My brother was standing beside his barbecue grill holding a meatfork of dubious quality when I drifted over his three-bedroom, two-bath and down to a perfect landing in the vacant lot behind the house. His kids ran out of the back door, through the yard, and up to the basket, yelling, "Uncle Howie! Uncle Howie! Can we go for a ride in your balloon?" How they remembered me I could not fathom, especially as one of them had not even been born at the time I left.
"Maybe later," I called out.
Rex flipped two steaks then came out to meet me. He was wearing an apron with a picture of Richard Nixon on it and the words, "I am not a cook." He'd gained weight and lost hair.
"You hurt?" he asked, looking at the dried blood all over my suit and tie.
"Nope. I had a run-in with a polar bear but I'm alright."
"Need a beer?"
"A beer would be nice," I said. He opened the gate and we walked through his backyard together. The kids followed at our heels like untied shoestrings. There was a garden with onions and tomatoes and potatoes and all kinds of herbs and flowers off to the right. A hammock on the porch. A tricycle in the grass. Arizona sunshine baking everything. It felt good to be back.
Rex threw an extra steak on the grill and told the kids to go inside. I followed him around to the garage and we grabbed a couple of Coors from a coffin-sized freezer. His tools hung from the wall, hoes and pitch forks and hedge trimmers smelling of dried chlorophyll and sod. There was a big shiny new truck, red with lots of chrome and verticality. We leaned on it and drank our beers.
"Nice truck," I said.
"Conquered the Big Wave," he said and gave it a paternal pat. The Big Wave was the local barometer for manhood. In high school, he who made it to the top of this great mound of dirt exhumed from the pit mine south of town earned a place in the adolescent folklore of Prescott. One time Rex and I gave it a shot in mom's Chrysler Le Baron and spent the rest of the night walking back home.
"Back for good?" he asked.
"Don't know," I said.
Through the dusty window I could see the balloon slowly deflating, drooping under its own weight, sagging over to one side like a big fat question mark.
"How's work?" I asked.
His lips appeared to move a little but no words issued from them. I took this to mean fine.
After the beers he gave me a tour of the house. The extra bedroom he'd built before Hank was born. The master bedroom. The den with the surround-sound TV and exercycle.
Julie returned from the store as we were leaving the den. She paused when she saw me, managed a smile and said, "Howard," in an obligatory way and set the bag on the counter.
Rex went out to get the rest of the groceries.
"Is that your balloon out there?" she asked.
"You might want to move it before morning. The garbage truck drives through that way."
"Thanks," I said. She looked good. She'd plumped up a little bit, but it sat well on her. Her hair was tied back into a ponytail.
"So how long you in town?" she asked and took a bag of corn chips and a jar of salsa out of the grocery bag.
"Just a few days, I imagine."
I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out the Wüshof-Trident Grand Prix nine-inch cook's knife that had saved my life when the polar bear attacked me.
She crunched on a chip and watched me.
"It's how I make my living," I said. I turned it around and handed it to her. "Lifetime guarantee."
She took the knife and ran some hot water over it and sponged off the dried blood and put it in the dish drainer to dry.
She wiped her hand on the checkered towel hanging from the dish drainer and then turned and looked square at me. I noted the fine lines around her gray eyes.
"You're welcome to change, you know," she said.
It took me a few seconds to realize she was talking about my suit.
Dinner was awkward.
The younger kid, Hank, stared at me the whole time. Hank is one of those names that's impossible to picture on a kid. Hanks are usually middle-aged and work for road departments and gas stations, like our great uncle Hank had before he was struck by lightning on a fishing trip. Rex's Hank wasn't but four or five. I had to call him Hankster, or Hanky, or Hanquito to feel like I was really talking to a kid. He was quieter than his brother, didn't say a word in fact, the only point in his favor in my books. He never took his eyes off me once during dinner. He reminded me of one of those little creatures that never blink, like a guinea-pig. I'd look over and smile at him and his expression wouldn't change. I winked at him. Nothing.
The older kid, Tyler, a rambunctious little rascal with hair of white gold, I could relate to. He kept asking me all kinds of embarrassing questions. How come I didn't have a car? How come I never came here for Christmas? Did I have a girlfriend? Was it true that I knew Santa Claus?
The steaks were well-done on account of me and Rex catching up in the garage. Julie kept a smile on her face and tried to keep a lid on Tyler's curiosity by telling him to eat his Brussels sprouts.
"So tell us about this polar bear," Julie said somewhat sarcastically.
