Uncle Pete turns off his oxygen and removes his mask. He lights a cigarette and stares at me, his coal black eyes dare me to call for the nurse. I hate him for that stare. He knows that even in death he can call me out, challenge me to stand up to him, knowing full well that I will cave in to his stare, just like I always do, just like I did when I was sixteen and turned away from the awful sight of my first deer as it struggled to rise, wide-eyed in the grip of death. Uncle Pete had handed me his buck knife. “If you don’t go kill that deer you’ll be a quitter all your life – a good for nothing quitter.” I just stood there like a bump on a log. He laughed, took back the knife, and slit the deer’s throat. I cried a bit as some of the blood spurted on my boots. Ever since then he knew he could stare me down, make me drop my gaze, and give in to him – give in to him while feeling hatred, envy, respect and yes, even love.
I hate him for smoking, but I understand his thinking. Death isn’t just knocking on the door – the door is down, the cancer has rushed in, and soon he will be counting worms. But he really has nothing to worry about. He may have raised enough hell to earn a permanent address there but he has walked the aisle, confessed his sins, accepted Christ, and even been to church once or twice. If Pastor Stevens is right, Pete McAlister is going to heaven. And if the pastor is wrong? Well best not think about that. Without forgiveness, Uncle Pete is going to darkness blacker than the night outside his window – a place whose air might very well burn his lungs with sulfur for all eternity. So, why not smoke? If he is saved Jesus surely won’t begrudge the old fellow a few last puffs, and if not he might as well practice breathing the air of his future home.
He sits in a chair by the single window of his room. I had helped him from the bed to the chair – a wiry little birdman; all that is left of a giant who once lifted his weight in cotton as if tossing a pillow. The window overlooks the hospital parking lot, beyond that sits the decay of tenements built during President Johnson’s War On Poverty – a war that never really got started in Silsbee, Texas. Smoke from Uncle Pete’s Pall Mall hugs the window’s darkness in wisps of white. I watch the smoky patterns, trying to forget the death in the room. The moment ends as great hacking coughs threaten to throw Uncle Pete from his chair. I walk over and rub his back.
“You okay Pete?”
Thin lips turn up in a smile. “Better than I have a right to…I reckon…better than I have a right to. Reminds me of the time…”
There it is. Even the shadow of death cannot dim the spark that draws people to Uncle Pete like sugar draws piss ants. Uncle Pete is famous in Silsbee; famous for the time he stole the Sheriff’s car, famous for the time he met Woody Guthrie while hoboing to Canada, famous for the time when he stood naked as a jaybird on top of the courthouse steps and gave what he called his rebel pig call…
“S-0-0-0-0-0 pig! Saw! Saw! S-o-o-o-o pig! Saw! Saw!”
Then there were the women. Uncle Pete excited women. He was the bad boy they all wanted to tame and turn into a respectable citizen. But Uncle Pete would not be tamed. With a glass of moonshine and a story or two he would turn their charity into a night of raw sex – leaving them alone the next morning to wonder if they had encountered a man or some dream creature from a romance novel. No one but Doc Walker knew how many families in the county had children and grandchildren by Uncle Pete. But if rumors were true, half the population had twigs from Uncle Pete somewhere in their family tree. Church folk hated him. Many of them would have been more than willing to betray their Christian principles and be the one to “cast the first stone”. Cuckolded lovers and angry parents would have liked nothing more than to tar and feather, or better yet, geld Uncle Pete. Unfortunately for them, Uncle Pete’s lovers refused to betray their dark prince. Whether through shame or lingering fondness none of them would “kiss and tell” about their rendezvous with Pete; leaving the community’s proper citizens unable to do more than glare at him when they met him on the street.
Among his friends though, Uncle Pete was a legend. He did the things they only dreamed of doing; like the time he avoided a jail sentence by outrunning Judge Jenkin’s horse from Silsbee to Vidor. Brought before the Judge one more time for being drunk and rowdy in public, Uncle Pete offered to leave town for good if the Judge would beat him in a race from Silsbee to Vidor. The Judge would ride his horse and Uncle Pete would run on foot. If the Judge lost, Uncle Pete would go free. Certain of a victory the Judge agreed and even gave Uncle Pete an hour head start. The Judge chuckled as he trotted his horse along the dirt roads. It would be wonderful to see the end of Uncle Pete’s shenanigans. The Judge was puzzled that he never caught up to Uncle Pete, but assumed the poor boy had fallen over into the underbrush from exhaustion. Uncle Pete had not fallen over in exhaustion, far from it. Unafraid of cutting cross-country through thickets still filled with cougar and black bears, he only traveled about a third as far as the Judge. He was sitting in front of the general store drinking a Coca-Cola when the Judge arrived. Such acts were a source of awe and wonder even to those who hated him.
It is hard to imagine that the shrunken form before me could ever have inspired anything like awe. But I know it was true; know some of it first hand and know the rest from the endless stories he told me whenever I brought him a bottle of Maker’s Mark. Many of them made my skin crawl with their unabashed bigotry and hatred, but Uncle Pete never was one to mince words.
“You know…” he would begin after taking a big swig and then continue in a manic rush that you did not dare interrupt.
“You know there was this one time when a blue gummed nigger came up to the house with his guitar. He played slide, but he didn’ have no steel bar like most folks. No sir, he used the neck of an old Coca Cola bottle…that was all he had you know. You know times back then was hard. Well, this feller he could play that guitar like nobody’s business. We got to be best friends me and him. It didn’ matter to me none that he was black and I was white. When he played his music I’d sing along and we had the best of times. I always give him a nickel or somethin’ and I was sure to bring his family something at Christmas. That was the way it was you know. It ain’t like you been told…”
He would take another swig and point at me with the bottle for emphasis. I would look at the floor ashamed to be related to someone with such hatred and ignorance in their heart. I desperately wanted to stand and leave, but familial duty and guilt cemented my feet to the floor, holding me in mute witness to the rage and insanity.
“No it ain’t like you been told. No sir. Blacks and whites always got along in the South. Most blacks liked it the way it was. Everybody worked hard back then…black and white we hoed and picked cotton together. Most of us shared what we had and never worried none about color.”
Another swig. Strangely, I can’t ever remember Uncle Pete slurring his words. The drink seemed to sharpen his mind, not dull it.
“And that’s what I hate about the North. They make it out like the War between the States…they make it out like it was a Civil War, fought to free the slaves, or to save the Union, or for some other bullshit like that. That ain’t what it was about a’tall. It was about greed and state’s rights. North wanted to fix cotton prices and rule over the South, that’s all it was - pure and simple.”
I always was amazed at how much he could drink and how fast he could drink it. Whenever a pint got down to the final inch or so he would tilt back his head and let it drain down his throat. Then, red eyed, he would deliver a final burst of anger.
“And it ain’t over yet I tell you. No sirree Bob. It ain’t over yet. Plenty of people these days are sick and tired of Washington a’tellin’ them what to do. Yes they are. And they ain’t gonna stand for it much longer. Just you wait and see if I ain’t right.”
Uncle Pete used to draw strength from his hatred. But there is precious little sign of that Pete now. All that is left is a skeleton covered in frog skin. Sitting with a nephew he has never respected – a nephew who will always be a quitter to Uncle Pete. His eyes turn watery as he strains to take another breath. The wall clock ticks away another minute of his life, another minute of my life, another minute of the sadness of the South and the North, another minute closer to the time when all of us will cease to mean anything except to some far distant history student who will perhaps puzzle over the meaning of slavery, but who will never know the wildness and the magic called Uncle Pete.
Uncle Pete’s stare softens as he crushes the butt of his cigarette in the ashtray. I hide the evidence in my coat pocket. I grab a towel and wipe away the bit of drool at the corner of his mouth. He grips my hand.
“Thank you for being here son. I know it ain’t easy watchin’ an old man die.”
“That’s alright Uncle Pete. There isn’t any place I would rather be.”
Tissue skin closes over his eyes. His head begins to weave. He takes a deep breath leading to another bout of coughing. When he’s finished coughing he rasps out a bit of Hank Williams…
“Hear that lonesome whippoorwill…he sounds too blue to fly…the midnight train is whining low…
The lipless smile returned as I join him, “…I’m so lonesome I could cry.”
I help him back to his bed, replace his oxygen mask and prop him up in bed. I place the remote in a withered claw. He smiles at me again. I could do without those smiles – they ask for a forgiveness and love that I lack the power to give. Duty is all I have left in me. No hate. No love. Only duty.
Outside I enter the kind of night that only comes near the Gulf - air so thick you can have it for supper. The moon is full and lightning bugs float in the dark. June bugs beat themselves to death against the streetlights leaving a crunchy mess on the ground.
I look back. Uncle Pete has found the strength to make it back to the window. He waves. I wave. I wish him well. I truly do.
As I drive home I hum Hank’s tune again. It’s not really sad. Not once you get used to it.