The Backlands

by | Jan 3, 2017 | Fiction

 

Sonny, face deadpan, flings his ballpoint across the reflective marble of the conference table. It flies with unintended precision, hitting his older sister Maya in the center of her chest like a dart. A tentative smile twitches across her face, because he’s fifty-six and he’s never been good at anger, never had reason to be. The pen was the best he could manage. He clamps his jaw to make himself clear, sees the disgrace of what she’s done turn her face down, settle like spring pollens into her sinuses. She checks her blouse for ink, searches for the pen, finds it in her lap. She sniffs, collecting herself, plucks it between thumb and forefinger, leans over the table and sets it down in front of him. The cap is on. The lawyer shakes his head.

I’m sure Mother had her reasons, Maya says. She swivels in her chair, appealing to the lawyer. She wrote it. It’s what she said.

The lawyer’s lips are tight as he nods in agreement. A napkin from Endicott’s Jazz is on the table in a plastic bag, their mother’s pen scrawl inked across it. Maya needs it most. She can have it all, whatever’s mine. Her signature is slanted just above the bar logo, to the right of what appears to be a blot of dried coffee. A sheaf of probate documents is next to the bag.

Sonny pockets the pen, settles his cold gaze on Maya. She is facing large windows, and in the white light filtering through the San Francisco fog, he can see her lipstick bleeding into the furrows around her mouth, like a celery stalk siphoning red dye through its veins. It’s a bit vague, he says, don’t you think?

All means all, the lawyer cuts in.

Sonny stands to leave, gives his blazer a tug. It can’t reasonably be legal, he tells the lawyer. You’re not doing your job.

Maya flattens her palm over the plastic bag, stares at the back of her hand. He’s doing a fine job, she says.

There are no witnesses, Sonny says. He jams the ball of his index finger on the table. Who saw her sign this? And when?

It’s just a house, she says, keeping her eyes down, just the stuff inside it.

Sonny snatches at the edge of the bag, pulls. Maya cries out as her hand slips. She watches, horrified as he attempts to tear the bag in half. But it only stretches, and so he settles for crushing the whole of it in his fist before tossing it on the table where it slowly blooms open again. You could have mentioned it, he says, voice taut as drum hide, come to me earlier to talk things over.

Maya looks from her brother to the lawyer, lands her wide eyes on the former. That’s evidence, she finally says, looking away again, fixing her gaze out the window. On impulse, Sonny glances out there too, where below is the downtown parking lot. That’s where he met her, gave her his arm on their way up to this office, together.

 

They spent their childhood in Fiji, right through high school, living in a shanty house neighboring a lumber mill where their father worked. There was so much green and earth and moisture, the thick bloom of ferns and coconut trees forever threatening to overtake the corrugated iron walls of their two-room shelter. Under their mother’s severe eye, they wove baskets and hats out of palm fronds to sell in the city market while their father disappeared for weeks into the jungly backlands to cut down and haul trees to the mill.

There were volcanoes back there, toward the island’s interior, where the mill workers harvested trees. Dormant. So they said. But late at night, at his small desk, when Sonny dozed while scribbling down answers to his homework by the light of a Coleman lantern, they rumbled, a deep, muffled resonance that vibrated within the cavern of his stomach. It shook him awake, and the light sputtered and the jungle was still and he was uncertain. It never woke Maya, which made him sorry. He wanted to share it with her. But she slept, lay on her bed huddled against the wall, sheet kicked off, teeth grinding.

Extinguishing the lantern, he often gazed out his open window into the pitch black of the island, imagining himself standing on the rim of the tallest volcano where below him the jungle spread in silent waves of rolling shadow. Above, the stars were white-fire knots. The wind was fierce. He leaned against it, peering down into the volcano’s cold gray insides. There was nothing much the eye could discern, but Sonny was sure it wasn’t sleeping. Its solar plexus radiated heat, burning his face.

Most times, in these daydreams, he was alone. But sometimes Maya was with him, clutching his hand, laughing. She danced, closed her eyes with joy, jerking his arm. And he felt joy, too, but was also petrified she might stumble, roll downward and inward. So he didn’t speak. Just held on tight. It wasn’t every night, but there were a good number of them when he dropped onto his bed opposite hers, his thoughts still skirting the rim of that volcano, wondering how to get there.

Eventually he made a plan, got some gear together, invited Maya. They would skulk behind their father and the caravan of laborers who were scheduled to make a logging trip the following day, quietly pitch camp nearby but out of sight, let themselves be guided into the backlands before breaking off toward the volcano. I hear it, he told her. All the time. It’s waiting.

