Uncle Joe

STORIES that stretch your mind

The Best Metaphysical Fiction of the year from Thresholds Quarterly

Uncle Joe

by Francine Juhasz Houtman

“Uncle Joe’s coming to visit you? Don’t open your door! When he calls back, don’t let him stay with you, whatever you do,” Bill warned.

I’d called him at the factory around three in the afternoon Milwaukee time. “Listen, I can’t explain now, I gotta keep this short, but he’ll only upset you.”

“Make the appointment as short as possible,” Ed, my older brother, echoed, in bed in the Milwaukee suburbs with the flu. “You two won’t get along, anyway. Let him in and he’ll change your life. Bill and I did, and he changed ours.”

“I asked what he meant; however, he wouldn’t say. “If you like your life the way it is, just don’t open the door!”

Nevertheless, I saw no harm in meeting the guy. I didn’t care if Uncle Joe had been around the world twice and taken forty-five years to do it. So he’d seen things. I wasn’t going to let him run my life or change even the slightest detail. I was stronger than Ed or Bill. I often wonder if they, too, given a chance, would have dared to leave Milwaukee and live overseas.

Living in Amsterdam without going crazy, at least for an American, takes stamina and guts. The Dutch language makes your head think in squares, marijuana fumes assault you on the streets, they serve your French fries drowned in mayonnaise, and then they take CNN off the cable. But it’s when you hear you’re being laid off from work and there’s nothing else you feel qualified to do at forty that...

I’d never met Uncle Joe. He’d been the odd one out on my mother’s side and traveled for as long as I could remember. My mother had one picture of him, and it wasn’t a good one. In fact, all you can see in the photo is Uncle Joe wearing sunglasses, bending over his rucksack at the Milwaukee airport.

That’s why I was surprised to get his call on my answering machine. He’d arrived in Amsterdam, had booked a hotel near the airport, and he wanted to stop by and see me in the morning.

Now Ed and Bill and I have been through a great deal together. They stood by me after Mary died, took their vacations and spent a month here in Holland seeing to it I’d be okay. They’ve always said they know me better than I know myself, and they’re probably right. So, although I don’t usually take advice no matter how well it’s meant, when Uncle Joe called back, I played it safe and told him I could only see him in the morning for an hour between ten and eleven.

He came early - forty minutes too early - although the last thing he said when he left was he feared he’d rung my bell rather late.

I was caught off guard when I opened the door. Instead of the vagabond I expected, in front of me stood a clean-cut, smartly dressed man in the kind of suit those top lawyers wear in the movies. He stood there smiling, looking at me from head to foot. I’d overslept, my apartment was unaired and in disarray, and I figured Uncle Joe would embarrass me with at least a few desultory remarks.

I was right. He did.

No sooner did this man enter my cluttered and foul-smelling living room, he turned to me and, with a compassionate tone, asked, “Your life is in a bit of a mess, isn’t it?”

I had no intentions of answering that simply because he’d popped up out of nowhere (even though nothing else had popped up for some time). Actually I was desperate. I’d lost my job at the telephone company. My life was shaky, my future unclear. I needed to carve out a new career for myself, but change doesn’t come easy at forty.

“Sorry we have only an hour, Uncle Joe. I - ”

“Don’t you worry. I understand. Never need to stay longer than that in one place, anyway.”

Uncle Joe was warm enough, but it was soon apparent it was my room and not me that interested him. I had this flash the guy was after my apartment and would find some way to take it from me. Why hadn’t I listened to Ed and Bill? He was particularly interested in the windows which I hadn’t washed in months. In fact, he was downright impolite, letting the coffee I’d poured for him grow cold to stare at my neighborhood from not one but each of my muddied windows.

Well, I’d hang on to my apartment, no worries there. Apartments were difficult to come by in Amsterdam. But I felt he could at least give me a little personal attention. However, not only did Uncle Joe refuse to sit down politely on the couch and busy himself with me, he continued to dart from one window to the other, far more interested in what was happening down on the street than he was in me.

Of course, much was going on outside. Landlords were frantically taking advantage of city hall’s desire to have this part of Amsterdam renewed and the mayor’s generous offer to heavily subsidize major repair work to apartment houses both inside and out. It was an offer this neighborhood desperately needed.

Scaffolding from a dozen different construction firms was set up everywhere. The noise of destruction and reconstruction drowned out most of the customary din of traffic. Roofs were torn apart, rebuilt, tarred and tiled, facades sand-blasted. Moldings were peeled of decades of paint and carefully repainted. Next to the curbs and blocking the sidewalks could be seen containers of broken plaster and cement, bricks and smashed wooden beams from walls and ceilings that fell to the streets with a clatter through long, caterpillar-like plastic chutes from floors above.

