“Damn,” my mother said. “Your uncle writes and all he has to say is that he wants you to come to see him. That’s it.”
She handed me the letter. I read its two paragraphs, one asking me to come to see him, one with directions. She continued, “I haven’t heard from my brother at all for seventeen years. He doesn’t have the courtesy to tell me how he’s been. Who the hell does he think he is?”
I had only met her brother once. He had come to stay with us when I was ten years old. All I could remember of that time was the arguments he and my mother had. When he left, Mom’s last words on the subject were “good riddance.” And that had been that. Until the letter.
I reread the letter. What it said was that it was time to get to know his nephew. I didn’t know what was expected of me.
“You’d better go,” she said. “Find out what he wants. You can take the truck. Otherwise you won’t be able to drive out to where he lives. It’s way off in the backwoods.”
I didn’t want to go, but Mom insisted. I said, “Oh, well,” and the next morning, drove the forty miles or so out into the country. Turned off onto the dirt road he’d given me and went another five miles or so through brush and trees on a road that could only be described as a trail, and barely one at that. Just when I was about to give up and back my way out, I came to what some might call a clearing. Mostly it was a break in the overgrowth I had been working my way through. Beside the dump of a shanty was an old, beat-up Harley. If nowhere had been a place, it would have been that shack of his.
I pushed the door of the truck open and got out and made my way through the bushes. I knocked on the door of the shanty several times, each time calling out, “Uncle Buddwin.” The door about fell off when I pulled on it. I went inside the one-room shanty
In the middle of the room was a wood burning stove. It wasn’t lit. The windows were broken, the glass held on by tape or replaced by a sheet or quilt. Over to the side was a chair and a table, then a small bed. Straight across from the door was what looked like a sink. It had no faucet. Then a wooden cabinet.
I thought to myself that whoever lived here must be a wretch. Certainly not my uncle. No one in my family would choose to live this way. We were too well-off. Though we weren’t rich, we did ourselves proud in the money department.
I went to leave. Standing in front of the door was a short man, bearded with long curly hair, and wearing a blue flannel shirt, dirty jeans and boots.
“Charles?” the man’s soft voice asked.
“Yes. You can call me Charlie, Uncle. Everybody does.”
He looked me up and down for a minute or so. “Charles.” He insisted on calling me Charles. “It’s good to see you.” He put out his hand, I took it, we shook. “Welcome to home sweet home.” Then, “Let me make you some coffee. You do drink coffee, don’t you? If not, I think I’ve got some other stuff around here you might like. One of my neighbors makes it.”
“Coffee will be fine.”
He offered me the chair by the table, threw some wood into the stove and got a fire going, then set a kettle of water on the stove. Soon he had both of us a mug of instant coffee. He took a seat on the floor and crossed his legs. He was ready to talk.
“Guess you want to know why I asked you to come out this way.”
“I’d like to know, yes.” I sipped my coffee.
“I’ve been thinking some. Thinking real hard about it. And for quite some time too.”
“About your mother and all. All the family.”
I let out my frustration. “Why did you disappear like you did?”
“Oh, that’s a long story.” His fingers stroked his beard.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“You ever wonder about me? About what happened to me?”
“The family never says. I assumed that it was because you disappeared. Because you treated everybody in the family badly, so they would just as well not talk about you.”
“You assumed that, did you?” He did not raise his voice but there seemed to be an anger to his words. “It wasn’t that. The real reason is that I am plain bad luck. At least, that’s what they believe. And maybe I was once upon a time. But not anymore.”
Now there was a quizzical look on my face. Even in the dark of the room, he could tell. Finally I asked, “Bad luck?”
“Yep, bad luck. The kind of bad luck that led me to have three failed marriages. The kind of bad luck that cost my third wife to lose a child. The kind of bad luck that almost killed your Uncle Jamie. Didn’t matter that he’d been drinking that night he rammed into a tree and I tried to stop him from driving. I still got the blame. So much so that I believed a long time that I was responsible for everything bad that happened to any in the family, anyone close to me.”
