Monday, December 24, 2012

The Envoy: A Christmas Serial. The Twenty-First And Final Part

I drove to the outskirts of town to an elaborate and overly showy funeral home that was set back from the road on a huge plot of immaculately landscaped lawn. At the end of the long driveway I parked under the carport out front.

There was a kid running a vacuum cleaner over the carpeting in the big chapel off the entryway. I saw him glance at me out of the corner of his eye the moment I came in the door, but he went right on with his noisy work for a full minute before finally shutting down the machine and acknowledging my presence.

I told him what I was there for and he gloomily trudged off down a hallway without so much as a word. He was probably thirty feet away when he turned and motioned to me with an irritating little flip of his hand. “This way,” he said.

I was trying to decide how old I thought the kid was. I guessed he was maybe in his early twenties, and was likely, I figured, an intern, or the undertaker’s son.

I remembered that I’d filled out some sort of paperwork regarding the particulars of cremation on the day I’d identified my grandfather’s body at the hospital, but the details were more than a little hazy. I do know that I hadn’t actually read much of the information they’d given me. I did, though, have a vague memory of being asked to choose from what seemed like a dizzying set of options and plans. I also knew that I’d chosen the least expensive option available.

The kid entered a little waiting room that almost looked like the receptionist’s area in a dentist’s office. He went around behind a counter, jerked a file from an open cabinet, and slapped a bunch of loose papers on the counter. As he hunched over them and filled in some of the blank lines, scribbling so aggressively that I could hear the scratch of the ballpoint pen, I said to him, “Did you have a nice Christmas?”

“Great,” he said without looking up. “At nine o’clock on Christmas morning I drove 30 miles alone and had to move the body of a 350-pound man from the second floor of the farmhouse where he lived with his mother. So, yeah, lovely day all around. Ho-ho-ho.” He then more or less shoved a pen at me and muttered, “The bottom line. On every page.”

While I signed the papers he skulked away through a pair of swinging doors that were made of smoked glass. When he returned a moment later he was carrying a small, plain, cardboard box. He flipped open one of the box flaps and tilted it in my direction. “The urn’s inside,” he said. “Plain, unfinished oak.” He then handed the box to me with no more care than with which someone might hand over your dry cleaning to you.

“How do you wanna pay for this?”

I shrugged. I certainly didn’t have enough cash on me, and the registered check my father had sent me was still sitting in my motel room. “Do you take credit cards?” The kid merely held out his hand.

He took my Visa and ran it through one of those old-fashioned contraptions that emboss the numbers on a waxy receipt with a bunch of carbon copies. His first two attempts were so aggressive that he shredded the receipt and had to start over. When he finally succeeded and shoved the thing across the counter for me to sign, I asked him who ran the place.

“I do,” he said. “I’m the manager.”

“So you’re a mortician?”

He shrugged insolently and said, “Call it whatever you want. I’m the manager.”

“I guess it never occurred to me that funeral parlors had managers,” I said.

“Learn something new every day,” he said without looking up from his paperwork.

I thanked him for his time and carried my grandfather’s ashes out to the car. I sat there under the carport, staring at that box on the floor of the passenger seat. Dean Martin was singing, “Baby, it’s Cold Outside” on the local radio station. I moved the box from the floor mat to the passenger seat, where I could keep my hand on it when I braked or went around a corner.

Santo was waiting outside my room when I pulled into the motel parking lot. I got out of the car and held out the box.

“Well, here he is.”

“That’s Charlie?” Santo said.

“That’s Charlie,” I said. “That’s my grandfather.”

Santo merely stared, and I put the box back on the front seat.

“I’m headed out of here,” I said. “I talked with Bob Porter, and everything’s square.”

He nodded, and stood there as I packed my bags, hauled them out to the car, and then went across the parking lot to drop off my room key.

“Did you have a nice visit?” the woman at the desk asked me.

“Very nice, thank you.”

“God bless you,” she said.

When I came out of the office Santo was still standing right where I had left him a moment earlier; he didn’t appear to have moved an inch.

“What will happen now?” he asked.

“It’s in Bob Porter’s hands. He has all the paperwork. I’d suggest you give him a call, but I’m pretty sure you’re going to make out all right.”

Santo nodded in the direction of the box in the front seat of the car.

“What will you do with Charlie?”

I shrugged.

“I’ll take him,” he said.

I looked at him for a moment. He was such a tough, broken-looking man.

“That would be great.” I handed over the box and said, “What will you do with him?”

“I’ll keep him,” Santo said, tucking the box under his arm.

