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The International Writers Magazine - Our 16th Year: Hawaii Stories from our archives

That Old Black Magic
James C. Clar

By their very nature, islands are places of magic, of mystery. Washed constantly by the sea and scoured by the wind they can’t help but manifest a certain primal power. And that’s true whether you’re talking about a small islet in the Caribbean, a remote coral atoll in the vast expanse of the South Pacific or, as in this case, the bustling madhouse that is modern Oahu, the "gathering place."

Hawaii, the most remote island chain in the world, is a land of sometimes violent contrast. Lush tropical beauty exists virtually side-by-side with sere, almost lunar, landscapes. On Oahu in particular, breathtaking natural splendor competes with the ultra-tacky at nearly every turn. Although they may not be able to articulate it precisely, nearly everyone who visits that spellbinding place senses at some level that they are in a land that is both ancient and, simultaneously, as young and chaotic as the first day of creation.

"For God’s sake, Karen," Tom Kincaid implored his wife. "The least you can do is try to have a good time. We’re in Hawaii, after all!"

In their early thirties, the couple was sitting in a small restaurant hidden in the basement of the old Ohana East Hotel in Waikiki. The place was right out of the ‘fifties or ‘sixties; low-ceilinged and dimly lit with red faux-leather booths against one wall. Opposite that, a long bar with mirrored shelves reflected the light from small neon signs advertising a variety of local microbrews. It was one of the few such quaint establishments left on the island that hadn’t succumbed either to the current economic woe or been gobbled up by a Mainland chain.

Tom and Karen had come to Hawaii in a last ditch effort to "save" their marriage but it just wasn’t working.
Karen looked up and a wan smile lit her aristocratic features. Tom caught a fleeting glimpse of the young woman with whom he had fallen in love over a decade ago now. As committed as he was to making things work, he was beginning to realize that there wasn’t much of that "old black magic called love" left between the two of them. Karen, or so it seemed to Tom, had reached that conclusion months ago. She was already in the process of letting go; of distancing herself from their relationship, their life together.
"I’m sorry," she said distractedly. "I’m just tired. We’ve done a lot in the last week. Maybe I’ve had too much wine."
Karen was tired; tired of putting up a front, of putting up with Tom’s frequent, if minor, infidelities, of his teary-eyed remorse after the fact and his empty promises that "it’ll never happen again." The funny thing was, she did appreciate how hard he was working lately to make things right but it was a matter of "too little, too late."

He had filled their days with activities – parasailing, a trip to the Big Island to see the volcano, dinner cruises, midnight swims and moonlit walks on the beach – in the hopes that something, anything, would bring them back together. But the wound in their marriage was too deep. The romance, the magic of the islands, seemed only to reinforce the hollowness of their lives. Although she didn’t know how she knew, Karen knew with a clarity that was perhaps enhanced by the salty air and soughing of the palms that if she didn’t make a change now she might be condemning herself to a life of quiet, nondescript desperation.

"Hey, check it out," Tom whispered. Karen looked up to see a blind man being led into the restaurant by a pretty young Hawaiian woman. The woman kissed the man on the forehead. She turned to leave and her former charge used the bar to orient himself as he made his way down the length of the room.
"Aloha, Ronnie," the bartender said. "When you gonna fix me up with that gorgeous daughter of yours?"
"Dream on, Eddie. She too busy with school. Maybe ‘inna couple of years. Who knows?"
Ronnie bumped gently into a piano that was tucked into a corner at the end of the bar. He sat down and, in a moment or two, all trace of clumsiness, gracelessness gone, he began to play.
"Jesus, Karen," Tom quipped. "Stevie Wonder. Go figure."
Used to her husband’s chronic insensitivity, Karen ignored him as she sipped her wine. Ronnie worked his way through a number of jazzy standards: "The Shadow of Your Smile," "The Nearness of You," These Foolish Things" and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." An ardent jazz fan, Karen was shocked by just how good Ronnie was; certainly not Oscar Peterson good, but far better than merely competent. She had tears in her eyes by the time he finished with "My Funny Valentine."

