Friday, December 7, 2012

The Envoy: A Christmas Serial. Part Six

There was something truly creepy about this experience, beyond even the general creepiness I expected. It felt like more than mere snooping. It was as if I had broken into a stranger’s apartment and was rifling through his possessions. Whatever curiosity I might have had regarding my grandfather and who he was or what had caused his rift with my father was rapidly evaporating. 

I picked up the phone on the kitchen counter –it was an old tabletop, rotary model—and found that there was no dial tone. It hardly seemed possible that the telephone service had already been disconnected. There was a yellowed note pad next to the telephone, and among the several numbers that were scrawled there in an unsteady hand I noticed the number for my apartment in Chicago. To the best of my knowledge, my grandfather had never called me.

I couldn’t bring myself to look in my grandfather’s refrigerator. It seems ridiculous now, but I literally couldn’t handle the thought of opening the refrigerator door. I have no idea what it was I thought I might find that seemed so distressing at the time. The chaotic archive of my mother’s fridge had always depressed me, though, so perhaps the dread was ingrained. 

I stood there in the middle of the kitchen and realized I was agitated, as if I was afraid I would be discovered in my dead grandfather’s apartment and arrested for trespassing.

I went back into the living room, found a remote, and clicked on the television. I was shocked to discover that my grandfather had cable. I sat on the couch and surfed up and down the dial for a time. With the exception of a couple old Christmas movies, you would have been hard pressed to guess what day it was from the offerings on TV. I actually sat there and watched about a half hour of “Crocodile Hunter’ and a good portion of one of those home video shows where some guy is always getting whacked in the nuts.

I turned off the television and sat there in the silence for a moment. The building was eerily quiet. Every couple of minutes the silence was broken by some kind of mechanical voice blurting out an insult or challenge from somewhere beneath me. I eventually surmised that these eruptions were issuing from a pinball machine in the bar downstairs, and I was also, after about an hour of hearing them, able to make out what the voice was saying: “Come and get it,” alternating with, “That’s more like it.”

I eventually screwed up the nerve to take a look at the pile of drawings on the drafting table. I took a seat on the stainless steel stool and hunched over the first drawing on the stack. The paper was very fine, almost transparent, and yellowed with age. At the top of the page were the words, “Charlie’s Dinky Links,” and beneath them was what appeared to be a layout of a golf course, with holes numbered one through ten. Each hole had a slightly different size and shape, from a zigzag to a boomerang to a horseshoe. The drawing had an almost abstract architectural precision. Various hazards, it seemed, were indicated by shaded areas or bands of solid black. Subsequent pages revealed hole-by-hole plans, complete with alternate designs and proposed variations. Each of these individual drawings was detailed and finely drawn –there was a windmill, a lighthouse, a covered wagon, and a rocket ship; among others there was one labeled the “Loop-dee-doo”; there was a “Mouse Trap,” and another called “The London Bridge.” In the margins of these drawings were all sorts of elaborate specifications and minutiae.

I spent at least an hour looking over these plans and marveling at the obsessive attention to detail. Whoever had drawn them was an excellent draftsman. One of the last pages featured a series of light poles and stringers of bulbs; this drawing was labeled “Starlight Golf.” I certainly couldn’t make sense of any of this, of course, but it was a wonderful distraction all the same.

I realized at some point that I was starving, and went back into the kitchen to see whether there might be something to eat. The cupboards were literally almost completely bare, other than a few mismatched coffee cups and glasses and plates. The silverware and pots and pans were in the drawer and cupboard next to the stove. As much as I dreaded looking in the refrigerator, I finally broke down and popped open the door. It was more or less as I expected, largely empty with the exception of an old bottle of catsup, a plastic jug of antacid, a bag of shriveled carrots, half a jar of dill pickles, a partial loaf of bread just starting to bloom with mold, and a half-gallon of milk that was only a few days beyond its expiration date.

I poured the milk down the sink, rinsed the carton, and opened a broom closet at the other end of the kitchen in search of a garbage can. There was, in fact, a garbage pail there, lined with a plastic trash bag, and literally overflowing with empty beer cans. There must have been at least a hundred beer cans. Given the otherwise obsessively tidy appearance of the apartment it seemed strange to me that my grandfather had resisted emptying the garbage. Perhaps, I thought, he was one of those old men who saved aluminum cans. It occurred to me that Iowa had some sort of recycling deposit on aluminum and plastic, so I supposed it was possible that he was simply stockpiling his cans for a trip to the redemption center.

I found a box of trash bags above the broom closet and yanked one down. I filled the bag partially with the overflow from the garbage pail and then hauled it over to the refrigerator, where I noticed that there were two incongruous looking items pinned to the door with little magnets; there was a picture postcard –apparently quite old, judging from the lurid pastels of the colorized photo—of “Sunny California,” a scene of a beach sunset and some palm trees. Beneath this on the fridge was a portrait in colored pencil or crayon –primitive and clearly the work of a child—of a stern-looking old man. I removed this drawing and turned it over to find my father’s clumsily written name written on the back, as well as the words, “Thomas Edison.”

