Friday, December 21, 2012

The Envoy: A Christmas Serial. Part Eighteen


Jeri called my room shortly before eight and said she was just shutting things down at the café. About a half hour later, just as I was starting to nod off, I heard a car horn in the parking lot outside my door. I pulled on my coat and boots and went out to find Jeri sitting behind the wheel of a huge black pickup truck that was badly in need of a new muffler. She was drinking a can of Budweiser and blasting Rod Stewart’s “Every Picture Tells a Story” from the tape deck.

“I’d offer you a beer, but this was the last one in the refrigerator at work,” she said. “I’m sure it belongs to the morning cook, and I’m probably gonna catch hell for taking it.” She offered me the can. “Here, you finish it. I’m not a big Budweiser fan.”

I accepted the beer from her and took a swallow. The can was so cold in my hands that I had to prop it between my legs. “Where are we headed?” I asked. “And couldn’t we have just walked over there?”

“You can walk anywhere in this town,” Jeri said, “but you don’t. We don’t. We drive. You’ll notice it if you haven’t already; you’ll seldom see anyone walking, and if you do spy someone on foot the odds are pretty good they’re either on their way to or from their cars. That’s why a dinky little town like this has three car washes. This truck, by the way, belongs to my grandmother’s husband, Roy, who you should be warned is something of a character. He’s something more than a character, actually. Roy is, umm….” She drummed on the steering wheel with her thumbs and searched for the right word or words. “Let’s just say Roy is kind of a whack job. And my grandmother adores him. I think I mentioned this is the third go round for her, but she and Roy have been together for almost ten years now, and my grandma says this one is the last one.”

The grandmother lived in a block of squat 1950s-era ramblers and ramshackle bungalows just at the edge of town and separated from the river by railroad tracks. A lot of the homes in the neighborhood had Christmas displays that veered well over the line into overkill –streamers of multi-colored lights along the edges of roofs and wound around trees and bushes, elaborate manger scenes often mingled with plastic reindeer and snowmen and giant inflatable Santa Clauses. With much of the snow evaporating and the usual thick fog moving in off the river, these displays didn’t look festive so much as sort of desperate and forlorn.

Jeri pulled up in front of one of the only houses on the block that didn’t feature some sort of Christmas display.

The grandmother was in the kitchen, playing Solitaire on a scarred Formica table and watching a television that was on top of the refrigerator. She rose from her chair to give Jeri a hug, and greeted me warmly when we were introduced. Her name was Tina, and she was a skinny woman wearing Levis and a faded Iowa Hawkeyes sweatshirt. As we took off our coats, she immediately fetched beers from the refrigerator and announced that we were going to play a game of Rummy.

I’d never played the game, but before I was seated at the table Jeri’s grandmother was already dealing the cards. As she dealt, she and Jeri kept interrupting each other trying to explain to me the rules of the game. I got the hang of it pretty quickly, but Tina was unbeatable. She won the first two games before I could finish my first beer.

“How’s Louie?” Jeri said at one point.

“Louie’s sleeping,” Tina answered without looking up from her cards. “Which means that Louie’s just fine. He was hell on wheels all night.”

I knew that Jeri and Louie lived with Tina and her husband, Roy, but I had no idea where Jeri’s parents were. For some reason, even though the subject was never that I recall broached in our earlier conversations, I understood that they were out of the picture.

“Where’s Roy?” Jeri asked as Tina dealt out the cards for the third game.

“Be here any minute,” Tina said. “He should just be getting off work.”

Jeri turned to me and said, “Roy works at the meat packing plant. He mucks around with hamburger patties all day.”

“He makes twelve dollars an hour,” Tina said. “Which is damn good money in this town.”

“In this town,” Jeri said.

You could tell that Tina had been beautiful as a young woman; she still was beautiful, in fact, one of those older women who continued to possess a fierce vanity, spent time every morning applying her makeup, and had regular appointments at a hair salon downtown. She had the same quick conversational style as her granddaughter, and it was obvious there was genuine mutual affection between the two of them. There was no apparent strain, and they yakked and laughed easily together like old friends.

I was holding my own in the third game when Roy came in the back door, stomping his big rubber boots in the entryway and yodeling in a croaky baritone. He was a large man, wearing dirty, sand-colored coveralls and a stocking cap that was precariously perched on the crown of his head. He appeared to be oblivious to my presence at the table as he shed his boots and coveralls.

“Mother,” he said. “Remind me again why I let those bastards talk me into working double shifts every time some numb-nuts calls in sick.”

Tina laid down three eights and said, “It’s called time-and-a-half, Roy, honey. That’s our mad money.”

Roy headed straight to the refrigerator for a beer, glanced over his shoulder, and settled in at the table with beers for everyone. After he had distributed the drinks, he offered me his big hand.

