“Can you imagine that? That was something.”
She had already said this to Uncle Dan, the man beside her. My uncle. Now she was saying it half to me, though she looked past me at our house. My mother was back there somewhere, probably behind the curtains of our living room so we didn’t see her watching. I didn’t know how to respond, so said nothing.
It was too hot for even California in December; it had been so dry for too long. Sweat prickled my scalp. I scrubbed my head with a fist and encouraged a light breeze under my t-shirt.
“Sun is blaring today,” Uncle Dan said and wiped his face with a handkerchief. “That’s why we drove the convertible, keeps fresh air circulating as we take advantage of the sunshine and big blue sky.” He turned to Evelyn. “Well, it’s our anniversary present, too. One year next week. Say, Ev, let me light that cigarette for you before it drops on the floor. You can stop staring, though. My sister isn’t coming out now, is she, Vic?”
I shrugged. “Not likely.”
She made a “never mind” motion with her hand. “Oh, such a big fuss over nothing Tom made. I feel for her.”
“It’s not just what you said, but how you said it, Ev. You could be more careful.”
“If I did that, I wouldn’t have much to say.” She made a sound like a guffaw. “Vic, it was an honest-to-goodness pleasure to meet you. Dan always said you’re the one person he likes in the family. I can see why.”
“Really?” I wasn’t really surprised. It just seemed I should act like it in case it seemed I’d take things for granted. Especially now that he had so much money. It might be something he was sensitive about, but he seemed the same to me. I didn’t want to seem like a kid so impressed with that when I had always loved him. He’d visited less and less over time. I hoped someday to visit him in his new place, where the vineyards were in Oregon. Hard to picture.
“Hey, want a ride, Vic?”
“Honey, that’s sweet but his parents wouldn’t approve.”
“Come on, he can certainly make a few decisions himself. You’re his uncle, it’s a done deal.”
I crammed my hands in my back pockets. “Dad was pretty annoyed. I don’t want to make things worse….best to not rattle a bee’s nest once it’s quiet.”
“Smart.” Uncle Dan smacked the steering wheel. “I do hate to leave you like this, Vic. I don’t come much because Tom, well–we don’t see eye-to-eye on lots of things. Spending today with you all was good, though.”
He leaned forward so his large blue eyes found mine, which look a lot like his. “A good lake blue”, he’d once said and I liked that.
I pulled my hands from my pockets, interlaced my fingers and cracked the knuckles. “Yeah, I know. I guess it makes sense they wouldn’t be wild over Evelyn, either. You say what’s on your mind. There’s a ‘hush hush’ policy here. We try to not create any ripples if we can help it.”
They chuckled, then fell silent. My uncle’s long face held some worry in it. Evelyn grabbed my hand and squeezed it.
“Well, kid, I guess our time is up here. It’s been good to meet you.”
Uncle Dan left the car idling but got out and came over to me to shake my hand, but instead he gave me a quick hard hug. I hugged back, sort of.
“Watch yourself. Call if you need or want to,” he said, then got back into the car. “You have to come visit the wine country in Oregon. It’s gorgeous, plenty of room in the new house. Let’s both work on it. Now we’re off!”
I watched the sleek white vehicle speed up then glide into the lane, Evelyn holding onto her straw hat. Uncle Dan took off his hat and waved it at me.
Although I yelled “See you later!”, I felt abandoned. Just like that. I wondered how the trip up Highway 101 would be, what the weather was like in Oregon, how their grapes were doing. What was it like to take a chance, do something you always wanted to do?
I haven’t been out of California except once to Nevada when my parents wanted to visit Las Vegas. And that was not all that incredible what with flashing crazy lights, traffic and slot machines. I holed up in a hotel room with my older brother, Kyle, and watched television until I fell asleep. He ate candy bars and stood on the balcony eyeing the sights, then finally skipped out, getting back before the parents found out. It was the worst time I’ve had and made me want to swear off any more trips, at least with them.
You could say I was born into the wrong family. I just don’t fit.
My dad is a mail carrier for the USPS; my mom is a kindergarten teacher who, by her own admittance, wishes she had become a hair stylist, preferably for the stars. She has naturally blonde, wavy-thick hair, herself, so maybe that started it. She’s what people would call pretty and I agree. I know she’d like to have been a model more than a few years, but I can’t imagine it’s one bit as interesting as teaching kids. She wants to have a bigger house. Having things attractive is important to her. Dad half-agrees and is trying to get a promotion. I don’t get the fuss, but it’s her life and she can have regrets about or not. I’m just getting started with mine and my dream is to be a neurologist. I really like the brain, what can I say? It looks weird but beautiful when you get a close-up view; it’s barely understood; and it’s the control center of our bodies and minds. I want to learn as much as I can, make discoveries that might even help people. Nerves keep us alive and tell us stuff that’s cool. Mine seem overly busy sometimes.
