“Look at that stupid man! He’s kissing Kapoho! He might as well kiss my ass!” Keoni’s young voice bursts out of him as he watches an old man struggle out of a taxi and stretch his arms toward the sky as if to hold everything that he sees. He lets out a loud “Ahhh” and drops to his knees to kiss the ground. Still on his knees, he takes a white handkerchief out of his pocket and wipes the tears flowing down his face. “How can anyone love this place so much? There’s no electricity, no television, only stinking outhouses! He must be crazy!” Keoni shouts in disbelief.
Slowly Keoni’s eyes cleared. There was no man now. There was no Kapoho. The outhouses were gone, too. Kapoho was extinct under megatons of lava. Keoni stood next to his rental car, a brand-new Mercedes.
Keoni wasn’t kissing any old Kapoho, that was for sure. In fact, it wasn’t by choice that he was back. He should have taken care of this business of getting rid of the property years ago. His father had always said to Keoni when he didn’t come in to dinner after the first call, “Haole talk, one time ’nuff.” He had meant to sell the property but had never gotten around to it, and time was running out.
Keoni looked around, even with nothing at all to see but an endless field of dead rock with an occasional coconut or mango tree. He bent over to pick up a piece of lava rock and saw a piece of paper stuck between the rocks.
“Maybe it’s one of my poems,” he thought, feeling foolish for even thinking of his poems. It was just a piece of old newspaper. The memory of his first published poem jostled loose a long-forgotten memory. It was the day he had put away his dream of becoming a writer.
Charlie runs and huffs up the road to the porch where Keoni and Sammy sit huddled around a battery-run Philco radio, listening to the Yankees and Dodgers game. There is more static than the announcer’s voice.
“Eh, Keoni, I heard they wen print your poem in one magazine.”
Keoni takes a dollar of out his pocket, holds it with two fingers as though it were a piece of trash and says, “Look, Charlie, big deal, I got only a dollar for it.”
Sammy looks at the dollar. “But Keoni, you want to be one writer. So what if you wen get only one dollar? That proves you one writer already. That’s good, man.”
Keoni shakes his head. “What can you get for a dollar, Sammy? Eh, haole style, that’s not where the money is.” He shoved the dollar back into his pocket.
“Christ!” Keoni thought. “That was fifty years ago!” He looked around. There was nothing at all now, only dead rock among some isolated coconut and papaya trees, the remains of a lava flow that had buried most of his village. No man with a handkerchief, no smart-mouthed boy. Just dead rock in every direction. Nothing had changed since that day. Nothing would ever change. He brushed a fly off his sleeve and looked down at his three-piece suit. “It cost a bundle,” he thought, but then, all of his clothes were expensive. Well, one thing had changed: that smart-mouthed barefoot kid was gone for good, along with the rest of Kapoho.
Keoni looked up and surveyed his property with the sweep of his eyes. Everything else was frozen in time. Just one big pile of worthless rock left to him by his father. Keoni didn’t hold it against him. It was all the old man had had to leave him. It had been worthless then, and it was worthless now. He had to get rid of it, and quickly. He would have to sell it below market price to get the job done. Time was running out.
The place was silent except for the voices in his head. “I’m too busy for this crap,” he complained to himself, but the voices got louder, and with the voices came images.
“Back off, you old pirate! This treasure’s mine!” Two boys circle each other, sword in hand, long sticks pulled through the ends of rubber zoris, a perfect hilt for a sword. Blade against blade! Click! Crack! They fight until one falls dead on the ground and the other stands victoriously over him, with the tip of his blade against the dead man’s chest.
How long had it been since King Arthur, Blackbeard and Errol Flynn had inhabited his body? How long since he’d played with his friends?
“Let’s test ’em out. Race you to the post office!” Sardine cans press against their feet as they grip tightly on the rope threaded through the cans and hobble off toward the Kapoho Post Office.
“Dis betta den walking on lava rock!” Charlie shouts.
“Hey,” Keoni yells back, “we could patent this and get rich!” They laugh so hard that they roll over on their backs and don’t make it to the end of the race.
