When my Uncle Joe ate, he bent over his food, looking at a point a foot or so in front of him, and chewed in slow mortification. He also whispered when he wrote, in a high register, not too different from whistling. I have always thought, as many words were lost to the air in front of him, as were ever written down. Between fits of scribbling, he rustled pages in his small notebook, back and forth, as if it were important never to let the words hop forward, from one page to the next, but rather to hide them in different spots, like a squirrel.
Part of the problem, it seemed, was that Uncle Joe had a tumor that was pressed against certain nerves and affected his activities, including one not so easily discussed by people like me who grew up in New England and were taught to avoid the topics that fascinate us most.
He was lonely during this part of his life, and so he would suggest trips to his nieces and nephews. And since he really only had one of each, and since his niece Eleanor, my sister, was only eight, he tended to take her to the zoo and me, who was a good ten years older, to the African Niger delta or the upper reaches of the Amazon.
He preferred the Amazon, especially the area west of that river’s confluence with the Rio Negro. There, the water was clearer, deeper, the air less fetid and heavy, the mood, in short, more optimistic than among the swamplands of the Niger. In that place the mosquitoes, the billowing thunderheads, and the presence of poisonous snakes filled the air with danger to the point that there was no air left to breathe, and my Uncle Joe and I had to hyperventilate just to stay even. Exhausted by these conditions, and to counter the thirst that fear induces, I learned to drink quantities of African beer, and to glide over the muddy Niger either bent over my own food or slumped down in our leaky boat in an alcoholic stupor.
In Brazil we traveled in dugouts only, propelled by long-shafted outboards that slanted back into the water at such an angle that we were able to navigate through extremely shallow waters if we needed to find a sand bar for sleeping, or approach a village for food. My Uncle Joe chose outboards in general, because the sound of the motor drowned out the ringing in his ear from the tumor that was always the other companion on these jaunts – this two centimeter egg that nested in his brain, just inland from his left ear.
The tumor, which was to be measured and simply observed for the time being, had a profound effect on my uncle’s artistic proclivities. A fairly shy man for most of his years, he began to make up arias and ballads and sing them in a surprisingly beautiful baritone, which attracted the attention of people and some animals wherever we went.
Late one afternoon, a river steamer came up behind us, hissing an arc of water ahead of its copper bow, billowing black smoke, giving short asthmatic blasts on its whistle to say they were overtaking, but also that the passengers should assemble, there was something worth seeing. In the midst of a sudden Brazilian downpour, which came and went, and over the drum of the slowing pistons, with women in white dresses hovering just back from the dripping canopy, you heard my Uncle Joe, saw him standing in the dugout, forward toward the bow, his right arm out, palm up, addressing the steamer, singing his own version of Puccini’s O mio Babbino Caro. He could not reach the highest notes. Plus, it was Lauretta’s aria, not Rinuccio’s. But it was his favorite, and inspired by moisture, he sang in his strange spine-tingling baritone which, because of the egg, had now been bumped up to a notch or two below tenor.
And I could see them, those straining faces, unable to speak, before this apparition, a full-bellied middle-aged man standing in his drenched white linen suit, with his arms outstretched, an unshaven Lauretta, in a soggy mouse-eaten Panama, pleading for permission to marry her love, which each woman on the steamer must have secretly believed was female, and very much like herself.
The captain of the steamer, which was called the Aberdeen, drew back on the throttle and the pistons lay still. The hull, black and rusted, glided noiselessly forward. Water dripped from the faded steamer canopy. This was when I think my uncle noticed people among his audience. Their presence seemed to make his voice swell, he doffed the limp Panama – a Cubano – and held it out in salute, up and down, so as not to suggest donations, while his voice trembled out the last few lines Lauretta’s longing.
On this particular occasion, the captain of the steamer, a gallant bearded officer in blue coat and white trousers and with gold on his hat, motioned that I should stop the engine and come along side. And when we had drawn close and our motor was still, I could see the captain’s white shirt was frayed at the collar, his eyes bloodshot beneath the brim of his splendid hat, and his nose red probably from something like what my uncle and I had drunk on the Niger and continued to drink on the Amazon.
We were invited to dine with a lady, he barked, an announcement that caused a murmur among the passengers, and when we were still closer, and he had come down a ladder and placed one scuffed leather boot on our gunnel, he added – in confidence – that she was an Austrian countess, from a very old and much respected European family.
But I was the only one who seemed moved by this information. With the motor off, the ringing had begun again in my uncle’s head and he sat now in the bottom of the dugout bent forward with his hands pressed to his ears, and appeared to experience something like the same sort of distress that he displayed while eating.
