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The Unreliable Memory of Fish
It takes Kimo Jini eight seconds to gut
a fish: slit from tail to underside just below the mouth, scoop the
bloody squish and sump, junk the stubborn gills, its butterfly heart,
yank the entrails, then katsu knife swinging, chop off head and forking
tail. He holds their bodies, pressing down with his thumb and the heel
of his hand upon the fish’s head as he saws through them. He barely
has time to take a drag on his cigarette.
There’s no one faster at my uncle Abe’s fish market than
Kimo. I call him the Genie with the manini. He calls me Dumbass. We’re
Harold Kubota—Harold K.—is the other kid on fish detail.
He lays the fish, glassy-eyed and stunned, on the long wooden cutting
board where we all work, near the sink, and scales them hard and fast—though
Harold says slakes, ’cause he’s dyslexic—first
one side, then the other, going faster and faster until the salt and
sequins are free and spinning in the air. Then he tosses the fish in
metal tubs filled with jagged ice for Kimo and me. Our job is to empty
out their insides.
Eight seconds. It’s a thing to see what your hands can do in eight
seconds. My second week on the job, Uncle Abe kept time on his Seiko
as I filleted only my fifteenth aku, yelling Hup hup, when he
heard the katsu blade hacking through the head. That day, on a full
stomach, it took me two minutes and ten, from gill to fin and tail.
Two minutes and ten, and the fish still had the shiny, stringy parts
hanging out of him, which looked for all the world like torn, wet party
streamers. My uncle saw the way I squirmed, the way I closed my eyes
after I’d opened the fish up like an envelope. He didn’t
mince words: I wasn’t cut out, ha ha, to be a gutter of fish.
The thing is, no matter how many times you’ve done it, there’s
something awful about shoving your hand in a belly and feeling around
in there. Even if it’s just fish. It feels sneaky.
But Kimo doesn’t think of it like that. I get the feeling that
he thinks this is all kid stuff, which makes sense because he’s
older than I and has probably seen worse things than the dark inside
of a fish. He’s 17. He’s somewhere in his head when he works,
like he’s in another room with the door closed. Kimo swings his
hands like a guillotine through manini and red snapper, the smaller
fish, and sometimes, when he’s riding a groove, through tuna and
opah, before the first break at ten. That’s a lot of headless
fish before lunch. He strokes and gently holds the fish, as if he loves
them, the thick blade disappearing in the flesh, and then he wiggles
and jerks his hand and slaps the raw guts against the open mouth of
the sink, not seeming to care when blood explodes across his face. There’s
so much of it—the blood and stink are on you even after you’ve
scrubbed with Ajax for ten minutes.
That’s what I hate about gutting: the smell of fish on my hands,
up past my elbows, the thick rings of blood around my fingers. Seeing
the blood on me makes me feel strange, like I’m capable of other
things. I don’t want to know what I’m capable of. I haven’t
even hit puberty yet.
Now Harold K.—he loves a good stink. He’s standing at the
sink, paring away the loose and puckered skin when it’s time to
fillet. He squints and blinks hard, cool as a brain surgeon, then brings
the fish to his nose and takes a whiff.
When he looks up at me, his smile is dreamy. His eyes flutter closed.
“This morning, this was alive, and now it’s dead, and tomorrow,
it’s sushi to go. This doesn’t smell dead, Salvatore. Smells
like saltwater. He’s almost pretty, even. See?” He peers
inside it, as if he’s trying to figure out when dead is truly
dead, or at which point dead could be beautiful, too. “See, Sally?”
It’s four o’clock, a Thursday afternoon. I’ve got
two ice bins of black momi and red snapper to go, and no time for Harold’s
foolishness. “Whatever floats your boat, Harold,” I say,
taking hold of another fish.
There’s no making sense of the things people do.
Take Kimo. He likes to start little fires out by the parking lot where
he takes his cigarette breaks. I don’t know when this started,
this fascination, but he’s lost in it now. He smells like smoke
when he comes to work in the morning, and it doesn’t smell like
his dad’s Marlboros. The smell is heavy and bitter and oily. He
throws green leaves and candy wrappers and whatever else he finds on
the ground into the beat-up flour tins that my uncle gets from Sunya’s
Bakery and Café. The fires are pretty safe in there. They’re
contained, at least. He keeps them small and snuffs them out with the
hard heel of his workshoes before the flames have a chance to really
get going. I can tell he loves this, the way the fire grows and grows,
just a sound of a match at first, and then the gasp and roar. I see
the look in his eye when he watches the fire. It’s like a terrible
secret that he’s trying to understand, and he’s not getting
it yet, but it’s giving off just enough light to keep him interested.
In repose, when he’s just walking around in the world, Kimo’s
face is sad, the kind that takes you by surprise because you don’t
expect it, because most of the time, he’s lipping off or wearing
that cocky grin, his eyes black and bottomless. He’s got his reasons,
which he keeps to himself, but once in a while, when he has to reach
for a plangana, one of those metal bowls that Uncle Abe stacks
on a high shelf, the edge of his T-shirt rides up, and that’s
when I see these bruises up and down his stomach, and once, when we’d
gone swimming earlier this summer, and he’d forgotten to leave
on his shirt, across his back.