That was the first time he’d seriously thought about how to get out of Kapoho. Two measures of “Hey Jude” interrupted his reverie. He reached into his pocket and turned his cell phone off. He thought of two old cans of pork and beans.
“Can you hear me now?” he shouts to Charlie over their walkie-talkie made from the two empty cans connected by a piece of string.
“Can you hear me now?” Charlie mimics. “Man, Keoni, you tink you haole? Can you hear me now? Yeah, stupid, you getting so close, I can smell da fish you wen eat for lunch!”
“One time ’nuff,” Keoni mumbled as he stepped onto the flow that was left of his boyhood. He walked toward a mango tree on the mauka side of the lot that marked the separation of his property from the neighbor’s. He had carved his name on this tree with his first pocket knife. Was his name still there? He knelt down and trailed his fingers over the bark. Yes, “Keoni” was still there, barely felt under his fingers.
He continued walking around the property, looking for the surveyor’s boundary lines. He had made a promise to himself as he watched his father working long hours as a cane cutter. “Someday, I’m going to live in big cities where skyscrapers tower over trees, where neon lights turn night into day, where money falls out of my pockets and I can afford anything and anyone I want.” Even then, he had known instinctively that he had to clean up his pidgin if he were to get out of that place. And he did. Not only did skyscrapers surround him, but he had his office in an upper floor of one. He was a success, and his children were in the best of private schools.
He wandered around the lot, and more memories found their way in, like that lava flow toward Kapoho when he was a kid.
“Pee-cue! Pee-cue!” Keoni hears the sound of ricocheting bullets against the rocks as he aims his finger at the sheriff and misses. “Pee-cue! Pee-cue!” He feels the sudden imaginary jolt of pain and slowly falls to the ground, holding onto his chest, covering his bullet wound.
The sheriff pulls down the red kerchief covering Keoni’s nose and mouth. “Where’s the holdup money from the stagecoach?”
Keoni looks at the sheriff, opens his mouth and struggles, “I…I…I…,” then drops his head down and dies.
“Pee-cue! Pee-cue!” Keoni muttered as he walked on the property, still looking for boundary markings. Did kids nowadays play cowboys and robbers? The property was worthless, but he had to get rid of it. He came to a slight depression in the ground and stopped. “That must be where the koi pond was, next to the house,” he thought, “and the outhouse must have been over there.” He thought of his sister. The outhouse had been her favorite place of refuge. He had told her once, “You are so weird, someday when I become a famous writer I’m going to write about you in the outhouse.”
He winced as he remembered her reply: “If you no stop peeking on me, you not goin’ live long enough to be a writa.”
The survey was over. He sat on an old tree stump, staring at the hills where he had slid down so many times on cardboard boxes, imagining he was sledding over snow-covered hills. So many things had slid from his life since then; his wife had left him, and his children called him only when they wanted a down payment for a new car or needed extra cash for some electronic gadget. He hardly saw them anymore.
Keoni stared at where there once was a bamboo grove.
His father gauges a few bamboo poles with his hands until he finds just the one he wants. He slices the bamboo into strips, soaks the strips in warm water, bends them to make a diamond form and ties them together with thread. He carefully lays the bamboo on newspaper to cut the newspaper to the shape of the diamond, and using mashed cooked rice, he pastes the bamboo onto the paper. He finishes by tying a long string to the narrow end of the diamond and pastes on bows made from travel ads to complete the tail.
“Come, Keoni,” he says. “We go fly your kite.”
“That’s a kite?” It’s too homemade for a boy from Kapoho. It looks nothing like the one he saw in the Sears catalog. Oh, but how that kite flies! He can feel the strong pull of the kite in the wind as he runs with it, soaring above the mango trees. Kites, birds, airplanes, they always capture Keoni’s imagination. He imagines himself as a passenger on an airplane, watching his tiny island grow smaller and smaller through the window.
Keoni’s mouth began to water as he ran his tongue over his lips. He spent so many years learning to hate rice. Exhausted, he tried to stop these thoughts, but like his stock market deals, he couldn’t close them off.
“I want a horse like Trigga.” That nagging whine turned his thoughts to one particular Christmas morning.
