Uncle John’s Christmas Gift
If Gladys could have anything she wanted for Christmas it would be that her Uncle John take her fishing in the Gulf Stream on his boat, the Cloud Nine. She didn’t want another doll; she’d grown out of playing with them it seemed ages ago. And except for the little handmade mermaid, the one with the long auburn yarn hair, she never played with dolls at all.
Gladys liked her Uncle John, loved him, would be a more fitting way of putting it. Her parents had been adamant about teaching her the difference between like and love, so love it was. She loved her Uncle John. And despite his stern disposition, the fact that he rarely gave hugs and never smiled, she knew he loved her too. It had something to do with the way Uncle John always looked at her, rather into her, as if he knew her secrets. That look made her feel as if all her dreams would come true one day and that they weren’t just hog wash or foolishness as everyone else said.
Momma, Uncle John’s sister, always said he went through life with blinders on, refusing to accept anyone else's point of view. Daddy said he was stubborn as a mule and that he always wanted his own way. But one thing her parents did say that was nice about Uncle John, and that they both agreed upon, was that Uncle John was the best darn fisherman they’d ever known.
Always coming by every Tuesday, on the dot at 5 PM, with a cooler full of some kind of fish, or shrimp, or oysters, Uncle John would roll up in his battered old Chevy truck and slide his long lean frame slowly from the driver’s seat. His tight lips would open and he’d growl loudly from the driveway, “where’s Sid, where’s that lazy old bag of worms.” And if Gladys was lucky enough to be the one greeting him, Uncle John would wink, purse his lips and add, “just fooling, your daddy’s a good man.”
She had learned long ago that men usually derided each other in jest, that it was a sign of friendship. Thus, she never was certain when she heard her father talking with other men about other men, that what was being said was true or if they were on friendly terms or not.
“Men are strange,” her mother remarked one day when Gladys brought up the subject, “and they gossip just as much as women do, maybe more.”
Ellery, her brother, was now gone and in the Navy. He had worked on Uncle John’s boat and always had stories about the big hammerhead sharks and giant sea turtles he saw. He said he loved fishing and that his favorite place to be was on the water.
He was in Vietnam now, or so Uncle John had said. But he had been in Spain too and before that, some place in California. When he was in California, he’d sent her a little glass figurine, a frog riding a surfboard and wearing a pair of sunglasses. That’s me, he’d written on the little note attached with Scotch Tape.
After that he sent her a silver wristwatch, several fancy scarves that she knew she wouldn’t wear until she was older, and a picture postcard from Japan with Geisha girls. He sent her a book about frogs and toads too. This perplexed Gladys some, but she made herself read it and found it to be very informative. The last thing he’d sent her was a Spanish Flamenco dancer doll. It was dressed in a red and black lace dress and other than the mermaid Gladys played with on occasion, the Flamenco doll, was the only doll she’d kept. It stood on her dresser propped against the mirror right next to the surfing frog and a fake card saying that she had helped retrieve the nose cone from one of the rockets sent into outer space. Every time Gladys looked at the frog and card she laughed.
Ellery was tall and strong, he had a hairy chest and a lanky kind of walk, but it was her brother’s sense of humor that Gladys loved best. He was always joking, always laughing and until he’d gone away to the Navy, he’d made a practice of setting her on his shoulders when he came home from working at the gas station, running around the living room and out into the yard. Once he even ran up the sand dunes with her on his shoulders.
Gladys remembered that particular day well. Once they’d reached the top of the dune, Ellery stood still and quiet. She had felt his sigh, his chest rising and falling beneath her legs. “Man, isn’t that the neatest sight in the whole world,” he’d said.
Then out of nowhere, it seemed, several helicopters from nearby Camp Lejeune flew by, sort of low, disturbing the silence and the moment and Ellery teased his little sister, “they’re playing war you know.”
“I know. I’ve seen it on the TV.”
Then he lifted her from his shoulders and ran down the dune, she had followed and they both splashed into the water.
That was such a good day as they played chase up and down the shore. They had lain on the sand after that, arms folded behind their heads. She lay next to him listening as he talked about the big barracuda he’d caught when trolling in the Gulf Stream and how he’d fought a Marlin fish, only to see it break free. Turning to look at her, Ellery had winked and said in a way that perplexed her, “that was cool.”
He continued with his big toothy grin, “I’ll take you fishing with me out there one day.”
“To the Gulf Stream?”
“Yep,” he’d promised.
That seemed so long ago, and other than the gifts she’d received, Gladys had not heard from her brother in several weeks.
Around Halloween there had been a letter to her parents and she had listened by the door as Momma read it to Daddy. She’d had to listen hard as Momma spoke softly, reading the words slowly, telling Daddy how Ellery had been injured. Somebody shot him and now he was in Japan in a hospital. But when Gladys had asked her parents about it, they reassured her that all was well and that Ellery would be home soon.
