Fiction Contest: Duct-Taped in Hilo

Presenting the grand prize- winning story from the 22nd Annual Honolulu Magazine Starbucks Coffee Hawaii Fiction Contest.

Illustration: Scott Thigpen

Friday night, the Golden Madonna appeared in Hilo. Saturday morning, Papa Joe, backing out of his driveway, checking his cracked rearview mirror, saw golden arms outstretched. “Holy moley,” he whispered. Felt a thud. And hit the brakes.

Tiny red birds fluttered from Papa Joe’s avocado tree to his mountain apple tree and back again. What was he supposed to do? He reached for the glove compartment, shook his head, then squeezed out of the tiny pickup and limped to the tailgate. “Where the heck,” he said, grabbing the Madonna under her arms and dragging her clear of the muffler, “did you come from?”

Golden eyes stared at the blue sky.

Gently, Papa Joe balanced the Madonna’s golden feet on the asphalt. Who would do such a thing? Leave a statue in the middle of the street? Didn’t people in this town ever forget? He touched the crack at the base of the Madonna’s neck. Gently, he brushed bits of asphalt off her lips. His fingertips came away sticky golden.

On a mist-slippery road between Volcano and Mountain View, Theresa Domingo pressed on the gas pedal of her ’84 Stanza and yelled into her cell phone, “I love you!” She was headed down the mountain, after a 24-hour shift at the Aloha Aina Mana Bed and Breakfast, to work the breakfast rush at Blaine’s. “I love you,” she shouted. Then her Stanza flew into the air, hung there for a moment, crashed through a wall of bamboo and slammed into a telephone pole.

“Holy mother of god,” a tourist from Virginia said, crossing himself, running, wiping the morning rain from his face. The Stanza had landed on its back. “No one survived this one.” Bracing his feet against the rusted metal, he peeled back what was left of the drivers-side window. A woman’s hand drooped out, her bloody fingers still clutching a cell phone.

“Theresa? You there?” a man’s voice asked. “Theresa?”

The tourist pried the phone out of her fingers and yelled into it, “Send an ambulance. Please. I’m …” He did not know where he was. “On the volcano road,” he said. “The phone belongs to a woman. Send an ambulance.” He felt Theresa’s bloody wrist. Felt a faint pulse. “Hold on, dear,” he managed to say. He did not know where to start. He wiped the blood from her arm, uncovering a homemade tattoo, the outline of a cross inked above Kona Girl.

Theresa’s lips moved. The cell phone kept talking. “Kona double espresso,” a man’s voice said.

The tourist was crying, inhaling cold mountain air mixed with the smell of gasoline and ginger perfume. He did not know what to do. “Don’t talk, dear. Save your strength,” he said, touching Theresa’s lips gently with his fingertips. “Be quiet now. It’ll be OK, honey.” His fingertips came away covered with blood.

Papa Joe watched the woman’s bright red fingernails pin his $5 bill to the counter. He didn’t like to spend more than 50 cents on coffee, but today he needed Manni’s help. “Double ex-large Kona,” he said.

“Venti,” the girl smiled.

“Howzit,” Papa Joe answered. The woman laughed, and Papa Joe remembered a young woman like her, a wild haole girl with red hair and dangling earrings. This woman behind the counter could be her daughter. When she turned to get his coffee, her huge round pregnant stomach brushed against a tray of glasses. “Hard work being one mother,” Papa Joe said.

The woman rubbed her belly and smiled, “Isn’t he beautiful?” She pushed the $5 bill and a hefty mug of coffee across the counter. “Manni said he’d be out in a minute.”

No ring on her finger. Women didn’t need husbands these days, not even for having babies. Pretty soon they’d only need to take a pill. Papa Joe wondered why he could think of such crazy things, but when it came to a statue appearing in the middle of the road, his mind refused to work. He left the money on the counter and sat next to the window, in a soft leather chair. When he lifted the mug to his lips, he smelled ginger perfume. The woman had left her scent on the cup handle. He sniffed it again, then set the cup down on the table. He was too old to be smelling yellow ginger. He had lived alone for 25 years, and smelling such things only made him feel more alone.


