Robert Wintner

Author | Entrepreneur | Photographer | Conservationist

Excerpt of Reefdog: A Novel

—RW 

PROLOGUE 

Halfway Out to Sea 

A lean and sun-browned man slithers in the shallows easily as an eel after fry, till he draws his legs under and stands, taller than the first organisms walking out of the sea but with original intent—to improve his niche, on land. 

With his hair wetted to his neck, a scant loin pocket, and a scruffy beard dripping below swim-goggled eyes, he makes the amphibious transition, up and out. 

An emergence from an hour or two of reef repose makes him wonder. Ankle deep, he watches two children and a dog playing naked in the waves. The girl of ten sweeps her long, black hair out of the way childishly with both hands. Composed as a tropical cameo one moment, she surges with energy the next, yelling at the boy to eat: "Manges! C’est une tempête en mer, et tu dois manger à rester fort!" It’s a storm at sea, and you must eat to stay strong! 

The boy sits on a paddleboard. She pulls it by a rope among the shallow waves. The dog barks, finally clambering aboard, where he teeters, facing the back to watch the boy. 

The boy eats from a plate on his lap: baked yams, carrots, and pineapple. Little wave-tops season his lunch. The dog whines. Leihua pulls the paddleboard to waist depth and points it into the surf, then gives it a push, commanding him to eat. 

Justin eats, piercing the short break, focused on the pineapple saved for last along with a piece of taro for the dog. 

The man says, Mes enfants, as a statement of being, a navigational fix on terra firma. He slogs up a sandy path, no longer buoyant. The kids and dog gravitate and follow toward the house, leaving the paddleboard high on the beach. 

At the house they’ll rest through the hot afternoon. They might doze. In two hours the boy and girl will tend to schoolwork while the man prepares dinner. He may process images on his computer for a while before the woman arrives from the hospital. 

Meanwhile, on the way up, they pass a mound of dirt topped with smooth rocks, the topmost a marker engraved: Skinny. It’s a final resting place, but its reluctant tenant would rather use it as a perch. She jumps to the top and wobbles off, so the man picks her up and sets her on top again. The old, feeble cat with the baby face suddenly sees him and speaks her catch-all word to the omniscient one who insists that she keep living, that she keep processing moments as she has for the last twenty-two years. 

When the man and children pass, she leans forward to swat the dog on the butt but falls off trying and meows again, falling into the procession up the path. 

Compared to What? 

It’s a shorter flight from Hawaii to Tahiti than from Hawaii to LA—only twenty minutes shorter, but the difference felt profound, as if Tahiti could be more accessible than its exotic name suggested. Though closer to Hawaii in miles, French Polynesia seemed far more distant than LA. 

French Polynesia couldn’t possibly have a Wal-Mart or a Sam’s or a Costco, gridlock or freeways wending to affordableneighborhoods nestled among power pylons, transformers and oil vats from the land of Gargantua. 

Could it? 

Tahiti did not surge forward but rather lingered in the imagination as an outpost of Paradise. 

Tension with the French seemed nominal, a minor distraction along with crumbling roads and dirty gutters—minimal development allowed things to age like whiskey. No golf courses, no rush hour, no road rage and no franchise burgers or all-you-can-eat array of American conveniences gave it a bygone feeling. Absence of stuff set a tone of simple goodness. What’s that sound? It’s the soft voice of the unencumbered world, where growth is still vegetative. French Polynesia still glowed, a tropical oasis isolated from a world of strip mall clutter, a world failing to keep up with a population unconstrained in its propagation and needs. 

Where Oceania was French-flavored with an abundance of fish in aquamarine clarity, Hawaii seemed removed from tropical simplicity, building out. Greed and power had things dumbed down deeper than any time since the wagons first circled—or since Captain Cook got banged on the head at Kealakekua. 

Hawaii felt more like Santa Monica than Hawaii. 

That was Ravi Rockulz’s assessment. He’d never been to French Polynesia, but he’d read and heard about it. He thought of it sometimes first thing in the morning, if the tourists would allow. Most often they interrupted his reverie on the way out to the dive site. 

