By Isla Morley
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2009 Isla Morley
All rights reserved.
A bad sign, my grandmother would have muttered, looking heavenward. She would not have had to say another thing and Beauty,nodding, would have taken off her apron and her starched doek covering her peppercorn curls and headed out the back door into the African night with its sick moon. The Cape veldt was different at night, alive with the wild smell of fynbos; a thing with its own heartbeat, its own snorts and threats. Children were called in from its heat at dusk, long before the earth cooled and its worn paths began to vibrate with the invisible steps of the ancestors and the menacing Tokoloshe, long before the moon would rise over the kopjes in the east. But under a bad moon, no one went in the veldt—not even the ancestral spirits. Only a sangoma, a witch doctor, whose magic her old white madam had come to rely on. Beauty Masinama, grounded in the tradition of the Ndebele nation, knew all about lunar tidings. My grandmother, a woman whose superstitions grew up in the crack between her Christian faith and the lore of her Scottish ancestry, knew about themtoo.
Beauty would have walked into the bush with measured haste, to the foot of the kopje over which the sickly moon rose, to the source of her muti, her medicine. Tracing her steps back to the farmhouse before the moon had completed itsarc, pigskin bag filled with twigs and rocks and bones and feathers rattling with each step, Beauty would have chanted a liturgy as ancient as the hills themselves. Only after she had laid out her wares in an elaborate tapestry on the back porch and kindled the blood of the long-deceased with her invocation under the moon gone bad would she go into the madam’s room with her early-morning tea tray and reassuring, toothless smile: all would be well. Maybe.
IN AFRICA THERE are good moons and bad moons—moons that foretell of bounty and fortune: the long-awaited birth of a chief, a wedding, a visit from relatives, rain. Eclipsed moons, yellow moons, upside-down sickle moons are bad—famine, crop failure, war, sickness. Moons with gossamer halos—nooses, the sangomas call them— mean only one thing: death. People in Africa will go to great lengths to stem the doom of a bad moon. But here in Honolulu, a half spin on its axis, the world is bright with fluorescent bulbs and can barely be bothered to look up.
It is a cool night and the heavy clouds are spilling over the mountain behind us, right on schedule. Solly is eager to go back inside, forgoing his leisurely round of leg-lifting for a quick pee against Mrs. Chung’s mailbox. Attaboy. I look up once more at the moon and its ring before both are blanketed with clouds, and feel a twitch of foreboding and a longing for one of Beauty’s spells.
I Wake Up to a stiff neck and a throat that feels like it has dry ice stuck in it. Every inhale sears my throat and I quiteexpect steam to come billowing out my nose on each exhale. My left eardrum pounds and I can hear, for brief moments, the sound of blood flowing in my head. Just then Cleo marches into my bedroom and snaps to attention next to my side of the bed. "Mommy," she orders, "put this on!" "This" happens to be her purple bathing suit, an item decidedly inappropriate for a spring morning, chilly by Hawaii standards.
"Darling," I croak, squinting through puffy morning eyelids still crusty with sleep, "don’t you think it’s too cold to wear that?"
"PUT IT ON!" she commands.
"Let me get up; hold on a moment," I say, knowing that this is a battle I do not have the stamina to win.
"Put it on, put it on, putitonputitonputiton!"
"Please!" I swivel around and glare down at her, totally awake. "Do NOT start whining."
"Can you put it on?" she persists, and I wonder whether three-year-olds have selective hearing like the husbands of naggy old women.
I shiver barefoot, hold out her bathing suit so she can slip one foot in one hole, then the other, and try not to feel as though my watermelon head is about to roll off its stand. Before I can pull the straps up over her shoulders, she yanks them out of my hands. "I can do it!" she insists.
"Fine," I say, and reach for my robe. One foot finds the slipper. "Goddammit, Solly," I hiss, because instead of bunny fluff there is only the soggy mess of an indoor dog’s sacrificial kill.
"Mommy!" Cleo reprimands. "You took the Lord’s name again."
"Don’t tell your father," I grunt.
When I get downstairs, Greg is still asleep on the couch and I roll my eyes for the benefit of the unseen entities that may or may not inhabit the lonely spaces of my house. Today is Thursday, the last day of my vacation, and I am not looking forward to returning to the world of editorial deadlines. I feel the resentment rise like bile: for just one morning I would like Greg to be the one to drag his tail out of bed and hup-hup-hup to Cleo’s endless list of orders. I bang the microwave door on purpose and he wakes up and says, "Huh, what?"
