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.