The Gifts We Didn't Receive
I recall, as a boy, standing on a beach for the first time. I am pinching sand between my toes, and its warmth tingles like spiders creeping across the soles of my feet. I’d never tasted a breeze too heavily seasoned with salt before. It burns my nostrils, turns my nose runny and red. As the sun beams down, baking my face and bare shoulders to a crisp; white, foamy waves rush ashore, droning like an Annie Lennox ballad. The day is Christmas Day and I am celebrating my seventh birthday.
Facing this bluish emptiness, an unfamiliar sensation crawls up my skin. For whatever reason, I fear looking away. And when I go, I know I must carry a piece of this place with me, so I fill my pockets with sand. I am thinking about the possibilities and unfamiliar faces on the other side, though, I do recall looking back once, at the grey stone house towering on the embankment behind me. Its windows are so large, the sun reflects a brightness that tints the world gold. But, he is there – standing at that window, looking down at me. I felt him, can feel him still. My uncle, Frederick Joseph III, was a great man.
* * *
“Nathaaan. Nathan!” It’s late Christmas morning, 1997. I’d spent Christmas Eve night watching time tick away, waiting to turn a year older. Sharing a birthday with Christ, I liked thinking the colorful light displays, gift shopping, and large family dinners happened because of me. “Nathan.” Mom poked her head into my room. “Son, if you don’t get up, your birthday’ll be gone before you even know it.”
Crust still in my eyes, I threw myself out of bed, hopping down the stairs two at a time to claim what was mine beneath the Christmas tree. Dad standing at the bottom step, next to a bright red BMX, stopped me dead in my tracks.
“Happy birthday, son,” he said with a crooked smile. “It’s all yours.”
Frozen between one step and the next, my eyes drink in every inch of this bike. From the rubber grips to the cushioned seat to the polished frame with orange flames. This bike is everything a nine-year-old could ever want and more than a bike. To me, this was my passport to go farther than I’d ever gone on my own.
I must’ve spent all morning wiping off fingerprints, trying but failing to keep it clean. The BMX stickers—they had to go for something that was more me. Something that said Nathan. Maybe Spiderman or Transformers. Yeah, a bike that transforms. How sick? I thought to myself back then.
I sat out front for hours, watching it gleam under the sun before adjusting the handlebar and seat to take a spin. It was while adjusting the seat, I found a simple note—nine words that would alter the course of my life, even though I didn’t know it at the time.
Some of the foam padding under the seat had been hollowed out, the note tucked within, handwritten on a white index card that read:
From: Uncle Fred.
You are nine now.
I was confused. My parents, shocked.
For a moment, I worried someone named Fred sent this bike to the wrong Nathan. It didn’t make sense. How was Dad waiting for me on my birthday with a bike meant for some other Nathan? That was when Uncle Willard called – Mom’s younger brother who lived in Davie, Florida, and who loved drinking just as much as he claimed to love the Lord. Said he was driving up to Palm Beach with Aunt Nancy and my cousin Laurel, my best friend. And when they arrived close to an hour later, Laurel was crying because she’d gotten a bicycle too; brand new and pink, and Uncle Willard had kicked the frame of her bike and bent it.
“You know about Uncle Fred, Nathan?” Laurel and I went outside and left the grownups talking grownup things.
“Uncle Fred… Who is he?”
“Pa’s older brother. Aunt Mary’s brother, too.”
“You mean like he’s a half-brother?”
“No, dummy. He’s our uncle.” She kicked the front wheel of my bike.
Laurel always liked boasting she was smarter. Once, when we were younger, she convinced me the barber had done a horrible job cutting my hair and that she could do better. When she was finished, my head had so many bald spots it looked like a checkerboard. From that day, whenever someone said, “Remember that time Laurel shaved Nathan’s head?” everyone would bust out laughing.
“No, you’re the stupid one,” I said. “That’s why you don’t got no bike, stupid!”
“Yeah, bet you can’t outrun me on your new bike.”
“Bet I can,” I answered.
“Bet. When I win, I get to ride all day long. Shake on it, Nathan, and no crying.”
We made a bet and shook on it. After we’d raced and I’d lost, Laurel was hopping on my bike and asked, “Hey, Nathan, if you’da won, what was you gonna get? Stupid.”
To be fair, Laurel is two years older and was far more adept at lies and deceit and manipulating younger kids like myself.
Besides, I couldn’t get this stranger named Fred off my mind. Deep down, the bike didn’t feel like something that belonged to me, so Laurel could ride to her heart’s desire for all I cared.
We’re twins, my cousin and me. The kind born from separate mothers, but whose spirits shout to each other. After a few turns up and down the block, Laurel set the bike aside and sat beside me on the grass.
“Place smells like dog shit,” she said, gazing down an avenue outlined by towering palms and fresh-trimmed lawns, “but it’s like the sun shines brighter than anywhere in the world.”
“Yeah, I suppose it does.” I hawked and spat and looked away.
Shielding her eyes from the sun, Laurel asked, “Something’s eating at ya?”
“Uncle Fred. He got you a bike, too?”
“A pink one,” she answered, nodding in the direction of the front door. “Aunt Mary was on the phone all hysterical, heard her talking ‘bout some note. Then he comes and kicked it right out my hands. Bent the frame and ruined it and he never even bought it.”
“But we don’t know him.”
“Maybe you should ask Uncle Nate and Aunt Mary about that.”
“About keeping him away from us. About taking his gifts, making us think it’s their own. It’s dishonest.”
“No-uh. It’s a mistake is all. My daddy got me that bike,” I said. Dad was my hero and heroes didn’t lie to their sons.
