Total Pageviews

Popular Posts

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


Waking up Uncle Francis

   So there was my Uncle Francis lying on his stomach in his Girard Street apartment. I knew I’d gotten into his place some way though I can’t remember how. How I get from place to place sometimes can be a blur.  My father blames this on drinking… too many beers and too many beers in the wrong places so that I black out or just fall apart. Like the time I collapsed near Johnny Brenda’s  and Uncle Francis had to come and get me.  So I am used to not knowing where I am. In fact, I don’t even remember walking through Uncle Francis’ front door or even if he buzzed me in or not, but whatever happened I wound up standing in his bedroom doorway watching him sleep. How late was it? Maybe 3 or 4 in the morning, the bewitching hours, the hour of the wolf… The apartment was quiet except for the sound of passing traffic and the couple upstairs. Why are they so loud? Don’t they ever give it a rest?

   “Hello, hello, it’s Dan!”

            Why wasn’t Uncle Francis waking up? Usually when I’m here he’s walks around or sits on his sofa and reads and then he puts on a pot of coffee because he knows I love coffee. But he wasn’t budging this time and I was afraid that something was wrong. Was he sick again? Or could this be something worse?

      I thought if I relaxed in his living room for a while he would wake up in time. Because of his bad heart I didn’t want to wake him out of a deep sleep. I felt I needed to sit and rest anyway because I was having thoughts of my mother who died last month. It was Uncle Francis who broke the news of her death to me, and this must have been hard for him. He knew how close I was to mother. She’d been sick for so long. She died while I was on the Market Street El coming in from 69th Street. I was heading to Uncle Francis’ place. While I was en route mother died, so my father called Uncle Francis and told him the news so that he could tell me.

     When I arrived at Uncle Francis’ he sat me down and told me that mother had died.  I called my father after that and cried and then uncle walked me back to the El. The rest of the month was a blur. I did not want to live.

   “Uncle Francis, wake up sleepy head!”

       If he can’t hear then we have a problem. “Hey lazy bones, snicklefrit, get the hell up!”  That’s what he always called me when I was a boy, snicklefrit, little snicklefrit. Crazy, huh? We do funny things in our crazy Irish family.  Like we have aunts who drink only tea and who hate alcohol and then we have uncles who hate tea and call those aunts who hate alcohol old maids. Mother liked Old Fashions and Manhattans but her sister disapproved of alcohol and drank Arctic Splash and Seltzer water. She even had a alcohol-free wedding and expected everyone to come and have a good time. “It was so Mennonite,” my mother told me. “The worst wedding I’ve ever attended. The only spicy thing about it was the onions in the salad.”
   I started to think, “I have to stop thinking about waking him up! Why don’t I just crash on his sofa and sleep till morning, when we can both go out for bacon and eggs at Paradise restaurant.”

     But I found it hard to sit still so I paced the living room until I was looking out the big window that faced Girard Avenue where you can see everything and everyone, joggers, taxis, vagrants, the methadone people, hipsters.  I noticed how messy the living room was. This was untypical of Uncle Francis. He had a book of poems lying about and there were two pictures of me propped up behind a crucifix. God, I’d never seen that before. Uncle Francis was not religious. The Philadelphia Inquirer was open on his dining room table and I could see that he had a news story circled in black.  Beside it was a small tablet and it looked as if before bed he’d been taking notes.  I could have read it if I wanted to but I was feeling impatient and didn’t want to turn on the lights.  I tried to sleep again but that didn’t work. I finally realized that the only thing to stop the restlessness was to go into uncle’s bedroom and wake him up, maybe shake his bed or even jump into it like I did when I was a kid.
                   “Hey uncle, here I come!”  I gave his mattress a tug, but nothing.  I gave it another tug and still nothing.

       I thought, “This isn’t good. He’s not moving. For a moment I was afraid that I’d given him a heart attack but then I took his right arm and moved it snug against his body. I repositioned his right arm by bending it at the elbow a bit. 

   “Uncle Snickelfrit!”

      I started thinking about how God had taken my mother away from me and now what if He had done the same thing with Uncle Francis? I’d have nobody to talk to. Two loved ones in one month! There was this sense of urgency about waking him up. I knew I had to act fast and that time was running out.

   “Uncle Francis please get up,” I said, tugging at his hair. Then I saw him move. He scratched his head where I had touched it. “Uncle,” I said again, patting him on the forehead, but with this he turned over in his sleep, snored, made a coughing noise but then opened his eyes. He looked straight at me but then went to sleep again…. One of his crazy jokes…

      I wondered if he’d been drinking, so I went into the living room and checked what he had in the refrigerator. I spotted a half empty bottle of Jamison. I went to pour myself a small glass because I knew that Uncle wouldn’t mind, but when I went to drink it I didn’t feel anything.
   The whole night was screwed up. First, I didn’t even know how I got here; second, Uncle didn’t even know I was there, and then I couldn’t even feel the booze.
       I reached for a smoke in my trouser pocket but noticed that I didn’t have any, then I checked the apartment for a cigarette, searching behind the sofa cushions because when I visit I was always plenty of lose stuff there. When I didn’t find anything, I went back to the dining room table and thought about reading The Inquirer article that Uncle had circled in black.
     I started thinking how I hated life and how life was not fair. What if Uncle Francis is getting ready to die? “This can’t be happening,” I thought, “I will dive into the bed and land on top of him and then slap his forehead to wake him up.” I did just that, slapping him lightly on the forehead and then, surprise, surprise, he did sit up in bed with a look of terror on his face. He looked around and then directly into my face but he didn’t seem to be seeing anything at all.

   “Who’s there?” he said, placing his hand over his ailing heart. 
    We looked at one another but there was still no reaction. Then he struggled to get out of bed and limped around the apartment.  He walked past me. What is wrong? I ran up to him again but he didn’t notice.
      “Uncle Francis!”
      I slipped into his bed and curled up under the covers but when he came back he laid down on top of me. He was on top of me but I feel nothing. I just slipped out from under him. He felt something and he called my name and asked me to stop.
    “Please stop!”
  He can see me but he can’t see me?
  Finally, he got out of bed and walked to the dining room table where he switched on a small lamp and began to look at the article circled in black. I read the newspaper standing over his shoulder. 


       City Cites Pinched Wires In Man's Electrocution

Pinched wires electrified a city street light that electrocuted a pedestrian Sunday night in University City, city officials said.
Alexander L. "Pete" Hoskins, the city streets commissioner, said his department was still investigating how the wires became pinched.
He said the pole, in the 600 block of University Avenue near the University Bridge over the Schuylkill, was knocked down May 28 and repaired the next day. The pinched, or touching wires, were found near the door leading to the repair box, he said.
Hoskins said that all similar lights would be checked as a safety precaution. He said he had no reason to believe the problem went beyond the one light.
The Medical Examiner's Office said it had identified the victim as Daniel Joseph Reilly, 23, of the first block of North Maple Street in Lansdowne. Reilly was found with his neck and chin touching the light pole. He was pulled from the pole by Hoskins.
  You can imagine my dismay and shock when I realized that I had been dead for a week. While I won’t go into the particulars of my transition, I do have advice for the living: 
 Pray for a death that is not sudden, always have time to prepare, because when you die suddenly as I did on that cold rainy night in November of 1992, it took a long time before I knew what had happened to me. I was not warned; nobody took my hand and guided me upwards; I was alone; there were no angels. And my previously deceased mother did not immediately come to my side with words of comfort.

copyright@ Thom Nickels