© Copyright 2005 by Kirby Wright
The postcard from Harold Wilkinson arrived two days after my grandmother said she was through with men. I was on summer vacation and I'd hiked up to the public road that day to check the mailbox and found a picture of the ritzy Sausalito waterfront with the message:
I will be visiting your island next week and plan on looking you up. Can't believe how time flies! I understand you have quite a spread on the eastern side of Moloka'i. I'll drive out from the airport so we can catch up on old times.
With Deepest Love and Affection,
"Damn puhi'u," Gramma said after squinting at it. Then she pulled out a big magnifying glass and held it over the words. The wrinkles in her face seemed to go deeper as she read and, when she was finished, she tucked the postcard between the pages of her Bible. Despite Gramma's negative reaction to the postcard, she pulled the Val Pak out of her closet and started trying on her "Honolulu clothes," outfits she only wore in the big city on special occasions like weddings and funerals. I knew she was curious about how Wilkinson had held up over the years and I think she wanted him to visit her to see for himself how successful she'd become. I don't believe she had any intention of telling him she'd already signed the ranch over to my father and really had nothing more than a life estate and a small monthly income. Gramma swore she'd spank my big brother Barry and me with her bamboo stick if we told anyone about the postcard. Even though we were both in junior high and too big for spankings, I knew Gramma was deadly serious about keeping a lid on things. She realized entertaining her first love would hurt my father if he found out because Wilkinson had never bothered to contact him over the years. I didn't mind being the keeper of Gramma's secrets. There were things she'd shared with me that she hadn't told Barry and I cherished each and every secret like a treasure. At times I felt closer to Gramma than my mother and I didn't want to do anything that might jeopardize our relationship. I needed a mother during the summers and Gramma filled that need by sharing her past and teaching me to love the aina. "Keep quiet about Wilkinson," she told Barry and me.
"Can't we tell Daddy?" asked Barry.
"Ya’d be openin’ a can of worms."
“But isn’t Wilkinson his real father?” I asked.
Gramma winced. “Yoa fatha hates Wilkinson foa leavin’.”
"What about Uncle Chipper?" Barry continued.
"Especially not him."
"How come?" I asked.
"I don't want Chippa tryin' any funny business."
"What kind of business is that?"
"Neva ya mind."
Barry laughed. "Gramma thinks Chipper's going to gut the lousy coward."
"Kulikuli," Gramma said.
* * *
It was a Friday afternoon when Wilkinson called Gramma from Hoolehua Airport to say he was heading east. The first man she’d ever loved but hadn't seen for half a century was only an hour's drive away. Gramma seemed stunned after hanging up the phone but then went into a cleaning frenzy that included washing the windows, mopping down the tiles on the lanai, and even picking ticks off her poi dogs Leo and Spotty.
"Ya kids help out," she said.
Barry vacuumed the house while I scrubbed the toilet and polished the chrome fixtures in the sinks and the shower. Our contribution gave Gramma time to decide on an outfit and to put on some makeup. She settled on a black and white checkered dress, a string of pearls, and a pair of black heels. She put on red lipstick, blue eye shadow, and used mascara to fatten her lashes. She was a quarter Hawaiian but the only thing that made her appear different from a white woman were her slanted eyes. She opened her perfume bottle and dabbed Chanel #5 behind her ears and on her wrists. By the time Barry and I had finished our cleaning duties, she looked and smelled like she was ready to entertain the Prince of Wales.
"How does Gramma look?" she asked me.
"Like a million bucks," I replied.
* * *
I watched for signs of Wilkinson through the picture frame window in the beach house. Gramma was still getting ready and Barry was at the table surveying the pasture through a pair of binoculars. He was a year older than me and he had the blond hair and green eyes of our Irish mother. I looked local because I had our father’s ruddy complexion and dark brown eyes. Our father sent Barry and me over to Gramma’s ranch every summer because he thought our mother spoiled us during the school year in Honolulu. I heard an engine and an orange Datsun compact veered off the dirt road that led to Chipper's shack. It zipped past the big Norfolk pine and headed for the beach house.
