9 minutes ago
Monday, January 7, 2013
Perhaps the index will be useful to someone attempting to navigate this hideous and unwieldy site. Perhaps not. Regardless, here it is, and I thank Meers for performing such an absurd and thankless task.
I am presently working on several writing projects that are, at the very least, of some interest to me. Bits and pieces of them will almost surely find their way here.
Thanks for reading my words. I really am grateful.
YOUR MAN FOR FUN IN RAPIDAN, 12/28/09-1/6/13: AN INDEX OF LINKS:
Alchemy. Angels, guild of. Animal Collective, as source of tension in therapist's office. Animals, speaking. Aristotle, extracts from History of Animals. Anthology of American Folk Music, discovery of. Apes, as aviators. Associative disorder, a case study. Automobiles, used. Bananas, the airbrushing of. Barbers, in Livingston, Montana. Beard, inhabited by fairies. Belief, a personal inventory. Bergen, Jergen King. Birds, bleak; mysterious locutions of; prehistoric; speaking Farsi; history of talking. Bond, James; only a girl. Bones, waltzing. Books, black; fifty favorite. Boon, D. Bridges, burning. Bubbles, as meteorological event. Burger King, and human trafficking. Butterflies, the shooting of. Cannibalism, on trial. Carnap, Big Leonard. Carp, hour of the. Catcher in the Rye, an allusion to. Cattle, drowning. Cheese, the craving of. Chickens, hit. Children, three in Texas. Conductors of the Moving World, a mathematical breakdown. Contentment, the slow dazzle of. Country and Western, fifty greatest songs. Dead people, the singing of. Death, before birth. Desire, claiming. Devotion, unhappy. DiGrippa, Silvio; Agents of Contagion. Dog, blind; private remarks to. Dogs, on payphones. Dream Motel, official lodging for convention of thwarted dreamers. Dreams, broken. Dying, the; what they do. Elephant, man who married a. Eminem, overheard. End Times, surrender of the Almighty; possible reconsideration. Exploration, an incident from the history of. Eyeglasses, confusion regarding. Ferry, Bryan. Fire, breathing of; buildings consumed by. Fireflies, falling in love with swallows. Fletcher, Galen. Forever in Bluejeans, gravestone inscription. Fortune cookies, empty. Free, there ain't no. Garden, abandoned. Gettin' Jiggy Wit It, a soundtrack to one summer. Goats, talking. God, as cinematographer; birth of. Golf, miniature. Grasshoppers, in dollhouse. Gratitude, an expression of. Great Maybe Whatever, a plea to. Hamburgers, the business of. Harpo, Slim. Harps, a sanctuary of. Heart, at rest and in motion; pea-picking. Heaven, garbage disposal in; the suburbs of. Help, a cry for. Henley, Don. High jumping, the eroticism of. Highlights magazine. History of Human Futility, museum. History, smothered by. Horns, French. Horses, blind; flying. House of Coates, self-promotion surrounding the release of. Hypnagogia, a brief personal history. Imagination, stretching of. Insomnia, a possible cause. Islands, in the North Sea. Jar, voice in a. Jazz, groupies. Jigsaw puzzle, unfinished. Jonah, the rational challenges of. Keegen Bash, the; a reminiscence. Kitchens, an exercise in forensics. Ladder, as clumsy metaphor. Landfill, at the bottom of the day. Lawn statuary. Librarian, disappointed in love. Life, dear. Lightning, heat. Lions, a choir of. Loneliness, and disgust. Loveliness, the difficulty of. Magi, in Soho. Magic Eight Ball, desire for the 'Yes' answer. Make believe, an inquisition regarding. Malls, as factors in depressive episodes. Manistique, anecdotal material regarding. Meat, as community; pining. Memories, pleasant. Mermaid, in a bathtub. Mermaids, obese. Messengers, epiphanic. Michigan, Lathrop; in photography. Milkman, dysfunctional. Mind, state of. Minnesota, nice. Monastery, bells. Monk, burning. Monks, singing. Morrison, Lester B. Motion sickness, terminal. Mountains, the loneliness of. Munch, Beauteous. Murray's Suave Outlet, pioneering blog. Museum, of sound. Nabokov, Vladimir. National Poetry Month. Never (never, never). News, local. Nightmares, an inventory of; as supreme entertainments. Noise, joyful. Osteoporosis, moral. Otherness. Paradise, a bestiary. Paranoia, religious. Pessoa, Fernando. Pandora, her unfortunate marriage. Philosophy, the consolations of. Photography, an education. Photomart. Pianos, and colonialism. Poetry, about birds. Presley, Elvis; in his underwear. Professionals, so-called. Puppetry, sound advice regarding. Rabbits, blind, discussing photography. Radio Shack, a love story. Regrets, International Repository of. Relay, of words. Ribs, broken by reading. Rio de Ratones Poetry, imports dying castrato. Sad Museum, the unspeakable nature of. Saint Nicholas of Myra, pageant of. Salamanders, on the moon. Satan, and the Sacred Bone. Schlegel, Ustave; and the giantess. Schopenhauer, argues with Spinoza about dogs. Science, mysteries of. Scrub pads, in bulk. Shadows, and monsters. Sheep, shivering. Sherman, William Tecumseh; "March to the Sea." Show business, obscurity. Sky, as the limit. Snack crackers, bewildering slogans of. Sno-Caps, an appreciative memory. Soup, the god of. Springsteen, Bruce. Squirrels, phantom. Stuttering, and general ostracism. Sushi, truck stop. Table tennis, the Mongoose vs. The Cobra. Talk radio, and the dissolution of a marriage. Tchaikovsky, a remembrance of. Teenagers, moonstruck. Terkel, Studs. Thinking, wishful. Tim Horton's. Time, as snaggle-toothed bastard; rewinding of. Tony Orlando, and Dawn. Trees, as unmanageable. Uncle, crying of. Unilever, manufacturer of the Q-Tip. Upstate, New York. Urination, public. Wedding party, contemplated by an unmarried woman. Wendell, prized dog. Whiskers, brief history of. Whither, also Wither. Williamson, Sonny Boy. Winter Olympics, Vancouver, 2010. Wishes, simple. Words, uselessness of. Wordsworth, William. World, of wonders. Zellar, Dean Wilson.
