Mad Uncle Charlie surprised me, when I first met him.
They said he had come back from the war mad. I had no idea what to expect, but I suppose I thought he would be something like Grandpa George, all gray hair, fierce eyebrows and stern, fusty demeanor. I should have known better – Uncle Charlie was nothing like either my father or Grandpa George. He was supposed to have been a little wild in his youth, and they said the army had done him good. I wondered how much good it could have done him, if he came back mad, but kept my mouth shut on the matter.
At any rate, he was coming to live with us, and I was kind of excited. I had only the vaguest memories of a slightly sullen adolescent presence at family gatherings, but after I was about five I didn't see him at all. He was twelve when I was born, and I remember dad saying that Charlie had had a falling out with Grandpa George. But that was about all I knew. I was interested in seeing what he would be like.
My father went to pick him up from the airport while I was at school, but they didn't get home until just before dinner. Mom seemed rather upset that Uncle Charlie was coming, but when he came in, she smiled cheerfully at him and welcomed him.
He looked nothing like either Grandpa George or Dad. He was tall and skinny and blonde, with shaggy hair that seemed to have grown out of a poor-quality crew cut. I had imagined that, since he was supposed to be mad, he would have wild eyes and perhaps be dressed in tattered clothing, maybe even his flack jacket and fatigues. He wore normal clothes; the only sign of his army enlistment were some dog tags. His eyes weren't wild at all, just a little vague. They were pale gray and quite large, though he looked tired. I had supposed he might be the type to rock back and forth on the edge of his bed, cradling himself and mumbling, but no. He looked like the only time he would rock back and forth would be when playing the violin he was carrying. The only thing really odd about him was his face. The right side was covered in a fine mesh of scars, scabs and burns. It looked angry and red. Some of the wounds were covered by small bandages, but you could see that they were interconnected, like someone had hit him with a burning metal doily. I wondered how that had gotten there.
The only baggage he carried other than his violin case was a greenish duffle bag. He kissed mom on the cheek as he set down his things, and she gave him a hug, even though just a few hours before she had been carrying on about the imposition and how it would be terrible to have madman in the house.
"Hey, Jamie," he said, making an uncomfortable sideways nod in my direction. His voice was soft and a little rough. "Nice to meet you."
He gave me a hug, making sure that the damaged side of his face didn't touch me.
"And I guess you're Emily." He smiled at my sister, though she hesitated before going to him. She's only four. He picked her up and kissed her face. She wriggled in his grasp and he set her down, smiling. Despite the wound, he had a gentle face. I tried to imagine him being at all wild, and couldn't. His voice was rough but pleasant. He seemed genuinely happy to see us.
"I'll take your things back to your room for you," I offered.
"No, it's fine," he murmured. "If you could just show me the way…"
I led him down the hall to the room we'd set aside for him. It had been my room, but mom had put a cot in her workshop so I could sleep there. I don't think she liked having to give up any of her space – she made slipcovers and did alterations for people – and I think this might have been part of the reason she resented Uncle Charlie's coming.
We'd made the bed nicely, and I'd pulled down my posters for the bands and shows I liked. They were stored carefully in the closet. I'd put away my schoolbooks in the hall closet with my backpack, where I could find them, and cleared the desk of my projects. Still, when Uncle Charlie set down his things, he looked over at me.
"This is your room normally, isn't it?"
I nodded, but smiled. I hoped he got the message; I didn't mind him being there, not really. At least I wasn't sleeping with Emily.
Uncle Charlie seemed to understand. He sat down on the bed and looked around. We'd drawn the blinds, but he pulled them up and opened the window. A wash of cool air and the sound of the street drifted in.
"I'm sorry I haven't been much of an uncle," he said. "I've been busy."
"It's okay." I couldn't help it. The first thing that came to mind was the scene in "Shadow of a Doubt," right after the uncle arrives at their house.
Uncle Charlie turned and saw me smile.
"What's funny?" he asked. I told him and he laughed. He had a nice laugh. I wondered what mom didn't like about him. Unless he did plan on pulling a Joseph Cotton and killing us all.
He had begun unpacking a little, setting out a bottle of pills on the bedside table and hanging his jacket over the end of the bed.
"I think mom's got dinner ready out there," I said.
"Oh." He looked up suddenly from something tiny that he cradled in his hand. He pocketed it and followed me back out to the table. He smelled, very faintly, of meat and oatmeal. His jeans were too big for him and his boots made heavy sounds on the floor. I wondered what Mrs. Shope, downstairs, would think of that.
The dinner mom made was really good, but a little uncomfortable. Dad was trying to be gregarious, but I could see it was a strain. And besides, Uncle Charlie was tired. You could tell from the way he held things. He asked rather silly, open-ended questions like "How's school, then, Jamie?" or "What do you do with the sewing machine, Alice?" Alice is my mom's name. I noticed that his hands shook. He also gave away almost no information about himself or where he'd been. I mean, he'd obviously been in Eastern Europe, in Ukraine, because that was where the war was, but he didn't give us any more information than that. He also said nothing about the wound and mom and dad were too delicate to mention it. I tried not to stare and followed their lead. If Uncle Charlie wanted to talk about it, then he would. If he didn't, we wouldn't push him.
After that, we went to bed. I couldn't help but think about Uncle Charlie's wound. It looked like it hurt. I wondered if he could sleep okay with it. I wondered how long he would stay with us.
Brother John picked me up at the airport. It was very good of him to do so; he had to skip a day of work.
I couldn't think of anything to say on the way home. Thank God(s) that brother John could fill the silence. He told me about his life; about his kids; about his city; about his job; about his current political values (with most of which I disagreed). He wore a scarf wrapped tightly around his neck and a thick coat. I was sorry I didn't have heavier clothing and sorry I hadn't kept in closer contact with my brother. I hadn't known how much I missed him.
Sister-in-law Alice doesn't want me there. I could tell from the moment I set eyes on her and I think I only heightened her dislike by scaring her little girl. It's not my fault, I wanted to say, but didn't. The doctor said I needed to work on impulse control.
Brother John had told me about Jamie in the car on the way from the airport. The boy looked… Hell. He looked like me. Brother John is bulkier and darker and Sister-in-law Alice is faintly squirrelly. Jamie didn't look like either of them; Jamie looked like me when I was thirteen but with darker hair. It was strange, I'll tell you. He was smart, too, making cracks about "Shadow of a Doubt." I'm sleeping in his room.
I had to hold off on my violin, though. I was looking forward to a chance to play it, but I'll have to wait until the others are not asleep. Violin isn't a quiet instrument. I may have to play it on the street.
I've been taking my meds like they told me to, but I don't think it's helping. I dreamed about her that night.