The old man nestled so far back in his chair he nearly disappeared.
“Bring me a cup of coffee, little one.”
His eyes closed like a contented cat as he shifted his rump around, easing still further into the great plush chair.
“And I’ll let spin one more before your folks get here…”
The little girl bounced into the kitchen, dolopped the appropriate amount of Costa Rican blend into the filter, poured the water and switched on the automatic coffee maker. She executed all these actions in a swift, professional way. Uncle Bert let her make the coffee when she came over and she had done it many times. She listened to it whirr and then begin to drip. The drippy-drop sound was accompanied by a warm woody smell as the coffee brewed. It was the smell of both mornings and evenings at Uncle Bertholdt’s house.
In the beginning, Madison was fascinated by her uncle’s house. She visited about twice a year when her parents were off at business conferences.
Madison’s folks kept a clean house, but many things were scattered about. It wasn’t that the house was messy, but every available surface space was covered, giving the impression of untidiness. Stacks of paper, mail, coupons, receipts and on and on sat next to glass figurines, decorative plates, bouquets of fake flowers and countless other random items competing for room on every shelf, table, and countertop.
Uncle Bert - she called him Uncle Bert for short - kept a different kind of house. First, it was rather small and plain. He kept very few things on the walls and almost nothing on any horizontal surface. Uncle Bert seemed to really enjoy the few belongings he had and took very good care of them. So, in a way, Uncle Bert's place was like a cozy museum.
Uncle Bert also kept strange routines. He preferred to keep his peanut butter in the cabinet, not in the fridge, even after he had originally opened it. Madison's mother thought this was ridiculous. He grew a beard that made him resemble the picture Madison had seen in school of a snow leopard. He enjoyed coffee and his pipe and seemed to be reading every time Madsion arrived, always sitting in his great chair. He read very fast and must have completed three books a week. He often had a number of overdue fines from the several public libraries he went to. He got these not because he was late in returning the books, though he usually was, but because he'd check out so many books at one time. He couldn't bare to be without something to read. Uncle Bert used the dozens of overdue notices as bookmarks.
His past was mysterious. Madison did not quite know what he did for a living, but had pieced together that he had traveled to every continent in the world in his youth, had had many adventures, and his sister - Madison's mother - did not entirely approve of all the choices Uncle Bert had made. Madison liked to imagine that Uncle Bert had once been a great cat burglar, pulling off daring heists as a master jewel thief. That was the romantic past she had created for him.
As for his habits, Madison had overheard her mother once call Uncle Bert "Epicurean." Madison did not know what this meant, but it sounded exotic.
Of the few items in the scantily furnished rooms, Madison was drawn to several ancient maps, framed and hung in the one long hallway.
She would sometimes stop in the middle of the hall for minutes at a time and study the maps. There were three of them and she could never quite figure out what they were maps of. Where did they represent. She had discovered a longtime ago that Uncle Bert rarely answered direct questions directly. All she ever got from him was a frustrating, cryptic answer.
“Those are places very far away,” Uncle Bert would say in a half smile.
“But where?” Madison would demand.
“Where do you think far away is?”
“Stop it, Uncle Bert. Just answer right.”
“Just question right.”
This verbal ping pong would usually go on for a few minutes until Madison gave in. She could never tell if her uncle was being mischievous or he genuinely did not want to answer her questions. She liked being teased, but only when she was in on the joke. Then she would play along and play at being frustrated. Madison did not like to really be frustrated, though, and sometimes Uncle Bert could be a very frustrating grown-up.
The last of the coffee drippy-dripped into the pot and she carefully poured a mug, leaving room for the sweet hazelnut creamer Uncle Bert liked. The mug had "Universe's Greatest Uncle" and Madison had been given the mug by her mother to give to her uncle two Christmases back. She didn't know if he drank out of it all the time or only when she came over, but she was glad it was sitting out by the coffee machine today. She added a generous amount of the creamer and carefully headed back into the study, holding it far out in front of her.
Uncle Bert was asleep and snoring lightly. This particular chair had that affect on people. Madison sometimes sat in it and listen to music and found that without noticing she’d often drift off into dreamland and wake from the nap an hour or two later.
She set the coffee on the small table next to her uncle. She was impatient to hear another story, but didn’t want to wake him.
Uncle Bert’s stories were wonderful and one of the highlights of her visits. They always began in a normal fashion, thick with detail and gradually became more and more outrageous. The pleasure was also in how he told the tales. Uncle Bert had once been a performer with a travelling theatre company in his youth and he carried over those skills now as an old man. Whenever he told one of his stories – he called them yarns – he’d often do the voices of the various characters and get quiet and spooky at the tense parts of the story and speak quickly when the events in the story picked up. Madison thought he was the best story-teller in the whole world.
One time she told him so.
“Uncle Bert you are the best story-teller I’ve ever heard.”
“In your whole life?” Uncle Bert asked.
“Yes. In my whole life.”
“What are you now, seven?”
“Seven and three fifths,” Madison corrected.
“And you’ve heard a great amount of other story-tellers in your many years?”
“Then how do you know I’m the best?”
“I just do, Uncle Bert. I just do.”
Uncle Bert smiled and then closed his eyes in his sleepy cat way. He leaned his head back and said “In that case, I accept your authority on the matter. And I’m glad you enjoy a well-spun yarn, little one.”
Madison picked the cup of coffee back up off the small side table. She gently held it under Uncle Bert’s nose. After a moment of the steam rising from the cup into his face, Uncle Bert sniffed a bit and woke up. His glasses with the thick black rims were foggy with coffee steam. He gently took the mug from Madison and slurped a bit.
“What about the yarn, Uncle Bert?”
“Oh yes, the yarn. Did I say that I’d tell one more?”
“Then I best spin you a good one, huh?”
“You best should.”
“Well, then…” Uncle Bert cleared his throat as Madison sprawled herself akimbo on the blue and gold Persian rug. She lay there on her back staring up into the slowly moving ceiling fan. This was her favorite story-listening spot.
“Once there was a very sad circus strong man…” Uncle Bert began.