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Grace
Selected Stories by Robert Moulthrop

 

  Mrs. Mellors
  Grace
  Furniture
  Friends In Need

  Uncle Louis
  Elvis’s Dog, the One Named Moonbeam
  Olden Days

 
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Uncle Louis

Mama dealt with life the same way she played solitaire: love was built by red deeds on black, things matched, the ante got raised. For Mama life was a series of sequences and melds. Or a relationship might be over until there was a new deal.

If Mama and Uncle Louis had been on real speaking terms, I think she might have applauded his transformation. But she couldn’t. Mama hadn’t dealt the new hand yet. She was still playing the old. After the fuss had died down, Mama said she wasn’t really surprised by the change in Uncle Louis. “I was just caught off guard because it was gradual,” she said. At the beginning, she didn’t even know someone else had laid down new cards.

I had never really liked the old Uncle Louis. So, at the beginning, I didn’t care how the new one came out. The old Uncle Louis was boring and scary. Everybody called him “Looey.” “A crab salad without the salad,” my father said about nine times a year. He would follow it with, “A San Francisco joke, like your brother-in-law.” He liked watching my mother not react.

Louis hated his job, showing movies to garden clubs for an oil company. He had got into it right out of college because it was safe and because, my mother said, “Louis could never make up his mind about show business because of Myrtle and Everett.” I had loved Myrt and Ev, Louis’s parents. Everybody loved them. They had been Bolo and Yolanda, Fast Dance and Patter. They were funny and magic, knew all the words to every song, and tap danced at my birthday when I was six. Mama said that Aunt Cat had fallen in love with them first and had never just looked at Louis alone. Ev and Myrt were the first people I ever knew who died. And they died together, in a car crash, which made it worse. I can remember crying for a whole morning, then spending the afternoon trying to make a penny fly into my shoe like Ev always did, until my father magically made it turn into a nickel in his shoe and sent me round the corner for candy.

Mama said that showing movies made Louis feel close to his folks without having to take the risk of real show business. But the movies were boring. They were mostly travelogues. After a while I stopped hoping they would turn into Flash Gordon and almost got to like them. The wildflowers would bloom in seconds and the mountains seemed cool. I got so I could just drift away, lying across the black and white swirls of the imitation oriental rug, looking at the relatives’ feet while the clickety noise of the projector competed with the tinny sound from the film. I remember the first Thanksgiving we all settled in, I ran behind the screen to see where the pictures were coming from. I was disappointed that there was only Aunt Clara, sitting and breathing in the dining room, with her second piece of cake. Uncle Louis was waiting for me when I came back around. “Boo,” he said loudly. I jumped and cried and ran to Mama while the aunts (except Clara) and cousins and uncles all laughed. Mama said, “Louis, you fool,” and squeezed me tight.

Louis was my mother’s sister’s husband—Catherine could do no wrong—so Mama made allowances then. But except for popping out—or making me think the wooden door stop shaped like a black frog was going to eat me up—he was boring. After he said his things— “Hey, Allazoozoo” or “How ya’ doin’, good lookin’”—that was it. He’d just sit quietly and smoke his Chesterfields. Mama used to say, early on, that he was deep. Papa always answered, “I’m waiting.”

It was after Aunt Cat had shriveled into herself and died when I was fourteen that things began to happen. I remember Papa saying he was waiting for something sudden (“a blonde floozie at least”), and Mama looking at Papa and saying, through thin lips, “Don’t joke. He should have been there.” It would, it turns out, take a lot from Uncle Louis for Mama to finally open the deck and put down a new layout; she was deeply angry that he had, in her words, “Sat around while my sister was dying.” Looking back, I think Uncle Louis had just gone into himself because, after his own mother and father had died, there was just too much death. But at the time, when all the grown-ups were in the room, all I heard were the silences.

The beginning of the summer when I was fifteen-and-one-quarter, Mama finally began to invite Uncle Louis to dinner, but only once in a while. He would come straight from work and walk into the kitchen and sit, not asking for anything, but not refusing anything either. He always said, “Thank you,” and drank my mother’s lemonade with careful sips. But his hands stayed in his lap instead of smoking Chesterfields. He didn’t sigh exactly, but would breathe into the middle distance. I forget whether my mother finally got tired of inviting him, or he just started refusing. Whichever it was, by Labor Day of that year Uncle Louis stopped appearing at the dinner table.

