Uncle Dunkel towered above me—six feet of living lath held together by pluck and sinew. I was a chubby, bowlegged toddler when he returned from the war in Korea.

Over the next few years, he honed his carpentry skills. He strode along ridgepoles. He built our family a screen porch, shingled its roof like an urban card sharp armed with a royal flush. That summer, a pencil perched behind one sunburnt ear. A sweat-stained tool belt rode low on his hips. A whistling, blue-eyed magician, cellar to roof, the man could conjure a whole house.

Uncle chain-smoked on the job, smoked at home. Sometimes he’d take me aside after holiday dinners. “Index finger,” he’d say. “Point it, like a gun.” Then he’d light up, waft a series of smoke rings that wreathed my finger, knuckles and all—both our mouths frozen open in wonder.

Each oval exhale carried a hint of backspin, each puff a weightless image of singing.

I remember wanting to stroke his crew cut. And much as I wanted to touch the curved scar on his brow, the pale puckered flesh warned me off. If he ever explained the old wound, I’ve forgotten now.

The man didn’t talk much. Instead, he posed questions, and he championed my naïve, outsized notions, silently nodding. Perhaps, he had carried too many silences home from the war, and they’d muscled among the few words he had left.

“Voices,” he once told my dad, who would later tell me: Uncle heard terrible, twisted messages no one else could hear.

Think of a vintage coffee can, with its spot-welded metal key. Back and forth, my uncle would bend that key at the thin place of attachment, until it snapped free. Squinting, he’d thread the tab on the can through the little slot in the key’s shaft. Then he’d wind. And wind. Any kid would reach for the growing coil.

“Sharp edge,” he’d warn.

Maybe that’s how things were, inside his thoughts.

Once, in our backyard, and this may be wishful thinking, I saw the habitual furrow between his eyes relax, like the wake of a speedboat petering out. I like to think love for me was the reason.

“Swing with me, Uncle Dunkel! Please?”

Double kick-pump, stretch, and flex—that day we were two kids aiming for heaven, nearly dead even. Steel poles skipped in their sockets. Thunk, ka-junk.

Aftershocks would have clanged through the chains, tingled along my white-knuckle grip, buzzing my wrist bones and elbows. Our shoes would have creaked: my size fives flicking up grit, his elevens skinning the ragged edge of the lawn.

On and on we pumped, thrusting our toes toward the clouds. Even the top bar rocked, shuddering.

To this day, I can almost hear laughter. Didn’t he sound like someone who’d just rediscovered July? And didn’t he whoop for joy, like someone finally cut loose from a body cast?

Yes, I’ve embellished the probabilities. Burnishing details, I’ve re-savored that day’s headlong mirth pitting itself against risk. I’ve brandished it like a shield against his eventual diagnosis: paranoid schizophrenia.

Sooner or later, no matter how high one swings, one must drag the feet. Embrace standstill.

Almost six decades later, it seems that after our date on the swings he stopped whistling. His brow lowered sometimes, like a low-slung cloud advancing. In hindsight, it looked daunting as enemies breasting a knoll. Perhaps, he was reliving an old movie reel, uncoiling between his ears.

I have to imagine what came next.

He agrees to move to a sanitorium. Even here, he makes things. On the lid of a cedar box he constructs for me, he glues a mosaic of tiles. They are the colors of steel and bones and blood. They glint with specks of embedded metal.

Next, he sands off the hardened tears of excess adhesive. He grouts the tiles, screws in brass hinges, a tiny hasp, a chain for a brace.

I still have the box.

What I will not burnish: the tree, at dawn. And the barbed-wire noose, jerked tight—that twisted necklace he made himself that dangled, then stretched. And stretched. Daddy says he would have had to hold up his feet, at the end, until he blacked out.

No. I remember the swings. I see him suspended, kicking his way toward heaven, big feet aloft.
Laurie Klein is the author of a poetry collection, Where the Sky Opens, and a chapbook, Bodies of Water, Bodies of Flesh. Her essays have appeared in New Letters, Cold Mountain Review, Tiferet, Ars Medica, and other journals and anthologies. She blogs at lauriekleinscribe.com.

Photo by Kim Adrian