By Bill Burtch
By then Uncle Ted had stacked up last straws by the whole bale on the back of the household. For two years he had lived with them in California, sleeping on the slip-covered sofa. So the old man sent the uncle packing, with his Army surplus duffel. Back to Pennsylvania, to exist on his monthly federal disability checks. Disability for what was officially classified as a nervous condition.
The old man explained that hosting Uncle Ted, as he sat around sucking down a case of Coors all day, was an unhealthy influence on young Will and his older sister, Ally.
“Dad’s the unhealthy one,” Will cried to his mother. “Drinks a ton more than Uncle Ted.”
He didn’t have a vote.
“Dad’s jealous of Uncle Ted,” he argued to his mother. “Uncle Ted talks to me. About fishing and pheasants. School. Anything.”
Uncle Ted gave his thirteen-year-old nephew a wristwatch. Just before he commenced the cross-country drive to a rented and paint-chipped farmhouse in Pennsylvania. His assorted posse of ghosts set to ride shotgun.
“Use this to keep track of time until you come to visit me,” he said.
The boy was at first speechless. It was a meaty timepiece, with a rugged look to it. Silver with a massive face. The uncle had strapped it on in the Army while stationed in Germany. The watch was much too big for Will’s wrists. So he put it in his pocket.
“I’ll come to see you every summer,” Will said.
Weeks crept by.
“I miss him, Mom.”
“I miss him too, Will. He’s still my little brother.”
The following summer, just before Will and Ally returned to school, their mother flew them to Pennsylvania. To check on Uncle Ted. She used money she had squirreled away from clipping coupons and quitting her Benson & Hedges. A cash stash she kept hidden from the old man, who refused to go with them.
Reports from the smattering of Pennsylvania relatives who were still willing to retain Uncle Ted in their awareness had not been promising. Uncle Ted was again opting for the stiffer stuff. His darker ghosts were gnawing free of their leashes. The collective hope was that their visit would knock him off that runaway train.
They arrived at Uncle Ted’s stoop in a pelting downpour, deposited by a cab they had flagged at the Harrisburg airport. He appeared at the door with an almost civil presentation and seemed joyed to see them. He was showered and combed. Smelled of aftershave.
Exhausted, Ally and her mother went to bed almost immediately. Will and Uncle Ted played blackjack for live .357 magnum cartridges. At one point Uncle Ted told Will he was starting to look just like his old man. Then he chuckled. Will just looked at his cards. Caught a whiff of bourbon.
“Your old man wants you to be an accountant someday. Like him,” Uncle Ted slurred.
“Says I’ll never starve bein’ an accountant,” Will replied.
“Or get laid.”
When morning came, Uncle Ted’s bedroom door remained closed. Will sat at the kitchen table. He watched a moth plummet from the ceiling light and careen into his soggy bowl of cereal. Fishing it out with his spoon he judged that it would never fly again with its wings so drenched in milk. He placed the struggling moth into his paper napkin, folded it twice over then squeezed it. He set it on top of the overfull trash bin under the sink then returned to the table and pushed the cereal bowl away.
His mother buttered toast for Ally, who combed her long wavy amber hair as she leaned on the painted pale green counter near the sink. It was already a stifling day. The rusty window air-conditioner labored and moaned, like a cow midway into dropping a calf. Condensation dripped into the moldy catch tray.
“Uncle Ted’s getting weird again,” Will blurted over the drone of the air-conditioner.
His mother and Ally continued to assemble a breakfast from anything they happened upon as they rifled through the refrigerator and cupboards. Several hotdogs fried and popped in a well-cured pan.
“Our bacon this morning,” his mother laughed, pointing at the hotdogs.
“He’s always had beer. All day long, since we were little kids,” Ally said.
“It was more than beer last night. I smelled it. He’s like two totally different people.”
Their mother slid a chair out and sat down at the table.
“He said he was possessed,” Will went on.
“Then I showed him the watch he gave me last year. Told him how I always carry it.”
“What did he say?” their mother asked.
“He said ‘I’ll be goddamn. Been looking for that.’”
Their mother winced.
“I kept it though.”
“Good. It’s yours. He meant for you to have it.”
“Maybe we should just go back home now,” Will said. “I think he wants to be alone.”
“Let’s just go back to Dad’s drinking instead,” Ally countered. “We just got here.”
“Why do you put up with them, Mom?” Will asked. “Dad and Uncle Ted.”
The mother studied her two children. A crease formed between her striking blue eyes.
“For you two.”
Back in L.A. a few days before school started, Will was at his best pal Karl’s house. Karl spewed ideas like gushing crude from a fresh Texas strike. The two of them plotted to find a way out to Leghorn Lake to fish, now that Uncle Ted was not around to haul them there.
