As I rode in my Uncle Marv’s new 1979 Cadillac, I kept looking out the window and wondering how I was going to deal with such a fuckin’ control freak.
We drove past the sea of row homes, past the shabby gas stations, the cheap chicken shacks and the cheesesteak shops that always claimed that they were the best in the city.
“I used to live on that block,” my uncle bragged about one of the rundown streets of rowhomes. “It looks like a ghetto now. They don’t know how to take care of things.”
My uncle was an asshole. I didn’t want to hear what he had to say about poor people, so I leaned over and turned up the radio. He gave me a scowl, but it didn’t stop me. He just ranted about how people shouldn’t make excuses for their poverty. “They have to pick themselves up by their bootstraps as I did.”
We drove past the Philadelphia Zoo and turned onto the City Avenue ramp. These were my uncle’s people. People with high paying professions like doctors and lawyers, who lived in big stone houses and drove cars that seemed to purr with power instead of old junkers that coughed up fumes.
My uncle bragged about his expensive suits and his fancy wingtips.
“Why buy cheap clothing when you can afford the very best.”
I knew I was getting closer to his house when I could see the high wooden fences and the thick green hedges. We pulled into his gravel-filled driveway and entered his big, sprawling brick and stone house with a huge wooden double door at the entrance. It was like entering a mausoleum.
Aunt Trudy greeted me at the door and gave me a hug, “Harry, It’s so nice that you could get away from the noisy city.”
I hugged her back and said, “It’s not that bad, Aunt Trudy.”
She grew up in Wayne and thought that everyone should be as privileged and entitled as her. She didn’t understand why people were poor. Like my uncle, she thought it was some moral defect.
“Boys,” Uncle Marv called his sons as if they were bellhops. “Please, take Harry’s stuff to his room.”
Joel grabbed my duffle bag. He was the oldest and, after years of lifting weights, was pretty well ripped. He was also the starting running back for his high school football team and had a scholarship to Bowling Green. Uncle Marv talked about him like he was going to be an-other Larry Csonka.
I unpacked my clothes. I knew that I had to stack everything correctly or my asshole uncle would say I was a slob or a bum.
“When you’re in my house, you do things my way,” he’d say, but in my mind, I had already planned to break some his precious rules.
The son of a bitch bought me a Timex watch for Christmas, so I could keep track of his nutty agenda when I was over his house. He even taped the damn schedule to my door. At 11 a.m., there was some shit in the living room. At noon we had lunch. He was so anal that he wrote down what we were going to eat like some fuckin’ restaurant— tuna salad on rye with chips and sweet pickles. Big whoop.
I quickly put my duffle bag into the closet, fixed my clothes, made sure my sneakers were tied and my shirt wasn’t hanging out of my pants. By the time I got to the living room, Uncle Marv and his family were already talking about some bullshit.
“Structure,” he kept emphasizing as if it were a magical word. “You got to have a structure in your life, or you won’t amount to anything. That’s what I learned in the Army. That’s what I’m going to drill into your heads if its the last thing I do.”
Uncle Marv had everything. He was tall, handsome and had pearly white teeth. He was as rich as hell, and he was a war hero. He never let anyone forget that he had a fuckin’ Purple Heart from World War II, which was the first thing he showed anybody when they walked in the house. “The war was tough,” he said, “but I came out of it like a man. Everyone should have to go the Army if you ask me.”
If you ask me, the Army screwed him up. He was probably a reasonable guy before he went in. All that killing and crap probably made him a psycho.
Even his kids were brainwashed. They cowered to him worse than some beaten-down dogs in Philly. Joel told his father his schedule for football practice, and Eric handed him a pa-per to sign for basketball tryouts. I just sat on one of his gaudy velvety chairs looking up at the high ceiling. There wasn’t anything for me to announce except that I got straight D’s on my re-port card and that I had two detentions last week.
Aunt Trudy, like some servant, filled everyone’s water class and made sure the plate of mixed nuts was close enough for all of us to reach. Aunt Trudy was tall, thin, and stood straight up with perfect posture. She wore a light-blue turtleneck sweater and khaki capris pants with her auburn hair puffed up with hairspray.
