On Top of It #5 by Lisa Martens
I was four, maybe five, the first time I went to Uncle Johnny’s house. Uncle Johnny was my grandfather’s older brother. Even back then, he had a fat gut, he was always red, and he had trouble walking.
I remember that I refused to eat from any of his plates or have a sip of water. This was out of character for me—My father was determined that I would not be a picky eater, and told me it was rude to spit out food or to leave anything on my plate. He would feed me all kinds of things and lie to me about what they were, just so I would eat it and get over any possible squeamishness. Then he would tell me afterwards, with the tone of “Well, you already ate it and liked it, so.”
The issue with Uncle Johnny’s house was not the food. The whole house was dirty. Uncle Johnny had, at any given moment, thirty to forty cats. He had stopped feeding his cats in bowls, and instead placed large bags of cat food at various points in the house—the kitchen, the dining room, the living room—and simply sliced the bags open. The pellets spilled to the floor and the cats came and went as they pleased, ate as they pleased, reproduced as they pleased. He didn’t have any of them fixed or vaccinated. He didn’t count or name them.
The cat smell was in everything. In the bread, the curtains, the floor. The walls were discolored. The backyard, the only place I would ever go, was filled with bones. He usually had injured cats—Cats with infections, missing eyes, or even missing legs. All this in his tiny house on Long Island, in Carle Place, a residential community on Long Island, an all-American suburb, a scene from a nightmare.
When my grandfather took me to Uncle Johnny’s house, they would stay inside and talk. Johnny would fix a sandwich for grandpa; I was polite enough to say I had already eaten. Then they let me walk around the backyard and play with the cats. I did like the cats—I was still a child, and unaware of the amount of pain Johnny must have been in.
The backyard was filled with shallow graves. Uncle Johnny couldn’t bend over very well, so when he buried a dead cat, he did little more than kick some dirt over the body. I would do my best to walk around the bones, but sometimes I stepped on a dusty rib or a jaw. Cat skulls look very unlike cats themselves.
Cats would run around me, look at me suspiciously. Uncle Johnny’s cats did not like to be petted. They hissed or seized when they saw me. Uncle Johnny didn’t seem to notice this—He thought they were all sweet and kind.
Sometimes I would find kittens mewing, fur matted. Other times I would see a cat with a missing eye or a deep wound. They licked their injuries and glared at me—green eyes, blue eyes. They were black, white, spotted, orange, grey. None of them had collars. They were in his roof, in his walls.
After a couple of hours, my grandpa would come and get me. I would usually be sitting on the back porch watching the cats. Then we would go out for dinner and eat. I would be starving by then. I think my grandpa knew why I didn’t want to eat there, and that’s why he treated me. We never talked about it.
Uncle Johnny had no children, no family except for his siblings and, by extension, their families. He had fought in the Korean War very briefly, then he served as a cook. He had also made it to Eagle Scout, and spent a lot of his time volunteering with children until he became too fat to bend down to talk to them. The adults speculated that he lived some kind of alternative lifestyle . . . maybe he could be a pedophile.
I never got that impression from Johnny. I never felt like I was in danger around him, or that he was ever trying to get me alone—unlike some of the waiters who worked for my father, the ones who would pinch my thighs or push me into the pool when I was wearing white clothes. Uncle Johnny was different, hurt, and lonely, but not predatory.
Everyone in our family had the solution for Uncle Johnny—a wife. A wife would get rid of most of the cats, and allow Johnny to have one, maybe two. She would steam wash the carpet, have the walls repainted, sweep the pellets off the floor, get the backyard sodded, and mop the old fashioned way—no Roombas or Swiffer Wet Jets. She would be older, a widow, ideally, so there would be no ex-husband to deal with. She would have had her children young, so they would be grown and Johnny wouldn’t have to deal with that, either. She would be this perfect older lady—polite, classy, timid, one who enjoyed a fixer-upper, the kind of woman who would gently prod Johnny into a normal life.
No one seemed to realize that this was a tall order. This fantasy woman didn’t exist, and if she did, she would take one look at Johnny’s house, turn green and leave.
No one recommended therapy—older men simply didn’t do that. Besides, that was all mumbo-jumbo anyway. Johnny didn’t need help or therapy or cats. He needed a wife. It was almost easier to blame this woman for abandoning him—a woman who didn’t exist, whose magic, virginal powers could save him—than to admit Uncle Johnny was in some kind of pain.
Sometimes, my grandpa and I would take Uncle Johnny away from his terrible house and go to a cemetery. My grandpa took me to cemeteries very often when I was a child—He’d tell me how one day I would be in the ground and so would my mom and even him.
I thought this was ridiculous. My grandpa was the strongest man I knew, way stronger than even my father. He was six feet tall with blue eyes and thick legs. He could jog for miles, and he often had to carry his German Shepherd back home when they went for a walk. When we would go anywhere and I would get tired, I would tell him that my legs were breaking, and then he’d carry me on his shoulders.
