Loving Uncle Tim by J.B. Polk

Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

As soon as I picked up the receiver, mum, without resorting to her ritual telephone niceties, blurted out: “They have arrested Uncle Tim!”

She was crying. Uncle Tim was her baby brother.

Outside, New York hummed and hawed against the backdrop of a beautiful spring morning, and I was standing there, wishing to have heard wrong.

“Mum says they´ve arrested Uncle Tim,” I whispered to Alex, who did not get to meet Tim, as he refused to travel beyond Wyoming.

Although they never met in person, I often spoke to Alex about my austere Presbyterian upbringing, the type of ideals that the family pursued and how hard it was for an outsider, not born and bred in Middlebury, population 513, to be accepted by the local community. You were either in or out – there was no middle point. According to an unspoken agreement, the Middlebury community held monopoly on moral values and any other lifestyle was sinful and condemnable. Rooted in traditions and immutable ways, life seemed to move in circles there and no one expected any changes.

Alex, on the other hand, formed part of the cosmopolitan and sophisticated thirteen percent of Jewish New Yorkers who, despite still cherishing and celebrating their heritage, travelled widely, rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous, and easily welcomed into their lives people from different intercultural and religious backgrounds.

Seduced by the promise of cheap rent and fantastic views, we had moved into this teeny tiny place in Hudson Heights, overlooking the river, and were happily settling in. The day before, Alex had bought a stainless-steel kettle and two mugs with cornflowers painted on them and, when the mum rang, we were drinking our first Oolong with a drop of cold skimmed milk. For us, life was good and just beginning, but all I could think of now was Uncle Tim, held on remand, dressed in an orange prison suit, shackled, and perhaps even chained to the courthouse railings. My imagination ran wild.

Tim was 14 to mum´s 20 when I was born. Their father died when they were small and they were so poor they had a tumbleweed as a pet, mum used to say. Tim would nod in agreement. Grandma Louise, who worked in the Munch Box Diner on the Interstate 80, was never at home so they brought themselves up, and they did so with strong values, doing a damn good job of it: as dutiful Presbyterians they prayed to God and waited for him to speak, brushed their teeth morning and night without anyone having to remind them, and learned how to bake apricot almond blondies from recipes they cut out of the Wyoming Lifestyle Magazine.

As soon as she left school, mum started an apprenticeship in a hair salon and then met dad and got pregnant. And then pregnant again. And again – this time with twins. By the time she was twenty-eight, she and dad had four kids all under the age of ten. Then mum got promoted to stylist and colourist and dad spent long hours running the sawmill, so they relinquished the upbringing of their brood to Uncle Tim, who became our babysitter, cook, nurse, friend, and father confessor. He was the person we´d turn to, to kiss better our bruised knees and later our wounded egos.

By the time I started school, Uncle Tim was a young adult who wore checked shirts, stone-washed jeans, and sported a shaggy blond beard that gave him a slightly naïve country bumpkin look. All afternoons, summer or winter, he´d lean against the wooden porch railings, swilling Busch Light, waiting for me to come home.

“What´s up, kiddo,” he´d say, the beer foam stuck to his upper lip and moustache.

“All´s cool, Uncle Tim. How about you?”

“Can´t complain, kiddo. Can’t complain,” he´d crack another cold one and empty the can in one go.

And he never did. I mean, he never complained. About anything. There simply was no place for bitterness or self-pity in Uncle Tim. He was the most cheerful and level-headed person I had ever met. Maybe apart from Alex.

There are things and institutions that always remain sacred. They are untouchable, immune to changes, fashions and moral mutations. And to my eyes Tim was one of such – he seemed timeless and limitless and I could not but admire the extent of his knowledge.

We did a million things together, Uncle Tim and me. We built motorways and skyscrapers from Lego bricks under the roofed terrace when it rained. We watched television and laughed at the Nanny. We even joined the Adopt a Koala Foundation together and held raffles and fundraisers.

But the garden was always the best place. We’d walk through the tall swishing blades of grass to our chosen spot by the pool where we would spread a blankie under a maple tree and relax while I read a Beatrix Potter story, got drowsy and rested my head on uncle Tim´s lap. In the garden, we had picnics and played chase with Blackie, the dog. We got our hands dirty with wet soil planting carrots and celery, and we would talk about anything and everything.

Tim, who never in his life left Middlebury, knew little about the outside world and he barely noticed national and international calamities and triumphs. He voted Republican all his life because Grandma Louise did, but politics figured low on the list of things that mattered to him, somewhere between meerschaum pipes and public libraries. If someone asked him about his ambitions, he’d probably answer he was too busy just living to have any, never mind talking about them. He’d say that his life and the lives of other people in the town, just like the existence of millions of the poor in other parts of the world, revolved around changing seasons, the vagaries of weather, the abundance or shortage of employment. But he always had something calming or uplifting to say to me, the eldest of the four and his favourite niece.

“Life´s precious, kiddo,’ he´d say, ‘so live and let live. And that´s all you need to know at twelve.” He would comb the unkempt beard with his fingers and his kind blue eyes would take on a glazing of wisdom, which I found profound and boundless.

Uncle Tim never married, and we sort of took him for granted because he was always there, a fixture, like a fridge or a towel rack – and just as firm. He was there when Jimmy Lambert, the class bully, ate the yummy part of my cheese and pickle sandwich and rubbed the crust in my face. Or when Laura, my younger sister, got her braces in that chaffed her inner cheeks and tongue so badly blood dribbled from her lips and down her chin. Or when a Dodge Charger ran over Blackie, the dog, on the highway and Tim buried his poor mangled body under a ponderosa pine while we cried our eyes out. He was there when my parents divorced and when mum´s hair salon went bust and she took over Grandma Louise´s job in the Munch Box serving coffee and hash browns to rowdy truckers.

