“An Uncle” by Peg Alford Pursell
A new issue of Tupelo Quarterly features work by several Warren Wilson MFA alumni, including a story by Peg Alford Pursell (fiction, ’96).
An uncle is a babysitter in a pinch, which happens rarely, only when Mother has to run out to comfort her friend Suzanne, an emergency that isn’t that rare, in Dad’s opinion, but an uncle is someone who doesn’t take sides in the matter. He comes to the rescue, and sits on the sofa watching a wrestling match on TV, and says Stop it now! after you and your sister have slapped each other’s arms burning red with your Barbie dolls. He gives you a look that makes your stomach heavy and you feel pretty sure he knows you’re to blame – you’re the oldest. You sing all the Beatles songs you can think of, to impress him with how you know the words to so many songs. He’s like your dad in the way that’s he’s not that interested and stares straight ahead at the action on the screen. You brush all your hair from the back of your head forward, smooth it down over your forehead, past your eyebrows and into your eyes to look like Ringo, who isn’t the cutest Beatle but has something special. “Look, Uncle Lew!” He glances over and gives a snort, and you feel a little better.
An uncle is someone your mother likes a lot, and when he drops by unexpectedly, she turns off the iron and sits down with him at the kitchen table, where they drink Pepsis or RC Cola if it’s on sale at the Shop n’ Save, and eat snacks, probably chocolate macaroons, and his voice flows low from out there, and she giggles and giggles again. There is something high and twinkly about that laugh, like the sound of the glass wind chimes suspended outside the neighbor’s door that you wish you could talk her into buying to hang on your porch – but one day. When you grow up and you live in your own house, then. Then.
An uncle is someone your dad doesn’t mind loafing around usually as long as his work day hasn’t pushed him right to the edge, though when the two of them are together they don’t say much, they just sit, usually in aluminum framed lawn chairs under the maple tree, where darkness falls as they put away a six-pack of Pabst, the click-swish of the tab pulls perforating the silence, the red-hot tips of their cigarettes dotting the night.
He’s a guy who looks like your dad but also different, and though your dad is actually sort of handsome, your uncle is good-looking in a different way. Suzanne says he’s cute and looks just like Elvis Presley, but Elvis Presley doesn’t wear glasses and you don’t see the resemblance, but there’s no one to share your opinion with because in fact you’ve been listening in again when you should be minding your own business. Your sister would rat you out in a heartbeat.
An uncle is a guy who doesn’t bring you gifts since he doesn’t have money, and probably no one has ever told him it’s okay to give presents. He’s someone who doesn’t ever seem to notice you’re changing, you’re changing everyday. He’s someone who seems to see a you that might be you, but is not the you that’s standing right there before him, while he pores over the sports scores in the newspaper and Mom arranges the candles on your birthday cake.
He’s way younger than your dad and there is something a little exciting about that, that he’s closer to your age than your parents, that he’s still a teenager, just barely. Everyone wants to be a teenager. It’s the most exciting time ever, this is so obvious, and the idea that you will be – it’s only a matter of time – is thrilling. And terrifying. How will you know how to handle yourself? How will you learn the dances? Should you wear lipstick each time you leave the house – is there even going to be lipstick? When you watch The Jetsons, with Rosie the robotic maid, who you sure could use in this house – no more setting the table and drying the silverware – you understand that everything is going to be different. But say that there is lipstick still. Should you put it on each and every time you go out, and if you kiss a boy, which of course you will sooner or later, will the boy hate the taste of your lipstick and what if it makes him throw up? You wish you could ask your uncle a few questions. But he is someone who is going to act like an adult, particularly since he is the baby of the family, as Dad says, something he hates to hear, you can tell, his face red, hands shoved into his pockets or laced behind his head as if the remark is nothing but a little pest buzzing by not worth the effort to swat away.
He’s someone who doesn’t have any choice – he’s going to have to go into the war – but if Grandma hadn’t babied him all his life he wouldn’t be so afraid!
When you see the war on TV you think you would be very afraid, and though you are a girl, it is hard to believe that a boy, even if he’s older and everyone calls him a man, can feel so much different from a girl. When does it happen, when does it start, a boy feeling different than a girl? Does something go off inside like a time-release capsule that makes a boy no longer scared, of what scares you?
An uncle is someone you try to figure out, sneaking glances at him when you’re sitting in front of the news on TV, all those palm trees and fiery explosions bursting on the screen.
He’s someone who, before he ships overseas, comes for a picnic in the backyard. Mom bakes him a devil’s food cake with whipped-cream frosting, Dad cooks super burgers on the charcoal grill, everyone’s paper plates groan with food, as Uncle Lew puts it. He says that in a bright voice and everyone laughs. The picnic under the maple tree goes on and on, no one saying a word, and you wish you could think of a fun thing to say. Then you have to go to bed, and you give him a hug, something you have never done, and the cool skin of his arms in the hot night is something of a shock, and you say Good Luck! because what in the hell is the right thing to say. You feel perfectly justified thinking the word hell. In your bed you think hell, hell, hell, and then that’s enough of that and you listen hard for anything the adults might say out there still gathered in the dark under the tree, but the only sound that floats through the open window is the chirr of a lonely cicada.
