In the upstairs bedroom grandma sorted clothes she’d brought from the line out in the back yard. She looked up when she heard the sound of the front door opening. Then a man’s voice.
“Hey, Ma. I'm home.”
The tall, grey-haired woman with shiny glasses put down the towel she was folding and headed for the stairs. Little Tommy followed, cautiously.
Through the posts of the stairway railing Tommy saw grandma embracing the man. He was tanned, slim. He wore a pale brown uniform with bright yellow stripes on both sleeves and a gold buckle on his belt.
“I brought you a few things, Ma,” he said as he opened the olive-green duffel bag.
Tommy heard a dry, rustling sound.
“What is it?” grandma said.
“A hula skirt,” he said. “Isn’t it something? Huh? The wahinis wear these at a luau, where you sit under the palm trees and eat poi. Poi is like paste. It takes a while to get used to it. A luau is a big feast. Right on the beach, near Diamond Head. We went there all the time.”
A clinking sound. Bottles. Two big brown bottles with yellow labels, each bearing a crowned, red numeral seven.
“We won the war, Ma. We gotta celebrate.”
He handed her a red box. Perfume. A yellow box full of chocolates.
“Don’t you want to see your son?” she said.
“Where is he?"
She turned, saw the little boy gripping the vertical posts.
“Tommy, come here and say hello to your father!”
“He’s a wiry little thing, ain't he?” the man said.
“Come on, Tommy. Don't be afraid,” his grandmother said.
Tommy did not move.
Father? This man did not look like a priest. Priests wore black cassocks. White collars.
“What’s wrong with him?” the man said.
“Hey! Come over here, right now. I’m your FATHER.”
The flash in that man’s dark eyes was penetrating, paralyzing.
“It's OK, Tommy,” grandma said.
The boy ran up the stairs.
Later that tall, thin, black-haired man named daddy brought Tommy a stuffed rocking horse. Tommy loved that horse, and rode it all the time, until its bottom seam split open. Out came a dry, blonde wiry material that had a woody smell.
Excelsior was the strange name his grandmother gave it. That brittle stuff fell out in clumps, and Tommy hoped that daddy would mend the wounded horse.
Daddy. Another strange word, which seemed so familiar to the kids at school. Mommie was another. But they all knew exactly what those words meant.
* * *
After grandma's funeral daddy sat at the kitchen table and smoked one cigarette after another. Finally he stood up and said, "Listen Tommy. You can't stay here anymore. You gotta go live with your Aunt Jane."
Tommy knew Aunt Jane. She lived in a house on Bellmont Avenue with Uncle Howard and those little brats. A lot of cracker crumbs were beneath the cushions of the couch. Toys scattered all over the floor. When he was sent for a nap on the back porch one time, he smelled peaches on the quilt she'd laid out for him. He'd been at Aunt Jane's lots of times. The brats told him he didn't belong there.
"I want to stay here with you," Tommy cried.
"You can come for a visit once in a while."
"No, no, NO. I want to stay here."
"Come on, let's go," daddy said. His eyes flashed. They always flashed when he was angry.
At the window Tommy watched daddy go down the steps of the front porch, and onto the sidewalk. A brisk, purposeful pace down the hill. Crisp, confident steps. A happy man who knew exactly where he was going. He never slowed or looked back.
After a while Tommy dragged his horse down to the dark dusty basement, and mounted. He leaned forward and grasped the horse's neck.
Tommy rocked. And rocked. His daddy had a head start and by now had gone a long way. Tommy had to make that horse go faster.
He might catch up, if he tried.