by Corey Pung
Coming of age in Samoa, twins Masina and Lanuola believed their father to be an Olympian. This was the story their mother told: Natia had met Toussaint when he was a merchant marine picking up cocoa beans and copra by the ton and dropping off crates of furniture, clothing, paintings and books to the American consulate in Pago Pago. Natia was leading a dissolute and unrewarding life at the time, running orders and scrubbing dishes in a Europeanized cafe within walking distance of the docks. Local boys didn’t thrill her, she said. Her daughters were at the age they simply thought boys were vasti–stupid–and didn’t catch her drift.
Night fell heavy around the caldera, and once she finished mopping, she’d hustle home, sometimes absconding with a kitchen knife for protection. Life would go on like this, she imagined, until her parents died or she died–in any case, it was a life without jouissance.
This changed when Toussaint came upon the scene. He had a boisterous, larger-than-life personality, sauntering in from the boardwalks singing calypso and mambo songs in a high-volume baritone, blowing his entire paycheck in evenings of buying rounds for his shipmates, plates of pork for local kids and desserts for the waitresses. Everyone wondered how he got by the rest of the month.
Over cheesecake, he got to know Natia with great expediency, regaling her with puffed-up tales of training simultaneously in swimming and weight-lifting with other Olympic hopefuls in his hometown in Maui. Natia didn’t know enough about the Olympic events to know he was too old to be entertaining dreams of gold medals, and even if she did see through his gallantry and ruses, it didn’t stop her from poring over American newspapers every four years and telling her daughters it looked like daddy didn’t place this time around.
The twins didn’t get to know their father until they were thirteen, as their parents’ relationship had long since dissipated under the dual stresses of distance and obligation. They may never have come to Maui at all if Natia hadn’t contracted mamapala, tuberculosis, when she was only in her thirties. Her ailment was proving drug-resistant, and as she was in no condition to raise them, their first option was to be placed in a foster care system already gravely underfunded and overtaxed with the offspring of itinerant sailors. Natia was horrified at the thought of her girls becoming what she called “Nobody’s children,” and at her request, local bureaucrats tracked down Toussaint through his naval records.
Here again, Toussaint blew into her life, a force of nature not to be contained. Having heard of her illness, he called in a favor or two and came to Pago Pago escorting Li Ghouzi, a chijao yishang, or “barefoot doctor,” he knew from plantation days who later was a medic in the war, treating the boys for malaria and other infectious diseases when they were stationed in Tinian and Rabaul. Ghouzi had introduced Toussaint to the curative powers of pakololo–pot–to cure him of the migraines paining him since his navy days.
Toussaint had come to seize an opportunity, as his amatory feelings toward her only intensified in the intervening years of wanderlust and unfulfilling trysts. True, he was currently married and had a young son named Lyron, but he assured her this was strictly a legal imbroglio, as the notion that the only true life was to be had in Liberia was an idee fixe to his wife she was sure to act on. The medic and Toussaint took a hard look at Natia under the mosquito net, acknowledging the number of other illnesses she’d accumulated in her febrile state: cysts, swollen fingers, growths near her armpits, eye infections, low blood pressure, and more. He lavished her with attention but cried big gobby tears alone kicking along the wharf, realizing with some finality his dreams were over, over, over.
Or so he thought. Meeting his daughters, his bombastic spirit returned. It wasn’t long until Toussaint, Masina, Lanuola and the medic were headed back to Hawaii. Westward bound, the girls pestered their father about his Olympic career, questions he could only dodge for so long, until he confidentially told them his reputation may have contained “a little untruth.”
To his credit, he had trained with a coach who would lead a few Maui boys to the Olympics, but he was never a golden candidate due to his questionable citizenship and because his peak years were spent in the navy.
While the medic assured the girls America was the land of opportunity, from their father they gleamed it was a place of little untruths. This ambiguity was a source of discussion during their trip, until the day they arrived at the port. As the sun rose over this island both completely foreign and yet comfortably familiar, the contradictions dissipated and the two ideas become one in their young minds.
