“Uncle Chorizo” Fiction

By William S. Rohn

Charlie Gumphrey watched the woman in the lacy white blouse as she walked up the block and crossed the street, heading his way. Was she lost or was she straying on purpose from the tonier side of town? He owned Gumphrey Graphics Studio that, arm be twisted, was really just a glorified poster shop where Charlie was chief doodler. Make that sole doodler now that his layout assistant, Johnny, a summer hire from the local junior college, had quit the week before following a dispute over wages, as in none forthcoming for the ingrate, who couldn’t quite grasp the concept of foot-in-the-door opportunity. 

So Charlie was minding the shop by his lonesome when the woman walked in. She was quite the looker, with a tangly coil of extra hair piled on top of her longish blond locks and something familiar about her tanned lean face that he couldn’t quite place. A little voice inside said she was divorced and available but he didn’t know how he’d know that — they don’t put stuff like that in the local paper, do they? 

She nodded hello and then ordered 100 fliers for a karaoke luncheon event called “Ticked Off” — an awareness campaign for tickborne illnesses such as Lyme disease that according to the mission statement uses the power of music to bring people together. With one eye on his new customer, Charlie used the spare one to read over the flier copy, thinking to himself how you didn’t have to live in Lyme to be aware by now that those venomous ticks were just waiting to pounce if you strayed into the woods. It wouldn’t surprise him if it turned out the campaign was cooked up by a consortium of movie theater owners in a fearmongering effort to drive the wandering citizenry back indoors to the safety of their plush theaters.

She looked up from the order request to meet his gaze and asked flirtatiously, at least by his pipe-dream estimation, if he could carry a tune; he lied that he could with a feeble head nod and inaudible “yes,” neglecting to add that he’d only so far ever sung to his shower tiles. She replied, “Splendid, then why not take a long lunch next Thursday and join us for an afternoon of singing at the Gravesend Country Club.” 

It never dawned on Charlie that he might just be out-of-his-league cannon fodder rounded up to fill out a modest entertainment roster, because he was too busy thinking how she looked like a nicely figured late 40s, only a bit younger than him. Then again, some women, if pressed, might size up his saggy jowls and matching gut and peg him for the wrong side of 60. He waved away any reservations by telling himself that the $100 fee was for charity and Lord knows there wasn’t enough of that in his life, coming or going, so it would feel nice to give back a bit, meager times notwithstanding.

She signed the order Beth Waxler and then he thanked her by her first name in a giddy voice that pronounced Beth like it had two syllables and made him wish he’d stuck to the more formal Ms. Waxler as he watched her duck out the door.

What the flipping heck — had he just agreed to sing in public? And what song would he sing to? Charlie was clueless to the currents of contemporary music but thought back to a certain song he’d heard played near the end of his youngest nephew’s Latin-themed birthday party last summer. He had five nephews in all and they were pretty much one big nightmare when the sugar kicked in but they were all he had looking to the future family-wise because he had never married, finally admitting to himself after one last disaster of a dinner theater date with halfwit Wendy Waller to being hopelessly square-peggish in matters of the heart.

Anyhow, his kid sister Darla Jean was divorced and single and he kind of liked the way she depended on him to add some discipline around her home. Her five kids all called him Uncle Charlie, like the grouch on “My Three Sons,” but then came that birthday party. The oldest nephew, Greggy, came up to give him a hug at Charlie’s sister’s broom-in-hand insistence and casually blurted, “Hi, Uncle Chorizo,” with Chorizo being a long- lost nickname his sister had hung on him years ago when he worked at Garduño’s Cantina, a tapas restaurant where he was the lost and lone non-Hispanic waiter who came home every night smelling like spilled spicy sausage. It only stuck a year or two, but Greggy the sponge must have heard it around the campfire and decided to try it out on his uncle. In response, Charlie placed his hand on the imp’s throat and was about to employ a teach-you-some-manners grip when he was distracted by a commotion on the front lawn. 

He was well used to his nephews’ roughhousing that often made him feel like a human pinata, but when he approached the scrum, the shortest of the bunch, Timmy, did make him a human pinata because he couldn’t reach the real one hanging from the buckthorn tree. Still blindfolded, he wheeled around at the sound of his approaching uncle and began whacking him with the stick until Charlie put a stop to it by scooping up the little scamp and throwing him into the abandoned koi pond on the near side of the vacant house next door. His sister screamed at him to stop being such a hothead and then all the children picked up on it and started calling out, “hothead, hothead,” which, egged on by cheerleader Greggy, soon devolved into a unified chant, “Uncle Chorizo’s a hothead!” over and over until he ripped down the pinata, cracked it open across his knee and threw all the toys and candy into the pond over the emerging head of his spluttering nephew Timmy. 

