Uncle Elliot learned to speak with food. He brought pies, casseroles, quiches, elaborate desserts and layered salads, even old forgotten dishes he read about in old books. The quiet man once brought a full meal that would have been the menu on the Titanic, another that King Tut would have had on a birthday, another the menu eaten by the riders of the first luxury train, yet another the last meal of the man famous for eating at the end of the 19th century who is now forgotten like so much past in present.
He read lots of books. People he did not like to read so much. He tried but they just seemed to come out as more a sort of twisty calculus, especially after how graduate school worked out. Elliot prepared these meals for weeks. No one knew this or figured it out. They just thought he whipped it together the day before as some last minute lark for the holiday. No. He studied. The Easter meal that one year was precise to the last spice Napoleon would have eaten at that one event. Five books said so.
Elliot won an award as a kid. Nobody came. Elliot impressed a teacher with his essay on the history of the railroads. Nobody came to the conference she set up to share her excitement with the parents of this bright boy. Elliot won another award in high school that was actually for a speech he gave in a class. A speech. The shy boy shook as he spoke eloquently of the early stories of the towns of the west like this one and the characters that drove cities from nothing. Again nobody came. His relatives were busy, assumed others would go, never asked each other who went. His parents had too much to do at work, thought history was a waste of time anyway, he needed to think about his future job, his future wife, of how he needed to talk more. Elliot talks now with food. The rest died in him years ago.
Uncle Elliot was a landslide in a sweater. He seemed to always wear the same mustard colored sweater with different odd fitting suit jackets, sometimes graced with a stain covered wide tie. The collar and bottom of the shirt would usually poke out at odd angles, revealing patterns seemingly never in fashion in history, not even seasons or decades. He had a love for slacks that seemed to attach to his knees then hang either too high up above his black socks or drag and fray on the ground as the man walked. He once collected mosquitoes until his attempt to use it to make conversation failed like a verbal Titanic around the Easter pie and coffee. He may have even read about it first in a book. He once asked a woman out by interrupting her lunch conversation about work in a book store and graduate studies to abruptly ask
“ do you…uhm…moonwalk?”
to which she visibly spit out a bite of sandwich and said “Noooo”
to which he quietly replied
“oh..uhm..that’s cool” and wandered off in that mustard sweater and coiled python of a long single clump of hair.
Charles was tall and thin, smart and awkward, right at that age where the world feels both near infinite and frustratingly out of reach. He once swore he turned a corner in town in a freak blustery storm and saw a cobra rising to strike him. It rose up sure to attack as rain poured furiously on a day predicted to be sunny. The thing was on some man’s head. It happened so suddenly but it was just uncle Elliot caught in the thunderstorm’s crazy breeze. Charles gasped loudly then just in time waved and smiled as the man passed. Charles was 17 and applying to colleges furiously to forge the giant hand that could fling him like a trebuchet as far as possible from this small mountain town. He saw in a movie as a kid how some machines for 50 cents could pull a toy out of the glass cage to be had and taken away. This resonated in him even then as something to remember, to hold onto somehow, to take note of, which he did. It was more than teen angst, wanderlust, the ways the hills closed in on sky in all directions like jagged teeth and jaws; Charles had this sense, this gut rumble of things beyond, of needing to erase all this at some point and begin himself again.
The town was what some would call quaint or picturesque even on a clear day. It was small enough that one can drive the whole place in a few hours, could know the business of strangers based on bits of gossip, could see a thunderstorm coming and watch it wash across everyone as it moved on and away.
Charles has a long list of websites on his computer. He is fascinated with the top three especially. The sites have photos and descriptions of places, of things, of people sometimes too. One has a fascinating article about a train that once rode up the hills above Los Angeles to a series of majestic hotels with incredible food. All that remains since several long ago fires is a rusted gear, a crushed train car and a few signs. Another site has images of the ramshackle towns hippies built, one place on old rusting military boats and another from scrap on a not yet tourist beach. The boats had beautiful rooms and patios and windows, doors shaped like teardrops hand carved, were quite comfortable and from nothing. The beach homes were scrap wood and found material and had families smiling in a long scrolling page. It draws him late at night, this lost past portion of the digital highway, this aging analog on the supposed speedy superhighway.
