Friday, September 15, 2017

Uncle Harry by Michael Stewart

When Michael travels to visit family, Uncle Harry picks him up from the airport and takes him on a wild trip down memory lane; by Michael Stewart.

My uncle Harry was bigger than life. I expected him to roll up in a Lamborghini this time or a chauffeured stretch limo or even a fire truck with sirens blaring. It wouldn't have been out of character for him. But as it was, this foggy evening, he drove a classic '73 Corvette with a paint job that changed colors like a chameleon under the florescent lights. He beeped his horn twice and swung in front of me, popping the trunk.

"Hey, Michael," he said, rising out of the driver's door, thick black hair blowing in the wind as he rushed around the car. Overcoat flapping.

Cars drove by and others pulled alongside to pick up passengers. People bustled by pulling baggage behind and porters helped them. A plane flew overhead and the tumult was lost in the roar.

I couldn't make out what Harry was saying when he glided up and wrapped me in a bear hug, squeezing me with a strength I thought left him long ago. Such was Harry, he had an effortless way of slicing through traffic, and crowds, red tape and difficult situations like a hot knife through butter.

"...the flight?" he was saying.

"The flight? Yeah, good flight, all good, Harry," I shouted over the cacophony of cars, planes, whistles and loud conversation.

"How are you feeling?"

"Never felt better," he smiled and patted his chest, "Let's get out of here."

I had to agree, he looked good. And I wanted to get away from the noise.

But right in the middle of the hubbub of the airport, he looked at me, his eyes resonating a peace from within. It drew me in and for a second I sank into a lull. The clamor of the world disappeared and a stillness came over me like staring into a silent universe, one inside another, and another, and on and on forever.

I snapped out of my reverie, and Harry grinned. Something about him. More confidence? More vigor? I couldn't decide. I threw my one bag in the trunk. Harry said, "we've got to make a detour on the way to the house." His overcoat swished in the wind before he disappeared on the driver's side.

I hopped in. Nice interior. Warm, plush, and very quiet. So quiet I couldn't hear the outside discord of the world. I turned to Harry who looked straight ahead, collar up, long hair obscuring his face.

"Where to?" I said.

"A detour," he said and sliced through traffic like a thought on the wind.



Lights whirled as he sped up. Harry, always a reckless driver, seemed hell bent for time. His arms straight out, gripping the wheel tight. We swerved around cars faster and faster until I stopped looking out the side windows. It was making me dizzy. I stared straight ahead and watched the lights pass us until my insides went giddy and I shut my eyes.

A memory rose in me of a time before high school when I spent a week with my aunt and cousin and him, racing his Mercedes sedan down the highway, playing cat and mouse with some unknown driver, ending with Harry reaching into the glove box and brandishing his .44 Magnum revolver, barrel waving in the air at the motorist. The man's eyes widened, and he moved on shortly after with his middle finger in the air. And Harry laughed.

"Whoa, Harry," I said, almost sick to my stomach, "what's going on? Can you slow down?" as I asked the question I felt my insides lift like someone had pumped me full of helium. Time slowed and a perfect sense of calm and peace took over. I didn't care if we exploded or careened off a cliff. I was carried, weightless through a vacuum in perfect synergy with circumstance.

I began to feel the sensation of moving backward, floating. In apprehension, I cracked my lids and stark realization hit, the lights outside were moving backward like going warp speed in a tunnel. It was all around us, long streaming lights of purple, blues and gold, and colors I'd never seen before. My mind was having trouble working this out. I closed my eyes on reflex. And after a period when I felt nothing at all, I ventured to open them again.

I found myself seated on a wooden bench, surrounded by boys around nine years old, dressed in baseball uniforms. I had the sensation of participating and observing at the same time. Sitting on the bench among friends, loud baseball chatter, spitting sunflower seeds, throwing gloves against the dugout, sunshine in our eyes. The smell of cut grass and leather mitts was strong.

I took a deep breath, unconcerned with how and when I got there, but rather accepting and sinking into the role.

Simultaneously, I saw my nine-year-old self, inside the dugout, turning attention from the action on the ballfield to a loud raucous Harley Davidson motorcycle pulling up in the dirt parking lot. Bike revving and dust flying, everybody in the stands turned to look.

The fact it was loud was disturbing. It broke the sanctity of the game which had been a church to me. It was my aunt Mel and her new boyfriend, Harry. They were both eighteen. My aunt, in hip hugger hot pants, young, with long brown hair and hot as hell, had every man's attention as she lifted off the back of the bike and shook off the kinks of the road. Including my coach, who said:

"Damn, who is that?" He couldn't take his eyes off her.

