My uncle Gene was a Sox fan to the marrow, the kind committed like some do religion, with the flags and banners and timeshare season tickets, might even—one drunken night on a dare—have the team logo branded to his naked ass. Seriously. His kind go all out.
My uncle really does have the Sox logo tattooed to his hindside. It’s on the right half. He showed me. His plan was to have the Blackhawks logo tattooed to the left. For symmetry, I guess. A companion piece.
He showed me the original—this sacred Sox tattoo—sixteen plus years ago. I was fifteen, I think, maybe fourteen, the age when the world starts pressing in to ask you who the fuck you are. As far as I can see, it never stops asking, or maybe it’s you never stops asking yourself, but then—at that age?—you don’t even know how to frame the question. You also start growing hair on your sack and shooting unannounced wads of seed as you dream, like drones fired from the motherboard of a wild and mischievous system. Plus the zits and the awkward limbs, the sudden and terrifying pressure to be liked.
There are arguably better times in life to be exposed to a tat on your uncle’s bare ass, but then again: maybe the timing’s just right. Like: get it all in early. All the weird and wild diversions that cannot be explained and come to form you. You don’t get to choose when or what. I know that much. That shit chooses you.
And a few of us were sitting around on fold-out nylon chairs out back at their place in Bridgeport, four of us at a family barbecue, my dad, me, Aunt Florence (Dad’s sister) and Uncle Gene, who was holding court, discussing, predictably, the Sox. He’d had a few and started declaiming, then boasting, like: no one loves the Sox more than Eugene Wisneski! No one. That’s when he told us about the tattoo. At first I thought he was joking, though my father seemed to confirm it was true. My mother didn’t even know about it—though she’s not someone you’d exactly call an Uncle Gene fan. Plus if you’ll recall, she wasn’t at that point present in our circle of chairs. She was off playing jarts with cousin Kara and her cute little bastard twins, cousin Lenny watching from the side as he manned the grill.
Well, I was deeply impressed, I can tell you that. Like: really? A Sox tattoo on your …? (I waved him off.) Naw. You’re messing with me.
Uncle Gene nodded slowly, all solemn no shit serious. And he’s like: come here, I’ll show you.
You will not. (said Aunt Flo, appalled) Keep that silly old thing in your shorts.
Flo, come on. (pleaded Uncle Gene). The boy doesn’t believe me. He deserves to see. (arms outspread, mock reverent). It’s a work of art. An achievement.
Still, she disallowed it. No go, Gene, she said. You behave.
And he did then, mostly, though he showed me later—about an hour later, in the hallway inside their house by the bathroom near the kitchen, where we found ourselves alone after I’d peed. I opened the door and he was waiting in the hallway to use the john.
The flushing sound behind me was enormous. A monstrous violent sucking.
“That can’s got some serious volume,” said Uncle Gene.
I nodded. “It is kinda weirdly loud.”
“I know. I need to fix that,” he said and stepped past me into the bathroom, then stopped just as we crossed paths and gripped my arm at the bicep. “Vito.”
“I uh … I really do have that tattoo,” he said, holding my arm. “I just think you should know it’s true. Here. Look.”
And he unbuckled his faded cutoff shorts and turned and dropped trou right there, strategically landing at the given site, the central meat of the naked right cheek. In bold black and white before me: SOX. The big black S with the small o and x inside/beneath it. It was larger and starker than I’d expected: a black-engraved impression of exacting design, ornate and sort of royal, like he’d been branded by a calligrapher at the court of Versailles (only this was the court of Comiskey).
“That look real to you?” he said, swiveled a bit away from me.
“That’s … it’s amazing.” On a weird whim, I leaned over to get a closer look. Something in the x at bottom was especially royal or Medieval seeming. The inking was immaculate. I was up close now, fascinated. I had to stop myself from reaching up and touching the grooved-in flesh. Uncle Gene laughed abruptly.
“Watch yourself, kid. Don’t get your nose caught in there.”
