Content Warning: Threat of impending doom
No matter where we are, Uncle Julio always ends up the center of attention. He’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 Grandfather’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.
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 ‘beer garden’—empty cans in a pile on the grass, to be picked up later. Also, the annual kids’ 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 we’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. Be you his son, niece, nephew, or of no relation at all, he’s watching all the kids, all the time.
As I contemplate his face, animated in conversation, my memories unfurl…
A muggy summer night at Uncle Julio’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, “Your dad paid for those, don’t waste them!” 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 hand…
“HEY! Guadalupe! Don’t you touch my turkey!”
My head snapped up, and I stepped away, probably looking like the guilty incarnation of “Who, me?” 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.
At Uncle Julio’s house, we’re even more aware of his gaze. He’ll randomly stalk into a room, take a slow look around with brows furrowed, say, “Hmmm,” 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.
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 “I’ll beat you with a shovel!” 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, “BE CAREFUL!” 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 he’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. “You want this, Guadalupe? You could make it into a feather pen.”
I looked up from my notebook and smiled. “Yes, please.”
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, “Hey, do you want this feather or not? I’ll throw it in the trash if you don’t.”
“I want it.” 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. 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 tape—maybe electrical?—was wrapped around the tip to keep the pen from falling apart. Grinning hugely, I said, “Thanks, Uncle!” He smiled and walked away, and I immediately began practicing a fantasy code which I hadn’t worked on in months.
I love looking at Uncle Julio’s eyes when he’s happy. It’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.
Walking past the couch he was sitting on, I noticed something shiny on the floor, and picked up a penny. “Did you drop this, Uncle?”
“Naw, I put it there. I’m seein' who notices.”
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, and—aha!—spotted another coin. But as I bent to pick it up, Uncle said, “Just leave it, see if anyone else notices.” No one did. I was two cents richer.
“Hey, Rafe!” Uncle’s call brings me back to the present—roasting meat aroma in my nose, greasy food on paper plates, beer cans on the grass, afternoon is drawing on.
Uncle Julio beckons my cousin over, pulling him down so he can murmur in his ear. “Go get some of that cedar wood and throw it on your fire, but don’t tell Pablo until you finish.”
“Watch this.” Already chuckling, Uncle Julio directs the attention of the adult circle to the kids’ 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.
“Hey! What are you doing!”
Pablo yells a lot, and he’s doing it now, panicking as his older brother throws the forbidden wood into the kids’ fire. After Rafe has chucked several pieces into the now-healthy blaze, he turns to his younger brother with a grin.
“Dad said I could.”
Pablo’s chest and cheeks deflate. “Oh.”
Uncle Julio laughs with his head back, teeth showing white through his black beard.
He’s always watching…and often laughing.