When I was twelve, I often wished Uncle Pete were my father.

My own dad treated me well and helped me in all sorts of important ways. But his tastes ran to hiking and rare stamps, while Uncle Pete hunted and collected guns. Where Dad was short and skinny and seldom lifted anything heavier than a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Uncle Pete was big and strong and worked out with weights.

Both my parents had jobs, so after school I stayed at Uncle Pete’s. He was rarely home when I was there, though. Aunt Greta seemed to understand how boring those afternoons were for me. She’d let me eat more of her home-made snickerdoodles than I should. And she’d gently encourage my five-year-old cousin, Arnie, to switch the TV from Dora the Explorer to something I might find more interesting.

One afternoon — the last time I ever went there alone — Uncle Pete was home. Arnie and I watched my uncle watch a ballgame and drink beer. When his team began to lose badly, Uncle Pete clicked off the TV, crushed an empty beer can in his hand and shouted, “Greta! I’m going to the basement.”

I said, “Are you going to clean your guns. Can I watch?”

From the kitchen and out of sight, my aunt called, “Pete. Those boys can watch. But don’t let either of them even touch a gun.”

“A little credit, huh, Greta?”

The three of us went down a groaning set of wooden stairs. When Uncle Pete flipped on the lights, I could see a few cracked concrete blocks and places where the mortar between them had fallen out. Mold grew on the wall behind my uncle’s workbench.

He took a beer from an old refrigerator, opened it and swigged. Then he wiped off the top, held it out to me, and said, “Want to give it a try?”

“Is it okay?”

“It’s okay if I say it is. But you have a choice. What’ll it be?”

The beer tasted terrible. But drinking was something I figured a man should learn, and I asked if I could have another sip. Uncle Pete took shook his head. “Another time. Your aunt’ll give me shit if she smells beer on your breath. She’s been on the rag all day.”

Arnie said, “A dishrag?”

Uncle Pete winked at me and laughed out loud. I laughed, too. Then I felt bad. I didn’t quite get the joke, but I understood it was at the expense of Arnie and my aunt.

Arnie asked to try some beer, but my uncle said no. When it looked as if Arnie were tearing up, Uncle Pete said, “We’ve talked about this. Men don’t cry.”

Uncle Pete set the beer on his workbench, unlocked a cabinet and took out a pistol. “This is a revolver. The kind cops used forty, fifty years ago.”

He drew an imaginary line a few feet from the workbench and said, “Anybody moves past there is asking for a beating.” Arnie jumped back. I found a big block of wood and set it a little behind the line. My cousin and I sat there.

Aunt Greta came downstairs and set a basket of laundry near the washing machine, on the other side of the basement. On her way back up the stairs, she said, “Pete. Remember what I said about not letting the boys touch your guns.”

Once she was gone, in a mocking way and just loud enough for Arnie and me to hear, my uncle repeated Aunt Greta’s words. I laughed, but again felt a little guilty about it.

When Uncle Pete finished cleaning the revolver, he looked toward the stairs, scowled and muttered, “She’s not the boss of me.”

He loaded the gun and held it toward me, handle-first. “Want to give it a try?”

“Shoot? Really?”

“Yeah. Why not?”

“Aunt Greta said — ”

“This is my gun, not your aunt’s. If you don’t want to fire it, fine. But you have a choice. What’ll it be?”

I held out my hand for the gun, but Uncle Pete kept it as he walked Arnie and me past his weight bench to the far side of the basement. Arnie asked if he could fire the gun, too.

“You’re too little.”

Arnie looked as if he were trying to keep himself from crying. In what I suppose was praise for that effort, my uncle patted him on the head. “No tears, right?” Arnie nodded.

Uncle Pete told my cousin to stand behind us against the washer, and had me point my arms toward the block of wood where Arnie and I had sat. From behind, my uncle wrapped his huge arms around mine and put the gun into my hands. “Go ahead,” he said. “Pull the trigger.”

A thunderclap that hurt my ears.

A recoil, that threw me against my uncle’s broad chest.

Footsteps on the stairs.

Aunt Greta. Loud. High-pitched: “Someone could’ve been killed!”

By this time, Uncle Pete had taken the gun from me and calmly engaged the safety. “You’re over-reacting, again, Greta.” He pointed to me. “He’s fine.” He looked at my cousin. “Arnie’s…” Uncle Pete sighed. “Shit, Arnie’s crying. But he’s okay, too.”

Arnie clearly was not okay. Nor was I. In my mind, I kept hearing Uncle Pete’s words: You have a choice. What’s it going to be? I stood there for what seemed like a very long time. Smelling cordite. Listening to the adults argue. Trying to choose.

I made a choice I knew would displease my uncle. I knelt beside Arnie so that we were at eye level, and I gave him a hug. He stopped crying a little and hugged me back.

Even harder.

Ted Lietz is a freelance writer and reformed marketer. His work also has been published in such places as Every Day Fiction and Flashquake. Everyone has to be somewhere. He happens to live in Pittsburgh.

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Every Day Fiction

  • Among the most important rules of shooting is, no alcohol at the firing point. And, since another important rule is that you should always treat every gun as if it were loaded, that means that the uncle should have treated what he may have thought was a dry run as the real thing and not done it with alcohol around. That still applies if he knew the gun was loaded and he was doing what he did knowingly, as a joke on the kids and a rebellion against his wife. More people have been accidentally killed by unloaded guns than by any other kind.

