Uncle Emerson was not really our uncle but the neighbor who knew my mother back since they were kids in school. His farm was just down the road from ours, and he always plowed us out after new snow, and once he saved a calf of ours that got itself birthed into the Bear River. We knew him since we couldn’t remember when, but none of us knew how he lost his eye until Maxie Adeline asked him flat out the summer we picked berries for him.
May was a month of rain that melted off the rest of the snow in the Bear Lake valley. Maxie and I were both taking Driver’s Ed after school so we could get our day permits, and on the Friday before Memorial Day, my mother was late picking us up after class. We waited under the stoop of the closed-up school and shared a bottle of Coca Cola until the brown Cutlass station wagon pulled up. We squished into the front since the back seat was filled with fresh-cut lilacs to take to Montpelier and the family graves: Papa Hollister, my brothers Hyrum and Josiah, the Aunts May and Francella, great-grandpa Ross and both of his Mormon wives, Elma and Grace — one on each side of him. Ma said every grave had a story, sometimes two.
Maxie didn’t have a jacket, so we held mine over our heads with the box of flowers between us, slogging to the graves through last year’s dead grass. Rain clung to the lilacs, bending the green stems. Ma lashed them together with baling twine to make little shocks of purple blossoms to lean against the headstones.
Then there was Uncle Emerson in his best boots with a pot of store-bought mums wrapped in green foil. A black leather patch covered his missing eye.
He nodded to my mother. “Hazel.” He touched his fingers to the wide brim of his hat. “Miss Rachel. Miss Maxie.”
He asked if we wanted to pick for him this year. I said yes, and he said didn’t I have a younger brother, and I said I’d bring him. Uncle Emerson nodded and went on alone to the other side of the cemetery.
Ma clucked her tongue against her teeth. “Such a shame. So much tragedy.”
What tragedy it was, I could only imagine. My mother had been a farm girl her whole life and had seen her share. My oldest brother Hyrum got himself killed his first week out in Vietnam. I was too young to remember, but I was twelve when my next brother, Josiah, drowned after his tractor trailer rolled into the Snake River along the Palisades. That left me and my little brother Gabe. Such a burden on a mother didn’t leave much room for tenderness. Yet Uncle Emerson moved her. I tried to imagine something both shameful and tragic, which made the possibilities all the more thrilling. For weeks afterward, Maxie and I speculated dramatically about Uncle Emerson: lost lovers, runaway bride, a fated love triangle — as tragic as our fourteen-year-old imaginations could fathom.
Maxie already had her own real-life tragedy. Her mother had run off with the Craftsman Tool rep who used to drive a company van farm to farm. Now when Maxie’s dad gets drunk, he says he sure does miss that Craftsman guy. Ever since, my Ma made sure Maxie had enough clothes and socks for school each year, even tampons after we both got our periods the same week in the 7th grade. But as long as we’d been best friends, Maxie never talked about her mother. Not once.
Early berries came on fast in June, and Uncle Emerson called us for the first picking. Later we’d work alongside full crews of ten or twelve high-school kids, but in the beginning, it was just the three of us—Maxie, Gabe, and me. My brother was a grade back, and we lorded it over him. When we got to drive the truck between fields, we made Gabe ride in the back. Made him carry our berry buckets and bring us water. If it was me, Gabe argued, but for Maxie, he did every single thing she asked. When she wasn’t around, I called him Beck-and-Call until he blushed or punched me. Or both.
Picking was cold and hard. The pre-dawn dew soaked our boots and jeans. We worked in long sleeves against the cold and to protect our skin as we reached through the thorns. On the first day, Maxie showed up without a long-sleeved shirt, and Uncle Emerson made her wear one of his. He showed us how to cover our hair with bandanas and cut the tips off our gloves — index finger and thumb — so we could feel the berries for ripeness.
There was a rhythm to picking. Our buckets swayed with the reach and give, catch of thorns, and the swish and pop of cane. The morning sun dappled the dark corrugated leaves, and we lifted them like private skirts to uncover the deep cluster of red berries.
Uncle Emerson weighed our pickings on scales set on a sawhorse table at the end of the field. He tracked our numbers in a ledger and paid us out each day for the day before. The berries were measured into green plastic cups and loaded onto flats for delivery to the fruit stands. On a heavy day, if our rhythm was good, we’d pick enough to make quota before the rising sun hit the crest of Meade Peak.
It was one of those mornings Maxie asked him about his eye. The sun was spreading, warm enough to burn off the chill and start the grass to dry. Gabe had taken off his long sleeves and was stretched out like a sunbather next to the irrigation canal. Maxie sat on her sweatshirt. She picked grass and threw it at Gabe. He put a piece in his mouth and twirled it in his teeth.
