"Full house!" cried Uncle Toad, cackling and beaming like he had just won a bank roll off a rich Texan. I sighed, shook my head, and gathered up my three of a kind as he scooped the pile of chips to his side of the kitchen table. Several chips fell to the floor, but he didn't bother picking them up. His haphazard mound was large enough that he didn't have to worry about three or four more.
I frowned and said, "If you'd stack them neatly like me, then you wouldn't be dropping them all over." Uncle Toad paused a moment, regarding me with a mischievous smile, and then said, "You know, you're pretty anal for a 12 year old. Now shut up and deal!"
Did he just call me an ass hole? I tried my best to look indignant as I shuffled the cards. As I dealt the next hand, I savored the moment. We were sitting in Uncle Toad's kitchen. There was a stack of dirty dishes in the sink, the floor looked like it hadn't been mopped in a month (my Mom's kitchen floor got scrubbed once a day). There was an ash tray over-flowing with cigarette butts. And then there was Uncle Toad.
To say that he was ugly is being charitable. His face ... his face was a melted mass of flesh. One eye would only open a slit, he had almost no nose at all, and his mouth was crooked and didn't close quite right. When he pulled one side of his lips closed, a gap peeked open at the other side. His cheeks and forehead were a patchwork of red, sickeningly smooth blotches sewn together with coarse white seams of wrinkled skin. At the time I would have guessed him to be about 100 years old, although thinking back on it he couldn't have been more than 50.
When he was eight years old, his father had thrown a pan of boiling water onto his face and then beat it bloody with his fists. That was the last fight he had with his father before he went to live with his grandmother.
I examined my cards. A pair of jacks and a king... worth staying in for two cards. Still looking at my cards, I said, "Uncle Toad, isn't there some kind of plastic surgery that they could do on you?"
"Oh, it's too late now, Jonnie. When I was younger, there was never enough money. And besides, my Grandmother always taught me that looks don't matter; its what's inside that counts. Heh, what a pile of shit that was. But now I'm used to it. Besides, a face like this builds character."
"But at school," I said, "didn't the other kids make fun of you?"
"A little. There was a kid named David Sikes who first started calling me Toad. I caught him behind the drugstore the next evening and beat him silly. After that, I kept the name 'Toad' as an act of defiance. It didn't take long for kids to stop making fun of me ... to my face anyway."
I won a small pile of chips on that hand. His hand was nothing, so I suspect that he had bet on it just to keep me hungry.
While I was examining my next hand, I said "I had that dream again last night." Uncle Toad looked up from his cards at me. I kept looking at my cards. After a few moments of silence, I continued. "This time I was on the playground. Like always, when the man in black appeared, the entire scene froze. In a way, it was kind of cool; I saw a basket ball suspended in mid-air.
"The man came to me and started whispering to me again about being able to grant my fondest wish, but at a price. I was scared and kept wanting to run away, but I couldn't. He kept working on me, asking me what I wanted more than anything else in the world. Then I woke up."
Uncle Toad thought about it for a few seconds. "Could you see his face?" he asked.
I gripped my cards tighter. "Not very well. It was shadowed by his hat, and since I couldn't move my eyes, I couldn't really look directly at him." I thought for a second. "He was tall and had pale hands. Although I couldn't see his hair, somehow though I just know that he was real clean-cut. Like most people would consider him the perfect gentleman."
After another couple of awkward seconds, Uncle Toad looked at his cards and said, "I'll take three". The tension relaxed as I passed him three cards, dropped two of my own and replaced them. My pair had turned into three of a kind. I figured that there was no way that Uncle could get another full house again, so I bet my whole pile.
"Read em and weep," I said, trying to sound like a pro.
"You're the only one around here that'll be weeping." he replied, laying down a flush and reaching out for the chips.
"Hey, wait," I cried, "doesn't three of a kind beat a flush?" Another mischievous grin spread across his face. "Would I lie to you?" I flashed a grin back in his direction and said, "Oh, no. But just in case I think I'll look it up in school tomorrow."
At this, Uncle Toad roared with laughter and started putting the chips back in the carrier. Of course, he didn't separate the colors.
* * *
I think I can safely say that Uncle Toad was the best friend I ever had. He talked to me like a grown-up, not even bothering to use nice language. He was a cynic's cynic, and taught me more about how things in life really work then all my teachers plus my parents put together. He taught me how to fight and how to bluff. He also taught me about honesty.