I wished him luck, shook his hand, and said goodbye.

“Will you be back?” he asked.

"You never know," I said. "I’ll be sure to drop you a line if I’m ever in the area. Maybe we can have a rematch on the golf course."

He smiled briefly, then nodded, turned away, and headed back across the parking lot.

As I drove away from the motel a moment later a light snow was beginning to fall. I looked at the dashboard clock and counted on my fingers: I’d be back in Chicago in just under five hours.

As I turned a corner onto Main Street and pulled up to the one stoplight in town, Kenny Rogers was on the radio, and I smiled, even as I had the oddly painless revelation that I had wasted my life.

I was waiting out the red light when Santo suddenly appeared on the opposite side of the street, and I watched as he shuffled down the sidewalk with my grandfather cradled in his arms.

Somebody behind me honked, or I think I would have sat there and watched him until he disappeared from view.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Envoy: A Christmas Serial. Part Twenty

I slept into the early afternoon, and woke up to the ringing of the telephone. It was my father, sounding like he was calling from the moon.

“Well?” he said.

“A will turned up,” I heard myself say.

My father, of course, wanted details, and I provided him with them.

“There was one in his safety deposit box at the bank,” I said. “And it turns out he also had one on file at the city clerk’s office.”

“And?” my father said.

I could picture him sitting there somewhere on the other side of the world, chewing on the cap of a ballpoint pen and clenching and unclenching his jaw.

“Good news, bad news, I guess,” I said.

“Give me the bad news first,” he said.

“I don’t know,” I said, “maybe you’ll see this as bad news all around. I’m not sure, really, how to read it.”

I heard him exhale loudly. “David, let’s hear it.”

“He apparently left everything to Santo,” I said. “But it’s complicated. It turns out he’s got a lot of debt and very little money in the bank.”

“That doesn’t surprise me. He never could handle money.”

“Well, he also still owed money on his building, and supposedly the bank has a lien on the bar downstairs, which I’m told is the only thing he owned that has any actual value.”

“Jesus, David. I’m sorry I dragged you into this mess. Is there anything left to do there?”

“I think it’s now a matter of Santo wrangling with the bank,” I said. “I’m told we could contest the will, if you think you might get anything out of it.”

“Shit, no,” my father said. “I don’t intend to set foot in that town ever again. I’m not contesting anything. You should just go ahead and get your stuff in the car and leave. Save us all any further headaches and let those people sort it out. With any luck that guy won’t have a pot to piss in when the dust settles.”

“I’m not interested in seeing anyone get screwed over.”

“It sounds like it’s too late for that,” he said. “Get the hell out of there.”

I realized as I sat there listening to my father’s voice that I had no idea what was going on in his head. There were a whole lot of things that we would never see eye-to-eye on.

“I got it, dad,” I said.

“How are you holding up?”

“I’m really tired.”

“All right, then, I’ll let you go. I’m sorry, David. Really, I am. Are you ok for money?”

I told him that I was fine.

“All right, then,” he said. “Thanks for everything, and I’ll see you soon.”

“When will that be?”

“I really don’t have a good idea yet,” he said, “but I’ll drop you a line when I know.”

“Good enough,” I told him, and we exchanged our usual awkward goodbyes.

I pulled on some clothes and my jacket and went across to the convenience store for a cup of coffee and a copy of USA Today. I was sitting on the bed reading the paper when someone called from the funeral home to tell me that my grandfather’s cremains were ready to be picked up.

I sat around and finished the paper and then dialed Bob Porter’s office. Porter answered the phone himself, on the first ring. If he had a secretary or any other help around there I’d seen no evidence of it.

“I just had a long phone conversation with my father,” I told Porter. “We’re essentially in agreement that whatever we’re looking at here is more than we want to get involved with right now. We’re meddling, and whatever property or money is at stake isn’t of any interest or importance to my father.”

“Be that as it may,” Porter said. “It’s certainly of value.”

“My father doesn’t need the money.”

“How about you? Your father –or his lawyer—has delegated you to act on the family’s behalf.”

“I don’t want the money either. And, quite honestly, I don’t have the time or patience to deal with any of this right now. I need to get back to Chicago.”

I could picture Porter there in his cluttered little hovel of an office, bouncing around in his chair and guzzling Shasta soda.

“I see,” he said. “And what do you propose as a solution?”

“What would you propose?”

“I guess I’d propose we draw up papers naming some person or persons –or an institution, if you’d prefer—as the beneficiary of your grandfather’s estate.”

“Is this who would get everything once the smoke has cleared?” I asked.

