In November, just as the New England weather was starting to turn from acceptable to cold, my Uncle Mike and Aunt Tess moved from Florida back to New Haven crossing paths with thousands of their brighter peers who were migrating southbound.
Every time someone asked Uncle Mike why he chose to move back North in time for winter after fifteen years and a new life in Florida, his answer was always the same. “Don’t be stupid.” This was usually followed by a disgusted head shake and sometimes an Art Carney like, “Sheesch!”
Sitting around the dinner table at his daughter’s house for Thanksgiving were Uncle Mike, Aunt Tess, Uncle Mike’s sister Aunt Gert, Uncle Mike’s son-in-law Albert and his mother Bertha, and me and the woman I’d been seeing for several years, Angie.
This was Angie’s first meeting with Mike and Tess and when introduced Uncle Mike said, “So, when’s the wedding?”
Angie and I had an understanding. About a year or so ago she brought up the subject of marriage and I asked her very politely not to use the M word and spoil a wonderful, loving and harmonious relationship. She pushed the M word a little too frequently and the next time we were at a gathering of her family I started using the F word. By the end of the day, Angie was no longer speaking to me, nor was her F…ing family.
It took a while but we patched things up all around and she stays away from the M word in private and I stay away from the F word in public.
I had told my Uncle Mike earlier, when he brought up the subject of M, that I would appreciate him not discussing it when he met Angie and he smiled and said, “You bet.”
He lied. Every chance he got he mentioned the M word and each time he thought that it was funnier than the last. Angie loved every minute of it and there was a lot of whispering going on when they didn’t think that I was listening. I pretended that it didn’t bother me but at dinner they sat Uncle Mike and me at opposite ends of the table just in case. He grinned at me the whole time.
Uncle Mike starts in again at dinner with Angie sitting next to him. He says, “Will the bride please pass the gravy.” A few minutes later Uncle Mike says, “I hear Bermuda is a lovely honeymoon spot.” This eighty year old man is being a real crusher. He loves attention and being in the spotlight – especially at my expense.
During the actual eating of the meal the family reverts back to their usual ways, sans antics. Suddenly from across the table Uncle Mike booms, “How’s the boy?” (The boy is my twenty year old son whose name Uncle Mike can’t remember and never could).
“The boy is fine,” I tell him.
“How’s his psoriasis?”
“He still has it.”
“He’s lucky that he doesn’t have it as bad as I do,” said Uncle Mike.
My son’t psoriasis is very bad; scabs on both hands and problems all over his body but I wasn’t going to get in to a psoriasis pissing contest with my Uncle. Uncle Mike always had to have the best or the worst.
“I’ve just been to the doctor for mine,” he says. “The worst case he’s seen in twenty years the doctor tells me.” Looking at Uncle Mike I see no evidence of it at all, as he describes how it’s broken out all over his body and head.
“I’ve recently had to see the doctor for mine too,” I tell him.
“Go on. You don’t have psoriasis, I have psoriasis,” Mike says with a wave of his hand dismissing me and my doctor story.
“Yes,” I tell him, “I’m afraid I do.”
“Different parts of my body,” I tell him.
“Well, I have it all over my chest, my scalp, my rear end, my knees, and my elbows. And also my privates,” he says with a perverted pride.
All the time this conversation is going on, his wife Tess is nodding silently.
“Where’s yours?” he asks.
“I really don’t want to discuss it, Uncle Mike, but I have it on different parts of my body.”
He rolls up his sleeve and says, “Your elbow can’t be this bad.”
“You’re right,” I tell him, but he insists on having me roll up my sleeve too, and don’t you know it, my psoriasis is about three times worse than his, and he won’t stop until we roll up our other sleeves and it’s the same case there.
As absurd as this is, there is not one person sitting at the table complaining about being grossed out. They are all watching with anticipated interest but I am grossed out and want desperately to leave.
The next thing I know, Uncle Mike has his shirt out of his pants and is showing the psoriasis around his navel. “Beat this if you can,” Uncle Mike boasts.
