THIS IS A YEAR OF THE DRAGON CONTEST ENTRY
That Will Bring Us Back
Year of the Dragon entry for April. 3955 words. For GK.
Thanks to whacky old Linda Lingle and her latest zany hatchet job on the budget, my supervisor had advised all of us to polish up our resumes in anticipation of possible layoffs. Thanks to our stupendous Governor, I'd been up all Saturday night feverishly expanding upon the every conceivable responsibility of my past jobs -- within what I considered to be reasonably truthful limits -- but I knew that the more beer I consumed, the more stunningly robust my life's employment details had become. Thank goodness for solid references. They'd back me up no matter what. That's what good references will do. They will enthusiastically – but ethically – embellish their recommendations for good friends. This is why you must always select your references with great care. Any old reference, like any old acquaintance, might – might -- help you move. But a really good reference, like a really good friend, will help you move a body. When I think about it, all my references, all my life, they've always been good friends.
As I fluffed up my magnum opus for the umpteenth time, layering in the gee-gaws and doodads, I sighed, sat back, drained off my umpteenth beer, and fell into my lifelong daydream of gainful self-employment. "Crap!" I said to blank white ceiling. It's hard to be self-employed when you have no ideas for a good business, when your only talent is to slavishly follow the orders of your superiors.
I tell you I felt dangerous. Bloody. "You talkin to me?" I said aloud to no one. "Well I'm the only one here." I could drive a taxi.
A chat message popped up on Facebook. It was from Jimmy: "chris we got live studio gig @ KHNK this a.m. @ 11:30. u want 2 come n listen?"
I pondered this with not a little agitation. Jimmy and I had been playing music off and on for nearly twenty years, ever since we'd worked together at Duty Free Shoppers, but just about ten years ago he'd become very serious about music. He had talent; I didn't. He formed a band; I'd named it. I wasn't invited to join Campus Road, and our Saturday jam sessions stopped soon after. Every Saturday playing with Jimmy had always been a good opportunity to drink a lot of beer and compliment each other ever more glowingly on how close to guitar god status we stood. Jimmy's band was serious business.
So, I thought, he wants me to listen, of course, not play. Mother.
"Sure," I replied, "sounds g8. Meet u there?"
"right on," Jimmy typed. "come my house. we all go in van. see u @ 10:00."
Bastard wants me to be his roadie, I thought. Always a slave.
I made sure I saved the current draft of latest fantastic story of my working life, then shut down my vintage Mac. It was nearly 7:00 a.m. The birds had stopped singing in the new day awhile ago. I set the alarm so I could get maybe two hours of sleep and still have time to shower and eat something before heading to Manoa.
No, I sighed, dozing off, the music career is definitely checked off the list.
I was surprisingly sober when I awoke, magically, about two and a half hours later. The alarm hadn't gone off. Both my DVD player and my cable box were black. The power was off. What would the holiday season in Hawai`i be without a blackout or two. That happened to me one Thanksgiving when I was cooking the turkey. I'd had to finish it off in the kamado, which took close to forever.
Great. I took a very quick shower. More like a fast rinse. Thank goodness for a new water heater. I'd been dreaming of bacon and eggs. Another dream crushed. No time to cook anyway. I jumped into my car and drove through some pretty empty intersections for – I glanced at my watch – 10:00 a.m. on a Sunday. All the traffic signals were working. Must just be Nu`uanu, I figured.
Jimmy's driveway was jammed with cars; I parked on the street. Of course his van was the fourth car in, so all these morons would have to move for us to exit. Musicians. Two women were loading up the van. I recognized them as the keyboard and the guitar players – the guitar goddess who'd stolen my rightful place in our group that I'd named. We waved and nodded hello to each other. I didn't remember their names, and they probably didn't remember mine. I banged through the screen door.
"Eh, Chris, glad you made it." Jimmy walked toward me with an offered beer.