“Quite an imposing bit of scaffolding around your apartment building.” An understatement. Crisscrossed aluminum bars blocked out most of the light from my windows and gave the apartment a far more serious tone than it usually had. “You - you’re the one, you know, that needs major repair work.”

The sun was having difficulty emerging through a haze and faint shadows from the scaffolding fell on me as I sat drinking my coffee. “What did you say?” I did seem a bit deaf lately. Probably the many hours I’d sat with a headset at the telephone company or the dreadful noise outside was taking its toll. “I didn’t catch that.”

“What I’m thinking...what I’m thinking is there’s something you’re not listening to. But what I said was you need major repair work, dear nephew.” This Uncle Joe bellowed into my ears.

“You mean the neighborhood does. And the apartment. Yeah, you’re right.” I laughed uncomfortably. Now that he had focused on me, I felt his attention was misplaced.

“Yes, that, too. Especially the roof and the gutter system. Leaking water has weakened this outer wall.” He went over to inspect the back wall. “Dangerously so, I’d say, by the looks of it from outside. Struck me before I came up.”

He seemed to enjoy the fact I looked worried. In fact, I had the feeling he wanted to make me worry and that’s why he continued.

“To say nothing of the foundation work necessary. They’ll be digging up the sidewalks and excavating under the house for quite a long time. I talked to one of the workmen before I came up. Shared a candy bar with him. He said the wooden piles under this building were rotten and have to be removed and replaced with reinforced concrete. Probably shake you up here on the fourth floor.” He winced as his eyes scanned the walls of the room, following the large cracks along the seams that I, too, had watched nervously of late for they were widening by the month.”

“However, it’s you, my dear nephew, that needs the most work. That’s what the neighborhood is trying to tell you - that those bars across your windows are saying. Rather emphatically, I might add.” The sun had broken through the haze and now the scaffolding cast heavy dark lines of shadow across my face and chest, framing me against the couch.

When he saw the anxious expression on my face, he added, “Guess you could call me the harbinger of major self-repair. Only thing that’ll fix things.”

Attention I needed. Help, maybe. But what he was suggesting was as obnoxious as the sound of yet another sand-blaster going to work somewhere very close this time, probably as close as next door. Too close. Anyway, how would he know?

“I think they call that a metaphor, Uncle Joe,” I said dryly, attempting to outshout the noise. “But I’m not the only one who lives here. Or are you suggesting we all need a major overhaul?” As soon as I said that, the thought rang with some deep truth. In the other apartments I’d lived in I’d made some friends among my neighbors. At work, too. Everywhere except here. These neighbors were not my friends, a fact that often saddened me. They seemed incapable of it.

Uncle Joe took some time to agree. “Everyone who lives here? Most probably. Some of the shop owners, certainly. I took some time this morning to get to know your neighborhood, and I noticed the owner without a customer every time I walked around the block. Always the same spot, same pose.”

Every time? Sharing a candy bar with a workman? What time had he really arrived for our appointment? Dawn?

“And when I went in to chat I smelled why. Old fish. The eyes of the red bass, trout, cod and even the salmon were glazed over with a milky white film. It stank in there! Needs some freshening up, that guy does, and in more ways than one I would imagine. And then there’s that terribly bored lady in the oculist’s shop down the street. Agnita.”

“Oculist? There’s no oculist around here.” I looked at my watch. Ten-thirty. Thirty minutes to go.

“There certainly is. The shop is wedged in between the two carpet shops. You have seen those, I trust?” So there was an oculist. Big deal. But...Agnita? He was on a first name basis with the oculist?

“The owner said I could call her Agnita. I wondered if she realized her store is placed in a space that prevents people noticing it, a black hole of attention I call it. I noticed that because when I blurred my eyes and looked down your street, that space disappeared. So I went in to talk to her. She told me the people who manage to walk in usually say it took them the longest time to notice her shop, yet when she asks why, no one seems to know. Said she’s built a new marquee, put flashing lights in the window, but nothing helps.

“‘All I can do now is sit here and wait for something to happen,’ she told me. I said I couldn’t agree with that, which she liked, of course. She needs some kind and loving care, I think. I told her I could come up with a solution for her if I sat around her shop for a week watching her. Did she smile when I said that! She must have thought it was a joke. Or a come-on. It was neither, I can assure you, but there was hope in her eyes when she made me a cup of coffee.”

