Beloved Uncle’s Hour of Need
by Larry Smith
Unhappy people are America’s new underclass. You run into some guy on the street who’s just been fired from his job and has a family to worry about, and when you ask how he’s doing, he’ll say “I’m doing just great, just great. Busier now than ever.” He’s not ashamed that he was canned; he’s only ashamed if people think he’s worse off for it, because that would make him a second-class citizen.
It wasn’t always quite so. Back in the day, it was all right to be unhappy if you were successful. My beloved uncle, on the other hand, was unsuccessful. Of course he was unhappy too, as an inevitable consequence of being unsuccessful, but no one cared whether or not he was unhappy. When he died, his sister-in-law said it was “as if he never lived.” Her pronouncement was a measure of his unsuccess and of that only.
I can’t stand the commonplace palaver about Generation This and Generation That, and their contrasting proclivities. But some reference seems appropriate here. I just did a lot of research on Millennials for a client of mine. It seems the purported tendency among these people is to value experiences over possessions; a textured sojourn in Nepal is their Veblenian differentiator. In that sense, my beloved uncle might have done better today in the court of public opinion, his unhappy and untransformed spirit notwithstanding, if only because he’d had a lot of interesting experiences in life. Back in his day, that impressed no one.
In any event, he was sure unhappy enough after he got lung cancer. I never remember him smiling after that. He was always coughing and scowling and choking and glaring. Finally he was more or less confined to his apartment. I was already an adult but the thought of him in that condition confused me, I can’t really say why. Not that it was any mystery he should get lung cancer. My beloved uncle smoked upward of four packs a day. Before he got sick, one of his sons told me about how he ran out of cigarettes a few weeks ago when there was no store open, no store whatsoever.
“It was the worst I ever saw,” said Ben with a meaningful smile. “He was so strung out, he started jumping up and down in the middle of the room with his fists clenched.”
I asked if he screamed or shouted out or said anything. Ben remembered something along those lines but couldn’t quite say what. “I just headed for my bedroom. Last look, he made me think of Rumpelstiltskin after the girl says his name.”
“I think of how he used to look with a cigarette dangling from his mouth when he used to shoot hoops in the back yard,” I said. “It was very endearing.”
Yes, we had many good times over the years. None of his sons had any interest in sports, which was maybe their way of rejecting him. So he and I got very close because sports was important to both of us. One day when I was a kid he showed me the old League Park. It was in one of the worst neighborhoods on the east side where my beloved uncle went every day to collect overdue insurance payments. That was his job at the time. On the weekends he would take me with him and I’d wait in the car while he’d knock on doors and try to dun the bemused residents. Old League Park, when he took me there, looked like hell. I saw overgrown weeds and shards and bottles and toppled wires and God knows how many unseen rats and reptiles were in the underbrush.
“Ruth played here, son, and Lou Gehrig. This is where I sat and watched Walter Johnson toss a one-hitter against the Indians. Johnson was the best, the best ever.” I loved how he called me son. When I was a little older, the Browns beat the Colts 27-0 in the last NFL championship before the first Super Bowl. No one believed Cleveland had a chance. I phoned him midway through the first scoreless half. “Unitas keeps running for yardage,” I said nervously.
“That’s the way we want it,” he said. “That means we’ve got all his pass patterns smothered.”
“You think we can win?”
“Yes I do,” he said.
After he got sick, we hardly talked at all about anything. He didn’t want to and I didn’t know what to say. Once he made reference to his long-estranged brother and how nice it would be to hear from him “now that I’m dying of cancer.” That was the only reference so specific to his condition that I remember him making. I don’t remember how I replied but I most likely commiserated. He knew I loathed his brother, which had been another bond between us before he took ill.
I don’t remember how I found myself recruited to keep him company on successive Saturday afternoons in that nondescript and unwelcoming apartment from which all three of his sons had recently departed to make their way in the world. So nondescript, I cannot remember a single piece of furniture or carpet or where the toilet was in relation to the other rooms. I don’t even know why I was there, for he seemed to need no help in his dying and I could not imagine in what sort of emergency I’d be useful. I don’t remember having his doctor’s number or knowing what hospital to call. I guess they thought I could distract him with conversation but, as I say, we would speak so little after many years of speaking so much.
