top of page
Image by Rushina Morrison

Water Music

A toy ukulele for Christmas is the start of Ian’s life-long passion for music. He is accepted in the prestigious Juilliard School of Music, much to the pride of his parents. But Ian decides to join a music band in New York instead. What does destiny have in store for Ian? Steve Carr narrates a beautiful and touching story.

I grabbed the white, plastic toy ukulele from the back of a mostly emptied shelf of assorted toys. As a Christmas present, the ukulele had no significance. It was simply handy, easy to grab, an afterthought, something to add under the tree. The price of $6.99 was as cheap as the toy itself. I pitched it on top of the cart filled with other presents, checked out at the cash register, and left the store, happy to be free of the din of marauding last-minute shoppers. It was Christmas Eve.

Christmas morning it was the ukulele among his toy trucks, cars, fire engines, balls, action hero plastic dolls and electronic games that Ian became fixated on. Sitting among ripped Christmas wrap, ribbon and bows, he pensively strummed on the nylon strings, attempting to form music. Neither his mother nor I had any musical talent. He had learned how to hold the ukulele and run his fingers across the strings by seeing it done on television. Ian was five. An average youngster. Our only child.

From that morning on, when not at school, he carried his ukulele around the house all the time, plucking and strumming the strings attempting to play the songs he had learned in kindergarten. He never sang the words to what he tried to play, he only hummed along. It was his humming that allowed us to identify what he was playing. That was until one evening he played the first notes of ‘Old MacDonald.’ The tune was unmistakable.

Up until that moment I had observed Ian with a sense of detachment. It wasn't that I didn't love or care for him, but it was his mother who tended to his needs who spent the most time with him. I was never certain of what my role as a father should be. My own father never talked about being a father, and I observed him in the same way I observed Ian, as if I was seeing him from afar, not actually attached to me. I had read somewhere that what a child will do for a career later in life is formed in the child's first five years of his or her life, along with their personalities, in general. The idea of having a son who would play the ukulele for a living both excited and alarmed me. Hearing him play the tune to ‘Old MacDonald’ awakened me to my son's potential. To nurture his talent, I also knew it meant I would have to do what I hadn't done up to that moment: be an involved father.


The summer that Ian was twelve, we sat on the dock at the cabin we spent two weeks at every year, the acoustic guitar Ian held, resting its body in his lap, was as nearly as large as he was. I was watching my fishing line, hoping for a bite, dubiously hoping that Ian's playing wasn't scaring the fish away.  He had acquired an interest in sea shanties and was teaching himself how to play ‘What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor.’ By accident while surfing the internet he heard an acapella rendition of the sea shanty ‘Spanish Lady’ and it captured his interest.

“Why?” I asked him.

“I like the idea of sailors from the olden days out at sea on those old ships and playing their guitars while singing that song.”

“I think they sang it without any musical instrument at all.”

He looked at me quizzically. “Are you sure?”

“I think so. Guitar accompaniment is a relatively recent thing.”

Before I could say another word, he Googled ‘guitar shanty songs.’

A week later at the music store I wouldn't have recognized that he was playing ‘The Drunken Sailor’ song if he hadn't been humming the lyrics along with the rapid strumming of the guitar strings. He wasn't a very good singer and resorted to humming or whispering through parts of it, as he did all songs. The salesperson urged Ian to consider buying a beginner's guitar, which was smaller in size, but Ian wasn't interested.

“I've been playing the ukulele and banjo since I was five,” he told the salesperson. Ian didn't mention that he had only graduated to playing real and not toy ukuleles and banjos when he was ten and that while he had mastered the ukulele, he was far from mastering the banjo.


At sixteen, Ian stood at 6'0” and was still growing. He had been asked to play on his high school basketball team, but hating sports, he declined. His red hair was as unruly as he was – he took being a teenager seriously.  His moods fluctuated wildly from outright hostility to regressing to that little boy who sat with me on the dock playing his toy ukulele. As a guitarist he was a marvel to hear play. He made use of discordant chords on his electric guitar in a way I had never heard before. He played rock music as if his entire body had been set on fire and the only way to extinguish the flames was to pound and pluck music on the strings at a madman's pace.

He formed a 3-person band that practiced in the back storage room of Shelly Forbes' uncle's furniture store. Shelly was the singer and bass guitarist of the band. They named themselves Rusty Bullets for a reason Ian could never adequately explain to me.

“It's just something to think about,” Ian said. “A rusty bullet. What comes to mind?”

“A bullet that's rusty.”

I often sat on an overturned crate and watched the band rehearse. Actually, I was there to watch Ian, but it was hard to ignore Shelly or Jesse Cairo, the drummer, another female. They were attractive girls and decent musicians, but they changed their hair color so frequently and to such extremes in the choice of color and style that the only way I recognized them sometimes was by the instrument they played. In height, he towered over them. At home I pressed Ian about his interest in either one of them other than as band mates.

