It’s been two years since fifteen-year-old Gabe’s father uprooted his family and left the United States to sail around the world. The wanderlust ended in the islands of Ma’atea, where Gabe feels every bit the outsider. Until he meets two other palagis: a headstrong boy named Lloyd and the beguiling Tanya. Together they form an unbreakable bond—out of love, boredom, and the need for self-discovery. Gabe’s restlessness leads to quiet rebellions at first, full of flirtations with a burgeoning sexuality. But when he fears being suspected of a serious crime, he and his friends decide to flee Tongu Tongu. Their escape is Plumbelly, a twenty-nine-foot sloop that will be their refuge as they make their way toward the groundswells of the Pacific, to be carried into perils worse than they ever imagined.
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The breeze from the southeast rippled the black water of Tongu Harbor and the only sound was the muffled clunk of the oarlocks and the quiet dipping of the oar blades as I rowed us toward Plumbelly. It was after midnight and I looked around at the silhouettes of the other boats moored in the darkness, hoped their crews were asleep, or drunk, or both. Tanya sat behind me in the bow of the skiff and Lloyd in the stern, each of us wrapped in our own silent thoughts, as sailors are wont to do on the eve of departure. It was a short row and I shipped the oars and glided alongside the sloop. Without a word, we threw our bags over the rail and climbed aboard.
I hadn't cleaned up since the ransacking and Plumbelly was a mess, not at all ready for sea. We stuffed the gear strewn about the cockpit back into the lockers, hoisted the skiff aboard and Lloyd and Tanya went forward to set the mains'l. The halyard blocks squealed and the sheet clanged on the traveler as the mains'l luffed. I glanced again at the other boats.
"Set the stays'l and back it to starboard," I whispered.
"Speak English," Tanya said.
"Take the stops off that sail," I said, pointing to the stays'l, "and hoist it. After that, push the boom out to starboard."
Lloyd and Tanya looked aloft in the darkness, trying to figure out which halyard was which. She found it first and hoisted the little sail hand over hand. Lloyd leaned on the boom to back the sail, forcing Plumbelly's bow away from the wind. Tanya untied the mooring pennant and looked back at me.
"Let her go."
She dropped the heavy line over the bow and we were free.
"Set the jib."
Again Tanya found the halyard first and hoisted the sail.
Once the jib was drawing, Plumbelly heeled over and the rigging creaked, settling into its timeworn grooves, and the stays hummed with tension. The sloop met the chop and the lee bow threw back a little spray, glowing white in the darkness. Tanya came aft and sat in the cockpit, ran her fingers through my hair. She was flushed and breathing hard from the exertion of setting sail. I put my arm around her waist.
"Are you going to tack, Casanova, or run us right into Tongu Shipyard?" Lloyd called from the foredeck.
I put the helm over and the boat responded well, rounding to and filling away on the other tack. We skirted the crowded wharves of the shipyard, the crews of the long- liners asleep, and the workshops and slipways quiet. Tanya snuggled up close, rested her head on my shoulder.
"Will you guys get a room, for Chrissake," Lloyd said, and Tanya looked up and smiled and, then, I smiled too.
Lloyd sat down with his feet hanging over the lee rail. He lit a cigarette and the larger waves washed over his feet as Plumbelly danced across the night-dark harbor on her way to sea. It took several tacks to beat to windward out of the deep basin of Tongu Harbor, and when the moon set we were guided only by the bright lights of the canneries and the few lights of the villages. I kept away from the land and hoped our sails were unseen in the larger darkness. Plumbelly began to rise and fall to the groundswell as we made our way toward open water. Lloyd pulled his legs inboard, Tanya leaned against the cabin trunk, and we fell silent, listening only to Plumbelly's conversation with the Pacific and with the trade wind in her rigging.
The distant wail of sirens carried over the water and the lights of police cars flashed on the shore, as an ambulance raced down the harbor road toward Bu'ulita. Lloyd jumped up and banged his head on the boom, sat back down with his head in his hands, rocked back and forth.
