Uncle Bart

An excerpt from ‘The Rose Consolation’ – Copyright © 2017 by Michael A. Kuch

I’M ZIGGY ROSE

Liar, Cheat and Thief.

If consolation for criminal ineptitude offers immunity from further judgement, I’m not very good at any of these.

A trite claim, I suppose, doesn’t make me any less culpable for what I’ve done.

It does lend credence to a trifecta of incompetency’s best left alone.

Does anyone need to improve on their ability to carry out a convincing lie while cheating and stealing their way through life free of the burden of remorse and culpability?

I’VE DONE BAD THINGS

I’m Not Alone.

Not heinous crimes like assault and battery.  Though my acts weren’t victimless, no one was ever hurt physically.

In his sentencing me to thirty-six months, Judge Harold R. L. Penfold, concluded:

“Avarice sustains your darkened soul.  You are the personification of immorality, son.  The greatest con you ever pulled is tricking yourself.” 

I’m sure Honorable Harry says that to everyone he sentences.  He’s right enough.  I’ve done much worse, but never tried in court if it matters.  I’m in no mood to contemplate any statute of limitations on past crimes, as it hasn’t been so long I’d feel confident sufficient time has passed.

My attorney’s about done with her pro bono gig and me.  There was a thing.  I’ve said too much and not enough.

FOR A NARCISSIST

I’ve Gotten Over It Remarkably Well.

The dichotomy of knowing beyond refute I’m a flawed, imperfect man suits me.  Restitution of my soul fuels the bane of my existence, an indignity conflicted without promise of resolve.  I’ve dismissed its call with blissful contentment, rife by ignorance and boundless false pride.

I’ve accepted the consequences of moral ambiguity as inevitable fate, and eternal damnation its reward.  Seeking redemption on the path to salvation is an arduous journey I haven’t ventured.  It involves culpability, self-sacrifice, and an unpayable penance for my sins.  Tribulations foreign to my constitution of indifference and arrogance.

Perhaps, I’ll argue myself numb trying to reason with irrational thoughts.  Tortured by endless bouts of internal dialogue, my true self unknown, rotted with despair.  After all, I’m merely in the woes of a prolonged remission as a rehabilitated criminal with narcissistic personality disorder.  An affliction no twelve step program can cure.

The worst of my problems began thirty years ago.  What follows is a fiendish pledge for clemency.  Garden variety denial.  I’m afraid I haven’t explained myself well enough with my version of the truth.

I’M A PROPER BASTARD

By All Reasonable Definitions.

A pathological perpetrator of suspect morals and chronic lewd behavior, and inarguably, fateful birthright.  The last designation I come by honestly, as rare a trait as integrity and ethics in my spiritual hub.  An indisputable fact underlining everything I have ever done in my life to this moment.

“I was born the fifth, and mercifully, last child to a simple woman long depleted by the denial of love; her spirit beaten by the vestiges of hard years of single motherhood in middle-age.  Alone and desperate she lived, wanton of one more mouth to feed as much as another predacious man to serve and surrender her will.”

This is an unkind and unflattering truth, contrary to her innate benevolence, unselfishness of heart and saintly disposition, but this is my distant and fading memory of my mother, Anna Rose.

Five children born in a dozen years, and depending on which superlatively dysfunctional relative – neurotic aunt, alcoholic uncle (several options) or schizophrenic cousin – is retelling their sordid, skewed version of our family history, at least two fathers claimed responsibility for siring my siblings.

The theory of a so-called Third Casanova remains unproven, speculative conjecture popular amongst the surviving Rose Clan conspiracy nut jobs.

Though our disenfranchised branch of the Rose’s can’t claim the indescribable poverty inherent to the Calcutta slums or favelas of Rio de Janeiro, we were merely and unremarkably, inner-city piss poor broke.  Poor is relative, I’ve learned.  The social stigma of living on welfare, housed in government shelters, with never enough food to eat was our de facto qualifier as White Euro Trash.  Money was something we borrowed, owed, rarely paid back, not saved.

