Madness runs as deep as the marrow in the Tate family. I just didn’t realize how far until recently.
It’s not that we’re criminally insane. That’s a bit nutty, thank you very much. We are simply eccentrics. No murderers, no slaughterers, no marrying one’s daughters. We’ve made a list of the weirdos still alive. Family reunions are out of the question. While we’re good-hearted people, it doesn’t mean one of us won’t come up with a reason to bring ammo to the party.
When you don’t trust each other’s mindsets, you don’t meet up for holidays.
My uncle Angus came to see me last Spring. I suppose I should explain the age thing here. My family is so big, my uncle is actually two years younger than me. The Tates don’t have a straight up family tree. It’s more like a family bush, with odd side lineage that branches off in frazzled, unhinged directions.
Angus is a short dude, sixteen-years-old, barrel-chested and short legs. He’s an angry fella who walks like he was shot out of a gun. I refer to him as Anus. He’s not really that big of an asshole, but you can’t throw away a great nickname like that.
We talked as we sat on the picnic table on my front yard. Early morning crickets were still trilling.
Angus said, “Guess what I got,” and waved a newspaper report. It was a copy, folded up. A big break-in at a gun shop up north. I read it and shrugged, “So, what’s the big deal, Anus?”
He slapped the paper right in front of me and actually bellowed, “Boo-yah.”
I said, “Again; What’s the big deal?”
“Well, Colon,” he said.
My name is actually Colin.
“This came in my mail yesterday from Uncle Dougie.”
Underneath, in Sharpee, were the words, “Angus and Colin. You got one more relative to see. Big big deal. Come and visit. Then it had Uncle Dougie’s signature.
He gave his phone number.
“Richfield County Sheriff’s Station,” the dispatcher said.
“Ummm. We’re looking for Dougie Tate.”
The dispatcher on the other end yelled out, “Dougie!”
I winced because he yelled right into my ear. I said, “You can’t put people on hold?”
The dispatcher said, “We still use rotary phones here up north.”
Uncle Dougie was a patrol officer on the mean streets of Degan, Wisconsin. Population of two-hundred people. And one Tate.
He picked up. “Got my note? Boys, I think you gotta drive up here.”
It was still morning, so we did. There were a lot of winding hills, beyond placid lakes, and every mile or so you could see a thatch of woods. A hunter’s paradise, I suppose. But we didn’t hear the sound of guns blamming in the woods as we drove by with our windows rolled down. Leaves twirled to the ground all around us. One even slid inside the car and gently tapped against Angus’s face. “Does this mean Mother Nature likes me?”
Maybe so, I thought.
Uncle Dougie was fifty-five years old. Never married. With the winters being so harsh, he almost never traveled to our part of the state. The summer holidays were out of the question too. He and the rest of the Sheriff’s Department were hunting down drunk drivers and speeders.
We arrived there four-and-a-half hours later. Largely because Angus and I often found speed limit signs to be more like helpful suggestions than iron clad rules.
Dougie lived on one of those wanna-be farms just outside the village limits. Smelled like dried old horse shit. There were some weird nomadic tribe of chickens that clucked and squawked together in circles. They seemed to steer clear of the house like there was some sort of invisible electric fence. They huddled together, maybe whispering conspiracies.
Angus said, “Oh my God, what did he do to the chickens to make them look that terrified?” He twirled his finger around his ear. “Uncle Dougie is nuts. Cuckoo, cuckoo.”
“That’s your brother, man. Stop calling him your uncle.”
“Feels more normal just to call him uncle. He was middle aged by the time I rode out of mom like a water slide.”
Dougie pulled up in his squad car, got out, and waved at us, then walked right past. “Stay there. Stay there. If I hug ya you’re going to sweat up my uniform. Good to see ya, shitheads. You’re gonna love this. Big BIG family secret.”
Angus groaned. “Staying out here is just going to make my eyebrows itchier.”
“That’s actually a problem? Really?” I quietly said, “Don’t wanna know. Let’s just get this over with.” It’s a phrase I muttered like a mantra through family reunions.
My mother always chided me. “You need patience, sweetie. Show others the patience they’ve shown you.”
The chickens were now around my feet, as if seeking political asylum.
