I’m trying to tell this story as I remember it, which is, of course, really the only way you can tell a story. I have a pretty good memory, and am also an obsessive diarist, but there are things I’m just going to have to recreate or maybe even make up altogether. Since I was a child I’ve been plagued by strange dreams (this applies to my daydreams almost as much as those I have while sleeping) and tormented by my utter inability to make sense of them, and this whole episode in my life shared a lot of the slippery characteristics of those old and futile battles.
I went to a shrink once, at my mother’s suggestion, to try to get to the bottom of these torments, and I couldn’t have been more disappointed. I honestly hoped and believed that this woman would somehow explain everything to me, or at the very least steer me in the direction of some explanations. This woman, however, was a very bad psychiatrist. I recognized that much, and as unfair as it likely is, the experience cultivated in me a huge and unyielding distrust of the entire profession.
This particular doctor, of whom my mother had apparently heard good things, was, as far as I could surmise, a flake; she was clearly stoned –I could smell pot on her when I entered the office. The marijuana seemed to make her detached to the point of actual disinterest. The entire time I was in her office she was doodling on a pad of paper, very concentrated doodling; she didn’t even pretend she was taking notes. I recounted a dream to her once and she looked up briefly from her notebook, raised her eyebrows, smiled, and said, “That’s a fun one.” Then she slumped back over her tablet, with her long, straight hair falling down over her face. There was a ruler near me on her desk and I had to resist the urge to pick it up and rake the hair from her eyes. I remember I had to shove a bunch of stuffed animals aside to make room for myself on her couch, and I also noticed that she had all sorts of generically affirmative nonsense all over the walls, posters of sunsets and beaches with glib little italicized snippets of purported inspiration.
This story really doesn’t have much to do with anything, but on Christmas Eve I had a dream that was peculiar even by my own standards. It means nothing to me now, but at the time I was probably more susceptible than I ever again will be to the possibilities of portent, and so I roused myself in the middle of the night and wrote down everything about the dream that I could remember.
In the dream I was sitting in a sauna next to my grandfather, completely enveloped in steam. I was wearing an elaborate cowboy outfit, complete with a huge ten-gallon hat, and my grandfather was stark naked. We weren’t acknowledging each other, let along speaking to anyone else. It wasn’t clear if my grandfather knew who I was or not; he didn’t let on if he did. He kept clearing his throat and spitting in the direction of the stove. From somewhere else in the room someone else was coughing so hard it sounded like they were choking. It was, of course, very hot in the sauna, and I was increasingly uncomfortable in my cowboy getup.
After a long and uneasy stretch of silence, during which time I thought perhaps my grandfather had nodded off, I heard the door open at the other end of the room, beyond the steam, and felt a cool blast of outside air and saw the cloud of steam billow and scurry and momentarily part; through this moving steam emerged Santo, exactly as I remembered him from our encounter in the parking lot, except for the fact that he was wearing a sleeveless white underwear shirt, and every visible inch of his skin was covered with black tattoos. He leaned over and whispered something in my grandfather’s ear, and my grandfather rose from the bench, wrapped himself in a towel, and followed Santo from the sauna.
I left the steam room to follow them, and emerged into a giant glass enclosure made up of descending tubular corridors, all of them, on all four sides of the enclosure, emptying out onto a bright red gymnasium floor below. By the time I got to the landing outside the sauna, which was at the very top of one of the corridors, I could see people moving along these glass tubes on all sides, at various levels. It appeared that the building was being quietly evacuated. The majority of these people appeared to be professionals; they wore suits and slacks –even the women—and carried briefcases. They were all moving along at an almost martial pace; without exception they appeared joyless, and shuffled along in silence. My grandfather and Santo were the only exceptions to this. They’d somehow managed to get a good distance in front of me, and were almost to the gymnasium level of the enclosure. They were making a good deal of noise, either arguing or laughing, and their loud voices were echoing throughout the glass enclosure.
My cowboy outfit was soaking wet. My leather chaps were waterlogged; it felt like I was trying to walk with a gymnast strapped to each of my legs. My cowboy hat was sagging down around my ears. I tried to run down the corridor but felt like I was running in place. I was shedding such prodigious amounts of water that a small stream had developed in front of me and was rapidly swelling and gaining such momentum that it was sweeping people off their feet and carrying them away. In a matter of moments the gymnasium floor was flooded, the water level rising so swiftly that I could now see people bobbing about below me and struggling to keep their heads above the surface.
