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Barbara Hamby

Mr. Managoís Mango Trees

 

Hitsue Manago always knew his son Roland had a keen eye for business. Mr. Manago said Roland would go far, and he did get as far away from Hawaiíi as the west coast of the Mainland, going to UCLA on a scholarship while that lazy Winston Nakamura next door barely finished high school. Mr. Manago and old Mrs. Nakamura talked about their boys over the fence that separated their back yards. Helen Nakamura was a little woman, spare and sinewy as the branches of the plumeria trees that shaded the front of her house. She raised her grandson Winston after her son, Teddy, and his wife were killed when their brakes failed going over the Pali. Their car broke through the barrier, careened across the other lane of traffic, nearly empty at three in the morning, and flew over the side of the mountain like a mechanized bird toward the dark void of the Pacific Ocean. Everybody said Teddy was on drugs. It was 1968, so they were probably right. Mr. Manago often wondered about Teddy Nakamuraís last thoughts. Like Winston, Teddy had been a loser, but somehow he had talked Amy Uyehara into marrying him, a girl so beautiful a room seemed to light up with her radiance. She reminded Mr. Manago of those paintings of Christian saints, a slight glow about her body. That was a long time ago. Amy Uyehara had been dead almost 30 years. Thirty years. How old did that make him? Eighty-six. Who would have guessed he would live so long?

His wife died ten years after Teddy and Amy Uyehara. Cancer took her, the disease sucking the life out of her like a spider siphons the fluids from an insect in its web. Helen Nakamura held on for another fifteen years. She was almost ninety when she died, falling asleep one night in July to the sound of the traffic on Beretania and H1 and not waking the next morning. Winston found her when he brought her a cup of tea. This was Mr. Managoís first surprise, Winston nursing his grandmother like a baby, moving back into the house when she couldnít shop for herself or lift the heavy sacks of rice to make her evening meal. Winston was a rough boy, but he did what his tutu said. Even now, five years after her death, he tended her papaya trees as though she had gone to visit her cousins on Kauai and would be back in a few days.

Trees were the key to Helen Nakamuraís friendship with Hitsue Manago. They met and talked as they tended their trees. Between their two houses, Mr. Manago owned an empty lot in which he planted six mango trees. Nothing could describe the pleasure he felt watching them grow, first as saplings and then as full trees, their limbs heavy every summer with green and then mauve-skinned fruit. Right in the middle of the city, he could smell the rich earth and pretend he was in Waianae, still a boy on his fatherís dairy farm, tending the cows and planting the vegetables they sold at the markets in Chinatown. For years he had driven his truck down Farrington Highway to the farm, which was left to his older brother, and picked up loads of manure from the dairy barn to dress the soil around the roots of his mango trees. This was the secret of his mangoesí sweetness. They could break your heart with their sugary flesh: not the bright yellow of the sun in the noonday sky but the burnished orange glow as it fell into the Pacific, a caramelized, drugged light. He always brought Helen Nakamura some manure for her garden, for besides the stand of twenty papaya trees in her back yard she grew torch and shell ginger, bird of paradise, stephanotis, plumeria and jasmine. The ginger in bloom was almost too much to bear, the red and pink blossoms filling the street with their wild scent. Winston must have watched his tutu over the years or inherited her green thumb, because the garden looked exactly as it had when the old lady was alive, a little patch of old Hawaiíi in the middle of Honolulu with its asphalt and concrete, the neon signs of drive-ins and stores that never seemed to stop flashing and the constant roar of H1, the highway that cut through the middle of Honolulu, one block from Lipona Street.

Mr. Manago sat in a plastic lawn chair under the spreading branches of his mango trees. Because he never sprayed his fruit, he sold most of the mangoes to the big health food store on King Street. Cow manure was the key. If the soil was strong, the plants would be strong and could fight insects on their own. The afternoon sun sent its pale light through the throng of branches and leaves, dancing in the trade winds off the ocean. Mr. Manago could watch this play of light and shadow on the ground for hours or close his eyes and feast on the scent of bitter earth and the unearthly sweetness of the plumerias blooming in Helen Nakamuraís front yard. In 1963, sheíd planted a cherry red variety, and now it was almost as tall as her house. Too bad she missed seeing it grow so high.

