The Charred Tree

Uncle Ernest

Uncle Ernest played his cards close to his vest even when he wasn’t at the poker table. He was always running a scam or a con, and he was good at it. Mom would say he wasted his life playing cards but she only saw the side of her brother she wanted to see. My uncle was a master at separating people from their money; Ernest Beale only played cards to have fun. He taught me seven card stud the spring before I started school. Needless to say, Mom didn’t approve. Especially when the schoolteacher had her come to the school to talk about how I had taken the other boys’ money.

I learned more than cards from Uncle Ernest. My first taste of whisky was from the flask he kept in his boot. He showed me how to pack finely cut Virginia tobacco in his sultan-head carved meerschaum pipe. That pipe was either in his mouth or tucked into the pocket of his brocade vest, opposite the ticking gold watch at the end of the chain stretched across his stomach. The weekend before I started working at the mill, he brought me one of those pipes when he got back from a trip to Portsmouth. It gleamed white as snow when I first opened the fitted leather case. Uncle Ernest and I have smoked many a bowl on the back porch while passing his flask back and forth when Mom wasn’t looking. The cheap brass clasp fell off the leather case years ago but the pipe has turned a dark mahogany and now matches my uncle’s.

“Always look out th’ window, my boy. You’ll learn somethin’, even if it’s only th’ direction of the wind or how hard it’s rainin’.” He started every deal I ever watched him do with that proverb, no matter whether it was a hustle, a grift, or a legitimate business deal. When I was little I’d run to the nearest window and look out when I heard those words. Uncle Ernest would laugh until tears leaked from his eyes. I went to him for help and advice the first time I tried to work a deal, a brokerage arrangement with a few of the sharecroppers in the county. He slapped me on the shoulder and said, “Nice work. You seen which way th’ wind’s ablowin’ an’ made th’ most of it.” I realized then what his words really meant.

He’s gone now. I got the message of his passing from a telegram left for me at the front desk of my hotel. It had been a profitable night with a bunch of optimists over cards on Bourbon Street so I had the bellman arrange for a train ticket while I packed. He left me everything he had less some money to help take care of Mom and Aunt Clara. When I went over to his house…my house…I found a single piece of his stationery centered on the blotter. Written across the page in his angular handwriting was his last message to me:

“Whether for the wind or for the rain, ALWAYS look out the window.”

This story was written in response to an Inspiration Monday prompt. Thanks, BeKindRewrite, for providing these bits of inspiration each week.

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6 thoughts on “Uncle Ernest

  1. Way to use detail to paint – more than a picture; a lifetime! Loved this, and not just because I have a fondness for con artists and pipe smokers, or that my dad taught me seven card stud when I was quite young myself.
    Great work.

  2. Pingback: Inspiration Monday: don’t watch the news « BeKindRewrite

  3. Beautiful, anecdotal and touching… This has the making of a con movie’s starting… I really like your writing style too! Great work! 🙂

  4. I believe these memories – nice writing DB. This could lead on to a whole book-full of story.

  5. Rebekah on said:

    I loved this. I got such a clear visual of this man, and his life. He was familiar to me, like an Uncle I myself have.

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