BY SEAN HIGGINS
Uncle Royce runs out of flophouses to nest up in—halfway joints managed by chain-smoking program pukes with carry permits and ten-year chips in their khaki shorts. “Enough,” they all say. “You’re done. Out of here.” Detroit in late Fall, frosty-barren as the Tundra. Uncle Royce pops his tent up under an overpass and wakes up the next morning with frost in his beard and purple fingertips.
So one night in November he shows up at Ma’s house and sits Indian-style on the porch, his Army duffle tucked behind him like a beanbag and his beige mannequin head set out in front of him like a Voodoo totem. Nothing wrong with waiting. He studies the faded decorative sign above the front door—“Too Blessed To Be Stressed”—and counts the seconds out loud: “One California, Two California, Three California…”
After thirty-four Californias, the front door opens. His nephew Chip—still rangy and buck-toothed but muscular now, a grown-ass man—crosses his arms and blocks the entryway.
“The hell you doing here?” Chip asks.
“Rooster come back to roost,” Uncle Royce says. “Where’s Ma?”
Chip doesn’t budge. “Grammy’s dead. Been dead now for a year on.”
“Damn shame,” Uncle Royce says. He lets out a wheeze and deflates into the duffel.
“That’s all you got to say? Damn shame?”
Uncle Royce wobbles to his feet, hoists his bag over his shoulder, and plucks the mannequin head from the deck. “You going to let us in?”
There is pizza in the oven: a Red Baron, Chip says. Beer in the fridge: Coors Light. “Silver Bullet!” Uncle Royce beams up like a klieg lamp. He sits at the kitchen table behind a cluster of books, watching Chip move dishes from the washer to a cabinet above the sink.
“This isn’t a frat house you’re sitting in,” Chip eyes Uncle Royce through the steam rising from the open washer. “You’re gone the second you get a place.”
“We’ll be moving on as soon as we’re able.”
“You keep saying ‘we’,” Chip says, drying his hands with a dish rag. Uncle Royce lifts the bald mannequin head from his lap and sets it onto the table in front of him. It has a round styrofoam base so it can stand, and airbrushed makeup over the eyes and lips.
“What you got there? Some kind of doll?”
“Gloria is no doll,” Uncle Royce fishes a long, curly blond wig from a pocket on the inside of his Army jacket and twists it onto the mannequin’s plastic dome. “Gloria is my wife.”
Chip was in first grade when he last saw Uncle Royce. Early Nineties. Desert Storm was wrapping up, and Uncle Royce appeared on Grammy’s porch one day in the Spring. “Baby boy is back,” he told her, handing over a manila envelope stuffed with his Army discharge paperwork. He moved into his childhood bedroom and worked the midnight shift at the Ford plant, sometimes driving a taxi to the airport for extra cash. Memorial Day that year Grammy hosted a family barbecue in the backyard and Uncle Royce sat off in a lawn chair by himself drinking through a case of Keystone. Avoiding eye contact. Chewing his thumbnails. After nine or ten beers, Uncle Royce slipped his hand up Auntie Marla’s skirt and Uncle Jay pushed him onto the grass and kicked him in the ribs until he was coughing up blood. Chip remembers the blood, the way it dropped from Uncle Royce’s mouth in clumps the way crap drops from a chicken. Uncle Royce packed all of his clothes into his duffle bag that night. “I’ve got friends in California,” he said. “Intimate confidants. Allies.” He walked by himself three miles to the bus station, and no one in the family except for Grammy ever mentioned him since. “Your Uncle Royce’s birthday is today,” she’d say every few years. “Lord keep him.”
In the morning Uncle Royce sets his tent up in the backyard next to the lawnmower shed and rolls his faded sleeping bags out on the grass like they were beach towels. “That tent has seen a lot of ugly,” he says to Chip while they eat scrambled eggs in the kitchen. Gloria the mannequin head is propped up between their plates, angled so that she is looking square at Uncle Royce. She is not wearing a wig this morning.
“I need to talk to you,” Chip says. “It’s about Gloria.”
“Isn’t she something?” Uncle Royce’s mouth is full of eggs. “I plan on showing her around today. Tour the old neighborhood.”
“I don’t think you should take Gloria out.”
