Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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SHJ Issue 2
Fall 2010

The Elephant Gang

Steve Heller

...a night when kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.
—John Cheever

The green Mustang I picked up at the Honolulu airport three days ago darts through the dense traffic of lower Manoa Valley like a slippery mongoose. I’d never driven a convertible before this trip, but that’s hardly the source of my unease.

“We look like a cliché in this car,” I say, raising my voice above the rush of open air around us.

“Do you really care?” the young woman beside me replies.

The wind lifts her strawberry-blond hair like wings, her bare arms and shoulders honey brown above the pastel-flowered summer dress I bought her in Topeka, Kansas, four thousand miles behind us.

Do I care?

Her name is Sheyene, pronounced like the town in Wyoming. Sheyene is twenty-two, and I am fifty. For her, and for reasons that precede her, I have left one life and begun another, irreparably transforming the lives of those closest to me. The painful rebuilding has been underway for more than a year.

But that is not the story this tale will tell. This is the story of a different story, an echo from the past that informs the unfathomable future.

“Not at this point,” I finally reply.

Sheyene squeezes my elbow and gives me a revivifying smile. Sheyene is hope, optimism, and, what is most surprising for her age, strength—a strength that will be tested again and again in the days and years ahead. But that is the unfathomable future. In the present, the two of us are on our way to see Phil Damon, an old friend of mine from my graduate school days at UH. Phil is the most flexible person I know. Synchronicity is the term he most often uses to locate himself and others in time and space. His simultaneous lives—writer, teacher, runner, spiritualist, husband, father, and friend—have taught me the meaning of the word. The center of Phil’s universe moves with him. He is always home.

Today I could use that same sense of belonging. In a few weeks my oldest son, David, will begin his freshman year at Kansas State, where Mary and I both still teach. Rachael Lehualani is four now. In my former life, Hawai`i was Mary’s and my special place. She and the children are on the Big Island right now, after three weeks in a beachfront house in Waimanalo on the opposite side of the Ko`olau Mountains, which rise at the head of the valley before us. I haven’t seen my children in a month, by far the longest period since the breakup. Their absence has left a hollow place inside me that even a Hawaiian honeymoon with the surprise love of my life cannot fill.

“I can’t wait to meet Phil,” Sheyene says.

I nod. There’s another reason we’re going to see Phil Damon: I’ve asked him to tell Sheyene the story.

At the corner of Lowery and Woodlawn we find the new UH faculty apartments. Phil is standing in front of his guest parking space, an amused look on his face.

“Convertible, eh?” are his first words to me.

“Hey, haole,” I reply. “This is Sheyene.”

Phil gives her a smile. “Sheyene,” he says, pronouncing it correctly. The car may be a surprise, but Sheyene is not. Like all my old friends we will meet on this island, Phil already knows all about us. Phil’s in his early sixties now, graying but in great shape. He’s just returned from running a marathon on the Big Island, and looks the part in his blue T-shirt and short-shorts. Sheyene and I slip off our sandals before entering his first-floor apartment, and I feel myself relax.

Inside, Phil laughs at the bag of taro chips we picked up at Safeway, but gratefully accepts the tortilla chips, salsa, and beer. Phil’s apartment is decorated in Asian-Pacific decor, with rattan furniture, large unframed oil paintings of hibiscus and other flowers, and a Japanese-style room divider that softens the light from a floor lamp.

“Sit anywhere,” Phil says. “Ann will be home in a little bit, then we’ll all go out to dinner.”

In the twenty-eight years I’ve known him, Phil has lived with several women, but only he and Ann have endured. Both of them admit it’s been hard work.

“So you want me to tell the story, eh?” Phil offers when we’re finally all situated on the floor in front of the rattan sofa with big white pillows.

“Sheyene’s heard only my version. We both want to hear yours.”

“It’s been a long time,” Phil warns us.


“The year before I was born,” Sheyene interjects.

I give her a mock grimace. Your dad’s not getting old, Sheyene recently explained to my youngest son, Daniel. He’s already old.

Phil glances at both of us and tries not to smile. “Might have been ‘77,” he says. “I can’t remember anymore.”

“Neither can I,” I admit and take a swig of beer.

Why do you want to marry an old fart like me? I asked Sheyene on our way to the small civil ceremony in Olathe, Kansas, three days ago.

I’ve always preferred older men, she replied. Young men are stupid and scared. They never say anything interesting. Before you, I always had to teach the men in my life everything. How to talk, how to kiss, you name it. Marriage shouldn’t have to be that much work.

Work? How much work is it going to be to be interesting for the rest of my life? How much work is it going to be to forge a new life at my age and provide for everyone I still love from my old one? How much work is it going to be for Sheyene to watch the man she has fallen in love with crumble with age while she is still in her prime? How much work will it be to prepare for her own second life?

“I can’t believe neither of you have ever written about this,” Sheyene says.

“Most of the reasons to write about something like this are not good reasons,” I explain.

I know Phil agrees with me, but the look on his face asks: Do you have a good reason now?

