When I was a kid I used to like it when uncle Jimmy came to visit. From my room upstairs I could hear his deep staccato laugh, like someone falling down a flight of stairs but enjoying it. He’d most likely told a funny story, and under my uncle’s laugh I could make out my mother’s giggle and the gruff bark of my father, who wasn’t much of a guy for laughing. I was an only child and there were times when the house could seem too quiet, but when my uncle came it was like having an older brother. He’d tell stories about hopping trains, working on ranches out west, standing on a cliff and watching the Pacific roll in far below him. “The big waves come in with a boom,” he’d say, “and go out with a hiss. All the way from Japan. Think of that, all the way from Japan.”
I must have been about ten or eleven. This was back in Michigan. “I’m going to take you fishing one of these days,” uncle Jimmy would tell me. “We’ll go to Harsens Island and I’ll take you out to Muscamoot Bay.” You could tell he liked saying that name, he practically sang it. “It’s a bit of work getting there, though,” he said. We’d have to go to his friend’s place on the Middle Channel and take his flat-bottomed boat, push it across the road on wooden rollers, to get to the marsh side. “Has to be flat-bottomed because it’s really shallow, you have to use your oar as a pole and push your way through the reeds. The water’s a strange color, Michael, it’s like tea, and because it’s so shallow it’s warm. The place is all marsh, really, but you have to get through there to reach the bay. It’s strange there,” he’d say. “You come across fat carp sloshing around in less water than you have in your bath tub. At first there’s a moving V in the water, then you see the fin, like a shark. Sometimes a water snake with colored bands will suddenly swim up in front of you. It’s a mysterious place,” his eyes would go distant, “and the most mysterious part of it is the Great Blue Heron Rookery.” Once again he’d sing the words.
He had a funny way of talking at times and I know now that he’d probably been drinking. My father certainly wasn’t charmed by uncle Jimmy’s stories. I’d heard him call his younger brother a good-for-nothing who needed to grow up, he was someone who didn’t know how to stop once he opened a bottle. But whether it was drink or just fond memory, uncle Jimmy loved to talk about that rookery. “It’s a flooded forest. The trees are bare and grey, the limbs all tangled together like something out of a story book, a story about witches maybe. It’s eerie and quiet there, you can almost imagine big alligators slithering around like the ones I saw when I was in Florida. You keep looking into those limbs—it’s like a spider web made out of trees--and all of a sudden you’ll notice a heron, still as can be. It looks hunch-backed, so that if you’re seeing it for the first time you’d never guess how tall it was and how big the wings are, the way it looks when it’s flying.”
That was the part I liked best. Uncle Jimmy went on to tell about how great it was to get to the bay at last and see all that water, but I was still thinking about that flooded forest where you could imagine alligators lurking with sleepy eyes in the shallow, tea-colored water, waiting for the carp.
“In the winter, though,” uncle Jimmy said, “it’s just a huge sheet of ice. There are shanties out there, even a few cars, but with the swirling snow and fog all around you, everything kind of fades and you feel like it’s being erased. What I like to do is to pick up a piece of clear ice left over from someone’s fishing hole. You have to kick it free to get hold of it but if you’re lucky you’ll get a really smooth piece. Then you give it a strong side-arm throw and watch it slide along the surface, ice moving across ice: it looks like it could go on forever. Pretty soon you won’t be able to see anything in the fog and all you can do is try to keep track of the sound. That sound never stops, it’s just that you can’t hear it anymore.”
There was something about that kind of story that bothered me more than the alligators.
The Uncle Jimmy period of our lives ended abruptly. I never did go fishing with him. When I asked about him my mother said he wasn’t the kind to stay in one place long, it was his nature to keep moving. I didn’t ask my father, since he’d tense up at any mention of his brother’s name. I never did get the story straight but from what I was able to piece together I had a pretty good idea that my father loaned him a bit of money that he didn’t pay back. Whatever the details, uncle Jimmy didn’t come around anymore and nobody seemed to know where he was.
He died in California under circumstances that were never made clear to me. He was only thirty-four and the story was that he was killed in a car crash but there were whispers about drugs, it seemed that some people didn’t think his death was all that accidental. I would have been around sixteen at the time, so it would have been a while since I’d last heard a story from him. As a teenager I was caught up in dramas of my own and his death, though it was dramatic, was peripheral. After all, I was no longer a little kid who wanted to go fishing with his uncle, I was the protagonist of my own drama, or melodrama, to be more precise.
And there were the distractions of my family life. My father got into trouble on his job, they accused him of embezzling and reached some kind of settlement that allowed him to quit without the company bringing the law after him. Things turned sour quickly at home and my parents divorced. I learned to deal with things in my own way. I suppose I got into bad company. There were weekly sessions with Doctor Matthews, there was a certain amount of acting out but in the end, like many others, I survived.
Yeah, I survived, I became an adult, and the years flew by—don’t they always? I’ve had three wives, I’ve got two kids living in different cities who won’t talk to me. My job—I might as well be a prisoner marking off the days on the wall of my cell. In the end, you might say I’ve screwed things up royally. Well, I console myself, never been in jail.
Lately I’ve got to thinking about uncle Jimmy. On my way home from work these days I get a glimpse of the desert that surrounds this town and I wonder if he ever came this way. It’s possible. I was remembering him when I stopped into a suburban bar called the Oasis, a refrigerated cave where you can kill a little time bullshitting with the waitress who’s heard it all before and even as you talk to her you’re half-watching the crawl at the bottom of the nearest TV screen: “Gunman identified as former employee...:”
“You believe what’s going on these days?” the waitress says. There are silhouettes of palm trees painted on the wall.
I shrug and nod toward my empty glass. As she leaves to get my refill I can make out the anchor saying, “Every life is important.”
What was it like, Jimmy, being on the road like that? All those stories you told your nephew about the places you saw and the things you did that made his eyes widen with wonder—how much were you holding back? Or were those things the truth you could only tell him, the things adults couldn’t understand any more, the way you felt when you saw a great blue heron lift off from the marsh or listened for the piece of ice sliding across the endless frozen stretches of Muscamoot Bay long after it disappeared from sight?
“Here you are,” the waitress puts the drink down. A few miles on the odometer but a nice smile.
“You staying in town for the holidays?” I ask her.
She smiles. “Anything else?” Like I said, she’s heard it all before. So I’m alone with a fresh drink. I lift my glass and remember uncle Jimmy. I try not to think about who’s going to remember me.
About the Author: K. C. Frederick grew up in Detroit & lives near Boston. He's published 6 novels & his short fiction has been published in Epoch, The Missouri Review & elsewhere.