Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Envoy: A Christmas Serial. Part Twelve

After I’d left Richard Fleming’s office late that afternoon I walked back to the motel and got in my car. I drove out into the country outside of town, following the river. It was strange to me how many little communities were sprawled so close together in the countryside out there. It seemed like there was another virtually identical town every ten or fifteen miles along that road. They all had a 24-hour Casey’s convenience store and gas station right on the street that ran through town, with a tidy Main Street tucked away off the state highway. These brightly lit convenience stores were often the only sign of life in these towns, beyond the desolate neon signs of the old bars downtown.

There were places where the road wound its way high above the river, and I pulled off at a gravel lot that was marked with a “Scenic Overlook” sign. It was, I realized, incredibly beautiful country, and nothing like I would have expected to find in Iowa. On both sides of the river from where I was parked there were high bluffs. The sky was once again spitting light snow, and I stood there for quite a long time staring at the dark river crawling its way south. I could see all the way down to the steeples and water tower of the next little town, where a blue iron bridge was suspended in the fog.

I managed to sleep in the next morning, and later walked down to the old storefront out of which Robert Porter, the city’s attorney, conducted his business. I had the paperwork from my father’s lawyer, delegating me to act on the family’s behalf. Porter seemed to be expecting me however –I had the sense that he’d received a call shortly after I’d left the city office the previous afternoon, perhaps warning him that I was poking around—and never asked to see any of the documentation.

Porter was a graceless and paunchy middle-aged character, manic in the manner of someone with poor social skills or ingrained eccentricity cultivated in cultural isolation. He had a disheveled head of thinning, dirty blond hair that he was constantly raking with his right hand. He was also flushed and filmy; I noticed a blood pressure cuff sitting in the middle of his desk, along with a handful of caramel colored prescription bottles. He offered me the chair facing his desk, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was already occupied by a teetering and disorderly pile of notebooks, loose papers, and manila folders. When he eventually noticed my hesitation, Porter lumbered around the desk, swept up the pile of stuff in his arms, and unceremoniously pitched the lot of it into a corner.

“Pardon my sloth,” he said. “I’m afraid my office would never pass muster with the Feng Shui zealots.”

I sat down in the chair and Porter commenced to drumming nervously on the prescription bottles with a pen, creating an unnerving rattle of pills being joggled about. A B-52’s CD was playing at an almost subliminal level in the boombox that was perched precariously on a ledge behind Porter’s desk, and his pill-bottle percussion was syncopated to this music, in a manner of speaking, at least. There were numerous glass display cases full of beetles –many of them huge and outrageously fluorescent—all over the office. Porter noticed me studying the beetles and shrugged.

“A terrible hobby,” he said. “And also, I’m afraid, wholly inexplicable. What can I say? I love the damn things.”

“Many of them are quite beautiful,” I said.

“I’m glad you feel that way,” Porter said. “Although I’m not quite sure what that says about your aesthetic judgment. I’ll admit, however, that I do find them both magnificent and mysterious.”

“Do you catch them yourself?” I asked.

Porter snorted. “Me? Oh, lord no. I’m not that far gone. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever encounter me trundling around in the jungle stalking bugs, or anything else for that matter. I get them in the mail from various far-flung members of a tribe of entomological obsessives. They come dehydrated, in little envelopes. I soak them in saline solution and perform a small mortuary procedure to coax and tease them back into a more life-like shape. Then I pin them to a board and let them dry. It’s a ridiculous waste of time, but, as I said, it gives me some odd pleasure, and one cannot live without odd pleasures.”

With a great, almost alarming grunt, Porter shoved himself away from his desk abruptly, the castors of his chair squeaking loudly as he slid backwards, paddling at the floor with his feet. He came to rest beside a miniature refrigerator and fished inside.

“Can I interest you in a can of cold Shasta cola?” he asked. I declined and he heaved himself back to his desk with two cans of soda in his lap anyway, and deposited them atop the other clutter on his desk.

