Life at TJ's Place
Sunday, April 10, 2005
Sorry I dropped out like I did. I’m still alive. I was just sick of seeing the stupid Minnesota/Olympics post up there. I was sick of blogging, too, so I just decided to cool out for awhile.
Did anybody see Illinois basketball this winter? I did. What a rush!
This is the only thing I’ve ever written that was published (and I received no money for). It’s called “Arnie’s Army.”
When I was a kid, my uncle smoked these slender black cigarettes with silver lettering, and the paper crinkled when he would take a long drag, like leaves burning and crackling. I always imagined the cigarette tasted like licorice, and I became very certain that, as soon as I was legal, maybe even before, I would begin smoking the little black cigarettes and exhale the forbidden smoke, a heady mixture of spicy aroma, like black licorice and exotic candies from Asia and the Middle East that, apparently—see my uncle as evidence—bored holes in your teeth and ravaged your face, like my uncle’s, warped by a lifetime of working in the sun, drinking and screaming. He was tall and red and his skin was striated, like canvas draped over cables. He was Leatherface before Leatherface was Leatherface, without the chainsaw and hippie kids and general bloody mayhem.
I loved my uncle completely, but years of subsequent information revealed him to be no more than a sloppy drunk, the old school kind, pooping his pants, sleeping under grain trucks, yodeling at three o’clock in the morning, the like. He once passed out with a welder in his hands. Uncle Arnold, or Arnie, as everyone knew him. I called him Uncle Arnie, and he called me “Arnie’s Army,” because I was the only one too young not to understand he was a big bleary-eyed drunk and pathetic life failure.
“HEY,” he’d shout, opening our front door, “Hey, there he is!”
Running, jumping with joy was me, “Uncle Arnie!” I’d scream, delighted. Kids really do jump with joy, it’s not a cliché. When experiencing overwhelming joy, jumping is the way normal children get from place to place. “Uncle Arnieeee!” boing-boing-boing down the hall. I’d bump into him and he would scoop me in his arms. Arnie usually smelled like a dead skunk, but Arnie’s Army didn’t care; at five years old, I usually didn’t smell so great myself.
“There’s the boy!” he would declare. “There’s Arnie’s Army!” A big embrace between two stinkers, my parents cringing in the living room.
My father, a good father, a solid provider, had very little tolerance for the likes of Arnie, especially when Arnie was “on the bum” as my father would say, but he never mistreated Arnie in front of me, knowing my uncle was my hero and I was likely to end up getting a Born to Raise Hell tattoo and become a communist, at five, if he prohibited Arnie from the house. Arnie manipulated this, of course, showing up at dinnertime once a week, roughhousing with Arnie’s Army in the living room, then meandering around like the unwanted guest he was. My father didn’t speak to him; he would sit stoically on his recliner and watch the Archie Bunker Show, as he called it, or read the paper, while Arnie moved around from wall to wall, remarking on things he remarked on every time: photographs, the latest paperback novel on my mother’s bookshelf, my father’s only bowling trophy, the awful wallpaper. “The Exorcist!” he exclaimed, picking up my mother’s latest book. “Brrrr!” he shivered, clutching himself as he set the book down. “That Devil…and what he done to that little girl?” Arnie clucked his tongue and moved on towards Dad’s bowling trophy.
Dad grunted. Mother called in from the kitchen: “Arnie…uh, we’re about to have dinner…would you like to join us?”
From the bathroom, an enormous cheer erupted from Arnie’s Army, who had been sent there seconds before to wash his hands and face. Arnie just forced a playoff with a remarkable 4-iron on 18.
“Well, by God, Sally, that’d be right nice,” Arnie said. “I believe I will.” Dad rolled his eyes, then went back to the paper.
“Hey, Skeeter!” Arnie called to me down the hallway. When I was too little to know better, I bit my Uncle Arnie on the leg and he said it felt like a “little ol’ skeeter nippin’ on my leg.” Lucky for me, I wasn’t a real skeeter; had I been, I might have ended up in detox. “Get in here, Skeeter, we’re grubbin’ up.”