"Well, luckily I still had the Grand Prix in my pocket when it attacked me," I said and wiped my mouth. "Normally it would have been back in its sheathe and stowed away in the case with the rest of them, but I'd had a family real excited about the Grand Prix."
"These Eskimos actually buy knives from you?" Julie asked.
"You'd be surprised. The Inuits, especially on the Islands of the Four Mountains, are for the most part unacquainted with the joys of razor-sharp, carbonized cutlery. Believe it or not, they're still using crude steel blades stuck to shafts of caribou femur. I've got a corner on the market."
The morning the polar bear attacked me, the sky was so clear you could see the blue peak of Mount Shishaldin on Unimak Island over a hundred miles away soaring above the ice floes on the turtle-green sea. I'd brought the balloon down on the outskirts of Akamaka and trekked off to the first igloo. The father, permanent grin of brown teeth, smiling eyes, filleted a couple of halibut with a very satisfied groan. He passed the knife around to each of his children, wrapped in seal skins and watching cartoons. They weren't much interested. His wife, a beautiful ball of blubber with pieces of baleen in her hair, took the knife and jabbed at the wall a few times, leaving two streaks of blood on it like a figure in a prehistoric cave painting. Man and wife discussed the knife. I stood with my gloved hands clamped beneath my underarms, excited by the prospect of an early sell. But alas the wife handed the knife to the man and he handed it back to me with a headshake and some apologetic remarks that my limited knowledge of Yupik prevented me from adequately comprehending. Not wanting the moisture on the knife to corrupt the other knives I placed it, point down, in the inside pocket of my suit coat to dry for a few minutes, a precaution I take only with the Grand Prix's. I set out for the next igloo, a quarter mile across the tundra. Despite the early disappointment I had high hopes for selling the bulk of my wares by the end of the day. July was shaping up to be a record month, and I promised myself that as soon as I dispensed with this last case I'd head back to Fairbanks for some much needed R & R. This was the tenor of my thoughts when the snow before me transformed into a roaring polar bear. His meaty paw struck the right side of my head and I went down beneath him.
"Cool!" Tyler shouted.
"What did you do?" Julie asked.
"As I said, luckily I still had the Grand Prix in my pocket. I pulled it out and hacked at him. He reared up, let out a horrific wail, and disappeared."
"Did you kill it?" Tyler asked.
"I don't think so. I think I just scared it."
"Uncle Howie killed a bear!" Tyler exclaimed.
"Finish your Brussels sprouts," Julie said.
After dinner, Rex helped me fold up the balloon. He took to it like he'd done it a million times. When it was all folded we hauled it and the basket into the backyard and stashed it in a corner.
I could tell having the balloon there made Rex uncomfortable, threw his domain out of balance. He was in an unusual silence. There was something strange and twisted like a dried-up cactus hiding inside of it.
"My whole life flashed before my eyes up there," I said, "and a lot of it had you in it."
He tucked in a loose flap of the balloon and leaned his elbows on the fence and looked out across the lot that once again was vacant.
"Is that why you came back?" he asked.
"I don't want to go to my grave wondering if me and you will ever be friends again," I said.
"I already forgave you," he said.
"I know you did."
He put his arm around me.
"Let it go."
When it came time to retire, Julie set me up on the hide-a-bed in the den. I had a restless night. Cool air from a ceiling-level vent stirred the warm dry air below. The sheets were coarse, as if they'd never been used before. In the dark I could have been anywhere. The moonlight etched pale glints onto picture frames and lamp shafts. I fell asleep for I don't know how long. At some point in the night I was awoken by a small hand on my shoulder.
"Uncle Howie," the child's voice whispered. "You were having a bad dream."
I was confused, lost in that strange moment when life itself is a weightless dream, a figment of the imagination, and all the elements around you, the moonlit lamps and dry heat and weightless pillows are props created by your imagination to act out meaningless skits for your nocturnal amusement and befuddlement. Who was this beside me? The question was pressing only in the sense of a dream puzzle.
"Uncle Howie," the child shook my shoulder.
"What is it?"
"You were moaning."
"Sorry," I said. "I'll try not to moan anymore."
"Was it because you're far from home?"
I could make out the shape of the child now. It was Tyler, the older one. His eyes were gleaming in the moonlight.
"Can you take me for a ride in your balloon?"
"It's up to your mom and dad. We'll ask them tomorrow. Now go back to bed."
