The above is just a portion of the sort of thing you hear these days at an Irish wake, which is not the drunken bacchanal of the fevered non-Celtic imagination—we have St. Patrick’s Day for that sort of thing—but rather a somewhat somber event where you remember the dearly departed’s good points, gloss over the dearly departed’s not so good points, comfort the widow in her hour of grief and tribulation, and stare sharply at those members of the clan who didn’t get the memo about the Irish wake not being the drunken bacchanal of the fevered non-Celtic imagination. In Uncle Max’s case, however, much of what I’ve mentioned did not occur and when it did occur, the occurrence became an exercise in trying to keep a straight face. Everyone found glossing over Uncle Max’s not so good points something of a trial, as the only things most people who ever dealt with Uncle Max really remembered about Uncle Max was his not so good points. In short, Uncle Max was a complete shit.
Saying such a thing about Uncle Max pains me deeply, a statement that falls somewhere between a campaign promise and a Spanish fly ad on the Albany, Chicago & Washington mendacity scale. I forget where Uncle Max stood in the birth order; I think he was the last or the next to last of my father’s siblings, not that it matters now, but anyone who ever met him agreed that Uncle Max was the handsomest, most charming bastard that they’d ever met in their lives. There is an Uncle Max in every family [I think]—the lovable rogue who gets away with stuff the other kids can only dream of getting away with. The problem with lovable roguery is that after a while, it gets tiresome and by the end of his life Uncle Max had gotten incredibly tiresome, and I don’t mean that in a good way.
My first childhood memories of Uncle Max are set in the bucolic splendor of our happy little burg, where my parents had just bought a small vacation home where my brothers and me could spend our summer vacations having good clean fun instead of roaming the hot and gritty streets of the great metropolis thinking of new and ingenious ways of getting into trouble. At first, our enforced sojourn amid the fresh air and the green, green grass of not home had a profound psycholaxative effect on my brothers and I—we were bored absolutely shitless. But kids will be kids, after all, and soon we found things to do that were just as exciting as the things we could have done in the city. A burning barn, for example, may not provide the high drama of an apartment house fire, but the lack of tragic potential is more than made up for in comic possibilities; watching the local volunteer fire department trying to get itself organized and put out an actual fire was, in those far off days, one of the better shows on Earth. I should mention here, before the onslaught of angry letters from volunteer firemen and the ladies’ auxiliaries from one end of this our Great Republic to the other arrive on my doorstep, that our local volunteer fire department has become much more proficient at their job since the days of which I speak, and that my brother wishes to apologize yet again for setting that barn ablaze. It was, as he has maintained for the past forty years, an accident.
Well, no sooner had our happy little family ensconced itself in our happy little burg than Uncle Max decided to pay us a visit. When he called my father, Uncle Max assured him that no, he wasn’t coming up to borrow money—he had plenty of money, thank you very much, and he didn’t need anymore, a claim my father doubted—fiscal responsibility, like almost any other form of responsibility you might care to mention, was not a virtue Uncle Max chose to cultivate with any degree of assiduity—but his brother being his brother, my father could not slam the door in Uncle Max’s face, even if that’s what my mother wanted him to do.
Uncle Max called on a Tuesday, if I remember this right, and he arrived the next Saturday in a very large car. I don’t remember what model it was; it might have been a Cadillac, but I can’t really be sure now. He’d borrowed the money to buy this particularly conspicuous bit of conspicuous consumption from a loan shark; banks in those halcyon days of yesteryear disliked lending money to someone who could not repay the loan, a prejudice many bankers seem to have overcome in the years since these events occurred; and, as he would have done with the bank, Uncle Max chose not to repay the loan shark, an insouciant attitude towards the financial verities that the loan shark no doubt found irritating in the extreme. In order to convince Uncle Max of the many benefits of the free market system in general and the installment plan in particular, the loan shark dispatched two of his minions to cajole Uncle Max into seeing economic reason. Something must have gone wrong with the interview, as the two minions woke up in the hospital the next day being treated by doctors convinced they’d stepped in front of a moving truck. [N.B.: Uncle Max had a bit of a temper, as you may have guessed, and he was a boxer in his teens. He was also one of the strongest men I’d ever seen. I saw him bend a Kennedy half-dollar between his thumb and his index and middle finger when he was sixty years old.]
As you might imagine, the loan shark was utterly aghast at this attack upon his employees and by his not getting the vig, although I suspect that latter aghasted him much more, if that’s even a word, than the former, and so our aggrieved Shylock sent forth squads of ill-intentioned men to find Uncle Max and show him the error of his ways, preferably in a very gory, painful, and public manner, lest Uncle Max’s example breed imitation amongst the rest of the loan shark’s clientele. Uncle Max, for his part, was also utterly aghast, possibly for the first time in his life, at the possibility that his actions might have adverse consequences, in this case very adverse consequences indeed, and so took this opportunity to vanish completely from the face of the earth.
