*Image: “Secret Path,” Medium Format Film Photography Darkroom Print, 8″x10″, by Caitlin Crowley
By Robert Earle
As my father parked at the strip mall on Germantown Pike, a man walked in front of our car toward Filbert’s pharmacy. He was shorter and heavier and his hairline had receded more, but he looked like my father.
My father said, “That’s your Uncle Ralph.”
I was twelve and would not have recognized my father’s brother without prompting although I must have seen him twice before. The first time would have been at a picnic on the lawn of a summer house my grandmother had rented along Arcola Creek. We had sodas and beer in an ice-filled galvanized tub; a grill for hamburgers, sausages, and hot dogs; bowls of potato salad; and lots of vaguely alive-looking pickles. This was Pennsylvania. Everyone loved pickles. I remembered the large dark house looming over the lawn. I remembered cars rattling on the bridge across the creek, and I remembered my grandmother’s smothering bosom as she grabbed me and cackled: “Give me a kiss or I won’t let you go.” But I didn’t remember Ralph, although I already had heard the cautionary story about his face. One Halloween when he was a boy, the tale went, Ralph colored his face with crayons. The pigment in the crayons penetrated his skin and stayed there like a tattoo. Over time this became invisible except when he was hot or flushed with emotion. Then the colors faintly emerged: the vampirish eye sockets, the bloody dripping mustache, the cross-stitched scar on his temple.
The next time I’d have seen Ralph was a year later at my grandmother’s funeral. Unbelievable, everyone said. Only 63. Her nickname was Zip because she had so much energy. (Actually, she was a manic-depressive Doc McGuire calmed down or sped up with hypos he brought to her apartment in his large black leather bag. And then, the story goes, he made love to her.) But now look at her. That stony face, that steely hair permed unnaturally tight on her head, those lips glued together as they had never been in life, that blazing red dress she’d insisted she be buried in. I froze in the back of the funeral parlor, seeing quite enough of her from a distance. My mother went up to the front row and told my father she’d gotten me in the door, but that was it. She’d have to go back and sit with me. Couldn’t let a six-year-old go through a funeral by himself.
Ralph had to have been there—likewise his wife, Mildred—but I certainly didn’t want to see him grow florid and frightening at Zip’s funeral. Besides, he and my father no doubt avoided one another at the gravesite and post-burial hospitality. They had already had their fight over Zip’s modest estate. She ran a lunch house at a quarry. As my father put it, he “caught” Ralph and Mildred removing cases of mayonnaise, mustard, and Coca-Cola without his permission before Zip was even in the ground. So I probably saw Ralph, but I certainly wasn’t introduced.
We waited for Ralph to leave the pharmacy before we went in ourselves.
“Where does he live?” I asked.
“Three miles from here, up on Sunset Road.”
“Why don’t we ever see him?”
“Some other time when you’re older, okay?”
A half-dozen years had passed since Zip’s funeral and they still weren’t speaking, and then another half-dozen years passed incommunicado. Finally, when I was eighteen, I went to Florida with my parents, and it happened that Ralph and Mildred had rented a bungalow in the same community. Again my father and I were in the car. Again we saw Ralph through the windshield. He was out front washing his Cadillac.
“Isn’t that Uncle Ralph?”
“Aren’t you going to say something?”
My father hesitated before stopping and putting the car in reverse. Ralph looked up. I could detect light traces of the crayons because of the effort he was putting into scrubbing his Caddy in the hot sun.
My father lowered his window and said, “You staying here, too?”
“This time, but Mildred says it’s mildewy. She’ll never come here again.”
I studied the resemblance in Uncle Ralph’s and my father’s features and noted their identical, heavy, certain voices, commanding but emotionless. The similarities spooked me. Doppelgängers bound together by the resolute distance they weirdly maintained from one another. Despite this amazing coincidental encounter, my father didn’t get out of the car and Ralph did not put down his hose. It was as though, having finally broken the congenital magnetic field that bound them together as boys, these sons of my crazy grandmother and the boneless milkman she’d divorced would never let it pull them together again.
