This is the story of how four foul words dramatically changed the lives of four people.
FUCK YOU UNCLE EDDIE
Dorothy M. Jones
Think words are cheap? Read this story about how four little words drastically changed four lives.
There’s me, Dave Grossman, a twenty-three-year old single guy who lives at home with his parents. Why not? I’m their only kid and we get along. Well, maybe they had bad feelings in the past when I was sort of a loser. See, I dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade. Then I worked at lousy, low paying jobs that I changed every couple months, sometimes maybe most times because I got fired for telling off some idiot boss. I knew my folks were disappointed. They wanted to see me make something of myself. Mom never bawled me out or anything; she couldn’t stand seeing me upset so she’d say something encouraging like—“a blessing in disguise, Davela; now you’ll find a job you deserve.” But it was the look in dad’s eye that got to me, a look that seemed to say, Goddamnit, David, one more failure. Get ahold of yourself. Shape up. Oh, how I wanted to be like him—cool, in control, respected, successful. . But I’d forget that wish when some dumb boss got in my face once too often.
Still, no matter how many times I goofed, dad never gave up on me. And two years ago, on my 21st birthday , as I was smacking my lips over mom’s chocolate cake, he surprised me with an announcement. “David, report for work on Monday. You’ll start at the bottom, and if you apply yourself, work your way to the top the way I did.”
What a gift. Not only a job in his dress factory, but a career, a future I could count on.
Dad’s eyes were wet when he made the announcement. Maybe he was hoping he’d be proud of me or maybe just hoping I wouldn’t embarrass him again. Whatever, I swore I wouldn’t screw up this time. I’d make him puff up when my name was mentioned.
Two years later, I was the one puffing up. I’d started at the lowest level, packing parcels, and then, faster than anyone expected, dad promoted to sewing machine operator hemming blouses to hand trimmer to finish presser to cutter, and recently to pattern grader—scaling the patterns to different sizes, a high skilled job I tell you. Dad and I were really in sinc. That’s where things stood before the blow up.
Dad was nine when he and his family moved from Romania to Chicago. He was a busy boy all right, attending public school during the day, Hebrew school in the evening, and, because the family was poor, delivering newspapers in between times. He didn’t complain, though, not after his father let him keep fifty cents a week from his newspaper earnings. All his life he’d wanted a fiddle, and he found one he loved in a pawn shop. The price--$50. He saved every cent, checking his savings every day and counting the days until he’d have enough. Finally, the day came. He rushed home from school; he picked up his bank; he shook it; not a sound; he shook it again; it was empty. He raced to the kitchen where his mother was making potato kugel. “Where’s my money?”
“Your father. Davela, his hours were cut. He had to use it to pay the rent.”
“What about Jake? He earns a good wage.” Jake was dad’s older brother.
For an answer, mom opened a cupboard and pointed to a bottle of bourbon and a jug of wine.
When dad told me this story, he didn’t seem as upset about having lost his fiddle as he was about his father’s betrayal. When he mentioned the word ‘betrayal,’ he tightened his lips and held up a fist, and said, “Never again, not ever again.”
When he was thirteen, dad left school and was apprenticed to a tailor. The family needed his help since Jake no longer lived at home and his father was working fewer and fewer hours. At sixteen, dad found a full time job as a sewing machine operator. As he tells it, he was strong for the union and strong for Eugene Debs. After he married and I was born, the union called a strike, a long one, lasted five months. Dad ran out of savings in the first month and had to face the humiliation of moving in with and living off his in-laws. Again he swore: “Never again, not ever again will I be in such a weak position.” That’s when he decided to go into business for himself.
And boy oh boy, was he ever proud of the Illinois Central Dress Company. It not only gave him a good income, but, as he proudly tells every one, “it’s a living example of socialism.” And when someone asks, “So what’s socialist about a capitalistic business,” he explains how he created equality by giving his best friend, Harry Boyd, and mother’s brother, Uncle Eddie, full partnerships free of charge, and how he shares every cent of the profits with them even though he’s the glue that holds the factory together, the thinker, the planner, and a master pattern maker, a skill that keeps the firm thriving. The Illinois Central Dress Company is his baby, his dream come true . How the hell am I going to tell him about Uncle Eddie and me?
