The Real Paella

by: Dennis Vannatta1

What do you do when you’re in your fifties and can’t even think of a halfway plausible dream to take you into tomorrow?

Paella (JohnOlsen)

Chris James stood on the front porch surveying the wooden ramp. It was four feet wide and ran from the top of the steps to the walkway below, which the carpenter had completed earlier that morning. Geometry had never been his best subject, but he’d estimate the walkway’s slope at close to forty degrees. Steep, he thought.

“You’ll never get him up there,” Chris’s Aunt Bonnie, coming out onto the porch behind him, said.

“We’ll make it. The ambulance driver will help.”

“Well, then you’ll have to tip him,” she said.

Up until arriving in Belle Harbor, Queens, almost three weeks prior, when Chris’s father was at death’s door, Aunt Bonnie had spent most of her life upstate in Kingston. She thought the great horror of living in New York City was the necessity to tip every living soul who crossed your path. Aunt Bonnie’s personality could be a trial sometimes, but Chris loved her dearly and shuddered every time she mentioned going back home to her cats, which she missed terribly. How would he manage with his father without her help? Chris wasn’t a caregiver and there no use in him pretending otherwise

“You should have put in one of those motorized lifts. I’ve seen them on TV. They work real good.” Aunt Bonnie suggested.

“Those cost thousands of dollars, Aunt Bonnie. And think how much I’d have to tip the workers who put that in.”

Aunt Bonnie missed the joke. “Yes, but who are you going to get to help you after today?” she asked. “You know I couldn’t pull George up that ramp, not with my arthritis.”

Chris turned away from the ramp and looked at his aunt.

“Aunt Bonnie, you and I both know that Pop will go down that tramp only one more time after he comes home.”

“No, I do not know that. My brother is a tough old coot. He may surprise us all.”

Chris looked back down at the ramp wistfully.

The rehab center phoned at noon later that day and the worker on the other end of the line said the ambulance was on its way. A half hour later it pulled up in front of the house and the driver and attendant got Chris’s father out on a wheeled stretcher and the two of them rolled him up the ramp and into the house. They lifted him off the stretcher and onto the hospital bed that had replaced the old double that he and his late wife, Chris’s mother, had slept in for half a century. Chris extended a twenty to the driver. “You and your buddy buy yourselves some lunch.” He could feel Aunt Bonnie behind him shaking her head in dismay.

“Well, here you are back home, Pop,” Chris said to his father, who lay on the bed with his eyes clenched shut, his head rolling slowly from side to side as he took great ragged breaths.

“Oh, he’s happy. You’re happy to be home, aren’t you, Georgie?” Aunt Bonnie cooed.

Chris’s father said nothing. He’d been a heavy smoker and had suffered from emphysema for years, then more recently from congestive heart failure. Two months ago he’d fallen and broken his shoulder. He went into the hospital for the shoulder and a sore on his knee that wouldn’t heal. Edema had set in and his body had become septic, with the infection lapsing his father ultimately into unconsciousness. Last rites were administered, and everyone thought it was the end. But Chris’s father rallied and was sent to a rehab center. While undergoing rehabilitation, the caregivers had done what little they could for him there, and then sent him home. Chris’s father, George James, was eighty-seven. His sister, Aunt Bonnie, said it was nothing short of a miracle that he was still alive. Chris wasn’t so sure he’d call it a miracle. “Medical science has a lot to answer for,” he said, but changed the subject when Aunt Bonnie asked him what he meant.

“I’d better go call the doc,” Chris said. “The doc said to let him know when Pop got home.”

Chris left  his father’s room and went back out onto the porch to phone Doctor Cerdan.

Doctor Cerdan must have been at his house in Neponset, just a dozen blocks away, instead of at his office in the city because he arrived at the house in only a couple of minutes.

He took the Chris’s father’s pulse and listened to his heartbeat for a moment, then patted his hand and half-shouted as if his patient were deaf, “I’ll bet you’re happy to be home, aren’t you, George?”

Chris’s father didn’t open his eyes or attempt to speak but did, with some effort, something with his right hand. Chris bet he was trying to give Doctor Cerdan a thumbs up. In his office at Con-Ed, where he’d worked for forty years, George James was known as “Thumbs.” He would give that thumbs up as an affirmation, a greeting, and sometimes, as a farewell. He’d give a thumbs up to the television when the Rangers put one in the net and when the weatherman forecast sunny skies.

