Grandpa turns purple in the sun. He says it is because we are Filipino, but my skin never colours that way. I watch him mystified as he calls to the pigeons. His whistles are strong and long and loud. They are all of his breaths pushed out, part Kools, part Budweiser, part Mentholyptus Halls. The wind scoops them up and makes them hers, using their smoky song to amplify her sound. Pigeons come flying home and Grandpa Melvin smiles.
Some of them go straight to the coop and rest their tired wings. Air is thick in Hawaii, sticky sweet like mangoes, orchids and coconut milk. Other pigeons feast on the ground where Grandpa sprinkles seeds. Grandpa beckons, ‘Come here uku.’ I am not sure exactly what that word means, but it makes me feel loved. When he went to school, if you got ukus they would douse your head in paraffin and set you under the flagpole in the sun. ‘Try feed the birds,’ he says. I scuttle back to the safety of the stairs, shaded by a lonely palm. After seven years of growing up around these animals, I am still terrified.
When I was five, Grandpa stopped having cockfights at the house. I don’t know why. Maybe it had something to do with the discussion he had with my mother’s Baptist relatives the day I was forced to play outside with Pono, our poi dog. All of a sudden, his nasty roosters were gone and I was glad. I hated them because once an innocuous-looking chick attacked me, pecking my left hand as I tried to pick it up. I ran screaming to the house. Grandma cooled the bloody beak marks with Bactine. I cried the entire time and she promised me shaved ice with as many flavours as I wanted. There were still pigeons, but at least they didn’t fight.
They were for racing, for gambling. Grandpa made most of his money this way — at least more than he did painting houses or restaurants like Hooters, Honolulu. Every month he would send his birds to the outer islands and time how long it took for them to navigate their way home. On special occasions, he would take them to the mainland. California. He and my calabash uncles got to stay at the Holiday Inn for these big races. There you could order shrimp cocktail 24 hours a day.
If my cousins and I misbehaved, Grandpa threatened to lock us in the coop. The pigeons made spooky noises and they flapped their wings too much. The prospect of spending a night with them always scared the bad behaviour right out of me. His birds seemed wild whenever they wanted out. Even in the dead of night, if Grandpa heard them getting rowdy, he would get out of bed, put on his rubber slippers from Long’s Drugstore, and free them.
His birds would glide on the warm night air, wings stretched from mauka to makai. Their cooing would change from anxious to appeased. Grandpa would get a Budweiser from the fridge and sit watching them in the sky. His plum-coloured silhouette vanished in the dark. The only way I ever spotted him was by the white of his tattered corduroy shorts. Cigarette smoke curled from his nostrils as he observed contentedly. Eventually, he would call them in.
One night, Grandpa’s favourite bird did not come home. The louder he whistled, the higher she flew, like a spirit into the heavens. For a moment, he stood with his back facing me. ‘Geegee, are you mad? Do you want a beer?’ I asked. Slowly he turned to me and I could see that he was not angry. He was smiling at the stars. ‘No, uku. If she has somewhere else to go, I going let her go.’
That night, I did not yet know what my future would hold. I was safe in the knowledge that I would always live in Hawaii and that my cousins and I would be best friends forever.
Months later, everyone important was at the airport except for Grandpa. He had to tend to the birds. Still, I couldn’t help looking out the window for him. Maybe if I kept watch he would come running down the tarmac with a lei and chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. I hated that we were moving but my mother needed to be a real actress. Real actresses did not perform regional theatre in Honolulu. They worked on television and films in Hollywood.
Family and friends covered me in leis to my chin. They itched like weeds and I wanted to rip them off. I was hot and sweaty and my Roger Rabbit doll had stopped saying ‘Pppleeeeeease Eddie’ because of the moisture in his voice box. The spearmint oil in my Wrigley’s gum soothed me. Los Angeles was going to be terrible.
One day when I was 12, Mama got a phone call from Grandma Linda, Grandpa Melvin’s wife. She said he would be in Los Angeles to race his pigeons. We would have him over for dinner and force familial conversation. I worried about the awkwardness. My life was very different to how it was when I was seven, searching out Grandpa in the black of the night. Mama was an actress and she was married to a screenwriter, the man I wanted the world to think was always my father. We had a Maltese with a princess complex, not a poi dog saved from the pound. I worried Grandpa wouldn’t approve.
Mama and I met him at the Sportsmen’s Lodge on Ventura Boulevard. He stood on the sidewalk gripping his backpack like a child who hopes his mother didn’t forget to pick him up from school. For the first time, Grandpa looked little to me. I hugged him before getting in the car. His arms fell heavy around my frame and I saw discomfort in his face. He embraced the woman that was once his daughter-in-law for a mere few weeks. Mama told him to adjust the seat however he liked. The car ride over, he gave us monosyllabic answers and said only one thing, ‘Volvo. I never knew you drove a Swedish car.’
We took Grandpa to dinner at a Japanese restaurant so he could order sashimi; he loved raw fish. He refused the woman at the coat check who asked if she could take his pigeon-racing bomber jacket. My father ordered an onigoroshi sake to drink. He asked Grandpa if he could make the order for two, but he just wanted a Bud. When the waitress came to take our order, Grandpa was still undecided. I knew he wanted nothing we had to offer. His stomach needed a Zip pack or some poke, and all that was at least one thousand miles away.
Tempura. It’s an easy thing to say. I know this is how my Grandpa made his choice. I listened to the shakiness of his voice as he tried to pronounce other dishes on the menu. His vocal chords wavered like mine used to at Italian restaurants that offered only difficult things to say. He ate his meal he didn’t really want. And by the way he eyed my father’s onigoroshi, I know he wished he had one too.
Before we took Grandpa Melvin back to his hotel, we spent some time at our home showing him around. He liked Bailey Jane, my small white dog. She sat in his lap as he spoke to my father on our wicker furniture in the backyard. I overheard Grandpa say that all the men in our family were having children with haole women. Consequently, lots of useless white-looking kids were running around — children so white, there was no evidence of them ever being part local. I knew it killed him to look at me because I never darkened in the sun like he did, and I was sorry.
Grandpa spent time alone with me in my room. He inspected the framed posters of Degas’ ballet dancers on my wall much the way my classmates examined the photos I brought in for show and tell of my cousins doing keiki hula. I showed him the trophies and medals I had won for figure-skating, a sport so foreign to him that I might have been pole-vaulting on the moon. He smiled politely though and carefully placed them back on the shelf. He thumbed through report cards from the last five years. ‘Uku, you stay smart.’ We wound up sitting on my bed as I told him some story I cannot remember now. Mama knocked on the door. ‘You two almost ready? You’ve got to skate in the morning.’ I begged for five more minutes. She closed the door like an understanding mother at the end of a slumber party. Grandpa and I sat in silence for a few moments. He took a last look around my room. ‘Girly, you get ’em good.’
He smiled at me and I knew he approved. My nest in Los Angeles was good. All the accomplishments I showed him that night were my apology for moving from Hawaii. They said, ‘I’m sorry, Geegee, for leaving you behind.’ But he never begrudged me. He was proud. He knew he didn’t belong in California or anywhere else. Melvin Traya was stranded in Honolulu. That’s why he spent so much time with his birds and that’s why he smiled if one managed to fly away.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
This essay was runner-up in The Spectator’s 2014 Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10