Glancing between the tropical fish-patterned plastic curtains down to the hibiscus-hedged yard behind Mrs. Noborikawa’s rooming house, Will saw the lanky blonde again. She was kneeling in a one-piece black swimsuit amid earthen pots and miniature mountains of dirt. The zinc oxide whitening her nose suggested the face of a mottled cat. As an old yellow feline at her elbow eyed her suspiciously, she bit open a gaudy seed packet and scattered its contents into the earth around the base of a shaggy palm tree.
He admired her tan, decided that there was something about her that appealed to him, maybe a rebellious or even lawless quality, and turned to the chipped basin to scrape the remaining lather from his face. When he looked a second time, she was hiking across the little garden, the stretch fabric of the swimsuit riding up on one elegant hip. Hesitating on the sunburned lawn, she lifted her face, squinting as the morning light bleached her features into a pale mask. Then, watching her feet as if she feared a misstep, she hurried to the cottage at the end of the yard. Nudging open the lower section of a Dutch door with her hip, she vanished into darkness.
Just as Will finished rinsing bits of skin from his razor, dried his face, and could think of no more excuses to remain by the bathroom window, the black bathing suit emerged again from the frame cottage. The Dutch door slammed with a crack that reached even his ears on the second floor. Her face now concealed by a straw sun hat, the girl rushed across the grass, scooped up the scrawny cat from the flowerbed beneath the palm tree, where it had been pawing at the freshly dug earth, and shook it with both thin hands. Will knew nothing about this intense young woman, but suspected she was punishing more than that miserable beast. Oddly, he thought, the scene provoked in him a reaction verging on lust.
Hands clattered impatiently at the bathroom door, so he gathered his razor and aerosol shaving cream, and reluctantly left the window.
“Jeezus, Willie,” mouthed a fleshy face when he opened the door. “Thought you’d fallen in.” Will squeezed past Le Beouf Quayle’s bloated stomach. “Christ, look at you! You better buy some new blades. And don’t forget Mrs. Noborikawa’s party next month,” he shouted after Will. “You’re new, and all, but I know you’ll wanna help.”
“Sure,” Will said, fleeing the fat man and whatever he was trying to push into his life.
While dressing in his room, Will pondered his first impression a week ago of that tanned female: a windblown figure bent over the black steering wheel of a red sports car, receiving his silent wrath for darting in front of him the morning he pulled up to the curb by the tall Victorian to inquire about a vacancy. Although he followed her sleek ankles into the house, he was sure she wouldn’t live in those weary rooms, amid the limp remains of middle class respectability. She disappeared, but because of her he rented that lousy upstairs bedroom, the first place he lived in Honolulu.
That evening, Will went out with Olga Koovitz, a brightly competent personnel officer at the bank where he=d been hired to program computers. Maybe she wasn=t a beauty, but her figure was lush and her personality outgoing, sending almost nonstop signals that she was available B all he had to do was approach her on her own terms, whatever the hell they were. He doubted if this would be difficult to negotiate. Meanwhile, she kept asking him why he=d moved to Hawaii B his real reasons B refusing in her cheerful, persistent way to accept his evasions.
AEverybody has reasons,@ she insisted.
ANo,@ he countered. ANothing I do ever has a reason. I=m a loose cannon, flying all over the damn place.@
After a crab dinner at the Yum Yum Tree and a George Clooney movie, Olga invited him to her apartment, but her Samoan roommate B a cashier at Sea Life Park B came home earlier than expected, scattering cigarettes, magazines, and overpriced junk food from the all night ABC market on Kuhio Avenue, as well as her disapproval of Will and his intentions, so he returned to his own room to ponder a chalky nose and a black swimsuit.
Next morning, when Le Beouf Quayle wedged him against the spine-indenting handles of the chest of drawers in the upstairs hallway, instead of smacking him, Will asked about the woman in the garden. Le Beouf winked one of his rodent eyes.
AMrs. Noborikawa’s daughter-in-law. Alice. Just back from the mainland.@
These grudgingly given facts required plenty of fondling in Will=s brain B in the car, in front of his computer screen, and again in his rented room B as if they were complex mathematical formulae. One reason he=d come to Honolulu B or so he=d told himself B was to escape the dangers of human relationships, yet here he was poised again on the abyss=s edge.
