fiction Issue 27

Uncle Morris

by Jeffrey Wolf

Adam by Zaam Arif
Adam by Zaam Arif

Probably, Great-uncle Morris had been around since I was a baby. Technically, he’d been around much longer. He was my great-uncle, after all. Yet in my memory, he appeared suddenly, a few months after my sixth birthday.

This was at my grandparents’ house on Clifford Terrace in Skokie, a house I still associate with fruit: the blood-orange color of the bricks, the persistent smell of Lime-Away, and the strawberries my grandmother served for dessert, dipped in white chocolate and flecked with coconut shavings. Old people filled that house like they were collecting paychecks. Their labor to mumble and cough, shuffle through the kitchen, and, every so often, begin the minutes-long process of standing or sitting.

It wasn’t just the elderly at my grandparents’ house, of course. I had a few distant cousins close to my age. Were they around that day? In any case, I played by myself, in a tiny room off the main hallway, where I sat on my haunches and moved plastic dinosaurs across the carpet. Toys made as marketing tie-ins for the movie Jurassic Park, which I brought with me, and generic outdated dinosaurs, products of a past generation’s prehistory, kept at the house for my specific use. I set up tiny palm trees and ferns, outcroppings of fake boulders, rubbery snakes and ants— an entire ecosystem. The tableau had to fit before the dinosaurs could inhabit it. I recreated scenes of predatory ambush: battles between Tyrannosaurus and spike-faced Styracosaurus, hapless flights of Gallimimus and Parasaurolophus who met their demise again and again between sharp plastic teeth.

So enveloped in this imagined, long-dead world that I didn’t notice the shadow creeping from the hall until it was upon me. Uncle Morris filled the doorway, dark against the honeycomb-orange lamplight.

Hulking upper body, jowly face, pointed nose. Flesh threatening to pop the buttons from his shirt. And, instead of pants, drawstring athletic shorts, which exposed his spindly, mostly hairless legs, bruised deep blue and covered in scabs. His eyes bore an inhuman glaze. In his left hand, he carried a paper plate loaded with Grandma Dora’s chocolate-covered strawberries.

Uncle Morris made a wet, guttural sound, like a vacuum sucking hard water. A strand of drool dangled from the base of his chin. I froze. What else could I do? It was a tiny room, no closets or crevices to hide behind. I watched, helpless, as he staggered forward, toppling a rubbery Iguanodon and its clutch of Easter eggs. Spittle fell like raindrops.

A second person raced into the room. Cousin Francine, Uncle Morris’s daughter. Her face sharp with worry. She caught him mid-wobble and eased him to the sofa. Then she plucked a strawberry from the carpet—they’d fallen from his plate—blew on it to remove the fuzz, and fed it into his mouth. She did this again several more times until Uncle Morris’s body began to slacken. His breaths deepened. Mountainous gut rose and fell.

She began the awkward work of shifting his body on the sofa, bending over to raise his legs and slide cushions under his back. Suddenly, the room felt vast. Like I was watching from a distance as two giants tussled. My stillness made me invisible—a mouse in the brush—until Uncle Morris’s gaze lolled over and found me. His eyes were wet and veiny, but they quivered with life. Pupils jumped and stuttered in contrast to the dead weight of his body. I don’t know if he actually saw me, if he tried to pass vital knowledge through that wordless stare—truths about life and its endless march of indignities. I was only six. But I do remember something in his eyes making me less afraid.

Cousin Francine saw none of this. Too busy doting over him, pressing the back of her hand to his forehead and cheeks. She grabbed his wrist off the sofa, and as she felt for a pulse Uncle Morris closed his eyes and swatted her away.

Jeffrey Wolf has an MFA from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. He was a finalist for the 2020 Third Coast Fiction Prize and has work forthcoming in Jewish Fiction and Aethlon. He currently lives in Chicago.

Zaam Arif is an American-Pakistani contemporary artist residing and working in Houston, Texas. He explores existentialist experiences of the layman. Zaam confronts it with a penetrating interpretation of human nature, transforming it into a visceral reality. His work is a manifestation of his understanding of the contemporary human condition.