When somebody in town sneezed —pop! — they disappeared before you could say gesundheit. That’s one of the bedtime stories I remember our uncle telling Lucy and me. I think I was five or six. Lucy is a year younger. His name was Trevor, but we called him Uncle Story. His tales always had a simple moral. For example, some kids made fun of an old lady who sneezed so she put a hex on the whole town. Uncle Story said we should always respect our elders.
Another of his yarns was about a farmer who had the only clock in the county. He was proud at first that everyone came to him to learn what time it was. But then he was so overwhelmed by the lines of people, he couldn’t get his chores done. Moral: Don’t ever let yourself become a slave to the clock. Seemed profound as a second slice of pie to a couple of children.
We loved when Uncle Story visited. Sometimes he even stayed with us when my mom and step dad went away for a the weekend. One day Uncle Story came to our house and went straight to the kitchen with our parents. Lucy and I were sitting on the floor in the front room in our pajamas. We had our legs scissored apart; our bare feet were touching, and we were toe wrestling. I could hear the three grown-ups whispering in the other room. After a few minutes, they came out. My mom was wiping her eyes. My step dad hugged Uncle Story. When they finished their embrace, Uncle Story came to Lucy and me. He reached down and squeezed Lucy’s foot and mine in his hand and asked my mom if he could tuck us in and tell us a story as he usually did.
My mom’s voice crumbled as she told him of course he could. Lucy and I each declared victory in the toe fight and argued our way upstairs. After we brushed our teeth, we went into my bedroom until Uncle Story came in.
This night the story was about a disappearing man. Each day there was a little less of him till finally he was gone. But not to worry, Uncle Story said, the man had turned into a dream, a happy dream. And, as a dream, whenever the children he loved started to have a nightmare, he chased it away. Then Uncle Story tucked me in and gave Lucy a piggyback ride to her room.
After that night, Uncle Story came by less and less often. Then not at all.
I remember my mom and stepdad arguing about whether Lucy and I were old enough to go to the funeral. Mom eventually won out. Some people there were crying. I was sorry for Uncle Story, but thought the thing would never get over with. Then, when we finally left the funeral parlor, I realized we still had to go to the cemetery. Lucy was sleeping in our stepfather’s arms by the time they lowered Uncle Story into the ground during a cold drizzle.
That evening Lucy started crying when I explained we’d never see our uncle again. Being the big brother, I thought I’d cheer her up with a story. I fashioned a tale about Uncle Story’s ghost rising up out of the ground to watch over us. Almost as soon as I told my sister the story, I regretted it. She looked terrified at the thought of a ghost being around. As it turned out, it was big, brave me, not Lucy, who woke up that night screaming.
Of course life went on. Lucy and I got over the loss of Uncle Story and eventually started college. My sister attended a school in western part of the state. I went east. We kept in touch.
I began having the nightmares during my sophomore year after my step father died. They were nothing but vague shapes in the dark at first, but took on jagged edges and revealed Uncle Story. I was a child walking into my sister’s room to find Uncle Story holding her on his lap.
Did that really happen or was it just a dream? Without knowing for sure, I was reluctant to ask Lucy about it for fear of upsetting her over nothing. Not to mention accusing my uncle of something horrible when he couldn’t defend himself.
One evening I was talking to Lucy, and she seemed distracted. When I asked what was wrong, she said it was about Uncle Story. My heart thumped. Then my sister told me she had just talked to our mother, who was feeling down because her brother, Uncle Story, would’ve turned 50 that day.
Treading softly, I asked Lucy what she remembered about him. She didn’t recall much other than he told funny stories. She said it was a shame Mom had to lose her brother so young. Then she chuckled and asked me to live forever.
I wadded up what I was going to ask her and choked it down like a spy swallowing a secret message.
That was a few years ago. After Lucy graduated from college, she was married briefly and had a baby. We lost touch somewhat but have since reconnected. She has me over for dinner with her and her daughter, now six, a couple times a month. Little Sally is always the center of attention — except at story time. I’m single and in no hurry to have kids of my own and so have become the bachelor uncle with all the stories. Some are real, some made up. One, untold, had lurked in the shadows between.
A few Saturdays ago, I picked up some groceries for Lucy and was dropping them off at her place. Her regular sitter, some teenaged girl, called to say she wasn’t feeling well. I knew how much Lucy was looking forward to her night out, and I offered to stay with Sally. My sister stared at me for the longest time. Then she took a drink of water and called to cancel her date.