A day later, as Will pushed the fishy curtain into a green waterfall at the corner of the bathroom window and began toweling his body, he saw Alice and her husband framing the red M.G. He couldn’t hear the words, but he felt the tension passing over the arc of their two bodies. After a moment, Alice dropped into the sports car, head tucked down, as if afraid to look at her husband. A handsome man with lean Japanese features and compact physique in a light-weight tan suit, he projected with economy of gesture a potential for anger. Then, while the man was in mid-sentence, arm arched above the little car, as if he were casting a fly over a stream, Alice screeched backward out of the driveway, leaving him to reel in his hand and walk stiffly to their cottage. Will let the plastic fish slide into place and finished drying his damp, hairy ankles.
That evening, as he stared at the television in the old-fashioned, wall-papered parlor with Mrs. Noborikawa and two other roomers, Alice darted in and alighted on a straight-backed chair. Stroking the yellow cat on her lap, Mrs. Noborikawa offered to share the slip-covered sofa with her daughter-in-law, but she shook her blonde head.
When a frenetic commercial for the Ala Moana shopping center jolted everyone awake, Will fled to the kitchen and put a sauce pan of water on the stove to boil. A minute later, Alice appeared. Free of makeup, her tanned features might=ve been carved from one of those chunks of blond driftwood sold in the shops by Waikiki. Without a word, she brought out two cups and saucers and two spoons, and sat at the table. Will dumped instant coffee into his cup, then refilled the spoon. She nodded when he’d almost leveled it and watched him trickle it into her rose-patterned cup. As she poured the boiling water over the brown powder, he looked in the old-fashioned bulbous refrigerator for cream and sugar.
“I drink it black,” she said, picking up her steaming cup.
“So do I,” Will said, returning to the table empty-handed. He looked at her, assessing her, wondering if his earlier judgments were still valid B if they ever had been. Was she really a free spirit, or just another woman unhappy with her situation? “You had trouble this morning.”
Alice=s stare simultaneously widened and became more precisely focused. “You saw?”
“Only when you drove out in such a rush.”
“Sometimes, I have to get away.”
Trapped in clumsy silence, they sipped their barely drinkable coffee. Will studied her neck and the mole between her collarbone and breasts. Too much sun, he thought. She=d better be careful. Skin like hers nurtures nasty cancers.
Alice Noborikawa rinsed the cups and saucers, gave Will a look that seemed to say she found something amusing, then slipped out through the back door. He watched her boyish silhouette swim across the blue garden and disappear into the darker waters of the cottage.
* * *
Five mornings a week, Will hurled himself down the Philippine mahogany front stairs, across the entry hall, and out the door to his waiting jalopy. A twenty-minute drive deposited him at the concrete, glass, and steel box that housed the computers that ruled the forty hours of his life that allowed him to survive. He created programs for those baroque babies, giving them, he liked to say, thoughts more complicated than his own B not that this was very hard to do.
One drizzly morning, a week or so later, Alice ran through the house and out the door as he was leaving.
“Warren took the M.G.,” she said, blocking his path. “To get a tune up B and leaving me stranded.”
Will tugged open the door of his elderly Toyota, his major purchase since moving to Honolulu. He=d hauled a rock pile of debts from the mainland and was trying, for the first time in his life, to be sensible.
“Get in.” He gestured toward the nasty interior of his old car.
Obediently, she slid onto the sun-rotted seat cover. “Please,” she said, giving him an address out toward Diamond Head. “I’m in a hurry.”
“Where,” he asked, “do you have to be so early?”
“It=s to see a Louis Majorelle cabinet. This old harridan I’ve been working on for months has agreed to sell it. I think it’s the only one in Hawaii and I have a client who’d give his miserable alcoholic liver for it, but I’ll settle for cash.”
“I have a decorating shop off Kalakaua,” Alice explained. “Alice’s Wonderland? You’ve heard of it? No, of course not. I always expect people to, but they never have. I flew to San Francisco and L.A. last month on a buying spree for my clients. Next year, I’m going to Europe.”
“I don’t know much about interior decorating.”
“Most people don’t.” She dusted stray rain drops from her skirt as Will wondered what she=d do if he hurled himself someplace in the vicinity of her suntanned thighs. “Not that it stops them from having opinions.”