"He's here!" Barry called out.
Gramma rushed out of her bedroom holding an eyeliner pencil. She peered through the picture frame window in her dining room. "Ya kids sit on the pune'e and mind yoa Ps and Qs." "I thought you hated Wilkinson," Barry said.
"Pa’a the waha," Gramma scolded before darting back to her bedroom.
Leo and Spotty intercepted the Datsun and barked ferociously as it eased up the knoll. Leo stood right in front of it and Wilkinson had to toot to get him to move out of the way. Wilkinson parked on the slope next to Gramma's jeep and opened his door cautiously. Leo and Spotty circled the Datsun and sniffed its tires. Wilkinson climbed out. His hair was silver and it was slicked back. He wore a white suit with a blue tie and carried a grocery bag over the pockmarked lawn. Leo and Spotty barked as he closed in on the beach house. When Wilkinson was a few feet away from the doorstep, Barry flopped on the pune'e and I sat down beside him. He punched me in the shoulder for good measure and I punched him back. Gramma returned to the dining room and walked awkwardly across the floorboards in her heels. She swung open the screen door just as Wilkinson was about to knock. "Aloha, Harold," she said, "long time, no see!"
"Isn't that the god's truth," Wilkinson said with an English accent. He reached forward and hugged Gramma on the doorstep. "Oh, Julia," he said, "you're just as beautiful as the day we met at Aloha Tower."
"I'll bet," Barry whispered.
Wilkinson came in and the screen door slammed behind him. He had blue eyes, a long thin nose, and a narrow jaw. His hair had blond streaks in it and he was about my father's height. He was in good shape for his age and was built like a dancer. "Ah," he said when he saw Barry and me, "these must be your grandsons."
"Come meet Mistah Wilkinson," Gramma told us.
Barry and I popped off the pune'e and stepped forward. I could tell he favored Barry right away because Barry shared his refined features. We introduced ourselves and shook Wilkinson' free hand. "You certainly are a pair of fine young lads," he said. His palms and fingers felt soft and his shake was neither strong nor weak. He smelled cool and citrusy, like a basket full of limes and lemons. I asked if he was from London and he said he was born and raised in Nelson, a town named after a famous English admiral. He reminded me of an aging movie star who still had one foot in the door. There was something about him that said he'd led a charmed life, a life full of wine, women, and song. He placed his grocery bag on the dining room table. His fingernails were as shiny as cowrie shells. He reached into the bag and pulled out a dark green bottle of Tanquerey gin, a carton of orange juice, two packs of Salem menthol cigarettes, and a can of mixed nuts. Gramma had never let anyone unload groceries on her table before but she was letting Wilkinson do what he wanted. He knew everything about Gramma because his big brother Fergus had married her sister Sue in Honolulu a month after he'd left for San Francisco. Fergus and Sue had moved to Oregon and Harold was a frequent guest. And Gramma had found out the latest about him whenever she phoned Sue. Just what Sue had told her I didn't know but once I'd heard Gramma say "Harold Wilkinson" and then giggle like a schoolgirl.
"Julia," Wilkinson said, "fetch us a pair of glasses."
"Alright," Gramma said and disappeared into the kitchen.
When she was gone, Wilkinson studied Barry and me. "I understand your father is a trial attorney in Honolulu."
"Yes," Barry and I answered.
He popped the lid on the mixed nuts and held the can out.
"No, thanks," said Barry.
"Yeah," I said, "we're stuffed from fish and poi."
"Right-o," said Wilkinson. "Is your father a pleasant man?"
"Very pleasant," Barry replied.
I nodded. "He's the pleasantest father a kid could have," I said, "and he's never run off."
Wilkinson smirked. "Clever boy.”
