Mango Wars

Kirby Wright

Mango Wars

It was my mother's 45th birthday and I was alone in the house.  Mrs. Machado had just picked her up and taken her to the Muumuu Show at the Kahala Hilton.  Barry, my big brother, was hiking Diamond Head crater and my kid sister, Julie, was hanging out with her girlfriends around the block—they were a bratty gang obsessed with collecting Trolls and Liddle Kiddles.  I missed the days of pushing Julie in the stroller, feeding her in the high chair, and even changing her diapers.  She’d seemed as vulnerable as a Woolworth’s turtle.  But I knew it was good for her to be away from the house because our father was overly critical.  He’d told Julie at the dinner table to quit eating mango slices with her mouth open and she solved that problem by pretending to eat; after dinner, she retreated to her room and gorged herself on Cheetos and Famous Amos Cookies.  When I’d told her to just save her dinner and eat it later, she said she didn’t like our mother’s cooking anyway.  She would usually stay in her room and spend the hours before bedtime grinding crayons into coloring books.   

I wanted to kill time so I decided to spiff up the Plymouth Barracuda.  Barry always washed and waxed our mother's car on her birthday, but I wanted to beat him to the punch.  My mother took turns getting crushes on Barry, Julie, or me, depending on how much we’d done for her.  It reminded me of a horse race, with my brother and sister challenging me around turns and along straight-aways.  I’d given my mother a framed picture of Judy Garland before breakfast and she said it was one of the best gifts she’d ever received.  I knew I had the lead.     

I pulled on Barry’s faded green trunks with the hibiscus print and my father’s old V-neck undershirt; half my wardrobe consisted of hand-me-downs because I hated shopping for clothes.  The V-neck was soft from washings.  I found the plastic bucket in the garage, put in dish soap, and filled it with hot water from the kitchen sink.  I backed the Barracuda out of the garage and parked it in the shade of the hala tree.  I rolled up the windows, squirted it with the hose, and sponged the white hood with hot soapy water.  I liked the lemony smell.  It felt good to do something besides homework or picking mangoes off the trees looming over our roof.  The blacktop warmed my bare feet. 

The Olds pulled into the driveway.  My father climbed out and stared at me, as if I’d done something wrong.  His 5 o’clock shadow made him look like a tough on Hawaii 5-0.  He was hapa haole and had been raised hanai in Kaimuki; he’d told me he ran the two miles to Fung’s Meats for a pound of hamburger and Mr. Fung said, “Go home, kanaka boy.  Granny’s credit all broke.”  I wanted to go back in time, drape an arm over his little boy shoulders, and tell him there’d be better days as he trudged home empty-handed.  Our relationship had turned dark the night I ran out the front door to avoid a strapping for telling my mother she should get a divorce if she wasn’t in love.  Running was a cowardly thing to do but it had an element of bravery because it showed I wasn’t going to sit around and take it.  I knew my father feared me a little—I could hurt his reputation if the police got involved.  Knowing I had that power made me feel good.  But I also realized the beatings were his way of toughening us up.  In his mind, the more he beat us the tougher we’d get and the better equipped we’d be to fight for what we wanted.  The toughening made me both fear and hate him, the way a dog fears and hates a brutal master.  Barry was different—he’d told me we deserved to “catch dirty lickins” for blowing up the water meter with a homemade bomb and for growing pakalolo in pots on the roof.  I wondered if my brother secretly liked getting strapped because every strike of the belt meant his father loved him enough to discipline him.         

“You get the mail?” my father called.

“I think Mom already did.”

“You think?  Don’t you know?”

“I know she got it.”

“She get my flowers?”

“I dunno.”

“Goddamnit, Kirby, are my red roses in the house?”

“I didn’t see any.”

Dealing with my father was a tricky matter.  He was the best guy to have on your side but a nightmare if he got mad.  I never knew what was going to set him off, even if I did something good.  I never washed his car.  Barry had washed it once and got blamed for scratching the paint.  After that, he avoided the Olds like the plague.  My father wanted Barry and me both to be lawyers like him, but he was having his doubts because our grades at Punahou High were mediocre at best.  The school threw gas on the fire when they sent him the results of our IQ tests.  He said we’d be lucky to get into Podunk U.  He thought we were spoiled.  He’d won a competitive scholarship to Saint Louis High School and had fought for everything he had in life, including his rank as Major in the Army during World War II.  I’d worn his bronze Battle Stars on my Cub Scout uniform despite the protests of my fellow Scouts.  In my father’s world, the willingness to do battle scholastically determined whether you’d succeed or fail in life.  I wanted to be a fighter like him but school didn’t come easy.  He tried motivating Barry and me by pitting us against one another, but that only served to weaken our already fragile brotherhood.  We were both juniors because Barry had been held back.  Every day was a reminder he’d failed to match up intellectually and he spent his lunch hour in Punahou’s weight room to make up in brawn for what he felt he lacked in brains.  He’d been called “muscle-bound retard” by some kids at school, and most doubted we were brothers at all.  Barry took after our Irish mother with his green eyes and blond hair.  I had the dark complexion and slanted eyes of our father.         

My father swung a black jacket over one shoulder, pulled a briefcase out of the backseat, and shut the door.  Bifocals made his dark brown eyes look huge.  He wore a gray tie, a white shirt, and black slacks.  He kicked an orange hala seedpod—it went sailing out into the street. 

I ran the sponge along the blue pinstripe on a front fender.  "Help Me, Rhonda" played on the Barracuda’s radio.  I'd turned it up full blast to hear music through the glass.    

My father sauntered over.  I smelled the Yardley Brilliantine coming off his hair and figured the secretaries knew that odor all too well.  He was about my height but outweighed me by a good thirty pounds of fat, not muscle.  My father reminded me of the actor Ernest Borgnine in the series McHale’s Navy, only a sterner version.  His hair was salt-and-pepper.  He had sideburns but the hair was long in some places and short in others.  For the first time I noticed his ears were too big for his head.  His lobes looked heavy, like ornaments hanging off a tree.  Sometimes he jogged a few miles after work but his inconsistency kept the weight on.  I jogged in secret every night after dinner to stay in better shape than him.  "Quit blaring that god damn crap," he told me.

"Why is it crap?”

"Boys singing like girls," he said, flinging open the car door and switching off the radio.

"That's the Beach Boys." 

He slammed the door.  "You don't know good music."

"So what is 'good music?'"

"Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops.  Is your mother in the house?"

"Mrs. Machado took her to the Muumuu Show."

"Chrissakes," he said, loosening his tie.  He had a look that said it'd been a rough day in the salt mines and I figured her absence made him feel as if he were slaving away for nothing.  Whenever he got in a foul mood, he expected us to treat him like he was the most important person in the world, and to tolerate whatever bad things he had to say.  He thought it was our duty to get picked on.  I was sick of it.  So was my mother.  Sometimes, when her temper flared, she’d tell me, “I wish I’d never married that man.”  She thought he was crude and uncivilized but stayed with him because he was a good provider.  Her biggest fears were raising three children alone and having to work for a living. 

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