For you? she said, like she wanted to believe him.

That’s what I’m saying. We’ve got to go there.

Yes, she said, considering. And then I’ll hear it, too.

It was backwards, that thinking, but he nodded.

How will we survive out there? she asked, because she was only twelve, he only ten, and they’d never ventured so far from home.

By our wits, he told her.

Of course, she said. That’s right.

I’ve made extra hats and baskets for Mother, Sonny said. He knelt beside his cot, reached under and pulled out a small, stacked pile of each. While we’re gone, she’ll have plenty for the market. It’s what I do after my homework, when I can’t sleep.

Dropping next to him on the floor, she lifted the topmost hat off of its stack, turned it over and around, tried it on. They’re beautiful, she murmured. A thought then occurred to her. You think the volcano will know who we are when we get there?

It knows me already.

And me?

He didn’t hesitate to nod again. She needed something to believe in.

In the morning, they listened quietly from their beds while their father rose from his cot in the other room. He shuffled about in a way that only those who are always weary understand, with a heavy-footed tread, a scratch of the beard, a groan while stretching. There was the familiar clank of pots outside as their mother made coffee on a stove sheltered only by a grease-stained tarpaulin. They heard the splash of river water from the bucket they all used for washing themselves, the wooden clatter of the outhouse door shutting, the rough clearing of their father’s throat, the buckle of his belt as he pulled up his pants when he was done, the hushed murmur of their parents’ voices while they ate breakfast, the rustling of leaves as their father pushed his way through the jungle growth toward the mill.

The children left the extra hats and baskets on top of Sonny’s bed and, while their mother bathed, climbed out the window loaded down with a blanket, a small stock of food stolen from the supply cupboard, and a canteen of water. They followed the mill workers’ caravan of slow- moving trucks down a rough and narrow dirt road, careful to stay within the cover of jungle growth. And they made it far, deep within the backlands where the trees and the brushwood thickened and the world grew dim. Creatures rustled among the leaves, dashed over their bare toes. Sonny squinted, heard the men’s voices ahead, now faint. The canopy above worried him. It obstructed his view of the volcano.

He was aware of his sister’s terror and pulled her close. Her distress dug like nails into his skin. She cowered against him. He felt a great sigh come upward from the soil, murmur through the underbrush, ripple over him. And then he smiled, ready to show her all the awful and beautiful things they had no reason to fear.

The caravan stopped to clear a mass of tree branches that had littered the road after the latest storm. The men’s lanterns were lit, bobbing against the dusk-like gloom. The children sank into a hibiscus shrub to wait, to refresh themselves with bread and sips of water.

Are we nearly there? Maya whispered.

Don’t you feel it? he asked.

She told him no, waited for advice.

Sonny bit into his bread, mulled this over. He swallowed, nearly choked when his sister dove out of the bush. And then two thick, steely fingers gripped the top of his left ear and pulled him up. Wincing, heart drumming a rush of blood to his cheeks, he found himself nose to nose with the deeply furrowed, weather-beaten face of his father.

And visible in his periphery, through the dimness and sting of his tears, down the road toward home was Maya, skirt dancing around her thin, pumping legs, sandaled feet kicking up dust.

 

Shortly after their move to San Francisco into a ratty apartment in the Mission District, Sonny’s mother said she had decided to start drinking. She saw it all the time, filthy men (sometimes women) chugging from paper bags. She watched the homeless from the living room window, or when on the street as Sonny walked with her to the park, to the store, to get ice cream on Sundays. She watched like she was hungry for it, mouth turned down belligerently, with a sense of something like solidarity. But she never drank.

For a time, whenever they strolled through the aisles of the grocery market, squinting at labels in a language his mother couldn’t understand and he was only barely beginning to, plucking up fruit they were certain had never seen the sun, adding plastic-wrapped bread to their baskets, she eyed the alcohol in glass cases, gave it a hard, savage stare. But Maya was getting too thin, her shoulders and hips bony. She barely ate, the foreign food smells making her queasy. She began stuttering, mostly in Hindi, but sometimes even in broken English or Spanish. She couldn’t sleep, was fearful of all those people swarming the streets. That girl lies down under hard times. Doesn’t believe in much, his mother said. And so she never drank.

She gestured out toward the city from her perch on their used sofa. Your father would have been so disappointed, she told Sonny. Down below, a cacophony: a bottle broke; a woman shrieked in Spanish, accompanied by a car honking its way through traffic; someone hocked phlegm, then coughed like a consumptive.

