Four Little Stories About Uncles
by Lane Rogers
My Aunts Have Been Married Numerous Times
Becky and Pam each once. Cherie three times and Stephanie four. Of the fifteen grandchildren of my Momma and Poppa, there are five mothers and nine fathers. But there are very few uncles.
Uncles are the spice. Counterpoint, social unrest, provocative lyrics. They are the reason several of my cousins turned out blonde.
Because of the particularities of my particular family, my uncles are of the narrative variety. They are in the past, each leaving a cousin with a new last name. They have turned my aunts into tragic heroines: the aunt living gingerly in the home with the cracked foundation while her husband, an Episcopalian minister, contemplates leaving her; the aunt whose car hydroplanes on a slick road, leaving her in a coma, pregnant, her most recent husband disappeared, a life of born again Christianhood in her austere future; the aunt who tells us that her husband had a first wife and child in Korea. Grand epics in a minor key. Disappearing uncles. Sad, but scrappy, aunts.
Of course, each of my cousins has a ubiquitous, non-narrative uncle: my father, Uncle Chuck. It is just my brothers and I who have no uncles anymore. We are Uncle's children, the only cousins to bear the family name.
My cousin Josh, who works at the Speedway, has a nametag that reads Salad Head. This refers to his dyed-blonde dreadlocks, which ravel from his head in many directions. There's something in our past for which Josh can't forgive me: when I was two, I stood in his front yard, screaming. I wasn't screaming for any reason. I was just screaming because I could. But Josh's dad, my uncle Larry, busted through the screen door to save me, busted through it like it was a paper hoop.
"He didn't even bother to open it," Josh says to me across the counter at the Speedway, where I am buying gas and where he is running the cash register. "Because he thought you were in trouble. But you weren't."
I have no memory of this. What I remember about Larry is that I heard he'd come back after the divorce and threatened Cherie and the kids with a shotgun. I think Josh holds this against me: an act of violence on Larry's part, but directed in a caring way. I don't think Josh believes I deserve that.
Larry died sometime last year, a truck driver. Josh has blonde dreadlocks, but his goatee grown long is red-brown and wiry, like pubic hair, which is exactly what Larry's hair was like.
Josh says, "He broke the door down."
Two in a line of four, the Iranian husband of Stephanie, he cooked us a kind of meat I remember as "kabob." It seemed to be made of hamburger, in a long thin shape as if you might put it in a hot dog bun. When you pressed your fork on it, a green juice came out. Once he and Stephanie took me to the park for a picnic. "Come here," he said, and sat down on the picnic table most particularly shaded by overreaching trees. Holding out an arm, he used the first two fingers of the opposite hand briskly to rub the spot inside his elbow. Thin, black tubules grew beneath his finger tips. "You do it, too," he said. Inside my elbow produced the same tubules, which he allowed me to believe was worms.
Though I know now, for sure, that it was just dead skin, darkened by dirt and rolled like tiny rugs, this remains a moment of great wonder.
For years my dad and my aunts try to use Christmas as a chance to get hi-tech equipment for my Momma and Poppa, equipment that will give them more things to watch on TV and allow them access to the internet, which would, for example, allow my grandparents to keep up with family and would also help my grandfather with his genealogy research. They're trying to bring pieces of the world into their parents' house, almost in the way our dog would go out into the world and bring back pieces of deer. This was his gesture of love.
A record I had as a child featured Anne Murray. Anne sang, "A song of love is a sad song, Hi Li Lee, Hi Li Lee, Hi Lo. A song of love is a song of woe, don't ask me how I know." All these lyrics are lodged in my head, taking up indelible space that I might have been able otherwise to use for remembering helpful things.
The things they buy my grandparents include an electronic word processor, a cordless phone, web tv, and a digital cable system. Everyone thinks that my grandparents will enjoy these gadgets, but they don't. Although my dad tries to help, the digital cable never gets installed. My grandparents still use the old weather-vane antenna, the rusty pole you put both hands around and turn, pointing toward a city, trying to pick up the waves.
This Christmas my grandfather mentions Stephanie's old husband, Khosrow, to me. "I've been thinking about him," my grandfather says. "Because he was a Shi-ite Muslim. I've been wondering how he's doing with all this," hand spreading gesture, this year's bombings, the state of the world. My grandfather says "Shiite" like he says all complicated words, humorously, with exaggeration, as though he's rolling around a butterscotch in his mouth. He also says "crick" on purpose, as if backwoods is a role that he's playing for his own amusement.
We haven't heard anything from Khosrow for some twelve years, but he still exists there in the little box in my grandfather's head. One of the ways in which, though my grandparents stayed in Indiana, their children brought the world in. Difficulties: their gesture of love.
About the author:
Lane Rogers works hard for the money.