Dad communicated in grunts and edicts. But Uncle Max communicated in smiles and jokes and deliberate instruction. He told me dirty jokes and turned condoms into water balloons. But he also took me bowling and taught me to drive, telling me always to look forward, guiding my hands with ease.
“Ten and two, old sport,” he said. “Good symmetry, yes, that’s it.”
He smelled of Old Spice and typewriter ink and he had a casual, graceful gait. Clickety-clack, clickety-clack. Not like Dad’s heavy footsteps, thump, thump, thump. Uncle Max was a writer and he’d written this whole novel about a world full of runaway parents, although he’d never tried to get it published. Silly, he said, with a little longing lingering on his pencil-thin mustache. But he did teach me the power of literature and conveying emotional acrobatics on the page through Yates and Nabokov (a good vocabulary builder too, he said). Uncle Max also taught me the joy of slipping into movies. Dramas and musicals included. He said laughing was the easy part. Sometimes, you really needed to cry. And Uncle Max could cry, especially when Mary Tyler Moore walked out at the end of Ordinary People and Dustin Hoffman called his son a little shit in Kramer Vs Kramer.
“Remind yourself that you’re human,” he said, swigging some whiskey, which he’d snuck into his Coke. “Cry, Nick. You’re not a fucking macho machine. It helps remind yourself where you’ve been. It saves you from becoming a prick, too. That’s always paramount.”
“But Dad says crying is for fairies.”
“Well, better a world of a thousand fairies than one scowling Cro Magnon.”
“Tell that to Dad.”
“Poor lad,” Uncle Max said. He smiled, an almost crumpled little smile, then inhaled. “Well, the Cro Magnon isn’t with us now, right? So, let’s make sure you have a reasonably sane adolescence.”
Dad, of course, said Uncle Max was an idiot. He said it half-jokingly when Uncle Max joined us for dinner. He said it when I talked about wanting to be a writer, except he called Uncle Max “fucking retarded.” And he called Uncle Max a plague after I cried following a fight with Tony DiCenzo. Uncle Max was Mom’s younger brother, cursed emotionally, Dad claimed. He didn’t know the meaning of real work, structure, order.
Of course, I didn’t mention that Uncle Max never up and left, that he’d gone to half my parent teacher conferences, and that he wasn’t an ugly sort of drunk, even if he often swigged whiskey and belched with childish delight. I certainly didn’t mention that Uncle Max also had taken me to bars and taught me to dance to the beat of pulsating jukeboxes and that, to my surprise, he liked Alice Cooper’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” You didn’t talk to Dad like that, when every word held electrical danger. Dad pushed me into football, basketball, all that. It was Dad’s credo. Dad push, push, pushed, until Uncle Max’s words deflated one by one, and needing Dad’s smiles became paramount in the small spaces we navigated, lime-green sofas too small and constrained, hallways narrower by the day, it seemed. Spaces where scowls hovered and danced like ballerinas. I walked, scowled, and carried myself with Dad’s swagger. I learned to grunt.
When I played basketball, Uncle Max was in the stands clapping on, but there was a pause in each clap, a knowing look lingering in his mustache, as if he wanted to pull me back from the gym, away from the ball and the clatter of feet and smelly armpits. Sometimes he rose, as if he wanted to call out, this lad’s not a basketball player, he’s something else. He could be a writer, an actor, if someone would get him away from his Cro Magnon father.
I wanted to say I was sorry. Or at least to say I was an asshole. And sometimes, I thought Uncle Max hated me, however subtly, evinced by sad little sighs when I mentioned wanting to study business or told him I truly liked basketball, the grace, the motion, the release of energies and bodies. When I tried to understand Dad and told Uncle Max to butt out, even though he was right, of course. What could you understand about a grunting man? Uncle Max had just laughed and said he’d butt out, even though he hadn’t been blessed with much of a butt. But the words seemed so cracked, as if I’d thrown a rock at something fragile and it had broken.
We talked via letters while I was in college, although the letters dried up as I threw myself into equations, formulas, business, failure. But sometimes, Uncle Max would call me and we’d talk about trivialities, the weather, politics, SNL skits. He’d often tell me some new and delightful joke and it was hard not to laugh, though I’d stored laughter in a sort of lockbox. Bill Clinton was a particular favorite subject.
What’s one duty that the President doesn’t let Hillary undertake? Picking up the dry cleaning!
When Uncle Max died, he willed me his old Chevy Bel-Air. Said he hoped I could get away from the cubical constraint of office spaces in his will and that he loved me very, very much. Not to beat myself up at all. The day I officially got the car, I took a long drive, hands symmetrical. I looked back, forward, speeding, speeding, the empty world rushing by, bills, debts, divorce, a frowning mustache glaring back in a mirror, eyebrows perpetually arched, on the defensive. I kept speeding, speeding, but Uncle Max’s scolding chuckle, knowing and slow, rose into the space around me. This isn’t the Indy 500. Fast is for insecure people. Just one step at a time, all right? So I murmured contrition, sorry, Uncle Max, love ya, sorry, sorry, sorry, slowed the car bit by bit, until I was navigating a tenuous, but steady space.