Gramma returned with two glasses and Wilkinson unscrewed the cap from the bottle of gin and filled each glass a quarter of the way. I could smell the gin from where I was sitting—it smelled like rubbing alcohol. I knew gin was powerful because my father used the same thing in his martinis. "I'm concocting your favorite inebriation from the old days," Wilkinson announced.
"What's that?" asked Gramma.
"Why Julia, don't you remember your drink at the Hale Kuelani? I'm making orange blossoms."
"How nice," said Gramma. She motioned for Barry and me to return to the pune'e and Barry shook his head. Gramma glared at him and that was enough to get us back. Wilkinson pried open the carton of orange juice and poured until the glasses were full. He picked up one of the glasses and handed it to Gramma. Then he took the other and raised it.
"To memories that never fade," he said and clinked his glass against hers.
Gramma smiled her fake smile and sipped her drink. Then she sat down at the table with Wilkinson. Wilkinson turned his chair sideways so that he faced Barry and me. He told us about dating a socialite in San Francisco who was a close friend of Gianini, the founder of the Bank of America. There were lavish parties on yachts, sipping champagne out of the slippers of Hollywood starlets, and run-ins with bootleggers at Half Moon Bay. Wilkinson claimed he had put on the gloves against Ernest Hemingway at the Sutro Baths and "thrashed him soundly." After his relationship with the socialite fizzled, he bought a winery in Napa Valley and married a Mexican girl who funneled all of the winery’s profits to her lover. He was forced to declare bankruptcy and the girl ran off. He started painting homes in Sausalito to make ends meet and rented a tiny apartment a stone's throw from the Valhalla restaurant. The Valhalla was owned by a retired madam named Sally Stanford and it wasn't long before they became good friends. Wilkinson had helped manage her third run for mayor and, after Sally won, she rewarded him with a deed to a sprawling estate on Sausalito's south shore. The more Wilkinson talked, the more Gramma seemed to get drawn in by his accent and his adventurous life. She didn't get in a word edgewise but didn't seem to mind. After twenty minutes, nearly half her orange blossom was gone and her eyes looked glazed.
Barry nudged me with his elbow. "Gramma's getting drunk," he whispered.
"I know," I whispered back.
"What should we do?"
"Go get Uncle Chipper."
"You go and I'll keep an eye on them."
I excused myself and walked nonchalantly out to the lanai. I slipped through the back door and jogged around the beach house using the wide hala trees for cover. I jogged past the cottage my father had built and wondered how much of Wilkinson was in me and whether I’d leave a girl if I got her pregnant. I started sprinting the three hundred yards from the beach house to Chipper's shack, running like a madman between the dirt road and the ironwood forest. Leo and Spotty ran with me and racing them made me run faster. Chipper had been Gramma’s first try at marriage and, after they divorced, she gave him a life estate on the banks of her swamp. Both had battled the demons of alcoholism but only Gramma’d had the courage to give up the bottle.
I ran past the last ironwood and reached the shack's porch. Chipper’s old Impala sat in a makeshift garage with a blue tarp roof. I rapped my knuckles on the metal frame of the screen door as I caught my breath. The screen bowed in the middle like the sail of a ship because it was separating from the frame. "Uncle Chipper," I called, "Uncle Chipper!"
"What the hell?" came Chipper's voice from another room.
"Hurry, Uncle Chipper!"
The door to the bathroom opened and Chipper stuck his head out. "Hurry? Hurry foa what?"
"Harold Wilkinson’s with Gramma."
"So the hell what."
"He's making her drink gin!"
Chipper ducked back into the bathroom and he shut the door. The toilet flushed and Chipper came out wearing only a pair of BVDs. His gray stubble looked like splinters in his face and he smelled like he hadn't showered in weeks. He stood barefoot on his cement floor next to a clump of rotting bananas hanging off a rope. The rope was attached to a hook nailed to the ceiling. He hung food on the rope so rats wouldn’t get it. "Whacha want me to do?" Chipper asked.
"Tell Gramma you still love her."
