FEBRUARY 2009 – NO. 30
Rumor had it my sisters and I had reason to expect a small bequest.
When Uncle Arnold died some years ago, rumor had it my sisters and I had reason to expect a small bequest. How much, we wondered? Oh, around $10,000, Dad guessed, remembering times he'd loaned his younger brother money over the years. Arnold, a hospital psychiatrist, had a history of getting into scrapes. Once, he smuggled a patient out to a bar. Maybe Arnold had feelings for the man, or maybe he only wanted to chat a while, except the patient got hammered, and Arnold lost his job. Even unemployment couldn't dissuade him from collecting rare books and obscure antiques, which he paid for with dollars begged, squirreled, or borrowed, buying so much he hired two movers to drive some to storage. Unloading the truck, Arnold maintained an anxious commentary of the items' worth.
"Be careful with the Yeats!" he called as the movers balanced another carton of first edition poetry in the storage unit. "Those'll pick up a fortune!"
And of the museum-quality Samurai Warrior enthroned within a lacquered case, "I snapped that up at four thousand!"
Soon after, Arnold received a call from an alert book dealer dismayed at finding Arnold 's holdings on the market.
"I put those in storage!" our uncle exclaimed, but soon discovered his compartment emptied, a freshly opened passageway leading into the neighboring unit, which had been rented by the movers.
Such stories were part of Arnold 's charm. Because he screwed up so often, he was afforded license to screw up more. From what havoc he created he was exonerated, as if an act of God and not Arnold was responsible. Compared to him, our family was irreproachable. It was important for Arnold to visit if only to give Dad reason to show his face at the liquor store and replenish the Scotch, which Arnold polished off in a day. He'd shrug off his fashionable sweater, don his coffee-stained bathrobe and sit himself down in the serene expanse of carpeting and drapery that was our parents' living room, sweat aglow in his face, big nose growing pinker with every swallow.
"How can you stand kids? They're a pain in the arse," he'd ask as Mom fetched ice and Dad, mystified by his brother's inability to rub two nickels together, recorded today's loan in his checkbook ledger. "When Lou goes, I'll pay you back," Arnold added, referring to a dying relative whom Arnold had reminded, just that week, that he had promised Arnold his stamp collection.
To be called a pain in the arse was better than being reminded of your stamp collection from over your last tray of hospital Jell-O, I figure, remembering three truly nice things Arnold said to me. The first was when I was 11, dressed as a Victorian whore for trick-or-treating. I wore a torn petticoat with gauzy blue lining, a hook and eyelet corset over a training bra, and gobs of rouge.
"Abby's becoming a nice looking young lady," Arnold remarked, raising his bushy eyebrows while dropping dimes into my Unicef box.
The third nice thing was in a letter he wrote me, saying he'd enjoyed my novel, SNAP, but the second nice thing had been a year earlier, at Dad's sixtieth birthday. With me was my then-husband and our two-year old son, Alex, whose hair cast a blonde halo over overalls. He perched on his diaper in that ramrod-straight posture of babies, stacking alphabet blocks.
"Tell me. How did you ever manage to marry such a Jew?" Uncle Arnold regaled me from over the decorous arrangement of ice tongs and cocktail napkins comprising Mom and Dad's liquor table.
I have a memory of Arnold wearing a yarmulke, but that's probably from a photo of a grandparent's funeral. Our atheist family's undercover Jewishness was an object of paradoxical pride and vexation.
"He's no more Jewish than you," I retorted, only to be rendered speechless when Arnold added, "But the baby's glorious."
I didn't see Arnold again in the years remaining to him after that, and, freshly divorced, I didn't fly east for his funeral. Touched to learn he might leave me some money, I began making plans about what I might do with $10,000. Trip? Health insurance? New kitchen floor?
The other thing I imagined was that I'd write something in honor of my uncle's generosity. This essay, you see, was to be my thanks to him for leaving me and my children something material to remember him by.
But the decree was delayed (so far, the only thing I'd gotten from my uncle was his nose) and there was talk of a revised Will being unearthed. My disappointment was more about this essay than the money, for, not knowing what to think about Arnold's largesse, I slid my thin sheaf of notes into an accordion file and labeled it, Arnold. It stayed there ten years.
Whenever my globetrotting son, Alex, now in his 20s, comes to visit us, our rabbit, Sidnyee, hops into his room, and chews through a piece of laundry as if in code, leaving behind a constellation of delicate, jagged holes. Once, Sidnyee breakfasted on a richly woven Henley chosen by Alex's dad's new wife, and wanting not to be responsible for its unraveling, I brought it to Wu's Cleaners for repair.
"And how is Alex?" Mrs. Wu asked, surprising me. "Jacob Wu, my son," she explained, reminding me of the boy who had used to come over on long ago days to play Legend of Zelda. Jacob planned to start pre-med in Madison, soon.
"But really he want to be musician," she confided in a whisper, eyeing the back of the shop where her husband dismantled a sewing machine. I couldn't tell which she regretted more — that Jacob wanted to be a musician or that he might become a doctor, instead. The two careers aren't mutually exclusive, we agreed.
