My dad’s tiny cabin sits nestled near the Coconino National Forest in Flagstaff, Arizona, where over 100 years ago, Mother Nature sprinkled a fairy-dust mixture of Ponderosa pines, aspens and Douglas firs. She was generous. The closer I approach Dad’s place, the scent of trees and foliage beckon me to inhale, and the weight of Phoenix drifts away like a marshmallow cloud. Besides Dad, I join my brother Greg for a family game night, and the cabin bulges from beer, burps, board games and an occasional nose bump from Dad’s friendly Labrador, Charlie. After a several rounds of poker, Dad pulls the monopoly game box out from under the couch. Greg and I groan.
I decide to put an end to this immediately. “Really, Dad? You know we don’t have a chance against …” My words falter when I hear something strange: the doorbell. I didn’t know Dad even had a doorbell. I watch Charlie bolt from the couch to the front door.
Dad frowns as he arranges the game board on the cluttered kitchen table. “Jack, see who’s here, will ya?”
Stumbling from my seat, where I’ve consumed one too many beers, I amble over to the door and yank it open. In seconds, my mouth falls and crashes to the floor, and I aimlessly run my hand through my shaggy brown hair. “Oh, my god. What the hell?”
“Who is it, Jack?” Dad yells. “Whoever it is, tell them I’m not home.”
I step aside as the one person I never thought I’d see again brushes past with determined steps. “Wait!”
But there’s no stopping him.
Rushing to get ahead, I reach the kitchen first; I hold up both hands. “Dad, now don’t get upset, but …”
Dad looks up; his cigar falls from his cracked lips. Greg grabs an empty bottle and waves it like a torch.
My heart pounds, and I wonder if our unwanted guest—my Uncle Leo—will make it out of here alive. Ever the peacemaker, I say, “Look, everyone, calm down. I’m sure Leo has a good reason for coming here.”
Uncle Leo, my dad’s younger brother by just one year, gives us an oily smile. His black hair is carefully combed to cover most of his shiny forehead, and confined in the small space, his musky odor of cologne drowns out our grilled burgers and pork ‘n beans.
Leo gives a curt nod. “Look, Mike, Jack is right. I’m not here to make trouble. I’m here to make amends.” He sniffs the air. “Got any leftovers?”
Greg adjusts his grip on the bottle and glances at me. “No. And have you forgotten what you did to our dad? You must have a death wish coming here like this!”
Scratching my chin stubble, I think back a few months to the blowup that happened in this very room when Uncle Leo strode in and planted a sloppy kiss right on my stepmother Molly’s Botox-filled lips. To our amazement, she didn’t resist. Instead, she told Dad she was leaving him for his brother, Leo. Molly folded her arms and rattled off her reasons: Dad brought home greasy tacos far too often just to mess with her diet. He spent too much time at the pool hall, drinking beer and gambling away his weekly paycheck. He let his pesky dog Charlie shed all over the furniture. And, worse yet, Dad hadn’t fulfilled his promise to take Molly to Vegas—her lifelong dream was to watch Murray the Magician perform at the Tropicana, which, according to her, offered the cheapest and best buffet.
After Molly’s shrill voice finally stopped, Uncle Leo draped his sinewy arm around her thick shoulders. His smug grin slithered in Dad’s direction. “Obviously, Mike, you’re not the man to keep this baby doll happy.”
Dad’s voice interrupts my thoughts; his tone is a 6.0 magnitude earthquake. “You got a hell of a lot of nerve, Leo, after stealing my love muffin Molly like you did. That woman would never have left me if you hadn’t sweet talked her with your crafty tongue.” He gestures to Greg to put down the bottle. “Now, what do you want?”
Dragging a chair to join them, Leo plops down and grabs a beer from the table. He expertly pops off the lid and gulps half the bottle. Then, wiping his lips with the back of his calloused hand, he shrugs. “I want us to be family again. I miss hanging out with you and your boys. I got nobody now to drink with, or play cards with … shit, she watches every bite I eat because she says I need to watch my damn cholesterol.” He pauses to drain his bottle. “She even emptied out both my fridges and filled them with bottled green tea.” He grimaced. “What kind of woman does that?”
Dad picks up his game piece—the race car—and peers at Leo over the top of his glasses. “Yeah, that sounds like Molly. Soon as she left, I cleared out the fridge and restocked my beer.”
I pick up my own game piece—the Scottie dog—and place it at the start line. “So, what do you expect my dad to do?”
“Let me back into the family fold.” Leo cocks his head; a flop of black hair falls into his eyes. “A man needs the companionship of his kin. Understand? No woman can replace that.”
“But what about Molly?” Greg asks. “She’s your kin now, too.”
“This ain’t about her,” Leo says. “She’s not blood.”
Nodding at the monopoly board, Dad says, “Tell you what, little brother. Let’s play monopoly. Winner takes the prize.”
