• Short Story: Uncle Walter

    Uncle Walter

    by Harold O. Wilson

    There was a time when my Uncle Walter lived with his sister-in-law. She was my mother. It was in Spring Lake, New Jersey during the war and after my father left for the Pacific Theatre. When Uncle Walter came, there were the three of us. I was in high school. Mother worked in the candy store just around the corner from the bicycle shop on Third Avenue. Uncle Walter didn’t work. He was retired, mother said, and spent his days walking around the lake, writing letters and telling stories. They were stories about everything except himself and our family. Here there was an unusual silence, but it did fit his personality. Uncle Walter was a formal man, a closed man, always dressed in a coat and tie and vest. The vest buttoned tight as though to keep anything personal from leaking out. Tall and straight, he was thin as a dime. Each Tuesday morning, he would come down from his room in his gray double breasted three-piece suit and say, “Well, I’m off then.” And clutching a small overnight bag, he would walk to the depot on Warren Avenue and take the train to Manhattan. Wednesday evenings he would return wearing the same suit and the same tie.Where in Manhattan he went or why, mother never said. It was expected that he would go and she made allowances with the evening meals. Even if he was in the throes of one of his coughing spells or overtaken by the tiredness of age, he would trudge the few blocks to the station, his small bag in hand. His few friends knew not to enquire after him in the candy shop on those days or to look for him on the walk beside the lake.  And it was said that the conductors on the train knew his name and greeted him with a personal solicitation so consistent was his habit of appearance.

    I don’t remember what year he came to stay. He would visit periodically and then one mid-winter he arrived and didn’t leave. His room and small bath were above mine on the third floor of our old house on Passaic Avenue and I would hear him pacing each Monday evening, back and forth across my ceiling. His steps came heavy as though they carried the weight of a great decision. On Thursday mornings following his return from Manhattan he would be up early to write a letter which he carried to the post in a bulky business envelope. These Thursday letters were posted only by himself and mother either didn’t know for whom they were intended or chose not to say. But like the coming of the day, every Thursday a letter was written and delivered directly to the hand of the postal clerk.

    That was the routine we lived with the years my father was away to the war. Then, a few months after father’s return, Uncle Walter announced he was leaving. Back to West Palm Beach, he said. He had taken a room and the warmth of the sun would be better for his joints. He would miss his friends here of course, but there were friends in Florida as well and besides that’s where Thelma was burried. He would write, but he let us know there would be no more visits. “And what of New York?” my mother said.  Uncle Walter’s face didn’t change expression but his whole body sagged as though pulled into the earth. We were in the foyer saying good-by. The small bag with Uncle Walter’s things sat next to his ankle. Its meager size gave evidence of how little he had gathered in his time with us. With some effort he lifted his head and pressed the front of his suit with his hands. “There is no need now,” he said.

    What mother did tell me is that Uncle Walter was born in Chicago and met her sister Thelma on a vacation to south Florida. Thelma was much younger than Uncle Walter but it took only one day on the beach and it was clear to everyone that she was in love with him. She was young and impetuous. A bit careless about her reputation, is the way mother put it. Uncle Walter was tall and dark with a foreigner’s allure. And of course he was considered a foreigner. “He was from Chicago wasn’t he,” mother said, “and isn’t that enough then.” They married and Thelma was immediately estranged from our family. That Uncle Walter was from Chicago was bad enough, but he was also Jewish. Only my mother and then my father accepted him as their own.

    Uncle Walter and Aunt Thelma stayed in West Palm Beach. Uncle Walter bought a nightclub and spent his days and evenings in his office or on the floor. Aunt Thelma took her realtor’s license and sold and rented properties in Palm Beach. She and my mother were never close, Aunt Thelma in Florida and my mother in New Jersey, but they stayed in touch and visited at least once a year. Aunt Thelma grew into the caricature of a realtor and took on the persona of her rich Palm Beach clients. She drove a big Cadillac, generously entertained her clients and dressed beyond her means. There was something of entitlement to her manner. “Doesn’t she have a hard edge, now,” mother said. “Everything is to be negotiated.” As much as Aunt Thelma crusted over, Uncle Walter grew more gentle. Perhaps that was because she continued to love him and never showed him anything more than the impetuous girl he had met on the beach. Mother said he was blind to what she had become, but he knew of course, everyone knew. But he loved her no less and with earnings from his nightclub supplemented without question her lifestyle. “Perhaps if there had been children,” mother said. Then she blushed and turned her face away.

