In the middle of Cracker Barrel country restaurant/store my father tells me how I will die — my heart will kill me, it’s in the family. He says that his side is more stroke, heart attacks. Your mother’s side, and thumbs to her, more heart disease. A sign behind me says ATTENTION ALL FARMERS! We talk about Stieg Larsson, how he collapsed one day; we talk about Christopher Hitchens and his interview with Paxman on the BBC. I tell him that the Friday after his death was awful; I felt a loss. He says he’s never read anything by him and: my uncle with a stroke had a hard time reading and writing, that would be the worst, not being able to do that. He stares at me. The server says he forgot the biscuits and gravy, puts them down on the table in front of me next to the grits and the man at the table to my right has placed his eyeglasses on the back collar of his shirt, one of its arms bisecting the hair on his neck into neat equal parts like a toupee. Old men keep their quiet physical distance from each other. A daguerreotype on the wall is either Mary Baker Eddy or a character from an Austen novel. My brother picks up the crisp twenty-dollar bill tip and asks have you seen 9/11? folds it and shows us trees as fire. Wow, my mom says. That’s a coincidence, I say. He looks at me. The men in my family like staring today. There are no coincidences, he says and places the four sided Pentagon on the wooden table.
My mother asks how much a family friend gave us for the holiday, I sign her two then five, like a Special Forces sign in front of an about-to-be-kicked-in door. I leave the table for a moment. It seems everything is made of splintered or about-to-be splintered wood. The water fountain’s temperature like brushing your teeth with warm water. Outside, the newspaper racks are empty. The structure of the building is a faux saloon littered with rocking chairs and price tags. SANTA SPECIAL TWENTY DOLLARS OFF. I look at wood framed things. I think of saloon doors swinging. On a parking lot light’s stem: THESE PREMISES GUARDED BY ELECTRONIC VIDEO SURVEILLANCE.
I’m in front of my parents home (where I used to ride circles around my house on my bike and pretend to be in Star Wars) sharing a cigarette with my uncle (he’s unloading my grandfather’s artwork from his truck — I’ve always wanted to smoke with him — he doesn’t seem to mind that I smoke, nor does not care) who tells me that he’s been engaged three times and understands where I am coming from. At the dinner table, he just talked about setting up lights for Elton John, that he performed in his pajamas for a second encore. There is no snow on the ground. I first heard the term brown Christmas a few days ago in the dentist’s office.
My uncle talks about being single and dating women in their thirties, twenty years younger than he is.
I’m sure they are in a different place, I say.
They are in a completely different place, he says. Like if you dated an 18-year-old.
Yeah. Well, a little older, a year or two. But, exactly. I know, I say.
So you know, he says. I’m 52 and all the single women are crazy.
We talk about recycling and coming generations, how mine and the following will be healthy. He is skeptical about global warming and speaks through his remaining teeth. He has no front teeth; he has played hockey his whole life; he is waiting for the dentist to screw fake ones into his gums. They have to heal first, he says. His Facebook is rife with two front teeth jokes. He stuffs his butt into his U Illinois jacket. I throw mine over the fence.
Later that night, I walk outside to The Road-type silence. The streetlight is a different hue than my end-of-cigarette. I make sure of this. The screen door keeps clicking. My mother told me a family of skunks were living under the cement porch, but a man in a uniform took them away to be euthanized, her words. So nothing is here now save a reverberation in my head, a factory in the distance or the stinging-eardrum noise of my totaled car’s airbag revisiting my skull for the first time in months. My parent’s street is never this quiet. I look at the neighbor’s For Sale By Owner sign, its tethered triangle semaphores all orange now under the suburban streetlight. I walk to the edge of the driveway; my body looms for itself two shadows; the cigarette flies away from the dual me. Usually, I try and keep them away from combustible objects — things hurting, dying, prone to decay, maybe healing. This time it will roll away from me, I think.