The town of Paia was known to be a rough place, if you were white, but if you weren’t, it was just the opposite. Half-black and half-Samoan, Masina and Lanuola were free to traipse along the sidewalk like visiting royalty.
It didn’t hurt that Toussaint was extremely well-connected. So many perks and freebies were available to the Williams’ family they could live a life of luxury while well below the poverty line, if they so wished. Toussaint though was stubborn in his ways. He would’ve starved to death in a communist country; he gave more than he had and took less than he needed. Even in America, if not for the combined efforts of his navy buddies, he’d probably be pushing broom in a flophouse while his kids grew up wards of the state. The community wouldn’t let them fall into penury, leaving Toussaint with ample leeway to pursue his rambling and roving ambitions. When he’d return from a stint with the merchant marines or from performing skilled labor in tropical plantations scattered around the equator, he’d take most of his newfound gains and host a potlatch, giving away everything save for his coveted record collection and his children’s toys.
Their home in Pukalani was a 400 sq ft cottage they shared with their father and step-brother Lyron. In preparation for their arrival, Toussaint bought a folding oriental partition to offer them a little privacy. He also insisted everyone sleep on bamboo tatami mats, claiming these were best for your back and mattresses made you soft. Softness was a cardinal sin to Toussaint. Otherwise, his parenting style could be summarized with St. Augustine’s phrase “Love and do as you please.”
Doing as they pleased entailed skipping school as often as possible and cavorting around Paia instead. Since white people with common sense avoided this area, they were free to play hooky without fear of being found out. An average day involved feeding horses owned by negligent polo players, watching windsurfers practice their ecstatic art, becoming deliriously numb on shave-ice, stopping by Mr. Wen’s shop to pick up comics for Lyron and floating languidly on paddle boards as they unscientifically renamed all of the fishes of the sea.
These blissful days may have gone on forever if they hadn’t discovered blaxploitation cinema. In Maui, outside of their own family unit, the only black people they saw were on the silver screen. Cristine Isidro, whom they knew from the neighborhood, worked day shifts in the ticket booth, smoked cigarettes nonstop, listened to country western on a small radio, and didn’t care one way or another if people snuck in, so long as they didn’t steal candy the manager closely inventoried. Every once in a while, they’d nick cartons of foreign smokes their father accumulated on his travels and leave them for Cristine as token offerings. Then they’d enter the scintillating and fantastically over-the-top worlds of Coffy, Blacula, Dolemite and Sweet Sweetman, stepping out when they pleased to chase each other in the alleyway, substituting this small slice of urban decay for the gritty cityscapes of the cinema.
While the largely white faculty and staff of the Glass High School long ago immunized themselves against the word “haole,” the sudden appearance of “honkey,” “cracker,” and “cue ball,” caught them defenseless. For a time, Lanuola’s and Masina’s words of angst were untraced and unsourced, perfectly under the radar, until their teacher Lisa Lauser decided to test the class’ reading comprehension with selections from the recently published diaries of Felicity Glass, patron saint of the Glass Company sugar plantations and the benefactress for whom their school was named. Felicity’s English was so patrician it bordered on incomprehensible, but a certain sentence caught Masina’s attention. Miss Lauser read aloud, “It seems to me the Samoan, slovenly in their comportment, unabashedly promiscuous, morbid and uncouth in their girth and bearing, are perhaps even more in need of the gift of shame offered by Christendom than the former cause celebre of our missions, the misbegotten African…”
At this point, Lanuola snapped her pencil in a paroxysm of sudden indignation and shouted, “Yo, teach, you aks me, that some funky jive-ass bullshit!”
Miss Lauser spun to face the class in anger, “Who said that?”
In the developing world, martyrdom was a way of life, and to some it was the only life they knew. When their teacher threatened referrals all around unless the misbehaving pupil was outed, it was Masina, not Lanuola, who raised her hand.
