According to Mrs. T

 — Christmas in fiction —

I had sat in my rental car for almost two hours, parked in front of a big single story house in the middle of an island in the Pacific Ocean.  The house was obviously the newest on the block.  Its concrete structure, modern lines and sprawling form were unique among the prevalent small wooden houses which I later learned were survivors of former plantation days. I triple checked the address.  I was in the right place.

I was 20 years old.  It was winter break of my junior year in college.  I was still wearing the clothes I picked for a five-hour flight, my first over the ocean.  I was dressed for a California winter – a fleece jacket, long sleeve t-shirt, heavy jeans, and wool socks.  My bangs stuck to my forehead, my mouth felt dry, and I wished I had stopped by a 7-Eleven to buy a bottle of water after I left Honolulu Airport.  I was so focused on finding my way to this address straight from the airport that I didn’t think about anything else.  I did not have a backup plan. 

For the last hour or so, I had watched an old woman across the street puttering around in a small vegetable garden and in the flower bed along her front porch.  Her garden basket had become full of vegetables and flowers.  She seemed to be muttering the entire time, but never looked my way.  She finally unrolled the hose to water her plants. 

When she went back into her house, I got out of my car and walked up to her mailbox.  The black metal box had individual lettering that spelled T-A-K-E-B-A-Y-A-S-H-I.

I walked up a flat black stone walkway that led to her front porch, and knocked on an old wood frame screen door.  She was apparently waiting for me because she appeared immediately.  An ancient short Japanese woman peered through the screen door, one hand on her hip, the other on the door latch.

“Uh excuse me,” I stammered. “Mrs. Take-bay-ashi?  I was wondering . . .”

“Take?  Take what?” she cackled.  She was hunched over, well below my 5 foot 4 stature.   If she stood straight, the top of her head would probably barely reach my chin.  She was at least a hundred years old.  Her gnarled fingers pushed against flimsy screen door, as if I was going to force my way in.  She was wearing a pale blue smock and some kind of khaki shorts.  Her face was tanned, her eyes crinkled with deep lines.  The corners of her mouth turned down.  Her bluish white hair was  gathered under a silver hairnet that looked like a spider web.  She studied me.

“Blond hair,” she smirked.  “You must be from the mainland.  No wonder you talk funny,” she practically spat.  “What do you want?”

“I’ve been waiting for the family across the street for an hour and . . .” I started.

“Don’t you lie to me!” she said, standing a tad straighter.  “I’ve been watching you!  You been sitting in your car way over an hour, girlie.  I watched you!  I keep an eye on the neighborhood.  Lots of weird people around.  For all I know, you’re watching me so you know when to rob my house.” 

“They went to Maui,” she announced, jutting her chin towards the house across the street.  “Like they do every Christmas.”  She focused on me.  “Look, I don’t have all day.  What do you want?”

“I . . . I was going to surprise him.  Jason, I mean” I stammered, as I looked back at the house across the street.  “Do you know when he, when they’re coming back?” I asked, almost pleading. 

“If you want to talk, come inside,” she said.  “I can’t just stand around talking to some dumb blonde.  I have to put my flowers in water.”  She turned her back to me and walked away. 

I opened the screen door, hoping I understood her invitation to come in.  I was startled by the creaking of the rusty door hinges.

I took a couple of steps into the living room.  It was small  compared to my parent’s living room; the wooden floor was bare.  The only furniture was a worn couch that might have been beige at one time, a wooden coffee table covered with a white crocheted runner, a tattered green recliner in its reclining position and a dented metal table that served as a TV stand.  The television was on, but muted.  Some game show was on.

I heard water running.  She walked back into the living room, holding a small vase with several white flowers.

“Ginger,” she informed me.  The fragrance filled my head.  She set the vase on the coffee table.

“Why are you just standing there?”  She pointed to the couch, and I obediently sat in its sagging middle.  “My daughter is supposed to call soon and I want to be near the phone.”  She slowly maneuvered herself into the recliner on the other side of the room, next to the telephone.

“Are you sick?  Why are you wearing that stupid jacket?  It’s eighty degrees, girlie,” she chided.  As I took off my jacket, I felt like a little girl.

“Now what’s so important that you have to bother me?”  She drummed her fingers on the armrest.

I told her how I met Jason at UCLA and how he was so nice to me in English classes we both attended.  I told her about the time he took me to a movie about surfing and how he talked about Hawaii’s beaches a lot.  He talked about home and his parents, and said I should visit the islands, that his parents would really like me. 

I told her how we hung around together.  First, we were good friends, and then we became romantic, very romantic.  Jason said he was just “staying home with the folks” for the holidays, and I decided to surprise him during the winter break.

Her smirks, snorts and occasional “That’s Jason for you” told me I had been naïve. 

