We all have an eccentric family member or two; the tipsy aunt, the carousing cousin, the bizarre brother-in-law. The Maxwell clan has Uncle. Born Uncle Robert Franklin Maxwell in Ensley, Alabama in 1923, Uncle was, rather, still is, an enigma. He learned to smoke by the time he was 7. He drove a car at 9. And, finally, he met Mr. Jack (of Daniels fame) at the ripe old age of 10.
At twelve, Uncle stood 6’1″ and weighed 208 pounds. He ate my great grandparents out of house and home. Besides outgrowing his clothes, his shoes, and his bed, Uncle outgrew the house, which he promptly left on his thirteenth birthday. He set out to see the “globe” as he called it. That globe turned out to be my great-aunt Nell’s house in Liberty, Kentucky. Exactly how Uncle arrived in Liberty, no one knows. Nell opened the front door one morning and there he was sleeping like a baby on the porch.
Nell lived alone in Liberty. Well, almost alone. Counting the dogs, an assortment of cats, the rabbits (whose population she couldn’t control), 2 horses, ducks (which came and went), a cow, and a goat, there were 23 residents of Nell’s hotel. And now she had Uncle. Uncle proved to be Nell’s saving grace. He went to school and finished the eighth grade. Nell was proud. He milked the cow and goat, took care of the chickens, and skinned and cooked the rabbits. Uncle chopped wood for the fire and did all of the maintenance around the house. Nell was happy having Uncle around. Uncle was happy too, that is, until he met Marie.
Marie was an 18-year-old siren with long black hair and lips tinted red by a combination of peels from the apples growing around Liberty and a 20 proof medicinal cough syrup. Liberty was one small patch of Casey County, Kentucky. It was dry back then and is still dry today. Marie, however, had ways unknown to Uncle of securing his beverage of choice. When her purveyors found out that she was buying for Uncle, they went to have a word with the young man, only to find Nell sitting in a rocking chair on the porch with a shotgun aimed precariously at their approaching vehicles. Little did they know that by now she was deaf and half blind, and didn’t have the strength to aim the weapon with any kind of precision. That little fact, however, didn’t stop Nell from standing to spray a wide sweep of Remington 00 buck load in their general direction. Of course, the recoil knocked her off her feet and fractured her shoulder. Uncle picked up the shotgun and continued firing until the weapon was emptied. From then on, a monthly supply of whiskey made from the sour mash process showed up on Nell’s porch without fail.
Uncle’s family grew and prospered as he worked the boys to death. In addition to schoolwork, they worked the small piece of land Nell left and did all of the chores just as Uncle had done when he had first come to Liberty. But Uncle was getting old and fussy. He no longer held a full-time job at the correctional complex or hunted with his sons. Instead, he took up a new pastime; watching television. Liberty was dying and so was Uncle. Whereas he had once been something of a hell-raiser and ladies man (before meeting Marie), he now had eyes only for Big Red.
She was the queen of the daytime soaps (my stories, Uncle called them). And, like her name implied, Red was big. She carried 150 pounds of female curves on a 6-foot tall frame. She came into the studio each day made-up to the hilt, camera-ready, laughing and talking to a captive cast and crew. She enthralled them with her big laugh and her bigger hair. Yes, the hair was red. Red’s appeal crossed all bounds. Her Q rating, or whatever they called it back then, was off the charts. Neither the TV station owner nor viewers could tell if Red was real or a figment of someone’s twisted imagination. But one thing was certain: Men of all ages, shapes, and sizes loved some Red.
Before Uncle came down with whatever ailed him, he took only a passing glance at Red. Depending on his hours at the complex, he could catch her show, “Love For Tomorrow,” once or twice a week. Now that he was no longer “gainfully employed” as Marie put it, Uncle never missed his soap. Promptly at ten o’clock each morning, Uncle assumed the position (prone) on his spot on the sofa, moving only once or twice a day for the call of nature. Big Red’s mindless plotting and scheming, spoken through her trademark soft, southern drawl, entranced Uncle. He’d roam that big old two-story house for hours conversing with Red about this and that, complaining to her about Marie, eventually creating his own utopia in which he co-existed quite happily, of course, with Red.
The boys were concerned that Uncle was slipping deeper into this delusion. Never before had he refuse to shave, or dress, or comb his hair. It was as if Marie, his wife of sixty years, no longer existed. Uncle, however, always made time for Big Red. The family decided that it was time to “do something” about Uncle, something he surely would not agree with. So, that Sunday after supper, Marie called Dr. Sam.
As the only doctor in Liberty, Sam knew everybody and where all the skeletons resided. He’d watched as Uncle’s hearing failed, having to shout when talking to him. When Uncle drove his pickup into a Piggly Wiggly sign, then questioned why said sign was in the middle of the road, Dr. Sam knew that it was time for Uncle to give up his license to drive. What a fight that had been. Even though he surrendered the license, the doctor believed that Uncle would sneak the truck out still every now and then. Driving down Middleburg Street, Sam could see Uncle’s handiwork: At King’s Department Store, the outdoor display had been smashed on a number of occasions. Near the Village Restaurant, the Tall Fescue had tire tracks with Uncle’s name on it. Neat rows of flower boxes at the Hong Kong Buffett remained empty after having been splintered by Uncle, his license plate still protruding from one box on the end.
On Uncle’s final morning at home, he argued with Big Red. He was in a state over what he perceived as Red’s cheating on him. Love for Tomorrow had been preempted by severe weather reports as storms pounded Liberty. But for Uncle, Red had done him wrong. The poor soul never realized that the house had caught fire when he left his breakfast oatmeal on the stove. After all, Big Red may have needed his attention. As the firemen drug him kicking and screaming from the house, all he could think to do is shout, “Let me be.” And so they did, after dousing him and Big Red with copious amounts of water, saving his life, but turning Red into a popping, hissing, electrical mess.
Big Red had indeed seduced Uncle Robert Franklin Maxwell. He had slipped quietly and completely into a mindless fantasy world of endless emotional confrontations and never-ending Red rantings. Now, at his post in front of the big screen at the asylum, Uncle remains oblivious to all but his fellow demented Red devotees, who occasionally grunt approval of her latest attire (or lack thereof.) The imbecilic simplicity of the Big Red saga had consumed them all for eternity.