by Amanda Gamache-Mitchell
I realized he knew he was dying by the look in his eyes, by the tone in his voice, as he began to tell me about his experiences in World War II. I had heard about his childhood on the farm. I had heard about his life with Ciocia, but always there was that several year gap, like 1941 through 1945 never happened. Like they were dull and boring and not worth mentioning. He was sitting in his ruddy pink recliner, a fleece blanket patterned with green palms draped over his lap.
“This was me,” he grimaced as he reached into the pouch on the side of the recliner, retrieving a small, yellowing black and white photograph of himself. “I was eighteen there, fresh in the Navy. They took our pictures before they sent us off.”
I looked at the photo. It was my Uncle but it wasn’t. It was not the Uncle I had grown up seeing. In the photo he was sitting in front of a tarp backdrop. It was almost like a school photo, Charles Webbing, Age 18, 1942. He smiled, teeth just a small flash of white between thin lips. His hair was cropped short. I couldn’t decipher what color it was. I would guess a dusty blond. His skin was smooth, plump, wrinkle and callous free. His eyes were clear, white with gray irises.
“Look at you,” I exclaimed, grinning a bit too much. “I bet Ciocia swooned over you.”
“Bah,” Ciocia yelled from the kitchen. I glanced across the breakfast bar and saw her washing dishes. She gave me the hairy eyeball. “Finish your breakfast.”
“Carol you had the hots for Chuck, huh?” My father shouted from the couch. I wouldn’t find out that Ciocia’s name was not Carol but Caroline until she died two years later.
Ciocia made a throaty noise, a shut-the-fuck-up type of noise. My father chuckled.
My father had finished both his first and second breakfasts. He wrapped his fingers around a mug that was pastel pink with yellow seahorses.
“Coffee Dad, really? I thought it gave you the shits.”
“No. It’s vacation. I’m enjoying myself.” He wagged his feet as he watched Regis and Kelly Live.
“The caffeine’s going to make you crazy.”
“Worry about yourself.”
“What are you wearing? Is that underwear?” Ciocia came around the counter and flicked my shorts.
“They’re pajama shorts.”
“Hence the term shorts.”
“I hope you’re wearing underwear.”
“Ugh, really?” Ciocia walked back into the kitchen. I always made sure to wear granny panties around her. She had once lifted my denim mini skirt, in the middle of a busy mall, when I was fifteen. She claimed she wanted to make sure I wasn’t wearing those thongs.
I looked at my Uncle. 71 years had passed since the Navy had taken that picture. The whites of his eyes were now a dim color, a white without its luster, almost a gray. His cheekbones protruded a bit while his fleshy cheeks had sunken in. The skin below his eyes puffed slightly. He was wrinkled, calloused. The pores on his nose were enormous.
“Here, take this.” He pulled a few papers from the same pouch, leaned forward, winced slightly, and handed them to me.
“Is this the boat you were on?”
“Ship. It was a repair ship. We went to ships that were attacked and fixed them.” He stared at me intensely, willing me to listen, willing me to understand that he knew he was going to die soon. Willing me to know everything he wanted me to know.
I wanted to be interested. I knew I should have been, but I didn’t want to read the article about the retirement of the ship he was in. I didn’t want to think about him dying. I was on vacation, a week with Uncle Chuck and Ciocia, a week at Disney World. My parents had booked the trip over the summer. At dinner one night, my father glared at my brother and me. His eyes were narrowed. His body was lurched forward. His face maroon. His fingers tried to knead the wood of the dinner table. I thought he was going to yell at one of us. I tried to think of anything I had done over the past week that would have pissed him off.
“This is it, you know.” My father’s voice was vehemently calm. “This is going to be our last family vacation.”
“Come on. We’ll have other vacations.” I twirled my fork in my pasta, looked at my brother. He shrugged. It’s dad. I don’t know what to tell you.
“No, no we won’t. You just graduated and will have a full-time job soon and move out. Your brother is starting college. This is it. This will be our last family vacation. This will be the last time we’re all together. This will probably be the last time we see Carol and Chuck in Florida. It’ll be the last vacation we spend with them.”
