Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Envoy: A Christmas Serial. Part Thirteen

I stood up from my chair. “I’m sorry if I’ve seemed insensitive,” I said. “I knew absolutely nothing of Santo. I’d never so much as heard his name mentioned before I came here. And I still know nothing of the circumstances that led to my father’s estrangement from my grandfather.”

Porter gave me that blank look again. “I find that a bit hard to believe,” he said.

It was my turn to shrug. Porter bugged me. He was getting on my nerves, and I certainly didn’t relish the thought of having to deal with him any further, even on a purely professional basis. That notion, in fact, seemed impossible. I couldn’t imagine how such a disorderly character managed to maintain a law practice, even in that little out-of-the-way place.

“Look,” I said. “I have to be honest with you. I just want to get this stuff figured out and settled so I can go home. I don’t know what more I can tell you.”

“I can understand that,” Porter said. “You’re in an unenviable position, certainly. I must imagine you have a far more interesting life you’re anxious to return to. Dig around some more and see if a will turns up. I’m fairly certain, based on what I knew of your grandfather, that that’s not going to happen. He never spoke to me about a will, and to the best of my knowledge there’s not one on file anywhere in town. Who knows, though? We may be in for a surprise. But anything even the least bit informal you might find in his papers would be subject to challenge, certainly, so I think we can all proceed on the assumption that we’re working without a will.”

“In which case?” I asked.

“It seems to me we’ve already covered that ground,” Porter said, and sighed dramatically. “In which case you –or, rather, your father—will in all likelihood end up with the bulk of your grandfather’s estate. You’ll get pounded by the taxman, of course, but I’d wager, as I’ve said, that it will be a rather surprising collection of assets.”

“I don’t think any of us are particularly interested in this as any kind of a financial windfall,” I said.

Porter raised his eyebrows. “Of course not,” he said.

“I need to get going,” I said, and turned toward the door.

“I’m sure we’ll speak again soon,” Porter said.

“I sincerely hope that’s not the case,” I said.

Porter smiled at me, an odd smile that seemed both sympathetic and patronizing. “I’m sorry for your predicament,” he said. “And if you’ll excuse me for saying so, shame on your father.”

As I opened the door and glanced back into the office, Porter was already brandishing another can of that fucking Shasta soda. I gave him a feeble wave, and he called out after me, “Good luck. Keep me posted.”

I walked back down the street in the direction of my grandfather’s apartment. It was still early afternoon, I knew, but I wasn’t sure of the exact time. I’ve never owned a watch, and Bryton was not a town that had a surplus of public clocks. The bar, I discovered, was not yet open, but there was a note taped to the door with my name written across the otherwise blank front in large, blocky, and almost childlike writing.

I removed the note and unfolded the slip of paper. There was a key to the door of the bar, Santo had written, in the entryway of the apartment, with a labeled key ring. “Make yourself home,” the note said.

I climbed the stairs to the apartment and fetched the key. It was a murky day, one of those afternoons in late December that has the constant feel of both six a.m. and lingering dusk.  Inside the bar the few dirty, rectangular windows facing the street were so cluttered with multi-colored neon beer signs and posters for various liquors and local sports teams that whatever outside light managed to make its way through made only the feeblest of dents in the gloom. The place was permeated with a permanent, fermenting staleness, and the disorienting half-light made me think of a twilit carnival or a restaurant aquarium.

Standing there in that empty bar I once again had the awkward feeling that I was trespassing.
I made my way to the back room, where there was a neat office with two sturdy metal desks along the same wall, separated by perhaps five feet. A tall, ancient safe of the sort you’ll often see in old film noir occupied the space between the desks. The office was so neat and Spartan that I suspected Santo had tidied up in preparation for my visit. If there had been anything to hide or dispose of, he’d certainly had plenty of time and opportunity to do so. One desk was bare with the exception of an empty metal basket. The other desk, which I assumed was Santo’s, was neat but obviously had been regularly and recently in use; its matching metal basket was full of loose papers, bills, invoices, and catalogs, and there was a small collection of books –a fat Webster’s dictionary, a Spanish-English dictionary, various bar guides, phone books, and an assortment of state and federal tax manuals—carefully arranged by size between bookends.