We lived in scarcity and deprivation every day of my childhood, as penniless and destitute as any broken family in our neighborhood.  In this regard, we were oddly normal, accepting urban plight and hopeless futility without hatred or malice toward those with more.  On good days internal resolve and the faintest reserve of faith nourished our souls.  On better days we were just plain lucky, the appreciative benefactors of a random act of kindness or neighborly charity.  Then again, we had Uncle Bart – the absolutely Fabulous Bartholomew Rose.

I’ve never met my father, the aforementioned Third Casanova (in theory), and could care less about him.  This, of course, is my greatest lie, the crux of my resentment.  A charade I have fashioned alternately into cool aloofness and social dissidence depending on the degree of rebelliousness I’ve masqueraded at any particular time.  A three decade old denial I’ll take to my grave.

The “Old Man”, a term my mother used interchangeably without reverence or endearment to refer to the pair of known Casanova’s, was a misogynist prick.  I’m unconvinced she knew the Third for more than one night or could prove to any degree he was my father.  The Third was entirely absent, unknown to me.  A dead and invisible, faceless stranger that saved me the burden of guilt to mourn when he passed.  He was the Maker of Bastards, and a very adept one at that.

As a teen I’d lay awake late into the night plotting what I would say if we met, tormented with adolescent anger and vengeance.  To be truthful all I wanted to know was where my inheritance had gone.  I would’ve settled for my split of non-existent child support for eighteen years.  What he did leave me was his caddish demeanor and proclivity to hurt others without a sense of remorse or accountability.  In his indefensible defense of ignorance, I doubt this particular Casanova ever knew I was his son or if I even existed, so he’s off the hook for eternity.

ANOTHER PECULIAR THING ABOUT ME

I Dislike Birthdays.

Mine especially.

Making today one of those dreadfully unpleasant days I wish I could stay in bed and forget it’s my turn to start the thirtieth year of life.

It’s an odd age for a single, youngish-for-not-very-much-longer man.  At least for one that’s never been married, habitually shiftless in uncountable careers begun and abandoned at random.  Unsatisfied by a contradiction of ambitious, hyper-inflated pipe dreams, and equally defeated by the fact I’ve failed convincingly at virtually everything I’ve tried.

My potential long ago eroded to the lesser footnotes in the rear view mirror of life’s missed opportunities.  My prospects for marital bliss, even marital horror, are slimming to a halt.  I’m horrible at casual dating, worse at relationships.  A callous, uncommitted boyfriend according to a trio of good women.  Eight years after leaving college, I’ve ruined three relationships, two with women that wasted their time trying to mold, massage and rehabilitate me, and one that mattered far more than I could ever admit.

I should also mention for one-and-a-half of those years I was incarcerated, a blemished notation on my life’s resume, which doesn’t lend itself to rapid ascension to the top of any most eligible bachelors list.  White collar crime is not as sexy or lucrative as it’s played out in the media.  And for the record, Beaver Creek Federal Pen is not a country club.  It’s an institutionalized hell inhabited by sexual predators and social malcontents unfit for rehabilitation and acclamation back into society as reformed do-gooders.  Although it does have a lovely recreational center, library, and sits amongst the tall pines of Muskoka, so it has that going for it.

I’ve committed fraud and embezzlement, numerous counts.  I’ve taken from affluent strangers, pensioners, family and friends.  I served eighteen months of the time in minimum security.  I’ve made financial retribution of over a half-million dollars, an amount that doesn’t nearly cover the millions I swindled.  So, where’d it all go?  Right.  I’m dead broke except for the two-hundred bucks my best friend Hugo stuffed into my jacket pocket last night.

I’m back to being Zee.  Really, who the hell names their kid Zigmund in 1987?  I wasn’t born in Stuttgart or Warsaw.  Zigmund Arthur Rose, the smart ass that spent five-hundred and forty-eight days at The Beave.

HOME

For The Past Three Weeks

Is a sparsely furnished bachelor flat over the detached garage of Uncle Bart’s place in the west end of Toronto.

