Creative Nonfiction: Uncle
By Marisa Mangani
The old man who came up to the table next was dark and wiry, flailing his arms and ranting unintelligibly, his black eyes sporting the dazed look of a refugee. I sat at the shaded check-in table breaking from the heat, helping people sign in, confirming their address is/was in Lahaina, and listing the ages of the family members they were “shopping” for. Shopping is the only word for it, really, as in leading them from tent to tent, asking what they need, and making sure enough supplies are taken for their household, but not too much. Desperation manifests differently in people, and some want to hoard cans of Spam or laundry soap. This I had quickly learned in the few hours I had been volunteering at the distribution hub at Keawela Mauka. One lady who’d wanted more than her allotment of Spam had even been particular about the brand of dish soap she was given. The supply tents were arrayed in the dirt at Lahainaluna Park, in the burn zone, with sprinklers going to keep down the scorched earth’s sinful black dust.
“Please sign in here,” I said to the old man, handing him the pen. He grabbed it with a shaky hand and illegibly scrawled his name. As he bent his head down, I saw beads of sweat glittering through thin wisps of silver hair. I asked him to also write his address and family members’ ages.
He pulled a black cell phone from his pocket where his name and address were written on a small square of white paper taped to the back. His face twisting, he began to scribble. “I got it,” I said, and came around the table, copied his address from the phone to the sign-in sheet, and gave him the pen. “How many people in your family?” I pointed to the columns that listed age groups. He put a squiggly 76 under Self, and 73 under Spouse. “No one else?” I asked. “Grown kids?”
“No keeds!” he barked.
I returned to my side of the table, slid a brown paper bag from the stack next to my folding chair, and handed it to him. “Okay, sir, please have a seat, and someone will help you soon. But he stood still, staring at me, his black eyes now full of rage. “My best friend die in the fire! My neighbors all gone! I breathe in smoke! My friend, he stay make!”
My heart twisted for him and I remembered that term from my childhood: maw-key: dead, to die, stay dead. I also remembered how Filipinos were regarded with disdain in our little community in Kihei of child racist trainees. I was haole crap, of course, big Hawaiian girls were teetas, Japanese were japs and Filipinos were book-books. Sure, we had names for those who were different, and we were all different back then, Hawaii was a soup of skin colors and backgrounds. But the Filipinos really bore the brunt of our stereotyping; we made fun of the brightly painted houses they lived in, their noisy gas-guzzling cars, and the black dogs snuffling around their houses. The dogs, we had mused, would be dinner at some point.
I shook off the childhood nonsense, looked at the man, and said softly, “I am so sorry sir.” And this sentiment I felt through to the blood swimming in my veins.
“You know why I don’t die?” He yelled. “Die from fire, from smoke? I pray to God, I pray to my God, dat’s why. My wife she get cancer and I tell her she pray! I pray. All those who stay make, no pray!”
He continued in rapid-fire speech, a high-pitched pidgin that I could not understand, spittle flying and instantly evaporating into the air, familiar words like God, pray, wife, fire, friend inserted like random exclamation points into his narrative. He ended with, “You need to pray! Do you pray?”
“Yessir, I pray.”
“God will help you.” Then he sat on one of the folding chairs lined up for those waiting to be guided through the tents. He looked up at the hot blue sky, his protruding lower lip moist from his rant.
Horrified at whatever he’d experienced the day of the fire I thought, many need God’s help right now, not me.
The Lahaina sun was as glorious as ever that day as I parked in the sandy lot at Launiupoko Beach Park. “Meet us there on your way home,” Bob the cook had said after our shift, “a bunch of us from The Harpoon and The Scoop are having a little beach party.” That summer I was fifteen and drove the 41 miles from Kihei to Whalers Village in Kaanapali and back in my ’63 Rambler, a car I had bought for $350 that had difficulty making it up the mountainous pali road. I liked being amongst older people. I was nervous about having nothing interesting to say, but I loved watching adults, other than my unhappy family. Their varied dispositions had me dreaming of the possibilities of my future, which seemed so vast before me it nearly hurt. I walked down the sandy hill toward the friendly froth of blue waves massaging yellow sand and spotted Bob and about a dozen people.
Bob walked up holding a plastic cup filled with liquid in one hand. “Hey there, come over here and get a beer.” I followed him to a metal barrel packed in another barrel of ice where he pumped a black handle. “Have you had beer before?”
“No,” I said, taking the cup from him, and felt frozen as to what to do next. I came from a family of drinkers who always had ice in their glasses, so I scooped up a few cubes and put them in my beer.
“Ice in beer is okay,” said Bob, and then I knew it wasn’t okay. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing there but took a sip of beer when a man walked up. He had skin the hue of an old penny, shoulder-length sun-kissed dreadlocks, and a smile so white and lovely, I couldn’t stop staring. Bob whispered in my ear, “Everyone here thinks you’re eighteen.”
So I drank the watery beer, felt warm in the sun, and told some about my college dreams and getting away from the place I was born. The waves laughed at my teen diatribe. I developed a heavy crush on the dreadlocked man, who I’d see occasionally at Whaler’s Village and he would buy me ice cream cones.
When it was the old man’s turn to shop, I stood and asked for one of the other volunteers to take the sign-ins. I would take the old man shopping. I didn’t think the tourist volunteers could handle him.