There was a Christmas card propped up next to a lamp on the desk. In one more inexcusable breach I opened this card and read the inscription, which was written on the fold facing the generic message, “Wishing you every joy of the Season, and the happiest of New Years.” There were a couple brief paragraphs in Spanish, which I do not speak or read. The note closed with a single sentence, and a signature, printed, “Charlie.”

I was nervous about being caught red-handed –and I knew what I was doing was wrong—but I sat down at the desk, turned on the lamp, and opened the Spanish-English dictionary and attempted to translate the note on the card. I got nowhere with the longer sentences in the first paragraphs. My grandfather’s handwriting was eerily similar to my father’s, and almost equally illegible to me. It likely would have been so even if the writing had been English. I gave up and moved on to that last sentence, which consisted of four words. Two of the words were the same. I figured it out pretty easily, or at least I thought I did. The line, I felt sure, was, “My heart, one heart.”

I closed the card and propped it up against the base of the lamp.

Do I wish I had not read that card?

Of course I wish I hadn’t read that card. My regret at having done so lingered for quite a long time.

For some reason not entirely clear to me, though, the card made me angry. Surely, I thought, Santo had deliberately left it there –or, more likely, placed it there—for me to see. How did I know it was even legitimate? I didn’t know a damn thing about my grandfather, and even less about Santo. I had no idea if my grandfather spoke or wrote Spanish, although I had some recollection of someone, perhaps Santo himself, telling me that he had taught Santo to speak English.

Porter had already insinuated –actually, he had more than insinuated—that Santo had likely gone through everything by this time. Who knew what he might have thrown away or hidden?

I fished the scrap of paper on which Santo had written the combination to the safe from my pocket. When had that been? I sat there for a moment at the desk and tried again to get the chronology of the last several days in order. I had to think hard and eventually consult a calendar on the wall to even determine what day it was. It seemed impossible to me that I had been in that town for such a relatively short time, and it seemed even more impossible –inconceivable, really—to imagine spending the amount of time this project was likely to require holed up in that place.

I’d been ridiculously naïve, of course. I thought I was being somehow virtuous, although now that I was actually there and in the thick of it I couldn’t say on whose behalf, precisely, I was being virtuous. I had imagined I was embarking on some kind of adventure, and it was a convenient excuse to skip out on my static life for a brief time. I recognized –almost in that instant, I think—some of the old resentments I harbored against my father surfacing in a distant place in the back of my mind. Porter, I realized, was right to cast shame on my father for his conduct in this whole sorry affair. At some level, of course, I’d realized this right from the beginning, which had been the primary reason I had resisted calling my mother. She would have seized on this fact in an instant, and would have been furious with both my father and me.

I was reluctant, but nonetheless determined, to have a look in the safe. I was hoping it would somehow confirm my worst suspicions about Santo. He obviously had access to that safe, whenever he wanted. If my grandfather had been as casual about his finances as I had been led to believe, I couldn’t imagine there’d be much of an accounting system in place to stop Santo from helping himself to whatever he wanted. I also recognized, however, that Santo likely wouldn’t have been foolish enough to leave any such obvious clues for me. In the first place, what the hell could I have found there that would have confirmed these suspicions? I honestly had no idea. How would I even recognize any clear indications of embezzlement? I wouldn’t even have the slightest idea what to look for. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how much money a little bar like that might make.

At the very least, though, I hoped that there would, in fact, be something in the safe that would lead me to my grandfather’s bank.

I knelt down and fiddled with the dial of the safe. It was, as I said, a very old, solid iron box, and the dial was so tight that I had to exert considerable pressure just to get the thing to turn. I made several attempts at the combination, but Santo had given me nothing in the way of proper instructions, just a set of three numbers. I don’t think I’d worked a combination lock since high school, and I couldn’t get the damn thing to open.

