When my uncle showed up at my door unexpectedly, he had a noose tattooed around his neck and carried a long rope bundled up in his hand. Over the few days he lived with me, he’d toss the rope over the counter when coming in the door. He’d sling it over his shoulder out in the yard when doing what he called, “Jailareobics;” propane tank bicep curls, cinder block shoulder presses, push-ups with his feet three stairs up. When I said, “Uncle Frank, what’s up with the rope?” He said something about casting his own judgment, that the rope was a reminder. “Reminder of what?” I asked. He lowered the collar of his shirt revealing that crazy tattoo.
“That we’re born with our heads in the noose,” he said.
On Monday, I called my dad and told him about Uncle Frank’s tattoo and that he’s carrying a six-foot rope around with him.
“When did he get out?” He asked.
“He just showed up on Saturday,” I said.
“Keep an eye on him, will you?”
“He even lies down with it stretched out next to him on the couch, like it’s a snake,” I told him.
The next morning, I awoke to the smell of pork roll and heard it crackling in the pan. There was Uncle Frank, shirtless and completely tattooed, leaning over the stove, rope bound up like a scarf around his neck. He asked how I slept. I asked if he did at all. He held a can of beer in his left hand. It was 6:45 a.m.
“Hey, I got the paper,” he said. “Read me the front page, will ya?”
I read him the front page of the Times, some story about the governor getting locked up for tax fraud. He let out a manic laugh and said, “He’s not going where you think he is. He’s going somewhere with tennis courts.”
“Is that where you were?” I asked.
“No, no,” he said. “I was in a hole.”
He clicked off the burner and scooped up the pork roll, egg, and cheese and slapped it on a split bagel on the counter. He took a sip from his beer then dropped the plate in front of me and said, “For you.” When I asked what he was having, he lifted his beer, smiled that jackrabbit insane smile, and said, “I’m good.”
It was Tuesday. I had to call out of work from my late shift at the warehouse to give Uncle Frank a ride to a meeting with his parole officer. The meeting was at two o’clock, so we spent that morning digging trenches in the yard to lay some ties down. Frank wanted to make a garden. When he showed up a few days before, I didn’t know what to think. He was always carrying some unforeseeable hook with him, that came around when you didn’t expect it. Like this past Thanksgiving. He had disappeared all afternoon, missed the Giants game and everything. We started dinner without him. He turned up halfway through, burping and stinking of the bar. He told me to follow him out back, that he got something for me. It was a new Huffy mountain bike with shocks on the forks. He was so proud. The elation of the gift carried over into the living room where we watched the highlights of the game, ate pie, drank some beers. I thought things would be okay for a while. That maybe this time, he’d stay for good. Until there was a knock at the door and Uncle Frank fled to the basement like a dog in a storm. It was the cops. He had stolen the bike. They took him away with pie cream still on the cusp of his mustache. So when he turned up again, out of the blue, talking about building a garden in my backyard, carrying that long rope, I didn’t reject the idea that he might consider burying somebody in it.
Near the George Street exit, Uncle Frank told me to pull over. He had the rope twisted around the entire length of his arm. I asked him what was the matter. He said that if he went to his PO meeting he was going to get locked up—he owed $120 that he doesn’t have and that they’re going to test him for alcohol, which would be like testing his lungs for air. I had a decision to make. His hands were shaking in his lap. I watched the panic rise in him and course through his veins up to his neck as he took quick short breaths. He squeezed the end of the rope with both hands.
“Yeah, the noose is getting tighter,” he said. “I can feel it.”
I didn’t know what to do. Trucks blew by us, making my car rattle. For some reason, in that moment I remembered something that my dad once told me about Uncle Frank. It was after my tenth birthday party. Someone stole all of the cards with the money in them. Everyone blamed my uncle because that’s the kind of guy they took him for. Tattooed, biker, drunk. After they accused him, he left the party, went to a bar, got roaring drunk, and laid down his motorcycle going 90 miles an hour on the turnpike. His handlebar ripped through his spleen. On the way to the hospital in my dad’s truck, he said, “My brother will be paying for his sins with his body for the rest of his life.” That really stuck with me, cause every time he’d show up, he’d have a new injury to report; a bum knee, broken fingers, missing teeth. I never did tell my dad that a week after that, I found my birthday cards in my cousin Nicky’s car, with no cash in them. I think he had used my birthday money to shoot heroin.