I had finally saved enough money for a real date. Dinner in The City and a real musical comedy at the Geary. Ellen Katzenbogen’s father trusted me on the strength of my yard work (I was prompt and never talked back; what an easy scam that was.), so he had okayed the excursion. If he knew I was planning to put my hand on Ellen’s breast during the second act, I know he would have had me shot at dawn. But I figured he wasn’t a mind reader, so I stopped my nerves and smiled at him as openly as I could. Ellen kept looking back at me each time I moved the mower across the lawn. I thought our date had excellent potential.

After almost three days of discussion with my father, I had chosen Au Tour Eifel for our meal. My father had brought home a dinner menu for my nervous inspection. We looked at the prix fixe, and he figured the tip and laid it all out for me. He even made the reservation and made sure I knew which streetcar to take to get there from the Key System terminal.

I wore my father’s maroon tie and my black suit (“still slims you down,” said my mother, tugging the jacket), and Ellen wore a white dress. Even though I had plans, I felt relaxed with Ellen. We always made each other laugh. We were laughing a lot by the time we got to the restaurant. The walls were painted with pictures of windows opening up onto different scenes of Paris. Ellen was impressed.

It wasn’t until we had started on the onion soup that I spotted Uncle Louis. He was sitting by himself at a corner table. His hair was combed somehow differently, and there was a colored scarf knotted around his neck. I watched, my soup with its foreign strings of cheese forgotten, as he took out a pipe and a tobacco pouch. His fingers didn’t quite know what to do, but he finally got it lit.

By this time Ellen had stopped talking and looked over her shoulder to see what I was watching. “Who’s that?” she asked.

I couldn’t think of a plausible lie, so I just said, “That’s my Uncle Louis,” hoping that would end it. It did. Ellen wasn’t interested in my relatives. But midway through the Duck a l’Orange, Uncle Louis came over to the table.

“Allazoozoo, kiddo,” he said, by way of introduction.

“Hi, Uncle Louis,” I said, shaking his hand and standing up and putting down my fork. It all seemed very complicated.

“This is Ellen Katzenbogen,” I said.

Uncle Louis looked at her and wiggled his eyebrows. Ellen smiled, which seemed to cover the situation.

I decided to plunge in. “You look different,” I said.

“I am,” he said. I thought there might be more coming, but that seemed to be it. I sat down slowly, so he wouldn’t think I was being-rude.

“How are things?” I asked.

He waved his pipe back and forth. He didn’t seem to have any more to say, but he didn’t want to leave either. That at least was like the old Uncle Louis.

“Your pipe smells very nice,” Ellen volunteered.

“Thank you,” he said. “It helps me,” he continued enigmatically.

I filed that away for my mother. He continued to stand over us, popping his lips against the pipe stem, letting out short puffs of smoke.

“We’re going to the Geary to see Plain and Fancy,” I said. I was concentrating on keeping the duck and the sauce on the plate, and so missed his expression. But I heard him say, “Ah,” in a way that seemed deep. He took Ellen’s hand and said, “The theater.” Then he left abruptly.

Ellen watched him go. “That was weird, the way he left,” she said.

“He always leaves like that,” I said to Ellen. “That’s not weird. The pipe is what’s weird.”

Even though Ellen hunched forward during the entire second act, spoiling my plans, I did not count the evening a total loss. We had a lot of laughs. And there was Uncle Louis.

The next morning, in between my combination plot synopsis and review, I reported the tale of Uncle Louis and the pipe and the scarf. My mother’s eyes lit up, but she didn’t say anything. . My father said, “I always say…” and then decided not to.

The following week on a Tuesday evening Aunt Clara appeared. She drove up in her old blue Kaiser as if it were Thanksgiving or Christmas. My father saw her framed in the doorway, coughed, and headed for the basement. My mother was at her nightly post-dinner solitaire, and I was across the table pretending to study my algebra. Clara ignored me, pulled out a chair and sat down abruptly. She was breathing hard and her clenched jaw made her chins jiggle.

“Well!” she said.

“Hello, Clara,” said my mother. She looked down at her cards, then decided the game was finished and swept them all together into a pack. I decided that whatever was happening was more interesting than algebra, so I hunched down and pretended to study harder.

“He’s flipped,” said Clara. She was always up on the latest slang. “He’s rented that wonderful house to some couple from Niles, and he’s moved to an apartment in the City.” She paused for breath, and longer, for effect. Mama gave in.

“By himself?” she asked.