The hammering sound coming down the staircase is Cleo in my silver high heels, which were in fashion the last time they saw the light of day, possibly last century, and the pounding on the parquet floors makes Greg frown and rub his brow. "Cleo," he calls.
"Morning, Daddy," she coos.
"Cleo, do you think you can take Mommy’s shoes off for now?"
"Will it wake the neighbors?" she asks.
"Yes, it might," he answers. "It woke me up and it will most certainly wake up the cat."
She grins sadistically as she spots Pilgrim curled up on the rocking chair, in hibernation mode. She thuds over to him, more determined than ever to keep the heels on, and says, "Pilgrim! Wake up!" and then she roars at him and the poor feline lunges past her before she can grab him. I place a warm mug of milk at her place at the table and fix my own cup of tea and a slice of toast.
"Did you hear the thunder last night?" Greg asks.
I shake my head in reply. "But I saw the bad moon before we went to bed."
"It started about one o’clock," he continues, ignoring my comment. Greg doesn’t like it when Africa seeps through me, as though he were a missionary watching his converts go native. "I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I stayed up for a while. Bet there were flash floods down in the valley," he says, passing me on his way to the refrigerator.
"Got your fingers crossed?" He means about the new garage roof and its first test. I nod.
"What’s wrong?" he asks.
I point to my throat.
"Oh, you got it now," he says. I am the last one to get a cold, having nursed Greg and Cleo through theirs for the past two weeks. "That’s terrible," he says, and fixes himself a bowl of cereal. I look at him while he sets his bowl down and empties the last of the orange juice into a coffee mug.
"What?" he says, looking up and seeing me stare at him. "Did you want some?" Before I have a chance to nod, Cleo is back with a pair of dirty pajamas from the laundry room.
"Mommy, put this on," she says, already tugging at her bathing suit straps.
"No," I say, "those are dirty. I didn’t wash them yesterday."
"But they are clean," she argues, and thrusts them toward me.
"Cleo, they are dirty and they are your pajamas; you don’t wear them during the day."
"Put them on!" she insists.
"Look," I say, pointing to the front of the shirt, "those are yucky, dirty stains; and smell that. See, it’s stinky too."
"I don’t smell anything. I like these."
"No," I say, wondering why it is that I am debating with a toddler. In the half-breath interval it takes for her to whiplash her head and convulse her body as though it had just received an enormous electrical pulse, I think, What am I doing wrong? Are we too lenient with her? Is she becoming the typical precocious preacher’s kid? How do you insist the Fifth Commandment be complied with by a child who requests her own time-out? I hate myself the instant I listen to the voices of the women’s church auxiliary take up their seats in my head and with downturned mouths say, And she’s the minister’s child! It’s because the mother was raised in Africa, by the natives, you know.
"But I like them!" Cleo cries, and, quick as a leak, big tears plop over her eyelids and land on her chin. My goodness, but the passions do run deep in this one.
I take a deep breath while Greg’s contribution to the kitchen debacle is his usual halfhearted, exasperated "Cleo!" to which she seldom responds.
"Look," I say, trying to find the compromise, "you can wear pajamas today if you want to. Just not these." And then, in the familiar parlance of preschoolers, I say, "They’re so stinky they will make you puke!" and wrinkle my nose.
It works. She smiles conspiratorially, "Puke! Ugh! They are so stinky they will make me poop!" And then she laughs mischievously because she hopes to get away with saying her favorite word without its permissible context of the bathroom. We go upstairs while my tea gets cold and undertake the laborious task of choosing just the right pajamas for the day. She decides on the ones that are too small for her, the pair I forgot to take out of her closet and put in the Goodwill box. But I cannot object again. So she squeezes into the shirt with the sleeves that come up to her elbows and the pants that are now pedal pushers. My old pair of pantyhose pulled over her springy blond curls passes for a wig and the pink purse clutched under her armpit completes the ensemble.
"I’m ready, Mommy," she says. "Where are we going today?"
"How about to the table so we can have breakfast?" I suggest.
"I had breakfast already."
"What did you have?"
She mouths something inaudible, which is a sure sign that I will disapprove.
"Mints," she whispers, and I follow her eyes to the empty box of Tic Tacs on her bedside table.
"You ate them all?" She nods. "Cleo, that’s not breakfast.You need to eat," I say.
"No I don’t!" is her reply as she waltzes out of the room, flinging one pantyhose leg over her shoulder.
