Everything that was happening right then and there, everything that had been happening all that day, felt so strange and so wrong to me. This, after all, was my father’s life, and these were my father’s secrets. Maybe it was my business, and maybe it wasn’t, but I’m sure my father had his reasons for keeping things to himself all those years. Those reasons –whatever they might have been—and my father’s obvious reluctance to involve my mother, my sister, and me in his history had always been implicitly respected in my family. This was as true of his job and his travels as it was of his past.
When I was younger, whenever I’d ask my mother about the mystery of my father’s past, she’d always say something like, “I think there are some things you just don’t want to know.” In time I came to accept, and even believe, this. I suppose on some important, protective level I still believe in the flawed, essential truth of my mother’s words.
That night, sitting there in that empty bar with Santo, I wasn’t sure how much further into the mess of my father’s past I wanted to dig. Even on strictly practical terms it was obvious that it was a big and increasingly daunting mess.
I don’t think I’m necessarily shy, but I’m also not assertive, and I’m certainly not confrontational. I like to believe that I’ve always been the diplomat in my family, and my mind was trying desperately to construct some kind of game plan that would allow me to wrap up this situation as swiftly and painlessly as possible. Obviously my father hadn’t properly thought things out –he hadn’t mentioned Santo, for instance, and clearly he was unaware of the issues of property. I’d never heard a word about the miniature golf course in my life.
I had absolutely no idea, of course, what might have been going through my father’s head halfway across the world, but I imagined him going about his business as usual and spending a few unhappy moments at the end of the day mulling over what I was up to and then shoving it once more to the back of his mind. He’d sounded inconvenienced, more than anything else, when I’d talked to him on the phone, and I knew that my father hated little more than being inconvenienced.
I suddenly had the terrifying vision of being stuck in that weird little town for months, wading through my grandfather’s possessions and the complicated paperwork of his estate, and doing this same awkward and confusing shadow dance with Santo.
I was feeling inconvenienced. I didn’t have much in the way of a social life back in Chicago, and I had no real financial worries or concerns about my work situation, but I missed my mostly comfortable routine of sitting around my apartment reading and listening to music. I missed my daily walk around my bustling neighborhood, missed the deli and Chinese takeout place up the street, missed scrounging through my favorite thrift and used record stores. Since I’d first arrived in that town in Iowa it had felt like one of the deadest places I’d ever visited, and I was anxious to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible.
Eventually that night we sat there in silence for what seemed like a long time. Santo had his eyes closed and his chin on his chest. I also felt like I could fall asleep right there at the bar. I realized that I was famished and light-headed from the beer; other than a bagel, a banana, and a carton of chocolate milk that morning in my motel room, I hadn’t eaten anything all day.
At the moment I desperately wanted to get back to my room and into bed.
I sat there for a few moments longer, listening to Santo’s increasingly labored breathing.
“Hey, Santo,” I said, and he didn’t stir. I spoke his name again, louder, and still got no response. I could see his chest rising and falling, and marveled that he didn’t fall off the barstool. I pulled myself up from the bar and made up my mind to leave quietly. I knew full well that I hadn’t seen the last of Santo, and my unexplained departure seemed entirely consistent with his own mysterious character.
I fished a ten-dollar bill out of my pocket and left it next to my empty beer cans on the bar.
When I stepped outside onto the sidewalk, a light snow was still falling; the fog off the river was moving again in the streets. Up and down the blocks of downtown the streetlight Christmas decorations were suspended and dimly glowing in the fog. I swear I could hear church bells ringing; it literally seemed for a moment like ringing bells surrounded the little town. They were ringing in the distance, on all sides, in every direction.
It was a beautiful night, appropriately surreal and disorienting after the day I’d been through, the days. Just as earlier in the day, there was nothing moving anywhere. I didn’t have any idea what time it was, but as I walked back across town to my motel it seemed like there wasn’t anyone still awake or living in the town. All the houses I walked past looked to be completely dark; they could have been abandoned for all I could tell. Perhaps, I thought, all the residents of the town were gone for the holidays.
When I got back to my motel it almost looked like the place had been shuttered in my absence. The sign and lights out front had been extinguished and it appeared that I was now the only remaining guest.
There was, of course, no clock in my room, and I have never owned a watch, so I turned on the television and scrolled up and down the long list of cable channels until I found one of those forlorn stations where they flash community announcements, local news, weather forecasts, and the time. It was almost ten o’clock.
The Community Senior Citizen Center planned a bus trip to the mall in Dubuque the next morning, with a scheduled lunch stop at Mr. Steak. Please remember to bring AARP cards for special discounts. Snow was expected for much of the evening, with possible accumulation of two to four inches. Please drive safely. See Dale Halvorson at State Farm for all your insurance needs. Happy Holidays.
I took my little Coleman cooler and walked down to the ‘Snack Center’ to fill it with ice. There was a six-pack of beer and a carton of orange juice bobbing in the remains of the previous night’s ice.
Back in the room I drank a lukewarm beer and fell into a sound sleep.
Some time later the ringing of the telephone on the bed stand awakened me. I was severely disoriented for what seemed like several moments, during which I thrashed around in confusion in the bed. All of the lights in the room were still on, as was the television (still tuned to the mute community channel with its pastel pink background). I was fully clothed and lying on top of the bedspread. The phone must have rung for at least twenty seconds before I managed to rouse myself sufficiently to answer it.
The voice on the other end of the line sounded distant and unfamiliar. It took me a moment to understand what the voice was saying and to recognize it as belonging to my father. Once again, it was clear that we had a bad connection. He sounded like he was talking to me through an airshaft in an old apartment building.