“Yes, in all likelihood.”

“Give it to Santo,” I told him.

Later that afternoon I went out to my car in the motel parking lot and found an envelope secured in a Ziploc baggy and tucked under one of my windshield wipers. Inside I found a snapshot of my grandfather brandishing a putter as if it were a sword and lunging at a group of laughing schoolchildren. An old Risk game card was paperclipped to the photo, along with a Post-It note on which was written, in looping cursive, “Joy really isn’t all that dangerous. Risk everything.”

I drove down to Porter’s office and signed some papers on my way to pick up my grandfather’s ashes. Porter was his usual agitated, off-putting self. He was still putting the finishing touches on the paperwork when I arrived, pecking away at an old manual typewriter.

“No matter what anybody tries to tell you,” he said without looking up, “this is still much easier and more elegant than using a computer.”

He finally shoved the papers across the desk to me, looked at me from under his eyebrows, and said, “And you’re still sure this is all good and fine?”

“I’m sure,” I said, and started to sign.

“You’re not going to eyeball the fine print?”

“I’m assuming you’re trustworthy. Just so long as this takes me and my family off the hook, we have a deal.”

“Very good, then,” Porter said, and made a busy and inefficient production of collating the papers, paper clipping them together, and inserting them in a file folder.

I asked how much I owed him. He laughed and shook his head. “A favor to the family,” he said. “I admire your decision, however it may have been reached. It strikes me as almost honorable.”

He shook my hand, wished me well, and walked me to the door. “Give your father my best,” he said. As I was getting into my car I once again found myself oddly relieved to have escaped the man’s presence.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Envoy: A Christmas Serial. Part Nineteen

Back in my room I drank a few more beers and watched TV. I was buzzed and wired, so I decided to take a walk to try to clear my head. I found myself headed in the direction of my grandfather’s place, and as I got close I could just make out the light poles and some of the hazards on the rooftop. Mernie’s was locked up, but looking in the windows I could see from the illuminated clock behind the bar that it was almost two o’clock in the morning.

I fumbled for my grandfather’s keys in my pocket and somehow managed to open the door to the stairwell outside his apartment. I climbed the stairs in the dark and knocked on the door to his place. I had the key in my hand, but I knew that Santo would be there. Before I could knock a second time he opened the door. He was wearing full-length long underwear, and the apartment behind him was completely dark.

“I’m sorry to wake you,” I said.

“It’s ok,” Santo said. “I’m a light sleeper. I heard you coming up the stairs.” He opened the door for me. “Come in.”

“Do the lights on the roof still work?” I asked him.

He shrugged. “I suppose some of them still do. They haven’t been used much since the last time they were changed.”

“Why don’t you throw on some clothes and come up on the roof with me,” I said. “I’ll kick your ass on the golf course.”

Santo shook his head, chuckled, and turned around and disappeared back into the apartment. A light popped on in the bedroom and he called out to me, “I’ll be just a minute.”

He reemerged a moment later wearing something that looked like a snowsuit. “There’s some beer in the refrigerator,” he said. “Would you like one?”

“What’s one more at this point?” I said, and Santo grabbed a couple beers from the refrigerator, handed one to me, and we went across the hall.

I managed to find the right key on the second try. We stepped into the dark office and Santo flipped a couple light switches on the wall. He gestured at the rack of putters. “As Charlie used to say, pick your weapon.” We each chose a club, Santo grabbed a basket of balls, and we headed up the short flight of steps to the roof. “Cross your fingers,” Santo said.

We stepped into a scene that was straight out of a lost Fellini film. The moon was hanging directly over the roof, and every one of the floodlights was blazing brightly. There were also stringers of colored bulbs hung between the light poles all around the perimeter of the roof. The course looked magnificent, almost like a sculpture garden that was the work of an outsider artist. The clear sky and bright moon, combined with the fuzzed dazzle of the rooftop lights and a few swirling scarves of the omnipresent Bryton fog gave the whole thing a weird feel that was somehow incredibly sharp and crepuscular at the same time. You could also see the whole town stretched out below, running all the way out to the river and the bluffs on the other side.

While I was standing there gawking and taking in this scene, Santo was making his way from hole to hole with some sort of squeegee, moving the remaining standing water and slush to the drains along the edge of the roof. He worked pretty quickly, and when he was finished he actually started going back over the course with a stiff broom.

“That’s fine,” I said. “Let’s play. You can go first.”

