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August 01, 2022

Uncle Frank

By Ronald Paxton

"Frank's coming for a visit," John Howard exclaimed as he burst into the kitchen.

"That's wonderful, John," Sarah Jane Howard replied. "When?"

"Next week," her husband replied. "The university will be on spring break and Frank plans to deliver paintings to a couple of his clients in Roanoke and Bedford. He'll be able to stay a few days before he has to be back at school."

"It's been, what, three years?" Sarah Jane asked.

"Closer to four," John Howard replied. "Emma had just started walking and was still in diapers."

"How did he sound?" Sarah Jane asked quietly.

"Okay, I guess," her husband replied. "You know Frank. He doesn't let much out."

"Y'all need to get together more often, John," Sarah Jane said. "He's your big brother."

John Howard nodded. "Well, he'll be here next week. Just in time for my birthday."

"That's right," Sarah Jane said with a sudden smile.

"Who'll be here next week?" Emma Howard asked.

"Your Uncle Frank," her father replied. "He hasn't seen you since you were a baby."

"I don't remember him, Daddy," Emma said.. "What's he like?"

"Well, sweetie, he's my big brother, so he's a lot like me except smarter, more talented, and better looking. At least, that's what your mama says."

Emma giggled.

"Actually, it's true," John Howard continued. "He's a professor at Southern Appalachian University in Cherokee, North Carolina, and the head of the art department. He's also a very successful artist."

"Cherokee, like the Indians?" Emma asked.

John Howard nodded. "It's actually the headquarters of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. It's beautiful high country near the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park."

"Did you tell him it's your birthday, Daddy?" Emma asked.

John Howard laughed. "I reminded him, sweetie, and told him not to show up without a present."

"He's here," Emma yelled as she ran out the front door. She stopped as a man emerged from the back seat of the taxi.

"Are you my Uncle Frank?" Emma asked.

The man grinned and said, "If you're Emma, then I'm your Uncle Frank."

"There's my big brother," John Howard called as he walked up the hill from the barn. The men hugged each other briefly, and John Howard said, "I'm still taller than you."

"I'm still better looking," Frank Howard replied with a smile.

Sarah Jane stepped out onto the front porch and said, "Someone told me the classiest man in North Carolina just pulled up to Wild Pony Ranch, so I knew it had to be Frank Howard."

Frank Howard turned to his brother and said, "John, how in the world did you get the most beautiful woman in the Commonwealth of Virginia to marry you?"

"I've been meaning to get her eyes checked," John Howard said as his brother doubled over with laughter.

"You get prettier every time I see you, Sarah Jane," Frank Howard said, "and my niece sure does take after you."

"Some people say I take after my daddy," Emma said.

"Trust me, honey," her uncle replied, "you're much prettier than your daddy."

Emma continued to look at her uncle and said, "I'm almost as tall as you, Uncle Frank."

"That won't last for long, Emma," Frank Howard replied. "I've been eating my fruits and vegetables. By the time I leave I'll probably be as tall as your daddy."

"Really?" Emma asked.

Frank Howard smiled gently at his niece and said, "No, not really, honey. I have a medical condition that causes me to be very short with a large head and short arms and legs."

"Are you a midget?" Emma asked.

"Well, the word midget is not really a medical term or diagnosis," her uncle said. "Medically speaking, Emma, I'm a dwarf."

Emma's eyes grew huge. "I thought dwarfs were make-believe," she said.

Frank Howard laughed and said, "Well, I'm not one of Snow White's dwarfs, that's for sure."

"Will you get taller, Uncle Frank?"Emma asked.

"No, Emma, I'm fully grown..." Frank Howard hesitated, and then said, "does the way I look upset you, honey?"

A confused expression crossed Emma's face before she said, "You look fine to me, Uncle Frank."

Frank Howard reached over and embraced his niece as they walked inside the house.

"That was wonderful, Sarah Jane," Frank Howard said. "A delicious dinner, excellent wine, and Bach."

"Thank you, Frank," Sarah Jane replied. "It's nice to talk to someone who appreciates the finer things."

"I'm sure John appreciates everything about you, Sarah Jane. Right, John?" Frank Howard said.