They take my breath away. Seeing them reminds me why Kimo Jini gets
this faraway look, like he’s sealed off from the world, whenever
his dad stops by the market to pick up ahi for dinner. But it’s
like I have a temporary memory, because until I catch a glimpse of what’s
on his skin, I can easily forget what I’ve seen. Again and again
the amnesia takes over.
I met Mr. Jini, his stepdad, last year. I liked him a lot when I met
him, I’m sorry now to admit, but that was before I saw the bruises.
You think you know someone, and the truth is, you don’t. You don’t
come close, in fact. You look him in the eye, and he looks at you, and
it’s this quiet look, not mean or hard, exactly, just stern and
unwavering, and this, this, you take as a good sign. You take
this as a good sign. You read the look as loyal. You think, yes, loyal,
that’s IT, and you keep buying into your myth, because you want
to, because it’s easy, because you see he’s got his arm
around your friend, and you see this stand-up guy slapping him on the
back and hear him tell jokes, and they’re funny as hell, these
jokes, and he’s laughing, ha ha, and you get the feeling that
there’s nowhere else that he’d rather be than right there
with your friend, and he punches Kimo on the shoulder—just a regular
dad, wearing his regular-dad suit, goofing with his boy, and it makes
you smile seeing them together, and a word pops into your head, gentle,
and it makes you think, why, you’re one of the good guys, Mr.
I’M WORKING AT Uncle Abe’s because mom believes hard work
will teach me something about character and family. All I wanted was
to reread Homer, go through a stack of books for the summer, help Apo
Sandro with his fishing nets, but mom had other plans.
“Doesn’t matter how smart you are, Sally, and we all know
how smart you are. A man can lose his way. Look at your dad. Whip-smart.
Your dad is whip-smart, but what good is it to him? To us? Nothing,”
she answered herself, looking grim. “He’s got brain damage.
Doesn’t know who he is. Who we are. What’s he doing mixing
up fruit drinks with that Jezebel, Bonnie Pacheco. What the hell, Sally,
huh? What the hell?”
I wanted to tell her, leave him alone, mom, just leave the guy alone,
he’s happy, but I don’t have the heart, because his
happiness doesn’t include her. Or me. Still, I can’t blame
her. It’s hard to get over that—being left behind, no one’s
Penelope. Last we heard, dad and Bonnie Pacheco opened up a fruit stand
in Waikiki, whipping icy daiquiris and halo-halos for the tourists.
From high school science teacher to Mr. Slushee in a year: that’s
my dad; that’s his life now.
When we talk on the phone on Sundays, he sounds different. Lighter,
younger. I hear it in his voice, which he tries to gloss over, but there’s
no hiding something real like that. It’s like a joy that keeps
getting bigger and bigger. You can’t keep it from happening, from
leaking out of you. Mom can’t make any sense of it. I never saw
it coming; I was completely blindsided, she said. She makes his leaving
sound like a traffic accident.
I know she wonders when it happened, at what point he started walking
out on us. She describes this moment as sudden, as thought it were a
wave you had had your back to the whole time, and then it’s upon
you, and you can’t help but notice it now, because now, now you’re
under it, and you’re thrashing, spinning, looking for a slight
break in that hard wall of water, as you’re struggling to breathe.
Mom’s like that when she starts thinking about dad, like she’s
drowning in air.
“Watch where you’re going, Sally. Know who you are. Yes,
know yourself. And,” she said, winding down now, “make yourself
useful to somebody. That, that’s the meaning of life.”
I doubted that she really believed that, but a day later, she came up
with Uncle Abe’s fish market. I guess gutting fish is her idea
of a useful life. She tells me it’s just for the summer. She says
it’s about character, but I know she worries that I’ll become
like my dad if I’m not careful, or when she’s not looking,
as though in between careless and inattentive, I’ll lose sight
of what’s important and true, and leave her, or leave my family
some day, as he had—that somehow, I’ll reject whatever forces
there are in the world that keep a man from leaving what he knows and
has loved, happy enough to hand over the rest of his life to someone
IT’S 5:30, ALMOST the end of the fish day for us. Kimo has changed
into rubber boots and is hosing down the cement floors. Blood and water
and silvered fish scales swirl around us, then empty into the drain.
Kimo starts to whistle, and the sound is so clear and bright and pure,
it makes me forget I’m butchering fish.
At six, we punch out. “See you mañana,” Harold K.
calls out, only he says, ñamama, with the tilde misplaced and
hanging, and I start grinning, because the nonsense word always gets
me going no matter how many times Harold’s messed it up, and Kimo
says, yeah, aloha nui, Harold, and returns his wave. He gives me a tiny
smile, but only after Harold K. is down the street and out of earshot.
Always playing it cool, that’s Kimo.
We head toward the dark ridge, cutting across the parking lot into the
grassy field, into that empty light of sunset, when the air is cool,
and the sky folds up in this blue violet light, and you know it’s
the end of the day, because the world seems to move just a little slower.
The smell of fish and disinfectant and blood and Kimo’s burning
cigarette makes my nose twitch, as though it doesn’t know what
to do with these different smells, layered one on top of the other,
one of which is deep and old, like it’s been around since Methuselah.
