STORY OF THE YEAR 2008
by James C. Clar
“They were nearly all Islanders … Isolatoes too … I call such, not acknowledging
the common continent of men, but each isolato living on a separate
continent of his own. Yet now, federated along one keel, what a
set these Isolatoes were!”
It was one of those nights that the word ‘balmy’ was simply born to describe. The palm trees shrugged their shoulders and rustled overhead in the light trades as I walked my dog east along Ala Wai Boulevard. The lights from Moiliili to my left reflected wanly in the inky waters of the canal. Up ahead the sere sides of Diamond Head shimmered in the moonlight. My dog raced ahead. He had spotted a couple of the small rats that are found in such profusion here in the evening. They scurried up a tree as he barked and wagged his tail furiously at its base. He quickly lost interest as other sights, other scents, occupied his attention the closer we came to the hustle and bustle at the corner of Kapahulu Avenue. Every time he barked, however, the sound made me recall a very similar evening nearly two-and-a-half years ago. Association and Memory; together they can lift the spirits or pin you down and smother you. Either way, they are living, breathing things that shape the present and give rise to the future …
I had been writing a review of a new novel by best-selling author. It wasn’t bad, just repetitive; variations on the same old plot, the same stale dialogue and the kind of exotic setting that had been done to death. I was certain that the book was going to be a commercial success. Why not? It had the predictability, the stability, the sense of comfort and security that comes with the familiarity that people are looking for. I needed a break and decided to do something I had long been avoiding. I shutdown the computer, grabbed my cap and headed out the door. On that evening, too, the moon was nearly full, the trades were blowing gently and there was a scent of plumeria in the air.
I walked up to Seaside, turned left and soon found myself confronted by the madhouse that is Kalakaua Avenue after dark. As soon as the sun sets and the beaches empty droves of people take to the strip in search of fun, excitement and the kind of memory that ‘lasts a lifetime’. What makes them think there is any other kind, I wonder? I jostled my way through the crowd until I came to what used to be the ass-end of Lewers Street, the slightly seedy, always kitschy and somehow endearing heart of old Waikiki. As I said, I had been avoiding this. On the bus or walking I had averted my eyes, looked the other way or found something, anything to distract me until I had made my way past. The Lewers Street that most of us – those born here or, like me, ex-patriots from the Mainland who had been washed ashore by the tides of life – knew and, yes, loved, was a thing of the past. Gone were the quaint restaurants, the tacky souvenir boutiques, the small coffee shops, the pamphleteers and coupon hawkers, the Pedi cab drivers. Lewers Street had been reborn as the Waikiki Beachwalk, a chrome and steel paean to the chain eatery, the high-end clothier and to commercial travel. Even the venerable Halekulani looked somewhat out of place or, rather, displaced in time. It was even worse than I had expected. I turned around and headed back to my apartment.
Back on Kalakaua I was suddenly gripped by the urge to stop in at the Moana Surfrider and have a glass of wine under the famed banyan tree. I could use a drink and anything that had roots and a sense of permanence would be welcome. In a few moments I mounted the steps between the white columns and the royal palms and crossed through the open-air lobby of the Moana, the “First Lady of Waikiki” and the oldest hotel in the islands. I found a table near the beach-bar and settled in to listen to a small combo playing a lively mix of traditional and contemporary Hawaiian music up on the Banyan Veranda stage. I sipped my wine, closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of the steel guitar and the ukulele blend with the clink of glasses, the soft tinkle of ice, the murmur of voices and the rhythmic pulse of the waves that crashed ashore only a few feet past the retaining wall that separated the bar area from the beach. This, I thought to myself, is what Hawaii is all about. Asian contemporary design and corporate eateries be damned. I hadn’t been to the Moana in months, maybe even a year. I vowed to come back more often.
About an hour and three glasses of wine later I got up to leave. As I made my way up the steps and back into the lobby, an elderly gentleman ahead of me stumbled and nearly fell … age perhaps or maybe the effects of too many mai-tais. I reached out and steadied him as he readjusted his glasses and rearranged the shell lei that he wore around his neck.
“Thank you, young man,” he said once he had gathered himself and his ship was again safely afloat. “I come here every Thursday night, have been for nearly twenty-five years. Once or twice a month, it seems, I manage to trip on the very top step there. One would think that I could negotiate it unscathed by now. My name is Wallace, by the way. And you are …?”
I am not anti-social by nature, really, but I had been on my own for nearly two decades. I was a writer and, generally speaking, preferred to say what I had to say by means of the printed word. Also, there’s something about the salt breeze, the warm weather and the festive atmosphere of this place that loosens people’s tongues. In Hawaii, especially at night, total strangers will, with the slightest encouragement, pour out their life’s story. I was not entirely sure I wanted to give this old duffer that opportunity. Still, there was something about him that interested me. There was a light in his eyes that was almost beguiling. The fact that Wallace, too, probably remembered Waikiki the way it used to be when I first arrived here in the late ‘70’s and early 80’s almost immediately disposed me favorably toward him and created a nascent bond between us.
