Mark Jacobs

Montefalco

One of those moments when the evil magician opened his bag of tricks and dumped them out on your head. All the wrong things came together at the same time. They were working way the hell out in the country. July in Virginia, ninety before noon. Sweat slicked their skin, and they were thirsty all the time. The house was empty, owner wanted to rent it out, but the roof was old tin and leaked. Find the leak, fix it, get paid though not near enough, considering the labor involved. The roof, painted black, caught the heat and threw it back in Monte’s face. Same to you.

He was too old for this.

Ron, his son, was nowhere to be seen. He had taken the van, driven off in search of a convenience store and a lottery ticket. Not likely, out here where bears rambled and turkeys got fat from lack of exercise. Abel, who was more or less Monte’s stepson, stood at the base of the ladder singing like Johnny Cash’s worst nightmare. His job was handing up tools, it was not poking a nest of ground hornets with the toe of his boot until they got pissed and came tearing out after him. He ran away blubbering in terror but not before knocking down the ladder.

“Come back here, you idiot,” Monte hollered.

No use. His stepson was soft in the head. And now moving fast into a patch of woods as though a hornet could be outrun by a clumsy man of twenty five in unlaced work boots. Abel’s softness made him sweet, that was undeniable. He was a person who knew how to say love and not feel funny about it. But his general debility made him useless as a roofer. Or anything else. Trixie had pretty much given up promising Monte she’d find her boy a job he could handle.

Monte Chase was sixty years old and the kind of skinny you got, hauling forty-pound packs of shingles up and down a ladder your whole life. His skin made shoe leather feel soft. He felt behind his ear for the smoke he’d stuck there, but his matches were in the van with Ron. He tried to keep his intake down to a pack a day. It didn’t help, he had a cough that wouldn’t quit. It got worse when he laughed. Some days, some things were funny. The days he went through a pack and a half, he regretted the expense.

The nicotine prickle sent a jolt of mean through his system. And then the feeling came. It did not come often; almost never was more like it. But when it did, it got his attention. Not that he understood what was happening. The best he could do was recognize the moment, the way you recognized your shadow on the grass when you were walking and thinking about, say, the blister on your ankle from the day there were no clean socks to be had and you said screw it and went to work in a filthy pair, raw with yesterday’s sweat. There it ran, out ahead of you, your shadow, your own twisted shape but not your property.

In the feeling that came to him there was a particular way of seeing what was there, and what was not there. It was a sense not that he owned the world but that he had a place of his own in it, and the place was lit. It would be a stretch to say he felt chosen – guys like him did not win lotteries no matter how many tickets they bought, which was a fact of life Ron ought to have figured out by now –  but he did have a sense of being marked out. He felt responsible, and tender, and lucky at the same time.

The feeling passed. He squatted on the hot roof, black island in a lake of green, waiting for Abel to come out of the woods and put the ladder back. A woodpecker was going at a tree trunk, loud and stubborn. When it stopped drumming it let out one of those long ridiculous laughs, which made him think about Woody Woodpecker cartoons on Saturdays.

Which made him think about Ada. She used to be worse on weekends. From this age and distance, he had no idea why. One Sunday morning she had closed all the blinds and gone around the house on her hands and knees in the dark, weeping and knocking into the furniture. If she had the low desires of an animal then by God she was going to behave like one. He was sure he remembered that. He was just as sure the whole thing could be a fabrication. Not that he tried to make stuff up. When it came to his mother the facts were enough to go around, and second helpings.

“They stung me,” Abel sang out, steaming across the high grass in the big squishy boat of himself. “Them goddamn evil hornets stung the shit outta me, Daddy, I’m all swole up.”

Monte didn’t mind when Abel called him Daddy, he was used to it. And Trixie was grateful. Then here came Ron in the van grinning like Christmas, waving a twenty he won on a scratch-off. The flashing, Monte had already decided. The leak was in the flashing around the chimney. An easy fix.