"I am going to lose it with this child, Greg," I announce as I pin my whining daughter to her seat at the breakfast table. She immediately quiets and I feel her seal pup eyes, wide and dark, on me. Ignoring the tittle-tattle old ladies wagging their fingers and chanting, Not a good mother, I continue, "If she says ‘no’ to me one more time . . ." and I can’t finish. Then what? Then I will beat her the way your mother has been insisting we do since she was ten months old? Then I am going to throw the mounds of toys I have yet to pick up at you, you in your insulated world of Scripture readings and sermon notes? But none of the "thens" take into account that I have to face myself in the mirror each morning, so they turn to "whens," as they usually do: when Cleo gets a little older she will be more cooperative; when Greg has more time he will be able to help a little more; when I start to feel better I will have more patience.
"Let me handle this," Greg offers. He puts down the paper and takes off his reading glasses and peers at Cleo, who will not look anywhere but at my face. She is inches away from crumpling like a discarded tissue, not liking it when her mommy is cross, which is too often these past months. I know she is scared, and for one delicious, sadistic moment I feel pleased at having the upper hand.
"Cleo, listen to your mommy, okay?" instructs Greg with the kindness of a benevolent guru and a matching amount of detachment. She blinks and looks at her hands in her lap when I return her stare. "You have got to be nice to your mommy, sweet girl, okay? She’s not feeling well today." She nods at him and he says, "Good!" and then to me, on a winning streak, "I have to leave pretty soon; what would you like for me to do?" It is a patient question, one anxious to redirect the squall. A question that elicits the opposite effect, stirring up the storm in my teacup.
"I don’t know why I have to be a bloody thundercloud before anyone listens to me," I say, taking quantum leaps that Greg has learned to follow. How quickly the insolence of a three-year-old can come to represent the civil disobedience of all humankind does not strike me as silly, and if it does Greg, his face does not betray him. I cannot simply say, "How about you fix her breakfast while I go take a bath," which is what I know he can safely deal with. Greg chews on the corner of his lip because he knows he cannot say anything that will help, and takes a furtive look at his watch.
"When did I become everyone’s flunky?" I continue, restacking the piles of dirty dishes. "Why is it I seem to spend all my time picking up after everyone else? Why is it that when I ask you and Cleo very nicely to put your stuff away and tell you that my tolerance for the debris in this house is reaching an apex, nobody listens? Nobody hears me, nobody answers me; if I didn’t know by looking in the mirror, I would think that I didn’t exist!" My throat is seared with the effort of a straining pitch.
"I am sorry, Abbe. I’ll do better, I promise. I’m over the worst of this flu bug and have some energy to do my share around here." As if doing his share is the answer to all the unnamed things that stand between us.
He gets up and pulls me into his arms. "Come on, cheer up. When I come back from the office, I promise I will help clean up and do a load of laundry."
My tirade is not about to be petted back into its kennel. "But I thought you were going to take the day off." I muffle away into his shirt and the smells of day-old cologne, and he hugs me tighter.
"You’re right. Just let me make a few calls, then."
The words and fever drift away like the spray off easterly blown waves.
We feel the clamp around our thighs as Cleo joins our embrace and all is forgiven. "Jesus says, ‘Love one another,’ " she recites. And I rub her head and say, "That’s right, darling, and we love one another by being nice to each other."
"And kind," she adds, the litany complete.
"And kind," I agree, seeing the little old church ladies vaporize.
Cleo makes patterns on her place mat with the cereal I give her while I load the dishwasher. "You got plans for the day?" Greg asks.
"I promised Mrs. Scribner I would take her to the hairdresser around eleven."
"You’re not required to do that, you know; it’s not in the Preacher’s Wife Manual, is it?"
"That’s not why I do it."
"I know, I know. You’re recruiting for the Abbe Deighton Lonely Hearts Club."
"Go ahead and mock me; see how funny it is when you are all alone one day with no one to listen to your clever ideas and laugh at your lame jokes. See how you like it when your idea of companionship is when the cable guy comes to sell you channels you don’t want."
"I hope you’re not trying to tell me something," he jests.
"I am being serious. It’s not just that she’s lonely; it’s that she’s treated like an outsider and I can’t stand that."
"Abbe, no one lets her in because she’s crazy and she smells bad."
"It’s not funny, Greg. She’s doing her best just to hang on; the least we can do is give her some small encouragement not to let go."
" ‘We’ meaning me, you mean?" Suddenly Greg’s tone is defensive.
