Fiction Contest: Duct-Taped in Hilo
Presenting the grand prize- winning story from the 22nd Annual Honolulu Magazine Starbucks Coffee Hawaii Fiction Contest.
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“Wait. I get one idea. I’ll fix it, and after work you take it to the cemetery. Can always use another statue at the cemetery.”
Through the window, Theresa saw mango trees circling, felt herself drifting, the earth moving on wheels, felt her baby’s heart beating, tasted copper, smelled disinfectant, felt the light from the window turn dark and heard the nurses pass, chatting about coffee and an old man who was an absolute saint of an angel.
She closed her eyes, wished deep inside for something good to happen, and when she opened them, saw the absolute saint of an angel standing in the doorway, a halo of golden light outlining his blazing head of glory. In his hand, he held a mighty spear. When he stepped forward, the light came with him, and he appeared wise and brave, and only slightly bald.
In respectful whispers, Theresa spoke her heart. “Why would god do this to me? You’re one angel, you should know why god would hurt a woman and her baby. I’m one hard-working woman. Why put a woman on this earth, give her one man, let her feel him inside her and then take the baby? You one saint. Tell god to take me, leave my baby.”
Papa Joe moved closer to the bed. His job was to clean floors. Each night he mopped one mile of green tile. Sometimes, a patient would call to him and he would go in to talk or listen, to help take away the emptiness, but never in this room. He had been in it only once, 25 years ago. Tonight, though, he had heard the woman crying.
“Give me one god who doesn’t hurt people,” Theresa whispered.
Papa Joe did not know what to say. In this room he had sat next to his wife, holding her hand, in this hospital, watching her die, taking their only child with her, still holding the gold cross in her hand.
“One gentle god, like Mother Mary,” Theresa said.
Papa Joe watched the woman’s lips move. He leaned his mop against the wall, and sat in the chair next to her bed. He saw the woman’s hand, the tattoo on her arm.
“See,” he said, rolling up his shirtsleeve, revealing his tattoo of a bulldog. “That’s a devil dog, the Marine mascot.”
The woman stared at the ceiling, whispering, “Mother of God, please help.”
He wanted to say something, but he had fought in Vietnam and worked 10 years in the shipyards in Oakland, and in all that time, he had never seen god help anybody. “I found one Madonna today. Found it under my truck. Manni, he knows how to fix things, and he told me statues like this one can do miracles. Me, I’m one welder, and I’m only good at welding metal, but Manni he tells me this Madonna can grow avocados.”
“Mother of God, please help.”
Papa Joe took her hand. It felt smooth and soft and warm like his wife’s hands, the way they always felt in his dreams.
“People call me Papa Joe because I used to take care of the kids in the neighborhood. They’re all grown up now. I live alone.” He did not want to tell the woman the whole story because then he would have to tell her how his wife and baby had died in this room, and how he had gone crazy and run down the Mother of Jesus in front of Mary Star of the Sea Church. “Me, I was one welder, if it was metal I could fix it.”
They passed the night together like that, Papa Joe holding her hand and watching her lips for signs of life and telling her that Tungsten Inert Gas was a welding process that joined metals by heating them with a tungsten electrode that should not become part of the completed weld.
He told her about his lychee tree, the only one in Hilo that gave fruit, and the cactus plant in his driveway, the two cats who visited from next door, and how he kicked the crap out of Manni on New Years because Manni had used duct tape to fix his mailbox.
Sunday morning, the two nurses found Theresa breathing comfortably.
Like one miracle.
The spray-painted Madonna was standing in the corner. When one of the nurses tried to move her, the statue’s head wobbled, and the nurses noticed the duct tape around her neck.
“A golden Madonna,” said the nurse from New York, who up to that moment thought she had seen everything.
“Bandaged with duct tape,” said the nurse from Hilo.
They both laughed.
“Has to be Manni Matos done this. Went to elementary with him, and he always stay fixing everything with duct tape.”
As Papa Joe backed his tired, old truck out of the hospital driveway, the nurse from New York laughed so hard she thought she was going to pee her pants. And Theresa felt her baby move, heard her heart beating and knew life was coming, soon.
About our Winner
Lou Zitnik and our fiction contest have been good to each other over the years. Since our first contest in 1983, Zitnik’s stories have placed as honorable mentions three times, as runner up four times and grand-prize winner twice, including this year. “Entering is my yearly project,” says Zitnik. “It’s a chance to do some writing.”
Of course, it’s not Zitnik’s only chance. His stories have also appeared in TinFish, Kanelehua, Chaminade Literary Review, Bamboo Ridge, Pleiades, Hawai‘i Review and more. When not writing, Zitnik teaches “a little bit of everything” at Hawai‘i Community College, including, “first-year composition, introductory film, creative writing, literature of Hawai‘i.”
The Hilo details in “Duct-Taped in Hilo” came naturally to Zitnik. He and his wife live in a 1930s Craftsman-style plantation house in that town, finding it to be their favorite spot in the Islands after living in, and enjoying, Honolulu and Maui.
“Hilo is one of those places that reminds people how Hawai‘i used to be,” Zitnik says. “You can feel those times changing, but something about the sleepy, quiet older town is in the memories of a lot of people.”
Was there any particular inspiration for his winning story? Zitnik laughs. “My neighbor has one of those Madonna statues and painted it gold. I see it everyday. You see quite a few of them in the yards, in the cemetaries. Hilo is very religious and religion seems to be in the consciousness of many people these days. For writers, it’s a subject to try to make sense of and understand.”