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Seven Flights

After breakfast, after Shawn drove off to raise the pitch of flat notes in pianos, David took two brown bottles of Kirin Lager from the fridge. He wrapped the bottles in a white towel and put them in a paper bag, rolling the top to form a crumpled handle. Then, instead of taking the Palani Highway past downtown Kihei to his job at Sears in the Kukui Mall, instead of picking up a stack of pink invoices, he turned right on Kanonoulu Street. He drove another half mile and parked next to the Menehune Condominiums, a building seven stories high. According to Hawaiian myth, Menehunes were little mischief makers; David hoped the irony would not be lost on his friends.

Kihei was filled with condos and small resorts. This was South Maui, the quiet side, inhabited by locals and imports like David and Shawn. It had the island’s best surfing, waves too treacherous for tourists who flocked to Lahina and West Maui for art galleries and nightclubs playing Paula Abdul and Milli Vanilli. Three locals walked by, white surfboards on bare shoulders. From his back pocket David took his wallet and removed the license, a palm tree rising up through printed numbers. Birthdate: 04-17-1949. Issued: 09-22-1988. Six feet tall and 190 pounds. It was 1990 now; he probably weighed 170. Next month it would be 160, then 150. It had happened to his friends in Seattle, weight rolling off their faces like rainwater. He slid the license into his back pocket and his wallet in the glove compartment. He pulled the keys from the ignition and set them on the passenger seat, then covered them with his orange baseball cap.

Maui was paradise today. The sky blue, sighs of clouds drifting by, the salty smell of the ocean. They’d left the gray winters of Seattle for these days. Left endless rain, assuaged only by the knowledge that summer would come and the majestic face of Mount Rainier would rise above the city, watching over it through August. The old man’s out today, people would say, reverently, pacified by his presence.

Around the corner, an elderly couple walked toward David, white leis of carnations smiling around their necks, identical red Hawaiian shirts. Their lips tightened as they examined numbers and names on buildings.

“Aloha,” David said.

“Oh, hello,” the woman replied. She was tall, her hair gray and curly.

The man looked up, his entire face smiling. “Good morning.” A hearing aid curled into his right ear.

“What do you think of the island?” David asked, the sun bright in his eyes.

“It’s so beautiful here, we just love Hawaii.” She said it like Ha-why-ya, then turned to the man. “Howard, he asked how we like the island.”

“Oh,” the man nodded, still smiling, “it’s so pretty. We’re visiting our daughter. She moved here from Memphis.”

“Is that right?” Sweat dripped from David’s forehead; he wished he’d kept his cap. “What does she do?”

“She works for Bank of Ha-why-ya,” the woman said, “in stocks and bonds.”

David nodded, his hand shading his eyes. The man and woman exchanged glances before she said, “Do you know that we’re lost? We walked right down to the beach and can’t find her apartment for the life of us.”

The man, watching her lips, laughed, the flowers around his neck giggling. “We can’t even say the name. The Hal-kal-something.”

“It’s on Kenno-something-illi,” the woman added, more embarrassed than the man. “I just can’t get these silly names straight.”

“You folks are actually pretty close. Walk two blocks that way,” David pointed behind them, “and take your very first left.”

“Thank you,” the woman said. “Our daughter is coming home at lunch and I just knew we were going to miss her.”

“Yes, thank you very much.” The man extended his hand and David shook it. Then their red shirts disappeared down the street.

David pushed open a glass door to the Menehune condos and the air-conditioning encased him, his sweat turning cold in an instant. Mailboxes took up an entire wall, white letters of names on black tape. The elevator opened and two tanned boys with boogie boards under their arms sprinted toward David, ankle straps dragging on cords behind them. One said Shakah brah as he brushed by, the other on his heels repeating the phrase. A woman stepped out behind them. Sunglasses rested on top of her head, a paperback copy of The Moviegoer sticking out of a beach bag.