Damp plumbago tumbled over walls, hibiscus hedges fell over sidewalks, tentacles of scarlet bougainvillea groped at them; everywhere, flowers shaped like sexual organs assaulted the car as it passed. Such gaudy, pushy vegetation struck Will=s mid-western nature as unwholesome, corrupt.
Waiting in the Toyota while she pursued her treasure, he pondered this blonde who seemed put together from contradictory forces. He didn=t exactly like her B not that this necessarily was an issue for him B but she fascinated him and in a bizarre way challenged him. It wasn=t only sex, although of course in large measure it was, but also about power and her almost forced indifference to him. Eventually, she emerged, apparently satisfied with whatever happened inside that tree and shrub-enveloped villa, and he drove her back to the rooming house.
He was an hour late to work. At least, he thought, sitting in front of his computer screen, this woman isn=t boring.
The next evening, Will intended to meet Olga again, but as he came down the front hall stairs, Alice Noborikawa ran in. Snatching his hand, she pulled him through the house to the back porch. While backing out of the driveway in the M.G., she=d run over her mother-in-law’s old cat. The honey-colored creature was mangled, but still alive. She didn’t know how to end the animal’s suffering.
“Help me!” she demanded. Tears glazed the sunburned freckles across her cheeks.
Following her down the board steps, Will watched the skinny cat drag itself from bush to shadowy bush, trailing calligraphic patterns of blood and slime. He seized a brick from the border around a cluster of pink geraniums and cracked the beast sharply at the base of its triangular head. Still, it staggered through the flowers. He pounded the animal again; it lurched and collapsed. While Alice watched, Will buried the cat under a scarlet hibiscus.
Moments later, he guided her into the cottage and made two cups of instant coffee. She still trembled as she lifted her cup. When she returned it to the saucer, he already was reaching for her. On a teak chest in front of them, an arrangement of bird of paradise blossoms thrust out of a clay pot.
“I’m learning Ikebana,” she said. “That’s supposed to be the Ikenobo school.”
He pulled her close, their faces collided. Her cheeks were feverish, damp. Coarse, small-boned, electric, she led Will up the narrow steel stairs that coiled like a snake’s spine to the single room on the cottage’s second floor.
When her husband came home, they were sitting in the cottage kitchenette, sipping cold coffee and studying an oversized book on Ikebana. Warren Noborikawa’s high-cheekboned, smooth-shaven face hovered in the doorway like that of a judge surveying his court. He thanked Will for taking care of Alice and promised to intercede with his mother about the cat. Will stumbled over the threshold, then heard the Dutch doors snap shut.
* * *
Will didn’t see Alice Noborikawa for a week, except in his mind’s eye, yet the false Alice was so constant that he doubted the true one when she appeared in the rooming house front hall and proposed coffee in her cottage. It was Saturday, but Warren Noborikawa, a high school biology teacher, was on a field trip to Hanauma Bay with his students.
The morning sun discovered the gold in her hair and revealed metallic mirrors within her pupils. And to think, he reflected, he wouldn=t have discovered her but for the Honolulu housing shortage.
“I wanted to be a painter,” she said, a few minutes later in the cottage, pouring them cups of strong, real coffee B no lousy instant stuff, this time.
“Why didn’t you?”
“Not enough talent. But I’m a good decorator.”
He sipped at the hot coffee: “I just became what I am. I was tired of my old life, the training was available, and there was a demand for the skills here.”
She looked at him doubtfully, as if she knew everything he was leaving out.
“Are you happy?”
“I like Hawaii.”
“No, I mean: are you happy!”
“Why shouldn’t I be?”
“How do I know?” She clasped her coffee in front of her face, inhaling the pungent aroma as if it were medicine. “Let’s go to an art show. I enjoy introducing pictures I like to people I like.”
And, aroused by her panting breath, he led her up the circular stairs to the cage-like room scarcely large enough for the futon-like double bed.
Soon, Alice and Will had coffee together several times a week.
Other times, Alice came to the big house to pretend to watch television, balancing on a straight-backed chair, tanned hands shifting on her skirt. Mrs. Noborikawa made green tea and brought out delicate Japanese biscuits. Occasionally, Alice and Will sipped instant coffee at the white kitchen table. When Warren was away, they gulped mugs of strongly brewed caffeine in the cottage=s wide, low-slung bed.
