I can remember the exact day this happened. It was June 7, 1968, the day after Bobby Kennedy was killed. I was eleven years old, riding in the backseat of my parents’ Ford Fairlane, barely listening to what they were saying to each other in front. The Queen Mary as we passed it, docked in its berth by the West Side Highway, was a lot more interesting to me than their conversation about Uncle Sol. Until it started to get heated.
Uncle Sol lived in Teaneck, New Jersey, and that was where we were going for what was, technically, a belated condolence call. It was the first time we were visiting him since my Aunt Harriet died, almost a year before. I’d never thought about why we waited so long, but now, as my father was angrily telling my mother, it seemed we didn’t wait long enough.
“You’re making me do this goddamn thing,” he said, his voice rising in volume as the Queen Mary faded behind us, “and I’m only doing it because he’s your brother. I hope you realize that.”
“Thanks a whole flippin’ bunch!” my mother answered, employing one of her favorite phrases. “I know what a tremendous sacrifice you must be making.”
“Oh, don’t give me that crap. You don’t like him any more than I do, admit it.”
My mother gave a half laugh, half snort. “Well, I sure couldn’t like him any less.”
I don’t know how often my parents spoke to each other this way, but it was the first time I remember them doing it in front of me. They could have done it on other occasions, but I just didn’t notice. I didn’t notice a lot of things when I was a kid.
For instance, I didn’t notice very much about Uncle Sol or Aunt Harriet, even though we went to see them a couple of times a year. I’d always be put in the den in front of the TV, where I’d happily watch cartoons and kids’ shows by the hour, while the adults did what they did and talked about what they talked about in other parts of the house. Aunt Harriet would come in from time to time and bring me a snack. Uncle Sol, I hardly saw.
“Why don’t you like him?” I piped up from the backseat.
It was as if my parents had forgotten I was there until that moment.
“Oh, Jake,” said my mother, turning to me with a look of concern, “it’s not that we don’t like your Uncle Sol. He just has a unique personality, that’s all.”
My father grunted.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Yeah, Esther,” said my father, “what do you mean?”
My mother shot him a sideways glance. “Never mind. We shouldn’t be talking about this.”
“But you are,” I insisted, now really into it. This was the first time I’d ever heard my parents criticize any of our relatives. “What’s wrong with him?”
“He’s low-key,” said my mother, which made my father chuckle.
“I guess that’s one way to describe him.”
“Never mind, Lou,” my mother warned.
“When you get to college, Jake,” said my father with a quick glance over his shoulder at me, “and you take a course in psychology, you’ll come across the term ‘passive-aggressive.’ When you do, the book will probably show a picture of your Uncle Sol.”
“Really?” I said, fascinated.
“All right, Lou, that’s enough,” said my mother. And that was all I could get out of them for the rest of the trip.
* * *
“Now listen,” my mother told me as we walked up the driveway toward the house, “don’t ask him if his picture is in a psychology book, okay? Your dad was just kidding.”
We were a couple of steps behind my father, who was carrying a pot of beef stew. I was holding the cherry pie my mother had baked the night before. She’d explained to me that you always bring food to a condolence visit.
Uncle Sol had a three-bedroom house at the end of a cul-de-sac, with a modest backyard and some woods behind it. My parents thought he’d sell it at some point because it was too big for one person, but that meant little to me. All I could think of was the amazing revelation that my parents didn’t like him.
He must have been watching from the window, because he opened the door for us before we could even ring the bell.
“Hello, hello!” he sang out, his eyes twinkling. “Come in!”
Uncle Sol had a thick mane of gray hair that was carefully combed back. He looked like he was ready for eighteen holes, dressed in checkered slacks, a red golf shirt, and brown tasseled loafers.
He stepped aside and we entered. The first things I saw were the piles of clothing on the sofa. Then I noticed one of the lampshades was askew. We brought the food into the kitchen, and my mother gasped at the sink full of greasy dishes.
“Doesn’t your dishwasher work?” she asked my uncle.
“Actually, it’s been on the fritz all week. But don’t worry about it, Esther, the cleaning women are coming tomorrow.”
His voice was soft, and he had a half smile on his face. I’d forgotten how gentle his voice was. And the half smile.
“I can’t leave the sink like this, Sol,” said my mother. “I need to have it clear for dinner.”
Uncle Sol said nothing. He just looked at her benignly and shrugged.
After a second or two, my mother said, “All right, why don’t you guys go into the living room? I’ll clean up the dishes.”
“Is there any beer in that fridge?” my father asked.
“Not sure,” said Uncle Sol amiably. “I might have finished it up last night, I can’t remember. Why don’t you take a look?”
“Yeah, why don’t I?” said my father.
