Monday, January 02, 2012


A short story by Daniel A. Olivas

[Author’s note: As we begin the new year, I thought it’d be fun to revisit the craziness of Y2K with one of my earliest short stories simply entitled "19" which was published in 1998 in the literary journal, RiverSedge, and is featured in my first collection, Assumption and Other Stories (Bilingual Press, 2003). Happy new year!]

Her house was never the same after the Northridge quake even though she and her husband had poured over $80,000 of insurance money into it to repair the fissures and sagging floors and popped floorboard nails. All that money made the house look better than it had ever looked in its twenty-year life. And they were able to upgrade things like the kitchen and bathroom counters with granite and they put down beautiful laminated blond wooden planks in the entryway and downstairs bathroom to replace that God-awful faux Italian tile. New plush sand-colored wall-to-wall carpeting replaced the well-worn orange shag that was popular in the '70s. But Mrs. Villarreal had a bad feeling about the "bones" of her house. Her husband just said that she worried too much. In the end, she was right because just a few years after the repairs and remodeling were finished, the fissures started to separate again like bloodless stigmata and her new wooden floors dipped and revealed fresh spidery cracks in the laminate.

Mrs. Villarreal padded across her living room towards the den and the squeaky floorboards under the still new-looking carpeting irritated her to no end particularly because she was already in quite a state. If Romero had listened to me, she thought, the planks would have been screwed down tight instead of nailed. But now it was too late and the squeaks came back after the remodeling and she had to listen to herself make that damnable noise. Mrs. Villarreal was searching for the keys to her '97 Honda Accord but was having no luck. She grew forgetful when she became agitated. This was not a sign of old age though she just turned seventy-eight. Mrs. Villarreal always possessed this trait and even her husband, early in their marriage, teased her about it. She finally found her keys in the never-used ashtray on top of the RCA television in the den and let out a little sigh. Her husband could always find her keys. But Romero was two years dead so he couldn't help Elena now when she misplaced things. She walked with a steady and determined gait to the attached garage and pushed the garage door button with a firm flick of her wrist.

As she drove south on Shoup towards Ventura Boulevard, Mrs. Villarreal muttered several things alternatively. First, it was "Y2K" and then "19" and then again "Y2K." And then she said, "Romero, Romero, Romero. . . ." She finally reached Ventura Boulevard and turned left on the green arrow and aimed her Honda towards her "Memorialist," as he liked being called. What a stupid thing to be called, she thought. Everyone has a fancy title today. A Memorialist! And she let out a little laugh as she pushed hard on the gas pedal.

Though almost eighty, Mrs. Villarreal possessed and was quite proud of her delicate figure and beautiful ginger-colored skin. She liked to wear slacks and cotton blouses from the Macy's on Topanga Canyon Boulevard and she held her back straight like a ballerina or a Marine. Someone last week -- was it Simón who did her hair every Wednesday? -- said that she looked like a Mexican version of Katie Holmes from that TV show, only older, of course. Who said it? Who said it? And she drove until she passed Jerry's Famous Deli on her left and then she knew that she had only five more blocks to get there. This heat, this heat, she thought as she turned her air control up from a 2 to a 4 so that the cool air hit her face hard which felt very good except it made her knuckles get too cold so she had to turn it back to 2 after a minute or so. Mrs. Villarreal finally arrived at Manny's Memorial Granite and pulled into a spot in front and got two quarters out of her Tignanello purse for the parking meter because she had a lot to talk about with her "Memorialist."

Manny's Memorial Granite used to be in Reseda back when Manny was still alive and Mrs. Villarreal and her husband were young and also lived in Reseda. She remembered how Romero never could plan things right. He did all right by his wife, though. He earned a good living as an electrician for the County and he was a good father to their two children. But he couldn't balance a checkbook and he let his wife take care of the family's finances and taxes. It wasn't because Mr. Villarreal was a stupid man. He simply felt insecure about his English but luckily his wife was born in the United States and could do those things he had trouble with. But he brought in a good paycheck and he died in 1996 at the age of eighty leaving a $250,000 life insurance policy, an excellent County pension, a healthy wife, two daughters who finished college and grad school, two son-in-laws and five grandchildren. They moved twenty years ago to a new tract of two-story homes laid out in a dual cul-de-sac off of Sherman Way in a part of Canoga Park that was eventually renamed West Hills. Mrs. Villarreal really couldn't complain about anything because her life had been and still was quite full.

