Playing Before Royalty
New fiction from one of Hawaii's most respected authors.
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.
He had begged off every performance Becky had been involved in, using one excuse or another, and was surprised at the beauty and purity of the sound those bamboo instruments produced, and that the little girls looked so professional, Becky beautiful with her hair done up to show that hint of hapa features that came from their mother. The girls stood up there in their identical muumuu, expertly shaking the instruments according to what note came next. “Aloha Oe,” and “Sweet Lei Mokihana.” That high chief sat in the front row in his colorful clothes, with the other dignitaries, and Jeff wandered around during the performance, stopping once to cop a long cigarette butt with lipstick on it out of a public tray away from the edge of the crowd. Although he couldn’t afford cigarettes, he always carried a lighter.
When it was over, she was still excited, jumping up and down and saying, “That was so fun, that was so fun.”
“Hey, you guys were good,” he said.
On the ride back, she sat next to him with a gift bag and her backpack in her lap, her mood changed, and when they were bumping past a huge construction site for a shopping mall of some sort on Kapahulu Avenue, she looked up at him and said, “She’s not coming back, is she?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“I don’t want to go to a foster home.”
“No, I won’t let that happen.”
“No, she wouldn’t,” he said, patting her on the shoulder. “Really. She’s got a problem, that’s all.”
“It’s a disease, that’s what they say.”
“Yeah, it’s a disease,” he said. “And you’re not going to a foster home.”
They got off the bus in the middle of Kailua town and walked back toward the complex. From a hundred yards he saw their van, and a police car next to it. “OK,” he said. “Don’t worry. We’ll just see.” But before they got to their apartment, the police car had pulled away. A couple of his friends walked along on the other side of Kailua Road in their direction, toward town, and he stopped, trying to figure out how to avoid talking with them. One of the worst things about being evicted, he had thought from the beginning, was embarrassment.
“Eh, Jeff!” one of them called. “Come beach, ah?”
“Cannot,” he called. “Busy ’asswhy.”
They went to the apartment door, and he readied himself for whatever lies she had prepared. Holding the gift bag, Becky took off her backpack on the way in.
“How’d it go?” his mother asked her. She was sitting on their old couch.
“Oh, it was so fun,” Becky said, and went on to explain all that had happened.
His mother fussed with Becky’s hair, saying, “You mean legislators were there?” her hands shaking a little, and he studied the profile, the slightly graying hair, and thought, she did it. She got high as a kite.
“Can I go Jamba Juice?” Becky asked her.
“Oh, sure,” his mother said, too loud, and rummaged in her purse for money, a five, that she gave Becky. “Stay on this side of the street and come right back, ’kay?”
After Becky left, she said, “We have to leave tonight.”
“That’s what the cop was for?”
“Uh-huh.” She seemed agitated now, almost angry, and he thought, on the edge of losing it. “That son of a bitch, your dad,” she said.
“Did I what?”
He sighed, shook his head, and then she did begin crying.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I know it’s tough.”
“I did not,” she said. “It’s that son of a bitch. He bought us off is what he did. Said he couldn’t do anything about this because he couldn’t do anything about himself. He gave me two thousand dollars and said that was all he could do. All hundreds. Like, guess what?”
“And you spent some of that, right?” he asked. “Because you look like—”
She slid her fingers into her hair and groaned, and then reached into her purse and pulled out the wad of bills and threw it at him, the bills bouncing off his chest and fluttering to the gritty floor. “Count it,” she said. “My god, you think I’d—”
He stooped down and gathered the bills. He did not count them. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Getting on your case like that is a bad habit.” He handed her the money.
“What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
She sighed, and looked closely at him, now with a different expression. “Jeff, listen. Don’t call it a bad habit.”
“It’s not a bad habit.”
She looked at the walls, at the lighter squares and rectangles where pictures had hung, and then at the old formica table near the kitchenette. He looked, too.
“Tell you what,” he said. “We’ve got the van and two thousand dollars. I’ll get a job. You’ve got one already. I mean, you still have, right?”
“I work tomorrow,” she said.
“We can sit in the van all night if we have to, and then look for a place.”
“C’mon, it’ll be like camping.”
She thought about this. “We need to live near here,” she said. “Becky has to have her school.”
“OK, we’ll do that.”
She stood up from the couch, looked around. Again, he looked at the dusty floor, paperclips and pennies, in the corner a dead cockroach.
They stepped outside into the beginning of twilight. In the distance, he could see Becky coming up the road. “That’s a relief,” he said. “Whenever she goes out, I get these pictures of—”
“I do, too,” she said.
He pulled the handle of the sliding van door and opened it. Inside the back half were boxes, framed photographs, kitchen things, books, clothes, and in the second row of seats, room for one person to sit.
He pointed at the doorway. “Welcome home,” he said.
Despite the miserable and flustered look on her face, she laughed.
Ian MacMillan has taught at UH’s creative writing program since 1966. He is the author of seven novels and four short story collections, and among his many awards, he has won the O. Henry Award, Pushcart Prize and a Best American Short Stories Award.