You don’t realize your blond locks are burning until your uncle knocks the bonnet on the furry brown carpet shaped like a monkey and smothers your head with his lime green v-neck sweater. You know it’s lime green because you always see him wearing it proudly in the Polaroid photo taken a few hours prior to the incident. This photo spent two decades hanging crooked in a wooden frame on your parents’ wall going up the staircase so you had to look at it every day, until you summoned the courage of convictions and burnt down the house, making it look like an anonymous arsonist did it.
There’s a lemon wedge hanging from the edge of his Bloody Mary and a big fat stick of celery the color of his sweater protruding from the viscous crimson liquid. There’s a red plastic straw across the top of his glass, with a green olive dangling precariously just above the liquid, like a tightrope walker in a circus.
Later that afternoon Uncle Bob is sitting beside you on the bed, his hand nefariously on your shoulder, the basket of chocolate and Cadbury Crème Eggs with the fake green grass on your lap, your fingers clenching the mosquito netting. You’re in Costa Rica on vacation. On the day you were born your only uncle was one of the American captives held hostage during the Iranian Hostage Crisis.
“It’s good to be home with you Joey,” Uncle Bob says. His arm is across your shoulders like in the photo, and his smile is also the same: perfect white teeth and dimples in both cheeks; as if he was still a little boy, who just happened to be trapped in the body of a forty year old man. “I know you don’t know me well,” Bob says, “but the thought of your mother pregnant kept me going when times were tough an’ Uncle Bob knew she wanted to get pregnant an’ I knew you’d be a blessing.”
Bob lights a cigarette and takes a sip of his vodka tonic (Bloody Marys having been replaced with the more intoxicating beverages as the bright morning faded into a hazy early afternoon and the monster began to come out of hiding). He steps up from the bed and stumbles happily to the door, checking to make sure it’s locked. Satisfied, Uncle Bob returns to the bed and lifts you in his arms toward the fireplace in the corner. Library was what he called the room, but which was actually the master bedroom where your mother and father slept, but the shelves above the bed were filled with hundreds of books and Uncle Bob took pleasure in believing you were in a different, less intimate environment.
The fireplace was only ornamental, but Bob decides to light some of the books on fire. Creating a raging inferno, he tears out pages and lights them with his gold plated cigarette lighter with the inscription: “Home is where the heart is….Welcome home baby brother.” Your mother kept the lighter after Bob’s heroic death during the first war in Iraq less than a decade later. “He was always serving his country,” she told you after his ashes were placed in an urn above your mantle, just down the hall from the photo of that April 22nd afternoon when you lost your innocence.
Bob laughs like a devil when he notices the white smoke drifting into the room because he forgot to open the chimney flue. “Look Joey,” he says as he begins to sing, “Santa Claus is coming to town.” He uses your Easter egg basket to fan the smoke back into the fireplace. You see sweat glistening on his forehead and stains under his armpits. His face is red and his eyes grow wide and wild like an owl’s and he begins using a towel to help direct the smoke toward the chimney and he gives you a smile and says, “everything will be fine my favorite nephew.”
You wonder what would have occurred if he read all those books instead of destroying them like inanimate logs of literature. Would he be smarter? Would he still be alive?
You’re watching the smoke and pages turning yellow and the edges blackening in the fire before rising into the air like restless paper bubbles. Bob grabs your bonnet; the one your mother spent weeks working on. He stamps it out on the carpet and sends you a message with his eyes; you don’t understand it. Bob kicks the bonnet around and it leaves a mark in the monkey fur, like a pile of foliage protecting the grass after snowfall.
The room is spinning and the back of your head is burning and everything is green and the next thing you know you wake up in Bob’s lap and his sweater has a huge hole in the back and your gold He-Man t-shirt is on backwards and he’s rubbing your hair in the front where it wasn’t burned. “Everything is fine now Joey,” he says. “The fire is gone.”
There’s a knock on the door and Bob places you on the bed and opens it. Your mother is standing there with a horrified expression. “Oh God, what happened Bob?”
“We godda little too close to the fire, but it’s ok, everything’s fine.”
Your mother looks at Uncle Bob and you wonder if she knows what you know and you wonder what the hell you’re doing in the US Air Force twenty-five years later and what the smoke will look like when it rises into the horizon after you join forces with your allies in defending freedom and protecting Israel after their preemptive invasion on Iranian nuclear facilities, when you finally become a man, break your silence, aim your weapons and fire.
Matthew Dexter lives in Mexico. He will also probably die in Mexico. This lunatic gringo enjoys beautiful beaches, breathtaking views, reading, writing, and being inspired. But never candlelit dinners on the beach. He’s afraid of Pirates.