Matchless, a Short Story by James Strauss
By J. Strauss
The old bike wasn’t much, certainly nothing that any islander would buy. Kam counseled with his dad about getting a new Harley, but the old man was no help. “Sell the damn thing to one of those dumb Haole’s down at the base,” was all he said. Without selling the Matchless Kam couldn’t make the down payment on the Sportster. It would take him another year of waiting tables at the Royal Hawaiian bar to come up with the money.
“Don’t have nuthin’ to do with the Hoales at Kaneohe,” his best friend Lee advised him.
“They comin’ to the island back from those wars. They all crazy. Crazier than regular Haoles, I mean.”
Kam thought about it for a couple of days. The Caucasian’s from the mainland had come hundreds of years earlier to steal the land and take everything over. The house he lived in with his parents was leased from the Castle family. Those Haole’s were direct descendants of one of the preacher families who’d liked the islands so much they’d simply taken them. But working at the Royal had loosened Kam up a bit. The tourists who came to Waikiki were not so bad. Some drank too much. Some acted out, but buy and large they were okay, if you could get past the thieving some of their number had done so many years before, which neither his Mom nor Dad could.
But he had no choice, really. Either the Matchless sold to some service guy, and they weren’t all Haoles, or the Harley would remain ephemeral…except for the ones he saw touring around the island every Sunday, driven by guys he’d gone to school with but mostly didn’t have much chance to see anymore. The Harley would change everything. He’d learned that you couldn’t hang out with anybody riding a Matchless. The English biked been built in England sometime during the second world war. It’d never made it around the island once without breaking down. Kam had a garage full of spare parts to prove it. Harleys didn’t break down, they just leaked oil a lot.
Lee came with him to keep him company outside the main gate at Kaneohe. The Marines looked at them sitting on the grass by the bike but, since they were outside base property, they could do nothing. None of the cars leaving Kaneohe stopped, or even slowed to study the ‘For Sale’ sign hung from the bike’s handlebars, and foot traffic was sparse to non-existent.
Late afternoon came and went. Lee departed with the falling sun. Lee worked in the kitchen of the Moana on the other side of the island, not far from the Royal. He had to be in to work promptly by four a.m. every morning or else.
One man came through the gate as Kam was folding his sign up and getting ready to kick-start the difficult English bike. Kam decided to wait until the Marine passed by so he wouldn’t take note of how many times it took to kick-start the thing, but the man stopped.
“You selling the bike?” the guy asked, his English rolling from his mouth all buttery, instead of cut and precise like most Haoles.
Kam studied the Marine for a few seconds before answering, finally figuring out he was from the Deep South. His pronunciation was called a drawl, Kam knew, but he hadn’t heard anyone use it since he was an elementary school kid.
“Yeah, if you got cash,” Kam replied, waiting for the Marine to walk away.
“How much?” the Marine asked, without hesitation, surprising Kam. The Marine was not much older than Kam himself.
Kam had only recently dropped out of high school, unable to compete with the service brats and rich people’s kids who’d taken over the institution. His resentment at Haoles suddenly overcame him.
“Don’t know if I want to part with it that bad,” he replied, giving the Marine his best ‘stink-eye.’
The man ignored him, walking around the bike and examining it closely, as if Kam wasn’t sitting atop it.
“Two thousand,” Kam said, finally, doubling his price because the Marine was Caucasian.
“Kamaina price,” the Marine shot right back, “and it better be good because those tires are shot and the gas tanks dented.”
Kam needed nine hundred, and even at that he was going to have to sign a financing agreement to pay a monthly amount. Fortunately his age and credit didn’t matter to the Harley dealer as there was no place to escape on the island. But he didn’t like the Marine. The man seemed too self-assured and too ignorant to pick up on Kam’s obvious hostility. But Kam had little choice.
“Nine hundred. That’s it. I’m getting a Harley and I need that much to cover my down payment.” Kam told him the truth so he’d simply move on. The day was beginning to end and the Matchless front light was out. He didn’t want the Marine to take note of that in addition to the other things he’d already spotted.
