On the day before I’m supposed to go back to college from my freshman winter break, Nana says I have to go get my Uncle Cleveland. I don’t want the law to get him again, do I, she says. So I go to get her middle boy and coax him down the street. I don’t say no. She’ll just make me. And besides, he won’t be hard to find. I guess you can tell, this ain’t no new shit, me going to get my Uncle Cleveland. But I’m getting tired of it just the same. But somebody got to do it. Judith won’t. Nana won’t. Uncle Roger? I don’t think so. That leaves me, Nora Thorn.
And even though at nineteen I’m thinking that I know well enough, there are no guarantees in life for nothing. And people don’t do too many favors, but sometimes there could be an exception. There could be a prayer answered for my Uncle Cleveland. ’Cause he ain’t so bad. God got worse and He know it. Anyway, I find my Uncle Cleveland in a crowd on Lincoln Street.
“Yeah, bitch, well, suck my dick!” says Uncle Cleveland to Mrs. Frazier, who lives alone with two cats and is blind in one eye: cataracts. She got a straw broom, standing on her porch trying to sweep him away. Now, Uncle got a bottle, waving it like he sweeping her back. She starts saying she going to call the police, that he can’t be in her street talking nasty to her.
Uncle Cleveland looks into the crowd and starts arguing about whose street it is. He says to the sidewalk, “Sidewalk, this your street?” He says to the house next door, “Oh, excuse me, house, this here must be yo’ street.” People roll laughing. Mrs. Frazier has one blue roller dancing beside her cheek, she in such a rage. She goes inside the house saying she going to call the law. Uncle Cleveland, he start dancing the old mess around, pumping his hips and raising a brown-bag-covered bottle to the street. “Call the goddamn police,” he says. Now he holds his bottle like a phone. “Call the goddamn po-lice,” he says, as I grab his arm. He howls as he sings, “All I want for Christmas is my two front teef, my two front teef, my two front teef. All I want for Christmas is my two front teef, yeah, man, yeah. I bite a ole-lady bitch in de ole-lady ass.”
People who see him now would think that’s how he is, drunk and nasty, cussing in the street and yelling at old women. But he ain’t like that. He don’t put nobody down that don’t start it. When he sober, he will work like a dog all day and not complain. And women, they like him. He can get a woman. So he wasn’t all bad always. And he wasn’t always like this. When he was sober, he planted Mrs. Frazier a tulip garden all in front of her house last year, ’cause he knew she liked tulips. And when she didn’t pay him nothing but three dollars, even though he hauled the soil, and smoothed it, and made sure the flowers grew, he said, “Thank you, ma’am,” and walked on down the street. Do that sound like somebody cruel?
He could get a job in a minute, my Uncle Cleveland. I know that. He can make anything he wants. Cabinets, tables, wood sculptures: smooth as butter, he makes them. And he wants everything just right. When he sober, the contractors want my Uncle Cleveland ’cause he just so. When I was nine or ten and he came back from the service, for about a month, every day he came in from looking for work. He was looking for an apprenticeship making something, wood preferably. He didn’t want the mill, making sheets and no money he said. When he came home, no matter how tired he was, he would come to me first, come to the door and spin me around like an airplane saying, “How now, black sugar cow,” and we would laugh so hard. He would race me to the bathroom before I peed on myself.
So, I ain’t ready to write him off like all the others, like his bitch of an ex-girlfriend Ralinda, who say he ain’t no good. She just mad because he dumped her when she went out on dope. And all those people who say he triflin’ ’cause he spend food stamps at the corner market can kiss my ass, ’cause I know he done worked construction harder and more than they did. And for those who say he drunk all the time, well, so what? Some of them ugly all the time, and don’t nobody do nothing about that. Uncle Cleveland is just fine, and he going to be just fine. Period.
Of course, it don’t help none with some of the stuff he do. Yes, he did plant that tulip garden for Mrs. Frazier, but he came back and peed in it later ’cause he was drunk and forgot his own handiwork. And yes, he did get those construction jobs like I was talkin’ ’bout, but he wasn’t always sober or there on the job. So he got fired a lot. I guess Uncle Cleveland’s drunk a little more than he used to be. And he drive when he shouldn’t sometimes. He got caught for that. They put him in jail, but the Uncle Cleveland I know, he ain’t bad, really.
I know right now, in this street, it’s hard to feel so much how good he can be, when you lookin’ at how he seems right now. He drunk as hell, again. I’ma tell you, it do piss me off that he don’t even know it’s me that got his arm, he so drunk. What piss me off is that he don’t even look at who got his arm, just smiles and walks like we friends. I could be anybody coming to get him. And he going along like he on parade, waving. He still singing as we go down the street about how he in love and how love in love with him. He go into Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Man,” which he ain’t.
