Marie was collecting the paper wrappers from disposable chopsticks, telling everyone that you could turn them in for a wheelchair.
“I don’t get it,” my wife Lena said, as she handed hers over. “How does this add up to the value of a wheelchair?”
“An electric wheelchair,” Marie said. “They said these chopstick things are like cash.”
By then I was already moving out of earshot because one, I wasn’t eager to bend my mind around the chopstick-wrappers-for-wheelchairs grift, and two, I wanted to get out from under the EZ Corner I’d helped Marie’s husband Lonnie set up before everyone showed up. I wanted away from the kids who, after having eaten the ass out of a box of laboratory manufactured snacks from Costco, had now reluctantly submitted to a feeding of grilled meat and rice, most of which they chewed a bit and spit out on their plate. The whole production was an irritation, the children alongside the picnic bench or in their miniature beach chairs, bleating nonsense out into the daylight while their parents wiped their faces and made them drink juice. Ducking my head, I went out from under the tarp into the sun to Hube on the beach, who drank from a red cup as he watched two figures in the ocean, laughing as they stood in water that rose to their waists.
It was a holiday Monday in the summer, hot and bright. Lena and I had been invited to the barbecue at Kahala Beach Park, and I’d almost got out of it altogether because Lena hadn’t been feeling well the week before. But by Friday, though, she was better, so here we were. There was Hube, and Nick and Kath, with their twins Ernie and Esme, Birdy and his boyfriend Benjamin, Esther, Ka‘ohu, Min, and the entire clans of the Wessendorfs, the Chins, and the Kamemotos. A real cluster fuck, towels and beach blankets hanging from the crossbars of a steamy EZ Corner anchored down by coolers of beer and vegetable dips, open bags of chip-type snacks over the picnic table, spilled drinks on chairs, tables, spilled drinks in the grass you’d step in, the general grubbiness of unclean fingers and closeness of sweaty people all lubed up with 35 SPF. My single goal was to ride a steady buzz, which required great effort on a hot day like this—the right kind of beer (for these purposes, Miller Lite) drunk at the right pace, no funny business with IPA’s, hard liquor, or drugs.
From a distance, Hube might be considered a “cool guy,” an insufferable douchebag, because of his high and tight haircut, his print T, and his designer surf shorts. Up close, though, you could see that there was nothing cool about him. He had the hunched over, whipped look of someone who couldn’t help but be kind to others. For this I knew he would, inevitably, be punished. He was my friend and I loved him.
“What, you peeping?” I said, looking out at the man and woman in the water.
Hube turned to me. “I thought they might be coming out soon, so I thought I’d say hi. Larnz and her new boyfriend Kromo. He just got out of prison.”
“Prison?” I said, looking at the glare of their wet bodies. Me, I just wouldn’t have had the stamina to stand out there and laugh that much.
“That’s what they say.”
“What’d he do?”
“I dunno,” Hube said. He sipped from his red cup and grimaced, offered me a sip.
I took a gulp, burned my throat, swallowed hard. “Jesus, I can’t believe you drink this stuff at the beach,” I said.
“These days, I’m at the beach wherever I go.”
It was just one of the bizarre kinds of things Hube had the tendency to say, so I just nodded. “Not some sex offender-type shit, is it?”
“I don’t think so,” Hube said. He pulled his phone from his back pocket and typed a few things. “No, it doesn’t look like it.”
“Huh,” I said, as Kromo came into focus. He was muscular, though not steroidal. He had a notable lack of tattoos. Even I had a tattoo, a green-black blotch on my forearm that had smeared into a shape no one could make heads nor tails of.
I turned back to Hube. “Seriously, though, man, how you doing?” The last time we’d spoken, he had been neck-deep in an anxiety spell. For a couple weeks I went over to his house and sat with him while we watched automated computer games on YouTube.
Hube smiled. “For a long time, I dunno, it got to me, man,” he said. “It was all of it. Oil. Trash in the ocean. How much clean water we were gonna have in two years, three years. But now that I know what the end looks like I’m—I’m comforted, I guess. I feel free.”
We both went back to watching Kromo in the water, cradling Larnz as if she was being baptized.
Later, when the kids were out from the EZ Corner and were chasing after one another and chirping like Coke-headed goblins, I sat with Lena in the shade, she with one leg over the armrest of my camping chair, eating cookies because there was nothing better to do. I put my legs way out in front of me and slapped the sand away from the bottom of her foot.