"Oh God," he said.
Tanya coolly reached for the binoculars. She rested them on her drawn up knees and watched the lights flashing like toys in the distance. It seemed like every cop in Tongu wanted in on the action and they streamed down the road one after the other.
"They found him," Lloyd said.
"Maybe he called them," I said.
"Or somebody saw us."
"Chill out," Tanya said. "It might not be about him at all."
We were nearly abeam of the American Pacific Hotel, and we watched as the cop cars disappeared around the corner, waited to see if the lights would appear again on the far side of the harbor. The sirens were muted by the headland between us.
"I think they stopped in Bu'ulita," said Tanya, still looking through the binoculars.
"See, I told you," Lloyd said. "Can't you make this thing go any faster?"
Plumbelly was already charging along like a pony in full gallop.
"She is not a thing," I said. "And she's doing great."
"He, she, it; whatever. The Coast Guard boat probably goes twenty knots."
"Nobody's going to come chasing after us for days."
"They might when they find out about the collection money," Lloyd said.
Tanya put down the binoculars. We both stared at him.
"That package I got from the house," he said. "It's six grand in small bills, from the church."
"What the hell were you thinking, Lloyd?" Tanya asked.
"Don't even start, princess. You're the precious cargo everybody's going to be looking for."
"They're not going to figure out I'm gone 'til sometime tomorrow and they won't know I'm with you guys, even then. They'll think I went to the beach or something."
"And they won't know the money's missing 'til Sunday," Lloyd added.
"They'll come after us when they come after us," I said, "and we'll be long gone."
Plumbelly shouldered her way into a larger wave, sending spray over the bow and washing down the side deck. Her motion was fluid and powerful for such a small boat. Spray from the bow wave drifted over the cockpit, wetting our faces with a salty mist.CHAPTER 2
Mr. Malo was enjoying the whole thing, beckoning each victim to the front of the classroom with a crooked finger, holding them by the hair, their heads tilted back so they had to look up at him. Then he whipped their faces with a steel drafting ruler, twice each side, leaving red welts on their dark cheeks. The ruler made a slight whistle as it flexed in mid-air before landing with a flat slap that started tears from most of the kids. Then he had them turn around and bend over Mr. Letoa's desk so he could whack them three or four times with the cricket bat he brought to the class just for that purpose. A Ma'atean cricket bat is nothing like the paddles the English use. Longer than a baseball bat, the business end is thick and triangular. Mr. Malo studied the flex of the ruler, swung the bat with relish. Like most Ma'ateans, he was black-haired and thick-legged, with a chest like an oil drum.
I sat in the front row and watched my classmates taking their beatings, shuffling back to their seats, blinking downcast eyes. Finally, when the last student was disciplined, Mr. Malo sauntered back to his office, carrying the cricket bat on his shoulder like a war club, leaving only me unscathed. I didn't need to turn around to know that all the kids were staring at the back of my blond head, dark brown eyes narrowed and venomous. If only I had gone outside during recess and stood with them after the bell rang while they ignored old Mr. Letoa, defying his orders to come back in for class. I wished that my face were whipped and salty with tears and that my ass stung so I had trouble sitting. The eighth graders had just become initiates in an exclusive club of which I would now never become a member.
I hadn't been out for recess in months. I hated playing the brutal rounds of dodgeball or tackle football with the Ma'atean boys, and only the fa'afafinis jumped rope or played hopscotch with the girls, so I usually stayed at my desk and did my homework. When Mr. Letoa called the principal to report the eighth grade rebellion, I was the only one inside the classroom and now I was a marked man.
Mr. Letoa began to mumble the lesson in Language Arts. I slouched low in my seat, ignoring the burning stares and the occasional spitball that bounced off my neck. In unison, we repeated the words the teacher said in his broken English:
"The Ma'atean use the umu."
"Umu!" we recited.
