Corn Flakes Don’t Make Me Happy

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Here’s a short story I wrote based loosely on my favorite uncle’s trip to Las Vegas a few years back.

 

“Hello, Mitch,” said the deep voice on the phone. “It’s Cousin Larry.”

My stomach tightened. Whenever Larry from Detroit calls, it’s bad news.

“What’s up, Cuz?” I asked, trying to sound casual. “How’s Uncle Jack?” I held my

breath waiting for the answer. Jack, well into his eighties now, had suffered a series of

small strokes that left him feeble and confused. The doctors couldn’t predict when

“The big one” might occur, but they all agreed it was inevitable. Fucking doctors.

“Oh, he’s doing okay,” Larry said. “As well as can be expected, anyway. That’s not

why I’m calling, exactly. I was wondering if you could do me a favor?”

A favor.  That didn’t sound so bad. I could feel the tension in my shoulders begin to ease.

“Sure,” I told him.

“Cheryl and I are coming to Vegas next week . . .”

I cut him off. “That’s great. I haven’t had company in quite a while. You can stay at

my place.”  I eyeballed the condo, making a mental note to call the cleaning crew.

“That’s very nice of you. But we have reservations at the Monte Carlo. It’s

all handled.”

“Well, at least let me take you guys to dinner and a show. They’ve got some good

ones now, not like the old days.”

He paused. “You might change your mind after I ask the favor.”

Larry had my full attention now. “Yeah?”

Clearing his throat, he continued, “We can’t find a place for Dad.  I was hoping

you’d take him.” When I didn’t say anything right away, he quickly added, “It would

only be for a few days.”

In a fraction of a second, my brain splintered. My first thought was, the timing

couldn’t be worse. I’d have to take off work, and with that big casino pitch coming

up, McFarland would have a shit fit. Almost at the same time, I knew I had no choice.

I owed Uncle Jack, and that was all there was to it.

“Mitch, you still there?” Larry asked.

“I’m thinking,” I said. “I need to know a few things. How’s Jack getting around these

days?  Can he walk?”

“He uses a cane, but that’s not a problem. He’s just a little slow.”

The next question was tougher. “Uh, I don’t know how to ask this, exactly, but does

He  . . .I mean, can he . . .  is he . . . ”

Larry bailed me out. “Continent?  Yeah, he goes to the bathroom by himself.  He

almost never has an accident.”

“That’s comforting,” I mumbled.

“Come again?” Larry asked. Thank God for crappy cell service.

“Tell Uncle Jack I’m looking forward to his visit.”

I could almost see Larry smile on the other end. “Really?  That’s fantastic,” he

gushed. “You have no idea how much Cheryl and I need this vacation. Just a little

break in the action,  you know?”

“I know.”

In a way, I admired Larry. He had chosen the hard route, keeping Uncle Jack with them. Years before,

when my mother broke her hip and came to live with us, it had destroyed my marriage. The day Mom

accidentally set the dog on fire, we made the decision to put her in a home. They called it a “Luxury

Assisted Living Facility,” but it was still a home.  It cost me $4,000 a month and my wife. The guilt was free.

Three days after Larry’s call, I stood at the McCarran baggage carousels, waiting for the Glaser family.

The flight, for once, was on time. Larry and Cheryl looked about the same as I remembered, a little older, a

little more tired perhaps. Uncle Jack was another story. In the five years since I’d seen him last, he had

aged 20. Never a tall man, he had shrunk a good three inches, and was now in danger of disappearing

into his clothes, much like the Wicked Witch of the West. He wore bright red Sansabelt slacks and an

off-white shirt adorned with a yellow splotch that might have been a remnant from breakfast. On his

head, a plaid driving cap perched at a rakish angle, held up by ears the size of Frisbees.

After hugs and warm greetings all around, Larry said, “Well, we’ve got a lot to do.  Rental car, check in

to the hotel . . .”

“Sleep,” Cheryl added sheepishly.

After retrieving their bags, Larry bent down to talk to Jack. “Dad, you’ll be staying with Mitch for a little

while,” he said loudly. You know, your nephew. He’s going to take good care of you.”

Jack stared at me through watery gray eyes. At last, a glimmer of recognition.  “Mitchell,” he said, his

once booming voice reduced to a gravelly whisper.  “It’s great to see you.”

