by Lou Gallo
When they cut off my Uncle Henry’s legs I was off smoking weed with a girl who said she was the great-great-great niece of President William Henry Harrison, the one who never made it to the White House. I remember an efficiency rank with cat piss and stale Purina, a green cotton spread on the mattress, Southern Comfort, vanilla candles, and Jim Morrison in the background, her favorite, though I inclined toward Jackie Wilson or Ben E. King. I’d hate to think we reached the sublime right as that blade dug into my uncle’s bones—must have smelled grisly like when dentists drill into some sick molar.
He was a big man who would capture you at reunions and boom the secrets of direct marketing, mail order, and free advertising. My cousins and I tried not to meet his eye, but he always cornered Sandy because at the time she had those new breasts, which he always managed to brush against. Back then it disgusted us, though now I think I understand; I was out trying to do the same thing, not with Sandy, although she too crossed my mind. He just seemed so old and his teeth had turned into kernels of corn. He had a wife, of course, my mother’s sister, but aunts and mothers don’t figure when it comes to love you can call love.
The decline began when a drunk broadsided Uncle’s van and they had to pry him out with crowbars and two-by fours. A miracle he survived, everybody said. Broken ribs, two crushed legs, spleen damage—there’s more, always more, but at some point you lose count. We saw him a few times buzzing around in a wheelchair with two massive casts on his legs. The doctors discovered diabetes during their probe and that’s what finally ruined him, not the accident. His skin started to swell and blacken with gangrene long after the broken bones had mended.
Years later I saw him out at his ranch-style house in Picayune, where my family and I drove for a mercy visit—even I dimly aware that a finale had commenced. He slumped in the same wheelchair with a green shawl hiding the missing legs. He didn’t talk much anymore but sometimes he’d laugh at a joke or groan. Aunt Ruth said he had high fever all the time and felt horrible. He no longer tried to corner anybody and his voice had shriveled to distant static. He didn’t even notice Sandy, who’d come along for the ride. I saw him pick at a tray of cheese cubes stabbed with party toothpicks. Mostly, he sat in the corner and stared at some game show on television.
Before the funeral I had too much to drink. My sister, cousins and I clumped together in a vestibule—I’d brought along a new girlfriend who smirked a lot as we made snotty comments about relatives we hated. Everyone wore black except us. We planned to invade the French Quarter soon as we could slip away from the wake. My mother had dragged me over to the casket to take a last look at the man who once spent an entire day locating a suitcase of mine; the railroad has lost it on my trip to New Jersey, where Uncle and his family lived before he retired back home to the south. It was easy and free staying with them while I spent my days and most of the nights prowling Manhattan. I never thanked my uncle for his trouble.
We headed straight for Bourbon Street. My cousins and sister disappeared soon enough and I wound up in Lafitte’s Blacksmith shop with Wanda, who smoked two cigarettes at once, white fangs dangling from the meat of her glossy violet lip. I drank vodka martinis until all the shitty things she said about life, love, politics, men and God shrank into the screech of some pitiful insect. But, God, she had gorgeous legs, chiseled, they seemed, right out of a vat of Coppertone. Someone started to plunk “I’m Walking” on the bar piano and patrons gathered round to sing.
Dimly, I heard Wanda call my uncle a pig. It was my fault. I‘d told her all the stories. But just then I felt pretty sorry for him. “You don’t know one God-damned thing,” I growled as the room spun. When I stood up to leave my knees quivered and I knew I was headed straight down before I got anywhere, faster than that dumb president who missed the White House or an old man with no legs.