"My aunt, and her boyfriend," my brother, Pat, said. Embarrassment and jealousy shot through me. After all, my hot looking aunt, just a few years older than I, was with this young man with long hair. An interloper, an intruder, to the family and to the sanctity and purity of baseball.

"Very cool," an older teammate said.

I scoffed, but a kernel of pride began to swell pushing aside any sense of embarrassment I might have felt. They were very cool, and almost ten years older than me, despite their unreserved tone they set on their entrance.

They sauntered up to the chain-link at the back of the dugout.

"Hey, Mel," I said, and more reluctant, "Harry."

"Hey, Mikey, Pat," my aunt chimed, "you guys winning?"

"Yep, o'course," my brother said proudly. It was the year we were champions.

"Your dad couldn't make it," Harry said, discreetly, almost in a whisper as he got close to the chain-link.

"Okay," my brother said, looking down. But he recovered quickly, infatuated with Harry's long hair and bike.

I nodded to my aunt and her boyfriend; I knew my father wasn't at the game because he had too much to drink and was probably home nursing his second or third highball. Even though I was sad and hurt he couldn't make it, I was grateful they did. More than I could say. It meant a lot to me that someone from my family was there to watch. It was the game that made us regional champions. And I knew if it hadn't been for Harry, my aunt's new boyfriend, no one would have shown. He seemed to take a liking to me and my brothers, for whatever reason, and liked to show up unexpected at our sporting events. The thought made me soften towards him.

I became the observer and melted into my senses. I became filled with the warm breeze, the smell of cut grass, the splash of orange poppies in the field next to us and a sky so beautiful, John Constable couldn't do it justice.

I had a sense of fading backward and it all vanished in a blink as I became suspended, like floating in the air.

Before my eyes opened I was being pushed, then hit in the breadbasket, I couldn't breathe. I sucked air and pushed back, tried to swing against whomever and caught nothing but air. I gasped and opened my eyes to my boyhood home in Santa Cruz. Standing in the family room, TV blaring, my brother before me. He grabbed my collar with one hand and drew back for a haymaker. I rushed him, hitting him in the wind and pushing against his body weight with all I had, stumbling into the wall, both of us in tight grips on each other. Pushing, shoving, trying to get a punch in. He outweighed me by a hundred pounds and I was about to get my ass kicked.

"Hey, hey! What's going on?" I heard a voice saying.

Harry, now my uncle, squeezed his body between me and my brother, separating us. No small task. On pushing us apart my brother reached me with a roundhouse and hit me a good one sending sparks of light through my brain and making my eyes water.

"Come on! That was a cheap shot!" he barked at my brother. He pushed my brother against the wall and stared him down until he wilted. He turned and asked if I was alright. And swallowing the lump in my throat I mouthed the words, "Yeah, I'm okay." Then I felt his hand on my shoulder as he walked me outside.

My heart pumped and I brushed away a tear.

"You'll be okay, bud," Harry said, patting my back in a paternal way, "life is going to deal you some cheap shots, believe me. All of us have to take them, including me." I looked at him, grateful as hell he'd been there. And not just for breaking up the fight but for the pep talk.

"Someday you'll be older and bigger and able to kick your brother's ass!" he said, shaking his fist in my face, grinning. I laughed. He broke the seriousness and lent the moment the levity I needed to lighten my heart.

"Thanks, Harry," I mumbled as we walked, his hand on my shoulder. We talked until I had calmed down.

Again the observer, I watched my thirteen-year-old self and Harry talk, but I had no sense of point of view, I was looking at them from all angles. Then my consciousness was sucked into the vortex, falling backward, tumbling. There was no up or down. No sense of how long I'd been there. Then breath came and my eyes opened.

The chartered boat rocked horribly, stern to bow. I felt sick and green in the gills. I wanted it to end, to be on dry land. Harry walked up to me, put his arm around my shoulders, "You look pretty sick devil-dog, do you want to go back?"

"No..." I said.

On leave from the Marine Corps, I decided to give my favorite aunt and uncle a call and spend the weekend. Uncle Harry took me fishing in the Bay, and lunch on the pier. We were on a charter boat, five hours already, and I wasn't looking forward to lunch anymore. The other clients on the boat looked hardcore, fishing hats, working man's pants with plaid parkas, weathered faces and calloused hands that had been dealing with fishing hooks for a lifetime.