"The palagi use the oh-ven."
"Oh-ven!" we said.
At the end of the school day I tried to slip out with the crowd, keeping my friend Salofi between me and the boys from my class who were close on my heels. He was a big kid, hulking and fat in the solid way that Ma'ateans can be when they grow up on fast food. Salofi tolerated me because he had lived in Chicago for a while, his English was good, and he was used to white kids. But on this day he turned on me.
"Don't hide behind me, man," he said.
"I didn't do anything, Salofi."
"The problem is," he said slowly, "I'm a Ma'atean and you're a palagi."
He stopped so I had to step off the sidewalk to get around him. I caught up to Teoni, but Salofi shouted at us.
"Drop the palagi, Teoni," he said and Teoni turned away from me.
The kids spread out along the paved road skirting the harbor, walking toward Bu'ulita. Two miles down the length of the harbor, I could see a massive afternoon trade wind cloud spilling over the sheer face of Fa'atui. The mountain tore the bottom out of the heavy cloud and dumped rain so thick it obscured everything in its path. The squall swept across the water towards us.
Two boys came up close behind me.
"Ka'ulevale," said the bigger one, "you wanna fight?"
"Can't right now," I said, "my Dad's waiting for me."
This usually worked, but not today.
"I said, ka'ulevale, white boy."
I kept walking.
"We seen you laughin' today and we gonna fuck you up, palagi." He held half a coconut shell in one hand and his partner held a short piece of coral the size of a cudgel.
"I wasn't laughing, man. I hate Mr. Malo, too," I said.
"Then how come he don't beat you?"
Raindrops the size of grapes began to smack the paving and I held my book bag over my head. Just ahead of us, a pickup truck slowed to pick up group of hitchhiking kids. The rainsquall struck in earnest, coming down so hard I could hardly see my hand in front of me. It was as good an excuse to run as any. I sprinted for the truck and jumped over the tailgate just as it started to pull away, landing at the feet of the kids who had sat down on the truck bed in the lee of the cab.
"Get your own ride next time, palagi," one of them said.
He cuffed me hard on the side of my head and sent me slithering to the back of the truck. My ear burned and I covered it with one hand and looked out into the thick warm rain as the truck sped along the road. The boys who wanted to fight had disappeared behind us. I said nothing and the kids in the truck ignored me.
The squall blew over and the tropical sun burnt through again, sending a rainbow across the mountains ringing the harbor. I banged on the side of the truck and the driver let me climb out. I walked down to the crumbling concrete wharf of the pumping station, tossed my book bag in the dinghy, and lay back on a thwart, waiting for Armin. Before long he came down the wharf, soaking wet but confident. He was a little shorter than me, but stocky, athletic.
"Heard you weaseled today," he said.
"You know that's not what happened."
"Just what people were saying."
"Give me a fucking break, Armin."
He cast off the bow line and got in the stern of the skiff. We were both brown from two years in the tropics, but he was different now after ten months in Tongu Tongu. He had been my little brother and my best friend. Now he talked like English was his second language and I even heard him challenge a kid to a fight once. He and his buddies climbed mango trees near the road and tossed pits and taunts at palagis walking underneath.
Manamea was the half-white queen of the eighth grade and she hated me because I was whiter than her. She was as tall as the teachers and had a mane of black hair of which she was insanely proud because it wasn't kinky like all the other girls'. The rest of the kids she could boss around, and the teachers too, but she didn't know what to do with me. I wouldn't join her in her conviction that our lighter skin gave us the right to dominate the class. It didn't help that with me in school she was no longer the top student.
"Hey faf," she said one day, "let's see your report card."
Her entourage of girls gathered around on the playground.
"It's none of your business," I said.
"What, the teacher's pet isn't as smart as he thinks?"
"What else you got that's private," she said, waving her pinky finger like a little limp dick.
