After my freshman year at UNH, I decided I’d had enough of academia for a while and would try my hand in the trades. My uncle had been released from Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana a couple years prior for good behavior, and had started a plumbing business in his ole stompin’ grounds up north. He had just landed a substantial bid in Newark, New Jersey, renovating a factory into condos, and needed some muscle. So I dropped out of college, much to my parents’ dismay, and moved to my grandparents’ house in Bayonne (exit 14A off the Jersey pike) to start my new career.
As a kid, I always liked Uncle John. He had fought in Vietnam, was good with guns, had cool long hair, and let me do sketchy things. What was there not to like? This blog post isn’t just about him, though. It’s also about the guy he assigned to watch my back while working in the seediest environment I’ve ever known.
Henry was his name. He was big—really big. Uncle John hired him fresh out of the pen. Henry couldn’t sweat a pipe to save his life, but he knew how to keep order. That was his specialty. He was also smart in a wily kind of way and reasonable with subordinates so long as they followed his rules. When they didn’t, you could hear the explosion throughout the halls.
Henry didn’t have a driver’s license, so in return for the protection he provided at the job, I would take him back to his ghetto in my muffler-less Subaru hatchback. He would spend most of the drive shouting over the noisy motor about the no-good niggers, mouthy spics, and pushy guineas who were fucking up the project. Sometimes I would comment, but mostly I just kept my eyes on the road while he ranted.
There was one particular stretch on the commute that provided a tremendous view of the sunset. (New Jersey really does have amazing sunsets.) Maybe Henry found peace in a sunset, because the sight never failed to mellow him and get him talking about less pragmatic stuff. Sometimes he would even disclose things about himself that I never thought I’d hear from a hardened criminal—philosophical stuff about honor, loyalty, and trust, qualities he admired and even aspired to. I learned a lot about my uncle too by listening to Henry on those drives, about Uncle John’s checkered past and the things that made him tick.
Eventually I went back to college and got a degree in wildlife management, which I never applied to a career. Uncle John’s gone now. He dropped dead at forty-six in Harlem from a heart attack—so the story goes. I’m not sure whatever became of Henry. But now that I’m an author of fiction, I can pay tribute to both their memories in one charming character.
Hello, Hector Xavier. Welcome to my world. May you always find peace in a sunset.