I had been quick to get over the awkwardness of not having anything to say to those who came to shop. There is not a damn thing to say or to ask. You don’t ask someone who lost their home, their everything, their job, and possibly family members and/or friends a stupid platitude like, “How are you doing today?” Because you know how they are, or at least you try to imagine. However, one sweet mother and grown daughter had asked me how I was and I burst out in tears and hugged them. The daughter said she used to play in this park when she was a child, when there was green grass.
So the old man and I silently walked to the first tent. I grabbed a cart and asked him if he needed bottles of water.
“Yes, yes! I pay ten dollas fer water dis morning. Ten dollas!”
“Why’d you pay? Just come here.” I loaded a 24-flat into the cart.
“One nudda one.”
I loaded a second flat even though this was more than I was told to give. I had a hard time telling these people they couldn’t have what they wanted. Except for the spam-hoarding lady, she was too much.
In the next tent, I let the old man take canned goods, and he obeyed the cardboard signs: two Spam per person per household, one bag of rice, one bottle of Aloha Shoyu, one canned vegetable, and so on. In fact, for odd items with no signs, the old man lifted the item and gave me a “may I take this?” look. I wanted to give him everything, he was so polite. From his intense entrance, I had thought he would be a toughie, but not so. I loved this old man and I wanted to make his life better.
Every day I looked forward to sunset. The grind and heat of the kitchen went on pause as we all untied our aprons, filed out of the screen door of Longhis Restaurant, and walked across Front Street to the seawall at Kimo’s, where the scent of char-grilled burger mixed with the dried salt of the seawall made my mouth water. The joint came my way and I toked, thinking that this whole summer back on Maui was a pause on the college life I was creating in Portland, and had to flee from, at least temporarily.
The old man and I went through the rest of the tents. I had become practiced at pointing out cleaning supplies and personal items to trigger what they may need, since most of these people were zombie-like in their ability to discern, other than food, what they needed. Toothbrush? Soap? Ensure? Adult diapers?
We passed the sprinklers, a precious mist arcing high in the air. Then we passed a larger tent with piled-up boxes of donated generators and respirators. Several volunteers inside that tent started calling out and waving, “Hey Uncle! Howzit!”
I guess this wasn’t “Uncle’s” first trip here. Or they all knew each other before the fire. Or both.
“Ahhh! Okay!” he waved one hand up in the air. He looked at me, “Da massage lady come today?”
“Ah, no, the sign out front says Wednesday, this is Monday.”
“I fall in da fire,” he said solemnly, putting his palm on his neck. He waved again to his friends as we passed closer to the generator tent, and yelled out something I didn’t understand.
The last tent had some refrigerators with a few items: limes, green onions, oranges and, of all things, fiddlehead ferns. The ferns were wildly popular with the locals, and I imagined the identical meal they’d all be making tonight on either a camp stove or a friend’s stove or a campfire: stir-fried Spam and fiddleheads with lime and Aloha Shoyu on sticky rice. The old man’s eyes lit at the fiddleheads and I slid a generous bunch into his bag.
My mom often said of my college angst and my preparation to leave home from the age of fourteen, “Yes, go to the Mainland to learn, then you come home and help your people.”
I‘d retort, “These aren’t my people!” Having been beat up by teetas five times in sixth grade a constant reminder of how people felt about me. “I hate it here! I’m going to start my own life, where no one knows me.” I did just that. Ungrounded, I started many lives, in many places, with many people, never quite finding footing. I visited Maui again and again, full of tears each time.
“I’ll help you to the car,” I said to the old man. I wheeled the cart of water and he carried the shopping bag past the check-in table to the dirt path to the road. I pointed out the cardboard sign: “Free massage on Wednesday” and followed him across the street to his SUV. Above us, the West Maui Mountains were red-brown, skinned by agricultural misuse and drought of their former lush green. I felt like if I had stayed on Maui, stayed home, maybe drought, fire, and disaster would’ve been averted. I would’ve lost friends. But I’d be able to volunteer full-time because these are my people. Of course, Mom was right, although it took forty-eight years and a disaster to make me see it.
The old man opened his trunk and I saw the flat of water he had paid ten dollars for. After we loaded his groceries, he reached into his pocket, pulled out what looked like a pink beaded necklace, and put it into my palm. I held it up. It was a rosary.
Tears welled up as I put the object, useless in function, but useful for love and memory, into my pocket. We hugged. “Thank you, Uncle. Please remember what I told you about the water.”
As I walked back into the center, I saw a few new people milling about to shop. Once local young man, dark-tanned with curly black hair, obviously known by the hub administrators, was talking about his temporary shelter at the Hilton. “Yeah, I neva wen stay in such a nice hotel! And da room service: man da food stay ono!”
In this man, desperation manifested into humor. I loved that about him. These are my people, I thought, as I fingered the pink rosary in my pocket.
Marisa Mangani was born and raised in Hawaii and now lives in Florida. Her memoir, Mise en Place: Memoir of a Girl Chef, won the 2023 gold medal for Women's Biographies by the Global Book Awards, and the 2023 gold for Memoir and Biography by the Royal Palm Book Awards. Her essays and fiction have been published in Hippocampus, Aji, Borrowed Solace, Sleet Magazine, Punchnels, Sandhill Review, Adelaide Magazine, and others.