I’m sitting at grandpa’s dining table, just finishing lunch. I brought leftovers and a vegan coconut pecan tart from FreeSoul Caffe. He actually likes it.
Chewing thoughtfully on a pecan, he nods, “Walnuts,” he says.
I tell him it’s actually the walnut’s cousin, but I don’t know its Chinese name.
He takes another bite, “No, no,” he says, “This is walnut.”
His next forkful brings more coconut than pecan.
“This is good, this coconut,” he says. He’s never had it toasted, sprinkled with sugar.
The spoon poised in midair, he poses a question to me:
“Do you know how people get coconuts from the coconut tree?”
“They send someone up there,” I say. I think about the limber young men I saw in Thailand so many years ago, when I visited with my other grandpa. They scrambled up the tree with nothing more than a thick strap and a machete hanging from their waistbands. They were skinny, but were fast and strong, barely breaking a sweat shimmying up the slender trunks when us bystanders were sweating profusely just watching them. They hacked the coconuts off and tossed them to a guy below who hacked off the tops and sold the coconuts for a few cents each. Pity him if he was a poor catcher. More recently in Kauai, I saw less athletic guys being lifted up in cranes. They had chainsaws to prune the trees and let the fronds and coconuts fall to the ground.
Grandpa shakes his head. Apparently we are not talking about the same people.
“Monkeys,” grandpa says, “They send monkeys up there.”
I laugh, “And where do the people use monkeys to get coconuts?”
“Hainan Island,” he says with the slightest whiff of disdain in his voice, as though it was something I ought to have learned in elementary school along with addition and subtraction, “People trained monkeys to harvest coconuts for them.”
He puts the spoon down and brushes his hand over his mouth, checking for crumbs, “But we didn’t use monkeys.”
“No. We didn’t have monkeys. So we used our guns.”
“Guns?” A loud scene from “Predator” dances in my head, “Machine guns?”
“Something a little smaller than machine guns,” grandpa says, “but still, we went ‘pa-pa-pa-pa-pa!‘” Grandpa mimics shooting at coconuts in the sky, pointing his right index finger upwards towards the asbestos ceiling. “And they’d come falling out of the tree. But of course sometimes we would ruin the coconuts.” Grandpa makes an exploding motion with his hands.
My heart aches for all the destroyed coconuts. After greek yogurt, whipped cream, sour cream and ice cream, coconut flesh is probably my favorite food.
“Couldn’t you just borrow somebody’s monkey?”
“Borrow somebody’s monkey! Puh!” he scoffs, “You couldn’t just borrow somebody’s monkey. Those monkeys only listened to one master. You’d be lucky if you could get a monkey to eat a banana out of your hand.”
A few minutes later, he looks up. His expression has softened and his eyes have an odd faraway look.
“I had a monkey once.”
|George Stubbs A Monkey, (duh), 1799 Oil on Panel, Walker Art Gallery|
“Well not just me. With the other seven men in my troop. We bought a monkey for a dollar in the mountains of Hainan island, where our troop was based. Monkeys were everywhere, and the mountain people were much better than we were at catching them. They sell them in the mountains – well, they’re so cheap, you just give them a dollar for catching the monkey for you. It’s like a tip.”
“No,” says grandpa, “We didn’t give him a name.”
I’m disappointed. The first thing I would do, after buying a monkey for one dollar in the Hainan mountains, would be to name him.
“How long was he with you guys?”
Grandpa thinks for a minute, “Less than a year, but several months. He traveled with us from Hainan to Guangzhou. Took the boat with us. Marched with us.”
“Marched with you?” I imagine a monkey wearing a miniature forest green soldier’s suit, carrying a miniature machine gun, scurrying in and out amongst shiny soldier’s boots.
Grandpa laughs, “Of course he didn’t march, he sat on our shoulders while we marched. But he was good company.”
“He was such good company and you didn’t give him a name?”
Grandpa considers this, furrowing his brow. “It was so long ago,” he says, and I wonder if it was still as vivid in his mind as it is in mine. “Another troop had a monkey too, it was much bigger than our monkey.” Grandpa raises his hand a foot off the table, “Our monkey was this tall,” then raises his hand six inches higher, “Theirs was this tall. But we liked our monkey just fine. I guess…I guess we called him… ‘Hey-hey.'”
“Yes,” grandpa make a beckoning motion with his hand, “As in ‘Hey-Hey, come over here.’ And the monkey would come over.”
He leans back, smiling, “He became our ninth man.”
“Hey-hey! Over here!”
“Psst! Over here, Hey-hey!”
For men away from home, away from wives and children, away from their very futures, Hey-hey was a small, lively relief. Sometimes Grandpa remembers a lot from the war, sometimes he can’t remember anything. Sometimes he doesn’t want to talk about it.
“What happened to Hey-hey?” I asked.
Grandpa searches a bit before responding, “We lost him, I guess, after the Communists came and destroyed our troops. He disappeared after that. It’s hard to say what happened. I don’t remember exactly. One day he was gone. Maybe he ran away into the forest or maybe he was killed…”
“You don’t remember?”
He gives me an incredulous look, “We were fighting the Communists in hand to hand combat! We lost a lot of things. My fellow soldiers were dying. I didn’t have time to consider what happened to the monkey, I was lucky to be alive.”
I consider this. It is a good point. I really don’t understand anything sometimes.
Still, I can tell Hey-hey is dancing around in his head, his furry face slightly blurred, like the faces of those he marched with. No one ever says war is a good thing, but there’s a reason men get nostalgic about their army days. Grandpa sighs, then yawns, glancing at the clock. It’s not yet 1PM, though he wants it to be; his eyes are getting heavy. In the army there was no time for naps, and now, some days, it’s all he wants to do. He shakes his head as though to shake away the sleepiness, but like his age, it clings to him more stubbornly than his memories. He rubs his mottled face and shakes his head. His favorite thing to do now: shake his head and think, or not think, about the past.