Short Story Contest-winning story #10: “Uncle Evil Eye,” by Carole Bugge

November 1st, 2005

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New Short Fiction Award

We value creative writing and wish to encourage writers of short fiction to pursue their dream of being published. Jerry Jazz Musician would like to provide another step in the career of an aspiring writer. Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.

Carole Bugge of New York City is the tenth recipient of the Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on November 1, 2005.

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Carol Bugge

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…..Carole Buggé was born in Nurnberg, Germany to American parents in a family of high testosterone level women. After moving to New York, she performed in musicals and plays and toured the country doing comedy improvisation.

…..She has five published novels (St. Martin’s Press and Berkley), three novellas and a dozen or so short stories in print. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines. Winner of the Eve of St. Agnes Poetry Award, she is also the First Prize winner of the Maxim Mazumdar Playwriting Competition, the Chronogram Literary Fiction Prize, and the Jean Paiva Memorial Fiction award, which included an NEA grant to read her fiction and poetry at Lincoln Center. A finalist in the McClaren, MSU and Henrico Playwriting Competitions, she has read her work at Barnes and Noble, The Knitting Factory, Mercy College, Merritt Books, the Colony Cafe and the Gryphon Bookstore. She has received grants from Poets and Writers, as well as the New York State Arts Council. Her story “A Day in the Life of Comrade Lenin” received an Honorable Mention in St. Martin’s Best Fantasy and Horror Stories, and she was a winner in the Writer’s Digest Competition in both the playwriting and essay categories. She was head writer for the television sketch show “Human Relations 101” and is a juror for the Scholastic National Achievement Awards in both the playwriting and fiction writing categories.

…..Her plays and musicals have been presented in New York City at The Players Club, Manhattan Punchline, Pulse Theatre, The Van Dam Street Playhouse, Love Creek, Playwrights Horizons, HERE, the Episcopal Actors’ Guild, the Jan Hus Theatre, Lakota Theatre, The Open Book, Genesius Guild, the 14th Street Y, and Shotgun Productions, as well as the Alleyway Theatre in Buffalo and the Byrdcliffe Theatre in Woodstock. She was sponsored by The Paper Mill Playhouse for a TCG Playwriting Award two years in a row, and was a Playwriting Fellowship finalist at Manhattan Theatre Club. Her play “Strings” has recently been optioned for an Off Broadway production, and submitted for a Sloan Foundation grant. For five months of the year she is an Artist in Residence at the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony in Woodstock, New York. The rest of the year she lives in New York City with a passive/aggressive cat.

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Uncle Evil Eye

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Carole Bugge

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….. My father died quickly and cleanly in the waning days of autumn, just two months before the arrival of the millennium. A massive neural hemorrhage took him — his brain, drowned in blood, was gone within hours. It was ironic that his own blood finally accomplished what years of alcoholism had not: heavy as his drinking was, he remained utterly lucid and sharp until the early morning hours of a late October Tuesday, when a tiny blood vessel in his head gave way, loosening the flood of fluid that killed him. Until then, his memory, both short and long-term, remained unimpaired. True, his body was falling apart; his liver and heart were bad, he suffered from diabetes, gout, macular degeneration — you name it, he had it — but his mind remained as sharp as the day he graduated with a PhD from Harvard.

…..    The week he died he was planning on attending a bridge tournament, where he was accruing points as a Grand Master. Bridge — let alone Tournament Bridge, which can be as serious and cut throat as tournament chess — is a game requiring enormous concentration as well as keen memory, and, until the moment the aneurysm took him, my father had both.

…..   My father was a mysteriously bitter man. It was as if he imbibed bitterness in the morning with his tea; it clung to him day and night, a relentless parasite of the soul. He sat at his end of the dining room table every evening, presiding over our family dinners, tearing his paper napkin into small pieces. You could always spot my father’s place at the table: shreds of napkin lay in a pile to the right of his plate, a little heap of thin white strips, discarded worries.

…..But my father never could seem to rid himself of the sorrows that haunted him; even his laugh, a manic sort of giggle, had an edge of pain, a catch in the throat that was more like a sob. What exactly his past injuries were, or why he chose to hold onto them, no one really knew. He talked a lot about his Depression era childhood, about how he had been forced to support his family after the sudden death of his father, and the memory always seemed to fill him with bile — but I always suspected there was more, some key to his unhappiness, hidden deep within his psyche.

…..My mother reacted to my father’s moroseness by developing a brittle shell of cheerfulness that she allowed few things to penetrate. It was a logical enough act of self-defense, though it served to polarize the family emotional life even more: my father was the gloomy one, my mother the eternal optimist, and we three children fell somewhere in the middle.

…..My father’s repertoire as a parent may have been somewhat limited compared to my mother, but as an entertainer he could really pull out the stops. His greatest role — in fact, as I later came to believe, his alter ego — was Uncle Evil Eye, a surly one-eyed ancestor (or so he claimed) who skulked through the bedtime stories he told us like a menacing shadow, a sinister Doppelganger representing all that is dastardly and frightening to a young child. It was said that one glance from his evil eye could curse a person for life. Uncle Evil Eye played a mysterious game called Mumblety-peg, and even its name sounded sinister. We didn’t know how it was played, but the sound of it was deliciously scary when my father whispered it to us: Mumblety-peg.

…..Sometimes Uncle Evil Eye himself would come to us in the dead of night, circling our beds like the restless spirit he was, muttering and cackling, until finally he swooped down upon us, venting his evil spleen in the horrible manner of unquiet and tortured souls: violent, unrestrained tickling. His costuming was minimal, and consisted usually of a white bed sheet pulled over his head so that only one eye showed — the evil one, of course.

…..When he became Uncle Evil Eye, all the bitterness inside my father dried up, to be replaced by the sneering but humorous persona of his ancestor. It was as if, in playing the part of the villain, my father liberated some part of himself that enjoyed life. Uncle Evil Eye may have been a scoundrel, but he was anything but glum. There was a gleam in my father’s blue eyes when he took on the role of his alter ego. In the fiendish cackling of Uncle Evil Eye my father had found something — an expression of the joie de vivre so absent from his daily life.

…..  Such was Uncle Evil Eye, and such was our terror of him, that our eyes lit up at the mere mention of his name. On warm summer nights when our cousins the Millers were visiting, we would sleep out in our “clubhouse” — an old shed behind our house we had cleaned up, lining the floor with a discarded carpet. My sister Katie even made curtains for the windows, and we dragged an old porch swing into the tiny backroom to serve as a bed. We used the front room as our “meeting room,” and at night we lined it with army cots — when we stuffed them in side by side we could just fit five of them.

…..The year I turned ten, a spell of warm weather hit northeastern Ohio in late October, an Indian summer that coincided with a visit from the Millers. Halloween was on a Saturday that year, and we all went trick-or-treating together — the three Miller boys and the three Bowers girls — and then came back to spend the night in our clubhouse. It was so warm out that we hardly needed the coarse green army blankets that we had tucked neatly into our cots, and as we sat on the living floor sorting our candy, I looked through the French windows at the rising moon, and a tingling in my stomach told me that this was a night for a visit from Uncle Evil Eye.

….. Indeed, how could he resist — it was Halloween! The harvest moon hung low over the horizon, orange and juicy as a cantaloupe. The warm air was full of the promise of fall — a rich briskness in the snap of a twig underfoot, a certain ripeness in the crisp rustle of the dead leaves piling up under the majestic red maple tree in the front lawn. If this wasn’t a night for a haunting, then what was?

…..  Tonight, however, we were ready for Uncle Evil Eye. We had spent the better part of the day rigging a surprise for him. We intended to welcome his next visit to the clubhouse with the most advanced weapons technology known to us: a bucket of water over the head. The bucket was attached to a limb of the old cherry tree growing next to the clubhouse, and the rope was strung into the main room through a narrow chimney pipe that was once used for a wood-burning stove. One good tug of the rope tipped the bucket from the branch upon which it rested; a second rope kept the bucket firmly attached to the branch so that only the water fell upon the victim below.

…..  The Pentagon had nothing on us: we were in full control of our awesome technology, subjecting it to an extensive and grueling battery of tests. This consisted mainly of trial runs on a test subject — my cousin Donny, the youngest and therefore the most expendable member of our gang. We had Donny stand on various spots underneath the branch of the cherry tree upon which the bucket teetered precariously, filled to the brim with water, to see where the BSOI (Best Spot of Impact) was. Finally, after thoroughly drenching Donny with water many times, we determined that the BSOI was in fact right in front of the clubhouse window — a spot easily visible from inside. Could we have developed our secret weapon without the use of Donny as a guinea pig? We could. Would it have been as satisfying? It would not. Fortunately, Donny was both good-natured and gullible, and he remained convinced of the importance of the part he had played in the development of our weapon. We told no one of our plan, not even my mother: it was our secret.

…..   Sure enough, as we prepared to go out to the clubhouse, my father alluded darkly to the possibility of an appearance from his most sinister of ancestors. His cheeks ruddy from roast beef and gin, his blue eyes crinkling with amusement, my father let us know that we might expect a visitation that evening.

…..  “Hmm,” he said, peering out at the plump round moon as we gathered on the back porch, dressed in our pajamas, blankets and pillows in our arms, ready to cross the back lawn to our clubhouse, which waited silently for us underneath the gnarled branches of the old sour cherry tree. “I wonder if it’s a night for Uncle Evil Eye,” he mused, almost to himself. A collective shiver passed through each of our spines. He always posed this possibility in the form of a question: I wonder if Uncle Evil Eye will come out tonight?

…..    We knew then and there that he would, of course. We lay wide awake on our army surplus cots, staring at the moon as it rose higher over the sloped roof of the big house, our toes tingling with excitement. Of course we knew that Uncle Evil Eye was actually our father disguised in a bed-sheet thrown over his head; we knew and yet we didn’t know, in that way children have of living in imaginary reality when it suits them.

…..    The six of us were crammed into the little shack that night: me and my two sisters and the Miller boys. The Millers were all blond and sweet-natured, Midwestern hayseeds with central Ohio twangs and cowlicks. Besides Cousin David and myself — both of us would turn ten in December — there was Cousin Bobby, the oldest at twelve, my sister Katie, a year younger than Bobby, my little sister Susan, who was almost seven, and Cousin Donny, the youngest at six.

…..  We lay on our cots whispering and shivering, not from cold but out of excitement. Katie reclined on the porch swing in the tiny back room, looking very comfortable, with a book propped up on her knees. Katie was always reading; she was the intellectual in the family. I was more kinetic, restless, a fidgeter who needed always to be in motion. Finally, the suspense became too much for me and my cousin David. We threw off our scratchy green army blankets, and launched ourselves out into the night, leaving the clubhouse on a “spying” mission, a “reconnaissance maneuver,” as Cousin Bobby called it, to alert the others when Uncle Evil Eye was on his way.

….. We stepped out into the cool air, startled by the first touch of wet grass on our bare feet. The night hugged us close, and the air held the promise of adventure. The dew had gathered thickly on the lawn, and in the bright cold glow of moonlight everything glistened — the stump of the old oak tree, the swing set; even the pebbles on the driveway looked damp. I tiptoed across the lawn next to my cousin, excitement and anticipation forming a tight knot in my stomach. I heard the soft chortle of an owl in a tree somewhere above us as we approached the big house, which loomed up ahead, its white clapboards shining silver in the moonlight.

