The Lifer

Contributor: Regina McMenamin Lloyd

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Tommy was 14, it was 1987, it was his third summer in Wenonah, NJ with Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Al. His mom had to work and didn’t want him in trouble in Philly. She sent him to the suburbs. Aunt Eleanor was a school teacher and spent the summers running between the library and the pool. She would sit by the pool with stacks of books and sipping glasses of water with lime.
Aunt Eleanor would tell Tommy stories of Uncle Al, when he was the football star. She told Tommy’s about his father, Uncle Al’s best friend. Tommy tried to get Aunt Eleanor to talk about what could have made his dad put a hole in his head. She would avoid the subject. Aunt Eleanor liked to tell funny stories, like how the sisters met the best friends, dancing at a dance hall.
Uncle Al was disabled and spent most of his days at the VFW post in Mantua. Whenever, Aunt Eleanor had a doctor appointment she would guilt Uncle Al into taking Tommy to Wenonah Lake to fish.
“Someone has to teach him how to be a man, Al. God knows the examples my sister is bringing home” Aunt Eleanor said whenever she thought Tommy couldn’t hear.
Uncle Al would take Tommy out to the bank of Wenonah Lake. Uncle Al would talk about the fish.
“You know when I was a kid you saw more fish than you do these days Uncle Al said every trip.
Uncle Al would talk about Tommy’s dad now and then. How they had gone fishing together as kids. He would tell stories about tough cars and beautiful girls. His stories had such life that Tommy would imagine Tommy was the one in the ’63 Mustang with a honey-hued girl he’d call, Doll face.
One day Tommy broached the subject of his Dad, “Mom said he came back messed up from Vietnam,” Tommy said.
“Tommy, War does things to you” Uncle Al said as he cast his line.
“My mom said he came back messed up. But you came back OK? Right?” Tommy said.
“War changes everyone, Tommy” Uncle Al said as he looked away.
Tommy had no idea what Uncle Al meant, he had never even seen Platoon.
There were some kids to hang with, not the kind of kids Tommy would hang out with in the city. If he got bored with the pool I could always go play Dungeons and Dragons with Gil Faltzenbacker. The boys would ride 10 speed bikes down Main Street passed Katie Kennedy’s house. Tommy imagined he was cruising in his Dad’s old Camaro.
Aunt Eleanor cooked big meals. Steaks and whole chickens any day of the week. Once in a while she said she was “cheating” with a casserole and a spinach salad. She never served Hamburger Helper with peas and carrots like Tommy’s mom. She never made dinner “work” with a can of tuna and a bag of frozen lima beans. Every meal at Aunt Eleanor’s was an event. She and Uncle Al drank cocktails out of cut crystal glasses and she poured Tommy “New Coke” over ice in the same glasses.
Aunt Eleanor would have made a great mother. She and Uncle Al never had kids and Tommy never really knew why. She was a natural care taker and loved Tommy, as if he was her own child. In fact, at times when he was young, he thought she might actually love him more than his own mother did. His mom loved him, but Aunt Eleanor squeezed all her love into 10 weeks of summer and 1 week at Christmas.
They played board games after almost every night. Aunt Eleanor would get tired early and head off to bed. Uncle Al and Tommy would sit in front of the big console TV in the family room and watch Joan Rivers or Johnny Carson depending on the guest stars.
It was an August night and the locusts were buzzing. It was so quiet in Wenonah. Tommy missed the sound of the city. At home he would have heard the constant thumping sound of I-95 traffic in the distance, and neighbors sitting on their porch clanking beer bottles in the trash cans.
There was a crack in the night; like lightning, like fireworks, like a whip. Tommy heard a loud groan and a battle cry. He ran into their bedroom. Uncle Al was sitting in the corner. Blood soaked the bed where Aunt Eleanor lay. Aunt Eleanor’s hair was an island of blonde pinned with pink curlers bobbing in a sea of blood. Blood was spurting from a gash in Aunt Eleanor’s chest.
“Get to the Foxholes, G.I. It’s the Vietcong.” Uncle Al muttered.
He clutched the blood splattered pistol.
“She was a sleeper, an agent of the God-damned Vietcong. I brought her to the base for a boom boom, the whore was working for the Vietcong. She was going to slit our throats. She would have gotten you too, G.I.” Uncle Al said behind glazed, crazed eyes.
Aunt Eleanor’s face was ashen and her body was twitching wildly. She was dying but she was not quite awake.
“Heartburn from the chili, I ate too close to bed” sputtered out Aunt Eleanor.
Her last words were a guess at the cause of her pain.
Yet, she knew it was more than heartburn. Uncle Al, in his own way knew too, it was about more than VietCong.
“What have you done?” I said.
The words hung out in the air, like so much old laundry. The police came. Tommy’s mother came. There was a funeral. Tommy went home to Philadelphia.
Uncle Al splits his time in rehabs, mental and VFW hospitals. He forgets most things. For years Tommy watched as Uncle Al went in and out of focus. Sometimes he seemed to know Tommy and what had happened. Sometimes, he would ask for Eleanor. He was at times so apologetic and at times so angry. Uncle Al calls the kind nurses Doll face. Every few months, Uncle Al had an episode. In his dementia, he thought the doctor was a spy, the nurse a combatant, the orderlies he called private.
The state took his house, his family’s wealth; Uncle Al passed his days unaware of all that has been taken from him. All of his memories of Tommy, Aunt Eleanor, of fish, of childhood are gone. What remains is the God-damned Vietcong.
Tommy tried to wipe out the images of that August night; instead he pictured Uncle Al, as a young man, elbow deep in the hood of an old El Camino. Aunt Eleanor reading her books with her toes on the dashboard, the Beach Boys are playing on the radio. Tommy drives by the old house once in a while, the house is boarded up but one thing remains the tattered American flag on the flagpole.

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Regina McMenamin Lloyd is a mother of two young children, a wife, and a Writing Arts Major at Rowan University. Regina recently was an honorable mention winner of the 2012 Denise Gess Literary Awards for poetry. Regina McMenamin Lloyd’s writing has been featured on, Linguistic Erosion and Drunk Monkeys.
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