A Christmas Box For Uncle Al
by Judge Schafer (his website: http://hometown.aol.com/boppananny/index.html)
One of the Christmases I remember best is the one when Uncle Al came to live with us. Well, he didn’t really come to live with us – he just stayed for a while. And he wasn’t really my uncle; he was my mother’s uncle, but I called him Uncle.
I remember once when I was going through a box of old photographs my mother kept in a closet, seeing one that was old and brown and stiff. It was of a nice looking young man with black curly hair in one of those old bathing suits, the kind with a top, shoulder straps and a belt. I knew most of the people in the other pictures because my mother often took them out to tell me who they were and where they sat on the family tree. But she never took this one out. I asked who it was. She looked at it, paused a second and said it was her mother’s brother, Albert Steven Smith. “The kids used to call him ASS,” she said.
“Where is he?” I asked.
“I don’t really know,” she said. She looked at the picture again and put it into the pocket of her housedress. I never saw it again and I forgot all about Albert Steven Smith.
Then, when I was about ten, we were eating supper one night when we heard a knock at the side door, the door that opened onto the driveway. No one except the coal man ever knocked at that door. It was a little hard to get to and quite a ways from the front door. It wasn’t a hard knock. Just a soft one, like one would expect from a child. My father looked at my mom and she looked at me. “Go see who it is,” she said.
I opened the cellar door, went through the crowded cellar, then up the steps to the side door. I opened it. It was cold and there were puffs of dirty snow stuck in the privet hedges running along the driveway. Standing in the snow was a short man with a craggy face, whiskers and slicked down hair. He was wearing an old suit that didn’t fit, the sleeves were too long and the pants gathered around his ankles. He had on a pair of white and brown wing-tipped summer shoes. He looked like he was cold.
“Is your mother home, son?” he asked.
I didn’t know what to say. Then I heard my mother.
“Who is it, Wimp?” (That’s what everybody called me then.)
“Tell her it’s Al,” said the man.
I shouted back. “He says it’s Al, mom.”
“Who? What did you say?……Come here.”
The man looked at me, shuffled his feet and started to bite on his knuckle.
I went back through the cellar and up the stairs to the kitchen. My mother was out of her chair now. “Who is it?” she asked again.
“He said it’s Al, mom.”
She looked at my father, then went and got her coat. She didn’t say a word. She went down the cellar steps and I was right behind her.
When she opened the driveway door, the man said “Hi, Myrt.”
“My name’s Myrtle, Al.”
“Oh, yeh, I always called you that, din’t I?”
“You did, Al, and I never liked it.”
He looked down and started to gnaw on his knuckle.
“Are you sober?” my mother asked.
“Yeh, Myrt, I been for a while.”
They didn’t say anything for a few seconds. My mother was studying him.
“What’aya want, Al? she asked.
“Well, M…Myrtle, I just got off the bus. I din’t have anywhere to go. I thought I’d come see ya.
“What is it you want?”
“Nothin’, Myrtle, jus’ thought maybe you could put me up for a few days. I don’t have any place to go to.”
“No, Al. We’ve been through that before.”
“It’s not the same, Myrtle. I don’t do what I used to. I’m getting’ old.”
“So am I, Al.”
“Just a couple of days, Myrtle. I don’t have any place to go….I won’t bother nobody…I…well, I can work….
She studied his bare head and his summer wing-tipped shoes.
“Don’t you have a coat?” she asked.
“Well, yeh, I….no, I don’t.”
She told him to wipe his feet and come in. He followed her into the cellar.
“You can stay in the cellar for a few days,” she said. “You can sleep over there by the furnace.”
Oh, my God; she’s going to make him stay down here in the cellar, I thought. Boy, that was really cruel. We didn’t even make the dog do that. There was just an old toilet stuck against the wall and a dirty old metal sink.
He looked at the furnace and turned his palms out and held them up.
She looked around.