You can’t know that for sure, Sonny said.

I can know. She was growing angry. Her husband was from another time before this time, and whereas it seemed to Sonny this should have broken her heart, it only made her mad.

You think he found it?  Sonny asked.

What? That volcano of yours?

I wasn’t the only one trying to get to it. Maybe his father was up there now, learning its secrets.
What makes you think that volcano wanted to be found, to be scaled? You’re just an ant. Ants crawl on you, you flick them off, send them flying.

He must have told you about it.

Never said a word, but I knew. He was after it long before you were. It was the reason he stayed on at the mill. Could have got work with the oil company. Would have paid better. But none of those mill workers would leave the jungle. They were always searching.

He found it, Sonny said, certain. He must have. It didn’t feel right thinking of his father without this certainty. There was no meaning otherwise.

And then she did look heartbroken, just like all those months when she woke up alone and still no word. Who can say why a man goes into the jungle and doesn’t come out? she said. She looked at Sonny then, clearly remembering the many times her son journeyed inland to find his father, to reach the volcano. Or even why he does.

Sonny glanced outside. In the building across the street a pregnant Mexican woman pulled open her curtain. The roots of her hair were dark brown, almost black, the rest a phosphorescent russet, like tree leaves in fall. She watched the street where a young Latino on the corner looked angry, his angry friends reclined on a building stoop behind him. One of them nodded toward a new mural, colors spirited, indigenous people standing proud amidst the fruit of the earth. He pointed at it, and the others looked, their scowls not softening but their shoulders going limp in surrender.

I think he might have liked it here, Sonny told her. But it was useless to speculate. They wouldn’t have needed to come if they still had him, wouldn’t have needed the promise of America to save them.

It’s dirty, his mother said. There’s no nature to keep it clean. The people are distant.

Everyone has a fancy toilet.

That she could not deny. Perhaps that’s also why she never drank. In this new concrete world, without her husband, there were some novelties worth staying sober to enjoy.

 

They had been in San Francisco nearly three months when Sonny had his first taste of chocolate, a melted smear on his tongue that determined the entire course of his future. Shortly after he started cleaning the back end of a boutique chocolate shop at Pier 39, Sometime around Christmas, the manager gave the staff a few leftover bars as a holiday gift. Sonny bit off a corner, floored by the possibilities. At home he melted the rest of his bar down, added cumin and chili—the only flavors that made sense to his palate in those years—then reset everything in an ice cube tray. He shoved cubes at his mother and Maya, urging them to try. They nibbled, marveled as they held their cubes out to the light. They nibbled again, asked for more.

He brought a few pieces back with him to the shop. His coworkers tried them, frowned tentatively, letting their tongues roll over the cumin, the spice. As it melted, they nodded. Encouraged, Sonny began sneaking samples to customers, their faces—every one of them— bright with the thrill of the unexpected.

In the end, this was how he got fired. He had changed some grandma’s recipe, undermining a long-established tradition of gourmet San Francisco chocolate. But, officially, they cited unauthorized distribution. Undeterred, he used most of his last paycheck to get a former coworker to buy him as many bars as possible. He went home, prepared his cubes, halved some for samples, packaged the rest in wax paper tied with string, began selling them on the street in front of their apartment building. With a little research he learned how to make his own chocolate, started playing with recipes, using cardamom, turmeric, cloves, and ginger. He peddled for years, lived with his mother and Maya, worked grimy, menial jobs to pay the rent. He slept little. Some months he received warning notes from the landlord for being late. Other months the lights were turned off, which is when his mother took Maya to Union Square to set up a stand while he made more batches, or had to go to work, or went out to sell in other parts of the city. She wore her salwaar tunics and kameez pantaloons, a tiny, foreign woman in white standing before a mass of commuters and tourists, sporting sunglasses she found next to a tree on Valencia Street. Americans trust people in sunglasses, she told her children. They’ll buy. And they did. She touched their heads, gave them blessings with their chocolate. Maya once told him how she was helping, how expertly she manned the booth. I’m likable, she said. Draw attention because of my smile. Someone told me that, took some samples. It’s critical to get people to taste. He said he hoped people were buying. I sell, she said. I do. All the time.