That’s the moment that the boom box by the fire pit began to play “Blurred Lines,” an infectiously upbeat tune about God knows what. So, long after the day’s lowlights receded, he could still recall that pop song. That settled it; he’d email his song choice to the karaoke guy and hope for the best.

Now Charlie was being called onstage and he wasn’t sure he could hit the high notes. But ready or not, the dowdy emcee with the Marge Simpson rasp was squawking his assigned number, “Number Six, Six is up!” as though he was some sort of blue plate special that needed to be slid on out there before it got cold. As he emerged from behind a makeshift curtain into the spotlight and tramped toward the microphone and karaoke machine with what he hoped looked like confidence, he had second thoughts about even being inside the hallowed walls of this ancient clubhouse, never mind having to sing in front of this larger than anticipated crowd of well-heeled members and their guests. He could only hope it was a forgiving crowd unified by the Ticked Off cause. 

The speakers began to pulsate the opening vamp of that “Blurred Lines” song Charlie had picked, which, thanks to a tabloid headline, he now knew was sung by some white guy who got sued for doing it in Marvin Gaye’s R&B style. But Charlie, reaching for the mike, was less than attuned to the song’s racy content since he’d never paid much attention to the lyrics before today. To him, it was just a real toe-tapper. 

The words on the prompter began to roll and when he began with “Everybody get up, woo!” in a semi-singing, semi-rapping style, the woo sounded a tad off-key; then came several refrains of “Hey, hey, hey!” delivered with conviction but lacking in tempo. By the time he got to the first series of the repeated line “I know you want it,” he’d found his sea legs and convinced himself that the sound of the rising crowd murmur was all positive and a clear indication that he was killing it. 

So the next time the repeated line came around, he stepped from behind the prompter toward the seated crowd, making eye contact with first one smartly dressed woman, then another and still another while belting a staccato series of “I know you want it!” and the cascading gasps only emboldened him further and he shuffled onward in his non-danceable Bass loafers until he found himself looking directly at radiantly-attired-in-a-blue-dress Beth Waxler. Here he abandoned the prompter altogether and took a long stride toward her to deliver on bended knee the climactic line with vigor and spirit, “You the hottest b*!#h in this place!”

As Beth Waxler recoiled, the look on her face said it all — I took a flier on you, Johnny Postershop, and invited you to my innermost sanctum and how could you embarrass me like this with your cougar-baiting caterwauling and upend this sparkling event — she must have lifted this last bit from the flier copy, he thought, or am I lifting it from the flier copy since I’m the one imagining what her face is saying? Bottom line, she looked major pissed.

Charlie retreated to the prompter and squinted at a jumble of lyrics rising hopelessly ahead of where he thought he’d left off. He started to back away slowly from the facing audience while offering one last round of out-of-sync “heys” followed by a halfhearted spin and walk-off “woo” over his right shoulder. The steady clamor seemed to follow him out of the room so he began to run through the long, wow, really long lobby — bigger than his house, for crying out loud — then forced himself to slow down so he wouldn’t look like a fleeing felon as he emerged from the clubhouse doors into the garish sunlight. He flashed his car keys at the non-smiling valet as he passed him to signal that he’d parked his own car.

  Sliding into his Kia compact, he thought of Beth Waxler; how he’d gotten that feeling again while singing to her that he knew her from somewhere. But the moment had passed when her face was overtaken by that scrunched-up look of revulsion. Now he remembered! He’d seen her picture in the local paper — some story about a husband who perished in a spelunking mishap and the wife he’d left behind. So there was a good chance he’d sung “You the hottest b*!#h!” to a grieving widow still in mourning for her missing caveman. That put a cherry on top all right. But whatever happened to wearing black to give a guy some fair warning? 

Still, Charlie could see now that the divide between them was more than just a case of bad timing; it was sort of a me-Tarzan-you-Jane disconnect, like he’d just dropped in straight from the jungle wearing a spotted leotard. Holy déja vu — this wasn’t the first time he had to face up to not fitting in, but he wasn’t used to the blow landing like a roundhouse right. 

He hit the gas and off he went. Maybe he’d stop by Darla Jean’s place on the way home and see what the nephews were up to . . . maybe mention to his sister how a FedEx with full printing services was moving in down the block from his shop . . . maybe chalk up this whole day to the makings of a teaching moment — See, kids, you’ve got nothing much to lose and lesser still the older you get. Somewhere along the way you might wonder where rock bottom’s at but don’t worry, you’ll know it when you hit it. If not, just ask your ol’ Uncle Chorizo.

 


William Stevenson Rohn is a short-story writer who summers in East Hampton.