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Voices

Artifacts

by Ben Richman | Voices | Spring 2020

Image by Katarina Mazur

I looked through my uncle Burt’s binders and plastic bags filled with stamps. They were scattered haphazardly in boxes in the corner of his soon-to-be empty apartment. He had died here only a few weeks earlier, entombed by beautiful hardcover books about art and history, commemorative plates and china, and hokey tchotchkes from around the world. After his leg amputation he became disinterested in his own health. It was a background responsibility that ranked far below collecting memorabilia and purchasing books on the internet, which he squeezed into the small apartment where he lived alone. 

Unobstructed sunlight pressed through the blinds, adding stripes of shadow and light to the brown boxes marked for storage. The tall bookshelf in the living room, which reached up to the ceiling, was now almost completely bare. There was an overwhelming sense that my family was intruding in a space that wasn’t ours. I stayed focused on the stamps as my uncle’s siblings rummaged through boxes in his closet, deciding what to keep and what to sell. 

Hundreds of imposing red Queen Elizabeths, drawn with her nose upturned, lay next to Japanese cranes printed in baby blue ink. There were commemorative stamps honoring the “Legends of the West,” with paintings of scruffy men in brown cowboy hats who probably killed buffalo for fun and died of tuberculosis. These rugged men, packed in their plastic bag home, rubbed shoulders with technicolor postage of James Dean staring nonchalantly ahead with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, and Richard Nixon shaking hands with an aged Elvis Presley, surrounded by American flags and eagles. 

“I can take these,” I said quietly. I was 14 and could care less about stamp collecting, yet they felt important to preserve. I remember my uncle’s focus as he delicately cut out each individual stamp and glued it in its appropriate spot in his binders. That same stern face, focused on properly preserving his collection, could also stretch to fit goofy smiles and contort to punctuate absurd accents. He would try to get me interested in stamps that most people wouldn’t look twice at as they pressed them onto envelopes stuffed with letters to distant lovers, old friends, and maybe a pen pal or two. To most people, these intricate stamps disappeared into the gray background of their lives. 

It was during his deep immersion in the world of postage that the first warning signs began. It started as a pain in his calf that soon spread up to his thighs, and eventually prevented him from walking. He ignored the physical signs of calamity, not wanting to deal with the growing pain, allowing it to become the gray background of his own life. He was indignant at his siblings’ insistence that he go to a doctor, or even get health insurance. My family’s nagging only pushed him farther into apathy, along with my own whiny eight-year-old voice, which pestered him to stop smoking outside my family’s Passover Seder. He would always brush me off, saying something along the lines of “mind your own business.” 

Then, all of a sudden, it was too late. After he died, I sifted through the hundreds of stamps, with beautiful prints of colorful plants and birds, as well as cultural icons, glistening in glossy ink. They still seemed proud and dignified, but there was a cold loneliness hidden within them. I made sure to pay attention to the details in each one. The stamps demanded attention, a demand that was ignored by most, but not him. 

***

A stoic Lenin reclined in an armchair with an open book in his lap as he looked down at us from the top of Burt’s bookcase. His authoritative glare seemed to follow my sister and me as we decided what to take from the souvenirs, which ranged from a Russian doll of communist leaders to British tea cups and kitschy snow globes. He originally had plans to travel Europe after he graduated college, but canceled those plans when his father got sick. Eventually he got a job with the Virginia Food Stamp program in order to be close to his parents, and stayed in Virginia for most of his life. He was sent to Russia in 2002, ten years before he died. It was there that he gained a fascination for Russian culture, which was reflected through the stacks of books on Russian history and the many Soviet knick-knacks, which filled bookshelves and end tables. To Burt, there was no such thing as dipping his toe into a subject. If something sparked his interest, it became his life’s devotion. 

“It was a CIA- and State Department-run program to help the post-Soviet Russian government create a food stamp system so that people wouldn’t starve to death,” my dad said on the phone. He punctuated this with his signature nervous laugh, which was always reserved for awkward silences. Burt spent most of his time traveling to Russia for business and stayed in his sister Phyllis’ basement over the summer. It was those summers where our stories overlapped. 

I also often spent my summers at my aunt Phyllis’s house. I was too scared to go to sleep away camp so my parents would send me away to various family member’s homes just to get me out of the house. Phyllis’ gaudy “McMansion” always smelled like cleaning supplies, pastrami sandwiches, and noodle kugel. There were many activities at her makeshift camp: playing with my cousins’ dog Colby, (whose uncontrollable slobber would soak the shirt of anyone he came in contact with,) swimming in the pool in her backyard, and, my favorite, joking around with my uncle Burt. With him I had the unique opportunity to spend time with someone who didn’t talk down to me. In between flinging me into the pool and making jokes about my aunts’ oversized handbag and large pink hair curlers, he would give me small insights into his mysterious world. I remember him towering over me as I sat restlessly on the floor by his legs. 

Chto ty khochesh’ delat’?” He said in Russian. He sat across from me in his sister’s living room. The room was ornately decorated with her own collection of items. Clown figurines were placed carefully on shelves next to colorful 1920s-style Barnum and Bailey posters with elephants and acrobats. My aunt Phyllis cherished these items, though they often scared my sister, who feared clowns. 

“It means what do you want to do?” 

I repeated it slowly “Shto-tee hoe-chesh di-el-et.” 

Net.” 

“Ni-et.” 

“That means no.” 

Suka.” 

“Su-ka.” 

“That’s a bad word you call someone if you’re angry.” 

“What does it mean?” I asked with 10-year-old amazement. 

“I can’t tell you.” 

“Please tell me.” 

