Savannah and the Man from Spain

Mary Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home

Savannah, GA — When you travel alone, there is an opening in the universe which allows unique relationships to blossom.  I found myself with an extra day in Georgia.  The energy of the trip was waning and I knew that I needed to move on.  I drove from St. Marys to Savannah and planned to see what sites this odd city might hold.  “Odd” is a key word for the tourists who come to Savannah.  They range from people who want to see ghosts to girl scouts visiting Juliette Gordon Low’s birthplace to historians and architects.  Hurricane Isaac dumped rain as I drove into town.  I’d told the manager of the local pensione that I would meet him at 2 o’clock to check in, his being the only affordable place to stay close to the historic district.

The Savannah Visitor Center is an easy landmark to find but the staff were arguing politics and ignored me.  Hurricane Isaac threatened the Republican Convention and all eyes were on Mitt.  Instead, I found a lovely gentleman behind the tour bus counter who directed me to the best bookstore in town as well as Mary Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home.

The walk to the bookstore was wet.  In the south, people use umbrellas because raincoats only makes you sweat in the humidity.  The woman at the bookstore politely handed me a paper towel to dry off before I touched any books.  I purchased Cheryl Strayed’s novel, Wild, and headed for the pensione.

The pensione seemed to be in a rough part of town.  The old two-story victorian home had two huge heavy shutters made into doors that let one in to the tiny dark alcove with two wooden doors.  The shades on both were drawn.  I knocked and then read a sign that said to ring the doorbell on the left.  Unfortunately, I’m not very good at telling right from left and no one answered my rings.  I finally called the manager who perpetually sounds like he’s just woken up.  He finally came to the door and told me I was late.  I explained I’d been trying to knock.  He insisted on walking me back out to show me which doorbell to ring next time, emphasizing that he was already late to pick up his daughter.  His skin was pale and he rubbed his head a lot making him seemed disturbed about things besides me.  He seemed to be listening to someone other than me.  He agreed to show me my room in the carriage house.

The Kehoe House (everything white is made of cast iron)

“Do you want an umbrella?”

“No thanks, I’ll be fine.”  It was a hundred degrees out and raining.

“Well, walk here.  Make sure you walk here.”  He pointed to the foot-and-a-half of dry sidewalk next to the house.  I was already walking there.

“Yes, there.  Walk there.”  They’d had an incident, was all he said.  The cobblestones were slick with slime and I followed him carefully.

“The blue key lets you in.  The orange key is because your room is peach, kind of like an orange color but really more peach.  Yeah, it’s peach.  More than orange.  Well, you’ll see.”

He led me into the carriage house — a living area topped by two rooms and a shared bathroom upstairs.  The floors were tight-grained hardwood except for the tiled bathroom.  I followed him a set of creaking stairs.  A bunk bed stood across the room from an abandoned fireplace.  The closet looked creepy.

“This is your room.  Your key is orange like the room.  Well, peach but it’s so you can remember.  And this is the tag you can use at Krogers if you get groceries.  I think it still works.  Don’t walk in the park after dark – it’s not safe.”

I interrupted to ask if the room was haunted as he was explaining that the man next door with whom I’d share a bathroom with was from Spain.

“God, I hope not,” he said about the ghosts but all the buildings in Savannah are haunted.

I asked if the man from Spain was safe.

“I don’t know.  I mean, I can’t tell you that.  He’s been here for awhile.  He seems fine but I can’t really tell.”

“Is it safe to leave my car parked on the street?”

“Well yeah, we’ve only had four incidents in 20 years.  As long as it’s not full of stuff.”

“It’s full of stuff.”

He looked at me like I was exasperating him and I asked if I should find a hotel.

“We can lock your car in the garage,” he told me.  “But I can’t do it now because I have to pick up my daughter.  The only thing is you have to unlock the other person’s bathroom door when you’re done.  Otherwise they can’t get in.  See you just take it and latch it like this, but then you have to remember to unlatch it or the other person can’t use the bathroom.”

Picture of Mary Flannery O’Connor as a child

He rubbed his hair again and I wondered how hook-and-latch closures could need so much explaining.  I said I would take the room, sent a quick text message to a friend that I was in a very weird place and followed him back to the house, careful again to walk on the little strip of dry cobblestone next to the house.  Inside the dim great room, a little table held a cashbox and book.  With the rain, it was hard to see but the room was decorated with draperies and heavily framed art.  His wife sat at a computer table and wore lavender scrubs while she watched YouTube in Russian.  I handed him $60 and he wrote down my name from my license in his book.

“Where are you from?”

“Washington.”

“Are you a US citizen?”

“Yes, I’m from Washington.”

“But you’re a US citizen?”

“Yes…”

He wrote US in the book next to a number one to show I was traveling alone.

“I’ll get you sheets.”  He found me a set of peach sheets, obviously to match the room.

“You want a bag for them?  It’s raining out.  I’ll get you plastic for them.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it.”

“No, no.  They’ll get wet.  Here, just a sec.”

The carriage house was 50 yards from the front door but he insisted and soon I found myself walking back to my room, on the strip of sidewalk closest to the house, ready to use the orange key for my peach room, peach sheets wrapped in plastic in hand.  I was to come back after 7:30pm so we could lock my car in the garage.