John Howard nodded. "Dinner was great, Sarah Jane."

"What about the wine and the music?" Sarah Jane asked.

"Fine,"John Howard replied.

Sarah Jane sighed, and said, "He's a work in progress, Frank. At least he's house broken. Maybe you can help me polish him up some."

Frank Howard laughed, and then got up from the table. "I'll be right back," he said.

"Here are some small thank you gifts for letting me visit," Frank said as he returned to the dining room.

"This doesn't count as my birthday present, does it?" John Howard asked

"Of course not," Frank Howard replied. "You're my brother. I picked up your birthday present at a gas station on the way out here."

"Drawing pencils and a coloring book," Emma squealed with delight as she opened he gift.

Frank Howard smiled. "I saw your drawings on the refrigerator, Emma," he said.

"You're very good. Your pictures tell a story."

"Do you have pictures on your refrigerator, Uncle Frank?" Emma asked.

Sadness flickered in Frank Howard's eyes and then was gone.

"No, honey, I don't," he said. "But, maybe someday I will if I get married and have a little girl like you."

"Oh, Frank," Sarah Jane said, as she held up a beautiful brass belt buckle with an engraving of two rearing stallions, the logo of Wild Pony Ranch. "It's beautiful. Thank you."

John Howard stared at his gift, a classical music CD.

"This will open you up to a whole new world, John," Frank Howard said. "If you don't like Bach, there's Mozart, Wagner, Beethoven, Haydn, and several others."

John Howard looked up to see his wife nodding enthusiastically.

"Thanks, Frank," John Howard said, forcing a smile onto his face. "I'll look forward to listening to it later."

Frank Howard grinned and said, "Let's play it now."

John Howard slumped in his chair, looking like a man whose team had just lost the seventh game of the World Series. He remembered to smile as his brother returned to the table.

A snarling slide guitar roared into the dining room as Gary Rossington kicked off "That Smell", and Ronnie Van Zant and the rest of Lynyrd Skynyrd fell in behind.

"That's what I'm talking about," John Howard yelled, jumping up from the table.

"Calm down, John," Sarah Jane shouted over the music.

Emma was out of her chair hopping up and down and shrieking with excitement.

Frank Howard was bent over with laughter.

"How'd you do it, Frank?" John Howard asked. His eyes were gleaming.

Frank Howard shrugged. "No problem, I just switched the Skynyrd covers with the classical music covers at the Barnes & Noble there in Cherokee. The music professors at SAU are the only ones that buy the classical stuff, anyway."

Frank Howard grinned, and added, "John, wouldn't you like to be in one of those music appreciation classes when the professor plays one of those CD's for his students?"

"I'm surprised at you, Frank," Sarah Jane said.

Frank Howard walked over and stood beside John.

"Why? Sarah Jane," he asked. "After all, we're brothers."

"You've got a couple of new horses," Frank Howard said as he and his brother walked through the barn.

"Yep. Gordon and Extra Billy," John Howard replied.

Frank Howard chuckled, and said, "My esteemed Yankee colleagues would say you're still fighting the war."

"No, but I'm ready," John Howard replied. "And, by the way, any of your Yankee colleagues living in North Carolina are carpetbaggers and don't deserve your esteem."

Frank Howard grunted noncommittally.

"Pick out a horse," John Howard said. "Sarah Jane, Emma, and her friend, Hannah Beth are saddled up and waiting for us up at the house."

Frank Howard stopped in front of the last stall. "My god, what a magnificent animal," he said.

John Howard nodded. "Almost eighteen hands. He's the strongest and fastest stallion I've ever ridden."

Frank Howard looked at his brother and said, "Could I ride Jubal?"

John Howard shook his head and said, "Jubal won't let anyone but me ride him, Frank. Not even Emma or Sarah Jane."

Frank Howard climbed up on the stall railing and said, "Jubal."

Nothing.

"Jubal," he repeated.

Again, nothing.

Frank Howard reached over and put his hand under Jubal's nose. The horse's eyes grew wide.

John Howard watched in amazement as his brother slowly withdrew his hand and climbed aboard the great stallion.

