Uncle BasilJoseph Lerner
"I bet you never saw so much money before," said Uncle Basil. He flipped open his wallet, fanning the bills---50- and 100-dollars. He beamed like an overconfident, would-be card shark.
"Yes, I have," I replied. "I got a roll just like it in my bedroom top drawer."
I was fourteen, and I refused to be impressed by his display of sudden and questionable wealth. My uncle sighed, wringing his suspenders. He then leaned against my parents' bedboard; his shoes dangled over the edge of the bed. The wallet now lay on the night stand, sprawled open.
I thought he might call me a smart-ass or pretend to take a swing at me. I began to leave the bedroom when he yelled, "Nathan!"
"Yes?" I stood in the doorway. I could hear my mother and father downstairs. The doorbell had just rung, which meant that more relatives had arrived. The family was meeting my older brother and his new fiancee at a nearby restaurant.
"You want to come in my car?" Uncle Basil asked.
"I want to stop somewhere, show you something. It's at your Aunt Dina's."
I rolled my eyes. He had just separated from his third wife; they hadn't even been together long enough for me to call her auntie. "A surprise present for your brother." He rose and pocketed his wallet. "We'll go out the back door." He winked. "So your parents won't see us."
I followed him outside because I felt sorry for Basil. I also enjoyed conspiring with him against my parents. I saw that he had parked in the alley as if anticipating a quick get-away.
Sure enough, my mother leaned out the kitchen window. (I could see Uncle Cyrus and Aunt Netty sitting at the table, still in their coats and hats.)
"Basil, where are you going with my son?" she yelled.
"We'll meet you at the restaurant. We're getting a present for Gary."
We both walked faster.
We reached Basil's beat-up Chevy. He revved the engine. The clutch ground as he shifted. Out the sideview mirror I watched my parents, aunt and uncle hurrying to the back porch.
We were halfway across town before I realized I didn't know where we were going. Eventually we reached a neighborhood unfamiliar to me. The houses were clapboard and dilapidated and set back on small brown lots. Clumps of gray snow stood like bizarre lawn ornaments beside the driveways. Through the tops of the stick-figure trees I could see the nearby dog racetrack.
He stopped the car but kept the engine running. The heater hardly worked and I was wearing just my sweater. My teeth rattled and my whole body shook. Basil offered me a cigarette, which he lit from the dashboard lighter.
"You been to the dog races?" he asked.
I dragged on the cigarette. "Only the horses, a couple times with Gary."
"That's okay, but it's not the same as greyhounds." He took back my cigarette. As he smoked he stared at the house before us. Then he stepped out of the car. I followed.
The living room curtains were suddenly wrung back. Glaring at us wasn't Dina but a stranger. He wore a pinstripe suit and a monogrammed white shirt. Basil rang the doorbell---long, short, like a Morse Code. Dina opened the door.
"What is it, Basil?" Her face was red. Then, "Hello, Nathan."
"You look---fetching, Nettie," Basil said. She wore gloves and a bright flowered dress. She was much younger than Basil, thin and pretty with red hair.
She said, "we're going out."
"And who's the gentleman?"
"I said we're going out."
"You know why I'm here."
Dina said, "she's in the backyard."
"You keep her outside?"
Basil brushed past her, hurrying to the back door. I followed. The back yard was fenced in. There was a rusting swing, the remnants of a garden, and a doghouse. A chain lay curled in the brown grass fastened to a metal pole. It snaked toward the doghouse.
"Come on, girl," my uncle said, crouching. Basil grabbed the animal and cradled it in his arms when it emerged---a small greyhound, shivering from the cold. The dog, squirming, licked his face.
"A puppy?" I asked.
"A whippet. They're raced too. Her name's Ginny. They were gonna put her to sleep. She's only six years old."
So this was Gary's present! I thought of my uncle's other presents to me and Gary over the years. A plastic hula dancer whose skirt lifted as she gyrated, a model train with a burnt-out engine salvaged from a garage sale, an especially dangerous chemistry set that had been pulled from the retail shelves. Basil was a failed visionary, a master of the inappropriate, but today he outdid himself. A live animal!
We returned to the house. Dina and her friend were waiting in the living room. Basil said, "how long has she been outside?"
"A dog doesn't belong in the house," the man said.
Basil handed me Ginny. She was still shivering. "Now I remember where I've seen you. At the racetrack, with Tommy Venturo."
The man smiled. "Yeah. What of it?"
Basil balled up his fist. He reared back and swung, punching the man in the face. The man recoiled, then stared in disbelief at his bleeding nose. He groped for his monogrammed handkerchief.
"God damn you, Basil!" Dina screamed.
We left the house, hurrying to the car. Ginny yelped, her paws scratching at my neck and shoulders. I didn't want to let her go, fearing she might jump out of the car, but I couldn't hold her and close the window at the same time.
We drove away. The sky had begun to darken, and the buildings were haloed in the streetlights. We hadn't reached downtown yet, but the streets were already choked with traffic.
"Uncle Basil, what are we going to do with Ginny? We can't take her into the restaurant."
I held Ginny close, pulling my sweater over her. The street light ahead was stuck on red and the drivers were honking their horns.
Copyright ©1999 Joseph Lerner. All Rights Reserved.
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