“And you are?” he said.

I told him my name and he asked if I was a friend of Jerilynne’s.

“We just met,” I said.

“She’s already bringing you home to meet the family?” he said. “Must be serious.”

“He’s Charlie Stensrud’s grandson,” Tina said. “Come from Chicago to make the arrangements.”

“What arrangements would those be?” Roy asked.

“No arrangements, really,” I said. “My grandfather is being cremated and I’m just trying to sort out the…I don’t know, estate, I guess.”

“Where’s your old man?” Roy said.

“He’s in the Middle East. Working.”

Roy just nodded. He was already settled in next to Tina and was studying her cards over her shoulder. She pinched him just under his ribcage and said, “I suppose you’re hungry.”

“I could eat something,” Roy said. She handed over her cards to him, got up from the table, and went over to the refrigerator.

“I’m afraid it’s slim pickings, honey,” Tina said. “You must have taken the last of the turkey to work. Remind me that I need to get to the grocery store tomorrow.” She pulled a bag of tater tots from the freezer, poured it onto a cookie sheet, and set the oven to preheat. As she waited for the oven to warm up she opened a can of soup, dumped it in a large bowl, and put it in the microwave oven. After she punched in the time on the microwave and shoved the tater tots in the oven, she turned and winked at me. “We’re not what you’d call fancy folks,” she said.

“Speak for yourself,” Jeri said. “And while you’re up, grandma, why don’t you get your boxes of pictures. David’s never been to Bryton before, and he doesn’t know diddly about his grandfather. You should show him the photos of the Christmas village and some of Charlie’s other stuff.”

Tina disappeared into another room and returned a moment later with two shoeboxes, which she plopped on the table.

“Put the cards away,” she said. “Roy can tend to his dinner and we’ll take a trip down memory lane. Your dad didn’t have any photos of Charlie’s crazy rooftop?”

“I’d never heard of it,” I said. “I remember seeing a couple photos of my grandfather that my dad had around, pictures of the two of them when dad was a boy, but that was it. We avoided the subject of my grandfather around our house. I only learned about the mini-golf course a couple days ago when I was poking around the apartment and found the plans.”

“Well, Charlie was a doozy,” Tina said.

“He was a three-dollar bill,” Roy said. “But he was a good egg, and a first-rate character.”

“Shut the hell up, Roy,” Tina said.

“I’m saying I liked Charlie,” Roy said. He shrugged and got up to fetch his soup from the microwave while his wife started fishing around in the boxes of photos. She pulled out a handful and sifted through them on the kitchen table. They were mostly old, rectangular or serrated-edged black-and-white snapshots. Tina shoved some across the table to me.

“There’s Charlie’s Christmas village,” she said.

I picked up a picture of a little candy-striped hut, surrounded by frocked Christmas trees decorated with glass bulbs and fake icicles. There was a crudely hand-painted sign that read, “Santa’s Workshop –North Pole.” A path was shoveled to the door of the hut through what appeared to be real snow. There was another photo of what I presumed to be my grandfather in a sort of shabby Santa Claus suit with a little girl on his lap. He was sitting in a big upholstered chair that was covered with velvet. On each side of the chair there were piles of wrapped packages, and beside one of these piles was a miniature tree hung with dozens of candy canes.

 "Folks came and brought their kids for a few years,” Tina said, “but then Hangstrum’s, the department store that used to be downtown, hired a Santa as well, and Charlie's deal sort of petered out."

 Jeri had excused herself to take a shower and change clothes, and Roy had settled back in at the table with his tater tots and soup. “People in this town have always been divided about Charlie,” he said. “There were some who wouldn't set foot in his place.”

“It was also out of the way,” Tina said. “Charlie did it whenever he felt like it and didn’t advertise, and there were all those stairs to climb.”

“The thing was, though, was that Charlie just did it for the hell of it,” Roy said. “It was just another of his wacky ideas. I don't think he ever came close to breaking even on a single thing he did on that rooftop. It was his own little playground.”

 “We don’t have a park or a town square in Bryton,” Tina said, “and after Charlie bought the building he always had this idea that he was going to turn that rooftop of his into a sort of community park. He tried to get the local summer theater company to stage plays up there, but that never worked out. For a time he used to show old movies like Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin up there on Saturday evenings in the summer, and he'd usually get a small group of people to show up. That was right before he went to the Wisconsin Dells for vacation and got the idea for his little golf course.”

Tina handed me another small stack of photos, all of them of the miniature golf course in various permutations.

