Friday, December 14, 2012

The Envoy: A Christmas Serial. Part Eleven

When I arrived at my grandfather’s apartment I was surprised to find Santo making the bed in the bedroom. He was wearing long underwear and a sleeveless white tee shirt that revealed fading black tattoos that ran the full length of both his arms and stretched across his shoulders and chest. I tried to recall if I’d ever seen him with his arms exposed, but felt certain that I had not. Yet in the dream I’d had a couple nights earlier Santo had clearly been marked by just such tattoos.

“I’m sorry,” Santo said, turning to me. “I didn’t expect you so early.”

“I couldn’t sleep,” I said.

“Of course,” Santo said.

If Santo was either surprised or perturbed by my early appearance, he didn’t let on. 

“There’s coffee in the kitchen,” he said to me over his shoulder. “It should be ready. Help yourself. I’m afraid there’s not much to eat around here at the moment.”

“I noticed that yesterday,” I said. “I actually stopped and had a bite at the café downtown.”

Santo merely nodded. When he had finished making the bed he put on the robe my grandfather had given him for Christmas –or, rather, the robe he had been intending to give him—and led the way into the kitchen.

“I’ll get out of your way here in just a minute,” he said. “I’m sorry if this seems improper. I’m afraid I stayed too late at the bar last night and this was more convenient than the long walk home. It was snowing pretty good.”

“Take your time,” I told him. “You’re not in my way at all. I’m still sort of at a loss as to how to go about this. If you have any ideas or opinions I’d love to hear them.”

Santo frowned and shrugged, and then showed me his palms. “I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “It’s not easy.”

“I talked with my father last night,” I said. “He feels pretty strongly that if the property should be somehow determined to be ours, we should get rid of everything.”

“Liquidate, I think they call it,” Santo said, and nodded. “That’s understandable.”

“So I guess my first order of business is to determine, if I can, whether or not my grandfather left some kind of will,” I said.

“I’m afraid, as I told you last night, that I can’t really help you out with that,” Santo said. He opened a drawer next to the refrigerator, removed an index card and a pen, and proceeded to jot something down on the card. He then placed the card down on the table in front of me.

“That’s the combination to the safe in the back room of the bar,” he said. “Charlie may have left some papers in the little drawer at the top of the safe. I leave his personal things alone. I think maybe he did have a checking account, for payroll, and I’d imagine he kept his checkbook and most of his cash in the safe.”

It’s possible I gained some measure of trust in Santo in that moment. It he was at all untrustworthy, or had questionable motives, what good reason could he have had for volunteering any of this information? In a sense, in fact, that moment seemed to turn the tables on me. Suddenly, once more, it was I who felt guilty and suspicious. Truly none of this seemed even remotely any of my business, or even my father’s.

At this point Santo left the kitchen, and when he returned a moment later he was fully dressed.

“I’ll leave you to sort things out,” he said, and placed a key on the table. “That’s the key to the bar. Make yourself at home. I won’t be back to open the place until later this afternoon. I’ve got some errands to run. I would think Charlie’s bank information would be in the safe.”

After Santo left I once again lost all enthusiasm –but that’s certainly not the right word—for the excavation project I was faced with. I actually sat down on the couch and nodded off for a time. I thought about my father’s remarks about the Hardy Boys, and remembered, somewhat vaguely, his promise to fax some paperwork to somebody in town that would deputize me, as it were, to act as my family’s representative on my grandfather’s behalf. The problem –besides the fact that this seemed patently ridiculous in every possible way—was that I couldn’t remember where it was my father said he was going to fax the document.

I sat around the apartment drinking the rest of the coffee and then turned on the TV and actually fell asleep on the couch. I woke up with great difficulty some time later, and had no idea how long I’d actually been sleeping. It felt like a long time. That nap, at any rate, was definitely the best stretch of sleep I’d managed since I’d come to town.

It was always difficult to tell what time it was in that place. The time of year, the oddly fluctuating temperatures, and the constant fog off the river seemed to produce this weird atmosphere of ceaseless twilight.

I made another pot of coffee, drank a couple cups to wake myself up, and then ventured back down to the street. I learned from the clock on the bank downtown that it was three o’clock. I went around the corner to the Casey’s convenience store and asked if there was some sort of courthouse in town. The woman directed me to what she called the ‘city office,’ which was a few blocks away.

This office turned out to be located in a small and non-descript cinderblock building that was no more impressive than your average small town insurance office building. It shared the space with a dental practice. The cheap plastic sign out front was to the point: “City Offices,” it read. “City Manager. Town Clerk. Notary Public. Public Records.”

I stepped inside the entryway to the office and saw a room parceled out into six neat cubicles. In the back were two open doors; through one I could see a long, empty conference table. The other revealed an actual office. Two women and a man were hunched in the cubicles in the main room, and I could see an older man behind the desk in the office. Everyone looked up, almost startled, when I came through the door.

They all seemed to raise half out of their chairs and call out a greeting to me at once. It almost seemed like they were excited to see me, as if an old friend had stopped by to pay a visit. Perhaps they didn’t get a lot of traffic in that office on any given day. When the older fellow in the office erupted from behind his desk and barged in my direction it quickly became clear to me that he was already speaking my name and waving the fax from my father’s office at me.

Now that the guy was out from behind his desk I could see that he was a squat man with short legs and an immense belly and broad chest and shoulders. He looked like a champion wrestler gone to fat.

In an instant it seemed like everyone in the office was on their feet and lunging at me. Maybe it was the exhaustion of the last several days catching up with me, but I was all of a sudden overcome with a wave of lightheadedness and felt the need to sit down. Without asking I grabbed the first available chair and collapsed into it. No one appeared to find my behavior the slightest bit strange or alarming.

