12:2 A Civilized Cup of Tea

KAUA‘I, THE STATE OF HAWAII  |  1969

Back on the island for the first time in a couple of years, the man formerly known as Fred Williams stepped from the 747 from San Francisco and took a deep hit of the local atmosphere. Filling his lungs with the perfumed air, made even more complex with the volatile high note of spent jet fuel, Khumalo knew he had made the right decision. He was home.

Khumalo made it as far as the men’s room off the crowded baggage claim before the small bindle in his boot started calling his name. It had been some time since he had a hit of medicine, and if he was going to hit the ground running, he needed a little pick-me-up.

After the supernormal vision he had on the corner of Broadway and Columbus back in San Francisco, the newly minted Zongo had somehow made it back to his North Beach flat and slept for three days. When he finally awoke, twisted in sheets damp with the poison of sweated toxins, he untangled himself, took a shower, and hightailed it over to the Fillmore District.

“Hello, Fred,” a spry ninety-three-year-old Lucette Narcisse answered the doorbell after Khumalo played an extended solo on it. “Did I call you over?”

“No, Ms. Lucette,” he fought to keep from shifting from foot-to-foot and becoming the young boy Narcisse always made him feel like. Khumalo supposed that compared to the nonagenarian, he was still a boy. Hell, compared to her, he was still a fucking embryo. Still, the ol’ gal always treated him well, and Khumalo always gave a little extra care when asked to maintain her jewel box of a home.

“I thought I’d let you know that I was thinking about going back to the island for a bit. I could check in on your property while I was there if you’d still like. Maybe do some fixing up if need be.”

“Is that right?” Narcisse eyed the handyman skeptically. “And you didn’t feel that you could call me on the telephone and give me that news?” The woman prided herself by not reaching her nineties by being anybody’s fool.

Against his best efforts, Khumalo began to rock a little on the balls of his feet. Jesus Christ, he thought, all I need is a baseball cap to nervously twist in my hands as I ask for the damn newspaper money.

“Ah, Ms. Lucette … you see … the thing is …”

“Get on in here,” Narcisse kindly released him from the hook she had so masterfully planted in his cheek. “I’m just busting your balls. That’s great news, Fred. The sun just might do you some good, you’re looking a little peaked.”

You don’t know the half of it, Khumalo thought, toying with the idea of telling the woman the whole story, starting with his mystic vision of the Giant Neon Doda and how she rechristened him on the side of Broadway while drunks and sailors passed between them on their ways to their own life-changing interludes. He thought better of it.

I’m sure the ol’ gal has seen some weird stuff in her time, he thought. Hell, she lived through two World Wars, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression … but a Giant Neon Doda? Forget it. That was not going to get him the keys to her pad.

As Khumalo followed Narcisse down the entry hall, he had to physically resist running a hand over the polished mahogany wainscoting. “Do you have any idea what kind of shape the place is in, Ms. Lucette?”

“Now, Fred, if we are going to talk business,” the elderly woman spoke without turning around, continuing her bustle toward the kitchen, “we should sit down and have a cup of tea like civilized folks, don’t you think?”

“I suppose a cup of tea wouldn’t kill me,” Khumalo spoke to the back of the woman’s head. “It’s just that I know what that climate can do to a place.” Narcisse ignored his comment, already having laid out how this transaction was going to go.

Once the pair was sitting at the comfortable farmhouse table that dominated the kitchen, its only challenger an antique Wedgewood gas stove where a kettle was happily coming to steam, Narcisse told Khumalo about the property she hadn’t seen since the turn of the century.

She told him all about her childhood friend who had been whisked away from their Central Valley hometown when she lost her father and dropped in a strange tropical environment full of religious nuts. Once the girl’s mother found her again, Narcisse had been invited to go out to the island and visit. She ended up staying until she turned 21 in 1899.

“I wrote to my friend every week after I left, but when the War broke out—this would have been the first ‘war to end all wars’—they started coming back unopened. I’ve tried over the years to find out what happened to her—what happened to Milakale—but life just has a way, Fred. You’re too young to have learned this yet, but life just has a way of barreling along like a train with no brakes. You see the stops as they go by, but too soon, you just sort of stop looking out the window.”

“Who is Milakale, Ms. Lucette?”

Narcisse rose to turn off the kettle that had started to scream in protest for having been left on the flame. “Ah, Milakale is not a ‘who,’ Fred; it’s a ‘where.’ The way I remember it makes this place look like an earthquake shack. Sugar?”

“No thanks, ma’am, I’ll have it black.”

“It’s on the East Side of the island and the Big House sat—or sits, I imagine—on a cliff overlooking this beautiful valley leading to the most perfect beach you ever saw. Oh, Fred, if it still stands, you’ll be amazed at all the amazing koa wood. It was built a long time before that was hard to get.”

“So you don’t know for sure if anybody is living there … or has been living there since World War II?” Khumalo asked, beginning to imagine the house as a total tear down, that is, if the place hadn’t already fallen into the sea.

“World War I, dear. No. The deed came to me anonymously.”

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