Kitchen Window Witness - A Short Story
This story takes place on Oahu, Hawaii - where many locals speak a delightful Pidjin English. I have tried to capture it's essence. The dialect is a Creole developed when newly immigrated Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, and native Hawaiians needed to communicate while working the sugar cane fields in the early to mid 1900s. Hawaii's pidjin is peppered with Hawaiian, Filipino, Japanese and Chinese words that are part of everyday life. Such words are defined at the end of this story.
Eileen Koko is sitting at the kitchen table soaking her feet, when she overhears the fight next door. Harold Lau is watching Wheel of Fortune. Through the open window, she hears clapping, dinging and the soft purr of the spinning wheel. If she were to turn and look out the window she would see the Lau's screened patio door and beyond it, Harold on the couch, the light from the TV reflected on his face. With less than twenty feet between the two houses it is her custom not to look.
There is an unspoken agreement between the Kokos and the Laus not to look or listen too closely. For over twenty years the Laus have been her nearest neighbor. Mele Lau is Eileen's best friend and Harold and her husband Kimo are very close. But with a half dozen kids, a half dozen pets, disagreements within and between households, and all the chaos that goes with them, Eileen has come to love the peace that goes with ignorance.
Eileen came to know Oahu through Kimo Koko's friendly brown eyes over two decades ago. Who could have predicted that a summer vacation with her cousin Chloe would turn into a lifetime with a people and culture unknown to her? She fell in love with the Hawaiian-Chinese-Irish-Filipino Japanese-Portuguese boy. His affectionate ways and the aloha spirit of the locals gave her a sense of closeness she had never felt before. Her family life on the Virginia farm had been all any child could hope for, but the closest neighbors were half a mile away. With her marriage to Kimo, Eileen became part of an island-wide network of brothers and sisters, aunties and uncles. The Laus are a big part of that, but twenty feet is awfully close. By turning a blind eye and deaf ear to Lau family conflicts, Eileen can breathe easier. She suspects Mele feels the same way.
So it is rare, on this hot September night, that when Eileen hears the raised voices next door, she does not shut the kitchen window, or retire to the family room, or turn the radio on. Its been a quiet evening. Kimo and the kids went out for fast food. She can hear the TV next door, a dog's sporadic barking, and the occasional cry from one of her roosters. Her feet, red, fat and sore from a rare encounter with high heels, are resting in a bucket of warm water.
"Eh, Harold. You supposed to change da oil in da truck long time ago. Now one light stay on." scolds Mele.
"You one big headache, you know dat?" snaps Harold.
"All day I work hard. Den come home fo dis? I going back to da shop."
Same old stuff thinks Eileen, unfolding the kitchen towel on her knee. For twenty years they've been fighting over the same things. The same things she and Kimo fight over. What is it with men and their TV sets anyway? The quality of family life deteriorated with the invention of the remote. A wife no longer has time to talk during commercials. Its been over one year since Mele and Harold had it out. She should dry her feet, get up and close the window, but the water is warm and soothing and the night breeze is cool on her skin. She flings the towel over her shoulder and lets it rest there.
"Go den. Take dat big okole back to da shop."
"Look who calling who big. You mo big den me. What size pants you weah? Suppa-duppa queen size?"
"Dis big wahine's going whip yo lazy okole into shape!"
"Tita, da only ting you going whip up is dinna. So get on it, I hungry."
Eileen winces and waits for Mele's explosive response, but . . nothing. She hears the channels changing: the local news, a commercial, then back to the wheel's dings and purrs. Now she hears the screen door clanging shut.
"Howzit Pops." Sounds like junior boy Hoku, is home from practice.
Things have changed thinks Eileen. The Mele she knew never lost an argument and never cooked over a hot stove on a hot September night. Could it be that. . . .
"See dis knife Harold?" screams Mele. "Dis one sharp knife. Dis knife so sharp can cut one head off and das what I goin do wit dis knife"
"Da tita gone psycho," gasps Harold.
"Mom, mom, nooooooo!" screams Hoku.
Eileen jumps out of her chair, sloshing water all over the tile. She runs to the window and peers out, but it has grown dark and the outside lights are off. Eileen squints. The TV light reflects off the wall and empty cushion where Harold would normally be sitting. She clutches her hand to her throat. A scream is stuck there. She hears grunting, scuffling and bumping for a few seconds and then there is silence. Eileen stands stunned and motionless amid the puddles on her tiled floor.
"Mom. Mom, look what you done."
"I did one bad ting," sobs Mele." Dis a real bad ting."
Eileen uses her left hand to hold herself steady against the table. Her right hand she keeps pressed to her throat, lest she forget herself and scream her head off.
