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In photos from his youth he looked like a porcelain doll, a severely myopic puppet. When I knew him, he was in constant motion, a coiled spring: knee bouncing, fingers grasping and lighting cigarettes, eyes darting, lips moving and always talking sports. I couldn’t keep up with him though I knew I was smarter.

He was my mother’s only sibling, born when my grandmother was in her 40s, eventually becoming too much for her to care for. Back then my Uncle Billy had a sweeping range of unspecified mental issues (widely ignored by all around him), yet he possessed an eidetic memory for sports trivia. (Asperger’s Syndrome wouldn’t be recognized until 1944 and only officially named for Hans Asperger in 1981, a year after the good doctor’s death.) He was hyperactive, displayed attention deficit tendencies, was susceptible to stimulants and depressants alike. We merely called him Silly Billy, but not to his face. Billy was simply complicated.

He played rough, too. He would yank the grapefruit from the trees in our grandfather’s back yard in St. Petersburg, Florida, and entice me and my brother into games of catch, the velocity of his delivery increasing until, hands throbbing and covered with juice, we begged him to stop. Uncle! we’d bleat.

When I was little, he would pick me up and plunk me on his shoulders and then run around the yard at full speed. Although he was agile and strong, he was extremely nearsighted — I was convinced he would trip over a sprinkler and I’d be hurtled headlong into the bougainvillea. I suspected, too, he interpreted my screams of fright as shrieks of joy.

One thing: he never dropped me. Not ever. Were it not for his mental and ocular aberrations, he would have made a fine second baseman.

Then there were the stories. Before I was born, Billy went through an altitude phase. He would escape the confines of his parents’ house, ride the city bus to a nearby water tower and scale it. As in the film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Leonardo DeCaprio’s character Arnie habitually climbs water towers like Uncle Billy did, but Billy was more coherent than Arnie. Still, both shared the altitude itch.

I regret never spending more than a few days at a time with my uncle. Although my mother dearly loved her own mother because she was well educated, she wasn’t close to her father or brother because they were not. Billy was a creature unto his own, and she kept us away. When I was a kid I was fascinated by him. Within the context of our extended family, his every movement was calculated, choreographed. When the subject of sports arose, which it often did, he was the sage at the center of the discussion, winning every argument. As for matters of politics or world affairs, he couldn’t care less.

But it’s the water tower episodes that intrigue me. I was told, reluctantly, that the police were involved and that Billy spent a handful of nights in jail. In his 30s he began to drink heavily, perhaps to quiet the barrage of sports facts and figures in his head — speculation on my part — or as a result of his myriad untreated mental problems. His parents (my Nana and Papa) could no longer handle him then, so Billy was handed over to his Uncle Bill and Aunt Lucille. He worked odd jobs in their downtown deli, but couldn’t function alone in the house for more than a few days. One such experiment yielded a drunken party with a prostitute ensconced in an upstairs bedroom, Billy confused and hungry in the trashed livingroom.

In his 40s, Billy lived with Bill and Lucille in their house by a lake on the south side of town, and he continued to drink and smoke heavily. By 1972 his mother was gone and he saw his aging father sporadically (though both lived in the same city), and Billy became a daily fixture at the local tavern, landing in jail a handful of times for disorderly conduct and public drunkenness. Although he wasn’t a fighter, I’m sure his sports trivia knowledge was challenged unfairly.

He continued his utilitarian work at the deli, continued to drink and smoke heavily, and I rarely saw him, save for our holiday visits to the south side of town when he would whip my ass at gin rummy.

