Julia Wright chases a man to another island in the hopes of getting married, but she leaves her two young sons behind. Her mother has cared for Julia’s illegitimate boys for a year when Julia returns home alone for Thanksgiving dinner.
Julia leaned over the top railing of the SS Likelike as it steamed through the Channel of Bones. It was Thanksgiving morning. She gazed across the sea but couldn’t see the mountains of Oahu. Julia wondered how many warriors had perished in the sea. A wave hit the starboard side with such force the ship lurched. Julia lost her footing and grabbed the rail. A second wave hit. The captain blew his whistle and told the passengers to get below deck.
* * *
Tommy waited at Pier 9 for his sister to arrive. It was drizzling. He hid his hands in his eel skin jacket pockets. He knew there’d been no marriage. He wanted Julia hitched so she could send for her sons. He sensed Buddy and Bobby were slipping away. Each day they lived apart from their mother, the more the boys would think of her as a stranger. He could sense Buddy’s longing. Bobby called Kay “Ma” and Catarina “Big Ma.” He hoped he wouldn’t utter those names during his sister’s visit. Julia would only be in town for two days. Tommy couldn’t figure out what it was that kept Chipper from proposing. Was it because he’d had such a lousy time with his first wife? “Coward,” Tommy muttered. He felt as though his sister’s youth was being used up. Rage swept through him. He clenched his left hand and then his right. He wanted someone on the pier to clock him so he could knock him into the water.
The Likelike docked. Tommy spotted Julia on the top deck. He waved. She waved back. Julia descended the stairway to the poop deck and followed fellow passengers down the gangplank. She wore a blue gingham dress, a string of pearls, and white heels. Her face looked gaunt. Tommy figured the Cookes were working her fingers to the bone and she wasn’t eating. She set foot on the dock and disappeared behind a tall couple. Tommy made his way through the mob and found his sister. There was a contradiction in her face he’d never seen before, a look of hope mixed with impending doom. He kissed one cheek and then the other.
She hugged him hard. “Oh, Tommy, it’s been too long.”
“Ranch life agrees with you, little sister.”
“I’ve missed you and the Wrights something awful.”
“Even ol’ shark bait,” she said. “Are you two finally getting along?”
“He’s less excitable now that he’s training boxers at CYO Gym. How was the crossing?”
Julia told him a series of swells had slammed up against the sides of the steamer and kept coming. Everyone on the poop deck had retreated inside but she remained on the top deck as the Likelike struggled like a wounded animal to Oahu. She had seen a tuna boat floating upside down between walls of water, but there were no signs of any fishermen.
“Musta drowned,” Tommy said.
“I ran inside and told the captain. ‘Lost at sea,’ he said.”
Tommy tossed his sister’s suitcase in the backseat of the family’s Ford. The Model T’s front fenders were crumpled. A headlight was cracked and the canvas top was missing. The drizzle turned into light rain.
“Let’s pull on the canvas top,” Julia suggested.
“No can do,” Tommy replied.
“Jackie tore it off speeding through a hala grove, trying to slip the police.”
“What do you do about rain?”
“I pull a tarpaulin over it,” Tommy said, “but that’s back at the house.” He handed his sister a black umbrella. Julia climbed into the car and opened the umbrella. Tommy went to the front of the Ford and hand-cranked the motor. It sputtered and died. He cranked again. The engine belched black exhaust. He adjusted the choke lever and the third crank was the charm. Julia held the umbrella over them both as the Model T puttered up Bishop Street before turning east toward Diamond Head. There were more automobiles than Julia remembered. Shiny sedans, elegant touring cars, and sporty roadsters raced in the direction of Waikiki. The driver of a red Cole 8 honked and tipped his golfer’s cap as he motored by.
“Your boys are big now,” her brother said. “Wait till you see.”
“Think they’ll remember me, Tommy?”
“You’ve only been gone a year.”