“Don’t get in the water until I’m there,” she yelled, making eye contact with David. “Excuse them.”

“You never know when the ocean might go away.”

“Exactly,” she said, walking past him, smiling. “Aloha.”

“Aloha.”

David pressed the button for the elevator. He loved Maui’s vitality, cool trade winds wafting it around the island. Seattle had such a spirit when he moved there in 1979 from New Orleans; there was no traffic and the town breathed kindness, most not threatened by the baths in Pioneer Square or the nighttime rendezvous at Volunteer Park. New Orleans had disguised its bigotry and the heritage of Southern hostility beneath the masks of Mardi Gras and at the bottom of tall drinks named Hurricane and Hand Grenade. In Seattle, David felt as if he was about to be born into something. As if this city off by itself in the left corner of the country, this city surrounded by mountains, would allow his spirit the freedom to grow. He tended bar at an upscale restaurant downtown before switching to the Deluxe on Broadway. Even though Broadway ran through the heart of Capitol Hill, and even though people drove from Laurelhurst and Bellevue for burgers, neighborhood regulars walked past the windows to other bars. David was managing the place in six months, and promptly fired eight people.

David interviewed Shawn on a Thursday between lunch and dinner shifts. A few tables lingered: three women behind them, martini glasses empty and water glasses full, and a man and woman to their left, check on the table. Before Shawn said a word, David thought, Not one thing is out of place on his face. It lacked any trace of femininity: a strong jaw, great cheekbones, a dimple on his chin just below perfect teeth. He had sandy blond hair and wore a white polo, the collar not even up, which led to David’s second thought: I wonder if he looks as good out of those bad clothes as he does in them. The women cackled. David had interviewed people all week but now words slid from his mouth too fast and his mind flew past his own questions; Shawn’s answers were simple and concise, leaving empty space David leapt to fill. To their left, the woman was leaning back, her high heel pecking the air. The man scooted up his chair, the end of his red tie resting on the table. Shawn glanced at the couple and then back at David, rolling his eyes.

David stopped in mid-sentence. “I can tell you really want this job.”

Shawn laughed as if he had told himself a joke at David’s expense. “I’m sorry. You’re probably used to having everyone’s undivided attention.”

“I’m used to having people listen when I talk.”

“I was listening. You started off about the need to increase late-night neighborhood traffic, which I completely agree with, but then got sidetracked about some ski trip to Vail. The man over there,” Shawn tilted his head toward the couple, “is backpedaling about an affair he had, which is why I rolled my eyes.”

“Men will be sluts.”

“Those women are discussing how to overcome the, uh, lack of size in a lover.”

“Now that’s a conversation I’d like to be in on.”

A dry smile spread across Shawn’s face. “There wasn’t anything helpful.” 

The elevator opened and a man with black, curly hair and a tennis racket frowned before hurrying on; he was the type of patron David loved having at his bar. David had discovered, over the years, that people needed simple reminders; the world was a pretty decent place. One day a person knew this and the next the information was entombed and dropped down a deep hole, bills and bad days and broken hearts shoveled on top. It was David’s job to exhume this knowledge. He’d bet Shawn five dollars he could have the man or woman smiling in fifteen minutes, tell a few jokes or a story about New Orleans. “People just need to be reminded,” he’d say, taking Shawn’s money and using it to buy the person another drink.

Energy had always flowed from David, like water over a dam, his body in constant motion, walking a mile down Broadway everyday to make the deposit and jogging three miles on days off. At night, when his mind refused to slow, he arranged mix tapes for the bar. In the past, he would have taken the stairs two at a time without even considering the elevator, but pulling up to the building, walking in the front door, he had no intention of taking the stairs. His sick friends had spoken of good days and bad days, the disease a dam keeper that siphoned out water on its own accord. This was a bad day. And he could not imagine a succession of them: his muscles suffocating, his thoughts roller-coaster cars spinning on a track. He could not imagine a life where he could not climb seven flights of stairs. But the encounter with the old couple and the woman, their kindness, had offered him energy. He gave the dam keeper the bird and walked away from the elevator.

