Barry and I rode in the backseat of the Olds the night after my mother checked into Queen’s Hospital. We both wore t-shirts, shorts, and rubber slippers. Our father had the windows open and the aroma of mango blossoms filled the car. We were driving through the town of Kaimuki, an Asian community perched on a hill behind Diamond Head. Our father told us he was worried about our mother because she was older and sometimes having a baby later in life made giving birth risky. He said another worry was they’d given her a room on the eighth floor and that, if there was a fire, she wouldn’t make it out alive. I tried imagining what it would be like not having a mother. She balanced out my father so I figured he’d only get worse. Whenever I was alone with him he made me feel uneasy. He might even find a way to blame her death on Barry and me, perhaps something like taking care of us prevented him from reaching the hospital in time to save her life.
We accelerated up the H-1 on-ramp and raced to the fast lane. I got on my knees and stuck my head out the passenger window: the wind burned my cheeks. We flew under bridges and passed other cars. The engine roared. I loved it when my father sped because it made me feel I was the son of the man who was in charge of the island. He was a lawyer and loved suing people. I was sure he could handle himself in a fight, especially if he had just finished work and took off his glasses. He’d beaten a Portuguese bully to a pulp at Saint Louis High School and won medals for bravery in World War II.
Barry punched me in the okole so I sat back down. I punched his shoulder. He elbowed me in the ribs. I tried elbowing him back but he scooted out of range.
“Jerk,” I said.
“Punk,” he replied.
We passed the high-rise hotels of Waikiki and took an off-ramp downtown. It wasn’t long before my father pulled into the hospital lot and parked. “You boys wait in the car,” he said, opening his door.
“I wanna see Mummy,” Barry said.
My father got out and looked up at the hospital tower, as if trying to determine which window was my mother’s. “Children aren’t allowed.”
“How come?” I asked.
“Your mother might get your germs.” He slammed the door and his oxblood shoes clippity-clopped across the blacktop. That sound always made me think he was coming for me. He still had on his work clothes: dark gray suit, white shirt, thin black tie. My mother’s friend Mrs. Murphy said when he dressed like that he reminded her of an undertaker. My mother agreed. My father said the pink ostrich feather wrap my mother wore out to dinner made her look like “a hooker on Hotel Street.”
“Girl or boy?” Barry asked me.
He punched my shoulder. “It’ll be a girl,” he said. “Guaranteed.”
“Mom’s already had two boys,” he yawned.
“Bet it’s a boy.”
“Make it a buck and I might be interested.”
“You’re on,” I said. We hooked pinkies and shook on it.
This new baby thing had been a surprise to us both. The only reason I knew my mother was expecting was because I’d overhead her conversation with Mrs. Murphy on Ash Wednesday in the parking lot. Barry and I had ash crosses on our foreheads and, as he chased me around Mrs. Murphy’s Mercedes, I heard my mother say, “The stork’s coming in April.” That made me feel funny. She’d always shared her secrets, things she never told my father. I knew she wanted to be a singer on Broadway. I knew she had a crush on Father Keelan at Star of the Sea. I even knew she was mad at my father for never giving her an engagement ring and that she looked down on him for being local. He had slanty eyes and my mother’s aunts in Boston were convinced he was Chinese. Insinuating that my father was anything but English made him pupule. A colonel had forced his daughter to break up with him after finding out he had Hawaiian blood. My father didn’t want anyone knowing he was hapa haole because almost everyone in the islands thought Hawaiians were dumb and lazy.
Barry and I played Junk an’ a Po, the local name for the Rock-Scissors-Paper game. Throwing rock seemed easiest for me but I quit after Barry used paper nearly every time. We counted the floors of Queen’s Hospital and the rooms per floor. Barry said he was sure what room our mother was in but he refused to point it out. A yellow Sida Taxi cruised by. Barry stretched out on the back seat, kicked off his slippers, and plopped his feet on my lap.
“Lomilomi my feet,” he said.
“Lomilomi them yourself,” I said, pushing them off.
Barry was getting bigger. It seemed I was stuck at the same height while he was hitting a growth spurt. We were considered Irish Twins but looked nothing alike.