“That’s forever in a child’s life,” Julia said. Buddy was three. Bobby was closing in on two.
Tommy turned onto Waialae Road, a two-laner that climbed a gradual rise that got steeper and steeper. They passed the grounds of the old zoo, which had become a flat acre of dirt. There were wheelbarrows, shovels, and pick axes on the northern edge of the property. A guard kept his eye on things.
“Something going up?” Julia asked.
“The Kaimuki Theater,” Tommy replied. “Your boys will have lotsa movies to go to.”
Julia liked the idea of Buddy and Bobby having ready entertainment as they grew up.
“Sister,” Tommy said, “Mother told me you’re not married. Is that true?”
“Chip’s not convinced I can make a go of it in cowboy country. But God knows, I won’t give up.”
“Is there a chance you might marry? That would please Mother to no end.”
“If I’m still single by spring, I’m coming home.”
“Good,” Tommy said. “Your boys need you. So do I and the rest of the family.”
“Is there enough room?”
“We’ll make room. Even it that means giving Sharkey his walking papers.”
Julia shook her head. “Fat chance of that happening.”
The Model T made it to the top of the hill but swerved when the road dipped down on the other side. A front tire hit a puddle on the shoulder and the Ford skidded. But Tommy tapped the brakes and regained control.
“Whew,” Julia said.
Tommy hung a left and motored down the avenue. “Whew is right.”
The rain stopped as the Model T pulled into the driveway.
* * *
Julia’s return to Kaimuki was a joyous event. She hugged Catarina on the porch for so long they started rocking back and forth as if dancing. She hugged Kay too. Julia picked up Buddy and smothered him with kisses, until he flailed his arms and kicked his legs. When she put Buddy down, he ran for the kitchen and escaped into the backyard. Kay handed her Bobby. Julia rocked him until he started blowing spit bubbles.
“What’s a heavy baby!” Julia said, lowering him to the deck.
Kay nodded. “Bobby’s a Gerber baby.”
“He’ll be the biggest Wright,” Catarina said. “Mark my word.”
“Ma,” Bobby said.
Julia laughed. “I am Ma! By the by, where’s Sharkey and Jackie?”
“They bicycled to CYO Gym early this morning,” Tommy replied. “They’ll be home soon.”
Kay rolled her eyes. “You can’t keep those two out of the ring,” she said.
“And then some,” Catarina added.
The reunion shifted to the parlor, where a can of wood polish and rags were on an Army cot leaning against the far wall. There were framed black-and-white photos on the wall, including two of the boys wearing pom pom hats. They posed in front of an anemic pine overdone with ornaments. An overstuffed orange chair was in the middle of the room. There were rips in the chair’s fabric and white stuffing peaked through.
Catarina looked different to Julia. It was as if a decade had passed instead of a year—the Wright matriarch was on the edge of old age. Her forehead was lined with rows of wrinkles and her once-olive complexion had turned ashen. The veins in her hands protruded, pushing out skin as translucent as tracing paper. Her breathing sounded labored, as if something heavy was pressing down inside. The spark had left her eyes, replaced by a dull stare. It made Julia think her mother had accepted her fate and would deal with disappointment the best way she could. She had the faraway gaze of an unknown martyr, a sufferer who’d dealt with a lifetime of sacrifice alone and in silence. Her back curved down around her like a shell. Catarina hunched here way from the parlor to the kitchen and back again, carrying a pitcher of pink lemonade. Kay followed with a tray of glasses.
* * *
The Wright reunion drifted to the kitchen, where the aroma of baked turkey, roast duck, and ham-on-the-bone melded. Julia’s stomach rumbled. She hadn’t eaten since her ham-and-egg breakfast, a last meal with Chipper who’d accused her of leaving him in the lurches over the holiday. Tommy finished the lemonade. Kay poured the women jiggers of sherry. Tommy lit up a cigar. Sharkey and Jackie charged in—they took turns kissing Julia and telling her about their exploits in the ring.