"Look at all da blood. We gotta clean it up Mom . . . and da body . . . what we gonna do wit dat. I tink I bettah help you Mom."
"You one good boy Hoku. So helpful, so akamai."
"Hunnh? Sshh, da kitchen window stay open next doa."
"No mattah, dey all wen in da car someweah."
Eileen scrunches down and the voices fade as they move into another room. What should she do? Call 911? She grabs the phone and clutches it to her breast. She can not see the key pad so well in the dying light, but she doesn't dare turn the light on.
She's not sure she can make the call anyway. It was Mele who nursed her through two miscarriages. It was Mele who showed her how to make steamed rice and Chicken Katsu. In Virginia, her Mom made smooth buttery rice that came pre-measured in a box. Mele showed her how to use the rice steamer, how to measure the water up to her second knuckle. Dear God, it seemed a lifetime ago that Mele had helped her tape up the windows when Kimo was working at the plant during Hurricane Iniki. Mele had given good advice many times. Yes, Mele had always been there for her.
But what about the countless Tupperware containers she has never returned? Not just the Tupperware, two of Eileen's china plates and her favorite sweater. What about the time Mele bought girl scout cookies from honey girl and the check bounced? Okay, so her past is checkered, but who would of thought Mele capable of murder?
What about poor Harold? He was not bad as far as husbands went, but he was a surfer first. Harold followed the swells, the family came second. Harold was at Pipeline when Mele delivered Hoku, a fact Mele would never let him forget. Eileen had been there, taking pictures of the newborn, when Harold, board shorts still damp shuffled into the delivery room. Yet Harold had done well for his family. They weren't rich, but all three Lau kids attended private school. Both Mele and Harold had new Toyota trucks and they had added rooms onto their Makakilo home on three separate occasions. Harold owned a gas station-auto repair shop on Farrington Highway. How ironic that he should meet his end by neglecting the maintenance of his wife's vehicle.
Harold and Mele had both gone to Campbell High School. Mele was the tallest girl in her class, a star basketball player. A stunning Samoan Portuguese, she had many friends and was nominated for homecoming queen. To this day, Harold thought of Mele as his high school crush. The big bright star who one day happened to notice him, when she tripped and spilled fruit punch all over his jacket. Mele had apologized profusely. She had insisted on bringing his jacket home with her and washing it herself. How they both loved to tell that story.
Mele has always been taller than Harold, and now she is wider too. It isn't hard to imagine her pinning him down, but beheading him? Mele has a fierce side to her, but that side has softened over the years. Her competitiveness, her muscular form, her covetous ways have been softened by the demands of motherhood and time. In the past year she has begun reading and praising the Bible. Her new Christian beliefs have changed Mele's character and until this moment, Eileen would have said for the better. Perhaps all the submissive wife scriptures have slowly worked their way into her skin, then into her brain, poisoning her and causing today's blow-up.
Eileen trembles and places the phone back in the handset. She will wait till Kimo and the kids get home, then ask him to make the call. She peeks out the window and sees the porch light is now turned on. Uh oh , her rooster is loose again and parading proudly into the Lau's front yard, his red head darting. The brainless birds never went far, but weren't chickens supposed to rest at night? She'll have to search for him tomorrow. Mele and Hoku mustn't see her foraging through their yard. She isn't supposed to be. . . . wishes she wasn't home. How she wishes she had climbed into the van with the kids. She could be at McDonalds Playland eating burgers, instead she is a prisoner in her own home, the unwilling witness to a murder.
Oh no. Eileen freezes. She sees Bible Boy striding up the sidewalk towards the Lauís screen door. He glances out of the corner of his eye, sees her in the window and waves. Eileen wants to shout out a warning to him, but she only manages to lift her hand and nod her head. Eileen moves away from the window and peeks from the side to see Bible Boy knock.
Mele has shown a keen interest in many things over the years. She has taken karate, hula, joined a book club, played racquet-ball, gone to massage school. She would last a month or two then it was on to something else. Surely the bible studies would go the same way, but it has been six months. Perhaps there is more to these bible studies than any of them suspects. Perhaps Mele is slowly being brainwashed and tonight's fiasco is part of a brainwashing gone wrong. Still silence next door. Then Eileen hears the slow murmur of voices moving into the TV room. Is Bible Boy part of the conspiracy now? Perhaps they have hidden the body by throwing a sheet over him and camouflaging it with pillows. Bible Boy would see only a misshapen lump on the couch. Perhaps the clean up was done speedily before Bible Boy's arrival. Mele and Hoku would have carried him, one at the head and one at the feet, into a back bedroom. Eventually of course they would have to dispose of the body. Eileen is not accustomed to thinking with such macabre detail, but this has been a day like no other. She backs away from the window as she sees the screen door open. Bible Boy and Mele file out.