I walked to the Krogers and saw a woman whose bra was too small tell her kids to pick up the plum they dropped.  Then a woman and I played you first, no you go ahead at the door until her husband ignored us and pulled her cart through the door.  I mentioned that she’d married an assertive one and she laughed out loud making Savannah seem less spooky.

The garden behind Mary Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home

Back at the carriage house, I made myself at home on the back porch where someone used steel wool to balance the leg of the chair and oaky-looking sprouts choked out a dripping fig tree in the garden.  The cat ignored me and jumped onto an abandoned trampoline.  I heard the door open and said hello to the man from Spain.  He answered in terrific English and soon came out to the porch.

“So, you are staying here?  Where are you from?” he asked.  The guy was rumpled but extremely well-dressed in a blue button-down, jeans and shined black shoes.  He was about my age.

I tried to explain my trip but it was obvious that he was tired.  He was a businessman from Catalan and he would tell me more after a nap.  Yes, he would like a glass of wine later.  I made an uneventful trip back to Krogers and rang the right doorbell for the manager again.  Three rings later, I noticed a sign that he’d be back at 7:15pm.  At 7:30pm, the man from Spain woke up and the manager appeared.  I grabbed my keys and pulled the car into a back garage, praying that it wouldn’t collapse on the car, or worse, that Savannah spiders wouldn’t wrap it in an egg sack.

We cracked open a bottle of 14 Hands Hot-to-Trot.  The businessman was working on a project in the US, his first.  It was to be big but it was falling apart.  For some reason, the wife of his business contact was getting involved and asking for passwords to private accounts.  I was in the odd position if seeing someone being screwed by an American and, being American, suggested the man from Spain get a lawyer.

“Really?  I am too loyal.  I have worked on this for eight months and turned down other work.  I am someone who sacrifices and takes risk but now this?  Why is his wife part of this, you know, all of a sudden?”

The situation was so familiar that I could see the unhappy ending.  You pour your heart and soul into a project with a simple handshake and someone washes their hands of you, taking your ideas and running.  We were interrupted by a text message from his client.  The man from Spain would meet in the morning with the client and the client’s lawyer.

“What does that mean?” he asked.  I was at a loss for words.  Through the course of the conversation, I could see that he was addicted to work.   He even said he was, what do you call it,  masochistic?  He often worked 20-plus hours a day, to the detriment of relationships but his work was his hobby and, I LOVE it! 

I asked him what he loved, what gave him meaning.

“You know what I love?  I used to go to the library on Saturdays and I spend a long time finding a book.  I love to read.  I read everything.  Then I would go get a coffee and I would read.  That’s what I love.  I haven’t done that for a long time.”

“But you don’t do that anymore?”

“No, I haven’t for a long time.”

“Are you an uncle?” I asked.  He said yes.  “Do you like that?”

“Oh, I LOVE it.  I just love it.  You know, to be with those kids.  Ah!”  Then he surprised me.

“You know,” he said and poured us more wine.  “They say that the three things you have to do to have a good life are to plant a tree, have a kid, and write a book.”

“Plant a tree, have a kid and write a book?”

“Yes, to have meaning.  That’s what you do.”

“Which ones have you done?”

The man from Spain told me he could write a book.  As to a kid and a tree, he didn’t know about those.  I told him I had planted many trees and planned to write a book but didn’t know about kids.

“I have loved kids,” I said and told him about my neighbor kids.  He smiled and listened with interest, kindly seeing how much they meant to me.  “And I have planted many many trees.  And I am sure I will write a book.”

We tipped back on wobbly chairs whose legs someone had balanced on wads of steel wool.  We drank wine and talked.  Tomorrow might be the end of his project; he wasn’t sure.  If it was, he said he might cry.  I told him I would cry and he said he hadn’t cried since 2006.

“But it will make you feel better,” I told him.  He wasn’t listening.  It was late and he had to figure out his exit for the morning meeting.  I distracted him and told him about beavers, how they mate for life and build lodges to create ponds, and how their lodges always have more than one exit.  I told him he was like the beaver and would figure it his exit.  He smiled.  I seemed silly, I’m sure.  But when you travel alone, you never know whom you will need to listen and for that he thanked me.

A city square in Savannah, Georgia

He asked me in the morning if he’d kept me awake.  In spite of ghosts, I’d slept soundly.  He only slept for an hour.  I half-wished that he’d woken me up.  We’d talked about being there for friends and how we both were people you could call in the middle of the night and we’d wake up for you.  I offered him a ride to his meeting and carried my belongings down to the car which wasn’t wrapped in cobwebs after all.

We drank coffee in Savannah’s historic district.  He was distracted but dressed well and looked none the worse for no sleep.  I hugged him goodbye and suggested that he spend a little time doing something he loved with his time left in Savannah.  He smiled.  Was he thinking, silly American or silly woman or something else?  I only knew the beginning of the stress which haunted him but there was a break in the rain as he walked away.  He promised to keep in touch.  I am very loyal.  You can stay with me if you come to Barcelona.

Now I am driving through Missouri on my way to Denver.  He called today.  I didn’t hear the phone over the rain from Hurricane Isaac today but in his message, he said he was back in Spain and would write soon.  I look forward to his note and smile at the thought.  Sometimes when the universe opens a little, there are those kind enough to put their foot in the door.

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