The terrible screeching dropped me to my knees in the dirt driveway. Then I heard Uncle Harvey’s voice, a warped, high-pitched version, like he was on helium. “Fucking fuckity-fuck-fuck!” Then more screeching. I had to plug my ears until it stopped, for fear it would further damage my hearing, already delicate from a childhood infection. It had to be his circular saw, but what was he cutting this time? I peeked around the corner of the shed (it’s best not to be seen during one of his tirades) and saw the sparks flying. He was sawing his aluminum ladder in half.
“Teach you to give out on me, fucker!”
Uncle Harvey had had a brain tumor removed over the summer, and after that hed begun cursing and cutting stuff. He went on medication, but still had his breakthroughs. He had destroyed many things, like his fence, mailbox, doghouse, tires. In his house he had taken handsaws to the dining room table, his bed, a plaster Jesus, Aunt Viv’s pencils and notebooks. And her clothes. She was a saint and said that God had a plan for him.
He was breathing heavily. Now the extension cord was on fire. He tried to cut it, but there was no power. He stomped it with his work boot like a poisonous snake. The saw blade looked red hot. He threw it down and it made a whang sound. We couldn’t hide his saws because he still worked as a carpenter. We just had to grin and replace stuff. Well, Aunt Viv did, with her taxidermy money.
“Uncle Harvey? Why don’t we get a cold drink?”
His face looked on fire. “Could’ve killed me.”
“But you’re OK.”
He narrowed his eyes. He was getting wise to all the psychologists in the family. “You go on inside and find your Aunt Vivian.”
* * *
Aunt Viv was singing somewhere, terrible opera-sounding stuff in a fake language. Part of how she coped was by making up nonsense tongues. The other part was her taxidermy. While I walked slowly through the house, listening, dead creatures of every kind watched me from all perspectives: floor and ceiling, corners and tabletops. In one niche by the stove, something new: a rat with a wonderfully long whip of a tail. “Aunty Viv? Where did you get the rat?”
She poked her head around a corner, making me flinch. She sang: Blaublusvensewen? Wouldn’t you like to know? She invited me into her studio. There were many benches and metal work tables to ply her trade. Her slacks were shredded; Uncle Harvey had done that with his scissors. I said, “Aunty Viv, Uncle Harvey is wizzinvizzin.” Which meant sawing out of control. She sighed and said: GLOOBERTURD, which meant it was time for the big pills.
Uncle Harvey would take the big pills only from Missy Alford, his high school sweetheart. Every day around 4 o’clock Aunt Viv would drive him over to the diner, where Missy was a waitress. I always went along. Missy had black-twisted-with-silver hair snarled on top of her head, held with clips resembling gators. “Skankabeech,” said Aunt Viv, who always stayed in the running car. In the diner, Uncle Harvey and I sat in a boothto not draw attention to what was going on, because people would certainly talk about this—and I ordered the coffee and Uncle Harvey ordered the waffle. I placed the pill in Missy’s rough, red palm and Uncle Harvey opened his smirk-twisted mouth like a dutiful baby bird. He certainly knew what he was doing. He admired the butter knife and proceeded to carve the waffle into a thousand pieces. Outside Aunt Viv tooted the horn. Missy looked at him, admired him, I thought, with each pass she made. He always left her a five. “Thats tool money,” Aunt Viv would say.
On her days off Missy would meet us in the parking lot, wearing long, soft, wrinkled, and tattered dresses that looked like they’d been worn for a very long time, either by someone else or by herself since she was young. I thought she looked poor. Once I rode my bike out past the tracks where she lived in a trailer. I hid in a bush and watched her feed birds out of her hand.
One evening I was at the diner by myself, just hanging around, drinking a coffee (my parents did not know about this vice), and Missy came and sat across from me. She was having a slow period. “I still love him,” she confessed, her fingers twiddling with her gators. She was thin and tall, unlike me, and I could see the hints of past prettiness. I took a big gulp, my own fingers starting to twitch. To think, another excitement in town involving my uncle.
“What was he like back then?” I asked, stirring another scoop of sugar into the bitterness.
She placed her chin in her hands and looked dreamily over my left shoulder. “Oh, he was the gentlest boy that ever lived. He never had a temper or cussed. You know what’s funny? I fed him like a baby bird back then, too. He loved me dropping chips or cheese doodles or grapes into his mouth. I used to call him ‘Birdy.’ Don’t tell him I told you. I don’t know how he’d react. He might cry, or he might cut something, I don’t know.”
“Birdy.” I giggled. My fingertips buzzed.