"There are always people who will try to take advantage of you, and you've got to keep one step ahead of them. But you must never become one of them. If you use people for your own gain, then your heart will be uglier then this mug of mine."
He wasn't really my Uncle, but I started calling him that when we first became friends, two years ago. He is a night-shift production worker at the plant where my father is a manager. They became friends at a company picnic and still get together from time to time. He lives just a block from our house in an old townhouse.
I don't think my parents quite approve of me spending a lot of time with him ... I sometimes lie and say I'm going to the playground; but I really go over to his place. Fortunately, I can see the playground from his kitchen window, so I figure I could sneak out there if Mom or Dad came looking for me. It hasn't happened yet; they're pretty busy.
* * *
A few days later, Uncle Toad and I were again playing poker. Something had been on my mind, but Uncle Toad knew better than to try to drag it out of me. Finally, while I was studying a pair of threes, I said, "Some of the kids at school are saying that you go to whores and pay for sex ... I told em they were full of it."
Uncle Toad paused a moment and then replied, "You should check your facts before you go shooting your mouth off." I looked up at him, my eyes wide, but he continued looking at his cards. After a few moments, he continued.
"I've never had anything resembling a real girlfriend. I always used to think that it was because girls were a bunch of air headed idiots who only cared about looks. In the past few years, I've realized that my 'fuck you' attitude has repelled as many women as my looks.
"But a person's gotta feel loved sometimes. I get awful lonely for a hug from a woman; the kind of hug that leads to more. But by the time that I realized that my attitude was a big part of my problem, I was too entrenched to change. It's too risky for me to let myself become vulnerable.
"So, three or four times a month, I go to see Janet. Have been for about 8 years now. I think that we are actually friends ... we usually go to a coffee shop afterwards and talk for a couple of hours. Once I even let her stay the night in my apartment when some drunk was stalking her. The fool actually came to my door for her. Heh heh... I swung the door open suddenly and thrust my face right up to his and said, 'If you even look at Janet again, I'll carve you up so bad you'll WISH you had a face like mine!' Heh heh! The poor slob actually wet his pants!"
With my mouth hanging open and my eyes wide, I was doing a pretty bad job of hiding my shock; fortunately he was still staring at his cards. I blinked, shut my mouth, and then asked, "But, to pay for it ... isn't that bad?"
Uncle Toad then looked up from his cards. "Hey," he said, "everybody's gotta eat. Everybody's got to pay the rent. Janet isn't an evil person any more than you and me are. She doesn't like her job; she wishes she could get a lucky break and get out of the profession. But she feels trapped. Once society stuffs you in a pigeonhole, it's almost impossible to climb back out."
Another pause. Then I asked, "But don't you care what people say? What people think?"
Now a smile spread on his face. "Jonnie, if I cared about what people said and thought, I would have killed myself a long time ago. I don't think I have anything to hide. I'm not ashamed of Janet, and she's not ashamed of me. She gives me a half hour in a wonderful fantasy world, and that's worth ten times what I pay her."
Darn! I KNEW I was turning red; waves of heat radiated from my face. Mercifully, after a moment he said "Gimmie one card."
* * *
I pounded on Uncle Toad's door, breathing hard. From inside came, "All right, all right, I'm coming. Can't a guy take a shit in peace?" When he opened the door, his eyes widened and he said, "Good God, Jonnie, you're white as a sheet! Come in and sit down!"
I sat down at the kitchen table and Uncle sat across from me. "What the Hell's the matter?" he asked.
"The man, I saw him!" I said between gasps, "But this time I was awake! It happened exactly like the last dream. I was at the playground, for real, and everything froze. I even saw the basket ball suspended in mid air. Then the man in black came to me and started talking. His words weren't the same as the dream, but the idea was the same. He offered to grant me one wish, but I would have to pay for it. He talked real sweet and gentle, but I was scared to death! I mentally shouted as loud as I could, saying 'No, go away!' And he did. And everything unfroze. Nobody seemed to notice anything but me. So I ran here as fast as I could."
Uncle thought for a moment and then asked, "When everything unfroze, did you find yourself lying on the ground? Is it possible that you could have blacked out?"
"No," I answered, "I was still standing there just the same. The basket ball continued dropping to the ground. There wasn't any time at all."
Uncle sat there for a few moments as my breathing calmed down, and then he walked over to a cabinet and pulled out a bottle of vodka. "Here, I think you need this." He splashed a little bit in a coffee cup, filled it the rest of the way with orange juice, and set it in front of me. I took a drink and made a face. It certainly didn't do the lead brick in my stomach any good. I decided not to finish it.
