Sometimes we whispered it at family gatherings–baby showers, Thanksgivings, baptisms, reunions–or shouted it across the dinner table, a 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 was a fraud, 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, 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, the size of a dog’s head. 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. The kind of guy who sold you stuff out of his trunk–fur coats, Christmas trees, baby chimpanzees, trout. Uncle Tony once 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, how much money was involved, where he would have fled; they just knew that something was owed.

14 Comments

  1. Neil Clark

    This is great, Janelle! Uncle Tony’s character is beautifully fleshed out, and I love the image of him fighting the lions, wherever he is.

    I’m struggling to think of ways to improve it… Perhaps there could be something more said about the mother? I know she only has one line in the story and you wouldn’t want to distract from Uncle Tony. But maybe there could be a fragment of something written into that one line to reveal something about her character?

    I’m clutching at straws with that, though. Loved the piece.

  2. Samantha Mitchell

    Hi Janelle,
    Wow, you really pulled me in here. Uncle Tony is a myth in the making. I’m especially drawn to the specificity of your imagery: dahlias big as dog’s heads, blood the color of liver, baby chimpanzees sold out of the back of a car trunk. Your language is surprising, yet smooth and wonderfully rich. I think it complements the subject of this piece, Uncle Tony, who is himself surprising and rich in personality.

    I wonder if you can dig into the moment when Uncle Tony tells the speaker to “Never let the bastards get you down.” What are they doing in this moment that compels Uncle Tony to say this? This might help give the reader a deeper sense of who Uncle Tony is to his family when he’s actually a person in the flesh, and not an idea bigger than death. I also wondered about the speaker’s mother’s relationship to Uncle Tony – is he a brother to her, or a brother-in-law? Clarifying that could do a lot of work with just a word or two.

    Overall, this is great!

    • Janelle Greco

      Thanks so much, Samantha! This is really helpful! I’ll try some of these suggestions out and post a revision. I appreciate it!

  3. Bud Smith

    Hello Janelle, I love this so much. The situation is beautiful and strange and the characters are so well drawn. I have an idea on some of the sentence work … here I’ll paste:
    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 was a fraud, 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. 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. The kind of guy who sold you stuff out of his trunk–fur coats, Christmas trees, baby chimpanzees, trout. Uncle Tony once 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, how much money was involved, where he would have fled; they just knew that something was owed.
    Janelle, I thought this phrase, ‘the size of a dog’s head’ could be something different for variation away from the descriptor of the lion’s paws, what do you think?
    I love this story lots, I wonder what it would mean to the narrator to find the final resting place of the uncle or if she could get some closure about his life or death, this could be a sentence or two or maybe a whole line of investigation into expanding what is hee.
    Fine work! Feel free to repost your revision!

    • Janelle Greco

      Thanks so much for this, Bud. This is helpful and I’ll work on a revision!

  4. Amy Barnes

    Love this! Just the name Tony somehow is compelling. There is a humor infused throughout in the tone. This would feel so different if this was a “Bob” or “Kevin.” Your name choice just feels right and carries weight in the story. Normally, I would push against not just jumping in and starting with “Uncle Tony had faked his own death” but I love the setting and “passed the kielbasa” phrase here as lead-ins. So much adventure in a small space: spelunking, wrestling mountain lions, shooting deer, killing the plants. We get such vivid images of Tony — I can imagine more stories about this intriguing character and his exploits. You also give us a strong sense of place here with your vivid descriptions. We know this is a niece or nephew narrating but it also feels like the narrator has a story to tell here too. Do you have a story in mind for the narrator and family too? Even if it doesn’t come into play, I’m guessing you know the narrator too. 🙂 I could see this as a linked micro with further info about this interesting family and its “quirky” uncle. The open-endedness here helps us to imagine even more story and keeps us wondering if Tony did fake his death or if the child narrator is being told that. Great job!

    • Janelle Greco

      Hi Amy, thank you so much for your feedback. Your comments and questions are super helpful in having me reflect on and clarify this piece. I have other stories about my family and this would fit nicely with those 🙂

  5. Taylor Grieshober

    Hi Janelle!

    This is such an excellent legend! You’ve got really good comic timing throughout, but I especially liked the lines: “Uncle Tony once whispered to me, “Never let the bastards get you down.” I was ten.” That “I was ten” is so deadpan and perfect and tells me so much about the narrator and how they feel about their uncle, their perception of him.
    And what a gut-punch of an ending: “No one ever knew the details of Tony’s escape from death–how the death certificate was forged, how much money was involved, where he would have fled; they just knew that something was owed.”

    I wouldn’t want to tinker with this too much as it already feels pretty polished and sharp, but there could be more specificity in some parts, like where you talk about the theories about where Uncle Tony has disappeared to. Like I’m wondering what he could have done in Toronto, since you have spelunking in Mexico.

    Overall I love the associative quality of this, where you go from Tony purportedly fighting off lions to shooting deer who are eating flowers the size of “dog heads”. There are tons of lovely details; I think you could add even more if you felt so inclined.

  6. K Chiucarello

    I just adore the momentum this piece builds! The opening line takes me right around the dinner table, passing pieces of Uncle Tony around, tidbits of gossip and lore. This line in particular totally grabbed me : “They had overrun the place–eating the peonies and the heads of the dahlias, big and swaying, the size of a dog’s head. Tony was the one who suggested killing them.” I’m curious if you played around with switching the last line or restructuring it (honestly, just for fun…to see if the threads take you in a different direction). ie, what if the life draining from the does eyes was how the story ended? but the reader still got the important detail of what Uncle Tony says to you before he sees you for the last time. Also, the word count here feels so so right. I wouldn’t cut or extend it. It feels like the perfect glimpse into a wild and feral life.

    • Janelle Greco

      Thank you for reading K! I like your idea of playing around with the last line too 🙂

  7. Martha Jackson Kaplan

    Janelle, I am hard pressed to find anything to suggest. The pacing, the narrative details, all feel so well wrought. I loved the story, felt a tinge of “The Sopranos” in it. I do want more, which doesn’t mean you have to give more– the principle: leave them wanting more might apply here. The character of Tony is wonderfully drawn, as is the picture of the family, shouting across the table, passing the kielbasa. For me, those two details locate the family ethnically and geographically. I love the imagination you have to include baby chimpanzees along with the fur coats that Tony might sell off the back of a truck.

    I think there are details you could add to this story in line with what others have suggested above, but be careful not to destroy the magic of it as it is now. Loved reading this.

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