It was the summer of 1995. The heat raged in a way that ravaged the sidewalk and made everyone crazy. Yes it was so hot that you could fry an egg. So what were we doing on a glorious summer Saturday? We were not relaxing by the pool or playing in the park. Oh no, we were headed to a funeral. Yes, it was the funeral of my Uncle Tim’s brother Ricky. Tim, Ricky and his brother Sammy all were a crazy lot. Actually crazy is an understatement. Three ill-adjusted former Vietnam Veterans, they could teach a child the alphabet by saying, “A is for alpha, B is for bravo and C is for Charlie that slanty eyed little chink no good SOB” over a cold glass of beer. Actually most of the time they did try to teach a child the alphabet in that fashion, that is, before a more sober and more aware adult whisked the child away.
Ricky had passed away from a heart attack in his sleep. Sandwiched in the middle, he was the younger brother of my Uncle Tim, the drunk married to my Aunt Maggie. Aunt Maggie was a saint of a woman who worked as a nurse and would take the shifts of others who needed to attend family events or whatever else. A salt of the Earth kind of gal, we often wondered how she got married to such a loser who drank his way out of every job he had. Nonetheless, Uncle Tim was our favorite drunkle. Always drunk, he never missed a recital or family event. While never sober, he always provided the always on the mark and sometimes racist color commentary for family events. Sure this wasn’t a highlight for some of my aunts, but Uncle Tim always gave us savings bonds for our birthdays.
Then the youngest in that line was Sammy. Sammy had been drafted in Vietnam at eighteen. Already a kid who wasn’t making it, Sammy was pushed over the edge. While in the jungles he apparently had befriended a young Vietnamese boy who accidentally stepped on a land mine and was blown to bits. Sure it is tragic but at least he wasn’t eaten by a tiger like my Uncle’s other friend. Both would suck though. Nonetheless, that is why one should never make friends at war. To grieve, good old Sammy took up with some Thai hookers and drugged away his pain. And that is what he had been doing ever since that time, that is, with brief stints in rehabs, psych hospitals, and jails. Usually it meant a phone call to my dad to bail this fun loving junkie out. Never having shame, Sammy, much like his brother Tim, showed up intoxicated. However, Sammy didn’t come to a lot of the family events because a lot of people didn’t want him around. Between the hookers and strippers he usually dated as well as his little crack habit, some of my aunts didn’t feel he would be a good influence on their children, kill joys. Not to mention Sammy frequently urinated in public. But hey, at least it was good for the grass.
Ricky was the middle child in this family. He did not have a drug or alcohol problem like his two siblings but rather suffered from multiple personality disorder. Yes, there were three personalities in the world of Ricky. The primary greencard holder was Ricky. According to my dad, he was a good guy. Then there was Jack, Jack could be rude and obnoxious and apparently had voted for Barry Goldwater for president back in the day. Lastly there was Bob. Bob was a quiet intellectual who valued money and even somehow managed to open a savings account. This one still boggles my mind because Bob didn’t have a heating bill or a photo ID. However, Bob always believed in saving his money apparently.
Despite his mental health issues Ricky had a good heart. He looked after the wayward Sammy and gave him a roof over his head rather than the Taj Mahal Crackhead Motel he usually took residence in. In addition, Ricky also let Sammy know there was no drinking before five and crack could not be smoked in the house. And whenever he got a new girlfriend, usually someone who worked in the sex trade in some way, they were to keep their relations in a cheap motel. And if her pimp were to come onto Ricky’s property Jack might come out and put a cap in his ass. Basically Ricky was the success story.
“Why do we have to go to this funeral?” I whined to my mother as we dawned our black. We had never really met Ricky or Sammy. We just heard horror stories from my dad who was forced to deal with this McKnucklehead Clan. But for as much as my dad would tell us never to grow up to be like our Uncle Tim, we all sort of did like the guy. He made us ice pops every Fourth of July as he drank his umpteenth beer of the day. While other people would have succumbed to alcoholism long ago, Uncle Tim had a liver of steel and that’s why we loved him.
“Funerals are for the living and we love your Uncle Tim.” My mother said as she combed the knots out of my hair.
