Prose
Preserves
by J. Bowers


My great-uncle John wants to get all the Santas done by July.

He explained this to me on my very first afternoon, and he’s repeated himself several times since then, usually whenever I get up to refill Dixie cups for our paintbrushes. He always starts muttering our projected work schedule like it’s military intelligence, or something from the church bulletin.

“Santas through June, then we start the jack o'lanterns. If we finish those by August, there’s Easter rabbits.”

I hear Uncle John scrape the figurine he’s painting across the vinyl tablecloth. It’s identical to the five he painted yesterday afternoon, to the six he finished the day before that, identical to the one waiting, half-finished, on my side of the table. A grinning seven-inch ceramic Santa, with one tiny clay hand resting on his distended belly, and the other disappearing into the pocket on the front of his pants.

Every day, I paint about eight of him--give them all red clothes, peach faces, and something called “antique white” for the beards and fur trim. And every day, I wonder what Santa's doing with his hands in his pants.

“You hear me, Joel?”

Great-uncle John raps his paintbrush against the table when he wants my attention, but all I ever really hear is his oxygen machine wheezing away, in and out, in and out.

“Yeah, I hear you, Uncle John.”

“Your aunt Kit always got the Santas done by July.”

I finish filling the cups, and open the fridge for another Diet Coke. That's all there ever is.

“We’ll get the Santas done by July,” I tell him, popping the can open, because his swollen joints can’t make it happen. I put the soda beside uncle John’s half-finished Santa, and squirt more antique white onto my cardboard palette. His hand trembles as he drinks. I don’t sit down just yet--I watch him, and he watches me, with his sticky-looking blue eyes, with his wormy lips working against the aluminum as he swallows. I can tell he’s holding his breath, concentrating his way through the thing.

It’s a tense moment for both of us. Just last week, he slipped and ended up with a lapful of soda. Mom suggested that I get him one of those no-spill sipper cups, the kind toddlers use. But when I checked out the baby needs aisle at the grocery store, all the cups came embossed with pictures of Big Bird, or shaped like smiling plastic lions, and I couldn’t put Uncle John through that. He’s already stuck in the kitchen from noon, when the visiting nurses leave, until six at night, when they come back. Then they tidy up any messes we’ve made, give him his dinner, and carry him through to the front room, to his bed. Mom and one of her brothers moved it to the first floor after Aunt Kit died, and fixed it so he can watch TV until he falls asleep. So the visiting nurses tuck him in there, I guess, and hope he doesn’t wet himself during the night, while I’m out with my friends, smoking pot and playing video games.

“I think all that’s humiliating enough,” I told Mom, as she stood in the supermarket aisle, clutching a Teletubby sipper cup. I left out the part about the pot, of course, but I think I made my point.

“I’m not making him drink Coke out of that.”

Uncle John puts his soda down beside a jar of “merriest red,” and the can wobbles a little bit, but I think we’re safe, this time. I start daubing pink smudges onto my Santa’s cheeks. I’d say that I’m beginning to hate his expression, but I’ve hated it for weeks now--his effeminate lips, his cock-eyed ceramic stare.

Just last night, in fact, I had a dream about dipping them all headfirst into buckets of house paint, painting everything black, just like the Stones suggested. But the Santas wouldn’t sell too well at the yard sale if I did that for real, though, and that’s what all this painting is for. Every completed figurine will sell for five to seven dollars during Old Fashioned Days this September--God only knows why. But I’ll skip school to set up card tables on the front porch, where the Santas will be displayed next to my Aunt Robin’s potpourri-stuffed snowmen, and glittering jars of homemade jelly. I guess the visiting nurses will help me move Uncle John out there for the afternoon, if it isn’t raining. He likes fall a lot. He isn’t allowed to go outside during the summer, because his lungs are too weak to handle the pollen count, so we stay in the kitchen. We paint ceramic Santas, with the air conditioner turned up to ten.

"Joel?"

My attention snaps back onto jolly old Saint Nick. Mine's blushing just a little too much. I've really been going crazy with the pink paint. Or maybe he knows that I have guesses about what his hand's really doing in that pocket.

"Yeah?"

"Go get us some more of these Santas?"

This happens at least twice every afternoon, even though the kitchen already has a whole army of them, standing in pristine white ranks atop a piece of plywood that someone--not Uncle John, it's too heavy for him--balanced on top of the radiator. We have plenty of Santas. We have a week's worth of Santas up here, at least.

"Sure," I say.

"And take the dry ones down, will you?"