    But there were no children. “Aren’t they are like two tiny islands adjacent in the sea,” she said, “living separate lives yet held together by something intangible, invisible, stronger even than the seabed that joins them.” It was death that separated them. End stage cervical cancer had done its final work in the space of a fortnight. “It’s a just punishment isn’t it,” Thelma had said to mother when the diagnosis was confirmed. “Isn’t God just the one for irony.” Then as quickly as death had called, Uncle Walter divested himself of the Cadillac, gave the expensive clothes to charity and listed his club for sale. He looked with longing to the beach. He would retire now and take some rest. An offer was made on the club and that same day two men came from Aunt Thelma’s real estate office and sat down with Uncle Walter. Aunt Thelma had embezzled forty thousand dollars from the firm they said. She was paying it back a little at a time when she died. Walter, they said, was responsible for the remaining thirty thousand. There would be no legal action and nothing in the papers if he continued to retire the obligation.

    Only my mother and I knew about the theft and she kept that to herself. Uncle Walter sold his nightclub, bought a small liquor store and continued to work. It was then that he began his periodic visits to us in Spring Lake. When the war came and my father had shipped out mother said, “He’ll come to stay now.” He appeared with almost nothing. Only the same small bag that had sat next to his ankle in the foyer on the day he left. He arrived on a Sunday and his visits to Manhattan began that same week. The letters followed that Thursday. “Don’t ask,” mother had said. “It would be none of our business now, would it.”

    I was in graduate school when Uncle Walter died. His attorney reached me with a short note: Your uncle, Walter Mortinson has died. According to his wishes, all his possessions have been left to you. Please instruct us on the disposition of his effects. Condolences. It was signed by a hasty hand above the multiple names of a law firm. Effects? I remembered the simple carryon bag and wondered how many “effects” it might hold.  “He wasn’t one for things,” mother said. “When you sort through, don’t expect much. Certainly there’s no money.”

    Uncle Walter’s apartment in West Palm Beach was a one-room, third floor walk-up. Its only window looked out over Clematis Street. My mother had been right, there were few “effects” as the attorney had called the possessions that now represented Uncle Walter’s life. A few shirts and trousers hung singly in the closet, each alone in its individual space and taking up as little room as Uncle Walter had himself. One pair of shoes remained, the other having gone to the furnace on Uncle Walter’s feet. Missing also was the gray three-piece suit. Cleaned and pressed, someone had seen fit to dress him out handsomely for his last trip through the fire. I hoped they had remembered the vest, and that it should be buttoned securely.  How could one pass so quietly through this life and leave so little behind. Perhaps he had thought that Aunt Thelma was enough of a storm for the world to endure.

    The only thing in the apartment that appeared to be of any value was an antique rolltop desk pushed against the wall across from the single bed.  Chicago, its presence said, a leftover from Uncle Walter’s life in Chicago and the only thing he owned that did not have Aunt Thelma’s mark on it. The desk was empty except for a small wooden box pushed into an alcove behind the cover. It contained a checkbook, a few personal papers of no import, an out of date driver’s license and a carefully folded scrap of paper that showed the name Louise Hamilton and an address, 218 East 80th Street, Apt. 5-B, New York, New York.

    If Uncle Walter had left me fifty thousand dollars, I would not have held it more securely than I did that slip of paper. “Yes, why don’t you go,” mother said when I showed her the address. I asked if she knew this Louise Hamilton. “No,” she said, “but… I might know of her.” I asked if she could have been a lover. “No,” she said. “A lover? I don’t believe so.”

