I hadn’t seen uncle Joe in nearly ten years when my father called to tell me he was dead. My father was working in Las Vegas selling newspapers over the phone. He was always broke, living in residential hotels. He called me long distance from work to save money. I could tell when his supervisor walked by because he’d suddenly start in on his newspaper sales rap.
That’s how the conversation went when he called about Joe. His voice was softer than usual when he told me.
“So, look, Finn … Joe died the other day. One of his friends down there gave me a call to let me know—Of course, sir. I understand. The New York Times is a fine newspaper, but in Nye Valley the Pahrump Valley Times is the newspaper of record. So, can I put you down for a subscription?—… Anyhow, it looks like it was a heart attack.”
We talked about that for a couple minutes, about how a heart attack was a relatively decent way to go; about how it was almost certainly hypertension from all the cigarettes and beer; about how it had been a heart attack that killed my grandfather too.
Joe was my favorite uncle when I was a kid. He was sarcastic and crude like most of my father’s side of the family, only more so. My other relatives were old and tired, whittled away by dull jobs and tedious responsibilities. Joe was a blunt block of studied dereliction. While my other aunts and uncles tried to mask their disappointment and desperation behind placid faces, Joe’s eyes seemed to expect everything they saw and glittered when things went wrong. I was beginning to learn that the world didn’t really care about you and while Joe’s refusal to care about the world wasn’t really a solution, it offered a symmetry I found appealing.
More importantly, he was funny. He belched and farted at the most inappropriate moments. He swore habitually, sprinkling words like “shit” and “fuck” before, after, and in the middle of larger words with the rhythmic genius of a poet. Every trip to the bathroom was preceded by a broad declaration of intent and concluded with a detailed account of what sort of product his bowels were putting out these days. Once, shortly after recovering from a nasty flu he announced, “I could have shit through the eye of a needle.”
With me he was always affectionately gruff. If he hadn’t seen me in awhile he’d frown and rub his beard thoughtfully like he was trying to figure out where to begin. Then he’d make some comment about how I was too damned tall, or how much uglier I was getting each year. On my fourteenth birthday he called to give me some advice: “Wear a rubber.” When he heard I was going into teaching he just gave a little snort and nodded. “Figures,” he said.
After my grandfather died, Joe gave up the little back house he’d been living in and spent his share of the insurance money on an old van so he could travel. The last time I saw Joe was the day before he left, when my father and I dropped by his place in Burbank to wish him well on his trip. The two of them smoked a joint, made the usual jokes at my expense for not smoking one myself, and talked about the books they’d been reading and the old days growing up in Connecticut. He was still jaded Joe, telling one anecdote after another about his years in the Marines and all the crappy jobs that followed, all the assholes he’d met. But it was obvious he was nervous about the trip.
My father knew I enjoyed hearing about Joe’s misadventures, so he gave me updates whenever we talked. For nearly a year he drove around California and Oregon with one of his pot-dealing buddies, living out of the van and spending the night on quiet side streets or in parking lots. Later I heard he traded the van to a hitchhiker he picked up on the way to Mexico in exchange for a little mobile home near the Salton Sea. The hitchhiker was terminally ill and wanted to travel, while Joe was tired of living out of a van and wanted to settle down. Another one of his crazy deals.
After the divorce my father and I didn’t talk much for a couple of years. Then he called one night to thank me for some money I had given him, through my mother, to help him get started in Las Vegas. That night he told me Joe had throat cancer and had virtually destroyed his voice box. The doctor told him he either needed to quit smoking or risk losing his voice. He just laughed and told the doctor he’d been smoking since he was nine.
My father said, “I think I might have been the last person to talk to him.”
“Really?” Part of me had always wanted to be able to say that.
“Yeah, ain’t that some shit? I don’t remember what we talked about. His voice was shot by then, so we kept it short. But the last thing he said was, ‘I have to take a piss.’ Then a few days later I get this call … I guess no one had seen him in a few days so they dropped by to make sure he was okay. They found him in the bathroom. So, as far as I know, he told me he had to take a piss and then went in the bathroom and died.”
My father was silent for a long time after that. I could hear ringing phones and muffled sales pitches in the background. I like to think he was considering his own mortality and the two packs a day of cigarettes he smokes. Then he let out a hollow laugh from somewhere deep down and said what I imagine we’d both been thinking, “Well, I’m guessing that if Joe had known he was going to drop dead in that bathroom he might have gone the extra mile and told me he was going to take a shit.”