Though it felt like one more violation, I slid the magnet from the picture postcard with my thumb, removed the card, and read the cursive inscription. I couldn’t tell if the handwriting was a woman’s or a man’s. “Awful nice hear,” it read. “Hope your behaving yourself, but I don’t suppose you are. Probably will not get back that way again and I know how you are, so. You and your crazy ideas. You can have that place, Charlie.”

It occurred to me standing there with that old postcard in my hands –the postmark was smudged, so I couldn’t quite make out the date—that it was not only possible, but entirely likely, that all of these confusing and mysterious loose ends and old strands would never add up to anything for me, and that my grandfather’s story –whatever that might have been—would forever elude me even if I went through every last item and scrap of paper in his apartment. I had absolutely nothing to work from or with, no personal memories or family stories, and absent the miracle of a diary or a journal I might as well have been going through the random items in a thrift store.

I’m not a speculative guy, and I’d make a lousy detective or archeologist. I’d have a hard time reconstructing my own life from the items in my apartment. I also realized my father wasn’t expecting me to make sense of my grandfather’s life; he simply wanted me to dismantle what was left of it, to erase all traces of his existence.

I couldn’t imagine a more dispiriting way to spend Christmas day. I had long since gotten used to being alone, but that morning I suddenly felt the melancholy flush of what I supposed was, in fact, a sort of loneliness. I decided to take a walk another walk around the town to try to clear my head.

I made my way back down the narrow, dimly lit corridor to the door. There on the wall in the entryway I noticed a rack of keys, each of them attached to a hard plastic label. There was a key labeled “entry,” and another “apartment.” There were two other keys as well; one for the “office,” and the other designated “roof.” I took down the key for the office –whatever that was—and compared it to the keys they had given me at the hospital. It appeared to be a match for one of the seven keys I already had in my possession. The other keys on the rack also seemed to have duplicates on my grandfather’s key ring. I wondered if perhaps my grandfather was some kind of caretaker or janitor for the building.

I went out into the hallway and checked my grandfather’s mailbox. It was empty, but I noticed there was also a mailbox on the wall adjacent to the door across the hall –a door I now noticed bore a sticker that read “Office”—and this mailbox was stuffed with envelopes and assorted junk mail. There was also a large package against the wall beneath the mailbox. I glanced down at the package and saw that it was addressed to my grandfather, care of “D. Links, Inc.”

I removed the mail from the box and shuffled through it; all of it was addressed to either my grandfather or, again, “D. Links, Inc.” The addresses corresponded to the number on the office mailbox. I fiddled around with the keys and found one that fit the office door.

The room was cold and musty, and had the eerie look and feel of a place that hadn’t been entered in years. There was a desk against the back wall, above which were tacked a bunch of drawings exactly like those I’d seen on the drafting table in my grandfather’s apartment. The surface of the desk was dusty and cluttered with mail, miscellaneous papers, and old phone books and catalogues. On the opposite wall there were wooden racks that were lined with golf clubs –all of the clubs, actually, were putters. Scattered across the floor were dozens of wire baskets full of golf balls, many of them brightly colored.

Everything in the place had a fine coating of dust. I noticed a calendar on one wall that was from 1958; the month that was displayed was November. In case there was any doubt that this was, in fact, my grandfather’s office, there was one of those old laminated nameplates bearing his name on the desk.

I tossed the pile of mail on the desk with the rest of the junk, and noticed that most of the mail I had just removed from the box was postmarked from 1982. There was a door next to the desk, and I tried the handle and discovered that it was ajar. I pulled the door open and found a short flight of wooden stairs beyond which I could see nothing but gray sky. I ventured up these steps and emerged onto a quite large rooftop, the entirety of which was taken up by an incredibly preserved –and incredibly surreal—miniature golf course. All of the obstacles were either badly faded or bleached by age and exposure, yet they still appeared structurally sound and imposing, and truly striking in the way of adventurously awkward but inspired outsider art. 

I wished I’d had a camera. I wandered over to an old picnic table and took a seat beneath a trio of artificial palm trees that retained only the faintest hints of original color, almost like a badly tinted photograph in an old vacation scrapbook. A pet phrase of my mother's occurred to me, a phrase that she generally employed with withering irony: World of wonders.

I was sitting in the middle of a long-abandoned miniature golf course on the roof of a building on Christmas morning. There was actually a lovely view from up there, looking straight down the Main Street and out over the neighborhood of old houses to the river beyond. At that gray hour the Mississippi was a flat black streak crawling through a few patches of lingering fog.

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