Dang Llama

By Erika Rae

Memoir

I passed a llama on the road today. I was in my Jeep and it was in the back of a pick-up truck. It all happened in a moment: it looked at me, I looked at it. We made eye contact.

***

It startled me at first to see a face up there, hovering Cheshire-like over the cab. Ears bent back stiffly in the wind; fuzzy, cleft granny lips.

The sides of the pick-up had been built up with plywood to form a stall of sorts. It was tall, but not so high that the llama couldn’t see out the top, riding around like it was peeking out of a sunroof in a limo. Beneath him, Snoop Dogg was sloshing around in a hot, nekkid lady and llama soup.

When I was a child, my grandfather brought us back a llama carpet from a trip he took to Peru. In the center of this wall-sized masterpiece was a design inlaid to resemble the animal from which it hailed. The perimeter was bordered in alternating brown and ivory diamonds, which gave way to long tufts of shag at the ends. My parents saw fit to hang it in the den, behind the ping pong table as a sound dampening backdrop. In the middle of summer when I was taking a break from building log cabins out of fallen branches or digging up arrowheads from the red, Oklahoma dirt, I would sneak into the den in the cool dark and bury my hands and face in the carpet. It was plush and soft like a ridiculously shaggy rabbit. For several minutes, I would pretend that I had actually rotated 90 degrees and was lying down on the floor with it, pressing my thighs stomach ears into the thick fur.

We pronounced it the Spanish way, although none of us spoke Spanish. Yama. Not Llama. As in, como se…. I don’t have much of an explanation for this other than the fact that my family has always had an above average interest in languages. My mother, for example, spent some time before I was born in Iran engaged to an Iranian man. She may not have come home with a wedding ring, but she did manage to bring back his pronunciation of the word “hummus”. To this day, she will ask me if I would like some “chch-hoomoose” with my carrots.

My grandfather was a straight laced man who believed Jesus’ return was imminent and that figs were a divine fruit. He was an engineer by trade and designed several of the dams in California back in the day. At some point in the 50s, he built a small bungalow style house on U Street in Sacramento for my grandmother and painted it pink. When I was little they shopped at Trader Joe’s and ate baked white fish sprinkled with kelp five out of seven days of the week. The fence around their yard was thickly draped in concord grapes, which he pressed once a year and bottled under the attic stairwell. Not for the purpose of making wine, mind you, but as grape juice. Pieces of masking tape displayed the original bottling dates on each.

Once when my grandfather came for a visit to our house, I was setting the table for a meal and dropped a fork on the floor. “Dang,” I said. I was about 12 years old, awkward with hairy arms and legs and a big, squishy nose. As a prepubescent primate growing up in the turquoise studded Bible belt of Oklahoma, it did not occur to me to say anything harsher than that. “Dang” worked, and it was accessible. Everyone else I knew said it. It was innocuous. My grandfather did not agree.

“What is that language coming our of your mouth?” He demanded to know from across the room, where he sat reading the newspaper on the sofa. He was wearing his gray three-piece Sunday suit and had his hair slicked back neatly with a comb. “Don’t ever let me hear you say that again. Foul language from a young lady. I’m going to have a talk with your mother.”

For a man who lived in a house the color of Pepto Bismol, he didn’t have a very pronounced sense of humor.

I like to imagine him carrying the huge llama carpet back to us from Chile, fur exploding through the rolls and dipping down to occasionally scrape the street. Pushing it back up again to a proper cylindrical state. Folding back down over his shoulder. Suitcase in the other hand. Grandma walking helplessly three feet behind him, fretting over missing their airplane home.

I wonder if he swore.

Dang yama.

***

I passed a llama on the road today. I was in my Jeep and it was in the back of a pick-up truck. It all happened in a moment: it looked at me, I looked at it. We made eye contact.

Grandma wanted a red bikini.

She said it was because she wanted to take up swimming again, but I suspect it had a bit more to do with a “sunset-of-life” crisis. And anyway, just because when the rest of us looked at her we saw a wrinkly old woman who looked like she might blow over if you forgot to cover your sneeze…Grandma was a sexy bird.

