Tai Dong Huai
My cousin Jen calls me for the first time in five years, but without Caller ID I'd have never known it was her. The last time we spoke face-to-face was the day she graduated from Fordham, two weeks before I moved to Seattle.
"He's dead," she wails.
"Jen, take it easy," I tell her. "Who's dead?"
"My dad," she blubbers. "Last night. Massive heart failure. And he just turned fifty."
We talk for a minute or two, but she's not to be comforted. She sniffles out the name of the funeral home and I promise her I'll fly out in two days for the viewing. I tell her I'll call my adoptive parents in Florida and let them know. I hang up the phone, visualize the square, bespectacled face of my recently deceased Uncle Buddy, and can think of only a single word: finally.
Uncle Buddy was my mom's brother-in-law, her younger sister's husband, my godfather. If anything terrible ever happened, my mother often explained, I would live with Uncle Buddy and Aunt Norma. Jennifer, their daughter, was my age, an only child. We lived two hours apart, but in the summer we'd drive to their house on Long Island and vacation for a week, while on Thanksgiving they'd join us in Connecticut and stay until Sunday.
Uncle Buddy was intelligent, loud, and often drunk. My mother adored him as a bon vivant much as my father disliked him as a phony, and I found him – as I found all adults – uninteresting and indistinct.
My cousin Jen was another story. She would bound into our house, half-a-year's worth of stories memorized and rehearsed, and we would find some hiding place and talk about horses and school and make-up and boys. I taught her how to slow dance, and she showed me – using a pillow with Leonardo DiCaprio's face taped on it – the correct way to French kiss. I fanaticized about something unspecific happening, something that would result in Jen and I living together, sisters both spiritually and in the eye of the law. Apart, we wrote letters to one another every couple of weeks. We chose the mail because, as Jen put it, "you and I are modern-day Charlotte Brontes."
The year we both turned thirteen, our sexual advancement – lack of it, actually – had become the topic of our letters. We wrote in a language both mysterious and droll. I would ask, "Anything interesting developing where you are?" and Jen was certain to write back, "This entire place is one deflated bust."
But that Thanksgiving things, as the saying goes, took a turn.
It was an unusually mild November day, overcast but close to seventy degrees. Jen and her parents arrived just before noon, and before she could even get her jacket off, I whisked her toward the back door. Uncle Buddy and Aunt Norma were yucking it up in the living room with my mom while my dad stood in the kitchen basting the turkey.
"We're going for a walk," I called to him.
"Be back by two," he said, his head almost inside the oven. "Dinner at two-thirty."
The big attraction that year was two boys, Ed Roy and his older brother H.W. They'd recently moved into our neighborhood from South Carolina, and I found them both cute and different. They were funny and had drawls. Ed Roy was in my eighth grade homeroom, while H.W. had already started high school.
When we walked by their house, H.W. had just raked leaves into a huge pile while Ed Roy, using his own rake, was trying to pole vault over it. They stopped when they saw us approaching, met us at the fence in front of their house, told us their parents were both working at St. Bridget's dolling out food to the less fortunate.
"Wanna hang out on the porch?" Ed Roy asked.
We sat in wooden rockers and talked for what seemed a long time. When I asked H.W. to check his watch, he smiled and said, "What's the matter? You two got someplace better to go?"
"We have to be back by two," Jen told him.
H.W. snuck a peek at his watch. "Not even one-thirty," he reported.
Ed Roy brought out a huge portable radio, four cans of Pepsi, and a bowl of pretzels. H.W. was talking about how we might all be more comfortable inside the house, when I saw my cousin stand up and say, "Hey. That's my dad's car."
Nice of him to come pick us up, I thought.
Uncle Buddy pulled over to the curb and Jen and I approached the car. Aunt Norma, as ashen faced as ever, sat in the passenger seat next to him.
"Hey, Big Guy," Jen said merrily.
Her father simply said, "Get in the car."
"Everything all right?" Jen asked.
"Obey your father," Aunt Norma said as she stared toward the smiling brothers who waved as the stood on their porch.
We rode around the corner and Uncle Buddy pulled into the parking lot of Nutmeg Wines and Liquors. The store was closed, the lot empty.
"Why are we stopping here?" I asked.
"Do either of you have any idea what time it is?" Aunt Norma asked without looking back.
"One-thirty?" I said.
Uncle Buddy parked the car next to a dumpster, which shielded us from the sight of any vehicles driving by. He unclicked his seatbelt.
"It's three thirty-five," Aunt Norma said.
I started to go into my story, about how H.W. had lied by telling us the wrong time, when Uncle Buddy spun around in his seat. His hand was fast and it struck my cousin, hard, across the face. I was stunned, as surprised as if he'd taken out a gun and fired it. He continued to pummel his daughter while I – who should have been trying to protect her – sunk deeper into my seat in an effort to disappear. It was the first time I'd heard Jennifer cry, and the sounds she made were pitiful and otherworldly.
Finally I heard my aunt say, "Buddy. Enough," and the blows stopped.
"You should get the same thing!" Uncle Buddy said as he turned his red, distended face toward me. "You should get worse! You're not even part of this family!"
When we got home, Jen's nose was bleeding and her lip has already began to swell. Her mother took her into the bathroom and cleaned her up, and then all of us sat down to a silent, slightly cold Thanksgiving dinner.
There would be other times together for all of us, but my relationship with my cousin was never the same. I had learned a secret she was unwilling to share, one I had never wished to know.
I started having nightmares after that. In them my parents – as I had unconsciously willed, I was convinced – had died in a fire, or a plane crash, or a car accident. I was destined to spend the rest of my life with Uncle Buddy. And although these dreams eventually became less frequent, I continue to have them still, some fourteen years later.
I call my parents in Tampa Bay and give my dad the news. He tells me my mom is down with a urinary infection and won't be traveling. "You'll have to represent the family," he says. He falls silent after that and all I can think to say is,
"Those grapefruit you sent were really good."
I fly into New York and at the funeral home I find Jen to be composed but distant. We embrace, I lie and tell her I'm sorry, she lies back and tells me he was a "good man." Her mother, Jen explains, was too upset to attend the viewing and had to be tranquilized. Like some endangered species of wild animal, I think to myself, cursed to wear a radio transmitter for the rest of its life.
The viewing is open-casket and I see him laid out, harmless looking, lifeless. I knell, not to pray but to get a closer look. I notice his right hand, the one that drew my cousin's blood, is twined with a set of beige rosary beads. On the casket close to his head a second set of rosary beads, this one made up of tiny rose buds strung together as a garland. In death as in life he wears glasses, and I find myself hoping that they allow him a clear, unobstructed view of death.
Tai Dong Huai, nominated for a 2008 Pushcart Prize, was born in Taizhou, China. "Viewing" is from her collection in progress, I Come From Where I've Never Been. Other selections have appeared, or are scheduled, in Smokelong Quarterly, elimae, Pindeldyboz, Thieves Jargon, Wigleaf, Word Riot, The Rose & Thorn, and other terrific places.