Masina’s time in detention wasn’t enough to placate Miss Lauser. Poring over the twins’ files, their long record of truancies and failing grades was seen in a harsh new light. Other staff may have offered them a pass since their file stated their mother was gravely ill and their time in the US was brief, but Miss Lauser considered herself morally principled. After trying to contact their father numerous times, she decided on taking the direct approach and drove up to their address in Pukalani herself.
Immediately, her nostrils were assailed by the pungent and effluvial odor of marijuana lingering in the sultry air of the garage. Receiving no response following numerous knocks, she peaked in through a gap in the blinds to see Lyron sprawled out on the floor, totally unsupervised, burying his nose in a stack of superhero books with a David Bowie album blaring at full blast. Even returning to her car, she could smell the insidious reefer and hear the lissome singer caterwauling as she reversed out of the neighborhood, “Is there life on M-a-a-a-a-a-a-r-s?”
Her next stop was to immigration services.
Her chief complaint?
“They don’t even have mattresses!”
“Hataclaps, ay suffah. Got us a sticky wicket, eh girlies?” Toussaint said in his distinctive wayfarer’s argot, a jigsaw of patois, trade languages and carry overs from colonialism becoming increasingly jumbled as his emotions rose. Since they had a guest, Masina stepped up to translate.
“He means this is a bad day, Mrs. Wen.”
“Miss,” she replied.
Ms. Wen Ai came of age in Maui rooting for weeds and doing menial tasks in the Glass plantation in Puunene, where Toussaint was a friendly presence among the otherwise brutish foremen and supervisors. Ai went on to defy the common fate of plantation girls, attending college in the mainland, landing in a firm specializing in immigration law.
Her advice? While they waited for their plea to travel through the proper channels at the courthouse, they should “Put your best face forward.”
Americanizing the Williams family was a community effort, and Toussaint called in every favor he was owed to its end. At Mr. Wen’s Dry Goods store, they learned shortcuts in arithmetic ringing up long lines during Sunday evening rushes. He also taught them how to read and disseminate baseball stats, only later learning they’d never watched a game. Cristine’s younger sister Bituin was angling to be a teacher and tutored them in English in the afternoons in exchange for lessons in basic Spanish, Amharic, French and Samoan from their father. Cristine, a connoisseur of fashion in a previous life, taught them how to color-coordinate outfits and how to style French braids and chignons. Li Ghouzi showed them the inner workings of a compost heap to illustrate the natural cycle. Even Lyron got in the action, showing them demonstrations of how magnets, electricity and chemistry worked using cheap kits he ordered from the back pages of comic books. In a month, from their friends and family they learned more than they would have in several years at the Glass High School.
As they showed up in class unfailingly, primly poised behind their desks in polka dotted dresses Cristine helped pick out, Ms. Lauser too changed her outlook on the twins, and would have rescinded her complaint to the immigration bureau if only it worked that way. To attain a passing grade in spite of their astronomical absences, Ms. Lauser said they would need to only read a chapter book from the school library and turn in a paper on it. It was a generous offer, but they were chagrined to find their options limited to stories about wagon trains and Manifest Destiny or white girls solving mysteries. Scouring the shelves, they both eventually settled on Coming of Age in Samoa, largely for its title.
All this fast acculturation would have likely satisfied the board, but Toussaint decided the final touch would be attending the upcountry Baptist church where the Glass family were known to reside, and where Felicity herself, well into her eighties, was trotted out, a queenly figurehead, to play clunky renditions of Handel’s Messiah on the pipe organ.
Unbeknownst to Toussaint, Teddy Glass, Felicity’s son whom he’d served with in the war, was completely unhinged after yet another candidate he personally backed lost in the local elections. In fact, not since Hawaii had achieved statehood in 1959 had they ever elected a Republican into office. “How ungrateful!” Teddy shouted, balling up the newspaper results in outrage, resolving from here on out no more kid gloves, half-measures or pulled punches.
From the South, he brought over Moe Locke, a former senator turned pastor who’d lost his seat due to a few hundred verbal gaffes during the Civil Rights movement. To Teddy, Moe possessed the right combination of fire and brimstone, opprobrium, and pugnaciousness to turn the tides of love and cosmopolitanism gaining popularity in Maui.