But my grandpa assured me over and over that he would die, and that I would die, and that worms would eat my body, and he would tickle me like his fingers were worms, and I would laugh.
Uncle Johnny hung himself when I started graduate school. He had long left his house in Carle Place and given it to a nephew, who had to demolish it because the walls and roof were simply beyond repair. As it turned out, no amount of saintly scrubbing and no angel woman could have fixed that house. Cats had burrowed under it, had scratched through the walls. It was collapsing, it was turning into a litter box. Inspectors shook their head and explained that the house was just not worth salvaging.
The nephew built a new house and dug up the whole yard. No one bothered to count how many cats they found. He built a patio and installed a new fence. Then he married an Asian woman and their beautiful mixed children played in the yard. The neighbors were happier with this arrangement.
Uncle Johnny had to give up his cats. He lived in a retirement community and visited my grandpa once a week.
I found out when I came home from school. I noticed a smell in my kitchen and came in to find blood all over the floor. The refrigerator was broken, and the meat in the freezer was thawing. I did my best to save whatever food I could and mop the blood up.
Then my aunt called. Uncle Johnny had been found hanging in his kitchen. He had been dead about a week, according to his autopsy. He had suffered.
My aunt and my grandpa had to identify the body. She said she couldn’t recognize half of his face. It was purple, swollen. His shirt was brand new. So were his pants. He had bought new clothes to die in. I imagined him at the check out counter at Kohl’s making that last mundane purchase.
There was no note. That bothered my grandpa most of all. He wasn’t helpful when the body was being identified. He just kept saying, over and over, that the person there was not and could not be his brother. My aunt was the one who had to sign off on it.
I got off the phone with my aunt and tried to keep mopping the blood off my kitchen floor. I couldn’t—I started gagging, but there was nothing in my stomach to throw up.
My grandpa entered a state where he could only ask why Johnny hadn’t left a note. He asked everyone. He asked me. No one had an answer to give him. My aunt took over executing Johnny’s will, the funeral arrangements, and cleaning out his apartment. She couldn’t go into the building—the smell was too strong—So her husband and I went there to clean up.
First, they had a team come to clean up the pool of blood, urine, and maggots that had been on the kitchen floor, so we didn’t have to see that. Apparently the police had just taken the body and, once they concluded it was a suicide, thrown their gloves onto the pile of bodily fluids and left. It was up to us to clean everything up.
Then, my uncle and I threw everything into boxes as fast as we could and dragged them out of there. The smell was on anything—I gagged, my uncle tried not to, but I saw his eyes water. My aunt lost weight because she smelled death in all her food and couldn’t eat.
“It’s in my hair,” she complained. She cut it shorter. It didn’t help.
We put Johnny’s boxes in the backyard. My aunt wouldn’t allow them in her house. Whenever we sorted through his things, we had to wear old, dirty shirts, strip them off outside and immediately throw the clothes away. My aunt had trash bags and towels ready for us so we could go right into the shower from the yard.
Uncle Johnny, as a veteran, was buried under an American flag. He had asked to be buried in his Boy Scout uniform, which only fueled speculation that he had been a pedophile.
He gave all of his belongings to a woman he had met in Florida over fifty years ago. No one in our family knew who she was. Was she a lover? A friend? She was certainly the only person who knew his secret, his pain. Everyone was eager to know who the mystery woman was. She could answer questions—What did he see in Korea? Why didn’t he ever get married? Was he gay? Was he unable to perform? Why did he volunteer with children during his adult life, but never have any of his own?
And the cats—Why did he have forty cats? Why did he kill himself? And why didn’t he leave a note?
The woman in Johnny’s will was, of course, dead.
She had lived a relatively short but vibrant life. She worked as a nurse, she had two children. She married later in life, after her children had grown. She played the piano. She had curly hair. She had met Johnny when he went to Florida, and they spent only a week together.
My grandpa stopped asking people why Johnny hadn’t left a note. He had bypass surgery soon after the funeral. I think he wanted to die—I think he was disappointed to wake up and see his daughters and myself crying tears of worry and happiness, his new hospital diet of bland food, his new physical therapy schedule.
Uncle Johnny’s soul was probably like his house—too complicated to fix, too broken from the inside, something a trim and a new pair of dress pants couldn’t save. It was filled with holes where critters chewed through the foundation, hid from daylight until they became feral, fought and made love with each other. And, ultimately, it was easier to destroy than to repair.
Note: This post originally appeared here.
Lisa Martens (Episode 22) currently lives in Harlem. In her past 10 years in New York, she has lived in a garage on Long Island, a living room in Hell’s Kitchen, the architecture building of CCNY, and on the couch of a startup. She grew up in New York, Costa Rica and Texas, and she’s still not sure which of these is home. She completed her MFA in Creative Writing from CCNY. Her thesis, What Grows in Heavy Rain, is available on Amazon. Check out her website here. Follow her on Instagram here.