“Man, I smell like fish rot,” I say. I feel the chunky rivets
and studs of fish scales on my arms, and pick them off me. “But,
unlike Harold, I do not love it. Not at all. And girls don’t dig
it, either. I know that much about the ladies. Which is probably why
Janice Gamido doesn’t give me the time of day.”
“That’s probably right,” Kimo says, grinning his lopsided,
easy grin, the one that causes Janice and all the lunch-time girls who
work at Sunya’s Café to blush and shift their feet. “Can’t
say that most girls go for fish rot. But you never know, Sally. You
never know.” He doesn’t mention that my chance of dating
this summer, fish-smell or no, is about zero percent. Nor does he ever
razz me about Janice Gamido, or why my voice hasn’t changed yet.
I like him for that. I like him for a lot of reasons, but I like him
especially for that. It’s a form of kindness, his tact, his silence.
Kimo slowly turns to me. He says, “You know what works, Sally?
Smoke. Masks the smell of everything.”
I give him a look that says, uunh-hunh, sure. You’re going to
have to get up earlier than that, my friend. I’m not buying.
“You think I’m kidding? I’m no kidder, kid. But I
guess you’re one of those boys who has to see for himself.
“Right here,” he says. He sticks the cigarette between his
lips as he talks, like an outlaw, like that gunslinger Josey Wales,
and pulls something white out of the back pocket of his jeans, and unfolds
it like a map. I recognize it as paper that we use to wrap fish. He
turns it tight, thick as a roll of dimes.
“Is that right, Sally? You need to see it to believe it?”
He strikes a match. I hear the sound of sulphur sizzling, hear the tiny
He’s still got that cigarette in his mouth, when he asks, “Ever
smell hair burning?”
I try not to show it, but my mouth feels dry and hot and sticky. All
I want is to go home, drink a tall glass of water, take a hot shower,
get the smell of fish and death off me.
“No,” I say, trying to be cool.
“Never? No? Really, now.” He lights the paper kindling on
“C’mon, Kimo. Cut it out.”
“How about skin? Ever smell skin burning?”
When I don’t’ answer, he says, “It’s something.”
I swallow hard, and feel my heart banging in my ears, and I wonder,
man, how’d we get here? Things can turn so quickly. You’ve
got no hold on your life from one second to the next. We were just talking
I don’t know how to answer. I make myself look at him, at the
burning kindling in one hand and his cigarette carton in the other.
I look at the ends of his hair, expecting to see them singed. But they’re
not, thank god. I don’t know what I’d do if they were. And
I don’t know why this comes to me, because I’ve seen Mr.
Jini only a couple of times, but I see the image of Mr. Jini smiling,
definitely younger, maybe drunk (yes, drunk, because it’s too
unbearable if he isn’t), and he’s standing over Kimo with
a lighter in his hands. I glance at Kimo, and meet his eyes. There’s
something hard there, something that won’t give.
“Don’t be stupid,” I say, watching the flame.
He says, “You’ve never really lived.”
He stands there, the fire burning closer and closer to his hand, and
he’s looking through me, and whatever I’ve known of Kimo
Jini is gone in that moment. It’s as though he’s crossed
over to some other place, and what’s between us is a darkness,
a slow-moving river that’s about to sweep him off his feet, and
I’m standing on the other side, and he’s gesturing at me,
though it’s more like a thought that flashes between us, but I
hear him, and what he’s saying is, Come on over, Sally, come
on over here.
The rest of the world is moving so slowly around us. It’s just
him and me.
“Cmon, Kimo. What are you doing? Put it out. Wind’s picking
up.” Which is a lie. And of course he knows it. But it buys me
time, or the moment splits off into two, the one moment between his
fingers, and the other settling all around him so that he doesn’t
quite know how to take it. The sky’s blanching and the stars are
late in coming. He looks up, as if to take note of where the wind is
blowing, and then he slowly turns to face me. There are dark circles
under his eyes; the contour of his face is sharp against his T-shirt.
I get the sense that he wants to say something because he takes a step
towards me. “I used to know more, Sally,” he says. His voice
is shaky and sounds so far away, I have to lean in to hear him. “I
used to know more about a lot of things. About what things are always
true, or always wrong. Or what I need to do. But it’s getting
The fire’s steady, still flickering, and I know that it’s
just beginning to blister his skin, but he’s not even looking
at it. What I want to say is, I know, I know what you mean, or, it’ll
come back to you, don’t worry, and I get this crazy cold feeling
that the rest of Kimo’s life depends on me saying something, anything.
But I don’t. I say absolutely nothing. I feel the silence withdrawing
into the shadows of the trees around us and when I look at him again,
I feel ashamed for not being a good enough friend to him, for not knowing
how to help. I feel the moment slipping through my hands. He looks at
me for a beat or two, expecting something, and then his eyes fall away
from mine. He returns to the flame. He’s transfixed watching it,
as though he were willing himself to pass through the fire. He keeps
his fingers still and takes the burning, and I see him wince, his face
going silvery like that dying light. Finally, he pinches the flame between
his fingers, and I hear it being snuffed—pffft: the sound
of nothing between his fingers—and then his eyes go out, too,
but he starts to smile, as if he’d done something fine and rare
for me. He shakes his fingers and looks at them.