“Jesus, you startled me,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” my father said. “Did I wake you?”
I told him that it was two-thirty in the morning and that I had, in fact, been sound asleep. “I’ve had a long, strange day,” I said. “You have no idea.”
“What’s going on there?” he asked. “Are you getting things straightened out?”
I told my father that I was beginning to fear that I was in a bit over my head on this one. I said that I didn’t have anything resembling a game plan, and that it all seemed very complicated to me.
“What’s complicated about it?” my father asked. “Sign whatever papers they need you to sign, clear out his apartment –or pay someone else to clear it out for you; find out if he had any other loose ends in town –a bank account, maybe, insurance, possibly a car. Just close everything down and get the hell out of there.”
I could tell by the tone of his voice that he was already impatient with me, and really didn’t want to hear much more about it.
“He didn’t have an apartment,” I said, interrupting him just as he was beginning another sentence. “Or, rather, he owned the building.”
“What building?” my father asked.
“The building he lived in,” I said. “I guess it’s the same building he’s lived in for a long time.”
“That place above the tavern downtown?” he said.
“That’s right,” I said. “I guess he now owns the entire building, including the bar, and apparently he’s owned it for quite awhile.”
“Where the hell did that bastard get the money to buy a fucking building?” my father said. “Jesus, the man never had two nickels to rub together in his life. Every year he’d have another shit job and some big, crazy new dream that would piss away whatever money he did have.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I saw the golf course.”
“You’ve got to be shitting me,” my father said. “He wasn’t still running that thing, was he?”
“No,” I said. “But it’s still up there on the roof. I sort of stumbled onto it when I was nosing around.”
I could hear my father’s exasperation in the silence on the other end of the line, or at least I could definitely sense it.
“God almighty,” he said. “I’d love to know how much of my mother’s money he wasted on that ridiculous bullshit. Before that he’d build a big, cheesy Christmas village up there every year. It was always one huge, goddamned waste of everybody else’s time and energy after another.”
There was a long moment of awkward silence.
“You haven’t had anybody crawl out of the woodwork down there, have you?” he eventually asked. I could tell that he was smoking, a habit that I knew he still resorted to when he was agitated. I sensed what he was fishing for, and I was for some reason reluctant to give it to him, yet what could I do?
“There’s this guy Santo,” I said. “The manager of the bar. He seems to know quite a bit about what’s what, and was supposedly with your father when he died.”
I heard my father exhale loudly, and sigh. “Oh, that’s rich,” he said. “That’s just great. That character’s still hanging around? Shit, what are the chances? The old man never stuck with a single thing in his entire life.” He changed the subject abruptly. “Did a will happen to turn up?” he asked.
I explained that I really hadn’t yet had much of a chance to hunker down and start sorting things out. “It's Christmas," I said. “Or it was, anyway. Everything here’s been pretty much shut down the last couple days, and I haven’t talked with anyone other than Santo and the woman at the hospital.”
“Well,” he said. “You’re going to have to talk to some people, I’m afraid.”
“I suppose so,” I said. “Look, though, dad, I didn’t know what I was getting into here. I don’t know what I thought, but I’m feeling a little overwhelmed at the moment.”
“Don’t be overwhelmed,” my father said. I recognized the clipped edge in his voice; he was obviously impatient. “Just take it one thing at a time. Make a list. Try to organize this deal into small, manageable projects. If you want or need to hire people to help you out I can wire you some more money. And if there are problems with some of the legal or financial stuff, I’ll have one of our secretaries or accountants make some calls, or you can find a lawyer down there.”
“Right now I still don’t have any idea about any of that,” I said. “I should start to figure out some things in the next couple days.”
“The big thing is to find out what he owns, and whether he owns any of it outright,” my father said. “The potential nightmare here would be if he still owed a ton of money on that fucking building. I’d be willing to bet everything I have that he didn’t leave a will, and if that’s the case you need to make it clear to the relevant officials that we’re going to make a claim on those properties.”
“Why bother?” I asked. “What do you care about what happens to the stuff he owned?”
“This isn’t about the money, believe me,” he said. “But that fucker Santo has been leeching off my old man for years, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to give him a free shot at anything my father left behind. The cocksucker.”
I was somewhat stunned by this turn in the conversation. My father had always sworn freely in my presence, but I’d never in my life heard him use the word ‘fuck’ or any of its variants, let alone 'cocksucker.' He sounded more agitated than I had heard him in years.
“Has he tipped his hand at all?” my father asked.
“Santo,” he said. “Who else is there?”
“There’s nobody else,” I said. “Santo’s asked some questions, but I don’t know if I’d go so far as to accuse him of tipping his hand. He’s been a pretty taciturn guy so far, but he did ask about a will tonight. He’s also asked about you.”
“If he asks about me again, tell him we’ve been in regular contact,” he said. “Tell him you’re consulting with a lawyer. Don’t tell that bastard anything else. I swear, buddy, do not give Santo a thing.”
“I’m not so sure he wants anything,” I said. “He certainly hasn’t given me any indication that he does.”
“Don’t be so sure,” my father said. “You just said he asked about the will. Mark my words, he’ll try to take anything that’s not nailed down, if he hasn’t already.”
“Jesus,” I said. “What the hell was it with you guys?”
“I never had anything to do with him in my life,” my father said. “Even when I was a kid I’d walk across the street to avoid him. The bastard hardly spoke English.”
“I wasn’t talking about Santo,” I said. “I was talking about your dad. And, for what it’s worth, Santo now speaks perfect English.”