Hitting The Roof

The morning Uncle Wally arrived for a weekend visit, he went up on our roof and wouldn’t come down.

“What’s up, Walls, besides you?” Mom stood in the driveway squinting up at her brother, a bag of organic groceries in her arms. He just sat on the lawn chair he must have dragged up from our back yard, stared out at the sky, and didn’t say anything. Mom looked over at me. “Wouldn’t talk to me, either,” I said. We both shrugged. He was on the flat roof over the front porch, not in much danger of falling. “Dinner’ll be ready in an hour,” she hollered, and went into the house.

I went back to dribbling my basketball on the sidewalk. Having given up on conversation, I’d been trying to figure out what he was doing by watching him, sneaking looks until I realized I could look all I wanted, he wasn’t paying any attention to me. Eric from next door came up and snatched the ball away from me. “What’s the deal with him?” he said, hooking his elbow at the roof.

“Beats me.” Sunbathing was out, since Uncle Wally was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, unless his goal was to get a tan on his forearms and bald spot. And he wasn’t doing a one-man protest against world poverty, as far as I could tell. I didn’t have a clue.

“So who is he, Yosemite Sam?”

Now that he mentioned it, Uncle Wally did look a lot like old Sam, with his droopy red mustache and beard—Sam minus the cowboy hat—but for some reason I didn’t laugh, maybe because I’ve got red hair too. “He’s my uncle,” I said. “He hardly ever comes to see us, and, um, he’s never hung out on our roof before.”

Leaning in, Eric said, “Maybe he’s a jumper. That’d be cool.” He slammed the ball on the concrete. “Splat.”

* * *

Dinner was Dad saying he didn’t appreciate coming home from work to find a brother-in-law on his roof, especially a brother-in-law who couldn’t be troubled to say hello, Mom telling him not to worry, whatever Walls was doing, he craved comfort way too much to stay up there for long, and me wolfing down two slices of homemade vegetarian pizza.

I was still chewing my last bite when I bolted from the table and went back outside. Our front yard looked like a party—a bunch of neighborhood kids, Mrs. Zenith with her dachshund, and Mr. Taylor from across the street, all of them standing or sitting or, in Daisy Smith’s case, lying on the grass and looking up at Uncle Wally, who was still in the lawn chair, staring out at some fixed point in the sky.

Eric brought me up to date. “He hasn’t made a move, man, ‘cept to scratch his ear. And not a word out of him, not even when Mr. Taylor offered to bring him a beer. Daisy thinks he’s meditating.”

Daisy rolled onto her back and looked up at us. I could tell she thought she looked sexy, but in fact she only looked like dumb daydreamy Daisy. “He’s got the high forehead of an intellectual,” she said, touching her own low one. “He’s probably contemplating something heavy, like world peace.”

“Yeah, or he’s stoned out of his effing mind,” Eric said, snickering.

Mr. Taylor whacked him on the head. “Language, boy.” To the rest of us, “Let’s move along now, kids, leave a man to his thoughts.” He started to walk away but stopped short at the sound of metal rattling. All eyes flew up to Uncle Wally, who was getting out of his chair for the first time in five and a half hours, by my count. Inching over to the far edge of the roof, he put his back to us and fiddled with the front of his jeans.

“Lord have mercy!” Mrs. Zenith cried as liquid splashed into the eaves trough. I cracked up along with the other boys. Daisy covered her eyes, but she was smiling.

Just then Mom appeared in my open bedroom window over the porch roof, holding a plate of pizza. Seeing an empty chair, she yelled, “Where’d he–” but Mrs. Zenith cut her off.

“This is too much, Marilyn,” she said, taking a cell phone out of her purse. “I’ve got to call the police. I am sorry, but the children.”

Looking confused, Mom craned her neck and saw Uncle Wally. “Walls!” she screamed, dropping the plate. “Stop that right now!”

But he was already zipping up his pants. “Aw, nobody seen nothing,” he said, taking the chair again.

Uncle Wally had finally spoken. Daisy scrunched her forehead, maybe sifting his words for some deeper meaning. Mr. Taylor headed toward his house, muttering. Mrs. Zenith was punching the first 1 in 911 when my mother crashed through the front door and ran up to her.