He closed his eyes and fell into a dream of Winston Nakamura playing dodge ball in the street in front of his house. Mr. Manago was on the other team with his son Roland. Winston threw the ball at him so hard, Mr. Manago woke up rubbing his arm, but it wasnít the ball that had awakened him but the rumble of Winston Nakamuraís truck pulling up in front of the house next door. Winston waved at Mr. Manago and walked over and stood by the trunk of one of the mango trees.

"The mangoes pau for this year, yeh?" said Winston.

Mr. Manago nodded. "Best crop I ever had. Nine hundred and twenty-six."

"No way!" Winston shook his shaggy thatch of hair. It was stiff with saw dust and plaster."You want a beer?" he asked, and Mr. Manago saw he was carrying a six-pack, the cold beading up in the heat of the afternoon.

"Sure," he said, and Winston peeled a can from its plastic carrier and handed it to him.

"Pull up a chair," Mr. Manago said and nodded towards the stack of woven plastic lawn chairs leaning against his house. At his age, it was too much trouble to stand up any more. Winston brought a chair over and unfolded it under in the shade of the mango trees. They sat in silence drinking their beers. Mr. Manago felt the iciness of the beer can create a circle in the afternoon, completing the arc of the dappled light on the ground, the shadowy play of memory, and the scene unfolding in front of him.

"Where are you working now?" he asked Winston.

"On the Kaneohe side," he said, draining the last liquid from one can, and then popping the top of another. "Weíre building a house for some rich haole from the mainland."

"You still working with Paul?" Mr. Manago remembered when Paul Higata and Winston were little boys running up and down the street between their two houses, both of them barefoot and dark brown from playing in the sun.

"Yeah. And a weird haole guy," Winston said, turning the can of beer in his hand. "He listens to opera all day."

Mr. Manago looked up at the clouds banking up in the afternoon sky. "Is Lester Higata still alive?"

Winston nodded. "I think so. Paul would say something if his father died."

"Since they moved I donít keep up."

"Yeah, a lot of people moved, but Paul still lives in his tutuís house down at the other end of the street. You know, next to Mrs. Nichiguchi."

"Sure, I remember. Both your tutus take good care of you."

"Yeah, Iím one lucky guy," Winston said, draining the last of his beer. "Tomorrow is Tuesday. What do you want from the store?"

"Just the usual, maybe some of those hard apples from New Zealand," Mr. Manago said.

"Okay, if you think of something, you call me on the phone. The numberís still under my tutuís name. I like opening the book and seeing her name: Helen Nakamura. Itís like sheís still alive, like maybe I can call her up and she can chew me out like she always did. I sure do miss that old lady telling me how worthless I am."

He laughed and walked away through the dappled light, and Mr. Manago thought he saw some of the radiance that used to surround Amy Uyehara cascading off her son. Youíre a silly old man, he chided himself. Winston Nakamura? Thatíll be the day. He raised his hand to shade his eyes, but as Winston moved away from him, the radiance grew until he disappeared in the exploding light, a light so bright it could lift a man up and carry him over the slopes of the mountains, covered like cankers with fast food places and rickety apartment buildings, over the houses of the rich, anchored on the cool upper cliffs, to the high peaks at the center of the island where the old gods slept like dragons waiting for their time to come, over them and past the sheer drop of the Windward side, its slopes like pleated green curtains and on into the midnight blue of the sea, deep as the deepest sleep, so deep that when you fell you would never wake.

Later Winston tried to remember why he turned back to look at the old man again. Maybe it was like the doctor said, he probably made some kind of sound, but Winston couldnít remember hearing anything. When he reached his yard, he turned and saw the old man still sitting in his chair with his mouth open in a large black circle and his hand clutched to his chest.

The ambulance came in five minutes and the paramedics had him revived, strapped on a gurney and on his way to the hospital. Winston rode with him, because there wasnít anyone else.

"Itís a good thing you were there," said the paramedic. "You saved his life."