Wednesday, January 2, 2013
Why don't you begin by telling me about the dreams you said have been troubling you?
I'm locked out of my house and can't find the keys. I am walking around in an unfamiliar city and everyone I encounter is speaking a language I can't understand. I look in the mirror and I don't recognize the face that is looking back at me. I'm moving through a huge crowd with my family and friends and when I turn around they've all disappeared. I've lost my way in a dark forest. I'm being swept away in an avalanche. I'm falling from a great height. I'm in a little flooded boat that is rapidly being carried far out to sea. I am drowning. I'm being suffocated, strangled, smothered, buried alive. I am trapped in a burning building, aboard a sinking ship, in a car that is spinning out of control. I open my eyes and can no longer see. I open my mouth to speak and nothing comes out. I put pen after pen to paper and discover that words have utterly forsaken me; I am no longer capable of making sense. I place the needle down on record after record and hear only silence. I wake up one morning naked in an unfamiliar room and there is a pile of blood-stained clothes next to the bed. An inquisitor I can't see makes impossible demands of me, and my failure to satisfy these demands will result in my banishment from the kingdom that is my life. Returning from work one day I discover that my address no longer exists; the house I live in and everything in it has disappeared. I drive around and around for days at a time and never find my way back home.
This is a rather exhaustive --and exhausting-- inventory. Anything else you'd like to add?
(Hesitates briefly) Again and again and again my father is throwing a can of corn across the kitchen at my crying and cowering mother....
Tuesday, December 25, 2012
One night long ago in a once-upon-a-time world there was a little lost dog in a faraway forest. The dog was alone and hungry, and it was a bitter winter. The dog was settling into the den he had burrowed for himself in the snow around the roots of a tree, and as he curled up in the darkness he heard the distant shimmer of bells and, a moment later, voices carrying in the cold night air, a great many voices joined in some happy song. The dog had never known anyone to pass through the faraway forest, not once in his lost time in that lonely place had he heard voices like these, or the beautiful and wondrous stamping of bells.
The little dog crept to the edge of his den and sniffed, peering, in the direction of the music. A moment later, light from the many torches of the travelers swept creeping shadows into the clearing outside the den, then chased completely the darkness before them and became full, hissing light. The dog watched in wonder as the brightly clad travelers –laughing and singing—paraded into view, enveloped in a moving cloud of steam and smoke.
There were tiny acrobats and a tall, thin fellow toddling on stilts and several laughing jugglers. There were five shy horses pulling bright clattering wagons, and interspersed amongst the parade were dozens of chattering clowns. At the very end of this colorful parade, lagging almost outside the very last of the torchlight, there was a small, limping clown, leading an old and slow donkey. As the dog crept from his hiding place, the happy songs and jangling bells of the travelers were already fading away into the distance and the darkness of the faraway forest.
The dog trotted along after the parade and soon found himself beside the limping clown and the old donkey. When finally the sad-faced clown became aware of the dog’s presence, a look of surprise and happiness came over his face and he let out a cry that startled the little dog. The clown crouched in the snow alongside the donkey and clapped his hands and called out, and when the dog came into the clown’s arms the little clown began to laugh and the small, laughing clown held the dog in his arms, rocking him gently and murmuring.
The clown –murmuring and giggling happily all the while—carried the dog in his arms as they brought up the rear of the noisy and colorful and clanking parade.
They traveled that night until the torches had all burned down to darkness, and then they stopped and set up their camp along a frozen river. It had grown cold, and the travelers bundled together under their blankets beside roaring fires, with the horses and the donkey huddled stamping and steaming just outside the circle of jugglers, acrobats, and clowns.
The clown had swaddled the lost dog in an old wool blanket, and he held the dog in his arms and rocked him as the others told stories and laughed and gradually drifted into silence and sleep.
The clown’s name was Munch, or so he was known to his fellow travelers, and now he whispered to the dog in his arms, “I shall call you Beauteous Munch.” Together they sat up until the bonfire had faded to embers, and together they saw a sky above them where there were millions upon millions of bright stars. The clown sang quiet songs and interrupted himself at one point to say, “Look, Beauteous Munch, there goes a shooting star! Sweet dreams, my little wish.”
And that night, as he lay curled up beneath the blankets with the little clown, Beauteous Munch was warm and slept without shivering for the first time since the long ago day when he had first found himself lost in the faraway forest.
There had been a time when Beauteous Munch was a puppy living contentedly with his mother and his brothers and sisters in a wooden box in a small town. One day a man and woman had come to take him away to live with them in their house. They were loud and unhappy people, and try as he might Beauteous Munch could not make them any less unhappy. The old man was impatient with Beauteous Munch and shouted at him often.