Uncle Sol turned to me with those twinkly eyes. “TV’s in the den, Jake, same as always. I don’t know what cartoons they’re showing, but you’re welcome to find out.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I think I’ll just stick around out here.”
It was, of course, the first time I’d ever turned down the offer. If he was surprised, he didn’t show it. Maybe he thought I was becoming mature, or maybe he didn’t think anything.
As for me, I wanted to stay right there and watch this. My newfound knowledge of my parents’ antipathy for Uncle Sol was far more fascinating than a bunch of cartoons.
My father did find one can of Schlitz in the back of the refrigerator, along with a Coke for me. My mother had to wash out two glasses for us, since there were no clean ones left in the cabinet.
“I don’t know how you expected us to have dinner tonight, Sol,” she said. “Every bowl and plate in the house is in this sink.”
Uncle Sol shrugged again with the same pleasant, slightly amused look.
My father led the way into the living room, moved the piles of clothing on the couch to one side, and sat down. I took a rumpled pair of slacks off one of the wing chairs and stood holding them uncertainly.
“Just put them anywhere, Jake,” said Uncle Sol with a vague wave of the hand. I didn’t know what to do, so I put them on the floor. No one seemed to object.
We all sat down, my father on the couch, me in the wing chair, and Uncle Sol in his recliner.
I don’t know what I expected to happen, but nothing much did. My father asked him how he was getting along, and he said the winter had been pretty bad, but now he was playing a lot of golf. Then they talked at length about the weather. Aunt Harriet was never mentioned. I tried to remember what my parents said she died of. I thought it was a ruptured appendix or something like that.
After a while, my mother came into the room and sat down on the couch next to my father. That’s when it began to get interesting.
“We’re just in shock about Bobby Kennedy,” she said. “Wasn’t that awful?”
Uncle Sol thought about it a moment. “I suppose so.”
“You suppose so?” said my father.
“Well, I’m a Republican, so I’m not as concerned as some.”
My mother looked at him like he’d just stepped on a kitten.
“Sol, for God’s sake! I’m a Republican too, but what does that have to do with it? This isn’t about politics. This is a terrible tragedy. Don’t you have any feelings at all?”
He actually had to think about that for a moment too.
Finally, he answered her. “Everyone has feelings,” he patiently explained, the half smile flickering. “We’re certainly seeing enough of it on TV nowadays, and I’m sure we’ll see a lot more of it after this. I just hope it’s not as bad as when that Negro got killed a couple of months ago, with all the riots.”
“That Negro?” said my father, his voice hardening with each syllable.
“Yes, you know, what’s his name…King.”
“You mean, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King,” said my mother.
“If you say so,” replied Uncle Sol.
We’d been given the day off from school in the wake of the assassination, which was why I was along on this trip. I was dimly aware that Martin Luther King had been a civil rights leader, but I wasn’t quite sure what that was.
Despite my ignorance, I could tell that Uncle Sol had just said something my parents found very offensive, if not shocking. The silence in the room showed that.
My mother looked over at me. “Don’t you have homework?”
In fact, I did, and I’d brought it along, but I’d left it out in the car.
“Yeah,” I said, “but it’s nothing. I can do it later, or after we get home.” I did not want to miss whatever was coming next.
“Nice try,” said my mother. “Go out to the car and get it. You can work on it in the den, since you’re not interested in watching cartoons.”
“Aww,” I said uselessly.
My mother didn’t speak because she didn’t have to. She just gave me that imperious Look That Must Be Obeyed. It compelled me out of my chair and out of the house to the car.
When I’d described my homework as “nothing,” it was, of course, a lie. I actually had homework in two subjects, math and social studies, each of which involved a big, heavy textbook. I gathered them up from the backseat, as well as my notebook and pencil case, and hustled back into the house.
The den was on the second floor, and the stairs were next to the living room entrance. I took them slowly and quietly, straining to hear as much as I could. Halfway up, just at the point where I was no longer visible to them, I stopped and crouched down.
“You’re so emotional, Esther,” Uncle Sol was saying. “Ever since you were little, I’ve always told you to be reasonable.”
“You sure have, till it was coming out of my ears. Be reasonable, be reasonable. I hated it then and I hate it now.”
He chuckled. “Well, it’s good advice. Too many people act on their emotions. They go off half-cocked when they should be using good sense. What was it Kipling said? ‘If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, you’ll be a man, my son.’”
“If you can keep your head,” said my father, “when all about you are losing theirs, you probably don’t understand the situation.”
“I’m sorry, Sol, but that’s the way I feel,” said my mother. “And sometimes, feelings are right. You can tell me to be flippin’ reasonable all you want, but it won’t change my mind.”