Winston nodded. What if the beer had brought on the heart attack? All he needed was that prick Roland Manago saying Winston killed his dad. Heíd have to call Roland and tell him Mr. Manago was in the hospital. Last time he heard, Roland lived in Sacramento. How many Managos could there be in Sacramento? He thought of Roland Managoís pinched face, wrinkled in the center like li hing mui seed. How could Mr and Mrs. Manago have such a son? Winstonís tutu said just like everything else a tight okole skipped generations. Mrs. Managoís father had been just like Roland, the cheeks of his okole pinched together so tight he could barely sit down. Winston would wait. Maybe Mr. Manago wouldnít die and then he wouldnít have to call Roland.

Mr. Manago didnít die, but the doctors wanted to keep him in the hospital for observation. The old man must have told them about Roland, because two days later Winston saw him dragging a suitcase from a red Impala parked in the driveway behind Mr. Managoís Toyota pickup. Winston wished he had worked overtime like Paul wanted. If he had only taken five more minutes to put up his tools.

"Suck it in," he whispered to himself and walked over to Roland, who was bent over his huge suitcase, the sweat beading on his forehead, glistening in the bright afternoon light. He didnít look any different, maybe a little rounder, a soft paunch under his white dress shirt.

"Hey, Roland," he said, "itís Winston. You remember?"

Roland let go of the suitcase, straightened his body and turned, his pudgy fingers clutching at the collar of his shirt. Winston saw he wore a wedding ring. What kind of woman would marry Roland Manago?

"Oh, you still live here?" Roland said, nostrils flaring, lips pursed tight as the wallet of old Mr. Kim who lived down the street.

"Yeah, Iím still here," Winston said, suppressing the urge to punch Roland in the middle of his flat face. The last time heíd seen Roland was right after high school, in black pants and a white dress shirt buttoned at the neck. The years had taught him how to buy clothes but hadnít unpinched his mouth.

Roland stood for a moment, mopping the sweat from his brow with a giant white handkerchief. He folded it, pressing the fold between his thumb and index finger, and put it in his pocket.

"What do you want, Winston?" he finally said, eyes darting around as if following the path of a crazed bird. "They told me you saved his life. Do you want a reward or something?"

Winston turned and walked back to his house through the mango grove, the bright afternoon sun softened and dappled by the leaves overhead. He had known Roland Manago for 36 years, and every time he talked to him he wanted to squash him like a bug. The only thing that kept him from it was who would want to spend life in prison for killing Roland Manago? He got into his truck and drove to the North Shore. The waves werenít breaking, but looking at the sun set over the Pacific made Roland Managoís words seem like the buzzing of a fly. In the deep blue of the ocean Roland Manago no longer existed.

But he did exist. Every day as Winston left for work, the red Impala sat on the street in front of Mr. Managoís house like a curse. And every day when he returned over the Pali from work, there it would be again, sometimes in the same spot, sometimes parked in between the two houses, right in front of the six mango trees.

"Roland was always peculiar," said Paul Higata. Winston and Paul were sitting on the front steps of Winstonís house drinking a beer after work. "Remember that time he asked Lorene Watanabe to dance at the Junior Prom?"

"Jeeze, I forgot about that," Winston said, finishing his beer. "He led her out to the middle of the gym and said, ĎOkay, now dance.í" Then he walked away and left Lorene looking at all the other couples through the thick lenses of her glasses, tears steaming them while Roland laughed.

"Too bad he forgot Dennis Happakuku was Loreneís cousin," said Paul.

Winston nodded. "Iíve never seen a face so messed up," he said. "Rolandís eyes were purple for a month."

Now they were all working construction, while Roland had some fancy job in California. Winston didnít care because Roland was still Roland and what kind of money could make up for that?

A week after Mr. Managoís heart attack, Winston came home early because it was pouring on the Kaneohe side. In front of Mr. Managoís mango trees there was a truck that had one of those plastic signs on the front door: "Changís Tree Service." Rolandís red Impala was pulled up behind it, and Roland was standing on the curb talking to a Chinese guy with long hair pulled back in a braid. Winston parked his truck and went inside, like he hadnít seen them, but he crouched down and watched them from the window in his tutuís bedroom. The Chinese guy was pointing towards the mango trees and writing something on a clipboard. Winston could smell the storm coming over the mountains from the other side of the island. The leaves of the mango trees were rustling like nervous school girls. Roland took a piece of paper from the Chinese guy and then drove off in the red Impala.