 “That was his biggest thing by far,” she said. “The kids in town have never had much to do, and when Charlie opened the golf course it was a big deal for quite a few years. We’d never seen anything like that around here. He had lights up there so you could play after dark, and on Friday nights the kids would be lined up on those stairs waiting to golf. They’d come in from the little towns out in the country. My first husband and I used to take Jeri’s mother down there on Saturday afternoons. Charlie took such good care of the place, and he was always adding little things to make it more interesting or challenging.”

“Was Santo around by this time?” I asked.

“Yeah, he was around even during the Christmas village thing,” Roy said. “He mostly worked in the bar, but he also helped Charlie with all his projects. They were sidekicks.”

“And my father and grandmother were still in the picture during all this?” I said.

Tina dug through one of the boxes and pulled out a photo of a small, thin woman with cat-eye glasses, smiling and leaning over a putter. “That’s your grandmother, Faye,” she said. “Your father would have probably been just entering high school at this time. The golf course opened a year or two before Faye was killed.”

“I'm pretty sure my father thought she committed suicide,” I said. “And I know he blamed my grandfather.”

“Faye was a battleaxe,” Roy said. “She would have been a mess with or without Charlie.”

“Oh, Jesus, Roy.” Tina handed me another photo of my grandmother. In this one she was standing around a punch bowl at some sort of party. She looked surprisingly older than in the photo from the golf course. “I knew your grandmother from the time we were girls,” Tina said. “It’s a small town, and we ran around together growing up. Faye was a handful, but she came from a lousy family, so I always felt sorry for her. Her father was a mean drunk, so it made sense to me that she would be attracted to Charlie, who was so gentle. When they first got married he had a decent job at the packing plant, but then out of the blue --this was when your father was still a boy-- he got the notion that he wanted to cut hair. He went over to Dubuque to a barber school, and then came back and opened his shop in the back of the bar. After that it was just one big, crazy idea after another. Plenty of other people besides your dad blamed Charlie for Faye’s death, and some also thought she committed suicide --her car went off the road and rolled down into the river-- but she had a serious drinking problem and was in pretty terrible shape by that point. I know she had problems with Charlie, but I never thought her death was anything but an accident.”

 “Your father had a chip on his shoulder from the get-go,” Roy said. “He was a smart kid and a mama’s boy, and I think he was embarrassed of the old man. I can tell you, though, that when Charlie sold the house after your grandmother died --he was already living in the place downtown by then-- he gave your dad every penny of that money. When your dad went off and joined the Army he already had a nice chunk of change squirreled away in the bank.”

We spent some more time looking through the photos –I saw lots of pictures of Jerilynne when she was a little girl, and Jerilynne in high school —and then Tina put them back in the boxes, replaced the lids, and carried them away again. I thought about asking if I could have one or two of the photos of my grandfather’s rooftop, and maybe one of the shots of my grandmother, but I didn’t.

“That’s probably more than you needed to know,” Roy said, as he fetched another round of beers from the refrigerator.

“No,” I said. “Not at all. It’s pretty mind boggling, but it’s great. I’m thrilled to have seen the pictures, and I’m glad to have the information. It helps to fill in a lot of the blanks, and there have always been a lot of blanks in my family.”

Tina had returned to the kitchen and was clearing Roy’s plates. “Everybody’s family has a lot of blanks,” she said. “Sometimes that’s not such a bad thing.”

Jerilynne reemerged just after Roy had started to shuffle the cards for another game of Rummy.

“Deal me in,” she said, and then put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Did you get what you came for?”

“I did,” I said.

We sat around for another hour or two, drinking beer and playing cards. They were comfortable people to be around. All of them laughed easily, and I felt right at home. By the time we called it a night it was after midnight and I was starting to feel pretty drunk.

As Jeri and I pulled on our shoes and coats to leave, Tina took Jeri’s face in her hands and said, “You sure you’re ok to drive, honey?”

“I had two beers,” Jeri said. “I’m fine. I think David here might be another story.”

Tina then gave me a big hug and said, “Thanks so much for coming. I’m awful sorry about your grandfather. Let us know if there’s anything you need.”

Jeri drove me back across town to the motel, and we parked outside for a few minutes chatting.

“It was great to meet you,” she told me. “Strange men don’t show up in this town every day. And by strange I mean nothing but unfamiliar.”

She leaned across the truck seat to hug me, and we had a sort of fumbling, awkward moment. She pulled herself out of it with grace. “I’d come in,” she said, “but we’d both end up feeling stupid about it. You know where to find me.”

I stood in the parking lot and watched her pull away. I had to admit that, as right as I knew she was, I was nonetheless sorry to see her go. The fog that seemed to be omnipresent in that town had blown off, revealing a huge, bright moon and a sky full of stars. I noticed that the little gas and convenience store across the street was still open and walked over to pick up a six-pack of beer. 

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