I was balanced on one step, clutching my schoolbooks and so intent on listening that I didn’t realize my social studies book was slipping out of my arms.
It was a fairly thick book, but not so thick that it couldn’t fit sideways through the banister stair posts. As it slid from my arms, that’s exactly what it did, tumbling through them.
Instinct made me lunge for it. My shoulder slammed against two of the posts, which were thin to begin with and probably loose. In any case, they gave way, and books flying in all directions, I fell to the floor below.
It was about a four-foot drop, and I landed on my right arm. The pain was immediate and intense. It radiated up and down my arm. I was too shocked to cry as I lay there, stunned.
My mother screamed, “Oh, my God!” The three of them emerged from the living room, my mother, my father, and Uncle Sol.
“His elbow’s broken,” she said, kneeling beside me and cradling my arm.
“Ow, ow, ow!” I wailed.
My father was kneeling to my other side. Uncle Sol stood over us, his brow furrowed as he analyzed the situation.
“It looks like a bruise to me,” he said. “I think a little ice is all we need.”
If it was, he certainly was making no effort to get any. He idly ran his fingers over the stumps where the two stair posts had been.
“Jesus Christ!” my father said as he stood up and stomped into the kitchen. He came back with some ice cubes wrapped in a dish towel.
“We’ve got to get him to the emergency room,” my mother said.
“Oh, I don’t think that’s necessary. Not for a bruise,” said Uncle Sol.
My mother ignored him. “Can you hold this in place, Jake?” she asked as she applied the towel to my elbow. I nodded, and she and my father carefully helped me to my feet.
“We’re taking him to the hospital, Sol,” she said. “Are you coming with us?”
He considered it. “I don’t really see the point,” he said in that calm voice. “You don’t need me there, and I still think it’s a wasted trip.”
“Fine,” said my mother, and with my parents huddled protectively around me, we made our way out to the car.
They knew where the hospital was because we’d passed it every time we came out here: the Holy Name Medical Center on Teaneck Road. It was only five minutes away.
Those five minutes plus four hours later, we emerged with my arm in a cast.
“Let’s go home,” my father said wearily. “He can keep the beef stew and the pie. We’ll order out once we get back to Brooklyn.”
“We still have to stop at his house to get Jake’s schoolbooks,” my mother remembered.
“Then let’s get it over with.”
Uncle Sol said he understood perfectly. All that time had been taken up at the hospital, and now it was getting late. We’d do this again on another occasion.
“Sure, sure,” said my mother as she gathered up my books, which were still strewn about on the floor.
On the ride home, she was seething. It didn’t matter that I was listening in the backseat; she didn’t care.
“He never said one thing about Jake’s elbow or even asked him how he felt, the son of a bitch. A bruise!”
She simmered some more. Then she said something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
“He killed her, Lou. Just as surely as if he’d taken a gun and shot her.”
She didn’t hear my gasp from the backseat as she went on.
“I talked to Harriet on the phone the day she died. She was working her tail off, getting a dinner party together for his cronies, his fellow account executives. She’d been having abdominal pain for two days, but he kept pooh-poohing it. Said it was her nerves. He never cared for her, Lou. He’s never cared for anyone in his life. She died of something nobody dies from. And it was his fault.”
“I know,” my father said softly.
“I hope he chokes on the goddamn beef stew.”
* * *
Uncle Sol did not choke on the beef stew. He died two years later on the golf course, of a heart attack. My parents had had no contact with him since our visit that day, but they did go to his funeral. I, thirteen now, was deemed old enough to accompany them.
I didn’t know anyone there. They were all his business associates and golfing buddies. There was really no family to speak of. Uncle Sol and Aunt Harriet had no children. He and my mother were the only siblings, and my grandparents had died before I was born.
I wandered about, listening to snatches of conversation. Evidently, he’d made a lot of money for the advertising agency he worked for, and people were recalling his expertise. No one was particularly distraught, at least, not outwardly. Except for one elderly man, who seemed to be in shock.
“I was with him when he collapsed,” he was telling a group of people, practically in tears. “We were way ahead, just about to win the tournament championship. As we approached the eighteenth hole, he said to me, ‘Howard, I don’t know if I can do this. I’ve been feeling lousy all day.’ I said, ‘Sol, we’ve got it in the bag. Just one more hole!’ He said, ‘I know that, but I don’t think I can go on.’
“It was so unlike him that I should’ve realized something was wrong. If I’d told him right then and there to sit down and take it easy while I called for a doctor, maybe he’d be alive today. But I didn’t. I kept after him, trying to make him play that hole. I said, ‘We’re almost there, Sol. If we don’t play this hole, we’re gonna forfeit. Come on, be reasonable.’
“God forgive me, those were the last words the man ever heard.”