"Sure," I say again, getting up. We've already finished painting seven--I pick them up carefully, between my thumbs and forefingers, and put them down, carefully, in their narrow cardboard box. Uncle John watches, chewing the skin behind his lips, making sure that I don't take any while they're still wet, and spoil the paint. His left eye twitches a little.

"All right," he finally tells me, nodding more than necessary.

"All right." I say.

Uncle John isn't allowed to go into the cellar anymore--his oxygen cord doesn't reach that far, and the steps are steep. But I'm allowed. That's a big part of why he hired me this summer. Aunt Kit always kept her ceramics in the cellar, close to the kiln, and he's really gung-ho about doing ceramics this year. Mom says it's his way of dealing with her death. But ceramics were always exclusively Aunt Kit's thing, never something they did together, not like the canning.

The cellar was the center of my great Aunt Kit's universe. I can remember squatting at the top of the stairs with my cousin Josh, five or six years old, watching her back cringe down into the darkness. She put her house slippers on over her socks, stuck her hand on the railing, and yelled at us as she drifted down--stay in the kitchen until I get back, she'd say--get away from the stairs, you damned kids. She'd return a few minutes later, clutching cold clay jack-o-lanterns and Easter rabbits against her dollar store sweatshirt, or fat little mason jars full of last year's squash.

Josh always claimed that our Great Aunt Kit was a witch, that the green beans we ate with our ham and potatoes used to be children's fingers, that the yellow-tinged liquid bathing them was actually dog pee. I thought she looked like the emperor from Star Wars. And I think she knew that we said stuff like that about her, but I know she didn't care. Because Aunt Kit was mean.

If one of us kids won a spelling bee at school, Aunt Kit would make the guilty party stand and spell for her. She'd sit there, chain-smoking, tapping out each letter with her crossword puzzle pencil. Her dead poodle was smarter than my golden retriever. The cellar was not for children. Neither was the attic, with all its fascinating ancient G.I. Joes. Brazil nuts were "nigger toes." My brother was "pleasingly plump," my corduroys made me look like a girl, and poor Uncle John was "a lazy slob," despite the hours he spent helping her put up the preserves every year, and the small motor repair shop he used to run out of the shed in their backyard. The truth is, even my mother seemed glad to see her go, though she'll never admit to it--she'd rather remind me to be careful going down these steps, or purse her lips and tell me that Uncle John really appreciates my helping him out like this, what with dear Aunt Kit gone, and him all alone.

Of course, I know all about Mom's real motivation--she really appreciates getting me out of the house during the day, so that she can play happy homemaker with her new fiancée and his dribbling kids, without the inconvenience of her actual family. But she'll never admit to that, either.

It took a few weeks to learn, but now I automatically duck my head underneath the ceiling pipes, and step clear over the drainage ditch between the stairs and the wall. I've gotten really efficient. I know exactly where to reach for the light bulbs' pull chains, exactly where to put our latest Santas--they get lined up on the table right beside the kiln. I shove them in there every weekend, one load at a time, like laundry, and it gets so hot down here that the plaster starts to sweat. But eventually the jolly old elves emerge, smiling, shining, and ready to join the other finished ceramics in the front room of the cellar.

They'll be safe here until September, his shaky hand-painted Santas--safely shelved above the hard dirt floor, beside stacks of empty, upside-down mason jars, lids, and carefully organized preserves. It's poorly lit here, and poorly ventilated, and quiet, except for the hushed hiss of the cars in the street above me, the creak of the floorboards as Uncle John shuffles to the bathroom, and the rustling of my plastic baggie as I kneel beside the pile of broken bicycles and pack a bowl.

It's a beautiful pipe, yellow shot through with blue, but in this bad light, it just looks like dirty glass. A lot of things down here look like that, though. I've smoked up here every afternoon, at least twice an afternoon, all summer so far, and I've memorized the order of the vegetables--dusty urine-colored jars of wax beans, chow-chow, brownish homemade ketchup. Stringy, skinned yellow tomatoes canned alongside red ones, mashed up against glass with the seeds shining out like tiny eyes. And then there's the jams and jellies, orange and dark red and glistening. Aunt Kit cans them every summer--used to can them every summer, but now it's going to be up to me and Uncle John. Mom's told me that I shouldn't let him talk about it--it's bad enough that he's hung up on the ceramics, he doesn't need to start deluding himself about this year's county fair. But it's a bit late for that.

One of these days, he keeps telling me, some of my other great-uncles will drive over from the farm, carrying bushels of strawberries, tomatoes, peaches, sweet corn, cradling cantaloupes like babies. We'll pickle the melon rinds, we'll boil the berries into syrup, we'll stage a blue-ribbon comeback in Horticultural Hall, slathered across crusty chunks of homemade bread. With my help, he says, he'll prove that the surviving half of the tri-county's famous "Jam Champions" hasn't lost it, not just yet.

