of an essentially meaningless transaction. A means whereby retailers hoodwink consumers into buying shite they don't need. Let's guess at the price on an effin TV show. What fun. And the price of a popular novel? $27.99. $9.99. $19.59 with an extra 10% off if you've got a frequent shopper card. Who cares what it's really worth?

Quist used to say, "Most novels aren't worth the paper they're printed on. You read 'em once and that's that. Let others do the buying and selling. If you're smart you'll stick with the reading. And you'll do it down at the library, poot, where you can concentrate." He lived two blocks over, with his Irish whiskey and pipe. My grandmother thought he was dirty.
Look at his fingernails. Schmutzig. She thought the French were dirty too. The soldiers who stayed at the inn on the Neckar, just above Mannheim, after the First World War -- they didn't bathe. They stank. This is what she told me up in her room, drinking her wine out of a dainty goblet with a blue stem, waiting for Bill Cullen to come on. Money was worthless, you see. You needed a wheelbarrow full of marks to buy a loaf of bread. If our cousins hadn't taken us in, your mother and I would have starved. She looked at me with hooded eyes and pinched me hard on the cheek. And you would not be here.

She had to have been stubborn and shrewd, otherwise how could she have gotten out of Germany in 1929, her husband dead, and she with a sickly daughter and no money? But why so mean? And to her only child -- my mother. When she lost her mind I gave her no pity, and when she died I felt nothing.

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