“Lights Underwater” By Jeffery Ryan Long

"Untitled" by Janie Stamm / janiestamm.com

The Maestro is warm. 

We didn’t call him the Maestro because he directed symphonies. We called him the Maestro because he wore a blue suit all over Honolulu. And when he didn’t wear the blue suit, he wore a black suit, switching one for the other via a leatherette garment bag he carried over his shoulder, hanging by two fingers. 

The Maestro’s other hand is occupied by a mass of plastic grocery bags, all of them tied shut and held together with one fist.

He doesn’t know he’s the Maestro. He only knows he’s warm, just two blocks out from the shelter. Over the years, we watched him put on weight. The jackets sit tight over the waist, now, and the shoulder pads sit crooked. His paunch strains against his dingy tuxedo shirt, which he wears half-tucked. 

At the bus stop, the Maestro stands still, thoughtful. Without losing a grip on his stuff, he withdraws two dollars from his jacket pocket. A move he must have practiced, because he pulls it off in seconds as the bus lands and lowers. And then, as a finale, the Maestro feeds his money into the fare machine. The driver, an older woman in an Aloha shirt and a cap, knows the Maestro and lets him do his thing with the bags and the suit and the two bills.

The other riders know the Maestro, too, and watch him as he moves to a seat. The Maestro gets on the same bus at the same time every day. The Maestro makes no indication that he recognizes anyone. He sits, but he doesn’t release his hold on the bags. Even when he was tired that one time, he wouldn’t let them go. We saw him under a tree, standing, breathing hard in the dark as we walked home from our night class, holding it all together. The bus rolls on, down Ala Moana Boulevard toward the shopping center, and everyone’s attention is drawn toward the windows. Car dealerships next to tents and cardboard lean-to’s, the shells of condos being built, shirtless men, women leading children down the sidewalks.

Ray, at the security podium at the entrance of Hamilton Library, watches the Maestro coming up the stairs from the tree-shaded walk that runs from the roundabout in front of Student Services to East-West Road. Even at a distance, he sees the Maestro’s face is red, and when the Maestro gets closer, Ray notices the Maestro’s shirt under his jacket is dark with sweat. Every time the sliding glass doors of the air-chilled library opens in front of his podium, Ray is splashed by the soupy heat from outside. 

Ray wants to talk. His brother’s out of jail again, and already, his mom is a nervous wreck because she doesn’t know where Marshall is most of the time. Everybody thinks he’s back in Sonny’s garage, getting another homemade tattoo, planning out the next gaming joint to rob. It’s not even about the money anymore. It’s a compulsion. It’s like God blessed him with a million things to steal.   

When the Maestro enters—the third time this week—Ray nods and half-smiles. He wants to ask the Maestro what we all want to ask the Maestro: Are you like me? Can I tell you about my car without brakes, this no-benefits job, my brother whom I love? Or are all of us rolling forever parallel, staring through a paper towel tube as if it was some telescope into the future?       

Maybe the Maestro sees Ray, maybe he knows him, and maybe he sees him and knows him and doesn’t care. Ray thinks the latter as the Maestro walks past him into the library to the computer stations past the elevators and the historical display on the renaming of Porteus Hall, and Ray wishes that he had the authority to throw out these pieces of shit.        

The Maestro sets his bags at his feet, hangs the spare suit over the back of the chair next to him. He’s sweating still—we’re all sweating—but it will pass. He flicks the mouse, and the screen lights up: new monographs in the Hawaiian collection, the Voyager search database. The cursor moves over a tab that leads to the internet. 

Nicole, in an effort to start her paper on “A bird, came down the walk” for English 250, had plugged her earphones into the computer tower and searched Key & Peele clips on YouTube, which led to Broad City promos, some The Kids in the Hall skits that were hit or miss.  Her method of starting something is first getting into another thing altogether, most often movie trailers and old Saturday Night Live skits. After an hour and a half, her interest has run its course. As she removes her earphones and clicks to the blank Word document, she witnesses the scene two computers away.

Of course she’s seen the Maestro before. Stepping out of Manoa Gardens after it had grown dark, after she’d been drinking vodka tonics since noon, holding the hand of some rando from a class they’d cut, headed to the Japanese gardens to make out. The Maestro was coming her way from the University Avenue bus stop, suit jacket gleaming as he stepped from the shadows into the streetlight and back into the darkness, bags swinging.

“Who’s that guy?” she’d said to the fellow breathing heavily on her neck.   


“The guy with the suit. And the bags.”

“Fucking beats me, man.” His breath smelled like beer, and the rest of him like mildew.

