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Uncle Buddy: A diamond in the rough

“Reach into my jacket pocket,” Uncle Buddy would say. And my tiny hand would plunge into the scratchy wool pocket of his expensive suit coat, searching for a treasure.

“Poke my liver, right here,” he would say. And I’d press my little fingers into his solar plexus, feeling his rock-hard, cirrhotic liver.

Uncle Buddy was known as the black sheep in my father’s family, the oldest and most problematic of the three scruffy boys. While my father had been the pampered baby-his mother still dressing him in pinafores and long curls until he started school-and the middle brother was a sad-faced stutterer who fled home at after junior high, Uncle Buddy, the oldest, seemed to have been born with a larger-than-life panache. So when people called him a black sheep, they said it with a certain degree of admiration.

Buddy was reckless, a junior member of the local Irish mafia, a glad-hander who was everybody’s “buddy,” even as a teen. He had forged his own driver’s license at 13, and driven from LaSalle to Chicago in an old, junked jalopy he’d hotwired at the town dump.

He had a blocky head full of tight, Irish curls, and he was tall-at least 8 feet tall, it seemed to me, but I was just a child back then. He towered over everyone, both in stature and in attitude.

Uncle Buddy was a genius who’d dropped out of sixth grade, a man who claimed to never really sleep-he would just sit and read for four hours every night, after which he was apparently ready to drink a cup of coffee and start his day.

I saw him infrequently because I spent most of my early years in hospitals, staring out at the bleak Chicago landscape, watching trucks come and go from the factory across the street. I dreamed of pushing open the fire escape door next to the window, so I could tiptoe out into the cold Chicago night and try to find my way home–but I was too weak to stand.

Whenever I was home, I got to overhear tales about Uncle Buddy’s adventures. He was a wheeler-dealer, although he might have also had a real job. No one could tell, because he had credentials for everything.

“If you’ve got a clipboard and the right look in your eye, you can walk into any damned building in the world,” he told my Dad. Just to back it up, Buddy also had a wad of stolen or forged ID cards in the pocket of his 1950s, wide-shouldered suit jacket.

I remember the Christmas he showed up at my grandmother’s house smelling of Irish whiskey and handing out $50 bills, proudly asking people to appreciate his diseased liver. I had to reach up over my head with my little fingers, but I wanted to feel it, too. It didn’t surprise me. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that all his internal organs were made of concrete.

Later that day, he told me to reach into his jacket pocket. Sometimes there was a piece of candy in there, sometimes a quarter. This day, I pulled out a huge diamond. It was made of glass, of course, but its stunning size–it barely fit in my fist!–made it more valuable to me than a real gem would have been. He let me admire the diamond for a while, holding it up to the light coming through my grandmother’s bay windows, and then told me to pass it to my shy, older sister. We exchanged jealous looks. Was it our diamond to keep? Hers or mine?

In fact, Uncle Buddy ended up handing the giant faux gem to his own daughter, who barely seemed impressed. She was a little older than my sister and I, and more familiar with her father’s shenanigans. He bought her a life-sized taxidermy rocking horse once, a huge, creepy thing with glass eyes. It took up most of the only bedroom in their tiny, third-floor apartment. Uncle Buddy was great with larger-than-life gestures. But he wasn’t the kind of dad who showed up for graduations or helped his family pay the rent.

The stories about Uncle Buddy got wilder as the years went by. Some people told his wife, the long-suffering but glamorous Dorothy, that Buddy had another wife and child somewhere. We could all see how that was possible, what with his long periods of time out of town and his alternate identities. Then we heard that he had been shot, and had refused medical treatment, choosing instead to hole up in one of those no-tell motels on Mannheim Road with a gangrenous leg and his cement liver.

And then we learned that he was dead. It seemed hardly possible that this huge, charismatic man was gone, but he was. He lay in his casket seeming to smirk, his ruddy cheeks gone gray and white, made entirely of stone now. He had lived under so many identities that the little marquee out in the funeral parlor hallway had him listed as four different people. Two of his other wives collided with poor Aunt Dorothy in the front row. I was still too young to grasp the importance of their angry shrieks.

My father inherited Uncle Buddy’s estate, a strange collection of jewelry and pistols, playing cards, a matador’s cape, and some Italian suits with giant shoulders. My father sawed the guns apart and dumped the pieces into a secret space behind a bricked-up fireplace in his old Chicago apartment, on the day he moved out. Who knew what those guns had done, whom they might have killed? The brick apartment building still stands on the same corner, so the gun pieces are probably still in the walls.

One of the items in Uncle Buddy’s jewelry collection was an engagement ring. Family folklore was that he’d smuggled it back from overseas after World War II, intending to give it to his bride. He evidently never gave it to any of his brides. When his only child was born, he promised to give it to her–but he never lived to see her come of age.

Instead, my father gave the ring to me in the early 1980s, because I was engaged to marry a rock musician who was too poor to buy me a diamond. The ring seemed ostentatious, but I wore it to my job as a doctor’s receptionist anyway. Patients who noticed it undoubtedly thought it was fake.

Then, one day, my cousin walked into the doctor’s office. I hadn’t seen her in almost 20 years. This was the little girl with the life-sized rocking horse, only now she was grown up and wearing my face. It was eerie to see someone who looked so much like me, eerie for both of us. We stared at each other for a moment. And then she said, “Give me the goddamned ring.”

I hesitated, of course. I didn’t remember her as being that tough. Maybe she’d been practicing on the drive over. However, she had me dead to rights, and I was at work, and there were patients in the waiting room. “It’s the only thing I’ll ever get from that bastard,” she said.

I pulled the ring off my finger and handed it over the doctor’s counter, and she snatched it a little too hastily and slid it onto her own ring finger. It was a perfect fit, of course. We had identical hands.

Actually, I didn’t feel too bad about losing the ring. I had gotten something from Uncle Buddy that nobody could take back: a memory I would never forget.

It was just after my fourth birthday, and I had been in the hospital for three months. Doctors had told my mother I would probably die. I didn’t know what dying meant, but if it would get me out of the hospital, I was ready for it. Gifts from my family lay at the foot of my hospital bed, unopened, among the new picture books and sad, deflating balloons.

That night, I heard a man arguing with the nurses outside my room. He said he was a specialist from out of town, and he needed to see me right away. A giant silhouette appeared in the doorway. It was Uncle Buddy, wearing a doctor’s white jacket and carrying a clipboard.

Maybe he’d just wanted to see if he could get away impersonating a doctor. He sat next to my bed for an hour that night, reading to me from my picture books. He said he could tell I was smart, like my father. He said I wasn’t going to die–that I was going to grow up and be a smart gal. Coming from this giant of a man, about whom everything and nothing was real, those words felt rock-solid and true.

When I told my parents the next day, they smiled at my imaginative tale. Uncle Buddy hadn’t been seen for weeks, they said. But I knew what I’d seen. I could remember what he’d said and the reassuring bulk of his presence, sitting in the chair next to my hospital bed. I can remember it even now.

One detail of this memory has convinced me that it wasn’t a fever dream. It made no sense to me at the time–but when Uncle Buddy left my hospital room that winter morning, just before dawn, he didn’t check out with the nurses. He didn’t walk away down the hall, like my other doctors.

He went out through the fire escape door.

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