A Gypsy Melody

 

A Gypsy Melody

Christopher Conley

Buppy died on his 87th birthday. You could call the timing his final joke, but I can’t imagine anyone besides him was laughing. After Buppy (my grandfather) died, I wrote a story about him. I wrote it to keep the memory of him. But the result was a mishmash of memories splattered onto a blank canvas; there was nothing artistic about it. The story is like a key that didn’t fit in the lock it was supposed to open, and now I need to go back and fix it.

When he was still alive, I would usually find him in his kitchen sitting in a chair at the head of the table next to the “rubbish.” Or I would find him in his padded, blue rocking-chair in the living room. He wasn’t heavy-set, but rather, a grandfatherly weight — he definitely wasn’t thin. He had a long chin, white hair (that often sprung up in the air from the ocean breeze outside), and a tucked-in jaw. He always looked like he was sucking on his teeth, which might have just been the case. As a child, one of his eyes was blinded because it was hit by a baseball. The problem with his eyes was that you could never really tell which one was blind, so you could never tell if he was looking at you, someone else, or just nothing. Sometimes I would find him reading the newspaper, hunched over it like a scientist, using a curled up fist as a sort of binocular-type mechanism. But since he was only enhancing one eye, it would be more of a monocular-type mechanism. And in the end, he wasn’t actually enhancing anything. That’s how I remember him: a grandfatherly sized man who sucked on his teeth while thinking his hand could enhance his vision.
I only knew him when he was in his 70s and 80s. Sometimes he would walk around his house shouting, “Hoh Gyp-sy Mel-o-dy!” My mother figured out it was a misinterpretation of the song, “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody.” Buppy had that strange tic for as long as I can remember. Hoh Gyp-sy Mel-o-dy! It followed him like a bell on a cat’s collar.

I’m actually not sure if I can say I knew Buppy all too well. My cousin Jake knew him. He knew him because they both lived in Boston, because they went fishing together, because Buppy could go to Jake’s hockey games. My cousin Joe knew him too. Because they had dinner once a week, because Joe would make him laugh. I would see Buppy on holidays or birthday celebrations, but that was about the extent of our relationship. It was more of a, shake-his-hand-hard and look-him-in-the-eye (hopefully the good one), say you’re happy to see him, throw in a Merry Christmas or Happy 4th, then watch what he does kind of relationship. I probably knew him better when I was younger, if that’s even possible. When I finally started remembering memories, Buppy and I didn’t really talk much — it was mostly just formalities. He listened to me, and I listened to him, but we didn’t always hear each other the same way he and my other cousins heard each other.

His one blind eye and the gypsy melody have always stood out to me. Sort of like when he would bang the kitchen table with his fist, or when he would call my mother homely. I cringe when my mother asks, you don’t remember that time when we did such and such with Buppy and when she says of course you remember, even when I don’t.

When he turned 80, Buppy started writing down his life stories. My cousin Britney compiled, or rather, transcribed his narratives into a book when he died. She said it was difficult because Buppy’s handwriting wasn’t very good, and neither was his grammar. He wrote all of them down on loose leaf paper — then he stored them away in a box. Britney was eventually able to copy his stories; she just guessed words and phrases every once in a while. He wrote 38 stories, along with a song and a poem. The one story with me in it was about a New Hampshire fishing trip. My brother Kevin might remember the day in New Hampshire, but not me. I sort of remember. There was rain. Thunder and lightning. A tent. And catfish. Buppy remembered. Here’s what he wrote down, or at least, what Britney was able to salvage from this particular fascicle:

Another trip that I am going to tell you about is – by the way, when I say trip I mean fishing and camping trip – when I went camping (also fishing) with daughter #1 and her two sons which happen to be my grandsons. Things happened that could have spoiled everything but turned out okay in the end and a few of these things are as follows. The biggest thing was the tent, which was brand new. It rained (cats and dogs) that night. I never remembered it raining as hard as it did that night, or maybe it was because of the tent, leaking like a sieve, and I mean leaking. There wasn’t a dry spot anywhere. But no one was complaining and we got through the night.

We ended up fishing the next morning and the boys caught a lot of fish (trout I think). We played cards, and later on we played ball. Playing with the boys is fun because they caught onto the game real good. Poker is the best game that we play and Kevin is the luckiest so far. I tell him, if I had his luck, I’d move to Vegas and lately I’ve been asked by Christopher, “Hey Buppy want to play some cards?” So we end up playing a few hands. Thank God the summer is coming, as we get together more often. The winter, they have school and things, as you know.

I always thought it had been catfish and not trout, but maybe we caught both catfish and trout. Sometimes while reading his story I feel like I’m fishing for the concrete memory. It’s in the water somewhere swimming around, avoiding my fishing rod. I can’t remember the last time I actually caught a fish — probably the trout or catfish in New Hampshire — so I wonder if I’ll ever get this memory to bite.

