The Regency Era
After four months without a phone call or letter, our Uncle returned to Portland on Christmas Eve with a cocktail waitress he had covered head to toe in fresh mud. He’d done the same to himself except he’d added a humble sash of maple leaves and was also wearing a helmet made of twigs, and possibly bird shit, and a child’s cape. Mom screamed until Grandpa fixed her a drink. Dad took pictures on his vintage camera, all the while insisting that yes, darling, goddammit, the carpet could be salvaged.
“I’m back, kids. I’m back from fighting in the Troll Wars. I began as an anonymous soldier of fortune, and now I’m the King’s chief military advisor.”
“What does that mean?” my sister asked.
“It means I hold very high office, and that I drink champagne and eat caviar. Women are brought to my bedchamber at night. Most of them are fantastic lays but can’t even play a decent game of checkers. But this one, she’s gonna be my wife.”
No one remembers the girl’s name anymore. She stayed two nights, then was “disappeared” by Grandma with two-hundred dollars cash and a train ticket to Seattle.
According to our Uncle, the Troll Kingdom could be found through the crawl space under Grandpa’s house. And that’s where he said he was the last four months, in the Troll Kingdom, soldiering for the armies of a mythical king in a mythical land under a contested easement of Western Oregon hill country.
“Why were you fighting?”
“Trolls are covetous of human women and goat meat. Now, the term ‘genocide’ has been used by my more liberal enemies at court, in a uniformly reckless fashion, mind you. For the record, we tried to put their children in re-education camps but there was a drought, the treasury ran out of money, and you can imagine the rest. In the final analysis, it was cheaper to put them all to death, except for the baker’s dozen we saved for science and this summer’s traveling circus.”
We sat at the kitchen table while he made us peanut butter and banana sandwiches and continued to analyze his role in an underreported subterranean ethnic cleansing. Then we played Monopoly with extra money and an absurdly low APR until it was time to clear the table for dinner. He let my sister choose a beer for him from Dad’s garage refrigerator, and after the plates were cleared away I got to pour him a tumbler of scotch and bring his organic cigarettes to him in the backyard, where he pointed out various constellations.
“That’s Narwhal the Giant Fish God. He mates in the Pacific. That’s why it’s warmer than the Atlantic. It takes a lot of bulls and cows — he’s bisexual, you see — to satisfy him, at least a hundred alone to fellate him from stem to stern, the breadth of his Antigua-sized phallus.”
Our Uncle enjoyed using words I didn’t know. He stayed with us for the rest of the winter and most of the spring and summer until his arrest. Grandpa gave him a per diem for cigarettes and whiskey and used paperback novels. He helped with the gutters and with tearing out the old fiberglass insulation which he made into dolls he left at the playground since he hated other children. He cooked with Grandma: chopped vegetables with her, diced the five or six onions she required daily, minced garlic, and gutted fish he caught illegally on the banks of the Columbia River. I imagine him standing there giddy in the face of approaching storm clouds, plotting the whereabouts of his next handjob.
After spring break, our Uncle took what my mother called an “unhealthy interest” in our education. He said our creative faculties were being neglected by a fascist school board. A few days later he threatened the principal of our elementary school at the weekly farmers market, reaching into Dr. Breckenridge’s cart and squeezing an eggplant until it exploded in lumps over a nearby box of kale from the high desert. To fill the creative void, our Uncle said we should start a family band, until he actually heard us sing, and then he dismissed the idea angrily, leaving the house to stumble around the neighborhood and curse God for placing him in the same genus as such pitchy, untalented children.
He was clearly a very disturbed man, but also incredibly decent at times. He always took us to the water park when we asked him. But not before a trip to the library, where he would waltz among the stacks picking our summer reading list — Dostoevsky for a nine- and ten-year-old did not strike him as particularly odd. He was convinced we were as dark and brooding as he was, in spite of our pastel swimsuits and translucent water guns.
Once at the checkout counter he flirted with a girl who was studying library sciences at Portland State and she joined us later at McMenamin’s Pub. My sister and I drank orange sodas while my Uncle and Suzanne guzzled beer and he goaded her into several shots of Irish whiskey. Then he drove us home and deposited us on the front step, not even waiting for Mom to come to the door, and sped off with Suzanne in the navigator’s seat.
We found his receipts when we did his laundry. He went gambling often up north in the Great Indian country, land of snow crab salad and bottomless mimosas, regret and quarantine, land of pilfered hotel two-in-one shampoo-conditioner, land invariably of Suzanne, Carole, Alice, Parviny, and Wei Ling always having to pawn jewelry or wire cash to cover my Uncle’s blackjack debts. He always returned home in a much more cheerful mood.