“Get enough to eat?” she said. She held the little paper plate under her mouth to catch the crumbs, even though it didn’t matter where the crumbs went.
I had gotten enough to eat. I’d ingested so much sugar my skin was prickly. I could feel the pimples setting in.
“Still some ribs left,” Myrna said, doing what we all wanted to do. She sat in a small patch of shadow, her three children far away from her, and looked at her phone.
“Next week’s the march,” Marie said, from the other side of the picnic table. Her eyes were now glassy, her shoulders slouched. “Against the president. Or the policies of the president? Anyway, it’s for the resistance thing. You guys are going, right?”
While everyone else made noises or motions in the affirmative, I just said “I don’t think so.”
“What? Don’t tell me you guys are—never mind.”
“No, it’s just—we both have to work on the weekends,” Lena said.
I hated the president just as much as the next person. I’d have liked to talk a walk to Thomas Square, tell everyone what an asshole I thought the president was. But Lena and I didn’t have the luxury of protesting. We needed money more than we needed to walk around with poster board signs on a Saturday.
Myrna finally looked up from phone. “What, Lena, you still doing that weekend thing? Jesus Christ, quit already.”
Hube had left by then. The second Lena stood up, I planned on closing up the chairs, setting aside the cooler, pulling the towels from where they hung on a tree, packing it all in, hoping Lena would get swept up in the spirit of departure.
Kromo sat in a low beach chair outside the coverage of the tarp, in the sun. Strangely, he left his shirt on. If I’d had a body like that I’d go shirtless everywhere, on general principles. As it was I felt my sunburned and hairy, flabby flesh hanging from my bones in all kinds of unattractive configurations while I adjusted myself like Jabba on my chair.
Kromo was drinking Powerade, the fifth one I’d seen in his hand. Powerade bottles lay empty in the dry grass at his feet. Some people’s lot in life is to drink wine, some people beer, and some people Powerade. It was just the way it went. I wondered what all the fruit-punch redness was doing to his guts. I imagined his easy-going half smile slipping for a moment and Kromo smashing his knuckles into some poor fuck’s eyeholes. I guess, for myself, I’d always been looking for a license to snap.
As soon as Lena withdrew her foot and said, “I’ve got to pee,” I leapt to my feet and began pulling the gear together. “Okay, I’ll pull the car around after I get everything loaded. No, no worries, I got this. You take your time. Just cruise for a second.” From there I proceeded to shake hands, to fake-kiss everyone goodbye.
That night in bed Lena went through Instagram on her iPhone, sliding through all the pictures at the barbecue. There was only one of me, a candid where I sat with my jaw clenched, looking hard at something outside the frame.
“God, you look so serious,” she said, liking the picture for my benefit. “What are you even looking at?”
The next shot was of Kromo, sitting next to Larnz, another Powerade in his hand. In the shade of the EZ Corner, his face looked haunted. Not by what had been done to him, maybe, but what he’d done to others.
“I wonder what it was,” I said to myself.
“What?” Lena said. She closed the application on her phone, kissed me, and turned over in bed, shutting out the light.
The next morning I woke up before Lena. At our computer in the living room (or, the other room of our one bedroom apartment) I logged on to her Facebook account. I didn’t have one of my own. Social media, for me, was a gmail blog on which I “reviewed records” once in a while. I looked for Kromo through Lena’s network of friends.
First I went to Larnz’s page, saw a few pictures of the two of them—selfies at the top of Kuliouou, something I’d seen about a million times. A couple images curated from the day before, where the two of them were most prominent. Larnz didn’t have any friends named Kromo, so I figured he wasn’t all that plugged in, either. But he did show up in other friends’ pages—restaurant somewhere, beach somewhere else—and always with that look, that crossed-over look, that done-time look, that look that said there’s nothing else can touch me. I googled his name, but nothing showed. I didn’t know his last name, nor did I know how to spell his first name. Chromo? What the hell kind of name was that, anyway? Maybe I didn’t even hear his name right. I deleted the search history from our computer and made like I was using the bathroom.