"What is happening to me?" I pleaded.
He sat there for a long time, thinking. Finally, he shook his head and said, "I'll be damned if I can figure it out. You're a good, stable kid. Hell, you're straighter than any 12 year old should be, in spite of my best efforts to corrupt you. ... I just don't know."
I knew. It was obvious that I was crazy. Only loonies heard voices and saw ghosts. I pictured myself locked up in a padded cell, a straight jacket pinning my arms to my sides, screaming and raving like an animal. I started shivering at the thought, wrapping my arms around myself as if I were already tied up.
Uncle Toad must have read my thoughts, because he came around the table, pulled me up, and hugged me close. "Don't you worry, you'll always be safe with me. Nothing will happen to you while I'm around." I was crying by then, burying my face in his chest, and he held me for the longest time.
Finally, I calmed down and said, "I think I need a kleenex." We separated; as he walked to the box on the counter, I saw him wiping his eyes on his sleeve. He returned with the box, set it in front of me, and said, "I don't see why you need one of these. You might as well just use the rest of my shirt!"
We both laughed at that. I don't think I've ever loved any other human being more than I loved him at that moment.
* * *
A week later, I could tell Uncle Toad was preoccupied. It wasn't hard to tell; I had won five of the last seven hands. It was right after school and my parents wouldn't be home for a couple of hours.
I hadn't had another encounter with the man in black since the episode at the playground, and Uncle and I hadn't talked about it either. I selfishly assumed that he was thinking about it then.
Finally, after he folded a hand and quietly waited for me to deal another, I assumed my most grown-up tone of voice and said, "All right, Unk, what's up?"
Uncle paused for a moment, and then smiled and said, "Oh, nothing much. I told my boss that I thought I deserved a promotion. I want to switch to the day shift at the plant. He said he would think about it. That was yesterday. Today, I asked him about it again, and he said 'sorry, but although your work is very good, there just aren't any openings that would fit you.' He said he would give me a raise instead.
"I felt like punching his face. I want the promotion more than the raise. I KNOW there's a position open; they've been interviewing people for it! I know the real reason he's keeping me on the night shift. He doesn't like the way I comb my hair."
Through his ironic laugh, I could sense the hurt. Darn that father of his! Darn that face of his! A couple of months earlier, I started saving up my allowance to help pay for plastic surgery for him. When I told him, he hugged and thanked me, but said that it costs many thousands of dollars and it's probably too late. But ever since, I've still been saving and thinking of the time when I would get a real job. I didn't know how long it would take me to save up enough, but I wasn't going to quit until I had.
After a moment, I said, "I wish I would win a contest and get a big prize. I would get you fixed up right away."
He smiled at me kind of funny and said, "Hey, I appreciate the thought, but it really wouldn't change things that much. People wouldn't treat me any different if I woke up tomorrow looking like Clark Gable. I'm pigeonholed. Besides, if I got my ugly mug fixed up, who would scare all the kids on Halloween?"
But I didn't buy his "big deal" attitude. I knew that he would get that promotion if he looked nice. And I didn't know ANYBODY who deserved a break more than him. My hands curled into fists. I wished that I could do something to help him. The desire burned in my gut like a glowing ember.
Uncle Toad just sat there, a half-smile on his face, staring blankly at me. After a few moments, I decided to wave my hand in front of his face to wake him out of his trance, but I discovered that I couldn't move my arm.
Then he appeared.
The man in black stepped into my peripheral vision and slowly glided up to me. He started murmuring to me, "Seize the moment. Follow your instincts. You know what you want. Just ask. It will cost you, but not as much as you fear. It will only take an instant. There's no reason to be afraid. Just ask."
I was still scared, but the ember in my gut didn't let me shout a mental "no". The man was right; I did know what I wanted. I wasn't so much afraid of the "price", my biggest fear was that I was going crazy. Then a thought popped in my mind: perhaps making my wish would make these episodes stop. And anyway, what would it hurt? If the man in black really is a figment of my imagination, then making a wish wouldn't really change anything. And wouldn't cost anything either. And if, by some wild chance, the wish actually worked ... well then almost any price would be worth it.
So I wished.