"No, that’s not what I mean," I protest, although I do not think it would hurt Greg’s ratings, ailing as they are, to spend less time at the office and more time in the field, so to speak.
"Okay, so I guess you don’t want me to call in sick for you?" he asks, and I shake my head. "All right, then. ‘The time has come, the Walrus said,’ " he quotes, heading for the front door.
"What walrus, Mommy?" asks Cleo.
"Dad means he’s going to check whether our new roof kept the garage dry."
The two-car garage and workshop, up until a couple of days ago, functioned alternately as a cistern and a sieve, seldom as a dry shelter for the car. It has been patched so many times that instead of being flat it sagged in the middle so that the birds bathed atop while buckets were positioned beneath it. We made do with buckets until Greg had the gumption to ask his mother for a small loan to help pay for a new roof. He insisted it was a loan, but I am the one who pays the bills each month and who notices that there is never a little row of numbers on our bank statement we can theoretically call "savings," or which can go toward reducing our indebtedness and my mother-in-law’s righteousness. We will not be able to pay her back the two thousand dollars for roofing materials, just as we have not been able to pay back the airplane tickets for the family get-together last Christmas or her contribution to the down payment on our house. Not unless the church decides to pay its minister a salary roughly comparable to that of a car dealer. Maybe that is what Greg should consider doing: trade in Jesus and start selling Jaguars to aging symphony supporters. Bet he would have more takers than he does no
I am picturing Greg taking the elderly for test drives when he skulks back into the house, slamming the door behind him. He collapses on the couch with an exclamation: "We should have hired professionals!"
"It didn’t work?" I ask. Jakes and a friend recently paroled from prison just spent two days reroofing the garage. "A piece of cake," they had said.
Greg shakes his head. "It’s worse."
Of the two of us, it is typically me who holds the glass-is-half-full policy, so when my husband makes understatements, as infuriating as they often are, they always give me a measure of hope because things seldom turn out to be as bad as he assesses them to be. Just how bad can a bad moon be, I wonder, charging out to the garage to see. The smell of damp and mold is overpowering when I open the door, and then I notice little tidal pools everywhere: between Greg’s tools, next to the storage closet, around the car. What used to be water-stained ceiling tiles is now mush the consistency of porridge on the roof and windshield of our car, and on the tool bench. Water is being siphoned through the garage door opener. Turds are floating around in the cat tray. Two thousand dollars washed away. Two. Thousand. Dollars. I look up where the ceiling once was and see right through to its exposed underbelly, where it is still leaking although the rain abated hours ago.
Walking out of what will soon be a rust heap, I head for the ladder still propped up against the wall on the south side. Before I mount it, I spot at the head of the pathway next to our mailbox a small yellow box. What on earth? When I approach it, I can tell that it is a box of sandwich bags, and adjacent to it lies one of its bags sealed with something in it. Crouching down, I pick up the bag, and it suddenly becomes apparent what its contents are: dog turds.
I look around. There are no neighbors out on this drizzly morning, not that there ever are, but for a moment I think perhaps someone must have dropped the parcel while walking their dog. That is before I remember that no one walks a dog with a box of Ziploc bags. In fact, no one walks a dog around our neighborhood association, a little cul-de-sac of six homes ruled as though it were East Berlin. Certainly not since Mrs. Chung, the Kaiser, bolted billboard-sized NO TRESPASSING signs to the entry of the private driveway the day after I gave the homeless guy who sleeps on the bus stop bench (West Berlin) some food. It can only be one person. Kaiser Chung!
"Do you know what this is?" I spit, holding high the offending bag as I barge back into the house. Greg lifts his head from the back of the couch, and before he can answer I say, "Dog shit, Greg. It’s dog shit!"
I hear a sharp intake of air. "Mommy, you said a bad word." Cleo is anxious to inspect my parcel, while Greg looks at me uncomprehendingly. I march over to the phone, flip through to the back of my address book where the association’s homeowners are listed by last name and telephone number. Punching the numbers, I feel the scorching move from the back of my throat into my lungs as I prepare to address the president of the association.
Her answering machine comes on after four rings, after four separate speeches have blazed a trail through my mind. "You have reached the Chung residence. You may leave a brief message after the third beep," cackles Mrs. Chung’s scratchy voice. I hang up and dial Gillian Beech’s number. "God bless," she answers before the phone has completed its first ring.
"Gillian, Abbe here from across the way. You got any idea why I have a bag of dog excrement and a box of Ziplocs by my mailbox?"
