Saturday, January 24, 2015
Day 20 - "Uncle Francis"
To this day, I've never seen bigger ears on a human in my life. They stuck out of the side of his head, almost exactly like donkey ears - only rounded on the ends, instead of pointed. They would have looked inhuman and out-of-place had it not been for the toothless jug-head grin planted squarely between those twin aerofoils of flesh.
The lenses on his old tortoise-shell and wire rim glasses were always splotched with fingerprints and greasy smears. I was about 6. I would sit on his lap directly in the line of a face full of whisky-breath, and gently as I could, pull his glasses from the bridge of his nose - hold them up to his mouth so he could breathe on them to make them foggy, like GrandMa did with hers. I'd wipe them clean on my dirty t-shirt, and if they passed muster I'd put them right back where I got them.
Uncle Francis would just smile through rheumy red eyes and chuckle a little - slur an "att'away Son" in my dirrection, -and sometimes he'd even fish a 50 cent piece out of his shirt pocket (where he kept his drinking money) and stuff it in my palm - along with the secured promise that I wouldn't spend it all in one place.
He'd been sent France in WWI as a cook near the front. Somehow the man won a bunch of medals for bravery. Took 2 bullets, one in the calf and the other in the left cheek of his ass, from a German Mauser. When he was drinking you didn't dare bring it up - he'd show you the bullet holes.
Uncle Frances never met a whisky jug he didn't like. He'd been in consistent decline from the first time he unscrewed the first cork. In 30 years he had drank and whored his way through 6 wives, 4 kids, countless jobs, and countless opportunities to "straighten up" and be like his brothers Albert and Calvin
My Grandma and my Mom were the only ones in the family that would have too much to do with him after awhile.. They'd still let him in the house when he'd show up liquored to the gills, reeking of pool-hall whisky and Old Spice They'd put him to bed in the back room and feed him coffee and toast when he came too.
When he was sober I don't think I ever knew a more sensible or intelligent man either. He was pretty wise about just about everything you could ever think of. Funny too. His stories were just the best, and always side-splitting hilarious when he told them. Frances could twist hat rubber face of his into a million expressions - everyone of them "piss-your-drawers" funny.
When I was in the hospital once,after an appendicitis surgery, He poured water in his brand new straw cowboy hat and then put it on just to make me laugh . I about busted a stitch for laughing so hard. It hurt like hell and GrandMa like'to smacked Frances stupid with her purse for doing it. Called him a "God-damned Clown". I thought he'd lost his mind but I laughed my butt off. He'd do stuff like that all the time. Act the fool like no sane grownup would ever think acting. I loved him.
The absolute BEST though...... was when Francis would play the old guitar that we always seemed to have stashed in our closet. I
He'd often show up on our front porch, knee-walking shit-faced with his hat screwed on sideways, from a night of carousing downtown. Frances had been a snappy dresser in his heyday. He didn't believe in going uptown unless he could make a good impression. When he would venture out for an evening of adult pleasure at the local watering holes, his old brown cowboy suit was always pressed with creases in the trousers so sharp you could cut yourself on them.
Within 72 hours, after riding a bar stool for a couple days and whatever other nonsense Francis may have gotten into, and the creases in those chocolate colored pin-stripe trousers would fade and slacken, giving way to the myriad of wrinkles and splotched boozey stains that overwhelmed them. Like a once beautiful structure fallen to the decay of an inner-city slum.
Made me think of what those streets in France that he'd told me all about, must have looked like when Uncle Francis and the rest of the Army finally got to Paris.
As soon as he was planted at the kitchen table, with some guidance from both Mom and I - Mom would put a hot cup of coffee in front of him - I would grab his cowboy hat, screw it down over my ears, and haul ass for the closet. I'd dig out his guitar from behind the laundry and run it out to the kitchen just as fast as my legs would motate.
The man was an amazement. He could be dead drunk with drool running outta both sides of his mug, eye's like pissholes in a snowbank - and the minute that guitar would hit his hand he's straighten right up. His brow would crease and the cigarette dangling from his lip would stick straight out of his mug at 90degrees with the authority of a smokestack. He'd turn his head like he was listening to a sea shell, and listen closely to each string as he picked at at with stained yellow finger-nails.
He'd judiciously tweak and pry gently at the tuners and then, just like a shot, he'd throw his head back and start singing loud as a foghorn - "The day I Took My Jenny.......Out Behind The Barn" . It was funny and Mom would make him quit before he said all the verses. My favorite was "I'm So Lonesome I could Cry" I always wanted to hug him when he was done. It sounded, and looked, like he meant every word. "When he'd sing "Old Rugged Cross" sometime his voice would start to shake and Mom would wipe at her eyes. She said it made her think of GrandDad.
When Mom wasn't looking - Francis would sneak a half-pint bottle out of his his back pocket and pour little splashes in his coffee. He'd wink at me and put his index finger to his lips - our little secret. I never told on him either. We had an understaanding.
Alas my covert cooperation would ultimately be to no avail . Each and every time we went through this scenario, Frances would treat us to a cowboy music mini-concert with that old guitar. He'd sing and play through blurry eyes with increasingly fumbling hands and much good-natured cussing and laughter. - Until his balance would betray him due to the whisky, and he would fall out of his chair..
He'd come tumbling out of the chair like he'd been pushed. Guitar would go one direction and his glasses would go the other - the show was over. He liked big endings. I would get on one side of him, and Mom on the other, and we'd hoist him, muttering and giggling, over to the sofa and cover him up with an old patchwork quilt. I'd put his guitar back in the closet and head back outside. Mom would carry on as usual.
I knew , even then, that whisky caused a lot of problems - for almost everyone I knew. For the life of me I couldn't understand back then, why anybody would fool with it to begin with. It smelled like ASS!! Little did I know how easily my opinions would change in the coming years. Back then,I didn't much care for brussel sprouts either. At some point I changed my mind.
Francis would show up like that every now and then , with some regularity. He'd stay for a day or two - or for a month or 6. I always loved having him around. We were buddies. He would listen to me like I had something to say. I never knew a kinder soul. He knew every dirty joke that had ever been told, and he'd let me have sips off his beer when nobody was looking. When I was 12 he taught me to drive a stickshift.
He was in a hospital in Denver the last time I saw him. After years of too-hard living, his heart and his lungs were just plain worn out. I was just getting ready to move to Nashville to try my hand as a songwriter. I wanted to tell him, more than about anybody, what I was up to and how hopeful I was for the future.
His skin was grey and paper-thin on the back of his hands. Tubes and needles and beeping lights - the morphine for the pain had him fogged into semi-consciousness. He squeezed my fingers and winked. That was all that was left. I knew he fully understood - and he knew that I didn't.
His eyes stared straight at me for the longest time and I remembered the way his cowboy hat felt on my head all those years before. I tried to stop the tears, for his sake, but I couldn't. In that instant, that tired dying old man reached out to me and held me in his arms while I cried like a baby. He let me try say goodbye to him. To tell him everything he meant to me. I couldn't....still can't.
He rides with me now, everywhere I go. My silent partner and adviser. I trust him because I know he's still watching over me - that he loves me - and that he understands me. I know he's already forgiven me before I even fall. Wish I had that old hat.
"Don't take any wooden nickels"