An uncle is someone who when you see the headlines in the newspapers you try to picture in that swampy place, booby-trapped with bombs, him in a uniform and a helmet, his glasses on his sweaty face. What would happen if his glasses broke? How would he see to save himself? He’s someone who pushed a button up his left nostril when he was a kid, your grandma told you that, and the button didn’t come out for months and she wonders if that was what caused his respiratory issues. If that has anything to do with how his lung collapsed over there. He’s fine now, he reports, in his letter that lies in her lap. But the thing that worries her is how long it takes to get the letters. Who knows by now if this is still true, if he’s still fine, if something else could have happened?
You wonder what his handwriting looks like on the letter but you know better than to interrupt. And that night staying over at Grandma’s, which is a new experience but she is lonely and you are the oldest, while you are sleeping in your uncle’s room, you stare up at the pictures on the walls and think about how he used to stare at the same pictures, and isn’t that just so strange when you have never even seen his handwriting. The pictures are of pixie-like creatures with enormous eyes and you have to wonder if he really liked them or simply put up with what his mother picked out, the way you have to put up with what your mother picks out for you. Another thing you can’t ask him. Say that you could get to the post office and buy some stamps and someone would give you the address – none of these things is going to happen – is that what you’d write in your letter? Maybe he wouldn’t like to hear you’d been in his room in the first place. Maybe he would think it’s weird the way you think it’s weird, that both your heads have laid on this same exact lumpy pillow with its musty smell that makes it hard to fall asleep but which maybe he never smelled because of his respiratory problems.
An uncle is someone who likes his eggs scrambled you find out from Grandma in the morning, and doesn’t turn up his nose at a glass of cold milk with the creamy yellow surface. He knows it’s good for you, for god’s sake! He’s someone who’d be glad to take a break in the hammock quietly, and wouldn’t squirm around and fall out and practically give her a heart attack at the sound of that howling.
He would probably not approve of your selfish behavior – like your parents do not approve when Grandma takes you home early and has to miss her stories on TV.
An uncle is someone who comes home from the war with a face that’s tan but also somehow pale, who seems bigger, with muscles, but also shrunken at the same time, you can’t say how. He wears different glasses now, wire-rims. And he has money. He’s someone who returns with gifts, a reel-to-reel tape deck for Dad, delicate pink china with hand-painted flourishes on the edges for Mom, kids don’t count. He drives a white convertible sports car, with a flashy silver logo of a wild pony on the trunk.
An uncle is someone who’s around more than ever for a while, while he’s getting his bearings, Dad says, but he speaks less than ever, and sometimes you forget he’s there. As the days pass, Mom stops smiling while he sits in the kitchen as she irons the shirts that aren’t permanent press, ice cubes melting in the glass of watery Pepsi in front of him on the table. He eats supper like he’s a robot, one day stabbing his fork into the butter dish and taking a bite, chewing until Mom says,Lew! Lew! What are you doing! And he spits the yellowish glob onto his plate and looks as if he has just woken up and has to remember who we are.
An uncle is someone who marries a woman who teaches high school French, but that doesn’t happen for quite a while because, according to what Mother tells Suzanne, he’s very shy. Shy is how you are, but you think his shyness is not the same. You think, even, your mother is wrong. But what do you know, you’re only a girl, though you are changing, which is something that Uncle Lew is less likely than ever to notice.
When he brings his new wife to meet the family you’re as excited as anyone, but you can’t help noticing how Sally looks a lot like Mother, except her hair is blonde while your mother’s is brown, and Sally is younger of course. Yet they both have those sharp features, and ice-blue eyes, and overflowing bodies that they cover in flower-print dresses hemmed just above the knee, oddly fine-boned ankles they show off in strappy sandals with little heels.
An uncle is someone who must have happy times like anyone, but the last you see of him before his funeral, he looks as if he hasn’t laughed for a long time. He sits in a lawn chair under the maple beside his wife, Sally in her powder-blue shift. A yellow leaf drifts down onto his lap. You’re too old to try to make him laugh by clowning around, so you just smile in case he looks in your direction. Somewhere in the neighborhood someone is burning something, probably what is called a pile of brush, meaning pieces of nature unnecessary and to be rid of. The acrid smell of the fire doesn’t seem to bother anyone. Inside your head you whisperUncle Lew, Uncle Lew.
What you remember later is how he was there and not there, a maple leaf fluttering unnoticed on top of his pants in the acrid breeze that afternoon.