Fiction

You Take the South Seas

Pop aimed to swap Ma’s dumplings for poi and mangoes on the beach. So he built the Aloha to sail for pearls and tropical sunsets

OWEN CAMERON November 15 1948
Fiction

You Take the South Seas

Pop aimed to swap Ma’s dumplings for poi and mangoes on the beach. So he built the Aloha to sail for pearls and tropical sunsets

OWEN CAMERON November 15 1948

You Take the South Seas

Fiction

OWEN CAMERON

Pop aimed to swap Ma’s dumplings for poi and mangoes on the beach. So he built the Aloha to sail for pearls and tropical sunsets

I WAS on my way down to the wharf because it was Saturday and Mom thought Pop might have sold some soap or hair oil and we could get a chunk of pork to go with the beans. I was crossing Main Street in front of the hotel when this old man called to me.

“Boy! Come here, boy!”

He was really an old man, ten times as old as Pop. He didn’t have any hair or teeth and walked with a cane and his mouth looked as though his stomach hurt him. I knew he was one of the people who come to the hotel every summer for their health.

All he wanted was to talk to me. I guess he didn’t have anyone to talk to except the people in the hotel. He gave me a quarter and when he asked my name and where 1 lived and what grade I was in and what 1 was going to be when 1 grew up, I answered politely, saying yes sir and no sir, the way I should.

When I told him that when 1 grew up 1 was going to build a boat and go after Pop, he wanted to know where Pop was. I said, “He’s here now, but one of these days he’ll get the Aloha finished and take off.”

“Take off what, boy?”

“Take off in his boat.”

“What boat?” The old man looked around like he expected to see it there beside the hotel.

“His boat, that he's going in,” 1 said. 1 was tired of the conversation, but when the old man moved I could hear money jingle so 1 hated to rush away, and then 1 had a bright idea. I said, “She’s right over here in the river. Why not walk over and look at her? She’s t he best boat around fume and a pret t y good boat any place, anybody’ll admit that. Pop built her all himself and she’s really worth seeing. Nothing but the best goes into Aloha.”

He said he’d like to see her and we started down Water Street. Most of the boats around here are canoes and out-hoards and like that, but the Aloha was a real boat, made for blackbirding and trading and running before a gale.

The old man told me 1 was a good strong healthy boy and that once he had been exactly like me, though 1 didn’t believe it. He was too old. He told me he was here for his health, which I’d guessed, and his name was Jonathan P. Jones. I didn’t connect him with the Jones’ Home Products until we reached the boat. ’Then he saw the sign and asked about it and when 1 told him Pop was agent here he said, “Hmmph.”

Pop was fitting deck planks, but when he saw I had brought someone to admire the Aloha he came over. Mr. Jones said, “This boy claims you are the local representative of Jones’ Home Products.”

“I am,” Pop said. “What can I do for you? The pickles are nice if you like pickles. Or how about some hair tonic?”

“I don’t want anything. I’m head of the company,” Mr. Jones told him.

Pop jumped down to the wharf and shook Mr. Jones’ hand, saying, "That’s a coincidence. Us both in the same business. Well, a man has to make a living as best he can, though it’s more of a sideline with me. I suppose you work at it full t ime, being head of t he company?”

“I’ve given my life to it,” said Mr. Jones. “And I’d like to see ’em retire me until I get both feet in the grave! Oh, I can still make them squirm when I want to.”

“I’m by rights a cabinetmaker,” Pop admitted. “But that takes too much of a man’s time, except when I need money for an emergency, like this decking. The Jones’ Home Products feed us from day to day and by having the business and stock here on the boat I can keep working unless somebody comes along wanting pepper or nutmeg or vitamins or something. You’d think they’d he considerate enough to buy all they need once a month, say, but they’re not.”

Mr. Jones looked at Pop like his stomach was hurting worse than ever. “Don’t you do any canvassing from house to house? When you were accepted as agent, you agreed to do at. least—”

“I know, I know,” Pop interrupted, “but I just can’t spare the time.”

“Young man, I started with one horse, an old 1)u£gy> and a crock of Jones’ Lucky Pickles.” He was so old he thought Pop was a young man. “And now look at me.”

“I’m looking,” Pop said. “Suppose you got caught in a blow and had to reef topsails on a lee shore?”

“What?”

“Alow and aloft,” Pop said, “a man’s got to do a man’s work.”

“I can hire done what needs doing,” Mr. Jones snapped. “I’m worth a good many thousands. Attending to business did it.”