…..  The lights blazed brightly from the living room window, and we crept up to it on our hands and knees and raised our heads high enough to peer inside. The grownups sat around the bridge table, drinks at their sides, immersed in the game. My father’s piano stood in its corner, its maple veneer glistening with oil, the ivory keys white as bone. My mother was playing the bridge hand, and she leaned forward over the table, her back straight as ever, her long face composed in concentration, intent upon her task. My father stood at her shoulder watching as she snapped the cards down briskly on the table.

…..    I couldn’t hear the actual snap of the cards, but I could tell by the quickness of her movements that she had the hand won; once my mother started snapping the cards, you might as well throw down your hand. As she collected the tricks rapidly, I had a sudden longing to be in that room, to be sitting quietly next to my mother watching her play the hand. It was such a cozy scene, my parents and my Aunt Erma and Uncle Bob with their kind faces and soft, corn-fed bodies, and all at once I felt left out, standing here on the damp grass, the bottoms of my pajamas soggy with dew.

….. My cousin David’s voice brought me out of my reverie.

…..  “Look!” he whispered, gripping my shoulder.

…..    I looked. My father was no longer in the room. The others were leaning back in their chairs, sipping their drinks.

…..    “He must be on his way!” David hissed, his hand tight as a claw on my shoulder.

…..    “Okay — let’s go back and tell the others,” I replied, trying to sound calm, but I could feel my throat constricting from fear and excitement.

…..    We dashed back toward the clubhouse — past the swing set, underneath the laundry line, toward the old twisted cherry tree, its branches hanging low over the roof of our clubhouse. Even these familiar objects took on a ghostly appearance, their shadows bent and misshapen in the half-light. A single lamp burned in the window of the tiny back room of the clubhouse, where my sister Katie lay on her porch swing reading. We tore open the door and burst inside.

…..  “He’s coming!” David cried breathlessly. The others looked up at us with panicked eyes.

…..  Bobby sat up in his cot. He was buck-toothed with a soft, bulky body — he looked as if he would make a perfect Lutheran minister someday. But because he was the oldest we all looked up to him.

…..   “How do you know?” he asked.

…..     “He’s not at the bridge table,” I answered.

…..   “Maybe he went to the bathroom,” Katie suggested. She was the only one who appeared unconcerned; she lay on her porch swing, a blanket over her knees, her book resting on her chest.

…..  She was beginning to grow breasts, a fact she was very proud of, and endeavored to draw attention to her chest whenever possible. She had been bra shopping earlier in the week, and wore her new bra all the time; I could see the white strap poking out from under her green flannel pajamas. I still wore the ribbed white undershirts I had always worn. The thought of budding breasts made me shudder: to me they represented the end of childhood, a state I was not anxious to leave.

….. “Did you see Uncle Evil Eye?” asked Susan. She was only six, and the bridge between reality and fantasy was especially thin for her.

…..Cousin Donny was just a few months younger than Susan, though with his thin frame and blond hair he looked even younger. He looked up at me, his big blue eyes wide.

…..  “Is he going to come get us?” His voice trembled a little, and I saw that he had wrapped his blanket tightly around his legs.

…..  “I don’t know,” I said. “But it’s Halloween, so I think so.”

…..“Well, let me know if you see him,” Katie yawned, going back to her book. I thought her air of indifference had to be feigned; she must be trying to impress us with how grown up she was. Perhaps as the oldest in our family she felt the need to rush headlong into adulthood, whereas I intended to cling to childhood as long as possible. I knew a good thing when I saw it, and I figured I had the rest of my life to be an adult.

…..  “I’m going to hide so he can’t find me,” said Susan, and began to crawl under her cot. It was a tight fit; we had managed to cram the five canvas cots into the clubhouse, but only just barely, with no room to spare.

….. “Me too!” Donny chirped. He usually did whatever Susan did.

…..Bobby shrugged. As the oldest, he was expected to set an example, so he could hardly crawl under his cot. Besides, Katie still reclined comfortably on her porch swing, book in hand — and she was only a girl. Bobby was required to set a standard for the rest of us, and he drew himself up with dignity.

