Uncle Dom

There’s a memory I have of fricassee. This may sound like the start of a joke but I am deadly serious. If you don’t know what fricassee is, congratulations. Also, too bad. I’m not going to describe it to you. Talking about the memory is bad enough without going through the recipe. In fact, the only situation where I would describe fricassee to you would be if the words leaving my mouth meant the knowledge left my brain, so then I could live the rest of my life knowing nothing about fricassee. I don’t mean to go on and on about this. You may think differently anyway. You may not only know what fricassee is, you may really like it. In which case we don’t understand each other because fricassee is filthy.

This is the memory: I’m at the kitchen table one night four years ago. I’m six years old. So I’m small but not really small. On the table is a plate of cold fricassee. The chicken’s gone all lumpy, and the sauce looks like cat sick mixed with milk. The fricassee did not start out cold but it’s been on the plate for quite some time and there is no question now of its coldness. I don’t have to taste it to know. I don’t have to taste it at all. This is where Mum and me disagree. I have been sitting at the table for what feels like hours and I am prepared to stay for hours more. I cannot say how long it has really been because the clock is on the wall behind me. I will not turn to look at the clock because that would suggest I’m giving up. I’m not giving up. Mum can make me stay at the table but she cannot make me eat the fricassee. She has cleared up everyone else’s plates and done the dishes. Dad offered to dry but she said not to bother. I don’t know where Dad is now but Mum is back sitting at the table opposite me, reading a book. Usually when she reads a book at the table at night, she reads out loud so I can listen, or I’ll sit on her knee and follow along. That’s the best. This night she doesn’t read out loud or pay any attention to me at all. Eventually Dad comes in and says bedtime and I go to sleep without dinner.

That is the memory. You may say there are worse things. You’re probably right but it feels important. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt unloved by your mother but it is not a nice feeling. Just recently I asked Mum about that night with the fricassee and she said it didn’t happen, or that she doesn’t remember. What I know is that it definitely did happen and that she’s made herself forget. I don’t really know what to think about that but what I know for sure is she’s never made fricassee since, so part of her must remember what happened that time. Which also means that in the end I won.

Anyway, I suppose not too much has happened to me so far, so the fricassee thing is up there along with the time my bird flew away and the time I had the nosebleed that wouldn’t stop. They all seemed to happen around the same time too, or at least I remember it that way.

Maybe it’s part of growing up that the not-so-good things happen all close together. A few months ago my Gran died, which is not good but it also didn’t make me feel bad. That doesn’t sound right but I didn’t really know my Gran. She lived far away and we never saw her and Dad never talked about her. Gran was Dad’s mum. I only met her once when we visited one Christmas and even then I only remember little things like her hands peeling prawns. When she died, Dad went back there for the funeral. He was only there for one day and when he came back he was very quiet. He must have been sad. Sometimes I imagine Mum being dead and it makes me sick to my guts.

It wasn’t long after Gran died that Uncle Dom turned up. He just knocked on the door one night while I was doing my homework. Uncle Dom was Dad’s little brother. I met him the Christmas we were at Gran’s. I think he lived with Gran, actually. My only memory of him from that time was being thrown in the air until I thought my head would fall off. It wasn’t that fun but I remember Uncle Dom and Dad laughing, and it’s not like I got that hurt or anything so it was a nice memory overall. Uncle Dom looked like Dad but less serious. Mum sounded surprised when he was at the door but he gave her flowers and started singing a sort of romantic song right away which made Mum laugh even though I could tell she was embarrassed. Uncle Dom asked if I remembered him and I said yes. I felt a bit shy. Then he said he was sorry for throwing me up in the air so much that time and that I could punch him in the face if I wanted. He crouched down and loosened his collar and everything. I didn’t punch him in the face but I could tell he wouldn’t have minded if I did. I liked him then.

I pretended to finish my work at the little desk in the family room while Mum and Uncle Dom talked in the kitchen and waited for Dad. It was nice to listen to them. Uncle Dom was drinking wine and that made it feel like even more of a special occasion. He wanted to surprise Dad but Mum called Dad at his office while Uncle Dom was in the toilet. That was better because Dad hates surprises. He came straight home and was in a very happy and friendly mood. He gave Uncle Dom a big hug and they laughed very loud. I knew they loved each other because Uncle Dom called Dad an old bastard and Dad acted like it was a good thing. Dad said yes to some wine so it was a real party.

Uncle Dom was in town on business, and when he said it he had a funny little smile, like it was a secret. He said he’d be in town for a few days or for a week or who knows? I thought I saw Dad raise his eyebrows but then he sneezed so I couldn’t tell if the eyebrows were a look or just the start of a sneeze. Mum asked Uncle Dom where he was staying and he did that funny smile again and Dad laughed and called him a bloody scab and they hugged again. We never had visitors so it was very exciting.

