As soon as Edie’s Uncle Sly came to visit, she wanted to kick him right back out. It was how he entered the house like he owned it, left his oversized tweed suitcase sitting directly in front of the stairs. He wore a jacket beneath his jacket—tweed, but not matching—and a tie and dark sunglasses and a collared shirt like the men at the bank. She watched his skinny form swimming in the collared shirt and thought of her father’s muscles ballooning out of his Sunday tee. Clearly, this invader was the loser.
“You must be Edie,” he said, sizing her up. “Tell my sister I’ve arrived.”
Most decrepit of all was his hat. That lopsided tweedy thing that only appeared distinguished in his mind. To its original owner, maybe, long before Edie’s uncle acquired it in whatever way he did (found it on the street? took it from the coatrack of a moldy office lobby?).
She turned to go but didn’t say anything. She thought he should at least thank her for allowing him inside.
The mother, having heard the commotion, was already on her way out.
“Edie, look! It’s your uncle Sylvester. Sly, let me take your coat.” She came behind him and helped him slip it off. “Honestly, Edie. It’s like you’ve never entertained a guest before.”
Over Uncle Sly’s shoulder, so he couldn’t see, the mother sent Edie a malicious glare. As he slid out of his sport coat, his back to her mother, Uncle Sly sent her a smile that was even more malicious.
Edie thought of turtles yanking their heads inside shells to avoid other creatures. Then she thought of snakes hiding in holes to catch their prey.
Uncle Sly looked like he could be either one. He was lanky, but his nose was sharp, his eyes lurking beneath his hat, waiting to attack.
A clatter from the stairs surprised them all. Chip, her brother; a twin, but smaller—she the stallion; he the runt—liked to clatter down the stairs, to pitch himself down till he’s caught by God in the arms of gravity. Usually you could hear his feet crash into the floor. Usually there was not Uncle Sly’s suitcase to break his fall.
It pitched forward like a vandalized gravestone. Chip’s arms billowed in a drowning flail. Uncle Sly hurled himself across the room, arms stretched long and skinnier than Edie had thought humanly possible. They caught the suitcase. It wavered and wobbled, but did not fall.
“H-hi, Uncle Sly,” Chip gasped.
“You be careful,” said Uncle Sly. He pointed at the boy. His face was pink. “You watch out.”
His eyes never left Edie.
“You must be famished,” said Edie’s mother. “Come, let me fix you something.”
Uncle Sly was Edie’s mother’s brother. She didn’t know much about her mother’s family, only that there wasn’t a lot of it. The first time he visited, Edie was too young to remember many of the details. The next time, Edie only remembered trying not to see, or be seen by, him.
Uncle Sly didn’t take off his hat during lunch or dinner. Both meals he was seated next to Edie. His skinny tie seemed to span all the width of his body. He barely chewed. He ate and ate, shoveled food inside him, stopping only to demand to be passed more.
At least at dinner there was Edie’s father.
Again, the demands. Again, the shoveling of food. The long skinny arms that stretched clear across the table. He turned to Edie with fresh orders: Lemons. Tuna. Cold rice. Chili sauce. A steak.
“Hey there, Slyster,” the father said, reaching around his shoulders with one arm and making a stop sign with the other hand. “Go easy on the hunting. We don’t got the budget for this, and you don’t got the room for it.”
Uncle Sly’s head rotated toward the father, and his gaze was steel.
For a moment, the father looked confused. Then he looked angry. Then scared. His hand stayed around Uncle Sly’s shoulder, and his muscles throbbed.
Uncle Sly’s eyes never left the father.
“Don’t talk to me like that. And don’t touch me,” he said crossly. “Edie, I would like some cocktail onions.”
He reached back and wrapped his fingers around the father’s wrist, just where a bracelet would be. He pried the father’s arm off and away from him. He held it in the air, away from him and away from Edie’s father, a trophy, an independent thing. The father’s face twisted in pain. Uncle Sly gave a grotesque, toothy smile. Edie hurried to the kitchen and at once spied the jar of yellowy brine, tiny white spheres bobbing inside like eyeballs.
