by Caleb Tankersley
Uncle Bob’s ass was clean enough. I snapped off the soiled latex gloves and dropped them into an orange wastebasket. Bob wriggled facedown, trying to turn his head, the skin on his neck stretching like a water balloon as the support chains of his Hoyer lift pulled taut. “You sure do take your time, Danny Boy.” He slurred the S. Bob rarely put his teeth in anymore.
“You sure do shit a lot, Uncle Bob. Next time I’ll leave you sitting in it. How long you think before the nurse changes you?” I grabbed an oversized diaper from the bedside dresser. Yellow light seeped through the blinds and made the sheets look sour.
“They’d let me ride out until the weekend, I expect.”
I stretched the diaper under him, secured the Velcro and pulled his pants up, careful not to brush the stump of Bob’s left leg, lost to diabetes. “Or longer. So you can either say ‘thank you’ or shut the fuck up about it. You feel like a smoke?”
“Thank you,” he said with gusto. Red stubble covered most of his face. He was pleased with his reply, always a comedian.
I spun the crank of Uncle Bob’s lift, hoisted and twisted him toward his wheelchair, his puffy back straining against the supports and chains. He licked his lips as I lowered him to the seat. The chair shook while he huffed, sighed, settled in.
I stopped by every Monday and Wednesday. Uncle Bob couldn’t afford a quality nursing home, so he made do with the shuffling Medicare ladies of the Shady Pines County Retirement Facility. He didn’t fit in with the other thin-haired, dementia-ed patients mumbling up and down the halls, though Bob wasn’t exactly spry. Time and hard living had chipped at him, hairy and sagging like a moldy peach.
With an electric whir, Uncle Bob aimed his chair at the door. “Why’s a young guy like you coming to see a fart like me?” He smacked his gums together.
I was furiously washing my hands at the sink. “I can’t have people gossiping around town about you rolling around in your own filth.”
“They’ve said worse things about the family. Let ’em cluck. For Christsake, Danny, go live a little. And bring my smokes.”
I looked at him in the mirror. Go live a little.
Bob was the first person I should have told. The one person. But I couldn’t confess to my uncle how I’d soon be making the family plunge, how it was just across the parking lot, Dad’s old revolver hidden in the glove compartment. It’d looked deeply familiar in the shoebox that morning, felt like ice on my palm.
I grabbed Bob’s pack off the dresser and followed him out the door. “You shouldn’t smoke these.” The hallway smelled of urine, the air humid with it.
“Yes I should.” Uncle Bob’s wheels spiraled down the hallway.
I fast-walked to catch up and tossed the Marlboros into Bob’s lap. “Here. I need to go to work.”
Bob’s eyes never left his goal, the back door opening to a small concrete square. The thick air made his cheeks pink. “Yeah, you got all kinds of shit to do. Mr. Responsible, looking out for me. Leave, then. See you Wednesday.”
I stopped walking, and Uncle Bob stopped wheeling. He winked at me before clutching his Marlboros and rolling out the door.
From the moment Great-Grandpa Jeffrey stepped up to his rafter, the rest of the McKays were marked for failure. We hold the unofficial county record for attempted suicides, something we’re loath to discuss when pressed about it in the Co-op or the liquor store. We don’t like the details getting out, how Jeffrey, his sorghum and rye having washed away in the floods of ’15 and ’16, climbed onto his dining room table, fashioned a noose from his carpenter’s belt, placed it around his neck, and jumped. As his children slept, Jeffrey swung through the muggy air of his dining room. His belt snapped and he collapsed onto the corner of the oak table. It was Cal, my Grandpa, who heard the wet thud, who paddled down the stairs to find his father twitching on the floor, who was left to ponder the bloody table and the broken strip of leather dangling from the ceiling. Jeffrey recovered with nothing but a dent above his ear. Twelve years later, Cal swallowed a bottle of pills. He woke up three days later with slurred speech.
If you do happen to get a McKay—a cousin once removed, perhaps—talking about our history, she’ll smile to herself and admire what quitters we are. Jim McKay lit his barn up from the inside, eventually diving out of the loft. He scorched eighty percent of his skin and spent the rest of his life in a hospital bed being spoon-fed by his wife. Cousin Doug dropped off the Whitewater Bridge and nearly drowned. He came to on the bank a few hours later and walked the half mile to his kid’s tee-ball game, sat on the bleachers in his sopping clothes. Great-Aunt Ruth hoped to crush her skull under her husband’s tractor. She rose early and hid beneath the rusted axle, her nose touching and smelling the rubber of the tires, mud set into treads. Her husband lumbered into the cab, turned the key, and threw the tractor in reverse to attach his combine. He looked down as soggy Aunt Ruth wiped mud off her dress and marched inside to make coffee. In a family where almost everyone tried to off themselves, only one made it.
