THIS IS A YEAR OF THE HORSE CONTEST ENTRY
Bringing Us Both Back
Year of the Horse Writing Contest entry for January 2015. 2221 words.
That summer I was slaving at the record store. Galaxy of Sound, where the stars come out. That advertising slogan is burned in my brain. Every time I recite it, I picture faces materializing in a dark sky. Gordon Lightfoot or Linda Ronstadt, at the speed of light, coming right at me out of the blackness of the Milky Way.
Maybe I should have moved back to Honolulu after I finished school, but I couldn't bring myself to go back home. Even though it was July in Madison, which is the nearest thing to hell imaginable. Except maybe Madison in February. Madison in July is hot. Not Honolulu-hot though, except on the worst island days when the trades die and the humidity hovers just under one-hundred percent. Madison is surrounded by two lakes, and because there aren't any tradewinds, when the water starts to evaporate it's sauna time. Fortunately West Towne Mall was always a cool 70 degrees.
Down on my knees behind the glass showcase next to the register, I'd just finished repricing the top twenty cassettes for the week and was rearranging them in their new order. I had my hand on Supertramp, the week's number-one bestseller in the midwest region. Breakfast in America had been coming on slow all summer. Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town stood at number two. Saturday Night Fever held on to third, but it looked like the BeeGees were finally going down.
The first thing I saw were two legs walking toward the case. "Excuse me," her voice said, "isn't that a Hawaiian group I hear?"
I stared through the glass at the legs. Don Ho, everyone expected. But Cecilio and Kapono sang at least once a day when I worked. El Santos, my district manager, a 1959 Kamehameha Schools graduate, said it was okay to play C & K so long as we had product in the store. We always did; I made sure of it.
"Yes it is," I answered, leaning back and looking up.
"Hey, Chris," she said, smiling. "Great aloha shirt!"
"Yeah! It's me! Customers ever ask you about the shirt?"
"Every day. Especially winter. What brings you to Madison?"
"I had the day off, so I flew up, uh, to see you."
Kathy and I had known each other since preschool at the University Laboratory School. After high school, we'd both done our undergraduate work at UH-Manoa. Then I'd come to the University of Wisconsin for my master's degree, and she'd gone to the Art Institute in Chicago for her MFA. We wrote to each other but had never found time to visit. It was always, "Yeah! Let's get together," but we could always seem to find some excuse not to do it.
"So," I asked, getting up off my knees, "they let you fly for free?"
"Oh, no, it's a service charge. Minimal stuff."
That was the beauty of working for United. At the record store I could buy any album for cost-plus-ten, but that hardly compared with being able to fly for practically nothing. What a great job. Going anywhere, anytime.
"Kathy, I'll be off in forty-five minutes. See that coffee shop over there?" I pointed to the Carousel across the mall. "Wait for me. Here." I handed her my crumpled Capital Times.
"Okay, Chris. I'll be waiting."
At quarter to four, I told my co-workers I had to leave early.
Andrea smirked. "Yeah, Chris, I saw her talking to you."
Hardly feeling guilty, I jogged over to where Kathy sat barely engrossed in the local news.
"Let's break out of here!" I shouted.
We ate dinner downtown at Porta Bella. Drank dinner would be more accurate. Neither one of us did much damage to the pasta we ordered, but we kept the waitress hopping with our wine refills. As always happens when a couple of Lab School grads get together, we spent most of dinner reliving the memorable shared events of life from age three to eighteen.
After dinner I drove us back to my place.
"Geez, Chris, I can't believe you still have this Ghia."
"My folks didn't want me to bring it over, but I argued them into it. Now they're gonna be pissed if I take it back to Honolulu."
Kathy shook her head. "Remember the time we were collecting flowers for graduation?" I laughed. "Remember how we went to Uncle Billy's up on Tantalus, and how me and Lisa sat up on the back seat and waved like we were in the Aloha Week Parade?"
"Yeah, Uncle Billy. Mister Glaucoma Relief." Our science teacher had told us he smoked dope to ease the pressure in his eyeballs. He'd definitely been a pioneering researcher.
As we exited the elevator, a neighbor of mine, Lance, came out of his apartment. Because the Divine Tower is round, all the apartment doors front on each other in a circle. "Into the toilet bowl, buddy," he said. Kathy looked at me.
"Yeah," I nodded. "Round and round and round she goes, and where she stops, nobody knows."
Lance, waving, disappeared behind the elevator doors.
I finally managed to get the key in the lock. "Tight security," I joked, kicking at the door. We burst in.
"Wow, Chris. Nice place. It's . . . it's a triangle."
"Um, yeah, kind of a wedge-shape. But get a load of this."
I led her to the glass doors, rolled them open, and escorted her onto the lanai. The sun still sat well above the summer horizon of Lake Mendota. "Have a seat. I've only got beer. Is that okay?"
When I returned, Kathy was sitting on the edge of her seat, staring out at the lake.
We clunked cans. Kathy gestured hers toward the lake. "Is this the lake where that singer . . . what's his name drowned?"
"Otis Redding?" She nodded. "No, that's Monona, on the other side of town. This is Mendota."
Kathy started singing. "You say Mendota, and I say Monona. You say Monona, and I say Manoa. Manoa, Mendota, Monona, huh huh huh. Let's call the whole thing--Chris," she said, giving me a serious look. "Don't you miss Hawai'i?"
I stopped smiling. I kind of wanted her to keep on singing. "Well, I . . . I guess. Nah. How could I? Look at this." She looked at Mendota. "Just like Hawai'i, huh?"
