All over the map
by Aisha West
Gathering up absolutely no moss across the Midwest, my Uncle Juney skipped all over the map in his heyday. A jack-of-all-trades, he became. He knew how to paint a house, hang a light, unclog a toilet and beat everybody’s ass at any game of chance that involved low stakes. Along the way, he smoked like a chimney and snorted his hard-earned money up his nose. By the time I came along, he was a full-fledged junkie married to the only woman who could drink him under the table. That winning combination had given birth to a son and then a daughter. My cousins inherited their parents’ slow, bug-eyes and piss-and-vinegar attitudes. My mother taught me to stay away from ugliness of all kinds. Thus, I avoided that family like the plague, didn’t want to touch them with a ten-foot pole.
But, back in the day, every weekend, we gathered at my grandmother’s house—the house my mother, my uncle, their two sisters and one other brother grew up in. It was a dirty house. Overflowing with expired sweepstakes entries, newspaper clippings, worn-out clothes and books upon books—mostly cookbooks and Bibles. A layer of grease made its home on the kitchen counter. Cold pork fat resided in a cast-iron skillet on the stove. Spoiled milk squatted in the fridge. I never drank it. My grandmother worried about my bone density. “She’s as skinny as a rail.”
I was. Noticeable all the more because of the rest of my family. Porkers all of them! Fat rolls jiggling off their arm bones, breasts cut in half by enormous-yet-still-too-small bras, bellies pouring down to their knees. My Uncle Juney said, “When you got a tool like mine, you gotta build a shed over it.” I didn’t know what that meant.
I hid behind my mother. She wasn’t fat and she smelled clean, like laundry, the way our home sweet home on the other side of town did. But my cousin, Halia, and I were too close in age and the grown-ups made us play together while they gossiped about the white people in the neighborhood. My uncle and his uncles, Tommy and Leonard—my grandmother’s brothers—smoked and drank and played dominoes in the backyard. Despite the fact that my great-uncles had been playing since before my uncle could walk, he always bested them. They threw up their hands in defeat and muttered, “Son of a gun.” My uncle said, “Winners need their losers.” He showed them up at boozing and toking, too.
After my great-uncles got sick of losing their money, my uncle played alone. The way kids played, setting them up vertically as soldiers ready to fall. He tapped the first bone and the others clickclickclicked over each other. It looked like fun, but I wasn’t allowed to play with him. He fell asleep drooling on the dominoes table. While he lay passed out alone in the garden, my mother took Halia home. My grandmother roused him (my uncle said, “I just gotta sleep it off.”) and put him in his old room. His feet hung off the bed.
I grew like a weed and couldn’t fit into my family anymore. They couldn’t catch up with me; I was greased lightning. So while those suckers put on their Sunday best, piled into the car and went forth to spread the Good News, I was at a basketball game or a debate or a study group. Something to do with my education, since a mind is a terrible thing to waste. At least mine was—the rest of my grandmother’s grandchildren got pulled to church since saving their souls was their only hope.
Mine was college. When I got my acceptance letter from NYU, I grabbed my emergency run-away suitcase, left the empty envelope on the kitchen floor and never looked back.
Free at last.
But everybody’s free at eighteen.
A decade later, the apron strings re-tightened. Though my mother still proudly displayed my freshman year headshot above the mantel in the living room, my mysterious life as a waiter/actress in Brooklyn no longer impressed my neglected midwestern family. They noticed my absence and wondered, “Maybe she isn’t coming back. How do we get her back?”
They all looked to Uncle Juney, and he said, “All right. I’ll take the fall.”
On a train ride home from the city to Brooklyn, I emerged from the depths of Manhattan and onto its bridge. If I notice the view, it’s beautiful. I checked my messages. My mom: “Oh, hi, Lise,” she said, like she had run into me on the phone. “I was just calling to tell you about what had happened to your Uncle Juney; he died. Yeah.
He was helping Halia move into her new apartment a couple days ago and he had gone home and his landlord had found him asleep—well, not asleep—yesterday. They don’t know what happened yet, so you should call me soon. Love you, bye.”
What sneaky plan was this? Poor Uncle Juney. The obvious choice: broken-down, unhealthy, lonely, middle-aged man. And they wouldn’t have taken my favorite aunt, Del, or my favorite uncle, Kenny. It was either him or the abandoned-with-four-kids hairdresser, whose make-up tips always seem to imply that I wasn’t pretty enough.
So now I had to get back home. I took down my roadmap of Michigan, hanging on my wall in a display of nostalgia. My friends say, “Oh, you must miss your family, being so far away!” I cross my fingers behind my back and sigh, “Yeah.”
My hometown had disappeared without a trace. I looked high and low: nowhere to be found. 411 was no help. “Prison City, Michigan? Never heard of it!”
If someone dies, you have to go. I had no choice. I got into the first car I came across, the blue Toyota belonging to the Polish accountant downstairs. I took a hard left and headed west. Time to go home.
I drove all night, of course, and some time in Western PA along 1-94, the fog rolled in. It kept everyone else off the highway; I was the only one with somewhere this important to go. The car cruised in control and I took a nap.
My uncle is in the backseat wearing black and white wings, setting up a labyrinth of dominoes that hangs in the air.
“How did you get up here?” I joke. His bug-eyes are too big for his face. He says, “Do you know what a swan song is?” To my surprise, I do.
“Swans don’t have a voice to speak of, but when dying, they manage to exhale something like a song.” He nods, and puts the last piece of the maze in place. He wants me to start it. I get to cause my very own domino effect. I tip over the first bone, but it’s too far away from the second to make anything happen. My uncle sings the last note of Mozart’s “Requiem.” His eyes are bright and shining now, headlights.
I woke up and slammed on the brakes. I’d made it back to Michigan. A row of cars was lined up on the road facing me in my neighbor’s blue Toyota. My mother got out of one of them and the rest of my family followed.
The fog thickened. I recognized them by their outlines, but got confused. I mistook my mother’s silhouette for my dead grandmother’s and my cousin’s for her mother’s. Mine didn’t look like anyone’s. They embraced me all the same, me and the fog. It was a group hug.
“We buried him this morning,” my mother said.
“What about the hatchet?”
My joke hung in the air like—
“The prodigal daughter returns?”
“To err is human, to forgive divine?”
Guilt weakened me. It’s time to say something nice. “Was the funeral… nice?” Their outlines nodded. “What did everybody say?”
At once, my family recited, “‘In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.’”
I responded, “I don’t know where you’re going. How can I know the way?”
Time to go back home. To Brooklyn.
I returned before my neighbor noticed his missing car, but the fog followed me to Brooklyn. It hasn’t left yet; it has stuck around, getting stickier and stuckier. I never go too far from my apartment because I’m afraid I won’t be able to get back. No one else seems to mind; if they can’t find their own place, they walk into someone else’s for the night. Me, I stand on street corners, asking complete strangers the way to my own home. Everyone punches me in the chest.
Aisha West is an actress and writer. After graduating from the Experimental Theatre at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, Aisha wrote, directed, and performed plays with Synaesthetic Theatre for ten years. She is currently writing her first novel about a teenage runaway who has a dying father, an abusive mother, and a suicidal panda for a bestie. Aisha lives in Brooklyn with three tuxedo cats.