by JOHN HOUSTON MANGUM
Uncle Dan collapsed outside a Piggly-Wiggly, so Dad got called over to the hospital in Bay Saint Louis. The next day, Mom and I rode over there and saw him in that adjustable bed, about to be unplugged from all those machines. I cried then and he tried pulling the tube out his throat so he could talk to us but Mom stopped him. She spoke to him like he was someone else’s child. “No, we better not mess with that,” she said. The nurse brought us into the hallway and told us what to prepare for. “Once the respirator’s out, he could last anywhere from a minute to several weeks,” she said. “You need to know this might be it.”
I cried real hard then. They didn’t unplug him in front of us, but we all went back in there when they were done. Uncle Dan’s voice was hoarse, and he couldn’t talk in anything but a whisper. We just kept telling him we loved him over and over again, and he said that he wanted us to get him out of there. He had a tumor the size of a baseball to the left of his Adam’s apple. He didn’t die, and so after twenty-four hours, Hospice set Uncle Dan up in our laundry room. Mom went to get him from Bay St. Louis while they arranged the electric bed and oxygen tanks and whatnot. When she got back with him, our golden retriever threw a fit before Uncle Dan even got inside. I’d never seen her act that way. It must have been the smell.
Mom rolled Uncle Dan into our house in a wheelchair. He jostled side to side in the wide seat as she forced him over the doorsill. The dog went rabid. I knew I should have held her back, but I was scared. Scared she would have bit me, too, so I let her go after him. Dad kicked her. “Dad!” I yelled, surprised and frightened at the violence. She went running with her tail between her legs. He was the alpha male and she knew it. We kept the dog locked up in the front yard after that.
Uncle Dan was about as small as me and I was twelve. His legs were so thin that his knees bulged way out. They looked like a couple of elephant skulls. His ankles were like knots in a rope, and with his boat shoes about three sizes too big, even his feet were emaciated. Even compared to Dad, Uncle Dan had always been tiny, surviving on beer and the occasional rotisserie chicken. Because of the blankets at the hospital, I hadn’t realized just how much he’d shrunk. His skin was normally dark from years of crabbing in the sun and living mostly outdoors in a tent or house boat or the cabin he convinced Dad to buy, but his tan had yellowed. His entire body – hair, eyes, skin, teeth – had a sallow hue as if he’d already been buried in the Coast’s clay silt.
Most of all, though, there was the smell. A mix of fumes that seemed to billow out of him, coat the walls in sticky film. Decades of hand-rolled cigarettes and cheap beer had left Uncle Dan pickled and smoked. He never got a diagnosis because he didn’t have any insurance or money or property and Mom and Dad chose not to pay for a biopsy, but with that growth on his neck and the permanent scent of smoke that stuck to him like tar, probably no one, not even the doctors, saw it as necessary. Then there was the B.O. – like fermented cumin, which the hospital’s sponge baths didn’t put a dent in. Without running water, he’d only ever shower by rubbing himself down with cotton balls soaked in hydrogen peroxide; he’d wash his clothes in diluted bleach. It all added up to a perpetual oily musk that our golden retriever likely mistook for some kind of yeasty, wild brute.
I went with Dad to buy Uncle Dan some whiskey and cigarettes. We pulled up to the liquor store, and when we walked through the door, Dad asked the lady behind the counter if it was alright for me to come in, too. “Sure,” she said. “Long as he’s not buying nothing.”
I followed Dad down one of the aisles. He pointed to a clear bottle and said, “Better keep me away from that stuff. You know what they used to call me in grad school?”
“No, what?” I asked
“Martini Man.” He reached down to the lowest shelf and picked up a larger bottle with a crow on it. “What I learned is always go with bourbon,” he said. “And if you can, go with this stuff here.” He tapped a glass bottle a couple of shelves up. It, too, had a bird, I noticed – a turkey.
At the register, he pointed to the back wall. “A carton of Great Values,” he said. “Filterless.” She set a box on the counter. Dad lifted it to his nose, closed his eyes and breathed in deep. On the exhale, he made a face like he was about to faint, then groaned real loud. The cashier didn’t know what to make of that. “Feels like I’ve started smoking again,” Dad said. “If I had a nickel every time I had this dream.”