At the table, her father was rubbing his wrist feverishly. Uncle Sly reached for the jar and ran his tongue along his teeth. “Cocktail onions,” he whispered reverently. Her brother Chip, who loved those onions, watched for Uncle Sly to finish so he could claim the jar. Edie knew it was useless. She could feel it from Uncle Sly. He wouldn’t be finished with the jar until it was finished.
Edie’s mother cleared the first volley of plates. “Edie,” said her mother. “Edie,” said Uncle Sly in the exact same tone. “Aren’t you going to help?”
Edie looked at her mother, who was balancing an empty serving tray and did not notice. Edie started to collect the plates. Uncle Sly, having popped the last onion in his mouth, tilted the jar to his lips and drank deep.
Edie’s mother worked tirelessly. Edie had never considered it before. Her father worked at the power plant; her mother worked at home. There were rooms to clean, meals to cook, the baby. It was like a job, only you never got paid.
Edie had never seriously considered the future. Maybe she would get married, if she found the right boy and the circumstances were right, maybe she wouldn’t. Maybe she would find a job, maybe she wouldn’t. And Chip, too, though it was hard to imagine, with his too-formal and unmatching clothes and his bumbling way, would maybe one day meet a girl he liked. Uncle Sly had no wife, from the little her mother said of him. She never really spoke of him when he wasn’t here, except to say he was coming. She never spoke of him when he was here, except to say, “We must be respectful and treat Uncle Sly exactly as he asks. Besides us, he has no one to career for him, and it’s our duty to make him feel accepted.”
It was unclear to Edie exactly why Uncle Sly was visiting. It wasn’t for their benefit. In the mornings he left early, announcing he would be gone all day. “I’ll need lunch,” he said, pricking a brown bag off the kitchen counter—Chip’s—and slipping on his jacket and sunglasses. He had come down the stairs wearing his hat.
“Hey!” Edie said. “You can’t take that!”
Uncle Sly came close. He bent down to look at her as though his body were folding in half, hinged at the hips, until his face was level with hers and the brim of his hat almost touched her forehead and she could see two of herself in his glasses. Both of her were tinted like oil rainbows.
“I think your mother needs some help upstairs,” he said.
And he left.
“Edie!” cried her mother.
She really did need help. It was laundry day, and the Laundromat was closing early. They stripped the beds and collected clothes. She came back down to find Chip had already left for school, and if she didn’t just then, she’d be more than regular late and in the realm of actual trouble.
But when she got to school, sneaking in through the delivery garage to avoid the advisory-first period rift, she found Chip hiding there, eating an unheated breakfast sandwich, sucking fatty bits off his fingers.
“It’s Uncle Sly,” he complained. “I can’t get anything to eat at home. He takes it all.”
“At least you don’t have to prepare it for him,” she grumbled. “He’s, like, grooming me to be a Happy Housewife.”
But after school, when she mentioned as much to her mother, all she received was a scoff. “It’s time you started taking care of your family. Not to mention yourself,” she said, facedown, scrubbing at a particularly violent stain in the shower. “I won’t be here to do it forever, you know.”
Normally, Edie would have let this sit. She was used to peering in the door of her mother’s sadness, then quickly passing by.
Today, however, something ignited within her.
“Why not?” she said. “It’s exactly what you do for Uncle Sly.”
Her mother cast down the cloth—it was one of Edie’s father’s old t-shirts—and wrung her hands together.
“One day you’ll understand what it means to have a brother,” she said. “We are all of us born into the darkness alone. It’s a godsend when anyone takes your hand walking through that darkness, no matter what’s on the end of it.”
Over the next days, Uncle Sly filled the house with a dark presence that never seemed to depart, even when he did.
Most of the day he was out, although where exactly he went he would never say. Edie asked her mother and she said it was for work. Then Edie asked what work he did, and she said she didn’t know.
One thing Edie did know: since he came, it was a full-time job taking care of Uncle Sly. His food, his laundry, washing out the smell that pervaded whenever he entered a room, straightening all the out-of-place things he pointed out with the critical eye of a real-estate agent, or a home ec teacher, or a police detective. His constant demands on Edie’s mother, and Edie’s mother’s constant demands on Edie. On Wednesday Edie’s mother looked up from the breakfast dishes and said, “I don’t think you can go to school today.”
