My Uncle Mark was the black sheep on my Mom’s side. He moved to Windsor during Vietnam, saying, “Good luck with that bullshit war – I wanna live.” When he got back he hustled the pool sharks at some east side Ferndale bar and made so much money that he bought a double-wide on Harsen’s Island, an hour north of Detroit, and never came back. My dad and I would go up there for a week every summer and Uncle Mark would drink too much Canadian Club and smoke too many cigarettes while watching reruns of Snagglepuss – an obscure Yogi Bear Show segment about the misadventures of an ebullient pink mountain lion – telling everyone what was wrong with them.
He pissed off everybody; that’s what he was good at. I always found it funny. I mean, the only reason he did it was to get a rise out of people, and you’d have thought they’d catch on after a while and just roll with it. I always belly-laughed, and I’d like to think he appreciated that, like some washed-up comedian honing in on the one son of a bitch in the stupid, bloated crowd who appreciates his act.
So it didn’t necessarily floor me when he dropped dead at 58 from a heart attack after all the whiskey and Marlboro smoke, but it did surprise me when he left some cryptic note in his will for me.
“Let me read it again,” my mom said after the funeral.
“For Ryan, I leave you the relic behind the holy water in my cathedral.”
She shook her head. “He’s pulling your leg. Isn’t this just like him.”
The rest of the family said they didn’t mind that Uncle Mark was gone because they didn’t care for him, and that at least the holidays would be peaceful now. Christmas was a week away, and they chatted excitedly about the absence of tension, rudeness and condescension during the Advent season.
After changing out of my funeral suit, I wove my way down 9 Mile in the snow drifts, eyes following the lazy tango of the windshield wipers as I drove to meet my 2:00 appointment.
Holy Water in his Cathedral, I thought to myself after a tumble at the Red Roof Inn off the I-75 service drive. The hell could that mean?
“Maybe it’s a metaphor,” said the divorcee next to me, fingers in my hair.
“I don’t think my uncle was that clever.”
“Well, what was his God? Where did he worship?”
That’s when I remembered the name of that bar where he hustled his slice of the American Dream – Kady’s Bar, by my old shop. I’d been there, years ago, for some co-worker’s birthday party. “It’s probably there. Worth checking out, at least.”
She pulled $20 out of her purse. “Got time for a quickie?”
No Sav-A-Lot groceries for me this week Uncle Mark, I thought to myself as I went down on her. I could almost taste those Kroger rotisserie chickens.
See, after my fabricating shop closed, my plan was to get some headshots and move to New York to do some modeling. I hitched out there with some kids I knew from high school – a shoegaze ukulele band with dreams of a write-up in Pitchfork – and wound up walking around Manhattan for two weeks, no bites on the line. Great body, I was told, but your face is too kind – you look like you’re listening to someone’s problems. I need someone who looks like they’re going to jack my car (I took it as a Detroit jab, let it slide). I didn’t want to go home right away, not ready for the told-you-so looks at the unemployment office, so I started hanging around the bars in Williamsburg, Greenpoint, watching lonely Rust Belt ex-pats drink Canadian Club and kicking off an unexpected bed-hopping tour of Brooklyn (a rent-saving tip Uncle Mark bequeathed to me on those Harsen’s Island summer nights when my Dad was out of earshot). In bed, the women told me that all the guys in Brooklyn were selfish assholes who never really enjoyed sex themselves or knew how to please anything other than their own egos – that they never listened or even pretended to care that the person whose intimate company they just enjoyed might have an interior life. I told them it was different in Detroit, because we couldn’t afford to be mean, and they said, “Oh, God, Detroit, I’m so sorry,” like it was a fucking leper colony. That’s what I remember about those salad days in Brooklyn: the dirtiness, the bourgeois pity, how all the guys were pricks (although I guess rudeness is a turn-on in bohemia; toothless cruelty must be sexy in a contemporary Dangerous Liaisons kind of way). I remember how nice it was to really get to know someone after the anticipation of orgasm, how I should’ve charged for sex.
