fiction by Leah MacLean-Evans
first place winner of the 2017 Blodwyn Memorial Prize for fiction, sponsored by BookThug
“‘Uncle’s News’ is a beautifully small story that revels in the physical details of its scenes, encouraging the reader to feel comfortably nestled within the narrative, within the arms of the uncle in question. The writing—which has as much character as the characters themselves—is intimate, crafting a story that lingers far beyond its quick finish.”
When Uncle came to visit, he was like a couch being moved, rocking his shoulders around the edges of our doors. Uncle was a big man. My father was not a small man, he was six feet tall, but Uncle exceeded him in every direction. I once told a friend that the dwarf in a movie we had just seen looked like Uncle: flannel shirt tucked into bucket pants with no waistline. Suspenders up the back. The dark beard that swallowed up his face. Swallowed up his neck. If Uncle was a dwarf, then next to him my father was a shoemaker’s elf.
Uncle sat in our leather recliner next to the ficus tree and his thighs took up all the space between the arms. The chair squelched around the shape of his back like they were making friends. We didn’t see Uncle often, he had to fly a long time to visit us. He lived in the very Far North and built roads for a living. Once my parents told me that he lived camped in the bush in winter because he had to go wherever the roads were being made. For a long time I imagined him slugged up in a sleeping bag at the black cut-off of an unfinished road, only frozen white scrub ahead.
Uncle always talked very quietly and laughed very loudly. His voice was deep and no matter how small he tried to make it, it carried. His laugh rolled around like marbles in my ears. When he came to visit he laughed at all the jokes, even the bad ones. He never crossed his legs in the leather chair. They came straight down to the ground in front of him, like tree trunks. Even our ficus tree was smaller than Uncle.
One August when I was older, when I was working in the office, we went to see Uncle in the Far North. It was fall and I wore a scarf under my jacket. My brother had to buy a coat at a Walmart, the Walmart parking lot was full of RVs. There are no northern lights in the fall. The sun rose and then it set and there was nothing in the sky except the stars and the moon, but those I could see from home. In the town there was one bistro where they served little salted beans. The beans reminded me of my coworkers then, their health craze, their organic craze. We plucked the beans one by one from the pile and swallowed them. There was another restaurant that only had a building in the front. The back was a tent with heat lamps and picnic tables taped over with plastic. Uncle liked that place, everyone in town called it the meat and fish place, the caribou there was good.
This is the story of Uncle’s life. He was friends with a lady and he thought she was beautiful. The kind of beautiful that makes your lungs ache even when they’re full of air. But this lady was married, so Uncle was friends with her for many years. Finally she divorced her husband and she and Uncle became a couple, they lived in British Columbia then. Uncle had to follow his work and he had come south then. He was happy there until she had a stroke. When she woke up, she thought she was still married to her ex-husband. So Uncle went back to the Far North to follow the roads and she went back to her husband. Eventually she divorced again for the same old reasons, but Uncle was already gone away and neither of them could move.
Uncle never told this to me himself. He told it to my mother who told me. I tried to imagine his deep voice saying it but couldn’t. It sounds like a movie but it is Uncle’s true story.
When Uncle visited, my mother sat near him on the couch and asked him how he was doing. Uncle told us his doctor had x-rayed his back and said he had the spine of a ninety-seven year-old. Uncle laughed as he told us, chuckled. My mother wanted to know what he could do about it, but because his back wasn’t bothering him Uncle’s doctor had said to let it be. It was his twenty years working heavy equipment, and what was Uncle supposed to do, not have money?
I wondered what it was like to have a spine that was fifty years older than you, a rough old rod pulling straight up through yourself. I thought of my job in the office where I did the things no one else wanted to do and the things that didn’t even matter. I thought of the night I didn’t sleep, anxiety boiling in my stomach until it burst warmly out my mouth. Every time I tried to leave the house that week I threw up. Maybe that’s the way it is, I thought. Whatever kind of work you do you break that part of yourself.
LEAH MACLEAN-EVANS is a writer from Ottawa who is currently living in Regina. Her prose and poetry have appeared in Qwerty, untethered, On Spec Magazine, The Globe and Mail, as well as other journals. She holds an MFA in Writing from the University of Saskatchewan, where she also taught creative writing. She’s currently fostering cats, playing farming video games, and working for the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild on Grain’s business administration. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @penanddragon.