Today was going to be a productive day. At least, that was my plan.
The living room curtains were shut, letting the hazy morning sun filter in, but blocking my view of the quaint pre-WWII bungalows and neat lawns on Uakoko Street. Not that my quiet neighborhood in downtown Mahina was exactly teeming with distractions.
I sat at my workstation in the corner of the living room, fresh cup of coffee in hand. The word processor and stats package lay open side-by-side on my computer monitor. My coauthor had just sent me the cleaned-up data file. Submitting the completed book chapter by the end of July would be a piece of cake.
Just as I congratulated myself on my anticipated productivity, a shadow fell across my keyboard.
“Eh, Molly, you busy?”
I pointedly kept my eyes on the computer monitor and my hands on the keyboard.
“Good morning, Davison. Yes, I am busy, actually. Did you need something?”
My name is Molly Barda. I teach in the College of Commerce at Hawai`i’s Mahina State University, where, according to our radio spots, “Your Future Begins Tomorrow.”
I’ve had many wonderful students during my time there. Then there was Davison Gonsalves.
In the first week of my Intro to Business Management course, Davison copied a classmate’s paper word-for-word and turned it in as his own. My “student-centered” dean had blocked my report to the Office of Student Conduct and had forced me to give Davison a free do-over instead. For the rest of the semester, Davison came in late, missed deadlines, skipped class, and worse.
You might wonder what my least-favorite student was doing in my living room. In a twist of fate that might seem hilarious if it happened to someone else, Davison was now my stepson.
“You know where the coffee machine is. And we have Spam in the pantry, rice in the rice cooker, and eggs in the fridge if you want to cook some for yourself. Oh, and the paper bag on the counter is full of papayas if you want something sweet.”
Davison was old enough to buy beer. He could certainly fix his own breakfast.
“No more, the eggs.”
“The eggs are gone? I just bought a whole—okay, I’ll pick some up at the store after I get some work done here. For now, you can fry some Spam, and there’s rice.”
“Rice is gone, too.”
I worked for a while, ignoring my stepson, who continued to hover behind me. Finally, I swiveled my chair around and looked up to face him.
Davison was tall, like his father. He had Donnie’s thick black hair and strong features. Thankfully, their personalities were nothing alike.
“I’m not hungry anyway,” he said. “I wanna ask you something.”
“Where’d Dad get your ring?”
I glanced at the platinum band on my left hand.
“We bought our rings at Fujioka’s Music and Party Supply.”
“How come it’s so plain? Didn’t you want one all covered with diamonds an’ li’ dat?”
“No. This is the style I prefer. Why do you ask?”
“Could you drive me there, Molly?”
“You want to go to Fujioka’s?”
“What, right now? You’re not even dressed.”
Davison wore cutoff sweatpants and a tank top, whose purpose seemed to be to show off his muscles rather than to cover anything. The brown skin on his arms and the sides of his neck was blotched with pink where his father had made him get his tattoos lasered off, right before he had packed Davison off to military academy.
“I don’t got a car, that’s why. And Dad’s not gonna be back from work till late.”
“Davison, I’m at work, too. I just happen to work at home.”
“You get summer vacation, but.”
“No. Vacation is when you get paid and you don’t work. I get summer unpaid, and I’m still working. It’s the exact opposite of vacation. I still have to produce research, which I don’t have enough time to do during the school year. Look, just hang on and let me finish this one thing.”
I pulled down the “analysis” menu. I could sense Davison still lurking behind me.
“Davison, why don’t you fix yourself a cup of coffee?”
“Nah. I’ll wait.”
I tried to ignore him for a few more minutes, and then gave up. I sighed, saved my work, and shut down the program.
“I still have to upload final grades before six. Don’t let me forget. You’re really ready to go? Right this minute?”
“Yeah, I’m ready.” He lifted his elbow and sniffed his wiry black armpit hair. Evidently, the result was satisfactory.
I stood up and retrieved my purse from the hook by the front door.
“Okay. Let’s get this done.”
“I like drive the Thunderbird.”
“Sorry. According to the Hawai`i State Motor Vehicle Code, you need a special license to drive any car built before 1960.”
“Do you want a ride or don’t you?”
