Grandpa lived a bachelor existence in a holler we had to drive through a creek to reach, and his stilted house clung precariously to the side of a scraggly Kentucky mountain. He had a passel of outside dogs that he joked had two short legs and two longs legs since they lived tied to their dog house on the same mountain on which his house squatted. He also had an inside dog, a puff-balled Pomeranian he spoiled with biscuits and gravy.
Since Dad and his family lived in a civilized Ohio suburb, he didn’t have much chance to try out his gun, so when he went to Grandpa’s, he had contests with his kin in shooting bark off faraway trees. Dad’s going off with Grandpa to shoot led to my being the only one around when Uncle Red came home. He was an uncle by marriage and Dad couldn’t stand him. “That sucker sure gets my dander up,” Dad would grouse. Uncle Red drank, was lazy, and made his wife, Dad’s only sister, work.
It was a blistering summer day. The air was so still, I felt I could reach out and grab handfuls of it to wipe my face. I lingered in the shade of Grandpa’s tiny cantilevered porch, the poufy dog nipping at my ankles. What a pest. I was shaking that stinker off my foot yet again when Uncle Red sauntered out of his mobile home and stared up at me. Grandpa’d bought his daughter and shiftless son-in-law a trailer and let them park it on the dirt road below his stilt house.
I glanced down at Uncle Red. I had taken to not liking him since I saw him purposely spit tobacco juice on my dad’s shoe once.
“Why doncha come on down here an’ talk to me, girlie.”
“Well, now, jest because, I reckon. An’ I’m yer Uncle an’ all.”
I scuffed the toe of my Mary Jane into the grit of the porch, thinking this over. I sure did wish Dad was back. Uncle Red was known to be a little crazy. But I was raised right and didn’t have the guts to be mean to an elder.
“Okay,” I mumbled reluctantly.
Uncle Red stomped over to his mobile home and pulled two yellow-backed chrome kitchen chairs out to the center of the road. He plunked them down, side by side, metal legs touching, directly in the scorching sun.
What a kook. I sighed and made my way carefully down the mountain path to the road.
Uncle Red led me to the chair on the left and he plopped onto the right chair. He crossed his legs and swung the top one busily as he took out a chaw of tobacco and wedged it between his bottom lip and blackened teeth.
Ugh. I turned to face the creek.
He cleared his phlegmy throat noisily, leaned close to my face, and breathed stale tobacco breath at me. One eye squinted as he declared suspiciously “I hear yer goin’ to college.”
I eyed him, his whiskered chin working over the chaw as he waited for my reply.
“Well, yes, someday. But I’m only in sixth grade right now, so it won’t be for a long time yet.”
He noodled on this fact and sighed. “I never did have no schoolin’-- seeing as how my old man run off and my ma drank.” He spit his juice toward a chicken running loose. The animal gobbled up the residue and pecked for more.
He stared out over the trees. “I ain’t suffered none fer not havin’ it.” He shifted the tobacco to the side of his cheek, laughing as he raised his fists. “These here are the onliest schoolin’ I needed.” He turned his bloodshot, hardened eyes on me and I shivered.
I nodded, like I understood.
Just then I spied Dad and Grandpa strolling toward us, so I jumped up to greet them. Dad looked over the scene, turning narrowed eyes to Uncle Red. Red shot a stream of juice at Dad’s shoes.
Dad glanced at Grandpa.
“Spit that juice over there, son,” Grandpa ordered softly.
Uncle Red stood defiantly for a second, his cheeks flushed scarlet, but then scuffed his way to his trailer, slamming us out with the metal door.
“He’s got a world of hurt inside him,” Grandpa muttered.
He looked at me and I nodded, like I understood.
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