Momma had cried and cried that day the letter came. So did Daddy.
Other letters came, about once a week and then they didn’t come anymore. There had been no more gifts either, from Ellery, and Gladys wondered if he truly was all right. She asked again about her brother and though prefaced with a moment or two of silence, her parents always responded, “He’ll be home for Christmas.”
“Ellery loves going fishing with you Uncle John,” Gladys gushed one day.
He grunted and nodded and raised a brow as his eyes studied her expression. “You wanna go too, huh?”
“When Ellery goes.”
“And so it shall be,” Uncle John offered. Momma and Daddy were not as quick to agree, and sort of chuckled and shrugged so as not to offend him when he mentioned it.
As Christmas drew closer Gladys thought more and more about her brother and often she pictured him as he was last year, the day when she and her mother and father had driven to the marina where Uncle John moored his fishing boat. It was in the afternoon after a trip to the Gulf Stream. As they pulled into the parking lot, Gladys could see the boxes and boxes of fish stacked high on the dock. Ellery was shoveling ice on them and he lobbed a piece or two toward her.
She giggled and sat just far enough away so he couldn’t reach her and watched as Momma and Daddy and Uncle John walked over to the Dolphin Fishing Pier for some coffee and to talk grown-up talk.
Gladys, still watching her brother, followed him closer as he jumped aboard the boat and hosed down the deck then grabbed a mop and bucket of suds. As he swabbed, he whistled a tune, then suddenly burst into a song about a drunken sailor.
“Grab the hose,” Ellery ordered, “don’t just stand there like a knot on a log.” Before she knew it Gladys was washing down the bow and washing the suds from the deck where Ellery worked. She tried to keep up with his singing, but dancing along the toe rail, she almost slipped.
“Better find you some sea legs, gal,” he said, stepping from the now clean boat. Ellery reached into a cooler and pulled out a ballyhoo, pulled line too, and then showed her how to tie a lure. “Looks like a baby marlin” Gladys had commented as her brother threaded the line through the gills. Ellery chuckled, “sure does.” That was the day he’d told her he had joined the Navy.
It was the night before Christmas. The house was quiet. Momma and Daddy had gone to bed; Gladys could hear their snoring coming from their bedroom. The sounds were not loud, only soft emissions of air that melodied into the living room where she sat. The sounds had a sort of rhythm, and Gladys rocked slowly to them as she pulled her knees up and gazed at the tree decorated with glass bulbs and bubble lights and strings of tinsel. Boxes of all shapes and sizes were stacked neatly beneath and around the tree. She recognized the gifts she’d wrapped for her parents and the one she had for her brother, Ellery. It was a Luxor reel. She’d saved up the money by collecting empty pop bottles on the beach near the fishing piers. Gladys knew he would love it and she hugged herself tightly, watching the bubbles of the lights flit and the reflection of colors in the strands of tinsel.
Then her eyes turned upward to the top of the tree at the star that Daddy had placed there and she thought of what Preacher Smythe had said about the star and how it guided people and she hoped that it was guiding her brother home. For the first time since he’d left, she felt his absence deep inside, and the loneliness from it. “You better come home,” she whispered before falling asleep.
Gladys heard the loud tooting of Uncle John’s truck and rose rapidly from the rocking chair, almost slipping on the linoleum. She heard the slamming of the truck door and the heavy trod of her uncle’s boots. Flam, flam, flam, his fist against the wooden screen door sounded as he knocked. “It ain’t Saturday, get out of bed.”
The sound of her parents rousing in their bedroom reached her ears as she padded quickly to open the door for Uncle John. He stood as always, straight and scowling. His lips pursed and he turned his face upward. Though still mostly dark, dim light was just beginning to paint the star studded sky.”We’re wasting time,” he droned.
“Ain’t y’all up yet? We’re going fishing. Isn’t that what you wanted for Christmas, gal. He looked down to Gladys and she felt his large hand tousle her hair. Walking into the living room, Uncle John eyed the Christmas tree, raised a brow and growled, “looks like Santy Claus has been here.” A quick glance to Gladys asked her if she wanted the gifts or the fishing trip. Sid and Sadie stood clad in matching robes at the doorway to their bedroom. “You didn’t say we were going.”
“Doesn’t look like you told the girl either.” Uncle John retorted.
“We didn’t think you were serious.”
As he chewed his lips, his jaw moving this way and that, Gladys didn’t know what to think. Yes, she wanted to go fishing with her uncle. Would her parents let her go? Why hadn’t they told her? She watched the exchange of looks between the grown ups and she wondered just what was going to happen.
“Smooth as glass out there today, perfect day. Everything has been arranged and this little gal has been wanting this ever since her brother went off to war.”
Sid and Sadie gasped, shook their heads, then turned to their daughter. “He’s overseas, honey.”
