My Uncle Leon was a mean man. My mother and grandparents referred to him as, “The Horse.” Later, after my aunt divorced him, she referred to him that way too. Uncle Leon didn’t believe in talking at the table and, if anyone dared break the silence, he’d snarl, “Dinner’s for eatin’, not talkin’.” He used to beat my cousin Lonnie savagely with a belt. My mother once interposed herself between him and Lonnie, declaring that no way she would let a man beat her children like that. To which he replied, “Well, no way I would have married you, so get out of the way!”
Uncle Leon had polio as a child and walked with a lurch all his life. This, according to my mother’s family, was what had made him mean – the struggle, the pain, the ensuing bitterness. I disagree. To be as mean as Uncle Leon, you had to be born that way. Maybe the fact that he’d grown up on an Oklahoma farm during the Dust Bowl had something to do with it. Maybe what was good about him got stirred up by the wind and blown away with the topsoil.
Uncle Leon kept a revolver in the glove compartment of his car at all times. He also made a practise of picking up hitchhikers. I’ve often wondered what he thought would happen if the hitchhiker made a sudden move towards him. Reach across and retrieve the gun from the glove compartment? How would that work exactly? Did he fantasize about picking up a hitchhiker on a lonesome country road and then shooting him or her, just for the Hell of it?
I said he was mean.
After my aunt divorced him, he remarried and became an Evangelical Christian – in other words, double trouble – not only mean, but righteous. My cousin Lonnie succumbed to lung cancer way too young, leaving instructions that he be cremated and his ashes divided in two – half to be scattered over the family farm and half over the Nascar Raceway – Lonnie was a mechanic who loved cars; people at the raceway had pitched in to help pay for his medical care and he was grateful. Shortly after his widow received the ‘cremains,’ Uncle Leon paid her an unannounced visit and demanded that the ashes be divided into thirds. He wanted to scatter a third over his new church’s graveyard so that Lonnie would end up in Heaven, where, presumably, he could beat him some more. He came prepared. By which I mean he brought a Pyrex measuring cup. He wanted just so much of what remained of his son.
Uncle Leon died on a treadmill during a stress test and the only thing good I have to say about “The Horse” was that he terrorized my brother and I into good dental hygiene. Did I mention that he was a dentist? And trust me, you didn’t dare have a cavity.