And when I got off the Greyhound back in Detroit, that’s exactly what I did. All the wives of pink-slipped factory workers in the bars and parks and grocery stores around town were awfully horny – famished, even, as Snagglepuss would say. My boyish, nice-guy looks worked well in contrast with their gruff, angry spouses. I had a face they could confide in. One of them told me after a romp around her trailer in Warren that it was good thing I was young, because marriage is really just a financial and hereditary agreement between two people who expect to keep making money, and that it was amazing how fast “love” dried up when bankruptcy was breathing down your neck.
So I discovered there was a hole in the market I could expertly fill, and the fake allure of an eccentric gentlemen I gleaned from watching hours and hours of Snagglepuss with Uncle Mark went down terribly well – fabulous, even. I never got to tell Uncle Mark about my post-industrial enterprise, but I’m sure he would have loved it, another punk kid from his mutt bloodline making a dishonest living. I dreamed of making enough money to buy a house outright, maybe a cottage Up North, where I could grow my own food, be self-sufficient, live without money. Maybe I could shoehorn one of my tricks into coming with me, if we wanted the same thing.
“Club soda with lime,” I said to the bartender, noticing the freshly buffed shuffleboard table, the yellowed photo of Tiger Stadium signed by the ’84 World Series team. The place was empty.
“You in the program?” she asked, reaching for the soda gun.
“Nah. Just think it’s boring.” I didn’t drink because it killed Uncle Mark, who she didn’t know.
“You think being drunk is boring?” She set the drink in front of me.
“I mean, it feels the same every time, doesn’t it? I don’t see the point in doing something over and over when you know the result’s gonna be the same. Especially with those hangovers.”
“So overindulgence isn’t your bag?”
“I wouldn’t say that, necessarily. I see everybody – especially since that mortgage thing stole everybody’s equity, I still can’t believe we didn’t riot – spending all night drinking and then holding their heads and bellies all day until they can start drinking again. Living in a finite world and all, seems to me to be a waste of time.”
“Well, what else is there to do around here now?”
“I’m partial to a romantic entanglement here and there.” I picked out the lime wedge, sucked out the juice.
“Then why are you sitting in an empty bar at three in the afternoon?”
“So many questions.” I winked – a good tell I learned from Uncle Mark when he was winding someone up on the Island, seeing if they would take the bait.
“Honey, you’re the only one here. Gotta keep myself entertained.” I thought her use of that endearment odd, since she looked to be my age. When she brushed her hair behind her ear and ducked into the light I noticed the absence lines around her mouth, of bags under her eyes.
“Do you happen to have Cartoon Network?”
“Wouldn’t you rather regale me with tawdry stories?”
“Sorry. I don’t kiss and tell.”
“What a gyp. Can you elaborate, at least? On your romantic philosophy?”
“Honestly, it’s probably the only thing I’d do for money, though I reckon the ensuing loss of intimacy would…complicate my arousal. Problem is, ladies aren’t too keen on fellas with no cash.”
“Every girl? Is that so?”
“Is there anything I can do to make the questions stop?”
She leaned forward and met my eyes. “I know your con, boy. I’ve seen you around.”
“I feel aghast – insulted, even.”
“I knew it! The Snagglepuss bit, too.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever met a fellow Snagglepuss enthusiast.”
She put one hand on her hip, gesticulated flamboyantly with the other. “Forsake, and forsook. Heavens to Betsey!”
I lowered my head to hide my laughter. “Where have you seen me? I haven’t been here in years.”
“A few times – the produce section of the Kroger on John R, chatting up a young mother of three as she pushed a baby carriage…in Green Acres Park, helping a housewife walk a fucking Shih Tzu…oh, Luxury Lanes on 9 Mile, giving a form demonstration to…”
“Okay, okay…the cat’s out of the bag.”