“Of course by himself,” shrieked Clara. But she couldn’t bring herself to go on. “Clara, just spit it out,” said my mother. “He’s your brother, after all.”

“The apartment is in North Beach,” said Clara.

I was impressed. Jackie Martin’s older brother had been over to North Beach on a double date. They had gone to the hungry i and seen Mort Sahl. And afterwards they had gone up to the City Lights Bookshop. Jackie said there was a place downstairs where you could sit and read the dirty books.

“North Beach is cool,” I said.

“Finish your algebra upstairs,” Mama said. I bent over the table and looked busy until she focused back on Aunt Clara. “There must be more than that to bring you all the way over to the West End this time of night,” she continued, aligning the cards with light taps of the deck. Clara looked at my mother and took out a handkerchief. She touched it to the hairs on her upper lip, and paused.

“He’s going to quit his job,” she said. There was even more, but Aunt Clara couldn’t bring it all out at once. Mama tapped the cards and began to shuffle, but stopped after the first cards had fallen.

“And. . .” prompted Mama.

“And . . . He says he’s going to be a playwright!” Aunt Clara spit it out in one breath with her eyes closed.

“Imagine that. Whatever for?” Mama asked the table.

Clara just rolled her eyes and began to quiver.

“You know I’m still not over that business about Cat,” Mama said. “But I’m not putting that in on this.” Here was Mama, getting ready to deal out a new hand of cards. “This is different. Now,” Mama lowered her voice and moved closer to Aunt Clara without moving. I knew she was right at the heart of things. “What I want to know is, what has he actually written, on paper, that makes him hopeful he can do such a thing?”

Aunt Clara stopped quivering and exploded. “Nothing,” she said.

“You mean ‘nothing hopeful’ or ‘nothing nothing,’“ my mother said.

“Nothing nothing,” said Aunt Clara.

“How do you know?” I asked, curiosity overcoming fear of banishment.

Aunt Clara spoke at me through my mother’s dark look. “He told me,” she said. “I asked him ‘What have you written?’ That was the first question. And he said, ‘I haven’t gotten to that part yet.’” He said he could only change one thing at a time, so he was going to ‘arrange the arrangements’ first, and then write the plays.”

“What arrangements?” my mother asked. I knew, but couldn’t say: the pipe and scarf were the first signs, a tiny red tip of butterfly wing at the far end of a gray cocoon.

“I don’t know,” Aunt Clara cried. She paused and looked in my direction, then decided I didn’t matter. “I think he’s taking drugs. Or maybe he’s drinking.”

“I don’t think it’s drinking,” I volunteered, now that I was part of the discussion. “He wasn’t drinking the other night in the restaurant. He was just smoking his pipe.”

“A pipe!” said Aunt Clara. She pointed at my mother. “Smoke,” she said ominously. “They smoke all kinds of things these days.”

“Prince Albert isn’t dope,” said my mother.

“Well, it isn’t Chesterfields either,” Aunt Clara popped back.

They went round it some more, but couldn’t find anything else. There wasn’t much any of us could do besides watch and wait. Jackie Martin and I had a long talk about North Beach one day in his back yard. I told him everything I knew about Existentialism. I thought I sounded pretty good.

My father stayed in neutral, declaring that he would “reserve strongly” on the subject. However, he shifted into high a couple of weeks later as one Friday night Uncle Louis became “That Damn Fool.” Uncle Louis had done the unthinkable. He had gone to see my father at his office during business hours, and it wasn’t an emergency.

My father was an assistant vice president with a big bank in the City. As I pieced it together later, one of the people in my father’s section had lost a check for $850,000 and traced it to an elevator shaft. Money was always being “lost” at the bank, so there was nothing special in that. It was only a slight worry. It was while my father was engaged in the finding that Louis and “some young girl with black hair down to here and so much black gook on her eyes you wondered how she could see straight” had barged through my father’s office and found him down on his knees at the open elevator shaft, peering into the dark, trying to locate the elusive draft while a secretary held a flashlight.

Uncle Louis had always had the mistaken notion that because my father worked in a bank, he had money. I believe my father had once explained to Louis (as he had to us many times since his promotion) that there were more assistant vice president in banks than lettuce leaves in Salinas. Louis, however, was dazzled by the title and the closeness to the money. “No more sense than a turnip,” said my father.