Papa died in 1983, and when Uncle Bill followed four years later, Billy and Lucille sold the deli and moved to a small apartment in the west central part of town. They led quiet, uneventful lives mere blocks from the house where Jack Kerouac spent his last tragic, alcohol-soaked years in the late 1960s. After my wife and I moved to Atlanta, we returned home one Christmas and I was surprised to find Billy much slower than I’d ever seen him — by then he was riddled with lung cancer. Lucille cared for him to the end, even searching for him one night when he wandered off in a haze, scooping him up across the street from Kerouac’s pitiful, darkened ranch house. Although Billy knew about Kerouac, he wasn’t a fan and I can’t imagine him making a pilgrimage there, 20 years after the mythic man’s death. In 1993, Billy died at home in the bathroom. Afterwards, I remember noticing blood stains on the bathroom tile which Lucille was too weary to completely clean away.

Three years later, Lucille died in a car crash: a lousy, stupid, t-bone wreck one block from the Kerouac house. The significance of living and dying near the iconic Beat writer’s last stand baffles me, yet the sadness seems appropriate. To this day I can’t bring myself to visit this area of my hometown. It’s just too overwhelming. To some, Florida is Disney and sunshine; to me, it’s sorrow and loss.

 

 

 

In the photograph of me and Uncle Billy, I appear on the verge of tears. I like to think that by setting me high on his shoulders he was trying to teach me to be brave. “Hang on, buddy!” he would say.

Still, sadly for me, I never fully understood him.

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Jim Simpson JIM SIMPSON is an award-winning fiction writer and freelance music critic. A native of the wilds of Florida's Gulf Coast, he now resides on the scruffy fringes of Atlanta, Georgia.

He frequently writes about music, with his taste spanning all genres: Bluegrass, Americana, Classic Country, Alternative Country, Western Swing, Blues, Classical, Rock 'n' Roll, Punk, Reggae, Klezmer, and British Isles Folk (to name but a few).

He once sang Happy Birthday (with about 10,000 other people) to Joni Mitchell, and has seen such legends as Miles Davis, The Incredible Jimmy Smith, Rockpile, Blue Rodeo, King Sunny Ade, David Bowie, Joan Jett, Robyn Hitchcock, R.E.M., Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan live in concert. He has interviewed such musical luminaries as Those Darlins, John Linnell of They Might Be Giants, Marshall Chapman, Charlie Louvin, Derek Hoke, Jim Avett, the Secret Sisters, and Meghan McCormick.

Jim has been at work on his first novel for longer than he originally planned, and if all goes well it should be in bookstores sometime before his death.

4 responses to “A Thousand Words: Say Uncle”

  1. Jim Simpson says:

    Original comments follow:

    Comment by Lenore
    2009-07-14 20:46:25

    the photograph is lovely, the writing is lovely. he sounds like he was a fascinating man. i wonder where the interest in heights originates. i am going to do some research on that now.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Jim Simpson
    2009-07-15 03:27:25

    Thanks. The tower-scaling always baffled me and I was surprised to find it in the Gilbert Grape film. I never researched it, partly because I thought it would destroy the myth and mystery if I found out it was, say, due to a Vitamin D deficiency or severe sinus problems or a way to deal with overstimulation. Also, I’m lazy. YOU can research it and you can even share your findings with me if you really want to.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Irwin
    2009-07-14 22:58:51

    This is a lovely piece, one of the best I’ve read at TNB. Touching and absolutely fascinating.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Jim Simpson
    2009-07-15 03:28:30

    High praise coming from you, Sir James. Thanks so much for reading my thousand.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Simon Smithson
    2009-07-15 00:23:05

    He does sound like a fascinating man, and I like your piece very much. Is that photo taken from the running-around-the-lawn at high speed days?
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Jim Simpson
    2009-07-15 03:31:47

    You betcha. Did you notice the butterfly chairs in the background?
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Don Mitchell
    2009-07-15 02:46:44

    Nice. One question about the picture, though – what happened to the trees?
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Jim Simpson
    2009-07-15 03:21:46

    I always wondered that myself. Quite ugly.