Alice wanted to humanize the savage mathematician in Will. Beside her husband, she said, he was a barbarian. She and Warren had met at the University up in the Manoa Valley. She=d been dazzled by his physical beauty and intellectual refinement. She still loved him, she insisted, but she also was attracted to Will=s fumbling, middle-America crudeness.
Stocky, red-haired Will was as different from Warren as it was possible to be. His education was strictly practical and he’d never had an interest in anything artistic. He=d expected nothing from life, had got more than he=d bargained for, and survived it. He accepted his limitations, in fact he found them comforting, but Alice dreamed of prowling the busy perimeters of his psyche, educating him whether he wanted it or not, and smoothing his more jagged edges.
Obediently, he followed her through the cool halls of the Academy of Arts, stopping to study paintings and admire smooth-surfaced sculptures. Eager to fill him with her own passions, she grabbed his hand and led him to her favorites, demanding that he love them. She carried him off to art galleries and made much of showing him the difference between the slick and popular and the real thing. They huddled beneath floral sheets, paging through heavy books filled with color plates, and she loaned him books on art history and bought reproductions for his room.
When they splashed into the afternoon sun together, Will delighted in the glow of her sun-bleached hair, the shifting of her torso inside her clothes, and her erratic gestures that seemed to flow from excess energy. He told himself that he was flattered she cared enough to agitate his half-educated brain with her subtle, passionate enthusiasms.
She let him shrug off her questions about his past, but one afternoon she warned him, AI=ll know who you are yet, Willie.@
There=s nothing to know, he insisted. He knew that he wasn=t important and was annoyed by people who thought they were.
Slippery hours and days smeared with work, education, and collisions in the futon-bed flickered past. Sometimes, Will thought about Warren Noborikawa. Warren was a nice guy, a dedicated teacher, a devoted son, a faithful husband. That made Will a bastard, he guessed, but he didn=t worry much about it. In fact, when he thought about it, he liked the idea.
“Willie, you don’t know how much you’ve done for me,” Alice announced, one day, as she was showing him through her shop. He balanced in his thick-fingered hands a pair of green marble owls, bookends with nothing to support but their own haughty demeanor.
“What d=you mean? You’re the one who does everything. I just tag along.”
“No, Willie. You saved me. From the nice people.”
“I’m not nice?”
“Not very.” She patted his cheek with her smooth, thin fingers. AHaven’t you ever wanted to curse people, throw things at them, get even with them? I know you have. You=re like me. And the nicer they are, the meaner I feel. Warren’s mother is the sweetest woman on earth, but I want to pinch her. Warren can be arrogant, but he’s always doing things for other people, his students, other teachers, even me. Especially me. Even his friends are nice. But I’m grateful when I run into a customer who’s a bastard. It’s a relief to not have to be nice!”
Maybe she was trying to trick him into revealing something about himself, but he didn=t give a damn. And it was true, he seldom made an effort to be nice B and especially when it came to his fat neighbor. Recently, Le Beouf had started commenting on the time he and Alice were spending together. And laughing at his own blubbery jokes. Will enjoyed hating Le Beouf Quayle. Without this hatred, his life would=ve lost part of its spice. He almost appreciated Le Beouf for giving him the opportunity to let this hatred grow and flourish. Otherwise, he might=ve murdered the fat bastard.
Then it was Alice’s birthday. Mrs. Noborikawa and Will were to go to dinner with Alice and Warren, a festive if odd foursome, but the old lady slipped in her bathtub, spraining an ankle. Nevertheless, Alice insisted that Will go with her and her husband. Warren, the professional good sport, agreed. What else would such a nice man do?
Alice greeted Will at the cottage door in a black dress decorated with licorice-like beads, her slender feet arched in high-heeled black sandals. Secret messages twitching in the corners of her mouth, she drew him into the tiny room. An austere Ikebana arrangement of a mutilated lily and a few shiny leaves in a shallow blue and black bowl stood on a low table. The lily=s shadow on the wall imitated Alice’s naked breast.
Rising from a chair beside the table, Warren shook Will=s hand. Warren=s beautiful slender fingers made Will=s ungainly fist look like something left over from the Neanderthals. Then, with exquisite precision, he poured three cocktails into frosty glasses, handed one to his wife and another to his mother=s tenant.
“Happy thirtieth to my wife,” he said.
