Uncle Harry

by Geoff Schutt


The second week in May and garbage day and Eleanor leaves the house to take a walk. There, on the ground, meant for the garbage but somehow having escaped, is a greeting card. A Christmas card, actually. “For a Dear Niece at Christmas,” reads the outside, and inside, “May this happy Christmas season, Bring special joy to you, To a brighter every day, dear Niece, Straight through the New Year, too!” It is signed, simply, “Uncle Harry.” Not “Love, Uncle Harry,” but “Uncle Harry.”

The front of the card pictures a young girl, perhaps the age Eleanor was when her mother left, or a little younger, but close enough. The girl is wearing a red jacket, covering a light blue dress, and she has a matching hat on her head, wider than her body, with little sparkles of diamonds. She holds a gift in one hand, and a flower in the other. It looks like a leaf from a poinsettia. But it might be a rose.

Eleanor tries to wipe the dirt from the card. It’s still moist from a morning rain.

She turns it over, looking for the marking — where the price would be. There is an imprint on the back that reads, “Art Guild of Williamsburg 10X592.”

The card could have been 50 years old. Or it might have only been a year old.

It certainly is at least five-plus months old, Eleanor thinks, and tossed out with the trash, but not quite making the trash, either.

Eleanor took this as a sign. She took lots of things as signs, but this was something bigger. This was something quite extraordinary in fact, finding a thrown-away Christmas card in the middle of May. She didn’t have an Uncle Harry, and if she did have a long lost Uncle Harry, if in another world, this card might have been meant for her – she wondered why he didn’t sign the card with some measure of “Love.” It all seemed so impersonal.

And it was so past tense.

And this wasn’t Christmas in July. This was disappointment in May.

Here was a card from an uncle to his niece. Perhaps a gift had accompanied the card. Maybe there was money. (Money is so easy to give – much easier than love. Even writing out the word “love.”)

Didn’t really matter, Eleanor thought. Did not really matter at all. Uncle Harry was a lousy guy. He was a jerk. He was everybody’s uncle they did not want to invite over for the holidays. He was an alcoholic. He was a gambler. He was a child molester.

You did not want to sit next to Uncle Harry at Christmas dinner, that’s for sure.

Or else – he didn’t know any better. Maybe he didn’t know how. The emotions part, Eleanor thought. Maybe he kept his emotions deep inside, but if he did keep his emotions inside, why even send the card in the first place? It seemed a waste of time. A waste of a Christmas card.

Eleanor hated the niece. She did at first, anyway. But the niece was beginning to seem familiar. Maybe the niece was a selfish young girl who didn’t care for Christmas at all. Maybe Uncle Harry had included a twenty dollar bill and all the niece could think was how to spend the money. Forget the card. Forget Uncle Harry until next year, or her birthday, or whatever.

Or maybe not.

“For a Dear Niece,” and you look so happy, but now you’ve been tossed out, and you’re not even good enough for the garbage, Eleanor thought. You land in the street and I find you.

Hello Dear Niece, my name is Eleanor. I suppose you’re good enough for me, Eleanor thought. You’re good enough for me to pick you up, and to brush the day’s scum off of you, and to hold you in my hands as if you are some girl deserving of that special joy, and to something brighter every day, whatever that meant. Through the New Year at the very least. Well, Eleanor, was thinking now, and quite loud in her own head she was thinking this. The New Year is long past. And so is Christmas. You understand? she was thinking. Christmas is over, and there is no New Year!

It’s the second week of May.

Present tense always seems to sneak up on her. Eleanor feels flushed. She thinks, But I wish — I wish — . God, no …. Her eyes are tearing up. I wish I had an Uncle Harry, and if he didn’t sign “Love” on his Christmas card to me, I’d make him say it. I would. I really would make him say it.

Even if he was a child molester, I’d make him say it. I would shake him by the shoulders. I would scream at him until he said it.

Eleanor turns to look at the houses. The card could have come from anywhere. “Do you hear me, Uncle Harry?” she cries out. “Do you hear me? I’m looking for you.”

And after all of this, she cannot let the card go. It would be too easy to let it fall right back to the ground, where she found it. Leave it for next garbage day. Or somebody will pick it up before garbage day. Or some animal or bird will use the card for a nest.

“Uncle Harry,” Eleanor says, but very softly, “I will always love you. It doesn’t even matter if you already have a niece. I will be your other niece. We can share you, Uncle Harry.”


an excerpt from a novel-in-progress



Geoff Schutt’s short fiction has appeared in The Quarterly (edited by Gordon Lish for Vintage Books/Random House), The Best of Writers at Work, The Wastelands Review and The Laurel Review, among others. He has received three artist grants for his fiction-as-performance art from The Arts Commission of Greater Toledo. After living in Ohio for many years, he now resides in the Washington, D.C. area. His novel-length work, including the novel from which this story is excerpted, is represented by James McGinniss of James McGinniss Literary Associates, New York City. More about Geoff Schutt is available at his blog, “This Side of Paradise,” at

Art by Mel Blossom


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