Santo put aside the broom, took up the putter, and tossed a ball down at the first hole. He bent over his putter intently and actually took a few practice swings. He presented a laughable figure, standing up there at two-thirty in the morning in his bulky snowsuit and eyeballing a putt. “It’s a surprisingly tough course because of the way the roof is banked to shed snow and rainwater,” he said. “The roof rolls, so the ball will break in all sorts of unexpected ways. You have to make constant adjustments. I haven’t played in years.”

His first putt was too hard and ricocheted off the sideboard with a wicked backspin before rolling backwards well short of the entrance to a sort of metal curlicue maze that funneled the ball to the hole. I attempted a deliberate bank shot, and ended up outside the maze and behind the hole. I was fucked, and wasted six putts going back and forth before I even got in a position where I was lined up with the entrance to the maze. Santo, on the other hand, nailed the hole on his fourth try.

By the time we were on the fifth hazard –which involved sending the ball up a ramp in a rocket and getting it to roll back down a zigzagging slide— I was already sixteen strokes behind and Santo had putted for par on every hole.

I was flailing and trash talking, which seemed to both amuse and embarrass Santo. “I helped build this course and I’ve played it a thousand times,” he said. “I have an unfair advantage.”

“Don’t patronize me,” I said. “It’s not too late for me to kick your ass.”

It was, of course, much too late for me to kick Santo’s ass. I was drunk and it was the middle of the night, and I was up there on a roof in the middle of nowhere, getting schooled on a mini golf course by a little old man in a snowsuit.

By the end I was starting to suspect that Santo was intentionally muffing putts in an attempt to let me gain some ground, but it didn’t matter. He’d gotten so far ahead that I’d stopped keeping my own score. I know, though, that on some of the later holes I was taking upwards of fifteen attempts to get the damn ball in the hole. It was a surprisingly tough course. I couldn’t possibly have been that drunk or that bad.

On the second to last hole –which involved rolling the ball over a little speed bump and through the archway of a windmill—Santo aced it on his first putt and I threw my club in the air and surrendered. I collapsed on a bench against the back wall and Santo came over and, without a trace of irony, shook my hand. “Good game,” he said.

“Good game, my ass,” I said. “I never should have left my motel room.”

“Thank you anyway,” Santo said. “It was enjoyable.”

I laughed. “Yes,” I said. “It was. Thank you for getting out of bed and humoring me.”

We went back downstairs, placed our putters back in the rack, and shut out the lights. I said goodbye to Santo in the entryway outside the apartment and he once again shook my hand.

“David,” he said. I was pretty sure it was the first time he’d called me by name. “Do you prefer David or Dave?”

“I don’t really have a preference,” I said. “Pretty much everyone has always called me David.”

“Well, David, thank you again for coming.”

He was looking at me with that oddly flat stare, and I still couldn’t quite get a complete read on the man. I decided he was decent though. And I think he probably had plenty of reasons to be wary, or even afraid, of me.

“I’m glad I came,” I said. “Get some sleep.”

He gave me an awkward pat on the back and I went back down the stairs and out into the early morning.

It was after four o’clock when I got back to my motel room, and I was too wired to sleep. I surfed through channels on the TV and drank the last three lukewarm beers that were floating in a bag of melted ice in my bathtub. I realized that I was dealing with things that could conceivably drag on forever. And I kept going back to the paperwork the woman at the hospital had given me; I kept turning to the last page. The cause of death was quite clearly listed as cancer, and when I had asked her where he had died she had told me, “He died at home. In his sleep.” That wasn’t, of course, what Santo had told me that first night I’d met him outside my room.

As I finally drifted off to sleep, I was pondering the laziest, most chickenshit way out. I was ready to get in my car and drive away.

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. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Envoy: A Christmas Serial. Part Seventeen

In more than fifteen years of dating I’d only truly been in love once, and had had my heart broken only that one time. And the woman with whom I had been madly in love, and who eventually, and rather quickly, broke my heart, had in all likelihood never even considered herself in a serious relationship with me.

She had been an artist, a painter, and a very good one. I met her when I was twenty-six. I was working at the time as an editor for a textbook publisher, and she was doing design work to pay the bills. One night after the company Christmas party she had taken me to her studio to show me the paintings she was working on for what would turn out to be her first big group show. I really didn’t know a damn thing about art, but I was –and am—definitely one of those ‘I know what I like’ people, and I was crazy about her paintings.