Barry picked his nose and said he could eat a horse. He’d started collecting monster trading cards and said our father took turns being one of three monsters: Dracula, Wolfman, and Frankenstein. He was Dracula at night, usually when he came home from a hard day at work. As Dracula, he’d ask you questions that made you think you’d done something wrong. Then he’d sink his fangs into you by blaming you for something you didn’t do. Wolfman surfaced on weekends when he refused to shave, ate ravenously, and growled at you for ignoring your chores. Frankenstein appeared when he’d lost control, such as the night my mother locked him out of the house and he busted louvers in their bedroom window trying to get in. Barry said he was studying him for signs of other monsters, such as the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
“Is he ever the Incredible Hulk?” I asked.
“That’s not a real monster,” Barry replied.
I heard a clippity—clop. I looked out the back window: my father was closing in on the Olds. His eyebrows resembled black wire brushes and the wrinkles between the brows went deep. The dark eyes behind the glasses pierced me and I had to look away. You had to be careful around him, the way a soldier is careful crossing a field full of mines. He climbed into the driver’s seat, slammed the door, and fired up the engine.
“Is it a boy?” I asked.
He looked at his watch.
“Girl,” Barry said. “Just as I thought.”
“False alarm,” my father replied. He fired up the Olds and took Vineyard Boulevard onto the freeway. “This whole thing could take a coupla days.” He sped on H-1 and cursed at a woman for driving too slow. A sailor on a motorcycle flew past us—my father accelerated but couldn’t catch up. He turned on the radio and the Beatles sang “Help.”
“Help, my ass,” my father said, spinning the dial to the news.
“What’s wrong with the Beatles?” I asked.
“Buncha damn sissies.”
It seemed as if my father’s evening had been ruined because my mother hadn’t given birth, as if she wasn’t trying hard enough. He hated it when people were lazy and unproductive.
We got home and I helped Barry ball up pages of newspaper while our father split shingles with an ax. He stuffed our paper into the Weber kettle, threw in the splintered shingles, and topped off everything with charcoal. He lit the paper and soon flames were leaping out of the kettle. Barry and I danced around the flames. We chanted, “Woo, woo, woo,” while patting our mouths.
“What tribe are you?” my father asked.
“Mohicans,” Barry replied.
I leapt up and down. “I’m Crazy Horse!”
“Crazy is right,” said my father.
* * *
The phone rang when the steaks were on and my father ran from the backyard to answer the phone. The fat on the steaks sizzled and soon a tiny fire started. The fire grew and the steaks began to burn. I ran inside. My father was talking to someone at the hospital.
“Daddy?” I said.
He patted a finger against his lips.
“The steaks are on fire.”
“Jesus!” he said. He apologized to the person on the phone, slammed the receiver down, and raced out to the kettle. He dropped on the lid and smoke poured out the breathing holes. “For chrissakes,” he groused. He went inside and returned with a pan. He pulled the steaks off the grill and cut the meat with a serrated knife. As he cut, I thought about the baby crying as the doctor cut its umbilical cord. My father pulled out a plate of sliced mangoes from the fridge. He told Barry to scoop rice from a pot. I set the picnic table on the lanai and we all sat down to dinner. The stench of burned steak made me sick to my stomach.
My father had his elbows on the table. I smelled the Yardley’s Brilliantine he used to control his hair. He bent his back and hunkered over his plate. He cut with his right hand and forked food into his mouth with his left. He studied us as he chewed.
Barry sawed his steak with a table knife. He finally cut off a piece and put it in his mouth. He chewed and chewed. “Tough as leather,” he said.
“When I was a boy,” my father said, “we had steak once a year.”
“Then how’d your brother get so big?” Barry asked.
“Why didn’t you eat it?”
“It reminded me of being poor.” My father looked over at me. “Why aren’t you eating, Kirby?” he asked.
“I’m not hungry,” I answered.
“You’re not hungry because you filled up on crap like candy and chips before dinner.”
“We don’t have candy and chips.”
“Then why can’t you eat?”
“I dunno,” he mocked. “I dunno. You sound like a lil’ stupe when you talk like that.” His glasses slipped down below the bridge of his nose.
Barry continued sawing at his steak and finally stuck a piece in his mouth. He kept his eyes on the backyard as he chewed.
“Now listen, you lil’ stupe,” my father told me. “You’d better damn well finish that steak, if you know what’s good for you.”
