By George Singleton
After the short funeral for my mother’s youngest uncle, we gathered beneath a picnic shelter on the banks of a state park’s lake, the water condemned for fishing, boating, or swimming due to a recent sewage spill. We couldn’t meet at my youngest great aunt’s house because she might’ve been the original hoarder. I’ve never been well-versed with family trees—don’t get me started on ancestry.com—but what I surmised later was this: my mother came into the world right about the same time her eldest sister gave birth to Uncle Arnold, a man I called Uncle Arnold even though, of course, he was my great uncle. Anyway, family members and friends alike showed up at Lake Punke, pronounced “pun-KAY,” armed with their funeral foods: macaroni and cheese, squash casseroles, cole slaw, fried chicken, three bean salads, loaf bread, biscuits, cold cuts, and so on. Someone brought a metal pail filled with creamed corn, as if they dropped it into a creamed corn well and hoisted the handle. On the way in—about a mile from Uncle Arnold’s house, a couple miles from the funeral home that held the service seeing as they weren’t churchgoers—I saw where someone spray-painted out the N in the LAKE PUNKE sign. I was thirteen. I wanted to meet this vandal and become friends.
I think I might’ve been the only teenager in attendance. All my cousins, by this point, either attended a school for juvenile delinquents, or escaped the town of Punke through elopement or enlistment. Because no one paid attention to me, I played a game to see how many deviled eggs I could get into my mouth without choking.
“I’m so proud of Arnold for not drinking or smoking the last six months of his life,” my great aunt announced to everyone after we got seated at picnic tables. She stood at the entrance, as if offering a toast. “Oh, I know Arnold had his vices, but I’m so proud that over six months he didn’t eat red meat, and he never once strayed from his marriage vows. He appeared to be turning his life around.”
There from the back of the eight-poled shelter, sitting on a hearth for the outdoor fireplace, I raised my hand and said, “He was *in a coma* for six months. Uncle Arnold was in a coma, right?”
You’d think with my mouth that filled with deviled eggs, people wouldn’t have understood what I blurted out. Only once in my life, later on, would I see that many heads turn at once, faces in obvious shock. That instance involved a whoopee cushion and a famous poet visiting my college when I was a senior.
Uncle Arnold got in a bad car wreck out on highway 52. The car rolled when he mishandled a curve in the road, then slammed against a tulip poplar. According to what I overheard my parents say from their bedroom, Uncle Arnold had gone out to eat a big steak dinner at a bar with his mistress, then tried to get home undetected before Aunt Lusandra returned from her second-shift job over at the boat paddle factory. I’d be willing to bet that the ember from his Lucky Strike fell in his lap, thus causing the swerve.
Even his mistress turned around and stared at me open-mouthed, there in a somber place that smelled like a thousand leaky septic tanks, though at the time everyone thought she attended solely as a mournful co-worker. Word got out, from what I understand now, and a month later, the mistress ran off to exist with my recreant cousins in one capacity or another.
My parents, if it matters, advised me to shove *more* food into my mouth, always, before speaking in public. They worried, too, that I held demons beyond those owned by the rest of the family.