Uncle John

Jeff Bennett

—For my brother John, and our mother,
      and her brother John too.

At the time of my Uncle John’s death in the intensive care unit of the hospital up in Fargo, Minnesota, he had in his possession one leather jacket with attached liner, one pair of sweatpants size XXL with the elastic band snipped slightly on either side, one Dell laptop computer with attachable mouse and charger, five straws in paper wrappers, one plastic spoon, one roll of 3M transparent tape, one 28g tube of Kendall Vaseline, one rubber cord a foot in length,one pair of running shoes, one pair of Koss earmuff headphones with noise reduction technology, one Memorex CD labeled with green sharpie Songs to Learn, two ballpoint pens from the hospital front desk,one Fargo Public Library card, two metal key rings holding twelve keys between them, and a thickstack of opened mail. John carried these belongings in white plastic Stop?N?Go bags now crumpled beside the mattress in his hospital room.

His apartment was on the outskirts of Fargo, in the Lutheran housing projects around the corner from a Stop?N?Go service station. The place was furnished like a storage unit, boxes unpacked, a whole house worth of furniture stacked up the apartment walls. Evidence of his sickness lay everywhere amongst the clutter, tucked away in envelopes and closets and log?in prompts, the things that killed him and the things that kept him alive. MeritCare’s list of current medication for John L. Kelly verifies that at the time of death John was consuming prescriptionsof Prozac 40 MG caps once a day by mouth, Aspirin EC 325 MG once a day, Lipitor 40 MG tabs one tablet by mouth once daily, Glucose 5 GM chew 15?30 grams as needed for blood glucose under 70, Hydrochlorothiazide 25 MG tab once a day, Lantus 100 Unit/ML soln 65 units every day, Protonix 40 MG once a day, Cymbalta 30 MG 2 tabs per day, Lisinopril 40 MG tabs once a day, Humulin sliding scale as needed for blood glucose over 150, and Atenotol 50 MG one tablet orally every day. Not listed were the Oxycodone and Klonopin and the other narcotics and benzodiazepines that filled a bowl on John’s living room coffee table next to a jar of red and green M&M’s.

Uncle John had been dying since before I was born. Not in the we’re-all-dying sense. He’d been eating himself for years, piece by piece. At family gatherings he quarantined himself. I remember when Great Grandma Sundeen died, and the family rented out a whole motel in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and John’s smoky room, where you weren’t allowed to turn on any lights, John laying on a bed glowing in television, black boots black jacket black cowboy hat. I got older and fell into his orbit, for stretches. We talked, on and off, up to a couple days before he died. He was worried about his last surgery. He told me he was going to die. Uncle John’s surgeries were regular enough to keep a calendar by. This time it was something about his heart. A man with four teeth, diabetes, missing half his intestines and his entire asshole tells you he’s worried, something about his heart.

I wasn’t worried, to be honest. I think Uncle John could have survived without a heart. I don’t mean this in any sort of metaphorical way. When you’ve seen someone live twenty years with the inability to digest, shit, fuck, make honest money, or stop smoking meth, you tend to put a lot of stock in their ability to survive. But I don’t think anyone had heard him talk how he was talking then, like he was circling the drain. John seemed to survive solely off attitude. Two weeks or so after that last phone call, I woke up one morning to my phone ringing and to my mother’s voice, John is in a coma.

When everyone in your family is named after someone else in your family, and not only your uncle but your little brother is named John, it’s a good idea to clarify which one’s in a coma. I shot up screaming oh-my-god-what-happened into the phone and when I hear hospital up in Fargo, I shout Jesus Christ Mom I thought you meant my brother, and now she’s crying harder, going, no my brother my brother. I hope I never know what that feels like.

We drove up to Fargo that night, my mom and me and Aunt Joy who flew in from Santa Barbara. Aunt Jill called from the hospital while we were picking up Joy at the airport. It was over, Jill said. John was dead, pronounced a minute ago. The hospital wanted to know if they should leave the body in the room until we got to Fargo so we could see him, Jill explained, and anyways, what exactly did John want done with his remains? Mom said I don’t know and Joy said that bastard that bastard.

We drove past the exit to John’s hometown later that night. Frazee, Minnesota has maintained a steady population of 1,000 for decades thanks to people like John and his sisters, who at age eighteen either move away or have child number one. For John, my mother, and my Aunts Joy and Janice, it was the former. For my Aunt Jill, it was Frazee, marriage to a classmate, infertility, adoption and homeschooling, followed by heavy prescriptions and church. John had a special aversion to Frazee, being one of the few people anyone could remember who for all intents and purposes was kicked out. His senior year in high school he was caught smoking marijuana on school property and was expelled. Sometimes when John told the story, he’d say he had only been smoking a cigarette, but he didn’t care enough to teach them the difference. So John left, first to the Twin Cities and then all over. By the time I was born he was in Phoenix, Arizona.

