The Guncle - Steven Rowley
“Never love anyone who treats you like you’re ordinary.”
“You said, oh girl, it’s a cold world when you keep it all to yourself.”
—PAT BENATAR, “SHADOWS OF THE NIGHT”
All right, here goes nothing.
Patrick held his phone in landscape mode and waited for the autofocus to find Maisie and Grant. The children looked slight, smushed together as they were, even Maisie, who was already nine. If the camera added ten pounds (and Patrick had spent enough time in front of cameras to know the old cliché to be true), then his was irreparably defective. Maisie brushed her hair out of her face; six weeks with him in Palm Springs and it was already lighter from the desert sun. Grant mindlessly tongued the space where his tooth used to be.
“Sit up,” Patrick encouraged, but it wasn’t their posture so much as their fragility that made his niece and nephew appear small, both of them a bundle of raw nerves eager to be exposed. He smiled as the camera brought them sharply into view. As an exercise, what was the point of the summer if not helping them come into focus? Patrick hovered his finger over his phone before calmly hitting record. “Tell me something about your mother.”
Maisie and Grant turned inward, each willing the other to speak. Patrick had never witnessed such a case of debilitating stage fright in his entire career. The two children negotiated in silence, almost telepathically, the way close siblings sometimes can, and eventually Maisie, the oldest by three years, spoke first. “She was tall.”
Patrick looked out from behind his phone. “She was tall? That’s it? Giraffes are tall. Your mother’s a giraffe?”
“NO!” They were both offended by the suggestion.
“Don’t yell at me,” Patrick protested. “It’s up to you to lead with something better than her height.”
Grant took a swing. “She was strong. One time she lifted the thofa to vacuum under it.”
“CUT.” Patrick stopped recording. Of course he wanted Grant to think of his mother as strong—Sara’s treatment had robbed her of much of the resilience that defined her—and he was even willing to overlook his nephew’s lisp, even though they’d been working on it in the quiet of late afternoons, but he wasn’t about to let Sara suffer the indignity of sharing space in this video with a Dyson upright. “You kids are terrible at telling stories.”
Maisie grew agitated. “Well, what do you want us to say?”
“What do I . . . Being in a video was your idea!”
Grant kicked his little feet in frustration, stubbing his toes on the coffee table.
“Don’t scuff my furniture.” Patrick held his phone out to Maisie. “Here. Record me. I’ll show you how it’s done.” Maisie started to protest, but Patrick wouldn’t hear of it. “Tsk tsk tsk.”
Maisie reluctantly accepted her uncle’s phone and held it up to record him.
“Higher,” Patrick said.
“Higher. Stand up.”
“Higher!” Patrick leaned forward and coaxed Maisie’s arms in the air. “Honestly, it’s like you want me to have four chins. Guncle Rule—What number are we on? Know your angles. Everyone has a good side. Even children, who should be photographable from all sides but aren’t.” He sat back in his midcentury leather club chair and motioned for Maisie to hold her camera position. “Never mind, we’re getting way off track here. See the red button? That’s record.”
Maisie was losing patience, and the attitude she displayed when pressed was bubbling to the surface. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
“Stockard Channing’s real name is Susan.”
Maisie lowered the camera, annoyed.
“Well, you didn’t know that, did you? And now you do.” Patrick coaxed Maisie’s arms higher to reclaim his angle. “Susan Stockard. Stockard was her last name.”
“Who’th Thtockard Channing?” Grant asked, tripping over the mouthful.
“Oh, good lord. Rizzo?” Patrick waited to see if that registered. “In the movie Grease?”
Grant shrugged. “We haven’t theen it.”
“What? You’ve never seen Grease? When I was your age I watched it like a hundred times. The way John Travolta swung his hips . . . ?” Blank stares. “It’s fine. Grease 2 has a more progressive message on gender. And frankly, if you want the best of Olivia Newton-John, we should probably start with Xanadu.”
“Everything you say is nonsense words,” Maisie protested.
“Look, just because you find these to be erudite conversations, I’m simply stating facts. Now, do you want me to show you how to do this, or not? Please. Hit record.”
Maisie did as she was told, if only to speed things along. “Tell us about our mom.”
Patrick closed his eyes and conjured an image