Skeeter squealed with delight from the bathroom and jumped with joy down the hallway. I’ve been told that, as a child, I was rather predictable.
I can’t imagine, in hindsight, how unbearably awful those dinners were for my parents. From time to time, Arnie would sober enough to realize he hadn’t eaten in a week, and we’d get the knock at the door just before dinnertime, smiling Arnie on the front porch, just passing through. Arnie ate once a week when he remembered, and he ate the exact way he drank: two-fisted, sloppy, loud and emotional, an industrial shop-vac with forks and spoons and belches loud enough to crack china. Sometimes he sobbed while he ate.
At dinner, while Arnie molested his food, Dad would make little remarks that I didn’t recognize as being cruel: “Slow down, Arnie, unless you’re late for an appointment”; or, “Arnie, if you’d show up more often, we wouldn’t have to pay to have our garbage taken out.”
At dinner, Arnie would entertain (read that word italicized if coming from the mouth of my father) us with stories about the Vietnam War, stories about Vietnamese girls that made my mother’s cheeks turn red, stories about a heart he received from someone important because he stepped on something that removed his right foot, with a bang. My father silently endured, having been spared the draft from a legitimate medical condition that appeared just as a murmur in his heart back in 1968, but eventually killed him in 1991. He smiled at Arnie’s colorful stories, frowned at very colorful ones. One time he set his knife and fork down with some force, cleared his throat, stood and left the table.
When Arnie was finished with his meal, he wiped his mouth and always reached in his shirt pocket for the pack of cigarettes, pushing his chair from the table and draping one long leg over the other. Uncle Arnie would take a long drag and squint through the smoke, pocketing his pack of matches. The aroma was delicious. Little Skeeter, dying a slow death at the edge of the table from Arnie’s second-hand fogger, sat with his hands folded attentively, waiting for a story from his uncle.
“Your dad,” Arnie began, picking a bit of tobacco from the tip of his tongue. “Your dad and I, did you know he once saved my life?”
I knew the story, of course. A hundred times over. I could recite it word for word, but I loved hearing the story from my Uncle Arnie. My eyes went wide and I breathed, “No.” I had retired to my bedroom earlier and was now wearing a light blue T-shirt that read ARNIE’S ARMY across the front in heavy felt letters, my uncle’s gift.
“He did, by God, when we was kids.”
The story, I have learned, was not so romantic as Arnie always spun. It involved eight-year-old Arnie, naked, running through a neighbor’s backyard and my father leaping a fence and saving the naked future Purple Heart-winner by pulling a mean dog away from him before yanking them both back over the fence to safety. Arnie left out the part about the innocent bet, my father’s knowledge (and Arnie’s lack of) that the yard contained not only a mean homeowner, but a little white terrier named Sparky, a terrible, angry dog suffering from untreated psychosis, a child killer. Arnie, it seemed, did not want to tarnish my own image of my father, who was also my hero. And it was years later that I realized their mutual grudge, and their mutual love for each other. My father loved my Uncle Arnie because he wasn’t bright, he was healthy, and he went to war for his country and stepped on a land mine and lost his right foot. He loved him because no one else would. Arnie loved my father because he didn’t go to war and he was intelligent and solid, and he married a good woman and raised a good son. And when I was eighteen years old at my graduation, Uncle Arnie showed up, sober and clean for the moment, and called me Arnie’s Army and Skeeter in nearly the same sentence, tussling my hair, and then finally he called me Michael, and shook my hand. I hadn’t seen him in ten years. He died the next year (roofing a house, drunk, a driveway below), and my father put his urn and his ashes on our mantel, replacing the bowling trophy. Arnie’s Purple Heart is there, too, and a picture of all of us (Mom and Dad included), standing in front of a Christmas tree circa 1977. Underneath the photo, my father wrote in black felt-tip marker: Arnie’s Army.