“You too, Unc.”  His hand felt like dried twigs.

“We’ll check in twice a day to find out how he’s doing,” Larry said.

Suddenly, I panicked. “Wait, wait, wait.  Where’s his stuff?”

Larry whacked his forehead with the palm of his hand. “How stupid can I get?

Here.” He handed me an overnight case not much bigger than a shaving kit.

“That’s it?” I asked.  “What about a change of clothes?”

“There’s another shirt in there, I think.  Don’t worry about it.  He wears the same thing for days at a time.”

Great, I thought.  That would explain the slight rancid smell.“Does he shower?”

Larry shook his head.  “Just once a week or so.  The doctor says it makes his skin too dry. Well, see ya.

Thanks for everything.”  Stooping again to address his father, he instructed, “Dad, you do what Mitch tells you.”

Jack blinked. “Okay.”

Larry and Cheryl disappeared faster than any magician’s assistants.

Fighting off the creeping dreads, I said in a too-cheerful tone, “Uncle, looks like it’s just the two of us.”

He gazed at me. “Who are you?” he asked.

***

I gave him the nickel tour, driving north on the Strip, pointing out the various hotels and attractions,

eventually winding up downtown. Most of the time, he sat there wide-eyed, not saying a word, shifting

his head robotically from side to side.

Getting him to the truck had been an ordeal.  He took tiny shuffling steps and had to rest every couple of

minutes, leaning on his three-pronged cane. Loading him into the truck had been even harder; those big

Fords aren’t designed for old people. I had to practically lift him onto the seat, then struggle with the belt

while he sat there impassively.

As we completed our jaunt around town, I tried a little small talk. “So, whaddaya think, Uncle?  Lots of

changes since the last time you were here.”

“When did they do this to Detroit?” he asked.

I started to tell him we were in Vegas, but decided against it. No reason to confuse him even more.

It was sad, this business of growing old. Jack had been a helluva guy. Grew up during the Depression,

rode the rails, worked a hundred odd jobs, enlisted after Pearl Harbor, got a bronze star at Anzio, married,

made babies, worked his ass off in his little appliance store, put the kids through college, buried a wife

and daughter. In a family full of deadbeats and manic-depressives, he was my favorite relative, always

quick with a funny story, brimming with more juice than the rest of them combined.

When I was seventeen, after my own father died, Jack invited me to come spend the summer,

ostensibly to work in his shop and earn money for college. Each day, I logged a few hours behind the

counter, helping elderly women open boxes, hearing them wheeze “Thank you, young man,” before

seeing them trundle off to the next store. Uncle Jack would watch the proceedings with a bemused grin,

shaking his head and saying, “You know what I call those old broads?  Visiting dignitaries.  Don’t ever

open more than three cartons for them; it’s free entertainment.”

“What if they get mad, Uncle Jack?” I’d ask.

“Just smile and tell them to have a nice day. Their kind of business we can afford to lose.”

The store, Ajax Discount Appliances, (Slogan: “If it’s in stock, we got it”) was a chaotic, disorganized

mess. One wall was piled high with clock radios, tape recorders and record players, while another

overflowed with toaster ovens, blenders and crock-pots.  The middle aisles were reserved for the big

stuff:  washer/dryer combos, stoves, home entertainment centers. A fine layer of dust covered

everything, as if a small volcano had once erupted in the loading dock.

Jack got a kick out of me in those days. Looking back, I think it’s because none of his own kids seemed

interested in working for him. That summer, he taught me all the finer points of running a small business.

Even better, when things were slow (which was often), Jack taught me a number of life’s essentials: how

to throw a left hook, how to bluff in poker, how to read a Racing Form. That last one was the most

important, because every afternoon around three o’clock, he’d get this mischievous look on his face and

say to Maureen, his assistant manager, “Mitch and I are going out for awhile.” Of course, Maureen knew

exactly where we were headed, but she’d just nod her wrinkled head and say in that lilting brogue, “Yes,

sir, Mr. Glaser.  You boys have fun.”

