Read This Exclusive Excerpt from Cedric Yamanaka’s New Book “Made in Hawai‘i”
This is the first time the piece has been published in Hawai‘i. An early version debuted in 2008 in The MacGuffin literary journal.
“Something About the Reef, the Tide, the Undertow”
From Made in Hawai‘i, by Cedric Yamanaka
(HONOLULU)—Nine people died today during a reef walk off Diamond Head. Witnesses say the group of teachers and students were on a field trip when a series of large waves caught them by surprise. Some of the victims were knocked into the ocean and panicked. Others were pulled out into deeper water where they drowned. “It was a freak accident,” said windsurfer Sonny Souza. “It must’ve been something about the tide, the reef, the undertow.”
Mom always told me. Never cut your fingernails at night.
“Why?” I asked, clutching the clipper as I sat cross-legged, next to the trash can.
“Because if you do,” she said, “you won’t be around when your parents die.”
Her eyes—the color of strong curry powder—reflected the light of the living room lamp.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “What’s the connection between cutting my fingernails and …?”
“I don’t have time to argue with you, Lowell,” she said. “Can’t you listen to me for once? Between you and your sister, why can’t one of you listen to me?”
Mom kissed me on the cheek and went to bed. She had to wake up early the next morning to lead her class on a reef walk. She’d been teaching the fourth graders about sea animals, and figured it’d be a perfect opportunity for them to see starfish, fish and turtles first hand. I put the clipper away, choosing to wait until the light of day to cut my fingernails.
The next morning, I walked into the backyard with a butterfly net, hoping to catch a bee. I still had a half hour or so before school. Mom had already left for her reef walk. There were a lot of bees out that day. Honeybees, bumble bees, yellow jackets, wasps. I walked towards a large hibiscus bush. I had to be careful. Catching the bees could be pretty challenging.
A yellow jacket buzzed industriously around a pink flower. Quickly, I trapped the wasp in my net. Then I gently tapped it with my slipper, not hard enough to kill it, just to knock it out. Then I placed the dazed yellow jacket into a glass jar. After a while, it would recover.
My older sister Renee came out of the house and told me to leave the bees alone.
“If you keep on bothering the bees, they’ll get mad at you,” she said. And sure enough, as soon as Renee walked back into the house, a honeybee stung me right on the palm of my hand. My whole forearm turned real red and swollen and Renee had to squeeze the stinger out, still beating like a heart.
Dad had a rep as the best bus driver at the Kamehameha Schools. Everybody wanted to ride in Dad’s bus. And that made me feel good. I always felt safe as Dad drove us from the Kapālama Terminal up Skyline Drive to campus. He always looked like he knew exactly what he was doing—like he was meant to drive us to school every day—left hand on the big steering wheel, right hand on the faded yellow tennis ball on the stick shift. He clipped pictures of Mom, Renee and me on the large visors that protected his eyes from the sun.
There were all kinds of reasons why everybody lined up for Dad’s bus. He always played cool songs—rock or Hawaiian. Some drivers refused to turn on their radios or, worse yet, played classical music. Some drivers were grumpy. Dad always wore a smile. Some drivers didn’t say jack to you. Dad always said “good morning” or “good afternoon.” Some drivers hit their brakes way in front of the stop, on purpose, to make you walk to their next bus or class. Even when it was raining. Dad always stopped right in front of you.
All my classmates said I was lucky to have a cool dad. And that made me feel good.
Mom always told this story to Renee.
One rainy night, a boy and a girl are driving along the dark, winding road near the Pali. When they get to Morgan’s Corner, the boy says he’s run out of gas, so he’ll walk into town and look for the nearest service station. He tells the girl to roll up the windows, lock the doors, and wait in the car. The boy leaves and the girl waits. After awhile, she falls asleep listening to the tap-tap sound of the rain on the car roof. When she opens her eyes again, it’s morning. The boy still hasn’t returned. She gets out of the car to stretch her legs and feel the sun. It is a beautiful morning. The birds are singing and the sweet smell of ginger fills the air. Then the girl screams. The body of the boy hangs from a monkeypod tree and the tap-tap sound she’d fallen asleep to had been his blood dripping onto the roof of the car.
“Why does Mom always tell you that creepy story?” I asked Renee one day, after school.
“Because,” Dad said, walking into the living room, filling the house with the smell of English Leather, “Mom don’t want her only daughter driving off to Morgan’s Corner with some no-good loser.” He still wore his work clothes—the blue shirt with the short sleeves and his name, Marc, stitched on his breast pocket.
“Oh, Dad,” Renee said, blushing.
“Mom loves her stories, doesn’t she?” Dad said.
I was at the library doing some research for a history project on Kamehameha the Great. I sat in a carrel in the back, staring at my bee sting. My forearm had swollen to the size of Dad’s. I hoped I’d have strong, muscular arms like Dad one day.
“Lowell,” Dad said, walking into the library.
“Dad?” I said. “What are you doing in here?”
“We gotta go home,” he said, struggling to get the words out. “What? Why?”