“You’ll excuse my great thirst,” he said, popping the top on one of the cans of soda. He jerked his head straight back and proceeded to pour what seemed like half the can of cola into his mouth, or, rather, directly down his throat. I watched this production incredulously, Porter’s Adam’s apple bobbing spastically. I’d never see anyone drink a beverage quite like Porter drank that can of soda. Three times in rapid succession he threw his head back and guzzled from the can. It couldn’t have taken more than thirty seconds, and when he was finished with this incredible display he flung the empty can across the room in the general direction of a garbage bucket that was outfitted with a miniature basketball backboard and net, the backboard emblazoned with the logo of the Iowa Hawkeyes.

The can rattled off something in the general vicinity and Porter turned his attention back to me.

“Your grandfather was a decent fellow,” he said.

“So I’ve heard,” I said. “I didn’t, unfortunately, know him.”

“Yes,” Porter said. “That’s my understanding. It’s too bad. He had a tough battle these last few years, and he’d always been such an energetic man. It was sad. I can’t help but feel that he deserved a good deal better than he got. He brought a strange sort of vision to this generally fouled little place. Be that as it may, let’s take stock, if you will. From your position as emissary how would you say things stand at the moment?”

I told him that I wasn’t entirely clear on that issue, and that I had been told that he might be able to assist me. I also explained that I had not thus far turned up a will and was working from an almost wholesale ignorance of my grandfather’s life.

“Well, then,” he said. “I’d say you’re working with a considerable handicap.” Porter shrugged, scratched his head, and proceeded to guzzle down the second can of soda exactly as he had the first. He once again flung the empty off into the general disorder of his office, after which he leaned so far back in his chair that I feared he might topple over. He stared vacantly at the ceiling for an unnerving length of time.

“I don’t think I could ever bring myself to dance,” he eventually said. “But if I were ever to dance, I like to imagine it would be to a B-52’s record. What we are listening to here is the soundtrack to my brief and unsuccessful attempt to be the local Bohemian.”

I studied Porter a little more closely and tried to imagine him as a Bohemian awkwardly attempting to dance to the B-52’s. I couldn’t do it.

Porter was still lost in his reverie, and had commenced once more to drumming on his prescription bottles.

“I saw the B-52’s several times,” he said. “This was before one of them kicked the bucket. AIDS, I think it was. They always put on a fun and excellent show, very theatrical. At the time, of course, I’d never heard, or seen, anything like them. I don’t suppose I need to tell you that a town like this hardly prepares you for the spectacles of the outside world. I once considered myself something of a knowledgeable music fan. I believe I may have owned the first and only Television record in this community, and I was so excited by the damn thing that I tried to host a listening party in my home. Three people showed up, and they all left early and unimpressed.”

At this point I decided in the interests of…well, self interest to try to steer Porter back to matters that were more personally pressing.

“So,” I said. “Suppose no will turns up? Then what?”

Porter ignored me for a moment. He was in the middle of what appeared to be a ferocious drum solo.

“Happens all the time,” he finally said, flinging his pen in the air and lunging across his desk in an unsuccessful attempt to catch it on the way back down. “Or at least more often than it should. It can be an expensive headache, not to mention, for many people, a considerable heartache, but it’s really pretty cut-and-dried all around. The contested wills are the things that will truly give you fits and tie up a lot of time and money. You might be astonished at the extent to which some people will court ruination out of nothing but spite.”

I tried again to steer Porter back on track. “But if there is no will?” I asked.

Porter sighed dramatically. “Absent a will we’ll get you set up with an administrator, and we’ll proceed to disperse the assets of the estate in a reasonably orderly fashion. You’ll notice I said ‘reasonably orderly.’ There is always the potential for surprises, but I know a little something of your family’s history in this town, and I shouldn’t think we’d have any long lost relatives crawling out from under rocks during the probate process. You never know, though. You just never can tell. Your grandfather leaves behind a number of rather interesting assets.”

Porter got up from his desk and disappeared around a corner. I listened as he took a long, sputtering piss. He clearly hadn’t bothered to close the door to the bathroom. When he reemerged he collapsed back into his chair and stared across the desk at me.

