My Uncle Has Come to Live in Our Basement
My uncle has come to live in our basement. He’s out of jail and out of his halfway house. I imagine a house that is not quite there, or maybe hovering on the edge of a cliff, a single misplaced spoon enough to send it toppling down into a dry canyon, landing with a small poof of dust. My parents discuss his arrival in ways designed to keep me from knowing anything. They let sentences dangle, the unsaid words obvious to each other but not to me. “Well, because of…,” my mother says. They have coded, fragmentary conversations in front of me, so I ask because of what? but they never answer. They just continue. “His probation requires…” “Have you spoken to…?” “He can’t because of…”
They are not protecting me. The conversations could be had behind closed doors or while I am at school, and because they discuss these cloaked, hidden things at dinner or in the car, I come to see it as their game. A way to make difficult subjects fun and clever. They play this game while my uncle stands out behind the garage smoking Kools, throwing the butts on the ground. It makes my stepfather furious. He has no problem saying so to my mother, but he won’t speak to my uncle. My uncle won’t speak to him. He clams up when I come into the room, pinching his lips together and staring at the floor.
So ingrained is their pursuit of hidden meanings that my stepfather loses track of what I’m not supposed to know. He becomes tight-lipped about what we are having for dinner (“You’ll find out when you eat it.”) He stops passing on messages from my friends, who call when I am cutting the grass. My mother and uncle get in the car and leave me watching my little siblings, even though my stepfather is home, locked behind the door of his office. I’m too young to be in charge of children, and I resent their happy play, the way they sing out words that make them laugh. Danny calls out “Nostrils!” and Hannah dances across the floor. It is their word for dancing. Even though they are not twins, they have their own coded language.
Operating on a need-to-know basis, my stepfather decides no one needs to know anything and stops speaking to anyone but my mother. He doesn’t even acknowledge his own children. He walks past me without a glance, the metal inserts in the heels of his shoes clacking across the floor. I scramble to get out of his way. When he speaks, it is in their code. “If there’s one more…” he says, his face red and his hands in tight, white fists. “One more what?” I ask, pleading for inclusion. He ignores me and stomps through the kitchen to his home office, slamming the door. My mother looks at me and smiles. Without warmth or comfort, it is not the smile of a mother.
At a friend’s house, I listen to his family talk about getting a dog. The kids know what day they are going to the kennel. They know the breed of dog they are getting, what the breeder has named her, what name they will switch to when they get her home. They know she will be weaned in a week and what she will need. They know Tim feeds the dog Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Lisa has Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. On Sunday, the parents will take responsibility, switching off every other week.
When it’s my turn to say something, I blurt out that I don’t know what to say because nobody talks to me. There are nervous smiles from the parents. “They never talk to me.” I suppose I look sad because the mother’s smile melts away, and a look of worry comes over her face.
“Everybody in my house.”
Later when I am leaving she pulls me aside. “Chris, honey, if you ever need someone to talk to, just pick up the phone and call me. I’ll talk to you.” I pedal away and only when I am walking my bike up the steep hill on Westview, I realize I am crying.
Walking in the kitchen door, my mother’s hands are instantly on my face, fake nails pressing my cheeks together, digging in, leaving marks that teachers will see but say nothing about. “What did you say to her?” I don’t know what she means. “What did you say to her?” she hisses in my face. “You don’t know? I’ll tell you what you said…” The worst possible thing has happened: Mrs. Olsen has called my mother to say Chris feels like no one respects him. She went on to give my mother a talking to about the importance of self-esteem and children feeling wanted.
This is a betrayal. I have gone outside the bubble of our family’s ways. I have violated the unspoken rule of withholding information (of course it is unspoken). She gives my face a final squeeze, my head a final shake, and shoves me away, whispering, “Get out of my sight.”
In saying this, she hits upon a new idea. Because I cannot be trusted with even fragmentary information, I am ordered out of the house when they want to talk. “Out!” she says, pointing a plastic fingernail at the door. I go to the backyard and stand in a dense grove of arborvitae. Looking in through the wide windows, I see them standing in the kitchen, but they could be paper cut-outs. My stepfather walks away, and she sits down. I creep back in and tiptoe past her to my room. Later, the smell of Old El Paso drifts under my door, but I don’t go downstairs. Only when I hear the TV in the family room do I enter the kitchen to find a cast-iron skillet of orange hamburger on the stove and a taco shell on a plate. This works for me. I’d rather not eat in front of my stepfather. He is critical of the way I chew and the way I breathe when eating. I stand at the stove, silently chewing, scarcely breathing, then go back to my room.
Our stairs creak, so I walk on the sides, where the tread joins the wall. It’s not because I have to keep silent, but this is how I prefer to be. I learn to pee by aiming at the sides of the bowl. I flush slowly so that the toilet makes half the noise of a normal flush. I pull my jaw back into my head as far as it will go because it seems to make my existence quieter.
A day comes when I have silently descended the stairs, and, standing in the front hallway, I listen to my mother on the phone. I don’t know who she’s talking to. Hearing half of her conversation is the same as her talking to someone in the room. She lets sentences drift off, their meanings left to the other person. She says yes and no and maybe so, and then says “It wasn’t his penis. He used his tongue.”
Standing inside the front door, my stomach turns to glass. I’m afraid to breathe, afraid I’ll shatter and die. Making my feet as loud as possible I pound up the stairs, letting all the world know I have feet and that they are mine, not theirs. These are my feet! I want to scream at her. And though I don’t know what his tongue was used for, I am sick anyway. I start to cry, not wanting to know what I am crying about, but really, I do. At school we are warned about certain adults, but instead of “rape” they use the word “hurt.” Like what happens on the playground. Like what happens when you fall off your bike. He hurt someone, not with his penis but with his tongue.
My mother comes into my room. I am reading Animal Farm. She stands, staring at me for a minute, then says “Your uncle molested Crystal’s daughters.” Crystal is his girlfriend. Her daughter is a year younger. My mother watches me, waiting for my reaction. I have none.
“Did you hear me?” I don’t answer. “Did you hear me?” she yells.
“Okay,” I whisper into the pages of the book.
She stares at me a second before she goes out and pulls the door closed behind her. What I have said is the equivalent of clicking a box. I have accepted the terms and conditions of membership.
I will never leave the bubble. I will never talk about us ever again.