I cannot describe him physically now, I don’t really know why I cannot, except for a few basics: a moustache, kind eyes, husky before he was sick; a moustache, angry eyes, and increasingly emaciated afterward. I remember beginning to despise him for being so cowardly in extremis but grace under pressure was never my forte either and what difference does it make anyway? On the other hand, “you want this business to have a decent ending,” as my friend Dave Cohen once quipped, and that strikes me as true too. Of course it’s the legacy thing, your personal equity post mortem, rosemary for remembrance. Friend Rosemary had lymphoma when she was sixty but everybody kept talking about how brave and cheerful she was. Ten years later she was driving herself to Ann Arbor to visit her son. She is well-remembered. Then again, people are sentimental. They’ll find a way to fondly remember my beloved uncle as well if so inclined. I brought books along to read while he stared at the television.
I don’t remember if I wondered what was going on in his head. I may not have been thinking about that at all. Rank terror harrowed him; every hacking cough and expectoration made it ever more vividly palpable. Such terror is a repellent; it drives you toward anything mental or material that’s not part of the deathwatch. His brother was in his head, he’d already told me so. I suppose one of his sons was too, the one of the three even weaker and less honorable than he was. It had been ugly for years. The more my beloved uncle blamed himself, the more he’d lash out at the guy, almost on sight. But truth be told, they only turn out well by accident anyway. Truth be told, the best thing a parent can do for a child is to die young and leave enough money.
My beloved uncle was fired from so many jobs, but I don’t think he was incompetent or lazy. I think he was resistant. I’ve been like that myself from time to time, as if work was some dull force bearing down to steal my life away; precious, precious time was being squandered in the discharge of hollow responsibilities. I hate it when people wax piteous over somebody who doesn’t like his job – here again, the unhappy person as underclass – insisting that, as a beneficence of some natural order, everybody can eventually find something they can do that they like. Damn, how much better to seethe under the workaday surface than surrender up your all by convincing yourself you love it. It may be the world has proscribed the one thing, unhappiness, that more than any other invests in us our dignity. Not that I’m quite willing to depict my beloved uncle as an existential hero of some sort, but I do say that sometimes what looks like cowardly flight is really a refusal to give up. Maybe it’s why he died like a coward, or died seeming to be one, because that’s one job he couldn’t get fired from no matter how much he fucked up.
Funny, how the weak can be so mightily defiant. I remember a to-do he had in our house with his brother-in-law when I was ten or eleven. I don’t know what it was all about, no doubt money he expected to borrow or a job he wasn’t willing to take or advice he wanted even less. Anyway, I was on the couch, he was no more than ten feet or so away at the foot of the steps that led up to the bedrooms. His brother-in-law was upstairs, I guess sitting on the toilet there, wheedling down at him about something. He shouted back up with accusations and execrations that I cannot for the life of me remember, wish I could.
“Come on,” his brother-in-law managed to get in edgewise, “let’s take a walk and talk it over.”
“I won’t walk to hell with you!” exclaimed my beloved uncle, raising and shaking his fist as he thundered up in indignation. Later recalling the incident, I thought his choice of words odd because I imagined as I was remembering that he looked just like Milton’s Satan standing there in all his maniacal glory. A grand, ungodly, god-like man was my beloved uncle. But I think I also remember laughing about it that evening and I know his brother-in-law was fairly amused as well when I saw him later.
I cannot remember any of his jobs other than the insurance collections, except for the one he had with The Burdett Oxygen Company of California for which he moved his family to Van Nuys. I remember my mother talking about how it was killing his back to load and unload all those damn heavy tanks all day long, and somehow the picture of my beloved uncle weighed down by tons of oxygen has stayed with me all these years. We visited there when I was a child for his middle son’s Bar Mitzvah. I later found out my mother paid for the event even though she had no money.
Anyway, the Bar Mitzvah was lovely except I got Chicken Pox right after, which, o annus horribilis, led to encephalitis. I’m told I was lucky; if I had gotten it from Measles I’d have been brain-damaged. Maybe, but I read where encephalitis in general usually causes brain damage, which leads me to reflect that maybe I was severely brain-damaged after all, and all this, including this writing, is just one gyration of a damaged mind. I know it’s not such an uncommon fantasy to think you just think you’re normal, when you’re really semi-vegetative, but with encephalitis on my resume I’d say there’s a pretty good chance that my fantasy is no fantasy at all. (I remember Gary Moore – remember Gary Moore? – say on his show that he had a fantasy that the world as he knew it was a theatrical charade set up by his really rich parents as a diversion for their son. Strong stuff for that era!) My mother and my beloved uncle would drive hours each day to visit me in the hospital. They were allowed no more than fifteen minutes and they had to wear strait jackets lest they impulsively reach out and touch me, that’s how communicable encephalitis is. I can’t remember anything except what they looked like in those strait jackets and their awful sad faces. Oh, I do remember something else, which was another little boy in my room who also had encephalitis, and who I remember being told was Mexican. I guess in those years it might have been tough for Mexicans to get treated in a decent hospital in L.A. unless they were indeed public health hazards.