By sparse, I mean it has a rickety cot, military surplus, and a cheap, thrift store recliner anchored in prone position sitting kitty corner to the door.  Gnarled, gummy strips of gray duct tape placate the worn, thin padding peeling from its armrests.  An ancient claw foot tub with chipped enamel is blistered with rust spots like chicken pox scabs and the water pressure of mist.

The apartment’s only modern amenity is a small gas stove Bart picked up curbside twenty years ago and a dented toaster with one working element.  A plain wooden table once painted the color of pea soup is worn to a faded patina and two mismatched vinyl upholstered chairs, remnants of Salvation Army castaways, complete the ensemble of furnishings.  It sits next to a short Formica counter anchored between a mini fridge and the room’s only window.  Rent is free, which is more than I can afford these days, and even that I’m past due.

My landlord, occasional employer, and otherwise self-appointed life mentor, Uncle Bart, is a well-meaning, absent-minded curmudgeon in the earliest stage of dementia.  He is the older brother of my late mother and founding Theorist of the Third Casanova.  He is robust and determined for a man about to ascend to octogenarian status, possesses a tongue that would shame any sailor, and incurably oblivious to the notion of political correctness.  He is the most generous and severely critical person I know, often in the same breath, and likely, the planet’s annoyingly funniest.

To the best of our combined knowledge, Bart’s mostly, I am the last of the male Rose’s we can trace in our family lineage.  Let me say for posterity, this is not as though I am the last heir of the great Windsor, Kennedy or Rothschild dynastic families.  It’s undeniably a good thing for society and the human race in general, the men in our family haven’t procreated as much as other clans.  Given our collective penchant for aspiring to irrelevance, ineptitude and delusions of adequacy, its best the fate of Humankind rests in the loins of other more prodigious suitors and our bloodline is culled.  We are the poster family for habitual underachievers.  Bart, on the other hand, did a little something with his life.  He became Fabulous.

THE ROSE FAMILY

Was Once The Roznowski’s.

An uncomfortable mix of Ukrainian and Polish heritage at the heart of family disdain and divide.

How the mongrel tribe of late ancestors ended up as the Rose’s is a peculiar tale of innuendo and circumstance.  I suspect none of the interesting parts are true.

Bart claims he was born Bartlomiej Roznowski on September 17, 1939, the day the Soviet Red Army invaded his beloved native Poland.  The rest of the family history is as murky as Bart is on factual details, the ever evolving storyline apt to gratuitous variations and growing more incredulous depending on his appetite for sensationalism and embellishment.

Bart lives out his eccentric prejudices in a big Victorian house at the front of the property.  Bart is widowed.  He lost his young bride Madeline three years after marriage and stayed in the same house, a wedding gift from his wealthy in-laws.  Over the years he fostered the homeless and an assortment of oddball street characters, hosted a halfway house for convicted felons, a tradition I have carried on.

He is a semi-retired tailor of noted skill and acclaim, having dressed many of the city’s most renowned figures over six decades.  He keeps a handful of old clients and makes out calls to their homes and offices on a weekly basis.

On occasion I accompany Bart on his appointments.  He pays me fifty dollars for three hours to stand behind him.  It is unspoken between us, but we both acknowledge I’m his unwilling apprentice.  I’m reluctant and dismissive, he is stubborn and domineering, which makes for cynical dialogue between us.

BART WILL NOT LET ME DRIVE HIS CAR

An Unflattering Topaz Brown 1978 Mercedes Turbo Diesel.

Despite its odometer reading of nearly a quarter-million miles is showroom mint condition.  Bart is a terrible and dangerous driver, possibly the last of the two-footed Old School practitioners with a fondness for breaking only as a last resort.  He treats pedestrians at crosswalks as pylons.  Curbs like pinball bumpers.  He is incapable of acknowledging a speed limit.  None of this is remotely funny until you hear Bart professes daily his intention to become a certified driving instructor when he finally hangs up the needle and thread.