And he says we should be done with the Santas in plenty of time to deal with the preserves. That's how Aunt Kit used to organize it, anyway. Of course, I do things a little differently. I knock my ash out against the ketchup shelf and slip my stash, pipe and all, back into my jeans on my way back upstairs. I have nothing to fear.

Because Uncle John will pretend not to notice that I'm stoned. I think it's because I caught him at it himself one afternoon. No, I don't mean weed. I found him hunched in the powder room with the oxygen tubing yanked out of his nose, huffing away at a Winston-Salem just like the ancient chain smoker that he is. I'll never forget the look on his face that day--the guilty desperation in those watery eyes, his quivering lower lip. The way the ash looked, floating in the toilet bowl. Since then, he's never been suspicious about how long I'm in the basement, and he's gotten downright obsessive about switching the exhaust fan on, though he's got nothing to fear from me.

We keep each others' secrets, so secretly that we've never discussed them, and he keeps the homemade apple butter on the refrigerator door, scooped into plastic Parkay tubs--Aunt Kit never liked to chill mason jars after they'd been opened, and Uncle John keeps everything just the way that Aunt Kit liked it, right down to the Premium unsalted saltines in the third cupboard from the right. I don't need to ask what he wants. We always have the same bizarre snack--a plate of saltines daubed with apple butter and runny cottage cheese. When you're stoned, it almost tastes good.

"You all right there, Joel?"

Uncle John always leaves the powder room door hanging open, and this time, I can actually see the smoke, reflected in the mirror, drifting across the edge of the linoleum, the part where it cracks and curls, barely hanging together, like broken eggshells. And I can't stop smiling, because he thinks he's put one over on me, and because I'm stoned, smearing brown apple butter onto saltine crackers and staring at the digital stove timer. Staring at saltine crackers and smearing brown apple butter onto the digital stove timer. I don't think Uncle John would notice, if that happened. He's very forgiving. He's almost blind in one eye, and his paintbrush is slipping now, ruining Santa's peach hands with violent-looking streaks of "merriest red."

I don't like to correct his mistakes, so we'll just sell that one for two dollars instead of four, or five. And it will sell. Some of my friends' moms are already asking about the Santas--not because they actually want one in their home, but because they enjoy the idea of it, the thought of an old man picking up where his wife left things, or the fact that I come help him. They'll pay to stick a ceramic Santa on top of their televisions, fucked-up paint job and all, and feel just a little more saintly for it, as they feed the figurine's touching backstory to their Oprah-sanctioned reading groups. We have quite a racket going here, me and Uncle John.

Aunt Kit never had it so good.

***
On Saturday nights, my friends usually break out the Atari 2600 they bought off of ebay, smoke out of Alex's bong, and play Frogger with strange color settings. I drive Uncle John to mass so he can receive the Holy Sacrament. It's part of the deal we have. If I drive him wherever he wants to go, I can use his orange 1978 Chevette all summer long. It's a real, working car, which is more than what my friends have. There are six of us in all--me, Alex, Greg, Kate, Matt, and Matty, so someone rides in the trunk. You're almost better off back there, though, since the interior upholstery carries at least twenty years of Uncle John and Aunt Kit's mutual cigarette funk.

"You locked the house."

"Yeah, after I helped you into the car."

The visiting nurses make a big deal about the way people are supposed to talk to great Uncle John. I put him in the car. I came over right after the nurses finished dressing him in his elastic banded trousers and suit coat. I tied his tie. I stuck his walker on the sidewalk outside the back door, hung his portable oxygen unit on it, and ushered him out of the kitchen, through the screen porch, into his walker, and down the cement path leading to the car. But I'm not supposed to say that I "put" him in the car. I'm supposed to say that I "helped him into" the car.

"You're sure you locked the house."

"Yeah, Uncle John."

He's always big on that, he takes it really seriously, and he gets nervous if I don't answer him three or four times, he starts drumming his fingers against his oxygen case and breathing sort of heavily. But I guess I'd feel that way too, if I only left my house twice a week. That sounds like I'm trying to be funny, but it's the truth.

"All right," he says, tapping his right foot against the floor. "Get going."

When I ride with my friends, we plug a Discman into the cigarette lighter and crank Pink Floyd until the windows tremble. But Uncle John doesn't like to listen to the radio when he's in the car. He doesn't talk, either--he sits staring at the dashboard, concentrating on his breathing. Luckily, the church is only a couple blocks away from his house. Aunt Kit is buried here, Mom said, somewhere out under the trees at the edge of the cemetery. I didn't go to the funeral, so I don't know exactly where she is.