“Girlie, you’re not too smart.  I’ve known Jason since he was a baby.  His girlfriend went to Punahou School with him.  They’ve been going steady since his sophomore year. Their fathers are business partners.”  She yawned without covering her mouth.  “In fact, she went with the family to Maui.  They’ll probably get married when he graduates.”

“Maui?” I repeated, as if I had never of that word before.

“Wise up, girlie,” she continued.  “You’re so young!  You white girls like our local boys just because they’re good looking.  Now take my daughter Gail.  She has a good head on her shoulders.  She just graduated from Cornell with a 3.8.  She doesn’t go chasing around every good looking boy who takes her to the movies.  She’s got a level head on her shoulders.  She can’t make it home for Christmas this year because she just started interning at a big publishing company in Boston.  It’s just entry level, but. . . “  She stopped and demanded “What are you crying for!”

“I . . . I don’t know what to do,” I babbled.  “I thought it was all going to be so . . . so per-perfect!  I was going to suh-sur-PRISE him, and I thought I could stay with his family.  He said they would like muh-me.  I have to find a muh-mo-motel or something.  I can’t fly back until after New Year’s.  I bought my plane tick-ticket in the s-summer.  It was a really guh-good d-d-deal, but can’t change it.  I used up all my savings! I thought I was doing s-so well in keeping it a suh-see-secret from him.” 

I knew I was rambling, but couldn’t help it. I was crying so hard, I had the hiccups.  I wiped my nose on my sleeve.  “How c-could I be s-s-so s-stupid!”

She sat there looking at me with the same smirk she had when I first met her at the door.  Except for her fingers thrumming the arm of her lounge chair, she didn’t move.

“Jason is a just a pretty boy, girlie, just like his father,” she finally declared, wagging a finger at me.  “You should see what goes on next door when the missus goes to work!  Pitiful, that’s what I say!  Cut from the same cloth, the boy and his father.  Forget him!  Consider yourself lucky.  You don’t  want to end up like his mother!  That poor lady!”  She started picking at her teeth with a toothpick she produced out of nowhere.

“You can call a motel from here.  I know a decent one.  But wait till my Gail calls me before you use my phone.  I don’t want to tie it up.”  She maneuvered way out of the recliner, and handed me a box of tissue that was sitting near the telephone as she left the room.

My hiccups stopped and I controlled my sobbing, but I couldn’t stop the tears.  I could hear her in the kitchen somewhere moving pots and dishes.  I rolled up my jacket and used it as a pillow as I lay down on her couch.  I felt so pathetic. 

She poked at my shoulder.  Her face was right above me.  “Girlie!  Girlie!   Wake up!  You slept through everything!  You didn’t even move when my Gail called!  Didn’t you sleep on the plane?  What’s the matter with you?  Don’t be a big baby! Get over it!  There’s a lot more fish in the sea!”

She walked away muttering, “You might as well eat with me.  I bought a couple of top sirloins yesterday.  The package had two steaks just to rip me off.  I hate that!  I was going to cook both of them; save one for later.  I don’t want them to spoil.”

She stopped and turned to look at me.  “It’s Christmas Eve and I have to eat anyway.  Steak is my celebration.  I’ll worry about my cholesterol next week.  You can call the motel after we eat.  But wash your face first.  I don’t want to eat with a cry baby.” 

I sat there realizing that it was another invitation, this time to dinner.  She pointed to the doorway of her bathroom, and I went to wash my face.

During dinner, she asked me my name.  “Brandie,” I told her.  “Brandie Sullivan.”

She smirked and shook her head.  “That’s just like you howlees,” she said.  I had no idea what she was talking about, and my expression betrayed my ignorance.

“Girlie, do you know what a howlee is?” she asked, squinting at me as I concentrated on chewing the most delicious piece of steak I ever tasted.  I didn’t realize how hungry I was.  I shook my head, still chewing.  I didn’t care about a “howlee.”  I was starving.

“H-a-o-l-e,” she spelled.  “That’s what us locals call you white people.  Haole people conquered our islands.   Haole people exploit local people.  Haole people try to run things around here and they know how to talk their way into everything.

I looked at her, thinking I should apologize for something.

“I should know,” she continued.  “My husband George was part haole.  But his dad was Japanese.  And his mom was one of the good haole.  My husband was a good talker but he’s dead now.”  She glanced at the old recliner just outside the kitchen.

“Anyway you haole people are weird!   Look at your name.  Only haole people would name their kids after alcohol.  What if they named you Miller Lite or Mai Tai?  Budweiser Sullivan!” she laughed hard at her own wit and took a swig from her can of beer. 

“So, girlie, tell me about your parents,” she said, as she sliced her steak.

I told her that I grew up in Idaho and my parents still live in the same house I grew up in.  She asked if I had a picture of them, and I realized my purse and luggage was still in the car.

“I’ll walk out with you later to get your stuff.  Girlie like you too vulnerable.  You need protection.”  She motioned with her fork for me to continue as she continued eating.