In the first sermon they attended, Moe preached about the “sickness” overtaking America, evidenced by the spread of free love, loose morals and children born out of wedlock. The heavy-handed use of illness as metaphor reduced the sensitive Masina to tears as she pictured Natia wasting away in a port city, luckless and alone. The second week’s sermon was a rumination on the ruination of America via the de-structured family, this time blaming Roe v. Wade, birth control and unsafe sex. The third week was pure vitriol on youth culture, haranguing kids for wasting their time and money on pop music, space operas and comic books. As church going never failed to put the Williams family in a blue funk, to the sounds of their father’s snores the twins whispered of how something would have to give.
The following week, Moe surprised everyone by starting his sermon in a fanatical rage rather than starting soft and working his way up.
“Who wrote this?” He said from the pulpit, holding up a sheet of paper taken from the box labeled Prayer Topics and Questions. “Let me read it to you. It says ‘If God is love, why so much hate?’ Someone, some smart-aleck thought they were being real clever, huh? Well, I wanna know who wrote it, and I won’t proceed with the sermon until I find out!”
This was no empty threat. Moe stood before his flock, glowering and giving them the stink eye one by one as time ticked by. “I’ve got all day, folks. Someone has contempt for this establishment, the tradition it represents, and for me, and I’m going to find out who it is. Law and order must be preserved.”
More time passed and the audience were noticeably fidgety. As nothing important was going on, the girls used the time to catch up on their reading assignment, until Toussaint gave them probing looks. He whispered, “If you tell truth, it prove you be honest.”
“It wasn’t us, daddy,” said Masina.
“Yeah, not us,” said Lanuola.
“Be honest and fess, girls, before some screechie man who saw you does it for you.”
Masina looked genuinely hurt by his accusation, and Lanuola was about ready to throw a fit before, to everyone’s surprise, near the back of the room Wen Ai stood up and raised her hand.
“Leave and don’t come back, ya hear!”
Ms. Wen left the church without complaint.
“Great,” Moe said. “Now that we have that out of the way, who in the hell wrote, ‘Why you one jive-ass doo-doo man?'”
Lanuola stood up and raised her hand.
A new friction was introduced within the Williams’ house. Toussaint was agitated, speaking more and more of how Maui was becoming “diablemblem,” which the twins took to mean a bad place. Lyron began drawing his own comics where a super-powered half-robot half-human crusader named the Hydrogen Hero–basically a hastily drawn knockoff of Astro Boy but with a fro–fought evil authoritarian bots to free the captives of planet Diablemblembad, a composite of pre-Civil War America and Soviet Russia. Masina and Lanuola found his cache of comics and began to wonder if they’d simply be better off deported. At least in Samoa, they weren’t expected to follow so many confusing rules, codes and etiquettes.
At school, they began to spread the rumor they were voodoo priestesses, skilled in the dark arts of obeah and hexes. They’d learned how to skim from tills and rewind the receipt spools to conceal their handiwork. They spent much of their free time throwing stones at Ho’okipa and perusing dictionaries to flesh out their knowledge of obscenities in different tongues. Soon, cursing was the true lingua franca among them and their classmates.
They stuck with Coming of Age in Samoa, but skimmed ahead to Margaret Mead’s chapter on sex. There, they learned romance was unpracticed among their race, and in its place was a freaky set of rituals involving elopement, clandestine “love under the palm trees,” public tests of virginity, and ever present fears of moetolotos, boys who took. The one great little untruth left to them was the legend of the love of Toussaint and Natia, and when the anthropologist causally wrote off romance, the twins’ disillusionment was complete.
Toussaint was out of the house more and more. He had given up pakololo to please the immigration board, but found his migraines resurfaced full-tilt, requiring him to search out cures wild and various. Toussaint wheedled with Teddy and Moe to give the girls another chance, reaching the compromise the girls could stay in the flock if they atoned by assisting Felicity ambulate around the pews.
