By: Bob Kalkreuter
It was almost midnight when they drove through town. The wet asphalt glistened red, then green in the moonless wash of the traffic light. Above, rain-swollen clouds roiled and grumbled like an upset stomach.
Paul drove while Carla slept, her head tilted back, mouth gapped open.
He was grateful for the silence. A gift, he told himself. A rare moment. Still, he knew his sister’s nap was only bad news delayed. Once awake, she’d just start complaining again, about his driving, his drinking, his feud with their father. All the usual things.
“You can drive,” she’d told him when they’d set out in her car. “Just don’t wreck it.”
At first, he figured that putting up with her for three or four days wouldn’t be too hard. Besides, he’d be back home soon, running his own life, doing what he wanted, whenever he wanted.
If he could finally decide what that was.
Tonight, though, with Carla asleep, he’d enjoyed the last couple of hours, passing through sporadic waves of rain that sealed him into a separate world, buffering him from her critical eye. And under the influence of that silence, he’d thought about cutting her some slack, given the circumstances.
But then, she’d never cut him any slack.
“Fucking idiot” is how Carla used to describe him, when she was mad. “Stupid,” when she wasn’t. “He just doesn’t have much patience, that’s all,” was his mother’s response before she died.
“Asshole,” is what his father called him, usually in exasperation. They’d never seen eye-to-eye about much of anything, he and his father.
“Are you ever going to get your shit together?” his father always asked him. “You can’t go through life willy-nilly, without taking responsibility for anything.”
Whatever my faults, I got them from you, you son-of-a-bitch, he thought now, glancing into the rearview mirror, into the back seat, where the urn sat in the dark, flashing like a strobe light in his imagination. Finally, now, you’re gone, off my back for good, you bastard!
Then he forced a chuckle, glancing first at Carla to make sure she was still asleep.
For years, he’d looked forward to this moment, imagining the elation, the satisfaction of knowing the old man was dead. Sure, he’d never expected rockets to explode, but feelings of victory, of validation, they hadn’t seemed out of a reach. But now, with the old man really gone, he felt no triumph, no pleasure, and no sense of justice, only a simmering dissatisfaction, an undirected anger.
Carla jerked up with a snort, opened her eyes and blinked. “Huh… uh… where… uh, where are we?”
“Almost… oh,” she said, glancing out into the darkness. “You mean…?”
“We’re in town.”
She squinted. “Bradenton? We’re in Bradenton?”
“But…” Carla yawned, then shook her head. “I guess I dozed off.”
“For two hours,” said Paul, feeling a little tired himself. “I was about to wake you anyway.” With no GPS in her car, he’d been holding the directions in his lap since they’d crossed the Georgia border. And now it was too dark to read them. “I don’t think we’re far. But I don’t know where to turn.”
“You don’t remember where Uncle Don lives?”
He frowned. “I was seven when we left,” he said. “You spent the last two summers with him.”
They were driving through a neighborhood of faded houses, cracked sidewalks, and a border of massive, gnarled oaks. Just as they reached a stop sign, a rogue wind gusted through the upper branches, shaking loose a flurry of raindrops that rattled against the top like a handful of pea gravel.
“What…?” Carla said, flinching. She jerked up. “It’s raining?”
“Not anymore. It’s just the trees.”
Sitting at the intersection, he turned on the overhead light and squinted at the scribbled directions. They were supposed to turn left at some point, but the name of the street was illegible. “Jesus, I can’t read this.”
“Then pull it up on your phone.”
“I don’t have a phone.”
“I told you. I lost my job. I can’t afford a phone.” He lifted the written directions from his lap and waved them in the air. “And all this says is turn left on some damn street I can’t read the name of.”
Carla shook her head, sighed. She looked sleepy. She pulled out her phone and hunched forward, tapping the screen. “Yeah, we turn left.”
“I know that. What’s the name of the street?”
“Seventh, looks like. It’s hard to read.” She looked up from the phone, squinting into the darkness beyond the hood, searching. “I’m not sure… maybe the next street. Or the one after…”
“I guess we’ll find out.” He turned off the inside light and eased the car forward.
“It’s dark. It doesn’t look the same,” she said.
“Yeah, it’s dark, Carla. And midnight. Uncle Don’s going to be in bed.”
“Oh, it’s all right.” Carla shook her head. “He’s the original night owl. He doesn’t get started until midnight. I used to think he was a vampire. You know, sleeping all day and…”
“Yeah. I know what vampires are.”
She settled back into the seat and wiggled herself comfortable. “He’s pretty strange. He used to be a priest, you know. A long time ago. Before we were born.”
“Uncle Don, a priest? A vampire priest?”
