by Mariah Rigg
For Papaya, the weekdays of summer are filled with the garden. She and her mama plant cosmos, pick mangoes, watch the chunkily ridged black-white-and- yellow-striped caterpillars curl and uncurl themselves into inching balls, devouring milky crownflower leaves, weaving themselves into chrysalides, so that they can break out as delicately feathered Monarch butterflies. Some days are sprinkled with sun, sand, and salt. Other days they pick flowers on the edges of the brown, dirt trails that run through the green ridged mountains. On the steamy, lazy days they lie in the rectangular shade of the tin carport and read aloud from the Chronicles of Narnia.
Every Friday afternoon, Papaya stands at the end of the long driveway and waits for the blue van to pick her up. Sometimes her honey-haired mama waits with her. Sometimes the two labs do: Coco’s thick, brown tail thumping against the sidewalk, Ginger’s wet, black nose nudging Papaya’s small, round hands. Most of the time she is alone. Most of the time the blue van is late.
When the blue van arrives, she picks up the big, black backpack on the ground beside her, and climbs up and into the open passenger door. She is small, and the door is twice her size. She sits atop a makeshift booster seat of folded, stained towels, loosely strapped in with a seatbelt that is too long for her child’s body, the diagonal of it cutting into her neck when tightened.
The man driving the blue van is 36. Sonny. Her father. His hair is almost grey; there are patches of gold, remnants of curly youth in its locks. He is lankily tall, with long arms and legs and fingers and toes. His nose is strong; his lips are full; his eyes are a medium-blueish grey flecked with gold and set deep, beneath the strong profile of his Neanderthalic brow.
When Sonny sees Papaya, he leans over in his seat to wrap her in a hug. He kisses her cheeks, scratching her soft skin with the patchy, golden-grey five o’clock shadow that has spread across his cheeks and chin and neck.
I missed you, Papaya. His words are accompanied with a lazy smile that slightly lifts his eyebrows, rumpling his forehead. How’ve you been? How’s your mama?
The car is stopped but still in drive. His foot is precariously placed on the brake pedal, sliding with the sideways movement of his weight as he hugs her. Papaya is smiling, the gap between her two front teeth wide, one of her chubby cheeks lightly dimpled.
I missed you too, Daddy. I’m good. Mama’s good. She’s walking Coco and Ginger.
Sonny smiles and relaxes into the deep recline of the driver’s seat, putting his right hand on the steering wheel and the left out the window as he shifts his foot from brake to gas. The blue van bumps down the old asphalt road, cutting through and shooting out of the green valley.
Papaya shoves her entire head out the window, crossing her arms and leaning them against its frame. Her long, straight blonde hair flies in the wind, whipping into her greenish-brown eyes and catching in the corners of her small, pink mouth. The sky is sharp blue, and the humid air is warm. The afternoon sun kisses her: nose and cheeks and arms and shoulders, sprinkling more freckles over the fairness of her skin.
Sonny reaches for the radio knob and turns it to the right. Sister Golden Hair twangs through the speakers: chords of guitar, shakes of tambourine, male tenor. The drums are broken up by chunks of static. Sonny hums along, nodding his head and tapping his fingers on the rim of the steering wheel. Papaya watches him from the corner of her eye, through the bleached tips of lowered lashes. They are driving up the mountain, up the steep, bouncy road, towards the house where Sonny lives with Cathy. The houses blur past them in a mix of white and brown and grey. Halfway up, a jacaranda is in full bloom: carpeting the ground in a deep, soft purple.
Daddy, I’m hungry.
What do you want to eat? I can make whatever.
Papaya bites her lip and thinks. She smiles and lowers her chin. A single dimple, on her right cheek, appears. Can you make fried rice? Please? She is looking up at him with her big, hazel eyes.
He reaches over to ruffle her hair. You got it. Her bangs stand up on her forehead. They blow in the wind.
At the end of the road, at the top of the mountain, Sonny whips the turn into the red brick driveway. For a moment, Papaya is thrown against the back of the passenger seat. Her small fingers clutch the door and the armrest; her eyes widen a bit, but by the time Sonny looks at her she has loosened her muscles. She does not want to look scared.
Sonny puts the blue van in park and pulls the key from the ignition. We’re home!
He gets out of the car and comes around the front to help Papaya out. But she is opening the door, sliding off the pile of threadbare towels and out of her seat before he can get to her. She lands on the bricks of the driveway, hard. Sonny rushes the last few steps as she falls, trying to catch her, but he is too late.
Why didn’t you wait for me to help you? He is both angry and scared, pulling her up from the ground to check her elbows, palms, knees for scratches. The sour-sweet breath of alcohol and dehydration moves the strands of hair framing her face. Are you okay?