“Sharkey knocked out a ranked pro,” Jackie squealed, “in only his second fight!”
Julia sipped her sherry. “Middleweight?”
“Lightweight,” said Sharkey, “but I might gain weight after mother’s feast.”
“Me too!” Jackie chimed in. “We wanna fight as welterweights, like Uncle Fergus.”
Tommy puffed hard. The tip of his cigar glowed. He exhaled a stream of white smoke that rose to the ceiling. “If you both have two desserts,” he told his brothers, “you’ll be welterweights by tomorrow morning.”
* * *
The guests arrived by four in the afternoon. Gray clouds darkened the sky and mist clung to the foothills of Wilhelmina Rise. But it didn’t rain. Catarina was ready to serve. Besides turkey, duck, and ham, she’d prepared mashed potatoes, poi, biscuits, and stuffing with pineapple, papaya, and macadamia nuts. Kay had made lomilomi salmon, kalua pig, and squid luau for a finicky family of Colburns who’d driven their scarlet ReVere Touring Car over from the North Shore. Carlos Long, Catarina’s younger brother, was there with his wife and family. Kid Oba, an up-and-coming fighter, was a surprise guest. Old friends from Palolo Valley showed up too. The dessert table was loaded with custard, pumpkin, and lilikoi pies. They shared a card table with a haupia cake that glistened with freshly grated coconut. Kay and Catarina had spent weeks ordering and shopping, and it took them three days to prepare a meal with all the trimmings. Despite not having much money, Catarina had scrimped and saved all year to make it a memorable time. Julia knew the relatives and friends in attendance had never invited Catarina to any of their parties and celebrations, yet here they were eager to devour her offerings and anxious to swill down her booze. Tommy had told Julia he didn’t care for any of them. Julia wondered how her mother could continue entertaining these ungratefuls year after year.
A walnut Pembroke table with drop leaves took up the length of the parlor. It could seat twenty-five guests, which was what Catarina needed. The table had been a wedding gift from the east coast Wrights, sent from Philadelphia by way of train and barge. It was a painful reminder of prosperous days in Palolo Valley, when the Wrights had owned land and expanded the house to accommodate each new arrival. Setting the table with silver engraved with a scripted “W” reminded Catarina of the old days, when her husband stood at the head of the table in their dining room and carved to the “ous” and “ahs” of their boisterous brood. The Kaimuki parlor was also the last resting place of a Persian rug that had seen better days—there were rips in the stained fabric and many end tassels were missing. The stains were so pronounced that Julia could barely make out the quarrel between Bacchus and Ariadne.
Bobby followed his big brother into the backyard. Buddy hid behind the breadfruit tree. Bobby found him. Buddy ran back inside through the kitchen, into the parlor, and ducked under the table. Bobby tracked him down.
“Leave me alone,” Buddy said.
Bobby flopped on the rug and tugged at the tassels.
Buddy crawled to the far side of the parlor. Julia squeezed between the wall and the table and knelt beside him. He wore black shorts, a white shirt, and a blue coat that was too big for him. He avoided eye contact. He moistened his thin lips with his tongue. Julia thought he was preparing to tell her something important. But then he pressed his lips together, as if speaking to her would violate some strict inner code that kept his universe secure.
“Are you my best boy?” she asked.
Buddy shook his head.
She searched for signs of the Englishman. He had his nose, cheeks, and lips. But he had her dark hair and eyes. His eyes slanted like hers too. It would be difficult for strangers to see the Hawaiian in him, and his life in the haole world would go easier if he kept that hidden. Buddy wrinkled his brow and studied her face. He peered into her eyes like a scientist who’d discovered some mysterious link to his own existence. There was something about him that disturbed her.
Bobby waddled over and stuck a finger in Julia’s nostril.
“Owie!” she said. “What’s that for?”