“What was that all about? Christ, Kimo.”
“What was what about? Be specific, dumbass.” His tone is
“That.” I feel like I’ve been swallowing chunks of
sand. “Man, you don’t have to be a tough guy. You’ve
got nothing to prove with me.”
His face gets stony. “Tough guy? Hell, Sally. What are you talking
about? That? That has nothing to do with this.”
Ever since I saw the bruises on his back, Kimo’s been irritable,
like he’s holding a grudge against me for being an accidental
witness. He refers to his beatings as that, gesturing with his
head, as though he were indicating them from a distant place.
I understand why he does it. Things remain unreal until you’re
forced to get a hold of them, until you have to give them a name. This
is this, that is that. Classifying stuff. That’s
what you have to do to get a toehold on your life: name what you know,
sort them into the right rooms. Believe me, if I could, I would take
back the moment when I saw Mr. Jini’s work on his back. I wish
I’d never seen that; I wish I’d never met Mr. Jini.
Kimo grinds his cigarette under his heel. He turns onto Ho’okipa
Street. I know he’s thinking about stupid things we’ve done,
like egging cars as they sped past us on Pauhana Road, and other things
I don’t want to think about.
“When’d you get to be a drag, Sally?” He flicks the
useless match on to the grass and rubs the tips of his fingers. “You
used to be such a pal. My pal, Sal.” He isn’t smiling, and
there’s something so mean and small in the way he says my name
that I feel out of place on the road leading home. He’s my best
friend, but sometimes he makes me feel alone.
We don’t say anything for a while. We just walk, his hands close
to his sides, mine in my pockets. I have no idea what to say to him.
A breeze picks up and moves around us, and I catch the scent of the
sea and trees and leaves and some kind of flower, pikake, maybe,
and just then it reminds me how much I love this place, because every
so often, you get to feeling restored, and you weren’t even aware
that you’d been feeling low or lost or tired, but you feel better
just then, and it’s all because a warm wind is coming in from
the sea, a smell you’ve known all you life, blowing around you,
and you don’t even know just how much you’d been missing
it, until it starts swirling and pinging off the grass and lighting
off your clothes, sounding like chimes off your skin. Yes, chimes. I
love that. I don’t turn my head, but I know Kimo doesn’t
notice the sea that’s come in. I get back to the business of walking.
I try to whistle through a dry mouth, and try not to think about the
look on Kimo’s face as he took the burning.
The light in the sky is deepening, and the wind stirs through the leaves
of the trees. It’s my favorite time of day. The sky is not yet
spent, and the trees are trying out their music on us, one that keeps
people outside just a moment longer, and the neighbor kids are playing
one last round of hide and seek, and the screen doors are swinging open
to let out fathers with their lawn chairs. I like the sound of mothers
calling out the names of their children in the darkness, telling them
to go wash up; the names stay in the trees, becoming one long and unbroken
sound. It’s restful and safe, the sound of mothers, and it makes
me think of my dad, to that time when he was still around, and still
in love with mom.
I pick up my pace, and feel relieved when I finally see our avocado
tree at the far end of the blind street. Some things you love simply
because they help you remember a time when you were happy, when you
felt weightless in the world. The avocado tree with its thick, springy
branches and its broad and waxy leaves was like that for me.
“Hey, come have dinner with us.” I don’t know if he
can tell from my tone that I’m looking for a second chance. Besides,
I’m not ready to write off the evening, because Kimo’s most
like his old self when he’s around my family, and I know it’s
just a matter of time for him to come around. “Nah,” Kimo
says. “Jini’s home tonight. Wouldn’t be a smart move.”
“Well, tell him Apo’s invited you, and that he’s insisting.
And just the other day, mom and Apo Mei asked about you. They like having
you around, I guess. Beats the hell out of me.”
“Yeah?” Kimo lifts his chin, and starts grinning. He thinks
about it for a bit, kicking at loose stones on the road. “Better
not. Besides, you haven’t even asked.”
“Trust me, they’d love to have you.”
“I don’t know, Sally. They might have plans. I’d be
nothing but trouble.”
“Cut it out, Jini.”
He does a double take and shoots me a dark look. “I’ve asked
you not to call me that. That’s not my name. You know I hate that
name. Prick.” The word sounds ugly, the hard p and k splintering
the air, like he’s loaded a slingshot and sent the black stone
flying, and for a second, I think he’s referring to me—did
he just call me a prick?—and I feel a burning start to creep
up my neck and ears. My hands feel clammy, and just as I’m about
to say, honest mistake, guy, what the hell, I see that Kimo’s
a thousand light-years away. He’s not even thinking of me as he
glares at something ahead of him, just beyond the ridge.
We come up on the avocado tree, where Apo Sandro has hung all of his
fishing nets on broad-head nails. When I was younger, I hid inside them
when I played hide and seek, believing I was invisible, liking the lead
weights on my chest, while I felt around for the holes in the net. I
imagined I was an ulua who had a perfect memory of all the nets
and all the escape holes, and all the fishermen who had come that season.
