Room for Uncle Clive

This short story was originally published in Storyteller Magazine, Fall 1998. Please feel free to share!

Room for Uncle Clive

by Deb Loughead

 “Cover your heads, or they’ll get caught in your hair!” Uncle Clive warned us on one of the first nights he stayed at our house.  He took a long drag on his cigarette and it glowed orange, lighting up the stubble on his chin.  “Watch out!  There’s one now!”  When I jumped,  he slapped his hand on the warm wooden step where we were sitting, and bellowed a guffaw that bounced off the house across the street.

            “That’s just a story, like what you said about dragonflies sewing up our mouths,” I told him.  “Bats can’t get caught in our hair.”  I gazed warily at the darting shadows, hunched my shoulders and shivered with the possibility that what he said was true.  After all, we didn’t know Uncle Clive very  well.  Maybe he was right.  Maybe he had some sort of primeval insight into things like bugs and bats.

            A hot spell had settled on the city of Toronto like a soggy sponge that summer our Uncle Clive came to stay with us.  In front of our house the pavement shimmered with heat puddles every day.  Garbage cans put out to the curb were a swarm of flies and hot rotting smells that made you plug your nose when you walked past.  The old men in our neighbourhood withered on their sleepy front porches in the afternoon, clammy in white undershirts and trousers; even their dogs lay panting in the shade, too sluggish to bother lifting their heads to bark.  Leaves curled listlessly on tree branches.  Gardens dried out and shrivelled up in the pounding sunshine, suffused the air with the dusty scent of sun-baked earth.  At the end of the street, like a shining mirage, Lake Ontario gleamed, blue and beckoning in the summer haze.

            Nightfall scarcely diluted the heat; it still radiated off the sidewalks and streets, even off the houses, like a co-conspirator of the sunshine that had tormented us all day.  Some of the dads would stand out front and hose down the bricks of their homes while children danced, shrieking, through the spray to cool off before bed.  Up and down the street voices murmured from front porches late into the night, while down by the railroad tracks near the lake, campfires winked as toothless tramps, oblivious to the heat, roasted potatoes for their dinner. 

            At dusk, our family always gathered on the front steps.  Inside it was like a coal furnace, Uncle Clive said, and you could probably fry bacon on the hardwood floor.  Even the sheets on our beds were hot against our sun-dried skin.  The cicadas droned on long after dusk set in and bats flittered through the branches of the catalpa tree in our front yard.

            “I’m not afraid of the stupid things like you are, Mary,”  my younger brother Pat told me with shaky courage in his voice.  “I’ll just get my baseball bat and bash their heads in.”  Mom snuggled closer to him on the porch step, enveloped him protectively with her maternal girth.

            “Mary’s right, Pat.  It’s just a story,” she reassured him.  Then her tone changed, like it did whenever she spoke to Uncle Clive. “Stop it, Clive.  You’re scaring them with your foolish tales,” she said, in a voice that was little more than a growl.

            Uncle Clive just chuckled indifferently, then sucked on his cigarette again and glanced off towards the twinkle of campfire light by the tracks.  Mom sighed and shook her head as she stroked her protruding abdomen.

            Her new baby was due soon and our Mom sighed a lot that summer.  Even though she kept her dark hair pinned up and wore loose dusters, there were always tiny beads of perspiration on her forehead and upper lip, even first thing in the morning.  Her round face stayed pink all day, pink and scowling.  Sometimes Uncle Clive would sneak up behind Mom and lay a grimy hand on her swollen belly.  She would cringe and turn even redder and then snarl, low and fierce, “Don’t ever do that again, Clive.”  But he always did.

            It wasn’t easy to like Uncle Clive, but we had to try, Mom said, because he was Dad’s older brother.  He had slick black hair, bad teeth and a face that was pitted like the surface of the moon.  He had only a few pairs of patched trousers and some holey T-shirts that he lived in that summer and most of the time he smelled like the bathroom hamper.  His belly stuck out almost as much as our Mom’s.

            He showed up on our doorstep one morning, clutching a dented trumpet in one hand, and a battered suitcase in the other.  That was the day that our Mom’s serene face started to change and sudden frown lines sprouted on her forehead.  Instead of being sent off with a sandwich like all the other tramps, he stayed for breakfast, lunch and supper that day and for weeks afterwards.  If it hadn’t been for our parents’ generosity he would have been down by the tracks with the rest of the hobos, roasting potatoes, he liked to say.  And he always reminded our parents that he owed them his life.

