Playing Before Royalty

New fiction from one of Hawaii's most respected authors.


(page 1 of 3)

Illustration by Kim Scafuro

The demolition of their apartment complex had begun on the far end of the three lines of low-rises, the massive concrete disks of septic tank covers exhumed and leaning in against cracked bay windows, the walls of the vacant units blooming with graffiti night by night, soggy couches and mattresses appearing in the mud of the parking lots. Because their water had been turned off, Jeff and his sister had to walk to the park to use the public facilities. They were supposed to have moved out days earlier, but because there was no place to go, they secured themselves inside the apartment at night and tried to sleep through the sounds of kids breaking windows and having parties in the empty units in the next line.

But this morning before nine he heard the sounds of back-hoes and fork lifts one line of units closer, and sitting with his sister in the living room eating cereal with warm milk, he understood that their time was up. “I don’t know where we’re going,” he said, “but it looks like we’re going.”
“Mom said to stay until she gets back,” she said. “Besides, I have my—”

“If she comes back.”

Becky was 11, but experienced enough to understand what that meant. Their parents had been fighting drug and alcohol problems for years. Even when he was 10 he knew what it meant when his mother would be cooking breakfast on Saturday morning and would suddenly stop, would begin to sweat with nausea and trembling, and then have to go curl up in a ball in bed while his father looked on with a bland sympathy. She worked as a dentist’s receptionist, and he was always amazed that she managed to go to work on Mondays. His father gave up and went to the Big Island a year ago, and when it became clear that they were being kicked out, his mother announced that she was going to the Big Island to find him and get him to do something about this. The expression on her face, the sort of fidgety look she had, meant to him that she’d given up just as his father had, and she was going to the Big Island to get high with someone she knew would have the goods.

But he could understand it: He’d been through something like it three times before he made 17, and the one thing he recalled about it was that the benefit of being high was that nothing mattered, that a bright doorway opened up and showed you that being high was in itself a goal in life, a reason for being.

“You have what?” he asked.

She spooned the remains of milk and bits of cereal from the bowl. “My angklung,” she said.

He felt a little surge of pleasure at this, because he could get rid of her for the day, and hook up with his friends at the beach. “Okay,” he said, “I’ll walk you to school.”

“No, we have to get there ourselves. The Shell, one o’clock.”

“Can’t you hitch a ride with a friend or something?”

“Mom said you’d take me.”

“Look, lemme call her,” he said, and then remembered. The cell phone was dead. He growled in frustration. He’d have to sit there through the whole goddamned thing. “Look, can we just bag this? I mean—”

She got that weepy look, that preface to crying that signified she was set on it. “All right, all right,” he said. “I’ll go with you.”

The angklung was an Indonesian single-tone bamboo instrument you shook, so that the sticks inside the square frame produced a bell-like tone. Her group, from the intermediate school, had 20 or so kids in it, and they were to play two songs before a large crowd that would include the mayor, some legislators and even a high chief from some small country in the South Pacific. She would be playing before royalty, in effect, the royalty of the city and royalty from a country. “Well,” he said, “you better get your stuff.”

She had learned early that drugs made self-centered liars out of anyone involved with them. On the bus ride over to Waikiki he tried to control his irritation with having to babysit his sister, who was on a break from school for two weeks, and looked at the familiar scenery of the Pali, the golf courses below, the woods above Nuuanu, and the dense cluster of hotels in Waikiki. She deserved her chance to do this. He would not sink to the degree of self-centeredness his parents had achieved. His father had gone even beyond that. Before he left for the Big Island and was living in his van, Jeff had the chance to talk to him, to try to reason with him about coming back. He got this philosophical look and said, in his Midwestern Army vet’s drawl, “You know, if I had a million dollars, I’d do this: buy me a new van, get a plate that reads ‘hi4lif’”—he spelled it out—“and invest the rest so that I could have an income that would do what the plate said.”

So that was it. He had at least managed to get real about the problem. His mother, on the other hand, was surreptitious in her use, to the point that Jeff would end up in arguments with her that usually ended with her bursting into tears and claiming that she was doing what she could, leave her alone. He had felt like an older brother then, coming at her with this air of grim superiority that he hated in himself when he thought about it. But the bottom line was right in front of them now: no place to live, his mother following his father, Becky going to Child Protective Services, and himself? He would worry about that when the rest fell apart. In any case, he was 18 and there was no reason for him to be living with his mother. He had been laid off from his construction job hanging drywall with a subcontractor on a highrise building in Waikiki, and was lagging on getting another one.

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Honolulu Magazine June 2018
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