These are the last minutes of Charlie Kaleohano’s life.
Many times he has wondered what would happen to him, where he would be, how old, how ready. Would it be cancer, like his uncle? Would it be in a car crash, like his mother and father? And now he knows. Funny how, of all the possible scenarios he had contemplated all those times lying in the dark with liquor humming in his bloodstream, he never imagined this one.
Outside his taxi it is raining hard. Each tiny raindrop on the windshield refracts the red brake lights of the cars in front of him, and to his overexcited imagination they look like blood. They roll down the glass and then drop away into the rest of the storm and are gone. The metal seams on the Nimitz Overpass thump under his wheels like a slow heartbeat. He feels hyperfocused, aware of even the blood in his own skin.
The people in the cars around him are tiny fragile things in hard shells, vulnerable and frail. He takes glances at them when he can peel his gaze away for a moment from the bumper of the car in front of him. A heavy, young woman holding a cigarette out her window. An elderly Chinese man in a pickup. A disinterested teenager gazing at him from the back seat side of a van. All these people are going to die.
Maybe even because of him.
He can’t stand the thought and forces his eyes to the shiny bumper of the car beside him. It is a hatchback, pretty old but in decent shape, with a faded bumper sticker that reads, “Seung for Governor – The Future is Bright!” Charlie keeps his eyes on the sticker and creeps forward when it does.
The rain is not making his task any easier. Now he’s running late.
His hands hold tight to the steering wheel as if clutching prison bars. The taximeter on the dashboard squeaks in its weak mounting. At the moment it is turned off, as is his sign. For the first time in months, he is driving his taxi somewhere without any thought of a pick-up. The radio sits silent on the center console. The seats seem empty and terrible. No drunks feeling up their dates, no chatty tourists from the midwest, no locals getting off work at a hotel and commiserating with him from the passenger seat. Instead there is a sterile silence.Charlie is surrounded by ghosts.
Or maybe he is the ghost. A dislocated spirit, lifeless for many years but with nowhere to go.
Up ahead, the cars squeeze together, a clogged artery. The car bumps over another seam in the bridge and Charlie winces. It’s okay, no sweat. It will be fine, brah.
Only he knows it won’t be fine.
“What, you no like face the truth now, you dumb moke?” he whispers, his voice muffled by the downpour. “You wanna pretend you aren’t carrying what you have in your trunk? You wanted to be the one dat got the ball rolling. What you going do now? Turn around? Go back to Keoki and Lilinoe and the others and say you no mo’ get da balls fo’ dis?”
Charlie is in the thick of the squall, now, and the cars ahead nearly disappear into a roaring downpour. His windshield wipers working double-time, he leans forward over the wheel and squints into the whitewashed highway.
Above him, he hears the thunder of a jet liner taking off from the airport, lost in the white cloud. Charlie imagines the tourists inside it and feels an old familiar sourness. How could he have seen the things he had seen, the people in his life cut down by alcohol and drugs and violence, and have no anger? How could so many descendants of the ones who called this land home now be forced to make their homes of flapping blue tarps and bits of planking on the beaches of Wai`anae? Or dwell in hardship, huddled in the hothouse rooms of projects in Pälolo, Kalihi, Waimänalo?
Something had to be done, and blood had to be spilled to accomplish it. Keoki always said this `aina had soaked up its share of blood, and it would need more before it could be free. Didn’t matter if it was kanaka blood, or haole blood, or Japanese blood. This land would have to soak it all up until it could soak no more, until it became rich and red and could once more support a nation of our people.
I’d die for this land, he had once told Keoki. What else did he have to live for? Nothing. Years of scratching out a minimal existence in the armpits of this city had shown him that. According to Keoki, Charlie was destined for something great, something that would alter the course of these islands. Keoki had been right, as he always was. This was going to be Charlie’s day, the day that the islands soaked up enough blood that the long, sad decline of his people could finally end and freedom could spring up out of the ground like sprouting seeds. That’s how Keoki had put it, and Charlie thought of those words now. Sprouting seeds.
The rain continues to pelt his car, a tropical downpour that sends sheets of water down his windows. His windshield wipers struggle against the volume of water. This is not good. Not good at all.
A series of digital chimes suddenly ring from somewhere in the car, causing him to jump in his seat. His phone. With one hand on the wheel he digs it out of his jeans pocket. The glowing panel reads, “K Fukushima.” Keoki.
He needs more time!
