“Have you seen Jorge?”
“Elena said he would be here shortly.” Kumai sat down to enjoy the fire. Upon awakening, she had stepped outside through her French doors to the lanai, felt the cold damp stones under her feet, and listened to the eerie silence of the rainforest. She missed the busy twitterings of mornings at home in Puako. She had tried to wash away the makeup from last night again this morning, but the stuff seemed to stain.
“What were those pink flakes on your dress when we got home last night?” Susan asked.
“Oh, just some coconut snack that I got at the gas station when I filled up Lightning. I think you fell asleep on the ride home, maybe?”
“Yeah. Wow, they even sell coconut at gas stations in Hawaii? Why pink?”
“Uh, I dunno. How was the evening for you?” Kumai asked.
“I enjoyed myself.” Susan said. “And that champagne! It sure loosened up my checkbook. We won several of the auction items.”
Kumai cupped her coffee and tucked her feet in the chair to warm them. It was a chilly morning up-country.
“Did you sense a lot more going on last night than dancing and dining?” Susan asked.
“Besides a fleeting rocket ride?” Kumai asked. She might as well bring up her snafu regarding the police and receive her reprimand.
“That was amazing. I hated the car, but loved the ride after it was over. The idea of anyone driving that blue bullet, even sober, is terrifying. I’m glad the doctor didn’t have access to his keys last night.”
“But he doesn’t know that.”
“Oh, that’s right.” Susan put a finger to her lips. “And I’ve got a solution to the arrest threat we’re facing. We’ll go to the police and make formal witness statements.”
Kumai wondered what Hawaii law did to someone who was slow to come forward as a murder witness. Even with that question, she felt giddy about taking away the CIA’s harness on her. “We can go to the police station after this breakfast meeting.”
“I hope Jorge will get here early so we can get this over with.” Susan stood up and paced. “Other than the police, do we have anything fun planned today to look forward to? Or maybe you need to go. I forget about your other clients.”
I don’t forget them. I remind myself frequently of their non-existence. “Yeah. I’ll check in with the office later but right now I’m free for the morning. It’s Saturday. Waimea has a renowned Farmer’s Market going today.”
“What are we getting over with that involves Jorge?”
“The whole suffering-servant bullshit that Elena pulled yesterday. We’ll try getting real and see if they are up for authenticity.”
We will? Kumai tried to imagine what this mash-up was going to sound like. She caught herself feeling both dread and curiosity that bordered on goosenecking. “What role would you like me to play?”
“If Elena really doesn’t speak English, I’ll need a translator. Jorge is probably straightforward and could do it, but this morning I’d like you to monitor the exchanges and accuracy. I understand most Spanish fine. I just can’t speak it very well.”
“Okay.” Kumai said. “I’ll be mostly silent then, right?”
“I’ll ask for help if I need it. Like yesterday. I didn’t understand Elena’s complaint about them being treated like ‘Targets of Commercial Baseball’.”
“Huh? Oh, no. That was ‘baseball trading cards’.”
“Oh! Okay. Well, you see my difficulty. Elena may be in the same position but reversed, and I don’t want to create misunderstandings.”
“Wise.” Kumai agreed.
“If things work out so that they want to stay on here, I may need you in a full-time capacity as my personal assistant.”
Kumai’s joy at the prospect flared and went out like a bad matchbook. What did Susan mean ‘if they stay here’? Kumai had a sense that Jorge had been with the ranch his entire life. Maybe his family had been here for generations. Was Susan going to fire them if they didn’t do things her way? Kumai would watch to see if Susan was an employer who enjoyed too much power too much.
“I guess we’ll see what they decide, then.” Kumai said. She sipped her coffee in silence and enjoyed remembering Kirby’s kisses from last night. Since she and Bradon were officially dating now, there would be no more lassoed-in lip locks.
“Everything okay?” Susan asked.
“You were frowning.”
For Kumai, the White Benefit last night felt like work. It had required the same backroom smoothing-over and coordination that she usually did as a concierge. Her dream of high-stepping turned out to be a surreal series of side-stepping. She reminded herself that she had been there because of work, not for a social event.
“How was your dance partner?” Kumai asked.
Kumai held on for new insights about Kane. None came, so she prompted, “Do you think you’ll be seeing him again?”
“It’s a small town, he said. Maybe I’ll go to Choo’s Friday night and meet him, if nothing else comes up.”
So Choo’s was Kane’s stable place.
Kumai wondered if she could remove from her imagination the Mr. Winters branch of Susan’s family tree or if she needed to keep it up there with a dotted line and question mark. Maybe there were Kane-like friends wherever Susan went. The room last night definitely stood to attention when she walked into the Lodge.
Elena walked in from the garage, folded her apron and said, “Breakfast is here with me.”
“Thank you.” Susan answered.