    I packed a small overnight bag and after breakfast mother led me to the foyer. “Well I’m off then,” I said. “Stop,” mother said. “Don’t mock him. Don’t you ever mock him.” This flash of anger dissipated immediately and she turned her face from me. It was red with blushing. “Off you go, then,” she said.

    In the entryway of 218 East 80th Street I searched the name plates above the intercom boxes. There was no Louise Hamilton. I pressed the button for Apartment 5-A. “Who is it?” a scratchy voice said. I identified myself and asked if there was a Louise Hamilton living in that apartment. “Used to live here,” the voice said. “Talk to the Super.”

    The Superintendent happened to be in the building and took me into his apartment. He asked why I wanted to know about Louise Hamilton. I told him the story of Uncle Walter’s visits. There was an old gentleman, a few years back, he told me. Wore the same gray suit, the same tie, week after week. Stuffy looking gent.  I asked if there were other men who came and he told me no, she wasn’t that kind of woman. She kept to herself, he said. She was a commercial artist. Had a studio in her apartment and worked right up to the day of the stroke. After the hospital, they moved her to a nursing home and that’s when we lost track. I asked if he knew the name of the nursing home. He paused and a woman’s voice from the kitchen yelled that it might be The Rose of Sharon Rehab and Nursing Center over on East 79th Street. Not far from here. I thanked the superintendent and the voice from the kitchen and made my way down Second Avenue to 79th Street.

    The manager of the Rose of Sharon Rehab and Nursing Center showed me into a sparse but neatly organized office. It looked out on a small courtyard. A young woman, smartly dressed came in with a folder and laid it on the desk in front of the manager. She was here, the manager said. At least there was a Louise Hamilton here a number of years ago. She was signed in by a tall gentleman who looked to be her father. When the papers were filled out we realized he was no relation. According to our records she was here for most of a year. The manager consulted her file. Walter Mortinson, was his name, he agreed to cover all her expenses. When she died, he claimed the body. “Is there anyone here on the staff who knew her?” I asked.  The manager rose from behind her desk and left the office. She was replaced by a slim older woman in a white nurse’s uniform. “You’re asking about Louise Hamilton,” she said.

    The nurse was forthcoming and spoke of Louise Hamilton as though she had cared deeply for her. The young girl was mostly comatose when she arrived from the hospital, she told me, and she got somewhat, but never much better. She was awake most of the time and it was apparent that she could see and hear, but that was about all. She couldn’t talk or otherwise care for herself. When the gentleman came he would put her in a wheelchair and on good days wheel her about the courtyard. Then they would sit and he would read to her until she had to be put back in bed. He would read from books and from letters that had arrived by post for her. As regular as his visits, she would receive these letters that the nurses placed on the stand beside her bed. He handled the letters and read from them as though he already knew what was in them, like he might have even written them himself. “How do you figure that?” she said, and shook her head.  I asked if the letters had been discarded or if the gentleman had taken them with him when he claimed the body. “They accumulated in a large shoe box and I don’t think they went with the body. Let me look in the salvage room,” she said. It was the manager who came back into the office. She carried an oversize shoe box that might have contained boots at one time. “Is this what you’re looking for?” she said and opened the lid. The letters, fat and in legal envelopes were stacked on edge and filled the box. “Please take them,” she said. “They’re of no use to us.”

    I read the letters on the train back to Spring Lake. Then I stayed up half the night rereading them. At breakfast mother asked what I had found. “Tell me about Aunt Thelma,” I said. Mother pushed back from the table. “What do you mean?” she said.

    “Tell me about Aunt Thelma,” I repeated. “What happened to her?”

    Mother was crying now. “Are you sure you want to go into all this? What did you find?”

    “Tell me,” I said.

