I dropped my keys and stumbled backwards, away from the front door. Finally, I looked towards the heavens and saw Uncle Larry standing precariously on the roof of his shabby three-story walk-up. I shouted, “For a minute, I thought you were God!”
I sighed and started climbing. Before my family ever subjected anyone to Uncle Larry, we always warned them that he was an eccentric old man with Asperger’s Syndrome. This, of course, was a lie. He was just a dick, and the last time I checked, suffering from dickishness or dickism or whatever, was not a disability. I walked up the building and onto the roof.
Uncle Larry joyfully urinated onto the sidewalk. Luckily, the absence of screams from the ground below soothed my anxiety. He snorted, “I was gonna aim for you, but I missed.”
“Nice to see you, too, Uncle Larry. Why are you standing on the roof?” Larry talked over his shoulder as he continued a steady stream, which was actually pretty impressive for a man his age, “Why are you here? Did that crazy whore send you?”
“I assume you are referring to my mother. Yes, she sent me. She’s worried about you.” I sighed again. I sigh a lot around my family.
“If she’s so worried, then why didn’t she come here herself?”
“It’s kind of hard, being in a wheel chair and all, Uncle Larry.”
“Oh. She lost the use of her arms as well?”
“Wow, alright. I’ve been here for…” I looked at my wristwatch “…an unbearable amount of time. Would you mind walking down to your apartment with me?”
He squinted his eyes, “Did I ever tell you about my time in ‘Nam, boy?”
I scratched my head, “I thought you avoided the war by getting a Ph.D.”
“People can still visit that country, Alan. You’re so uncultured. But I guess it’s not your fault. Your mother, a ‘lady of the night’ didn’t make it easy for you”.
“She worked the night shift at Wal-Mart. To take care of me, might I add.” Uncle Larry zipped up his fly, fiddled around in his pocket, and popped three Ju Ju Bees in his mouth. Always with the Ju Ju Bees. My phone rang. I turned around, shut my eyes, and answered.
My mother’s raspy voice sounded sympathetic, but I knew better; the woman smoked like Courtney Love out of rehab, “How’s your blood pressure?”
“I feel a stroke coming on.” She exhaled loudly, “Ask your uncle if he wants any broccoli and cheese casserole.”
“Laced with antifreeze?”
“Ask him,” she ordered. I sunk my shoulders and turned around.
“Uncle Larry, do you want any…” but he wasn’t there. Uncle Larry was…gone. “Mom, I don’t know…” Suddenly, there was a crushing and cracking sound so nuanced in its pitch that I couldn’t help but shriek like a little girl. I ran to the ledge, wobbling unsteadily close to my own demise. Uncle Larry was on the pavement, coincidentally, in his own puddle.
Wakes, traditionally, are solemn, awkward, sappy affairs focused on the loss of an alleged “loved one.” Not in my family. They happen so often, it feels like the annual family reunion including Styrofoam coolers, Bud Light, Aqua-Net, and all; however, everyone was quiet, too quiet. Someone needed to have a drunken melt down or knock over the casket quickly so I could remember where I was, and to what family I belonged.
It began: “It was those God damn Ju Ju Bees. I knew they would kill him one way or another.” My mother shook her head as she spoke to Richie, our family doctor.
Dr. Richie was a large, blond, and strangely red-tinted man. He cleared his throat after swallowing a generous portion of mom’s banana pudding, “Three were lodged perfectly in his esophagus. He must have choked and lost his balance.”
“What color were they?” my mother inquired.
“The Ju Ju Bees. What color were they?”
“Uh, I believe all three were red”
“Good. Those were his favorite” she nodded.
I loosened my tie and sank in a chair towards the back of the funeral home. My cousin, Sherry, quickly scurried to the seat in front of me. Sherry wore a tight, stonewashed denim dress with a beehive perm; she carried the eighties, her glory days, with her everywhere. “So, what happened?” she whispered over-dramatically.
