My Uncle Willie was the best storyteller I’ve ever known. He was nothing more than an alcoholic country boy with Jesus in his back pocket, but when he started in on his stories, there was no tearing yourself away. The best memories of growing up are of the summers spent at the lake house with my uncle and my grandmother in the little town of Cisco, TX.
I was the “caboose” of all the grandchildren (as my grandmother always called me), and wherever my uncle and grandma were, I could be found. I have no doubt some would look those summers and shake their heads at the things I was exposed to, but the bonds of love and family were never stronger than those days at the lake house.
Perhaps it was the magnitude of their personalities, but even in my earliest memories, I recall preferring the company of my grandmother and her siblings over kids my own age, even to my cousins.
I owe any sense of adventure I have to my Uncle. Not because he was particularly adventurous or even a daring sort of man, but because he always had a story to tell and no matter how dull it might have been in real life, he added just the right amount of garnish and you could visualize every moment in a sort of glittery shimmer.
His best known tale was the story of “The Old Man”, a sort-of swamp creature with one, big, yellow eye above his nose that lived at the bottom of the lake and ate raw fish and only talked to Uncle Willie. Any fish or animal bones found near the shore were just the remains of the Old Man’s meals. Nights when the coyotes were silent were nights you stayed inside because the silence meant he was roaming around looking for something to eat.
If you did go outside, you didn’t dare go without Uncle Willie because the Old Man wasn’t only ugly, he was mean and wouldn’t hesitate to make a meal out of you.
In the mornings, my uncle and grandmother would sit on the screened-in porch drinking their coffee and smoking cigarettes until everyone else woke up. I was usually the first awake and I’d sit with them at the table and listen to whatever memories they were suddenly struck by.
Nearly every morning at the lake house, my uncle would tell me I fell asleep right before the Old Man came to visit him.
He’d brief me on their conversation and said he’d told the Old Man I was back (or still) in town. He always said he’d introduce me to the him one day and thought the Old Man might like me, but he probably wouldn’t like anyone else. So, every night I’d sit up waiting to meet him with my uncle and grandma on the porch, listening to them talk until I eventually fell asleep.
Somewhere in the early 90’s Uncle Cliff married in the family through my aunt (my mom’s sister). Cliff is 6’7 and 400 pounds of stupid but also 400 pounds of heart. The first 10 or so years, my grandmother wasn’t very fond of him (she preferred my aunt’s ex-husband) and being blood, that meant Uncle Willie didn’t much care for him either.
Cliff was extremely gullible which made him the butt-end of countless jokes when he dared go to the lake house with the rest of the family. Maybe he was too stupid to realize they were picking on him, but either way, he was always good sport about it.
Even in my single-digit years, I had my doubts about the existence of the Old Man but at 35, it wasn’t hard to make Cliff scared of the water. I’m not sure he actually believed Uncle Willie, but he was still uncomfortable being out alone in the dark, nonetheless.
However it came about, one night he was dared to sleep on the fishing dock alone. He talked big, but somehow my aunt ended up with sleeping bags on the dock with him.
At some point in the middle of the night, Cliff came bounding up to the house from the dock soaking wet, swearing the old man was after him. To this day, no one is sure who scared him, but his delinquent stepsons weren’t his biggest fans.
Family legend has it that he couldn’t shut his eyes at all that night and heard branches cracking and something moving in the water. In attempting to try to wake my aunt up, he swore someone grabbed his arm which scared him absolutely shitless, causing him to roll over and fall off of the dock and into the lake. My aunt laughed at him that night and she still laughs at him this day.
Cliff has been dubbed the “titty-baby” of the family since that night.
Even when I was older and saw less and less of Uncle Willie, when I did see him, he’d always ask if I’d seen the Old Man lately. For whatever reason, I always envisioned sitting at a picnic table under a tree by the lake house (even though there was no picnic table) and eating burgers with him and my uncle in the dark. I remember thinking I wouldn’t act like I was afraid of him even if I was, espeically if Uncle Willie was with me.
Every time I watch To Kill a Mockingbird and Scout sees Boo Radley behind the door, I always think of the Old Man. He is my Boo Radley, I just never stayed up late enough to meet him. Uncle Willie died about 10 years ago and as I’ve gotten older and feel the sting of things I can never have again, I think the largest hole is reserved for summers spent in that shitty shack of a lake house in Cisco.