“Uncle Jim Called”
by David Rabe
from the July 8 & 15, 2019 issue of The New Yorker
David Rabe is not a name I know offhand, though a scan of his work shows that I have at least encountered him in film. It appears that the magazine’s efforts to publish work by names we might have forgotten over the past few decades is a real trend. Rabe has been working since the late 1960s, primarily as a playwright — winning the Tony Award for Best Play in 1972 for Sticks and Bones, and receiving a few more nominations over the years — though he has written some fiction and some screenplays.
Here is how “Uncle Jim Called” begins:
A week ago Thursday, my uncle Jim called. When I picked up the phone and said, “Hello,” he said, “Hello.” The voice was familiar and yet I didn’t recognize it. “Who is this?” I said.
“Jim,” he told me. “Uncle Jim.”
“What?” I was very surprised, because I thought Uncle Jim was dead. “Who is this?” I wanted to know. I really wanted to know.
“I just told you. Jim. I’m here with Hank. Is your mom home?”
“No,” I said. I thought Uncle Jim had been dead for years.
“Where is she?”
Now, the Hank he’d just referred to was probably his older brother, and my mom was their sister, Margie, and the thing of it was, the bewildering thing of it was that I thought they were all dead. “Is this some kind of joke?” I asked.
“We’re not laughing,” he said.
“Look,” I said, “I was in the middle of something here.”
“Oh, yeah? What?”
“Well, cooking. Dinner.”
“What? Is it dinnertime?”
“What are you cooking?”
“Stir-fry. You know, vegetables in a wok.”
“You never did have time for us, did you?”
That was a new voice, a different voice. “Hank?”
“I’m not sure I know what you mean by that.”
“Oh, I think you do.”
He was right. I did.
Two dead uncles calling during dinnertime presents an interesting premise. And check out all of the dialogue. As it turns out, Maggie, their sister, is dead too, so this is quite the sick joke, if Jim and Hank are joking.
I’m curious how this will continue. I found the opening section intriguing. I like the speed of the dialogue, and I like when Rabe slows it back down to allow Glenn to realize that he has no idea what’s going on.
Happy July — and please leave your comments below!