“You said he was coming home for Christmas. It’s Christmas, I know about the war, Momma. Her face drew into puzzlement.
“John,” Sadie began, “there was no need…”
“Give it a rest, Sis. She’s nine, she ain’t stupid.”
“You said he’d be home for Christmas.” Gladys said again.
Her mother nodded, “he will.” She raised her eyes to her brother’s, inhaling deeply, “Okay.” She turned to Gladys. “Off you go. Pants, two shirts and a jacket and put on those good tennis shoes, you hear? We’ll open the gifts when you get back.” She hesitated for a moment before adding, “Maybe Ellery will be here by then.”
Nodding, Gladys smiled broadly and ran to her bedroom.
In minutes she was dressed and standing next to Uncle John. She reached for his hand and was surprised when he pulled away before grasping it tightly.
“Well, little chicken, let’s get going before the morning’s gone.” He nodded to his sister and her husband, then shook his head as he turned to walk with his niece to the truck.
The smell of the diesel engines was nauseating, but after a few minutes the fumes died down and Gladys watched as her uncle moved along the toe rail to drop the lines from the bow. He hollered out for her to let the lines from the transom cleats go, and though she’d never done it before, it was not difficult to understand what her uncle meant. Just this little task made her feel closer to what she’d dreamed about, and by the time they’d motored down the Intracoastal and out through the inlet into the Atlantic, she felt seasoned and as if she was part of the sea.
“Gulf Stream?” She hollered to her uncle.
He nodded, then turned his head back toward the waters ahead as he piloted the forty foot fishing boat.
It was smooth as glass, and the water sparkled gray with shades of blues and greens. Like little diamonds everywhere, the glistening water danced along the boat and farther, as far as she could see. Gladys sat still watching as Uncle John baited the outriggers with ballyhoo, thinking back to how Ellery had shown her how it was done. Uncle John then strung spoons on the lines from the stern and let them out a very long way. She couldn’t even see where they entered the water.
Nodding for her to seat herself in the fishing chair, Gladys obeyed.
“Wait,” he instructed.
“When will I know?”
So this is what Ellery is talking about, Gladys thought as she watched and waited, her attention focused on the sights of the ocean, in its beauty and tranquility. She inhaled a sigh but before she could release it she heard the quick whir of line being pulled from the reel.
Uncle John grabbed the pole from the rod holder and began reeling, he pulled back a bit and then handed the rod to her.
“Don’t jerk, make it smooth, you got one, a nice sized one.” Uncle John commanded. “Hold ‘em easy now. Don’t let up. Keep the line firm.”
Gladys watched her uncle’s yellowish teeth glisten against his upturned lips. Could this be the first time she’d seen him smile? She laughed, he laughed with her and he spoke again, patting her shoulder, tousling her hair, “hold him now.” She didn’t know fully what he meant, but their eyes met as she reeled and let go, reeled, pulled back, and adhered to his nods and shakes of the head, leading her to soon understand what the task required. Within minutes Gladys had the fish next to the boat. Uncle John pierced its side with the gaff and pulled it aboard.
“Thirty pounds, pretty good gal. Especially for a little chicken of your age.”
Then as if out of nowhere, the whompa, whompa of helicopters sounded overhead. Uncle John’s brow furrowed once again, the smile was gone, and his eyes met those of his niece. “Dagblasted, choppers, messing up the fishing.”
Gladys glimpsed them for just a second just as her uncle hollered, “That’s enough. Keep your eyes on the fishing poles, not the choppers. “They’re just playing war.”
She nodded and looked to Uncle John, he shrugged and growled as he pulled the spoon from the dying fish’s mouth.
Releasing the line into the ocean and setting the pole back in the holder, he instructed Gladys to look for the big one, an even bigger one than the mackerel she’d just caught. He cut the engines to barely moving at all, the lines slackened a bit and Gladys waited as before, for the quick sharp whine of the line. “But shouldn’t we be trolling faster?” she asked.
Uncle John grunted. His eyes instructed silence. So she waited. It seemed forever and Gladys began wondering if this really was how it was done. “Why so slow, Uncle John?” she asked again, and then she noticed how the pole by her bent downward.
“Got one gal! Reel it in!”
This time he did not help her but only stood beside her as she reeled laboriously. It seemed to take forever as she slowly turned the handle of the reel. Then finally Uncle John grabbed the gaff, and leaned against the side of the boat. “Almost here,” he growled.
And there it came, the splash, and Gladys thought she was going to jump out of her skin when her brother pulled the diving mask from his face. “Ellery!” she shouted, you did come home!
Uncle John guffawed loudly, pulling his niece against him. “Told you that you had a big fish. A frogman fish.”
“I told you I’d be home for Christmas. I told you we’d go fishing together.” Ellery pulled himself aboard the Cloud Nine and drew his sister close. Called loudly, “Merry Christmas!”