            Uncle Clive had lost his job at the sewer pipe factory, like so many other men at that time.  But not only his job, his home, his wife, and most of his dignity, too, our Dad said.  How could he cast his own brother aside, especially after his wife had dishonoured him by running off with that butcher up on Bloor Street, the red-faced one with the missing fingers who always smelled of smoked sausage and garlic?  And how could our Mom argue with that sort of logic?

            Maybe Mom would have been able to cope with Uncle Clive if Dad had been around more often.  But Dad had a job.  He was a railroad engineer and even though there had been some layoffs at the railroad, Dad never feared that his own situation was in jeopardy. 

            He was often away for days at a time, leaving our Mom waving bravely in the doorway, clutching the door frame until her knuckles were white as she watched his lanky frame stroll off along the street and out of sight.  When he was gone, she would turn and hug us both and whisper,  “Well, kids, we’re on our own again.”  Then she would glance towards Uncle Clive and her brow would rumple with a sudden frown.

            Throughout that searing summer Uncle Clive slept on a cot in the basement at night, but he lived on the front porch most of the day.  He ate there, hunched in his chair, devouring his food with carnivorous zeal, only pausing to raise his head if someone was passing by.  He slept there, too, snoring, sonorous in the hush of drowsing warmth, his chair tipped back against the wall at a precarious angle.  Pat and I would stare quietly at the strange balancing act and  fantasize about what would happen if the chair slid away from the wall. 

            When he wasn’t asleep, he would sit up, try to square his chronically rounded shoulders and play that tarnished old trumpet of his.  But his big band melodies echoed through the steamy streets like off-key funeral dirges.  The sour notes would curdle our Mom’s weary face and shrink her wide mouth into a tight pucker.

            Uncle Clive smoked out there on the porch, too; he always seemed to have money for cigarettes.  When the trumpet wasn’t pressed against his lips, a cigarette was jammed between them.  Our Uncle was one of those people who made smoking look fascinating.  A cigarette would be stuck to his lip, even when he was talking.  It was almost as though it had been glued there permanently, the same cigarette that never went out, Pat and I thought, except that there was always another waiting behind his ear.  He could toss one into the air and catch it between his teeth, first try, and twirl it expertly in his fingers like a tiny baton.  He blew the most wonderful smoke rings for us, swirling circles like vaporous wreaths that were big enough for us to poke our heads through.  But each morning our Mom went out and swept butts off the front porch, her face sweaty and bleak.

            Uncle Clive liked to play cards in the evening, long after the rest of us had gone to bed.  He’d sit there blowing on his trumpet under the porch light, the mournful notes resonating like a siren song in the muggy darkness, beckoning his tipsy  friends off their own sagging porches to join him.  Some of them brought bottles of whiskey to share and their drunken voices shattered the stillness of the sultry summer nights. 

            I could often hear my Mom on those nights, pacing the floor in her room.  Sometimes she would stamp her foot or pound her fist against the wall out of sheer desperation.  But there was nothing she could do except pick up the bottles and sweep up the butts the next morning, and hope for a thunderstorm that would inevitably keep Uncle Clive’s friends away.

            When he wasn’t slouched in his chair on the front porch, our Uncle was in Mom’s kitchen, and in her way.  The kitchen was Mom’s domain, but Uncle Clive liked to cook.  And if he didn’t particularly like what Mom had planned for a meal, or if he fancied his favourite food, there he was, in Mom’s way, stepping in front of her, elbowing past her and occasionally sliding his hand over her swollen belly.

            Our Mom hated it.  He smoked in her kitchen, flicked ashes on the linoleum and squashed his butts in the sink when she had her back turned.  He left greasy pots and pans on the stove and crumbs all over the floor, so that they crunched underfoot when you walked.  And he left dirty dishes on the counter, knowing full well that Mom would wash them up and stack them away neatly in her spotless cupboards.  And all the mess, all the fuss, all the bother was because of Uncle Clive’s favourite food.  Mushrooms.

            Uncle Clive loved mushrooms.  He picked them himself, down by the lake in the early morning, before the blazing sunshine turned them inky and soft.  Sometimes he had them fried with eggs for breakfast, or in toasted sandwiches with onions for lunch.  Sometimes he concocted a rich mushroom soup that smelled like heaven and made our stomachs grumble, and had it for supper with thick slabs of homemade bread slathered in butter, instead of the food that Mom had prepared.

            We never got to taste Uncle Clive’s mushrooms.  Our Mom didn’t allow our family to eat them.  They’d been banned from consumption, ever since a kid in our neighbourhood had died eating a poison mushroom long before Pat and I had ever been born.  So our Uncle’s love affair with the “forbidden fruit” made their relationship even more tenuous.

