The Long Island Expressway is packed with pill-addled truckers and texting motorists. Uncle Oatmeal wants a cigarette, but he’s too afraid to take his eyes off the road to light it. Anyway Uncle Oatmeal doesn’t smoke in the car. It’s a two-year-old BMW sedan and he doesn’t want to ruin the appealing smell of leather. There is also the persistent notion that the car isn’t really his, that one day soon he’ll have to return it to its former owner, who hated cigarettes. Uncle Oatmeal has a similar attitude towards the money, an absurd sum that appeared in his bank account after the Event. It’s more money than any one human being could ever need. Still, Uncle Oatmeal lives modestly. Against all logic, he expects that one day he’ll have to prove that he’s been responsible with it.
Off the Expressway, Uncle Oatmeal exhales, releases the steering wheel at a red light to wipe the sweat from his brow. Now steering the car down suburban streets, the houses bloated steroidal ranches and colonials. He passes a long cinderblock school painted a nauseating beige, an equally revolting strip mall—reminders of an interminable childhood. The sky is overcast; the dashboard indicates that the temperature is 53°F. He turns into a particular driveway that leads to a house with multiple gables. He cuts the engine and takes a pill bottle from the glove compartment and swallows a Xanax, bitter as gunpowder.
The front door is unlocked. He has reminded them many times to keep it locked—he fears a burglary or home invasion—but nobody listens to Uncle Oatmeal.
“Hello,” he says, into the echoing silence of the foyer.
He says it again, louder, and the niece appears at the top of the stairs. Uncle Oatmeal is as usual astonished by the almost unbearable sweetness of her presence. A lanky nine-year-old in her softball uniform, sandy curls framing her face. Uncle Oatmeal feels the need—the compulsion—to protect her, to not let her out of his sight until she is forty.
“Hi,” she says, either genuinely glad to see him or very good at pretending to be.
“It’s supposed to rain,” he says. “Bring your windbreaker. I’ll be in the car.”
“Wait,” he hears from the direction of the kitchen, and Uncle Oatmeal feels his stomach contract. It’s blunted by the Xanax, but nevertheless there is a twinge of anticipatory stress, because it’s the sister-in-law, who will want to talk, because she always wants to talk. She has been talking for as long as he has known her, he supposes because it is how she proclaims her right to exist. It never used to bother him much, but now it is problematic, since her great obsession has become the Event.
The sister-in-law has coffee for him in the kitchen. Poker-faced, he joins her, noting her jeans and fitted t-shirt. Her hair has been washed and combed and pulled back into a girlish ponytail. She is in fact a few years older than Uncle Oatmeal but today she looks fresh and, he can acknowledge in a kind of clinical way, attractive.
“Have you eaten?” she asks.
Without waiting for an answer she fixes a bowl of instant oatmeal. She keeps it in the house especially for him. He’d mentioned once that he prefers the slow-cooked kind, but to remind the sister-in-law of this at such a late date would seem churlish. Then Uncle Oatmeal wonders why he cares if people think him churlish; in fact it’s the churls who seem much happier in general, much more themselves. Nevertheless he accepts the instant oatmeal, even feigns gratitude. The sister-in-law is already talking in her usual manner, that is, full paragraphs punctuated by brief inhalations. She talks about “footprints,” about “support groups,” about “compensation” (as if she needs any), about the latest perceived insult from some allegedly tactless bureaucrat. She sidetracks into the legal issues that have been forestalling her own sense of “closure”; but then she muses aloud that she’s lucky, in a way, because she had a body to bury. (Uncle Oatmeal winces, recalling when he read about the tiny lumps of flesh clinging to some poor bastard’s metatarsal.) There is much earnest talk of processing, of closure, as if the Event can be digested and described in pop-psychological terms, indeed that such terms are the only way it can be understood. Whereas Uncle Oatmeal believes that he now grasps the howling violent randomness of human life. And that all this talk of “closure” is the sound of people kidding themselves.
Spooning his late breakfast, Uncle Oatmeal is dizzy with rage. He wants to hurl the bowl at the wall. He wants to shout, You stupid bitch, death is the only closure.
