Uncle Jerry

My uncle Jerry lost his eye after falling out of a tree when he was 10-years-old. He had been in the backyard playing in the solitary maple right outside the kitchen window when he stepped on a weak branch. It snapped under him and Jerry was sent stumbling face-first into a set of branches before crashing onto the lawn. One of those branches snagged his left eye while the rest of his body fell downwards.

“Skewered it right out," he told me with a laugh, giving a tap to the black eye patch guarding the socket.

I was thirteen, it was the summer my dad got remarried, and I was staying with my uncle while the two of them lay on the beaches of Mexico. Nudist ones, no doubt, the way my father’s second wife, Cheri, talked non-stop about the restrictive qualities of clothing. I wasn’t too keen on the impending nuptials because for my entire life it had been just me and my dad. My mother left right after I was born, I still didn’t know why.

I didn’t know my uncle all that well. I saw him at Christmas parties or random summer barbecues. My father was always referring to him with adjectives like “immature” and “directionless.” They weren’t particularly close to one another, so I was surprised when my father told me I would be staying with him for a week.

“Be on your best behavior, Kathryn, even though I should probably tell that to your uncle,” he said as I slid in next to my bags.

Uncle Jerry’s place was above a small Korean grocery store. When we pulled up, he was out front leaning against the bay window lined with candies written in a language unfamiliar to me. Uncle Jerry came over to the car and opened my door while my father scurried around the other side to get my bags. Cheri remained in the passenger seat with her bare foot on the dash, painting her nails neon purple. My dad handed my bags off to his brother, gave me a quick hug and kiss before heading off to his honeymoon.

The apartment was small and stuffy with a rotating fan for each room. My suitcase and yellow Camp Beecher duffel bag were placed next to the couch, which would be my bed for the next week. Across from the living room was a dining room that housed old records and music magazines rather than a table and chairs. The kitchen came after a small hallway and off of that was my uncle’s room.

Once I was settled, my uncle Jerry had taken me to a bar, The Oak Leaf, a place he frequented. The bartender gave my uncle a half-hearted wave and seemed to think nothing of a culotte-wearing teenage girl tagging along behind him. The bartender, an older man with owlish glasses placed a beer down in front of my uncle. I shifted nervously in my seat, the exposed skin on my legs squeaked against the upholstery. I knew kids weren’t allowed in bars and I was just waiting for him to finally notice that I was eight years underage. The bartender paid me no mind. He took the singles from Uncle Jerry and went back to his place amongst the liquor bottles.

My uncle lifted the glass mug and slurped the white foam from the top.

“Ahhhh,” he sighed and smacked his lips together.

I watched as he adjusted his patch and tried to figure out something to say to me. I had wondered about his eye for years, but my father was the squeamish type and always averted the question by making a disgusted scrunched-up face and saying something like, “I wasn’t even born when it happened.”

When Uncle Jerry swallowed down the last of his beer, I nervously tugged on my yellow Beecher Park Day Camp t-shirt and asked him, “Uncle Jerry, what happened to your eye?”

He laughed and signaled the bartender to bring him over another beer. “It’s pretty gross, are you sure you want to hear it?”

I nodded eagerly and he fell into the story as if he were talking to an old friend.

“My knee’s all banged up, my lip’s bleeding, and my hand is coverin’ my eye or where it used to be anyway. Blood is just spurtin’ out of the socket,” he gave a hearty pound to the table and chuckled deep and genuine.

He told me about how my grandmother, pregnant with my father, saw him and screamed until she practically fainted.

“She caught her balance right up against the same tree that took my eye. Then my dad comes bolting from the house and when he saw all that damn gore...” My uncle shook his head like he still couldn’t believe it, “In all my years, I never once seen my pop ill, but he leaned right over my mother’s rose bushes and lost his lunch right then and there.”

Uncle Jerry was rushed to the emergency room where nothing could be done about his eye because it was still stuck in the branches of the maple. The doctors were left with no choice but to cauterize the wound and cover it up with an eye patch. To make the day even more exciting, my grandmother went into labor as my uncle was being wheeled into surgery.

“Paulie was born just as I was being fitted with the patch.”

Uncle Jerry finished the last of his beer and stretched his arms across the length of the booth. He belched and I giggled. He smiled and gave his cheek a quick pat.

“That’s it. That’s all she wrote,” he said.

He shifted in his seat and I saw the pause in our conversation was starting to make him uncomfortable. I had decided that I really liked my uncle Jerry. I liked the way he talked to me like an adult, like a friend, like how my dad never did.

