July 11, 2016
1. Healthy and Optimistic
Richard Brautigan’s ukulele fell suddenly from the sky on a sunny October day. It landed in Washington Square Park on the North Shore of San Francisco, not far from the Benjamin Franklin statue.
The first to approach Richard Brautigan’s ukulele was a homeless wino. He watched the ukulele fall from the sky while eating a sandwich he had been given across the street at Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral. The sandwich fell out of the wino’s hand, occupied what sky remained between the hand and the grass of Washington Square Park, and, like Richard Brautigan’s ukulele, took its place among the poplars and cypresses, the sandboxes and sprinklers and tennis balls saturated with dog spit in the park. The wino picked up his sandwich and continued to eat.
A jogger also saw Richard Brautigan’s ukulele fall from the sky. She jogged over to the fallen ukulele.
The wino reached Richard Brautigan’s ukulele at the same time the jogger did. He regarded the jogger. She wore a pink jogging suit made completely out of watermelon sugar. The wino could not help noticing the outline of her sports bra through her watermelon sugar pullover.
The jogger spoke first. She said, “Did you see Richard Brautigan’s ukulele fall from the sky?”
She was aware of the nebulous proposal attached to asking a Washington Square Park wino to validate her perception of reality.
The wino nodded. He breathed a sigh of relief that he had not been the only one to see Richard Brautigan’s ukulele fall from the sky.
He was aware of the nebulous proposal attached to trusting a woman in a watermelon sugar jogging suit to validate his perception of reality.
At exactly this moment, the patriarch of poetry on San Francisco’s North Shore raced to the scene. He ran swinging his left arm and holding his Greek fisherman’s cap tight to his head with his right hand. His Walt Whitman beard crawled over his shoulder like a pet marmot. He caught up to the wino and the jogger. He was out of breath. His lack of breath forced him to place his hands on his knees and take several deep breaths. Huff. Puff. Huff. Huff. Puff.
Richard Brautigan’s ukulele sat in the grass among the three, glowing and presidential like it was Winston Churchill.
The jogger and the wino watched the patriarch of poetry on San Francisco’s North Shore huff and puff until he finally spoke. Huff. “It’s Richard Brautigan’s Ukulele!” he said. Puff. He reached to touch it.
The wino gently touched the patriarch’s arm. “Don’t,” he said. “It might be ice cold like the outer space it came from.” The wino feared that the patriarch’s fingers would stick to the ukulele and never unstick, as if they had touched a comet itself.
The patriarch huffed. He shook off the wino’s arm and reached closer.
The jogger touched the patriarch’s arm more firmly. “Don’t,” she said. “It might be red hot from entering the atmosphere.” The jogger feared that the patriarch’s fingers would be scorched by the ukulele, as if they had touched a fallen meteor.
The patriarch puffed. He shook off the jogger’s hand and stood. He said, “We are not naïve waifs, here. We can seek to know the unknowable!”
Still, he abandoned any attempt to touch Richard Brautigan’s ukulele.
The Benjamin Franklin statue in the park lorded over the scene. His shadow stretched over the quartet of wino, jogger, patriarch, and Richard Brautigan’s ukulele like a WELCOME sign.
The patriarch was reminded of Kafka, who had learned of America by reading Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the patriarch had simply read about that somewhere.
He distinctly remembered a line from Kafka or someone quoting Kafka, and revised it and said it aloud as if it were a thought completely original to himself. He said, “I like Richard Brautigan’s ukulele because it is healthy and optimistic.”
2. A Kind of Class
Mrs. Derfuss read to us about Richard Brautigan’s ukulele every afternoon, just after recess. We would sit cross-legged on the linoleum kindergarten floor, forming a half-moon around Mrs. Derfuss, waiting for the day’s story about Richard Brautigan’s ukulele. It was the reward for a day well-spent. We behaved ourselves through color recognition, through exams identifying squares and circles and rectangles, through oral instructions and shoe-tying and sharing exercises. We even blew up the inflatable letters A-P and R-Z without squeezing the air hole to make fart noises.
(Q was a different issue altogether. We’ll get to Q later.)
Richard Brautigan’s ukulele never disappointed us. It didn’t matter what Richard Brautigan’s ukulele did. It could fight off the snake that was terrorizing a colonial family. It could dress up as a bear and go on a picnic. It could chase tigers around a tree until they turned into melted butter. It could simply be a mischievous boy with a mother always screaming, “No, Richard Brautigan’s Ukulele!” It didn’t matter. We loved the stories.
One of the boys in the class could not walk the balance beam. Without walking the balance beam, he would never get the check mark next to his name that allowed him to advance to first grade. First graders were all masters of the balance beam. This mastery allowed them to complete all the balance beam activities that first grade demanded. But one of us could not walk it. We stood around the playground of Lewis Carroll Elementary watching one of us step up to the skinny end of a two-by-four, take two steps, teeter, windmill his arms, and tumble onto the damp playground grass. Mrs. Derfuss told him, “Think of Richard Brautigan’s ukulele.”
This boy started afresh on the balance beam. He said to himself, “Richard Brautigan’s ukulele.” He took a step. It worked. He kept his balance. He said it again, “Richard Brautigan’s ukulele,” and took another step. Success! With every step, he said, “Richard Brautigan’s ukulele, Richard Brautigan’s ukulele, Richard Brautigan’s ukulele.” All the way across the balance beam.
This boy liked to do his thinking out loud.
When he completed the balance beam without falling, we all cheered and slapped him on the back and told him that Richard Brautigan’s ukulele couldn’t have walked the balance beam any better than that. Holy cow!
