(2016 Ian MacMillan Awards, Fiction Finalist)
Herb drives a 17-year-old white Chevy van. The vehicle he owned before this one was also an old white van, and he’d liked it—the first one—though a friend used to call it Herb’s Rape-Mobile. Herb actually got his first van in Ohio because of the Chevy Van song of the 1970s.
Now he cruises different areas of O`ahu, looking for other people’s leavings. Chairs with foundations good enough to reupholster; tables that just need a good sanding and Varathane or paint; chest of drawers or vanities with missing handles. Herb stops at curbside and loads the findables-fundables, as he calls them, into the van, which had never been pristine since he’d purchased it for $3000 two years ago. He’d worked to fix the engine, the carburetor, the decaying radiator, among other repairs. He bought reconditioned tires that now need replacing, but he waits until he knows he can wait no longer. He understands an object’s need—a need for someone to make things right.
Herb lives with his girlfriend, Gail, in the one-bedroom cottage in the rear of Gail’s parents’ place. Gail’s 19-year-old daughter, Cathy, lives with them. Gail is a designer of clothing, one-of-a-kind creations. Gail is 34.
Every day, Herb makes his rounds finding salvageable items and hauls them back to the workshop spilling out of the garage of the cottage. He screws. He hammers. He measures. Piles of potential surround Herb, and he is a busy man, though his income barely pays for their food and other necessities—though neither Herb nor Gail pays any rent. Gail’s parents are relieved that Gail has found a kind man, though he is a haole from the Mainland.
Gail has not had good luck with men—before Herb. Bad boys had been her usual choices. But she is proud that Cathy attends Kapi`olani Community College, tTo become a computer geek, as Herb puts it. Cathy brings home computer components and other electronics that Herb won’t touch. Herb freely admits that computer technology is beyond him. He’s content with his Chevy and findables-fundables and other doodads.
Herb drives the H-3 heading for Kane`ohe, sees something, pulls carefully onto the right shoulder, backs up slowly. There. A dead black and white cat—road-kill. Herb grabs his flat-bladed shovel and scrapes the carcass off the asphalt. It must have been hit recently because the torso isn’t smashed flat. He pitches it into a garbage bag and tosses it onto a couch in the van’s bed. Hurries back into the driver’s seat. Cars whiz by. He sweats freely.
Funny, but Herb has collected several cat cadavers along this same stretch of the H-3 on the way to Kane`ohe. Way up high on the pylons. He wonders, as he drives on, if someone or some people—say, a group of mean kids—were trapping them and releasing them on the highway. The hapless animals would have no choice but to run along the road, where people routinely drive 65 miles per hour or more.
Oh well, their loss, his gain. He himself would never kill an animal—except for insects, fishing, or the occasional chicken. But he skins the dead cats and Gail fashions the pelts into beautifully wearable pieces of art. She’s a brilliant artist, Herb thinks. Proudly. Lovingly. Gratefully.
Herb is 56—a generation older than Gail. He is mystified about what she sees in him.
Gail’s business is called, “Making Things Beautiful,” and that is what she does. She buys up old kimono, cheong sam, and vintage aloha shirts, takes them apart carefully, and constructs clothing. The animal fur that Herb brings to her she fashions into vests, or trim. Hats, handbags, cuffs, stoles.
Their cottage has few items new-bought. Even their toilet plunger is second-hand.
Herb’s special pride is the bookcase crammed with clocks, pocket watches, and wristwatches, all stopped at different times. Herb held a job at the Sears Watch Repair Shop at Ala Moana Center for four years, until the store closed.
Gail’s birthday, September 30th, was coming up, and Herb had found a wristwatch at Goodwill with red-faceted glass stones inlaid on a black leather wristlet. Herb kept the jeweled watch in his van. Gail was not a snoop; she was too busy to look for trouble. It was part of why he appreciated her. “I’m so lucky to have a hot, young chick like you, Baby,” he’d say, his eyes on Gail, away from Cathy. “You turn me on.”