“I’ll take it,” the man said, instantly. “I’ll be here at this hour tomorrow. If you show up we got a sale, partner,” he said with a great smile, pronouncing the word as ‘pardner.’ He held out his right hand.
“I’ll be here,” Kam responded, ignoring the smile and the hand. “Cash, no hundreds.”
The Marine’s smile died and his hand went down, almost if he was quite used to such treatment. After another minute examining the bike, he walked away toward the main road.
Kam waited a good fifteen minutes to begin working on the bike. His right leg ached by the time the Matchless fired up. He drove it as fast as he could down Kamehameha toward His house in Haiku, trying to beat the dying light.
Kam got the bike home without it quitting and without getting killed by some blind tourist. His father was unimpressed with the sale. “Told you to sell it to some dumb Haole. Not that he’ll show up. Shoulda got a down payment. If you’d finished high school you’d of known that.”
Lee was more supportive. “You gonna have a Harley by the weekend Bra!” They knocked their knuckles together in celebration, both laughing. “The Haole’s a Marine Bra, and Marines don’t lie, even the Haole ones.”
They both waited at the gate the following afternoon. Lee drove his ancient small bed Toyota pick-up so they’d have a ride if the Marine took the Matchless on the spot. Kam had the title ready to sign over.
The Marine walked past the gate. No sweater covered his rank. He was a staff sergeant, Kam realized. No mere recruit. And a young staff sergeant. Kam didn’t like the man even more. “A high school graduate, probably some college too,” he whispered to himself.
“You got the money?” Kam asked, slouched across the body of the bike.
“Yeah, but I got some questions,” the staff sergeant replied. “What kind of bike is that and where was it made?”
Kam started to answer, but the Marine wasn’t done.
“Where do I get it serviced? And where can I get parts?” he inquired.
Lee started laughing. “Parts and service, Bra? For a Matchless? You gotta be kidding me,” he said, his laughing growing in intensity.
Kam frowned at his friend. The man had the cash. All they had to do was sign over the title and get the hell out of there.
“No service. Nobody on the island except Lee and me know anything at all about the bike. I got a garage full of parts.” Kam waited after saying the words, hoping Lee had not blown the sale with his show of obvious derision.
“I only have the nine hundred. I can’t afford to buy the parts,” the staff sergeant stated flatly, making to turn and walk away.
“Hey, wait a minute,” Kam said, in desperation. “You can buy parts on payday. I know how to put them in. I’ve had the bike for five years. Deal?”
“Deal,” the Marine replied, holding out his hand once again.
Hesitantly, Kam shook with him, noting the man’s restrained strength. Kam squeezed a bit harder to let the Marine know he was no weakling either.
“I’ll ride the bike,” the Marine told him. “We’ll got to your garage so I’ll know where to come on payday.” He walked toward the Matchless.
“Hard to start,” Kam blurted out.
“Yeah, I know. I watched you from the hedge over there. Magneto’s shot. Hope you got a spare. We’ll put it in on payday, along with a headlight and some tires.”
The Staff Sergeant worked at starting the bike. Surprisingly, it fired up on his twentieth jump down on the lever.
The outside of the garage looked like termites would finish consuming it in the next few days, but the inside was immaculate. Kam proudly showed the Marine bin after bin of parts, pamphlets and books. “I ordered them all, over the years, from England and from collectors on the mainland. Some day the bike will be worth real money.”
“Yeah, I don’t doubt it. Nine hundred bucks is a lot of money today, but everyone on Oahu wants a fortune for a real bike.” The Marine counted out nine hundred dollars in twenties from a credit union envelope. “You don’t seem real fond of selling the thing. I thought you wanted the Harley pretty bad?”
Kam counted the money three times and examined each bill carefully before leaning down to work on the title.
