When my uncle was a boy, and called “Peewee,” he’d follow his older sister–my mother–around the neighborhood and even let her play dress up with him. When he was in high school, around the time his mother died of cancer, the vodka in his father’s cabinet began disappearing, replaced with water. It was 1966, and “boys will be boys,” as they say. Or, at least, as his father said.
The nickname stuck throughout his life not because he was not well liked, but the opposite. As with all nicknames, it made people feel closer to him. And everyone wanted to feel close to him. Even as a girl, I sensed it. This hilarious, gorgeous, charming man was my uncle and all the kids in my neighborhood knew it. When he came over, children flocked for airplane rides and tricks. He taught us how to pull our thumbs apart and gave us quarters.
Much happened I don’t know about. I do know he drank and then drove a motorcycle through a chain-link fence. He wasn’t wearing a helmet and somehow the only physical thing torn from him was a shoulder muscle. Otherwise, maybe he would have stopped drinking. But probably not.
I know he married a pretty, petite, smart woman. My aunt once smashed a cake into her husband’s face during a family gathering. I was a kid, but I remember there was tension beneath the laughter. They divorced.
Being a cop probably did nothing but nurture his alcoholism. It certainly got him off the hook for dozens of DUIs. But eventually, he lost his job, too.
I know my uncle hurt many people, not least his two sons. They were younger than I and got to see less of the better version of their father. Once, he brought his toddler with him when he came to build bookshelves for my mother, for money. My mom left the house and when she returned, Uncle Peewee was passed out on the living room floor. His son was crouched beside him, crying, thinking his daddy had died.
Many people tried to help him. Many people loved him. But though he was bright and witty, drinking gave him something he thought he couldn’t find elsewhere.
I visited him in the hospital one of the times he was in detox. He stood, excited, and pulled me to the window. He had something to show me, something he’d been dying to show someone all morning. He pointed to the office building across the street and told me to watch and wait. “Did you see it?” he asked. The building moved, he said, if you stood in the right spot. He guessed it was on rails.
I didn’t know about hallucinating but I would have looked hard anyway, because I wanted it to be true.
Uncle Peewee got skinnier. He lost some hair, then some teeth, then his home. His mustache grew too long. His glasses were outdated, as were his jeans and sweatshirts. My mother had to lend him money, and then not, had to close the door on her brother’s face.
One day, my uncle was found dead on a motel room floor, naked. He was forty-six. The manager thought he’d died of AIDS because he was so skinny and covered with lesions. I don’t know what my uncle was thinking when he died. In a way, I hope he was thinking, “I have gin. I have a room. I’m happy.”