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Authors: Naomi Hirahara

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BOOK: Snakeskin Shamisen
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“He’s been asking about you, Mas. You should stop by and say hello sometime.”

chapter five

When Mas had first met Wishbone Tanaka, in the fifties, Wishbone had a ducktail that looked like wild beach grasses gone awry in the wind. He’d parted his pitiful matted hair down the back of his head and then greased it plenty with dabs of Brylcreem. The ends were folded onto the top of his head, resembling a bowing Buddha. Most Nisei and Kibei sported a crew cut or flattop. Itchy, with his straight-as-pins hair, had been a flattop man and still was (no wonder his earlobes kept getting sunburnt). Mas hadn’t been foolish enough to go with a ducktail back in those days, but when he’d had a full head of hair, he did carry a bit of a pompadour, which he held in place with his standard hair cream, Three Flowers oil.

Wishbone was as unmanageable as his hairstyle. While everything had been well stocked and arranged in his lawn mower shop, you couldn’t tell him what to do regarding anything else in his life. He had a short fuse, and Mas did his share of lighting it. The other guys were a bit wary and afraid of Wishbone, but Mas didn’t hold back when necessary.

Mas had had a falling-out with Wishbone years ago. He swore that he would never step foot in Tanaka’s Lawnmower Shop again, and he didn’t. But when it was closed and resurrected as a hair salon, Mas had to admit that he’d felt a pang of regret. Hair salons were a dime a dozen; a lawn mower shop, full of decades of memories, card games, and the juiciest gossip in town, was irreplaceable.

And now Wishbone, like his dead enterprise, was being cast aside. Mas could have laughed and announced, You got your big
bachi
, payback, for all the meanness you sowed. But what was the use? They both were cut from the same cloth, and Mas knew that what had visited Wishbone would visit him someday.

After checking in with a nurse at Keiro, Mas made his way down a corridor, its clean floor covered in linoleum. A few residents, trapped in wheelchairs, were out in the hallway like lonely space satellites, not connected to anyone. Mas found Wishbone’s room and poked his head through the doorway. There were two beds, both with mint green curtains to one side. The roommate was obviously somewhere else, but Wishbone, slumped in a wheelchair, was looking out the window toward the flatlands of Lincoln Heights.

“Wishbone.”

Wishbone jerked up, startled. He slowly turned toward Mas.

“Who’s dead?” he asked.

“Huh?”

“Well, someone must be dead or close to it for you to be here. Who you come to see?”

“You.”

“Who told you? Lil?”

Mas wasn’t going to mention Stinky’s name; he didn’t want to get in the middle of that fallen deal.

“That Yamada lady has a big mouth. Volunteers are supposed to keep their traps shut about who’s in here.”

“Well, Itchy tole me too.”

“Itchy? Well, I was right, somebody must have died. You over at the mortuary today?”

Mas gave in. “Actually G. I.’s
tomodachi
. From Hawaii.”

“The guy who won the Spam jackpot. Got knifed in Torrance.”

Mas was surprised. Even within the confines of a nursing home, Wishbone was at the height of his gossip game.

“Saw it in today’s
Rafu Shimpo
,” Wishbone said. “Ugly goddamn photos.” In the old days,
The Rafu Shimpo
used to be delivered by paperboys on bicycles and in cars, but with the Japanese sprinkled all throughout the Southland, now the U.S. post office was the better way to go. Obviously Keiro’s mail service was a lot faster than Mas’s.

“Yah, kinda helpin’ G. I. find out what happened,” Mas said, immediately regretting that he was revealing his activities to Wishbone, of all people.

“Well, the
Rafu
had the photo of the
shamisen
right on the front page. It was the talk of lunch today. This old Okinawan lady was going on and on that she knows who owned that
shamisen
.”

Mas pressed down on a small, painful bump on his hair-line. Did Wishbone say Okinawan? “Gushiken?” Mas asked.

Now it was Wishbone’s turn to be impressed. “You know the old lady?”

“Hear about her. You knowsu?”

“Sure, sure, she’s down the hall. Follow me.” Wishbone wheeled himself toward the open doorway. At first Mas thought about helping to push Wishbone forward, but he realized the last thing Wishbone would want was help.