“He’s Hawaiian,” Lee said, into the silence. “He hates you Haole’s for taking his land and everything else. He’s a sovereignty warrior. Not like me. I’m half Chinese and half Japanese. I don’t like Haole’s like you, but I don’t hate ‘em though.”
The Marine stared from one man to the other, all three stilled by Lee’s candor. Kam held out the title with one hand.
“The names Warren Earl,” the Marine said, his voice gone cold. “I was raised in a part of the country where people think like you more than not. I understand it and I know how to deal with it.” He took the title from Kam’s outstretched hand. “I need a ride back to the base. We don’t have time to change the headlight and I don’t have the money to pay for it yet.
“I’ll take him,” Lee replied, whispering to Kam as he walked by him “they have Hawaiians back where he was raised?”
Kam’s Harley took two more months for him to acquire, what with the cost of registration and taxes. Sergeant Earl’s payday payments for parts helped complete the process. Every weekend they worked together on the English bike, trying to keep the study of feckless English engineering on the road. Lee came to witness the silent exchanges between the two men as they worked, punctuated only occasionally with heated discussions about admissions of racial prejudice in Warren’s background and denial of so such prejudice in Kam’s own.
Six months into their arrangement Kam and the Marine met out on the road. A Sunday. Cycles and restored cars come out on Sundays all over the island of Oahu, but in particular over on the Waimanalu side, down past Makapuu, Sandy Beach and the Blow Hole. It was at a place called Zippys in Hawaii Kai where things came to a head.
Kam’s gang of Harley riders had taken over the outside of the drive up. Sergeant Earl pulled up aboard the Matrix. There was no mistaking the strange banshee wail of the two-cylinder engine, nothing like the deep-throated macho rumble of a Harley. Kam didn’t notice Earl until he ordered at the window.
“Hey, Haole boy,” one of the big gruff Hawaiian Harley guys spat out. “Cheeseburger? You order that gay Hoale shit instead of healthy island food? Whasamatta you? How about a Teri plate or maybe spam and eggs. Real stuff, not that mainland crap.”
One of the other bikers immediately followed up. “Where’d you get that girly bike? Sounds like a Haole Wahini in heat.” The entire group began to laugh, as Sergeant Earl’s color began to go to white.
Kam stepped in. He’d run with his old friends from school for only six months, and his Sportster was not considered the cutting edge of the Harley brand by the others, but he felt compelled to speak out on the Marine’s behalf.
“I know him. He’s okay. For a Haole, I mean.” Kam stepped forward, not to the side of Warren but close enough to provide some kind of support. The sergeant said nothing, his face turned impassive. His body language only signaling a relaxed state of indolence and innocence. Kam had come to know the man, and knew the Marine was about to explode.
“He doesn’t know island food. He’s from the Marine base,” Kam said to the group, knowing that all Harley bikers were generally favorable toward members of the Corps. “Give me a Bento box,” Kam said, leaning down to place the order through the small drive up window. He pushed a ten through the slot, but didn’t wait for the change. “There, that ought to take care of him. Another Haole, taught the ways of our land.”
The first biker who’d commented grumbled but then turned away. The second hesitated.
“That junk bike. Didn’t you have something like that once?” he asked of Kam.
“Naw, never had anything like that,” Kam answered, too quickly. The biker’s eyes went to the sergeant, who stared back into his eyes impassively.
“Brought it all the way from England. Imported. Doesn’t run like a Harley but gets me around the island,” The Marine offered.
The entire biker gang laughed together. “Doesn’t run like a Harley,” one man yelled, to a chorus of “no shit,” by all the others.
The following weekend, Kam, Lee and the sergeant worked to re-weld a crack in the Matchless’ frame. The bike had to be totally taken down and then put back together.
They worked all day. As evening came on Kam offered Warren a beer. Lee’s eyes grew in size. The Marine had never been offered hospitality in Kam’s place before.
Over the beer the sergeant informed them of his impending transfer. He was shipping out for his fourth tour in Afghanistan. He had two weeks to get the Matchless spruced up for storage.
