Only a few months to live.
You’re already in the area.
It’s the least you can do.
My father lined up reasons for me to visit my great uncle. Like any good lawyer, he left no room for interpretation. Even if my rebuttals weren’t pathetically weak in comparison, I knew better than to raise them. I wouldn’t mention that our childhood visits to my great uncle’s house were spent either hiding aboveground (the trees) or underground (the basement) to avoid the strange, unnatural tension. I would certainly never say aloud that my uncle was a bombastic, angry alcoholic and that I had no interest in going back to visit him. After so many years, I had written him off as that strange relative, a minor player in my life. But I couldn’t say any of this to my father. I learned quickly growing up that most of the time, I didn’t have a case, so I didn’t argue. Nothing has changed. I am ten years old again. Time is strange.
“So many years have gone by. So much time lost…” His voice trailed off.
“Dad, life just got in the way. Face it, taking care of us wasn’t exactly easy. ” The echoes of my wild childhood rang in my head. So much had changed.
“Well that’s true, but not an excuse. Your mother would have wanted us to keep up the tradition,” he sighed.
Feeling numb, I flicked on the windshield wipers. I hadn’t noticed the rain. The voice in the speakers was my father and it wasn’t my father. I let his alien voice lull me into a trance. I imagined the distance between us, the distance between the sun and Jupiter.
“I’m not asking for much, Penelope.” The sound of my name yanked me back from the blackness of space. Here it comes. I sucked in more air than my lungs could hold.
“Sweetheart.” He always ended softly, like waves on the lake that aren’t quite waves. “It’s been a long time. You may be surprised at what you find.”
I choked on the knot in my throat, hacking up the stale air trapped in my lungs. Surprised at what you find. Those words held a kind of magic that conjured up the wood paneling. I had almost forgotten. It was scary how my father could be so on the nose without even knowing it. Eyes watering as I gasped for air, I knew that he had won. In a strangled voice, I told him as much and tapped the red phone icon on the dash.
The next hour took twice as long as the previous six, but the winding maze of tiny brick houses took only a few seconds to navigate. Before I was ready, I was there. My great uncle’s house. Parking on the street instead of the driveway, I stared. The tree was still there. Although it likely had grown in the past fifteen years, it looked smaller to me. Time is strange. I could almost see the ghosts of me and my brother hanging upside down by our knees, swinging and calling like howler monkeys at the bewildered old woman across the street, who would without fail exclaim “well I never…” before hobbling back into the house presumably to call the cops, who never showed up no doubt thanks to her dementia. We were a couple of monsters. Imaginary fish wire tugs at the corner of my mouth, an involuntary smile. Then, the line is snipped: What happened to that girl anyway?
I stood at the doorbell, unsure how I got there but very aware that I had left all my belongings in my car, even my phone which was still connected to the dashboard. With nothing to hold in front of me, I felt exposed. I longed for the solitude that was slowly eating me alive. What I wouldn’t give to yank the cheap dense curtains of my cheap hotel room closed, to bury myself in the cheap sheets with my headphones clamped over my ears, to dissolve into the stories of passion that made my skin tingle and my heart twist and snap at odd angles. I am a pathetic masochist. A lonely pathetic masochist. There was no rationalizing how I got this way, only that I am no longer the brave girl dangling from trees screeching at old ladies. A pang of profound loss swept through me, as if someone had died. Maybe a part of me had.
Straightening up, I rang the doorbell. It took a long time for my uncle to answer the door. The heavy, uneven gait rattled the floorboards and the incessant grumbling grew closer. The door flung open so violently the screen door popped open a bit, making me jump.
“WELL, HERE YOU ARE.” My uncle yelled everything. At some point, I remember my father rationalizing this as a result of hearing damage sustained while working around airplanes, but to me it always seemed like the rage that he kept pent up in his belly was escaping the only way it could, out of his big mouth.