“I’m Declan,” I said, “a pleasure to meet you.”
“’Declan’, that’s a name you don’t hear very often.” he responded. “Funny, you don’t have a brogue.”
“Well, my parents were from Ireland and they most certainly did. I was born in New York, though, and grew up there.”
“I see,” Wallace remarked as he fiddled idly with his lei. “Have you been in Hawaii long? There’s something about you that says you somehow belong here. My guess is you’re not a tourist.”
“No, I’ve been here for just over twenty years. And I’ll take the compliment, by the way. When I hit the ripe old age of thirty I suddenly felt the need to simplify my life and I ‘lit out for the territory ahead’. This is where I ended up. The weather was great, the people were nice and the living was, as they say, easy.”
Wallace shifted his weight, took his glasses off and began to clean them with his handkerchief. The band on the stage to our right had taken a break and had been replaced by the sounds of classic slack key guitar – maybe Ray Kanç – over the speakers.
“This has always been, and maybe always will be, a place for people to reinvent themselves, that’s for sure. Between the two of us we have certainly seen some changes here over the years haven’t we? This is one of the few places,” the old man stated as he replaced his glasses on his nose and used his arms to encompass the grand hotel where we stood, “that has resisted – more or less – and it’s why I fritter away my Thursday evenings here reading the paper and drinking guava juice.”
I explained about my sortie down the new Beachwalk and I was pleased to see by his expression that he shared my opinion of what had been done there.
“You know,” he ventured, “that end of Lewers Street really did need to be cleaned up. But dear God, there’s nothing whatsoever ‘Hawaiian’ about what they’ve done over there. I can’t tell you how often I used to sit and listen to the piano in that little place there with the Glouster Fisherman out front. What was it called again?”
“Lewer’s Street Fish Market or Fish Company, something like that. I think I still have matchbooks from there. It’s gone, of course, as are Pieces of Eight, House Hong, Chuck’s, Buzz’s and, maybe the place I miss most, the Islander Coffeehouse.”
“Goodness,” Wallace sighed, “a trip down memory lane. When you get to be my age you live in the past, after all. What else is there? No future to speak of, really. Oh well, I’ve taken up far too much of your time. Thanks for the hand and also for the conversation. Perhaps our paths will cross again. Do you live in Waikiki?”
“Yes,” I told him, “in a little place on Ala Wai.” Something, who can say what, overcame my natural reticence and I asked, “Say, are you interested in a nightcap? I know a little place around the corner that has live jazz.”
“I think I know just the place,” Wallace answered, “but another time for sure. Right now I need to get home. My dog is ready for his evening walk.”
“Well, good night, then. It was nice to meet you and to chat for a few moments,” I said, and meant it. “You could be right; maybe now that we’ve met we’ll bump into one another again. There really can’t be too many of us castaways left on this rock.”
I shook Wallace’s hand. He turned and, passing the base of the grand staircase, headed toward the exit. “Excuse me,” I said a little too loudly as he reached the front stairs above the bell desk, “what’s your dog’s name?”
“He’s a little Jack Russell,” Wallace announced proudly over his shoulder. I call him Starbuck. “
“Wonderful,” I replied, “First mate on the Pequod, right?”
“Bravo. You are just about the first person to catch the allusion. I should have realized you would from your reference to Huckleberry Finn earlier. Sadly, most people today assume he’s named after, well, you know. Aloha.”
With that he turned and continued down the stairs. I watched as he crossed Kalakaua at Kanekapolei. He was soon lost in the crowd.
In the weeks and months to follow I made it a habit to drop in at the Moana on Thursday nights. Wallace was always there at a table under the banyan near the swimming pool. We’d sit together and reminisce. After about an hour or so, he’d get up to leave. It was always time to take his dog for a walk. Our relationship was a strong one, in its own way, but it was unencumbered by demands, expectations or any of the other issues and trivialities that can cause tension or conflict between people who grow close. We were just two isolatoes – as Melville might say – who came together from time to time. We’d warm our hands briefly over the fire of human contact, as it were, and then each go his solitary way.
