Puko’o was a disaster. The project was an eyesore with its sand and coral hills, stacks of diesel cans, and lava mounds from ancient walls. Bullet holes riddled the Sam Fong Construction sign. My father threatened to sue Sam for missed deadlines. He was furious upon discovering the construction boss had neglected to cut a trench that would have prevented storms from turning the highway into a river. It wasn’t long before Sam waved the white flag and fled to Hong Kong with his mistress. Daddyo took advantage—he purchased all the heavy equipment at auction, including dump trucks, end loaders, a crane, and the dredge. He rented the equipment to Matayoshi Limited, a Kaunakakai company his Canadian partners paid to mop up.
Troy, my big brother, and I took turns accompanying our father over to Moloka’i. My time rolled around and I flew over the island’s Kiawe coastline sitting behind Daddyo. Our Cessna landed at Hoolehua Airport. I lugged out a box of tools and my father cradled a roll of meshed polyurethane meant for his waterfall. He wanted to transform the fishpond into a sprawling resort of Polynesian-style bungalows, pools, and tennis courts. We hustled over the tarmac.
My grandmother waited behind Gate #1 wearing ranch clothes, cowboy boots, and a grouchy face. “Early, Buddy,” she said.
“Pilot forgot our damn luggage,” my father told her.
“Fo’ the luva Pete,” she frowned. “Wheah the bloody hell is it?”
“Back in Honolulu.”
Daddyo approached the counter girl and demanded our suitcases be driven out to the ranch the second they arrived. She paged the pilot. He reassured us that the luggage would be at our doorstep the following morning.
My father snatched the keys from my grandmother and I followed him out to the lot. We stuck our supplies in the Scout’s bed and Gramma got into the cab. I hopped up on the bumper and swung in my legs. Daddyo drove alongside the pineapple fields and I could see the greenish-yellow globes of fruit. Picking time was close. I studied Gramma through the rear window: she looked small and weathered. The wrinkles in her face went deep and her skin was the color of old newspaper. She pulled a cigarette from her pack, lit it, and nodded while my father ranted.
Lupe barked when we rolled up the incline fronting the beach house. My father headed for the pastures with Lupe trotting along. Daddyo avoided petting him but that dog knew who was the boss.
I held the front door open for my grandmother. She had me wait in the parlor and disappeared into the back room. She returned wearing a yellow housedress and terrycloth slippers. Her back was hunched.
“Need help in da kitchen, Peanut.”
I broke ice cubes free of their trays and poured kibble from a bag into a plastic garbage can. “Weak as a bloody cat,” she said, handing me a pickle jar she couldn’t open. I wondered if her decline coincided with signing over the ranch to my father in exchange for a promise of $500 a month. I knew she felt guilty for not splitting her ahupua’a equally between her two sons.
Daddyo joined us in the kitchen. “Your Valdez is one lazy buggah,” he groused. He rifled through the cupboards and gave Gramma a tongue-lashing for not buying more gin. He balled her out for being too lenient with the ranch hand. She remained silent. She’d told me his tirades were “just blowin’ off steam” and said she’d learned the hard way never to challenge him.
After chop suey dinner on the lanai, we retreated to the parlor. This was the largest room in the beach house, one doubling as living room and spare bedroom. It was decorated with an eclectic mix of art, everything from a copper cistern with Chinese markings to hand-stitched murals of peacocks and roosters. A TV played the track and field try-outs for the Summer Olympics. I sprawled across the pune’e I’d shared with Gramma and Troy small kid time. Daddyo melted into his Lazy Boy. He swilled a martini from a water glass, resting the glass on an end table with a faux marble top. Gramma sat on a cushioned chair on the western side of a picture frame window. Every morning, she’d camp there to survey the pastureland and the red scar of road that led to the mountain house. She felt my mother had spoiled me. She liked to tell me about Daddyo’s Kaimuki childhood, stories about him being beaten by the gentleman boarder, rarely getting enough to eat, and sharing a toilet with ten other people. Perhaps she felt that by sharing these agonies I’d wake up and appreciate how much I had. Instead, I blamed Gramma for allowing my father to be raised by her impoverished mother.
Gramma smoked through a chrome holder. She sucked hard to fill her lungs because a filter blocked most of the tar and nicotine. She made up for the lost drug by lighting up more. She tapped her cigarette against a copper can on the table, knocked the head off her ashes, and studied me through her bifocals. “Why aren’t you in da Olympics, Peanut?”
