How it Works
I don’t remember what it was I found in my Uncle Bill’s old room in the house on San Mateo Drive, whether it was a letter written in a feminine hand or a single black and white photograph of a young blond woman in a white bikini. This happened a long time ago and it could have been either of these things.
What I remember is how he sat on the corner of the bed when I showed it to him, and how he cradled it in his palm. His breathing deepened and the bed sagged beneath his weight. His brown eyes shone. I don’t remember what it was he held, but I remember this moment because he opened his mouth to tell me a story and the men in my family didn’t often tell stories, not then, believing certain types of stories, those about secrets or relationships, to be the province of women. If a man told me anything before this it was how to do something the right way, or how something worked, the mystery of pistons firing and carburetors cycling under a hood. If a man from my family told a story it was about a friend of his who was eaten by a bull shark and how all they found of him was his watch when the shark’s stomach was cut open and how the watch was still ticking and this was why he would only buy Timex and not any other brand. I remember this moment because my uncle must have decided that I was a man myself now and there were things I should know.
The story was about a woman named Stormy. I had heard the name before. A painting she had done of my grandparents, American Primitive style, showing each of them in regal green robes like a king and queen, hung above their beds, except when Aunt Nona visited, and then it was stored away in the closet. It shames me that I don’t remember the particulars of the story, only that he was engaged to this woman and she had broken his heart, and that all these years later the speaking of her name darkened his voice.
“Don’t tell your aunt Nona you found this and don’t ever mention Stormy’s name because your aunt will fly into a rage.”
I swallowed and nodded. My aunt Nona’s rages were towering, but ever since she quit liquor they occurred less frequently. My uncle had met her shortly after the engagement with Stormy broke off. She already had four children by another man, but he had married her the same.
I remember this because I was just then coming to understand the secrets people carried. My Uncle Bill was 6’4, weighed 325 pounds, and was entirely bald in his forties, but as he told the story the man he once was rose up in his eyes, a naval demolitions officer, a deep sea diver who could hold his breath for five minutes underwater, the man voted “best physique” by his high school yearbook. I remember watching how the telling of the story peeled away all those years. Somewhere in the telling the story branched or do I remember this from another time? Did talking about Stormy lead to talking about Nona? Did talking about Nona lead to talking about my grandfather and how he disapproved of Nona because of her Mexican heritage? Somehow the story called forth other stories, barely related. I remember him holding the object in his upturned palm because it had opened a doorway that would not swing shut again.
He told me about my grandfather teaching him to shave during a camping trip, boiling water on a camp stove, water that scalded my uncle, and how when he cried, my grandfather yelled at him and told him he would never be a man. He told me that Stormy started calling him again after he was married to my aunt Nona.
He told me that Nona had had a hysterectomy after her fourth child and could not have any more children. He didn’t want my pity or any response from me. The stories were an offering and I drank them in and try to remember as best as I can now, because the sharing of stories makes a bond between two people, because my uncle died a few years ago in a Houston restaurant of a sudden heart attack, because the house on San Mateo Drive was sold long before then, because I am a man old enough now to understand a little of what loss means.
Tom Maltman is the author of Little Wolves and The Night Birds. thomasmaltman.com