Karen Keltz is both a former secondary language arts educator of 33 years and freelance journalist. Her work and photography have been published in USA Today, The Oregonian, The
North Coast Squid, The Ruralite, Oregon Coast Magazine, Poésie, and Verseweavers, among
others. She is a recipient of various awards for poetry, screenwriting, non-fiction and juvenile
fiction. In 2011, she won a Glimmer Train award for new short story writers. Her middle grades
novel, Sally Jo Survives Sixth Grade: A Journal, is available on Amazon's Kindle. She lives in
Tillamook, Oregon, with her husband and two cats.
"Your uncle is going to die soon," my mom says, "so if you want to talk to him before he goes, he's in the milkhouse."
She continues peeling potatoes while delivering the news, not looking at me, but she's clearly disturbed by what she has to say. I can tell by the way the peeler rips across the potato in rapid, downward chops.
I hope she doesn't slip and hurt herself, I think, at the same time I stand there on the soiled brown and orange rag rug beside her, mute. Why would she lay this on me? What am I supposed to do with this knowledge I didn't ask for and don't want in any case?
Things live and die, I know. I live on a farm. Sometimes we kill things on purpose, like slugs in our garden, weeds, hornets. My dad shoots raccoons that get in the grain and hog slop. I've been recruited to chop the heads off chickens when it's time to butcher them. We even eat the things we've loved, our rabbits and pet bummer lambs. Things grow up and die. I know life really means death, sooner or later.
I haven't had to know death on a personal level, though. I don't know how to act or what to say. I don't have any potatoes to peel to help me out with how I feel. I'm not sure how I feel. I'm just a black hole sucking in the facts. The lesson from all those youthful episodes of sobbing when I was told, "Shut up or I'll give you something to cry about!" finally took hold. I look to my mom's face for clues--nothing. I wait for her to suggest how I should be. Nothing.
I scratch my mosquito bite and regard the mushroom-shaped canisters situated along the countertop.
"What's wrong?" I finally ask. "Why is he going to die?"
"He went to the doctor today. It's his heart. He doesn't have long." Mom tells the window all about it, instead of me. At least she stops peeling while she stares, so I don't have to worry so much about that peeler slicing off a piece of her finger. She just stands there in her quilted halter top and pedal-pushers, sweat glistening on her freckled arms, her hands frozen above the white, chipped, dirt and water-splattered farm sink.
His heart. His broken heart.
Four years ago, when I was 14, Uncle Melvin's wife and four kids up and left, and I think now maybe that's what's done him in.
In my spare time or under my covers at night when everyone else sleeps, I read literary novels and poems from the 19th century. If what I read is to be believed, people do die of broken hearts. I can see it happening. This is probably what happened to Uncle Melvin. I am forming my own theory of explanation as a way of processing what I've just been told when my mom turns and looks at me, her face looking as chiseled as those presidents' faces carved into a mountain back there in South Dakota.
"He had rheumatic fever when he was a kid. His heart was damaged. Now go talk to your uncle."
I can hear in her voice that "no" is not an option.
I don't want to go talk to my uncle. I want to go in my room and shut the door. I hate being this age when I'm supposed to suddenly know how to do and say the right thing, because mostly, I don't. Why do I have to go talk to him, anyway? Why can't I wait until my sisters come home from wherever they are? Why can't I just wait until he comes into the house and talk to him then, when I know he'll be the first to speak and I can follow his lead?
He always initiates the conversation with me and my sisters, as if he really does want to know what we've been doing, as if he really does want our opinion. That's what we like the most about him. He didn't get the message when it was being passed out to my parents that children are to be seen and not heard. We know when we see him, he'll see us and we'll be laughing soon.
We kids are the first to hear when he comes up with a new theory. Like the time I was babysitting overnight so he and my aunt could go out. In the morning, out of the blue, he said, "Life is all backwards, you know. We should be able to have fun with our kids and then when we're grown, we can get serious and have jobs." He laughed, took a drink of his beer, a drag off his cigarette, and then the happy drained from his eyes. He leaned over in his chair, plunked his elbows on his knees, and laid his face in his palms. His glasses slid up above his hairline. My stomach did the worry hoppy-floppy but then he smiled and I thought I'd been mistaken about him being sad. Right after that, though, he didn't have his kids around anymore, so I guess I'd been right. And our uncle, who had always played tricks on us and told us jokes and laughed, suddenly didn't.
After the divorce, he didn't have his house anymore either. He had lived with Grandma. I had dinner with them once, and tried to make him laugh with stupid jokes I'd heard at school, like "What's black and white and red? A nun falling down the stairs. What do you call a guy with no arms and legs in a lake? Bob." He tried to laugh, but his heart wasn't in it, maybe one or two "Heh-heh's" is all. I could feel how much Grandma wanted him to laugh, too, her eyes all analytical question marks. No matter how much we tried, though, it wasn't going to happen. He was stuck so far down in sad he couldn't climb back out to happy. Abraham Lincoln was right when he said most folks are about as happy as they want to be.
Grandma kept trying though, and persevered until she found him a girlfriend. Well, she wasn't exactly a girl, more like a well-used woman. Ruth was older than Uncle Melvin, their age difference found simply scandalous in my family's gossipy conversations. I didn't see what the big deal was. If he was happy with her and she with him, what did age matter? It's true her corners were sharp, but if you didn't pay attention to that and kept talking to her, they softened.
She must be mighty sad right now, I'm thinking as I walk down the board sidewalk that's slippery in the rain, each foot finding the place where one board sags, hopping over the place where part of the board has rotted out; going past the honeysuckle into the driveway and then under the oak tree, past the doghouse covered in gray tar shingles, up the little porch, and into the milkhouse. I want weeks to go by before I reach the end of this path, another week still, before I reach the milkhouse. I stop and just off the path, pull two milkweeds under the oak to try to make this walk to talk to a dying man last longer.