“You’re being ridiculous.”
“No.” My father slapped the table. The water in our glasses sloshed.
“Alright, fine, whatever. This is it. This is our last vacation. After this, I will never vacation with you again.”
My father grunted. My brother looked down as he slurped some fettuccine alfredo. My mom was taking garlic bread out of the oven.
“This will be our last family vacation. We need to enjoy it. We need to remember that. We need to make it nice. We need to spend time with Carol and Chuck. You kids will appreciate it later.”
“It’ll be fine. It’ll be fun. We’ll have fun.” My brother grunted his agreement. My father leaned back in his chair, looked at me, then began to eat.
I looked at my Uncle. This vacation wasn’t as fun as I wanted it to be. I wanted my Uncle to be happier. I wanted to be happier. I wanted to go to the beach and lie in the sun. I wanted to shop and eat ice cream cones. I wanted him to take me to the shark-tooth beach where my brother and I could scavenge for shark teeth and shells. I wanted him to sit in the mall while Ciocia, my mom, and I went shopping in the “down south” stores. But my Uncle didn’t want to, or couldn’t, do that. He could go for a short car ride with my father. He could go out to dinner. But he didn’t want to go to the beach. He didn’t want to play mini golf. He didn’t want to shop or stroll.
“I was a medic, a dentist. I enlisted. I didn’t wait for the draft. If you enlisted, you had more of a choice on where you went. If you were drafted, you had no choice.” My Uncle looked down at his hands. His hands seemed to constantly shake.
I looked over the article, skimming it at first, then reading it thoroughly, taking mental notes. I had to remember this. This was part of my Uncle’s life.
“The men were crazy,” he told me. “They would set off fireworks and…” The short anecdotes were funny, entertaining. The sailors had done things that only a group of testosterone-filled young men trapped at sea could think up. There were homemade fireworks, card games with bizarre rules, hazing, and an overabundance of chlamydia and syphilis–particularly after they had docked.
“You were a dentist, why did you see guys with STDs?”
“A medic, technically. I helped the infirmary.” His voice was rough as he said infirmary. I was sure he didn’t just see men with burning piss. I looked at my Uncle. I wondered if he ever saw a man wearing a necklace of ears or watched a soldier box up a penis to send home to his wife. Momentos.
He lived through WW2 propaganda and Americanism—grow cabbage for victory! I wish I was a Man, I’d Join the Navy! Avenge Pearl Harbor! The Enemy Laughs as You Loaf! He probably watched men die. I wondered if he felt guilty about not wanting to be on the front lines, not wanting to die so randomly, so easily. Was it un-American to want to live? He did help soldiers, help Americans. He was trained to be a dentist, a medic. Was that not patriotic? I remembered how my other uncle, Uncle Fred had shown me all his war medals when I was little. He got that one for killing those Italians in North Africa. He got that one for killing those Krauts in Southern Europe. Did Uncle Fred look down on my Uncle because he didn’t kill people? My Uncle never talked about the war. Uncle Fred talked about it incessantly, but Uncle Fred also told me an alligator was going to crawl onto his boat and eat me. He laughed when I hugged my father’s legs and cried. I didn’t much care for Uncle Fred.
But my Uncle, the man who had been like a grandfather to me, he hadn’t killed anyone. I think. No, I knew. I would believe that. He hadn’t killed anyone. Maybe he couldn’t save someone. But that was different. He never killed anyone. He never pointed, aimed, and sprayed bullets at random enemy soldiers. He never tossed a grenade. It was okay to do that, but it was also okay to not do that. Maybe. My Uncle never killed anyone. I loved him more for that. I loved him for living. I loved him for loving Ciocia, for loving my mother, my father. I loved him for staying alive. I would never tell him that.