But I was six then, still young enough to believe that a fish had anything
like a memory, or that sometimes it was better to not have one, fish
Apo Sandro stands up when he sees us and claps Kimo on his back, asks
him, how you doing. He wears a khaki shirt with holes and a frayed handkerchief
around his neck. My apo’s back is bowed and his skin is tough
and brown from saltwater and sun, but there’s something in the
way he welcomes you and says hello and looks you in the eye when you’re
talking that makes you think he’s a prince from long ago.
I don’t realize I’m hungry until I walk into the kitchen,
and I smell roasted garlic and teriyaki chicken and the steamed pork
buns that Apo Sandro loves so much.
Mom wrinkles up her nose, making a big show of the smell of fish on
us, but I know she doesn’t mind it so much, and I know she’s
happy to see Kimo. Kimo grins, and looks like himself again, and I feel
calmer, the chill of that moment near the ridge finally leaving me.
Stay a while, I want to tell him, but I don’t, because some thoughts
don’t translate well out loud.
Apo Mei gives Kimo a big hug, and Kimo practically swings her off her
feet. She tells him that she won this week’s sakura jackpot
at the senior center.
“Gambing’s legal in Hawaii?” Kimo asks.
“Ah no, everything’s under the table. You know, side bets,
winner takes all. Just between us old ladies, yeah, so what’s
the harm? Two hundred fifty dollars and forty-three cent!?” Apo
Mei says, her eyes widening, as if it were a truth she were uttering
for the first time.
“Not bad, not bad. You saving for something, Apo Mei?”
Apo whistle-chuckles through the gap in her teeth. “Heeth heeth,”
she laughs. “What would an old woman like me do with money? I
just buy more rice, more fish, maybe a new pillow. Heeth, heeth. This
money’s for Salvatore. I’m saving up for his college.”
No matter how many times she’s mentioned this, I feel happy, the
way you can’t help but feel when someone has faith in you.
Kimo asks to use the phone, and disappears around the corner. When he
returns, he gives us a thumbs-up sign. Everything okay at home, my mom
asks. Sure, Kimo says.
Wash up, fish-boys, she says. She pushes us toward the bathrooms, and
asks me to lend Kimo some clean clothes.
I take a long shower, scrubbing myself with the lava stone, letting
the fish blood trickle down my arms. I change into a blue T-shirt, jeans.
I hear someone shuffling in the ancestor room, a nook off the hallway,
where we keep our candles burning for our dead, and leave out plates
of food. Apo likes to keep her money in one of the urns, which had been
filled with the ashes of her grand aunt Ling, but ma noticed one day
that the base was slightly bigger than the shelf, and worried that it
would topple over, just the slightest bump is all it would take, so
she bought another urn for Grand Aunt Ling, one with a smaller base,
and so Apo transferred the ashes, and filled the other urn with her
winnings, rubberbanded and fat as lumpia rolls. It seems to me
that space never stays empty. People are all the time looking for ways
to fill it up: ashes of the dead, sakura winnings, small fires, et cetera,
et cetera—with whatever they can make fit.
“Apo?” I ask, and the shuffling stops. I look inside the
room, which smells like ginger and awa root. A branch of a lemon
tree scratches against the window screen. The urn is glazed in orange
and black, which reminds me of the color of ancient koi fish with their
gaping mouths, their eyes whitened and gluey like a blind man’s.
I see nothing else, so I walk down the hall and join my family. Kimo
takes his time getting to the table; the side of the rice bowl is starting
to sweat but no one seems to mind. When he finally arrives, Apo Mei
claps her hand and teases him for keeping us waiting.
“What took you so long, Kimo?”
He doesn’t answer, just grins, as if that should be answer enough.
His eyes are hooded, but bright, the way they get when he’s had
himself a good laugh, but maybe I’m not reading him right. No
one else takes notice. They’re distracted by the dinner.
Kimo looks at ease with my family. It occurs to me that if you were
a stranger and passing by the open window and you saw him sitting with
us, you would think he was part of the family, maybe my older
brother. Sometimes a glimpse is all you think you need to draw your
easy conclusions. So many things in life are like that. It’s a
little like being the first to wake, long before anyone else is up,
and you’re hoping that everything is in its place, that nothing
has carried over from the night, and then seeing for certain as you
walk around your house, looking into rooms, touching things, feeling
them so solid in your hands, and it’s just a glimpse, but it’s
enough to convince you that your life is just as you’d left it,
that the gods hadn’t turned on you. Because sometimes, they do.
You see a shape at night in the doorway, and it’s your dad, standing
there in your room, staring out the window, into nothing, and you don’t
trust that you’re really awake to know what you see, or to understand
why you feel like crying, but you know the world’s going to be
changed in the morning, and so you shut your eyes and pray for sleep.
I look at Kimo as he passes me the bowl of bitter melons and onions,
but he won’t meet my eyes. His face is not in repose, but his
eyes are busy. It’s just shadows there. I get the feeling we’re
only passing through him, as though he’s not even in the room
with us, and I know it’s the first time I’ve seen this look,
and I almost drop my plate as I watch him because what I feel is a heaviness,
as though that dark-moving river has come into our house.
“JUST WALK HIM halfway, then come straight home. Straight home,
Sally. Don’t make me worry.” My mom stands in the doorway,
while the pale orange moths are dying as they bang into each other and
against the bare lightbulb above her.