The stairs were cement and took one sharp turn at a landing between floors, then another at the floor itself, creating a square spiral. Blue paint coated handrails. His coughs echoed loudly, traveling up the shaft before falling back toward him like missiles. He climbed the first flight eagerly, thinking he could turn back at any time, but then thinking of Shawn, plucking the strings of a piano, listening. At the blue door with a giant 2, David stopped, caught his breath, then returned to his climb.

David’s staff came together effortlessly. Stoner and Staceyboy were holdovers and Staceygirl was new. Erica quit managing million-dollar bonds in Houston to become a writer, and her sixteen-year-old son, Trevor, worked food prep on weekends. Mary Ke lived around the corner and rode the bus home from her job at First Interstate Bank, always stopping in for a drink, always bitching about corporate crap and her idiot of a boss until David called her bluff, offering bar shifts. Eddie and Curt and Donnanana. All of them pausing after lost battles with ex-husbands and lovers and business ventures and school, only to be taken in by the family David had created. A family that extended naturally into Capitol Hill. When the kitchen closed he pushed tables against walls and pulled people off barstools to dance. In thirty minutes Mary Ke and Erica were on the bar dancing to “Twist and Shout,” the night winding down to “Stand by Your Man,” young and old queens slurring the words, arms around each other and swaying to the beat.

Part of David’s success, he knew, was that he was not easily identified as gay; other gay men knew, but straight people always assumed he was one of them. His intent was not to deceive; he simply did things he liked: worked on his own car, fixed the wait-station terminals and installed a new stereo-system. Twice he repaired the fryer during dinner rushes.

“I have a finely tuned gaydar,” Erica once told Mary Ke, a little bit of Texas still in her voice, “and I had no idea David was gay when he interviewed me.”

Mary Ke pulled her long blond hair back into a ponytail. “Sugar, I gave Shawn my number. I would turn that beautiful man straight in fourteen minutes flat.”

“Hands off Shawn,” David said, slipping in behind them. “Besides, we’re all going to retire together. We’ll ride around in wheelchairs with Big Girl Cocktails attached to our IVs.” Big Girl Cocktails were David’s current drink of choice—Bombay and lemonade in the summer, coffee and anything in the winter—in a pint glass. He moved into a story about his aunt from Maine who thought she was a lighthouse. “I’d come home and she’d be standing on the roof, slowly turning in circles.” He mimicked her, his arms out like beams of light, the women laughing.

The Deluxe was a microcosm of Capitol Hill, Capitol Hill a beacon for anyone with a burden. Homosexuals and lesbians. Indians with long black hair tied back in rubber bands, holding out dirty hands for change. Drag queens and transvestites. The guy who wheeled a seven-foot cross up and down Broadway on a roller skate with thick orange wheels. The angry teen who stood in front of Safeway with a cardboard sign that read I’LL PUKE FOR A TWELVE-PACK. They followed the beams of light, docking with their various forms of cargo and sorrow. David met them all. The man who rolled the cross was Luther; his father had taken cigarettes to his ears. David gave the teen, Paul, leftovers at the end of shifts and eventually a job washing dishes. The Indians accepted his cigarettes and change. He cheered the drag queens as they walked gracefully on six-inch heels at the Off Ramp, their eyebrows whited out and knees barely moving the front of sequined gowns.

Life opened up to David, presenting him with what he considered to be one moment of grace after another. He organized gay parades and charities. Bought sections of seats down the first base line at Mariner games; he’d charter a double-decker bus to the Kingdome where, once in the seventh inning, Mary Ke and Stoner flashed each other—the men staring at Stoner’s chest and Erica’s son, Trevor, staring at Mary Ke’s. David sprinted into work the next day, slapping a picture of the moment on the bar in front of Erica. Look, you don’t have to worry about him!

