Uncle Sonny, my father’s brother, died in a horrible car crash shortly after he turned 50.
He was driving home to Ohio from Houston. He tried to pass a logging truck on a hill in Arkansas and ran into another truck. Blamo. Glass from the headlights of his Lincoln Continental Mark IV pierced the Samsonite luggage in the trunk of his car.
Fifteen minutes before he rammed into the truck, he called my father at our happy home down in Sarasota, Florida to crow about making it to 50. “Beat the curse, you dumb asshole,” he told Buster my father, both of them drunk. Buster could hear him crack another beer and take a sip. Buster could hear Mack trucks roaring past the phone booth. We Peppers usually die before 50. Of our own stupidity. But, of course, my father is too stupid to die. Mean, too. That’s why I decided on college at Gainesville. Two hundred miles away wasn’t enough, though.
Sonny’s fourth wife, Bobbi, showed up at the funeral, closed casket, and demanded to see Sonny. The funeral parlor folks cleared the room. We stood outside with our hands in our pockets, shuffling our feet. After Bobbi saw what was left of Sonny, she screamed, “It’s not him!” and came bursting through the doors, her hair all funny wild. And she claimed that the CIA kidnapped him, and so on. It was an Air Force funeral, so nobody had to pay her back any money she’d have been charged for burying an impostor. But I’m certain that Bobbi would have demanded her money back if she’d paid a nickel.
Bobbi was—it should go without saying—plenty nuts.
So was Sonny. And he was a cad, too. A bounder. He hit on my mother when she was pregnant with Sissy, telling her that my father was a loser and she’d be better off without him, babycakes. He was charming in that smarmy and slightly psychopathic way that many women find too tempting to avoid. It was like: Baby I love you, but if you get out of line you’ll get such a smack. My father had that charm. So did my male cousins.
Here’s another story about Bobbi:
Sonny died loaded—he was a college-dropout engineer—and cut everyone out of the will but Buddy, Bobbi’s son, who wasn’t old enough to have pissed his daddy off just yet.
Bobbi doted on Buddy, lavishing gifts on him bought with his dead father’s money. Minibikes were all the rage, and Buddy got one. He’d go riding at the dump, and it was there that some kid leveled a .22 at him and shot out his eye. Buddy went tumbling—no helmet, of course—and busted up his leg. By the time Buddy could get help he’d been bleeding for some time. The eye was gone, and the leg had taken a bad enough beating that the doctors considered it a loss. No surgeon in the hospital would touch it, they all recommended amputation. Bobbi checked Buddy out of the hospital and drove him all around northern Ohio looking for a doctor who would say that he could save the leg. The last doctor wouldn’t let Buddy leave his care and got a court order to amputate the leg.
How do I know this? I was home on leave from the Army, my parents were three years divorced, and Bobbi called my mother’s house looking for Buster. She called me “Buster” all the way through the phone call. “Aunt Bobbi, I’m Buzz.” I stopped correcting her after a while. She was drunk—I think, probably… I hope. I don’t want to think that someone could be that nuts without a fifth of bourbon gurgling around inside. She spent forty-five minutes telling me this story, then slammed the phone down in my ear when I told her I thought the doctors were right.
But this takes place in between those two times, back when I would have snickered at anyone who suggested that within four years I’d be in Reagan’s Army, off defending Europe from the heathen commies. Sonny was dead, and Buddy had two legs and two eyes. He was sitting on our parents’ front lawn when Sparky and I drove up. He was guzzling a Mountain Dew. “Hey,” Buddy said after we parked and got out of the car and stretched. He smiled at us.
“Hey, Buddy,” I said to him. Sparky’s car clanked and clattered and groaned. Sparky shut down the engine and we listened to its continued suffering for another five seconds or so. “Your mom isn’t here, is she?”
“Fuck no,” he said, smiling.
Sparky didn’t say anything. He ground his teeth then reset his face to neutral. The three-and-a-half-hour trip became a five-hour trip when the car passed out in Ocala and we had to have it towed to a garage, where the mechanic tinkered around with the carburetor using a screwdriver. “You gone need a new carb,” the mechanic informed Sparky.
Buddy sat there atop a brown spot with this smile on his face. Peppers all pretty much looked the same: Angry eyes, wavy hair, oddball smile and unearned cockiness.
