A tale of friends and names, resulting from the reading of a gravestone.
|An Urban Flip
I knew him only as Townsend Phillips. He walked into my local drinking hole in Belize City some time in the early seventies and soon became a regular there, appearing most nights and blending naturally with the mostly expatriate clientele. We were a mixed bunch, originating in Britain, Australia, South Africa and other outposts of the defunct British Empire, as well as a few Americans, so there was nothing unusual in our easy acceptance of him.
When asked, he claimed to be in bananas and tropical fruit and I did not call him on it. Many of us had shady pasts or unlikely professions, after all, and one more added nothing to the general aura of humid and seedy desperation that hung over the bar. In time he became a friend of mine, as much as I had any friends in those days, at least. And our conversation wandered through most of the usual subjects, the heat, the rain, Belizean politics, the dream of escaping to the Cayes at some time, the longing for a posting closer to home. As his extensive and sophisticated knowledge of politics became apparent, I did not press for details but watched and waited, content that more would be revealed if I were meant to know.
Townsend was particularly quiet about his personal life before Belize and even now I have no idea whether he had family back home, was married or had children. That, too, was common enough amongst us so, again, I never pressed him on it. But I noticed his numerous absences for a week or two and the way he reappeared without explanation or remark, picking up as though he had never been away. We did not ask or comment, knowing that the answer would be "business up country" or something similar.
It was a surprise, therefore, when Townsend put his trust in me one night in late 1982. He had by-passed our habitual table as we returned from the bar, choosing instead one of those in the dark corner normally frequented by the most dubious and unsavory of the regulars. This was the place for whispered conversations and devious plotting so my curiosity was piqued as I sat down. And he wasted no time, getting straight to the point after a first deep draught of his drink.
"Listen, Jim, there's something I want you to do for me."
I said nothing and waited for more to be revealed.
"You see, I'm not really in the banana trade. My work is mostly for the, umm, government."
"Which one?" I asked.
"The States, of course. I work from the Embassy." He realized then that the question had been my attempt at a joke and he continued after a brief smile. "I have to go away again tomorrow and I'm not entirely sure that I'll be coming back. There's something that I want to send home if anything happens to me and you're the only one I can ask."
"No problem, Townsend," I said. "But why not use the Embassy?"
"Well, that's it, you see. I'm not supposed to communicate with anyone when I'm on a mission. If they find out about this, I..." His voice tailed off as he realized that it would not matter to him by then. "Anyway, it's nothing too serious. Just a few goodbyes to someone I know. Will you do it?"
"It's the least I can do, you know that. How big is it?"
He withdrew a brown envelope from his coat pocket. "There you are, quite light and the postage should be cheap enough even for you."
"Oh, very funny," I said as I took the proffered envelope. "I just hope I won't have to send it, that's all."
"So do I, Jim, so do I. But, if you've not seen or heard from me by the sixteenth, you'd better throw it in a mailbox."
And that was the last I saw of Townsend Phillips. He left soon after giving me his letter and I heard nothing more for nearly a month. When I did, it was not good news. The Guatemalan government was throwing a fit over someone their border guards had shot - a spy, they claimed. In turn, the Americans were denying it, saying that he was a trader who had lost his way. For a few days the story was the hot topic in Belize but it died away eventually. Guatemala returned the body and everything cooled down, to be forgotten as other events crowded into the headlines.
Townsend's name was not mentioned, as far as I know. The Embassy was waiting to release it until the body had been returned to relatives and I never saw anything further on the matter. I had mailed the envelope as soon as news had broken, of course, but I did make a note of the address beforehand - some town in Illinois.
The years passed and Townsend gradually receded from my memory. It was after the turn of the century that I had cause to be in Chicago on business and my thoughts returned to my old drinking friend and his presumed origin in Illinois. The address had been in Elgin and a quick look at a map advised me that it was not far away. I hired a car and made the journey, more from curiosity than anything else.
Arriving in the town, I stopped at a service station and bought a street map. The guy on duty allowed me a look at a phone directory and I confirmed my thought that there would be too many Phillipses to sift through. Back in the car, I marked the relevant street and drew a logical route there.
I knew the number of the house but I did not stop, contenting myself with cruising by slowly. It was like a million other American homes, recently painted and the lawn neat and orderly. There was no name on the mailbox, just a number. Nothing to indicate that Townsend had ever had a connection with the place at all. I drove on down the street.
At the end of the street there was a T-junction and, on the side opposite, a cemetary. I wondered whether I had found Townsend's last resting place and, on impulse, I parked at the gate and walked in. It was silly, of course, and I found no headstones proclaiming his name. Just before I gave up, however, I came across a grave marked with a name remarkable enough to bring me to a halt.
"Urban F. Lipps." it read, "December 12, 1947
December 1, 1982
One of the good ole boys"
I pondered the trials of anyone having to go through life with so strange a name. And it was only as I turned away that something else struck me. Urban F. Lipps, I thought. Townsend Phillips? Surely not. Would a man choose a cover name so obviously linked to the real one? Too much of a coincidence, an amusing relation, that's all.
But the date of death was right...