There were other moments, brief trials of the spirit, a running fuse, threatening the order David had created. He was at the host stand chatting with Patti and Erica when Stoner showed up late for a Sunday dinner shift. His shirt was pulled out and his eyes bloodshot. Fucking primadonna, David thought.

“Sorry I’m late, David,” Stoner said, his words slurred and insincere, a teenager home hours after curfew.

Erica closed her eyes and Patti’s back stiffened—David had fired people for much less. He tapped a pencil against the floor plan; he could easily run a wait short on Sunday. But Stoner was a Deluxe icon; regulars and staff loved him. David couldn’t send him home without firing him, and firing him would send an unnecessary ripple though the restaurant.

“Stoner, listen. Erica has a meeting early tomorrow with one of Trevor’s advisors and can’t close so I’m moving you to section seven. You’ve got the next three tables that walk in.” He turned around, winking at Erica and Patti, taking four steps before turning back. “Well, clock in. And tuck in your shirt—you’re disgracing the stylistic reputation of gay men everywhere.”

He kept Stoner’s section full, badgering him about food in the window or a check that needed to be dropped. Table twelve was ready to order. When someone tried to run Stoner’s drinks or pull plates from his tables, David would stop them with his eyes or a hand slicing through the air. Stoner was ecstatic the first hour, bragging about his drunken state behind David’s back until his brazen buzz became a hangover. David made aggressive cuts, sending waits home early, leaving Stoner six and seven tables to run while the afternoon alcohol resonated.

Soon he was following David around. “Shit, David, I said I was sorry. Come on, please let me go home. I’m begging you, just fire me.”

“Fire you for what? What the hell are you talking about?”

Those brief trials, those speed bumps on the way home, were always followed by what David considered another moment of grace: the chance to help, to spread his arms wide and spin in circles so that grace could flow outward. He threw ski parties and pajama parties with kegs and food and dancing, his mix tapes shaking the floor, five fast songs staggered by a slow one. People would look at him in mid-step, confused. “Beer song,” he’d say, heading toward the keg, sweaty from the dancing. When Patti and Ellen were both exhausted, working two jobs in December for start-up capital, David leaned a Christmas tree against their door. When Trevor bombed the SAT, David sold tickets to the boat party on Puget Sound and used the money to enroll Trevor in a class. The Deluxe sponsored a team for Seattle’s gay softball league, The Batboys. Guys who didn’t play were cheerleaders and would chant, “Shawn, Shawn, he’s our girl, let’s give him a batboy twirl,” then put a finger on their foreheads and turn in clumsy circles.

David stopped at the third floor, four flights spiraling upward. He rested for five minutes before ascending again, his legs like seaweed. At the landing between the fifth and sixth floors, he leaned his back against the wall and slid to the ground. His lungs labored, as if enclosed by giant fists. White spots covered the walls. The beers were getting warm, the cement so cool against his sweaty back he wanted to close his eyes and sleep. This would be the rest of his life: today he could not climb seven flights of stairs, tomorrow he would not be able get out of bed, and soon after, he would die. In between, simple colds would become pneumonia and he would vomit when he needed to eat. In between, Shawn would take him to the hospital and feed him and wipe his ass. Shawn would do these things without hesitation, would do what David had gladly done for others but could not stand to have done for himself. David had no interest in the in-between, and even less in putting Shawn through it.

David loved Shawn. It was the kind of love—raw, pure, head in the clouds—he secretly feared would evade him. Then it was there, coming incessantly, waves from a place he couldn’t see. Shawn grounded him. Shawn grounded everyone. On shifts he worked, the entire staff seemed anchored to his demeanor, each person a kite swirling in the wind, Shawn sitting in a lawn chair and holding all the strings. No matter how many people were at the bar or how many drinks he was down, Shawn never lost his cool. Servers would come to the bar frazzled, deep in the weeds, only to have a smile from Shawn, a word or a tug on the string, and be gliding along smoothly. David believed Shawn could hear everything during a shift: the food bell in the kitchen, Erica and Mary Ke gossiping at the wait stand, a customer even thinking he wanted another drink. People told him things, spilled their problems across the bar like a glass of water that Shawn happily mopped up with cocktail napkins.