Before Phil can speak this thought, the front door opens and Ann breezes in. She’s dressed in the casual style of a professional woman living in Hawai`i: sleeveless white blouse, loose-fitting black slacks, sandals.

“Lovely to meet you,” Ann says to Sheyene.

We’re both relieved. In some respects, Ann and Phil’s history resembles Sheyene’s and mine. But not every woman with reason to empathize has chosen to do so. Ann is around my age, as slim as Sheyene, and looks even healthier than Phil.

“Shall we save the story until after dinner?” Phil suggests.

The story?” Ann asks.


A few hours later, we’re all resettled on the floor of Phil’s living room, ready for the tale.

“So anyway,” Phil begins, squatting yoga-style in front of the glass doors to the lanai, “five of us were having dinner at Mark Wilson’s apartment. Steve and Mary, Anita Povich and me, and Mark. It was after dinner, actually, and we were listening to, mmmm, Frank Sinatra, I believe...” Phil looks at me for confirmation.

“Ella Fitzgerald is what I remember. Tell Sheyene where Mark’s apartment was.”

“Up Wilhelmina Rise, right above Diamond Head...”

Phil’s voice rises, carrying us up the slope of the mountain the students of Punahoe named Mount Olympus. As Phil sets the stage for the drama to follow, I find myself chasing the echo that brought Sheyene and me here tonight, replaying the scene simultaneously in my own mind’s eye, blending Phil’s vision with my own, reliving the night when my own story could have ended, but didn’t...


You don’t know your standards, Phil is telling me as the smooth voice of Ella Fitzgerald lilts over the darkening lanai. Mark Wilson’s apartment is the lower half of a mountainside house. His landlady, Mrs. Krause, lives upstairs. Phil, Mary, and I are leaning against the railing of the lanai, taking in the cool evening air, while inside the house Mark, my former American lit. professor, jitterbugs with Anita Povich, the editor of Hawai`i Review. Anita is Phil’s student and current girlfriend, but for some reason Phil isn’t dancing tonight. Through the living room window I catch a flash of Mark twisting and jiving to an up-tempo tune I don’t recognize, and I have to smile. Despite his early ‘60s beatnik goatee, Mark is the straightest arrow I know: a Mark Twain and Henry James scholar who in the years that follow will become so dismayed by the influence of theory on literary studies that he will retire nearly a decade before his time.

The dancers both spin into view now, moving with easy grace to the lively beat underlying Ella’s scat vocals. Anita is tall and lithe, a perfect partner for Mark. The rest of us have retreated to the lanai to avoid gawking at the two of them in helpless admiration. Neither Mary nor I know how to jitterbug, and thus are excused from any embarrassment for not participating. The truth is, I don’t dance, no matter what’s on the stereo. I didn’t even dance with Mary at our wedding. The dull, immutable fact of this is on my mind—and probably Mary’s as well.

The tropical night is cool at this elevation, and Mary is wearing bluejeans. She looks good in them. Tall, slim, and somehow elegant, her dark, shoulder-length hair blending right into the night. We’re standing hip-to-hip, as we often did in those days whenever friends or family were around. I probably have my arm curled around her waist or draped across her back; I don’t remember. What I do remember is the distance between us that cannot be seen: a formless gap bridged by neither physical contact nor words. Not, at least, by words we will ever learn to speak. The visible gaps—her Catholicism, my atheism; her desire for home and family, my wanderlust—these will narrow in the years ahead as we each labor to adjust to the other. But the invisible gap, the indeterminable difference between us, this will never disappear. Mary and I share one secret, of which we will never speak: As long as we remain still, as long as we neither talk nor move, the real gap between us cannot be easily perceived by others. And the two of us can successfully ignore it. So while Phil talks, and Mark and Anita swing and sway to a cool jazz beat, Mary and I stand hip-to-hip in silence.

But that’s not all that’s happening tonight. With the honeyed tones of Ella Fitzgerald flowing over us into the cool Hawaiian evening, we’re actually hopeful. Despite the invisible distance we both feel, we believe in ourselves and our marriage. And we should: We’re two decades from its demise. Somehow, in our stiff silence, we’re trying.

You’re right, I finally concede to Phil. I don’t know the standards.

Standards—the most popular songs of the big band/jazz era of the 30s, 40s, and 50s—characterize the music of my parents’ generation, not mine. My parents’ tastes actually ran more to country and western. Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and cross-over artists like Patsy Cline are what I heard on the radio every morning of my youth. But I never danced to them, either. Even if Mick Jagger or Grace Slick belted out a rock and roll invitation from Mark’s Magnavox, my clumsy Okie feet would remain planted right here on the lanai like two potted ferns.

Phil shakes his head. He’s writing a novel called The Jazz Pilgrims, and I know too little about its title subject to appreciate many of its nuances. My ignorance causes Phil to shift the conversation to writing, a subject he assumes I’m more comfortable with. I’ve recently published my very first short story, and my beginner’s pride probably shows.

