Keystone Trigger

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Chapter 22

Sticky heat wrapped the evening around Hidari’s one-floor home. Two pairs of shisa dogs, one open-mouthed, the other taciturn, topped the roof at either end, perched permanently in opposing stances to welcome good spirits or turn away demons as needed. Rain pinged off the clay shingles, off the bags of stones that weighed down the weak spots, to cascade over the porch and provide music for the dinner at hand.

Inside, Tatsuo inclined over the kitchen table to tweak his only granddaughter’s ear, having praised her fiery mind for the past ten minutes. Aomi dodged the old man’s hand with a shiver of embarrassment, a feeling she dreaded, like any good teenager, above all physical harm or danger. Through lavender-penciled eyes she cast glares at their unneeded guest, who avoided the other faces while Hidari set matsutake clear soup in four places on the table.

“How good it is to see so many people at once!” said Tatsuo. “Isn’t that right, Aomi?”

The girl puffed out her cheeks and rocked back on her wooden chair, trying to balance on the rearmost legs. Her psychedelic mauve tank-top shimmered in the overhead light.

“She’s from Tokyo,” said her grandfather, by way of explanation.

Hidari offered her translating services.

“Nice. City. Lots of octopus porn cartoons and shit.” Glen had lain in bed all day with headaches, swimming in and out of dreams. After hours of trying to sleep, trying to block out his entire past, he still felt fatigued. A sense of dread overwhelmed him at the thought of lifting his head to Aomi, with her perfect purple-shaded lips.

“So who is this guy, anyway?”

Tatsuo smiled so the wrinkles around his eyes branched out in welcoming trails. “Why he’s…well, he’s an American. Isn’t that right, Hidari?”

“I’m just helping him out until he feels better.”

“Because he hurt his leg, is that it?”

“More or less.”

Aomi shrugged, indifferent. She drank her soup with her head down, like Glen, while the two elderly diners kept their backs straight.

“So how does it feel to be back in Tsugunai?”

“It’s quiet.” Aomi swallowed and lowered her head even further.

“Peaceful,” said Tatsuo. “I’ve lived here my whole life, and there’s nowhere else in the world more peaceful.”

Aomi wrinkled her untanned brow. “If you’ve lived here your whole life, how do you know there’s nowhere else in the world more peaceful?”

“Well, it’s just so clear to me: rolling waves, soft sand, a cool breeze in the evening. And on a cloudless night you can see every star in the sky.”

“What about the ones on the other hemisphere?”

Hidari, stepping in politely: “And how has Tokyo been?”

“It’s fine,” said the girl in English. “My boyfriend got mad at me because I cheated on him.”

Glen choked on his lukewarm broth. He pawed his eyes, more to block out the room than improve his vision. Forget about roadside bombs—unexpected dinner parties were hell.

“Did you apologize?” said Hidari.

Aomi stirred the remaining liquid in her bowl with careful detachment. “Why?”

Hidari drew herself up straighter and sighed. She looked over at Glen for any input, but he was cowering behind his spoon. Penises. “Your boyfriend deserves respect, you know. I’m sure there were some problems, but you could have tried to talk about them instead of cheating. How do you feel about what you did?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Exactly what I said.”

“My, what a fine soup,” said Tatsuo in Okinawan.

Glen knocked over his bowl and whispered a totally inaudible apology. The bald spot on his head faced Tatsuo like a target for him to spit on, but Tatsuo, pacifist that he was, lacked any conviction to spit. Hidari cleaned up the white man’s mess with a hand-towel.

“I don’t really know,” said Aomi. “I found another guy I liked and just went with him. I didn’t think about it much.” She licked a gap between her teeth and nestled her stripe-socked foot more snugly into her buttock. Glen gripped the table and shook it with his trembling.

“Did you not like your relationship with your boyfriend?”

“It was okay. Not bad, you know? But this other guy was okay, too. He made some funny jokes. I mean they were terrible jokes, but the way he said them was funny. I guess I wanted to have fun.”

“Have you ever tried gardening?”

Aomi scoffed, though her smile was more shy than malicious. “My mom grows tomatoes. When she’s not working, I mean. They taste good, but you have to wait too long to get anything.”