***

That evening at home in Briery Monte put hot dogs on the grill in the back yard, but after three minutes the propane tank went empty, the dogs not even warmed through. Shit. He sat there a minute watching Abel practice smoking in a lawn chair in the shade, hand moving to mouth like it needed memorizing. We’re moving to a village, Monte promised himself. Couldn’t say it out loud without hurting Trixie’s feelings, but only in a village would her boy find his true calling as an idiot.

Meantime Ron spent his scratch-off twenty on beer and snacks for him and Darla, which they consumed in their room because she claimed she needed privacy. It was hard living with your in-laws, she was always saying; stress was a disease. Not that she and Ron were married, but they held out the possibility of getting spliced like it was a present for the household. Every now and then one of them pounded on the conga drum. It had been a surprise, that big box showing up on the doorstep out of nowhere. Ron found the drum on Ebay. It made no sense to Monte, claiming you could not live without a thing you had no idea even existed the day before.

Darla had blue eyes, and a good opinion of herself, and high hopes for a job she could wear a dress to. Anything she put on, she made sure her bra strap was showing. The way she stuck out her lower lip, a bird could land on it easy. They only had one bathroom. Once, without thinking or knocking Monte opened the door and there she stood, naked as next morning, admiring her tits in the mirror. She was in no hurry to cover up, but he shut the door fast and hard and went back down the hall to the kitchen for another cup of coffee.

He was beat tonight, which sometimes brought out his meaner side. He sat in the living room savoring the picture of Abel’s fat face swollen with bites, tears running down his cheeks. Meantime Trixie rubbed the back of his neck where it knotted up tight. She told him they had two options.

“That’s good,” he said. “Having options, I mean.”

“Not this kind it ain’t no good.”

Trixie was only fifty and still sexy, even waving a checkbook in one hand. She took care of herself, never let a gray root show. Looked good when she went out the front door, looked flouncy. As second chances went, Monte had made out better than maybe he had any right to.

She told him, “With what we got right now, we can pay half the rent and half the electric, or pay all the rent and let the electric slide ‘til next month.”

He nodded. She made better decisions if he stayed out of it. His instinct was usually wrong. His job was finding jobs, not that he was all that good at that, either. He told her, “I’m sending the boys out to finish that tin roof on their own tomorrow.”

“Will you have a word with Ron, make sure he don’t take nothing out on Abel?”

He nodded again. “I’ll drop you at work.”

Trixie worked in the paint department at Lowe’s. She had a good eye for color, and customers asked for her by name. She wanted full time but lately the most they gave her was twenty hours.

“You want my car?”

“I’m going to Staunton.”

She looked at him hard. She frowned. It was not malevolence, or disapproval, it was how she expressed her concern.

“How ‘bout I tell Abel he should take the van, go get us a tank of propane.”

Monte sat up and stretched. “Nobody likes a cold hot dog.”

***

Saying he was going to Staunton was one thing, driving there in Trixie’s old Honda was another. Working up the nerve to go through the gate at Clear Stream Chronic Care Center was a third thing and hardest of the three. It wasn’t really a hospital, it was where the Commonwealth kept people with mental problems and no money. Up in the hills, outside the city, it was a big brick building, old and old-fashioned, that put Monte in a terrible mood any time he saw it. Which was not often. Seven years. That was how long it had been since he came to visit his mother. That last time, when he walked into her room she said Peekaboo and covered her head with a pillow but then wouldn’t take the pillow away. After a while he left, worried she was going to smother herself.

Clear Stream was as grim inside as it was out. Maybe they did that on purpose, keep out all but the truly needy nutty, the nutty needy. The halls smelled like kerosene, the orderlies wore green like some kind of unholy priests club, the windows had that blurry 1950’s glass with chicken wire embedded in the panes. Signing the visitors log, Monte felt like they were asking him to shoulder his share of the blame.

There were three beds in Ada’s room. One was empty, thank God. In the second, a bald woman of advanced years was sleeping, her birdy chest lifting the sheet just a little, letting the caretakers know she was alive. Ada’s bed was empty because she was sitting up in a chair. Monte’s mother was huge. But not fat. A barn with a face like a hogshead and an expression of ambiguous pity. And now she was old, as old as her vanishing roommate. Monte was a small man and wondered for the thousandth time how she could have given birth to a creature so unlike herself. At sixty, you were not supposed to be afraid of your mother.