Phil is telling us about an off-campus workshop he’s teaching that uses writing as a tool to achieve wellness. I can feel Mary’s gaze drift back toward the dancers and the music.

One thing I’ve learned about writing, Phil says, is its therapeutic value. I must look skeptical, for abruptly he adds: So what do YOU think the purpose of writing is?

The question catches me by surprise. In reply, I mumble something incomprehensible about Immanuel Kant.

Kant? Phil says, raising his eyebrows. You write because of Kant?

Of course I don’t. I’m a twenty-six-or-seven-year-old fool who’s written three or four short stories. I don’t really know why I write, and I will not know for years. Sometime in the next decade, after my first book is published, Phil will introduce me at a Honolulu reading as a serious writer whose stories of Hawai`i show that he always paid attention. Phil will be wrong. In my twenties, I am not attentive. I’m scared.

Well, uh—

My stammering response is pierced by a shriek.

The sound bolts us off the railing as if it were electrified.

Mary grabs my arm. Steve.

It came from upstairs, I say.

The screen door bangs open, and Mark rushes out. That’s Mrs. Krause, he says—and races across the lanai to the outside steps that climb the side of the house to the driveway and the side entrance to Mrs. Krause’s upstairs apartment.

Phil is only a step or two behind Mark, but Mary hangs onto my arm, holding me back. Don’t go up there, she pleads.

It’s OK, I assure her, and pull free. Go inside with Anita—and find the phone.

I am halfway up the steps when Phil comes flying back down. Look out! he cries, then leaps around me, taking the steps three at a time.

What’s happening? I call after him, but Phil is already around the corner, out of sight. When I turn back around, Mark is coming down the steps as well, slowly, his hands raised above his head. Immediately behind him is a man with a nylon stocking pulled down over his face.

Move, the stocking says.

OK, Mark says, as I turn and march back down the steps in front of them. We’re moving.

Just before we reach the bottom, I turn and glance at the house next door. Its windows are dark. Please, I whisper, sending the plea into the deepening night: Let someone hear.

As we pass the window of Mark’s living room, I catch a glimpse of Mary and Anita watching us through the screen. There is no fear in Mary’s eyes, only a strange curiosity. So who’s this? she says, staring past me at the intruder as we all enter the living room.

I can tell from her voice and her posture—hands on her hips, one eyebrow cocked—that the spectacle before her has assumed the texture of a dream. This isn’t really happening.

Then Anita, her face sweaty from dancing, says the words aloud: This isn’t happening.

Stay calm, I say in a low voice as I join the women by the rattan sofa. I squeeze Mary’s elbow. We’re going to be all right.

When Mark steps over beside us, I see the gun for the first time. It’s silver.

Dis evahbody? the gunman’s lips ask through the nylon, and I realize he’s local.

Everyone hesitates. Through the doorway to Mark’s bedroom I can see Phil with his back to us, talking into the telephone. Mary squeezes my arm; we don’t dare look at each other.

Then the gunman turns and sees Phil. Ey, put dat down!

OK, Phil says, and sets the phone back in its cradle. He raises his palms to show he has nothing in them, and turns slowly to face the doorway.

You call da cops! the gunman accuses.

It’s OK, Phil pleads. I couldn’t remember the address. They don’t know where we are.

I hold my breath as the gunman advances toward Phil. He shoves Phil aside and yanks the phone cord out of the wall.

...and the world disconnects.


“I had the police on the phone,” Phil is telling Sheyene. Through the glass doors behind his back the night is lit by a sprinkling of stars. “I was talking to them, and I just couldn’t remember Mark’s address.”

From her spot on the sofa, Ann shakes her head and smiles. She’s heard Phil tell the story many times, and knows not to interrupt at this point. Sheyene’s reaction is different. She gives Phil a pained smile, then looks over at me. Her expression is sympathetic, innocent. She’s listening to the story Phil is telling, not the story-within-the-story unfolding inside my head. When I feel myself begin to blush, I chime in: “We were all helpless at that point. But at the same time it didn’t seem real, either. Everything was...slowed down.”

A faint look of puzzlement—no, worry—flickers in Sheyene’s eyes as I say these words. She has already learned how to read me. She knows tonight is more about the future than the past, and that I am searching for something. A prologue, perhaps. It just can’t work, Dad, David told me more than a year ago. It is working, I replied. I won’t ever be around her—never, he countered. But never is a long time. David is nineteen now, the man of the house-that-is-no-longer-my-house, and has begun to think about the future. After you’re married, Dad, he has solemnly promised. After you’re married, I’ll come over and meet her.

I don’t know this yet, but on my fifty-first birthday, not long after all the Hellers have returned from Hawai`i, David and the rest of my children will gather around the dining room table with Sheyene and me at our house on Wildcat Ridge in the Little Apple. Even Grandma Heller will be there, sawing the air with her hands as she tells her own tales. David’s expression will be one of pensive determination, the product of resilience, maturation, and hard-won forgiveness. Hey, he will say to Sheyene. Hey, David, she’ll reply. And that will be that. In a few weeks, they’ll be friends. Soon David will be bragging to her about his new passion: breakdancing. I can do a headspin better than any black guy in this town. But I still can’t do the liquid stuff as well.