I caught a brief glimpse of my grandfather; he was being carried away, and I saw him reach out one arm in desperation and open his mouth to yell. At precisely that moment the door to the sauna burst open and a huge moving cloud of steam enveloped everything.
I was awakened early the next morning by the ringing of the phone, but didn’t get out of bed and across the room in time to answer it. Outside the window of my motel room the town was completely socked in by fog. I pulled on a pair of pants and my boots and went across the street to get a can of Mountain Dew from the pop machine in front of the car wash. At eight o’clock on Christmas morning some solitary guy was washing his truck.
I hung around my room most of the morning, watching television and trying to screw up the gumption to walk over and take a look around my grandfather’s apartment. I was starting to get cold feet about the whole thing. I suppose the fact that I was alone in a strange town on Christmas morning had something to do with that, but I was also dreading what I might find when I actually started poking through my grandfather’s things. Who knew what I had gotten myself into? I remembered helping my mother clean out her house as she prepared for her move to Arizona, and it was appalling how much junk she had accumulated and how much work it was getting rid of it. I must have made a dozen trips to the local Salvation Army and we still filled two huge rental bins with crap.
Going through the last few boxes and bags in my mother’s attic I had been appalled to come across several ancient porn movies on Beta format, along with a dog-eared stash of extremely lame and –in a number of cases seriously foul—smut magazines from the 1970s. This, of course, was more information about the private life of my parents than I really cared to know.
When I finally poked my head out of my room that day there was a holiday sausage, cheese, and nuts basket at my door, with no card or note attached. I’d noticed Jehovah’s Witness literature on the counter in the motel office, so I figured I could eliminate the proprietor as the source of such holiday kindness. I stopped down at the office, but the place was locked up tight. My father, I supposed, was a suspect, as so far as I knew he was the only person outside of a few friends in the city who knew where I was, but it seemed like an uncharacteristic gesture on his part. My mother was a more likely candidate, as she still seemed to somehow always know how to track my father down, and he was in the habit of checking in with her on such special occasions. She would, I knew, be appalled to know that I was spending Christmas alone in a motel room in my father’s old hometown, tidying up –as she had done on so many occasions—my father’s unpleasant affairs. She had always expressed complete ignorance about my father’s apparent rift with my grandfather –“That water’s already in another country,” she’d say, her own curious variant on “That’s water over the dam,” or whatever the hell the phrase was. She claimed to have never met my grandfather. “If he was invited to our first wedding, he didn’t come,” she said. “But I seriously doubt that your father even sent him an invitation.”
I put that gift basket on the bed in my room, locked the place, and walked downtown to take my first look at my grandfather’s apartment. There was an eerie stillness to the town that morning; the fog had mostly lifted overnight, or at least thinned, so that there was an almost milky quality to the early light.
It was maybe ten blocks to my grandfather’s building, and I don’t think I saw a single person or automobile moving on the streets or sidewalks on my walk downtown.
I stopped at the door next to the bar –‘Mernie’s,’ I now noticed the place was called; the sign looked ancient, and was badly faded. The bar looked even smaller and dingier in the daylight. I fumbled with the key ring I had been given at the hospital. There were seven keys on the ring, and I found the key for the street-level door on the third try. The steep flight of stairs disappeared up into the darkness. I ran my hand along the wall at the bottom of the steps and managed to find a light switch that illuminated one bare bulb above the landing at the top. At the top of the stairs there were two doors facing each other across a short hallway. One bore a sign composed of metallic stick-on letters: OFFICE. The other door had a small black mailbox nailed squarely in the middle. My grandfather’s name, written in an uncertain hand on a slip of paper, was taped to the mailbox.
It was cold in that entryway, and I could hear nothing but the sound of my own breathing. Already, standing there in the shadows, I could smell the last years of my grandfather’s life; the building had that unmistakable trapped smell of old age, old everything, stuffy and baked into permanence by years of sweat, grease, dust, and old steam radiators. It seemed like I could literally feel the steam heat seeping from under the door to the apartment and breaking up into small, distinct blasts of old smells in the cold air at the top of the stairs.