Winston waited for a minute and then ran outside. Mauka, toward the mountains, the sky was dark with thunder clouds. The ginger that covered his front yard, was dancing in the breezes the clouds were whipping up and the papaya trees swayed like old fashioned hula dancers.

"Hey, man," he shouted at the Chinese guy, who was sitting in his truck. "Whatís going on?" Winston nodded at the grove of mangoes.

"Who wants to know?"

"Iím a friend of the old guy who owns those trees," Winston said, his hands against the door of the truck. "Heís in the hospital."

"Yeah, I was just talking to his son. Weíre going to take out the trees so he can build a parking lot. You know, so the old man can have some more income."

"Youíre kidding?" said Winston. "Itíll kill him if you cut down those trees."

"Itís not my kuleana," he said and shrugged. "His son said go ahead." He pulled away from the curb and left Winston standing in the street. The dark rain clouds were racing toward the ocean, hanging low in the sky. The first drops fell on Winstonís head and arms. The mango trees stood like six old gods on Lipona Street: not blue-eyed haoles like in the Christian churches, but real gods, squat and powerful, as though they had been there before even the first voyagers came to the islands from Tahiti, following the stars in their big dugout canoes.

"Donít be stupid," Winston said to himself, because mango trees were first planted in Hawaiíi during the time of Kamehameha I. But in March when the trees bloomed and their red flowers filled the air between his house and Mr. Managoís with their heavenly color, it was as if the islands were once again the paradise that lay undiscovered for so long in the middle of the Pacific ocean. Winstonís tutu told him that in India the mango blossom was an arrow of the goddess of love. Even Winston Nakamura could see that.

The rain lasted for half an hour or so. When it was over, Winston cut a bunch of red and yellow ginger and drove to the hospital. Mr. Manago was asleep, so Winston sat in the chair by his bed and waited. A pretty haole nurse took his flowers and brought them back in a blue vase.

"They smell like heaven," she whispered and put them on a table by the window. No one was in the other two beds in the room. Winston wondered how tall she was. Six feet? He really liked big girls. He was daydreaming about the nurse when Mr. Manago awoke.

"Oh, itís you, Winston," he said, as if he had been dreaming, and Winston Nakamura had not been one of the characters in his dream. Well, Mr. Manago hadnít been in Winstonís daydream either, so they were even.

The old manís face was shrunken, like one of those heads Winston saw on a television show about tribes in South America. His arms were skinny and the flesh hung from the bones. Slowly he pushed himself up in bed. "Whereís Roland?" he asked.

"I donít know," said Winston, biting back all the things he wanted to say. They squirmed in the back of this throat, ugly toads or flying cockroaches wanting to escape into the room like a plague in the Bible.

"He said he was coming by," said the old man, absently. "Whatís that smell?"

"I brought you some ginger from my tutuís garden," Winston said. How was he going to bring up the mango trees? The ginger plants were a place to start, but he felt too stupid to figure out how to say what heíd come to say.

"Your tutuís garden," Mr. Manago said. "I was just dreaming about your tutu. She was flying above your house like a little brown bird, only she was wearing that blue and white muumuu. You know, the one with the plumerias. It was so funny to see a bird wearing a muumuu."

"Roland is going to cut down the mango trees," Winston said and closed his mouth fast, as if one of those warty toads had hopped across his tongue and landed on the white hospital blanket that covered Mr. Managoís skinny legs.

"What did you say?" the old man asked.

Winston repeated his statement.

"Oh, thatís what heís been talking about. I couldnít really understand what it was. My brainís not so good since the heart attack. I hear the words but I donít know what they mean."

Winston leaned in closer to Mr. Manago. The antiseptic smell of the room collided with the heady scent of the ginger. His stomach turned over like a boat on choppy water.

"He had a guy out today looking at your trees."

"He thinks I need more money," said Mr. Manago, "but I tell him I have plenty. The house is paid for, and I have my government check."

"Youíd better tell him not to do it," Winston said, his voice rising. His friend nodded, but it was if he were barely in his body. His eyes were glassy and dull like the clouded windows of the hospital room.

Roland walked into the room, his head like a big cabbage. "Tell me what?" asked Roland, his thick lips moist and red.

Mr. Manago stared straight ahead as if watching a TV show on the blank wall of the hospital room.