Like the tourist who stood nearby at the rail watching the bow cleave water so clear it hinted at meaning just below. The tourist spoke of his friend in LA who had a nasty rash on his arm with oozing sores to the elbow. The doctor prescribed one unguent and another to no avail until the strongest ointment in the world didn’t work. Finally, the doctor broke the news: Another line of employment would be necessary because working for the circus, planting elephant suppositories up to the elbow, would keep the rash coming back. The friend in LA asked, What? And give up showbiz?

Ravi didn’t get it at first. Hardly a dim bulb, he couldn’t see why anyone would want to stick his arm up an elephant’s ass just to make a living in showbiz. No joke is funny once parsed, and this joke, too, failed to rouse a chuckle. Rather, Ravi wondered how the irony underlying most humor actually comes to pass. At least he understood the point of the joke, relative to showbiz, money, and festering lesions. 

He thought he understood LA, with regard to volume exchange in an urban setting. That is, pressure increases by one atmosphere for every thirty-three feet of depth below sea level. Nitrogen and oxygen remain proportionate at depth, about 80:20—but pressure at sixty-six feet is tripled, so content triples in volume too. The critical factor is that the bloodstream absorbs nitrogen much faster than it can leave, and excess nitrogen causes the bends if ambient pressure decreases too quickly. The gas tries to escape through the joints, and they twist. 

Just so, with world population doubling again, pathogens increase proportionately. Percentages remain stable, though raw numbers rise to toxic potential. Human behavior with no ambient constraint is similar to human joints infused with nitrogen: bent. 

LA looked bent, and the rest of the world was squirming. 

• 

Ravid (rah-VEED) Rockulz was born when Basha Rivka was thirty and beyond hope for a decent match. Still single and already elderly by community standards, a willful, anxious woman, she got by in her hometown, Haifa, and would have spent her days till that no-goodnik came along. And what happened? Schtupi mit no chupi is what. He left, and good riddance—but don’t think this cloud was not silver-lined because it was. Mother and son became friends, seeking solace or venting frustration, as mother and son will do. When he doubted the future of the natural world, she recalled the early 1950s when she was a girl and people lived far from each other and were glad to meet. Now, ass to elbow, they defend personal space. As a true elder, Basha Rivka shared her son’s doubts on the future, and frankly she wouldn’t miss this mess—after 120 years, of course. 

They commiserated. She said the next generations could better cope with their needs and consequences in a world of twelve billion people minus one when God chose to call her, which could be tomorrow, or tonight, or, God forbid, in the next minute or two. But she thought she had a decent shot at 2040, given her general health, genetics, diet, and exercise. She walked every day to the market so things would be fresh, even if overpriced by the heartless mamzerim who had the freshest produce. 

Beyond that she was an old lady who didn’t need so much dark talk from her only begotten child, who was young and had his whole life ahead of him in a world surely destined to be his oyster. 

What kind of talk would you prefer, Mother?

You know, something else. Not the depression talk.

Do I sound depressed?

Don’t tell me how you sound. I have ears.

Then she asked when he planned to move to LA, where he would meet his own kind, including a girl who would give him a reason to live, and her too, with a family to remember him and his mother when they both were gone—after 120 years. 

Ravi asked why he would live in LA. He asked the thin air, the blue sea, and Basha Rivka, whose answer was a wife for him, grandchildren for her, and a profession that would provide for his children and his old age—and maybe hers, too, because at his current pace she wouldn’t be able to relax for another sixty years. 

When would old age begin? Ravi watched flights coming in steadily, each delivering hundreds of cold tourists craving the tropical balm. Traffic thickened. But no matter how overbuilt the rock became, the question persisted: Compared to what? 

Any flight could bring tourists needing guidance into the depths. A dive leader makes a boat’s reputation, so he could be viewed as the object of choice. Besides competent guidance, a tourist or two may also need guidance in those other depths craved by the footloose tourist women. Yes, it’s okay. Call me Ravi.

Ravi’s smile reflected the skill and success that made him happy. No argument there, but Basha Rivka’s concern was practical, with less blue-sky, blue-water razzmatazz and more of what a mensch must do to secure a future for his family—like wearing a suit and tie, for starters, and working in an office, contributing to society, getting better pay than a water boy. So the suit wouldn’t be top-drawer goods at the beginning. Never mind. Quality goods will come. You’ll see. 