“Please don’t,” Mom said, sucking in breaths. “It won’t happen again, I promise.”

Mrs. Zenith hesitated. “I don’t know that you have any control, dear. He seems to have what you call antisocial tendencies.”

“No, no, he’s just…I don’t know what,” Mom said, then shook her fist at her younger brother so furiously the skin on her face jiggled. “Get down here, Walls, I mean it!”

But Uncle Wally ignored her, ignored everybody, like we weren’t even there. He was looking at the sky again, where red and purple lights were switching off, leaving us all in the dark.

* * *

I woke up around 3 a.m., rolled out of bed and moved to the window. Uncle Wally was still in the chair, with his back to me and his long hair rippling in the wind. I looked past him into the dark sky, and suddenly it hit me that maybe we’d all gotten it wrong. Maybe he wasn’t suicidal or stoned or meditating or antisocial. Maybe he was waiting...for an alien spaceship. A far-out idea, I knew, but I’d read a lot of books that said extra-terrestrials are more likely real than not. On the other hand, how would a guy like my uncle, a deliveryman for a potato chip company, know when and where the ship would arrive? He wasn’t really the type to be in the interplanetary loop. But what if he wasn’t aware of what was happening? What if, unbeknownst to him, the aliens had programmed his mind to wait on our roof until they could come and beam him up into their ship? If he was under their control, it would explain a lot of things, such as why he kept staring dumbly at the sky, and why he wouldn’t talk to us, or eat, or come down.

These thoughts got pushed away by a cluster of images: of my boring neighborhood, where a man sitting on a roof was like the biggest thing ever, of my parents hissing at each other, and of my middle school, where fun went to die. I thought about Pandora, the faraway world of perfect beauty in Avatar.

I raised the window. “Take me with you,” I said, my voice small and thready. He didn’t react.

An engine rumbled. I looked up, terrified but all the same hoping like mad that I’d see a giant metal disk with green lights, like in The Sims 2 video game, whirling toward Earth. But there was nothing out there, nothing but the lonely moon. Hearing the rumble again, I held my breath so I could listen better.

It was Uncle Wally, snoring.

* * *

“I’m gonna throw his ass off that roof, see if I don’t,” my dad said, slapping a folded newspaper against the kitchen table.

“Exert yourself on a Saturday morning? You’d give us both a heart attack. Just hold off, I’m going to make some calls, find out what’s going on.” Mom’s voice had a labored bounce, like a basketball filled with cooking oil. She handed me a fork and a plate of scrambled eggs with cubes of steak mixed in. “Your uncle won’t be able to resist, it’s his favorite.”

My dad yanked on the sleeve of his robe, looked at his watch. “Two hours, Marilyn, and he’s coming down, one way or the other.”

I carried the plate upstairs, set it on the dresser in my bedroom, and hoisted myself out the window. Then I reached back for the food and took it to Uncle Wally, who looked exactly like a guy who’d just spent the night on a roof. To my surprise, he accepted it and dug right in, though he didn’t say thanks or anything.

I stooped to pick up the broken pieces of last night’s dinner plate off the roof, along with three untouched slices of pizza with pebbles stuck to them. I began mulling the best way to raise the subject of UFOs when a female voice clanged from below.

“Your uncle’s stamina is amazing.” I turned my head, and it was dopy Daisy, lounging on a blanket she’d spread out on our front lawn like she was at an outdoor rock concert. The morning was cool and cloudy, and she was wearing a red sweatshirt and corduroys. She smiled at me, in what I’m sure she thought was a fetching manner. I tried not to puke.

“Hello, Daisy,” I said. Good grief, I thought, Uncle Wally has a groupie.

And a lynch mob, from the looks of it. A pack of angry-looking old men were making their way across the street from the Taylors’ house. I recognized a couple of them as neighbors, but four or five were strangers to me. Uncle Wally chose that moment to get up and go through my bedroom window, though he seemed oblivious to the approaching men. Maybe his vigil, whatever its purpose, was over.