“My dad is a parks maintenance supervisor with the county,” I went on, “and my mom is an accountant.  I’m their only child and they’re too protective.  When I was in high school, I couldn’t stay over at my friends’ house unless my mom talked to their moms.  And I couldn’t leave on dates until my dad got home from work so that he could meet them.  They’re pretty conservative and I needed to get out of the house.  That’s why I ended up in Santa Monica, to put some distance between us.”

“I took Jason home to Idaho at the beginning of summer.  He stayed at our house and it felt like we were meant to be with each other.  He went fishing with my dad, and my mom thought he was nice.  When he left, I started looking for cheap airfares to Hawaii.”

“Your father? Did he like Jason?” she asked.

“He was starting to, I think, especially after they went fishing,” I said.  “My dad loves to fish in the Benewah River, and Jason said he fished a lot back home.  They spent a whole day together.”

“Well, you can’t tell about a person just because he likes fishing,” she said.  “Murderers fish, too, you know.”

I didn’t know what to say and changed the subject.  “Your daughter must be very special.  You seem very proud of her.”

“My Gail is a real go-getter,” she said, putting her fork down.  Her daughter was obviously one of her favorite subjects.  “And she’s not afraid to speak her mind.  When she was in the fourth grade, she corrected Sister Mary Joseph for misspelling a word on the blackboard,” she laughed. 

“She is a good speaker, too.  She was the captain of her debate team in high school.  I thought she would make a good lawyer, but she wanted to go into graphic arts.  She’s very creative, you know.  Honor roll student every year, but humble, very humble.  A good Japanese girl.  She never answered me back.”

She recounted many of Gail’s achievements, and then she said quietly, “You can’t keep someone bright like her on an island, though.  That’s the sad part.  She always wanted to go to the mainland for college, and once she got to the big city, she just flourished.  She finished college in three years and got a lot of job offers.  She only came home twice since she went to college,” she said as she picked at her teeth with her steak knife.

After a few seconds, she said, “I’m hoping she’ll come home to live eventually.  You never know.  She might get sick of all the haoles.” 

I was getting a little tired of her racism.

It was very late when we cleared the kitchen table.  I helped her with the dishes, and she suggested I sleep at her house that night.

“It’s Christmas eve,” she said, “and all the hotels charge more money because it’s a holiday.   Ripoff bastards! I’ll come out with you to get your luggage.”

When she saw my single duffel bag, she shook her head.  “What kind of luggage is that?  Girlie, you some kind of hippie?  My Gail would never use that kind of bag.  She has a matching set of luggage with wheels.”

She led me to Gail’s bedroom.  It was small and very different from my bedroom.  There were no posters, no sound equipment and no television.  It just had a bed, a dresser and a desk.  Everything was very neat.

I looked around and wondered where to put my duffel bag.  She opened the door of a small closet.  “Put your bag on this chair and you can hang your clothes in here.”

“And don’t put anything on this quilt,” she said, as she ran her hand on the patchwork quilt that covered the bed.  “See this fabric?” she said touching a square of flowered pink silk.  This is from my mother’s wedding kimono from Japan.”

And this one,” she said, touching a textured blue cotton square, “this one is from my father’s plantation shirt.  This one here,” she said as she caressed a white satin square, “this one is from my Gail’s baptism dress that I sewed for her.

She ran her hand on a square that of a blue and white checkered cloth.  “This is from George’s uniform at the gas station.”  She was quiet for a little while.

“On second thought, I’ll just fold up the quilt and put it away.  Then I don’t have to worry about you getting it dirty.”  I helped her fold it, and put it on the high shelf in the closet.

She stood in the doorway with what I hoped were final instructions.  I was very sleepy.  “Girlie, don’t snore too loud.  I’m a light sleeper.  And keep the window open.  Hawaii’s air is healthy, just like our ocean water.  I wake up at 5 and we’ll leave for Christmas Mass at 7.  Good night,” She turned abruptly and walked away.

I went to the door and watched her shuffle slowly to the bathroom.  I called out, “Good night . . . and thank you, Mrs. umm . . .”  She waved without turning around, said, “You’ll never get it right.  Just call me Mrs. T.”

I closed the door.  I stripped down to my t-shirt and immediately got into bed.  The blanket was soft and the pillow smelled like the old house, a hint of wood and mold.  I heard the shower running. I listened to crickets, whose island language welcomed me.

My thoughts were simple.  While I was grateful that I didn’t have to sleep in the car and very grateful for a filling meal, the old lady intimidated me.  My whiteness meant that I obviously did not live up to her standards, and her constant comparisons to her daughter made me feel more and more like a failure.  I was determined to find a way to change my flight and go home as soon as I could.  “Tomorrow,” I thought.  “I will call my parents and they’ll help me get home.  It’ll be Christmas.  They won’t turn me down.”

I heard the shower stop and fell asleep.

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