Pinky Swear

Erin Rigik

Uncle Albert promised to walk on hot coals. But Uncle Albert never kept his promises. I remembered this as I arched back in my seat and strained to grip his colossal hand, wrapping my little finger around his rough pinky. We were at the circus, my Uncle Albert’s present to me for my eighth birthday. It was June and my birthday was in late January, but it was the perfect present none the less. He had noticed my expression of awe as I watched an ample, hairy man with a white turban step with ease across a path of hot coals.

“Oh, you like that do you?” Uncle Albert scoffed, as he pressed his unshaven face against my ear; “You’re not impressed by that simple trick. That’s easy. I could do that.”

“No you couldn’t, Uncle Albert!” I laughed, turning my attention to the large bouquet of cotton candy slowly making its way down the isle.

“You don’t believe me?” Uncle Albert gasped. He hopped to his feet and summoned the cotton candy vendor. “Fine. I promise you,” he grinned, raising an eyebrow as he handed one of the sticky pink clouds to me, “I promise that I will walk on hot coals for you by… August 6th of this year.” It was June 23rd. I squinted up at his soft periwinkle eyes, trying to decide if maybe this time he was actually serious. I decided he wasn’t.

“Still a little skeptic?” He frowned, collapsing into his seat, his forehead wrinkling into dozens of horizontal lines. “What do I have to do to make you believe me?” He asked urgently. As I searched for an answer, my eyes wandered toward the scantily dressed woman in the center ring, who hung gracefully from an elephant’s trunk. Her fingers gripped tightly around the elephant’s leg for balance. I had an epiphany.

“Pinky swear!” I blurted, and my uncle nodded rapidly with approval. To anyone else the pinky swear represented a binding, unbreakable oath, but I knew my Uncle Albert well enough to expect disappointment. His history of empty promises dated back as far as I could remember. When I was three, he promised that we would visit the moon in a massive, gleaming spaceship to gather moon rocks before my fourth birthday. My fourth birthday, however, came, as did my fifth and my eighth, and I have yet to feel moon dirt under my shoes.

On my first day of kindergarten, Uncle Albert had promised to pick me up from school and treat me to lunch at Hamburger Castle. I waited on the front steps for him for over an hour, before I gave up and wandered through the school to find a payphone. I clasped my hand around the emergency quarters my mother packed in the back pocket of my book bag and slipped the change into the phone outside the girl’s bathroom; the only payphone low enough for me to reach. From my pocket I pulled the warn piece of fabric, a scrap Uncle Albert tore from his favorite flannel shirt and scribbled his number on in case I ever needed him. I knew the number by heart, but nervous and alone in the vast hallway, I studied the numbers carefully and gingerly found their match on the silver square buttons of the payphone.

“Hey, you’ve reached Al’s cell phone,” the sing-songy voice began, “I’m out of town for the week, but I should be back around the 10th of September. Leave a message and…” I clicked the cumbersome, black receiver back into place, and bit the sides of my gums deliberately, willing the heated tears forming in the corners of my eyes back from where they originated. My mom’s voice echoed inside my skull, “Crying doesn’t solve anything, sweetie.” But the tears fell anyway.

“Everything okay, honey?” A voice interrupted my sobs. I turned to notice the janitor, a chubby, twenty-something girl with bright red hair like mine, who stood in the entrance of the girl’s bathroom holding a toilet brush. She knelt beside me, and I asked her in the most grown-up voice I could muster what the date was today. She scowled up at the ceiling as she searched for the answer, “September 4th, honey. Are you okay? My name is Darlene. What are you doing here in the middle of the hall all by yourself?” Together we called my mom from the payphone, and I followed Darlene into the bathroom where I spent the remainder of the afternoon.

Uncle Albert taught me to count to three hundred a few months before to ensure I would be ahead of the other kids in my class, and I used that skill to count each repulsive, salmon-colored tile that made up the bathroom floor. There were 196 not including the small cracked tile in the corner, which reminded me of Uncle Albert and his stupid promises and the way he was different from everyone else. I thought about the message on Uncle Albert’s cell phone and worried that a burglar would call and hear the message and know he was out of town. Then they would break into the van Uncle Albert lived in and steal his clothes and his food.