“Can you believe that coward?” Mr. Taylor said to his posse, and shook his head. Stepping on the lawn to Daisy’s left, he addressed me. “Son, I’m a tolerant man. Somebody wants to sit on a roof, I don’t pass judgment. But last night when the missus was getting ready for bed, she happened to look out and there was your uncle, getting an eyeful. I have to draw the line at Peeping Toms.”

Now, Mrs. Taylor was a sweet enough lady, but she remembered the Great Depression and outweighed a Volvo. “I really don’t think he was peeping,” I said, hoping I sounded respectful, and wishing I could offer an explanation that didn’t involve space alien mind control. “But I’ll get my mom.” As I leaned in the window to holler for her, a big whoosh came from the second-floor bathroom.

About the same time Mom hit the front yard, a cell phone at her ear, Uncle Wally came back through the window and reclaimed his chair. “Come down here and face me like a man!” Mr. Taylor growled, his fists punching the air, with his peeps standing behind him, saying, “That’s right,Vin, you tell him.”

Mom gave a quick goodbye to whoever was on the line. “Gentlemen, gentlemen. I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m sure we can work this out. Mr. Taylor?”

“Nothing against you, Marilyn, but your brother here’s a pervert,” he said.

“What? Walls, what is my good neighbor talking about?”

Uncle Wally’s eyebrows shot up, but his mouth stayed closed. At that, Mom exploded. “I can’t take this!” Yowling like a puma in heat, she stomped around in a circle, then flung the phone on the grass. “I’m beyond my limit, Walls. What am I supposed to tell these people? How can I defend you when you won’t talk to me, even give me a hint what’s wrong?”

All at once the sky cracked and as fast as you could say “pervert” a sprinkle gave way to a heavy downpour. Everybody ran in different directions for cover—first Mom, then me, slipping into my bedroom, then the old men, and finally Daisy—everybody except Uncle Wally, who stayed in his chair like it was bolted to the roof and he was stuck there by waterproof glue.

* * *

Dad’s two-hour deadline came and went, the rain excusing him from rigid enforcement, I guessed. He was watching TV in the den, some special on World War II battles, but I could see he was anxious from the way he kept scratching his unshaven face and heaving sighs. I was dividing my time between the den and my bedroom window, where I watched Uncle Wally brave the rain, his posture as straight as one of the soldiers on Dad’s show, wringing out his beard every few minutes like it was a wash cloth. Ever since the confrontation with Mr. Taylor, Mom had been holed up in the laundry room talking on the phone, which she’d retrieved from the lawn just before it drowned.

She came out around lunchtime, looking drained. My dad whipped around in his easy chair to face her. “Well, what’d you find out?”

She let out a long breath. “Not much. No trouble at work, according to his boss. And his friends said he was in a good mood the last time they saw him. They told me to check with his girlfriend, which I didn’t even know he had. She didn’t answer her phone, so I left a message.” Mom sunk into a chair at the kitchen table.

“Think he’s gone nuts?” my Dad asked.

“I wouldn’t have said so yesterday, but after all this, I honestly don’t know,” she said, tracing a finger along the abstract pattern on the tablecloth. “What am I going to do? He’ll catch his death if he stays out there in the rain.”

“A dead man on our roof,” Dad said. “That’s great, Marilyn, just great.”

After lunch, I grabbed my basketball and went outside. The rain had quit, upstaged by a gaudy sun. As I dribbled down the driveway, I saw that Uncle Wally, his wet hair slicked against his head and his beard in a ropy twist, was still on the roof he’d scaled thirty-two hours and seventeen minutes ago, still slumming with us terrestrials. Mrs. Zenith was across the street, walking her dog. She shot Uncle Wally a flash of disgust and, if I wasn’t mistaken, pointedly ignored me. A neighbor’s car swished by, pausing to gape at Uncle Wally and then moving along without so much as a friendly honk. None of the kids were around, not even Daisy the Supergroupie. Maybe I was overly sensitive, but I felt like I’d gone from being my own person with my own life to an unpopular extra in Uncle Wally’s movie, which kept playing over and over, even though everyone was tired of watching.