    The tree in the foreground was a Jacaranda, which actually thrived throughout my 18 years in that house. It was the perfect climbing tree and it had gorgeous trumpet-shaped lavender blossoms filled with nectar that honey bees loved. I think we also had a tire swing on the tree for a couple of years. My brother even made a desk on one of the branches that hung out over the sidewalk.

    The tree in the background was removed and replaced with a sturdy maple.

    Thanks for reading.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by N.L. Belardes
    2009-07-15 07:59:15

    Some trees have to be pruned back in the winter. Come Spring, they grow like weeds. Mulberry trees are some that come to mind that are common here in Central Calif.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by D.R. Haney
    2009-07-15 04:18:49

    “The significance baffles me […]”

    But it’s there. I’d certainly see it that way. Then again, I’m a Kerouac enthusiast, so I’d inevitably ascribe significance to his occult presence in many a matter.

    Lenore used the word “lovely” twice, in praising the writing and the photo. I second her on both accounts. “Haunting” is another word I’d use.

    I was also, by the way, a towhead as a toddler, which I mention for no good reason.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Irene Zion
    2009-07-15 12:29:28

    Duke,
    You know you’re just trying to impress Lenore!
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by D.R. Haney
    2009-07-15 19:16:27

    Am not!
    (Comments wont nest below this level)
    Comment by Irene Zion
    2009-07-16 10:09:55

    Are too!

    Reply here

    Comment by JB
    2009-07-15 05:33:19

    This is a terrific piece. Asperger’s Syndrome is fascinating and I hope this brings more people acquainted with it. I think everyone should be so lucky to know someone who lives with Asperger’s.

    Cheers.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Jim Simpson
    2009-07-15 18:05:25

    Yes, A.S. certainly has many nuances.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by N.L. Belardes
    2009-07-15 07:56:45

    I agree with JB. My oldest son Jordan has Aspergers. And, like your uncle Billy was, he’s a delight to know. You can see him playing the violin in this video I shot of Day of the Dead.

    Jordan is so cool, because he never practices the violin, yet he can shred on it like he’s some kind of orchestral Jimmy Hendrix. He just jumps into bands and plays.

    But life wasn’t always so fun. There was the diagnosis, the understanding, the hellish school system and his own acceptance of thinking a bit differently than others.

    Jordan’s behaviors were never out of control. He’s a fine young college student and works and performs.

    Yet I have met some seriously struggling Asperger’s people. Of course socially, it’s a struggle. But some exhibit severe depression, and other psychological problems that if left untreated can leave them in a life untapped of their brilliant hidden talents.

    This is a great piece not just for Kerouac, whose writing you know I admire, but for bringing up Asperger’s, which too many people brush off as some idiot syndrome, which Billy wasn’t, and neither is Jordan. They’re way smarter than we’ll ever be. They’re misunderstood. And often misunderstand themselves.

    Thanks for your words, Jim.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Jim Simpson
    2009-07-15 18:11:53

    My brother and I foolishly thought Billy was weird and freakish at first. I now realize Billy was much smarter than either of us. It’s such a shame, too, that his special needs were never met, just simply swept under the proverbial carpet. *If we don’t acknowledge this situation, it will just go away* I think was the mindset years ago. I am, however, so glad my uncle wasn’t institutionalized. Still, I can never forgive my grandfather for passing his son off to his younger brother — Papa made a fortune with the sale of his business and certainly could have afforded to provide better care for him. Not that Billy’s life with his Bill and Lucille wasn’t happy, but they were under a lot of strain at times.

    My mother was rather helpless, too. I can’t imagine ignoring a sibling’s needs. Ah well, that’s my family in a nutshell.

    I try to improve the next generation at every turn.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by chingpea
    2009-07-15 08:15:54

    Such a great piece. There are also people out there who don’t have Asperger’s (or have never been diagnosed) who feel misunderstood. It’s a natural feeling. I believe no one ever IS truly understood.