After that, whenever I had dry-cleaning, Mrs. Wu and I shared news of our sons. This went on until one day, as I was fetching my younger son, Jess, at school, he told me a boy from Alex's class had died in a car wreck that weekend.
Jess's news is nothing if not reliable. He makes a habit of delivering crucial information, like what his Dad's salary's up to by now, and like on 9/11 when he phoned to tell me to turn on TV.
Hundreds of mourners attended Jacob's funeral. Mrs. Wu sat in a wheelchair near the front of the vast, crescent shaped church, for it was she who was driving when another car swiped hers into a ditch. Her face was swollen, her neck secured in a brace. A song composed by Jacob was played on a piano, and Jacob, taller than his parents, lay in his coffin wearing an immaculately pressed suit. As always, I found the prayers, high ceiling, and somber finery comforting. Atheist that I am, I wondered what might soothe me when it's my turn to weep for somebody I love.
Uncle Arnold's estate, featuring the Newport house with its cargo of nineteenth century porcelains and Victorian daybeds, its shelves of rough-cut Wordsworth's amid rows of scrimshaw, ended up being worth between two-and-three-million dollars … all of which went to the other, WASP-ier side of the family. Arnold wanted a proper heir, went the theory, and chose the nephew he knew best, pre-teen son of our cousin.
Dad, flummoxed at having been left out, kept returning to when Arnold 's car was towed and Dad drove to Manhattan to bail it out. How did Arnold have enough money to purchase his own Samurai Warrior, but never enough to redeem his traffic tickets, tickets of which Arnold boasted as if they were Purple Hearts?
Before leaving for grad school in London, Alex passed whole months lying on our couch reading geopolitical memoirs while drinking limitless orange juice, then watching Spanish language television until 2:00 a.m. His lassitude was mind-boggling. The only way I could urge him onto his feet was to offer a walk and some talk about politics, or really, the spectacle of my version of current events flailing against his expertise. When he finally went overseas again, I pictured him shedding his Wisconsin doldrums and stepping into vigorous new skin, roaming the planet the way he loved.
Indeed, no sooner was he immersed in the insane hysteria of the School of Oriental and Asian Studies (students calling on one another to become suicide bombers, audiences throwing chairs at lecturers) did he begin an application process for study in Cairo. What began as a simple physical ended up with him emailing us to say he'd been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes.
I have to tell you I screamed — and that my panic only worsened once I googled diabetes. Infirmities large and small — heart disease, nail fungus, stroke — are made worse and more likely by diabetes, which causes most blindness and limb amputation in the U.S. It also makes you thirsty, skinny, and depressed, explaining the orange juice and the indents his hip-bones left on our couch.
At Jess's Parent Teacher I noticed a pretty Korean woman talking to Physics. Though us other mothers had only grown older, Mrs. Wu appeared younger than before, or maybe it was the lighting that, compared to that at the cleaners, showed her wide eyes and smooth brow to advantage. Her grief over Jacob rubbed her into a pearl. She approached me with a look of unearthly kindness.
"I hear you lose Alex," she said, a hand at my elbow as if I might lose my footing, which I nearly did.
"Lose Alex?" I asked, imagining the awful news failing to reach me before everyone else. My boy was dead, I imagined, but they'd neglected to tell me. That's why the teachers were being so nice.
I shook my head in response. Alex was fine. He had started on insulin, and was studying in the Middle East. The change in diet didn't phase him; he'd never been a sugar hound. As a toddler he chose kiwis over cake, and on rare afternoons he wanted a cookie, he'd ask could he have "something not not sweet."
Years after his death, Uncle Arnold's memory inspires a certain unhappy embarrassment, as we imagine him passed out in Grand Central Station on one of his final evenings on earth. He's wearing one of his too-loud sweaters, his disrepute the object of forbearance more than sorrow. Like all Arnold-lore, this version misses a crucial point, news that trickled down in such ambiguous terms that only now do I pull out the notes for this essay and set my mind to it again.
Arnold had diabetes. His friend, Janine, whom I met in Manhattan visiting my sister, brought that fickle news home. That's what downed him in Grand Central, and that's what finally killed him. From Newport, slipping into comas, he'd phoned Janine in Manhattan so often she memorized the Newport police phone number, waiting for them to kick in his door. She was shocked I didn't know everything about this. I did but I didn't, I tried to explain. It had to do with the chronic Frucht hubris, our die-hard insistence on mitigating circumstances behind all bad news.
Arnold had diabetes? "Yes, but he drank."
Arnold refused insulin? "Well, he was such a rapscallion."
Alex is in Peru now. I'll be visiting soon, and I wonder how he'll be — pale or vigorous. In my mind I introduce son to uncle. Arnold levels a dubious assessment, but Alex stands his ground. In under a minute they elect to be friends, sit, test their blood sugar and drink so much beer, I worry there'll be none left for me.
And there isn't. Not a drop.
Back to Top