Nicole hated when guys called her “man” and she almost told this smelly fuck to fuck off so she could follow the Maestro. But the die had sort of already been cast for the evening, and even though she was non-committal about the dude, she still wanted to make out.

She sees the security guard and some concerned-looking woman standing over the Maestro, pointing at a laminated sign posted throughout the Hamilton computer stations: please limit public use of library computers to one hour. The Maestro ignores them, typing incredibly fast into some document or program she can’t see. After a few moments, the Maestro notices the librarian and the security guard, and he lifts his long fingers from the keyboard. They talk to him in low voices and continue pointing at the sign.

He says something in response, but Nicole can’t hear. The library computers are only half-full. The librarian and the security guard point more insistently: it’s no decision of ours, it’s a library policy, we can’t do anything about it.

The Maestro stands, towering over the security guard and the librarian. Both step back. He adjusts the tight jacket, takes his bags from the floor, and walks to the exit. The security guard shakes his head and leaves for the podium. The librarian watches the back of the Maestro until someone calls her to the reference desk.

Nicole closes out her blank Word document, carefully takes her backpack in hand, and eases two chairs over. The screen has gone to a liquid blackness intermittently pierced by blue and yellow light bursting outward, overlaying the soft glossy display until swallowed by the blackness again. Nicole takes a breath and softly hits the space bar. To see what the Maestro sees, to know what the Maestro knows.

“Was it like porn or something?” Kiyoko says, then exhales smoke through a dryer sheet stuffed into a toilet paper roll up toward the bathroom fan near the ceiling. She wants to check if the fan’s still on because she can’t hear it over the music. She’s let the fear in and it’s beginning to settle.

“What?” Nicole says. “No. It was like this blog.”

“Great. Another blog.”

“It wasn’t just a blog. It was this dense, never-ending screed.”

They’re in Nicole’s Noelani dorm apartment bathroom, shared by four young women who blame one another for how gross it is. Long hair everywhere, bunched and tangled in the corners—and the shower, which one of them still uses, now takes most of the day to drain. Mini trash can overflowing with crumpled toilet tissues. Toothpaste tubes shriveled under a mirror spattered with floss remnants and hard water drops. They’ve got Kiyoko’s laptop open on the edge of the sink, playing the new Khruangbin record over Spotify, punishing the laptop speakers, and the whole thing is beginning to freak Kiyoko the fuck out.

“I just wish I’d printed it,” Nicole says. “But I didn’t want to, you know, invade his privacy. I thought I could just log him out and read it online, but I couldn’t find it when I searched for it again. It’s probably set to private anyway.” Nicole takes a drag from the joint and crosses her arms over her stomach as she leans against the sink’s counter. To Kiyoko, the unconscious gesture is like Grace Kelly on the set of Rear Window.
Kiyoko is half in love with Nicole. Everyone is half in love with Nicole. So enthusiastic and curious. No perception of “cool” whatsoever. She wears scrunchies and listens to Bobby Darin. Nicole is graceful, artless, the kind of person who’s right no matter what she says, what she does.

Nicole sighs. “I’m tired of writing about the Board of Regents meetings, or the basketball coach. It seems that the only thing interesting going on at UH is the budget.”

Kiyoko suddenly remembers Nicole’s a reporter for the Ka Leo O Hawai‘i, the university newspaper. It’s an easy thing to forget since no one reads the Ka Leo anymore. Kiyoko’s not sure anyone reads anything anymore. There’s not enough space in the ocean for what people don’t read anymore—and what’s the ocean really for now?  To dump all the shit no one needs? She stares at a particularly menacing clump of hair pressed up against the shower basin. If all the drains in the world unclogged at once, would hair overflow the ocean? Would the waves be capped with nets of hair, the tide line demarcated by entwined strands of hair washed up on the beaches? God, I have to stop, she thinks as she turns back to Nicole.

“—and it was about this temple. And in the temple, a chorus of ninety-nine men and women chanting all day, replaced in intervals by other chanters, so the number remains at ninety-nine. At the top of the temple, a bell rings when the sun’s at a certain angle in the morning, and a certain angle in the evening, when it hits the Ko‘olau Range a certain way and the Wai‘anae Range a certain way. The bell rings in the air, on the radio, the TVs, the clocks, the computer, and the ringing is to remind everyone two times a day they have a soul, like everyone else. Two times a day everyone is thinking exactly what everyone else is thinking. I mean, it’s crazy, but it’s not that crazy.”

