When I laugh about the Hawaiian Band with my sister, Ruby, we’re not laughing about music, although there was plenty of music in our house, and not just from the radio because Ruby and I would sing in harmony. I played the piano—so did our Auntie Lally, her painted fingernails clicking the keys like chips of red bone —and we would sing nearly every night, or have big festas in the front yard where my old avó would play the mandolin so lightly that the music and the breeze seemed to be one, drifting over our bodies in the dark.
No. We say the Hawaiian Band plays when someone turns the radio up to drown the hollers of a child getting lickings. The Band plays for us many times, like when we come home from the beach red and blistered, and we know we’re not supposed to go by ourselves because they tell us the ocean is dangerous, that we might sink or step on a man-of-war. But how can we resist when the sun is warm and the smell of my old avó cooking bacalhau waters our eyes and brings every fly in the neighborhood to our screens. We just want to go, and we’re kids, so we go.
We stay at the beach all day. Don’t even need bathing suits, just ourselves and some mock oranges or mangos we pinch from the verdura man, and then we’re at the beach having good fun. No such thing as sunscreen in our time, just the sand, our skin, the sun, and the water blue and us red. When we go back home, we say, “No, we didn’t go to the beach,” while our wet clothes hang on the clothesline dripping salt water onto the gardenias. My avó doesn’t know since she’s blind and she’s just happy we’re home, but when Uncle John comes home he gives us lickings, then Auntie Lally and we get more lickings, and then Ma last, and I do feel bad because she’s so tired from work.
Auntie Lally’s the worse of them all with her koa stick—termites can’t eat koa, so you know the wood’s hard—and she makes the stick special for us. She takes it to work and sands it smooth, drills a hole in one end where she ties a strip of leather to hang on a nail by the back door. The stick is brown and dark, and Auntie Lally may be one big woman, but she’s quick. We try to run by her when we come through the door, but she grabs her stick and we all get cracks, hard and sharp, on the backs of our heads. And I laugh now when I think of Lally, fast and fat, or how we’re so dumb we don’t even think to go through the front door.
We all hear the Hawaiian Band play, but I get the most lickings when I bring home ukus from Amy Arroyo’s house. There’s Ma picking out the nits from my head, running her fingernails along each strand of my brown hair while I sit on the floor between her swollen feet. She crouches over me after she’s crouched over beds and bathtubs all day at work, and with each uku she picks, I get a hard croque on my head. I holler with each knock of her knuckle, and when she’s done I wash my sheets with lye so strong the soap burns my cuticles like heated glass. I say, “No, I won’t go to Amy’s anymore,” but she’s my best friend, so how can I resist? Then it starts all over and the Hawaiian Band plays while I get good lickings, and I have to laugh now that I know what it’s like to have kids with no sense.
So when we girls get older, Ma tells the uncles no more Hawaiian Band because by now they’re drinking more and the whiskey either makes them sing or makes them mean. Ma stands her ground with her brothers the best she can, but she works most nights, and the uncles get sick of the kids in the house. So one day—I’m fourteen—I come home late from playing volleyball. Uncle and his friends are still trying to dig a basement under the house—that basement never does get finished because the shoveling stops when the whiskey arrives—and Uncle’s drunk and mad at me when I walk through the door because I wasn’t home to do the dishes.
Uncle grumbles something at me—he’s always grumbling—and I walk on by him because my hands hurt from spiking the volleyball, and I don’t want to do the dishes anyway. So I go into my bedroom and lie on my bed when I hear the smooth sound of the Harry Owens Orchestra begin to rise from the radio in the living room. Ruby’s on her bed and I’m on mine, lying on my stomach with my back to the door. We look at each other without speaking the way sisters do when they’re waiting together for what’s coming next.
Uncle John appears in the doorway and says, “Who’s going to do those dishes?”
“You do them,” I say, and I can’t believe those words came out, that my words sneak around on me just like I do on my uncle. Ruby’s just as surprised, and she puts her hand over her mouth to cover her smile.
The orchestra plays “Sweet Leilani”—_Sweet Leilani/ Heavenly flower/ I dream of paradise for two_ —and I hear Uncle John whip off his belt, that dark leather belt so thin it snaps when he uses it like the strap is made just for giving us dirty beatings.
I lie still on my bed, thinking that Ma laid down the law so he won’t give me any more lickings, when I hear the high-pitched hum of the strap through the air, then the snap of the belt on my back, and it might as well have been a knife for the sharp cut of pain the belt slices on my skin. I scream, my voice higher than the whip of his strap and the rush of the woodwinds, and I don’t even stop as Ruby jumps off her bed and pushes Uncle John into the wall and hollers, “Crack him, Madra!”
I get up quick from my bed. I look into Uncle’s brown eyes that look at me and see nothing, and a feeling begins to burn inside me. The heat in my back grows, flows through my body until my skin is red and I feel filled with it. My tears dry and I see Uncle so clearly like my whole body has eyes. I make a fist and punch him in the side of his face.
Uncle John stumbles to the floor in stages, each part of his body making its own low thump, and I think now that he falls more from the whiskey than my fist. Uncle’s bleeding on the tatami mats and hollering at everyone, but all I hear is the radio—the steel guitar, the clear soprano voice.
Soon the whole familia is at the doorway looking in at the three of us, all of them quiet except for my old avó‘s clicking, her tongue tapping out the drift of her thoughts. Ruby and I grab each other’s arms and stand over Uncle, but we don’t look down at him. We just look at each other, standing in our room with our arms locked together, blinking like our eyes are new.
—from Arroyo (Momotombo Press, October 2004)
Lisa Gonzales was born in Northern California. As a Jacob K. Javits Fellow, she received her M.A. in English Literature at the University of California at Davis. Presently she is in the MFA Writing Program at the University of Notre Dame. The stories collected in Arroyo are from Hearts of Palm: A Novel in Fados, her manuscript of linked fiction.