I’m fine, Daddy. I can do it myself.
She shrugs him off as she stands, and turns to grab the black backpack from the van floor, but Sonny stops her arm, grabbing it firmly.
I can get that for you. The words come through the forced teeth of a smile. His blue eyes are glossy and sharp like glass.
The black strap is pulled from Papaya’s fingers and she follows Sonny from the blue van through the rusted black of the metal gate down the three red brick steps past the blooming and gnarled bougainvillea to the glass doors of the peeling white house. Sonny punches in the code and the doors unlock.
Sonny leaves the black backpack on the cracked mahogany of a dining room table and begins washing rice, dicing onions, cracking eggs, slicing open a package of bacon. Papaya sits on a high stool at the bar and watches, her elbows cool on the smooth green of the marble counter, her round face balanced in the small curve of her hands. The onions are caramelized; the eggs are scrambled; the strips of bacon are laid out to fry in the pan, are dried on paper towels; the rice cooker slowly steams. Saliva pools in Papaya’s mouth. Her tummy rumbles. Sonny throws all of it together in a big, silver wok.
Sonny places the mounded, steaming plate in front of Papaya. Its savory, sticky goodness gathers in chunks when she lifts it with her fork and in her mouth the crispy crunch of bacon, pop of onions, mixes together: filling and warming her tummy. Sonny stands behind the bar, across from her, leaning against the cabinets as he watches her eat. He nods in approval at every bite. She finishes the plate and Sonny asks if she wants more, but she is so full now, so sleepy. She drags her round feet over to the daybed in the living room, the pune`e, and curls around one of Cathy’s many beaded, purple pillows. Papaya falls asleep to the clink of metal and ceramic, to the running of water, to the snapping shut of plastic containers and opening and closing of refrigerator doors.
She wakes up because someone is screaming. Sonny is screaming. The sound bounces down the steps of the staircase leading to the second floor.
Fuck you! Fuck this!
He is screaming it, over and over. Papaya curls tighter around the pillow and its beads dig into her fingers, her arms, her chin. They will leave marks. The sky through the glass doors is dark. She thinks about how Sonny must sound to the kids that play basketball in the park across the street. She can hear Cathy crying. The phone starts ringing, and she wonders if she should get up to answer it, even if it is only to hang up, but before she can decide she hears footsteps through the ceiling. The yelling and the ringing stop.
Papaya lies there, tense, listening to quiet that is broken up only by the soft undertones of Cathy’s crying. Then there are sliding footsteps down the carpeted stairs, and the slurred muttering of her father’s voice. She sees his knuckley toes, long, skinny calves, the ratty edges of his surfshorts that hang on his high waist. His hand grips the wooden railing. The skin hangs loosely from his face. When he sees that she is awake and looking at him, he tries to gather himself up, to straighten and tighten into normalcy.
How long have you been up?
He nods slowly. He opens the glass doors that lead to the deck. They squeak and shake as metal and plastic slides against metal and plastic. The evening air blows in cool and clean, raising the blonde hairs of Papaya’s arms and legs in goosebumps. He sits on the pune’e and Papaya stares up at him, her hazel eyes big. She tries not to shrink into the corner of the daybed.
Are you still tired?
The question comes out too loud. They wince at the sound. She doesn’t answer. Sonny scooches her further into the daybed with his big, calloused hands and lies down beside her. The pune’e is just big enough for the both of them. She is still curled. He lies on his back: arms at his sides, legs splayed open, like the body of a dead man. He cannot lie still. He rubs his toes together and they get stuck on each other; they make an unnatural, dry sound, like paper on paper.
The sweet smell of his breath is stronger. It permeates the air from his entire body: she can feel it radiating in the heat from his shoulder that rests against her clasped hands. The breeze of the fan mixes with the night air to cool the tip of her nose, her toes. They lie there in silence, and listen to the hooting of the pueo, to the trade winds racing down the mountain. Upstairs is silent. Papaya uncurls. As she gets colder, she leans into Sonny; he puts his arm around her, letting her head rest in his armpit. It is sticky, but warm, and she is comfortable.
Can you tell me a story?
Sonny tries to, and for a while it is fine. His words are a bit soft around the edges, but he makes up for them with gestures and accents. Papaya’s hands are in little fists under her chin, staring at his mouth as he builds new worlds up on old ones she cannot recognize.