“Keep telling yourself that.”
“You, shut up. What’d you know anyway? You never even met him!”
“I know he got you that desktop last Christmas and I know it takes forever to load ‘cause you been watching internet porn.”
“No, Nathan. They hate him. That’s why Pa kicked my bike and broke it.” Laurel folded her arms. Squinting her eyes like no one could tell her otherwise, she said, “He got angry ‘cause a hidden card came with my bike, just like it did yours. I told him. I said the bracelet he got me last Christmas was way better. That’s when he got angrier and ruined my bike. Now why you think he’d do a thing like that, Nathan?”
“Don’t know. Maybe we could ask him to get you a new bike. A red one like mine ‘cause pink is for girls!”
“I am a girl, stupid.”
“Yeah? Well. You sure as hell don’t look like one. Dad says all the time.”
Laurel sat alone for a moment and let me ride. Finally, she said, “It’s my turn, Nathan.” And all afternoon, she rode circles around the cul-de-sac then back to our driveway like a girl without a care in the world.
That night, Aunt Nancy—Laurel’s mom, helped cook the ham for our Christmas dinner. Dad came calling when dinner was ready, but as I was pushing my bike into the garage, he said to me, “You’ll keep that thing outside, and I mean outside as in out of my garage.”
Laurel hurried past, didn’t even make eye contact. “But it might get took!” I said.
One eye widening, Dad gave me a dead stare until I let that bike down on the grass and followed Laurel inside.
I hated Aunt Nancy’s cooking. Everything sure looked good but ended up tasting like nothing. That’s the worst kind of food. At the dinner table, Dad’s gaze never left me. Not once. Not even when asking Uncle Willard about his Mustang and Laurel about softball. Those stern, blue eyes didn’t blink and only twitched his approval or disapproval. What was most unsettling was I’d have to interpret which meant what and what meant which, then act accordingly. I acted accordingly, cleaning my plate, complimenting the cooking with a fake smile and a thanks then sitting quietly. Dad never lost a staring contest. Till this day, I believe that to be fact.
My father, Nathaniel Marshall I, owned a furniture store in Riviera Beach, Florida. When I was nine, he began teaching me to work the register. “He’s a small businessman,” Mom would boast, “but big everywhere else.”
I asked Laurel what that meant, and she said, “Aunt Mary’s talking about Uncle Nate’s penis.”
Big penis or no, Dad was tall. Not a church-going man per se, but he believed morals and principles were the pillars keeping upstanding-men upright.
Seven days a week, Marshall’s Furniture Store opened for business, and for as long as I can remember, I’d spend my weekdays after school and weekends there.
Understand, I was named for my father and always found myself trying to live up to the name Nathaniel Marshall; live up to his work ethic. The way he carried himself made me emulate his traits. How his big blue eyes squinted when he was deep in thought or the way they widened whenever he’d heard his name.
Everyone respected my dad. The Palm Beach Post even did a piece on Marshall’s Furniture Store in the Local Business section. In the article framed in our living room, they’d written:
Business savvy and fair, Mr. Marshall is a dedicated family man who understands the importance of keeping local dollars local. His approach solidifies the place of Marshall’s Furniture Store in our community, and Mr. Marshall continues to deliver on his promise to provide jobs at a livable wage, while giving Palm Beach residents the absolute best quality and prices. Quote: “My success is thanks to the continued support of my neighbors and friends. And that’s how I view each and every one who walks through the doors of Marshall’s Furniture Store. They’re neighbors and friends.” End quote.
Going to bed that night, Mom told me about Uncle Willard’s Jon Boat, how he’d invited Dad and me fishing. “I just realized, you’ve never been fishing, Nathan!” she said, tucking the covers about me.
Shifting to get comfortable, I looked up and asked, “Will Laurel be there?”
“Sure! I don’t see why not.”
“And Uncle Fred, too?”
Mom was taken aback. She started saying something then stopped like a fishbone was stuck in her throat. “Well. Jon Boats are these very small things, and Uncle Fred—he’s a very busy man. A busy man who doesn’t have time for children. Okay. Goodnight now. I love you.”
Before I could say Love you back, Mom was switching off the lamplight and heading for the door.
Laurel and I were our parents’ only children. After my birthday on Christmas of ‘97, we thought back on the gifts we’d received and realized most had come from Uncle Fred. Desktop computers, a remote control truck for me, jewelry for Laurel; they all came from Uncle Fred. What gave it away was a few of my gifts had had the labels torn off. On some of Laurel’s, they’d scratched out her name. Then there was a year, I can’t remember which, when her gifts came to our house from what I suspected at the time was a lawyer’s office.
Before our discovery, we were more taken with the gifts we’d received. Uncle Fred didn’t exist to us. Our parents rarely spoke of a Fred, and when they did, we assumed they were speaking of our deceased grandfather.
Whenever I was alone on my bike though, I’d sometimes think about a stranger named Fred. What did he look like? What did his voice sound like? And I’d wonder, why did our parents resent him for sending us gifts?
Everything about that red BMX screamed Nathan. In fact, one would’ve been hard-pressed to see red paint since stickers covered every inch of it: Florida Marlins, Miami Hurricanes, Miami Heat, Florida Panthers, Transformers, X-Men – all of them. Wherever I needed to be, that bike took me there.
But years passed, and as I approached puberty, I realized teenage girls wouldn’t want to ride the handle of my bike. So, I pushed it into a corner with other miscellaneous castoffs, and there it sat, forgotten and collecting dust.
