Winter doldrums were in full effect. Even snow days weren’t the same; they always seemed to land on a Wednesday, which meant Lit. Society was cancelled for the week. I was vegging out watching some Jeopardy! one night when I heard my mom laughing on the phone then say, “. . .sure, I’ll get him. CA-SEY!!!!!!!!”
The phone she was on was, quite literally, four feet from where I was sitting, so I wasn’t sure why she screamed. Or why she was grinning like an idiot when I took the receiver from her.
“It’s Casey Kasem with your Week-ly Top For-ty!”
It could only be Uncle Todd. But what he was doing in the land of the living during ski season, only Jack Frost could say. We asked each other how we’d been, all the normal small talk; then he dropped a snowball on me.
“So, if you’re free this Friday, I thought we could hang out. I’ve been seeing this girl, Cheryl, and I want you to meet her. You free?”
It was not odd for Uncle Todd to have a girlfriend. He always had female friends who he would bring to family get-togethers. He’d whisk them in an hour late, and my mom would have to passive-aggressively set an extra place at the table for them. What was odd was Uncle Todd having a girlfriend whose name I was going to learn.
“Yeah, sure, I’d love to meet her.”
“Pick you up around seven, it’ll be fun.” Uncle Todd was always fun.
Friday night came around, and I was watching the news, waiting for Uncle Todd and Cheryl to pick me up.
“Don’t you think you should put on a nicer shirt, Case?”
I had no idea what was wrong with my Live Free or Die T-shirt. “For Uncle Todd?”
“I think maybe you guys are going out to eat. Why don’t you put on a shirt with a collar?”
I wasn’t sure I had any shirts with collars. I went upstairs and rummaged through my drawers. There had to be something in here that said ‘Gramma Christmas Present’ on it. I found a sweater with a half zipper on it. Seemed classy enough. I played with putting the zipper all the way down, all the way up, and somewhere in the middle and finally decided middle was best. Just in time too, I heard Uncle Todd beeping a calypso on his horn from the driveway.
Bounding down my steps, I could see Uncle Todd standing on his sideboard, drumming on the roof of his 4Runner. Cheryl rested her head on folded arms sitting on the passenger-side window frame. Her hair was blonde and a little on the “big” side but that came more from wildness than Aquanet. She had big eyes and apple cheeks and a wide smile; a babe for sure.
“Oooo, you were right, Toddford; he’s a cutie!”
I froze in my tracks and gave a knee-jerk, teen-jerk reaction. Cheryl laughed.
“Sorry, Case, I should probably get to know you before I start teasing you, but I’ve been hearing about you for weeks. Forgiven?”
Hard to be mad at a babe, even one who was maybe old enough to be my mom. “Yeah, we’re cool. Just bustin’ ya back.” I thought that sounded kind of stupid, but it was the best I could come up with.
I hopped into the back seat. There was a girl back there. It was like I was looking at the “I’m drinking milk” models. Cheryl was the full-grown one. This one had yet to drink her milk.
“This is my daughter, Lizzie. She’s a freshman at Oak Crest.”
It all made sense now: the giggles between my mom and Todd on the telephone, the collared shirt. This was a setup.
I extended my hand, “Hey. Casey.”
I looked up at Uncle Todd in the front seat, but he just gave me Groucho eyebrows and hit the ignition.
Lizzie didn’t say much on our ride over to Senor Pancho’s. But neither did I really. Todd and Cheryl did all the talking; to each other, about each other, to us, about us. It seemed like Lizzie was not keen on the setup either, but she was at least smiling a little bit, and sometimes she’d bop her head a little to the music, so it wasn’t like she was a total stiff.
Dinner went much the same way. Cheryl was a lot of fun; I could see why Uncle Todd was taken by her. And though Lizzie showed the promise of being cute someday and the promise of having a really great personality, she was just not there yet. Maybe it was nerves; I’m sure it was weird for her too, being thrown together on a double date with your potential stepcousin. All through dinner, I kept imagining these scenarios where Lizzie and I would fall in love, but then Uncle Todd and Cheryl would break up and we’d have to fight sword duels with people in order to remain together. Don’t ask me why sword duels or who with; it’s just when there are two star-crossed lovers, there’s always a sword duel involved somewhere. Look it up.
Mom grilled me as soon as I got home.
“So, what was Cheryl like? Do you think Todd really likes her? Do you think they’ll stick together?”
Not sure how I was supposed to be able to predict these things; I’d never even kissed a girl!
“And what about Cheryl’s E. . .lizabeth?”
“Right, right, Lizzie. . .so?”
“Yeah, I dunno, she’s nice.”
Though I could imagine hundreds of scenarios where I had to kill a man with a sword in order to be with Lizzie forever, I couldn’t see myself dating Lizzie like a normal person. There was just no spark. She was nice. This did not stop Uncle Todd and Cheryl from trying to throw us together at every opportunity. Luckily though, that mostly involved inviting me over to hang out at Uncle Todd’s house. And, because Todd had gotten to know Steve and Chris pretty well, I also convinced him to let those guys tag along. It was much less awkward hanging out with Lizzie when it was as a group of friends than it was when she and I were alone with Todd and Cheryl. We’d all shoot pool or darts, watch movies, and one night we even all went sledding during a late March snowstorm. Steve and Chris both thought I should make a move on Lizzie, especially Steve.
“She’s really hot, man, what’s stopping you?”
“She’s more ‘cute’ than ‘hot.’ Besides, if you think she’s hot, you should go for her.”
“Nah, that’d be weird, she might be your cousin someday.”
“Which makes it somehow NOT weird for me?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
By the time that spring came to a close, no one had made a move on Lizzie, and the general consensus seemed to be that we were all friends. Uncle Todd’s house had become a regular hangout for us. He didn’t exactly let us drink, smoke, and party, but he was a little more lax than our parents. And from their perspectives, they knew where we were, so hanging out at Todd’s was better than most other options. Chris was still dating Brenda, though they seemed to be on the outs, and Steve had started dating a trombone player named Kadence. She was a nice girl, short with pudgy cheeks and big, green eyes. Just like Brenda, her only real problem was her name. I mean, if you’re going to be musical and your name was going to be ‘cadence,’ you would have at least hoped your parents would have spelled it right! I guess that wasn’t her fault though.
We had hoped Uncle Todd would have another house for us to dismantle, but he only had steady work for me this summer. Steve got a job at a little amusement park and ran a game booth. Todd found some work for Chris here and there, but his primary job for the summer seemed to be complaining about his relationship.
Todd and Cheryl were going strong. It was strange to see Uncle Todd in a steady relationship. But Cheryl made it easy for all of us to accept it. By midsummer, the two of them seemed so natural together, we sort of forgot what it was like when Todd was single.
For the last Literary Society newsletter of the year, Jenny convinced me to print my piece about Jeremy. She didn’t know that’s who it was about, of course, but I couldn’t think of a good reason not to let her print it. On the last day of school, a kid in my Spanish class who I had never talked to tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You wrote that thing about a friend?”
It took half a second to even piece together what he was talking about, but once it clicked, I nodded an affirmation.
“S’good. You’re a good writer and stuff.”
I guess I had a fan. And stuff.
Dan Pullen lives in Connecticut with his wife and three children. He writes stories about simple people and their complex lives.