Uncle James by Timothy Gomez
A glossy flier reads Vote for Jimmy Gomez on my Uncle’s refrigerator. It hangs askew, held loosely by a round magnet. When my father opens the refrigerator, I see three Coronas and four medication containers. A graduate of Harvard, Gomez represents the 51st Assembly District for California, the area that includes El Sereno, the small Los Angeles neighborhood that I grew up in and where my uncle lives.
Uncle Jimmy wasn’t necessarily a supporter of the Assemblyman. They merely share the same name.
“The dumbass probably got a kick out of that,” my cousin says, smiling.
It’s hard to choose verbs for the dead. I see this right away.
We all fumble with was and is. Both seem correct. What I mean is he is still in his room on the other side of the apartment, half covered by a navy blue sheet, the room filled with relatives I’ve seen but hardly remember. His skin is cooling but not yet cold. His tattoos still faded on his arms.
“What are they gonna do with the birds?” someone asks my dad.
“I think Arthur’s gonna take them,” he replies. Two birds perched on a wooden bar in a covered cage. They’re quiet. I hear them adjust their wings every few minutes, but they never chirp from under a dirty shower towel.
Here, I am introduced as a coda. “It’s Timothy,” my father says to puzzled looking family members. I shake their hands.
“Oh yeah,” they all say. “You were just a tiny thing last time I saw you.” They hover their hands low just above the grey carpet to signify size.
Dad says, “Come on, mijo, he’s over here.”
In the room, there are more cousins. More uncles. An aunt. Uncle Jimmy is wearing a hoodie cut at the neck and blue basketball shorts. He’s on his back and looks asleep. His belly looks like it’s about to burst.
“He thought he was just gaining weight,” my dad says. “But that was one of the symptoms. It’s swelling.”
In the room, I try to forge tears. From somewhere. From a memory of my uncle that I can’t recall. Or memories that aren’t mine. Him in the front seat of an old Chevy, my brother in the passenger. Billy Stewart songs on the radio.
I imagine him closing his eyes slightly, slouched back in his seat, snapping off-time to every other beat. An imitation Kangol hat and his graying mustache.
Sittin’ in the park. Waiting for you.
I can feel pressure in my cheeks but nothing. No tears. This is my brother’s memory. Not mine. In fact, It’s hard to tell if what I’ve built from my brother’s stories is accurate or merely a mix of reality and clichéd images from Oldies compilations etched permanently into my brain.
Here are other memories I don’t remember:
One. Once a week, before she died, Jimmy would walk his mother, my Grandma Hortence, to the market for groceries. They’d walk slowly, carefully. My grandma’s energy was now focused mostly in her voice and eyes, no longer in her legs.
Two. He checks out of the hospital on Friday and he’s dead on Monday.
Three. My uncle had a wife. I don’t know her name. They divorced when I was too young to remember, or maybe before I was even born. My mother will scoff when she doesn’t show to the services. But, from what I gather, no one is surprised.
In the room, a small love seat. A bed. An urn with my grandmother’s ashes set on a table in front of a frame of a sloppily put together collage of pictures. Grandma is young in some, her hair black and full. In another, she is sitting on a bed next to my grandfather, his mustache pencil thin, both smiling like movie stars. In another, her hair is gray at the roots, and she’s slouched slightly.
There’s a rosary is hung on the corner of the frame.
“He was such a shit sometimes,” another cousin says to another uncle.
“Yeah man. All he did was joke. Then he’d get people pissed off at him. And a week later, he’d call and be like Ay you don’t come around no more or what?“
My dad places his hand on the bedpost but doesn’t look at his brother. He looks out the small window beside him, out across the hills of our old blocks. Stillwell Ave. and Tampico. Almont St. and Barrett Road. The remodeled McDonald’s that he used to take me to after school every day. I wonder what comes to mind for him. Chilly nights when they’d rub their hands together over a bonfire and get stoned?
“All the shit I did, and he’s the one that goes,” my dad finally says. “My little brother.”
I feel my uncle’s cheek with the back of my hand, expecting his skin to feel different than mine. But the stubble from not shaving remains rough. What’s going on in there? I think. To say that the booze kills him isn’t accurate. Aspirin does. But aspirin is prescribed because of the Cirrhosis and the Cirrhosis is because of the booze. He takes a bottle a day, sometimes more. And the tablets eat at the lining of his stomach from the inside out.
The cousins begin to discuss burial options. “We’ll spread the ashes in Vegas. He’d want that.”
“Listen, I don’t give a shit what happens,” my dad says to the others. “I just want a little bit of my brother’s ashes. Just a tiny bit. Even if it’s just a small thing to wear on my neck.” He begins to sob. “You can do whatever the fuck you want with the rest, man, but no one’s going to keep that from me. My little brother.”
I’ve never seen my dad like this. For the first time, the room feels tense. He hugs my Aunt Vera, bawling into her shoulder. This, more than anything, brings a rush to my head. I am reminded of photographs I’ve seen throughout the years.
One. Dad and Jimmy holding my mother between them and laughing, her hair bleached and blonde.
Two. The four brothers. Jimmy. Louie. Arthur. Al. Side by side. Arms around each other, except Al who stands to the side with sunglasses. Tall and skinny and white hair.
Three. A wall of booze and a bar. My uncle Jimmy, no more than fourteen, chubby with mushroom hair, grasps a glass bottle.
It doesn’t dawn on me until today that his real name is James. James Gomez. A name much different than Uncle Jimmy– the only name I’ve ever known. That name—James; it wraps around my cerebrum. It finds its way through both hemispheres. It drags a smokey trail behind it. Fat fingers and a kid who didn’t do well in school. White t-shirts.
James. Its letters curve about my cerebellum. The happy youngest of all the boys. A man holding the palm of his bride.
I see it all in the ink on his arms. The hair he was starting to finally lose.
Was his belly set to burst or was it merely blooming?
I cannot see my dad’s face lodged into my aunt’s body.
“He thought he was alone,” dad coughs out through tears, hugging Vera.
“But he wasn’t alone. I lived right down the street.”
Sitting in the park.
Waiting for you.
Sitting in the park. Waiting for—
About the author:
Timothy Gomez holds an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. His work has appeared in Connotation Press, No Tokens, Epiphany, and others. He currently lives in Whittier, CA and teaches English at Aspire Ollin University Prep Academy in Huntington Park. He writes at his website timfinite.me.