Uncle Charlie’s Office

ROBBIN RISLEY

“Get me a drink”, Uncle Charlie said, his eyes fixed on the television in front of him. He didn’t have to look at me or acknowledge my presence for me to know who he was speaking to. Nobody else was there and nobody made his drinks but me.

I went to the freezer box, took out the ice cube tray, and collected one of the two-litre bottles of cola from beside the fridge. The cola was kept outside of the fridge, because Uncle Charlie said it retained the ‘fizz’ better that way. I got up on my stool, which he habitually placed in the kitchen when my mom dropped me off for the weekend. I heaved the pop-up onto the counter, and took one of the short, wide glasses out from the cupboard above the sink. I placed the glass down firmly beside a sturdy bottle of Crown Royal Whisky.

Crown Royal was the only kind of whisky Uncle Charlie drank, and I was taught early-on to identify it on errand runs. Crown Royal was the one with the bluish-purple sack, and gold embroidered writing on it. Liquor laws were a lot more lenient in the ’80s than now. A seven- year-old girl could walk into a liquor store with cash and a handwritten permission note, and walk out with a bottle of booze.

I plunked exactly three large ice cubes into the glass and poured the whisky to twice the height of the cubes. The cola followed, with its thick, brown foam flaring to the rim, and receding. I topped it up with a bit more of the cola, and stepped-down from my stool with the drink. I didn’t bother putting the items on the counter back; they would have to stay until I returned. Uncle Charlie wasn’t in the mood to wait when he was a few drinks in. Since he was perpetually a few drinks in, he was never in the mood to wait.

I was careful not to spill a drop on the way to the living room. I strained to see the edge of the coffee table through the heavy cigarette fog, which seemed to sigh like a tired, old ghost as it settled in the dark apartment. There was a visible spot on the coffee table where the afternoon sun was struggling to force its way through the unrelenting curtains, and I was able to locate the outline of a coaster there. Being mindful not to knock over any of the varied little bottles, populating the table in a grievous funeral procession of pharmaceuticals, I set the drink down on the coaster. Uncle Charlie’s eyes were still blearily focused on the television, which he often referred to as the ‘idiot box’. I knew better than to be the idiot in between him and that box, so I quickly stepped away after delivering the goods.

I was halfway back to the kitchen, when I heard the glass bang hard on the coffee table.

“I told you to wash these dishes,” he shouted, his voice rumbling and thick with mucus.

I turned around slowly. He was holding the glass up into that beam of light from between the curtains, with one of his dark, ape-like fingers from his other hand pointing to it.

“Come here”, he said, staring through me with his chin tucked-down so he could see over the top of his bifocals.

The very last thing I wanted in the world was to get any closer, but I begrudgingly started towards him.

He was in his usual position; sitting on the couch with his brown leather slippered feet on the ground, legs spread apart and bent at the knees. He sat forward, like a horrendous, sweaty bullfrog, curved into a ‘C’ shape, big bulbous sphere of a gut looming over his briefs. He had an unfortunate preference for sitting around with nothing but those God-awful blue briefs on. Once, when the space in his underwear that wasn’t sewn together gaped open as he shifted position, a repulsive bulge of purplish-brown male flesh had been revealed to me. I had learned to keep my eyes averted since that day.

As I approached, I saw what he was pointing to: a tiny smudged fingerprint on the outside of the glass. My heart caved-in upon itself, like a heavy pumpkin past its prime. When Uncle Charlie found a spot on one of his glasses, he would put me on ‘military duty.’  During duty, I would be forced to repeat, “Sir, yes, sir” to his hollered orders, until every single glass in the kitchen was polished to absolute perfection.

Uncle Charlie wasn’t my blood relative. He had been a long time friend of my grandfather’s and used to babysit my mom when she was young. I was required to refer to him as ‘Uncle’ because, as he told me, “putting a handle on a name is how you show respect to your elders.”

Uncle Charlie liked to recall colourful stories about his heroic military duty during WWII. My mom told me that back at the start of the war many black people were rejected from volunteering in the Canadian military, and Uncle Charlie never got to fight, but his stories sure would make a person believe otherwise.

The marked glass loomed in front of me, unmoving, as I awaited punishment. I feared military duty but there were other possible outcomes when Uncle Charlie was in a mood. I was often put to varying humiliating tasks, such as cleaning his bathroom with Q-Tips, or being forced to sit and endure a lengthy verbal attack. Suddenly, Uncle Charlie lowered the glass back to the table. My impending judgement had been interrupted by the unmistakable ring of the buzzer, jarring even over the blaring television.

Uncle Charlie sprang-up, shuffled over to the buzzer and spoke a few hurried words into the receiver. It was one of his customers. With his attention fully shifted to the prospective sale, he grabbed his dark red terry cloth house coat from the back of a chair, and made his way across the carpet to the front hall.

When customers came by, the kitchen became Uncle Charlie’s office and I was not allowed to enter. Once, I had made the mistake of entering the office to see what took place inside, as I had always wondered how a kitchen could suddenly become an office. I had snuck-in undetected, and saw Uncle Charlie placing white powder on a scale. He told me he was weighing flour for his customer, which I innocently believed at the time. I was lectured for hours about respect and obedience after the customer left.

Another time, a customer came to the office who I hadn’t seen before. He was tall and slender, his ashy skin stretched over frighteningly lean muscles. His sunken eyes were yellow and his teeth were broken and jagged, like a sick, old wolf. His shirt was unbuttoned, revealing a sweat-glossed chest. He approached me, trembling and fidgety, while Uncle Charlie went ahead of him into the office. The man told me I was a beautiful little girl, and asked me for a kiss. I lowered my head shyly, as he came in close to my face. Uncle Charlie turned back in time to catch the man’s strange and sudden request for affection. He charged at him, and shoved him away from me with surprising force. There was an awful crack as Uncle Charlie’s fist struck the man’s face. I covered my face with my hands and cried while they yelled at each other fiercely. After the customer was dealt with, Uncle Charlie decided I should wait in the bedroom when customers came over from then on.

I hurried to the bedroom, the only one in the apartment, and sat on the edge of the bed. I didn’t usually like the customers coming by but this time I hoped they would stay for a while. If enough time passed, Uncle Charlie’s drink would get warm, and he would have me make him a new one. I decided I would be more careful next time to use a spotless glass.

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Robbin Risley is an emerging writer and poet, currently studying Creative Writing at Douglas College in B.C. She has had her work featured in the 33rd issue of Pearls, a student anthology published by Douglas College.

Find Robbin on twitter @robbinrisley

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