The three women gathered in the breakfast nook, poured fresh cups of coffee plus one for Jorge, and waited.
“Elena, how well can you speak English?” Susan asked.
“You don’t know how to speak English very well but you understand okay?”
“That’s how I am with Spanish.” Susan said.
Elena colored, then blanched. Her eyes looked up to the side to review what she had freely spoken in Spanish yesterday. “I sorry.”
“It’s my fault really. As a kid, I didn’t do my homework for Spanish class. I have a lot of respect for anyone learning more than one language.” Susan said.
“Miss Susan espeak Espanol.” Elena told him.
Jorge removed his hat and rested it upside-down on the sideboard. He took off his baseball jacket, hung it on the back of his chair, sat down, and said to everyone, “Good morning.”
“Buenos dias.” Susan chuckled. “It would be more accurate to say I ‘listen Spanish.’ Will it be okay if we have this meeting in English?”
“Yes.” Jorge and Elena said.
He said, “I will translate any words that Elena doesn’t understand.” then added, “If that is okay with you?”
“Great.” Susan said.
Kumai sipped her coffee and looked outside. The sun was burning off the haze, letting patches of blue sky shine through. It was still too cold to open the French doors. She glanced around the table. Everyone was holding their coffee cupped in both hands.
Fresh mango slices were mounded in a bowl and Kumai could smell the piney fruit’s perfume. She wondered if anyone would be offended if she just ate.
“Yesterday I got the sense that you are having a hard time with the exchange of owners that this property has weathered. How long have you been here?”
Jorge said, “I was born here. Elena moved here when we were married.”
“And this is also your home, not just a job.” Susan said. “From the documents I have, I counted seven sales of the place in the past two years.”
“Eight.” Elena said.
“Counting you.” Jorge said.
“That must be extremely stressful for you two. Ownership changes require fast and frequent adjustments.”
Kumai tried to imagine a rapid succession of bosses and landlords while sitting uncertain in the same home you have always inhabited. Her stomach cramped in sympathetic anxiety, or maybe it was hunger. One of the casseroles that Elena had brought in looked like it was an egg and cheese thing with chunks of green chile. Elena probably roasted her own chiles.
“I have many hopes and wishes around this place.” Susan said. “I’m disappointed in the Board of my foundation. They are taking a colonial approach to meeting their financial objectives. On the other hand, change is inevitable and can be for the good.”
Elena’s shoulders rolled forward and she looked down into her cup.
“I’ll start by telling you what I want. Then I will ask you to do the same for me.”
“I no understand.” Elena said.
Jorge translated, “She will say what she wants. Then we are supposed to say what we want.”
Elena’s eyes filled with fear and mistrust.
“Go ahead.” Jorge said.
“Thanks.” Susan continued, “I’m wondering. Would a two-year moratorium on any ownership changes be long enough for you two to recover from all the upheavel you’ve experienced?”
“Uh…” Jorge said.
Elena looked even more distrustful.
“No need to answer right away. Right now, this may just feel like more change for you. I’ll stop asking you questions for this morning. Instead, I’ll just state my position. When you both are ready, we can meet again for you to respond and tell me your needs.”
Everyone paused and sipped coffee. If this weren’t fascinating to observe and a little strange, drowsiness from their late night would have sent Kumai back to daydreaming about memory-kisses. Her stomach churned loudly as she tried to see what was in the other casserole. She smelled cinnamon. And maybe Punalu’u Sweet Bread?
Susan continued, “My first priority is to encourage community ownership of the ranch without exposing it to risk of being developed, subdivided, parceled out, or paved into a parking lot.”
Elena looked directly at Susan. The housekeeper’s body shrieked suspicion.
“Many of the ways that other owners are ‘returning the land to the people’ still aren’t working. So, together, we may need to improve on what has been done. If I try to do this alone, I’ll end up serving only my wishes. I need your help to see the bigger picture.”
Elena teared up. She erupted in a stream of Spanish. Kumai couldn’t keep up but got the gist: why should they feel assured by Susan? She was the boss. Whatever she said was how it was going to be.
Jorge listened and then translated, “Because you own this place, it needs to go however you want it to go.”
“Fair enough, for how things are set up right now. I want it to be run in a way that acknowledges the continuity of your presence here. But only if you want that and only with your input on how it will be done.”
“Entrada.” Elena sputtered. Jorge put his hand over hers.
“This is an unexpected conversation.” He said to Susan. “It is much to think about. Can we meet again later and talk with your new ideas?”
“Of course.” Susan smiled. “I’m glad that you are interested in these ideas. This is an adjustment which could be very worthwhile. Having the conversation requires you to have confidence in me as ‘The Owner’ without any basis or history together to rely on.”
Elena raised her eyebrows and nodded yes. She said, “I sorry about what I sayed yesterday.”