That’d be my dad, Billy. Mom was locked in an Illinois pen for cooking crystal. That afternoon I was at a gas station swiping Sudafed when Dad fell back on tradition. But unlike every other McKay, Dad didn’t hesitate. One decisive twitch of a finger changed five generations of history. Years later, people around town talked about Dad like a hero, like some legendary ballplayer— the guy who made it out. But he didn’t look so heroic when I walked in to him splattered across the living room wall. I sat on the sofa and stared into the dark-red carpet, tried to mimic the look on half of Dad’s face. The same scowl he gave me when I came home at night, my eyes bleary and pink. He could have been thinking of me. Uncle Bob found me there, making that face. He grabbed my neck and took me to his cabin.
I drove to work. Chemical powder flaked off the jumpers of the factory workers, their faces obscured by goggles and helmets. They ambled past the guard shack, throwing up half-hearted waves without lifting their heads. I stood up to watch the 7:00 PM shift change, my arms stretching from one wall to the other, wasting my life in a six-by-six foot hut so the Nihikawa Chemical Company could cover their asses. Insurance purposes. They manufactured high fructose corn syrup, monoglyceride, other snack-cake chemicals. Watching the shift change was the active part of the job.
I was drawn to the suicide rate. At least three line workers every year, and usually one management. Suspicion buzzed around the factory, a darting of the eyes, a who’s-going-to-kick-the-next-bucket electricity that felt dangerous and familiar. I would have fit in, if I ever left the guard shack. I sat in a chair and radioed trailer numbers to the shipping station. The trailers sat across a dust field with carbon-spewing towers behind them. Most Nihikawa trailers went through the Rainbow Bros. Trucking Company.
I felt bad for the brothers, for their awful name and childhood: “This is Brandon Rainbow. This is Theo Rainbow. And this here—with the crossed eyes—is little Jerry Rainbow.” No kid can be blamed for his last name, but I imagined the children of the Rainbow family got their asses kicked in school. Toughened their faces. Hardened their bones.
The Rainbow in the company name took over the side of their trailers, the rest rendered in small print and all in colorless black. The brothers flaunted their bad luck, challenging the universe to flip them some good karma. They owned a trucking company, so I guess it worked. My job was oppressive, being confined alone to a cell at the factory gate, but it was the rows of tall, black Rainbows with attached serial numbers that most numbed my brain. “Rainbow HJQX-5703-9468. Rainbow SPVW-2169-4407.” The numbers would flash at random, eating a bagel or sitting in the stands at a football game. “Rainbow DTCZ-4483-9271.” I’d whisper trailer numbers in my sleep until Sheila jabbed me with an elbow.
Daphne left some time ago. Jody, way before that. But Sheila—with the maroon lipstick and the sequined heels—had been around awhile, two years at least. There’d been some good times, quiet nights eating soup in bed, parties at her cousin’s farm where we’d guzzle peach schnapps. Sheila had been clean for years, but she’d gone on a bender last month, slashed couch cushions, ripped out vent covers, pointed with a knife, taken a stab at me. She disappeared for two weeks until the 2:00 AM call from the sheriff, her body found strung out, cold and bloated in a ditch. I thanked the sheriff, stumbled into the kitchen, pulled down a bottle and didn’t stop. I loved Sheila. I knew I should have sobbed, but I never was much on grieving. The only thing in my brain was a number, “Rainbow LDCP-4955-6025,” though it faded and changed with the drink.
In the back of my mind I’d always considered suicide, learned the suddenness of it at a young age with Dad. I’d heard stories about family attempts at reunions, though never from Uncle Bob. He hated the stereotypes, hated his brother. Hated me for being left to take care of.
Uncle Bob was the McKay everyone wanted to see die. He’d always been a fat, violent drunk. Riding with him as a kid, he’d pull over into a ditch and pretend to give driving lessons as he slept off his Old Crow. Bob lost his leg a few years after Dad died. I’d moved into the spare room of his cabin, an old hunting lodge made of molding logs. He was sympathetic at first, made me hash browns for breakfast with sorghum on toast. He went sober for a few weeks after Dad left. We fished every afternoon. But a couple months in I came home to bottles on the floor and no Bob. He was rough after that.
