At the entrance of the yurt, Larry pulls a large group of keys from his pocket; one key for the door of the yurt, one to the gate above the entrance of the lava cave, one for the lightbox, one for Tom’s mansion, one for his car, and one for his bike lock. He’s always loved the perfect circle of the yurt. There are no hidden corners, no set-aside spaces, everything can be taken in, in one sweeping look; wicker baskets hold rolled maps, a telescope is perched by the west-facing window, and yellowed newspapers are stacked on rattan shelves. The thin, worn, gray carpet makes the interior resemble an abandoned office space. Though you wouldn’t know it by the way Larry treats the yurt, Larry doesn’t own the sixteen feet in diameter circular space. It’s owned by Tom Ryland who lives in the mansion a few meters behind the yurt. Four years ago, when Tom hired him as the first and only employee for Tom’s Lava Caves Tour, Larry immediately decorated the blank canvas walls of the yurt with vintage photographs of the Big Island of Hawaii, then he trimmed the dark wood shelves with geodes and books about local birds and vegetation.
Larry places his brown bag lunch of a tuna sandwich and pickles into the minifridge and begins responding to emails from people wanting to set up tours for the lava caves on their upcoming vacations. It’s Tuesday morning, an hour before the first tour begins with students from the Keonopoko Elementary School.
For twenty years, before he moved to Hawaii, Larry lived in New York City and played the character Germaine Creed in the soap opera television series, The Royal World, about a royal family from an unnamed European country. The Royal World played for twenty years, with Germaine Creed as an ancillary character for ten of those years. When the soap announced its ending and the last day of taping, Tom, a fellow soap actor who had moved from New York to the Big Island two years earlier, asked Larry if he would house-sit while Tom traveled. With a hefty savings account, no love interest, or job prospects, Larry accepted.
Larry often reminisces those early days with Tom. The island life was the complete opposite of New York life, where he left behind skyscrapers, theater shows, and brunches at hotels. Larry and Tom swept the cave pathways, planted vegetation near the opening of the cave, and drank beer during their breaks, providing relief from the heat, but not the humidity. They talked about their Royal World days and how they were creating something instead of playing a part in an imaginary world. This natural wonder would never shut down. Now, Larry leads the tours for Tom, while Tom travels the world. On days when there were no tours, Larry would sweep the floor of the caves, brushing aside the larger pebbles and rocks out of the pathway, his hips swinging like the pendulum of a grandfather’s clock, regular ticks side to side, like a slow cha-cha.
Larry pulls open the metal blinds hanging on one of the three windows in the yurt and beyond the dust particles flying in the air, Larry rests his eyes on the ocean a half-mile away. In between the yurt and the ocean sits a community of manufactured homes atop black volcanic flow. Most of these houses, except for Tom’s custom-built mansion and a few other custom homes, came in on a flatbed truck. The community is so new, a truck delivers and pumps water into each home’s water tank once every couple of weeks. Ashy black grains carpet the land. The extraordinary blackness of the ash is darker than anything Larry has ever seen. He often explains to the tourists that the Big Island is the youngest island, still growing inch by inch from the volcanic flow. The tourists say the land reminds them of Mars and sometimes imagines he is on Mars.
“Welcome everybody,” Larry smiles down at the fourth graders. Because Larry is six feet, five inches tall, all fifteen pairs of eyes, including the teacher’s, gaze up at him with their heads hinged back against the top of their spines.
Adjusting his clear plastic eyeglass frames, Larry continues, “Does anyone know how many volcanoes there are on the island?”
“Twenty,” “four,” “sixteen,” “five” came the guesses. Larry’s throat emits a high-pitched giggle, a surprising sound from such a large man. He shifts from side to side on his two-hundred- fifty-pound frame. He adjusts his glasses and wiggles in place. The few students laugh at Larry but Larry doesn’t notice or he ignores them. They hadn’t expected to be met by a man built like a middle-aged football player who squirmed like an inflatable dancing balloon and laughed like a schoolgirl.
“There are five.” Larry holds up one hand, all five fingers pointing upwards. Then with one finger, he points to the map on the wall and his finger hovers over each of the volcanoes. “So you, young lady,” nodding to a girl with reddish-brown hair and a yellow dress, “are absolutely correct. These volcanoes were active and these other three,” drafting his finger to the left of the map, “are considered dormant. And this here,” moving his finger down the map, “is how far the lava has flowed to the other parts of the island.”