“Not that it’s your concern,” Susan said, “But Kumai and I aren’t lovers. My personal life will never be an okay topic of discussion unless I invite that. I will respect your personal and private life as well.”
“As to your other thoughts, they were very important for me to hear. The only thing about them that didn’t work for me was to have them hidden in Spanish. I hope that you will begin to feel safe enough to voice your concerns and thoughts openly.” Susan stood up.
“One other thing. I need you to be sure that the activities you do here are what you value using your time doing. If they are not the best use of your time, we need to refine what work you choose and delegate to someone else the tasks that are not high-value for you. When I say delegate, I don’t mean that someone is over another and becomes a boss – even with me. I mean that we take on the tasks that matter to each of us and release the tasks that don’t fit. We can talk more about that tonight too, so be thinking about what tasks you consider good uses of your time.”
Jorge extended his hand to Susan as he stood. “Thank you for thinking about us.”
“I hope you will afford me the same courtesy whenever I need it. Yes, I am thinking about you. Even more so, I am thinking of the land. Please keep that in mind.” Susan shook his hand. “Let’s gather at sunset out on the lanai tonight. What time would that be?”
“Six.” Elena said.
There was a knock on the front door. Elena jumped up to answer. She let in three men carrying items from last night’s auction.
The first man asked, “Where you want these cases?” Susan pointed to a corner of the kitchen.
The second man asked, “Where you want this koa rocker?” Susan pointed to the entry platform where he stood. The lines and shaping of the chair were flowing art. The wood’s visual velvet invited a person to touch it. This creation had to be a piece by Kona’s master craftsman Tai Lake. Kumai had heard that Tai recently carved a bench for the Dalai Lama when he visited the Hawaiian islands.
The third man asked, “Where you want this painting?” Susan stood there at a loss.
“In here. In the breakfast nook would be fine.” Kumai answered. He came in carrying a deCillia of a woman enjoying her lanai with the ocean and beach in the background. Kumai had noted the painting last night because it was so evocative of her home. She took the canvas from the man, admired it, and sighed. Then she asked Susan, “Is it okay if I rest it on the sideboard until you know where you want it?”
Susan agreed. “There should be two more cases?” She asked the men.
“They’re gettin’em.” The first guy removed from his back pocket a small aluminum receipt book while the other two went back out. He pushed the booklet to Susan to sign.
Susan took the small clipboard and pen. She asked Kumai, “Shouldn’t that painting be on the buffet on the other side of this room, so she is looking outside instead of into the room?”
Kumai was glad to move it, since that meant it would be across from where she had been sitting.
“Can you sign, please?” The first man asked.
“Yes, of course. As soon as the other two cases come in.”
Kumai surreptitiously scanned the exterior of the wooden box for any markings to tell what was in the crate. It had a pale white rustic look, a nailed-on lid, and raffia bits sticking through the cracks. The man had set it down like it was heavy. She would have thought it was White Champagne, except that buying three cases was unheard of.
Susan looked to Jorge and Elena and said, “I’ll take care of this if you want to go. See you at six tonight.”
“We di’not eat.” Elena frowned.
“Oh! I was too nervous.” Susan admitted.
“Yes. I put breakfast into refrigerator?” Elena offered.
“I’ve got it.” Kumai said, touching Elena’s shoulder. “You have things to think about.” She carried to the counter the casseroles that Elena had brought. Her hunger had disappeared for the moment. She opened drawers looking for plastic food wrap.
Elena passed by, opened the needed drawer and said over her shoulder, “See you later.”
The men came in with the two other cases. Susan signed the receipt and thanked them. They stood around for an awkward moment, then left.
Kumai put away the food in silence.
After the men had left, Susan asked, “How’d that meeting go, you think?”
“My head is spinning.” Kumai admitted. “I mean, you own the place. And they live here. It’s fragile terrain. It is clear that you want to be thoughtful about how it is for them.”
“I’m untethered in my thinking right now.” Susan said. “And to them I’m the newcomer. And I don’t depend on this ranch for my home and income. I’m trying to consider everyone’s needs.”
“Do you have a plan?” Kumai asked, then detected that she might have crossed a line with that question.
“I did have an objective. But I’m tossing it. Now I have questions.” Susan said. “Elena’s comments yesterday really made me think. After checking the facts and trying to imagine how it is to be them, I knew I needed a new way. But if I’m the one to come up with the new way, what if they didn’t want that either? The only thing I could think of was to ask them.”
“Didn’t that feel risky?”
“Very. Now I’m struggling to get clear about what I want out of this. All I have is a feeling, like the pull to true North. I want to ‘malama aina’ as your kumu said. But not for the people, although that will naturally be a result. I want to tend to the land, for the land. I’ll have to navigate by that.” Susan sighed and poured out her coffee. “Does the Farmer’s Market have breakfasts?”
“Unbelievable crepes.” Kumai said.
“Oh yes. Yes indeed.”