Tucker's Uncle Henry
CW: brief language and violence
The K-Pop drowned out the sound of the vehicle. Even with the sunglasses, Tucker had to continually squint as the low September sun filtered through the tree limbs. The placid, predictable concrete of the city was miles behind him, replaced with the wild, untamed...whatever this was. Trees? He guessed.
In between songs he caught glimpses of his father's music—quite a variety, he observed, but still not really what he liked. His phone chimed. A message from Heather. “So no hangout?” she asked.
He wanted to pour all his feelings into this message, but didn't. Instead, he cleared the screen, put his phone in his lap, and continued to look out the window.
It wasn't long before the car slowed and turned down a gravel driveway. They were plunged into the dense woods, and the day turned into a faux night until Tucker's eyes adjusted. He thought about sending Heather's chat reply just then, but he was out of service. He wondered if Uncle Henry had WiFi.
His dad tapped him on the shoulder, then tapped his ears. Tucker reluctantly took his earbuds out and put them back in the charging case. “You excited?”
Tucker shrugged. At least his dad had the decency to turn the radio off.
“I feel ya.”
“I could have just stayed at home.”
“We talked about this.”
“You're not old enough.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Soon though,” his dad said with a smirk. He always tried to lighten the mood with these kinds of serious talks.
They passed by a rusted—something. Tucker thought it looked like a robot with teeth on the bottom. Probably an abandoned project from the 1920. At this point moss had claimed it.
The car finally stopped and Tucker's dad turned off the engine. Tucker's skin tingled from the absence of asphalt of the 2 hour car ride. He and his dad got out and stretched their legs. The lake was visible through the fall foliage. The air was a few degrees colder than on the road.
His Great Uncle Henry—from Tucker's dad's side—was already out the door. The two men greated each other warmly. Despite being a recent inductee into the 90's, Uncle Henry was pretty mobile, still not needing a cane or walker. His wife, Nancy, died ten years earlier after being bed-ridden for nearly three years.
But Uncle Henry's appearance still mirrored that of his dad's and—annoyingly—his own. Although Tucker still didn't sport the pure white beard of his great uncle or the peppered one of his dad he was still cursed with the wide jaw and pronounced underbite. One thing he did have going for him was the sparkling eyes, that grew more jovial with age.
Tucker still kept a stoic face, thinking back to a good reply to Heather. As his father and great uncle continued to catch up, he wandered around to the side of the house to take a look at skeleton of the addition. Fresh lumber was already encased in plastic sheets, and the outline of a stairway snaked around the outside of the walls. Moister was on the wood, but Tucker still smelled the fresh timber.
His dad and uncle were actually discussing the project right now, Uncle Henry waving his finger toward the work progress, mentioning “vacation rental” and “before the good Lord takes me out.”
Okay, yeah, Tucker admitted, this would be a neat place to have a vacation.
But not when your original weekend plans were to hang out with a cute girl.
“Tucker,” Uncle Henry beckoned. “I just baked a pie. Come on in and have some.” His dad was already up the porch and inside the house. Uncle Henry looked back coyly, and said, “And I have some beer for ya,” only to be met with Dad's scolding, “Henry!”
Inside the two men continued to talk about life, leaving tucker to hang out by the unusually comfortable couch. A slice of pie was eventually brought to him. “Sorry, burned the crust,” Uncle Henry apologized, as he did every time he cooked the pie. He swore by his late wife's cherry pie recipe, but was never able to execute on it.
Tucker remained by himself, scrolling through his phone, waiting for a signal, and trying to seem like he was listening to the conversation. Eventually he grew bored after finishing the pie and trudged upstairs.
The room his uncle usually set aside for him was cluttered. At first it just looked like trash, but upon closer inspection Tucker noticed the yellowed pages, the typewriter font, the faded pictures of a 20-year old Nancy, glammed up and smiling broadly at an angle toward the camera.
And a revolver, just lying there.
After recovering from his early-stage heart attack, Tucker recalled—Uncle Henry did espionage work for the CIA in the late sixties and and into the seventies. It never really interested him much. But there was something about seeing the old work stuff, in person, that piqued his interest.
“Oh, that stuff, meant to clean it up,” Uncle Henry said, who had appeared beside him. “But you can stay in this room for the time being.” Uncle Henry led the way to the room across teh hall.