I park the Chevette in one of the handicapped spaces and hang Uncle John's laminated disability card on the rear view mirror. My friends always bug me to use it when we can't find a spot at the Denny's or wherever, and we did a few times--Matty hopped out of the trunk and pretended to limp the whole way into the restaurant. That was a few weeks ago, though, before Uncle John slipped and fell in the church parking lot.

He doesn't usually say much, but that night, he cursed at the ushers who stood him up against the car door, he took the Lord's name in vain, right there in front of the priest. And then he wailed until he couldn't breathe anymore, and I had to turn his oxygen machine up to level four. I'm still not sure what happened. The pavement wasn't even wet, he had his walker, and we weren't moving that quickly--I know that much for sure, it's not like I was in a big hurry to get into church, even though Uncle John makes a big deal about it if he doesn't get his favorite pew.

He likes the one beside the stained glass of St. Ruth. She's holding a green sheaf of wheat and rolling her eyes to heaven tonight, just like every other Saturday, and I put Uncle John's oxygen tank on the floor, then slide him in beside her, so he can lean against the window if he needs to. We almost always have the pew all to ourselves, but lots of people stop by to ask how Uncle John's doing--old women with puffy yellow-gray hair, or retired businessmen who rest their hands across their guts and nod at him, their hearing aids lodged like pink lumps of wax.

"Good to see you, John," says one, though he probably saw him here last week.

"Yeah, I'm out and about, out and about,"

Mom claims that Uncle John never said "yeah" until I started helping him out, but his church friends don't seem to notice the difference. They ask after his health, ask if he's been keeping himself busy, and diligently avoid mentioning Aunt Kit, even though some of their wives were probably her best friends and smoking buddies. Their concerned stares and nicotine-ridged fingernails give them away. But this is church, so they're wearing their cloisonné pins, and no one talks about death here unless it's a funeral.

Sometimes Uncle John tells me stories about his well-wishers. Mr. Straley, for one--he's the pale man with the comb-over, sitting close to the hymn board. He's a retired banker now, but 50-odd years ago he was known as "Skunky Straley," because he caught skunks and raccoons to sell the pelts, and came to school dances reeking. Uncle John didn't mind, though. They'd go out trapping together, sneaking nips of whiskey behind chicken coops, hurling osage oranges at passing trucks. But Uncle John doesn't call him "Skunky" anymore. They don't call each other anything, actually--they just shake hands occasionally, leaning across the pew.

The service is uneventful, but I can't sleep through it--I have to move Uncle John on and off of the kneeler at the appropriate times, and pay attention to the oxygen tank, in case one of his tube attachments tugs loose. Mr. Straley nods off well before communion. I watch the back of his head until the Sacrament reaches our pew, and Uncle John sticks his tongue out at the priest.

He dozes off during the ride home, where the visiting nurses are waiting just outside his backyard gate, ready to usher him back through the kitchen, past the cellar door, and into bed. They always thank me for taking him to mass, and it's a little strange, because I can't see their faces in the dark, so the voices sound disembodied. And the thank you sounds both insincere and undeserved, with the Chevette idling behind me. I'm driving over to Alex's, as soon as they get Uncle John in the house.

Alex lives in the apartment above his parents' garage. He has ambitions to become a private eye, but tonight he's just lying there, tangled up with Kate in the middle of the floor, listening to creepy Gregorian chants. Someone's outlined all of his arm veins with a black marker. And Matt and Greg are clutching the Atari controllers, but it looks like they stopped playing a while ago--the image on the screen is burnt in and flickering pink, two fishermen on a pier, shifting colors.

Nobody sits up when I shut the door, but everyone smiles, and they smile even harder when I start packing a bowl, so hard, it's like their teeth might crack.

"Good work, man." Alex goes, leaning across Kate to take the pipe before it stops smoldering. I shake his hand. I don't like the way it feels.

****

It isn't a good Sunday. The kiln's already claimed two Santas, and it's not even noon yet. They looked fine going in--clean, with all the colors in the right places, but I guess something went wrong during the firing. A draft got in, or maybe there were air pockets in the glaze, or any number of small, invisible imperfections, doomed to become massive ones once the pieces hit the heat. Either way, two of the Santas look even worse now than they did before they went into the kiln--covered with ragged, sharp-edged wrinkles, and little sizzled marks that look like zits, bubbling up out of their pinkish skin.

