Sid is working on a hog farm in the country, somewhere inland from the Carolina coast, where he’d gone to dry out a little. It’s the late seventies. It’s the Potters’ farm, and the Potters are Primitive Baptists. The lady of such a farm is in charge of certain duties, including the rendering of lard and the making each morning of biscuits, which Mrs. Potter does. She is a particular farm wife, though, in that she weighs perhaps four hundred pounds. This morning she’s pitched over a cast iron basin on the porch, preparing fatback, while Mr. Potter is inside, sharpening the butcher knives and watching his new show, Wheel of Fortune. He can be heard to say through the open screen door that, if it weren’t for Mrs. Potter, he’d marry Vanna White, who would, he says, no doubt, no doubt gladly, come out to the hog farm. It is at this moment when Sid walks up that Mrs. Potter entreats him to “provide some violin accompaniment” with her at church while she plays the piano.
He is amenable to this. He asks for some sheet music, which, after a time she gives him. On it are only words, handwritten.
This is a church where you have to “fall out.” You can’t not fall out. The sort of church where, if a preacher fails to move the congregation, fails to make everyone tumble out of the pews and roil in the aisle, that’s it for him; he’s out. It’s a dark church, no windows—built that way—just the front door left open, the light reaching down the aisle a few feet. At the front is the piano. It’s missing one castor. So when Mrs. Potter sits down to play, when she sits down to reach her arms over the spread of keys, descends on them, when the music gains emotion, crescendos—the whole piano begins to rock back and forth. It begins, in fact, to lurch its way towards the young man, Sid, who’s making some kind of effort on his violin, though he can’t really keep up or play along since there’s no key, no rhyme or reason. And besides, there is the issue of staying out of the way of the advancing piano.
The story ends here: uncle Sid, the large Baptist lard renderer, the distant, beckoning open door—
Or it ends with a whole barn full of Bud Light and a hotdog revival. Or it doesn’t end, but bleeds into the beginning of another story, stringing them together to create something infinite.
We visited my grandparents in Raleigh one August when I was four or five. The first night, after I had been put to bed, I got up. I had heard the uncles, drinking and talking, and I didn’t want to miss out. I was hungry, I said, and my grandmother gave me a bowl of cereal. I ate it in the kitchen, listening. Everyone was around a yellow-lit table in the dining room, their tumble of Carolina accents rising and falling above the ticking of a fan stuck in the open window, holding the humid night at bay. I remember the music of the stories more than their substance. I sensed their pull and power. I wanted, suddenly, nothing more than to have stories to tell, and to sit at that table and tell them.
Sid looked that summer exactly the way he always looked: barrel-chested, tanned to a deep almost-red, unshaven. Piratey. He wore a thin sweatshirt whose sleeves had been cut off and his greenish eyes were mopped by black hair. He always had a look, a kind of mischievous glint to his expression. Like he was planning, or had already set in place, some practical joke and was waiting for you to discover it. Diabolical, my uncle Darryl called it. This was at its best—and Sid was the best at this—when he was in middle of recounting something especially juicy. The moment, for instance, that the preacher had the lady’s skirt up to her milky thighs, or just as the tub of chitlins was tipping out of the bed of a pickup on a winding road—Sid would pause, tuck his chin to his chest, and fix you with his gaze.
It was like being hypnotized by a snake.
Storytelling and music have something to do with each other: the timing, the dynamics, the way you use each to tug at the feelings of the audience. That control. Everyone in my father’s family is or was a musician. Sid, though, was a virtuoso. He played with a wrenching finesse. He made you cry. He shut his eyes, the corners of his mouth softened, his eyebrows lifted, and he leaned into a piece, gave himself utterly to it.
Sid was an accident. In a tiny brick house on Peachtree Street in Raleigh, my grandmother, a music teacher, already had the desired quartet: David (my father), Darryl, Jan, and Adrienne. Then Sid was born. He was, like the others, started young on a child-sized violin. But, as the odd fifth child, he was left to play what he wanted and practice on his own. In ninth grade, he was admitted to the North Carolina School for the Arts, then to the Cincinnati Conservatory, where he dropped out (it was too boring—and the snow turned black before it could hit the ground) and went to California, to the Cal Institute of the Arts, the school funded by Disney (a loopy place).
But he couldn’t stay put. He was in San Francisco, busking in Ghirardelli Square with another kid, who, ignorant as the day was long, got sucked up by the Moonies, leaving Sid with a fortune in nickels and dimes. He showed back up in Raleigh with his pillowcase of change, went to Boston and played in the street, consorting with those who lived in the subway ventilation tubes, then to New York, then back to Shallotte, North Carolina, where he lived on the Potters’ hog farm in a house with no screens on the windows and a floor so rotten that one night the refrigerator fell through it.
But when he was still on the West Coast, he played in the Caesar’s Palace casino band that backed up “Mr. Las Vegas,” Wayne Newton. Eight months, three shifts in a row: 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., 10 p.m. to 12 a.m., 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. A revolving loop of the oily “Danke schoen, darling, danke schoen, thank you for all the joy and pain . . .” I’ve sifted through all the YouTube videos of Wayne Newton from the ’70s, trying to catch a glimpse of Sid in the band, but the spotlight is trained too firmly on Mr. Las Vegas, his coiffed hair and dimply smile. I wanted to see what Sid looked like then, before he descended. Liquor was like water there.
In Las Vegas, Sid had closed whatever distance there was between being a drinker and a drunk. He became a transient. My grandparents rescued him over and over, always bringing him home to Raleigh. And finally that’s where he stayed, growing older, going regularly through his cycle: days of jolly intoxication, days of rock bottom, the gritty rise back to sobriety. He mostly drank Listerine, a habit born of hiding his addiction from the family or from himself, but which he had come to like.
I always knew—or perhaps was made to know—that there was something essentially tragic about Sid. My two, very sober parents kept him at a careful distance. I saw him every five years, maybe, and always with the unsaid order not to get too close. But I was curious, gravitated towards him. His music, yes, and his magnificent storytelling—but more than that, I sensed the part of him that was sharp and glinting, something exquisite, a kind of toxic genius that I desired and feared and wondered if I inherited. And that word, alcoholic: slippery and sophisticated-sounding, like a frightening glass hallway. I began, as I got older, to feel in myself the door to this hallway, the gentle tilt of the floor.
March 2009, and in Raleigh, the azaleas were blooming everywhere, fuchsia. The grass on the small front yard on Peachtree Street was that particular new tender green. Sid was collapsed out on the lawn. There were red cardinals going from tree to tree, tentative morning sunlight. My grandmother was in the brick house, the house that always smelled like tomato plants, sleeping. From the yard, you could look through the window and see two paper mach giraffes inside. The mother giraffe was about six feet tall, and bending toward the baby giraffe. All throughout the house there were the paper mach sculptures Sid had made: emperor penguins, rabbits, storks. They were lifelike and eerily still and silent. As if someone had pressed pause in a menagerie. The neighbor called an ambulance.
I had been sitting on my gold couch in my living room in Portland, Oregon. March, in that city, has its own blooms: cherries and camellias. It smelled good; it was pouring outside; it was night. I was alone. My housemates were all at the bar, would be back later, trouping up the steps, laughing, struggling the key into the lock. I was twenty-three, one year out of college, and working at a grocery store every day of the week. In school, I had wanted to be a writer, fancied myself one, but it had been months since I had written anything. I wrote a poem about Sid, in which I imagined he called me wanting me to “tell him something, to promise / him something, but he has lost something / in his voice / it slips around.” I don’t remember looking up from it once.
The next day I had the 2:30 to 11:00 p.m. shift. On my dinner break, I sat on the black staff-room couch and listened to a voice-mail message from my mother. She told me Sid was in the hospital, that he had Korsakoff’s Psychosis and was hallucinating birds everywhere.
Sid was fifty-four. My grandfather was dead and my grandmother was eighty-five. Sid, in his dry periods, had been taking care of her. In his wet periods, she’d been able to take care of herself. Except, for a while now, she hadn’t. She’d gotten unsteady, unwilling to get out of bed, unhooked from reality. Sid watched his mother deteriorate. He watched the woman who always took care of everything, took care of him every time he really needed it, stay in bed for days. He got scared and went off the deep end. He stayed at the bottom of his cycle, never surfacing back to sobriety, slowly populating the floor with bottles. Until he ended up on the lawn. The body—though it can take far more than makes any kind of sense—can only take so much.
I put down the phone. I cried, ridiculously. I was not a crier. I was from a stop-or-I’ll-give-you-something-to-cry-about family. And I hardly knew my uncle, had never crossed the distance put between us. I thought of the poem I had written. I thought, there is a person in the world with whom I might have some extraordinary connection and now I’d never know him.
My father met me at the Raleigh-Durham airport. I had offered to take time off work. “Yes,” he’d said, “yes, we need you.”
We sat in some metal seats near the baggage claim. I learned Sid had been moved to the intensive care ward and strapped down because he had been getting up, following his hallucinations down the hallway, doing unseemly things. That his psychosis was the result of getting all his calories from alcohol, a vitamin deficiency that damages the brain, that wrings out the region that keeps and adds memory. That the doctors didn’t think he’d “get better.” He’d probably never come home. But I was not to worry about Sid. I was there to do my shift, take care of my grandmother, who had, just yesterday, fallen. She was in pain that would be more pain to fix than it was worth. I was there to get her out of bed each morning, to wrap my arms around her and lift her up, every day, no matter how much she protested, how much she moaned and insisted I let her die.
“The day she doesn’t get up, doesn’t move around, she may never get up again.”
After telling me this, my father drove us to the brick house with its tiny yard and we walked in, sat at the empty dining room table and said nothing. His eyes welled up, the first time I could remember seeing that happen. He left the next morning.
I sat for a while in the dining room that my grandfather built like a stage over the living room when they expanded the tiny post-WWII house to fit everyone. I looked at the things I could see from the table and then walked through the rooms examining everything. My grandfather had been a jazz drummer and a painter, and the house was filled with instruments and art. Sid, in his frequent unemployment, had made the twenty or so paper mach animals, which, unnervingly lifelike, silently inhabited the house. I touched each thing: the framed confederate dollar, the pale color-retouched face of a relative, the strings waiting on a loom. Then my grandmother woke up and I went to lift her, as gently as I could, out of her bed. She cried out, her bad breath on my face.
Later, when she was snoring on the couch, I slowly climbed the stairs to Sid’s attic room. I couldn’t even walk into it. It was like a rock beach, except not rocks. Empty half-gallon wine jugs. And every single one the same—Livingston Ros. They were under the bed, under the desk, in the bathtub. On every surface you could have put something, there was a jug with a pink ring at the base, a rosy vineyard scene on the label. In between all the bottles, cigarette butts. In the toilet was a drowned mouse. Still unexplained to me was this: his bed was covered in guns. Rifles, a pistol, a sawed-off shotgun. And on the floor of the bathroom there was a scattering of needles. When I’d looked up Korsakoff’s Psychosis, I saw that in addition to amnesia, the symptoms included confabulation, and lack of insight.
I held my breath, put one arm over my mouth, and began with the easiest bottles, the ones on the floor, putting them quietly into a garbage bag. I worked, crouching under the table, pulling them out from around the toilet, emptying the shower and bookshelf, until all the bags I had were full. A wine jug can’t be stomped the way a beer can can. I couldn’t hide the quantity from myself, was forced to look at what I had come to see. The part of him that did this, his glass door—the one I kept my own eye on, keeping it shut—thrown wide open. It made a black, shiny mountain at the curb.
