Uncle Jack

by Mike Pulley

You died twice, appropriately,
Since you lived two lives in one,
A childhood future-enfolded, a kid embedded
In age-spot skin.
The final night — your birthday celebration
At the Watering Hole, Carolina biker bar,
Surrounded by friends of black leather,
Sons of the South, politically incorrect Confederates,
Tough, gruff brothers who had your back
With the X of Lee’s army
Irredeemable as old tattoos,
Goatees, throw back whiskey in the throat, open throttles,
More roars of arriving cycles,
Gleaming metal in a parking lot exhaust line.

Born the son of an Alabama Klansman,
Even you said the pledge
In younger years to burning crosses
In the pasture by the creek,
But later you resigned when the hooded brothers
Asked you to be their hatchet man.

On a first date with Aunt Phyllis,
Your darker skin and coal-black hair
Caused Grandmother Car-ee

To mistake you for Italian.
“Are you a dago?” she asked,
Betraying an earlier generation’s mistrust of the Pope.

Your gray-headed years
Kept you spread out on a mattress
In the living room floor,
Eyes glued to the History Channel
With a cigarette in hand.
Your last night — telling stories on a stool
In the faint light of the club
Until your head exploded
And the paramedics arrived.
Hospital life support could not stop the doctor’s declaration:
Brain dead, organs up for adoption, a weekend’s wait
Before the decision to pull the plug.

I slipped a furtive hand beneath the covers
Of your bed and squeezed your toes
Imagining I could bring you back,
But you were already gone
To that unknown zone.
Surrounded by tubes and screens,
Aunt Phyllis and Cousin Melissa
Planted goodbye lips on your gray-haired pate.
In a matter of minutes, your red-faced sleeping
Evolved to corpse pallor golden,
The color of grief.

A few days later,
I came back to the rundown mill hill
Next to grandmother’s house
And the spot where the mature chinaberry
Once provided cover for the old men playing checkers.
This time, another generation gathered on the site
To send you off.
There were choppers galore, more leather,
And a police escort through town
Past the courthouse and rebel flag
Still emblazoned on the marquee
Of the historic theater that had housed
A Klan museum and world famous Redneck Shop.
In my rearview mirror,
Harleys were strung out
Down the highway
Like a well-linked chain.

On the altar of the funeral home,
Leather-vested bikers rubbed shoulders
With a dark-suited Baptist preacher
And each had their own way
Of expressing the Lord’s will:
Brothers looking back,
The prayer man looking up.

I hope you made it there, Uncle Jack,
To whatever dusty honkytonk
You were shooting for —
A place for sweet play,
Perhaps the one with George Jones
On the stage
Twanging with spit and spice,
And a bottomless bottle of moonshine
Behind the bar,
But a booze unlike any other,
This one smooth and electric
As ice with fire,
And the rumble of motors in the parking lot
Like muscular honey,
And you’re surrounded once again
By a band of brothers who’ve been waiting
For years with untold yarns
And smiles for a friend
With a favor for fun
And a fierce glint in the eye
At the first sign of trouble,

But no need to worry here, Jack.
In this dim little corner
Under the glare of neon
With the crack of the opening break,
They’ve got your back.
They’ve got your back.