Was Nicole artless and graceful or graceless and artful? Kiyoko studies her and wonders. There are times when Nicole’s glow fades and she seems like some kind of bear, some kind of fucking monster. She’s sure, in two months, maybe she’ll hate Nicole.

“I wish I hadn’t logged out so quick,” Nicole says. “I just didn’t feel right. Who knows who this guy is? He could have been a world class musician. Or a great engineer. I don’t know, maybe someone left him. Maybe he had a nervous breakdown before a chess tournament. He could be this genius in an old suit wandering among us, and we just ignore him because he seems like some nutty homeless dude. He must not be a danger to anyone, because we let him come and go on campus.”

Kiyoko feels the cold end of the joint between her fingers. “So you wanna do like some profile piece on this guy for the Ka Leo?”

“Not quite,” Nicole says. She’s smiling, and Kiyoko can’t feel the fear anymore, she can’t see past the glow. Nicole’s voice carries over the trebly guitar riffs from the laptop. “He had his email open, too. I didn’t look through it, but I got the address. I want to interview him.”

We like to think the Maestro believes in something—we like to believe everybody believes in something. Perhaps he sees his temple in the Kaka‘ako construction sites at dusk, its chorus as the interminable traffic down Ala Moana Boulevard and Nimitz Highway, its bell in the sirens of police cars and ambulances and fire trucks. And he’s right, when we hear the sirens coming up behind us, for a moment we all share the same thought: thank Christ it’s not me.

“There’s an island far away from here,” the Maestro says to the man in the cot next to his. The sun doesn’t shine through the high windows anymore, and the Maestro is in his shirt sleeves, tying his bags together under his cot and to his cot, so he’ll wake if someone tries to take them. 

“Got a lot of islands,” the man says as he lifts his legs over the side, puts his hands behind his head. “Big Island to the Southeast, then Maui, and Kaho‘olawe, Lānaʻi a little west, Molokaʻi north of that, then—let’s see—Oʻahu, but you knew that one. Northwest is Kauaʻi, then Niʻihau.”

Maybe the Maestro is thinking of the island from his dreams, that he witnessed before him on a moonlit night. He swam there, fully clothed. The sand of the shores was coarse and firm, and as he walked deeper toward the center of the island, he cast off pieces of his suit into bushes of aloe. 

A light glowed at the center of the island, emanating from a pool surrounded by rock formations, monuments to gods human-like and more than human. When he peered into the pool, he saw, at various depths, globes of light. Naked before the gods, the Maestro interpreted a command in each of their stone eyes—go forth and see.

The Maestro dove. The globes of light were soft and though they were luminous, without heat. Deeper he went, past even the volcanic foundation of the island, until he floated above foggy magma fires illuminating a hideous tableau.

On the floor of the ocean, devils managed construction of the Kingdom of the Dead, its towers composed of corpses—the bloated bodies of drowned fishermen, poisoned porpoises, monk seals, held together by plastic meat packaging and human hair. A giant octopus nestled around the dome of a temple spied the sinking Maestro, and its eight arms unfurled and propelled its inflated head toward him, eye first.

Still sinking, the Maestro flailed his arms. The island above him had disappeared. The lights that guided him were far away, beyond the surface of the water, stars in the sky. 

Maybe our dreams are the same as Maestro’s dream. Maybe we have all been condemned to the Kingdom of the Dead, that realm where together we will mourn our guilt and plead for redemption, where we will turn the lathe and put our shoulders to the wheel together, and not one of us will have the privilege of playing tourist. This night, though, the Maestro’s head is on a pillow on a cot in a place that is not his home. It is in our best interests that the homeless remain homeless. We break down the tents along Ilalo Street and throw their stuff into the garbage and where they go after that is not our problem. Thank Christ it isn’t me.   

We like to think the Maestro believes in something—and he does, we know he does when he gets up and does his thing with the suits and the bags, carrying all his things to a computer somewhere, where he logs in and begins to type. He believes he has a soul, like everyone else.

The next morning the Maestro reads an email from Nicole. She wants to speak to him. She says she’s writing a story about homelessness in Hawai‘i and wants an interview. 

What if he doesn’t respond? Or, what if he found out everything he could about her and stalked her—you have my email address, well, now I have yours, bitch. No. He agrees to the interview with this Nicole, sends her a time and place. Go forth and see. It’s time to tell the truth.

Kiyoko’s waiting on a concrete bench outside Kuykendall, struggling through a confluence of hangover and dope-over. Art class was hell, though she got an A on a square piece of cardstock she painted deep red and titled Super-Period. Now she can’t really look at people, so she watches the zebra doves woo one another and peck at the ground. 