All day Beauteous Munch would sit at the window staring out at the children playing in the street and passing by his house. Then one day when the nights were beginning to get cold, the man put Beauteous Munch outside. It was raining very hard, and cry as he might and scratch at the door as he did, Beauteous Munch could not get the old man or woman to open the door for him so he could come in out of the rain. Beauteous Munch sat on the steps of the house for a long time that night, until he saw the lamp in the front room extinguished and it was dark up and down the street and the rain was beginning to turn to snow. That was the night Beauteous Munch wandered away and eventually found himself lost in the faraway forest.
That first night away from his home Beauteous Munch tried to sleep, but he was wet and cold and lonely. He missed his long ago once-upon-a-time life. He peered up through the big, wet snowflakes that were cart-wheeling out of the sky and he found a star there barely twinkling, a little star that looked lost and distant and alone. And as Beauteous Munch closed his eyes he wished upon that lost and distant star, wished that somewhere there was another wish lost and longing for a dog, and that attached to that wish was someone special with quiet magic in his hands and a soft voice and a smile that could wag a dog’s tail.
That same night, far away from the faraway forest, Munch the clown was bundled up in a blanket next to his donkey, listening to the laughter and the songs of his traveling companions. He was stout and not as graceful as the others, nor as skilled. Even as a clown his only real role was to lead the donkey and the horses around the ring, and to assist some of the performers with their stunts. He could not sing, and because he spoke with a slight stutter he was the quietest of the troupe, and tended to settle by himself into the background, talking quietly with the donkey and the horses.
The little clown looked up into the sky and wished upon a distant star; he closed his eyes and showed his crooked teeth to the moon and offered only the simplest and most humble of wishes: Please, he whispered, Something Nice. Something happy. A small, happy thing.
And so it was that on the first night he spent with Beauteous Munch, the little clown saw the beautiful shooting star tumble all the way down the sky and he thought to himself, So that is what happens when two wishes collide with one another: An old star is freed from the heavens and falls into a distant sea where it becomes a thousand bright and glimmering fishes. A wish come true is a gift that sets the stars free.
And that is the story of how Beauteous Munch came to live with Munch the clown. Together they learned many tremendous and difficult tricks; the little clown taught Beauteous Munch to ride on the old donkey’s back and walk across a rope and leap through the tiniest of hoops, and all the signs the performers took around and posted in the towns and villages now said “BEAUTEOUS MUNCH –WONDERFUL SHOW DOG!” He was very popular indeed, and people would come from far and wide to see the amazing clown and his astonishing dog.
Monday, December 24, 2012
I drove to the outskirts of town to an elaborate and overly showy funeral home that was set back from the road on a huge plot of immaculately landscaped lawn. At the end of the long driveway I parked under the carport out front.
There was a kid running a vacuum cleaner over the carpeting in the big chapel off the entryway. I saw him glance at me out of the corner of his eye the moment I came in the door, but he went right on with his noisy work for a full minute before finally shutting down the machine and acknowledging my presence.
I told him what I was there for and he gloomily trudged off down a hallway without so much as a word. He was probably thirty feet away when he turned and motioned to me with an irritating little flip of his hand. “This way,” he said.
I was trying to decide how old I thought the kid was. I guessed he was maybe in his early twenties, and was likely, I figured, an intern, or the undertaker’s son.
I remembered that I’d filled out some sort of paperwork regarding the particulars of cremation on the day I’d identified my grandfather’s body at the hospital, but the details were more than a little hazy. I do know that I hadn’t actually read much of the information they’d given me. I did, though, have a vague memory of being asked to choose from what seemed like a dizzying set of options and plans. I also knew that I’d chosen the least expensive option available.
The kid entered a little waiting room that almost looked like the receptionist’s area in a dentist’s office. He went around behind a counter, jerked a file from an open cabinet, and slapped a bunch of loose papers on the counter. As he hunched over them and filled in some of the blank lines, scribbling so aggressively that I could hear the scratch of the ballpoint pen, I said to him, “Did you have a nice Christmas?”
“Great,” he said without looking up. “At nine o’clock on Christmas morning I drove 30 miles alone and had to move the body of a 350-pound man from the second floor of the farmhouse where he lived with his mother. So, yeah, lovely day all around. Ho-ho-ho.” He then more or less shoved a pen at me and muttered, “The bottom line. On every page.”
While I signed the papers he skulked away through a pair of swinging doors that were made of smoked glass. When he returned a moment later he was carrying a small, plain, cardboard box. He flipped open one of the box flaps and tilted it in my direction. “The urn’s inside,” he said. “Plain, unfinished oak.” He then handed the box to me with no more care than with which someone might hand over your dry cleaning to you.
“How do you wanna pay for this?”
I shrugged. I certainly didn’t have enough cash on me, and the registered check my father had sent me was still sitting in my motel room. “Do you take credit cards?” The kid merely held out his hand.
He took my Visa and ran it through one of those old-fashioned contraptions that emboss the numbers on a waxy receipt with a bunch of carbon copies. His first two attempts were so aggressive that he shredded the receipt and had to start over. When he finally succeeded and shoved the thing across the counter for me to sign, I asked him who ran the place.
“I do,” he said. “I’m the manager.”
“So you’re a mortician?”
He shrugged insolently and said, “Call it whatever you want. I’m the manager.”
“I guess it never occurred to me that funeral parlors had managers,” I said.
“Learn something new every day,” he said without looking up from his paperwork.
I thanked him for his time and carried my grandfather’s ashes out to the car. I sat there under the carport, staring at that box on the floor of the passenger seat. Dean Martin was singing, “Baby, it’s Cold Outside” on the local radio station. I moved the box from the floor mat to the passenger seat, where I could keep my hand on it when I braked or went around a corner.