“But we don’t know Ricky.” Skipper whined as she came in. “And the last time I went to a funeral I had a nightmare.” Oh I did remember her last funeral parlor outing. Wendell had told Skipper some horrible scary story on the way home from the funeral parlor where we were paying respects to some old lady who had gone to our church. All night, Skipper had nightmares that the old lady had risen from the dead. This resulted in her sleeping in my bed, kicking me all night, and stealing the covers. When I complained to my mother about my night visitor she told me to wait until I was married and my husband snored in addition to those things. That’s when I announced my intent never marry and invest in six cats. My mother fired back telling me with my craptacular attitude I was well on my way.
“Well Ricky won’t rise from the grave. He’s at peace.” My mother assured her.
“Only one of his many personalities will come back.” Wendell said entering the room. “I hope it’s Jack. Jack sounded like a dillweed but I think we would have been fun at a party.”
We all shook our head in agreement. That’s when my mom decided to have a mom moment with us, to teach us compassion. “Children, your Uncle Tim’s brother Sammy will be there. He isn’t well.” My mom tried to explain.
“Oh, you mean the grizzled Vietnam Vet who pees everywhere?” My brother asked.
Skipper and I burst out laughing. “We should totally screw with him by saying, ‘quick, hide. Agent Orange is coming. Charlie is on his way!” I suggested. It had been a line from some war movie we saw. My brother and sister began laughing as well.
However my mom was serious. “Listen, when Sammy was in Vietnam he saw some pretty awful things. I want you to have compassion for him. He has been through a lot. So be kind.” My mom commanded.
As we piled in the car my dad made it clear he was not looking forward to this errand. While my dad loved my Aunt Maggie, his big sister, whenever my Uncle Tim’s family was involved there was always some sort of legal trouble. It wasn’t like they could ever let my dad be either. They called him at all hours of the day and night with some drama. As we drove I asked my family as a whole, “Do you think Uncle Tim is going to be drunk?”
Wendell laughed, “April, you are asking that like is the pope a Catholic?”
My dad however didn’t find this as funny as we did. Instead he took it as occasion to teach one of his many daddy lessons. My dad explained, “Children, there comes a fork in the road when you have to make a decision about what you want in life. I remember when your grandfather met your Uncle Tim he said to your Aunt Maggie, ‘a man that can sit on the couch that long and do nothing is no man at all. Don’t marry him.’ She did and look at how much she has to go through. So work hard, go to school, save your money, and get a good mate. Because if you marry wrong you could end up with an Uncle Tim, an old drunk who does nothing. Are you listening April?”
Why did my dad felt the need to target me I will never know. That’s when I informed my dad again of my announcement. I was never marrying and having six cats. “You say that now but you just wait. You will fall in love and someday I will have six little April’s running around.” My dad teased.
“No!” I screamed. “There will be no little April’s. I will discontinue the genetic pool. It will be for the best. We had a good run.” I countered.
“April just shut up.” My brother Wendell said.
“I bet Wendell will marry some old fat hag like your ex girlfriend Ann the refrigerator girl.” I told my brother.
“Well she actually has six cats and has never been married so watch how you treat your brother.” My dad told us both.
“And a fat cow she is.” My mom said laughing.
“Fat cows have feelings.” Skipper said being the most sensitive of us. We all sort of burst out laughing at this adorable little elf.
As we neared the funeral home on the South Side, my dad pulled into a parking space. He said to us before getting out, “Now you know your Uncle Tim;s brother Sammy isn’t well. The odds that he drank and did drugs before he came today are very good. While I want you to limit contact, be kind.”
We all nodded our heads as my dad continued, “Just remember, if you say yes to drugs that could be any one of you. Drugs fry your Goddamn brain. And if you say yes to drugs I will take a two by four and beat you with it. I figure as long as you are losing brain cells we might as well do it the old fashioned way. Dope is for dopes. Got that kids?” My dad asked. We all shook our heads. Daddy lesson number two, concise and to the point.
When we entered the funeral home we were greeted by my Aunt Maggie out front. The wife of Uncle Tim, she was separate from her spouse for the moment and smoking a cigarette. The odds she had just come from the hospital where she worked as head nurse in the ER were very good. We gave her each a kiss as her red lipstick smeared on our cheeks. A larger woman, she puffed on her stress nicotine as my dad asked, “How is Tim?”