Chipper hobbled over to the door and stared out over my shoulder into the yard. It was as if he was trying to see the beach house through the branches of his ironwood. "Can't do that," he said.
"Brownie don’t want me to love her anymoah."
"How do you know?"
"She divorced me, didn't she?"
"She told me part of her still loves you."
"When was that?”
“In the Scout last week, on our way to buy chicken manure.” “Bullshit."
"Can you please tell her to quit drinking, Uncle Chipper? My father'll have a fit if he finds out."
"Guess I could do that ova the phone."
"No," I said, "not over the phone! Wilkinson has her under his spell and you've gotta come over."
"Okay, okay already. I'll drop by."
"Can you please shower and shave and put on some nice clothes?"
"That'll take half the god damn day."
"The sooner you come," I told him, "the sooner Gramma can get rid of that pest."
Chipper promised to clean up and I jogged back with the dogs. I saw Barry outside the cottage and Leo ran to him.
"Tell Chipper?" Barry asked as he patted Leo.
I nodded. "Chipper's on his way. How come you split?"
"Gramma told me to beat it ‘cause she wants to be alone with Wilkinson. You won't believe the latest."
"Go take a look."
I ran back to the beach house. Spotty came with me and we headed around to the lanai, where I swung my legs over the frame of an open storm window. Spotty jumped up and balanced on the window ledge. The radio was blaring in the dining room and I heard heels clicking on the floor and laughter. I peered in through the window on the lanai—Gramma was dancing with Wilkinson to Irving Berlin’s "My Sweetie." The glasses on the table were nearly empty. I was surprised how light Gramma was on her feet. Her face looked ten years younger as he held her close and led her around the room. The song ended and they picked up their drinks and polished them off.
"Ah," said Wilkinson, "let's have another, Julia."
I raced across the lanai, bounded up the stairs to the kitchen, and entered the dining room. My grandmother was practicing her kick from her days dancing for the Zeigfield Follies at Ala Park in Honolulu. "Gramma!" I said.
"What is it, Peanut?"
"You shouldn't be drinking."
Gramma quit kicking and frowned at me like I was a party pooper.
"Nonsense, young lad," said Wilkinson as he lit a Salem cigarette, "she only had a little toot." He poured a generous amount of gin into both glasses and topped them off with floaters of orange juice.
"Go down to the beach and bring yoa pole," Gramma said, "catch us a nice big ulua foa dinna."
"Brilliant!" Wilkinson said.
I stared at Gramma. "You just wanna be alone with Wilkinson and his dumb gin.”
Wilkinson puffed his cigarette and blew out a cloud of smoke. "Be a clever boy and listen to your elders."
Then I heard the Impala rumbling. Chipper had told me his car had eight cylinders but only six were firing. I stood up and looked out the window just as Barry came in. Chipper parked the Impala behind the jeep and climbed out. He was wearing a beige cowboy hat with a wrinkled brim and a maroon leisure suit that hung off of him like a tent. When he got closer I could tell that he'd shaven because he has toilet paper covering the spots where he'd cut himself with his straight edge.
"Who's this poor devil?" Wilkinson asked.
"That's my Uncle Chipper," I piped up.
Wilkinson took a long drag on his cigarette. "So this is the famous Chipper Gilman, I presume?"
Gramma looked embarrassed. She finally nodded as Chipper hobbled up the rise between the jeep and the Datsun. He wore a pair of rubber Tobbies to hide the toes he’d lost mowing his lawn when he was drunk. Gramma held the door open for Chipper and he came inside and shook hands with Wilkinson. Barry and I returned to the pune'e.
"How'd ya know I had a visitor?" Gramma asked.
"Li'l jugs have big ears," Chipper replied and winked in my direction.
Gramma turned and gave me a look that said I’d violated her sacred trust. "Foa the luva Pete," she said.
"May I fix you an orange blossom?" Wilkinson asked Chipper.
"A who?" asked Chipper.