Behind us: “Vito!” (panic, dismay)
We turned, deer in headlights, shocked, mortified, though not nearly as shocked as my mom, who thankfully held tightly to the glass bowl she was holding when she walked in: bacon-loaded potato salad, only half gone. I had a plate of it later when my mother and father grilled me out back, Gene and Florence and the rest gone inside at my parents’ request.
It was a tense thing for a while there. Almost like he’d done something pedophilic. I assured them he was just really excited about the Sox. But that tattoo: wow. What an intimate statement of love and dedication. It inspired awe. I wondered if I’d ever dare to say something so boldly. Or have something I cared for as deeply. But my mother didn’t understand at all when I voiced this admiration. She never again came along in fact for a barbecue at the Wisneskis, even fought with my dad about taking me with him a few more times that summer. Bitter fights. Knock-down drag-outs. She didn’t want me around that man. He was sick. A drunken adolescent at fifty-three with no higher cause in life than watching baseball.
My father was taken aback at that. A touch defensive even, which is unusual for him.
It’s not just baseball, Sadie, he told her. Not merely ‘baseball.’ It’s … the Sox.
Like: you can hate my brother-in-law all you like—he’s not always so lovable—but don’t water down a man’s passion. Give him that, at least. Allow him that much.
My Uncle Gene, like my cousin Tommy, worked as a manual boring mill machinist, real union man, at ZVC Machines in Cicero. I have no idea if he liked the work, but I know it was difficult and often monotonous. As a kid, I heard in his job description not the verb but the obvious adjective. A boring mill. Like, they manufactured boredom. But that’s just a little kid projecting. What I do know is that this boring mill machinist lived for the White Sox. They gave him sustenance and struggle and a faith for something larger. And that year, which was the year 2000, his faith seemed to be paying off. That season, the Sox won more games than anyone in the American League. Ninety-five! Took the AL East handily, five full games on top of Cleveland. Valentin, Thomas, Baldwin, Konerko. They were glorious. Looked unbeatable. Uncle Gene was in seventh heaven.
Though I’ve always questioned that phrase: seventh heaven. It seems like, shit, if you can get to heaven, just the first one, that’s pretty awesome right there. That’s high enough, no? But for some, it’s not. People have to go and make it seventh heaven, where the fall from grace is longer and harder once you realize you’re still here on earth and have to go to work tomorrow morning. Perhaps the same job you’ve held for thirty years.
That’s how I see Uncle Gene in my mind’s eye that morning in September 2000 after the Sox lost fast in the playoffs, when he had to drag his defeated soul from bed and drive off to ZVC Machines and do it. Again. At the boring mill.
Just ultimate bleakness is how I see it: marrow-deep despair crowned with a hangover. This, the morning after the winningest Sox team in decades were swept in three by Seattle. To watch it was stunning, like riding in a rocket straight to hell. After 95 wins, 3 straight losses. Poof. They were done.
We heard Uncle Gene drank pretty hard that winter. Not only because of the Sox of course. That’s just what started it. The dude had other issues for sure. In fact, he and Aunt Florence separated for a while there. Almost a year. He got a shitty little studio apartment a few blocks away, where he subsisted on canned Vienna sausages, cheap beer and McDonald’s.
Me and cousin Lenny went to visit him that April, ostensibly to catch up and watch the Sox, but really to convince him to try to make up with Aunt Flo, who to Lenny is Ma. Lenny’s two years older than me, raised a Sox fan, though not rabid like his dad. Only just recently, in fact, he’s come out the closet as a gay. He hadn’t yet then. Me and my cousin Kara suspected it for years but never dared ask. Don’t ask don’t tell made real sense back then. In Bridgeport, it was policy long before the not-gay Bill Clinton put the rule to our somewhat-gay armed forces.
When he got around to it, I was proud of my cousin for coming out. I mean, I don’t like to imagine him sucking off some North Sider or wearing leather vests and shit. That’s how I see it in my mind’s eye anyway, which probably isn’t fair. I have no friggin idea what it’s like. But I do know that after Lenny moved to Boy’s Town a few years back, he became out of nowhere a Cubs fan, a betrayal that would have wounded Uncle Gene way more than holding hands with a man. Cheering for the Cubs though? Going all yuppie fuck North Sider? That would have hurt him bad. Cut him deeply. Luckily, he died first.