“Your Mom is dead,” he said, taking the deepest of breaths.
(HONOLULU)—Thousands of dead squid have mysteriously washed ashore on Hawaii’s beaches. Officials from the Big Island to Kauai spent much of the morning clearing away tons of the creatures. Scientists say the unusual phenomenon may have been caused by a sudden change in the current, tide or water temperature. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Aaron Davis, a surfer at Waikiki Beach. “It’s the strangest thing.”
I clipped this article out of the newspaper on the one-year anniversary of Mom’s death. She would’ve loved this. Just like Dad always said, she loved her stories.
On her last night with us, Mom prepared tiny pipi shells for dinner. Black sea snails. An aunty from Kaua‘i had picked them off the rocks at Kealia Beach and brought them over for Mom.
“You boil them alive?” I asked Mom.
“Of course,” she said, smiling. “Just throw them in some hot water. Add salt. Then you poke the inside of the shell with a toothpick or a sewing needle and eat them. You wanna try one?”
“Don’t talk like that. Aunty Esther’s boy died picking pipi shells. Big Island. Your cousin was climbing on the rocks and a wave came and swept him away.”
“Wow. No wonder Aunty Esther always looks sad.”
“Yup. Imagine dying in the ocean like that. Must be so cold.”
Three days after Mom’s funeral, Renee and I rode our bicycles along Nimitz Highway—near the oil refineries and the paper factory—towards Sand Island. We passed warehouses, bus yards, and auto repair shops. There was the sharp smell of pineapple from the cannery nearby, and from somewhere I couldn’t figure out, rotten eggs. After about a half hour or so, we came to a huge steel drawbridge.
“Look,” said Renee, as we passed an empty tollbooth with cracked glass. “Bullet holes.”
As we crossed the bridge, I looked down and noticed tiny openings in the steel where you could see the deep blue ocean far, far below. It felt kinda scary. The water looked very cold and very angry. I was relieved when we reached Sand Island.
The air felt dry and hot. We rode our bikes down a dusty road filled with potholes. We passed rusted iron shacks, concrete barricades left behind from World War II, and hundreds of abandoned cars piled one on top of the other like twisted, metal towers. Soon, we reached the beach and walked.
“Listen,” Renee said, handing me a large shell. “You can hear the ocean.”
“I can’t hear anything,” I said, placing the cold shell against my ear.
We passed a huge sunfish—looking like a decapitated fish head—lying dead in a tangle of seaweed, drying and rotting in the sun. Flies buzzed over the stinking carcass.
Eventually, Renee and I stopped at an area lined with huge, black boulders and looked out at the ocean.
“Dad’s not doing well,” Renee said as we sat down.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“A woman knows these things.”
“You’re not a woman,” I said, as a wave crashed on the boulders. “I wonder why they never found Mom’s body,” Renee said, staring at the horizon.
“Maybe the ocean really wanted her,” I said.
I threw a stone into the ocean and immediately regretted it, sickened, like I’d launched an unprovoked offensive against my poor mother’s belly.
Every other Saturday morning, Dad builds a tool shed in the backyard, only to tear it down. He collects the wooden walls, the metal roof, and nails it all together. The shed is about eight feet high, the size of a small bathroom. Then he tacks the bills of marlins, the tails of ahi, to the wooden front door. Trophies of great fish from the past. Next, he fills the shed with his prized possessions. First the fishing poles, tackle boxes, scoop nets. Then the old car parts: bumpers, rims, windshield wipers, mirrors, license plates, carburetor fluid, steering fluid, brake fluid, WD-40, Armor All. Then, finally, the tools: drills, hammers, circular saws, screwdrivers, wrenches, saws, boxes of nails and screws of differing sizes, picks, axes, hoes, rakes, brooms, knives, machetes, mops, buckets.
At the end of the day, after the tool shed is assembled, Dad grabs a hammer and takes it all apart again. Lizards and roaches scramble out into the sun, confused.
Dozens of people showed up for Renee’s graduation party. Everybody seemed to be having a good time. Except Dad. He sat in the corner of the garage, in a bright colored aloha shirt, staring at the moon.
Renee’s boyfriend—Manny Rivera—piled rice, noodles, ribs, kalua pig and opihi on a plate and offered it to Dad. Dad ignored him.
Mr. Botelho?” Manny said. “You should eat something.”
Suddenly, Dad slapped the plate out of Manny’s hand. The food went flying. The party went dead.
“Have you tried to get into my daughter’s pants?” Dad said.
“Have you taken her to Morgan’s Corner?”
“Uh, no sir,” Manny said, shaking his head.
“You better not!” Dad said, yelling. “I’ll kill you, you fucker!
Renee, don’t you ever forget your mother! Don’t you ever forget what she used to tell you about Morgan’s Corner. You remember?”
“Yes, Dad,” Renee said, sweeping the food off the floor into a dustpan.
“Lowell,” Renee said, walking into my bedroom later that night, “can I talk to you?”
“Of course,” I said. “Is it about Dad?”
“No. Well, yes.”