She spoke to him as though it were an ongoing chinwag, he had only stepped away for a moment and now he was back. There were mountains in her voice, and those big black boulders you saw above the tree line.

“They want me to sign their dotted line.”

As a boy, Monte had learned how to have this kind of conversation with her. Nothing to it.

“They must think you were born yesterday, huh?”

There was a word for the sound she made, but Monte didn’t know it.

“I sign,” she said, “they got me where they want me.”

“You stick to your guns, Ma.”

“I made some mistakes, theory and practice both.”

“Don’t we all.”

She sniffled. This was unlike her. Her shoulders heaved, and Monty was appalled by the show of emotion. In his previous experience she had mostly raved. She told him, “I want you to have the castle. It’s your right.”

Naturally it was the wrong thing, saying Sure. She rounded on him, rising from the chair like Noah’s ark on the lip of an ocean wave. “You sniveling little twerp, how dare you condescend to me?”

She was loud enough the commotion brought one of the green priests tearing in, a black man with a beard, and arms like legs. Monte told him everything was fine. Ada sat back down. Meantime, the woman in the second bed slept on like a saint. Monte wanted to light a candle in her honor, the old Catholic way he hadn’t thought about in years.

“Montefalco,” said Ada.

“Come again, Ma?”

“Your name. Your real name. Monte is short for it.”

“That’s news to me.”

“Because the slippery one objected.” She mimicked a man’s unkind voice. “You’re not hanging any Dago name like that on a son of mine.”

She meant his father, who made himself scarce early on and never looked back. This was more coherent than Monte could remember her being. It had to do with the approach of death, as close as the sleeping saint next bed over and getting closer every day. It was possible that crazy people felt their death creeping up on them quicker than regular people did, the way blind people heard better than the sighted. Now was the time to have her uncrazy say. He paid strict attention to the story she told him.

It did not come out as a story, of course, it was more like a lunatic with ten paint brushes in a room with bare walls swiping color wherever he felt like it. It took an artist to see the design. Monte was no artist, but what his mother told him concerned him pretty closely so he did his best.

A distinguished line of princes in the Old Country. Italy, Umbria, a town and famous grapes that produced excellent wine. One generation after another, the princes lived in a humongous stone castle on a very high hill or a middling mountain, depending. Madness in the family, bats in the belfry. Blood spilled, tears wiped away. Women with beautiful hair as long as Rapunzel’s. They suffered, it was always the women who suffered. Bastard babies in swaddling clothes. Dark paintings with secret birds in the landscape, a sign for those in the know, who were few in number. A dagger in a bejeweled chest, a heart of filigreed gold. Guilty exile in America. And him, Monte Chase, the last of the line, a prince among Virginia paupers.

“Go there,” his mother told him. “Tell them I said the castle is yours. It’s mine to give, isn’t it?”

She was crying now, a great lake of tears forming and falling. Whether they were fake or real didn’t matter, it was the thought that counted. She was exhausted. Monte tried to get her back in bed, but her bulk defied him. He wound up calling the orderly with big arms, who knew all the tricks. When Monte left the room, she was praying her rosary but not in any language known to man.

In the parking lot he stood looking back at the building, which loomed. Ada’s room was on the third floor, on the back side, facing a pasture, so he could not see or picture it. His nerves were bad. He lit a cigarette. He did not believe a word his mother had told him. Then, when he turned the key in the ignition, Trixie’s car refused to start.

***

A doctor with a roof problem saw the piece of paper that said Reliable Roofer and had tear-off strips with Monte’s phone number, which he had tacked up on the bulletin board at the True Value in Briery. It paid, after all, to advertise. The doctor was his age and wore his prosperity well. It was too easy to say all rich people were assholes. That was the kind of take-no-prisoners statement Ron was prone to make, and Darla would back him up with a round of applause since she was no closer to getting that clean-dress job she had in mind, which must be somebody’s fault. So Monty stood with Dr. Anderson Gates in the front yard of his grand pillared home in the best neighborhood in Briery, and they came to terms on the job, understanding one another right off. The doctor was about to retire.“The wife and I hope to do some traveling.”