“Oh, money,” Pop said. Then he looked at the Aloha. “Not but what I could use a little.”

“So l notice. This boy’s clothes are less overalls than patches.”

“They are? Well, his mother is responsible for that. No, if I had the money I could finish the Aloha, slip down river to the ocean and sail her into the blue. I’ve been building her for fifteen years and it looks like I’ll be at it some time longer. But with money I could leave for the islands in a month.”

“What, islands?” asked Mr. Jones.

Pop looked at him the way the minister looked at Mom, the day he came wanting us to go to church. Not that Pop could spare the time from the Aloha, but to he polite Mom asked what church. I guess the minister had only heard of the one.

“The islands,” Pop said. “South Seas. Trading for pearls and ivory and copra. Then you take the sunsets. I guess you never saw a tropical sunset, did you?” Pop never had, either, but he’d sure read about them. “And the native girls, sweet and lovely as the flowers they wear for dresses. Oh, there’s dangers, too. You take the coral reefs and sharks and head-hunters trying to board you but a man expects such things.”

“I never had time to run about all over the world,” Mr. Jones said. “Too busy earning a living.”

“Oh, we live all right,” Pop said. He looked at me. “Johnny, go home and tell your mother I’m bringing the big boss for dinner. Suggest fried chicken.”

“We had that cliicken day before yesterday,” I reminded him.

Pop scratched around and found a dollar and twelve cents and of course I had the quarter Mr. Jones gave me. As I started off, Pop told Mr. Jones, “You take the islands. There’s the breadfruits and coconuts, oranges and mangoes—like a persimmon, I think they are. And all kinds offish, colored like the rainbow. Oysters, full of pearls. And long pig, barbecued on the beach.”

“Pearls?” echoed Mr. Jones. “I’d rather hear about pearls than the longest pig in the world. I’m not allowed any pork, even bacon.”

“That’s right,” Pop said. “Pearls before swine, every time. There’s pearls so big the oysters can’t close. The native kids use them for marbles. Oh, a man would get rich in spite of himself, but there’s the other things money can’t buy. Like the tropical moon coming up and you on an atoll . .

Pop sure could tell about those islands.

^E DIDN’T have chicken, but we had beans with dumplings and Mom’s special hamburger loaf and hot biscuits and apple pie. Mom was about t he best cook in the world and she laid herself out to please Mr. Jones. When he and Pop came home, an hour late, which was what Mom had figured, Mr. Jones’ eyes were shining. He was really interested in the islands and he kept asking Pop questions like -

“Couldn’t these mangoes be canned and sold?”

Pop shook his head. “That would mean coming back to civilization too often. You take pearls, they’re worth more and smaller. The Aloha hasn’t much cargo space.”

“You’ve got it all thought out,” Mr. Jones said admiringly. He took second helpings of everything and told Mom, "I haven’t tasted dumplings like this since I was ten years old. My mother died then and I was left an orphan.”

“What a shame,” Mom said, looking sorry for Mr. Jones.

Mr. Jones looked sorry for himself a minute and then asked Pop, “But if the natives are willing to trade pearls, as you

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say, for glass beads and mirrors and other trinkets, why hasn’t some enterprising man already gone to the islands and gathered all the pearls?”

“Why haven’t you?” Pop asked. “There you are! You’ve got a head for business, that’s true, but for island trading it needs an adventurer, a man with the sea in his blood. You fellows see only what’s near and safe.”

“That’s true,” admitted Mr. Jones. “Yes, ma’am, I will have some of that pie, though I’m not supposed to. Rye rusk and buttermilk is my standby. When I was a young man, struggling to get ahead, I lived on graham crackers and tea. Eleven cents a day.”

“You take the islands,” Pop said. “There’s all the papaya you want, free. Here you can’t even buy it. Or reach up and pick a breadfruit and wash it down with coconut milk. Want a bouquet of orchids? Shake the tree and they come tumbling down, all gold and purple and red. Or reach down in the lagoon and pick some oysters. If you spill a few pearls, who cares?” “Shouldn’t waste them,” Mr. Jones sa;d.

AFTER lunch Mr. Jones and Pop . and I went down to the boat again. Pop did more talking than working, because he had a fresh audience. I sure liked to hear him tell about the islands, sitting in his rocking chair on the wharf and looking past you like he was looking right at the things he was speaking about. When he talked about those islands he could set you aching, wishing you were there on one of those wonderful white sandy beaches, with the birds like jewels flying around the palm trees and the ocean stretching off forever, warm and bluer than water ever was around here. It was forty miles downriver to the ocean, but we had been there, and the water was grey and dirty, not at all like the islands, where you could look five fathoms down to the bottom of the lagoon and watch the fish swimming around. Pop could sure tell it.

