He sits in mom’s kitchen with his elbows perched on the table. I have told him repeatedly to use a coaster — mom used to hate nothing so much as water rings ingrained in the faux wood — but he either does not hear me or ignores my admonition. Worse than that, whenever he hoists the Mountain Dew to his lips, he sloshes some of the sticky liquid onto the place mat. The pre-stroke Laura would have pitched a fit, but the post-stroke Laura does not seem to notice. I suppose a stroke rearranges a person’s priorities.
He is in a manic phase. I can tell by the rhythm of his voice, the exaggerated hand gestures, the rapidity of his facial movements. He is a herky-jerky puppet bouncing from one subject to the next with little transition or explanation. When Bobby is in his own little world, which is often, no one can penetrate the layers of obfuscation and incomprehensibility.
He unwraps a stick of gum and slides it into his mouth before he waves the pack at us. “Want some?”
Mom shakes her head vigorously. “I have the dill pickle on my pork chop.” She points into her mouth.
I have become fluent in stroke, so I serve as the translator. “She doesn’t want to pull the fillings out of her teeth.”
Mom is pleased that I have taken her meaning. “Yes. The fillings out of her teeth.”
“I know what you mean, Laura. I know what you mean. It’s like the time I went to that dentist down in Abbeville….”
I do what I can to interrupt a pending tirade. “So. How have you been, Bobby?”
“Me? Well, I’ve been near perfect.” He looks at mom. “How have you been, Laura?”
She smiles. “Near perfect.”
“Did you know I can say ‘near perfect’ in 50 languages?”
Mom looks at me, wide-eyed. “No. Gosh. Fifty languages?”
“Fifty languages, Laura.”
Although we have heard this boast on more than one occasion, I nod. “That is impressive. Fifty languages. That’s one more than forty-nine.”
My mother laughs. “One more than forty-nine. Fifty languages is one more than forty-nine.”
Bobby launches into gibberish, presumably demonstrating his linguistic abilities. All the while, he smacks his chewing gum and slurps his Mountain Dew.
Mom looks at me. The expression on my face causes her to laugh and point with her left hand. “This one is the same as this one.”
Bobby blinks. “What’s that?”
“This one is the same as this one.”
“Your speech is much better than it was, Laura, although I still have a hard time figuring you out.”
Mom looks at him knowingly. “I have a hard time figuring you out, too.”
He has visited several times since she returned from the nursing home in March. Bobby loves to arrive, unannounced, bearing goodies from the local Kroger grocery store. This time it is a turkey loaf and Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine, but he has been known to bring an assortment of local cheeses, cracker snacks, and sausage slices.
I must have tuned out for a while because suddenly he is in the middle of a long-winded story, and I have done nothing to stop him. I nod my head so he will assume I have followed the narrative.
“So Dr. Sid says, ‘what we need is a reliable activator.’ And he’s right about that.” He pauses mid-monologue and addresses mom. “Say, Laura. Do you know what an activator is?”
She frowns and looks at me.
I shake my head. “I don’t think either of us knows.”
It is all the encouragement he needs. He leans back, propelling the chair onto two legs. Watching him balance precariously and waiting for an ignominious spill, I wince. I can tell he is ready to launch into a lengthy lecture on the desperate need for a reliable activator. After all, if Dr. Sid says we need one, who is Bobby to argue?
“An activator is a chiropractic hand tool. What we found, though, is Dr. Sid was right about the need. It is a big need, mind you. The problem is when we advertised it. We printed up signs and business cards and sent ‘em all over Georgia. The problem is we got about one percent complaints. So, that told us sumpin’ right there.”
I nod. “I bet it did.”
“It told us we needed to call it a different thing.” He reaches into his coat pocket and retrieves two business cards. Grinning, he slides one in front of me and one in front of mom.
She picks it up and tries to focus on the small text using the lower portion of her bifocals. I am unsure of how much she can read even when the script is easy to see, but she at least feigns interest. I gaze down at the business card from where I sit and do not move to pick it up.
“Can you read that, Laura?”
She shakes her head. “No. The scootch is too sweet.”
I squint down at the business card. “You’re right, mom. The writing is pretty small.”
“I know it. The writing is pretty small. It is pretty small.”