Sheyene edges closer to me on the floor in front of the couch. Phil nods at my comment about time slowing down, and picks up the tale again. I turn toward his moving lips, and soon my own vision of that night fades back into view. In my mind’s eye, the two of them, Phil and the gunman, are framed by the edges of Mark’s bedroom doorway. But Mark’s phone may have actually been in the living room. Phil doesn’t mention this detail, and I can’t really remember. That night is a dream turned story now, like all the rest of my life with Mary.


As the gunman marches Phil into the living room to join the rest of us, the screen door swings open. The second gunman also wears a nylon stocking over his head, and a plain T-shirt of a color I can’t remember. The second gunman is fatter; his gun is black.

Lie down on top da floor, the fat gunman orders. All’a yous.

On top you stomach, the skinny gunman adds.

Mary drops to her knees ahead of me. Ordinarily, Mary cannot bear any kind of danger. Years later, when we are parents, she will call out, even shriek, whenever one of the children takes a single step toward the street, no matter how far away. But tonight, with two determined strangers pointing guns at us, Mary is under control. Even if this scene is a still a dream to her, she knows how to behave. As she stretches out on the floor in her blue jeans and blouse, I find myself staring at the gunmen. I can tell they’re young, younger than Mary and I. An odd thought forms in my mind: Be professional, guys. There are rules here.

In another moment we are all on our stomachs on the bare wooden floor. Or is it carpeted? I can’t feel the difference on my grizzled chin as I try to remember. The skinny gunman ties my hands behind my back with my own belt, a thick brown leather thing with a broad buckle.

Who dat shit? the fat gunman asks.

It takes me a moment to realize he means the music. Ella Fitzgerald, I reply from the floor.

To my surprise, he lets the album keep playing as they tie us up and arrange us on the floor: Phil and Anita beneath the window, Mark in the middle of the room, Mary and me squeezed into the narrow space between the sofa and the coffee table. When the gunmen have satisfied themselves that all our bindings are secure, the skinny one asks: OK, which one Mark Wilson?

My god... This is not random.

I am, Mark says from the floor. But there’s another Mark Wilson in the phone book. You must have the wrong one.

The fat gunman kneels beside Mark. You rip us off, man!

I didn’t rip you off, Mark protests. I don’t even know you.

No make ass, the skinny gunman warns. Where da kine?

I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mark replies. Where’s what?

Da kine elephant, the fat gunman answers.

Peering around one leg of the coffee table, I can see the stupefied expression on Mark’s face as he lifts his chin off the living room floor: Elephant? What kind of elephant?

Da kine Elephant Weed! the skinny gunman shouts, and balls his free hand into a fist.

You’ve got the wrong guy! Phil declares from the floor beneath the window. This guy’s straight—he doesn’t even smoke. He wouldn’t know Elephant Weed from Maui Wowie.

That’s right, Mark says.

The two gunmen look at each other. In low pidgin voices, they discuss the possibility they have broken into the wrong house. Ignorance will save us, I tell myself silently. Then the skinny gunman retreats to the bedroom. By the time he returns, carrying something I can’t quite see, I feel a faint relaxing of muscles in my neck and shoulders, the first moment of relief.

No mo’ talk, the fat gunman says.

Then everything goes dark. Someone has spread a blanket over my head.


“In those days, all you could get over here most of the time was Maui Wowie,” Phil explains to Sheyene. “Elephant was ten times as potent. That’s why those guys were so pissed off.”

Sheyene nods like she knows exactly what Phil is talking about.

“I remember Maui Wowie,” I interject.

Sheyene smirks.

It’s true, damn it, I feel like insisting. I’ve smoked pot exactly three times in my life, the first two times here on O`ahu with my graduate school buddy Mike. The first person to offer me a toke was Phil—in his office, the day we met. A shocked newlywed from rural Oklahoma, I declined. “I didn’t come all the way to Hawai`i for that,” I explained to Mary that same evening. After all, we’d come here to start a life together. And what a start we’d had: a four thousand mile champagne jumbo jet ride to an island in the middle of the blue Pacific. And not just for a honeymoon, for two full years of graduate school. But we were insensitive as well as young: amused by local residents’ pidgin English, slow to learn how to get along. In fact, we did not learn. Not that first trip, anyway. I didn’t begin to learn such things until I’d dropped out of the M.A. program here and moved back to Stillwater, Oklahoma, to finish grad school in a more familiar environment...


Not true. That wasn’t the reason we left Hawai`i, because we didn’t fit in over here. We retreated to familiar territory because we didn’t fit each other.

If I’d danced with you, Mary, would things have been different?

How does anyone learn how to learn? In Stillwater, surrounded once again by the twangy Okie voices of my youth, I began to listen to Hawai`i. Though the life Mary and I started there had expired, the voices of the islands continued to speak to me. Their rhythms echoed in my head until at last they drove me to the university library, where I read O. A. Bushnell, Milton Murayama, Susan Nunes, Darrell Lum, and others who taught me how to listen. By the time Mary and I finally returned to Hawai`i, the night of the Elephant Gang, I was ready.