…..“Well, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.” His voice was unsteady, though, and a cold needle of fear pierced my stomach.

…..“Okay,” I said.

…..Bobby took a deep breath. “Bucket ready?”

…..“Yep,” I replied, my hand on the rope that dangled from the stove chimney. I noticed my palms were suddenly sweaty. I had been selected as the rope puller, since the whole caper was my idea in the first place. David was the “look out” — it was his job to give me the signal when Uncle Evil Eye was at the exact spot where the water would hit.

…..As so often happens in war, however, our best laid plans were replaced by the terror and chaos of the moment.

….. What happened was something like this: my cousin David was looking out the window when his face suddenly hardened into a mask of terror. His arm shot up and he pointed toward the window.

…..“There he is!” he cried, his voice high and shrill — then he turned from the window and abruptly dove under his bed. Katie let out a screech and covered her eyes. I looked around wildly for Bobby, but he too had joined the others quivering under their cots.

…..I was the only one left standing. Averting my face from the window — I could not bear to look — I groped blindly for the rope. As soon as I felt my fingers close around it I pulled as hard as I could. There was the sound of the bucket falling from the tree limb, then a whoosh of water. I did not see any of this, however, because by this time I was already under my own cot.

…..   After the whooshing sound came another sound — a kind of strangled gurgling. Through sheer dumb luck, it seemed our missile had found its target after all. Then it occurred to me for the first time: what if Uncle Evil Eye was furious at our attack? How would he wreak his revenge? We braced ourselves. The door to the clubhouse opened slowly and we shivered in our skins — he was here!

….. There was a sloshing sound as he made his way toward us, and then we heard something that sounded like giggling. I strained my ears to hear — yes, there was no mistaking it: my father was laughing uncontrollably. He came at us, sputtering and cackling, and dragged us from our hiding places to give us the tickling of our lives. It was like being embraced by Niagara Falls — he was soaked, his bed sheet a soggy mess. Still, he tickled us, laughing all the while. We screamed and squealed, and fought to throw off his embrace, but he held us tightly to his drenched body.

…..  Finally, when we were all breathing heavily and Donny was beginning to hiccough, Uncle Evil Eye turned and left us as abruptly as he had arrived. We could hear him as he made his way back to the house, his high-pitched giggle trailing after him like the tail of a comet.

….. We would tell the story over and over at the breakfast table, in school, each with our own version; we never tired of describing how we had outsmarted the nefarious Uncle Evil Eye. My father would sit back in his chair, a partially shredded napkin between his fingers, smiling a secret smile. No one — then or since — ever referred directly to the fact that my father and Uncle Evil Eye were the same person. If we had, some of the magic would have been lost from the transformation; it would have been worse than Lois Lane suddenly realizing Superman and Clark Kent were the same person. We needed our fantasy, just as Clark Kent needed those stupid thick glasses to protect his identity.

….. The big house is gone now, condemned by the ever-present mercantile instinct of the American psyche, to be replaced by a used car lot, concrete and metal covering the land where our French windows once looked out over the broad lawn that led down to the clubhouse.

…..The clubhouse itself is long gone also; only the cherry tree remains, more gnarled than ever, guarding used Chevies now instead of our family. Every fall the little sour cherries still drop from its twisted branches to bounce off the roofs of the cars sitting side by side in the lot. Whenever I drive by there, which is infrequent, I remember that long ago Halloween night, lost in the mists of childhood.

…..   I often wonder whether, as that final brain bleed took him, my father experienced his life flashing before his eyes, as so many survivors of near death experiences have reported. I wonder, before he sank into the blackness that takes us all, whether he saw, if only for an instant, the events of that warm night in October when he became Uncle Evil Eye, immortal and unquiet spirit, wrestling with his laughing children, laughing himself, drenched to the skin, but laughing still, enjoying the joke even though it was at his own expense. It was, I think, his finest hour.…..

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Short Fiction Contest Details

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