Late one morning, he was at the Wailana Coffee Shoppe when a young woman sat down across from him. She was blonde, lightly tanned; her face was composed, nearly immobilized, with eye shadow, liner, and rich red lipstick. She had an air of sadness that was at cross purpose to her youth and to the perfection of her makeup. She ate breakfast and left, untroubled by Joe's attention.
For the thousandth time he wished he could draw, but words were his best tools. It was more than the woman's appearance that he wanted to capture; he wanted to know how he felt about her. Writing was a way of finding out. For the rest of the day, as he walked in the city, he fiddled with words, starting over and over.
The next morning he returned to the Wailana. The beauty wasn't there, but he could remember her well enough to keep writing. A woman sat next to him at the counter. He paid no attention until she asked him to pass the ketchup. She was having home fries with her eggs. “Nothing like home fries,” Joe said.
“Stick to your ribs,” she said, blushing slightly. She had nice ribs, large breasts pushed against a white blouse. “What'cha doing, if you don't mind my asking? You look so intense.”
“I was trying to describe someone.”
“Are you a writer?”
“No,” Joe said.
“My name is Alison, Alison Carl. Have you been here long? In Hawaii, I mean.”
“About six months . . . I used to live here.” She had short sandy colored hair, a blunt nose and a wide mouth. No makeup. She chewed toast with a satisfied expression.
“I'm doing post graduate work at the East-West Center. I saw the Dalai Lama yesterday.”
Joe sat straighter. “No kidding? What was he like?”
“Cute. Like a little rock.” She was compact, a high energy type. “What's your name?”
“Joe Burke.” He took evasive action. “Alison, I'm too old for you.” She looked downcast for a moment and then raised her eyebrows hopefully.
“Can you walk?”
“There,” she said winningly, taking a large forkful of potatoes. “What you mean, I think, is that you think I'm too young for you. It's a compliment, really. Men have trouble saying what they think, sometimes.” She seemed pleased, like a teen-ager.
“What are you studying?” Joe asked.
“Buddhism. I have a doctorate in comparative religion. I was a pastor for a while and then I worked at a seminary. I was canned.”
“Yup. They were hypocrites,” she said sadly. “What do you do?”
“Nothing right now. I used to program computers, design software. When I lived here I did a lot of stuff: drove a cab, delivered newspapers, managed a tennis club . . . I ended up going to the university.” Alison sipped coffee.
“Let's get this over with,” she said, “I'm forty-four. How old are you, Joe?” She noted his surprise with equanimity.
“You see,” she said. “You're one too: a younger-than-you-looker.”
“Alison,” he said more firmly, “it has been nice to meet you, but I must be going. Much to do.”
“Goodbye, Joe. Thank you for talking to me.” He didn't want to wait for change, so he left a large tip and walked up Ala Moana Boulevard, relieved, but with the odd feeling that he was walking toward her rather than away.
At 4:00 that afternoon, the phone rang.
“Hi, Joe, it's Alison. I was bad this morning; I'm sorry. I don't know what got into me.”
“What do you mean?”
“You were busy and I bothered you. I've been lonely, I guess. I didn't realize. I don't meet people like you very often.” That was flattering. Joe made a soothing noise. “How about dinner, Joe? Dutch treat?”
He was surprised. “Uh, when?”
“Tonight, of course. I want to be high in the air and look at the city lights. I've never been to the Top of the I. Come on, Joe . . . You can tell me stories about the ancient old days. I will wear a skirt. We'll be normal for a couple of hours.”
“A long stretch,” Joe said, but then he felt bad. “Why not? O.K.” They agreed to meet at 6:30. He ironed a pair of pants and an aloha shirt, mumbling to himself about what a pain in the ass it was, but by the time he stepped off the elevator he was feeling better; it was nice to be liked.
Joe was overly punctual and used to waiting for women. He forgave them; it was a genetic condition associated with the willingness to walk slowly in front of onrushing traffic and also—somehow—with the inability to have money ready at checkout counters. Alison was waiting for him.
“You're supposed to be late,” he said. She smiled prettily. She was wearing a teal colored silk tunic over a chino skirt. Her hair was brushed back; a small opal swung from each ear; something glittered around her eyes. “You look terrific.”
“Thank you.” They sat at a table with a view of the mountains. “I don't drink much,” she said as he ordered a Glenlivet and water. “I do know about Glenlivet. I'm Scots and Swedish.”
“Single malt—wonderful stuff,” he said.
“I'll have a glass of Chardonnay. So, Joe, tell me about when you used to live here.”
“I was married and Kate, our daughter, was young. I've been married twice.” Alison did not appear surprised. “Sally and I were happy to be out of Woodstock.”
“Woodstock, the Woodstock?”
“Yes, a small town. It was so great to be in Honolulu where we didn't know anyone. My feet didn't feel the pavement for a year. But we had a hard time. Food stamps and all that, even welfare for a while. Things settled down when I started driving a Charley's cab and Sally cleaned houses. Cleaning houses isn't bad work—cash—anybody gives you a hard time you just go somewhere else. Here's looking at you.” They touched glasses.
“Sally had a couple of steady gigs where she liked the people and knew what she was supposed to do every week.” His mind was moving back. “Some amazing things did happen . . . “
“Oh, good,” Alison said.
“One afternoon I went over to Kahala to pick up Sally at a cleaning job. She was disturbed. Sally was a sweetheart, but she didn't talk much; after six years of marriage I knew I had to ask if I wanted to know what was going on.
