My Uncle Charles has no wife or children. For many years, he had no television before he got a small black and white television he mostly keeps in the closet in his apartment in Maryland. This can be dragged out. It’s rabbit ears extended. You can get PBS and the local signal from one one network affiliate fairly clearly. The rest is snow.
When we come to visit him, my family is like a team of amateur archeologists exploring a strange tribe that has existed primitively apart from the rest of mankind. He has milk in the refrigerator. But it’s from a previous presidential administration. He has bread, but it has to be thrown out because it is moldy. He doesn’t know how to work the oven. He has a doctorate degree in science from Duke University, but a basic understanding of kitchen appliances was not a part of his curriculum.
When he drags out the television for us and places it on a chair in front of the couch, we sit in confusion after finding he has such limited viewing choices. “How can you live like this?” we ask him. My sister and I can watch an amazing variety of channels on our cable television back home in Salisbury, North Carolina. “I don’t watch much television,” he explains. He’s more of a radio listener. He has it set on an NPR station that plays classical music when the news is not being delivered in a soothing monotone. It sets a certain dreary mood, we suppose. Sitting at home alone, listening to a radio. We can’t imagine living like that, but we guess it’s alright if he enjoys that kind of thing.
“How can you not have any food in the house?” my mother asks. “I go out to eat a lot,” he explains. This is one of the benefits of being a bachelor, I suppose. He can eat every meal out if he likes. No one expects him home at any certain time. No one wants him to make them any food. He has no one to please but himself. There’s a certain appeal to this kind of life when I visit him as a teenager living in a house with plenty of rules and chores.
His bachelorhood also explains why there is no place to sit in the house. Or rather, there is exactly one place to sit. A nice comfortable leather chair. Everything else is covered up in boxes filled with papers. Or coats. Or whatnot. He goes around moving and stacking all the boxes, coats and whatnot so that we’ll have a place to sit while we’re visiting him. The moment we leave I imagine him spreading it all out again to suit himself.
When he asks where we want to eat supper, we go through the usual deliberations that a family does. Debates about food preferences. Arguments about the merits of certain ethnic foods that we haven’t sampled much in our limited culinary world where we think its exotic to go to a fish camp or barbecue restaurant.
My mother and sister want to try the Thai restaurant he has suggested. My father is neutral on the question like Switzerland. I just want pizza, I tell him. Does the Thai restaurant have pizza? I ask. No, he says. Then I don’t want to go there, I tell him. I will later learn that I like Thai food when my wife introduces it to me, and I am being a stubborn asshole about not trying new food. But for now, I just want pizza.
At one point he loses his cool. It’s not just me with my stubborn insistence on pizza. It’s all of us with our varying opinions on food, our differing ideas about what time we’d like to eat and our cacophony of voices all chiming in simultaneously to be heard. In his comfortable solitary world, decisions are made smoothly and immediately as he consults only himself. It’s distressing to have a boisterous committee to consult on every simple decision. Especially one that can’t come quickly to a reasonable consensus.
Charles has a mustache. He has always had one as far as I know. Maybe he got one as a teenager and never shaved it. It’s a strange thing to have. I’ve tried having one before, and I could never get it right. It felt like a small furry animal residing on my upper lip, trying to collect bread crumbs. Sometimes, Charles even has a beard. This is even more radical. It makes him look like a grumpy Father Christmas. He’s not grumpy, exactly. He just doesn’t smile as much as he ought to. He’s often making small, wry comments when he’s not sulking after being disturbed by my family’s poor decision-making skills.
When he doesn’t know how to respond to something he’s been asked or doesn’t want to respond, he simply says, “Birk.” It’s an odd thing, this made-up word he has. My mom always laughs. They created the word together, or at least she knows exactly what he means from growing up around him. “Are you ever going to get married, Uncle Charles?” my sister asks him. “Birk,” he replies. End of conversation.
He’s intentionally anachronistic. He wears a hat, a kind of trusty fedora that he never seems to take off. Who wears hats like this anymore? He does. He likes to go sailing. Who goes sailing? Only my uncle. He holds a high position in a homeowners association, like secretary or treasurer. Who has time for that or cares to take on such administrative headaches? He does. He doesn’t have internet service in his apartment to this day. What kind of life is that?
My uncle participates to a fevered degree in the Russian Orthodox Church in Baltimore, even helping to establish and regularly attend a satellite church in Maryland whose sermons are delivered entirely in Russian. Does he speak Russian? No. He says every once in a while he understands a word or two.
We are sailing on the Potomac River. My uncle has patiently explained to me everything I need to know about how to sail before we stepped on the boat. I listen hard because I know he hates to repeat himself and will become upset when I forget everything he just told me. I still forget, and he gets impatient. But that’s just how it is.
A lovely young couple are sailing on the boat with us. The sailing club he belongs to has an arrangement where you take out a boat if its available and take on a crew more or less spontaneously with whoever wants to go out and you decide among yourself who will be captain. Must every boat have a captain? Apparently, it must. It doesn’t matter how small the boat is, and this is a pretty small boat. My uncle has tons of experience sailing. So, he’s made captain.
I steer the boat for a little bit. The wind shifts. I hate when this happens because now I am expected to know what to do next. How to guide the boat and duck to avoid the sail as it shifts with the wind and tries to behead all the people sitting near it.There are complicated protocols and rules about sailing that I can’t remember. Much less what to call the front and back of the boat- fore and aft.
This is bachelor life, though. The wind in your face. The water beneath you. You can stay out on the water however long you want. No one is waiting for you to get home. No one is sitting amid the boxes in the living room staring at the black and white television and thinking about making something in an oven that has never been used.
I am not cut out for the bachelor life like my uncle. Civilization in our small Manhattan apartment starts to slowly break down if my wife is gone on a business trip that lasts for more than two days. Things that might normally get done by her or at her direction don’t happen. Avery and I don’t start wearing fedoras, growing mustaches and learning to sail. But we do eat out a little more, and I start listening to the radio because it fills the silences in the house in her absence in a way that the television doesn’t. Things sometimes pile up, and I simply walk around them rather than picking them up. I stack up some books I’ve been meaning to read and leave them on her side of the bed to fill the space in her absence.
When she comes home and remarks that Avery and I have been living like savages, I have nothing really decisive to say to defend myself. Other than one word, which seems to explain it all.