Big Shot

We only ever called him Bignami, and what a name it was. You’d hear it ringing out over the quad like the chatter of myna birds: Big – naaa – me!

You’d hear, and if he ever pulled his eye away from the viewfinder of his 35mm Nikon he’d flash that grin, that platinum Bignami grin and run a hand through sun bleached hair as he shouted something witty in retort. Something like: you scream it just like your mother!

See, Bignami was a cool kid, and an exceptionally talented photographer. He had an air about him, and he knew it. I always thought, Bignami is the sort of kid that has the world by the balls.

So that was high school, and we were friends.

And I’ll always remember this one day, while we were back on summer break from college. We cruised up to the North Shore, like we used to do. And coming around the bend on Kamehameha Avenue we had the wide open view, the never ending blue of the Pacific, a shade darker than the cloudless sky.

I was driving, Bignami was bantering about Tanya Li and Alex Paer and the purple buds he’d picked up off a moke in Waianae. He was a great talker, he only ever shut up when he took photos and then he’d be so lost you wondered if, with his mind in the frame, he became a different person.

We found parking near a derelict church within which hardwood trees grew and whose branches armed through glassless windows. Bignami said it was his favorite church in the world, and he’d already been to Paris and Rome. I said all buildings look great when they crumble. Bignami snapped a few photos, including one of me which he mailed to me weeks later, and we crossed the two-lane slab and pushed through the rim of green shrubs to the hot white sand.

Without a word or a glance back Bignami rushed ahead, tossing his shirt and slippers behind him, and then very carefully, coming back to the world, laid down his camera. Then he was a lunatic again. Imitating one of those water-running lizards, he bounded atop the glassy plane until reality, which he had been taunting, overtook him. When it did he turned his mockery into a graceful dive and for a long, long while he was under, a lean sleek shadow beneath the clear water.

I dropped my things next to his and joined him. We swam far out, past the other swimmers, past the buoys, past it all. Treading water we looked back at the bay, at the lava rock towers, at the crescent of sand which marked the frontier between mountain and ocean. Swimming back in, a bit behind Bignami, I felt very good. It was good to be home again.

On the beach Bignami dried his hands and rolled a spliff, nothing in him hurried about it. He lit it without even looking around, without worry of consequence, as he did everything, and we smoked languidly in the bright sun, the water evaporating off our now-pale bodies, leaving a fine dusting of salt. Bignami was boasting again, and I can forgive him for it. There was nothing around to suggest the impossible.

Sitting there you could say anything, you felt, and it would come true. And Bignami was saying he’d become a famous photographer. He had already won an award at the University of Oregon, in just his first year. His photographs would find homes in the finest publications, he said. Because he would go anywhere to take them, he would do whatever it took, climb mountains to find the angle, speak for days with sign language to gather the specific insight, the glimmer in an eye and so on.

Because I am the quiet type, I kept quiet. Though I could have said something. Who knows, maybe it would have come true.

And without a word, as if he had given up on me replying, he rose to his feet. He ran to the edge of the beach and wrestled with a small boulder, something he could barely lift, let alone carry, but somehow he managed to haul it back.

With a deep thud he let it fall to the sand next to me. His face was beet red. All the same he was grinning, that famous grin of his, the one that won over Tanya and Alex and however many others in Eugene. I looked at the rock. Bignami motioned out at the bay. It’s so fucking amazingly clear I want to cry, Bignami said. But if I cried it would just blend in with all the other tears of joy and clear water and really it’s better off not to cry and swim some more.

I laughed.

Let’s take him home, Bignami said.

I got up. We lifted the boulder and waddled liked crabs, carrying it over the sand to the ocean.

We took it out. And when we could stand no longer we took turns diving down, lifting the boulder off the sand floor and running with it in arms cradled till we couldn’t hold our breath any longer. Then we’d spring up from the bottom, gazing up at the sunlight rippling through the water.

I gulped air and whooped and then it was Bignami’s turn again. He dove down and picked up the boulder and I watched him move in slow motion, running out, out toward the deep, till he had carried it deeper than we could dive again, till I was out of breath myself, simply watching him. He was a lunatic. He was more than forty feet down when he gave it a final heave. Bignami bounded up. I could see it in his face, in his grin, his eyes wide as dinner plates. He was crazy for life.