Dougie’s kitchen is really just a counter in the living room. His lounge chair was only six feet from a stove. I said, “How are things?” Waiting for a spark to jump from kitchen appliance to where he was sitting. Foom! Burning the Lazy Boy chair in effigy.
He laughed more to himself than anyone. “Heh. The kid is asking how are things. You wanna know about things? Well, I got a big old thing upstairs. C’mon.”
Angus leaned against the front door. “Why are we here, Uncle Dougie?”
“Because, you don’t know everybody in the family, bro. He took a broom stick and banged it against the ceiling and hollered, “Do it now, T-man!”
The gunshot rattled the whole house, I heard glass shattering. Shards raining down onto the lawn outside.
“A guy just shot out your window,” Angus said, huddled.
Dougie said, “That’s okay. I never go upstairs anyways.”
I fumed, “Who the hell is doing the shooting? You’re a cop, Dougie. A cop!”
“That, my friend, is why you’re here.”
The stairs were just across the room. Of course we were going up them.
The carpet was ratty and pungent as we hurried up the stairs. Aged cat shit nearly everywhere. Enough to make my eyes water. Puke too. First Uncle Dougie, me, Angus. We stepped on shards of glass as we worked our way down the checker-tiled hall. This wasn’t the first window he had shot out.
Dougie hollered out, “Tenny, don’t fire okay? I got the boys here. You’ll like them, they’re true blue Tates just like us, big shooter.”
I grabbed Uncle Dougie’s arm. “He’s got a damn shotgun.”
Yanking his arm away, we turned into the third room on the right. There was something sitting on a simple-sheeted bed. “Ya see,” Uncle Dougie said, “He is the rifle.”
The man on the single bed mattress didn’t look at us at first. He was matted with white body hair on his chest and armpits. He had a cavernous belly button along with arms that had atrophied. When he rose his head, he smiled. And I noticed he didn’t have any eyeballs at all. In fact, they were perfectly round holes, like the twin barrels of a rifle. Burnt skin surrounded the openings. His neck and chin were covered in metal.
He looked at me and smiled. I could only tell this because his face was in my direction. Blackened gums. No teeth whatsoever. He appeared to actually see me, but I was clueless as to how.
His strained smile couldn’t hide that he was shivering, maybe jonesing for the small bag of shotgun shells in Uncle Dougie’s hands who said, “He used to live off real old ammo, but his body adapted. I feed him little parts of shells, maybe it got him ready to eat the ones we have now. It’s funny, man, but that’s how he survives. He eats and shoots lead bullets. Even more interesting, his body used to be able to produce the bullets themselves. ”
A moment hung in the air, then two. It took me about that long to accept that what we had here was a man with a shotgun inside of him. No joke. No makeup job.
Angus now stood shoulder to shoulder to me. “Okay, he said, I’m going to ask it. How do we know he’s a Tate too?”
Dougie stood up. “Well for one thing, there’s his name. Tennyson Tate. I call him Tenny.”
There was still the shattered window. Tenny gave it a nervous look. Like he didn’t remember breaking it in the first place, but still had the sense that he did something bad.
In an end table by his bed, he slid a drawer open and pulled out a handful of photos. Each inside a little lunch baggie, I’m assuming to preserve them the best way he could. Without comment, he gave them to me.
They were brown-colored, with a tinge of yellow. There were scowling couples, and families and children, making the past look like smiling hadn’t been invented yet. Finally, what I saw was a weak, scrawny man. His face looked gaunt. He literally had a sunken chest. His shirt not-quite hiding what looked like a body caving in on itself.
“So,” I said. “That’s you?”
“Yeah,” my new relative said. His voice like a whisper down a long lead pipe.
I could see the family resemblance. Our heavy, nearly connected brow, like a Cro-Magnon with sexy, pouty, rose bud lips. He somehow straddled the fence between passably handsome, and bat-to-the-nose ugliness.
A lot like me.
Dear God. This odd, odd man was family.
Dougie shooed Angus and I out of the room. “Come on boys, we need to talk.”
“Oh,” Tennyson said. Then added dreamingly, “Bye then.” I found his answers to be sort of lacking. Like when it came to his personality, there wasn’t a lot of there there. He sounded dim, more than likely he was senile.