Leghorn Lake was a man-made reservoir east of L.A. constructed absent of any trace of effort to make it appear natural. It was a near perfect circle in shape. A campy Tiki-style concession stand hawked pop and chips. Split and charred hot dogs and hockey puck burgers. Mariachi and island music blasted through the PA. A sandwich wrapper or maybe something far less sanitary might drift by your bobber. Repulse the fish away. Dead in the middle of Leghorn was a comically contrived island, with an unnatural mix of odd looking trees jutting about.
A grin pierced through the marching colony of pimples on Karl’s face.
“Tell your old man that my dad was going to take us,” Karl blurted.
“…but he had to work another shift,” Karl exclaimed in a freeform torrent. “Tell him my old man is asking rather than one of us. No way he says no.”
“USC has a football game today. Dad’s gonna wanna watch it.”
“Just ask him.”
Later Will’s father studied them. Arched brows telegraphed his skepticism. But he went along with it. Not so much because Karl’s old man was asking. The veracity of that piece of the proposition he doubted. The clincher was the tavern he knew just four miles from Leghorn Lake. There would be a TV tuned to the USC game. Drop the boys off at the lake. Maybe ease up on the self-imposed no booze until five o’clock doctrine.
They pulled into Leghorn Lake’s gravel parking lot a half-hour later. Weekend revelers had already set up charcoal grills, tents, badminton nets, babies in cribs and ice coolers brimming with assorted intoxicants. Inflatable rafts of all shapes and grades of garishness were being blown up.
Will would wrestle to blot this carnival ambiance from his awareness. Imagine he was hiking instead toward remote alpine waters, turquoise and unspoiled. Deposited by the ancient glaciers. Created by the very hands of God. He would envision the other side of the island as a pristine and untouched wilderness calling to them. But the island was always in the way. He could never quite reach this utopian escape.
“Fish should be biting today,” Karl said.
“Yep. The sky has that overcast tint to it,” Will replied.
“That’s smog,” the father said. “Make sure you get all of your gear,”
He put the car in park. Engine still running.
“Yep,” the boys said. They pulled their fishing poles and plastic tackle-boxes out of the backseat.
“You coming with us?” Will asked his father.
“I’ll find you maybe later. I’m going to a place nearby. To watch the USC game.”
“Oh, yeah. The Trojans. Right.” Will nudged the gravel with his foot.
“I’ll be back here no later than four o’clock. Let’s meet here at the car at four sharp.”
“Sounds good, Dad.”
“Gets us home by five,” the old man continued. “I want to be home by five. Okay?”
Will patted his pocket. His uncle’s watch was still there, keeping perfect time. To the second.
“Yeah, Dad. Four o’clock sharp. Right here.”
“We’ll need your help hauling all the fish,” Karl quipped.
The father shot them a half-smile then hit the accelerator. Gravel dust trailed the car in ominous spectral plumes. For about a quarter of the way around the lake they walked without a word spoken. Their tackle-boxes clanked with every step. Metronomes to their budding lives.
“Your old man’s wound a little tight,” Karl said after the long silence.
“I guess. Has a stressful job.”
“You just don’t seem too close.”
“He’s not close to anybody.”
“No man is an island,” Karl said, surprising himself.
“Listen to you. Quoting that shit from school. Thought you flunked that class.”
Karl tapped his forehead with his middle finger.
“Well, my old man can be an island,” Will said. “Jokes around with the guys at the bar, I guess. Only wants the good news from me. Doesn’t want to hear any of the crap I may be dealing with. ”
“Only wants your good news? Wow. You must never talk.”
Will tossed a worm at Karl’s face, which he dodged.
“I get along better with my Uncle Ted. He’s got some issues, though.”
“No shit. Your dad drink too?” Karl asked.
“Oh yeah. Gets silly. Can’t stop ‘til he’s crawling. Or not even.”
The boys gazed out at the still water. The lake looked like a giant watering trough for plodding beasts of some earlier geologic epoch.
They moved on, a little further around the lake. As ever, they remained just shy of that raw authentic wilderness that lived in Will’s mind. They came across a waterlogged picnic table submerged halfway into the water. Just off of the bank. The table provided some cover for the fish.
In less than a minute they had a few bites. Soon a couple of small and feisty bluegill sunfish were hooked and landed. The tug on the line and the ensuing battles as they reeled them in energized the boys. These may not have been wild trout that sipped in a dry fly on waters one could drink from, but they had caught fish. And they had the stink on their hands to prove it.
The third spot they fished wasn’t as productive. After a long restless quiet, they looked at each other.
“Can’t believe the sun is going down already,” Karl said. “Means a new school year.”
“Shit. It does.”
Will reached down and plucked a clover out of the sparse vegetation at the edge of the water. He spun it in his fingers like a tiny propeller and released it. It fell straight back to the ground.
“Oh no. What time is it? ” Will shouted.
“You’re the one with the German watch. You tell me what time it is.”