“Good. And by the way, Sammy is in rare form.” Aunt Maggie warned puffing her cigarette. “He lost his brother and broke up with Nanette.”
“Nanette?” Skipper asked. You see, at the time we were not fully aware Sammy dated such women of ill repute. So my sister, being a mere seven probably thought Nanette was a normal woman.
“We’ll see you inside Maggie.” My dad said whisking us along avoiding that crash landing from the awkward fairy.
As we made an entry into the old funeral home we separated from our parents as soon as we saw our cousin Frankie at the door. A red head with freckles, Frankie had been one of two children adopted by our Aunt Bess and Uncle Frank along with his sister Casey. For years good old Frank and Bess tried to have a child but could not. Finally they got Frankie at six weeks old from a local Catholic children’s charity. Right away, this creature with a mysterious genetic map surprised everyone. At the age of four he was reading. At eight, he had taken up trumpet and quickly surpassed his band teacher who, proud of the gift he spotted in his pupil, sent him to a master teacher at Carnegie Mellon who exclaimed little Frankie had been born to play trumpet. However, despite being bright, Frankie was prone to mischief and therefore he was always at war with Aunt Bess.
“Hey Frankie.” My brother Wendell said. “How has this place been so far?”
Frankie laughed. “Earlier, Ernie, some cousin of Uncle Tim was here and he was cool. We were going over to the body and changing the hand position because the place was quiet and there was nothing to do.”
Skipper gasped as she heard this. “That’s terrible! Especially since rigor mortis just set in.” She said informing them. Skipper, intelligent but disturbed, was studying dissection at her science camp.
“Nah, it was actually sort of fun. Plus Uncle Tim was drunk and telling some story about how Vietnamese people are all evil Communist Spies named Charlie.” Frankie said. We were all familiar with those drunken tails of racism with no point. However, they were quite entertaining, reminding us that we were topping the bell curve.
“Did you open his eyes?” I asked. While it was disgusting to touch the dead body part of me was curious. Plus it sort of sounded fun.
“Nah, my mom, the General came and crashed my fun. She gave me a smack in the head and made me stand with her. And then Ernie’s mother took him home. So it’s good you came Wendell. It’s the last of the fun before I have to play the funeral mass.” It was true, Frankie or Frances Robert O’Brien III as his mother called him when she was enraged with his latest stunt, would be playing the funeral mass with with his trumpet. That was the up/downside of having all the musical talent in the family. With that the two were off. It was just me and my sister alone in this funeral home.
Of course in ear shot was my Aunt Bess kvetching to my Aunt Violent and Uncle Steve about her son’s latest antic. Dressed in all black, she had her alburn hair pinned up. Standing next to her was my Uncle Frank. A Union Carpet Layer who worked nights, he already seemed exhausted and this visit before his time on the clock began was probably the last thing he wanted or needed. Nonetheless, we all loved Aunt Bess and Uncle Frank. They were politically involved, knowledgable, would give the shirt off their back to anyone, and usually had an open door policy at their house to any and all kids in the family and on the block, especially on the Fourth of July.
“I turn my back and there is that son of mine, rearranging the hands on the dead body. You know, he is usually a good kid. But every time I turn my back he is always trying something. If I didn’t get there in time I swear to God that kid would have opened the eyes.” My Aunt Bess said. She was steaming.
My Uncle Frank seemed like he had already heard enough about this for an hour. “Bess, he’s eleven. Boys will be boys. You yelled at him, it’s over. Let it go.” My uncle told her. My Aunt Bess was the type to fight it out until the end. I always swore if she were a boxer she would be Mike Tyson minus the ear biting. However, my Uncle Frank was more live and let live. This made them a good combo, especially when they ran in local political races on the same ticket.
“And Frankie’s a good kid. It’s just you know how Tim’s family is. They all tumble out of the trailor park once a year for Christmas mass and funerals. They don’t know any better. But Frankie is always over Mom’s house mowing her lawn once a week.” My Aunt Violet said. She was my dad’s youngest sister and the one who looked the most like me apparently. At the time she was in dental school. She had only been four when my grandfather passed and for the most part my dad actually acted as her surrogate father.
