Dreams of the Everyday Housewife by Gregory Levey
published in Volume 9, Issue 5 on December 6th, 2002Once, when hiking in the woods of Massachusetts, I tripped over a rock and hurt my uncle. That's not a typo. It was not my ankle that I hurt; it was my uncle.
When I tripped on the rock, I fell into a little clearing, and there I found my uncle leaning against a tree. I was very surprised, because my uncle had last been sighted in Atlanta and even that had been almost three years earlier. But there was no time to dwell on this. The first thing I did was punch him very hard in the jaw. I was quite sure that I had hurt him badly.
About four years before, I had been taking a graduate class at N.Y.U. with the writer Chuck Wachtel - an experience that now seems to have led inevitably to punching my uncle in the face.
I came out of Chuck's class one evening and walked to the hotdog stand at the corner of Washington Square Park. As always, the hotdog vendor refused to serve me.
"How many times do I have to apologize?" I asked him. "When will you sell me hotdogs again?"
The man shook his head violently. "No, your constant antics with the sausages that you purchase make a mockery of my livelihood. What you have done with mustard is an insult to my whole people."
Then I felt a hand on my shoulder, and turned to see my uncle there. He led me a few feet from the stand, and as we walked, I flashed a few dollars at the vendor, who simply raised his middle finger at me.
"What are you doing here?" I asked my uncle. "I heard you were in Seattle, making a stage musical out of the insider trading scandals of the 1980's."
He nodded. "I was, but I have a better idea now."
We starting walking towards a nearby bar, and on the way, he asked me about my family in Boston.
"They're okay," I told him, "but I hear things have been somewhat tense since the helmet incident."
(Only a few weeks before, my fifteen-year-old sister had gone on her first date, and my father had vehemently insisted that she wear a biking helmet to the movies. "I don't know what this boy is like," he had repeated again and again, refusing to listen to reason.)
After we had sat down at the bar, and my uncle had ordered us two beers, I said, "Uncle Jim, what's this all about?"
"Roadwork," he said, looking me in the eye. "This is all about roadwork."
"I don't understand."
"Do you read the papers at all, kid? A few weeks ago, there was a little article in the San Francisco Chronicle that said that one of the big civic advancements in America over the last few years has been a vast improvement in the road systems around little towns out in the middle of nowhere."
"So? So immediately I closed production on the musical, packed up my bags and bought a ticket to New York to see you."
The beer came, and we toasted silently.
"I don't understand at all," I told him.
"Look," he said, "your mother tells me that you write 'tough-guy fiction' - spies and gangsters and boxers and all that stuff."
I nodded, sipping from my drink.
"So you're obviously the man for the job. Stop writing about it all, and let's actually do it."
"You want to box me?"
He shook his head. "No, you idiot. You and I are going to rob a bank."
But this didn't faze me much. Uncle Jim had always been strange. So strange, in fact, that even though his full name was Bernard, he had always insisted on the short form Jim. ("Jim," he'd say. "It's short for Bernard.") He had voted for Ronald Reagan for president on three separate occasions, claimed to own a beach house in Nevada, and once disappeared out onto the road for a few weeks with a dozen drunken midgets who claimed to be a traveling Leprechaun jazz-fusion band. ("Leprechaun jazz-fusion is the next big thing," he'd said repeatedly before he left, but when he came back, he would not give any details of his trip, except for constantly mumbling, "Those Leprechauns tried to take advantage of me.")
At this very moment, in fact, he was wearing his beard in his usual style: one side of his face was completely clean-shaven, while the other had a thick growth of graying brown hair.
"What does robbing a bank have to do with roadwork?" was my only question.
"Your grandmother was right," he said. "You really are slow."
He paused, as if I would now understand. I looked at him blankly.