Sparky was the exception. His cockiness was earned. He was smarter than any Pepper in human history. Sparky was a semester away from his bachelor’s degree. The mathematics department had already accepted him for grad work and a teaching position in the spring. A Pepper with an advanced degree. It didn’t seem right.
Sparky took his dirty laundry out of the trunk. It was folded.
I took mine out, too. It was not folded.
Buddy wasn’t wearing a shirt, just a pair of cutoffs and Adidas sneakers. He was attempting to grow a mustache and his hair was all over the place. His back was as red as a beet. He took a last slurp and crumpled the can. “They’re all here,” he said. “Every last goddamned one of them.” He was referring to his four half-siblings—Dougie, Davy, Barb and Sue.
Sue was the most successful one. She raised dobermans in her backyard. No one in her neighborhood had the nerve to call the cops when the noise got out of hand.
Barb lived off AFDC with her two kids in a rent-controlled apartment in New York City.
Dougie and Davy had each taken turns in the slammer recently. Davy got busted for having one too many wives. He was a conductor on the B&O railroad and had had a wife on each end. He gave the two wives the other’s phone number in case of emergency. It played out predictably enough.
Dougie robbed a Seven-Eleven. When he found out the cashier didn’t have much cash on hand, he led her around the store, gun in her ribs, making her carry all his favorite foodstuffs to his car. At one point, he had her grab a case of Bud. She lugged it all the way out to his getaway car. Then he changed his mind and had her take it back in the store and replace it with Michelob. “Why not live a little?” he asked the clerk. She did not find it hard to identify him in a police lineup later on.
Here’s how Davy would eventually die: He got hit by a crosstown express bus on a cold Cleveland morning when chasing a rolling nickel that fell out of his front pocket after he dug around in there for a handkerchief.
Here’s how Dougie would eventually die: He OD’d on heroin while sitting on his mother’s toilet in the little shitbox he grew up in in Lorain, Ohio. She found his body the next morning, pants around ankles, head bowed forward, spike on the floor in front of him.
One of Sue’s kids would eventually be eaten by one of her dobies. She would be put in jail. She would die there, mysteriously, from a sickness that lived in the ventilation system.
One of Barb’s two kids would shoot her.
We bumped into Aunt Ernestine, Uncle Sonny’s first wife, in the foyer. She was hurrying out front to smoke a cigarette. “Boys,” she said. I think she was crying. She pushed past us and on out the front door.
Uncle Verge, her second husband, was sitting in a straight-backed chair in the living room, away from all the ruckus. “How you doing, Uncle Verge?” I called over to him. He looked over the top of the paper he was reading and arched an eyebrow. An unlit pipe was clenched in his teeth.
We walked into the den bearing dirty clothes.
“—that’s all I’m saying!” Barb shouted toward us as we entered the room. She was taking up most of the couch, drinking white wine out of a Scooby Doo jelly jar glass. “You two grew up,” she said, changing gears.
“Where is everybody?” I asked.
She gulped down the rest of the wine. “I’m right here, thank you. While you’re up?” she went, shaking the empty glass at us. The Scooby Gang was tip-toeing away from the Mystery Machine. I put down my laundry and took the glass from her. “It’s the big bottle,” she said. I dug around in the fridge and found a half-gallon jug next to the milk. I hefted it up and poured her a few more swallows, and replaced the screwtop. “Couple of slivers of ice,” she said, pointing at the freezer up top. I dropped a couple of cubes in and brought it back to her. “You’re a doll,” she said, and took another swig. She set the glass down on the metal TV tray and picked up a Fran Lebowitz paperback.
I could hear Sparky taking over the washing machine. My brother lived without dreams. His life was one pragmatic decision after another.
I dragged my laundry into the laundry room so it could wait its turn.
I looked out the sliding glass door and saw Buster squirting a boy and a girl with a hose. The girl was just beginning to develop. The boy wasn’t. I would have to face Buster at some point. Better to do it with someone else’s kids around. I walked back outside into the blazing heat. “So?” I said to Buster, my hands jammed into my pockets.
He looked at me. His face darkened. “Some stunt you pulled,” he said. He meant my selling my van and flying off to Denver without telling anyone a few days after I graduated high school. The boy tackled the girl from behind.
“I guess,” I said. The girl turned around. She was wearing a white tee-shirt and my old bathing trunks. The two children struggled to their feet. They looked like me and my sister at that age.
