Uncle ... Uncle
by Robert Starr
Karl Reusmensuen was always prowling, never satisfied with anything, and nothing, nothing ever seemed to hold him down or make him sit still. And so he had invisible embers popping and spitting off him -- psychic flares and eruptions scalding anyone who got too close.
"Not a bad day today, eh?" his friends would say when theyíd see him at work or the pub after, but always with the same tentative look on their faces. They all knew he was about to down everything but wanted to give him another chance to come up with something positive, so Ďnot a bad day today?í was really a test, a warning heíd better not poison the atmosphere.
And Karl wasnít a stupid guy; heíd pick right up on the vibe and even try to say the kind of thing he thought they wanted to hear.
"Yup. Itís a pretty good day out there all right," he'd say, but his petulance always gave him away. In the end it was never any use; the gang would try to have a good time but his just being there spoiled it.
One night, it went like this:
Julie was the one who cut him the most slack because she was overweight and, even though none of the crew made fun of her for it, she was overfriendly and willing to see everyoneís point of view as a compensation.
So she jumped right in after the awkward silence when you could imagine they were all thinking ĎHere we go again" when they saw Karl.
"Hey," she said, shifting over in the booth to make room because Kenny, Marvin, and Shelia had hesitated just long enough to make things really uncomfortable. "Sit down here." She patted the bench as though sheíd been waiting for him.
A monumental silence followed where everyone felt they should say something to distance themselves from the tense atmosphere, but itís the one who feels the worst that starts.
So Kenny starts talking suddenly:
"Today was a really good day," he says, and itís clear heís talking to Karl although heís not looking at him and that what heís saying is just bubbling up and spilling over as if it comes from a broken water main. "I mean, everydayís a good day if you want it to be, right?" and he looks around the table at everyone else wondering why he canít shut up.
Marvin just stares back . Heís spinning an empty beer bottle around by the neck between a thumb and forefinger and slumps down peeling a piece of the label off, then rolling it up into a hard little ball. He doesnít speak or even blink while he sizes Kenny up.
"Youíre right," Shelia says because she knows Marvinís about to pounce. "Itís nice in here, donít you think so Karl?"
But Karl hasnít heard her; heís been sitting with his hands in his lap and a forced smile on his face, frantically trying to think up an excuse to get up and leave ever since he sat down.
"Well," he says as formally as someone just finishing the last coffee after dinner, "I think itís time for me to go."
So he gets up and walks out to silence without looking back until heís outside, only allowing himself a quick glimpse through the window when heís safe on the sidewalk.
The gangís back to normal -- Marvin puts an arm around Shelia, who feigns offence at something Kenny says and throws a piece of popcorn at him from the wooden bowl sitting in the middle of their table, and everyone laughs.
"No matter," Karl whispers as he walks off into the night, "No matter."
He walks well away from the strip mall although thereís a bus stop close by because he feels the ineffable need to cover his tracks, to disappear into the night so no one can see where heís going. As soon as heís in front of the second stop the bus appears; itís right on time but Karl is shocked because heís been so far inside himself only the squeaking brakes and whoosh of the hydraulic door bring him around .
He invariably enjoys the first part of the ride even though he knows where it takes him. He luxuriates in a brief respite between two points with a carefree abandon like a dandelion spore that is nearly weightless, defenceless, and at the mercy of beneficent breezes. But Karl knows. He can feel the quiet build up starting immediately after the trip becomes irreversible. A mood rather than a location change where he has to admit where heís going.
So all the streetlights appear to dim at once and change from the closely grouped orange/yellow of the malls and busy streets to individually isolated white cones as the posts get further apart. When heís on the sidewalk and the doors close as the bus pulls away, Karl can hear it shift gears and fights a cresting wave of panic that pushes him to run after it, board, and drive on in that floating netherworld thatís always between destinations until the sun comes up diluting the black night into the shade of bleached denim.
He walks faster the closer he gets to his home, which is nowhere near as horrible as the late night movies on television tells him it should be -- no rickety shutters or overgrown front lawn, no unseen dogs barking from behind flimsy rotten-wood greying walls, but a nicely manicured, controlled presence making life inside even more terrifying in its ability to camouflage itself like a reversed Halloween mask. So heís drawn up the steps where even his rubber soles thump as if amplified, and he walks into the lobby imagining the security camera is recording the invisible aura surrounding him; the image going straight from the lens to a black box where itís stored by someone who doesnít understand these are the last pictures of him before his descent.