You mean I should make more money?

And what’s wrong with more money?

Nothing, Mother. So why can’t you find someone to pay the best dive instructor in Hawaii more money?

Then came the sigh and tongue clicking. But he got the point, and they both knew it, even if he didn’t share his mother’s motivation. Still, she was on his side, and the nudge would cease if only… Or it would not, though she defended him in the clutch when he quit the military on the grounds of opposing the military mentality. I don’t get it. You’re one of those objectors? A fellow with a conscience?

"No. I don’t think I am. A conscientious objector doesn’t want to kill anyone. I think I wouldn’t mind killing someone if I had to. The population should be thinned, but I don’t want to kill any thing—anyone who is not human. The military is so stupid. Many stupid people have many stupid meetings where they say stupid things and come up with stupid plans for stupid behaviors that kill many things. I want out. I want no part of it." Which was Ravi’s explanation, to which his mother had the good sense to stay mum. 

Notably, Ravi’s resignation was from the Israeli military, that esteemed group held in awe and reverence, as if it were the Fertile Crescent’s very own boy band. These boys lived the credo, never again. Consensus on the credo was unanimous: Better to die fighting than in a fake shower with fifteen grams of black soap. Oh, they knew the score. The fans raved. Basha Rivka had been proud as any soldier’s mother but had suffered more than the usual angst; she was so worried, with the guns and bombs and the boys on the other side, some of them perhaps very nice boys, shooting at her son, whom they’d never even met. Once he quit the military, she could worry far less. So. Let it be, she’d said. 

Quitting wasn’t simple but required a tortuous season of hearings, with accusations, character maligning, and questionable patriotism. Ravi had known he could win by accepting the foul names and not responding. He knew he was a patriot and would fight in a real conflict, killing people who hated him and came on to kill him. It would be natural. But it was tough—except in the context of gratuitous destruction called training and drills and practice for the real thing. That’s what grated on his conscientious values. He feared expressing these things, lest he be deemed insane or seditious. But Ravi Rockulz could not desecrate the reefs of Eilat in war games against an imaginary enemy that in reality warranted no response. Tearing up the reef with mines, dredges, and sundry incursions would not play out for an unlikely Jewish seal, a mere boy whose knees buckled under the burden of his first tank of compressed air, who already loved the coral down to the polyps. 

Basha Rivka had asked when the little polyps would love him back. He’d assured her they loved him every time he saw them. How else could he feel so happy in their company? 

• 

That was some years ago. Since then, he’d settled in the tropics to live in sunshine on mostly calm seas among beautiful reefs. The US Navy tested sonar in the name of national security, blasting decibels that agonized the whales, monk seals, turtles, and fish for hundreds of miles. Ravi’s boat and a few others off McGregor Point one day witnessed humpback whales breaching incessantly, as if to escape. A whale breached over a small sailboat, sinking it. Navy rescue was there in an hour, though the passengers were picked up by then. 

The story never appeared in the local media because the US Navy said it didn’t happen, that a tourist made a mistake in thinking a whale could actually fall onto a boat—they had investigated and concluded that the event never was. So military reality claimed another day. 

Besides military incursion into Hawaii, where billions in defense contracts could advance political careers, other incursion also surged. 

Tourism was up, what with terrorism threatening the world and filling the airwaves of America. 

Immigration to the fiftieth state also rose. More tourists asked the simple, tough questions—and gave the answers in the same awakening. LA? Compared to Hawaii? Are you kidding? So they moved to the good life from LA—or Seattle, Alameda or Portland, from Bakersfield, Boise or Butte. Start out in St. Louie and go through Missouri. Oklahoma City is not so pretty. You’ll see Amarillo and Gallup, New Mexico. Flagstaff, Arizona, don’t forget Pomona, Kingston, Barmaids, yadda yadda San Jalapeño… Life is not simple as a lyric, but still, it’s fun to sing along. And a catchy lyric helped distract from the thickening density of bodies, cars, and pavement. 

