The Ring Bling, Part One: The Setup
I pulled my rental car in behind my grandma’s Mercedes and killed the engine. Even though I’d been running the AC full blast since I’d left the airport in order to counteract the ungodly high Florida humidity, I could still smell the sea through the vents. Which would make sense since I could get out of the car, walk ten steps, and be on the beach.
So that’s what I did. I stood at the edge of the sidewalk where it met the sand and looked out at the water. It had been a long time since I’d been to a coast. Ten years maybe? My husband Brian kept promising that we would take our long-overdue Hawaiian vacation sometime soon, but he’d been saying that since we got married five years ago. And we didn’t have many beaches in Fort Worth, Texas, where we lived. I cursed at myself for having forgotten my swimsuit.
I took a deep breath of salty air and turned back to the house and my grandma’s black E350. I had to admit I was a touch jealous of her sweet ride. We’d all heard about it of course, and it was one of the reasons I was now in the Florida Keys on this sticky September day.
Marge Flanders was my grandma on my dad’s side, and I called her G-ma. Three months earlier, she’d left out of Miami on a senior’s cruise to the Bahamas. She’d gotten back to land okay, but never made it home to Enid, Oklahoma, where she lived with my parents. She would call once a week and tell my dad that she was fine and loving her new friends and fast-paced life. But honestly, how fast-paced could your life be when you were in your seventies?
She’d said that she just needed a change. My dad Riff, the older of G-ma’s two sons, said she’d be fine and that we shouldn’t worry. He said she was a grownup and could sow her big-city oats if she wanted to. We all figured she’d come home eventually, like when she ran out of money or got tired of living by the ocean—whichever came first.
However, when word got back to the family that G-ma had up and bought herself a German-made car, that was the last straw. My parents sent me out to the coast to put an end to her madness and bring her back home. Her bridge club was suffering without her, after all. And it wasn’t like I was doing anything else anyway—I’d just been laid off from my job as an accountant for a government agency that I’m not allowed to talk about. Except for the fact that they let me go after ten years of service. I hadn’t found a new job yet, so I agreed to be G-ma’s bounty hunter.
So here I was in North Key Largo, outside the beach house Marge was renting with three other retirees. It had taken a bit of finagling to find exactly where she was staying, but let’s just say I had a few connections between family and friends, and leave it at that.
I looked up at the house, which sat on stilts above the carport. It was the weirdest setup I’d ever seen. No basement? Where did they go when a tornado came through? It wasn’t natural. And how did these fragile retirees navigate those steep stairs?
I shrugged off my questions and steeled my reserve. No sense in putting it off any longer. I climbed the wooden staircase to the front door, knocked, and waited.
There were two other cars in the carport—a 2020 Lexus convertible and a 2018 BMW X3—so I assumed at least one other person would be around to answer the door. It was already 10 a.m. Didn’t seniors get up at impossibly early hours? Another question I added to my list. I knocked again.
Finally I turned the doorknob—and wouldn’t you know it, it was unlocked. I took that as a standing invitation to enter, so I did. And what I saw just about surprised the ever-living daylights out of me.
The place was an absolute mess. No way on earth could this be where my G-ma lived. She was one of the tidiest people I knew. Nothing ever lay out of place at her house, let alone got dusty. But this place looked worse than my cousin Harold’s apartment, and he had the forgivable excuse of being one of “God’s special children,” according to my G-ma.
The décor seemed questionable, to be polite. The pile of the baby-blue carpet was so high that I left a wake as I walked into the living room. Two couches that looked like floral-upholstered freight trains sat at right angles to each other, and a coffee table resembling a giant glass ashtray completed the tableau. The wallpaper was also light blue, with a subtle shell pattern in flocked velvet.
Red plastic cups littered the floor, along with bits of popcorn, a few cigarette butts, and what appeared to be raisins, but I couldn’t be sure and had no interest in investigating further. Natural Light beer cans lay scattered everywhere—on the coffee table, the floor, tucked into the bookshelf, and on the half-wall separating the living room from the kitchen sat about forty empty liquor bottles. My jaw dropped. All I could think about was how I would explain to my dad that his mother was living like a college girl gone wild.
Walking on the carpet felt like walking through mud—I’d take a step and then sink. Lord only knew what might be in there, lost to all but the most powerful vacuum cleaners. As if on cue, I stepped on something hard with my right shoe. It felt big, like a golf ball, but I couldn’t see anything. I moved my foot, kneeled to examine the imprint in the carpet, and pulled out a diamond so clear and sparkly and brilliant that it really did seem as big as a golf ball. There were no words to describe my surprise and confusion, so I just let out a small gasp.
I stood up and scratched the back of my head with one hand and gripped the rock tightly with the other. It was official: things had gotten weird. It was then that I noticed a figure lying limp on an outdoor chaise lounge on the balcony. Oh my god! A diamond and a dead body? I crept closer to the open sliding glass door and heard snoring. The man was passed out on his back, one hand on his round belly, the other hanging off the side of the deck chair. He looked to be around my G-ma’s age. I hoped it wasn’t her boyfriend. A seagull landed on the balcony railing and eyed the man’s stomach. I swear the bird looked gleeful. It seemed like a good time for me to walk away.
I needed to find G-ma, stat.
When I turned around, I nearly ran into a woman whose wispy white hair came up to my collar bones. As quickly and surreptitiously as I could, I slipped the diamond into the pocket of my chinos.
“Hello, young lady,” the woman said to my boobs.
“Hi,” I said to the top of her head.
She peered up at me and her bright blue eyes twinkled. “You must be Marge’s daughter.”
I wish I could say this mistake was a fluke, but it happened more than I was comfortable admitting. I wasn’t sure if it was because my G-ma was so youthful, or I just looked a lot older than thirty-five. I didn’t want to know.
