When My Dead Uncle Calls
The first time my dead uncle called was in May during one of those weeklong heat waves we get now and again. Tina, bored with the ball game I was watching, snored away in the bedroom. I fell asleep in the third inning, the local boys ahead three to one. Then the phone rang. Reaching for the receiver, I slipped on the daily paper and slid into the stereo cabinet banging my knee. "Yeah?" I groaned, twisting away from the bright TV set.
At first the voice sounded distant, like it was underwater or something. I turned down the volume as the pitcher started his motion.
"Hello," I said louder. "Who is this?" The ball skidded through the outfield and ricocheted off the wall. Tie game.
"What's this, a game show smart guy?" the voice on the other end quipped. "It's Victor, your Uncle Victor."
Victor Worrell, Uncle Vic, the Big V, died suddenly one summer afternoon cleaning out the gutters. The last of seven brothers, he looked after my younger brother George and me ever since our parents were killed in a bus accident. A stroke quick and simple we were told. Doctors said Uncle Victor probably felt a little dizzy before the stroke, but that was about it. Aunt Mini, his sister who lived in the upstairs apartment, found him with a big grin on his face slumped in the flower box outside her window. She said he looked like someone sang him to sleep right there on the ladder.
"What's this, you knew my uncle?" I asked, straightening up and knocking a row of empty Rheingolds over like bowling pins.
"Look Bernie," came his reply. "I don't want to upset you; I just thought it'd be nice if we could talk about the game once in awhile. You know I miss that."
It seemed even warmer than before. The dented paddles on the electric fan bobbed up and down laboring to suck coolness in from the outside. The air felt like hot rags hitting me in the face and it smelt bad, like the stuff you let out of your tires when you over-fill them.
"Hey, listen pal," I snapped back. "I don't know what you're trying to pull, but my uncle's been dead for seventeen years."
"I know, I know, I was at the funeral," he said. "Terrible waste of money Bernie, if only you knew. If only you knew. Still, I remember your last words to me. 'Uncle Victor, we'll speak again some day.' As usual, you knew what you were talking about."
No one else heard me say that leaning over his body. It slipped out after seeing his face all shriveled like a punctured balloon. My uncle was too big with those full red cheeks of his to fit between floral arrangements. Just picturing that again kind of choked me up.
So while I'm putting all this together another run scores. And that's it for the starter. The manager trots out pigeon-toed to the mound, signaling for a lefthander.
"Better not be Butler," the caller says. "That kid's having a terrible year, a big mistake by Boland."
The way this man spoke reminded me of my uncle a raspy, soft, yet clear voice. He told me not to worry the same way Uncle Victor used to whenever George or me needed a few extra bucks.
Maybe I should've hung up, slugged down another beer and gone back to sleep on the couch. Then bingo it hit me! What if this is the real deal? The Big Kahuna the V man himself? Besides, I kinda liked the idea of being able to talk with the old man. Curiosity, I suppose. I wanted to know what he had been up to and where he was. It didn't matter whether or not I got straight answers as long as I was told something.
Uncle Victor said there ain't anything spooky or mystifying about it: Being dead that is. It's pretty much the same as living in Newark, or here in Brooklyn, only there is a certain way to doing things. Like, get this. He's all set up in a hotel room. At least, he thinks it's a hotel because he can hear people next door and upstairs. He sees nothing but palm trees and white beaches out the window. He doesn't get to go outside, but Uncle Victor was never one to go out much unless he had to fix something.
He's got your basic motor lodge furniture; bolted-down lamps, bed, TV and remote. Except the TV only gets one channel. A weird kind of cable. In the middle of "Barney Miller" he starts getting old home movies. Black and whites he doesn't even remember taking when I was a kid. Like the time George broke his nose at the Memorial Day picnic, or when he was teaching Aunt Florence to drive the Dodge and she backed it all the way across the Zimbinskis' front yard. He said it's really boring stuff, but it doesn't last long. So he's fine. It is what it is. And like Uncle Victor says, what can you do?
You know it's funny. He had a phone all those years and never thought to call anyone. Then all of a sudden bingo that Monday night he calls me about the game. Lately, he says, the home telecasts aren't coming in too well. I jotted down his number and told him I'd call back with the final score.
It was seven to three in the bottom of the sixth when I hung up. Even though his control stunk, Butler was left in to lead off. But I wasn't paying attention anymore. I thought of waking up Tina, or calling the rest of the family to tell them what happened. Instead, I called information to check out the story for myself. There were four Victor Worrells listed, only none matched the number I had. As it turned out, the listing he gave me was for the Klondike Hotel address and other information withheld at the owner's request.
