My uncle lived in the warehouse district of Toledo, not far from a Pizza Papalis and a Blarney Irish Pub. He didn’t work, lived on government checks and “gifts” from my parents. My father blamed his unemployment on a “poor attention span.”
His name was Joe, but my father called him Uncle Grim (behind his back) because he rarely smiled. I spelled it Grimm.
We lived in the Old Orchard district that sprouted lawyers and university professors such as my father. I sometimes peaked at his lecture notes, doted on names like Sartre or Descartes, and wondered if their words had done the world any good. Our neighborhood was safe but dull.
I lived mostly in my room, inventing puzzles, or pretending I could split into two people and play HANGMAN. The great thing about it was that I couldn’t lose. Imagine, I thought, making the stick figure of a man disappear by spelling a word I already knew.
Imagine if spelling the word, Grimm, would make me disappear.
Did Uncle Grimm ever play HANGMAN on rainy days?
Uncle Grimm was a Vietnam War veteran who flew bombing missions over Hanoi. His plane was shot down and he spent several months in a Viet Cong prison camp. He escaped with a buddy who later took a bullet for him.
I wondered whether Uncle Grimm wished he had bit that bullet instead.
Growing up bored, lonely, frightened of bullies, I frequented his apartment more often. Besides the cigarette smoke and dust, it smelled of exotic places. He said it was a mix of Balm of Peru and Ginger CO2 oil. He said it helped him forget.
We often visited the arcade. We played pinball or munched on pizza. We sat in silence on a park bench, even when it drizzled. It was our way of forgetting.
And one afternoon, sitting on his cheap chintz sofa, I asked him if he ever played HANGMAN.
“No. Some of the guys back in the service did. Why?”
“No reason. I do. Sometimes.”
The days followed each other like dominoes. I lost myself at the arcade, shooting little metal balls, trying to hit the make-believe lions and tigers.
At school, teachers humiliated me. My parents talked “at” me but never “to” me. My sometimes girlfriend broke up with me for good. Back home, I became the greatest solitary player of HANGMAN.
And one day, I found a long stretch of cord on Grimm’s bed with one end made into the shape of a halo. I asked him what it was for.
He shrugged, said he was working on something that could reach soup cans on shelves too high.
I didn’t believe him.
I kept thinking about that piece of cord. Was it a halo or a noose?
From then on, whenever I visited, I searched for that cord, wondered whether its loop had grown looser or more taut. It became a kind of a undeclared game between us. I kept hiding the cord. He kept finding it.
Weeks later, I worked up the nerve to ask him.
“Do you ever wish the world would stop?”
He parted his lips slightly.
“You mean like a yo-yo? ”
“Maybe. Like cutting the string.”
His eyes froze, gave me a chill.
“You mean end it?”
“Something like that, ” I said.
“Everybody does, sometimes.”
“Why would you want to end it?” I asked. Maybe I was putting too much of myself in Uncle Grimm.
“Sometimes I feel down, but I pick myself back up. I don’t have what others have. Like you. A nice life, a nice mom and dad. ”
“I don’t have a nice life. It’s a nothing life. I get bullied by teachers and jerks. I get dumped by a Brittney Spears wannabe. I don’t excel in anything. I just keep going in circles around myself.”
“Wow, that’s heavy. Circles, huh? You must be reading those French philosophers your father teaches. Those people live inside their heads.”.
“Don’t most people?” I asked.
I looked down at his brown Oxfords, a size too big for his feet. He once claimed they gave his feet room to breathe.
“The load upon your back is not that heavy,” he said, rolling his eyes.
“My back isn’t as strong as yours.”
“My back is crooked. You just haven’t noticed.”
“Looks fine to me.”
I studied his poker face.
“Say,” he said, “I have an idea. Why don’t we end it together? No fun doing it alone.”
“You serious?” I said.
“Serious as death. We can do it right now. Put an end to all this nothing and suffering.”
He made a cord with a loop at each end. He slung it over a ceiling pipe in the kitchen. Then we climbed upon chairs and placed our heads in each noose.
“You go first,” he said. “This way I’ll make sure you don’t cheat.”
“The pipe won’t hold,” I said.
“You’re chicken,” he said.
“You are,” I said.
“You’re a lazy chicken who’s afraid to live.”
“You sound like dad. An abbreviated version.”
I bit my lip.
“Here goes,” I announced.
I bent my knees and exhaled all my air.
I was about to jump. I faltered.
He pulled me by the shirt.
“Lost my nerve,” I said, “just like with all those bullies.”
He undid our nooses, then reached up, shook the pipe. It rattled and creaked.
“It never would’ve held our weight,” he said with a smirk. “Wanna play some pinball?”
Several weeks later, I learned that Uncle Grimm, the once decorated bomber pilot, had hanged himself.
I couldn’t bring myself to attend the funeral. I stayed in my room. My mother mentioned that she always knew something like this would happen. Dad never said much about it, but for weeks, he kept misplacing his lecture notes. I blamed myself for bringing up that conversation about ending it. Maybe he saw part of himself in me — the part he couldn’t save.
Kyle Hemmings has been published in Wigleaf, Storyglossia, Elimae, Match Book, This Zine Will Save Your Life, and elsewhere. He lives and writes in New Jersey. He loves cats and dogs.