"Oh, dear Lord. I told her not to do it, but she has been complaining about your dog for weeks." Gillian doesn’t need to name the specific "she" to whom she refers; it is pronounced as a proper noun, thereby confirming my suspicion: Mrs. Chung. "She’s upset about him—ahem—defecating on her front lawn. I told her to just talk to you about it, that we are all mature Christians, amen?"
"Gillian, our dog is enclosed in a yard. It’s our lawn he shits on," I say, choosing a word I know will set Gillian’s sanctified soul on edge.
"Yes, well, she’s very upset."
"You know she is mad at me because I won’t stop giving Mr. Tom food."
"Yes. Well. She feels that this sort of thing encourages the, um, how shall we say? The undesirable element. And most of us agree. You did receive the memo about the spate of burglaries, didn’t you?"
I ignore her question. "The only undesirable element in this neighborhood as far as I’m concerned is a busybody who tries to pass herself off as a do-gooder."
"Might I suggest we pray about this—" Gillian begins, but I cut her off.
"You tell her that she can gossip all she likes about my dog and his bowel movements, but the next time she so much as puts a toe on my property I’ll have her cited for trespassing and she can see how it feels. Oh, and you can tell her, since she’s so intent on preserving excrement, that I am returning this particular sample to her for safekeeping."
"Well, I think it best—" Gillian begins, but I hang up before she gets any further.
Greg is still sitting on the couch when I get back from depositing the offending materials on Mrs. Chung’s doorstep. "How can it be leaking worse after a new roof?" I demand. He stands up, retrieves the newspaper from the table, and heads for the bathroom. "Good question!" he says.
Why is he not making calls? I wonder. Why is he not dressed, keys in hand, ready to drive to somebody’s house and give them hell? There seems to be no apparent plan of action, which I find intolerable, even with a head cold.
"Greg! What are we going to do?" I ask, standing at the closed bathroom door.
"I don’t know," is his muffled reply.
"Can you call the roofing company?"
"They are going to tell me that there is nothing wrong with the product and blame the installers."
"Well, whose fault is it?"
"I don’t know." His sigh is audible.
"Aren’t you going to call Jakes?" I persist, sounding even to my own ears as though Greg were to blame.
"Give me a minute, okay?" he says.
I am about to remind him that two thousand dollars has just gone down the toilet when Cleo nudges me.
"Mommy, can you fix her?" she asks. Barbie’s head is in one hand and her body in the other. This is exactly what I feel like doing to someone, definitely my neighbor, possibly Jakes, increasingly my husband.
"Not right now, Cleo. Daddy and I are talking," I say.
"But Mommy, she has an owie."
"I said, not now," I reply.
The toilet flushes and Greg reemerges. "Abbe, just calm down."
Which is what does it. The argument is explosive and brief, and Greg picks up Cleo, who begins to cry, and takes her and the decapitated Barbie out to the garden. Upstairs, I slam the bedroom door, take two slugs from the NyQuil bottle, and get into bed. Pulling the covers over my head, I do the arithmetic, but every calculation ends with us further in the red.
IT IS PAST NOON when I wake up, my cheek damp in the pool of drool on my pillow. My eyes are swollen and my head feels thick with fur, but I get up just as the guilt seeps through my feet like the chill of cold cement. Downstairs, I follow Cleo’s happy tune outside. Greg is sitting on the porch swing watching her take his nappy Russian hat for a ride in the doll’s stroller.
"Don’t leave that on the ground, Cleo, or Solly will chew it," I call to her. "Hi," I croak at Greg. "Hungry?"
"You just missed Cheerios and ice cream." He smiles, and in this small exchange we acknowledge each other’s white flags.
"Mommy!" Cleo rushes over and hugs my knees. "We don’t eat boogers," she announces.
"No, we don’t."
"We don’t hit," she adds. "And we don’t say ‘stupid.’ "
"It’s not polite." Her list of commandments is an attempt to cheer me up, and they do, even though I know she will break at least two of them before sundown. She rushes off, pleased with my improved mood.
"You get your calls made?" I ask.
"Some of them. And I called Mrs. Scribner to tell her you were sick," he says.
I nod my gratitude. "I thought if I just lay down for a few minutes . . ."
"We’ll get it sorted out," he assures me.
"Mrs. Scribner’s hair or the roof?"
"The roof is probably easier, don’t you think?"
"You’re terrible," I say, lifting his hand and putting it on the back of my neck.
"Thank you, thank you very much."
