attention mobile-device users:
scroll to the bottom for access to story menus.
thank you for reading.
The Heartwarming Ballad of Grandpa Red
By Dave Shulman
First published in L.A. Weekly, April 7, 2005.
Grandpa Red was no one’s grandfather and had never raised a single red hair. He was only 36 years old, and at birth had been named Stanley, but when he was 15, after his grandparents were killed by something falling from the sky, he began calling himself Grandpa Red.
I’ll never be as good a grandparent as my grandparents were, young Stanley wrote somberly in his diary, after the funeral. Unless I start training.
Stanley quit the tennis team. He’d ride straight home from school, toss his backpack on the couch, grab the remote and search through the airwaves for instructions on how to be a good grandpa, eventually finding All in the Family, Sanford and Son and Chico and the Man. Stanley spent hours each afternoon studying the gestures of Carroll O’Connor, Redd Foxx and Jack Albertson (and Abe Vigoda, on those rare occasions when he could find a rerun of Fish).
He soon took to wearing beat-up fedoras and smoking cigars in front of the television set, puttering around in threadbare argyle socks and rumpled cardigan sweaters with bits of pipe tobacco in the pockets. Making unsavory comments for cheap laughs. Eating a lot of soup. On the day he legally changed his first name to Grandpa and his last name to Red, he dyed his hair white for the first time.
His hair had been white for some 21 years when, one Saturday afternoon, Grandpa Red drove his ’64 Plymouth Silverlake to the supermarket to liberate 3 pounds of lamb shanks.
“Anything else, sir?” the butcher said.
Red winked and chuckled, “No thanks. And call me Red.”
“Why should I?” the wise old butcher replied, ringing up the lamb.
“Well, why the hell not?” said Grandpa Red — the same thing that he always said.
“Whatever,” said the butcher, handing Red the meat. “Anything else?” he was required to repeat.
“Rassin’ frassin’,” was all Grandpa Red could bear to say. It was a sound he’d once or twice heard Abe Vigoda make. “Rassin’ frassin’ crassin’, ” as he walked and drove away.
Back home from the store with his package of lamb, Grandpa Red made soup and listened to Glen Campbell. He smashed the garlic with a hammer and diced the onions, potatoes and carrots. There was no stock, and nothing was seared, seasoned, sautéed, rendered or prepared in any way. He just dumped everything into boiling water, salted and peppered it down and lowered the flame to simmer. That’s how you make a pot of soup, thought Grandpa Red, because that’s what the people who’d taught him had said. He never considered that they might’ve been wrong. And now he sang along with Glen to an Ernest Tubb song, “Tomorrow Never Comes”:
Oh, tomorrow never comes
No, tomorrow never comes
Now you tell me that you love me
But tomorrow never comes
“What is that?!” came a shriek from the top of the stairs, in a tone so loud and dramatic that it caused the hairs on the back of Red’s neck to bristle as if from static.
“Glen Campbell!” Red yelled to his wife upstairs. “I’m making soup down here!”
“You’re what!?” said his wife, even louder still.
“Making soup!!” barked Grandpa Red to the stairs; and “Making soup?!” she screamed in reply. But Red was all done with talking for now; he just snarled and grumbled and sighed.
After a few minutes’ intermission, the voice of his wife returned. This time ’twas even louder still, and even more anxious, desperate and shrill: “WHAT IS IT THAT YOU’RE LISTENING TO, RED??!!”
Grandpa Red took a deep breath and bellowed right back, as a song called “Bad Seed” was climaxing, “It’s fucking Glen Campbell!!”
“Oh,” said his wife. “It’s nice. It’s very relaxing.”
“Rassin’ frassin’,” mumbled grumpy Grandpa Red, because it was fun to say. “Rassin’ frassin’ crassin’. ” He carried the soup — the whole pot, on a tray — to the living-room coffee table. And settling there, on the couch by the stairs, he revved up the digital cable. But unable to locate a suitable program with which to embellish his meal, Grandpa Red gave up and popped in a tape, interrupting Let’s Make a Deal. The tape was cued to episode 62 of Chico and the Man, in which Ed (Jack Albertson) hears the voice of God. It was the last episode made before Freddie Prinze shot himself.
Because there’s good in everyone
And a new day has beguh-huh-hun
You can see the morning sun if you try.
And I know, things will be better
Oh yes they will for Chico and the Man
Yes they will for Chico and the Man.
Later that night, Grandpa Red did awaken, and headed to the kitchen for a bowl of corn flaken. And a beer, and a chicken leg, and whatever was inside one of those clear plastic takeout containers, possibly. “What the fuck is that, there?” Red wondered aloud. “Crap!”
“What the fuck is what, Red?” came a shriek from afar.
“Nothing!” said Red. “I’m fixing a snack!”
“Well, Jesus Christ!” his wife re-shrieked, like a trumpet through a cloud. “Try not to make so much goddamn noise!”
“Fine,” muttered Red, hauling more food to the coffee table and settling back on the couch for a dose of Sanford and Son — episode 19, in which Fred (Redd Foxx) visits a white dentist.
An hour later, with his belly full and his mind at peace, Grandpa Red lay beside his sleeping, grumpy young wife and sifted through memories of his short, old life. Everything seemed to be in order, but just as he was about to drift off, Grandpa Red was stunned by a grandfatherly thought — perhaps the first such genuine thought since his grandparents died: Perhaps he hadn’t lived for the past 21 years, but for just one year, 21 times. Grandpa Red rose again and went downstairs. The training seemed to be working.