I’d committed crimes, hundreds of them, in my head. For that I was guilty, and I never even did shit. Every day I repressed every elemental urge of my being, and what I got for it was a rented one bedroom in the middle of the city, credit card debt like a never-ending iron chain, a bicycle I rode across town to different jobs. I had a wife and I loved her, yes—but she was caught in the same trap, childless because no matter how much we tried, it seemed like we’d never be able to afford them, she taking on extra gigs too, just to come up to the bottom floor of respectable. There would be no one to say, at the end of it, that some small part of us had been original. Both of us, what we did for our livelihoods was make sure that some little specific part of a process of a procedure of a system continued to be operational. The way things were going, we’d work and we’d die and we’d leave nothing behind.
Which was more depressing for Lena than me. I’d always thought I’d be taken out by a garbage truck on my bike, but Lena, she wanted someone to look after us in our infirmity, to come by and visit when we were sick of ourselves. She wanted kids. But that door was closing fast. Rent wasn’t going to get any cheaper, neither one of us could realistically work more than we were already working, and Lena wasn’t going to turn five years younger overnight.
Kromo—somehow, he’d said to the world, I’m taking what I deserve, and fuck anybody who thinks different. By this time, I’d settled on bank robbery for Kromo, though not some chickenshit ATM theft, or a note to the teller, a pointed finger in the pocket. No, I imagined Halloween masks, automatic weapons, a lookout man, a getaway car. He’d done something, at least. He’d lived. He wasn’t anyone’s victim.
When Lena knocked on the bathroom door, I began inspecting my teeth and opened it for her.
“Early for you,” she said, brushing past me to sit on the toilet. We’d long since gotten used to using our one bathroom together, no matter what needed to be done in there.
“I feel like I can be more productive before anybody gets into the office,” I said.
“That’s good,” Lena said. She looked down for a moment, and put her head in her hands. “Can you give me a minute in here, please?”
The joke about the guy in my office before me was that he worked himself to death. What really happened was, he died, I took his office and, because he didn’t have a next of kin to carry away all of his personal belongings, I inherited his CD’s, his books, his posters, his boombox, his Japanese Post-It notes with the industrial strength adhesive. A blown-up picture of Death Valley in black and white with the caption “great ideas come from unexpected places” covered one wall. Books about management, corporate structure, middle management, upper management, managers managing workers, managers managing managers. Soft jazz, real contemporary shit—well, of the time he was listening, early to mid-90’s—which I’d always hated.
Because I’d been promoted to this guy’s position, I had to figure out what he knew, what he did, and do it better. Early on I just avoided his leftover stuff, but after a while I was reading Who Moved My Cheese on my lunch break, considering different approaches to address communication deficiencies and encourage transparency in the workplace. Soft jazz, I found, was excellent for maintaining focus on a task. I began to stay late, to make sure I responded to each one of my emails in a correspondence voice I’d taken a long time to cultivate. I started becoming—this guy. I was working myself to death.
And what did I do that was so important? I made sure a process of a procedure of a system stayed operational. I checked email like a compulsion, I left voicemails, set meetings with agenda and PowerPoint attached, ensured the last action items were to discuss the follow-up agenda for the next meeting. I found that nothing ever ended. If I finished one thing, I began to work out the process of how to keep the finished thing operational. And on and on and on. For that I missed dinner with my wife, I missed a hundred happy hours, any one of which could have led to pure and total enlightenment.
About two years in, when Lena and I started talking kids, I went to my boss’s office and asked for a raise.
“A raise?” my boss Ngan said. “But we just promoted you, Marv.”
“Two years ago,” I said. “I’ve been making changes—implementing efficiencies that you yourself commended last year. And you know, essentially, I’ve got this thing handled.”
“But,” she said, and leaned back in her chair, “it’s not like you’re doing anything more than what you’re supposed to be doing.”
I looked at the toys on her desk, which she’d bought at Disneyland a couple months before. I looked at the white board on her wall, a picture of a donut shop drawn in marker by her daughter. Some bosses rode you mercilessly until you were all used up. Some bosses scapegoated their employees so no one could identify the deficiencies of the leader. Some, like Ngan, would blow smoke up your ass for two whole years, let you have anything in the world as long as it didn’t cost her a dime (leaving work an hour early to take Lena to dinner when I’d worked late for weeks before then) and, when it came down to cash in your chips with a big head and a little swagger, they bottom-lined you until you were ant-sized again.
