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Stephen Woodhams

Uncle John and the Place to Live
     After London there was Santa Cruz, where I returned from my aborted independent studies program.  The studies may have gone better than my English girlfriend, whom I broke up with very passive aggressively, by simply trying to fade out of the picture separated by a continent.
     My more immediate problem was finding housing for the coming academic year, now that I was going to be a full-time student again and actually show my face on campus, invigorated by the scent of redwoods and  sun-splashed trails. In those days before the advent of granny units and houses bought on speculation filled with groups of students, living in garages and crawl spaces, it was insanely difficult for a conscientious young man to find housing in Santa Cruz. The summer before I had tried and followed a number of leads, and finally secured a cottage in the woods off Branciforte for a roommate and myself. But then it burned down. Supposedly it was being rebuilt and it would be ours again in a year or two. Housing was so hard to find that I was waiting.
     In the meantime, back in the Bay Area, I was on Uncle John’s radar. He seemed to think he could swoop down and pick me up at Grandma’s house, where I was hiding out, and take me to lunch at the Red Barn in the Stanford Shopping center as he had done when my brother and I were youngsters. Uncle John was my mother’s brother while I was staying at my father’s mother’s house in Redwood City. It didn’t matter He was right. He could.
     On a late morning, I heard the aggravated whirring of Uncle John’s Buick and rushed outside before he had a chance to smash into the garage door. Grandma waved from the porch. “Hello, Grandma Woodhams,” he called, motioning to me with a hurried gesture. We lurched out into the street and then plunged into automatic transmission hell. Stop and go, to match the staccato cadence of his voice—his driving was notoriously bad. “I always call her Grandma, even though of course we are not related. ” he said. “No other designation is possible. Do you know what I mean?’
     I did, so we started off on a cheerful note, like nations that have signed an accord. But it was short-lived. At lunch under the antiseptic lights and warring international scents flavoring the pavilion, we caught up.  The easiness of our train ride together in England that past year was totally absent, and made my time abroad seem suddenly faraway. He began with a nervous round of punctilious questioning, designed to set me on edge, or so it always seemed to me—the way some people try to establish a social advantage by greeting you with an out of the blue witticism.
     “So I assume you are back in the school?” my uncle asked.
     Many of his interrogatories began with an assumption in a question that could only be confirmed and left no room for embellishment. Before I could answer or even eat for that matter, he added, ‘”I see you are not hungry. I find that very strange in someone of your age. I am somewhat older than you and I am always famished at this hour as you can see.”
     I took a hasty bite of my sandwich au jus, which in those days did make the noon hour worth living until the warm juice had a way of disagreeing, with being too much what it was. I was careful to apply my napkin. Uncle John had his tied around his neck, which, if I thought about it, didn’t seem quite right: certainly not the epitome of good manners nor quite age-appropriate. He still seemed too young to be bibbed.
     “I’m having trouble finding a place to live,” I said, more-or-less as a way of making myself interesting.
     He perked right up, and, now that he was done with his lunch and eyeing the door impatiently, I had to stall for the time to finish my own, while still dabbing my mouth and chest.
     “Of course you would,” he said, after we had established much to his consternation that I would not be living in the dorms. “That makes perfect sense to me. No one in his or her right mind would want to rent to students. I have taught English literature for a great number of years at the University of Virginia and can testify to this fact. The partying, the carrying on, the swearing—what happened to that creature you had with you in London?”
     “You mean my girlfriend—well, we kind of broke up. Distance, you know,” I mumbled inconsequentially.  I thought he might be sad, attached with the nostalgic of a romantic for that hazy past we experienced together in the yester-year of London—just that summer.
     I thought he might wonder how I was doing with all of it but what he said was, “I don’t mind telling you that I found her to very unsuitable—very unsuitable indeed with that enormous butterfly on her posterior.” There was no humorous glint in his eyes. He was referring to a patch on the seat of her jeans that had aroused his sense of impropriety at tea in London. At the time he could speak of nothing else. “ So I think you made the right decision. It may be the first sign of intelligence from you that I’ve seen. Undoubtedly others have seen glimmers now and then, your dear parents, for example. Now I just wonder if I might do something for you. I just wonder.”
