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John Chandler

An Excerpt from After Life with Uncle Horace

A peculiar man named Horace has shown up out of nowhere with his suitcase at the Gamble family home on an autumn Friday in 1948. Nobody there, not Dorothy the mother, Tom the son, or Izzy the daughter knows who he is. Nipper, the dog, who barks at every stranger, has not barked at him. A phone call to the father reveals that he is a relative, and in spite of everyone’s confusion he is invited to stay in the guest room for the weekend. Though the family tries to dissuade him from accompanying them, Uncle Horace decides to go with them to a faculty party that evening.

* * *

    It was only six blocks to the Elders’ party, shorter if we cut through backyards, but we drove it that evening because, Dad said, we’d be tired at the end and it would be simpler to pile us all into the car. I was in the backseat with Mom and Izzy. Uncle Horace’s head and thick neck were right in front of me. He was wearing a tan shirt and clean denim pants held up with suspenders, and he’d combed his side fringes of hair back so that two wispy wings seemed pointed at me. Mom told him Dad had a belt that would probably fit him and he might be the only one in suspenders, if that made a difference, and he smiled and said, “Not much,” so we got into the car and in two minutes were there.     
    Izzy and I said hello to Mr. and Mrs. Elder, grabbed a plate of food, and stood with them and our parents for a minute to be polite. They started talking about the election in a month and a half. Dad said he thought the predictions of a Dewey landslide might be wrong, Mom said she was sure of it, that people had better sense than that, and Mrs. Elder said she hoped so. We excused ourselves and ran out to the backyard, where three of Izzy’s girl friends were huddled in a group talking and seven of my buddies, five boys and two girls, were playing tag, waiting for my arrival. They jumped up and down and gave a hoot of welcome and after I’d wolfed down my food I got into a doubles badminton game. That was it for an hour and a half, rotating through activities, including tag, in which we let the younger girls join us. I looked into the house once and saw Uncle Horace alone, gazing out the back window, smiling toward the storage shed.     
    At seven Mom came out and asked me if I’d seen him, and when I said just that one time at the window she told me they’d already checked all through the house. It was getting darker, and I could see Mom was upset, though she told me not to worry, he was probably just taking a walk. After fifteen minutes Mr. Elder came out, with Dad, and they asked us kids to watch and notify them if we saw him. A little later people began to leave, until only our family was there. Dad had gone back to check our house. Uncle Horace’s suitcase was still in the guest room, he said. He and Mom had a conference and said we would wait here.
    Ten minutes later Izzy screamed. She was at the back fence, pointing into the neighbor’s pastureland. I ran over from the horseshoe pit and Mom and Dad came out the back door. Izzy was pointing at a tree with two cows under it maybe a hundred yards away. You could see what they were by the shape, mostly, it was that dark. And in between them a different kind of thick shape. Uncle Horace. I couldn’t even tell if he was facing me or not, but the block of his body and the arms dangling down gave him away. Nobody in that dark cluster under the tree moved a muscle, that we could see, and Izzy kept screaming his name until Mom said she didn’t need to do that anymore, Dad would go get him. Dad climbed the fence, made his way across the field until he blended in to the cluster of shadows. Then he and Uncle Horace separated from the cows and began to plod back. Mom said we should go back to the car, so we didn’t waste more time. She, Izzy and I got into the back seat and waited. When Dad and Uncle Horace got into the car Mom leaned toward Uncle Horace and said, “Didn’t it occur to you that we might be worried?”     “Never did,” he said.
    Nobody else said anything on the drive back.     

    I fell asleep that night listening to the mumble of conversation from my parents’ bedroom. Mom’s tone was sharper than I was used to, and in the morning she called Izzy and me into the kitchen for a quick meeting while she cut grapefruits in half, then around the inside edge of the peel, then along the membranes that separated the small sections. “I know you have questions about Uncle Horace,” she said.     
    “Who is he?” Izzy asked.
    “He’s...he was very important to your father when your father was young. Like an older brother.”
    “He doesn’t look like an uncle,” Izzy said.
    “Why was he important?” I asked.
    “He was helpful. He, uh, helped your father.”
    “Yeah, but how?” It was hard to think Dad ever needed help. He always seemed to know just what to do.
    Mom lifted the small knife she was using and glanced up as if she thought Uncle Horace might pop out of one of the cupboards. “Well, I don’t want to go into this too extensively. He might come down any time. You know your father lost his mother when he was young.”
    “Where did he lose her?” Izzy asked.
    “His mother died.”
    I remembered hearing that before, but the way Dad had mentioned it, it seemed as if it had happened somewhere else, or she hadn’t really died. It never seemed to have anything to do with our lives. “I don’t want to go into that right now,” Mom added,  “except to say that your father was sad and Uncle Horace helped him during that time. After his mother, uh, passed away.”
    “How old was he?” I asked.
    “Dad. When his mother died.”
    Eleven. That was only a year older than I was. For a moment I looked at Mom and tried to imagine her not being here. Impossible.
    “We’ve never had to experience loss, fortunately,” she said, as if she could read my thoughts, “and we won’t have to, but as I was saying, Uncle Horace helped your father during that time, and your father is grateful, so...”
    “But...?” Izzy said.
    “We don’t have time for a long talk here,” Mom said. “Perhaps some other time. But for now, your father wants us to be nice to Uncle Horace when we’re around him, and understand that he may not act like people we’re used to, but he says Horace is a nice person, so let’s be nice to him. He’ll deal with his visit here, and later we can...”
    “But how come you didn’t know who he was?” I asked.
    “Your father never mentioned him to me.”
    “But why not?”
    “It’s complicated. It has to do with your father feeling sad about that time in his life. I don’t think you’re old enough to understand, honey,” she said, “and we don’t have the time. For now, I just wanted to talk to you a little and let you know we’ll all be fine. And in the meantime, we’ll bring Uncle Horace to the football game this afternoon.
    “Can’t he stay home?” Izzy asked.
    Mom smiled. “Your Uncle Horace does what he wants, I think, and your father already mentioned the game.”
    “I want to sit with my friends. I don’t want to sit with him,” Izzy said.
     Mom wrinkled her forehead, then smiled. “I don’t see why you can’t do that,” she said.
    “Really?” Izzy grinned.
    “I think that will be fine. I think you kids can decide for yourselves how much time you want to spend with Uncle Horace.”
    “Nipper never barked at him,” I said. “Why?”
    “He didn’t? How odd. I really have no idea.”
    “What’s his last name?”
    Mom shook her head and smiled. “I must confess I haven’t asked him.”
    “He’s kinda strange, isn’t he?”
    “Isn’t he, though,” Mom said, and the three of us chuckled at how funny all of this was. Above us we heard the sound of heavy footsteps, then from Dad’s study another set. Then Dad and Uncle Horace appeared at the doorway to the kitchen together. Uncle Horace was in the same outfit he’d worn last night, a little creased. I wondered if he’d slept in his clothes.
    “Nice morning,” he said. “That’s a bed you got up there. Good for sleepin’.”
    “He came all the way from Pittsburgh yesterday,” Dad said.
    “Penn-sill-vain-eye-ay,” Uncle Horace said, grinning.
    “Why were you there?” I asked.
    “Passing through,” he said, which didn’t seem to answer my question but Mom’s look said not to press it.
    We sat down in front of our sectioned grapefruit halves. Uncle Horace tucked his napkin into the top of his shirt, inspected the narrow pointed spoon mom had set before him to dig out the sections of grapefruit, turned it over and back again, finally lifted it and started eating. Through almost the whole breakfast, scrambled eggs and bacon and pancakes, he seemed far away. Until the moment when he looked up at me too quickly for me to pretend I wasn’t watching him. He said my name as if someone out wherever he was staring had reminded him of it. That was it until, near the end, he said he was sure looking forward to the game. Izzy squealed at that and kicked the bottom of the table and Dad began to talk about football. He’d been an all-state guard on his Kansas high school football team, though I’d never heard him brag about it, and I thought maybe Uncle Horace had played, too, and might start talking, but all he said was “unh hunh” until he turned to Mom and asked to be excused.
    “Well imagine that, he actually showed some manners,” Mom said when we could hear his footsteps again overhead. “I’ve told the children they can decide how much time they want to spend with Horace.”
    “I’m gonna sit with my friends at the game,” Izzy said.
    “When was the last time you saw him?” I asked Dad.
    “Thirty years ago,” Dad said.
    “Did you talk to him much last night, when you walked back from the cows?”
    “Not much.”
    “What’s his last name?”
    “The same as ours.”
    “Why is he here?” Izzy asked.
    “To see us,” Dad said. “He hasn’t elaborated on his reasons for coming.”
    “I’d say he hasn’t elaborated” Mom said, and laughed to herself.
    “I know this is a little awkward,” Dad said, “but I think it’s important to Uncle Horace. He probably needs a little time to relax, although, I should tell you, he never was much of a conversationalist.”
    Mom chuckled again, though she didn’t really seem amused.
    “I’m gonna spend part of the game with my friends and part with Uncle Horace,” I said.