Frank Howard gazed down at his brother, and said, "He knows that I'm a Howard, that we're brothers."

John Howard looked up at his brother and said, "let's ride."

"My Uncle Frank is a dwarf," Emma said proudly to Hannah Beth.

"Emma!" Sarah Jane exclaimed.

Frank Howard laughed. They had been riding for almost an hour and were just entering Wild Pony Canyon.

"I'd forgotten how beautiful it is here. Natural and unspoiled." Frank Howard said.

John Howard nodded.

"Hannah Beth doesn't believe in dwarfs, Uncle Frank," Emma said.

"Well, you believe I'm real don't you, Hannah Beth?" Frank Howard asked.

"Yes," Hannah Beth replied.

"And you believe I'm Emma's Uncle Frank, don't you?"

"Yes," Hannah Beth said.

"Well, then, just think of me as Uncle Frank and don't worry about dwarfs, Okay?"

Relief flooded Hannah Beth's face.

"Okay," she said, smiling.

"This looks like a good spot," John Howard said. "Emma, why don't you and Hannah Beth help get lunch ready."

They dismounted and John and Frank walked down by the creek.

"So, how are they treating you at SAU, Frank?" John Howard asked.

"Fine," Frank Howard shrugged. "I mean, they named me Chair of the Art Department."

"Quite an honor," John Howard replied.

"Well, it wasn't for my academic prowess, teaching ability, or administrative skills," Frank replied.

"What, then?" John Howard asked.

"You know how bad the economy is right now," Frank said.

His brother nodded.

"Enrollments are down as a result," Frank said, "and even fewer parents are willing to spend tuition dollars for their children to major in art."

"No offense, Frank, but that's understandable," John Howard said.

Frank Howard nodded. "The thing is, because of my reputation as an artist, our enrollment has actually grown. We even have a waiting list. Plus, I've donated a number of my paintings to the University which they've sold for a nice sum. So, I'm Department Chair, and it is an honor, but there is also a smug and self congratulatory air that some of the higher ups exhibit, as though they're awfully proud of themselves for appointing someone like me to the position."

"Any problems or incidents with the town folks?" John Howard asked.

"A couple," his brother admitted, "but I stay away from bars and clubs. They seem to bring out the worst in people."

"Don't build a prison for yourself, Frank," John Howard said. "Ignorant rednecks like that can show up at Lowes and Walmart as easily as they can in clubs and bars."

"Tell me about it," Frank Howard replied.

They both looked up as two rough looking riders came into view.

"Afternoon," John Howard said.

The men nodded in greeting and then looked over at Frank.

"Hey little buddy," one of them said, grinning maliciously. "You look like a midget. Or, maybe I should call you a little person."

"You can call me Frank," Frank Howard replied.

"Well, Frank," the man said, winking at his companion, "come on over here and we'll play a game of toss the midget."

"You'll have to toss me around first, bud," John Howard said.

The man quickly dismounted and threw a wild punch. John Howard ducked and drove his knee hard into the man's crotch. The man made a sound like a squeak toy and curled up on the ground.

John Howard turned around in time to see the other man beginning to dismount.

"Really?" John Howard said, a manic grin splitting his face.

The man slowly resettled himself in the saddle and rode away.

"Thanks, John," Frank Howard said.

"My fault, Frank," John Howard said. "I was the one that brought us here. You didn't ask for this."

"Well, just goes to show they can be anywhere and everywhere," Frank Howard said.

"That's why I don't have a wife and family, or even a serious girlfriend, John," Frank said. "All I can do is have my dignity stripped away for someone's entertainment. I couldn't bear to have a wife and child that were ashamed and embarrassed by me."

John Howard saw the pain that his brother was in, but didn't know what to do.

"Lunch is ready, Daddy," John Howard heard his daughter call.

Together, the two brothers slowly walked back to join the others.

"Can I open my presents now?" John Howard asked, excitedly.

"You're worse than a child on Christmas morning, John," Sarah Jane said. "We just finished eating."

"Let him open them Sarah Jane, "Frank Howard said. "John and I both always hated waiting around for the grownups to finish talking before we could get to the fun stuff."

"Yeah," Emma chimed in.