“Guess you think you’re an adult now,” Buster said. “Big college man. Feeling your Cheerios.” If there’s one thing a Pepper is supposed to hate, it’s a college education. Makes you think you’re better than everyone else. The girl punched the boy in the stomach. He doubled over.
“I came back to get my stuff,” I said.
“Should of thrown it all away,” Buster said. He squirted the girl in full in the face with the hose. She fell backward. The boy righted himself.
“Glad you didn’t,” I said. The boy kicked the girl in the ribs. I turned and walked away.
Back inside, Barb asked me how her kids were doing.
“They’re killing each other,” I said.
“Serves em right,” Barb said. She flipped the page. A moment later, she cackled, reading.
Sparky said, “Now let’s find those tax papers.” We needed them for our financial aid applications.
“Son of a bitch probably hid them,” I said. “Look at him out there, the piece of shit.”
“Quit wasting time obsessing on the Toad,” Sparky said. He was all goal, no affect, my brother. “I’ll check the hutch. You ransack their bedroom. If you find it, call out. We’ll run it down to the library, make a couple copies, and be back before anyone can notice.”
“Fine way to talk about your father,” Barb said from the couch.
“How old were you when Sonny left?” Sparky asked her.
“Five,” she said.
“Then you didn’t get the full effect, did you?” Sparky said. We split up and left her to guzzle her cheap-ass wine.
I ran into Sissy in the hallway. “There you are,” she said. She grabbed my upper arm. She was even thinner now. She was barely there. “Did you get a load of Buster playing with Barb’s kids?”
We both laughed.
“Help me find his tax documents,” I said.
“Mom already made copies,” Sissy said. “They’re on the hutch. She left them out so all the other Peppers can see how poor we are and maybe refrain from stealing.”
“Good luck,” I said.
“Is that your brother?” I heard my mother ask.
“She has a migraine,” Sissy whispered. “Can you blame her?” Sissy smiled at me and called over her shoulder, “Yeah. One of them. The dumb one.”
“Send Buzz in here,” Mom called back.
“Good luck, Jim,” Sissy said. “As always, should you or any of your IM Force be caught or killed, the secretary will disavow any…” She let go of my arm.
The room was dark, the blinds were drawn and curtains cranked shut. The digital clock’s face was turned toward the wall, casting a hazy green glow. Mom had a pillow over her eyes. “Your father is very upset with you,” she said. Her bony feet were crossed. Outside, I could hear Barb’s kids really going at it.
“Tough shit,” I said.
“Don’t swear,” Mom said. “Have a little respect for your mother.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“That’s better,” Mom said.
“It’s a freak show out there,” I said.
“You were such a sweet child,” Mom said. “What happened?”
“You know what happened,” I said.
“You weren’t the only one getting hit,” Mom said. Sparky was too smart to hit and Sissy was his little girl.
“Why didn’t you leave him? Why don’t you leave him?” I asked. I stood there next to the bed. I realized my hands were shaking.
“Your father will always be there for me,” Mom said. “Even if I was in a horrible car wreck, lost a leg or something, I know he’ll always be there for me. That should count for something, shouldn’t it?”
I stood there for a moment, thinking.
“Go be with your sister,” Mom said. “She’s the only reason you came back.”
I wanted to say something more, but left her quietly. You don’t argue with a migraine.
“Let’s get him to drive us to the store,” Sissy said. “We’ll make copies of the copies.” She was standing out in the hall, smiling at me. She meant our brother.
We walked out into the den, where Sparky was standing talking to Verge, our fake uncle who’d married our real uncle’s ex-wife and inherited all those awful kids, who were now having awful kids of their own. Verge sucked and sucked on the pipe, and the odor was delicious.
“Let’s go to the store,” I said to Sparky. “We’ll need more than one copy.”
He eyed me suspiciously, then Sissy. “Whose idea was this?”
“Who do you think, smart guy?” Sissy said.
He let loose a deep sigh, standing there.
Verge smiled darkly. Then he fucking winked at me. Suck, suck.
“Let’s go,” Sparky said. He turned his back to us and stomped toward the door.
Sissy grabbed my shirt. “Look at his stumpy legs,” Sissy whispered to me.
“Don’t make fun of him,” I whispered back. “Please don’t make fun of him.”