Bart offered the big bedroom in the main house the day he picked me up at Beaver Creek.  I refused and he fussed over it.  He said he’d paint the room any color I like, provided it was historically accurate to the period architecture and not too faggy, his exact term.  Bart’s also a fervent history buff of all things British, an insufferable Anglophile with his proper High Tea service on Wednesdays.

He’d set aside fresh bed sheets on a trunk next to the footboard and a portable fan I doubt has ever oscillated in its life, I later removed to my room over the garage.  We eat together most nights in his kitchen.  Bart is a wonderful but fastidious cook.  He agonizes in painful detail over grocery lists and ingredients, and only once substituted salt for sugar giving his lemon tarts a piercing briny after bite.  He is a meticulous shopper and planner leaving nothing to whim or chance, a chore I’m often recruited to assist.

It’s nearly eight in the morning when I hear Bart’s footsteps as he climbs the stairs to my flat.  I roll over to the side of the cot to shake off the cobwebs.  The pounding of kettle drums hammer my temples into a concussion after last night’s dance with Absolute.  A rogue spring has etched sinewy pink hieroglyphics into my tailbone.  I stretch and stand too quickly, navigating an unsteady vertigo in the crosshairs of a head rush and hangover, before Bart opens the door.

BART OPENED THE DOOR

Before I Answer.

For this is Bart’s way of making a magnificent entrance.

Always fabulous.

“You awake, Ziggy?”  Bart is holding a silver tray with an ornate white teapot, two matching cups on saucers, and a small plate of freshly baked almond cookies.  “I have your favorite.”

“Morning, Uncle Bart.”

I address him as Uncle Bart only the first time I see him every day, otherwise, it’s just Bart and we lose the formality.  Bart calls me whatever comes to mind at any moment.

Bart placed the tray on the table.  He poured the tea into the cups with imperial pageantry reserved for a coronation.  “It’s a special day for you, eh?”

“I hate birthdays.”  I am shirtless, wearing boxer shorts and tugging at my crotch.

“Not today you don’t.”  Bart stared at me with hawkish scrutiny.  “Stop playing with yourself, Pee-Wee.  It won’t get any bigger.”

I stumbled toward the bathroom, nine excruciating steps from my bed and away from Bart.

“Hurry up in there before your tea gets cold.”

I piss like a Clydesdale after quaffing a trough of pilsner.  I listen to Bart opening the window and running the faucet.  He fills a plastic bowl with water and sets it on the ledge for the pigeons.  I flush and wash my hands, and splash my face with cold water.

“It smells like dead ass in here.”  Bart greets me with my tea.  Orange Pekoe, steeped strong for six minutes.  “What are your plans today?”

“Same as yesterday, I guess.”  We sit at the table.

“Stop guessing and start doing again, Ziggy.”

“Okay, I’ll look for a job.”

“You have a job,” Bart says. “With me.”

“How many times are we going to do this?”

“Do what?”

“What we’re doing now.”

“What’re we doing?”

“What we always do.”

“I’m not doing anything.”

“Okay, I get it,” I say, slurping the cup.  He watches me.  I follow Bart’s eyebrows as they arch upward and hang there.  The eyebrows win the staring contest.

“Good, my turn now,” Bart says.  “You sit, you shut up, and you listen while I’m talking.”

“I’m all ears.”

“No, you’re all mouth, Ziggy.”  Bart makes a flapping sound with animated hand gestures.  “Yap, yap, yap.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Your big mouth is your first problem.”  Bart fans the cookies in a crescent on the plate.  “The problem got you in all the trouble, Mister Fancy Pants.”

“I’m listening.”

“You’re still talking.”

I shrug and shut up after making a huffing sound.

“Look, I never dreamed of being a tailor,” Bart says, as if he’s never told this story once in his life.

I feign excitement.

