The Goddess of Sunday Brunch

Creative Nonfiction
Autumn Shah


Photo Credit: Sam Howzit/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Sam Howzit/Flickr (CC-by)

The Tiki gods look forlorn, their power stripped. Pale yellow sticky notes with numbers written in Sharpie adhere to the sides of their wooden heads. One Tiki, the size of a seated Labrador, sits on the ground, posing beside a stack of old phone books and printer manuals. Another, with a blue scowl, cowers under a metal workbench while a third waits by a dimpled brass umbrella stand, a highly perturbed look on its face.

I have never been to an auction before. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I pictured something a little more distinguished. I thought auctions were quiet, tense affairs with lots of money on the line, where people spoke in nods and raised eyebrows. I thought they took place in grand estates in the country or auction houses with Rococo chairs and heavy, velvet drapes, not in small warehouses tucked behind the outerbelt, items stacked everywhere next to junk that hadn’t sold in past auctions. The warehouse looks like a rummage sale booth at an antiques mall.

This stuff is barely old enough to be in my grandmother’s basement, though. The Kahiki Supper Club, where the current auction items came from, opened in 1961. It would have been a unique attraction for any city, but it was an especially big deal for unassuming Columbus, Ohio. Suddenly there was a sea dragon soaring off of a dramatically-sloped roof built to resemble an enormous Polynesian fighting boat, looking right out over Broad Street.

It was an extraordinary thing in the 1980s, when I was a shy teenager searching for something—extraordinary or otherwise—inside myself.

*

From the time I was very young, my sister and I had begged for a peek inside the restaurant. We drove by it probably once a week on our way downtown or to the strip mall across the street where our mother’s favorite clothing stores were located.

“It’s not really a place for children. It’s too fancy and too expensive,” Mother would say.

She had dined there several times. Each new boyfriend sought to impress her by taking her to Columbus’s most unique restaurant.

My mom was blonde, vivacious, and beautiful. And to trump it all, she was British. Other than the Kahiki, she was the most exotic thing in our nook of Columbus. Friends and teachers gushed over my mom’s beauty and her accent. Inevitably, people would ask me, “Where’s your accent?” I never admitted that I secretly wanted one, or that I could put one on if I chose. Because at what point can you decide you’re something else and not be called a fake? Somehow my mom’s accent lifted her above our grungy apartment and the precariousness that was our life after my dad left.

My mother told us about the swaying bridge just beyond the doors, waterfalls and birds, even the cracks of thunder. She told us there was a “Mystery Girl” in a grass skirt who served bubbling drinks in a large bowl after offering it up for a blessing from the Tiki god. It was so wrong, even taboo to my Jehovah’s Witness upbringing, but so fascinating.

Most compelling was the giant Tiki god himself, who, she said, towered over everything, his eyes burning red and a fire raging in his mouth.  “As soon as you walk in, he’s right there!” she said.

As my mom regaled us with descriptions of the Kahiki I pictured myself in her place, being served flaming food with pineapple and cherries while sitting among birds in a rainforest. I longed to be my mom: beautiful and sought after, making conversation with men in fancy restaurants and sitting in wicker butterfly chairs. I promised myself that some day, I too would sit in a butterfly chair and order dinner with fruit in it.

*

I didn’t come to the auction to buy anything, just to reminisce. Twelve years have passed since the Kahiki closed. As I wander around, I can’t imagine taking any of this stuff home. I try to imagine the carved wooden warrior mask with googly eyes on the bare wall above my piano, a light fixture that resembles a puffer fish over the kitchen table.

There had been a souvenir shop inside called The Beachcomber that stood off the restaurant’s foyer which was commandeered by a feisty old Chinese woman. Rows of Zombie and Headhunter mugs were sold, along with other Kahiki souvenirs, Tiki kitsch, and Asian knickknacks.

I’d like to have a single Headhunter mug to replace the one trapped in my mother’s attic in a box. I kept the original as a souvenir from my first trip to the Kahiki.

*

I walked through the parking lot beside my mother, who was bouncing in excitement or perhaps because of the frigid December air. It was so cold that year I could taste it on my tongue. For my sixteenth birthday I was finally going to step through those doors. Daniel, my mother’s boyfriend, loped along on my other side.

The parking lot lay to the side of the entrance so that when we walked around the corner we were transported to another world, another time even: primitive, geometric designs colored the façade; the roof overextended, pointing outward and upward; the sea dragon looked about to take off into the ocean of sky.

