I’d just received my school’s math prize and my Uncle Jimmy, after handing me a twenty dollar bill, had, in his usual self-effacing manner, proclaimed that I must have gotten my smarts from him. “How is it that you are both the pretty one and the smart one in your family?” He teased. My sister Eleanor was out of the room at the time. If she’d been there and I hadn’t, he would have been proclaiming her the prettiest. We all knew this about our uncle. He adored us, and was not above flattery in revealing the fact.
This time, however, he had overlooked both the precociousness and competitiveness of my two-and-a-half-year-old youngest sister, Stephanie.
“Elebben, eight, twenny, fiteen,” she recited proudly!
“Well, forgive me, Missy. Aren’t you a smart young lady, knowing how to count?” He reached into his lumpy pocket and tossed her a nickel. Amazingly, she caught it. Perhaps she was going to be the first athletic one in the family.
“Fohty-two!” she exclaimed proudly. “free, sebben-elebben, one, one, one.” This time he extracted his wallet, took out a one-dollar bill and handed it to her. Putting his wallet back in his back pocket, he turned one side pocket inside out. “But that’s it, Teffie. No more money. If you want to go on counting, it will have to be for free.”
His other pocket still bulged with its contents: coins, a rubber ball to throw for our dog Pudge, oatmeal cookie bits in a small plastic bag–also for Pudge. My Uncle Jimmy always proclaimed that doggie treats were a real gyp and that no self-respecting dog would perform for such a dry, tasteless mouthful. So, he preferred to bake his own dog treats.
My sisters and I agreed, and sometimes we would perform, hoping to be rewarded with one of Pudge’s treats. We were all constantly performing for our uncle, whom we adored. He was the one person who paid more attention to us than to our parents when he visited. He was our favorite babysitter, and our parents’ favorite as well, as he always waved away payment.
He would take us to Fern’s Cafe for strawberry malts, greasy hamburgers and mashed potatoes and gravy, since Fern didn’t have a French fryer. He took us for wild rides over cow pastures in his beat up old red Ford pickup. Once he took us to a matinee cartoon show in Pierre, sixty miles away, and got us home and in bed again before my folks got home. We were sworn to secrecy and so far as I know, none of us ever told. I know for sure I didn’t. My Uncle Jimmy had my undying loyalty. I would have borne torture before giving away any of his secrets.
Sadly, Uncle Jimmy died during one of those wild rides across the South Dakota prairie. This time he was flying solo over a dam grade and veered too far to the right, rolling the pickup. He drowned trying to get out of the passenger door, the pickup mired driver-side down in the mud at the bottom of the dam. We had always felt like such ladies as Uncle Jimmy graciously got out of his pickup to personally open the door from the outside for us. We didn’t know then, as we know now, that it was a peculiarity of that door that it would only open from the outside.
“Thank God the girls weren’t with him,” my mother sobbed to my father, as they sat side-by-side at the kitchen table, my dad’s arms around her. It was past midnight, and they were sitting in that room furthest away from our bedrooms, thinking we wouldn’t hear her sobs. But, unable to sleep, we had stolen out to the living room to listen––all consumed by that missing of Uncle Jimmy that would last our whole lives.
“Oh, he never would have driven that wildly if the girls were with him,” my dad said. But Eleanor and I and even Steffie just exchanged that look that we were to exchange so many times in our future lives together––that look that children exchange that would tell their parents that they know something their parents don’t know––if only their parents took the time to notice. Even Steffie understood. And Uncle Jimmy was right when he proclaimed her wise beyond her years. Even Steffie never told.
(This is a work of fiction.)
The prompt today was recite. (A repost of a story from a few years ago.)