            Whenever Dad got home from one of his journeys, Mom’s face lit up and her careworn look temporarily vanished.  Our family would head down to the lakefront and stroll along the boardwalk in the sleepy heat of the afternoon, seeking relief in the refreshing breeze that wafted off the water.  We’d bask on sun-scorched towels then hop-scotch across the sand to splash and wade in the chilly shallows.  The picnic lunch that Mom packed in the cooler, pickles and hardboiled eggs, buttered bread and cold chicken, always tasted so much better at the beach than if we’d been eating around the table in the stifling kitchen.

            Whenever we arrived at home again, all of us hand in hand, clinging to those precious interludes when Dad could spend time with us, Uncle Clive would be waiting on the porch, snoring, or smoking, or playing his trumpet, and I’d feel Mom’s hand stiffen at the sight of him.

            He was always trying to help her, but he couldn’t do anything right, as far as she was concerned.  If he decided to water the lawn for her, he would deliberately soak Pat and me with the icy spray and we’d retreat, shrieking with laughter, to the shelter of the house, tracking in a trail of water and mud.  His lawn duty ended abruptly after the third time it happened.  Our Mom asked him in a pleasant voice laced with poison, not to bother watering any more.  Then she mumbled indiscernible words as she knelt over her pendulous stomach, and struggled to mop up the mess on the floor. 

            Pat and I were trying to trap bees in snapdragons out in the garden one morning when he was “helping” our mother.  He had actually managed to fill a laundry basket with fragrant, sun-bleached sheets that he’d plucked awkwardly from the clothesline.  His pitted face was sliced with a toothless grin of triumph; he hadn’t dropped a single one that day.  But he stumbled as he carried the basket inside, dumped the load in a patch of dirt near the back door. Our mother heaved herself down the steps, elbowed past him and tried to salvage what she could.

            “Thanks, Clive.  I’ll do it myself from now on.”  Her voice was as taut as the clothesline; she spoke to him through gritted teeth.  Uncle Clive just shrugged indifferently, then shuffled back to his post on the front porch.

            “Shit.” The word burst like a sin from her lips as she seethed with a sweaty rage.  She stuffed the dirty sheets into the basket, then gazed over at the two of us with wide-eyed fury. We quickly lowered our own wide eyes.

            “I’ve got to wash them all again,” she said, as if she were trying to believe it herself, and we looked at her again, grateful for her flimsy explanation.  “That’s why I’m mad.”  A tight smile, little more than a grimace, made us glance away once more.

            For the rest of the day she tried to maintain that contrived smile of hers in front of Pat and me, a smile so strained that it looked painful. But those pent-up emotions came out in the bedroom that night when Dad was home.  Awakened by the sound of her sobbing through the wall, I listened to the muted murmur of their conversation.  

            “Send him away,” she whispered hoarsely.   “I can’t stand it any more.  He’s driving me insane.  He’s always there.  Always around, hounding me, following me in the kitchen, trying to help me when I don’t need it.  Touching my stomach.”

            “He never had any kids of his own,” Dad said.  “It’s a bit of a mystery to him, this whole pregnancy thing.  He wants to help you. Try to be patient with him.”

            “But what if he touches the kids?”

            The silence that followed her question was sharp and hard.  In the muffled dark I lay there, sweaty and limp, wondering exactly what she meant.

            “Why would you even think that?” Dad asked her a few minutes later.

            “I think of everything,” she replied.  “Just send him away.  Please.”

            “How can I?” Dad tried his best to comfort her.  “He’s my only brother.  He would have taken in our entire family without batting an eye, if the tables were turned.  Be thankful, Emily.  There’s only one of him, and there’s always room for one more.”

            The discussion ended with Mom’s frustrated sobs muffled in her pillow.  Alone in the shadowy comfort of my room, I brooded over what I’d just heard, tossed in a tangle of dampened sheets until sleep finally soothed my restless thoughts. 

            It was the mushrooms that finished it for Uncle Clive.  Towards the end of that summer, our mother’s enormous girth, combined with the oppressive heat, made it uncomfortable for her to do little more than sit.  There were dark circles under her eyes, and her bangs were always soaked with perspiration.  She seemed to sigh more than ever, and she spent her time sitting at the kitchen table in front of the open window, knitting tiny outfits with wool that clung to her plump, moist hands.

            Pat and I were having races on the front porch that morning, screaming as we ran, and thumping our feet hard on the wooden boards so that the front window rattled.  It was still early and Uncle Clive came outside yawning and blinking, a potato sack clutched in his hand.

