Bramble was my Uncle Wrath’s best friend. He was a good-looking guy with a mustache and curly brown hair. He was short and wore a lot of leather. He rode a motorcycle and he was a martial artist. Bramble loved me. He loved me more than any other person alive save one. Bramble loved my mother.
Rose was a vision back then. Red hair, black eyes. She had a smile that could stop a bullet and she was what the guys loved to call sassy. Rose had loved Bramble from the beginning. Way back when she was in high school and dropping out, she loved him. They were perfect together in almost every way. He respected her and let her talk and he listened. He was protective of her and made her feel both soft and hard. In my opinion Bramble was my mother’s soulmate, and that relationship was about to explode into bits. But first, this night. And the first time I realized I was in love.
Uncle Wrath had a crew. They were not a gang but they rolled like one. There were about six, might be seven guys and they were born to be friends. I cannot separate my uncle from these men. To know one is to know them all. I can’t remember much about them but I will give you what I can.
Giant was huge. A Native American and well over six-foot-seven. His skin was dark and rich. His laugh enormous and immense. He was so big I used to climb him for fun. He would curl his arm and I would pull myself up. I would kick my feet over to his other arm and pull until I was at his shoulder. I would grab his head and wrap my arms around it. Would step up, bracing myself against his massive belt buckle, and pull. I would twist until I was around the back of his neck, then wrap my legs around his neck and sit on his shoulders. There I would stay until it was time for me to go to bed or hit the bathroom. Giant was kind but he was the sort of man who could break anything he wanted to with just a bit of force and a surge of anger.
There was Sly. Sly was probably Wrath’s other best friend if we are throwing around labels. He had a kind face, a gentle laugh. He knew exactly what to say when and he knew how to take over a room. He had a great love, and they could not work it out, and every time I saw him, from the time when I was five until a few years ago, that woman’s name came up.
“Don’t find a girl like Makeup,” Sly would say. “She is the worst thing that ever happened to me. That woman will be the death of me.” Few months later, “I don’t need to go out tonight, guys. Makeup and I are going to her parents tomorrow and I have to get up ass early in the morning.” He would shake his head, make for the door but another vodka soda would be put in his hand and he would laugh. Within a few minutes Sly was in a seat again. And the next time, “I’m done with that woman. Shoot me in the fucking head if I ever say her name again.” Of all the guys from my uncle’s crew, I wish I was in touch with Sly the most.
But when things go bad with Wrath, they go real bad, and I will never be in that man’s life again.
There was Billa Bong. I don’t remember him much. I know he was good to me. I know one day he pulled me aside and said if anyone ever hurt me, he would slice them to bits. I remember he died a violent death when he was too young.
There were a few others. Another Native American carried a bowie knife on him everywhere he went. When I picture this guy, I see a red bandana on his head. There was another I can’t remember. I do not remember his name. I do not remember much about him to this day, but if I had his phone number right here sitting in front of me and I was in trouble, I could pick it up, tell him I was Uncle Wrath’s nephew, and the man would be here. I would have to meet him at the door and ask him his name, but he would be here.
This crew was shown to me, way before I had friends, as the definition of friendship. This sort of relationship is what I would grow to crave every day of my life until I met Burg and Bell. Until then these men were a pristine example of what a friend could be. We will get back to that.
The event had to have been a wedding. It might have been an anniversary. But our people were poor and this was put on by someone with cash laying around. My memory on the where’s and why’s are so fuzzy that I can say with all honesty this might have been the first of Sly and Makeup’s weddings as far as I know. But I can’t be sure. All I know is there was music. Dancing. And I was wearing a powder blue suit.
Okay, back then I cut quite a figure in my powder blue suit. I had it down. The walk, the strut. I had the slight smile mixed with a bit of mischief. I had it all. Of course, I don’t remember. I don’t remember thinking about any of this. I don’t remember thinking that I needed to walk a certain way or act a certain way, but without trying to I was smooth. Wrath’s friends thought I was. They laughed every time I spoke at the table we sat around in our suits and ties. They laughed and told me different things to say.
They would come up with something terribly inappropriate for a five-year-old to say, point me at a woman at the event, and off I would go. I would tap a shoulder, or take a hand. I would look them in the eye. Wrath was sure to explain that nothing you said to a woman mattered worth a shit unless you said it while looking her in the eye. “Look ’em in the eye and you own them,” he would say.
So, look them in the eye I would, and I would say the filthy thing I had been told to say. The table I was sent to would shudder and curse. The woman would pull back shocked but smiling, and Uncle Wrath’s table would burst into laughter. I would swagger back to the table and they would pull me over and whisper to me again.
“This time when you tell her, I want you to take her hand in yours and kiss her on the back of the hand. Look her in the eye, remember that part, and then wink. Can you wink, Jesse?” I winked at Giant. “Good, wink at her and say, ‘Nice ass.’”
“No, no, no, sir,” Rose snapped. “Come here, darling.” She reached out for me and I went to her. She hugged me to her chest and she smoothed my hair. “You are not having my little, baby boy say that to a grown woman. You want to talk about a woman’s ass, Giant, you do it yourself.”