    There was a long silence. She was still weeping. “Thelma was wild and she was unlucky,” mother said. When she was sixteen she got pregnant. The identity of  the father was irrelevant and would remain irrelevant from that point on. There were a number of possibilities. Our parents went crazy with yelling and arguing. I could hear them from my bedroom. First there was anger at Thelma for doing this to them. Then they blamed each other with vile recriminations that made me cover my ears. This carried on until Thelma began to show. Then she was taken out of school and sent to “visit relatives.” To help them manage a family illness, it was said. Where she was sent was to a home for unwed mothers in north Florida. Our father drove her up there. The two of them went alone and he screamed at her the whole way about what an embarrassment she was to the family. Of course everyone in town knew the truth and if they didn’t, then they suspected. At school she was referred to as one of the girls who had to go away. The decision had also been made, our father told her, that when the baby came, it would be put up for adoption; that is, if she ever wanted to come back home again. The staff at the home worked the idea of adoption in their own way. They told Thelma that it would be unfair for her to keep the baby; she could never care for it as well as adoptive parents. They convinced her that because of what she had done, she was unfit to be a mother. “What else were we to do?” mother said.

    She took a deep breath and softly pounded her fist on the table. I was sorry to make her relive all this, but it was something I needed to hear. “Go on,” I said.

    The birth was piteous, mother said.  It was a difficult delivery and Thelma was not allowed to see the baby. Is it a boy or girl, she had asked. You don’t need to know, the nurse said. It’s best this way. And the baby was carried from the room. That’s the way it was, there should be no relationship, not the slightest of bonds established. Soon after, Thelma’s tubes were tied. For medical reasons, the Doctor said. There would be no more babies.

    Thelma was never the same after that, mother said. She was even wilder and given to sharp unsettling mood swings. Her eyes didn’t shine anymore and I would hear her crying in our room during the night. There was something missing, mother said, and I think Walter saw that too. He was moved by this hollowness, the cynicism that played about the corners of her mouth and out of some need of his own, I guess, he embraced her. And Thelma’s luck had finally changed.

    The letters told this story also. And I believe Uncle Walter wrote them as much for himself as he did for Louise. Page by page I was taken back to the time Uncle Walter lived with us and made his weekly trips to Manhattan. I learned it was Louise who found Aunt Thelma. She did well as a commercial artist and had the means to trace Aunt Thelma through a detective agency. But she was too late. The cancer had taken Thelma a month earlier. I believe there was something in the persistence of her search, the desire to connect to something permanent that had touched Uncle Walter. Perhaps he saw something of Thelma in this young girl and perhaps wanted to capture something he had lost or something he and Thelma had never had.  He met her in New York and then began his periodic visits with us. At that time he would make day trips to Manhattan to see her. The letters described how he would sit in her studio all day, watch her work, then take her to dinner in the evening. Turning the pages of magazines in her apartment, he was always surprised and pleased when he came across evidence of her work. He learned that she had no children. Doctors told her she was barren. “Barren?” he said. How could someone who had led a full rich life, whose work was all over the largest city in America be barren? Tell me that?  He learned that she had been married once but when her husband found that she couldn’t have children, he left her. Uncle Walter couldn’t escape the contradiction. Her life was a life of abandonment. Even the adoption, he learned had turned out badly. Strong willed, tough, and unruly, she had been given up by her adoptive parents as incorrigible and raised in foster homes as a ward of the state. “And yet,” Uncle Walter wrote in one of the letters, “you had the strength to never abandon yourself. By all accounts, my dear, destined to be a failure, you did even more than survive, you prevailed.”

    “You have the whole sordid story then,” mother said. “You’ve opened this closest door, turned on the light, and sorted through the shambles. Close it, now,” she said. “Walk away and return us all to the peace of darkness.”

    But even before she spoke, I knew what I was going to do. It required one more trip to New York and a bit more detective work. Today, if you visit the Palm Grove Cemetery in West Palm Beach, you will find a newly placed headstone next to those of Aunt Thelma and Uncle Walter The inscription reads for everyone to see, Louise Hamilton, and the dates bracketing her life, Daughter of Thelma Warren Mortinson, and then the inscription, “Home at Last.”


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