Six months later, Uncle Max re-emerged as…Uncle Moshe. For reasons best known to himself, Uncle Max decided that being a Hasid, complete with blond beard and long dark coat, was the perfect disguise for a very erstwhile Irish-American altar boy on the run from an unhappy mob-connected loan shark (is there any other kind of loan shark, I wonder). To advance the verisimilitude of the disguise, Uncle Max had acquired a truly outstanding command of the Yiddish language, speaking with almost perfect accuracy a dialect of that language unknown to the vast majority of Yiddish speakers past and present. Uncle Max’s Yiddish was Yiddish in much the same way that pouring ketchup on your spaghetti and meatballs is Italian cuisine.
But the disguise must have worked; Uncle Max arrived on our doorstep one sunny Saturday afternoon in July all in one piece and without a scratch on him, his blond peyos fluttering in the wind, complete with the huge car that all the fuss was about and his Portuguese girl friend, Maria, and no, I have not counted the number of mitzvahs violated in either the letter or the spirit in the first part of this sentence. I don’t where Uncle Max met Maria and I am pretty sure I do not want to know. Maria could have been a gargoyle in another life and she could have been a gargoyle in this life as well, if she wanted the job. On the other hand, the two other things that really stood out about Maria really stood out, to the point that even I, at that tender age, wondered aloud if those things were real. My mother, ever the soul of etiquette, whacked me across the back of my head for my impertinence. To complete the inventory, it soon became self-evident that Maria’s English language skills were more than a little wanting; her contributions to the conversation were basically yes, no, please, thank you very much, and is that so, either singly or in some combination thereof. Whether she actually knew what these stock phrases meant is one of the great mysteries of modern times, but I suppose she meant well. She called Uncle Max “Moyshee” and she chain smoked cigarettes, often lighting a fresh cigarette with the still burning butt of her previous one, a once common habit here in this our Great Republic, and a fact I include here for its anthropological and historical interest to the younger readers. Maria and Uncle Max seemed very happy together, or as happy as a man who couldn’t speak Portuguese could be with a woman who couldn’t speak fake Yiddish.
As my parents settled down around the kitchen table with Uncle Max and Maria, my mother told my brothers and me to go out and play until she called us in for dinner. This happened much more then than it does now, when parents feel that they aren’t properly parenting unless they are constantly annoying their children every minute of the day. We trooped out the front door and spent the next several hours doing whatever it was we were doing—I forget the details now, but it probably had something to do with riding our bicycles down a very steep hill and seeing if we could stop before we ran into a very high stone wall, an amusement my father banned a few years later after a series of mistimed stops resulted in several expensive broken bones, three concussions, and one broken nose. After that, we played a lot of baseball, which, while interesting in its own way, did not have the same thrill quotient for us that potentially fatal blunt force trauma did. On this day, though, we did manage not to break anything by the time my mother started calling us in to eat, but it was not for want of trying.
I remember walking up the driveway when I heard something strange coming from the grass. I should point out here that at this time my home did not have a lawn in the conventionally understood meaning of that word, namely a largely pointless expanse of unnecessary foliage designed to give Mexicans of uncertain immigration status gainful employment. Instead of the trim, clipped green strip of your typical suburbanite’s darkest botanical fantasies, we had a wild, uncropped, uncut retro thatch of bush populated with ragweed stalks the size of dwarf sequoias towering over our heads and tall grass so impenetrable that a company of Viet Cong could hide out there for months on end without anyone realizing that Charlie had tunneled his way into the land of the free and the home of the brave.
My mother called again, this time for me, and told me to find Uncle Max and his guest—that’s the word she used, guest. I said okay and I started down the path through the front forest; it seems ridiculous to call such a broad swath of flora a lawn, now that I think of it; to find them. I got halfway down the path and called for Uncle Max, whereupon I heard an immediate “Jesus frigging Christ!” It was Uncle Max experiencing not a sudden Pauline road to Damascus conversion from faux Judaism to faux Christianity, but rather him proclaiming the usual male response to kid induced coitus interruptus. Maria screeched something in response in what I guess must have been Portuguese—I don’t speak that language so I can’t be sure. There was a momentary pink flash of this and that; apparently they were real; and then the sound of my father shouting angrily at Uncle Max from the porch. My mother appeared miraculously from nowhere and whisked me away into the house, where she scolded me for reasons I did not fathom at the time and that she would not explain, and the evening and the morning were the last day I would see Uncle Max for a long time.
And so Uncle Max is dead. I don’t know what happened to Maria; he may have married her; Uncle Max married several times, although I can’t say for certain that he ever divorced any of the wives. He died and his daughters wouldn’t pay for the funeral. They hadn’t seen or spoken to Uncle Max for thirty years or more and therefore saw no reason to shell out good money to bury a man who’d been little more than a sperm donor to them. After much hemming and hawwing, and a threat from the hospital that they’d send Uncle Max to potter’s field if someone didn’t pick up the body soon, my uncles paid for the cremation, complaining all the while that Max had managed to screw them over one more time. But the uncles got even with Uncle Max, though. Having Uncle Max’s name embossed on the urn would have cost another fifty dollars, so my uncles didn’t bother; they printed Uncle Max’s name and vital dates on a post-it note with a magic marker, taped the note to the urn, and then put the urn in my grandmother’s coffin. It’s not much, of course, but it’s a lot more than some people get.