He arrived from South Bend on a Thursday. Small and hunched over, Uncle Rempt had a bald spot on his crown shaped like the yin and yang symbol—a backward S in a circle, a dot of hair on either side.
"Car trouble," he said when he finally showed up at our place in Helena, Montana. "Had to play tuba at a roadside joint to buy the new radiator. How are you doing, missy?" he said, turning toward me. Though shy, I couldn't help laughing, at least until my father glanced my way.
"You're gonna sell crystals?" my kid brother Brad said with his best you-some-kind-of-idiot? sneer. We'd all heard about the crystals.
Uncle Rempt winked, his elf body now doing a 180 so that we could all see "Area 51" written in metallic silver on his t-shirt, a little spaceship flying up near the neckline, under his blue velvet jacket. Facing Brad, he said, "You must have a fine business of your own raking in all kinds of loot." My uncle swished the hair on Brad's head back and forth in a way I knew my brother hated.
It was everything I could to keep from laughing again, what with Brad's blotched red coloring indicating he was coming to a boil. Then Rempt caught my eye, smiled, reached behind my hugely curly hair, and brought out a baby chick.
"Oh!" I said, delighted.
"Get that thing out of here!" my dad said.
Rempt's opposite, Dad was tall and paunchy at forty-six, though he too had a bald spot, which I now realized looked like jail bars, black rows of hair across white skin. He wouldn't let Rempt stay at our place, giving his brother directions to the Super 8 Motel almost immediately.
After my uncle had left, Dad told us at the dinner table, "Haven't seen Rempt since '02, the year they caught him practicing medicine without a license."
"How does he know how to heal people?" I asked.
We were eating fish and chips, like every Friday. I was on my best behavior because now that I was a junior, Dad was considering letting me live in the college dorms senior year.
"Geez, Dad," my brother said, "the school's Catholic and she's a frigging accounting major and the dorm's all girls. It's not like she's going to get knocked up. She hardly even talks to her boyfriend."
Mom, diminutive, blushed. "Everybody got a napkin?" she asked.
While she and I tried to be invisible, Brad, who Dad thought was a scream, heaped up a forkful of slimy fries, oil dripping off the tines, and said, "I'm going to college early if I have to keep eating this junk."
Two days later, Dad slammed through the front door after visiting the small shop Uncle Rempt had rented. "The scoundrel's sleeping in the store room with a bunch of colored glass, for god's sake."
"All that glass must be pretty," I said.
"You stay away from there."
On one of our twice-weekly dates, my boyfriend, Michael, also Catholic and studying accounting, looked up toward Jesus at the mere mention of crystals. "You didn't tell me about that part of your family," he said. After graduation, Michael planned to marry me, and then we'd move to Whitefish to work at the credit union and have two children.
"Uncle Rempt?" I said. "He's one of my favorites." We were sitting in a Denny's, a place Brad said was safe since it was public and we wouldn't be tempted to do anything untoward.
"Oh, Susan. I don't think we want him around our kids."
"How many did you say we're having?" I said, sprinkling my fourth and fifth packets of sugar onto my waffles.
"Two, that's right. We're having two." I laughed, shrinking my hands back quickly away from the sugar bowl.
The crystal store opened a week later. I got right over there without telling anyone. The place smelled of sandalwood.
"Susan," Uncle Rempt said, hugging me warmly.
"Wow." I gazed spellbound at a jasper green stone splattered with red.
"Bloodstone." He folded it into my hand. "You need to keep the thing, sweetheart, living with that brother of mine. Could be the most important crystal out there, and you went straight for it. The stone of courage, they say. Destroys the walls of prisons, opens all doors."
Quartz, tiger eye, and amethyst sparkled under glass cases. Prisms made of aquamarine, topaz, and tourmaline hung in the window, the sun penetrating the translucent stones, warm color bathing my face and arms, peacefulness.
"Crystals are essential," he told me. "Humans have lost touch with Earth's magic."
I was too overwhelmed with gratitude to respond.
Dad grumbled about the gems every chance he got. "Reminds me of the time he ran away," he said later that week. "The police found him in Miami conning women, saying he'd make them porn stars. Never figured out where he got money for the plane ticket and camera. That's when the folks threw him out the first time."
"Good lord," Uncle Rempt said the next day at the shop. "I was seventeen, and my girlfriend paid for everything. She wanted to be in Playboy, for heaven's sake. The girl made me lovesick, but I couldn't get her to stop posing."
Leaning quietly against a wall made of only drywall and a little putty, thumbtacks and crystals hanging here and there, I asked, "You mean . . . "
"She wouldn't stop spreading them," Rempt said, sitting down at the only chair in the room, his head in his hands, unnerved. "Under the table at MacDonald's, in crowded movie theaters, when the gas attendant came over to check the oil. The police caught us visiting Santa at Macy's."