“I mean, I might not be doing more, now,” I said weakly, “but I’m doing it better and faster.”
She looked at me for a moment as if she was confused. As if I were speaking in some alien, unintelligible tongue. Then her face, and her mind, settled on something else.
“Well, you said we needed two more employees for the project you just completed. I listened to you Marv. Those two salaries are now on my budget.”
They always made like it was their money, as if they were writing a personal check for all this shit.
“I’m sorry, I just don’t have the funds for what you’re asking for now.”
I’m not going into great specifics about what I do at my job, or what happened after, because it’s boring. After the raise discussion, I said some ill-advised things, and they tried to fire me. But in my position, you know how much blood and shit and piss it takes to execute the process of a procedure of a system, and rather than let me go with a folder full of memos, they gracefully offered to keep me gainfully employed. I wasn’t getting that raise, though. That’s when I took my second job, stuffing envelopes for the radio station where I used to volunteer in college. It turned out the second job could only pay for the extra rent after the landlord reworked our lease.
Our apartment building was along the Ala Wai Canal. When we’d first moved in, we’d walk down from our place after the sun had gone down, when they light the lamps over the brick promenade that ran aside the canal. We’d called it our Seine, then, our dirty old river.
For the most part, everyone at work avoided me, and I was, socially, on the same level as Moses, who processed supplies for the janitors and whose cubicle reeked of the stale, sour atmosphere of a hangover. In the halls and the elevator Moses would be meek and deferential, but sometimes when I walked past his desk I’d hear him talking the evilest, sickest shit over his cell phone. The rumor was that he was into guns, and had a lot at home, so no one wanted to piss him off lest the next logical step be taken. Moses and I were the office pariahs who hadn’t buddied up yet, to show our solidarity against the banal and heartbreaking.
“Marv here,” I said, my phone against my ear.
“It’s me,” Lena said. I thought she was calling from her portable trailer out on Sand Island, where she worked fiscal for a contracting firm. They mostly managed asphalt projects, parking lots, roads, “covering over Oahu one square foot at a time!”
“Let me guess. You’re sick of your lentils again. You want to eat fish katsu with your coworkers.”
“Listen, Marv. I called out to work today. I was feeling funny all last week—you know, but I felt better for the barbecue and all that, so I thought I was good. But I scheduled an appointment today.”
“You’re pregnant,” I said. Already my blood was beating the breaks from “Sunshine of Your Love” in my ears.
“Pregnant? What? No. This morning there was bleeding—I know, Marv, I didn’t want you to worry until I figured it out. I’m scheduled for some tests next week. Marv, we didn’t end up changing the insurance, did we?”
The beating in my ears stopped, replace by the level, high-pitched note of a dead TV station. “We did,” I said slowly. “We changed to the cheaper one so we could save for—you know.”
“Drat,” Lena said, and the way I heard it over the phone made me want to weep. Still I couldn’t think of anything. My mind was tuned to a TV channel out of order.
“Marv, we’re not going to talk about this now, we’re not going to think about it. We’re going to get through this week, and we’re going to have a good week. I’ve got my gig on Saturday, tests on Monday. That’s all we know. We’re going to get through this week.”
“Okay,” I said. “I love you.”
When she hung up the phone my mind wasn’t stuck anymore. It was flipping through channels at incredible speed, so I could only get a glimpse of one scene to the next. I saw a panda eating a stick of sugar cane. I saw wind-blown faces speeding down the hump of a roller coaster. I saw a fat man in overalls holding an oversized check, smiling through tears. I saw smoke from the burned rubber of a tire spinning in place. I saw Elliot Ness telling Al Capone to freezeze. I saw Hulk Hogan body slam Andre the Giant.
I hung the phone up in its cradle and turned off Kenny G, who’d been playing low on the boombox under my desk. I turned my chair slightly and propelled myself out my office door, and didn’t stop until I got to Moses’s workstation.
“Hey Moses,” I said. “Still shooting?”
A few days in and I had kept my promise to Lena. I made it a good week. It wasn’t hard, because I was resolved in my mind. Moses said all I needed was to pass a test, a background check, then I could file the paperwork.