Maxie let down her hair, rolled her sleeves, and stretched her bare arms.
“Uncle Emerson, tell us what happened to your eye.”
I gave Maxie a look like I-can’t-believe-you-asked-him, but she just raised one shoulder.
Uncle Emerson was smoking a cigarette out by his truck. A magpie screeched from the water wheel over the canal. Uncle Emerson leaned back on the dropped-down tailgate.
“It’s kind of a long story,” he said.
Maxie turned quick, and even Gabe rolled up on his elbow. I slid down the curve of the knoll to the edge of the berry field and sucked in my breath.
Uncle Emerson lit a new cigarette off the butt of the old one. “I was just turned eighteen, and there was this bar fight over in Soda, where a man gets killed. I don’t have any recollection of it, but people say I killed him. I was drinking so I couldn’t remember coming or going. But there were witnesses and such.” He pulled his hat down to the top of the black eye patch.
“The judge sentenced me to life,” he said. “So off I went. I wasn’t even graduated from high school.”
He pointed his cigarette at Maxie. “But that’s not where I lost the eye. That’s just the beginning of the story.”
“They sent me up to IMSI, maximum security over to Boise. My mama visited every weekend. You should have known her. She was born on this farm and raised right. My daddy, he left us when I was a baby, so we didn’t have anyone but each other.
“She said my daddy was a drinker, same as me, and nothing good ever came of it. It had to be hard on her, me going to prison and all. She said she would pray for me every day. And I guess she did.
“Prison was nothing like I knew before. It’s a different set of rules. I did what it took to survive. Learned where to go and who to know. Sometimes I had to fight, but I didn’t mind.
“If you knew people, you could get them to bring things in for us. Drink. Other things. Those people who brought things in, they did it for love. Or responsibility. Love is best. If you can get someone to love you, you can get anything. I only had my mama. She loved me, but the most she ever brought in was the Holy Bible.
“One time we were waiting for someone’s wife or girlfriend to bring in some smoke, and this batch of heroin came instead. That was something. I did it up and felt like I could breathe again. I guess I’d been wound pretty tight. But heroin, that was something.”
Heroin. The word sent a shimmy down my back. It was as exotic as Persian or subway. I tried to catch Maxie’s eye, but she was leaned forward — mesmerized. Even Gabe was staring, mouth open. I hugged my knees.
“After fifteen years, they start evaluating me for release. Every year there’s a hearing. My mama came and listened to them say how many fights I been in, heard my psychological testing read out, along with all my violations. When they asked her if she had anything to say, she’d say she knew I had a good life in me. Every year, the same thing.
“After eighteen years, they moved me from maximum to minimum. I didn’t know anyone, so I was sick as the dope came out of me. The withdrawals make your insides turn right out. And a cold, hard aching down in the center of your bones.
“After a time, I started to feel better. ICC had something new called Vocational-Rehab, so I took some tests and trained to be a bricklayer. What with all the fighting, I was strong. I could sure sling some brick.
“Then one year, there’s a hearing, and my mama doesn’t show up. It’s the first one she’s ever missed, and they grant my release. Two weeks later, I’m out. They give me $440 left from my government check and a phone number for a job. I’m out after twenty years, all said and done. I get to my mama’s house, and she’s sick with the cancer. Two weeks later, she passed.”
I heard Maxie gasp. Uncle Emerson’s lighter clicked behind his cupped hand. At the end of the lane, a row of cottonwoods grew alongside the farmhouse. The breeze shifted, and a wave of cotton lifted off the trees in a flurry of white that broke over the house like snow.
“So that was something,” he said, his voice strained.
None of us moved. We’d never heard such a story before.
Uncle Emerson re-crossed his legs and cleared his throat, and I realized with a pang that he was crying. I opened my eyes wide so my own tears wouldn’t fall out, and when they did, I tried to wipe my face on my shoulder so Gabe wouldn’t see. Except he was doing the same thing. Only Maxie was dry-eyed and watching Uncle Emerson like nothing else.
The raspberry cane rustled like rising quail. Or rain. Uncle Emerson leaned his arm on the truck. He could have sent us home, and we wouldn’t have faulted him. It was more than we’d ever expected, him turned out and crying. But he cleared his throat, spit, and went on.
“I had a little money, so I post-dated a check for my mama’s funeral. Best service. Flowers. Casket. Headstone. She had a plot up to Montpelier with her folks, both of them long gone. I was all she had. She left me the farm, but I was drinking so I couldn’t tell my head from a hole in the ground. When it came time that check was due, I didn’t have the money.”