He often parked a table of his own in front of the cinema downtown. That was where he met Eileen, who said he looked hungry. She brought him lunch a few times, helped him pass around samples, brought friends to try his chocolate, paid for plenty herself. She finally asked him for his address, which he gave because her ears were beautiful and small, because her legs were long, and because she worked in radiology and saw photographs of people’s bones. One day she showed up at his house with groceries. Maya and his mother were out at Union Square. This was during the worst of it, when his family relied on candles for light and on a gas-lit camping stove to cook and heat water for bathing. Ignore the mess, he told her, showing her in, kicking the pile of his family’s house slippers against the wall. He took her to the kitchen. While she unpacked the groceries, he put away dishes from the rack and moved aside all the chocolate cooling in ice cube trays on the counter.

You sit, Eileen said. I’m making you an egg sandwich.

He smoothed out a sheet of wax paper over the kitchen table, grabbed a couple of trays, intending to package cubes, but instead he watched her. She rummaged around for cooking utensils. He pointed to the camping stove. She lit it up, dropped a slab of butter into a pan. What did you dream about doing with your life? she asked him, cracking an egg, letting the yoke fall whole into the warmed butter. Comfort food. She told him she liked to cook, but he would eventually learn that the only thing she could make worth halting the day for was an egg sandwich. I know you didn’t dream about chocolate, she said. She gently broke the yoke with the corner of a spatula, ground salt and pepper into it while it was still raw.

There was a place I wanted to go, in Fiji, he said. I never dreamt of anything else.

She folded the egg in half to finish cooking. What stopped you?

I tried, more than a few times, but in the end I couldn’t get there. He fiddled with the corner of the wax paper, making a crease. Especially when I got older, I kept thinking about my family, mostly my sister. Is that strange?

It is, and it isn’t. She didn’t explain why in either case, and that made him feel like she didn’t really need to. She found another pan, set it on the second burner, laid bread on it to toast.

What did you dream about? he asked.

I’m right where I thought I would be, she said. I assess broken bones, look for anomalies, pinpoint problems, identify where the hurt is. My only gripe is that I see in everyone else what I can’t see in myself. I’ve had coworkers take my X-rays. But I look at the film and don’t feel like those are my bones. Toast done, she smeared cream cheese on both pieces, set the egg on one half, added a slice of tomato, spinach leaves, aged cheddar, hot peppers. She took a bite of the sandwich before passing it over on a plate. Let’s go to that place, she said. In Fiji. We could catch a plane.

He stared at the sandwich, the egg running a little where she’d bit, the spillover of cream cheese globbed on the crust, the bounty of ingredients packed in. She really meant it. I don’t think it’s there anymore, he said.

It took some time, but the demand for his chocolate spread across the city. A man sought Sonny out, said he had heard about him and his chocolate. He placed an order for three hundred cubes, wedding favors for his reception; his future missus was mad about chocolate and mad about ginger. Soon others placed orders for their office parties, for graduation gifts, anniversaries. Sonny stayed up late with his mother and sometimes Eileen, even Maya when her nerves weren’t overwrought, racing to fill the demand. When Maya showed interest in a young man from India, he was able to set money aside for her dowry, buy her an apartment near the park, give her a wedding. He bought a shop in San Francisco, then two, then three, then four, hired a staff for each, his business spreading out to Berkeley and down the peninsula toward San Jose.

Look what chocolate can do, Maya said as he gave her a tour of the Hayes Valley house he had bought for their mother. A surprise. The deed—in his hand, scrolled and tied round with red ribbon—was in her name.

We sold hats and baskets to get here, he replied. Their footsteps echoed across the empty wooden floors. Sold chocolate. This business is as much yours and Mother’s as mine.

She opened a window, testing its rope pulley. Yes, she said, turned to him. We earned it.

 

Steely fingers pinched the top of Sonny’s ear. Hibiscus petals littered the ground, harder to see as the backlands grew dimmer. When you were two years old, his father said, Maya four, I threw you both in the water, in a still little nook down the river. Deep enough. He waited until he was sure Sonny was listening. You thrashed about until you caught a rhythm, paddled your way to the water’s edge. She splashed some, but then she sank, completely stopped moving. I had to fish her out, pat her back. You got that? Know what that means? Sonny grimaced. Be grateful she ran off, his father said. Saved you some trouble. He eyed Sonny with skepticism, released his grip but did not move away, his hot breath smelling of mustard seed. You don’t believe me. You’ve got too much feeling. Then he did step back, deliberating, rubbing the thick stubble on one of his hollow cheeks. After a minute, he beckoned. Come. You’re here with me now. Sonny rubbed his burning ear with caution. This was a privilege, staying in the backlands. There would be consequences, but those would come later. For now he was one of the men.

