I used to think it was cool how good Uncle Rick was at skimboarding, how into it he was. He had a rap about it – Zen and the art of skimboarding. He used to come to the beach with me and Mom every summer and stay at Gramma’s condo with us. I remember sitting at the linoleum kitchen table, watching him roll a joint while he talked about the surf and the sand, the feeling of the perfect ride. I remember the way he glanced at my breasts and then looked away.
But the summer after Gramma died, he lost his mind. We were all different after that. I could hardly even talk to Mom then. She would cry about something as small as cream cheese falling out of a crowded refrigerator.
Uncle Rick looked the worst. He had put on weight and wore a towel around his waist all the time. He went to a thrift shop on one of the side streets off the boardwalk and found this leather jacket with Def Leppard printed on the back and these big red-and-white stripes going down the arms, and he wore it all the time. In 90 degree high-noon weather, he had that jacket on. He said, “That’s what she said” when I ordered chicken fingers for lunch.
I told him that didn’t even make sense.
“You don’t get it yet, Jaynie, sweetheart. You don’t get it yet.” He winked at me.
“I get it. It’s supposed to be about sex, but chicken fingers are not connected to sex.”
“That’s what she said.” He started laughing as if this were a new joke.
I asked Mom about it. She said, “Don’t get me started on Rick right now. Do me a favor and ignore him, Jayne.”
But how could I ignore him? He would come into my room at night, after Mom went to sleep, and sit on the end of my bed. I would be like, Hello? Did you want to talk to me or something? But he would sit there, staring at me and then out the window at the parking lot and say weird things: “Don’t be a parked car in the parking lot of life, Jaynie.” He would still have that Def Leppard jacket on and the towel wrapped around his waist.
After about a week of this, he moved up to the side of my bed. He touched my hair and said in a voice that sounded like he was telling a secret, “You know, you are born with all the hair you’re ever going to have. You don’t make any new hair in your lifetime.”
I said I was pretty sure that wasn’t true. I knew this was actually a fact about girls’ eggs because we covered that in sex ed, but I didn’t want to talk to him about that. Besides, I think he was looking for a reason to touch my hair.
Finally, one night I woke up and there he was, sitting right by my head, wearing his towel and jacket.
I said, “Is something wrong, Uncle Rick?”
He looked at me and whispered, “Why would something be wrong?”
“Well, you come in here and sit on my bed and stuff and stare and you wear that towel all the time and that jacket. I was just sort of wondering.”
His voice got louder. “What’s wrong with this jacket?”
“You have something against Def Leppard?”
I said, “Well, actually I didn’t know Def Leppard but then I Googled them and it turns out Taylor Swift sang a song with them and it was pretty cool, I guess.”
“You don’t know Taylor Swift?” I didn’t know how this could be true.
“I fucking know Taylor Swift. What are you talking about Def Leppard?” And so it went like this for way too long until I grabbed my phone and played the song where she sings “Photograph” with the guy from Def Leppard. He’s all, I can’t fucking believe this.
I said, “Believe it.”
He got up from the bed and walked over to the window and started this crazy pacing until suddenly his towel fell off and it was so horrible as to not even be believed. Everything was sort of hanging there, and it’s all so much littler than you would think. This magic that’s always hidden, this big secret, is just this little hot dog and a bag of raisins or something. A little extra bag of loose skin they get. I was like – to myself – this? This is what they get? I all of a sudden felt so sad for him.
I said, “Aww.” It sort of came out.
He said, “What?”
“What are you ‘awwing’ about? You said ‘aww’ like you saw a puppy. What’s your problem?” He hadn’t picked up his towel from the floor. He stood there in his leather jacket and his flip flops. There was sand still on his legs. I stared at that, the little grains and the brown hair together.
“It’s cute is all,” I lied.
I said, “It’s so much smaller than I thought it would be.”
Never say it’s so much smaller than you thought it would be.
He freaked out. He took off his jacket and threw it on my bed. “Take your stupid Taylor Swift jacket. I tried to help you, Jaynie girl.” He picked up the towel from the floor and tried to wrap it back around his waist, but it fell right back down again. I tried not to laugh. He picked it up and walked out of my room completely naked except his flip flops and his grains of sand.
The next morning, he was gone. He left the jacket, skimboard, and a bunch of his clothes spread all over the couch. I brought the board to the guys at the rental stand on our beach, and they traded for a joint and a coupon for a free telescope picture.
Jeanne Jones is a lawyer and writing teacher in the Washington metropolitan area. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the EEEL, 1:1000, and Abundant Grace: Fiction by D.C. Area Women. She was a finalist in NPR's three-minute fiction contest judged by Ann Patchett. She lives in Hyattsville, Maryland, with her husband and two children.