Uncle Royce sets his fork down and shifts Gloria around so that she’s facing Chip.
“You should keep Gloria inside.”
“Why would I want to do that?” Uncle Royce straightens up in his chair and crosses his arms. “Gloria is my wife.”
“You’re serious,” Chip blinks, scratches at his eyebrows. “Uncle Royce, Gloria is a mannequin head.”
“Tell that to Gloria,” Uncle Royce’s eyes darken up. “Tell her that she isn’t real.” He picks the head up by its base with both hands and sets it in front of Chip’s plate as if it were a basket of corn muffins.
“Uncle Royce, this—”
Chip drops his gaze to the mannequin head. He doesn’t want to look it in the eyes so he concentrates on the bald forehead. “You’re not real, Gloria,” he says. “You’re a mannequin head.” The inside of his chest feels cold and hard, as if he swallowed an ice cube.
Chip runs a forklift full time at the Ikea in Canton. He wears lifting suspenders and a Swedish-Yellow polo shirt. There is a button pinned below his collar that says “happiness comes in a flat pack.” On his lunch break, Chip finds Lopez in the low-lit employee lounge, working through a plate of gravy-soaked salmon and potatoes.
“You got a second, Lope?” Chip scoots a chair out across the table from Lopez and sits down.
“For you, maybe fifteen seconds,” Lopez says. Lopez is a squat and muscular man in his forties, an Ikea lifer with designs to retire before fifty and buy a fishing shack up north. He works in receiving and takes smoke breaks with Chip when things get busy in the warehouse. Like Chip, he grew up in the care of his grandmother.
“Remember when your sister wigged out, and you guys took her to that…” Chip struggles for the right term.
“The funny farm?” Lopez scoops potatoes into his mouth. “Woman needed it. I remember very well.”
Chip nods. “I think I may have a candidate.”
“Crazy sister?” Lopez seems impressed.
“Uncle,” Chip says. “He’s got an imaginary wife.”
Lopez chuckles at a chunk of salmon on his fork. “Here’s the thing,” he says. “Isabel agreed to go. They didn’t cart her away in a white van. She signed the intake forms. Inpatient Psychiatric Care, they called it. Your uncle—he want to be taken in?”
“I doubt it.”
“Then I don’t know, man.”
Chip leans back into his seat, eyes on the ceiling. “You got the number to that place?”
Lopez laughs and scrapes up the last of the potatoes. “For you, I’ll dig it up.”
Uncle Royce invites Chip to dinner. “We’ve saved up more than you might think,” he says, waving his hand toward Gloria on the coffee table. Gloria is wearing her wig. “How does Chinese sound? We could drive down to that place out on Woodward.”
“I think we should keep Gloria at home.”
Uncle Royce lifts Gloria from the table like a trophy. “We insist,” he says. “I insist.”
They get into Chip’s car and start towards Woodward. In the passenger seat, Uncle Royce grips Gloria by the neck.
“I called up an agency,” Chip says. “Got some people that want to come out and talk to you.”
“Better not be no halfway house,” Uncle Royce says. “They won’t take me anymore. I got run out of every single one in the city.”
“Nope. No halfway house. Just people who want to talk, is all. Want to help.” Chip points to the mannequin head in Uncle Royce’s lap. “You should introduce them to Gloria. I bet they’d be interested in meeting her.”
“Who wouldn’t be?”
After dinner—a heavy pile of noodles and glazed chicken that Uncle Royce pays for with quarters—Chip pulls his car to the curb in front of the house. On the porch, a stranger is rocking slowly on the wide porch swing: a big, tattooed man with long grey hair tucked back into a ponytail. A puffy little poodle-mix is curled up on his lap, sleeping.
“Pinch, that you?” Uncle Royce jumps from the car and hustles across the yard.
The man pokes a finger in front of his lips. “Beans is out cold,” he whispers. “Took ten minutes before he’d settle down.”
“Chip, this is my boy Pinch,” Uncle Royce says. “How’d you track me down, Pinch?”
Pinch points at his nose. “I sniffed you out. The way you stink? Could whiff you clear to Hamtramck.”