The car impacts violently, pitching Charlie forward into his seat belt. The phone leaps from his hand and bounces off the dashboard. The shock of the sudden jolt sends a wave of acid adrenalin through his body.
Once the car rolls to a stop, he looks up to see the back end of a black Acura just in front of his bumper, its fender and trunk crumpled slightly and one tail light shattered.
“No! No-no-no-no,” he screeches. “Not now! Not now!” The phone continues to ring where it has fallen onto the floor under his feet. He bends over to reach it but the seatbelt locks up and holds him fast against the seat.
Under the hiss of rain, he can hear tires squealing behind him. He clenches his teeth and presses against the back of his seat, bracing for his death but it never comes.
A figure appears in the rain in front of Charlie: the owner from the car. The man bends over and holds a map over his head against the downpour, making his way back toward Charlie. This is the worst thing he can imagine, and he is sure now that God has done this to him for punishment.
The phone continues to ring. Keoki would be nervous, and getting more so every second. Charlie unslings his seat belt, reaches down for the phone and presses the OFF button. Keoki can wait. In fact, Charlie thinks, no need for Keoki to ever know about this.
There is a knock at his window. He hits the power down button and the window hums open a crack. Water instantly sprays into his face.
“What the hell’s the matter with you?” The man outside the window is yelling. It is a haole. Of course.
“I think so. One sec,” Charlie says, too rattled to respond correctly. He steps out into the rain and is instantly drenched.
“I guess you didn’t see my fucking brake lights,” the man is saying, walking slowly to the front of Charlie’s car to inspect the damage. He wears a silk aloha shirt and khakis like a business man. The man appears to be in his late thirties, dark hair, a slight five o`clock shadow, and a little bit of extra chubbiness, probably the only thing they have in common. The man’s closely-trimmed hair is still mostly dry under the layers of map paper, unlike Charlie’s mop, which in the rain is now pressed against his ears and sides of his neck.
The man continues, “Thought for sure you’d be able to see. God knows you’ve been on my ass this whole fucking time. Shit. Look at this.”
Charlie closes his car door and stands near the man. The damage doesn’t look bad – just some dents. A little wrinkled metal, a few dings, a couple jagged edges. Nothing to worry about at all.
Charlie makes himself speak. “No problem, brah. I get insurance. I’ll give you my name and we can go.”
“Go?” The man says, looking at him. “You empty in the head? The police are going to have to take a report of this.”
Charlie nods, numbly, his heart suddenly threatening to stop beating. The police!
The man rubs his shoulders with one hand. “I’m fine, though the last time something like this happened my fucking neck hurt for weeks. I can’t say for my wife, though.” The man gestures with a well-manicured hand toward the car. Through the rain-soaked window Charlie can see the silhouette of a woman craning around to look back at them.
“This isn’t so bad, brah,” Charlie says, “No need for get da police come driving all da way out here. In dis rain.” He gestures back to the cars behind him, which are starting to pull around slowly, inching past the accident. “No can get t’rough, anyway.”
“Uh, hello?” the man says, squinting at Charlie. “For something like this, you always call the police.”
Charlie shifts from one foot to the next, nervously looking behind him as if the cops might be already showing up.
“Besides,” the man is saying. “My wife is on the phone with them already, so it’s too late. But there’s no need to stand out here in this rain like fucking morons. Let me get your name and address, and then we can get back in our cars where it’s dry.”
He has to get out of this somehow. Think! He could picture a police officer popping open his trunk and staring in, his eyes slowly widening behind his police-issue shades. What would Charlie do then? Run away? Leap over the side of the overpass? It was fifty feet down or more, and even if he managed to not break his legs in the escape attempt, he would have to deal with airport security on one side and the Military Police from Camp Catlin on the other. There was nothing he could do. Trapped!
“Yeah, okay,” he says mechanically, and the man walks back to his car. Charlie comes back to his car door to open it, to at least get out of this rain long enough to think. He tugs ineffectually at the handle for a couple of times before realizing it is locked. It takes a moment for that to sink in, and he feels his heart seize up again, more than before, a tightening in his chest beginning to grow. When did he lock the door?
He looks over his car at the high railing of the overpass. It would be so easy to just climb it, drop over the other side, and land in such a way that he would never survive. Let Keoki wonder what happened to him. No, he has to get back in the car. The engine is still running, light wifts of steam rising through the beam of his shattered headlights.
“I got a pen,” the man shouts, walking quickly toward him. “Let’s exchange our information.” The man has a slip of paper; he tears it in half and bends over to use his thigh to write. “What’s your name?”
