by Bob Pajich
My parents threw a party the night before, a loud day-into-night party with a bunch of their friends and lots of wine and beer. People kept leaving and coming, bringing more booze and more beer and more food. 1986. Dogs walked around wagging their tails and eating chips and crumbs of cake off the floor. Me and my cousins did the same, among all those hips and asses, all those beer cans and empty wine bottles. Hot dogs and Cherikee Red pop.
Aunt Barb made Uncle Pete take her and the kids home around midnight and that was it for the kids except me. Uncle Pete dropped them off and came back to keep the train rolling. I sat in the corner, ate chips and dip until I couldn’t take it anymore and went to bed early in the morning, the house full of smoke, people dancing on the back porch, citronella candles burning, and I fell asleep with loud vibration through the mattress.
When I woke up, the whole house was opened up and empty. All the windows were opened, the front door was open, the back door to the big porch, still open. I peed, looked at myself in the mirror and ran back down the steps. I walked out back to see if mom was floating on her inner tube, but she wasn’t there and the inner tube hung limply off a post on the deck. She would be pissed about that. Me and my friends weren’t allowed to use her inner tube. We popped them by jumping off the deck onto each other. We called it battleship. We sunk a lot of battleships. Mom was sick of funding the navy.
I walked down to the basement. There were no signs of life. I went back into the kitchen, poured a bowl of cereal and milk and ate it on the back porch. I really wasn’t worried but I wished I knew where at least mom was. They probably ran to McDonalds or to Valley Pool for some chemicals after all those people filled it with their sweaty bodies. Shock it. Whenever someone mentioned the pool needed to be shocked, my dad would suggest mom jump in naked.
Uncle Charley, who wasn’t my uncle, came through the house and found me sitting on the back porch steps. He grabbed a beer out of the fridge and a Mason jar out of the cupboard. He came outside and placed the can and jar on the table.
“There he is,” he said. “Do I look as bad as I feel? Do I look like a pice of elephant shit?
“You look like you always do,” I said.
“That’s no good.”
He sat down and carefully poured his can of beer into the jar, perfectly, without a trace of a head. He got up and went to the fridge. He came back with an egg.
“This is an old football player trick,” he said. “Hung over weightlifters. Bearded ladies.”
He cracked the egg and dumped the unbroken yolk into the jar. The little glob of sun sunk to the bottom. He held the glass up to me, in the light, a scientist examining a specimen.
“I learned this in the Marines.”
He smoothly chugged the beer and I watched the egg slide down the glass and into his mouth and belly.
“That should do it. But probably won’t.”
“I can’t believe you just did that. That’s groady.”
“The ladies love it. Where are your parents?”
“They’re not here.”
“I lost my wallet. I think I left it here. I’ll give you five bucks if you find it.”
“It’s right there,” I pointed at the porch wall, near the post.
He grabbed his wallet and pulled out a wet five. I laid it flat on the railing. He leaned on the wood rail and surveyed the landscape. A branch from the sour cherry tree hung split in the yard. Someone fell into a butterfly bush and crushed a good portion of it flat. The bricks used to frame a little flower garden were scattered and the flower bed looked like a bombed city. Charley went over to the grill, lifted the lid and looked at the white powdered coals. He picked up a black hot dog that met its fate around midnight. He went to take a bite but it was too rancid even for him. He held his palm above the ash and put the lid back.
“Would you eat eat a burger or dog if I fired this back up?”
“Go find a bucket in the garage for these ashes.”
I pulled open the big door. The sunlight hitting all that garbage always moved me. I looked around and spotted a bucket filled with some rags. I dumped the rags on the floor. A pair of panties tumbled out among the rags, a wet pair of panties at the bottom of a bucket of dry rags. It didn’t compute.
“Some party,” Charlie said.
“You guys were so loud.”
“The cops came and told us to turn it down. It was my cousin Joe. He stayed for a drink. I wonder where the Wonder Twins are. Grab me a beer, wouldja?”
That’s what he called my parents.
Charley cleaned out the ash and built a little pyramid out of charcoal. He grabbed the metal can of lighter fluid and soaked it with a long stream, holding it high, watching the liquid arch.
“Stand back,” he said.
He snapped the Bic to life, held it at arm’s length, and squirted a quick blast of fluid at the flame. A ball of fire and a whoosh filled the porch with instant heat.
“Geezoman,” I said. “You’re crazy. We got those long matches,” I said, pointing.
“Why pass up a chance to play with fire,” he said, pouring his new can of beer into the mason jar.
“I forgot your egg.”
“Yeah, good. No, I only need that, like, once a year. I couldn’t sleep. Too humid.”
“I just got up.”
“And your folks, no one around.”
“It doesn’t take long for these coals to get hot. I hope there’s some meat left. I need some protein.”
Charley slapped his belly and squeezed a tiny ring of fat. The night before, we watched him try 25 pull-ups on a dare. He made it to 23 before the tree limb snapped.
“I should swim more, do some laps. It was nice of your dad to buy you kids that pool.”