So right then and there, while two full vice presidents hovered nearby waiting for my father to find the check, and his secretary jiggled the light, Louis and his friend made their pitch for money by acting a scene from Louis’s play “about death or some damn thing,” said my father, his ears turning red again.

For myself, I wanted to know whether Uncle Louis was a good actor, but I couldn’t think of a way to ease the question into the conversation. About six weeks later I almost got to see for myself.

Uncle Louis was now driving a Yellow Cab. When he pulled up at the curb one night, my father, idly watering the hydrangeas by the front porch, dropped the hose as if it had turned into a snake, and bolted past me up the front steps and into the house. I could hear the basement door slam shut.

“Allazoozoo, kiddo,” said Uncle Louis.

“Hi, Uncle Louis,” I said. “That’s a neat taxi. Does it have a two-way radio?”

“Sure,” he said. He got out, stretched, and shut the door quietly. “A little talk this way,” he pointed, “and a little talk that way,” he pointed again, “and I’m off.” His hand made a shooting motion up to the sky.

“How’s the play coming?” I asked.

His eyes lit up and he wiggled his eyebrows. “Terrif, kiddo,” he said. He looked right at me and said, seriously, “Very cool.”

I nodded.

“Oneness and wholeness. Half and half again. Being and essence,” he concluded.

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Me, too.” My mother came out on the porch with a dustcloth she kept flicking.

“You could take that hose around the back now,” she said to me. I shifted the hose to my other hand and she looked over at the cab.

“Hello, Louis,” she said from the top of the steps. “You look different again.” He touched his hair. That was it, of course. All the gray was gone.

“Hello, Helen,” he said, shifting from one square to another on the sidewalk. “I wanted to invite you all to come to my play.”

“In a theatre?” my mother asked too quickly.

“Yes and no,” said Uncle Louis, moving as he spoke.

“Which is it?” My mother snapped the cloth. Louis danced over to another square.

“Well,” he said, “it’s public and people are invited.” My mother stopped flicking the cloth and waited almost patiently.”So I guess that makes it theatrical…”

“Louis,” my mother intoned.

“It’s in the basement at the City Lights Bookshop over in North Beach. This Sunday at 5:00. A staged reading, they call it.”

He was so proud, this uncle, a tone I had never heard from a grown-up before. Could change really fill you up and make you not care about barging into an office or moving sideways across a sidewalk, the way he was doing now? His excitement seemed to hold him from above, on strings, buoying up his chest, making his legs light. He had forgotten about my Aunt Cat and all that meant to my mother. All he wanted was someone from before to share in the change. I watched my mother soften a little.

“What’s it about?” I asked, shifting the hose back.

“A woman who senses the futility of life and descends into a living hell,” he said. “It has music, too.”

“Sounds neat,” I said quickly, to cover my mother’s look. “Can I go?” I asked.

“We’ll see,” said my mother.

I went, finally, not because my mother thought I should, but because she needed someone between her and Clara, and my father refused. “I’ve already seen it,” he said. “The elevator preview. Unless he’s doing it up in Napa,” our closest insane asylum, “I’m not interested.”

Since none of the other relatives could be persuaded to find the time, that Sunday I was forced into the black suit and maroon tie and sat in Aunt Clara’s Kaiser, watching my mother’s back get tighter at Clara’s erratic approach to traffic. I was in a sour mood since my suggestions about us all wearing “cool clothes” had been vehemently overruled.

“I’m not sure about that hat,” said my mother, looking dubiously at Clara’s feathers.

“I always wear a hat,” said Aunt Clara, in the same tone she used to announce that she always had a second piece of cake.

We parked two blocks away and walked up the hill. The bookshop glowed from the corner. Jackie Martin’s brother was right. It was wonderful. The bearded Chinese at the cash register let us by the door with a look; I didn’t care. The racks and shelves were crowded with paperback books. I recognized the names Kerouac and Ginsberg and Camus, but the titles and the rest of the authors went by too fast. My mother was actually pushing us along. The old wooden floor smelled sweet, and the aroma of ink and paper hung in the air like incense. There were a few people among the books—men with beards and women with long hair and long skirts. The place felt safe.

“Don’t you look at anything,” my mother said, giving my head a rap with her middle finger, the way she had done since I was five. I was half blind with embarrassment at being dressed wrong with funny adults in this grown-up heaven, and excited beyond the telling at actually being there. I couldn’t wait to talk to Jackie so we could figure out how to get here on our own.

