Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Envoy: A Christmas Serial. Part Eight

Santo often appeared to be oblivious to my presence. All along I had sensed a certain reserve or impatience in his attitude towards me, almost as if I was somehow imposing and he couldn’t wait for me to leave. I was also aware, however, that this may have been a product of my own social anxieties and long ingrained unwillingness to be an imposition. I left him alone at the window and went back into the kitchen and waited. When he finally reappeared he got himself a glass of water and sat down opposite me with his head down and his eyes closed.

“How long did my grandfather live here?” I asked, mainly to break the awkward silence that had settled between us. I honestly don’t think I cared how long he had lived in the apartment, or where he might have lived before. I had lost all interest in the prosaic parts of the back-story.

Santo lifted his head slowly and gazed at me across the table. “A long time,” he said. “He saved for years and years, and I guess he made some good investments. He eventually bought the entire building, including the bar downstairs, where I first started working as a night janitor. An old man owned the place before Charlie, and he always let him do whatever he wanted up on the roof. Charlie had moved here for good when the marriage broke up, but he’d kept this apartment for as long as I’d known him.”

“How long has that been?” I asked.

“A long, long time,” Santo said. “I pretty much learned to speak English from Charlie, and I’ve worked in the bar for almost 40 years.”

“You still work in the bar?” I asked.

“I manage the bar,” Santo said. “There’s not much to it anymore, but, yes.”

“I assume you have beer in that bar,” I said. "I could use one right about now." Santo nodded, carefully placed his package back beneath the little artificial tree, and gestured for me to follow him. Once again he took the lead, and as we paused outside the apartment door it was Santo who fished a key ring from his jacket pocket and locked the door. I followed him down the steps and out onto the sidewalk in front of the bar.

“This is a good little place,” he said as he rapidly inserted keys in various locks and opened the door. “It’s a good thing we’re the only real bar in town –there’s the serviceman’s club out on the highway, but they only keep weekend hours these days. Some of those people wouldn’t set foot in this place, but we’ve done all right just the same. We had a few rough years there where some folks gave us a hard time. I remember Charlie out there scrubbing spray paint off the front of the building in broad daylight.”

Santo threw a switch just inside the door and the rows of hooded bar lights made just the slightest dent in the darkness. He moved behind the bar and flipped another switch for the back-bar lights. I felt like I was in an aquarium.

“What would you like to drink?” he asked me.

“A beer,” I said. “Whatever’s cold will be fine.”

Santo put a can of Budweiser on the bar, filled a glass with some ice, and mixed himself some kind of drink. He took a seat on a high stool facing me, and fixed me with his deadpan stare, boring into me with those dark eyes.

“You like running this place?” I asked him.

“I like it just fine,” he said, and stirred his drink with his finger. “I’ve had to put up with plenty. It can be a sad business but I've been doing it for so long now that I don't really know anything else.” He shrugged again and we sat quietly for a moment, nursing our drinks.

“Everybody has to do something with their life,” Santo said. “This beats real work. I came to this town as a migrant worker.” He gave me that thin, uncertain smile again, and ducked his head into his drink, as if from embarrassment at having perhaps revealed too much. There was another long moment of silence, broken eventually by an eruption from the pinball machine back in the shadows. I looked at the beer clock behind the bar. It was almost seven o’clock.

Santo extended his glass and tapped my beer can on the bar. “Merry Christmas,” he said. “Here’s to your grandfather. He was a good man.”

He turned away from me, and I saw him shake his head –it was more like a violent jerk, actually, quick and hard, to the right and then to the left. I watched him in the back-bar mirror as he repeated this gesture again. He moved away from me down the bar, fished another beer from the ice bin, and placed it in front of me.

“I’ve lost a lot of people,” he said.

What could I possibly reply to something like that? I merely nodded and took a sip from my beer.

“Did you know my father?” I asked.

“Sure,” Santo said. “When he was a boy. He didn’t like me so much, right from the beginning. I understood. A lot of mistakes were made. It’s too bad, and I’ve always been sorry. I know Charlie was also sorry. It ate at him. Charlie would go down to the library to look for him.”

“I don’t follow,” I said.

“To search for him,” Santo said. “On the computers. To try to find out where he was and what he was up to. He found articles about your father here and there in newspapers and magazines, and it made Charlie happy to know what had become of him. He was pleased to think that he’d done all right for himself.”

“I guess so,” I said. “I guess he has. I’m still not sure I could tell you what exactly he does for a living, but he’s always managed to stay busy, and I think he’s made a lot of money. He still travels all the time for his job.”

Santo sat back down on his high stool and stared into his drink. “How do you get on with your father?” he asked after a moment.