“So you did some spy shit?” Tucker asked.
“Watch your damn mouth.”
“Sorry. You were a spy?”
Uncle Henry opened the door to the adjacent room. Cold air rushed out. “Yes, I thought I told you about it.”
Tucker shrugged. “I guess you did when I was younger.” Tucker's dad called out a farewell to both him and Uncle Henry. Uncle Henry replied. Then Tucker said, “Did you ever kill anyone? Like 007?”
Uncle Henry smiled. “No. I was lucky.”
“You ever almost die?”
“Yes, one time in particular.”
“Can you tell me about it?”
“Yes, but first, I want to get your help getting the walls up on the addition outside. I'm hoping we can finish before the sun sets.”
Tucker sighed and his shoulders dropped. “You got any WiFi yet?”
Uncle Henry wasn't phased. “No.”
Tucker shrugged. He could either sit on his bed bored or help his Uncle out. “Okay, fine.”
Tucker grabbed his duffel bag, threw it on his bed, then donned some fall gear to combat the cold. When he ventured outside, the sun had already set behind the hill and cast an evening red onto the lake.
“Over here!” Uncle Henry called, three nails hanging from his lips.
Eventually the lure of the Internet-connected world wore off, and Tucker was even tempted to conclude that it was therapeutic to help his great uncle. Mostly he just held boards in place as Uncle Henry nailed them, trying not to laugh any time Uncle Henry smacked his thumb and threw a flurry of obscenities. “Don't tell your folks I said that,” he would say after the pain wore off.
But soon Tucker would have to squint to see what they were doing. “Well, we have a few more boards, but we can finish in the morning. Let's grab some more of that pie.”
Instead of sitting at the dining table, Uncle Henry brought the pie tin up to the room with the scattered paperwork. “It's alright—all this is declassified. The worst that you could do with it is get a scammer trying to buy it on eBay for free. Here, try to eat the pie over here. I don't want it to mess anything up.”
Now Tucker was able to take a closer look at some of the papers. Most of the writing was in either Russian or German. Some French. Uncle Henry was a busy guy.
Tucker reached for a folder when Uncle Henry beat him to the punch, abruptly yanking it out of the pile and raising an eyebrow. “First,” he said, opening the folder. Inside was a fuzzy black-and-white photograph of a man in a trench coat, about to cross the street. Balding except for a strong ring of hair. Sunglasses. Tucker thought of joking that they needed zoom-and-enhance in the seventies.
“The most dangerous mission,” Uncle Henry said, settling himself into a chair. Tucker leaned against the wall, picking up his pie. “You have to remember, my only job was intelligence. I wasn't supposed to take this guy out; Bedivere Filipov. I was supposed to find the name of his major customer.”
“How'd you do it?”
“He was a Russian weapon's dealer post Cold War. Didn't like how the Cold War fizzled out. So I thought, 'Weapon's dealer. What if I was a weapon's supplier?' I worked closely with other Russian spies to establish a business, and feed a paper trail to make it look like I'd been around since the thirties. The ruse worked. We got our man. Filipov did it covertly, but we were able to set up an appointment.
“We didn't want to risk having a wire or anything surveillance-related. Filipov was powerful and had many layers of security. I would have to go in without any protection or wire, get the info, and get out.”
“Were you scared?”
Uncle Henry nodded. “But I had to do it. Lives were at risk. So on the date of our meeting I got through every level of security. My heart was pounding. Everybody was greeting in their usual Russian way. I was still playing an American, so I didn't need to worry about appearing Soviet. Anyway, I finally entered Filipov's office. He was very tight lipped. But I hedged a bet that he was desperate. There were other, more notorious, arms suppliers in Russia. If I walked out on this deal, there was nowhere else for him to turn. Which gave me some leverage.
“Anyways, Filipov wasn't saying anything. I was hoping the names of his customers would slip out, but they never did. But then I took a risk and I said, 'Americans must pay. I need your assurances that the weapons will be distributed to the right people.' I remember Filipov's eyes flashed. His mask slipped. I got him. He told me five customers. Though he said he had seventeen, he teased me with five, which was plenty.
“His assistant started to get nervous, and then discretely walked up and whispered in his ear. After a little back and forth, Filipov tensed up. He slowly reached under his desk. His assistant carefully reached behind his back.