Bob worked at the fireworks warehouse out by the Interstate. He’d sit there for hours sipping whiskey and gorging on white donuts that dusted his beard with powder. Wheeling down the long aisles of the warehouse must have felt like the Vegas strip, explosive boxes with colorful ads like “Annihilator,” “Widow Maker,” or “Grim Reaper.” The county waited to hear about Bob. He was an angry McKay, surrounded by thousands of pounds of explosives, with at least two guns on his chair. And he was Dad’s brother. Expectations were high.
But through all the years in a wheelchair, all the drinks and diapers and dead family and a nephew who stole from his medicine cabinet, Uncle Bob never even hinted at offing himself. Out of spite, probably.
At first I considered the train, the quiet dignity of standing straight, facing down a foghorned light. But I could too easily chicken out, take five steps to the left and have to live with myself. A car wreck was no sure thing. Burning was painful and contemplative. Drowning had the same problems. I needed something swift. Zero reflection. I briefly settled on an explosion, something theatrical. But I couldn’t access enough Ammonium Nitrate, so I dragged out Dad’s gun. The same gun seemed fitting. The county would talk.
Clocking out of my shift, I walked through thick, red light—past rows of black Rainbow Bros.—to my car. I passed two more trucks before arriving home, grabbing the gun out of the glove box. A package had been wedged in the corner of my doorframe. Carrying the small box with both hands, I weaved around the center of the front room, a blank space in the carpet that would have been Dad. I’d moved into the old house at eighteen. The couch was a mess of crumbs that gathered in the slashes Sheila had cut. I unwrapped the package of bullets and placed the gun on the table. Turning it under the lamplight, Dad’s revolver felt cold and awkward. Keeping it straight took practice. I aimed at the wall, put the barrel to my temple, whispered pow.
Grabbing a few of Sheila’s bottles, I headed for the backyard. Mushrooms sprouted in diagonal lines across the tall grass. They made a wet rubber squeak as I kicked them on my way to the tree line. The bottle leaning against a trunk, I took twenty paces back, turned and looked, moved forward five paces. If I could hit a bottle from this distance, I could sure as shit split my own melon. My eyes lined the bottle to the sight as I dug my feet into the dirt, prepped for the recoil.
A hard pull on the trigger, the decisive flick I imagined Dad used. No thinking required.
An otherworldly vision, like someone else shot the bottle, like watching glass explode in a movie, pieces splashing against tree trunks and leaves. It was over before I expected. Pleased, I walked over to inspect the damage. Severe and total, shards glittering in a wide circle of debris, wider than Dad’s. I was drawn to the label, a tattered shred of paper on the grass.
Old Crow. Uncle Bob’s drink of choice.
We’d had our rocky times, him raging drunk through the cabin. But he’d taken me in, raised me in his way. He wasn’t close to anyone except me. His only other visitors were church types trying to wrangle the old bastard into the flock. When I was gone, he’d be alone.
My legs cramped as I flipped the safety on before popping out the cylinder, the leftover bullets ringing against their chambers then hitting the dirt with a final, blunt sound.
I tossed the hollow gun onto the kitchen table, slumped into a chair and twirled the revolver around. Spinning it scratched the table varnish, flakes of cheap lacquer blowing off the edge and snowing to the floor. Even without bullets, the spinning felt dangerous and powerful. I still had the Old Crow label in my hand, crumpled it up and threw it into the sink, my elbow in perfect jump-shot alignment, like Uncle Bob taught me.
Uncle Bob had stopped me before I’d even started. We had a connection, however tricky. Our last meeting hadn’t ended on much of a going-out note. In a sense, Bob’s asshole demeanor made it easier to think about my own splatter. It wasn’t enough to hang on to, but he deserved at least an ounce of respect. I spun the gun again. The barrel pointed to Sheila’s toaster.
Wednesday there’d be a real goodbye. I’d thank Uncle Bob with a bottle of Old Crow, exit with some grace. I hid the gun in a ripped couch cushion. Two more days of staring down black rainbows, of diapers and cold Sheila and Dad staining the ceiling and pooling all over the floor. Two days. The gun was motivation. I could survive anything if I knew I’d never have to do it again.