He stood there saying nothing. I could smell his breath in the air, the sweet stink of a child's mouth, sugary and milky and sour. He stood there blinking. I blinked back at him. For a moment I felt like a child again myself, as if he were me and I were my brother. I was coming to his bed to get him to sneak out of the house with me to sit in the car just to be able to say that some day we’d remember this.
"Go back to bed," I said. He ran off.
I awoke at the crack of dawn as Rex was leaving for work. I got up and sat at the dining room table. Through the slits between the pickets of the back fence I saw a large black dog walk by like a troubling thought. I wished I were back on the tundra. Everything was clear and sharp and bright there. Down here in the suburban desert, the heat warped things. It was hard to keep a proper perspective.
I thought about my brother's words. Let it go. Whereas earlier they had seemed comforting, now I heard a buried threat in them. Had he really forgiven me? Or was there still something there that if not dug up would end all hope of us ever being brothers again?
I spent most of the morning on the living room couch, watching TV with the kids. We watched a lot of cartoons, a lot of game shows, a lot of music videos.
Julie spent her days at home with the kids. Tyler was in third grade, but as it was summer he was stuck at home with his little brother. Around lunchtime, Tyler came in holding a dead lizard by the tail and asked his mom for permission to cut it open and look inside. Julie was in the middle of telling him that he most certainly could not use her good knives to cut open a filthy reptile when I spoke up and said that I'd be more than happy to assist.
"You should see these things go through a walrus hide," I said, getting up from the couch and walking into the kitchen to get the Grand Prix out of the dish drainer.
As long as I did the cutting she had no objections. I asked her if the Hankster would care to join us. She didn't think it was a good idea. He seemed happy enough re-watching the same video about trains for the rest of his life.
"I wouldn't want him to feel left out," I said.
"He won't," she said.
So me and Tyler laid out the lizard on the back porch and I filleted him right up the middle. It brought back warm memories of the lizard carcasses of my own youth. Tyler spread the lizard open with his fingers and examined its little red stomach and heart and intestines. Then he asked me to cut its head in half. The cut required no pressure at all, and we both gaped in wonder at the tiny gray-brown hemispheres of lizard brain.
"Do your mom and dad ever talk about me?" I asked him.
"What do they say?"
"I don't know."
"Are they ever mad when they talk about me?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"Does your dad seem happy when he talks about me? Does he smile? Or does he frown?"
"Uncle Howie, can I go for a ride in your balloon?"
I wanted to talk with Rex. I was tired of hanging around his wife and kids. I wanted some time alone to tell him again what I'd already told him before, that it had been the weirdness of Halloween, the black magic in the air. But she must have already told him this a thousand times.
I wanted to sit with him in a car again and say, Man, some day we'll remember this.
So we went for a night drive in his truck.
Sharp twisted limbs of mesquites and freakish cacti lashed out at us on the dirt road. Heavy metal music vibrated the dashboard.
We rounded the final turn and there it was, the sandy plateau of the Big Wave stark against the black sky. He slowed down and shifted the truck into four-wheel drive, and I grabbed the armrest.
Going up the hill, the truck whined and shook and slid sideways. The ground flowed back outside my window. I braced myself for a sideways downward tumble. I looked over at Rex. He was all concentration. Then the ground ended and the headlights shone up into nothingness for a frozen moment and my stomach rose higher in the air while the rest of me tilted down and landed.
Afterwards we sat up there in the dark, facing the blue-green lights of town far below.
"Remember trying to do this in the Le Baron?" I said.
"When that polar bear attacked me and a lot of meaningless crap flashed before my eyes, I remembered you and me walking home in the dark, just like you said we would that night. Remember that?"
"Remember mailing dollars to ourselves?" I said.
Then he turned and said, "Hank's yours."
A squeezing sensation. In the heart and in the brain. A terrible sensation of being compressed by the force of the entire universe. I went dizzy then opened the door and vomited.
The engine was making a ticking sound. The intervals between the ticks were too long to be part of a cycle. Each tick was a singular event in the stillness.
Rex opened the glove compartment and offered me a rag.
I wiped my eyes and then my chin.
Hours, it seemed, passed in which my mind was not available for my own use.
Finally I said: "Does he know?"
Rex started the truck and drove us to the edge. He held the brakes for a moment and then let the truck gently tip forward and slide back down the hill under its own weight.
On the way back to town Rex informed me that he'd rather I kept our conversation to ourselves. He and Julie had already made their peace about it. As far as they were concerned the kid was theirs.
These weren't his exact words.
His exact words were, "Stick to gifts."
