George Chiari after Tibet

Those who liked Messenger might like a few chapters I wrote that tell of George after his return. The novel was to be called Conspiracies of Men and God but it looks unlikely that I’ll ever finish it. Too much water under the bridge in real life since this was written. Just for fun, then.

Conspiracies of Men and God

Chapter One. Angelo

I wasn’t doing any real work anyway, just looking through the news wires, trying to look busy. I reached over and answered automatically, my eyes still on the terminal. “Newsroom, Angelo Chiari.”

A muffled voice. “Mr. Chiari, we need to meet.” He was almost whispering, and I’d make a tiny bet that he was talking through a handkerchief or something. People get these real clever ideas from watching movies and reading detective stories, and I suppose some of the ideas must work in real life, or they wouldn’t be used in fiction. But it gets annoying when you’re on the receiving end.
“Who’s this?”

Like he’s going to give me a straight answer. “Can you be free in half an hour?”

As it happened, I could, if I should happen to want to. The day was supposed to have gone to covering the Kellerman trial. but the judge had recessed it for the day and Charley Johnson–the city desk editor–hadn’t quite found anything that he could send me to cover. It would have to be something that wouldn’t tie me up when the trial resumed the next day–which meant it would have to be something even less exciting than the Kellerman trial, which would be a trick, but long experience told me that if I didn’t get out of sight, sooner or later Charley would remember that I worked for him. I turned from the terminal and picked up a pen; asked the guy on the phone what it was about. It didn’t surprise me in the least to hear him tell me it was something he couldn’t tell me over the phone.

“Listen, friend,” I said, “I don’t do wild geese. If I’m going to move from here, I’ve got to know what it’s about.” Joe Panella looked up from his terminal across the narrow aisle and made a wry face, looking at the ceiling. I matched his expression, and nodded. Another one, we were saying.

The voice was so low I could barely hear him. “It’s about Kellerman. I’ve got something that will rock the whole city.”

Oh, the shock! Some bombshell like, I saw Kellerman swipe an apple from a corner fruit stand. “Are you going to break it to me that Kellerman’s money came from him saving up from his salary for like 500 years?” The good Captain Kellerman was known for living way beyond his salary–beyond, as in, a thousand percent beyond.

No smile in the man’s voice. “The bus station behind city hall, Mr. Chiari? Half an hour?”

What the hell? “Big place,” I said.
“Go to the ticket window.”

“Say I do. How will I know you?”

“I will know you,” he said, and there I was frowning at the desk, listening to the dial tone. Just at the very end his voice had started to ring distant bells, and I tried to hold myself there, right at that edge of almost-recognition. If you can hold yourself there, sometimes you can make the pinball drop into the hole with a big splashy “aha!” Not this time, however.

He would know me? How? I’d had my byline in the paper on a regular basis for a solid dozen years, long enough to be recognized by lawyers and insiders–the kind of people who read the papers for profit rather than entertainment. Plenty of them recognized my name when we were introduced (and plenty didn’t), but I couldn’t remember ever meeting somebody for the first time and having them know me on sight. Newspaper reporters are not media stars.

He would know me — and from the fact that he was muffling his voice, presumably I’d know him too. In fact, come to think of it, probably that’s why he kept the conversation so short. Somebody I knew. Who? Somebody I’d met in connection with the Kellerman trial? Not likely, since all I was doing was sitting at the press table in the courtroom, taking notes and being bored. And what the hell could be important about the Kellerman trial anyway?

The newsroom was still mostly empty, it being half an hour to noon on a slow Tuesday. I picked up a reporter’s notebook and stood up. “Hey Joe? Charley asks, I’m meeting some guy who’s going to blow the city wide open with his hard-hitting revelation about whatever.”

He looked over at me, smiling his semi-permanent sardonic smile. “Meaning you’re going to lunch?”

“Not a bad idea, but unfortunately no. Probably it’s nothing, but it’s the old muffled-voice phone trick. Anonymous informant wants to tell all, but he wants to do it while basking in my presence.”

“As who wouldn’t? I often have the same impulse, but I suppress it.” He leaned back. “Rest assured. I’ll tell him you’re off to save Philadelphia single-handed.”

“Suburbs too, with any luck,” I said, and cleared out.

It wasn’t a long walk, and I spent most of it thinking about how much I like September days. I walked through city hall and out the door on the other side, and walked the short block to the bus station, hoping that this guy, whoever he was, really did have something to say that I wanted to hear. Granted, he had given me an excuse to get out from Charley’s eye, but I would have made one up anyway, probably.