This has happened before, but Uncle John never needs to hear about it. I decided that early on, so there's a whole shelf of ruined Santas in the back of the cellar, turned toward the wall so I don't have to look at their peeling faces. I find it hard enough to look at the ones that turn out "right," with their glossy smiles and puffy red beer bellies. These lovelies go on a shelf across from the preserves, next to the pile of junked bicycles from the 1960s, where I'll pack another bowl to make the work more interesting.

Uncle John loves Sundays. Since he does church on Saturday nights, and I'm down here tending the kiln, he can spend Sunday mornings in the powder room, puffing away. I'd love to know where a oxygen-dependent shut-in gets his cigarette supply, but if I asked my Mom, she'd go ballistic, and I'd probably lose all access to the Chevette. We ended up using it last night, we had to buzz over to the CVS because Kate needed gummi bears, and Alex bought something called "fruit water," which tasted a lot like cheap orange-tinged vodka. Then half of it ended up on the car upholstery, because he was trying to spark a joint and hold the bottle steady at the same time, I think. I don't really remember, but the car smells like weed, saccharin, and rotten oranges now, so that's probably a fairly accurate reconstruction of events.

This is the last Sunday for Santas, though, thank God. I managed to convince Uncle John that we'd finished Aunt Kit's whole supply, even though there are still three whole boxes of Santas down here, untouched and grinning eternally, despite the packing straw pressed against their clay teeth and eyes. We're doing jack o'lanterns next, and if it's possible to be happy about ceramics, well, boy howdy, I couldn't be happier.

"Joel? You still down there?"

Uncle John. Sounds like he's standing outside the powder room. I suck the last hit out of the pipe, hold it in, and aim my smoke at the Santas' warm red butts before I start coughing. I was joking about it being before noon. I don't even really know what time it is.

"Yeah?"

"Get us a snack?"

"All right, I'm coming up."

I dump my ash onto the bicycles and check on the kiln before I head upstairs. There's a handy peephole cut into the oven door, and if I hunch and squint, I can count the Santas' faces, surrounded by the orange heating coil glow. Whenever I mention this to Alex, he fantasizes aloud about burning massive quantities of pot in the kiln, and filling the cellar with smoke. It would be a good idea, maybe, if I was completely convinced that the house's foundation is airtight, but I'm not, and anyway, it would be weird to bring anyone into Uncle John's house, especially Alex, especially to do something like that.

"Joel?"

"Yeah, here I come."

He's sitting at the kitchen table in his navy sweat suit, hands crumpled over the Abraham Lincoln jigsaw puzzle that Mom brought in a few weeks ago, spread out on a piece of plywood so I can carry it to and from the table without wrecking any of his progress. He keeps the pieces organized into categories; beard, forehead, background, and this morning, he's definitely gotten farther along with the beard. It looks like he's been at it for a while, and the kitchen smells like cigarettes, I think--it’s hard to tell, without sniffing hard, and my own lungs and throat are burning already. But when I look up from the saltine box, there’s smoke curling around the chandelier, no mistaking that. I watch the smoke until it spreads into the air and disappears. Then I watch Uncle John, watching me, with a cardboard piece of Lincoln's beard hanging between his thin fingers. And neither of us says anything, for what seems like a really long time.

"There's apple butter in the fridge."

"All right."

"The nurse gal opened a new jar for me this morning, you see." he says.

I line the saltine crackers up on the plate, with the pointy corners facing the edges.

"Did she, now."

"It's been a different gal this week--the other one's in Arizona, she told me."

I peel the lid off of the plastic apple butter tub.

"Oh, really."

The cheese knife I'm using has a ceramic handle, molded and painted to look like a head of lettuce. It's not one of ours, or even one of Aunt Kit's. It's too professional.

"You've been smoking in here." I say, turning to look at Uncle John.

He's still looking at his puzzle, still holding that piece of beard. He's really taking his time with this one.

"No," he says, and I wonder why I said anything, or if I said anything at all.

I'm confused. Uncle John never smokes in the kitchen. I want to know where shut-ins get fresh packs of Winston-Salems. I want to know why he didn't go into the powder room, like he usually does--but I can't ask directly. Uncle John knows that I know about the powder room, about the cigarettes wedged behind the exposed water pipes. And I know that he knows about what goes on in the cellar, in the Chevette, in between kiln-loads of Santas and trips to Saturday services. But referring to either would be a breach of unwritten contract. A deviation from the comfortable norm. A whiskey sour instead of a Diet Coke.

"You have been smoking, though, right?" I say, making it sound like I'd be upset if he said "No" again.

