By Rachel Heffington
I didn’t even know we had aunts. There were uncles by the dozen, but they all “bached” it in a dirty, smoky set of apartments in the city. Buggs, Sharpshin, and I loved visiting them—we always had such larks, for there was a desperate element of danger in their antics: Uncle Nelson had a habit of juggling all the sharpest steak-knives and throwing them at you so they cut a few hairs off the top of your head, but left your scalp. Uncle Jem drank brandy (for his bum leg, he said.) and smoked dime cigars at the same time. Uncle Welch always dared us to walk along the wrought iron rail of the great bridge in the Park. But the youngest, most perilous—and therefore beloved—uncle of all was Uncle Brodie. He would load one chamber of his six-shooter, (that had done service to a real live Indian once) then coolly point the pistol in your direction and shoot the five empty chambers so you prayed he was paying attention and counting right.
We adored Uncle Brodie for the very fact that you were never quite safe around him—he was like a jungle, an island, a cowboy, and a pirate-ship all boiled down and buttoned up in a crumpled, grey suit.
We never knew what to expect from Uncle Brodie. Maybe that’s why we weren’t as surprised as we might have been when the door of Sallimander’s Drug jangled open one afternoon as Buggs, Sharpshin, and I were drinking our twice-weekly cream-sodas.
Uncle Brodie slung his lanky frame onto the barstool beside Sharpshin. “Hey kids,” he said.
I sipped my cream soda and licked my lips, savoring the sweet furze that clung to them.
“Hey Uncle Brodie,” Sharpshin said, without taking his eyes from his comic book. He wasn’t reading it—I knew my own brother well enough to know that—he studied the super-heroes because he planned to become an inventor and he was determined to find the formula for Kryptonite. Buggs and I thought him a genius.
Uncle Brodie cleared his throat and I looked at him. His face was splotchy, and he kept swallowing funny.
“Want my cherry?” I asked, running a grimy hand through my red hair till it stood on end.
“Sure kid,” he said. He never called me Lewis—which was my real name—or even Pitt, which was what the guys called me. All three of us—Buggs, Sharpshin, and myself—were just “kid” to Uncle Brodie, but I didn’t mind.
I pulled the cherry off the deflated pile of whipped cream and eyed it with a little reluctance—but nothing was too good for my idol. I passed it to him and he tossed it in his mouth, chewed once, and swallowed it, stem and all.
I suppose there was a measure of talent mixed up in such a feat, but I stared gape-mouthed. Buggs, Sharpshin, and I had a religious system when we ate a cherry; we pulled the stem off, licked the cherry clean, polished it on our shirt-sleeves, then ate it in mouse-bites till the last bit of sweet cherry-juice was only a memory on the tongue.
The cherry being disposed of, Uncle Brodie cleared his throat again and pulled an envelope from his pocket. It was sweaty and crumpled and looked as agitated as a june-bug with a string tied to his leg. In fact, it looked just like Uncle Brodie did.
“What’s ‘at?” Buggs asked. He pushed his patched cap to a jaunty angle on his head and reached for the envelope.
Uncle Brodie shoved his hand away. “Listen kiddos,” he said, “I’ve got somethin’ important to tell ya’.”
I froze in my folding of a napkin into a sailor-hat. Sharpshin pulled his eyes from his comic book. Buggs pushed his hat back in the other direction.
Uncle Brodie crumpled his weather-beaten fedora in his hands and gave us a sympathetic grimace. “I’m real sorry, kids. I really am.”
Buggs cracked his knuckles. “So?”
Uncle Brodie slid the envelope across the counter till it hit my elbow. “So, it’s the aunts, kiddos. They’re claiming you.”