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December 12, 2010

C.J. Box: Christmas Uncles

Posted by Anonymous
CJBox.jpgC.J. Box is the award-winning author of 11 mysteries, including NOWHERE TO RUN --- his latest, spellbinding installment in the Joe Pickett series --- which sat on the New York Times Best Seller list for four straight weeks last spring. Today, he shares the story of an uncouth Scrooge named Uncle Slade --- and explains how boy-detective Encyclopedia Brown got started on his second (and previously unheard of) career.
I grew up dreading Christmas to a large degree because it meant my relatives were coming. I don’t want to over-generalize. Not all of my uncles and aunts and cousins were awful, but enough of them were. One uncle in particular, a confirmed bachelor and oil-field worker, was my nemesis before I knew what the word meant. We’ll call him “Uncle Slade.” His idea of holiday fun was to grab my fingers and twist them backwards until I dropped to my knees and begged for him to stop. I was 10. He was 40. He drove a pickup truck with a naked woman air freshener hanging from the mirror and a revolver strapped to the steering column. He lived with his mother (my grandmother) in a tiny windswept Wyoming oil company town. He’d lived there all his life. When we visited, he would do things like dump a half a shaker of pepper on my food while I wasn’t looking. For reasons still unfathomable to me, my mother never discouraged this kind of behavior from her brother.
Uncle Slade thought my interest in books and reading was a sure sign of wimpy softness that was unforgivable. He called me “Mr. Nose-In-A-Book” and “Captain Creampuff,” and he once got red in the face after he caught me reading a collection of Encyclopedia Brown stories because he claimed no true male would ever read a book that thick on purpose. When I was 11, I vowed that when I got bigger and older I would beat him bloody with my fists until he begged for me to stop. That’s what kept me going.
So I was both shocked and suspicious on Christmas Eve when he asked me if I still had that thick book he’d caught me reading. He described it to other relatives: “It’s about yea thick,” he said, holding his stubby fingertips two inches apart. That was the first time I noticed the odd bulge on the back of Uncle Slade’s hand. It was the size of a bird’s egg. Cancer! I hoped.
“That ought to do,” another uncle said. This was years before the other uncle called the newspaper and burned his own house down in front of the photographers to make a point. But that’s another story.
My mother urged me to go get the book. I envisioned Uncle Slade tossing it into the fireplace for a good belly laugh (he had quite a belly), or hurling it at the dog in the next yard that wouldn’t quit barking. But I got the book and cautiously handed it to him.
Encyclopedia Brown,” he said, looking it over. “Sounds faggy to me.”
Was he actually going to read it?
My two uncles marched out to the kitchen with my book. I followed and watched as Uncle Slade reached out with his right hand and placed it palm-down on the counter. Uncle Slade handed the book to my other uncle and looked away. My other uncle raised Encyclopedia Brown up over his head and brought it down hard, smashing Uncle Slade’s hand.
Later, I heard Uncle Slade explaining to an aunt that the bulge had been something called a “ganglion.” His doctor said he could either cut it out, or it could be hit hard with a heavy book, and it would probably go away. Since Uncle Slade’s large collection of porno magazines wouldn’t fit the bill as ganglion-smashers, he told the doctor it was lucky he would be visiting his nephew, Mr. Nose-In-A-Book.
I never beat Uncle Slade bloody, but when he tried to wrestle me when I was 16 (at Christmas, of course), I got the better of him and put him in a choke-hold and didn’t let go until his eyes and tongue bulged out, and I left him gasping for air. It was the best present a boy could ever have.
Except for books, of course.
© C.J. Box, 2010.
All rights, including without limitation the right to license this piece elsewhere or to reprint the piece in any way, remain with the author.
Tomorrow, M.L. Malcolm talks about the characters that told her she could become a writer --- and the fake Christmas tree that helped her find them.