“I sprang from my chair. A bullet grazed my arm, right here!” He rolled uphis sleeve and pointed to the back of his arm, revealing a scar. “I was out in the hall. His security was all over me. But there was a window down the hall, so I sprinted for the window, took a breath, and jumped out the window.
“Bushes broke my fall, but I was caught. I scrambled to get out of the bushes as I heard a siren go off. I realized that was for me. They were after me and they were either going to kill me or torture me. Didn't want to find out which. Just as I came to my feet two nurses walked by. They eyed me with a fearful curiosity. I grabbed on of them and shoved a knuckle in their back, feigning a gun. 'Get away!' I screamed in Russian, 'I'll kill her!' Her assistant did run away. 'Now, get me out of here,' I said to the nurse that I had.
“She hesitated so I pushed my knuckle further into her back. Her feet started shuffling toward a door guarded by a soldier. He raised his rifle, but the emotional pleas from the nurse won him over, and he backed away from the door, keeping his weapon trained on me.
“I carefully backed into the door. Then, at the last possible moment, I kicked the woman toward the guard, opened the door, and closed it before I got shot. I raced back to base, and, boy, I had a story to tell!
“During debriefing I told all the details. But everyone was stern-looking. I wondered why. Finally, the director asked, 'What are the names of the customers?'” Uncle Henry's face fell, then he continued. “'I forgot,' I said. And I really did, truly forget. I forgot every single one of the names. I sat in the room for half an hour, racking my brain. The other agents waited. I worked through the alphabet, I retraced the steps in my head, but I could not remember a single name.
“They brought doctors in. They hypnotized me. They told me to go home and get some rest.” Uncle Henry snorted. “Yeah, you try sleeping if national security is dependent on faulty memory.
“Days go by...months go by...still—nothing. I was so distraught I had to leave my job. I took early retirement, before they fired me. Even now, to this day, for the life of me, I can't remember their names!”
Uncle Henry looked down at the folder, lost in thought. Tucker could almost see the reflections in those sparkly eyes—the disappointed faces of the other agents. His distraught uncle at a dining room table at night, crying in front of Nancy, unable to keep in together. Then, abruptly, he closed it. “Well, that's all for tonight.”
“Got any more stories?”
“Yes, tomorrow. It's getting late.”
Uncle Henry got up from his chair and turned off the light, leaving the hallway night light on.
Tucker sat in the darkness for a bit, still absorbing the story. He took the phone out of his pocket. Still no signal. He put his phone on flight mode to preserve the 75% battery life, then took his great uncle's suggestion and went to bed.
He again scrolled through the Heather's messages before falling unconscious. Did she like him? Jury was still out.
He put the phone aside and closed his eyes. The room lacked curtains, but without city lights and with the overcast sky, the room became pitch black.
He heard his great uncle snoring in the other room. Or was he snoring?
“Mfr—Shyam!” He thought he heard. Strange, he didn't know his Great Uncle talked in his sleep. Ah, that was because he usually slept in the room across the hall so he didn't hear him. Now the wall carried over his sound.
He still breathed—were they words? Almost. Hey! Maybe a new language! “HrrrrmmmmmmmSssssshhhYam! FarrrrrraGOoooo!” This continued for a few minutes. Eventually the murmuring stopped and soft snoring was heard.
Entertainment for the weekend, Tucker thought, and turned to his side, snuggling into his bed.
The next morning Tucker and Uncle Henry continued to work on the addition. The walls were finally up. They took a trip into town to buy the siding. Uncle Henry bought a Rockstar and a muffin for Tucker. Henry just stuck with coffee and a trail mix. They returned to work until it started to rain. Uncle Henry claimed rain was a sign from God to stop work. Tucker couldn't agree more.
“You talk in your sleep,” Tucker said as Uncle Henry made sandwiches.
“Yeah, that's what Nancy told me. I told her she farted in her sleep. That shut her up.”
“You had more stories?”
“Yeah, that one I told you last night was definitely the most harrowing. Should have given me PTSD, but the most it did was prove to me I'm senile. There are other stories that are more entertaining.”
Tucker listened as Henry told another one about a clumsy partner who never let his clumsiness show because Henry was good about covering for it. “I kept him around because he was really good at connecting unrelated ideas,” he explained. “Saved a lot of lives.”