He was always smelling and groaning at things. He kept a bottle of tanning oil and an old cigar in its glass tube on his night stand, both probably twice as old as I was. Sometimes he’d sit down next to them in a rocking chair, open the two containers, sniff one after the other. He’d rock back and forth with his eyes closed. I watched him do it all the time, and once I asked if I could try. “Come here,” he said. He stood up from the rocker. It was his mom’s. We’d had it since she died when I was three or four. “Sit there. Now take this one first, but don’t just smell it.” He handed me the tanning oil. The painted label on the amber bottle had worn to mostly flecks. “Open your mouth a little when you breathe in. Let it roll in your throat.” I did what he said. “Now this one.” He pulled out the cork of the cigar tube and took his own little whiff before handing it to me. He groaned his groan– a little eruption that would have scared me if I hadn’t known it came from pleasure, if I hadn’t been so used to it from every time he lay down on the couch. I started laughing. “Here, take it,” he said, very serious, shaking the glass tube in front of me. “Remember, let it roll.” It smelled like cedar, I thought. Like a heavy, dirty cedar. Even though we had lived on the Coast for years, he said this little ritual with the tanning oil and cigar tube brought him back to his childhood when he’d visit down here from Jackson with his father, whom I never met, and his brother, my Uncle Dan. This was back when all the men wore hats and tucked their shirts in. Even at the beach.
When we got back, Uncle Dan was parked right in the center of the living room. His legs were crossed beneath him, even with the wheelchair’s armrests. He was talking to Mom and getting real animated with his hands, lifting them up over his head and shaking them with every syllable, which was his tendency. He always sat like that – legs folded up, back hunched over as if he was trying to tuck away his own body, become nothing but a head with arms. He was yelling something about the migratory pattern of wood ducks, though I think it had some bigger point to it. His voice was so deep. It seemed the more wind he put into it, the quieter it got, so his yelling was more like low grumbling croaks. Sounded like a howler monkey, and I suppose his throat all raw from the breathing tube didn’t help, not to mention the tumor.
Dad brought Uncle Dan out on the porch and helped him onto one of the wicker chairs. He gave him an open pack of cigarettes and a lighter. While Uncle Dan lit one with his shaky hands, Dad went inside and brought out the guitars. Dad started picking on one, and I sat down next to Uncle Dan. He put an arm around me, pulled me against his ribs. I laughed because it tickled the way his knobby limb dug into me. I squirmed under his arm like I was trying to get away, and he kept me clasped there, wrestling me with that one arm but pretending he didn’t notice I was there at all.
The smoke on his clothes and the beer on his breath was comforting to me. Even the cumin smell felt familiar. When I was younger and Mom and Dad and I would take trips out to Bay St. Louis, we’d sit around the metal cone-shaped fireplace in the corner of the cabin, a small building made of plywood with no power and an unreliable toilet that seemed to always have a tree frog in the bowl. Uncle Dan would tell me stories about the Bubble Biters and the Tinkum Monsters, two types of golems that lived in the lagoon out back and went to war with each other in the nighttime. In the cabin, black except for the fire, we’d listen to the frogs screech loud as a train, and when we’d hear a splash or gurgle, he’d say, “There! You can hear them!” He and Dad would drink beer, but not Mom because the toilet. It was out there I learned to shoot a gun, where I learned about cottonmouths, and peeing outside, and sleeping in the summer with no A/C. It was always too humid and hot for sheets, but the mosquitos were too bad to go without them, so the fabric stuck to my legs all night long. We never stayed more than twenty-four hours since, for Mom, every trip to the bathroom meant riding up the road to a gas station.
As Uncle Dan finished his first cigarette, he used the ember to light a second. Dad was playing the guitar and singing “Bingo Was His Name-O.” Uncle Dan lifted his free hand from my side to the top of my head. He squeezed his hand around my skull, kind of kneaded it with his calloused fingertips, which didn’t hurt exactly, but I tried the same thing on the dog later, and she yanked her head out from under me, looked at me like I was crazy.