     He really did take a few minutes to consider, as I started feeling stomach pangs for all my rushing and discreet gulping of lunch.
     “Yes,” he said finally. “I think just possibly. It’s a big chance, you’ll admit, my staking my reputation on your behavior as a tenant, especially since much of what I know about you so far has been unsatisfactory. But I’m willing—just willing—to do so provided you give me your assurances.”
     I didn’t know what he was talking about. In the car, driving back, he clarified. “There is man I know—Corby Humbler—the name may mean something to you—no? where have you been living boy?—who lives south of Santa Cruz in a rather extravagant beach property from my point of view, and I’m thinking he may be able to do something for you. If not, we’re lost. He is my only remaining connection in Santa Cruz, a town that I once knew rather well, given our family’s background there, though I’m grateful to have forgotten most everything about it. I’ll call you in a day or two and let you know,” he said dropping me off at Grandma’s house.” You’ll be there?”
     “Yes”—but as he left I thought did that mean I had to wait by the phone? I gathered it did.

      When my uncle acted, he acted promptly. The idea of a long involved plan that might or might not be pulled off wasn’t in his manual of operating instructions. A plan was either on or off and once on could never be off. So on Friday I found myself being driven by my uncle over the Santa Cruz mountains, through the welcoming fronds of redwoods, parting to let us through.  This was the same panoramic drive I had taken two years before on a foggy day with a pipe full of tobacco clenched between my teeth as I puffed away considering my future as a college student. I was basically looking for a place that would leave me alone, and let me bang on a piano in a practice room and scribble semi-legible observations in a misshapen notebook strewn with pages like confetti. In other words, Porter College.
     The slightly rainy day, the misty, meditative turns of the road taken gradually as befitted a pipe smoker induced an extreme alpha state of well-being, so intense that I didn’t notice I was on one of the most dangerous highways in America. With my uncle driving I did notice. In fact I noticed many things like the cars we almost hit when he elected to make his move on an ill-advised turn and the cars that almost hit us when he idled in the slow lane between braking and accelerating and we appeared to be drifting backwards. “If you can believe it,” he said, his eyes locked on the dashboard for some reason and not on the road. “When I was a boy it used to take all day to drive to Santa Cruz. We had to stop repeatedly to fill the radiator. Again and again—steam billowing out—then another stop by the roadside. More water. More steam. A tedious process but people were patient back then. They had to be.”
     I could believe it.  Sometimes our progress under Uncle John’s wishy-washy accelerator foot was so slow that I wanted to suggest we pull over on the shoulder and gather our wits. But there was no shoulder. It was time for Uncle John to accelerate gleefully into the next lane. It was time to be very frightened.
     As a new driver myself I had some tips to pass a on like “keep your eyes on the road, Uncle John” and “Always check your rear-view mirror before changing lanes.” But of course I didn’t say them. I also had reached a point in my driving life—it had not taken long—where I did not like to be driven by someone else, especially an uncle, who while not elderly yet, should have known enough to relinquish to the young.
     But then his back-seat driving would certainly have been worse. I also wanted to tell him something I had learned living in the dorms--that this highway had its fair share of college students driving under the influence of hallucinogens. That was the way it was then. Drives were calculated on the drug dose it would take to execute them: the one joint drive from San Francisco to Berkeley, for instance. Two, depending on traffic.
      I didn’t tell my uncle about the drug-induced accidents by people spiraling into the wrong lane on a bad trip; this was before the barrier made a change in direction less a matter of choice. He talked about the old days because for him going to Santa Cruz, like for some of the drug crazies, was a round trip, too—in his case into the past, as he had been born in Santa Cruz  a decade or so after the turn of the century.
     “How old were you when you left?”