“I think the story has circulated, Sherry”
“No, I mean, what REALLY happened? What’d he say?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about”
“Oh, right, gotcha, of course.” Sherry looked around the room knowingly, as if she was in on the secret. “Don’t worry. I won’t say anything.”
“No, Sherry that’s not what I…”
“Alan, the last time I saw Uncle Larry, he told me that my mom should have ‘taken care of me,’ like he suggested. You know, in the womb.”
“That’s funny. I never took him for pro-choice.”
“I’m just saying, none of us really blame you.”
“Wait, does everyone think I…”
“No, no– I mean not everyone. There were the Ju Ju Bees…” she turned her head slightly with a half wink, “which could have been inserted, posthumously,” she butchered the word. “But seriously, one of us would have snapped eventually.” she insisted.
“Sherry, I didn’t murder…”
“I’m just saying, if you want a drink afterwards, we’re buying.” Sherry nodded her head towards the corner of the room where three of my other cousins congregated. They all made eye contact with me, nodded their heads, and held up their drinks in a silent toast.
I couldn’t handle this anymore. Uncle Larry may have been a dick, but for all his misgivings, he was still a person, a man. I walked to his casket to pay my respects.
As I neared his body, I paused and felt my eyes opening uncomfortably wide. Ironically, my homophobic uncle looked like a drag queen after a spending spree in a drug store make-up aisle. Open caskets are the cruel joke the living play on the dead. My mother winked at me with a proud smile; I forgot about her stint at beauty school in the early seventies. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a small box of Ju Ju Bees. “Here you go, Uncle Larry,” I
whispered and looked for a spot to hide the candy.
Suddenly, I don’t know how, but my uncle’s mouth popped open. Completely freaked out, I shut his mouth with a click of his jaw without thinking. It opened again, and in a panic I snapped his jaw shut several times to no success. Finally, it glued and I lost it, “You still drive me to drink, you old coot!” A loud gasp erupted behind me.
My entire family stared in shock. Everyone’s eyes gravitated first to me, then my uncle’s mouth, and lastly to the box of sugary goodness in my hand. My mother stepped, I mean, rolled forward, “Honey, we just learned that your uncle left some money…to you.”
“Really,” I choked out. Everyone continued to stare at me for a long moment. Finally, I declared, “Well, I say we celebrate Uncle Larry’s, death…” my mother gasped and my cousins murmured under their breaths, “…Errr, I mean, his life, his life, with Olive Garden, endless soup and salad, on me!” There was some hesitance. I whispered to my mom, “How much money?”
Sherry interrupted, “The man was so tight, all of his bathmats were from the Holiday Inn.”
My mother nodded shyly in agreement, “He was a hoarder. We even found a five year supply of Ju Ju Bees in the basement…which were also left to you.”
Everyone continued to exchange glances. “Soup and Salad. What am I saying?” I laughed nervously. “Endless pasta bowls…no, the tour of Italy!” More enthusiasm permeated the crowd, but portions of lasagna, fettuccini alfredo, and chicken parmesan all choreographed in harmony on one plate was not enough to assuage the situation. I panicked. What could possibly win over the family, and thereby excuse the alleged murder of one of its members? Finally, I yelled “And a round of shots! No! An open bar, on me!”
The entire family cheered and clapped. Sherry yelled, “Now you know who you’re talking to!”
Dr. Richie covertly joined in on the free celebration, “Well, damn! Lets get this party started! To Uncle Larry!” The entire family pranced our way through the parking lot, to the strip mall across the street. No one pressed charges, although from time to time, when Uncle Larry was mentioned, everyone showered me with extra hugs and artery clogging casseroles; although I never knew for sure if this was my quirky family’s way of expressing some sick and twisted appreciation, or general fear for their lives, it did not matter. What mattered was that a sense of joy and respect slowly and steadily crept into our relationships. And from then on, every Christmas stocking, Easter Basket, and birthday present came complete with a box of Ju Ju Bees courtesy of Uncle Larry.