“Well thank God he is friendly with Wendell. Wendell will be a good influence.” My Aunt Bess said as her rant ended.
“If it’s any comfort I would have smacked my son in the head if he did that too if I had one.” My Uncle Steve told her. Uncle Steve was Violet’s husband. Working in the construction business, he was a fly fisher and passionate about it. As a matter of fact he had even written a column for a fly fishing publication. Usually weekends were spent with his dad on the lake doing guess what? However, it seemed this fishing trip had been cut short.
“I hope he washed his hands.” My Violet replied laughing trying to lighten the situation. Sure, my cousin could be a little crazy but Aunt Bess was on the war path. The best thing to do was try to make her laugh. Standing there of course was my little cousin Casey. Six to Skipper’s seven, the three of us were thick as thieves sometimes and I always had to shepherd these wayward girlies. She looked at us with longing eyes, ready to make the escape from her mother’s clutch. While Frankie tested by Aunt Bess Casey was seemingly angelic in comparison.
My sister and I looked at each other. We had no idea the funeral was going to be this wild. Just then Wendell and Frankie came running over. “Is my mom still complaining about earlier?” Frankie asked rolling his eyes back. “You know she made me wash my hands one hundred times.”
“You touched a dead body.” I replied. Frankie seemed to be missing the point entirely. “But don’t worry, your dad put in a few good words for you.”
Just then, my Uncle Tim came staggering in. Smelling as if he had just bathed in a keg at the local bar our drunkle spotted us and gave my sister and I a sloppy kiss and Wendell a big old handshake. “How is my favorite Godson?” He asked my brother.
“Good. Good to see you Uncle Tim.” Wendell replied.
“Well I see your mom is going off about something again.” Uncle Tim said.
“Yeah.” Frankie said. “And there goes the General, in for the kill.”
“Oh is she still going on about the dead body?” Uncle Tim asked. The four of us shook our heads.
“Tell her to get over it. Ricky ain’t here. He’s dead. And if he were here, he would be telling you how to arrange the dead body. You see, the Vietnamese always played dead so we used to do that shit to the corpses anyway. So basically you were just checking. They bury people alive all the time in Asia by accident.” My Uncle explained as he tried to grab a chair to stay up.
The four of us shook our heads as we saw our Aunt Maggie out of the corner of our eye beckoning our Uncle. “My Prison Guard is here.” That is what he called his wife. As my drunkle lumbered off the four of us let out an awkward burst of laughter.
“Why is it that my mom is the only one still upset about this?” My cousin Frankie said as he walked off with Wendell. Just then Casey spotted us.
“Look Mom, April and Skipper are here!” She exclaimed.
“Then say hello.” My Aunt Bess instructed as Skipper and I made our way over. As soon as we made our way over we got a big kiss from my Aunt Bess.
“You girls sure look beautiful!” She said. “How has your summer been?”
“Good. Swimming a lot. Writing.” I replied. I had been published in my elementary school newspaper that year. It was a stupid story I had written about a cat with no point whatsoever. But my father basked in the glory that his child was doing something and not on her way to actively becoming a homeless criminal. So perhaps this was an achievement to be celebrated. To top it off, he read the work, the anti-literary classic, to anyone who would listen.
“Well that’s wonderful. You should keep that up April. And how is my Goddaughter Skipper? You didn’t say hi to your favorite Aunt Bess.” My Aunt Bess asked.
“Good. I am in science camp.” She replied. Skipper, for as quiet and sweet as she was, had a sick side. Yes, even at the age of seven she was into dissection. Peculiar, Skipper would present her odd findings about the innards of animals sometimes while we were eating dinner. While fascinating, it did make digestion complicated.
“And I saw your Mom and Dad. They said you were both on the swimming team.” My Aunt Bess said.
“And you didn’t say hello to your Uncle Frank.” Oh darn, he forgot the guy but not for long. Immediately we both gave him a big hug.
