Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Envoy: A Christmas Serial. Part One

Every December when I was a child my grandfather would send me oranges, one of those mail order arrangements that had a To and From label printed directly on the shipping box, which featured a repetitive pattern of palm trees and bright yellow suns.  The package was always addressed to me and included my grandfather’s return address in Iowa.  There was never any other card or note, and these annual deliveries –which were, in fact, a much-anticipated holiday tradition for me—received little in the way of acknowledgement from my father.  I would come home from school and the box of oranges would be sitting on the kitchen table or, sometimes, on the bed in my room. To the best of my knowledge no one else in my family ever received a Christmas gift from my grandfather.

For me the oranges themselves meant next to nothing –I didn’t even particularly like oranges, couldn’t stand peeling them and the way the juice would sting the sensitive skin along the tips of my chewed fingernails—but the package and the special delivery were thrilling to me as a child.  I seldom if ever received any mail at all, and the gift of a box of oranges seemed like such a mysterious gesture on the part of a grandfather I’d never actually met.

While I was growing up my grandfather was never mentioned around our house except in passing, and as I got a bit older it seemed strange to me that my father appeared to have no other family, however extended, that he kept in touch with or ever talked about.

It’s fascinating, my father once said to me.  Maybe one day you’ll see.  You somehow manage to bring this person into the world, and it’s ceaselessly interesting to me what happens after that.  How, he asked, did you get to be this person, this mysterious stranger, who’s sitting across the table from me? He’d always laugh when he said something like this, but it was also clear that these sorts of questions seriously perplexed him.

It was certainly a good question, though, and the fact that I didn’t spend as much time as my father did on such largely unanswerable or plainly obvious questions was one of the essential differences between us.  I could have said, I suppose, that I was as puzzled as he was by the nature of our relationship.  The truth, however, was that my father was a great, mysterious, and generally loveable character, and people had been disappearing from his life for so many years that I had long ago made up my mind to be one person he could always depend on.

This, my mother would consistently contend, was a severely misguided resolution.

She always said that my father was endlessly fascinating, and though this perception was likely shared by almost everybody who knew my father, it was nonetheless not enough to keep my mother from divorcing him. She divorced him twice, in fact.

I suppose in some ways –a number of ways, perhaps— we were an atypical family.  I certainly don’t recall seeing a family that in any way resembled ours portrayed on television or in the movies.  I’m familiar with Tolstoy’s line about all unhappy families being unhappy in their own way, and despite his claims I’d think the same is true of happy or merely dysfunctional families.  Though I suppose most people would consider us dysfunctional, we weren’t, I don’t think, what I’d consider a genuinely unhappy family, although there were certainly occasionally unhappy components to our dysfunction. There was also, however, a good deal of happiness as well. We weren’t, though, a family for emotional blow-ups or hashing things out, although my mother could be dramatic and made occasional game attempts to speak her mind. But for the most part we didn’t talk about our feelings. My father is the sort of man who would put quote marks around a phrase like “our feelings,” and as he liked to say, we kept “our bullshit” to ourselves, as individuals and as a family.

I don’t think my father believed in unhappiness. Unpleasantness --that was his word: “Let’s put a stop to this unpleasantness right now,” he’d say when someone was upset or making a scene. Even so, I’ve always imagined he must have had an unhappy childhood. This assumption seemed reasonable to me given that he had apparently been estranged from his father, and whatever other family he might have had, for the entirety of his adult life.  His mother died when he was sixteen years old –he never mentioned this fact without a tone of mysterious bitterness creeping into his voice, and whenever the subject came up at all a pained expression would flare on his face, an expression that almost resembled a smirk. This was clearly an unpleasant subject, and I learned early to avoid it. Whatever unhappiness he might have known as a child, however, and whatever the source of his estrangement from his family, my father was generally considered a bright, accomplished, and cheerfully eccentric character.

He was in the industrial salvage business on a very large and international scale. This was apparently a complicated and lucrative racket. His company would salvage everything from abandoned oil stations in the ocean and foundered cargo ships and tankers to military equipment like trucks, tanks, crashed planes and helicopters --the spoils of war, I guess, consigned by the victors to the scrap heap. My father had been in the military for a number of years before I was born –he was in his late thirties when my mother was pregnant with me—and he’d apparently learned the ropes of the salvage business from somebody he met in the service.

He didn’t travel constantly for his job, but when he did travel it was usually for long stretches; he would literally be gone for months at a time, and since most of this time was well before the days of laptop computers, email, and cellular phones, we’d often hear nothing from him at all during these extended absences.  I guess he would make an occasional phone call to my mother, or send infrequent postcards, but I don’t think he ever wrote an actual letter in his life.

My mother never really did learn to trust my father, and made no bones of this fact.  I’m not even sure she entirely believed that he was in the salvage business.  We certainly never saw any of the tangible results of his trips; he didn’t take any photos that I knew of, and seldom spoke of his work.  My mother had a habit of talking about my father in my presence, well beyond the point where I had no idea what she was speaking about.  The gist of these conversations was virtually always that she didn’t trust him. He was suspicious, she’d say; all these trips, this salvage business, it didn’t add up for her.  She was sure the government still had him in its clutches; he was up to something mighty fishy. She always assumed he had something to do with the CIA, one of those deals where he couldn’t tell a soul, not even his family.  It scared her half to death to think that a man –her husband—could keep so many secrets. She said as much, often, in just such terms, and I suppose it should be noted that she had quite an imagination, and that I had always just assumed that this speculation of hers was utter hogwash.

The truth, though, was that I had long ago learned to stop worrying about what my father did for a living.  It was clear enough that he wasn’t much interested in talking about it or involving me in any way.  When I was still young and pissed off enough by his frequent absences to ask questions he would always give the same basic details, shrug, and say that it just wasn’t really all that interesting; it puts food on the table and clothes on your back, he’d say, and that’s the most important thing for any kid to know about what his dad does for a living. And his job was just like most other jobs, he’d add, too much work for not enough money.

Whatever the hell it was he did, he kept doing it for a very long time. After my mother divorced him for the second time he started going off for even longer stretches. Whenever he’d come back we’d always have a fine time together. He liked to see movies, liked to explore local restaurants, loved wine and animated conversations. For a guy who held his own life so close he was certainly full of questions about my life and what I was doing with it. He didn’t have, or at least didn’t offer, any opinions along these lines, but he was certainly curious.
I have an older sister who married a Frenchman and apparently turned her back on America for good shortly after she graduated from college. I hadn’t seen or heard from her in well over a decade.  At one time my father would check up on her whenever he was in Europe –or so he claimed—but at some point she and her husband had moved and even he had lost touch with her. That was it for my family.

After my mother finally split with my father for good she met a dentist who was going blind, and moved to Arizona. I’d go down there every year to visit her and watch spring training baseball in the sun. My mother’s husband would accompany me to the ballparks and would sit quietly beside me while I provided rambling play-by-play and commentary on the action. One summer, at his insistence, I spent two weeks attempting to teach the dentist how to ride a bicycle, a skill he’d never learned, and the difficulty of which was obviously compounded by his rapidly deteriorating eyesight. He’d gone out and purchased an expensive new bike expressly for the purpose. We did eventually reach a point where he could negotiate in a wobbly fashion the lanes of his neighborhood, just as long as I peddled my mother’s bike right beside him and provided him with constant directions. He was a proud and determined character, and I’ve no doubt he would have ultimately succeeded in his quest if my mother hadn’t made such a stink and insisted that we put an immediate stop to what she considered a dangerous and ridiculous exercise in folly.

Despite a decent but essentially worthless education (I have an English degree), I have never managed to find a job that in any way engages any of the things that interest me, which admittedly aren’t many. I was apparently born without a work ethic, which is I’m sure unfortunate, as well as something that has genuinely puzzled and frustrated my father, a man whose life has been defined by his work ethic. Since I left college I’ve had a dwindling string of mostly casual girlfriends, but with one possible exception, no serious relationship.

I’ve been forced to conclude that I am one of those people who may never be –or truly feel—compelled. I’ve never felt myself hectored by some claiming or defining desire. I’m sure there are millions just like me, perhaps tens of millions: people who never manage to learn what it is that they want to be when they grow up.

I think the essential problem for such people –for people like me—is that we had clearly unrealistic early expectations combined with insufficient will or ambition, an unfortunate combination that so often leads to a sort of surrender without any real fight.

The world, this world, is of course hard on immodest dreamers, and such people –people like me—learn pretty early on that our only true dreams, the dreams of our fiercest longing, are clearly beyond our talents or abilities. We learn this, of course, in all sorts of cruel and common and sometimes terribly crippling and unfair ways; we are taught this, told this, and have this knowledge beaten into our heads again and again by experience. And at some point in this process we also learn the sorts of prosaic things that anything resembling a real life demands of us. The notion of maturity that was drilled into me during my formative years insisted that we all should accept this knowledge with an attitude that, while never overtly sold to us as resignation, has the same basic end result, which is a strain of befuddled futility, the hard-wired, back-burner disillusionment of the normal, functioning human being.

Still, I’ve always been willing to give people the benefit of doubt, I guess. I always assume there’s something stirring and things going on that I can’t even begin to imagine in the mysterious lives all around me.

I guess by the time I hit thirty I’d seen virtually all my old friends drift away into the sort of normal life I couldn’t quite get my head around; there was a long stretch where I was going to a half dozen weddings a year, and pretty much everyone I knew from my high school and college years had careers, homes, children. Meanwhile, I’d worked what seemed like an endless series of meaningless jobs, mostly temporary gigs or undemanding positions in the service sector or corporate world, jobs that –barely—made the rest of my life possible without making any actual demands of me, jobs that I could quit on a moment’s notice without the slightest fear of repercussion or regret. I had a stable and relatively comfortable run for a few years with an Internet start-up, but I was one of these guys who were instantly downgraded to useless status again when the world started collapsing. I lost two decent jobs in less than a year, and had been doing temp work for six months when I got a phone call informing me that my grandfather had died.

This was the grandfather of the Christmas oranges, a man I had no memory of ever having met.  He was living in a little town called Bryton, which was located on the Mississippi River in Iowa, and I have no idea how the woman who called managed to track me down. My father was somewhere in the Middle East. By this point his company was a giant and sprawling international operation, and was doing a booming business. He was almost certainly in regular contact with someone back in the United States, so I left a message with a secretary at the company’s main offices in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C.

I didn’t hear anything back from him, by which time the woman from the hospital in Iowa had called again looking for instructions from what she called “the family.” I talked to my mother in Arizona, who essentially sighed and threw up her hands. My father, she insisted, would want nothing to do with the business. She couldn’t, she said, think of another soul I might call. “Go down there if you feel up to it,” she finally said. “You might find it…interesting. I’m sure the man has nobody else.” The way she hesitated before settling on ‘interesting’ was curious to me.

I was bored at the time, was in a long relationship drought, and had no plans for the holiday, so I called my shitty temp job and told them I was going to be out of commission indefinitely, packed my bags, and headed down to Iowa.

1 comment:

  1. "You somehow manage to bring this person into the world, and it’s ceaselessly interesting to me what happens after that."

    I appreciate your work ethic.