[Congratulations to Frank Reilly for his first-place written entry in our 2011 Creative Competition. Check back for the next 9 days, as we post other recognized entries.]
Jared Walker steps up to the return counter at Walmart. He's been there before, at different Walmart locations in too many different parts of the country to count. This time in Lihu’e, the County seat of the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
The return counter is where Jared picks up the cash when it's wired in. He never goes to those cash advance places like Pay Day, or anyplace else where it's brutally obvious what he's doing.
While he hadn't reached his father when he called, Jared left the same message for him that he had many times before, about the severity of his situation, his need for money and his expectation that it would arrive quickly so that he could get back on his feet again and establish himself in this new place.
Because there is always a new place. This is what sets Jared apart. He is an adventurer, he would tell you. Someone who is able to cast off the shackles of the connected world and go, without a laptop, without a cell phone (save the occasional call for cash on a borrowed line), without an X-box, an iPod, a Wii - no small feat for a twenty-year-old. He is busy living, he would tell you.
Jared is prepared when he steps up to the return counter. He is prepared to check on the wired funds in a voice low enough to be heard by the counter woman only. He is prepared to count the bills without ostentation, because who knows how many thieving eyes are on him?
What he isn't prepared for is what he gets.
"There must be some mistake,” Jared sputters to the slight Filipino woman behind the register who handed him the wilted bill. She smiles warmly and shrugs.
There has been no mistake.
Lani, a local girl, is three people behind Jared on the return line at the counter.
Lani is sixteen, but you wouldn't think that for seeing her. She has a shapely pair of muscular legs that can only be described as womanly. Her mother's legs, her increasingly nervous father has come to realize; the very thing that turned his head at nearly the same age. But there's something else that makes Lani seem older. Something about her composure. Something about her calmness. She is not disaffected, as teens often are. She is not bothered by or impatient with the line she waits in. There is too much to watch to be bored. In every person that passes her line of vision, too much to process, too much detail, too much subtlety to drink in all at once.
Her eyes are locked on the back of Jared's neck. The tattoo there doesn't surprise her. Tattoos are everywhere after all, so a single one rarely stands out. But this one does. Not because it presents a striking image, but because it offers an incomplete thought. In a florid script that begins just below Jared's shaggy hairline, are the words:
"My life is like a stroll upon the beach,"
...and the thought ends there, disrupted by the ragged collar of his plain black tee.
The comma that follows the word "beach" is what gets to Lani. That tiny mark implies that there is more to be said, that there is more to hear. But her thoughts are interrupted when Jared turns to look behind himself and she can see into his eyes, which are full of a watery fear that the ten dollar bill has dropped upon him.
Jared's legs carry him out of the Walmart and to a bus stop a few paces away from the front door. As the bus pulls up he is thankful that it does not resemble any other bus he's ever ridden. He decides that he will ride it to a beach that will not resemble any other beach he's ever been to. And there he will meet people unlike any of the others he has met before. And surely these people will understand him. And feed him.
Lani gets on the bus because she is headed home. There are a handful of other seats available, but Lani chooses to sit next to Jared, because Jared is different.
Lani's classmates don't understand her, nor have they ever really tried. As is the case with most sixteen-year-olds, their attention is focused inward. They are the raw and tender centers of their personal universes. But Lani's attention is focused out. She is content to be a satellite. She is happy to orbit those around her and revel silently in their diversity. Her contentment and her quiet are often mistaken as arrogance. Her selflessness is like a too-bright light in a too-dark room. And so, Lani is weird. Lani is strange. Lani is different.
The word "Aloha" opens a conversational door for Lani and Jared. She offers it as a matter of course, along with a wide smile. Jared grabs hold of it as a drowning man would a life preserver.
After a brief exchange about the lack of AC on the bus and the relative merits of flip flops vs. hiking sandals, Jared finds he is increasingly comforted by the warm glow of Lani's attention. He uses it to talk through his crisis, to vent thoughts to her that would be bouncing around his skull now, were he riding the bus alone.