Kyle is the opposite of me in a way, an action guy more. He’s an athlete who can’t grasp why I don’t want to do more than bounce a basketball around at home. I like to swim but he says everybody likes to swim and it takes no talent. He says I read too much. Dad agrees, probably. He was a basketball star in school but I can’t say for sure what he thinks as he doesn’t talk much unless he’s really angry. And then fast action follows talk. I would rather avoid that so we live side by side but in different orbits. Kyle crosses over into Dad’s some, then finds mine at times. My mother, well, she’s in and out of everyone’s but I wonder if she’d like to get out altogether and find her own orbit.
Anyway, at eighteen, Kyle’s on his way out. I’ll have to navigate the terrain on my own. It can be tricky. My dad is given to explosions, not often, but the quality makes up for the quantity. I can find my way, I told Kyle once after dad threw a new lamp across the room. It broke and also shattered a glass vase with f lowers in it. I was going to pick things up but Kyle grabbed me and pulled me outside.
“Vic, you know you have to stay out of his way when he gets like this.”
“I know. Go upstairs and shut my door or outdoors and take a walk or visit a friend. I know, Kyle! But what about Mom? It’s not that simple.”
He frowned at the sunset sky as if it should provide answers but refused. “Mom can handle herself. He won’t touch her again, anyway.”
That meant: after the police were called by the neighbor almost a year ago. After he slapped and shoved her, and she hit her head on the glass coffee table. Ended up with eight stitches in her forehead. No one slept that night. I traced the constellations with my finger and cried.
“Okay. It’s true he has been less touchy since that happened…”
“Yeah. Who wants the cops here?” He put his arm round me, a rare event. “I’ll miss you but you know I have to go. College can do a lot for us middle class kids. I’ll call you, visit sometimes.” He let his arm drop. “Besides, you’re the genius, you have it made. You’ll really be a brain surgeon.”
“I don’t know how all this will go, Kyle. I find life confusing and really nuts a lot.”
“That’s how it goes, we all get to feel that.”
“Yeah, I guess. So the first thing is to get through each day alive, then figure things out as they come.”
“Right.” He threw a fake knuckle sandwich at my jaw. “My brother, kid philosopher!”
But when my uncle came my first thought was, Maybe he’ll take me home with him. I knew he had gotten married for the third time and her name was Evelyn “the woman he insists is The One this time” and they had bought land for a vineyard after he sold his landscaping company. I knew all that because my mother had made a point to outline things before they came.
“Uncle Dan is bringing Evelyn-they had a civil ceremony. Then he sold the company, you know that, but he also bought more land. Vineyards. In Oregon! Anyway, he’s only here for the day. They’re staying at a hotel, some place swanky. So be on your best behavior.”
She swept our shared room with her no nonsense look, then picked up a few dirty clothes left on the floor, and walked out.
She poked her head back in. “Yes, Vic?”
“Are you making German Chocolate cake for dessert since it’s his favorite? I mean, if they’re staying for dinner?”
Mom ran her fingers through her wavy hair and I could see the pale pink scar above her left temple. “Yes, that’s in keeping with tradition. But I would ask that you two help me keep things cleaner until they arrive.”
Kyle studied his sports magazine. “That would be you, Vic. I’m busy after school and on week-ends.”
She shook her head at him and left, hand on her back, a common gesture when it hurt as it often did. Pain seemed to reside in her to one degree or another.
When Uncle Dan arrived he brought us a big basket of fruit and nuts–“Oregon’s best!” he said and gave it to my dad, who looked gratified. I wondered if it was a peacekeeping gift, since they often danced around each other, two wary men who saw my mother from different perspectives. But it all got off to a good start. We took the usual tour of the botanical gardens, and my uncle named most of the plants each season he came, pointing out interesting facts. Evelyn–I found it hard to call her my aunt yet–beamed at him and chatted with Mom. Kyle looked as if he was itching to take off in a dead run, he was so bored. But I liked it, the fragrance of flowers, varieties of plants, how peaceful it was.
Back at the house we gathered on the patio and Dad grilled hamburgers. It was so nice, the simple talk, dinner shaping up. My new aunt helped Mom in the kitchen; she could out-talk Mom. I noticed Evelyn could be blunt but Mom took it in stride. Uncle Dan was being extra careful to not bring up religion or politics or anything that might spark intense debate. I wanted to join in but held back. My dad didn’t like getting distracted. My uncle and I had been able to talk at the botanical gardens; hopefully we might again later.
The dinner was good and after a brief rest, the double-decker chocolate cake was brought out.
“This is the cake,” my uncle proclaimed, “that is a mountain of excesses, flavors and textures so rich you expect it to take ten years off your life–and you don’t even care!”
Dad lifted his beer in agreement, nodded at my mother. “Perfection in all ways!”
Her fair skin bloomed with pinkness, as his generous compliment took her by surprise. As it did the rest of us. She so wanted to make Evelyn feel at home, to have things go just right. She looked down at her plate, then got fresh paper napkins. Dad had become expansive during the afternoon, helped along by a couple of beers. My uncle had been pleased to share the ways of vineyards as Dad (and me, from a chair a couple feet away) listened intently. But Kyle threw me a code look: wait and watch.
When Mom came back with the cake server, she cut generous pieces and lay them each on the fancy glass dessert plates. She handed the first to Dad, the second to Uncle Dan.
