In the foothills of Pasadena, Mas Arai is just another Japanese-American gardener, his lawnmower blades clean and sharp, his truck carefully tuned. But while Mas keeps lawns neatly trimmed, his own life has gone to seed. His wife is dead. And his livelihood is falling into the hands of the men he once hired by the day. For Mas, a life of sin is catching up to him. And now bachi—the spirit of retribution—is knocking on his door.
It begins when a stranger comes around, asking questions about a nurseryman who once lived in Hiroshima, a man known as Joji Haneda. By the end of the summer, Joji will be dead and Mas’s own life will be in danger. For while Mas was building a life on the edge of the American dream, he has kept powerful secrets: about three friends long ago, about two lives entwined, and about what really happened when the bomb fell on Hiroshima in August 1945.
A spellbinding mystery played out from war-torn Japan to the rich tidewaters of L.A.’s multicultural landscape, this stunning debut novel weaves a powerful tale of family, loyalty, and the price of both survival and forgiveness.
About the Author
Naomi Hirahara is a freelance writer and journalist who served for several years as an editor of The Rafu Shimpo, the largest Japanese American daily newspaper. She is the author of two previous Mas Arai mysteries, Gasa-Gasa Girl and Summer of the Big Bachi, named one of "The Ten Best Mysteries and Thrillers of 2004" by the Chicago Tribune and a Publishers Weekly "Best Books of 2004" pick.
Read an Excerpt
Tanaka’s Lawnmower Shop was where it all started, at least this time around. Buried in a town called Altadena at the base of the purple San Gabriel Mountains, it was the closest thing to home for Mas Arai. When Mas was younger and his hair jet-black, he spent most of his nights after his gardening route in the shop’s back room. They cleared the worktables of screws, pliers, and invoices and got out a case of plastic poker chips in red, yellow, blue, and green. Wishbone Tanaka would plunk down a new pack of playing cards, a sticker still keeping the virgin lid in place. Someone would toss in a bag of red-dyed pistachios; after a night of cards, everyone’s fingertips would be pink and salty.
Even after he got married and his daughter, Mari, was born, Mas continued these late-night outings. Most of the guys were still single, or had wives who didn’t care, but Chizuko called every night. When Mari was old enough to say “Dad-dy,” she was the one who was on the other side of the line. Then Chizuko was pregnant again, and Mas thought twice about gambling at Tanaka’s. “One day it’s all going to catch up with you,” Chizuko shrieked. “You going to get big bachi.”
One late weekend night the bachi did come. Mari kept calling and calling. Mas refused to take the phone, because he didn’t want his successful run to be ruined.
“I got me six hundred dolla,” he announced, stumbling into the bedroom that night.
“I don’t feel so good, Masao-san,” Chizuko moaned.
Mas flipped on the light. Chizuko’s permed hair was damp against her forehead. He turned over the flowered bedspread and cotton sheets to reveal Chizuko’s plump belly extending over her tight panties. Next to her was a spot of blood, fresh and dark.
“I called you, Daddy.” Mari, dressed in a flannel nightgown, stood in the doorway. “I kept calling and calling.”
After Chizuko’s miscarriage, Mas stopped playing cards. Chizuko kept her nagging, but it took on another tone. The words were the same, but all their power was gone. It continued like this for twenty more years, two decades filled with one bachi after another. In the end, he was the only one left in their three-bedroom house at the bottom of the San Gabriels, the purple peaks now barely visible due to the smog. Even their mutt dog was gone.
But it seemed to always work out this way for Mas. He was the ultimate survivor, whether he liked it or not. It was a distinction that Mas hated and lately had begun to test. He resumed hanging out at Tanaka’s, first just once a month, then once a week. Within a year, his Ford truck was on automatic. After Mas finished his gardening route at noon, he headed for Fair Oaks Boulevard, which pushed up into tiny streets like the thin veins that traced his brown fingers. While the main town, Pasadena, was full of wide boulevards and fancy streetlights, Altadena, to the north, was scrawny like a chicken that didn’t get enough feed. It had a slight wildness to it—hardly any sidewalks—as if the town weren’t even worth taming. Mas liked it that way.
