© Erich Hartmann/Magnum Photos
© Erich Hartmann/Magnum Photos

Uncle

Tablet Original Fiction: A spare room for a mysterious visitor who arrives years too late

by
Jerome Charyn
May 12, 2021
© Erich Hartmann/Magnum Photos
© Erich Hartmann/Magnum Photos

1.

We grew up in a luxurious nine-room affair on Haven Avenue in Washington Heights. My father was an ophthalmologist, a magician of the eyes, who bought his way out of Hitler’s Germany months before Kristallnacht. A Swiss banker friend provided him with forged Brazilian passports and helped us flee. Father had relatives in the United States who sponsored us and we—that is, Father and Mother—crossed the ocean on a liner out of Le Havre. As accomplished as Father was in his field, he still had to repeat several years of medical training before he could be certified to practice ophthalmology again. He wasn’t bitter about it. He and Mother couldn’t have survived the madness of Nazi Berlin.

He abandoned a villa full of servants in the splendor of Spandau and had to work in another ophthalmologist’s office near Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, while we lived in a tiny flat on Fort Washington Avenue. That’s where I was born, in the spring of 1947. My baby brother, Thomas, arrived three years later. By that time Father had his own practice, and we could afford to move to the hills of Haven Avenue. Thomas was a difficult baby. He cried all the time. Mother couldn’t seem to care for him. He had a nanny who lived with us in one of our nine rooms. Even with the nanny’s help, Mother had to go to a sanitarium for six weeks.

Thomas was a terror once he got to kindergarten. He attacked other children. He was sent to a special school attached to Teachers College. Meanwhile, Mother fell into a steep decline. But someone must have knocked all the aggression out of Baby Tom, as I called him. And after a year, he could attend the same school I did, P.S. 173, on Fort Washington Avenue, opposite a playground where we had our recess periods.

Baby brother fell in love with the FBI, and Father ordered a children’s manual, The Blue Book of Crime, that became Tom’s bible. He carried it with him everywhere, even to summer camp in the Poconos.

I looked after Tom as much as I could, but I had my own friends at camp; besides, Tom was in a lower division, with a different set of counselors, a different schedule, and a different canteen. I was hungry for girls, and I didn’t need a 10-year-old tagging along.

Tom grew as tall as I did by the time he was 13. He lifted weights and worked out on the monkey bars at the playground across from P.S. 173. Tom was more attentive to Mother than I was, perhaps out of guilt that he had been such a difficult baby and had helped cause her decline. Father had a mistress who also served as the family housekeeper; she’d been Tom’s nanny years ago. Tom never liked her and didn’t like her now. Father was as discreet as he could be about Hannah. He worked late hours—along with his private practice, he was a clinical professor of ophthalmology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons. We seldom ate together as a family. It was Hannah who prepared the meals. When Father returned home, he slipped into Hannah’s room and stayed there.

I accepted this arrangement. Tom didn’t. He sat with Mother after school. She had a chair next to the window in what had become her bedroom sanctuary, a chair she almost never left. She sang German songs to herself, songs she must have sung as a child. Father had plunged into the world after he arrived in America at the age of 29. He mastered American slang, hardly had an accent at all, while Mother was bewildered by all the idioms she could never learn.

My baby brother washed her face, even had her stand in a basin while he administered a sponge bath. He insisted on speaking English with her.

Mutti, you must learn to speak amerikanisch.”

“Learn for what?” I could hear her say. “So that Vati can dance with his whore?”

And, of course, Tom had to confront Father while he was still a freshman at Bronx Science. I was a senior at the same school, a creaky Gothic castle on Creston Avenue, near the Grand Concourse, with rats living in the rusted pipes of our laboratories. Tom was an honor student. I was not.

Tom leaped out at Father one evening; it was past midnight, and Father had returned from a conference at Physicians and Surgeons. He hadn’t expected to see Tom standing near the door like a ghoul in a Bronx Science sweatshirt. Tom was over 6 feet tall and had the shoulders of a linebacker from lifting weights at the local Y. But he had a long, skinny face with deep sockets that masked the tinderbox in his big brown eyes.