“Well, tomatoes are like—”

“Please don’t say, ‘tomatoes are like relationships.’ I’m smarter than that. I know what you’re trying to say and I’m not trying to be difficult, but you don’t understand what it’s like.”

Mabuya, mabuya.

“I was going to say tomatoes are like children; if you neglect them, their best parts will shrivel up.”

Aomi laughed. Glen, bewildered, pictured a little girl’s uniform. I hope my parents buy me that skirt I’ve been after!

“My daughter works all the time,” said Tatsuo. “It is very stressful in Tokyo.”

“Grandpa, you’ve never even been there.”

“I was on the mainland, once, long before you were born. I saw enough then. But let’s eat, shall we? This American of yours looks sleepy, so I imagine he needs to be off to bed soon.”

Hidari didn’t bother to translate again. She pushed back her chair and shuffled to the kitchen for the pork and rice. Spooning dinner onto each plate, she accepted the aches in her wrist and legs and spine. Growing old hurts, and at the end, nobody can help but the specters of memory. Sho Norito with his scowl and disrespect. No chance of atoning in Gopai when they shoot M-16s on the family farm.

In the den Glen was crying, holding his fingers to his face. Aomi’s mouth hung open like a grouper’s while her grandfather arranged his spoon on the table.

“What is wrong?” Hidari asked.

“I’m going to hell. I’m going to fucking hell.”

“This guy’s a nutcase,” said Aomi. “Is he on pills?”

“Your American must be very tired.”

“Mr. Tangerine, here, please sleep in the guest bed. Aomi, can you help him up? I would, but it is a little more difficult for me to bend.”

With unsuppressed reluctance, the high-schooler grabbed the man’s hand and eased him onto his working foot. Hidari handed him crutches.

“I don’t know, I don’t know. Jesus Christ.”

Aomi cocked her jasmine-scented head at him. “Are you from New York? You talk like a criminal.”

He slumped his weight onto the padded arm-rests and squeezed his eyes to glittering jade slits. As he turned away he said, “Jersey.”

“That sucks.” She led him into the other room, with the butsudan and Hidari’s family names.

In Japanese, Tatsuo said, “I wish my daughter would come back here with Aomi and stay for a few years, soak up the Okinawan sun. There is no place better in the world for happiness.”

“No there is not,” said Hidari. The two townspeople smiled at each other, like they’d won cash prizes from a game show they were certain to lose.

When Aomi returned, she wiped her palms on her jeans like the American had been caked in filth. “Why is this guy here, again?”

“He was robbed and hurt. According to his story.”

“You don’t believe him.”

“I think there are certain details being left out.”

“So why haven’t you called the cops?”

Sho Norito’s spirit watched, munching a sugar cube. Still angry? Hidari stowed Glen’s plate in the fridge for later. She sat back down and compelled herself to eat.

“I feel sorry for him, if you really want to know.”

“Hidari is such a generous person,” said Tatsuo. “One time she patched up a hole in my roof without telling me, when I was away. She even chased a bird out of my house!”

“I remember. That pigeon kept pecking the top of my head.”

“I would’ve smacked that thing across the face,” said Aomi. “I hate pigeons. They smell like the inside of an old sock.”

“So do Americans,” said Tatsuo, and his granddaughter covered her mouth in surprise.

“I’ve never heard you say things like that, Grandpa.”

“I never had reason to say such things around you. When I was a boy, though, I was always struck by how odd the soldiers smelled when they would give me chocolate or some other treat. I sincerely appreciated the gifts, but I couldn’t help but laugh at how silly the men were. Such pointy noses.”

“I don’t find them attractive at all, personally,” said Hidari. “No offense to them.”

“I wouldn’t mind dating a white guy,” said Aomi. “A lot of them treat ladies really nice. A lot nicer than guys in Tokyo do. Back there they expect you to make them food all the time and just shut up.”

“Is that why you had problems with your boyfriend?”

“It’s a little complicated.”

Hidari stared into the girl’s eyes, as if to illuminate the full breadth of complication in the world. Aomi poked her food with a chopstick.

“I’m very proud of you,” said Tatsuo. “No matter what.”

Aomi blushed and crammed her head into her sweater. “Please, Grandpa, I hate compliments.”

“As a baby, she was unbelievably precious. Do you remember, Hidari?”

“Her cheeks were so pinchable, I’m surprised I didn’t leave bruises!”