The drugs started well before Phoenix, but there they became entirely worse. John was using and dealing large quantities of cocaine. Eating and sleeping were not priorities. He watched his family go, diabetes come, friends die, go to prison, or just get replaced with worse friends, and work evaporate. It wasn’t until the colon cancer that John considered his life in terms of time left. It had been discovered in an advanced stage, and the only option was to amputate, cut out the entire asshole. The surgery was remarkably successful. They had to take a lot to save him. He became impotent, and had no control over his bowel movements. He wore a rubber diaper over the dead space on his body. John decided the rest of him was dead, too. John traded in his cocaine for methamphetamine, mortgaged his homefor funds, and set out to party his way under the topsoil. He was an excellent partier by all accounts and terrific at making at mess of things, but it seems that above all he was a professional at surviving. A decade later John had two mortgages on his house, a demanding methamphetamine habit, and heart problems, but he was still alive. No one, least of all him, could figure it out.

When I talked with John in August 2008 he told me he’d kicked the booze and the pills for good this time, out the door like the meth, which he hadn’t touched since his stash ran out after moving back from Phoenix, except that one time he’d come down to the cities. A Wells Fargo insufficient funds notice from a week later tells a different story. John L. Kelly was notified that his purchases at CVS Pharmacy and Bottle Barn Liquors exceeded the account balance and he was warned from making further transactions until paying the outstanding amount of $62.33 and $70.00 in overdraft fees.

While John was on a great deal of prescriptions, these were purchased and delivered to him by my Aunt Jill from Frazee. The practice of receiving a prescription for narcotics from a doctor and then forging a copy is called double? dipping. John taught me how to do it. On the same day as John’s notice from Wells Fargo, he received a letter from Family Health Care Center informing him that his account was delinquent. We have made multiple attempts to contact you to reach agreeable payment arrangements, however, you have not responded. The outstanding $140 would be unpaid at time of death, evidenced by letters from a collection agency.

When he decided it was time to leave Phoenix, John borrowed $9,000 from my Aunt Joy to secure the mortgage on his house and resell it. He received about $100,000 in the sale all told and began plans to move to Fargo. He put his dog Bear up in a Phoenix hotel room with AC, bought several jars of methamphetamine, and used the meth to round up a couple cars of addicts to help with the move. They made the move in a week and a half, in two trips up and down between Detroit Lakes and Phoenix. There were cans of food in his kitchen cupboard when he died that had expired in the ‘70s, that had made the trip from Minneapolis around the country with him, to Arizona and back now to Minnesota. Those cans probably knew John better than anyone.

Before John moved to Fargo, he landed in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. Why he chose to move from Phoenix to Detroit Lakes, a five-minute drive from Frazee, the small town that had cast him out, is a point of debate among the family. My Aunt Joy would like to tell you it was because Aunt Jill and her husband, who lived in Detroit Lakes, were the last relatives he hadn’t cheated or swindled. My aunt Jill said he was trying to get a fresh start. My mom would tell you it was so he could be closer to their own mother during her final years in a Detroit Lakes nursing home. John told me he wanted to quit smoking meth, and figured it would be eaiser if he didn’t know anyone to who had any. A child in trouble goes home.

Aunt Joy, my mother, and I walked down the main street of Fargo the day after John died. Joy and my mother strode twenty feet ahead as I navigated John’s cell phone. I had been elected as the family’s diplomat to John’s friends by my mother, and so I was placing the twenty numbers in his phone book into two lists: family, which had been notified, and others, who hadn’t. John had twelve others in his phonebook, marked only by their phone numbers. I transferred the numbers to my cell phone and started calling. Five did not pick up when I called and never got back to me. Two claimed to not know him all that well and one hung up when I announced who I’d called about. Two were friends from his apartment complex and said they’d already heard. One had the highest voice I’d ever heard and I thought when she answered that it was the daughter of whoever I was trying to reach. She started crying when I told her the news and told me that she and her husband lived in Phoenix and would send flowers, please call back when you know the site of the service. The second to last number was a man who expressed his deepest condolences and told me he and his son would be there for the funeral. The last number was the only one I’d recognized and one I hesitated to call. It was one of John’s old friends, and a guy I knew. I always called him Casey.