Vati,” he said, without a word of greeting, “you must find another home for Hannah.”

Father was tired. He’d been meeting with patients and other doctors all day, and he didn’t want to be confronted by a 15-year-old boy. He was 56, and his left hand trembled slightly.

“Not now, Thomas,” he said.

But Tom was adamant. “If not now, Vati, when?”

I adored my father. I was close to him, and Tom wasn’t. We shared a love of books, Father and I. He had a rare first edition of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and we would turn page after page as we wore gloves he had borrowed from a surgeon friend. “My Gregor Samsa,” he called me, “my beloved cockroach.” But he had no pet name for Tom. Vati was tall and lean, like Kafka, and had Kafka’s big ears.

“Thomas,” he said wearily, “your mother has not been a woman to me for ages.”

“But she is still your wife,” Tom insisted.

Father had yet to take off his overcoat. “Then think like an FBI man, Thomas. That’s what you want to be, isn’t it? Strategize. Should I divorce your mother, send her away?”

Tom was silent for a moment. “She went through that inferno with you, Vati. You had your work; you could adapt to America. But what could Mutti do? She wasn’t equipped. She was a Hausfrau—23 when she left Berlin.”

Father softened a bit. I watched his left hand tremble as he removed his overcoat and hung it on a hook in the closet near the front door. “Then the only solution, dear Thomas, is the solution we have now.” And he vanished into Hannah’s room.

2.

Tom was valedictorian of his class at Bronx Science. He could have gotten into Harvard or Yale, but he didn’t want to be far from Mutti, and have Hannah drive her deeper and deeper into isolation. So he settled on Columbia College. Unlike most other students, he did a double major: chemistry and English literature. He graduated summa cum laude and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year. The Columbia faculty nominated him for a Kellett Fellowship that would have allowed him to study at Oxford for two years. But Tom declined the fellowship and went on to Columbia Law School. He didn’t even attempt to pass the bar. He went straight from law school to the FBI Academy. Before he left for Quantico, he’d spent part of every day with Mutti, reading to her, listening to her lullabies.

She died in her chair a month after Tom left. She was only 59. Tom spoke at her memorial. It was held at the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X had been murdered in 1965. Tom had Malcolm’s picture on his bedroom wall while at Bronx Science. Even as an FBI trainee, Tom admired Malcolm’s metamorphosis from a pimp known as “Detroit Red” to a poet of human dignity. And he mentioned Malcolm at Mother’s oration. “Mutti admired him, too. She loved it when I told her stories about Malcolm X as a modern Robin Hood.”

I didn’t see Tom much after my encounter with him at the Audubon. He was a special agent at the bureau within months, stationed at a field office somewhere in the Southwest. He moved around a lot. I think he went undercover for a year or two. Meanwhile, I had an academic post at Yale. It was during the time of the tenure wars, and I moved around a lot, like Tom, from post to post. I ended up as a tenured professor of history at Hunter College in the Bronx. I was married now, and I had a little daughter. Vati had retired and had moved to Maine with Hannah, who was now his wife. He left me his apartment on Haven Avenue. The building was a cooperative, and Father’s shares were mine. I could have sold the shares, but it was an easy ride to Hunter on my bicycle. So I stayed in the very rooms where I had grown up, where Mutti had died, and where I could see the metal ropes of the George Washington Bridge and the lights of the Palisades. I had a river view from every window, and the price of my shares went up and up.

My dissertation had been on George Washington’s military misadventures. It was called Folly on Manhattan Island, was published by Fordham University Press, and sold 300 copies before it sank into oblivion. I gradually changed my mind about George and realized that his misadventures hadn’t been misadventures at all. He had an army of ragamuffins; sometimes he didn’t have an army at all. He suffered through fierce winters when you could nary find a soldier under his tent. George couldn’t have had an army without a large band of Black volunteers, some freed, others not. But I didn’t have the melodies inside my head to write a second book.

