Papa said it was a mistake to let Uncle Dale go shopping on his own, even if it was just down to Sammy’s to pick up smokes. He said that we support our troops in this house, and that it weren’t in no way proper to send a hero off on his own, forced to wheel his own chair around – even if it was a beautiful first day of summer, and even if Uncle Dale had wanted to go on his lonesome. And when Uncle Dale finally came back, we all knew Papa had been right.
We spent all afternoon watching the clock. I knew it was an eight-minute-and-thirty-one second walk to Sammy’s, and it was a three-minute-fifteen bike ride – unless Cousins Lidia and Bert were visiting, since they didn’t have bikes and weren’t allowed to ride, so then it was an even six-minute sprint – and Mama figured it would take Uncle Dale thirty-minutes on the dot, one way. And she said she was being conservative, which meant she was right.
And Annie – not Aunt Annie, because she was just Uncle Dale’s girlfriend, and she’d been with him since before he was a hero and she stuck around through the worst of it and Mama called her a hero too – just spent her time crying, and saying that we should never have let him go alone – and Papa nodded – and how he was poor and alone and he needed her, because every good man had a good woman standing behind him, pushing his chair to the shops.
We sat around the clock watching it tick and tock, and Mr. and Mrs. Doncaster from next door came over with a casserole and sat with us. Only Grandpa wasn’t watching the clock, because Grandpa was a hero too – only he’d been a hero for much longer and much harder – and he mostly just sat watching the TV, even when it was off.
We watched that Elvis Presley clock for what felt like weeks, and twenty-two minutes after Uncle Dale left, we heard the front door open.
“He never made it,” Mama whispered, taking Annie’s hand. “It’s not even half an hour yet.”
Annie cried harder, and she got to her feet because she knew her man needed her and that was all that mattered.
Mrs. Doncaster put her casserole in the oven and Papa took a swig of beer. And then he spat it out and dropped his can when the door swung open and Uncle Dale entered.
Despite his ordeal, Uncle Dale was smiling. He had a smile like the horses at the merry-go-round at Fiddler’s Park and he was breathing heavy like he had just run a mile.
Sister Marlene elbowed me in the ribs so I covered my ears just as Papa cussed. I wasn’t supposed to hear him cuss, and I didn’t, but I know he cussed because that’s the only reason Sister Marlene ever elbows me in the ribs.
And then I gasped.
Uncle Dale stepped into the house. He walked through the door.
Everyone gasped, except Annie who shrieked.
“Hello, everyone!” Uncle Dale said. He held up a Sammy’s bag and pulled out a carton of menthols. “You’ll never guess what happened.” His smile was brighter than the sun.
“We don’t guess in this house,” Papa said, but his voice wasn’t as hardwood as it normally was. He kind of deflated into his chair and everyone else sat down too, huddling around him, and we watched Uncle Dale from across the room. The light of the day surrounded him and he looked like something out of a movie, like maybe an angel or at least an alien.
“There I was, just rolling along, when my wheel got caught in a rut in the busted sidewalk. As I baked in the sun trying to get it out, a shadow fell on me and I saw a strange woman approaching. She was dressed like she was going to one of those Latin dance classes. She smiled, and said I looked like the kind of man that didn’t dance to anyone else’s tune but my own. Well, I told her I don’t dance much at all anymore. Well, she offered her hand and helped me up. And wouldn’t you know it, we just danced right then and there, in the middle of the sidewalk with only the wind for music.”
We were all silent – even Grandpa stopped wheezing.
“Well, I spun her around, we had a laugh, and she said, ‘See you around!’ And I said, ‘Same to you!’ And she walked off, and so did I. It didn’t even really occur to me until I had finished at Sammy’s.” He grinned and slapped his knee.
There was more silence, but Mama was always a great hostess and she knew it fell to her to do something, so she frowned and said, “So… this woman. She was a doctor?”
“No, I don’t think so,” said Uncle Dale.
“She’s a faith healer then?” said Papa.
“Didn’t hear a word of faith, unless the flamenco’s a prayer.”
Annie wiped her eyes and planted her fists on her hips. “Well then, just who is this gas station tart?”
“Who is this convenience woman, if she’s not a doctor or healer? That’s what I want to know.”
“Well, I don’t know. I’ve never seen her before.” Then Uncle Dale said something even I knew wasn’t smart. “But I’ll never forget her.”
“Annie, please! I thought you’d be happy for me.”
“Now just wait a moment,” said Mr. Doncaster. “Annie’s got a point. I mean, what do we even know about this woman? She’s not a doctor, she’s not devout – what is she then? What business of hers is it who walks and who rolls? Maybe she’s a fraud.”
“A fraud?” said Uncle Dale.
“Yeah, a fraud. Maybe you’re not really walking, Dale. Maybe she just tricked you.”
Uncle Dale’s smile faltered, but everyone else started murmuring approval for this new idea. After all, it was plausible. Probable even. People were always trying to take advantage of heroes these days. In any case, we all cheered when Uncle Dale sat down at the dinner table to join us for casserole, since he was about the height we expected him to be, and Papa said that thankfully the whole sordid affair was behind us.