“Dad will kill me.”
Will shoved his hand into his front jeans pocket and yanked his Uncle Ted’s watch out into the daylight. The timepiece displayed a startling thing. The hands showed thirty-three minutes past five o’clock. And seven seconds.
“Crap. Come on. We gotta get to the parking lot.”
“Where did the time go, man?” Karl yelled as he stuffed his tackle-box.
“You’re the idea guy. Help me come up with an excuse.”
They started to run. Fishing poles and tackle-boxes clanged about. Fifty yards in, Karl grabbed Will’s shoulder and they stopped.
“Here’s what we do. Take that fancy watch of yours and turn the hands back. Two hours. When we get to the parking lot, show your dad the watch. Bingo. By then it’ll be four o’clock. Straight up.”
“Okay, maybe the college prep thing isn’t for you.”
“No, I’m serious. How can he be pissed if you were just going by your trusty German watch?”
“We’re cutting into his gin time. His happy time.”
They started to trot again as they mulled over their options. After another fifty yards, Will stopped in his tracks.
“You know, you’re right. It’s the only thing we’ve got. Maybe he’ll buy it.”
He again held the watch in his now trembling fingers. He pulled the silver button out on the side of the watch and proceeded to roll back time. Through five o’clock. Through four o’clock. He then snapped the button back in with the hands showing three forty-five.
“That, my friend, is the first time this watch has ever told the wrong time.”
“For a righteous reason,” Karl offered. “It’s gonna work.”
Will looked at Karl with one eyebrow raised. They resumed their sprint back toward the parking lot in silence. Their kicked-up dust clouds tracked behind like hellhounds.
As they neared the bank closest to the gravel parking lot, they both spotted him. He was a tall man, Will’s father. Possessive of a brisk gait. Upright. Too swift for study or appreciation of his environs.
They both halted in their tracks to await his arrival. He approached like a one-man regiment. As he neared earshot, his son cleared his throat, which by then had all of the silkiness of cacti.
“Who won the game?” Will croaked.
His father snared them within his looming shadow.
“Do you know what time it is?” he snapped.
“Well, yeah. Almost four o’clock? Lemme check my watch.”
Will dropped his tackle-box and fishing pole and dug the silver watch back out of his pocket.
“Here. Almost four o’clock. Sharp.”
“Try six o’clock! I’ve been in that goddamn car for two hours. Sweating off my ass.”
The two boys stood slump-shouldered, their options falling away like so many dominos.
“Let me see that watch,” the father barked.
Will brushed off the face of the watch with the back of his hand. As though presenting a fine piece of jewelry to a credentialed curator. His father snatched the timepiece. His eyes squinted as he glared at the face. He turned the watch over. Studied the back. He rubbed his thumb over it.
“It’s German,” Will offered, searching his father’s face.
“Thought they were supposed to keep perfect time,” his father mumbled.
“I think that’s the Swiss,” Karl injected.
“Uncle Ted used it. In the service,” Will said.
“He gave it to me. Last year.”
“Must have been drunk. He’s batshit crazy, you know that.”
Will said nothing.
“Well,” the father continued, “We don’t need any goddamn watches that don’t work.”
He then compressed the watch into his right hand. His eyes cast deep into the lake. Will stopped breathing. His father coiled into a windup. When released, the watch entered into a towering arc. In what seemed a tragic slow motion, it glinted in the setting California sun. Will had never witnessed such athleticism from his father.
Will thought first of Uncle Ted. Recalled that moment his uncle pressed the watch into his hands. A watch that now soared like a silver meteor. His eyes tracked the trajectory all of the way to the shattering of the lake surface. Concentric rings emanated from the entry point of the watch. A watch that had journeyed from 1950’s Germany to rest forever at the bottom of Leghorn Lake. Hands stuck forever on four o’clock.
The impact startled a drake mallard duck that had been drifting about. The duck exploded from the surface with a scolding series of quacks. Violent wing thrusts and a stunning mist bomb ensued. The three of them stood there watching the duck attain altitude. It then set its course toward the island in the middle of the lake. Karl was not able to look at Will. Head hanging, Karl and the father left in silence toward the parking lot. Karl plodded. Will’s father marched.
Will did not move. He stood mesmerized by the flight of the mallard. Watched it as it neared the island. As it vanished around to the other side. The side where the water dazzled, as clear as gin. Where evergreens danced at the edges of the sky and wild game roamed. Uncaged and true.
He could almost have touched it. But for an island between.
Bill Burtch is a later-in-life emerging writer. He has creative work in Northwest Fly Fishing Magazine, The Columbus Dispatch and others. He and his wife strive to improve the lives of patients and health workers in the trenches of the cancer war, which his wife is winning. They make room for an orange rescue tom that is terrified of doves. He holds an MBA from Miami University of Ohio and is a member of the Ohio Writers’ Association.