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Sunday, Aug. 30, 2009
no night to be alone
A short story from the eye of a storm
By JON MITCHELL
The typhoon swept into Okinawa, bringing rain and cannon-shot thunder, sheets of lightning almost low enough to sear the TV antennas on the blue-tiled roofs. The winds ripped branches from palm trees and left them flapping in the mud like broken-backed seagulls. Even the American helicopters on the nearby base were grounded and lashed down.
Jack pounded the streets as though he was trying to outrun the storm. He vaulted over puddles and slipped around corners. He clutched the photograph to his stomach and tried to keep it dry, but he could already feel the paper softening to the curve of his skin. He hoped his mother wasn't looking for his father. Not tonight. Not in this weather.
As Jack ran past Club Ricky and The Vegas Cabaret, the tuxedoed barkers poked their heads from the shelter of their doorways. They started to call out, then stopped mid-cry when they saw it was just a boy come by. His sneakers shattered the neon puddles into shards of color. A gust of wind sent the signboard for a strip club cartwheeling across his path.
Jack hadn't far to go now. He ducked down the lane behind the Hotel Honolulu and sped along the alleyway toward the clapboard bungalow where he lived. As he got closer, he saw the lights were on. His mother stood in silhouette at the window. Jack slowed down. He stopped and panted a moment's relief. But then he watched the American come from behind and press a bottle of beer into her hand. The man was tall and lean, and Jack could see the shiny pimples on his forehead. He was too young to be his father.
The American and his mother stared at the rain. The man whispered something in her ear and squeezed her around the waist. She laughed and lowered the bamboo blinds. The action reminded Jack of a movie he'd watched at last week's Saturday matinee. There'd been a scene where the detective pulled down his louvers for privacy while he interrogated the suspect. Jack imagined the questions his mother would now be asking. Do you know him? A sergeant from Chicago? He was here 11 years ago.
Lightning split the sky in two. Jack turned away from his house and ran over to the large banyan tree on a patch of land still abandoned since the war. On sunny days old men played cards in its shade, but tonight the storm had transformed it into a writhing mass of bark and branches. Jack pressed his back against the slick trunk. From within, he could hear the scuttle of mice. He thought of snakes. He shivered and held his hands to the photo under his shirt. It warmed him for a moment, before an exploding crack of thunder sent shudders down his spine.
"Stay out here and you'll dissolve."
Sammy Watanabe was standing over him. Jack had seen the squat mainlander around, but he'd never talked to him before. He was dressed in a black suit with a red Hawaiian shirt. His tight- cropped perm had started to spring loose in the humid air. He held a large umbrella out to Jack.
"Thanks, mister. But I'm OK. I'm waiting for my mom. She won't be long."
Sammy followed Jack's gaze toward his home. He offered Jack his hand, "Come wait inside with me. Tonight's no night to be alone."
Jack had always wondered what lay behind the black-glass windows of bar town. The Vegas Cabaret. New Orleans Show Time. They sounded like festival rides, and Jack expected mannequins and piped-in music, plastic trees like he'd seen at the '62 summer fair. So when Sammy led him through the doors of the Club New Paris, Jack was disappointed. Along one wall was a row of tattered booths, in a corner a scarred wooden bar. The whole place smelled musty like damp sweaters.
"We were hoping you'd been swept away, Sammy," said one of the three women sat in a semicircular booth. They were all wearing frilly dresses in pastel colors with ribbons round their necks and knees. The woman who'd spoken had bright-pink lipstick, and the mascara round her eyes made them look as large and round as an American's. She caught Jack staring at her and breathed him a lazy smoke ring.
"Still no-one come in?" Sammy called over.
"In weather like this?" replied the woman.
"They'd swim here if they had to."
"Who's your little friend?" asked another of the women.
Sammy tugged his sleeve.
"Ishikawa. Jack Ishikawa."
Sammy looked up at the girls. "One of you take Jack into the back room and dry him off. Find him something to wear."
The woman with the bright-pink lipstick stood up.
Sammy ruffled the boy's wet hair. "Go with Yoshiko. She'll look after you."
The woman led Jack through the bar to a small room marked "Private." Boxes of American liquor and potato chips were stacked against the wall. A row of towels were hanging over a wire frame. Jack watched Yoshiko feel for the driest one. When he first saw her, he'd thought she was his mother's age, but now he realized she was probably only five or six years older than him.
