When they came home after the war Chester and Alex applied for their GI bill benefits. They wanted the money not for college, the choice of many ambitious WWII veterans, but to put a down payment on Murphy’s Tavern, located at the corner of Mahoning Avenue and Bouquet Street. The deal was that Alex would pay half the mortgage and operating expenses, and Chet would run the place himself.
My father renamed it Bo-K Bar. Get it? Not too many did, so on the big new sign up on a post my father had the painters put a “ – ” directly over the letter “o.” He briefly considered changing the “Bo” to “Bow,” but he figured that would be even more confusing. The whole point was to make the bar’s name short and simple so people would remember it. As if Bouquet was too complicated, or too foreign. You know what I’m sayin’?
Right before the grand opening under new management, the wine wholesaler brought in a life-sized cardboard figure of the company vineyard’s namesake, Virginia Dare. It was a full color representation of a beautiful young dark-haired woman in a white peasant’s blouse with a wide opening showing the lovely swell of her breasts, smiling, holding a tray with high-stemmed glasses full of that exquisite purple vintage. Chester was very proud of that gorgeous cutout standing in the corner by the jukebox, because it made the place look, uh, classy.
That is, until one guy made the stupid mistake of pointing out that Virginia was “a dead ringer for you-know-who.”
Chester frowned. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
The guy laughed. “Come on, Chet. She’s the spitting image of Betty Joyce.” Pause. “Your ex.”
“Bullshit,” Chester said, moving to the other side of the bar, and dumping a bunch of glasses into the sink full of cold soapy water.
After the guy left, Chester poured himself a double shot of Seagram’s 7, knocked it back. Then he filled a glass with beer from the tap, chugged it down, and pulled himself another glass, which he put next to the cash register.
“Hey, dad, who is Betty? And what’s an ‘ex?’”
My father flashed me one of those cutting glares of his. “That’s something you don’t need to know. Now, shut up and eat your potato chips. Okay?”
Uncle Stanley died October 20, 1953. After they took his corpse away I opened his always closed bedroom door and looked around. His deathbed was a tangle of gray sheets, and against the headboard leaned a pillow that was stained yellow in the middle, which I figured came from his hair tonic. On the floor near the bed was a deep clutter of dirty plates, cups, saucers, and empty Campbell Soup cans with spoons sticking out of them, and a collection of empty potato chip bags and cookie boxes. A disturbing scattering of trash and garbage. The doctor said the cause of death was “A stomach obstruction.”
What in hell did that mean? Obstructed by what? But nobody asked. He was 50.
Aunt Jane arrived later that morning to load her car with Stanley’s big radio, a couple end tables, some good new curtains he’d just put up, and, most important, a gray metal box that contained a neat stack of US savings bonds and a surprising amount of cash. When my father learned what Jane did he threw a fit. He called her a “fuckin’ vulture pickin’ Stan's bones.” Jane calmly replied that she had three kids to feed, four if you count Johnny, and she wasn’t about to watch him or Alex throw Stanley’s money away on booze and bar whores.
Stanley was the genius who proudly announced one day that he had just gotten six massive, heavy rolls of dark gray linoleum. Where did he get them? Don’t ask. But they all knew it was from his job at General Fireproofing.
That linoleum, he said, just had to be put to good use. So he spent three days measuring and cutting and laying it on the floor of the kitchen, and also halfway up the walls. This was brand new, thick, expensive, industrial strength linoleum, designed to last for decades.
He was proud of his work. But that dark gray almost black material turned the kitchen into a dank smelly cave. It was awful. Eventually my father and Alex told Stanley that his remodeling job had been a huge mistake. This shit just had to go. Too fucking depressing, you know what I mean?
Plus they were convinced the thick yellow adhesive that Stanley used to stick the stuff in place actually was food for cockroaches. What other explanation could there be for the sudden massive infestation? Before there were only a few of those filthy, slithering brown insects, but now when you turn on the light thousands scatter and head for cover. Thousands! You can see the little black specks of shit they leave all over the spoons and forks and knives in the drawer, and on the table. It just ain’t right.
So they tore all that dark linoleum off the floors and walls. Repainted, put down floor covering of a lighter color. Made it look like it was before, when Ma was still alive. Then they set off five or six of those anti-roach insecticide bombs. A toxic cloud of gas combined with the still lingering stench of the linoleum. The sickening odor hit you the second you opened the front door, and it lasted for months.
Uncle Stanley didn’t drink, nor was he ever seen with a woman. Apparently women weren’t his thing, and he—with his odd mannerisms and speech—weren’t theirs either. Stanley would say, “Ma’s well.” Which meant, “Might as well.” When I lived for a short time at Aunt Jane’s house he’d come by on Saturday evenings with a box under his arm. Popsicles. Cherry and orange and lime. Pairs, which you had to break apart. He’d pass these out to my cousins, Howard, Jr., Jane Emma, and little Rosie. And me. He’d sit in the kitchen with his sister Jane, and talk. Then he’d leave. One time I went to the window and watched him walking slowly down the sidewalk. A solitary, sad, lonely man.