"Are you kidding me?" I said. "I wouldn't miss this for anything." We clunked cans. I sipped and took a look around. "You lose electricity this morning?" I asked.
"No," Jimmy replied. "Why? You no more?"
"Nope. Must just be Nu`uanu."
Jimmy gestured with his beer can to the living room. "You know Ciran, right?" I recognized the bass player.
The very serious Ciran looked up from his cord and mike packing. "Chris, right?"
I nodded. "Howzit, Ciran." I actually didn't give a rip how things were going with him, but I always try to be polite. Of course Ciran, zipping up the cargo bag, had to respond with "Oh, it's all good. All good. We're definitely getting more gigs these days. But we still can use any publicity we can get."
"Yeah, how is that anyway?" I asked. "Why is a sorta rock pop country band playing at the studio of a Japanese radio station?"
Jimmy laughed. "My mom's friend's husband. He goes to Honpa Hongwanji too. The station's in the Pioneer Plaza Building. He heard us the last time we played on First Friday downtown. Recognized me from when I take my mom to the Bon dances." He sipped his beer. "He asked my mom to have me get in touch with him. Really liked the more country kinda stuff we did. I called him, we talked, we all went in to talk with him some more. He asked us to come in to the studio and play for an hour."
"You ask me," Ciran chimed in, "it's actually Lei he wants in the studio. He sure kept talking a lot to her."
The expression on my face must have been sufficiently puzzled looking.
Jimmy said, "Lei, dude, keyboard player."
"Oh, right," I nodded with all the enthusiasm of recognition I could muster. I mean, Lei the keyboard player was okay, but nothing to inspire the writing of a song. Now the third one – I hadn't seen her yet – the drummer whose name I also couldn't recall, she might get me penning a verse or two.
I asked casually, "Where's, uh, your drummer?"
Jimmy shook his head disgustedly. "Kayla? Believe it or not, she's sick. Went to the football game last night and got food poisoning. Mahalo plenny to the stadium concession guys."
"Eh, that was a great game. We kicked Navy's butt," I said. "If we can beat the Badgers next Saturday, we'll have finished a miracle run to a bowl game again."
"Whatevers," Jimmy said. "I'm Mister Percussionist today."
I perked up. "Just going with one guitar?"
"Yeah, no problem. Jenny can handle. Gonna miss Kayla's voice, but.." He downed his beer. "Ah, no mattah. Who's gonna listen anyway?"
Ciran, who was tying together some mike stands, stopped and looked over at Jimmy. Jimmy didn't notice him, but I did. He didn't say anything. Just stared at Jimmy for a long moment.
One of the female voices from outside called, "Who ordered pizza?"
"Me," I yelled through the door. "Coming."
The Boston Pizza guy had my almost lunchtime pizza waiting for me at the door.
"Gotta band?" the pizza guy asked as I was digging in my wallet. "Lotta equipment, huh."
I stopped counting and looked him in the face. It passed. "Yeah right." It's funny how dangerous just the smallest comment can make you feel. I paid and tipped pretty well, considering that unemployment might be right around the corner. But it's a tough job, and you should always tip heavy, even if the service isn't great or the personality sterling.
"Behind you," Ciran said. I stepped out of the way just in time. He and Jimmy were bringing out the last of the equipment.
"Go move your cars," Jimmy said. "Let's hit it."
While Jimmy packed the last of the equipment in the van, I ran back into the house, stuffed six beers into a double Safeway plastic bag, found a small paper bag and threw that in, then went out to join them.
They were all in the van, all except Ciran. He was holding the passenger side front door open. "Come on, Chris, we got the seat of honor for you."
Right, I thought, the seat of honor. Crammed between him and Jimmy. The worst seat in the car is the front middle. It's the death seat where you don't die but feel like it every time anyway. If I sat front middle as a kid going out with the family, I'd have a panic attack. Guaranteed. "Am I in the middle?" I asked brightly.
