Fred Is Dead
Fred Is Dead
by Matt Briggs
My uncle was obsessed with being alive to the point where he didn’t live at all. He filled a cardboard box with free verse, a landfill with green bottles and a tin urn with his ashes. When I was first aware of him, he was growing things out, weird like Howard Hughes. Uncle Fred decided to grow a whisker under his chin as long as it would grow. It grew and grew like a long fishing line. I asked him if people stepped on his whisker. It was that long.
“I wear it rolled up into my shirt when I walk around in the city. I’d whip someone with it, if they gave me trouble.” He was a drinker, dedicated to the harsh rush of three bottle red wine highs and the following trough of depression. He grew his fingernails long, and then snipped each one short, except his pinkie. “It’s a costume. People think I do sneaky things with my fingernail like this.” He winked.
Like Howard Hughes, my uncle kept strict track of the particles that came from his body. He wanted to keep track of the evidence of his existence. The story of how Howard Hughes kept everything that came out of him fascinated my uncle. A movie came on television about a gas station attendant who gave Howard Hughes a ride. The attendant thought the old man with long fingernails and scraggly hair was just insane, but he wasn’t just insane. He was Howard Hughes, who was insane. And when Howard Hughes died, he remembered the kindness of the gas station attendant and gave him a cool million. A billion boils and a trillion smells.
Howard Hughes had long nails, and in reality, I had heard he had nails long enough that they curled back on themselves. I thought of the picture in the Guinness Book of World Records, where a Chinese man holds up his hands, and twisted branching fingernails curl away from his fingertips, like party streamers.
Howard Hughes had his parts catalogued, ranked by category and date grown, expelled, cut. Fingernails, hanks of hair, skin scraping, old toe nails, hard boogers, ear wax rolls, spit and tears. Did accountants figure out the mass he lost each day, compared to the intake? Uncle Fred told me they had small silver scales and placed the baggies and cups of Howard Hughes substance on them; they kept meticulous track in notebooks.
Did the billionaire pay these people a million dollars as well? A boiling billion, a smelly trillion? Doing work like that seemed much kinder than giving a ride to an old man in the desert. But my mother says, the worse the work, the less the pay. Uncle Fred died poor.
Uncle Fred grew his hair long, and grew a goatee, and then grew a beard, and cut his beard off, and grew mutton chops, and then he shaved a bald spot in his hair. “Going to happen anyway,” he said. “You should plant the whisker follicle in your head,” Mom said, “and wrap it around the bald spot.” Mom still visited my uncle in Seattle even after Dad kicked him out of the potting shed behind our bungalow in West Seattle, where Uncle Fred had squatted over the winter. Dad kicked him out in the summer to give Fred time to find a place by fall. We saw the Fourth of July from the treehouse where he lived in a greenbelt above Georgetown. I remember the firework snakes spewing their carbon bodies over the moldy planks of the old tree house and our anemic sparklers under Ivar’s huge explosions that lit Elliott Bay. It didn’t occur to me then that this was where my uncle actually lived. And if it did, I probably wouldn’t think it was that bad, after all it was a tree house. Fred wore hats, marine captain, western cowboy, railroad-engineer hats. He modeled fedoras. He sported yarmulkes. He wore chaps, blue jeans, spurs, and a yarmulke. His whisker trailed from his chin. He wore a wool poncho and a flat rimmed Stetson. He experimented with five dozen costumes. But they were only costumes and not uniforms. Usually when Mom, my brother Jesse and I went to Seattle to meet him, we didn’t recognize him and Mom would give him some money and we’d eat hamburgers.
Toward the end, Fred grew his nails long, and sharpened them with a file, shaved his head, and wore a tight black denim body suit. He starved himself until the suit hung on his thin limbs. “I’m a vampire,” he said, and curled his fingers into claws. Like an East Indian Deity, I could piece together different faces and bodies onto the identity of my uncle until his personalities spiraled like a dancing horde around his actual self. It was easiest for me, in order to understand him, to divide him into two people. One was a nice guy, someone who would look out for Jesse and me on a busy street making sure people didn’t brush us down. He looked out for us in the woods to make sure we didn’t fall back and disappear into the bushes. Good Fred would listen to my stories of school’s recess evils, the detailed account of what the bully was doing to me, and shake his head and say, “A tough, tough time, sure.”
The Other Fred grit his teeth into a smile, “Someone beat the shit out of you? What you do in retaliation is to check out the recess baseball bat from Miss Black, hunt down this shit and crack his skull.” The Other Fred took Jesse and me for a walk down to Lincoln Park at dusk. As soon as it was dark, he yelled, “The Dark is falling,” like Chicken Little, and he ran through the bushes, leaving Jesse and me alone in the trees. But both Freds were one and the same. He wasn’t Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. He didn’t disappear into a closet and come out a different man. He would change over in a single sentence and the two sides knew each other. There was always hope that he would slow down and stop drinking wine and when the wine ran out that he’d stop drinking gasoline and when his stomach was pumped that he’d stop drinking anything all together. And for a moment as the 70s became the 80s, my uncle wore a white double breasted uniform for a job cleaning a kitchen and preparing food and we came to visit him and looked at the restaurant where he worked and he fed us chocolate mousse. I said, “It’s like Jell-O pudding, only bitter,” and he looked disappointed.
It seemed that he’d thrown away his drinking self. He’d found a studio apartment and owned a rattling old beater Chevy. It really seemed he’d thrown away his drinking self, enough so that my father loaned him some money.
My father told me that it was right after this that my uncle actually died, months before he actually killed himself. Dad said my uncle died in an astral traveling accident. Instead of drinking, he lay on the roof of his apartment building late at night when he could find stars in the Seattle sky and he picked out the same, single star and began moving toward that speak of light. He felt his body lift from the tar roof, still warm from the summer day and began to accelerate through space, hundreds and thousands and then millions times the speed of light. His attention wavered and he went careening through the universe to his death. “Yeah right,” my dad had told him. But then my uncle removed his glasses and showed my father his eyes, and Dad said, “I could tell he was dead already.” And when he was sick of being dead and wearing the white double breasted uniform he gassed himself in the gravel parking lot of his apartment building in his old Chevy.
Things went on. The parking lot was paved over. The landfills were filled. The free verse he wrote and left in a cardboard box turned to mold in my father’s flooding basement. His ashes were scattered in the wind on top of Mount Index. And now no catalogue of the evidence of his existence remains.