Uncle Bill

On a drizzly November day, Alice Randall drove along a desolate road amid the barren wheat fields of northern Kansas. Stands of bare trees separated neighboring properties. Every so often, she would spot hunters in orange vests wandering over the dark wet soil.

When she reached Masonville, she took a brief tour of the town to see what had changed. Grandpa Hendricks’ house had been painted bright green, and the front steps were falling away from the porch. At least the rickety garage still stood in the back yard. Alice imagined all the key features of Grandpa’s old car—the sloping back end that reminded her of a teardrop, the tiny oval rear window, the maroon exterior and interior, and the stiff stand-up velvet on the seats. She always rode in back as a little girl, reveling in the car’s smell of dust, gasoline, and something else, maybe aftershave. She gazed across the street and noticed that the tennis court in the park was pitted and missing the net.

Nearly everything on Main Street was closed, shuttered, and dilapidated, but a little café was open at the edge of the downtown area, not too far from the rest home. Alice parked out front and walked in, thinking in the back of her mind that she wasn’t all that hungry, just delaying her visit with Uncle Bill. Everyone in the café was old, even the people who worked there, and the carpets, tables, and wood paneling were all dark. She ordered a burger, ate it, and left.

Main Street looked like the bones of what the town once was. Even the Dream Theater was closed. Alice remembered how everything used to be painted, and how big families dominated the community, to include a number of children who used to rendezvous at the little grocery store to gossip by the soda fountain and eat sweet rolls. It didn’t take much to make kids happy in those days. They would leave the house after breakfast and come home at dinner time. Alice felt sad for all the children who would never know these freedoms.

She drove to the rest home, turned off the car, and sat out front for a while, trying to decide how to approach the situation. Uncle Bill had grown up like any other child through the first decade of his life. Then, when he was 11 years old, he contracted Scarlet Fever. His body temperature rose to 105° for several days, which did terrible damage to his brain. From that point on, Bill could only mumble slow, barely audible comments that didn’t usually connect to immediate circumstances. He would rock back and forth in his chair all day, watching television and quietly remarking on a litany of simple observations that no one would ever understand.

When Grandma Hendricks died, Grandpa Hendricks gave his farmland to his other children and focused on Bill’s needs full time. He fed and dressed him, did all the laundry, and took Bill with him whenever he left the house. The two dressed identically in overalls, blue chambray shirts buttoned to the collar and cuffs, and work boots. They especially liked watching Lawrence Welk together.

As the years passed and both men grew old, Grandpa Hendricks retired to the Masonville rest home and brought Bill with him. By the time Grandpa passed away at 94, all immediate and extended family had disappeared from Masonville for one reason or another except for Bill, who remained in the rest home.

Alice had been an outsider for as long as she could remember. She just never seemed to fit in anywhere. Sometimes, she felt like other children looked at her like she was a creature in the zoo. This meant that when her family visited Grandpa and Grandma Hendricks in Masonville, she loved spending time with Uncle Bill. She found it restful because there were no requirements or expectations. She would buy them candy from the grocery store with her allowance and then sit with Bill for hours on end, scribbling notes and pictures in her Big Chief tablets and poring over the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books Grandpa Hendricks loved so much while Bill watched TV and mumbled away.

Even though Alice never understood what Bill was saying, she asked him all sorts of questions because she wanted to connect with him, to get to know him, and she needed him to understand who she was and that she cared. She tried to demonstrate that she was serious about being with him. She didn’t want to be the person who said, “Oh, that’s just the way Bill is.” She wanted to believe that there was someone in there. His inability to communicate clearly didn’t necessarily mean that he didn’t have memories up to that moment. What if he simply couldn’t express his thoughts in words that others might understand? She just didn’t know.

Now, decades later, she stood at the front desk of the rest home and chatted with the head nurse, who had been expecting her based on their earlier phone conversation. Alice didn’t ask about Bill’s life. She just wanted to know how he was doing. “Just fine,” the nurse said as she guided Alice into the day room where the residents sat, surrounding the TV in an evenly spaced perimeter. Alice recognized Bill immediately. He looked almost exactly the same as she had remembered him although he had gotten a little heavier.

She sat down next to him and said, “Hi Uncle Bill. I’m Alice, Jane’s daughter. How are you?”

Bill leaned forward and began to rock back and forth and mumble.

“Do you get a lot of visitors?” Alice asked. She couldn’t tell if he remembered her at all, or if he was happy, angry, sad, or something else. He stared blankly at the television and continued to mumble. Everyone they had both known was either dead or gone, and now Bill wouldn’t acknowledge her presence. She began sobbing uncontrollably, realizing the futility of her visit.

“I have to go Uncle Bill. It was good to see you. Goodbye now. Take care.”

She thanked the head nurse and then slipped away like a forgotten debt. On her drive home, she recalled the Masonville park of her childhood, with kids crawling all over its merry-go-round, seesaws, and slides, and how she and her brothers and sisters would walk down to the Dream Theater or the grocery store, and along the way someone watering a yard would say, “Oh, you must be Jane Randall’s kids,” and later the family visit would be mentioned in the local newspaper. To have those memories be so far from her present reality was more than she could handle. Yet as time passed, she couldn’t escape the thought of Uncle Bill rocking back and forth in his chair, bearing silent witness to the departure of what mattered most.

Photo By: Diana Tyner