Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Envoy: A Christmas Serial. Part Fifteen

I went back down the short flight of steps into my grandfather’s old office. I paused there and thought for a moment of taking something as some kind of keepsake, but, really, what would I take? What would possibly mean anything to me? A putter? There was nothing there that could bring back something I’d never had.

As I was standing there looking around, though, I saw something that I hadn’t noticed on my previous visit. Tacked to one of the golf club racks on the wall was an old Polaroid snapshot of Santo with my grandfather, standing alongside one of the bright hazards on the mini-golf course. Both of them had their putters raised above their heads in jubilation. My grandfather’s head was thrown back in what appeared to be a full-throated howl of laughter. Santo was facing the camera directly, but his eyes were shut above a wide smile that lifted his entire face and made him look impossibly young. It was a wonderful photo, and made all the more beautiful by the slightly off and unreal colors that were so typical of photographs from that period.

I thought about taking the photo with me, but it seemed like an act of desecration, so I left it where it was and went back down to the street. I took a glance through the front window of the bar and saw Santo still sitting in exactly the same position as when I had left him. It was just on the bleak gray edge of darkness and the fog was again beginning to roll in off the river.

I put my head down and ran all the way back across town to my motel.

I tried to take a nap when I got back to my room, but found that I couldn’t sleep. I was too restless and wound up, out of my routine and wholly confused. I couldn’t really pin down any of the thoughts that were rolling around in my head.

I got back up, dressed, pulled on my hooded sweatshirt, and walked back downtown in search of something to eat. The only place that was open on the Main Street was the little café, Lally’s, where I’d had breakfast.

The same woman who had been working on my previous visit was the only person in the place. She was standing behind the counter, doing a crossword puzzle while she leaned against the wall next to the window to the kitchen.

“Hey,” she said when I came through the door. “You look like a guy who’d be pretty good at crossword puzzles. What’s ‘Updike’s Rabbit’ mean?”

I sat down at the counter and she slapped the newspaper and the pen down in front of me. I picked up the pen and stared at the puzzle for a moment. “Five letters,” I said. “Angstrom won’t fit.”

“Then it must be Harry,” the waitress said, and took the pen from my fingers, leaned across the counter, and filled in the blanks.

“That’s pretty good,” I said. “But why’d you ask me?”

She smiled and jabbed at me with the pen. “I was just testing you,” she said. “There aren’t more than a handful of people who come in here who are any help at all when it comes to crossword puzzles. Your grandfather, by the way, was always pretty good at helping me out of a jam. When I really get stuck I wait until Bob Porter shows up. He can finish a puzzle in the time it takes him to drink a cup of coffee.”

“For some reason that doesn’t surprise me,” I said.

“You’ve already met Bob?” the waitress asked.

“I have,” I said. “Although I can’t say that we’re on a first-name basis. I was just in his office earlier today. The guy struck me as a bit of a nut.”

“Everybody’s a bit of a nut, don’t you think?” she said. “This town is full of strange people. Bob Porter’s one of the more interesting ones. I’ve always been sort of surprised that a guy like that would stick around a dinky little place like this. I don’t know what the hell he does with himself.”

“I’m surprised you’d stick around,” I said.

She shrugged and filled in some more letters on the crossword puzzle.

“Shouldn’t they make you wear a name badge?” I said.

“Why would they make me wear a name badge?” she said. “Everybody already knows my name. Did you want a cup of coffee?”

“Sure,” I said. “Yes, please.”

As she poured my coffee she said, “So how are you doing? Are you taking care of business?”

“I’m trying,” I said. “I’m gradually figuring out most of the basic nuts and bolts stuff, but it’s amazing how complicated it is. There are all sorts of details I’d never thought of.”

“Is there going to be a funeral?” she asked.

“Nobody seems much interested in that idea,” I said. “His body’s at the funeral home, and I guess he’s going to be cremated.”

“Who’s ‘nobody’?” she said. “It seems strange that there wouldn’t at least be a memorial service.”

“We could easily get into a sort of Abbott and Costello routine here,” I said. “It’s hard to define nobody, really, particularly when I don’t know a soul in this town. At any rate, I have no idea who anybody or nobody is, but whoever they are, they aren’t exactly clamoring to give my grandfather any kind of sendoff. He apparently doesn’t have any remaining family around here, and he doesn’t seem to have had any close friends.”