HEATING UP last night’s spaghetti for lunch, I pick up the kitchen phone, do the math to calculate California time, dial my brother’s number, and turn on the TV with the volume down low. Oprah is interviewing a sad, white-haired middle-aged man. Members of the audience are crying.
"Spenser residence," is my brother’s clipped answer.
"Oh good, I’m glad I caught you," I say.
"Sounds as if you caught something worse than me."
"It’s a cold. It’s Greg’s fault—he passed it on to us."
"Hey, I know it has been a month since you asked me for those photos, and I apologize for being such a sloth. I haven’t forgotten; I will get up in the attic and look for those boxes this weekend, I promise." Rhiaan is my last living relative and the self-appointed family archivist. Apart from my grandmother’s farm, about all we have left of our family heritage are those boxes of photos that were once at the bottom of my mother’s closet.
"Keep your knickers on. That’s not why I’m calling."
"So to what, then, do I owe the privilege?" Rhiaan always pretends it is my fault we do not communicate more regularly, but the fact is, when I do call it is often to be told by Cicely that he has requested not to be disturbed.
"I want to talk about the farm."
"At last you want to sell it," he guesses.
"Do you always have to know what I’m thinking before I do?"
"I do—it’s my job."
"We need the money," I confess, picturing him cringing.
To his credit, he refrains from offering assistance from his own coffers. "I don’t know how much a fifteen-acre farm in Paarl is worth these days. A lot more if it were closer to Cape Town, I suspect. And the exchange rate isn’t exactly in our favor, but I should think it would add up to a couple hundred thousand dollars all told. Would that do it?"
"It would, but you don’t think the curse—"
"Abbe! No one takes curses seriously, certainly not real estate agents. I think you should call the trustee, what’s his name?"
"Right. Call Slabbert, tell him to put the word out there. Tell him to set the price high and see if anyone nibbles."
"And the kids?" My grandmother’s farmhouse, abandoned for years after her death, is now the venue for a group of orphaned African children to learn things they will probably never live long enough to apply. Almost all of them contracted HIV/AIDS from their mothers.
"The school was never supposed to be a permanent deal, you know that. This will force them to find a proper school instead of a dilapidated farmhouse. For all we know the Department of Health is probably trying to shut it down anyway."
"So you are all for it?"
"I’m never going back there, if that is what you are asking. And I don’t imagine you will either, will you?"
"Then there you are. Go for it. In my opinion we have hung on to it for too long. It’s time. It’s more than time."
"For always looking out for me."
"Si vales valeo: If you are well, then I am well."
Before I hang up, I ask if he is writing again.
"Just a slightly immovable writer’s block to deal with first. Nothing a bottle of Glenlivet and my wife’s undaunted cheer won’t cure. But you take care of that cold now—let the preacher take care of you for a while. And give that gifted niece of mine a well-appointed Snoopy kiss."
After hanging up, I turn up the TV’s volume. The white-haired man is the author of Under Currents, the true-life story of a freak boating accident off the coast of Maine that cost him the lives of both his sons, his marriage, and his career in the attorney general’s office. The strangest thing, he remarks, is that his wife told him not to take the boys out sailing that day, even though the weather was the finest it had been in a month. "She didn’t have a premonition, or a bad dream," he explains to the talk show host. "She didn’t even say that she thought something would go wrong. She simply asked me not to go. ‘Don’t take the boys out today,’ she said, but I didn’t listen. The boys didn’t even say goodbye to her, they just waved from the truck."
"Do you believe in omens?" Oprah asks.
Just then Pilgrim yowls from somewhere below the kitchen window, which sets off all the neighborhood dogs and sends an electric current of fright through my body. I rush out the back door and down the path to the gazebo, calling him to stop because his quarreling sounds like the tortured cries of a frightened baby. Just then I see the offending streak of black fur run out from under the gazebo and into the safe confines of Mrs. Chung’s yard, and the superstitious flash of bad luck prickles my skin.
"Pilgrim, get in the house!" I scold our tribal tabby with his bottlebrush tail and ears pinned low, emerging triumphant. "You’re too old for this!"
I look up when I hear the low growling of the heavens and see the dark clouds pulling together again over the mountains. Another storm.
"Can I watch TV?" Cleo asks when I get back in the kitchen. There is a commercial for laxatives, and I know there is no chance I can go back to the show.
"No, love," I say, "TV rots your brain."
"What’s a brain, Abbe?"
"Cleo, don’t call me Abbe, call me Mommy."
"But I like to call you Abbe."