That summer, when school finally let out and our bed times were extended by parental statute, our Uncle would serve faithfully as custodian of lightning bugs. And with his gut heaving and his hysterical leer, he was an ideal second mate for whenever we fought off an English boarding party on the Spanish galleon in the backyard, which was an old fir tree our father had hanged indifferently with boards and nails, and too much hemp rope.
Sadly, in spite of being a good zookeeper and villain, and an excellent fixer for taboo items like candy straws and R-rated movies, they came for him one hot July day while he was making fireworks in Grandpa’s garage. For an afternoon anyway, it seemed like he was the most wanted man in Clackamas County.
First Child Protective Services arrived sheepishly, skeptically really, to verify impossible reports of a madman leaving fiberglass dolls for children at the playground. Then, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife intruded and produced dozens of transcribed eyewitness accounts of a shirtless, heavyset Christ figure offering to gut fish and perform circumcisions in the Columbia River Gorge; all this he allegedly did while fishing without a license. And finally, two sheriff’s deputies descended on the scene, by now a hot, overcrowded garage teeming with curious children and bureaucrats, to arrest him on a simple, straightforward charge of assault. Apparently, our Uncle had paid Principal Breckenridge a visit at home and broken his jaw in two places.
While serving his prison term, our Uncle would corresponded with us regularly through Grandma. He assigned us ten-page essays on Dostoevsky that had to be in correct MLA format, and also encouraged us to form a mixed doubles tennis team. He referred to Breckenridge as a “false witness.” One letter recounted his love of gardening. Another provided detailed instructions on how to place bets on his behalf at Portland Meadows.
We never wrote those essays or consulted the MLA handbook, because our renaissance childhood, or whatever it turned out to be, ended the day our regent was led away laughing, hands and face covered in a fine sulfurous dust. Other things were happening too. My sister had to go shopping for training bras. Six months later, I took a circuitous, forested route to Grandpa’s house to steal our Uncle’s collection of vintage pornography that he’d kept in the upstairs linen closet. On a routine trip to the town center to buy clementines and formula for the baby, Mom dropped off the Dostoevskys at the library, where Suzanne gave her a look, and all was forgotten. After he got out of prison early for good behavior, we heard occasional reports about our Uncle’s whereabouts, again through Grandma. He had moved East to complete a master’s degree. He telephoned Mom on her fortieth birthday and they talked, literally, about the price of red bell peppers.
When we were teenagers, we went to stay with him while visiting prospective colleges in New England. He had a nice condo in a neighborhood with cobblestone streets and a martini bar at the end of the block. Neither of us recognized him. Gone was the amazing beard he cultivated to hide his double chin. He was slimmer, sans jolly, pre-diabetic gut, thanks largely to a hybrid elliptical/bike machine he had purchased from Sky Mall while flying to Topeka for business. He spent most of dinner congratulating himself for the meal he had prepared, yellow squash julienned to resemble pasta and tossed in extra-virgin olive oil and low-fat Parmesan cheese.
“It tastes just like spaghetti, but you don’t get all the carbohydrates.”
After dinner, rather than having a scotch and a cigarette (he also refrained from drinking beer beforehand), he made himself a cup of herbal tea and told us about life as an actuary. I thought he would finally embellish a little. Well, kids, I use my degree in computational physics to assess the likelihood that a team of Australian treasure hunters, led by a buxom, blond Oxford graduate, will discover Atlantis. Then, I relay this information to an anonymous billionaire who wants to corner the market in large-scale excavation machinery and start a world war.
Nothing of the kind. Instead, he went on about organic fertilizer and crop diversification. In fact, I’m not sure the dinner happened at all. A calm, rational dinner with my Uncle, a meal exempt from diatribe, a meal that did not double as an opportunity to plot against Mom, or teach some new form of gambling, or provide further elucidation in the field of Indo-Welsh astrology, is all too fantastical to believe.
What’s more likely, and I consider this sincerely, is that the man we met in Providence was an impostor, hired by our Uncle to imitate him and convince Grandpa and Grandma that their only son, shouter of frequent claims to their Roth IRAs, had finally gone straight. The truth is that he’s down there somewhere, a mercenary turned statesman, a drifter turned viceroy and lord-protector of the realm. Far below the expandable clay soils beneath Grandpa’s house, the foundation of which is a rent firmament for a kingdom of irretrievable magic, my Uncle is finally, finally, father of a nation.