“More coffee?” she asks.
“I’m good thanks.”
“What do you think about my idea?”
He has no idea what she is talking about.
“I know you’ll always do what’s best,” he says.
The sister-in-law nods, affirming the rightness of his statement. But then she turns down one side of her mouth, an indication that she is debating whether to say something or keep it to herself. Please, he silently pleads with her. Please keep it to yourself.
“I think you should come to the hearing,” she says.
He thinks: What hearing?
“Why should I go to a hearing?” he asks.
“Because your opinion matters. Because you need to get out of that apartment. I don’t know.”
Their eyes meet, and Uncle Oatmeal puzzles over her expression. It takes him a moment to realize that she is trying to convey that she is worried about him.
Uncle Oatmeal parks by the ball fields. The niece leaps from the car and runs to a knot of girls in teal uniforms. Her teammates’ parents along the third-base line, the coach and her assistant conferring over a clipboard with risible solemnity. The umpire, an overweight teenager, aligns home plate. Along the first-base line, girls in uniforms of forest green, with their own smattering of parents and portable furniture.
Uncle Oatmeal moves behind a tree to sneak a cigarette. Meanwhile his eyes sweep the field, looking for anyone or anything who might present a danger to his charge. Of course it’s unlikely that there’s a sniper in the woods or that the outfield has been mined. This is Long Island in the 2000s, not Sarajevo in the 90s. But it helps him feel better to check, so he checks.
When the game begins, Uncle Oatmeal stands alone to one side of the field, focusing one hundred percent of his attention on his niece at first base. A moderately fast grounder comes at her and she fields it cleanly, daintily toeing the bag for the out. Uncle Oatmeal applauds wildly, shouting encouragement. She responds with a smile and a shy shrug, then turns to stare down the next batter—a series of movements that reminds Uncle Oatmeal so strongly of her father that his eyes blur until he can tamp down the emotion.
“Think the rain will hold off?”
A father has sidled up. Uncle Oatmeal looks at the sky, which is steel-gray, with bluish, bruise-like splotches.
“Um, how’s she doing?”
“She’s okay. I think.”
“Yeah. You know. Kids are resilient.”
Uncle Oatmeal says nothing. The niece is the only child he knows.
“Well,” the man says. “If you need anything.”
“I could use a scotch,” says Uncle Oatmeal.
“Huh? Oh.” The man forces a laugh and sidles back to his wife.
When the rain comes it is merciless, an instant chilling downpour. The girls absurdly remain at their positions, blinking at each other, until the bovine umpire calls the game. Uncle Oatmeal retrieves the niece’s windbreaker from the dugout. In the car, he turns on the heat, pushes the dripping hair from his eyes. He hopes he doesn’t catch a cold, even though he knows that wet hair doesn’t cause colds, and anyway who cares what happens to him so long as the niece stays healthy. He starts the car. There is no denying the gratification he feels as the beautifully tuned engine growls, nor the subsequent slight shame at the knowledge that someone else paid for the car.
“We’re going?” the niece asks. “What if the rain clears?”
“You heard the ref, honey. That’s the game.”
He peels off his sweatshirt, dries his hands. You don’t want to drive with wet hands. As a matter of fact, the most dangerous driving surface is wet leaves. He’ll take it slow.
“We were winning,” she says.
“Yeah, but she called the game in the third. It wasn’t a full game.”
“So what? The team that’s in the lead should win when they call it.”
“Maybe,” says Uncle Oatmeal. He restrains himself from mentioning that she might not feel that way if her team was losing. Then, as she always does, the tension of competition gets the better of her and she cries. He holds her hand until she’s done.
At the pizza parlor, Uncle Oatmeal buys the niece a slice and a soda. There’s some sort of horrifying pop song playing, dense harmonies over an insistent robotic beat; Uncle Oatmeal finds it almost unbearable until he swallows another Xanax.