“Happy,” Will echoed.
She was a year younger than he was.
Alice could tell that Will=s present had been wrapped at the store because a Liberty House sticker fastened the ribbon to the small package. With a self-conscious giggle, she fumbled with the wrappings until she liberated a gold costume pin in the shape of a sunburst. When Will saw those gold points radiating in her hand, he realized that the pin was too large and flashy, that it looked like something a stripper would wear to hold her kimono in place just before she started revealing her hidden assets, but Alice went to the mirror, removed her beads, attached the pin to her sheath, then glanced at Warren’s reflection beside her.
“Very nice,” it answered.
“Thank you,” she told Will.
After gulping down the cocktails, they crowded into the red M.G. On the back porch, her silver hair shining under a dangling light bulb, the elder Mrs. Noborikawa waved from her rented wheelchair.
Deciding that the safest course was to keep Warren talking, Will questioned him about his job. He actually was rather curious about what this paragon did to bring joy and enlightenment into this sordid world. Warren answered in short declarative sentences, but it was clear that he loved his field and profession. If anybody could teach those kids to respect science and appreciate nature, it was this quiet, decent man with the perfect cheekbones. None of this made Will feel better.
Rubbery palm trees and a wet parking lot shimmering under pink neon welcomed them to Oreste’s Restaurant. In the bar, while they waited for their table, Will scampered further along the road to becoming drunk. When the host finally escorted them through the variegated shadows of an artificial jungle, he nearly fled from the tendrils of all those hungry, reaching plants. A chandelier glittered precariously over their table, Warren’s handsome face reflected in its sharp-edged surfaces. Remember, Will told himself, you like Warren Noborikawa. You think he=s one nice bastard. You admire him down to his perfect fingernails. Toenails, too.
Warren ordered a bottle of California champagne. The night was heavy with soggy silences. They all danced: Warren and Alice, Alice and Will. Will didn’t think that he danced with Warren, but couldn=t be sure. If he did, Warren probably led.
He expected, even hoped, that Warren would get drunk and nasty, but the man stayed quietly cordial all evening. When he returned from the toilet, his fly was zipped and his hands were washed, but Will had fondled Alice’s knee while he was gone B hell, he=d fondled her thigh up to her panties. Will almost wanted Warren to turn on him and shout: “Fuck you, Willie, I’m gonna cut your balls off!” But he was politely attentive to Will and affectionate toward his wife. No wonder Alice was almost hysterical by the time they left the restaurant.
“So beautiful,” she whimpered, caressing a plumeria blossom.
Warren’s strong hand gripped Alice’s pointed elbow, guiding her across the gravel parking lot. Will stumbled along behind, blinking at the supercilious palms.
“That place was disappointing,” said Warren. “I don’t see how it stays in business.”
“It was busy,” said Alice, crawling into the little car.
“It always is,” said Warren. “That’s the hell of it.”
Stars shimmered overhead, reminding Will of a boyhood passion for astronomy. AA galaxy is like a bag of feathers, speeding through space,@ he announced. He turned to Warren. AWhy doesn=t it fly apart?@ He looked at Alice. AWhy don=t we?@
The M.G. had just rounded the clover leaf off the highway when the left rear tire collapsed with a clunk. Warren steered the car to the side of the road and, stumbling on the gravel shoulder, the two men examined the damage. A pair of nails fastened to a small strip of rubber had perforated the tire B someone=s witty joke, waiting for an unlucky driver.
Shrugging out of their coats, Warren and Will changed the tire. Will was sure Warren didn=t mean for the lug wrench to smash against his wrist, crushing his watch crystal.
As they drove home, Will plucked pieces of broken crystal from his skin. He knew it was well after midnight when the M.G. turned into the Noborikawa driveway, because the hands of his watch had stopped at five minutes to twelve.
The sports car halted at the end of the driveway. Will remembered the scrawny yellow cat and tried to recall why he=d killed it. Alice squeezed his hand as he climbed out of the M.G. His left leg had gone to sleep.
“East is east,” Will said. “And west is west. Did you ever hear that song? I heard it in an old movie, once. East is east. And west is west.”
“Goodnight,” said Alice.
“Goodnight.” Will frowned with concentration: “Happy…happy.”
The car lights blacked out and Warren climbed out of the M.G., leaving his coat on the leather seat. “G=night,” Will said, offering a hand.