My mother was irate when she picked me up later that afternoon. She thanked Darlene profusely and gripped me roughly around he wrist, whisking me toward the car. Apparently, Uncle Albert had jumped a plane to California late the night before when his agent called him about a very important audition, or so he said on my mother’s answering machine.

“How can a man who lives in a van in his brother’s driveway afford a plane ticket to California!” She exclaimed, pounding her hand on the steering wheel of the car. She reassured me that her anger was not directed at me, but her rage toward Uncle Albert scared me, and I felt afraid for him. I told her of my concern for Uncle Albert’s possessions, but she laughed and told me not to worry about that.

I slept in the backseat of Uncle Albert’s multicolored van every night for the next week, amidst the crushed cartons of cigarettes, empty pop cans, and dirty laundry. The van lived in my parent’s driveway, much to their dismay, and although my mother hated me sleeping out there alone, she allowed it once my temper tantrum reached full volume. My legs beat the kitchen floor, my face red and scrunched into wrinkles like a cherry tomato, my head slamming against the bottom of the refrigerator between operatic yowls. My mother’s migraine fighting on my side made the victory swift, and I was soon nestled in the back of the automobile with a flashlight and a few stuffed animal friends.

When Uncle Albert poked his head through the side door of the van a week later and wagged his tongue at me, I snapped from my sleepy state, gripped him fast around the neck, and breathed in his spicy cologne. In my excitement to see my friend, I didn’t care about his empty promise.

“What are you doing out here?” He laughed, scooping me up in his arms and planting me on the sidewalk next to him. I explained about the burglars, casting my eyes downward, worried that Uncle Albert would find my concerns silly.

“Good thinking, Shelley. What would I do without you to look out for me? Come here.” Again he lifted me into the air and stood me inside the van. Then he rustled around in back of his van until his hand fell upon a creased, cardboard crown buried under a pile of books. One of the ones they give out at Hamburger Castle when you order extra fries.

“Bum, Bum, BUM!” My uncle hummed as he carefully unfolded the crown and set it gently atop my head.

“I now crown you Lady Shelley, for your great bravery.” He announced in a deep voice, and with that he took my hand and led me down the sidewalk. It was early morning, and not fully light out yet, and I sensed that Uncle Albert didn’t want to enter the house and face my parents.

“How was your addition?” I asked slowly, quickening my steps to keep up with his long stride.

“My what? You mean my audition? Oh, um. They gave it to me. Yep, I got the job, but…um, I didn’t like California much. Did you know it never snows there?” He exclaimed.

“For real?” I questioned with wide eyes.

“Of course for real,” Uncle Albert burst, “Can you imagine living in a place where it never snowed? How would I build snowmen?” He bent down and stared hard into my eyes.

“Besides,” he whispered, “I’d miss my best friend too much.” He punched me playfully in the arm, and with a deep breath we marched inside to face my parents who were already at the breakfast table.

They waited until later that night when they thought I was asleep before confronting Uncle Albert. I sat huddled up against my bedroom door, trying desperately to catch every word. My mother’s sentences were loud and crisp, but Uncle Albert and my father spoke at a softer decibel, and I struggled, squishing the side of my face to the doorframe, attempting to hear the fate of my best friend. I gleaned tiny sections of the conversation.

“This is the last time!” My mother was proclaiming, “I’m tired of picking up after you.”

“When are you going to take responsibility, Al,” My father mumbled. I strained to understand my uncle’s reply, but the remainder of the conversation was inaudible. After his upbraiding, Uncle Albert trudged up the stairs to my room.

“She’s sleeping, let her be,” I heard my Grandmother hiss from below the stairs. But Uncle Albert knew all too well that I would not be asleep. He ignored my grandmother, pushed open my door, and closed it quietly behind him. He stood before me for a long time, squinting through the darkness at my tear stained face. I wiped my eyes gruffly with the palms of my hands, and he squatted in front of me.

