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My uncle the lady killer

“There were so many girls. Too many. It was a shame. There were three girls who killed themselves because of him.”

THE SICKBED

I thought of him.

Bald, mottled head — a weary planet come to rest against a pillow on the arm of the urine-soaked couch. The respirator beside him clicked. It sighed. He, sighing in his sleep, mumbled words he spoke as a boy. Where is the boy? He lies wet, naked in grass beside a river. He touches a pretty girl’s face. He sits sunburned on horseback playing Wild Bill Cody. He casts his shadow in a photo he stands taking: An Army Buddy Before Sundown on Chesapeake Bay. And the nephew stands at the door and watches. The room past its threshold is dim. The nephew enters and sits near the couch. He watches a hairy vein in his uncle’s throat throb. He wonders if its rhythm matches his own. He wonders if this is

how he will die someday.

This is how his uncle dies. His nephew has, after all, seen the photos — carried them in boxes from the garage, brought them home, spread them on the floor. Studied them. Now the nephew contrasts that photo-history with the stubborn half-life fading fast in the foul-smelling and dark room. His uncle’s head rises slowly from its stale nest upon the couch. The neck extends tortoiselike from the shell of sleep. The bleary eyes crack open, and the dry turtle’s mouth opens to form a whiskery hold. Sounds come out:

“So? How’s business?”

“Business,” the nephew says, scooting his butt to the edge of his chair, “is just fine.”

“Are you making good money?”

“I’m doing fine.”

“Good, good,” the uncle rasps, settling back into slow-motion slumber. His respirator clicking and pumping — a sturdy little engine chugging and puffing, pulling the uncle on the steepest hill he’ll ever climb.

The uncle

The uncle

PANORAMA

Not money. The uncle bequeaths the nephew box after box of photos he has taken over the considerably long course of his life. There are the childhood photos. The snappily dressed young immigrant photos. And many pictures of young ladies. In fact, in the war-era albums the uncle captioned his photos in white ink: “Dot — A Girl in Indiana”; “Pure and INNOCENT Eleanor”; “Sweet Sophie of Cleveland”; “OH, HOW PRETTY Irene”; “Gene Carroll, Loves-to-kiss”; “Sophisticated Roberta of Ossining, N.Y.” (she, Sophisticated Roberta, leans in mid-length mink, her hands tucked into a muff, against the door of a big black Packard). There are hundreds of photos. But a photo is something less than a memory; it is less than an event. A photograph is an object used to trigger chemical reactions in the mind. These reactions form the compound we have labeled “time.” Though bloated by cancer, an uncle’s skull is of finite volume. Moreover, a brain besieged by disease fairly boils with reactions to the present and has no use for more unsavory time. This is why the uncle gave his photos to his nephew.

The uncle wanted to tell his nephew what to think. Some photographs tell more than others. A portrait of a young woman: she stands behind an armchair. She wears a plain black dress and stares at the camera with resolute sadness. Behind her the photographer stood, no doubt, the uncle known to this family as a legendary, good-looking heartbreaker. Through the clairvoyance granted to lonely women, she knows it was all over long before their tryst ever began. Even as the camera’s shutter bites off the particles of light bearing her face, her sad mouth, she sees her images pasted to a page in this soldier’s cluttered album. Yet she stands staring a thousand miles off, as if D-Day hadn’t mattered, as if the Japs hadn’t surrendered. As if the continent, the world, being reborn around her to another age, were simply incidental to the face of this handsome man — the uncle/this heartbreaker. The war was only a blemish caused by history; its vicissitudes, its privations etched in the corners of her mouth.

She stares and continues to stare.

“Remember Coney Island,” the uncle wrote beneath her photo.

“Who is she?” the nephew asks, bringing the album close to his aunt’s face in the hot afternoon air inside the garlicky apartment. She scratches the back of her head with the handle of a stained wooden spoon. She squints at the picture until her eyes are slits. A sauce pot on the stove lazily raises its lid and spits a stream of froth down its side. The aunt squints and clicks her tongue. “Aw, how am I supposed to know?” she wags her spoon at the photo. “There were so many girls. Too many. It was a shame. There were three girls who killed themselves because of him. Didn’t your father ever tell you?”

She pulls the album down with her as she settles at the kitchen table. Turning pages with one hand, she digs in her apron pocket with the other and extracts a crumpled handkerchief. With it, she dabs her upper lip. Pages turn. Decades pass. “He looked just like James Cagney when he was young,” she says. “And he hated that. God forbid any woman should tell him that he looked like James Cagney. He could get violent. But they’d always come back. He had a way with women. They just loved him. Three girls killed themselves on account of my brother. He just broke their hearts. Did I ever tell you that?”