I drove through downtown Mahina and then turned up a narrow street into an older neighborhood. The jungle had grown so lush, the tin-roofed bungalows were hidden from the road. Davison rolled down the window and propped his elbow on the doorframe.
“Let’s put the top down.”
“No. It’s about to rain.”
“Aw, Molly, you never put the top down. How come you went buy a convertible if you never put the top down?”
“Because when I bought this car on the mainland, I didn’t anticipate moving to a town with four times the annual rainfall of Seattle.”
I didn’t care for Davison’s calling me by my first name, but I couldn’t think of a better alternative. He wasn’t my student anymore, so I couldn’t insist on the delightfully impersonal “Professor Barda.” I wasn’t about to let him call me “Mommy,” something he occasionally suggested just to annoy me.
I took a deep breath and tried to feel less cranky. Life was going well. I could afford to be gracious to my irritating stepson. I’d just been awarded tenure, which was a huge relief. Contrary to popular belief, tenure didn’t guarantee a job for life, but it meant the administration couldn’t fire me without making up a good reason first. I wasn’t stuck on any year-round committees, so I had the whole summer free to work on my research. And today was a beautiful, overcast day, the strong Hawaiian sun diffused through a layer of mist. Traffic was light. Just one dark blue pickup truck behind me, and no one ahead.
“Davison, buying a ring usually means something serious. Are congratulations in order?”
“I don’t wanna say yet. It’s gonna be a surprise.”
“A surprise? So you’re not going to tell me who the lucky lady is?”
“Nuh-uh. Not yet. Soon, but.”
I felt a pang of foreboding. Not Sherry Di Napoli. Surely, Davison wasn’t back together with Sherry.
“Okay. Here we are.” I pulled into Fujioka’s narrow parking lot alongside the compact cinderblock building. The exterior had recently been repainted white; red script lettering adorned the road-facing wall. Fujioka’s Music & Party Supply since 1949. The abandoned lot behind Fujioka’s was overgrown with skeletal Albizia trees and dense strawberry guava. Odorous maile pilau twined through the ramshackle chain link fence.
I checked my reflection in the rear-view mirror. A coil of hair had sprung free from my ponytail. I undid the hair tie, pulled a brush out of my glove compartment, and fastened my hair back into place. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the dark blue pickup truck enter the lot and pull into a parking spot near the door. Davison, demonstrating his usual gracious manners, hopped out of the passenger seat and went inside, leaving me alone in the car.
I locked up and followed Davison. The heavy glass door set off a doorbell tone from the back of the shop when I pushed it open. Davison was already at the far end of the store, examining the fine jewelry case under the watchful eye of a uniformed guard. I lingered by the door and watched the blue truck through the glass. No one got out. It seemed odd, the truck just idling there, waiting, but I shrugged it off. Maybe the driver was simply waiting to give someone a ride. As long as I was on a break from work, I might as well enjoy myself and have a look around.
While Davison perused the jewelry case, I examined the guitars and ukuleles displayed on the walls. The last time I’d really played guitar was in grad school. This summer might be a good opportunity to take it up again.
A small instrument caught my eye. At first, I thought it was an ukulele, but closer examination revealed six strings, not four. It was a scaled-down guitar. The body and headstock were black, and the neck was rosewood. The price seemed surprisingly reasonable. I took it down from the display and strummed a D-major. It wouldn’t win any awards, but then neither would my playing. It sounded like a real guitar. And it was adorable.
Davison materialized at my elbow.
“Did you find anything you liked?” I asked.
“Nah. Everything they got here is too plain.”
I looked down at my simple platinum band, identical in design to Donnie’s. I liked it. It had been an easy choice to make, as no other wedding set in Fujioka’s inventory was even remotely to my taste.
“Too plain? If you don’t like plain, what about the gold nugget horseshoe ring?”
“Nah. That’s a man’s ring. I wanna get her something classy an’ girly kine. Like all different color diamonds and li’ dat.”
“Well, I’m sorry you didn’t find anything up to your exacting standards. Fortunately, this wasn’t a wasted trip. I think I’m going to get this guitar,”
“That little thing? Looks like a ukulele. What about a real guitar? Like the one up there? Wit’ the flames on it?”
“An electric guitar?”
“You could crank it, Molly.”
