Monday, December 17, 2012

The Envoy: A Christmas Serial. Part Fourteen

I’ll admit that I’d initially been excited by the idea of getting out of Chicago and taking a road trip. I hadn’t gone anywhere for such a long time. I also, I suppose, was somewhat intrigued by the prospect of getting some kind of glimpse of my grandfather’s life up close, and of perhaps gaining a little perspective on his estrangement from my father in the process. I’d never had any firsthand experience with death, and there was a weird sort of fascination in assuming responsibility for the final affairs of a man whose passing didn’t involve any sort of real, personal grief on my part.

My early reservations in Bryton had been primarily motivated by laziness, stemming from the almost immediate realization that what I had thought of as a road trip was, in fact, going to be a major pain in the ass. Now, though, sitting in that office deep in the mess and mystery of my grandfather’s life, what I was feeling was a combination of ambivalence and shame.

Through the little window of the office door I could see Santo sitting at the bar in the gloomy aquatic light. I watched him for a moment, and he never moved a muscle. I never even saw him blink. He looked convincingly bereft as he sat there staring into space.

I got up and went in and sat down at the end of the bar. Santo didn’t look up or acknowledge my presence. I suppose at least a full minute passed in silence before he finally turned partway in my direction and gave me that sad smile.

“How do things look?” he asked.

I shrugged and got up from my barstool and walked over to the jukebox against the back wall. I gestured to the machine and asked, “Does this thing work?”

Santo nodded and said, “Of course. A guy comes in regularly to keep it running. I don’t like it much, but Charlie always said you couldn’t have a proper bar without a jukebox.”

I fished in my pocket for some quarters, but realized that I had no change. Santo pulled himself up until he was kneeling on his barstool, leaned across the bar, and came up with a roll of quarters from somewhere, which he tossed across the room to me.

I loaded the machine up with coins and surveyed the selections. I wasn’t much surprised to see several dozen Top 40 hits from my own high school days –stuff like ZZ Top, Def Leppard, and AC/DC. I was, though, pleasantly surprised to discover that roughly half the records on the jukebox were old country songs and classic rock and roll. There was also a small assortment of vintage soul hits and pop standards.

“I’m pretty impressed,” I said to Santo.

He shrugged. “A lot of those are Bob Porter's,” he said. “And some of the other old customers would bring in records or make requests. Charlie liked to play with that thing and change the records from time to time.”

I punched in some Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, and Earnest Tubb, a couple records each by Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Rolling Stones, and the Kinks, and a Sinatra tune.

I settled back in on a barstool and Santo put a beer down in front of me.

“I hope you don’t mind,” I said, gesturing in the direction of the jukebox.

“Not at all,” Santo said. He was slumped forward on his stool with his hands clasped in his lap and his chin on his chest. He looked like a man who could fall asleep anywhere, the kind of guy who survives on little catnaps throughout the day. We listened to three or four songs in silence. Santo’s eyes were closed and it almost looked like he was praying intently.

I waited until his eyes opened before speaking again. As “Walking the Floor Over You” gave way to “Run Through the Jungle,” Santo’s head snapped back up and he blinked his eyes several times as if to get his bearings.

“It really does seem like none of my business,” I said, “but did you –or do you—have access to the money in that checking account?”

Santo shook his head. “I have no idea,” he said. “I never used it, never wrote a check in all the years I’ve been here at the bar. I was just never comfortable with it, and it was Charlie’s money. It gave him something to do, and I liked for him to know how things were going. He always did the books and paid the bills.”

“So he just paid you out of the checking account every two weeks?” I asked.

“More or less,” Santo said. “I could always ask him for more money at any time, and I suppose I could have asked about a raise, but I never did. What did I need money for? I always got by just fine on what he gave me, and I’ve managed to put some away. Charlie was generous with me, and this is pretty much my life right here. I spent almost every night here, and a good part of each day, and there’s a little store just up the street where I can go for something to eat. We generally had breakfast together at Lally’s downtown.”

“How long did you say you’ve been running the bar?” I asked.