The man in black stepped between me and Uncle Toad. He pressed the palm of his hand against Uncle's forehead and slowly pulled it down his face. Uncle's face was left smooth. Completely smooth. No eyes, no nose, and no mouth. Just a creamy, featureless oval. Then, the man placed his thumbs over where Uncle's eyes should have been and he pushed. Like clay, Uncle's face gave under the thumbs, leaving two eye-shaped indentations. He put his thumb and forefinger on either side of where Uncle's nose belonged and pinched. A nose rose up, which the man carefully shaped. Then, the man took a switch-blade from his pocket and sliced a mouth. The edges of the cut curled back, leaving red, but not bleeding, lips. A few more nudges and prods later and Uncle Toad had a normal looking face. The man stepped back and regarded his work.
After a nod, the man turned toward me. He held out his hand, palm pointed toward me. As he brought it to my own face, I saw the skin of his hand was an ugly patchwork of red, sickeningly smooth blotches sewn together with coarse white seams of wrinkled skin. Then everything went black.
I woke up what must have been minutes later. I was laying on the floor and Uncle Toad was kneeling above me. The first think I noticed was that his face was normal looking. My wish had worked! Then I noticed that tears were streaming down that face and dripping onto my shirt. His eyes were tightly closed and he was saying over and over again, "Damn you. Damn you. Damn you."
* * *
A look in Uncle's shiny toaster confirmed what I already knew. But I wasn't really too upset about that. I was terrified that people would blame it on Uncle Toad. I left the apartment, leaving Uncle still kneeled sobbing on the kitchen floor, and ran home. Thank God nobody saw me.
There wasn't much time before my parents came home, and I had figured out a plan. I started a big pot of water boiling on the stove and got a package of spaghetti out of the cupboard and laid it on the counter beside the stove. I also filled a smaller pan with hot but not scalding water. Then I waited until my mom pulled in the drive way, got out of the car, and started walking toward the back door.
I poured the small pan of hot water on my shirt and pants. Then I saved a cup of the boiling water and poured the rest on the floor and dropped the pot. The cup of boiling water went in my face.
My scream wasn't faked.
There followed one of the worst nights of my life. Not so much because of the pain, but because of the reactions of my parents. I hadn't really thought about that.
Everything was spinning and confused. At the emergency room, the doctor examined me and shook his head. "Most of these scars appear to be years old. I don't see how this could have happened today." The doctor looked suspiciously at my parents.
My parents were hysterical, and I was scared that they would somehow blame it on Uncle Toad. Finally, a phone call to my teachers confirmed that earlier that same day I looked perfectly normal, so my parents were off the hook. the doctor concluded that I must have had some congenital deformation of the sub-layers of my facial skin and that the boiling water from that afternoon served to fuse my outer skin to those deformed inner layers. But he didn't sound too convinced.
* * *
I was disappointed that Uncle Toad didn't visit me in the hospital during those first few days. When I asked about him, my father told me that he hadn't been to work for a few days and that he would check the apartment. Later that evening, Dad told me that nobody answered the door.
It was two weeks later when I finally saw Uncle Toad again. His face looked perfectly fine. His official story was that his two week absence was spent getting plastic surgery with money he had been secretly saving up. He told me that he was furious at me for what I did and he had to think things over.
We never got very close after that. We tried playing poker, but there was always a strain. His conversation seemed mechanical. I'm not sure why he couldn't completely forgive me. I guess he felt guilty, as if he had caused the whole thing. Or maybe he was using his face as an excuse for not achieving much in life, and I had taken away his excuse. I don't know.
My own plastic surgery has had less than spectacular results. The surgeon also commented at how the scars appeared to be very old and warned that I would never completely recover. But I have to admit that I do look better than Uncle did.
As the years went by, Uncle and I saw less and less of each other. When I went to college, we stopped altogether. Shortly after graduation, I invited him to my wedding, but he just sat in the back and left right after the ceremony. Ten years later, my father told me that Uncle Toad had died. It was an embarrassingly small funeral. He had to be at least 70, but he had the face of a 30-year-old.
I'm 58 now and I own a small print shop. I'm still married, and have grand kids scattered across the country. It hasn't been an easy life; Uncle was right about society wanting to pigeonhole people. But looking back I think I've led as happy a life as anybody can wish for. I still think of Uncle from time to time. And I think of the man in black too, who I haven't seen since he granted my wish.
I've recently befriended an 8-year-old neighbor boy and taught him to play poker. I don't know what I'll do if he tells me about a dream of a man dressed in black. I really don't know.