Bobby folds his arms behind his head and vigorously works his jaws. If a blade of grass protruded from between his front teeth, he could be a country raconteur settling in for a long afternoon of story-telling and truth-bending.
God help us all.
“That different thing is a chiropractic mechanical tool. That’s what the activator has to be called.”
I lean down and see where he, or someone, has scratched out the words “Activator Repairs — (Chiropractic Hand Tool)” and has written above it with a ballpoint pen, “Activator Repairs — Chiropractic Mechanical Tool.” The card advertises the tool for $25.00 plus shipping (although the shipping price is conspicuously absent) and provides an address where an eager purchaser can remit funds to Dr. R. S. Mellette.
“And that’s made a difference, Bobby?”
He blinks at me. “What?”
I point. “The new name. Now that the activator is called a ‘chiropractic mechanical tool’ instead of a ‘chiropractic hand tool,’ that’s made a difference in your sales?”
His eyes grow wide and he touches me on the forearm. “All the difference in the world, Mike. I tell you what. Complaints have fallen below one percent and people are ordering by the truckload.”
Mom tries to whistle. “Ordering by the truckload.”
He nods. “Ordering by the truckload, Laura.”
I should not goad him, but I cannot help myself. My desire to mock the craziness outweighs my desire to end the conversation as quickly as possible, which usually is my strategy when Uncle Bobby is involved. “What does a chiropractic hand tool do?”
“It’s a chiropractic mechanical tool, Mike. Remember that.”
“Right. My bad.”
“It may not sound like much of a difference, but it is. A chiropractic mechanical tool is more technologically advanced than a chiropractic hand tool.”
“This isn’t the machine that cures broken bones, is it?”
Years ago, when I had just graduated from law school, Bobby called and placed me on speakerphone with a inventor/homeless man he had met at the Trailways bus station snack bar on Irby Street. After working feverishly for three nights in Bobby’s boss’s garage, they had created a machine that cured broken bones. They wanted me to tell them how they could copyright the machine to protect against thieves.
I had only been a law school graduate for three weeks at the time — and I still had not received my bar exam results — so my experience with handling cutting-edge broken-bone-curing machines was limited. Still, I helped out by explaining that certain types of intellectual property are copyrighted, but inventions are patented. I even provided Bobby with the telephone number of the U.S. Patent Office. Later, when I asked about the machine and Bobby’s partner, I was told that I must “never mention that charlatan’s name again” in his presence.
Bobby does not pick up on my skeptical tone and, since I have not mentioned the charlatan’s name, he plows on. “This is better than that, Mike. Better than that. That machine never sold because the medical doctors didn’t want competition from chiropractors and whatnot. It’s a feud as old as Cain and Abel.”
“Really? As old as Cain and Abel?”
Mom senses my skepticism, and she laughs. “As old as Cain and Abel.”
“Doctors hate chiropractors, and always have. They don’t want the competition. They wanna charge outrageous fees, and they can’t do that if they let new machines on the market to cure broken bones. It’s bad for business.”
Mom shakes her head. “Bad for business.”
“I got boxloads of anonymous notes telling me I’d better be careful. They were tapping my phone, watching my every movement. Before you know it, the machine was missing, and people acted like they didn’t know anything.”
He frowns. “Say what, now?”
“What people? You said people acted like they didn’t know anything about your missing broken-bone-repairing machine. What people are we talking about?”
He shrugs. “Who knows? They’re everywhere. The Powers That Be. They’re always hiding in the shadows. It could be FBI, CIA, the mob. Who knows? They’re all in it together.”
Mom laughs. “All in it together.”
I sigh. “So this hand tool is different from the broken-bone-repairing machine.”
“It’s a chiropractic mechanical tool, Mike. How many times do I have to tell you that?”
“This is much better.”
“Let me ask you something, Bobby. If they stole your broken-bone-repairing machine, what’s to stop them from stealing this, uh, mechanical tool.”
He is lifting the soda can to his face as I speak. My words ripple through his consciousness, causing him to stop in mid-stride. “What’s that, now?”
Mom shoots me a dirty look.
I have gone too far, and I know it. How do I backtrack? “Nothing, Bobby. Never mind.”
He looks down at his shoes almost as if he is in a trance.
Mom is alarmed. “If the scootch is sweet, you can pick another one.”