But it wasn’t.
The next day, Uncle Dale continued walking around. All of the next week, even. Papa kept grumbling and Mama kept shaking her head, and Annie was all the time crying. The Doncasters talked to the Palmers, and the Palmers talked to the Singhs, and soon the whole neighbourhood knew.
One day Mama sighed real loud and finally asked, “Dale, where’s your chair?”
Uncle Dale said he didn’t know. Forgot it when he started walking, and it wasn’t there when he came back. Mama declared it her mission to help him, to find the expensive chair for him no matter what – even though he said it was all right and he didn’t mind it.
The third week of summer, Uncle Dale asked me if I wanted to go to the park to throw a ball around. Heck yeah! We ran all the way there. We spent the whole day just throwing it around and it was the most fun I’d had in years, since Papa never took me to play ball anymore. But I noticed some of the other park goers watching us, and they pointed and shook their heads. It was a fun day, but I could see it getting to Uncle Dale.
About mid-summer, we found Papa standing outside the house, admiring the wheelchair ramp he installed just last winter.
“It’s a fine piece of work, isn’t it?” he asked.
“Sure is,” said Uncle Dale.
“Well, would it kill you to use it?” Papa snapped. “To show the least bit of appreciation?”
“But nothing, Dale! I cannot stomach such ingratitude.”
Uncle Dale took me fishing the weekend after, and to get to the old fishing spot he used to go to with Papa and Grandpa way-back-when, we had to hike through a forest. It was a beautiful spot, even if the fish weren’t biting. He said fishing wasn’t really about the fish anyway, but I wasn’t sure what he meant. When we got home though, things turned grim.
Annie’s face had nearly washed off in all her tears. She dragged her suitcase through the living room and said she was leaving.
“Annie! But why?”
Annie sobbed. “I can’t take this anymore. You play with a girl’s heart, Dale. You’re cruel! Do you ever think of anyone but yourself? All of my girlfriends have heroes to wheel around, and me? Just what am I supposed to do with a man that can walk under his own power?”
But she slammed the door and departed, her wailing fading into the distance.
A week later, Uncle Dale took me swimming, but his heart wasn’t in it. He said he missed Annie dearly, and I missed her too, on his behalf. When we got home, we found the Doncasters whispering with Papa. They all looked up when we came in and narrowed their eyes on Uncle Dale.
“What’s up?” Uncle Dale said.
Papa leaned back in his chair. “Listen, there’s something we need to discuss.”
“I don’t want to point any fingers,” said Mr. Doncaster, “but a co-worker of my brother’s friend once heard of a case where… well.” He grimaced, shrugged as though he were sorry. “There was a hero who pretended like he wasn’t. Even though it hurt his family and friends, even though they begged him not to. Even though impressionable young people could see the shameful business.”
Uncle Dale frowned.
“And worse,” said Papa, leaning even further back in his chair, “the government chose to believe him. And they cut his benefits!”
“But–” said Uncle Dale.
“–Just something to think about,” said Papa, scowling up a storm. “Something to really think about. Oh, and Dale, I don’t want you hanging around my kids anymore.”
“Shush.” And that was the final word.
Uncle Dale stopped smiling after that. He seemed like a shadow moving from room to room, and when I tried to get him to play with me – even just doing a lame hopscotch in our yard – he said we better not.
On the last day of summer, Mama said she had a big surprise for us, and she gathered everyone in the living room. We were all sitting around the table – including the Doncasters – but Uncle Dale was off standing in a corner, alone, with his shoulders slouched. Everyone was kind of grim, except Mama, who was beaming.
“It took me all summer,” she sang, “but I did it! I can fix this family.” She clapped her hands and called into the kitchen, “Oh, Annie!”
Uncle Dale looked up, halfway to smiling – the first time in weeks.
We heard Annie approaching. There was the rhythmic clacks of her heels on the linoleum, as well as a kind of rubbery whumping and an intermittent squeak. And then she stepped into the living room, wheeling an empty chair before her.
“Ta-da!” Mama said.
Everyone looked at Uncle Dale. They were all smiling, all grinning and revving up to laugh and cheer. All but Uncle Dale himself. I saw his smile of a moment ago vanish. His face grew pale and I saw sweat bead his skin. He looked at Annie and she gave him a big, encouraging nod – and he took a step forward.
My family started cheering for him, “Go Dale go!” A low rumble, repeating. Each time it finished it pulled him forward another step, and their cheering grew louder. He clutched at his throat, unable to breathe, but their song pulled him closer all the same.
When he looked at them, they all nodded encouragement. When he looked at Grandpa, he got a resigned shrug. It was all Grandpa could muster.
And when Uncle Dale looked at me – I froze. I wanted to shout Run! Be free! Be the best Uncle Dale you can be! but nothing came out. The song took hold of my bones and I clapped in time with it. And I saw the light go out of his eyes.
Uncle Dale sat down in the chair, and everyone cheered. Papa popped a champagne, Mama jumped up and down, and Annie wrapped Uncle Dale in a blanket and kisses.
Uncle Dale sat down in the chair and never rose again.