I admit, when I came to the bus station, for just a second I wondered if this was such a smart thing to do. No real reason, just a feeling I didn’t much like. But what the hell, nobody ever heard of an Inquirer reporter getting mugged, especially while more or less on the job. I went through the door, into the sharp smell of carbon monoxide and the sound of idling diesel engines and the blackness of tire tracks and the general impression of boredom and grease. I made my way to the ticket window, third in line, and I hardly had time to wonder what I was going to do when I got to the front of the line when there was this guy right behind me, lightly holding my elbow to stop me from turning around, whispering in my ear.

“Thanks for coming,” he says quietly. “Please follow me out the door, and that’ll be the end of the cloak and dagger stuff. If you recognize me before that, try not to react. For your own protection. We don’t want to give anybody anything to remember later.”

I start to turn, naturally, but by the time I do he has already turned and is walking out the door, not the same door I came in. If I had been trying to tail him, I would have had to hustle, but he was the one who wanted to talk. Presumably he would wait. I followed slowly, wishing I knew anything about what I’m doing. I can’t remember anybody having a grudge against me, but there’s no harm in a little speculative paranoia. He wants to be sure that nobody sees me react, so there won’t be any witnesses later. So he can kidnap me? That would be a laugh. I can just see it, Charley getting a phone call. “We’ve got your man, and you’re going to have to pay up.” Charley’d be laughing at them, telling them they didn’t have the first idea how easy it was to find reporters at guild wages.

Maybe I should do something to make my presence known, so the police could find me later. (Oh, sure, after I’ve been writing about Kellerman.) Or maybe–?

To hell with it, it’s easier just to find out and regret it later. I follow him outside.

He’s waiting by the door, and we’re two anonymous guys on the street on an ordinary September Tuesday at noon time and I get my first real look at him. “Angelo, it’s good to see you again,” he says, smiling.

I had read about people’s knees buckling, but I hadn’t ever experienced it. It was like, just for a second my brain was suddenly too busy to remember thing like how to stand up. I had to put an arm out, to steady myself against the building.

“I knew it was going to be a shock,” he said quietly, using his regular voice now. “Let’s take a little walk, it’ll be good for you, and then we need to find a nice anonymous place to sit and talk. It’s lunch time. Let’s get something to eat.”

I knew he was using his voice to anchor me, to make things seem normal. For a long moment I couldn’t say anything, couldn’t do anything but look at my older brother George, dead 22 years this November coming.

I said, “I take it this doesn’t really have anything to do with Kellerman,” which was the sum total of everything I could think of to say.

Still smiling, he shook his head. “Fraid not. Angelo, I need your help.”

.2.

What you have to understand about George and me is that even though I was four years younger than he was, somehow the age difference never mattered between us. We were extremely close from the time I was born until he disappeared in late 1962, a couple of months after my twenty-second birthday.

Ours was a big family, seven kids. Mike was born in 1934, then came George two years later, Mary in 1938, me in ’40, Tommy in ’42, Patricia in ’45 and David in ’47. Big family today, but not all that unusual then, especially in farm families, especially in farm families not that far removed from what they still called the old country.

George taught me how to read before I was five. When I was in grade school, he was my protector and my role model. The same year I entered High School, in 1954, he left for college, but by then we had had years working together on the farm – we all did, like it or not — and also he and I had shared hobbies like making and flying model airplanes. Plus, we both liked to read history and science fiction, me reading way ahead of my years, trying to keep up with him. George had his own friends, but it was understood that usually, if I wanted to tag along, it was fine with him. It was only a whole lot later that I realized how unusual it was for an older brother not to be ashamed of a brother so many years younger. In general, he seemed to like my company as much as I liked his.

By the time George graduated high school in 1954, the Korean War was over, and so he became the first of us to go to college. My letters from him date from his first semester in college. What Washington, D.C., was like, what the tourist spots like the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial were like, what it was like to live in a big city, and something about his classes and what he was reading. He’d send me clippings from the Post and the Star, and he’d write about pulling all-nighters, and fraternity parties, and whether I ought to think about majoring in history or political science or literature, and did I think the Phillies had a chance that year. (This was only four years after they had won the pennant. Fortunately, I didn’t know that it was going to take them another 26 years to do it again, and in the meantime there would be so many years in which they’d mostly stink out loud.)