Charlie looks around again as he speaks. “Eddie Aikau.”
“How do you spell that?”
The man focuses on writing for a moment, trying to shield the paper from the rain. Charlie’s phone continues to ring.
Charlie opens his mouth to give his real number, the one to his place in Waipahu, but he suddenly thinks better of it. With what he is about to do, why he is driving down to Waikïkï, what is in his trunk – he can’t give his address. It has to be someone else’s. They could trace him. He casts about desperately, realizing he is taking too long and that a delay might look suspicious. Hastily, he gives the address of a Star Market in Kalihi, the only address he can remember from a recent passenger drop.
The man writes down the number, then writes his own. Ripping the paper in half, he hands his half to Charlie. “Here.”
Charlie takes the slip of paper and stares at it. Jeff Rowland. Kahala. The man would soon be comfortably back in his rich house in his rich neighborhood, and Charlie would be dead.
“Okay,” Charlie says. “You mind if I get back in da car? Da rain stay heavy.”
The man nods. “The police should be here shortly. Hopefully this shit will clear up a little.”
Once Jeff is back in his car, Charlie turns to his door and helplessly tugs at the handle a couple more times. Still locked. As if it would unlock itself. He would have to do something, break a window maybe. He can’t just stand there. Cars creep by him, the people inside the water-soaked windows peering out at him. One taps his horn in a little honk, perhaps exasperation at having a lane effectively shut down, the traffic forced to bottleneck around Charlie’s cab.
Waving his arms over his head, he steps slowly out in front of the next car, an orange hatchback, and when it stops, he walks around the front to knock on the driver’s window. A balding white man in a suit looks out at him.
“Eh, brah, you get one tire iron I can borrow?” Charlie asks.
“Looks like you could use more than a tire iron. You need a body shop.”
“Nah. I wen lock my keys in my car. I need something fo’ break da glass.”
The man pops his trunk and gets out. “Here,” the man says, taking an L-shaped tire iron from the trunk. “This do?”
“Sure.” Charlie takes it and returns to his car. With one arm up for protection, he swings for a rear side window, one of the small ones behind the door. With a popping noise it shatters, dissolving into tiny cubes of glass that sprinkle all over the back seat and floor. Charlie clears out the shards remaining in the window frame and reaches in for the door lock, only to find it already up. Unlocked.
Trying to cover up his embarrassment, Charlie comes back over to hand the tire iron back. “Tanks, eh.”
“No problem. They need an emergency lane on this thing. Bad planning.” Continuing the grumble, the bald man climbs back in his car and drives away. The cars behind him begin to move again.
It is time to go.
Charlie gets back in his car and punches the gas, veering into traffic. In moments the black Acura vanishes into the downpour.
Nearly hyperventilating, Charlie keeps his eyes on the taillights in front of him this time, keeping at a constant pace. He risks rapid glances in the rear-view mirror, to see if that Jeff fellow is following him. So far, so good.
“Don’t follow me, don’t follow me,” he says out loud, gripping the wheel. “You wanna stay and talk to da cops, go ahead.”
The rain was thick as ever, thicker than Charlie swore he had ever seen it, as if the gods of the mountains, or even Ku himself, had pulled together their finest performance simply to thwart him. Maybe he wasn’t supposed to do this. Was it a message? He could almost believe it, the timing was so perfect.
And then, almost as quickly as it had come on, Charlie drives out of the bank of hard rain into a light mist, and then in moments he is out of it all, the sun dancing along the edge of a huge cloud overhead. The rays are bright in his face, noticeably warm, and every raindrop on his windshield refracts into hundreds of tiny prisms.
Maybe it is a message after all.
He leaves H1 when he passes downtown Honolulu and Punchbowl, then makes his way down the packed streets of Kaka`akö toward Waikïkï. When he finally crosses the Ala Wai canal, he finds himself biting his fingernails. His mind is becoming crowded with thoughts, dense like the streets around him, and he can’t focus on just one. It was shaping up to be a nice afternoon, the sun returning to the city. On many days just like this one, he had cruised the streets of Waikïkï looking for tourists to flag him down, or nodded off while parked at a taxi stand at any number of the big hotels down there. During those times he had always felt trapped in his car, even though he always thought driving a cab would make him free and mobile. He was, instead, sealed in a prison from which he had to serve. It had seemed like a type of coffin. The money had never been good, and he had to spend all day and into the night working the radio and the taxi stands just to make enough to break even. Now, with a dark light and quiet radio, passing the waving tourists and leaving them to walk the streets, he finally feels free.
