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Mas Arai was worried that the customs officer at Kansai Airport would find his best friend, Haruo Mukai, inside his suitcase. Mas had wrapped him in an old plastic bag, tied the top with green gardening twine, and stuffed the package in one of his worn socks. If Mas's wife, Genessee, had not been in a convalescent home, recovering from knee surgery, everything would have transpired so differently. For one, he would have had a proper suitcase, not one with a broken roller wheel. And two, she would have consulted the authorities with the airlines to discover the proper way to transport ashes of a dead man. But all that was mendokusai for Mas. A hassle. An inconvenience. If you need to get from point A to point B, you just draw a straight line, he thought. Talking always wasted time.
He had been remarried for six years. Remarkable for an old retired gardener who was now pushing eighty-six. Love had sucker punched him, blinded him when he wasn't looking or expecting it. His marriage to his first wife, Chizuko, made much more sense. He was a thirtysomething bachelor in Los Angeles and it was time. His family in Hiroshima suggested that he return to Japan to get a wife, which he did. That was the last time he'd stepped foot in Japan. That is, until now.
Back then there had been no airport here in Kansai, about 250 miles from the area where he'd spent his youth. He was no expert on airplanes or airports, but this one looked similar to LAX, at least behind the scenes. Sure, here the officers were all Japanese men and women, some wearing white masks to prevent the spread of their sick germs, but they had the same steely stare. Looks that could strip him down in an instant. Whether it was in the US or Japan, uniformed officers knew that he didn't quite belong.
The man in front of him had a big black mole on one cheek. Mas wondered if the officer had had it as a child and whether it was always the same size or had grown as he aged. If it was the former, he must have endured much bullying.
"Are you American?" the officer asked in English, as if the blue passport cover was a fraud.
"Yes," Mas answered back in Japanese.
The officer's gaze remained on Mas. Mas, on the other hand, could not take his eyes off the giant mole.
"Fine." The man gestured that he could proceed.
He had made it through.
* * *
Mas had heard that Kansai Airport had been built on a man-made island. Just the thought of that made him feel a bit queasy, as if he couldn't depend on the integrity of the land.
In terms of land transportation, he attempted to read the instructions from Genessee, who had looked up all the information on her cell phone from her hospital bed and had even written it down. The only problem was that he could barely read her handwriting, which was loopy and imprecise. Chizuko's, on the other hand, had been picture perfect from a missionary's instruction in Hiroshima. She brought that perfection with her to America.
His and Chizuko's only child, Mari, had also tried to help by showing him train and bus schedules and sightseeing stops on her laptop. Of course, he had retained nothing and had even forgotten her printouts on his kitchen table. This trip was not about seeing the sights anyway. It was about wham, bam, getting things done. All he knew was that he was to meet someone at Hiroshima Station later that afternoon.
Seeing the blue sky through the wall of windows, Mas instinctively headed outside. The minute he left the artificially cooled airport, he was hit with a wall of heat. He had noted on an airport clock earlier that it was eight o'clock in the morning in Japan, and the humidity pressed down on his face, entering his ear canals, nostrils, and throat. The tail end of July, he'd heard, was the absolute worst time to travel in Japan, and, of course, Haruo had to die in the summer. Even in his death, Haruo wasn't doing Mas any favors. And Mas knew that if he waited until fall, he himself might not recipient of the ashes.
There were some buses lined up in a row and he figured he would head south. The bus driver attempted to take the broken suitcase and place it in the bottom storage unit, but Mas didn't want to be separated from it. He wrestled it away and took it into the bus. It careened into the knees of irritated passengers as it bounced behind him through the narrow middle aisle. He finally found an open spot and stuffed it into an overhead shelf.
He swore as he settled in his seat. And to the suitcase above, he said silently, Haruo, see. Youzu make me come all the way ova here.
This trip was the most mendokusai thing that he had ever done in his life, other than perhaps flying to pick up Chizuko from Hiroshima. Somewhere in his garage was a remnant of that inconvenient trip, a Pan Am flight bag covered with decades of dust, sticky grime, and even droppings from a mouse that had certainly lost its way.
* * *
"Excuse me, excuse," someone was speaking to him in Japanese.
Mas blinked hard and tried to remember where he was. The bus felt different. It was plusher than the hard seats of the Metro back in Los Angeles. The driver had taken down his suitcase and placed it in the aisle. Why couldn't he keep his hands off of my private property?
He almost stumbled down the stairs to the curb and gazed up to see a white, modern building that resembled a giant humidifier. "Where are you going?" the driver asked him. Mas took out his wife's illegible notes, and the driver directed him inside. The suitcase bumping sideways behind him, he made his way down the platform and into the modest station. There was a wall of ticket machines with grids of some cities that he hadn't heard of. What had happened during the more than fifty years that he had been away?