Once upon a time, there was a blonde-haired girl. She was a princess. She lived at the tippy top of a very tall tower, and spent her days singing with the birds and braiding her long, blonde hair. She was lonely. Nobody ever walked by her tower, because it was in the middle of a dark forest. The only human company she ever had was her mother, who came once a week with food and trinkets. There was no way in or out. So, when the mother came, she would shout: Rapunzel! Let down your hair! And Rapunzel would throw down her long, braided hair for her mother to climb up.
Papaya sits up in surprise. She has not heard this story before.
You’re lying! Her big eyes wide. She wouldn’t do that!
Oh, she wouldn’t, would she? Sonny sits up too, and grins mischievously at her.
She crosses her arms. No. She would not. You’re lying. Each word is accompanied with a definitive shake of her head.
And then he is tickling her, and she is kicking, screaming, writhing with laughter, while he shouts: Take it back! Take it back!
He does not notice when the hilarity switches to hysteria. He does not notice when she begins to cry, when she begins to use the sharpness of her small elbows and knees instead of her soft hands and feet, trying to escape.
You guys are so loud!
It is the first noise from upstairs since the telephone, since the screaming and the tears. Cathy is stomping down in a fury. The round edges of her face are swollen, contorted with anger. But when she sees Papaya crying, she softens and tightens up again with worry.
Sonny, stop it!
She runs over and grabs at his arms, pulling his tickling fingers away from Papaya. He tries to shake Cathy off, laughing, still thinking it is a game, and his elbow connects with her chin, flinging her backwards. She is crying again, and slaps him, her open hand a resounding smack against his back. When he turns to grab her, Papaya leaps out of the corner he has trapped her into, her small knees and elbows pinning him to the pune’e as she scrambles over, launching herself to hide behind Cathy. She wraps herself in Cathy’s skirt and the air is full of loud breathing and quiet stares.
What the hell were you doing?
We were just playing! Sonny tries to defend himself, sitting up. I was telling her a story.
She was crying! You could have seriously hurt her! Cathy is so angry that she does not even notice Papaya pulling off her skirt in an attempt to hide.
I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry. He is getting off the pune’e, trying to kneel in front of Papaya. She shrinks further back. You know I didn’t mean to hurt you, right?
Cathy steps back and protectively circles Papaya with her arms. No, Sonny. Not right now. You need to go eat something, or sleep it off, or even get drunker if you want to, but not right here and not right now.
He is stopped in motion, about to get on his knees, staring at them both. Cathy continues.
You can’t keep on like this. If you do, I’m going to leave you. And I know that might not matter to you, but I’ll tell Margaret, and you’ll lose me and you’ll lose Papaya. You’ll lose your job. You’ll lose everything.
Sonny is silent. Cathy lets him think for a long while before she speaks again.
Your mother would be ashamed of you, you know.
He winces, and stands. His eyes are only on Papaya when he answers. Okay, I’ll go.
Cathy and Papaya do not move. They do not turn around to watch him walk out of the living room, through the kitchen, to the glass doors in the front. They listen to his footsteps, to the jingling of his car keys, to the sound of the blue van start, idle, and pull out of the driveway: crunching the gravel of the worn out bricks under its black treads. When Cathy is sure he has gone, she backs up into the red couch across from the daybed: pulling Papaya down into her lap, sitting, crying. Wavy wisps of Cathy’s dark brown hair escape from the small bun at the nape of her neck and hang around her heart-shaped face. Her wide hips, soft figure, fold around Papaya.
I want to go home. I want mama.
Cathy bites back her tears. She looks at the clock. It is just past eight.
I’ll take you home in the morning, okay?
Papaya shakes her head tearfully. I want to go home now.
You know, why don’t we eat some ice cream, watch a movie, and talk about it after?
Papaya thinks about it with her thumb in her mouth. She nods. Okay. I want to watch Winnie the Pooh.
Of course. Cathy agrees, tucking the escaped blonde strands of Papaya’s hair behind her ears. Her hands stay there for a moment, suspended. Cathy presses a kiss to Papaya’s forehead.
Papaya is asleep before the movie is halfway through. Cathy can barely pick her up. Papaya’s legs dangle past Cathy’s knees. She is so asleep that Cathy cannot get her to wrap them around her waist. They bump against the railings, toes dragging against the steps as Cathy struggles up the stairs.
In the morning, the blue van has not returned to the driveway.
Every Saturday morning Papaya is deposited at the same street corner she was picked up at on Friday afternoon. But this time she is dropped off by a silver Ford Escape. Cathy opens the backdoor for her, unbuckles her from the booster seat. She makes sure the black backpack is tightly strapped to Papaya’s shoulders before squeezing her hand in a soft goodbye. Papaya walks down the long, gravel driveway, past two houses on the right, two on the left, to the little, white house at the end of the makeshift strip of road.