“I’ll tell you when you’re older.” He changed the subject by making up a song about all the things in my aunt’s purse, which included spilled mayo and a swarm of ants. 

He continued moving back and forth between my aunt’s house and Moscow for five years before his leg pain got more severe. His narrowing arteries were left untreated, causing the infection to spread. They waited to treat him because he didn’t have health insurance, pushing him aside once he finally made it to the hospital. The only option left was amputation.

“Can you give me a hand?” He paused for a moment as he rolled through his sister’s kitchen in his wheelchair. It had only been a few months since he left the hospital and he still sometimes felt phantom pains in the space where his leg used to be. “Actually, I could really use a leg.” He said with a straight face. I laughed uncomfortably even though I felt like I shouldn’t. He was not averse to jokes that made everyone uncomfortable. Phyllis laughed loudly, used to his dark humor by now. She always laughed at his jokes. He used to say that she escaped from the “asylum for the easily amused.” 

I was going through my awkward preteen phase and felt tense every time I had to hold a conversation with him. His jokes seemed less funny then, and I prefered to do teenage things like listen to music on my iPod and text my friends as an excuse to not engage in the agony of social interaction. I should spend more time with uncle Burt, I remember thinking as we drove out of Baltimore after visiting his new apartment for the first time. Next time I see him it will be different. I didn’t want it to be awkward. I could sense that he was disappearing into the background of our lives. Despite this, I kept hoping that things would change, that our relationship would grow. But I never got the chance. 

***

It was my older sister who found them, tucked away in his bedroom. I never saw them, but heard about them second hand. They were classy photos, in black and white, of naked men in cowboy hats, boots, and nothing else. They draped their muscular bodies across each other in artful poses. 

“That doesn’t necessarily mean he was gay,” Phyllis said, trembling slightly. “If he was, he would have told me.” Tears began to collect in her eyes. Her metal bracelets clattered as she wiped the moisture away. She usually had a strong, put-together demeanor that never slipped. She always knew what was right and wasn’t afraid to disagree with colleagues, doctors, or experts of any sort. I had never heard her voice tremble before. 

“Would Grandma have been mad if uncle Burt came out to her?” I asked my dad, six years after they had both passed away. I had always assumed that it was because of the shame that my grandma might have placed on him that he never came out. From my perspective she was a woman of traditional values. She was a Hebrew teacher for most of her life and was very active in her synagogue. My dad was silent for a moment as we sat together at a midtown restaurant. 

“I don’t know,” he said. “I think she would have been okay with it.” 

This was not the answer I expected. I wanted a concrete reason he had kept this hidden his whole life. He never married, never had kids. Why did he never tell my aunt or my dad? They both would have been open and accepting. Why did he live his whole life alone? There had to be a reason. There had to be someone to blame. It was only two years after I had come out to my mom as she helped me move into my freshman dorm. It had taken months for me to muster the courage, but afterward, I regretted not doing it sooner. It’s possible that maybe he could never even admit it to himself. Maybe his internalized shame was so deep that it lasted his whole life. 

“He ran away from school and hitchhiked to New York,” my dad said, interrupting my train of thought. I now imagined him, young and scared, traveling to a new city. What was his life like? Was he happy there? Was he alone there, too? 

He left school without telling anyone. I imagined my grandma’s face as she paced in her small duplex, phone pressed against her ear, pushing up her cat-eyed glasses as anger and fear began to rise from somewhere in her stomach. I could see my dad as a young teenager, with his curly brown hair, which would eventually spread out into a Jew ’fro. I imagined him playing football with the neighborhood boys, oblivious to what was going on until he entered the house and felt the stress emanating from Grandma. 

The waiter brought us our food and the check. My dad’s round face and graying short hairs were beginning to look strikingly similar to Burt’s. 

“Eventually, he got a job and an apartment for himself. I went up to visit him a few times. He really didn’t have any money then. He would steal silverware and condiments from the diner down the street. Yet he still saved up enough money to take me to a Broadway play while I was visiting.” 

My dad smirked as he told me this anecdote. He had always loved musical theater and would sing show tunes with me and my sister when we were younger, but it was his older brother Burt who originally showed him Broadway. 

“He used to say that it didn’t matter whether you had money or not, the theater was too important not to go.” 

As my dad talked, some of the lost pieces began to form back together. I could now picture Burt’s young smiling face as he watched the lights on the stage. Remaining questions, however, still swirled in my head. Did he find what he was looking for in New York? Was he even looking for anything? The images of gay men in the magazines and magnets that were hidden in his apartment floated above these questions like a threatening dark-gray storm cloud about to burst. But rather than rain, the gray clouds thinned out and spread across the horizon. There was no cathartic release, only endless gray skies. 

***

How early did he know he was attracted to men? I knew since the seventh grade, around the time when Justin Bieber transitioned from sweet teen heartthrob to bad boy. I watched the “Boyfriend” music video on repeat that year. Even though I grew up in a liberal suburb in New Jersey I still kept those feelings hidden in the dark back rooms of my brain, sheltered by the clutter of everyday life. It wasn’t until later, when those feelings grew even stronger, that I decided to open the blinds. I didn’t want someone to discover the truth by searching through my collection of artifacts after I died. I remember the anxiety and fear that pushed me to keep myself hidden. I couldn’t imagine having those same feelings in Virginia in the ’60s. It made sense that he wouldn’t come out, but the truth is that I don’t know what Burt went through. I wanted to believe that maybe he lived freely for that brief time in New York. Maybe he wasn’t alone. Was he ever able to be honest about himself to anyone? I wanted so badly to know about this side of his life. I hoped that maybe a close friend or old lover that we never knew about would try and get in contact with us and all of my questions would be answered, but there has only ever been silence.