"You bet," Ciran replied just as brightly.
"Great!" I'd hoped to plow into my pizza while headed downtown, but I didn't want to risk embarrassing myself by throwing up. I opened the sliding passenger side door and slid my pizza and beer under the front seat. Oh well, I thought, just have to wait for it.
When Ciran closed his door, I was surprised at how much room there was in the front seat. He was kind of helping the situation too, leaning his arm out the window. Making himself smaller.
"Ikimashoo!" Jimmy yelled, and we were off.
I kept flashing on my childhood panic attacks. Picturing each vividly remembered occurrence. That feeling of being trapped. So far so good, I told myself with each passing minute. Even though I could smell the pizza under my seat, it didn't bother me. I definitely was going to make it to the studio without getting nauseous. I can make it. I can make it. I can make it. I relaxed more and more as we drove further into town. Still I wished that Jimmy had made the trip faster by taking H1. He was in no apparent hurry, however. No one was talking. It was almost peaceful.
When Jimmy turned off Beretania into the heart of downtown, we passed a little old lady feeding birds outside of the Atherton YWCA. I thought about my grandmother, how her greatest joy in life had been feeding the pigeons at Kapiolani Park.
Ciran interrupted my reverie: "I wish these people wouldn't feed the pigeons. Don't they know what a health hazard those damn birds represent."
I wasn’t nearly as relaxed as I thought I'd been; I snapped. "Why don't you shut the fuck up, Ciran?" I said, my voice shooting out of my mouth with the force of an atomic blast. I turned in my seat. Our faces were very close, thanks to the arrangement that had me stuck in the great seat of honor. Ciran gave me a hard look.
"What the fuck is wrong with you?" he asked, using what must have been his muy macho guy voice.
"You think you're a tough guy?" My face pushed closer to his.
He withdrew a little. "What's your problem, Chris?"
His voice was considerably softer, but the Korean side of me was flaring to white hot intensity with a vengeance. "My problem? What's your problem?" My voice was an unstoppable force, a disembodied juggernaut. "Feeding those birds might be the only thing that lady has in her life that gives her any pleasure. Wait'll you get that old, Ciran. Let's see what you got left."
I felt Jimmy's elbow nudging me gently in the back. I turned back in my seat. Immediately my jets cooled. But out of the corner of my eye I saw Ciran raise a weak middle finger in my direction. I turned back on him. "Hey, tough guy, you want to try that again?" Ciran leaned farther out the window. "Go ahead, Ciran, try that again. Try that again so I can shove your head and your middle finger up your ass. Gonna be tough to play bass after that, Ciran, cuz I hear you mostly play bass like it's up your ass, so it's gonna be real crowded in there."
Ciran shriveled like sleeping grass.
"Hey, gang" Jimmy said loudly, "we're here." He pulled the van up in the loading zone of the Pioneer Plaza Building.
Ciran couldn't get out the door fast enough. I was stewing, my face burning. Everyone got to unloading the equipment without speaking a word. They packed the carts quickly and began rolling toward the service elevator. I just sat there. Jimmy stayed back. "Can you park the van?" he asked quietly. His voice was tense, though; he was upset.
Jimmy tossed the keys through the window and then headed after the rest.
I moved the van to a legal space on Merchant St. I locked all the doors, the passenger side sliding door last. I grabbed my pizza and my bag of beers and looked for an out of the way bench. It was definitely time for my cold pizza lunch.
I sat in a shady spot across Fort Street Mall, facing Pioneer Plaza. My body gradually stopped shaking. The pizza couldn't get any colder, but the beer would surely get warmer. I opened up the Safeway bag for a beer. "What the . . .?"