“Hey, Gushi-
san
, somebody wants to meet you,” Wishbone called out down the hall. He was fast with his wheelchair, and Mas noticed that Wishbone’s shoulders were still pretty toned. His hands, as worn as a workingman’s gloves, advanced the wheelchair into another residential room.

A slight, pigeon-faced woman was resting on one of the beds. “Where’s Gushi-mama?” Wishbone asked.

Mas hated to be
meiwaku
, a bother to anyone, especially anyone who was trying to get some shut-eye on a quiet afternoon. Wishbone, on the other hand, was known to blow so much hot air into something that it would burst at the seams.


Terebi
,” the woman said, pointing to the next room.

The room next door had a couch and chairs facing a large television playing an NHK soap opera straight from Japan. Mas preferred samurai series to this type, which starred teary-eyed women and salarymen in blue suits.

Two women were watching the soap opera, and Wishbone wheeled right in front of the one knitting a rainbow-colored blanket.

“Gushi-mama, this guy here wants to talk to you. About that
shamisen
in
The Rafu Shimpo
.”

Gushi-mama raised her head from her knitting. Her face looked progressively sunken, like a muffin that had failed to rise. Either she had forgotten to wear her dentures or at the age of 106 it was a grooming detail reserved for only special occasions. Her black and white hair shot out from her head like dried-up desert brush.

“Who you?” she asked.

“Mas. Masao Arai.”

“I dunno you.”

“Izu a friend of Lil Yamada. You know, she come here all the time.”

“Yamada-
san
. Nice, nice lady.”

No one could dispute that fact. The Yamadas, with their stellar reputations, often served as Mas’s calling card. A friend of Tug and Lil Yamada’s was seen to be a person who could be a friend to just about anyone.

“Tell him,” Wishbone interrupted, inching the wheelchair so close to Gushi-mama that the blanket was almost underneath one of its wheels. “Tell him what you were saying about the
shamisen
.”

“Youzu see dat
shamisen
?”

Gushi-mama nodded. “Kinjo-
san
’s
sanshin
. He played with Sanjo Brothers.” Kinjo sensei had mentioned that somebody in his band had stolen his
shamisen
.

“Kinjo, whatchu knows about him?” Mas asked.

Gushi-mama shook her head. “No good. No good. But thinks he good.” The old lady balled up her freckled hands into fists and placed them one alongside the other on the end of her nose. “
Hana ga takai
,” she said, and Mas understood instantly. Kinjo’s nose, or
hana
, was tall, stuck up in the air—too much pride.

“Always say he has connection to kings. Oh, yah? I say, ‘Show me.’ But nothing.”

“Howzu about Sanjo?”

“The
niisan
Sanjo, big brother, best
sanshin
player around.
Ichiban, yo
.” She lifted a bent finger in the air to simulate the number one and peered into Wishbone’s face for emphasis. Wishbone retreated a few inches back. “Everywhere he go, everybody like him. Good-lookin’, too. Big brother’s name was Isokichi. He got into trouble before war.
Aka
.”


Aka
,” Mas repeated.

“Red?” Wishbone translated out loud. So something from Wishbone’s Japanese school experience had stuck in his brain.

“You know,
aka
,” Gushi-mama said to Mas.

Mas nodded. A Red. A communist. He didn’t know how to say it in English, so merely murmured, “Trouble.”

Gushi-mama nodded back.

“What happen to Isokichi?” Mas asked.

Gushi-mama returned to her knitting.

“Gushi-
san
, what happened to Isokichi?” Wishbone repeated loudly in Gushi-mama’s ear.

But Gushi-mama continued her knitting as if they weren’t in the room.

A nurse in a smock dotted with flying elephants appeared in the doorway. “Mrs. Gushiken, you ready for your sponge bath?”

“Yah, yah,” she said, rolling up the remnants of her knitted blanket.

“Waitaminute,” Mas said, trying to stall. “Sanjo name. Whatsu
kanji
?”

Wishbone crinkled his nose. “Why do you need to see the Japanese character for it?”

“Please, dis one thing, then I no bother no more,” Mas insisted.

