Take a long, deep breath. You’ll be all right. You’re not dying. Aren’t you the one who got his eyesight back at the age of 68 by drinking reconstituted lemon juice? If you were really dying wouldn’t your whole life be passing before your eyes? You know where you are- California.
Your niece, Jean, the one who took you away from your home in Syracuse and brought you out to this smoggy, crowded, shaky earthquake-of-a-place, is shouting at you from the phone receiver which is dangling, hanging and banging, on the floor boards.
“Uncle Red. Uncle Red, can you hear me? I can hear you. What’s wrong?” Jean’s voice is usually soft and gentle- probably what got you out here in the first place. Her words call out to you, but you don’t answer. No words come out of your mouth, just the short, gasping, gurgling sounds made by air, sputum, and bits of chewed-up, left-over broiled chicken thigh you inhaled while sneezing a moment ago.
This niece- you can’t stop thinking about her- your brother’s daughter, Jean. Named after Jean Harlow, the movie star, she was, but, even though she bleaches her hair blonde, she sure didn’t end up looking like her, did she? Hey, who knows what Jean Harlow would have ended up looking like if she hadn’t died so young. They all die young, those blondies.
But now, this shouting woman, this present Jean, the woman who took you from your home in Syracuse where you’d lived for over 30 years and brought you out to California, this Jean should just leave you alone. Always pestering, always calling on her lunch hour to make sure you’re all right. Trying to save your soul, the whole crazy family. That’s what she’s doing. Thinks she has all the answers. Women’s stuff. Even Ollie, who never uttered a word of faith the whole time you were married, had asked someone to pray with her when she was dying.
“I’ve forgotten how,” Ollie was wailing. Remember? By golly, when you decide to die you aren’t going to need anybody’s help. The niece should have figured out you don’t want your soul saved. And you don’t want to be around her and her husband and their orderly lives. You told her you were baptized as a baby in Milwaukee in the German Lutheran church, just like her very own father, but that wasn’t enough for her. Oh, no. Oh, no.
Jean and her husband want you to come along with them to Hawaii when they retire. They’re even urging you to go along with them on their little jaunts every weekend to here and there. You have your own places you want to go. You were doing just fine after Ollie died and then one day Jean ups and comes to Syracuse.
* * *
“We found him in the snowbank, right over there, under that streetlight, by the corner there.” Mrs. Steele, the lady you rented the downstairs to was saying this to Jean. She’s the one who prayed with Ollie. The old bag had her beak stuck up to your dining room window and was pointing her finger through your curtains down to the edge of your property as if she owned it. Jean, who you had not seen since she was five years old, had flown in from Los Angeles the night before and stood right behind the old windbag- you could see them right there, right through the open bedroom door.
What’s the fuss? What’s the fuss? There was nothing wrong with you. A healthy man of 70, no damage done. All the doctor said was to drink lots of liquids and stay in bed for a few days. Lying there in Ollie’s old room, the closest to the bathroom, listening to their gabfest- did they think you were deaf?- you realized it was the busybody renter, Mrs. Steele, who had called Jean and made her come all that way.
“After Ollie died,” Mrs. Steele was saying, “he musta decided to go back to his old ways from before he was married.” Her voice came at you out of her tree of a nose like a buzz saw, straight at you. “It started in the summer. Ollie, she died in the spring, right before Easter, but, of course, you know all that.” She didn’t take a breath. “By summer, he was getting all spruced up. After-shave lotion. I could smell it in the hallway long after he was gone. Up the street he’d go, head down, pumpin’ those arms, just as the street lights was comin’ on. You know, he believes in exercise. He’s in good shape for an old man. ‘Get a sweat-on every day,’ he’s always tellin’ people. ‘Work. Work. Work.’ That’s the man’s salvation. He’d head straight to the bar, stay until the middle of the night, come home weavin’ drunk, smashin’ against the walls. It’s just too cold, too much snow here some winters for a man to be actin’ like that.” Finally, she interrupted herself. “How old is he anyway?”
“Seventy,” you heard Jean say. “He’ll be seventy-one in October. You know, I never met Ollie. We just corresponded.” That was true. Jean and Ollie had exchanged Christmas cards with letters folded in them for years, and, if you remember correctly, Jean had seemed a mite too excited when she first located you.
“Looky here,” Ollie had said, shaking Jean’s letter in his face, “this niece of yours says she’s never going to lose you again.” Whoopee. Lost and found.
After her conversation with the biddy from downstairs, Jean had come into the bedroom. She sat down on the chenille bedspread you were lying under with just your skivvies on, for Pete’s sake.
“You ought to sell this big, old house and everything in it,” Jean said, rubbing her hand over the nubbies. “Come on out to California and live with us.”
You thought about it for the two days you stayed in bed. California. You were there once, in 1935, during the Great Depression, when Jean was a cunning little five-year old. And there in Syracuse, in the middle of winter, the memory of those sunny skies and warm breezes made her suggestion seem like the right thing to do. Wouldn’t you know, the renter bought the house, furnishings and all, including the big Mr. Peanut cookie jar Ollie loved so much. Hell, with Ollie gone, it was only half a house anyway.
* * *
“Are you having difficulty breathing, Uncle Red?” It’s Jean again on that blasted telephone. Why does she have to talk so loud? “Lift up your arms.” She’s barking. “It will help you breathe.” The sound is coming out of that black circle with all the little holes in it. Again, “Lift up your arms.”
Boy, oh, boy, you can remember when there weren’t any phones in any houses you lived in. Your father had that job once stringing telephone lines all over the country. He was gone a lot. Wrote home about all the different foods he was eating. “Grease,” your mother said when he died.