Fun is exactly what we had. We’d jump into his big-ass Buick 98 and shoot straight down 10 Mile Road

to Hazel Park, just in time for the Daily Double. As Jack studied the speed ratings, my job was to keep us

in hot dogs and drinks, while shuttling his money back and forth to the betting windows. He was a player

back then; if he won a race, he’d parlay the next one. Most nights, he came home tapped. But every now

and then, he’d make a big score. That’s when he’d slip me a couple of twenties and whisper, “Don’t tell your cousins.”

I, myself, never bet more than $2 a race. Whenever I asked Uncle Jack about a particular horse, he’d

always say the same thing.  “Good as any.” Except for one hot and sticky August afternoon.

For some reason, I was feeling especially confident of my new-found handicapping skills, thinking I’d

zeroed in on a long shot called “Jamoke” at 25 – 1. “What about this one?” I asked.

Instead of answering me directly, Jack pointed to a withered woman in a floppy straw hat, sitting three

rows in front of us.

“See that old gal?” he asked.

“Sure.”

“She’s an owner.”

“Really?  She doesn’t look rich.”

Jack laughed, a rich baritone sound.  “She probably isn’t. But here’s the thing. She almost never shows

up, even when she’s got a horse running.  Today, it’s the number five horse, ‘Color Me Gone.’  You know

what I think?”

I wasn’t sure where he was going with this, but I was getting excited, nonetheless.

“What?” I asked.

“I think it’s a boat race.”

“What’s a boat race?”

Jack leaned toward me and said in a hushed tone, “The fix is in.”

Immediately, my eyes shot up to the board.  The five horse was listed at 77 – 1.

Jack handed me a hundred dollar bill and said, “On the nose.”

“Really?” I gulped.

Really.  How much you got on you?”

I did a quick inventory of the small bills in my wallet.  “About $25.”

Jack said, “I suggest you do the same.”

The race was a beautiful thing. “Color Me Gone” stayed in the middle of the pack for the first six

furlongs. Then, as they entered the home stretch, the rest of the horses parted like the Red Sea, giving the

number five horse a clear, unobstructed path to the finish line. “Color Me Gone” won by three lengths.

Hell, I could have won the damned thing on a skateboard. I never screamed so much in my life.

“How about that,” Uncle Jack kept saying.  “How about that.”

The money paid for my first two years at UNLV.  Now, more than two decades later, it was payback time.

“Are you hungry, Uncle?” I asked.

“Not so much,” he said.

“When’s the last time you ate something?”

He thought for a moment. “I don’t know.”

We stopped at the “Mining Company,” a locals-only joint built like a cavernous tin shack. The parking

gods were with us and I zipped into a space near the front entrance.  Once we had settled into our booth, I

handed Jack his menu. He stared at it vacantly.

“What sounds good?” I asked.

Jack shook his head.

“Ham and eggs?” I prodded.  “Bacon and eggs?  Cheese omelet?  Whatever you want.  Vegas is the

breakfast capital of the world.”

Jack shook his head again.

“I’m getting the bacon,” I told him.

“What’s that?” he asked.

Rather than answering him, I flagged down our server, a petite, attractive woman in her mid-forties.

Can you do me a big favor?” I asked.

“Sure thing, hon.”

“Is there an extra piece of bacon you can show my uncle?”  Lowering my voice, I added, “He’s a little

confused.”

She turned to Jack, her face brightening.  He was, after all, a cute old guy.  “Hi there, sweetie. What’s

your name?”

Jack looked up, returning her smile. “Jack.”

“Well, Jack, you just relax and Barb’ll take care of you.” Barb extended her hand and they shook. A few

seconds later, she was back with a solitary strip of bacon for Jack’s inspection.

“How’s that look, Uncle?” I asked.

“I’ll take it,” he said.

Barb brought our breakfasts a few minutes later. Jack ate slowly, carefully polishing off every last

morsel. When he finished, his plate looked like it had come right out of the dishwasher.

“Uncle Jack, I thought you weren’t hungry.”

“I wasn’t,” he said.

“Could’ve fooled me.”

With a serious expression, he said, “At home, I eat corn flakes.”

“That can be arranged,” I said. “Would corn flakes make you happy?”

“Corn flakes don’t make me happy,” he replied.

I left Barb a really big tip, more like a cleaning fee to cover all the scraps Jack had inadvertently let fall

from his fork.  Afterwards, we wandered around the small casino.

“Do you want to play slots?” I asked.