Passersby ignored him, probably assuming that he knew where he was going. He looked a hundred percent Japanese, after all. He finally approached a window next to the rows of ticket gates. A young man in a black railway hat and blue uniform appeared in the window, holding some kind of metal tool in his right hand.
"Ah, I'm going to Hiroshima," Mas managed to say in Japanese.
"You can get your ticket from the machines there. Or go to the Green Window."
Green Window? What the hell was a Green Window?
Just then a group of five teenagers pressed behind him, holding up some kind of pass in their wallets. He stepped aside with his broken suitcase, feeling more lost than he ever did in America. Even though there were rules in the US, there always seem to be rule breakers. People looked different and acted differently from each other. Here, people seemed to be programmed similarly. Sure there was the random Japanese bohemian with dreadlocks carrying a surfboard, but he moved in concert with the flow of Japan. Mas, on the other hand, was a knot in the middle of the smooth silk string, the scratch on the vinyl record. Even though he had lived in Japan from age three to eighteen, his birthplace, America, where he spent the past almost seventy years, had made him a stranger here.
He wandered in a circle, hoping to seize upon anything that could direct him to where he needed to go. And then he saw it. A sign with the Japanese writing, Midori no Madoguchi. Literally Green Window. And then an arrow.
It turned out there were no green windows in this ticket office, just a green image of a stick figure sitting back in a reclined seat. But there were workers — again not wearing anything green — who seemed to be solving problems and issuing tickets to a line of people. Waiting in the line was a hakujin, a white man with unruly hair, a smelly backpack at his side. This could have been his own son-inlaw, Lloyd, maybe twenty-five years ago. If the Green Window people could help the backpacker, they could surely help him.
Once he finally reached the counter, the clerk didn't bother to look at his face and seemed unfazed by his rough-and-tumble Japanese. She obviously had dealt with a wide range of gaijin travelers and had no expectations of him. For a few glorious minutes, Mas felt free to be himself — an ignorant outsider who was not being judged. Then an envelope with the ticket was placed in his hand, and he was released to the wilds beyond the Green Window.
* * *
Even trying to find the correct place to stand on the platform was a challenge. There seemed to be random numbers and he couldn't quite find where he needed to be. He felt embarrassed to approach the hakujin backpacker, but it would be worse to bother the slick salarymen and polished office ladies who were focused on their newspapers or cell phones.
"Ah, I stand here?" He asked lifting his ticket to the man's eye level.
The backpacker seemed flattered to be approached by an old Japanese man. "This is for assigned seats," he replied in an accent that wasn't American. "You should stand there." He pointed to a row on one end of the platform.
Truth be told, Mas was curious about riding in a bullet train. High-speed rail had come after he and Chizuko had gotten married. Would it indeed shoot forward as fast as a projectile from a gun? Although he was not one to get carsick, he braced himself for a new experience. First a fake island and now a train traveling two hundred miles per hour.
Just then the train arrived, its front shaped like a dolphin's nose. Everything about the bullet train was sleek and silent. Mas stepped forward, almost bumping into the old woman standing in front of him, but no one moved. A line of women in pink uniforms rushed in with rag bags and turned the seats around, wiping them down and replacing doilies on the headrests with new ones.
He was transfixed with how the cleaners worked with such purpose. In a few minutes they were finished and appeared at the entrance of the trains with smiles on their faces. The train was now ready for its passengers to make their way down the spine of the archipelago.
The train was not crowded, and he opted for a window seat. Again, he pushed the suitcase with Haruo's ashes up into an overhead shelf. Luckily, it was low, not like the high shelves in America.
Sitting down, he glanced at his Casio watch, which was nowhere close to the correct time in Japan. Most people, he noticed, had already ordered a lunch box before entering the bullet train. They placed their elegant purchases on the pulldown tray in front of their seats. Even though these bentos were the Japanese equivalent of American takeout food, at least monetarily and conveniencewise, they were nothing like the greasy and messy paper sleeves holding hamburgers and fries, his go-to food back in Southern California.
No, instead these containers were filled with marinated carrots cut like maple leaves, rice balls formed in perfect triangles and dressed in spiffy suits of nori, and beautifully grilled and glazed pieces of fish.
Mas's mouth watered. He, of course, had eaten in the airplane, better food than he had anticipated. Everything was wrapped and had its own compartment or container. Even the water came in a bag that you could pour into a plastic cup.
Usually such organization eluded and frustrated him, but as soon as he left LAX to travel across the Pacific, he felt something happen to him — like a cord had been pulled, freeing the defensiveness he had felt all those years that he lived in the US. California was his home, his birthplace. But in some places, even on his customers' lawns, he had to be on guard. He belonged, yet he didn't belong. Perhaps he would feel differently in Japan?