He added, “I still have good hearing.”
“We’ll take our chances,” Dougie said.
We now stood about ten feet away from the door. Dougie looked around then spoke in terse whispers. Stabbing the air with his pointer finger, he said, “Look guys, I’m getting old. I’m going to be fifty-six soon. I’m starting to slow down. I can’t take care of him anymore.”
Angus said, “Mom still plays soccer with the grandkids. That’s after raising fourteen of us.”
“I’m not like mom, Angus. I’m a cop. All we do all day is—“
I sighed, waving him off. “–sit down. You do a lot of sitting down. I’ve seen plenty of cops.”
Angus reached up with his fingers and scratched his eyebrows. “Starting to hurt.”
I slapped his hand. “Just shut up.”
Dougie said, “I want you two to take ol’ Tenny home. I’ve had him for ten years. He brings me vegetables and food from other gardens. In turn, he sleeps up here, or in the shed with the lawnmowers. But he’s so high maintenance. I can’t keep stealing ammo from the local hardware store.”
“Why us?” I said. “Out of the entire family bush, why us?”
He said, “What are your plans, Colin. After high school? I talked to your mom, she says you don’t have any, and that you, my little bro Angus, will probably quit school before you’re even eighteen. Now, come on, right? You guys can do this.”
Angus said, “So you want us to be baby mamas?”
I whacked him in the head. “We’re too old for that. And if anything, its baby papas. Uncle Dougie, I have plans. I’m going to be a welder. So, I don’t have time for…”
Dougie looked at me with a half-cocked smile.
“Oh. You knew about the welding plans. I just gave you a big old opening.”
“Exactly. You’re the man for the job. He’s part metal.” He knocked on Tennyson’s neck. “You’re great for the job. Look, he needs to live in a city. Again, I’m running out of bullets here.”
“Tell you what,” I said. “Can we take him for a few days? We’ll call a family reunion together. Who cares if everyone can’t make it. We can introduce him. Talk about this situation. No one’s going to let us keep him. We’re too young.”
Angus said, “And stupid too.”
Tennyson was where we left him. Sitting on that nearly bare mattress. Not looking thrilled to see us, if anything, based on his brow, he was merely curious of where this was going. I was all ready to say yes to give Uncle Dougie some respite for a few days. It was no big deal to drive up here again.
He said, “Tenny doesn’t have the best of memory. But looking at the old pictures, I’d say he’s a great, great, great uncle.” He showed me a sheet of tag board with pencil scrawling. This is how he figured it out.
Tennyson picked up a bowl. Shotgun pellets coated in milk. “Breakfast,” he said. As if we didn’t know.
Then, he moaned, like a child would with a tummy ache. When Uncle Dougie reached to see what was wrong, Tenny cried out, “Gotta go. Gotta get out and go. Let me by.”
He shuffled out into the hallway. “Gotta gotta go.”
He slammed the bathroom door. Sat down, and shat what sounded like pellets into the toilet water.
Dougie said, “Take him for a week. If you have ideas as to who would want him. Then by all means, shop him around to the relatives.”
Angus asked me, “Explain to me why we’re even doing this.”
I said, “Because we’re probably gonna skip most of next week anyway.” It was fall break. Around Halloween time. That left us with a three-day school week. We go to different high schools, so no one will suspect that we’re in this together. We’ve skipped before. Three days won’t kill us.”
“Who made him?”
I said, “That’s a talk for another time. Let’s just take him home. I got sunglasses. A big run-down garage in the backyard he can sleep in. A bucket of .22 shells too. “
Shit, I thought. My eyebrows were hurting too.
Angus, to his credit, was very good in helping the old man down the stairs. Tennyson shrugged him off a bit, giving him a polite please-let-me-do-this gesture. All four of us stepped outside, the smack of Uncle Dougie’s front screen door behind us.
Then Dougie turned around, almost retreated back into the house. “Guys, the temperature has fallen to thirty-two degrees. I don’t want to get frozen out here okay? Good seeing you boys. Give Tenny a good time. Get him laid. Kidding about the laid part.” He went back inside. His screen door smacked shut.