She let go of me and I stepped back. I looked at the table, then to Uncle Wrath. The man has a smile. Of all the men in the world that I have ever seen smile, my favorite is Uncle Wrath. His smile was half criminal, half child, half jester and half lord. Okay, too many halves, but you get my picture.
He smiled and nodded to the woman. I looked at Bramble who winked at me. I looked at Giant who turned to see if my mother was watching before nodding and pointing at the woman. And I was off.
I took the woman’s hand. The entire table went silent. I heard my mother in the background yell out, “Dammit!” And I looked that woman right in the eye.
“You have a nice ass,” I said. Then I kissed her hand and turned in my powder blue suit and walked away.
Both tables erupted and my mother was cursing. This was when Rose could curse better than a drill sergeant. When she had the mouth that was part harlot and part dock worker. She had a lot to say, and I ran to Uncle Wrath and he propped me up on his lap. Bramble handed me my cocktail and I drank out of the tiny straw.
Okay, okay, now before you lose your mind, I will give you the recipe to settle you. You get six ounces of ginger ale, three ounces of orange juice, one ounce of grenadine, in a glass filled with ice and garnish with two cherries. Don’t even bother ordering the drink if they don’t have the tiny, little plastic swords to pierce the cherries with. What you have now is called a Shirley Temple, and when I went out drinking with my Uncle Wrath, which was oddly often, that was my drink of choice. I took a sip and Bramble went to dance with Rose.
When years later my mother was building the perfect romantic, she told me that I had to dance. That I needed to be able to dance to slow music and fast. She would get a far-away look in her eye and I knew then what I know now while I sit here and write this story. She was thinking of Bramble.
I stood on the edge of the dance floor and the woman with the ass bent over to whisper in my ear. “Who told you to say that?” she asked.
I turned and pointed at Giant.
“Oh, really.” She patted my head and walked to Uncle Wrath’s table. She had business with Giant.
When the song ended, the dance floor cleared and the next song began. A few stragglers scooted to the sides of the floor but it was largely empty.
Now give me a minute. I want to get this next part right.
The floor was slick. I had been on it before with my mother dancing in my patent leather shoes. The lights were doing what lights could not do. They were swirling and rotating. They were swinging back and forth and emitting beams as if in search of something. I stood on the edge of the dance floor, staring out at the sea of gleaming floor when she stepped out of the crowd and into the middle of the floor.
She might have been four. No way she was six. Her hair was down and flowing but getting tangled as the night wore on. She had on a white dress that was mostly mesh and satin. She had on patent leather shoes too, but hers had a strap that stretched across the top of her foot. She stood out in the middle of the floor swaying with herself. I never got her name. I will call her Eve.
I stared at her for a long time breathless. I did not know what I was looking at, but I knew what man and wife was. I knew what a girlfriend was. I knew, deep in my core, that there was something missing. Some part of me that had not been finished when I was made. A hole ran through me I knew, and in that moment, standing on the edge of that dance floor staring at Eve, I knew what it was. I knew I would not be complete until I found it. I would walk around with a hole in me until I found a love.
I turned, as all of my swagger ran straight down my body and pooled out of my feet, and I went back to the table. The woman with the ass was sitting on Giant’s lap now. My mother was looking at me. Bramble was looking at me. I looked at them and knew they were complete. I looked at the other guys and Uncle Wrath pointed at the dance floor.
“Go!” he said, “Now! Go out there and dance with her. You dance with her right now.”
“He doesn’t have to—” Rose began.
“No,” Bramble said. “He ought to go. Go on, Jesse. I want you to go out there and dance with her. Take her hand very gently, and if she pulls away you come right back over here. If she takes her hand away, if she gives you a mean look, you don’t take it personal, you just walk away. Say sorry if you want to. But if she lets you take her hand, then you dance with her.”
“Give her a kiss,” Wrath said.
“No!” Rose said. “Wrath, you’re terrible. No honey, don’t kiss her, just take her hand and be a gentleman.”
Suddenly I was there. On the dance floor with the first of them. I was staring at her and her me. The music cut off instantly in the middle of the song and a new one popped back on. I know it was a slow song. I am thinking the Bee Gees. I reached my hand out to her but I didn’t take hers.
She took mine.
I had no idea what to do for a long time so we just stood there looking at each other holding hands. I looked around. No one was on the dance floor and every eye was on me and Eve.
We began to sway. I took her other hand and we swayed back and forth. I could not take my eyes off her face. I kept wondering if she was as beautiful as I thought she was or was I just thinking that because she was the only girl in the world.
We danced that entire dance, and they stared at us the entire time. I looked up to see grown women crying. I saw couples hugging tighter to each other. I saw my mother kissing Bramble. Then the song ended and the entire place went quiet.
I took her hand and placed a very tender kiss on the back of it.
The entire room broke into applause. And that is all I can recall of Eve.
She was the first. The girl who taught me that I was empty. From that day, I could hear myself echo as I walked. From that day, I felt a gnawing need for love. From that day, I needed Bekah.
I would have to wait 16 years.