“Maybe Sally doesn’t know what’s halfway,” Kimo
says, winking at her, but saying it for my benefit. He can be such a
“He knows halfway. Right, Sally?” I give her a look that
says, I’m fifteen, mom, not four.
She studies my face, ignores my expression, and says, “At the
Tabura’s. What’s that, less than a mile? That right to you,
“Sure.” Kimo clicks his heels together and gives her an
A-OK sign, which in some cultures means, you’re nothing. A nerve
jumps in his jaw. It seems to me his face passes through different climates
as he stands there: cold, quiet, flushed, furious. That vein on his
jaw is jumping, his teeth clenched tight, and right then, I know he’s
thinking, don’t tell me what to do, Mrs. M., halfway is whatever
I want. But I know he likes my mom, she’s one of the few adults
he does like, so I don’t get his attitude.
Mom misses all of this because the next thing she says is, “It
was good to see you, Kimo. Come by anytime, I mean it. Don’t be
a stranger now.”
Kimo looks at me, then at her, as though he doesn’t trust her,
but she stands there, her expression simple and clear and kind, and
slowly, his face breaks out into a real smile. He looks disarmed. All
of this happens in about three seconds. “Okay,” he says.
“I won’t. Thanks for dinner.”
“You take care, Kimo.” My mom stands behind the screen door,
slightly ajar, the burnt moths falling all around her.
But by the time we close the gate behind us, Kimo’s moody again.
“I don’t need a chaperone. This place isn’t exactly
mean streets. You don’t have to walk me home.”
“I know it. I want to.”
He nods, then lights up another cigarette. I hear loose change jiggling
and the rustle of dollar bills when he slips the cigarette pack in his
back pocket. “Mom keeps you on a short leash. But we knew that,
right?” He laughs at this. “’Straight home, Sally,’”
“Lay off.” Maybe walking him home isn’t such a good
“Don’t be touchy, pal.”
“Sometimes, you make it hard to be around you,” I say. “I
can go home, if that’s what you want.”
“Look, no one’s stopping you.”
I stop. Apo Sandro comes out of the house, and stands in the light.
He looks out into the yard, as if he sees me, but he doesn’t have
his glasses on, so I imagine I’m just part of the scenery to him.
The nets glimmer on the tree. Apo bends forward as he sweeps the front
steps. “Okay,” I tell Kimo, “so long.”
“Namama,” he says, Harold-style, and keeps walking. The
tip of his cigarette glows like a red eye, his outline fuzzy as he walks
deeper into the shade of the trees. “I’m stopping by Arakawa
Fields. Come if you want,” he calls out.
I see that Apo is straightening out the shoes and sandals left at the
door. He likes things tidy. He whacks the broom against the front step,
shaking out the last of the dust and the moths I imagine have gathered
there, then leans against the broom handle. He stares off into the black
sky for a second, and his expression makes me wonder what old men think
about. He thumps the broom twice, and heads inside. I turn to follow
him, ready to let Kimo go home alone, but Kimo calls out again, softer
this time, as if it doesn’t matter to him one way or the other
what I do, “Sally. Come if you want, Sally.”
I look at my watch. It says, 4:12. I press it to my ear and hear absolutely
The lightbulb burns steady, the moths swirling around it. Kimo’s
in the darkness, heading west. I jog toward the deep shade of trees
where he is. When I catch up to him, I say, “Okay, but could you
keep track of the time. My watch went out.”
“You’re in good hands, gringo,” Kimo says, tapping
his watch. “This’ll tell you no lies.”
ARAKAWA FIELDS IS nothing more than a mile of pastureland, but it’s
dark and cool and surrounded by jacaranda and guava trees, ironwood
and Norfolk pine. South of the fields, about five miles away, is the
number one tourist spot on the island: the Garden of Ku, a huge crater
of red dirt and gray silt and giant boulders that spring out of the
ground like faceless, nameless gods. Sticky molasses grass grows in
silvery humps on the edge of the crater. It’s as far from the
image of Hawaii as most people get. It’s desolate and eerie, and
sometimes, when the sun’s sinking low, it gets so quiet you swear
you hear the earth breathing with you. Far as I know, tourists have
never come at sunset. Few people could stand that much stillness. Of
the five suicides on the island, four took place in the Garden.
“Uh, nice place you got here, Kimo-san. Quite a view of the trees.
And cows. And manure piles as big as lagoons.”
Kimo shrugs, and leans against a fence post, his legs bent at the knees.
Moonlight is weak, but the lights from the park pavilion near Arakawa
Fields come on just then, and I can see grass, the outline of the fence,
Kimo’s face when he looks in the direction of the lights.
I look around for a safe place to sit, sidestepping the broken mounds
of dung. “Beelzebub, but it stinks here, Kimo. Honest to god.
How can you stand it? Must come for the view, then.”
“I don’t mind the cowpiles, if that’s what you’re
asking. You get used to it. Like everything else.” I think about
this for a second, and start to disagree, but Kimo interrupts and says,
“Just have a seat, Sally, and quit talking about what smells.”
He fishes in his pocket for something, and again I hear coins clinking.
Since when does Kimo Jini have any money? I wonder. He hands
me his pack of Marlboros. “Have a smoke.”