I wanted to say, "Yes." I wanted to say, "Turn the boat around, please!" but I was too embarrassed and ashamed. My twenty-one-year-old pride wouldn't allow me. And Harry looked at me with eyes that not only asked the question but eyes that cared what the answer was. I tried to smile and lost my breakfast over the railing to the disgust and amusement of the men on the boat. I sat down to breathe, my arms crossed on the rail, my head down. Harry left me to speak to the captain, and when he returned he sat down, patted my shoulder and said;

"We're going back, Michael."

"Harry," I gasped, "you didn't have to -"

"It's okay, buddy, we're going back."

"I don't want to ruin everyone else's fishing trip, Harry."

"They're being compensated for their loss, believe me." He patted my shoulder. "Enough to come out another day and catch as many fish as they like."

"Harry -"

"Ah, ah, ah. I don't want to hear it, Michael, you're sick and miserable, buddy, we're going back."

"Okay," I relented. "Thank you, Harry." I spewed over the side one more time and the ocean became a whirling kaleidoscope of glass and color before I got sucked back into the cyclone, suspended. I found myself floating along the road in Harry's Corvette once again.

I looked to my right, Harry's face, still hidden in shadow looked straight ahead.

"Harry," I could barely breathe, "what the hell was that?" Shaking, my heart pounding.

"A detour," he said, simply, and I heard the smirk on his lips.

The car roared and slowed to a stop in front of his house, and I sat motionless. Out of sorts and out of breath. Drained of emotion. I felt the soft leather seat against my legs and back. I turned to Harry, and he looked at me with eyes glowing from within, no longer dark brown but an amber hue. My mind no longer questioned. It couldn't. It didn't know where to begin. My beating heart slowed when his gaze locked with mine.

Uncertainty gave way to a comfort that resonated in me. Permeating every fiber of my being.

"I have to go," he said, sticking out his hand, and I stared at it.

"I have no doubt," I said. Ignoring his hand, I leaned across the seat and hugged him, fully. Then he sat back and I got out. My body, still trembling, felt like a fluffy bag of helium about to lift off the ground. A giddiness rose in me. He popped the trunk and I grabbed my bag.

I leaned down into the car.

"What do you want me to tell Mel?" I asked, and I heard his response not so much with words vibrating on air but as thoughts I could feel:

"Tell her - I'll be back." I felt what he said sinking in, worming its way to my core. It left me without a cross feeling in the world and forced me to smile.

"Okay," I said.

He smiled back. The window rolled up. The engine roared and he disappeared into traffic shimmering purple, green, then blue and was gone before I could blink. Or did I blink and then he was gone? I can't remember. I stood on the curb looking down the road after him. But I do remember Mel and a handful of relatives pouring out of the house when they heard the Corvette engine so close.

Mel ran up and hugged me. She'd been crying.

"So glad you made it, Mikey."

"I came as quick as I could."

"I know," she sighed, struggling for words; she looked tired.

"Harry picked me up - said he'd be right back."

Her eyes widened, concern and disbelief in them.

"He's gone, you know. You just missed him," she choked, "just this evening. It was a beautiful sunset outside the hospital window and I sat and held his hand as he passed." She broke and sobbed.

My cousin Sam ran out and hugged me, her eyes brimming over.

"Hey, you! Where were you? Why didn't you call when you got here?" She stammered, excitement masking the sadness in her eyes. "I thought your plane was landing a few hours ago?"

"It did - I," searching to find words in my bewilderment, I remember what Harry had said. "I went on a detour," was all I could say. "Let's go inside, I'll tell you about it if I can, but some of it's beyond me, so I don't know if it'll make sense."

Thank you, Michael, I needed to see myself through your eyes. I heard Uncle Harry's words as plain as day, and looking at the others I knew I was the only one that heard them. After a pause, I said:

"Come on, Mel. This story's for you, too."

We walked inside and joined the wake that had already begun for Uncle Harry.

4 comments:

  1. A tender story of love coming through in unexpected ways. Nicely drawn characters and a peaceful ending. Thanks, Ceinwen

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  2. a very touching story, beautifully portrayed and convincing.

    Mike McC

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  3. I liked the concept of the "detour" used in this story. A well constructed piece.

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  4. I like the Harry type phrasing; 'cacophony of cars', 'synergy with circumstance', and the effective use of lists - such as '... he had an effortless way of slicing through traffic, crowds, red tape, and difficult situations.' You got the character really well!
    B r o o k e

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