I sat for a long time at the bar. I tried to chat with Stephen, it was too busy. I wandered to the buffet table then through the main dining room, my eye caught the front door and I made my way toward it. I felt a tug at my sleeve as a slid past a table. “Sit with me Patty,” a voice said.
As I sat Uncle Bobby put his hand on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze, “How you doin’ Patty?” He removed his hand from my shoulder and ran the back of his fingers across my cheek, “Spitting image of you father, you know that?” he said. His mouth was pulled back in a tight smile and he blinked a lot.
I smiled back, “You told me that at his funeral, thank you.” Uncle Bobby leaned back in his chair. After what seemed an awkward length of time I grasped for something to fill the silence, “It was a nice ceremony, at the church huh? These kids,” I shook my head in disbelief, “…so young.”
“They remind me of Kara”, he said, reaching forward grabbing his beer mug by the handle but leaving it sitting on the table, “Your father’s funeral was good, very dignified. You did a nice job.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Kara had a lovely funeral.” Bobby said, “Beautiful flowers. Your aunt Margret did all the arrangements herself, did you know that?”
I told him that I didn’t and asked, “How’s Aunt Margie doing anyway? I haven’t seen her around today.”
“She’s good. Well as can be expected. She doesn’t like, you know,” he waved his hand in a circle around the room, “lots of people all at once. You would have liked the funeral, though. Everything was so well done. She looked real natural.”
“I’m sorry to have missed it, Uncle Bobby,” I said, “I can’t imagine what that was like…” my voice trailed off into an empty silence.
“Ten years,” he said, “Ten years ago next week. Seems like yesterday,” he picked up his beer then and drank in long gulps, placed his empty glass gently on the table, and ran his finger along the rim. “Hell of a thing cancer. You never want to see anyone go through that. Not a child.” Uncle Bobby lifted his hand in the air with two fingers extended, he pointed to himself and then to me. “You did want another one right?” I finished what was in my glass and told him that I did. “Atta boy,” He put his hand on my shoulder again, “Look at you! all grown up and everything. Spitting image of your father,” he threw his hands over his head, “I said that already, I know, I know. I repeat. I can’t help it, I look in your face and I see my older brother. I see our family.”
We sat for a moment in silence waiting for the fresh beers to arrive. I was hot, my clothes felt tight and heavy on my skin. It seemed stuffy in the bar with so many people; I found it hard to breathe. I realized I had been clutching at my collar, pulling it sideways, unconsciously gasping for air.
“You know you can take that off now,” Uncle Bobby said pointing to my tie.
“No way, I’m not going to be the first one.” It was a game the men played in my family. It started when my father and his brothers were children; at formal events, the first one to take their tie off was considered the “cherry breaker” and was heckled and splashed with water, or beer.
“Some of the other kids took theirs off.”
“I don’t sit at the kid’s table anymore, Uncle Bobby.”
He laughed and put his hand on my shoulder again, “No you don’t,” he said, “No you do not.” He began to squeeze my shoulder, not hard, almost a caress. He was resting his full weight there as he leaned in closer toward my face to stare deeply into my eyes. I could smell his breath, stale beer, and tobacco, his teeth were yellow at the gum line, “So much like your father,” he said again. I tried hard to smile.
A waitress arrived with the beers so I leaned back to allow her access to the table and far enough for Uncle Bobby’s hand to fall from my shoulder.
“Kara looked like her mother,” Bobby said grabbing the handle of his mug, “not like me. She was lucky there, right? No, she was beautiful like her mother.” Uncle Bobby clutched his beer with both hands and leaned forward, head bowed staring down into the glass. He looked like he was praying. “You know at the end there, when the cancer got bad; I would sit next to her bed and watch her sleep,” he stretched his arm across the table, “I would place my hand on her chest to feel her breathe, just to make sure. I’d sit there for hours, sometimes all night just feeling her little body rise and fall.” His arm began to go up and down with the rhythm of air being drawn in and exhaled, then softly fell to the table. “Then one day she stopped.”
Bobby leaned back in his chair lifted his glass and drank. “Ever been up to Fairmount Cemetery?” He asked. I told him I had not. “Oh, you should go,” he said, “It’s like a park up there. Full of mature trees and gardens of flowers; nice green grass too. Sometimes when we go see Kara we bring blankets, and we have a picnic, your Aunt Margret and me. It’s real pretty, like a park. On her birthday in May, we bring balloons. Kara will be eighteen this year, you know, would have graduated high school. We always bring purple balloons, purple was her favorite color, and we sing songs and have cake and blow out candles. When we leave we let the balloons go so they fly up to heaven. You know, so she can see them. Anyway…” He stood up patting the pockets of his suit coat, pulled a pack of Merits from the inside pocket, and flipped the lid, “you should go, it’s like a park. He stood silent for a moment counting the cigarettes then abruptly walked off, “I’m going out for a smoke,” he said over his shoulder, “Watch my beer, okay?”
My gaze followed him as he made his way through the crowd and out the front door. Outside I could see him hunch his shoulders and bring his hands to his face to light a cigarette, when he was done he remained in that position. As I watched my uncle I ran my fingers along the outside of my glass, a layer of condensation had formed, it felt cool against my skin. I wanted to pick the glass up and rub the wetness on my cheeks and lips. I took a sip of beer.
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Originally posted January 21, 2013