“We went all over,” He started talking to me about what the ship did, what islands he saw, what countries he visited. As he spoke, he tried to cross his legs. The color drained from his face. His lips puckered. He stopped talking. I knew that soon there would be call after call, surgery after surgery, organ after organ shutting down. I’d seen it before. My Uncle would die bit by haggardly bit, drown in each bit of pain, until he would die in an untimely manner. I didn’t want to sit through each one of those bits. If he was to die then he should just die in one moment, instantly, painlessly, without the sobbing for months, without the shutting down after shutting down. I wished him to die quickly so I wouldn’t have to deal with a drawn-out death. I was selfish. I was awful. I didn’t want him to die, but if he had to, then I wanted it suddenly, peacefully, maybe in his sleep. I wanted him to go to sleep laughing about how he beat my father at cards, remembering a fun family vacation, or thinking about how much he loved Ciocia. His last thought should flood his brain with oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. Elation, then silence.
“Charlie,” Ciocia said, “why don’t you go sit out in the sun? It’s warm outside.” She was bent over a little, it had become her standard gait as she got older. She didn’t have the hunch like many older women get, but she seemed to bend at the waist a slight bit in an attempt to keep her center lower and her balance steadier.
“I’m fine here.”
“Go sit in the sun.”
“Come on Chuck,” my father bounced up from the couch. Caffeine a-go. “Let’s go. We can’t have a good conversation with all these women around here. Man time, real conversation.”
Our conversation was cut short. We would never finish it. I watched, glancing back down at the repair ship article once and while, as my Uncle struggled to get up. He slid to the edge of his chair with difficulty. His breathing labored slightly. Then he gripped tightly onto his walker and tried to pull himself up. I saw the purple color deepen in his cheeks. His legs shook. The muscles and tendons in his arms went taut under his thin skin.
“Chuck, I can raise that chair up for you. Make it easier to get up.”
“I don’t need that.” My Uncle walked slowly out onto the lanai. My father darted ahead of him and moved a chair so that my Uncle could sit in the sun.
“I could’ve done that.” My Uncle sat down.
“Well get to it, because you’re sitting in my chair.” My father snickered as he brought another chair over.
Ciocia was right. It was a beautiful day outside. The sun was almost straight overhead. All the morning dew had left the grass. I could see anoles sitting on the palms around the lanai, heads tilted up, eyes closed, basking. I brought my Uncle a small bowl of macaroni salad to eat for lunch. Ciocia brought him an ice water. He seemed to have trouble sipping his drink.
I grabbed my breakfast plate and threw away my toast crusts. As I handed it to Ciocia, my mother called me over.
“Look what I found in the flour.” My mother pulled out a picture of my Uncle kneeling next to a tomato plant.
“When was that taken?”
“It’s dated 1982.”
“Why was it in the flour?”
My mother shrugged. I took the picture and headed towards my bedroom. My mother began to work on tonight’s pierogis.
I put the picture in my suitcase and slipped on a bikini. I checked my legs, armpits, and bikini line for stray hairs. Plucked a few out. I looked at my body in the mirror. I stopped. I was on vacation. Body shaming could wait.
I walked out to the lanai.
“Not much to that.” My Uncle said.
“Hmm? It covers everything.”
“Not nearly enough.”
I shrugged. I wondered if he had said the same thing to my mother when she was my age. I’d seen the pictures. Bikinis in the 1970s weren’t much different than the 2010s. I lied down on the hot tub cover. The sun wasn’t very strong. I wouldn’t burn. I wanted to burn. I wanted my skin to turn pink and feel the heat radiate off it. I loved a light sunburn in the middle of winter.
“Charlie you want lunch?” Ciocia asked.
“I’m eating macaroni salad.”
“When’d you get that? You want something else? A sandwich?”
“No. This is good.”
“You want your jacket?”
“I’m wearing my jacket.”
“That’s not your jacket.”
“Then whose is it?”
“You want your jacket? The yellow one?”
“No. I got this one.”
There was a long silence as Ciocia washed dishes, some for the third time, and my mother puttered around inside the kitchen. My brother walked out, hair still wet from the shower, smelling like Old Spice, with a deck of playing cards in his hand. He put them down on the table authoritatively, along with a pen and paper.
“Morning sunshine. What time did you go to bed last night?” My father tapped the arms of his chair. Caffeine, tap tap, too much caffeine, tap tap.