Across the room, the uncle dozes. His head is round, seamless, smooth as a melon and ripe with cancer.

“He was a lady-killer,” the aunt says and taps her spoon decisively on the pink Formica top of the table.

She peers down at the photos. She has reached those taken in the early 1930s. Pressing the white cloth across her mouth, she studies girls in cloches, drop-waisted dresses, cot- ton lisle stockings, roll garters. The uncle, her brother, wearing fedoras. An unknown man stands in a black overcoat with a closely cropped fur collar. He wears a homburg. A trio of girls pose, their coats with lamb cuffs folded over their arms. The Jazz Age on the skids.

“That’s her. I think. With the long curls,” the aunt says pointing her spoon at a lovely girl standing on steps, her long hair coiling over her breasts. “Oh, how she loved him. At least that’s what they said. She hanged herself in the basement. A nice girl. Such beautiful hair.”

The aunt squints at the long-curled girl. The aunt lives in the ambient past; her doctor says her brain has atrophied. The present eludes her, and it is just as well. She forgets her address; she forgets her phone number. She forgets that her brother is dying. So, he without a future and she without an immediate past have been placed in this small apartment for the convenience of a dwindling family. When lucid, the two of them argued like children. Pots and pans were thrown. Glassware was thrown. Fits were thrown. Confusion prospered until the family announced, with one voice, that if the aunt and uncle (brother and sister) continued to battle, they would be left alone in their disrepair. Then the elderly and violent siblings sulked. They refused to eat. Disheartened by the prospect of civility, the uncle took to the couch with his respirator beside him and began to sleep, longer and longer. She, the aunt, bewildered by the encroaching calm, ran her hands through her hair, clutched at her throat, and periodically staggered disheveled outside to search for the present in the gauzy Southern Californian light.

It has clearly been a pitiful and ironic road that has led these two from their ancestral Transylvanian village to this collapsing point in their lives. To this aromatic apartment in La Mesa where the aunt, in her few clear-minded hours, bustles about the kitchen, frying, boiling, and baking the old-country dishes that her brother, in his few clear-minded moments, requests she prepare. However, no one eats the leaden cornmeal mush, nor the stuffed cabbage, nor the shiny yellow pancakes fried in sweet butter then filled with cheese or jam.

“The way it smells when it cooks reminds him of our mother,” the aunt explains as she hefts the dead weight of yet another Balkan delicacy into the already overburdened freezer. With a grunt, she shoulders the refrigerator door closed and moves to pour steaming corn mush from its pot onto a spotless white platter. She nudges the mass with her spoon, then she leaves it to cool. She totters, to the kitchen table.

“That’s the girl,” she says again pointing to the one with long curls. “Killed herself because of your uncle. Her mother found her in the basement. Her mother is dead now, too. Probably.”

DOUBLE EXPOSURE

The long-curled girl makes her way up the hill, the dirt and rock road to her house. She turns and walks back- ward, looks at the town in its valley, at the poisonous, slate-colored sky. Her hair sticks to the sweat on her forehead, her coat smells of sweat and kerosene.

She steps into the house, holds her palm to her face, presses the doorknob’s coppery, greasy stink to her nose. She thinks of how she could never talk her way into America, travel into it from this Pennsylvania valley, thinks of how if she could only get the feel of speech past her teeth, get her soul out of her mouth, the rest would follow. She could step into a new dress and leave her mother behind. Andy would take her. She could see them leaving her mother, feel her weight easing into the seat as the car accelerated. Andy takes her and laughs, her hair lifted from the back of her neck by the wind.

She ignores the kitchen because it stinks in there. She sat and watched her mother eat in there.

She goes onto the back porch. The Polish boys next door are drunk. Nothing grows on either side of their back porch — they stand and piss from it. In the summer they get drunk and stay out under that old tree all day and by dinner start to beat each other senseless. She’d sat on her porch a thousand afternoons and watched them swing their hairy fists.

From across the yard the boys don’t even look at her as she walks down three wooden steps, turns, down three more and crouches through the small door and down six steps into the basement. A bucket, a shovel, sooty with coal, scratch her stockings. It’s dark enough that she could be blind.

There’s a trunk. She knows everything that’s in it: a baby’s dress, some newspapers from Romania, a pair of overalls, a men’s wide belt. She pushes the trunk to the basement’s center. She crawls to the place behind the steps and finds her hands among spiders and stone, the length of rope she tied to that old tree that held a swing — the slat of wood she straddled as she swung high, her hair falling over her face as she fell, high enough to see the town.

