By Bob Shar
“Tell us a story, Uncle Dingus,” seven-year-old Reginald suggested. “Make it scary.”
“Nooooo,” whined four-year-old Wilford. “You’ll give us a nightmare.”
“Wuss,” scoffed the girl, Tilapia, age six. “Make it bloody, Uncle Dingus. I aint scared.”
“Nooooo,” blubbered Wilford.
* * *
William “Dingus” McClintock was no childcare specialist. He was a thirty-nine-year-old plumber. He didn’t trust children, could barely tolerate his own nieces and nephews, didn’t own a TV, computer, guest bedroom or futon. This didn’t stop his identical twin brother—District Attorney Frederick McClintock—and sister-in-law Michelle from entrusting their three snotdribblers to Dingus’ care this dreary Saturday evening.
“Thanks for doing this, William,” Michelle said, jerking the hem of her skirt free from the clutches of Wilford, who was not enthusiastic about the sleepover.
“Yeah, Ding. You’re a lifesaver,” said Fred.
It was the couple’s tenth anniversary, and the D.A. had failed to line up a legitimate sitter for the evening. He’d had to offer his brother five times the going rate to take the kids on at the last minute.
“They eat dinner at five-thirty,” Michelle informed him, and Dingus glanced at the clock over the stove: three forty-five. “The boys eat peanut butter and jelly. Tilapia likes hot dogs. Don’t make yourself crazy trying to feed them vegetables. Bedtime’s seven-thirty for Wilford, eight-thirty for the big kids. They’ve had baths already and their jammies are under their play clothes. Just peel off the top layers and pop ’em into bed…”
“Nothing to it,” Fred interjected. “Don’t serve them alcohol, try not to stuff more than one kid in the oven at a time, discourage them from killing each other, and you’ll be golden. If you have any questions, ask Reggie. That boy’s smart like his daddy.”
“If you have any problems, William,” corrected Michelle, gripping her brother-in-law’s wrist and glaring at Fred, “call me. I’m keeping my cell phone on.”
“They’ll be fine, Meesh,” said the DA. “Have faith in the Dinger. You know,” he expounded, puffing his chest out with pride, “my brother’s not as stupid as he looks. And he’s no child molester.” He winked. “No matter what Mom’s been telling the Grand Jury.”
With Dingus scrambling for a rejoinder, the couple stepped out of the apartment, the door closed behind them, and the evening began in earnest.
* * *
Where’s the TV, Uncle D?” asked Reginald as soon as his parents were out the door.
“Yeah,” said Wilford, who seemed to Dingus to be coping with his parents’ departure by assuming the persona of a castrato parrot. “Where’s the TV?”
“Don’t have one,” said their uncle. “Rots the brain.”
“You’re kidding, right?” said Reggie.
Dingus shook his head.
“Kidding, right?” parroted Wilford.
“Find something else to do while I’m fixing dinner,” said Dingus. “Read some books.” He pointed vaguely in the direction of his bookshelf which housed two Gideon Bibles and The Kama Sutra. “Or, play Hide and Seek, Geography, Red Rover. Something like that. Draw pictures! Got no crayons, but you can draw with pencils just fine.” He reached into a recycled jelly jar marked “Pencils—Sharpened” that sat atop the bookshelf. “Plenty right here,” he said, slapping a fistful of standard number twos down on top of the coffee table.
Tilapia lifted a pencil and said, “Paper?”
Dingus wasn’t sure he had anything a kid could draw on. This troubled him, but not as much as Reggie and Wilford’s refusal to consider engaging in any of the activities he’d suggested.
“Rather just watch TV, Uncle D,” Reggie said. “Really, where d’ya keep it?”
“Yeah. Where d’ya keep it?” screeched Wilford.
“Not everyone has a TV, guys. I don’t have one, and I don’t miss it.”
“Paper!” said Tilapia. “I need paper.”
“We miss it!” said Reggie.
“Yeah. We miss it!”