    You’re thousand words was very easy to relate to and I love the movie referenced. 🙂 What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is one of my favorite films.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Colleen McGrath
    2009-07-15 08:25:20

    Beautiful, truly. You painted a picture of him and these circumstances so clearly in my mind, I really didn’t need the photo in the end.

    “I was convinced he would trip over a sprinkler and I’d be hurtled headlong into the bougainvillea.” – Love this and know just how you felt.

    I agree with all above; lovely piece all the way around.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-07-15 11:37:14

    What a great piece. And what a great photo. This was so touching and a fitting tribute to your uncle. A true pleasure.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Irene Zion
    2009-07-15 12:35:53

    James,
    I’m really glad you didn’t land in the bougainvillea. There are some frightening thorns in those bushes!
    Your Uncle Billy obviously loved you and wanted to give you some exciting, fun experiences. It’s good that you were in his life. Things are so much better today for kids with Asperger’s than they used to be. During his time, he was probably taunted and suffered from it. Thankfully, today people are more educated.
    Just a question of timing. Doesn’t seem fair.
    Great story, James.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Jim Simpson
    2009-07-15 19:23:33

    Thanks to everyone who read and commented. I was looking for another photo when I came across the one of me and Billy. The 1K came out quickly, but I was physically exhausted after writing the last sentence.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Marni Grossman
    2009-07-15 19:51:55

    Is it possible for an essay to be simultaneously hopeful and melancholic?

    This- for lack of a better phrase- touched me.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Jim Simpson
    2009-07-15 20:25:49

    I often find myself smack in the middle of ‘hopeful’ and ‘melancholic’. And everyone needs to be touched — appropriately, of course.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Erika Rae
    2009-07-16 10:07:14

    Jim – this was really a beautiful piece. Such deep sorrow and confusion in his life. You gave it a mysterious beauty in the telling of it.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by sheree
    2009-07-17 09:10:39

    Brilliant writing Sir.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Greg Olear
    2009-07-26 17:46:12

    Excellent piece, Jim.

    Our son has Asperger’s…one of these days I’ll write a piece about it. He’s four and a half. We’ve known about it for a few years, with the Asperger’s diagnosis proving itself accurate, in my mind, in the last six months, with his obsessive interest in chandeliers (a subset of his interest in houses in general).

    We are extremely fortunate that this is something that is now recognized — it wasn’t until 1996 — and that he is getting services that will help, and have helped, him. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for someone of your uncle’s generation, when the science was in its infancy and people, in general, were harder.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    Greg
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Jen from Hyper Nonsense
    2009-07-26 21:00:20

    My brother has Asperger’s Syndrome. He’s an adult now, and had to go all the way through school without anyone knowing why he was different, or what it meant. As his oldest sister, I had to learn how to teach him to get along in the world (my parents were absolutely clueless). I really enjoyed reading about you and your misunderstood uncle. Reminds me in many ways of my brother.

  2. […] Hall of Fame In an essay entitled “Say Uncle”, author Jim Simpson offers up a thousand magic words about his Uncle Billy. “In photos from his […]

  3. JEMMA says:

    You seem to have understood him well in that you decided, he like, all of us are not to be ever fully comprehended; despite Asperger’s.
    You shared in his games lighted his life “even until our hands ached.”
    Tapestry of life, your own tapestry has golden weaves your very own Arnie seems to have been a deep gold. Even drawing upon the photograph you posted a memory for your tapestry a childhood day burnished in that rose, a valuable lesson learned.
    I liked the pace in which we flowed through this piece rather like one of those old movies of happy interesting days that show about a little boy back in the day? Cannot recall the name he had a beautiful girlfriend and a geeky friend Kevin that was his name.
    Thanks.

  4. Jim Simpson says:

    Thanks for your comments, JEMMA, as I believe yours is the most poetic I’ve ever received. The tapestry image is gorgeous and reminds me of something Alice Walker wrote years ago about the thread of common experience, or something.

    And the show you’re thinking of is The Wonder Years.

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