She stares at the trunk’s lid and thinks of her mother eating in the kitchen. She watches her spoon lonely bread soaked in milk into her mouth. She hears the spoon click against the bowl’s lip. And when her mother finishes, wipes her hands on the rag in her lap, her simple smile fills her daughter with equal measure of revulsion and tenderness.

This contradiction is never easier; it never strangles her less. She would kill her mother if she could, but the only way to have softened the blows from that earnest love would have been to have packed days and miles between herself and that tired woman. But Andy was gone and she didn’t love him less. He never loved her.

She steps onto the trunk, steadies herself with one hand against the splintery beam across the ceiling. She tosses one end of the rope over the beam and uses the same knot she used for the swing around a branch of that old tree. She secures the length tightly around the beam. An arm’s worth of rope later, she winds three coils around her throat. She pushes the frayed, free end of the rope beneath the coils. Her necklace’s clasp digs into her neck. She pinches it out from under the rope, pulls hard, snapping off the thin chain and its small, silvery flower that flies to the dark floor. “Ooooh, Andy,” she sputters.

She spits strands of hair from her mouth. Her underarms are slippery with sweat. Wrestling, her head thrust back, she tries to shake off her coat. Its collar falls from her shoulders. Her arms snare in their narrow sleeves. She decides it doesn’t matter.

She raises her right leg, feels the cold basement air rush up her thigh to her crotch, sees the mud on the toe of her shoe, thinks she’s about to fall headfirst downstairs the way she did when she was eight. Her left knee, bearing her weight, buckles. She pitches forward and down, her right heel hitting the trunk’s rusty lock.

She hears the rope’s trombone sigh as it strains against the beam. The toes of her shoes brush the basement floor. The trunk sits just behind her free-swinging heels. Straining her legs, pointing her toes, she can ease the rope’s pull. She can’t help trying. Her weight shifts, she spins, she feels something pop between her shoulders. The sucking sounds she makes must sound like a mouse’s voice, she thinks. Her arms trapped in her coat flap against the small of her back. Outside, the Polish brothers laugh. She hears glass breaking. They laugh and say something in Polish she doesn’t understand.

ONE-WAY STREET

The uncle came out west after the war. He drove. Perhaps during that trip the photographic process itself changed. Technological advances. For whatever reason, the light is hazy in the photos he took during his trip. Pictures taken in clean daylight have an odd crepuscular quality as if daylight were a faintly porous membrane stretched across night. Night bleeds through these bright photos.

The uncle came to full maturity during the war; the soldierly libertinism sanctioned by that period afforded the full expression of the uncle’s manly adult selfishness. Hence the kiss- and-tell photos (i.e., Sophisticated Roberta of Ossining, N.Y.). Hence the collection of souvenir shots taken with “native girls” on islands visited during a tour of what was then called the Pacific Arena. Guilt, boredom, or GI wanderlust piqued by such swaggering tourism drew the uncle to California.

He got in his car and moved across miles of tired, hot asphalt blown by sand; pulled Coca-Colas from the slushy coolers at stark filling stations; wandered off the road in his baggy chinos to marvel at cactus, desert sunsets. And at some point during this trip, the essence of this man at that time was trapped forever in persistent and incandescent clarity:

A picture taken in the 1940s. The uncle stands on a road, glaring at the camera, in a pale two-button jacket and mismatching pants. His hands are balled into thick, industrial-strength fists. The landscape he inhabits — some unforgiving nowhere, where the sun always shines.

He wanted to tell others what to think.

There are two photos taken, later in his California life. In one, from the 1970s, he stands near a taxidermied tiger and a taxidermied lion. The uncle, wearing a cap, pulls the tiger’s ear and pokes a finger in its mouth. In the other photo, taken some 15 years earlier, the uncle and some gal wearing a party hat flank a mute king of beasts. The Mighty Hunter: a recurring dream.

There were no tigers or lions in rural Austria-Hungary. Instead, disease and poverty stalked the defense- less. These predators tracked the uncle in his mind. Tucked away in his boxes of pictures are two coffee-colored photos taken of his parents. His mother is stooped, dis- heartened; a black kerchief covers her hair. The father wears traditional peasant garb. Refugees. Victims. The uncle once told the nephew how he had been cornered by a group of Polish boys when he was a child in a small immigrant town out- side Chicago. Cursing him in their mother tongue, they beat him bloody with tree branches felled by a storm — “It had rained the night before, and the wind brought the branches down.” Even nature conspired against him.

The route the uncle traveled to reach the desert road where he stood staring down a camera with the locked jaw and the mismatching pants is not a difficult one to follow. It is the route drawn in red that traverses recorded history — it’s the familiar route along which cruelty, goaded by despair, paces human frailty.