About halfway into the introduction, Larry hears a boy whine, “I’m bored.” When Larry turns to see who is complaining, the tallest boy in the class asks, “When are we going to see the caves?”
Mr. Fine, the sixth-grade teacher, says everyone will have to wait until Mr. Larry finishes his introduction because the students will be tested on this information when they get back to class. The yellow-dress girl stands up straighter almost clicking her heels together and the tallest boy kicks a dusty crate of old issues of National Geographic magazines next to him.
Larry had been a good solid B high school student and considered teaching as a career. He thought teaching was similar to acting. Now that Larry educates students on these tours, he is grateful he never chose that career path. He spends a couple of hours with these kids and then off they go back to school. Like the soap, each day is the same but different.
For those ten years at The Royal World, he performed almost five days a week, unless the storyline didn’t need the character. When he wasn’t on set, Larry spent his waking hours thinking about Germaine Creed. He’d watch the soap every day to see where the scenes were going, whether Germaine would soon be needed for another revelation. Month after month, year after year, Larry feared being killed off but he never was. The scripts often came out on the day of filming, so the actors had little time to read and memorize their lines. He credited his skills as an actor to his daily practice of Germaine’s facial expressions — surprise, grief, joy, exaltation, inner turmoil. Practicing was important to keep his facial features easily accessible. On the Big Island, Larry doesn’t need most of the faces he once practiced for television and he misses the open emoting. So when a tour group is more energetic than usual or seems especially bored, he will find Germaine Creed and bring him out. They will think Larry is being Larry the tour guide, but to Larry, Larry is Germaine, the extravagant, perpetually single brother who has a secret to share.
Larry guides the students out of the yurt and they walk down a gravel pathway to the left of the yurt, down a curve of steps bolted into the wall of an opening leading to the mouth of the cave. The tours for kids under the age of ten always start the same way. The kids are bored and restless as they shuffle down the steps and Mr. Fine shushes everyone as they reach the mouth of the cave. Even the air shifts from muggy to cold dry air. They are silent as they wait for Larry to turn and face them. The mouth of the cave stands about fifteen feet high and one hundred feet wide. Heads face forward to see the cave narrows as it moves inward. After he gives a short speech on safety and the importance of not running, Larry takes out his pocket flashlight and leads the children and Mr. Fine into the semidarkness. The light from his flashlight is assisted by the battery-operated lights he and Tom intermittently placed along the pathways. The walls of the cave glimmer in pale lavender and cream-silt sand. The kids point to them and Larry tells them to not touch the walls because the finger oils would remove the deposits.
“What’s so great about the mineral deposits? What do they do?” the tallest boy asks.
Larry blinks at the boy and says, “They look cool.” He lifts himself up to the balls of his large feet and rocks up and down in front of the shimmery plaque as the students take a closer look; his energy is prismatic even in the dim light. “Ok, they’re more than just cool. These deposits are hundreds of years in the making. If they are wiped out by our fingerprints, they’ll be gone and then where would we get to see mineral deposits?”
“On the internet,” answers the girl in the yellow dress.
“Yeah,” confirms two more kids.
Mr. Fine says, “Kind of like the islands. The volcanoes created the islands. However, the ocean waves will erode the islands back into the water. In a few thousand years, the islands will diminish to nothing, eventually disappearing back into the ocean.”
“If the islands are gone, where will we live?” The tallest boy demands to know.
With a smug look, Larry glances at Mr. Fine, a young man, maybe in his early thirties if Larry was generous. Mr. Fine’s hair was bleached blonde by the sun. Mr. Fine surfs every minute he’s not teaching, probably moved from California to Hawaii for the surfing. Larry waits for Mr. Fine to correct his mistake. As a guide, keeping topics light and fun is always the goal, not to frighten children with apocalyptic visions of their future. When Surfer Teacher doesn’t say anything, Larry smiles and says, “It won’t happen anytime during our lifetime, kiddos, so you don’t need to think about it. Let’s move on.”
As they follow Larry along the gritty path within the warren of caves, the kids ask him questions like the chances of lava rushing through the cave tunnels and burning them during the tour. Larry answers each question as if he has heard the question for the first time, though this particular question is asked on every tour, sometimes more than once a tour if a tourist hadn’t heard the response the first time.
The boys shout words like “butt” and “crap” to hear if their shouts return an echo; they don’t. The more restless children, tired of walking at a crawl and in a line, jump up and down and ask to go into the shorter, narrower caves which offshoot from the main path. The girls squeal as the boys run their fingers on the girls’ necks or back of their arms pretending to be spiders.