I stop myself from pointing out a fact that Leo doesn’t know—Dad always wins at monopoly. Greg and I give each other a knowing look.
Leo frowns. “What prize?”
“Well, if I win, I get Molly back. I’m sure you can convince my love muffin to come back to me. If you win, you’ll keep Molly, and you ‘n me? Well, we’ll be family again. That is, if Molly will let you come over without her. She tends to keep one on a short lease.”
So, Greg hands Leo a game piece—the boot (quite fitting)—and we each line up our pieces to start. As we toss the dice to see who goes first, I ask Leo, “When was the last time you played monopoly?”
“Well, Jack, your dad will tell you that I’m pretty good at games.” He winks. “And not just board games, so I’m not worried.”
So, we begin.
The clock inches forward, and the hour dips past midnight. I toss our empty bottles into the trash and open more chip bags. Dad’s grunts and Leo’s words grow louder and louder, but that doesn’t stop Greg from falling asleep; he lays his head on the table and snores.
While me, Dad and Leo trudge on, Leo launches onto his favorite topic—women.
Leo turns to me. “You still with that little woman? What’s her name … Felicia?” He smacks his lips as if he’s imaging prime rib.
“Felicia? Nah, her name was Fiona. And she moved out a few months ago, but it’s good. Now I have plenty of time to hang out with my buds.” Sighing, I slide my Scottie dog onto a square holding Dad’s hotel. I don’t have enough money to pay the rent, so I’m out. Leaning back, I clasp my hands behind my neck and listen as Dad and Leo talk.
“I get what Jack here is saying.” Leo rolls the dice. “Women have their stifling ways.” He groans and moves his boot onto another square that hosts two of Dad’s houses. “For instance, I had no idea that Molly expected me to cuddle with her every night while I watch The Sopranos. I mean, a man needs to breathe every once in a while. Am I right?”
Dad nods. “Yes, indeed. That’s God’s truth. Molly is one needy woman.” He collected his rent from Leo and smiled. “The only one I share the couch with now is Charlie, and he’s not the cuddling type. Thank God.”
Leo ignores him and continues. “And what’s with all those knick-knacks? Soon as she moved in, she filled my walls with everything from flowered wreathes to those tacky metal ‘home sweet home’ signs you find at them touristy shops.” His shoulders slump. “And don’t get me started on her potpourri. The house reeks of gardenias and cinnamon—a horrible combination, if you ask me.”
Dad nods in agreement; Leo’s not done yet. “But the worst part of all this—I mean, Molly moving in and all—is that she’s got an allergy to my dogs. Says that can happen sometimes, even after years of being allergy free.” He wipes the sweat from his brow. “Them dogs are part of my family. Now my poor boys have to stay in the garage, and it breaks my heart. It really does."
Two hours later, my eyes fog over, and I’m tempted to join Charlie on the couch when I hear my dad yelp. “By golly, Leo. Didn’t think you could pull it off. Looks like you’re the winner tonight.”
Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I squint at Dad. Wait. He lost? What was the old man up to?
“Yes, siree! Congratulations, little brother,” Dad says. “You’ve won. And just remember to keep that woman at home as she ain’t welcome here. By the way, we’re having a beer ‘n barbeque night next Saturday at the pool hall. Try to get there early because the ribs go fast.”
For a moment, I watch Leo’s big body crumble as if his bones deserted him. He looks like he’s about to say something when his cell phone rings. “Yeah?”
He listens; his bulky cellphone crammed against his ear. “I’m leaving now, baby doll. By the way, good news. My brother’s forgiven me. I’ll be joining him and my nephews next Saturday for a night out, and …”
Yanking the phone away from his ear, we hear Molly’s high pitch voice. She doesn’t sound happy. Leo quickly hangs up; he hesitates as if he doesn’t want to leave. “Guess I’ll go home now.” But, he doesn’t move.
When Leo finally drives away, I turn to Dad. “What was that about? You always win at monopoly!” A thought hits me. “Did you lose on purpose?”
Dad yawns and scratches his belly. “Hell, yes! I realize that the only one I want to share my couch with right now is Charlie because he knows better than to talk when I'm watching my shows. And, I couldn’t wait to pull Molly’s crafty decorations off the wall and throw them away. I never liked her taste in décor, that’s for sure. Too girly.”
“But you know when I knew for sure I didn’t want Molly back?” He peered up at me with the intensity of a cat stalking a mouse.
I shake my head.
“When Leo brought up Molly’s sudden allergy to his dogs. No way my Charlie is going to be banished to the garage, that’s for sure.”
Pulling on my jacket, I yell for Greg to wake up so we can head home. “So, Dad, you weren’t about to choose between your ex-wife and your dog?”
Dad grins. “Look, boys. If there’s one lesson for you to learn here, it’s this: loyalty beats love. Charlie has always been loyal, and as for Molly?” He shakes his head. “Obviously, not.”