Michael Row

By Michael Cabrera

A large tree with long roots and branches

Even in the fall, it always felt like summer at my grandma’s house. Maybe it was just the weather of California, but it felt like her corner of the neighborhood radiated sunlight and warmth. From the shimmering of the concrete that led to the basketball hoop in the backyard, to the white painted playhouse on wooden beams that my grandpa built ages ago, the sun was everywhere. Sometimes it was too much. It hurt my eyes. I hid indoors, not one to play house or even basketball, until my grandma insisted I play at the shady park across the street.

At this park there was a particular tree. It’s still there, actually. I loved climbing it. It was considered the oldest tree in the city, and I climbed it until I was twelve or thirteen, when it became awkward to climb trees. I loved touching it and picking up its long, rattling-pods on the ground beneath its twisted branches. Its trunk felt cold and hard, and yet I could feel life and age beneath the bark. I played there–sometimes with my brothers, sometimes a cousin or two, sometimes alone–until some dove from somewhere cooed lazily, the shade stretched well beyond the park, and the streetlights flickered stale citrus colors.

My grandma always had herbal tea ready when I returned. She served it from a small white pot. The cups were pretty ceramic things. She asked me how my day was, her tone proper and regulated. I let my legs dangle from my seat, kicking to the rhythm of the Mexican music playing from a radio in the background. I’d answer her questions, reflecting her tone as best as I could. I knew she wanted me to. She wanted me to speak like an adult.

Sometimes, she brought a photo album out and we’d look at pictures of my father when he was a boy. He looked exactly like me at my age. I wondered how many times he sat in the very seat I was sitting in, drinking tea. How many times he may have gone to the park.

I was encouraged to play the piano when I was at Grandma’s house, while she made dinner. Music books and cardboard key guides were stored in the creaking black bench. The seat lifted up and the books were so old that I could smell them. I picked one up. Its corners were folded and swollen, but the cover was bright and colorful.

What started as a few formless melodies and chromatic scales, evolved to “Jingle Bells” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” from the book. Then, I found a song with my name in it. It was about rowing a boat. I liked boats. I liked my name. It was my father’s name.

I played it once or twice, reading the words to the song. It seemed religious, just like the room I was in with the painting of Christ blessing the wall and the winged angels on shelf spaces. Loved ones watched me from picture frames. I played it a third time, trying by memory and mouthing the words, making some up if I couldn’t remember.

The bench shifted and she was beside me. Her mouth smiled but her eyes were tight with pain. She still wore her blue cooking apron with the small white flowers and with the border that flared out like petals.

“Do you know this song, Abuelita?” I asked her.

“Yes, your daddy used to play it. He was very good with the piano. Keep playing.”

I played it from memory. Small fingers tapped the black and white keys. When I was done, I played it again, trying desperately hard not to miss notes. She sang the song for me and it sounded dreary and echoed in darkening room.

“Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah…” She closed her eyes. She knew all the verses. I could hear them muffled beneath her tears.

I didn’t know what to do so I played it again. Letting her have her memory. Letting her have her Michael. It was all I could offer. Her sadness was penetrating, and I could feel it pulsing from her soul and filling the air. What was left of the words to the song turned to soft sobs from her lips and then she placed a hand over my fingers to keep me from pressing more keys.

Category: Competition, Featured, Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU Student