Ignoring her, Bobby looks at me. “Can I borrow your telephone?”
“Sure. You know where it is — in the bedroom back there.”
He pats his pocket. “I would call on my cell phone, but the battery died. Nan is always calling her people in South Carolina, but then she never charges the battery.”
I point. “Of course. You know where it is.”
Mom confirms my hospitality. “You know where it is.”
Bobby lifts his hefty frame from the chair and heads for the bedroom. In the doorway, he pivots on his heels, holding up his now-empty Mountain Dew can. “Do you recycle?”
“Just set it on the counter, and I’ll take care of it later.”
He leans over, places the can on the kitchen counter top, and disappears into the bedroom, closing the door behind him.
Instantly, mom wags her finger in my face. “What are you saying to me?”
I look down in shame. “I know. I know. It’s just like the time at Life. I went too far. That’s what you’re talking about, right?”
“Yes. That’s what I talking about.”
For many years, Bobby was an instructor at the Life Chiropractic College in Marietta, just outside of Atlanta. He came to admire and even worship the school’s founder, Dr. Sid Williams. Dr. Sid, as he was affectionately known, was either a charismatic figure in the same vein as the greatest American evangelists of yesteryear or he was a fraudulent self-promoter, a snake oil salesman promising any variety of elixirs that ultimately proved to be worthless. Perhaps he was both. His reputation depended on one’s point of view, in any case.
He was a hefty fellow, almost as hefty as Bobby. His silver-white toupee with a duck tail sat perched atop a giant cranium that somehow seemed larger than life. His plentiful sideburns waved in the gentle breeze of an oscillating fan. The only thing larger than Dr. Sid’s body and appetite was his ego. At the entrance to the Life Chiropractic College, he had erected a huge bronze statue of a Native American figure sporting eagle head gear. It was difficult to see from far away, but up close it was apparent that the statute’s face was identical to Dr. Sid’s face.
When Bobby first started teaching at Life, he invited mom, my grandmother Weeze, and me to tour the campus. (This was when Weeze and mom were in good health.) None of us wanted to spend a Sunday afternoon traipsing around a college campus, but Bobby insisted. We gave in to feelings of obligation and joined him for a visit.
It began with a driving tour of the grounds followed by entry into several classroom buildings. The piece de resistance was a visit to Life’s state-of-the-art gymnasium. Bobby proudly informed us that the Atlanta Hawks professional basketball team used the gym for practice because the court at Life College was so much nicer than their usual court.
As he drove us into the gym parking lot, I marveled at the large number of spots. Hundreds, if not thousands, of spaces were available, but not one single car was in sight.
Bobby navigated his Impala automobile past the streetlamps and came to the parking space closest to the door. A sign in front of the space read, “Reserved for Dr. Sid Williams.” Predictably, Bobby pulled into the spot and cut his engine.
Weeze spoke first. “Now, Bobby. Do you think you ought to park in Dr. Sid’s spot like that? You could park in any of the other spots, you know.”
He laughed. “Now, mama. Don’t you worry none. Dr. Sid and I are good friends. He lets me park in his spot whenever I want to.”
We got out of the car and entered the building.
Weeze played along. “It sure is big.”
Mom and I were silent. We wanted to cut the visit short, so we held our tongues.
Bobby pointed. “See those TV monitors, mama? They’re all over the place in every building. They let Dr. Sid send us messages. That way, he keeps us up to speed with what’s going on around the campus.”
This was the moment when I went too far. I simply had suffered enough, and my naturally sarcastic disposition emerged. Squinting at the screen, I nodded. “You’re right, Bobby. This screen says, ‘Dr. Sid orders Dr. Mellette to move his car out of Dr. Sid’s parking space immediately.’”
My mom slapped me on the arm. “Oh, it doesn’t say that, Mike. Bobby, he’s pulling your leg.”
Bobby’s face was ashen, his pupils as wide as I had ever seen them. Fumbling for his keys, he turned and ran for the door. “I better move my car. I’ll be right back.”
Mom was irritated. “For God’s sake, Bobby. He was teasing you. There’s no message from Dr. Sid on the TV screen.”
Bobby did not pause as he pushed out the door and ran for his car. “Even so.”
