Sometimes we whispered at family gatherings—baby showers, Thanksgivings, baptisms, reunions—or shouted across dinner tables in declaration while we passed the kielbasa. Uncle Tony had faked his own death. He had owed some people some money and so it was said that Uncle Tony’s death certificate and obituary were frauds, manufactured so that Tony could race off into the Nevada deserts or escape to Toronto or go spelunking in a Mexican cave. I picture Uncle Tony wrestling with mountain lions now, their paws the size of his head. They would knock off his glasses, but he would still overcome them having brought his trusty AR-7 rifle, the one he told me was good for shooting deer in our backyard. They had overrun the place–eating the peonies and the heads of the dahlias, big and swaying in the breeze. Tony was the one who suggested killing them. Forget putting up chicken wire or spraying the plants with some type of repellant; Tony wanted to watch their doe eyes go dark, see them bleeding the color of liver. My mom always said Uncle Tony was a little “off.” A shady character. He was her uncle, my grandmother’s brother. He was the kind of guy who sold you stuff out of his trunk–fur coats, Christmas trees, baby chimpanzees, trout. My mother didn’t respect Uncle Tonys. People who got themselves into trouble. People who didn’t follow the rules. 

 

One time, when Uncle Tony was visiting my grandparents’ from out of town, I accidentally sprayed everyone with the hose on the patio. My grandfather had asked me why I didn’t go and play at my own damn house. Uncle Tony leaned in close and whispered to me, “Never let the bastards get you down.” I was ten. That was the last time I saw him. No one ever knew the details of Tony’s escape from death–how the death certificate was forged, who wrote the obituary, how much money was involved, where he would have fled; they just knew that something was owed. I’m not sure where his fake gravestone lies or where they fake buried him. But I do say a quick prayer for Tony every now and then as I watch the deer, their white tails flicking, as they flee into the brush.

8 Comments

  1. Bud Smith

    oh my god! these new details in this revision killed me — “He was the kind of guy who sold you stuff out of his trunk–fur coats, Christmas trees, baby chimpanzees, trout. My mother didn’t respect Uncle Tonys. People who got themselves into trouble. People who didn’t follow the rules.

    One time, when Uncle Tony was visiting my grandparents’ from out of town, I accidentally sprayed everyone with the hose on the patio. My grandfather had asked me why I didn’t go and play at my own damn house. Uncle Tony leaned in close and whispered to me, “Never let the bastards get you down.” I was ten. That was the last time I saw him.”

    Excellent!

  2. Jacob Schrodt

    Hey Janelle,

    I’ve had the pleasure of reading both your original draft and this revision and found both to be superbly written. The rhythm of your prose, the sentence length variations, the certain kind of diction that, to me, sounds like what I’d imagine an Uncle Tony might sound like, as if he has rubbed off on the young narrator. Your list of items Uncle Tony might sell from a trunk, ending with the absurdly blunt word “trout,” made me laugh. I love the image you end on with this revision too – a quick prayer for Tony, the deer disappearing into the brush. Wonderful work with this!

  3. Cheryl Pappas

    Janelle, this is my first time reading this, and I’m floored by the descriptions of Tony. The selling of things from the trunk and the indirect characterization of him through the mother: “My mother didn’t respect Uncle Tonys.”

    “But I do say a quick prayer for Tony every now and then as I watch the deer, their white tails flicking, as they flee into the brush.”

    This last line points at the complication: the narrator is complicit in praying for the deer that he might kill, but she also feels for the deer. And Tony is, in a way, the deer itself, running away from the “bastards.”

    The only thing I’d suggest is cutting back this part: “No one ever knew the details of Tony’s escape from death–how the death certificate was forged, who wrote the obituary, how much money was involved, where he would have fled; they just knew that something was owed. I’m not sure where his fake gravestone lies or where they fake buried him.”

    I suggest that because you already have conjecture about his whereabouts in the first paragraph, and the juicy parts of the second paragraph are about that whispered moment between them and the ending image of the deer.

    This is a brilliant gem of a story taking shape!

  4. Kevin Sterne

    Sorry, I had to work on Friday and I missed the first version of this before you did the revision. So just commenting on this version. I think you have something here. Seems like whatever revisions were made were the right ones because there are so many moments where this piece absolutely sings. “He was the kind of guy who sold you stuff out of his trunk–fur coats, Christmas trees, baby chimpanzees, trout. My mother didn’t respect Uncle Tonys. People who got themselves into trouble. People who didn’t follow the rules. ” I love that.

    “No one ever knew the details of Tony’s escape from death–how the death certificate was forged, who wrote the obituary, how much money was involved, where he would have fled; they just knew that something was owed. I’m not sure where his fake gravestone lies or where they fake buried him.” this is so so good. and honestly my own suggestion for revision (more an idea) would be the narrator knowing where the fake grave is and maybe the family goes and visits it. That could be the beginning of the story even.

    really love this piece overall. good stuff here

  5. Martha Jackson Kaplan

    I think both versions are very very good. I have a quick comment on the revision. Probably because in the first version, I didn’t feel the need to know more about who Uncle Tony was to the mother, so when I read the second version, it feels like the rhythm is broken a little. Must be a case of “first version bias.”

    In the last paragraph I like part of what is added, and part that doesn’t do much for me. I’d like it like this:
    “they just knew that something was owed. I say a quick prayer for Tony every now and then as I watch the deer, their white tails flicking, as they flee into the brush.” I love the addition of this last line. Seems tighter to say the prayer for him– since you’v already indicated that no one knows where he is, the gravestones feel like an unnecessary elaboration.

    But this is yours— and I’m a fan of it either way. Nice work.

  6. David O'Connor

    Kielbasa is the best word. Builds a world. Uncle Tony is my hero. If there is a movie, I want dibs on an audition. Any actor would kill to play Uncle Tony. The first paragraph, for me, is perfect. My suggestions: Get out earlier, like maybe ned on the line “Never let the bastards get you down.” The last few lines feel like a wrap-up, an explanation. And juice up the title–“Pass the Kielbasa” or Uncle Tony’s Fraudulent Exodus.” You know best. I love this piece, love how a character can become a story.

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