“No thanks,” I tell him, trying to stop the madness.
“Coward,” he says. Uncle Mike challenges me to a naval battle and before I can say no Aunt Tess stops nodding long enough to say, “I’ve got ten on Mike’s belly button.”
Angie reaches into her pocketbook and throws a ten spot on the table. “Covered,” she says.
Money is flying all around the table until someone yells, “show ‘em” and I lift my shirt and my belly button has twice the psoriasis as Mike’s. Angie picks up her winnings and smiles.
Let me mention this about my Aunt Tess. She will and has bet on anything and everything. If someone were to walk into this room right now and say, “I’ll bet there’s not a person in here stupid enough to bet on the Super Bowl rerun,” Tess would jump up and yell, “I’ve got twenty that says you don’t know spit.” She also has the ability to generate gambling fever amongst the others in the family.
“Pits,” Uncle Mike says. “I’ve got these red demon pits that you can’t come close to.”
Tess looks at Mike, nods and smiles and says, “I’ve got ten on Mike’s red devil pits.”’
Angie asks if she means each pit ten dollars or ten for the both.
“Anyway you want it, sweetie,” says Aunt Tess.
Her superior tone annoys Angie and Angie goes for her pocketbook and throws down a double sawbuck and says, “ten on each.”
I sit watching in disbelief as Albert covers both Gert and Bertha’s bets but I don’t know which way he’s going. “Strip off the shirt, honey,” says Angie and I do. I look across the table and Uncle Mike is sitting with his arms straight up as if someone is holding a gun to his head.
“Reach,” he says and reluctantly I do and, for whatever it is worth, my psoriasis is worse than Uncle Mike’s.
“Now that this is over can we get back to eating and have some dessert?” I ask, putting my shirt back on.
“If we all weren’t family here I wouldn’t even suggest this,” says Uncle Mike, “but I got twenty to your ten that my butt psoriasis puts you to shame.”
“Make it fifty to twenty and you got yourself a bet,” Angie tells him. Angie’s got the Tess fever. They negotiate the bet like I’m not in the room and finally Aunt Tess peels off five tens and throws them into the center of the table and Angie lays two tens on top. Uncle Mike turns around, kneels on his chair and drops trou. Prodded by Angie, I do the same and Albert declares me the winner by a hair.
Just as Uncle Mike is finishing his dessert he says, “Double or nothing on the penis.”
I see Angie close her eyes briefly, and silence descends over the table. Obviously, this is the moment they have all been waiting for.
“I’ll tell you what, Uncle Mike,” I say. “You slap it out on the table and I’ll tell you if yours is worse than mine. If it’s not, I’ll whip mine out and the family can decide.”
“No,” Mike says, “We both do it at the same time or it’s no bet.”
“OK,” I tell him, “it’s no bet.”
“Why, you chicken-shit-no-good-nephew. You take my money on the easy bets and when it comes time to put up or shut up you zip up. You disgust me. Angie, I don’t blame you for wanting to stay single from this loser.”
Gert and Bertha get in on this argument and want a chance to even up with Albert.
“OK, Uncle Mike,” I growl, “toss the money in the center of the table.”
Albert takes over. “On the count of one you both unzip, on two you reach in, and on three you show your goods. I will do the count-off.”
“Deal,” Mike says, cocky as can be.
“OK,” I say.
Tess gets up and stands next to Uncle Mike and Angie walks around and stands by my side. Our seconds.
Gert and Bertha position themselves mid-table and Albert, with his wife on his lap, sits grinning.
“One,” says Albert and the sound of two zippers is heard.
Pausing for suspense, and playing this for all it’s worth, Albert pauses but finally says, “two.”
Both of us reach in like gunfighters.
“Three!” says Albert, quickly this time.
I take out my penis and place it on the table. Uncle Mike zips up his pants and walks out of the room laughing. Nodding, Aunt Tess follows him.
dtv An Anthology in German