When we saw Uncle Ed in the supermarket my mother would say, “Quick this way,” and dart in the opposite direction, sometimes peeking around the end-of-aisle displays of Rice Krispies or Saltines, slowly pushing her cart like she was in a spy movie. She’d put on her sunglasses and, if it were winter, advise Cheryl and me to pull up our hoods.
Uncle Ed wasn’t really an uncle, she’d insist. He lived on the outskirts of the family, stitched loosely to us by a failed marriage. If he caught us, he’d grab onto our foreheads with his big rough hands, his thumbs probing somewhere near our third eyes.
“Gemini, right?” he’d always say to me. Then something like, “Play number seven next week. Don’t plan any long trips until the middle of the month.”
He’d flirt with my mother by the canned soup. After he’d leave, she’d tell us she needed to get home and take a bath.
It was worse in school. Ed Eteau had fourteen kids, and due to their sheer numbers, one girl was in my grade and one in Cheryl’s. They came to school in plaid maxi coats with mangy fake fur collars and cuffs. They wore too much eyeliner and carried book bags with pictures of people like Bobby Sherman, whoever was in style a year or two ago.
“Hey, cousin,” Lulu Eteau would say as I passed her in the hall. She’d been kicked off the cheerleading squad because she was starting to show.
“Hey,” I whispered, keeping my head down and, at the same time, trying to sneak a peek of her belly that jutted out like a medicine ball, that big ball you threw at your enemies in gym class because if it hit them in the gut it could really hurt. Lulu didn’t match. She wore red and blue striped pants and a yellow Ziggy tee shirt. She had only become a cheerleader because the gym teacher couldn’t deny her perfect cartwheels and splits. But all the other girls on the squad shunned her, even before her secret came out.
“Come to my shower this weekend?” she called when I was a row of lockers and two classroom doors past her. She had turned around to get my answer, indifferent to the crowded hall, the other tenth graders staring at her, then me.
I didn’t say a word. I started to run to my next class, my hands clammy, my torso chilled by the cold sweat running down my armpits. It was like one of those dreams where you stand in front of the class naked, writing the wrong answer on the board.
“I’ll call you!” she hollered after me, as I memorized every face who had witnessed the exchange.
“Is she really your cousin?” people would ask me.
I’d explain her father was the brother of my aunt who married my mother’s brother, but that aunt had divorced him years ago and moved to Florida.
“That’s rough,” said my friends who thought Lulu was my bonafide relative.
“Don’t sweat it. That doesn’t count for squat” was the opinion of others.
Since my mother and Cheryl and I received a written invitation, a yellowing card with baby blocks on it, a card whose artwork and design looked like it was from the previous decade, my mother said we had to at least drop off a gift.
She bought a quilted baby coat that zipped up the middle, with tiny mittens safety-pinned to the sleeves. She said it was expensive enough to come from all three of us. The plan was we’d drop it off, saying we couldn’t stay because we had a previous engagement.
Cheryl moaned, “Why can’t you just drop it off?”
My mother ignored her, cracking an egg to add to the hamburger and breadcrumbs, making meatloaf.
My sister’s classmate cousin was a Born Again Christian who passed out holy literature. We debated which one of us had it worse.
“Shh,” my mother said, turning up the aqua J.C. Penny clock radio she kept in the kitchen so she wouldn’t get bored when she made supper.
Ted Tetreault, the D.J. from WNRI, said there was a missing little girl everyone in Woonsocket should be on the lookout for. She was three and last seen wearing a Big Burt sweatshirt. She had curly brown hair and red sneakers.
My mother said something preachy about our being fortunate, that my sister and I should stop fighting. My stomach did a back flip as I thought about the little girl who was maybe somewhere outside in the cold.
“Do you know any Ducharmes?” my mother asked us, then my father when he came home from work.
None of us knew the parents of the missing little girl.
* * *
Uncle Ed and his family lived on River Street, the only white family among blacks and a few Vietnamese, who people of our town called Rice Pickers. My mother made us lock the car door.
Uncle Ed’s lawn was filled with spare parts, what looked like industrial size cake mixers, broken Mary-on-the-half-shell lawn ornaments, and a dozen or so wrecked cars with smashed windshields or busted doors.
The living room floor was crooked, with the heads of nails popping up slightly, just enough to trip you up if you were in stocking feet. The streamers were draped over pictures of Jesus and JFK. The playpen was crowded with a bunch of baby Eteau’s.
Uncle Ed’s wife JoAnn grabbed my mother’s hand, thanking her for coming. My mother handed over the present and explained that we had to get going.
Lulu was sitting on a worn floral couch with her boyfriend who worked at one of the mills. He was actually kind of cute except for his harelip.
“At least stay for something to eat,” JoAnn coaxed.
She ran her hand over my hair, then Cheryl’s. She dragged a folding chair behind my mother and pushed down her shoulders so that my mother’s knees bent and she had no choice but to sit down. She handed my sister and me paper plates of Cheese Curls and Doritos.
“Would you be darlings and pass these around for your Aunt JoAnn?”
Uncle Ed swooped down towards Lulu and smoothed his hands over her belly.
“A boy,” he said and everyone seemed to believe him.
The Born Again cornered Cheryl and me as we were passing the food.
“You have to pray for Mary Ducharme,” she said, her face all shiny with worry.
“We are,” I said and Cheryl kicked me a kick that meant “Don’t encourage her.”
The Born Again picked up a Dorito and licked off its orange salty covering.
“My dad is going to find her,” she announced with complete confidence. “But she may already be dead, if that’s the Lord’s will.”
“Yeah, like the Lord would will something that stupid,” Cheryl said, trying to get away.
* * *
Uncle Ed saw Mary Ducharme’s face in a dream that night, behind a window or more likely ice. She was blue and her eyes were closed.
“It doesn’t look good,” he told the police.
He told my mother the same thing. Suddenly Uncle Ed didn’t seem so embarrassing, because everyone was looking for a little girl with red sneakers ever since she heard the news on the radio.
The next night he dreamt of the exact corner of a pond in Lincoln, one town away. He saw the exact formation of evergreen trees and a little black boat that was stuck in the ice. He saw the exact slashes made by ice skaters on the other side of the pond, near the parking lot.
Police started calling him from as far away as Boston. There were articles about him in the Globe and the Providence Journal.
Lulu was a witch was the new gossip around school. If you made fun of her something terrible would happen to you. Her baby had webbed feet and a tail.
My mother kept calling Uncle Ed and taking him to lunch. She wanted to know it all, which planets were ruling which of her houses. When Uncle Ed touched my forehead from now on, I sang Elton John songs to myself so that I couldn’t hear any of his predictions. Rocket man, burning up his fuel up there alone. There were too many things I couldn’t do anything to stop.
Uncle Ed told the newspapers how he saw the murderer’s face on his bedroom wall, the fake moustache and the brown El Camino, the X and 8 in his license plate.
My mother started planning what days she should avoid going out, what days were best for her to play cards. Cheryl said it was all a coincidence, how Uncle Ed just happened to be right about everything. About the ice, about the car. About the boy, about the girl.