So what could write him about? Life in a small farm town in rural Southern New Jersey? As far as I was concerned, the less said the better. No need to describe to him what it’s like to sort sweet potatoes when your hands are cold and tired, or what it’s like to be out in the wet fields of early spring, picking daffodils for the cut-flower trade. He knew it all by heart, as we all did. So I wrote about my relative success with the chess club, and my hanger-on status with the track team, and my opinions on whatever I was reading, plus whatever politics or sports or other tidbits I pulled out of the daily papers. The things that made up my life were so boring to me that I marveled that he even bothered to read my letters. But he always seemed interested, even enthusiastic.

Then it was 1958, and he was out of college and I was out of high school, and by the fall he was in the Air Force taking basic training and I was a freshman at Rutgers, paying my tuition and bills by using up my scant savings, and working part time, and borrowing money from my father that it took three years to pay back afterward.

Our letters weren’t so frequent now. Neither of us had much free time. His letters told of his new life: basic training, officer school, dealing with instructors and fellow students and jumped-up enlisted men. I got sketches of airplanes he learned to fly, beginning with the prop jobs and moving on to the hot jets, which he described as being like a ride on a Roman candle. Now that I was in college, he even wrote me, once in a while, about bars in San Antonio, and other aspects of a young man’s life that were little-publicized then.
He did well in officer’s school, and in flight school, and time passed and after a while it was the fall of 1962, and he was a Captain. By that time, brand-new Rutgers alumnus Angelo Chiari had become Private Angelo Chiari, U.S. Army, courtesy of the Selective Service. Before I had been in the Army a month, I already had a clear idea that at least this Chiari brother was not cut out to be a soldier. The Cuban Missile Crisis, which happened practically before I got out of basic training, didn’t do anything to change my mind. Then it was over, and instead the newspapers were talking about China invading India.

I was at Fort Leonard Wood, in Missouri, when George came home on a 15-day leave prior to leaving for his first overseas assignment, in West Pakistan. So I didn’t get to see him. I got one letter from him from Pakistan, and then nothing. George went up on some reconnaissance flight, and the next thing we knew the Air Force was notifying my parents that George was missing.

First they said that he had taken an airplane up on a routine mission, and the airplane was missing. After a bit they said that he was missing, believed killed, and they sent back his personal effects (including my last letter to him). Then, for a long time, nothing. After my parents got a friend of dad’s to ask our congressman to press some more, we were informed that his mission was classified. My father said that “classified mission” didn’t sound much like “routine mission,” but he got the great official stone wall.

A few years later, when I got to the Inquirer, after five years at the Camden Courier-Post (my first job out of the Army), I used the Freedom of Information Act here, there, and everywhere and eventually learned that George had taken a U-2 out of Peshawar, Pakistan, with orders to photograph Chinese military positions in southern Tibet, which of course was inside Chinese-claimed airspace. Minutes after he crossed the border into Tibet, Peshawar radar lost contact with him. No apparent contact by Chinese aircraft — nothing that showed up on the radar, at least — but that was the last anybody ever saw of my older brother. After a certain amount of time, the Air Force wrote him off.

They did have good reason to assume that he was dead. He had, after all, come down in one of the wildest spots on earth. But probably, too, they assumed he was dead because if he were still alive, the complications would be entirely too depressing. George’s flight was less than three years after Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 came down over the Soviet Union in May of 1960, an incident that had wrecked a planned summit meeting, and had created strains between the U.S. and Pakistan, where the flight had originated. Also with Turkey, where it was to have ended. The last thing the Air Force wanted was to publicize the fact that U-2’s were still flying. I have no doubt that they preferred George dead to seeing him in a televised show trial in the People’s Republic. So — perhaps the wish becoming father to the thought — for as long as they could, they lied to us.

Since for a long time we thought that George had gone down on a routine mission, which presumably didn’t take place over communist soil, it never occurred to us that George might be a prisoner. What we would have done if it had occurred to us, I don’t know. Badgered the congressman with letters asking for support, I suppose, or written to the Chinese somehow. Something equally futile. Not that we would have had many expectations. We were nobodies, and knew it. My father was a clear-eyed independent farmer, his attitude toward governments the legacy of generations of Italian peasants. He knew that society, regardless what it pretended to believe, did not really consider everybody of equal worth, deserving of equal protection. Rank has its privileges, and nobody knows that better than the people who don’t have it. (We didn’t know quite who got to set society’s rules, but we knew it wasn’t us.)

