My uncle lived part-time in prison, in a cell with a blanket, pillow, and towel. The remainder of his days he lived in a small house on Prospect Street. When he was in jail he’d get slim, when he was out he always got heavy. I’ll never be as hungry again, he’d say. Had to hide from the slop in there just to keep the smell off you. But sooner than later he’d end up skinny again.
He hated to drive and when he did his mouth clenched and his fat lips pressed into one. Before long his eyes started darting and he spit and cussed and my fingers were sore from clinging to the pickup’s dash.
He had a friend, a pale young man he’d met in jail, who visited him sometimes. When the pale man showed up I had to get lost, but on the summer nights we had to ourselves my uncle sat at his Formica table and drank whiskey from a tall glass while I stood behind him and rubbed his bald head. You’ve got less hair than a genie, I said. I like to keep clean, he said back. While he got drunk he told me stories from back in the vast black space before I was born. When he finished telling his storiesI never cared that I’d heard them beforehe looked me right in the eye and say, A man’s a fool to let anything move inside him boy, cepting his bowels, of course, and stuffed a couple of dollars in my shirt pocket.
After the stories, and before he went to sleep face down on the table, he said the words that thrilled me most of all. Why don’t we take ol’ Sam Cooke for a spin?
I knew how to take an album out, fingertips gentle on the slick black edge. I blew the dust off, careful not to spit, and dropped it soft as a bedsheet that last half inch. I could still feel it in my fingers when it settled onto the turntable. Soon as he heard the first notes, his eyes went soft, then glided from soft to an even softer glisten. I slipped behind him and wrapped my arms around his shoulders and we’d sing until we were sleepy. I loved him so much when he was drinking!
When he came to visit, the pale young manI never knew his namestayed the whole weekend, sometimes even to Monday. After he left, for the next few days, there was no drinking, no You Send Me or Bring It On Home To Me. Nothing but rummaging for snacks and watching his stubby fingers tap out broken rhythms. Around Thursday, his fat lips settled back into line, and the shark eyes went back to shifting.