My old man taught me to drive on Sundays, usually when he was drunk. I was fifteen and he was a big shot on the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, the head engineer of combat systems on nuclear submarines and surface ships. During the work week he was a sober, respectable member of the community, but on weekends he lived an entirely different life, which included bouts of sullen, angry drunkenness and unpredictable fights with my mother. He often gave me a driving lesson after one of their battles, when he was still brooding and slugging off a bottle of Wild Turkey. He’d insist we drive over to a small strip of land just off Honolulu, a place the locals called Rabbit Island, even though there wasn’t a wild rabbit anywhere in the Hawaiian Islands that I knew of.
We lived on Pearl Ridge, a modern settlement of one-floor houses built on some old cane fields overlooking Pearl Harbor. To get to Rabbit Island from the mainland, we drove over a rickety, rusted-out bridge. One Sunday, as we crossed the bridge in our faded brown Datsun B-210, I noticed a group of tourists gathered on the dock beside a restaurant called The Captain’s Table. They were gawking at a great blue marlin an off-shore fisherman had caught and lashed to the side of his small boat. A few weeks before, I had hooked a fish I bet was as big as this one off the back of our twenty-foot sailboat in the treacherous Molokai Strait, although my fish had headed for the bottom and I never landed it. A strong wind had churned up huge waves, which beat against our boat. The old man had insisted we keep going even as the waves increased in size and the fish pulled straight downwards. We were taking blue water over the bow of the boat when I cut the eighty-pound fishing line and screamed for him to turn us around, which he did, his face bloated and his eyes bugging out from too much booze. Now, the blue marlin reminded me of that scene at the end of The Old Man and the Sea, which I’d just read in school: the great fish, stripped of its meat by hungry sharks, becomes a carcass of white bones, bobbing in the surf.
After we passed over the bridge, the tar gave out and a swirl of dust kicked up behind the Datsun, curling into the open windows and choking our lungs. The island road quickly split into a series of small dirt tracks, like a river delta. We stopped before choosing one of the possible routes and my father switched places with me. Old beat-up cars and washing machines and other junk littered the place. This time I chose a sandy dirt path on the starboard side of the island, closest to the open sea. As I drove, the car scraped against elephant grass and plumeria bushes. A hundred yards farther on, I parked, facing the ocean. We stared at a handful of small fishing shacks built on posts a hundred yards off shore, each one a sort of crow’s nest, as if a wooden ship had sunk underneath it. I have no idea why the City of Honolulu allowed people to live on fishing shacks over open water, without any running water or sewer, but there they were. The inhabitants, a mixture of third- or fourth-generation Japanese and Koreans, stopped what they were doing and peered back at us. Brown hands shaded eyes as they watched this noisy little car, belching blue smoke, carrying occupants they knew nothing about.The people and shacks looked marooned out in the water. As we sat there, the old man pulled off a bottle as I tried to feel comfortable with the cigarette he let me smoke in front of him. I had a pack-and- a-half habit by the time I was thirteen. He didn’t know it, but I stole packs of Kents from the carton he kept on top of the refrigerator, supplemented with my mother’s Salem 100s she kept hidden in a dresser drawer in their bedroom. We were all anesthetizing ourselves, one way or another.
Tired of drinking, or maybe just tired of looking at the lithe figures of men and women and children mending their fishing nets, Dad told me to put the Datsun in reverse and back it out, although I had never put a car in reverse before. By now he was really drunk, and I had to gauge how much danger he might put me in with this request. The fishing incident a few weeks back was not the first time he’d been drunk out of his mind and verged on pushing our luck too far. Now his eyes were glazed and his eyelids drooped. But his mood teetered on a pinnacle of anger and amusement and I didn’t dare complain.
I jammed the shifter into what I thought was reverse, gunned the motor, and popped the clutch. The car shot forward into the ocean, deep enough so that I could hear the tail pipe guttering in the surf. The old man’s eyes bugged out, and I suppose mine did the same, caught in that time limbo between an action and its result. He leaned toward me and his right hand shot out. I thought for a moment he was going to hit me, but it landed on my knee and he pressed down on it, his other hand loosely holding the bottle, sloshing bourbon all over my lap.
“Don’t take your foot off the accelerator, Junior,” he screamed. “Gun it, boy, gun it!” He worked the gear box into reverse and told me to pop the clutch—which somehow I’d managed to slam to the floorboards when the car lurched into the ocean. The car fishtailed back and forth and a plume of water, smoke, and fumes rushed in the windows, but it slowly crawled landward again, until we were high and dry and accelerating backwards at an alarming rate. I’m sure my foot tried to find the brake. But with the old man screaming at the top of his lungs to stop, we slammed into a huge industrial refrigerator—stainless steel and in remarkably good condition—which beat the hell out of the Datsun’s rear end.
I looked at him to see if he was hurt. How I wished—or a part of me did—that he was injured, perhaps seriously. What would the world be like without my father in the middle of it? What would I be like? The waves, unsettled and unfurling white foam from their tips, seemed as close as they had a few moments before when the car had been in the water.
We sat dazed. Dad, his black hair askew and his lips working the hair of his mustache, stared out the front window as if we had just crash landed an airplane. There was no evidence of the big weekday boss on the Navy Yard, whose skills as a manager were revered. He seemed humble and full of regret. He knew he had failed once again. But his mood soon shifted and he clenched his jaw. He was angry as much at himself as with me. He was going to have to explain this accident to Mom with a straight face and booze on his breath. I felt sorry for him, knowing the wrath my mother’s tongue would strap across his hapless back.
My neck was kind of sore and I sat rubbing the back of it. My driving lessons were as much about the old man getting away from my mother—who complained mightily about his drinking—as teaching me something that would get me away from both of them eventually. It was always a lop-sided split—his needs versus mine—and I somehow knew I always got the short end of the stick. And that I would never really be free of him.
As we sat there, the inhabitants of the fishing shacks looked like statues, frozen in place. I could feel their judgment, having witnessed this race to the bottom, the fucked-up haole family—my family—at it again. Their lives seemed saner to me then, less precarious than our own, even in their rickety shacks.
Parker Blaney holds an MFA in fiction from Bennington College and is at work on a short story collection and a novel.
Photo by Christopher Rose from Flickr Creative Commons.