“Not a bad hustle, I have to say.”
“Enough about me. What do you do, miss….”
“The fuck’s it look like?”
“Sorry – I mean did. Before things went belly-up. I used to work at Dynamic Fabricating, that’s why I’m curious.”
She poured herself a shot. “I was grad student in English at Wayne State. I was doing a thesis on economics and religion in the works of Steinbeck.”
“I’m intrigued – fascinated, even.”
“You can drop the Snagglepuss bit. Though I did find it charming when I first heard it.”
“You did, huh?”
“Now it’s you with the questions.” She took the shot, traced the bar with her index finger.
“Anyway, you’d be surprised how much “God” and “Christ” are evoked by a frustrated George as he juggles Lennie with the cold realities of private land ownership and slave wages in Of Mice and Men.” She reached into the register and pulled out a $50.
“What’s that for?”
“I’m off from 3 to 5.” She winked.
“You have the wrong idea. I’m not some…”
“Oh, yes you are. Textual analysis teaches you to spot the intentions of the author.”
“You don’t seem like the type who needs to pay.”
“It’s been quite a dry spell. When my college fund dried up I had to take this job and move in with my dad and brother. They’re not big on…overnight guests.”
I walked into the bathroom to take some “vitamins,” making sure my performance wouldn’t lag since I was still thinking about the funeral, about that line in Uncle Mark’s will. I closed my eyes and tried to recall the last conversation I had with him on the Island, seeing if it could spit out a clue:
“On the Island there’s this retired UAW guy who loves Bruce Springsteen, blares it from his pontoon boat whenever he’s had too much beer. You know, all these songs about how great it was being young, all those broken dreams, winding up at the mill or foundry your dad always tried to steer you away from. Sentimental nonsense from some wistful drunk – makes me sick.
“And Ryan, all I can think is, Fuck that guy. Not just my neighbor, but Bruce Springsteen, too. If he could have seen what happened when those “demeaning,” “repetitive” jobs moved away he would’ve written about something else. Like that work is so humiliating. ‘Fuck’s wrong with doing something eight hours a day? Especially when you’re young. It’s not like you’re gonna do shit anyways. Only thing you can do is get enough money to do what you want till you die. Why do you think I love Snagglepuss so much? No other piece of American art has so perfectly defined the futility of the rat race, social climbing, bourgeois propriety.”
“But you sure as fuck don’t have to get that money slaving behind some belt grinder or drill press, son. That’s for dumbasses like your aunts and uncles – like my neighbor with his fucking Springsteen. Use that brain of yours. And have faith in something – a tonic, something that gives you some clarity. Don’t waste time on the misery. Growing up where you did, you see decay every day – you’re surrounded by it. Life’s a lot shorter than you think.”
I cupped the pills and stepped into the stall. Carved over the toilet was Snagglepuss’ famous departure: “Exit…Stage Left,” undoubtedly a memento left by Uncle Mark years ago. I reached out and touched it, moved my fingers through the jagged grooves.
When I walked out of the bathroom the lights were out. Near the back door I heard pulls on a cigarette, the jangle of car keys. Tonic, I thought. Clarity…holy water. I walked around the bar to the dusty liter of Canadian Club, pulled it out, and saw an envelope shoved into a gap in the cheap wood siding.
When I woke up, the sheets were warm. She was over by the motel room window, smoking, eyes on the American flag flapping in the wind outside. “Looks nice against the winter sky, doesn’t it?”
“Nice to see one out,” I said. “A lot of them have been put away in the neighborhood.”
“People are too cynical. Things don’t go their way and it’s fuck this, fuck that.” She stubbed out her cigarette and reached into her purse. “What do you think about it here?”
This was the part that I would pay for: the pillow talk, after you both release your tension and can nakedly be yourselves, at last. “It’s not so bad. Would be nice to be able make some more scratch.”
“No kidding.” She walked to the bathroom mirror. “What else, though? What’s keeping you here? I ask myself that every day.”