I understood now why the coffee I’d poured for him was still sitting there. And I wondered just how much time he’d been snooping and prowling around my neighborhood before ringing my bell - and why. However, it was odd about the oculist’s shop. I’d lived here for seven years and never seen it although I must have walked by it several times a day. “That oculist - ”

He didn’t allow me to finish, impolite once again. “But it’s you we’re concerned about, and it’s you with all your windows who has such a good view of the transformation taking place. When I put myself in your place, what I see...I’m afraid it’s certainly you that needs the major transformation.”

“Uncle, we have so little time left.” He didn’t need to know I’d been laid off from work. “You know I only have until eleven. It’s a quarter to eleven now. Don’t you want to tell me something about your travels to Africa, or China, or Tahiti?”

He told me he wasn’t interested in small talk. Instead, looking pleased with himself, he began acting as if he were some Salvador Dali of the moment painting me into a surrealistic landscape.

“If we put you at the center of all this,” and he indicated with a flourish of his hand everything outside the windows including the fish shop, “and, of course, you are in the center of this. This is where you live. Then I’d say something fishy is going on here. Something very basic,” and he stamped his feet as if testing the piles upon which the apartment building stood, “quite frankly is rotten and must be changed. Not only is the very basis of your life shaky at best, your ideas and your higher thoughts, your ideals - witness the ceiling, you get leaks, don’t you? - must be replaced with something better, more adequate, more durable.”

“Oh yeah?” Luckily I had to put up with only ten more minutes of this rubbish. “And what’s that?”

“I’d say something to allow your feelings to flow easily and safely whatever the problems you might have to weather. After all, the rain gutters have to be fixed so the water flows how and where it’s supposed to flow, don’t they, so it stops seeping into the walls?”

Uncle Joe was crazy. That was it. No. Correction. I was crazy - to have let him in.

Then, as if he were indeed Salvador Dali, he opened his eyes as wide as he could and stared at me. “You wouldn’t want that now, would you? To have the walls of your life come crumbling down around you?”

His reading my surroundings as if they were a trustworthy diagram of my private life, and mixing up outer occurrences with inner states of being, made me dizzy. I didn’t want to admit even to myself how appropriate and correct that felt. Instead, I was irritated, more with myself than with him for not having listened to Ed and Bill.

He didn’t wait for me to answer. “And it must have something to do with vision. When I put myself in your place and look at that oculist’s shop, I can’t help thinking the main problem on the street, the negative field of...something...which surrounds and buries the oculist from common sight - that hole in awareness in which it stands - has something to do with your main problem. Vision. Or let’s call it perception. Maybe a better word is awareness. Are you aware of that?” His eyes twinkled.

“I suppose you’re not aware of it. So it’s a real puzzle. Ah...we’ve detected a mystery. Your mystery. Isn’t it mystifying to see how it all begins, the creation of something new, a new career totally unlike the one you’ve had?” How did he - “And you have only old materials to work with - decrepit apartment buildings, cracked walls, broken-up plaster, rotten beams? You wonder, is it the cacophony of noise which begins the new creation? Is it the hundreds of sounds of renovation that do it, the scraping and hammering, the sanding and the pounding, the dozens of machines booming and whining, the materials wrenching loose, caving in, objects falling, thrown together, stacked, dumped? Is it those sounds of radios blasting that do it, with the loud curses, wolf calls, and rowdy laughter of construction workers, their raw jokes mixed in for good measure? Do you get that desire to silence the pounding when the pounding finally starts to get through to you?”

With that he went over to the bookcase which, though it housed dozens of my books, contained only a fraction of those I owned, some of which were stacked in the corners of the room and under the couch where he now was looking.

“Serious reading doesn’t help. What I always thought. Words, words...”

As if he hadn’t said that, he abruptly sat down and talked to me, using words that cut me to the quick. While he spoke I felt him looking, with the same eyes that had already looked so far outside my windows, further into me than anyone ever had before. When I asked him how he could possibly know so much about me, he said it was easy. He’d learned it from my neighborhood that morning.

He got up and once again walked over to my dirty windows. “Look at the way things are laid out. You live on a street with shops. Not everyone does. You probably can’t imagine how important they are to you. Let’s see, besides the fish shop, you can see a driving school, a store that sells hide-a-way beds, one of the two carpet shops and part of the canal.”

I knew what I could see from my windows. I found myself staring out them often enough.