The next day I went over to Uncle Harvey’s after dinner. I spent a lot of time over there, because you never knew what might happen. My own home was very normal and boring as hell. No one ever cussed, not once. Uncle Harvey was pacing in the driveway. “What’s up?” I asked, almost calling him Birdy. He was working his big fingers, like he had just done something or was about to.
“I’m waiting for a deee-livery.” He looked happy and proud. “From the Morton Magic Company.”
“Wow. What is it?” I didn’t know he was into magic.
“It’s a surprise.” He watched the main road with longing. A truck roared up the hill, but it was just a flatbed. His shoulders drooped. Still, I thought he was taking this waiting well, not cutting anything he laid eyes on.
“Is Aunt Viv home?”
“Sure, in her studio, as always.”
“Good luck,” I said, and sprang onto the porch, anxious to hear what new words Aunt Viv had perfected. And, of course, what new creature she was stuffing.
I followed her terrible voice through the house (“Sningsprotzen … ogerthorf!”), past all the creepy, gleaming eyes. I thought about Missy’s gleaming eyes, how something mysterious was there. Aunt Viv was working on a gator. It was only a couple feet long, and I wondered where she got it. She read my mind. “This here escaped a farm and was hit in the road over at Muncy.” She held it up and made it hiss at me.
I made the mistake of asking, “Is that for Missy?”
Her neck turned red and it worked up over her face. Her green eyes popped like someone or something was cutting off her air. “If I were a cussing woman! BLIBBLESKEEP!”
“But it’s nice of her to give Uncle Harvey his pills, isn’t it?”
Her eyes then narrowed. “Blooberdrib! She relishes the power.”
“She rubs my face in it.”
She turned back to the gator and resumed singing: “Skim-dibby-dim.” She probably was thinking about stuffing Missy’s head. But I knew that deep down she still went by God’s rule: LOVE THY NEIGHBOR.
* * *
The truck rolled in later, bringing the long black box like a coffin with metal legs.
“What does it do?” Back then, in the late 60s, my family watched very little TV (which was why I was always looking to my aunt and uncle for entertainment), so I had seen few magic acts. I mainly just knew about the rabbit out of the hat thing.
“I intend to saw your Auntie in half. See, she climbs in there, and I use my big long saw through this here slot. Then I move the halves of the boxes apart.”
I was alarmed.
He opened the front of the table where the saw blade ended up. I studied it. The box had a false bottom where the assistant’s hips sat lower, just out of the blade’s reach.
“Aunt Viv is too short for this,” I said, “if her feet have to come out of these holes down here.” He pounded the top of the box with his fist. “Fuck! I think youre right!” He started looking around at his tools and especially the saws. “I may have to make some modifications.”
“How about Missy? She’s really tall.”
“I don’t really want to saw my true love in half.”
“She’ll be happy when you put the box back together. It will be like saving your lost love.”
“And … you could hug her.”
“And kiss her cheek.”
“That’s so fine.”
“And everyone could see that you two were meant to be together.”
“How will they see that?”
“I don’t know. I’m only 10.”
He patted my back. “You’re still a fucking genius.”
He asked me if I’d go to the diner with him and ask her; he was afraid to go alone, and he didn’t want folks to talk. I agreed. He said, “Seven o’clock.”
At 7 we were perched in a booth, our fingers tapping. My uncle wore a suit. Missy was busy; she kept passing us with a questioning look on her face, like, “Does he need another pill?” Finally, she took our order: two coffees. I whispered to her, “When you get a break, we need to see you.” I made my eyebrows wiggle mysteriously. She cocked her head, which I imagined poking from the end of the box. In my vision her hair was flowing and reached the floor. There was one fresh flower from her garden stuck in her hair.
I was on my third cup before she sat next to me, and I was shaking. My uncle smiled like a schoolboy and she bit her purple lipstick. Their eyes swam everywhere and wouldn’t land on one another. This was so different from when she gave him his pill—that was all business. I said, “Uncle Harvey wants you to do a trick with him. It’s magic.”
Her lightly veined cheeks turned red. “He does magic?”
“Can’t you talk to him?” I said.
Her eyes, which were a cool shade of gray, finally stopped moving and landed on his face. They still kind of bounced between his mouth and eyes. I wondered if she was seeing him as his young self. “Harvey, do you want me to disappear?”
“Nah,” he said, “course not. Want to saw you in half, is all.”
She clasped her bony hands up to her neck as if in a sudden, prayerful plea for her life. “What?” Her voice cracked. I admired how the cords and veins stood out on her long neck. “Why would you do that? Who would give you your pill?”