     “I was all of three,” he said off-handedly. “I may have gotten out in time—just in time. Time will tell. But you I trust have developed a satisfactory routine there.” Before I could really respond, he said firmly as if it settled the matter for all time, “I am very glad to hear it.”
     It was just as well. How could I have explained to Uncle John that that day when I had crossed the mountains for the first time unsure of what lay beyond—not even sure exactly which ocean I would find—I did find a place that did pretty much leave me alone, and that I was studying…Italian Literature. When I mentioned this as I sometimes did just for something to say, he responded, “Yes, I’ve read the Inferno. By Dante. ” He pronounced it in old-school fashion, elongating the last syllable to rhyme with fancy. It kept the noble Florentine at a far distance or made him sound like a fiddler at a barn dance. “I didn’t much see the point of it. He drove TS Elliot mad. Now Milton, on the other hand, was a genius at creating hell. Not a word out of place. And it was in English. You have of course read Milton?”
     I had not but I said I had, which was the right answer.

     The condo was somewhere near Capitola. It was an area of beachfront properties and leisurely life styles led by a class of people I really hadn’t seen in Santa Cruz yet—the elderly. My uncle’s friend had a lean, wary face and manner so guarded that his attempts at breeziness seem unnatural and forced. He wore an ascot that to me for some reason, suggested a life of depravity, over with now, from which there could be no recovery. After an exchange of pleasantries where my uncle’s laugh sounded hollow, we were led to a downstairs room. I nodded cautiously. The only way in would be through his captain’s roost filled with kick-knacks and gleaming mother of pearl artifacts, including an array of feline statues arranged on immaculately-kept carpet perches. I didn’t know how to say that it was all wrong and felt a sense of doom wrought from the obligation I felt under towards with my uncle.. How would I get out of this one? Through some stupid twist and a harmless sounding car ride I would now have to spend the rest of my college days—maybe even the rest of my life—minding my p’s and q’s around an Uncle John stand-in, tip-toeing past the feline statuary. The fear I had felt driving now turned to despair. The chemicals burned through my veins. I thought about running, just running out the door, and jumping into the sea.
     But my uncle was saying, “I afraid we must be off. My nephew is a very busy young man.”
     “Well, do let me know, John, will you? I can’t save it forever,” and he mentioned a price that sounded exorbitant to my ears and gave me one last steady though uneasy gaze.
      On the way to the car parked by the sand, my uncle said. “That seemed quite satisfactory, didn’t it?”
     I looked towards the ocean longingly. “It’s pretty expensive, isn’t it?”
     I  didn’t know how to explain that I was still a boy in a way and those were grown-up prices.
     “Oh, don’t worry about that. I’ll have a talk with him and try to knock some sense into him. It will be a good opportunity for you. From what you’ve told me. This is it. You have no other choice.” He  laughed a little maliciously, looking at me with that abrupt curiosity of his. “Does that about sum it up? Yes, I would say that about sums it up.”
     Then we were back in the car, inching our way along a coastal road headed towards Santa Cruz proper. Our way skirted high cliffs and my uncle seemed to relish getting as close to the crumbling bluffs as he could and then wrenching the wheel at the last moment.
     That he guffawed as he did so gave me pause. “I don’t know if you know about ecology, Uncle John, but they say the land is crumbling into the ocean. There is a drop here,” I said, looking out the window as though from a great height, say from an airplane. “That may not have been the case when you were a boy—Uncle John, I said there is a drop here!”
     “Yes, and I find it very exhilarating,” Uncle John said. “ It is good to be alive. Many people don’t realize it.”
     “I’m beginning to realize it,” I said. I couldn’t stand to look anymore, and I could feel my face blanche as I focused on happier times in other places.
     “Roll your window down boy and breath in the sea air. When I was a boy that was a major activity in this little town. Breathing in the sea air.”
     I did as I was told—the road straightened out, leaving the coast—and my uncle and I drove on, taking in great draughts of air like two Edwardians at an early health farm.
     “Marvelous,” my uncle exclaimed. “The climate here has always agreed with me.”