Sitting among the beers was a smallish Ziplock bag. It looked to be half full of a thin film of vomit. I gagged involuntarily. I picked up the bag by a corner between my thumb and index finger. Something was written on it, and there was a sheet of paper taped to it. I read the heading on the sheet: Amish Friendship Bread Starter: Instructions. I removed the sheet of paper so I could read what was written on the bag: Hope you enjoy the Friendship Bread. Happy Holidays, Ciran. "Fuck me," I muttered aloud.
I held the bag up to the sunlight and swished the mucousy puke-colored liquid around. Sheez, Louise, when did he slip this crap in my bag? Just now? After our little chat in the car?
I stood up, walked over to a trash can, and dumped the starter and the instructions. "Asshole."
Returning to my bench, I popped open a beer and wrapped it carefully in the paper bag I'd brought along. I sipped. This hit the spot. I looked up to the top of Pioneer Plaza. They were up there somewhere, getting ready. Campus Load coming to you rive on KNHK. I didn't think I'd go up there. Should I go back to the van and at least listen?
Just as I was finishing guzzling my beer, Jimmy came out of the front door. He spotted me and came walking slowly over, lighting a cigarette.
"That was the quickest set-up in history. I think Ciran may be right. That station manager couldn't help Lei enough with getting the keyboards set."
"Want some pizza?" I asked.
"No thanks." He put his foot up on the bench and leaned forward, gazing further on down the street.
"Want a beer?"
"Beer?" he asked. "Where'd you get that?"
"Your refrigerator. You want one?"
He shook his head. "Chris, dude, may I ask what the hell is wrong with you?"
I tossed the empty beer can at the trash basket and put in right in the middle of the hole. "I'd call that good for three." Popping open another one, I packed it safely in the brown paper bag. I looked at my watch. "Why aren't you playing already?"
"Ah, some J-Pop guy in town on tour. This superstar dude's interview is going long. They figure another half hour or so. Always a bridesmaid."
I nodded, then opened up my pizza box. It sure looked cold. Like there was a slimy translucent glaze over everything. Today I would have to ask for white sauce. Made the Friendship Bread starter look almost appetizing. I picked up the whole mess and carried it over to dump in the trash.
Jimmy turned his head around, blowing a cloud of smoke at the same time. He gave me a "and so what" nod.
I ignored him again.
"Tough night?" Jimmy asked.
"Well, I was up all night long working on my goddamn resume," I said. "Killer at my age, man. I thought for sure my job interviewing days were over. I've been working for the State for 25 years already."
Jimmy nodded. "Budget cuts. Good old Linda Lingle. Talk about heads being up asses."
"She's the worst," I agreed. "Maybe the most horrible governor we've ever had."
Jimmy flicked his butt into the bushes and sat down. "Chris," he patted me on the shoulder, "you're one of the smartest guys I know. From way back at Duty Free, you've always been saying you wanna work for yourself. Dude, this might be the time. If anyone is smart enough to make it self-employed, you gotta be the man."
"Yeah, Mr. 800 GREs. Real Smart."
"I did miss one on the verbal section."
"Yes I did. I didn't know what 'bedizen' meant."
"Bedizen? For real? You never heard of Bedecked and Bedizened, that punk group out of England? They were wild. I wonder whatever happened to them?"
I shook my head. "That was in the 80s. By then I knew what bedizen meant. Okay, so I got some vocabulary, but that's useless unless I can maybe find a job working crossword puzzles for a living. What kind of skills have I got? What kind of ideas? Nothing. The only thing I'm good at is taking orders from bosses. Then I can really perform. " I sipped at my beer. "And look where that's got me."
Jimmy stared off down the street again. "If only I had your brains. I could probably figure out what to do. Make it on my own. Look what I got."
"You? You got music, Jimmy. The band's a dream job."