"You been friends with Sammy long?" she asked.
"We've seen each other around." Jack hoped he sounded nonchalant.
Yoshiko lifted one of the towels off the rack and sniffed it. "You heard what the boss said. Take off your clothes."
Jack worked himself out of his sodden jeans.
"And your top, too. Don't be shy."
Jack unbuttoned his shirt. He peeled the photograph away from his stomach.
"My father," Jack said proudly. "He's an American."
"Why do you keep it there?"
"I thought it would be safe. And dry. My mother would be angry if she found out I'd taken it."
"Then how come you have it?"
"I wanted to help her look for him."
Yoshiko studied the photograph. The American was young and handsome. He was dressed in a cardigan decorated with Christmas holly.
Yoshiko closed one of her eyes and held the photo out at arm's length. Then she opened the other one and studied Jack's face. "You look like him. You have his nose."
"And his teeth," Yoshiko added. "Turn around and let me dry your hair."
As she ran the towel over his head, the ribbons on her knees tickled the backs of his legs.
"I like your costume. Did you make it yourself?"
"It was Sammy's idea. We're supposed to be can-can dancers. You know, like Paris? But us girls think we look more like waitresses."
"Isn't that what you are?"
Yoshiko was silent for a moment. Then she said, "When I worked at The Tiki Lounge, they made us all wear grass skirts and bikinis."
Jack blushed at the thought. "You must have looked nice."
"I like these better. They're warmer."
Yoshiko rubbed the towel over Jack's shoulders. Her perfume smelt of spice and roses, and her breath on his neck made his ears ring.
"Turn around so I can dry your front."
Jack stayed where he was.
"I said turn around."
Jack still didn't move.
Yoshiko put her hands on his shoulders and spun him around.
"I'm sorry," Jack blurted. "It's just that you're so pretty. Your lips remind me of cherry candies."
Yoshiko laughed. "Cherry candies. How old are you, Jack?"
"In a few months."
"Just wait and see. You'll get all the girls in a couple of years." She handed him the towel. "Dry yourself off while I find some clothes for you to wear."
When Yoshiko led him out of the back room, Jack saw that three Americans had come into the club. They were wearing beige army uniforms stained ocher by the rain, and they sat in a booth with the other women. Yoshiko led Jack over to where Sammy was mixing drinks at the bar.
The manager nodded his approval at the clothes Yoshiko had picked for him from the lost-and-found box — a pair of chinos with the legs rolled up to fit, a white shirt with a ripped sleeve and, to top it off, a checkered black-and-yellow tie. Jack had protested about this last item, but when Yoshiko planted a kiss on his brow and told him he looked grownup, he would have let her dress him in a skirt and bloomers without complaining.
Sammy took a bottle of Pepsi from the fridge and passed it to Jack.
"But I don't have any money, Mr. Watanabe."
"Don't worry. I'll put it on Yoshiko's tab."
"Hey, Sammy!" one of the Americans called over. He had a round face and wavy yellow hair. "Who's the little guy? You training him to be your new doorman?"
"This here's a good friend of mine. His name's Jack. But you can call him Mr. Ishikawa."
The three Americans laughed. "Come over here, kid."
Jack glanced at Sammy. The manager smiled at him. "Don't worry, they won't bite."
When Jack sat down, the American told the women to move over a bit and make some room for him. He introduced himself as "Ted-from-Milwaukee," then he pointed to the two men next to him. Their faces were pink and peeling. "These sunburnt grunts are Willy and Peter — the scourge of the canteen girls."
Jack struggled to keep up with Ted's rapid speech. It was a different language from the one he'd been learning in his school books.
"So, tell me Jack, what's a good kid like you doing in a place like this?"
"Mr. Watanabe brought me in from the storm."
"He's a good guy, our Sammy. A regular Anne Frank. Can't count the number of times he's hidden me from a roving pack of military police."
Willy ran his fingers down Jack's tie. "It suits you. Used to have a tie like this myself. Who chooses your threads?"
Jack pointed toward Yoshiko.
"You dressed this one?" Ted called over to her.
She nodded, then winked at Jack. "From head to toe."
Ted slapped Jack on his back. "Bring the kid a drink!"
Jack held up his soda. "I'm OK, mister. I haven't finished this one yet."