Mildred, a short, squat, squashed-faced woman opened the bungalow’s screen door. She called out, “Damn right it’s mildewy, and it doesn’t make it any better knowing you’re here. Haven’t said a word to us in ten years. Why start now?”
My father simply put up the window. He didn’t say anything until we had driven on a bit. “I could take Ralph until he married Mildred. I’m sure she was the real instigator in pilfering your grandmother’s lunchroom. Is there anything she wouldn’t snatch?”
Those ten seconds were the only time I had a decent look at Mildred, but I didn’t care about her. Ralph was my father’s brother. Not having a sibling myself, I found their matter-of-fact alienation incredible. They had spoken to one another with total aplomb, as if they’d never been out of touch. If Mildred had not come to the door, would they have said more?
When I relayed the event to my mother, she said one way or another Mildred always came to the door. “It goes back further than the lunchroom. When your grandparents divorced, Mildred made sure Ralph took Zip’s side because Zip always had money in her pocket and your grandfather didn’t. Then came World War II and she persuaded Ralph to stay in the tire business rather than enlist. He got rich, but the guys who served resented the ones who didn’t, but your father blamed Mildred more than Ralph for him staying home. It was your grandfather who made Ralph squirm by making a big deal of your father as a war hero. That’s how he got back at Ralph back for siding with Zip.”
My grandfather, maybe not so boneless. He started delivering milk in a horse-drawn wagon with my father, the older son, at his side; graduated to trucks; and ended up tending bar in a hotel in exchange for his room. Handled the morning hours, serving workers who had been on the night shift at the tire factory Ralph once ran. Another grudge: Ralph, though wealthy, never helped my grandfather out. My father did that. The quiet old guy had next to nothing except his sagging smile and big forearms from hoisting milk crates and a pulseless temperament that enabled him to live on and on, working well past Ralph’s early retirement to a fieldstone country house in a place called Macungie.
Then a stroke retired my father early, too. He couldn’t drive, could get out of his recliner only with the help of what we called his “launcher,” which tipped the chair up and forward, toppling him onto his unsteady feet, cane at the ready, leg brace in place. And suddenly, inexplicably, he wanted to talk to Ralph. He asked my mother to dial Ralph’s number.
When I came home to visit and see how things were going, my mother told me this story. I asked her what happened next.
“Nothing happened next,” my mother said. “We didn’t have Ralph’s number. So I got in touch with your grandfather. He didn’t have Ralph’s number, either. Next I called information. Private listing. I asked your father why he wanted to talk to Ralph after ignoring him for twenty years. Your father said he hadn’t ignored him, he knew all about him. I asked how. Through connections, he said. I said things were hard enough after his stroke, and talking to Ralph would blow up in his face. That set him off. He said the hell it would blow up in his face and told me which of his connections to call, and that’s how I got Ralph’s number. Then he kept putting off calling after I went to all that trouble. It wasn’t my idea for him to call. It was his idea. So day after day, I’d ask if now was the time to call Ralph. Your father kept saying no. God knows what goes on in that head of his. Finally I exploded. If he still hated Ralph because of Zip and mayonnaise and mustard and weasling out of the war and getting rich and ignoring your grandfather, why bother? Your father dropped into that preacher’s voice of his when he takes me for a fool and said, ‘There’s a time for everything, and this is the time for Ralph and me to patch things up.’ ‘Because you almost died?’ I asked him. Almost died? Who almost died? Was I nuts? He claimed he was more alive than ever. When he got Ralph on the phone, he asked him to come see him, which he did.”
“Ralph came to see Dad?”
“Two peas in a pod. Old times. Not a word about Mildred, who obviously hadn’t come along, but a lot about your grandfather. Ralph said he was going to visit him next, down at that awful hotel.”
