I held my breath the first time I saw a man die. It was December and I was 11 years old. The dead man was my uncle Harold, who never figured on reentering civilian life after Vietnam. He drifted from one gig to another--theater usher, high school janitor, security guard--and each gig had one thing in common: he could get away with drinking on the job. Bakersfield was a different place back then, you know.
He didn't talk much. I never took us to be too close, but since I was his only nephew I guess we were. Sometimes he'd go on trips, never saying where to, and that made my mother sick with anxiety. But he'd always make it back, a little bit worse for wear, and always with a gift for me. Usually it was a new pocket knife, one of those tiny, sissy little Case knives. I'd whittle sticks with them and sometimes chop up earthworms, but usually they'd sit on my night stand and I'd look at the stained bone on them, which is the closest I ever got to appreciating jewelry.
One time uncle Harold come to see me when I was home alone. My old man was on the road, surveying an automobile wreck in Wasco that killed some dumb teenagers, and mother was off in Los Angeles, presumably buying those fancy patterned dresses my old man hated. She always told me to shut up about that.
He said he was just in from New Orleans and he'd brought me something different this time. He told me to wait while he went in the kitchen and got my present cleaned up. I heard the familiar sound of a whiskey bottle uncorking but didn't think much of it. My grandpa said if you served the country you could drink as much rotgut whiskey as you damn wanted and no man had any business judging you for it.
Then the thud. I ran in the kitchen and I could see just by his eyes that he was dead. My present was one of those shrunken alligator heads. Not sure if it was the real thing but I suppose I don't care to find out. As I ran to the phone, I held my breath. I don't really know why. I guess I felt I couldn't breathe. Like there was death in the air and maybe I would catch it. It was December and I was 11 years old.