A few days in, Felicity tasked the twins with crafting clay crucifixes for an upcoming open air bazaar. As Felicity closely supervised their first batch, the twins found the process mind-numbingly uncreative, and were relieved when the old lady left to set the oven and putter around the kitchen.
“Pssst, hey,” Lanuola said, nudging her sister. “Look.”
Without much tweaking necessary, Lanuola had finessed her clay cross into a phallus of gargantuan size, reminiscent of stone idols of fertility gods. Masina snickered and jabbed at the shape with her putty knife, incanting as she did a sort of mock-Santeria made up of pure gibberish. Lanuola laughed so hard she snorted, and soon both were hacking away at the clay intoning a nonsense fugue of “juba-juba-tuba-luba,” and “okey-dokey-artichokey,” rising in pitch and hilarity until Moe Locke responded to the noise of children’s happiness and grabbed them by the shoulders. “What do you two think you’re doing? Which one of you made this?”
Masina timidly raised her hand.
“Come with me, young lady. And you, you fix that clay right now before Felicity sees and perishes of disgrace.”
Shaking, Lanuola smushed her clay back into a round ball and listened for sounds coming from behind the closed door of Moe’s office. A smacking noise echoed in the church’s acoustics, followed by the sound of crashing furniture. The door swung open and out ran Masina, her expression harried as she called out, “Moetoloto, moetoloto!”
Lanuola hurled her lump of clay at Moe and rushed out with her sister.
Arriving home, they were surprised to find their father and Wen Ai confabbing on lawn chairs about the newest batch of forms sent by immigration services. Toussaint was quick to rise, picking them both up as if sacks of flour and saying, “What wrong, what wrong, what wrong, eh children?”
In a bluster, the twins told the entire story, from the shorted tills to the gossip of occult powers, to the cross they fashioned into a boy’s privates, to Moe’s catching them in the act, stopping short at what transpired in his office–Lanuola didn’t know and Masina was clamming up. The red imprint of a hand on Masina’s cheek spoke for itself.
“Let us go see them right now,” Toussaint said, marching to his truck, a force of nature.
“I will say sorry, I will!” Masina pleaded.
“No apologies!” He said, reversing to the main road. “I sick of the bumboclaat men and bumboclaat rules. We get deported? No matter. We sorry Ms. Wen, but we are citizens of the sea.”
Wen Ai was quiet for a time, with Masina on her lap and Lanuola crammed in the middle. Then she said, “You know Margaret Mead was wrong, right?”
“I heard about it in college. See, the Samoan girls she interviewed lied to her. They were pulling pranks, you might say.”
“So they believe in love, right?”
“Of course,” Wen Ai said. “What’d you think?”
A fire truck blocked the road and they hopped out to approach on foot, shocked to see the rear of the church charred and blackened.
“You two!” Moe shouted, making a beeline through the grass to where they stood. “Returning to the scene of the crime, I see?”
“Are you accusing them?” Wen Ai asked, “They said they sat in the front of the church and the fire is isolated in the back.”
“Ah, that don’t prove nothing!”
“What,” Toussaint said, stepping between Moe and his daughters. “How you think they did that, huh? Think they do black magic or something? Abracadabra, hocus pocus, hail Satan and–poof–fire catch far away?
The fireman chose this moment to interrupt with, “We believe the fire originated in the kitchen. Maybe a faulty wire in the oven.”
In the aftermath of the event, rumors spread among the neighbor kids the twins were responsible for the fire, but as to why they didn’t land themselves in serious trouble afterwards, the kids could attribute it to magic and other little untruths. The twins though could not be bothered, as they spent the following weeks proving their proficiency in reading by helping Lyron complete his epic saga of the Hydrogen Hero. When the forces of evil in Diablemblembad were finally vanquished for good, they printed off a copy at Ms. Wen’s office and mailed it express to Pago Pago, delivered by the nurses to Natia’s bedside right as she was about to check the most recent Olympics results.