Still, at times, David’s body was so weightless in those waves, so serene, he could only feel the warmth of adoration, tempting him to take part in what was happening around him; the gay community was on a glorious free fall. David saw the looks on their faces, envied the intensity of the rush and the speed of their descent that came without consideration for the rapidly approaching ground.

All the beautiful boys wanted to work for David. It inflated his vanity. He could feel the weight of their crushes as one after another came to fill out applications and gush laughter during interviews. He hired J. J. away from The Encore to cook and within a week Mary Ke had dubbed him Snake Woman. He seemed to slither when he was dancing, or walking, or even standing: his hips in a mellow gyrate, the motion rolling up his diminutive frame.

He slid up to the bar one night after closing down the kitchen, the late night pace starting to pick up. Mary Ke was wearing a black and gold blouse, pouring vodka into a silver shaker. David was taking off the dinner music.

“Hey, Snaky-pooh,” Mary Ke said, “what can I do you for.”

J. J. gasped, his petite shoulders pivoting. “Darling, in that wrap, you can do me for just about anything. I might even do you.”

“You naughty bitch, don’t tease me.” She capped the shaker with a pint glass, shook it back and forth. David popped in one of his mix tapes, The Four Tops singing, Sugar Pie Honey Bunch. . . . Can’t help myself.

“Mmm, in that case I’ll just take some cooking wine,” he glanced at David, “and that glorious wrap off your back.”

Mary Ke poured the martini into a glass and dropped in two olives. She popped open two bottles of Bud, set them down, and pulled a bottle of white wine from the cabinet, holding it in front of J. J., swinging it back and forth. He was wearing a T-shirt that read: ALABAMA’S BEST BAR: WHERE EVERYONE GETS DONE. “I’ll trade you.”

J. J. looked at David again, his tongue circling his lips, then slid out of his shirt. Mary Ke doing the same, the bar applauding, J. J. heading back to the kitchen in Mary Ke’s shimmering wrap.

“Jesus,” David said, “you’ll take your shirt off for anybody.”

“Don’t be coy, Shug.” Mary Ke tied the bottom of her new T-shirt in a knot. “You enjoyed that more than I did.”

That night, with everyone gone, David feared Shawn could hear him, pulling the black and gold blouse off Snake Woman, dropping it to the floor, hear pants being unzipped. The post-coital guilt another space screaming to be filled. Another beautiful boy carrying on about David’s community activism. Dropping the deposit and walking another mile to a bath. Always, after, he was back to Shawn and that love, grabbing them tightly with both hands and pulling the rip cord. The softball team went to nationals. Days floated by like clouds.

They expected a soft landing, to unclip the chute as their feet touched the ground and walk into the next day. But AIDS was a series of explosions around them: in an instant, hundreds of men were sick, then another and another. Hoards of people were moving up the coast from California to invade Seattle, bloating the University District, pushing people out to West Seattle and Redmond. Cars fought for lanes on I-5. The 520 bridge a congested artery. High school kids ran through Volunteer Park at night, fag-bashing, finding couples to kick and beat. Someone taped Luther to his cross and leaned it against the giant red letters of Safeway.