“His head is too big,” she whispered.
“Stop it,” I whispered back.
We followed him to his defective car, the car that Buster gave him after Buster had swindled him out of his many scholarship checks and blew the money. So Sparky had nothing to go through college with save his nerve and drive and strong back. Living with my brother the past weeks had made me sad for him in a way I didn’t yet understand.
Sparky slid behind the steering wheel. Sissy popped open the passenger-side door and slipped across the back seat. I started to sit next to Sparky. “You don’t have to sit up there,” Sissy said.
“It’ll look funny,” I said.
“Who cares?” she said. “Get back here.”
I got in the back seat and somehow managed to shut the door behind me.
Sparky sat motionless, his sunglasses obscuring his eyes, not starting the car.
“What’s the holdup?” Sissy asked him.
He turned his head and faced me and I watched my reflection in his sunglasses. “After all these years,” he said. “Why do you still…?” And his unfinished question hung there for a moment. He went back to the grim business of operating a motor vehicle. He started the car and drove. The car jerked and heaved. He clicked on the radio and punched the buttons underneath the dial, trying to bring up music he didn’t hate.
“Look at his stubby little fingers,” Sissy whispered.
“Stop it,” I begged her. “Please.”
She reached over and placed her hand on my heart. And I knew that I would never love anyone as much as I loved her. My love for her doomed me to loneliness for the rest of my life. No woman would ever measure up. Not even the one or two pretty ones. Not even the one or two smart ones. The nice ones.
I saw Sparky watching us in the rearview mirror, his mouth drooped open a touch. Maybe a slight lower lip spasm, too.
I coughed a bit and got a headrush. The blood rushed away from me.
“Are you okay? I don’t know what I would do…” Sissy said.
“I know,” I said.
“It’s just that you look a little sick?” Sissy said.
“It’s my job,” I said.
“Quit your job,” she said.
“I need it to live,” I said.
“Buzz, Buzz, Buzz,” she whispered.
Sparky filled his life with mathematics, but mathematics could not fill the void. He’d felt unloved his whole life, and jealous. And angry at his own awful jealousy. He wanted to be loved. He deserved to be loved, but had somehow lost the lottery. He took an extreme interest in mathematical game theory. When he took an interest in anything, it was always an extreme interest. Sissy and I were killing him, sitting in his back seat the way we were, staring at each other so intensely, in our own little universe of two people. We both loved Sparky, and we wanted to love him more, but there didn’t seem a way to share. Love can’t be awkward. He stiffly shielded himself against us at every turn.
Fifteen years in the future, when he was middle-aged and fat and puking up his own alcohol-drenched blood, he had to go to a drying-out hospital and check himself in. It wasn’t only the drinking. It was the elaborate gourmet meals he made for himself. It was the million and one excesses that composed his solitary life. He lived like a overly satiated monk, devoting himself to a thankless job like it was a bitch wife. He drank Stoli vodka alone in his Spartan bedroom for purely medicinal purposes, understand. For ten years, he lived in the same house out of cardboard boxes as if he’d have to move at a moment’s notice. He felt that he was not meant to be loved, and drank more. The drinking made the feeling go away for a while.
But that was many years in the future.
Sparky scratched his ear. “His fingernails,” Sissy whispered. “They’re clipped down to nothing.” He pulled out onto Bee Ridge Road.
“Please, please have mercy,” I whispered back. “Leave him be,” I said. I wanted to say to her, “Let me go.”
That evening, after a dinner of takeout pizza and Chinese, Sparky and I loaded the car with our fresh laundry and my records and tax records and quietly slipped outside. Sissy ran after us and slapped the hood of the malfunctioning car as Sparky clunked it into gear. I rolled down my window. “Where do you think you’re going?” she asked me.
“Home,” I said.
“Home,” she said. She let that sink in for a moment. “I expect you to call me once a week. You understand that, right?”
“Right,” I said.
She crossed her thin arms across her thin chest and gritted her tobacco-stained teeth. “Okay then,” she said, and took a half-step back from the car. We sputtered and lurched and ground gears pulling away from her. I turned and looked at her. I couldn’t help myself. She stood on the crumbling curb watching the car drive away, and then slowly turned and walked toward the house.
This story was originally published in Bridge magazine, double issue 7 and 8, in 2003.