Gushi-mama looked up, attempting to judge whether Mas would keep his end of the deal. “
Orai
.” She finally gave in.

Mas handed her a felt-tipped pen and a piece of scratch paper from a craft table in the corner. Gushi-mama bent her head, revealing a bald spot in the center of her grizzled hair. Using her half-finished blanket as a surface, she carefully maneuvered the pen on the paper and created two complete Japanese characters—one for
san
and the other for
jo
. After completing the final stroke, she presented the writing to Mas. She then waited like a queen as the nurse took hold of the handles of her chair and wheeled her out of the television room.

Mas examined the paper. Gushi-mama’s scrawl was difficult to read, but sure enough, there was the first character, mountain. The second one, castle.

“You got a lead on something?” Wishbone asked. Wishbone was like any other self-respecting Nisei—he didn’t know how to read and write Japanese. Mas himself hadn’t been much of a student in Japan, but he had caught on enough to know the basics. One was that the reading of a Japanese name was unique to its holder. The same two characters could be read a dozen different ways. And the most common reading of the two characters in front of Mas was not Sanjo, but Yamashiro.


I
zu don’t think Yamashiro their real names.” Mas was back in G. I.’s Crown Royal purple chair, a beer at his side. He watched as G. I. paced back and forth on his hardwood floor. His cat, Mu, squeezed himself in between G. I.’s legs. At first Mas thought Mu was named Moo, as in the sound of a cow, but found out later that G. I. was using the Japanese word
mu
—nothingness, a philosophical notion that
hakujin
hippies and Sansei baby boomers like G. I. subscribed to. In some ways, Mas preferred Tug’s straightforward religion better. They had concrete symbols—the cross, the silver fish on the back of people’s cars, and sometimes the statue of the lady with the outstretched hands. G. I.’s beliefs, on the other hand, didn’t seem to take much shape or form, just the smell of incense and silly cat names.

“That doesn’t make sense. I mean, why would Randy and Brian’s family change their name? And what does this have to do with Randy’s murder?”

The doorbell rang before Mas could respond. “Who could that be?” G. I. said.

“Juanita?” Mas offered.

“She has a key.” G. I. checked his watch and went down the stairs to the door.

Mas heard two pairs of footsteps climbing up the stairs and then saw Jiro’s freckled face in the doorway. “I was in the neighborhood, so I thought I’d stop by,” he was telling G. I. He was taken aback to see Mas in the living room. “Oh, hello. You doing some landscaping around here?”

“Mas is helping me out,” explained G. I. “We were at the mortuary today.”

“Oh.” Jiro pursed his lips together.

“Randy’s brother wants to cremate him. Before he takes him back home to Hawaii.”

“Makes sense, I guess. It’s cleaner. Easier to deal with.”

“But no one will see him. No ex-girlfriends. No coworkers. No friends.”

“Maybe they don’t want to see him like that,” Jiro said.

“Well, anyway, the coroner’s not going to release the body to him right now. So it’s a moot point, I guess.”

“G. I., it doesn’t matter what you think. Brian is his family. Not us.”

“But Brian isn’t focused on Randy. He’s not thinking clearly. He doesn’t know what we know, Kermit.”

“What the hell do you mean about that?”

“We were in ’Nam, man, that’s all. And Mas here, he knows. He was in Hiroshima when the Bomb was dropped.”

“So what does that have to do with anything?”

Mas wasn’t that clear either.

“Only that sometimes you need to see death. To make it real.”

“You’re talking crazy, G. I. Just let it alone.” Jiro circled G. I.’s hardwood floor.

“That’s what would get you off the hook, huh?”

“What?”

“That night. The night that Randy was killed.”

Jiro sucked his lips into his mouth.

“What were you two arguing about, anyway?”

“Stupid shit. You know Randy. Little things would set him off.”

“Don’t lie to me, Kermit. Randy was really pissed off about something.”

Jiro crossed his short but powerful arms. He was certainly built like a fireplug, Mas noted. “Listen, I don’t need to be accused of anything. You don’t know Randy. Not like I knew him.”

BOOK: Snakeskin Shamisen
9.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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