She used large canvases and muted colors –oils and acrylics, I think—to create these strange, spare figurative paintings that were almost dreamlike. Or rather all of them featured fragmented and oddly washed out scenes that suggested disturbing moments from folk or fairy tales that had been distorted by a nightmare. There was one I clearly remember of a barefoot little girl in a bright red Sunday dress. She was balancing a basket on her head that was full of eggs, and was walking along a narrow, winding street in a dark and towering city that was crowded in around her –the whole city seemed to be leaning, falling in on the little girl—on all sides. All the paint on the canvas was variations of blacks, grays, and browns with the exception of the carefully detailed little girl and her basket of eggs. The girl was tiny and entirely dwarfed by her surroundings, and the moldering gothic city she was walking through was otherwise entirely devoid of life and light.

This woman made a name for herself pretty quickly, and I was fascinated by her and almost instantly smitten. She had, though, been damaged in some way that she would address in only the vaguest of terms in conversation, but that clearly manifested itself in her work.

“I think you can get a pretty good idea of who I am and what I’ve been through from looking at my paintings,” she once told me when I had been pressing her for more personal information. “Work is the only refuge from disenchantment. Once you’re a so-called grown-up the real world has pretty much been ruined by religion, porn, and fairy tales. Not necessarily in that order.”

She also once said to me, by way of explaining her maddening tendency to keep me at arm’s length, “I only have so much seriousness –or energy, if you prefer; they're pretty much the same thing in my book—to expend.”

I had some general idea what that statement meant, but her reserve made my own seem like extreme extroversion in comparison. There was an additional contradiction that I couldn’t get my head around and that drove me to angry distraction; this woman’s career required her to make regular public appearances and presentations. She was in some demand in the art world as a speaker and a panelist, and the personality she brought to these appearances was so dramatically different from her private, day-to-day personality that it was confounding. I attended a fair number of her talks, and she was always funny, charming, and utterly engaging. Audiences loved her, even though she basically said the same things every time I saw her speak in public. She had a stock line that she would always find a way to work into every talk or interview; “I am a dark person,” she would say. “I have always been drawn to darkness, and I work best in darkness; it’s as natural to me as breathing, but my task as an artist is to keep pushing through that darkness until I at least glimpse a lantern in a distant window. Light is what I am always working toward. Art that offers nothing but darkness is unfaithful to the beauty and sweetness and music of this world, and it is corrosive. The best natural artists, it seems to me, are fireflies and cicadas. They make their beauty and then they go away.” I heard her say some version of those words at least a dozen times, and on each occasion I would get more queasy and more convinced that she was nothing but an elaborately constructed persona.

All the same, for a brief and agonizing time, I was infatuated with this woman. Because she left the textbook publishing job shortly after we met, and quickly became a busy and wildly successful artist, I had only limited access to her. She didn’t like to talk on the phone, and had a disciplined approach to her work and her schedule that I admired even as it drove me to distraction. I wrote her effusive letters and even emails (for a stretch during the time we were, at least in my mind, tentatively dating, she had a residency in Boston), and, in lieu of actual communication, I spent hours making her mix tapes, the receipt of which she resolutely refused to acknowledge.

When I confronted her with this frustrating fact once she said, “I can’t listen to music when I’m working.”

“What about when you’re not working?” I asked.

“I am always working,” she said.

“You must drive,” I said. “Couldn’t you listen to them in your car?”

This was on one of the very rare occasions when I actually managed to get her to return a phone call, and I remember she sighed dramatically and said, “Even when I’m in the car I’m working. I am thinking about working, about what I am working on or what I have to say when I arrive at wherever I’m going. Whenever I am not working I am always going somewhere. This is just the way my life is.”

“And that’s the life you want?” I asked.

“It’s the life I have,” she said.

“But does it make you happy?” I said.

She actually laughed at this question, and said, “Someday you’ll have to tell me what that’s supposed to mean.”

Not that I would have been up to that task, then or now, but I never got the chance, and probably wasn't the person to give her a decent answer or definition. She became increasingly inaccessible, and spent a good deal of time traveling. After four or five months, her hectic schedule, circle of professional acquaintances, and almost frightening discipline (which I honestly found astonishing) made even a sustained friendship impossible, let alone anything remotely resembling the relationship I thought I wanted.

Eventually I had to settle for the occasional terse email from wherever she happened to be, emails that were seldom more than two or three lines of severe emotional shorthand, entirely devoid of capital letters or punctuation.

Even these messages became less and less frequent, and after expending ridiculous amounts of time and energy typing out long and rambling replies –I was unable to think of them as anything but letters—in an attempt at drawing her out, I ran out of steam and let the thing go.

I kept every one of those emails, though. I guess the truth is that I desperately did want a relationship with this woman. I was fascinated by her, by the vulnerability I sensed in her and the way she always managed to keep me at arm’s length, and I wanted to know her better, wanted to learn to understand what it was about her that allowed her to create such astonishing paintings.

