, ,

At my cousins’ apartment in New York City, I was in the bedroom talking about Bobby Sherman. My cousin Lucy was trying to explain why he was so good. She said it was part his voice, and part the songs he sang, but mostly his personality. She played me one his songs as she showed me a picture from one of her magazines. “You can see it, right?” she said. “You know he would be so nice, if you met him and talked to him.”

My brother and my cousin Eileen were in the bedroom, too, watching television. Eileen yelled to turn it off when Lucy played the Bobby Sherman song, even though Lucy played it really low so it wouldn’t bother them. I wondered if it would have been worth having to share a bedroom with my brother if it meant we could have our own TV in there.

“I think my friends would beat up any boy who wore that necklace thing,” I said to Lucy, as I looked at Bobby Sherman’s picture in her magazine.

Lucy tsked. “It’s called a choker. And it looks good on him. You’re just making fun.”

We heard the door of the apartment open, which meant our Uncle Mike was home. We all went to the kitchen to say hello. We knew Mike would be mad if we didn’t.

Our mothers were in the kitchen with their friend Ed, who lived in the building with his sick mother. We’d been hearing their whoops of laughter from the bedroom. Ed was the kind of person who could make anyone laugh.

Uncle Mike nodded hello to us all, pulled a chair from the kitchen table, turned it backwards and sat down. “How are you doing, Mike?” Ed asked.

“I’m doing fine. Kind of beat. Long day.”

Uncle Mike was supposed to work as a bartender. But even I knew he had strange hours for bartender. Sometimes he worked in the middle of the afternoon, sometimes the middle of the night. Whenever we visited Lucy and Eileen, he was always just showing up. He never came along when my aunt and cousins visited us in Monroe.

“You all staying over tonight, Eileen?” Uncle Mike asked my mother.

“Yes,” she said quickly. “Just for the one night. If that’s okay.”

Everyone always acted like this around Uncle Mike, kind of nervous. Which was funny, since Mike was a short, wiry guy, not someone you’d expect people to be scared of.

“That’s fine,” Uncle Mike said, and stood up abruptly. “You know, I think I’m going to take a shower and a nap. I really am beat.”

“We can leave…” Ed began.

“No, no, stay,” Uncle Mike said. “You know me. I can sleep through anything.”

Uncle Mike walked over to the refrigerator, got himself a beer. He paused for a second in the kitchen doorway. “Okay then, enjoy it, anyway” Uncle Mike said, and laughed to himself.

That was another thing about Uncle Mike, he was always saying weird little things that made no sense to me but he thought were really funny.

Once the shower water started running everyone calmed down. We kids went back to the bedroom. Our mothers and Ed began telling stories again.

About a half hour later I had to go to the bathroom. “Hey,” a voice called out as I passed the living room. “Hey, Chris. Come in here for a second.”

It was Mike. He was in the living room with the lights out, sipping on his beer. I came in, sat on the far end of the couch.

“You like music, don’t you?” he asked.

I said yes, although I didn’t know how he’d know if I liked music or anything else. We never talked much.

“I heard this on the radio today. I had to go out and buy it.”

He took a 45 record out of a plastic Korvette’s bag. “Just listen to this.”

He put the record on the turntable. It started out with guitars that sounded like the country music my father listened to, but then a deep, sad voice began singing words that were nothing like any country music I’d ever heard:

Yesterday, when I was young
The taste of life was sweet as rain upon my tongue
I teased at life as if it were a foolish game
The way the evening breeze may tease a candle flame….

As I sat on the couch listening, I watched Uncle Mike. He stood at the record player, his ear dipped toward the speaker, getting closer and closer as the song went on. It was like he wanted to crawl inside.

“Isn’t that great?” he asked, when it ended.

“It’s really good.”

He nodded. “Let’s listen again.”

He restarted the record. Again, he listened with fierce concentration. At the end, he shook his head, then looked up at me as if waking up from a dream. “You don’t want to be here,” he said. “It’s okay. You can go.”

As I walked away, I heard him cueing up the record again.

I went to the kitchen, where there was light. Ed was telling another story. Aunt Julie was laughing, my mother was laughing, which wasn’t something she did very often. Ed paused long enough to say, “Lose your way somewhere, Chris?” which made everyone laugh even harder. Then he picked up right from where he’d left off.

I sat down at the table. I was relieved to be back here, away from Uncle Mike and that dark living room. This was where I belonged. But then how to explain how badly I wanted to hear the song Uncle Mike had played for me again?

RIP Roy Clark. Never much of a Hee Haw fan but I’m sure it made a lot of people very happy.