When they reach the end of the pathway, which is less than a quarter of a mile from the mouth of the cave, the school children grab a spot on the benches Tom and Larry had built so tourists could sit and take photos on the deck. It is here where Larry ends the tour and lets the tourists ask their final questions. Mr. Fine asks Larry if he has been a tour guide for long. When Larry says he used to be a soap opera actor, one boy asks, “What’s a soap opera?”
“They don’t really produce soap operas anymore, or “soaps,” Larry explains to the group, but only Mr. Fine and the yellow-dress girl are paying attention. He continues anyway. “Soaps are paid with advertising from companies. In the early days, those companies were usually cleaning companies — that’s why the shows are named soap operas. But because they are expensive to make and those companies stopped paying for advertisements, the televisions networks couldn’t afford to produce them anymore. There are one or two left on the air but I don’t keep up with them.”
“Were you a villain?” Mr. Fine asks.
Larry is surprised by this question. “No.” Larry expands the word as if it had three syllables. “I was the distant royal blood cousin who didn’t live with the main family but would visit every so often to disclose some family secret only I knew about.” Larry wonders if he looks like a villain. He smiles as he waits for more questions but none come.
From the day the actors received the notice of cancellation of The Royal World, Larry day-dreamed that die-hard fans of the show would insurrect and demand that The Royal World remain on air. Only after the last day of filming, did he call his agent to confirm the show was canceled and that he would not be needed the next day.
After the school children and Mr. Fine leave, Larry holds two more tours, one to a family of four, another to avid cave runners. When the last visitor hands him his tip and the sun is an hour away from setting, he goes back to the cave to walk the path one last time before turning out the lights. He sees a dried chewed piece of gum and rolls it around on the dirt before picking it up. One of the path lights have gone out, so Larry twists out the burnt-out light bulb and palms it along with the gum. He makes a mental note to replace the bulb in the morning before the first group arrives. His foot catches on the bottom of a rock that is somehow in the middle of the pathway and he falls forward; with one hand holding the gum and light bulb, he twists his body slightly so his left hand reaches out to brace his fall. When he tumbles, his shin hits a large angled rock then he tumbles onto the ground, gripping his leg and ultimately rolling onto his back. The pain in his shin sends knives up this leg and Larry stares at the ceiling of the cave, the mineral deposits twinkling at him.
He imagines this being a storyline for The Royal World. The doyenne character would have fallen in her red-carpeted bedroom while the other family members are away on vacation. She’d have a voice-over monologue thinking about how she was going to get up with only her two cats in the room watching her. Would someone find her here, dead or barely alive? Would anyone care? Tom is in Bermuda. Larry thinks this is now his reality show.
The lights in the cave are set on a timer and automatically turn off by six o’clock in the evening. While first grabbing the light bulb and gum from the floor, Larry grunts as he lumbers into a standing position and puts a hand on the wall of mineral deposits to steady himself. It’s 5:56 p.m. As he moves the hurt leg, he leans heavily on the wall, pushing against the deposits and the wall crumbles to the ground. Larry lets go and sees the spot where his hand has wiped away the minerals. It takes him longer than usual to walk back out of the cave and at that time, the cave lights turn off. He uses his flashlight to guide him out.
In New York City, it was never dark. You could always find a restaurant open, people going somewhere to do something. Even in the midst of a group of people, Larry would still feel alone, so being alone here with his only conversations on most days to be with people he’d just met, Larry didn’t feel like it was too much of a difference. Mars can be anywhere.
By the time he reaches the yurt, it is completely dark outside except for the pale-yellow light emanating from the yurt, a respite on local Mars. He locks the door and limps to the leather recliner Tom had bought from a thrift store so Larry could relax between tours. Tom doesn’t know Larry sometimes spends the night in the recliner. Larry can still hear the school kids from the morning, the fathers lecturing their children, the mothers asking if anyone needs to use the compost bathroom out back, the repetitive questions about directions, and the weather. Their spirits are with him in the yurt, their voices and his, and their faces would return in his dreams just like the characters of the soap.
Larry forces himself to get up from the recliner, as he contemplates the next morning’s tour group — ten seniors from an assisted living center, and next week Tom will be back from Bermuda. Larry pulls out his bag of weed from the desk drawer and rolls a joint. As it hangs limply from his mouth, he takes a pen and stabs at the notepad, checking off the names for the first tour for the next day.