Creative Nonfiction American Coming of Age

This story contains sensitive content

Content Warning: Threat of impending doom

No matter where we are, Uncle Julio always ends up the center of attention. Heโ€™s not trying to be the center of attention, yet it happens all the same. At his bar and grill, he usually sits at the same corner of the bar, with a group of laughing, talking friends who go silent if he leaves them for only a minute. At the bars in the town where he grew up, people congregate like moths around a porch light, slapping him on the back as the Packers game blares in the background. At my Grandfatherโ€™s house, when there are family gatherings in the summer, everyone sets up the folding chairs and coolers in a ring, and Uncle Julio is the focal point. Such as now.ย 

As usual, Uncle Julio is grilling hamburgers, this year over his new Solo Stove instead of on a grill. He and other adults have started a โ€˜beer gardenโ€™โ€”empty cans in a pile on the grass, to be picked up later. Also, the annual kidsโ€™ fire has been kindled. It starts with a stick poked into the adult-made bonfire, until the stick catches fire. The torch is then rushed to the dry twigs and dead, crunchy leaves weโ€™ve prepared, and the flame is fed with bigger twigs, then sticks, and finally dead branches. No adult assistance or supervision (or so we think). A difficult feat in our younger years, now a matter of tradition.

Another thing you should know about my Uncle Julio: he always has an eagle-eye out, especially on the youngins.ย Be you his son, niece, nephew, or of no relation at all, heโ€™s watching all the kids, all the time.

As I contemplate his face, animated in conversation, my memories unfurlโ€ฆ

A muggy summer night at Uncle Julioโ€™s bar and grill, kids running around outside, having scooter relay races and waving neon-colored glow sticks. A water fight briefly broke out, my cousin Luis appearing with a plastic water bottle poked full of holes, squeezing the contents at one of his friends; but Auntie Estela put the kibosh on that, saying, โ€œYour dad paid for those, donโ€™t waste them!โ€ Believing it prudent to distance myself from the scene of the possible crime, I took a break inside. As in many bars, several taxidermied animals and parts of animals adorn the interior, one of them in the low entrance hall: a turkey skin spread flat on the wall, feathered wings outstretched. As I passed, I unthinkingly lifted my handโ€ฆ

โ€œHEY! Guadalupe! Donโ€™t you touch my turkey!โ€ย 

My head snapped up, and I stepped away, probably looking like the guilty incarnation of โ€œWho, me?โ€ Uncle Julio was behind the bar, pointing an accusing finger at me as patrons laughed. To this day, I usually hug the wall opposite the turkey when I go in.ย 

At Uncle Julioโ€™s house, weโ€™re even more aware of his gaze. Heโ€™ll randomly stalk into a room, take a slow look around with brows furrowed, say, โ€œHmmm,โ€ or grunt, and then leave. He has the ability to be very loud and intimidating, and he knows how to use it.

There is one thing he has used this ability to impress upon us more than anything else: Do not break the Arizona vase.ย 

Oh, that vase! Nobody likes it except Uncle Julio, and maybe Auntie Estela. Big, red-brown pottery shaped like a bulging four-foot-tall amphorae of the Roman empire, but without handles. Rings of tiny triangles, red, orange, white, and pale blue band the entire surface, and the black stick figure of a dancer playing a flute is front and center. Ensconced in a decorative alcove in the hallway, everyone walks softly past it. We all wonder fearfully what will happen if we ever break it, for Uncle has not even issued his customary threat of โ€œIโ€™ll beat you with a shovel!โ€ in relation to this. In the heat of dart gun wars, if a dart hits even that angle of the wall, everyone freezes, and all remind the rest, โ€œBE CAREFUL!โ€ A permanent armistice has never been discussed as an option. After all, Uncle Julio is the one who buys his sons more darts and guns, so that is taken as sanction enough to continue.

But heโ€™s not always giving us the stink-eye. On our last visit, he stomped into the kitchen from working outside and held up a foot-long brown-striped feather. โ€œYou want this, Guadalupe? You could make it into a feather pen.โ€ย 

I looked up from my notebook and smiled. โ€œYes, please.โ€ย 

He set it on the edge of the counter, and I went back to writing. When he came in again later and saw that his gift was in the same place, he barked, โ€œHey, do you want this feather or not? Iโ€™ll throw it in the trash if you donโ€™t.โ€ย 

โ€œI want it.โ€ I retrieved the feather and set it on the back of the couch near my head. Uncle left and returned a third time, looked around for the feather, and took it into the kitchen. I heard him rummaging in a drawer, and a minute later he came back and dropped the feather into my lap.ย The anchor point of the feather had been cut off, and the ink barrel of a dissected ballpoint pen had been shoved inside the hollow quill. Black tapeโ€”maybe electrical?โ€”was wrapped around the tip to keep the pen from falling apart. Grinning hugely, I said, โ€œThanks, Uncle!โ€ He smiled and walked away, and I immediately began practicing a fantasy code which I hadnโ€™t worked on in months.

