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Authors: Lois Lowry

Us and Uncle Fraud

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US and Uncle Fraud
Lois Lowry

Houghton Mifflin Company
Boston

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Lowry, Lois.
Us and Uncle Fraud.

Summary: Mysterious things begin to happen after
Uncle Claude comes to stay with his sister's family.
Is Uncle Claude a thief, an imposter, or just a dream
weaver?

1. Children's stories, American, [1. Uncles—
Fiction] I. Title.
PZ7.L9673 US 1984 [Fic] 84-12783
ISBN 0-395-36633-X

Copyright © 1984 by Lois Lowry

All rights reserved. For information about permission
to reproduce selections from this book, write to
Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Company, 215 Park Avenue
South, New York, New York 10003.

Printed in the United States of America

HAD
10 9 8 7 6

This one is for my blue-eyed grandson,
James Michael.

1

"Claude's coming," my mother said in some surprise, looking up from the letter in her hands. "For Easter."

Father lowered the newspaper and looked up. He scowled. Then he picked the paper up again and turned a page quickly so that it made a whipping sound. But we were used to that. Father was the paper's editor, and each night he whipped through the pages, scowling, finding mistakes here and there. "Misplaced modifier," he would say, groaning, or "Inappropriate apostrophe." Sometimes he put his head into his hands in despair. He was always very fast, finding errors. But tonight he turned the flimsy pages more swiftly than usual while Mother watched. Finally he looked up again.

"Wasn't he just here? Wasn't he here last month?"

"Oh, Matt," Mother said, laughing. "It's been three years. He's never even seen Stephie."

She put the letter on the table beside her chair and leaned over to pick up my sister who was playing on the floor near her feet. Stephie was ready for bed, already in her pink flannel pajamas; she put her thumb into her mouth and curled into Mother's lap, twisting a strand of her own dark hair around the fingers of her other hand.

"You're going to meet your Uncle Claude," crooned Mother to Stephie, who sucked rhythmically on her thumb, her eyes half-closed. "Uncle Claude, Uncle Claude, Uncle Claude," Mother murmured, making a lullaby of it. Stephie's eyes closed and her thumb, glistening, dropped to her side. In her sleep her mouth moved, looking for the thumb, then relaxed.

Mother patted my sister's back. "I'll take her up to bed," she said softly. Then she turned to us. "Do you remember Claude?" she asked.

I tried. Three years ago I had been eight. Adults had come and gone in my life, but the men all seemed the same. I remembered women by what they wore, how they smelled and sounded, and what their secrets were. Mother's friend, Mrs. Mallory, wore black, and smelled of cologne; her husband had died of something mysterious called FUO, Fever of Unidentified Origin, my mother had explained to me mournfully. My aunts, Father's sisters, Florence and Jeanette, always dressed in billowing pastels—dresses that seemed incongruously like those worn by Stephie's dolls—but they walked heavily, with stomping noises, through our house,
and their voices, too, were heavy and loud. Neither had ever married, and Mother had whispered to me that they disliked men, although in their odd, explosive way, they were fond of Father.

But I had no memories of sounds or secrets connected with Claude. I shook my head. "Is he good-looking?" I asked. Now that I was eleven and went to the movies almost every Saturday afternoon, I was interested in the
looks
of men. The dashing, sinister appearance of film villains appealed to me.

Mother chuckled. "Not handsome," she said, tilting her head as if to remember. "I'd call him
sweet
-looking, I guess."

I shrugged and looked back at the game of checkers that I was losing to my brother on the living room rug. "Sweet-looking" didn't sound very interesting.

Marcus jumped two of my men, removed them from the board, and kinged himself. He smirked at me and I glowered. Marcus was only ten, but he always won. I thought he cheated, but I could never catch him at it.

My older brother, Tom, stirred in his chair and rustled his section of the paper, the sports page. Tom was fourteen, and he seemed to be turning into Father. His voice was deepening; he had gotten glasses this year; he walked like Father, talked like Father, and shared Father's opinions about politics; and he had lately, to my chagrin, taken to calling me "Lulu" the way Father did, but with a patronizing kind of affection. My name, I reminded him often
and haughtily, was Louise. When I said my own name aloud, I bounced it into three syllables, hoping that others would take up the affectation and that I could become "Louisa" in a gradual and surreptitious way.