It was Tom who had all the ambition. I always kept a spare room for him on Haven Avenue. He never complained about not having shares in the co-op. That was Father’s decision, not mine. Tom was head of the Dallas field office for a few years, and later went undercover again. He’d married several times. He also had a daughter, like me. He visited us once on the fly with his current wife and daughter. The two little girls got along well. My own daughter, Molly, had a magnificent dollhouse, and the girls played for hours.

I couldn’t understand Tom’s wife, not a word she said. It wasn’t her Southern accent. She couldn’t string a sentence together. She must have had a private code that Tom could decipher. I couldn’t.

Tom seemed unkempt for an FBI special agent, like a man who was drowning. His cuffs were frayed, his pocket handkerchief was crumpled, and his shoelaces were untied. His daughter, Mary Anne, had to stoop and tie them for him, while his wife looked at a slight chip in the ceiling. “Thomas,” she said, “I declare,” and turned silent for the rest of the meal.

We had a family reunion after that, at Christmas time. Father came down from Maine with Hannah, and Tom arrived with his daughter, but without his wife, who had decamped somewhere. I knew it would be a disaster. But Christmas always reminded me of Mutti and Vati, like Moses coming out of Egypt, just as Father and Mother had escaped from Spandau, a tribe of two, in the nick of time.

Tom was much neater on this occasion. He kept staring at Hannah. He got up from the table and wandered into Mother’s old room. He returned with a fury in his big brown eyes.

“Big Brother, what happened to Mutti’s chair?”

“Christ,” I said, “it fell apart. The super left it in front of the building. Didn’t you notice that it was gone the last time you visited?”

“I didn’t dare go into Mutti’s room. I was afraid of what I might find.”

Now it was Father who entered into battle with my brother. He’d developed Parkinson’s, but it was under control. His left hand didn’t tremble; neither did his right.

“Exactly what were you afraid of, Thomas?”

“That I’d find Hannah’s things—everywhere, and not a trace of Mutti.”

Father dug deeper into Thomas’ embittered soul. “Did you expect your brother to keep a shrine to Mutti?”

“Yes,” Thomas hissed. “At least that chair, as ragged as it was.”

“That chair, that chair,” Father said. “You haven’t even said hello to Hannah. She watched over you while your mother was raving mad.”

“And what made her mad? Your America. She had nothing to do here but cook and clean, clean and cook, while you picked up the traces of your past life. She had servants in Spandau. She went to museums, sat in cafés with her women friends, started her own reading circle, shared her favorite authors.”

“Nazi authors,” Father said. “That’s all we had left. Did you want us to stay in Berlin?”

Vati,” Hannah said, “the boy is troubled. He misses his mother so much.”

Tom attacked her. “I’m not a boy.”

Hannah began to cry. “I bathed you, held you in my arms. I loved you—and you loved me.”

Tom rose from the table.

I had to fend off his blows, keep him from striking Hannah.

He left with Mary Jane.

3.

Father died a few months later, after falling off a ladder. Tom didn’t come to Vati’s funeral.

Ten years passed, 10 dull years, during which I dreamt of Washington with icicles on his chin while I bicycled to Hunter College in the Bronx. I took early retirement at 55. I had no more books to write. And I lost interest in my own classes. I could never unravel Washington’s mystery. Hamilton I understood, a bastard boy from the West Indies. Hamilton had ambition, but Washington was a farmer who went to war. Hamilton was our shadow president. But he did not interest me as much as George, who preferred Mount Vernon to the intrigues of Philadelphia, the nation’s capital. He, a retired soldier, wanted to free his slaves, but they were all entwined with Martha’s. He could have used a touch of Hamilton’s diplomacy here.

I was done with Mount Vernon, done with the Constitution, done with Philadelphia.