But to truly learn, one has to do more than listen. Even lying side-by-side with a blanket over our heads, our wrists tied behind our backs, Mary and I still didn’t fit.

I’ve always told people I’d never written about that night because beneath its surface the whole incident was uninteresting, its lessons obvious, like the dull ironies of an action/adventure movie. But maybe I’ve been looking beneath the wrong surfaces...


In darkness, the side of my face pressed against a floor that is either soft or hard, I listen to Ella croon, her elegant voice muffled by the blanket covering my head. In the background I can hear the gunmen move about the apartment, searching, overturning things, spilling others. The noise of their destruction grows fainter as they move into adjoining rooms. Although there’s no need, I close my eyes as I consider the possibilities:

A. The gunmen find no pot, loot the house, then leave.

B. The gunmen find no pot, grow angry, take revenge.

C. One of us does something unimaginable.

Beneath the blanket, I nudge Mary with my elbow to let her know I’m still here. She recoils, inches toward the sofa. No, her body language tells me. Stay still.

The album finishes, and Ella falls silent. The darkness around me feels suddenly hollow. I cock my head and listen for the sounds of the gunmen.


Where are they? I whisper to Mary.

She doesn’t answer.

There’s wisdom in her silence; I know this. But something inside me feels wrong.

A little while later I hear shuffling sounds from the middle of the room, near the spot where Mark and Anita lie. Then soft voices. I don’t move. A thin creaking noise (the screen door?), followed a moment later by soft plodding sounds...rising. Footsteps climbing the stairs outside. Then more creaking noises, this time from the ceiling directly above us. When the noises stop, I listen and wait.

Finally, another creak, another set of footsteps climbing the stairs, more noises from the apartment above.

Now the only sounds I hear are the slow, muffled drafts of Mary breathing beneath the blanket. When I press my ear to the floor, I can feel the lub dub of her heart. And I wonder: Has our life come down to only this? Are we going to finish it right here, tonight?

And all at once the me-that-is-now, twenty-something years later, listening to Phil’s soft starlit voice tell the tale to my new bride who is younger than the story, this me wants to reach out and yank the blanket off Mary and the old me, and scream at the two of us: Wake up! You’re blowing it! Proximity means nothing. You’re letting yourselves drift away from each other. It’s not too late if you just WAKE UP!”

But the me-that-is-now cannot be heard by the couple lying on the floor of Mark’s apartment.

So I ask the me-that-is-now a question: Were we already finished, Mary and I, the night of the Elephant Gang? When Ella stopped singing, was the dance over?

And the me-that-is-now is forced to answer:

No. Not by a long shot. In this life, the music never stops. Not even when the partners change. There are always new lives to live. Children to raise. A week after Sheyene and I return from our honeymoon, my oldest son will move into a dorm. The following week, my second son will buy a red 1971 Super Beetle. A month after that, a middle school bully will hit my third son in the stomach in gym, but he will not cry. Sometime, 15 or 20 years from now, my only daughter will marry a nice, well-meaning young man whom Mary and I will both dutifully accept, but secretly believe is not good enough for her. The music has been carrying us toward these things our whole lives, no matter how uncoordinated our steps.



“It was mostly confusion,” Phil says. “Most of the time we didn’t really know what was happening. And we could hardly believe it.”

Sheyene and I both nod. That’s the way it was for the two of us as well, in the beginning. Neither of us could see what was happening, never mind believe it. We were protected from each other by forces that seemed invincible: the difference in our ages, my quarter century of absolute fidelity, my abiding love for my children. By the time we saw what was happening, it was too late for seeing. We already believed.

As Phil tells the story, my second son Michael is sixteen. It’s been a tough year for him, and I can already tell that next year will be worse. Serious conflict with his mother. Trouble with friends. Harassment in school. Drugs. And, worst of all, deep depression. Nevertheless, Michael was the first of the boys to accept Sheyene. To my amazement, despite his shyness, he has found it easy to talk with her. Especially about music. Can I borrow your Violent Fems? he’ll ask. I’ll bring back your Nirvana. Before another year has passed, Michael will move in with Sheyene and me.

I lay my hand on Sheyene’s as Phil continues: “For a long time it was quiet...”


In the dark beneath the blanket, I become impatient with the stillness. Do something, the part of my mind that thinks reflexively says. For some time I’ve been aware that I can work my hands free from the leather belt knotted behind my back. And so I do it: the unimaginable.

It takes only a few seconds. Stay here, I whisper to Mary, as I back myself out from underneath the blanket.

Don’t! she whispers sharply.

But I am already on my knees, stripping the belt off my wrists. Through the window I can see it’s dark outside Mark’s apartment now. A single lamp illuminates the oddly quiet living room. Phil and Anita lie on their bellies beneath the window, a blanket of a color I can’t remember covering their heads. No sign of anyone else; the gunmen have taken Mark upstairs.

