There was a long, awkward silence, during which I once more had an opportunity to regret –and more keenly than ever—that I’d ever agreed to this undertaking. It wasn’t my place, and it wasn’t any of my business; my father had always made that plenty clear the whole time I was growing up. I’d never even heard him say anything even remotely substantive about either of his parents.
I was accustomed to my father’s impatience, but the edge in his voice disturbed me. I’d never heard him sound so angry and hateful.
“Look, David, I never told you about my father because he wasn’t anyone I wanted you to know,” he finally said. “It’s that simple, and that’s the truth. But you should understand that he humiliated my mother and ruined her life. I never even really knew the man, but I did know that much about him. I saw that with my own eyes. I dealt with him the only way I could at the time. Your mother didn’t know any more than you do.”
“None of that sounds simple at all,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” my father said. “I never should have let you get mixed up in this in the first place, and I don’t understand why the hell they called you, of all people.”
“Your dad had my number,” I said. “He apparently kept track of us. And I guess there’s really nobody else.”
“I always just assumed there’d be literally nobody else by this point,” he said, “and that we’d all be long out of the picture, which is exactly where I tried to put us, and keep us. I never in a million years thought Santo would still be hanging around. Listen, do you want me to just call a lawyer to deal with all this?”
“I don’t think you need to call a lawyer,” I said. “At least not yet. Stuff around town should be open again in the next couple days. Let me dig around a bit more and see what turns up.”
“Well, listen, David, I don’t want you doing too much digging around,” my father said. “Don’t mess around. If it looks like it’s just too much for you to deal with, leave a message for me at the office and I’ll get somebody else down there to straighten it all out.”
“I’ll do as much as I can,” I said. “I’m assuming there might be some issues with the property or estate, and my guess is that might take some time to sort out. I’m not even sure what the protocol is. I mean, should I start cleaning out his apartment before I check with someone in town to see where everything stands legally?”
“Go down to the courthouse in the morning and ask them who you need to talk to,” he said. “Tell them you’re representing the family and want to settle the estate as quickly as possible. I’d imagine you can find out something about property and tax status from the county clerk or city attorney, and they might even know whether or not a will exists, or if they have one on file. They should at least be able to help you figure some of that stuff out. That’s a damn small town, which means that things can either be a whole lot easier or much more complicated, depending on how much they want to be sticklers about this business. I’m guessing that if, in fact, there’s no will, then there isn’t anyone else who can make any sort of legitimate claim on any of the old man’s property or possessions.”
“Supposing I manage to get any of this information,” I said. “What the hell am I supposed to do with it?”
“Well, as I said before, I’m not interested in any of the man’s goddamn money,” my father said. “We’ll sell the stuff or give it away. If he really does own that building –and I still find that highly unlikely—we’ll just unload that as well and give the money to some charity in my mother’s name. I don’t imagine it’s worth a whole hell of a lot. Nothing in that town is.”
“This all sounds like a tall order,” I said. “I don’t exactly have a lot of experience in this sort of thing.”
“Don’t sweat it,” my father said. “I can get somebody to bail you out at any time. But listen, though, David, for the time being I’m going to have something drawn up and notarized that will authorize you to act in the family’s interests. I’ll try to get it faxed to the city hall there tomorrow, and you can tell them to expect it.”
I assured him that I would make every attempt to straighten things out, and whatever I couldn’t understand or get a handle on I would try to get somebody else to deal with.
“Just remember, David,” my father said. “That’s a very small town. Everybody knows everybody else’s business. That’s why I never could stand the damn place. People are going to be wondering what you’re up to. By this time tomorrow the whole damn place will know you’re there, and they’re going to be curious. You don’t have to worry about any of that, but you need to recognize that it can work to your advantage. Ask around. Somebody will have the answers to whatever questions you might have.”
“So there’s absolutely nothing you can tell me about your father that might help me out here?” I asked.
“I haven’t spoken to the man in more than thirty years,” he said. “I have absolutely no idea what he did or didn’t have. Start with a bank account. There can’t be more than two or three banks in town. Go in and ask. If any of these people need some kind of authorization, you should be able to get it done with a death certificate and the papers I’m going to have one of our lawyers draw up and fax down there. You should also find out if he had a car. Look around his place and see if you can find a title or insurance papers. Have you found his wallet yet?”
“They gave it to me at the hospital,” I said.
“Go through it,” my father said. “You can probably find out some stuff from that. Remember those old Hardy Boys mysteries you used to love so much when you were a kid? Well, buddy, here’s your chance to do a little detective work of your own.”
“You realize how weird this all is, don’t you, dad?” I asked.
“You didn’t even know him,” he said.
“That’s exactly the point,” I said. “That’s precisely what makes it so weird.”
“Well, look, David, don’t let it be weird,” he said. “Weird is not a distinction I waste much time thinking about. Just try to think of it as a job, a project. You’re doing me a huge favor, and I promise to make it up to you.”
“Can I ask you something?” I said.
“Sure,” he said.
“If you were home when your father died would you have come down here to deal with this?”
He was silent for a few seconds. “That’s a damn good question,” he said. “And I’m pretty sure the answer is no. In fact, if I had talked to you before you drove down there I would have told you not to bother. I’m sure that sounds terrible to you, but I really can’t imagine ever setting foot in that town again. I put that place behind me a long time ago, and for plenty of good reasons. I hadn’t so much as spoken to my father since I moved away. I’m sorry as hell that you ever got dragged into this. And I’ll say it again: if you decide at any time that you just want to get the hell out of there, let me know and we’ll figure out something else.”