I never did make any inroads on that question, of course, and I don’t suppose anybody else has or ever will, beyond what they can infer from looking at her art or listening to her public pronouncements. I used to dream of those paintings, though. I still occasionally dream of them.

And I still occasionally dream of that woman and our fascinating, frustrating conversations. It continues to dismay me that what I felt for her might have been love, and to recognize how deeply I was crushed by her rejection.

I was having lunch with my father shortly after things finally fell apart and he was asking me about my love life in his usual evasive, backdoor way. I stumbled through an abbreviated description of my brief relationship with this woman and then sort of shrugged.

“Who knows?” I said. “Maybe lightning will strike twice.”

“It’s never a good thing to get struck by lightning,” my father said. “I can’t imagine anyone would want it to happen twice.”

Watching Jeri make effortless small talk with the characters at their corner table it occurred to me that she was exactly the sort of woman I could fall for, or at least the sort of woman I’d been attracted to in the past. She was attractive, assertive, tough, and self-contained. She was the sort of interesting woman I would fall for and then frustrate with my need for solitude and my long silences. Still, I did experience a jolt of curiosity and fascination, and perhaps mistakenly believed that there was some reciprocal spark there as well.

Nothing would come of this, I knew, but it was nonetheless nice to make a comfortable connection in that little town and in the midst of my strange and baffling assignment.

When Jeri came back over to settle my bill she invited me to stop by her grandmother’s home when she got off work. “I’m sure my grandmother would have some pictures to show you,” she said. “She always been a freak about taking pictures, and they used to use some of her photos in the local newspaper. I know she’d be happy to have a visitor, and her husband –her third husband, Roy; she’s hell on men—is a first rate character. We don’t get a lot of visitors around here.”

I told her that I’d love to meet her grandmother, and was particularly excited about the prospect of seeing her pictures. We agreed that Jeri would swing by my motel to pick me up when she got off work, and I left her a ridiculously generous tip and walked across the eerily quiet downtown to the Riverview.

There was such a thick fog rolling in off the river that I actually got lost and ended up wandering around unfamiliar neighborhoods trying to find my motel. When I did finally succeed in locating it, there wasn’t another car in the parking lot, and the sign out front, as well as the office, was completely dark.

I ended up stretched out on the bed and flipping through television channels while I waited for Jeri to fetch me. There wasn’t anything on TV but gloomy news and shitty programs I’d never heard of. I hadn’t owned a television in more than five years, and had never watched much TV growing up, yet every time I found myself in a motel room or visiting my mother in Arizona I’d invariably find myself drawn to the set like a zombie.

The experience always made me feel like I was living in a foreign country. I’d fallen asleep with the TV on every night I was in Bryton.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Envoy: A Christmas Serial. Part Sixteen

I asked Jeri how long she had been back in Bryton. 

“My son Louie just turned three,” she said. “So you do the math. It feels like forever. How about you? What’s your story?”

“Nothing happened,” I said.

“What kind of nothing?” she said.

“All kinds of nothing,” I said. “Every possible permutation of nothing. I’m a floater, I guess. I think I’m one of those lucky people who was born without any big dreams.”

“That wouldn’t be my definition of a lucky person,” she said. “And I don’t believe it’s true of anyone, including you. If you don’t have any dreams, what do you have?”

“Just my life,” I said, “which is pretty simple and quiet, really. I don’t feel like there’s anything I need, or anything much that I’m missing, or missing out on.”

“I don’t believe that, either,” she said. “Whenever I hear someone say something like that I immediately start thinking something’s very fishy or very wrong.”

“I’m not sure there’s anything very wrong,” I said.

“I’m not sure you’re not sure about that,” she said. “I’ll go ahead and ask you what you do, but I’m also curious about what you like to do. And don’t just shrug. I hate shruggers. This is a question that any human being should be able to answer without much hesitation.”

“What I like to do is nothing much,” I said, “I like to listen to music. And I like to read and watch movies. I'm pretty contented when I have a lot of time just sitting around doing that. If you’re asking what I do for a living, or for a job, I don’t really have a straight answer, because I’ve never put much thought into it. I certainly don’t have a career, and there was never even a point where I had anything in mind that you might conceivably classify as a career. I’ve done all sorts of mindless shit to pay the bills, mostly cubicle work –a lot of temporary jobs—where I entered data or answered phones or filed paper. I’ve never taken a job that I haven’t thought of as temporary, and I discovered long ago that it’s not difficult to find the kinds of jobs that I’m perfectly capable of doing. Some of them have even paid me what I consider a reasonable salary.”