I shrugged. “Fine,” I said. “He was in the army for a long time before he started his business, so he’s pretty much been coming and going for most of my life. When he has been around he’s always been busy and distracted. I think he’s a pretty restless guy, but we’ve always been good pals.”

“Did he ever talk about Charlie?” he asked.

I hesitated for a moment, contemplating a lie. “Never,” I finally said. “Or virtually never. It was obviously a sore subject and something he didn’t really want to talk about. It was pretty clear that something had happened between them. I guess I sort of learned from a very early age that it was something that was to be avoided.”

Santo shook his head sadly and we both sat there for a long stretch of silence.

“Did you find a will?” Santo eventually asked.

The question startled me in that the thought of a will had never occurred to me, and my father apparently hadn’t thought to raise the issue either.

“No,” I told Santo. “I mean, I haven’t really looked very hard. I haven’t really looked at all, in fact. Do you happen to know if my grandfather had a lawyer? Or something like a safety deposit box?”

“Leonard Sheldon handled Charlie’s divorce,” Santo said. “And he did some other things for him from time to time, but he’s been dead for years, and so far as I know there’s nothing left of his practice. Otherwise I don’t think Charlie had any use for either lawyers or banks. He didn’t really like either.”

He paused and seemed to think for a moment. I almost had the sense that he was hesitating. “I don’t really know,” he said. “I suppose you could check around, but I think he kept pretty much everything either in the apartment or in the bar safe downstairs.”

I was beginning to have some serious doubts, or at least questions, regarding Santo. I wasn’t sure, frankly, how much might be at stake for him in the settling of my grandfather’s affairs. How was I supposed to be sure how much he really knew or whether he was being entirely upfront with me? Since he obviously had full access to the building and my grandfather’s apartment, what would have stopped him from already turning the place upside down? He’d had several days head start on me, after all, and there clearly wasn’t anybody else in town that had any interest in my grandfather’s affairs.

The truth, of course, was that I didn’t have the slightest idea who the hell Santo was, and even less of an idea as to whether I could really trust him, or how much. At any given moment you could read his behavior and mannerisms as either shy and almost sweet or as suspicious. I’d never been a terribly good judge of people, and didn’t particularly trust my instincts, precisely because, in fact, I’d always been sort of cluelessly trusting to a fault. This was another trait of mine that had continually driven my father mad over the years. I really had no idea what kind of boss my father was, but I had to imagine that he was tough, unconventional, and driven by a much sharper set of instincts than my own.

My father had always been naturally suspicious, or at least wary of the motivations of seemingly everyone he came in contact with outside of our immediate family. He was one of these guys who would scrutinize every restaurant check and do his own math in the margins with a ballpoint pen, a habit that was a source of constant embarrassment to my mother, even if he did succeed in consistently demonstrating the erratic accuracy of many waiters and waitresses.

As far as Santo was concerned, it was by this point clear enough to me that he had been a significant figure in my grandfather’s life, certainly far more significant than I had ever been (which wasn’t, of course, saying much), or even my father, for that matter, at least so far as a presence goes.

From what I’d been able to tell so far, Santo was the only person in the entire town who was grieving my grandfather’s death in any way. He was certainly the only one who had thus far expressed anything in the way of sympathy to me, even if I hadn’t exactly gone out of my way to broadcast my presence or court sympathy.

“Did my grandfather have any other friends or family that you know of?” I asked Santo there at the bar. It almost appeared to me that Santo rolled his eyes at this question.

“Of course he had friends,” he said. “But he was never a man to get very close to people. I guess he learned to be a pretty cautious guy. Many of our older friends –Charlie’s friends, really—have either long since died or moved away. As far as family goes, there was a sister he was in touch with, a schoolteacher over in Wisconsin somewhere, and she’d come to visit once or twice a year after her retirement, but she died a few years ago. Otherwise, so far as I know, there is your father and your family.”

“There’s not much there, I’m afraid,” I said. “My mother and father are divorced, and my one sister lives in France. Neither my mother nor my sister ever met my grandfather, and my dad never once that I know of spoke of any other family.”

“Well,” Santo said, again with some obvious hesitation. “There’s not much here anymore. There never really was much here. This is a small town. The regular customers in the bar, of course, all knew him.”

I finished my beer and Santo fetched another one from behind the bar and set it in front of me. He also mixed himself another drink and climbed up on his stool once again, holding his glass in his lap with both hands and closing his eyes.

"Do you feel like there should be some sort of memorial service?” I asked.

“No, no funeral, nothing like that,” Santo said. “That wasn’t Charlie. He wouldn’t like the attention or expense. I would, though, like to put a notice in the newspaper, out of respect.”

“Oh, of course, that would be fine,” I said. “Do you want me to try to put something together? I mean, I have no idea…I honestly have no idea how these things are supposed to be handled.”