Just as David had been the center of life on Capitol Hill, he became the center of death. The person everyone called when they needed a ride to the hospital or a meal or someone to stay the night. He rarely slept, each death offering no time to mourn: apartments had to be cleaned out, belongings boxed and sent to parents who had not spoken to their children in years; someone else needed a ride to the hospital and someone else needed to be fed. Every party, every drag show, became a fundraiser. For three straight Easters he and Erica threw bonnet parties, David the first at her door with a blender and margarita mix, warning her, “A swarm of queens with decoratis are on my heels,” her apartment soon flooded with gay men and the Deluxe family. A table full of glue guns, the blender in a constant whirl. Bonnets crafted, covered with glitter and chiffon and dried flowers. All sold the next day at Easter brunch to help with doctor bills and funerals and housing. Stoner crafted a crucifixion bonnet, a cardboard cross sticking out the top covered in red eggshells. Staceyboy’s, covered with fur and white satin, drew three hundred dollars.

During their last winter in Seattle, the winter of 1988, only five members of the softball team remained. It was the winter David had to change address books because so many names were crossed out, the winter he thought the gray sky was a sheet of iron, welded down onto the city. Mount Rainier had not shown its face in months, and each summer before it had seemed indifferent, standing off by itself between the Cascades and Olympics. It was a night during this winter when he left after the dinner rush and asked Erica to close so he cold join Shawn at Stoner’s apartment. Rain fell as he walked down Broadway, his hands pushed into the pockets of his raincoat.

He stopped under a street lamp at the corner where he was supposed to turn right, the rain a sheet of tiny bullets around the dim glow of the light. The stoplight turned red and a taxi pulled up; David thought about knocking on the window and having the cab drop him at a bath. Even after he and Shawn had tested positive—a new kind of post-coital guilt, something he did to Shawn—his flesh cried out. It had been a high on top of a high, the whipped cream on a Big Girl Cocktail in winter; now its offering was the quick burn of tequila on the throat, life anesthetized till morning. The light turned and the taxi drove off, red taillights disappearing down the street. Drops of rain rolled off David’s face. He turned right, then left two blocks later.

Purple Karposi spots stuck like leaches to Stoner’s forehead and neck, his body shivering. Sweating. Orange bottles stood on the nightstand, white caps barely screwed on or off to the side. Shawn was holding Stoner’s hand; he said he’d changed the sheets an hour ago.

“I hope he passes tonight,” David said, pushing a few towels off a chair, picking it up and setting it down next to Shawn. He laid his raincoat over the back, still standing. “God, the things this fucking disease makes us say.”

“You just don’t want to see him suffer.”

“I don’t want to see him die, either, but here I am saying it.”

Shawn tried to smile, but it was like the back of a whale surfacing for a moment, then diving back down. “We should leave, David.”

“Leave?” David sat down. “What are you talking about?”

Shawn took a damp washcloth from the nightstand, dabbed Stoner’s forehead. “I’m talking about moving.”

“Are you insane? Seattle is our home. Our family is here—our family is dying and you want to move?”

“There’s nothing we can do.” Shawn was looking at Stoner, patting his sunken cheeks. “Seattle is scared, you can hear it in the way people talk. Calling AIDS the gay cancer.”

“It’s not the damn gay cancer!” David’s voice rose, the small bottles shaking.

“Sshh. You’ll wake him.” Shawn laid the washcloth across Stoner’s forehead and then turned to David. “You’ve caught it too. At first it was just fear about what we didn’t know. But now it’s frustration and hate—it’s almost as bad as the virus.”

“Nothing’s as bad as that fucking virus.”

“Let’s go to Maui. We’ve always wanted to go to Maui.”

“For vacation—since when have we run from anything?”

“You’re not listening to me.” Shawn took David’s hand, “We’ve still got some time. Years that could be good.”

“What about Eddie and Staceyboy and Erica and—”

Shawn squeezed David’s hand, then kissed it. “You can’t comp a drink or throw a party this time. This thing, this terrible thing, it’s moving too fast and no one knows how to stop it. It’s not going to get better for a while. Let’s go to the beach.”

“And do what?”

“Drink Big Girl Cocktails and lay out and go boogie boarding.”

