Trouble with Uncle Ray

Sarah sat next to the screen door, her back against the light brown siding and her long, skinny white legs splayed out across the width of the concrete step. It was baking out here, even in the shade. The afternoon sun hung in the middle of a bright blue cloudless sky and everything was still because it was too damn hot to be out, according to Mommy. She could hear crickets in the ditch, their constant chirping occasionally drowned out by the lumber and quarry trucks that roared up and down the road. In the parched flowerbed tucked between the grass and the basement wall below her, a couple of butterflies busied themselves among the marigolds and begonias.

She heard the phone ring inside the house. Then Mommy’s footsteps coming closer. “Sarah, are you outside?” The screen door opened and there she was with a drooling Violet on her hip. “Oh, there you are. Uncle Ray’s picking blueberries across the field. Give him this and ask him if he’ll fill it for me,” she said, handing her a large yellow Tupperware bowl. “He picks them so fast he probably won’t mind picking some for us, too.”

As she slowly picked herself up, Sarah considered how she had to do more of these little errands since she turned 12 and Violet got more mobile. Still, she’d rather do dumb stuff like this than babysit her little sister, whose novelty wore off after about 6 months. “Babies need a lot of attention,” Mommy had said. Uh-huh.

She crossed the dirt driveway and the sloped lawn to where it met the potato field. Well, not strictly a potato field anymore since the potatoes had all been picked last month. Now just long, baked lines of raised dirt she had helped her father make by standing on top of the tractor’s harrow so its blades went deep enough into the ground to make the rows. She would put a foot on each of the bars that met in a point at the tractor’s hitch and hold on to the machine’s giant fenders while her father drove up and down the field. Every so often, she would glance down as the round metal blades curved into the soil and gently turned it to make the rows just under her feet. It was fun, and sometimes Daddy would agree to switch and let her drive while he stood on the harrow.

As she made her way across the field, her feet sunk through the sun-hardened crust and into the dusty earth beneath. Great, she thought, remembering too late that her sandaled feet would be filthy by the time she got to the other side. About two-thirds of the way across, Sarah made out Uncle Ray, in his familiar, crouched position among the berry bushes on the edge of the woods. “Hi, Uncle Ray!” she called out. In response, his ballcapped head shot up, he waved without smiling and just as quickly ducked back out of sight.

As she got closer, she saw the dishcloth sticking out the back of the yellow cap, to keep the sun off his neck. The headgear together with his usual uniform of short-sleeved shirt, olive work pants and big white sneakers made him look like all the special ed kids at school, which he kind of was, even though he was in his forties. Except unlike the kids at school, Uncle Ray also wore a long hunting knife on his belt. Sarah had never actually seen him use it for anything, but he put it on whenever he ventured outside Nan and Pappy’s house. When she reached him she saw that he’d filled two large bowls and was on his third.

“How’s it going?” she asked. “Yep, yep, fine,” he mumbled, not looking at her. “Mommy asked if you could fill this for her,” she said, offering the bowl. He looked up at her and smiled, finally. “Sure!” He really was handsome, if you didn’t count the fact that he looked kind of confused all the time and tended to breathe through his mouth. He had a square jaw, a long tan face and big brown eyes that were by turns glassy and curious. The best thing about Uncle Ray, though, was that he didn’t talk much and had absolutely no interest in other people. He didn’t ask her if she had a boyfriend. He didn’t pretend to care about her grades, her hobbies or anything about her. He would just sit, picking berries in the summer and playing crib in the winter, and say next to nothing. She could talk or not talk. If it wasn’t about berries, crib and a few other very specific subjects, Uncle Ray had no interest. And when it was time for her to go, he didn’t seem to care about that, either. He’d just quickly look up and wave. “Yep, see ya, Sarah.” Uncle Ray was a relief.

Not everyone liked being around him. Uncle Ray’s slow indifference made people nervous sometimes, or frustrated that he didn’t care to see things the way they did. “When they were younger, your father had to step between Ray and trouble more than a few times,” Sarah’s mother had told her.

She sat on a large, slightly elevated flat rock next to him, which caused him to move a couple of feet further away from her. He was humming and smelled like sweat. He really was fast with the picking. His large brown hands seemed to just wave around the shrubs, then gently rain berries into his bowl in a smooth, magical rhythm. “It’s hot out here,” she said. “Did you bring water, Uncle Ray?” In response, he waved a grimy military canteen over his head and moved a bit further from her, behind taller bushes in a stand of young birch trees. “Oh, okay.”

She stared back over the potato field to her house, the large back yard stretching out toward the dry woods and a short driveway leading to the road. It was while wondering how she’d fill the rest of the long, dull afternoon that she noticed, crossing over from the dirt road facing her house, two boys. It took her no time to recognize them as Mario Daigle and Steve Duclos. Wearing heavy metal t-shirts, faded jeans and dirty steel-toes, they looked older and tougher than they had at the end of school.

Sarah’s Dad had arrested Mario’s father the year before for poaching moose and Mario, who’d never been nice before, made it his mission to take it out on her. He pushed her against walls, made muffled pig noises whenever she had to speak in class, spit on her in the bus. It all finally came to a head when tall, lean Mario and fat, sweaty Steve pinned her to the ground in the schoolyard in front of an audience of other grade sevens, shoved their hands under her top and covered her in mud, all the while calling her a “stupid ranger whore,” among other nasty things. The aftermath — involving parents and suspensions and insincere apologies — led to the current phase of dark stares and mean smirks. Because of her Dad’s deeply unpopular job in a village where illegal hunting was a cherished pastime, Sarah was a bit of a social pariah on a good day. The Mario Daigle thing had made her feel even more isolated and lame.

As they came closer along the road, laughing and passing a bag of chips back and forth, she steeled herself, drawing her knees up to her chest. Maybe if she just didn’t move, they’d somehow miss her.

Nope.

“Well, if it isn’t the ranger whore,” Mario sneered, at which point Steve, his mouth full of chips, gave her the finger. They had stopped on the road, about 15 yards from where she sat. As Steve continued to chew and stare, Mario turned his head slowly toward Sarah’s house, then in the direction they were headed. Then back at Sarah. A slow smile formed on his lips as he started down the ditch toward her, Steve right behind.

They came nearer, and Sarah’s chest tightened. She considered which way to run. Then, over to her left, she felt something move and rise slowly. Uncle Ray. She was so used to seeing him crouching or sitting at a kitchen table that she was startled by how tall he actually was. He stepped between Sarah and the boys, his eyes in a focused squint, his mouth hanging open and his huge right hand gripping the hunting knife. Mario and Steve were now frozen in their tracks, their shoulders slowly sagging. The boys’ faces softened as their eyes widened. Then, in a deep, angry, ragged voice Sarah had never heard before, Uncle Ray yelled “Oooh, No!” He strode forward through the bushes, pointing the knife at the boys. “No, no, no, no, no, no!” over and over, as if warding off evil spirits.

As Uncle Ray closed the distance with the boys, Mario and Steve snapped back to life. They scrambled backward up toward the asphalt, stumbling and kicking up dust, then ran down the road, the empty Hostess bag floating to the ground in their wake.

Sarah now gazed at Uncle Ray, who stood panting and still staring at the space where the boys had been. The two stayed that way, the girl on the rock and her uncle staring at the road, until his breathing slowed and quieted. He returned the knife to his belt and walked back to his picking spot without looking at her. He bent over and picked up her mother’s yellow Tupperware bowl from among the prickly bushes. It was full of tiny blueberries. “Here you go,” he said, handing it to her, his face still turned away.