“I’m lousy at sports,” I replied.
My father shook his glass and the cubes rattled. “Ha,” he said. “I know the real reason.”
“Wot’s dat, Buddy?”
“Kirby’s gotta lazy streak a mile wide.”
My grandmother rarely attacked me when we were alone. Something about having her son in the same room brought out the worst in her, giving her the green light to tear into me or anyone who aggravated my father.
“Were you in the Olympics?” I asked Daddyo.
“I was good at the hurdles,” he answered. “Took third at the state championship.”
“That’s a far cry from the Olympics.”
Gramma cleared her throat. “Yo’ fathah was off fightin’ a world war.”
“Not in high school,” I told her.
“Kirby,” my father said, “why don’t you try out for track and field at Punahou?”
“Maybe I will.”
“I’m not holding my breath.”
Gramma coughed. “Heard yo’ grades are terrible,” she said.
“I get Bs and Cs.”
“Don’t you study?”
“Yeah. I study lots.”
Daddyo lifted his leg and farted. “Good colleges won’t want ‘im, mother.”
“Christ, wot’ll Peanut do?”
“Become a clerk.”
I sat up on the pune’e. “Do clerks make decent money?”
“No,” Daddyo answered.
“Doesn’t Mom’s brother clerk at Mass Envelope?”
“He sure does. That’s why your Uncle Harold lives in a tiny apartment with no family and can only afford a cat for company. He badgers your mother for money.”
Gramma knocked off a new ash head. “Puah keed won’t have a pot to pee in.” She accused Troy of being “a pakalolo fiend” because his eyes looked glassy. “How’s that big horse?” she asked, referring to my mother. She called my kid sis Jen “a lil skeleton” and said she’d heard the big horse dragged the lil skeleton all over town on shopping sprees.
Daddyo called my brother “a bum and a mahu” and my mother “a shopaholic.” He told Gramma that Jen ate with her mouth open and “smacked her lips like a goddamn pig.”
Gramma sucked and blew smoke through her nose. A tobacco cloud rolled over the table.
Saturday was barbecue day. My father told me to stand watch over the hibachi after he lit the fire. The LA Rams, my favorite team, were playing his San Francisco 49ers in the parlor. We’d just returned from Puko’o. Visiting the project had been excruciating, with me following Daddyo as he scoured the grounds. He’d discovered drums leaking diesel, a dredge with a shattered jaw, and a trench cut too shallow. “Lazy goddamn bastards,” he’d mumbled.
I crept onto the lanai and peeked in at the game through the screen. Daddyo sat in his Lazy Boy gulping Miller High Life. Gramma sat in her usual window spot. The 49ers fumbled. The Rams recovered.
“Chrissakes,” my father said.
“Brodie’s got buttah fingahs,” Gramma said.
“Go, Ramies!” I cheered.
Daddyo turned. “Told you to watch that fire.”
“I can watch the fire and the game at the same time.”
“You heard me.”
“Let yoah boy watch da game,” Gramma said.
“No, mother. He needs to learn how to follow orders.”
My heart pounded. “The 49ers suck,” I blurted, “and you do too.”
Daddyo slammed his bottle down on the end table, swung open the screen door, and charged down the steps. I escaped through an open storm window as he raced for the back door. I fell when my slipper caught a root. My father lunged. I rolled out of his reach, sprung to my feet, and hurdled through the naupaka. Lupe ran beside me down to the beach while my father plowed through the shoreline shrubs. He gave chase over the sand.
“Stop,” Daddyo said, “you lil coward!”
I was fourteen and small for my age but I’d had enough. I quit running. I spotted a thick kiawe branch lined with thorns, picked it up, and held it up like a bat. “Let’s go, Daddyo.”
My father kept ten feet between us. We were the same height but he outweighed me by a good forty pounds. Most of his extra weight was fat, not muscle. His glasses slipped down over the bridge of his nose. He pushed them back up. He looked vulnerable in an undershirt with holes, stained shorts, and old man sandals. He straightened his back. “Now put that down, Kirby,” he said. “That’s not a fair fight.”
“You’re bigger than me.”
“Hit me with that and I’ll lambaste you.”
I swung at the air. “Come on, Mister High Jumper. Let’s see what you got. Try jumping over this kiawe after I swing.”
