Grandpa’s Guitar -- creative nonfiction by Caleb Parker
The guitar has a maple fretboard, and a small, red body. I sit on my bed for a while, looking at it. When I stand up, the floorboards creak beneath me. I slowly walk across the room, the guitar becoming clearer as I move forward. The fretboard is dry, weathered by the harsh New England climate. The neck curves in, creating space between the frets and the strings. It’s a fancy piece of wood, but it’s the only piece of him I have left.
I stood by the corner, peering out of the pollen-coated glass. My eyes creeped up over the window sill, watching carefully. He sat on one of the wiry chairs, which were sparsely laid out around the porch. The sound of his banjo resonated in my ears, muffled by the thickness of the wall. The banjo emanated a beautiful mix of frequencies, working together to create a song. Red Japanese maples sat on either side of him. The leaves were a vibrant red, indicating the start of Spring. It appeared that the branches of the tree stretched, reaching down towards him. I noticed there was an empty seat next to him. I wish I had taken the chance to sit by his side. I would ask about his band, the songs they would play. I would ask about living in Vermont, surrounded by friends. I would ask when he first picked up the banjo. I would ask how many years it took to play as well as he did. I would tell him that I loved him. The red maple trees reached down, grabbing him by the shoulder.
I sit back down on the bed, the guitar resting on my leg. The black and red body is caked with dust. I try to wipe it off, with little success. I think back to Christmas day in 2018. Sitting by the fire, crumpled wrapping paper scattered across the floor. As a final gift, my grandpa gave me the guitar. I held the guitar delicately in my hands, awestruck by the maple neck and the bronze strings. For the next two weeks, I couldn’t put it down. I would press down hard on the strings, straining to get a shred of noise out of the instrument. Now, I’m too busy playing on my electric, shredding over rock and metal tunes. I leave Grandpa’s guitar on the wall, a totem of regret. I can’t pick it up. I don’t want to think about him.
I watched the baseball dive towards me, following its perfect arc through the air. It dropped into the pocket of my leather glove, and I rolled it into my other hand. He stood next to the red maple tree. The hot Summer air blew through the leaves. I threw the ball to him, making sure to send it high. He reached his glove to the sky, catching the ball with ease. Earlier, when he asked if I wanted to play catch, it caught me by surprise. It had been a while since we spent time together. With a dumb look on my face, I nodded. My lips curled up into a crooked, half-smile. I hid my excitement; I felt ashamed. The ball emerged in the corner of my eye, breaking my trance. It fell back into my glove. I tried to throw the ball again, but I hesitated. I searched for his eyes, in an effort to grab his attention. He looked at me. His kind eyes and his gentle smile illuminated his face. I had a chance. I wish I had taken it. I would ask him about his childhood, what his family was like. I would ask if he had any siblings, if they gave him hell. I would ask if he played baseball growing up. I would ask why he loved watching the Red Sox so much. I would tell him that I loved him. The red maple trees reached down, surrounding him entirely.
With shaky fingers, I fret a chord on the guitar. B-flat minor, then E-flat, then A-flat. I slide my thumb across the strings with each chord, each strum giving a different timbre. Pain, regret, then sorrow. I hesitate. Taking a deep breath, I start again. B-flat minor, E-flat, A-flat. This time, no sound comes out of the guitar. I try again. No luck. A salty tear crashes onto the body, rolling down along the contour of wood. I try again, and again, and again, my hands growing weaker with each attempt. In the distance, I can hear a faint song. I can hear the sound of a banjo, muffled by years of memory. I try to focus on my own song. I try not to think about him.
I sat by his bed, peering out of the window. The park was empty. The only movement was the trees, their red and orange leaves gently swaying in the wind. All the people must’ve stayed home for Thanksgiving: eating turkey dinners, surrounded by loved ones. I smiled at the thought. Slowly, I turned around to see my mom sitting near the edge of the bed. She was telling him something. A gentle smile rested on his face. He was still kind and compassionate and lively, even after everything he’d been through. When they talked, I could see their lips moving, but I couldn’t quite hear what they were saying. After a while, she leaned forward, kissed him on the forehead, and stood up. She looked over to me. My heart sank as I waited for the inevitable. She asked if I wanted to say something to Grandpa before we left. This was my chance, perhaps the only chance I had left. I wish I had taken it. Mom would walk out of the room, and I would start small. I would ask Grandpa about his favorite Thanksgiving food. I would ask how he was doing, if the nurses were treating him well. Then, I would ask about hiking. I would ask about trudging along the Appalachian trail, carrying the weight of his hiking-essentials on his back. I would ask about the cold, wet nights, and sleeping in a tent under the stars. I would ask about the bears, the snakes, and the coyotes howling at the dead of night. I would ask about war. I would ask what it was like to be a mortarman, if it was difficult. I would ask if he was scared to leave home when he was drafted. I would ask why he brought his guitar, and whether it helped him feel safe. I would ask him why he became a Christian when he got home. I would ask why he read his bible every day. I would ask him to tell me a story about Jesus, or Ruth. I would ask about when he got married, when he settled down, when my mom was born into the world. I would ask why he got divorced. I would ask what my mom meant to him. I would ask if he loved her. I would ask my grandpa, “Do you love me?”
The guitar rests on the wall. I can’t play it. I will never be able to. I just stare at it. The dry, maple fretboard, the black and red body, the long, bronze strings, the light scars skewed across the wood. The tears have stopped. Feelings of pain and regret slowly fade. My memories fall back into the depths of my mind. All I can see is him. His kind eyes, his gentle smile. I smile.
Caleb Parker is a high school sophomore from Northeastern Massachusetts. He enjoys playing guitar, watching movies, and spending time with his friends.