Uncle by Anthony Varallo

Uncle says we are not to disturb him when he is in the basement.  Because the basement is his place.  His.  Got it?

“Got it,” we say, even if the basement is just our grandparents’ basement.  Uncle still lives with our grandparents, which is kind of funny but also not really either.  We are spending the week at our grandparents while our parents travel to the beach, to salvage their marriage, we will later learn, when we are older and our parents are divorced and our grandparents and Uncle are dead, and isn’t time the strangest thing?

Because now we seem to be in Uncle’s car, which is crammed with bags of empty aluminum cans and translucent milk cartons.  The bags are malodorous and wet.  We are driving the cans and cartons somewhere, to redeem them, Uncle says, then laughs.

“You two know what that means?  Redeem?”  Uncle says.  He takes a drag of his cigarette, exhales.

“To make up for something bad you did?” we say.

Uncle snorts.  “You wish!” he says, then tosses the cigarette out the window.  When Uncle laughs, we can see his yellow teeth.  “It means to get money for stuff.”

“Oh,” we say.  It’s funny how the same word can mean different things, and this is also terrible and cruel and one of the many reasons that it will seem nearly impossible to ever truly know anything, we will later learn, but not now, because Uncle is taking us out for cheeseburgers and fries.  After the waitress puts Uncle’s plate down in front of him, Uncle takes the salt shaker and carefully, methodically, shakes row after row of salt across the entire plate, starting at the back and working toward himself, until every part of the meal has been salted.  “See what smoking does to you?” Uncle says, then takes a lusty bite of burger.  “Don’t start.”

“We won’t,” we say.

“You say that now,” Uncle says.  “But.”

“But what?”

“Stop talking to me,” Uncle says.

Did we mention that Uncle talks with his mouth full?  How could we when we seem to be waiting for Uncle to pick us up from swim practice—swim practice!—as we stand in the Y parking lot, dripping wet, thin towels wrapped around our waists.  Poor Uncle, having to pick us up on a summer day so hot the only natural response is for Uncle to hide in his parents’ basement, watching game shows while sipping Miller Tallboys on the sly.  Uncle tells us we aren’t allowed in the car until we’re 100% dry, then makes a show of locking the doors.  We stand in the parking lot, drying off as thoroughly as we have ever dried off in our relatively short lifetimes, our bare feet burning on the pavement, while Uncle watches us, or not, from behind mirrored sunglasses.  Uncle smokes menthol cigarettes.  That smell!  For us, that smell means Uncle.  Always.

Or maybe not.  Maybe we will forget Uncle.  Who is to say that time won’t eventually erase Uncle, the way it has largely erased our grandparents, summertime, our parents’ misery, and is currently working its way through the duller avenues of our childhood?

One night we sneak down into Uncle’s basement.  It is late.  Our grandparents are sleeping.  We can hear Uncle watching TV, the basement door closed, but unlocked, aha. We descend the basement stairs.  We hold our fingers to our lips, as if to say, Quiet!  Don’t let Uncle hear you!

But Uncle hears us.  Just as we’re about to sneak up from behind and surprise him, Uncle reaches for the little cord that’s connected to the only light in the basement—why are there no other lights in the basement?—and pulls it hard.  The basement disappears into darkness, save for the TV, which is still bright enough that we can glimpse each other’s giddy expression.

“How many times do I have to tell you?” Uncle says.

Uncle turns the TV off.  Darkness.  The darkest place we have ever been.  We search for each other’s face, but it is no use.

“I could hear you on the stairs,” we hear Uncle say, in the dark.

We begin to laugh, deep, resonant laughter that robs the air from our lungs and seems a kind of laughter we have not laughed since.

“You two make so much noise,” Uncle says.

The NFFR and Anthony Varallo Interview

It’s obviously been an insanely rough year. What’s been your favorite artistic escape either book, music, or tv?

Early on during the pandemic, I got into this phase of trying to read Everything I’ve Been Meaning to Read If Only I Had The Time, which led me to read Anton Chekhov’s collection, Ward. No.6 and Other Stories. I don’t normally think of Chekhov as a comforting writer, but for some reason these stories gave me solace, not sure why, really. I made a game of trying to summarize one story each night to my kids when we went on our after-dinner walk, and I was surprised by how good Chekhov’s plots really are, even though that’s not his reputation at all.

We’ve been thinking about the elusive definition of Flash Fiction. What’s your working definition of it?

My favorite definition of the short story is from the great British short story writer, VS Pritchett: “Something glimpsed, from the corner of the eye, in passing.” Maybe the flash version of that definition would be something like “Something glimpsed, in passing.” Or, “Something, in passing.”

What was the inspiration for this story?

“Uncle” started with a memory of my grandparents’ basement. To turn on the lights, you had to wander in the pitch dark to a light cord that hung in the center of the basement–you just had to know where it was, and then hope that your outstretched fingers found it in the darkness. I was always terrified about being trapped down there in the dark. All I knew about “Uncle” when I started writing it was that it began in the basement and would somehow end in the basement.

Anthony Varallo is the author of a novel, The Lines (University of Iowa Press), as well as four short story collections. New work is out or forthcoming in The New Yorker “Daily Shouts,” STORY, One Story, DIAGRAM, and The Best Small Fictions 2020. Anthony is currently a professor of English at the College of Charleston, and the Fiction Editor of Crazyhorse.

black and white photo of a door opening on to a hallway

Photograph by Al Kratz.

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