The medical plan that Lena didn’t want to talk about, not until she’d had her tests, was the one we’d moved over to during open enrollment, when we’d changed from a ninety percent coverage model for all hospital-related costs to a seventy-five percent coverage model. The premiums were less than a quarter of what we’d been paying monthly, and we’d thought that if we could budget right, I could switch back during the next year’s open enrollment by the time Lena was about to deliver a baby.
In the middle of the week Hube wanted to meet me for lunch, and since he lived up toward Manoa and I worked in Kaka‘ako, we mapped the most equidistant mid-point between the two locations to a Subway on the corner of King and Punahou, across the street from the vacant auto parts store that used to be a record shop after it had been a cinema. I ate my lunch lentils in my office before I unlocked my bike from the rack and rode up Ward toward King Street, where I turned right onto the bike lane.
I was looking for the perfect song on my phone when the light went green, just across the mauka side of the Blaisdell, where parking structure is. “Salt Peanuts” reared its excitable head, and I began to roll across the road when I heard a long honk breaking through my perfect song. I figured someone was making an illegal turn somewhere, until I glanced at the white van on my right. He was honking at me. The driver, some haole dude with a five-head, yelled, “Get off your phone!”
Each time I tell this story, I focus on a different aspect of how I was processing information at the moment. In one scenario, I might preface the anecdote with a commentary about how there are some motherfuckers who see it as their duty to climb high up a man’s jock when he’s minding his business. Just looking for that perfect song, in this case. In another telling, I might go on about the dumbfuck drivers of Honolulu, how they lose all moral authority over the people on the street as soon settle their fat asses nice and cool and comfy behind the wheels of their Lexus SUV’s. In another situation, I might just say, okay, I guess I was looking at my phone, but I had the right of way and this five-headed fuck was pissed off because he wanted to turn left into my bike line. So yeah, I guess it made me a little mad.
I kept rolling, a few inches, looking at him and his red face. I hopped off the bike and it continued to roll in the green bike lane until it fell over on its side. My earbuds in, Max Roach riding the cymbal, Charlie and Dizzy all up into synchronized wickedness. I walked to the driver’s door and tried to pull it open.
“What the fuck you doing?” he said. The door happened to be locked, and when I reached into the window to unlock it he pushed my hand away.
“Get out,” I said. “All you have to do is get out of the car.” I reached in the window again, but he was already rolling it up, gassing the van up King Street.
Everyone behind him was honking now, and that sound electrified me more than an hour’s worth of “Salt Peanuts.” I gave them a sweeping two-handed middle finger before I picked up my bicycle and rode the lane to Subway.
“How’s the sammy?” I asked Hube as I slid into the booth opposite him.
A bite had been taken from the loaf-like thing that lay on the unwrapped, grease stained paper. Hube lifted the top of sandwich, then dropped it closed. It closed wetly.
“There was no love put into this food,” he said.
Hube was unemployed, which is why Lena’s friends, and even Lena, didn’t quite trust him. His presence was an abomination to the eager and go-getting workforce, who busted ass all week to afford all the stuff they needed to make them feel less like human beings. Hube didn’t need stuff. He spent his days making his mother Campbell’s Soup and painting die cast figurines, which he’d sell online whenever the notion took him. Otherwise, he got by on his mother’s retirement, and some disability benefits for which he qualified intermittently.
He’d tried to work. He just couldn’t hang in there, not like the rest of us.
“If you had the choice of one sandwich before you die, what would it be?”
“Easy,” Hube said. “Rueben. But not too buttery. I don’t like it soggy. The sauerkraut dry, so it doesn’t soak through the rye. Light on the Thousand Island.”
“Grilled cheese for me,” I said. “I know, it’s probably too basic, but I fucking love it, man. I don’t want a whole bunch of flavors clogging up my palette when I’m going to die. Just some bread fried crisp in butter, and cheese—just a little sharp, a little—and it stretches when you pull it away from your mouth.”
“You could hear one song before you die,” Hube said.
“That’d be—I mean now, man, I’m stuck on Roberta Flack’s version of ‘Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water.’ The piano, man. The choral group or whatever, just sort of floating around. If there’s one song with the power to send you to heaven, it’s that one.”
“I mean, when she hits it, when she goes peak Flack on those notes near the end, you’d have thought you died already.”
“‘Sister Ray’ for me,” Hube said. “It’s like seventeen minutes long. Seventeen more minutes to luxuriate in my consciousness, in my existence.”
