by Drew Downing
Uncle Harold shows up on the front porch at dawn this year, dressed in his full Confederate Infantry uniform even though it’s already 80 degrees and the Bull Run reenactment isn’t till noon. He’s singing “Goober Peas” with raspy gusto while sweating, swaying and swigging what can only be General Cheatham’s whiskey from his tin canteen. Like my father, it’s his favorite brand.
We watch his spirited performance through bleary eyes from the living room window. Ma drags on her Winston then clucks her tongue. “General Lee would be so proud,” she says with well-practiced sarcasm.
Uncle Harold tugs at his wispy, chest-length beard as he belts out the chorus: Peas peas peas peas, eating goober peas/Goodness how delicious, eating goober peas.
I try to imagine what Dad would make of all this. It gets less and less difficult each year. I keep his Bowie knife in a shoe box on a shelf in my bedroom closet. The only time he’d ever take it out was after supper on Sunday nights. He’d sit out on the porch with a chaw in his lip and polish it with one of Ma’s old silk scarves. It’s still as smooth, sharp, and shiny as the day he bought it.
As Uncle Harold launches into “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” his swaying turns to lurching. He tugs at the strap of his musket and, with great effort, pulls it over his head. He hoists it by the stock and pumps it in the air as he sings. The tip of his bayonet jabs the porch’s plywood roof.
“I know what you’re thinkin’ boy,” Ma says. The words are calm but firm on her full, proud lips. It’s a favorite line of hers with me. I’m pretty sure she can’t actually read my mind but she always says it with a fierce look on her face that tells me I damn better not doubt her.
Uncle Harold turns up his canteen and dumps the rest of the hooch down his throat, then hurls it over his shoulder and into the yellow grass, baked crispy by the sun. “Milton!” he bellows. “Damned traitor!”
Ma shifts her weight and takes a labored breath. It’s so quiet in the house I can hear her lungs whistle. “Won’t be long now,” she mumbles. “Just be patient.”
Milton—Uncle Harold’s brother—Dad. He was all these things, till his heart burst while hauling a load of bread & butter pickles up 81 near Harrisonburg. The county coroner said it was so massive and sudden that he was dead before the truck even jackknifed. I used to have dreams of a stretch of freeway covered with pickles, pavement slicked wet with their juice, Dad picking them up, one by one.
“Nigger lover!” Uncle Harold yells. He staggers backward and nearly falls off the porch but catches himself on Dad’s pine rocker. He sags over it and drops ass-first onto the plaid seat cushion.
“I’ll call Sheriff Oglesby to come fetch him,” Ma says as she shuffles out into the hallway, toward the kitchen. After she makes the call, she’ll sit at the the kitchen table and eat two hard-boiled eggs with hot sauce—the same meal she’s eaten every day since before I was born.
I watch Uncle Harold’s head bob and roll around on his neck like a half-deflated balloon. “Milton…dammyew…traiduh…nigg…luh,” he slurs, hardly able to keep his eyes open.
Before I can think twice I’m in the hallway and up the stairs two at a time. By the time I get back down from my room and out onto the porch, Uncle Harold’s passed out and snoring steadily. His chest hitches when it rises; reminds me of Dad’s old ’55 Ford when he’d step on the gas.
I grip the Bowie’s crown stag handle tight. With my free hand I poke Uncle Harold in the shoulder. He doesn’t stir. The steel grey wool of his coat is thick and coarse. It’s a corporal’s uniform, just like Dad’s except Dad was a Sergeant so the chevrons on his sleeve were red while Uncle Harold’s are grey. Ma had Dad buried in his uniform. During the service in the cemetery, Uncle Harold puttered up on his old two-stroke Yamaha moped, his sweat-stained kepis sitting cock-eyed on his head. He circled around the gravesite yelling “N Lover” and making monkey noises, so drunk he could barely keep the bike upright.
That word—the ‘N‘ word. “The No Good Word,” as Dad used to call it. Ma said he gave it up the day he first told her he loved her. He must’ve known he was giving up his twin brother, too.
I slide the Bowie’s gleaming blade under Uncle Harold’s beard and up against his bulging Adam’s Apple. He smells like sweat and chaw and whiskey. I want so badly to put it to use, to see what that razor-sharp steel edge would look like sinking in to the wrinkled skin on his neck. I have a pretty good idea what Dad would make of this right here.
Ma used to say, “Just wait it out, boy, his liver will give out soon enough.” I always wondered—does a liver burst just like a heart?
Now I’m just tired of waiting.