A bunch of them are coming over. Have already come over by the looks of it. Car doors slam. The noise level rises dramatically, especially in the other rooms. Boisterous, that’s the word, greetings. You’d think they hadn’t seen each other in ages. Relatives.
Here is the short young fellow with the tattoos, though something tells me he was never in the Navy. Has the earphones plugged in. Takes them out, asks me, “So…Uncle John…your middle name, it’s …?”
I take two slow breaths and tell him, “Mmm,” non-committally.
“I thought, Mom told me, maybe, it was Andrew?” voice lifting in the manner of the young.
I answer, “Jackson.” I shouldn’t have.
“Nothing.” I don’t have time to apologize. They talk so fast.
“But, well, my Mom always…okay,” the nephew continues, “I guess she also told me you had, or have, or whatever, a nickname?”
I could hear the clearing of my voice, “Trom.” I repeat, sounding like an old man.
“Oh. Well that’s…”
I watch him struggle to end the sentence. Conclude the observation. It isn’t happening. And I’m not helping. They are all so busy with their lives. Trying to be nice. I could be more understanding. Patronizing is what they sound like, even if I’m wrong. It’s in their tone of voice. In turn I think I’ve spooked some of them while others think I’m being funny. Humorous. “Right, Uncle John, “ they say, nodding like they got the inside joke, walking away at the first invitation to do so. When I was their age. How did I speak to my elders? Are you kidding? It wasn’t the same world, even though you can still see a lot of the old buildings hanging around.
Mr. Tatoo is still standing nearby, considering his options to escape by the look of it.
“It had to do with my Aunt Sally,” I say, “she got the ball rolling. That’s your great Aunt.”
“I’m sorry,” he says, shifting his feet in my direction.
“Aunt Sally,” I repeat.
“Ah, ok.” He takes a long drink from the glass in his hand. There’s a burst of laughter from a near-by room. “She’s on Grandpa’s side?”
“Your grandmother’s. Married the youngest brother, poor thing.”
Tattoo looks away briefly, says, “They didn’t have money?”
“They didn’t have sense, he didn’t, anyway.”
A young voice calls out from the other room, “Riley, where are you off to?”
“Talking to Uncle John,” he yells back, taking another drink. A long one.
“Don’t you have to get to practice?” the more distant voice asks.
Aunt Sally had been my favorite. Red hair, good looking, city manners, she smoked, and drove a car, which was a big deal back then. She wasn’t all that much older than myself.
“You know,” Aunt Sally said one time, “there’s a lot of life out past those roads. They go on and on, leading to all kinds of places.”
We had been sitting on the wide porch that looked out over the fields to the east. She took a large drag on her cigarette, tilted her head back, slender neck revealed. For a moment she looked up into the smoke she had just exhaled, as if divining some further meaning she could share with him. Birds were singing. The heat of the day remained a few hours away.
When she turned to look at me, she just smiled, nodded her head with the smallest of movements, an affirmation.
It was the issue about joining the high school band. My parents were not in agreement about renting an instrument, whether I would ever practice despite my protests to do so. It was Aunt Sally who had saved the day. Overheard her talking with them in the kitchen one evening. She came out of the room, saw me pretending to do homework and motioned with her head: follow me. I knew we were headed for the porch, her favorite place. The screen door opened, honored our passing, released its tension, a lightweight closing. Without hesitation she chose the swing, I took the wicker chair with its worn cushion. It was very quiet. On the farm’s road out front, few cars passed by. We settled. She reached for her cigarettes.
There were already too many trumpet players. That had been my first choice. I was offered the trombone. Either that or the baritone horn. My mother was aghast to see the thing, though she loved the tufted blue velvet on the upper part of the case. She reached down and touched the material, stroking it with her fingertips. “Nice,” she said, as I lifted the horn out of the case.
At first I practiced when my father was not in the house, and I remembered thinking that a pair of glasses might make me look like Glenn Miller. It was practice that made the difference, and in time I dared to play when my father was home, my father who would come into the room, fold the newspaper, stand still, look and make no comments before walking out. It was the highest of compliments. I improved steadily, finally becoming the lead player in the section, even given a chance to solo with certain swing tunes now and then.