Many of the birds’ feet are deformed, mangled—some with toes that look like chewed gum, some of them hobbling on callused stumps. She used to think the doves were all inbred, or maybe it was something about pollution, or cats even. But then, someone told her it was hair, long hair. That it gets all knotted, tighter and tighter around their feet and toes until they lose circulation. One of the doves is cooing, a bracelet of black hair and bits of filth around its ankle.

Kiyoko groans as Nicole slams into her on the bench, scooting closer and holding her cell phone to her face. “He replied! He said he’d meet.”


“The Maestro! Tomorrow night at Glazer’s. You have to come with me. You have to.”   

Kiyoko most assuredly does not want to go with Nicole to meet with the Maestro at Glazer’s. But she knows she will. “Did you clear this with your editor?”

“I think I mentioned it,” Nicole says.

The closer they get to Glazer’s—walking down University Avenue from the dorms—the more Kiyoko does not want to go with Nicole. Nicole will go back to Los Angeles in a year. She doesn’t give a shit about homelessness in Hawai‘i. She wants to win an award. Tonight she’s even wearing pants. Pants. Kiyoko has never seen Nicole wear pants before. 

To Kiyoko, homelessness in Hawai‘i can be explained simply. More luxury condos, more people living on the street. The Russian and Chinese millionaires buying these properties don’t care. Fuck, even the people who live here don’t care. We don’t have the time to, working two jobs for a shitty apartment in Makiki. Kiyoko wishes she had a beer, wishes she was watching Netflix.

At Glazer’s, Nicole spots an open table and moves toward it. Some of the customers are in high chairs along the window that looks out to King Street, others at tables along the walls tapping on laptops with their earbuds in. Nicole motions for Kiyoko to take the table across from her, while she withdraws her pen and writing pad from her backpack. Kiyoko sets her bag down and walks to the counter, thinking her own version of Nietzche—if you poke at something, it’ll poke right fucking back at you. A few moments later, we see the Maestro walk in the glass door, plastic bags leading the way. 

We aren’t impressed. The sentiment we share is exasperation. What’s this motherfucker up to? Christ, now I gotta start watching my computer and my phone and my backpack? Is he gonna stink, or what? He sits across from Nicole, and she seems startled, though not put off in any way. 

Nicole introduces herself but doesn’t shake the Maestro’s hand, since he’s busy adjusting bags at his feet. “Well,” she says, and asks her first question.

Before she can finish, the Maestro says something to her. We can’t hear what he tells Nicole because we’re up at the counter ordering iced coffee, or at our laptops with the earbuds in. But we see Nicole’s face as it flushes the shade of Super-Period, a kind of mini-nova before the color drains away from her. She doesn’t bother with her writing pad or her backpack. She runs out of the coffee shop. She poked him, he poked her back—and she left, touched.

We didn’t hear what the Maestro said. But as we were jogging down Kapahulu one night, we heard the guy beating on the metal shell of a trash can with a piece of rebar, screaming, “I want to die! I just want to die!” and we thought someone should call the cops on that crazy fuck before he hurt somebody. We heard the asshole that keyed our car in Kaimuki, who said “Fucking haole” when we caught him, who gave us a black eye after we pushed him down. He’s been saying that shit a long time—writing messages on cardboard, about how the haoles all should die, leaving them on windshields and under car tires. We didn’t concede him any righteousness. We got pissed off about it.

Fuck them, is what we told one another. Why should I have to worry about walking from my car at the Discovery Center to my office at the School of Medicine? We know they’re just assaulting each other in their tent villages. We heard the woman with the baby stroller full of crap—half the time the strollers have babies, half the time just trash bags full of recyclables—going on and on about how her parents left her a half million, but her brother exed her out of the inheritance. Yeah, right. Uh-huh. Really? And we let her go on and on until she was all talked out and right into the next fucking thing.

We saw the Maestro when he left Glazer’s. We stopped for a second when we saw him in the alley, breathing hard again, his bags weighing him down, his suit illogical in the heat. For a second he lived there, in our brain, before someone called our name, or a car honked, or the light changed, and we had to keep running.

Jeffery Ryan Long currently lives in Honolulu, Hawai‘i, where he’s often rolling along the King Street bike lane in a black, beat-up Trek. His work has appeared in various local literary journals, including Hawai‘i Review, Bamboo Ridge, and Vice-Versa. His early short fiction is collected in University and King, published by Aignos Press in 2014. Two of Jeff’s favorite things at random are Freddie Hubbard and breakfast burritos.