Sleeping next to Gail, Herb sometimes dreams about screwing around with a teenaged body and the face would always end up being Cathy’s—no matter how differently the dreams started—her sullen face pulled into a mask of arousal, caterwauling as she came.
He drives to the Chings’ house-lot in Kahalu`u. It’s getting dark and he needs to skin the carcass and go about preserving the pelt. Herb parks in the side yard and maneuvers the couch from the van, leaving it, with its raveled cushion cover, out, trusting that it won’t rain. The darkening sky is completely clear of clouds—unusual for this part of the island.
He gathers the garbage bag and calls out, “Hi, Hon,” as he enters the garage.
“Hi, Sweetie.” Gail came out and saunters up, laying a kiss on him.
They enter the cottage. The TV is on. A woman with layered blond hair says, “Research has shown that a way to watch for a potential serial killer is violence against animals—like dogs and cats. This behavior can escalate to violence against human beings—especially, but not limited to, girls and women. Some serial killers, including Jeffrey Dahmer and ‘Son of Sam’ David Berkowitz abused animals when they were young.”
A man with thick, curly hair says, “Would that apply to anyone who’d, say, put a magnifying glass with sunlight on ants?”
“That is a form of animal torture—” “
“Or pulling the wings off flies and legs—”“ Gail clicks the remote and the TV goes dead.
A sound from the garage: the stray cat Gail has been feeding, mewling at the window. “We should put up her picture around the shopping center. She’s getting to be expensive.”
“I’ll do that later. Right now—”“ He indicates the bag in his hand.
“Another one! Poor thing, yeah? What color is it?—Don’t show me! I don’t want to see it.”
He tells her, and then goes back out to the space near his van, to skin the animal. The pelt is a little piecey, but usable, and Herb takes his time preparing it, scraping, stretching, hanging it out to dry. The skinless carcass he returns to the garbage bagback and places in the trash. He washes his hands thoroughly in the kitchen sink.
“Sorry I didn’t make dinner. I got all involved in making…this!” She holds a dark red bodysuit over her curvy figure. It’s low in front and thigh high from below. The neckline and hem are trimmed in black fur.
“It’s gorgeous,” Herb says. “You wanna try it on for me?”
“It won’t fit. I made it for Matt-Ann.” Cathy’s best friend. “For the bowling ball she gave her. She’s bigger than me.”
“You’d look sexy in it—and out of it.” He makes a grab for her and she shrieks and laughs, fending him off. “Okay, okay,” Herb says. “I’ll make dinner for you, okay?”
As he chops onions and minces garlic for spaghetti sauce, Gail tells him about the coffee date she had with Janet Oki, a neighbor. “She took her nephews to the beach and they saw a sea urchin. The boys got sticks and were poking at it. Janet said that’s what civilizing is all about, when you’re bringing up boys—teaching them not to poke things.”
“But how can they know what something will do unless they poke it? In other words, how do you find out what’s going to happen unless you do something?”
“That’s not the half of it. If boys weren’t curious, there’d be no civilization!” Gail said. “It’s the awareness that something might happen, and the move to make that something happen that’s driven human potential. In science, in art. Leonardo da Vinci never finished a painting. As soon as he solved the problem of the work, he lost interest and moved on.”
“I’m just an ordinary guy,” Herb says, stirring in the canned tomatoes. “Most boys are ordinary. Leonardo—”
“But you can fix engines and clocks. You can make things run.”
“But your thinking runs circles around me, Baby,” he says, reaching down to hug her with one arm, stirring with the other.
“Wait. What time is it?”
He looks at his watch. Six. “Time for your meds.”
Gail takes a glass of water into the bedroom, then reappears.
“What’s the matter?”
“Cathy’s not home yet. She was supposed to be back about four, after her last class. We were going to the bowling alley. And she’s not answering her phone.”
“Maybe she got hung up someplace and turned it off.”
“Where would she get hung up? I know she’s been getting more and more irresponsible, but—she wanted to try out the bowling ball that Matt-Ann gave her.”
“Did you call Matt-Ann?”
