Anything I write about my Uncle Bill is something I would be afraid to show him. Not because he would be upset — there is little in this world that didn’t upset him, so no problem there — but because he’d have short, brusque critiques like “fewer adverbs” or “fewer words.” One of the most enlightening things he ever said to me — through email, which is where the majority of our correspondence took place over the last few years — was in response to something I said about not having to censor myself when I used to work for SportsGrid, citing it as a perk.
“Censor yourself more. ALL THE TIME. It’s part of the learning process and you’re still sophomoric.”
So I hesitate to write anything more about him, in the interest of brevity, as well as because it’s almost impossible to describe him to people who haven’t met him. He was a lunatic, in both the best and worst senses of the word. He would rant and rave, strike out in anger and disbelief on topics both serious (the NSA) and benign (everything else). He alienated people, threatened them, insulted them both to their faces and behind their backs. He was blunt and rash and vulgar. When I was a kid, he told me rollerblading was gay and that seatbelts gave him a rash. He was convinced, for most of the years that I knew him, that the world had fucked him in every conceivable way, and expressed that frustration by consuming vast quantities of drugs and isolating himself from society.
He was also, on many occasions, exceptionally tender and unselfish. He made me my first baked potato, showing me how to crack it open in the middle and drizzle “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” in the crevices. He helped foster my passion for New York sports, particularly the Knicks and Yankees. He would pass on articles, songs, jokes and excerpts from books that he found illuminating, doing so for years even when I didn’t reply — mostly out of a sense of bewilderment and occasionally out of solidarity with my dad, who went through ups and downs and eventual estrangement with his brother.
I’m sure that I am only peeling back a couple of layers of the onion that made up his life, a life that existed for many years before I was born and affected people in ways I’ll never understand or know. As you might have gathered, that life ended recently, a few days ago, perhaps just before or just after I sent him an email after a long gap of silence, asking him how he was and if I could come visit when I returned from Ecuador. I’ll never know what happened to that email. What is an email that is never opened? What happens to an email unread? Does it disappear into the abyss? Does it survive on some server, alone but unmissed?
Or does it explode?
Looking back through our correspondence, I sent him a similar message in late 2014 — which went unanswered — and nothing after.
But before that, I have dozens of email exchanges, mostly started by him, relating to my writing, to writing in general, to the writing of the greats, to art and literature that touched him. He wrote, too, though like many of Uncle Bill’s endeavors it mostly stayed locked up with him. I have a printed “manifesto” of his in my dad’s place in Brooklyn, pages and pages of inked insanity with several moments of incredible clarity, elegant prose that seemed to tap into something deeper than anyone knew.
I also have a “short story” that he wrote and sent me. I don’t know what the ethics are of publishing something that someone now deceased has sent you, but I find it to be an illuminating look into the a mind that would surface for air in unexpected moments, a fin breaching the water only to disappear into the depths. This is called “Based on a true story.”
Bought a godamned pumpkin pie at the supermarket bakery. First of the season. On sale. Took it home and cut it, took one bite, and nearly threw up. How could I be so stupid. A supermarket pie.
Left it on the counter for a few days or weeks. Seemed like the crust began to disappear. I waited until it was gone to be sure. Now I had a pumpkin pie with one slice missing, sans crust.
I put it on the floor and in a few days or so, the rest of the pie began to disappear. Split teeth marks appeared clearly on the pumpkin. I thought I could see claw marks. But that could have been my delusive tendencies. I was pretty sure I still had a mice problem. That just couldn’t be true. I had a cat.
I turned to the cat. “You’re not doing your job,” I told her. And began to rant and rave about her role and responsibilities.
She replied but I was unable to figure out what she said, or more importantly, how she said it. I tried to portray to her how serious the situation was. I went over the half eaten and twice clawed pumpkin pie. I pointed at the pie, my index finger as as close as I could. I had learned that her ability to discern where I pointed was limited. Not uncommon in cats or dogs. She sat there quietly not listening, constantly looking away, not looking at all while I ranted and raved. Finally she left. That was it.
I return to my couchlock position.
About ten minutes later, ten minutes, no shit, she returns to me with a mouse in her mouth, still alive.
I sit and watch as she plays with the mouse for 5 minutes, pouncing on it, slapping it, and finally she lets it escape under the vacuum cleaner. She circled the machine a few times and finally the mouse tried to make a run for it. She pounced. The mouse feigned death, all four legs straight up in the air, then turned over and ran away. The cat just watched.
I tried to impress on her that she should’ve killed the damned sonofabitch.
She looked at me, blinked o-so slowly, then turned and left.
And plants don’t listen to music either
What does the ending mean? Good question. That was Uncle Bill, a living non-sequitur.
Here’s another piece of advice he gave me that I’ll end with:
Just keep fuckin at it
no matter what nobody says
good or bad