“I’m going to draw on the floor. Okay?”
“Hell no you can’t draw on the floor!”
Tilapia collapsed as if she’d been shot. Then she began to sob.
“Aw jeez, don’t cry, Fishy. Look, why don’t you help me clear the kitchen table?”
“Well… could you get us a TV then, Uncle D?”
Fucking Reggie! Dingus’s self control was tugging hard at its leash. He needed to shut the kids’ complaints out and throw dinner at them. They could eat early. It wouldn’t kill them.
The boys ate their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, though they made it clear they found whole wheat bread unseemly. Dingus got a tad queasy watching Tilapia bury her hot dog in half a jar of mayonnaise, but she ate the damn thing and seemed momentarily content.
With dinner behind them and two hours to kill before he could, in good conscience, start loading them into his double bed, Dingus considered calling Michelle and telling her he’d strained his Andromeda and would have to beg off for the balance of the evening. There was no way he was going to survive two more hours of these kids bitching about his bread, TV and paper deprivation.
He’d started dialing Michelle’s number when Reggie dropped the TV rant and started lobbying for a story. Tilapia got behind the story idea as well.
Hmmm. Dingus might be able to muddle through a story. Couldn’t promise it’d be interesting, but he could promise the panicked Wilford it wouldn’t be scary.
“Okay,” Wilford allowed. “Tell about the bears, or do Jack and the beans.”
Like he was calling the shots.
Dingus mulled it over a second, shrugged and dove in. “Okay, so this is something that happened to me and your dad,” he said, “when we were little.”
Tilapia, resigned to listen to an unbloody story, cleared her throat tactfully and stage whispered, “Once upon a time… .”
“Right. Once upon a time… me and your dad must have been around Reggie’s age. It was summertime. And we were maybe a little bored and probably getting on your Gramma’s nerves. Grownups hate hearing kids whine. Know what I’m saying?”
“Quit whining?” Reggie guessed.
“Bingo. So, your Gramma was trying to fix dinner at the time, and back then, that always included fresh vegetables from the Farmer’s Market. That night, we were having boiled chicken and green beans.”
“Gross,” said Reggie.
“Yeah. Gross,” parroted Wilford.
“Can we have ice cream, now?” asked Tilapia.
“Thought you wanted to hear a story. Let me tell this and we’ll have ice cream later.”
Wilford farted and the kids all giggled.
“So, your Gramma’s got her hands full, trying to get dinner ready, and she’s tired of listening to me and your dad grumbling, so she decides to put us to work, peeling and snapping string beans on the front porch. She figures that’s something we can handle and it’ll keep us busy and out of her hair. Which it does…”
“You were in her hair?” asked the fart-meister.
“Just an expression, Wilford. Means she figured we’d stop bothering her and concentrate on those beans. Which we did, for a couple minutes. Then I start grumbling about how I hate string beans and your dad says he hates them more, and your Gramma stomps from the kitchen to the front door and slams it shut. She knows we’re going to be arguing back and forth for however long it’s going to take to snap these beans, and she’s just not going to listen to it.“
“Will there be fairies in this story?” Tilapia asked.
“Nope. No fairies.”
“Bears?” asked Wilford. Reggie rolled his eyes.
“No bears. Worms though. And ants. Just listen. Gramma shuts the door and your dad and I are on the porch with a bag of beans we’re supposed to be stringing and snapping for supper. We’re not doing our best work, we’re stringing with attitude, snapping with rage, and pretty soon, we lose focus. I stand up and walk off the porch because I’m what they call hyperactive. At the foot of the porch stairs, I notice there’s about a trillion tiny ants swarming over something that looks like a dead worm.”
Reggie quit rolling his eyes and sat up straight.