Santo was waiting outside my room when I pulled into the motel parking lot. I got out of the car and held out the box.
“Well, here he is.”
“That’s Charlie?” Santo said.
“That’s Charlie,” I said. “That’s my grandfather.”
Santo merely stared, and I put the box back on the front seat.
“I’m headed out of here,” I said. “I talked with Bob Porter, and everything’s square.”
He nodded, and stood there as I packed my bags, hauled them out to the car, and then went across the parking lot to drop off my room key.
“Did you have a nice visit?” the woman at the desk asked me.
“Very nice, thank you.”
“God bless you,” she said.
When I came out of the office Santo was still standing right where I had left him a moment earlier; he didn’t appear to have moved an inch.
“What will happen now?” he asked.
“It’s in Bob Porter’s hands. He has all the paperwork. I’d suggest you give him a call, but I’m pretty sure you’re going to make out all right.”
Santo nodded in the direction of the box in the front seat of the car.
“What will you do with Charlie?”
“I’ll take him,” he said.
I looked at him for a moment. He was such a tough, broken-looking man.
“That would be great.” I handed over the box and said, “What will you do with him?”
“I’ll keep him,” Santo said, tucking the box under his arm.
I wished him luck, shook his hand, and said goodbye.
“Will you be back?” he asked.
"You never know," I said. "I’ll be sure to drop you a line if I’m ever in the area. Maybe we can have a rematch on the golf course."
He smiled briefly, then nodded, turned away, and headed back across the parking lot.
As I drove away from the motel a moment later a light snow was beginning to fall. I looked at the dashboard clock and counted on my fingers: I’d be back in Chicago in just under five hours.
As I turned a corner onto Main Street and pulled up to the one stoplight in town, Kenny Rogers was on the radio, and I smiled, even as I had the oddly painless revelation that I had wasted my life.
I was waiting out the red light when Santo suddenly appeared on the opposite side of the street, and I watched as he shuffled down the sidewalk with my grandfather cradled in his arms.
Somebody behind me honked, or I think I would have sat there and watched him until he disappeared from view.
Sunday, December 23, 2012
I slept into the early afternoon, and woke up to the ringing of the telephone. It was my father, sounding like he was calling from the moon.
“Well?” he said.
“A will turned up,” I heard myself say.
My father, of course, wanted details, and I provided him with them.
“There was one in his safety deposit box at the bank,” I said. “And it turns out he also had one on file at the city clerk’s office.”
“And?” my father said.
I could picture him sitting there somewhere on the other side of the world, chewing on the cap of a ballpoint pen and clenching and unclenching his jaw.
“Good news, bad news, I guess,” I said.
“Give me the bad news first,” he said.
“I don’t know,” I said, “maybe you’ll see this as bad news all around. I’m not sure, really, how to read it.”
I heard him exhale loudly. “David, let’s hear it.”
“He apparently left everything to Santo,” I said. “But it’s complicated. It turns out he’s got a lot of debt and very little money in the bank.”
“That doesn’t surprise me. He never could handle money.”
“Well, he also still owed money on his building, and supposedly the bank has a lien on the bar downstairs, which I’m told is the only thing he owned that has any actual value.”
“Jesus, David. I’m sorry I dragged you into this mess. Is there anything left to do there?”
“I think it’s now a matter of Santo wrangling with the bank,” I said. “I’m told we could contest the will, if you think you might get anything out of it.”
“Shit, no,” my father said. “I don’t intend to set foot in that town ever again. I’m not contesting anything. You should just go ahead and get your stuff in the car and leave. Save us all any further headaches and let those people sort it out. With any luck that guy won’t have a pot to piss in when the dust settles.”
“I’m not interested in seeing anyone get screwed over.”
“It sounds like it’s too late for that,” he said. “Get the hell out of there.”
I realized as I sat there listening to my father’s voice that I had no idea what was going on in his head. There were a whole lot of things that we would never see eye-to-eye on.
“I got it, dad,” I said.
“How are you holding up?”
“I’m really tired.”
“All right, then, I’ll let you go. I’m sorry, David. Really, I am. Are you ok for money?”
I told him that I was fine.
“All right, then,” he said. “Thanks for everything, and I’ll see you soon.”
“When will that be?”
“I really don’t have a good idea yet,” he said, “but I’ll drop you a line when I know.”
“Good enough,” I told him, and we exchanged our usual awkward goodbyes.
I pulled on some clothes and my jacket and went across to the convenience store for a cup of coffee and a copy of USA Today. I was sitting on the bed reading the paper when someone called from the funeral home to tell me that my grandfather’s cremains were ready to be picked up.
I sat around and finished the paper and then dialed Bob Porter’s office. Porter answered the phone himself, on the first ring. If he had a secretary or any other help around there I’d seen no evidence of it.
“I just had a long phone conversation with my father,” I told Porter. “We’re essentially in agreement that whatever we’re looking at here is more than we want to get involved with right now. We’re meddling, and whatever property or money is at stake isn’t of any interest or importance to my father.”
“Be that as it may,” Porter said. “It’s certainly of value.”
“My father doesn’t need the money.”
“How about you? Your father –or his lawyer—has delegated you to act on the family’s behalf.”
“I don’t want the money either. And, quite honestly, I don’t have the time or patience to deal with any of this right now. I need to get back to Chicago.”
I could picture Porter there in his cluttered little hovel of an office, bouncing around in his chair and guzzling Shasta soda.
“I see,” he said. “And what do you propose as a solution?”
“What would you propose?”