Charles reads late at night when he is supposed to be sleeping of lost subways found sealed for decades, of a room of a WW1 soldier politely left shut as his family had paid for the rent in a large collected sum, the room recently opened to find he died in the war, had it ready for when he came back, next set of clothes still dutifully on a chair folded and pressed, 80 years of dust upon it all. He reads of the towns long ago built in mountains left pristine by entire communities that just walked on. He reads of false towns made to hide weapon factories in wars that hired actors to live out 2 years of daily errands and even picnics on streets with names like “synthetic avenue” that were forgotten after the war. He reads fascinated about once famous people of certain scenes in cities that ended as the world and music and other things shifted on as they do. He mostly though reads of the lost internet. This is what really fascinates the boy.
Elliot had a job for a time in New York before he moved back. He was going to a big shiny school working on a graduate degree. Nobody came to visit. He knew it was far and a pricy ticket but it ate away at him sometimes. He graduated with his Bachelors with high honors the year before. Charles came with his mom to graduation but had to leave soon after to miss a big snow storm and get Charles back for school the next day. Nobody else came. Elliot was working on his Master’s degree when the college lost some funding and budget cuts came. He did not get another stipend or that scholarship he had hoped for so he at night cleaned the older buildings and sometimes helped clean out the ones that were to be gutted for new things like condos. He found things. He found mostly garbage, but sometimes some very interesting things.
Elliot one night found one of the old mail chutes. He had seen the remnant spaces where once ran pneumatic tubes shuttling memos as little odd eggs in the walls, had seen the remnants of the automat once shimmering in a new office cafeteria long shuttered away, sealed up actually when the new one came and the money was too tight for that internal demolition. New was shiny with the old vending machines for cigarettes and forgotten gums and mints sometimes found in basements in cold corpse piles by dirt and rats, old teletypes, mimeographs, microfiche, Burroughs machines and other once top end adding machines, the green screen monitors once lining a garbage dump behind a once posh hotel and bank facility soon to be gutted to walls for condos and a vegetarian burger factory. He found something more this time, much more.
The town once had a freak thunderstorm bring 10 inches of rain in 3 hours. The town founders drifted out of the old cemetery that afternoon like boats on a river. That was the afternoon that Elliot’s hair rose like a cobra as Charles passed. The winds howled as the two passed and Charles let out that shocked gasp he for years worried had insulted his quirky uncle. The two did not know that caskets were riding rapids across town , or that a few houses would crumble in a mudslide a block away in a mere 34 more minutes, or that the greatest mudslide came before they were born, or that they had a lot in common. None of this was known in that moment or any after, except just before graduation at 17 for young Charles. He figured some things out.
Elliot once wrote a poem of the place that a teacher now long passed away kept at home and spoke of with great admiration. She saw a glimmer in the last lines of something far beyond the place yet of its smallest details, she also saw genius in a local boy, something to surely take him places. The town has a tiny museum of the early days that gets a dribble of visitors on the eastern hills.
Charles is driving now to see his uncle, to finally talk to him, to make the man open those locks, let words come out instead of casseroles and brownies from the last meals of famous criminals or whatever it might be. He should hear from the colleges he applied to any day now. He should get in the mail seeds of 4 years in any of 7 cities far away, of the impetus to tie him to alien streets, weather, dorm beds, food plans, people, coursework beyond high school rote, to walls and food ,places to come home for a time. For now he drives his older Honda on a road so familiar he curses every inch even with radio blasting. Charles has seen web sites from a cult that all perished still live with aging aesthetics and someone paying the bill, the older web sites of derelict blogs, of social media of people he knew and that passed away, of how the internet has a limit of bandwidth and how it could be reached, of how older games no longer play. Charles drives faster to the odd man in the perpetual mustard sweater’s door.
