by Timothy Reilly
NEIL COULD SCARCELY believe this was the same Uncle Lefty who had once accused him of being a changeling. This current version of Uncle Lefty had fear and pity in his eyes. He lacked the flippant meanness of his former self.
‘I’m so sorry about your mother’s passing,’ said Uncle Lefty, his bushy white eyebrows rising nearly to the spot where a hairline once stood. ‘My poor kid sister.’
Neil’s clumsy acknowledgment caused him to spill wine on the carpet.
‘Don’t worry about that,’ his Aunt Betty said, patting the spill with a tea towel. ‘It’s Scotchgarded.’
‘Were you with her when she died?’ asked Uncle Lefty.
‘No,’ said Neil. ‘I wasn’t with her when she died. But I was with her after the paramedics came.’
Uncle Lefty looked around. ‘Did she say anything?’ he whispered.
Neil held back a vindictive urge to say Rosebud. ‘She said a lot of things, Uncle Lefty. She was scared and confused.’
Uncle Lefty opened his mouth as if to speak but then crimped it shut and simply nodded.
Neil excused himself to get something to eat from a table spread with decorative paper plates and napkins, plastic utensils, finger sandwiches, rolls, and fruit salad.
His aunt and uncle’s house looked as it did when Neil was a boy. The entrance hall was still fit with a holy water font and a small picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. On the wall near the buffet table was a mahogany-framed copy of the Lord’s Prayer. Aunt Betty was an old school Catholic. Uncle Lefty had always claimed to be a practicing Catholic, but he was also in the habit of adding a blasphemous adjective to anything that bothered him: Goddamned crabgrass. Goddamned Buick. Goddamned weather. Our goddamned nephew is about as useful as tits on an ironing board.
Neil looked up at the Lord’s Prayer: forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Aunt Betty came up beside him and touched his arm. ‘You’ll have to forgive your uncle,’ she said softly. ‘He hasn’t been himself, lately. He got some bad news from the doctor.’
The doorbell rang and Aunt Betty scuttled to answer it.
Neal put some fruit salad and a dinner roll on his plate and then walked over to a long tribute table set with flowers, a guestbook, and a gallery of photos of his mother—arranged like a timeline—from early childhood to middle age. The last photo seemed to be looking at him with the eyes of Jesus.
A friend of his mother’s had phoned him on the night his mother died. The friend told him to please come quickly. She said his mother was talking incoherently and might have suffered a stroke or something. When Neil got there, his mother was shouting curses at the paramedics. She was trying to fight off their efforts to strap her to a gurney.
‘Calm down, Mom,’ said Neil. ‘These people are trying to help you.’
But his mother shouted even louder – flailing like a drowning woman.
‘SHUT UP,’ he shouted.
Everyone—including his mother—followed the command. The paramedics secured the patient to the gurney and transported her to the hospital: where she died two hours later.
Uncle Lefty joined Neil at the tribute table. ‘Look at your mom,’ he said, pointing to an early photograph. ‘All the little girls wore their hair that way in the thirties.’ He looked down and sighed. ‘I wish I’d been closer to her. I wish I could talk to her now.’
Neil remembered how his uncle had teased him about having long hair: ‘I can’t tell you goddamned hippies apart. You all look like girls.’
‘Is that you?’ Neil said, pointing to a group shot with a little boy sticking out his tongue.
‘Yep,’ said Uncle Lefty. ‘I’m afraid so.’ He touched a wedding photo of Neil’s mother and father. ‘I wish I’d been closer to your dad, too. He was a good man.’
Neil scanned the guestbook and found the name of his mother’s best friend, Harriet Maddox. The only witnesses to Neil’s angry last words to his mother were the paramedics and Harriet. And God.
‘Excuse me, Uncle Lefty,’ said Neil. ‘I think I should mingle with the guests.’
Neal began to search for Harriet Maddox. He was desperate for forgiveness—even if by proxy. As he passed through the guests, all of them offered their condolences. One former neighbor, Mrs. Casper, held Neil captive as she related a favorite story, in great detail, about his mother singing, “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Baily,” at a long-ago Christmas party.
‘Your mother was always the life of the party,’ said Mrs. Casper. ‘And such a generous spirit. Not a mean bone in her body.’
‘Thank you for sharing that story, Mrs. Casper,’ said Neil. ‘And thank you for being here.’ He was hoping to take his leave but Mrs. Casper started up with another life of the party story.
When he was finally able to slip away, he noticed Uncle Lefty standing alone: watching him like an assassin in wait. For years he endured his uncle’s endless barrage of snide remarks—along with some weird, sucker-punching practical jokes. His uncle’s acting meek and penitent didn’t fool Neil. He couldn’t trust the man. He stepped out to the patio to escape his uncle’s creepy gaze.
The backyard was like a ghost town from the early 1960s. Next to the stump of a now faceless tiki stood the leaning ruins of a brick barbeque. A kidney-shaped swimming pool still held water, but its diving board had been removed years ago. Neil remembered his uncle telling him he couldn’t use the pool unless he cut his goddamned hair or put on a goddamned bathing cap. Neil never used the pool.
A group of imminent ghosts, from his parents’ generation, gathered on the patio: defiantly smoking cigarettes. Neil went back indoors to avoid their second-hand smoke.
Once inside, he spotted Harriet Maddox walking toward the entrance hall, holding her purse. He followed her out to her car.
‘Mrs. Maddox,’ he called.
She turned to face him with a look that cut right to his soul. She waited for him to speak.
‘I want to thank you for coming, Mrs. Maddox,’ he said, in a pitch higher than his natural baritone.
‘Your mother was the best friend I ever had.’ She seemed angry.
‘I feel just horrible. I didn’t know how bad off Mom was. Please believe me. I didn’t mean to say what I said to her.’
Mrs. Maddox let a silence build. ‘What’s done is done,’ she said at last. It was tantamount to calling him a murderer.
‘Drive safely,’ he said as she entered her car.
He returned to the living room to thank his aunt for hosting the funeral repast—and also to say goodbye. While speaking with her, he looked down at a dark spot where he had earlier spilt wine. Uncle Lefty suddenly appeared standing next to him.
‘Can we please go outside?’ he said to Neil. ‘I need to speak with you in private.’
Neal followed his uncle out the front door and around to the side of the house—away from arriving and departing guests.
‘This is very difficult for me,’ said Uncle Lefty. ‘But I need to tell someone. I can’t take this with me to the grave.’ He took in a deep breath. ‘Here goes. The last time I saw your mother, I said something to her that wasn’t very kind. I feel horrible about it. I’m sorry. I’m very sorry. I don’t know what else to say.’
Neil could not speak for his mother. He could not speak.
Timothy Reilly had been a professional tubist (including a stint with the Teatro Regio of Torino, Italy) until around 1980, when a condition called “Embouchure Dystonia” ended his music career. He gratefully retired from substitute teaching in 2014. Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, he has published in Fictive Dream, Zone 3, Superstition Review, and many other journals. He lives in Southern California with his wife: Jo-Anne Cappeluti, a poet and scholar.