An Uncle’s Terrible Duty by Craig Loomis

In the end, he dropped his arms, this uncle of hers, and left the room, making sure to lock the door behind him; and so for the next three days and three nights she stayed in her room while the maid brought her food, and when she did, unlocking the door, all she could say was sorry, crying because they have been together for years, before she cared anything about boys or telephones or biology, since the beginning, and they sat on the bed and hugged each other.

Glancing at her watch, she announces, “You’ve made me late for biology, yet again.”

When she looks up at him, he frowns, but once she hurries from his office he cannot help but smile.

For five days she does not return, but then on day six, in the morning, she is waiting at his office door, looking down at her feet.

“There you are, and so early, too.”

“Yes, today is different.”

When he unlocks the door she steps in before him.

“It is?” And that’s when he notices the red blotch on her cheek, on both cheeks. “And what is that?”

“What?”

Pointing to cheek number one, “Have you been crying? What’s to cry about?”

She turns toward the door, the hallway, to see if someone is there. “It’s my uncle.”

“Uncle?”

She sighs as if it is an old story and she has told it to him before, many times, but he never pays attention. “Last Tuesday, in the kitchen, with dinner almost ready, my uncle walked up to me as I was on the phone, asking loudly, “What’s this?” My father’s older brother by four years, saying, “Who’s this,” yanking the phone from my hand. “Who is this person?” while I was talking to Khalid, from biology. “Who are you talking to?” yelling at me, my uncle who almost never yells at anything, anyone. “Who is this man? Who? This is unacceptable, you know that.” But it is only Khalid, I said, only Khalid from biology, . . . “Haram” . . . But never mind because he was beyond listening, this uncle of mine, holding on tight to my phone with one hand and shooing me away with the other, “Out of my sight. Go to your room.

“Your uncle said this? All this?”

Taking a deep breath, two hands on red cheeks, as if showing him what angry uncles are all about. “Yes, I had to do what he said, and of course my father would agree, if it had been there, he would have said the same thing, using one of this favorite words, ‘absolutely.’ After all, he is his older brother, sah. What to do?”

“But it’s wrong. Everything you’re telling me is all wrong.”

Now he begins to grow his own redness, until she reaches out to touch his wrist, continuing, “Later, my uncle came to my room and said it again, only this time calmer, twisting his favorite gold ring on his finger, more like the uncle I know, twisting and saying, “Stay here, in this room, for three days: no college, no socializing, no nothing. You understand? There’s a lesson to be learned here.” Twisting his gold ring and blinking as if all of a sudden it is too bright. “This is not about you, but family, think of us,” beginning to raise his voice again, this uncle who hugs me, kisses my forehead, brings me sweets on Fridays. “Three days for talking to strange boys. Never mind biology, classes or friends. Three days with no cellphone, you understand, no computer, no nothing for talking to this, . . . this Khalid.” In the end this favorite uncle of mine held out his arms like some savior.”

There is a small quiet as someone stops at his door. “Good morning, professor…” And walks on.

“Did you say savior?”

“Like some savior, munaqadh. My uncle who is really nothing like a savior at all but that’s what he did, standing in the middle of the room with his arms out, his eyes glistening.”

“But it’s all wrong.”

“Which part?”

“All parts. To make something out of nothing. Even I can see that. You are twenty-two, a woman, a young woman, and this, . . . this ancient power struggle between men and women, boys and girls, has got to stop. This is a new world. Everybody knows this.”

That’s when she sits down, no longer caring about her cheeks, and speaking slowly, like explaining to a child, “Sad to say but my uncle may not be wrong.”

“What?”

By now she has moved her hands to her lap. “It is our way.”

“Let me speak with this person, this uncle of yours. Who can I speak to? Give me a name, please. Give me a chance to talk sense. Why are you okay with this?”

Shaking her head. “There’s nothing to be done. It’s over.”

“But what you did is nothing, really nothing. Talking to a boy, it is what people do.”

“Yes, yes, but you don’t understand.”

“I don’t?”

“You don’t understand.”

“I don’t.”

She turns to look him full in the face. “You see, it’s bigger than just me, it’s all about what people might think. It’s everywhere. People report what they see, what they think they see. Truth be told, it is our way, always has been.”

Someone, somewhere is laughing, and they wait for it to stop and when it doesn’t, she looks down at her hands, saying softly, “There is one more thing, one last thing.” The laughter growing bigger. “Just before my uncle left, locking the door behind him, he had tears in his eyes. Poor man. Tears in his eyes. He didn’t want me to see but I did. Poor man.”

 

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For the last thirteen years Craig Loomis has been an Associate Professor of English at the American University of Kuwait in Kuwait City. During the last twenty-eight years, he has had his short fiction published in such literary journals as The Iowa Review, The Colorado Review, The Prague Revue, The Maryland Review, The Louisville Review, Bazaar, The Rambler, The Los Angeles Review, The Prairie Schooner, Yalobusha Review, The Critical Pass Review, The Owen Wister Review, Five on the Fifth, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Absurdist Magazine, and others.