We waited for a reasonable amount of time, hoping against hope, as day followed day. Not knowing what he had been doing, or where or how he had gone down, we were handicapped in imagining what his chances were. Maybe it would still come out all right. After all, sometimes airplanes went down in rough country and people were badly injured, and maybe they had to wait for a broken leg to heal, and in the meantime they scrounged for food and shelter. Maybe it was many days– weeks–before they came out. We clung to that idea for a while. Then it was a month, and then it was Christmas, and then New Year’s, and the weeks rolled around into months, and the months into years, and gradually, imperceptibly, George faded into memory. He was a well-loved memory, but like all our lost dead, he was something out of our past, not a living presence. And now here he was, out of nowhere, after all this time without a word to any of us.

.3.

I took him to Tony’s Deli, a little place I like down in South Philly. “God, it smells so good,” George said. I could see him absorbing the smells and the sounds of the place. “It smells like Grandmom Napoli’s kitchen did.”

“Yeah,” I said, “it does a little, doesn’t it? We order at the counter here and find a booth and they bring it to us. Nick, I’ll have a cheesesteak and fries and a coke. George?”
“Coffee, for sure. Their Greek salads good?”

“Everything here is good, right, Nick?”

Nick nodded, chewing on his toothpick as always. “You bet, ace.”

We found a booth at the back of the store, the only one open. The noise of the conversations around us meant that George could lean toward me and speak in a normal voice without being overheard. “Angelo, I see they know you. Why here?”

I shrugged. “They know me; they don’t know you. Who’s going to look twice at two guys having lunch? Besides, the food here is great. So give. How long have you been back, and haven’t told anybody?”

“You’re angry,” he said. “I understand, but hold off until you hear my story. You don’t have any idea how much I missed all of you, but it wasn’t safe.”

I nodded, waiting.

“You know as much as the Air Force knew, I expect. I was on a reconnaissance mission over Tibet? Well, my U-2 flamed out, for some reason, and I couldn’t get it to re-light. I had to come down in the middle of the KunLun mountains. It was wintertime coming on, remember.”

I did.

“I found a safe refuge. A place hidden from the red Chinese. They took me in, but the price was that I couldn’t leave, for fear of somebody tracking me back where I had come from.”

“This is inside Tibet?”

“I know it doesn’t seem likely, but Tibet is a big place, with room enough for a few people to stay lost if they were reasonably careful. They wouldn’t let me go, though, and after a while I had to admit I couldn’t blame them. It was 1979 before I got a chance to come home.”

“1979? Unless I am seriously out of touch with the calendar, it is now 1984. Sort of took you a while to get here, didn’t it?”

“I had things to do.”

“I can’t believe you’ve been back five years. Do you know what mom and dad went through when you disappeared?”

“I think I do,” he said quietly. “It wasn’t easy on me, either. But I didn’t have any way of getting word to them before 1979, and by then I figured they would have come to terms with it.”

It was the strangest situation. This was my brother, back from the grave, safely sitting across the booth from me, but I found myself in reporter mode. “What was special about 1979?”

“A couple of things, but the fortunate part was that I found myself back in Pakistan just at the time they burned the American embassy.”

I had to think back the few years. “Something to do with the beginning of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, wasn’t it?”

“Right. A mob burned the building to the ground, so of course the embassy had a whole lot of instant refugees to repatriate, and no way to check on people’s stories of when they came and how long they had been there. It was very convenient. It gave me a way to come home without papers. I didn’t have a passport, you know.”

“Didn’t you have any Air Force ID?”

“I did, but I had reasons for not using it. I had been wondering how I was going to get home without papers. But the fates arranged it for me.”

“Convenient,” I said.

“More than you know. I came in as John Adams.”

“Why?”

He paused, as Laura came over with our food. She asked me, “Anything else, hon?” I looked at George, shook my head. “I’ll bring you some more coffee,” she said to him. He waited till she returned, filled his cup, and left.

“Why that name, I don’t know. I had to give them a name at the British embassy where I holed up after our own embassy burned down, and it’s what popped into my mind.”

“Yeah, but–”

“I had reasons. For one thing, I didn’t know if my name might be on some watch list. Not much chance, after 17 years, but why ask for trouble?”

“But why should anybody care?”

He gave me a smile, almost a grin, and said thanks, and for a moment the long years rolled away and he was again my brother George. I smiled despite myself and said, “you know what I mean.”

“Yes, I do, really. Don’t forget, Angelo, the last the government heard of me, I was driving one of their airplanes. I figured they might want to know what happened to it.”

“So?”

“I had reasons why I didn’t want to tell them.”