Doctor Cerdan gave the old man’s hand another pat and then gestured for Chris to follow him. They went out onto the porch.

“So how do things look for us, Chris?”

“I was hoping you’d tell me, Doc.”

“What? Oh, you mean with your father? We’ll have to wait and see. What else can we do? No, I meant how are things going with Pookie?” Chris paused before responding, which Doctor Cerdan took as an opening to speak some more.

“Listen to this. I’ve had this great idea. We could put in a sort of pit, fire pit maybe you’d call it, where we’d have this huge cast iron kettle, twenty-five gallons, over a wood fire. It’d be right in the middle of the restaurant with the diners all around. And, guess what, I’ve already got the kettle! Come on over to the house and I’ll show it to you. It’s the most beautiful damn thing you ever saw. It’ll be used exclusively for paella, my own recipe – or I should say my father’s. We’ll have a cook who’ll do nothing but make paella. That’ll be our specialty. I’ve even been thinking of changing the name to Real Paella Casa Cerdan. What do you think?”

“I think it’s a mouthful. I also think that any man who wouldn’t drive fifty miles in a blizzard to eat at Real Paella Casa Cerdan is a goddamn fool,” Chris said, trying to match Doctor Cerdan’s enthusiasm, but afraid he just sounded desperate. Which he was.

Doctor Cerdan was Chris’s father’s cardiologist, but Chris hadn’t been able to really know the man until her ran into him at a Knights of Columbus fundraiser a year ago. Doctor Cerdan apparently had more money than he knew what to do with. He confessed to Chris that his pipe dream had always been to open his own restaurant, a Spanish joint, not Mexican, which was a cuisine he held in the utmost contempt.

“Hey, if you’ve got the money, it’s not a pipe dream, it’s an ambition,” Chris said. As it happened, Chris was a commercial real estate agent. With Doctor Cerdan’s permission he’d kept his eyes open. Chris had hoped that maybe he would find a property that could turn Doctor Cerdan’s dream into a reality. To Chris’s excitement, a couple of months ago he had found the perfect property: Pookie’s Seafood Restaurant in Long Beach. Pookie Winetraub had had enough of New York’s winters and was ready to sell out and move to Florida. Some lucky guy could have his restaurant for two million, a fair price, Chris assured Doctor Cerdan. Hell, the land alone, with seventy feet of ocean front, was worth at least a million he’d boasted to the man.

Chris had driven Doctor Cerdan over and introduced him to Pookie. Doctor Cerdan loved the place. He called Chris every other day with some new idea for the menu, the décor, or the wait staff. As for putting in an actual bid, he was having trouble pulling the trigger.

It was vital to Chris that Doctor Cerdan pull that trigger. Chris hadn’t had a sale in months and he had mounting debts. Fortunately, his eldest son was at long last self-sufficient, but Chris still had alimony payments to his ex, Louise, a bitch of the first order in his mind. Now, in his fifties, Chris was back living with his father after moving out of his old apartment in the middle of the night, one step ahead of an eviction order. He parked his BMW in a different location every time, always blocks away from the house, to throw the repo man off the scent. He was incredibly dependant on the car for his job. A real estate agent couldn’t take a client to a property on the subway. With a potential sale like this though, Chris could make upwards of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars in commission.

Chris liked Doctor Cerdan. He was a genuinely nice guy who cared for his father and insisted Chris call him by his first name, Tomas, but he needed him to act, and fast.

“I think – I’m pretty close to one hundred percent positive – that I can get you Pookie’s for one seventy-five, Tomas.”

“One seventy-five?”

“I’m absolutely sure of it.”

“One seventy-five!”

Doctor Cerdan turned toward the street where his Mercedes was parked and raised both fists in a gesture of triumph. Only then did Chris notice the woman in the car. She was thirtyish, plump, with bad skin and a helmet of blue-black hair. Chris noticed her huge black eyes that were at once melancholy and indifferent.

Doctor Cerdan’s smile faded. “That’s my daughter, Mariela. That’s my sorrow.”

The BMW was parked three blocks away, but by the time Chris took a left, right, right, left, and then backtracked several blocks, it took him eight blocks to get to it. But that was okay. Chris needed the exercise. He hadn’t played golf since he had sold his clubs, and his diet could stand improvement, with most of his calories lately coming from a bottle.