Warren squeezed it cheerlessly. “Goodnight, Willie. Thanks for helping us celebrate my wife’s birthday.” Will turned, but Warren called to him: “Sorry about the watch.”
One of us, Will thought, will die before dawn, but the Noborikawas disappeared behind their Dutch door and he limped up to the big house. As he brushed his teeth fifteen minutes later, the patterns of light slanting across the shadowed garden from the cottage were extinguished, one by one.
* * *
Another beautifully dying day, Hawaiian style: Will had just abandoned his tired Toyota in front of the house when Alice strode toward him. A man’s white shirt almost covered her scarlet shorts. He=d never seen anything as sexy as the flash of red crotch from under the white shirt tails. She grasped his arm, as if she had the right to take possession of it.
“Meet me downstairs,” she said. “In an hour and a half.”
Then, dodging a wild-limbed hibiscus, she sprinted up the driveway to the cottage. Quickly changing his clothes, Will hurried out for a haircut so he could be back in time for his Appointment with Destiny.
The gray-haired Chinese barber let Will doze while he worked on him in the old-fashioned mechanical chair. Half-conscious, Will heard the soothing scrape of the straight razor below his ears as the scent of ginger and spices oozed out of the battered teak woodwork. The slam of the barber shop door opened his eyes. From under drooping lids, he saw a sailor stagger toward him. Slight, with shaved head and youthful pug-nosed face, the boy grimaced and crumpled at the foot of the barber chair. Drunk, of course, but rather over-doing the boozy performance, Will thought.
Then the young sailor=s body twisted, thrusting an arm against Will=s ankle and he saw that the kid=s shirt was wet, splotched with red as bright as bougainvillea petals. The boy rolled onto the floor and was still. The barber bent down, then looked up at Will. Without a word, he walked to the wall phone and called the police. Will=s haircut was finished, anyway. He gave the barber a twenty dollar bill and left. A police car drove up just after he pulled away from the curb in his Toyota.
Back in his room, Will tried to read an old Playboy, annoyed at the way his hands trembled when he turned the pages, although he felt sophisticated as hell when he recognized the influence of Modigliani in one of the illustrations. The picture was better than the story. Hurling the magazine against the closet door, Will dragged himself downstairs.
Le Beouf Quayle sat on his broad ass on the yellow sofa, gawking at disjointed images exploding over each other on the television screen.
“I just saw the goddamnedest thing,” Will said.
“Hssh!” said Le Beouf.
“I saw a murder.”
“I’m watching TV!”
Mrs. Noborikawa rolled into the room, left leg elevated in her wheelchair. Will tried to tell her about the sailor, but she was expecting three friends in to play poker. (Mrs. Noborikawa spoke perfect English, but poker night was conducted in Japanese.)
Then Alice appeared. Le Beouf managed to look up from his feverish TV fantasies long enough to make a suggestive face as Alice and Will left together. They drove through the steamy evening, Alice aggressively pure in white blouse and skirt, a handkerchief protecting its pleats from the disintegrating seat cover.
“I saw a murder this evening,” Will said. “Not the murder, actually, but the murdered man. A sailor.”
“I have something to tell you,” countered Alice.
“He fell on my feet. I was getting a haircut over by Hotel Street and he staggered in, all bloody, and fell right on my feet.”
“Warren has a new job.” Alice gazed ahead, her profile pale under the neon lights. “He’s going to be a dean.”
“Good for him,” Will said. “The sailor’s shirt was dripping blood. He didn=t get it on me, but he was covered with it.”
“Willie, pay attention. Warren=s going to be a dean in the university at Hilo.”
“I’ve never been there, but I bet it’s pretty.”
“What the hell do you mean, pretty? I’ll be going with him. To Hilo.”
Will looked at Alice=s tanned face and saw the sailor’s red gut. “When?”
“End of the semester. Three weeks.”
“What about your decorating shop? Alice’s Wonderland?”
“I know somebody who’ll buy it. I’m tired of it, anyway.”
“Too many nice people?”
“Now that you mention it.”
“I thought you enjoyed decorating. I thought you were good at it.”
“I am good, but I don’t have the patience to run a business. I forget to bill the deadbeats. I hate to keep books. It’s all a pain in the ass.”