“I can’t?” The news should be joyous, but her mother’s tone of voice summoned worry.
“There’s so much to do here,” she sighed. “I need your help.”
“Mom,” said Edie.
“It’s just for today,” she said, as though it were an apology.
Chip watched from the doorway to the living room, perched at the last stairs. He watched the kitchen like a wolf in spring. But Edie’s eyes warned him, and instead of going in he left quickly for school.
Edie hadn’t gone to school in days. She wore the same clothes that she had almost since he’d come, since she now feared adding to the pile of her tasks. The house was to be kept clean—it was clean, each linen tucked in place and the stacks of dishes meticulously reassembled—but every time somebody breathed, her unclear father, one of the men, she raced to correct it. And poor Chip. He was the reason the kitchen was clean, scavenging from crusts and crumbs to form some semblance of a meal, too small and too slow, the last to any plate served. Why did their mother not notice, or, having noticed, help him? Edie was reduced to a cog, one small wheel in the machine. She was unable to reverse it or stop it or do much anything except keep on turning. The house had never been so immaculate, but she was a mess. When her best friend Toby had tried to come over after school one day, Edie had refused to come to the door. It was as much resistance as she could muster, refusing to acknowledge the truth of her new status.
The house rose and fell on Uncle Sly’s mood. He came home furious and the mother rushed to listen and assist, waving to Edie to set dinner on the stove. He came home tired and satisfied, or tired and proud, and they hastened to reward him. Edie’s father avoided him as one does a neighborhood dog who may be rabid or just hungry. The father had given up asking when Uncle Sly’s visit would end. The food vanished as quickly as it was replenished. And yet Uncle Sly only grew thinner, swimming in the button-down shirts Edie starched, like a kid dressing up as a Halloween ghost.
One night the tranquility shattered. It was dinnertime, they had made a stew—Edie’s idea, that way no one could take anyone else’s portion—and Uncle Sly, instead of passing, cradled the bowl in one arm and lifted the ladle to his lips and began to slurp. “Sly,” came the mother, lifting herself from her seat, “here, let me serve you some,” and Chip staring at the dribble off the spoon’s edge back into the bowl knowing he would never taste a drop of it, and Edie leapt up, ready to grab the bowl herself, to wrench it straight from those skinny skeleton hands.
Edie had misjudged the distance, however, and the mother had just transferred the bowl from Uncle Sly’s hands to her own. Her mother, surprised, released the stew at once, and instead of wrapping her hands around the bowl, Edie found herself losing her grasp as it flew across the kitchen table, upturned and tumblesauced, depositing the entirety of its contents in a neat volcanolike pile on the linoleum floor.
She couldn’t remember what was said or who said it, only Uncle Sly taking offense, leaping up from his place at the table, aiming one quivering skeletal finger at her. “You ruined my dinner,” he snapped at Edie, although she was pretty sure it was mostly her mother’s fault. “I didn’t even get to taste it.”
He stopped only to snatch a new plastic bag of carrots from Chip, who had just extracted them from the fridge, so close to claiming it. The force of the grab threw Chip to the ground. Uncle Sly shoved one in his mouth, snapped it in half, and stormed to his room.
Edie’s body shook like it was trying to contain an earthquake. In front of the fridge, Chip began to cry.
“What should I do, Edie?” the mother said. “We only want the best for him. He only wants the best.”
“Mom,” said Edie. “You need to say something.”
“But what can I say?”
Edie was silent, and she knew her mother would not.
The house fell silent, too. Night settled, the father came home, the mother wordlessly greeted him. Everyone went off to their evening rituals. The parents went to bed at once, sad and shrunken. She heard their light go off, heard the death of silence from their bedroom. Edie would have wrestled with her homework, but she hadn’t been to school in so long she couldn’t remember what she was studying. Only the heavy labored breathing from the upstairs room told her that Uncle Sly was still there, still ruling over them with the threat of his being awake.
She stood outside his door for a while, gripped by the strength of his presence. Her mother walked by, armed with a square stack of laundry in each arm. She saw Edie and bit her lip. She shook her head.