“It’s okay to cry, Shelley,” he said as he consoled me, “It’s nothing to be ashamed of.” With a heavy sigh he collapsed beside me, and I rested my head against his blue and red flannel shirt. I traced its checkered pattern with my finger, as he pulled playfully at my pigtails. Suddenly, Uncle Albert sprang to his knees and rubbed his hands together as I toppled to the floor.

“Watch the wall,” he murmured excitedly. I turned my head and smiled with amusement at the shadow puppet Uncle Albert had created.

“Let me try,” I laughed, and together we twisted our fingers, forming butterflies, bunnies, and squirrels, mocking the argument between Uncle Albert and my parents. The bunny represented my uncle, the squirrel my father, and my mom, the butterfly.

“Bad bunny, don’t leave your van in our driveway, and abandon Shelley at school and forget to pick her up. You need to grow up.”

“I’m sorry squirrel, I forgot. I didn’t leave her there on purpose-” He glanced down at me for my reaction. Accepting his apology, I raised my hands, joining the game.

“It’s time to take responsibility,” I demanded in a hushed whisper, as I assumed the role of my mother, the butterfly. We snickered late into the night, endlessly entertained by the characters we created, and I grinned from ear to ear, overjoyed that Uncle Albert was home to stay.

Uncle Albert’s promise to buy me a real live boa constrictor for my kindergarten graduation renewed my faith in him. We sat Indian-style in the corner of my room and held hour-long pow-wows to discuss the snake’s arrival. We decided to name the snake Larry and keep it in a cage under my bed where it could protect me from the monsters that hid there after dark; and it would eat all the kids who made fun of me at school.

My mother bought me a goldfish a few months later, but I never did receive the boa constrictor. Instead he presented me proudly with a used card, that originally read: “Happy 40th Birthday,” but the 40th Birthday part was crossed out, and “Graduation” was scribbled above it in green crayon.

Uncle Albert’s inability to honor his promises became a joke between the two of us. Some of my favorite promises included his oaths to go skydiving, take me camping in the Rocky Mountains, and to star in a movie with a famous movie star. He also promised my mother he would give up his failed acting career and hunt for an actual job.

It might make sense for me to resent my Uncle Albert, but in truth he remains my favorite adult. I have yet to meet another adult who would take the time to discuss moon rocks and boa constrictors for hours with a six-year-old. Always taking my concerns seriously, Uncle Albert listened intently, never laughing, or speaking in that condescending tone at which my mother excelled.

As we pulled our fingers out of the pinky swear and turned our attention back to the circus clowns and fire breathers, Uncle Albert and I laughed about the boring day my parents were having. I looked down at Uncle Albert’s worn jeans with the gigantic hole in the left knee.

“For air,” he always explained, “My knees need to breathe.” He continually wore that same torn pair of blue jeans, no matter what the occasion. All the adults I knew wore suits or dresses to a job they hated each day. In the evenings they sat around the table drinking coffee or wine, while they read the newspaper and discussed things like politics and the stock market in monotonous voices.

Uncle Albert never joined in these conversations. Instead he would sit hunched over his evening bowl of cereal and stretch his tongue out at me from behind the big blue box of Toastie Crunch. Then we’d race upstairs to my room where Uncle Albert would imitate my father’s voice, announcing the Dow Jones of the day, and chugging imaginary bottles of Maalox. We’d crash to the floor in fits of giggles and conclude that my parents would be much happier if they discussed fun things like balloons or fast cars or circus clowns.

I quickly forgot about Uncle Albert’s promise to walk on fire. It wasn’t until almost a month later when my mother flew screaming from the house in her bathrobe that I remembered our trip to the circus and Uncle Albert’s sacred vow. I pulled myself down the stairs to determine the cause of the ruckus, and was shocked to discover Uncle Albert dressed in an obnoxious purple leotard, waiting before a trail of burning hot coals that adorned the center of our driveway. My mother flailed her arms with distress, while my grandmother extended her thin frame over the front porch, ordering her son to come to his senses.

“Al, this is ludicrous. Have you lost your mind completely? Think of the example you’re setting for Shelley. Shelley, go inside,” my father boomed in his usual irritated, mature bellow. I, however, remained frozen in place, mesmerized by my uncle’s bravery. In disgust, my father stormed inside and emerged a few seconds later with cell phone in hand, prepared to summon an ambulance. I was certain this flaming line of hot coals was merely for show, until my uncle approached the start of the blazing trail and gingerly hoisted a trembling foot into the air. My grandmother screeched, burying her head in the arm of my father’s suit coat.