I knew where Wallace lived and he seemed to know where I resided. At least I would often see him walking past my apartment from time to time while I sat on my lanai. We’d wave, just that, nothing more. It was almost as though we were afraid to alter or tax the parameters of our association. Our contact was limited to Thursday nights under the stately banyan tree. The truth is I had no idea whether ‘Wallace’ was actually his first or last name. I did learn from him, however, that he had been a Physics professor in California. His son was killed in a tragic accident when the boy was a teenager and his wife committed suicide shortly after that. When Wallace retired, having nothing to keep him on the West Coast, he pulled up stakes and moved to Hawaii. It’s amazing, really, how many stories like that one hears – or at least used to hear – around the islands. As the only land mass in, literally, thousands of miles, it stands to reason that all sorts of human flotsam and jetsam would be carried ashore here by the convulsive currents of life. That’s always been the case. Not even rapid air travel can change the fact that this is one of the world’s most remote island chains. Nevertheless, Oahu is still known as the ‘gathering place’.
Wallace was interested in my work as a freelance writer doing book reviews, author interviews and features. One of his passions was reading the ‘classics’, something he never had time to do during his years teaching. Our love of literature was yet one more thing that brought us together. One starlit evening our conversation turned to the way in which islands seemed naturally to attract all manner of scoundrels, people with all sorts of outrageous schemes and dreams and ‘characters’ of one sort or another. Literature and, in fact, history were full of examples.
“Declan, you’ve been here long enough to know that Hawaii too has had its share of oddballs, eccentrics, people with stories so colorful that not even the most creative author could invent them. Does the name Annette Nahinu mean anything to you?”
I thought for a moment as a family of four carrying wet, sandy towels and a boogie board made their way through the bar area. Their sandals and flip-flops made a sucking, adhesive sound as they passed – the sounds of vacation. “Annette Nahinu. The name sounds familiar for some reason. Wait a moment, doesn’t she own that place out on Sand Island? What’s it called again?”
“Yes, she’s the one,” Wallace nodded as he sipped his guava juice. “And the name of her place is La Mariana. Do you know what that means? If I’m not mistaken it was her maiden name.”
“Well, certainly it has something to do with ‘the sea’. Maybe a diminutive form, ‘little sea’ or some thing like that?
“Precisely, ‘little sea’, what an utterly appropriate name for a place by a lagoon. Have you ever been out there?”
“No,” I said. “But I’ve always wanted to go.”
“Did you know,” Wallace continued slipping into what I had come to recognize as ‘lecture mode’, “that, like me, Annette is in her mid-nineties and she still runs the place? She’s been married three times and, as far as I am aware, has repeatedly refused to sell off to the Japanese. She once told, ‘unless I die, I’m here’. I guess that’s my motto too. Anyhow, we really do need to take a field trip out there. The food is so-so but the ambience is remarkable. It’s the last old-fashioned Tiki-bar and restaurant. The real thing, I mean. She has vintage memorabilia from the days of Matson, the Pan-Am Clipper and, God forbid, Hawaii-Five-0. You get the picture, I’m sure. The whole thing is over-the-top but, let’s face it, it’s the kind of place that you just can’t find anymore. Who knows how much longer she can carry on? Once she’s gone, well, it will never be the same.”
And so, to Thursdays at the Moana were added the occasional Saturday evening out on Sand Island at La Mariana. Time passed as it usually does in Hawaii, gently and uneventfully. One Thursday I arrived at the Moana only to discover that Wallace was not there waiting for me. I sat down at our table, ordered a beer and watched the lights of a container ship round Diamond Head and disappear. After ninety minutes I really began to worry. Nothing, and I mean nothing, prevented my elderly friend from making our weekly rendezvous. After checking with the bartenders and wait staff – all of whom knew us by sight and by name – to see if Wallace had left a message, I paid up and left.
My uneasiness grew as I walked down Kalakaua to Ohua Street and turned toward Ala Wai. I won’t bore you with the details of how I knocked on the door of Wallace’s condo only to be greeted by the frantic barking of his dog. I didn’t have a key so it took some doing to convince the concierge to open the door. When we walked in we found Wallace dead in his chair, a copy of Lord Jim on his lap. His beloved Jack Russell retreated to the far corner beneath the bookcase. His barking had been replaced with what seemed to me to be a disconsolate whimpering.
Once the ambulance and HPD arrived, and Wallace made his final journey down the outside stairway of this building, I bent down and picked up his dog. Predictably, inevitably, he had a patch of black fur over his left eye. The two of us descended those stairs for the last time as well and moved off into the warm tropical night.
Since then, Starbuck and I have settled into a companionable routine. We make very few demands on one another. We’ve each learned to deal with our loss in our own way. We’re just a pair of isolatoes thrust together by the eddies of dissolution and memory. Hawaii continues to change around us, reborn again and again in the warm amniotic waters of the Pacific; sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Either way we endure, holding onto the past and, at the same time, embracing an uncertain future. What else is there? What else has there ever been?
