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The Drunkle Diana Altman Drunks, a harsh way of describing a whole set of sad people, are often so generous you notice it. My uncle Howard, for instance. At family gatherings he’d stand next to me and I’d feel something small and hard pushed into my palm. Then he wasn’t standing next to me which meant what he’d done was secret and I wasn’t supposed to react. When I could go off by myself and open my palm, I’d find a dollar bill folded and re-folded until it was the size of a dime. So he not only gave me a dollar, he thought about the best way to get it to me so that neither of us would be embarrassed. Before I arrived he had made a plan that included me though he almost never spoke to me and was always abashed by my exuberant greeting when we met. There was some trick to folding the bill that small and I appreciated that the trick was part of the gift. It was never coins in my palm. It was always real money, more than other adults thought to give someone six or seven. You couldn’t thank him or even catch his eye.This was his greeting to me, a child he only saw now and then, the child of his much older brother, the brother who sometimes had to rescue him when the cops found him collapsed on the street. Uncle Howard was married to a Catholic girl. That was all anyone ever said about Aunt Moira. She’s a Catholic girl. I had no idea what it meant to be a
Catholic girl, or, rather, I had no idea why adults considered Catholic enough of a description. I took it to mean drinking too much was not as foreign to her as it would be to a Jewish wife. Uncle Howard and Aunt Moira lived in a walk-up apartment in the Bronx with their two children, a girl whose eye was poked out by a stick, and a son named Kyle. Who poked out Patty’s eye no one said. Was that because it was her younger brother Kyle? Patty’s eye was not actually out; the pupil was white. Nothing could mar her beauty, though. The beauty started in her bones and radiated out. Patty was about ten years older so was never interested in playing with me but I could see she was a dignified and refined person. I was always curious about her dilemma, living with an alcoholic father and a hard-edged mother who seemed to be from a different social class. It was as if a gracious princess came out of a char woman. I often asked my parents if Patty was adopted but the answer was always no. I didn’t see myself as any better than Patty so it was a lesson in something that I couldn’t quite figure out. How come I got to live in a big house in Scarsdale with a maid who cooked dinner and cleaned up and ironed my many dresses, and Patty had to live in what looked to me like squalor? Was it, perhaps, because there was that layer of dullness in her? Did she, maybe, deserve it? Would I stop being described as sparkly if I had to trudge up four flights of smelly stairs to my home every day? Was this Fate?
The reason my father drove my sister Isabel and me from our house to the Bronx apartment was always the same. Uncle Howard was making his special spaghetti sauce. It simmered all day. This meant that Uncle Howard had to stay home all day and with every stir of the pot he thought of us, of the gift he was preparing for his brother and nieces. Slicing up the onions, he was disappointed, no doubt, that my mother wasn’t going to attend his spaghetti party. Like most men, he probably enjoyed looking at her and maybe he found her Texas accent colorful, how she said, “Now, lessee,” before expressing an opinion. At Uncle Howard’s we ate in the kitchen at a Formica table too close to the stove. I was used to eating in a dining room with a white damask tablecloth under my china plate. “Setting a beautiful table,” was an accomplishment according to my mother and I would often find her at the pantry sink arranging flowers, snipping their stems, standing them upright, standing back, appraising. At night her work appeared as the centerpiece. When it was on the table unmentioned by my father, maybe even unnoticed by him, a beautiful creation surrounded by silver serving dishes carried in by the maid in uniform, the centerpiece took on an atmosphere of loneliness and I wished that my mother had more friends and that my father, dressed in his burgundy velvet smoking jacket, would stop his monologue that silenced the rest of us every evening. It occurred to me that what matters is not what’s on the table but what’s going on at the table