I offered a weak smile as he turned on his heel, waddling painfully back into the house. I tentatively opened the screen door to follow. Time is strange. Fifteen years was a long time, but my uncle had not changed a bit. His bowed legs resisted every step as he lurched forward, wheezing with the effort. I have never seen him wear anything other than a white polo shirt stretched to bursting against his great belly and tucked savagely into his Wrangler jeans. Today his shirt was slightly offwhite, faded and a bit grubby, just like the house. The TV was blaring, but as he collapsed back into his fat armchair, he fumbled with the remote to mute it.
“DON’T BOTHER,” he shouted at me as I kicked off my shoes “EVERYTHING IN THIS HOUSE IS CRAP. I DON’T GIVE A SHIT.” Ignoring him, I finished taking off my shoes. It’s what my aunt would have wanted. Aunt Yvonne was my uncle’s second wife and I remember loving her bright floral print blouses, the electric pink lipstick that always seemed to get on her long yellow teeth, and the delicious cheesy potato casserole that was always simmering away in the oven when we arrived. Where my uncle was rough, sharp, and loud, Aunt Yvonne was buttery and full of hugs. It was always a bit of a family mystery as to how my uncle married three women, especially someone as sweet as Yvonne. Of the two wives I had known, Yvonne was my favorite. I was 13 when she died, but I remember her more vividly than Moyra, who married my uncle a month after a chance meeting at the VFW and who divorced him almost as quickly. Funny, I don’t remember when. Time is strange.
“ARE YOU A SPACE CADET OR WHAT. GET IN HERE AND TALK TO ME, GIRL.” He shouted from the enormous chair that time had fitted perfectly to his form. I felt his bleary eyes following me from behind enormous aviator frames as I made my way to the couch.
“Hey uncle. How are you?”
“WHAT?” he boomed, “YOU HAVE TO SPEAK UP, I CAN’T HEAR A DAMN THING.”
“Sorry,” I raised my voice a bit, “I was wondering how you are.”
“OH. FINE. FINE. DYING AND FINE. FINE AND DYING. WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE. DO YOU WANT A DRINK OR WHAT.” His questions never really felt like questions. Also it was 11am.
I leapt at the opportunity to leave the room. “Sure, I’ll get us something. The usual?” He grunted and the TV roared back to life at full volume. In the kitchen, I quickly mixed up his usual drink of choice: whiskey and diet coke (light on the coke) with a slice of lime.
A slice of lime. That summer, her hands shook so violently that she couldn’t use knives and my services were enlisted. Finishing the job as quickly as possible to join my brother outside, I left the sliced limes next to the whiskey bottle and snuck behind my aunt toward freedom. Realizing I had forgotten my hat on the table, I ducked back inside and caught a glimpse of my uncle and aunt standing side by side at the counter with their backs to me. I remember the protective hand on her back, but what strikes me now, as if the memory was yesterday, was the warm chuckle that was so completely uncharacteristic of my uncle as I knew him. It was one of the first times I realized that I didn’t know my uncle and I never would.
In an effort to calm my prickling nerves, I made myself a gin and tonic and carried both drinks back into the living room. While facing the TV to create an illusion of interest, my eyes traveled the walls covered with giant photos of lighthouses. They were everywhere. Small frames, gilded frames, matted, unmatted, giant canvas prints. Every wall was adorned with lighthouses, frozen in time, signaling to no one from my uncle’s living room. My uncle’s obsession was strange and unexplained. Even my father shrugged his shoulders, unable to rationalize my uncle’s fascination. If my father couldn’t uncover the hidden truth behind those utilitarian structures, no one would.
One particular photo caught my eye. It would have been hard to miss; the massive, matted and framed print took up the majority of the wall across from me. Taken at either sunrise or sunset, the sky was pink and gold, a shimmering calm against the raging iron waves attacking the breakwater. The contrast was striking and dramatic.
“THERE’S MORE DOWNSTAIRS, YOU KNOW.” I jumped, not realizing he had been watching me.