As we approached the Easter Island heads standing sentry on either side of the hexagonal doors, my stomach tightened in the same way it did when I was called to the board to do a math problem at school. Flames from the torches on their heads snapped in the chill wind.

We walked across a swaying bridge and through the front doors into a cave hung with greenery. I marveled at the tape-generated sounds of birds and the walls trickling with water. We stepped through another door into a circular foyer dominated by an eerily-lit, unfriendly-looking monkey-head fountain. Through the foyer, to the hostess stand, we entered the main area of the restaurant. A thatched hut village sprawled out before us, surrounded by palm trees and tropical plants with leaves larger than my head, Tiki torches staked throughout.

A hostess with soft waves of black hair, dressed in a Hawaiian sarong, greeted us, but I barely heard her as I gawked at the fearsome, angry-eyed Tiki god looming at the far end of the restaurant. His prominent, square forehead and elongated nose, nostrils flared, accentuated his disapproval.

My mother told the hostess that we wanted to sit next to the aquarium or the birds.

“Do you have a reservation?” she asked in a melodic, accented voice.

“No. We’re here for my daughter’s birthday.” My mother beamed and I blushed, because even I knew that at a fancy restaurant you need a reservation.

“Well, there are no bad seats, so don’t worry,” a woman with white-blonde hair said, taking charge. She took up her pen, examining her map, then told us there would be a bit of a wait.

As we waited, I watched the servers flit around in their floral uniforms and leis. I felt as if I were in another country—all the servers looked Asian, the scent of the food was tangy and fruity, the music that played in the ether was a twangy calypso-rock blend.

We finally followed the hostess through the dining area and my heart beat faster until we were led to a booth surrounded on three sides by wicker walls. No butterfly chair, no birds in sight. I could see the aquarium if I looked between two poles that served as a corner into the aquarium seating section.

“You don’t have anything next to the aquarium?” Daniel asked.

“No. You need reservation,” the hostess said, her English abrupt.

Once the hostess put down our menus and turned away, Daniel got up and my mom looked at him questioningly.

“I’m going to go see if they can get us something better.”

“Daniel, no. This is nice! Isn’t it, Autumn?” Mom said, her eyes wide and eyebrows high.

It wasn’t, but I slid into the booth. Something in my chest pinched in disappointment.

“We can see the aquarium behind us just fine, can’t we?” she prompted me. But I remained quiet.

Every now and then I heard a bird screech in the distance. The drinks menu, which was as lengthy as the dinner menu, listed cocktails with names like Blue Hurricane, Jungle Fever, Headhunter, and Zombie. They came in sculpted mugs in the shape of a Tiki god, a warrior or a totem-like animal. Daniel ordered a fancy drink so that I could have the headhunter mug it came in.

I don’t recall what I ate but I remember thinking it was nothing special; it tasted like Mark Pi’s drive-thru Chinese that we brought home once a week—with the addition of pineapple.

Toward the end of our meal, the ukulele-playing waiters delivered a small cake and set it in front of me. I bashfully blew out the candle. The manager who had assigned our seat came to our table right behind the musicians and told us we could tour the restaurant. I was embarrassed enough about the cake, but somehow I was coerced. I made sure from my sloped shoulders and dour expression that people knew I was being forced to look over their food at the scenery behind them.

We walked along the aquarium side where fish with flowing tails and dorsal fins glided past diners’ faces. On the opposite side of the restaurant, in the rainforest section, it rained and thundered every fifteen minutes and the cockatoo fluffed its white, wet feathers.

We threaded our way through tables under a thatched roof hung with colorful, bizarrely-shaped lanterns to return to the front of the dining area. I stood at the threshold and looked up at the ceiling, seemingly as high as the sky.

I felt I was under the scrutiny of the Tiki god, felt the warmth of the fire that raged in his gaping mouth. I imagined that in the rainforest of New Guinea or at the foot of a volcano in Hawaii, the sight of this would make my knees shake. I wanted to know the secrets of this place. I wanted to be a part of it.

I took one last look at the formidable monolith and, on an impulse, asked for an application on the way out.

*

I find a Sauder bookcase displaying various mugs. My heart races as I wonder what the starting bid is for just one Headhunter. I look down at the auction list I was given. The mugs are being sold by the case. I peer down into a box of Zombie mug shards. I’m wondering why anyone would want this when a large shadow falls across the box.

“Are you a mosaic artist?” a thick man in a shiny, gray suit asks me.