“That particular canal,” he went on, pleased with himself, “is used by barges that haul garbage from this entire area to the incinerators. Although that, one of the barge operators told me this morning, is going to stop shortly. A new system of garbage disposal is being worked out that’ll preclude the barges two years from now. Did you know that?”

It irritated me to say I didn’t. Thankfully I didn’t mention the fact I’d never noticed the garbage barges. Instead, I insisted the shops downstairs were not in any way important to me. I did my shopping elsewhere. I didn’t wear glasses nor eat fish, I already had my driver’s license, my apartment came carpeted, and I had no plans to buy a hide-a-way bed. Hint, hint, Uncle Joe, if that’s what you had in mind.

He roared with laughter. “Nevertheless, those shops give you information. Those shops are telling you...I’ll put it simply. First, there is so much about yourself you aren’t seeing. That’s the oculist’s shop. Then, you have to get rid of your psychic garbage, and soon, too - the barges. You must learn to drive your life safely, in the right direction and with expertise - the driving school. You’re hiding something about your private life in bed - the hide-a-way bed shop. And, you need a woman, or women, in your life. That’s being emphasized, for there aren’t one, but two carpet shops down there. Carpets are women, you know.”

Carpets are women? The guy was crazy. Besides, it was eleven sharp. His time was up.

I stood up. “What do you do, Uncle Joe? Dream this all up?”

“Exactly,” he said, outshouting the noise. “I put myself in your place - in this space, this place, this apartment - and look at everything as if it were a dream. And in that dream - your dream - down on the street are those particular shops. And I wake myself up and interpret your dream according to the rules of dream interpretation.”

Could one actually do that?

“Is that what you were doing when you said carpets were women?”

“Certainly. Any dream dictionary will explain why. Used to carry one around years ago. Got the whole thing memorized now.”

It’s what I thought. Uncle Joe lived in a dream world. A dream world wasn’t a real world, and it was dangerous to mix the two. That was bound to create all kinds of trouble. Poor guy, no wonder he wandered around the world.

“Sorry, it is really late. We’d agreed on eleven o’clock, remember? One thing, though. If you’re right, what you said has to be true of everyone on the block, which is ridiculous. All this surrounds them, too.”
“Look, it all depends on each person’s point of view. I know yours because you told me. You said this neighborhood desperately needs renovation. Like you.”

Uncle Joe seemed unaware I’d never agreed to that.

“Now some people living here might look at the renovations in other ways - as entirely unnecessary and a waste. Those people may need to be made aware of, not change, but some monstrous waste in their lives, and the neighborhood is dramatizing this for them.”

“Uncle Joe - ”

“Others might construe what is going on as some dishonest scheme to amass profits in an underhanded way. They may think the mayor is receiving a kick-back for every improvement made.”

“That can’t be, because here - ”

“It doesn’t matter if that’s true or not. What matters is their point of view. And for those people, the neighborhood is trying to make them aware of some dishonest scheming or unfair exploitation in their own lives. Maybe they’re doing it to someone else; maybe someone else is doing it to them.” He paused, already half-way out the door, as if allowing me to absorb what he was saying. “And some, perhaps some bedridden old-timers, may not even have noticed the changes going on here. For them it’s safe to assume they won’t, or can’t, change much now.”

So easy for him to say, I thought, when he could never prove that. Neither he nor I could go up and down the street questioning everyone who lived in these apartments. No, Uncle Joe, it’s a nice idea, amusing but...so long!”

“So long, nephew!”

Instead of saying goodbye, I hesitated a moment and asked if he sincerely thought it was right to look at things the way he did. He smiled with his hand on my doorknob and said it wasn’t a matter of right and wrong, simply a matter of choice.

“You can look at things in a logical, rational way - landlords taking seriously the city’s offer of subsidies for repairs. In fact, you have to look at it that way. That’s the real situation. But you’ve got a choice and can also look at it in an analogical, nonrational way. The way I do. It’s an extra. It won’t cook your supper, though, pay your rent, or...” and he glanced back at room again, “clean up your living room.”

“An extra?”

“Call it poetic. It tunes you into an art most people don’t see and gives you information you might not get any other way. In your case it helps you welcome change.”

“Yeah, and if I don’t?” I had an uneasy feeling suddenly.

“Well, then change comes like a virus. In stealth. Sneaks up on you, unawares. Gets carried to you by something. Or someone. Catch you the next time - in different circumstances, I trust.”

And with that and a slight curtsey Uncle Joe said goodbye and left me in an oddly constructed room that was once my comfortable living room. It was now a room that told stories about me, about my past and my future. He left me behind in a strange apartment house that gossiped freely to perfect strangers about my private shortcomings. And he’d abandoned me to an even stranger neighborhood, part of a multidimensional world I never imagined existed.