"Yes, but nobody else can call me Mommy—only you; it’s a very special name for me. And a brain is something that makes you smarter than your silly cat, who doesn’t know that he is too old to be getting in fights."
"Fighting is bad," she says.
"It is indeed."
"Can I watch TV, just for five minutes?" she asks, but I pretend not to hear.
"Just two minutes, Abbe?" she implores.
For one horrible moment, I think my "Okay" is going to come out like Pilgrim’s screech, but Greg walks in and hands me the largest red hibiscus I have ever seen, so instead it ends up like the gush of air from a deflating balloon.
While Cleo watches a purple dinosaur lead a bunch of one-dimensional children around a cardboard yard, I fold laundry at the dining room table. I cannot stop thinking about the father and the tragedy that made his hair turn white. What’s a couple thousand dollars, a roof that leaks, a few rusty tools? I live in a house on a hillside of Honolulu with a daughter who recites Scripture and a husband who doesn’t beat me. So what if he is the constant, peripheral blip on my radar to which I seldom steer? Is it really that bad that we have lost sight of each other over the great swell of laundry, the never-ending chatter of a demanding child, a mound of bills, and the plight of a declining, fussy congregation? There are worse things than tedium; just ask the man with white hair. Tedium, it seems, can be remedied, perhaps with as little as one earnest dollop of will and a smudge of lipstick. Throw in the pair of strappy silver high heels and we just might have the makings of a stellar night out. It might just be all it takes.
Putting away thoughts of perished sons entombed in the wintry waters off the coast of Maine, I send a hasty e-mail to the executor of my grandmother’s estate and then reach for the phone. It is Jenny’s number I am first inclined to dial. Cleo’s godmother and the first among my friends would have been more than happy to babysit a few months ago, but lately she has complained of backaches and fatigue. Even so, I can’t help but wonder if she is standoffish because of our differences on the matter of disciplining Cleo. Jenny, having the clear advantage of being both parent and teacher, issues advice as if the world of parenting were always black and white. My problem, she reported at the New Year’s party after we all had just endured one of Cleo’s fits, was that I "didn’t follow through." I knew better than to argue, especially after all the champagne, and I certainly knew better than to cast aspersions on her expertise, but dammit, why did it always have to be my fault? On the way home in the car, Greg had said my lecture to her "was uncalled-for," and I knew it, which is why I called her the next day to apologize. Of course she forgave me, but her back has been sore ever since.
Now is not the time for another one of Jenny’s excuses, so I call Theresa instead. She answers after five rings and instead of saying hello I hear her holler, "You made that mess, you clean it up or, so help me God, your ass and my hand are going to have a tête-á-tête!"
"Teaching the children French now, are we?" I tease.
"What’s up, tita?" She laughs, and I hear her take a deep drag on a cigarette. I am the palest of all my friends by several palette shades, scrawny by comparison with her, and certainly far from the picture of what comes to mind when locals refer to women as titas. Theresa, by virtue of her size, is entitled to call me—or anyone else—whatever she wishes. A hair shy of six feet, she makes dwarves of her friends. She is built like a swimmer although she has never learned to swim, and when she dances with her husband, Jakes, it is often she who leads. Still, she is by no means a tomboy. Theresa favors dangly earrings, polished nails, and outrageous handbags. She is the only one of us who wears makeup, often adding to her ample cheeks a neatly appointed beauty spot. "Hey," she adds, "I liked your article in the magazine on the mahu. I think I recognized a few of my cousins!"
Theresa is Samoan but is on what she calls "a self-imposed exile from the tribe" because, she says, "they are all stupid," by which she means the old customs cramp her style somewhat. Her exile has involved marriage to Jakes, Annie Lennox–length hair, a wardrobe sans muumuus, and children who do not know the tongue of their parents’ land. When she removes her small oval spectacles and ties her T-shirt (WILL TRADE HUSBAND FOR WINE) into a knot above her belly button, she is quite beautiful. Never the shrinking violet, Theresa dances at parties that are meant to be sit-down affairs and breaks into song after as few as two mai tais. Her mother, who has imported Samoan culture all the way from their little island in the South Pacific to Theresa’s cramped semidetached in Kalihi, shakes her head and mumbles every time Theresa wears her white Bermuda shorts to church. Wearing shorts to church? Her mother should be lucky she shows up at all.
"Can you watch Cleo tonight for two or three hours? I want to take Greg out to a movie," I ask.