“In the perhaps likely event that your grandfather’s property passes to the immediate family, do you or your father have any plans to make accommodations for Santo?” he asked.

I told Porter that it was unclear where things stood with Santo, which was about as honest and simultaneously disingenuous an answer as I could give at the time. Porter shrugged and raised his eyebrows.

“Will your father be coming to town?” he asked.

“That’s not likely,” I said. “He’s out of the country on business, and I don’t expect him back for quite some time.”

“You’re in touch, I assume?” Porter said.

I told him that I’d spoken with my father on a couple occasions since I’d been in town.

“You likely know more of the history between my father and my grandfather than I do,” I said. “But I think my father would just like to wrap this thing up as quickly as possible. He’s not particularly interested in the money.”

“I’m sure,” Porter said.

The whole time he was talking to me, I noticed, Porter was fidgeting, drumming on his prescription bottles, scooting back and forth in his chair, and shuffling things around on his desk.

“As I’m sure you’re aware, this is a small town,” he said, after another of his distracted pauses. “You live in a big city, is that correct?”

“Yes,” I said. “Chicago.”

“Raised there?” Porter asked.

“More or less,” I said.

“Have you much experience with small towns?” he asked.

I admitted that I had none, and Porter nodded vigorously and did that thing with his eyebrows again.

“I’ll admit that I got quite a kick out of your grandfather,” he said. “He traveled an unusual path, particularly for this town. People always talked, of course; that will happen anywhere. But Charlie was a tough old bird. He held up remarkably well, and I always admired the way he stuck around and eventually managed to become something of a fixture in town. And there was, so far as I could tell, very little in the way of compromising. Charlie always did things on his own terms, and that’s not the easiest way to go through life, particularly in a place like this.”

“I don’t suppose it is,” I said. “In that sense he sounds like my father.”

Porter shook his head. “He was an interesting man,” he said. “I helped him out on a number of occasions. Despite his reputation as a bit of a gambler, Charlie never did anything he couldn’t pay for, and over time he developed a decent head for business. I think you’ll find that his finances are pretty well squared away.”

“I hope so,” I said. “I’ll be the first to admit that I know next to nothing about business, and I’m not particularly well equipped to deal with too many complications. Purely out of laziness I’d love to see this thing go as smoothly as possible.”

“Of course,” Porter said. He stared at me for a long moment, studying, it almost seemed, my hands. “I’m afraid, however, that based on my own experience things seldom go ‘smoothly’ when someone dies, particularly if there are intestate issues to be sorted out. Death can be a very complicated and frustrating bureaucracy. But, be that as it may, I’d have to imagine that besides the property, which is certainly not without value, your grandfather probably had quite a bit of money squirreled away somewhere. I think the bar, being as it is, more or less, the only game in town, has been a fairly lucrative investment for him. I’m also quite certain there is no debt of any consequence attached to the estate.” He shrugged and ran a hand through his hair, and then glanced at his watch very deliberately.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I hope I’m not keeping you.”

“Keeping me?” Porter said. “Good heavens. Keeping me from what? You’re keeping me company. A legal practice is hardly a thriving business in this town. This is, in fact, a town distinguished –if it is distinguished by anything at all—by a lack of thriving businesses.”
The phone on Porter’s desk rang, and he snatched up the receiver and said, “Yes?”

He listened for perhaps fifteen seconds and then said, “The notion of convenience generally means next to nothing to me, of course, but, yes, in this particular instance that might indeed be a better idea. Why don’t you give me a ring a little bit later and I’ll see what I can find out.”

He hung up the phone without anything in the way of a goodbye and turned his attention again to me.

“Regardless of issues of solvency, even in intestate or probate cases where the direction of things may seem quite clear, it can still be rather complicated to untangle these situations,” he said. “I’m afraid that, given what little I have to work with at the moment, I can’t give you much of an idea what to expect.”

I asked him if, pending the resolution of these legal issues, I could nonetheless proceed with the cleaning out of my grandfather’s apartment and sorting through his things.