He thought about it for a moment, and actually appeared to tick off the years on his fingers.

“Almost forty years,” he said. “Thirty-eight years in April.”

“What would happen if the bar was sold?” I asked.

 “To me?” he said, and then shrugged and shook his head slowly. “We’ve talked about selling the place for a number of years, but then what would we do? That was always the question, I suppose. Neither of us ever had much interest in going anywhere else. I kept expecting Charlie to hatch another one of his big plans, but after he closed the golf course he settled down.” He sat and thought for a moment. “To answer your question, I guess I don’t know,” he said. “I’ll get along, I suppose. I can take care of myself.”

I drank my beer and listened to the music. “Get Off of My Cloud” was playing, and the scratchy old 45 sounded great in the empty bar. I was exhausted, and hungry; I tried to remember when I’d last had something to eat. Was it that morning that I’d stopped at the café downtown for breakfast? Or was that the day before? The entire time I’d been in Bryton I’d been subsisting on garbage from the convenience store across the road from the motel. The night before I’d had nothing but beer and a bag of pretzels.

I was doodling absent-mindedly on a cocktail napkin when Santo said, “Perhaps someone would buy the bar who would keep me around. I’ve been running this place for so long now that everybody in town knows me.”

I drummed on the bar with a pen and thought briefly about this idea. It gave me a headache.

“It doesn’t look like there’s a will,” I said, glancing at Santo out of the corner of my eye. His back was to me now and he was staring straight ahead, glaring at his reflection in the long mirror behind the bar. “You mentioned Bob Porter. I saw him earlier today. He tells me that in all likelihood my grandfather’s estate will eventually be turned over to the family, such as it is. My father, I’m fairly sure, would like to be done with it all as quickly as possible.”

Santo just sat there, hunched into himself on his barstool. If he’d even heard what I said he gave no indication and offered no response.

“Porter has warned me that this could be a long drawn out process,” I said. “Apparently there is always the possibility of complications in these situations, bureaucratic stuff.”

Santo swiveled on his barstool to face me. “I get up in the morning and I still can’t believe Charlie is gone," he said. "It almost bothers me that people can just go on with their lives as if nothing happened.”

This indictment, I supposed, included me, perhaps pointedly. I still wasn’t sure, however, that I ever really understood what Santo was saying, or whether there was any sort of gamesmanship involved with the things he told me.

“Look,” I said. “I’m sure you’ve got work to do, and I’m beat to shit and hungry. I’ll get out of your hair. I suppose I’ll go down to the bank tomorrow to see if I can find out anything more there. After that I guess I’ll talk to Porter and try to get the ball rolling. I’d really like you to know, though, that I’d welcome your input or opinions on any of this.”

“What good would my input be to you?” Santo said. This question didn’t come off as angry or hostile, or even bitter. It actually struck me that he was genuinely confused as to why I would solicit his opinion.

“I’d very much like to give you every chance to carry on with your life exactly as you did before,” I told him.

Santo stared at me for a moment. He had this way of very slightly but perceptibly darting back and forth from one of your eyes to the other, as if each might somehow convey a different series of perhaps contradictory messages.

“It would be impossible for me to carry on with my life exactly as I did before,” he said. He shook his head once more and stared down at his hands, which were now moving like windshield wipers on the scarred surface of the bar. He looked almost like he was studying a chess move, or like some distant and damaged god watching children make snow angels in a world he no longer recognized.

“Did you see the newspaper?” he asked.

“What newspaper?” I said.

Santo got up from his stool and shuffled down the bar. He fished a paper from somewhere and tossed it to me. I was still puzzled, and Santo gave me a jerk of his head and said, “Charlie’s notice.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “I’d almost forgotten about that. So you already got that taken care of?”

Santo took the newspaper from my hands and snapped it open, folded it neatly in half, and handed it back to me. I looked over the half dozen obituaries and found my grandfather’s name. There was a photograph of him as a very young man. He looked exactly like I remembered my father looking from when I was a child, which for some reason made me feel a tinge of real sadness for perhaps the first time.

I read the thing over. It was virtually the same version Santo had showed me the day before.