He was there the day I was packing up to leave for New York to study.

We sat at the kitchen table while he looked at me with his blue eyes, the same tone one only found in the rarest topazes mined in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. But they were dim now, watered down as if by unshed tears. He wore the same country bumpkin checked shirt and stone washed jeans he´d worn for years.

“So…” He extended the word for what seemed like an eternity.

“You´ll be off to the big bad city out there. Just make sure you get all your ducks in a row before you go.”

I smiled. It was a joke between us. When he had first used the expression, I must have been five or six, I imagined a row of feathery critters flapping their wings, quacking, walking one behind another until he patiently explained what he meant.

“They are all in a neat row, Uncle Tim,” I replied.

“And once you’re in the big city, you´ll never come back. Big cities are monsters. All those different races and religions. And worse,” he said after a pause, “all those people who believe in nothing and belong nowhere.

“There is no purpose in big cities. Here, in the country, there´s a reason for everything. Folks stir only when they must and with something specific in mind: to milk their cows, to get drunk or to go to church. No such thing in big cities. And no one to keep you straight and narrow. Just Sodom and Gomorrah, mark my words.”

I tried to laugh off his worries.

“Of course, I will be back, you just you wait and see. I´ll be jonesing for your fry bread two days after I´m gone.”

He shook his head.

“Nope. You´ll get claimed by the big city where neighbours don’t greet neighbours and the whole place´s just a grid of streets and plazas. Not one tree in sight. No fresh air. It´ll suck you in and never spit you out again.

“Here, in the country you can easily tell seasons apart – by the smell of fields or by the scent of ripe fruit, by the sound of winter silence or the banter of birds. In the city the only thing you will smell is the reek of petrol fumes and dust and the only sounds you´ll hear is blaring horns.”

I knew I would not convince him, so I kept quiet. Two hours after, I was on my way remembering him like this – slouched at the table, a bear of a man with hunched shoulders, fingers playing with the beard that was getting more like yellow hay with each passing year, the topaz eyes exuding immense love for me and my siblings.

Two years passed fast, and I never went back to Middlebury. He was right: the city swallowed me completely. Despite having promised I´d visit, each new day still found me in New York.

“Not yet, maybe for Christmas,” I´d say at each breakfast, diluting my resistance with another coffee.

“Or Easter, perhaps.”

I felt that adulthood entitled me to a number of things, among them choosing the way I wanted to live my life – a well-deserved reward for the years spent in the atmosphere of a small town. And the truth was, I had no desire to go back because I felt free, like a dog unchained for the first time, and by then I had already met Alex and was in love. Far away from Middlebury. Far away from Uncle Tim. Far away from my austere Presbyterian upbringing.

Mum cried into the receiver for a long time and between hiccups told me they could not post bail. The crime was just too heinous, she said, and the newspapers got wind of it so it was splashed on the front pages a hundred miles around. The judge asked for a hundred thousand, but he might as well have asked for a million; no one in the family had that kind of money.

She said Tim had done some nasty things to the boy after tying him to the fence and stripping his clothes off. And when he was done, he stuffed a piece of paper in his mouth with a quote from Jude 7 written in a shaky hand: “And don’t forget Sodom and Gomorrah filled with immorality and every kind of sexual perversion. Those cities were destroyed by fire and serve as a warning of the eternal fire of God’s judgment.”

He´d never planned to kill him, he told mum. It was just a stupid coincidence that the kid had a weak heart and simply went and died on him. Kinda sighed, slumped and died, he said. All he had wanted was to teach him a lesson. To show him that the folks in Middlebury might eat simple food and treasure simple things but that they lived by strong values and he´d be darned if he let his nephews get warped by a townie who´d come to camp out by the Oatka Creek but should have stayed right where he had come from – in the big city. He said he was ready to atone for his unpardonable sin of anger, he would do his time but he did not regret his actions – in his eyes the kid deserved it, it was his own fault.

After I hung up, Alex and I sat in companionable silence, nursing the empty mugs in our hands while outside, New York, with its muddle of streets, hills and plazas, hummed and hawed solemnly.

“So, what am I supposed to do now?” I asked. “Go and visit him in jail? Say that I hate him and hope he rots in hell? Or say that I understand and forgive? And do you think that he would be more upset with me because I hooked up with a woman or because you are Jewish? What do you think? What am I supposed to do now?”

Alex, tracing the outline of the cornflower on the mug with one finger, remained silent for a long time then shrugged and smiled. “You´ll do the thing you´ve done so far. You´ll just keep loving Uncle Tim,” she said, put the mug on the table and took my hand in hers.

About The Author

Polish by birth, citizen of the world by choice. First story short-listed for the Hennessy Awards, Ireland in 1996. She became a regular contributor to Women´s Quality Fiction, Books Ireland and IncoGnito. She was also the co-founder of   Virginia House Writers, Dublin and helped establish the OKI Literary Awards. Her creative writing was interrupted as she moved to Latin America and started contributing to magazines and newspapers and then writing textbooks for different Latin American Ministries of Education. Since she went back to writing fiction last year, twelve of her stories, flash fiction and non-fiction have been accepted for anthologies and magazines in Australia, UK, Germany, USA, and Canada.

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