When Uncle Dan finished his cigarette, he took up the other guitar, nestled it in his crossed legs and started playing something by Peter, Paul, and Mary. Dad jumped in on the same song. “I’m going home,” he sang. “On the Morning Train.” That’s when Mom stepped out there with us. She had a beer in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other. She set the glass in front of Uncle Dan, and on the next verse, she was singing harmony. On the third, Uncle Dan was in there, too. “Well I don’t know but I been told, streets in heaven paved in gold, keep your hand on that plow, hold on,” they sang.
That night, I dreamed that I got out of bed to use the bathroom, walked out of my room and in the hallway was a man-sized bubble, green and gaseous, smelling like cumin and smoke. The only way I’d be able to empty my bladder was by getting past it. Right as I was squeezing by, the bubble burst. It coated me and the walls and the surrounding picture frames with mucus. When I woke up, I had wet the bed, which I hadn’t quite grown out of at the time.
Uncle Dan’s tumor grew fast, and in a week, it was the size of a softball. He’d gone through all his oxygen tanks, and though Dad had replaced them, Mom was trying to ration Uncle Dan’s use. He’d keep asking for more, and she’d let him have it for a few minutes, then take it away. Sometimes, when he was breathing from a tank, he’d pull the elastic straps down over his neck and lift the plastic mask to his nose and mouth between drags of a cigarette. At this point, his hands were too shaky to light the cigarettes himself and he drank his whiskey through a straw.
We brought Uncle Dan out on the lawn to get some sun, put a wooden stool next to his wheelchair so he had a table for his glass and smokes and all that. He was positioned so he could watch me and Dad throw the baseball out in the yard. Dad had dug around through storage and found Uncle Dan’s old glove. I used it since all three of us were southpaws and mine no longer fit. Its fold felt more like a pinch. The crease ran off center, diagonally somehow, like his grip twisted with every catch and trained the mitt to writhe that way over the years. It had no pocket to speak of. The old leather had hardened, and it felt like I’d slipped my hand inside a fossilized crab claw.
Dad threw me a couple of pop flies, which I caught, no problem. Then he switched to fastballs, and I got most of those, too. Uncle Dan was staring into the sky. He pointed straight up and said, “See the fish? See them shoaling?” I followed his finger, expecting to see a cloud, but the day was completely clear.
“Remember when you taught me to stop a grounder?” Dad said to him. Uncle Dan nodded. He was seven years older than Dad, taught him how to play baseball, how to duck hunt, how to play guitar. “I was in tears by the end of that day.”
Dad started tossing me some grounders, then. They were getting by me. “Don’t be afraid of the ball,” he said. “Get in front of it.” He was throwing them hard, really making them bounce. I couldn’t tell when they were going to hop off the ground, so I’d put my arm down straight and rigid, turn my head out of the way in case the ball came shooting up toward my face. Most of the time, if the ball even made it in the glove, it would launch off the palm like a ramp so I’d back out. I started picking at the ball as it rolled by as if the glove were a pair of tongs. “You’ll never get it that way,” Dad said. “You’ve got to get in front of it. Don’t let it pass you, no matter what.” Uncle Dan was gesturing how to hold the glove. With the next throw, I dropped down on my knees, tried using the glove as a shield, but I kept turning my head. “Open your eyes,” Dad said. “Keep them on the ball.” He threw again and shouted, “Stop it with your teeth if you have to,” so I got right in its path and stuck out my glove. As I did so, I saw the ball hit a chunk of grass and shoot upward. It hit me on my neck, right on the Adam’s apple, then bounced up to my chin and made me bite my tongue. My eyes watered, but I grabbed the ball, tossed it back to Dad. “There you go,” he said. “Another one.” After that, I was sliding on my knees with each pitch, using my body as a barricade, letting the ball hit me on the chest, the shoulder, the cheek. My knees were all scraped and bloody by the time we stopped, and Dad was going on and on about how quickly I’d picked things up. Uncle Dan was reaching for something invisible in front of his face.