They drove back to the house. Will parked in front and they looked up at the lights glowing through the thin shades behind the tall windows. Then he tilted her head up with his hand, studying her freckled face beneath the tigerish hair. She jerked away from him.
AIt wasn=t nice of you to tell me that stupid story about the sailor, when I was trying to say something serious.@ He kept looking at her. What was he supposed to say?
* * *
Saturday morning, as Will lay across the sweaty sheet on his bed, the door crashed open, banging against the wall, jarring loose a Klee poster. Le Beouf Quayle confronted him, half-eaten Tootsie Roll in one repellent fist.
“Tonight’s the party.” Le Beouf sat heavily on the bed and patted Will=s hairy, pink knee with his other paw.
“What party?” Will demanded, tugging the sheet over his nakedness.
“For Mrs. Noborikawa! Remember, I asked you to help? We’ve been planning it for weeks. It’s tonight B no thanks to you. At least, you can show up.”
Will eased to the far side of the bed, moving his leg out of Le Beouf=s reach.
“How long have you lived in that room over there, Le Beouf?”
“Seven years next month.@ He scratched through the strands of hair nesting on his round head, thick lips calculating. “Seven years on the twelfth. I remember exactly, because that was the day my sister Josie got married.”
“Seven years.” Le Beouf operated the projectors at the Lanai movie theater. Will pictured him squatting on a stool beside the steaming projector in an airless little room, watching endless movies and eating. Always eating. “Party’s at eight. Everybody’s gonna be there B folks who used to live here, too. Hope you’ll come down B for Mrs. Noborikawa. She was a widow and raised four kids in this house, just by taking in people and stuff like that. And you didn’t help, or anything.”
“I didn’t live here, then. I didn=t even know the woman.”
“I mean you didn’t help with the party!”
One of those kids that Mrs. Naborikawa raised, Will thought, was Warren. Who now was removing Alice to Hilo. Will imagined their two naked bodies together, both slim, one golden-brown and smooth as fine wood, the other sunburned and blonde.
Le Beouf grimaced, showing his stubby, chocolate-smeared teeth. His big rear end shook obscenely when he waddled away. Will fell back on his bed and thought of how much he loathed Le Beouf Quayle.
During the afternoon, noises of preparation resounded throughout the high-ceilinged old house. Jackie Bernstein, a queen from New York City who nested on the third floor, came fluttering down in a flowery silk kimono to confer with Le Beouf. Even the usually taciturn Paul Masuoka, a short order cook in an all-night Waikiki café, seemed excited.
It bugged Will that he couldn’t rent a room without acquiring a household, but he tried to ignore the commotion and fell asleep, dreaming of a white-suited sailor spouting red fountains. When the sailor rolled over, Le Beouf Quayle’s fat face was pasted on his head. His cat whiskers twitched at Will, so he smashed his face with a broken brick.
Around seven, he showered, shaved, and dressed. The cottage across the garden was dark. A disgustingly sweet smell of plumeria filled the house. The first person he met downstairs was Mrs. Noborikawa, transporting a cardboard box on her lap in the wheelchair.
“Let me,” he said, taking the carton. It was surprisingly heavy. She explained that it was refreshments for the party. “But the party’s for you,” he said.
“They never get in enough food or drinks,” smiled Mrs. Noborikawa, “I would’ve got this sooner, but I had to clean house before I could let them decorate.”
Crepe-paper streamers and balloons drooped from chandeliers into Will=s hair. Bowls of plumeria blasted their over-sweet fragrance through the rooms. Le Beouf staggered past the kitchen with a big old fashioned tape recorder, Jackie Bernstein trotting after him. Where, wondered Will, did that idiot get it? It was practically an antique. Will helped Mrs. Noborikawa unpack her box.
“Is Warren happy about moving?” he blurted, clutching a six-pack of Coke.
“He doesn’t want to leave me,” she said. “But I told him to think about his career. It’s a good job. I told him to take it.”
Will decided that he hated the smell of plumeria. “What about Alice?”
“She doesn’t want to go. I love Alice like my own daughter, even if she is a haoli, but she’s thinking about herself and her business. Warren’s career comes first. I told her if she stays home maybe she’ll make grandchildren for me.”
Together, the old woman and Will emptied the box of food and drink. He hadn=t noticed before how small Mrs. Noborikawa’s hands were, like a child’s hands.