“She hasn’t seen her. And it’s dark already. I don’t like this.”
Into the night, Gail frets about Cathy, phoning her every half hour. “Don’t you think we should call the police?” she says for the third or fourth time, as she dials. “Her voice-mail is full.” Gail weeps. “I’m really worried.”
Herb’s brow furrows and he puts his lanky arm around her shoulders. She is only chest-high to him. “Maybe we should,” he finally says. He calls.
“No. It’s just that this never happened before,” Herb says to the policeman.
“If there’s no evidence of something wrong, you can file a missing person’s report twenty-four hours after she went missing. She’s probably with a friend. Does she have a boyfriend?”
“Well.” Herb considers. “She has friends who are boys. But no boyfriend.” He looks at Gail, his eyebrows raised. She shakes her head.
“She’ll probably be home in the early morning. After midnight. You know how kids are.”
Herb rings off. He hugs Gail, who’d stopped crying. “Honolulu’s finest,” she says. He squeezes her again. She puts her arms around Herb’s neck, tiptoeing to kiss him.
“Do you want me to go out and look for her?”
“We could go together. If you don’t mind eating later.”
They get into the van, back out onto the road, listening to light jazz. They spend two hours driving to KCC, cruising around Kaimuki, Kapahulu, Waikiki, going around the loop of Palolo, and driving back to Kahalu`u.
Gail goes to bed, shedding her clothes when they return home, and Herb boils some spaghetti, warms up the sauce, and eats alone.
When he goes to bed, she is still, her arm over her eyes. He moves the thick book next to her from the library—Honor Killing, about the infamous Massie Affair. He lies down and pulls up the covers and sighs. She doesn’t move, as if dead. He drops into sleep like falling into a well that echoes with the barking of dogs and screaming of cats.
Herb awakens at 5 a.m.; he always gets up at that time. He’d been dreaming about getting it on with Gail, who lies quietly snoring at his side, but Gail was a teenager with Cathy’s passion-contorted face. Youth is Beauty; Beauty, Youth, someone whispers in his ear. He’s sweating. He groans and heaves himself out of bed. Gail turns onto her side, but does not awaken; hers is a heavy, drug-induced sleep.
Scrambling his two eggs, Herb eats them on toast with guava jelly. Somehow, the brown-striped stray had gotten into the cottage; she lies in his chair. This irritates him, but he takes the opportunity to photograph her with his phone as he eats his toast. He e-mails the image to himself. She’s cute against the red leather, he thinks. Gail won’t be up for another couple of hours. He constructs a bologna sandwich and puts some won bok kim chee into a plastic container. He showers, dresses in tee-shirt and shorts, pulls on his socks and shoes, and kisses the sleeping Gail. He goes into the garage area, after he picks up the cat, carries her out of the cottage, and drops her on the ground. He feeds her some Purina Cat Chow and fills the other bowl with clean water. Then, after checking the pelt, he moves the couch into the crowded, covered garage.
He turns on the radio as he pulls out, and the local news is on. Something the governor said; something the president did; something about the Senate Majority Whip. More blah blah blah as he drives over the Pali, the mountains huge and fresh. He gets onto King Street and takes it to the end heading Diamond Head, then goes up Wai`alae Avenue over to KCC, scanning the sidewalks, the shops, the coffeehouses. He sees a group of five boys hanging out in front of Coffee Talk, and turns his head to look them over. He turns onto Koko Head Avenue and gets to KCC, cruising the parking lots, the sky lightening. Only stray cats and early morning walkers. He switches to a talk radio station.
“How can we prevent young girls from falling victim to gang-rapists?” the host booms. “We are talking about the alleged kidnapping and gang-rape of a 19-year-old University of Hawai`i student. Hello. You are on the air with Morning Brewster.”
A man says, “The way young girls dress. Whoa, they jus’ asking for trouble. Short-shorts, their butts hanging out, low-cut tops—”
“Thank you for your opinion. Hello. You’re on the air.”
Another man says, “About that last caller. Remember that somebody, some official, described Dana Ireland as a pretty girl in shorts? People have the right to wear whatever they want. Nobody should have to be afraid of getting attacked.”