The crew drank the native brew in the nights before bed during that week, exchanging stories from their mats, sometimes laughing, other times crying. Sonny listened. Their tales were immense, confusing. When they were young, some had jobs hacking sugarcane on the island’s northwest coast, chewed slivers of it, sucked out the sweet juice, offered fresh, sugary sticks to the young teenage girls who wrestled with them between the stalks. One man still had the scar down the back of his leg proving that his tussle with a girl had been vigorous. Worth the pain, he said. Sweet as the sugar. Lying in the dark, Sonny pictured how he sometimes wrestled with Maya, how she never won, how he pinned her to the ground before running off triumphant, leaving her quietly fuming. And there were bigger stories, ones that made the nights stop moving. Some of the men had crossed the sea from far off countries, landing in Fiji with dead babies and new wives. Some had great grandparents who were brought here in chains. Some said their ancestors were eaten by the natives.

His father had a tale, said he had once been bitten by a snake, passed out cold deep in the jungle. But when he woke there was no pain, there was nothing at all, no marks, no evidence. Sonny watched the lantern light reflect off his father’s bare arms, that hard, impenetrable skin, and marveled at what his father might have dreamt while passed out cold deep in the jungle: past lives, distant stars, swimming unharmed through lava, his unshod feet marching through rivers of rice. He always said there was never enough rice.

Sonny had no tales. Not yet. But he could sense the volcano’s drumbeat, faint, always echoing in the pit of his stomach, and knew tales were coming. The volcano’s not sleeping, is it? he asked the men one night. The mood frosted. None of them said anything, not even his father.

Most put out their lights, turned over on their mats. But his father peered grimly at Sonny, the flame from his lantern strong, flickering in his dog-tired eyes.

In the day, while working, the men never spoke. Sonny roped trees, shouted the warning cry as their trunks, nearly sawed through at the base, swayed before the final collapse. His voice sliced through the jungle, betraying the men’s silence. The earth groaned and shuddered with each impact. They loaded logs onto the flatbeds, forming a clearing. Light penetrated the jungle where leaves and branches had once blocked it out. Squinting up at the sky, Sonny saw the distant cone of his volcano, rocky and looming.

You’re after it, his father said, standing close to his son.

I don’t know why.

Because up there, there’s nothing to answer to, his father said. He squatted, gathered wet dirt between his meaty fingers, chucked a pebble into the clearing, stood tall again without even a glance skyward, wiped his hand clean on his pants. But this jungle grows back quick, he said. In some days that view will be gone. Eventually, everything here gets swallowed. I’ve been carving paths through this land for two decades. Against all my hopes, I’ve seen it happen. I still get lost out here.

Are you going to it?

His father squinted one eye. I got married, had children. It wasn’t clear to Sonny if his father thought those were good things. His father set his hand on the back of Sonny’s neck, palm warm, softer than expected. Only enough of me for you.

Sonny reached back, put his hand over his father’s, his elbow angled upward, face prickling with heat.

His father slid his hand out, grabbed his saw that was leaning against the tire of a truck, stomped his boots on the soft earth. We’re heading back now, to your mother. There will be nothing but weaving hats and baskets for some time.

 

After nine years of marriage, Maya’s husband shoved his shirts, slacks, and underwear into a large bag and checked himself into a motel on Highway One. The day he walked out, Maya stumbled across town from her apartment to Sonny and Eileen’s house, mascara dried in tracks down her face. Eileen, her two kids in tow dragging their schoolbags, found her on their doorstep, crouched and mewling. It wasn’t the first time. Eileen closed her eyes, breathed out a heavy sigh through her nose, fighting the sympathy for Maya that always derailed her better judgment. Her sister-in-law could make a busted water heater or her car’s clipped side-view mirror seem like the apocalypse. She would come over in tears, stay for dinner until Sonny arranged to get things fixed. Maya, Eileen began. The children sat on the stoop to wait.

Maya rushed over, threw her arms around Eileen. I’m sorry for coming over like this, she said. He’s gone, closets cleared and everything. Eileen ushered her in, placed her on the couch with some tissues, excused herself to set out snacks for the kids. After the kids had raided the cheese and crackers from the kitchen table, Eileen stood in front of the refrigerator, thinking. She pinched the bridge of her nose, then pulled out the ingredients for an egg sandwich. Sonny got home from work soon after, kissed her cheek. He placed a pot of water on the stove to boil, kissed her again, but Eileen wasn’t softening.