Stoner moaned, then coughed, his breaths short. The virus had climbed to his brain; he rarely recognized visitors. Two days earlier, David had carried his weightless body to the bathroom and sat him on the toilet—it seemed his organs had thawed and were running out of his body like water—the once simple act demanding so much that Stoner passed out, his elbow on the sink beside him. David laid a purple towel across the tiled floor. David then gently wiped the diarrhea from Stoner’s pale skin, revealing more lesions on his swollen legs. Stoner wept, lying on the floor, hand under his face, saying he was sorry, he was so very sorry.

“No,” David said, “I mean, what will I do.”

“Oh, honey, whatever you want. This town can live without you.”

“But our friends are dying.”

“David, our friends are dead.” Shawn was crying. David loved him so deeply at that moment, so fully, that he wanted to take that love in both hands and throw it into the air so it could fall over all of Seattle. “Listen to me, please listen to me. You can’t save everyone. But right now, you can save us.”

David knew he was not easy to be with, that for every person that loved him there was another who felt lost in his wake, and he was continually amazed and beholden to Shawn for not letting go and swimming to shore. Especially after the beautiful boys, after David had dug his fingernails into Shawn’s hand as the young Asian doctor with her hair in a bun had told them they were both positive. For weeks after, even months, David woke or came home from a late shift fearing, expecting Shawn to be gone, to leave him alone with his guilt and the virus. Now, finally, Shawn was asking something of him.

In Maui, away from the rain and gray skies, away from the deaths of their friends printed like box scores in the Seattle Gay Weekly, David felt an immediate lightening of the spirit. Shawn always woke first, starting the coffee then filling the two bird feeders on the lanai, watching yellow canaries and honeycreepers glide down and peck at the seed. He’d have breakfast at the glass table and listen to them sing as the sun rose from the Pacific Ocean, sending white sparkles across the dark blue water. He told David, that first month, that it was like having his own personal radio station, only without the radio, so every morning, David would ask him what was playing. Bach, Shawn would say, Cantatas. Mozart or Madonna.

They rode mopeds to the summit of Haleakala and mules into the crater. Drove to the botanical gardens in Hana, walking through the fields of pink Lokelani and yellow protea and carnations and pear cactus, the fragrances and colors filling David’s senses. The beach on weekends with ice-chests full of beer. The ocean falling from his bathing suit as he stepped from the water, walking across the warm sand, which gave under the weight of his body and stuck to his feet. Shawn’s body bronze, his sandy hair bleached.

Shawn tuned pianos, and David went to trade school and then took the job with Sears. A traveling repairman. He drove under the cliffs of the Hana Highway into Kahului and carried his heavy toolbox into houses, leaving his slippers at the door. He’d sit barefoot on the floor, talking to locals and families from Japan, finding satisfaction in dismantling a washer, working toward a loose wire or defective motor. It had an order. Machines could be fixed. Old men would hand him cans of Japanese beer, and women would feed him fish and vegetables, explaining why they liked Maui better than the Big Island. Honolulu was too crowded, they would say, tourists everywhere. Always, when he left, he would find his slippers turned around so his feet could slide into them on the way out.

David could not lift his body off the ground, the giant blue 6 on the door half a flight up. His mouth felt like it was filled with dirt. He wanted badly to open a beer, but knew he had to wait and kept trying to swallow, to pull up saliva from his dry throat. Two floors up, hinges screamed, then a heavy slam like the cell door of a prison. Steps echoed down the square shaft, approaching. David tried to slide his back up the wall but his legs were too tired, his body only two inches off the floor before it fell back down. A large Happa woman—a local mix of Samoan and Polynesian, maybe Japanese—stopped in front of the blue 6 when she saw him, hands on her hips. She had dark skin. Black hair fell down the back of her yellow muumuu that brushed against the cement floor.

“Aloha,” she smiled, her voice bouncing down the stairs like a rubber ball.

David smiled back. “Aloha.”