I had to sneak the bags downstairs, one at a time. My grandmother was becoming increasing delusional and any hint of distress could send her off. The next day, from her seat on the couch, she said, “I know what you’re doing. You’re watching me. Somebody sent you. I know.”
“Grandmama, I’m your granddaughter. I’m here visiting you. My name is Rosalie just like you. Here, look at my driver’s license.”
She wouldn’t look. She said of course I’d have a fake ID. I picked up the phone to call my father, to let her hear his voice.
“See?” she said, “Now you’re calling your people. Go ahead. Call them.”
I put the phone down. Right then, Sid called.
“This is just a friendly inquiry to see if you’ll be wanting to take advantage of our excellent, excellent cremation services special for the month of May. No monthly payments, no costly fees, ladies and gentlemen, this is the offer of a lifetime!”
Sid had been a prodigious prank-caller. Had used to call his brothers and pretend to be a debt collector or an alligator salesman or their boss. He was uncanny, could pull anything off.
“Sid!” I was delighted to hear him sounding like his old self, delighted he had called. It seemed miraculous.
He hung up.
At the hospital he had a phone by his bed, and every now and then some part of his brain would spark back up, and he’d reach over, pick it up, dial home, and something garbled would come out.
If I had hoped to get to know anyone, to gain insight about my family, this was what I got.
One afternoon, I opened Sid’s double violin case. I took one out of the old blue crushed velvet, the instrument that he had spent those eight months in Vegas saving up for, and tuned it, gently. The strings were all slack, the pegs stuck in place. I struggled to get the A and the E perfect, to the point where they would ring just right together. A quote floated up out of nowhere: “We can tell time with objects. We come back, the piano’s out of tune.”
I did everything I could and then I left. Soon after, my grandmother was moved to a nursing home and Sidney was moved to an assisted living institution, the only one of a hundred that would take him, a sorry place. Later, I don’t know how long, several months or so, he walked out. They let him. They’d had a hard time getting his social security payments, anyway. He doesn’t remember how he got home. He says he walked the whole way.
Against all expectations, and in a way that confounded doctors, Sid persisted. He did not, as even I expected, go home, sell off whatever was in the house, and drink himself into the ground. In the months afterward, he called my father, often at odd hours, to say how well he was doing. He said he had projects going, tomato plants growing, he’s playing his violin all the time.
March again, three years later, I drove from Indiana, where I was working on my MFA in poetry, to North Carolina. “I’ll go to the beach. I’ll pick up shells and look at the waves. It’ll be nice.” I told this to myself. I’m not sure what mission it was that I actually had. I wanted to see Sid. I wanted to hear him talk and to talk to him.
I parked on Peachtree Street, the azaleas leaning almost into the car. From the outside, the house looked much the same to me. It felt strange to be out of the car and on my feet after a day of driving. It felt strange to be staring up at that front door again. From the porch—where I’d sat every night, overwhelmed and holding back tears—I could hear music blaring, electric violin jazz, super loud. I knocked on the door and peered in through the window, wondering if it was possible to hear my knock. Sid opened the door looking a little stunned.
I hugged him.
He did not look like my uncle. And he did. His face was longer. It had always been round, full, but now you could make out his cheekbones. He was shorter, smaller than he had ever seemed to me before. It took a second to notice, but he walked strangely, his right leg pulling around at a slight angle. He looked dumber, a little cowish. His face was open, bland.
Sid led me through the house—his music still on—talking non-stop about the things he was doing. The phrase, “The first thing I did when I got back was—” preceded almost everything. We went to the back yard, he told me about all the pine straw he had to get out of the garden. How he was going to totally replace the deck, re-roof the shed, how he fixed the grandfather clock, how he had done this and that. This was the green-tea drink he drank every day. This was the flax-seed waffle mix he made waffles with now. He didn’t eat any red meat anymore. It went on. It was a suffocating production.
I realized that he was missing his glint, the glint in his eye.
