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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
My uncles taught me cusswords to the tune of the ABC’s. I was six. This was Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the mid-eighties. We were standing outside my grandparents’ house, my uncles wearing jeans and flannels and hooded sweatshirts, and holding cans of Old Style. They’d tossed me an empty and every time they took a swig, I’d prop the can to my mouth, and tilt my head back for those last drops of beer. They took a picture. I still have it—dark hair, half-Filipino boy with chocolate brown corduroys and a navy blue zip-up hoodie over a collared shirt, standing next to my German Caucasian uncles—beards and ball caps, tattoos and wild eyes.
Around us, maple leaves spiraled from branches, filling the sky yellow and orange. A rusted out Datsun truck was parked in the gravel driveway, its hood popped open. One of my uncles was changing the oil. The other two lingered around the driveway, working to polish off a twelve pack. I scampered around the front yard clutching the empty beer can, kicking up fallen leaves until one of my uncles flagged me over and started singing.
“Just like this,” my uncle said. He held my shoulder and sang to the tune of the ABC’s. I sang it back to him.
“Just like the ABCs,” he said. I kept singing. All three of them were doubled over.
We all practiced the song, standing around the truck with the hood still propped, oil draining into a bin they’d slid underneath the engine.
People drove by in cars, on motorcycles. We all waved. My uncles offered me swigs of beer. I guzzled a few times, spilling on myself. I felt lightheaded. I sang louder. I drank more. They slapped their knees and egged me on. A cool breeze shifted the leaves around the yard. My grandfather sauntered out of his two-stall work-garage and into the driveway. He adjusted his hat. “What’s all the racket out here?” he said.
“Changing oil,” one my uncles said.
“Don’t be giving that boy any beer,” my grandpa said. I was still holding the empty Old Style can.
My uncles smirked and told him they were looking after me, that everything was just fine. My grandfather stepped away and into the house where my grandmother watched late-afternoon talk shows, chain-smoking Kools.
When my grandfather went inside, I started singing again.
“Shit-fuck-asshole-motherfucking-bitch-communist bastard-eat my shit—”
I paused to admire my uncles, bent over, faces contorted in laughter. But I also stopped because that’s as far as we’d gotten with the song.
I darted away, feeling invincible. I climbed the ladder of a fort made of metal pipe that my grandfather had built. I got to the top rung, eight feet off the ground, and sang the cussword ABCs as loud as I could. My uncles nearly fell over. They reached into the twelve pack for the last of the beers. I climbed down, hopped on a swing. I swung back and forth until my stomach hurt, queasy with motion sickness. But I still sang. I jumped off the swing, ran around the outside of the house, scaled the maple tree, dribbled a basketball between my legs, sat on a lawn chair, kicked at the gravel, sang the song, sang it for my uncles, sang as loud as I could—their laughter, frothy with Old Style.
Four empty oil quarts sat off to the side, next to the house. The twelve pack was gone, and one of my uncles ambled over to the Datsun, unlatched the metal pole support, tucked it away, and slammed the engine hood shut.
“We’re going in, kid,” one of them said.
I sprinted over to the swing set where I’d left my empty. I picked it up and raced back to where they all stood, waiting for me. We walked into the garage, the four of us, together—pals, compadres, equals.
A few hours later, when my mom and dad came by to pick me up, my uncles were sitting in the living room, working on a new twelve pack of Old Style, my grandmother’s cigarette smoke wafting toward the ceiling.
When it was time for me to go, my uncles sat up in their chairs. One saluted me, the other two raised their beers. I waved to them, said goodbye. I hugged my grandmother, like I always did, and then I went to search for my navy-blue hoodie. When I found it, in a pile next to the front door, it was still wet around the collar—spilt drops of beer. Leftover from my uncles’ generosity.
Keith Lesmeister lives and works in rural northeast Iowa. An MFA candidate at the Bennington Writing Seminars, his stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming online or in print at American Short Fiction, Meridian, Harpur Palate, River Teeth, Midwestern Gothic, Museum of Americana and elsewhere.