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A boy discovers that he doesn't have to feel personally responsible for his uncle's drowning.
Four days before Christmas, Jimmie Little's uncle announced he would walk across the Monday River. It was a sudden decision, made after several beers in Harry's Bar and Grill, and at once the other customers, posse-like, hurried him to the riverbank.
Up the hill, in his house, Jimmie Little was standing by the clothes drier, waiting for his jeans to dry. Suddenly the kitchen door burst open.
Jimmie spun around. "Will you close that door? I am standing here in my underwear."
"Your uncle's getting ready to walk across the Monday River!" his friend Conrad shouted. He was panting for breath.
It was Conrad who brought Jimmie most of his bad news, and all of it in a loud, excited and-it seemed to Jimmie-happy voice.
"What?" Jimmie asked. He put one hand on the drier for support. The drier was so old that it trembled with every rotation.
"Come on! Some men in Harry's Bar and Grill bet your uncle he couldn't walk across the river and he's going to try."
"But the ice is too thin. He'll fall through."
"You know that. I know that. The men at Harry's know that. But your uncle-" With both hands he made circular motions around his head to indicate that Uncle Pete was a little lacking in that area.
"Come on!" he urged.
Jimmie took his jeans from the drier and pulled them on. The seams were still damp.
"Come on!" Conrad pressed Jimmie's jacket and cap into his hands.
Jimmie grimaced, not only because of the discomfort of the damp jeans. He would have wanted to go down to the river and watch somebody else's uncle try to walk across. Lately, however, he had begun to notice that his own familydrew attention to themselves in the wrong way. They did silly, senseless things that made them look foolish even when they succeeded.
He put on his jacket and drew his stocking cap on his head. Then he followed Conrad out the door, dragging his feet along as if they were the heaviest part of his body.
"Hurry!" Conrad urged. "If we miss this . . ."
"I'm hurrying as fast as I can," Jimmie said.
As they picked up speed, Conrad began going over Uncle Pete's chances. "He could make it. It could be solid. On the other hand, I have to admit it looks thin out in the middle, Jimbo."
Jimmie glanced at Conrad and then away. Conrad was always giving people nicknames, but he took great pleasure in his own name, Conrad Pugh, and forbade anyone to call him Connie.
"It's a football player's name," he had once told Jimmie enthusiastically. "With a name like Conrad Pugh, I got to be one of the all-time greats." And so, based only on a name odd enough to rank with Haven Moses and Claudie Minor, he had chosen his life's occupation.
As they rounded the curve they saw the river. "Yeah, Jimbo, it does look thin," Conrad said.
The ice was pale green, streaked with white patches of blown snow. On the bank a group of people had gathered, mostly men and children. "Not as big a crowd as Billy Carter got when he opened the Mall," Conrad commented.
"No," Jimmie agreed. He pulled his jacket collar up against the wind.
Winter had come early this year. Usually it was January, with its bitter storms, when the river froze. But now, four days before Christmas, the river was, or appeared to be, frozen solid.
"Hey, Jimmie," a boy in the crowd yelled, "your uncle's going across!"
"I know," he answered in a voice too low to be heard.
He sighed inwardly. For the first time in his life he regretted the holidays. He wanted all his friends to be in school. He even wanted to be there himself, stumbling over a lesson or opening his peanut-butter-and-bologna sandwich in the cafeteria.
"Hey, we're in luck. Your uncle hasn't started yet," Conrad said.
"Yes, that's luck all right."
Uncle Pete was standing with the men from Harry's Bar and Grill. Two of the men, partially sobered by the frigid air, were trying to talk him out of the attempt. Uncle Pete laughed and shook his head. He was a man who, all his life, had tried anything. Someone had only to say "Nobody can . . ." or "I bet you can't . . ." and he would be off.
"Uncle Pete," Jimmie said, "what are you getting ready to do?"
His uncle turned. His face was red from the cold and the beer. He wore a checkered cap and matching scarf.
"I'm going to take a walk," Uncle Pete said. "And, don't you tell your mother." His breath turned the cold air to steam.
"Hopefully a dry walk," one of the men said. The others laughed.
"I have wanted to do this all my life." Uncle Pete threw his scarf about his neck in a gallant, old-timey gesture. "That river has been waiting for someone to walk across it for a hundred years."
"I grew up hearing it was impossible to walk across that river, and I'm surprised it took me this long to try.
He turned quickly and slid down the bank. He got to his feet, laughing, and turned. "I want to get all my falling out of the way before I hit the ice."
"Hit may be just the right word."
Uncle Pete, feigning fear, took a few steps out on the ice. It was like the comedy routines at Ice Capades when someone from the audience steps on the ice and pretends to be unsteady.
"You'll get your ice legs in a minute," one of the men called.
Up on the sidewalk a group of children from the Baptist kindergarten paused to watch.
"Boys and girls, keep walking. It's too cold to stop," their teacher said.
Posted March 2, 2013