“Nah, I’m trying to cut down.” I find a spot near
He laughs. “Cut down, yeah, sure. You’re killing me, Sal.
You’ve never even started.” Smoke clouds his face. “So,
what’d Jini say when he came in.”
“Uh, nothing. He said not a thing. Well, you saw him. You were
“I was in the back, gutting. You were helping your uncle stack
up fish in the front. I heard the door open and I saw that it was him.
“Well, he said, give me a pound and a half of the ahi. Uncle Abe
wrapped it up, he paid, and then he left. Wasn’t exactly chatty.”
I don’t know what else to say.
“Was he drunk? I mean, could you tell if he’d been drinking?
Did you smell anything on him?”
“I don’t think so. But I’m not sure. He was in and
out of the store.”
Kimo blows out a blue plume of smoke, which seems to go on forever.
There’s a tightness around his eyes when the smoke clears. “Doesn’t
matter. Drunk, sober, happy, sad, he’ll find a way to get into
it with me tonight.”
“You can stay at my house—if you want to, if that helps.
You don’t have to go home tonight. Mom can call your folks, tell
them you’ll be—”
“It’s no good, Sally, it’s no good.” Kimo tries
for a smile, but he can’t quite make it happen. He only looks
sad. “I would have to go home, eventually,” he says. It’s
a truth that fills up the space between us.
I’m struggling to think of what to say next. “I’m
so sick of cleaning fish,” I say. “I can hardly stand to
look at them now.”
“There are worse things. You have to do it fast fast fast, so
you don’t think about it. It’s just fish, Sally. More like
seaweed with peabrains. Think of it like that. You’re just cleaning
“That’s right. Kelp.”
“And the blood and guts? How do I think of that?”
He has no response for this. We don’t say anything for a long
A cow lows in the field, though I can’t tell exactly what he’s
doing, crying or bleating or moaning.
“Some things you never get used to,” I say. “That’s
what I was going to say earlier. And there are some things you should
never get used to.” I think about dad again, and puberty and how
sometimes I feel like I’ve been passed over, but I don’t
want to talk about any of that with Kimo.
The cow keeps lowing, the sound moving farther down the field, as if
he’s wandering away.
“I’m tired, Sally.”
”I know, Kimo.”
“Bone tired. You ever get like that? When you’re so tired,
your bones hurt? Your elbows, and small toes, and the bone around your
eyes, in your ears—bones you never think about.”
I think about my dad, and the days after he left. “Yes. I know
about that, I think.” Kimo’s deep in thought, his face half-closed.
I say, “You okay, Kimo?”
“Sure,” he says. “Everything’s great. Couldn’t
be better.” He gets quiet and wraps his arms around his knees.
The stink of the cowpiles are starting to make my eyes water. I’m
waiting for a breeze, for the cow to make a sound, but the field is
silent. “Seriously, Kimo. Why this place?”
Kimo brings his legs closer to him and rests his head on one knee. “I
have trouble sleeping sometimes,” he says. “And I don’t
always come here. Just last week I went down to the Garden. It was late,
very late. I’d been staring at the ceiling for hours, and you
get to thinking about stuff when you can’t sleep, and one thought
just kept rolling around in my head: it’ll be quiet there.
I don’t think much about sacred stones and gods and mana,
or juju, or whatever the hell, but I figure, why not, I’ll just
walk around. I’ll just walk around for a while. A moonlit drive,
I’m thinking. I get happy thinking of it like that. I’m
just going to take a moonlit drive.” Kimo stops, as he remembers.
“So I leave a note. For my mom. I load up and get in my old man’s
jeep, and in about 15, 20 minutes, I’m there. The Garden is not
what you expect at night, Sally, it’s like some place on the moon.
I walk around for a long time. I start putting my hands on one of the
boulders, the biggest one there—who’s the god of war?—Ku,
I think, and I’m not just running my hands over it, but I’m
taking my time, feeling every inch of it, up where I think its face
could be, and around the eyes, and feet, because maybe I do believe
in mana, I don’t know, and the first thing that surprises
me is that it’s not warm. They’re all cold, Sally. It’s
a garden of cold gods. All the heat from the day has drained away from
the place. The second thing that’s surprising is how spooky quiet
it is. I know I was looking for quiet, but this, this is beyond that.
I feel like I’m disturbing something by being there, so I decided
to walk. West, south, wherever the night takes me.
“At some point, I see that I’ve wandered far from the boulders,
which is not part of my plan, and I get a sick feeling that I’m
being watched. I almost say, who’s there? But I know that no one
is. It’s the dead of night, and I’m alone. I’ve heard
the quiet becomes something else, like peace, maybe, if you stay in
the Garden long enough, but how long is long enough? That’s the
question, right? The quiet starts getting to me, so I think about heading
back, which is now a trek, since I parked the jeep near the boulders,
about a mile and a half away, I’m guessing. Maybe two. I am dead
tired, Sally, so I stop, and for a long time, I just stand there, with
my eyes closed, as still as those boulders. I have no idea how much
time is passing, but I don’t care. I get to be part of all that
quiet. It’s nice, Sally; it really is. At some point, though,
I hear someone breathing. It’s near the molasses grass—a
shadow, crouching. It freaks me out. I don’t like being ambushed;
I’m not putting up with that. I don’t even think about what
I’m doing, Sally. I reach for the gun, and I take aim and fire.”
