artwork: ralph murre
Christmas Night with Ukulele
by John Sierpinski
I am twelve, sitting in a chair in a new striped
polo shirt, and cuffed, corduroy pants. My
hair is slicked with Vaseline and water, shaped
and parted like Roy Rogers’. When I smile,
there is a gap between my front teeth. The new
transistor radio I unwrapped earlier crackles,
“Chestnuts roasting…” Tinny. The radio
is the size of a brick. Uncle Ted appears
at the top of the basement stairs and says
“Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christ…” He stumbles,
swallowed into the great white, flocked tree.
The color coordinated ornaments and spotlight
shatter. Crunch. Are pulverized. At the end
a remote sick, little bell tinkles. Aunt Junie,
Ted’s wife, curses like some deranged drill
instructor. Ted lies on the thick shag, fine
shards of red and green glass sprinkled in
his graying hair. He attempts to get up —
a slow motion roll, a shuffle of feet. “I’m
sorry,” he drones, with a faint smile. Aunt
Hilda comes to on the sofa, looks at Ted,
and declares, “Let’s all take our clothes off!”
I sneak a glance up her pleated skirt. My
mother catches me (a scolding look). I feel
more and more uneasy, and steal down
the stairs to the knotty pine, rec. room bar.
My father is singing, “All is calm…” Uncle
Sy strums four strings, the little woman-
shaped body of the ukulele. I ask, “Can we
go now, Dad?” He continues to sing: shot
glass in one hand, lips slack, a lopsided oval.
I ask again, “Can we go?” I touch his sleeve.
His hand slaps hot behind my ear, pushes me
away. Tears slip from my eyes, the enamel
orchid on the stringed instrument grows fuzzy.
Later, I’m in the backseat of the car. Wheels
slide in rapidly falling snow, and my mother
shouts, “Be careful, dammit!” The dashboard
light like a match flame, illuminates their bloated
faces. The falsetto speaker hums, “I’ll be home
for Christmas.” I stare out the window.
snowflakes fall without menace or harm.
~ first published in North Coast Review