"Look boy, hasn't your fancy education taught you anything useful? It's hard to rob big city banks these days. Their security is tight, some would say even perfect. They have cameras, marked bills, security systems, guards, and they're tough and aware of what's going on. But small town banks aren't like that. They have more than enough money for me on hand - I'm not a greedy man - but their security is much looser. The only problem, until recently, was that the bad roads made it hard to get in and out efficiently. But that problem is solved now."
I tried to understand what he was suggesting.
"And so," he continued, "you and I are going to drive out to a bunch of banks in the Mid-West, and see how much we can get."
Obviously, I told my uncle that I would not join him on this excursion.
"Why not?" he asked. "Is it your studies?"
"No, it's not just that."
"What's your professor's name?"
He nodded for a while in a way that he probably considered 'sagely.'
"What's he like? What kind of man is he?"
"Well," I said, "I don't really know him all that well, but he seems okay. Except maybe that he seems to bring up Wayne Newton more than most people do, maybe more than he has to."
Again the "sagely" nod. When he answered, it was obvious that he was quoting from somewhere.
Slowly and precisely, he said: "Seemingly tireless, Wayne's exuberant and infectious personality fills a stage as he shares his talents with his audience through humor, music and song. He has a broad repertoire and the skills to exquisitely perform all of it from light and gay lyrics to dramatic and poignant ballads. To Wayne, entertainment is a serious business, but he does not do his business seriously. He comes to entertain and enjoys the whole experience just as much as his audience. A Wayne Newton performance is an experience in sharing."
"Where did you get that from?" I asked.
"A Wayne Newton website. But don't think it's not relevant. What I'm offering you - this bank robbing trip to the Mid-West - is also an experience in sharing."
"Just like a Wayne Newton performance?"
"Exactly. Just like a Wayne Newton performance. We're going to share the adventure, the risk, the driving, and the money."
This was a convincing argument to me. If Chuck liked Wayne Newton so much (which, I thought, could be the only reason that he kept mentioning him), and robbing small town Mid-West banks was like a Wayne Newton performance, then surely Chuck would encourage me to join my uncle on this expedition. I must admit that I thought about it seriously.
But that was the difference between my uncle and I. I thought about a lot of things (anonymously mailing meat to my friend Dan, anonymously mailing meat to the White House, anonymously mailing meat to myself), but I never really acted on them. Uncle Jim acted on his ideas. I found his behavior bizarre and his mind way off-center, but there was something admirable and beautiful in the way he never followed convention.
We walked up Broadway, with my uncle still trying to convince me to join him, and me repeating that I could not. We were so deep in discussion that, in crossing a street, we were almost hit by a car. We jumped back, and watched it disappear into the distance.
"That was really close," I said, thinking suddenly that maybe it was finally time for me to anonymously mail meat to somebody, anybody.
"The other day," my uncle said, "I saw a really old man crossing the street with a car heading directly for him. I pulled him out of the way and saved his life. After thanking me, he said, 'In Chinese culture, if you save somebody's life, then you are responsible for them forever.' So I pushed him right back into traffic."
At the end of the day my uncle had still not convinced me to join him.
"No," I told him. "I have to stay in New York. My studies and my job are both here."
He nodded sadly.
"What about robbing a bank here in the City," I suggested half-heartedly.
At this he just smiled, and we shook hands to say goodbye. I pulled him into a hug and then watched him go off towards the subway station.
I hoped to hear about his escapades soon, either in a call from him announcing his success, or in an article in the paper. For several weeks, I waited for some news. Then, a little more than a month after my uncle had visited New York, my mother called to tell me about Uncle Jim's latest endeavor.
"What did he do now?" I asked eagerly.
"He got a job with a real estate agency in Atlanta."
"He's finally gone respectable," she said.
And that was the last anyone heard from him for a long time. He worked hard for the firm he had joined, and made his way up to a supervisory position. He was proud of his accomplishments and his new life, and the next time any of us saw him was when I tripped over that rock in Massachusetts and found him in the clearing. I felt I had no choice but to punch him in the jaw.