“You ever been to Italy?”

Anderson Gates had a trim white beard, and the kind of manners that made slow seem dignified. “A couple of times, years ago.”

“How ‘bout a place called Montefalco?”

“It’s in Umbria, as I recall. The wine is terrific. Why do you ask?”

“Nothing. I used to know somebody from there is all.”

They shook hands. Monte was relieved to have a serious job that would last a while, although he would do his damnedest to get the roof fixed before Dr. and Mrs. Gates left on their trip to South America. It was afternoon. In Southside, in the summer, if you worked on a roof you got a whole lot more done in the early hours, before the sun became your enemy.

Ron and Darla were at home doing what they did best. Monte had dropped Abel at the library so he could use the computer. The boy loved looking at Star Wars clips on YouTube. Then he drove to Lowe’s, where Trixie was mixing paint for a young guy who couldn’t keep his eyes off her chest. Monte didn’t mind. Let him look. He waited until she finished the job, then asked her where a person had to go to see his birth certificate.

“County courthouse. You never seen yours?”

“Never had any reason to look.”

So that much, anyway, turned out to be true. He was listed in the official book of records as Montefalco Chase. The name did not sound real, to his ears, anyway. But it took root in his brain and was the instigation of a chain of small events that affected his outlook. He went to the post office and stood ten minutes in line to get an application for a passport, then walked out when it was his turn to be served. He was not the kind of person who got a passport. He took money they did not have and sent flowers to Ada Chase at Clear Stream Hospital. The fine thing about Trixie was she gave him no grief for doing that, their money problems be damned. She had lived long enough to understand how complicated hurt was, how it nested wherever it decided to nest and you lived with it.

He and Ron and Abel went to work on Dr. Gates’ roof. They were up there by six a.m. with permission of the doctor and his wife, staying until the sun drove them off in the afternoon. Three days running he went to the library and looked up Montefalco: the name, the town, the famous grapes and superior wine. He searched for images of castles and found a few, but nothing in the descriptions he read lent itself to his mother’s preposterous story. He didn’t expect it to. It was just a thought, and he wasn’t even sure what the thought was about.

One evening, riding with Ron to the grocery store for eggs and cottage cheese, he told him the story of the Montefalco princes. All of it, down to the birds hidden in the paintings on the castle walls, the dagger in the chest, everything he could remember. Ron was the son of Monte’s first wife, Mary Jo, and had plenty of her in him. Including a way of pretending not to be listening, and humming under his breath to communicate his impatience. As he talked, Monte had a clear sense of his failure as a father. He had done poorly by this his only son. Ron seemed not just uninterested but incapable of taking in the information he was trying to pass on to him. It was all a lie, sure, but some lies were more important than predictable truth.

They parked in the Kroger lot and Ron said, “You never once took me to see your momma, over to Staunton. How does that make her my granny?”

The question doubled Monte’s sense of having failed to do right by his son, and he had no answer for it.

One night he had a dream. It was turbulent and colorful and for that reason woke him. He was sure it had been about Montefalco. But he had not been alert while the dream was going on, he was just a spectator so could not dredge up a single detail. His stirring in the bed woke up Trixie. She switched on a light.

“You okay?”

He had not gotten around to telling her about Montefalco, probably because it put him in a bad light and he valued the good thing they had going in a hard time.

“I’d like to start over again,” he told her.

“Start what over?”

“Everything.”

She thought for a moment. There were all kinds of wise-ass comebacks to what he said. She had the mother wit to say none of them. Instead she asked him, “How’s your neck?”

“You want to rub it a couple minutes, I’ll rewrite my will, leave you everything I got.”

She switched off the light. They both closed their eyes. She massaged his sore neck.

***

What was left of the summer ate itself. Fast. They finished Dr. Gates’ roof the morning he and his wife took off for South America. Millie, that was the wife’s name. She had taken a fancy to Abel, recognized his sweet side and treated him better than most people did, treated him with a certain amount of respect. The hard thing about jobs, in Monte’s experience, was getting the next one while you were in the middle of the one you had going. Word of mouth, people always said, but then they mumbled.