“We enjoyed your story about the cat.” My Uncle Frank said. I thanked him. Why did my dad have to read that piece of trash to everyone? Why couldn’t they read the story where three people for murdered? It had been a good one. Lindsay, my best friend from school liked it. However, my mother said I couldn’t put it in the newspaper because it was something about me being a maladjusted secret and how we needed to keep that within the family and the family alone. So the stupid cat story it would be.
“And we didn’t say hi to Aunt Violet girls.” My Aunt Violet exclaimed seeing us. She was probably just relieved to get Aunt Bess off the war path long enough. She gave us a hug and said, “What is this I hear about you swimming.”
“We joined the swim team at the country club.” I informed her.
“Oh good. I remember I swam in high school. Your mom helped me perfect my backstroke.” Violet explained. It was true. My mom was the queen of the swimmers. Captain of her division one team, my mother not only was a champion breast stroker but also had a sit in to get letter jackets for herself and her teammates because the college wouldn’t award such things to women’s teams.
“And then no one talks to Uncle Steve.” My Uncle Steve said lifting us both up at the same time to hug us.
“How’s the fishing?” I asked.
“Ah good. But I had to comehome early because of the wake.” He explained.
“Death ruins a fishing trip.” I said. With that, the whole group of us burst out laughing. It was probably the easy laugh everyone needed after my Cousin Frankie’s little excursion. I could see him and Wendell out of the corner of my eye too. They seemed to be staying out of trouble.
Just then I heard the patter of feet. It was my cousin’s Lacey and Glinda. Both were beautiful girls with long brown hair. Unlike us, they lived on a farm and had a donkey named Buddy who was for the most part the star of the town’s Christmas pageant and often walked down the aisle of the church Christmas Eve for mass.
“Hey girls, grandma is looking for you. You are being summoned.” Lacey said. She was the older of the two and more of a talker. “And she is currently teaching my brother about the New Testament.” My grandmother wasn’t religious but every once in a while did a spot check on catechism. Currently, my cousin Nathan was her latest victim. And the worst part was that he was only two.
As we wandered over Lacey explained, “She’s in a rare mood and she got lipstick all over my cheeks.”
“I have lipstick all over my right cheek.” Skipper whined.
“Well get ready to have two kisses for the price of one.” My four year old cousin Glinda explained.
As soon as my grandmother saw us she said, “Well there they are. You girls didn’t give me a hug and a kiss. Wendell already gave me a hug and a kiss.”
Nathan looked at us as if we had just come in time, saved by the bell. A quiet kid with brown hair who had a like for puzzles even at this young age the whole grilling was too much for him.
“Your dad read your story about the cat to me April. It was good. You should write down all the books you read.” My Mema suggested. “I know I do.” When she spoke I knew she meant trash romance novels, books I was too young to follow. I didn’t like boys anyway. They were loud and annoying and seemed to make fun of the brainier girls in the class.
“I am in science camp Mema.” Skipper said.
However Mema seemed to want to spare Skipper. “You lost weight April. Are you using those big muscles to swim?” My Mema asked. Okay, the awkward fairy had officially landed. Just then Aunt Violet came to the rescue.
“Time for your meds Mema.” She said whisking my grandmother away for her blood thinner. Saved by the bell once again.
“How do they know someone is dead?” Casey asked as soon as Mema left.
“They drain the blood and replace it with chemicals.” I explained. “There is no way he could be alive. He’s like a stuffed animal.”
“Ewwww!” Glinda exclaimed.
“Actually it is quite true. Because when someone dies their innards liquidate.” Skipper explained clinically. There was no doubt in my mind that this screwed up child was my direct relation.
“Yuck!” Casey said. “That is disgusting. April, how do you live with her?”
Skipper’s face fell. This was my turn to be big sister. “Well I wrote a story about three people being killed that my friend’s enjoyed. We are a messed up crazy bunch.”
“True.” Lacey said. “My mom says Uncle Tim bathes in a distillery.” My Aunt Deanna was probably right about that. The wife of my dad’s brother Deke, Deanna had grown up on the farm the family now lived on. Parties at their house were cool because we got to ride around in Mr. Reznik’s model T, my Aunt Deanna’s dad, and swim in their pool. But Aunt Deanna pulled no punches.