Bobby giggled and rubbed his face. She could see the Portuguese in him. She remembered drinking Champagne and dancing the night away with Danford. She figured Bobby would take after him and become the life of the party. Sharkey and Jackie liked Bobby better than Buddy. She knew her older boy was too serious for them.
Kay came in. “Dance, Bobby,” she said, “dance for Julia!”
Bobby tapped his bare feet on the rug. He spun. He got drunk spinning and tumbled over. Julia picked him up.
Kay offered Bobby a spoonful of cooked custard and he gobbled it up. He held out his hand reaching for her. “Ma!”
Bobby continued to whine for Kay. Julia lowered him to the floor and he followed Kay into the kitchen.
“Want some custard?” Julia asked her older boy.
“Yes. But you can call me Mother.’”
“Because I’m your mother, and have always loved you.”
“Love,” Buddy mumbled. He shrugged his shoulders and his coat looked even bigger. He headed for the table, rolled under it, and popped out the other side. Julia heard him whispering to her mother in the kitchen.
* * *
The keikis would be served first. They sat at two card tables pushed together in the backyard. Catarina had instructed her daughters to supervise their meal. “Don’t allow them to run wild,” she’d said. Julia found a bamboo stick and tapped it against her open palm while the kids hooted and hollered. A Colburn boy stabbed his sister in the cheek with a fork, narrowly missing her eye. Buddy watched her cry. Carlos Long’s granddaughter stuck out her tongue at the Colburn boy and he made a face at her. Bobby crawled under the table and started pulling off slippers, shoes, and socks. Tommy and Sharkey stuck plates of turkey, stuffing, and biscuits in front of the children. They started eating, except for Buddy. He kept his eyes on his mother.
“Eat your nice turkey, Buddy boy,” Julia said.
“Gobble,” he said.
“Are you a turkey?”
He plucked the biscuit off his plate, bit hard, and chewed slowly.
Kay pulled Bobby out from beneath the table and harnessed him into his high chair. She gave him kalua pig and a spoonful of poi. He rolled the poi around in his mouth and spat it onto the built-in tray.
Sharkey chuckled. “Kolohe rascal.”
Jackie and Kid Oba came out. Oba showed Jackie how to throw a bolo punch.
“Tommy,” Catarina called from the kitchen. “Oh, Tommy boy!”
Julia’s big brother headed inside.
The grandson of Carlos Long finished first. He drummed his fists on the flimsy table—a girl’s glass of ginger ale fell off. “I want pumpkin pie,” he demanded. “Gimme pumpkin pie!”
“The children are all having dessert when the adults do,” Kay told him, “after they finish their turkey.”
The grandson threw a half-eaten wing at Kay. “But I’m hungry now.”
“Suck a drumstick and shut yo’ damn Colburn yap,” Sharkey barked, “before I geev you a crack.”
Bobby escaped the high chair and crawled back under the table.
Some children didn’t finish, despite Kay’s pleadings to eat more. Their appetites picked up noticeably after Sharkey swore that anyone not cleaning his or her plate would get strung up on the breadfruit tree. Bobby got kicked under the table. He started to cry. Sharkey borrowed Julia’s stick and whacked the other Colburn boy on the top of his head.
“Hey,” the boy said, “what’s that for?”
“You wen kick my nephew.”
“No, I didn’t!”
“Somebody did,” Sharkey replied, “might as well be you.”
The children finished up and carried their empty plates inside. Then the big boys ran through the house, tore through the backyard, and swung off the kamani tree branches. Buddy turned on the hose and squirted Carlos Long’s grandson. The grandson slugged Buddy in the belly and he gasped. Sharkey lashed out with the bamboo stick, whacking the grandson’s okole over and over until he cried. The weeping boy ran inside to tell his grandfather.
Kay looked over at Julia. “Never a dull moment,” she said.
“You’re telling me, sister,” Julia replied.
