The summer after my mother's fascination with gardening I was taken to see my Uncle Steve. He lived about 3 hours from us in his own apartment. Uncle Steve was my dad's brother and he had been in a wheelchair since he was 16. He jumped out a second floor window after a bad trip on PCP one morning and broke his neck, leaving him a quadriplegic. His hair was long past his shoulders and his skin was a deep red from sitting outside in the sun for hours and hours everyday. He loved to smoke a big joint and then bask in the sun with a beer in his hand. My uncle was a hippie. He loved me, and I loved him back.
The first thing my mother asked him when we got there was, "any word from you know who?" I assumed she meant my father and Uncle Steve shook his head with a tight-lipped frown. She stayed long enough to smoke some dope with him and then left. That summer I took care of Uncle Steve and Uncle Steve took care of me.
He told me stories from our heritage and stories about my father. He told me about the River Man who went around on the reservation and took naughty children and drowned them. He told me about how my dad used to be a kickboxer and could knock two people out at one time. His stories were endless. I told him stories too. I read to him every night, sometimes from The Boxcar Children books I had brought and sometimes from the sports pages in the local newspaper.
I was in a phase where bathing didn't interest me. I refused to wash my hair and didn't understand why I had to bathe because I went swimming everyday. I smelled like a load of white laundry, bleached and stain free! One day Uncle Steve decided he would run the bath water himself and force me. The problem was that because he was a quadriplegic he had very little use of his hands and they were also numb to touch and temperature. So the bath water was scalding!
He had me put on a bathing suit so he could keep the door opened and make sure I washed my hair. He said, "you better get all those rat's nest out of your hair too! Or the River Man is gonna come get you!" I put in one toe and then snatched it out. I tried to explain to him that it was too hot, but he just shrugged his shoulders and said, "feels fine to me!" I looked at him with a scowl and folded my arms over my chest. "It's too hot Uncle Steve and my hair doesn't have any rat's nests!" I said. He yelled at me then, "YOU BETTER GET IN THERE RIGHT NOW!" He had never yelled at me before and I thought it was funny! I laughed at him. He grinned at me and told me, "just get in the damn tub you crazy girl!" I eased my way in and came out looking like a boiled hot dog, but I was rat nest free!
We went grocery shopping together. I would ride on the back of his motorized wheelchair and he would hold our bags in his lap. I use to go to bed in a sleeping bag on the floor next to his bed because I was too afraid to sleep by myself. We did puzzles together, he would find where the pieces went and I would put them together under his direction. We made a great team. I also had pet snails and a pet mouse named Whitey. Uncle Steve had pet snakes. It was my job to feed them. Every couple of weeks we would go to the pet store and buy a few feeder mice and then go home and put them in the freezer alive. I would open it every few minutes watching them with a morbid fascination till they stopped moving. When it was feeding time he would have me thaw the mice out in warm water. It was hard getting them to come undone from the other frozen mice in the bag. Sometimes I would have to bang it on the counter like you would to break up a bag of ice. Once the mice were warm I'd drop them in and we would wait and watch the show. He had 12 snakes. Whitey was a feeder mouse I rescued from the freezer.
Uncle Steve was also a comedian and jokester. He could never just say "bye", he always said something like, "see you later alligator", or "don't come back jack!" He used to complain about having a really bad itch on his leg and would ask for my help to scratch it. I would go over and try to help him out. "Here?... here?.. there?" His answers would come out desperate, "ohh no.. a little over.. no the other way! oh no, down." He would keep this up for as long as it would take me to realize that he didn't have an itch, because he couldn't even feel his legs!
One day I was bored and Uncle Steve told me that if I wanted to go hunting he was in the mood for flies. I looked at him and asked, "so you want me to catch a fly and you'll eat it?!" He nodded and said, "but only a fly from inside, the outside flies are shit flies." Well, I couldn't find any flies inside. So, I got one from outside and figured he wouldn't know the difference anyway. I delivered the fly on the fly swatter proudly. He asked me to get out the ketchup and mustard. I put a dab of each on the top of his hand and placed the fly on top of the condiments. He looked at me, licked his lips and ate it! I laughed and laughed. Then I told him I got the fly from outside and he got mad at me! I thought he was being ridiculous. What does it matter that the fly was inside or outside? I figured he must just be grumpy and need to smoke. So, I went and got his pipe for him and used the lighter to help him get stoned. He couldn't use a lighter and needed me to spark the flame for him.