"If you're old enough to have enjoyed the company of our Yoshi," Ted said, "then you're old enough to have a real drink. Right, Sammy?"
Sammy looked at Jack and the Americans. He shrugged, then reached beneath the bar and snapped the top off a bottle of Orion. He passed it to Yoshiko.
"Make some space for Jack's girl," Ted said as she walked to their table.
Jack smiled when Yoshiko sat down next to him. She poured him half a glass of the beer. "Drink it slowly, Jack."
An hour later, Jack had finished his second bottle and was starting on his third. He'd won a dollar from Willy in a game with a cigarette box and a shot glass — though he didn't really get the rules. Ted had given him his cap to wear and now he was telling him a joke about the Marines. "So what you do is stick the sandpaper to the wall." He paused for effect. "Then tell them to hit the beach head-on."
Jack laughed like he understood. Yoshiko's thigh was pressed against his leg beneath the table. Jack gave her a smile. When she smiled back, he thought he'd been wrong about her lips looking like candies — they looked more like pink papaya. He was just about to tell her this when Sammy changed the record on the player behind the bar. A woman's voice treacled from the speakers.
"Hey, Jack," Ted said. "You like Dusty?"
"Springfield. Our Yoshi's a big fan. How about taking her for a spin?" Willy and Peter sniggered into their beers. Ted nudged his elbow and pointed to the dance floor.
"I don't know how," protested Jack.
The Americans laughed harder.
"Don't worry. Yoshi's taught a lot of guys a lot of moves," said Peter.
Yoshiko pushed back her chair and took Jack's hand. When he stood up, he felt the world shift beneath his feet and he had to hold onto the table to keep his balance.
"Easy there," said Ted.
"You OK?" asked Yoshiko.
Jack nodded. He stood up straight again. Yoshiko took his hand and led him onto the floor. "Just follow my steps."
She held Jack at arm's length and let him find his rhythm. Jack watched her feet and copied her moves.
"Get closer," called out Willy.
"Show him what you're famous for," shouted Peter.
Yoshiko pulled Jack nearer to her and swayed against him.
"You dance really well," Jack whispered. Through her perfume he could smell the skin of her neck. It reminded him of rain on dry earth. "I think you're pretty."
Yoshiko clasped him more tightly round the waist and guided him across the dance floor. Jack felt giddily alive. He knew now why Americans came here. He'd run 100 miles in any storm to dance with Yoshiko again.
"Those Americans are right," said Jack. "You're a great teacher. You must have taught a lot of men before me."
He felt her body tense in his arms. He tried to start her dancing again, but she gently unwound his hand from her back and stepped away from him.
"What's the matter, Yoshi? The boy taking liberties?" called out Ted.
Yoshiko didn't reply. She led Jack back to the table.
Jack wondered what he'd done wrong. Before she sat down, he saw her wipe away a tear with the frill of her sleeve.
"You dance good, Jack," Ted said, refilling his glass.
Jack stayed looking at Yoshiko.
"Very smooth," said Willy. "Like you got some Italian blood in you."
Jack pulled his gaze away from Yoshiko. In all the excitement, he'd forgotten about the photo of his father. Maybe these men could help. Perhaps they even knew him.
The ground rocked under him again as he stood up. But this time he didn't falter. He ran over to the back room and picked the photograph from the wire frame. It was still damp and the corners were curled in on themselves. If he pressed it in a heavy book, his mother wouldn't notice. He turned back to the bar.
Sammy was standing in the doorway. "You enjoying yourself?"
"They're nice guys, Mr. Watanabe."
"Maybe your mom's home by now. I don't want her worried about you."
"She's usually pretty late. And besides she lets me do what I want."
For a moment, Jack thought Sammy was going to say something more, but he just stepped to one side and let Jack walk past him.
Willy and Peter had stood up and they had their arms round the shoulders of two of the girls. Ted and Yoshiko were still sitting at the table. Jack laid the photograph in front of them.
"I thought you might know my father."
Ted burst out laughing.
Willy and Peter leaned over the table and started laughing, too.
"What's so funny?" Jack asked.
"Hey, Sammy!" Ted stood up. "We were in two minds whether to come out into this shit storm tonight. But your kid here. He made it worth our while."
Sammy nodded his head in thanks.