They say opposites attract. That must have been the case with my parents. My tall, skinny dad has what you might call aristocratic features—sharp nose and chin and high cheekbones. Mom is short and tubby with a round face framed by steel gray hair that she’s always brushing from her cheeks and brow. I’m short, too, but not tubby, and my face looks more like dad’s.
Uncle Eddie’s a little guy with a shrill voice and a twitchy eye. If you don’t know the history, it’s hard to see why mom is so crazy about that pip-squeak. See, my grandmother died when mom was twelve and Eddie, five. After that mom raised Eddie. She still watches over him like he’s her baby brother. She goes all aflutter when he comes for dinner, , rushing around fixing up the house, cooking his favorite foods, setting the table with her best dishes, and serving him the best cut of brisket and the largest piece of the pineapple upside down cake, his favorite desert. All the vibes seem to go from mom to that weasel, as if dad and I didn’t exist.
Of course, in all fairness, mom had good reason for worrying about Eddie. She told me he’d been a queer kid, a real loner with his only interests building model planes and working jig saw puzzles. He managed to graduate high school, but near the bottom of his class. After that, he couldn’t find a job better than shoe salesman at Sears. I could hear my folks talk at night through the thin wall separating our bedrooms. They probably had no idea how their voices carried since they never heard any coming from my side of the wall. Anyhow, many times I heard mom beg dad to give Eddie a job at the factory, make a mensche of him. And each time dad would refuse, saying something like—“Didn’t I pull myself up by my bootstraps. Let him do the same.”
But dad had a change of heart when Eddie married. He offered him a full partnership in the firm at no cost which Eddie eagerly accepted. That was seven years ago.
Right from the day I started in the firm, I felt Uncle Eddie’s resentment. He didn’t exactly snarl when he saw me, but his lips curled down at the edges. He seldom stopped to pass the time of day or compliment me on my work. And one day, listening to my folks talk through my bedroom wall, I learned more about his resentment. Dad told mom he’d had words with his partners. Uncle Eddie, who was shop manager, put up a stink about dad intruding in his territory and passing out promotions—referring to the ones he gave me. Harry, dad’s other partner, backed Eddie up. . But dad—and I could hear the ‘I mean business’ tone in his voice as he recounted the conversation--said, “David has advanced faster than anyone else on the floor, and neither of you took notice; neither of you took action; so I did. From here on out, my son is strictly my business.”
Aside from three offices, a waiting room, and a show room, the factory was one big open space. Uncle Eddie was able to watch every operation from his office window. Only occasionally did he wander around the floor, so I didn’t have a helluva lot of contact with him. Not until the day dad left on a week’s vacation.
It was the first morning dad was gone when I heard the sound of shoes creeping along the floor behind me. I looked over my shoulder. There was Uncle Eddie. I didn’t think more about it until a little while later when I smelled his garlic breath. He stood behind me. Didn’t say a word. Just watched. And made low groaning sounds like I was making some horrible mistake. A mistake in marking patterns could cost the firm a heap and you can bet your Swiss Army knife, I didn’t make many. I was damn good at my work. Why the hell was he monitoring it? He’d never done that before. And he wasn’t doing it to anyone else.
Was that sonofabitch trying to get my goat, goad me into doing or saying something I’d regret? He knew I had a short fuse from mom who confided in him about everything. Well, I’d show him. I was no easy mark. I was a comer. Everyone knew that. So the hell with him. Let him hassle me. I’ll ignore it, stay calm.
You’d think my not reacting would discourage him, but the calmer I was the more often he hounded me until, I mean Jesus I’m human, he really got under my skin. Don’t lose it, I kept telling myself. So when he really got to me, I’d make a fist and imagine taking pokes at him or cracking his jaw with a left hook. But that method wore thin in a hurry and I adopted another. I swore at him under my breath, a string of curses that could put a drunken sailor to shame. Geez, it felt good, like I was really putting something over on him. But one day, when he breathed down my neck for the umpteenth time, my hand went into a cramp. I couldn’t work. And then the curse I thought I was saying under my breath blew out of my mouth like a canon ball. “Fuck you, Uncle Eddie.”
Jesus Christ, what did I do? Maybe the racket of the sewing machines drowned out my words. No such luck.