Santo took a sip from his drink and then stared across the bar at me. He held his stare long enough that I looked back down at my beer and traced something in the melted ice trails on the scarred surface of the bar.

“I thought I’d see your father,” Santo said, and there was now something different in his voice. I sensed a growing impatience, even a trace of hostility. “I thought he would come.”

“We discussed that,” I said, and he shook his head and cut me off before I could go on.

“We haven’t discussed anything,” he said.

“My father’s out of the country,” I said. “He’s been gone for months. He’s in the middle of some big project in Saudi Arabia and couldn’t come back right now.”

“Or wouldn’t,” Santo said, taking another step away from his earlier discretion or restraint.

“Wouldn’t is perhaps fair, or maybe even accurate,” I said, and took another pull on my beer. “I can’t pretend that I know about that. I know nothing about what happened between them, I told you that. My father never talked about it. I don’t think he ever even discussed that business with my mother. All I know is that someone from the hospital here in town called me, and I did come. My father asked me to take care of things, which I can already see is going to be a lot harder and more complicated than I ever would have figured. I don’t have any experience with this sort of thing.”

“I gave your number to the people at the hospital,” Santo said. “I hope you don’t mind. Charlie used to call your family’s house from time to time. He’d hang up, of course. It bothered him, though, when the number was disconnected.”

“The house was sold when my mother moved to Arizona,” I said. “I’m curious, I guess, how you got my phone number in Chicago.”

“Charlie’s sister tracked you down, I think,” he said. “Charlie asked her to. She went to Chicago from time to time, and had heard from someone that you were living there. She’d known some of your father’s old friends from town, and got little bits of information from them occasionally. She said she found your number in the phone book.”

Santo shook the ice in the bottom of his glass and glanced at the clock at the far end of the bar.

“I already wrote something for the paper,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind. I tried to keep it very simple, which was how Charlie would have wanted it. I’m just concerned that there are still people out there who knew him, or remembered him from a long time ago, you understand. People may not even know that Charlie has passed on, and he did a lot of things in this town.”

“I understand completely,” I said. “Of course.”

Santo reached into the pocket of his jacket and removed a piece of paper that had been folded into quarters. He unfolded the paper and handed it across the bar to me.

“You want me to read this now?” I asked.

Santo nodded, and then shrugged. “Or you can read it later, if you’d like,” he said. “But I’d like to get it down to the newspaper tomorrow, and I wanted to be certain it was okay with you. Or perhaps you’d like to add something.”

I set the sheet of paper on the bar. It didn’t look to be much more than a hundred words, composed on an old typewriter and typed over with corrections. Other sentences had been scrawled out with a pencil. In some places there were particular variations of a sentence that had been typed over or crossed out several times.

I gave the thing a quick read. It was awkwardly phrased and corny, but I couldn’t see any reason some editor at the local paper couldn’t straighten it out in a few minutes.

“Charles Martin Stensrud passed away last week at the local hospital in town,” it read. "Mr. Stensrud was born in Dortmann, near here, on April 9, 1926. In his long life he worked for the dairy in Mable, and owned a number of businesses in town, including a barbershop and the first car wash. Many of our citizens will have pleasant memories of the Rinky Dink golf course which Mr. Stensrud built and ran for many years. He is survived by a son, Charles Stensrud, Jr., as well as a grandson and granddaughter. He will be missed by many who knew him, including his dear friend, Santo Javier, the manager of Mernie’s Tavern.”

“That looks just fine,” I said, and handed the piece of paper back to Santo.

“Do you wish to have your name in the story?” Santo asked.

“No,” I said. “No, that’s not necessary. I don’t know a soul in town.”

“I hope you would tell me if that’s not the case,” he said, and as I assured him that I was pleased with the obituary as it was written I could see his lips moving intently as he read through the words one more time.

“It’s a very hard thing to write,” he said.

“I can well imagine,” I said. “I’m glad you thought of it. It wouldn’t even have occurred to me.”

“I’m sure you must have been shocked when you received the call,” Santo said.

“Yes, I was,” I lied. “It was certainly a surprise. And when I finally talked with my father he didn't give me any indication that he knew about any of this. I don't think he was even aware that my grandfather owned any property in town. He said something about him renting an apartment downtown.”

“He did,” Santo said. “For many years. The same one he was living in when he died. When he finally left your grandmother he had decided that he wanted to open a barbershop and cut hair. He moved into that apartment and created some space for a barbershop in the back of the bar downstairs. He’d been taking classes at a little barber school in Dubuque off and on for years. He had a tough go of it with the barbershop. It wasn’t a good time for it. A lot of people in town held Charlie responsible for your grandmother’s death.”

“What happened to her?” I asked.

“She died in a car accident,” Santo said. “Although some people continued to insist for years that she’d killed herself, and perhaps your father believed that as well.”

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