Canto Sixteen – Uncle Dash
Mom loved to cook. She could do wondrous things with a casserole. In fact, her Tater Tot casserole was such a hit that it had spread to households all over the county and people from as far away as Illinois were writing her letters to get the secret recipe. It wasn’t such a secret. Browned and loose ground beef, Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup, Tater Tots from Ore-Ida, and real cheddar cheese went into her magical casserole. But friends of friends and family were practically rabid about wanting to get their hands on the special secret recipe. They didn’t realize until she told them that the recipe came from the label of a Campbell’s soup can to begin with.
So the house smelled wonderful because Uncle Dash and Valerie’s cousin Stacey were coming to dinner.
Stacy was college age now, and Valerie looked up to her. She was smart and independent, and she knew how to dress up like a fashion model whenever there was an excuse to do it. As Val and Stacy set the table, the two had a brief moment or two to catch up on cousin stuff.
“I hear the Pirates are re-forming,” Stacy said. “And they tell me you are going to be one of them?”
“Well, yeah… so?”
“Don’t bring it up tonight. Daddy will get mad. I mean, more mad than he already is.”
“Uncle Dash is mad?” Valerie was slightly taken by surprise. Uncle Dash was the kind of guy who was always laughing, always joking. Valerie had relied on his sense of humor and mature wisdom her whole life long. She believed he was even wiser than Daddy Kyle. He was a farmer. He had the wisdom of the Earth.
“Your Uncle Dash is mad at me,” said Stacey.
“Why would he be mad at you?”
“I told him a secret today. One I have to tell everybody sooner or later.”
“Really? Tell me.”
Stacey was obviously biting her own lower lip for some reason. Why would she do that? It didn’t really make sense to Val. There were tears in her cousin’s eyes.
“I mean it, Stacey. I love you. You can tell me.”
“Well, I…” Before Stacey could spill it, the adults came into the room.
“Really,” Uncle Dash said with a frown on his face, “We could sell that sixty acres southwest of town and the big pasture along the Iowa River. That would give us enough money to at least bargain for more time… maybe another growing season.”
“But, Dash, that’s all your land. This is my debt. I can’t let you sacrifice from your share. It should be some of my land.” Kyle sat down at the head of the table with a defeated-seeming kerplunk. Valerie knew her dad’s basic onomatopoeias, the sound-words of his soul, and kerplunk was definitely not a good one.
“But it is some of the less-valuable land I am offering to sell. All of your land is better, and we should be trying to keep all of it.”
“Yeah, well… I still don’t want you to make sacrifices to pay my debts.”
Uncle Dash took the seat next to Daddy Kyle where Valerie would’ve sat if they didn’t have company.
Mom came in carrying a big casserole dish full of steaming-hot tater-tot casserole. She proudly set her work of art down in the middle of the dining room table. “Stacey, will you help me get the peas and the mashed potatoes?” Mom said. Then she dashed back out to the kitchen.
“You’re my brother, Kyle. You have to let me help you. And it is all family land. We have to work together, even though we divided the farms when Dad died. It is all one large farm, really.”
“Well, yeah, but…”
That conversation died too as Mom and Stacey brought the rest of the supper to the table, and Mom insisted that everybody sit down and eat. Valerie said Grace and food was passed all around. Everybody at the table had a farmer’s healthy appetite, and soon mouths were too full to talk. Conversation was suspended for the more important thing… at least until all were stuffed and satisfied.
“It’s a shame that Patricia couldn’t come with you this evening, Dash,” Mom said.
“She was sorry to miss it, but she really wasn’t feeling well. She needed to take some medicine and go to bed. Which reminds me… Stacey has some new she needs to share with everyone in the family.”
Stacey looked at her father with a distinctly angry expression.
“Well, you may as well tell them.”
Stacey’s glare at Uncle Dash made Valerie suddenly worried for her cousin. What could be wrong?
“I’m… not going to college anymore.”
“Oh, Stacey!” Mom said. “Why not?”
The pause was unbearable.
Stunned silence followed. Uncle Dash’s face was so sad it almost made Valerie burst into tears. Stacey did cry, and that was almost worse.
“How, I mean… who?” Daddy didn’t know what to say. He was kinda tongue-tied, right up until the answer hit him square in the memory. “Not the Toad! Oh, Stacey!”
“His name is Brom, not Toad. I don’t know why everyone needs to call him that.” Stacey’s tears were replaced almost instantly with fury.
“It’s the way he drives. He reminds everyone of Toad in the Disney movie Wind in the Willows. You know how recklessly he roars about in that yellow Ford Mustang of his.” Uncle Dash was very direct and soft-spoken. It was an argument Valerie had overheard before.
“He also has a big mouth like a frog,” said Valerie timidly.
“Oh, Val…” Stacey shot her a wounded look. Whose side was she supposed to be on, anyway?
“Well, I have to say, it isn’t such a big surprise. You have been in love with that boy for a while now, haven’t you, Stacey?” Daddy Kyle said.
“Yes, I love him with all of my heart.”
“Is he going to do the right thing by you?” Mom asked.
“He’s willing to marry me… if Daddy doesn’t forbid it.”
“Dash, you can’t forbid it,” said Daddy Kyle. “That’s no way to start off a life… for Stacey or Brom either one.”
“You would take their side, wouldn’t you,” Uncle Dash said harshly. “You know, as my little brother, it wouldn’t kill you to take my side once in a while.”
Daddy stared straight at his plate. His mouth was a tense and very straight line. “Stacey would be good for Brom. As Mrs. Brown, she’s bound to settle him down at least a little bit. Like the way Julie settled me down. You remember what a wild kid I was, right?”
“We haven’t decided how it’s going to be, yet,” Dash said calmly. “There is a lot to be decided yet.”
“You really can’t decide for her, you know,” Daddy Kyle said.
Uncle Dash got angry at that. “How would you feel if it were Valerie in this situation? Maybe with somebody like that Murphy kid… or Richard Martin’s little rag boy?”
“It’s not the same. Valerie is still too young to be a mother.”
“And Stacey isn’t?”
“Kyle, Dash, please!” said Mom, “don’t discuss this in front of the girls. They can hear everything, and I don’t think it helps anybody to hear you two argue about this.”
It was quiet for a few moments, but a very tense quiet.
“Julie is right, Dash,” Daddy said. “Why don’t you and I go for a drive in your pickup, and the girls can spend some time together here.”
“We have a lot to talk about, Kyle. But it won’t do a lick of good if you don’t listen more than you talk.”
The two brothers glared at each other. But they were family, and too much alike not to smash heads together like a couple of rams in springtime. So they both went out and got in Uncle Dash’s Chevy pickup and drove on into town.
“Headed for Martin’s Bar and Grill,” said Stacey, blowing a stray hair out of her eyes to show disgust.
Valerie wordlessly snaked her thin young arms around her beloved cousin and gave her a distressed and tearful squeeze.
“It will all get worked out for the best,” said Mom in her most comforting voice.
“I hope so,” Stacey said. Then after a long pause she repeated, “I hope so.”