“I guess I’d propose we draw up papers naming some person or persons –or an institution, if you’d prefer—as the beneficiary of your grandfather’s estate.”
“Is this who would get everything once the smoke has cleared?” I asked.
“Yes, in all likelihood.”
“Give it to Santo,” I told him.
Later that afternoon I went out to my car in the motel parking lot and found an envelope secured in a Ziploc baggy and tucked under one of my windshield wipers. Inside I found a snapshot of my grandfather brandishing a putter as if it were a sword and lunging at a group of laughing schoolchildren. An old Risk game card was paperclipped to the photo, along with a Post-It note on which was written, in looping cursive, “Joy really isn’t all that dangerous. Risk everything.”
I drove down to Porter’s office and signed some papers on my way to pick up my grandfather’s ashes. Porter was his usual agitated, off-putting self. He was still putting the finishing touches on the paperwork when I arrived, pecking away at an old manual typewriter.
“No matter what anybody tries to tell you,” he said without looking up, “this is still much easier and more elegant than using a computer.”
He finally shoved the papers across the desk to me, looked at me from under his eyebrows, and said, “And you’re still sure this is all good and fine?”
“I’m sure,” I said, and started to sign.
“You’re not going to eyeball the fine print?”
“I’m assuming you’re trustworthy. Just so long as this takes me and my family off the hook, we have a deal.”
“Very good, then,” Porter said, and made a busy and inefficient production of collating the papers, paper clipping them together, and inserting them in a file folder.
I asked how much I owed him. He laughed and shook his head. “A favor to the family,” he said. “I admire your decision, however it may have been reached. It strikes me as almost honorable.”
He shook my hand, wished me well, and walked me to the door. “Give your father my best,” he said. As I was getting into my car I once again found myself oddly relieved to have escaped the man’s presence.
Saturday, December 22, 2012
Back in my room I drank a few more beers and watched TV. I was buzzed and wired, so I decided to take a walk to try to clear my head. I found myself headed in the direction of my grandfather’s place, and as I got close I could just make out the light poles and some of the hazards on the rooftop. Mernie’s was locked up, but looking in the windows I could see from the illuminated clock behind the bar that it was almost two o’clock in the morning.
I fumbled for my grandfather’s keys in my pocket and somehow managed to open the door to the stairwell outside his apartment. I climbed the stairs in the dark and knocked on the door to his place. I had the key in my hand, but I knew that Santo would be there. Before I could knock a second time he opened the door. He was wearing full-length long underwear, and the apartment behind him was completely dark.
“I’m sorry to wake you,” I said.
“It’s ok,” Santo said. “I’m a light sleeper. I heard you coming up the stairs.” He opened the door for me. “Come in.”
“Do the lights on the roof still work?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “I suppose some of them still do. They haven’t been used much since the last time they were changed.”
“Why don’t you throw on some clothes and come up on the roof with me,” I said. “I’ll kick your ass on the golf course.”
Santo shook his head, chuckled, and turned around and disappeared back into the apartment. A light popped on in the bedroom and he called out to me, “I’ll be just a minute.”
He reemerged a moment later wearing something that looked like a snowsuit. “There’s some beer in the refrigerator,” he said. “Would you like one?”
“What’s one more at this point?” I said, and Santo grabbed a couple beers from the refrigerator, handed one to me, and we went across the hall.
I managed to find the right key on the second try. We stepped into the dark office and Santo flipped a couple light switches on the wall. He gestured at the rack of putters. “As Charlie used to say, pick your weapon.” We each chose a club, Santo grabbed a basket of balls, and we headed up the short flight of steps to the roof. “Cross your fingers,” Santo said.
We stepped into a scene that was straight out of a lost Fellini film. The moon was hanging directly over the roof, and every one of the floodlights was blazing brightly. There were also stringers of colored bulbs hung between the light poles all around the perimeter of the roof. The course looked magnificent, almost like a sculpture garden that was the work of an outsider artist. The clear sky and bright moon, combined with the fuzzed dazzle of the rooftop lights and a few swirling scarves of the omnipresent Bryton fog gave the whole thing a weird feel that was somehow incredibly sharp and crepuscular at the same time. You could also see the whole town stretched out below, running all the way out to the river and the bluffs on the other side.
While I was standing there gawking and taking in this scene, Santo was making his way from hole to hole with some sort of squeegee, moving the remaining standing water and slush to the drains along the edge of the roof. He worked pretty quickly, and when he was finished he actually started going back over the course with a stiff broom.
“That’s fine,” I said. “Let’s play. You can go first.”
Santo put aside the broom, took up the putter, and tossed a ball down at the first hole. He bent over his putter intently and actually took a few practice swings. He presented a laughable figure, standing up there at two-thirty in the morning in his bulky snowsuit and eyeballing a putt. “It’s a surprisingly tough course because of the way the roof is banked to shed snow and rainwater,” he said. “The roof rolls, so the ball will break in all sorts of unexpected ways. You have to make constant adjustments. I haven’t played in years.”
His first putt was too hard and ricocheted off the sideboard with a wicked backspin before rolling backwards well short of the entrance to a sort of metal curlicue maze that funneled the ball to the hole. I attempted a deliberate bank shot, and ended up outside the maze and behind the hole. I was fucked, and wasted six putts going back and forth before I even got in a position where I was lined up with the entrance to the maze. Santo, on the other hand, nailed the hole on his fourth try.
By the time we were on the fifth hazard –which involved sending the ball up a ramp in a rocket and getting it to roll back down a zigzagging slide— I was already sixteen strokes behind and Santo had putted for par on every hole.
