My Uncle Jack just died. I hadn’t seen him in years. He had gone off to California, which seemed like a magical, distant place. He came to visit every few years. He always had things for us. Stupid little things, like key chains that said ‘California’ on them, or miniature cars with surfboards on the roof. When I was older it was a t-shirt that said “Surf Patrol.” Those were pretty exotic things for North Dakota. Nobody else had those to play with when I was six and seven and didn’t have many friends yet.
Once when I was young I asked him where California was and he said it was where movies came from. He said there was no winter there. I thought it was amazing that there could be a place without winter. People went off to Florida or Arizona for the warmth, and somehow I never thought that must be because they didn’t have winter either. My mother liked to watch old movies on the television. I remember movies with people wearing bathing suits, hanging out on a beach. That must be some kind of incredible place he lived.
When I was older we didn’t see him so much. I don’t think I’ve seen him since eighth or ninth grade. Once I asked my mother about him. She said she didn’t know. She said, “Don’t ask your father. Don’t rub salt in that wound.” I wondered why Uncle Jack was a wound.
I didn’t hear about him any more. Once at Thanksgiving or Christmas I thought I heard his name as I wandered into the living room, where a few of my aunts and uncles were sitting. There was a pause and then my Aunt Elise started to say something about someone who raised honey. I said, “Did you say something about Uncle Jack?” and she said, “No, Finn, we’re talking about the state fair.” I was sure I had heard his name.
Nobody would talk about him and then even I forgot about him, but there had been little bits. Something about money, people loaning it to him and it never getting paid back. Bad excuses when people asked about it. He wanted to be a photographer, which is not exactly what you do in a farm family. Or in a little town like Jericho. People loaned him money, even my dad loaned him money I guess, and he bought some expensive cameras and set up a shop in one of the vacant storefronts in town. People talked about how much those cameras cost. He was going to shoot portraits. Not like the ones for school, but family portraits, or weddings. A long time ago, maybe when we first moved here, I remember a shop with photographs in the window. Some of the people that I would later get to know, like the Hansens, dressed up and looking imposing or important. They did not look like people I saw around town. But Uncle Jack wasn’t in the studio. His business had already failed, and he had moved on.
He had left for California already. I get the idea that he had borrowed more money to move, and my dad had given some. I remember when I was maybe ten, my dad yelling about him. “Some people just take, take, TAKE.” I had the idea he never paid that back either.
I don’t know if my parents know he’s dead. I heard it at the cafe. Chief Stave knew about it. He had been living not far from here, down in Devil’s Lake. Just down the road and we didn’t know. We thought he had disappeared but he was right here. Just not being seen. He was the custodian at the high school. Lived by himself, I guess. I didn’t know he was so close. I wonder why we never heard from him. I don’t even know if he had a family. There’s a story and I don’t know it. I’d have liked to have seen him, even if he didn’t have any more t-shirts or little cars to give me.