Weeze turned to me with a look of disgust plastered on her face. “You are a hateful child.”
“That’s what I talking about for sure.” Mom looks at me the same way Weeze looked at me all those years ago. I am a hateful child, indeed.
“Sorry, mom. It’s just that sometimes I can’t help myself.”
She will have none of it. “You can’t help yourself for yourself.”
“I know. I know.”
Bobby returns from the bedroom before mom can chastise me further. He stoops, removes the top from the plastic kitchen trashcan, and spits his chewing gum inside before replacing the lid.
I clear my throat. “Everything okay?”
“Near perfect. Had to make sure we got things protected, but we’re near perfect now.”
Reaching into his pocket, Bobby jiggles his change. “Okay, sport. How much to I owe you?”
“I made a long distance telephone call on your nickel. I would’ve called on my cell phone, but the battery died.”
“Don’t worry about it, Bobby.”
“No. No. It was your nickel.” He places a nickel on the placemat before he sits down in the chair and leans forward, elbows on the table. “If I had invested money in AT&T stocks back in 1957, when Darren McCracken — he was a chemist I knew when I was working at du Pont — asked me to, I’d be a rich man by now.” He slaps the table with his hand. “A rich man!”
Mom and I look at each other and smile.
When I was a child, Bobby frequently showed up unannounced, as he did today, and pulled mom to one side. Telling her he had not eaten for days or paid his rent, he begged for a loan. She was a single mother struggling to make ends meet on a secretary’s salary, but she was also soft-hearted. Usually, she dug out a twenty-dollar bill and reluctantly forked it over so her brother could eat dinner.
A few minutes later, Bobby would take me aside. “Shake hands with a rich man!” He would extend his hand and, as I shook it, he would slip me the money and instruct me not to tell my mother. Naturally, I told her as soon as he left, and we argued vehemently about who rightfully owned the bill. This happened on more than one occasion. Eventually, I learned to keep my mouth shut and my mom learned not to part with her hard-earned dollars when Bobby came calling.
Mom laughs. “Shake hands with a rich man!”
I nod, but Bobby seems oblivious to the allusion. He launches into a new story completely unrelated to everything that has come before.
Recognizing that this tangled tale will extend into the dinner hour, mom dramatically consults her watch. I know what she is thinking: How much longer until Shirley comes to fix my instant grits?
For once, Bobby notices his surroundings. “Am I boring you, Laura?”
She nods vigorously. “Yes. You are boring me, Laura!”
The three of us laugh. The post-stroke Laura has a far different conception of manners than the pre-stroke Laura and I, for one, am happy about it. Bobby takes the hint.
He pulls himself to his feet. “Well, I gotta get on the road, anyhow. It’s a long way to Warner Robbins, and I got to stop and see some people about some things and whatnot.”
I still adhere to my pre-stroke mother’s sense of etiquette. She has taught me well. I stand, shake his hand, and tell him how pleased we have been to see him.
“Now, you’re gonna invite me to your wedding, right? Where is Pauline today, anyhow? Her name is Pauline, right?”
I shake my head. “Her name is Paula, not Pauline, and, yes, you are invited to the wedding. The invitations will go out in the mail later this week. Paula’s at work right now, but she’ll be home in a little while.”
“I won’t be able to stay and say hello, but give her my best.”
Walking to the door and turning the knob, I agree to pass along his greetings.
“’Bye bye, Laura. Mellette, over and out!”
“’Bye bye to you, too. Mellette, over and out.”
Anxious to revel in the glow of his tail lights, I utter no further affirmative statements. Declarative sentences are dangerous when Bobby is departing; one careless comment can trigger another long-winded harangue. I once voiced insincere admiration for his high-mileage Ford Taurus station wagon, prompting a lengthy explication of the virtues of Ford automobiles and the viscosity of oil in the Taurus engine.
Mom tries to tell him to be careful in the heavy traffic but, predictably, she mangles her words. “You are doing good for yourself in the highway?”
I wave at her to shut up. Fortunately, he does not tarry.
Bobby lifts his toupee slightly so we can see the bald dome lurking beneath the store-bought weave. It is as though he is tipping his hat. When the desired effect is evident — we look horrified — he unwraps another stick of chewing gum and smiles. “I am near perfect, Laura. Near perfect!”