“Who’s going to stop you?” Porter shrugged. “Perhaps you’ll turn up a will. You’ll probably also want to go through the papers in Charlie’s office at the bar. I should, however, tell you that I spoke with Santo the day after your grandfather’s death, and he seemed virtually certain there was no will. That would certainly be consistent with what I knew of your grandfather. I might also suppose that Santo has already turned the office and apartment upside down, but I don’t know that with any certainty.”

“I believe I mentioned this,” I said. “But I never actually met my grandfather. What I know of his life is the little I’ve been able to piece together since I arrived in town, and that isn’t, of course, much. My father never really spoke of him, or at least not in any detail that I can remember.”

Porter grunted and gave me another one of his nods.

“I knew your father growing up,” he said. “He was several years ahead of me in school, but I certainly remember him. He was one hell of a good basketball player, and smart as a whip in school. Charlie was always quite proud of him, but things happen. We all know that. Things happen all the time, to all sorts of families, and sometimes for no particular reason that we can put our finger on. Other times, of course, they happen for perfectly good reasons, but that’s neither here nor there. You can’t get bogged down in reasons. I myself have a younger brother I haven’t heard from in years. He left town long ago and was apparently just absorbed by America, as will happen.”

I chose once again to interrupt this digression.

“My point is that I have no way of knowing how things stood,” I said. “I have no idea what my grandfather might have been thinking or how he might have wished for things to be handled. I do think that my father wouldn’t be terribly happy to know that Santo was going through my grandfather’s things. Suppose he found a will? What would stop him from simply disposing of it?”

Porter shook his head. “Nothing, I suppose,” he said. “Although it wouldn’t be that simple. And, logically, why would he do something like that?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “Maybe he wouldn’t like the terms or conditions of the will.”

“Were there, in fact, a will,” Porter said. “I’ve no doubt Santo would like the terms or conditions just fine.”

“I’m just trying to understand the situation,” I said.

“Of course,” Porter said. “Your assumption –and I likely share this assumption—is that if Santo was going through your grandfather’s things looking for a will, it was likely with the hope that he would find one that bequeathed him at least a portion of the estate. It would do him no good to dispose of any document that did not include any such stipulation or provision, since in the absence of any will at all, virtually all of the assets would be turned over to the immediate family.”

For a brief moment Porter looked as if he was vaguely disgusted with me. For my part, I was increasingly befuddled by his strange and digressive manner, and by his seeming ability to maintain a tenuous hold on the conversation at hand while constantly preoccupied with other matters. At any rate, I could have sworn I saw the spasm of a wince, followed by a disapproving jerk of his head.

He broke the awkward silence that followed these last comments by rolling backwards once more in his chair in pursuit of yet another can of soda, which he proceeded to maniacally chug down exactly as he had the previous two, this time, however, without moving from in front of the open refrigerator.

“I should think you might find something poignant in that last speculation,” he said over his shoulder. “I find it very sad indeed.” He shook his head again as if to give this point emphasis, and paddled himself back to a position behind his desk.

“I cannot even imagine,” he said.

“Imagine what?” I asked, and once more he fixed me with an uncomfortably long and unusually blank stare, as if he were gazing upon a foreign substance on his front porch that he could not quite identify.

That,” he eventually snapped. “That man going through your grandfather’s things hoping to find something that he already knows does not exist. That man alone in his grief; I think I might be comfortable using that word in this particular instance. We might also perhaps try to imagine Santo going through that apartment hoping to salvage personal mementoes that would mean absolutely nothing to you or any other member of your family, items possibly of interest to him that would in all likelihood end up in some dumpster. I don’t believe that either one of them had another truly close friend or family member in this town, or anywhere else, for that matter. Santo Javier has done nothing but run that miserable little bar for as long as I’ve known him.”

“I’m sure my grandfather must have paid him some kind of salary,” I said.

Of course he paid him some kind of salary,” Porter said. “Good God. But more importantly, your grandfather essentially gave him a life.”

1 comment:

  1. I feel that I'm in that cold, desolate Iowa town experiencing the sadness and confusion. Thank you for writing such an intriguing story. I'll read on...