By Roberto José Andrade Franco
My uncle made a mess of himself while trying to live clean.
It wasn’t the first time that week he’d made a mess and it was far from the first time in his life he had tried to get clean. On that day, he immediately jumped in the shower. Didn’t even bother to take off the clothes that also needed cleaning.
I’ve often wondered how soon into that shower he talked himself into believing the next day could be different. I’ve wondered why it took that moment for me to realize he had a problem.
A few minutes later, my uncle came out the bathroom with nothing but a towel around his waist. He went into a back room, detached from the house, and opened a bottle filled with liquor the color of syrup. Didn’t even bother with a glass. He swallowed heavy gulps as if he were inhaling life. Water dripped from his wet hair and on to his shoulders and back.
On the days my uncle tried to get better, he was quiet and morose. “He’s not feeling too well,” my aunt, his oldest sister, would tell us kids in Spanish. “Just leave him alone,” my grandmother would say of the son she blessed with a biblical name. But at that moment when I watched him drink as if his life depended on it, he came back to us. Almost in an instant, he was the uncle I loved. Back to the charisma that attracted people. Back to telling jokes and smiling and seemingly loving life. Back to the man I recognized, who treated me like a son. He then got dressed and left. I can still remember the smell of his cologne.
I never got to see my uncle as much as I wanted. For a while, he was our neighbor, living in Juarez. He then moved to Chicago. When he’d return to visit us, he’d stick around for a few hours then disappear for days at a time. Sometimes, before he’d leave, his friends would wait outside while he got dressed. Friends that went by nicknames, who as they moved up in the world, people would rhetorically ask, “en que trabaja el muchacho?” Friends who’d get so high in that world people stopped asking out of fear they’d hear the truth of how they earned their money.
Sometimes my uncle would return to Chicago without saying goodbye. He’d just disappear, and I’d wait to see him again, even if it was just for a bit.
Decades after he left—only returning sporadically—my uncle moved permanently back to Juarez. My uncle was the type of person that makes families keep secrets. So, from what I understand, he got into some legal problems and got forced back to a world different from the one he left.
Juarez had changed for the worse by the time he came back. Some of his friends had died. My aunt and grandmother, who always lived together, had moved to El Paso and then also died. The rest of the immediate family had also moved north of the U.S.-Mexico border to places like El Paso, Albuquerque, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
Away from his wife and kids, he lived alone. He lived in my grandmother’s old house that had once been full of joy, love, laughter, and life. By the time he returned, that house was crumbling. It was empty with holes in the ceiling. Some doors looked as if someone had repeatedly kicked them. Inside that dying house, my uncle claimed to hear voices and, from time to time, even see things that made one—I assume—want to believe in God.
Those last few years, I never got to see my uncle as much as I wanted. I moved away, so far from home I couldn’t help but romanticize what I left. Every once I’d catch a whiff of cologne and think of him and that place.
Enough time passed without seeing him, that each time I did, I could tell how much he’d aged between our visits. He was thinner. His eyes—once so full of life—looked as if they had sunk in his face. His confident walk had disappeared. With his vital organs failing, he worked as a hobbled security guard at a casino.
Eventually, he moved to that back room, detached from my grandmother’s house, where he’d hide liquor. My grandmother had used that back room as storage. We all hid things there.
The last time I saw my uncle was during this past summer. As he walked out that back room and into the same street where his friends had once waited for him to get dressed before they would all disappear, he looked like a 75-year-old man. We shook hands and hugged. He smiled and asked to see pictures of my daughter. He didn’t ask for money, which felt like a positive even if it felt odd. So odd I restrained myself from offering some.
We spoke for about 10 minutes—he could still make me laugh—and then we hugged again. I told him to take care of himself. “Cuidese m’ijo,” he told me and I nodded. I regret not telling him I loved him before I left. I regret we all came from a place where we first had to get fucked up to tell each other the truth or shield ourselves from it.
My uncle died on a Friday. On the first of May at 2 in the morning, we’re told. We’re also told he died of a sickness so contagious that doctors didn’t allow family by his side as he took his last breaths. I’ve wondered if a doctor or nurse, unjaded from all the death that’s been part of Juarez for over a decade, held his hand or said something to my uncle. I can imagine his once warm, friendly eyes taking a few last blinks.
Living so far away from home and with travel restricted because of that same virus that helped kill my uncle, I couldn’t attend the shortened viewing for my uncle. The funeral home only let 10 people attend and the casket had to stay sealed and at a distance. My mother and father were there, as were a few of his coworkers and even some of the friends with whom he’d disappear. Every one of them had to wear masks.
My uncle was 56 years old. He’s in a better place, my mother says, so there’s no need to cry. She says he’s now with God and no longer running from the demons that chased him. The same ones he made a mess of himself trying to break free from.
My uncle has left. I never got to see him as much as I wanted.