Laurel was older, but also a better athlete. It was a coordination thing. I couldn’t power-walk down the block without sucking pavement. Still can’t. That always messed with my confidence. She excelled at everything, while I struggled finding exactly what I was good at. If I had to guess, I’d say her being a girl, being older, and being better made me feel like I had something to prove. If we were eating, I had to eat faster. If someone asked a question; wrong or right, I had to answer first. Anyways, I think that’s why I always lied about my age and developed this overwhelming insecurity that sometimes gave me nightmares.
They started the year I turned thirteen. Pardon me, twelve. I was trying out for the middle school soccer team and wasn’t cutting it against those immigrant kids from Haiti and El Salvador who sprinted like leopards and seemed to have arms for legs. Cuts were coming the next day, and I just knew I’d be one of them. The night before I got cut, was the first time I had the dream. I’m at the beach, standing on sand yellower than sunlight, gazing across greenish-blue water. Sometimes, there’d be only quiet about me as though the waves had gone mute. A terrifying thing—a silent sea. Sometimes the waves sounded like my mother in immense pain, and she’d be groaning my name. “Nathaaan. Oh, my dearest, Nathan,” she’d call. For the life of me, I couldn’t make sense of this dream that troubled my sleep whenever I seemed to face a big decision in my youth.
My mother was a tenth-grade teacher at John I. Leonard High, and the morning I got cut from soccer tryouts, she also had a big day. I woke up to my parents’ voices in the kitchen. No different from any other morning. Dad at the table reading the morning paper. Mom standing over a hot stove in her robe, making breakfast and conversation. Only, this morning, she was standing over a hot stove, stressing about the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).
“These kids,” she said, one hand holding the pot handle, the other scrambling eggs. “I don’t know, Nate. They don’t get how serious this is.”
Dad grunted in response.
“I tried telling ‘em. Over and over, I’ve tried. Can’t expect me to care more about your future than you do, you know.”
Dad grunted again.
“You’ve got to work hard. Earn things. That’s how you find meaning in life. Am I being too deep? Is that too philosophical for them to grasp?”
Again, Dad grunted.
“Nate. I’m asking you.”
“Yes, sweetheart. I heard.”
“Well, want my honest answer? It’s the nigger mindset. They don’t like work, and they don’t value education. Now, they’re coming from Haiti and Cuba in bunches and can’t speak a lick of English. See here. This article here.” Dad tapped his newspaper. “Bunch of Haitians came here on a boat and just took off across I-95. Caused chaos in morning rush hour traffic yesterday! And guess what? Authorities can’t find not a one of ‘em. Few’ll probably be in your class this morning.”
Mom looked around, surprised to meet my eyes. “Nate,” she said under her breath and Dad turned to see me standing beneath the kitchen archway.
“Oh, Nathan! Morning,” he said, smiling. “You been preparing for this FCAT thing your mother’s stressing about?”
“Yup, they’ve been prepping us, but I don’t even take the FCAT until tenth grade.”
“Good,” Dad said, adding, “Where there isn’t a door, hard work makes a window. Keep focused on being the best at whatever defines you in life. Let them other types become rappers and basketball players and whatnot. Can’t all of ‘em jump that high and from what your mother tells me, they can’t all rhyme too good for that matter.”
Dad and his sayings. Most didn’t make sense in the moment but became clearer as I got older. He once told me, “Never trust a man who doesn’t wear a watch.”
“Why?” I’d asked.
“A man who doesn’t wear a watch doesn’t value his own time. You expect him to value yours?”
Those types of lessons made it clear what behaviors were and weren’t appropriate. I never needed Dad to say, “Don’t bring a black inside my house.” I’d observed from young while working at the furniture store, that whenever he’d done business with someone black, he was always fair, always treated them with respect, and made the sale. But, he’d spend minutes washing his hands after taking their money.
It was a good day when Ms. Baptiste made the final payment on her dining room set. She’d never missed a payment. And, in fact, paid it off ahead of schedule and didn’t even request delivery. Her son had his own pick-up truck.
After I shook Ms. Baptiste’s hand, I did like Dad did and went to the restroom afterward. Since Dad washed his hands for roughly five minutes, I washed mine for ten.
I was ten years old when he told me for the first time, “You’re becoming a young man, Nathan. Treating people fairly doesn’t mean you have to like or agree with what they do or who they are. That’s the nature of business. You make the sale, understand?”
And I did. So, I laughed and I smiled with Ms. Baptiste, shook her hand all the way out the door, and after I put her final payment in the register, I washed my hands for ten minutes.
The summer of ‘01, we had our family reunion at Okeeheelee Park, right by the lake and nature center. Uncle Willard hitched the Jon Boat to his truck and drove up from Davie because he’d heard there was good fishing in the park. Park Rangers had done a controlled burn earlier that week, and an aroma of smoky pine permeated. An entire section of nature preserve filled with partially scorched trees, naked of branches, looked like a forest of giant fingers.
A short walk about a circular trail of towering pines, Laurel and I spotted two bobcats. Smaller than I’d imagined bobcats to be, and there was a deer observing us from the bower of a marlberry and satin leaf tree. I never thought they’d be so graceful in the wild – deer. I always figured they were clumsy animals for getting killed all the time. But, it’s because they’re so graceful that people kill them and mount them on walls, I suppose.
Walking past the burnt woods, Laurel and I took an adventurous path to the opposite side of the lake. We came out the bushes sweating and itchy, but the view was well worth the discomfort. The water was tinted like an early evening sky. Calm and grey but not so dark that you couldn’t see fish swimming below. The Florida sun was bright white like a fluorescent light.