I tiptoe to the doorway of Mark’s bedroom, just to make sure. Empty.

Impulsively, I remove my billfold and wristwatch and toss them onto the floor of Mark’s closet. When the gunmen finally get around to robbing us, I tell myself, they will find nothing of value on me. This is stupid—dangerous—and part of me knows it. But if the yellow gold Hawaiian wedding band I’ve just ordered from Liberty House—the one that has “Kepano,” the Hawaiian phonetic equivalent of “Stephen,” etched in black letters over carven images of plumeria blossoms and tumbling surf—if this ring had already arrived from the engraver’s, I would have twisted it off my finger and tossed it into the closet as well. Mary’s matching ring will say “Malia.” Tonight she wears only the small diamond ring and companion white gold band I gave her for our engagement. My own ring finger is bare, a testament to my distaste for symbols and traditions. Nevertheless, like our return trip to these islands, the matching Hawaiian wedding bands are my idea. They represent the one sure thing I’ve already learned about marriage: the need to demonstrate commitment.

In the years that follow, I will lose the Hawaiian ring I do not yet possess. I’ll replace it, then lose that one. Then a third ring as well. A combination of skinny fingers, bulging knuckles, and a marriage that, despite all efforts, will never quite fit.

For her part, Mary will never lose any of her rings, including the expensive, three-banded multi-diamond ring from Reed and Elliot I will give her on our twenty-fifth anniversary.

I don’t know any of this as I stare down at my billfold and wristwatch lying beside the shoes and sandals lined up neatly on the floor of Mark’s bedroom closet. The only thing I truly know is a question:

What now?

I steal back into the living room and think it over. From Mark’s lanai there are only two ways out. Up the same exterior steps on the side of the house that brought us all down to Mark’s apartment from Mrs. Krause’s driveway. If I go that way the gunmen upstairs might see me. The space between Mark’s apartment and the house on the opposite side of his lanai is blocked by something; I can’t remember what. The only other escape route is over the railing of the lanai and down the mountainside. That way is steep and overgrown with shrubbery, but I can probably climb my way down to the backyard of the neighbors’ house that sits immediately below us, on the same street that loops its way down the mountain. From there I can phone the police.

But what happens if the gunmen return and discover I’m gone?

What happens if I do nothing?

I look down at the three blanketed figures on the floor. They lie like homicide victims discovered at the scene, their stillness a prayer for resurrection. I start to kneel beside Phil and whisper to him that I am free, ask him what to do. But I do not. Somehow I know that, at this moment, like the poet traveling through the dark, I must think for all of us.

Finally, I turn back to the bedroom. From the closet I retrieve my watch and billfold, and slip them back where they belong. Back in the living room, I pluck my belt off the floor and, as best I can, retie my own wrists. The knot is loose, but at least it’s a knot. When I’m finished, I worm my way back under the blanket beside Mary. Her muffled breath catches, but she says nothing, accepting my act of faith in jagged silence.

I’m sorry, I want to tell her. I don’t know what else to do.

Only a moment or two later, my ear pressed against the floor, I feel more than hear the tap-tap of footsteps descending the exterior steps. The screen door creaks open, and the steps angle across the room to the spot where Mary and I lie.

Suddenly my hands are yanked up behind my back. The belt is cinched tight, restricting the circulation in my wrists. I can feel the gunman’s suspicious anger in the rough, jerky way he tightens the coils of the belt. When he is finished with me, he reties Mary’s bindings as well.


“You’re tired,” Ann says to Sheyene.

“No, no, I’m fine,” Sheyene protests, and sits up straighter. “I want to hear the story.”

She wants to hear it all; I know this. But her eyes have the pinched-glazed look of a jet-laggy day that is already far too long. In the instant before she squeezes my arm to tell me It’s OK; I’ll make it, I find myself thinking the same thought that seared my mind in Mark’s living room, as the gunman retied Mary’s wrists: I brought you here. Whatever happens now is my fault.

At the small civil ceremony in Kansas City a few days ago, just two close friends and a judge, no one danced.

This time the gunman does not leave. Instead, he simply stands somewhere in the middle of the room. Trying, I am guessing, to decide what to do with us now.

In the darkness beneath the blanket, I feel movement. I turn my head toward Mary and whisper: Stay still. Then I realize she cannot. She’s trembling.

Don’t hurt her! I want to cry out to the gunman. Hurt me instead! I’m the one!

But these are not the right words to say. Before I can find the right words, any words at all, a new voice—a voice I haven’t heard before—explodes the silence:

Hey, what are you doing?

I can’t tell where the new voice comes from, inside the apartment or out. I heard no other steps approach.

No’ting, the gunman—the skinny one, I think—answers. No do no’ting.

What are you doing in there? the new voice repeats. The voice is full of suspicion and threats. Then the voice asks a question that disorients me: Are you playing a game?

Yes, the gunman replies. We play one game.