The following summer I went backpacking through Europe. The summer after that he stayed in Eugene. We lost touch. That’s just the way it goes sometimes.

Ten years later I was flipping through a National Geographic, not that I subscribed or anything. I was in a dentist’s waiting room in New York. And out of the years, out of the blue, there he was again. His name at least. Below helicopter shots of African savannas, below close-ups of obsidian skin and red robes and painted faces in firelight and I could not stop myself,

I laughed out loud–a peculiar sound in a dentist’s office. A woman glared at me, but I didn’t apologize. Because I thought I’d escaped Hawai’i. Yet there he was, in Africa of all places. You couldn’t get any farther away than that.

And studying the photos some more this peculiar feeling crept up on me. Like I was looking into the man.

That is to say, though I saw photographs of green hills and sunsets, the aged faces and swollen bellies of starving children, I really saw my old friend Bignami. Not him but flashes of him, sparks of memories, and it came back to me again, that day at Waimea Bay. How you just can’t hold on to anything, certainly not the beautiful things.

The nurse, impartially looking around, had called my name. So I stood and set the magazine on the table and went over. And before long the dentist was jabbing needles in my gums, saying not to worry, it will be over before I know it. Eventually I got the mask. A voice told me not to worry about what I might say. But I probably sputtered a lot of nonsense, descending into that fluffy pink cloud.

The next few days, in an oxycodone blur, I had plenty of time to ask around about him. To see if he had really become the big shot he claimed he would be. Word arrived quick enough.

Zach, who was living in Flagstaff, was among the first to know. It had happened yesterday, maybe even the day before. Maybe while I was dreaming in the dentist’s office. Through the soft ruffle of static I could hear the tremor in his voice.

But with the painkillers it still didn’t make sense to me, a dense gooey field kept it from sinking in, kept myself from my consciousness, you could say. But the drugs wore off in the middle of the night and the pain of missing wisdom teeth woke me. And I understood it. Clearly, in a flash. Yeah, I understood it all right.

Two days later I was on a flight to Honolulu. I arrived late in the evening, very late east coast time, and my mother picked me up. I was dead tired. That was my excuse for having little to say, though my mother made an effort. To talk over the seven years since we had last seen each other. But it was a lot to cover. Too much, I think.

Back home I looked around the old house. Beyond a new photograph or two it was exactly as I had remembered it. She said it’s great to see you, Jake, after so long. But I was tired, dead tired with something. As soon as politeness made possible, I said goodnight and went to bed.

And I slept easily in my childhood room, better than I expected I would, the tradewinds blowing through the open windows with the scent of hibiscus. I did not dream and early the next morning I borrowed the car and drove down the hill and along Kalaniana’ole around Koko Head, around the point past Makapu’u to the long beach at Waimanalo. It was all as I had left it, except ten years had elapsed.

A hell of a lot of people were there already, many of whom I knew, including Zach and other acquaintances from high school. More came, the service swelled until it was a large crowd. It was meant to be a celebration of his life but I felt bitter as hell, though it was gorgeous, it really was. A light wind blowing off the water, whitecaps out to the horizon. The green spine of mountains over the ironwood trees, wind whispering through the pine needles.

It began. And from the very start his mother was crying, she was inconsolable. She was one of only two people who didn’t call him Bignami. The other was his father. They both called him ​my son​. And when it was my turn to say a few words I talked about that day at Waimea Bay, how Bignami had made good on his promises, at least that one.

After it was all said we scattered his ashes. The leis we let into the ocean listed and bobbed on the current out and I knew it would make a brilliant photo, from the right vantage.

All of us in the water to our waists, men in aloha shirts and women with plumerias in their hair, the ocean calm and turquoise, the small waves rippling white in the sunlight, the leis bright but sad looking, trying to say something, drifting out with his ashes, but there was no photo taken, there was no big shot Bignami there to take it.

Jacob William Cox was born in San Francisco and raised in Hawai’i. He travels as often as he can, and has visited wide swaths of Europe, Asia and South America. When he’s not on the road he calls New York City home. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Anti-Heroin Chic, The Basil O’ Flaherty, Atticus Review, Belleville Park Pages and The Santa Clara Review.