“I don’t need to crank anything. I’d prefer an instrument not dependent on electricity, so when the Zombie Apocalypse takes out our power grid, I can still play.”
“You gonna try start up your grad school band again?” Davison grinned. “Whaddaya think Dad would say about it?”
“I’m not planning to start another band, but I’m sure your father would be fine with it if I did.”
While Donnie and I were still dating, Davison found out about my grad school band. This was thanks to some sneaky internet sleuthing and the assistance of a much-smarter girlfriend—Sherry, in fact. He had gleefully ratted me out to Donnie, probably hoping to embarrass me and shock his conservative father.
To my amazement, Donnie hadn’t seemed bothered at all. He actually thought my short-lived musical career was “cute.” (And for the record, it wasn’t my idea to call ourselves Phallus in Wonderland. The name was Melanie Polewski’s idea. Ever since she’d discovered Lacan in our Psychoanalysis and Literature class, you couldn’t shut her up about The Phallus.)
“Are you sure you didn’t find anything you liked?” We stood at the counter. “Maybe you should go have another look. This is really the only place you’ll find a proper ring.”
A silver bell sat on the counter, a hand-lettered sign taped down next to it. Please ring for assistance. I hoped I wouldn’t have to, but I didn’t see any store personnel anywhere. I reluctantly tapped the button, sending a halfhearted ding reverberating through the store.
“Taking too long, these guys.” Davison pounded the bell four times in a row. Wendell, the manager, emerged from the back room, glaring at me. He rang up my purchase without a word.
The blue truck still sat in the parking lot when we exited the building. I tried to get a glimpse of the driver out of the corner of my eye as we walked out to my Thunderbird. The truck’s windows were too darkly tinted for me to see anything inside.
“So Molly, we going down to Modern Jewelers now?”
“Modern Jewelers closed when the Shigeokas retired, remember? Maybe you were away at school then. Fujioka’s is the only jewelry store left in Mahina. It’s why your father and I bought our rings here. Maybe you don’t want to buy her a ring just yet. What about a nice pair of earrings or something?”
Davison grumbled, but he didn’t argue. I was right. Fujioka’s was the only game in town, unless he wanted to start visiting pawnshops. We climbed into my car, and I nosed out to the road, paused, and signaled left. I could see the blue truck in my rear view mirror, still parked. The driver’s side door cracked open.
“What are you doing?” Davison asked.
“Just waiting to make a left turn onto the road.” If I told Davison about the suspicious truck, he’d probably turn around and stare. Or worse, hop out of the car and get into some chest-thumping dominance display with the driver.
“There’s no cars, Molly. What are you waiting for?”
In the rear view mirror, I watched a man jump down from the driver’s side of the truck, and stand next to it, hand on the door, scowling at the back of my car. He looked to be in his forties, his solid prison-yard physique straining the seams of a green football jersey. Clipped black hair, broad nose, defined cheekbones and a strong chin. He might have been handsome if he didn’t look so mean. I could practically feel his gaze burning through his black sunglasses.
Davison finally caught on, and as I had feared, cranked his head around to stare at the man. My car did not have tinted windows. I floored the accelerator and squealed out onto the road, almost cutting off a minivan.
“Do you know that guy, Davison?”
Davison took a moment to catch his breath. “Nah. I don’t know him. Thought maybe it was one of your old boyfriends or li’ dat.”
“Very amusing. He was probably just interested in the car.”
People often stared at my car. It was the only 1959 Thunderbird on the island, and the turquoise-and-white paint job made it especially eye-catching. Earl Miyashiro, my mechanic, kept nagging me to trade in my beloved Squarebird for something more practical. Earl was a decent mechanic, but entirely lacking in imagination. Also, considering how much I’d spent at Miyashiro Motors over the years, you’d think he’d make an effort to be a little less judgmental.
“Listen, as long as we’re already out, I’m going to stop by the grocery store. I have to pick up some more eggs, apparently. Anything else we need?”
“You need more milk too,” Davison said. “You ran out already. An’ the rice, ah?”
I made a careful left turn onto the Bayfront road. The sherbet pastels of the Old West style storefronts glowed under the gray sky. From a distance, in a moving car, Mahina’s Bayfront looked cheery and vibrant and not at all shabby or termite-eaten. I pulled into a spot in front of the blacklight Bob Marley posters lining the windows of Sacred Herb.
