I learned the truth about him in the parking lot of a Krispy Kreme. Not many people’s lives change in such a place; it was a peculiar choice on my mom’s part to reveal the truth about my deceased uncle there. I was ten, still desperately clinging to my belief in Santa Claus, even after I’d seen my mom stuffing our stockings in the middle of the night. It’d only been two years since my family relocated from Florida to North Carolina, and my mom, brother, and sister were visiting our old stomping grounds and my grandparents. I still loved it back then. I held such a torch for my beloved Florida, my home, before I turned sixteen and noticed the shady car dealerships and treacherous swamps. My sister and brother had wanted to sleep in on this particular day of our trip, so my mom and I headed off early in the morning for a pleasant visit with Grandma.
To be fair, no one wanted to visit my grandmother. She was so cynical and judgmental, always greeting us with “I feel horrible today. My meds have increased my shaking. I’m just waiting to die.” in a flat, uncaring voice. I never knew how to respond. What could I say? “Sorry, Grandma. Don’t worry, the day will come?” Every visit goes the exact same way, too. She leads us into her bedroom, past ripped up carpet and free-standing litter boxes lining the hallway. She lies on her bed, propping up her feet with revolting, long, thick toenails. They curl up like a hand--or a toenail--reaching up from a grave. She usually reflects on my mom and dad’s failed marriage, and us children’s schooling. Needless to say, I was not looking forward to this without the distractions of my siblings to alleviate her awfulness.
The visit went as scripted, not a line of improv anywhere. She was doing so poorly that she wishes she could kill herself but she doesn’t want to end up a stump in hell, etc, etc. The visit isn’t what I remember, it bleeds in my memory with all the other ones. On our way home, though, my mom took me on a journey. We explored Arlington, the once wealthy neighborhood that hoodlums and heathens invaded in the early 1990s, and my mom’s most memorable spots. She took me to the YMCA, where she had her first kiss at thirteen with an eighteen year old. We drove past her childhood friend Lisa’s art deco-futuristic home, and the pool where she’d lifeguarded. I marveled at each of these spots, at my mom’s history; it’s always surreal to see who a mom is before she’s a mom. It was receiving a piece of my mom I’d never seen, and I was secretly glad my sister and brother had slept this one out. It almost seems now, in hindsight, that she knew she was going to lay it on me. My mother isn’t very nostalgic, and even at ten I knew this (showing her pictures of my infant self had little to no effect), and I should’ve suspected something big was about to be unleashed.
Once the detour wrapped up, I begged her to stop for a donut. “It’s still early!” I maintained, even though it was noon. “We don’t have to get any for Bella and Joe!” My mom has a unique fear of buying in bulk, or maybe of leftovers. Either way, I knew the thought of an entire dozen donuts going unfinished would persuade her to just accommodate my grumbling tummy, and not my inferior siblings. As a reward for trooping on with her to see her mother, she allowed me the treat, and pulled into the parking lot of a Krispy Kreme.
I know I brought my uncle up, but I don’t know why. Perhaps it was the sparked by the frosty aloofness of my grandmother, or the trip around my mom’s childhood. Everything I knew about him--had been told about him-- seemed irrefutable. My uncle had died when he was eighteen and my mother was only four. He’d been on the way to visit his father, different from my mom’s, and was hit by a car while crossing the street. At my mention of him, my mom’s face screwed up all funny, the way it sometimes did after my parents fought and she came up to re-tuck me into bed and apologize for waking me up. “You have to promise not to tell your brother and sister,” she started. I nodded eagerly. I’d take anything that could signify me as the favorite, especially secrets. “Well,” she began hesitantly. My ears were fine-tuned like a radio signal--I wasn’t going to miss anything. “Your Uncle Steve didn’t die crossing the road.” She took a breath. So the chicken joke isn’t about him? I thought to myself. “He committed suicide.” My eyes widened. Suicide was hush-hush around my house, and considering I wasn’t allowed to say “stupid” yet, this was quite the scandal to drop on me suddenly. At that moment, an image of my uncle was conjured that probably will never change. He walks across a large, deserted road, the sky the color of an aged photograph. He whistles under the toothpick in his mouth, and he wears square-toed combat boots. He has a stick with a bandanna attached at the end of it and a tumbleweed drifts past (I was only ten, cut me some slack). The ways in which this is wrong are numerous. For starters, he had a car, he wasn’t on foot. There is absolutely no way he carried a hobo stick like in cartoons. He probably wore sneakers or Converse. But all I can see is him, walking slowly across that street.
They found him on the side of the road, next to his car, with his belt looped around his neck and the nearest chicken-wire fence. The paramedics, while attempting to revive him, cut off his shirt, and my grandmother, my cold, cold grandmother, who calls to say which sister is prettier (usually Bella, but it was me on the day I visited) kept it and locked it in a drawer. Along with that shirt, I think, is Stevie entirely, locked away. After his burial, he was never spoken of again. My mom doesn’t know anything about him, and only has one or two memories of him. At first I wondered, could my grandmother be so cold? But then I remembered her fear of everlasting stumphood, and the constant nagging about my parent’s divorce. She wasn’t cold. She was Catholic.
I asked my mom again recently what else she knew about Stevie. It was a futile question, as I myself had done some research, and learned more about Stevie than my mother had ever divulged. One tedious day in Environmental Science, I searched for him everywhere in cyberspace. The only thing I could find, the lone pathetic fact, was that he had been discharged from the Army one year prior to his suicide. A rage filled within me, exploded inside me like a covered grenade. This was all there was? To a human life? All I could find of my uncle’s 18 years were two dates. And, on top of that, I blamed the military. Not very original, but I couldn’t help it. If they hadn’t discharged him, a tiny voice said, he probably wouldn’t be dead. But then I think he still might be dead anyways, maybe he was just a set-his-mind-to-it kinda guy, and I blame Stevie again.
To my surprise, though, my mom said, “All I know is that his car ran out of gas.” His car ran out of gas? No, it couldn’t be. It couldn’t be something so--mundane. So ordinary. I suppose I can rationalize it. The dishonor of being discharged from the military, for reasons I’m still not sure of. The shame of being the product of a teenage mistake; the shame of having to seek out his father, rather than the other way around. His longtime girlfriend had just dumped him, maybe because he was not a true patriot, or maybe because he was too poor to afford a full tank of gas. Do these tribulations of life, along with a sputtering car, logically lead to suicide? To my uncle, they did. And I’m forced to confront that maybe life holds less meaning that I make it out to be, and that life can turn on a dime, sometimes so quickly that an empty tank can be the catalyst that leads to dangling from a fence.