“What about Santo?” she asked.

“Santo says my grandfather wouldn’t have wanted a funeral,” I said. “He said it wasn’t his style, and he wouldn’t have liked the fuss. I’m guessing maybe that’s just Santo’s way of trying to deal with the apparent absence of any fuss whatsoever.”

Another customer arrived, a middle-aged character in clanking, unzipped galoshes who clomped down the aisle and took a seat in the corner booth near the window. The waitress slapped the crossword puzzle and pen down in front of me, grabbed a pot of coffee, and excused herself.

“I’m Jeri, by the way,” she said when she returned to the counter. “Or J, to a lot of people who’ve known me forever. Jerilynne’s my real name, but I hated it growing up, and always had a hard time getting anyone to call me Jeri, despite the fact that I used to announce that as my preference every single time teachers took roll call on the first day of school.”

“It’s a perfectly fine name,” I said.

“Try to spell it,” she said, as she refilled my coffee cup and handed me a menu.

I made a couple failed attempts at spelling out her name before she took the pen from me and wrote ‘J-E-R-I-L-Y-N-N-E’ across the top of the newspaper on the counter.

“I’m a firm believer that a first name shouldn’t have more than two syllables,” she said.

I thought about this for a moment and then said, “I don’t know, I guess I’d tend to take it on a case-by-case basis.”

She shook her head. “Once I reach a conclusion I stick with it,” she said. “I don’t have much patience for waffling.”

She shrugged and then did this thing where she rolled a pen slowly through the fingers of her right hand, one by one, without ever touching it with her left.

“My grandpa and grandma knew your grandparents pretty well,” she said. “My grandma knew your grandmother forever. They used to play bridge together. And my grandmother remembers taking my mother over to Charlie’s place when he still had his little Christmas village on the roof every year, and she took me to the putt-putt course when I was just a little kid. She has pictures, if for some reason you’re interested in seeing them.”

"Your grandmother knew my father’s mother?" I said.

Your grandmother,” she said. “Yes. They went way back.”

“I know nothing about her,” I said. “Her name has barely come up in this at all, and my father almost never spoke of her when I was growing up. There were a couple photos of my father in Charlie’s apartment, but as far as I know none of my grandmother. I’d love to see those pictures.”

Two older guys wearing coveralls and feed caps came in at that moment and interrupted our conversation. Jeri picked up the phone on the wall behind the counter, punched in some numbers, and spoke briefly to someone.

“That’s Les,” she said. “He’s the cook. He lives in an apartment upstairs and has been working here forever. Whenever there’s a lull he goes up to his apartment and smokes pot and watches TV. Are you going to get something to eat?”

“Yes,” I said. “That was the original plan.”

“I’d recommend you keep it simple,” she said, and again left with a pot of coffee to attend to the new customers. By the time she got back behind the counter a fat and sleepy-looking guy had appeared in the kitchen and was tying on a dirty apron. Jeri tore off two slips of paper from her pad, clipped them to the wheel above the window to the kitchen, and gave it a spin.

“How simple?” I asked as I studied the menu.

“Hamburger simple,” she said.

“I guess I’ll have a hamburger, then.”

“Good choice,” she said.

“Could I get cheese on that? And some fries?”

“That shouldn’t complicate things too much,” she said, and added my order to the wheel. I could see the cook fiddling intently at a radio dial in the kitchen. “Hey Les,” Jeri said. “Customers. Orders. Time to cook.”

He looked in her direction with a blank expression on his face. “It’s all hamburgers and fries, Les,” she said. “Nice and easy. No need to even caffeinate.”

After rousing Les to action, Jeri said to me, “Excuse me just a minute. Piss break. I’ll be right back.”

When she returned I said, “You haven’t answered my question about why you’re still hanging around Bryton.”

“It wasn’t phrased as a question,” she said. “I believe it was simply an expression of surprise.”

“Okay,” I said. “Then let’s change it to a question.”

 “It’s really just the usual sort of story,” She said. “You live in Chicago, right?”

“Yes,” I said.

“And you’ve lived there all your life?”

“Pretty much,” I said. “I was born in California, moved to Chicago when I was a little kid, and lived briefly in Virginia while my father was getting his business off the ground.”