We talked for a few more minutes about other things –his Christmas had been nearly as solitary as mine—and then we said goodbye.
After I hung up the phone I had a hard time getting back to sleep and sat up for quite some time channel surfing and drinking beer. I felt more confused and overwhelmed than ever. For whatever reasons, I was also beginning to feel more than a small measure of pity for my grandfather. I tried to imagine myself in his position. Regardless of whatever had happened between him and my father, or him and my grandmother, no matter how badly fouled those relationships had been, it struck me as pathetic that an old man could die with so little fuss or grieving. What little I’d so far seen in his apartment painted a picture –if an admittedly dim picture—of a man who had kept his angry, estranged son in his thoughts. If my father had seen his boyhood photograph there on the dressing stand, or his drawing of Thomas Edison on the refrigerator, would that have turned something over in his heart?
That didn’t seem likely, unfortunately. He’d lived too long with all his old private grievances, and he wasn’t about to let them go now. My father seemed determined to continue his cold war until every last trace of my grandfather’s life had been dispersed, buried, and erased. This was one salvage operation he wanted no part of. If he just kept his distance it would be as easy and painless as he wanted to imagine it could be.
I eventually fell asleep that night, but I was jolted awake by the racket of a garbage truck in the parking lot. I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I dressed and decided to walk back down to my grandfather’s place to start digging around in earnest.
A couple of inches of light snow had fallen during the night, and in the stillness and quiet of the early morning the town looked almost idyllic under the fresh coating of snow. I found a little café open downtown and went in and had my first real meal since I’d left Chicago. I ordered a big breakfast of eggs, sausage, hash browns, and toast, and sat there alone in a booth near the window for a long time, drinking coffee and reading through the local paper. The Gazette came out three days a week, and wasn’t much more than a dozen pages long. The local news was a mundane mix of school board meetings, high school sports, and police reports that were mostly a mix of the quaint and the absurd. Someone had reported a raccoon behaving suspiciously. A lawn ornament had been stolen from a yard near the high school. There was a false fire alarm at a local nursing home. With the exception of a few incidents of disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, and driving under the influence, my father’s old hometown seemed to be a pretty quiet and well-behaved place.
I checked out the classified ads, hoping to get some idea of the real estate market in town. The homes that were offered were mostly listed in the $58-70,000 range, but there were quite a few that were much cheaper than that. I didn’t see much in the way of commercial properties for sale. There was a small beauty parlor that was selling for $90,000, and a parcel of land on the edge of town that was now an abandoned automobile lot was available for more than $100,000.
There were a lot of pets for sale, available for adoption, and lost or found. I counted more than thirty vehicles for sale, ranging from automobiles to motor homes to motorcycles. Someone was trying to sell a wedding dress, and someone else was looking to unload a collection of beer cans.
My grandfather’s obituary had not yet made an appearance, but then I noticed that the paper had last been published on Christmas Eve.
There was no one else in the café at that hour –it was, it turned out, not yet six-thirty—with the exception of a couple old farmers who were talking quietly in a corner booth. The waitress was very attentive, and eventually struck up a conversation with me. She appeared to be in her late twenties or early thirties, and was attractive in a way that managed to be both wholesome and exotic; she was tall, fair-skinned and fine-featured, wore no apparent makeup, and had her black haircut in a short and choppy –almost boyish—style. She looked like someone I might encounter working in a restaurant or bar in Chicago.
As she refilled my coffee cup for the third time she asked me what I was doing in town. I questioned how she knew I wasn’t from there, and she just laughed. “Because I know who’s from this place,” she said. “We don’t get very many strangers in here.”
I gave her a brief and rather sketchy explanation for my visit. When she asked who my grandfather was, I said, “That’s a good question.” But when I told her his name she said, “Oh, sure, Charlie. I heard about that. I was sorry to hear it.”
I asked her if she knew him and she said, “Oh, sure, since I was a kid. He was in here all the time, and I saw him around, of course. He was sort of a local character. My grandparents went way back with Charlie, but I mostly knew him through Santo, who tended bar at Mernie’s.”
I admitted that I didn’t really know either of them, or hadn’t.
“This is sort of an errand more than anything else,” I said. “My father’s out of the country.”
“Is he coming back?” she asked.
“For this?” I said. “No, not likely. There was a lot of baggage I’ve never understand between the two of them, apparently going way back.”
“Aren’t there any other family members?” she asked. “Didn’t your dad have any brothers or sisters?”
“No,” I said. “It was just him, just the two of them left, I guess, and they’d been completely out of touch for years.”
“Sadness,” she said with a little shrug. Later, when she gave me my bill, she wished me luck.
“Can I ask you something?” I said before I left.
“Sure,” she said. “Whatever you want.”
“Who’s Santo?” I asked.
She gave me a look like she was trying to figure me out, and raised her eyebrows.
“Who?” She said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“That’s sort of a big question, isn’t it?” she asked.
She paused for a moment and fiddled with a pencil she had stuck behind one of her ears.
“He’s a quiet little guy who took good care of your grandfather,” she said. “He really did. He looked out for him.” She shrugged. “He’s a hard worker, too. Walks everywhere. Sometimes you’ll see him hustling along way out in the country. I think he picks up cans, but mostly I think he just likes to walk.”
When it became clear that was all she was going to have to say on the subject I thanked her and ducked back out onto the sidewalk.