Last summer, at the behest of my parents who claim to be extra busy, I began to shadow my Uncle Bill. But first I had to find him.
He’s an old retired dude, seedy-looking and enormous. He stands well over six-feet tall. And now he’s gone to flab. My mother claims he’s not doing well these days. See, he never got married, has no kids. She wants to know everything about Uncle Bill’s whereabouts. I think she should just ask him. But it’s not that simple with my mother. She angles in with an indirect approach and she develops a secret plan which involves me following him and spying on every move he makes.
“Why drag me into it?” I ask her. “I hardly know him.”
“He’ll open up to you more readily, Roland. Because he’s always liked you. He used to call you his favourite nephew.”
“I’m his only nephew.”
“He won’t see you as a threat. You’re the younger generation. Besides that – you’ve got all this unstructured time. You could check-up on him, talk to him and gain his confidence.”
“Even if he doesn’t like it much?”
“At least try. Find out if he rents a room?” She paces back and forth. “Maybe he’s holed up in a downtown hostel or some god-forsaken shelter? He won’t share anything with me. I’m worried. He’s got no pension to speak of and no source of income. No one to look after him.”
She thinks I’ve got nothing better to do just because I’m 24 and waiting to go back to finish my university term this fall; third year engineering. And then my father tends to avoid the family politics, so he lets my mother orchestrate the whole thing. I’ve been conscripted as a detective. I wish she’d pay me wages.
Twenty years ago, my Uncle Bill made his living crewing the coast-guard vessels, repairing the local cutters and occasionally an ice-breaker way up north. He’s an expert at inboard motors and he served as a marine mechanic. My mother thinks he’s slipping into dereliction and probably becoming mentally unbalanced, drinking himself into oblivion.
When I first catch up to my Uncle on a late Tuesday afternoon – and it’s not easy – he’s walking behind Gold’s Gym. I watch him for a few minutes and then I run up beside him. “Hello there Uncle Bill.”
“Rollie! How’s it going? You still skipping stones at the university?”
“Sure. Sure I keep trying to keep up. On a break right now.”
He looks okay. I mean he isn’t wasted or drunk. However, he does appear a bit unsteady. I detect a tremor in his right hand. I accompany him inside the public library. Bill sits down at the computers located in the foyer and he attempts to log-on and play Text Waterfall which is his favourite online word game. His gaming persona is the ‘The Unscrambler.’
We talk. I mean, ‘The Unscrambler’ does. He tells me that he often parks himself at the library. He describes the word game.
“Similar to a rapid-fire version of Boggle. In intervals of three minutes, each player forms as many words as possible. The letters tumble down the screen. I’m truly addicted,” he says. “Could play forever and forever.”
But that day, his password is denied and his access code completely fizzles.
An angelic-looking library clerk explains it. “We need some kind of documentation with an address,” she tells him, not even looking up at Bill, or at me. “An ID with a proof of residence to renew your borrowing and your computer privileges.”
My Uncle Bill leans across the counter. He deciphers her shiny name tag and pours on his honey-coated voice. “Shana,” he says. “Well hello there Shana. I reside at number 712, high in the sky at The Paragon Towers. That’s on Pine Avenue. It’s a condo.”
That’s a whopping lie. The Paragon is an outrageously luxurious place. Millionaires live there.
Shana doesn’t flinch although Bill looms in close and he starts wheezing. Theres a hint of halitosis – his, not hers.
“See,” he whispers, “an unfortunate occurrence regarding my wallet. Stolen ID and cash and credit cards.” He snickers softly, almost strokes her hand. Thankfully he refrains. He looks at me and then he winks. Gazing back at Shana, he doodles with his index finger scribing figure eights upon the surface of the counter. “Everything was purloined, but I do have this.” He proffers a routine letter from the gas company which is addressed to one William Stokely at The Paragon Towers. “Pulled it from the recycling bin,” he whispers in a quick aside to me, a whisper that Shana does not pay attention to. “Let’s see how this plays out,” Bill says.
Because his proof is duly addressed to a person bearing the first name Bill, it works. My Uncle’s library status is renewed and he can continue to log-on with impunity and borrow books which he does also, and frequently; at least three books every week.
He resembles a muscle-bound wrestler gone soft. He does manage to keep his clothing fairly neat, but his hair’s an unsightly tangle, a kitchen scrubber of dark grey steel wool. He appears older that his years; wears a lot of sweaters no longer stylish, jeans and a wiry beard, extra short. His face bears ruddy hints of too much drink, but I suppose a stranger might decide he’s a down-scaled millionaire as long as they don’t scrutinize too closely.
On another day when I meet up with Bill, I convince him to go to the free clinic on Walden Street. I thought they should assess his overall condition and check out the tremors in his hands. I go inside with him. They weigh him in at 316 pounds. There is no definitive answer for the trembling. The doctor says: “It’s likely too much booze,” and then he closes the chart and says: “Take care.” The clinic aide shakes her head and tsk tsks. She looks down her nose at me as if I have influence. She records Bill’s blood pressure and speaks of diabetes and heart disease. I doubt that Bill gives a flying fig for this routine. When she’s finished, a volunteer comes around and offers a generous plate of cream-filled pastries. Bill grabs three of those: “Thanks.”