It was long after my father’s death, many years later, that one of my father’s friends shared a story about talent in the family. We’d been reminiscing, recalling how the band used to travel with the football team. It might have been while bouncing along on one of those bus trips that someone christened me with the nickname Trom.
“Yeah I remember that,” my father’s friend confirmed, “they’d say ‘here comes young Trom Flanagan’. And I’ll tell you something else, maybe you didn’t know.”
He used to play.”
“In a band.”
“He never said.”
“That’s your dad.”
After a slight hesitation, “What did he play?”
The nephew has been talking. I hear him tell me “…it’ll be our second, no, third trip.”
“Oh, I just mentioned, Washington.”
“I see. Haven’t been there in some years.” I look away for an instant. “You said the trip was about what?”
“We play the Hoyas.”
I must have given him a blank look.
“Georgetown?” he answers with a question, the voice rising again.
“It’s about a ten hour trip, by bus. I could drive it in five.”
“The football team travels by bus?”
“Well, yes, usually, I think. But I’m talking about basketball.”
“Oh,” I say, tying to cover the error of my ways. “What position do you play?”
“Hey Riley!” the voice from the other room calls more loudly.
“Chill man,” Riley hollers back. When he looks at me, he shakes his head slowly, letting me know that the relative in the other room is not cool. “Jolly,” is what I think he tells me, identifying the one who had called his name.
“What?” asks Riley, “Oh, no, it’s Charlie.”
“Well, I’m not exactly batting a thousand.” After a moment I add, “that’s baseball.”
I don’t think Riley hears me because Charlie has entered the room and loops his arm inside Riley’s, looking for all the world as if he is about to haul him off.
“You know Uncle John?” Riley says smoothly to Charlie, by way of introduction.
“Hey, man,” says Charlie in a good natured tone, “of course I know Uncle John. But it’s actually, am I right here?” Charlie asks, addressing me directly, “it’s more like great great, or maybe triple great uncle John. Yes?”
“Uhhhh,” I hesitate, “…you know, one great…if it’s really needed, I don’t think…”
“…Yeah but it’s more than one great, man. Got to be.”
“You’re from back in the day of the wild and wonderful Sally O’Reilly Flanagan.”
I become aware of drool forming at the edge of my open mouth, open for I don’t know how long, I quickly tap at my lips with a tissue. They are looking a little concerned. “You knew Sally?” I ask.
Charlie lets go of Riley’s arm and places a hand on my shoulder. “Uncle John, Aunt Sally was born like, many years before me, so, no. I can’t say I had the privilege. But I have seen, however, some fascinating photographs. From the farm, I think.”
Things are winding down. Several have already bid adieu, the men waving from the doorway, the women coming over to give a kiss. I see in the decluttering light that Charlie and Riley are about to leave, though I thought they had already gone. A sad relief, all these departures.
I ask, or at least I think I asked Charlie and Riley about their parents’ names. Charlie and Riley are first cousins. I nod my head like I understand. As they go back a couple of generations, the names become more familiar. Yes Dennis, and then there was Jim, Mike also known as The Mick. They need to get moving. I don’t know what to say, which doesn’t trouble them the least.
Riley stands at the door, he is carrying a case in his left hand. He raises his right arm, “Later, Uncle John.”
Charlie turns to his cousin and says, “You mean John Trom Flanagan.”
“Say what now?” Riley asks.
Charlie bumps Riley’s arm, “I’ll explain later.”
I watch them as they go out the front door, descending the steps, not a care in the world, no fear of making a mis-step. The air seems to anticipate their approach, opens enthusiastically before them toward wherever they are heading next.
I put my hand on a railing, getting ready to step into the next room. Going to visit those who are still here. The rooms are bright, buoyant. Abounding.
Here comes a woman, (niece?) whom I’ve seen but can’t place. She is heading my way, wanting to give me a steadying hand. She is smiling. She gently places a hand on my free arm.
“What was that they called you?” she asks energetically.
“I’m sorry?” I say, though I heard her question perfectly well. I need, first, to take a measurement of this moment. Answers come later.