All of my mother’s family in Dallas ate in dining rooms served by maids. Her mother not only had a cook but a butler who doubled as a chauffeur. My mother was always trying to catch up to her sister and brother who had more money, more things, more travel. Dishwashers were not in everyone’s kitchen back then and when my aunt in Dallas had one installed, my mother wanted one. “What do you need that for?” my father yelled. “You’ve got a dish washer! That darkie in the kitchen!” “Shhh! For gods’ sakes, she’ll hear you.” “Let her hear me!” and he stormed out and slammed the back door and next would be the crackle of the pebbled driveway as he drove away to stew by himself. Bigotry was not the root of his tirade. He could have said, “That fatso in the kitchen,” or, more to the point, “that stranger in the kitchen.” His real complaint was that his wife wasn’t a person who could be found cooking in the kitchen like his mother. There was no coziness in his kitchen, just some impenetrable person from Alabama stirring at the stove. When the aunt in Dallas got a Cadillac my mother wanted a Cadillac. “A Cadillac?” my father yelled. “What’s wrong with a Dodge?” Whatever she wanted her father, my Dallas grandfather, bought for her. He bought her a dishwasher, he bought her a Cadillac, and many years later he bought
her a divorce. Her father in Dallas was the man of our house in Scarsdale. So my mother felt justified to stay at home when we visited Uncle Howard and Aunt Moira. Everyone knows that your spouse is your mirror and it made her cringe to see herself reflected in her husband’s undistinguished family. I could see her point of view but it blurred when I was with Uncle Howard who owned so much less but was so much more generous than any of my uncles on her side. He was a stocky, medium-sized, unstarched man who held his head back as if avoiding a slap. His breath smelled of peppermint. “Is it ready yet, Uncle Howard?” “Almost, dear.” “Can I look at it?” He set his wooden spoon down, moved one of the kitchen chairs close to the stove so I could climb up and look down into the pot of bubbling red stuff. I thought it was interesting that he didn’t do the easy thing, didn’t lift me up so I’d be tall enough to look into the iron cauldron, that he understood that children are shy of being touched. He was too modest to impose himself on me even for the few seconds it took to show me what he’d created. “Is it ready now?” He stuck his finger bravely into the sauce, tasted it, and nodded.
I climbed down off the chair and pushed it back to the table hoping I’d returned it to exactly where it was supposed to be. Uncle Howard stood at the stove with Patty who filled bowls with spaghetti and handed them to her father who ladled the sauce on. Uncle Howard himself set the bowl down on the table before each person as if saying, here take this from me. That a father knew how to cook was amazing but more amazing was the teamwork between Patty and her father, the unspoken tenderness between them. My father’s cheerfulness during those visits was forced even though eating in the kitchen was exactly what he liked, surrounded by the perfume of cooking, everyone crowded around the table. He believed his brother could do better if he’d only just try harder. As the eldest of five, my father was always being called upon to rise to the occasion, to take charge, stand erect, to be quick to see solutions. The telephone at home often rang with calls that forced my father to intervene. Sometimes he had to quickly travel home to Clinton, Massachusetts, where his mother still lived. So it was inevitable that his conversation at Uncle Howard’s took the form of advice. By the end of the evening Uncle Howard was just mutely nodding his head, agreeing, and no one else at the table was uttering a word. The discomfort of those evenings was balanced by the excitement of being with my cousin Kyle, the handsomest boy I ever met in person. I wished I could show him off to my friends, pretend he was my brother. He was tall, even as a
young boy and everything out of his mouth struck me as slightly dangerous. My other boy cousins, the ones in Dallas, were my same age and were as familiar to me as my own stuffed animals. The same books were read to us, we went to summer camp, we got our teeth straightened, we expected to go to college. Kyle was something else. He had Aunt Moira in him and he lived in an apartment instead of a house, had no back yard and I imagined his school to look like a prison. I knew he saw Isabel and me as one thing, a unit of little girls, no difference between us and not worth the effort required to tell us apart. I didn’t blame him because I knew how it felt to be bored by younger people. I had younger cousins of my own. Cute, but so what. My dream of parading Kyle came true when he was sixteen. There was something wrong at his home so he had to come to ours for a whole day. He was available to walk with Isabel and me down Sherbrooke Road to Heathcote Elementary School where I was in third grade and she was in fourth. My sister was on one side of him, me on the other, both of us looking up at him as if he was glowing. We were too shy to hold his hands and I was too enraptured to even look around to see which of my classmates might be seeing this incredible event. Then Kyle put his hand on my head and he put his other hand on Isabel’s head and he cracked our heads together. We staggered backwards in pain and amazement while