I was flailing and trash talking, which seemed to both amuse and embarrass Santo. “I helped build this course and I’ve played it a thousand times,” he said. “I have an unfair advantage.”
“Don’t patronize me,” I said. “It’s not too late for me to kick your ass.”
It was, of course, much too late for me to kick Santo’s ass. I was drunk and it was the middle of the night, and I was up there on a roof in the middle of nowhere, getting schooled on a mini golf course by a little old man in a snowsuit.
By the end I was starting to suspect that Santo was intentionally muffing putts in an attempt to let me gain some ground, but it didn’t matter. He’d gotten so far ahead that I’d stopped keeping my own score. I know, though, that on some of the later holes I was taking upwards of fifteen attempts to get the damn ball in the hole. It was a surprisingly tough course. I couldn’t possibly have been that drunk or that bad.
On the second to last hole –which involved rolling the ball over a little speed bump and through the archway of a windmill—Santo aced it on his first putt and I threw my club in the air and surrendered. I collapsed on a bench against the back wall and Santo came over and, without a trace of irony, shook my hand. “Good game,” he said.
“Good game, my ass,” I said. “I never should have left my motel room.”
“Thank you anyway,” Santo said. “It was enjoyable.”
I laughed. “Yes,” I said. “It was. Thank you for getting out of bed and humoring me.”
We went back downstairs, placed our putters back in the rack, and shut out the lights. I said goodbye to Santo in the entryway outside the apartment and he once again shook my hand.
“David,” he said. I was pretty sure it was the first time he’d called me by name. “Do you prefer David or Dave?”
“I don’t really have a preference,” I said. “Pretty much everyone has always called me David.”
“Well, David, thank you again for coming.”
He was looking at me with that oddly flat stare, and I still couldn’t quite get a complete read on the man. I decided he was decent though. And I think he probably had plenty of reasons to be wary, or even afraid, of me.
“I’m glad I came,” I said. “Get some sleep.”
He gave me an awkward pat on the back and I went back down the stairs and out into the early morning.
It was after four o’clock when I got back to my motel room, and I was too wired to sleep. I surfed through channels on the TV and drank the last three lukewarm beers that were floating in a bag of melted ice in my bathtub. I realized that I was dealing with things that could conceivably drag on forever. And I kept going back to the paperwork the woman at the hospital had given me; I kept turning to the last page. The cause of death was quite clearly listed as cancer, and when I had asked her where he had died she had told me, “He died at home. In his sleep.” That wasn’t, of course, what Santo had told me that first night I’d met him outside my room.
As I finally drifted off to sleep, I was pondering the laziest, most chickenshit way out. I was ready to get in my car and drive away.
Friday, December 21, 2012
Jeri called my room shortly before eight and said she was just shutting things down at the café. About a half hour later, just as I was starting to nod off, I heard a car horn in the parking lot outside my door. I pulled on my coat and boots and went out to find Jeri sitting behind the wheel of a huge black pickup truck that was badly in need of a new muffler. She was drinking a can of Budweiser and blasting Rod Stewart’s “Every Picture Tells a Story” from the tape deck.
“I’d offer you a beer, but this was the last one in the refrigerator at work,” she said. “I’m sure it belongs to the morning cook, and I’m probably gonna catch hell for taking it.” She offered me the can. “Here, you finish it. I’m not a big Budweiser fan.”
I accepted the beer from her and took a swallow. The can was so cold in my hands that I had to prop it between my legs. “Where are we headed?” I asked. “And couldn’t we have just walked over there?”
“You can walk anywhere in this town,” Jeri said, “but you don’t. We don’t. We drive. You’ll notice it if you haven’t already; you’ll seldom see anyone walking, and if you do spy someone on foot the odds are pretty good they’re either on their way to or from their cars. That’s why a dinky little town like this has three car washes. This truck, by the way, belongs to my grandmother’s husband, Roy, who you should be warned is something of a character. He’s something more than a character, actually. Roy is, umm….” She drummed on the steering wheel with her thumbs and searched for the right word or words. “Let’s just say Roy is kind of a whack job. And my grandmother adores him. I think I mentioned this is the third go round for her, but she and Roy have been together for almost ten years now, and my grandma says this one is the last one.”
The grandmother lived in a block of squat 1950s-era ramblers and ramshackle bungalows just at the edge of town and separated from the river by railroad tracks. A lot of the homes in the neighborhood had Christmas displays that veered well over the line into overkill –streamers of multi-colored lights along the edges of roofs and wound around trees and bushes, elaborate manger scenes often mingled with plastic reindeer and snowmen and giant inflatable Santa Clauses. With much of the snow evaporating and the usual thick fog moving in off the river, these displays didn’t look festive so much as sort of desperate and forlorn.
Jeri pulled up in front of one of the only houses on the block that didn’t feature some sort of Christmas display.
The grandmother was in the kitchen, playing Solitaire on a scarred Formica table and watching a television that was on top of the refrigerator. She rose from her chair to give Jeri a hug, and greeted me warmly when we were introduced. Her name was Tina, and she was a skinny woman wearing Levis and a faded Iowa Hawkeyes sweatshirt. As we took off our coats, she immediately fetched beers from the refrigerator and announced that we were going to play a game of Rummy.
I’d never played the game, but before I was seated at the table Jeri’s grandmother was already dealing the cards. As she dealt, she and Jeri kept interrupting each other trying to explain to me the rules of the game. I got the hang of it pretty quickly, but Tina was unbeatable. She won the first two games before I could finish my first beer.