I stared at the number before me. It seemed simple enough to call no special area code or 900 prefix. I picked up the receiver and began to punch the numbers in when I remembered the game. As it turned out, Butler rallied the team with a leadoff triple in the top of the seventh and had a run edge in the ninth. All he had to do was get this nobody shortstop Meyers, a sucker for the curve away. Bases empty. Count: 1-0, 2-1, 3-1, 3-2. So what does Butler give him low inside fastball. The only pitch Meyers can handle and he drills it over the leftfield wall. I was biting bottle tops over that one! Gee, the old man used to throw his teeth against the wall when stuff like that happened.
The locals dragged it out 19 innings before some rookie walked in the winning run. I tried calling in the eleventh, sixteenth and after the game. Each time the line was busy. It was still hot at 3:55 in the morning when the game ended. The last beer was warm and with the TV off I could hear the train grinding along the raised tracks outside our apartment. It was Tuesday another workday.
Breakfast that morning. Skewered Pop Tarts warmed over the open range cookout-style on account of the toaster and microwave dying in suicidal unison. Tina was already up sitting at the kitchen table doing her nails, all twenty of them. Packed in cotton, her toes looked like those little weenies wrapped in bread that you get at weddings.
"Can't wear my new white pumps without doing them, that would be gross," she said with a piece of green dental floss hanging from her lips. "Be an angel and finish my teeth for me so my fingers can dry."
Hung-over, I stuck a frozen Pop Tart to my forehead and moved into position. I meant to talk to Tina about the thing with my uncle, but flossing didn't seem to be the right moment. And then it was one thing after another. Tuesday became Wednesday. You turn around and it's Thursday. But sometimes the percentages of coincidence catch up with you. Take that Thursday afternoon. Coming back from lunch I could've hopped on the N or Q, or stopped in the midtown office. Instead, I waited for a bus by a magazine booth. The Pakistani owner wore a turban and sat deep in the stand rolling a cigar between his lips as I poked at the girlie magazines. I was reading an article on how to host a mud-wrestling tournament in your home when I heard a nearby pay phone ring. I eyed the turban. He eyed me back.
"You going to answer it?" I asked. He shrugged his skinny shoulders and pulled his hand over his face. "Next please," is all he said. I let it ring three more times before grabbing the receiver. Right number, wrong area code. Back at the office, there was a yellow message stuck to my computer screen. "Tried to reach you at the bus stop, will call again. Victor."
I left work early that afternoon and read the sports pages over some guy's shoulder on the subway home, wanting to forget the whole thing. Butler took another loss on the West Coast. If only he could get it turned around these guys might have a shot at something. Uncle Victor loved watching those games. He never said much. Just sat jammed into the corner of that beat-up couch in the den tapping his fingers on the armrest. But he made you feel welcome the way he'd give you a slap on the back or grab your neck between innings. Funny thing is, I spent the best times of my life sitting on that couch opening Christmas presents, George's graduation party, watching the World Series. I even got into Tina's pants for the first time there and ruined the slipcover. But the couch is gone. Aunt Florence got rid of it years ago when she finally turned the den into a library the way she always wanted to after she realized Big V wasn't around to say no anymore. Still, none of us reads that much. I was all tangled up in memories and the Major Leagues Standings when the train screeched to my stop.
First thing home, I dialed the number left on the message. It rang twice. "How do I know you're really my uncle?" I blurted out.
"You don't, Bernie," he said softly. "You have to trust me just like anyone else you meet over the phone. You must have faith, Barnard, it connects all things. ... So you mind calling back, I've got to see the end of this 'Hogan's Heroes' that Schultz cracks me up."
That reminded me, "The Flintstones" were on next. I hung up, clicked on the remote and checked the dinner schedule on the fridge. Franks and beans. I poured everything into one pot and waited for it to come to a boil. We ate quickly off blue paper plates that clashed with the dark brown beans. It was too hot to be color coordinated. We were polite and only talked during commercials we had both seen before.
"I forgot, your Aunt Mini called last night while you were out," said Tina, as talking toilet bowls marched across the screen. "She says we have to do something about your uncle's calls."
"He's called her?" I said, letting my beans drip onto the table. I felt hurt in a strange way, like Barney being left by Fred at a water buffalo lodge meeting.
"Victor's been calling everyone in the family," she added licking mustard off her knife. "Mini, Cousin Eddie, George, he even called here a couple of times too. Collect, can you believe it? But I wouldn't accept the charges."
"Collect?" I said. "Big V never took anything from us. What was his was ours. Remember the time he gave Eddie that Hawaiian shirt right off his back."
"Who could forget it, your poor uncle. Eddie made such a fuss about having something nice to wear to your brother's party," said Tina, pulling off her t-shirt and fanning herself with it.
"You know I liked that shirt as much as Eddie did," I cracked, pointing my beer bottle straight between her two semi-exposed yabbos. "Only I never made a big deal out it. If I'd asked, it would've been mine."