Our parents were barbecuing across the other side, surrounded by family lounging in lawn chairs and children running circles around an open pavilion. Echoes of their voices carried over speakers blaring The Thunder Rolls by Garth Brooks. Just as we sat, two cousins came giggling out a cut littered with pinecones and twigs, making so much noise they scared away the deer.
I met family members I’d never seen or couldn’t remember like Dad’s older brother, Uncle Tony. He came all the way from Haskell, Texas where he still ran a general store that had been in the family since the forties. Uncle Willard was there with Aunt Nancy, and she’d brought her entire side of the family who wasn’t really family. It was a day to remember.
Laurel had pulled me aside. She went to a different school than I, a magnet school, and was having a hard time adjusting. Things weren’t so good at home either. And the thought of going back to her life in Davie, to me, seemed to terrify her. We sat, quiet and alone for a while. It wasn’t until Uncle Willard started drinking and shouting that Laurel got to biting her nails. Her eyes got shifty and red watching him. Each time he’d cackle, she’d flinch like a needle was stabbing at her.
“I can’t wait to leave this place, Nathan,” she said, fidgeting as more cousins passed by us.
“Leave? Leave and go where?”
“I don’t know. Somewhere I can find myself.”
“The heck does that mean?”
“It means I’m tired, Nathan. Tired.”
“He did something to you?” I nodded at Uncle Willard across the way and Laurel started crying; silent like an act of defiance.
“When he drinks, his true colors show, and he’ll make an ass outta himself, watch.”
“He’s just having fun, Laurel. What happened this time?”
“Hm. Having fun. Last night, he’s watching TV, getting all upset because this girl has a black boyfriend. I say to him turn the channel, and he gets up in my face with that stinky breath of his. Telling me if he ever heard I talked to a nigger, he’d disown me. Because of a reality show, Nathan. I gotta hear that ‘cause of a TV show. Telling me I can pack my shit and go live with a monkey. Who talks like that? And to their own daughter?”
“You didn’t tell him you don’t—”
“I don’t know. If he got in my face about that stuff, I’d tell him I don’t even talk with them.”
“Whatever, Nathan. It’s not even about that.”
“Well, what’s it about? You’re over here crying about something.”
“I’m different. Different from all of you, okay. And I’m glad.”
“Yeah? Well, glad to know you’re glad ‘cause I don’t see much wrong with being different.”
“Different is okay?”
“What’s going on, Laurel? Tell me, so we can get over it and go steal some beer ‘fore your daddy drinks ‘em all.”
“Okay, Nathan. Remember, you promised.”
“Would you get on—”
“I think I’m gay.” She gazed at me for a moment. I guess to gauge my reaction. I had none other than silence. There were gay kids in my school, but gay didn’t look fun. There was one girl everyone said was a lesbian. I didn’t really know if she was or wasn’t, but she looked terrified all the time.
“Gay as in you have a girlfriend?”
“I don’t have a girlfriend, stupid. I just. Well. School just started. All the girls are already talking about Homecoming, which upperclassman they want to ask them to the dance, but— ”
“I guess, I’m afraid I might be missing out on something because—”
“Because you prefer upper-class women?”
Laurel sighed. “It’s not that simple, Nathan. I don’t think it’s a matter of liking or preferring one thing over another, is it? I mean, you ever tried explaining why you might be straight? Shit, it’s hard having to justify to someone else who you are, what you are, why you are. I don’t know. I’m not making sense.”
“Right. Well, does Aunt Nancy know?”
“I don’t think she does. I mean, she makes these weird comments sometimes. It’s like she’s fishing for hints or something. Gives me the creeps.”
“Right, well, what, Nathan? You’re going to tell Aunt Mary and Uncle Nate, aren’t you?”
“No! Jesus, no. You know, you drop this bomb on me and... Look, I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say, okay.” She sighed and I sighed, too. “Well, at least you don’t like black guys.”
I didn’t know how to be there for Laurel. I tried and failed at understanding. What she was going through was too much to grasp for a twelve-year-old who lied about his age.
Silence lingered between us, broken momentarily by someone’s exaggerated laughter, then an argument over whether Shania Twain was from Wichita, Kansas or Windsor, Canada.
“I want a beer,” I said.
“You won’t like it.”
“How’d you know? I’ve had a bunch.”
“You’ve had beer?”
“Such a liar, Nathan. You’d call me bragging about it.”
While debating who was the biggest liar and which of us would try sneaking the beer, we heard someone mention the name ‘Fred.’ That drew our attention. There was an uproar of laughter. Uncle Willard cut in and said, “That Fred’s a fucking deviant! Disgraced my daddy’s name, my granddaddy’s name, and he’s going to Hell with God’s fist up his ass for it!”
“Whoa, careful now, Willard,” Dad replied. “There’s kids hereabouts, and he might like that.” There was another outburst of laughter.
I didn’t understand this disregard for Uncle Fred, and it was that moment we realized he wasn’t at our family reunion.
See, we’d always gotten these gifts, but soon thereafter, Uncle Fred disappeared from our minds until the next year when we’d gotten something else. Fair to say, every year around Christmas, we loved our phantom uncle, Fred. Had it not been for the gifts we received, we’d have never known he existed, probably never cared. Hearing them talk about him that way though, felt wrong, and planted a seed of curiosity, which, now that we were older, took root.
* * *
September 11th, 2001.
There were tears in Dad’s eyes watching footage of the towers collapsing. “We’ll answer with ten times the hate,” he’d said. I’ll always remember the mother from Boston, clutching a graduation picture of her son on the evening news. She was trying so hard to steady her hands, gripping on to this proud family moment. “His name’s Josh,” she said, interrupting the reporter. “I only want to find him.”