Besides using distractions to avoid sadness, it was important to see how growth was good because more people meant more money. More money meant more material comfort in the good life in Hawaii. Why not live in the biggest ocean in the world and make more money? With the Internet, fax, cellular, streaming data, a wireless world and ever-broadening bands, it could be done. 

Is this a great time, or what? 

But the magic was bogging down in discovery of chic, hip, cool, and the new hot thing. Spontaneous raves could erupt anytime over whales or movie stars spotted in the offing. Often nothing remained to be seen but the ruffled surface, yet people stared in hopes of another view, with disbelief that such potential in nature and celebrity could converge in one place, and that normal, working stiffs could see these things so freely. Ah, Maui. Lucky we live, and so forth and so on. 

The place felt more like somewhere else, somewhere generic, convenient and crowded. But it felt so right to so many, stepping onto the tarmac to claim victory over the freeway, drive-by, suburban miasma back home. Many commuters knew the dream could come true on arrival in the tropics, where the commute could continue in better weather. Glory got real when the Matson container arrived with the car not too much later. More Californians took the plunge, indicated by more Mercedes on the road with those clever vanity plates: MAWIBNZ. Perfection emerged—a Mercedes on Maui…. 

Could it get any better? Yes, if the top could go down. Wait! Is that a Ferrari? Oh… God! 

Maui… 

Ferrari. 

As fantasy fulfillment ratcheted upward, the tropical magic faded. Ravi remembered his own first blush, feeling this landfall as arrival to his home. It had seemed lush and promising to a man with a reef instinct. More recent arrivals compared Maui to Orange County, Sacramento, or anywhere USA because this gridlock/strip mall aggregate was called Maui and seemed fabulous. 

Honolua Bay not so long ago was full of living coral and reef fish. A few years later, it was ninety percent dead from red dirt runoff. Construction of mega-million mansions over the gulch left only a thin strip of living coral. Ravi watched a charter boat pull in with a crowd from a Christian dental convention. The first kids jumped in and came up sputtering, Oh, gosh! Look at this! It’s unbelievable! And so on, unbelievably, compared to Cincinnati, trending downward. 

The recently landed took the degradation as collateral damage for the greater good. Burgeoning freeways with dividers replaced country roads—with a certain je ne sais quoi compared to the 10, the 110, the 210 and the 405. A cane field became tract housing—known locally as track housing—like Orange County just after the oranges went away. And genetically modified organisms in rows looked like corn but better, like a lifted face or tucked tummy, without a single worm or dark kernel. The pastoral fantasy was never so good in LA, and if more, bigger houses blocked the panorama of the biggest ocean in the world, at least they ran 6.5 to twenty million. Or twenty-two. Or twenty-nine point nine. Wow. It must be really perfect. 

With markets so strong, prices so high, and demand bursting at the seams, this appeared to be it—the dream roll that would never end. 

Ravi had landed nineteen years prior, hardly a moment on the geologic calendar that the mossback old-timers used to measure their tenure, opening every harangue on how it used to be by establishing authority on time served, I been here twenty-seven years, and I—

Well, I been here thirty-three years! And I…

Very few veterans could say what they’d done or contributed to help protect the natural character in those years, as if true seasoning occurred by osmosis. Years on the rock did not increase legitimacy. But time spent and soulful connection weren’t always connected. Annotation was mostly anecdotal, with relevance measured in beers, shots, doobies, odd encounters, easy snatch on long odds, and so on. The verbal resume was a mix of alcohol and fun in the sun, with bawdy adventure and cocaine back in the day when an original old-timer could still take that punch. 

The olden days were recalled with pride: We used to get so… 

Or, one time we had this… 

Recollection still passed for social currency in some quarters, like Lahaina, where extreme inebriation twenty or thirty-five years ago was special because boats and palm trees outnumbered cars and people. New arrivals envisioned a future when they, too, would speak knowingly, so they garnered their own rare times with all-nighters, non-stoppers, reefer madness, and ocean time. Barnacle Bills and tropical honeys deplaned from LAX, hit the tattoo parlors and emerged original, ready to share the wherefore and how-to with others seeking identity and room service. The newest crowd was younger and more chic than the last. The young’uns had a leg up on the latest look and the hot new stars of the screen, surf, or sideshow. 