After a while I suppose Uncle Dom was living at our house instead of just visiting. He went to work early in the morning, sometimes even earlier than Dad, and he usually didn’t come back until dinner. Then he told stories about people he’d had interesting conversations with during the day. Uncle Dom was great at conversation. He knew lots of things that people liked to talk about, which is different from knowing things full stop. For example I came second in Geography last term so you could say I know a thing or two but I can’t exactly stop someone in the street and talk to them about latitude and longitude. Dad said Uncle Dom could read people like a book. I said I liked to read books and Dad smiled and said it was just a Turner phrase. I asked who Turner was and Dad laughed.

Uncle Dom slept on the foldout couch in the family room. He called it his California King. I had slept on the foldout couch so I knew it wasn’t comfortable, but Uncle Dom didn’t seem to mind. Sometimes at night if I had to go to the toilet I would go past the family room and he would be sitting up playing solitaire on the sheets and drinking wine, and when he saw me he would pretend to be asleep and do loud snores. Some nights he wouldn’t come home until we were all in bed. I would hear him coming up the back lane since my room faced that way. Sometimes he was very loud, and one night he even slept in the back lane. He called up to me in the morning and asked if I could let him in. When I opened the front door, he told me to be quiet but he was giggling so I knew it was a game. He smelt a bit but no worse than you would if you slept in the back lane.

I don’t know what Uncle Dom’s job was. One time Mum said he was a salesman but she said it with a look and Dad didn’t say anything. At any rate, Uncle Dom started to be home a lot in the daytime. He said he didn’t need to work for some fat cat. He said those fat cats could shove it. I asked him if he meant the fat cat that hung around in the back lane and he laughed a lot. We were becoming very good friends.

One day I was off school because the heater in one of the classrooms exploded or something, and normally this would be a big headache for Mum and Dad (not the heater exploding specifically, just me being home from school), so it was a big help that Uncle Dom could be at home to look after me. That’s what Mum said as she left for work. I could hear in her voice that she was a bit unsure but Uncle Dom didn’t seem to notice. It was a great day. We played dominoes for ages and Uncle Dom told me the story of the Mary Celeste, which was an incredibly spooky story that he swore was true. It was a ship found floating out at sea with nobody on it, and nobody knows where it came from or who was supposed to be on it or anything. Uncle Dom made toasted cheese sandwiches in the frying pan like Dad, and I think they actually tasted better than Dad’s. I drank ginger beer and so did Uncle Dom, but he made his with a bit of extra taste, he said.

In the afternoon, we went for a walk to the corner shop, not to buy anything, just to have a look. Uncle Dom got talking to the man who owned the shop. They talked about the Prime Minister and who would get picked for the Australian cricket team. He knew a lot about both topics. I just stood nearby and looked at the magazines. There was a lady on the front of one of them who I’d seen in a very sad movie on TV, and she was smiling on the magazine but all I could remember was how much she had been crying in the movie and it made me feel bad. Then the wife of the man who owned the shop put her hand on my arm. I hadn’t noticed she was there and it gave me a fright. I thought she was going to get me in trouble for looking at the magazines without buying one, but she just looked at me and asked if I was okay. I said yes and she asked me again and I said yes again. I don’t know why she asked me that. When Uncle Dom called me from the front of the shop, the lady was still holding my arm. Not hard or anything but I didn’t know what to do. Then she let me go and I went out of the shop. I felt a bit hot in my face.

On the way home we didn’t talk for a while, and then Uncle Dom said he had to tell me something. He told me he’d gone to the eye doctor and the eye doctor had told him he was colourblind and that the news had come right out of the green. We laughed a lot and I started to feel better. It was a great joke because it sounded like a real story right up until the end. Uncle Dom laughed so loud a few people stopped and looked. I wasn’t embarrassed.

Some men across the road called out and Uncle Dom called something back. I think they were his friends. Uncle Dom told me to go on home and he would be right there, and he gave me the key and went across the road. Then I went home and watched TV until Mum got home. Mum asked where Uncle Dom was and I told her, and I told her about our day while she made the dinner. Then Dad got home so I started the story again. I tried to tell it like Uncle Dom would. He was the best at stories. The idea was to make them go for a long time and to have a surprise ending if possible. I was telling Mum and Dad about the Mary Celeste when Uncle Dom walked in. Dad asked him where he’d been and he looked at me with that little smile and asked me if I heard someone talking. Uncle Dom’s eyes were red and wet. Dad told me to go to bed and Uncle Dom said yes do as the master bids.