He can't let go of the idea behind that damned ten dollar bill. The thought of it carries him back to his family's apartment, a duplex at the top of a doorman high-rise in Manhattan's financial district. He tells Lani about the expensive marble floors his father installed in the foyer there, practically on a whim.
Marble, he repeats, scoffing. Like in the suburban bank branch his father had managed before the family took to Wall Street: a cavernous space, with absurdly high ceilings and marble everywhere. Marble, he tells Lani, that was used to lend substance to a financial process that had become increasingly weightless.
Banks like those were long gone, Jared continues, but his father never abandoned his need to use the same theatrics in their home. Past the cold, marble floors are thick, steel sculptures on large, mahogany bureaus alongside deep, leather sofas. The thought of them all taunting him as his hand worries the lousy ten spot in his pocket.
Lani does her best to absorb Jared's description of this other world. But she doesn't ask him to explain what she can't understand. She notes, instead, the rise and fall of his anger, which runs alongside the constant hum of his fear.
And floating above his monologuing self, Jared is all too aware of his creeping sense of Lani as another pigeon, because his travels have been filled with them: attractive, wide-eyed girls waiting to be noticed, appreciated and seduced. He is able, however, to resist the urge to look down at Lani's brown, shapely legs.
When he finally gets to his plight - no money, no place to go, nothing, Lani reacts as she was taught to: with empathy. She had not spent her youth side-stepping homeless people, as Jared had every morning near the heavy glass doors of the Walker's building. She had not lived in a place where the high-flown idealism of a Sunday sermon was mocked by the venality of the world right outside the church doors. The teachings of Christ were applicable for Lani on Kauai, and Jared was giving her a chance to prove that.
She speaks, when the opportunity finally arises, of the coconut wireless, or at least of her youthful and idyllic interpretation of the phrase: A network of local connections that insures that those in need in her community are looked after.
When hurricane Iniki hit Kaua’i, a few years before Lani was born and years still before cell phones were everywhere, she was told that people who needed help were found quickly and attended to.
"People don't need to ask here", she says, "because word travels fast. And people are always ready to help."
And hearing that, Jared allows himself the luxury of a long, relaxed exhalation as the bus rolls on its way.
Lani's father, Kaikona, was younger than Jared when he started working at the resort. He made it through the first half-day of training for poolside services and thought he could coast through the afternoon when he was introduced to the ten-and-five rule.
On approaching a visitor, at ten feet away hotel staff should acknowledge the guest with eye contact. At five feet away, a greeting is required.
At first the rule didn't seem like much. It brought on some eye rolling and some head shaking from the other trainees. But that was it.
Beside the pool it became something different.
Kaikona found that when he did look up to meet the eyes of approaching guests, they were either staring at him expectantly, as if his congeniality was part of their vacation package, or deliberately looking away, as if they couldn't be bothered to be engaged by the help.
He over thought these tiny transactions and as weeks became months they began to exact a toll. His natural affability was overwhelmed by a constant parade of remote New Englanders, curt Germans, gruff Texans, stuffy Brits. Over a few short years, his rancor metastasized, to the point where he found excuses to linger in the kitchen rather than make his pool rounds.
He tried to empathize, thinking of what his expectations would be if he were dropping two thousand dollars a week on a hotel room, only to have all logic collapse beneath the insane weight of that cruel math.
When you could afford to fly halfway around the world for some blue-green surf, how could you be anything other than grateful? The question gnawed at him, slowly filling his blood with a rage that, by the end of a week, coursed through his body like race cars with severed brake cables.
He kept his surf board locked in his truck during the work day and spread his anger liberally over the pounding waves at his favorite shore break at dusk. Until, one Friday, he didn't. And a minor parking lot scuffle escalated into a severe beating that landed him in prison for aggravated assault.
Kaikona's too-young wife was at her wit's end by then. She dropped Lani, who had just turned four, with his parents and left the island for good.