That afternoon, a vicar from the Lutheran church came over. We weren’t too involved there, but I knew she was the pastor’s wife. I sat inside watching TV while she and Uncle Dan and Mom and Dad talked on the porch. I could see them through the sliding door. They were just sitting around in the wicker chairs like nothing was out of the ordinary, so I figured she came over just to meet Uncle Dan.
After a while, the woman reached into a handbag, pulled out all these little trinkets. A chalice, oil, incense, maybe. She went about the whole business like it was nothing unusual. Poured some wine. Pulled a Eucharist wafer out of some Tupperware like it was just any snack she’d brought along. She said some words, the same ritual as always I imagined, only now she didn’t have on any fancy robe, no choir or congregation to sing. It was then I noticed that old Bible out there with them, stuffed with all those papers. Mom had taken it out for me before, showed me all the Confederate bills used as bookmarks, said one day it’d probably be mine. The vicar held a wafer up above her head, sort of lightly pinching it with both thumbs and forefingers. The body of Christ, I’m sure she said, and she set the thing in Uncle Dan’s wobbling crossed palms. She presented the chalice. Uncle Dan took the wafer in his fingers, tried dipping it into the wine, but it fell out of his trembling hand soon as he lifted it over the cup. The wafer went right inside, and I could see Uncle Dan wince in embarrassment. He kind of rolled his eyes and dropped his head, clearly ashamed of himself and his weakness, his clumsy body, hardly even his anymore. The pastor’s wife fished the little disc out, fed it straight into Uncle Dan’s mouth. Then she sucked her fingertips. She lifted the chalice to her lips, shut her eyes, let her nose hover over the rim as if she were pausing to smell the wine. Then she drank what was left of the blood of Christ so nothing would go to waste.
A little later, after the pastor’s wife had left and Uncle Dan was back inside, Mom told me to hold Uncle Dan’s hand. He wasn’t talking a whole lot at this point, I guess because the tumor made it difficult. Mom would often hold his hand to keep him from feeling too cut off from things, I suppose. His chair was right next to the couch, so I reached over and put my hand on his, like Mom had said. We sat that way for a little while, and then he lifted our hands off the wheelchair’s armrest. He was really shaking all over, like he had Parkinson’s.
He brought my hand to his mouth and kissed it on the back like I was a prince or something. When we set our hands back down, there was a small speck of something white where he kissed me. Something out of his mouth. Mom chimed in then. “That really means a lot from him” she said to me, like Uncle Dan wasn’t even there. “I know,” I said, and it did mean a lot to me, even though I couldn’t help but keep glancing at that speck of something white. Dead skin from his lips, probably. Maybe dried saliva. Then it occurred to me it could have been the host.
When we let go of each other and Mom brought Uncle Dan to the laundry room for the night, I went to the bathroom to wash that spot. At the sink, I looked at the little dot, smaller than an ant. I thought about what to do with it if it were in fact the Eucharist. I thought about how washing that spot would be like washing away Uncle Dan’s kiss. That was all ridiculous, I knew, but I still thought it.
Maybe another week went by and I was back in school. Uncle Dan couldn’t talk at all anymore. That tumor had taken over the whole front of his throat. Every night, I’d sit in the laundry room with him for a little while. We’d open up the windows and the door to the outside, let him smoke in there. He was having regular hallucinations by then. I don’t know if it was the drugs or what, but he was always reaching out in front of him at something that wasn’t there. It was like he was struggling to bend something into shape. Dad said he was building crab traps, folding chicken wire into those big cubes. Mom would stop him when he did it, say “I think you’ve finished this one,” and lower his wrists. He’d grab her hand. Kiss it.
I was in there with him one night while Mom and Dad were somewhere in the house. They were cleaning up after supper or something and had asked me to watch Uncle Dan. He started with the crab traps, picked up one of those folding lawn chairs we’d sit in next to his bed. He was having some real trouble getting it up there with him, even though it didn’t weigh but a few pounds. When he finally got it, he was really struggling to pull the thing apart, wrest it into the shape he wanted.