“Harry is going to spend the night,” Uncle Marv announced as if everyone didn’t know. “I want everyone to show him our finest hospitality,” and he glared at both Joel and Eric.
“At 3 o’clock, I want Joel to take Harry and Eric to the high school field where you can toss the football around.”
“Yes, Dad,” Joel said in such a formal tone that I thought he was addressing the Pope.
After lunch, we went to our rooms for our mandatory “quiet time” bullshit. I shared a room with Eric who put on his glasses and started to read a Hardy Boys book. I reached into my suitcase and pulled out a Playboy Magazine.
“What’s that?” Eric asked in a squeaky voice.
“Oh, not much. Just a couple of really nice tits on Miss July.”
“Let me see! Let me see!”
It was like a sick starving kid wanting to eat a pork chop for the first time.
“If daddy ever finds out we’ll be in trouble.”
“Screw your daddy, Eric. He doesn’t have to know everything. I’m sure he has a whole closet full of this shit.”
I had another one in my duffel bag and tossed him an October. “Don’t say I never gave you anything.”
After quiet time, my cousins and I walked around the boring neighborhood that didn’t have any sidewalks and only a few traffic lights. We saw the church with the big stained glass windows where my cousins were baptized, and Uncle Marv married Aunt Trudy.
“Do you want to meet our pastor?” asked Eric. “He’s a really nice guy.”
“Hell, no!” I told Eric. “I’m not going to set foot in one of those places. That’s for dweebs who wear suits and act like there’s a heaven and hell.”
Uncle Marv’s kids were corny. They were all-American types who did everything by the book. They would never fit in where I lived. We didn’t have parents who told us to go to church or who structured our time. We did everything for ourselves. If we wanted to play ball, we didn’t wait for our parents to drive us someplace and organize it. We’d go to Max Meyers Play-ground with some baseball equipment, choose sides and have a game.
At the high school field, we tossed a football around. After a few long heaves, my arm got sore, and I wanted to do something with a little more excitement.
“This is boring shit,” I told Eric and Joel. Let play a game.”
“Daddy said we should just to have a catch.”
“Fuck, daddy! He’s not here!”
Joel waved to a couple of his friends who were headed back from some Boy Scout meeting.
“Great,” I said. “Now we could have a four on four.”
I had never seen Uncle Marv’s kids smile so much. They acted like a bunch of sad pussies around their parents, always listening to them and never having any fun. But now, I could see them coming alive.
As it turned out, they played like shit, but it was fun anyway. Eric ran the ball like one of the Three Stooges rather than Larry Csonka. I lost because I had Joel on my team. He was slow, awkward and couldn’t catch for shit. He kept running in the wrong direction and fumbled before anyone even touched him. After the game, we laid on the big sprawling lawn of the high school, and I took out my pack of smokes.
“Oh, you better put those cigarettes away before someone sees you.”
“Don’t worry, Joel, nobody’s going to see me. What’s there a Gestapo around here?”
Uncle Marv’s kids looked at me as I smoked the cigarette, obviously impressed that I knew how to smoke in the first place.
“Do you follow the Sixers?” I asked as the smoke poured out of my nostrils.
“Sure,” Eric said. “My daddy has season tickets.”
Spoiled sonofabitch, I thought. Eric probably had front row seats and was able to eat all the fuckin’ hotdogs he wanted. I imagined my uncle driving his kids in his new air-conditioned Cadillac with the seatbelts strapped tight while the rest of us patsies took the hot subway to South Philly.
It turned out Eric didn’t know shit about the Sixers. He couldn’t come up with the starting lineup, and he had no idea what position Dr. J played.
“What position do you play, Joel?” I asked.
“Shooting guard or point?”
He shrugged his shoulders. Jeez, it was like talking to a sports imbecile. Poor kid, I thought. His fuckin’ control freak father was destroying his mind, making him ignorant of all the important things in life.
We made a slow trek back to the house as I finished another cigarette. Joel and Eric kept watching me smoke and flipping my blond hair from my eyes. It was as if they never saw a real person before.