“There are some covers over there.”
“And you’re not coming upstairs. You stay down here until Monday. And that’s all.”
“That’s all I need, Myrtle.”
She turned and went upstairs and closed the cellar door.
“You got some boards around here, son, so I can lean ‘em against the furnace?”
“Sure,” I said. But I thought again, My God, the cellar. What would he eat?
“Oh, I’ll get somethin’”, he said.
We collected some boards. He propped them against the furnace, spread some of my father’s house-painting canvasses over them and used an old furniture-moving cover for a blanket.
“This’ll be okay,” he said.
I went upstairs and closed the cellar door behind me.
I didn’t see much of him the next few days, but I thought about him a lot. What was he doing down there? I also noticed that my mother went down the cellar every once in a while and after dinner she would take some leftovers down there. But Uncle Al never got upstairs – until a few days before Christmas.
It was just after supper. We had ice cream from Rosen’s and I heard my mother say to my father as he was scooping it from the cardboard container, “Do you think it’d be okay if we asked him to come up?”
My father said he thought it would be okay and he scooped out an extra dish.
My mom went down and got Uncle Al. When he came up he had on his suit and the summer shoes. He came through the cellar door, stopped, looked around, said “Hi, Bus,” (that’s what everybody called my father) and waited until my mom told him to sit.
She pointed to a seat and he sat down. My father put the ice cream in front of him and he ate it without saying a word. When he finished he thanked my mother and went down into the cellar.
It was shortly after that that my mother allowed him to come up for supper at night. Then she and my father would go out at night and he would stay with me. We played checkers every night and listened to the radio. He was really good at checkers. I never beat him. He would just stare at the board, chew on his knuckle until it was raw, and then make a move. He never said much and when he did it wasn’t easy for him to talk. He wheezed all the time. His teeth were all brown and he smoked all the time. And he made his own cigarettes. He had a little white bag of tobacco with a yellow draw-string. He would open that, almost with one hand, pour some of it onto some special little thin papers he kept in his pocket and then lick one side of the paper and roll everything up. Each one had a point on each end that he would pinch before he lit it. And they all burned very quickly.
I told my mother that I’d like to get him something for Christmas.
“He likes to smoke, mom. And he makes his own cigarettes.”
“Yes, I know. He always did,” she said. “When he lived with my mother and me in Camden he’d give me a dime and I’d go get him a little bag of tobacco and some rolling papers. Then he’d sit on the front porch and roll those funny, lumpy cigarettes.”
“Rosen’s has a little machine,” I told her, “that rolls your cigarettes for you. Mr. Rosen showed me the other day. You put the tobacco in, lick the paper, then turn the handle and it comes out the other end and looks like a cigarette. He only has two of them.”
My mother thought that would be nice. So I bought it. Mr. Rosen said Uncle Al wouldn’t have any trouble making it work, but he showed me again how to work it anyway. My mother wrapped it up and when Uncle Al came up from the cellar on Christmas I gave it to him. He looked at mom, thanked me and went back to the cellar.
He didn’t stay long after that. The war was on then. My mother got a job at a war plant in Camden and she got Uncle Al a job there too. She told him he could come upstairs as long as he stayed sober.
It was still that winter when I started to notice that he was coming home from work late most of the time. I could tell because I could hear him shut the driveway door. One night after he came home real late, my mother was sitting in the kitchen waiting. She went down to the cellar and I heard her shouting. I didn’t hear him say anything; just her shouting. I suspected he wasn’t staying sober.
In a few minutes, the driveway door closed and she came upstairs. She was crying. She closed the cellar door and didn’t say anything. I went down to the cellar later and could see that he had left. His stuff was gone – his suit and his summer shoes. And the cigarette machine was gone too – and that pleased me.
I never saw him again.
Years later, I asked my mother about him. She said she heard he got hit by a car and died on the streets of Philadelphia.
I never did find out if he opened the box.
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