    Though it ended up nobody spent much time with him, and he never saw the game. We walked to the field. Uncle Horace, Mom, Dad and I got settled up in the fifth row of the bleachers. Izzy sat down near the players’ bench with three of her friends. The band began to play, and Dean Brenner appeared with his towel and began to dance.
    Dean Brenner was not a dean at the college. He was a middle-aged, balding, mentally retarded man who lived with his mother three blocks from us. We kids saw him in the middle of town all the time. His mother sent him to buy groceries for her and he would walk by us with a bag, talking to himself, the hair on his head almost always sticking out because he pulled at it. But on home game Saturdays, cheered on by the crowd, he did his towel dance out there in front of us.
    Mom called it “degrading” and had tried to stop it, I knew. She had talked to his mother and to somebody at the college, but his mother said he loved doing it, and the college official called it a tradition. Mom said so was segregation, but nobody else objected, and it continued. And there he was this Saturday, grinning wildly, hopping up and down, throwing his hips out to either side, sticking out his rear end to the fans, who roared their approval, pulling the towel across from side to side, completely out of rhythm with the piece the band was playing, each new move getting shouts from the bleachers. After a minute or two, the towel behind him, he began rubbing upward, ankles, calves, waist, back, shoulders, across the crown of his head, finally waving the towel frantically above his head, snapping it, before lowering it to insert between his jaws, falling onto all fours spinning, worrying the towel like a dog, then up again and flashing it like a signal flag.
    And maybe that was how Uncle Horace saw it, because suddenly he was up next to me and bounding down the bleachers toward the field. I was so astonished I nearly fell back into the foot well behind our seats, this man whose feet seemed to me up to this moment as if they must weigh fifty pounds each, flying downward, shivering the planks.
    Dean Brenner’s grin disappeared for a few moments, and when Uncle Horace grabbed one end of the towel there was a brief tug of war. But when he saw Uncle Horace’s grin, as wild as his own, everything changed. Each of them holding one end they bumped hips, joined free arms and twirled their bodies around as the spectators whistled, screamed, laughed and  the band seemed to play louder and faster than before. When Dean Brenner fell to his hands and knees, Uncle Horace leapfrogged him, and then Dean Brenner leapfrogged Uncle Horace, and when the music stopped both of them held an end of the towel and bowed over and over, until finally the crowd noise quieted down. Then Uncle Horace ran out across the field and through the gates at the far end. As far as I could see him he was still running.
    None of us moved during all this. I heard Mom mutter, “Oh no,” once, but that was it. When it was done a number of Dad’s colleagues, some who had been at the party last night, looked up at us and smiled and shook their heads, and Dad waved back. Mom asked if we should find him, but Dad said he’d probably come back to the game or go to the house. Like most of the people in Amherst, we didn’t lock our door, and Uncle Horace had walked here, so he knew the way home. Mom asked how long we were going to have to put up with this and Dad said he would talk with Uncle Horace when we got home.
    We stayed for the whole game.
    Dad called Uncle Horace’s name when we came in the front door. No answer. He and I went upstairs. The door was closed. Dad knocked. No answer. We opened the door. The suitcase was gone. The bed looked as if he’d slept on top, not in it.
    “I should probably check around town,” Dad said to me. “Would you like to come with me?”
    I nodded and we got in the car and drove into the middle of town. He waited as I  asked at Hastings Hardware if anyone had seen him, then we cruised the streets, first out the road toward Northampton, past the field where the cows and Uncle Horace had been the evening before, then a few miles toward Belchertown, finally toward Springfield.  Neither of us said anything the whole time, until Dad made his last u-turn to come back to town, shook his head and said something I couldn’t hear. When we got home he put his palm on my shoulder, then ran it lightly across my buzz cut, so softly it felt like a breeze passing over my head.  
    Uncle Horace did not come home that night or the next. A week went by before Dad called Izzy and me into his study one evening, cleared his throat and told us Uncle Horace fought on the front lines in France in the First World War, the one before the one we’d just gone through, that most of the men in his company were killed in battle, that when he returned to the United States two friends who came back with him died at their army base of a terrible Influenza epidemic carried back from Europe. He said 80 million people died of it. He said the girl Uncle Horace had been engaged to married someone else and he didn’t find out until he returned home and went to see her. He said Uncle Horace had been through horrible things, that we had to understand that. He said it all just like that, one bad thing tumbling out after the other. He said he didn’t want to talk about it but we should remember. Later, when I asked Mom, she said war was a more terrible thing than anyone could understand. She said talking about Uncle Horace was too emotional for Dad. I didn’t ask what she meant, maybe because I couldn’t believe anything was too much for Dad, maybe because I was still wondering why Nipper didn’t bark at Uncle Horace, maybe because none of the things Dad told us seemed real. But I remembered them.

John Chandler
John Chandler is a forty year Santa Cruz resident, a retired teacher, a husband of Wilma, who is also a writer as well as being a director and actor. He, I, am the father of two grown children, Karin and David, and step-father of Jana and Valerie. I’ve published a few stories and had a couple of plays performed. This excerpt is from the novel under construction, After Life with Uncle Horace.


Spring 2012

John Chandler
Alta Ifland

Shiloh Hellman
Thad Nodine
Patrice Vecchione
Stephen Woodhams

Dane Cervine
Eileen Eccles
Peggy Heinrich

Lauren Crux

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