He is the first to go to the Christmas tree, a pine tree covered with paper chains and bells made from last year’s Christmas wrap. On the top, a star, covered with gold wrapping paper. He finds a present under the tree with his name on it. It’s wrapped in the comic section of the newspaper. He tears the wrapping off and finds a hobby horse inside, carved from koa wood. Keoni looks at his father. “I wanted a real horse,” he says, and he leaves the hobby horse under the tree after all the presents are opened.
“Damn,” Keoni thought, kicking his foot into the ground. “Where is that horse? It must be in the crate of belongings Mom gave me after Dad died.” His father’s toolbag with his old chisel was there. Keoni had put it into storage, intending to deal with it later.
Keoni wrapped his arms around himself as if he were cold. “Damn, these memories.”
Keoni observes his father from the doorway. His father has his head down, working next to a dimly lit kerosene lamp. Keoni wants to say something, but he knows he shouldn’t bother his father. He watches his father’s hands, cracked and callused like old leather, chisel away at a piece of wood. His father lays the chisel and mallet on the workbench and grabs a sheet of sandpaper. Keoni walks over to the workbench and picks up the chisel. The burnished handle is still warm from his father’s grip. He feels the balance of the old chisel in his hand. Keoni senses his father looking over at him. Keoni waits, but his father says nothing. Keoni lays the chisel back on the workbench and walks away.
Keoni’s eyes moistened. He thought of his own children, John and Jenni. “What memories do they have of me? I give them everything they want. But everything I give comes from credit cards.” He didn’t like the thought, but it was too late to undo the past.
On his way to his car, he paused to take one last look at where the old house had once stood, next to the tree with his carved name. He bent over and scooped up a handful of dirt and pressed it to his mouth. He brushed off his pants, and with the taste of Kapoho still on his lips, he slowly drove out. He would not be returning again. Above the sound of tires rumbling over the loose rocks, he heard a boy’s voice, “I’m out of here, Kapoho, and you can kiss my ass!” He looked in the rear-view mirror and saw a young Keoni giving the finger to his village. Keoni pressed a little harder on the accelerator and drove off.
“Look at this, Jenni.” John held up a bunch of tattered notebooks and flipped through the pages. “I didn’t know he wrote poems.”
“I think he wanted to be a writer,” Jenni replied. “He mentioned it once when I was working on a poetry assignment in high school. It sounded like some dream he had when he was a kid. He said something about giving it up for a dollar.”
“Glad he did. You can’t eat poetry.” John pulled a folder out and leafed through it. “What’s this? This looks like the deed to the Kapoho property. I thought he sold that years ago.”
“I thought so, too. I know he went back there a couple of times.”
“Now here’s something strange. A chisel. Why would he keep this in his bank box? It’s just an old chisel.”
“Grandpa used to do a lot of woodcarving. Maybe it was his.”
“This is weird. Where’s the rest of his papers? He had lots of assets, but there’s nothing here. I can’t believe it, Jenni. We need to get in touch with his lawyer.”
“I’ll give her a call. What should we do with all this stuff? Dump it?”
“I’ll take the deed. Maybe we can find a sucker stupid and crazy enough to want a piece of Kapoho. Let’s leave the rest in the box for now. We can get rid of it later after the funeral.” They returned the items to the deposit box and left the bank.
No one really knew Keoni very well, but a lot of people knew him. They all came to his funeral and did their best to give him an aloha send-off, haole style. After the last person left, the funeral director walked to the casket to close it. He stood there puzzled for a moment. He saw a bunch of notebooks on the deceased’s chest and in his hands, an old carpenter’s chisel. He slowly put the lid down.
Frances Kakugawa is the author of “Kapoho: Memoir of a Modern Ponpeii,” which was published in 2011 by Watermark Publishing. Kakugawa was born and raised in Kapoho in the Puna District of Hawai‘i island. Her family was forced to relocate to Pähoa after the 1960 eruption of Kïlauea Volcano overran their home. Kakugawa also pens the Herald’s monthly “Dear Frances” column on memory-related illnesses and caregiving. She has authored numerous books on caregiving and poetry writing for caregivers, all of which have been published by Watermark Publishing.