It looked like the clouds were raining dust. You could hardly see color in any of the images flashing across the TV screen. The image of that terrified mother, searching for her son made me think about my uncle. Where was he in the world at this very moment?
“I wonder if Uncle Fred’s there?” I said out loud. I didn’t really expect an answer. It’s just – their silence ate at me.
I called Laurel that night, told her I thought Uncle Fred was dead. “For some reason, Laurel, I think our uncle’s in one of those buildings.” It was the first time we searched the internet for Frederick Joseph, Frederick Joseph Jr., Frederick Joseph III, Fred Joseph, Freddy Joseph.
There were so many Frederick Josephs, we couldn’t begin to narrow the list. Would he be Frederick Joseph in Queens, New York or Manhattan? There was a Frederick Joseph Jr. in Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania; one in Chicago, Illinois that spelled his name Fredric; one in Coral Gables, Florida, and another in nearby Juno Beach, Florida.
Without his age or date of birth, Google wasn’t as efficient. In those days, finding people and tracking them down wasn’t a simple Facebook search away. Needless to say, after September 11th, Uncle Fred never left our minds.
For everyone, Christmas of ‘01 was rough. No one felt like anything was worth celebrating and were just going through the motions. One thing I’d heard Mom say, and I’d never forget, was how she’d never seen America come together like it had. Might’ve been the only time in history when Americans cared about Americans because we were all Americans and had someone outside of each other to hate. Young as I was, I remembered thinking, how telling.
There weren’t any gifts that year. Laurel cried, and I knew why. She always had this dream of leaving Davie behind and running away to Uncle Fred. It meant more to her – meeting him did. But what did the absence of gifts mean? Did he die on September 11th? We didn’t know. They still hadn’t found or identified all the bodies. Don’t know that they ever did.
The following spring, on Laurel’s sixteenth birthday, she received a letter from an attorney’s office: Dorsey, Kelly, Walsh & Associates. This letter notified her of a college fund in her name, set up by Frederick Joseph III, with instructions to contact their office at her convenience. On the letterhead were an address and phone number. We called straight away, hoping to track down our uncle and meet him for the first time because he was alive!
A secretary answered, wanting to know which attorney we were attempting to reach.
“Anyone,” Laurel said.
“Ma’am, I can’t forward your call to just anyone. I need a name.”
“Mr. Dorsey,” I said.
“Mr. Dorsey is in a deposition. I can deliver a message or set up an appointment. Which do you prefer?”
“He knows my uncle,” Laurel said. “My name is Laurel Joseph and I’m looking for my uncle.”
There was a click, then silence, and we assumed she’d forward our message.
That Christmas, I turned fourteen. I, too, received a letter. For the first time, it dawned on us; we should just go there. Forget calling.
Our first day of school on the new year, Laurel and I played hooky and met up at a Bud’s Chicken and Seafood restaurant. A cold front had crept in overnight, so at midday, it was a cool 68-degrees. Blowing warmth into our hands and taking seats in a booth near the window, we ordered two servings of spicy fish and chips. A fender-bender backed up traffic on the main road, and right after the wreck, was a bus stop. Halfway through lunch, our first bus arrived. We’d have to take three separate buses to Tequesta just to get near the law office of Dorsey, Kelly, Walsh & Associates. The rest of the way, we’d walk.
It was all a waste. The law office closed by the time we got there.
Hopes dashed, we had to face our parents and consequences for not being at home on time (for me, not being at the store).
That night, Dad paced until tracks marks covered our living room rug. Mom sat across from me crying as he carried on about how irresponsible and inconsiderate I was. “You don’t have responsibilities, Nathaniel?” he asked. “You didn’t give your word to show up for work at the store? Don’t you understand, you give someone your word that person’s counting on you? If you can’t be counted on, you’re not a man! How’s anyone going to value your word, Nathaniel?” Standing over me, his breath heavy with the stale stink of cigarettes and lemon tea, Dad raged. “Men live by rules,” he said, “and you don’t get to do whatever you want. Not in my house, Nathaniel! There are rules in my house!”
I wasn’t used to being called Nathaniel, but the usual Nathan was for a less disappointing son. The previous semester, I didn’t perform so well at school, and I don’t know why I’d thought about that then, but it seemed like disappointing my parents was what I did best.
I began questioning if I’d ever measure up to my Dad. I bore his name, got excited whenever neighbors noted our resemblance.
“Where were you?” Mom asked, wiping her eyes. It made me feel less than dirt, putting her through what I did.
“I’ll straighten him out, Mary. Don’t you worry about it. He got Laurel into trouble with this mess and he’ll pay for it.”
When I couldn’t stand it any longer, I said, “We went looking for the lawyers. To find Uncle Fred! He didn’t die!”
Those words smacked Dad wide-eyed. Turning to Mom, he breathed in deep. There was a telling emptiness about his face, big and pink with rage. I’d never seen him so unsure of himself.
“I told you, Mary. I said. I did, remember? Send it all back. I said it. They were nice things. You kept saying they were nice things. Well, now you can explain why Uncle Fred isn’t someone he wants to be around.”
“Nate, stop it!” Mom’s eyes widened, big as hardboiled eggs.
“No, tell him! It’s your brother. You tell him.”
“Nathan.” She turned, facing me. “Your uncle isn’t a man, Nathan.” Her eyes wandered about the ceiling as though she’d find the right words up there. “Not anymore at least. He’s become morally corrupt and thinks it’s okay to be and act the way he does because he has money.” That’s when she broke down sobbing and Dad relented, holding her head to his chest and apologizing for making her talk about ‘this’.
“No, Mary. He’ll figure out himself.” He kissed her forehead.