Sorry, he said, I know she’s not easy. But this time it’s really serious.

I know, she said, stabbing the yoke with the spatula.
When the water was done, Sonny added lemon and honey, two shots of brandy. Eileen followed him into the living room where he delivered the toddy into his sister’s trembling hands.

The kids watched from the hallway.

He left, Maya told Sonny, holding her drink with both hands, her elbows digging into the tops of her legs. Said we never had children, like it was my fault. Said I never have ideas, that I never do things, just let things happen. I’m not a partner, he said. I take.

Sonny pointed at the toddy. Drink, while it’s hot.

Eileen put the sandwich on the table, nudged the box of tissues next to it. But she didn’t sit down. Maya, she started, but Sonny cut her short with a look. That’s unfair, she told him.

Now’s not the best time.

Maya wiped her nose with a tissue. Can I stay here for a bit?

We’ll figure something out, Sonny said.

Eileen put her hands up. Wait. Maya, it’s all well and good that you’ve got the both of us to come to. We’re here for you. You know that. But I want no more illusions as to what this is.

Honey, Sonny said grimly.

But Eileen wouldn’t budge, her patience thin as the steam drifting out of Maya’s mug. This is ridiculous. Someone’s got to speak up, stop tiptoeing.

I’m not brave, Maya said, getting worked up again. I know that. I need people. But I can’t help who I am.

Eileen shook her head. I’m not talking about fear or need.

Hey, Sonny said, we don’t have to get into all that now.

His wife glared at him. I’m sorry he left her. I am. But maybe she should have gotten up once in a while, made a damn egg sandwich.

 

Hey, their mother said, snapping her turmeric-stained fingers in Sonny’s face. Customer.

Fiji’s open market smelled of fish, of vegetables lying too long in the heat, of pungent spices. Flies swarmed, brushed against his cheeks. People were passing by; he had to sell more hats, more baskets.

Their inventory had doubled in the weeks after Sonny returned with his father from the backlands. The bulk of it was stacked in their rented vendor stall and hanging from hooks above them. And there were more at home. He held out one of each, fingers raw from his increased work, his punishment.

Good, strong material! he called out to the customer, a large woman carrying a bag of rice. Many uses! She ignored him, moved past.

Maya grinned, wedged a hat over his head. Model it, she said.

Sonny shoved her. You do it.

His mother’s firm hand circled his wrist, pulled him down next to her on the bench behind their stall. Be good to your sister.

I’m good!

His mother released her grip, disappointed. You left her. She could have gotten lost. You can’t weave enough baskets for that.

Sonny turned sharply to Maya, whose smile faded. Her whole face dropped like a ship’s sail. He began to understand in what light she had put things.

She snatched up one of the hats and began shaking it in front of a passing patron. Very good quality!

The man shielded his face, sidestepped her, continued on.

Sonny pounded his fist over a stack of hats, crushing the topmost pieces, because his father was right. Even now, aware of his sister’s shame, Sonny had too much feeling.

People don’t need this many baskets or hats!

 

His sister had already ordered a gin and tonic when Sonny entered Endicott’s Jazz the night before the probate meeting with the lawyer. The musicians had arranged a farewell set to honor their mother. He joined Maya at the table. It was early, not yet crowded. But it would be. It always was when JP, Earl, and Lou were scheduled to play the jazz, which is what their mother called it.Their mother had never missed a show in almost twenty years, since moving into the house Sonny bought her down the street. Sonny was here with his mother just last Thursday. She’d passed a note to the musicians bequeathing  them her record collection and a recipe for chicken curry they had been begging her for. Sometimes people just know when they aren’t coming back, and there is no better time to deal with it than while they’re still here.

Good seats, Sonny said, kissing Maya’s cheek before dropping into the chair next to her. He felt heavy, as if the room’s gravity had been tweaked.

She pushed her highball glass across the table, offering him a sip. Spoke to the guys, she said. They’re really taking it hard.

He declined the gin and tonic, had the waitress bring him a whisky on the rocks.
We’re such a long way from Fiji, Maya said.

I made some beautiful hats.

Sonny crossed his legs, nodded a thanks to the waitress. Maya, he said, you’re doing fine.

I should have stayed there, she said. Could have taken over, made a hat-and-basket business, could have hired people, shipped off a supply to Australia. It could have been big.

He took a nip of whisky. It stung his throat. Yeah, he finally said. He watched the guys tune their instruments. That might have been something.