* * *
The grown-up side of Thanksgiving went smoothly. Tommy had already carved the meats. Catarina prepared pan gravy with drippings, mushrooms, and fresh cream. Kay said a prayer. Catarina received compliments for her stuffing. Despite the ono food, there was an undercurrent of tension and animosity between the Wrights and the visiting relatives. Tommy disliked Uncle Carlos for forcing Catarina to sign over her interest in Palolo Valley to him. Sharkey and Jackie resented the Colburns because their old man, now dead, had forced the sale of their house. Julia was prepared to defend herself if any of the relatives accused her of having illegitimate children and abandoning them to chase down a man. Kay prayed nobody would call her an old maid. Catarina wanted everyone to get along and to be one big happy family. The guests discussed Carlos Long’s yacht, the outlandish expenses refurbishing the old Colburn mansion, and speculation about where Benjamin Wright had settled.
“Mazatlan,” Uncle Carlos said.
Colburn raised his knife. “Puerto Vallarta.”
“Why there?” asked Uncle Carlos.
“Lotsa cute senoritas.”
Tommy saw his mother grimace. “Let’s change the subject,” he said.
The rain started in.
Tommy and his brothers ran outside to pull the tarpaulin over the Model T.
“Dogs and cats all month,” Catarina said.
“Another wet November,” Uncle Carlos told his sister. “Does it rain much on Moloka’i, Julia?”
“It’s hot and dry at the ranch,” she answered. “The drought killed lotsa sheep.”
“The east end gets plenty of rain,” Kay said.
“Yes, sister, but I live in the west.”
“Has the ranch been profitable?” Colburn asked.
“Yes,” Julia replied, “thanks to brisk sales of wool and the increase in the price of meat.”
Julia smelled a cigar. She leaned back in her chair and looked through the window beside the front door. Tommy was smoking on the porch and talking to his brothers. The rain wasn’t letting up.
“I understand there’s a beef shortage in Honolulu,” Uncle Carlos said.
“Where do you get your steaks?” asked Colburn.
“From the Parker Ranch,” replied Uncle Carlos. “It’s top dollar but worth every penny.”
Julia knew this steak talk wasn’t good for her mother. She could barely afford hamburger at the Chinese meat market on the bottom of Waialae Road. Julia hated how Uncle Carlos and Colburn went on and on, rubbing their salt of superiority into Catarina’s wounds. No wonder her mother looked a decade older. No wonder that spark had left her eyes.
* * *
Dessert time came and it was a free-for-all in the parlor, with the children mixing with the adults and mouths smacking down wedges of pie and big slices of haupia cake. The Colburn girl dropped her cake on the rug—the frosting oozed into the face of Bacchus. The custard and pumpkin was going fast. Julia offered Buddy the last piece of custard but he shook his head. Kay gave it to Bobby. After the dessert vanished, the grown-ups had their after-dinner drinks. The women sipped sherry. The men drank brandy from snifters. Then the time came for the Colburns to leave. Others took the cue and departed. After the last guest shuffled off into the rain, Catarina flopped down on her orange chair. “Auwe,” she sighed.
Buddy came over and sat on his grandmother’s lap. He had a sullen expression.
“What’s the matter, son?” Julia asked.
“I hate Thanksgiving.”
“Me too, Buddy,” Catarina said. “Me too.”
* * *
It was bedtime. Julia hunkered down beside her older boy on his cot in the parlor. Kay was on the neighboring cot holding Bobby. Catarina snored on a third cot beside the window. Buddy tossed and turned his mother awake in the early morning twilight.
“What’s wrong?” she whispered.
“I dream you bad.”
“I’m not bad, Buddy.”
“You a witch.”
“I’m no such thing.”
“With black hat,” he said, “chasing flying cats.”
“Silly business,” Julia said. She wrapped her arms around him and pulled him close. Julia didn’t want anything to harm Buddy. He continued to fidget and she feared he would fall off. She got up and dropped a pillow on the Persian rug. She pulled Buddy to the middle of the cot and rubbed his back.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” she said, “my beautiful son.”