“You don’t have to do this, Al,” my mother murmured with a nervous laugh, “Shelley won’t think any less of you.” She clutched the top of her bathrobe self-consciously.

My friend Jared pedaled up to the scene just in time to witness my uncle slowly lower his pasty foot onto the pile of burning embers. We winced in pain, cringing as he set the other foot firmly beside it.

“What’s he doing?” Jared whispered from beneath the curtain of brown hair that always seemed to hang in his face.

“He’s keeping his promise,” I answered with amazement, my eyes fixed to the beads of sweat creeping from my uncle’s neck. Uncle Albert seemed to feel no pain as he stared calmly, with cool, blue eyes at the horizon line, his six-foot frame wavering from side to side.

“Al,” my father tried again, this time in a softer tone, “Al, please, this is insane.”

I prayed that my uncle would ignore them and finish his feat. I should have known better than to think my uncle would allow my father to deter him from his moment of glory.

Breathing carefully, Uncle Albert trudged forward. We watched each step in utter silence, as the dark coals turned a ghostly white and glared fiercely at us with mischievous, bright orange eyes. Albert froze for a moment, and my heart plummeted to my ankles, for I was certain the eccentric man had lost his nerve, but he merely scratched at his untamed gray hair and shifted his arms to his sides for balance. By this time a few of the neighbors had crowded onto their front porches to observe the crazy man on the flaming driveway.

My mother covered her eyes with shame. “Please, Albert,” she pleaded through gritted teeth, “The neighbors are staring.” My uncle smiled at this comment and winked at me as I grinned with him.

With three quick steps, Albert teetered to the finish line, dismounting safely in the cool grass. The entire block erupted in applause, and I flew at him, catapulting myself into his muscular arms. Even my parents smiled in relief, thankful that an ambulance was not required. Later that night, we soaked Uncle Albert’s feet in a bucket of cold water and brought him aspirin for the pain.

It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I found out Uncle Albert’s miraculous trek across burning embers had nothing to do with the promise he made me. My mom accidentally let it slip that Uncle Albert had been planning on auditioning for the very same circus he took me to for my birthday, and walking on hot coals was one of the prerequisites. I pretended not to care.

The circus never hired my uncle, but amazingly enough, Uncle Albert did find his calling in life thanks to the public display in our driveway. His amateur fire walk made the local paper, and a small acting company saw the article and called my uncle a few months later. The company was called “The Traveling Players,” and they performed variety show acts around the country, such as walking on fire, juggling, improvisation, puppet shows, and balancing brooms on the tip of their chins. Uncle Albert left with the tour the following November.

He procrastinated as usual, and waited to tell me he was leaving until the day before he was set to depart with the troupe. I wasn’t stupid, and unlike my parents, who had been tiptoeing around me for the past week, Uncle Albert wasn’t foolish enough to believe I hadn’t figured out his plans. I knew exactly what he was preparing to tell me as he sidled up to the thick wooden fence where I sat, sulking.

The fence separated out backyard from the tennis courts behind our house, and during the summer, collections of tennis balls accumulated in our yard. It was November, and no one was playing tennis, but I gazed intently into the grass, frantically searching for a random tennis ball that may have found its way over the fence in the last few weeks. In all honesty, I didn’t care about the tennis balls, but it was the only way I could think of to avoid my uncle’s eyes. He timidly hoisted himself onto the fence beside me, and we perched there in silence like the birds on the telephone wire above us.

My uncle was strangely taciturn for what seemed to me like the first time in his life. He was usually so quick to transform any hint of unpleasantness into a comedic moment. I wanted shadow puppets. I wanted hysterical imitations of my obtuse, unexciting parents, or vivid descriptions of circus clowns and beautiful movie stars. I wanted him to promise- to promise he would come back in a month, or even a year. But Uncle Albert frowned down at the ground, as if he would find the right words hidden in the patch of clover below his dangling feet.