We walked the few doors down to Natural High Organic Foods and stepped into the ginseng-and-five-spice scented interior. I grabbed a hand basket and headed toward the dairy refrigerator in the back.
“This place get beer?” Davison was close behind me. “If no, we gotta stop at Hagiwara’s.”
“I don’t want to stop anywhere else. I want to go home and get some work done on my book chapter.”
“Oh yeah, you gotta get more Spam, too. You’re almost out.”
I opened the glass door to the dairy case and savored the chilled air.
“So, you do eat Spam. I take it you’re not doing your back-to-nature diet anymore then?”
“Nah. Too humbug.”
During his previous visit, Davison had observed a strict dietary regime. It allowed organ meats and leafy greens, but banned grains and dairy. Naturally, Donnie had catered to his son, cooking every meal to his new guidelines. It was a dark era of gizzard stews and salads bristling with husks and stems.
“Don’t get the small milk, ah Molly. Gets used up too fast, that’s why.”
I sighed, put back the quart container, and pulled out a half gallon instead.
“Eh, what would you and Dad say if I didn’t go back to school in the fall?”
I almost dropped the milk on the floor.
“Not back to school? What do you mean?”
“What if I took a break?”
“What? No. Why would you want to take a break? Do you not have enough money? We can lend you money. How much do you need?”
“Just like for a year.” Davison followed me to the produce section.
“A year? Away from college? Where would you live for a whole year?”
I didn’t like to be inhospitable, but Davison had been back for only two days, and I’d already had enough. He left wadded up shirts and dirty dishes everywhere. He ate like an army of locusts coming off spring training. Worst of all, he was just there all the time. Trying to enjoy alone time with my husband was pretty much out of the question with his obnoxious son thumping around in the next room.
“I thought you liked it at the academy.” I tried to disguise the desperation in my voice. “And you get all four seasons back east. People love seasons. And if you drop out it’ll be hard to get back in. Your father and I don’t want you to lose your momentum.”
“I could always come back to Mahina State.”
The military academy was Davison’s third try at college. He’d left Mahina State for a fancy liberal arts college in Southern California, where he’d goofed off, lost his athletic scholarship, and eventually gotten kicked out for cheating. Donnie and I had hoped the structured environment of his current institution would keep him on track.
“You don’t want to come back to Mahina State. You should try to stick it out where you are.”
I bustled around the store, trying to pick out snacks that were edible, but not so tasty they’d disappear right away. Plain yogurt. Frozen broccoli. Raw almonds, instead of roasted.
“You know lots of famous guys, they never finished college at all,” Davison said.
“Now you’re talking about not finishing at all? I thought you said you just wanted to take a break.”
I checked out, and we exited to the sidewalk. Davison didn’t offer to carry the bag, which was just as well. He’d probably stick his face into it and start eating the groceries.
“Dad never went to college,” Davison persisted.
“Davison, you don’t want to drop out and move back here. Look at everything you’ve already—”
“Look out,” he shouted, but it was too late. I’d been focused on arguing with Davison, not watching where I was going, and I’d collided with a broad chest in a green football jersey. I looked up. No sunglasses this time. The man’s eyes were flat, black irises revealing nothing.
He placed a heavy hand on my shoulder.
“Excuse me, ma’am.” His voice was deep, with a local inflection. He kept the hand on my shoulder and turned to stare at Davison.
Davison glowered back. This went on for the longest two seconds I have ever experienced.
“I’m terribly sorry.” I finally ducked out of the man’s grip. I nudged Davison ahead of me with the bag of groceries. I could feel the stranger’s opaque black eyes watching us as we hurried down the sidewalk.
Once we were safely inside the car, Davison decided to be brave. He unbuckled his seatbelt and grabbed the door handle.
“You wait here, Molly. I’m gonna go back there and kick his—”
“It’s fine, Davison. No harm done. He didn’t even break the eggs. And I was the one who bumped into him. Please buckle in so I don’t get a ticket.”
I twisted the key in the ignition a few times and pumped the gas pedal until the engine turned over.
I backed out of the parking space and drove the way we had come, watching the sidewalk, but I didn’t see the man in the green football jersey.