It was like a dam bursting to hear his grief in the words he spoke. Seemed like those words had been waiting for years to break free. Words that revealed a lot of hurt and loneliness. “You know, any excuse my family had to hate me, they used it, Charles.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“They never talk about me. Your parents or your Uncle Jamie or your grandparents? Do they?”
“No, they don’t.”
“I used to wonder why I had such rotten luck myself. I was such a jinx. Just couldn’t figure it out. When you grow up and everybody is telling you that you’re no good, you tend to be no good. Didn’t want to be no good. But somehow I couldn’t stay out of trouble. Somehow I couldn’t figure out why they hated me so. Around the age of thirty, ‘bout the time I saw you last, I found out what it was.”
The darkness of the night outside was filling the room. But even in that darkness I could see my uncle’s face clear. I had finished off my coffee, but I wasn’t about to ask him for another cup. I was anxious to hear his story.
“I see you need another coffee.”
“Don’t go to any trouble.”
“No trouble.” He was up and putting the kettle onto the stove. I waited but the minutes ticked off as slow as could be. He took my mug, dunked a spoonful of instant into it, poured the hot water and stirred, then he handed it back to me. Then he was back on the floor, not looking at me but staring into the dark as if there was no one else in the room.
“I always thought I was living someone else’s life. It wasn’t like I didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin. I did. But it was like I was living a life I had no control over. Then I found out.”
“What?” I asked anxiously.
“One night I was at my parents. Your mother and your Uncle Jamie were there. There was a lot of yelling and screaming. You’ve heard the phrase knock-down-drag-out. That was it that night. I told them I was tired of being treated the awful way they had treated me as long as I could remember.
“My father turned to me, ‘I’m sorry you were the one that lived.’ It stopped me cold. ‘What?’
“‘No,’ my mother said, trying to get my father from saying what he was about to say.
“It didn’t stop my father. ‘Your older twin brother, Edwin, died. Or should I say you murdered him.’
“‘Don’t say that,’ my mother said. ‘It wasn’t his fault. You know that.’
“‘That’s not what the doctor said. He called it murder. While you both were in the womb.’
“That was when I realized I had been living Edwin’s life. The only way I could end that and live my own life was to get the hell out of there, leave the family for good. So that’s what I did. I moved out here and have been here since. Hidden from my family.”
Everything went quiet. The night. Uncle Buddwin’s breathing. My breathing.
Finally I said, “So what do you want of me?”
“Before it’s too late, I want you to find out where Edwin’s grave is. I know they buried the fetus. They are the kind of people what would bury a fetus. I just don’t know where. ”
It was true. My grandparents were very religious. They would not have just flushed the fetus down the toilet and let that be that. They would have buried Edwin.
“They’re not going to tell me,” I said, pretty sure that it was true.
“Oh, yes they will. I know they will.”
“And if they tell me?” I asked. My coffee was getting cold but I didn’t move.
“I have something for you to take to the graveside.” Uncle Buddwin got up and walked over to the wardrobe where he kept his clothes. He opened it and took out a small bag. Then he handed it to me.
“This,” he said.
I looked at the small bag in the palm of my hand. “What is it?”
“Let’s just say he will know. And don’t you open it up. I will know.”
“Why are you trusting me with this?”
“I don’t have any choice. You’re the only one I can trust that I know will find out from my parents.”
I agreed to his demand. We shook hands and I left. It took me a month to get the place where the grave was. My grandmother let it out like it was some long, dark secret. Once she had, it looked like a great weight had dropped off her shoulders. I followed my uncle’s instruction to the letter.
The day after I visited Edwin’s gravesite, I drove out to see Uncle Buddwing. I couldn’t find his shack. It had disappeared. Now once a year I visit Edwin’s gravesite to make sure he isn’t forgotten. On my last visit there, I saw someone leaving as I got to the cemetery. I could have sworn that it was my uncle. When I tried to chase him down, he had disappeared.