I said, dubiously, “And this doesn’t have anything to do with the Mafia? You haven’t been selling drugs or something stupid, George, have you? ” I watched carefully, but if he flinched from the question, I didn’t see it. He merely shook his head. “No Mafia. No drugs. Nothing you’d be ashamed of.”

I concentrated on my cheesesteak, weighing what he wasn’t saying. He must have heard me. “It wasn’t what I was doing, Angelo. It was the place where I had been all those years. They’re my friends. They’re only alive because the Chinese haven’t found them, which is only because nobody suspects they’re there. The day somebody does, they’re all dead. At least, maybe. I don’t have the right to take that chance, and anyway I didn’t want to. So, I couldn’t see coming back as myself until I knew pretty well that nobody still remembered me.”

I said, “Took you five years to find out?”

“Angelo,” he said quietly, “officially I’m still John Adams.”

That stopped me. I let him work on his salad for a bit, and I worked through my cheesesteak, and finally I asked him what was really going on. “You told them you’d lost your papers, okay. But that was five years ago. All the time you’ve been back, you had to have papers. You can’t do anything without papers today. They all say John Adams?”

“Yes. And don’t ask how I did it, Mr. Reporter.”

I shrugged. “I know there are ways. Forgive me if I say that it doesn’t sound like whatever you’re involved in is all that honest.”

“I see that. As the old saying goes, `I can explain everything.’ But not here and now.”

“Later? As in, `when we have more time?'” Despite myself, it came out barbed. I couldn’t help it.

“Angelo, don’t you think I wanted to go home, see mom and dad and the rest of you? Don’t you think it would have been easier — God, so much easier — if I just could have stepped back into my old life? But I couldn’t.”

“Why couldn’t you?”

“I can’t tell you my life story in two minutes. Plus, there are things I can’t tell you here, in the middle of all these people.” He smiled. “You want this to get back to Kellerman?”

Despite myself, despite my inner wariness, I met his smile. “So why are we having lunch?”

“Because oddly enough the more trouble John Adams gets into, the safer George Chiari is. I have to disappear. That is, John Adams does, and I mean today. As a matter of fact, if you don’t mind, I’d like this to be the last time either of us uses that name.”

“Somebody wants to kill you just because you aren’t as handsome as your younger brother?”

It didn’t raise a smile. “I don’t know that they want to kill me, particularly,” he said slowly, picking his words. “I just don’t believe in being careless. Think of it as defensive driving. I can go home, now, without putting all of you at risk–at least, I’m pretty sure I can–and I need somebody I can trust absolutely, and you’re it. I want you to take me home, Angelo.”

.4.

So I took him home. What else could I do? What else would anybody do? I’d do it again, as long as I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

We took the high-speed line across the river to Lindenwold, and I picked up my car in the parking lot and tried not to notice George quietly surveying everyone and everything in sight. In my experience, the only people who continually monitored their surroundings were cops and hoods. Spies, too, maybe, but my knowledge of the world of spies came strictly from John LeCarre novels. I didn’t particularly want George to be any of these things. My preference would be that he was good old George. But then, my preference would be that the Phillies would win the pennant every year, which goes to show how much what you prefer in life has to do with what you get.

At Tony’s, and on the ride across the river, he didn’t tell me anything of what had been doing. The only thing he said was that it would be better if everybody thought he had just come back from wherever he had been overseas. It would be better–safer, he said–if they didn’t know he had been back in the States for five years.

“I don’t get it,” I said. “Then why tell me?”

“Why make you mislead people, you mean, instead of thinking you’re telling them the truth?” He paused. “There isn’t any reason to lie to you, Angelo. It won’t put either one of us in danger for you to know. That isn’t true for the rest of the family”

“And anyway you have a reason why I need to know, and you’ll tell me in your own good time.”

Another of those quiet smiles. “You’ve become a pretty good reporter, I can see.”

The pretty good reporter drove up to his pretty good suburban house and escorted his brother in. Place looked empty. “Connie?”

Silence. “Have a seat, George. Let me see if anybody’s around.” I went to our bedroom, and sure enough there she was, stretched out on one side atop the covers, her face pale, her eyes held tight-shut, her lower lip held firmly in her teeth. I kneeled down by the side of the bed, careful not to jostle it. I whispered, “Connie? Migraine again?”

She nodded, the slightest of nods, and I could see her wince from the small movement. “Came on an hour ago.” After a second, “what are you doing home in the middle of the day?”

I squeezed her hand, being careful not to jostle the bed. “Connie, I’m sorry this happened while you’re sick. I’ve got my brother out in the living room. George.”

It took a moment to register. She opened her eyes, and said, painfully, “The one who was your favorite? I thought he died.”