“Let’s go, we’re playing Set Back.” He took my Uncle’s empty bowl and put his glass of water on the table. My dad moved some chairs, and slowly, purple faced, my Uncle moved to sit down and join them.
“Cut throat. Let’s go.” The cards moved rapidly between my father’s fingers. He threw some cards at my brother (nuts, nuts, nuts) my Uncle (nuts, nuts, nuts), himself (everything, everything, everything).
“That never works dad.” I said. I had my arm draped over my eyes. “And you sound like grandpa. That’s not a compliment.”
“Shut up you.” Nuts, nuts, nuts. Everything, everything, everything.
I closed my eyes and listened. I listened to knocks on the table, pass, the whish of card against card, the heavy sighs and excited quick breaths.
I woke because I was cold. My fingers and toes were numbing.
“It’s too cold,” I grumbled. “I thought Florida was supposed to be warm. The land of constant beach weather.”
“It’s 70 and January.” My brother looked at me, eyebrow cocked.
“It should be 85 and I shouldn’t be covered in goosebumps.”
“You’re a reptile.”
“Hey,” my father yelled.
“Four,” my Uncle said.
I went into the house, showered for too long. My Uncle was yelling through the bathroom window that I was costing him a fortune. But the water wasn’t hot enough and my toes were still cold. I regretted leaving my UGGs at home.
After being scolded again by my mother and Ciocia—listen to your Uncle—I walked back to the lanai with my own bowl of macaroni salad and watched as my Uncle, father, and brother continued to play Set Back.
“Chuck, what do you want for lunch?” Ciocia asked.
“I already ate.”
“No you didn’t. What did you have?”
“Do you want your jacket? Are you cold?”
“I’m wearing my jacket.”
“Sandbagger!” My brother looked angry. His eyes were wide, and his brows were pushed together. He put his head in his hands. “There’s no point in bidding. Uncle Chuck sandbags you every time. He has all the aces.”
My Uncle chuckled, pulling in a hand of cards—ace, low, queen. My brother was in the hole.
“How many games have you played?”
“Two. You can’t do anything because Uncle Chuck doesn’t bid. He just puts you in the hole and slowly gets a point at a time.”
My father grinned. “Didn’t expect your Uncle to be a shark huh?”
My brother grabbed the deck and spread the cards all over the table. Then he haphazardly grabbed one, then two, then a pile, then one, until he had restored the deck. He shuffled.
“Trying to change the rhythm of the deck doesn’t work either.”
My mom stuck her head out, “Show your father the picture I found.”
I retrieved the photo, gave it to my father, and sat down on the chaise lounge. I shoved a large spoonful of macaroni into my mouth.
“Is this here Chuck?”
My Uncle glanced at the photo. “Yeah, out back. When we first moved down, we had a small garden.”
“How old are you here?”
“Jesus. 58 and retired.”
“It’s your bid.” My brother was annoyed.
“Look at these.” My mother sat down beside me, handed me a stack of pictures. Some were recent, me at my college graduation. My brother at his high school graduation. Some were old. Ciocia and my Uncle at the beach. My mother and her cousins dressed for Easter, standing in front of a stoop frowning. I passed the pictures around.
“Look at this one.” My father held out a picture of Ciocia. She was sitting on top of a picnic table, hair curled, body leaning forward. Her eyes were shut as she laughed. It looked like a laugh that would make your eyes tear and your stomach ache. I wondered what was so funny.
“You know Carol then?”
“No, a few years later,” my Uncle threw down a king and stole my brother’s jack. My brother crossed his arms.
“Tell me,” my father leaned towards my Uncle, whispered, “tell me. Was Carol a brick shit house?” My father smirked, then let out a throaty cackle. I shook my head.
My Uncle looked at my father, then the photo. He nodded his head slightly, and then grinned and said, “Yes.”
“What did you call me?” Ciocia was behind them. One hand was on her hip, the other was winding up. Her hand came down, down, down, and crashed onto my Uncle’s chest, his heart. It was a slap, a smack, quick as a blink. It was so hard that everyone heard the thud of palm against chest. Ciocia began muttering as she made her way back into the house.