“YOU CAN RUMMAGE THROUGH, GOD KNOWS NO ONE WANTS ‘EM. IT’S ALL GARBAGE.” He scoffed, taking a deep gulp of his drink.
“YOU KNOW I DRAGGED THOSE DAMN PHOTOS ALL OVER THE COUNTY FOR ART SHOWS AND OPEN GALLERY NIGHTS AND THOSE HIPPIES TRIED TO HAGGLE ON PRICE. HA!” He blasted, his face turning red.
“I’M GOING TO TAKE IT ALL TO THE DUMP. IF NO ONE WANTS IT, IT’S GARBAGE. GO TAKE WHAT YOU WANT.”
“Oh, uncle. I’m sure…”
“SURE OF WHAT. JUST GET ON DOWN THERE AND SEE FOR YOURSELF. PILES OF NOTHING IS WHAT IT IS.”
“Alright.” I sighed and took a swig of my cocktail for courage or perhaps for luck. The basement was a safe haven for us when we were kids, but today, in wake of my uncle’s outburst and the steam I could feel radiating off him as I walked past, the dark basement felt ominous. I felt the familiar sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach as I passed through the kitchen, where I could almost smell the cheesy potato casserole. At the top of the stairs, I stared down into the black.
As I descended I felt time evaporate, my senses taking over and driving me deeper. The mustiness laced with pipe tobacco, the chalkiness of the dust, the heaviness of the cool air that hung around my shoulders like a feather boa of mist. The ghosts of my childhood came tearing down the stairs, launching themselves in front of me and into the fluorescent light of the dank space, free at last from the plushy welcome hugs and useless chitter chatter of adults. This place was ours more than it was my uncle’s. I breathed in my history. I felt it in front of me.
But my eyes contradicted my memory, showing how time inevitably changes all things. Bins of all sizes cluttered the floors and the tops of tables. Hundreds maybe even thousands of photos, carefully matted, lovingly labeled, and nestled in plastic wrap lay stacked against each other. Some photos were matted and framed, leaning against the walls, piled on the couch, staring out in the glaring artificial light. They were waiting for someone to flip through, hoping against hope that they would catch someone’s eye, that they could be worthy to be hung on a wall.
I didn’t know where to begin. There was barely any room to walk, much less sit. There was everything to look at and nothing at all. Standing there, alone, I stared without seeing anything. I was preoccupied by what had really brought me to my uncle’s house in the first place. My eyes darted to the hiding place, the split in the wood-panelled wall. Could it still be there?
The ghosts were back, huddling in the corner looking at something. That day, we had escaped the oppressive Midwest August heat to our underground playground. Nothing was off limits. Nothing was sacred. We went through the roll top desk, giggled while trying to read the scratched ramblings in yellowed notebooks, climbed shelving in the unfinished laundry room to peek our noses over the top shelf for any hidden treasures. My brother was the one who found it in the coffee table book. The ghosts of my brother and me in the corner, turning it over in our hands, not actually understanding what we were seeing, but knowing it wasn’t for our eyes.
“WELL...HAVE YOU FOUND ANYTHING OR WHAT.” The staircase had an amplifying effect on his voice. Already prone to jumpiness, I felt the jolt travel painfully through my skin like a current.
“Not yet, there’s so much down here,” I called back.
“YOU’RE TELLING ME. IT’S ALL A BUNCH OF CRAPOLA...” His voice trailed off and the floor creaked in resistance as he lumbered away from the top of the stairs, grumbling to himself.
I turned back to the corner. The ghosts were gone, but I knew it would still be there. Stepping carefully over bins and boxes of photos, I made my way to our hiding spot, a tiny sliver between the faux wood panels of the wall. Crouching down, I peered through the crack, half expecting, like Alice, to find a magical world on the other side. Here we go, through the keyhole. Sitting back on my heels, I looked around for the tongs and, unsurprisingly, found them exactly where we left them. My uncle had outfitted a dark room in the basement next to the laundry tub before he discovered the simplicity of digital cameras. Originally used to swish around photos in trays of developer fluid, the tongs were the perfect instrument for hiding and revealing secrets in tight places.