“I’m starving to death,” said Barry. “I can finish it for him.”
“One boy,” my father replied. “One steak.” His chewing reminded me of a cow chewing its cud. His mouth was greasy. He guzzled from a bottle of Miller High Life and his Adam’s apple bobbed like a float. I hated him. I’d hated him ever since I was three, when I fed a roll of pink paper into the toilet and he hit me with the buckle of his belt instead of the leather. That was the first time I saw my blood. I wanted the Missing Link from Hawaii All-Star Wrestling to get my father in a full nelson so I could hit him the way he’d hit me.
Barry finished dinner first.
My father bit his last slice of mango. Tomato seeds and red pulp oozed out of the corner of his mouth—he wiped off the mess with the back of his hand. “Barry,” he said, “clear and wash your plate.”
Barry grabbed his plate and headed inside. The water came on in the kitchen.
“Sooner or later,” my father told me, “that meat’s going down the hatch.”
“Can I have it for breakfast?”
“No. You’ll stay here all night ‘til you finish.” He picked up his plate and left.
I sat alone at the table praying the baby would be a boy. Boys stood a better chance in our house. A boy would find it easier to fight back. I could teach a boy not to love my father. Loving my father was a no-win situation because there was no pleasing him. I remembered when he’d called me a chicken for not learning how to ride a bike. I fought back by learning how to ride in one day. When my mother praised me and told him I could ride, he said it was about time.
A fly landed on my blackened strip of steak and crawled over a yellow eye of fat. Its wings glistened. I glanced at the glass doors and saw my father watching from the living room. He pointed at my plate. I nodded. He shook his head, stormed over to the couch, and flopped. He was somewhere between Dracula and Frankenstein tonight. I was certain, if he knew he could get away with it, he’d rope me to the chair and shovel steak down my throat. But I knew deep down there was a part of him that didn’t want to do this, the part that patted me on the back for winning the third grade talent show for my recital of the poem “Trees” and later cheered when I rounded the bases after hitting my first home run in Little League. But that part, the good part, was no match for the monster that had taken him over.
The trade wind rustled the leaves on the breadfruit tree out in the yard. Stars glittered in a swatch of sky above our fence. The moon was nearly full. I wanted to leap over that fence and run under the moon and stars until I was so far away it didn’t matter whom my parents were, to a place where I belonged to no one. I imagined living on the North Shore and spending my days swimming and eating fish, crabs, and coconuts. I’d send a postcard every month to my mother letting her know how much fun I was having and that I wasn’t dead. She might even get sick of my father and catch a bus to the North Shore. Barry might come too.
The lanai’s screen door slid open and sandals slapped the cement. My father stood over me with his arms crossed. “You’re trying to defy me, Kirby,” he said, “aren’t you?”
I knocked a termite off my fork and squished it on the table. “No, Daddy.”
“Then why won’t you eat?”
“I’m not hungry.”
He loosened his belt, pulled it off, and doubled it up. His back curved around him like a shell. “You’re lying,” he said.
“Do you think Mummy’s okay?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said and straightened his back. “Why wouldn’t she be?”
“You said she was too old to have a baby.”
“Your mother’s not old,” he said, threading the belt back through the loops. “She’s not old at all. Anyway, you’ll have that steak every night from now ‘til you finish. It’s up to you. Put your plate in the fridge, brush your teeth, and get to bed.”
* * *
On Saturday my father stuck to his usual routine of not shaving on weekends. The black whiskers on his face made him look angry. At dusk he bought a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken for himself and Barry. He served me my plate from the fridge. The eye of fat on the steak had turned white. I watched them eat fried chicken, mashed potatoes, biscuits, and half-cobs of buttered corn.
My father stared at my plate. “Not hungry?” he asked.
He shook his head and scooped potatoes into his mouth. “Guess what you’re having for dinner tomorrow.”
“That’s right. And you’ll keep having it ‘til it’s gone.”
The phone rang.
My father hustled from the lanai to the kitchen but soon returned. He hovered over us instead of sitting. “Your mother’s just given birth,” he announced.
“To what?” Barry asked.
“A ten-pound baby girl. We named her Julie.”
“Julie,” I mumbled.
“You seem disappointed, Kirby,” my father said.