When finally released three years later, a still-simmering Kaikona was saved by his young daughter, who seemed to absorb his fury as soon as he took her in his arms.
With Lani to return to every day, Kaikona reconfigured Kauai - the only home he would ever know - into what he needed it to be so that they could remain a family.
He found work at a different resort, loading and unloading massive, industrial linen driers, which satisfied him as a hellish kind of penance as well as a way to sweat out more of his rancor. Then it was home to Lani in the early evening before heading to a second job bouncing at a local bar, where any remaining ill will he carried found a fitting outlet.
Lani had a way of invading his thoughts during the day, her poise and unflappable calm an inspiration to him. He could never decide whether her easy-going nature was a gift to him from a benevolent God, or if it was forged in his hot temper as a corrective for them both. "Chicken-egg thing,” he grew fond of saying.
Kaikona's eyes are as wide as saucers, then, as he trudges up his driveway at dusk and spies Lani through the window to her room, pulling a plain black tee-shirt up and over the head of a blonde white boy who is perched at the foot of her bed.
Jared didn't put the pieces together when Lani walked him through the rooms of her family's small plantation house, perhaps because there was no one else home. Even her bedroom, with its attendant pop idol posters and pastel drabness, didn't sound the alarms it should have. He mumbled a half-question about "her roommates coming home" to the back of her head and took her non-reply as confirmation of their existence.
He cleans himself up in the bathroom and, noting the presence of a razor and aftershave in the medicine cabinet, goes down what had become a well-traveled mental avenue for him: This chick lives with some dude and she didn't even hesitate to bring me here when he's not around.
And with that, the tumblers on the tiny lock that hold his libido at bay turn to their open positions, and his feet carry him along to the threshold of Lani's room.
She lay on her stomach in bed, thumbing through a magazine, her toned legs flexing back and forth beneath the breeze from an old ceiling fan above her. She turns and, seeing Jared there, smiles amiably. A smile he loses no time labeling as "come-hither".
Jared sits down beside her as she sits up on the bed. He turns to face her just as she turns toward him. And in the heat of that moment, he is suddenly confronted with something he has never faced before.
A complete lack of guile.
With all the girls he had made advances on since he came of age, Jared had always been comforted by the unspoken fact of the transaction.
If his father had taught him anything, it was that all human interaction boiled down to this: An agreement between two parties. As he once described it, via a hastily sketched Venn diagram, a stock broker begins his sales pitch knowing that his client is looking to make money with no effort expended.
"If they have money to invest, it certainly isn't money they need, so losing it isn't a serious concern. The cost to them" he stressed, "is simply exposure to financial risk".
In much the same way, Jared came to hypothesize, a casual lover's pitch is about selling a similar fantasy, about feeling wanted with no effort expended. The less you know about a lover you are about to take, in fact, the more likely that fantasy will take flight.
"There isn't even a risk,” he tells himself. "If you aren't presenting your true self, then what are you exposing? And who the hell presents their true self?” he wonders. "Ever?"
All Jared needs from Lani, from any woman, is complicity. If she is party to the transaction, then she is the buyer and "let the buyer beware" - one phrase his father never lost an opportunity to trumpet.
But Lani is not buying anything.
She looks directly into his eyes, smiling openly, without an expectation of any kind. That look is not coy or coquettish, demure or demanding, hungry or hopeful. In its youthful innocence, it implies two things only; interest and concern.
And it stops Jared cold.
In the stillness of Lani's room, he is struck by how far from home he really is. How long it's been since he was pulled along a crowded avenue by a current of people, all of them rushing somewhere to get something. How unprepared he is to handle a situation that isn't about need and its fulfillment, about wanting and getting, about the transaction.
If he chooses to pursue what he wants from Lani, he realizes, he will be taking something from her, plain and simple.
Then another realization strikes him with enough force to rob him of his breath.