"That's your problem, 'Waiting Worrell,' you never say anything when it counts," she taunted, snapping a sweaty bra strap back in place.
That was a low blow. "Waiting Worrell" was my nickname in high school because everyone always had to wait for me to make up my mind. All the other kids thought I was being a pain in the ass, but I just wanted to be sure I was making the right choice. Typical Tina. She always brings up these incidents when you least expect it like 23 years after they happen. What could I say? I took the bottle of squeeze mustard and shot a glob across her face.
It didn't take long for the family to get mobilized after everyone talked to each other. Aunt Florence organized a special family meeting for that Sunday. Figures. George and me had box seats at the ballpark for a double header. First base side and everything. It was "Condom Day" too, giveaways with the team logo for everyone fourteen years and older. I swapped the tickets. Okay; I was forced to swap the tickets with Marty the corner grocer for two cases of beer and a crumb cake.
At my aunt's, Tina put our cake on the kitchen table next to the others. Without watching my aunt cut the red and white striped string from the boxes, I knew what was there. It's the same routine every time the family gets together. George and Rita bring cheese Danish, Mini assorted Italian cookies, Cousin Eddie mince pie, and the twins sugar donuts. Only great Aunt Bessie, on account of she's the oldest, doesn't bring anything. Changing that batting order around would be worse than any event that brings us together.
As usual, I took a sample from each box and sat next to George on the love seat. The room conversation wandered from the weather to rug cleaners until Tina had a chance to pour everyone coffee and Aunt Bessie found her way to the straight-back chair by the bay window. "Matches?" questioned Eddie, jockeying for a spot on the crushed velour sofa, "and a smoke anyone? I'm desperate." Tina glared at me from across the room when I tossed him my lighter. She hadn't talked to me since the mustard incident on Thursday.
"Such a terrible, terrible thing to happen to my Victor," moaned Aunt Florence in her broken English. "He young man, only sixty-three. Terrible thing."
Her sudden lament caught us off guard. Mini was the first to console, offering Aunt Florence an anisette cookie the way she used to give them to us kids when we got hurt.
"Have a couple more, hon," said Mini, going with the emotion. "If you ask me, this Victor business is getting out of hand."
That was George's cue. He pounced to his feet like a manager ready to argue a call. The whole thing could be the phone company's fault, he said. Maybe they mistakenly hooked us up to some sort of new dead relative service. Circumstances beyond our control. Any court of law or consumer group could see that. George was on a roll. For my part, I didn't figure anything about the cost or liability factors. Maybe this was just one of those post dot-bomb things that comes with deregulation and the Internet.
"Victor was my youngest sister's boy," said Aunt Bessie, sounding more ghostlike than my uncle ever did over the phone. "I have very fond memories of little Victor, but this should not be. The dead should stay dead. This is no good for anyone, especially if we're being charged for it."
"It's true, very true," sighed Aunt Florence. "Got own life now. Library with many book from magazine. Good friends at club. Too many calls, have time for nothing. Whole routine loused up. Kapppput!"
Well, there was no denying this whole thing was a nuisance and an expense we couldn't bear if we were getting charged. And when it was put to a vote, although it took me awhile to decide, I have to admit, I sided with the rest of them so did George and the twins, Zeke and Zach. I never bothered to mention that Uncle Victor didn't call me collect. I felt bad about that and not living up to that faith stuff he was going on about, but there's something to be said for making the right decision and not being too curious about things. It wasn't that we weren't fond of Uncle Victor, or didn't miss him. Times are just different now. It's hard to really explain that to someone unless it happens to them. But like Rita pointed out, suppose he kept calling my office and they think I lied about those three days I took off for the funeral way back when? Bingo I could lose my job!
It ain't like we wished him dead or anything. It's just, you learn to deal with these things and then the rules get changed. Besides, George and me were thinking, having to keep track of all that baseball the way he would want us to would take all the damn fun out of watching the game. We decided that George would call the phone company in the morning just to make sure no mistakes had been made and have all our phones disconnected until this whole thing blows over. It would be easier than trying to explain everything to Uncle Victor.
With Aunt Florence's air conditioning on the whack none of us stayed around much longer than we had to. Mini and Aunt Bessie went back upstairs and the rest of us met down the block at Kasper's for a drink. And wouldn't you know it, one of Eddie's old pals from high school was tending bar. We had run of the whole place. The wives got to try all those fancy umbrella drinks they never get to order while us guys watched the second game of the doubleheader in the back poolroom.
We took the opener 6 to 5 in eleven. Condoms floated over the field like doves after a wedding. In the seventh inning of the second game, it was my turn to go get beers. On my way back to our table, the pay phone rang. I stopped for a moment making sure not to spill anything and listened to it ring. I wanted to answer it, but then I thought that's something I've got to learn to walk away from.
Published August 2007