No! I almost cry out. This is no game! Beneath the blanket I am hoping the new voice belongs to a policeman. And it does. When Mrs. Krause first screamed, her next-door neighbor looked out her window. She did not switch on a light, which is why I did not see her watching from behind the dark glass as the first gunman marched Mark and me back down the outside steps to Mark’s apartment. Phil couldn’t remember Mark’s address, but Mrs. Krause’s neighbor knew it when she put in her own call to HPD.

But I know none of these things when all at once the new voice says, in a low, emphatic tone: You’re gonna die.

Steve, Mary says, tensing up beside me.

Before I can reply, something heavy clunks to the floor on the other side of the coffee table, the force of its impact resonating through the floor into the flesh of my flushed cheek. On the other side of the screen door, the young haole policeman, come to investigate the report of a possible abduction, has noticed something highly suspicious about the man standing in the middle of the living room where four other people lie on the floor, their heads covered by blankets: The kidnapper is still wearing the nylon stocking over his head.

Today, twenty-something years later, I still don’t know if the policeman actually saw the gunman’s pistol before it dropped to the floor. Later that same evening, when we are all safe, I will check with the others to make sure I heard the policeman’s command correctly. Not Freeze or Drop it, but You’re gonna die.


“It was all over pretty quickly,” Phil tells Sheyene. “There were some delays. The policeman had a radio, but he had some kind of difficulty communicating with the other police upstairs, the ones who arrived later. There must have been fifteen police cars out front, by the time he finally led us up. Still, the whole thing lasted maybe forty-five minutes.”

I shake my head. “It was more like five hours. From the time Mrs. Krause first screamed to the time the police finally let us go home, about five hours.”

Phil smiles at me and shrugs. Though we were never separated that night on the mountain, his mind’s eye cannot see the same stretch of time. Which of us is right?

Quickly, Phil tells the rest of it: How the officer covered us with his revolver while we crawled on our bellies up the exterior steps to the street in front of Mark’s house, where the battalion of police awaited us. How, who knows how many minutes or hours later, from the street we heard Mark’s landlady scream a second time, when, after being freed by the police, she discovered a third gunman—one we’d never seen—hiding behind her shower curtain.

Phil doesn’t mention how when the police finally gathered us all behind the line of squad cars, Mary fell into my arms, sobbing, releasing at last everything she had kept hidden beneath the blanket. Our bodies seemed to meld there, on that dark street whose name I can’t remember, at the top of Wilhelmina Rise. We didn’t speak, didn’t move, just drew the cool mountain air in and out of our lungs in perfect rhythm as events whirled on around us.

The night of the Elephant Gang was a chance to start over, I want to tell Mary now, tonight, in Phil and Ann’s apartment. But the truth is we both knew that, even then. Later that same night, after we’d given our statements to the police, we returned to our room at the Hawaiian Crown in the crowded middle of Waikiki. We sat on our lanai, sipped Primo from bottles, gazed toward slivers of black ocean—and told ourselves that very thing.

Maybe we did start over. Maybe in some respects the years that came after were the best we could manage. But in the end I can’t believe that. Because I have to do better this time.

I feel myself frown. In all this reflecting back and forth during Phil’s version of the story, from the me that-was-then to the me-that-is-now, something seems missing...

All at once, I realize what it is. Where is the third me, the me-that-will-be? Where is the experienced, wiser me, the one who will reconfigure his broken family, rebuild his relationships with his four children, and make a new life with this unimaginably strong young woman sitting beside the me-that-is-now, the me who faces a future that was unfathomable three years ago, and is still unfathomable today. Where is that third man? Has he begun to take shape as I write these words? Or is he merely another unbanishable ghost who eternally haunts the ongoing present?

In the years ahead, all the Hellers will need the me-that-will-be. On the night Phil tells the story, Grandma Heller has recently described Rachael as spoiled rotten. It’s true. When it doesn’t suit Rachael to be charming, she’ll whine, throw a fit, or hold her breath until her face turns the color of a ripe strawberry. But when I set her on my lap and speak to her in my quiet, I’m-disappointed-in-you voice, she still does what Daddy says. The fact that I’m around to do that only a few hours each day wakes me up at night. To Rachael, though, the division of her day is simply the world she lives in: Breakfast and lunch with Mommy, dinner with Daddy and Sheyene. Everyone can already tell that Rachael is smart and independent. She’ll do well in school and have lots of friends. But one day, I can’t say when, she will need the me-that-will-be. That better, wiser me will need to exist, even though at present he is merely the ghost of a future that may never come.

In the meantime, Daniel will be the toughest. I am the only one in the family who can deal with Daniel when he freaks out, the only one who can absorb his anger, calm his tantrums, and ease his obsessive-compulsive behavior. Why CAN’T I have a leather jacket?...Well, GET some money. Daniel’s fears, obsessions, and fixations—especially on tiny objects such as rings—have intensified. What did Mom do with your wedding ring after you gave it back to her? Does she keep it in her jewelry box? Why don’t you know? Daniel’s special ed teachers have given up on him. No, I don’t have any homework... Dad, I don’t WANT to read that—YOU read it... Who CARES where Egypt is?