“Get the hell out of this shop, David. Right now. You’re fired.” The words hissed through his teeth.
Christ, how am I going to tell dad? If only I hadn’t been such a hot head. I should never have let Uncle Eddie get my goat. That’s what dad will probably think. But I’ll explain. He just wouldn’t back off; he was hell bent on getting get rid of me. And he kept at me, waiting for me to bust a gut. Will dad understand? Will he put the blame where it belongs? And if he decides for me, what will he do about that sneaky creep of a partner? Will he dump him? My God, that would break mom’s heart. Oh what a goddamn fucking mess. How will dad find a way out of it? I know one thing about him—he’s a very principled guy, super principled, does what he thinks is right even when it’s against his interest, like refusing to buy material at the lowest price if it came from a non-union shop. So he won’t act until he decides who’s right, who’s wrong. And if he decides we’re both wrong, what then?
Dad returned home on Sunday afternoon, so I had to tell him before he heard it from someone at the factory. We were in the living room after dinner. I was whittling a piece of ash; he was smoking his after dinner cigar. I waited until he stubbed it out, then blurted out the first words that came to me. “God damn it, Dad, Uncle Eddie set me up. That nerd’s always wanted to get rid of me. And when you left on vacation, he was on my back until I couldn’t stand it any longer and…and I swore at him.”
Dad rubbed the mole on his cheek, something he did when he was upset. “You swore at him?”
“He breathed down my neck, watched my every move.”
“That’s his job. He’s shop manager.”
“But he singled me out. No one else.”
“He can be a pest, but you should rise above it. So all right already, what is it you said?”
“It was the umpteenth time he looked over my shoulder that day, and I swore at him under my breath and..and then, without plan or nothing, the words barreled out of me. “Fuck you Uncle Eddie.”
Dad rubbed harder on his mole. Out of line, David, way out of line. You apologized, right?”
“Didn’t have a chance. He fired me on the spot.”
“He can’t do that. We have a rule—no major decisions unless the three of us agree. That’s the way it’s always been; that’s the way it always will be. I’ll have a talk with him tomorrow.”
Dad and I hadn’t notice mom slip into the room until she opened her mouth. “I know Eddie. He’ll see reason. Now come to the table before the matzo balls get cold.”
So many tall people stoop to bring them closer to others, but dad walked erect as a pole. So I knew right off something was wrong next evening when he slumped into the house, slouched down in his chair, and rubbed his mole. “Max are you sick; you’re so pale,” mom said.
“I’m not through with them yet, but I tell you I tell you, today I felt like throwing in the sponge.”
“For God’s sakes, what happened?”
“Does your schmuck of a brother say anything about it? Apologize? Explain? Does he look me in the eye? Nothing. Like it never happened. Like I should forget about it.”
“He’s not a schmuck.”
“So I ask him. ‘Why did you pick on our son?’ He shrugs. ‘Treated him like I would any insubordinate worker.’ That’s all he had to say, that maggot.”
“He’s not a maggot.”
“’You couldn’t wait until I returned?’ I say to him. He shrugs again. Gives me nothing. He’s worse than a maggot. He’s a snake in the grass.”
Mom walks over and sits on the arm of dad’s chair. “Shush, shush,” like dad’s a baby with a stomach ache.
Dad goes on. “So, I decide, I’ll talk to Harry. Harry the harmonizer, we call him. First he makes with a joke about the Hatfields and McCoys. At a time like this, a joke mind you. “No jokes, Harry,’ I say. So he squirms like a worm and then turns on me, accuses me of trying to embroil him in a family dispute. Imagine that. And after all I’ve done for him. Never took a dime extra, have I? And this is how they repay me, shoveling a barrel of drek at me? Those ferstunkiners were in cahoots all along to get rid of our son.”
“Max, you have to patch this up,” mom said.
“In a pig’s eye.”
A choking sound came from dad’s throat.
These were black days in our family. Me jobless. No prospects in sight. I was willing to accept anything from packing boxes to marking patterns, but no one wanted me with my bad job record. I felt hopeless until the letter from my second cousin Danny in Seattle. He knew about my predicament. “Hey Cuz, maybe a change in scene will change your luck. You’ve got a bed at my place long as you want.” Boy was I tempted. Why not? My presence wasn’t lifting my folks’ spirits. Probably the opposite—it was a reminder of what I’d set off. Yet, did I really want to live 2,000 miles away from them, seeing them maybe once, at best, twice a year. I’ll give it another week. Nothing breaks. I’m off!
