You’re sitting in a dark room, watching FRIENDS reruns, which you sometimes say you don’t like anyway. Start by turning your phone on silent. Flip it over so when the screen lights up you won’t see it, not for hours later, until the dog and son are in a car with your husband, the cat in your neighbor’s yard, stalking goldfinches so they can leave their lives and puffy yellow feathers in your hallway. Alone-alone, the only thing to do is listen to the voicemail.
Push play. It is your uncle. The number is familiar in the vague way of some colors, some smells. The way the back of a person seems like someone you’re convinced you know, but then they turn.
In the voicemail. Static and the muffled sound of tires zooming over pavement open for his voice, which is ragged, a smoker’s scratch, except you’ve never seen him with a cigarette. The reaction in you. Toes: tingle. Scalp: hot. A desire to put down your sweating glass of white wine. You think he has maybe called you by mistake. But he says hello, uses your name. Yammers about the length of time.
Truth: the wine feels bad, but you clutch it close, gulp it down. You know time, like the last you remember of him was at your wedding.* He’d worn a belt which held up his jeans to keep his ass-crack hidden. Also, he’d tucked in his shirt, which was blue, or maybe gray, with a parrot and a pirate and a bottle of liquor on the front. You can’t ask for everything. Your father was pleased.
Listen to the message again. At the end your uncle’s voice will break, a small fissure, gone in a one-shot instant. You may have imagined it. He says to call him back if you want, if you likeor-not. There is more road noise before the call is over. You consider phoning back.
Listen harder. Search for a slur in his words, but find none which in the end means nothing
for a two-fifths man. In what he says—that he misses you—hear what goes unspoken. Your husband’s name, because he’s forgotten it again. The break in his voice, heard now three times, seems a shout. A plea to call him back.
Put calling him back on tomorrow’s to-do list. Procrastinate for three days, and when you call, he will be surprised, coming off a three day bender. He won’t remember calling you, but you will. Say goodbye and store deep in your brain the memory of his voice cracking, somewhere in a gray-matter fold where it can age and mellow.
*Not your wedding, you realize later. He was polished-prim for your cousin’s. Uncle didn’t come to yours, which was a relief on all accounts because no one had to monitor the kegs. **
**Dig below the lies you tell yourself. The last time you saw your uncle went like this:
You were at the shelter looking at puppies you’d never adopt, giving treats to the dogs which you might. You rounded the last kennel on the left and there he was. Looking down you saw in his arms a bundle of dirty cotton sheets. Your surprise mirrored his own. His voice was too loud as he announced his donation and dropped the sheets into a plastic bin marked Cat Food. The shelter staff looked up and then averted their eyes.
You did too, cooed to a dog with mange-thin hair around its ears. Its body wagged and even though there was a sign saying not to, you stuck your hand through the chain-link fence. Puppysharp teeth chewed your fingers.
She’s a nice one, ain’t she? said your uncle. It occurred to you that he might be here to find a dog, and you prayed very hard that he would not, even though you don’t believe in God.
I need to take my son home, you said. You made excuses about groceries and errands that didn’t need doing, but your uncle followed you to the parking lot and you realized he had driven there, and you wondered which car was his. And also, what would you do if he forgot his car, got into yours? Years ago he’d split from his girlfriend but you saw her last year, bags under her eyes more pronounced, hair thinner, but she knew your face and her voice was as sweet as ever.
She didn’t ask about your uncle. Even she didn’t know where he lived, so how could you?
Would you take him to your house, not knowing his address but not trusting if he knew his own? You shouldn’t have worried. When you opened the door, he only touched your son’s head and said sorry, I can’t remember your kid’s name but he looks like you.
He shimmied and stumbled up into a gray Suburban. You drove behind him until he ran a red light and someone honked, and you thought for a moment they were honking at you. You prayed again to God because you didn’t know what else to do, you just wanted him to make it home without killing someone because if he did the blood would be on your hands. That night you laid in bed, staring at the clock and watching it hit one, two, three a.m., and still, no one called to report your uncle dead.