At some point.

Possibly circa the climax of the women’s suffrage movement.

I’ve seen pictures, anyway.

Before the gray. Before the Depends.

Before “the girls” made a permanent move south.
At any rate, I, for one, applaud her effort to redefine herself in the midst of her slow-moving, fiber-conscious peers. She had just finished spending part of the day at the pool with my two sisters and me, and was probably inspired by memories of her lost youth brought on by the intermingling scents of sizzling suntan oil and chlorine. What was the difference between her and us besides a few years, anyway? A red bikini at age 95? Why not?

Grandma had a fair amount of pep for one in her station of life – in spite of the fact that she had almost gone completely deaf and blind at that point and was chronically pissed off. Not that I blame her. On one of my visits, I found ants crawling around on her toothbrush.

None of this stopped her. She had a mind as sharp as a razor and the tennis balls on the back legs of her walker were worn chronically thin. I once saw her grow impatient when she was stuck behind another woman going too slow in a wheelchair coming out of the dining hall. Having just enjoyed a delicious meal of a substance suspiciously called turkey and gravy – which, by the way, had only about a 30% success rate of making it to her mouth from her knife, seemingly mistaken for her fork early on and completely beyond my ability to correct in a way that would allow her a scrap of dignity – Grandma was anxious to get back to her room.

I’m not entirely sure why she was in such a hurry to get back to her room. Aside from a dresser my grandpa made when they were first married, a bed which raised and lowered by remote control, a well-worn sofa which had been the unfortunate lead witness to Grandma’s struggle against incontinence and a couple of pictures that she could no longer see of my father and his brother when they still had brown hair, I can’t say that I understood the draw. Regardless, having hit metal upon metal – you will remember that Grandma could not see worth crap – she heaved one labored sigh before suddenly transforming before my eyes, kicking it into high gear as she whipped around the offending wheelchair, sparks flying from the holes in the tennis balls, straifing like a character straight out of Doom, until she had left the old lady in the wheelchair far behind, in the dust, alone with her memories and her starch white orthopedics.

Grandma’s big event of the day involved dinner in the dining hall with all of the other inmates, as she called them. They were a fun bunch. There was Don, who wore his pants in one of two positions: up around his chest or down around his ankles. Sitting always at the table to Grandma’s right was a little woman in a wheelchair who I like to call “Kilroy” on account of the relation of the table to her nose. Velda McPhee was the nicest woman at her table, but had the annoying habit of slowly sticking her tongue in and out of her mouth like a lizard that has been licking stamps. She was also under the impression that I am a boy. Judith Mayfair probably was nice at one point, before she began to suffer from Tourette’s. The last time I was there I heard her calling one of the workers a “No good WHORE” who eats “BM!” and apparently needed to leave her dead husband “ALONE…yougoddammiserablehussy.”

As far as I was concerned, if Grandma needed a red bikini to feel like her old (young) self in the midst of all of this joy, so be it. She’d been raised in a conservative environment all of her life and no doubt had some final oats to sew. Plus, she had already set a precedent of being somewhat racy somewhere in the 1930s by showing up at her father’s house wearing short sleeves, so she kind of had a reputation to live up to.

Grandma was a wild card, I tell you what.

Aiming to please, my mom loaded up the car and took Grandma over to Sears. (Because really…where else would they go?) Since Grandma couldn’t see very well, my mom selected for her a few choices – which I am told included at least one string variety, along with a few more solid renditions to strap in the girls, so to speak. Excitedly, Grandma shuffled off to the nearest dressing room, her walker squeaking merrily all along the way. My mom waited.

And waited.

At one point, she popped her head in the dressing room in order to offer some help. It took four tries before Grandma heard what she was being asked, but she finally snapped back that she was just fine on her own, thank you very much.

Mom waited some more. Just when she thought Grandma might have fallen asleep in there, having mistaken the dressing room for her own cell back at the assisted living center, the curtain flung wide and Grandma emerged…fully dressed and empty handed.

The subject was never broached again.

And I…well, I missed a fantastic photo opportunity.