We turned around once we reached Kapahulu and headed back toward home. A young couple with Australian accents came toward us. They were consulting a map and arguing about where to go, what to see, during the remainder of their stay. My dog raced toward them. “Starbuck,” I said, “Easy boy.”
“Isn’t that cute,” the woman remarked to her partner as they passed, “that bloke named his dog after Starbucks.”
James C. Clar teaches and writes in upstate New York . His work has appeared both in print as well as on the Internet. Most recently his short fiction has been published in Antipodean Sci-Fi, Apollo’s Lyre, The Magazine of Crime & Suspense, Powder Burn Flash, Residential Aliens, The Taj Mahal Review, Bewildering Stories, Static Movement and The Shine Journal. James writes everything from noir to fantasy and science fiction as well as more mainstream pieces. He has, of late, developed an interest in flash fiction and likes the challenge posed by the inherent constraints of that form. Mirrors, loss, irony and the conundrum of time are issues or themes that have preoccupied him of late. Whatever else emerges in 2009, Hawaii will undoubtedly continue to be an inspiration for his short stories. James is also an ardent jazz fan, a voracious reader as well as an avid digital photographer.
CONGRATULATIONS, JAMES, YOUR STORY WAS TERRIFIC. NOW, TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF . . .
My wife Katherine and I will be married twenty-two years this coming August. My “day job” keeps me pretty busy but, even so, my articles, book reviews, articles and author interviews appear regularly in the pages of Mystery News. This fiction thing is a relatively new “gig” for me. “Starbuck” is only my third (or maybe my fourth?) published short story. I do have ten or twelve more pieces out there awaiting acceptance or, perish the thought, rejection.
Q. What would you want our readers to know about you?
That It’a downright embarrassing to be asked to talk about writing as though I actually know anything about it! Also, to be honest, I don’t particularly enjoy talking about myself.
Q. Do you write in a particular genre? If so, which genre is it?
In terms of non-fiction, the bulk of my output has been in the crime/noir genre book reviews, background articles and author interviews (Ken Bruen, James Sallis and Ace Atkins).
As far as fiction is concerned, I have written short stories in the horror, mystery and mainstream veins. Basically I let the “see” idea dictate where the story is gong to go and what idiom it is going to be couched in.
Q. What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?
Plausible motivation and believable characterization; plot seems to flow from and be organically related to those two elements.
Q. How do you develop your plots and characters? Do you use any set formula?
No set formula -I haven’t been at this long enough! What I find is that once I have the basic concept, and that might be a mood, setting or some type of conflict situation, things just seem to follow from that. I do usually sketch out a “bare bones” outline. I can tell when I’m “on” because in such cases the story just seems to write itself. At that point, I-think careful editing - and having someone else read your work - is absolutely essential.
Q. What do you do to unwind and relax?
I read, listen to jazz, and enjoy poking around antique shops with my wife. Over the past two years I have become an avid photographer. I sprang for a digital SLR and have been happily snapping away ever since. I have become much better from a technical standpoint but have miles to go in terms of composition.
Q. What inspires you? Who inspires you?
My uncle who died in 2004 at the age of ninety-six. He was a newspaperman for nearly forty years and he basically taught me how to write. He was also the kindest, gentlest, most caring person I think I have ever met. I miss him more and more with each passing day. He used to say, “There’s one word that means precisely what you are trying to say in any situation. Find it, use it!” He also used to chastise me because of my tendency to use long, subordinate clauses - ”You sow commas like some kind of half-assed farmer in a field.” You tell me, where can you get that kind of coaching these days?
Q. Are you working on any projects right now?
I am working on an article about James Ellroy’s use of historical characters in his L.A. QUARTET. Also, I have been bitten by the “flash” fiction bug and have been writing stories in the 500-1,000 word range. It sounds easy but, wow, is it demanding. It is also quite rewarding when you succeed.
Q. What is most frustrating about writing? Most rewarding?
Most frustrating = trying to get material read and published. I am just starting out and the entire process can be quite daunting. Writing the stuff is the easy part!
Most rewarding = crafting an effective sentence. Putting the finishing touches on something you are proud of and, in the end, seeing it in print.
Q. If I were sitting down to write my very first story, what would your advice be?
Write the darn thing! Don’t think about wanting to write it, but sit down and write. Work as quickly as possible. Then, when you’re finished, let it sit. After a few days, go back and start attacking it - mercilessly!
Q. What advice would you give to writers just starting out?
Write, write and keep writing. When you’re finished, send your stuff off and start writing something else. I find that I learn something more about the craft with every story I write - and I have a LOT to learn! I also think it is a huge mistake to try too hard. I find that my best writing results when I use what I know and what I have experienced. It’s a cliché to be sure, but I think you need to write from the heart.