The Cartoonist
byPaul Holler

   5791

To begin with, I should say that I never got to know my Uncle Florian very well. The image I have of him, when I remember him at all, is that of an old man with a boxer’s face sitting in a corner by himself, smoking a Chesterfield, oblivious to all of the talk that swirled around him. If I think long enough, I can remember his eyes: lost, pale and imperturbably sad.

Most of what I remember about him is how he seemed so mysterious to us kids and how often I would hear about Uncle Mike’s going to Skid Row once again to find him and get him out. I hadn’t even heard his name in years.

But then, one evening, Mom called to tell me that he had died. I wasn’t quite sure how to take the news. He was my relative, my flesh and blood. But I still felt as though I were hearing that one of Mom’s acquaintances had died and felt a little twinge of sorrow, nothing more.

I asked Mom if she wanted a ride to his wake. She said wasn’t going. She wasn’t feeling well and wanted to stay home. But Aunt Lynette wanted to go and she needed a ride. So I volunteered.

By the time Aunt Lynette and I arrived at the funeral home, the parking lot was nearly full. I parked the car, opened her door and helped her to her feet. As we walked toward the carved oaken door, she scanned the parking lot for familiar cars. Finding none, she fixed her eyes on the lines on the pavement and pressed ahead.

"Thank you for driving me,” she said stiffly.

"Don't mention it," I said.

"No, I mean it. It was good of you. I know it was short notice. And I know Janice had to stay with the kids. I hope she didn't have anything planned..."

"It's all right," I said. "He was my uncle. I should be here."

"I know, but..."

"But what?"

"Oh, never mind," she sighed.

I hauled the door open and held it for Aunt Lynette. She entered before me and turned toward the light coming from the open chapel. A sign outside the chapel doorway read "Florian Kusek." Aunt Lynette put on her glasses, read the sign, and looked at me nervously. She took my arm and we walked in together.

The room was filled with people and the low, constant murmur of many conversations. Some were wearing formal suits or long, dark dresses. Others were wearing casual shirts and slacks and still others were wearing blue jeans and work shirts. The sound of their talk rolled by us like a stream. I looked around the room for a familiar face. Then I looked down at Aunt Lynette, who stood rock still.

"For the love of Pete, look at these people," she said indignantly. "I know Florian wasn't much, but a man died. They're all dressed like a bunch of panhandlers."

"Do you know any of them?" I asked.

"No."

"They must all be from his A.A. group," I said. Aunt Lynette nodded.

At the head of the room was a table, on top of which sat a silver urn containing Uncle Florian's ashes. His Army picture stood to one side in a tarnished frame. His face had the porcelain look of most Army portraits from World War II. I assumed it had been taken before he was shipped overseas. His face was bright, clean and scarless. His eyes were clear and, even though his hat was set to its regulation angle and his uniform was perfect, there was a trace of a confident sneer on his face, just enough to show that the war had not yet changed him.

A more recent picture of Uncle Florian stood on the other side of the urn. Most of his hair was gone and his pate shone like worn stone. His nose was crooked and potato red. He had a cauliflower ear and his jaw was a little out of line. His broad, wise smile showed off the only two front teeth he hadn't lost. Behind him, in a walnut frame, hung a parchment on which the Alcoholics Anonymous prayer was illuminated.

A woman stood in front of the table looking down at the pictures. She appeared to be in her sixties with gray hair, a worn black sweater and black pants. She turned around, smiled sadly and extended her hands to Aunt Lynette and me.

"My name is Marcie," she said. "I lived with Florian for the last ten years."

Aunt Lynette let go of her hand.

"My name is Lynette," she said. "Florian was my brother."

Marcie nodded.

"Florian talked about you often. He spoke well of you."

Aunt Lynette smiled and looked at me.

"My name is Joe," I said. "I'm Florian's nephew."

"Oh, I see," she said. "I don't think he ever mentioned you."

"Actually, I didn't know him all that well," I said. "I only came tonight because Aunt Lynette needed a lift."

I bit my tongue as soon as the words came out. I waited for Marcie to become angry. But she only smiled and waved her hand forgivingly.

I heard a pair of familiar voices and turned toward the doorway. I recognized Aunt Gladys and Uncle Mike even though I hadn't seen them since I was twelve years old, about twenty-five years ago. Back then, Uncle Mike seemed larger than the man I saw now and Aunt Gladys larger still. I used to look up at Uncle Mike. When I was a child, his arms were thick and meaty from years of driving a truck and his unwavering eyes bore down on me and made me cringe. Now I looked down at him and he seemed very small. He walked in short steps beside Aunt Gladys and held her arm as she and her walker crept forward.

When Aunt Gladys and Uncle Mike saw Aunt Lynette, they waved and made their way toward us. Marcie smiled and nodded toward them politely.

