In the Way Back

One must go around for news of home.

                                       —Japanese proverb

The Friday before Labor Day
after a day’s hard work
my father’d come home, read the paper
then tell my mother:
“Mo’ bettah take da kids around da island.”

Next morning, up early, mother’d be
telling us to turn off the TV
and packing a picnic lunch:
musubi, scrambled eggs, Spam,
a thermos of watered-down Exchange.

Stuck in the way back of the Valiant
I faced the closed rear window
already hot, thinking how much
I hated this.
At my back my grandma sat,
next to her my brother and sister dozed.
In front of the my parents sat,
in front of them the long way back.
My mother drove.
Beside her on the seat,
the lunch she’d packed.
My father hung an elbow out the window.

Out of the city and into “scenery”
that blurred ocean, sand and trees,
I pulled out my pack of cards
and played solitaire. My shuffling woke
my sister. She reached past
the back of the front seat
to turn on the radio.
Back in her seat she reached behind
and tapped me on the shoulder.
She leaned and whispered,
“Having one good time already?”
She laughed and climbed
into the way back.

And then

we were four kids laughing
and singing in the way back
with the Rascals, “How Can I Be Sure?”
and Bill Withers, “Lean on Me”
while in between
my grandma sang the chorus:
Matte, matte you, damn kids,
look the view!”
which sounded to us kids like
“Rook the few.”

And in between the singing and the laughing
one of us kept asking,
“We stay dere or what?”
all the way to Hau-ula Beach
where Grandma smoked a cigarette
and gathered stones along the shore.

The rest of us ate silently.
And silently when we were done
we piled into the car. My father drove,
slowing or stopping now and again to show us
the Crouching Lion,
Chinaman’s Hat,
the Blow Hole,
Koko Head, Diamond Head
then Honolulu after dark.
As if he meant to tell us:
When you let the island in you
the road both does and doesn’t lead you back.

Four kids in the way back of the Valiant
leaning one upon the other,
we didn’t have to watch the road.
Our parents left us free to look in both directions,
behind us and ahead.


Copyright © 1994 by Debi Kang Dean

first published in Unsettling America
edited by Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Jennifer Gillan,  used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Books, USA Inc.