My wife had left me years ago for a carpenter-poet in Greenpoint. Molly was now in medical school, studying to be a magician of the eyes, like her grandfather. And I had a craving to wander abroad. I went to Berlin, stood outside Vati’s villa in Spandau, now a nursing home, visited the market street, Carl-Schurz-Strasse, in Old Town, looking for some café where Mutti might have sat with the wives of other prominent Jewish doctors in a city about to eat its own entrails.

Upon my return, I received a note from Quantico, where Tom had been teaching just before his retirement from active duty. He’d died under mysterious circumstances. He’d attempted to halt a robbery, it seems, and had been shot in the head. He was 56 years old.

The FBI shipped Tom’s remains to a funeral parlor in Washington Heights, and I had him buried in Woodlawn, beside Vati, in a plot near Herman Melville’s grave. My father and my brother had both been devoted to the author of Moby-Dick. So was I. Vati had found the plot for himself and Mutti, and for his two sons.

And what made her mad? Your America. She had nothing to do here but cook and clean, clean and cook, while you picked up the traces of your past life.

I still had the rarest of Vati’s rare books, the printer’s own first edition of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, with the printer’s remarks on the title page. I was bombarded with letters from rare book dealers who asked me to name my price and got into bidding wars with one another. I wouldn’t have sold it at any price, but that didn’t discourage the dealers. They kept writing and writing. Finally, I stopped answering their letters. The book had its own odd perfume, like the bittersweet black earth of a forest, an aroma that reminded me of Vati himself. I examined the book from time to time, with my own pair of surgical gloves, and kept it wrapped in tissue paper, in a corner of Mutti’s old room, as far from the corrosive power of sunlight as I could.

I volunteered to work in various soup kitchens. I was a guest lecturer in night classes at P.S. 173. I found myself talking about the wiles of Alexander Hamilton. He believed in all the fineries, had a hundred silk scarves, but he served Washington well, both as an aide-de-camp, who endured the deep winters with his general, and later as commander in chief of the U.S. Treasury. But he wouldn’t have believed in soup kitchens. Hamilton did not favor the poor.

I received many letters from Tom’s former associates at the FBI. He must have talked a lot about his big brother, because they knew every detail of my life. I felt ashamed. I hadn’t looked after Tom. I’d shunned him at summer camp, and rarely took Tom’s side in his fights with my father. I hadn’t followed his career. Of course, he’d been secretive. But I’d shut him out of my life. I wondered if it had anything to do with our particular past, that we were the children of refugees. Vati and Mutti’s own peregrinations had turned me into one of Melville’s isolatoes.

4.

Around the fifth year of my retirement, I received a letter from someone in a town I didn’t recognize, somewhere in Illinois. I tore the letter open with a penknife and a photo fell out. I had the shivers. It was a photo of Tom, around the age of 17, when he was still at Bronx Science, but it wasn’t Tom. That’s how uncanny and treacherous it seemed, like a booby trap planted inside the envelope. I started reading. My own left hand was shaking.

Uncle, I have waited a long time to write you. My father isn’t my father, or can’t you tell? Mama married another man. But Agent Tom has told me an awful lot about his big brother, how you saved him from many a beating [Father never touched Tom, not once]. Agent Tom would often come in the middle of the night when Daddy was out with his crew. Mama would tremble with happiness, and tremble is the right word. Her face lit like a Roman candle . . .

The boy’s name was Ralph. He was in his late teens or early 20s now. I gather that his mama’s husband was a desperado of sorts, a bank robber. Tom had infiltrated the gang in one of his undercover junkets. A married man, he must have fallen in love with the desperado’s wife, or perhaps Tom himself was between wives. The short of it was that Ralph was his child, and the bank robber was either ignorant about it or didn’t give a damn. Tom must have used the husband as an informant. Slingo, as he was called, was never arrested under Tom’s watch. He never had his own child with Ralph’s mama. But Slingo disappeared one day, with his wife. Perhaps his crew had discovered that he was an FBI informant. And perhaps Tom’s own violent death was connected to that disappearance.