It was two thirty by the time Chris got to Long Beach, but Pookie’s Seafood didn’t open until five. Chris banged on the front door until Pookie Winetraub, looking irritated and suspicious, put his face to the window. When he saw it was Chris, though, he smiled broadly, opened the door, and pulled him inside.

“Come in, my friend!” Pookie greeted Chris loudly, “You look hungry. Come on. I’ll make you a little something. No arguing! Just a bite. A small piece of sole in a butter sauce. It’s the first thing Julia Child ate when she landed in France. It turned her into a chef.”

Chris followed Pookie – five feet tall with gray-hair and bowed legs – into the kitchen. Pookie turned on a burner under a skillet and plopped in an enormous dollop of butter.

“Pookie, I just talked to Tomas Cerdan. He’ll go one seventy-five. I can get you one-seventy-five!”

Pookie prodded the slowly melting butter with a pair of tongs. Chris didn’t see any sole anywhere.

“One seventy-five. That’s great. Stand back so I can start dancing. So he’ll put his name on a sale agreement?”

“He’s ready to take the plunge.”

“Will he sign? Right now?”

“Well, of course he’ll have to talk to his lawyer. It may take a day or two.”

Pookie switched off the burner. Slowly, he turned back to Chris.

“Chris, I’ve got a firm offer of one-six. I’m signing the papers tomorrow afternoon.”

“One-six? Pookie, I can get you one seventy-five. That’s one hundred and fifty thousand dollars difference. That’s a lot of fish, Pookie. Just give me a couple more days.”

Pookie lifted his shoulders and raised his arms in a great shrug. “Chris, I married a young wife. I thought I was robbing the cradle. But that was many, many years ago. I want to move to Florida and watch her walk on the beach in a bikini before her tits are down to her knees.”

He looked at Chris, maybe felt sorry for him, because he shrugged again and said, “Of course, like you say, one-fifty more buys a lot of sunscreen. If you can get over here tomorrow morning with something in writing, well…”

“I can, Pookie, I know I can.”

Pookie shrugged noncommittally. “Maybe so. I hope you’re right. But you’ve been diddling with this guy for how long now? I think your Spanish doctor is waiting for the Armada to come sail him off to La-La Land.”

When Chris arrrive back to the house, Aunt Bonnie was attempting to feed his father something green from a baby food jar.

“I’ll get your dinner as soon as I finish with Georgie-Boy,” she said. “I already ate.”

“I’m meeting a guy for dinner,” Chris said. “Business.”

Chris’s father was propped up in bed. His eyes were red slits. His eyes were red slits, partially open. Aunt Bonnie raised the spoon to his mouth and tapped his lower lip with the edge, but his mouth remained closed.

Only now did Chris remember that they’d instructed him at the hospital to give his father baby food because there was a danger of his aspirating anything chunkier, but he’d forgotten to buy any. Where had Aunt Bonnie gotten the food? Chris wondered. Could she have walked down to the little grocery on 129th Street? She was only a few years younger than her brother, with cataracts in both eyes and arthritic knees and he was unsure if she was capable of adventuring out on her own.

“Come on, Georgie-Boy, you need to eat,” Aunt Bonnie intoned. “How are you going to take me dancing at Roseland if you don’t get your strength back?”

Aunt Bonnie put the spoon in her own mouth, then licked it off. She opened another jar of baby food, this one orange, dipped the spoon in, and raised it to her brother’s lips. She tapped his mouth several times gently with the spoon but his mouth remained closed.

Chris walked down to The Irish Circle on 116th Street, a mile away. Anytime he went to his car was one more chance for the repo man to get his mitts on it. His plan was to drink until he fell off the bar stool. Anybody who said the world didn’t look better through the bottom of a beer glass had had a different life than Chris.

Just as he was about to enter the bar, Chris recieved a call on his cell phone. He backed out onto the sidewalk to take the call. It was Doctor Cerdan.

“Chris, old buddy! You’re coming over to dinner tonight.”

“I am?”

“Yes. I’m going to cook you a paella dinner. It’s long overdue.”

“Paella! Sounds good to me, amigo. What time do you want me?”

“Ten o’clock. We’re dining late like good Madrilenos. Have a tapas or two to tide you over if you feel the need.”

“Tapas? Is that Spanish for beer?”

“It is if you want it to be.”

“OK, Tommy Boy, I’ll see you at ten.”