Gradually, over several encounters, I get to know his routines.
He usually scores a nutritious hot breakfast at Our Place, a shower and hair wash at Cool Aid. Clothing items or personal necessities are provided by the Monterey ‘Free’ store. Once in a while he manages a laundry at StreetLink and then he hikes over to the Grayson City Outreach Program where the volunteer barber trims his hair and beard.
He takes long naps at St. Augustine’s or inside the Cineplex whenever he can sneak in and watch the screen or sleep through the B-rated films reeling out in Cinema Five. If it’s a slasher flick, he watches. He finds a way to creep inside on days it’s pelting rain.
I report back to my parents that my Uncle Bill is an expert at availing himself of every possible social service. But I don’t know yet where he actually spends his nights. “He knows how to work the system,” I tell my mother. “Knows where and when to smile, how to go and be polite, and how to act invisible to fade into the background. He gets everything he needs from many volunteers and a wealth of supportive agencies. Bill spreads himself around.”
About a week afterward, I catch up with him again, one late Wednesday afternoon. He’s over at the Sally Ann’s Men’s Hostel enjoying his second helping of the soup and sandwiches. He seems a bit depressed.
“Tell you what Rollie,” he says, “I’m drifting. Like a patrol boat without good engines, waiting for neap tides. I’m floating along wherever the waves decide to steer me.”
I try to get him into talking about his days on the boats, but he seizes up, grows quiet. He starts asking me about my courses and I don’t want to say much either. We share an awkward silence.
Later on, he goes up Ellington and we both load up with oranges from the Mustard Seed Food Bank. I leave him as he heads over to the library for a stint of Text Waterfall.
Because it’s still relatively early in September and pleasant weather, Bill quite often hauls his butt to the Carnegie Park benches, the ones behind the statuary. He sits there and reads and reads, devouring the library books he pulls from his knapsack. I’ve checked on him many times without making my presence known. He actually studies those books, sucking in the great classics of literature or the learned philosophers. I’ve managed to make out a couple of titles. He’s reading heavy tomes, like Kafka, Proust and things like that.
On another afternoon, he ambles toward the library again. It’s boring stuff for me. He’s playing the word game until he’s blitzed. The game saps and fulfills him. He doesn’t worry, doesn’t think, doesn’t sweat and doesn’t move his tush. He plays until his eyeballs hurt or it’s closing time.
He showed me once, and proudly he did it too, his on-line ‘trophy room.’ He’s got six green stars, five yellow, one red, a whole mess of badges that look like half moons, and the status of a ‘champion.’ He’s ranked in the top fifty players of the world of Text Waterfall.
It kills another day.
I had an easier time finding him the next time. I shadow him without letting him become aware I am on the case. I follow behind, lurking in the alleys, dodging into storefronts, feeling like a scheming private eye, the kind Bill, in his old-time idioms would call a gumshoe.
He ambles along to The Paragon Towers. And, yeah, Bill apparently does reside at the luxury address. I stuck around like a haunting ghost. Somehow he’s acquired a key fob. I don’t know how or where he got a hold of that, but it works. The embedded electronics perpetually activate the service entrance. He takes the back stairwell winding down through the parking levels. At the lowest garage, the state of the art security cameras are not functioning and Bill successfully avoids the regular security patrols. And I do that too. It’s actually rather easy.
He knows his way.
Beyond the recycling bins, he opens the door to a storage cubicle, a sort of cinder-block structure which has likely been a build-on for an extra recycling endeavour. Presently, it’s not in use. Bill crumps inside.
I’m guessing after that, because I can’t see through the cement walls. My parents did not endow me such x-ray vision. I imagine that by the light of fluorescent tubes inside this crazy storage place that Bill reads all night long, straining in the glare. If nature calls, there are sewer grates. The dawn of a new day likely announces itself with whirs and noises that reach into the depth of his dungeon. No one knows he’s living there, reading, thinking, breathing. Presently, he’s devouring an analysis of Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe and a late edition of Plato’s Republic.
After I’ve been back at university for two months; a little more than that, my mother informs me that there’s been a development. I listen to her carefully. She tells me the whole thing in a matter-of-fact tone with no emotion in her voice. I would have thought she’d weep. After all, Bill is her brother – or he was. Bless his soul. He must rely upon the heavenly angels for his upkeep now.
Apparently there was a new custodian hired at the Paragon, an officious keener who inspected the recycling bins, mapping a schematic for new pipes and solid connections for an upgrade of the AC. He opened the door and found a homeless dude, this enormous guy, unresponsive, like a whale. Bill was pronounced comatose at the scene. Paramedics hauled him out. It took four of them to do it. They pried a library book – Tolstoy – from his hands. He died at Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow two days after that, a suspected coronary occlusion.
So, I took it pretty hard. My Uncle Bill, a homeless friend. Sure. And I had barely begun to know him.
No bed, well read. Now he’s dead. They should put that on his memorial.
And there are no explanatory notes at the end of his life story, no legacy of my Uncle Bill who used to work the coast-guard boats and read such books.
I wish I’d found out more. What’s going on in the next unpredictable chapter? Where will he drift now? I hope he’s playing his word game and winning, everyday in heaven.
The goal of Katrina Johnston‘s story-telling is to share.