“I think so,” Jack said, reaching for his wallet. “Larry gave me some dough.”

“Your money’s no good here,” I assured him.

His eyes narrowed.  “It isn’t?”

“No, they only take local money.” Leading him to a nearby ATM, I inserted my card.  A short time later,

amid the usual buzzing and whirring, it handed me $40.

“You won!” Uncle Jack said.

“It’s the only sure thing in town.”

I sat him in front of a nickel machine and slid in a $20.

“Just keep pushing this button,” I instructed. “If you hit three 7’s, you’ll win the progressive jackpot.

Over $800.”

Within ten minutes, he had tripled his investment.

“Hey, Uncle, you’re up $60. Want to cash out?”

For the first time since his arrival, his eyes twinkled, just like the old days. Pushing the button again, he

said, “I didn’t come all this way to win $60.”

Maybe we’re on to something, I thought.  Gambling as occupational therapy.  Soon, a server stopped

by to take our drink order.

“What’ll you boys have?” she asked. She was a good-looking blonde stuffed into a low-cut uniform

that showed off her considerable assets.

When Jack didn’t answer, I asked him, “What are you drinking, Uncle?”

He looked up at the ceiling, possibly hoping to find the answer there.  At length, he shrugged and said,

“I don’t remember.”

“Can you describe it?” I asked.  “What’s it look like?”

“Brown, maybe.  I’ll know it if I hear it.”

“Tea?”

“No, that’s not it.”

“Coke?”

Jack shook his head.

“What a nice man,” our server said. “He reminds me of my grandpa. He always drinks bourbon.”

Jack broke into a wide grin. “That’s it,” he said.

“Uncle, are you sure?” I asked.

“Sure I’m sure. Bourbon.”

Our server looked at me for assurance. “Oh, what the hell,” I said.  “Bring me one, too.  Wild Turkey on

the rocks.”  Turning to Jack, I said, “Now don’t say anything to Larry.”

“About what?” he asked.

“Perfect.”

We stayed for over an hour, sipping and playing. Jack’s fortunes rose and fell, until the machine finally

swallowed the last of his money. He continued to press the button.

“You’re out of ammunition,” I explained. “Want to play some more?”

“No, I’m tired. I think I could use a nap.”

“Same here.”

We got back to my place a little after two. In the days before Jack’s visit, I had turned the downstairs

den into a makeshift guest room. Now I showed him around, pointing out the sofa sleeper, chest of

drawers and bathroom.

“Who’s that?” Jack asked, indicating my miserable son-of-a-bitch cat, resting on top of the TV. His

favorite trick is to swish his tail back and forth across the screen, making it impossible to watch anything.

When my ex and I split, she got the money and I got the cat. The cat and I barely tolerate each other. I

think we’re waiting to see who dies first.

“That’s Phantom,” I said.  “Stay away from him.  He’ll bite you soon as look at you.”

Ignoring my warning, Jack called out, “Here kitty, kitty.” To my surprise, Phantom jumped from his

roost and sashayed across the room to where my Uncle was sitting.

“Careful!” I warned. All I needed was for Phantom to draw blood. Before I could intervene, the

worthless creature leaped onto Jack’s lap, rubbing his black and white face against his polyester shirt. Jack

stroked the cat’s head softly.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” I said. “You want him, he’s yours.”

Jack looked pleased. “I’ll ask Larry,” he said, leaning forward to remove his Velcro sneakers.

“Let me help with those,” I said, gently removing the shoes. “Do you need anything else?”

“No thanks,” he answered.

“I’ll be in the other room if you do.”

Later, when I checked on him, he and the cat were curled up together, snoring away like two out of

Three Stooges. They slept all the way through to the next morning. I have to admit I felt guilty, wearing the

poor guy out like that. The next time I poked my head in, Jack was flat on his back, his arms crossed over

his chest. Just like a corpse, I thought grimly, before chasing the notion from my head.  But when he

finally awoke, he seemed sharper than he had the day before.

“Sleep good?” I asked him.

He raised himself up on one elbow, sending the cat scampering. “I think so,” he said.  “What’s for dinner?”

“It’s morning, Uncle.”

“Oh.”

“Jet lag,” I explained. “What do you want to do today?”

Jack squinted at me for a long time. Finally, he asked, “They got any race tracks around here?”