"Sure!" she croons. "Going to fool around with the preacher man, are you?" Theresa told Jenny and me that after sixteen years of marriage and three kids, she and Jakes still have sex every night. We have made allowances, therefore, for her one-track-mindedness, and try not to stare at Jakes at every church potluck.
"Fat chance! Can I bring her by at six-thirty?" I ask. "I’ll feed her first."
"No, no, we’re having pizza tonight, bring her for dinner."
"You’re the best."
"That’s what Jakie says!"
"By the way, tell him the roof leaked and to come by when he has a free moment."
"You know, I swear that man is good for one thing, and one thing only! Oh hell, I’ve got to go, the boys are having a food fight!"
I hang up and look for Greg, who is in the garage cleaning up the mess.
"We’re going out tonight. I’ll pick you up at six!" I tell him.
He is surprised, and a bit pleased. "What’s the occasion?"
"You and me being an old married couple, that’s what," I say. "Theresa’s going to watch Cleo."
"Can we sit in the back row and make out?"
"Only during the trailers," I say.
It is six-thirty when I pack down the layers of tulle of Cleo’s pink tutu so that I can buckle her seat belt. "We’re late!" I snap as Greg lifts up the garage door.
"Mommy, it’s okay, don’t be mad," Cleo says. Immediately chastised, I take my seat and give myself the mental talk about not sabotaging the fun before it has started.
"I’ll get you there in time for the trailers," smiles Greg as he pats my knee and backs out of the garage. I have to unbuckle my belt, get out, and pull the door down manually. I glance over at Mrs. Chung’s front doorstep and notice the box of Ziplocs and the bag of dog turds are gone, but as we drive past the house the blinds of her living room window swing slightly from where she has no doubt been peeping. The storm clouds fold over the hills again and the town below looks like it needs to be wrung out.
The island is least appealing when it is overcast. When the sun is shining and the cartoon clouds cast big shadows on the evergreen mountains, Hawaii has the most chance of living up to its reputation. You can overlook the congested neighborhood streets where the single-wall construction houses have given up even elbow room. You can put up with the potholed roads, the rust-stained buildings, and the crumbling lava-rock walls because just an arm’s length away are the brightest rainbows you’ll ever see. Crane your neck past the high-rises in Waikiki and you will see an ocean whose colors defy adjectives. Look close enough and you’ll see, among the folds of the Pali Mountains, ribbons of waterfalls. But on damp days like these, there’s no masking the deterioration, no sun to keep at bay the creeping edges of third-world neglect.
The worst of it is summed up on the street where Theresa lives. Downhill from us, wedged in the valley, is River Street. A misnomer, it is nothing like the picture its name conjures. No quaint plantation houses with sprawling backyards sloping down to a willow-tree-lined stream. Just cramped shacks jammed in a one-way lane that dead-ends by a ditch filled only with litter and a few old tires. Not even a trickle, even after the rains. It is a shantytown street hiding behind the storefronts of Mr. Woo’s Laundromat and Phuong-Thai Takeout. River Street is the back-alley neighborhood that could have been imported from District Six or Soweto. The slouched bodies that stand in the doorways are not black, however, but mostly Asian. The slope of their shoulders and the weary looks of hopelessness are the same as those of township people, ghetto people, people hanging on by their fingernails.
Greg stops the car in the middle of the street because there is no parking place at house number 121, a house the size of our soggy garage, a house with two front doors. 121B is open, and on the front step that doubles as a porch is Theresa’s daughter Tess hanging over the railing. She sees us and with a sticky hand pushes back the sweaty black strands of hair from her face and cries out, "Hi, Cleo!"
I follow Cleo up the stairs and watch the two girls embrace. Cleo, a year younger than Tess, is the same height. They examine each other’s outfits and immediately exchange shoes. When Cleo insists on wearing the frilly pink dress Tess refuses to take off, a scuffle ensues. I begin insisting Cleo mind her manners, but Theresa sweeps Cleo into her arms, twirls her high in the air, and says, "Come, now, a princess like you needs something with a bit more pizzazz, don’t you think? Come look what Auntie Theresa bought for you today." She latches Cleo to her hip and reaches for the shopping bag on the couch. When Cleo peers in, she exclaims with delight.
"I want to try it on!" She grins.
Theresa winks at me.
"Thank you," I say.
She shakes her head. "You just go have a good time now, you hear, and don’t be rushing back."
Excerpted from Come Sunday by Isla Morley.Copyright © 2009 by Isla Morley.Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Come Sunday by Isla Morley. Copyright © 2009 Isla Morley. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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