Good music usually lifted Karen’s spirits. Tonight, however, it only made her feel even more lost, more adrift on a wind-whipped sea of emotion. She noticed Tom, seemingly oblivious, keeping time to the music by quietly snapping his fingers. Not for the first time she concluded that their hearts had been forged by the gravity of different planets and nurtured under the light of disparate stars.

Ten minutes or so later, Ronnie took a break. He was replaced by the restaurant’s sound system and the crystal tones of Ella Fitzgerald doing a live version of "Witchcraft." It was at that point that Karen and Tom both noticed a well-dressed and impeccably groomed Asian man seated at the bar across from them. He appeared to be in his early to mid-fifties and quite fit. Tom, who prided himself on looking sharp and staying in shape couldn’t help being a trifle envious.

"He’s got to be a Japanese businessman on a layover for a night or two," Tom surmised nodding his head discretely in the direction of the mysterious stranger. "He’s in Waikiki because that’s where the action is. He probably asked the concierge at his hotel where he could get a decent ‘American’ meal; figured he’d pass the time having a few drinks and eyeing the pretty young island girls."
"I’m disappointed," Karen replied. "You used to have more imagination than that."

Unconsciously she had begun collaborating in a game the two of them had been playing since before they were even married. They’d create "back stories" or fantasies about interesting characters they’d encounter in public places like restaurants, bars, shopping malls and airports. It was a harmless pastime that seemed to draw them together by creating a plethora of unique – even if entirely fictitious – experiences and memories.

"He’s clearly a drug lord from the Golden Triangle here in the islands to consummate a major deal," she countered.
With that, Karen began vamping it up for the older man who, quite openly now, was staring at her. Surreptitiously she slid her leg out from under the table and dangled her sandaled foot over the edge of her booth.

"Maybe," she continued, beginning to enjoy herself in spite, or perhaps because, of Tom’s apparent discomfort, "he’s a white-slaver from Thailand. He’s here looking for new women for his stable. He might even be searching for that special someone, procuring a ‘companion’ for a wealthy and especially discriminating customer."
"Sure, Karen, I bet that’s it," Tom laughed half-heartedly, inwardly becoming angry at his wife’s open flirtatiousness. "Right now he’s plotting to kill me so he can have you all to himself."

Ronnie began playing again and Tom and Karen lapsed into silence. It wasn’t a comfortable silence bred of contentment but rather something that spoke wordlessly from the vacuity of their relationship. Before long, Karen could endure it no longer. She wasn’t angry; she just wanted to be alone. She stood.
"I need some air. I have my keycard. I’ll see you back at the hotel."

Before Tom could protest, Karen turned and walked away. He watched her ascend the steps of the restaurant that led to the street. Before she disappeared she was bathed in the soft light from an enormous saltwater aquarium that stood just inside the door. He was tempted to follow her out, to plead with her to give things another chance. In the end, he surrendered to futility. "A man’s got to know his limitations" he thought silently quoting Clint Eastwood. He ordered another drink.

The sun had set and the trades had picked up by the time Karen emerged on Kaiulani Avenue. The temperature was a balmy 75 degrees but she was chilled given the fact that, earlier in the day, it had been in the mid-80’s and quite humid. She crossed Kuhio and continued up Kanekopolei until she reached Ala Wai Boulevard. Turning left, she found herself walking along the canal. The lights from the residences on the hill to the north were reflected in its inky waters. All the while she sensed something moving stealthily beneath the surface of the channel that, over a century before, had drained the taro patches and swamps of Waikiki paving the way for the resort that took their place – for better or worse – today.

She walked for a good forty or forty-five minutes, all the way down to McCully and then back toward her hotel along Kalakaua Avenue. She distracted herself by window shopping at the likes of Tiffany, Coach, Burberry and Louis Vuitton. When she reached Seaside she had almost convinced herself to stop somewhere for another drink. Maybe by then Tom would already be in bed asleep. She’d do just about anything to avoid another scene, to forestall going back to the prison they had unwittingly created for one another.