I felt sorry for him, the object of so many stares from the railing of the steamer above us. The throb of insects and frogs coming from the river’s banks made me feel as if I was under water. And I imagined the sound my uncle was hearing inside his head was simply the exaggeration of that, and a much more serious thrall.
Later, at dinner, the countess, who had placed my uncle at her side and me at her other side, whispered a question to me. Was my uncle’s affliction an old one and had he received treatment, and was he, in that very moment when he appeared to be eating, in fact crying? Because, she had noticed, his shoulders rose and fell and twisted, as he tore flakes of meat away from the chicken leg and drew them into his mouth.
I told her, because of the egg, he had a very great ringing in his head that caused him various vexations, not the least of which – and I am not sure it was because of the wine or out of pity for my uncle’s loneliness – and I asked her pardon for my directness – not the least of which was a distressing over-activity of his manhood which kept him restless at night and by day subject to bouts of unpredictable shyness.
The countess, a very dignified and, I must say, strikingly beautiful woman, looked straight ahead of her and nodded slowly, with the expression of someone who is contemplating a deeply moving human truth and, in her mind, searching for what steps should be undertaken in response.
From that moment on she grew even more gentle and solicitous with my Uncle Joe. She poured him wine, lay new chicken legs on his plate for him to bend over. She praised his singing, in comparative references, to our Scottish captain and other nodding heads at the table, and to me spoke of a great surgeon in Vienna whom she knew personally and who she was sure could help my Uncle Joseph, the name I now used when I referred to him.
We continued upriver for four days, the little steamer pulling our dugout behind like a colt on a lead to its mother, and I did not see much of my uncle and the countess, except at suppers, when my uncle bent over his food, and the countess, looking tired but happy, fussed lovingly over him and said endless kind things to me about the need for continuing my education and living in a stable healthy climate and avoiding the evils of smoking and alcohol.
After breakfast, on the fifth day, we cast off from the Aberdeen. Something had changed between the countess and my Uncle Joe. The sparkle had gone out of her eyes, she looked alternately angry and hurt, stared darkly at me, then looked away. My uncle was gallant but unreachable at the end. When the moment came, he bent to kiss her hand. She restrained herself, drew in a deep breath, and overcame, I think, an urge to hit him, then held the caressed hand strangely, with her other one, like someone covering a wound. He bowed once more, in his old linen suit and turned away, straight-backed and buoyant. A bell rang, the pistons stopped, steamer hushed to a crawl. We descended a hemp ladder to our tottering places in the dugout, and then fell behind, pushed away by the thrashing of the steamer’s great brass screw. While the distance increased, and the pistons beat out their rhythm of our separation, my uncle and I sat there among the empty beer bottles and stared a little like orphans, I thought, out over the steamer’s wake, the only connection now between us. The passengers waved, at first, then gradually found reasons to move away, so that the countess could be alone at the stern. And when she was very far away, she raised her arm, held it aloft for a long moment, then let it drop, and the steamer turned a distant green curve in the river, and was gone.
The water around us, the stirred mud, the unfamiliar floating leaves, other flotsam, gradually stopped roiling. Spilled gasoline, beer, and old bilge replaced the smell of the Aberdeen’s coal smoke. And we lay that way for some time, drifting and listening to the voices of the rainforest. My uncle seemed unexpectedly content. I had thought he would stay with countess and go to Vienna and be married and never be lonely again. But I said nothing. I primed the motor, adjusted the throttle, and before pulling the starter rope turned once more to look at him.
“The ringing is gone,” he said, and beamed the long warm, lingering smile of someone who is imparting very happy news. The ringing was gone, and it had been gone for more than a day.
I was going to ask the question that occurred to me in that moment, regarding causes, but my uncle seemed to have remembered something. He leaned over the side of the dugout and pulled on the string that hung down into the water, and brought up a bottle of beer. He got out his jackknife, cut it free, popped the lid off into the stinking bilge, and handed me the bottle. It was cool to the touch. How it had survived four days of dragging along behind the steamer, I had no idea. Then, from a second line, he snaked up another bottle, and cut it free for himself. And so we drifted, and drank our beers, as the day warmed, and talked about the countess – how kind and generous she had been. And how concerned she had been about my upbringing.
I must have had the questioning look again, because he winked, took a long swig and said, respectfully enough, I thought, “Very generous!” And with a whoop, more a croak that broke midway through, and no longer with any trace of the old mio babbino caro, threw his brown empty bottle – an act of littering – with an underhand sweep, high up over our heads, into the bright Brazilian morning – while we sat grinning, first checking to see it wasn’t going to land on our heads, then holding each other’s gaze, scamps who had escaped once more, far from the Niger and Vienna, and almost everything else, holding our breath, the sun warm on our backs, waiting for the bottle to fall. Waiting for the splash.