“Oh God, I’m going to be sick.”

Tatsuo reached across and seized his granddaughter’s cheek through the distorted sweater fabric.

“Wonderful!”

“That’s my ear, ow.”

“It’s hard to tell when you’re hiding like that.”

“Just promise not to make any more compliments. Or talk about when I was a baby.”

“Deal,” said Hidari. “Now hurry up and eat before the food freezes over.”

Aomi peeked her face from the sweater and dropped a pork chunk into her mouth. Thunder crashed in the distance.

“We’ve got a real typhoon on our hands, huh?” said Tatsuo. “I have my emergency lamp and supplies all ready to go.”

“I don’t know, grandpa. If I had my way, I’d clear the clouds and lie on the beach all day, tanning. Storms creep me out.”

“I like a good storm,” said Tatsuo. “Remember that one a few years ago? Cleaned all those stains off my wall. I just curled up with a good book and a heavy supply of beer!”

Hidari laughed. Glen moaned on the bed in the other room and Aomi shut the door.

“What a weirdo. He sleeps with his eyes open.”

“He’s a soldier,” said Hidari.

“Is that what he said?”

“Yes, but you can tell. The way he carries himself.”

“Do soldiers sleep with their eyes open?”

“In so many words, yes.”

“Did you see a lot of soldiers back in the day, Ms. Wasayama?”

“Such politeness now. It must be the food taking effect; it always makes you happy. When you were a baby Tatsuo used to give you a slice of raw melon to suck on, and you were like a contented little clam.”

“No more baby stuff, remember?”

“My mistake.”

“But you did see lots of soldiers?”

“I did.”

“And killing and stuff?”

“Aomi!” Tatsuo’s smile waned for the first time.

“It’s quite all right. I did, as a matter of fact. So did your grandfather, even though he is a good deal younger than me. I saw Japan sacrifice Okinawa during war and in so-called peace, without consideration for our privacy or worth. We went along with it because we truly believed in the Emperor and Japan. It might seem silly to you now, but we swallowed the propaganda without a second thought. Why wouldn’t we? After, of course, we realized how hollow Japan’s promises were. I saw my farmland, which had been tilled for hundreds of years, turn into landing strips for dangerous aircraft. I saw protests by a hundred thousand Okinawans when the U.S. used our island as a springboard for the Vietnam invasion. I was there at the Koza riot and I was there when we stood up against the rape of 1995. I heard people call us pigs, and idiots, and illiterate Chinese offspring. I heard a thousand phones hang up while I fought to change the government for the better. I apologize, I am rambling now.”

“No, that’s totally okay. It’s really cool.” Aomi flashed a supportive smile. “It’s really different from how I live. You want a cigarette, by the way?”

“I don’t smoke so much anymore, but after that little outburst I think I would like one. Tatsuo?”

He waved his hand for them to proceed.

“I roll my own. Not to be cool or anything. It’s just cheaper. Oh hey, whatever happened with that guy who was looking for you?”

“He never left a businesscard,” said Tatsuo. “I’m not sure who he was, though from the sound of it he was from Tokyo. I’m sure of that.”

“Maybe he’s a secret admirer.”

Hidari blushed. “I am far too old for that, my dear.”

“You never know.”

“It is a strange world and a strange time, true. Though, in my opinion, it always is. Every generation.”

“The true voice of experience right there,” boomed Tatsuo, and the three of them laughed while the earth sucked and swelled around them.

Flagellating waves. Lights flickered on and off in a thousand houses while firefighters roamed the roads to clear signs, car parts, trees for the public’s safety. Detachments of Marines waited on standby for cleanup assistance and rescue. Workers drank in the streets, collected in the bars that refused to close (a last-ditch effort to pay rent), or huddled with family. Stoic graves bore the wearing and fading of another onslaught. Cars tread with care, wipers flailing, waiting for a lull to speed up. The wind droned in brokenly respiring tones. And hidden in a clump of trees along Route 58, a rented white van collected rainwater through its shattered windshield. A girl with her hands and feet tied and her mouth taped shut pushed against the handles of the rear double doors to go back to her mom, her legs shaking from the cold, her panties lying in the passenger seat like a prize for a triumphant predator, an impulse-purchased bobble-doll on the dashboard, watching the scene with plastic eyes. The thunder slackened.

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