Mr. Jones visited the boat every day after that, so Pop didn’t get much work done on the Aloha. Pop said the old boy asked more questions than I did. All that week when I came down to the wharf after school, there was Mr. Jones. He’d had a rocking chair sent down from the hotel and he’d sit facing Pop with his eyes shining, now and then asking a question. Pop had the answers for him, too.

Saturday he said we were all to come to dinner with him at the hotel. It turned out he meant supper, at night. We all cleaned up and put on our best clothes. It was a pretty swell place, though the food wasn’t so much, after Mom’s cooking. Mr. Jones said so himself. We had raw oysters, which it turned out none of us liked, and a watery soup with not a sign of a vegetable or anything else in it, and roast duck, and a salad with pineapple in it, which Pop said was a heck of a way to treat pineapple or salad, either one. We had some stuff to drink that kept bubbling up in Mom’s nose. She let me taste out of her glass, but it needed sweetening, I thought.

When the meal was over, Mr. Jones stood up and raised his glass and said, “To the islands!”

Leaning on the table, he said to Pop, “West, when I met you the other day, I’ll confess I did not think much of your industry. In fact, I made up my mind to see that the Jones’ Home Products agency went to a worthier man.”

“Oh, well,” Pop said. “I expect we’df get along. We always have.”

“Rut now I have revised that first estimate,” Mr. Jones told him. “I have looked over your boat, I have talked with you—I’m a pretty shrewd judge of character—and talked to other natives of this village.”

“You’ve had a drop too much,” Pop said. “No natives here. You take in the South Seas—”

“Don’t interrupt, please! Their opinion of you is not altogether favorable. All agree that you are honest, generous and friendly, but many appear to think that you are—uh—shiftless was their word. But I think we can dismiss such people as merJ* who — like myself — can see only what is under their noses. No vision, no vision at all. Because most men are like that, as you have pointed out, there are still pearls in the islands, waiting for a man with the sea in his blood.”

Mom burped and Mr. Jones looked at her. She giggled and said, “Hear, hear!”

Mr. Jones smiled at her. “How will you like the islands, ma’am?”

“Oh, I don’t expect to go along,” Mom said. “For one thing, at the rate he’s building that boat, it will be nine hundred—”

Pop interrupted her. “The islands are no place for a white woman. Gets ’em.”

Mr. Jones looked startled. “You mean you’d go off and leave your family? The boy, too?”

Pop nodded and said, “No regrets. Sometimes my lips will tighten as I look into the sunset, while skilfully guiding the Aloha between the coral reefs. Maybe the natives whisper to each other, ‘One fella marster makeum bobbery long time one fella wife and family.’ But who else guesses my secret?”

“But who’ll provide for them?” “Every few months there’ll come a little sack of pearls,” Pop said. “A king’s ransom. Though she’ll never know the blood and suffering they cost.”

Mr. Jones shook his head, but he said, “You’ve thought it all out, you should know. Do you see eye to eye with him in this, Mrs. West?”

Mom said briskly, “I’m not worried. I used to worry about things, but now I let tomorrow worry about itself. Surprising how much fun you can have today, doing that. Maybe, as I said, at the rate he’s building—”

“All right, you’re satisfied,” said Mr. Jones. “Now, where was I? Oh, yes, your boat. Your neighbors all agree she is a work of art, a wonderful craft, even though some do not believe you will ever complete the vessel.”

“They’ll get a surprise one of these days.” Pop told him. “And she ought to be a good boat. I worked more than fifteen years on her.”

“Exactly. And when you come to think of it, just that sort of perseverance brought me to the top. I worked for Jones’ Products night and day.” “Me, too,” Pop said. “But you take the islands, a man can’t go there in any old tub. You take a typhoon. No, fifteen years isn’t too long a time, considering I’m not rich and have a family to support.”

“You spent more on that boat than you ever did on us,” Mom said. She looked at Mr. Jones, hiccuping again, account of the bubbles. “That’s not complaining. We’re happy. I don’t see how we could be any happier if we had all your money. And it’s kept him working outdoors and healthy.”

“It certainly has. Fit to clew down a bowsprit in a gale of wind.” Mr. Jones must have picked that up from Pop.

