“Take another look at how I do it before you try.”
I watch where my uncle holds the cigarette between his fingers. There’s oil and grit holding black at his knuckles. The sky looks like rain. For my birthday, he’s shown me how to replace eight spark plugs, change the oil, and we’re changing the air filter now. Uncle Jeff is always working on something when he comes to the house. Says this is where his tools stay, so he’s got to drop by now and then, check up on them.
I take the cigarette from his hand and pull harsh smoke, cough till my stomach cramps, and spit runs over my lip.
“Careful what you wish for,” Uncle Jeff says. He lifts his chin to check the sky. “You can take one more drag, but that’s it. Then get that piece of gum in your mouth.” His nose has a flat spot at the tip just like mine. Both of us have a head of unruly curls. “Figure it’s going to dump on us if we don’t hurry it up,” he says.
My head swims a little. I look at my shoes, stained where oil has darkened the laces. I don’t really want another drag, but I begged for it, and it’s my birthday wish, so I sit and breathe through my nose while my temples pound and sweat slicks behind my ears.
“You see your momma coming, you let that cigarette drop and cover it with your shoe. Here,” he says, handing me a wrench. “This way it looks like you’re doing something.” The heart that looks like it was drawn with a magic marker peeks out from under his shirtsleeve. There are letters on it, like when Todd Mills and I went steady for two weeks last year and my notebook got covered in hearts with plus signs separating our initials.
Uncle Jeff always makes sure to come by on my birthday. He doesn’t show up for Mom’s, so I get the feeling that he must like me more. Two years ago during Thanksgiving dinner, I asked my grandmother why Uncle Jeff didn’t come eat with the rest of us. She looked at me like I’d just asked her why her dead husband didn’t pull up a seat at the table. Guess maybe she likes Mom more than Uncle Jeff. Not a picture of him in the whole house either.
The year I turned ten, he brought me a bike with three gears. It rusted up pretty bad cause I left it out in the rain.
Last year Uncle Jeff taught me how to oil the chain and clean the rust off, so I could ride without all the squeaking. He also gave me a few swallows of beer because I said I wanted to try that too. Mom threw a fit. Slammed the door on her way out of the kitchen. Came marching over to the garage, her pant legs swishing, poked her finger so hard against Uncle Jeff’s chest that he hollered and jumped back. He tried to laugh, but she wasn’t having any of it.
They sent me off to the kitchen, so I made the door slam. Uncle Jeff waved his hands toward the ground, but Mom just got louder. She balled her fists. “Did you just?”
I watched out of the window. You can see the whole backyard and halfway into the garage. Heard him say that I was growing up so fast and ought to be introduced to things the same way his daddy had done for him. Mom reached back and grabbed a handful of air before she slapped him so good it took the tan out of his face. They stood still for the longest.
Uncle Jeff pulled up his shirtsleeve and pointed at his tattoo. “You and her,” is all I could make out. Mom turned her head to the sky and ran her fingers under her eyes. The sun was out. I ran out when Mom came back in. He kissed the top of my head and left.
“Happy birthday, girl.”
So when I asked him a dozen or so times if I could try a cigarette for my birthday this year, he got to looking up at the house. He put a five-gallon bucket up by the front bumper and told me to take a seat, to sit still and keep my eyes peeled. Said a few puffs wouldn’t kill me, but my momma might.
My eyes peeled and listening for that screen door to slap the frame, I take a look at the clouds gathering up. I hold the wrench. My fingernails have grease smeared where the sparkly silver polish has chipped away.
Uncle Jeff pulls an RC Cola out of the cooler in the trunk of the MG. The top pops off with a blast. “Take you a drink of this,” he says. “Settle your stomach.”
“How come you don’t have kids?” I ask cause he seems like he’d be a great dad.
He watches me from the back of the car and cracks open a can of beer. Pulls heavy from it. His eyes water like he’s got dust in them.
“I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
“I’m twelve now. Practically a teenager.” I take a long pull from the can of RC and then take a little puff from the cigarette. I open my mouth and let the smoke float out. “How’s that?”
My mother clears her throat.
“Get in the house, now, ” she says.
I look at her, then Uncle Jeff, then the kitchen door. I never heard it open or close.
“Now, Missy,” she says.
Uncle Jeff sighs. Lowers his head. Mutters goddamnit.
I hand the wrench off to him as I pass.
“Sorry,” I say.
“Happy birthday, my sweet little girl.”
That’s when the rain comes. But not one of us dares to move.
Jonathan Kosik has had work published by decomP, Monkey Bicycle, Glossolalia, Clapboard House, Bartleby Snopes and had short stories included in two collections published by Burrow Press: Fragmentation, and Forget How You Found Us.