In the middle of September it was like somebody threw a switch, and fall came down though not yet the leaves, it wasn’t cold enough for that. Somebody at the True Value in Briery ripped off another phone-number strip, and Monte took on another job out in the country. Another tin roof, which he was not keen on. But a woman who had just inherited an old farmhouse on ten pretty acres wanted the roof painted red before putting the place up for sale. Monte left her thinking that painting tin roofs red was what they all three of them lived for. His mother was in his thoughts more than was comfortable. Every weekend that rolled around he woke up thinking this was the day he would drive back to Clear Stream, but things got in his way, and he let them stay there. Now and then, when nobody was around to hear, he said his full name out loud. Montefalco. Once or twice, it sounded like a prediction.

Then Abel fell off the red roof. They had a policy, he and Ron, of not letting Trixie’s weak-minded son up on any roofs unsupervised. The altitude, such as it was, made the boy giddy, and he tended to do stupid things anyway. This time Ron was off in the van picking up smokes and a bottle of soda, and Monte was down at a creek that ran through the woman’s woods, soaking his feet in the slow rush of cool water while staring at a rabbit on the opposite bank that seemed to consider him prime-time entertainment. He heard Abel’s scream and went running.

It was a bad fall, he knew that right away. Pain terrified the boy and made him stupider than usual. It was all Monte could do to make him lie still on the ground. He tried to call for an ambulance, but there was no cell reception out where they were. All he could do was soothe Abel, or try to, and wait until Ron came back with the van. It was a long twenty minutes.

“Jesus,” said Ron when he pulled into the driveway.

They made a stretcher of a ladder, padded it with towels and a dirty sweatshirt that happened to be on the floor of the van. Moving with extreme care, they got Abel into the vehicle, screaming and moaning. At the door to the Briery hospital emergency room, the nurses took one look at the boy and moved him to a gurney, handling him like a body they didn’t expect to make it. Monte went out to the parking lot and called Trixie. She came tearing over from Lowe’s with tears in her eyes, and they waited. There was a chance, a doctor with skin the color of a leather suitcase Ada used to have and a name Monte could not pronounce told them, that Abel’s back was broken. And the fall had likely damaged some of the organs inside him.

It took forever. They sat in the waiting room. People like them, people who knew something about waiting and the worry that came with waiting, arrived. They sat until they got their news and went away again. A few of them sobbed when they heard. All the voices were lower than church, the only aggravation a television suspended from the ceiling in one corner of the room. Every once in a while a woman came on the loudspeaker, announcing in a voice that tried not to alarm anybody, Code this, code that, code sky blue pink, and Dr. Roberts to Cardio. Monte hated hospitals.

In a little while Darla showed up with no makeup, her hair still wet, and a box of chocolates for Abel. She sat next to Ron, and they held hands like teenagers. Trixie had composed herself. She sat on the other side of Ron, her Lowe’s apron folded on the chair next to her to save the seat. Monte sat across from them doing his damnedest not to want a smoke.

He knew from the look on the doctor’s face as he came into the waiting room that Abel was going to be okay. But before the man opened his mouth to give them good news, the unusual feeling came down on Monte again. In an instant he was holding them in his hand, all of them – Trixie and her helpless boy, Ron with a dead lottery ticket in the pocket of his jeans, Darla clutching chocolates – and his hand was strong. He was protecting them, keeping them up, keeping them going. He belonged to them, and they to him. There was only one of each of them, they could not be replaced, and it was his duty to make sure they were safe. His duty was his luck.

The feeling made no sense whatsoever, unless you happened to be a prince. And of course it didn’t last. In the half a second before it disappeared and the doctor said Abel is going to be fine, Monte made up his mind. First thing in the morning, he was driving to Staunton. Between now and then, the main idea was figure out how to thank his mother for the castle.

~~~

Mark Jacobs

Mark Jacobs has published more than 150 stories in magazines including The Atlantic, Playboy, The Baffler, and The Iowa Review. He has stories forthcoming in several magazines including The Hudson Review. His five books include A Handful of Kings, published by Simon and Shuster, and Stone Cowboy, by Soho Press. Find out more about Mark at his website.