“Can I see it?” I blurted out without even really knowing which “it” I was talking about, “Your eye. Can I see what it looks like now?”

My uncle’s right eyebrow crooked down and I could tell that I had definitely crossed a line. I had embarrassed myself. I tried to look at anything around me, anything but my uncle’s face.

“Well, Kat,” he said as he leaned over the table separating us, “How about we at least wait until after lunch?”

I looked up to see my uncle smiling at me. His teeth were a bright white against his stubble and graying, shaggy hair. I smiled back, pleased that I hadn’t completely ruined this visit.

“You hungry, Kat? You got a hankerin’ for anything?” he called from the kitchen when we got back to the apartment.

I flopped onto the plaid couch/bed and kicked my legs over the back.

“Mozzarella sticks!” I called back.

“You got it!”

I could hear the crackling and snapping of oil as the smell of breaded cheese danced through the apartment. My stomach let out a guttural rumble. I smiled and wished that I could live with my uncle instead of my dad and his new wife. I never got to eat anything microwaved, heavy in dairy, or even close to fried since my father started dating Cheri, who was not only a nudity enthusiast but a total health nut. It was probably the reason why I was so skinny and my legs jutted out from my billowy skirt/short combination like someone had shoved toothpicks in my torso. Uncle Jerry brought out two plates piled high with mozzarella sticks. I grabbed a set of TV trays that lay against the side of the couch and set them up.

“Hope you’re hungry,” my uncle smiled, his cheek pressing up against the black patch over his eye.

The two of us ate the fried cheese treats while we watched a talent competition on television. Every now and then I would watch the way his eye patch bounced as he chewed and I realized how okay with it I was. I actually thought that it was more than okay, it was kind of cool. Cooler than my dad, who didn’t have any scars or stories to go along with them, who didn’t let me eat fried foods or watch things on TV that had more than a “G” rating.

I grabbed my table tray and moved it closer to Uncle Jerry as if to prove to someone how okay with it I was. My uncle looked down at me, smiled wide, and through the gaps in his teeth he pushed out mashed mozzarella sticks. I quickly shoved one in my mouth and returned the gesture.

That night as we watched television, I turned to him and asked if I could see his eye now. Not that I wanted to but I felt like I had to back up my earlier request.

“How ’bout tomorrow? It’s dark in here and you won’t be able to see it well.”

I agreed and although I could have suggested we just turn on the light, I didn’t. I could tell I was getting the shaft. I was slightly relieved in knowing I was spared but I also found myself wanting to see under that patch. I was disappointed that I would probably not.

The next morning I woke up to a hot plate of French toast on the table tray in front of me. My uncle came into the living room with a glass of orange juice and the first thing I noticed was that his eye patch was different. Instead of the black, he was donning one that was patterned like an army fatigue.

“Morning,” he said.

“Your patch is different,” I noted, pointing to my own eye.

He smiled and raised a finger. My uncle went to his room and brought out a small, wooden box. He held it toward me and opened it up. Inside, there were dozens of patches. I gingerly picked through them, each one a different color, some with wacky patterns while others touted band insignias. One that I pulled out was black with a rhinestone Jolly Roger. I held it up to my uncle Jerry and asked if I could try it on.

“Sure," he said.

He placed the box down and helped me fit the strap over my head. The patch covered my left eye and I was surprised how disorientating it was. I looked around the apartment, physically moving my head to make up for the lost perception. I wondered how much my uncle missed out on, how much went unseen by him.

“You look like a little pirate.”

That afternoon he sat me down in the dining room amongst the magazines, stacked in order of their title and issue, and the records kept together alphabetically in order of album title.

“I remember what’s on the records more than I know who’s singing ’em,” he explained.

My uncle Jerry held up the newest issue of Rolling Stone and pointed to the black and white picture of the goateed Kurt Cobain; 1967-1994 was printed underneath the image. He pointed to the picture and shook his head.

“Damn shame,” he said.

He let me go through his magazines and told me what he liked in each one. He put on dozens of records. I felt swallowed up by the grungy guitar riffs of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. After dozens of songs, my uncle suggested we go to lunch.

“Can I still wear this?”

Uncle Jerry shrugged. “Sure, if you want to.”

We made our way to The Oak Leaf, which as it turned out, served food during the day time. I noticed people shooting quick glances at us as they walked by. In the bar, the big-breasted waitress brought us a platter of quesadillas and said, “Cute kid you got there.”

