Clair had a love-hate relationship with his Uncle Mike, who always took him along when he went hunting, shooting, or fishing with his drinking buddies. He taught Clair how to pluck birds, skin animals, and clean fish, but never how to shoot a gun, never how to drink a beer. It was all work and no play for Clair.
Uncle Mike was strict. No talking during Grace before dinner. No reaching across the table to grab seconds. If you wanted something, you asked for it, and waited to be served. No talking back. Not once, not ever. No loud noises inside the house. No tracking mud, dirt, or snow into the house from the outside. These were all serious offenses, and there were plenty more where those came from. Clair never really got the hang of it. He was always messing up, standing out where blending in would have been the preferred strategy.
Clair was the third of six children, all one year apart. Four boys and two girls. Junior was the eldest, followed by Penny, Clair, Lewis, Lois, and Little Larry. The girls never got punished, because they were girls. Soft spoken, exquisitely polite, obedient to every whim their father might choose to cherish deep within himself. When the girls got caught, which was rare, Uncle Mike was very disappointed and asked them not to do it again. They acquiesced quick as a wink and a nudge, little lightning bolts on black parade.
Uncle Mike had a natural inclination for the belt when it came time to lay down the law, Mike’s Law, as he aptly described it. He was a big man, six foot five and full of steroids. As a speculative real estate developer on a modest scale, he did a lot of his own rehab, the very last word in sweat equity. If there was no belt, or his pants were a little too loose to go commando, any suitable object might serve the purpose. A spoon, a fork, a butter knife, possibly a steak knife if you happened to be unlucky on that particular day. A willowy switch, a green branch, a Little League baseball bat, even a short stretch of two by four might do the trick if you were out and about, surrounded by the innocent beauties of nature.
When asked what he wanted for Christmas, Clair suggested a .22 rifle he could use to hunt squirrels with for fun and profit. Uncle Mike thought this was an excellent idea. He sincerely hoped Santa might come through with the goods for once in his miserable fat old existence.
On a bright and shining Christmas morning, the family gathered around the tree. There were colorfully wrapped presents piled here, there, and just about everywhere. It had been a good year for Uncle Mike. Three thrifty buys, cheap fixes, and rapid resells in quick succession during the late summer and early fall added up to plenty of disposable income in the form of loose cash, just itching to be spent. Clair’s eyes glistened as he noticed a long skinny package with his name on it. The bright blue and gold striped box had not been there the night before. “It’s from Santa,” Uncle Mike said with a soft smile.
Clair wasted no time in yanking the wrapping paper loose and opening the unmarked box inside, revealing the long barrel and sturdy stock of a BB gun! His heart fell and his mouth sagged in disappointment as he considered how difficult it would be to apply such an inappropriate gift to the specific misguided purpose he had in mind. “What’s the matter?” Uncle Mike asked. “Don’t you just love Santa’s precious gift?”
Uncle Mike removed the BB gun from Clair’s hands and began to beat him with it, slowly and methodically, across the arms, legs, and torso, but never the head, nowhere near the head. No need for nosy neighbors and interfering school officials to know anything or ask stupid questions about personal and private family business. After the gunstock broke with a crisp crack, Uncle Mike handed what was left back to Clair and asked, “how do you like it now?” Uncle Mike repeated the question one more time, barely controlling the righteous wrath his own personal God had given to him.
“I love it, Uncle Mike, really I do,” Clair stammered out, in between Herculean efforts not to cry. That would only serve to further enrage the Beast that lived inside Uncle Mike all of the time, even if it only showed itself on special occasions such as this one.
There were no serious injuries. Not on the outside anyway.
“That’s fantastic!” Uncle Mike gushed. All smiles once again. “Let’s open up some more of these here presents, shall we?” And that is exactly what we did.
There were no real surprises. Junior grew up to become a dedicated alcoholic. Penny had her tubes tied when she reached the age of discretion. Little Larry was committed to a mental institution early on, which he liked so well he decided to stay forever. Lewis and Lois ran away from home, never to be seen again.
Clair bided his time. When the doctors told Uncle Mike, “no more drinking,” they said it like they really meant it. Clair took Uncle Mike out on the town to celebrate his birthday and bought him a beer. And another. And another.
Clair took Uncle Mike home and put him to bed. He watched Uncle Mike slowly drift towards death, holding his hand all the while and crying. In the morning, he called 911. When the paramedics arrived, he said, “better late than never.”
Cosmic justice, like tough love, requires patience and discipline.
Keech Ballard was born in Seattle, grew up in Los Angeles, and lives in Las Vegas. He is currently at work on a novel set in the Afterlife.
Image supplied by the author.