But there was this one thing about Y2K and the number 19. The one time that Romero Villarreal decided to plan ahead, he made a major miscalculation that his widow now had to remedy. Fifty years ago, Mr. Villarreal read an ad in the Los Angeles Examiner.

"Look, mi amor. We could save a lot of money by getting a 'pre-need' headstone. Actually, two headstones, one for you, and one for me."

Mrs. Villarreal remembers how she just about dropped her coffee cup into her eggs. "What? We're too young to think of that!"

"No, look here. We can save our children the headache and cost of buying headstones when we die."

Mrs. Villarreal put her coffee down. "We don't have children yet!"

Her husband looked up from the paper and smiled. "Mi amor, we will, you know."

He convinced her to go visit Manny's Memorial Granite with him and, in the end, they purchased two stones each engraved with their names, years of birth and years of death. Well, actually, only part of their years of death. So, because it saved them money to do it then, the number "19" was chiseled on each piece of beautiful gray granite based on the assumption that they would both die in this century. Mr. Villarreal made it by passing away a few years ago. But Mrs. Villarreal likely would not die soon and now she had to fix it because she had way too much to live for with her daughters and grandchildren. She planned to live as long as her delicate little body would allow her and that meant she was not going to die this year, 1999.

After dropping the quarters into the meter and turning the knob with a quick twist, Mrs. Villarreal looked up to the storefront. Manny was still alive when Mr. Villarreal passed away so it was like dealing with family. Manny and her husband had become friends after their order for the pre-need memorial tablets were placed. Manny and his wife Olga, a large German woman who spoke Spanish better than Mrs. Villarreal, were like headstones: low, solid and reliable. They had a daughter and a son. When their daughter, Lois, died in a car accident fifteen years ago, Mrs. Villarreal and her husband helped Manny and Olga get through the darkest hours. Manny's son, Gerald, became cold after his sister's death and settled in New York after finishing college in Boston. Manny and Olga died last year, within three months of each other.

Manny's Memorial Granite now belonged to a man who wanted to be called a "Memorialist." Mrs. Villarreal learned this when she called last week to set up an appointment to discuss her Y2K problem. His name was Eugene Salazar and he was everything Manny was not: thin, pinched and pure business. Eugene's parents came from Cuba in '59 after Castro took over and slowly migrated from Florida to California over the next twenty years. Eugene obtained his degree in Economics from USC but couldn't get a job that he liked until Manny's was up for sale. Eugene did an empirical study and realized that the boomer generation was aging and memorial granite was the place to be in the new millennium. With an excellent marketing strategy in place, he was now making more money per month than Manny made some years. But Mrs. Villarreal did not like his officious tone of voice over the phone and Eugene's appearance verified her dislike for Manny's replacement.

"Mr. Salazar?" she said to the man wearing a headset and who sat behind a large mahogany desk. He put up his left hand to indicate that he was listening to a customer on the phone and then he finished the conversation by taking down an order and unplugging his headset and walking over to Mrs. Villarreal. Eugene's secretary was at lunch so he had to do double duty.

"You're Mrs. Villarreal, aren't you?" Eugene said in a manner that reminded Mrs. Villarreal of Anthony Perkins in the movie Psycho.

Mrs. Villarreal took a seat in a large leather chair and looked around. Eugene had the office redone into a beautiful example of business chic with signed prints on the walls and dark woods and leathers everywhere. Samples of headstones and memorial tablets were elegantly displayed on two large tables. The air conditioning felt good.

"Yes, Mr. Salazar. We must talk about my Y2K problem." As she said this, she pulled out of her purse a yellowed agreement that bore her husband's and Manny's signature at the bottom dated August 21, 1949. She handed it to Eugene.

Eugene reached for it as he sat down on the leather couch that faced Mrs. Villarreal. "Oh, my! Look at this!" And he examined the agreement as though it were an ancient Egyptian parchment that could crumble at any moment. "I've never seen one of these before." Eugene was over six feet tall but couldn't have weighed more than a 160. He wore a beautifully tailored charcoal suit with a gleaming white shirt and mauve necktie. Eugene's capped-toe Bostonian's shone a brilliant black. After a few minutes of inspection, he said, "It all looks in order," and then handed it back with great care to Mrs. Villarreal.