Edie shook her head back. The mother passed on.
Chip walked mindlessly past her to the bathroom. She heard the flush, the faucet, the shuffle off.
“Don’t forget to brush your teeth,” she called without thinking.
“What for?” he said.
She was alone in the hall. She lay a hand on his door. It felt like he did, sticky and warm. With her other hand, she twisted the knob and slid it open.
She took a step inside and retched. The air was like inhaling bugs. Thick and smelling of waste. A trash can gone too long without rinsing, a meal of meat and soggy eggs left out on a hot day. Just being here was wrong. Just this room was wrong, whatever he’d done to it.
Still the rhythmic inhale of his mouth and chest. The darkness ate up her movements. he slept in complete black. She reached out in front of her and could see nothing. When her foot left the ground, there was a resistance of something sticky, as if the floor was trying to hold her there.
She took one step, then another. She sensed the location of the bed rather than seeing or touching it. Maybe from cleaning the room so often, she had memorized it. But no. She knew everything in this place, she could feel the existence of the bed, the desk. The spot where he’d left his oversized floppy alligator shoes. The chair in the middle of the floor with the stack of free books he’d picked off the sidewalk, their pages brittle and stained.
The bed. Where he slept, loud and still. His body lay atop the covers, flat, face up, eyes closed, mouth open. He snored like thunder. He snored like an animal snarl. his puff of lips sucked the whole room in, its rancid air, its stuffiness and stickiness. Then he released it in a defeated sigh.
He was still wearing his hat.
Once perhaps it was a mark of status, when Uncle Sly was just starting out in whatever business he did, back when his future was promising and undefined, a future of business and trips and hotel rooms, not to his hometown, not to his sister.
Is this how I’ll be?
She loved Chip. her love for him went deeper than her life. She wished better things for him, when he graduated this school and this town, when his genius could finally stop hiding and shine. She was devoted to him, in a way she knew would never leave her as long as she lived.
She reached down. In a moment she had grabbed Uncle Sly’s hat. Just quick, no thought. She was so mad that she crushed its dome in her fingers.
It squashed easily, no resistance from his head. It was like it wasn’t even under there.
His chest rose and fell. His heavy gasping breathing continued.
Careful, now, she reached down again. Her eyes had warmed to the dark. She could see Uncle Sly’s head, now a circular cut-out, stopping where his head had started. It was like a hole. Still quiet, she reached in.
What her hands touched was wet and murky. Not solid, not slime. Fingers came together around a circular stump that she recognized as one of the carrots from dinner, the stump at the top—barely intact, half digested. She shuddered and cast it to the floor.
He gave a cry.
She reached in again. Her fist closed around more stuff. Pasta, mashed potatoes, hunks of meat. She grabbed as much as her hands could hold and, handful after handful, she tossed it to the floor.
She touched no brain, no bones, no muscles or organs. Or maybe she did, but they felt like nothing, just more of the junk that was inside him. One fist and then another, she pulled it out—some of it stringy, some clumpy, some almost solid, though they popped when she squeezed too hard, some almost melted, all of it wet.
He gurgled, throat dry or maybe full. He was awake. His hand clawed at her wrist, trying to make her stop.
His fingers clenched, they tried to tighten, but crumpled when they touched her. They slipped away like an empty plastic bag.
By the time she was done, the floor was thick with goo. The carpet oozed every step she took. She turned on the bedside lamp. Not a lot of light, but enough to see.
He was nothing now. His body was as rumpled as his clothes. She knew she’d have to clean it up. For this, though, she didn’t mind.
She considered going to bed early—tomorrow she’d wake up, make herself and Chip an extra big breakfast before heading off to school, and of course she’d need extra time at the mirror. But she didn’t need sleep. It felt like she’d been sleeping for weeks.
She stole downstairs, snuck the family phone into a closet, and called Toby. Toby had her own phone; Edie could call her at any time, day or night. She had so much to catch up on. She could talk and talk. She could talk forever.
Matthue Roth wrote the novel Rules of My Best Friend’s Body, the picture book My First Kafka, and a very short song for John Legend. He lives in Brooklyn with his four daughters, and keeps a secret diary at matthue.com.