When we visited Gene that spring, he was heavier, paler (and on a guy already pretty heavy and pale), still holding down his day job though barely the fort. He’d stopped moonlighting for the precinct captain, a sweet little easy extra that funded his excesses, but the grind of it just didn’t wash anymore. Lenny and I tried to keep it basic. We talked mostly baseball. Opening day had arrived the week prior and Gene had high hopes for a stellar season. Most of the rotation was back, including Baldwin—James Baldwin—his favorite, who was pitching that evening. The name this pitcher shared with the famous author always seemed funny to Lenny, who’d read The Fire Next Time in his A.P. English class, then took in a few of the novels on his own.
And Lenny was telling his old man about this other James Baldwin, who as far as he knew never played baseball. He told his dad about how great a writer the guy was, how he really should read this namesake to his favorite pitcher. Uncle Gene shrugged it off. Okay, whatever you say, Len. But his son persisted. In retrospect he was maybe hinting at his own struggle with the exploding self, with asking himself who the fuck he was. And when he told his old man that this other James Baldwin was black (like the pitcher) but also gay (like no one we knew)—and openly, back then too—Uncle Gene clucked his tongue and took a long slug of beer, then stared off into the distance.
Man oh man, he said. A black and a queer? Jesus friggin Christ. That’s hard. That’s a hard road. In the fifties? Sixties? Both those kinds were not so loved. We didn’t understand it, said Gene. I mean, I still don’t understand, not completely, not with the gays and all. But I’m trying. You know … I’ve said the word nigger more than once in my life, but I don’t these days. I learned not to. And faggot’s getting to be off-limits too. I know. I know. I’m an old fuck (and he shook his head wearily, warily) I’m bad. I’ve been so bad, Lenny.
Here he shifted tone and meaning; he was opening up to his boy. I’d never seen him do such a thing—still haven’t from my own father. Gene said: I’ve been horrible, Len. Just awful. To you and Flo and Kara and the twins. So bad. You deserve better. God knows. God totally knows. He hung his head, contrite, besotted. Cousin Lenny was as speechless as me. It was a drunk’s confession, who knows if he’d remember, but it had real feeling in it. He didn’t cry or anything, but he was truly sorry. Father to son.
When we told Kara about it, she was awestruck, just friggin floored. She couldn’t believe such an open display of apologetic feeling had visited on her brother. They’d never seen such a thing.
Gene never forgave Kara, his first and maybe most loved child, for her unplotted pregnancy and the resulting twins. Walking around the block with no ring on and double babies in the overpriced stroller? At nineteen years old? Uncle Gene would fund her—and their—effort for years, but this largesse contained little love. It turned into a stress on everyone.
So he was hard on Kara and the twins, yes, but in the end, they did alright. She eventually married, in fact—not the father, he’s a nowhere loser junkie, if you must know. Aunt Florence and my mother hold him close to Satan. Like, second place Satan. He’ll take things over should the devil die or be assassinated.
Kara’s then-new boyfriend, who at that point Uncle Gene hadn’t met, was this guy Mario, this lawyer dude who put me off at first: so clean and intrigued and bright-white toothy. Breezy, funny, self-effacing: really knew how to work a room. He took me aside once during a family dinner, circa 2003, and was like: you’re smart, Vito. You keep going to college. I told him I hadn’t gone yet, though could next year. I might take a year off to work. Dad wanted me to save up to help with tuition. And Mario’s like: okay, I hear ya, but keep reading through that. Keep studying up. Maintain your brain. Feed that mind. You like politics, right? You like to persuade people what you think is right?
