8 minute read

Paula Sophia Schonauer, LCSW, continues a serial memoir. If you haven’t read the earlier parts of this series, follow the links at the bottom of this page.

Uncle Jim, Mom’s beloved brother, was an alcoholic, a drug addict, a petty thief, a rapist, and, perhaps, a murder victim. When his friends found him unresponsive in a vacant house they had been squatting in during the winter of 1987, Jim had a bullet wound in his gut and was freezing to death. They called 911, and an ambulance rushed him to Akron City Hospital where he died a brief time later. An autopsy revealed he had pneumonia in both lungs, cirrhosis of the liver, and jaundice. The official cause of death: cirrhosis of the liver brought on by a combination of excessive alcohol consumption and hepatitis C. An ignoble end but an entirely predictable one. 

In addition to forcing me to wear a dress when I was very young, Uncle Jim teased me for years on end, calling me a “sissy” and “Paulette” as well as a barrage of slurs associated with sexual and gender minorities. Though Dad often expressed disapproval of Uncle Jim, calling him a “freeloader” and a “bum,” he never took up for me when Jim teased me. Nor did Mom. 

Mom and Jim had an allegiance born in childhood trauma, Jim being the only person who would stand up for her, a supposed “slow learner” and designated special education student. Because of this, Uncle Jim had a special dispensation of my mother’s grace, tolerance, and forgiveness, she never offered anybody else, even her children.

Paula Sophia
Paula Sophia (provided)

Uncle Jim was tall and lanky with thick brown hair. When I was young, he still slicked his hair back like a greaser from the 1950s, a pack of cigarettes rolled into the short sleeve of a white t-shirt. He drove a 1960 Chevrolet Impala, white with broad, flat tail fins, a nice car until he smashed it up when driving while drunk. I remember him knocking on our door one night, tire tracks on his black leather jacket. Apparently, he had fallen out of the car while it was moving and got run over by the rear wheel. The resultant injury gave him a concave chest, the very thing that disqualified him from military service during the Vietnam War. 

As the Sex, Drugs, and Rock-n-Roll culture took hold, Jim’s appearance changed from hood to hippy. His hair grew long, and he cultivated a thick mustache, resembling Rock musicians of the era. He listened to the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and the Kinks, a record collection I semi-inherited when he went to jail for several months during the mid-1970’s. Grandma was throwing his things away, including a box of record albums. I rescued them from the trash and never told anybody. Probably the only positive thing I got from Uncle Jim was his taste in music. 

By 1979, I was nearly as tall as Uncle Jim, but I was nowhere near as skinny as him. I was solid, healthier than he was, and I had learned how to box. Nevertheless, I still felt intimidated by him when he was present. He seemed slick, deceptive in the way he moved, languid in his perpetual state of inebriation. I sensed he could be ruthless if he had to be, and he understood this. I was forever the sissy in his eyes…

Bill had fallen asleep on my sister’s bean-bag chair, nestled in the vinyl folds like a motionless pink ocean. I stared at the television trying to discern the movie on the Star Channel, a plainclothes cop chasing a woman outside a stadium. She runs into a restroom to hide from the cop, but the cop runs after her, undaunted, and finds the woman holding a little girl by the chin with one hand, a gun in the other aimed at the girl’s head. The woman rips off her wig, revealing she is really a guy. I was intrigued, impressed at how feminine the cross dresser appeared even after the big reveal. Then, the cross dresser starts kicking the cop’s ass, displaying a remarkable prowess in martial arts. 

I heard a knock on the back kitchen door, then a thump. I was still a little drunk but not as much as I had been earlier in the evening. I wondered briefly if I had imagined the noises, tricked by the haunting presence I had always felt in that house, but then there was another loud noise, rattling windows, a venetian blind banging against a door. 

Someone was trying to break into the house!

If I had not been drinking, I may not have rushed into the kitchen as fast as I did, choosing to assess the situation before barging into danger. When I got to the back door, I saw a tall, dark man banging against the wood above the doorknob, trying to jimmy the lock, long hair concealing his face. Instead of fear, I felt anger, a righteous rage. I pushed against the door to keep it from opening. 

The man looked up, eyes meeting mine, and though it was semi dark, I saw the fear on his face. “Back off!” I yelled. “Get outta here!”

The fear on the man’s face drained away, replaced by a determined pout. “Let me in!”

When I heard his voice, I knew this man was Uncle Jim, and he was trying to break into the house, thinking nobody was home. We’d had other break-ins in the previous few months, someone who had been able to bypass the back door either by force or by picking the lock, the target, every time, being Mom’s prescription drugs, mostly Codeine and Darvocet. Though we had suspected Uncle Jim, we had never been able to prove it. Now, though, I knew it had been him, and this knowledge made me hate him even more. 

“You’re not coming in!” 

“You better let me in, or I’ll tell your Mom.”

Uncle Jim spoke of Mom in the present tense, like she was still alive. My curiosity overwhelmed my fury, and I relaxed a little. “You’ve seen Mom?”

“She’s in the hospital. She told me to come over and get her medications.”

I was so glad to know Mom was still alive, and for a moment, his explanation seemed plausible. Then it occurred to me, Mom was getting medications at the hospital, and if Jim had been sent to the house to get something for her, why was he trying to break in?

“You’re a goddamn liar!” 

I opened the door, but when Uncle Jim tried to rush inside, I pushed him back, surprised at how easy it was to move him. Emboldened, I stepped onto the small back porch, shoving him against the railing, and I watched as he flipped backwards, landing in the dirt a few feet below. He grunted, cussing as he stood on unsteady legs. He stumbled around to the stairs, climbed two steps, and found my right foot in his chest, kicking him back. He fell down the steps, tumbled over a short hill in the yard, and yelled at me, “Your Mom’s going to beat your ass!”

“Not before I beat yours!’

When he managed to get back on his feet, he took a step toward the stairs, stopped, and reconsidered. He groaned and mumbled, but I could not understand what he had said. He slouched in defeat, brushed the hair from his face, and sauntered away, blending with the night shadows as if he had been a phantom sent to disturb my sleep. 

Bill must have heard the commotion. Walking into the kitchen, he said, “What the hell?’

I felt a surge of adrenaline, startled by his sudden presence. “Someone tried to break into the house, but he’s gone.”

“Cool,” Bill said and turned around, zombie-walking in the dark back to the living room. 

I sat down, trembling, and relieved, Mom was alive.

Then I realized I had just kicked Uncle Jim’s ass. He was not scary, not anymore, but diminished in stature, even pathetic. I no longer feared him, and he would never tease me again. Those days were done!

As my triumph waned, steadiness returned to body and mind, and I felt shame for Uncle Jim’s reign of torment over the years. Surging with hatred and gratitude, I began to sob in the dark, regretting my experiment with alcohol, frightened by how good it made me feel earlier in the evening, worried it had poisoned me, awakening a craving I would not be able to quench. I understood if I drank again, I would turn into HIM, Uncle Jim, the man I hated more than any other. 

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Last Updated June 19, 2022, 8:33 AM by Brett Dickerson – Editor