            “You kids are noisy,” he said, scratching his belly through a tear in his shirt.  “Let’s give your Mom some peace and quiet for a while.  She looks tired.  You two can come and help me pick mushrooms.”

            So Pat and I set off for the lake shore with Uncle Clive.  He let me carry the potato sack and he held both our hands as we trudged across the dewy grass towards his favourite patch.

            He showed us which mushrooms to pick.  As we knelt beside him and watched, I wondered what could be so harmful about such pretty, spongy things as mushrooms, with their ivory caps and feathery gills.  After all, Uncle Clive hadn’t died from eating them.  He hadn’t even been sick and he ate them raw sometimes, while he was cleaning them, the way some people munch on peanuts.

            “Why won’t Mom let us eat mushrooms, Uncle Clive?” I asked.

            Uncle Clive dragged on his cigarette, then turned a mushroom slowly in his yellowed fingertips.  He gazed for a moment far out across the lake, where the boundless blue sky met the rippling water.  Then he shrugged.

            “I don’t know, Mary,” he said.  “I really don’t know.”  Then he pointed towards  the horizon as he dragged on his cigarette again.  “See.  See all that blue out there.  That’s where I’d like to be.  Where the blue sky never ends.”  And he stood squinting at the sky and exhaling a ribbon of smoke through his nose.

            When we got back, Mom was waiting on the porch.  Her face was white and tense.

            “Where have you been with my children?”  She clutched her enormous stomach with one hand and the railing with the other.  I could see from the sidewalk that her knuckles were white, her body trembling.

            “We were down at the lake, Mom.”  I ran over to her and hugged her arm.  But she didn’t even glance at me.  Her stormy eyes were fixed on Uncle Clive.

            “What is the matter with you, Clive?”  Her voice was high and strained.   “You don’t go off with someone’s kids and not tell them.  Where are your brains, man?”

            Uncle Clive blinked at her, dumbfounded. 

            “I-I’m sorry, Emily,” he stammered.  “I thought you looked tired.  I never thought of asking.  Martha and me…we never had kids.  I didn’t know you had to ask.  We only went for the mushrooms.”

            “Mushrooms!”  She spit the word out like it tasted bad in her mouth.  Then she turned and grasped my shoulders in an iron grip.  “Did you eat any Mary?  Did you or Pat eat any of them?”

            “No,” I whispered. 

            Mom turned and stared coldly at Uncle Clive.

            “I wish you’d take your stinking mushrooms and your stinking trumpet and get the hell out of our house!” she said.  Then she walked slowly inside.

            When Pat and I crept timidly indoors a while later to make up with our Mom, we found her crouched, puffing and panting, on the kitchen floor.  Her face was pale, strained with an effort that we couldn’t quite grasp.

            “Get help,” she murmured, then she groaned loudly.

            We didn’t know what was wrong with out mother in there, performing strange contortions on the faded linoleum, and fear washed over me in an icy wave.  I clasped Pat’s hand and dragged him down the hall.

            “Let’s get Uncle Clive,” I whispered. 

            He was hunched in his chair on the porch, cleaning mushrooms.  When I told him something was wrong with Mom, he flicked his cigarette into the grass, stood up slowly and plodded into the house.

            Pat and I were worried when we heard that last agonizing groan, followed by a thick silence.  We gazed at one another, perplexed, then sneaked back inside to peer apprehensively into the kitchen.

            Uncle Clive knelt on the floor looking bewildered and a little incredulous at the sight of the slippery, writhing miracle that he held in his trembling hands.  Mom lay beside him, modestly covered with a table cloth.  Her face was dripping with sweat and damp tendrils of hair clung to her cheeks.  She was smiling weakly, and her eyes were misted with tears.

            “Thanks, Clive.”  Her voice was weak and hoarse.  “Are you all right?”

            But our Uncle was so awestruck that he couldn’t answer.

            Uncle Clive left shortly after the baby was born, to find work with the harvest out west.  His letters were brief and sporadic, but Dad always read them aloud to us.  Eventually Uncle Clive settled into a job as a farm hand on a big wheat farm in Saskatchewan.  He claimed that he liked the life—the wide open spaces and the endless sky.  But there just weren’t so many mushrooms around.  I liked to imagine him standing in a vast field of wavering golden wheat, playing his trumpet to a boundless span of azure sky.

            In every letter he wrote,  he asked how we all were.  And he never failed to add:  “Give my love to Emily and the baby.”  Mom always looked funny, when Dad read that part, sort of distant and wistful.  Sometimes she even managed to muster up the shadow of a smile as she bounced baby Clive on her knee.

 


 

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