"Uncle Jack, I'm s-sorry," I manage. Did I actually stammer? "I have--I have to get going--"
"Talcott, I have traveled thousands of miles to see you. Surely you can spare me five of your valuable minutes." His voice has a terrible wheeze in it, and it occurs to me that I might be breathing whatever has made him this way. But I stand my ground.
"I understand you've been looking for me," I say at last.
"Yes." He seems childishly eager now, and he almost smiles, but thinks better of it. "Yes, that is so, I have been looking for you."
"You knew where to find me." I was raised to be polite, but seeing Uncle Jack like this, after all these years, brings out in me an irresistible urge to be rude. "You could have called me at home."
"That would not be--it was not possible. They know, you see, they would consider that, and I thought--I thought perhaps . . ." He trails off, the dark eyes all at once confused, and I realize that Uncle Jack is frightened of something. I hope it is the specter of prison or of his obviously approaching death that is scaring him, because anything else bad enough to scare Jack Ziegler is . . . well, something I do not want to meet.
"Okay, okay. You found me." Perhaps this is forward, but I am not so frightened of him now; on the other hand, I am not very happy about spending time in his company either. I want to flee this sickly scarecrow and retreat to the warmth, such as it is, of my family.
"Your father was a very fine man," says Uncle Jack, "and a very good friend. We did much together. Not much business, mostly pleasure."
"The newspapers, you know, they wrote of our business dealings. There were no business dealings. It was nonsense. Trumped-up nonsense."
"I know," I lie, for Uncle Jack's benefit, but he is not interested in my opinions.
"That law clerk of his, perjuring himself that way." He makes a spitting noise but does not actually spit. "Scum." He shakes his head in feigned disbelief. "The papers, of course, they loved it. Left-wing bastards. Because they hated your father."
Not having exchanged a word with Jack Ziegler since well before my father's hearings, I have never heard his opinions about what happened. Given the tenor of his comments, I doubt he would be interested in mine. I remain silent.
"I hear the fool has never been able to get a job," says Uncle Jack, without a trace of humor, and I know who has been pulling at least a few of the strings. "I am not surprised."
"He was doing what he thought was right."
"He was lying in an effort to destroy a great man, and he is deserving of his fate."
I cannot take much more of this. As Jack Ziegler continues to rant, Mariah's nutty speculations of Friday seem . . . not so nutty. "Uncle Jack . . ."
"He was a great man, your father," Jack Ziegler interrupts. "A very great man, a very good friend. But now that he is dead, well . . ." He trails off and raises his hand, palm upmost, and tilts it one way, then the other. "Now I would very much like to be of assistance to you."
"Correct, Talcott. And to your family, naturally," he adds softly, rubbing his temples. The skin is so loose it seems to move under his fingers. I imagine it tearing away to leave only an unhappy skull.
I glance over at the cars. Kimmer is impatient. So is Uncle Mal. I look down at my baby sister's godfather once more. His help is the very last thing I want.
"Well, thank you, but I think we have everything under control."
"But you will call? If you need anything, you will call? Especially if . . . an emergency should arise?"
I shrug. "Okay."
"With your wife, for instance," he continues. "I understand that she is going to become a judge. I think that is wonderful. I understand that she has always wanted this."
Excerpted from The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter Copyright 2002 by Stephen L. Carter. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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