Tom said, "I remember him. Good old Claude the Fraud." He said "fraud" in an exaggerated fashion, catching his lower lip with his top teeth to make the / and then filling his cheeks with air, blowing it out into the word so that the name seemed laughable and foolish. He and Father grinned at each other.

Mother shook her head, chuckling, and rose with Stephie in her arms. "He's arriving Friday," she said, "by train."

Father called after her as she carried Stephie up the stairs. "We don't have room, Hallie," he pointed out half-heartedly.

"He can have my room," I said, "and I'll sleep in Marcus's room." Then I added, "The way I do when Aunt Florence and Aunt Jeanette come to visit."

"At least there's only one of Claude," Father said, and lifted the newspaper again. "
My
relatives come in whole herds."

Marcus and I laughed. Florence and Jeanette were a pair, not a whole herd, but it did seem, when they came to visit, as if a disorganized army had arrived. Behind their broad pastel backs, Father called them Flotsam and Jetsam, even though Mother, giggling, told him again and again to shush.

There was only a half-day of school on Friday. Some of the kids groaned that they would have to spend the entire afternoon in church, mourning the death of Jesus. I mourned the death of Jesus in my own way, feeling uncomfortable and sad about the nails in his hands and feet. Once I had held my left hand flat against the workbench in the basement, and poked at it with a nail, just to see how it might feel. But it hurt too much, even just the nervous poking; I didn't have the courage to pierce my own skin. So I felt sorry for Jesus, but pleasantly smug that my family never attended church and that I wouldn't have to waste an entire school-free afternoon.

"I can do the sheets," I suggested to Mother, who was busily tidying the house with Stephie underfoot. "I can put clean sheets on my bed for Uncle Claude."

She hesitated. "Well," she said, "are you sure you can do a good job? Claude likes very tight corners."

"Of
course
I can."

"All right, then. I'll check it when you're done." She sighed, looking around at all that was left to do. Our house was always a mess. Mother's projects—sewing, knitting, embroidery, even a half-done watercolor at least a year old—were everywhere. Stephie's toys were scattered on the living room floor; Mother gathered them all into the laundry basket and set it on the stairs. Father's newspapers were in a tall stack beside his leather chair; she looked at it, shook her head, and left it there. Once
she had put them all out with the trash and he had bellowed for days.

Marcus's ice skates still dangled by their laces from the coatrack in the hall, although the ice had been too thin for skating for nearly a month. Mother looked at them, frowning, then lifted them down by their laces and handed them to me.

"Put these in Marcus's room when you go up," she said. "And use the blue sheets. They're on the bottom shelf of the linen closet. Use pillowcases to match. And tight corners. Remember? Like in a hospital."

It was one of Mother's seeming non sequiturs. My tonsils had been removed in the hospital when I was five, but surely Mother knew I hadn't noticed how the bed was made. I went upstairs, deposited Marcus's skates on his bed, and found the blue company sheets. Carefully I remade my own bed for Uncle Claude, pulling the corners tight by crumpling all the excess fabric and stuffing it under the mattress. I smoothed the blanket the way Mother did; as an afterthought, I left a green Life Saver on the pillow, as a welcoming gift, and dusted the tops of the furniture with the used pillowcase before I tossed it into the laundry hamper.

Later in the afternoon, Stephie napped, waking at twilight with her face creased and her curls moist, just as my brothers came in, muddy and arguing noisily, from a ball game in the vacant lot.

"Is he here yet?" asked Marcus.

"Claude the Fraud?" Tom added. "Is Claude the Fraud here yet?"

"No," said Mother sharply. "And stop that. Don't you dare do that when he's here. You boys go upstairs now and wash. Change into clean clothes. Louise, get Stephie changed, would you? I'm going to start dinner. His train arrives at six."

"Is Father going to the train station for him?" Tom asked.

"No. Claude will walk from the station. He always does. It's only three blocks and he doesn't like to inconvenience anyone. Claude is a very considerate boy."

"Boy?" I asked in amazement. "Is Claude a
boy?
"

Mother turned on her way to the kitchen. She looked startled. "No," she said. "I guess not. Claude must be—well, let me think. He's a year younger than I am. That makes him thirty-five. Isn't that odd, that I always think of Claude as a boy?" She stood there a moment, as if she were surprised at her own mistake. Then she chuckled. "He's a
man.
I wonder why I forget that?"

