They watched the sun fall behind the trees on shore and moved the boat about a hundred yards from the beach.
They fished and finished, watching the sunset as they sat on two folding chairs on the deck.
“That was a close one wasn’t it?” Rich said gazing across the water from where the storm came.
“I was afraid for us,” Uncle Ralph said. “I thought I was going to lose you.”
Rich smiled. “I read where Mark Twain said his mother tried to drown him in the Mississippi a few times and each time somebody would fish him out and bring him back home. His mother’s conclusion was that a man born to hang, ain’t gonna die by drowning. I guess that’s us.”
Uncle Ralph chuckled and his countenance turned serious. “How are you and your dad getting along?”
“We get along—I guess,” Rich said.
“You know that you mean the world to him,” Uncle Ralph said.
Rich did not reply because he saw only scant evidence of it.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with your dad,” Uncle Ralph said. “When he’s good he’s really good, but when he’s bad he’s really bad and that’s been no good for you, your sisters, or your mom. I’ve tried talking to him, but he’s always right. Nobody’s going to tell him anything. He’s been that way as long as I can remember and I’m 14 years older than him.”
“I don’t know what to do sometimes,” Rich said. “I’m afraid for mom and me. Sometimes I think he could kill us.”
“Oh no, he wouldn’t do that,” Uncle Ralph insisted and moved forward in his chair and turned to face Rich. “He’d never do that.”
“I see it in his eyes sometimes,” Rich said. “It’s like something takes over, especially if he has a shot of whiskey or a glass of wine. It turns him into a madman, immediately.”
“I hide my whiskey every time he comes over to the house,” Uncle Ralph said. “When I leave the room, he goes through the cabinets looking for it.”
“Where do you keep it?” Rich asked.
“If he finds it I’ll know who told him,” Uncle Ralph said raising his thick eyebrows.
“Where?” Rich said hushed and leaned toward him.
“I keep it in the flour bin,” Uncle Ralph said. “But I used to pour it into an empty bottle of ginger ale until one of Bessie’s grandkids drank it and threw up all over the kitchen.”
“Was he always like this?” Rich said leaning back into the chair.
“Yep,” Uncle Ralph said bringing in his line and tossing it out again. “He was the baby in the family. Mom and dad really babied him. When he came along they were old enough to be grandparents so they treated him like a grandchild.” Uncle Ralph paused, eased back in his chair, and said regretfully, “and his brothers and sisters treated him like a nephew, including me. Everything was done for him. When he had to stand on his own, there was no one to put up with him. It was fun making him happy, and then it turned terrible. When he was a kid he just threw a temper tantrum until he got what he wanted. Nothing has changed.”
“I don’t know how much more I can take,” Rich said.
“Your sister’s got married,” Uncle Ralph said, “but that’s not the answer. I’d tell you to stay with me, but he’d go crazy. He’d have to be put away.”
“A few years ago, we had the police out and they threatened to arrest him if he didn’t settle down,” Rich said. “That was the only time I ever saw him back down.”
“I wish I could do something to make it better for you,” Uncle Ralph said. “All I can do is listen.”
“I’ve been thinking about quitting school when I’m sixteen and moving out,” Rich said.
A shocked look flashed across Uncle Ralph’s face, he turned, and wagged his finger at Rich, “Don’t think such a thing. Don’t allow him to ruin your whole life.” The finger collapsed into a fist. “Finish school, go to college, and put this all behind you.” His hand opened up. “You won’t owe him a thing once you finish school and leave. You never have to see him again.” His hand fell on the arm of the chair. “You can move to California – as far away as you want. When you graduate, I’ll buy a ticket to California for you.” He smiled and winked to affirm his word.
“Thanks, Uncle Ralph,” Rich said.
“You come and talk to me anytime,” Uncle Ralph said. “Someday, you will look back on this time and use it to help somebody. Learn from it. Don’t let it make you bitter, mean, and angry.”
“I hope I can be like you,” Rich said.
Uncle Ralph shook his head. “No, you don’t want to be like me. Until Bessie came along I was nothing. After my first wife died, my kids had to raise themselves. I wish I was just half the father that you think I’m an uncle. I failed my kids.”
“You’re making up for it now,” Rich said.
“I hope so,” Uncle Ralph said. “Just don’t turn to the bottle. Solve your problems don’t drown them.”
They spent the second night on the water, yet anchored close to the beach. They were exhausted – physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Rich awoke again to the odors of breakfast. They ate and fished until noon. They docked the boat and closed it down until the next weekend when Uncle Ralph and Aunt Bessie would return.
On the ride home, they talked like two sailors who cheated death, which we did.
After driving two hours or so Uncle Ralph turned on the road where Rich lived. Home appeared pleasantly in view.
Rich said, “Tell Aunt Bessie I missed her.”
“I missed her too,” Uncle Ralph said. He paused, grinned, and added impishly, “Sure was a nice weekend.”
Indeed it was. Aunt Bessie never stopped organizing everything on the boat and fussing long enough to have an enjoyable time. She was cantankerous, but at the same time affable. The family grapevine said that Uncle Ralph’s life was a mess before Aunt Bessie came along.
“By the way,” Uncle Ralph said. “Not a word of the storm to your Mom and Dad, and especially Bessie. If she finds out, I’ll never hear the end of it. Every time I go to the lake, she’ll want to go along to keep me out of trouble.”
Rich reached for the door handle and Uncle Ralph laid his hand across his leg. “Life is sometimes like that boat ride we had in the storm. You keep trying. Know what direction to go in. When you think it’s hopeless and you’re about to give up – expect the sandbar.”
Rich smiled. Uncle Ralph smiled back and winked.
Rich got out of the car and shut the door. He opened the back door and retrieved his duffel bag. Before Uncle Ralph drove away Rich ducked down and waved at Uncle Ralph and he waved back. He turned the car around in Miss Driver’s driveway and drove away. Rich watched until his car turned the corner at the intersection and was hidden by the corn.
Duke jumped up on Rich in a welcoming frenzy of gasps and barks.
“Duke, old boy. I’d tell ya about my weekend, but you’d blab it to everybody,” Rich said.
That night, Rich laid in bed staring at the walls and the ceiling. The room was a pale yellow because of the lampshade on the desk. The room was in motion like Uncle Ralph’s boat being rocked by the waves. Even when Rich closed his eyes, the motion was present.
“What might Uncle Ralph do if he were me?” Rich murmured. “He would steer away from the storm and hope to find that sandbar.”
Rich smiled and thought, “Of all the weekends, that was the best, just me and Uncle Ralph.