he stood there laughing. We recovered and continued walking so we wouldn’t be late. There he was when we got home from school in the afternoon. We took him to our favorite place, a lake on the local golf course. Geese and ducks floated there and sometimes you could see their powder puff babies. We loved all animals and showing Kyle this place was the biggest treat we could think of, a statement that we’d forgiven him for smashing our heads together. Boys will be boys and maybe if we had a brother we’d be use to having our heads treated like coconuts. Wasn’t his fault boyness erupted in him. So we took him to the lake and were happy to show him our treasure, a place where wild creatures didn’t run away in alarm, just let you be near them and study the patterns of their black and gray feathers and the beady, piercing attention of their eyes. Kyle sat on the grass with us while we chattered, me trying to outdo my sister so he’d prefer me. I’d never been so close to a teenage boy before. I could look at his large hands, could sniff his masculine odor, study the way his hair was cut above his ears, the strong veins in his forearms. There was a wood board floating in the water, some old plank that didn’t belong there. Kyle fished it out and when a goose walked close to him he smashed the board down on the bird and the bird’s neck twisted into a knot while it croaked in pain and the flock of geese whirred up squawking and churning the air with their
wings. “What are you doing? Why did you do that? What are you doing!” thought it was funny, “Look at its face! Ha ha ha!”
We turned our backs on him and hurried home. We didn’t care if he got lost trying to find his own way. But by the time we got back home, we were under his spell again and were thinking maybe he was right, it was just a goose, big deal. So we showed him our second favorite place, the maple tree in the back yard. We knew every inch of that tree, sat in its various crotches at different times of the year, waded in its puddle of red leaves in the fall, wore its sticky green seeds on our noses. It was our jungle jim, our pretend tree house. “Commere,” Kyle said to Isabel. “I’ll put you up there.” She came to him, a skinny little girl in pigtails, toothpick arms, toothpick legs, and he picked her up and she held her arms as straight as she could over her head and he lifted her to a branch way above the ground so she could dangle there for what we thought would be a second or two. But, instead of standing there to catch her when she got tired, he walked away and left her dangling there, high enough so she would surely break her leg if she fell. “Kyle!” I yelled. “Don’t do that! She’ll fall!” She clung there as he strolled
across the lawn laughing. “Kyle!” I yelled. “Come back! Stop it!” So now we knew. We had been bullied by kids at school and we did some bullying ourselves but this was something else. This meanness had mass, was substantial.
I ran after him. “Kyle, stop it! Get her down. She’ll fall! ” A horrible sound was coming out of Isabel now, weeping, fearful. I ran to find the maid calling, “Minnie! Minnie!” She wasn’t in the kitchen. I ran up the narrow stairs to her bedroom, “Minnie!” The door to her bathroom was closed. I banged, “Minnie!” “What you want with me now?” I ran down the stairs, through the kitchen, through the sun porch, out to the back yard where Isabel was still dangling but now her moans were desperate because her hands were so tired. Kyle was ambling around the yard. I burst out crying and ran to him and grabbed his arm and pulled him. At last, he followed me, reached up and lifted her down. We ran away from him and closed ourselves in her bedroom so we could hate him in privacy. We didn’t tell on him. We did not want to display to adults how Kyle had humiliated us. There was nothing to be gained by it. Perhaps, if he were sleeping over for a week we’d be forced to seek protection but he only stayed that one day. I didn’t want Uncle Howard to hear. I didn’t want to add to Uncle Howard’s worries. How could such a mild man sire such a bully? Did being a drunk mean more than just drinking too much?