“I was fifteen years-old and started out running errands, sweeping floors, doing the schlep jobs for the old Jewish tailors on Spadina.  It was 1954, more than sixty years ago.  It’s not a glamorous vocation and you work with painstaking detail for money that is far too little for the hours and toil of labor and skill it takes.  But it’s honest and humble …”

“… Bart, you charge five …”

“… Go ahead, say it, smartass.” Bart says it with a hint of Dirty Harry Callahan, interrupting me interrupting him.  “Go ahead, say it.  You think I charge too much?”

“Five to ten-thousand dollars a suit?”

“At those prices I’m giving it away.”

I rest my elbows on the table and rub my temples.  “Where’re you going with this?”

“Someday, Ziggy, life will make sense to you.”  Bart sips his tea.  “Today, my dear nephew, is not one of those blessed days.”

I dip a cookie into the cup.  Bart studies me with the predatory instinct of a Peregrine falcon about to dive onto a field mouse.  “What?”

“Did you dunk cookies in the joint?”

“I guess, I don’t know, probably.”  Bart looked at the cookie crumbs clinging to my lips.  “We didn’t have a lot of tea parties on D block.”

“You miss it in there, Andy?”

With his lingering Eastern Slavic infused accent, Bart does a fair impression of Morgan Freeman, a little too often.  His Shawshank Redemption references, especially about Tim Robbins’ character Andy Dufresne, if not always joyfully received are irritatingly poignant and hilarious.

I TRY NOT TO SMILE

I Smile At Bart.

“It was prison.”  After my second dunk I swallow a clump of soggy cookie and answer with my mouth full.  “Every minute, Warden Norton.”

Bart allows his lips to curl at the corner of his mouth.  He doesn’t admit it, but these silly theatrical improvisations fill him with a contentment we lost in my adolescence.

“Shit, shower and shave.” Bart says, snapping to command.  “We’re going shopping, Ziggy.”

“Why?”

“To buy stuff.”

“What kind of stuff?”

“Stuff adults buy when they have a life and a home and a job.  You remember those things?”

“Can you narrow it down?”

“Be downstairs by the car at nine.” Bart got up, taking his cookie and tray, and walked to the door.  He turned.  “Not a minute late, Zigmund.”

I LISTEN TO THE STEPS CREAKING ON MY STAIRCASE

I Pull Back My Bangs,

Bury my face in my hands.

None of the answers to my purpose of existence will be found sitting in my underwear.  Not on my birthday at least.  That would be too much too ask of fate.

I search my phone for messages.  Three texts from Hugo.  WTF.  Dude.  Serious?

One from a number that belongs to I haven’t a clue.  A woman I met last night, I guess, by the twelve words she’s written.  I tap a couple short responses to Hugo annihilating the sacred covenants of English grammar.

Now I’m absorbed with the mystery text.  Hugo must have given her, whoever she is, my number, not something I remember.  Vodka has the effect of selective amnesia on me.  She signed it E.  Elizabeth.  Erica.  Eve.  I’m done, it’s not coming.

I surf my phone for yesterday’s box score.  The Jays beat the Orioles in the bottom of the tenth on a sac fly to left field.  Life, for the moment, is good.

I’m not ready to shower and head back to my cot to get even with the wayward spring.  I toss the pillow on the bare floor and lay prone looking up at the ceiling.  It’s white, chalky, and pitched steep in an A-frame.  Not a place I plan to find inspiration or answers to any of life’s mysteries, not this morning.  Damned birthday.

A pigeon, speckled with amber and gray spots announces his arrival.  He’s perched on the ledge undecided about the bowl.  He looks like a Greg.  Maybe a Derrick.  He’s joined by two others, a few more.  A conga line chirping and squabbling by the time I lift my neck.

I think about Bart and what he has in store for me; going to Kensington Market shopping for produce, stopping at his favorite butcher and cheese shops.  Lunch at the deli owned by the son of an old friend, Hersh.

I closed my eyes, E woman coming to me a little now.  We didn’t talk much, not that I remember anything I might’ve said.  It was the end of the night, and thanks to Hugo, I was fuzzy in speech and less certain if I heard anything she’d said.

Olive eyes.  Brunette.  Sun kissed skin.

Now what?

My former lawyer, ex-something, is calling.