Winston stood up. He was a little guy but still he was taller than Roland Manago, and he was tougher. All his years working construction had made his body sinewy and strong. Roland looked like a big soft mochi roll.

"You canít cut down the mango trees," Winston said.

Roland stood at the end of his fatherís bed and tucked the blanket under his feet. "Itís none of your business, Winston."

"Yes, it is. If you cut down those trees, it will kill your dad."

"I donít think so. Weíre being practical here, right, Dad?"

Mr. Managoís gaze focused and he nodded.

Winston put his face right in front of Mr. Managoís. "Heís going to cut down your trees."

Mr. Manago looked around Winstonís head to where Roland was standing at the end of the bed. "Iím an old man, Winston. Heís my son."

A slow smile spread over Rolandís face, a smile Winston had seen before, a smile like a lizard crawling on a sunny wall an inch away from a juicy bug.

"Youíre not old," said Winston. "You could live plenty more years. What are you going to do without your trees?"

Mr. Manago closed his eyes. He looked like a skeleton on the bed. One of his feet had escaped from the covers. The long yellow toenails glowed under the flourescent light like the petal of some prehistoric fruit.

"Itís over, Winston," said Roland. "Leave before I call the police. If he has another heart attack, Iíll sue you and take everything you have, even that beat-up old pickup truck. Iíll take your house, tear it down, and pave it over, too."

Winston drove ewa on H1 until Farrington Highway ended in Waianae and drove on till the road ended at Yokahama. He turned around and parked at Makaha and swam out into the Pacific until he could think of something other than Roland Managoís face. His arms ached and he turned and looked back toward the island. The Kaíala mountains reared up in the distance like the breasts of a beautiful goddess beckoning him to come back. The water stung his eyes and his mouth was full of salt. All the ugly things he wanted to say were gone. He swam slowly back to shore, and sat on the beach. Two haole girls were lying on a blanket, listening to music on headphones. A group of boys were bodysurfing in the afternoon light, their voices floating over the swells of the ocean.

Winston didnít kill Mr. Manago. He died a week later, the day the Chinese guy and his crew cut down the mango trees and pulled the stumps out of the ground with wenches and chains. It was as if his heart were in those trees, and when they were gone, he went, too. The crew filled in the holes and then poured black asphalt over the lot. It looked like the lava fields on the Big Island, black and hard and smelling of sulfur.

After the funeral, Roland flew back to Sacramento. The lawyer sent someone to clear out the house. Winston walked over while they were working and asked what they were going to do with the photographs. The fat haole woman in charge of the clean up said they were sending the furniture over to Goodwill, but they usually just threw the photos away. Nobody wanted someoneís old pictures. Winston asked if he could buy the Managosí photographs. She looked at him as if he were crazy.

"They were good friends with my tutu," Winston said. "I was thinking there would be some photos of her."

The woman shrugged. "You can have them. Those two boxes over there," she said, pointing to the plastic covered white couch under the living room window.

Winston lugged the boxes back to his house. It was a couple of weeks before he got around to going through them. One rainy Saturday after Thanksgiving he found what he was looking foróa photo he had taken of Mr. Manago a few years before, sitting under his mango trees on an afternoon much like the last one when they had shared the beers. He took the photo down to the copy shop on Varsity and had three blow-ups made, one for each window that overlooked the parking lot where Mr. Managoís mango trees once stood. He taped one to the kitchen window, one to the bathroom window, and one to the window of his tutuís bedroom. Not that he believed in ghosts or anything like that, but just in case the old lady was still around.

They sold the house right away, but nobody wanted the lot. The new neighbors put up a fence, so they wouldnít have to look at the asphalt cracking, tough green weeds breaking through, fed by Mr. Managoís cow manure. Winston swore one day he would save enough money to buy the lot, tear up the asphalt and replant the six mango trees, but how could Winston Nakamura save that much money? After all, he had barely finished high school while Roland Manago had gotten a scholarship and now had an big job on the Mainland, counting the money of people he would never see.


Barbara Hamby is Writer in Residence at Florida State University. "Mr. Manago's Mango Trees" is one of a group of stories about several families who live on the same street in Honolulu. She has poems forthcoming in The Paris Review, TriQuarterly, Southern Review, Western Humanities Review, and Five Points.

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