Some time later, Kyle in the army and Patty married, Aunt Moira filed for divorce. It saddened me to hear that Uncle Howard moved back home to his mother in Clinton, Massachusetts. To me this meant he had given up entirely. Clinton was a mill town that once produced carpet. Now the mills stood abandoned, forlorn blocks of red brick. My father drove Isabel and me from Scarsdale along the Boston Post Road past tobacco farms in Connecticut while I whined, “How come other kids get to go to Florida on Spring vacation and we have to go to Clinton,” and my father replied, “Quit your belly aching.” Rank hath its privileges but I didn’t think it was fair that my mother got to stay home, was allowed to give full expression to her scorn. I arrived in Clinton trailing clouds of her snobbish attitude and the first place I pointed it was at the sparrows pecking in the gravel of Grandma’s driveway. They were ugly little poor birds dressed in drab brown, their voices nothing but staccato chips. You had to walk through them to get to the front porch and it annoyed me how abject they were, flying up to avoid my feet. There was no escape. Grandma would greet us at the door and take hold of one of my plump cheeks and give it such a hard pinch it would sting for minutes afterwards under my palm. Then she’d make me go into the kitchen and eat her chicken soup with a spoon the size of a shovel. I was mortified by Grandma’s old-
fashioned house. She still used a wood burning stove, unlatched a small door exposing a fire every time she tossed in a log. She didn’t have a refrigerator but an ice box that dripped into a pan on the linoleum floor. The telephone on her oak roll-top desk was a black candlestick with the mouthpiece on top and an earpiece that hooked on the side. The ring did not come from the telephone but from a separate ringer box on the wall. My distaste for Grandma and the things that surrounded her was up-ended by the abundance of chocolate she left all around the house, open boxes of assortments, caramels and peanut clusters you could eat whenever you wanted. I understood those boxes of chocolate to be Grandma’s gift to Isabel and me but, also, they were a jab at my mother. When Isabel was a baby the nurse my mother hired wouldn’t let Grandma give Isabel a piece of chocolate. “A little piece of chocolate,” Grandma said showing the size with her fingers. “Even such a little piece she wouldn’t let me give.” By making chocolate so available to us she was saying, Your mother isn’t as superior as she thinks she is, for your information. Grandma’s house was a three-story Victorian next to an empty brick mill. The mill was like a mangy dog that slinks around with its tail tucked too far under. Our way of kicking it was to knock out its eyes with stones. Isabel and I aimed, hoping to smash even more panes in that helpless old thing. Being naughty was about the only excitement there was, especially on Saturday when Grandma
wouldn’t let anyone drive and wouldn’t turn on the electricity in observance of the Sabbath. We trudged under the railroad bridge to High Street, the main street, where many of the stores were empty. The owner of a defunct clothing store hadn’t bothered to remove the mannequins that now stood naked in the window with an arm missing or a neck turned in a ghoulish position. One of the amputated hands was on the floor of the window. There was a bowling alley where the pins were set not automatically but by some real boy who had to sit back there and listen all afternoon to the racket of balls crashing against wood. The lighting in there was sinister. As for the Strand Theater, we were allowed to see whatever was playing which freed my father to attend to his brothers and his sister whose husband was ill. I saw a movie there that I knew I shouldn’t have been allowed to see, a picture about murder that haunted my sleep. In the bars on every block my Uncle Howard drank, stumbled home at night, and passed out on the bed he moved in to Grandma’s front room. Not that I ever saw him stumble in. I almost never saw him at all. Sometimes at night the phone rang and my father ran to the rescue with a mixture of concern and exasperation. The front rooms of Grandma’s house were once my grandfather’s furniture store. When Grandpa had enough money he moved the store to High Street. The