Maya’s round eyes were soft, drooped at the outer corners like wet newspaper. The sounds of their voices were different, a pitch insincere because what they really needed was to say nothing. They listened to the trio warm up, a sound that carried Sonny to the week before when he had been sitting here with his mother. More people started trickling in the club, packing around his table, and for a moment he felt that he was her. He was a tiny, widowed woman in a white salwaar kameez, a thin shawl draped over her head, steel bangles on her wrists, beaming with her dentures at music she had never heard before turning fifty, a cup of coffee and a glass of soda water garnished with a wedge of lemon on the table in front of her.

 

Thelonious Monk was on high volume, their mother’s favorite record. Up the front stoop and through the door of her house, Sonny could hear the piano notes, that crisp scratch of the LP. She refused to move on from records, put her nose up at tapes, at CDs, at digital audio files on small sticks.

Using his key, he entered with his weekly run of groceries and toiletries, expecting the lunchtime scent of spicy curries, of unleavened bread being buttered, but the house smelled like the outside, like mornings in the park. In the living room, his mother was wrapped in a blanket on her recliner, a full cup of tea, cold, on the end table beside her. Curtains billowed in the wide- open windows through which Thelonious had already carried her.

Sonny lifted the needle off the LP, touched his mother’s stiff face. He saw her sunglasses on a shelf by her keys, the same ones she picked up from the ground on Valencia Street almost two decades ago, gave them wide berth as he passed by on his way to the sofa. He sat, spine fully upright, head cocked as though searching for subtleties in the atmosphere, his mother right there in front of him as he watched the wind blow through the house. He turned to a picture framed on the coffee table, of him, Maya, Eileen, and the kids at Golden Gate Park, in the rose garden. He couldn’t remember that day very well, in a detached sort of way didn’t remember Maya there with the rest of them. It was a long time before he moved, before he let his body curve forward, let his forehead fall against his knees.

 

Sonny downed the last of his whiskey. Endicott’s was stuffy and he couldn’t breathe. Let’s walk over, he told Maya, meaning to their mother’s house, get some air. 
He signaled to the musicians, left some cash and a few bars of cinnamon and clove chocolate on the table for them. They waved, kissed their fingertips, raised their eyes and hands to heaven.

His sister’s face was flushed with gin.

 

Sonny? Maya said, the whites of her eyes red-veined. I don’t remember what he looked like.

They were on the floor in their mother’s den, albums and loose snapshots spread across the rug. She tossed him a picture they’d taken after buying their first camera. Their mother waved at them in front of Coit Tower. They didn’t have any photos of their father.

Sonny flipped through an album until he came across another picture of their mother at Coit Tower, some years later, after the wild South American parrots arrived. She’d been determined to get a stately photo with one of the birds on her shoulder, had spent the better part of an hour trying to coax a lime green one down from a low-hanging tree branch. The best Sonny could manage was of her ducking, looking as if she meant to sneeze, her sunglasses flying through the air, a blur of green diving over her.

Sonny? Maya said again. This whole house, all her things. Tomorrow, when we settle everything, I just feel like I don’t have a say.

He stopped flipping through photos, gave her his full attention. Of course you do. What’s mine has always been yours.

You think all this is yours?

Her question stumped him. That’s not how I meant it.

It was hers.

I know it. He fell silent, flipped through more pictures. Then he sighed.

She knew she was dying. Worry deadened his sister’s eyes. Sonny interpreted that as regret. Her health wasn’t so bad, he continued. It was in what she said, mostly. He was quiet for another moment, the fog of whisky clearing out. She wondered about you.

I was here, Maya said. I visited.

He nodded, deciding there was no need to make a point.Yeah, you came by.

I did.

Sonny handed Maya the photo of his mother and the parrot, hoping she’d smile. But she
didn’t.

When Father left, I never imagined this life, she said. It’s what he gave me, so you’d think I should at least remember his face.

It hasn’t been bad. You’ve got more than you need, had people looking out for you to make sure you had it.

Didn’t I help at all? she said, getting edgy. I was there. Hats and baskets and chocolate.

He paused before speaking, puzzled by her view of things. Sure.  I do remember.

He reached for her hand, and she gave it. Together they leaned back until they were lying on the floor, their gazes fixed on the ceiling, their bodies swimming in photos, in thirty odd years of the past. Maya sighed, closed her eyes, squeezed her fingers around his knuckles.

Well, then, she replied.

He closed his eyes too, and there she was, enjoying herself, uninhibited, dancing blind on the rim of his volcano.