“I call up to your dad to come see all the ants. He steps off the porch, sees what those ants are doing to the worm and gets upset on the worm’s behalf. Starts talking about how the ants have no respect for the dead, and we both start stomping on those ants, convinced we’re doing the right thing for this poor worm. We stomp and stomp and spit and shout at the ants until they’re all dead or gone and your dad and me, we feel like heroes for a minute or two. Freddy, that’s your dad, bends down to speak comforting words to the worm’s ghost, and the worm starts to wiggle.”
“No ghosts,” Wilford wailed, putting his hands over his ears.
“Okay. No ghosts. That worm starts to wiggle and squirm away. And your dad and I? We’re starting to hate this worm, already. It’s dirty, and slimy and disgusting. And we regret having gone to battle for this worm, which doesn’t seem grateful to us at all. We start feeling bad about all the ants we’d just killed, and we get angrier and angrier at this slimy worm. And then, I pick up a stick and start poking the thing, trying to hurt it. And Freddy? Your dad? He jumps up and heads for the garage. In a couple minutes, he comes back with a hoe. And he uses the hoe to chop that old worm into parts. And neither one of us is happy to see each of those parts start to wiggle away.”
Wilford started to cry. “You said no blood. You promised it wouldn’t be scary…”
“There’s no blood, Willie. Just slime. And trust me: worms don’t feel nothing, they don’t have the brains to plot revenge, so they can’t hurt anybody in this story. Okay?”
“So,” Dingus continued, “we’re starting to think we’re not going to be able to kill this worm, that we’re just making more worms, when Mom—your Gramma—cracks the front door open and asks if we’re finished with the beans. Well, we aren’t. So, she tells us we need to get back on the porch and finish what we started. And then she slams the door again.
“We both still hate having to mess with these beans, and without thinking it through, I pick up one of the worm sections and bring it onto the porch with me. I kneel down, pull a bean out of the bag with my free hand, release the worm on the porch floor, string the bean, snap it, and rub it against the worm. ‘This is how much I hate green beans,’ I say, dropping the bean into the finished bowl.
“Your dad bends down with a bean he’s just strung, rubs it across the worm, and spits on the bean before dropping it into the done bowl. ‘You hate like a girl’ he says to me—no offense, Tilapia.
“So, I stick beans up my nose and in my ears; he steps off the porch, pulls down his fly and pees on the beans; I hop off the porch, drop my pants and stick a bean up my butt.”
“Uh oh,” said Tilapia.
“Gross,” giggled Reggie.
Wilford narrowed his eyes, rocked forward and said, “then what?”
“Well, then we both stick beans up our butts and pull ’em out before dropping ’em into the finished pot. We do this till we’re through stringing. Then we go inside and hand the bowl to Gramma. ‘Done,’ we say, struggling to keep our faces straight.
“‘You boys got so dirty,’ Gramma says. ‘Baths for both of you before supper.’
“At the table that evening, I announce I’ve got a stomach ache and shouldn’t eat anything. There’s this rule in the house that you have to eat everything that’s on your plate unless you’re sick, so I expect your dad to say he’s not feeling good either before the beans hit his plate. But, he never says it.
“Now he’s got the law degree and the power job and the trophy wife and the big house. And here’s me, sitting in this dump, telling this story to his kids. Hell, I used to think we were the same guy, outside and in. But, I go to bed hungry that night. He eats the boiled chicken and the beans, smiles, and, I swear to God, asks for more.”
“Ooooh,” groaned Tilapia. “Daddy…”
“Man,” said Reggie.
“Huh?” said Wilford.
“Never understood it,” said Dingus. “Never will.”
There was a moment of silence.
“Happily ever after,” Tilapia whispered.
“Verdict’s still out,” said Dingus.
The kids started clambering for ice cream.
* * *
Bob Shar is a former newspaper editor, burned out literary magazine editor/publisher and recently retired librarian living in Winston-Salem, NC. His short stories have appeared in The South Carolina Review, Greensboro Review, Cold Mountain Review, Bartleby Snopes, Foundling Review, Fringe, Molotov Cocktail, The Flash Fiction Offensive and elsewhere. He has little appetite for string beans.