The girls laughed. She grabbed the waist of my lavalava and yanked, briefly exposing my forlorn pubescent genitals, but I held onto the elastic of my tighty-whiteys and squirmed away. The girls shrieked with laughter.
"Smooth like a baby," she taunted.
Manamea looked at me, then turned on her heel and strode toward the classroom, her head held up in an attitude of wounded dignity. I followed on her heels into the fale.
"He swore at me," she said to the teacher. "He used the f-word."
She managed a tear.
"Oh Gabe, did you really?" asked Mr. Thompson, in his soft Georgian drawl.
He had recently served two tours in Vietnam and was another fish out of water here in Tongu Tongu.
"Yeah," I said. "Copulation is a fact of nature."
Manamea let her jaw drop theatrically.
"I'm going to have to send you to Mr. Malo," he said, gently touching my arm.
I pulled my arm away.
"You know the rules about profanity," he said. "I can't play favorites, Gabe."
Manamea smiled and sat down at her desk as the class filed in.
I walked slowly among the little buildings that made up Tongu School, wending my way toward Mr. Malo's office. The school was laid out like a fantasy Polynesian village, each classroom its own oval-shaped fale with open screen walls and a palm thatched roof. Connecting the rooms were shady thatched breezeways. Trade winds wafted through, easing the heat of the equatorial sun. From a distance, the school looked like a tropical resort, but close up the fale were a little grimy, the grass around them flattened, the pathways beaten earth. The American flag at the front gate looked faded.
"I will not tolerate cursing in my school," said Mr. Malo from behind his desk.
"Yes sir, Mr. Malo, but she tried to pull down my lavalava."
"Most boys would take that as a complement."
He laughed. I looked at the floor.
"You have a choice," he said. "I can notify your parents or I can give you the bat."
My father had a foul mouth himself, but didn't tolerate the rest of us swearing.
"I'll take the bat," I said.
Mr. Malo looked startled and, for a second, even fearful.
"You sure?" he said, glancing at his cricket bat leaning against the wall behind him.
"Yes, sir," I said.
Mr. Malo took a breath, thinking it over. I don't think he'd ever disciplined a palagi before, but finally he stood up and hefted his bat. I bent over the end of his desk. The first stroke smarted and the second stung enough to bring tears to my eyes. The third knocked me off balance and I crumpled against his desk. Mr. Malo faked another swing at me, but checked it in mid-air.
"Get up," he said, and he leaned the cricket bat against the wall.
He watched me limp to the door, massaging my knee where it had smacked into his desk.
"Too bad for you nobody saw," he said. "They might like you better."
Tongu School was all the way down the harbor in the old village where the Ma'ateans first settled the island. They had named their town Tongu, which meant "Many Houses." When the village grew beyond the floodplain, they re-named it Tongu Tongu, which meant "Many, Many Houses." Thousand foot mountains rise from the shoreline, leaving only narrow, coral shelves at sea level and a few valleys and lower hills on which to build a civilization. It's no wonder the Ma'ateans set out in their huge canoes to conquer the rest of the South Pacific.
The museum in Bu'ulita had one of these oceangoing canoes, as well as a collection of weapons from those days. Armin and I liked to skateboard on the big sidewalks of the Fono Building and, if it rained, we'd shelter in the museum, examining the glass cases full of wooden maces with spiky heads carved on the ends of ironwood bats, hardwood swords with shark's teeth lashed along the edges, delicate brain forks for feasting on off-islanders. It wasn't hard to imagine being at the wrong end of one of those weapons and ending up as chunks of meat in the soup pot.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Plumbelly"
Copyright © 2018 Gary Maynard.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a tuly remarkable first novel, unusual, poetic and yet fast-paced and compelling. It brought me to a whole different world and I did not want to leave. The characters come alive through sharp and playful dialogue, and the setting is richly described. The sailing scenes are positively lyrical and steeped in authentic detail and I felt for days afterward that I was still at sea in the remote South Pacific with these likable characters. I was sad when the adventure was over. You will not put this book down!