My uncle Randy was a bookie, a good bookie, and an alcoholic. He and my dad Tom (Tommy as Randy calls him) grew up poor in southern California, the sons of Irish immigrants. As kids Randy was the winner. The football player, the charmer of young women, the devoted mechanic and drag racer. Tom was quiet. People couldn't tell just where he was and so they didn't trust him. But come high school graduation, my father had earned a scholarship to UCLA and Randy was already well into his salad days of a drinking career. By the time the younger moved on to medical school at Irvine the elder was making good money, driving a GTO, and getting fat. He'd take bets on greyhound races, horse races, boxing matches, even oddities like Groundhog Day, a white Christmas, an election. He was as meticulous as any actuary, always keeping a balanced book, always knowing the spread, never getting greedy. Thing is, all that caution and wisdom left him when he pulled back from the desk where he sat with two telephones, a television, a radio, and a million pamphlets and newspapers from all over the state. When he wasn't working, he found nothing which could compare to the taste of a cold pint of Hamm's on the lips, the rush of a shot of Old Overholt rye in the stomach, the bliss of ten Old Fashioneds rolling through his head.
They had gone to Catholic school and been raised quite strictly. Randy lost the faith, or rather, his faith snapped like a brittle rod. Tom transformed his faith, reformed it, it bent like a pliant reed. As a result, he maintained familiarity with those allegedly dead languages an orthodox upbringing affords its graduates. After he got his MD and had gone through his internship and residency and joined a small clinic in which to practice radiology, which was then still a very new field, he picked up the classics once again. He perfected his Greek, which had always suffered his previous devotion to Latin, and within a few years he could wander Aristotle and Horace, the Song of Solomon and Paul's Letter to the Romans with the same confidence. When he met my mother and fell in love, it was clear he had attained the foundations of a healthy life. The work, meaningful, merciful, and providing a generous paycheck. Also, scientific, engaged specifically with the objective world, or at least, with the nearest approximation we know of as such. The scholarship, the realm of letters, provided him access to that other plane, where history and religion are combined and rendered in a magical realm of infinite possibility. He maintained the beliefs of his ancestors and not only left the doors of his church open, but pulled them off the hinges, added skylights and floor to ceiling windows. His faith was now informed on two perhaps opposing sides. The side of modernity, as expressed in his devotion to modern medicine, and the side of antiquity, which sprang forth as he sat in the evening with tea and a volume of Hesiod or Lucretius.
My father would drink a beer a day. Sometimes he'd buy a six pack of some nice porter or stout, but usually he'd just get a case of whatever was cheapest, keep it in the cool garage, and ceremoniously retrieve one at a certain point of the night, when the sharp thinking of the day had passed and it was a time for abstraction and comfort, which are happy bedfellows, or so he found. Randy had a serious girlfriend, and they loved each other and got engaged, but she demanded he quit drinking. Finally they compromised: he would take after his little brother and drink one beer a day, much as I, once a steady smoker, now smoke only one cigarette, and that just before bed (need I mention it is a far more glorious cigarette than any of the myriad I lit before my reformation). He succeeded in this for exactly one week, and as soon as he lapsed she left him. That was when he got into working in Tijuana and Ensenada; cock fights, dog fights, bare knuckle, sometimes worse. There was more money in this line, but also more violence, and after a while, the latter eclipsed the former. He was so cool, driving the coast road in a clean white undershirt and dark glasses, but the coolness had nowhere to go, it was all Achilles' heel, and maybe that's what always made Randy so slick in my eyes, the tragedy.
Tom raised my sister and me, saw us both off to college, took up opera and Nordic skiing. Randy got a rottweiler and started on cocaine, then crack, and in the nineties, by the looks of his skin and teeth, methamphetamine. My parents got a cabin by a river in the woods and Randy got sick, lost the use of legs, quit driving the GTO and walking the dog, who shit on the floor. The same year I got accepted to Harvard Divinity he could no longer live alone and moved to an assisted living community in East Los Angeles. And he'd always talked about living in West Hollywood "someday." My parents agreed to adopt the dog, as Randy couldn't take it with him. His pantry contained nothing but canned food. The dog seemed afraid to step outside. I had been visiting friends from college in Venice Beach and so my parents picked me up in their Prius and we drove over to say goodbye to Randy before heading north. The place was decent, at least it met the Hemingway standard, it was clean, well-lighted. We chatted for a while. It came out that Randy's savings were basically gone. How could that be, my mother asked. Randy was evasive, but it was clear he was still using, still drinking, but now his money was really gone, he could no longer work, it seemed like the end of the line of his lifestyle. Aren't you going to take me out to lunch, he asked. Buy me a beer. Just one beer, I just want one beer. Before we arrived, in the car on the way over, Tom had decided aloud and promised to himself he wouldn't give Randy any money, let alone buy him a drink. When it became clear we weren't going to take him out, he put the mack on us for some cash. Come on Tommy, kid brother, gimmie a hundred bucks, I'm short Tommy, I'm real short. Sorry Randy. What, you can't do it? I could, but I won't. Why not? You know why. Tommy. Twenty bucks. That's all. Tommy.
We said our goodbyes through his pleas and walked down the fluorescent hallway and out the swinging doors. He followed us in his wheelchair, begging, pitiful. But we didn't look back. As he followed us through the courtyard the guard buzzed us through the front gate and it closed on Randy. He sat there looking after us like a dog watches its owner disappearing, knowing there is nothing it can do to bring its owner back but still unable to stop yearning, unable to look away. We got in the car and fastened our seat belts. Nobody said anything. To get out of the parking lot, we had no choice but to drive right past the front gate where Randy was waiting. My father drove. He didn't drive fast or slow, but drove just as he drove out of every other parking lot he'd ever parked in. As we passed Randy my mother and I waved and smiled. My father kept both hands on the wheel and turned to gave his brother a last look, neither happy nor sad, but uncomprehending, confused in a way I'd never really seen him look. Randy's eyes were wide, and just as we crossed in front of him he said something, but our windows were still up, we couldn't hear. We entered the flow of traffic and I turned on the radio. Looking up, I saw tears running down my father's face.
So people talk about making it. "Down here it's just winners and losers and don't get caught on the wrong side of that line," as the Boss sings. People would say my dad made it and his brother never did. Randy's still down there. Evidently he watches sports all day, every day, on television, and does so with some semblance of concentration, and of the joy usually produced thereafter. But what did he do for the world? He didn't have children, but what's that really? There are too many children already. He won't leave behind any great work of art, but neither will my father and the likelihood is, neither will I. What makes my father's work as a radiologist so much more valuable than Randy's work as a bookie? Who knows, he might have meant the world to that woman he was going to marry. She might have carried the strength of their connection with her the rest of her life. And have you been to the races? Have you ever bet on Stop and Smell the Roses and witnessed her come from behind to cross the finish line less than a length ahead of the heavily favored Puritan Baker? That's a beautiful thing. Even the Greeks and the Romans loved to bet. They must have had bookies, just as they had doctors, or priests. Maybe it isn't even possible not to make it. Maybe, as Mission Control told the Apollo 13 astronauts, "failure is not an option." I often wonder what would constitute not making it for me. Every day I fail in many ways, some of them within my control, some of them outside it (if that line can be drawn at all). Everybody dies. Maybe nobody makes it. Anyway, there are many ways to be human. I take comfort in that. I hope Uncle Randy does too.
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