Uncle Tom

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My mother was delighted with me, by all accounts.  Not only was I large and healthy, but I looked nothing like her ex-boyfriend, my dad’s brother Freddy, which she hoped would put to rest any rumors of who my true daddy might be. To remind her nosy neighbors in El Paso, Texas, should they choose to gossip, she called me “Eddie Junior.”

My first memory is of a face.  A very young and pretty woman with shiny, bobbed black hair, big brown eyes, and a gently curving nose is bending over me, smiling.  This is my mommy’s face, I know, and it fills me with a sense of shivery happiness and well-being….Apropos of which, thirty years later I would marry that face, or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

My second memory is of a face as well.  I am playing with my daddy on the grass in my maternal grandparents’ backyard.  Then for some reason my daddy disappears. Or rather, he starts talking to a pretty woman over the back fence and they sneak off down the alley together. Anyway, as soon as they’re gone, a dark round visage appears above me, and someone bends over me, smiling.  He’s about thirteen, with big pointed ears, a thatch of black hair, and bright white teeth, but his is not a pleasant smile at all.

He is one of my near-sighted Uncle Tom’s Mexican boys, his pedophile favorite, the only one he lets lead him around like a blind dog.  I know him.  His name is Tito, but everyone calls him “Retoñito,” or “Squirt” because of his stunted growth.

“Ven, ven, vente conmigo!” Tito whispers in our second language, Spanish. “Come, come, come with me!”

Grabbing me by the hand, he pulls me up, takes me in his arms, and runs with me across the yard, out the back gate, down the alley, into the rear gate of Uncle Tom’s mortuary and through the squeaky door of his tool shed, though I bellow my guts out all the way.

“Lemme go, lemme go!”

Inside the shed an immensely bright shaft of light streams down through a crack in the wooden shingles, illuminating spider webs, old broken tools, and a greasy workbench.  The place smells of dust, oily sand and pigeon shit.

Still smiling, Tito lays me out on the workbench firmly but gently, shaking his head and putting a finger to his lips when I kick my feet and yell, “I want my mommy!”

Into the pocket of his tan corduroy pants he slides a hand (a clean, long-fingered hand that is brown on top, white on the palm, and smells of red peppers), and out comes a small gleaming knife.  Looking up at him, eyes popping, I see the smile fade from his face, and a very serious and intent expression assume its place.  Then quick as a snake he reaches down with his other hand and clutches me by the throat, shaking me twice.

“No te mueves,” he whispers, enunciating every syllable very carefully.  “Don’t move.”  And cuts through the front of my bibbed cotton shorts with one long slice of the blade.

Now he is doing something to me with the knife, something that hurts more than anything, something that makes me shriek in terror, something that will wake me up screaming for the rest of my life.

“Voyhacerte una chamacitacomoyo,” he chants, in his slow, singsong Northern Mexican accent, ignoring my cries, looking me straight in the eyes.  “I’m gonna make you a little girl like me.”

My body goes into spasms.  My heart seems to burst out of my chest.  Just as everything starts to go black, my Grandma Wasson bursts through the door, slamming it open with a Big Bang, causing the dust and light to swirl about in a celestial, slow-motion cloud.  Grey hair flying, eyes big as eggs, mouth wide open, howling like a banshee, she grabs a broken broomstick from beside the door, whirls on the cowering, whimpering Tito, beats him into a cobwebby corner, and starts jabbing at him with the sharp end of the broomstick, right in the face, right in the eye, right in the ass.

Mommy runs in behind her, crowding the tiny space with hysteria: “Oh my God, my God, my God!  Your goddamn dad’s s’posed to be watchin’ you!  Where’s he at?  Where’s he at?”

Scooping me up in her arms, Mommy races across the littered yard, up the back steps of Uncle Tom’s mortuary and through the screen door.  She runs through the kitchen, ignoring Aunt Mabel, Uncle Freddy, Great Grandma Letitia, and the others gathered at the table over lunch, and flings open the door to Uncle Tom’s office.

Seated corpulently at his desk in a black mourning suit and a green visor cap, under an adjustable reading lamp, my undertaker uncle is bent over a stack of bills and receipts, perusing them from an inch away with his magnifying glass.  An empty lunch tray lies beside him on the floor.

“Look!  Look at this, you blind-ass son-of-a-bitch!”  Mommy shrieks, kicking the lunch tray out of the way, sending dishes clattering against the wall.  Then, thrusting me out over his desk and right up into his face, turning me this way and that, flinging blood all over his white shirt and the papers before him, she wails as if the earth has split open and all the heavens have fallen, “LOOK!  LOOK AT WHAT ONE OF YOUR DAMN LITTLE ORPHAN BOYS HAS DONE, YOU FUCKIN’ FAGGOT!”

“Where the hell is your Aunt Mabel?” Tom demands indignantly, spinning nimbly around in his swivel chair to face her, without a trace of remorse. “He’s supposed to be watchin’ over that boy.”

The next thing I know, we’re in the back of one of Tom’s ambulances with the siren wailing.  We pull up in front of the General Hospital.  A nurse carries me into the operating room. Then something happens to me, something that I rapidly contrive to forget, to grow scar tissue over.


Segue to a bathtub three years later.

“Mommy, what’s this scar I got on me down here?”

“Why, honey, that’s the seam where God sewed you together when he made you.”

“And why do I have three eggs down here, one big one and two small ones, not two the same size, like the other boys?”

“Because, my darling, God loved you so much that he wanted to give you a little something extra,” she assures me; and I choose to believe her.

Yet in my heart — and down lower — I always knew.

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