“And let us not grow weary of doing good…” — Galatians 6:9

7:30 in the morning, heading for work, you’re not even all the way out the door, and the woman from the apartment two doors down stops you in the hall. Again.

This time, she has pictures to prove your Uncle Adam is a pervert, still going out onto the fire escape to whack off when he thinks no one’s watching. You told your neighbor you believed her the first time. You don’t need proof of your uncle’s angry ejaculation onto a city that he’s come to hate.

Your Uncle Adam ended up with you and your mother not all that long ago. But it was enough to kill her and leave you stuck as his caretaker. Keeper. Prisoner.

Your uncle, your mother’s younger brother, gone derelict consuming women and booze, and using up friends became your mother’s responsibility because no one else would do it. He came to live with the two of you because his own wife divorced him, and his grown kids refused to make a place for him. Ropes of blood and marriage shriveled and parted under the strain of his years as a low-rent libertine.

Passed between his children like the swinging buckets of a fire brigade, his youngest daughter, Samantha, chose to leave him on the sidewalk outside your building. She didn’t bother buzzing the apartment. The super found him, rain-soaked, his possessions in a Hello Kitty roller board and two plastic garbage bags.

So, Uncle Adam became your mother’s crown in heaven. The name she gave every odious task or duty left for her to manage alone. Turned out to be her last.

“I have the pictures,” the woman from down the hall says again.

You tell her you don’t need to see them. You shift the strap of your backpack higher up on your shoulder, hoping she’ll get the hint you have a real job and don’t have the luxury of staying home to spy on a used-up husk of a guy jacking off from the fire escape. “Maybe it’s yoga,” you say instead of telling her to close her fucking curtains.

The neighbor swipes the screen to enlarge the image. “Does that look like yoga?” she asks, pushing the screen up close to your face.

Great. Close-up shots in high-definition and brilliant color of a half-naked, scrawny old man choking the cobra, trying to impregnate the world.

“Here. I’ll send them to you.”

No need, you tell her, dreading the pop-up ads you’ll start getting once those pictures hit your phone.

But she fires them off, stabbing at the screen to send them with the whooshing sound of her phone delivering the images. Inside the backpack, your phone responds with a happy ping.

“Thanks s’much. I can’t wait to use them for my Christmas letter.”

“Your mother could handle him,” she reminds you, with a bare trace of pity that evaporates as quickly as it came, evaporating the bare trace of patience you almost had for your neighbor. “If you can’t, you need to find someplace else for him.”

If she wasn’t such a big pain in the ass every time she saw you, you’d admit you agreed with her. You’d confide how there is no other place. You’d assure her how you keep looking.

Instead, you tell her that you have to get to work.

“The next time it happens, I’m calling the cops,” she says, backing down the hall to her own apartment. Like Uncle Adam will mount her from behind if she turns her back on you.

You stand rooted by the door, your hand on the knob.

Each morning, you leave without checking on him, hoping he’ll fuck himself up so bad he can’t be fixed. Your mother—

Your mother.

Your mother would make sure he hadn’t killed himself before she left the apartment.

Your mother.

You go back inside. You leave the door open. You’ll make sure he’s still breathing. “If he’s breathing, I’m leaving,” you say out loud, for the benefit of your mother’s hovering spirit, eavesdropping, giving you no rest. You drop your bag and keys on the little table by the door.

Uncle Adam swore he’d stop hacking his rod out on the fire escape. A drunken word of promise impossible to collect on. You aren’t up for listening to the shit excuses shoveled at you, nodding as if any of it were true.

“Women, women, women,” he claims, “dancing naked out where you can’t see them. There. Outside my window. They wave their tits at me when you’re not looking.”

Instead of telling him he’s a delusional sack of shit, you remind him the apartment is on the 10th floor.

“Or it could have been a succubus, you ever think of that? Your mother believed that holy bullshit. Shouldn’t you?”

“There could be something to it,” he’ll go on. “A demon female lures me out to strip me naked and ride me like a horse.” He demonstrates for you with a galloping dance step and an overhand pull on his cock.

Since your mother died, Uncle Adam sneaks out onto the fire escape before dawn. He throws open his bathrobe to make mad, empty love to a world that no longer desires him. Like it promised it would. Like he believed it would.

You’ll hear him creep out there, but you won’t go stop him.

Your mother is hardest on your conscience in the weakness of night.

She knows. Dead, she still knows that you lie awake, listening. She’d recognize your irregular breath of wakefulness. She’d know how you wait for your Uncle Adam to leap, to embrace the phantasms of his anguish, to fall, to land on the dumpsters in the breezeway between the buildings, the rattling metal sound rising to signal that it’s over. Done.