Charley watched the fire boil down and disappear into glowing coals. The briquettes changed from black to white and I stood and watched, too. Every few minutes, Charley blew on them to speed things up.
“What time did you get up?”
“Like, half-hour ago.”
He looked at me.
“How old are you again?”
“Ten in May.”
“Ten in May. Happy birthday.”
“You got me walkie-talkies.”
“They work pretty good. Depends on the batteries.”
“Let’s see them.”
“They’re actually out of batteries. They eat them up.”
“Damn, I don’t think I have any 9-volts.”
“We don’t. I looked 10 times.”
“What about in the smoke detectors?”
“We don’t have any.”
“I wanted to test the range on them, see if you could get all the way down to the fire hall.”
“The Morse code button is cool. It has a chart telling you how to do each letter right on it.”
“You tap it out, huh?”
Charley walked over to the porch railing. He gazed at the battlefield, the bricks scattered at the bottom of the small stoop, the cherry tree branch laying in the yard, all those dead little white flowers. He leaned over the railing to get a better look at the street, his feet leaving the ground.
“Isn’t that Pete’s car?”
I walked down the steps to get a better view, to verify. My real Uncle Pete’s Volkswagen Rabbit sat there on Helena Street.
The coals turned white. Charley took a wire brush and scrubbed the grill grate and little bits of fat and meat sizzled when they fell. He scrubbed and sweated, scrapping the wires
shiny clean. He looked at me.
“I guess Pete stayed here?”
I didn’t know. The old glider stuffed with horsehair wasn’t flattened. I ran upstairs into my parent’s room. I couldn’t tell if the bed was used last night or not. The room always smelled sour.
Back on the porch, Charley had two beef patties and two hot dogs going and they already smelled good. He splashed the meat with salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce. The hot dogs wobbled back and forth, squirting juice.
“Look at this place,” he said.
The picnic table was covered in glasses and beer cans and bottles, an ashtray with a hundred dead cigarettes. A candle melted down and split its side, unleashing a shiny red flood over the table, through the cracks and onto the floor. Every inch of counter-space in the kitchen looked the same. Charley finished his beer. I grabbed another can before he even asked. He grabbed a garbage bag from inside and furiously plucked at the empties. He filled it in a minute.
“OK, the key is not to mess with them. Once they’re on, let them go. About five minutes, first side, three or four the next. You got to learn when they’re done by touch.” He pointed with the spatula. “Go like this.”
He touched his thumb to his pointer finger, made an OK sign. He went from finger to finger with his thumb.
“Feel that ball of muscle in your thumb. It goes rare, medium rare, medium well, well done. That’s how the meat should feel. That’s how you cheat. All touch.”
I moved my thumb and felt the ball of muscle. By the time I got to my pinky finger, the thumb muscle was hard and tight. Well done. Charley rolled the hot dogs and flipped the burgers and drank beer. I found a can of grape pop floating in the cooler, cold as possible.
“Where the hell are they, Bucco?”
“Maybe they ran to McDonalds.”
“Man, you always got McDonalds on your mind.”
He sat at the picnic table. An empty can he missed tipped over and rolled to the floor.
“We better call your Aunt Barb to see. Watch the protein.” He handed me the big metal spatula, the handle hot from his grip.
As he dialed, I stood by the grill, poking the browning meat patties, watching the fire leap and eat the dripping grease. The spatula was as big as a tennis racket. I had no idea what I was looking for or waiting for, smiling like a goon. I made an OK sign and felt the little ball of muscle. I poked the burgers with the spatula. I couldn’t tell anything by it and didn’t want to touch them like Charley. I rolled my hot dog over but it wouldn’t stay, rolled right back.
“How’s it going?”
He took the spatula from me and flipped the burgers like a professional bull fighter, one flick of the wrist for each patty.
“Grab a bun, your dog is char-broiled. And grab me another beer, please. And the condiments.”
I did and he plucked the dog off the grill with his fingers and plopped it in.
“You a mustard eater?”
“Yeah. I like mustard and relish and onion.”
“I respect a man who likes mustard and relish and onion.”
He handed me the round bottle of yellow mustard and I squirted a thin wavy line. He did his mustard only and wolfed it down in three bites.
My hot dog was the best thing I ever put in my Goddamn mouth.
“What time is it?”
I ran in and looked at the blinking 12:00 on the microwave. The power must have gone out. Someone must have tripped the breaker. The clock on the VCR blinked 12:00, too. I ran upstairs to my parents room. Their clock had a battery emergency back-up and it’s face held a bright and steady red 8:47. I opened the door to the bedside table and grabbed one of the Playboys stacked in there, giving it a quick, thrilling glimpse before reporting back the time to my fake Uncle Charley.
I found him on the phone, sitting on the bottom landing, the tan cord tangled around his arm. It looked like some ghost reached down his throat and pulled out his skeleton. I understood what happened, it came to me in a gust. Uncle Pete took an early morning dive and was sunk.