Barry laughed. “That’s because he owes me a dollar.”
“I’m not disappointed,” I said.
“A sister’s a nice thing to have,” my father said. “Now I’m counting on you boys to watch out for Julie and protect her. I won’t be around forever, you know.”
“Does Julie look Hawaiian?” Barry asked.
My father glared at Barry. “Why the hell would she look Hawaiian?”
“I dunno,” he answered, dropping a half-eaten drumstick down on his plate.
“I dunno, I dunno,” my father said. “You and your brother are the I Dunno Twins.” He looked at my plate. The steak was untouched. He fingered the buckle of his belt. He lunged forward, grabbed the steak, and shoved it in his mouth. He gobbled it up, fat and all. “There,” he said after his final swallow, “that’s how to eat like a man.” He headed for the screen door, whipped it open, and slammed it behind him.
* * *
My mother stood in the doorway rocking my baby sister. “Julie, Polly, Wolly,” she cooed. Her blonde hair fell past her shoulders and curled around Julie. Both wore pink dresses. Julie had a pink bow clipped to her fuzzy brown hair. She had our father’s dark eyes.
My father was out in the driveway mixing cement in a red wheelbarrow. It was his Saturday morning project. He wore khaki shorts, a V-neck undershirt, and leather sandals. The shorts were ringed with sweat beneath the belt. He stirred with a shovel while Barry stirred with a spade.
I stood beside the dragon tree next to the carport. The trunk of the Olds was open—it was filled with cinder blocks. I didn’t want to be near my father. I didn’t want to be near my mother either because I was getting sick of all the attention she was giving Julie.
“Kirby!” my father called.
“What?” I asked.
“Get your okole over here and help out.”
“Kirby’s too young,” my mother called.
“Dear,” my mother said, “why must you act so crude and uncivilized on weekends?”
He quit stirring. “Do you want sissies for sons?”
I walked across the blacktop to the wheelbarrow.
Barry kept his eyes on the cement.
My father held out the shovel. “Help your brother,” he said.
I took the handle, sunk the blade in, and swirled it through the milky gray goo. The cement was heavy so I had to move my left hand halfway down the handle for leverage.
My father put his hands on his hips. “Slow as god damn molasses,” he mumbled. He hurried over to the Olds and began unloading cinder blocks.
“Wanna trade?” Barry asked me.
“He might get mad,” I whispered.
Barry quit stirring. “That shovel’s too big for you,” he said and extended the handle of the spade. I took it and gave him the shovel. We got a rhythm going. It was as if we had a twin-beater cake mixer churning through batter. Drops of our sweat fell in the cement. I felt as though I was helping build the wall my father wanted to lessen street noise.
“Goddammit,” I heard my father say.
I quit stirring.
My father stood beside the wheelbarrow with his arms crossed. His shorts were powdered with dust from the cider blocks. “Kirby,” he said, “didn’t I give you the shovel?”
“Yeah,” I said, “but Barry’s better with it than me.”
“Barry, give your brother back the shovel.”
We exchanged. The shovel’s handle was slippery from Barry’s sweat: it got away from me and fell. Cement splattered the driveway.
My father slapped my cheek. “Lil’ stupe,” he said.
“Dear!” my mother called.
“Kirby did that on purpose,” my father told her.
My cheek burned. I hated him for lying. I hated him for always pushing me around. I grabbed the spade, pulled it away from Barry, and swung it like a baseball bat. The blade nicked my father’s forearm and his glasses went flying. Drops of cement covered his undershirt.
“You’re finished,” my father said, holding a hand over his forearm. Blood oozed between his fingers.
I ran for the doorway. My father’s sandals slapped the asphalt behind me.
My mother was still rocking Julie—she stepped aside to let me pass. She leaned back, blocked the doorway, and came face to face with my father.
That rendition of a life that was not desirable, filled me with horror, and empathy. The horror for me, emanates from the reality that real life, unfortunately, sometimes, derives from this kind of abuse The criteria, and dialogue, was very vivid in its detail.
Wow. Strong stuff. Very good use of dialogue.
This story is just unbelievable. When I read it the first time, then the second time, I just sighed at the end. I still don’t know how you can write feelings so viscerally.
I loved this. So vivid and true.