“I’ll let you two catch up,” Chip says. He unlocks the front door and walks inside. In the kitchen, he nudges a panel open on the window blinds so he can see the front porch. Pinch and Uncle Royce are just talking—all smiles and head-nods. As the conversation slows, Pinch slides a small plastic baggie from a pocket in his shirt into Uncle Royce’s palm. They chat for a few more minutes before Pinch rises from the rocking chair and slings his tired dog over his shoulder.
“Everything good?” Chip asks when Uncle Royce walks into the kitchen and pulls a Coors Light from the fridge.
“Think we’re going out tonight,” Uncle Royce says. “Don’t wait up for us.”
Uncle Royce shows up again the next morning as Chip is sitting at the kitchen table eating scrambled eggs on toast. He stumbles in from the entryway, his eyes bulging from his face and Gloria clutched up against his chest and wrapped in a t-shirt.
“Have fun last night?” Chip asks.
“We’re done, kid, done for a while.” Uncle Royce plops down on the chair across from Chip and lays his head on the table.
“We’re done, kid, done for a while,” Uncle Royce repeats himself and drops Gloria on the floor.
Chip drapes Uncle Royce’s arm over his shoulders and leads him to the couch in the living room.
“Time for a nap,” Chip says, pulling Uncle Royce’s sneakers off of his feet and lifting his legs up onto the couch. He fluffs a couch pillow and cradles it under his head. Almost instantly, Uncle Royce cranks into a deep, trembling snore.
Chip finishes his breakfast in the kitchen. As he gets up to leave, he grabs the mannequin head from the floor and sets it up on the coffee table next to Uncle Royce on the couch. “I’m going to work,” he says to it. “Make sure Uncle Royce doesn’t die.”
Uncle Royce is still snoring on the couch two days later when Chip calls the ambulance. He’s tried shaking him, pulling him upright, splashing cold water on his face. Nothing can crack Uncle Royce from his slumber. Immobile on the couch, drool runs from his lips and stains the upholstery.
“Has your Uncle consumed any narcotics recently?” the call-center tech asks.
“I have no clue,” Chip says.
“A crew will be there in ten,” the tech says.
There is a knock on the front door. “God help me if that’s Pinch,” Chip paces to the entryway. “Or the Mormons. Better not be the damn elders.” He’s seen the young missionaries in the neighborhood lately, handing bibles to old ladies and playing basketball with shirtless locals in the park. They untuck their starched short-sleeves and push their black ties between the buttons when they play, tripping and sputtering across the asphalt like June bugs in a Mason jar.
Chip opens the door to find a young man wearing pressed trousers and a sensible windbreaker. Thick-rimmed glasses. A side bag is slung over his shoulder. “I’m Brenden,” he says, extending his hand. “From the New Beginnings Center. Here to speak with Royce Shockey?”
“Uncle Royce doesn’t have too much to say,” Chip says. “But come on in anyway.” He leads Brendan to the living room and has him sit down on a narrow wedge of couch cushion open beyond Uncle Royce’s feet. Brendan pulls a computer tablet from his bag and pecks at the screen with a stylus.
“Couple days he’s been under,” Chip says. “I just called the ambulance.”
“Addiction issues?” Brendan asks. He continues to work the screen of his tablet.
They sit there for a few minutes. Brendan asks some questions about Uncle Royce’s background. Chip feels as if he’s in a waiting room of some kind: a dentist’s office or an airport boarding gate.
“What you got here?” Brendan gestures to Gloria the mannequin head between scribbles on his tablet.
“That’s Gloria,” Chip says. “Uncle Royce’s wife.”
Brendan laughs. “Nice.”
“I mean it—she’s his wife,” Chip says. “It’s not funny.”
Brendan looks up at Chip and squints. Adjusts his glasses. “It’s a plastic head,” Brendan says. “Not a person.”
“Tell that to Gloria,” Chip says. He slides the mannequin head across the coffee table so that it’s facing Brendan. “Tell her that she isn’t real.” Sirens are audible in the distance now, the sound wobbling in through the windows. They’re getting closer. Probably just a couple of blocks away.
Sean Higgins has work published in Midwestern Gothic, Bluestem, Bartleby Snopes, and a few other journals. He works as an editor for a research firm, and lives in an old brick farmhouse in Ypsilanti, Michigan.