We catch our uncle
as he saunters up the driveway like an Aaron Copeland cowboy. My
sister and I tumble out the front door, leggy limbs flying, tangled up
with the dog that is just as delirious with glee, howling a welcome
that echoes our own excited shouts.
Last time he came,
we tracked tigers in
the field. Slow and stealthy, low to the ground, triumphantly
announcing the tiger paw prints spotted in the sandy patches.
Sometimes, he explains, it’s good to take a break so that we don’t get
too close to the tigers. We pause in the wide sunshine space on
the top of the pear tree hill with the best view. He stops to
smoke behind us and tells us to turn and watch the sky for alien
spaceships that he says, prefer to land in spots like these.
Clouds drift over the sun casting round slow shadows onto the grassy
expanse – we are sure it’s a space ship hovering, waiting to pull us up
toward the cloud castles.
The best game by far, is playing hide
and seek with the dogs. All the thorns, poison ivy, and wood
ticks are worth hiding from them. He waits until they are far
ahead, oblivious to us, reveling in unleashed field freedom, chasing
deer or rabbits, and we hope, not the tigers. Then we plunge into
the dense jungle spots to hide, hearts pounding, sweaty palms clenched,
waiting, sucking in our breath. Suddenly aware that we are
missing, ears perked, noses to the ground, agitated, they search for
us; darting back and forth across our foot prints. They pick up
our scent and root us out from the juniper, covering us with
reproachful smelly kisses and imploring silently with their
brown-marbled eyes. Wagging feathery tails, they trot off,
satisfied that the world is right again. I don’t think they like
playing hide and seek as much as we do.
Today, he announced, he would take us to
the go-carts. As my sister and I drove away, waving hasty
goodbyes to my mom and little brother like after thoughts, he explained
that we should probably duck down in the backseat of the car. Our
eyes wide, he continues, “I have to rob the gas station so I can pay
for the go-carts and root beer.” We are scared but know that it’s
worth the risk.
At the gas station by the corner, we
watch our daring, reckless uncle leap from the car, blue eyes
sparkling, sandy-blond hair waving across his forehead like Owen
Wilson. We adore this uncle of sunny afternoons; he is mostly
silent at family functions but never shy around us. He fills the slow
coffee time between dinner and desert at Christmas Eve and Easter with
thumb wars and Far Side comics. He also likes Opus; we don’t know
why they are funny, but we like the pictures and we love Opus.
My little sister and I huddle together
in the backseat of the car, whispering small frightened thoughts to
each other, too afraid to peek out to see what’s happening behind us in
the gas station parking lot.
Swift as Indiana Jones, more skilled
than Luke Skywalker, he plunges back into the car, breathlessly
shouting over his shoulder, “That was a close call, now you better
buckle up – we have to outrun the cops.” Tires squealing, we
pull away, racing down 61, windows open, wind so strong in our faces
that it catches at our breath. Together we evade the police,
quick and clever.
During the winter, he babysits
sometimes. We eat endless dollar Tostino’s Pizzas, and after that,
build forts. The entire basement is transformed using sheets,
cushions, coffee tables and books – we construct fantastic intricate
tunnels. My brother is too little to play; he sits strapped in
his high chair under the only light we leave on at the foot of the
stairs. I pour a mound of Cheerios on his tray to keep him and
the dog occupied. Squeaking like mice, my sister and I scamper
into the darkness, balling ourselves small, terrified that he will find
us and tickle us until we die. Die or scream the magic word.
At Raceway To Fun, we enter a world that
only he has the secret password to. Its endless games, go-carts
and the noisy dark arcade filled with teenagers that my mom says we are
too young to visit. The bumper boats sit in a brilliant, too blue
pool that sparkles like a tropical cove, cool and wet in the summer
After a wait that seems eternal, longer
than Sunday morning service, it’s our turn at last. I am buckled
into a go-cart, big enough now to drive by myself down the black snaky
track. The carts idle and whine like angry sewing beetles,
gasoline coats the air, strong and smoky. The man who buckles me
in looks the same age as my uncle but he has tattoos laced around his
wiry arms. His long hair smells of swamp weeds and
sun. I wish for a moment that I could ride with my uncle like
my little sister, whose legs are still too young to reach the
pedals. Racing around the curves, squeezing the worn steering
wheel, trying to remember which pedals to push I feel grown-up, and
wise. I know everyone waiting in line is amazed at my speed
as I drive, zipping past their dazzled eyes.
Later, at the drive-up A&W next
door, we eat burgers and drink root beer floats. The root beers
foams over the glass mugs spilling onto the concrete under the picnic
table, where the flies buzz and gobble at it greedily. The ice
cream, smooth and crystallized in spots, slides down our throats –
a sweet summer-only treat.
Before one sad naptime, my mother gently
explained that we cannot marry our uncle. But one day we know
that we will fall in love with someone just like him – that cuts the
regret a little. Someone crossed with Luke Skywalker and Owen
Wilson who will take us on adventures like my Uncle does.
It’s the most glorious golden August
afternoon, brought to life by my dashing, magical, gas-station robbing
uncle who is busy at college, he says, leaning forward over his root
beer, “where I am studying to become a pirate.”