“Is that where your parents are from?” she said. “Chicago, I mean?”

“Well, my dad’s originally from here, obviously,” I said, “but he settled in Chicago after he got out of the Army. My mother’s from Illinois, and worked in Chicago from the time she was a young woman. She met my dad there.”

Jeri nodded. “Well, this is where I’m from,” she said. “Both of my parents were born and raised here. My grandparents as well, and they’ve lived here all their lives. Nobody on either side of my family ever had any inclination to go anywhere else, I guess. My grandmother has never even done much traveling. These days she and her husband will go up to Dubuque to the riverboat casino once in awhile, but they’re not restless people. I suppose they like it here, more or less.”

“That doesn’t exactly answer my question about you,” I said.

“I’m getting there,” she said. “It’s a long, boring story. I hated growing up here. It’s a dinky little town and there wasn’t anything to do. You could ride your bike around in the summer and go exactly nowhere. There was the one theater downtown, and then there was Wiesner’s Drive-In. For some reason, from the time I was in junior high school there were many more boys than girls in Bryton, which made it even tougher to be a girl. It was very competitive. I could play that game, but it bored me, and made it hard to make friends. One of the few friends I did manage to make had an older brother –much older, four years—and after he graduated from high school he moved to Minneapolis to go to college. I’d had a crush on this guy since I was a kid. He played the guitar, of course, and wore his hair longer than anybody else. Which meant that he was pretty much on his own down here, and mostly kept to himself. Anyway, when he started coming back for the summers when he was in college he was becoming more and more interesting. He worked in a record store up there, and he’d bring records back with him. We used to sit in their basement listening to his stereo. He hardly ever said anything, but that just made him, and the music, and, by extension, Minneapolis all the more interesting to me.”

“What sort of music did he like?” I asked.

“Oh, just whatever was the big deal at the time in the record store where he worked, which was pretty much anything that wasn’t on the radio,” she said. “The Clash, of course, but just generally punk rock, I suppose. Then indie rock.” She shrugged. "And all those bands that were big in Minneapolis. And then Seattle or Portland or wherever. Even the goofy hipsters have to have their little scenes, and as soon as the average college douche bags come on board they go looking for something new. God forbid anything they like could ever be popular."

“I know that world,” I said. “I’m sure I know a lot of people just like that guy.”

“That’s because there are a lot of guys just like that guy,” she said. “I moved to Minneapolis when I finished high school, and the place was just lousy with them. Of course, that was why I went there, and they were exactly the sorts of guys I was looking for. It wasn’t hard to find them, that’s for sure. I thought I was going to get a job and eventually go to college, but between all the lousy jobs and going out to see music every night and going to parties I never did get my shit together enough to even apply to the university. There were a lot of guys just like the guy I thought I was looking for, and there were also a lot of girls just like me. I wasn’t a groupie, exactly, but that's probably how I was perceived. Unfortunately none of the bands I liked were ever big enough to actually have groupies. Instead, they had girls like me, which was even better; we had jobs and apartments and some of us even had cars. I went from having deadbeat musicians crashing on my couch to having them living with me to, eventually, living off me.”

She rolled her eyes and smiled. “Don’t get me wrong,” she said. “It was actually sort of fun for awhile.”

“And then what happened?” I asked.

“Oh, you know,” she said. “All sorts of things happened. A baby, for instance. And the guy who fucked that baby into me told me the day after I got home from the hospital, ‘I can’t really see myself as a father.’ To which I might have said, ‘Tough luck, Bud, it’s not a matter of perception, it’s biology, pure and simple.’ But the truth, of course, is that it is a matter of perception, and I couldn’t see him as a father either. I also knew that though I had every right to expect him to share some of the financial responsibility for my son, it wasn’t going to happen. This was a guy who could barely feed himself, and I didn’t see him changing anytime soon. I was twenty-six years old and still working as a waitress. I toughed it out for six months and then I did the lazy and uninspired thing and came back here. Notice, though, that I didn’t say ‘home.’ I live with my grandparents, or, rather, with my grandmother and her third husband; I guess you’d call him my step-grandfather.”

She shrugged, raised her eyebrows, and gave me what I will call a smirk. "Turns out I kind of like this little place. It's a pretty easy place to get by," she said. "Who knows? I might end up stuck here forever."

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