* * *
Julia helped her mother with the dishes after breakfast. Catarina washed while her daughter dried.
“That was some letter you sent,” Julia said.
Catarina dunked a fry pan into soapy water and scrubbed it. “You never answered my question.”
“Oh? So ask me now.”
Her mother rinsed off the pan and turned off the faucet. “Let’s sit for a spell.”
Julia followed her into the parlor and sat across the table from Catarina. The table was smaller because Tommy had removed its leaf extensions. There was a stack of dirty plates from the family’s egg-and pancake breakfast.
“Julia, will you and Chipper ever marry?”
“This spring, I hope.”
“Daughter, hope brings sorrow. That man needs a good talking to. He’s taking advantage of you, Julia, plain and simple. Tommy doesn’t like it. Neither does Kay. Sharkey and Jackie don’t say anything because they’re too young.”
“Chipper’s under pressure at the ranch and Mister Cooke’s not an easy boss. Any more worries and he’s liable to blow.”
“He’s lucky to have a good woman at his side.”
Julia slid an envelope across the table.
Catarina picked it up and shook it. “What’s this?”
Her mother broke the seal—a wad of bills fell out. “I can not accept this, Julia.”
“It’s everything I earned cleaning homes. Take it for the boys.”
“I know what you’re up to, Daughter.”
“You’re paying to make yourself feel better for not being with your children. Don’t you see, Julia? Giving money may ease your conscience, but it doesn’t buy the love of your sons.”
“I’m only trying to help.”
Catarina pushed the wad and envelope back across the table. She got up, picked up the stack of dishes, and hunched back to the kitchen.
Julia blushed with shame. She heard water trickling out of the kitchen faucet. Plates and silverware clinked. Her mother started to hum “In the Good Old Summer Time.” Was Catarina reliving some carefree girlhood summer, when her future seemed as bright and as shiny as a pearl?
Julia tucked the money inside the envelope. She realized that being a mother meant the day-to-day struggle of raising children. She was a phony. She knew she’d have to make a choice soon or risk losing everything.
* * *
Julia returned to Pier 9 for her trip back. She waved goodbye to Tommy from the top deck. The Likelike steamed east along the southern coast. Julia could see the scattering of hotels onshore and the green slopes of Ka’au Crater behind Waikiki. A pod of whales surfaced on the port side. The captain alerted the passengers. Julia liked how the mother kept her calf close and bumped away a curious whale when it got too close.
Her visit to Honolulu had been bittersweet. The sweet part was being with her sons and spending time with her mother. But Julia felt bitter. Catarina didn’t respect her. She hadn’t held Chipper to his promise and it cut to the bone when her mother refused the money. It had been tricky navigating the waters of a motherhood when her own family considered her a visitor. And it had stunned her when Buddy said, “Love.” What did he mean by that? Maybe he was saying she didn’t know what love was, or maybe that she had yet to earn his affection. She blamed Chipper for breaking her away from her sons, but took it back.
“Have only myself to blame,” she muttered as the gold strand of Papohaku Beach came into view on the starboard side. Kaimuki suddenly felt like a bad place, a town that stored all the wrongs, mistakes, and broken dreams of the Wrights. She was sure someday she’d right the wrongs she was guilty of and make her mother proud. But, for now, Julia was happy to be heading home to the one man in the world she truly loved.
KIRBY WRIGHT was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. He is a graduate of Punahou School in Honolulu and the University of California at San Diego. Wright received his MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. His first play was produced at the Secret Theatre’s 2016 One Act Festival in New York and his second at Manhattan Rep’s 2017 Non-Fest. He won the Gold Fox Award at the 2017 Calcutta International Film Festival for his treatment of an animated special. Wright received the 2018 Redwood Empire Mensa Award for Creative Nonfiction.
Featured image: @wild_away photograph of Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden, Kaneohe, O’ahu, Hawai’i, United States, on Unsplash.