"You know him?" Jack asked, unable to hide his excitement.
Willy and Peter groaned. Ted retrieved his cap from Jack's head.
"You're a funny kid. But you've got to learn that timing's the most important part of any routine. Right, Yoshi?"
Ted put his arm behind her and cupped her through her frilly dress.
"What are you doing?" Jack asked.
Ted looked at him quizzically.
"Don't let him touch you like that," Jack said to Yoshiko in Japanese.
"What are you saying to her, kid?" Ted asked. Then he saw Jack's eyes on his hand and he squeezed more tightly. "You talking about this?"
Jack strode forward and tried to pull away his arm. Ted laughed like he thought Jack was fooling around. "Looks as if you've made a real impression on this one, Yoshi."
Jack let go. "Yoshiko, why don't you stop him?"
She looked away embarrassed.
Jack stepped back and swung his fist at Ted's jaw. The American ducked and it glanced off his shoulder.
"Why you little squirt!"
He shoved Jack away with a palm to his face. Jack bounced onto the sofa and sat there stunned for an instant. Then he started to his feet.
"Easy, Jack," Sammy had come around from the bar and put a hand on his chest.
Ted paced toward Jack and stood over him with both fists raised. Then he let his hands drop to his sides and rolled his shoulders. "You better keep that one under control, Sammy. Or me and the boys might find somewhere more congenial to spend our paychecks."
"There won't be any more trouble. Sit down and have another round of beers on the house."
Ted put his arm back around Yoshiko's waist. "I'm alright, Sammy. I've got a midnight pass and already know how I'm gonna fill it."
Jack watched the Americans walk out of the door with the women. He waited for Yoshiko to turn around and look at him, but she didn't.
Sammy handed Jack a napkin for his bleeding lip. "You've got a lot to learn about women."
Jack remembered the smell of her neck. He saw again the tears in her eyes.
"It had nothing to do with her. They were laughing at my dad."
Sammy picked up the photo from the table. It had soaked up beer from a spilt bottle. "Who told you this was your father?"
Jack snatched the picture from Sammy's hand. He had to get it home and dry before his mother discovered he'd taken it.
Sammy walked behind the bar and shuffled through the shelf of 45s. He found the one he was looking for. He caught Jack as he reached the door and pressed the record into his hands. On its sleeve was the same man as the one in Jack's photo. He was dressed in a shiny suit and string tie. There was a guitar around his neck.
Jack smiled, awestruck. "My dad's a singer?"
Sammy laid a hand on Jack's head. "Go home, Jack. Whoever told you this was your father wasn't playing very fair."
Jack reeled through the rain and the muddy streets. The world he'd trusted lurched in betrayal beneath his feet. He slipped and picked himself up. He grasped the photograph tightly in his fist.
The lights were on in his house. He shoved open the door, not caring if his mother had a guest. He staggered into the kitchen without taking off his shoes.
The American was gone, and his mother had changed into a wraparound polyester kimono. She was clearing away ashtrays and empty beer bottles. She looked up when he came in.
"I like your clothes," she said with a smile. "You look American."
Jack swiped his arm across the table. A bottle hit the floor and smashed. His mother didn't seem to react. She was staring with concern at the blood on his teeth. "Did somebody hit you?"
Jack surged toward her. The beer. The anger. The room was twisting in on itself.
"You lied to me!"
He tossed the crumpled photograph on the table. His mother picked it up and smoothed it in her palm. The beer had stained it sepia. It looked suddenly ancient.
"You told me this was dad!"
"I used to tell myself the same thing."
Jack studied his mother. Her lipstick was smeared and the makeup was smudged around her eyes. There was a fresh cigarette burn on the side of her kimono. Jack remembered Ted's hand on Yoshiko. His gut bubbled sourly.
"I wasn't that much older than you are now. I thought it was better to have something than nothing."
Jack managed to make it halfway to the sink before he doubled over and emptied his stomach onto the linoleum.
"Let it all out," his mother said. She knelt beside him. He tried to push her away, but she held on to him tightly.
Jack retched again. The effort brought tears to his eyes.
"Don't keep anything in." She rubbed his shoulders and held his head. "You'll feel better for it in the morning. Trust me."
Jon Mitchell is a British-born screenwriter based in Yokohama. He blogs about life in the Japanese film business at onliesforlonelies.blogspot.com