Kevin M. Kearney
My uncle is smiling. I’m five years old, trying my best to climb onto his motorcycle and he lifts me by my armpits, up into the clear Massachusetts sky, before setting me down on the bike’s saddle. My mom laughs, though it’s a nervous one. My uncle and my mom have the same face, which is to say they both look like my Gram, who’s inside making ham salad and singing to my baby sister.
“Just be careful,” my mom says.
“You don’t trust me?” my uncle replies. My mom says she should check on my sister and heads inside. “You trust me, right?” my uncle asks me. Of course I do.
My uncle is standing on the beach. He’s barefoot and wearing khakis rolled up past his ankles. He’s leaning against a grand piano, the one from my Gram’s house, the one she’d inherited when the quiet woman at the farm down the street died in her sleep. My uncle’s brothers nearly threw out their backs lifting the piano into his pickup and then again when they walked it through the dunes and then for a third time when they made it down to the shoreline. My uncle is staring at the camera, smiling, hoping you’re staring back while his record spins around and around and around on your turntable.
My uncle is drinking. My uncle is always drinking. All of my uncles are always drinking but no one talks about it except when someone falls down and even then it’s really just an opportunity for a laugh. Their faces are permanently blushed, like they’ve taken my Gram’s translucent skin and dyed it scarlet rose. My mom doesn’t drink much unless she’s around family, so that’s when her New England Rs return and she laughs a little too long and her face gin blossoms like her brothers, even though no one in my family drinks gin. Gin is for alcoholics. Gin is for Protestants.
My uncle is laughing. He’s driven six hours in stop-and-go traffic from Massachusetts to New Jersey only to realize he’s forgotten the one thing he needed: his keyboard. “I’m not trying to ruin your graduation party,” he says. I can tell he’s embarrassed and a little confused. He goes back to his car and looks under the passenger’s seat, like he might find it there next to some loose change. I can’t help but see the empty six pack of Heinekin on the floor, but I try to avert my eyes for his sake though he still catches me. “Long drive,” he says, smiling. “Gotta make Jersey a little less depressing, you know?”
My uncle is whispering by the stage door. He’s telling us to be as inconspicuous as possible. He doesn’t want the new doorman to catch us, because the new doorman doesn’t know that when family is in town they all get to see the show, even though all the nieces and nephews are underage. We are apparently inconspicuous enough, so I spend the night drinking ginger ale and watching middle-aged women in leopard print tops glide across the dancefloor. My uncle is singing “Moondance” and “Doctor My Eyes” and “Hungry Heart.” He pounds the keys and closes his eyes when he hits the high parts, like he needs to tune out the rest of us in this bar basement so he can see the notes, so he can reach out and grab them before they disappear.
My uncle is hospitalized, and then he is comatose, and then he is ash in an urn. His funeral isn’t a funeral, it’s a “celebration of life” at the Elk’s Lodge. It’s actually a concert, one final show for all of his former bandmates. There are still so many questions about the estate, so many outstanding bills and so much unexpected debt, but no one wants to talk about those things today. I don’t ever want to talk about those things. All I want to do is see my uncle sing, but I decide I’ll settle for all of this.
It’s a Sunday afternoon, but no one has any reservations about getting drunk. My cousin and I park by the bar and begin building a collection of empty Miller Lites. A bald man in a three piece suit asks if we’re the nephews and shakes our hands like he’s just met two celebrities. “I saw him play at my high school back in ‘78,” he tells us. “I saw him every chance I could after that.” Later, the band starts playing “Your Song” and I see the bald man and his wife on the dancefloor. I watch him take her hands in his and whisper in her ear. I watch as he kisses her cheek and she blushes, and I see them drift back to their high school gymnasium. I can see them there, dancing while my uncle sings, even though I’m decades younger, even though I’ve never been to a school dance with a live band, even though all of the memories of my uncle are from long after people thought he was destined for something bigger.
But I don’t care about all that. I am in the high school gymnasium. I am on his motorcycle. I am staring back at him on the beach and I see him jump on top of the grand piano, I see him close his eyes and leap towards the sky, grabbing hold of the notes hanging overhead before they disappear forever.
Kevin M. Kearney’s writing has appeared in Hobart, X-R-A-Y, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. His debut novel, HOW TO KEEP TIME, is available from Thirty West Publishing House. More info at kevinmkearney.com