“No, Nate, you’re right. He needs to know. If our parents were still alive, Nathan, and saw what he’s become, it would’ve killed them.”
In the back of my mind, I guess I always knew he was some kind of criminal. All those gifts. Who has that kind of money lying around anyway? He doesn’t even know us! I knew it. He was some shady type who bought us all these nice things with money he’d stolen from hard-working, honest people like my parents.
“Man is not supposed to lay with man, understand?” Mom looked me in the eyes. If I couldn’t hear her meaning, she wanted to make certain I saw it, felt it. “It’s in the Bible, and if God speaks against it, then it’s wrong and there’s no right in it.”
“What?” I asked, confused. We weren’t a particularly religious family. “You mean Uncle Fred’s gay?”
“Yes, and his money won’t buy him a ticket to Heaven.” Mom shook her head and pointed to the sky.
“A degenerate faggot!” Dad said, massaging her back. “And you took your cousin to go looking for him? What in God’s name were you thinking, Nathaniel? Watch the company you keep, understand? That way of living is— That lifestyle is— It’s— Goddamn it, it’s immoral! Hang around the likes of them, and you begin thinking that sort of behavior is okay. Well, it’s wrong! I don’t care what these queers think, wrong is wrong! He’s sick in the fucking head that uncle of yours! Cross dresses!” The more Dad thought about things, it seemed, the more enraged he became. Grabbing his crotch, he said, “Tucks his dick between his legs! Who the fuck knows, he might’ve cut the goddamn thing off by now! Fucking disgusting.”
“Turn in their graves, our parents would.” Mom sat. It was too much for her to talk about, and she wasn’t quite prepared for it that moment, I realized. “Shamed our fucking father’s name. I need a bath.”
I thought about Laurel. I thought about everything Dad said. I thought about her secret. I thought about that girl at school everyone shunned because she was a lesbian. I didn’t hate her. I didn’t hate my cousin. But Dad was right. They’re wrong, I convinced myself.
I never told anyone Laurel’s secret. I figured if I ignored her calls long enough, she’d get the hint. My parents tore up the attorney’s letter. Uncle Willard made Laurel do the same. All the gifts we still had, we put into boxes for charity and did a yard sale.
After years of neglect, my BMX was no longer pristine. Covered in grime, the red paint got faded and chipped. It hurt seeing it that way, but the idea of giving it away (selling it) cut deep. There was a time when that bike meant everything, and I’d pedal faster faster faster then coast, wind sweeping back my hair as I thought about an uncle I didn’t know. I dislocated a finger and gashed my forehead jumping mounds and falling off that bike, making some of the most painful yet gnarliest memories. Now, I was letting them and him go.
* * *
I think I learned at too young an age that life’s a fight. No rounds, no bells, just one drawn-out tussle. And life never stops swinging.
We were at the dinner table when our phone rang. I remember being happy that day. Dad had gotten us a tiny tanned maltipoo we’d named Sheridan, and I was sneaking her bits of meatloaf under the dinner table. I hate meatloaf.
“Hello?” Mom answered in that plain, abrupt manner mothers answer the phone when a call interrupts dinner. “Joseph’s my maiden name. I’ve been Mrs. Marshall for fifteen years,” she said. “Excuse me?” She squeezed Dad’s shoulder to get his attention. He was busy stuffing his face. He loved meatloaf. “Okay. Yes, he’s my brother.” It was as though someone hit pause and my life alone stopped. There were no tears, just disbelief. The phone fell. Sheridan barked. Mom walked some distance past us at the dinner table and said, “My brother’s dead.” Plain as ever.
“Uncle Willard’s dead?” My heart fell into my stomach. It felt like I was looking at myself trying to make sense of what I’d heard. I thought about Laurel. We hadn’t spoken in months and she’d stopped calling.
“Fred committed suicide. I need to call Willard.” Mom hurried back to the phone.
I wouldn’t say I was relieved, but honestly speaking, I don’t know that I felt anything after learning it was Uncle Fred and that he’d killed himself. I mean, to me, he was this gay guy who gave us things. Nothing more.
“No answer.” Mom hung up and before she made two steps back to the dinner table, the phone rang again. It was Aunt Nancy. “Oh, my God! Nancy. Nancy, no. We’re on our way.” Panicking, Mom ran for her purse.
Dad jumped up from the table confused and concerned. “Mary! What’s going on?” He tried calming her.
“It’s Laurel. She took a bunch of pills, Nate! They’re at Memorial Hospital in Pembroke Pines pumping her stomach.”
“Dear, God. Mary, what’s happening?”
I knew how I felt then. I knew.
* * *
She’d be okay, doctors said. They were doubtful this was an accident as Laurel claimed and suggested we Baker Act her just in case. We’d have seventy-two hours from then to get a psych eval. More than enough time, they assured us.
Uncle Willard had doubts. Said it was just a way for these doctor types to stick their nose in his business.
Distraught, Aunt Nancy lunged for his neck, screaming, “You’re just a nothing drunk, Willard! Nobody important! No one gives two shits about you!”
Aunt Nancy’s biting rebuke and tears convinced him Laurel really needed help, so she remained under watch for another three days.
After those three days, a therapist suggested she take a vacation of sorts, spend time away from home. Dad said she could stay with us and picked her up from the hospital. I couldn’t find words to express how happy I was that my cousin, my best friend was going to be okay.
When Uncle Willard and Aunt Nancy came over that night, I took Laurel upstairs. They stayed downstairs with my parents, talking about our uncle.
“You didn’t clean your room, Nathan.” Laurel didn’t want to stay in my room or be anywhere near me, I knew.
