Sel Forage had the face of a ditch, all carved up and messy. He belonged in a prison yard, not closing in on his eighteenth year as a case worker for the Chicago Housing Authority, ostensibly helping the same impoverished, broken families he was shaking down for sex and drugs. He got away with it for so long because, basically, no one wanted to hassle a guy who looked like that.

He learned from his mother, the first one, the one who disfigured him, that fury was the hugest, sweetest inhale of all. After she left for good, Sel took that lesson and made it his own. He held it close and polished out the rough edges. Then he packed it together all smooth and hard and dense and stuffed it way deep down inside him. He was eight.

It’s still in him, all that useless rage. But much like how he never allowed mothers two and three the satisfaction of loving him, Sel pays no mind. Not anymore. That fiery knot’s become such an integral part of what he’s turned into as a man and human being that after forty-three years his resulting choices and actions are now these things that just happen, like cell division or gravity. Because however long it takes, you eventually learn to accept the things you can’t control. Be it the color of your skin or the economic station into which you were born or the childhood that vanished *poof* the night she had one too many and then got hold of some scissors and started swinging.

In a forgotten stone cathedral off Michigan Avenue, Felicia attended a lecture sponsored by the Museum of Contemporary Art. She was looking for some insight into art or life – something to take her outside herself for the evening. What she got instead were beautiful, oversized color pictures of bodily fluids, corpses, and old, naked Hungarian women smoking crooked cigarettes. That the lecture was staged in a house of worship was supposed to lend a gravity or reverence to the sensational subject matter. Instead, the setting merely added insult to everything the usual Sunday morning faithful believed in. But, Felicia figured, that was the point all along.

They were being driven to the school gymnasium by her parents, the orthodontist and the librarian. Both their stomachs were in knots – the boy and the girl in the backseat. They hadn’t yet kissed or even so much as held hands, so the faint tickle of rubbed elbows back there – to say nothing of the looming slow dance – made them want to die.

The orthodontist and the librarian felt secure dropping them off knowing there’d be chaperones and that they’d raised a daughter capable of making sound decisions. Plus they approved of the boy’s upbringing by his university professor parents and therefore trusted his judgment and intentions.

Besides, did you get a look at those two back there? They were petrified, white as sheets. The last things on their minds were love or heavy petting or terminating an unwanted pregnancy. Of that, the orthodontist and the librarian were certain.

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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