Uncle Dan was once a professor. He taught philosophy. Wrote a novel once and got it published. After a few years at a college, though, he couldn’t take it. Couldn’t handle the administration, much less the students, so he left, tried shark fishing for a while. He did lots of things like that and when his wife left him, changed her last name, he moved into a tent on a small plot of land. That was when he started crabbing. He made his own traps, sold some on the side. He’d discovered some method of forcing crabs to molt, something like clipping off one of their eyes, and so he sold soft-shells out of kiddy pools on his land. None of his plans lasted long, though, and he eventually had a fiberglass box put on his Carolina Skiff, lived in there and survived off food stamps and the little he made still selling traps. When Dad bought the cabin on a bayou in Bay St. Louis, Uncle Dan anchored the boat there, alternated between living in the cabin and it. Since he couldn’t use food stamps on beer, he’d buy baker’s yeast and apple juice, brew his own wine.
Uncle Dan wasn’t getting anywhere with the folding chair, so I stood up and took it from him. “This one looks good,” I said. At that angle, I accidentally saw up the leg of his shorts. The hem was high like they wore them in the 60’s. His tiny thigh stuck out of the huge circle like a pendulum in a bell. Even his underwear was way too large for him, and so that’s how I saw his testicle. Just one of them. It was hairless, the skin around it so thin and loose that it seemed to pool into a flat puddle. The whole thing looked like a fried egg, the testicle as small and fragile as a runny yolk.
The next morning, I hugged Uncle Dan before I left for school, and that was the last time I saw him. When the bus dropped me off in the afternoon, I walked through our garage and the laundry room door was open. Dad was inside, sweeping up dust and ash. The room was empty, the bed removed. “Where’s Uncle Dan?” I actually asked.
Dad said, “It’s all over.”
I walked into the house and tried to cry. I stood around, asked questions, trying to seem thoughtful and confused.
It was around 2:30, Dad said, and he was sitting next to the bed. Uncle Dan’s breathing became slow, so Dad said he turned on the TV Guide channel and started watching the clock. He counted the seconds between each breath and the gaps got wider. Once he’d counted to a minute and a half, he got up and called the mortuary.
Dad’s mother died while he was holding her hand. When his father died, he was in the room, too, and I saw this as very adult. It had a level of seriousness and importance that I wanted, too, but didn’t think I could ever have. It seemed like Dad was given all of that, like it was some kind of privilege to be included, to be granted a vision of the private space of death. Uncle Dan was cremated. His ashes spent a week or so in a cardboard box in our garage. We never were big on ceremony, but there was a small service where a few of Mom and Dad’s friends came by, brought chips and dip, and then we went down to the beach. Dad put the ashes in a five-gallon bucket to make them easier to pour. There were maybe five or six of us in all. Not everyone had met Uncle Dan. Some had only done so once or twice. The pastor’s wife was there. We gathered at a small patch of pines. The tides had washed away the sand beneath those trees closest to the shore, exposing their network of roots. Dad didn’t say much. He alone waded into the Gulf, scattered his last relative into the water.
Uncle Dan left a little whiskey behind. I don’t know if Dad drank that or poured it out. He also left a few packs of cigarettes unsmoked. Dad threw all but one away, which he keeps in a box out in the laundry room. It’s an old cedar box made to look like a stack of books so things can be hidden inside, kept secret. When I go home to visit, he and I will sometimes stay up late sitting out there in the laundry room, which he’s converted into an office. He’s got his mother’s old rocker out there, and we’ll sit in that room, not talking much, drinking beer and both sick to death of grading papers. I’ll pull out that cedar box, sift through his father’s old cuff links, duck calls, and pipe tampers. I’ll look at his mother’s old driver’s license, then his father’s, then Uncle Dan’s. I’ll ask questions; then Dad will tell me stories. I’ll take out the pack of Great Value Filterless, and Dad will say how much he regrets not buying Uncle Dan the good stuff. All Lucky Strikes and Wild Turkey, he’ll say, and we’ll pass the cigarettes back and forth, squeezing the cellophane wrapper, trying to catch a whiff of what’s on the other side.
John Houston Mangum is from the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He received his MA from the University of Louisiana and has recently graduated from the MFA program at Southern Illinois University. Currently he is in Colorado doing conservation work with AmeriCorps. “Ceremonials” is his first publication.