Casey’s real name turned out to be Pat. When I turned sixteen, John gave me his number as a coming of age present. When he gave me the number, he told me to always listen to my gut. If you aren’t sure you always walk away. Hell of a way to introduce your friend. Casey knew John from way back. They had been business partners or something; one of my aunts told me he used to do everybody’s taxes. The guy I met was an old urban bud farmer with a nasty cough that doubled himover. He had skin like an old fish, weathered but still tight on his bones. Casey counted money carefully and threw handfuls of weed in jars without measuring. He’d sit and tell stories and the longer you listened the higher he’d fill the jar. He told me a lot about my uncle, about partying with Minnesota Vikings and bands with my other Uncle Mark who’d played in The Time with Morris Day. Casey was dying, too, when I met him. He was mellower about it than my uncle, probably because he had quit the uppers years ago. Most of the time he seemed to be coasting into it. I remember one time he blew a meeting and I couldn’t get a hold of him for a week. He finally called and said he’d started coughing one day and just had to hang on. I told my Uncle John and he said, but he’s still alive, huh? Casey’s house doesn’t exist anymore. They don’t even have houses on that block now. When I met Casey his was the last one standing, surrounded by grassy fields and asphalt. A big three story thing. There were always a few junkies boarding in the rooms upstairs on their way between point A and B. When John came throughit was where he stayed.

Besides Casey, there was another permanent resident named Jungle Jim, a gigantic guy with a thick beard and taped glasses, who operated possibly the longest continuously running garage sale in the state of Minnesota. Jim sold stolen goods and Zippo lighters and knives with plastic handles. He followed Casey around like a dog.

Casey sold drugs. He was nice to me. When he met me the first time he gave me a jar of bud on the house and asked me if I wanted to go grab a drink. I explained to him I wasn’t old enough, and after that, Casey always left a case of beer out for me to take home.

Casey grew his bud at a warehouse somewhere in town. It was sticky and a little under-cured. It looked like forest moss covered in donut sugar. It got you really high. I made a lot of money selling it. I spent a lot of days, warm ones and cold ones, in that old house in East St. Paul smoking weed and crumbled pills out of old brass pipes, listening to junkies creaking around upstairs and watching Casey shut himself in the closet to see how fast he could roll a joint in the dark.

I remember Casey pulling me aside one night and telling me Uncle John’s girlfriend had stolen money, a bunch of it, and if she showed up here he was gonna kill her. I remember wondering if she would be the first person to walk upstairs and not back down. People staying with Casey and Jim got lower and nastier. I stopped going upstairs. Casey and Jim talked all the time about losing the house. No one seemed to eat there anymore. The kitchen had been turned into a tool shed. I remember getting a call from Casey in the middle of the night asking if I knew anything about his warehouse being broken into. I asked my Uncle John if I should worry and he said only if you did it. Casey stopped selling bud. I bought other drugs from him instead.

Casey calls me one morning and offers me weight for cents on the dollar. I have to borrow the money from a few people, and a few of them insist on coming. We drive out to East St Paul. It’s almost funny looking back, Jungle Jim picking up a brick off the back porch as he let us in, trying to hide it behind his back as he follows us into the living room. There’s Casey and a bunch of other guys I don’t know synchronized tweaking, all paying way more attention than normal. This is the image of Casey I recall now when he comes to mind. Nervous and high. He was taking uppers again. His pale skin stretched over his cheeks, bulging eyes staring up at a corner of the ceiling as he talks to us. The drugs are laid out on a cut open black garbage bag. Just by looking I can tell they’re bad. This is the part where you say nothing and walk out the door, except they weren’t going to let us do that. I have a feeling if I’d come alone they might not have let me leave at all. I put the money on the table and Casey counts it. I remember we were $10 short somehow, just a little amount, but it normally was the one thing Casey got hung up on. He said we were fine. We took the drugs and left.

The drugs were worthless. We each took some and sold it as quick as we could, before word got around. I left town for a while and took the stuff I couldn’t sell with me. I remember sitting in a little cabin with shag carpet and packing hit after hit in a foil pipe, wondering if I was high. I didn’t call Casey again until that walk down Main Street Fargo following my mom and Aunt Joy. The phone rang and rang. Casey didn’t pick up.

The night before the funeral, an ice storm hit Fargo. I’ve never felt cold burn like that. By midnight the city shut the roads down. The next morning the family drove to the funeral in three vehicles. We were the only ones on the street. It was like a procession through a ghost town. My Aunt Jill had insisted the entire weekend on a church service. Nobody argued. Who knows what John wanted.

We entered the grand sanctuary that Jill had picked out for the funeral, fifteen minutes late and alone. In all, John’s daughter Jenna, her boyfriend, my Aunt Janice and her daughter Katia, my Aunt Jill and her husband, my Aunt Joy, and me, my mother and father and little brother were in attendance when we finally started the service forty minutes behind schedule. My aunts sang in the empty church. Aunt Janice had arranged all the music. My mother kept crying and asking where are all the people. Halfway through, a timid looking man and his teenage son entered the sanctuary and sat at the back. Janice, a jazz soloist, sang until my mom and Jill and Jenna were crying and holding each other. Then, cheeks stained, John’s sisters got up before the congregation and sang “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” Janice played out the postlude and on the way out of the building Aunt Joy put her arm around John’s daughter Jenna and told her that she would have to take John’s Jeep to pay back some of the money John owed her.