This Year’s Winners

Congratulations to the winners of the
HONOLULU Magazine Starbucks Coffee
Hawai‘i 22nd Annual Fiction Contest.
Grand Prize
$1,000 cash, plus $500 in
Starbucks merchandise

Lou Zitnik, Hilo
“Duct-Taped in Hilo”

$50 cash, plus $100 in
Starbucks merchandise

L.S. Collison, Kamuela
“Paradise: On the Edge and Slipping”

Alexei Melnick, Kailua

Roger K.K. Nakamine, Honolulu
“Aching Shoulders and Sore Jaws”

Randy K. Otaka, LAC, Mililani
“Chan Tui”

Cedric Yamanaka, Honolulu
“Something About the Reef,
the Tide, the Undertow”

Honorable Mention
Mitchell K. Dwyer, Honolulu

Kathlyn Furuya, Honolulu
“The Underhouse”

Paula Helfrich, Hilo
“Hilo Valentine”

Lisa Linn Kanae, Honolulu
“Little Birds”

Stri Longanecker, Honolulu
“Nine Days Late”

Randy K. Otaka, LAC, Mililani
“Willow Weep for Me”

Christy Passion, Honolulu
“New Faith”

Lynn Sokei, Boulder, Colo.
“Paradise Revisited”

Val Tavai, Baltimore Maryland
“When My Aunties Ate Saimin”

Ken Wheaton, New York, N.Y.
“Waimea Break”

At the cash register, a fireman in a blue uniform shouted into his cell phone, “I love you. I really do.”

Papa Joe closed his eyes and saw the young fireman balanced on a shaky ladder, escaping with a woman in his arms from a burning building.

“But no can, no more, Theresa. I’m not the one.”

Papa Joe opened his eyes and saw the fireman yelling into his cell phone as he grabbed a mug from the pregnant cashier. “I’m not the one!” The ladder collapsed, and for Papa Joe, suddenly, the world had become all too obvious.

The two police officers had to shout to be heard over the EMTs wheeling Theresa into the emergency room.

“Speeding,” the tall cop yelled.

“Not according to the witness!”

Theresa felt a cool mist blowing her lover’s words through the car window.

“Domingo,” the EMT read from a driver’s license spotted with bloody fingerprints. “Twenty-eight years old. Kiawe Street. No insurance card. No medical record.”

Theresa wanted to tell them not to hurt her baby. She was late for the breakfast rush and her mouth wouldn’t work. Where was he? He should be here. He’s a good man, hard headed, like his father. Born again. Don’t hurt my baby.

“Any drugs in the car?”


“She busted up pretty good.”

“A hundred, maybe two hundred, stitches.”

“At least,” the tall cop said. “Who knows what else.”

Papa Joe threw the blanket off the Madonna.

“Holy moley,” Manni said, crossing himself. He had stopped going to church a year after he graduated St. Joe’s Elementary, but he still knew the moves. Hadn’t he crossed himself three times before winning the Revolving 7s Jackpot in Vegas?

Papa Joe stuffed his hands in his pockets.

“That’s one weird statue,” Manni said. “Like you get one body in your truck.”

“Her neck’s cracked,” Papa Joe said, thinking of his first welding torch. He pressed his thick index finger against the crack.

“If she were made of metal, I could fix her.”

“Things aren’t right,” Manni said, “when people leave a statue in the middle of the road.”

Both men nodded their heads, both thinking of Papa Joe’s tiny cul-de-sac and the night 25 years ago when Papa Joe had run down the statue in front of Mother Mary Star of the Sea Church.

“Has to be outside agitators. Your neighbors too old to be leaving statues in the middle of the road, unless maybe old man Pacheco. He crazy religious kine.”

“Why would a religious person leave a statue in the road?”

“Religious people do all kine crazy things. Me, I had one auntie, crying all the time for her avocado tree that nevah give fruit. Huge that tree but no fruit. Then she seen a statue like this one for $5 at the Buddhist temple rummage sale. Had black mold all over. She rubbed it clean with bleach and stuck it in her yard, facing that avocado tree. Then she prayed to that statue for grow avocados. Oh please, god, give me avocados.”

Papa Joe saw a golden cross held in a young woman’s shaking fingers.

“The next day, that tree get plenty big kine juicy fruit. Ono. Buttery. My auntie, she took the fruit round to her neighbors, bragging about how buttery and juicy they was and about her statue and her miracle.”

“No such thing as miracles,” Papa Joe said.

“Did I tell you this story before? Anyway, you right. The next day that statue disappears. I think maybe some kid stole it. And everything goes to do-do. The avocado tree stops giving fruit. Then the leaves fall off, nothing left but a skeleton. Like thunder hit it. Completely dead.” Manni crossed himself three times.

Papa Joe tossed the blanket over the Madonna. “Me, I’m taking it to the dump. Can’t be fooling around with a statue when I’m supposed to work the late shift.”

“You can’t take a statue of the Madonna to the dump. You already get marks against you. Remember. This de´ja … you know.”

“Last time I meant to hit the statue.”


“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.”