A female worker pushed a cart filled with box lunches, drinks, and souvenirs. Mas chose a small one with three rice balls, each one flavored a little distinctly. If anything could clear his head, it would be rice with the sour tang of pickled plum.
He also ordered a Coke, and was amused to be handed a can much skinnier than he was used to. He could completely wrap his fingers around this one — and when he was in the height of his gardening days, could probably have finished it off in one gulp.
For a moment he thought about buying a toy train for his only grandson, Takeo. But Takeo wasn't a child anymore. He was in high school, not interested in anything that didn't have a screen for digital images.
As the train zoomed forward, he heard only a low-volume whooshing sound against the window. The familiar scenes of rice paddies and farmhouses outside calmed him to no end. This was the Japan he remembered. The Japan that time had forgotten.
For a moment, he wished that Haruo wasn't stuffed in his suitcase but was fully alive, next to him, watching this scene. Haruo had gone back to Japan a couple of times with his daughter, but as far as Mas knew he'd had no strong desire to be buried here.
The request — or perhaps edict — came from Haruo's older sister, Ayako. This sister, nesan, whom he had only heard of once in passing. Like Haruo, she'd been born in Fresno and taken to Hiroshima as a child. Unlike Haruo, she stayed in Japan. He wasn't sure why, because he understood that she'd never married. And she was ancient, almost ninety, but had had enough energy to call Haruo's widow, Spoon, every day.
Spoon, who was so hunched over now that she resembled a round piece of fruit, could barely sustain such persistent calls. Also, Ayako didn't seem to either recognize or honor that there was an international time difference that separated Hiroshima and Los Angeles by sixteen, seventeen hours. As a result, Spoon received these calls at two o'clock every morning.
Spoon wasn't able to make the international trip. And it wasn't like she could put Haruo in an envelope or old coffee can and send him off to Hiroshima. The task had to be in person, and as it turned out, Mas was the best and maybe the only available person for the job.
He, quite honestly, thought the whole idea was ridiculous. If it were him, he would have preferred to be blown in the California wind, scattered in the weeds, grass, and flowers, and end up on a sparrow's wing, unnoticed and without any fanfare.
* * *
She was holding a handwritten sign with his name in purple, "MASAO ARAI." And below it, in Japanese. The Japanese was all in katakana, the script used for foreign names, not Japanese ones. Even the writing itself looked babyish, written by an outsider. The girl holding the sign was, in fact, an outsider. Her skin was dark, copper toned, and her eyes seemed too large for her head. Young men would deem her attractive, but to Mas, she seemed skinny and delicate. A child.
The lopsided suitcase behind him, Mas stood in front of the girl on the platform. In spite of her youth, she looked weary. She must have been waiting a long time.
"Are you Arai-san?" she asked.
He grunted. Haruo's sister had indicated that she would send someone to pick him up from Hiroshima Station, but he didn't imagine anyone who looked like this.
As he took a few more steps, it dawned on him. It was here. Not in this actual building, but in this physical space. This is where he had been. The bursting of atoms and molecules, the obliteration of the train station and the fire.
"Are you all right? Daijobu?"
He was doubled over his bag, and the girl helped him to his feet. Making sure that he was steady, she ran over to the vending machine next to the snack stand and got him a cold bottle of water.
The water was actually exactly what he needed. He felt immediately revived.
"Do you feel more comfortable speaking English or Japanese?"
He didn't quite know how to answer that question. He didn't enjoy speaking at all, especially as he grew older. The words didn't come to either his mind or mouth that easily these days.
"My name is Thea." Anticipating any questions he might have, she added, "I'm from the Philippines."
Most of the signs in the airport and train platforms were not only in English, but also in Chinese and Korean. Something had happened to the town he had grown up in — the same thing that had happened in America. The world had entered in.
"You've had such a long trip. You must be very tired."
At least the girl had a semblance of common sense.
"Youzu how ole?" Mas finally said.
"Me?" Her face flushed slightly. She must get that question often. "Twenty. Mukai-sensei is my sponsor. She was my mother's nursing professor."
"Your mama here?"
Thea shook her head. "She is back in the Philippines. But she loved Japan, especially Hiroshima, so much. She told me that if I had the opportunity, I should come to Hiroshima, too." She took the half-empty water bottle from him and tightened the cap before stuffing it in her canvas bag next to her "MASAO ARAI" sign. "Do you feel strong enough to continue?"
He nodded, grabbing hold of the suitcase's retract-able handle.
"I want to take you straight to the island."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hiroshima Boy"
Copyright © 2018 Naomi Hirahara.
Excerpted by permission of Prospect Park Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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