That first night in Fargo, when we got to the hospital, Joy and my mother and I took the elevator up to John’s floor and were led to his room. He was there, lying in bed with a bloated stomach puffed up under the bed sheets. My mom burst into tears and started telling the nurses we kept thinking he’d come along, we kept thinking he’d get better, and Joy was talking under her, fixed on the body, you can’t expect me to feel like that for a guy who’d chase you through a house, scare you so you have to lock yourself in a bathroom and hide, beat the door down and beat you up like you were little kids. You can’t expect me to feel like that. And I walked up to Uncle John’s bed, a man I hadn’t seen in two years but I’d talked to twice a week, and I saw the loose skin around his mouth, the great bulge of his stomach through the sheets, and I put my hand out and I touched his cold oily forehead, and it didn’t feel like death and it didn’t feel like John. The nurse came up next to me and said to everyone, don’t be alarmed if the body moves a little or twitches, it’s perfectly natural for a body to have small movements several hours after death. And I wanted to say no, you don’t understand, that’s what he’s been doing for years. He’s only just stopped.

The form sent to John’s apartment explaining the surgery he was to undergo the following day doesn’t read like a death sentence. You may bathe/shower and brush your teeth the morning of surgery. DO NOT SWALLOW ANY WATER… Wear loose comfortable clothing—‘Jogging Suit’ something easy to change out of and into. Halfway through the surgery, John’s body went into shock, his systems started failing, they put him in a chemically induced coma and he never woke up. He was pronounced dead twelve hours later.

My uncle is hard to explain, but everyone who knew him tries. My mother said he never got over their father leaving when they were little. My Aunt Jill said he’d turned his back on Christ, but Jesus loves him. My Aunt Janice thought he was lonely and missing Jenna’s mom who’d walked out on him. My Aunt Joy said he was a mean son of a bitch.

John’s house was crammed with books and broken stereo equipment and canned food from the 1980s. He had helped produce a gold record and had been the private coke dealer for rock stars and professional athletes. He’d been an angry kid and a terrible father, by his own admission, and he’d ended his life forty-five miles from where he started it. He was deprived of his wife, daughter, sex, girlfriend, friends, drugs, then his dog in that order. He could still play you the bass riff of any song on the radio. He took pride in telling you about the musicians he’d worked with, the people he’d partied with and sold drugs to, and what their nasty secrets were. He was a know?it?all with limited information, a man who lived several decades longer than anyone expected. John had been waiting for something to kill him, or someone. But he’d survived it all, diabetes and colon cancer and a broken heart and heart attacks and stomach cancer and addiction and being a mean antagonistic son of a bitch.

I remember being fifteen and John and my cousin Chris and I taking a handgun to an old barn on some distant relative’s property to shoot stray cats. We were smoking in the field in the barn shade with John and Chris, and John saying that he wanted Chris and I to scrape out his lungs and smoke them when he died. He called it his life’s work. By the time John died, Chris was already too deep intohis own shit to make the funeral. I remember wondering, before I knew, what John had, what really made him sick at the beginning. Chris got it. He’s dying in a prison in Georgia now. I got it too, maybe that day in the field, maybe always. A week after we got back from the funeral, Casey called my phone. I told him John was dead and Casey asked when did he die.

While John was in the hospital this last time, his dog Bear escaped. Bear ran out of town and a farmer shot him. John had found out who the guy was. He told me he was going to kill him. I think that’s why he died: the universe chose the farmer. I didn’t know if I could ever tell my mother that. My mother cried for two years after John died. Off and on. She told me on the day he left for thirty years, my Grandpa Jerry knelt down in front of John while the packed car was running outside, and told him he’d be back in a week to take him camping. She told me a lot of things about what our family was like, before Jerry left and after he was gone. She told me Jerry had thrown John down a set of stairs once, after John shot a wooden arrow at her head. She told me she and John were the only people in the town of Frazee to wear black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. She used to tell me I looked a lot like Grandpa Jerry, all the time, until I begged her not to anymore.

After the funeral, I stayed over at John’s place for one night, with his daughter Jenna and her boyfriend, wading through Jenna’s inheritance. Jenna’s boyfriend, whose name I can’t remember, had plans for all of it. What they couldn’t take in the car back to Los Angeles, they ended up moving, in the boxes John had never unpacked, into a storage unit in Fargo, where it remained until Jenna quit making the payments. Jenna’s boyfriend stayed up late with me that night, smoking and talking shit. He wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to take anything. The only thing I took was this story. After they passed out I looked through it all. I still have the handwritten notes I took, the lists I made of everything I could find. There are a lot of things I’ve left out, things I found in his closets and drawers and computer. Things our relatives told me. I’ve left out some people. Things I can’t figure out. Things that probably change the whole story.