Oh I remember now, during one of those Saturdays at his place, it was thundering and lightening, we did talk a bit, and he did allude, albeit obliquely, to his death. We were staring out at the storm when he said, “I wonder if I’ll get punished.”
And I said, “Who’s going to punish you? For what?”
“For everything,” he said in that garrulous groveling voice that I also heard once in a while before he got sick, but that was now his normal tone.
There was a long pause until he said, “Everybody talks about what a great man my grandfather was but let me tell you something…I was, I don’t know, fourteen or fifteen, and me and my mother went to see him on his deathbed….” My beloved uncle seemed kind of far away in a way, because he seemed to be referring to his mother as if she were not also my grandmother, as if she were someone I never actually met. “Those crazy eyes of his, goddammit. And that long, long beard…And then Ma stepped out, I don’t know, to go to the toilet, I don’t know, and then the old man reached for my sleeve and told me to go out and get him a woman…”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that death makes some guys horny,” I said.
“You think I’m horny?” he asked, irritated. I was so embarrassed, so uncomfortable. How could I have said something that stupid! But he let me off the hook. “You believe in God?”
“Uh huh, me too. Sort of.”
“You’re worried God is going to punish you? For what?”
“I don’t know…everything and nothing.” His head was bent. Thinking back now, I don’t believe I ever saw a person so miserable like he was at that moment. And I remember now that at that moment I was remembering, and that I started to think back to a time, I don’t remember whose home we were in, when he and I were sleeping in the same bed, I don’t remember why. He was half-asleep and pulled me close, my back was to him, but I could see he had a satisfied smile on his face as he held me around my neck and shoulders. He loved me, and so he was holding me, that’s all, but I just hated it, I was so uncomfortable. And now I remember also remembering it years after that, years ago before now, I must have, because I told it to Larry Dan Caldwell, the bank robber, and Caldwell kept on asking me about it, in fact he said at one point during some other conversation, “Let’s get back to you and your uncle.” Caldwell was studying clarinet at the Music School Settlement. I wonder what Cleveland looked like when it was shaken by the global earthquake that followed on the Crucifixion. No one surviving those shock waves then or studying the topography now could possibly link the ravaged contours of this land to their specific and august cause so many thousands of miles away.
I don’t remember if I stopped visiting him first or if he died first. But I do remember now another time when we talked that must have been close to the end because I could sense its dank presence in the room and in his eyes, which were still angry but heavier than I had yet seen them, as if they were being taken over.
“What’s your favorite color?” I asked him abruptly.
“Who gives a shit?
“Mine is yellow,” I said, thinking over all the palpable mystical significations whenever Klee or Frankenthaler used it.
“Good for you,” he said.
“I want you to remember something,” I told him. “I don’t know if it’s true but I want you to remember it anyway because it can’t hurt.” My voice grew bolder, more resolute as he stared dully down upon me. “Whatever your favorite color is, I want you to forget it. Just as someday I’m going to forget all about my yellow. Put all colors out of your mind and just remember one thing.”
He kept his silence. I think he was confused by what I was saying or that I would even be talking like this at such a time. I continued. “After you die, you might see a smoky light off to the left and a bright white light right next to it. Do not, do not go to these lights because they lead to hell, and be extra careful because these colors are very, very attractive to people whose karma is full of anger, just like yours is and just like mine is.”
“Where did you get this crap?” he managed to ask.
“I got it from the Tibetan Book of the Dead,” I told him. “It might be crap but remember, it might not be.” No longer just strong, my voice was now stern. “I’m going to remember what I just told you, I’m going to remember it on my own behalf, I’m going to remember it until my dying day.”
He started to say something but I interrupted him. “And I strongly suggest that you remember it too, beloved uncle.”