I know before we get to the intersection that we going to pass his crew, and it’s all I can do not to spit. Because they triflin’, not Uncle Cleveland. First, there is Pookey, propping up the front wall of Cooper’s Market, high yellow and jobless. Pookey’s real name is Derrick. He is forty-four years old, smokes weed every day, lives with his mother. Uncle ain’t like that. He got his own place. Sometimes at night you can see Pookey hurrying home to get to her with his arms filled with groceries. The young boys laugh at him, in their puffy jackets of the nineties and backward-turned hats. They don’t laugh at Uncle Cleveland. Oh, yeah, there is Leon (six-foot-three and forty-five) and Cleon (five-foot-two and forty-six). No lie, they ain’t twins, the mother just liked the names. They live on West Street and have a German shepherd that they threaten to sic on people if anyone should come into their scanty one-bedroom apartment. They always tell you that they got a couple of women they care of on East Berlin Street.
They still say care of and not take care of. Ignorant Negroes. And I done already told you that Uncle can get most women he wants. He don’t mess with young girls, and will beat the living shit out of someone who tries to mess with me when he sober. I can see what’s going on here. People be trying to put Uncle in with all the trash that’s tearing up the neighborhood, but it ain’t like that.
Look at them newer thugs down the street. Those the boys so hungry for some fame you can’t even speak to them or you might get your throat slit. Ain’t nobody scared of Uncle Cleveland, nobody. He harmless. It’s them new boys, so bad with their weed and crack and guns that even Baby Freddie scared. Those boys who only old enough to be Baby Freddie’s son, take his weed and whup his ass. My Uncle Cleveland at least live on the fragment of a decent life, not like them crackheads and dogs.
My Uncle Cleveland is six feet tall and no inches higher. He is a lean man, and only now at forty-three is his muscle turning to some fat and bones curving from his shoulders. And yeah, he has a wind-whipped look. His feet have lost their arches, as Nana would say, but he ain’t a bad man. He not. He still singing as we pass them, and they know better than to speak; they just as soon be letting Uncle Cleveland scream in the street to get caught by the police. And they know not to mess with me, ’cause I will turn all they asses in. For real. I give them the look as we go by. They know. My uncle, he singing like he ain’t never seen them. “Rock me tonight, for old time’s sake. He lean to me like we buddies and wiggle his eyebrows. Lord, let her rock me.”
And even though I think my Uncle Cleveland funny sometimes, I’m thinking he shouldn’t be bothering the Lord too much. In fact, the less he say, the better. Today alone he cussed out Mrs. Frazier, got drunk, disturbed the peace, shamed himself in front of society. And a few months ago, Uncle Cleveland shamed me, Jesus, his mama, and a one-eyed cat, when he showed Mr. Tallen, the man who lives behind him, his hemorrhoids while he was showing someone exactly where they could kiss.
What I like about my Uncle Cleveland is that he is never embarrassed when he sobers up. He just says, “Did I do that?” You tell him that it’s so. He say “Okay,” scratch his head, and say he going to try not to do that no more. But he will. Still, it is nice that he says he won’t. I know you don’t believe it, but he is a good man.
Uncle Cleveland walking kind of hazy as we come down Rope Lane Street. The street’s all to pieces. Two streets off Lark and the houses look like matchsticks held with Krazy Glue. This where Uncle lives, still renting a shack for $180 a month instead of ever owning his own shit.
The inside of the house ain’t much to brag about. There is a stove that smokes from the L-shaped pipe coming from it. Inside, there is a bent rusty bloom of color, once yellow in the living room. And I know he could do better. Inside, there’s this one picture with black stains like a nimbus around the head of Jesus and the saints. It seems where that picture is, dreams used to be and awards used to be. He won for poetry several times. He has a song he sings about his awards, a weak-lily song, sung at the top of his lungs. I don’t tell many people Uncle Cleveland can write. Every now and then he says things right like words should be used, and it hurts too much to see what a fucking waste he is. ’Cause he weren’t always like that. ’Cause I’m just here to get the stuff he needs to stay at Nana’s for a few days before he goes off again. A toothbrush, some clean drawers, clean clothes if I can find them.
But this here, this is his green bedroom that I helped paint when I was fourteen. I had made a mess ’cause I got too close to the ceiling while I was on the ladder, and so I painted the ceiling also. Uncle Cleveland didn’t even yell at me. He laughed, said go to the store to pick up some St. Ides beer and a pack of Newports for him.