“A what? Oh. I…” She laughed. “A vampire priest? Oh my God, I never thought about that, but you know…” She cocked her head. “A vampire priest. Maybe that’s what he is after all.”
Rounding a curve, Paul spotted a convenience store. “That where we turn?” he asked. “Can you read the name?”
“Don’t worry. He’s not a priest anymore,” she said, and laughed harder. “He told the bishop to go fuck himself.”
Uncle Don lived at the end of a cracked asphalt drive, in a brick ranch built among random plantings of pines and palmettoes. Light from the front window stippled the untrimmed tops of bushes that grew against the house.
Paul got out of the car and stretched. The air smelled fresh and cool, laden with rain and energy. He felt renewed.
Leaning back into the car, he reached for the urn, then hesitated, backed away, and circled around to the trunk where he lifted 0ut his gym bag.
“Hey, don’t forget…”
“You get it,” he said, and snatched out her suitcase too.
Uncle Don opened the door, a thin man with round spectacles and a close-cropped gray beard, a wraith-like figure caught up in some ethereal borderland separating the inside electric light from the shadowed doorstep. He held a glass of something that looked and smelled like bourbon.
“Oh,” he said, eyes widening, questioning. “Carla…I… uh, oh…”
Behind him, a small dog barked.
“Sadie,” said Uncle Don, recovering. “Hush.”
“Uncle Don,” said Carla. She looked at him, wide-eyed in confusion. “This is Friday, isn’t it? I thought you said Friday.”
Uncle Don hesitated, then reached toward Carla with his free hand and gave her a hug. “Yes, yes. Friday. Of course, it’s Friday. It’s summer vacation and I lose track of the days. I’m glad you’re here,” he said, then looked at Paul. “Come in! Come in! I haven’t seen you since…” He hesitated again, as if trying to figure out what to say next. He disentangled himself from Carla, reached for Paul, then stopped.
“Oh, I’m being rude. The bags must be heavy,” said Uncle Don, gesturing with his glass. “Just set them there, against the wall. We’ll get them later.”
Uncle Don wore a dark red, collared shirt and well-worn jeans. He looked shorter and thinner than their father. Very much like the high school history teacher he’d become.
Paul wondered about the differences between the brothers. His father was two years older. Rough, not cultured. He’d married late in life, although Uncle Don had never been married, as far as he knew. His father worked with his hands most of his life, a mechanic, a manual laborer, a meticulous man, but mercurial and aggressive. A drinking man with a teetotaler’s tolerance for drinking in others.
“If you don’t get a goddamn education, you’ll end up digging ditches,” he used to tell Paul. But to Carla, who’d shown more aptitude and interest in studying, he’d been more supportive and silent.
“It’s been a long time, Paul,” said Uncle Don, smiling. “You were a boy the last time you were here.”
Glancing at the urn in Carla’s hands, Uncle Don said: “Ah, the honored guest.” He laughed quickly, easily. Gesturing toward the coffee table, he said: “You can put him there. At least he won’t complain about where he’s sitting tonight.”
On the left was a recliner with a book upside-down on the seat. A fish tank sat on an adjacent table. Peeping around the recliner was a small dog, curious but cautious. Yapping nervously. Looking like a cross between a Chihuahua and something hairier.
“Sadie,” Uncle Don said. “If you don’t quit, I’m going to feed you to the goldfish.” He laughed again.
“Can I get you anything to drink?” asked Uncle Don, motioning them toward the sofa. “I don’t have a big selection. A little beer. Some wine left over from a party last week. Don’t know what kind. And Jim Beam. Plenty of Jim Beam.” He grinned a little crookedly and lifted his glass.
Carla shook her head. “I’m tired,” she said.
“Of course,” said Uncle Don. “Sorry. You’ve been on the road a long time. If you want to get to bed, you’ll be staying in your old room, down the hall. And Paul, you can sleep…”
“I like Jim Beam. Thanks,” said Paul.
Sadie crept into fuller view, nose twitching.
“Sadie,” said Uncle Don. “Go see Carla. You remember her.”
Crouching, Carla held out her hand and Sadie approached, sniffing. Carla scratched her head.
Uncle Don set down his drink and disappeared.
Returning, he held two glasses, handing one to Carla. “Here, a little wine,” he said. “It’ll help you relax.” He gave the second to Paul.
Carla sat on the sofa and bent forward, studying the wine, as if she were looking for inspiration.
“I rented a boat at Anna Maria for tomorrow,” said Uncle Don. “You can fish if you want, or just hang out and ride around.”
Carla looked up. “When are we going to…”
“Spread the ashes?” said Uncle Don. “Tomorrow, if you want. You still want to do it in the Gulf?”
“That’s what he wanted,” said Carla. She looked up and pushed the bangs from her face. Her eyes were unclear, tired, vacant.