No other stench is quite like a nursing home in summer. I could never prepare myself for it, made my eyes itch. Walking down the Shady Pines hall on Wednesday, past all those faces like crumpled paper, a different scent hit me. Something rosy, sickly sweet. Turning in the door, I saw Bob—more moldy than usual—arguing with a large woman in a red pantsuit. They didn’t notice me walking in.
Uncle Bob snorted. “That’d be the day, Sister. That’d be the goddamn day. It’s been a rough one, so get the fuck out.”
She backed up a bit, gulped and straightened her suit. “Well, Robert, you surely got that right. That will be the day the Lord sends sinners to the fiery dusts of eternal damnation to be alone forever. And you don’t want that, honey. Nuh-uh. You sure don’t.”
Bob raised his head to narrow his eyes at the sister. “I wouldn’t mind a little lonely damnation. You won’t be there, will you? This place is close enough to a fiery pit. Why don’t you go peddle lies down the hall. Convince those Gertrudes and Annabelles that don’t know their bread pudding from their shit. Those old gals are looking for a holy b’jesus miracle,” Bob wavered his voice, like a TV preacher. “Sanctified! Them bitches are sanctified!” He closed his eyes, shook his hands in the air.
“Well,” her large smile flattened. “I thought I’d cheer you up while I came to see my Granny Sybil, but I see there’s no open door to company here.” She ducked out of the room, wiping mascara as she left.
Bob’s eyes followed her out the door, to me. “Hell in a dicksack. Why are you late?” Bob wheeled over by the window.
“Why do you always have to be such a jackass?” I moved into the room, toward the dresser, reaching for the gloves. I already regretted the visit.
“She’s been coming in last couple of weeks and preaching at all the folks. Annoying, puffed-up bitch,” Uncle Bob sighed. “But she passes time.”
“Any missiles in the silo? You need to get cleaned up?”
Bob focused on the window though he couldn’t see out through the folded-down blinds. He scratched a bushy eyebrow, then his ear. “They took my smokes away. Bothering the asthma patients or some shit.”
Cigarettes seemed trivial next to the gun in my cushion. “Sounds rough, Uncle Bob. Come on over to the lift.”
“Smokes was about all I had. I don’t have much more than that.” Bob moved a hand down to his missing leg. “I’ve been thinking about your old man lately. Billy.” A long-dead house plant sat under the window. Bob picked at it. “Maybe Billy had the right idea. Maybe the whole damn family should’ve been doing it for real instead of half-assing it every time.” He smacked his gums. “If I could go back, Danny. If I just had my leg again.”
I was only half listening as I cranked the lift. “You’d do what?”
Bob opened his mouth, but closed it without a word.
The goodbye had been a mistake. Uncle Bob wasn’t worth paying respects, and I’d left the Old Crow at home. I decided to skip work and pull out the gun as soon as I was through at the nursing home. “Come on, Uncle Bob. Out with it. I need to keep this short today.”
“I’d’ve shot my fucking face off. Way back ago. I know I always been down on the family. But it’s too much sometimes, Danny Boy. Heavy.”
“You’d have followed the family?” My head snapped up. We locked eyes. Uncle Bob looked soft, pleading.
“I had plans to. Billy and me were always talking about it. Working out the different ways.”
I’d hoped for the normal, cantankerous Bob. Here he was being confessional, cutting my last, thin thread of respect for him. I leaned down and grabbed the sides of Bob’s chair. He stank. “What about the shit you always said about Dad? ‘Fucking crybaby?’ You think I don’t remember all that?”
“I know I said some of the wrong things—”
“All that shit you said about the family?” I was breathing deeply, huge gulps that still weren’t enough. Uncle Bob had taken care of me, hated me sometimes and all the while had wanted to be a real McKay, to follow Dad.
“So why didn’t you? Why not off yourself years ago?”
Uncle Bob looked down at his hands. “I was thinking about you.” He’d been as suicidal as the rest of the damn family for years, waiting for me while I waited for him.
“You dumb bastard.”
“I did it for you.”
I turned around, raised my voice. “Yeah, and I did it for you! I had it ready. Right here.” I formed my hand into a gun, put it to my temple. My finger trembled, heat coming off my face.
“What are you—Danny?”
“Go fuck yourself, Uncle Bob. I wish you’d have died years ago.” Before he could respond, I bolted from the room. I’d driven almost two fathers to killing themselves, dropped them like hailstones. I found it harder than ever to live, wasn’t even sure I could wait to get home, to the gun.
