Uncles

In my dream I leave the party and open the door to the back room. Mark is there, as always, my Uncle Mark, the aging family burden. “Mark's funny,” my mother said. She wasn't talking about his sense of humor.

Here was good old Mark back at his post, all paunch, low-slung trousers and male pattern pate. He turned to me with a shy half-giggle.

“Hiya, Jonathan, whuddya say? You gonna take a hand?” Mark's lopsided grin swallowed the years.

I found an old folding chair in the closet and shoved in between Mark and Eric. My German uncle had grown bandy-legged, his fair Northern skin almost transparent with time, slick-backed hair gone silver.

“I never thought I'd see you again reaching for wild cards at this table,” I said to Uncle Eric. “Ready to lose a few pennies?”

Eric's penny-pinching was legendary in the family.

“Who says I'm going to lose them?” he barked in reply. His diminished from appeared to have no effect on his still fulsome vocal instrument. 

“You know,” I said, nodding at the others, “the parties went to hell without you guys.”

“Hell, Jonathan?” Eric said. “Who's talking about hell?”

He always called me Jonathan. The other uncles mostly called me Jonnie, the way my father did when I was a child.

“Let’s see you put your money where your mouth is,” he added.

I turned to Uncle Jonathan, who returned my glance with his guarded, bulbous-lipped expression. He had been in the produce business and that expression always seemed to me to say: “Damn straight we have bananas.”

I decided to go straight to the sore spot. Cards on the table.

“I’m sorry I avoided you that night. You know the one I mean. It was my last chance to say something and I crapped out.” I added, “I’ve had a bit of experience myself of being on the other side of that situation.”

“Yeah?” Uncle Jonathan said. I saw him pull a fat black cigar out of his mouth, but of course that was impossible now. “If that’s the case, then you know it doesn’t matter. Christ, Jonnie, will you cut out the sad sack stuff and let us get on with this game?”

“Nobody cares about your party manners here,” Eric declared in his best the-matter-is-over voice. Did that mean I was forgiven? I decided it did.

Mark, bored, tapped the cards against the table.

“Will you stop that out, Mark, before you drive us all crazy?”

“I'm just waiting for Jonathan to cut them.” Mark’s voice protested the unfairness of Eric’s rebuke. It's not always my fault, his manner said.

“Sorry!” I cut them.

Mark dealt. I peeked and found two threes in my hole. While I could still lose, I was likely to end up with four of a kind or a full house. But I couldn’t concentrate on the game.

“I saw some pictures of you not too long ago,” I said to Uncle Rick. “You and your buddies, with your arms around each other's shoulders. You guys really did look like heroes.”

But Uncle Rick winced at my praise.

“No heroes, Jonnie,” he said softly. “Pull a few of your buddies out of the drink with a fish gaff, and the gung-ho stuff is never the same... Smell the beaches the day after a landing,” he added, his speech slow, seemingly labored, “before the burial details go to work.”

My short-lived uncle leaned back in his chair and looked at nothing. What more could he say? That it wasn't fair that people who had never gone to war, who had been warned about the dangers of smoking were still alive? That my cancer had been operable while his wasn’t?

“I didn’t go, you realize,” I said, ostensibly to Rick, but truly to all of them. “When my time came. Only in my view,” I added, no point holding anything back now, “it shouldn’t have been anybody’s time. It was a war we shouldn’t have fought.”

No one responded. Their silence was more uncomfortable to me than disagreement.

Mark dealt the face cards. The bet came around to me. I saw everyone, but didn’t raise, so everybody stayed. The others showed first, a couple of full houses. I showed my hole cards to general expressions of disgust. I either had four kings or a straight flush. I couldn’t remember which was higher.

But the uncles didn’t blame me. They cast accusing glances at Mark, who larded their game with wild cards.

I was into my own deal—seven-card stud, natural—before Uncle Rick caught my eye.

“Roger didn't go either,” he said. Roger was the closet of his sons to me in age. “So you don’t have to explain anything about that time to me.”

What I'm sorry for, I said in my mind, is you died too young. I see his reply in his face: Your time will come.

I went back to laying out cards. I give a pair of sevens to Mark, who sat quietly, unenthusiastic about the meager pairs likely to triumph in a natural game. I dealt Uncle Jonathan a second eight.

“Look at me, gentleman,” my ordinarily self-effacing uncle said gravely. “It's time to pay up.” He took advantage of a strange house rule I didn't recall to count the pot and raise us by that amount.

The last card was mine; no improvement. I had ace high in my cards showing, but no pairs. When we turned over our hole card—no improvement for the uncles still in the game—it turned out I had dealt myself an ace in the hole. Several of my uncles hooted.

“Somebody check the deck,” Eric opined in his most ominous manner.

“It’s my deck,” Mark replied with a hurt look.

“But Jonathan dealt that ace himself,” Eric told him. “No one’s pointing fingers at you, Mark.”

“The devil’s own luck,” Uncle Jonathan muttered to the table. “He’s always been the lucky one. The fortunate son.” He looked at me. “That’s you, isn’t it, Jonnie?”

I remembered then, the knowledge arriving suddenly like a guilty secret recollected in a dream that changes the tenor of all that has gone before, that Uncle Jonathan’s son Wayne served in Vietnam and that alone of all the men in the room he knew what it was to worry about a son caught up in that man-made hell. Wayne was the only one of my generation of cousins to “see action” in Vietnam. Was that what “fortunate” meant to Uncle Jonathan? That I hadn’t been drafted and sent to Vietnam? I remembered something else about Wayne’s tour of duty: special forces. But Wayne returned, undamaged as far as anyone could tell, and has since portrayed the role of the most happy-go-lucky guy you’re ever going to run into. It was an impressive performance; I’ve never doubted it. When we meet, he talks about golf and taking his son into his wholesaler business. Maybe, I surprised myself by thinking, he was the lucky one.

“What does Wayne think about that?” I said aloud, as if my uncle had somehow followed my thought process.

Yet apparently he did.

“Jesus Christ,” Uncle Jonathan said. “Staying out of Vietnam was no sin. What was it for anyway? It wasn’t like our time.” He removed the imaginary cigar from the jaw lost to cancer and looked around the table, his glance resting on Rick, the brother who had fought in the Pacific. “Isn’t that right?” he asked Rick.

“We had to go,” Rick said, laboring a little to get the words out. “Everybody did. It was about all of us, the whole country. Everybody knew that.” He looked at places I couldn’t see. “Vietnam wasn’t like that.”

I felt rescued, freed from the dream-like shadow that threatened to spoil our game. I sighed with relief and passed the cards to Eric, who called out seven-card stud.

“Nothing wild,” he pronounced, drawing a cloud over Mark's eternally hopeful glance and returning it with a scowl. “Do you think there is anything ‘wild’ in real life?” Eric asked in the voice used all his life to scold his good-for-nothing brother-in-law, the eternal child who thought he could eat only the cake and the candy and skip the vegetables, who wanted to play cards all day and could never hold a job.

But somehow the words were really meant for me. He labored, drawing on his wasted lungs as he built up the case.

“Do you think people find money and jobs growing wild on the side of the road, Mark? Do you think that life is a game and you can win it if you draw the right card? Hard work, and taking care of your money... That’s the only way to get ahead in life.”

My parsimonious German uncle turned his face to me. “Isn’t that right, Jonathan?”

I felt the familiar urge to make everybody happy, uncles included, by agreeing, but I remembered the time in my childhood when Eric asked me whether I knew that ten times ten equaled a hundred. I said yes, toadying to him, saying yes to power, even though my second grade curriculum hadn’t reached multiplication. We were sitting in his big stately house in Baldwin, a tightwad’s palace of vanities, and Eric turned to his second son, the family fall guy, and said, “See? Even little Jonathan knows that.” My academically stumbling cousin flashed me a look of deep-seated rancor.

“Yes,” I said now, “in the main. But it matters where you start out as well. Sometimes hard work is not enough. Sometimes you don't get the opportunities. What opportunities did people growing up in the Depression have to work hard and get ahead? People like Mark? And my father?”

And like the other guys at this table, I thought, sneaking a glance at how uncles Jonathan and Rick were taking this. Thoughtful; poker-faced.

“Success in the game of life success depends on where you start out,” I said. “Which seat you’ve been given. How big your pile is. Aren't these your ‘wild cards’?”

“That’s socialist talk, Jonathan,” Eric said.

“If it is, then guilty.”

“Pardon my yawn, fellows,” Uncle Jonathan said, stepping on my line, not yawning, his fleshy features drawn into center of his face, an arrowhead pointing resolutely forward. “Deal ‘em,” he said to Eric.

Eric dealt. Two kings for himself. I had nothing showing, my lucky streak about to end, but when we showed our hands I found two sevens in the hole plus the one on the table.

“Lookee, lookee,” Mark marveled. The next best thing to having luck was seeing it in others.

“Where did you find that seat, Jonnie?” Uncle Jonathan demanded.

“In the closet.” Hadn’t Mom thrown these folding chairs away a decade ago? “Wanna swap?” I offered, rising.

“Sid’down, Jonnie.” He waved me off. “We’ll win it back.”

“You missed your calling Jonathan,” Eric pronounced. “Money likes you.”

Not really, I thought, knowing lots of evidence to the contrary. My son Stephen, maybe, showed some signs of that.

But I won the next two hands as well. The uncles were growing restless at this defiance of the odds. We passed around the coffee can my dad filled with pennies for humble games of chance, some of the uncles exchanging their silver for copper. Suddenly the whole business of needing pennies, continually restoring out supply, struck everybody as ridiculous, a waste of time. By mutual consent the traditional betting limit came off; decades of tradition went up in smoke in an instant. If you had silver, we decided, bet your silver.

Uncle Jonathan dealt another round of seven-card stud. “Ace, queen, king, oooh-weee!” he announced, as the picture cards flew from his hands. “Look at these pretty pictures, gentlemen. Ace bets.”

Possessor of the ace, Eric dropped a handful of change into the pile, not bothering to count it. “You men want to see real money? You want to see some philosophy in action?”

Uncle Jonathan replied with a stoic glance. More face cards landed beside their brothers. The betting escalated. A pile of silver formed a mound in the center of the old folding-legged card table. But when the kings and queens and aces kept landing, royal families expanding in every hand, dynastic marriages in the offing, it wasn’t enough for the uncles.

“I don’t see any green on this table,” Uncle Jonathan observed, provocatively. “Can anyone show me the faces of great men?”

Hands moved beneath the table, wallets emerged.

Another round of face cards was exposed. Royalty looked embarrassed, overexposed, caught in their underwear. No one was discouraged by his neighbor’s fortune when his own potential glowed so brightly. Cash piled up in the pot.

“Whuddya’ say the name of this game is?” Mark inquired, impressed by the high cards and higher stakes.

“Dead Man’s Chest,” Uncle Rick replied coolly.

“Ace of diamonds.” Uncle Jonathan announced, as the final card skied to Rick’s hand landed with a preternatural softness. “Right next to the king of diamonds. And the queen of diamonds next to that. Possible straight. Possible flush. Possible royal flush.”

He removed the imaginary cigar he could no longer smoke, croaked a little more loudly. “Do you people see that? I want everybody to take note of what we have accomplished here.”

“How much can I bet?” Rick asked.

“How about,” I said, loosing my inner wildman, “if you want to stay in the game, you have to match the pot? And then the next player, if he wants to stay in the game has to match that pot.”

Uncle Jonathan regarded me coolly. “Well, well. Sounds like Jonnie’s got something up his sleeve, doesn't he?" He shrugged. The table was silent. "Hearing no objection, why not?”

“What game is that?” Mark demanded, trying to keep up.

“It’s called ‘Bury Your Uncle,’” I answered, glancing at the silent faces. “I’m still learning the rules.”

"Don't you mean still making them up?" Rick observed, his expression warmer than not.

The table tingled, wordlessly, dead men flickering with life. Even Uncle Jonathan had a gleam in his eye, as if he strongly suspected he was about to be taken for a ride, a shady deal, its end and purpose unknown, but was looking forward to the prospect more than not. I tried to look confident, though not predatory.

Eric scowled but said nothing. 

“Okee-dokee,” Rick said, “like they say in Virginia Beach. Let’s ride this escalator.”

He counted the pot carefully, called out the amount, matched it from a clip of bills removed from a hidden pocket. Mad money? I wondered.

Eric spoke up at last, surprised to find himself the only voice of reason at the table.

“Does it give good value?” he asked, laboring to speak, the ancient trumpet of authority beginning to falter. “What's the matter with you people? It’s the poorhouse for every man here.”

Mark, next to bet, goggled at the swarm of bills and began piling up the pennies he had drawn from the coffee can plus whatever reserves of copper and silver he found in his own deeply drooping trouser pockets. Some of these coppers struck me as very old, ancient even, engraved with the images of long-forgotten dynasties.

“We don’t want your pennies, Mark,” Eric scolded, back in the game. “Mark passes.”

“Wait a minute,” I said, shoving my pile of winnings over to Mark. “Put that in.”

“Mark gets a discount to stay in the game,” I announced. “He needs it.”

“More of your philosophy, Jonathan?” Eric said. “So now you’re a communist?”

“I don’t hear anyone objecting,” I replied. “Though this is a little like Marks-ism.” I laughed at the accidental pun. “From each according to his abilities,” I recited, “to each according to his needs.”

“Don’t let's get too serious, Jonnie,” Rick objected. “It’s just a game.”

“It’s gambling,” Eric said, his words slowing. “At bad odds.”

“You invest in the stock market, don’t you?” Rick asked. He faced the old capitalist directly.

Eric looked away. He invested in real estate, I knew. Decades later he rued not having the bucks back in the thirties when property was dirt cheap.

“Life is a crapshoot,” Rick said, a look of discovery on his troubled features. “When you think about it. You can’t always avoid danger. And you have to have a little fun. I didn’t go into the Army just because I had to. I wanted—adventure. A chance to do something. Something different. Something to tell my...” He’s about to say grandchildren, I guessed, but broke off. Uncle Rick didn’t get to see his grandchildren.

“Besides, there was nothing better to do,” he added, after a pause, looking at me. “Your father could tell you that.”

My father. Why wasn’t he here with his brothers? Was he avoiding my dreams?

The others waited on me. It was my turn to bet or drop out.

“Bury your uncle,” murmured Mark, reflectively.

“The thing is, Jonnie,” Uncle Jonathan observed, casually, while I hesitated, “how do you get off this escalator?”

“Let’s say you can’t,” I replied. “That’s the point. You get more and more people to sit down at the table and play the game. Eventually, you gather all the money in the world into one pot. Then everybody agrees that it's hopeless to keep playing this game—how would you ever win? and if you did, what would that do to the world?—and so you take the pot and you divide it up evenly among all the people in the world. Then everybody has enough, see? No disparity. No rich or poor.”

“Some way to bury an uncle,” Mark said. “Funny name for a game.”

“I don’t think it’s a game any more,” Rick said.

“Trying to bankrupt your own family, Jonathan.” Eric shook his head at me in sad disapproval.

“Then what?” Uncle Jonathan said.

I looked questioningly at my no-nonsense uncle.

“What happens after all that?”

“He’s got it all figured out,” Eric said. “God save us from the theories of the young.”

The young? Have we time traveled? The truth was neither in my young nor my middle years did I have it figured out. I led with the heart and hoped the next draw would tell me where the game should go.

“You divide up all the wealth,” I said. “Then you play some other game. What’s wrong with that?”

The expressions on my uncles’ faces told me they were decidedly not in.

“Wouldn’t make any difference though, would it?” Uncle Jonathan murmured, making words without breath. “It’ll all end up right back in the same hands it came from.”

Mutters of agreement came from the others. But though they rejected my solution I could see they weren't happy at ending up here, endorsing an unfair status quo. They had died too young, or worked too hard, or suffered a little too much from unshared maladies of the heart. They wanted a better outcome, a happier ending. An air of resignation settled over the table.

“That’s just the way it is,” Eric said to me, putting a good face on things. A melancholy smile flexed his pale features; of victory without triumph. “It’s the law of life.”

“Who made this law?” I said. “Seriously—I want to know.”

“Seriously?” Uncle Jonathan grumbled an answer for them all. “Do you think we know everything, Jonnie? Just ‘cause we’re dead?”

I felt my consciousness deflating under their unease. I felt exhausted.

“Pardon my asking, and no disrespect intended...” I struggled to put my question. “But do you guys know anything more now than you did when... you know... you were still alive?:

The uncles looked at one another. After a silence Rick said, “I know some things I’d sure like to do over. In fact, I know a lot of stuff I should have done differently fifty or sixty years ago... Not just about smoking,” he added.

“Certainly,” Eric agreed. His voice held an echo of its old vigor, but he kept his words few. “Every man here would say that.”

“That's not what he means,” Rick whispered, his candid brown eyes seeking and holding mine.

I nodded, the pin-drop silence slowly invaded by the sounds from the party in the other room, voices I hadn't been hearing since the uncles appeared.

“He means do we know the answers,” Rick said, words shaping in the room’s decaying atmosphere the way they did in the still, small voice inside us. “What it all means. Right and wrong. The whole point of everything.”

“You want to know the answers?” Uncle Jonathan’s growl surprised me. Nobody’s lips were moving any more. The faces were there, but they seemed to hang in a space of their own.

“Yes.”

“Sorry, kiddo.” He puffed on his imaginary cigar. “If you need to know anything more than you already do, you’d better figure it out while you’re still... on your side.”

“Still alive,” I repeated. “Before I’m sitting on your side of the table?”

“You won’t always be in that lucky seat,” Eric murmured. A note of satisfaction at the very end, as his image faded.

Things were happening fast. Noises elsewhere grew louder. My uncles were disappearing before my eyes.

“Am I lucky? Was I always?” I demanded.

“Questioning the good lord’s gifts, Jonathan?” my disappearing uncle chided. “You’re a fortunate son.” His image flickered on and off as he struggled for breath. “What did you do with that fortune, Jonathan?...”

He's here. He's gone. A partial here. “How did you play your hand?”

“I know somethin’, Jonathan,” Mark said, interrupting my absorption in my uncle's parting question. The uncles were blinking out, but Mark's chubby school-boy girth leaned on the table. “There’s wild cards in every deck.”

He took the deck we had played with in his right hand and fanned the cards out, face down on the table.

“Lemme show you this game, Jonathan. It’s called diving for deuces.” His hand hovered over the cards, swooped, turned one over. “Two of diamonds,” he said. No surprise in his voice. “Your turn.”

I heard the footsteps in the hall, and the door to the card-playing room opened just as I chose my card.

It was Stephen, a fortunate son who would know that his father loved him.

“Dessert’s on the table,” he announced in a matter of fact tone, though pleased (I knew) in a moderate away at the arrival of the sweets. And knowing that I would be too.

His manner told me that no one else but me was back here any longer. Mark’s last temptation, along with his image, dwindled away in my thoughts.

“Grandma said you’d want to know.”

The card between my fingers. Was the luck still with me? How did you play your hand?

But I couldn’t answer that question. I wasn’t finished playing.

I put the card down and followed my son back to the party.

 

 

Robert Knox

Robert Knox is a Boston Globe correspondent, a poet, fiction writer, and the author of a novel based on the Sacco and Vanzetti case, Suosso's Lane. As a contributing editor for the online poetry journal, Verse-Virtual, his poems appear regularly on that site. They have also appeared in other journals such as Every Day Poet, Off The Coast, The Blue Nib, and Yellow Chair Review. His poetry chapbook Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty, published in May 2017, has been nominated for a Massachusetts Best Book award. The chapbook Cocktails in the Wild followed in 2018. Robert recommends Jewish Voice for Peace.

 

Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Wednesday, January 22, 2020 - 11:21