Uncle Matt

by Ron Russo

I can still hear his voice, calling from the bottom of the stairs that led to our apartment. “Hey stupid. Make the coffee.”

“Are you here again? Get the hell out, I’m busy” my mother would reply to her younger brother, as she was smilingly putting up water to boil.

Saturday mornings, near noon, would often begin this way. Uncle Matt would come to visit, take a seat in the kitchen, and wait for my mother to pour the first of many, many cups of coffee. “Get the bottle out, too.”

“You old drunk, wait till I tell your wife you’re boozing so early in the day,” she’d say as she placed a bottle of Seagrams 7 and a shot glass in front of him. He’d nurse a sip of the coffee, then one of the booze, and settle in for a visit. When I was in college, I’d most likely still be sleeping. That was no obstacle to Uncle Matt. He’d walk into my bedroom without knocking, give me a shake and say, “Get up, Ronood, come have a drink with me. Best way to start the day.”

“Matt, for Christ’s sake, don’t turn my son into a bum like you,” my mother would say as he was pouring me a shot.

“Shut up, Ida, he’s a man now.” Then the talk would commence, starting with family catch-up. There were nine children in my mother’s family, so there was plenty of ground to cover. When that was finished, other stories would begin. “I saw Frankie Skimp last week, Ida. He was asking for you.”

“You and your thug friends,” she’d respond. “Frankie Skimp, Johnny Lay, Mikey Dee – – nice guys but all shady. None of them ever did a lick of legit work their whole lives.”

“Well, I did a little business with Mikey the other day.”

“What business? If you ever went on a job with one of those guys you’d crap your pants. And if you lived to tell about it, Josie would kill you.”

“Pay attention, Ronnie,” he’d say if it seemed my attention was wandering. With a finger crooked in my direction, Uncle Matt would deliver one of his famous lines: “I’m gonna ask questions when I’m finished, and you won’t know the answers if you’re not listening.”

Around one-thirty, my father would show up, laden with cold cuts, bread and various salads. Quickly my mother would set the table and soon we’d be feasting on prosciutto sandwiches on crusty Italian bread, with fresh mozzarella, roasted peppers and pickled eggplant on the side. Once in a while, the visit would last till four or five o’clock, at which point my father would say, “Stay for dinner. Call Josie and tell her to come over and we’ll pass the night.” Often she’d agree, and she and my cousin Joanne would show up around six. By then neither Uncle Matt nor my father was feeling any pain. Dinner would be pulled together as my uncle continued to spin yarns, some true and some rather questionable.

“So they gave us an intelligence test at work last week,” he’d share. He was an operations manager at the Kimball corporation, and he’d made his way up with only an eighth-grade education. “The test put me in the top ten per cent.”

“Why don’t you go throw the bull elsewhere?” my mother would respond.

“No, really – – besides, what would a dummy like you know about intelligence?” he’d taunt her. “ I scored 180 out of 200 points. Remember that, Ronnie,” he’d say with a quick glance, finger pointing at me. Often the evening would progress with us watching a movie, if something good was on. But sometimes Uncle Matt would say, “Charlie, get the ukelele. Let’s show these cayoodle kids what real music was like.” “Cayoodle’ was one of many words he’d invented, generally translating to ‘not-so-bright.’ A medley of songs would ensue, always including “That Old Gang of Mine” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.” “Sing with us” he’d say to me and Joanne. “You should know the words by now. You better – – it’s gonna be on the test.”

Even on his deathbed Uncle Matt maintained his pose as entertainer and raconteur. On my last visit to the hospital, he had a new roommate – – a very old man who moaned loudly and incessantly. When I greeted my uncle, he beckoned me closer. “Ronnie, go to the nurses’ station.”

“Sure, but why?

“Tell them not to order lunch for this guy tomorrow.”

“Okay, but why?”

“Because I’m gonna strangle him later.”

Ron Russo has been motivated to write by participating in a number of writing study groups given at the LP².  My thanks to coordinators and fellow writers.