Renee sat on my bed. She wore a robe and still smelled like the sweet lei she’d been wearing earlier.
“Lowell,” she said, clutching a wet ball of Kleenex in her hand.
“What am I gonna do? I’m pregnant.”
When Renee told Dad she was pregnant, he snapped.
“You fucking slut!” he screamed. “You dumb bitch! I thought you was a smart girl! You’re nothing but a stupid whore!”
“Dad,” I said.
“Shut your mouth, Lowell,” he said, fists clenched. “Before I kick your ass!”
“I’m sorry, Dad,” Renee said. “But …”
“But what?” Dad said. “What’s Mom gonna say when she comes home?”
“When she comes home?” Renee said. “Dad, Mom’s not …”
“That’s the problem with you kids! You don’t listen! You didn’t listen to Mom! You went up to Morgan’s Corner and spread your legs! And now look what happened.”
“Dad,” Renee said, crying. “Mom is not coming home …”
Dad slapped Renee in the face. My sister fell to the floor and crumpled into the fetal position, afraid to get hit again.
I woke up the next morning and something in the pit of my na‘au told me things were not right. I looked out my bedroom window. Sure enough, everything Renee owned—her clothes, her books, her CDs—had been tossed in the yard.
“Dad did it last night,” Renee said. “When I was gone.”
Dad was nowhere to be seen. I called the school. His co-workers said he hadn’t shown up again. They were pretty used to this by now. Ever since Mom’s death, it was pretty routine. Renee and me looked everywhere. Then Renee came up with an idea. We drove to Diamond Head beach. I thought we were too late. Police cars and fire trucks were parked at the lookout, near the lighthouse. We prepared for the worst. But there was Dad, sitting on a rock wall looking out at the ocean.
“Dad?” Renee said, gently grabbing Dad’s arm. “Let’s go home.”
“Don’t touch me, bitch,” he said. “I don’t like whores touching me.” “C’mon, Dad,” I said. “What are you doing?”
“I’m looking for Mom. She’s still out there. Somewhere.”
The firefighters climbed up the hill, carrying a stretcher. Hikers had discovered the body of a homeless man decomposing in a grove of thorny haole koa trees. They wore surgical masks to protect themselves from the sweet, rotten smell. Renee and I had no masks. That night, even though I took three showers, I could not get that smell out of my hair.
Renee tried, but couldn’t take it anymore. The last straw was when Dad chased her out of the house with a machete. She was moving to Oregon. She had friends there who were talking about opening a restaurant. They needed waitresses. I drove her to the airport.
“So, what are you doing about the baby?” I said.
“I don’t know,” Renee said. “My friends say they know doctors who can, um, take care of things. I don’t know, Lowell.”
“What does Manny think?”
“Manny left me, the asshole.”
When the public address announcer called Renee’s flight, we walked to the gate and hugged.
“Take care of Dad,” Renee said. “He’s suffering.”
“We’re all suffering.”
I tried hard and didn’t cry until I heard myself say the word “goodbye.”
Dad was not at home again. The first place I looked was Diamond Head. It was dark. All of the surfers were gone. I ran down to the beach. There was Dad, a tiny figure. The only person in the water. Walking out to sea. A silhouette backlit by the moon.
“I need to bring Mom home,” he said, when I finally caught up to him. The cold water came up to our noses.
“No,” I said, wondering about the undertow.
(HONOLULU)—A 64-year old Kalihi man drowned off Diamond Head this morning. Witnesses say Marc Botelho—a Kamehameha Schools bus driver—appeared to be wandering on the reef when he turned towards the horizon and continued walking towards deeper water until disappearing. Ocean Safety and Services spokesman Edson Thompson said attempts to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Botelho were unsuccessful.
I heard the pounding coming from the backyard and I knew Dad was building his tool shed again. But something seemed different this time. His movements were more urgent, his breathing harder. And this time, after he was done, he left the tool shed up. Then he got in his truck and drove off. Of course, I knew exactly where he was going. Call it stupidity, laziness—or murder even—I let him go. I can’t explain why. I just let Dad go.
I’ve tried to avoid the ocean since losing Mom and Dad. I’d almost forgotten the feel of the sand and pebbles on my feet, the heat of the sun on my back and shoulders, how cold that first contact with ocean water can feel. As a kid, I used to love the beach the way young Travis loves the beach now. We walk towards the water cautiously. The first small wave covers our feet—a greeting from an affectionate but wary animal tentatively sniffing at our feet, trying to determine if we mean well or harm.
Renee—Travis’ mom—sits on the shore watching us, a distant red spot. As Travis giggles, water swirls around the crater in the sand created by our feet, then just as quickly disappears. We walk towards the reef. The rocks are slippery and full of holes. We see reef fish, a sea urchin. Travis points. In a crack, I catch a glimpse of the spotted moray eel. Its sharp teeth and cold eyes remind me how dangerous the ocean can be. Eels, barracudas, sharks, undertows, drownings.
I look up at Diamond Head and lead Travis back towards shore. The wet sand on the ocean bottom collects around our ankles, hands refusing to let go.