When I was twelve, I often wished Uncle Pete were my father.
My own dad treated me well and helped me in all sorts of important ways. But his tastes ran to hiking and rare stamps, while Uncle Pete hunted and collected guns. Where Dad was short and skinny and seldom lifted anything heavier than a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Uncle Pete was big and strong and worked out with weights.
Both my parents had jobs, so after school I stayed at Uncle Pete’s. He was rarely home when I was there, though. Aunt Greta seemed to understand how boring those afternoons were for me. She’d let me eat more of her home-made snickerdoodles than I should. And she’d gently encourage my five-year-old cousin, Arnie, to switch the TV from Dora the Explorer to something I might find more interesting.
One afternoon — the last time I ever went there alone — Uncle Pete was home. Arnie and I watched my uncle watch a ballgame and drink beer. When his team began to lose badly, Uncle Pete clicked off the TV, crushed an empty beer can in his hand and shouted, “Greta! I’m going to the basement.”
I said, “Are you going to clean your guns. Can I watch?”
From the kitchen and out of sight, my aunt called, “Pete. Those boys can watch. But don’t let either of them even touch a gun.”
“A little credit, huh, Greta?”
The three of us went down a groaning set of wooden stairs. When Uncle Pete flipped on the lights, I could see a few cracked concrete blocks and places where the mortar between them had fallen out. Mold grew on the wall behind my uncle’s workbench.
He took a beer from an old refrigerator, opened it and swigged. Then he wiped off the top, held it out to me, and said, “Want to give it a try?”
“Is it okay?”
“It’s okay if I say it is. But you have a choice. What’ll it be?”
The beer tasted terrible. But drinking was something I figured a man should learn, and I asked if I could have another sip. Uncle Pete took shook his head. “Another time. Your aunt’ll give me shit if she smells beer on your breath. She’s been on the rag all day.”
Arnie said, “A dishrag?”
Uncle Pete winked at me and laughed out loud. I laughed, too. Then I felt bad. I didn’t quite get the joke, but I understood it was at the expense of Arnie and my aunt.
Arnie asked to try some beer, but my uncle said no. When it looked as if Arnie were tearing up, Uncle Pete said, “We’ve talked about this. Men don’t cry.”
Uncle Pete set the beer on his workbench, unlocked a cabinet and took out a pistol. “This is a revolver. The kind cops used forty, fifty years ago.”
He drew an imaginary line a few feet from the workbench and said, “Anybody moves past there is asking for a beating.” Arnie jumped back. I found a big block of wood and set it a little behind the line. My cousin and I sat there.
Aunt Greta came downstairs and set a basket of laundry near the washing machine, on the other side of the basement. On her way back up the stairs, she said, “Pete. Remember what I said about not letting the boys touch your guns.”
Once she was gone, in a mocking way and just loud enough for Arnie and me to hear, my uncle repeated Aunt Greta’s words. I laughed, but again felt a little guilty about it.
When Uncle Pete finished cleaning the revolver, he looked toward the stairs, scowled and muttered, “She’s not the boss of me.”
He loaded the gun and held it toward me, handle-first. “Want to give it a try?”
“Yeah. Why not?”
“Aunt Greta said — ”
“This is my gun, not your aunt’s. If you don’t want to fire it, fine. But you have a choice. What’ll it be?”
I held out my hand for the gun, but Uncle Pete kept it as he walked Arnie and me past his weight bench to the far side of the basement. Arnie asked if he could fire the gun, too.
“You’re too little.”
Arnie looked as if he were trying to keep himself from crying. In what I suppose was praise for that effort, my uncle patted him on the head. “No tears, right?” Arnie nodded.
Uncle Pete told my cousin to stand behind us against the washer, and had me point my arms toward the block of wood where Arnie and I had sat. From behind, my uncle wrapped his huge arms around mine and put the gun into my hands. “Go ahead,” he said. “Pull the trigger.”
A thunderclap that hurt my ears.
A recoil, that threw me against my uncle’s broad chest.
Footsteps on the stairs.
Aunt Greta. Loud. High-pitched: “Someone could’ve been killed!”
By this time, Uncle Pete had taken the gun from me and calmly engaged the safety. “You’re over-reacting, again, Greta.” He pointed to me. “He’s fine.” He looked at my cousin. “Arnie’s…” Uncle Pete sighed. “Shit, Arnie’s crying. But he’s okay, too.”
Arnie clearly was not okay. Nor was I. In my mind, I kept hearing Uncle Pete’s words: You have a choice. What’s it going to be? I stood there for what seemed like a very long time. Smelling cordite. Listening to the adults argue. Trying to choose.
I made a choice I knew would displease my uncle. I knelt beside Arnie so that we were at eye level, and I gave him a hug. He stopped crying a little and hugged me back.
Ted Lietz is a freelance writer and reformed marketer. His work also has been published in such places as Every Day Fiction and Flashquake. Everyone has to be somewhere. He happens to live in Pittsburgh.