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Uncle Billy

by Leonora Desar

     When I was three I discovered I had a cage across my chest. No one else could see this—especially not my parents. They took me to a doctor—what does the cage feel like? It just feels like a cage. I see.

          There was this one girl, Elise—she could see it. Her cage was across the wrist. She said—hi my name’s Elise and my father likes to drink.

           I nodded. She was smaller than me. She had the same bangs only they had a Puckish look on her, like a Bronxian Punky Brewster.

           In the sand we compared bars. She said, this is my Aunt Ellen and this is my father, drinking—what are your bars called? I told her I didn’t have names for them. I could feel her disappointment. I would have to make something up. I said, this is my Uncle Billy—he’s in jail.

           Her eyes got a little wider—what did he do?

           He killed someone.

           We sat there with that knowledge. Then it was time for snacks.

           Elise wanted to meet my Uncle Billy. By the end of the day I believed this was a possibility. I believed in the reality of Uncle Billy almost as much as she did—more so. I said, Mom, when is Uncle Billy coming home? Mom said we had an Uncle Michael and that’s when I remembered—I told her to stop talking.

           When I got home I wrote my Uncle Billy letters—

           Dear Uncle Billy,

           Sorry that you’re in Prison. We’re all in Prison here.

           Love, your niece

           (I did all this in my head. I couldn’t write yet. This was a problem.)

           I took Uncle Billy with me to high school. College—he was everywhere. My boyfriend said why are you so fucked up and I said, Uncle Billy. On my wedding night my husband looked at me and I turned away. Let me guess—Uncle Billy. When my mother died I held her hand. I said, I’m sorry I was never there. I went home and told Uncle Billy. I had volumes of our correspondence. Sometimes I drew pictures—here is me at graduation. Here is me in marriage. Here is me alone. Here is me.

           I imagined he put them on the wall—he told his cellmates, this is my niece. She is all kinds of trouble, but I love her. They said, you are so lucky to have someone like that. They wished their own relatives would write.

           He wrote letters back to me but he never sent them. He was embarrassed. He never finished school. Sometimes he would just write his name out on the page—Billy Billy Billy—with his smell. He rubbed himself across the page. He smelled like baby powder. Like gunpowder and lost things. He was a thin, handsome man—he had the perpetual beginnings of a goatee. It would sprout up and then hang there. It didn’t want to go further. It smelled like the air outside the cage—right there. Sometimes Billy would want to tell me this. It would be like me in nursery school—he just wouldn’t have the words.

Author's Note

Dear Uncle Billy,


I am writing to thank you, well, for everything. I remember the day I found you. I’d written on a Post-it or maybe a receipt—Write about the cage!!!

When I woke up it was gone. This tends to happen. Usually I’ll be hunting for my cell phone and—if I’m lucky—I’ll find something. A paper or a receipt. A Post-it. A scrap of notebook paper. An ex-boyfriend. If I’m lucky I can even read my handwriting.

But anyway, I found it—you. You were there inside the cage.


This would be a thing with you. It was distracting. I had set out to write about the cage. And now I was writing about you. It was a problem. People in certain workshops were always accusing me of this—“You start with X and then you end up with Y. What’s up with that, Leonora?”

Can we just stick with the facts? I said. 

I’ve been trying to stay organized. I found the ex and he was not what I remembered.


I miss you.

Your niece

Leonora Desar’s writing has appeared in matchbook, River Styx, Passages North, Mid-American Review, Black Warrior Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf and Wigleaf’s Top 50, and elsewhere. Her matchbook piece “My Father’s Girlfriend” was selected for The Best Small Fictions 2019 and Best Microfiction 2019. She won third place in River Styx’s 2018 microfiction contest and was a runner-up/finalist in Quarter After Eight’s Robert J. DeMott Short Prose contest, judged by Stuart Dybek, and Crazyhorse's Crazyshorts! contest. She lives in Brooklyn.

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