I decided to not drive Uncle Frank to his parole meeting. I said, fuck it. We kept going on Rt. 18 all the way to the shore. He turned up the radio, Black Sabbath was blaring. He drum rolled on the dash and let out dog calls. Ow Ow Owww! He even tossed the rope into the back seat. I thought maybe he had some sense of freedom back, which I felt pretty good for giving him. I couldn’t knowingly drive him to that meeting. It would have been like dropping him off at the prison gates.
In Asbury Park, he asked me to stop at a liquor store. I said, cool, and asked if he needed money for some beers. He said, “You kidding? I’d never take money from my nephew.”
He was in there a while, so I smoked a cigarette on the outside of my car and watched two crows walk along a telephone wire. They were the biggest crows I ever saw and they moved in unison. I had the feeling they were watching me. Perhaps, it was me feeling guilty for breaking the law and technically aiding a wanted criminal. I thought, what if the cops were able to use birds for intel? Just use some sort of chip that makes them follow and report crime. So, I looked up at them and flashed my middle fingers. I said, “Fuck you, crows.”
My uncle rushed out of the liquor store with his hands in his pockets.
“What, are you talking to birds now?” He said.
We got back in the car. I put on my seat belt and backed out of my spot, looking both ways. Uncle Frank said, “A little urgency please.” It was then I realized the store clerk rushing towards us waving his fists in the air. I sped off.
“Frank, what the fuck? You just rob that place?”
“I borrowed,” he smirked, sliding a few tall boys of Natural Light and shooters of Jim Beam out of the inner lining of his denim jacket.
We went to the beach and got drunk. The weather was shit since it was April, but it was nice to have it all to ourselves. Heavy clouds rolled over. The sea looked angry. The sun came in bursts; one minute it was there, the next it wasn’t and all was cold and gloomy. We sat near the jetty, drinking and smoking. Uncle Frank told me stories about his days with the Hells Angels, running guns and crank. What a life. I threw French fries at seagulls. It was the best damn day I ever had with him. I figured the memory of that day would stick forever. He was so much like that sparse sun, that when he came around, you had to appreciate the shine and warmth of his presence. He was kind of electric like that, full of energy. I told him that I felt pretty bad about not taking him to his meeting.
“What’s going to happen next?” I asked.
“Another warrant, probably.”
“You know you can’t stay at my place anymore, right?”
“I know. I never stay in any place for more than a few days, anyway. You take care of that garden.”
I told him, I will.
A strong wind came over the beach. It was bitter cold and whipped up sand in our faces. The problem with memory is that I’d like to imagine he was crying instead of wiping the sand out of his eyes, because if I saw some tears, that would have been an inkling to the sort of pain he was in. Instead, I couldn’t see shit, just sand.
We drove back with the radio off. He kept to himself, not saying much, just staring out the window, watching the signs on the parkway blow past. I wondered what kind of movie was playing in his head. I hoped it was something nice, like those old westerns he used to love and make me watch. The ones where the bad guys always got away. I thought he would figure something out, he always had.
He told me to drop him off at Edison Train Station, so I pulled right up to the awning to let him out. It was raining. He gave me a hug and told me to take care of myself. He said, “Thanks for a great day, nephew.” When he walked off, I rolled down the window and yelled, “Uncle Frank, you forgot your rope.”
He said, “No I didn’t,” tapping the tattoo around his neck.”
The next morning, I awoke to a phone call from my dad. He asked if I saw the news. It was all a blur from there. The family had a wake and a funeral and no one knew what to say. My aunts made up reasons for why and my cousins didn’t want to talk; they took shots of Jameson in the parking lot of the funeral home. That’s the thing about a suicide; it’s like a bomb that goes off in a family with shrapnel blowing through the rings of whoever was close enough to feel the blast. No one knows how to cope. The survivors are left removing shards of guilt and anxiety from what is left of their defenses, trying not to bleed out, with one lingering question: Why? I knew why. I told myself the noose around his neck got so tight, he felt like there were no other options. I always thought my uncle would be the type to chew through the rope, but the noose was a part of him all along, like the damn tattoo.
After it was all over, I told my dad about our day at the beach. He said it wasn’t my fault.
“I know,” I lied.
Then I sat on the porch of my parent’s house, smoking cigarettes, and watching crows take off and land on a telephone wire. Nothing and everything had changed.