Stomping out past the tremoring old nightgowns, I hit the humid air. Slamming the car door, my hands clenched and twisted around the steering wheel, my eyes gushing quiet drops as I thought of Dad, tried again to mimic his face.
Trees nearly covered the street to the Nihikawa Plant, breaking in quick flashes from shadow to disorienting light, like a film projector shining in my face. I hadn’t meant to drive that direction. Just programmed routine. I kept squinting at the road.
That old, fat fuck. I’d always known about his pride, seen it sparkle at his cabin during poker games. The skin of his face would reflect a sallow white when he won, pink when he lost. Bob always thought highly of himself. He’d never seriously mentioned suicide before, always making jokes and turning our family history into a vaudeville play. He was the black sheep McKay, a quality I depended on. Hell, even admired sometimes. But wanting to off himself, and for years. He’d been stringing me along again, teaching me to drive while he drooled in the passenger seat. He was too chicken shit to do it.
If not for Bob, I could’ve shot myself years ago.
The plant parking lot had a sharp turn. Gunning the motor, I flew through the tiny gate arm, heard it crash over the hood, bang the trunk and fall away. The V6 engine sputtered, oscillating with cheap power. Large signs on the factory yard trailers flew past in black glints. Rainbow. Rainbow. I hit the gas harder.
I was in a narrow alley between plant sectors. I could see helmets in the windows, heard a siren off in the distance. Fifty feet ahead, a truck backed out of the loading dock. The wheels squeaked as I slammed the brake, more a reflex than a decision. Debris from the backseat flew forward. Styrofoam cups, paper bags, a phonebook hung in the air, all silhouetted again the freight, those black words that bore down with a force I couldn’t control, washing over me with metal and dark sound. I finally had the face right.
I opened one eye to the white pocks of suspended ceiling tiles, tried sitting up.
“Uncle Bob, I can’t move.”
“It’s okay, kiddo.” He hadn’t called me that since before Dad died. “You’re in half a body cast. You don’t have a lot of wiggle room. Here.” I heard the sharp S sounds in his voice, then the electric whir. He raised my head and placed a firm pillow underneath. The room looked like Uncle Bob’s only bright and new, the bed with gizmos and buttons.
Uncle Bob’s teeth were securely in his mouth, though a little brown. He’d shaved his beard, exposed his whiskey-ed cheeks to the air. Fluorescent lighting showed every wrinkle. The grey dress pants he only wore to family funerals. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
“You call this okay?” I peered down my body to the cast, several inches of molded clay covering my hips and torso. A patch over my left eye, a sling for my left arm.
He rubbed his cheek, shrugged, and placed a hand over his good leg. “You look alive to me.”
“You were going to kill yourself. Years ago.” I used a harsh tone that startled him.
“Yeah. I was.”
“Even though you hated Dad for doing it? Were you jealous?”
“So what’s stopping you? You lost a leg. You live in a shitty home. No real family. Even I hate your guts. Why don’t you flop down on the highway?” My voice peaked. A nurse ducked her head in and ducked out.
Uncle Bob cowered in his chair, his head shivering like he had a five-pound bag on his skull. “You’re still here.” Uncle Bob—the lardy, mean, one-legged drunk who used to kick my ass sitting down—sniffed, moaned, and sobbed. “You’re all I got to go on, kiddo. You’re all I’m living for.”
I flinched when Uncle Bob laid one of his arms across my chest while the other rested on his stump for balance.
“I ain’t going anywhere, Danny Boy. I’ll sit here in this chair long as you need me.” A string of snot dangled from his nose. He grabbed my hand and laid his face on my arm.
Even in his grief, the old guy was crafty. We had a suicide stand-off. No one could kill himself without condemning the other. I hesitated, angry at the responsibility of it all. My own life was one thing, but Uncle Bob’s life—pathetic as he had it—was not something I could trifle with. Maybe that’s why we had so many fucked-up suicides in the family, that last-second flash of obligation saving them all in horrific ways. Except for Dad. Maybe that’s why Bob resented Billy, resented me.
I did the right thing in the moment, wrapped my good arm around Bob’s shoulders and squeezed back. But I couldn’t promise Uncle Bob I wouldn’t do it, that I wasn’t still waiting for the revolver stuffed in the tear of my sofa cushion. Bob wasn’t enough to keep me alive. But I was enough for Uncle Bob. I didn’t know how long that would last.