But you know there will be no such embrace. Instead, he’ll crash back through the window, rattling the sash as he struggles over the sill, returning to the living room. Spent, no strength to run, the shame can overtake him now. He cringes at his fall and scurries to the kitchen to hide, and drink, and pantomime his self-destruction for anyone left who might care.

“See?” you’ll say to the watching dark, then you’ll draw the covers up over your shoulder.

You started keeping liquor at home once your mother was gone. But she would have guessed.

Soon after, so did Uncle Adam. No matter where you hide your whiskey, Uncle Adam finds it. What sort of desperation is it that makes him look for intoxicants in a toilet tank?

Your mother would ask what selfish person hides it there in the first place?

You go to the kitchen. It will be no surprise to find him in the middle of his breakfast-time ritual with a steak knife and your whiskey.

It’s a kind of game he plays to win a little pity from you. Part-chicken, part-Russian roulette. Pick a steak knife at random out of the block on the kitchen counter. Only one of the knives has any kind of an edge left after years of neglect. See if the one he’s chosen this time will slice a vein. He won’t try the ones you use to cook the meals. Those are still sharp. Your uncle knows it. But the steak knives are used up. Like your mother.

You find him at the kitchen table. Of course. His arm outstretched, pillowing his head, he weeps in a high-pitched woofing snort with each shuddering exhalation, sawing madly at his stringy wrist. He never manages to find the one knife in the set still sharp enough. Inflamed streaks are all he has to show for his monstrous anguish.

You should hide the sharp one. Save yourself the uncertainty. But you don’t. You’re still much too angry for unadulterated empathy. So, instead, you rearrange the knives every night after dinner. One of these mornings, Uncle Adam will choose the right one and finish what he started back when he was young and handsome and desirable.

He continues to weep as you watch, leaving nothing more than an angry crimson hatchwork on his arm, stroking a tune of grief, his forearm a handy fiddle. The ligaments, veins, and tendons are tuned tight with his depression. He saws away and listens for the music.

His strength is gone, like his looks, lost in years of cheerful self-destruction. Both his precious prizes surrendered to the iron jaws of time and biology.

Keeping her brother afloat is what finally killed your mother. It didn’t start with him, but years of ladling out her heart left her no reserves to call her own. It all caught up to her when this last indignity was dumped on her. Then, with your mother gone, you were left to tend the weeping vagrant.

It wasn’t your decision to let him stay on once your mother’s heart quit. People skipped the funeral to avoid getting Uncle Adam as a parting gift from your mother’s flimsy estate.

There was no one else left to pay him any mind. Certainly not the wife he cheated on, three children left to go adrift, friends he tapped for cash too often, women used for recreation.

First time your mother found him at the window, stretching out his dick, you thought that was the end of it. It wasn’t. Your mother let her brother go on singing a lullaby to his crank, about the days when it was king and women gladly held it for him. All she did was close the drapes and steer him back into the dark.

What surprised you most was how she took Uncle Adam in without a word of scolding. He’d earned her very worst. She took him in and tried to make something whole out of the little that was left of her brother.

What special tether from childhood bound them? What malevolent neediness, what benevolent tyranny, that demanded her fragile days be spent on him?

You wanted to understand why, when the wounds your uncle inflicted pierced deep into the soft heart under her armor of charity. “It’s not your job to be strong for everyone else.”

“Maybe tomorrow I won’t be,” she would say, as if relief might come in the morning, a willful selfishness would arrive with the sun to relieve her of her innate compassion. “But for now, it’s enough.” That’s where she’d leave it.

If she was looking for gratitude from a parasite, she was sadly mistaken. You thought it a lot. Then, near the end, you spoke it.

“Not for his earthly trash,” the only flash of scorn and bitterness she allowed herself. “But for a treasure that doesn’t rust.”

That made no sense. You told her that, too.

“There’s treasure you’ll wear in heaven, and treasure you leave behind.”

She was gone before she could explain to you the alchemy needed to spin the unrelieved burden of this charity into sacred thread for weaving her heavenly garments.

Your malice, compounded daily against your uncle, will earn you no coupons redeemable for sainthood.  What do we have for the contestants, Johnny? A set of dull steak knives. The consolation prize for your sullen duty. And thanks for playing.

It took strength you don’t have to keep you from handing your uncle the one sharp knife from the block and let him get on with it.

You’re not strong, but you are stubborn. Like your mother. Maybe that’s the only treasure she left behind.

“Showtime’s over.” You pluck the knife out of his fist and pick up the empty bottle off the table.

“Look on the bright side,” you say, as you put the knife in the sink and the bottle in the trash. “Maybe you’ll be stronger tomorrow.”

You come back to stand over your uncle, who is still weeping into his sleeve.

“Or maybe tomorrow I won’t be.”

You leave him sprawled across the table and go on to work.