“Give me some examples,” she said.

“Examples? Let’s see. I’ve worked at a law firm, for software and Internet businesses, and at an advertising agency. I’ve worked for a company that published law books, another that did textbooks, and I was even a hotel doorman for a time.”

“Which job did you like the best?” she said.

“I didn’t like any of them, particularly,” I said. “At the same time I can honestly say that not one of them made my life genuinely miserable. I’d inevitably get bored, though, and then I’d quit and eventually find something else to do. That’s been the weird cycle of my entire adult life.”

“The only one of those that sounds even remotely interesting is the hotel doorman job,” Jeri said.

“It was remotely interesting,” I said, which was the honest to god truth. “And I made surprisingly good money. It was ridiculous some days. I had to get up earlier in the morning for that job than I’d ever gotten up in my life. The alarm would go off at 5:30 and I’d try to make myself presentable; being presentable was very important.”

“I’d think being presentable is always pretty important,” Jeri said. “That just seems like a good general rule of thumb all around, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, but this was one of those jobs where success depended entirely on kissing ass in a big way,” I said. “You had to be able to utterly humiliate yourself in order to be successful. For instance, I had to wear this outfit that made me look like an usher from the golden age of Hollywood. I don’t know, other people said it looked like it had been stolen from a high school marching band. I’m sure you must have seen these guys from time to time. These get-ups were completely fucking ridiculous. You wouldn’t last long in that job if you had any real sense of shame.”

“And I suppose you had such a refined sense of shame that you just couldn’t cut it,” she said.

“Oh, fuck no,” I said. “I learned to live without shame a long time ago. I was good at this job. I had the drill figured out in a hurry.”

I hadn’t really thought about that experience in years, but I found myself telling this woman all about it, about how this hotel was a hot shit place downtown where there were always big business conferences and events, and we’d get these players from New York or Los Angeles or wherever flying into town every day for meetings. Some of these people were apparently famous, or at least I’d occasionally hear names being mentioned in almost reverential tones. They never meant anything to me, though; all I knew was that if I hustled out there and worked hard enough at kissing these people’s asses I’d get some cash shoved in my fist.

I told Jeri how, according to our employee handbook, which we were required to read –after which we were expected to sign a fucking confidentiality agreement—I was a member of the ‘service team in the guest satisfaction department.’ This manual was truly mind-boggling; it’s amazing the sort of bullshit people can get paid to produce in America, and there would later be times when I, in fact, would get paid to produce exactly the same sort of bullshit.

My job as a member of the service team was to grab bags, open doors, haul all manner of shit, and do whatever else I could to ‘ensure that the arrival experience’ of the guests was as ‘smooth and welcoming as humanly possible.’ Or some such nonsense like that. I more than held up my end of the deal; for eight months I was as good as any hotel ass-kisser in Chicago.

“I learned to be quiet, deferential, and as nearly invisible as I could be while still insuring that my services were noticed enough to earn me a tip,” I told Jeri. “If it was raining or snowing I was at the fucking cab, car, or limo door with an umbrella before the drivers had even managed to come to a full stop in front of the hotel. You never grabbed anybody’s bag without first asking permission, and if somebody felt like chatting you up you had to be prepared to chat, whether the subject was football, the weather, or a decent place to grab something to eat nearby. I really was damn good at it, and there were days I made fistfuls of cash.”

“It sounds a lot like being a waitress,” she said. “And I wouldn’t think it would be all that boring, really. It must have been good people watching, at the very least. Why’d you quit?”

“No, I’ll agree, it wasn’t boring,” I said. “It was seldom boring. But it was humiliating. I think it was the uniform, more than anything else, that got to me. I’m just not a uniform guy. Some days when I’d put that thing on and look at myself in the mirror I’d just feel more foolish than I’m comfortable feeling.”

“I thought you said you had no shame.”

“Well, yeah, to a point,” I said. “I mean, the ass-kissing didn’t ever really bother me. It was part of the competitive nature of the job. I also always managed to think of it as an acting gig. I was playing a doorman. But you had to be sort of sub-human if you really wanted to succeed. The whole uniform thing, though, seemed so unnecessarily humiliating. I didn’t understand the point of grown men running around in those ridiculous outfits. I was always amazed that people didn’t just look at us and break out laughing.”