Chris felt like dancing a jig into the bar. Doctor Cerdan had never invited him to his house before, not to break bread, anyway.

To break bread. It sounded sacred, spiritual. Doctor Cerdan had certainly invited Chris over for something special, something important. Chris wasn’t going to go out on an emotional limb and tell himself that Doctor Cerdan was ready to put his name on the dotted line, but at the very least the good Doctor would be in a mood to listen to a sweetened deal. Pookie’s Seafood for one point six million. It wouldn’t be the one hundred and fifty thousand dollar commission Chris had dreamed of, but one hundred and twenty thousand dollars could still buy a lot of draft beer at The Irish Circle.

Chris put his cell phone back in his pocket and walked in the bar. It was not quite seven o’clock, too early for the college kids and after-dinner crowd, but several of the old guys, the regulars, were saddled up at the dimly lit bar: Chris made out Reggie Cash, Freddy More, and Johnny Flake. There at his usual spot anchoring the end of the bar was Chris’s old friendl, Stan Langenwalter.

“Stan, I’m in a good mood tonight. Drinks on you, my friend.” Chris roared.

“In a good mood, hey? Then let’s drink until we cure you of this madness. I’ll be happy to buy you one if you buy me two.”

“How can I refuse that? Deal!”

Stan was a UPS dispatcher and a self-described functioning alcoholic. Over the years, he’d bought Chris a lot more drinks than Chris had bought him. More importantly, Stan was a witty cynic (for him the glass was half full of hemlock) who rarely failed to cheer Chris up.

To their shared love of beer and bitching about the sorry-ass condition of humanity was their similar fate at the hands of women. Stan had Chris beat, he often insisted. Whereas Louise had merely run off with Chris’s son and money, Stan’s ex had run off with his brother and his bowling ball. There was no explanation for the significance of the bowling ball, but Stan never got more than three sentences into his account of his wife’ perfidy without the bowling ball making its appearance. Chris would laugh every time until he cried.

The two barflies waited until they had their beers in hand, and then Stan said, raising his lager in the air, “OK, tell me all about the wonders awaiting you.”

Chris didn’t have to fill Stan in on the complete background, since they’d met at the bar at least two or three times a week for years. He just told him the latest updates: Doctor Cerdan enthused about his new paella kettle and his fire pit idea; Pookie desperate to sell; and, best of all, the invitation to dinner at the Doctor’s house that very night.

When he’d finished, Stan looked at Chris for a moment, then made a little shooing motion and said, “Move over. Take that next barstool.”

“Huh? Why?”

“Because you’re about to get shit all over, and I don’t want any of it to land on me.”

“No, really, I think this could be my day, Stan.”

“And I’m going to get my bowling ball back via carrier pigeon. Move over!”

Chris started to go over it all again, but Stan cut him short: “No, my delusional pal, there’s only one way you’re going to come up with any real dough. You know what you have to do.”

Stan mimicked picking up something in both hands, then slowly but emphatically pressing it downward, as he did so saying, “Time to go, Daddy-O. Long past time.”

Chris almost choked laughing with a mouthful of beer even though he’d seen this bit a dozen times, Stan’s solution to Chris’s money problems was to do away with his father, smothering his own flesh and blood with a pillow his preferred means. “Off the old man, sell the house, worth probably six hundred thousand on today’s market, and your money problems are solved.”

“You’re going to be surprised, Stan. I can feel it in my bones. Today is my day. I’m serious.”

“I’m serious, too. Move over.”

At 9:45 pm Chris left The Irish Circle and walked to his car, then drove over to Doctor Cerdan’s house. He wanted to pull up to the house in the BMW to project an aura of success. He didn’t want his one and only client seeing him hoofing it up the street in the middle of the night.

Doctor Cerdan met him at the door wearing an apron.

“Come on through to the kitchen. Follow your nose to heaven.”

Chris had been in the house several times but never past the living room. The home was expansive and beautifully decorated, yet a bit too big for just the doctor and his daughter.

Chris wondered about Mariela. There was something that felt off about her. Doctor Cerdan had alluded to something happening to her long ago, but in vague terms, and Chris hadn’t pressed him on it. This afternoon, talking to Doctor Cerdan on the front porch was the only time he’d ever seen her. Apparently, she almost never left the house.