I let my back slide down the drywall, sank low with my uncle. "You mean . . . "
"Spread them right in front of all those little kids and their mamas and grandmas. The rent-a-cops took us both in, but even though she was only fifteen, I was underage, too, so they just called our folks. My parents wouldn't even hear me out. Never let me explain. They immediately thought the worst. Your father wasn't much help. They sent me to the YMCA, but the place wouldn't let me check in because I wasn't eighteen. I slept on the streets for weeks."
Seeing he was about to weep, I stood and patted his shoulder, went to make him some tea.
I smuggled myself over to Uncle Rempt's place every chance I got, assisted him in understanding his clients, released myself from everyday life to see where the crystals would take me. I asked women what really made them happy, what they really wanted to do, and who or what was keeping them from doing it. I started answering these questions for myself and moving even further into Uncle Rempt's camp.
Over the next few months, he sold water sapphires and amber and onyx to opulent ladies with French manicures and diamond tennis bracelets, guiding one to higher awareness, another to a place of serenity, a third to let go of the heartbreak of losing her baby. I saw what Dad was talking about, yet what I noticed most was the women leaving happier, calmer.
That fall Dad rewarded me for my high GPA with a pre-owned Toyota. The family waved goodbye as I drove off to live senior year in the dorms. When my parents went back inside, Brad turned and flashed me a moon.
But once I'd moved in, Dad called relentlessly. "Are you getting enough sleep?" he asked. "Are you eating the right way?" One night he called and said, "Have you started buying thongs?"
"Your mother wanted to know."
"It's none of your business."
"Everything you do is our business."
"I wish I wasn't sleeping or eating enough," I told him.
"What are you talking about, Susan? Do I need to drive over there?"
I didn't continue explaining that I only wished I fit into the dorm better and, like the other girls, drank instead of eating, and gorged on brownies after a few hits of Chronic. If only I were invited to a party or two, I wouldn't have to admit to sleeping so well. But I doubted I'd be any happier. The other girls dished under their breath about the silver electrician's tape I wrapped around my shoes, the way all of my clothes were red and green now that I wished so fervently that the colors of that jasper stone would free me. They stared tirelessly at my wildly curly hair, hair I did nothing to curb, so curly it turned into dreadlocks without any input from me.
Then there was the day in history class when my teacher finally questioned my obsession with the Darwin Theory.
"This is a Catholic college," I told her, "so you have to teach creationism. But what do you really think?"
"Susan P. Gaylord!" she said in response.
"Go ahead, burn me at the stake, report me to the deacon and my parents and anyone else you want. But I need to ask you an honest question. I've wanted to know this since I was a little girl. Don't we look and act just like apes?"
The sister gave the rest of the girls in the class a short recess so that she could speak with me alone. "You know our religion doesn't believe this," she said quietly.
"But I'm just asking you to think about it as a human being, not a Catholic. Anybody can see that chimpanzees' hands are the same as ours," I said. "Dolphins talk like we do. Who's more empathetic than a dog? Tell the truth!"
Finally Dad snuck and parked the family car down the street from Uncle Rempt's Crystal Shop one day. They were all waiting inside.
"Why are you here?" Dad asked the minute the crystals over the threshold started chinking. He was sitting on the folding chair, glaring at the worn-out door, waiting for me. Mom pretended not to be there, standing in the screened area where Uncle Rempt slept. Brad pocketed a few gems while we talked.
"What do you mean what am I doing here? He's my uncle." I didn't sit down. I certainly wasn't going to stay for this.
"We're filling out applications to become spiritual coaches, Bruce," Rempt said. "Great school in Albuquerque."
"Right," I said, and the two of us cracked ourselves up laughing.
"You think that's funny, Rempt," he said, "because you never had kids of your own."
"You think all she can hope for is to be a teller in Whitefish and live with a man who doesn't see the heart in this girl, who doesn't have two good eyes in his head to see what a beauty she is?"
"For the love of God, Rempt," Dad said. "I don't want her over here. Clear?"
"She's getting older," my uncle said. "How long can you tell her where she can and can't go."
I felt for my dad, who clearly didn't want to acknowledge, as I had long ago, that I'd never be the princess he'd hoped for.
That night when I got back to the dorm, Dad had left a message on my machine: "We've cancelled the payment on your dorm. We expect you home for Friday fish."
I called Michael. "Let's move in together now and see how we get along."
"Has that dorm made a she-devil out of you, Susan?" he asked.
I packed up everything the following day, even the teddy and thong I'd bought just in case Michael was more fun than I thought he was going to be. I took a last look around and decided I wouldn't miss the place at all.
I left a voice mail saying I'd be staying with a friend in town collecting for a mission to Haiti so they wouldn't start looking until my trail cooled. Uncle Rempt thought the Corolla made us seem more legitimate, and we ate jelly beans just as colorful as the crystals all the way to Albuquerque. Uncle Rempt tucked his haul of gems all over the car—the trunk, the glove box, sitting in the rear window over the trunk. Truck drivers boomed their horns at us, small children flashed us peace signs out the back of minivans. We were never going to stop.