Something was always going wrong in Uncle Ned’s life the last few years. First, of course, Auntie died, or maybe first should be the fact that she got sick, and how long she endured her sickness (“toughing it out,” as she would say in her hospital bed, her voice sounding like an alien’s, what with all the hoses up her nose or down her throat), the operations, the “treatments,” the false hope and the like. ‘First’ is sometimes a hard thing to quantify accurately, I suppose. Which means ‘second’ and ‘third’ and so on, well, they’re dicey, too, when you admit to yourself that things don’t really happen in a straight line, chronologically, the way history books and soap operas can make it out to seem.
We—my boyfriend Jim and me—were passing through Lansing on our way to Traverse City for a little late summer R&R, so we stopped in to see Uncle Ned. Jim wasn’t “into pit-stops,” he said, but I convinced him when I told him Uncle Ned was my favorite uncle, and didn’t he have a favorite uncle, too? He admitted he did, and what was even better—the honey dribbled over the peanut butter sandwich, so to speak—was his apology for being selfish. I practically fell in love with him all over again right there on the doorstep of Uncle Ned’s house.
We told Uncle Ned we’d only intrude for the night, not a second longer. He gave me a bear hug, and then he gave Jim a bear hug, too.
“When was the last time either of you hugged someone other than each other?” Uncle Ned said, smiling. “Bet’cha don’t remember?”
It was true; neither of us could remember our last hug outside the bounds of our pre-matrimonial union. Uncle Ned had heard about our engagement, but this was the first time I’d seen him since I’d called everybody I knew in the world to gush about my happy news. “So you two are really going to do it?” he said. “Like jumping off a building without a parachute, no? A lot of traffic on the street below? Doesn’t it feel that way, just a little bit?”
Jim laughed and nodded.
“You’re both pretty bad,” I chided.
“And watching from the sky-scraper windows are all your old boyfriends and girlfriends, happy as can be.”
“Wait—happy to see us get married, you mean?” I asked.
“Well,” Jim chuckled, exchanging winks with Uncle Ned. “To see us fall.”
The latest thing to have happened to my Uncle Ned involved his daughter, my cousin Emily, now suddenly in the mysterious habit of disappearing for days at a time. “She calls it ‘going underground,’” he told us, over dinner. We’d gotten takeout KFC, which was my Uncle’s favorite. Bones were flying, so whatever was going on with Emily, Uncle Ned’s appetite hadn’t been affected. He licked his fingers, said, “This might’ve started when her mother died, but maybe it started before, and I wasn’t paying attention. Did I tell you she’s in San Francisco now? Some people I’ve talked to say that’s probably not a good sign.”
I had once spent a weekend in San Francisco unscathed, so I didn’t see the connection. “It’s a big place,” I said, in lame defense of an otherwise beautiful city.
“Bigger than Lansing , for sure,” Uncle Ned said, a little sadly.
“L.A.’s the absolute worst,” Jim added, apropos of nothing.
In the evening, Uncle Ned and I sat on the front porch drinking iced tea. Uncle Ned had always liked to refer to himself as “a front porch guy,” meaning he didn’t go in for backyard decks or houses without porches. “A house should say ‘welcome,’” he would sometimes philosophize, “not, ‘hey, buddy, take it down the street.’ A front porch lets a person know you’re open for business—the business of being human.” Way back when, my brothers and sisters and I never pretended to have a clue what he meant by this or anything else he said, but we liked it when Uncle Ned held court because he usually kept us listening by offering us bribes—Oreo cookies, milk duds, Jujubes. To this day, my older sister Liz still fingers Uncle Ned for partial blame with all of her weight issues.
Jim was in the living room watching baseball on TV. Through the open window we could hear the fuzzy noise of the crowd.
“Jim makes himself comfortable,” Uncle Ned said, rocking in his chair. “I like that in a man. Means you can adapt. Means you can seek out the high ground in sometimes difficult or awkward situations.” He sipped at his iced tea. “Can’t always find that in young men. Can’t always find that, period.”