"A dream job? Ah, technically, brah, it's a dream very-part-time job. And that's all it's ever gonna to be. I don't have the talent to make it a fulltime job. So I gotta keep the money rolling in how? Giving lessons. It's a pretty shitty life. For one thing, I'm a lousy teacher. Why? Well, I think mostly it's because I can't stand students. I tell you, Chris, believe me when I say there is no longer half hour in your fricken life than a half hour when you're teaching some kid with no inclination how to feel rhythm, how to make the music be something other than pure torture. More worse, the kid not feeling anything. I'm the one getting tortured. But it pays the bills." He lit another cigarette. "It really sucks. To the max."
"Your luck I never signed on for lessons with you."
"Eh, you always had passion, Chris, when we played."
"Yeah, I had passion, but I sucked on guitar."
Jimmy shrugged. "Passion counts for plenty."
"We had some great sessions."
"Yeah, back then."
"I know. Story of my life. Always rehashing the past. I tell you, Jimmy, one of the worst parts about working on your job resume is that you have to relive all of it. The good parts of the jobs seem to fade out of focus. The bad parts, the stress, the crap – it all jumps right into focus."
Jimmy frowned. "I thought you said your qi gong teacher told you not to do that. You have to forget the past. Wipe it out."
I sipped my beer. "Yes he did. Yes he did. I am one sad student. It's like I just said. Good thing for you I never took lessons from you."
One of the women, it was Lei, came to the door. "Jimmy, they're ready for us."
Jimmy tossed his fresh cigarette. "Coming up?"
"Nah," I said, "I don't want to bring my bad vibes up there. I think I'll listen to you in the van."
"Okay." Jimmy jogged a few steps toward the entrance, then stopped and turned. "By the way, thanks for telling Ciran you heard he played bass like he was playing it up his ass. I can guarantee you that the first time he has me alone, he'll be asking me if I told you that. That guy is Mr. Super Serious Guy. He's young too and way talented. Sometimes I canna figure why he still plays with us anymore. I bet he'll make a full-time living at playing music one of these days. He even plays with the symphony sometimes."
"Used to, then" I said. "He used to play with them. There is no symphony anymore,"
Jimmy grunted and shook his head.
I said, "Sorry to put you on the spot, James. Just tell him I pulled that critical comment out of my ass."
Jimmy laughed, turned around, ran back to the entrance, and went inside.
I opened a third beer, then set in down on the bench. . There were quite a few pigeons and several other sparrows and doves picking around Fort Street Mall. I went back to the trash can and pulled out the pizza box. I took out a slice and began breaking off the crust in tiny pieces. Scattering them around, I watched as more and more birds gathered for the feeding.
A little boy, maybe five or six, came barreling around the corner, tearing into the growing flock and scattering them. I probably could have said something to him, but I didn't have the energy. His mother came loping around the corner after him and called her to him. They faded away down the street. The birds gathered again to feed.
A very big, very old and beat-up pigeon pecked at my toe. Kind of painful, his horny old beak. I watched him peck at my big toe. "Ouch!" I waited. He did it again. "Damn! You're gonna draw blood, buddy."
That one really hurt. I gently waved him off with my foot.
Looking up again, I noticed a group coming makai down the mall. I squinted. In the lead was a woman with very short grayish hair and glasses. She wore bright red sweats. The four men behind her were all dressed in dark suits and were wearing dark glasses. They were quite large.
The feeding mass of birds began bending away from the approaching five. The woman in front began flowing away from the flock, leading her followers closer to the Pioneer Plaza Building so as not to disturb the birds. She waved at me. "Beautiful day," she called out. The two men closest to me swiveled eyes left, staring at me as they passed. The two farther away kept looking straight ahead. They were all wearing those corded ear-pieces.
I raised the pizza slice I was breaking up in salute. "Yes," I said, "it's great."
She and her four bodyguards turned the corner around the side of the building and were gone.
I've always tried, my entire life, very hard, to think, as my grandmother used to caution, of feeding two birds with one seed, not killing them with one stone. For the first time today, I felt happy. Just sitting there. Watching the birds feed.
Upon examination, he was not so unhappy, after all.
-- The Damnation of Theron Ware