Friday, November 30, 2007

Befriending Dead Uncle Joe

Category: Issue 8, Short Story Winners

I was given the notebooks and memorabilia left by my late uncle Joe.  It was my job to distill from it what was important and what could be thrown away.  I had no idea what I was getting into.  Something very very strange happened as I perused the side-effects of my Uncle Joe’s life.

My own notebooks are from my school days.  I’ve filled the fronts with class notes and doodles, and in the back I’ve written poems, short and long essays, lists of mathematical esoterica, and drawn classmates’ profiles and other unrecognizable abstractions.  I was interested in learning what format Uncle Joe’s notebooks had taken on.

After a few hours of puzzling over the apparently meaningful squiggles drawn tightly slanted like common weeds wind-blown and tangled as they grew out of each line, I was frustrated. Eventually, however, I learned the written language of my Uncle. E’s were just short L’s, and I’s were the same, but with a dot in the vicinity, usually.  The combination CI and the single letter A were indistinguishable except by context (and the dot, usually).  I learned to appreciate the mistake of handwriting with only the author as the intended audience.  Since I had experienced learning to read once before, I had a slight edge over my four year old niece this time: I knew how to spell.

Uncle Joe was a gambler.  He didn’t spend much time placing bets on anything, though.  He preferred to gamble on the little chances we take in every day life.  One of the first things I found was his statistics notebook from college.  Talk about an old document!  I passed quickly over the graphs and the equations because I remembered a lot of it from my own course in the subject, and it bored me.  But I found a little personal dissertation on the relationship between human beings and the numbers we use to figure the chances of this or that thing happening.  His point was that the chances, in reality, are either 100% or 0%, and any number in between was basically a measure of our lack of knowledge.  All you have to do to see this is consider something that’s supposed to be fifty-fifty, wait til it happens, and then measure the probability again.  In every case, the thing will have gone one way or the other, ie 100% or 0%.

That’s how Joe gambled, but not with money.  In his diary, he lists out the plans of people he knows, and figures probabilities for whether they pan out or not.  One of the entries suggests:  “Some day, dear reader, be you me or a compadre, you ought to figure out how good these estimates were.”  I considered this an interesting challenge.  The trouble is I have no idea how to measure the accuracy of probability estimates.

“Jesus was on the cross saying something that Peter could not hear.  Peter walked up to the base of the cross and called up to the Lord: ‘Lord, Lord, we cannot understand you, please tell us again what you say -’  And Jesus’ weary lips strained to form the syllables and his thin voice came out again, but still, Peter could not hear.

“Peter called John over to lift him closer to Jesus that he might hear him.  ‘Jesus, please, your words are important to us. Still I could not hear what it is you said.’  Weakened almost to the point of not being able to breathe, Jesus gasped out the words, but poor Peter still could not understand.  He called together the others and they gathered up some wood and took some left over nails and quickly built a crude ladder which Peter hastily climbed.

“‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘Now I can put my ear to your mouth that I might understand your precious words of wisdom,’ and placed his ear right by Jesus’ lips.  And Jesus said ‘Peter, I can see my house from here.’  That was the punchline, the end, finito, and yet I continue.  The idea is to hide the ending so that you would not have knowledge of it before its time.  I hope you enjoyed the joke.”

I found this joke among some of Joe’s other notebooks, from his days in the military.  He had written letters in them which were never sent.  Letters to his mother, to girls he had met in college, I guess, and to his best friend Thomas.


What am I doing?  I don’t know if I should burn this or keep it, or just not write it all.  Myra wrote me for you.  I sent her my regards this morning.  It’s 2 in the morning and I’ve decided to stay awake until I’m pretty sure I’ll live through tomorrow’s hangover.
Remember our cat farm?  We were going to have a cat farm somewhere, and dogs too, and they’d be friends, too.  Oh Tommy, I missed you too much since I came here.  Why did you go?

I thought about this once before - about which of us would be the first, and how the other would react.  I remember clearly that I refused to say it was even, but I had no idea - I don’t even know if I knew what I wanted.  Knowing that you are spared this suffering makes it much easier.  I guess I’m glad you went first.

They got our ship, Tommy, I’m so sorry I can’t make it.  We’re in Cape Eddington for repairs, and the news got to me late. But you know, Tom, you know.
I keep thinking about Myra - what’s she gonna do?  Should I offer her some support? Tell me Tommy - I need you to help me out. You can do that now, can’t you Tommy?  Help out about Myra.
I love you Tommy, but I don’t know where to send this damn thing. I love you.

        Wait for me, Ok?
        Joseph Vinelli.

Myra was Tom’s girlfriend, I gathered from other stuff that I found.  They had been together for a long time.  I looked her up because I thought she might not know that Joe had died, and asked her if she’d like his letter to Tom.  She told me that she had gone back to her family for a few years after Tom died, but that she was married now.  I read her the letter over the phone.  I think she really appreciated it, even though I was a bit choked up.

When I first opened one of the boxes that contained Uncle Joe’s stuff, I was worried that I would be bored and lonely going through it all.  I never got to know him very well, and didn’t think I was an appropriate choice for this task.  I found out later that Joseph had requested that it be me in his will.  He left me everything that was “left over.”

There have been evenings in my life when I sat by an open window, feeling a warm summer breeze teasing the pages of a book I was interested in.  The setting was perfect, but a feeling of loneliness was on that wind.  It seemed that all the other animals that it touched were together, maybe even helping to make it warm, but when it got to me, I felt left out.  It was then that I wished books could talk, at least keep me company for a while, but I was too sure that they couldn’t, so I just read a little and then went off to bed.  Joe’s notebooks seemed to be ready to present me with the same thing, but I learned better.

He has told me jokes, made me laugh and cry, brought me closer to a lady I would otherwise never have known, taught me to read and figure probabilities, and become my friend.  I am fortunate that Uncle Joseph left me these things, but more so that somehow, he left me himself.  I remember when I first realized this…

Pondering those summer evenings when I went to bed feeling lonely, I languished in front of the chair, swaying back and forth on my feet.  I cannot say that Joseph did anything, but I was changed so that the notebooks, the knick knacks, and all the other “left over” stuff represented a friend to me.  I was warm with those things, so I sat back down in the chair, and I did my best to make that breeze just a tiny bit warmer as I went through them.  I believe the notebooks were helping me then.  I determined that all of it was important, and I have kept it all ever since.

Posted by Dave Scotese on 11/30 at 01:29 PM | Permalink
(1) Discuss • (1) Comments

« Bagheera, Basement Cat - The Story      Being »