“Thanks, Willie. Now, have a good time. And, if you don’t mind, put this on the mantle for me.@
Obediently, Will carried out the bowl of plumeria, then flopped onto an ancient, wing-backed bamboo chair beside the upright piano. A girl in a striped dress was playing popular songs of past decades. As he sat down, she hit a wrong key.
Le Beouf Quayle was setting up the ridiculous tape recorder. Two couples were shuffling around, apparently thinking that they were dancing. Jackie Bernstein said something about how it was like a family reunion. Then Mrs. Noborikawa rolled in with a tray of little sandwiches, followed by Alice with cookies and potato chips. Warren brought in soft drinks and paper cups.
Le Beouf clapped his red hands and demanded everyone’s attention. Gums bared around his stumpy teeth, he snatched up the tape recorder microphone. In his porcine fist, it looked like some kind of sexual implement.
“It’s great to see you here, folks. This is a pretty special occasion. First, it’s Mrs. N.’s birthday. Not that we’re gonna ask her how old she is, or anything. So you don’t need to worry about that, Mrs. N.” (Laughter.) “And, second, this is a goodbye party for Alice and Warren, who’re moving to Hilo. Yeah, ole Warren is gonna run the college, or something. Hope they can cope with the rain over there. Seriously, it’ll be wonderful for >em, but things won’t be same around here. Anyway, this is a special occasion, so I think we oughta preserve it with a recording of everybody’s voice. It’s going right now, in case you’re wondering, so come on up and say something. Who wants to be first?”
A few people giggled. Nobody moved.
“How about you, Mrs. Noborikawa?” Jackie Bernstein pushed her over to the mike.
“I just want to thank all you nice people for this party,” she said. “I guess you know how much I’ll miss my boy. And his wife. This is a surprise, Le Beouf. But nice.”
Le Beouf and Jackie led the applause.
“Next? Next? How about you, Alice? Come on, be a sport.”
Le Beouf thrust the black microphone into Alice’s hand. Will wondered if she’d quarreled with Warren before the party, maybe argued about his mother. She looked at Warren, sitting on the yellow sofa, then at Will. Suddenly, she dropped the microphone and ran from the room. Warren stood up, but Mrs. Noborikawa clutched his wrist with her small, vise-like hand.
“She could’ve broken the mike,” said Le Beouf. “It’s a delicate instrument. I only borrowed it.”
Will found Alice in the kitchen. She looked so small and fragile as he approached her that he felt like King Kong looming over Fay Wray, the beauty and the fucking beast. All he wanted to do was take her to that bed in the upstairs loft. That would solve all problems, make everything fine again. And if it didn=t, it wouldn=t be for not trying.
“He knows,” she whispered, as she wiped her face with a Kleenex. “But he doesn’t care because he’s taking me away. He’s so goddam confident. The nice people are always sure of victory. And they’re right: They always win.”
She was sliding into hysteria. Will gripped her hand tightly. Did she expect him to rescue her, be her Prince Valiant, her Sir Lancelot, or somebody? Did she want to belong to him forever? Or for him to belong to her? Other people did that, but not him. Not her.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, at last. “You try to fight it, but it’s not worth the damn effort. None of this matters worth a hit.@
She stared at him. AYou=re a selfish bastard.@
ASure I am. That=s what you wanted. Now, go back in there. Think of your mother-in-law. Think of Le Beouf and Jackie.”
Alice’s features congealed into something unrecognizable and her hard eyes stared at Will. Then she pushed through the door to the front of the house, leaving him standing beside the bulgy white refrigerator.
Three weeks later, as Will shaved by the open bathroom window, he heard a moving van pull up in the gravel driveway in front of the cottage. Peering around the green plastic curtain, he watched the driver maneuver past the hibiscus hedges. Alice and Warren were gone, over on the big island. Other people were moving in. Mrs. Noborikawa said they were nice folks, but Will didn’t want to know them, even though he knew that he’d never escape the nice people. There were too many of them, terminally and forever nice.
Bruce Douglas Reeves‘s novella, DELPHINE, won the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition and will be published by Texas State University Press Fall, 2012. He also has published three novels, THE NIGHT, ACTION, MAN ON FIRE, and STREET SMARTS, and has completed a new novel. He has published nearly three dozen stories in magazines and journals.