“Eh, Molly, stop.”
“No. I’m not stopping. The least I can do is not get you into a brawl with some stranger the minute we leave the house.”
“It’s Uncle Brian.”
“Uncle Brian. What I just said.”
Davison pointed to a dapper old gentleman strolling down the sidewalk. The man wore wide-leg trousers, a tan windbreaker, and a porkpie hat. His ensemble would have fetched top dollar at the trendy vintage place I used to shop at, the one just off La Brea.
“Who is Uncle Brian?” I pulled over and parked again.
Davison jumped out of the car and charged over to the man. I winced as my hulking stepson caught the frail senior citizen in a bear hug. Uncle Brian appeared unharmed, though.
By the time I joined them, they were chatting.
Davison switched from Pidgin to Standard American English as I approached. “Uncle, this is Dad’s new wife. Molly, this is Uncle Brian.”
Uncle Brian grinned, flashing a mouthful of perfect white teeth, and pulled me in for a hug. He smelled like wintergreen and hair oil.
“Looks just like Sherry, this one.” Uncle Brian released me. “He like the Italian wahine, ah, your fadda?”
“She’s not Italian, Uncle.” Davison was clearly proud of his insider knowledge. “She’s Armenian.”
“Albanian. Very nice to meet you. How do you and Davison know each other?”
“Your husband, Donnie, was my brother’s boy.”
So “Uncle” wasn’t simply an honorific in this case. Uncle Brian was Donnie’s literal uncle. I absorbed this revelation as Davison and Uncle Brian resumed chatting, quickly lapsing back into Pidgin. I could follow the conversation, but didn’t have much to contribute. They speculated about mutual acquaintances, said some things to each other about sports, and discussed getting together now that Davison was back in town.
“He seems nice,” I said evenly as we drove uphill from the ocean toward the house. “I didn’t know your father had an uncle. Or any living relatives at all, besides his sister.”
“Yeah, Uncle Brian’s cool.”
Donnie rarely talked about his family. I knew he had a sister, Gloria, who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. Gloria was Davison’s biological mother, but Donnie had adopted and raised Davison as his own. Why Davison’s mother had given him up, and who Davison’s biological father was, I had no idea. The most interesting (by which I mean sordid) part of the family saga had to do with Donnie’s first wife, Sherry Di Napoli.
Sherry ran off when Davison was eight years old. Years later, Sherry and Davison reconnected, but neither one realized they had once been a family. Davison and Sherry were both reasonably attractive, and neither of them was ever going to end up in the Impulse Control Hall of Fame, so you can imagine how that went. By the time the truth was out, it was too late for either of them to be too bothered about it. As Sherry memorably said of her former stepson, “He’s not a light bulb. I can’t un-screw him.”
Sherry had been in and out of Davison’s life ever since.
I knew Sherry, and I got along with her, but I wouldn’t trust her as far as I could throw my Thunderbird. Donnie acknowledged an “unhealthy attachment” between Sherry and Davison, but preferred to remain in denial about the particulars.
I couldn’t really blame Donnie for not wanting to acknowledge the Sherry and Davison situation. And perhaps Donnie’s sister wanted to keep the circumstances of Davison’s adoption private, which would explain Donnie’s reticence on the topic. But it was curious, I reflected, that Donnie had never once mentioned his Uncle Brian.
The first thing I did was clear a place in the closet for my new instrument. According to the Fujioka’s receipt, it was a “Guitalele,” a term I had no intention of using. After I’d put away my guitar, I came back out to the kitchen. My unhelpful stepson had opened the milk, left the carton out on the counter, and disappeared into his room. I put away the groceries by myself.
Maybe I hadn’t been as productive as I’d planned, and I’d let Davison take up way too much of my day, but I had a rare treat planned for the evening. Donnie and I had a dinner date at the Maritime Club, Mahina’s oldest private club and possibly the last place on earth with Baked Alaska on the menu. My entrepreneurial husband (I’ve never cared for the term “workaholic,” as there’s no such substance as “workohol”) had taken the evening off and scheduled one of his capable managers to cover the dinner shift at Donnie’s Drive-Inn.