Instead of a drink, she found herself strolling amid the madhouse of the International Marketplace, testament to the tawdry with its stalls of cheap souvenirs, cut-rate jewelry and Taiwanese vendors demanding "How much you ‘wanna spend?" Having reached the point of sensory overload, Karen had tuned it all out. She was preoccupied by the incessant twittering of the birds that had perched for the night in the gigantic Banyan tree that overarched the entire outdoor complex. It seemed to her that they, too, were trying to make sense of their lives – and doing a much better job of it than she.

Wandering, almost somnambulating, Karen unaccountably found herself seated at a kiosk advertising Fortune Telling & Palm-Reading by Aunty ‘Ala - $20.00. A heavy-set Hawaiian woman of indeterminate age sat across from her. When the woman reached out and grabbed her hands, Karen felt what could only be described as an electric shock. The warm glow of Aunty ‘Ala’s bronzed skin contrasted sharply with Karen’s light tan.
"You’re looking for something but you haven’t found it yet," the Hawaiian prophetess stated.
Great, thought Karen. How perceptive. Who isn’t? Next thing, she’ll be telling me I’m going to meet someone ‘tall, dark and handsome’.
"You’ve been looking in the wrong places, or maybe you have to wait until it … whatever it is … finds you. But it will. It’s very close. I can feel it. I know you don’t believe me, but you should. This is a special place. There’s still power left here in what we call the ‘aina and the ‘kai … the ‘land’ and the ‘water’ to you."
"I’m sorry," Karen apologized with a nervous giggle, "I want to believe, I really do. I don’t mean to be rude; it’s just that I have a lot on my mind right now."
"Yes, yes you do. But things will be clarified very soon. Just remember what Aunty ‘Ala told you. When your chance comes, take it!"

In a daze, Karen stood up. She reached into her purse to pay for the reading … or for whatever it was she had just experienced. Aunty ‘Ala waved her off. "This one’s on me."

Bemused, but at the same time feeling much better than she had in months, Karen waited at the signal light. She watched the traffic stream down Kalakaua Avenue and listened to the Doppler strain of an emergency vehicle fade somewhere off in the distance. When the light changed she crossed the street and, in a moment or two entered the ornate lobby of her hotel. She could just hear the rhythmic cadence of the waves as they washed ashore blending imperceptibly with the sounds of a small combo playing contemporary Hawaiian music out on the beachfront verandah. At that moment she almost believed that there might just be a little magic in the soft Hawaiian night after all.

When she got off the elevator, the heat and humidity of the day which had been trapped in the hallway hit her like a wave. If Tom had in fact returned to the room before her, Karen hoped that he had the presence of mind to open the sliding door of their lanai. It’s funny, she thought, how we still worry over the little things even when our lives are falling apart.

Karen opened the door to her room as quietly as she could. She felt a cooling breeze and realized that Tom must in fact have returned first. At least he opened the lanai to air out the room. Again, she prayed that her husband was in bed and already asleep.

When she flipped on the small light on the table near the door, she was startled to see the mysterious Asian man from dinner sitting calmly with his legs crossed in one of the room’s comfy rattan chairs.

Without so much as a thought about her husband’s whereabouts, Karen reached down and slipped off her sandals. As she stood up once again, the man rose from his chair and approached her. An enigmatic smile played across the handsome features of his face. Karen reached behind her and, almost as though she were conscious of opening a portal to some alternate reality, engaged the deadbolt on the door.

© James C. Clar March 2009

James C. Clar teaches and writes in the wilds of western New York. His work has been published in print as well as on the Internet. Most recently his short fiction has found a home on Antipodean Sci-Fi, Apollo's Lyre, Flashshot, The Taj Mahal Review, The Shine Journal, Static Movement, Residential Aliens, Powder Burn Flash, Bewildering Stories, 365 Tomorrows and The Magazine of Crime & Suspense. His short story "Starbuck" was voted "Story of the Year" for 2008 by the editors of Long Story, Short.

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