She calls him Bible Boy, because that's what the neighborhood calls him, but he is older and bigger than herself. He introduces himself as Kawika Kealoha. His family has lived on Kikaha Street for longer than anyone remembers. The sight of Kealohas, in pairs, young and old, male and female, wearing their finest, carrying bibles and going door to door is a familiar one. They, like the orange and purple bougainvilleas growing wild along the driveways, are a reassuring and enduring part of the neighborhood. So when Bible Boy or another Kealoha knocks, Eileen often answers and talks with them a bit before making some excuse and closing the door.
Eileen watches Bible Boy look at his watch and knock again. Bible Boy has been coming to study with Mele once a week. Mele will have to turn him away tonight. She will need time to clean . . . Eileen stops mid-thought, she gapes as the Lau's door opens and a smiling Mele hugs Bible Boy and ushers him inside.
"Eileen, ho sista!" Mele turns to face Eileenís kitchen. "Eileen . . .sista. . you deh?"
Eileen feels a knot forming inside her stomach. She turns on the overhead light and waves to Mele.
"I taut you wen out wit da family, but Bible Boy said you neva. He say he wen see you tru da window." Mele's red mumu shimmers in the porch light.
"I stayed home to soak my feet."
"Sista, we can talk story or what? I wen do one bad ting. I can ask you one question?"
"I'll come over," Eileen calls out, as she feels the knot in her belly expanding. Dread fills her. She does not want to be, will not be an accessory to murder. She does not want to hear any confession. She turns out the light, opens the door and shuffles into her slippers. She makes the short walk with slow, heavy steps. Her rooster is pecking at the base of a palm tree. She shoos him back towards her house. Mele catches her in a back- breaking hug at the property line.
"Aloha bradda," says Mele. ì"I sorry fo tonite, but afta da kine, I no can tink fo Godly tings."
"No worries," says Bible Boy. "Da lord, he fogive everyting. Dis minah. Shoots, see you next week." Bible Boy heads down the sidewalk.
"Eileen, sista, I so sorry fo dis bad ting I wen do." Mele releases her then opens the screen door and waves her in. As Eileen flips off her slippers she sees the familiar couch is empty and neat, with two square blue pillows, one in each corner. As she enters she sees a reddish stain on the edge of the beige carpet. Mele brings a black enamel roasting pan from the kitchen and sets it on the table.
"Sit down," she says sitting down on the couch and patting the cushion beside her.
"Das fo you" she says pointing at the covered black pan. "you know Harold. . . me and him got into one big fight. We was going at it, then wen I see . . eh. . . sistah. . . you look sick. . . was da mattah?"
Eileen smiles weakly and nods. She is baffled by the roast pan. She imagines Harold's head inside, his eyes wide open in shock and terror, an apple in his open mouth. She bends forward to lift off the lid. Inside is a trussed chicken. Harold strolls into the room, alive and freshly showered. He is pulling a blue T-shirt over his chest.
"I going get one pizza," he says grabbing a set of keys off the table. His eyes take in Mele and Eileen on the couch, and the chicken in the pan.
"Eh, Eileen, howzit." He is out the door fast. They hear the truck engine rev up and out.
Eileen feels both relief and guilt at the same time. Her chicken has been beheaded and gutted, plucked and cleaned. It is seasoned and oiled and resting amid fresh cut carrots, potatoes, and onions. Curls of parsley adorn its chest.
"I see dat chicken at my door" says Mele. I wen and go nutz on dat poor chicken. Dat Harold, dat lazy buggah, I like talk stink bout da kine fo one long time."
Eileen wants to laugh and cry at the same time. Instead she leans forward and gives Mele a big hug.
"I can't wait to cook it up,"says Eileen. "Its gonna be onolicous"
"Das okay den?" asks Mele studying her friend. " I going ask yo fogiveness. You one good neighba, sista. Just like jesus says fo love yo neighba as yo self and shoots, I lucky fo have one neighba like you."
Eileen feels tears in her eyes. She wipes at them with the backs of her hands. She and Mele spend a few more minutes talking stink about husbands, then Eileen heads back home, with the roast pan clutched in both hands and resting at her waist. As she walks down the sidewalk, she feels a change within her. She is a different woman from the one who walked up ten minutes ago.
Eileen smiles at the white van pulling into her driveway. Her family is back. They will enjoy tomorrow nights chicken dinner. Already she is planning that day, blissfully unaware of the seed planted in her heart.
"Okole" means butt in hawaiian.
"Tita" means aunt in filipino, but in the hawaiian island's "tita" has evolved to mean a big woman of pacific asian descent with an even bigger mouth and a fierce temper.
"Akamai" means smart in hawaiian.