“Is he okay himself?”
“No, he’s not okay. He’s an old man who’s had two heart attacks and has a big belly and diabetes. That whole side of the family makes me so mad I could spit.”
“At least they’re back in touch.”
My mother wasn’t having it. Her family fought and made up, but my father’s family… “Why couldn’t they always have been in touch? Now it’s every two weeks. Ralph comes here and then goes to see your grandfather. He’s helping get him in the county home. Your father says Ralph is a prince. Can you imagine? Everything’s Mildred’s fault. Always blame the wife.”
These visits went on for about two years, but when my grandfather died at 97, Mildred struck again. At least this time it was after the funeral, which I, living in Germany, did not attend. She apparently insisted on going to the county home and making off with some personal items my father had been promised. These treasures included my grandfather’s last milkman’s hat (Oakland Farms), his wedding ring, his unread Bible, his zinc-lined oak ice box, and curiously, a picture of him and Zip.
My father called Ralph. “It was Mildred, wasn’t it.” Not a question. Then a question: “How could you let her do that?”
Taking Mildred’s side, perhaps with Mildred staring at him, Ralph said, “Vic, it’s nothing. Life is life. You’ve got nothing to complain about.”
“What’s that mean?”
Ralph said, “You know exactly what it means.”
Ralph never explained this, though, and my father recounted the exchange to me with wounded consternation the next time I visited.
“I have no idea what he was talking about.”
I said, “Maybe he’s referring to being stuck with Mildred all these years as opposed to Mom.”
“That’s his tough luck. Ralph never served milk with my dad, and I did. I want you to get the hat for me. Forget the other stuff. All I want is the hat.”
“Drive to Macungie and get an old milkman’s hat?”
“I can’t drive, so it’s you or nobody, and when I go, that’s your hat just like my father always said it was mine.”
“Dad, I don’t want the hat.”
“I guarantee when the time comes, you will.”
Suddenly my father looked terribly defeated. I don’t think I had ever seen a sadder look on his face. My mother stared at the two of us with bright, infuriated eyes. If I acceded to my father’s wishes, I’d be incriminating myself as a second in an ancient duel in which neither party ever struck his target fatally but both parties kept on shooting. For decade after stupid decade. That’s what my mother thought. But my father sat there in that sad silence, the seas of existence collapsing on him, nothing to grab onto except his father’s hat before he sank forever.
It was a dreary rainy winter afternoon. Ralph’s fieldstone house stood lonely on a hillside beneath a leafless oak and a leafless maple. The Cadillac sat next to the house; it was rusting along the rear fender.
Mildred answered the door. She asked what I wanted. Ralph’s voice–my father’s voice–emerged from the living room.
“Who is it?”
“He says he’s Vic’s son.”
“What’s he want? Is Vic dead?”
“No, he’s not dead,” I called back.
Mildred squinted up at me, her hair grayish blond, her fat face webbed with blood vessels, her dry lips drooping with contempt. “Ralph’s got diabetes and he’s half-loopy most of the time. It’s a good thing he has me.”
I said I was sorry to hear that. I didn’t know how bad things were.
“How would you, when that father of yours won’t talk to him anymore? Same old idiotic story.”
“He sent me here to talk to him today. May I come in?”
Mildred reluctantly let me in. I walked down a short hall past some overloaded coat hooks and entered a living room where Ralph sat in a worn recliner much as my father sat in his. I saw that his right leg had been amputated above the knee.
“Heard a lot about you. Want a drink?” His tone was more than civil. Perhaps I detected some relief or hope in it. Perhaps not. “Help yourself. Pour me one, too.” He gestured at my grandfather’s old ice box, in which he now stored his booze.
Mildred said, “Ralph, drinking is out and you know it.”
Ralph said, “Yes, dear, and I don’t care.”