Perhaps the best part of this crappy weekend was Uncle Marv’s new 32-inch Sony Trinitron. The TV had four speakers that filled up every corner of the living room.
“Oh great,” I said, “basketball.”
All of us sat on the sofa as we watched Mo Cheeks juke and duck out of the defenders’ reach, piling up assists, racking up points. You could almost touch him; the picture was that sharp and clear. For a moment, I forgot about being at Uncle Marv’s boring house and enjoyed myself. I took the opportunity to explain what was going on in the game for my cousins. “That’s a give-and-go.” “That guy’s cherry-picking.” Joel and Eric seemed very impressed.
That didn’t last long, however. At dinner, I was self-conscious again thanks to Uncle Marv asking me how my mother was and all I could say was that she was okay. The reality was that she was never okay. She was always in the midst of some emotional meltdown, and I never knew what mood she would be in next. Even if I told him the truth, he would complain and probably say something like: “See, I told your father when he was alive that she needs psychiat-ric care. He didn’t listen to me. Now, look at her.”
I was afraid that my cousins saw me as being unstable like my mother. And I also wondered if Uncle Marv viewed me as a fuckin’ charity case, and that the only reason he invited me to his house was that he felt sorry for me.
I ate everything on my plate. It was the best prime rib with mashed potatoes that I ever had. It was a lot better than the Chef Boyardee ravioli crap that my mother frequently made in that old burnt saucepan of hers. Most of the time, I scrounged up a few dollars and went to Dante’s Inferno for a pizza or a meatball grinder.
After dinner, we all took our plates and silverware to the sink and cleaned them. There were two sinks, one with clean water and the other with soapy. I kept thinking of that damn magic word, Structure, as I scraped the food off my plates, scrubbed it in the soapy water and then dipped it into the clean. Each of us dried off our plates with a separate dish towel and stacked it back into the kitchen cabinet.
At 7 p.m., everybody played a game of Monopoly while Aunt Trudy sat in the corner of the room and read some lame book. Uncle Marv quickly bought the Boardwalk and Park Place, but that was about it. Eric had a lot of cheap properties but didn’t garner much rent. Joel had all the railroads and utilities and was pulling in the dough. I was stuck in jail half the time, passing Go only twice during the whole fuckin’ game.
* * *
It was way too quiet at night in Uncle Marv’s house. You didn’t hear any busses or trolleys. You didn’t hear a police siren or a car burning rubber. You just heard silence as if nothing else existed but you and the pitch black night. I’m sure Joel and Eric were used to this, but for me, it felt empty and barren as if life ended at 9 p.m. I sat awake wondering how people could sleep in such quiet. I kept my eyes open looking out into the darkness, and all I could hear were crickets and the leaves fluttering from some random tree.
Once the sun shone through the slats of the blinds, I knew it was Sunday morning. I got out of bed, packed my bag as quickly as I could and sat on the chair. I was ready to leave. I shared twenty-four hours with a family that made me feel like a second-class citizen. I wanted to go back to my life, back to the city where things were alive and spontaneous. I knew that when my uncle would drop me off at home, he would give me an envelope full of money that I would hand to my mother. She would ask me how the weekend went, and I would say that it sucked and that I never want to go back. She would say, “If it weren’t for your uncle, I wouldn’t be able to afford to buy you those expensive sneakers you are wearing.”
I heard Uncle Marv and Aunt Trudy’s voices in the living room. Joel was getting dressed. I looked out the window at my uncle’s big fuckin’ yard with the six-foot-tall hedges that wrapped around his property like a noose around my neck. I dug into my pocket for a cigarette and opened the window.
MARK TULIN is a retired Family Therapist from Philadelphia who now resides in Santa Barbara, California. Mark writes about off-beat topics, humorous characters, and often fictionalizes his childhood experiences. He has been featured in Fiction on the Web, elephant journal, Friday Flash Fiction, Page and Spine, and others. His website is crowonthewire.com. And his poetry chapbook is called Magical Yogis.
Image: via Pixabay