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Uncle Jack

read by the author

A thimbleful of the hard stuff
And he was away.
One day he bought a spanking suit
And said, I’m pissing off to Sydney.
Returned in a month on the back
Of a clapped out ute
Sporting greasy dungarees, slouch hat
And a mauve wind-cheater
Full of burns and tomato stains.
He gave the suit to a Desert Rat
Fresh from Tobruk on a wharf
Oh, you know,
Somewhere East of Woolloomoolo.

He loved all things
That sprouted from the ground.
His fingers, hard
As the back of a lizard
Touched bulbs and seedlings
The way a man might touch a woman,
And up they sprang —
Colors all around.

And late at night
He’d touch the old piano
Fingers roving along
The delicious notes, finding arpeggio
And chord to suit the color of the breeze:
A kind of song,
Half-major and half-minor —

Hairless head
Nodding over the keys. 

As a kid I relished his stories.
Mostly bull, they had the truth
Of legends: the lecherous
Twelve-fingered aristocrat;
The long-limbed hero of his youth
Who pulled three locomotives with his teeth;
The woman who lived in a slum tree-house
And spoke the dialects of Bird and Cat.
Just as we all were getting used
To him, at eighty-six
He pitched head first
Into a dahlia-patch
And flatly refused
To come inside for tea.

When he heard Beethoven his face
Would flush, and when he hummed
The major themes
The notes were all in place.
Sundays his breath was awful.
Last time I walked him to the tram
He said, I’m
No good at all.

A scratchy voice, full
Of seawind and the tang
Of plums.
Nonsense, I said
We love you, take it easy.
He half-fell into the tram.

He hungered for wide rivers, the splash
Of a trout, not caught
On his line, but
Leaping free, the flash
Of wild rosellas.
He fought
Too many wars:
One real, wherein
They broke his bones.

And I who could never garden
Worth a damn, measure out
In this leafless room
Ten thimblefuls and another ten
And drink to the music in
His pickled soul — who taught
So many things
To find their brief, unrepeatable bloom.