He dug the toe of his boot into the dirt and flipped a rock into the canal where it landed with a floop.
“My mama used to say, ‘Hope leads a hero’s journey; despair a fool’s errand.’ And I weren’t no hero. I figured sure as the sun coming up, nothing could ever get better. That’s what I thought.
“I made a plan to rob the bank over in Preston. Back then, there was an Idaho First down on Main. I’d learned all about robbing banks in prison. My buddies told me how to talk to the teller. How to find the ink bomb and where to find the big money down under the counter.
“I took a gun. Not to use — just to scare folks. It was strapped up under my arm.” He pointed. “My plan worked up until I got shot.”
The truck creaked as he stood up off the tailgate, and his words came faster.
“See, there’s this marble counter where the teller is.” He smoothed the air in front of him as if it was a big, flat surface. “The teller’s all hunkered down, crying.” He waved out over the field. “Everyone else is on the floor. I tell the girl, ‘It’s alright, darlin’. I ain’t going to hurt no one.’ I remember I sure wished she would stop crying, and over to one side, this man leans over the counter.”
He makes a gun with his hand.
“Shoots me. Bam!”
I yelped before I could help it, and slapped both hands over my mouth. Uncle Emerson pushed his hat back and squinted his good eye at me, then up at the sky. I held my breath.
“I’m looking straight up at the ceiling,” he said. “White plaster flowers all around, and a gold light in the middle on a gold chain. I can tell there’s blood coming out of my mouth. It’s on my face. And I can’t breathe.” He touched the center of his chest. “Feels like something big is holding me down. And I can’t feel my legs.”
He took a long drag on his cigarette and breathed out blue smoke.
“They say your life flashes before your eyes. But it was more like I was standing over the top of that old house, looking in.”
“I see everything. My mama. Me as a boy. And in that moment, all of it felt important. Every little thing. My red wagon in the yard. The way my grandfather built that house with his own hands. My grandmother’s teacups from Scotland. The Bible with our genealogy inside the front cover. My muck-boots on the porch. All of it meant something. From my mama’s prayers to the way the sun falls on the threshold.
“The feeling became a kindness, and it made me grateful for my life, maybe for the first time.”
A grasshopper burst up from the cane with a buzzing clack of wings. Uncle Emerson watched it fly all crazy across the canal and land in a curved swale of grass.
“Ease is what flows through me then. A big rush of ease. But soft. Like how the wind can turn, and you smell lilacs you didn’t know were there. They were always there. Waiting for you to notice.
“The weight on my chest is gone, and I’m still looking down. Only now I see myself on the floor of the bank, blood all over. There’s folks all around me. My gun is on the floor by my boot, and a bag of money is spilled out on the other side. Everything is quiet.
“When I wake up in the hospital, they tell me I died three times on the table. Three.” He laughed. “That’s my lucky number.
“The police officer who shot me was off-duty. He saw me through the window, came in, and shot me. Once through the chest. Once in the head. Collapsed my right lung. Shattered my cheekbone. They took my eye to save my life.
“After a month in the hospital, I was back at IMSI. I did eight more years. Two for bank robbery.” He held his fingers in a vee. “Attempted. By the time I got out, I was too old to lay brick, so I came here. Only everything was different.”
Uncle Emerson stamped out his cigarette on the bed of the truck. “Ain’t it something? Who’d have thought it would be like this? You. Me. This day. The sun.”
He flicked the butt to the edge of the berry field where it fell in with chunks of dirt and field stones. “Anyway, you kids best be off. Day’s a wastin’.”
He slid the raspberry flats into the truck and slammed the tailgate. We were kicking rocks in the road when he drove past us toward Garden City. His hand raised out the truck window. We waved back.
Maxie held her sweatshirt tight to her chest. Gabe skittered a rock in front of her, and she stepped over it. I held my hand over the tall grass heads, feeling the seeds flutter against my palm. I didn’t have the words, but I knew what made my mother’s eyes soft for Uncle Emerson. He’d gone further away than any of us, to places as dark and tragic as anything in real life and came back with goodness still in him.
“No one will believe us,” I said. If we hadn’t heard it ourselves, we wouldn’t believe it.
“Who cares?” Gabe said.
“It’s like he was two people.” I wanted to figure it out. “Two different people. Like he got two different lives.”
Maxie shook her hair across her shoulders. “I hope I get that.”
Gabe shoved her so she staggered a little sideways. “What?” he said. “Hope you get to kill someone?”
Maxie kicked a small, flat stone up the road. She watched it skip off into the dark earth of a fresh-tilled field. “No, stupid. Something different.”
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