What’s this Jean is telling you to do? Lift up your arms? Ha! You know what she’s really up to. Soon as she gets you to California, you’re barely off the plane and she’s taking you to church with her. Oh, they lift up their arms there, all right. Shouting. Waving their arms around. You can see right through this woman, this old Jean Harlot with her gray roots growing in at the temples every four weeks. She’s transparent all right, clear as a bell. Trying to force you to buy what she’s selling, she is. You were crazy to come out here. Go ahead. Chuckle to yourself. You sound like a balloon caught in a vacuum cleaner.
* * *
You would have sold vacuum cleaners, but you couldn’t find work and got tired of standing on street corners handing out broadsides urging voters to elect Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate for President. Your big brother, Jean’s father, who had given up on the movement, wrote that he found steady work building sets for the movies, even sent you the money to get to California, wanted you to move out there, could get you work, he said.
You enjoyed the visit, saw things you’d never seen- tall palm trees, trees with real lemons and oranges growing on them. But you came east again. Anyway, your brother died the next year, hit by a flat on a Charlie Chaplin movie set. Twenty-nine years old. Wife. Little Jean. And the one in the oven who got himself killed in the Korean War.
You finally found work as a ship’s cook on the St. Lawrence River. Years, years, years you spent on the water. Years of steady work. Good, hard labor. Real heart-pumping, pore-opening, sweet, sweat-pouring work.
You and Ollie met at the German Social Club, the year the Seaway Project started, 1954. You were forty-five, she was thirty. Told you she’d been married before, said she’d had two little boys, but you never saw them, only in some faded, old bent-up photograph she took out of a box every so often. And cried. Always told people she started working at eight years of age, hired by a wealthy family in Chicago to be a playmate for their children because of her refined looks.
And she was a good-looking gal- for an old buck like you. She was kind of loony but she made you laugh. She had it good with you, too, never had to work another day in her life after she married you. You’d come home and she’d lift up her apron and skirt for you. Pronto. “You sure can wiggle it around,” she’d say. You were married for twenty-three years, and for twenty-three years she’d pat her belly after you finished and call the tumor growing inside her your baby. Then it finally killed her. Pronto.
* * *
“Uncle Red, you’ve got to do something.” Jean again, Jean again, Jean again. Her voice is so shrill now, isn’t it? Urgent. Demanding. “You’ve got to do something.”
Do something? Do something? You’ve done and done and done. You’re the one who believes in doing. You’re Mr. Do. Doesn’t she care how hard you worked? It was hard standing up all those years. It’s hard work now. Sitting. Breathing. Can’t do it anymore. Who does she think she is? All that furniture, a whole household full in Syracuse. Just sold it. Gave it away. Patsy, the pastor’s wife, came over from Vermont and took a little rocker, a rabbit’s ears rocker Ollie called it, said it was worth some money. So, they took what they thought would look good in their houses. And you watched. Fool. Damned renter. Have a good time looking after Mr. Peanut now.
* * *
On that train trip in ’35, all the way out to California, your full head of red hair drew comments. When you got off the Santa Fe at the train station in Pasadena your big brother was there to meet you. You hadn’t seen each other in over five years and before you even started slapping each other on the back, you both laughed out loud because your hair, which was the identical flaming color, was cut alike too, short on the sides, kinky locks, long and combed back slick on the top. You could have been twins that day on the platform, only you were taller. Isn’t that the way it always is? The younger brother is the taller one.
It was springtime when you arrived, the Saturday before Easter. While you and your brother were waiting for the Red Car, you noticed a fat woman and a skinny little boy selling pastel-died baby ducklings from a big wooden box on the street corner. You bought a little turquoise one for your niece. Then, before you knew it, the three of you- you, your brother and little Jean, were standing on the sidewalk in front on your brother’s little stucco house in Sierra Madre. Your brother handed Jean a salt shaker. You bent over the child.
“Baby girl,” you whispered to her, “go catch that pretty duck I gave you. Sprinkle some salt on his tail and he’ll let you catch him. Then he’ll curl up in your arms and go to sleep.”
The sun was almost directly overhead. The little girl’s shadow was short and angled. The air, so dry and clean in your nostrils, made you feel hope for the first time in a long time. You watched Jean’s chubby little legs encased in white leggings, feet in polished high tops, her body covered by a starched white smock- cuter than Shirley Temple could ever be- run down the street and chase that duck every which-a-way. How that turquoise duck did run! How you and your brother did laugh. Your mouths were positively filled with laughter that day. Didn’t little Jean look like your baby sister, the one who died in the flu epidemic of 1917? Boy, oh, boy, did you tease her, too.
But, little Jean, at the corner by then, must have heard your laughter because she stopped and turned around. She looked straight at you. Her eyes, clean and as blue as the California sky overhead, shot you through and through. She knows, you thought, she knows. She knows you lied to her, that it is all a big joke on her. Now she is just like you- she doesn’t believe in anything. A breeze kicked up behind the two of you, you and your big brother. Your matching hair corkscrewed into the air. Flashing halos. The little girl in the distance started running back down the concrete path, right for both of you. She lifted her arm and pointed her finger.
“Fire, fire…” she called, “Two daddies’ heads on fire.”
* * *
“Uncle Red, can you hear me? Jesus. Jesus. Jesus.” It’s grown-up Jean’s voice again. Still trying to save you from the flames. “If you can hear me, just hang on. I’m calling for help now. Lord Jesus, Lord Jesus. Lord Jesus.”
But you are a duck now. A red duck. A platinum-haired woman- no roots growing in- is in a form-fitting white satin gown. How strange- she’s the same shape as Mr. Peanut. She’s chasing you. She has a salt shaker in her hand.
Come on. Slow down. Let her catch you.
Curl up in her arms.
Go to sleep.