I had to go through all the keys a couple times before I finally managed to get the deadbolt to snap. I shoved the door open into a very narrow hallway, where there was a high ceiling and a light cord I literally had to stand on my toes and jump a little bit to reach. Once I turned on the hall light I ventured further into the apartment. It was a remarkably neat and tiny place. There was a small kitchen with a breakfast nook just off the hallway before the living room. The living room was spacious and bright, and had a high bank of bay windows that faced east and looked out over the town towards the river. An old couch faced a cheap, prefabricated entertainment console that held a television, VCR, and compact stereo system. A pair of burgundy Oxford shoes was neatly aligned next to the sofa. There was a large, oval braided rug and a couple of uncomfortable looking chairs that appeared to be part of a dining room set.
Against the wall beneath the windows was a beautiful stainless steel drafting table with a matching adjustable stool. The thing looked very heavy and very old, and its surface was covered with a large collection of drawings. I didn’t poke through them right away, but it was clear enough that they weren’t anything recent; the paper was yellowed and curling with age.
Just off the living room was the bedroom and bathroom. The bed, I noticed right away, was neatly made up. I grew up in a house where I don’t recall a bed ever being made; I certainly can’t remember ever making one, and my mother and father always slept on a big mattress on the floor.
Along one wall there was a rack of shirts and jackets next to a big wooden chest of drawers, the top of which was cluttered with the random possessions of an old man: ancient ballpoint pens, razors, bottles of aftershave, a deck of cards, a pile of old mail bundled with rubber bands, a fingernail clipper, dirty plastic combs, stray change. I didn’t nose through any of the stuff just then. Facing the bed was a dressing table and a mirror, very similar to one you might expect to see in a young girl’s bedroom.
I was just sort of standing there in the middle of the room, taking things in, not touching anything and not quite sure what to think or do next. I went to the windows and opened the blinds all the way so as to let in as much light –such as it was—as I possibly could. I sat down on the sofa for a while.
I was once again struck by how impossibly tidy the place was. Everything was in its place. Tidiness is a wholly foreign concept to me. Growing up, my entire family was masters of clutter, and our home was always a warren of disorder. Perhaps it was the salvage man in him, but my father couldn’t ever seem to bring himself to throw a single thing away.
I don’t know what I was expecting, to be honest with you, but I guess I had imagined the filthy apartment of a slothful old bachelor. Just above the television there was a reproduction of that famous old painting of an old man saying grace at the dinner table. I also noticed several photographs taped to the mirror above the dressing table. One of them, I could tell from across the room, was a childhood portrait of my father. I went over and took it from the mirror and examined it; it looked like he was maybe ten years old at the time the picture was taken. He had the same expression on his face that he had apparently had his entire life, a very serious, almost perplexed look, but with the slight suggestion of amusement in his eyes. His hair was as cowlicked and unkempt as it had been the last time I’d seen him. I turned the photo over in my hands. Written on the back in large block letters were the words, “My boy,” and under that, obviously added later and with a different pen, “Son, 1955.” There was another photo of an older woman, a relatively recent shot, it seemed, maybe ten or fifteen years old, the sort of photo you might see in a church directory. She looked like a fat, cheerful old woman, but there was nothing on the photo to indicate who she might have been.
Finally, there were a couple photos of my grandfather, or so I presumed. In one of them he was shirtless, tall and skinny and squinting into the sun. He appeared to be laughing and standing on a rooftop, surrounded by clutter. You could see the trees, television antennae on the roofs of houses, and automobiles in the distance behind him. This was one of those black-and-white snapshots with the serrated edges and a date-stamped border: “June, 1958.” Written on the back of the photograph, in the same careful block letters I’d noticed on my father’s portrait, were the words, “Golf course.”
On the dressing stand itself there was a color studio portrait of my grandfather with a nice-looking older woman with big cheekbones. It looked like it was from sometime in the Carter or Reagan administrations, and bore the stamp of a portrait studio in Minneapolis. My grandfather looked surprisingly healthy and happy. His hands were folded neatly in his lap, and he and the woman were seated in front of a cheesy forest backdrop. His hair was oiled and neatly combed (in the photos my father had of him his head had always been shaved), and he had a very small and tight smile on his face.
I put the photo back on the dresser and went around the corner into the kitchen. There was a tiny artificial Christmas tree on the table, and under which were one wrapped gift and a familiar shipping box of Florida oranges.
I slid the box of oranges out from under the tree; it was already addressed to me at my father's address. The other box was wrapped in shiny green foil paper and topped with a red bow. Unlike my box of oranges, this one had a tag attached, on which was written in a shaky hand, “For Santo.”