My uncle Alex took over the bedroom after Stanley died, but he slept there only part of the time. He’d get all dressed up and then be gone for days, weeks. Then he’d come back filthy, rumpled, and irritable.
“Where has Uncle Alex been all this time?” I asked once. My father replied, “None of your business.”
Alex would sit on the couch in the living room, arms on his knees, chain smoking Camels, watching TV, and he especially liked all those old black and white British-made movies. He said when he was in England he liked their accents. “Cherioo, guv,” he’d say. Most of the time when he was sober he was jumpy, irritable, a real pain in the ass. After a few days of his edgy quick temper, my father would tell him, “For Christ’s sake, Alex, go get a drink.”
Alex was pleasant when he was buzzed. Very pleasant. You’d find him sitting cross-legged on a stool at the Avalon, a burning Camel between his yellow-stained fingers, talking to himself. Gesturing in an animated private one-on-one conversation. Laughing now and again in his trademarked slurred wheeze. All the Youngstown cops knew him, and liked him, and from time to time even drove him home when he was unable to walk a straight line.
Like my father, Alex had been in the US Army during the war. He was stationed in England with the Signal Corps, and he could type 100 flawless words a minute with just two fingers on the keyboards of the Top Secret teletype machines. He moved around a lot, from one Royal Air Force base to another. He wrote Ma a V-mail about how lucky he was. Seems that a day after he’d leave one RAF base, it would get bombed by the Germans. And the Krauts didn’t bomb his new base until he had moved on to another one. A columnist for The Youngstown Vindicator got wind of it. What an amazing story, eh? “Lucky Al.”
When I was at the waiting room of the doctor’s office, I looked over a rack of pamphlets. One looked very interesting. It’s title was:
“Is Someone You Love An Alcoholic?”
I read a long list of symptoms, which fit my father. But they fit Alex even more. I stuffed the pamphlet in my pocket, and when I got home I showed it to Alex. He skimmed a few lines, then got mad, and ran to my father with it.
“What’s this shit, huh?”
“Hey, wise ass!" My father yelled. “He’s your uncle. You gotta show him some fucking respect.”
One afternoon Alex got a bright idea. The house needed painting. That’s right. It looks like shit. Who’d ever want to buy a run-down place like this? He called up the hardware store and ordered a dozen gallons of exterior. Not white, but gray. Why? Well, white always turns gray from the steel mill soot, so why not make it gray to begin with? He also ordered wire brushes, spatulas. Borrowed a set of extension ladders from the bartender.
Alex figured the job would be easy. He was up there in the eaves, scraping, and slopping paint. Two solid hours. Then he climbed down the ladder. He was covered with gray flecks and shining beads of sweat. He extended the dripping brush. “Here,” he said. “Now YOU get to work.”
I was just a kid! That was a job for an adult. I shook my head. “No, I don’t know how to paint,” I told him. Alex glared at me. “I said get the fuck to work.”
The next day I could hardly raise my right arm. But he insisted I continue, and finish the goddamned job. I prayed to Jesus Christ, my Lord and personal Savior, that Alex would go away, get drunk, and forget about it. But he didn’t, until I finally finished the miserable job.
At dawn I was awakened by rumbling footsteps on the porch, and shouting downstairs in the living room. I pulled the covers over my head. When it got silent I went down, looked around. Blood was all over the kitchen floor. Bright red disks with fine feathered edges. A pool of blood on the porch, and spatters on the steps.
They said it could have been much worse. When Chester lost control just a half block from the house, the Chrysler ran up the trunk of a massive oak tree, and rested at a 45 degree angle, rear end on the pavement. On impact, Alex's face had been punched right through the windshield, and then recoiled back out again. A direct hit, right in the middle. When the tow truck pulled the car down I saw an oval hole with a ragged white edge. Traces of crimson.
Jane came to the house. With a broom, a bucket of soapy water, and the garden hose she washed away all that blood.
Chet had a couple broken ribs and a few bruises. They taped him up and sent him home. Most of Alex’s teeth had been knocked out, and his face terribly cut up. He looked like hell, lying in that bed at St. Elizabeth’s. He had ugly black stitches, like rows of ants, on the deep cuts on his face. He talked funny. His eyes darted here and there, and he nearly jumped out of bed when a nurse dropped her clip board. Jane told him next time maybe he won’t be so lucky. He could have been killed.
“When are you going to learn?” she asked.
“C’mere,” Alex said.
“C’mere,” Alex repeated.
Jane bent her head down toward his.
“You gotta bring me something to drink,” he said.
Jane stood up straight. “Oh, for Christ’s sake. Is that all you can ever think about?”
Alex closed his eyes. Jane and I saw his tears welling out.
"Please," he whispered.