Finally, in California, some 84 years after his departure, the uncle arrived at the point where all drawn lines converge. The coordinates of that point describe a small apartment in a halfhearted attempt of a city beside the Pacific Ocean 20 minutes by car from the Mexican border. The apartment is cluttered with the derelict, small-scale dreams of a man who had known, whose genetic composition remembered the poverty and the need to flee from it that is felt by the poor. There are the long-play records of steam-train rumblings, whistle blows, and metal wheels clanking along tracks. In the pockets of his sweat-stained

and rotting, wide-lapelled, padded-shouldered suits, his nephew will find small glass vials containing insignificant quantities of gold. The uncle’s sister will cluck over neatly wrapped packages of dozens of bars of soap, decades old (bought on sale?), stored in the boxes sheltering his accumulated

pack-rat wealth. These boxes sit stacked around the couch where he lies dying.

NATURE AND SIGNIFICANCE

The weather is immoderate when the nephew again visits his uncle. Outside the air above the city is a filthy

brown haze. Inside the apartment, the hot and acrid air does not move. Thick with the odors of decay and heavy food, the air is stirred about the uncle’s room by a black metal electrical fan. As the fan swings its lead slowly from side to side, it fills the nephew’s face with the smell of his dying uncle; it disturbs the few surviving filaments of white hair on the uncle’s grotesquely swollen head.

The respirator clicks and sighs.

The aunt rests, asleep, at the kitchen table; the slack flesh of her sweating face ressed against its surface. The bun of hair at the nape of her neck has come undone, its coarse, gray knot rests against her jaw.

As the nephew moves toward his uncle on the couch, through this sleepy calm, his shoes squeak on the linoleum. The nephew stops. His uncle does not stir.

From where the nephew stands, the uncle’s head — its pale, veiny, irregular surface — is the face of the full moon. Each mole, each bump, each indentation a symbol of the uncle’s individual microcosmic astrology. Perhaps these markings foretell the uncle’s death, foretell the long-curled girl’s body swinging in the basement like a pendulum demonstrating the Earth’s spin on its axis. Perhaps these signs would instill in the nephew a hereditary predilection for desertion. The womb produces hideous things; could it not produce moral monsters as well?

Would the shared blood coursing through the nephew’s veins cause him to someday leave lovers swinging from ropes in his past as well? Romance is a complicated business.

The nephew stared at his uncle’s head. Like the satellite it resembles, through similarly invisible natural laws, it affected the ebb and flow of the liquid, predestiny within the nephew. Would he someday pay for his sins in this way, through pain gradually ripening in his body?

Science has remarked that the fetus’s in utero development resembles the stages of mammalian evolution — from gills, then a tail, and so on, to the final humanoid resolution. To the nephew’s mind (though confused by its youth) it seemed fitting that the adult organism should physically bear the consequences of its history. The uncle would struggle, finally, through a year’s worth of atonement, gasping for breath from tumor-choked lungs, his head nearly bursting with rot.

We all wait in similar lines.

Not curiosity, but fear dragged the nephew then to a fortune teller. Through the uncle’s past the nephew hoped to see more clearly his own future — he suspects it is not what Christians call grace but something very close to its opposite, that keeps his own heart beating, his blood pumping, his feet plodding every unsteady step of his way. But where was this way leading?

On a late afternoon the nephew hands the uncle’s bifocals, magnifying glass, and a photo he had taken to Eustace — a middle-aged man with pale blue eyes who pushes back the cuffs of his beige shirt, pushes aside a deck of Tarot cards, closes his eyes, and holds the eyeglasses between his palms.

“These belonged to a man, someone close to you. I think he’s dead....”

Only a dead man would allow a stranger to dirty his glasses. Eustace relied upon more than simple intuition. In his plain Hillcrest apartment with its kitchen counter cluttered with vitamin bottles, Eustace hedged his bets with commonplace logic. And he, as do we all, simply guessed.

The soft-spoken for- tune teller with thinning hair reaches for the photo. It is the one of the girl standing behind the chair staring sadly at the camera. He passes his hands over the photo as if giving benediction.

“A very highly evolved soul,” he says of the sad girl. “But very innocent, not naïve but open to the world. She couldn’t protect herself the way most of us can. It would be easy to break her heart. I think she’s still on the Earth plane, here with us. For some reason I have the feeling her name began with an

L... Maybe Lillian, or Laura, I think she was called Laura....”

Call her Laura. The uncle didn’t name her in his album.