“I’m sorry, Laurel.”
“What for? It was an accident. I told ‘em.” She turned off the lights so I wouldn’t see her face.
“No. No, it wasn’t.” Slouching beside her on a beanbag in the corner, I felt her frail body shaking. She was always stronger and more loyal than me, my cousin. “I love you.” I think that was the first time I’d ever said those words to her.
“Nathan,” Laurel sighed. “Don’t say that.”
Sheridan’s cold nose sniffed us out in the dark. “We got a dog,” I said, trying to ease the tension.
“Yeah?” When Sheridan climbed into her lap, Laurel jumped.
“I’m sorry. For everything.”
“Guess they told you ‘bout Uncle Fred? He went and killed himself.”
“What? What, Nathan? Stop fucking looking at me like that!”
“Laurel, what are we gonna do?”
“We? Don’t worry about me. I’ll be gone soon.”
I wasn’t going to find out what that meant. I broke. This was my blood, my friend, and she was always there whenever I needed her.
I fell to my knees. “Wherever you go, we’ll go together. Same way we’ll get through this.”
“Get through what? Back off, Nathan!” Laurel shouldered me away.
“Get through whatever made you do what you did. You want to fight? Let’s fight. Then forgive me and tell me what’s going on. Please.”
“They was talking about him—Ma, Pa.”
“What’d they say?”
“He thought about us, Nathan. Every Christmas. And they talked about him like a dog. What’d you think our parents are downstairs shushing about, huh?”
“Shushing? I don’t know. Laurel, listen. I want to tell you, nothing’s wrong with you, and—and, I don’t want you to die. So, don’t die, please.” Finally, she let me wrap my arms around her and I squeezed, as tight as I was squeezing back tears promising God to stand with her, beside her or behind, whatever she needed.
“He was a writer. Our uncle was. Worked as an editor at some newspaper for years, then started his own magazine.” Laurel was crying now, and I was happy she knew she didn’t always have to be strong. I had her back for real this time.
“Who told you this?”
“That attorney. James Kelly. I spoke with him. Says he needs to see us, Nathan. You and me.”
“Didn’t say, but it’s important. That night he called to tell ‘em Uncle Fred was dead, I star-sixty-nined his number. Called him back.”
“I heard ‘em, Nathan. Ma told Pa they needed to get a power of attorney over Fred’s estate, she said.”
“A power of what?”
“It’s like control over Uncle Fred’s money. They want to find out if he had a will because they want to get that house. They want everything. I couldn’t listen to them talk about him like that, Nathan.”
“That house? What house?”
“Our uncle’s. Pa said they needed to convince Aunt Mary to go along because Uncle Nate mightn’t agree to them taking his things when they didn’t agree with his lifestyle. That’s what they’re downstairs discussing.”
“You sure about this?” The name Nathaniel Marshall suddenly felt burdensome. I began thinking about the man I saw myself becoming years down the line, questioning the path I was on.
“They want his house. They want his money. He never had children, Nathan. He lived alone his whole life. Whatever he left behind, they want the rights to it. They’re downstairs dividing it all before he’s even in the ground.”
Right then, we decided someone had to stand for our uncle. And that someone was going to be us.
While our parents made funeral arrangements and met with estate attorneys, we paid a visit to Dorsey, Kelly, Walsh & Associates. They walked us into a room with thick, black carpets and red leather furniture. Bookshelves lined the walls, stacked with encyclopedias bound in brown and black leather with gold trimmings. The Walsh of the trio was missing. Mr. Dorsey and Mr. Kelly were nice men, older men with caring eyes. Brown dye stained Mr. Dorsey’s shirt collar. Mr. Kelly to his left, however, seemed to accept the reality of his once black hair turning grey. Both men took looking like attorneys seriously and dressed better than the ones on Law & Order, I thought.
After offering their condolences and something to drink, they told us about our uncle. Some bits, we had to fill in ourselves.
“No one ever spoke of your uncle’s magazine?” Mr. Dorsey inquired, shocked by our response.
Our uncle owned a publication called, Their Voices. A popular early 80s to 90s magazine with the slogan: Where creators and creatives create. It featured works by painters, graffiti artists, photographers, writers, and poets, who at that point, hadn’t known much success. It had even featured one of Jamaica Kincaid’s earlier works and an interview with controversial rap group N.W.A.
“Started out as a rebellious act, you know,” Mr. Dorsey said. “Wasn’t quite literary, wasn’t mainstream. What it was, was a ton of sacrifice. More downs than ups, that’s for certain. Selling it turned out to be one of your uncle’s smarter decisions. Told him he was crazy at the time, but the internet was just about taking off and changed things. Your uncle saw that one coming. Before anyone else did, he saw it. Got out and made himself a bit of money. No thanks to me of course.” He chuckled.
“Things changed around the time Matthew Shepard happened,” Mr. Kelly added.
“Who?” Laurel and I had no idea who that was.
“This murder in Wyoming. Gruesome thing,” Mr. Dorsey cut in. “Different times back then. Well, not so far back then, I suppose.”
“We’ve come a long way from days of fire and brimstone. People like your uncle helped get us here. Still, we’ve got plenty far to go,” Mr. Kelly said.
“Your uncle, he felt this need to put out a different image. Something to counter the notion that gay men and women were after the minds and bodies of children. He dabbled in short fiction and poetry on the subject but never produced anything noteworthy. Though, I’d like to think the attempt to make things better made him happier. Strange, thinking of him now. He was very much like the people he wrote about, wasn’t he? Silenced.” Mr. Dorsey contemplated a moment.
“That brings us to your uncle’s estate,” Mr. Kelly said. “He left clear instructions for the both of you.”
