He’s an unofficial sort of guest; a guest because the only guest on the list is him. He’s alone, separated from the bounding noise vibrating on the highway; separated from the people who apparently wouldn’t understand. We call him Uncle J. Well, he calls himself that. He’s been here awhile. Five months, actually, though he says he used to live here; in childhood. “I was glad to see my old place; the room’s the same, but the clothes have changed thank God!” We laugh as if we’re in on the joke. He changes the subject, his gloved hands motioning calmly as his mint leaf breath wafts towards our chilled nostrils. His breath was always minty. Toothpaste? Gum? “My father was pretty famous…” his eyes search a thick fog for the word he needs. “He taught me how to do it. Everything.” Do what? Who knows. He continues, and a slight smile cracks his fragile lips. “The money, well, the money is good. Whoa good.” He sizes the air with his hands and smiles again, and this time we can see the sense of humor buried in his mixed-up thoughts, like a shining piece of silver in a pile of ashes.
We try to hand him money; he refuses, like always, making mention of the “whoa good” money once again. We smile, letting the whispers of the passersby on the well-traveled trail seep through the halfway woods, sliding across the door of his tent. Uncle J doesn’t care.
“My father was pretty famous,” he says again, “and because of that the famous people knew me.” That part’s true, we find out later. Uncle J isn’t totally unaware. What does he really know? “So, when I talked to the famous people I could tell them how to do it, because he taught me how to do it.” What is it? We laugh again, working to decipher his twisted truth. “I was the only doctor in Hawaii, er, California, and that’s a lot of people.” The doctor part is true, too, apparently. Though that was before he forgot who he was. Or before they forgot who he was. His face softens, his bright eyes conveying either sadness or nostalgia, though over what is not clear. Nothing is with him, but that’s why we talk. He knows something. Maybe not everything, but something.
“I knew when I met you yesterday - that you were right on.” The same smile creeps across his wrinkled face. “I knew, because you just know.” I get the eerie feeling he does, and even if we don’t, we smile too. He breathes a sigh of relief or congestion, and moves on; quickly, like always, though with the impression of having stayed with the exact same thought as before.
That’s when the cops come.
They show their shiny badges as per the usual and ask Uncle J if he’s aware the property is “restricted.”
He nods, asking them if they know how long his father lived there and whether or not they know who he is, all the while keeping his hands to himself and his breath minty fresh. He offers them a piece of gum. Gum. How? Uncle J keeps talking. “It really is great to be back here.” He carries on; he thinks they’re visitors. Just like we are. Like everyone is. They show their shiny badges again and repeat the “restricted area” comment. Uncle J laughs. Not out of scorn. Over something he’s said. He chuckles, sizing the air with his hands “I knew. I knew when I met you guys the other day that you were right on. I knew you’d show.” His eyes are hopeful, staring at something invisible behind the cops as his cracked lips bleed all for the sake of his widening smile. The cops make another pretend effort at their misunderstood jargon, using words like “sir” and mumbling something about property rights. Uncle J dismisses them again.
“I thought I had seen the worst of this place – that was when my father was pretty famous. He was. And I knew the people he knew. They’d say ‘J!’ if they saw me. But that was before. He passed, bless his soul, but I kept in touch with the people. A lot of pe-“
They take out their handcuffs. The game is up. Uncle J’s smile fades, a confused fog seeps over his face. The uniformed homewreckers repeat their words with newfound authority and reach to take his arms. We try to intervene, claiming Uncle J is our relative, our friend; anything to keep this from happening again. They decline less than politely, pulling Uncle J’s arms away from his lower back. He apologizes as tears form in his eyes, coating them in a crystal layer of clarity.
He knows. He knows he’s not home. He knows he’s not supposed to be here. He knows we only pretended to understand. A tear slides down his wrinkled cheek as his serene brown eyes clamor for the truth of his circumstance.
And then he smiles.
He chuckles, revitalized by his fall back into his hazy reality. “Take a picture. Please. Take a picture. I need to show them that I found where my father was. He was pretty famous. He was.” I nod, noting Uncle J’s still minty breath and the sudden change in his eyes. He’s staring past his nylon home into the thin woods as if looking for something. Something he’d lost, or found. Who knows.
The cops shuffle him away. We stand, incredulous. I reach for my phone, snapping a picture just before he yells:
“I knew you were right on. I knew you were.”
Written by: Tyler Wilborn
Photograph by: Garrett Carroll