He makes sure to eat his own slice with his mouth closed, that no stray drops of grease or sauce smear his chin. In most respects, what he had said to the guy at the game is true, that she does seem okay. Except for her food issues, which have intensified. Before the Event she was merely a picky eater. Now certain things nauseate her to the point of vomiting—chewing noises, grease, mushy foods like scrambled eggs or mashed potatoes. Or oatmeal, for that matter. Her mother is not particularly troubled and neither are the various doctors and mental health professionals, who see it merely as a child exerting her autonomy through food.
Uncle Oatmeal isn’t so sure. He worries about her. Frankly, he’s worried enough for all of them. She’ll be ten in a few months, and he’d read that puberty for girls arrives earlier and earlier, and the American adolescent faces a harrowing spectrum of perils, and it’s worse for the girls, and the idea of the niece developing a full-blown eating disorder makes him weak with fear. He thinks: God save her from anorexia and bulimia. And while we’re on the subject, God save her from drugs and acne and low self-esteem and sexual promiscuity related to her lack of a viable father figure. God keep her off the pole. How about this: God save her from all the ways that life can go wrong, in addition to the disaster that has already befallen her.
The pop song is now bearable, thanks to the medication, but that doesn’t make it any more to his taste. And it’s noisy in the place, the couple at the next table bickering, a quartet of teenagers proclaiming their existence with chatter. Uncle Oatmeal watches the door, thinking of the terrorist who earlier that year had blown himself up in a Tel Aviv café, taking himself and four patrons into oblivion. Uncle Oatmeal is sweating and he wants a cigarette and a tumbler brimming with scotch, both of which are of course out of the question for the moment. He covers the remains of his slice with a napkin.
“So what are you thinking about?” he asks the niece.
“My dad always asked me that.”
“Well, I’m interested in you, like he was.”
“You’re not interested.”
“Of course I am,” he says, wounded.
“No, I mean I know that you are. But sometimes I think that you’re like, freaking out. That you want to know what I’m thinking about because you’re worried I’m thinking about bad things.”
Uncle Oatmeal blinks.
“Are you thinking about bad things?”
“Sometimes. But most of the time I’m not. Now can I ask you something?”
“Why are you so worried all the time?”
“I guess I just want you to be happy.”
She chews on this for a moment.
“Are you happy?” she finally asks.
“Right now I am, because I like spending time with you. In general, though, no, I am not happy.”
The niece’s corner of her mouth goes down, like her mother’s.
“You need a girlfriend,” she says.
The rain is over but the pavement is still dully reflective in the damp. Uncle Oatmeal very carefully drives back to the house. The niece, a considerate girl, keeps quiet. She knows that he doesn’t like to talk while driving.
Driving 10 miles an hour below the speed limit, Uncle Oatmeal is thinking that the niece does in fact seem happy, or at least not unhappy. Uncle Oatmeal has seen her every Sunday without fail since the Event—nothing has kept him away, neither weather nor illness nor the vilest hangover. And lately, say, in the last few months, the niece seems to have turned a corner. Which is perhaps connected to the sister-in-law’s groomed appearance. They are a family unit, the two of them. The smallest possible one, but a family nonetheless. And as a family they are moving forward.
This is a good thing.
He parks behind the sister-in-law’s SUV. The niece unlatches her seat belt.
“I’ll be right there,” he says.
At this point Uncle Oatmeal is supposed to enter the house, perhaps have another coffee with the sister-in-law, and then depart. This is the ritual. But Uncle Oatmeal can’t seem to leave the car. He sits, smelling the leather interior of the car that someone else bought.
The rain starts again, pattering against the windshield. There is something attractive about the sound of it. He shuts off the engine, the better to discern the rhythm of the rain, the message that it may have for him. Or, more accurately, since he is not the sort of person to ascribe agency to natural phenomena, what he might learn from it. Something about the inevitable progression of time, moving us all toward the blank betrayal of healing. At least the lucky ones, he thinks with bitterness, reaching for a Xanax, longing for a drink.
Gordon Haber writes about religion and culture. His short story collection, Uggs for Gaza, is available from Dutch Kills Press. He does not live in Brooklyn.