What a bizarre question, I think. But then I realize that must be what you would do with a box of shards.

“No, I’m just looking,” I say, trying to sound casual but not really knowing how to behave since I am an impostor here, posing as someone who might actually buy something.

He holds out his hand and introduces himself. He’s the auction writer, the manager. He has a waxy, ruddy face and puffy eyes. His blonde hair looks unnaturally slicked back, like he chooses to fight with it only during these auction preview days.

“Do you have a connection to the Kahiki? Or you just like Tiki?” he asks.

“I worked there as a hostess when I was sixteen,” I say.

“Really?” He leans back, as if to assess my face to calculate how long ago that actually was. I don’t help him out.

“That’s lucky!” he continues. “What an experience. We’ve had a couple people come through that used to work there. I wonder if you knew each other.”

I often think about some of the people I worked with and how easy it should be, with all the social media, to look them up, but I have no last names. There must be a hundred thousand Lisas, a million Joses.

*

No matter the weather outside, the atmosphere in the restaurant was constant: artificially lit to perfection, cool breezes from the cave entrance and warmth from the blazing bamboo torches and the Tiki fires.

It was closer to school than it was to home so I often went straight there and waited for the dinner shift to begin. Sometimes Lisa, the manager, was already there when I came in, conducting a server’s meeting around a rectangular table in Ship or sitting at the bar, a fizzy, clear drink beside her, scrutinizing important-looking papers. I respected her privacy and her absorption and skirted around her. I’d pick an area that suited my fancy that day and do my homework or read before changing into my green floral polyester sarong and pink lei.

Above the low-playing music and the fall of water, no other noise invaded the hushed atmosphere of the pre-dinner hour. The occasional busboy sat at a table rolling softly-clinking silverware into cloth napkins, the birds behind the glass perched with their heads tucked beneath a wing. Even in the kitchen, with its slick, oily floor, the sous chefs chopped, unhurried, in the temporary calm before the maelstrom of diners blew in.

Once the shift started, I stood at attention waiting for Lisa to give instructions on the general strategy for the evening. She was in the habit of wearing ruffled white blouses that accentuated her already-large breasts. She disguised the rest of her plumpness attractively beneath A-line skirts and tailored, flared jackets that made me feel under-dressed and overexposed in my V-neck sarong.

On slow weeknights, like Mondays and Tuesdays, it was often just the two of us. Between us, we mapped out seating, controlled the music and the thunder, restocked boxes of matches, wiped down menus, and dusted plastic foliage.

I wasn’t quite sure what to think of Lisa. Her authority and my own curiosity about her intimidated me. She was ten years older than me and about ten years younger than my mother. She was part of a world more secret and sophisticated than mine. She went places late at night after the restaurant closed, she ran in flustered from other unknown places at 4:30 in the afternoon. She often arrived to work disheveled, her chest red and splotchy, but once she was all tucked in and buttoned up, she was ready to command. I watched this transformation and it set my mind to imagining who she was when she wasn’t at the Kahiki.

*

I try to find an excuse to buy something, to take a piece of history home with me. If I could simply take an item up to a register and walk out with it, I would. But the process of an auction requires more dedication and perseverance than I have.

Aside from a single mug, the only item I might consider is a cheaply framed 11×17 photo of the Kahiki taken from the outside. In its heyday, celebrities, such as Milton Berle, Robert Goulet and Zsa Zsa Gabor visited, fresh flower leis were flown in a couple times a week, and a wahine on a giant billboard winked seductively, advertising the restaurant. The photo evokes that time and is still striking as flames and outdoor lighting illuminate the building beneath a purple-pink Ohio dusk. It highlights the anomaly of this otherworldly structure that should be surrounded by hibiscus, and palms bearing coconuts rather than sparse fir trees and blacktop.

*

In the 1960s, most of the servers and all of the Mystery Girls were Caucasian but when I worked there at the beginning of the 1990s a variety of nationalities held those positions. Josephine, the most seasoned hostess, was vivacious and as outspoken in English as she was in Tagalog. She had long, straight hair with severely cut bangs. She was petite and sassy and her hips swayed in the grass skirt that at least one of us was required to wear. Maggie and I were always grateful that Josephine happily donned it.

Josephine was my best friend at the restaurant. When I started at the Kahiki, Lisa trained me in my duties but Josephine guided me on the ins and outs: which servers to seat lightly and which ones could handle anything, how to gauge their moods, and which cooks gave leftover cake after the buffet. She shooed the busboys away when they hung around me too long. She pinned a tight grass skirt and taught me how to say ‘I love you’ in her bird-like Tagalog—mahal kita—and ‘I’m hungry’—nagugutom ako.