Elliot is home. He hates the term but it waits on a mat before his always double locked door. Elliot found letters in that old building in New York. The mail shaft was 30 stories from top to bottom, was made in 1932 when it was newish tech, was a marvel to watch memos and letters flutter like birds down to the mail room like some sort of miracle. It stuck sometimes. Clots usually of memos, office minutia, orders for pencils or typewriter ribbons. He found a great clot in the dead iteration building, floor 12 in a corner, 30 years vintage or more. They were mostly memos about sales, reports about wiring issues, minute bits of daily business now palsied by time. He found letters. He found a draft of a story either sent to a friend in the mail room to read or to die. It was actually one of the best things he had ever read. It had aged yellow and had mold on some pages from a water leak in some decade, but it was brilliant prose, it really was. The story stopped at some random point, more it was ceased. There were several more pages but they had long been eaten by mold. There was something else at the end, something about past and water. It was incomprehensible. Elliot found out later that the building was demolished not renovated. A better contract came, a shinier future, high end housing and restaurants, a building designed by the hottest architect of the moment, even using some new materials and cutting edge methodologies. He later read in a history book about the city that an aspiring writer and copy clerk jumped to his death from the 28th floor. No name was given.
Elliot quit the job a month later. He could not go dig through the past’s wet ignored ruin any more. A lost scholarship came along with cuts to the history department at the fancy university and a month later Elliot was back “Home” in a small mountain town. 20 years later he was soon to be visited by his anxious, earnest and eager nephew and he had no idea the kid was coming.
Elliot loved history as a kid and was bursting to share it with his relatives. Elliot loved history as a teen and won awards that he took home and placed in his closet. He scanned crowds at 3 schools at first smiling and ready to see a waving aunt or grandma or maybe even parent or sibling. As a kid he was sure they would be there, a crowd in a crowd, there to support him, the odd shy boy and his passion, as a teen he held a remote hope that one might come. This is all died in him in college. Was a ghost in his quiet by that year of graduate school. He even had a few friends as a kid. They hiked, rode bikes, talk about books they were reading. By high school all 3 had moved away to bigger towns. A fourth boy died in a freak storm when they were in 5th grade. Elliot again had a few good friends in college, they talked history, of books, of their futures. All 4 moved away when they graduated while Elliot got into a Master’s program at the same college in New York. It had felt like home. Then they all left and again like all of high school, all of his time with family, he was utterly alone.
There was that one afternoon. I was 20. I got off a bus to the park in the middle of New York. The afternoon class had been canceled and nothing was due any time soon. It was a pause in the womb of college in a new city, things were wide open, possible, rippling with light. I had some young epiphany, some lightning bolt I later lost that at the time seemed everything. I remember scribbling furiously in a little notepad, my hair in a warm breeze, the future lines and bits of things unformed and unencumbered. The past was pale fog, not of a tiny town or feeling trapped or family being mute to the point of being clearly not wanteing to cross the rapids of their interests to those of an odd shy boy. This moment was of every single blade of grass, of the idea crashing in, all open. I mourn that boy now, mourn that moment now of some other life. (this note is in a pile of old notebooks in Elliot’s back closet to rot and grow its own mold)
He wears the stupid mustard colored sweater as a sort of death mask of who he could have been, as a raised middle finger to decades of “oh nice” or “look potato salad” to his attempts to discuss history or anything else he loved, even foods he made for everyone, to all the absences of relatives at things he invited them to, their replies later as someone mentioned a young person award he won as “oh why didn’t you tell us!”
I did said the sweater and his tight lipped lack of words in reply or really at all.
Elliot loves the mustard colored sweater. He knows damn well he wears it too much for people. He knows his shirt is awkwardly hanging out.
You expect this of me. You see me as this. This is the whole of me. Nobody ever asks me about books. Nobody ever inquires about the history of things. Nobody asks about my internal thoughts, that dream I might have had, that grand wish still out there not yet crushed dead. Nope. So I will bring you sweaters.
Charles will soon arrive to Uncle Elliot’s with tons of questions about college and history to no answer.
That door was wide open long ago.