My mother, father, brother and I watched my Uncle. We all held our breath, waited. She killed him. She killed him. She killed him. She slapped his chest and stopped his goddamned heart.
“Chuck, you alright? Chuck?”
“That language in my house, hmph.”
My Uncle let out a breath. He rubbed his chest with a shaking hand.
My mother was suddenly behind him. My father was standing up, his cards face up on the table. My brother and I sat, motionless, waiting for our parents to tell us what to do.
“I’m fine.” My Uncle reached out and took a sip of water.
We didn’t move. We waited. My parents hovered. My brother pulled out his cell phone. I tried to remember where the aspirin was.
“Charlie, here.” Ciocia was back out on the lanai. She placed a cup of black coffee in front of my Uncle. “Who’s winning?”
“Uncle Chuck,” my brother said.
“Hmph.” Ciocia lied down on the lounger next to mine.
“Chuck, you okay? Chuck?”
“I’m fine.” My Uncle’s face was pale. His eyes were dilated.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, yes. I’m okay.”
“Woo,” my father sat down. “Jesus, that Carol is a feisty one huh?”
“Quiet over there.” Ciocia sipped some iced tea.
My father pointed at Ciocia, “You behave.” He moved his eyes to my brother, “You, re-deal.” He threw his cards at my brother. My mother stood over my Uncle protectively.
“It wasn’t a misdeal.” My brother pushed my father’s cards back.
“Look, misdeal. I have seven cards.” My father had pulled an extra card from the deck. He threw his cards back at my brother. My brother shuffled, making sure he’d keep his good cards on the next deal.
“I knew she was a brick shit house,” my father whispered. “A hot tamale that Carol. A hot tamale.” My mother pinched my father. Ciocia looked over, eyebrows raised menacingly.
“Her high school friends called her Spitfire.” My Uncle looked at his new cards.
“Nothing’s changed, huh Chuck?”
“Do you need anything?” My mother put her hands on my Uncle’s shoulders, held onto him lightly.
“No, thank you.” My Uncle rubbed his chest more.
They continued to play.
About a half hour later, Ciocia was asleep on the lounger, my mom was putting the pierogis in the oven, and the men were on their fourth game of cards. My brother would demand to play until he finally won a game.
“There’s the alligator,” I said, looking out at the pond.
“Your real relative.” My brother looked up from his cards.
“Hey,” my father yelled.
“I’m going to see if I can get a good picture of it.” I grabbed my camera and slipped on my flip flops. The door to the lanai creaked as I opened and let it bounce shut. I thought that maybe I should put some oil on it. Before my Uncle had picked up a sixty-pound bag of fertilizer and hurt his back, no door in this house would have emitted any sound. But I enjoyed the creaking noise it made. I enjoyed the pronounced sound of in and out.
I walked through the sticky grass, creeping slowly towards the alligator. My camera was on. I held it at the ready. Every few feet I would stop, drop to my knees, and take a few shots. Rich green pieces of grass stuck to my knees and shins. I was fifty feet away from the alligator when it took more serious notice of me. It did not hiss, did not charge, but in a movement faster than I could reconcile it spun around and dove snout-first back into the pond. I was defeated.
I turned around. My family was sitting on the lanai. The men were still playing cards. I saw my brother throw his hands up. I heard my father and my Uncle laugh. My mother and Ciocia were sitting on two chaise lounges. They sipped lemonade and chatted. I adjusted my camera settings, pointed, click, click, click. I looked at the preview screen. I would show my grandkids this picture. I would tell them about my Uncle. I smiled.
My Uncle didn’t last the year.
About the Author:
A.L. Gamache is a New England Native with a BA in English (Specialization in Creative Writing) and an MA in English from Southern Connecticut State University. When not writing, A.L. Gamache is teaching college Composition, Creative Writing, or Human Communication courses. She loves all forms of storytelling, running, and summer holidays on the Rhode Island coastline. She is currently working on her first novel, combining aspects of French folklore with mental health.