I planned to make sure to tell Donnie I’d taken Davison shopping. Donnie sincerely believed if I spent time getting to know Davison, I would learn to love my new stepson as much as he did. I didn’t share Donnie’s optimism, but I wanted to let him know I was trying. Naturally, I’d have to curate the day’s events a little. I wouldn’t mention the scary man in the green football jersey. We would probably never see him again anyway, and telling Donnie would only make him worry.
I went back to the bedroom to choose something to wear, and glanced at the clock on the dresser. The deadline to upload final grades for spring semester was six p.m. I’d wait until a quarter till. I’d found if I released grades early, students would see it as an opportunity to open negotiations.
Niccolo Machiavelli advised that severities should be dealt out all at once, so that their suddenness may give less offense. Machiavelli’s counsel more or less guided my grade-posting policy.
I pulled out three outfits from the closet, and laid them out on the bed.
Option one was comfort. Flowing silver silk trousers with a cream-colored silk blouse. Option two: retro elegance. A genuine Lilli Ann cocktail dress, black with long sleeves and a defined waist. I’d have to wear a corset with the dress, which would interfere with my enjoyment of dinner. Also, this choice might require some stealth, as Donnie didn’t know I even owned a corset, and I didn’t feel like explaining it to him. Option three: stylish kitsch. A vintage fitted cheongsam in magenta silk. It looked stunning when I was standing up, but I wasn’t sure I could sit down in it.
I decided to go with the trousers and blouse. I was just hanging up the cheongsam when I heard Donnie’s car in the carport, and then his keys in the door. I hurried out to meet him.
My husband was remarkably easy on the eyes. Even at the end of the workday, when he would walk into the house wearing his perfectly pressed red Donnie’s Drive-Inn polo shirt, the armbands straining over his biceps, and he flashed me that gorgeous smile—sorry, where was I?
Right. Getting dressed for dinner. I intercepted Donnie at the door with a big hug. He looked around a little self-consciously, and then grinned and hugged me back.
“What’d I do to deserve this?”
“I’m just happy to see you. The semester’s over. Grading is done. I’m not interim department chair anymore, and I’m looking forward to a nice dinner out.”
“It’s just the Chamber of Commerce awards banquet. Not exactly the most romantic surroundings.”
“It’s okay. I’m planning to enjoy it anyway.”
“Did Davison behave himself today?”
“Yes. In fact, I took him shopping.”
Donnie pulled back and beamed at me.
“Shopping? Where’d you go?”
“Oh, just Natural High for some groceries. And Fujioka’s.”
“The music store? What were you doing there?”
“I bought a guitar. Don’t worry,” I added quickly. “It was inexpensive.”
Donnie had been worried about cash flow recently. Something about daily receipts at the Drive-Inn. When I asked him about it, all he said was, “I’m sure it’s just temporary.”
“Molly, I’m not worried about the price. So are you going to start playing again?”
“I want to. Donnie, you have to see it. It looks like an ukulele, but it’s actually a proper six-string guitar. It’s adorable.”
“A guitar that looks like an ukulele? Is there a name for it?”
“No, it’s just a guitar. Okay, I know we have to go soon. Let me get the grades uploaded before we leave.”
I sat down at my workstation and opened the Mahina State University Learning Management System.
“You’re a little underdressed for dinner, Molly. Where’s Davison?”
I realized I was sitting in the living room in my bathrobe. I’d have to get used to not having the house to myself.
“He’s back in the guest room, I think. Oh, Donnie, speaking of Davison. Has he said anything to you about being in a serious relationship? Like buying an engagement ring serious?”
“No, he hasn’t mentioned anything to me. Why? Is there someone you’d like to introduce him to?”
“No. I was just wondering if you knew why he might be ring shopping. He hinted there was someone special, but he wasn’t specific. ”
“I think Davison’s a long way from being ready to settle down. He has to finish college first.”
“I agree.” I pressed the “upload” button to enter the final grades and stood up. “I have my outfit laid out already, so I’m just going to log off and—”
A “boop” sounded from my computer.
“It sounds like you have a new message,” Donnie said. “Do you want to check it before we go?”
“It can wait. We should get going—”
“Boop,” went my computer. “Boop.”
“You’re right. I probably should check my mail before we go. That way I won’t be worrying about it over dinner.”