He’s why, eventually, many years later (this year, in fact), I finally finished law school. Six years of night classes at Depaul. Took me some time to come around, I’ll admit. I was adrift and anxious for a while after college (Harper, then UIC). Got a part-time job working for the precinct captain, Uncle Gene’s ex-gig for all I knew. Gofer. Deliverer. Sometimes shady-seeming. Often boring. I drank a ton. Read a bunch. Books. Magazines. LSAT prep. And Mario’s admonition never left my mind. Eventually—just had to—I took the test, then applied and enrolled. And six years later, just last Saturday, I finally passed the bar. Well, I’m pretty sure I did. Felt good.
Not sure why I tell you all that. I guess I’m proud of it—or hope to be. I don’t think they thought I’d amount to much. Only this Mario character, Kara’s eventual fiancé, showed an active belief in me. Everyone needs that: confirmation, palpable faith. Its absence can leave you stranded.
I wonder now how much of his life Uncle Gene felt stranded. But that’s just guesswork. What we know for sure is that from April to September (sometimes October), he was entirely found: rock solid with purpose. And for that faith, he was given a life-affirming, blissful gift five years after the turn of the century: the sanctified summer and holy fall of the year 2005, when the Sox won 99 games, then went nearly undefeated in the playoffs, losing just once (to the Angels, Game 1 of the ALCS—at the Cell no less, which was scary). They hadn’t won a World Series in 88 years; then they swept the Astros like brooms to dust. It was the one and only World Championship in Uncle Gene’s lifetime, which after that, didn’t last long.
He was diagnosed that winter with Stage Four colon cancer, though more like whole body cancer, for it was everywhere already when they found it. That’s what cousin Kara told me anyway. It’s as if the cancer had been there all along, lying in waiting until the Sox won it all, then went to town with accelerated rage after Uncle Gene got his dream.
I saw him in the hospital before he died. Me and Kara went that time. Lenny had gone already. Uncle Gene had lost a bunch of weight, which didn’t suit him. I preferred him fat and blotchy, holding a can of beer. He had on one of those flimsy blue gowns and was sitting up in bed with a bleak tray of mush before him. He told Kara and me he’d just really like a drink. Maybe even a hit of weed if we could score some. Then he winked (naw) though we knew he meant it.
And halfway into the visit, while we were discussing the bastard twins, who were learning how to figure skate on Mario’s dime, something dawned on him. Uncle Gene went: oh my god, guys. I have to tell you something! No—show you. Especially you (he said, nodding my way). I uh … got it done.
We were like: got what done?
Here. (he said) Check it out. And he set aside his bleak tray of food, swiveled up on his hip, and pulled back the covers. He gingerly lifted the flimsy blue gown, revealing, once again, a single cheek of his hind side. Left cheek this time. There we found a smallish, perfectly rendered tattoo of the Chicago Blackhawks logo: that serene Indian head, slightly smiling. The companion piece he’d always wanted. There was a moment of stunned silence, then we laughed and hooted loud and long. A nurse even came to hush us.
He’d had it done the week before his diagnosis, unaware of the disease. Again, as if some silent force inside him were checking off items on a bucket list. The Hawks were terrible that year, and he thought a tattoo might advance their mojo. Kara requested it so he turned on his belly and showed us the two of them side by side.
The left one (Blackhawks) had a little color, impressively inked for sure, but the right, the original (Sox) was larger, starker, more of a statement. Which of course made perfect sense.
Though that Blackhawks logo has always confounded me. It takes so little heat for what it is. Other Indian heads take way more grief. I mean, the Cleveland Indians? Their ‘Chief Wahoo’? That’s a big red cartoon Sambo. That’s just obscene. But with the Blackhawks, no one raises much fuss. Is there a dignity to this Indian head, a gravitas, somehow absent in the others? I don’t know. Probably not if you’re an Indian. Though it is badass-looking, nearly everyone agrees. I must confess I’d hate to see it go.
Uncle Gene never got to see the true dynasty the Blackhawks became. Just last year, they won their third Stanley Cup in six years. The playoffs, in fact, really started to intrude on my studies. But I’ve got control of that now. Have to. I intend to be a serious person.