It was very tempting to follow him back in. But, I could hear the Game Show Network cranked loud. You can’t appeal to his mind if all he’s thinking about are of reruns of Bob Barker talking about Showcase Showdowns.
Great Uncle Tennyson slid into the backseat of my car. He said, “Lots of blankets back here.”
“No heat.” I said, looking at him the rearview mirror. “It’s going to be a long ride home, get as cozy as you can, all right?”
“Ahhh. I lived in a cabin. We had a fireplace. You don’t really appreciate heat until you experience a northern Wisconsin cold. Winds come off that frozen lake like God backhanding you for a mighty smack.”
This was not the passive, sort of spacey old man from the house.
Angus stepped into the passenger side slowly, looking a bit amazed that Tennyson was actually rather chatty. “Everything okay?”
He closed the door and we backed out of the driveway. From the road we could see Dougie through a picture window. Him and the glow of the television set. The crunch of gravel under our wheels gave way to the smoothness of the interstate. It was a little unnerving knowing that the man behind us had a belly full of ammo, and two wide-eye barrels.
That’s when the two chickens popped up.
Like bowling balls with feathers. Shedding in my damn car. Tennyson waved the birds away. They were going at him full bore. I pulled to the side, but there just wasn’t any shoulder.
BAM! Tennyson fired at the chickens.
Now, I’m screaming, “Stop fucking shooting, man!”
The windshield is half off. The bullets ripped open part of my driver’s seat.
Angus said, “He’s not shooting, man. He’s sneezing.”
The chickens are doing a shuck and jive on Angus’s backrest.
Angus stayed in his seat, his head turned back. He was breathing hard. Almost hyperventilating now. His eyes sockets were empty, with the smell of bullets coming from them. He was the guy who fired the second time. The shot narrowly missed my great, great, great, whatever uncle. The chickens jumped out of my driver’s side window, surviving a foiled assassination attempt.
“Angus?” I yelled.
Still breathing like he was about to lose air.
Then trying to piss him off, I asked, “Anus?”
“Fuck you, Colon.” He was nearly breathless.
I said, “Did your body make those shells?”
“Damn good question.” He opened his mouth, and one mostly red and pink colored item fell out. A perfect shotgun shell but with skin and blood.
Tennyson began to clap. “Oh, that brings me back when I could do that.”
I said to Angus, “No way.”
Tennyson replied, “That’s what happens when young family members get too close to me. They lose their eyes too. They become what they are.” He cackled a bit. “Screwy old world.”
“What about Uncle Dougie?”
“He killed himself soon after we left. Just squeezed his eyes shut and fired. His head likely isn’t there anymore. Or maybe he didn’t do it.” The old man shrugged.
I reached to my own eyes. I tipped one out. Just a single orb, not all the rest of that junk that connects you to your brain and everything. I put my finger in the metallic hole, and removed it. My fingertip had a dollop of blood on my nail.
And how did I see those? My hair has a tiny eye at the end of each strand. Once I put each facial eye back in, my sight returned to its proper place on my face.
Both Angus and I agreed, “Fuck this.” We dropped Tennyson off. We didn’t give him back to Uncle Dougie.
“Thank you,” Tennyson rasped. He stepped outside, looking up at the tree branches. “You should probably know the truth. I’m not sure if I’m going back to him or not.” Off he ran, in a sprint that belied his years
We pulled away. There was a nearby town with a business that would replace both our back and front windows. I had enough on my MasterCard to pay it off. Two days later we were driving home knowing we had to call for a family reunion. Not one of those hey-look-how-you’ve-grown sort of deals. No, Angus and I knew what we had to do.
We would start with a demonstration, we’ll shoot clay pigeons out of the sky. Then a damn good explanation. I wished ourselves good luck on that one.
Steven Roisum’s unique stories come from a surgically placed bubbling cauldron between his ears. For almost twenty years, he worked as an award-winning public radio reporter, bringing concise, powerful, stories to a state-wide, and sometimes national audience. Steve is also a local storyteller who brings his own bone chilling tales on stage. Fueled by Diet Pepsi, he aptly travels from horror, humor, fantasy and speculative fiction.