What Lani is already giving him is all he's ever really wanted. This rapt attention. This silent acceptance. He's left his home because it doesn't offer this. He's boarded and unboarded, hiked and hitched from place to place only to find the exact opposite of this. He doesn't move for fear of breaking the spell and losing this.
Lani watches Jared, her eyes widening, waiting for his next breath, wondering why it doesn't come. It frightens her enough to make her speak.
"What else does it say?"
"I...I'm not sure...what?" Jared stammers. "What else does what say?"
"On your neck. The back of your neck?"
Jared stiffens, flushing.
Lani smiles and grabs his upper arms, moving to spin him around playfully. He complies, allowing himself to be turned like a marionette, floating. Wireless.
His back to her now, she tries to pull down his collar and read, but there isn't enough give. The elastic scratches his throat and he instinctively crosses his arms, reaching for the bottom of his shirt. He lifts it half-heartedly, then struggles with it, blinded by it, lost in black fabric.
Lani laughs and pulls it up and over his head.
Then, able to see again, Jared is confronted with his own reflection. The sky having darkened outside, the bright light on Lani's nightstand switched on, the bedroom window has become an unwelcome mirror. He stares at himself forlornly.
And outside, Kaikona has stopped walking dead in his tracks.
As he watched the tee-shirt rise, so did his blood pressure. That soft, pampered, white body, like so many others he'd seen basking, lounging, burning willfully around him at the resort pool. Is that here? In his home?
He's looking Jared straight in the eye now, though he isn't seen.
What is stopping him, he wonders, from diving through that window, an angry, single-minded, animal force? It could be Lani, he thinks. He would never willfully traumatize her. But more likely it's Jared. Or rather, it's the look on Jared's face, which is not that of a young man on the make. Kaikona recognizes it because he's worn that look himself on occasion; the same slack-jawed, vacant stare of a lost soul.
Kaikona runs to the front stoop, kicks off his slippers and pads silently to Lani's door, steeling himself for a stealth entry in which he'll lift the boy up by the scruff of his neck and bounce him out good and proper.
But he's stopped again, just outside the threshold, by Lani's voice.
"My life is like a stroll upon the beach," she says, "as near to the ocean's edge as I can go.”
The words hang in the air like smoke.
For Jared, this moment typically plays out differently. The girl he's pursuing usually asks him what the quote means right away. And he dazzles her with a few scripted lines about its author (because Jared is well read), about his travels (because Jared is worldly), about his "quest.” But by then the girl is busy exposing a tanned shoulder, or rotating a taut calf, or pulling down her shorts just enough, in order to turn all attention to her tattoo, to her tiny, inked defiance, to her three-inch by three-inch summation.
And as this girl would run her fingers along the words on his bare back, his fingers would feather the spot where her rose bud, or her butterfly, or her bleeding heart lay. And from there they'd be on their way.
But Lani says nothing.
Jared turns to face her and he sees that she is thinking. Thinking, he guesses correctly, about everything she's learned about him in their short time together and how those things might coalesce into the words in his tattoo. And her eyebrows raise just slightly, as if she can't quite make the connection. And for this he is beyond grateful because he is finally freed.
"It's a lie.” He answers her unasked question.
"My life has not been a stroll. Hell, I've only ever run. And it's never been on a beach, but it should have been because I've never wanted for anything. I'm embarrassed by those words now, and I've never been before. But something about today, something about you..."
Kaikona peers around the doorjamb now, because this pause has got to be the moment when this boy is leaning in to kiss his Lani.
But Jared is not. He's pulling away, in fact. He's pulling his tee shirt back on.
"Thank you for taking me in,” Jared mumbles. Then more earnestly; "Thank you so much."
Jared stands up. He backs toward the bedroom door, drinking in Lani's confused smile, not realizing that the rogue wave that was Kaikona has receded now, away from the ocean's edge.
For Lani's father is stepping lightly, making his way back toward the front door as quietly as he can so he can enter his house again. But this time he'll let the screen door slam loudly behind him.