Eventually the rain gave way to sunshine, and they continued to put up siding, Henry on a ladder, lips playing with the iron nails, Tucker handing him the slats. Then, finally, evening hit. Henry toasted some bread and peanut butter. They both ate it ravenously, too beat to prepare anything more substantial, and retired to bed.
Tucker closed his eyes. He didn't last long. Again, his uncle with the talking.
This was just too good, Tucker thought. He had to record it to show Dad.
Quietly, he retrieved his phone, turned down the brightness all the way, then tiptoed out into the hall. He quietly turned the knob, and slowly pushed Henry's bedroom door open.
Just barely illuminated by barely-dim lighting, Henry lay sprawled on his bed, wearing just his underwear. Tucker opened his video app, just as Henry started talking again. The audio quality was gonna be good.
He hit record, and the camera app chirped, causing Uncle Henry to stir slightly. But he didn't wake. He still continued to murmur gibberish.
After the five minute mark, Tucker felt it was enough. He closed his phone app, then quickly tiptoed back to his room.
His dad was so gonna get a kick out of this!
The next morning, during breakfast, Tucker looked at the video of his Great Uncle talking in his sleep. He wasn't sure if the audio would be loud enough.
Oh, no, it was. Tucker grinned.
Tucker snickered. He didn't know he would have this much fun at his uncle's place.
“Is that me?” Uncle Henry demanded. He stood in the kitchen doorway, bleary-eyed, wearing a stained t-shirt and sweat pants.
Tucker was about to hide the phone, but—despite Uncle Henry's half-awake appearance—he snatched the phone away. His face flushed. “You went into my room and recorded me—” Then it went pale. “Well...I'll be damned.”
“Shyam Hahn,” he repeated. “That's right. Hahn. And Tsvetan Miles.” His face suddenly brightened. He kept the phone and walked away, muttering nonsense to himself.”
“Uncle Henry?” Tucker asked. “My phone...?”
His pace quickened. “Tucker, put on some pants. We're heading to the Langley!”
Within 5 minutes the two were in Uncle Henry's growling tuck, speeding down the freeway. “Turn it up! Turn it up!” Uncle Henry demanded. “Put it close to my ear! Haha! Yes, That's it!” Then, as he continued to look at the road he repeated to himself. “Faragó...Hahn...MacKenna...Miles...Presley...Faragó...Hahn...MacKenna...Miles...Presley...”
He continued this mantra until he checked into Langley and asked to see the director immediately. A fifteen minute waltz of talking with a retired director shortcutted the process, and Tucker was then following his Great Uncle into the director's office as he chanted “Faragó...Hahn...MacKenna...Miles....Presley...”
Despite Henry's suddenly flamboyant display of enthusiasm, the director at Langley regarded him with professional disinterest. “May I help you Mr. Carter?”
“I got it! I got the names! The Filipov case from 1974!” I can't believe it! Can you believe it Tucker!” He then repeated the names to the director, who nodded curtly, then turned to his computer, typing a few things, clicking a few things, then printing something out a piece of paper.
“They thought I had forgotten! But I hadn't! It was all in there! All it took was this young MySpacer here—” as he tossled Tucker's hair— “to jog this old coot's memory! Faragó...Hahn...MacKenna...Miles...Presley...Faragó...Hahn...MacKenna...Miles...Presley...”
Without ceremony, the director handed Henry a sheet of paper. “What's this?” Henry asked.
“A report of the Filipov case. Turns out a rogue operative took care of the job. A few minutes after your escape, the operative used the chaos of your escape as a distraction to set off a bomb. Filipov and his entire staff died in the blast.”
“And the customers?”
“They disbanded. We soon arrested them. They're in an Austrian prison for war crimes.”
Henry's shoulders sagged. “Oh.”
“Thank you for bringing us the intel, though.”
“No wonder they were declassified.”
The director nodded solemnly.
Suddenly Uncle Henry brightened. “But I still remembered!” He exclaimed. “Come on, Tucker, let's go get some ice cream!”
“It's 9 in the morning.”
“Best time for ice cream!” The two left Langley, Henry dancing to his new rhythm: “Faragó...Hahn...MacKenna...Miles...Presley...Faragó...Hahn...MacKenna...Miles...Presley...”
Tucker still had one more day with his crazy uncle. And he had to admit, that didn't sound like such a terrible idea.