      Off Soquel Avenue, we pulled into a short dead-end street, lined with period bungalows, and at the far end by several conjoined apartment buildings, California style, like the married students housing on campus.  My uncle pointed at the buildings at the end of the cul-de-sac. “That’s where my grandparents’ house was—gone—all gone. Nothing to be done about it now.”
     Even though the house had been torn down in the early 60s it seemed like it was still there, present by its absence, perhaps because ironically, my great-grandfather had been a builder responsible for constructing a number of  Victorian houses in Santa Cruz, so his architectural presence lived on.
    ‘There is someone here I would like you to meet,” Uncle John said. “We are expected—that is if she remembered.”
     “Who?” I said.
     “An old friend of the family who is very anxious to see you. I expect this will give you something to do on Sunday afternoons coming to visit dear old May Harris.”
     I was alarmed again, with thoughts of my obligations to the man in the condo in Capitola still percolating in my mind. I didn’t need my Sundays sewn up as well.
     “Hurry up!” my uncle as though he were talking to a dog. “We are late!”
     It was getting on in the afternoon by then: a warm, soft-hued sun glowing through the fog hanging at the end of the street gave everything a sepia tone. It was like we had traveled back to an eternal time where my great-grandparents still lived in their large house overlooking the San Lorenzo River and the little town of “Santy Cruz,” as my grandmother called it.
     My uncle knocked on the door of a cottage. “This is where she used to live.” He laughed. “Fifty years ago.”
      A short woman opened the door; the house was dark behind her.
“John,” she said. “Is that you?”
      “Indeed it is, and you’re still here after all these years, May.  That’s quite an accomplishment.”
     Then she saw me. “Tommy!” she cried, reaching up to hug me. I allowed the embrace, as though playing a part in a high school play.
     “Don’t be ridiculous,” Uncle John said. “Tommy died years ago—and if he were alive, he’d be my age. This young man is my nephew who is studying here in Santa Cruz. He wanted very much to meet you.”
     May Harris seemed to be crying. Then she was laughing, saying over and over to herself almost, “John and Tommy,” and then “dear John and dear Tommy.” Eventually a muffled invitation to come inside issued from her mouth.
     “Yes we can come in—but just for a moment. Now please turn on a light, May. Why are you sitting here in the dark?”
     “Oh I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know. But it is so wonderful to see you, my baby John. Johnnie.”
     “Yes,” said Uncle John. “That will do.”
     We sat in an old-fashioned parlor, partly filled with photographs of the McCornick family. She and Uncle John actually had much to talk about: the Marquis brothers(yes, they really had been tall), and my grandmother, among a litany of people. They exchanged condolences over the names my uncle brought up, which brought more tears from May until she noticed me and her eyes lit up. She seemed a little confused, time traveling in time at that time. She thought I was from another generation than I was, and as I was pretty tall too, she saw me as one of the Marquis boys, and if that weren’t bad enough, I was Tommy the one who had died years before from a terminal illness. My mind drifted in and out. I did not think I would have to spend Sunday afternoons here, and that was a comforting thought, comforting too, because I thought if I had nothing better to do, I could.
     Walking back to the car, my uncle spoke in that quick, precise way of his, meant to eliminate all doubt and illuminate any lingering ambiguity in the  nooks and crannies of experience, in the sum total  of reality. “She’s a bit of a silly thing,” he said. We could still see May Harris on her porch, waving wistfully at us as though we were on a train passing by.
     “Bye-bye, May.” He cupped his hand to his mouth as if humoring a child; my uncle enjoyed talking about people while still in their whereabouts. He waved back again, motioning for me to do the same.“She’s--not quite right in the head,” he said, continuing on. “Many people aren’t.”  I followed him.  “But she was devoted to the family—was she ever. I suspect she still meanders up the lane at sunrise looking for a cow to milk. But there are no cows here now, as undoubtedly you noticed. No things have changed a great deal. The house is gone. They’ve put in these new buildings. Taken away the cows. Now I need a brisk stroll. You can wait here at the car if you prefer. As I doubt you’ll be able to keep up with me. My constitutionals are fast and furious.”