"Gin and orange juice," Wilkinson replied, "one of Julia's favorites from way back."
"Ya gotta good memory, Harold," Chipper said. He sat down at the table and pulled out a gold hip flask. "Red eye's my tonic of choice.”
Gramma and Wilkinson sat down with Chipper and they all talked about the good old days hanging out in Waikiki as teenagers. Then Gramma brought up the Great War. She told Wilkinson how Chipper had won the British War Medal for saving the lives of English soldiers after volunteering to fight. Wilkinson started gulping his drink. The more she praised Chipper the more she seemed to resent Wilkinson. It was as if all the bad memories of her first lover were crowding in on her. Wilkinson congratulated Chipper but I could tell the war talk was making him uneasy because he crushed his cigarette against the side of an abalone shell on the table and then poured himself an orange blossom that was mostly gin. Wilkinson’ parents had paid for his safe passage to Hawaii so he wouldn’t have to fight in the war. He offered Gramma another drink but she said she'd had enough. I could tell her first orange blossom was wearing off because her fake smile was back on.
"So, Harold," Chipper said, "why didn't ya stay in Honolulu when ya found out Julia was hapai?"
Wilkinson ran a hand through his silver hair. "Well, old chap," he replied, "I was young then and wanted to see the world and not be tied down to a married man's life. It was wrong of me, terribly wrong, and heaven only knows how much Julia and my son must resent me. I have made many mistakes over the years, things I have come to regret. But life goes on and god above will not let me live my life over to make things right."
It was such a moving speech that the room went silent. But there was something about it that seemed rehearsed to me, as if he'd used it a few other times in his life. I wasn't about to let him off the hook. "You could've called or written my father," I blurted, "that was the least you could do. You treated him like he wasn't even born."
"Yeah," said Barry, "and you shoulda sent Gramma money."
Wilkinson bowed his head and nodded. "Yes," he said, "I should have done all those things. But I didn’t and for that I am truly sorry.”
"By the way," Chipper said, "where ya plan on spendin' the night?"
Wilkinson looked up. "Right here at the ranch, old chap."
"Did I say anythin' 'bout sleepin' ova?" Gramma asked.
"Well, I thought for old time's sake, after all these years, Julia."
Gramma frowned. “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.”
"Camp on my porch," Chipper offered. "Gotta ol' mattress I can drag out."
Wilkinson finished his drink and grabbed the bottle of gin. "Julia," he said, "may I please speak to you alone outside?"
"Shoo-ah," Gramma said and got up.
Wilkinson led the way and she followed him out. Leo and Spotty started barking again but Gramma shooed them away. Wilkinson put his gin bottle on the hood of the Datsun and he leaned against the door as he talked. Gramma was doing a lot of nodding.
"Whacha think he’s saying?" asked Barry.
"I dunno," I answered.
Chipper sipped from his flask. "Whatever it is," he said, "dat buggah's not givin' up."
An hour passed and Wilkinson was still talking. I didn't like him. All that "young lad" and "clever boy" talk was just part of his smoke screen to help woo Gramma. I doubted he owned the estate in Sausalito and I figured he was trying to butter Gramma up because he'd run out of wealthy women in Northern California. It hurt my feelings that he wouldn't recognize me as his grandson and now I was getting a taste of what my father had gone through all those years ago. Wilkinson wasn't really my grandfather because he could care less about me. I knew that if anyone deserved to be called my grandfather it was Chipper.
Wilkinson hugged Gramma and she gave him a peck on the cheek. He plucked the gin bottle off the hood and climbed into the driver’s seat. Gramma waved goodbye as the Datsun backed up. Wilkinson threw her a kiss and then sped away past the big Norfolk pine. Gramma just stood there staring at the road like a lovesick schoolgirl.
(January 11, 2005) Lemon Shark Press is pleased to announce the publication of Before the City, a collection of poems and prose poems by Honolulu poet Kirby Wright.
For more information visit the publisher's page
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Kirby's Story List and Biography