* * *

In another one of his recorded stories, Buppy was going to the hospital to visit Uncle Joe, his brother-in-law and fishing buddy. Before he went to the hospital, Buppy bought frozen fish. He unthawed one outside, then grabbed a rod and stabbed the fish through the hook. Him and Nana walked into the hospital in this fashion; a small, old woman dressed in church clothes with a nice purse and high heels, and a large, old man wearing fishing gear, holding a rod with a fish attached. People gave them strange looks in the hospital’s elevator. Nana just told them, “Don’t ask.”

When they got to the right room, Buppy took the fishing rod, handed it to Uncle Joe, and told him to reel the line in. Uncle Joe, who was weak but still functional, did his best to rotate the fishing reel. Buppy recorded the moment in his collection of stories by simply saying, “in came the fish sliding across the floor and a smile across Uncle Joe’s face.” He never told me about this story, but I like this one the most. At the end he doesn’t give any grand conclusion. All he wrote down is, “I thought I did what I started out to do.”

My Uncle Pete presented Buppy’s eulogy at the funeral; he talked about how he was a jokester. He hid under the stairs and popped out to scare his children. He would sneak something disgusting in someone’s food. And after each joke, he would wink an eye — whether it was the blind one or not, we had no idea — and chuckle to himself with his arms crossed. Then, right on cue, he would sing, Hoh Gyp-sy Mel-o-dy!

I saw my cousin Jennifer crying when she walked outside of the church. I asked her if she was okay, and she nodded her head. Then she said, “When we were walking out of the church I lost my balance for a second and stumbled backwards. It must have been Grandpa’s fishing rod.” She wiped her eyes with a tissue, then smiled. “He got me hooked by the shirt and pulled me back. It’s like he was reeling me in like a fish.” She laughed and I laughed and I told her I’m sure it was him who yanked her back. Just like how it wasn’t just a coincidence that after he died, my mother would find coins in random nooks and crannies of the house. It was him, of course, keeping my mother on her toes.

I wish that I had almost tripped while walking out of the church. Or found a quarter. Or felt something out of the ordinary. But when I try to think of a conversation I’ve had with Buppy, or a story, there would always be someone else there.

Weeks after the funeral, we spread Buppy’s ashes on the Atlantic Ocean, his favorite fishing hole. We sailed out on the boat his kids bought him a few years before he died; they named it A Gypsy Melody.

My first time on A Gypsy Melody with Buppy was my last time. He sat near the back of the boat with his fishing rod, and I sat on the front with sunglasses on. My brother learned how to drive from Uncle Pete. My mother made too many sandwiches. Buppy didn’t catch a thing, and I don’t remember much after that. I have a picture of me on the front of the boat with my backwards Red Sox hat, a picture of my brother steering the boat with Uncle Pete, and a picture of Buppy sitting on a beach chair, fishing for water — a determined and yet stoic look plastered on his face.

The water was gentle when we spread his ashes. We reached an open space and the boat rocked back and forth— steadily, slowly — and for once my lively family was silent. I’m not too sure what Buppy would have thought of the scene. He probably would have found it too sentimental. I was waiting for the boat to capsize. Turn us over, I thought almost sarcastically. It felt like a dare. Everything was still — the wind and the waves, gentle. A small gust. Nothing. A seagull’s cry. Still nothing. A ripple in the water. Silence. Turn us over.

It was uncharacteristic of my family to share a moment without sound. No jokes or banter; reverence to the dead. Goosebumps covered my arms and legs either because of the wind or the hush. We released Buppy’s ashes in a box that floated a while, then sank as water made its way inside. We all watched. It bobbed up and down with each wave and grew smaller each fleeting second. I leaned over and stuck out my hand; a wave splashed against the side of the boat and water sprayed onto my face. Ha, good one.

Waves pummel the side of the boat, and I feel the water spraying rapidly onto my face. The water starts to envelop my body, plunging me downward. Immersed in the vast ocean, I let myself sink. Under the weight of the waves I hear another seagull cry. I fall deeper in stillness. I descend until I stroke the slimy floor, grazing the sand with my feet. I wriggle my toes in the cold sand. I shove them deeper, twisting and turning, left and right, up and down. I try to break through, even momentarily, to the other side — hoping there is another side. I want to know how it feels. I press against a harder layer that won’t budge. I twist my toes faster. The other side is locked, shielded from the dense surface. My toes can’t fit themselves through, and yet I twist in vain.

Turn us over, I think again. I jiggle and contort my toes left and right once more while A Gypsy Melody cruises peacefully, safely to the shore.

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