“So did we.”

“Oh, baby,” she said, “I’d like to get up and meet him, but I don’t know if I can.”

“Well, that’s fine, he wouldn’t expect you to. Is there anything I can do?”

Another small movement, a sideways no. “Just have to wait it out,” she said.

I retreated to the living room and explained to George about her migraine. When I told him that it was liable to go on for hours, he frowned. “Aren’t you going to fix it?”

Like if I could I wouldn’t? “How do you propose I do that?”

He hesitated, and it was a long time before I understood the hesitation. “Angelo, is she dressed? I mean, do you mind if I see her?”

“George, I’m sorry, but she really doesn’t feel well.”

“That’s why I want to see her. I ought to be able to fix her migraine.”

I looked at him. “George, if we knew how to fix migraines, we’d do it.”

“Yeah, but I’ve learned a few things where I was, these past few years. Ask if she’ll let me see her for five minutes.”

I was dubious, but in the end I did ask her, and she did sit up and say she’d try anything. Rather than meeting my brother in her bedroom, she got up and walked into the living room. “I am very glad to meet you, George,” she said, almost whispering. “Sorry to be such a mess at present.”

I knew what it cost her. George evidently did too. He wasted no time on sympathetic noises. “Connie, glad to meet you too. If you’ll sit down someplace comfortable, I think we can do something for that headache.” He steered her to my favorite reading chair, a somewhat beat-up recliner I’ve had since before I was married, and stood in front of her.
“This will only take a couple of minutes. I’m going to put my hands on your head and I want you to work with me. Close your eyes, if you don’t mind.” He took her head in his hands, putting his palms on either temple. “Now, as I move my hands, I want you to let the pain flow into my palms.” He began slowly moving his hands, rotating them slightly, one wrist moving down while the other moved up, then the reverse. “You don’t have to put any effort into it, just let the pain come out of your head and into my hands. That’s it, nice and easy.”

For a moment or two there was silence, and then he stopped, and pulled his hands out from her head, leaving them about two inches away. “How’s the headache?”

Connie sat still for a long moment, then slowly opened her eyes. I could all but see her feeling inside, measuring. “I think it’s gone,” she said incredulously. “It’s definitely better, but — I actually think it’s gone! How did you do that?”

Remember, this was 1984. In those days people didn’t do things like take away migraine headaches–at least, they didn’t in the circles Connie and I traveled in. So to have Connie’s headache gone, instead of sickening her for another 12 hours or another day or another two or three days, struck us as a miracle. And I don’t mean, we were mildly surprised, I mean it was right up there with multiplying the loaves and fishes. We looked at each other, and then at George, and I wondered who this stranger really was.

It wasn’t a big deal to George, evidently. He smiled at Connie, and I saw real affection in his smile. “Connie, it’s very good to meet you after all these years. I don’t know if another brother-in-law is really what you needed, but here’s one more.”

Connie got up from the chair and gave George a big hug. “Thank you so much, George. Today, I’d say you’re exactly what I needed.”

.5.

I never did get back to the paper on Tuesday. I called and told Charley that Claire was sick and needed me, which was more or less the truth if you rearranged the chronology a little, and I told him I’d be back tomorrow. Charley reacted with his usual excessive emotion–basically, a grunt–and indicated that the paper would struggle along without me but that he’d expect me to get my sorry ass in to work tomorrow or he’d follow up the Kellerman trial with three more like it, and tell the Philadelphia cops where to find my car, too. I grinned to myself and assured him that coming in to work was always highest on my list of fun things to do. Charley was all right, a good eye for the right word and the right slant, and he’d stand up for his people when need be. He was crusty, impatient, perfectionist, and disillusioned, and I rather liked him. Joe Panella, who would have occasion to know, said Charley could be, and often was, a morose late-night drunk. But whatever the demons that may have haunted his world, Charley very decently kept them to himself, rather than taking them out on others.

Meanwhile, Connie, so miraculously back in action, fixed us a snack, which neither George nor I needed, and we had some iced tea and the three of us sat down at the kitchen table to talk while the kids were still in school and it was quiet. I don’t remember what I expected George to tell Connie, but he didn’t say anything about needing to stay dead. He did not tell her, as he had told me, that John Adams needed a new identity and intended to step back into George Chiari’s. He merely said he hoped nobody would “make a big deal,” as he put it, over the fact that he was home. “I sure don’t want the local paper making `return of long-lost local boy’ into a hot news item,” he said.