“Can you keep the bike for me?” he inquired of Kam. “I’ll be asking for this duty station when I come home, which I’ll likely get. If I don’t I can ship it back stateside. I’ve sort of become fond of its idiotic eccentricities.”
Kam agreed to store the bike for fifty bucks a month, payable six months in advance. He also agreed to a decent price for the remaining parts should the bike have to be shipped.
The Marine transferred out after dropping off the bike on a Saturday morning. There were no goodbyes and they left one another without shaking hands, as the Marine had never extended his hand again after what happened at the completion of the sale.
The letter came nine months later, just as Kam was becoming concerned about the fact that the Matchless storage payments were well overdue. The letter was from the Marine’s mother. Warren Earl had died three weeks earlier from the effects of a roadside bomb place along a road outside of Kabul in Afghanistan. His body was being shipped back to Arkansas. The mother included a cut out portion of a letter from the sergeant that detailed what he wanted done with the Matchless. The bike was to be titled back to Kam for storage fees and for his friendship. The signed title was enclosed in the envelope.
Kam waited in the parking lot of the Royal Hawaiian. He knew the small gate in the back that Lee would have to come through. He watched the Haole tourists being taken care of on by the local bellboys out front of the big pink hotel. He wondered what the servants thought of the visitors. He wondered what experiences they’d really had with them, outside of working them for tips.
Lee came through the gate, a big smile across his face as always. The smile fell away as he approached. “What you doin’ on that piece of shit Matchless?” he asked.
“Get on the back. We’ll get your Toyota later,” Kam answered, kick-starting the English bike with one try. “This things rebuilt like a never worn Rolex.” Kam pulled from the curved lot access road and up onto Kalekaua. Lee settled behind him.
“Where we goin?’” Lee asked, slinging the extra helmet onto his head.
Only the wind answered as the Matchless picked up speed. Kam took the bike around Diamond Head and then began the run to Waimanalu and out toward Lanakai, but before getting there pulled into Zippys in Hawaii Kai. They walked together up to the counter, leaving their helmets balanced on the seat of the bike.
“Bra, what we doin? It’s late in the day. We’ll spoil our dinner. Or we eatin’ dinner at Zippy’s? Lee questioned, but Kam said nothing.
Kam bent down to the small slot and ordered. “Two cheeseburgers,” he ordered.
“Cheeseburgers?” Lee quipped. “We never eat that Haole shit, Bra. You okay?
Kam walked over to the water of the harbor to wait, holding their receipt numbered “13,’” and smiled grimly to himself. Lee stood beside him, watching the ducks gather in the water below and then up at the homes jutting out from the artificial island at the harbor’s center in the distance.
“That kid. You know, the Haole one who bought the Matchless. Sergeant Warren Earl. He was killed in Afghanistan three weeks ago. He left me the bike.”
“Oh,” Lee said, no smile visible on his face. “I kinda liked him. You know, even being a Hoale and all. And he stood for you that time right here…ah, I get it. Why we came here, and the burgers.”
The counter woman yelled out the number thirteen. Kam went back and retrieved the burgers. He sat at a table by the water with both in front of him, and looked up into Lee’s eyes.
“I’ll have one,” his friend said, reaching across the table.
They sat for ten minutes consuming the meal without talking.
Afterwards, they climbed back aboard the bike and drove around the backside of the island until they reached the main gate to Kaneohe Marine Corps base.
“What we doin’ here Bra?” Lee asked, dismounting under the same questioning examination by the Marines they’d gotten the last time they were there.
Kam took out a crumpled ‘For Sale’ sign and hung it over the handlebars.
“We’ll wait to see who comes out,” he said to his friend.
“Yes,” Lee responded with suppressed enthusiasm. “Maybe one of those dumb Haoles will come out and buy the bike. Again. Maybe he’ll be a young Hoale sergeant, and we can hate him all over again.
Kam nodded, fighting tears from forming in his eyes.
“Yes, that would be good.”