Charlie pictures all the tourists gradually coming out of shops or restaurants, where they had sheltered during the afternoon rain showers, returning to repopulate the beach. He finds himself hoping this to be true, that the hotel will be nearly empty, even though this is far from the plan.
From here, he can see his target: the Hammond Royal Waverider. It stands taller than all the other densely-packed highrise hotels in Waikïkï. It is a monument to modern design, a great tower of green glass standing a full fifteen stories higher than the twin Hyatt towers blocks away. The bottom hosts a multi-floor open mall facing a central atrium and a four-story waterfall. On weekend nights during the high tourist season, this waterfall and the surrounding pool are the stage for an elaborate hula and cliff-diving show. The entire place is vulgar and ostentatious. A scar on the landscape. And soon it will be gone.
“We need someone who doesn’t look out of place,” Keoki said to him one evening, pulling him aside. “Someone who can get right up to the hotel without drawing a lot of attention. With your taxi, you could do the job better than any of us.”
Charlie nodded in agreement. They sat under the mango tree outside Keoki’s house in Salt Lake, and the late afternoon sun cast their shadows across the rough lawn. Charlie looked around at the cast-off mangoes, which had been pitted and eaten by birds.
“It’s a lot to ask, but I think you’re right, Charlie. Do you think you can do it? Do you want to do it?”
“I want to,” Charlie replied, and believed he meant it. What more was there left for him here? Keoki had talked so much about the ancestors and the ali`i and sovereignty, and Charlie believed in all those things, but something within him always knew he wouldn’t live to see a free Hawai`i.
At the time, Charlie had only been with The Warriors of Freedom for about three months. He hadn’t done much but come to a few of their meetings, and spend a week at a “training camp” in the hills near Nänäkuli. He felt too new, like he was still in something of an evaluative phase, but he liked the message and their methods were beginning to sound even more appealing. The local news called them agitators and terrorists, but as Keoki had explained, what one man calls terrorists another calls freedom fighters. And that’s what they were fighting for, he said. Freedom. It was the only way to push back, because they were losing the `aina by playing nice.
The night after his first meeting, Charlie had walked home to his apartment in Waipahu with an odd feeling, a sense that he had found some people who finally expressed some of the same outrage he felt in the same way he felt it. The Warriors filled a hollow place within him that religion, liquor, and parties had never been able to. For that, he was honored to be offered the chance to make a real sacrifice for the cause. Proudly, he knew that nobody else had the courage to take such a step, not even the oldest members of Na Pu`ali no Kü`oku`a, as Keoki often called them, preferring the Hawaiian translation. Not Chan, not Mark, not Kanoe.
But – and Charlie could never admit this – from time to time when he thought about it, about the sudden blast, of his body incinerating, of the horrible nothing of death, he felt a sweaty, rising panic in his skin. That same feeling is back, now, as he tries to focus on the converging lanes of Kapi`olani boulevard, the tour buses and cabs and rental cars pushing in on all sides. If he had been nervous then, he was near panic now.
With the Waverider standing tall overhead, the last hours becoming the last few minutes, he suddenly feels overwhelmed, like he needs to park and try to think about all this clearly again. Start over from the top. Reevaluate the feasibility and necessity of this. No time, though! He glances at the clock on the dashboard: 3:23 p.m. He is already nearly fifteen minutes behind schedule, thanks to that fender-bender. He wonders if, once 3:30 comes around and there is nothing on the police scanner, Keoki will remote detonate the thing himself. He has the number. All it would take is a call.
Trying not to think of the taxi rupturing in a sheet of flame with him still strapped in it, Charlie turns the sunshade to block out his sight of the Windrider.
The streets of Waikïkï are crowded. A taxi in front of him blocks the lane he needs, pedestrians casually stroll out into the street, long red lights seem to conspire against his clock. All around him, Japanese girls in giggly groups, or elderly white tourists, or military men out of uniform wander without direction from shop to shop. Neon signs advertise in Japanese and English. Kuhio Avenue, the road Charlie creeps down, is a valley of the shadow of hotels. Each street is a box canyon. Every hotel or condo is a high cliff face, blocking out the sun even in the middle of the day. Great concrete or glass structures front the sidewalks, with lush, manicured vegetation hiding bus loading zones. Everywhere people walk in bathing suits or gaudy “Hawaiian” clothing they bought at the International Marketplace yesterday. Every block has the same stores, over and over, selling identical goods to identical tourists. He continues down several blocks of this, neck and neck with other cabs.