“Both of us?” Laurel asked.
“After his debts are settled, there are unpublished writings, some Alma Thomas pieces, several Wachovia accounts, an investment and retirement portfolio, the issue of a life insurance policy to settle, a 1967 Z28 Camaro, and home in Juno By the Sea.”
“Our uncle had a house on Juno Beach?” It was then I understood why Uncle Willard and Aunt Nancy wanted it.
“Yes, yes, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We were hoping to discuss these matters with your parents as well,” Mr. Dorsey added. A considerate but misguided notion, I thought.
“Who gets our uncle’s estate?” Laurel inquired.
“Well, there are two beneficiaries.” Mr. Kelly looked to Mr. Dorsey.
“Us?” I looked to Laurel and we both had no reaction.
“As minors, our parents can control our estate?” Laurel continued.
“Again, that’s why we needed them here. The estate is to remain in trust, be managed by our firm until you both come of age. Neither of you can make decisions until you’ve graduated college,” Mr. Kelly explained.
I felt nothing. I tried crying like Laurel was crying, but honestly, I felt nothing. I was reaping the rewards of my uncle’s life’s work and I never knew the man.
“Would you like to see the house?” Mr. Dorsey offered to drive us.
As we drove, the world outside seemed to be on fast-forward. My heartbeat was in my head. I kept thinking about my parents. Man, I loved them, but I knew them. My uncle killed himself. My cousin tried killing herself. So much happened in so little time, it felt like a dream.
In the blink of an eye, it seemed, we were pulling into a short, horseshoe driveway bracketed by ivy walls. Blue flowers covered the ground. I later learned they’re called Blue Daze, which was exactly how I felt—blue and in a daze. Everything looked picturesque and clean, even the dirt. The garage door lifted, and parked in backwards, was a black 1967 Chevrolet Camaro with a red interior and deep red racing stripes.
“That car’s mine, Nathan.” Laurel damn near shoved me to the ground.
She had more interest in cars, but this machine was a work of art with red accents reminiscent of a BMX I once owned. “It’s ours,” I said. “We’re sharing this.”
We entered the house. Wood floors met jagged walls of deep grey stone spanning all about us. Immediately, I could hear a faint droning of waves. I walked over to large windows, and there below us was a stretch of golden beach, spreading out to meet the sea. “I’ve been here before.” I shivered. It hit me then. My uncle once stood where I was standing, looking down at me. It wasn’t a dream, wasn’t some nightmare. It was serenity. And I cried.
“When I was a boy, I came here once.” I folded to the ground and I cried.
* * *
My uncle, Frederick Joseph III, died alone. I live with the burden of knowing he deserved a better nephew. One day, he walked into a cheap motel room along Dixie Highway, put a shotgun under his chin, and pulled the trigger.
We couldn’t have an open-casket funeral for a final viewing, so our parents decided against a burial. After cremating him, Mom held a wake for family and friends. No one in attendance was a friend to my uncle. None of us were his family either, for that matter.
That day stays with me. I sat amongst these strangers dressed in black, all of whom showed up for the food, but there wasn’t a single picture of my uncle anywhere. Nothing to memorialize him.
I listened to Uncle Tony blabber on about how short life was, and how he remembered growing up in Haskell like it was yesterday. “Back then,” he was saying, “when them blacks bought from our store, Daddy gave ‘em their change in bubble gum.” Everyone laughed.
Aunt Nancy was in the kitchen having a conversation with my mother and other guests. Her voice trying and failing at being quiet made me pay attention. “Maybe he had AIDS. Lord knows, I couldn’t carry on with that disease,” she said, and they sniggered.
“My uncle didn’t have AIDS.” I stood up.
“Nathan, keep quiet. Grownups are talking,” Mother said.
“You laughed when she said my uncle had AIDS.”
“I did not.”
The house hushed. No one talking, no one moving. “My uncle didn’t have AIDS,” I announced. “He had shitty people for family.”
“Nathan!” Laurel was calling. My cousin, my friend, standing in the midst of these dumbfounded faces, silent and gazing at me. “Nathan, please.”
I smiled at her, so she’d know I meant everything I said the day I fell to her feet and begged sorry. “None of you will write my uncle’s legacy,” I said before turning to Nancy. “Nothing you say matters. It’s just words into a dark void. See, people will remember my uncle, but ask yourself who will remember a leech with a bigot for a husband?”
“Nathan, my son!” Father was calling, but I couldn’t hear him any longer. I’d learned enough to see him for the man that he was; a man I did not wish to become.
“Paid them back in bubble gum,” I said to Laurel, pointing at Tony. “And they all laugh because that’s funny.”
* * *
Things will be okay. I say it to Laurel all the time, and she says it to me. Truth is, time does a poor job mending. Our memories are scars and beneath that surface of scab hurts.
For a long time, I wondered what my uncle saw staring into a mirror. It’s a troubling thought considering there weren’t pictures of him anywhere. Not in his house, not anywhere. At times, I find myself questioning if he even existed.
I found a driver’s license some years back, tucked inside a jacket pocket. It serves its purpose in reminding me that he was real. In it, he’s staring into the camera like a child sitting out on the school steps, watching, waiting, hoping their parents arrive. It is an old, faded thing that cannot begin filling the void he once occupied. Long expired, I carry it in my wallet and imagine he’s there guiding me. Lifting me up when I need lifting.
I seldom dream of the beach anymore. I’ve tried holding onto that sliver of serenity, but even there, he is absent. Those waves sing a song, but it’s a sad song now, and when I gaze across that water, I can’t help but think of the gifts we didn’t receive.