“That’s very nice,” I said. “I’m sure he’d be pleased. Where’d you get that great photo?”

“That’s mine,” Santo said. “Charlie gave me that.”

I nodded. “He looks just like my father,” I said.

“Yes,” Santo said. “He always did.”

I remembered that the man I had identified at the hospital had been entirely unrecognizable to me. There had been absolutely no family resemblance that I could see. Perhaps, I now thought, I had simply not looked hard, or long, enough. I had only seen the head and shoulders of the man in the morgue, and his face had been turned to the side so that I was allowed only a brief glimpse of his emaciated profile. His eyes had been mercifully closed, and his white hair was disheveled. I wished at that moment that I had taken a longer look, and studied that man’s face for some trace of my father.

“Well, look, Santo,” I said. “I’m going to take off and head back to my motel. As I said, I’ll do some more poking around in the morning, but why don’t you try to think about how you might like to see this all handled and what you’d like to get out of it. I’d hate to leave you high and dry.”

“You do what needs to be done,” Santo said. “I’ll get by. As I said, I have a little money set aside, and Bob Porter tells me that I’m eligible for some sort of government pension. I’m getting up there in years, and I don’t need much to get along.”

Santo had turned away from me and was sitting there slumped on his barstool, staring off into space in the direction of the jukebox. I stood on the other side of the bar, watching him for what seemed like several moments, wondering who he was and how he had ever come into my grandfather’s life. These questions, of course, had been going through my mind almost from the moment I had first encountered him outside my motel room. It wasn’t in my nature to ask seriously probing questions –I’d long since learned that to do so seldom yielded satisfactory answers—and there was also something essentially guarded in Santo’s personality that made me wary of attempting to prod him for too many details.

The real truth, as I’ve since discovered, is that there were a great number of things that I simply –or not so simply—and truly did not want to know. There are still a great number of things that I have no interest in knowing, and I’m fully aware that many of them might well fall under the category of what some people might call the truth.

“I honestly feel bad that I’m here doing my father’s dirty work,” I told Santo. “I apologize for that. And I’m sorry for my father, regardless of what he might actually think himself.”

“I’m sorry also,” Santo said. “I’m especially sorry your father isn’t here. It would have meant so much.”

“To my grandfather or to you?” I asked.

“To both of us,” he said.

I was already standing near the door, and realized that during this bit of conversation I had taken the door handle in my hand.

“Well,” I said. “I’m sorry. I wish I had some better answers and comfort to offer you.”

“I’m sure you’re doing the best that you can” Santo said. “I know how pleased Charlie would have been to see you standing here in his bar.”

I thought about that, and had a brief image of that meeting that would now never take place. I realized that I could have made the effort at any time to meet my grandfather. It was a four-hour drive from Chicago.

Santo had still not turned to face me.

“Good night, Santo,” I told him. “I’m sure we’ll see each other at some point tomorrow.”

He didn’t turn or even acknowledge that he had heard what I’d said, and as I left the bar Frank Sinatra was singing from the jukebox.

I closed the door and stepped out into the already failing light of late afternoon. On a whim I decided to climb the stairs to the rooftop to take another look at my grandfather’s golf course. It really was an amazing thing to behold, particularly in the crepuscular winter light and with the river creeping through town in the distance. I stood there and tried to imagine what it must have looked like the day it opened, tried to imagine the shrieking riot of color stretched out there on the roof above that town of relentless gray and beige and dirty brick. I tried to imagine the sound of laughter rolling down into the street below. And I tried, finally, to imagine this ridiculous and wonderful thing as the big dream of one man’s life.

I was my father’s son, though, and I could not imagine that. And that realization made me sadder than I'd felt in a long, long time.

1 comment:

  1. 'No interest in knowing the truth' really resonates, as does the final scene to this episode:
    "And I tried, finally, to imagine this ridiculous and wonderful thing as the big dream of one man’s life. I was my father’s son, though, and I could not imagine that."
    I don't know why I quote your own work back to you, other than I think I've seen your best writing ever...again today.