Tiger Stripes

David McCarty

I had thought there was nothing mysterious about my family until the Christmas Day I found the picture of the one-eyed man.

We were from a tiny community west of Birmingham, right outside the city limits, with more trees than concrete. Sandusky, Alabama, was filled with the homes of coal miners and steelworkers. It was filled with modest two- and three-bedroom houses with yards full of dogwoods and azaleas, backyards with playsets and dog pens.

My family’s street wove its way to the top of a great big hill that ended in a ridge which overlooked a wide valley covered with kudzu. In the distance you could see the skyline of the city, even make out the famous statue of Vulcan. On Fourth of July we’d drive up the big hill and watch the fireworks as they shot off from Red Mountain, a dozen miles away.

My sister and I had red hair, redder even then the hematite crusted within that mountain in the distance. We both had the same shade of hair, almost Tony the Tiger orange, and our freckles  were so plentiful that even though we were fifteen months apart strangers constantly asked my mom if we were twins. There was no one like us, two bowl-cut and carrot-topped Muppets. We walked hand-in-hand one block to our elementary school, the same one our father had attended twenty years before.

We had a growing gang of cousins our age. For a while it was just us and our two boy cousins, both of whom had huge grins and glossy black hair—the same as their mother, our adored Aunt Judy, and our grandmother, my Nana. We lived only a few minutes away from the home my father had grown up in, where my grandparents, my Pop and Nana, still lived. I have just as many memories of playing at their house as I do my own.

Then the twins were born. They weren’t pretend twins, like me and my sister, but real twins. They were exactly the same in nearly every way, and both had the same nova-bright red hair as me and my sister. The wood-paneled hallway at my Nana’s was full of photographs of me and all my aunts and uncles and cousins, as familiar to me as the alphabet.

Our Nana with the jet-black hair loved her grandbabies’ red hair.  She would say it just like that.  I figured there was some wild Irish or Scottish strain from my grandfather that had been knotted with her family.  Maybe she liked it when that red hair would flare up amongst the staid and respectable ebony hair of her family.  That dark hair stemmed from my Nana’s grandfather, Jesu Maria, whom she called “Papa Jessie.”  He had been born 1861 in Barcelona and immigrated to Alabama in times unknown.

My Nana hadn’t grown up in a suburban house with central air that was just a short walk from slides and monkeybars. She was from a mining camp, a real company town in Jefferson County. She’d tell about how the man in the “honey wagon” would come by once a week to clean out all the outhouses. She married my grandfather right before he shipped out for the war, fighting his way through France and Germany. Her childhood was just as faraway to me as science fiction.  Those stories were in black and white, and our family was in color.

Yet there was more; it was just the stories had faded, or maybe gotten elbowed out the of way with each new red-or-black-haired grandbaby. Like how we knew that my Pop had a brother killed riding a motorcycle, but he was almost a myth. The past was long gone.

Then last Christmas I made the trek in from Mississippi, and, like I have for 42 years, went to my Nana’s on Christmas Day. For the first time I could remember in many years, there was a different photograph in an art deco style frame hanging in that wood-paneled hallway, something new, even though it was from another era. I was stunned.  One of my cousins—one of the twins—was nearby, and I called her over to witness it, like it was a car wreck, or a brick that had just smashed through a window bearing a ransom note.

It was a portrait of a man with short, jet black hair. An eyepatch covers his left eye, and a lit cigarette is perched on his lips. There’s a bolo tie cinched up on his plaid shirt. He strums an electric guitar, staring into the camera with his one good eye. The guitar is covered in tiger stripes. The one-eyed man looks both careful and careless, like he carries a knife in his boot. He looks dangerous, like somebody you would regret crossing paths with after midnight in a certain part of town.

“Who is this?” I mumbled out loud to my cousin. Her mouth hung open, and she whispered “I haven’t the faintest idea.” We yelled “NANA!!” in unison, like we were thirty years younger, kids hollering in the backyard. 

My grandmother had no time for our outburst. “That’s my brother, Joe,” she said, with a wave of her hand. I didn’t know she even had a brother named Joe. “You’ve seen that photo before, it’s been there.” I was pretty sure I would have remembered a photo of a one-eyed musician, since it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. “He was a guitar player,” she continued. “He moved out west. He passed away a long time ago now.”

Baffled, my cousin and I retreated back to hallway. In a flash of rebellious curiosity, we popped the frame open. Written on the back of the photo was the name of the photographer who had taken the portrait, and when: December, 1965. There was a Christmas card tucked behind the photo.

I’m fine and I hope all of you are. Maybe I’ll write a letter one of these days, I don’t know what to write but I think about all of you any way whether I write or not.
Love you Joe. 
P.S. Linda and her family are fine and so is Joey.

On the printed side the card said, WISHING YOU ALL THE JOYS OF CHRISTMAS. Underneath that slogan, written in careful script, Love you all. Joe Casaray.

There were mysteries upon mysteries tucked in the frame. There wasn’t just the missing Uncle Joe—so estranged he signed his full name to his sister in a Christmas card, so tentative he promised to write but didn’t know how—but also a daughter, Linda, and a son, Joey.

I thought I knew my family—all of us grown up safe in the suburbs, tucked away in three-bedroom houses with central air. All of a sudden it seemed like there was something different in us now, a mystery nestled in our DNA. I wanted to know more about the one-eyed man, and Lord above, what I really wanted to hear was what type of guitar he played.

That short hair in '65 and bolo tie didn’t say rock and roll, but that wild-looking guitar sure didn’t holler Nashville, either. It has to be rockabilly, doesn’t it? something mumbled, and I suddenly thought about my Nana’s love of Elvis. I wondered if Joe’s guitar was painted up that way because he was an Auburn fan, like my Nana.

If I had a secret uncle who played guitar for a living, maybe there was something untamed down inside all of us we never knew about. He made a living teaching Spanish guitar in Oakland under a method he called Casatone. That son of a coal miner from Edgewater, Alabama, took a guitar painted with tiger stripes and moved out to California. He wrote a song in '53 with his wife, Doris, called “Angel of Mine,” but she was gone by the time of the Christmas card. Could be this son of a coal miner could stray off the path more, too. He passed not three years after that card was sent, not yet 47. Probably no one will ever know how he died. You know how he died.  His other song was called “She Owns Me,” and he wasn’t talking about Doris. You know exactly how boys from Alabama die.

Maybe my Nana loved our red hair because it reminded her of the lost wildness of her brother. Maybe that sunset hair was a fiery reminder of something she would never know: the sound of an electric guitar played by a lonely Alabama boy echoing out across the Pacific.•

David McCarty is an artist & lawyer in Jackson, Mississippi, born in Alabama. His Polaroid photography was featured in Southern Glossary’s second issue [read his Q&A].  See more of his work at mccartypolaroids.com.