Most of us crowd in Uncle Sam’s small house. He screams we’re evil, looking to do him harm. He kicks, swings at the air. Some of my little cousins race from the bedrooms to the living room to the kitchen and loop back again. My mom and Aunt Carrie sit on either side of Uncle Sam on the couch, their armrests jolt when their brother flails. My Aunt Suzy, Uncle Ned, Aunt Peg, and Uncle Gerald share the edges of the coffee table. There are kitchen chairs, two recliners. But my family prefers in-your-face-adjacent with everyone. Especially for those they’re trying to convince.
I’ve been off to a university, so I’ve acquired the obvious consideration of personal space. I stand by the wall covered in shellacked prints of landscapes. Rugged coastlines with foaming waves, mountain vistas of snow-capped peaks, boundless prairies unfolding its golden carpet. Glossy pictures cut out of magazines, glued to particle boards, covered in thick varnish.
Uncle Sam’s siblings speak over each other. “It’s time you come with us to the family gathering.… Everybody’ll be there and you need to be a part of us…. Like Grandpops used to gospelize, ‘Family’s a tight-knit school of fish, safe in the depths of our loyalty. But one of ‘em swims away to the surface, he’ll end up in the frying pan.’”
“You’re purveyors of ruin,” Uncle Sam yells.
Aunt Peg yells, “Stop acting like Joshua and his army running in circles with your heads cut off,” when the cousins reappear.
Out in the yard, I see Uncle Roy and my young cousin Jimmy by a wooden fence. Uncle Roy gives me a wicked smile as I stroll toward them.
“How’s the college boy?” Uncle Roy goes on, “I don’t need a college degree; I’m always the smartest guy in the room.”
Jimmy stares intensely at a mound near the fence, the dark loam shifting all over the cone. The fire ants are in a frenzy. They cascade like lava. “I don’t know, I don’t know,” he whispers and shakes his head.
“Jimmy,” Uncle Roy says. “Listen to your Pops. Don’t be a weakling. You won’t even feel their stings through your pants. I wouldn’t lie to you. Hey, I’ll pay you. Let’s say, a buck a minute you stay put?” Uncle Roy places his arm over my shoulder. “Your cuz here lasted five minutes when he was your age. Five whole dollars.”
“My mound wasn’t that big,” I say.
Uncle Roy tweaks my shoulder. He bares serrated teeth at me.
“Get away from there.” Uncle Sam is at one of the open windows. “Leave me in peace!”
The sound of banging pots and pans clamor from the windows. The cousins have found a new distraction. Then the short chirp of a whistle follows. My Uncle Gerald is a PE teacher and wears his whistle around his neck at all times. It blasts again, this time a long shrill, and it’s as if the very walls of Jericho are tumbling down, down, down.
Dan Crawley is the author of the novella Straight Down the Road (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2019) and the short story collection The Wind, It Swirls (Cowboy Jamboree Press, 2021). His writing appears or is forthcoming in a number of journals and anthologies, including JMWW, Lost Balloon, Tiny Molecules, and Atticus Review. His work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions, Best of the Net, and the Pushcart Prize.