My uncle thanked her without correcting her. I ate my lunch through a grin while my uncle told me about the time he got back stage passes to a concert after showing a roadie where his eye used to be. “Speakin’ of,” he said, “You want to see it?”

This was it; this was the moment of truth. I wanted to prove to my uncle that I was mature, that something like that didn’t freak me out, even though it did. I had no idea what to expect, which made it all the worse. It could be anything. How would I handle it if it was a patchwork of raised scars or nothing but a black, empty eye socket? Ignoring my fears, I said, “yes.”

Uncle Jerry leaned forward and carefully lifted his eye patch. I held my breath and prayed that it wouldn’t be too disgusting. Under the dull light from the overhead fixture, I witnessed the mystery from behind the patch. It looked like my uncle was permanently winking. There was no gaping darkness, just a single puffy scar running across the center, keeping his eyelid shut.

“Cool,” I murmured, a little entranced.

“Ha, whatever you say, Kat.”

My uncle flipped his eye patch back down and gave me a wink with his good eye. “Did I ever tell you about the time I used my eye patch as a slingshot and broke my bedroom window?”

That night, after my uncle went to bed, I lay on the couch, the glow of the muted television acting as my nightlight, and thought about what it would be like if I was my uncle Jerry’s daughter. I imagined pizza rolls and jalapeno poppers for dinner and bedtimes at my behest. When I began eighth grade I would have Uncle Jerry come in for Career Day. After all of the other kids had their parents talk about their boring life as an administrative assistant or tax preparer, it would be Uncle Jerry’s turn. He wouldn’t talk about what he did but rather, how he lost his eye to the merciless maple at the tender age of ten.

He would saunter up to the front of the class in his cargo shorts and worn band t-shirt that I had grown accustomed to seeing him in. He would retell the story, the safe for school version, and I would beam with pride in knowing that I had heard the original version, the way Uncle Jerry wanted to tell it. After he finished, I would look around to see all of the stunned faces, the jaws of my jealous classmates hanging open. From the front of the class, Uncle Jerry would give me a wink, sealing my fate as the most popular girl at Willsbury Junior High.

As the child of uncle Jerry, he wouldn’t even think about sending me to Beecher Day Camp, where over-developed preteen girls spent their time lounging around in bathing suits and looking down their noses at the other girls, who weren’t so well endowed. Instead, we would spend our summer days in The Oak Leaf where the bartender, who would know that I just graduated, sent us both round after round of whatever it was Uncle Jerry liked to drink. I drifted to sleep that night with visions of Uncle Jerry dancing in my head.

The next morning when I had to go back to a life with Cheri as my dad’s wife, my uncle pulled me aside and told me I could keep the Jolly Roger patch. I hugged my uncle Jerry and tried not to cry. My father, freshly tanned and still glowing with sun-tan oil, tapped his finger impatiently on the hood of the car.

“Thank your uncle, Kathryn.”

“Thanks for having me, Uncle Jerry,” I looked up at him, beaming. It was genuine when I said it to him, not like with other people my dad forced me to thank.

He chuckled and gave my head a pat. “We had a pretty good time.”

Six years later, while I grip the sides of my uncle’s coffin and look down at the boring black eye patch the funeral home put on him, I think of that summer. I had been in my dorm studying for a chemistry exam when my father called to tell me the news.

“Heart attack,” he said when I asked him what had happened.

I looked up at the bulletin board where I had tacked the eye patch and started to cry. My father, startled by my sadness, asked why it affected me so much.

“You haven’t seen him in years, Kathryn; I’m surprised you’re so … upset by this.”

I didn’t know how to explain it. Even as the years crept past and life became a wind of commitments and priorities, I kept the memory of that summer enshrined in my mind. The summer that I got to hang out in a bar and eat as much fried food as I could stomach. The summer that I was introduced to grunge music and learned of the adventures my uncle had because of his missing eye, proving that adulthood could actually be something I looked forward to. My father wouldn’t understand. The only thing I could think to say was, “It’s just sad that he died.”

The service for my uncle was small, held at stuffy funeral home with just a few close friends and family. I glanced over my shoulder to make sure that no one was paying attention to me. My father was off chatting in a corner while everyone else seemed to be congregating at the punch bowl.

I rummaged through my purse and pulled out the patch with the sparkly Jolly Roger. I lifted my uncle’s head, a little disgusted with how stiff it had become, removed the solid black patch he was wearing and slipped the other one on. I rested his head carefully back onto the pillow.

“We had a pretty good time,” I said and walked back to my seat.