I had never heard of this book by Walter Mosley (or Walter Mosley, for that matter), but my book club elected to read it, and I figured I had nothing to lose by giving it a try.
Not only did I have nothing to lose, but I ended up really enjoying this novel.
It’s about a 91-year-old black man named Ptolemy Grey who has dementia and lives alone in L.A. He’s been divorced once and then widowed and I think there was something about a son or daughter who wanted nothing to do with him. So his nephew, Reggie, comes over every once in a while to take care of him (take him to the bank, the grocery store, etc.), but Ptolemy’s life is thrown upside down when Reggie dies suddenly. Someone named Hilly (a distant relative) is sent to take Ptolemy to the wake and to take care of him, but he steals from Ptolemy, and although Ptolemy is starting to lose his mental capabilities, he’s still lucid enough to know when he’s being stolen from, so he refuses to let the thief back in his apartment.
That poses a problem because Ptolemy can’t go outside without protection because there’s a woman in his neighborhood who knows he has money and is physically frail so she’s intent on stealing from him every time she sees him. So he’s essentially trapped in his own apartment without the ability to run any of his errands.
Fortunately for Ptolemy he meets Robyn at Reggie’s wake. Robyn isn’t related to him, but she’s a 17-year-old girl who’s mother died recently and she has no where to go, so she’s been living with Ptolemy’s niece, but she’s no safer there than she was with her mom. Her mom was an addict who had all kinds of men around and Ptolemy’s niece is also keeping Hilly under her roof, and Hilly keeps trying to rape Robyn when she’s asleep on the couch (since that’s where Robyn has to sleep in this overcrowded house).
So Robyn isn’t, and has never been, safe, but something about Ptolemy draws her to him. Maybe his vulnerability? So she comes to his apartment to check on him, and he decides he trusts her enough to let him in, and thus begins their friendship.
The first thing Robyn does is clean up his apartment, starting with his bathroom. It takes her a few days and a few bug bombs, but she manages to get the place presentable again. In the process of cleaning up, she finds the card for a doctor Reggie had meant to take Ptolemy to see because of Ptolemy’s declining mental abilities. So they go and the doctor recommends Ptolemy to a drug trial for a medication that has not been approved by the FDA, but might provide him with some lucidity. The catch is that, so far, none of the participants in the drug trial have lived more than a week or two after they start taking the drug.
Ptolemy immediately (and quite possibly accurately) identifies the man on the other side of the desk as the devil, but he has learned (from a mentor he had as a very young boy) that you can give the devil your body as long as you don’t give him your soul. So although Robyn has serious misgivings about this drug, Ptolemy, after making sure the only thing the devil wants is his body (to study after he dies), goes ahead and makes the deal.
As promised, the drug almost immediately makes him much more lucid and he takes advantage of this new lucidity to get his affairs in order. It turns out he’s been sitting on a pile of cash in his apartment, which Robyn promptly takes to the bank with Ptolemy to be put in a savings account for him, but he insists on putting Robyn’s name on the account.
As if that weren’t enough, Ptolemy is also suddenly able to remember that he’s sitting on a pile of stolen gold coins from roughly a century ago. His childhood mentor stole it from a white man who had been bragging about having it stashed away and Ptolemy had been given the keys and made to promise to use it to take care of their race. Instead, Ptolemy let it sit in his floor boards for more than half a century.
Now that he has regained the full use of his mind, he has decided to do something with all that stolen gold. So he shows it to Robyn, introduces her to the man he’s been selling the coins to one at a time for at least two or three decades, and introduces her to the financial advisor who handles his assets. Everyone suspects Robyn of trying to take advantage of this feeble old man, but she really just wants what’s best for him. Ptolemy ends up orchestrating things so that his family members get a stipend every month, but they cannot access his funds on their own. Robyn gets his apartment, as well as a nice inheritance of her own. She insists that Ptolemy’s family should get everything and she’ll live on their charity, but Ptolemy has tested them on his own and realizes that they’re too greedy.
I can’t say if this was in the book, or just my own reading of it, but I don’t really blame Ptolemy’s family for their greed. It’s easy to say money doesn’t mean anything when you have a lot of it, but these people don’t even have enough to open their own bank account. Ptolemy’s niece might not have been able to protect Robyn from Hilly, but she protected both Robyn and Hilly from homelessness and gave them what she could when she had very little to give. If a relative of mine told me he had hundreds of thousands of dollars stashed away, there would be dollar signs in my eyes, too, and I’m not even as badly off as Ptolemy’s family.
I also really enjoyed Mosley’s portrayal of dementia and how confusing and frustrating it can be for the person suffering from it. Obviously, I can’t speak from personal experience as to whether he got it right, but it certainly rang true to me and gave me a hankering to check in on some of my older relatives and see what their living conditions are like.
What did you read this week? Anything else that inspired you to get in touch with distant family members?