Aunt Francis liked Miller High Life in the summer, or sweet tea with a big old splash of Kentucky bourbon and ice to the top of the glass. She’d strut around barefoot in cutoff Levis and her favorite T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up. It was Uncle Fred’s old UAW tee–faded navy blue with tiny holes eaten away by some splash of battery acid or bleach. Francis would rub the glass across her forehead and let out a whistle through her front teeth as she flopped down in the glider on the porch. We’d all gather there on Saturday afternoons when I’d visit–me with a ridiculous mountain of ice cream, Uncle Fred chomping on the stinky old stub of a Swisher Sweet, while Henry the dog licked himself silly over a flea he just couldn’t reach. When I saw Henry’s ears stand up, I knew he was about to lose his mind over something. Then I heard it too–that pathetic excuse for a car horn on Ernie the mailman’s car, which meant he was headed this way.
One time Henry, the absolute worst dog in the whole impossible world, nearly caught the west bound by way of Ernie’s white wall tire. Henry hates that guy’s little car (something about those brakes makes the dog raise his hackles and howl like a beastly hound from hell). The second he hears them squeaking, he becomes a madman, without fear and even less sense. He seems to think he can grab one of the tires or bumper like he would one of those unfortunate squirrels I’ve seen him disembowel in Francis’ backyard. Ernie must have been in an awful hurry, because he just kept on going as he flipped Henry the bird and I didn’t need to be a lip reader to know which choice words Ernie mouthed as he made his way past the house.
Henry doesn’t mind Ernie once he’s out of that evil car of his–maybe Henry just doesn’t like Japanese cars. Ernie’s little orange Datsun is a two-door, gas-saving, penny-pincher’s dream. Auntie says, “Well it’s practical, but I’d rather drive my god forsaken station wagon, then that tangerine-colored nightmare.”
Francis couldn’t care less about pinching pennies. She’s not exactly fancy, just unconcerned about saving a nickel per gallon on gas, 20 cents on corn niblets at the grocery, or clipping that coupon out of the Sunday paper to get half off of whatever the hell it is they’re trying to con you into the store with in the first place.
Uncle Fred has a good job at Allison’s Transmissions that he hates, but he will do it until he’s dead (that’s what he always says anyway). He lets Frannie control the checkbook, but not without some snooping through the statements each month. Their farmhouse is over 100 years old and Uncle Fred paid cash for the thing outright in 1957. “I didn’t need a god damned bank then and dammit Frannie, let’s keep it that way! I don’t want you setting foot in JCPenney’s again for at least another month.”
Like I said, she ain’t fancy, but she does have a thing for giving crazy gifts–ones your own Mom and Dad would NEVER EVER get you in a million years, even if they hit the lottery. This one time she bought me the best catcher’s mitt that the Crawfordsville Sportsman Shop had in the store. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I ripped off the newspaper wrapping (see, not fancy). I stuck that sucker up to my nose and breathed in the newly stitched cowhide, nearing what can only be described as prepubescent ecstasy. My Dad was so worried I’d lose the thing, that he made me write my name all over it and he even had Francis sew it on the label. The guys still give me shit about it. “Hey man, does your Auntie sew your name in your undies too?” “Gee, is that MY glove you’re using, Reggie.” I don’t care though, because I have the best mitt on the team.
For my 11th birthday, Aunt Francis went about nuts and gave me this new Schwinn bicycle, with a blue, bass-boat-sparkle paint job, wheelie bar and matching banana seat. I thought I was dreaming when she rode it up the sidewalk and said, “Happy Stinkin’ Birthday, Kid! Here ya go.” Uncle Fred had parked a couple of blocks down so they could surprise me. They had it all planned out with dad. To make sure I was out front when they showed up, Dad had me trimming the hedges ON MY BIRTHDAY. I should have known he was up to something, even he isn’t that much of a hard ass. I had only been at it about 10 minutes when Francis rolled up all smiles and long legs. Dad and Uncle Fred couldn’t stop laughing at the wreck I’d made of the hedge–I was kind of having an internal temper tantrum as I hacked at the already crooked row of yews lining the front porch. “How in the hell did you make such a mess of that in 10 minutes flat, son?” At least I never had to do that chore again, just help clean up after dad finished it.
Do I need to mention just how much I loved THAT BICYCLE, though? I made more enemies that summer from nothing more than bicycle envy, than I have in all my years since. Most of the fellas got over it eventually. Most of them. I think Robby Reisert would have, if the following summer I hadn’t given his girlfriend a ride home from school on it. She was giggling the whole way there and was about to swoop in for a kiss when I gently brushed her away, but not before Robby looked out his front porch window (they were next door neighbors). His version of the story was completely different and there’s still a little scar under my left eye to prove it. Robby just couldn’t believe that the prettiest girl in school–his girl–had gone temporarily mental over some weirdo and a stinkin’ bicycle. He knew it had to be all of MY doing. “Come on man, there is no way in hell TINA JACKSON wanted to kiss YOUR scrawny bird beak of a face.” Robby just didn’t understand the powers that bicycle possessed. Believe me, I was just as shocked as he was when she puckered her lips and leaned in.