Mum took my hand and we started to go and Uncle Dom stepped out of the way to let us pass. He was sort of wobbly. He looked at Dad and said it’s always good to see a son who loves his mother. Dad said that’s bullshit Dom and Uncle Dom said why’d you even come to the fucking funeral and then Dad pushed Uncle Dom up against the fridge. He pushed him hard because the fridge rocked back and some of the magnets fell off, and the mug Mum kept coins in fell off the top of the fridge and broke on the floor. Dad had his fists up underneath Uncle Dom’s chin and he was saying try me Dom try me and Uncle Dom wasn’t saying anything, in fact he had his eyes closed which would have made Dad even madder because it looked like he wasn’t listening.

Mum had let go of my hand and was trying to pull Dad away from the fridge. It was strange because it was like it was a movie and I wasn’t part of it, I was just standing there watching and nobody could see me. Then Uncle Dom opened his eyes and looked straight at me. He said my name and smiled but it looked like he was crying. Dad looked over his shoulder at me and he let Uncle Dom go. We all stood there not saying anything. Then Dad got busy sweeping up the broken mug. He always got busy after he got mad. Uncle Dom didn’t do anything, he just stood there with his head down.

Mum took me to my room and sat next to me in bed and read to me for a long time. She read louder than usual. After a while I thought I heard Dad’s voice and the front door open or close. Then I think I fell asleep.

That night I dreamed that Uncle Dom was in my room. I rolled over and he was standing beside my bed. I knew that he had climbed in my window from the back lane. I said hello and he didn’t say anything. In the dream I knew Uncle Dom couldn’t talk without getting hurt. I don’t know if you know what I mean by that. I reached out toward him and he started to laugh but there was no joke in it and I started to be afraid. He looked almost exactly like my Dad. The moon came into the room and Uncle Dom started to scream and I put the blanket over my head and then it was the morning.

Uncle Dom had gone. The couch was folded up and the clothes he kept next to the TV were gone too. I didn’t see Uncle Dom again and we didn’t talk about him either. He had pretty much started to be my best friend so I missed him a lot. I went to school and Mum and Dad went to work and everything was the same as before except it wasn’t.

I started to ask about him one time but Mum’s eyes got wide and Dad went out of the room. I think Mum and Dad wanted to pretend he hadn’t been there at all. One night after dinner I told the joke about going to the eye doctor and Mum and Dad laughed and asked me where I’d heard it and for a second I didn’t say anything and then I said I’d heard it on TV. It made me wish I hadn’t told the joke.

Another night I was going to bed and I heard some commotion outside my window. I rushed over and looked into the back lane and I don’t know what I expected but all I saw was that fat cat rummaging around in some garbage bags. He looked up at me and I said he could take his job and shove it. I laughed out loud but the cat just looked away and kept poking around in the garbage. He didn’t get it. To be honest, neither did I.

I’d like to send Uncle Dom a letter. I see Mum writing letters at Christmas and the people she sends them to always send her letters back. She reads them and then she sticks them to the fridge, or if they’re too long she sticks the first page to the fridge and puts the rest back in the envelope and puts the envelope on the mantelpiece. If I send Uncle Dom a letter he’ll read it and it might make him smile, and he might like to write me a letter back and tell me what he’s been up to. It would be alright if he didn’t have time to write me a letter back, but it’d be nice to know he’d read my letter and knew that I was thinking about him.

I don’t know what I’m going to say in the letter yet. I sometimes think I know, then I try to write it down and my thoughts go all swirly. Miss Mulcahy at school says the best way to write is to write about things you know. I don’t think that’s true. It’s much easier to write a story about a dragon who works in a bank than it is to write a letter to Uncle Dom. I wrote that story in one go in class.

Maybe I could send my dragon story as the letter. I can imagine Uncle Dom reading it and laughing and then reading it out loud to the friends he’s with, and they might all decide to write me a letter back and tell me what they thought about my story. In that way I could be friends with Uncle Dom’s friends and they would know Uncle Dom had a nephew who liked funny stories just as much as he did. Maybe that’s the best way to do it. I’ll write a little bit about me at the start and then I’ll just let the story be the letter. Miss Mulcahy says getting started is the hardest part of doing anything, but that’s not true either. The start of the letter is easy.

At the start of the letter I will write Dear Uncle Dom.


Rob Johnson

Rob Johnson is a writer from Sydney. His fiction has been published by Overland, The Suburban Review, Aniko Magazine, Underground Writers and Corvus Review; his poetry by Sunday Mornings at the River; and his non-fiction by Aniko Magazine and Audrey Journal. For the stage, he has written The Recidivists (Red Line Productions).

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