“I’m her granddaughter. Griffin Beckett.” I stuck out my hand but she just sized me up, giving me a full once-over before pulling her robe tighter around her slight frame. I was glad she did it, as I’d been about to see more than I cared to of what was underneath.
“Well,” she said. “That’s nice.”
So much for introductions. I shrugged and looked past her toward a hallway leading farther into the house. “Can you tell me where she is?”
“No,” said the white-haired lady. She scrutinized me one more time and meandered toward the kitchen, leaving me on my own and wondering what to do next.
I really hoped I wouldn’t find her in this den of depravity, but it scared me to think of where she might be if she wasn’t here. How had she gotten mixed up in a situation like this? Was she here against her will? I started to panic.
On my next in-breath, I started coughing, and couldn’t stop. Hopefully I wasn’t allergic to large, loose diamonds. Regardless, I needed some water, so I headed for the kitchen. The tiny white-haired woman had disappeared, leaving me alone in what could be described as a crime scene.
Every available inch of counter space was piled high with dirty dishes and more beer cans, and in one corner resided the largest collection of pizza boxes I’d ever seen—and I’d gone to OU for my undergrad degree. They weren’t all from the same pizza place, either. The sink was also full of dishes.
My coughing continued as I looked around, finally finding a clean-enough glass in a cabinet and a Brita pitcher in the fridge. As I drank a half-glass of water, I noticed the stove was spotless. Two clean pots sat on the back burners, and the whole thing was free of trash and dust and dirt. Curious. I’d stopped coughing, so I set my glass in the sink. I contemplated washing it, but what was the point? It would have been the nice thing to do, but under the circumstances I didn’t think anyone would notice.
I marched down the hall and the first door I came to on my right was closed but unlocked, so I flung it wide, only to find … Well, let’s just say two people were in there and I’m too polite to tell you what they were doing to each other. Just know my sweet grandma wasn’t one of those people, and I’m not sure I’ll ever get the image out of my head.
The next door was a bathroom. Empty, praise be.
At the end of the hall was another closed door, and I opened it but with more caution this time. On the bed, which was still made, was a woman splayed face-down wearing a cocktail dress, her high-heels still on her feet. She snored like a passed-out trucker. Her jet-black hair meant it wasn’t my G-ma, since my grandma was more of a purple tint kind of gal, but I crept up to the bed to make sure. Nope, not her. Some other betty.
There were only two doors left to check, so I made my way back down the hallway. The next door I came to was slightly ajar. I peeked in and there she was! My sweet G-ma, lying in bed on her back, asleep under the covers, alone.
“G-ma!” I cried, so happy to have found her. I ran to the bed and jumped onto it, bouncing into place right next to her.
She awoke with a start and a curt shout and began to hit me. “Floyd! Watch out for the hamsters!” she cried as she hit me some more.
“Grandma! It’s me, Griffin!” I tried to shield my face, but she caught me good on the temple. “Ow!”
The pummeling stopped. “Oh,” she said. “Griffin? Goodness gracious! What are you doing here?”
I unfurled myself from my defensive position as she reached over to her nightstand and chose one of two pairs of glasses resting there. Then she gave me a good look and craned her neck to peer even closer. “Dear, you really should do something about those enormous pores.”
Her arm darted out and she put her hand over my mouth. “Could you please stop yelling? Grandma had a little too much Natty Light at dinner.”
My eyes went wide with surprise. I hadn’t been yelling. And she never drank before, except on Sundays when she would have “one beer for Jesus.” But this was Saturday and I was pretty sure Jesus had better taste in alcohol.
“You’ve got your super magnifier glasses on,” I said in a softer voice.
“Well for the love of Pete,” she said, exchanging her glasses for the other ones on the nightstand. “Oh yes, much better. My dear Griffin! You’re a sight for sore eyes.” She wrapped me in a snuggly grandma hug, but after a few seconds she shoved me away. “I’ll ask you again. What on earth are you doing here?”
“I’ve come to get you and take you back home.”
“Ha! Good one. I’m not going anywhere.” She crossed her arms in front of her chest.
“Dad’s worried about you. We all are. What is this place?” I flicked my thumb toward the door. “Who are these people? Are you in a sorority or something?”
G-ma propped herself up so she was sitting against the headboard, and I did the same. “Kind of.”
“Gah! Could you get any more cryptic?” I asked.
“Yes,” she answered. “Yes, I could.”
We were silent for a moment, and I could hear the ocean through the open bedroom window. That part was nice at least.
“Who’s Floyd?” I asked.
“And what about the hamsters?”
“Griffy, stop talking nonsense.”
I shrugged. “Anyway, could we talk about what’s going on here?”
“Can I at least go to the bathroom first?”
“Tell you what. How about after that we get out of here and I take you to breakfast someplace?” Maybe if I could get her to neutral territory, I’d have a better chance of convincing her to get on that evening’s flight to DFW with me.
Her face lit up and she clapped her hands together. “That sounds marvelous! Just give me a few minutes to get dressed and put on my face.”
We decided I should wait for her outside, so I made my way through the living room again, toward the front door. This time the room started to make me seasick.
“Hey, kid!” A man’s voice that sounded like rusty nails in a Ninja blender called out right before I got to the door.
I froze, wondering if he was talking to me. When I turned around, the man who had been sleeping on the chaise lounge stood by the ashtray coffee table. He seemed to be swaying more than standing. It was then I noticed a big splotch of bird poop on the front of his shirt. Seagull 1, Old Guy 0.
“Have you seen my shoes?” he asked me.
“Um …” I stopped, closed my mouth, then opened it again, but no words came out. I just shook my head and left the house.
Copyright 2022 by Andrea C. Neil