Kathy shook her head. “What,” she inhaled deeply, "is that smell?"
"Smell?" I sniffed.
"Yeah. Can't you smell that? It's like something decomposing."
"Oh, that. That's the Oscar Mayer factory. You get used to it."
"Maybe you can, but I couldn't. You know what I miss the most about Hawai'i, Chris?"
I waited. She finished off her Old Style.
"Do you?" she asked again.
"Ah, no. Primo draft? I don't know. I give up."
"I miss the trees."
I looked over at her. Her eyes watered, reflecting the setting sun.
"The trees," she repeated.
We sat in silence for a while.
"But there are trees all over the place," I finally said.
Kathy shook her head. "Look around you, Chris. What do you see?"
I looked over the balcony. "I see . . . trees. Lots of them."
"Yeah, but I'll bet you ninety-percent of them are elm trees."
"Um, maybe," I agreed.
"Well, almost all of them are. And plenty of them are half dead because of some kind of elm rot that’s running rampant around the midwest, so they look like shit," Kathy said. "And if you're lucky," she continued, "you get to go out into the suburbs and see maple trees and dead elm trees."
"Come on, Kathy, there're more kinds than that."
"Okay, maybe. But in Honolulu you've got monkeypods and shower trees and banyans and coconut trees and lychees and plumerias and African tulips, and you look up and see kukuis running down the slopes of the mountains along with Norfolk pines and eucalyptus and--"
"Yo, Walt Whitman, I hear what you're saying."
"In my back yard I had an avocado and two huge mango trees." She tapped my forearm. "Where you going to see anything like that around here? And this is pretty good! You should try living in Chicago."
I looked at her for a long time.
"God, Chris, I miss mangos so much." Her eyes still sparkled in the light.
"Kathy, this may sound like a stupid suggestion, but why don't you just move home?"
"Home? Chicago is my home now. I've lived there over six years now. I've got this damn job that stations me right there. And besides all that, as if that weren't enough, I'm . . . ." Her voice trailed off. "Could I have another one of these?" She hoisted her empty can.
"One cold Old Style coming up," I announced, coming back.
"Thanks," Kathy said. She was standing against the railing. I set the beer down by her chair and joined her. I put my hand next to hers on the metal rail, but I couldn't bring myself to touch her. That's the problem when you're drunk and horny, but you've known the person you're with since you were three years old.
"Can't you relocate?" I asked. "When will you have enough seniority to move back ho--to Honolulu?"
"No, I can't go back now. Not for a long time, at least."
She wrapped her arm around my waist, putting her thumb through my belt loop and leaning her head against my shoulder. I put my arm around her shoulders and hugged her to me.
"Do you still do your art?" I asked.
"Not much. I still have my loom. Sometimes, when I'm not too tired, I sit down and work on it for a while. And then sometimes, but not very often, I really get into it. Get lost, you know? Just like it used to be. Mr. Yamada would be proud of me. But that never lasts for very long anymore." Mr. Yamada had been one of our high school art teachers.
I laughed. "Remember that time--I think it was a Saturday morning--when I snuck up on you in the weaving room in George Hall. I must've stood behind you watching for five, ten minutes before you knew I was there. And then--"
"And then you clamped your hands on my shoulders. Man, Chris, you scared the shit out of me!"
"Hey, hey," I said, turning her toward me. "I said I was sorry. Sorry again."
When I opened my eyes and looked down I saw the white line of her scalp where she parted her straight black hair. She'd always parted her hair perfectly down the middle.
Kathy stopped holding me and turned toward Mendota again. "So he didn't crash and drown here, huh? Well, this is probably a lousy time to tell you this, Chris, but I'm . . . I'm getting married."
I couldn't think of anything witty to say. Kathy went back to sit down.
"So, uh, where are you staying tonight?" I asked.
"I'm not. I'm taking the last flight out. It leaves at midnight."
"Midnight?" I said, turning to look at her, then at my watch. It was only 8:45. "We'd better get going."
Kathy tried smiling. "I'll take a taxi. You aren't in any condition to drive."
I didn't argue. She was right. We went in, and I called her a cab. "Better hurry down. It'll be here in a minute."
Kathy led the way out the door. "Into the toilet bowl?" she asked.
"And where she stops, nobody knows," I confirmed. Stopping to let her get farther ahead of me, I watched her legs move toward the elevator.
As I opened the cab door for her, I caught her arm. "Hey, Kathy, congratulations." I fumbled at a handshake.
"Thanks, Chris." Her lips brushed against my cheek. "I'll send you an invitation?" I nodded slowly to her question and forced a smile. The cab disappeared down the darkness of Langdon Street. The stars were out in full force now. Good old Gordon Lightfoot. He had a raft of songs for occasions like this.
That was the last time I saw or heard from Kathy directly. No wedding invitation ever came. Of course I always wonder about how reliable the post office is. Maybe mail gets lost that we never know about, so we don't miss it. The following year I came back to Honolulu. Kathy was right. I did miss it. More than she did, maybe. Kathy finally relocated to the Bay Area. Someone said she lives in a huge house in Belmont, overlooking the bay, with three kids and her pilot husband. She still flies the friendly skies. I've been through San Francisco half a dozen times since I heard that. Whenever I get in the airport, I tell myself I'm going to call her up to get together in the airport bar for a quick drink. I even pull out my phone. But by the time I hear that dial tone, I just hang up.
But, every night, when the curtain falls, truth comes in with darkness.
No light shows from the mountains. To and fro I walk the piazza deck,
haunted by Marianna's face, and many as real a story.