*

As I turn away from the rows of mugs, I entertain the thought of buying a case and imagine myself trying to talk one of my daughters into having a Tiki-themed birthday party with Headhunter mugs for the party favor. If I were a more charming person, maybe I could charm that auction manager out of just one little, itty-bitty mug.

The few butterfly chairs are scattered throughout the warehouse, perched alone, out of their flutter, their weave unfurling, the bamboo strips frayed. I wonder about the assortment of people these chairs have held in their wings. It calls to mind a photo I have, one that I will rush upstairs to search my albums for once I get home.

All of my pictures from the Kahiki are of the people I worked with; I suppose I didn’t dare to point a camera at the Tiki god himself. When I search, I find the one I am looking for. It is a Polaroid of a silver-mopped man in oversized glasses, an open-mouthed smile on his face, sitting in a butterfly chair with Josephine on his lap. I don’t know how I ended up with this picture; it should have gone to the silver-haired man but must have been discarded for a retake. He is one of the hundreds of strangers she had her picture taken with. When I examine the photo now, after so many years, I notice that Josephine looks different from the way I remember her. She has the same haircut, the same rose-tinted, butter-pecan complexion devoid of makeup, the same red floral bikini. But now I notice the dark look on her face. I stare at the picture and try to guess what she’s thinking. She sits stiffly, facing the camera but with her eyes averted.

For the first time, more than twenty years later, I think about how she might have felt sitting in all those men’s laps as the Mystery Girl. She was an immigrant woman from the Philippines with a poor command of the English language. What kind of life had she come from? Did she have other aspirations, dreams she wanted to follow in this country? When she made her plans to immigrate to the U.S., did she imagine herself hanging leis around men’s necks so they could pose for photographs with a “native”?

*

I don’t remember if I was told beforehand that I would have to wear the grass skirt outfit on Sundays. As self-conscious as I was, it still would not have deterred me. After all, I was working on breaking out of the mold I had put myself in, trying to figure out if I was the type who could wear a grass skirt and bikini top in front of people. The outfit was the same one that the Mystery Girl wore. I was too young to be mysterious and thankfully deemed too young to award a kiss and a lei. A server carried the smoking bowl while I gave a weak-armed thump on the gong with herculean effort—a much more anti-climactic ritual.

No matter what I did, I looked like a pale, spindly, uncooked shrimp in the grass skirt outfit, my skin so white it was almost blue. The cloth of the outfit was frayed, the eyelets stretched, the colors fading. I wondered if the get-up had been around since the sixties when the restaurant first opened. I tried to cover as much skin as I could. I wore pantyhose underneath the grass skirt for warmth as well as to give some color to my legs (no underwear, because mom always said, “Don’t stifle yourself down there—they put built-in panties for a reason.”). I piled on the leis to hide as much of my sunken chest as I could. I used a half-dozen pins to keep the multicolored floral bra on; it was made for someone much bustier than I was.

One slow Sunday, as they’d all been lately, the cleaning lady let me in after I knocked on the inner door several times. I started the atmospheric soundtrack and the slack-key and ukulele music. The servers spent the last few minutes folding silverware into napkins and Jim, the less scurrilous bartender, dried glasses and poured out fresh maraschino cherries that he would sneak to me throughout the day.

I moved the hostess podium to the walkway in front of the bar, where I would be more accessible to greet and also seat guests. I fiddled with my bra and adjusted the pins on my skirt as the first guests entered. It was an elderly couple, coming straight from church, it appeared, by his grey suit and her powder-blue dress.

“Welcome to the Kahiki. Do you have a seating preference?” I asked as I gathered two menus to my chest.

“Surprise us,” the husband said with a wink.

The couple moved slightly ahead of me, gawking at the Tiki god as I swished around the podium.

A sudden cold rush of air swirled around my legs and bottom. And just like in the cartoon when Wile E. doesn’t realize he’s just run off a cliff until he looks down to see the empty abyss below, I looked down. And yelped.

My skirt was gone.

I looked up and there was Julio—a charming, flirtatious, yet moody server. He stood gaping at me, eyes wide and his face flushed pink. He dashed back from the direction he had come.