Tanaka’s Lawnmower Shop was a small shack between an abandoned gas station and a discount grocery store that used to be a chain called Market Basket. In any other city around Los Angeles, Tanaka’s would be long gone. The advent of huge home building supply stores meant survival of the fittest. And Tanaka’s was anything but fit.
It was the beginning of summer and hotter than hell. Wishbone’s air-conditioning had broken down, and the door to the shop was wide open. A few flies circled the heads of the men whose graying hair was slicked back with Three Flowers oil.
Wishbone was behind the counter, like usual. Wishbone’s real name, given by his immigrant parents from Kumamoto Prefecture, was Wallace. Strangers who met Wishbone for the first time thought that his nickname meant that he was lucky. But it had nothing to do with luck. When he was a skinny teenager, his legs were terribly pigeon-toed, resulting in the nickname from his East L.A. classmates. At age sixty-seven, the name still stuck.
He and three others were talking about the gardeners’ association meeting the night before. “Hardly anyone there, ne,” said one of the guys, a gardener in San Gabriel. “A lot of fines to be paid.”
“Took just about thirty minutes, datsu all. Was even home for the horse race broadcast,” said Stinky Yoshimoto, also a gardener who lived in Pasadena.
Mas, at first, didn’t notice the man standing in the corner by the loops of garden hoses. He was quiet, and it was his silence that attracted attention. He was in his fifties, younger than the usual crowd. He wore a tan turtleneck, even though it was ninety-eight degrees outside, and a pair of tinted glasses with golden tips. Must be straight from Japan, Mas had thought, studying the man’s flat, manicured fingernails. Definitely no gardener.
“You not at the meeting last night, Mas.” Stinky held on to the handle of a lawn mower on display.
The man in the tinted glasses and the two gardeners stared at Mas as if they had just noticed him in the doorway. He fumbled with a button on his khaki shirt and adjusted his Dodgers cap.
“Mas don’t go to meetings. He’s not that kind of guy.” Wishbone grinned, wrinkles covering his face like a Mojave lizard’s.
Mas bit into an old toothpick he had found in his jeans pocket. The guys always made a big deal about the gardeners’ association meetings. But what was it, really? A bunch of old guys in folding chairs, listening to speeches on the latest drought or blower ban. The heyday of the Japanese gardener had passed them by years ago. Once, there had been hundreds of them on the front lawns of practically all Southern Cali- fornia homes and businesses. Now they were replaced by their former helpers, the Mexicans, with shiny new trucks, eager family members, and cut-rate prices.
“We were just tellin’ this fella—what your name again?” The gardener from San Gabriel turned to the stranger.
“Nakane.” The man squeezed the right tip of his eyeglasses.
“Yah, Nakane-san, yah, tellin’ him that we saw Haneda last night.”
The toothpick broke in Mas’s mouth. His heart pounded, and blood pulsed through his head.
“You know Haneda Joji?” the stranger asked in Japanese. His tinted glasses had turned a shade or two lighter in the dark shed, and his heavy eyelashes fluttered.
“Yah, he knowsu Haneda.” Stinky’s eyes were bloodshot and milky yellow like a stirred raw egg. “Knowsu each other back in, what, Wakayama?”
“Hiroshima,” Mas corrected Stinky.
“Oh, yah, that’s right. Hi-RO-shima.”
“Longtime friends,” Nakane stated, more than questioned.
“No, I neva say friends.” Mas chewed on the broken toothpick until it splintered into even smaller pieces. What kind of stranger comes around and makes noise like this?
“Shitsurei,” Nakane apologized. “Don’t take offense. I’m just looking for him.”
“Heezu right ova there, in Ventura,” said Stinky.
“Yah,” the gardener from San Gabriel interjected, “got a fancy nursery right there by the ocean. ‘The beach clean there,’ he say. ‘Best sashimi in California. Better than the ones down here, any day.’ ”
“That’s the thing.” Wishbone smoothed a dollar bill on his wooden counter. “He’s not in Ventura anymore.”