Ralph was born out of wedlock, like Alexander Hamilton. But Hamilton’s mama, Rachel, wasn’t a gangster’s moll, and his papa, Jamie Hamilton, was a Scottish laird. I still didn’t know what to do about this boy. I didn’t write him back for months. He asked for nothing, didn’t try to get in touch again. But that photograph haunted me. I realized what a rotten brother I had been. I had to harden myself while Mutti sat in her chair, singing her songs. Were they a coded message to Vati, a forgotten wife’s wounded cry? I picked my allegiance. And I let Mutti’s songs drown in my ears.

Finally, I did write back to this nephew of mine. I invited him to spend a week with me on Haven Avenue, where his father grew up, and I also sent him a bundle of traveler’s checks to cover the fare.

Six months passed without a single sighting of Ralph. I spent more time at the soup kitchen attached to the little church near Cabrini Boulevard. I donated to half a dozen charities. I lectured at night school. I had no friends among my former colleagues at Hunter College in the Bronx. I hadn’t been an impassioned teacher, and none of my former students kept in touch. And then Ralph showed up.

He arrived with a tiny suitcase. It was disconcerting. Not the suddenness of the visit. That didn’t alarm me at all. It was his uncanny resemblance to Tom, Tom at 19.

“Uncle,” he said, with the twang of a Midwesterner, “I hope I’m not disturbing you.”

I wasn’t fooled for an instant. He’d come from a family of thieves. And I realized that Tom might have been the biggest thief of all, that his whole life had been a ruse, like this hidden boy. But I let the spider into the house, welcomed him.

Ralph had his rhythms, I had mine. And we seemed to glide past each other without ever colliding, though we always had breakfast together. No matter how early I was at the kitchen table, Ralph was already there. He ransacked the cupboard and the fridge, had Cheerios with raisins, almonds, blueberries, and skim milk in a big bowl. “That was my father’s favorite,” he muttered with a full mouth. And pretty soon he prepared the same bowl for me. “Tom’s feast,” Ralph called it.

I had no idea how long he meant to stay. I must have sensed in my bones that he would come to Haven Avenue. I’d kept a toothbrush and a pair of pajamas for him. I let him have Tom’s old room. I took him to certain sites that had meaning for me, such as the Jumel Mansion, Washington’s headquarters in Manhattan, with its spanking white façade, and to Morningside Park, where Washington had fought the Battle of Harlem Heights. From my bedroom window, I pointed to the hills of Weehawken, where Hamilton fought a fatal duel with Aaron Burr. I offered him a history of the neighborhood, how exiled German Jews had once populated Washington Heights, had lived in these grand old apartments, their cafés and social clubs long gone.

Ralph squinted at me like a child. “You’re still here, Uncle.”

“A relic,” I told him.

Now he smiled. “But a relic is a sure thing.”

He never asked for pocket money, and I had no idea how long he meant to visit. He shopped at the bodegas and discount stores on Upper Broadway. His teeth were half rotten, and I enrolled him at the Vanderbilt Clinic, where all my dental work had been done over the past 50 years.

“My father went there, and so did Tom … before he joined the FBI.”

Ralph chortled. “F—B—I. That was his cover, Uncle, that was his shield. It was just another racket.”

I was knocked off my own mettle. “But that was his dream ever since he was a child—to become a special agent.”

Ralph pursed his lips like a philosopher. “Uncle, sometimes a dream is hard on the dreamer.”

We ate at a fish restaurant on Cabrini Boulevard. We had a carafe of red. Ralph insisted on paying for the meal. We were surrounded by young married couples who had moved into the neighborhood, priced out of Midtown and Lower Manhattan. Now that his teeth were fixed, he looked like a movie star, with that angular, masklike face. Women stared at him from the other tables. He didn’t stare back.

I must have had too much red wine.

“How did my brother die?”

“Uncle,” he said, slurring his words, “you don’t want to know.”

“It was some kind of a vendetta, wasn’t it?”

He ordered another carafe and picked at his monkfish. “If you play both sides of the street too long, they’ll collapse on you. And they did.”

“Ralph, were you there when Tom died?”