“I guess I love the sensuousness of this place. I love the way it looks – the bungalows, the factories – I love the way it smells, with all the diesel fumes, the way it tastes…every time the seasons change you can taste the hidden flavors of Detroit. I love the sounds of semis on the freeway at night. Helps me sleep.”
“How does it feel?” She smiled at me through the mirror.
I stretched out on the cheap bed. “I love this place the way I love sex, love intimacy, with all of the imperfections, the secrets…the history. But I know it’s not good for me because there’s no way I can make enough money.”
“That’s the whole point of this country,” she said, re-applying her makeup. “To acquire some capital. Once you do that, you can just own. You don’t have to work.”
“I think it’s deeper than that,” I said, admiring her figure in the mirror.
“If you don’t believe that you’re an idiot.” She smacked her lips, evened out her lipstick.
“Or a hippie. Or you’re just rich. I get a lot of those kids in the bar, now. Grandparents got themselves some capital in the boom after the war then their parents went all hippie and liberal and now the grandkids are nihilists.” She noticed me watching and moved back to the bed. “Horrible tippers.”
“What about a cottage on some land up north – Lake Huron side, the budget side. Room for a garden, a few chickens. How much capital would I need for that?”
She laughed and kissed me on the forehead. “Oh boy oh boy, George. That won’t run you much. Good luck getting a girl up there with you, though.”
“I don’t recall inviting you.”
We wrestled, gently. She worked her way out of her clothes. “Wouldn’t go anyway.”
“And why’s that?” I worked out of mine.
“You still believe in God?”
“I don’t. And if this is all there is I want a sports car and a mansion on the west side and a Rolodex full of boys like you.”
“You better get back to work, then.”
“I’m not done yet.”
We changed positions. I stroked her naked back. “For someone who doesn’t believe in God you sure do use His name in vain a lot during copulation.”
“What are we gonna replace our orgasms with now?” She smiled at her cleverness. “Our Oh God’s, our Jesus Christ’s?”
“Maybe some Greek and Roman deities? Oh Zeus! Mars! Athena!”
“Heavens to Murgatroid!” She fell into me, laughing. “Religion is for the capital accumulation period, anyway – when you’re sacrificing your existence so your children can piss the profits away. Once you have enough money, you can just stop believing.”
She sounded just like Uncle Mark during Christmas Eve Mass. I kissed her neck.
“How do you want to die?” she asked.
“Does it matter?” I kissed her collarbone, the space between her breasts.
“To me, yeah.”
“Just to drop, I guess. Fade away into nothing.”
She pulled me inside of her. “Exit, stage left…”
When I woke up again she was gone. On the bedside table lay a few loose bills and some numbers scribbled on the motel notepad. I stretched out, walked to the bathroom, looked at my naked body in the mirror. Too skinny. Maybe I should charge more so I could eat more protein, I thought. I walked back to my jeans and pulled out Uncle Mark’s $2,000 bar tab I found behind his holy water, setting it on the bed this pretty stranger and I had just shared our lonely moment on, Christmas lights from outside dancing on our stains.
I thought about the moment of my creation, how I understood people’s sadness at Christmastime because of the love that lingers when the fleshy beacon is gone, when all that’s physically left of that is some money or some debt, in one form or another. And maybe that is love, really – the ability of the dearly departed to give their still-living next of kin comfort, let them live in a way they couldn’t, or wouldn’t. And maybe, just maybe, all those years down the line there’ll be equilibrium, and everyone can forget about money and just get back to love.
But it was still early – enough time to make another hundred bucks, maybe two. I showered, put my clothes back on, and drove off into the night.
Joseph Harris is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Minnesota. His stories have appeared in The MacGuffin, Third Wednesday, Storm Cellar, Beecher's, and have received the Gesell, Tompkins, and Detroit Working Writers Awards for Fiction. He lives in Minneapolis.