“Everything has become so ridiculous that people don’t notice anything anymore,” Jeri said. “I always think that if you really stop and look at or think hard about anything it won’t make any rational sense. I mean, those people whose bags you were carrying, did you ever notice the clothes they were wearing? Whenever I find myself really noticing a tie, for instance, I realize that those things are utterly pointless; they serve no purpose whatsoever. And yet these guys waste all sorts of time and money dicking around with ties without ever really thinking about them, or about why they feel compelled to wear them.”

“Because it’s just become accepted, I guess,” I said. “Or expected.”

“I hate things that serve no function,” she said.

“Have you spent some time mulling that?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “No mulling. A firm conviction requires no mulling.”

She paused and looked across the room. “The feed caps need their bill,” she said. “You should go over and look at my grandmother’s pictures. She’ll probably have some stories for you as well.”

I watched her cross the restaurant. This was a curious woman, I thought. I was still in that stunted mindset where I continued to find myself thinking of women of roughly my own age as girls, which said plenty, I suppose, about the generally static nature of the last decade of my life. I imagined that until quite recently Jeri was probably accustomed to being referred to as a girl by characters that weren’t markedly different from me.

I’d lived for quite some time on the fringes of the world she had earlier described, and still, to some extent, had one foot tentatively in it. As with pretty much everything else in my life, I’d never quite managed to fully immerse myself in the music scene in Chicago, even though I had been going to shows and concerts and hanging out in record stores forever. I’d probably seen a number of the Minneapolis bands that were kicking around at the time Jeri was living in the Twin Cities.

I’d dated some girls (and they were, unmistakably, girls) from that club scene, but, in truth, none of these experiences could even be called proper dates, and certainly didn’t qualify as relationships. I’d also had, more recently, a few genuine relationships –or at least entanglements that were prolonged beyond a point where they could have been called casual dating—with women I’d met through various jobs. I’d even once lived briefly, and disastrously, with a perfectly nice and attractive woman.

Nothing ever came of these situations, and I had always been willing to accept that the blame was entirely mine. I am, for reasons I’ve never sufficiently tried to understand, an intensely private person. Even now I consider email an odious personal invasion. I do not like to talk on the telephone, and have no patience for small talk. And though I chose to at least imagine that I had a reasonably active sexual imagination and normal desires (these terms are, of course, relative, as I could never bring myself to spend any time reading up on such subjects or mucking around in the miserable business of psychology or self-help), I was nonetheless never particularly gifted –an understatement, perhaps—in the arts of what my father always called “pitching and wooing.”

I’m shy, is what it really boils down to, reserved, clumsy. Or, as one former girlfriend once observed, I am not exactly “the slickest-fielding shortstop in the American League.”

The woman who had lived with me for a time said to me, preparatory to moving out, “Your lack of ambition and self confidence really gets to be unattractive after awhile,” a statement that had devastated me precisely because it had been one of those instances –rare in my life—where someone had unwittingly given me a glimpse of how I am likely perceived by others. I’d give her the ambition point, but prior to that moment I had honestly never thought of myself as someone lacking in self-confidence, and the woman’s statement had had the effect of both calling my attention to this lack and exacerbating it.  

I also realized that I had never truly allowed myself to get close enough to anyone else –or for anyone to get close enough to me—for them to form such acute impressions, or at least get comfortable enough to articulate them. As wrong-headed as this surely sounds, that experience made me skittish about exposing myself in that way again.

As I sat there at that counter in the diner I realized that in the more than two years since that former girlfriend –the one really serious, prolonged attempt at a relationship in my life—had moved out of the apartment we shared, I had had exactly three exceedingly awkward and brief sexual encounters. I could remember every one of them in painful detail. There had never been the slightest pretense that any of these women were anything but convenient sexual partners –and I’m quite certain this was as true for the women as it was for me—and I had been perhaps too keenly aware of the level of desperation and need I was feeling, a desperation and need that I fully understood wasn’t going to be even remotely assuaged by having sex with a woman I didn’t even know.

I had no idea what might assuage these feelings of desperation and need, and this was exactly the sort of big question I had spent my whole life avoiding. I was still, I knew, avoiding such questions. If I gave them any attention at all, it was only when I was blindsided, and these uncomfortable moments would always recall to me the way I used to see my mother look at herself in the mirror –this as she got older and after she had split from my father the second time; her confrontations with any mirror involved no clear or actual appraisal, or even what could properly be called a gaze, but rather an almost furtive glance, her head already and almost instantly turning away as her eyes met the reflected image, as if all she was then seeking was the briefest and most unsatisfying of confirmations that she was still there, that the reflection in the mirror was really the person she had become and there was no longer a damn thing she could do about it.