front rooms remained empty until Uncle Howard moved back home and brought them to life again. His was an antique shop or a junk shop, depending on your point of view. It was a huge jumble of stuff, the dusty shelves overflowing, the air musty with mildew. Uncle Howard always insisted that I take something from the shop so I selected an antique apple peeler, or an old-fashioned ice skate that attached with a leather strap, or a cobalt blue bottle. The really expensive things didn’t interest me. They were guns, some in glass cases, some mounted on the wall, rifles from the Civil War, muskets dating back to the American Revolution. According to my father, people came from all over the world to buy and sell guns with Uncle Howard. Each gun had a story and the carvings on the rifles were intricate. But I couldn’t figure out why Uncle Howard wanted to be around them. Did he identify with violence? The only thing I liked about those guns was I believed them to be a living. Some of them, I knew, sold for thousands of dollars so at least Uncle Howard was okay in that way. Visits to Uncle Howard became fewer and fewer as I grew into a teenager and then went away to college. After my father died when I was twenty-two, I seldom went to Clinton. But when Grandma died at age ninety-three I did return
with my newly-wed husband. At her funeral my husband met Uncle Howard and asked him if, by any chance, he had a flute in his shop. Uncle Howard said it might take him a few days to locate the flute, there was so much stuff in the store, but if Steve returned the following week, he’d have it. Steve and I were living in Cambridge then, so Clinton was less than an hour away. He came home with a hand-made ebony instrument signed by a master flute maker. “He wouldn’t take any money,” Steve told me. “He said it was just lying around his store collecting dust.” Steve played that flute for a whole year before it dawned on either of us that Uncle Howard didn’t get that instrument from his store but went out and bought it. I recognized another secret gift to me. We always meant to go visit Uncle Howard but then the baby got born and then the next baby got born. It was Patty who called to tell me her father had been murdered. Some men broke into his store to steal guns. He must have interrupted them so they bludgeoned Uncle Howard with rifle butts. “Uncle Howard?” was all I could say into the phone. The police officer called to the scene was later quoted. “In the thirty-six years I’ve worked in Clinton, the worst call that I've ever went on was the Howard Goldsmith murder. Howard Goldsmith ran a used article, furniture and gun shop down there. Three or four people broke in on him through his backdoor. They pretty much beat him to death. I see reflections of Mr. Goldsmith in my mind to
this day. It's not something that I'll ever forget and it's something that I'll always have to live with.” I was surprised to see Aunt Moira at the funeral. It isn’t every wife who attends the funeral of her ex-husband and I wasn’t sure how to understand this. Did it mean she never stopped loving Uncle Howard? In her seventies now, she had the ashen, wrinkled complexion of the chain smoker. I was astonished by how happy I was to see her but hurt by how my greeting befuddled her. It seemed to take her quite a while to remember me. Or, perhaps, my greeting was extravagant, outlandish, having less to do with her than with some keen burst of missing my father as well as Uncle Howard. In her one person she represented them both. Cigarettes had ruined her voice; it was a dry, tinny croak. “I just couldn’t stay with him,” she confided. Cousin Patty, now middle-aged, was with a portly husband who understood the decorum required by such a sad occasion. Just as her husband reflected her, so did cousin Kyle’s wife reflect him. In sexy clothes she laughed and jabbered as if out with girlfriends. Kyle’s youthful beauty was gone, his grace replaced by something thuggish. He was a car mechanic who talked about how superior the Yankees are to the Red Sox and whatever I said to him he threw back with a smart aleck’s smirk.
My last gift from Uncle Howard was one hundred dollars. He remembered me in his will. It still moves me to think of him uttering my name in some lawyer’s office. His gift taught me that being remembered is what matters, not the amount. I wondered how best to use that money, how best to honor Uncle Howard. I bought a rocking chair to use when I nursed my new baby.
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