Mrs. Derfuss rewarded his success with a PayDay candy bar.
Some of us troublemakers learned the power of Richard Brautigan’s ukulele at that point.
At lunch time the next day, one of us snuck up behind Chuck Ernst. One of us waited until he took a sip of milk, then shouted, “Richard Brautigan’s ukulele!” Chuck laughed so hard that milk came out of his nose. All of us other troublemakers loved this. We took turns sneaking up behind our classmates, waiting for them to sip their milk, then screaming, “Richard Brautigan’s ukulele!” The results were mixed. Only Chuck Ernst could be relied on to laugh and shoot milk out of his nose every time. After six consecutive shouts followed by six consecutive nasal-dairy eruptions, Chuck decided to go thirsty.
That day it rained and recess was held inside. We played with little wooden trucks. One of us had the idea to write RICHARD BRAUTIGAN’S UKULELE on the side of the truck with a crayon. We were just now learning to write and only knew how to write capital letters. Lower case would come later. We didn’t know how to write the letter Q because the school didn’t waste their money on Qs. They told teachers to just hold up the O and cross the bottom of it with an I. It didn’t really work. Perhaps that’s why none of us really learned how to keep quiet. Though sometimes we could keep oiuiet.
I liked the way RICHARD BRAUTIGAN’S UKULELE looked on the side of the wooden truck. I found a nearby lunch bag. It belonged to Cherie Swain. Cherie Swain’s mother was a flight attendant and she packed Cherie Swain’s lunches in surplus airsickness bags. We would have teased Cherie about this if any of us had ever been on a plane and knew what an airsickness bag was. Since we hadn’t ever been on a plane or learned what an airsickness bag was, we simply thought Cherie carried fancy bags that didn’t leak. I wrote RICHARD BRAUTIGAN’S UKULELE on the side of Cherie Swain’s lunch bag. While I was there, I decided to take one bite out of Cherie’s sandwich. It was ham and cheese on white bread. Cherie’s mom added a little relish as a special treat to the sandwich. I thought about taking another bite, but I didn’t want to be selfish. I carefully wrapped the sandwich back up in plastic wrap and stuffed it in her RICHARD BRAUTIGAN’S UKULELE lunch bag.
Pretty soon, we all had crayons and we wrote RICHARD BRAUTIGAN’S UKULELE on every surface we could find: linoleum floors, wooden desks, brick walls, chalk boards, red playground balls, the white rubber toes of Albert Welch’s Chuck Taylors, Tiffany Henderson’s white vinyl belt, all of the artwork adorning the walls, even Mrs. Derfuss’s poster charting all of our kindergarten progress. The words looked good splayed across the room in multiple colors. They completed the room, and gave it a kind of class.
Mrs. Derfuss did not read to us about Richard Brautigan’s ukulele that day. Instead, she gave us soap and water and rags and buckets and we scrubbed crayon off the walls and floor and rubber balls and Tiffany Henderson’s belt. Mrs. Derfuss used big inflatable letters to teach us a lesson. She held up the letters and told us that we’d never get another story until we learned how to mind our Ps and OIs.
3. The Deeds
Before long, the crowd at Washington Square Park had gathered around Richard Brautigan’s ukulele. The jogger had been squeezed out. She hopped on one foot, then another, but could no longer see Richard Brautigan’s ukulele. Too many broad backs stood between her and the fallen object.
The wino had also been squeezed out. He did not hop. He ate the rest of his free sandwich and stared at the pink watermelon sugar jogging suit.
The patriarch quoted bastardized passages from The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster. “Richard Brautigan’s ukulele laughs at us from behind our teeth wearing the clothes of fish and birds,” he said. “Richard Brautigan’s ukulele is a dish of ice cream tasting like an operating table with the patient staring at the ceiling,” he said. “I watched a man in a café fold Richard Brautigan’s ukulele as if he were folding a birth certificate or looking at the photograph of a dead lover.”
The crowd grew gradually restless and panicked.
This being Washington Square Park, the possibility hung over all of them that Richard Brautigan’s ukulele could conjure up the tigers that once lived in Washington Square Park. The tigers were literate and polite. They had beautiful voices and liked to quote from Moby-Dick. They really were fine tigers.
But they were tigers. It was in their nature to eat people.
The crowd feared that Richard Brautigan’s ukulele would conjure up these tigers. Some of the crowd would be eaten by the polite tigers with the beautiful voices. Some would only learn mathematics from the tigers. They would go through life believing that eight times eight is fifty-six.
The patriarch added to the agitation of the crowd. He said, “A trout-covered wind blows through Richard Brautigan’s ukulele.”
A first grader weaved through the crowd. She wore a lovely orange sweater that her grandmother had given her. The words “Trout Fishing in America” were written across the back of the sweater. She slid between knees and hips until she approached Richard Brautigan’s ukulele.
Enough time had passed for the comets of outer space to warm and the meteors whizzing through the atmosphere to cool. She picked up the ukulele and played a few notes.
With a voice as beautiful as a young tiger’s, she sang these words:
In Richard Brautigan’s ukulele the deeds were done and done again as his life is done in Richard Brautigan’s ukulele.
SEAN CARSWELL is the author of six books, most recently the short story collection The Metaphysical Ukulele. He teaches writing and literature at California State University Channel Islands. You can read by and about him at seancarswell.org.
Adapted from The Metaphysical Ukulele, by Sean Carswell, Copyright © 2016 by Sean Carswell. With the permission of the publisher, Ig Publishing.