Dad held the plate before him as if it was a gift he wasn’t sure what to do with. Kyle lightly kicked me under the table. I noticed Uncle Dan was waiting to take a big bite with restrained happiness. Evelyn was looking with delight at the thick pecan and coconut frosting. My mom, she was smiling as if this was one of the sweetest days ever, her family gathered around the crowning glory of her best cake.
“Where, please can you tell me, is the scoop of ice cream?”
His voice had shifted into a near-rumbling range. This was the clue. We felt Dad’s irritation barometer rise. My mom heard the question but blinked at him.
“I thought we’d agreed last time that ice cream was too much to add to this cake….should I get it, now? Or should we go on?”
It pained me to see her get smaller, from height to voice. Her radiance faded before his proclamation of another domestic failure.
“Oh, here, let me.” Evelyn got up despite my uncle’s hand reaching for hers. She started to the kitchen.
“Please, sit down,” Mom said.
Dad was just warming up. “Darling, now get going–bring that new ice cream from the basement freezer. I can’t have my cake without a big scoop of premium French vanilla.”
“Really, I’ll do it, she’s worked hard on this,” Evelyn insisted.
“I’ll get the ice cream, for crying out loud.” Uncle Dan rose and started to the door.
“Daniel, just relax and let your sister get the damned ice cream. It won’t take a minute. She forgets to do things sometimes, and she will rectify this error.”
“Really? You’re going to talk that way to my husband? And act like your wife is some dissatisfactory servant?”
Evelyn’s nostrils flared; I sat opposite her and felt the churning indignation. Kyle and I locked eyes, held our breath as Mom exited the patio quickly and entered the house. Uncle Dan tugged Evelyn’s arm so she sat down by him. The air was very warm; I heard bees buzzing behind us. Dad slowly cut the cake in wedges, head down. But Evelyn just had to start in on things again.
“I don’t see why it’s such a big deal. This was very kind of her–to bake it for Dan, her only brother. I never was a great baker. Meat, yes, veggies, okay. But baked goods, not so much. I’m sure your wife is marvelous at all she does, you can tell how she attends to things, and she’s so lovely, too, and a good mom.”
Dad stood up. “Why do you feel moved to offer opinions when they aren’t solicited? When we only just met you? Enough already.” He tossed his napkin on the table and went to the cooler, rooted around for two more beers.
Dan declined his. “No, thanks, I have to drive to the hotel. But, Tom, take it easy on my wife and sister, huh? Just bring it down a notch.”
Dad glared at him and sat down, palms flattened on the table. “Don’t you start on me, Dan! Just hang on–you’ll see. Ice cream. A couple of beers. They make everything go down better, even this fancy cake. And you need to get better hold of your own wife before you offer me advice.”
I longed to take my cake slice and leave. It was so embarrassing, Dad acting irrational and tough just because he didn’t get his way right off. I hoped this would be it for the day and slumped in my chair, wanting to slide off the seat and slink away. Kyle was gazing out over the yard.
“Sit up, Victor!” Dad yelled.
“A fine boy. You do have two great boys, Tom. I appreciate how capable they are. How about they come up to Oregon and spend some time with me next summer? I’ll teach them a few things about hard work on the land and grapes.”
“Yes, they do fine. And I imagine they’ll have other things to do come summer.”
My mom burst into the room holding aloft a frosty half gallon of French vanilla. “Here we are! Just like you ordered, Tom.”
And that was it. Dad scooped ice cream; we all had a little to appease him. He ate with gusto and in relief the rest of us conversed about little of importance. I could tell Evelyn was stunned, as she talked less than my mom. I savored my dense, luscious piece of cake, but Kyle ate only half of his.
They said their goodbyes shortly after. There wasn’t any reason to pretend all was well, our family was good and happy, my uncle and aunt entirely welcome to stay longer. They said they had birthday shopping for Evelyn’s daughter back East.
So now I am standing on the curb, taking in the bland landscape of suburbia. An empty feeling creeps into my center even though I am full of food. I wonder how long it will take them to get to Oregon, what the life cycle of grapes is, what it takes to be successful as a wine producer. A risk taker like my uncle is a different sort of man. There are so many things I want to pick his brain about–he knows a things that are curious. He knows how to make things transform with patience.
And he’s what I think of as being one of the really good guys.
A car slips up beside me fast and I step way back.
“Hey, Vic, really now, kiddo–do you want to go for a ride?” Evelyn asks.
I look at the house and see nothing but a blank white expanse, windows empty, shades partly drawn now. There are people I love in there. They will keep toeing the line and holding to the status quo. I see these two open, grinning faces of my new aunt and my uncle. Evelyn gets out, I get in the tight space in back. It’s the most impulsive thing I’ve done in a long time, just leaving without telling anyone. We take off and I toss my arms up and out, hoot and holler. They join right in.
It feels like a foretelling. Like a promise of rain in the close heat circling all the dying brown crackling land, the place you call home but know will burn. So if we only hightail it for a few miles it will be one trip to remember, a taste of what I have to hope–it feels like my life depends on it–is yet to come my way.