     “Oh?“ I wasn’t sure what he was referring to exactly. I recovered. “No, I like to walk. I’m used to people not being able to keep up with me.”
      “I am very glad to hear that.” My uncle slapped me on the back,  heartily, in what was a surprise attack. It hurt. “We do have something in common. Now what I suggest is a walk down Branciforte—certainly a street name familiar to me as it should be to you considering that your grandmother walked this way every morning to school. That is the path we shall take.” He pointed down the street at a large, old-fashion institutional building rounding out the corner. “Think you can manage that?’
     I followed the route, all of two blocks. “Yes, if you can.”
     “If I can?” He raised his hands over his head to signal the start of a race--“Just watch me!”—and then set off at a startling pace, his legs and arms whirling in tempo, which created the impression of a beetle scuttling across open territory with unexpected rapidity.
     I actually had to call, “Wait.”
     We passed those typical wooden and stucco bungalows indigenous to Santa Cruz: some painted drab Navy green, suggesting boats washed up by the tide and left to rot, others painted the cheerful pastels of a new life, with hippie insignias hanging from the ramparts. It was the clash of cultures made manifest. A burst of music flowed from one house. At another a man was hosing down his synthetic lawn.
     “I guess there weren’t—hippies—in your days,” I said.
     “There have always been bums and nudists,” my uncle said. “Though, it’s true, not usually in the same person. That’s a recent development.”
     We slowed down as abruptly as we had started walking.  Uncle John stopped and put a hand to his forehead. He seemed intent on studying the surroundings or maybe he was just gathering his thoughts. He said, “ It’s very sad in a way. I barely recognize the place. But you won’t find me crying. Even though some very sad things happened in that house where my grandmother ruled the roost. I can still hear her voice shouting, “Lew.”
     “Lew!” I was thinking of my Uncle Lew, his  brother, and realizing that my thoughts about the new, counter-culture lifestyle of Santa Cruz hadn’t registered with Uncle John.
     “Yes. My grandfather. Poor man did not have a life of his own. But what was sad….“ My uncle pursed his lips, as though he weren’t sure whether he should continue. But he did, after saying that I was old enough to know these things. Even so, I wasn’t quite sure I understood the enormity of the situation. No one had been locked in a cellar or whipped or anything like that, except maybe my great-grandfather, in a way. No, my uncle relayed, the tragedy was two-fold. First, my great-Auntie Vance had been abandoned by her husband and then forced to returned to her childhood home in Santa Cruz with two young children. “The boys grew like Redwood trees,’ my uncle said. “Both were extremely tall and had to be fitted with special shoes. Granny said they were overfed and cost too much to feed and clothe. She never let Vance forget for a moment what a burden she had become. Day after day she would find something to harp on in her Scottish brogue.”
     “Couldn’t Auntie Vance have married again?” I asked—a natural question as divorces and remarriages were beginning to surface in the larger family that I came from.
     “Of course not!” Uncle John was practically bellowing. “Are you out of your mind, boy? Not then. Not now as far as I’m concerned, though I’m told these things will happen.” He sighed and adopted a milder tone. “Surely you realize that the world was very different then. You only got one chance in life. Remember that,” my uncle said. “ You must take it and make good.” He sighed, “Poor Vance. What man would have wanted her—she was-- how shall I put it? Used goods. I suspect a would-be suitor would have found that difficult going, had they been able to find an appropriate widower in a church pew somewhere. But then she died tragically young at 40 of  cancer, leaving the two boys behind with a grandmother who had no use for them. “
     My uncle stared at his hands for a moment, his way of punctuating a conversation. “For me the tragedy was that I don’t think my mother ever really recovered from her sister’s passing, though of course we were used to death in those days. Infant mortality and all that.”
