Sometimes she wishes he was dead, but then she’d miss him by Dawn Tasaka Steffler

Every year on May fifth, Marilyn combs the industrial streets near the Iwalei methadone clinic looking for her son so she can buy him lunch. She drives slowly, examining the broken people passed out on bus stop benches, squatting next to filthy tents, rooting around in the scraggly bushes doing who knows what. She recognizes Chad’s limpy gait crossing an empty lot and parks quickly so he can’t get in her car. Fourteen years ago, she made the mistake of driving him to lunch, and the sickly-sweet stench of urine lingered for weeks. Since then, they walk across the street to Zippy’s.

“Hi Ma,” he says, hands fidgeting. She can see his childhood face peeking out from his adult head, partially balding, skin leathery and dark from the sun, open, oozing sores by his mouth.

“Happy birthday, Baby. You hungry?”


She orders him two lunches because he can’t decide. Also, the woman behind the counter is giving her stink eye.

They sit outside. He struggles to eat with his rotting teeth, and she looks away, watching the huge cranes of Honolulu harbor offload shipping containers from cargo boats. She fills the silence by recounting stories from yesterday’s TV newscast because they can’t discuss anything meaningful. He won’t listen to updates on the people he grew up with, who got married, who had a baby. She won’t share anything personal with him, it’s too risky. And she stopped begging him to get help years ago. But she can’t not show up on his birthday. She can’t stand the thought of him waiting and watching for her, wondering if she finally gave up on him too. She buys a slice of chocolate dobash cake from the bakery case and lights the candle she brought with her. She sings happy birthday and he blows it out. He eats his cake slowly, savoring each bite, and for a moment the breeze coming off the water balances the sun baking her shoulders, and she smiles at the simple pleasure of it all.


They walk back to her car, and she pops the trunk with her key fob. “I got you something.” She gives him two plastic bags of toothpaste and toothbrushes, deodorant, socks and boxers, bottles of Snapple iced tea, canisters of Pringles. He stares and stares into the bags, and she prepares herself for what always comes next.

“So, it would be nice to have a hot shower, you know? And to sleep in my old bed. It is my birthday…”

Her therapist keeps reminding her these are choices he made and she isn’t responsible for the life he lives now. She shakes her head, no.

“Can you at least give me some money?”

She crumples. “You know I can’t give you money.”

“Come on, just a twenty? Please, Mom?” His eyes get all lovey and soft but she can see how dilated his pupils are.

She shakes her head again, and his stare turns nasty, his body twitches. “Fuck!” he yells and she startles. “Why do you come here then? Buy me all this useless shit!” He hurls one of the bags at her car and it hits her hubcap. She hears one of the Snapple bottles shatter.

Shaking, she gets into her car and hits the gas pedal so hard her wheels screech. Something hits the trunk of her car, and in the rearview, she sees his soda cup bouncing on the asphalt. “This was the last time, Marilyn!” she lectures herself in a shaky voice, but every year she says the same thing. For the next 364 days, she will attempt to harden herself, not answering phone calls from numbers she doesn’t recognize, flipping the newspaper page when she encounters “an unidentified homeless man died last night.” But then his birthday rolls around, and she gets in her car, goes to Long’s to buy toiletries and his favorite snacks, then circles Iwalei, China Town and Kaka’ako looking for him. And when she sees him again something deep inside of her unclenches, exhales.


She’s having difficulty driving, the adrenaline rush has completely depleted her. Suddenly her eyes see the big yellow sign—Next Exit Pali Lookout—and she swerves to take the exit. When Chad was twelve and she was driving him home from summer camp, he had recognized the name of the lookout from ghost stories told around the campfire and insisted they stop.

She staggers to the lookout railing and peers down to feel the vertigo. The billowing tree tops below still look hard as moss. In the high-pitched whistle of the wind, she can almost hear his prepubescent voice excitedly relaying the Battle of Nu’uanu: eight-hundred Oahuans had jumped from this very spot after being chased up Nu’uanu Valley by Kamehameha and his army. If caught, they would have been sacrificed to Ku, the God of War, their internal organs eaten so their conquerors could absorb their mana. One of their injured leaders, Chief Kalanikupule, hid in the mountains for months but eventually was found and sacrificed. Fish hooks were carved from his bones.

That whole summer, macabre story after story poured from him: Night Marchers, phantom hitchhikers, spirits choking people in their sleep.

She closes her eyes and leans forward into the sweet-smelling wind. It tries to peel her fingers off the rail. It wants to fly her like a kite.

If only she had wrapped Chad, still small, still clean, in her arms that day and jumped. She imagines it: kissing him hard one last time then stepping off the edge, no regrets, no hesitation, her arms windmilling, watching the ground rush up to meet her. She could have saved them both.

DAWN TASAKA STEFFLER — Dawn is a fiction writer from Hawaii who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Recently, her brother-in-law, Brant, took her on a hike up the Old Pali Highway to the lookout, and from that morning came this story. She is a 2023 Smokelong Quarterly Emerging Writer Fellow. Her work appears or is forthcoming in SoFloPoJo, Milk Candy Review, Pithead Chapel, and others. Find her on Twitter @DawnSteffler.

Art by OLUDE PETER SUNDAY — Olude is a Writer, an Artist and Poet from Ogun State, Nigeria. He has a few of his works featured in magazines including Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Rush Magazine, Typehouse Lit Mag, Ladies Girls Club, Parousia Christian Magazine, Native Skin Lit, Kalahari Review and others. He won the third place prize in the Endsars National Poetry contest held in October 2020. When he isn’t writing, he is painting pure pictures with poesy and photoshop. He tweets @peterolude.