“How’s Louie?” Jeri said at one point.
“Louie’s sleeping,” Tina answered without looking up from her cards. “Which means that Louie’s just fine. He was hell on wheels all night.”
I knew that Jeri and Louie lived with Tina and her husband, Roy, but I had no idea where Jeri’s parents were. For some reason, even though the subject was never that I recall broached in our earlier conversations, I understood that they were out of the picture.
“Where’s Roy?” Jeri asked as Tina dealt out the cards for the third game.
“Be here any minute,” Tina said. “He should just be getting off work.”
Jeri turned to me and said, “Roy works at the meat packing plant. He mucks around with hamburger patties all day.”
“He makes twelve dollars an hour,” Tina said. “Which is damn good money in this town.”
“In this town,” Jeri said.
You could tell that Tina had been beautiful as a young woman; she still was beautiful, in fact, one of those older women who continued to possess a fierce vanity, spent time every morning applying her makeup, and had regular appointments at a hair salon downtown. She had the same quick conversational style as her granddaughter, and it was obvious there was genuine mutual affection between the two of them. There was no apparent strain, and they yakked and laughed easily together like old friends.
I was holding my own in the third game when Roy came in the back door, stomping his big rubber boots in the entryway and yodeling in a croaky baritone. He was a large man, wearing dirty, sand-colored coveralls and a stocking cap that was precariously perched on the crown of his head. He appeared to be oblivious to my presence at the table as he shed his boots and coveralls.
“Mother,” he said. “Remind me again why I let those bastards talk me into working double shifts every time some numb-nuts calls in sick.”
Tina laid down three eights and said, “It’s called time-and-a-half, Roy, honey. That’s our mad money.”
Roy headed straight to the refrigerator for a beer, glanced over his shoulder, and settled in at the table with beers for everyone. After he had distributed the drinks, he offered me his big hand.
“And you are?” he said.
I told him my name and he asked if I was a friend of Jerilynne’s.
“We just met,” I said.
“She’s already bringing you home to meet the family?” he said. “Must be serious.”
“He’s Charlie Stensrud’s grandson,” Tina said. “Come from Chicago to make the arrangements.”
“What arrangements would those be?” Roy asked.
“No arrangements, really,” I said. “My grandfather is being cremated and I’m just trying to sort out the…I don’t know, estate, I guess.”
“Where’s your old man?” Roy said.
“He’s in the Middle East. Working.”
Roy just nodded. He was already settled in next to Tina and was studying her cards over her shoulder. She pinched him just under his ribcage and said, “I suppose you’re hungry.”
“I could eat something,” Roy said. She handed over her cards to him, got up from the table, and went over to the refrigerator.
“I’m afraid it’s slim pickings, honey,” Tina said. “You must have taken the last of the turkey to work. Remind me that I need to get to the grocery store tomorrow.” She pulled a bag of tater tots from the freezer, poured it onto a cookie sheet, and set the oven to preheat. As she waited for the oven to warm up she opened a can of soup, dumped it in a large bowl, and put it in the microwave oven. After she punched in the time on the microwave and shoved the tater tots in the oven, she turned and winked at me. “We’re not what you’d call fancy folks,” she said.
“Speak for yourself,” Jeri said. “And while you’re up, grandma, why don’t you get your boxes of pictures. David’s never been to Bryton before, and he doesn’t know diddly about his grandfather. You should show him the photos of the Christmas village and some of Charlie’s other stuff.”
Tina disappeared into another room and returned a moment later with two shoeboxes, which she plopped on the table.
“Put the cards away,” she said. “Roy can tend to his dinner and we’ll take a trip down memory lane. Your dad didn’t have any photos of Charlie’s crazy rooftop?”
“I’d never heard of it,” I said. “I remember seeing a couple photos of my grandfather that my dad had around, pictures of the two of them when dad was a boy, but that was it. We avoided the subject of my grandfather around our house. I only learned about the mini-golf course a couple days ago when I was poking around the apartment and found the plans.”
“Well, Charlie was a doozy,” Tina said.
“He was a three-dollar bill,” Roy said. “But he was a good egg, and a first-rate character.”
“Shut the hell up, Roy,” Tina said.
“I’m saying I liked Charlie,” Roy said. He shrugged and got up to fetch his soup from the microwave while his wife started fishing around in the boxes of photos. She pulled out a handful and sifted through them on the kitchen table. They were mostly old, rectangular or serrated-edged black-and-white snapshots. Tina shoved some across the table to me.
“There’s Charlie’s Christmas village,” she said.
I picked up a picture of a little candy-striped hut, surrounded by frocked Christmas trees decorated with glass bulbs and fake icicles. There was a crudely hand-painted sign that read, “Santa’s Workshop –North Pole.” A path was shoveled to the door of the hut through what appeared to be real snow. There was another photo of what I presumed to be my grandfather in a sort of shabby Santa Claus suit with a little girl on his lap. He was sitting in a big upholstered chair that was covered with velvet. On each side of the chair there were piles of wrapped packages, and beside one of these piles was a miniature tree hung with dozens of candy canes.
"Folks came and brought their kids for a few years,” Tina said, “but then Hangstrum’s, the department store that used to be downtown, hired a Santa as well, and Charlie's deal sort of petered out."
Jeri had excused herself to take a shower and change clothes, and Roy had settled back in at the table with his tater tots and soup. “People in this town have always been divided about Charlie,” he said. “There were some who wouldn't set foot in his place.”
“It was also out of the way,” Tina said. “Charlie did it whenever he felt like it and didn’t advertise, and there were all those stairs to climb.”