I was crouched in front of the safe and muttering with exasperation when I heard Santo’s voice behind me: “Three times to the left, twice all the way around to the right, and once to the left.”

I was so startled by his appearance that I scrambled to my feet. I realized with some embarrassment that I had thrown my hands straight in the air. Santo raised his own hands in the air and smiled.

“Here,” he said. “Would you like some help with that?”

He stepped past me and squatted in front of the safe. “It’s a tricky one,” he said. “Your grandfather could never seem to get it to work, either. Some times he’d call me in an angry mood because he’d been struggling to get this safe open for more than an hour.”

I heard the click of the tumblers and the snap of the dead bolt as Santo jerked the handle and eased the heavy door open. He stood up and stepped aside, extending his right hand in the direction of the open safe, as if he had just concluded a magic trick. “It’s all yours,” he said with a little smile that seemed both sad and genuine. “I’ll leave you alone now. If you need me I’ll be in the bar doing some work.”

I waited for a moment after Santo left the office, and then knelt down again next to the open safe. There was a top shelf that had a small pile of loose papers, and I took them down and shuffled through them at the desk. They appeared to be various licenses, old inspection and tax certificates, and random, mostly dated receipts and invoices for things like neon signs, a microwave oven, cigarette machine, pool table, and assorted bills for building repair and maintenance going back almost twenty years.

I sat at my grandfather’s desk and looked over every one of these things; there was no will, and nothing even remotely in the way of a personal document.

The bottom of the safe had neat rows of change, rolls of coins and paper-clipped stacks of ones, fives, tens, and twenties. There was a note –in what I now recognized as Santo’s handwriting—taped to the door that said, “Change should ALWAYS be $500.” Alongside the change was an old plastic bank bag the size of a woman’s pocketbook. Inside this bag was a huge wad of loose cash –I didn’t count it, but it looked like a substantial amount of money—and a checkbook from the Farmer’s Bank in town. The checks were imprinted with the bold-faced title, “D. Links, Inc.,” and my grandfather’s name and address. The register at the back of the checkbook was neat and updated through the last missing check. I was staggered to see that the balance was $73,218.52. I noticed that my grandfather paid Santo $625 every two weeks. Most of the other checks seemed to be for supplies or expenses related to running the bar. Looking back through the check register I also saw that a check for $185 was written the first of every month to –at least this was how it was recorded—“138 Daswell.”

I removed the local phonebook from a shelf next to the desk –a phonebook that was as slim as a weekly magazine—and looked up Santo’s name on a hunch; sure enough, it was right there, next to his address, 138 Daswell, and the phone number. I wasn’t quite sure what to conclude from this –that they didn’t, in fact, live together? That my grandfather was merely some kind of benevolent benefactor or caretaker for this man who seemed entirely capable of taking care of himself? Is that what I wanted to believe? I didn’t know. For some reason it appalled me to think so.

I put the checkbook back in the bank bag and replaced the bag in the safe. My inventory of the safe was complete; there was nothing else in there, nothing else that would be of any use to me. There was nothing there to suggest any hanky panky, at least so far as my grandfather’s finances as they related to the bar were concerned. Santo could certainly, at the very least, have cleaned out the contents of the bank bag. There was no indication, however, as to whether or not he had access to the funds in the checking account, but he had obviously, at the very least, had plenty of opportunities to hide the checkbook from me.

The whole thing –and whatever scenarios I cared to entertain—seemed pathetic to me. When I received the phone call from the hospital I should have waited out my father, or made the urgency of the situation clearer to the secretary at his office. I suspected then –and I continue to suspect—that my father would have sat on his hands nonetheless, certain that I, or someone else, would take care of things. I also have no doubt that even if I’d managed to track him down immediately, I still would have ended up making the trip to Iowa.

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