My head’s pounding and my ears feel like they’re jammed
with cotton. My first thought is, Kimo has a gun? “Jesus.
You brought a gun? Whose? Why?” Kimo doesn’t answer, so
I ask again. “Kimo. Why’d you bring a gun with you?”
”Why not?” he says, his hands opening and closing. His voice
is hoarse; his eyes are bottomless pools. “Why the fuck not?”
He makes a strange choking sound, and then, nothing. The world’s
gone quiet and still around me.
I don’t want to hear anymore of the story, but I know it’s
too late to stop it. “Go on,” I say.
“I shoot at it, and its head jerks back, and I see the tips of
its ears and I see that it’s a deer. A deer, Sally, How could
a deer not have heard me? I surprised him. The moon’s bright,
and low in the sky as I look down on him. He’s still alive, Sally.
Barely, but he’s holding on. I’d shot him in the neck. Blood’s
leaking out of him, and he starts breathing hard, his eyes wild. Just
wild. Huduhuduhuduhudu, fast like that, like he’s shaking or sobbing.
It’s this crazy sound. I can’t describe it, but my knees
go weak when I hear it. And then he starts to buck. He’s struggling
to get up, his front legs buckling under him. He looks so scared, Sally,
and I know he’s dying, but he keeps trying to get up. It kills
me seeing that. I don’t think I can shoot him again, so I kneel
down, and I place my hand around his mouth and nose to try to get him
to stop, and I’m shocked by how warm and soft he is. He smells
like he’s been out in the sun all day. I just keep my hands there,
trying to hold him still, and after a while, he quits struggling.
“He quits struggling, but I can’t let go of him, Sally.
He gets cold. I can feel the cold coming, as I’m holding him,
and I start to get cold, too. Cold in my bones. I’m shaking, I’m
so cold. But after a while, that passes, too. Everything passes through
that place. I’m there so long that I expect to see first light
at any minute, but it’s still night, dark as it ever was. Finally,
finally, it comes to me that I can’t stay. I sit up, and I rest
his head on the ground, and I see I’m covered in blood. It’s
on my face, my hands, up in my nose. Everywhere. I mean, I can smell
him, Sally. I don’t know what the hell happened, or what to do
next, but somehow, I make it back to the jeep. When I get home, I throw
the stinking mess in a pile: my shirt, my pants, everything, even my
shoes, because how the hell can I wear them now? And I burn them out
in the back yard, and I come back in and I remember to tear up the note.
No point in that now, right? I mean, I’ve gone and come back again
and my mom has no idea I’d even left.”
My throat feels tight. “Did you gut him? All that blood. You gutted
that deer.” The smell of manure is making me dizzy, coming in
waves. I see the blade flashing inside the belly of the deer, a long
tear from tail to chest. I see Kimo’s hands disappearing inside
him, feeling around in there, trying to catch hold of something. Kimo
shifts in the grass, and the coins plink with him, and suddenly I get
the sense that what’s in Kimo’s back pocket is not just
some loose change, but apo’s winnings. I should feel angry, but
I don’t. I feel like I’m sinking into one of those underwater
canyons, where new islands, new countries, are forming. “You gutted
Kimo doesn’t answer right away, and when he does, I realize that
he’s crossing that dark river, but he’s standing in it,
at the edge, still holding out, waiting for me.
“You would think that it would be nothing to empty out a small
deer. Thirty seconds. A minute, maybe two,” he whispers. “But
it’s not what you’d expect. It takes forever, Sally,”
he says. “Forever.”
I don’t want a memory of this. I want to go home. “It’s
late. I need to go. I’m sorry, but I need to go. Why, Kimo, why’d
you bring me here?”He gapes at me, his mouth working. “Go?
I just told you something. I’m . . . I’m . . . I
just told you something, Sally.”
“My family’s waiting. This is not halfway.” I hardly
know what I’m saying. I get up too quickly. Blood rushes to my
“Sally,” he cries out. “Help me.” He throws
wide his hand as though he means to catch me.
“No, no. I can’t help, I can’t help you, Kimo, I can’t.
Don’t you know that?”
I’m looking down at Kimo Jini and the moonlight is weak as it’s
falling, but I can see him. “Man, what do you want from me?”
He sits there, absolutely still as he stares at me, and slowly, he lowers
his arm, and pulls away, a quiet coming over his face. “Nothing,”
he says, “nothing. You go home, Sally.”
I CAN’T KEEP myself from falling. The ground is uneven and rutted
and clayey, sucking at my boots. Near the park pavilion, I can just
make out the dirt road that we took to get to the fields. I look up
at the sky, then follow the silhouette of the fence posts, to where
I think Kimo might be, but I can’t see him now. The night air
smells of late summer and damp soft earth and animals. Kimo shouldn’t
be out there alone. He’s there in the dark, with the stink of
the fields and the wildlife on him. I almost make it out onto solid
ground, out of the fields, when the floodlights of the pavilion go out,
first the ones near the gazebo, and then the ones along the promenade,
one by one, tier by tier, until all is darkness around us, and there
is nothing but the lowing of lost animals.