Eustace screws up his face, waves his hand at Laura’s photo a few more times. His attempt to tran- scend the mundane faltered. Eustace grunts with dissat- isfaction. Laura’s photo will say no more. He scribbles something on a card and slides it to the nephew: the price for naming the sad girl. Fifty dollars.

A MANY-SPLENDORED THING

In southern Brooklyn, on a boardwalk at night, he takes a walk with young Laura. Her wrists and ankles are thin; she has been formed with Appalachian delicacy. She is so pale, so white, each emotion within her registers dramatically in the skin on her chest, her throat, her lace. After she cries, her eyes appear bruised. Her family is poor. He buys her small things. Flowers, taffy, a hot dog. Her dress brushes against his knee as they walk.

They are passing a photographer’s booth. Andy takes her hand and leads her inside.

“Aw, Andy, no. Let’s do something else,” she says.

He smiles. “C’mon, cutie. It’ll give us something to remember each other by.”

She frowns, ducks her face away from his.

He draws her close, places her hand low on her back, clutching her. The sequins on her collar catch the boardwalk’s light. She complements his embrace — presses her hand just above his heart.“Whatta ya mean by that? You’re not gonna see me again after tonight?”

He lies.“Are you crazy?” gives her hand a squeeze. “I’d hafta be nuts to dump a girl like you.”

As soon as she is posed behind the armchair, she can barely see through all the light to Andy’s face. The photographer fusses with his camera, tells Laura to stand still. The sounds from Luna Park — ringing bells, a roller coaster, screeching girls — come into the booth. The photographer claps his hands in satisfaction — she stands alone in sharp focus. She is young and pretty. Andy has her. The photographer tells her to look at his finger, wiggles it just above the camera.

She stares and continues to stare.

“REMEMBER Coney Island,” Andy writes beneath her photo in his album.

He had many photos of himself. In each of the early ones — taken while he was young — confidence, vanity. Posing in While-U- Wait photo booths. Angling his chin to catch his best side, his cheekbones, his jaw, his eyes. The gals mounted like trophies in his albums (“The One that Got Away”). Poverty and possession. He hoarded moments, living, his life as one long pile-driving against ever-yielding time.

A BRIEF MANUAL OF STYLE

His nephew can never sleep on airplanes. He is not afraid of the aircraft exploding, of his getting sucked through a jagged hole in the fuselage and spat into space. He has never slept in an airplane. Travel does not agree with him: that such great displacement can be accomplished so easily, that such vast distances can be traveled imperceptibly are the facts of modern life that rob him of sleep.

Place one of the uncle’s boyhood photos near one taken shortly before his death. At light’s speed the laughing child is the weary old man. Physics made flesh: time is something we bring. We all deserve to die.

A photograph taken one week before the end of the uncle’s life. He sits against a wrought-iron fence outside a bank on Broadway, downtown. One leg dangles casually, the other foot planted on the sidewalk. He sits upright, spine straight, his arms are folded across his abdomen. He wears a plaid shirt, a black cap. One hand is hid- den beneath an elbow; the other is tucked beneath his biceps and ribs. He is ashamed of his hands, swollen, knotted, uselessly arthritic. He couldn’t make a fist if he tried.

Glare across his glasses obscures his eyes. He is nearly blind. This man who stared his whole life directly, bravely into cameras, who never blinked, now gazes off to one side — away from his photographer. A lone cameraman’s target; the uncle’s mouth is taut with sorrow. What is he thinking?

He is thinking he is going to die.

Days after this portrait in front of the bank, his arms lashed by cotton straps to the sides of a hospital bed, he gurgled and writhed. He tossed his head from side to side. His sister-in-law, the nephew’s mother, stroked his forehead, begged God for a little mercy, though the odds for forthcoming grace by this time were unmistakably slim. The uncle groaned, sucked in air convulsively, each effort the equivalent of a young man’s full day of work. At the end, very close to the end, he opened his eyes, clotted with mucus, with tears (it was difficult to tell), he searched the air over his bed for his sister-in-law’s face.

“Here I am,” she said.

“Oh, sweetie,” he sighed, “Oh, honey, can’t you do anything to help me?”

Remember Coney Island. The subject is “the uncle.” The verb — simple past form of “to be.” Each image of the uncle is a clause, a fine-tuning description refining the subject. Clause after clause, the subject grows more distinct as the phrase lengthens, moves away from its subject. A photo or ink on paper: a two-dimensional world. Drawn lines, words on a page cannot move up or out from their point of departure. They can only move away.

When a thought is finished, grammar dictates a dot to be made at the end of every sentence. A point, a little black hole that signifies completion, that halts the flow of words and converts them into a coherent or incoherent whole

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