 

Are you ready? his father whispered into the dark over Sonny’s bed, his voice gruff, almost raspy.

Father? Sonny said, his own voice different now, deeper.

He reached up, the stubble of his father’s beard prickling his fingers. The volcano waits.

There’s no way to it, Sonny told him. It’s impossible.

It’s out there. It’s what I’ve been waiting for.

Sonny gripped his father’s arm, holding him. What about Mother?

She’ll always be fine. His father’s voice sounded like a smile, like he was proud. She’s got her own way.

And Maya?

She’s still not ready.

They climbed through the window, dropped into the jungle. Wait, Sonny said. Not like this.

But his father was already gone, and there was no moonlight by which to find him.

 

Maya! Sonny screams through the door. He jiggles the new nickel-plated handle she must have had installed on their mother’s house early this morning. The door rattles in its frame as he pounds.When she doesn’t answer, he jams his key in the lock again, tries to force it. Maya!

He kicks the door, then slumps down on the stoop, the probate documents curled into a cudgel in his fist. His armpits sting with heat, his insides swelling with a frustration that makes him shiver. People on the tree-lined street are glancing sideways at him. The sun is out now, but it’s breezy. He hugs his knees, conjuring up his volcano.

He tried several times to get back to it after his father vanished. His final trek was years later, when he was nearly a man, after his mother suggested they might have to leave Fiji. He didn’t tell Maya he was going. She’d given up on it. But he promised himself he’d go back for her, guide her to it, bring their mother.

For over a week he pushed forward, inching his way through shrubs and ferns and trees, the sound of mosquitoes his constant company. The farther in he went, the darker it grew until there was no difference between day and night. His lantern burned quickly through his supply of oil, so he abandoned it. He found it was easier to use his ears, to close his eyes and reach out his arms, to go forward blind. Sometimes he wept for the light. Sometimes he wept for his father.

Soon even sound was lost. No animals, no insects. They didn’t venture this far. Branches and twigs cut his skin, tore his clothes. Leaves were always in front of him, calling him forward, offering themselves as food. He shoved them in his mouth, chewed, his stomach cramping, his bowels moving. The darkness and stillness made clearer the rumble of his volcano and so he pressed on, speaking to it, asking it for help.

Finally he emerged from the jungle as though regurgitated, landing weakly in a small clearing, light stabbing his pupils as he fluttered open his eyes. Blocking the glare with his arm, blinking, he was overwhelmed by a sensation of tremendous joy. He choked and stammered, his voice hoarse, his face damp with sweat. He stood weakly, opening his arms wide, allowing his vision to adjust.

And there was Maya, sitting cross-legged in the dirt, waiting, her sundress fanned out around her, cheekbones higher than he remembered, the corrugated iron of their shanty house behind her. She didn’t move, but her eyes brightened. He touched his face, seeing himself as she was seeing him, his somewhat thicker beard, thinner limbs, shredded clothes, cracked lips, filthy skin.

Did you find it? she asked.

He still doesn’t know why, but as he wiped tears away, he took a shaky breath and nodded, told her yes.

What did you see?

It’s nothing I can explain. You have to see it for yourself.

Maybe one day, she said and went inside to tell their mother to prepare dinner for three.

His knees buckled and he collapsed onto all fours as his mother came running outside, screaming his name.

The San Francisco air is growing chillier. Sonny rises from the stoop, shoves his copy of the probate through the mail slot, prepared to leave.

The lock snaps from the other side. Maya inches open the door, keeping the margin narrow. I gave it to the lawyer last week, the napkin. I didn’t show you. Mother didn’t begrudge me.

He raises his finger at her, thinks better and starts down the stairs.

She wasn’t worried about you, Maya calls, rushing out onto the stoop, but I never had anything of my own, was robbed of chances. He covers his ears, regretting that he can still hear her from down the street as she cries, Maybe she thought I earned it!

He walks quickly, sulfur from the Pacific in his nose. His feet are sore and jammed into his loafers. He skirts pedestrians and dogs on leashes, handles of bikes chained to lampposts, treads past immense potted plants lining the edge of the sidewalk, passes under numerous overhanging storefront signs. A bee flies close, buzzes in his ear. He swats it away. Keeps going.

 

Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Amrit Chima currently lives in Budapest, Hungary. Her nonfiction has appeared in Global Traveler Magazine and on Untapped Cities. Her fiction has also appeared in Solstice Literary Magazine.

 

 

 

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