And then, he is there. The Waverider lifts out of the surrounding concrete undergrowth like a dormant volcano. Cars cluster around its base, taxis picking up or dropping off, tourists pausing in frozen confusion at the unfamiliar road signs, buses squatting on thoroughfares to wait on dawdling loaders. Flowers and jungle plants dangle from the balcony on the first tier, and electric signs advertise the stores just inside the building in the “Polynesian atrium.”
Everything is just as he remembered. This could be five years ago, three years ago, last week. Time seems immobile here. Nothing ever changes in Waikïkï. It’s always business as usual. Only the streets, steamy wet in patches from the recent rain, distinguish this moment from any other. Every tourist walking the gum-littered sidewalk could be the same tourist from last month. Each one could have been the ones who asked to be driven to the Arizona Memorial, `Iolani Palace, Hanauma Bay. The ones who spend the entire ride complaining about how many Japanese there were nowadays. The ones who who ask Charlie if he can speak English. The ones who stiff him for a fare after he tells them it is illegal to smoke in the cab.
Charlie pulls in behind two other taxis into a cab stand at the base of the hotel. It is busy, busier than he thought it was going to be. His heart is racing, and he feels like he might pass out right there behind the wheel. He should be anywhere else. He shouldn’t have volunteered for this. Kanoe should be the one behind the wheel, not him. Kanoe was an asshole. It would be good riddance.
But it was way too late. Charlie should have said something last week, as they all sat around in the garage behind Keoki’s warehouse and scraped the taxi number off his car. “You gotta stay incognito,” Keoki says, as Charlie had stood nearby, watching his car being stripped of identifying marks. “No one can know who you were.” Keoki had laid a hand on Charlie’s shoulder, as if somehow that would calm him, and said, “What you are about to do, bruddah, is to fire the first shot. The shot heard around the world, that’s what it will be. It’s going to be you. The one who starts it all. Pretty soon the world will hear the truth about what’s been going on in these islands and it will be you they have to thank, the one who lifted the veil from off the eyes of the world. Come on, come sit with me out back. Let me get you a beer.”
A black man and woman come through the hotel lobby and approach the car at the front of the cab stand. After a moment, they both climb in and it pulls away. Numbly, in an unthinking robotic move born of years of habit, Charlie dutifully nudges forward, now second in line.
This isn’t right, this isn’t how it is supposed to be. He can’t think. His body hurts, as though someone had replaced his blood with battery acid. Sweat dampens his shirt and neck, though his air conditioner is on.
He looks around rapidly, his breath becoming rapid. The concierge is eyeing him; did he suspect something? Those tourists rolling their luggage up the ramp are heading straight to the security guard. Did they know? Maybe they could see it in his face. It had to be written on his expression. His damaged fender, perhaps. He is parked in a suspicious way.
This is too much. Feeling his stomach tighten, the car crushing in around him, Charlie throws open the door and heaves wetly all over the concrete. As he sits up miserably and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, a haole valet steps curiously around the back of his cab.
“You all right bro?”
Charlie looks up at him miserably. “Sick,” he manages to say.
The valet calls out for a hose as Charlie steps out of the car. The door shuts behind him, keys still in the ignition. But he isn’t thinking about it any more. He strides away from the cab onto the sidewalk and is suddenly jogging, feet slapping at the pavement. All he can think about is putting distance between him and his cab.
Don’t let me die, he thinks.
He brushes past people crowding the walkways. One or two make rude comments but he doesn’t care. It strikes Charlie that he is surrounded by the dead. All of them, about to die, already dead and not yet aware of it, and he has to get away from them. At his back he can feel an invisible pressure, the anticipation of a blast, and the expectancy is a palpable sensation across his skin. It is after 3:30, and he has to get away if he wants to live. There is too much in life that he doesn’t know. He could start over, maybe move away. Nobody would know anything. Keoki would think he was dead. He could start over somewhere and make a new life and meet a woman and get married and have children and vacation in Las Vegas – no, he could live in Las Vegas where there were more jobs and you could get into your car and be in Los Angeles in a few hours and everything would be better. As he runs, crowds push past each other from left to right, right to left, pausing to watch a young black man drumming on plastic containers, taking photographs of the Moana. They are all dead.
A heavy shockwave punches Charlie in the back and sends him stumbling forward,and the sound of carnage comes close behind.
Read more in A Chant of Love and Lamentation, available now for Kindle or in paperback on Amazon.com