Nothing changed, really, except for another crowd moving in, going native. Worse yet, besides hormonally urgent kids coming for the action, their hot-flashing elders migrated with equal fervor; Macy’s went Tropicana on three floors with severely chic labels on hundred-dollar silk shirts and subtle palm tree knits. Wait a minute—make that a hundred and eighty… now two, two hundred… two, two, two… gimme two-fifty, two-fifty… okay, two and a quarter… Tropicana garb from the Johnny Mambo collection went fabulously with Johnny Mambo furnishings in pineapple, banana, and hula girl motif to underscore a feel for the new place and its fabulous lifestyle potential. 

Parking became a problem, so lots were expanded, then elevated. So much apparent goodness brought more tourists in need of cars, till the rock had two cars for every woman, child, and man all the time. Shriveling quickly was the tropical wilderness and rural society—the old island style that defined and redeemed those days and nights of youthful indiscretion once upon a time, long, long ago, when people bonded to the place and each other. 

Growth begat growth. The Chamber and the Visitors Bureau raised a cry of victory when a New York magazine staffed by New York residents called Maui The Best Island in the World. Maybe the staff commuted from Jersey or any part of the megalithic region. Sorely missing from the best criteria was a measure of the magic that had spared some islands from the ratings competition—the magic of no airport with connecting flights from New York. The nebulous assessment of the best island was judged from that most chilling of islands, Manhattan. 

The flood of people, strip malls, parking lots, and gridlock had displaced the old feeling. Making ends meet soon became a communion in itself, an unholy one. Coming up with rent money and then groceries while immersed in beauty and wonder had seemed like a trick, a good one, till resources waned and aloha became a useful word to compensate for what had gone away. 

Ravi remembered Pu‘u Olai not so long ago. Pu‘u is foothill. Pu‘u Olai is the shoreline cinder cone between Makena Beach and Black Sand Beach—make that between Oneloa (onnay-loa, or long sands) and Oneuli (onnay-uli, or black sands). A bump at the base of the volcano, Pu‘u Olai is a steep trek for the physically fittest. The payout is the wide world pulsating with mana—energy and life force—from Kahoolawe to Alenuihaha, to Molokini and McGregor Point, spanning the glittering sea. In a beautiful balance between glory and bounty, Pu‘u Olai had wild tomatoes in vast tangles on top, sweet and tart, till the top got crowded as the beach and tour boat traffic near shore got thick as the Foodland parking lot. No more wild tomatoes at the summit, with so many tourists following written directions to the secret tomato grounds that you simply must see. No freshwater shrimp in the aqueduct higher up Haleakala. No more guava or lilikoi to pick freely along the roadside for miles, no more noni, avocado, or lemon. All became for sale, as they became a topic for a few people mumbling about not so long ago, and many more chattering, fabulous, unreal, you simply must…

Kapu means forbidden—or keep out when posted on a gate; the land is private, accessible by invitation only. The guidebooks advised visitors to ignore those signs, and so they did. They’d spent so much to come so far, and look at all those other people in there, wandering around, revealing themselves as a terminal nuisance. 

Kihei Road was sparsely traveled for years, except for traffic to Paradise Fruit and that first funky snorkel place. Now hundreds of refugees from a world gone to seed paid daily rent on a few square feet of concrete under a huge canvas canopy for the chance to separate tourists from a few more dollars, often for seashells taken live from Indonesian reefs and sold as Hawaiiana. 

Veteran residents stopped counting time on the rock. Resigned to degradation and humanity’s inhumanity to nature, many went mum. Transplants arrived decades ago, a year or two ago, six months ago, or last week, and their migration from something far less foretold what would come next. People move away from what they can’t abide, only to see it again. Veterans on Maui took refuge in the soft-spoken humility that is necessary and available to island culture. 