“When do you leave?” I managed to push the sickening phrase past my chapped lips. He tucked his hands under the seat of his ripped jeans and focused straight ahead, “Tomorrow morning,” he mumbled.

“What time?” I pressed, not fully expecting an answer. He didn’t offer one. Instead he slid off the fence and turned to face me.

“I’m selling my van,” he began. I shivered as a breeze passed over the fence, and he reached up and buttoned my light blue sweater, “We all travel in one big van together; me and the rest of the troupe. I was wondering if you’d help me paint my van before I sell it.” He finished casually, resting his hands on my lap, as he looked at me expectantly. I stared back at him for a moment, taking in his five o’clock shadow, steady blue eyes, wild gray hair, and bright red raincoat that he wore with pride, despite the clear sky. I felt a smile spreading its way across my face, and I scrunched up my nose to prevent it, but Uncle Albert had already noticed, and he too scrunched his face like a prune and pushed his forehead gently against mine. He kissed me lightly on the nose, and lifted me off the tall wooden fence. Together we approached the vibrantly colored van that we had painted together almost four years before.

I remembered the day he first appeared in our driveway, with the enormous van after his girlfriend at the time kicked him out of her apartment for one of his many irrational acts. His van rumbled up the drive, and out hopped Uncle Albert. He handed four-year-old little me a paintbrush dipped in bright pink paint, and together we shook our brushes, splattering paint across the side of the van, and all over each other. Uncle Albert explained to my aggravated parents that if he had to live in a van, it needed to be painted the way he liked it.

My mother spent hours scrubbing the paint from my bright red locks, all the while begging my father to send his brother away. From that day on, Uncle Albert had been my constant companion, providing hours of endless entertainment with trip to zoos, parks, and even his ex-girlfriend’s house where we decorated the bushes with rolls of toilet paper and drew on the windows with shaving cream.

Now we painted over the sporadic splotches of indigo, yellow, sea green, and neon pink with practical brown spray paint. Then we climbed into the back of the vehicle and sorted through all the junk my uncle had accumulated over the years. He had saved every picture I had drawn for him, not to mention every candy bar wrapper that had ever crossed his path. The van was spotless by the time we finished that evening, and I hugged Uncle Albert one last time and breathed in his spicy cologne. He promised to wake me before he left, and I laughed to myself as I entered the house, knowing all too well Uncle Albert didn’t keep promises. Still, I popped out of bed early the next morning and rushed down the stairs, bounding from the landing to the floor a few stairs below.

“Watch it young lady,” my father snapped as I dashed into the kitchen, “We don’t run inside.”

“He left a few hours ago, sweetie,” my mother explained carefully, afraid to upset me. “He was going to wake you, but he decided it would be easier on both of you if he just left.”

“Easier on both of us,” I repeated the words over and over in my head. There was nothing easy about losing a friend. The house seemed empty without Uncle Albert around. I watched out the window for hours at a time, trusting that at any minute his huge multicolored van would rumble into our driveway and he’d come bursting into the living room with a crazy adventure planned. The van, however, was revolting brown now, and a friend of the family had purchased it a few days after Uncle Albert departed. My uncle called me every once in a while to relate some wild tale about being shot out of a cannon, or riding an elephant across a tight rope, and then he’d promise to come and visit soon. And then I would hope with everything in me that maybe this time he really would. But he never did.

I almost shouted in surprise when I opened my mailbox this morning and discovered a letter from him in the mail. It was a birthday card. Today is October third. My birthday is in late January. However, when I read the card I had to smile. It was a Happy Kindergarten Graduation card, but Kindergarten Graduation was crossed out and 21st Birthday was written above it in orange crayon. I’m nineteen. Good old Uncle Albert.

Erin Rigik (Gimmesomemo2[at] is a senior at Bradley University in Peoria, IL, where she is majoring in Theatre Arts and minoring in creative writing and journalism. The soon to be 22-year-old was born and raised in Evergreen Park, IL. She hopes to spend her future writing, traveling, and working professionally in many aspects of theatre. Erin is spending the summer stage managing at Theatre L’Homme Dieu in Alexandria, Minnesota.

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