"Well you're both grownups now," Sarah Jane said. "I wish you'd act like it."

"Sarah Jane, surely you know that men aren't very good at acting grown up," Frank said.

"No kidding," Sarah Jane replied.

"Open mine first," Emma said.

John Howard opened the box and held up a nice leather wallet.

"Thank you, sweetie," he replied. "I needed a new one."

"I put something in there for you," Emma said.

John Howard opened the wallet and took out a small folded picture that Emma had drawn for him. Two smiling stick figures holding hands, Emma and Daddy.

John Howard swallowed hard. "Thank you, Emma," he said in a voice thick with emotion.

The new saddle from Sarah Jane surprised and delighted him.

John Howard watched as Sarah Jane helped Frank bring a large box into the room.

"Do you know what's in the box from my brother?" John Howard asked his wife.

Sarah Jane shook her head.

"Frank?" John Howard asked.

"What makes you think there's anything in the box?" his brother replied.

John Howard labored over the package with a box cutter and finally pulled out a large painting that was covered with a packing cloth.

Frank Howard held the painting and removed the cloth.

Sarah Jane gasped in wonder.

John Howard stared at the work, unable to speak. He touched the rich dark wooden frame and examined the centered brass plate with the title of the work expertly engraved -- Quittin' Time. The sun was setting behind the Blue Ridge Mountains, bathing them in a rich purple hue. John Howard and Jubal walked toward the barn and the mountains, there bodies lathered from the exertions of the day. Horse and rider alike wore expressions of peace and a quiet joy as they looked forward to an evening with those they loved.

John Howard looked at his brother and tried to speak. Nothing came.

"You can hardly see the paint by numbers underneath," Frank Howard joked. "That's 'cause I used two coats of paint."

"It's magnificent, Frank," Sarah Jane said in a small voice.

"Better get it appraised," Frank laughed. "No telling what it would go for at the Saturday flea market in Lynchburg."

Sarah Jane noticed that Frank was looking right at her and his eyes were serious.

Frank Howard turned to his brother who still hadn't found his voice.

John Howard nodded and his brother nodded back.

John Howard walked into the living room and studied the painting over the fireplace like he did every evening. Quittin' Time was the most powerful piece of art he had ever seen and the effect on him was profound.

"I had your painting appraised today for insurance purposes," Sarah Jane called from the kitchen. "The guy was amazed that we had a Frank Howard original. Anyway, he said that it would easily sell for at least four."

"That should fit under our current coverage," John said, walking into the kitchen.

"I can't believe my brother gave me a painting worth four thousand dollars."

Sarah Jane turned and looked at her husband like he was the dumbest person on the planet.

"What?" John asked in confusion.

"Million, John. Four million," Sarah Jane said.

"My god, Frank," John Howard said as he pressed the phone to his ear. "Sarah Jane had the painting appraised. I can't keep it. I'll send it back to you."

"You will not," Frank Howard replied. "You listen to me, John. You're my little brother, but all my life you've looked out for me like our roles were reversed. Well, this is something I can do for you, Emma, and Sarah Jane. When the time is right you sell that painting. We can always make you a print or I can paint you another one. The point is that ranching is hard work and I don't want you risking your neck entering rodeos when you're fifty so you can win some extra money for your retirement or to put Emma through college. I don't want you to ever have to think about selling Wild Pony Ranch for the same reason."

Frank Howard paused. "Okay?" he said.

"Okay," John Howard replied.

"Frank?" John Howard said.

"Yeah?" his brother replied.

"I got you a ten dollar gift card from Walmart for your next birthday, but I'll take it back and get you something else."

Frank Howard laughed and said good by. He checked the spaghetti that was simmering on the kitchen stove and sat down at the table. He picked up the package that had been delivered that afternoon and read the letter again. Smiling, he found what he was looking for in the junk drawer. The spaghetti was ready. Frank filled his plate and sat down at the table. As he ate he enjoyed his newest piece of artwork displayed on his refrigerator -- four smiling stick figures holding hands across the paper. Daddy, Mama, Emma, and Uncle Frank.

Article © Ronald Paxton. All rights reserved.
Published on 2010-02-01
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