Daddyo checked his watch. He turned around and headed back to the beach house.
“You’re the fuckin’ coward!” I called after him.
My father peeled open a path through the naupaka and vanished in the hibachi smoke. I stuck my slippers on a boulder and dug my toes in the sand. I wanted to beef my father when we were both fourteen. We’d fight in a steel cage. I threw down the kiawe, picked up my slippers, and headed east.
Lupe chased a plover along the shore. He only gave up when the bird flew out to sea. A cigar-shaped bar of sand lay warm and dry above the waves slamming against the reef. I knew that bar would soon be underwater.
I followed the edge of the ironwood forest to Kainalu Stream. A sand wedge dammed its mouth. An aquamarine channel cut through the reef. Fresh water had seeped into the ocean and killed the coral. Sharks and ulua followed this path to reach fish schooling in the shallows.
I waded out to the sand bar and gazed back as waves rolled over my prints. I surprised a blue crab and it spread its claws. This had been the magic spot small kid time, when my father was proud of me for catching the ulua.
I returned to shore. Lupe trotted home. I put on my slippers and entered the forest. Needles and tiny pinecones crunched below. I spotted a boy dipping his spear into the stream’s tea-colored water. A girl was with him.
“No mo’ fish,” the girl told him, “only get crab.”
“We go reef,” the boy said.
I reached Chipper’s shack. It was a collection of driftwood, irregular pieces of lumber, and corrugated steel panels he’d found on shore. Chipper and I shared no blood. He’d owned Hale Kawaikapu in the beginning but lost everything drinking and chasing wahines. Gramma had made mortgage with kala earned driving cattle and weaving lauhala. The divorce papers gave her the ranch in exchange for Chipper’s life estate and five grand for a house. He’d built a bungalow with bay windows but burned it to the ground smoking in bed.
I ducked under a laundry cord strung between papaya trees. The ax side of a pickax was stuck in the ground, the pick facing up. Coconut husks were scattered around. Chipper stood in a patch of jasmine wearing jeans and a green cap. His chest was red from the sun. He held a rattrap in one hand and coconut meat in the other.
“Howzit, Uncle Chipper.”
He examined the trap. “Tell Gramma dat tripe stew stay ono.”
“Catching any rats?”
“Mongoose stealin’ my bait,” he said. He attached the meat to the barb on his trap’s trigger. “Locals doin’ good job Puko’o side?”
“My father says they’re all lazy.”
Chipper pulled a length of catgut from his pocket, wound it around the hooked meat, and cut the line, sawing it against his teeth. “Kanakas born lazy,” he replied.
I said good-bye and fast-walked past a dump that smelled like death. I reached the old ironwood used for butchering deer, headed north through the pasture, and crossed the highway. I found the stone wall marking the eastern boundary of our ahupua’a.
I climbed through the underbrush and smelled the pungent aroma of guava. I remembered hiking beside my father and with small kids named Mercury and Dodge. All the Dudoit boys had been named after cars, even the girls. The brothers had led us up to the falls and hiked back down with us. They’d been great company. “Aloha, boys,” Daddyo’d said upon setting foot on the highway. The Dudoits had watched us ease through the fence line. Our mares had ambled over to welcome us back, including my father’s prize Arabian. “I like dollah!” Mercury’d called from the road, his hands tugging the top strand of wire. Dodge had waved with both hands. “I like dollar too!” My father had turned to face the boys—he buried his hands in the pockets of his shorts, pulled out the white linings, and said, “No mo’ dollah.” I’d wanted to run ahead and return with money from Gramma but lost my nerve watching my father march to the beach house. I’d heard a cry and looked back—the brothers were pelting the Arabian with gravel.
I followed the wall up. Clouds hid the sun. The yellow lilikoi on the ground looked like tennis balls. I kicked one into the stream and the water carried it off. I reached a web of ferns and pulled back on a frond. There, carved in the face of a lava boulder, was a petroglyph of a warrior. His body was thick with muscle. His legs were spread wide, as if claiming the universe. Energy bolts erupted from each bicep and fused over his head. This was the Rainbow Warrior, a superhuman blessed with the mana to conquer islands.
Kirby Wright received the 2018 Redwood Empire Mensa Award for a coming of age story set at his grandmother’s Moloka’i ranch. He also won Best Treatment for an animated series at the 2018 Script And Storyboard Showcase in Hollywood.