The Dead Uncles _

They were arranged, the kid’s dead uncles were, from left to right by order of death rather than birth order.

The first, a medium shot of a ten-year old George straddling a brown- and white-spotted horse, was the only color print. Squinting under a wide-brimmed hat, George leaned forward, bracing himself with his hands on either side of the horse’s thickly muscled neck. His eyes focused on something off the left side of the frame. A slight curl in one corner of his mouth could have been a smile, though it easily could have been a wince from the bright afternoon sunshine. George lay down on some railroad tracks when he was thirteen.

Next to him was a standard holiday portrait of Earl posed in front of a Christmas tree. He stared straight at the lens, his unlined child’s face unmoved by the camera’s attention. A striped turtleneck crept up his neck and seemed to push out his ears, both of which poked through the sides of an awful bowl haircut. At fourteen Earl hanged himself from the rafters of the rickety barn Grandma Clara soon thereafter burned to the ground.

Uncle Billy was the kid’s favorite photo of the four, not least because the then-twelve-year-old most resembled the kid at that age. Billy’s was a headshot, tight, lots of negative space, with only half his face crowding the grainy right side of the frame. His one visible eye was partially closed, caught in quarter-blink. The slur of freckles across his nose would disappear by the time Billy was sixteen and he threw himself off the Portage Dam two towns over.

Jack, though first-born, was the last uncle to die. In the only wide shot of the four, Jack sat hugging his knees to his chest on the front stoop of the uncles’ tiny boyhood home. It was late autumn judging by the skeletal maple tree dominating the foreground. The kid always felt a chill standing before these family ghosts, and Jack’s figure, a seeming afterthought in his photograph, made it worse. Jack put a gun in his mouth a week before his eighteenth birthday.

The four-by-six-inch dead uncles lined a darkened, seldom-used hallway leading from the laundry room to the kid’s father’s locked den. Each print was mounted between two thin rectangles of glass and hung from thin-gauged wire on its own clear thumbtack. This precarious presentation always struck the kid as angry, as if his father – who created the tableau ­– was just waiting for these memories to shatter, was asking for an excuse to duct tape the garage shut and then start the car.

***

Why the father never followed in the footsteps of his dead brothers the kid didn’t know; the father was tight-lipped about so many things. If once it was to spare Grandma Clara from yet another loss, she was long gone now and wouldn’t know the difference. Maybe growing up with all that death made the father appreciate life that much more. Maybe he lacked the internal resolve needed to overwhelm one’s will to live – that primordial battle’s a real struggle. Or maybe the father simply loved the kid too much to do that to him.

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