But Karl knows because the quiet is turning in him again.
He never remembers who gets on the elevator but can describe the round white lights with black numbers marking the floors as they pass (the plastic covers yellowed with cigarette smoke), and after the compartment shifts and jogs when they reach eleven, the door slides and shimmies open to the same wallpaper (beige with overlaid dark red hexagons) that is raised and feels as soft as felt to the touch.
He likes to imagine the atmosphere when the paper was new: simpler times full of people, places, and things heís convinced himself exist (or did exist) in another world just over his horizon.
Karl starts to walk down the hall. Each section of wall between apartment doors has a yellow light hanging on it with a hexagonal, tinted, dark glass cover, and Karl can smell some undefined personís cooking day or night -- a sharp foreign odour that makes him feel momentarily displaced as he walks by another door where the television is so loud he envisions a lonely old wizened lady inside whoís resigned to only having a countdown left.
His apartment is at the end of the hall, bordered on one side by an orange steel door leading to a stairwell where other teens crush their half smoked cigarette buts on the landing and thereís a padlocked hatchway overhead to the roof. Karl often starts there and runs down so his feet batter the steps in staccato bursts like wind-driven rain hitting a window; itís the place where he spits down between the railings to see how far it will go before hitting an aluminium centre cap with a wet splat.
But he stops at his front door -- having sped up as if the floor tilted and he couldnít help it -- but now that heís there he stops and looks at the three wooden numbers -- 424 -- that are dowelled out, painted, and screwed on. He grabs the knob and pulls it toward him as he slides the key in because the deadbolt has less resistance and makes less noise that way, and because he wants to sneak in and down the hall to his bedroom without being heard.
"Where are you going now?" Uncle asked a month before and the whole apartment suddenly became clammy and uncomfortable just because his guardian asked him to stay in for an evening.
"Why do you always have to go out?" heíd asked. "I get lonely in here all by myself."
And Karl looked over at the quarter empty brown bottle of Canadian Club resting on the coffee table, thinking: Right where a nice lamp would be in anyone elseís home.
"Why canít you stay in and watch television with me this one time? I donít ask for much and I give you everything."
Karl turned away involuntarily, this time thinking: Why do you talk like this?
"Whatís wrong with you anyway?" Uncle said refilling his glass and smiling because heíd sensed a ripple. "I donít think anyone can fully appreciate what Iíve been through. What itís like to be me."
"Okay. Okay, Iíll stay in. If thatís what you want, Iíll stay here," Karl finally said.
"What do you mean, Ďif thatís what I want'? You donít think about anyone but yourself, do you?" Uncle was sitting forward on the sofa that had wedges of yellow foam sticking out from the ripped cushions.
"I have to look after you. Do you have any idea what a responsibility that is? How much fun I could have if I didnít have to look after you?"
And right there Karl could feel it crawling on him again; heíd become that little boy adorned from head to foot with mocking trinkets and bobbles -- shiny necklaces, rings, and a gold tiara -- and he fell silent. Every other time before that day, heíd conjured up a manageable place, throwing a glass cylinder of pixie dust down so he could disappear and level out in that special exile called make believe or fabrication thriving in the carefully constructed labyrinths of his mind.
But then he saw the weakness of it, the thought coming to him that no one can float above anything indefinitely, that gravity attracts suffering as surely as apples off branches, and thatís when the weight of his life almost crushed him.
So he walks into the apartment with his breath as malicious and loud as a kiteís fabric snapping back and forth in the sky on a brisk fall day. The apartment is silent and the clarity of the soundlessness makes him certain heís been anticipated, probably as early as the front door. And with that he deflates, already becoming apologetic and quickly meek, and does his best to act nonchalant as he closes the door to his room.
Having made it this far, the night now becomes contingent on strategy ; heís sat on the edge of his single bed in the dark waiting deferentially for the inevitable many nights. Other times, when the tension skewers his nerves, Karl walks down the hall and knocks at the other bedroom door offering some excuse, "Did you set your alarm, Uncle?", that he knows will wake him.