There is a VW bug under the tin carport to the left of the house. It is small and white and dented. There is a mango tree in the yard, branches heavy with fruit. There is a sprawling lawn surrounded by crown flower trees, sprinkled with a vegetable garden, ginger, gardenias, and marked in the middle by a raised, stone casing full of swaying cosmos.
Papaya walks past all of this, past the two black labs that lie and wag on the porch, up the flaking stairs to the rickety screen door. It is unlocked. It always is. She carefully opens and closes the door so that she does not wake her mama, who is curled up on the long, beige couch of the living room. She tiptoes through the house: across the living room, down the hallway, to the little bedroom in the back corner. She takes off her backpack and leaves it on the floor. She crawls into bed and lies on top of the covers, staring up at the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. They aren’t glowing. The midmorning light streaks across the ceiling through the blinds. She listens to the basket of ferns outside her window thump against the side of the house.
Almost fifteen minutes later reverberations of low calls come from the living room of the house to the small room where Papaya lies. They bounce off the ceilings and walls and are lost in the carpeted ground. A moment later Margaret enters the room, eyes soft and foggy with sleep. Margaret smiles when she sees Papaya lying in the bed, and walks slowly over to her.
How was Daddy, sweetheart?
He was fine, Papaya answers softly, eyes still locked on the stars that will not glow.
That’s good. Margaret sits on the bed, a hand on top of one of Papaya’s small, round knees. Are you hungry?
Did Dad make you breakfast? Margaret is more awake now, more alert, watching Papaya.
Leah made me a smoothie, but it was too cold and then it melted in the car.
Oh. I see. Megan is silent for a moment; then she squeezes Papaya’s knee. Let’s make some pancakes.
They get out of bed, and move to the kitchen. Margaret breaks eggs and pours milk into the pancake mix. Flour rises in the air as Papaya helps her stir. The butter is sizzling in the pan when the phone rings.
Can you get that, Papaya?
Margaret drops slices of bananas and two handfuls of blueberries into the batter-bowl; she scoops spoonfuls of it all into the pan. The batter makes a hissing sound as it hits the browning butter. The pan is too hot. Papaya steps down from her stool to answer the phone.
It is Sonny, and he is crying.
I still love you.
Papaya is quiet. Her father’s face flashes in front of her: untrimmed, greying eyebrows high, chapped lips stretched wide in a maniacal mask of glee.
I’m still in love with you, and I don’t know what to do.
Papaya lowers the phone to her chest. Mama?
Oh, did you forget something in his car?
No. I think he wants you.
Okay, one second.
Margaret flips the pancakes and wipes her hand on the towel that hangs on the handle of the oven. She takes the phone from Papaya and gives her shoulder a squeeze.
Thanks, honey. Margaret answers, and listens in silence. Then she puts her hand over the receiver. Why don’t you go outside and play with the dogs. I’ll finish the pancakes and bring them out in a little, okay?
Papaya nods, but lingers at the door before walking down the stairs. Margaret has stretched out the cord of the phone. She sits at the round, three-person table, holding her head up with one hand; her hair falls in a screen in front of her face. Papaya cannot see if she is crying.
Thirty minutes later, Margaret brings out two plates of pancakes. They are cold, a little burnt on one side, and soaked with too much syrup. Some of the blueberries have burst. She smiles at Papaya: a lopsided smile that is broken on one end. The dogs curl around their feet: staring at them with drooling jowls and hungry eyes. The clouds change shapes in the sky over the leaves of the mango tree. Margaret births animals and weaves stories out of the wisps of moisture, pointing to them as they eat.
They spend the whole day in the yard: turning the soil to plant the seeds of sunflowers. They make pesto for dinner: olive oil, parmesan, walnuts, garlic, basil from the garden. There is dirt under the nails of their fingers and toes. They sit on the lawn. They watch the sunset turn from gold to green through the leaves of the mango tree.
Margaret cleans up the kitchen. When she is done, she finds Papaya back in bed. She is staring at the ceiling once more. It is dark enough now for the stars there to glow. Margaret climbs in bed and cuddles around the small, round shape of Papaya.
I love you, baby.
I love you too, Mama.
Papaya nuzzles into Margaret’s arms. She smells of sweat, dirt, the sharpness of crushed petals, and faint rosemary; she smells of the garden. Her honey brown curls drape over the girl’s face and arms, tickling. They fall asleep like that, and dream of nothing. They fall asleep like that, and wake in the morning to the sound of the baby birds that live in the hanging ferns outside the window.
Mariah Rigg was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawai`i. She enjoys hiking, surfing, baking, drawing, and rolling around on the lawn with her three puppies.