“This is the best place to find Haoles.” Slowly, she took two steps, her slippers softly slapping her heels. “Always falling down to get my attention.”

“How else could I get a pretty Wahine to talk to me?”

“Just ask, honey. Can a girl give you a hand?”

“She most certainly can.”

She floated down the remaining stairs, her knees gently pushing the front of her muumuu, barely lifting it from the ground. When she reached the landing, she pulled David to his feet, her left hand grabbing his, her right hand on his elbow.

“Honey,” she let go of his hand, pressed the tips of her fingers against his forehead, “you’re burning up. You okay?”

David covered his mouth and coughed. “I’ve been out in the sun.”

“You mainlanders—why didn’t you take the elevator?”

“Same reason as you.”

“Trying to pick up Haoles?”

David laughed. “Seven flights didn’t seem like that many.”

“Why don’t you let Leilani help you up this last flight and a half?”

“I’m okay.”

“You are not. And I outweigh you so don’t give me no trouble.”

She pulled her hair out of the way, and David’s arm rested across her shoulders. Her short strong arm circled his back, her hand on his ribs. She smelled of coconuts and flowers. They took the steps slowly at first, Leilani easily taking on David’s weight, his body seeming part of hers.

She pointed at the bag with her free hand. “What’s in da kine?

“A couple beers. Can I interest you in one?”

“No thanks, braddah, it’s a little early for me to start.” They turned the corner at the sixth floor and David felt stronger, Leilani’s kindness lifting him, so he let more weight fall to his legs. The last flight came easily.

“Leilani,” David said, when they reached the top, “that was one nice thing you did for me.”

“I was happy to do it,” she gave his cheek a soft pat, “you have a nice Haole face, a face that has done nice things. Leilani can tell. Aloha.”

David kissed her on the cheek. “Aloha, Leilani.”

David took the elevator to the roof, which was scattered with lawn chairs and lanai furniture. Bottles of suntan oil and empty beer cans. He pulled up a chair a few feet from the edge of the building and sat down, facing the ocean, then took the two bottles of Kirin from the brown bag and used the towel to twist off a top and wipe sweat from his forehead and neck. The bottle had warmed some, but the liquid was still a cool stream running down his dry throat. Waves of the Pacific slapped the beach, white foam rushing forward. He tipped the beer up, letting more fall down his throat. Purple and red towels spread across the white sand, the brown skin of locals soaked with oil, beckoning the sun, a few white bodies scattered among them, coated with numbers eighteen through forty-five, fighting off the sun’s violent rays. David draped the towel over his head. Two boys threw a Frisbee back and forth, catching it between their legs and behind their backs, showing off for a group of girls. A woman lay on her stomach reading a book, her top untied, the loose ends off to her sides. David finished the first beer and opened the second. A large wave broke on the beach, the undertow pulling sand back into the water, light blue at first, then stretching out, darkening toward the horizon. Three local men straddled surfboards, rising up and down with each wave that rolled in.

“What a wonderful, wonderful place,” David said, standing, the beer cool in his hand, cold going down his throat. “So many wonderful people.” His head felt light. The Frisbee sailed over one boy’s head, floating higher before descending, settling softly next to the young women, both boys walking toward them, the women laughing.
David poured more beer down his throat. He stepped to the edge. Waves rolled in, white caps rising and falling, the three men waiting, still straddling their boards until at once their chests slapped down and they began to paddle, a wave rising behind them. One paddling ahead of the others as the wave climbed higher, rolling past the two slower surfers who fell down the back of the wave, the nose of the third dipping down the front, catching it. The man sprang to his feet, a giant wall of blue rising behind him, chasing him as he cut in and out, leaning into the wave, free for a moment, separate from the world, his shoulder brushing against the wall, the white top curling over, before, finally, crashing down on top of him, spinning him in circles and hurling him against the ocean floor. David closed his eyes and breathed it all in, holding it as long as he could before exhaling, then letting his weight fall forward off the building.