“The thing was, though, was that Charlie just did it for the hell of it,” Roy said. “It was just another of his wacky ideas. I don't think he ever came close to breaking even on a single thing he did on that rooftop. It was his own little playground.”
“We don’t have a park or a town square in Bryton,” Tina said, “and after Charlie bought the building he always had this idea that he was going to turn that rooftop of his into a sort of community park. He tried to get the local summer theater company to stage plays up there, but that never worked out. For a time he used to show old movies like Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin up there on Saturday evenings in the summer, and he'd usually get a small group of people to show up. That was right before he went to the Wisconsin Dells for vacation and got the idea for his little golf course.”
Tina handed me another small stack of photos, all of them of the miniature golf course in various permutations.
“That was his biggest thing by far,” she said. “The kids in town have never had much to do, and when Charlie opened the golf course it was a big deal for quite a few years. We’d never seen anything like that around here. He had lights up there so you could play after dark, and on Friday nights the kids would be lined up on those stairs waiting to golf. They’d come in from the little towns out in the country. My first husband and I used to take Jeri’s mother down there on Saturday afternoons. Charlie took such good care of the place, and he was always adding little things to make it more interesting or challenging.”
“Was Santo around by this time?” I asked.
“Yeah, he was around even during the Christmas village thing,” Roy said. “He mostly worked in the bar, but he also helped Charlie with all his projects. They were sidekicks.”
“And my father and grandmother were still in the picture during all this?” I said.
Tina dug through one of the boxes and pulled out a photo of a small, thin woman with cat-eye glasses, smiling and leaning over a putter. “That’s your grandmother, Faye,” she said. “Your father would have probably been just entering high school at this time. The golf course opened a year or two before Faye was killed.”
“I'm pretty sure my father thought she committed suicide,” I said. “And I know he blamed my grandfather.”
“Faye was a battleaxe,” Roy said. “She would have been a mess with or without Charlie.”
“Oh, Jesus, Roy.” Tina handed me another photo of my grandmother. In this one she was standing around a punch bowl at some sort of party. She looked surprisingly older than in the photo from the golf course. “I knew your grandmother from the time we were girls,” Tina said. “It’s a small town, and we ran around together growing up. Faye was a handful, but she came from a lousy family, so I always felt sorry for her. Her father was a mean drunk, so it made sense to me that she would be attracted to Charlie, who was so gentle. When they first got married he had a decent job at the packing plant, but then out of the blue --this was when your father was still a boy-- he got the notion that he wanted to cut hair. He went over to Dubuque to a barber school, and then came back and opened his shop in the back of the bar. After that it was just one big, crazy idea after another. Plenty of other people besides your dad blamed Charlie for Faye’s death, and some also thought she committed suicide --her car went off the road and rolled down into the river-- but she had a serious drinking problem and was in pretty terrible shape by that point. I know she had problems with Charlie, but I never thought her death was anything but an accident.”
“Your father had a chip on his shoulder from the get-go,” Roy said. “He was a smart kid and a mama’s boy, and I think he was embarrassed of the old man. I can tell you, though, that when Charlie sold the house after your grandmother died --he was already living in the place downtown by then-- he gave your dad every penny of that money. When your dad went off and joined the Army he already had a nice chunk of change squirreled away in the bank.”
We spent some more time looking through the photos –I saw lots of pictures of Jerilynne when she was a little girl, and Jerilynne in high school —and then Tina put them back in the boxes, replaced the lids, and carried them away again. I thought about asking if I could have one or two of the photos of my grandfather’s rooftop, and maybe one of the shots of my grandmother, but I didn’t.
“That’s probably more than you needed to know,” Roy said, as he fetched another round of beers from the refrigerator.
“No,” I said. “Not at all. It’s pretty mind boggling, but it’s great. I’m thrilled to have seen the pictures, and I’m glad to have the information. It helps to fill in a lot of the blanks, and there have always been a lot of blanks in my family.”
Tina had returned to the kitchen and was clearing Roy’s plates. “Everybody’s family has a lot of blanks,” she said. “Sometimes that’s not such a bad thing.”
Jerilynne reemerged just after Roy had started to shuffle the cards for another game of Rummy.
“Deal me in,” she said, and then put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Did you get what you came for?”
“I did,” I said.
We sat around for another hour or two, drinking beer and playing cards. They were comfortable people to be around. All of them laughed easily, and I felt right at home. By the time we called it a night it was after midnight and I was starting to feel pretty drunk.
As Jeri and I pulled on our shoes and coats to leave, Tina took Jeri’s face in her hands and said, “You sure you’re ok to drive, honey?”
“I had two beers,” Jeri said. “I’m fine. I think David here might be another story.”
Tina then gave me a big hug and said, “Thanks so much for coming. I’m awful sorry about your grandfather. Let us know if there’s anything you need.”
Jeri drove me back across town to the motel, and we parked outside for a few minutes chatting.
“It was great to meet you,” she told me. “Strange men don’t show up in this town every day. And by strange I mean nothing but unfamiliar.”
She leaned across the truck seat to hug me, and we had a sort of fumbling, awkward moment. She pulled herself out of it with grace. “I’d come in,” she said, “but we’d both end up feeling stupid about it. You know where to find me.”
I stood in the parking lot and watched her pull away. I had to admit that, as right as I knew she was, I was nonetheless sorry to see her go. The fog that seemed to be omnipresent in that town had blown off, revealing a huge, bright moon and a sky full of stars. I noticed that the little gas and convenience store across the street was still open and walked over to pick up a six-pack of beer.