The woman at the hospital had given me a bag of my grandfather’s personal effects, including his wallet (with his driver’s license and address), a key ring, some change (four quarters, a dime, a nickel, and three pennies), an arrowhead, and a money clip with $37. Back at my motel I sat around, stunned, channel surfing on the television and pondering my next move. Now that I had decided that I might as well hang around and wrap up my grandfather’s affairs, I realized that I honestly had no real idea what this might entail.
My father’s instructions had been clear enough: Just shut everything down. He’d told me, “I’m pretty sure he still rents an apartment downtown, probably the same one he moved into after he left my mother. I suppose you’ll have to track down his landlord. Whatever he’s got in there, get rid of it –give it away, throw it away, sell it; I don’t care what you do with it, just get rid of everything. I can’t imagine there’ll be much.”
I’d had a terrible connection with my father that night –the telephone connection, I mean; it sounded like he was calling from some kind of a cellular phone—and I could tell he was impatient with me, or probably (to be fair) not with me, but with the whole sore subject of his father’s death and whatever old turmoil and conflict it stirred up in him. That was my father’s style, anyway, to delegate everything, particularly the shit jobs, as he called them; it was one of the things that had driven my mother nuts about him. I could tell he just wanted me to take care of everything and give him the briefest of reports when I was done. It seemed to me like a good opportunity to nose around and try to dig up some answers for myself, the prospect of which must have occurred to my father; if there was anything that struck him as awkward or unusual about sending me in to clean up the affairs of a man who for all intents and purposes I didn’t even know, my father never let on.
I eventually went over to the motel office and asked the woman at the desk for directions to my grandfather’s place. It turned out he was living in an apartment above a bar on a block just off the Main Street. I walked back downtown and checked the place out; the bar was closed on Christmas Eve, but I stood for a moment with my face pressed to the dirty glass; it was a small joint, one long room with a bar running the length of one wall and a pool table dominating the rest of the space. There was the usual assortment of bar neon, liquor posters, and a bright jukebox against the back wall. Outside, alongside the entrance to the bar, there was another door, this one bearing my grandfather’s name and address on the mailbox. There were a couple grimy panes of glass in the middle of this door, through which I could see a dark staircase disappearing into the black hallway above.
Night had fallen by this time and the entire downtown seemed abandoned. I walked back to the corner and looked off down the Main Street, where the light poles were strung with alternating artificial green Christmas trees and red plastic candy canes that glowed above every corner. Bells were ringing at the big Catholic Church a few blocks east of the downtown, and a moment later I heard the first strains of an organ drift up the street. Sound, I discovered, really carries in an empty little town on Christmas Eve.
I decided against investigating my grandfather’s apartment until I at least had daylight to beat some of the gloom out of the place, and as I strolled around the fog-swept downtown I kept moving into pockets of choral music –or Christmas carols and hymns—that were bleeding out into the streets from Christmas Eve services at various churches around town. It was eerie and oddly thrilling; there is something both desolate and romantic about being alone in a strange place on Christmas Eve; it fills your heart to the point of breaking, is how my father had once described a Christmas he had spent in an empty hotel somewhere in the north of Norway, where he had attended services at a Lutheran church and had been greeted warmly by the same townspeople whose stoic demeanor had been driving him nuts for nearly a month.
I walked all over my father’s old hometown that night, and eventually ended up down by the river, whose presence I could smell and hear and sense, but not really see because of the thick fog. There was a pathway that ran along the river, and I walked along this for a time. Just at the edge of town I encountered a train idling in a small railroad yard, and I could see the train’s crew sitting down together for dinner in one of the engines before they began –or continued—their Christmas Eve run down the Mississippi.
When I got back to my motel room at the River View there was a man sitting there on one of the white plastic lawn chairs that were lined up on the sidewalk directly in front of the windows. He stood as I approached and removed a large black felt hat and sort of held it to his chest, a gesture whose quaint formality struck me as oddly charming. The man appeared to be either Hispanic or Indian; he was a small, rugged-looking man with a thick head of black hair, sharply pressed industrial teal work slacks, and a pair of well-worn and scuffed boots.
“You’re Charlie’s boy,” he said, and nodded. “All right then.”
He had his hands in the pockets of a lightweight denim jacket, and his hat was now dangling from a free thumb. This all happened so quickly that I hadn’t yet had time, or found the words, to respond; I think I had just been nodding along with him. There was certainly nothing about the man that frightened me; he had a soft voice, dead pan, uninflected, and this characteristic was also reflected in his face; he had cold, dark eyes; you couldn’t read anything in his eyes, he was a guy like that, who kept everything he was thinking or feeling in the back of his eyes, back there in that dark little projection booth where he could process everything in private.
“I’m Santo,” he said, but didn’t offer his hand. “I knew your grandpa for over forty years. I was with him when he died.” He was now turning over his black hat in his hands.
“What happened?” I asked, and he looked hard into me for the two or three seconds it seemed to take me to phrase the question. He shrugged and put his hat back on his head.
“He was old,” he said. “They figure his heart must have just gone out on him. We were playing cards and he just froze up and pitched over. By the time I got him to the hospital there was nothing they could do for him.” He had turned away from me and was rocking back and forth, rolling very slowly and methodically on the soles of his boots. He had removed his hat once more and was clutching it with both hands behind his back. “It’s a pretty night,” he said. “I always did think this was a pretty night. Neither of us were religious, but we’d go to church together every year. Tradition, I guess. He liked to make oyster stew, and we’d drink a little bit.” He was staring off in the direction of downtown, where the Christmas lights stretched off in the distance and slowly disappeared in the fog. We both stood there silently for a long moment. He was breathing heavily, exhaling a continuous cloud of steam.
“I didn’t know him,” I said finally. “I'm sorry, I'm sure it sounds appalling to you, but it's like I couldn't even recognize him at the hospital.”
Once again Santo was watching me intently as I spoke, watching my eyes. He nodded. “Is your daddy coming for him?” he asked.
I’d never in my life called my father ‘daddy.’ “No,” I said.
“That’s sure a sad story,” he said.
I shrugged. What the hell did I know about it? Certainly it was something I’d been curious about over the years –mildly curious, I should admit that. I think I had always had a pretty precocious understanding of estrangement and all the ways both tragic and seemingly trivial that people could break apart and drift away from each other, the easy and difficult ways that bonds could be broken. I’m not even sure exactly how I came by this understanding, but the ultimate principle behind everything my father taught me, however unintentionally, was that the only thing I could take for granted was that I couldn’t take anything for granted. As I stood there outside my motel room on Christmas Eve I sensed that this man a few steps away from me in the parking lot, this mysterious Santo, was capable of filling in much of the daunting blank slate that represented so much of my father’s history. I could also sense that I’d have to coax it out of him, and I didn’t feel up to the task at the moment, one way or the other.
Santo must have sensed my exhaustion and impatience, because he once more put his hat on his head, bowed to me, again almost formally, and said, “I’ll wish you good evening, then, and a merry Christmas. Your grandfather was a good friend to me.”
I said something –“thank you,” perhaps, or “good night”—and Santo turned away and walked off in the direction of downtown.