“Uncle,” he muttered with ruby lips, “how long can you go on robbing banks and then snitch on the robbers?”

I nearly spilled the carafe. “So my brother was a bank robber.”

“One of the best.”

“And you?” I asked.

“Uncle, I was his scout. We all had to go into hiding. Tom was at a disadvantage. He had a public face, as a G-man at Quantico. But that’s what I’ve been doing all year, and that’s what I’m doing now—hiding.”

5.

I had a desperado in my lair, a falcon as he was known in the parlance of his trade. Often, he would vanish for weeks at a time. I’d given him a key, and had put him on my guest list, so the boy could come and go. I wasn’t completely surprised when my first edition of The Metamorphosis disappeared from its tissue-paper vault. I was able to track the book down to a Manhattan dealer. Ralph was ingenious. He’d forged my signature on a letter and hadn’t masked his own identity. He’d even left the dealer my phone number. I had to dance my way out of the deal—and dance I did. The check to Ralph hadn’t been cashed yet, and the dealer was able to stop payment.

Suddenly, I was afraid of this boy bandit. I wondered if he himself had been instrumental in the murder of my brother. I could have changed my lock and removed him from the guest list. But I didn’t. Frightened as I was, I had to confront him one last time.

I waited like a falcon for the key to turn in the lock. And when it didn’t happen, I assumed he’d never come back to Haven Avenue. Then one morning, I woke to find him sitting near my bed.

“You’re pissed off, aren’t you, Ralph, that I stopped payment on your big fat check?”

The boy was completely calm. “Uncle, I never meant to cash it. I just wanted to dig into your guts a little. Tom told me all about your paper treasure.”

“You didn’t come here to hide,” I said.

He laughed. “Hide? I could hide anywhere. You hurt my father, Uncle. He loved you all his life.”

The boy’s words hit like a hammer. I had abandoned Tom. I’d chosen Father and become his heir. I had my castle overlooking the Hudson, an empty castle, it seems. The boy had every right to dig into my guts.

“I came here to kill you.”

“I’m not surprised,” I said.

Then his mouth softened and the bitterness in his eyes broke. “You’re still my uncle. Tom was the best father a boy ever had. He couldn’t stop talking about his big brother. He’d never have gotten into that special high school without you.”

I couldn’t lie to the boy. “Tom excelled at Bronx Science. I didn’t. He was valedictorian of his class.”

Ralph wrinkled his nose. “What’s that?”

“He graduated with the highest honors.”

“So? You set an example for him. He followed in your footsteps.”

I had to plead with this killer cavalier. “I never wanted to be an FBI agent.”

Ralph guffawed like a billy goat. “Uncle, are you deaf and dumb? What the hell was Quantico? Tom wanted to solve the puzzle of his own life. And he never did. That’s why he went undercover all the time. He was chasing identities, especially his own. But he stuck with me and mom, no matter who he married and no matter what he did at Quantico. He’d take overnight trips from Detroit or Albuquerque to visit me. I’d wake up in the morning, and bang, he’d be right there with a toy.”

“But why didn’t he visit me more often? Why didn’t he come with you?”

Ralph guffawed again. “Uncle, you know how many times we were in Manhattan? Maybe a million. He said you wouldn’t approve of a little bastard like me. And he hates your house. He said that’s where his mama died, like a prisoner.”

“She was my mama, too.”

The boy was silent. Then he revealed his white teeth, polished at the Vanderbilt Clinic. “Uncle, you’re a stick. I’m still glad I met ya. You couldn’t have done a tenth of what Agent Tom did. But you were kind to me, sendin’ all those traveler’s checks to a kid you never met. Do me a favor, Uncle. I’d like to hold onto the key. I’m always on the lam. So keep me listed in the register downstairs, as your invited guest.”

And he was gone. I mourned his absence, I really did. It was like having a touch of Tom. Sometimes I’d wait for the key to turn in the lock, but it never did.

Jerome Charyn is the award-winning author of more than 50 published works, including 30 novels and 8 graphic novels.

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