“Dad, I'm there to play the guitar, that's all,” he would say, rolling his eyes.

They played on the Sweeney River Park stage a few weekends during the summer. With the slow-moving current of the river in the background and the lights that lined the bank reflecting on the water, it was a beautiful sight. A few hundred locals, mostly older crowds, showed up every weekend with blankets to sit on and coolers stocked with refreshments and baskets of snack food. They weren't a rock music crowd. Ian tried to arrange songs that had titles or themes that fit the location, like ‘She Took Him to the Lake’ by Mallory Knox and ‘Walk Into the Sea’ by Johnny Marr. It was obvious the audiences weren't into it. They spent time while the ‘The Rusty Bullet’ played with their heads in the baskets of food, sorting out what they were going to eat, and shouting to one another, attempting to be heard over the loud music.

In his senior year, after a trip to New York and an audition, Ian was accepted into the famed Julliard guitar department.


Before he left, we went to the cabin for our annual two-week stay. Despite his mother and I acting chipper, a cloud of gloom hung over us, somewhat muting our joy in Ian's achievement. He was 6'3” and had already lost the appearance of still being a teenager, so treating him as if he was going away to summer camp was out of the question. Every morning he and I went down to the dock where I cast out a fishing line while he played tunes on his old acoustic guitar. I had watched and heard his evolution as a musician and marveled that other than the past year of receiving training from a guitar pro to refine his skill his ability had been mostly self-taught.

On the last morning before heading back home, we sat on the dock just as we always did. He slowly plucked the strings, as if pausing between every note, playing the Otis Redding classic ‘Sittin' On The Dock of the Bay.’ The tune was unmistakable but surprised me since he rarely played rhythm and blues or soul music. When I looked over at him, he smiled at me, wanly.

“I don't want to go,” he said.

“Yeah, going back home is always a letdown after being here,” I replied.

“No, I don't want to go to Julliard.”

“It's cold feet,” I told him. “You'll feel better when you get there.”

“Let me put it another way, Dad. I'm not going to go to Julliard. I'm going to New York City, but I want to try hooking up with an up-and-coming band and try my hand at playing at concerts and clubs.”

Ian's mother and I had always encouraged Ian to make his own decisions. How could I tell him that he was making a mistake? I bit my tongue, waiting for the next shoe to drop.

“Dad, I need a loan to see me through until I find a paying gig.”

“How much do you need?”

A few days later I accompanied Ian to the airport. His mother was too upset to go along, although she hid the reason why from Ian. From his fifth birthday to the age of seventeen I had always been close enough to wherever Ian was that I could get to him in a matter of minutes if he needed help of any kind. As I stood at the airport terminal window and watched the airplane as it lifted up from the runway, its wheels disappearing inside the underbelly of the plane, my heart sank.


It wasn't until several days later that we heard from Ian. He called me on my cellphone.

“Dad, I've met a girl who I really like.”

He dated sometimes, but never really showed much interest in getting involved with the girls he met and rarely mentioned them.

“Who is she?”

“She's a cellist with the New York City Philharmonic. Her name is Sue Lin”

“Where did you meet her?”

“On the plane coming here. She took me on a tour of the city. On the ferry ride to the Statue of Liberty I decided to give up the guitar and try my hand at playing the cello. If you came here, you'd really like taking the ferry. It's not a lot of time on the water, but it was fun.”

“Wait, Ian. Did you say you were giving up playing the guitar?”

“Yeah, but it's no big deal. One instrument with strings is a lot like the other.”

I had no idea if that was true or not, so I didn't challenge him regarding it. I asked him to call his mother more often because she worried about him. He assured me he would and hung up.

His calls after that were infrequent, with irritated claims he was busy learning the cello and building his relationship with Sue Lin when we called and asked him to call us more often.

After a year he called me in the middle of the night. “Dad, I'm going to Venice?”

I was barely awake. “Did you say Venice? Venice, Italy?

“Yes, that Venice. I got a job playing the violin for a small restaurant. Background music. While customers eat.”


“I didn't like the cello.”

“What about Sue Lin?”

“We broke up. Well, I have to get ready for the flight. I'll email you as soon as I get there.”

“You're leaving no . . .?” He cut me off.

“Bye, Dad. Give Mom a kiss for me.” He hung up.


Debris from the plane Ian had been on was found floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. A tag with Ian's name on it was found attached to a violin inside an empty life raft.

Water Music: Welcome
Steve Carr.jpg

Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 600 short stories – new and reprints – published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. A Map of Humanity, his eighth collection, published by Hear Our Voice LLC Publishers came out in January, 2022. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.

Water Music: Text
bottom of page