I caught the corner of it. Pinching the tongs together, I carefully extracted the yellowed photo. Feeling pins and needles in my legs, I sat back against the wall and examined the secret. It looked completely different. Time is strange.
The woman was Yvonne. I could tell that now. As a kid I was oblivious to the subtle ways that people held on pieces of their younger selves as they aged. She was beautiful, not the soft, dimpled woman I had known. Her long, bare legs stretched out in the messy sheets as she leaned away from the camera. The pinch of her forgotten waist twisted so she could look back over her shoulder, her flowing auburn hair toppled across her shoulders and across one half of her face, not quite concealing the coquettish look in her eye. The corner of her painted lips curled up in a meaningful way, as if remembering an inside joke, one that only lovers could share.
On the back were a few lines, scribbled in the same handwriting that adorned the sea of photos strewn around me. The scribbled words were too faint to read. As kids, we only had eyes for the half-naked woman and took no notice of the words on the back, or the date, or the care with which someone had written those words.
We thought the photo was forbidden because it was so sexy, but now, holding it in my hands I knew why. It was sacred. This was love that never saw the light of day, a secret part of my uncle that was tucked far, far away. Of course he had buried it under his house, tucked inside a book that no one would see. My uncle had taken great care to keep this raw memory alive by hiding it under layers of tough hide that kept it safe and protected. If it was never exposed to the air, it couldn’t waste away like time did to all things.
Fueled by hours of romantic audio books, I tried to picture the moment the photo was taken. My uncle, the years stripped away, unable to suppress a smile behind the camera. My aunt, glowing with confidence at her idea to pose for him, for them to make the moment immortal. I imagine the photo, reflected upside down inside the camera’s dark shell, left forgotten on the table as they fell into bed together, giving in to the lust in the air. I imagine her sleeping peacefully as he creeps down to the basement, watching the image slowly develop in the red light, admiring how a moment so full of everything can be frozen in time. I imagine him hanging the photo on the line to dry and returning to bed. Who knows when he wrote on the back. It could have been the next day or years later when he scribbles something from his heart, something that no one else will ever read. At some point, he tucked the photo away in the basement, never thinking that his great niece and nephew would unearth it.
The tears fall on their own, without my permission, making splotches on the cement floor. I was right, I had never known my uncle. I had never understood him. Until now. Time is strange.
I saw him then. A man who knew and captured real love.
I saw him now. A spiky exoskeleton that repels as well as it protects.
I saw myself then. A girl on the brink of change, wild and free in youth.
I saw myself now. A brittle shell packed with empty fantasies.
Alone. Separated by generations and hundreds of miles. Suffering in solitude.
My uncle is my warning beacon, signaling to stay away from this lonely shore or suffer the consequences. With every pass of that beam of light, I heard the message loud and clear: Don’t let yourself be swept into these rocks.
But I look at the photo again and realize that for all our loneliness, we are not the same. My uncle loved. He created. He lived. Sitting among the remains of his life, I couldn’t help but ask myself what I had done so far, what I could still do.
With a shaky breath, I carefully placed the photo back in the wall, where it would exist as long as the house stood, long after someone came through and carried off the rest of these photos to the dump. An immortal secret.
Walking over to the nearest bin of photos, I started flipping through, letting myself get lost. Like my uncle, the photos were so much more than they appeared to be. Moments full of everything frozen in time. Frantically, I started pulling them out. Large ones, small ones, framed one, ones that spoke to me. The pile grew. Waterfalls, lighthouse, a regal egret, lighthouse, an endless field of pumpkins, lighthouse. I had no place for these photos in my tiny apartment, but it didn’t matter. These photos were meant for the light of day. They were proof. They were hope.