“We were all terribly sorry to hear about your grandfather,” the squat man said. “Charlie was a most interesting man. A most interesting man. We all, I think, found him a curious study. Now, as to the business at hand, we received a call from your father’s attorney first thing this morning, and he faxed documents a short time later. Obviously, if we can be of any assistance whatsoever in sorting things out, just let us know. We’ll do whatever we can.”

The man paused for a moment, almost as if he needed to catch his breath. He surveyed me there in the chair. “I’m Richard Fleming,” he said, and extended his fat hand. “I’m the town manager, which is what we have around here in lieu of a mayor. No need to worry about reelection, thank the good Lord. Makes things much easier.”

One of the women appeared at my side and put a Styrofoam cup of water in my hand. This Fleming, the town manager, was hovering alarmingly close to me. His fat, flushed face loomed directly above my own. “Sharon here,” he said, indicating the woman who had fetched the glass of water, “Sharon Lucky is our town clerk. She is a model of competency. She also knew your grandfather quite well.”

“Not so well, actually,” Sharon Lucky said, almost bashfully.

She was a small redhead with a kind face. She didn’t appear to be much older than me.

“You knew him as well as anyone did!” Fleming said. “You worked for the man!”

Sharon Lucky turned to me and rolled her eyes. “I worked at the bar for a couple of summers,” she said. 

I asked if they would have records on the property or properties my grandfather owned. “I’m trying to get things straightened out with his estate,” I said. “And I don’t have much to work with so far. I guess I still need to determine if he had a will. Would any of you have any idea if he had a lawyer?”

“We’d have all the tax records on the properties,” Fleming said. “I would think Santo might have much of this information, but you should also see Bob Porter. His office is down the street in the Burger building, and his law firm has the contract for all city business. I guess you could say he’s sort of the de facto city attorney. Bob can probably help you out or point you in the right direction.”

“They bought the property with cash,” Sharon Lucky interjected at this point. “Or, rather, with the money your grandfather inherited. The property taxes don’t amount to much, and they’ve always been up to date. The bar is a bit more complicated, I’m sure, but I do know that Mernie’s had an account over at the Farmer’s bank. I have no idea, unfortunately, is Charlie had a separate account there or anywhere else. As Dick said, Santo should know a lot of this stuff –he’s a pretty sharp guy—and Bob Porter would be a help as well.”

It occurred to me that Sharon Lucky was likely the brains behind this operation. While she had rattled off all this information the others all huddled around me, gazing at her with slack expressions on their faces. They almost appeared to be stunned. She seemed to be, as advertised, a model of competence, and they all turned to watch as she suddenly turned and bustled away to the other side of the office. I heard the tin rattle of a file cabinet drawer being opened, and then, a moment later, the whir of a copy machine.

Sharon Lucky materialized once again and slapped a manila file folder on the desk I was collapsed in front of. “There’s all the records on the property,” she said. “Obviously what becomes of it will depend in large part on whether or not a will turns up. If not, if in fact there are intestate issues or the need for a probate administrator, well, good luck. Things can get pretty complicated at that point. Once again, Bob Porter can probably help you sort all that out.” She leaned over, tapped her fingers on the manila folder, and nodded.

“Might you assume Charlie’s friend Santo will make some claim on that property?” she asked.

“I have no idea,” I said. “He hasn’t said a thing about it one way or the other.”

“So you’ve had a chance to talk with him?” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “I’ve spent some time with him. He’s been pretty helpful, for the most part, but also sort of close-lipped.”

She nodded again. “Well,” she said. “That should be interesting. They certainly looked after each other.”

All three of these pleasant strangers were hovering over me, nodding. One of the women, so far as I could remember, had yet to speak a word, and there was a younger man in a cubicle across the room that continued to stare at his computer screen, occasionally picking away in a desultory fashion at the keyboard. He had looked up briefly when I entered the office, but otherwise seemed oblivious to the commotion going on around him.

That guy, I thought, would be me. He appeared to be younger than I was, and had the unmistakable posture of indifference and boredom. I imagined him spending the day mindlessly slogging through whatever drudgework was tossed his way and casting frequent glances at the clock on the wall. I hoped there was something he couldn’t wait to get home to, and that this job wasn’t something he couldn’t afford to lose, because it seemed clear that he was destined to lose it. He looked like a character that was destined to lose many jobs.

A phone began to ring from a cubicle somewhere behind me, and Sharon Lucky reached across my body once more and tapped the manila folder on the desk. “Let me know if I can be of any further assistance,” she said, and then bustled away to answer the phone.

“Bob Porter’s your man, then,” Fleming said, almost as if to signal me to leave. The other woman, who was perhaps ten years older than Sharon Lucky, had been standing behind Fleming the entire time, keeping an almost deferential distance from the proceedings, but present all the same.

I rose from the chair, took up the manila folder from the desk, and prepared to leave the office. It was at this point that the older woman spoke for the first time since I came through the door, and she blushed with embarrassment the instant the words had left her mouth. “If you need anything notarized, I’d be happy to do that for you,” she said, and out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw Fleming scowl with inexplicable disapproval in her direction.

I thanked them all for their time, and Fleming accompanied me to the front door. As he held the door open for me he even put an arm around my shoulders.

“We’re awful sorry for your loss,” he said. “It’s never easy to lose a loved one. We all know that around here. We’ll do whatever we can to help you get things squared away so you can get back to your family.”

I thanked him again and squirmed out from under his fat arm.

“You know where to find us,” Fleming said. “We’re not likely to get far, I’m afraid.”

No comments:

Post a Comment