It was at a house party during the last Stanley Cup, in fact—Game 5 against Tampa Bay, which the Hawks would win—that I first publicly told the story of Uncle Gene’s tattoos. In the break between the second and third periods, I told it to an audience of, like, fourteen, fifteen, half of them people I didn’t know. The familiar half were friends of this guy George, our pal from law school. His girlfriend, a Phd candidate in History or Philosophy—something like that—invited the rest. And I don’t know how I got around to it; seemed relevant, I guess. I kept the emphasis narrow on the backside tattoos. Told the initial Uncle Gene incident in the hallway by the bathroom (Sox), which got a big laugh, then fast forwarded to many years later, the ass-out hospital visit where he revealed his holy Blackhawk head.
It went over real well at first. I felt like a celebrity. Then this guy at the party, one of the Phd types—shaved head and arty black glasses—he turns to me and says: something troubles me about your story, Vito. When you started, you introduced your uncle as a real hardcore Bridgeport Sox guy, with—and I quote—“that heavy South Side accent.”
“Yeah,” I said, maybe reluctantly, “that’s him.”
“I don’t know,” he said, shrugging on the sofa, sort of intellectually wincing. “I always question that designation. The ‘South Side accent?’ I mean … just who do you mean? Whose South Side?”
I stared back at him; there was challenge in his voice. I wasn’t sure how to reply.
“Seriously,” he said. “The population of the South Side of Chicago is overwhelmingly black. Like almost entirely black. That’s a statistical fact. Yet you take this little swath of the South Side where some white people live and the Sox have their stadium, and you call their way of speaking the ‘South Side accent.’ I uh I think you mean the South Side accent among white people. The real South Side accent? That’s a black accent. And good luck doing that one. That might not come off nearly as funny.”
Well, I had to concede he was right, though he’d also destroyed the mood and triumph of my Uncle Gene story. Sort of killed the party for a second there. At least for me. Then the Hawks and Lightning took the ice again and everyone forgot.
But I remembered. It stuck with me a while. He was right. A bit of a dick about it maybe but what he said was true. How could I have gone so long without seeing? The other, maybe weirder part was Uncle Gene didn’t really have a heavy ‘South Side’ accent. Not at all. He had a light one. Very. A slight shadow of one. He elongated a vowel here and there in the local way, said “youse guys” on rare occasion, but mostly you couldn’t tell. I’d embellished that part for the story, whoring it out for the extra attention, and then, almost instantly, paid for it.
I’m with a different set now. A new kind of people. I’ll have to learn to troubleshoot anecdotes involving broad and suspect category. Though I have to say: categories will sometimes surprise you. Just today, in fact, after asking for copies of some case law for a public defender I’ve been shadowing, the clerk there, a petite librarian type I sometimes flirt with, brought back the docs I’d asked for and asked me where I was raised. I told her and she was like: I thought so.
Yeah. You have a slight trace of accent. That old school South Side accent.
I … do I?
She nodded, smiling. Definitely (she said).
It’s the first that’s happened. I didn’t even know it was there. I suppose I thought I’d escaped it, but no. Location marked me. Tattooed my speech, so to speak. A kind of Sox logo you can hear.
And you know, I like this public defender thing. It’s grim, thankless work but it speaks to me. If I pass the bar, I’ll apply here for sure. Results come later this month. Wish me luck. I’m finally ready, I think, to fly my flag. Or hoist the banner. Whatever. We all need a public defender, really, to help us figure out who the fuck we are. Or maybe that’s a private defender. I don’t know. Maybe just listen to your logo. The one tattooed inside you. South side, North side, West side, the burbs—wherever you’re from, it’s there.
I’m nobody, really. It’s just my opinion. But I’m willing to bet it’s much louder than you think.
Jay Shearer’s writing has appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review, Southeast Review, Tikkun, and many other publications. He is the author of a novel, Five Hundred Sirens (Cairn Press), a chapbook novelette, The Pulpit vs. the Hole (Gold Line Press) and a play, The Full Treatment (performed in January 2016 in Madison, WI). He teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago.