Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Envoy: A Christmas Serial. Part Seven

It seemed like virtually everything on that roof was bleached the color of the sky that afternoon. I don’t know exactly what the putting surfaces were made of, but I imagined they had once been green, and they were now faded to the flat gray of automobile primer, as were most of the hazards sprawled across the rooftop. Here and there, though, there were remnants of lingering color that seemed impossibly bright in the midst of all that gray. There was a large tin rocket ship in the middle of the first hole, and it still sported a tattered flag emblazoned with an almost illegible number. Most of the color had been washed away, but there were a few remaining patches of stubborn red paint. The rocket had a spiraling ramp that disappeared into the interior, apparently wound its way to the top, and emerged near the cone onto another, exterior, ramp that zigzagged back down and emptied onto the fairway. There was a hand painted sign at the start of the hole, still readable: “Send the ball up in the rocket, Bring it back down in the pocket!” The other holes also had signs, all of them featuring, I’m sure, similar doggerel, although many of them were now illegible.

Another hole featured a fat blue whale, but the only part of the sign I could make out read, “Jonah was lost in the belly of a whale….” I sat down on a bench along one wall and tried, to no avail, to reconstruct the rest of the sign. I couldn’t come up with anything satisfying.

My perspective, I’m sure, was warped by my general state of exhaustion and confusion, but I really couldn’t make sense of what I was looking at. That strange little rooftop golf course was swamped here and there with large puddles of slush and melting snow. I could see the bank sign downtown that flashed the time and temperature, and it was forty-three degrees. The snow that remained was steadily melting away, and I was aware of the sound of water pouring down to the street from the drains on each side of the roof. There was a loud and persistent drumming caused by one of the drains emptying onto the metal lid of a dumpster in an alley below.

I noticed that the roof seemed to have an unusual, almost imperceptible slant on each side –almost like a book open on a table—so that all the water ran down into gullies and was washed from the roof on both sides. It was a curious design, and I supposed it was deliberately pitched like that to keep the roof from leaking and the course from being perpetually flooded.

I was engaged in the contemplation of this bit of apparent ingenuity when I became aware of movement on the roof.

I turned to find Santo standing awkwardly at the top of the stairs. He looked twenty years older than he’d looked the night before in the darkness outside my motel room. His hair, which I remembered as very black, appeared almost wholly silver in the pallid morning light. When I looked over at him I saw him raise his eyebrows and bounce nervously on his toes.

“Merry Christmas,” he said. “I’m sorry if I startled you.”

I wasn’t, actually, particularly startled, although I suppose in retrospect I probably should have been.

I don’t know why, because I virtually never initiate such a thing, but I got up, walked across the roof to Santo, and extended my arm for a handshake. He shook my hand firmly, locked into my eyes with his own, and gave me that hard, jerking nod of his head that I’d already seen several times the night before.

“What’s going on?” I asked, to which Santo gave me one of the oddest, or at least most unexpected, answers I’ve ever received to a question.

“Nothing of consequence,” he said.

I was so startled by this strange turn of phrase that I offered no reply, or none that I can remember. I was, though, suddenly quite cold. I was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, and had neglected to pack gloves or a stocking cap. I had no idea how long I might have been up on that roof.

“Did the motel fellow find you with the holiday basket okay?” Santo asked.

“That was from you?” I said. “Yes. That was very nice. Thank you.”

Santo nodded once more, and seemed to be trying to erase his reflection from a puddle with the toe of his boot.

“Look, Santo,” I said. “I could really use some help here. I’m not sure what the hell I’ve stumbled into. I came down here knowing absolutely nothing about my grandfather, and I guess, to be honest with you, I don’t know how best to proceed. I mean, what the hell is all this?” I waved an arm out over the miniature golf course, and noticed Santo’s eyes follow my hand all the way out to the river. He stood there silently, staring out over the town.

I honestly couldn’t get over how old he looked. I supposed now that it was possible he was at least as old as my grandfather had been, or at least close. It was almost as if I couldn’t be entirely sure this was the same man I’d spoken with outside my motel room the night before. My first impressions of him had been of an almost stocky, even brawny, character, and now he struck me as slightly feeble, and somehow bowed.

He leaned toward me and fixed me with that intent stare of his. His eyes were so dark, and it felt like he was looking not just into you, but all the way through you to whatever was behind or beyond you. I noticed for the first time the presence of a hearing aid in his left ear. He looked away from me again and took in the relatively well-kept ruins of the miniature golf course.

“Even after we closed up, Charlie and I used to spend time every year sprucing things up. I think Charlie always thought he’d eventually try to make another go of it. I haven’t been up here in a at least a couple years,” he said. “I’m surprised, I guess. It’s holding up surprisingly well.”

“What does this have to do with my grandfather?” I asked.

“He built it,” Santo said. “Everything was falling apart and going to hell for him, but he built this. He always said he had it in his head for a long time.”

“Where was my father?” I asked. “Was this when he was still around?”

“He was around for most of it,” Santo said. “He didn’t want anything to do with Charlie by then, of course. Things turned against Charlie when his wife moved out, but he knew what he was up against. He always understood. He never held it against your father, right to the end.”

“But what was it?” I asked. “What happened between them?”

Santo nodded, then shrugged. “You have to understand that your father was just a youngster then, a teenager,” he said. “I suppose he was just sticking up for his mother. That’s what Charlie always thought. I’m sure your father was hurt by everything that happened. This is a small town. Charlie understood.”

He paused and spent a moment studying the golf course. “He worked so hard on this thing,” he said. “Almost two years, every chance he got, he was up here working.”

“When was this?” I asked.

Santo shrugged again. “A long time ago,” he said. “Your father was still a boy. It would be on the papers somewhere downstairs.” He walked across the roof and removed a bird’s nest from a windmill, dismantled it with his hands, and flung the remains over the edge.

“You’re probably cold by now,” he said. “Let’s go back downstairs so you can warm up. There’s nothing up here anymore.”

He didn’t wait around for my approval of this idea, but simply turned and headed back down the steps, and I followed him. He paused at the desk in the office and absent-mindedly shuffled through the piles of mail on the top layer.

 “I couldn’t get Charlie to come up here for the last several years,” he said. “It made him kind of bitter, I guess. And Charlie wasn’t naturally a bitter man.”

I pointed to the calendar on the wall. “What’s the significance of 1958?” I asked.

Santo stared at the calendar for a moment and finally shrugged. “Somebody probably gave it to Charlie,” he said. “I guess that was around the time he opened the putt-putt. He worked like crazy all summer and opened in September, the end of the season. He had poor timing. He always did. It probably didn’t occur to him to get a new calendar. Time doesn’t mean a whole lot in a place like this. You usually know what day it is.”

“The mail’s all from 1982,” I said. “The mailbox was still full.”

Santo raised his head and stared at the ceiling. “I suppose that was about the time he gave up,” he said. “The town was slowly dying. The last season we opened the roof nobody came for over a month, not one person. We couldn’t even get the church groups to come down anymore. We used to get a lot of those. They’d come from the towns all around here. And the high school kids. Things just changed.”

While Santo was talking he was swiping at the dust on the desk with an envelope. “It lasted a good long time, but it was never quite was Charlie hoped,” he said. “And one day he just didn’t go up to the roof. He locked up the office and that was that. Right up until that point he’d go up there every spring with the hose and the paint, and come summer he’d be up on the roof every day, whether anybody showed up or not. He was the greatest putter I ever saw.” He paused, sat down at the desk, and started rifling through some files in a drawer. This activity seemed to have no apparent purpose. My impression was that Santo was just looking for something to do with his hands.

“It makes me unhappy,” he said, without looking up. “All of it. Charlie made a lot of mistakes, but he always had a good heart. He got along with everybody. He loved children. Charlie was a good father, or at least he tried to be. He would have been a good father, if things had been different. I really believe that. He never stopped wondering what your father was up to.”

“Why didn’t he keep in touch?” I asked.

“He tried,” Santo said. “But it was terrible, the times, this little town. Your grandmother was a difficult woman, and she was protective of Charles. She made things harder than they had to be.”

My father’s name was the same as my grandfather’s, but I had rarely heard anyone call him either Charles or Charlie, and he would snap whenever my mother would refer to him as Charles, usually when she was trying to get his goat. Until Santo had called my father Charlie in the parking lot of the motel on my first night in town I’d never heard anyone else use that name in connection with him. My father had always gone by his middle name, William, or Bill.

I was happy to let Santo talk. He had an oddly relaxing voice, very flat, and lilting, with a clipped trace of an accent I couldn’t identify. At the same time I suddenly realized there was nothing further I wanted to know. I couldn’t think of a single question I wanted to ask at the moment.

Santo eventually got up and I followed him from the office. He paused in the hallway and locked the door with a key of his own, and then turned around and entered my grandfather’s apartment. He led the way down the hall into the kitchen and pulled up a chair at the table.

“Did you always get your oranges?” he asked.

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “At least when I was growing up. I looked forward to it every year. It was wonderful. There was always such a mystery to it.”

Santo pulled the box out from under the Christmas tree and slid it across the table to me. “It wasn’t so wonderful,” he said. “He just wanted you –and your father, I suppose—to know that he thought of you. We were never sure whether your father would pass the oranges along to you or not.”

I gestured to the other, wrapped box under the tree. “There’s one for you there, as well,” I said.

I was surprised when Santo reached immediately for the package and began to carefully untie the bow. He looked at me, shrugged and almost smiled. “It’s Christmas, after all,” he said.

I watched him unwrap the package. He was one of those people who worked very deliberately so as to save the wrapping paper. He carefully wound the red ribbon and folded the shiny green paper neatly into a square and laid it on the table. He was left with a plain white box in his lap, and when he removed the top he tilted the package away from his body so that I couldn’t see what was inside. I watched his face, though, as he pulled his head back in a gesture of mild or feigned surprise; I couldn’t really tell. He actually did smile then, showing his teeth, and let out a tiny laugh as he removed a video version of “Shane” and a satin robe with his name in cheap iron-on letters across the back –“SANTO”—like a prize fighter’s. He held it up to me and beamed.

Santo stood up and held the robe up in front of his body, measuring it from his chin, and then removed his winter coat and tried on the robe over his clothes. He struck a boxer’s pose in the middle of the kitchen and threw a couple of awkward jabs.

“God knows where he found it in this town," he said. "He didn’t like to leave.” He walked to the end of the kitchen and opened the broom closet door, where there was a long mirror. I watched as Santo studied himself in the mirror and ran his hands up and down the front of the robe. “I used to do a little bit of boxing in my younger days, back in Mexico,” he said. “I fought at the fairgrounds over in Anton a few times as well. This was a long time ago, of course. Charlie always thought it was funny.”

“Were you any good?” I asked.

“I did all right,” Santo said.

I watched as he removed the robe and intently folded it exactly the way it had been; he then tucked it back into the white tissue paper and replaced it in the box. I thought for a moment he was going to unfold the wrapping paper and wrap the package all over again. 

Santo carefully placed the box back under the tree, excused himself, and left the kitchen. He was gone for an inordinate length of time, and when I went to investigate I found him in the front room, standing at the window. It looked like he had his face pressed right up against the glass. Beyond the high windows darkness was settling on the town and I could see snow falling through the beams of the streetlights. I watched as Santo slowly raised his right arm, took a step back, and very deliberately drew a cross on the glass with his index finger . 

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