Of course it's in order you little insect, thought Mrs. Villarreal. Then she broached the subject: "Well, Mr. Salazar, what should we do to fix the problem?"

"First -- ah -- how can I say this? You're feeling just fine, are you?"

Mrs. Villarreal turned a dark red. "It's July of 1999 and I have no intention of dying in the next five months! I'm perfectly healthy."

Eugene was startled by the outburst. He collected himself and reached to the table by the couch and picked up a large faux leather binder. "The death care industry has been holding seminars on exactly this problem. I attended one last month up in San Francisco. It was lovely. But, anyway, there are ways to remedy this lack of planning." As Eugene said this, he flipped open the binder and laid it on the coffee table in front of Mrs. Villarreal. Now we're getting somewhere, she thought as she looked down to a page that had the heading: THE EPOXY METHOD.

Eugene pointed to the page and began: "This method is the cheapest. What we do is mix glue with crushed granite -- matched to the color of your stone -- and fill in the 19 so that we can eventually carve in the year two-thousand and whatever." He was trying to be careful not to upset Mrs. Villarreal again.

"Can you see it?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Does the repair show up? And how long does it last?"

Eugene tried to remember what the seminar speaker said. "Oh, yes," he said as he remembered. "It might show up a bit when it gets wet and it has to be redone every twenty or so years."

"No, that won't do."

Eugene turned the page. "All right. What we have here is a bronze plaque embellishment that covers the offending number along with the correct birth date and then all the dates are engraved on the bronze. It's quite lovely, isn't it?" As he said this, Eugene's secretary came back and took his seat just as the phone rang.

The secretary said after a moment, "Mr. Salazar, it's your wife."

"Tell her I'll call back in a few minutes."

This bothered Mrs. Villarreal because she thought that they were just beginning. "This bronze idea," she said. "Does that mean you have to do the same to my husband's so we'll match?"

"Good question. Yes, if matching is important to you."

"Next option," she said curtly.

Eugene turned the next page. "Now this is the most expensive but best option. Here, we re-face the entire stone. But, as you can see from this picture, it will look lovely."

Mrs. Villarreal looked at the pictures. Yes, she thought, that was it. "I'd like a re-facing."

"My choice exactly. The price on that is $1,000."

"Well, it's your money," Mrs. Villarreal said giving Eugene a hard stare.

Eugene blanched. "What?"

Mrs. Villarreal managed a smile that was not at all friendly. She pulled out the agreement again. "See here, Mr. Salazar. It says 'Satisfaction Guaranteed.' I want satisfaction."

Eugene snapped the binder closed and said, "But your late husband made the mistake. It's not my fault."

Mrs. Villarreal thought for a moment. Then, very calmly, she began: "You know Mr. Salazar, I have two lovely daughters. One teaches English at UCLA."

Eugene didn't understand why Mrs. Villarreal was saying this. "And?" he said.

"My other daughter, oh she's lovely, too. She's a lawyer. She works in the Consumer Fraud section of the D.A.'s Office." Mrs. Villarreal let her words hang between her and Eugene like a bad odor.

Eugene quickly did some mental calculations. There weren't too many of these Y2K problems, maybe four, that Manny had sold and two of those were on their deathbed which Eugene had learned from concerned and well-planning children. I don't need the D.A. on me, he reasoned to himself. He looked at Mrs. Villarreal as he straightened his already perfectly knotted necktie. "You're right. I'm so sorry. Let's say that we'll take care of it free of charge."

Mrs. Villarreal smiled. "Thank you, Mr. Salazar." She stayed until Eugene entered the correct information about the re-facing into the computer with a tickle date of January 1, 2000. She shook hands with him and said, "The next time we deal with each other, it will be well into the next century."

Mrs. Villarreal left the cool air of the storefront and the Valley's summer heat hit her like a burning blanket. She used a Kleenex to open her door because she knew that it would already be hot from the sun. She got into her car and quickly headed east on Ventura Boulevard. Mrs. Villarreal looked for an intersection where it was possible to make a U-turn: she was in the mood to have a nice Diet Coke and maybe a bowl of matzo ball soup at Jerry's Famous Deli.

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