“Yeah,” I said, pleased with my good taste in men. “He’s a good catch. The KFC was his idea, by the way.”
“A prince,” Uncle Ned said. “A true Renaissance man.”
The other thing that had happened to Uncle Ned, at least the other thing that I knew about, was his forced retirement from General Motors. He’d been an engineer for twenty-six years, and then one Friday afternoon they escorted him out of the office, not even allowing him to say goodbye to his friends. Saturday, when the office was empty, they let him come back in to clear out his desk. I couldn’t remember whether this had all happened before Auntie died, while she was sick, or just after—it was all so hazy. Or maybe it just didn’t matter, which was how Jim saw it.
“The only thing that matters,” he whispered from cousin Emily’s bed, across the room to where I was, in cousin Cathy’s bed, “is that stuff happens. The other details are usually secondary.”
I could barely see Jim from where I lay.
I remembered, then, having slept in this room years before—sleeping with Emily and Cathy on the floor in sleeping bags. I remembered waking up in the night and realizing that Emily was missing, but I’d been too tired to search her out. Next morning, she was back between Cathy and me, snoring. When I woke her up and asked her where she’d gone in the night, she’d said, “What are you talking about?” And then, to throw me off my game, she countered with, “Where did you go last night?” I remembered her mischievous grin, then, followed by a look that said, simply, defiantly: Don’t.
I listened to Jim’s heavy breathing across the room. I loved him like an almost-husband, but I didn’t necessarily agree with his personal “stuff happens” theory. Everybody had one, I knew, and I gave him due credit for at least not saying “shit happens” or “everything happens for a reason,” when, after all, we’d been talking about my Uncle Ned and his troubles, and no such crude or pat remark would have saved him from my venomous wrath.
Restless, I put on my clothes and went downstairs; I knew Uncle Ned—classic insomniac—would be awake, fiddling about somewhere in the house.
I found him on the porch, sitting in the rocking chair in his pajamas.
“That’s mighty neighborly of you, Mister,” I teased, stepping out onto the porch. “Nothing says ‘We’re open for business’ like a pair of flannel PJ’s.”
Uncle Ned smiled and motioned for me to sit down in the chair next to him. The night was cool and breezy, and I thought I could see goose bumps on my uncle’s neck. In fact, he seemed to be shivering. He noticed me staring. “It’s no night for maidens and old men,” he said, affecting his best Vincent Price accent, the theatrical, overwrought voice he used to employ when telling his nieces and nephews bedtime stories. “That’s what the fairy stories would say,” he said, flashing a smile. “Jim asleep?”
“Dead to the world,” I said.
“Good man,” he said.
I picked up my chair and moved it next to his, so close that they were touching—he couldn’t even rock anymore. “Hey, what gives?” He said gently.
Without a word, I put my arm around his flannel covered shoulders. I thought, then, about Auntie, and about Emily, and even about Uncle Ned being shown the door at his workplace. I thought about how things can sometimes start long before anyone dares notice—sickness, hiding from the world, redundancy—long before there’s an obvious need, or a compelling reason, to do anything about it. And then about how it’s just too late, how you couldn’t do anything about it even if you wanted to. That was my theory about stuff happening, or, more to the point, my understanding of it.
“What are you thinking about?” Uncle Ned asked, patting my knee. The wind gusted a bit and blew back part of his flannel top, exposing his pot belly. “Oops, you weren’t supposed to see that,” he said. “You’ll have nightmares now.”
“I never have nightmares,” I said, lying.
“Neither do I,” he said, and I could feel him shiver—it made me shiver, too.
Jon Ballard’s poetry has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Blue Earth Review, The Valparaiso Poetry Review, Barnwood Magazine, The MacGuffin and many others. He has two chapbooks forthcoming in 2007: Lonesome (Pudding House) and Sad Town (Maverick Duck Press). A Michigan native, he currently lives in Mexico City, Mexico.
© 2008, Jon Ballard