The house was polished now, and gleaming; the toys were put away, and even Father's newspapers were patted into an evenly aligned stack. It seemed quiet, although I could hear Marcus and Tom still arguing, upstairs, about a controversial play in the infield. I took my sister up to her room and dressed her in pale blue overalls and a yellow sweater. She
sat on my lap as I tied her high-topped shoes, and we looked out the window together, down the quiet street where the lights were beginning to appear in the windows of our neighbors' houses.

"Claude," I told Stephie. "Can you say 'Claude'?"

"Claude," Stephie repeated precisely and dutifully.

"Can you say 'Uncle Claude'?"

She shook her head and put her thumb into her mouth. I could see her grinning around the thumb. She could say it if she wanted to.

"Uncle Claude is Mommy's brother," I explained. "But he's a grown-up man. Do you know who Stephie's brothers are?"

She shook her head again, still grinning.

"Marcus and Tom, dummy," I told her. "You know that." She nodded, giggling, climbed from my lap, and scampered away. I sat alone in her room and watched from the window until my uncle arrived.

Uncle Claude was a disappointment at first. He wasn't at all handsome; he wasn't even, as Mother had suggested, sweet-looking, whatever that meant. He was—well, he was
nothing.
His face was like a face in my "learn-to-draw-people" book; it had all the correct features of a face, and in the right places, but it had nothing to distinguish it. Father's face had creases across the forehead and two pinch marks at the sides of his nose when he took his glasses off. Father had a line separating his chin
into two parts, like a boulder that had been partially split during some prehistoric age; Mother called it a "cleft" and said it made Father unusually handsome.

Even Tom had a face that one could remember. When you saw Tom's face, much like Father's, even to the cleft chin, but without the creased forehead, you knew it was Thomas F.—for Frederick—Cunningham that you were looking at.

And Marcus, too. Marcus had freckles everywhere and a chicken pox scar by his right eyebrow; one of his front teeth was chipped, and he had a habit of poking the jagged place with his tongue when he was thinking.

But Claude's face was bland, like pudding with no nuts or raisins sprinkled in. It was smooth, with no lines or scars or freckles; and his hair was straight and dull, not streaked with gray like Father's or carefully combed and parted like Tom's. Certainly he had none of Marcus's wild curls.

He looked, I thought, like the turtle I had had once, with the same lipless, pleasant expression.

As the turtle had been, Uncle Claude would be boring, I decided. I shook his hand politely; at least he did not say, as my aunts always did, how tall I had grown.

Instead, he bowed slightly, and held my hand for a moment before letting it go. "There once was a girl named Louisa," he said in a solemn voice, "Who liked all the young men to tease her—"

I looked up at him, startled.

"I can't tell you the rest right now," he said. "It's rather risqué."

He let my hand go and winked at me.

"And you remember Marcus," Mother said, pushing my brother a little so that he, too, would shake hands. Grudgingly Marcus held out his hand.

Instead of shaking it, Uncle Claude leaned down and inspected Marcus's hand carefully. "Good," he said, after a moment. "No weapons. Sometimes a tiny one can be concealed very cleverly."

"What?" Marcus looked at his own hand, puzzled.

"That's the original purpose of handshaking," Uncle Claude explained. "So that strangers could indicate that they had no deadly weapons. Of course, with today's technology, a tiny poison dart could be concealed even in an open palm. I felt that I had to examine yours very carefully because, to be honest, you looked a little hostile. But your hand looks clean. I feel safe."

"It
should
look clean," Marcus said. "I just washed it." Then he held it out a second time and shook Uncle Claude's hand quite firmly. He grinned. Marcus liked to be thought dangerous.

"Me," said Stephie loudly. "My turn."

"This is Stephanie," Mother explained. "She's two-and-a-half."

Claude picked her up. "Two-and-a-half pounds?" he asked. "Or quarts? Quarts of pickles?"

"Pickles," giggled Stephie.

"Rhymes with tickles," announced Uncle Claude and wiggled his fingers under her arms until she shrieked with delight. Then he gave her a kiss on the cheek and put her down.

BOOK: Us and Uncle Fraud
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