All that extra time, for me, seemed unappealing. “If you had to commit one crime—for your mom, for your dog, or whatever—what would you commit? I mean, what would you do?”
Hube thought for a moment. “I don’t know. It would have to be something where no one got hurt.”
“Right,” I said. “Like one of those—” and I paused as if the idea had just come to me. “Like one of those payday loan joints. You know, with the interest rates. Like robbing them, man. They fuck poor people over so hard—the APR is through the roof.”
“The whole point is that the loans are meant to be paid back before the APR kicks in,” Hube said.
“Yeah. Well. What if they can’t be paid off? I mean, they market it to people like it’s just easy money, but the catch is fucking crazy. These payday loans prey on people and hold them hostage afterward. I’d rob them before I thought about robbing a bank.”
“But a bank’s insured up the wazoo. And a bank doesn’t even offer services to help poor people without bank accounts. If someone is overdrawn at a bank, those penalties can be just as high or higher than the interest rate at a payday loan. A bank would be the most appropriate place to fuck over, in my opinion.”
“Jeez, you’re really throwing cold water over my payday loan scheme.”
“All right,” Hube said. “What about the tellers. They didn’t start the system. They’re just part of the process. Making money like anybody. You’d shoot them if they made a false move? You’d hold a gun up to a teller?”
“I don’t know if I’d shoot anybody,” I muttered, looking out the window. On the corner across the street, I saw a man in a torn camping chair swatting at the flies around the sores on his leg with a folded-up magazine, one of those free real estate publications. I heard the beep of the alarm on my watch. “I have to get back to work,” I said.
Outside Hube stood with the wrapped sandwich in his hand.
“You gonna save that?” I said, throwing one leg over my bike frame.
Hube considered a garbage can nearby, but instead walked the sandwich over to the man cruelly swiping at his legs, hitting his sores as hard as the bugs that were drawn to them. Hube held the sandwich out, the man took it without looking at him, and he crossed back over to me. This city was making animals out of most of us, while the others were becoming saints.
“You gonna be okay, Hube?” I asked, pulling my sunglasses from my shirt pocket.
“Me, I’m on flight time, man.”
Okay, I said, puzzled, not wanting to get all into it, pretending I knew what the hell he was talking about. All the way back to work I worried. What did he mean? Was he high? Was he going to flee, run away? Flight time. As I pulled my bike onto the rack at my building, I smiled. Hube was talking about Donald Byrd, about the record. And I knew Hube was going to be okay, that my man was going to be all right.
When I got home, Lena sat on the living room carpet naked, Fender Strat in her lap. She was a professional musician inasmuch as she was a professional accounts officer—in Hawai‘i, though, being a professional musician meant you were also a bricklayer, a fireman, a road worker, a teacher. They said they loved the music, the people, though the people didn’t love it enough so that anybody could make a living from it.
The upcoming Saturday she had a gig with a band she’d been playing with for a couple weeks, the Keeaumoku Night Busters, a guitar-for-hire job that required her to learn various set lists. She hit the laptop next to her and played along to “Thunder Road” to get the chords right. And at the part where the guitar is supposed to talk Lena laid down a tinny, unplugged solo that would have gotten all the muscles in Bruce’s smile going.
I peeled off my clothes and got naked along with her. “Shower?” I said.
“We get to be shower buddies tonight?” she said. She placed the guitar on the stand near the window, pushed herself up to her feet, and kissed me.
As the warm water fell over us I soaped her back and she began to sing, low, like Bruce’s throaty grumble.
“Oh, oh come take my hand, we’re riding out tonight to taste the promised land—”
“‘Case,’” I said. “‘We’re riding out tonight to case the promised land.’”
“It’s ‘taste the promised land.’ I’ve been listening to that song for like two hours.”
“It’s not ‘case?’” I stepped out of the shower, dried off, went into the bedroom, and lay on the bed naked. A couple minutes later Lena lay next to me, still a little wet, a towel around her head.
“What’s the matter,” she asked softly, into my ear.
“That song means nothing to me now,” I said.
Lena had her gig, I got drunk, and I thrashed over the Lulu’s dance floor spasmodically, scaring any prospective dancers away. Then the tests, which turned out as we thought they would. Chemo treatments to start in a couple weeks. No more talk about that other thing. No more talk about that other thing we planned.