Nineteen years ago was fairly recent on the tenure totem. Time passed fast and slow, reminding Ravi how long ago the rock felt tropical, how long since development spread like spore growth, its eerie fuzz smothering the beauty and repose. The Ford dealer moved from a modest, aging showroom on Main Street in Wailuku to massive grounds on two acres in Kahului for new and used inventories that Must Move this Month! A man on the radio yelled to Get a car! Get a truck! Get an SUV! Those cars, trucks, and SUVs were stickered six grand or nine over MSRP, and the salesmen would nod sanguinely if a white guy offered MSRP because the sticker price was for your average Filipino, proud of the dollars that demonstrated his skill to get them. 

Ravi told his salesman that the sticker-shock game could make a guy want to move to a tropical island. The salesman had asked back, So? When you leaving? He reminded Ravi that he, the salesman, was of Hawaiian descent, and with one more marriage on the right side of the genetic fence, his grandchildren would have blood quantum. He agreed that the place was ruined, and he wanted those fucking airplanes to stop bringing the fucking haole tourists over, and Ravi could get the fuck out whenever he was fucking ready. 

Haole is a Hawaiian word meaning without breath, deriving from Captain Cook shaking hands rather than touching noses in greeting—rather than sharing the essence of life, which is breath. Ha is breath. Ole means without. Haole came to connote outsider, meaning those families originating outside Hawaii, where greetings were without breath. Then it came to mean outsiders of beige complexion and not Japanese, Filipino, Chinese, Tongan, or Samoan descent. Then it was meant to denigrate Caucasians. 

Well, Ravi didn’t want a new Ford anyway, but he felt the sting. The exchange convinced him how nice life would be on a tropical island with no car dealers. But what could he do, stay on the run from a world outrunning its headlights? And who was he to scorn a world out of pace? Every day ended in a dead heat, with fulfillment and pessimism in a photo finish. Ravi had a thought: Tahiti. But a more recurring thought was his job, which he loved. 

Some nights he got laid, which trumped rational thought in the short term. A young man fatigued from a day’s work and hormonal depletion feels good, like a man fulfilled. Besides that, floating angst based on over-development could cloud whatever beauty was left to encounter. Should he stay angry, forfeiting happiness? He related his car salesman encounter to a Hawaiian friend who assured him that the car salesman in question immigrated to Maui via Honolulu from Rarotonga. The car salesman got fired in Honolulu. Besides that, his family descended from a genetic line that included ample Caucasian blood and other car salesmen, and the fellow’s hatred would focus elsewhere if white people weren’t so convenient. Aka Leialoha could calm the space around him and make hearts warm. Aka laughed, You do da work. Nevah mind.

What work? A man of kuleana would see Maui evolving with soul, easing into the peaceful aftermath and small death of human penetration. Still magical, rife with flowers, mad with color and scent, termites, centipedes, red dust, and heat ripples, the place must be loved for its wrinkles, its wear and tear, its ultimate surrender to gravity. Look at this ambient femininity, this context, this immersion in beauty and nature, this life of effusion and greenery. 

You want to talk about a place gang-fucked and left for dead, just look at LA. Millions called it home and had to fly back to it—had to nose under the yellow-brown cloud one more time like mites on a scab spanning the horizon. Orange groves used to be there, but time marched on, and you could value the chic bistros, swinging hot spots, dazzling cabriolets, and hard bodies of surgical precision—or not. Sanity adapted to LA, proving people all the more capable of enduring, after a fashion. Movie stars ranted against the death of nature, against children going hungry and social injustice. They could raise scads o’ dough, but few things changed, as more problems came to light. People looked for someplace else. But where could they go? 

How long before they think of Tahiti? How long before LA takes over French Polynesia and ruins it, too? What am I talking about? I’ve never been to either one. 

So thoughts schooled, frenzied and faded on any given night. Anxiety and gratification hummed their yin-yang mantra of work and play, life and nature, worry and a woman. How sweet it was, as problems resolved on a roll over the pillow to the fuzzy face nearby. Then he and the cat drifted to dreamland, her little outboard purring a sweet, soft wake. 

Sometimes she woke him in the night, licking his forehead or touching her nose to his. Hers was cold. If he opened his eyes, she purred again, which set the world to rights. In her little font of love, the madness shrunk from foreboding magnitude to one tiny problem in an imperfect world, a problem profoundly solved by a gentle scratching of her chinny chin chin. 

He hoped that what’s-her-name, the other female in the bed, was comfortable.