The first thing you should know about Grandma Hildy is that she loved a bargain. Since she retired, her summer hobby has been thrifting and garage-saling, and her winter hobby has been be-dazzling and a-jazzling up her treasures with rhinestones, feathers, yarn and anything else that suits her fancy. So, I guess in all, that’s about five things you should know about Grandma Hildy.
The first thing you should know about my cousin Skylar is that he can play anything with strings. And that he’s got weird ideas about the “soul” of an instrument. He’s got a collection of seven guitars, five ukuleles, three mandolins and one cello that he plucks rather than use the bow, and they’ve all got names, and he plays them every day without fail. Needless to say, he’s not the person to ask to come catsit for you – way too busy to come to your place, and if one of the cats peed on an instrument, well, you’d never hear the end of it (that is, after he started speaking to you again). (It was two years before he spoke directly to me again.)
Anyway, last Christmas Grandma Hildy outdid herself for Skylar. She picked up a really nice ukulele at an auction, and then proceeded to gild it. She’d also found an outlet that was getting rid of its “fill-the-bag” polished rock cart, so she had about 25 pounds of rose quartz, amethyst, turquoise and tiger’s eye – and more. So, when she felt that gilding the ukulele wasn’t enough, she hot-glued a bunch of her polished rocks to it.
I winced when I saw it. Not only was it heavy, but I was sure the sound would be like listening to someone buried under an avalanche.
But lo and behold, it was a Christmas miracle! Cousin Skylar loved it, and coaxed a pretty little tune out of the thing. He didn’t put the thing down all day – he played right through Christmas dinner, and even through the evening sandwiches. He finally packed it up (thank goodness, Grandma Hildy didn’t decorate the case she’d found for it), and went home around midnight, sucking on a beer as we made our way across the park to our homes. I don’t know where he got the beer; Grandma Hildy would have killed him if she’d known. She took that Grandma got run over by a reindeer song pretty seriously.
Well, I didn’t see him for a couple of days after that. The wife’s family is a twelve-hour drive away, so we bundled up in the van, and drove straight through to get there on December 26th in time for lunch, and we stayed for a couple of days to recuperate. I guess it must have been December 28th when I went over to shoot some bull.
The first thing that hit me was the smell of Canadian bacon, frying in the pan, along side six pieces of French toast. The house was not its usual tidy self.
“Hey, cuz,” Skylar said, “want a turtleneck?” There were six shirts on the dining room table in festive colors.
“I’m good, man.” Skylar handed me a BLT, and jammed his own into his mouth. He motioned me into his “library” which was a mancave and a music room as well as semi-formal recording studio. There was a thin layer of dust on the other instruments, but Skylar wiped his greasy hands on his jeans and picked up Grandma Hildy’s hideous uke, and started playing an old Beatles tune. As the BLT cleared his throat, he began to sing about Christmas.
“Jeez, give it a break, Sky. I’ve been in a car for 12 hours with the kids’ Christmas bops.”
“Still the twelve days of Christmas, cuz.” But he riffed a little and settled on some Led Zeppelin, and talked over his own playing. I was pretty impressed, really. It seemed like his hands were completely divorced from his brain.
“So, what did you wind up calling it?” I asked, pointing to the ukulele. The rocks seemed to capture the light and send it back out in a soft glow around my cousin.
“Zelda. Oh, she’s wild man. Sweet voice.”
I couldn’t deny that. I was mesmerized, and before I knew it, the sun was setting on the short winter day, and I headed back home.
What with one thing and the other (mostly the kids’ new video games trapped me at home), I didn’t visit again until the New Year. I thought it was kind of weird that Skylar hadn’t popped in to say hello, or come to the party. Close-knit family; Grandma Hildy said she hadn’t seen him since Christmas, which was also weird.
And it was super-weird that there was a package of eight comic books sitting on his welcome mat. I stumbled over them in the darkness. But, I could hear the sound of the ukulele even through the door. It seemed to have grown even more resonant and stronger in power. I rang the doorbell three times, but Skylar didn’t answer. I had a bad feeling about this, and let myself in.
The house was strewn with crap. I flipped on the kitchen light. French toast in the frying pan, a pile of turtlenecks on the table, the sink full of Canadian bacon – must have been 20 pounds of it – and hats, golden stocking hats, all over the floor. In the library, there were empty beer cans on every level surface, and so many packs of cigarettes – I knew for a fact Skylar didn’t smoke. It was just weird. Skylar was in a swivel chair, his back to me, and still playing.
“Turn off the light, cuz,” he said. I did. The moon was high in his east window, and it really did almost look like daylight in the room.
He slowly rotated, and I was aghast. His cheeks were all sunken, his face white as the snow, and his hair also completely white, and a long, white beard that looked as if he’d been growing it out for six years, not the few days since I last saw him.
He weakly waggled his eyebrows at me. “Hey, cuz,” he croaked. “Bring me some water.”
I rushed to the kitchen, got him a glass, and came back. “Put down the uke, Skylar. Here’s your water.”
“I can’t, man. Just hold it to my lips.”
He gulped it down as if he hadn’t had anything to drink in days, and then asked for more.
“Put down the uke, dude. When was the last time you ate?”
He didn’t put down the uke. He kept playing, and said, “I don’t remember. Doesn’t matter. Sit and listen for awhile.” He played a pretty little riff. “After you get me another glass of water.”
I sat down, again under some strange spell of the ukulele.
“Zelda, she’s a pretty thing, but she’s calling them to me. She told me they are coming at midnight.”
“Who? Who’s coming, Skylar?”
But he shook his head and played on – right through the Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request and Beggars Banquet. I should have done something – ripped the ukulele out of his hands, or even called Grandma Hildy over. But there I sat, listening as the night grew cold through the window and the full moon rose above the house, leaving us in the cold light reflected from the snow outside. I heard the grandfather clock in the hall begin to chime.
Then I heard them – an angelic choir singing something that sounded like “The Twelve Days of Christmas” but wasn’t. They sang of back bacon and packs of two-four, and five golden touques. The ceiling seemed to disappear. The angels’ glow reflected and shimmered on the surface of the polished rocks of Skylar’s ukulele, and then the instrument seemed to transform the energy into an even brighter spotlight, banishing all the shadows in the room, and turning Skylar into a glowing icon. The angels sang, “Come to me!” and he gently rose – floated above the swivel chair and his abandoned instruments, still playing his mystical notes and chords. I watched until he was far above me. Somewhere, I heard the clock chime its 12th note, and then the ceiling came back, just like that, plunging me into darkness.
Grandma Hildy couldn’t remember where she got the ukulele from. I don’t know if it was grief that addled her or something else, but sometimes she got it from a thrift store . . . that didn’t exist when I drove to the address she gave me. Sometimes it was from a garage sale on Amphion Street. Our town doesn’t have an Amphion Street. But sometimes, on the twelfth night of Christmas, I swear I can hear my cousin playing for me, out in the cold winter sky.