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Authors: Naomi Hirahara

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BOOK: Snakeskin Shamisen
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Strange, Mas thought.

“I tell the
man that he needs to call the police. The police need to get involved for sure. He then shows me a badge. He’s a G-man. A government man.”

“What, FBI?” Juanita asked.

“Something like that. Law enforcement for sure, and if I just listen to what he says, there will be no trouble. He seems official. An important man.

“I don’t know what to do. I tell him that I’m going to call my supervisor, and he says that’s a bad idea. He asks me what my name is and writes it down in a small notebook. He can make it so that they send me back to where I came from.

“I was scared. He tells me to report that I found the body lying outside the coroner’s office. A John Doe. No identification. And then he drives away.

“I put the man on a gurney and bring him inside. I’m filling out the paperwork, and I’m not sure what I should write down. My supervisor will be returning from his break any minute. But I need more time to think things over. This was the year after the McCarran-Walter Act passes. I’d filed papers to become a citizen—the first year someone born in Japan could do so.”

Juanita scrunched up her nose, and Mas knew that this piece of information was a surprise to her. Young people had no idea what the Issei had had to go through, toiling away on farmland and in people’s yards with no promises that America could be their home. And then everything was taken away from them during World War II. It was a wonder that the whole lot of them didn’t commit mass suicide together in camp. But they were too tough for that. The West Coast sun had hardened them; calluses had developed not only on their hands but also around their hearts. Inside, however, all was gentleness and gooeyness, like the soft center of a See’s chocolate. Most of them never lost hope in their new country; so when they were able to go completely American, in 1952, many of them jumped.

“I couldn’t let anything ruin my chances to be naturalized. But I couldn’t abandon this man either. I searched his clothing, his felt hat, his shoes. He had a piece of Japanese rice candy in his pocket. You know, the kind with rice wrapper that melts in your mouth?”

Both Mas and Juanita nodded.

“So how could I report that he was homeless, a regular John Doe? Him being Japanese, I could have gotten away with it. I mean, who would have really cared?

“But I decide to store him away in the cooler for just one night. Until I can figure out my next step.

“I can’t sleep that day; I can’t mention this to anyone I know. I go back to work, and a Japanese gardener comes to see me. I know he’s a gardener because he comes in his gardening truck. He tells me that he’s looking for someone. He’s hoping that his friend—that’s how he referred to him—is not dead, but he has to check, just to make sure. He’s heard of me, so he thinks that I can be trusted.

“I know instantly that he’s looking for the man who was brought in the night before. A part of me hesitates. I remember the G-man’s threat, that he’s going to send me back to Japan. But I look into the gardener’s face, and I know that I can’t keep this from him.

“So I take the gardener back into the morgue. The dead man’s face and hands are bluish now. The supervisor’s out again, but he’ll be returning any minute. ‘Is this him?’ I ask. The gardener’s crying. ‘
,’ he says.”

,” Mas repeated.

“Yes,” Hajime nodded. “ ‘Big brother.’ ”

“I go get the paperwork for him to fill out. When I get back to the front desk, the man’s disappeared. I don’t have his name; all I know is that he spoke to me in Japanese.

“My supervisor comes back and starts yelling at me about this new body in the cooler. I tell him that someone left the body outside. He’s suspicious and makes me fill out a full report. I do, but I mention nothing about the G-man.

“A few days later, I come to work and two police officers are waiting for me. They want to know more about the discovery of the Japanese man’s body. They question me for three hours, and I finally break down. I tell them everything. Then they show me a photograph of a
man. ‘Was it this man?’ they ask me. It’s the G-man who delivered the body to the morgue. His name is Henry Metcalf. I say, ‘Yes, what’s he done?’ But they tell me nothing. I think that they
are going to arrest me, but they just tell me to keep what I know under wraps. My supervisor reprimands me, but I still have my job.

“The supervisor tells me the dead man’s name is Isokichi Sanjo. The body is never claimed. It’s like the whole Sanjo clan has flown the coop. No one in the community seems to care. So we handle it like we handle all the other abandoned bodies.”

“How’s that?”

“Cremation. And then burial in the Los Angeles County Cemetery.”

“Near Evergreen,” Mas couldn’t help but spout out. Chizuko’s resting place.

Hajime nodded.

“Did you ever find out more about the G-man who brought Sanjo in?” Juanita asked.

“No. They didn’t tell me, and I didn’t ask. For months and years, I had nightmares of him taking me away, but I never saw him again. When I finally got my citizenship papers, I began to rest a little easier. But I knew that citizenship alone wouldn’t be able to protect me.” Hajime took a deep breath, and Mas realized that this event had been weighing on him for decades. It was a relief for him to tell the story, to let it go so he could float back to the surface, leaving dark waters behind.

Hajime handed the manila envelope to Juanita. “Here’s a copy of the death certificate, if you don’t have one already.”


“I hope that me being quiet all these years didn’t cause this man’s family any problems.”

Mas lied and shook his head no.

chapter seven

Mas and Juanita walked back to the Toyota in silence. The weight of their thoughts was overwhelming. Who was this Isokichi Sanjo? Had Metcalf killed him? And how much did this have to do with Randy’s demise?

Mas began to fear what they were dredging up from the past. Randy was already dead. Why blacken his family’s history by traveling in dark places like plumbers pulling out smelly decay and bringing it up to the surface for all to see?

When they were back in the truck, Juanita opened the envelope and spent some time examining the death certificate. “It says here, under cause of death, blunt force trauma. How did the police justify not fully investigating this case?”

Mas shrugged his shoulders. The fifties were a different era. Some of his old customers called it America’s Golden Years, but it looked mighty different in the eyes of anyone who wasn’t a clean-cut
man. Besides, no one had been fighting for Sanjo, which made it all the easier to forget that he had ever been alive.