"I don't know," said Uncle Mike, looking around the room and at the urn on the table. "I don't what this is supposed to be. I never been to a funeral where there ain't no body. I don't go for that."

"Lynette, its so good to see you," said Aunt Gladys, letting go of her walker with one arm to hug Aunt Lynette. Then she looked at me quizzically.

"Joe." I said.

"Joe, its so good to see you again." said Aunt Gladys, hugging me warmly with one arm. "Where's Mommy?"

"Jan's with the kids tonight. They're still pretty small, you know, so..."

"No, no, no," said Aunt Gladys. "I mean your mommy. Where's your mommy?"

"My mommy? You mean Mom?"

"Yeah, yeah."

"She couldn't make it." I said. "She wasn't feeling well so she decided to stay home tonight."

"Oh, that's sad," said Aunt Gladys. "But you give her my love and tell her that I'm praying for her."

"I'll tell her," I said.

"Excuse me," said a man with a mass card in his hand. "We haven't met. My name is Herb Wheeler. I know you're Florian's family and I just wanted you to know that I've been sober for six years now and its mainly because of him. He was a good friend. I know he had his bad times, like we all have, but he was a good man."

I shook his hand and he walked away.

"Yeah, he was a good man, all right," said Uncle Mike. "I bet that guy never spent New Year's Eve driving around skid row and finding his good friend half dead with booze, covered in his own crap, and then having to chase away the thugs going through his pockets."

"Now, now," said Aunt Gladys. "Florian’s dead. Don't speak ill of him."

"Mike, I don't blame you for feeling that way," said Marcie. "Florian could be a trial, I know. But he had a good heart."

"I always said he didn't have to end up this way," said Uncle Mike. "If things would have worked out between him and Arlene, he would have made it okay."

"Oh, who knows," said Aunt Gladys. "If he would have married Arlene, he may have driven her to drink too. She was a sweet thing, but she didn't have it in her to keep him in line."

"It was the war, I tell you," said Aunt Lynette. "He was fine until he went into the service. Before the war, we all thought he was going to do great things. He had his camera, he loved taking pictures. I still don't know how he managed to get it, the Depression and all. Remember that time when one of his pictures got printed in the Tribune? A picture of some old men standing in line outside of a soup kitchen."

"Really?" I said.

"Oh, yes," said Aunt Lynette. "He took it one Saturday morning. Just took the streetcar down to this soup kitchen that Al Capone ran. I think he was about sixteen then. Mama would have had a fit if she’d of known where he was going. But once it made it into the paper, well, she was so proud of her boy. Proud as I've ever seen her. We all were. We all thought he was going places."

"Yeah, that was before the war," said Aunt Gladys. "And I think he was older than sixteen. When he'd go down to skid row to take pictures of the bums, he used to drink with them."

"Yeah, well, a lot of people did in them days,” said Uncle Mike. "Those were hard times. A lot of people crawled into the bottle in them days."

"We all lived through those times and none of us ended up drunks," said Aunt Lynette sharply.

"Excuse me,” said an elderly priest with a worn face and wire rimmed glasses. "I'm Father Jim McCurdy. I didn't mean to eavesdrop but I couldn't help hearing your conversation."

"Oh, no, Father, please...," said Aunt Gladys, nodding furiously and motioning the priest to join us.

"I only wanted to tell you that you can wonder all your life about why someone becomes an alcoholic and someone else doesn't. But you'll never find any one answer. There are as many answers to that question as there are human beings on this earth.

"I've been on both sides of the fence. I've been in treatment and I've been the one doing the treating. And why does someone fall into alcoholism? It took me years to find the reasons why I started to drink. It’s not easy to find that answer, believe me. You have to face things about yourself that no one wants to face. You have to look at yourself in a very, very uncomfortable mirror. That takes a lot, believe me. But everyone you see here today has done that. So did Florian. We all found our own answers to the question you’ve been asking all your lives about Florian. But he had to find that himself. He had to find his own way out. And he did. You can be very proud of him for that.

"Oh, well,” said the priest apologetically. “I didn't mean to lecture you."

"Oh, not at all. Not at all," said Aunt Gladys.

"Did you know Florian well?" asked Aunt Lynette.

"Oh, yes. We all did. All of us here tonight. Florian was a rock of Gibraltar for many of us. Whenever things got too serious, there he was with that toothless smile of his. And whenever we had our sobriety anniversaries, he'd draw those wonderful cartoons for us."

"Cartoons?" I said.

"Oh, yes. Wonderful stuff. Come on. Take a look."

Father Jim led us to a small wooden table in the corner of the room. I hadn't noticed it before. On top of the table, in an old silver frame, was a yellowed, blood stained drawing of a dove, bleeding from a wound in its chest and flying toward the sun, away from a pile of dead men on the ground. A basket of cartoons lay next to it. Uncle Florian must have drawn them recently. The paper was new and bright and the lines bloomed into Mickey Mouse, Lil Abner, Jesus Christ and caricatures of people in the room.

I paged through the basket. The more I looked at the cartoons, the more the characters freed themselves from the pages on which they were made and raised their hands and voices in my mind.

"That's so sad,” said Aunt Lynette.

"My God, he was good," I said. "Really good."

"Do you know the story behind this drawing?" Father James asked, motioning toward the framed cartoon.

We all shook our heads.

"He was a GI in France during the war. Well, you know that, I'm sure. He went overseas after D-day, but he still saw his share of action. I was there too. I was a medic before I became a priest. I saw a lot of the same things he saw. I think that's why we were such good friends.

"Anyway, Florian and his outfit had been fighting their way north for about a month. They had seen a lot of their friends die in the worst ways you can imagine. Blown to pieces by shells. Burned alive. It was tough. Here were these guys, barely old enough to even hold down a job and there they were in the middle of Hell on Earth.

"One day, they were able to take a rest in this little French village. Or was it Belgium? I'm not sure. But they had just crossed a river filled with American and German dead and their boots and trouser legs were just brown with blood. Florian told me once that by that time being covered with someone else's blood didn't even bother him anymore. I didn't believe him. I still don't. I don’t think it ever stopped bothering him.

“Anyway, they were all just sitting there, and they saw this beautiful white dove walking along the ground. It had been wounded and it looked like it was dying. But then it spread its wings and took off. Everybody stopped and looked at it. And then, in mid-air, it died and went down to the ground.

"It was the strangest thing. Every man in the unit was shaken up. Florian told me he could see it in all of their faces. These men, who had seen so many of their friends killed, were so shaken up by this dove's death. Florian drew this picture on the spot. He kept it with him through the rest of the war. Even when he was wounded. That's his blood on it."

I looked at the drawing, with its soaring promise and earthbound horror, and fought back a chill.

"Did you see these?" I said to Aunt Lynette.

Aunt Lynette picked up the cartoons and looked at them one by one. She smiled at the funny ones. When she put them down, her smile turned sad.

"Such a waste," she said.

"I never knew he had it in him," I said. "From everything I’ve heard about him, I never would have thought he could do something like that. Look at those. He could've worked for Disney."

"I know,” said Aunt Lynette. "That's why it’s such a waste."

"Aren't they wonderful?" said a woman I didn't know. She motioned toward the cartoons and smiled. "Florian always made these cartoons for us when we had our sobriety anniversaries. We used to look forward to it."

"He made this one for me," said another woman, reaching into the stack. "I'm Shirley Anderson, by the way. This one's a copy, actually. I have the original on my refrigerator at home. You see how he drew that little Dutch girl and boy kissing? He drew it when he and Marcie stood up to my wedding."

"He stood up to your wedding?" I said.

"Oh yes."

"That surprises you?" asked Father James.

"Well, uh...," I stammered.

"Why is that so surprising?" Father James asked.

"From what I've heard about him, I'm just a little surprised that he'd stand up to anybody's wedding."

"That's for sure," said Uncle Mike. "You remember Sophie's wedding?"

Aunt Gladys nodded sadly.

"Remember how he crashed the reception and got stinking drunk and went on and on about how ‘nobody gives a shit’ and ‘if you only knew, if you only knew,’” said Uncle Mike. “Poor Sophie cries about that to this day.”

"I don't think he crashed it, Mike," said Aunt Lynette. "He was invited."

"I don't think he was," said Mike.

"No, he was," said Aunt Gladys. "I remember. Bob didn't want to invite Florian but Agnes did. They had a terrible fight about that. But the invitation went out. It was the last invitation, though. I think Bob purposely sent it out late so that Florian wouldn't get it in time."

"Then why'd he walk in loaded for bear?" said Mike. "I was there, I remember."

"I didn't think he really got angry until after he showed up,” said Aunt Lynette.

"What was he so mad about?" I asked.

"He knew he got the invitation later than everybody else. He was insulted," said Aunt Gladys.

"I don't remember him really getting wound up until George wouldn't drink with him," said Aunt Lynette.

"I remember that. But maybe if George wouldn't have made such a big deal out of it...," said Uncle Mike.

"George had to make a big deal out of it," said Aunt Gladys. "Florian needed somebody to draw the line for him. That's all George was trying to do."

"I don't remember it that way,” said Aunt Lynette. "George didn't confront him or anything. Florian was just sitting at the table with George and when the waiter came around and asked if anyone wanted a drink, he said no. Everybody at the table said no. That's when Florian really flew off the handle. He thought everybody wasn't drinking because they didn't want to drink with him."

"Oh, I remember that," said Aunt Gladys. "A waiter came by with a tray of champagne glasses and Florian just took one off and tossed it back, like he was in a tavern or something instead of the most important day of poor Sophie's life."

"And nobody would stop him. Everybody was trying to be polite," said Aunt Lynette.

"That was the whole problem, right there," said Aunt Gladys, wagging her finger. "Everybody was so worried about not making a scene. He needed a firm hand. If somebody would've taken him in hand then..."

"Naw, naw, naw," said Uncle Mike. "It wouldn't have made any difference. Now, like I said, if things would've worked out with Arlene..."

"Well they didn't," said Aunt Gladys. "And that still doesn't excuse him for what he did to poor Sophie."

"What did he do to poor Sophie?" I whispered to Aunt Lynette.

Aunt Lynette rolled her eyes and sighed.

"Oh, he just made a fool of himself,” she said. "Like he always did. He got roaring drunk and went on and on about how nobody cared about him, life is a hellhole, we’re all a bunch of hypocrites. He was there, standing in the middle of the room and carrying on like that. It was pathetic."

"It was more than pathetic," said Aunt Gladys. "Poor Sophie cries about that to this day. And on her wedding day, of all days."

"You've got to learn to forgive," said Father James.

"It's not up to me to forgive him," said Aunt Gladys. "I forgave him a long time ago for the things he did to me. It wasn't easy, but our Lord says to forgive and I do. But poor Sophie..."

"I've never heard Sophie say anything about it," I said. "You think she's still holding a grudge?"

"Excuse me," said Shirley Anderson. "You should know that Florian was a different man at my wedding. Of course, there was no alcohol at my wedding, for anyone. But he was in rare form that night, telling jokes, drawing caricatures of us on napkins. He danced with all of the ladies like a perfect gentleman. He even kissed my hand, just like a nobleman. My wedding was so much better because he was there. I know that that doesn't excuse what he did, and I don't expect you to just forget all the pain he caused you. But he was a good man in his last years. A very good man. Try to remember that."

I walked back to the basket of cartoons. At the bottom of the basket I found an old, dog-eared photograph. In it was Aunt Lynette, my mother, Aunt Gladys, Uncle Florian and two of their brothers, who had died many years ago. It must have been taken in the thirties. The oldest of them couldn’t have been more than fifteen. Aunt Lynette held Uncle Florian’s arm and almost pushed him forward, as though she wanted the world to see him. There was a spark in her face, a smile, a light that I had never before seen in her.

Aunt Lynette saw the picture, too. She picked it up, looked at it for a long time, then placed it gently back where it had been.

Then she sifted through the cartoons with great care and separated one from the others. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the one she chose. It depicted a bird, maybe the Holy Ghost, surrounded by rays of light with a flower in its beak. Aunt Lynette closed her eyes and smiled, then gently folded the cartoon and put it in her purse.

"Oh, Lynette,” said Marcie, “we'll be having a dinner in Florian's honor at Manny Diamond's. We'd love for all of you to come along."

"Oh, no, we can't," said Aunt Lynette. "But thank you for asking. Thank you so much."

Aunt Lynette put her arms around Marcie and patted her back. Aunt Gladys smiled sweetly, then tugged on Uncle Mike's sleeve and headed for the door.

I stood by the door while Marcie was alone in the chapel. She picked up the most recent picture of Uncle Florian. She looked at it sadly, then smiled a little and set it reverently on the table. Then she left. As I walked toward the door, I saw the lights go out in the chapel.

Aunt Lynette was quiet as we pulled away from the funeral home. From time to time I heard her purse open and the cartoon unfold. I looked at her when we stopped for a traffic light. Her eyes were closed, but not shuttered. She had turned inward and I didn’t want to intrude.

“When I think of all the times I didn’t want to admit he was my brother, all the times he embarrassed me, broke my heart, broke our mother’s heart. It’s not so easy to forgive someone after you’ve spent a lifetime being ashamed of him.”

“Are you ashamed of him now?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said after a while, “I don’t know. I’d forgotten how I used to feel about him when we were young, before the war and everything. Back then, I used to think he was wonderful. I was so proud. He had gifts that no one else had and he was my little brother.” She sighed and said again, “My little brother.”

When we pulled up to Aunt Lynette’s house, I parked the car and helped her out.

“Thank you, Joe,” she said, hugging me warmly, “Thank you so much. And give my love to Janice and the kids.”

I remembered the picture I had seen earlier of Aunt Lynette and Uncle Florian. I remembered the spark in her eyes and the light in her face. When she turned to say goodnight at her front door, just for a moment I saw that light again. It may have been obscured by sad experience and age, but it was there.


 

©2002 Paul Holler
Paul Holler has been a writer of short stories for many years and his work has appeared in Skylark and various other print and on-line journals. In addition to his short fiction, he currently serve as a staff writer for Critique, an on line arts journal at www.etext.org/Zines/Critique, where he contributes book reviews, interviews and forthcoming feature articles. E-mail: PFHoller@aol.com


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