Memorial Day: A Story about a Ukulele

by nicolecallihan

Inspired by my father’s relationship with his brother, I wanted to share this short-short that I wrote some time last year.

A Story about a Ukulele

My father asks me to write a story about a ukulele. A uke, he calls it, and it’s coming back, he says, big, everybody in town’s gonna own a uke, everybody in this whole blasted God-forsaken town. Mark my words.

And I do. I mark his words. I am thirty-two. I am a thirty-two year old woman pushing a shopping cart with one bad wheel marking the words of a man whose mouth I have. By the time I am thirty-four, he says, fifty-three percent of American households will own a ukulele; of that fifty-three percent, eight percent will be multiple uke households. You should get hitched, he says. You and your husband can have a uke or two.
I imagine what it would look like: me in an apron, crock-pot a’bubbling, rutabaga a’stewing; my husband in a tie. We would have a grey-eyed child and present her with a tiny guitar. Her small pale fingers would pluck out a song that starts real slow like warm honey inching its way down the body of a clear plastic bear but speeds up, faster, faster, stops. Maybe I don’t want to get married, I say.

You’re not listening, my father says. It’s not a tiny guitar. It’s a ukulele.
Outside there is a war, but it’s far away, so we can’t hear any bombs or smell any bodies. In the light of the supermarket, we are nearly angelic. My uncle Gabe is four feet ahead of us. This is what we do every Tuesday. My father and I pick up an empty-handed Gabe, take him to Aldi, then drop him off with plastic sacks filled with everything he needs: hot dogs, oranges, puffed cereal.
I didn’t know Gabe before he went to ‘Nam, but they say he was a real lady killer. Oh, those eyes, but he went and saw and ate a boat-load of legumes and went a little nut-so and when he got back he all but stopped talking. This is the only Gabe I know: the one who uses the end of his government-issued cane to knock a twenty-five pound box of dry milk from a too-high shelf.
So, I say to my father, what do you want it to be about?
What do you mean?
I mean, it can’t just be about a ukulele. It’s gotta be about something.
There’s that dull ding of items being scanned, and I run my finger the length of a Hershey’s bar while the dank eyes of the cashier stare past us. Gabe does little calf raises, half-hopped up on something like he might fly away.
I guess it’ll be about the same thing everything’s about, my father says.
And we stand there staring at the conveyor belt. I wonder for a second what he means, but he’s gotta mean love. For Chrissakes, he’s gotta mean love ‘cause even my weak-ass heart beating its crooked little tune so deep in my gut I can barely even hear it, even it wants it to be about love.
But I’m afraid to ask.
We get the bags—Dad and me and Gabe, with his one hand—and we walk across the blacktop. The wind’s starting to pick up a little, out of the west but cold, cutting me to my bones.
Spring, Gabe says.
Huh?
Spring’s coming. Wind’s stirring shit up, he says, and all of the sudden I can feel it, that warm yellow sun pressing on me, a thousand friggin’ flowers blooming their stinking heads off, and that sun soaking in, soaking so deep in that I’m speechless, that I got nothing for the ride home.
We’re quiet as snow the three of us, maybe even quieter than snow save the half-remembered song my father beats on the steering wheel with the heel of his long un-held hand. The town passes us by, one stone after another, and we are dumb with hope. There under that bleached-out sky, we’ve got groceries and each other and six dozen boxed-up ukuleles waiting to be sopped up on E-bay and sent out to play the music of the world.
It’s like sitting on a winning ticket, dad says, and heck, it hurts to admit it, but this time I can feel it, this time he just might be right.
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