Uncle John presses Lincoln's beard together with both hands, his nostrils flaring around his oxygen tube.

"So have you," he says, pointing at the fridge. "There's cottage cheese, too. Some flavored kind, pineapple or something. I don't know. One of the gals brought it. It was on sale," he says, "it was on sale, she tells me, as if that explains anything."

"Okay, Uncle John."

I don't know what else to say. It's all out in the open now, isn't it--but I never thought we'd actually talk about it. I never thought he'd be sitting at the kitchen table, tugging a pack of cigarettes out of his sweatsuit pocket, while I poke around in the refrigerator for pineapple-flavored cottage cheese.

"Mind if I smoke?" he asks, with a gravelly laugh. And it's weird, because something in his voice, or maybe it's the laugh--something about him reminds me of Alex, I almost see him for a second, turning up the Floyd, rolling down the passenger window of the Chevette.

"Um, go right ahead." I tell him, and my heart starts pounding hard, thumping in my gut as I plop globs of yellow-tinged cottage cheese onto the middle of the plate. We will scoop it onto our apple butter with carrot-handled serving spoons. Uncle John's fingers tremble, clutching at his green Bic lighter. Sometimes I buy green ones for myself at the gas station, or we shoplift them on our way through CVS. I watch him pull his oxygen tube partway out of his nose while he takes his first puff. I put the plate of crackers between our seats. And sit where I always sit.

Uncle John smiles and flicks his ash into one of the empty Diet Coke cans, all collected around the edge of Abraham Lincoln's head, and my hands start sweating even before I lean back in my chair, well before I pull the pipe and Ziploc bag out of my jeans and set them on the vinyl tablecloth, bright and obvious under the kitchen chandelier, the one Aunt Kit always managed to bump her head on, before she stopped breathing on her own and couldn't walk anymore.

Uncle John looks at my pipe. Then he looks at the baggie. Then he looks at me, and I wonder what's going to happen now. I wonder if I'm right or wrong, if there's any chance at all that he's really just the world's biggest narc, with county police and my Mom waiting in the next room, hiding behind the oxygen machine with handcuffs, and him smoking in the kitchen was just a ploy to draw me out--he's killing himself, sure, but the kid's breaking the law--and then they'll tie me down and kick me until I squeal.

Uncle John makes a strange, stifled noise in his throat, exhaling.

"That's funny," he says. "My friends had it in cigarette papers."

And I know I'm right to do this, by the way he says the word "friends," by the interest in his eyes as I open the baggie and start packing a bowl, my fingers shaking.

"You smoked?" I ask him.

Uncle John takes another long drag off of his cigarette and shakes his head.

"Just once or twice," he says, leaning forward. "Just to try it, you know. Before I joined the service."

"Actually," he says, "I'd forgotten all about it until I smelled it on you."

"You didn't tell my Mom, did you?"

Uncle John waggles his cigarette between his fingers, shaking his head.

"Not if you didn't tell her about these."

I shake my head. He shakes his head. I press the pipe against my lips and spark it. I hold in the smoke until my lungs can't stand it anymore, until it barely feels like smoke anymore. Uncle John laughs until he coughs. And now it comes down to it. He's got his own lighter, for his cigarettes, so I don't bother handing that over--just my pipe, yellow and blue and cradled in my hand like a secret.

And just like that, I'm smoking up with my great Uncle John, right here at my old Aunt Kit's kitchen table, where we sit for hours, and don't talk much, and paint these damned Santas until it's time for him to nap, and time for me to go home.

The coughing fit hits him right away, loud and rasping--the worst I've ever seen. He puts the pipe down on Abraham Lincoln. He waves a hand in my direction, nodding, even though it sounds like he's choking up pieces of himself, wheezing and gagging and pressing the blue-tinted oxygen tube back into his nose. And for the first time, it occurs to me that his life probably wasn't always like this. I don't mean the oxygen machine--I know he wasn't always like that. I mean, I remember being little, watching Aunt Kit pop the tops off mason jars full of cling peaches, watching Uncle John putter around the shed in their backyard, fixing lawnmowers for all his neighbors.