     On the way home I suggested I drive again. I felt a little queasy and beaten down by what had turned into a disturbing, unproductive day. The story of my great-grandmother’s feisty misanthropy resonated with the rigid rules my uncle laid down for me. It was strange that he didn’t see the similarity: that I like Auntie Vance, always seemed to have just missed the one chance that I hadn’t made good on, at least from his point of view. There could be no mitigating circumstances: it was always our fault. That my aunt had been abandoned by a man, who by definition sounded like a rake and a scoundrel and left with two children, was her problem, and the shame of it, a wound for all to carry, had been bred by her behavior. There was no dodging that responsibility.
     My uncle scoffed at my offer to drive. He seemed displeased as though I were suggesting we share a fork, a plate or a glass. My driving his car seemed to strike him as unsanitary, distressingly personal, perhaps because it would have broken into the sphere of his authority, a way of taking control from him. He was right: taking control of the car was exactly what I wanted to do, even though at the time, I happily drove like a Roman—I had learned to drive in Italy-- and thought it was okay to turn off the engine of a power-assisted car while going down a steep grade, to save gas. Still, all these detriments made me an excellent driver compared to Uncle John.
     “Someday,” he barked,  “you will have a car of your own and you will be able to offer rides to whomever you like—perfect strangers for all I care. But this is my car to which I am very attached and nothing will part my hands from this wheel.” He looked at me grimly. “It’s come to fisticuffs, I’m afraid.”
     “Not all,” I said, trying not to smile. I had fairly recently—as in the 9th grade—been the Artful Dodger in the school production of Oliver, and one of my bits had been to stop mid-step in a song and banter with my lady, “What  fisticuffs?” It always struck me as a quaint expression, having absolutely nothing to do with fighting.
     We drove in silence. My uncle concentrated on driving erratically, giving me the impression that our ride was in a war movie on TV, leaving a wake of casualties with the sound turned off.
     At the summit, Uncle John cleared his throat; I leaned forward. He said, “Yes, I’m sorry I couldn’t do that much for you today. But I have the distinct impression that it’s off.”
     “What?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, a kind of  joyful dismay stirring in me.
     “It’s a no-go, “ he said, hunched over the wheel. “And this is what occurs to me. I think you’re old enough to follow this. It may possibly be your fault.  I’m afraid my friend took one look at you and thought it wouldn’t do.  I saw it at once. You really will have to pull yourself together, boy, if you want to get somewhere in this world. You could tell  couldn’t you this is little pied a terre by the beach was top-notch? It doesn’t appeal to me at all of course—what ghastly furnishings. They suggest he thinks he’s some kind of swinging bachelor. But I can tell you that he devotes his life to keeping that place up. He scours it from top to bottom every day. He would have to clean around you. And that wouldn’t do at all, I’m afraid.”
     I nodded glumly, trying to hide my relief that no excuses or rationale would be needed for turning down my uncle’s attempt to run a roommate referral service. I mumbled, “I didn’t like it either.”
     “What? What did you say?” His tone was sharp.
     “I didn’t think it would work either.”
     “Oh?” My uncle seemed dubious about accepting my judgment as though it weren’t in my power to decide this matter.
     ‘Too far from school.” I was trying to find a way out.
     “Possibly,” he said.
     My uncle changed lanes without looking and he changed the subject. He spoke of his grandparents again and how strange it was that some of the same people were still living on their street. “They don’t have much get up and go, do they?” he said. As he enumerated these doings of his boyhood, I couldn’t realize, of course, that he was describing a world that I would one day share, years later when he was to drift down memory lane and I was to listen to these far-flung reminiscences sitting by his bed. Then it was all so far away, even though a friend and I eventually moved into the house that had burned down, only a short bike ride way from my great-grandparents’ house on McCornick Lane.


Stephen Woodhams
Stephen Woodhams is the former fiction editor of The Short Story Review and a contributing editor to The Chicago Quarterly Review. He’s had work published in Fiction Monthly and The San Francisco Chronicle. His essay “The Emperor and the Mayor” appears in  My Postwar Life,  a recent anthology of Japanese and Okinawan literature.


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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