With age, my father had lost more hair on top, and with age Ralph’s face had grown thinner, so their resemblance was stronger than before. I found myself powerfully drawn to Ralph, entangled with him. Yet at the same time I felt numb, like a bird that had crashed against a window in full flight. Even now we didn’t shake hands in greeting.
I poured us bourbon, neat. Mildred stood in the doorway, unwilling to leave or join us.
“Have a seat,” Ralph said. His hand trembled as he brought the whiskey glass to his lips. He spilled some and muttered about it. “No one’s been to visit in I don’t know how long.”
“Months,” Mildred said, “so this is quite a surprise. Does Vic want to make peace?”
The milkman’s hat, the Bible with the wedding ring resting on it, and the picture of my grandfather and Zip were on the mantle.
“What do you do?” Ralph asked me, overriding Mildred’s taunt.
“I’m a diplomat.”
“What’s that entail?”
Did he really care? I knew the man and didn’t know the man and offered the wooden answer I generally used with people who rarely understand. “I work in U.S. embassies overseas. Germany, currently. The job is to build good relations.”
“First we have to kill them, then we have to be friends?” Mildred complained.
“I never killed anybody,” Ralph said. “Your father did, though. Still has the .45 he did it with.”
“That something you’re going to inherit?”
I said I didn’t really want it. “But there is an inheritance item my father would like to have.”
Mildred snapped at Ralph, “I told you, didn’t I?”
“What do you mean, an inheritance item?” Ralph asked.
I tried to sidestep old grudges, make the request sound simple. “Nothing valuable, really. He isn’t normally sentimental, but I guess there’s a time in life when that can change. It’s the milkman’s hat. He delivered milk with his father when he was a boy and he’d like it as a memento. That’s all he asks.”
Mildred started shrieking: Vic’s father was Ralph’s father, too. The gall! When would my father give up his sanctimonious oldest child act?
Ralph looked at her as if she were a long article in the newspaper he didn’t intend to finish. Nonetheless she carried on about my grandparents’ divorce, the business about the war, and who got what from the lunch house when Zip died. Well, she concluded, Ralph had outlived them all, and that’s why he had the hat.
“Excuse me, my father’s not dead.”
“You call what he is alive? Ralph’s told me what he’s seen on those pilgrimages of his.”
I thought that if I wanted, I could be like the whole family and simply take the hat and leave, but I didn’t want to be like the whole family. I wanted the hat given to me.
“As long as I can remember, my father has told me stories about harnessing Charlie the horse at four in the morning and climbing the icy steps in Conshohocken and racing to get home for breakfast before school. It meant a lot to him, helping his dad. So the only thing he really wants is the hat. Just the hat.”
It was a hat with a patent leather brim and a pleated crown encircled by green piping. Across the front, also in green stitching: Oakland Farms.
Ralph sloshed some more bourbon toward his mouth. He looked out the window at the rain lancing the overgrown fields. His brow gathered just the way my father’s brow did when he was fed up and about to explode.
“Mildred’s right. Your grandfather was my father, too. I did a lot for him before the end.”
“I know, but you didn’t serve with him.”
The way I phrased that response unintentionally brought back the WWII issue. I meant serving milk, not serving the country, but it wasn’t the way he heard it.
“All right, take the hat,” he said, suddenly deflated, the look on his face equivalent to the look I’d seen on my father’s face when I left him at home—sad, weary, beaten and bereft. “If Vic thinks it’s going to make him a captain again, let him have it. Tell him I said so. The war didn’t kill either of us, but so what? I’ve told people all my life my father was a milkman and I was proud of what I managed to do with what I had at the start, which was nothing. War or no war, I did something with my life, too.”
I could have tried to clarify what I’d said about serving, but he was not well enough to be soothed, and he’d spoken from the heart. At any rate, I just couldn’t do it to him. I’d have to go home and tell my father that whether or not he deserved the hat more than Ralph, Ralph was the one who needed it more. He had said uncle. I had heard him, and with that, their lifelong battling had to come to an end.