He was always smoking, though--both of them were always smoking--wrinkled cigarette ends jammed between their lips as they crushed strawberries into jam, their lungs full of smoke, and I remember jar upon jar full of apple butter, lined up across the kitchen windowsills, steaming and shining. Sometimes they'd go out in the afternoons, and my Mom would have to find a different babysitter. There's a picture of them together in the front room, taken on their wedding day, I think--anyway, way back before my Mom, their niece, was ever even born. Aunt Kit has one of those tight flapper hats on her head, and she's staring at Uncle John with a wild look in her eyes. It reminds me of the way my friend Kate looks at Alex when he's saying something ridiculous, like she can't decide if she wants to slap him or kiss him--Aunt Kit's looking at Uncle John like that in the picture, and he has his mouth partway open, like he's saying something back to her. I wonder if she was mean back then. I wonder if he was as quiet as he is now. She doesn't look it in the photograph, and neither does he. They look like Alex and Kate. He looks like Alex right now, actually, somehow.

"Uncle John," I whisper, "are you okay?"

And he doesn't answer me for a long time--he can't answer, because he's hitting the oxygen hard, sucking it in like it's going out of style. I eat a couple of apple butter crackers, one after another. I trace my fingers around the flowers on the vinyl tablecloth, minute after minute, flower after flower, until the pipe comes sliding back over to me, across Lincoln's half-finished forehead. When I look up at Uncle John, his eyes are watering hard, tears absolutely dripping down his face, pausing at all the wrinkles. But he's smiling wide, smiling until I barely recognize him--I've never seen him like this--he's just a big old head full of smoke and clenched, grinning gray false teeth.

"Thank you," he says, and I almost ask him.

I almost ask him to tell me about Aunt Kit, really tell me about my Aunt Kit, and your Skunky Straley, and all the other people you used to know. Tell me things, the way my friends and I tell each other things, stupid things, tell me why you have to paint all these Santas and do Aunt Kit's canning. Tell me about what you did before your life became Old Fashioned Days--before it became ceramics and preserves and stolen moments sucking cigarettes in the powder room.

I almost ask him all of that. But then I don't, because he's already crying.

***

The visiting nurses left the back gate hanging open again this morning, even though I told them last week that Uncle John wants it shut. It's one of his major pet peeves. Aunt Kit used to keep this spastic toy poodle, Princess, with white fur like candy floss, and if the gate was left open, the little shit always ran away. I guess Uncle John has too many memories of tramping up and down the alley with a flashlight or something. Anyway, he wants it kept shut, and they're not doing it.

Right now, though, I'm kind of glad they didn't, because it would have been a pain in the ass to wrestle the latch open while I'm trying to carry my Mom's "care package" to Uncle John. She says it's just some cookies she found on sale at the Giant, and soap, unscented so it won't aggravate his emphysema, but this bag feels like she's packed it full of lead.

"Tell him that I'll bring a case of Diet Coke by on Wednesday," she told me, while she stood there combing rats out of her sleazy boyfriend's daughter's hair. I think I kind of grunted. It was a wake-and-bake kind of morning, I smoked a bowl in bed before the rest of them got up. Uncle John and I are starting the jack o'lanterns today, and I wanted to get a head start on him. We lined some pumpkins up on the kitchen table yesterday afternoon, before Uncle John ran out of cigarettes.

He told me not to worry about that, though. He said one of the nurses, Tracy, would bring him more this morning, they have an arrangement together, a deal, she's a great gal, he said. I don't know why a visiting nurse would bring cigarettes to an emphysemic old man. Maybe there's money in it for her or something. Of course, she could ask me the same thing, this Tracy person--why would a visiting grandnephew spend a whole afternoon smoking pot with an emphysemic old man, melting holes into a vinyl tablecloth with lighters and laughing about ceramic Santas?

Well, I did it because it got him to laugh about fucking ceramic Santas. He'd never noticed that their left hands were stuffed down the front of their pants. I'd never been bold enough to mention it before. He thought the idea of all these charitable housewives buying our handpainted masturbating Santas was absolutely hysterical. Maybe Kit got them on sale because of that, he decided, between gasps and puffs of laughter and smoke.

It'll be good to have the cookies today, even though I've almost dropped the bag twice on the way up the walk, it's so heavy. I think I remember finishing off a box of saltines, yeah, I definitely remember seeing apple butter and white crackers crushed up against Uncle John's smile, the most I'd seen him eat in ages--and that's a benefit all by itself. Alex agreed, I told him about the whole experience last night, when the plan was to rent kung fu movies and watch those until the others showed up.

"That's because it's medicine, man," he said, nodding like he knew what he was talking about. "My mom smokes when she's nauseous."

"You serious?"

"Nah," he said, "but she should."

"Your mom," I said. I really wanted to know.

But Alex was like, "No, your mom."