“Thank you for your comments, sir. To remind our listeners: Dana Ireland was a young woman from the Mainland who was deliberately hit by a car and brutally assaulted by local men on the Big Island. And left to die. This incident happened in…1991. On Christmas Eve. Hello, this is Brewster.”
A man says, “Hi, Brewster. My question is: What was Dana Ireland doing riding a bike in the Puna District by herself? It’s like the wild, wild West out there.”
“Thank you for your call. Hello. You are on the air.”
A woman says, “Those boys were just trying to have some fun.” She speaks sarcastically. “I mean it. They probably had fun doing that. What kind of animal thinks it’s fun to attack a young girl? I mean, some guys think so. Obviously. Or they wouldn’t do it. Right?”
“Thank you, ma’am, for your comments. So folks, lively discussion! And the question is: How can we protect girls from sexual predators? Hello. You’re on the air with Morning Brewster.”
A woman says, “I think you’re asking the wrong question. The question should be: How can we prevent boys and men from raping young girls? And women? That’s the real question.”
Herb snaps off the radio.
He remembers being fifteen, in an avocado-colored Impala with five other boys, none older than nineteen, cruising the streets of Cincinnati during a hot, steamy summer night. The driver, Ron, stopped and three of the boys got out and tried to pull a lone girl into the car. She screamed, kicked, and clawed. A group of young women came out of the Ice Palace.
“Come on!” Ron said. “Let’s go!”
One of the boys pushed the lone girl—hard—and then she was on the sidewalk. “Fucking bitch!” the boy said.
“Hey!” one of the other girls yelled.
The boys jumped back into the car and they sped away. Herb was shaking, leaning forward—he was scared stiff, and didn’t want the other boys to see—and the Impala held a charged silence. Then, “shit,” Ron said, turning left onto Main Street. “Do you think those bitches saw us?”
“Naw,” one of the boys said, the one who had pushed the girl down. “No way.”
Herb knew that no matter how wild hormones made him feel, this was not where he belonged. Still, he concealed the shaking of his hands from his fellow would-be predators. It would be decades before he realized that it was nothing more than dumb luck that had kept him from unrewindable horror. But he had wanted so desperately to get laid that he probably would have gone along—even with the big ideas of Ron-the-Jerk-Off—if the conditions had been less jungle-y.
He’d heard about a drug you could slip into a girl’s drink—but how would he, a guy with no looks or moves, even get close enough for a killer move like that? He could justify the sex part—just look at the way girls dressed—everybody wanted the sex part. But rough stuff—violence for thrills—had never been part of his game, and he decided then that it wasn’t going to be.
They drove around in tense silence for a while. Then the boys headed back towards the central district. They cruised off onto a side street, and then Ron pulled up to a woman in a short skirt and platform shoes, beeping his horn. He shouted at the woman, trying to negotiate, but she said, “What d’you think I am, anyway? A mercy fuck? Get outa here!”
“Old cunt!” Ron shouted. They roared off.
Herb wasn’t a believer—he wasn’t even a Bengals fan! –but he gave thanks for something saving him from the earlier disaster that night, relief coursing through his veins. Within a few years Cincinnati, armpit of Kentucky, became where he was from. If he bothered to mention it at all.
Herb turns on the radio, pushing buttons until he gets an easy listening music station. He takes the H-1 going in the `Ewa direction and takes the H-3 to Kane`ohe. By the light of the morning sun, he looks at the fading color photograph on his visor of Gail at sixteen, her brown legs dark against her white short-shorts. He looks at the road ahead, ready for anything.
Angela Nishimoto grew up on the windward side of O`ahu, teaches on the leeward side, and lives in Honolulu with her husband. She holds a master-of-science degree in botanical science from the University of Hawai`i at Manoa. Her stories have been published in Hawai`i Review, Hawai`i Pacific Review, Bamboo Ridge, Kaimana, Chaminade Literary Review, Writing Raw, Pen-Pricks, and in other places.