His bathroom got one screw out of the side of the toilet and a window where I would send stink bombs onto the garden of Mr. Tallen behind me. I remember that I used to steal Uncle’s Hustler and Player magazines and look at them ’cause nobody would talk to me about sex without saying, “What you want to know for,” and asking, “You pregnant, girl?”
But, hell yeah, he can; Uncle Cleveland can write. Now, his stuff is raw. He got talent, when he sober. If anyone ever came in here, except that triflin’ Ralinda, I would conduct it like a tour. I would say, “Look over there. That’s where he carved a bird from mahogany, before he sold it for Scotch.” I would say, “Look, don’t it look just like it’s gonna fly? Don’t you see that eagle over here beside the dove?” But, of course, couldn’t nobody see it ’cause he done sold it: his work probably in some white lady’s house with her china. But you should know he has made beautiful things in his life. Someone should know it, that people ain’t just to be forgotten. ’Cause Uncle Cleveland’s house ain’t really that bad. I mean, some paint and some food in the house. It needs cleaning. But that’s really all.
It’s the toilet I trip over trying to look out that window. It’s that screw out of the side of the toilet that makes me bend down now to fix it, like I never wanted to do before. You trip over what you remember. So, I see it. Hold it in my hand and put it back behind where it was hidden. It’s just a jar behind the toilet, a mason jar with about six teeth in it. Whole single teeth, like they just dropped out, not rotten—healthy, just got-tired-of-hanging-in-and-dropped-out teeth. And Uncle has saved them in a jar behind a dirty commode. And this makes me shake with something hurting. I don’t say nothing.
I go through the rooms, seeing the dirty walls and dirty clothes, the places where dreams used to be. I think people going to forget him. Ain’t nobody going to find nothing in this mess. We go to Nana’s. Uncle Cleveland, tired and crashing; he walk and don’t sing no more. That night, beside Nana, I feel like crying. I hear the fan going and the crickets outside in the back. I hear Nana snore. She content ’cause Uncle Cleveland safe in the house. And I feel stupid when I go into the room off the living room where Uncle Cleveland is sleeping. ’Cause it is stupid to cry over shit that can’t be replaced.
“Uncle Cleveland.” He sit up in his undershirt.
“No-no?” That’s what he call me. “What you…?” There is one window in the room, up ’cause it’s still a little warm in September.
“Uncle, go to the dentist. He can fix…” I can see a church through the den window behind Uncle.
“No-no, go to sleep.” He gently pushes me away. “No-no, he can’t fix nothing.”
“Take this money.” I put it into his hand and close his fingers around it.
“I ain’t taking your goddamn money.” And he loosens his hand.
“Shush-h-h-h-h…just get them fixed. A dentist can…”
“What for, No-no?”
“You don’t look right?”
“Who I got to look right fo’? I ain’t no woman got to look pretty. Go on, No-no. Go to bed.” I can see his face clearly now, the sucked-in callow of a jaw. It matters. He can’t say it don’t. Uncle stare at me for a minute, look away, and stare again.
“Why they just fall out?” Uncle say. He look at me like I got some hope of an answer.
“I don’t know,” I say, sounding like a child, and he looking like he about to cry. He still a little drunk and can’t hold it back.
“Go on to bed, No-no.” My Uncle Cleveland’s hand shaking. He fold my money, put it back in my hand. He turn away. I didn’t mean to shame him.
So, he crying ’cause I saw it. He holding his jaw in his arms like it’s a baby. I didn’t mean to shame him. It’s just that it is getting colder, and he ain’t getting any younger. And those boys I told you about earlier, sometimes they talk nasty to him, like they the newer model of a machine. And even though he ain’t really bad, folks don’t understand. And those contracting jobs, he don’t get so many no more ’cause he stay drunk. But I didn’t mean to shame him.
All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth, my two front teeth. All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth, my two front teeth.
But I can’t give him that, you know. They gone, in a mason jar, behind the commode that needs cleaning, behind piss and Ajax, and he don’t know why. Tomorrow, I go back to school. And I’m thinking that ain’t nobody going to watch him, tell him to come in when it’s raining, turn him sideways so he don’t choke when he drunk. And he ain’t the kind you want to live with, but if someone could see that he’s good enough. I know, I know, there are no guarantees in life for nothing… But somebody got to do it. Judith won’t. Nana won’t. Uncle Roger? I don’t think so. That leaves me. And I’m leaving tomorrow.