The screen door screeches as I open it, scaring some flies stuck in the screen that's come out of the track and is bunched up like smocking. As I'm opening the door, I think on how my dad should fix this like he should fix so many other things he has no time for, working two jobs. Standing before me, their butts resting on the counter where we pour the separated milk into jars are my uncle and dad. Somehow they manage to talk, smoke and laugh all at the same time. Uncle Melvin's high tenor cackle always makes me smile. Any other time, I'd stop and watch them like they were in a movie because they are handsome men.
I don't know what my mom thought these two guys were doing out here, but as I let the screen door slam behind me, I see right away that dad has got out the whiskey he hides in the milk cooler and the two brothers are having a snort of solace. Maybe more than one. Mom would screw up her mouth into a tight little "O" like sucking on a cigarette without the cigarette if she knew but I suppose if you're going to die any minute it's OK to have a shot or two of whiskey.
It doesn't seem like they are talking about dying with all this laughing and drinking but since I don't know how people do it, I could be wrong.
They finish what they were saying and turn to look at me. It's the "action!" part of "lights, camera, action!" but I forgot to memorize my lines. Nobody even bothered to give me lines. I feel stupid because nothing comes in my head to say. There we stand in silent tableau, me on one side of the chopping block table full of saw and knife cuts from all the elk, deer, birds, pigs, beef and sheep the brothers have butchered here on our farm to feed their families, and them on the other. There has to be dying for living to happen, I guess. That kind of death I understand. Not the one I'm here to acknowledge.
The cigarettes in the ashtray burn down. The cooler motor hums. My dad and uncle swallow the last of the amber liquid in their glasses, no ice. Maybe they don't know what to say either. It's like how you feel at four in the morning when some things have just gone to bed and other things are just waking up, that little stretch of silence as the world shifts gears. Four a.m. is also when most people die, but I don't want to think about that fact now.
Dad clears his throat. "Your mom sent you out here? You heard?"
"Yeah," I mumble.
Here's where my dad lodges his tongue between his bottom teeth and lip the way he always does when he doesn't want to cry. I have tried this trick myself and it kind of works. The thought of losing his brother must have crept across his awareness just when he thought he had it tucked away. Saying things out loud sometimes makes things too real.
"I made it to 49," my uncle says.
That's the age grandpa was when he died. That's the same hump my father had to jump over and he was glad to turn 50 still alive. 49 is an important number in this family.
"I have to give up cigarettes, dang it. Don't see why if I'm going to die anyway."
They laugh at that and I think Uncle Melvin has a point.
It's quiet again, then Uncle Melvin hacks the way smokers do, pulls out his red handkerchief from his pocket and spits into it, and stuffs it back inside his pocket.
"How's your job?" he asks.
It's my first week working as a cook's helper in a restaurant. I prepare the plates with garnish. I mix things up sometimes because I've never even eaten some of the food in my life. I forget if it's the red cinnamon apple slice or the wad of parsley which goes on the plate with the chicken fried steak or the breaded veal. The owner threatens to fire me because I have to keep asking. Those thoughts rise to the surface when Uncle Melvin asks the question, but all I say is, "Fine."
"How are you?" I ask, and right when I say it I know it is possibly the dumbest thing I've ever said. I could have said, "I don't want you to die," or "I'm sorry you are going to die," or "My heart is full of anguish," or a myriad of other things more helpful and more sane. I don't even know why that came out of my mouth. No way to take it back. No second chances--for any of us.
"Not so good right now," Uncle Melvin says to the floor, and I could take the butcher knife and chop myself up in little bloody bits all over the scarred table.
I nod my head repeatedly, and say, "Hmmm."
My dad can't even look at me. "You should go back in the house and help your mother with dinner."
I feel like the girl who missed the $64,000 question which could have saved her family from destitution and penury. No doubt my standing there like a mime and then saying something idiotic has tried my father's patience. Patience is not his virtue. Still, he's given me an out, and I'm grateful.
"Okay. See ya," I say to my uncle, and without even hugging him, I take my stick figure self through the screen door.
On the long path back to the house, walking over bits of twigs, dried leaves and gravel, I reflect on what I haven't said or done. Why didn't I say those heartfelt things or do those loving things when the time came? Why couldn't I even think of them until later? My own inadequacy makes my own heart ache at not being who I wish I were. Am I the only one who is less than she hoped to be?
The sky has darkened since I first went to the milkhouse and the screen door into the house is a block of light in a sea of gray. It's muggy enough we may get a summer thunderstorm later on tonight. I open the door and go in past the washer, its lid heaped with dirty clothes, to a kitchen smelling of roast beef, which my mother is carving. Potatoes, gravy, roast--it's a heavy meal for the summer but I can tell it's the only thing she knows to do about Uncle Melvin. She looks up and I see her eyes are red-rimmed and her nose, red. Her freckled face is blotchy. That's what happens when we cry. It appears she waited until I was gone so she could disobey her no crying rule without me as witness.
"Did you talk to him?" she asks.
"Yes," I say, and pass her without offering to help, going directly through the living room with its wood stove and cracked linoleum floor into my room, all pink and maroon, like a living organ, like, let's say, a heart.
I lie on my bed and look at the little plaque I won in my second grade Lutheran Sunday School class for knowing my scripture. It's about the size of a deck of cards and the only thing on my wall, now that the magazine picture of Ricky Nelson I had taped there got too ratty and I told him goodbye to his face, kissed his paper lips, and took it down.
"God is Love" the plaque reads. That sounds good to me. That will be my snort of solace for the moment. God knows there's nothing else to hold onto. I let loose and bawl.