‘‘Now let me get to the point, the reason for this little dinner. I am an old man, but listening to West tell about vhe islands has made me feel young again. If I could. I’d go along with him. I like and admire you, West.” “The pleasure is all mine,” Pop said, getting up and bowing to Mr. Jones and putting his hand in the butter.

“And you and I are alike in many ways. We’re workers, both of us, but with different goals. And who knows but trading in the islands may make you rich as 1 am? 1 don’t know, I never was in the islands, or much of any place else. Too busy. All right, as a result I’ve got my share of money and then some. So last night the thought came to me-—I sleep very little—that when 1 was your age if someone had helped me 1 might be worth twice what 1 am now and Jones’ Home Products be known all over the world.”

“Except the islands,” Pop said. “Perhaps. But I thought how wonderful if someone had cc me to me when 1 was young and said, ‘I have faith in you, my boy. Here’s two thousand dollars. Take it, use it.’ And that’s what I’m saying to you now, West.”

Mr. Jones stopped talking. Pop looked pale and everyone was still and solemn until Mom burped.

“I don’t wonder you are speechless,” said Mr. Jones. “Here is my cheque. Shall we drink again to the islands?” Pop jumped to his feet again, crying, “To the islands! And to you! The first sack of pearls will be yours.”

“I had thought of a share in the venture,” said Mr. Jones.

“Pardner!” Pop shouted, and leaned across the table to shake Mr. Jones’ hand and get the cheque, putting his left hand in the butter again. Then everybody began talking at once and Pop got out paper and pencil and began figuring just how to use the money, how much grub and trade goods he’d need, and how much to finish the

Aloha, and I guess we would have stayed talking till morning, but they closed the dining room at ten o’clock and we went home.

The next day Pop didn't feel so good. He laid it all on that bubbly stuft’ and when Mr. Jones showed up Pop tried to give him back the cheque, saying, “I guess we all had too much last night.”

“Nonsense,” Mr. Jones told him. “Hire workmen! Buy materials! Set out for the islands while you're young.”

“I’m not young,” Pop said. “I’m over forty. Fifteen years ago, when I first—”

“I’m twice forty,” cried Mr. Jones. “And I’d go, if I could find a fool I'd trust with the business. Come on, let's go down to the wharf and start things moving!”

That was the first time I ever saw Pop when he wasn’t eager to work on the Aloha. And the strange thing was, he stayed that way. Not that it mattered, because with the money Mr. Jones hired a couple of shipwrights from the city and the boat went together fast. That should have made Pop happy, but it didn’t—just the opposite.

Mom said he was getting so crabby she could almost look forward to the day when he’d leave for the islands. I noticed it, too, but I didn’t wish he’d leave. It was going to be kind of lonesome. 1 couldn’t go down to the wharf and help him, after school and Saturdays, and listen to him tell about the islands.

He got crabbier, so that finally he would hardly talk to Mom or me, though he used to tell us all his plans for trading in the islands and what he’d be doing if he was there. What was worse, his mouth got looking like his stomach hurt, the way Mr. Jones’ did. On the other hand, Mr. Jones looked better and said he felt a thousand per cent better. It sure was funny.

Pop got so he wouldn’t go down and watch them working on the Aloha half

the time, let alone working himself. Once when 1 coaxed him down and we stood on the wharf looking at her, they were stepping the mainmast. Stepping meant putting it up, Pop said. He’d talked about that fora year, and now he wouldn’t even go aboard and watch.

1 said, “Maybe there’s somet hing we can do to help.”

Pop whirled on me and yelled, “Stop hounding a man! Let me alone, can’t you?”

1 couldn’t ever remember him talking in that rough way to me before and 1 turned away quick before I started to cry like a darn girl. That shows you. I asked Mom if it was his stomach and she told me it was even deeper than that.

He was just as rough with her. A couple of days later he was sitting around the kitchen grumbling and she said to him, “1 wish you wouldn’t take it out on us.”

“'Fake what out?” Pop snapped. “What’s eating you now?”

“Nothing,” Mom said. She waited a minute and then said, “I don’t think there’s a law says you have to go.”

Pop jumped to his feet and for a moment 1 thought he was going to hit her. He yelled, “What about mv life’s ambition? What about the years of work? What would 1 do with the boat? What do you think people would say if I ”

Somebody knocked on the door and Pop sucked in his breath. Mr. -Jones called out, “Hello! Anybody home?”

Pop whispered, “Say I’ve gone to see about harpoons,” and ducked out the back way.