Connie looked at me. “Shall I ascribe that snort to professional jealousy, o scribe?”

“Hah!” I said. “There are whole schools of newsworthy fish that wouldn’t be found dead in that so-called newspaper.”

“I seem to remember it as a halfway decent newspaper, for a small town,” George said.

“That was before the Hechtman family sold it to a chain. It’s not really a newspaper at all now, just a way to sell advertising. The reporters don’t have the first idea about drumming up local news, and management is careful not to hire somebody who might. As far as they’re concerned, if it didn’t happen in a public meeting, or didn’t come in on a press release, it didn’t happen and don’t worry about it.”

“Lousy newspapering,” George said, “but that’s just the way I want it. Can I count on the local radio stations being the same way?”

“Can you not! And no, there isn’t any local television, it all comes in from Philly. So you shouldn’t have to worry about becoming famous, unless you hold up a bank or something. And even then, only if you get caught.”

“Remind me to stay out of banks, then,” he said. He poured himself some more iced tea. “So can we go down to mom and dad’s tonight? What is it, about an hour from here?”

“If I call ahead, I can invite us to dinner,” I said. “We can go when the kids come home from school. Or we could go out to eat, I suppose.”

“If it’s all the same to you, let’s not go out, Angelo. I’d much rather we all get reacquainted in private.”

“I could bring something from the refrigerator,” Connie said doubtfully,” but your mother might get insulted.”

” Let’s see how it goes. She maybe won’t be all that interested in putting a meal together, when she sees the guest of honor here. I can go out and get something, if it comes to that. I’m more interested in how we’re going to break it to them so we don’t give them a heart attack.”

“And speaking of hearts,” Connie said smiling, “I hope yours is up to the strain of meeting so many nieces and nephews at once. Ours ought to be on their way home right now.”

“Angelo said you have three girls.”

“Carolyn is 14, Jane is 12, and Kathryn is 9, and they are going to be very fond of you, George, if the first thing that happens because you show up is that they get to go to grandmom’s on a weeknight.”

George smiled. “There’s no place like grandmom’s place. I remember when we used to go over to Grandmom Napoli’s. You’re right, it ought to get me off to a good start with them. That’s fine with me.”

.6.

I left George sitting in the car with Connie and the kids while I went in. Dad looked up from the television and smiled, and we raised a hand at each other, our usual greeting. “Hey,” he said, and I said, “hi, dad, how you doing?”

He shrugged. “No use kicking. You down here covering something?”

“Uh, no. Dad, is mom around?”

Mom came in from the kitchen, smiling. “What’s the occasion, in the middle of the week? I was just getting ready to fix us some leftovers, but I can find something in the freezer. Don’t have the family with you, I take it?”

“Mom, maybe you’d better sit down. I’ve got some news.”

“Oh!” She sank into a chair, waiting apprehensively. It reminded me of her tales of how, in the old days, a telegram was always bad news, usually a death. Dad pressed the remote control and turned off the television. His attitude, too, said, I’m braced, whatever it is.
“This is good news,” I said, “but I figured it was going to come as a shock, so I’d better come myself and be sure you were sitting down. The fact is, I just found out that George is alive.”

Mom said, “No, no! Was he in an accident? Is he in the hospital? Nobody told us!”

A moment of confusion, until I realized they were thinking of my nephew. “Oh. No, not Michael’s George. I mean George. My brother. George is back.”

It hit them like a blow in the face. I looked from one to the other, watching to see how they were doing. “Good thing you were sitting down, I guess, huh?”

My mother had her hands at her heart. Dad’s head had snapped back, just a bit, not enough that most people would have noticed. “How did you find out?” he asked. “Something in the news?”

“He told me himself. Met me in the city in the middle of the day. Fact is,” I said, leaping in, “he’s sitting in the car. We thought I’d better break it to you a little slowly.”

Dad’s smile gave me his opinion of my great tact, and in fact I realized I hadn’t been in the house for more than probably three minutes at the outside. But Mom was already on her feet again. “Is he all right?”

“All right? Oh, physically, you mean? Sure. He’s fine. It’s just, we didn’t want you falling over when he walked in the door.”

She beat me to the door, and, looking over her shoulder, I saw that George was already out of the car, walking forward quickly, then enfolding her in a long, long hug. Behind them, Connie and the kids were getting out as well, the kids watching their grandmother fiercely holding on to this new uncle they had just met. And here was dad behind me, patiently waiting for his wife to bring herself to release her hold on their long-lost child, suddenly back from the dead. Dad being dad, he didn’t say much even when his turn came and he was gripping George’s hand in a long handshake. But I noticed that his eyes had misted over.

