by Lee Hamblin
Although Boots was two years younger, he was a good two inches taller than Jack.
Townsfolk they met who knew no better would assume Boots the elder of the brothers, so it was with his eyes they’d first engage when inquiring about school, or baseball, or asking them where they happen to be heading on this fine and sunny morning.
Jack would leap right on in before they’d even finished with the asking and take care of all the replying, which was okay with Boots, for whom school and ball games were two things he had no time for anyhow.
‘Going to the lake for some fishing with our uncle,’ he would say, or, ‘picking up a few things for our ma from the store,’ if that was what they happened to be doing.
And all the while Boots would be staring down at the crusty red earth, kicking his shoes in the dust, and from nowhere find himself an itch to scratch, at least till they were back on their way, to the store, to the lake, or to the elsewhere they happened to be heading.
And later, maybe over supper, Mr. would tell Mrs. that he reckons one of those Otis brothers from over the eastside must be mute, or stupid, or just plain daft, because he never says one word, not even a howdy-do.
Mrs. might say that she’d heard that that was the case too, but can’t quite recall who it was who told her, someone in the grocery store perhaps. And after a moment to think, she might say. ‘Yes, of course it was. It was the delivery boy what told me. Yes,’ she’d say to Mr. ‘You know, the lad that took off two years back for the big city.’ And then to Mr.’s mumbled interjection, retort, ‘No, you giddy old fool, not the grizzly bear they got there now that could do with a personality transplant, the one before the one before.’ Mr. would laugh at that, not knowing who the hell she meant, and now wishing he hadn’t mentioned it at all. He’d then take another mouthful of the best meatloaf this side of, well…this side of some other place.
As it happens, what with it being the first Saturday of the month, Jack and Boots were heading off to see their Uncle Clyde. Uncle Clyde lived near the lake, about a mile and a half outside town. He lived there alone. Jack says he remembers something of Clyde’s wife: a perfume that tickled his nose, a smothering bosom, a summer-sweet voice that sung him to sleep. Boots knows her only as the woman stood next to his mother in a black and white photograph Clyde keeps up on the mantlepiece. She looks happier in it than his mother does. Clyde don’t ever say much about her, in fact he’s never spoke of her – not to the boys anyhow – all they know is that she passed long before she should’ve, and it’s town knowledge that Uncle Clyde has had no desire of a woman’s company ever since.
It was a sultry, insect heavy afternoon, and as the brothers neared the single story cabin Clyde called home, blowing upwind came the delicious smell of lake trout roasting over coals.
‘I told you he’d be done with the fishin’ already,’ said Jack, rib-digging his brother with the fat end of the fishing rod he’d now no use for.
‘Just in time to reap the rewards,’ Boots replied, sidestepping his brother’s lunge, widening his eyes.
‘Yeah, I know you worked it that way, tellin’ me you had to do some math homework first. Huh! You ain’t ever studied on a weekend in your life.’ Jack shook his head in disbelief. ‘That fish sure smells good, though. Touché!’
And with that, Jack tucked the fishing rod under his arm and quickened the pace.
In the yard, bedecked in a once pearl-white apron now all greased up and charcoal sooty stood Uncle Clyde, all two hundred plus pounds of him, his hair Brylcreem sleek, a matchstick-thin moustache ever-perfect. He was busying a spatula, flipping the catch, his brow glossy with sweat.
‘Look what I got here for our supper,’ he said, without looking away from the grill, ‘took the boat out lunchtime, set down in the same spot as last weekend, got the first bite soon as. Them lake trout don’t like to venture far from home this time a year.’
He chuckled, and greeted the boys with his free hand. Jack nudged his uncle with the fishing rod; the narrow end.
‘We were meant to be going together. I sure feel stupid having carried this thing all the way over for nothing,’ he said, spreading his arms out wide, ‘and what use is there now for this box of fresh dug earthworms?’
Clyde eyed the grill, and smiled, ‘packed full of protein,’ he said, which only got him another poke in the side. ‘Ah, lay off that, Jack, I get your point, but see, timing is everything when it comes to fish, in fact for most things in life, and besides, you can leave the rod here for next time, that’ll save you bringing it back home.’ Jack saw the reasoning in his words, and set down what he was holding.
Boots wasn’t even listening to their conversation. He was listening to the something that was coming from inside, something coming from the only television he ever gets to see, and that’s only once in a while. Clyde could see where Boots’ mind was.
‘Go on in, Boots, fish needs another few minutes yet,’ said Clyde, ‘there’s soda in the cooler. Get one for your brother whilst you’re at it, he looks like he could use one after all that carryin’.’ Clyde dug the fish slice at Jack. Jack considered doing something nasty with his box of worms, but he joined the laughter instead.
Boots sat on the edge of the sofa, ears-wide, sucking on nothing through the straw gripped between his teeth. Four men in white shirts dark suits – four black men – were playing music: piano, drums, upright bass, and a tenor saxophone – as Boots was later to learn. He sat close as he could to the screen, twitching to the pulse. Jack joined him, budged up close, but knew better than to start talking.
Uncle Clyde came in just as the band was taking a bow, just as Boots was taking a moment.
‘Nat King Cole,’ he said, ‘got the sweetest voice, too. Hey, Boots, you look just like him now I see you together, younger version of course, and I can’t vouch for your singing.’ They laughed. The show cut to some wide-eyed housewife promoting laundry soap. He moved in front of the screen, turned down the sound, ‘that music right there, my boys, is what they call Jazz…’ he said, and inching closer, he whispered, soft and slow, like it was a secret ever to be held, ‘and Jazz is…well, Jazz is our past and our future all rolled into one.’
That night, coal-roasted fish had never tasted so good, and if by chance, on the way home, any of the watching townsfolk had seen him, they might have noticed Boots walking with a distinct skip in his step and a broad smile on his face, and if they looked real close, they may even have sensed the something that had begun to brew in his belly.
Lee Hamblin is a Londoner living in Greece for the past decade. He’s had stories published in MoonPark Review, Stories for Homes Volume 2, Bath Flash Fiction Volume 2, Blue Fifth Review, Ellipsis Zine, Fictive Dream, STORGY, Flash Frontier, Spelk, Reflex, and F(r)online.
He tweets @kali_thea and puts words here: https://hamblin1.wordpress.com.