Uncle Charles was an unassuming man. He was not unapproachable, but a man of few words. He liked to fish and ran a small fish tackle and bait shop in town; this is how I came to know him. I would stay at his place and fish during long summer breaks. Dad never talked about his brother much, but I’d spent a lot of time with him for as long as I can remember.
I never knew anything of his past.
I studied journalism at the University of Virginia. It was then I was shocked to learn that Uncle Charles had been a leading investigative journalist and had brought down an entire crime family in the fifties, at the expense of his own family. His wife and three children had been murdered in an explosion. I read and reread the reports and examined the photos and even talked to Dad about him. Dad told me to ask him myself. So that’s what I was about to do. I sat in my car in front of his house, with the entire portfolio in my briefcase, getting up the nerve.
I wasn’t sure how I’d approach this.
I picked up my briefcase and made way for the door. Although Uncle Charles never really said much, again I never felt uncomfortable spending time with him. It was mostly in silence, but he certainly was never intimidating. After all I’m the young buck here! He always accommodated my high energy and drive too. During those summers when I’d help him by taking the tourists out on the boat, he was never anything but gracious, and paid me as well as he could.
When I walked in the front door Aunt Helen was sitting on the couch with her knitting bag. She supposedly was Uncle Charles’ “companion”, as they never married, but she’d been around most of my life. Now my suspicions were TOO much. Just to think, Uncle Charles had a whole life before this Aunt Helen. It dawned on me how I knew nothing about these people.
Gosh there was so much more.
She smiled and used her thumb to indicate the back door. I walked through the kitchen and out to the backyard and there was old Uncle Charles, working on one of the boats. He has all kinds of tools and cleaners and open cans of paint and supplies on the ground at his feet, and was brushing some polyurethane or something on the side of the boat.
“Uncle Charlie, hey what are you doing?”
Uncle Charles was deep in concentration and muttered hello. He kept slowly moving that paint brush; first to the left and then to the right. To me he did it like a Zen master.
“Do you wanna go out on the water?” I tried.
Uncle Charles kept stroking the brush. He was deep in thought and transfixed, so I sat Indian style on the ground and watched and waited. Left then right, back and forth. Again, being quiet with Uncle Charles was something I was used to.
He finally put his brush down and looked at me for the first time. “Son? What is it? You wanna go fish?”
He went into the shed and pulled out our gear and threw it in the back of the truck. We loaded ourselves up and made way toward the Bay Bridge. I held the portfolio on my lap, and if my Uncle saw it, he raised no questions or had no interest. Uncle Charles just looked at the road then rolled down the window and spit out some tobacco. God only knows how long that’s been in his mouth.
“I know you love fishing, but is that all that you ever did? I mean you’ve got quite a grand house and everything, what were you doing when you were my age? I’m just wondering: how does a simple fisherman afford a big fancy house like that? When did you meet Aunt Helen?”
Uncle Charles sat silently as we started the ascent up the bridge over the Chesapeake. This is the bridge of my youth- Gosh I’d been over it maybe a million times, back and forth to Uncle Charles’ tackle shop. It’s the bridge that goes over the water for awhile, then under through tunnels, then back up over the water. It’s gotta be at least twenty miles across too. The whole panorama here is of endless water, with small islands interspersed randomly in the bay. The tunnels are there to let the big freighters and barges have their access to the ocean. I’ve always been fascinated with this bridge.
“Well I’ve had that house a long time Son. I mean since way back when.”
“Yeh but Uncle Charles, did you ever do anything other than fish?”
“My, my” said Uncle Charles. “You are the curious type today. I guess now you think you’re a journalist in real life? Questioning and badgering me like this? I’ve been to lots of places. I’ve done lots of things Son. Don’t you worry about it.”
I sat silently. Why in the world wouldn’t my Uncle open up to me? I’m a grown man now for chrissakes! Something, anything?
“But Uncle Charlie!!!”
I unzipped and opened the portfolio on my lap. It was a series of newspaper articles and photos and my “evidence”. I started rifling through, ready to present my case.
We pulled into the parking lot of the tackle shop, our usual spot. He shut off the truck and sat back in his seat.
“Son I’ve known a lot of people and don’t know many anymore. That’s just the way things are in life sometimes. Best just to leave things alone. For me it’s just water under the bridge.”