“Every one,” I said. “Every single one.”

After breakfast, we headed for Sunset Station, where I thought I remembered seeing a race and sports

book near the front entrance. I pulled the truck up to the curb and off-loaded Jack, depositing him on a

concrete bench. “I’ll be back as soon as I park,” I told him. “Don’t move.”

He didn’t. When I sprinted back to the bench, he was still as a statue, listening to a young couple in

matching t-shirts blame each other for losing all their money.

“I don’t like this show,” Jack said, frowning. “How do we change it?”

“Let’s go inside.”

Leading him through the big glass doors, I was relieved to see the race book on our immediate right.

Jack stared in awe at the giant TV screens looming over the proceedings like something out of Mission

Control. We procured a Racing Form and squeezed into two seats in the third row. Dead betting tickets

littered the table like so much toilet paper. The place was about half full. Next to us sat a sixty-something

gent, peering over his glasses and munching on a fat cigar like it was a Tootsie Roll.

Turning to Jack, I said, “Pretty cool, huh?”

“What’s playing?” he asked.

“Everything.  Arlington, Louisiana Downs, Monmouth, California Fairgrounds, Hollywood Park,

Belmont, Calder, Pimlico, Delaware.”

“Isn’t that something,” he said in amazement.

A voice over the P.A. system crackled, “Last call for Pimlico.”

“Ready to go to work?” I asked Jack.

“Yep,” he said, scratching his palm.

“Does your hand itch, Uncle?”

He stopped and stared at it. “I guess it does.”

“You know what that means.”

“Money,” he said.

“You got that right.”

Jack could no longer see the numbers in the Form, so I tried reading him the information aloud.  After a

while, we both realized that was futile, and he began picking the ponies based on their names, positions

and jockeys. Just like ninety percent of America.

“I like that ‘Mr. Sandman,’” he’d tell me, and I’d stick five bucks on the nose.

“Leave it to you to pick the chalk,” I said. Jack winked knowingly.

“Mr. Sandman” won by a neck.

“Hey, Uncle, give me a high five,” I said.

“A what?”

I held up his right hand and gave it a soft tap. After a few more wins, Jack was high-fiving like a pro.

By the end of the day, we were up $56. I tried giving it all to Jack, but he forced me to split it.

“Okay,” I said finally, “but dinner’s on me.”

We drove through “In-N-Out Burger” and then dinner was on Jack. On his pants, mainly. So we made

an unscheduled stop at the Dillard’s men’s department, where he picked out a blue seersucker suit off the

rack. I didn’t even know they made those any more.

“How do I look?” he asked, admiring himself in the mirror.

“Like a million bucks.”

The phone was ringing when we got home. Cousin Larry.

“Mitch, I’ve been so worried.  Is everything all right?  How’s Dad?” Suddenly I remembered I’d turned off my cell phone at the casino. Race and sports book rules.

“He’s great. We were at the race book all day.”

He paused.  “Did he get his nap?”

“He said he wasn’t sleepy.”

“Can I talk to him?”

“Sure,” I said, handing the phone to my uncle. “It’s for you.”

Jack stayed on the line a few minutes, saying things like “yes,” and “okay,” and “uh-huh.” At last, he

gave the receiver back to me.

“He sounds good,” Larry said.

“He is good.  We’re having fun.”

“Really?”

“Honest,” I assured him.

“Well, we’re leaving tomorrow. Can you bring him to the hotel about noon?”

I felt a little pang of regret. “Not a problem.”

“Mitch, I owe you one.

“No, you don’t,” I said.

We said our good-byes the next day, swapping stories, stalling as long as we could.  When it was time for them to go, I gave my uncle a good long hug, thinking I might never see him again.

“You’re the best,” I told him.

“You, too,” he said, giving me a final squeeze.

As they got in the car, Larry said, “Don’t be a stranger. Come for a visit.”

“I’ll do that.”

Six months later, I got the call. Jack had died in his sleep. I flew back for the funeral.  It was nice, as they

all are. Sad and bittersweet and heartwarming at the same time. While I sat in the chapel, my mind kept

drifting back to Jack’s visit. It was a gift really, for both of us. I’m not sure I believe in the hereafter. But I do

know one thing.  Wherever Jack is, he’s still a helluva guy.

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