Tuesday, November 24, 2009
The mysterious Uncle Daniel
Seriously late Friday Flash Fiction
***Author's note: Okay, I'm late but wife, kids, the job, and a low grade stomach bug during the weekend all jumped in to make both writing and typing an upsetting, sour pain in the ass. So sue me. This story is an more elaborate version of a Writer's Digest writing prompt that wanted people to write about finding money in a garage or house you had no idea was there. So here it is, warts and all and if you don't like it I will refund all your money. *************
Even in my earliest memories, the picture was both exotic and faded. The black and white photo was of a young couple on the deck of a large sailing ship. Elaborate riggings and other nautical items surrounded them, and in the background the beach of a near pristine and idyllic tropical island complete with Polynesian style canoes and thatched huts created a scene that both stirred thoughts of adventure and relaxation. The young couple in the photo looked at each other oblivious to the setting around them, each totally enthralled with the other.
While the name of the island had long since been forgotten despite the romantic and adventurous stories that had been handed down in the family the ship was called the Pater and the couple was my great-aunt Isabella and her husband, the man I would come to love and know as Uncle Daniel. The story of Aunt Isabella and Uncle Daniel had the misfortune to become one of those tragic loves that bored housewives in later years would eagerly read in the form of pulp romances as they waited for both ungrateful children and neglectful husbands to call for them.
Aunt Isabella had run away from her home and father after learning that he was planning on going through with the arranged marriage of her to the son of a rich family down in Charleston. While such practices are rightfully considered shocking and strange now they were still commonplace among the high society elites despite what people said in public. However, Aunt Isabella refused and in a show of defiance and spunk her father years later would come to appreciate she packed a small bag and left town in the middle of the night.
Aunt Isabella somehow made it to New York and dressed as a man joined the crew of a trading ship. She sailed around the world several times as a crewmember of that ship using her fake male indentity, how she did it is anyone’s guess but in Hong Kong she left the vessel behind losing her disguise and started writing. Her stories were very quickly picked up by such magazines as National Geographic and Dramatic Adventures. Frankly it is believed her rapid success was because of her supernatural ability to be an utter pest as her father put it after both receiving a letter from his wayward daughter and later reading her stories.
A few years later a letter came saying Isabella and her new husband would be returning home for the birth of her first child. Her father, long since having almost sold his daughter off to a form of slavery and realizing his stupidity, eagerly awaited her return. Her return, with husband in tow, was joyous but short. She and the child both passed away during the birth with her father and new husband both lost in sorrow.
While Uncle Daniel by all right, being a stranger to a small Southern town should have drifted out of everyone’s lives Isabella’s father in a way adopted him into the family.
No one really knew where the man everyone called “Uncle Daniel” came from but by all accounts he apparently just appeared one day on the planet to meet and marry my grandmother’s sister. He never talked at all about his home and childhood although after a respectable amount of time passed after Aunt Isabella’s death he became a much sought after widower to the ladies of Georgetown. It didn’t take long for those ladies to come to the understanding that he was hopelessly still in love with his dead wife. Nevertheless, for most people in Georgetown, South Carolina by the mid-1950’s he had long since become an iconic fixture that seemed ageless. My first memory of him was as my mom and dad were walking down Front Street with me riding some little tricycle and him sitting in a chair in front of the old fire station.
Even then he looked like some ancient Southern college professor, short with brilliant white hair and beard dressed in a rumpled brown jacket and black slacks. He greeted my parents like they were his own children rising up from his seat and when he saw me I was scoped up and tossed into the air.
Squealing with glee as he tossed me in the air I remember his warm, comforting smile. “Don’t be a schlemiel,” he would say only to toss me in the air some more.
Thinking about it now for someone so old what I remember most was his strength and how secure I felt as he caught me. After that he shooed my parents away and took me inside and along with the fire chief showed me the shiny fire engine and later bought me an ice cream at the old café down the street close to the town clock. From then on any trip to Front Street for my parents to shop had me begging for a chance to see Uncle Daniel who could always be found nearby.
I wasn’t the only child in town to feel that way about Uncle Daniel and actually felt some jealousy in having to share his attention at times. But he seemed to relish it and I never remember him making me, or anyone else feel left out. As the years passed he was always someone that everyone could depend on in good times and bad.
But even someone as seemingly ageless as he eventually had to pass away. It was the early 1970’s as a mishmash of people he knew helped to clean out his small house just off Highmarket Street. After years of never giving any hint of where he was from or if he had any brothers or sisters at all of his belongings were either carried off as keepsakes or donated to charity.
My girlfriend and I were cleaning his garage when we stumbled upon a box that had nothing on it to identify its contents, something Uncle Daniel always did religiously. We were aghast to see thousands of dollars in it along with a strange circular device about the size of a kitchen clock with several groupings of numbers on the face divided by several horizontal and vertical lines running perpendicular to each other. The lighted numbers were barely visible with the device looking like whatever it used for a power source was close to being exhausted. My future first wife ignored the device and with a joy that she never really showed in our marriage began counting the money in the box, after several minutes, she stopped and started laughing.
“Jake, look at the year on the money,” she said.
It took a few seconds for me to understand her statement but once I did I knew something was wrong. All the money had the year “1997” on it and after further examination looked nothing like real currency. All the pictures of Hamilton, Grant, and Franklin were far larger, along with that other features were just wrong. With the foolish certainty of youth, we tossed the box into the trash along with the strange device, but only after I took one of the hundred dollar bills as a keepsake. I tucked it into an old copy of one of Mark Twain’s books he seemed to love and soon after forgot about both the strange money and the book.
I’m much older now but the memory of that man has stayed with me longer than either of my wives and my grown children who now have their own families. My joys are simple now that my body has become tired and worn out forcing me into an assisted living apartment. My family comes every other weekend to visit but my company is mainly my collection of books that I jealously guard from the others I live around. From those books I can sail the oceans, explore new worlds, and float down the Mississippi. Which brings me to the rushed visit yesterday of my daughter-in-law who quickly dropped by delivering yet another box she had found stored in the far corner of the attic of the old house.
Rummaging through the items inside, I found the old copy of Huckleberry Finn from Uncle Daniel’s house and while browsing through the pages about to slip away down that river again that strange looking currency I took to be fake fell down to the floor. The rush of years fell back to that day as my first wife and I looked through the box. Now looking at that enlarged picture of Ben Franklin with the signature of a now former Secretary of the Treasury perfectly preserved I now no longer wonder where Uncle Daniel came from, but when.