That was funny, because Mr. Jones had brought a letter from some company that sold harpoons. When I tried to tell him Pop was out after harpoons right then, Mom told me to go out and mind my own business. She was getting as snappish as Pop.

It wasn’t very comfortable around home, so I went down to look at the Aloha, but even that was changed. She was slim and pretty and exciting as ever—prettier, because she was almost finished. In a few days Pop would take off for the islands. His going had always been in the future, next year or the year after, and now it was tomorrow or the next day. That close. It made me feel funny to think of it — no Pop and no Aloha, either, and as long as I could remember there had been both of them. I guess I’d thought there always would be.

That was the night it happened, along after midnight. Our place was a couple of blocks from the wharf, but the only tall building in that direction was the hotel and there was no other boat big enough to make a real fire. So when the noise and hollering woke me, and I looked out and saw the glare near the river, 1 knew. I piled out of bed, but before I had my clothes on somebody hammered on the front door and yelled, “West! hey, West! Your boat’s on fire!”

I heard Pop answer, “Okay, I’m dressing.”

But when I ran into the bedroom he was dressed and all ready, just sitting on the bed. I hollered that the Aloha was burning, but he stayed calm as a turtle. He told me there was no use get ting excited, either she burned or she didn’t, and sat there looking down at Mom.

She stirred and yawned a couple of times and then asked, “What’s all the fuss about?”

“Boat’s on fire,” Pop told her.

“My goodness,” she said. “And I slept right through it! Is it over?”

“I didn’t know if you were asleep.” Pop said.

“Just this minute woke up.” You’d

think they were talking about the weather.

“Might as well go back to sleep,” Pop told her. “I’ll go down to the wharf, but I’ll come right back and let you know what happened.”

He let me go with him. He couldn’t have stopped me. The whole town, i: seemed to me, was at the riverside watching the Aloha go. The fire engin -and t he volunteers couldn’t do much except order people to stand hack and keep the wharf from burning. The Aloha was a ship of fire instead of wood and even the mast was made of flames. It was pretty awful. I don’t remember what I said or how I felt, and I don’t want to, but Pop put his arm around me and told me not to take it so hard.

L very body crowded close, saying what a terrible thing and wondering how it started. One man said a worker must have dropped a cigarette in some shavings, but Pop told him no it was more likely spontaneous combustion and anyhow there was no use crying over spilt milk. Pop took it better than lots of people who didn’t have any interest in the boat.

It was really all over when we got there and as soon as the flames began to die down a little Pop said there was no point in holding a wake and we might as well go home. He took my hand and led the way through the crowd and on the edge of it came face to face with Aír. Jones, whose stomach was bad again, bad as it had been that first day.

“A terrible thing,” Pop said, shaking his head. “My time and your money, all gone. I guess you hlame me for not having a watchman, or insurance, or fire extinguishers, or even a bucket that would hold water. I guess you wouldn’t want to throw good money after bad, to build another boat—uh— would you?”

“What do you take me for?” snarled Air. Jones.

“I figured you’d feel that way,” Pop said, kind of sighing. “But I couldn’t be sure. Oh. there’s another thing. About the Jones’ Home Products Agency—I already gave that up. Today I made arrangements to be agent for Smith’s Bathroom and Kitchen Supplies.”

We went on home. Pop told Mom the Aloha had burned to her keel and Air. Jones was pretty mad about it. Pop said, “Nobody knows how it happened. You we re asleep till Johnny came in?”

“Like a log,” Mom said. “I never opened my eyes from the time I went to bed.” She reached out and took Pop’s hand and they just sat there a minute, looking at each other. Then Mom whispered, “I’ve got ten dollars put away you don’t know about. That’ll be a start.”

“I’ll tell you,” Pop said. “I’ve been thinking a bigger boat would be better, lots of ways. You take a schooner . . . Though it’s a considerable undertaking, me not being a rich man.”

“Ah, money isn’t everything,” Alom told him.

“And I’ve got the time. I’m young yet,” Pop said. “You take in the islands, a man like this Jones couldn’t survive. And every pearl I sent him would be one less for you. There’s plenty, but—”

Alom saw me standing by the door and said, “You skedaddle out of here and back to your bed where you belong.” But the sharpness was gone from her voice and before the door closed I heard her whisper something to Pop and giggle, like she used to.

The last I heard was Pop saying, “Native girls? Not me! Oh. you can’t stop them bringing you flowers and singing love songs and such, but you take a man like me ...” ★