Daniel’s latest obsession is weather, especially the enormous thunderstorms that batter the Flint Hills each spring and into summer. Like Rachael, Daniel spends his weekday evenings at our house on Wildcat Ridge. When the barometer drops, we all watch thunderclouds roll up in the west before they sweep over the Little Apple. The tightening fists of an approaching wall cloud make Daniel’s eyes gleam with wonder and suspense. But the most powerful storm in Daniel’s life is his new stepmother.

I don’t have to like her, Dad. I don’t. You can’t make me like her if I don’t want to... Do you think she likes me? I want her to like me. Why doesn’t she like me? How can I make her like me better?

Love. Hate. Fear. Guilt. Jealousy.

Sheyene’s new job is harder than mine.

He’s not my son, you know, and he hates me. I’m kind and sweet to him, and he treats me like shit every single day. I love him, and I know he’s trying. I know he’s confused. But did you HEAR what he said to me? Did you SEE what he did?

When cold air and warm air collide, the sky rumbles.

Why, Dad? Why do you love her instead of Mom?... I do love her, Dad. I DO. But it’s just so hard sometimes, you know?...Mom doesn’t love her. If Mom doesn’t love her, I don’t have to love her... I don’t have to do what she says, Dad. I don’t have to. I don’t even have to listen to her. No, I don’t... Yes, I WANT to be nice. And I DO love her. It’s just... Why can’t Mom love her too?

Sometimes the rumble is really an echo of another storm front.

She’s too young for you, Dad. You’re having a mid-life crisis.

Sometimes, because of the distance it must travel, the echo is garbled.

She shouldn’t have been your student, Dad. It would have been OK if you were her student. You should be Sheyene’s student; then everybody will like you again.

How does one answer a boiling sky?

When you and Mom used to fight, did you fight about Sheyene?

Only at the end, son.

What else did you used to fight about?

The usual things... Work. Time. You kids. Love.

You used to fight with Mom about love?

Everybody fights about love, Daniel.

What happens when you win?

...You lose.


In the years that loom before us, the me-that-will-be will have to be clearer, wiser, stronger.


“So what happened to the Elephant guys?” Sheyene asks Phil. “Did they go to prison or what?”

“No, they got off.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, we all gave statements, and Mark actually testified at the trial, but in the end they all got off on some technicality.”

And that’s another story, I start to add, but then I see Phil’s face: the rigors of the Big Island marathon finally tugging at the corners of his eyes like the decades that bind the two of us together. At fifty, there’s one thing I know for sure: when it’s time to go.

I climb to my feet and turn to Ann, who is lounging on the other side of rug. “Hey, tomorrow’s a work day for you two. Thank you for dinner and for inviting us into your home. It’s meant a lot.”

“Yes, it has,” Sheyene adds.

Ann rises and hugs us both. As the two women say their goodbyes, I turn to Phil. He rises from the lotus position, teetering on his heels for just an instant half way up. In this moment I sense the effort Phil has given each day, since long before the Elephant Gang, to stay balanced. In the fluid synchronicity of Phil’s life, this evening fits.

“Thanks for telling the story, haole.”

He lays a hand on my shoulder and shrugs. “What I could remember.”


By the time Sheyene and I return to Waikiki, the small underground parking garage beneath our hotel is closed, a barred fence drawn across its entrance. After I park the Mustang on a side street, we decide to take a stroll along the beach.

A silver moon floats in the starry sky. We slip off our sandals and walk along the wet flattened sand where waves lap the shore. The surf is small tonight, no more than a foot, but it washes our bare feet with a regular, pulsing rhythm. Ahead of us are the classic beachfront hotels I remember from the evening my toes first touched these sands: the Moana, the Royal Hawaiian, the Sheraton Waikiki. From this angle they look exactly the same as they did almost three decades ago, when another life mate walked beside me. Inside they are different.

Sheyene takes my hand. “I have to admit it: You were right. Your friends here are great.”

“Our friends,” I correct her, the salty scent of the ocean crinkling my nose.

“So,” she adds, “did you get what you wanted from Phil’s version of the story?”

I had Phil tell the story for you, I start to object. But she’s right. Already, she knows me too well.

“I think so,” I reply.

In 1979, two or three years after the Elephant Gang invaded our lives, I told my version of that night in front of a TV camera in a studio on the campus of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where I was a graduate student. The words on the videotape sound little like the story I have told inside my head tonight. Although I took care with every detail, the Bowling Green story was a different story altogether. A story of escape, of good fortune, of neither endings nor beginnings.

Traces of the silver moon spackle the black water. Tonight is a chance to start over, I want to say, this time to Sheyene. But I don’t.

Perhaps sensing a new story forming inside my head, Sheyene pulls me toward her, and together we move to the beat of waves along the beach. To anyone who happens to see us, I’m pretty sure this looks like dancing.

—From Heller’s book of nonfiction narratives, What We Choose to Remember, Serving House Books (2009); previously published in New Letters

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury