Uncle Jay’s secret

I had an uncle who was a wino, happiest man I ever knew. Sat like a Buddha in the back yard of his daddy’s place and watched the strawberries grow and drank wine dark as ox blood, right from the bottle.

I don’t know how long he was a wino or when he began or what made him start, or any of that. I knew he had a wife and six children who were my cousins, and they were dirt poor, and I hated to go see them because they were so poor. And I don’t know when he left his family and moved in with my grandfather and grandmother, Genius and Daisy. We went over there one day, and Uncle Jay was there in the back yard drinking his wine. And from then on he was always there.

He would sit out back where my grandfather had his garden, the jug by his bare feet, and wait for the strawberries to grow. He loved strawberries. He did that until he’d get sick and my grandfather would put him in the hospital. The doctors, who had come to know my uncle quite well from his frequent admissions, would tell him, “You keep this up, you’re going to die a lot younger than you should.”

But it didn’t seem to matter; Uncle Jay seemed to have a private knowledge about life that none of the rest of us did. He’d listen to their admonitions and smile. Soon as he hit the streets again, he hooked up with his wine.

Nearer the end, he became bloated, his face as red as a strawberry. But even such ravages couldn’t erase his beatific smile. I’d look out the window of my grandfather’s house and see Uncle Jay sitting on a wood kitchen chair, facing the garden, serene, implacable — like the original Adam, cast out but refusing to leave.

And when I’d go out to talk to him, he’d tell me jokes, dumb jokes, and laugh and offer me a “taste” of his wine. I was 10, too young to drink wine or know what being a wino was. But once I took a taste, and it was sweet and crawled around inside me like a warm snake.

My grandfather would sometimes get angry with Uncle Jay, tell him to straighten up and do right. Genius was a Southern gentleman from good stock, and I think he was embarrassed that his boy had turned out the way he had. Like most fathers, I imagine Granddaddy had higher dreams for his boy, would have liked him to be a lawyer or tobacco farmer. But when confronted, Uncle Jay would just laugh and offer Granddaddy a taste of wine, and sit there and smile like there was a circus going on in his head.

I went to Uncle Jay’s funeral — the doctors had been right, his life was a lot shorter than it should have been. One of his six children had placed a photograph of him in the lid of his casket, taken when Uncle Jay was a soldier. He looked like a young Paul Newman — handsome as a racehorse, light brown hair, a beautiful smile. As I stood there looking at the old Uncle Jay and the young Uncle Jay, I wondered what had happened to make him become a wino and leave his wife and children, to go and sit in his daddy’s back yard and drink wine all day and watch the strawberries grow. I don’t think his daddy, his wife or his children ever knew. I don’t think anybody knew.

I remember that it was a beautiful spring day at the cemetery, the trees were just beginning to bud, and I thought of patches of strawberries beginning to break through the ground. I watched them lower his casket and thought: Uncle Jay is taking all his secrets with him, and he never surrendered whatever bliss he had found, or whatever sorrow. I think of him now and then in God’s strawberry patch, picking ripe ones, waiting for the rest to grow.

[Bill Brooks is a local author. He also teaches in the creative writing program at A-B Tech.]

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