How they come up with the itemized bills for chemo treatments I’ll never know. What’s the market value for radiation? How much do we pay the guy to shoot the beams into my wife’s cervix?
Moses said all you needed to do was take a test. Lena rested on a Sunday (no more gigs late into Saturday night for her), and I rode down to the range and made holes in the chest of a piece of paper, got my certification. Then I registered, and it was all very bureaucratic and boring. And after I caught the bus down to Wahiawa, I told the guy in the shop that I was just looking for something for protection. I walked out of the shop and strolled the streets of Wahiawa with their fruit names looking for vice, daring someone to come at me. But while I was looking for vice the rest of the good citizens of Wahiawa were looking for lunch, and they passed me by with burgers and chili plates on their minds.
Lena got better. Lena got worse. Her sick leave from the contracting firm would burn up soon, so sometimes when she had to go to work she locked herself in the bathroom and threw up all day. I wasn’t telling her about our finances anymore. I told her I’d take care of everything. I told her new lines of credit would be made available to us, and we could use that, thank God, for the bills.
And when she was sleeping, when the medication sucked her eyes deep into her head, I’d tell her about the gun I’d bought. A revolver, a Saturday night special with a snub nose the likes of which I’d always seen on Hill Street Blues. I’d lay next to her and work out my plan to get us ahead for once, to do as Kromo had done, and take what we deserved. We’d hung in there. We’d done everything right. We’d done everything we were supposed to do.
While Lena lay with her eyes closed, I told her about the Checks Cashed place on Atkinson. I didn’t have the geographic security to make a run on any of payday loans places nearby. I told Lena, see, you know that little alleyway that leads from the end of our cul-de-sac to the parking lot in front of the liquor store and the Checks Cashed place? The one the homeless use for a toilet? You see, I walk into that alley with a yellow plastic Don Quixote bag stuffed with a bulky sweatshirt—that one you borrowed from Birdy that one time, maybe—a ski mask, and another bag, a white one from Safeway. In the alley, I change into the sweat shirt and mask, and when the coast’s clear I sprint across the parking lot, right in front of the liquor store—I’ll just scoot past—to the Checks Cashed place. Before anyone spots me. When I get inside, I pull out the gun, make a few threats, tell them everything will work out if they follow my directions. I fill the yellow Don Quixote bag with money, and once I’ve run back into the alley I peel off the mask and the sweat shirt, so by the time I’m on the other side of the alley, I’m just in my t-shirt and jeans. You see, I’ve placed this big stone on the edge of the canal beforehand, and I wrap that stone and my mask in that big sweatshirt and discreetly drop it into the water. I walk the promenade a bit, take a seat at a bench, none too hurriedly, and with all the time and care in the world move the money from the yellow bag to the white bag. It won’t be too obvious. I’ll tell him not to fill it so much when they’re giving me the money. The Don Quijote bag I let float away on the wind, whither it will, and with the Safeway bag I walk around the block, one time, maybe twice, maybe buy a coconut water from the 7-11, in case anyone asks. Then I’m back home with you, Lena, and I put the gun up high. When the cops come I’ll tell them, well, I don’t remember seeing anything, since I was sitting with my wife when it all went down. Though I did step out for a minute to get a coconut water at the 7-11.
Mail fraud. That’s what he went in for. Who? You know, Kromo, Larnz’s ex-boyfriend. Kenneth Romo. Get it? What a fucking nickname, right? The whole time I thought it was something—something more dramatic, I guess. But it was just some scam to get old people to send their money to some bogus online security company. No, it wasn’t the chopstick wrappers for wheelchairs thing Marie was talking about at the beach. That’s for real. At least that’s what they tell me. I believe it’s real.
Oh yeah. I looked it up on the internet. The line’s “case the promised land” after all.
Or maybe, Lena, I don’t wear a sweatshirt. Or a mask. Maybe I let them see my face. I want them to see my face. Maybe I don’t tell them to get on the ground, maybe I don’t tell the security guard “Just try to be a hero. Just try it.” Maybe I don’t even ask them for money, though for Christ’s sake they got a shit load of it for nothing. Maybe I don’t even say anything. Maybe I just take the gun out and hold it in my hand. Maybe just let it lie on the counter for a second. Maybe just show them.