I love looking at Uncle Julioโ€™s eyes when heโ€™s happy. Itโ€™s like a cross between melted chocolate and brown stained glass with the midday summer sun shining through, but his eyes are, of course, alive and brilliant. I saw his eyes like that when he visited our house one time.ย 

Walking past the couch he was sitting on, I noticed something shiny on the floor, and picked up a penny. โ€œDid you drop this, Uncle?โ€ย 

โ€œNaw, I put it there. Iโ€™m seein' who notices.โ€

Grandpa used to throw change on the floor when he walked past us grandkids, laughing as we scrambled and fought. Maybe Uncle had done the same. I did a swift scan of the area, andโ€”aha!โ€”spotted another coin. But as I bent to pick it up, Uncle said, โ€œJust leave it, see if anyone else notices.โ€ No one did. I was two cents richer.ย 

โ€œHey, Rafe!โ€ Uncleโ€™s call brings me back to the presentโ€”roasting meat aroma in my nose, greasy food on paper plates, beer cans on the grass, afternoon is drawing on.ย 

Uncle Julio beckons my cousin over, pulling him down so he can murmur in his ear. โ€œGo get some of that cedar wood and throw it on your fire, but donโ€™t tell Pablo until you finish.โ€

โ€œWatch this.โ€ Already chuckling, Uncle Julio directs the attention of the adult circle to the kidsโ€™ campfire. We were expressly told not to take from the trailer of dry wood brought by a great-uncle. That cedar is only for the Solo Stove.

โ€œHey! What are you doing!โ€

Pablo yells a lot, and heโ€™s doing it now, panicking as his older brother throws the forbidden wood into the kidsโ€™ fire. After Rafe has chucked several pieces into the now-healthy blaze, he turns to his younger brother with a grin.

โ€œDad said I could.โ€ย 

Pabloโ€™s chest and cheeks deflate. โ€œOh.โ€

Uncle Julio laughs with his head back, teeth showing white through his black beard.ย 

Heโ€™s always watchingโ€ฆand often laughing.

January 28, 2023 04:40

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Wendy Kaminski
12:05 Feb 03, 2023

What a character, your uncle! I got such a good chuckle out of this, and laughed out loud at "Heโ€™ll randomly stalk into a room, take a slow look around with brows furrowed, say, โ€œHmmm,โ€ or grunt, and then leave." I'll say it again: what a character! I loved reading "Grandpa used to throw change on the floor when he walked past us grandkids, laughing as we scrambled and fought." It is adorable how your elders tend to throw in things for fun and competition for the youngers - your Uncle, included :). I used to toss dimes and quarters into the...


Hi Wendy, thank you for reading and commenting! Uncle Julio certainly is quite a character! When writing this story, I was so happy at the thought of sharing my uncle with the Reedsy community. If prompts permit, he may make another appearance. Thatโ€™s so funny about your coin planting! That would have been quite a find for me when I was little. Some kids were probably convinced theyโ€™d stumbled on pirate treasure! When it comes to my family, memory lane is a very fun, albeit loud, place to walk. :)


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00:52 Feb 01, 2023

Uncle Julio, the fun uncle, is an interesting character. I could picture him there watching everyone. I liked the โ€œbeer gardenโ€. Some of my uncles picnics back in the day in wisconsin were just like this.


Thank you for reading and commenting, Scott! I was very happy to be able to share my always-watching uncle through this story. Perhaps itโ€™s a general trait of uncles to lay out a picnic, start a beer garden, and have good times. Iโ€™ve spent about half my life in Wisconsin, so I know from experience itโ€™s a great place to do that.


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21:39 Jan 31, 2023

Very catchy title :) So on the one hand, the uncle is the one always watching. He's aware of misdeeds and quick with a warning, and he messes with them, like with the fire at the end. But it's not just vigilance. He tests the kids to see which are perceptive, with the coins, and he's aware of their interests, like with the feather. So he doesn't just look towards the kids, but he looks out *for* them as well. On the other hand, the narrator is also the one always watching. She sees her uncle, first superficially, as a loud and intimidati...


Iโ€™m glad you like the title :) My mother saw the title and asked if I was sure that was a good idea. I asked, โ€œWhat else are you supposed to call a story about Uncle Julio?โ€ After pursing her lips, she said, โ€œFair enough.โ€ Once again, youโ€™ve made me smile hugely with your in-depth analysis and summary. I hadnโ€™t even thought of the fact that I could be seen as the one always watching, yet it is so. I love my uncle, and Iโ€™m so happy to be able to share him with you through this story. You are right about the proper spelling being [amphora...


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Jack Kimball
00:52 Jan 31, 2023

Great twist that Uncle Julio is the one always watching. Best thing is this is a character piece and you fleshed out Uncle Julio really well. I could see him, the bar, etc. Excellent detail.


Thank you for reading and commenting, Jack! I was very excited to try to share my uncle through this story, and Iโ€™m glad you could see him in his natural habitat clearly.


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