“She described a scene between her boss, heiress to the Cannon towel fortune, and her boss's daughter. The daughter told her mother that a nice man had come into her room during the night, had sat on her bed and talked to her. The mother explained that dreams sometimes seemed real. The daughter said that it wasn't a dream. They argued. There were tears, and the daughter ran upstairs.”
Joe paused. “Sally thought that the mother had handled it badly.”
“What did you think?” Alison asked.
“What did I know? Anyway, time flew by. I got nervous; I thought maybe I would never do anything but drive a cab. I got a job managing a tennis club on the other side of the pali—a good job—a house, a truck, a pool in which Kate could learn to swim, acres for her to run around in.
“Sally operated the snack bar; Kate went to kindergarten. Mornings, I walked into Kailua to drink coffee and write.”
“Just like this morning,” Alison said.
“Yes. I was trying to understand Honolulu . . . as though it could be grasped and set, presented, like a pearl.” Joe sipped his whiskey. “I became friendly with a regular at the Rob Roy Coffee Shop, an ex-machinist who had fled Chicago to start over in Hawaii. `You gotta meet Mike,' he told me one day. `You guys would get along.' I asked him about Mike. `Mike's the cat burglar. You know, the one they're always writing about in the paper.”'
“I didn't want any trouble with the law, but, as usual with me, curiosity won out. Several nights later Mike and I were seated at a table in Crazy Horse, a topless bar that catered to Marines. He was short and stocky, intense. After a couple of beers, I said, `So, I heard you were the cat burglar. That right?'.
“`Guess so,' he said. I asked him how that had happened.
“`It's so damned easy,' he said. He had been adopted by a well-to-do couple. The relationship hadn't worked out as they had hoped. He told me about robbing Aku over and over. Aku was a radio personality. Mike said he couldn't stand him. Mike had never been caught, even though the cops, by this time, knew. The island is small; word gets around.
“`One time,' Mike said, `I was going along an upstairs hallway and I looked through a door: a little girl was sitting up in bed watching me. I didn't want to scare her—you know how they are, big eyes and all—so I went in and sat on her bed. I told her not to worry; I was just doing my job, looking for things at night. I told her that her job was to get a good sleep, have good dreams, and be ready to have a great day when she woke up. She settled back down and smiled, you know . . . I patted the bed and left. Some kind of bird let go with a giant scrawk, and I got the hell out of there, down over the lanai in back.'
“`You're not going to believe this, Mike,' I said. I told him about the six foot bird cage in the atrium of that Kahala beach house and the little girl who stuck to her story.”
Alison bounced in her chair and clapped. “Good for her!”
“That was twenty years ago,” Joe said. “Mike got caught. The girl probably has her own children now.”
“You must tell her,” Alison said. “She should know. The truth is important.” Alison had a point. Joe had felt guilty about that before.
“The house is still there,” he said. “Maybe I'll see what happened to them.”
“If they've moved, maybe you could find out where and send a letter.”
“Aha,” Joe said as dinner arrived. He had gone crazy and ordered steak. Alison bent over her scampi and inhaled deeply. “Garlic,” she sighed.
“Garlic!” They touched glasses again. Dark ruby light circled and glanced through his Cabernet Sauvignon. By dessert, Alison had told him that she was from a small town near Madison, Wisconsin, that her father had been an inventor, that her mother was still alive, aging and in need of care.
“My father was hurt in an accident at work. I had to take care of him when I wasn't in school. My mother always had other jobs. He was strict. I couldn't go out like the other girls. I was taken in by our church; they gave me a scholarship.”
“So you went from home to the church life—and you never got married?”
“Never met anyone willing, Joe. Anyone right, that is.” She bent over the table and lowered her voice. “I'm a virgin—can you imagine?”
“What!?” A head turned in their direction and Joe lowered his voice to match hers. “How on earth?”
“I believe in the sacrament of marriage, Joe. Technically, I'm not a virgin because of something that happened a long time ago. But, actually, I am one.” He blinked several times as she continued, “I had a boyfriend for five years. He was divorced. He was afraid of commitment, Joe.” Joe took a large swallow of wine. “We used to fool around. Nothing below the waist,” she added.
“Gurmpph.” He cleared his throat. No one seemed to be paying any attention. Alison was still leaning forward. His eyes were fixed on her swelling breast and the curve of black lace that rose and disappeared behind her blue-green blouse. “Coffee,” Joe said. “We must have coffee.”
It had grown dark gradually, and Alison had her wish to look at city lights. Honolulu lies on a narrow plain between the mountains and the Pacific. Sharp ridges descend toward the water. The ridge faces have been developed; at night they are like jeweled fingers, reaching high, separated by vast darknesses. “Beautiful.” Joe swept his hand toward the window.
“Even nicer than I hoped,” Alison said. “I didn't mean to embarrass you, Joe.”
“I'm not embarrassed. It seems like a waste, that's all.”
“That's sweet.” They had coffee and took a cab to her apartment, not far from the university. “Was it so bad being normal?” she asked.
“No,” he admitted. She leaned over and kissed him quickly on the cheek. He felt like Uncle, thanked for a birthday present.
“There,” she said and got out. “Night, Joe.”
“Goodnight, Alison.” The cab driver remained silent. “Oh, yeah,” Joe said. “Liholiho Street.”
(from: Joe Burke's Last Stand)
John Moncure Wetterau