The week passed. Not even a dim prospect. So I decided—tonight I’ll tell them about my move. I held off, though, when dad came in looking like a caged dog. He’d been closemouthed all week and when mom and I’d asked him about goings-on at the factory, he’s say, “I’m thinking it over.” And thinking he did, sitting in his easy chair after dinner smoking not his usual one cigar, but two, one right after the other. When I tried to figure what he might be thinking about, I decided it was less about my being fired than his partners conniving to take over his business and make him bend to their rules. I knew how he felt about betrayals and this one was the worst ever.
But on this night, dad finally opened up. “So I sat them down in the office, looked them in the eyes, and said this: ‘I’d consider it prostitution to continue my association with you one more day.’”
“You didn’t?” Mom’s voice trembled.
“So Eddie, he puts put his hand out towards mine, and—the chutzpah—he says, ‘Be a sport, let bygones be bygones.’ Hah, after they’ve driven my trust into the toilet. ‘I’ll buy you out,’ I said, ‘one third the value of the business to each of you.’ Eddie and Harry exchanged a glance, and then Harry, speaking for the two of them, he says, ‘We’re not going anyplace Max.’”
Mom wiped tears from her eyes. “Harry must have bullied Eddie into this. Talk to Eddie alone, Max.”
Dad put a hand on mom’s shoulder.“Get used to the idea, Tess. I’m through with Eddie, and that’s final.”
“So what happens now?”
“They’ll have to buy me out. I’ve already told my lawyer to make arrangements.”
“It’s not right. It’s your business. You started it. You made a success. What will you do?” mom said.
Dad sighed. “I don’t know, Tess. I just don’t know.”
An idea popped into my mind. Dad, too, could make a clean start in Seattle. I told them about my plans and asked them to come with me.
“You’re leaving now when everything’s in an uproar,” mom said.
“I’m talking about all of us leaving, making a new life in Seattle.”
“I’ll make a new start here, Son, where I’m known, where I have contacts. This is where I’ll start a new business.”
“I can’t take one more shock tonight,” mom said, heading for her bed.
Dad waited in vain for Eddie and Harry to come across with the money they owed him. A month passed. Two months. Three months. The Illinois Central Dress Company had gone downhill from the day dad left it. After three months Eddie and Harry declared it bankrupt. And there went the dad’s share of the business he’d spent his life building. He was as plumb broke as I was. He found a job all right as a pattern maker, but the pay was a joke compared to what he used to. If that wasn’t enough to lay him low, mom had a h heart attack. It wasn’t fatal, only she had to be forever careful. She blames the attack not only on the hard times they faced but also on the rupture with her skunk of a brother.
I was down on my luck, too, unable to find work for three months. My job history was a turn off. That, plus the dark and rain in Seattle and the lumps in the couch I slept on in the living room of Danny’s three-room apartment didn’t help my mood. I was thinking of returning to Chicago, at least I’d have dad’s contacts. And then, like magic, I got a break. Danny’s girlfriend’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Rosenberg, had a small tailor shop in the neighborhood. They were getting on and needed someone with a bunch of different skills like I had to help them out. Mr. Rosenberg, a testy, nervous guy, checked my work as if I was a beginner, worse than Uncle Eddie. But strange enough, I didn’t resent him. I kept thinking—here’s an opportunity to prove I can hold my own against any asshole. And the longer I held my temper, the easier it became. I no longer had to make fists or swear under my breath. In fact I’d smile inside as if I’d just climbed to the top of Mt. Ranier.
After Mr. Rosenberg had a stroke, he put me in charge of the business, and as he got weaker and weaker, he left more decisions up to me. The business grew. I hired four more workers. My income grew, too.
On my 25th birthday. Danny and I went to a local bar to celebrate. “A toast, a toast,” Danny said, holding his mug of beer in the air. I touched my mug to his: “Here’s to all the changes in my life this past year, and here’s to the biggest one of all--I’m turning into my father.”