And then grandmom and grandpop were greeting the three grandchildren, thus assuring them that they were still important, that they weren’t forgotten, that they didn’t have to worry about this new competitor for their grandparents’ affection. And then we were inside the house, and after a while we were sitting down to eat a meal that mom scratched together with Connie’s help.

Throughout supper, I watched George give a carefully edited version of what had happened to him. Where he had been, what he had done, how the years had gone by. And in return, he wanted to know all the news. Who had done what, who had married whom, who had kids and what were they like (this last, I suspected, at least in part so that my kids could talk about their cousins and second cousins, and so have something to say). He heard about the deaths and accidents and incidents that had accumulated in the course of 22 years, and listening to the list, watching his reaction to hearing it all at once, I realized that he was receiving the same kind of shock that his sudden presence had given me and our parents.

I had called Tommy and asked him and his family to come over right after dinner, and now at the table we were talking about Michael and Mary and Patricia, all of whom lived out of state, discussing whether to call them or visit them. And we got to talking about who would tell the cousins, and how. In short, we were talking about how to reintegrate George into the living circle of family. “I want to be the one to tell Babe, myself,” he said, laughing, “just to see the look on his face when I show up.” And he instantly froze, hearing the instant silence. He sighed. “What happened to Babe?”

Babe–Johnnie Mastrangelo–had been George’s favorite among our cousins. He was our my mother’s sister’s oldest boy, the same age as George. Summers they worked together on dad’s farm, and in high school they had the same set of friends and more or less the same interests. In fact, Babe was the only person I knew who talked airplanes with George more than I did.

“Babe’s dead, George,” I said, aware of my children watching me. “He was crop-dusting for Vince Gambetta in an old biplane he had, and he hit a powerline by the side of the road. He was up too late, in kind of an almost-twilight situation.”

“He knew better than that,” George murmured.

“He was trying to get finished so he could start something else the next day,” I said, and he nodded, accepting it. He knew better than anybody there how Babe was about finishing things. “How long ago?”

I had to think. “Four years ago, I think it was, wasn’t it, dad? 1980?”

Dad calibrated the date using his own system. “It was just after my friend Don Burton had his heart attack, the first one. That was — let’s see — wasn’t that a little after the primary elections that year? Because he was supposed to be an alternate to the Republican Convention but he couldn’t go. Yeah, that would have to be 1980. June. Just before the end of the month.”

“The 27th,” my mother said quietly.

I carefully didn’t look at George. In June, 1980 he had been back in the country for more than six months. If not for the cloak-and-dagger stuff, he’d have been back while Babe was still alive. I was thinking, whatever you have been up to, I hope it’s worth what you missed while you were doing it.

George, speaking while his mind was still far away, asked if anybody had gone looking for him. I didn’t get it. “The body was never missing, George,” I said. “There wasn’t any question about him being dead.”

George just said “oh,” nothing else, and I don’t know if anybody else noticed. Maybe as far as the rest of the family is concerned, he blew it by them, but I saw George snap back from wherever he had gone. As far as I was concerned, he all but literally shook himself, reminding himself where he was, and telling himself to be careful what he said.

And I realized then, quite clearly, that although George was right there with us mentally and emotionally, he was also censoring his natural reactions to things. Which led me to realize that there was a hell of a lot about George that I would have to learn from scratch, and maybe over time. I wouldn’t be able to take for granted that I would intuitively know where he was coming from. It wasn’t going to be like the old days. Not that anything ever is.

Because I suspected, even then, that he didn’t intend to tell anyone–even Dad–what he had told me right off. Even that first night, I wondered why he had told me. He could as easily have told me the cover story he was giving everyone else. Why hadn’t he? Maybe it was because he and I had always been close–but maybe not. I think I knew, even that first night, that he had other things in mind for me that would appear in due course.

2 thoughts on “George Chiari after Tibet

  1. Well, having started Messenger last night, read the first eight chapters, and finished it this morning, I went right into this new book. I’m sitting on the edge of my chair, absolutely waiting for the next installment!

    Margot, the Marrakesh Mystic
    margotmystic.wordpress.com

  2. I forgot to add, while I’m reading about George, I’m imagining him looking like you!

    I really hope you might consider finishing this book (I want to find out what happens), but I’m delighted to read as much of it as you have written…. these two books are absolutely the best I’ve read in a long time!

    Margot, the Marrakesh Mystic
    margotmystic.wordpress.com

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