Uncle Don nodded, looked at Paul. “That okay with you, Paul?”
“You can spread them in the toilet, if you want.”
For a moment there was only the sound of rain starting again, growing in cadence against the windows. Then, Carla jumped to her feet like she’d been hit with an electric shock. “You bastard!” she shouted, spilling wine over her hand.
Paul sipped his drink and swallowed slowly, trying not to grin.
“He was a Marine, you know,” said Uncle Don. “In Viet Nam.”
Paul was on his third drink and Carla had gone to bed, too sleepy to keep her eyes open and her mind focused.
“Yeah,” said Paul. “I know.”
“He fought in Hue in ’68. It was some Godawful bloody battle, from what I hear. He won a Silver Star. Was wounded pretty badly.”
“He never said he got any medals.”
Uncle Don shook his head. “I’m not surprised. He was never the same, physically or mentally. He was in the hospital for months. PTSD, I guess they call it now. Almost lost his leg, too. That’s why he limped.”
Paul frowned, unsure of what to say. He’d never heard that before, and he tried to reconcile it with the things he remembered. “He said he’d been in a car wreck.”
“That’s what he told people. Yeah, he was in a wreck once, when he was 18, I think. But no, that’s not why he limped.”
Paul drained the last of his drink. “So why didn’t he say that?”
Uncle Don shrugged. “That’s the way he was. A private man.”
Sadie was curled and asleep at Uncle Don’s feet. Outside, the rain continued to swirl and rattle against the windows.
“Well I’m not sorry he’s dead,” said Paul, shifting a little on the couch. He glanced at the urn, as if to reassure himself that the old man was truly gone. He was beginning to feel the effects of the whiskey and the long day. He touched his face, to make sure he wasn’t too drunk to feel his cheek, a sure sign he was tipsy. He yawned.
Thunder cracked and the lights flickered.
“I’m not surprised,” said Uncle Don. “But he was… your dad, you didn’t know him when he was young.”
“I knew him all I wanted.”
Uncle Don grimaced. “I’m going to tell you something.” He hesitated. “Something Carla doesn’t know, but you should. Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money. Only enough to send one of us to college. And back then, college meant draft deferment.” Uncle Don lifted his drink and stared at the contents before taking another sip.
“Your dad was older than me and Mom wanted him to apply at Manatee Jr College. That put me in line to be drafted. But one night he came to supper and told us he’d joined the Marines.”
Paul let that image settle in his mind for a moment, then slipped back into his own bank of memories, with his father ranting and raving about everything and nothing.
“I’m still glad he’s gone,” he said.
Uncle Don fidgeted with his glass, looking uncomfortable. “I joined the church out of college and decided to be a priest. But I got tired of the hypocrisy and quit in my early 30s. Now, the last few years, I’ve started going back. I don’t want to be a priest anymore, but I’ve accepted…”
“He was an asshole from the start. He never got any better.”
Uncle Don rose and set his empty glass on the table next to the fishbowl. “I wish you’d known him before he went to war.”
“But I didn’t, Uncle Don. He was the same all my life.”
Morning broke hot and muggy. The sun arced across the sky, riding a chariot of strung-out clouds.
They stood in the stern of the boat, Carla holding the urn in both hands. Coming aboard, the wind had whipped her hair like an egg-beater, and Paul had taken off his cap to keep it from blowing away.
Now, the boat sat in choppy water, rocking at anchor, the distant land a mere smudge, while seagulls swooped and circled, eager for a free meal.
“He loved the Gulf,” said Uncle Don, steadying himself against the back rail. “There was a time when I think he wanted to be a commercial fisherman.”
Paul waited, uncertain what he should say, or what he wanted to say. Or if there was a difference.
“Is this a good place?” said Uncle Don. “Or do we want to keep going?”
Carla looked as though she were going to speak, but stared at the urn instead, blinking tears.
“This is fine,” said Paul, in a voice more resigned that convinced. Uncle Don nodded, studying him closely.
“Why don’t the two of you take turns scattering them?” said Uncle Don. He pointed at the lee side, where the wind would be at their back. “Maybe there.”
When Carla didn’t move, Paul put an arm around her, coaxing her to the rail. “You first,” he said. And for the first time in years, maybe even forever, he felt the urge to protect her, to ease her pain. “Just open the top and tip it over. Do it at once. All of it. The wind will take it away.”
Then he felt Uncle Don’s hand on his shoulder and tensed. Maybe his uncle had been right, and years from now he’d look at things differently. But he doubted it. Whether or not the old man really was a hero who’d fought with his demons, Paul didn’t know or care. He’d been a nasty son of a bitch, and to Paul there was no further discussion to be had.
Right now, he couldn’t see beyond that horizon.