He said he thought I was joking around. Then he said the whole thing sounded pretty cool, and we never got the kung fu movies, because we took a detour over to Chris's place to buy a new stash for me and Uncle John. I've got it right here in my pocket, somewhere underneath this honking huge bag of cookies and soap, which I'm going to set down outside the back door, it's so fucking heavy. I'll just tell Uncle John that Mom sent stuff, and get it for him when he wants it, yeah, that's the ticket, I'll just make really sure that I'll remember it's out here when the time comes.

"Uncle John? I'm here,"

I say that every morning, and I think I say it the same way every time, but right now, something seems kind of off, maybe because he doesn't answer right away. I crane my neck around the refrigerator--you can see the kitchen table from here, see the brown burn marks we made in the tablecloth, see our new jack o'lanterns and Abraham Lincoln's flat cardboard head, and you should really be able to see Uncle John, sitting in one of his navy blue sweatsuits, knuckles bent and ready to paint, but he's not there. Maybe Tracy and her visiting nurses didn't come through today for some reason, maybe he's still in bed, watching The Price Is Right and bitchy cause he hasn't gotten his cigarettes. Maybe he's got a dumb-over from yesterday's smoking session. I go through to the front room.

"Uncle John?"

I say his name before I get to the door, and no one answers, and when I open it, no one's there. The TV's off, the bed's made, with hospital corners and everything, so the nurses have been here, Uncle John can't do that kind of stuff by himself, he runs short on breath--bingo, he's got to be around, because the oxygen machine's on, humming away. I didn't check the powder room, or track the cord along the floor--coming here as often as I do, you stop noticing it, you just automatically watch your step.

I follow the cord out of the front room, through the living room and past the cellar door, feeling like an ass. But it doesn't lead under the powder room door, not at all, it's looped around one of the kitchen table legs instead, looped and heading back toward the front room, underneath the cellar door, and for the first time I notice that it's kind of open, and now I'm kind of shaking, because the cord already wasn't long enough, and now it's wrapped around the table leg, and he's not answering me--

I'm like, "Uncle John? Uncle John?" and I expect the light bulb to be busted, but it's not, and then he's there, crumpled at the bottom of the stairs, crumpled up and not moving, so I run down--

"Uncle John!"

I start shaking him--

"Uncle John!"

--but he's not answering me, and I don't know what to do and then there's the oxygen tube end lying there on the floor so I pick it up and I jam it into his nose, hard, and now I'm shaking him and shaking him but he's cold and staring, and he's just not moving--and my knees are stinging through my jeans, something's stabbing me through my jeans-- and when I look down there's all this glass, all this glass and red blood and brown apple butter, like he was trying to get another jar upstairs all by himself and it's broken all over him, under his arms and legs and he's not breathing, Christ he's still not breathing and the jagged bottom of the mason jar's up against his chin and when I go to move it it says "Apple Butter, 1974."

I start feeling nauseous because I always just ate it, I never looked at the bottoms of the jars before, it's probably all that old, but I don't know what to do, I don't know if you're supposed to call an ambulance anyway if the man's already dead, and then I start panicking more because maybe he's not, and I don't know about things like this, and I'm stoned, and running up the stairs and flinging open the front door of my Uncle John's house and hurling myself onto the sidewalk, but there aren't that many people out because it's Monday morning and it isn't Old Fashioned Days or Hanover Days or anything like that, so everyone's staying off of each other's front porches and being unsociable and my hands are covered in ancient apple butter and blood and I'm just running up and down, crying and stoned and screaming that someone's gotta help me, but I don't know how to explain about the cellar and the oxygen and my own old Uncle John, alone, he's been lying down there all alone--

And no one's paying attention, and I don't know if it's because I look out of my head or because I'm crying and shaking and pointing up toward the house and saying that he fell, he fell, and next thing I know some strange lady's stroking my head, stroking my hair back the way my Mom used to do, and calling someone on her cell phone, and telling me it's okay, and other people are crowding around, and for the first time in years I'm not afraid of the police, or crying in public, I'm like, bring it on, bring them all on because

"It's my Uncle John," I say, sounding like a three year old on speed. "It's my-my great Uncle John he fell and he's hurt and he's dead and he's all alone and nobody knows,"

"It's okay, it's okay, I'm calling the ambulance, calm down, we'll call your mom--"

I hear my voice over theirs, watery, full of phlegm.

"Nobody knows," I'm going, "None of his friends know except for me,"

"Can you remember your mom's phone number, honey?

Your mom, they say, nodding, but that joke isn't funny anymore.

"Calm down and try to remember--was anyone with you?"

"The kid's on something, Maggie, look at his eyes--"

"Was anyone else with you?"

"No," I say, "No, no--none of his friends know except me, because I'm the only one left--"
Posted by: J. Bowers

Prose (May 25th, 2006)