“Oh, yah?” Stinky looked greedily at Wishbone. Wishbone was the king of local gossip, which seemed to sell better than his lawn mowers.
“He left his wife and his kids, although they all are pretty much grown now. They say he’s with a mistress down here in North Hollywood.”
North Hollywood? Mas felt like spitting the tiny splinters of toothpick onto Wishbone’s floor. While it took at least an hour and a half to drive to Ventura, North Hollywood was only twenty miles away.
“Happen to know her name?” Nakane’s eyes looked shiny and bright, but Mas couldn’t tell if it was just the reflection off of his glasses.
“No.” Wishbone’s smile diminished slightly. “Just know that she’s younger.”
Atarimae, thought Mas. That much they all could figure out.
Another gardener walked into the steamy shed, and the conversation switched from Haneda to gossip about a Japa-nese mechanic whose son had been arrested for drug dealing. The turtlenecked man retreated into the back storage area, and Mas remained with the others. It was only a matter of time before the man in the tinted glasses made his way toward Mas. “So, you know where Joji-san is?”
“Why you wanna knowsu?” The man spoke as if he were straight from Japan, and Mas was suspicious. He smelled like high-tone cologne, not the familiar scent of Old Spice that Mas splashed on special for a funeral.
The man bent his head. “I’m working in conjunction with the government. Trying to restore some lost records. We thought that Joji Haneda died in 1945, August. But here’s one, right here in Southern California.”
Mas tossed the chewed toothpick on the floor. “Lotsu of Jojis, I betsu. A dime a dozen.” Mas made sure he spoke in English. “And Haneda. Probably a load of themsu, too.”
The man squeezed the tip of his glasses again. “Yes, it could be so. But they never recovered his body.”
Mas almost laughed out loud. How many thousands were never found? How many were tossed in piles like charred, useless logs? “You gonna track down every dead sonafugun? You gonna be one busy man.”
The man did not smile back. Instead, he flipped out a thin gold case and removed a business card. shuji nakane, investigations, it read. Underneath the title was an address in Hiroshima. “You call me if you remember anything. My local pager number’s on the back,” Nakane said.
“Wait a minute,” Mas said before Nakane left the shed. “How you knowsu a Joji Haneda in America?”
“Television,” said Nakane. “On an American news program.”
Mas remembered. It had been a couple of years ago in August. He had been flipping through the television channels after eating a burnt Swanson’s chicken pie, and there was that ugly face, the hooked nose. He was sitting next to a hakujin man reporter, one of those generic ones with neat hair, not too good-looking, but not so bad, either. They were on the shore of a beach; must have been Ventura. “I was with two friends that morning,” he said. Below him, on the screen, were the video letters joji haneda/survivor.
Mas felt sick to his stomach. “You nuts,” he practically spit at the 12-inch image of video dots. It was just like him to run after attention. Couldn’t he keep quiet after all these years?
“How many of them survived?” the reporter asked.
Haneda’s eyes watered, like those of a trapped fish. “Only me,” he said, “and one other.”
Mas promptly turned off the television and smashed his hand against the fake wood console. The worn-out antenna, which he had reattached with metal telephone wire, sagged down to the floor. “Baka,” Mas cursed. He couldn’t believe this man could be so stupid. It would be just like him to talk after fifty years, when it felt deceptively safe. And now that recklessness had resulted in this fancy investigator nosing around.
“So, were you able to help the man out?” Wishbone had left his counter to stack some cans of snail killer on a shelf next to Mas.
Mas shook his head. “What youzu know about dis guy, anyway?”
“Just came in this morning. Never laid eyes on him before.”
Strange, thought Mas. Wishbone didn’t care for these white-collar types from Japan. If he had his way, none of them would be allowed into the United States, much less his Altadena lawn mower shop. Before Mas could ask any more questions, Wishbone had returned to the rest of his customers.
Standing beside the cans of snail killer, Mas studied the investigator’s card. This Shuji Nakane was no government man; that was for sure. No such person would set foot in Tanaka’s Lawnmower Shop. This man was used to getting down and dirty, digging in places he should not be. What would happen if he uncovered the truth about Joji Haneda?