But tonight Karl is exhausted and puts the covers down, climbing into bed with his clothes on; then he pulls the flannel sheet up over his torso slowly so his shifting weight wonít make the mattress creak too loudly, and he lies on his back in the dark with the sheet up around his chin.
His weighted lids shut eventually, and he forces them open twice before they close and he falls asleep. Karl has no way of knowing how long heís been gone when the light flips on in his room; itís something he doesnít hear but only knows by the orange dull brown flares on the inside of his eyelids reminding him of some undefined cottage visited years before, of the long past serenity of letting the sun warm his face as he lies on the grass listening to the rippling water on the lake.
"Sure. Sure. Not a care in the world. Just comes home and goes to sleep while I stay up worrying about things."
Uncle is standing over his bed with his hands on the railing at the foot, leaning over with his eyes so large ( the lids pulled so far back), that Karl knows his rage has been building for hours, that heíd most likely scampered down the hall to wait in ambush after he heard the key in the lock.
And Karl looks at him but not in the eyes. If he looks at his Uncle that way he sees the bloated hatred consuming him, and if he looks too long it jumps across empty space between them and grabs him too. But tonight things will turn especially wicked as Karl, trying to avoid that contact, turns his head so heís staring at the wall and Uncle takes it as a show of defiance or impudence.
"Iím talking to you," he says from the foot of the bed where heís grabbed the cross rail with such force the tension runs right through the mattress.
"I said, Iím talking to you," Uncle says again, and he lifts, dropping the whole frame so Karl bounces and shuts his eyes because he can feel order slipping away and knows this will move quickly now toward a bad place.
"Thatís your problem, isnít it?" and now Uncle is going down a familiar path -- heís found an angle to adopt.
"You donít appreciate anything I do for you. No one knows what I go through to put a roof over your head."
Karl opens his eyes.
"I didnít ask to be born," he says and it sounds both irrefutable and logical to him.
"See, thatís exactly what I mean," Uncle says as if thereís someone in the room with them, as though heís presenting proof for an argument he started before Karl came home.
He runs to the side of the bed.
"You think you know everything, donít you?" and heís leaning over and staring, so close now Karl canít help but look right back.
"You think youíre really something, donít you?" Uncle says, and Karl turns his face away, but suddenly he can imagine the gang from back at the pub have always known whatís happening here right now, that these episodes affix themselves to his skin in a kind of hieroglyphic chalk that everyone knows how to read as he passes.
"Youíre just a spoiled little brat," Uncle sneers because he can see Karl tensing, and, knowing that heís gaining the upper hand, he leans closer so Karl catches a blast of stale alcohol that smells as foul as something forgotten under a sink.
"Youíre no good at all," and now Uncle purrs at him and in that moment Karl forgets who the man standing over him is; for a second, he feels himself falling backward on the bed because the words must be true, would explain his part in the horrendous lives they share in the apartment. And everyone knows it and can see it wherever he goes.
So he looks up at the stranger standing over him, right into his eyes, and promptly forgets himself.
The next morning after he leaves the apartment and stands in the corridor facing the long hall, he imagines he hears the voices of tenants with their eyes pressed against peepholes, whispering in barely audible hushes above the air circulating in the large vents near the top of either wall:
Come quick. Hurry. Itís the one who hit the old man last night. There he is now.
So Karl turns and pushes the orange steel door open that hisses on its hydraulic hinges and walks out onto the deserted landing where he can be alone. Out there, heís more confident the whispers are only the faint hum of the buildingís machinery buzzing through the concrete walls.
A lone moth is clacking ardently off the bare light bulb on the second landing down, butting itself against the thin glass so Karlís attention is drawn to it.
He sees clearly that itís no use, that the light drawing the insect instinctively is forever out of its reach, and that the moth will eventually only kill itself if it continues itís mad futile pursuit.
He watches for another moment as a thought begins to piece itself together; an equation begins to work itself out because he stares at the lighted filamentís shimmering glow and knows it is both soothing and unattainable to the insect, and what it wants will draw it again and again regardless of the danger and impossibility of the situation.
So he puts a hand on the railing and takes one unsure step and one last look at the light to assure himself, but by the time heís a full flight away from the bulb, Karl is taking the steps two at a time in his haste to get out.
© 2005 Robert Starr
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