The kitchen was big enough to play a lacrosse match in. Doctor Cerdan went over to a range that probably cost as much as Chris’s car and dipped a ladle into a pot shaped like a large wok, raised it to his face, and breathed in.

“Ah, this is paella. This is the real thing.”

“I can’t wait to tuck into that, as the Brits say. But that’s not your new kettle, is it, Tomas?”

“This? No no, of course not. That’s out back.”

He put the ladle back in pot and once more began to stir. He seemed to be looking at a spot just beyond the steaming paella.

“I think I’m probably better on the smaller pot, anyway,” he said without turning to look at Chris. “A big kettle like that, that’s for the pro’s. Maybe I’ll use that one out back for a bathtub.” He barked out a short, dry laugh.

“You’ll be a pro once you open up your own place,” Chris said.

But Doctor Cerdan didn’t answer. He stood slowly stirring, not quite looking at the pot. Chris knew it was all over.

“You’re not going to buy the restaurant,” Chris said, and Doctor Cerdan shrugged and said, “Mariela didn’t want it. It was for her, you see. I thought, I don’t know, maybe she could manage it or be the hostess or something. But she didn’t want it.”

“But what about your dream, Tomas?”

Doctor Cerdan turned back to Chris and said with something approaching anger, “My dream was for Mariela, that she’d have something of her own, make her live again. What the fuck do I care about a restaurant?”

Then his manner softened, and he said, “I’m sorry, Chris.”

“Hey, I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me. But what about you, Tomas? What are you going to do now?”

Doctor Cerdan shrugged. “Find something else, something that Mariela will be interested in. You have to keep trying, right? But that’s for tomorrow. Tonight, here, let’s eat. It’s always good to eat.”

Doctor Cerdan poured a ladleful of paella into a bowl and handed it to Chris. Chris took a spoonful, blew on it, then tasted it. “Damn good,” he said. In fact, it was absolutely delicious.

After dinner Chris stood on the sidewalk in front of Doctor Cerdan’s house. His car was gone. Chris looked left up the street, then right. Gone. It had been a long, long day. The repo man had finally found him out.

When he arrived home, the house was dark except for the nightlight in his father’s bedroom. Chris must have misunderstood. He thought the plan had been for Aunt Bonnie to sleep on a cot near his father in case he became worse in the night. She must have decided to sleep in one of the spare bedrooms upstairs, though, because there his father lay, alone, head propped on two pillows to ease his breathing, the sheet and blanket folded down neatly across his chest, and his arms straight down at his sides. His wispy hair, which had been going every which way when he arrived from the hospital, was now neatly combed. Chris’s father lay so still it was hard to tell if he was breathing. But then he took a long, rattling breath breaking the silence within the room.

“Pop,” Chris began. He wanted to tell his father about his difficult day, and about his great, foolish perhaps, hope. A hope that one day things would all come together for him, and he’d turn things around. But instead of saying that, Chris emitted something between a hiccup and a sob and said, “Daddy, they took my car. What do I do now?”

What do you do when you’re in your fifties and can’t even think of a halfway plausible dream to take you into tomorrow? Chris wondered. He stared at his father for a long time. Then Chris reached down and slowly, carefully pulled the top pillow out from under his father’s head. As quietly as he could, Chris raised the pillow by its corners and shook it up and down, then held it against his chest and smoothed the pillow case. He turned it so that the side warmed by his father’s head was on the bottom, then gently slid the pillow back under his head.

There was a tray beside the bed and on the tray a glass of water, a box of tissues, and one of the little jars of baby food and a spoon. Chris picked up the jar and screwed off the lid. In the wan light he couldn’t tell what color the puree was. He dipped the spoon in, then, imitating Aunt Bonnie, he tapped the spoon to his father’s lips. His father’s mouth came open just enough for Chris to insert the tip of the spoon and rake off a bit of food.

His father’s eyes, closed until then, came open just slightly, no more than glinting, empty slits against his pale and wrinkled skin. His right hand, which a moment before had been lying flat on the bed, had canted over a quarter turn. His father’s hand trembled as if he was making a tremendous effort. Then his thumb came up, no more than a quarter of an inch.

 

Dennis Vannatta is a Pushcart and Porter Prize winner, with stories published in many magazines and anthologies, including Chariton Review, Boulevard, and Antioch Review. His sixth collection of stories, The Only World You Get¸was recently published by Et Alia Press.

  1. Header art by John Olsen. []

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