So I would be my own son's eccentric uncle, flying down from the Arctic for the rare Christmas with tales of witty persiflage with the Clauses. Every now and then I would send him a gift for his birthday, a sealskin baseball cap, a lucky walrus flipper. And then some day he would learn the truth, and I would become something else, not his father but something strange and sad and incomprehensible.
He would come to me with questions. How had it come to pass? What arrangements had been made with his real father, my brother? Did I think about him at night?
Julie caught me staring at Hank.
"You two," she said, "go outside and play," and for a second I thought she meant me and Hank.
She went to a cabinet and dug around for something and then came and sat down beside me with a pack of cigarettes and a book of matches.
"I haven't had one in two years. You might want one yourself."
I took one. She lit hers then lit mine with the same match. I inhaled too deeply and burned my lungs and coughed.
I couldn't look at her. My armpits were swamps of sour sweat.
She told me it was his bloodtype. O. Same as mine. As soon as Rex found out he took Tyler and left. He called the next night from Vegas. Said he didn't know when he'd be back. It was three weeks before he came back and said, What are we going to do? They talked about giving him up for adoption. It was Rex who insisted they keep him. It's in the family, he said. He said I wouldn't interfere, that he'd tell me the truth and I wouldn't interfere. She didn't want me to know. She made Rex promise never to tell me. For the kid's sake.
"Look at me," she said.
It took all my strength to turn my head.
"You won't interfere."
I nodded. We sat smoking, saying nothing.
"Well," she said. "Do you have anything to say?"
I looked out the window and saw Hank squatting in the grass. Several minutes passed.
"I don't know," I said. "How do you feel?"
"I've had five years to think about how I feel. I want to know how you feel. Be honest."
Hank pulled up a clump of grass and threw it in the air.
"I don't know," I said. I felt nothing.
She exhaled smoke and said, "Someday you will know, and you'll come around and cause trouble."
"He said he wouldn't tell you but I knew he would."
"I won't cause trouble."
She put out her cigarette. Mine continued to burn.
She got up and walked into the kitchen.
"You might be more comfortable at a motel," she said.
I wanted to do something special for the boy before I left, something that he would always remember, so I asked Rex and Julie if they'd let me take the kids for a ride in the balloon.
Julie flat-out said no. She wouldn't let any kids of hers up in a picnic basket held up by a bunch of hot air. I didn't argue. All I said was, statistically its safer than trick-or-treating.
"No," she said. "You and Rex can do whatever you want."
I ran it by Rex. "Just a quick ride, up over Thumb Butte, maybe catch an aerial view of the Big Wave. I think he'd love it. Don't you think?"
We were in the garage, up against the freezer, looking down at our shoes. Rex's workboots were thick, solid black things. And mine beside his, my burgundy Oxfords scuffed on the sides from trudging through frozen snow.
His boot moved a little to the side, then back again.
"She'd kill me," he said, and at last I felt the full measure of the distance between us.
That afternoon I unrolled the balloon in the field behind my brother's house. I fired up the burners and began the slow but never dull ritual of inflating the balloon. The dragon's breath roar of the burners. The ripples across the lake of orange nylon. The arousal of the beast from its slumber, like time-lapse photography of a seedling rising up out of the earth, and finally, when it can grow no higher, it spreads open and unveils its miraculous secret.
Tyler stood there the whole time, begging to go with me to the North Pole.
"Too cold for kids," I said. "Kids need heat."
When the balloon was full, Rex and Julie came out. Hank sat on Rex's shoulders, staring up at the balloon.
"Thanks for the knives," Rex said. I'd given them the case.
"Lifetime guarantee," I said.
He pulled the Grand Prix out of his pocket. "You left this one in the dish drainer."
I climbed into the basket.
"Don't you want some dinner?" Julie asked.
"I'll hit a drive-through on the way out," I said, but it fell flat.
The ropes to the ground were taut as boards. The basket creaked, aching to soar.
"Say good-bye to uncle Howard," Rex said, and the kids did as they were told. Hank raised his little hands up toward the enormous orange lightbulb above him, and for a second I saw it through his eyes, how strange and wonderful it was, how he would never forget it, and I felt something inside me fall.
Rex leaned his elbows on the basket and patted me on the forearm.
"Keep warm," he said.
I pulled down on the burner and the kids put their fingers in their ears. Julie gave me her obligatory smile.
Rex took the Grand Prix and sliced through the ropes and up I went. As I floated up and away from the earth I watched them growing smaller and smaller, standing there waving up at me. The perfect little family.
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