To be fair, my uncle hadn’t sought out our attention. Maybe what he was doing was weird, but was it any weirder than the Elvis Presley statue in the Taylors’ back yard, or the knit sweaters Mrs. Zenith made her dachsund wear in the winter, or Dad’s back scratcher collection, or just about anything Daisy said or did? When did our neighborhood shrink to the point where it no longer had room for all of us and our quirks? Whatever Uncle Wally was doing, whether he was waiting for an alien spaceship or vying for a prize in some bizarro radio contest, he wasn’t hurting anybody. He had a right to be left in peace. But if that’s how I felt, then why did the sight of him up there annoy me so much?

I heard a sharp ping. I looked up and Uncle Wally was checking the legs on his chair, as if he thought they were snapping under his weight. Then suddenly he yelled, “Ouch!” and his hand jerked up to his head. The moment I heard smothered laughter rise up from a large prickly bush next to Eric’s house, I knew what was happening. I raced across the grass and dove into it. A couple of boys wriggled away, but I had Eric trapped underneath my body. “You’re uncle’s a freak,” he spat, “and so are you.” Something inside me just ripped loose. I pulled my arm back and socked him in the mouth. One of his front teeth broke off, and blood gushed from his mouth. It felt good. Finally, after all the waiting and accusing and name-calling, this was real; blood was real. It felt so good, I hit him again. And again.

Then someone from behind was peeling me off Eric. I turned, ready to punch out whoever it was, but it was my Dad. “Michael,” he said. “Stop. You have to stop.”

I stood up, panting hard. Eric’s mother appeared and wrapped her arms around him, which made him start to cry, the big baby. I looked over and saw Uncle Wally watching us intently from the roof. If he’d been within punching distance, he would have gotten a taste of blood, too. I looked around, and the whole gang was there, apparently drawn by the ruckus: Mom, Daisy, Mrs. Zenith, Mr. Taylor, and some others. They were all staring at me, like they expected me to apologize to Eric, but there was no way I was going to do that.

Then every head swiveled. A black Mustang was pulling into our driveway. Out stepped a blonde woman in a black leather jacket and black jeans. She was striking-looking, very shapely, but you could see three inches of dark roots where her hair parted, and creases around her eyes. Putting her hands on her hips, she looked at Uncle Wally, then at the rest of us, then again at Uncle Wally, who was looking at her.

“You look like hell, Wallace,” she said.

“Why wouldn’t I?” he said. “Been on this roof, not talking to anybody, for the past thirty-three hours.” So he’d been keeping track, too.

“Why’d you do that?”

Uncle Wally sputtered, like the reason should have been self-evident. “What did I ask you last time I saw you?”

“To marry you.”

“Right. And what did you say?”

“I wasn’t sure you loved me enough.”

Uncle Wally held up his arms. “You need any more proof?”

She shifted her weight. “I don’t get it.”

His mouth pulled into a tight line, like a teacher whose patience was being tried. “What are our favorite songs?”

“Huh? Now you’re really confusing me.”

“Just say them.”

“All right, there’s that oldie by the Drifters, what’s it called? ‘Up on the Roof.’ ”

“And the other one?”

“ ‘The Sounds of Silence.’ Oh.” She looked at the ground, then looked up and smiled. “You are one crazy bastard, Wallace.”

For the first time since he’d arrived at our house, Uncle Wally laughed. “So, what do you say, Linda Lou?”

“Yes,” she said, her eyes shining. “I say yes.”

With that, my uncle got out of his chair and sat down on the edge of the roof, pushed himself off, and dropped to the lawn. He went straight over to Linda Lou, picked her up, and twirled her around.

“What if I hadn’t shown up?” she asked him.

“I would have stayed up there until you did.”

Daisy, who was standing next to me, put her hand over her heart. “Isn’t this the most romantic thing ever?” No one answered. Dad groaned.

The two lovebirds fell into the Mustang. Uncle Wally stuck his head out the passenger window and called, “Sorry, sis,” as they sizzled down the road.

————————

Sally York lives in Michigan with the spirit of her beloved cat.  Her stories appear in The Molotov Cocktail, Foliate Oak, Every Day Fiction, Skive Magazine, Pulp Metal Magazine, and MicroHorror, among others.  She is working on a collection of stories, even though she knows the chances of getting it published are as good as said cat coming back to life.