After some time, Sid slowed down. Everything that had been wound tight in him loosened. We sat at the dining room table. He wanted to talk, to go back over things he hadn’t figured out. He interrupted himself to say, “I was at that place, at the hospital, for five weeks and I don’t remember any of it. I think they must have had me on some heavy medications. They told me I had a condition, something or other, some deficiency.” He sounded incredulous.
“Thiamin deficiency, B vitamins.” I wasn’t sure how much to fill him in on. How he had wandered through the hospital, emptying his bowels in the hallways. The bird that he insisted wouldn’t leave his water cup.
He said, unrelated to anything, “And you know, I had been drinking a hell of a lot of alcohol at that time. Something I’ve divorced myself from completely.” He stopped. He looked sad. He looked like he had just a few puzzle pieces and no way to put them together. “One thing I don’t understand is this dementia.”
He was referring to my grandmother, maybe, or to himself. He looked at me for a long moment as if he thought I might explain this to him. I wanted to link brains with him, do whatever psychic thing I could. I wanted to access our weird cosmic connection. I felt around for whatever it was in me that I’d thought we shared—the sharp, glinting thing, the bit of genius—as if I could use it like a surgeon: fix him up. Fix me up. But I didn’t have it, couldn’t find it. Perhaps I had undone it. Perhaps I had been wrong.
I sat there all evening and listened to him talk, a mixture of life stories, bits of nonsense and a litany of things that caused him grief.
That night, Sid didn’t sleep. There were two TVs on all night and I heard the floor creaking as he walked around the house. His night and day had been flip-flopped ever since he worked in Vegas. I left—for the beach, something nice, my excuse—the next afternoon. In the time I was there, I never saw him eat, I never saw him drink his green tea or go for a walk or fix anything. Confabulation. Lack of insight.
I had wanted to ask him to play. I longed to hear him make something marvelous again, to draw it out of himself, as if dipping from a deep pool of sound and feeling, as he used to. But I suspect he can’t anymore. The Korsakoff’s, which altered his walk, his mind, did something, too, to his hands; they were slow, inexact. I didn’t want to force him to say this. It would mean admitting that he had lost that one last avenue of control, the power to move a listener.
Whatever I had needed from him then—to see for myself what could happen to someone, what could remain of the uncle who I had once been fascinated by, admired, whose voice had gotten me up out of bed and brought me to the kitchen as a little girl, whatever piece of my own jigsaw puzzle, my own blood, that I wanted to understand—it’s hard to say if I got it.
But I am sure of something. A person can be ruled by any number of things. I allowed myself to be ruled by stories—the need for them, the telling of them. And this, despite everything, is what Sid gave me. What he sent to me across a continent, across all the invisible barriers.
Here is one that I have always loved: the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra was set to play a piece by Ferde Grof, The Grand Canyon Suite. The piece is supposed to be theatrical, a sort of musical tourism that was popular in the seventies. It’s divided into five movements: Sunrise, Painted Desert, On the Trail, Sunset, and Cloudburst, with the music mimicking the mule’s clopping on the trail, the precipitous decent into the canyon, the rain. It opens with a big violin solo, odd and acrobatic, leaping from throaty low vibrato to something chirping and light on the E near the bridge. The first violinist decided, the day before the performance, that she couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t play the solo. She quit. Someone called Sid.
He had the sheet music no more than a day. He learned the solo, the whole piece, and performed it, descending with the music all the way to the bottom of the canyon, enduring that final thunderstorm, that dramatic crash, and rose back out of it triumphantly.
Rosalie Moffett’s is the author of June in Eden (The Ohio State University Press, 2016), winner of The Journal/Wheeler prize. Her poems and essays have appeared in Tin House, Ploughshares, AGNI, The Kenyon Review, Narrative, the anthology Gathered: Contemporary Quaker Poets, and elsewhere. She is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow and the winner of a “Discovery”/Boston Review prize as well as a Ploughshares Emerging Writers prize. She lives in Athens, Georgia. (updated 4/2017)