For an hour or so Uncle Joe’s visit had a euphoric effect on me. The chaotic world around me was replete with meaning. This overwhelming sensation was so disorienting I could do nothing but pace up and down the room until I decided on a brisk walk outside to bring me back to my own reality again.

I did go out for a walk and met Mrs. Nol from next door. We hadn’t spoken to each other more than twice in the past seven years; however, that fact, if she remembered it, didn’t stop her from blurting out the current chapter of her life story.

“My son moved out yesterday.” She sighed as if this were the end of her world. “I knew it was coming for years, somewhere inside me I knew that, but I just couldn’t see it happening. His girl friend has been pestering him to come live with her, but he did his best to keep me company all this time. My husband passed away eight years ago, I don’t know if you knew that.” She placed her hand heavily upon my arm for emphasis, as if to show me weighty that had been for her.

“I should have pushed my son out of the nest years ago, I suppose, but I couldn’t. Didn’t see I should, really.” She stared deeply into my eyes, hoping to find some absolution there. “Anyway, I’ve got to get used to a whole new life now, completely on my own. I feel like a new driver that just got his license and is alone in a car for the first time. Look.” And she showed me her shopping bag as a new batch of tears began to fall. “It’s the first time I’ve had to buy my own groceries in years. Cees always did it for me. Guess I’ll have to depend more on my woman friends now if I’m ill.”

Her words upset me which she took for compassion. In reality, I was thinking of what Uncle Joe had said. Not only was her life undergoing drastic change, you could argue the oculist, the driving school and the carpet shops had been telling her something all along as well. Twice she said she hadn’t been able to see it - the oculist. She also said how she needed women in her life - the carpet shops. How odd it was she likened her experience to that of a new driver - the driving school.

“You haven’t been talking to any strangers around here who speak English lately, have you?” I asked, but no, she hadn’t.

I no sooner took leave of Mrs. Nol when Wayan, the kick-boxer from the second floor across the street, an Indonesian fellow who ran a launderette several streets away, literally bumped into me and told me his good news. He was packing up, he said, and moving back to Indonesia to his home island of Lombok after years of trying to make a life here.

“I realized a couple of weeks ago I have to do it. I finally saw it. If I don’t go back, I’ll get sick here or something. My heart’s never been here. What I really want is to run a few cabins for tourists in my home town with my aunts. Maybe even marry with one of my old school friends.” He took out a photo from his wallet, and showed me some bungalows on stilts. “They’re right on the beach. Someone’s interested in my washerette, and if that works out, I’ll be gone, just like that.”

Once again a neighbor undergoing radical change, a new vision - and someone who had a greater need for women in his life. It was enough to make me glance nervously through my window that evening at my back neighbor. I couldn’t see into his apartment by day, but in the evenings, when the lights were on, I’d made it a habit to allow myself a quick peek at him and his wife on my way to the kitchen. It was cozy, and company of sorts. But for weeks now I hadn’t seen her, only him, eating alone.

“Don’t do this to me, Uncle Joe,” I thought.

And so when I saw this back neighbor (I don’t even know his name) repairing a flat tire on his bicycle on the sidewalk when I turned the corner, I stopped and asked him if his wife were ill. He told me she must be for she’d left him and was filing for divorce.

Three people around me that I knew of - four if I counted this man’s wife - were facing big changes in their personal lives by their own admission. I didn’t take that as proof of what Uncle Joe had said, of course. After all, it was mere coincidence. But there was a comical element to the whole thing when I thought about it in a certain way.

I had a good laugh and felt much better and a few minutes later the street Uncle Joe had bent out of shape for me became, once again, the old familiar street I thought I knew so well. The noise was only noise and, when I entered my apartment, the cracks in the walls and ceiling became merely evidence the apartment was old and just that. The scaffolding turned into pure aluminum, and the shops I saw from my windows were the shops they’d always been, nothing more. A pity, though, I’d forgotten to look for the oculist’s shop.
I called Ed and Bill to tell them not to worry: meeting Uncle Joe hadn’t changed a thing.•

Francine Juhasz Houtman, originally from Ohio, lives in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She has traveled extensively, doing private research on alternalte modes of reality perception. A Ph.D. in clinical psychology, she has spent the last 15 years in private practice to “liberate the creative potential of my clients by awakening their healing imaginations.”

©1999 School of Metaphysics Vol. 17 No. 5

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