I looked behind me and saw my skirt hanging from the bamboo wall where it had gotten snagged. I used the menus to cover myself and with my free hand snatched the skirt, wrapped it around myself as best I could, and held it in place as I proceeded to seat the couple. They had been so entranced with their surroundings that they had not noticed a thing.

I pinned the skirt back in place as I detoured through Fish and returned to my podium. My face was on fire and a bubble of dread floated in my chest. I imagined Julio laughing and teasing me as soon as he got the chance. Even worse, I could hear him telling everyone, so that when I came for my next shift, the whole crew would point and snigger behind my back. It would be like middle school all over again.

I’d quit. Yes, I’d call Lisa now, tell her I was sick and never show up again.

Back at the podium, I avoided looking at Jim, not wanting to know if he had seen too.

On my way to seat the next group in Rain, wishing the ground would swallow me up, Julio caught my eye and put a finger to his lips. I melted with relief.

*

Working at the Kahiki was liberating in a way I couldn’t comprehend at the time. Like the butterfly chairs and the Tiki gods in the auction house, I was out of my element. My wings were unfurling: I was metamorphosing into someone others found interesting and fun. By placing myself amidst a community of so much diversity, I was the unique one and also privy to another world. I wasn’t just dining there across from men who wanted to flatter me; I was digging deeper into this culture and into myself.

Without a reputation, without a history, I could be who I wanted to be. No one there knew me as the mousy bookworm who had cried at my desk over Lassie Come Home in the third grade or the girl who sat out gym class because she couldn’t stand the humiliation of being chosen last and with obvious reluctance. There was no one there to compare me to my mother.

The confidence I gained carried over to school. I found that if I could make decisions (and mistakes), prove myself indispensable, then I could also raise my hand in class. I could make myself stand out to be chosen in gym class, rather than slinking to the corners. I could take responsibility for my schoolwork and activities. If I could banter with strangers on the way to a table in Fish, maybe I wasn’t as shy as people always said I was. At the Kahiki, I could reinvent myself, and I didn’t even need an accent.

*

There is a Sauder computer desk minus the computer and a chair, displaying cloth napkins and cocktail napkins, old menus, and banquet information pamphlets. While I browse, I think of Mr. Tsao, the second and last owner of the Kahiki. He came in several times while I was working and his heft seemed to fill the room, his body spilling over the bar stools. He was bigger than life, just like the Tiki god itself, except that he wore a smile to light up the room and possessed a big belly laugh. Because he was such a comforting presence, it alarmed me to see him talking over papers in hushed, serious tones with Lisa or with men that none of us recognized. I realize now that the restaurant, even then, was in trouble.

I remember the physical signs: the shredding bamboo walls, the crackly static of thunder in the bathroom, the rain that sometimes clogged in Rain, the threadbare carpet, the sputtering fountains. There were sections of the restaurant that we didn’t use, or only for special occasions. I remember how, near the end of my time there, patrons went from wearing their finest to dropping in wearing jeans or shorts and flip-flops. How it became a sad decline of campy, Polynesian pop culture.

I think of when the Kahiki closed its doors for good in 2000, almost ten years after I quit. Bits of it were sold off and shipped around the world before the beautiful fighting boat was conquered and destroyed by a wrecking ball. The local news showed coverage of the monumental Tiki god being hauled out in sections by a crane from a hole in the roof, his face ripped off. Seeing him at the mercy of cables and levers, he didn’t look so fearsome. I remember having to look away with that heavy, tugging feeling at witnessing someone else’s humiliation. His kingdom had fallen with the swipe of a pen and the historic landmark was junked for a chain drug store.

I take a last scan around the warehouse, breathing in the scent of musty carpet, hoping to see something that will ignite a lost memory. But they’ve all become mere objects, so incongruous that I barely recognize them. There is a blood-red, crackled glass orb with veins of purple that once hung, lit, from the walls of a hut. Away from the wavering lights of the flame, it has lost its essence.

As I leave empty-handed, I realize that working at the Kahiki was liberating in a way I couldn’t comprehend at the time. Like the butterfly chairs and the Tiki gods in the auction house, I was out of my element.

It saddens me to think of the once formidable, enigmatic Tiki and where he ended up, supine on a bed of rotting leaves in Vermont, a tarp pulled tight over his face.

pencilAutumn Shah lives in Dublin, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus where she is a stay-at-home mom of two girls. She graduated magna cum laude from Ohio State University in 2001 with a degree in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. She has worked in information technology and as an ESL teacher. She likes to write creative nonfiction essays and is currently working on a novel. Email: autumn.shah[at]gmail.com

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