  • Tamim

    This is a highly accomplished piece of writing.
    The tension is setup early with the declaration ‘the last time I ever went there alone’. I really like that it builds not to some set-piece crescendo but to a more nuanced cusp.

    There’s a lot that is unsaid – about his unspoken frustrations, his realtionship with his wife…the reader of course can sketch in the gaps intelligently, which is a great pleasure – far more so than simply being told ‘he’s wearing a tatty check shirt, has a three day old stubble and is secretly worred about being laid off, but hasn’t confided in Greta yet’…etc etc…

    Well done,

  • Pete Wood

    A great read. Very subtle.

  • Joanne


  • I enjoyed this piece.

    Not sure about the title, though. Something like ‘Choices’ might have been less pretentious than an obscure referece to a 20th century American writer.

    That aside, excellent POV character – I wanted to punch Uncle Pete on the nose several times.

  • Ted Lietz

    Thanks, everyone. I appreciate your taking the time to comment. Ted

  • Great story,loved it. The pov character was very believable and a great A.

  • Sorry, I pressed the wrong key and posted the comment before I finished writing. Anyway I meant to say the uncle Pete character was very well drawn as well.
    I do agree that the title doesn’t seem to fit the story.
    Aside from that a brilliant.


  • No he wouldn’t.

    Anyone whose life has been rocked by a gun tragedy is not going to like this… at all.

    For a piece with Hemingway in the title I expected more. The only thing this has in common with Hemingway is the way he died and even that’s a stretch.

  • Janice D. Soderling

    I would end the story with “trying to choose” and somehow bake in the choice before that. In other words let the reader know that N is torn between hugging Arne or not. The ending is (for me) a little too pat, too sentimental.

    But the story is very well done, good tension, suspense, no cheap tricks like Arnie getting shot. Fine story IMO.

  • I enjoyed this piece. As for drinking and shooting… I’m from Arkansas, people go in to the woods with coolers of beer and high powered rifles all the time… No big deal to them. If you drink every day and handle guns every day it’s going to happen.

    The uncle reminds me of a lot of men I have known… Well depicted and, in spite of wether or not someone has endured a gun related tragedy, this story didn’t pull the trigger and is very much an artistic expression and not condoning gun violence.

    Thanks for your story Ted

  • Rob

    I have to agree with both Tamin & Dirk-

    Lots of character development in this piece just through the way it was written. Lots of people drink & shoot (And drink & drive too)

    The only thing that I really stumbled over was the Uncle ‘Calmly engaged the safety’ on a ‘revolver’. Unless he’s got something like a rare old Webly-Fosbery, revolvers do not come with manual safeties (Although, you can find some retrofits done for paranoid people).

  • Paul Friesen

    Nice story, I have to agree with the other Paul and Mickey on the title though

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    I thought this wa a solid four-star story. When it ocmes to titles–I think that’s one place where the writer has the right to indulge him/herself. A title is so personal–can have levels of meaning the reader can’t always unravel. This title put me off becaue I can’t stand Hemingway. But I’m glad I got past it to read the story itself. Unfortunately there’s no shortage of Uncle Petes.

  • Solid story. Ending a bit too sentimental for my tastes, though.

  • Louise Michelle

    A very enjoyable read, with characters well thought out and believable. You worked the perfect amount of tension into your piece which made the reader expect a disaster/accident at the end. Ditto on the title; perhaps you can take the time to post here and explain your reasoning for it since so many of us commented on it. Nice work!

  • Ted Lietz

    I appreciate your kind words, Louise Michelle. As for the title, I hope you’ll understand if I don’t want to explain beyond saying … I intended it to be a little ambiguous. But I do appreciate your asking. Ted

  • JenM

    This was a great story, wven if it was a bit hard to read emotionally. I’ve had to mke choices that distance myself from my family so I totally “get it.” Four stars.

  • joannab.

    thank you so much for not killing off arnie. i was gearing up for that through the whole reading and going, “don’t. don’t. not another dead kid in the basement story.” i really liked this much more subtle development of a different outcome entirely.

    but i think the vote is going against you on your choice of the title. i didn’t get it either, or want it.

  • MaryAlice Meli

    I loved the story and think Hemingway would have understood Uncle Pete, even if I think he’s an ass, same as Hemingway, though he was a talented ass.

  • I’m no quite sure where this story is going. Although it is well-written it just seems to stop and not go to any further great point.
    I didn’t get the meaning of the Hemingway reference.

  • Gretchen Bassier

    A gripping story with well-developed characters. Glad it turned out okay – I was nervous the whole time.

  • Joanne

    I’m not a Hemingway fan, but based on what I’ve read about his life, I think Arnie is the one he’d understand.

  • Great story. Solid. Dark. Nerve-wracking. Good job!

  • Pingback: Podcast EDF072: Hemingway Would Understand • by Ted Lietz • read by Ted Lietz | Every Day Fiction - The once a day flash fiction magazine.()

  • S Conroy

    Really enjoyed the characterisations and the story between the lines. Very well told and along with Joanna B want to say thanks for sparing Arnie.

  • S Conroy

    Really enjoyed the characterisations and the story between the lines. Very well told and along with Joanna B want to say thanks for sparing Arnie.