Just then a creature came up to us smelling of rum with a flask that he was barely trying to conceal. Looking as if he had slept on the street and been in a bar fight, he smelled like a mixture of Jack Daniels and pee. His hair was brown and scraggled off his head. Everything about this man scraggled. He let out some sort of a howl. I think he was supposed to have been crying but the Jack Daniels and whatever other substance he had consumed was making it impossible to understand him.
“Ricky, you would have been good when Nanette dumped me. Why did you have to go?” The man in the suit whined. He was skinny, junky crackhead skinny. The suit he wore, probably stolen from the local dumpster, had a stain on the jacket. On that same part of the jacket was a hole, possibly a bullet hole but we didn’t want to ask. Either way, we were left to assume this was cousin Sammy.
“Is it true his girlfriend is a hooker?” My cousin Casey asked tugging my shirt.
“That would be ex girlfriend.” I told them now stuck being the older cousin and having to teach a fact of life I barely knew.
“What’s a hooker?” Glinda asked. Oh gosh, why did I have to shepherd this flock? Why couldn’t there mother have told them? Then again, they were only six and four.
“A bad girl.” I told them.
“Like what?” Casey asked.
“Like your mom will tell you the rest.” I told them.
Just then Sammy turned around and saw us. Drunk, he stared for a second and waved as if he were Dorothy and we were tiny munchkins. That’s when Sammy wiped his eyes, took a big gulp from his flask, put it back in his pocket and asked, “Hey kids, do you want some iced cream!” He said it with such enthusiasm and a huge smile, or rather a disturbed drunken grin.
At that moment we all sort of stared at each other. I myself would not have minded the iced cream. However, my mother probably would have had a fit if Skipper and I went with cousin Sammy. And Aunt Bess, well my cousin Frankie would be the least of her problems. Aunt Deanna, well, she wouldn’t have that, especially with someone who probably bathed once a week if that.
“Want some iced cream?” Sammy asked again.
Just then Aunt Deanna came to the rescue. Her short brown hair was cropped and her face was sun kissed by all the laying out by the pool. Seeing us, she had Nathan by the hand and said, “Well Sammy, thank you for the offer but these kids haven’t had dinner yet and we wouldn’t want to spoil their appetite. Come along.”
As we all walked with her I wanted to award her the save of the day. That was brilliant. “Thank you. He was scary and smelled bad.” Lacey said. Glinda shook her head.
“Speaking of which, we have to leave because we are getting hungry. Good seeing you girls. And April, loved the cat story. Keep them coming.” Enough of that damn cat story already was what I was thinking but oh well.
Just then I saw my brother, father and mother motioning to Skipper and I. It was time to pay our last respects. We went up to the coffin where we saw a man with a gray beard and several tattoos laying there. He seemed like out of Timmy and Sammy Ricky would have been the success story. Not to mention he was probably a saint having put up with My Uncle Tim and Sammy for as long as he did. I said my usual “Our Father” and then got up.
On the way home in the car we talked about what a freakshow the funeral seemingly was. My dad was quiet for the most part because apparently Ricky had written the will but no one was sure if it was legit because half way through the will Jack, the personality who voted for Barry Goldwater took over and it was a swear word every other word. Plus it was written on a legal, yellow steno pad. My Aunt Maggie had pulled him aside with this drama and therefore he was in no mood to discuss.
But when we told the iced cream story everyone in the car started howling. “He was really drunk. I think he drinks more than Uncle Tim. They probably both test the laws of nature with their livers.” Wendell observed.
“That’s why you should never do drugs. Stuff like that.” My dad said getting serious. We rode in silence for a few minutes before my dad pulled over to what appeared to be an iced cream shop.
“It’s Saturday and summer. You kids were so well behaved at that funeral. I think it’s treat time.” My dad said. We all cheered.
However my mom wasn’t completely sold. “April needs to watch her weight.” My mom said.
“Anne, she can watch her weight tomorrow.” My dad told us as we got out of the car.
Perhaps Sammy did have a point. Maybe we did need some iced cream. So what if we were screwing up our appetites and it was before dinner. But he taught me something important. A crackhead is indeed a person in your neighborhood.