I could tell that he didn’t want me walking with him. Really, he didn’t want any of us walking with him. Sweat was gathering on my back, making my t-shirt cling to my bony frame. I could tell they were hot, too. And he walked a good five feet in front of us, only stopping when he came to a street, just long enough to glare menacingly at us and scream, “Hurry up! I can’t be late!” We tried walking faster, but our little legs just couldn’t keep up with his longer ones, and running, well, that just wasn’t an option in that heat.
“What’s he so mad about?” my brother asked between panting breaths.
“I don’t even know,” my cousin said.
We all knew, but it was too painful for our little hearts to contemplate, so we just feigned ignorance, protecting our own feelings. When the park was in sight, we asked if we could go to the playground.
“No,” my uncle replied, “get in the dugout, and stay there until I’m done with practice.” Being able to see the monkey bars and swings but not actually being able to play on them was like cruel and unusual punishment, especially because I had left the book I was reading (the latest Sweet Valley High installment) on my grandmother’s kitchen table, so I was forced to be actively engaged in the world around me, which wasn’t all that fascinating.
My uncle gave us one last warning about not leaving the dugout, and he ran toward the rest of his team, putting on his helmet.
“It’s so hot,” I complained.
“No duh, Sherlock,” my brother and my cousin sang in unison.
I sucked my teeth audibly and rolled my eyes to signify my anger at their sarcasm, and I scootched to the far end of the bench away from them.
Boys, I thought. What a pain!
Staring off into the sky, I tried to figure out if butterflies and moths were related in some way, or did they just look a lot alike. The boys busied themselves with karate moves, thumb wrestling, and gate climbing, none of which I was very good at or willing to practice in full view of teenaged boys.
“Come on, let’s go,” my uncle said as he shook my body. I was a bit stunned that I had actually fallen asleep, but when I realized that not only had I been forced to go with my uncle to football practice even though he clearly didn’t want three little kids tagging along, but also that we were leaving the park without any playground action at all, I was livid.
“We’re going home?!?” I questioned, knowing the answer.
“Yeah, get up.”
“Oh, man.” The three of us muted our displeasure as a small group of teenagers approached.
“Yeah, this is my niece and my nephews,” he explained, pointing us out dramatically as if there was somehow a question about my gender. “Nah, I gotta get them home.”
We knew we were cramping his style, and although he was the coolest person we knew, and although we loved being in his presence, we felt bad for him. We wished we were old enough to do the things he really wanted to do with him. That way it was a win-win for everybody.
The walk home was a lot slower paced. He was tired, and we had nearly baked to death on the metal bench. When he made an abrupt turn toward the candy store, we knew he really wasn’t all that mad at us. Penny candy was really a penny back then, and a dollar kept three little kids very happy the rest of the way home. He also sprang for a liter of Faygo peach pop that we all shared, and somehow our frustration melted away.
When we got back to my grandmother’s house, we plopped down on the couch and fought trying to get the best access to both the television and the box fans. When my uncle got out of the tub and finished getting dressed, he came into the living room with his newly constructed wrestling belt, made out of cardboard and foil, announcing that the championship battle was set to begin. He was using his best Macho Man Randy Savage impersonation, and we were eagerly taking off shoes and flexing muscles that didn’t yet exist in an attempt to intimidate him.
After a “ding, ding, ding,” the battle was on, and little kids were flying all over the living room and giggling. Several three-counts and awkward pinnings later, we collapsed, and my uncle, as usual paraded around wearing his belt, which was much more intricate and stylish than the last one he’d made, professing “I pity the fool,” slipping into Mr. T as he taunted us.
“Go get the pillows,” he commanded, and we all went through the house collecting bed and throw pillows, couch cushions, and pillow pets. When we came back into the living room, he had large sheets tucked under each of the two box fans, making a cooling tent for us. We crawled in with our pillows and got comfortable. He told jokes, rapped for us, putting us in his lyrics, and drew us pictures. I remember laying in that tent thinking, “He’s so cool.”
He may have pretended that we were nuisances and burdens in public, but in private, he made us feel like we really mattered. And because of that, he really mattered to us.