“It’s a trick box,” Uncle Harvey said. “The saw’s real, but it never really touches you. I sent away for it.”
“You’re tall,” I said. “That’s how it works. Plus, you are his true love, so he could never hurt you.”
She stood quickly, blushing the dark red color of the menu writing. “I … I have to get back to work.” She took off.
“Let us know,” I called after her. A few people turned to look, and Uncle Harvey scowled at them.
* * *
It was 10 at night and I was sitting out with Uncle Harvey watching his fire. Earlier he had cut up a bunch of stuff: old cupboards and shelves, the cardboard box to his box, some of his old pants which his gut had outgrown. Boots and shoes. Something in there popped, and I jumped, nervy from the coffee. Jumpy but still mesmerized, staring deep into the fires heart. I was getting ready to walk home when someone said, “Pssssstt.” There was a narrow column of umber, stick arms and legs swinging from it, the hair-flare of silver and black. Then the fire snapping in the dilated eyes. It was Missy.
“I’m here to work on the trick,” she whispered. “Why not? I’ve been staking the place out. Looks like Viv is going to bed.”
Uncle Harvey jumped up and captured her hands. He would not let go. “She doesn’t bother me at night, all zonked on her sleeping pill. It won’t take very long.”
I said, “You kidding? She must make the right faces at the right time. She must look like she’s dying. It has to be timed with your sawing for the audience to buy it.”
Missy grabbed onto her hair and pulled. “Audience?”
“Of course,” Uncle Harvey said. “We’ll do it right here on the porch. We’ll get some lights set up. We’ll put up posters in the post office and the diner and at Fred’s store. We’ll get a big crowd. Everyone will see me doing some good sawing for once.”
Missy tied knots in her hair while she considered. “You have any drink in that there shed?”
I watched them go in. He held her hand. After the door closed, music from the 1950s played. I longed to look in the window, but I had to get home. I turned on my flashlight and ran the quarter mile to my house through the woods. But I couldn’t sleep. I twisted my sheets with thoughts of the two of them together. I got up and went back. I peeked in the window.
Missy was on the table, her narrow hips down in the recess. Her ankles and wrists were tied with rope. Was that in the act? It didn’t seem right. Uncle Harvey lifted his biggest handsaw over her and lowered it slowly. When I burst in he had his mouth on hers.
When he saw me he threw hammers and wrenches, one through the window glass. “You’re gonna pay for that!” he shouted. He chased me up the trail. When I eluded him, he sawed a sapling. “And don’t come back here! Ever!”
I cried in my pillow, thinking of never going back.
* * *
On Monday Uncle Harvey was working on a house by the tracks and sawed his arm off. He lost too much blood and died. Why, Uncle Harvey? Was it an accident, or was there a reason?
Missy didn’t show up at the funeral. I biked out to her trailer and tapped on the flimsy door. It swung open and there she was lying on the floor, surrounded by booze bottles. I said, “Oh, shit!” But she sat right up. “I’m just here thinking,” she said. “I couldn’t stand being there, with all the staring and whispers off the church walls.”
“What happened, Missy?”
“He wanted to get back together, but I didn’t want to hurt Vivian. She’s a nice woman who has God. He just didn’t get it. It was bad enough that we had sex during our stupid magic. I wanted to stop it. I said that we could never go back in time. I guess he couldn’t handle that.”
I hugged her and said it wasn’t her fault. It was my uncle’s warped thinking, that skewed brain of his.
“He really was a good man,” she said.
* * *
I became pals with Missy, riding my bike to her place on her days off, learning how to feed the birds. (My mother did not care for it; she called Missy an “unfortunate.”) I liked the way her long thin arms cut the air. My arms were getting longer, too, growing fast. After this event in my life, time began to pass quickly.
After a few weeks, Aunt Viv called us to her house. Missy had never been in there. She was spooked by all the creatures staring at her and said she would just stand. Aunt Viv circled a tall object covered with a sheet, watching our faces.
She slowly removed the sheet, and there stood Uncle Harvey. He was very tan and had brilliant teeth. His eyes were their glittering muddy mix. He wore the favorite tunic he slept in, so he looked like Jesus. His mouth was open as though in mid curse, or perhaps waiting for a pill or something else.
I was looking at the arms. I had heard that they couldn’t save the one. Now the replacement was too long, and I wanted to ask Aunt Viv where she got it. But I just reached out for the arms. They were poised as reaching, too, for love, a hug, forgiveness.
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