A space had been cleared downstairs. A couple of stools stood behind black music stands, just like the ones in the school band room. Over to one side a man stood behind two bongo drums and a xylophone. Across the room an old overstuffed chair sat in the middle of a dozen wooden folding chairs, like an old frog with a lot of undeveloped tadpoles. I sat down in the big chair and sank until my knees were even with my chin.

My mother appeared. “Get up out of there this minute. What do you think you’re doing?” She was using her loudest whisper. “Look at this,” she pointed. “And this.” Her finger jabbed again. I looked at the back and arms of the chair. The fabric had been completely worn away. There were only shiny black patches, worn smooth by countless heads and arms. “You don’t know who’s been there or what. Get up.” I struggled to my feet, my ears red like my father’s. I followed my mother and Aunt Clara to three of the folding chairs near the drums.

At five o’clock more people came in and sat, but things seemed no closer to starting than they had when we got there. A woman with bells around her neck glided over to us, jangling softly as she moved. Her eyes were fixed on Aunt Clara, actually on the hat.

“You know, I could charge money for this,” Aunt Clara said sarcastically. But the woman only smiled and kept looking, moving her head up and down, jangling. Aunt Clara finally gave up and pulled off the hat and put it in her lap. She was quivering, but silent.

At five-thirty someone changed the lights to dim and the bongo drums began to get more rhythmic. Five minutes later Uncle Louis walked in. He was wearing a black turtleneck and black jeans and black boots. His pipe was confidently clenched at a jaunty angle. He looked over at us and nodded gravely. I mouthed the words, “Allazoozoo,” over to him. I thought I saw his eyebrows wiggle, but I wasn’t sure.

“He’s growing a beard,” Clara whispered. My mother nodded. I thought maybe he had just forgotten to shave.

Louis sat in the overstuffed chair. The Chinese man looked over the banister from above, then went up and turned off some of the lights. The man stopped playing the bongos and started plonking on the xylophone, harsh rhythmic chords. A door at the back opened and a man and a woman stepped up to the stools. They were both wearing black turtlenecks and solemn expressions. They stood in front of the music stands and the woman said, “This is the first public reading of Blind Darkness, the first play of one of San Francisco’s newest authors, Louis Luznik.”

Mama and Aunt Clara stiffened simultaneously. I was a little stunned myself. Not only had she pronounced his name “Lewis” instead of “Loo-ey,” but Uncle Louis’s last name wasn’t Luznik. Not even close. I tried to explain.

“I think he needed something more like Ginsberg or Kerouac, since he’s writing that kind of thing,” I offered. My mother just stared quietly. But Aunt Clara was beyond staring or explanations. She was out of her chair and standing over him before the actors even had time to climb on the stools. Clara’s hat was in her hand and she shook the feathers down at Louis sunk in the chair.

“Louis. Frankfort. You. Traitor.” She punctuated each word with a feather poked at his face. He took the hat from her firmly and gave it to the bongo player, who put it on. Clara looked stunned. “Sis,” he said quietly. “It’s time for no more wienie jokes. So split.”

My mother turned to me and said, “Split?” at the same time Clara said, “Wienies?” The actor, perched on his stool, turned a page of the script on the music stand. “Act One,” he intoned. “At the edge of the Dead Sea.” The drummer began a complicated rhythm on the bongo drums. He shook his head; the feather twitched. The actress began, “At the edge of the endless sea, night and dark from the black…”

I think I would have liked it. I thought I knew what it felt like, to be dark and lonely. But my mother turned to me and said, “I don’t think a family discussion between Clara and Louis is just the thing for right now. Let’s…split.”

Aunt Clara was so amazed that she followed without a murmur. My mother propelled us up the stairs and out the door the same way she had moved us in. It was almost like a movie run backwards. I waved to Uncle Louis over Aunt Clara’s shoulder as we went up the steps. I thought I heard him say, “Later, man,” but it could have been the bongo player.

And that was really all. Change happens and then it stops, and for a while—sometimes a long while—things are a new same. Mama decided the old game was over and that it was time to deal Louis a whole new hand. “Cat would have wanted us to help Louis,” she said to my father. She invited him to special Sunday dinners and made my father promise to keep quiet when he talked about his plays. This new Uncle Louis drove a Yellow Cab, lived in North Beach, wrote things, and—when he came to dinner with his beard and his pipe—smiled. He stopped saying “Allazoozoo,” though. And I was never really sure how I felt about that.

 
   
  © Robert Moulthrop, 2011

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