“Maybe we betta give Detective Alo dis information.”

Juanita frowned.

“Alo, you knowsu, the one with Torrance Police.”

“I know who you’re talking about. Mas, we have nothing.”

What about Kinjo being in the same band as Randy’s father? And Randy’s father’s subsequent murder?

Juanita must have read Mas’s mind. “I mean nothing concrete,” she said. “If we start talking about a murder that occurred fifty years ago, the police are just going to say, ‘Wow, that’s nice. Give us your documents and we’ll call you—don’t call us.’ We have to keep digging until we find something that definitely links Randy’s murder to this Sanjo’s. Then we can start talking.”

Mas squeezed the fingers of his left hand together. Juanita was starting to get on his nerves.

Juanita then handed Mas an envelope, a smaller, white one.

“Whatsu dis?” he asked.

“I keep forgetting—this is Judge Parker’s photo from the Internet. I want you to check it out with that woman—your friend Haruo’s girlfriend.”

Mas removed a plain piece of white paper folded in thirds and opened it. Sure enough, it was Judge Parker’s portrait, shot from the shoulders up so you could see that he was dressed in a dark robe.

At that point, they were more ahead than behind, so Juanita should have called it a day and headed home. But she was
, just like most of the women Mas encountered in his life. Mas was hardheaded himself, but whether it was at the track or the poker table, he knew when to quit. Juanita, on the other hand, didn’t.

They sailed along the Harbor Freeway toward Kinjo sensei’s mint green house. What they were going to say, Mas didn’t know. Accuse him of lying? Of concealing his connection to Randy Yamashiro?

Juanita rattled the security door again, this time with the edge of her ring. The wood door was closed, and no plucking of
strings was heard.

“Not home,” Mas said, relieved.

“Isn’t the Okinawan Club around here somewhere?”

They got back in the truck and drove to the corner of Western and 166th Street, where a modern glass building stood next to two older brick ones painted light yellow. Mas was impressed. These Okinawans had money, he thought, for not only one building but three.

The gate to the parking lot was closed, so Juanita found a space along a curb below a large, shady elm tree. Mas was ready to jump out, but noticed Juanita scanning her rearview mirror. “The same SOB,” she murmured.


“Back there. That Asian guy in the suit. I saw him in Kinjo’s neighborhood.”

Mas looked back and saw a tall man with a neat hairstyle sitting in the driver’s side of a black Mercury. “Youzu sure?”

“Sure,” Juanita said, pulling out a ChapStick from her purse. Why did she want to waste time putting makeup on at a time like this? “Okay, Mas, that is what we’re going to do. Walk south down Western, and then you make a run for it and I’ll stay back. If he chases you, I’ll know that he’s up to no good.”

Mas frowned. This didn’t sound like much of a plan. He didn’t know the last time he had actually moved his legs at any quick speed. Besides, wouldn’t running as if he had something to hide invite something undesirable, like a big hit on the head? “Youzu just ask him. Datsu easier.”

“He’s not going to tell me what he’s up to. I need to catch him off guard.” She placed her hands on his shoulders. “Don’t worry. I won’t let anything happen to you. I just want to test this guy out.”

Mas grimaced. He usually had good sense; he was no
. But being in Juanita’s strong presence made you do things you couldn’t imagine. He shuddered to think what she made G. I. do behind closed doors.

They both got out of the truck slowly, walked over to the corner, and, as Juanita had instructed, turned south. Once they crossed the street at a light, Juanita nudged Mas. “Now,” she whispered.

Mas bit down on his dentures and churned his legs as fast as they could go. He felt his joints go
and then heard hard soles hit the pavement behind him. And then the sound of a dull thud and a few grunts.

Mas turned back to see the Asian man and Juanita lying in the middle of the street, grappling with each other like two-bit wrestlers. The man was attempting to get away from Juanita, pulling at her hands to free himself. A Toyota Camry was coming toward them, so Mas stepped in front of the car, waving down the driver to switch to the far-right lane. “
. Car,
,” Mas shouted. When Juanita lifted her head, the man was able to wrest free from her hold and ran down the street into a Korean barbecue restaurant.

“Don’t let him get away, Mas.” Juanita was still on the ground. She breathed hard, her small, compact breasts heaving against the pavement.

Mas followed the man into the restaurant. No windows and dim light. Only orange flames and smoke from a handful of gas grills embedded in the middle of tables. About a dozen customers sitting in booths. But then, in the back near the emergency exit, Mas saw him. “
, you!” Mas yelled out, and then immediately regretted it. What the hell was he doing? If he ended up apprehending the man, what was he going to do? Hang on to his ankles like a child?

Before Mas had to make any hard decisions, he felt someone push him aside, and then he saw the back of Juanita’s jeans as she leapt toward the man. Mas was afraid that they would end up on a burner—he could imagine the man’s helmet hair going up in flames—but Juanita had effectively tackled the man in the middle of an aisle.

“Get his ID, Mas, in his back pocket.” Juanita was sitting on top of the man, her elbow digging into his shoulder blades.

Mas was not happy about sticking his hand in a stranger’s pants pocket. Didn’t that constitute robbery, anyhow?

Some of the customers were standing now, and Mas heard a waiter yell, “Call the police!”

“Mas, hurry.”

Mas gave in and drew out the man’s wallet, which was thin enough to hold only a couple of credit cards.

“Police coming,” someone reported. The patrons had left their seats and their barbecue meat to gawk.

Mas tossed the wallet to Juanita, who quickly registered its contents. Her face grew pale, and she slipped off the man’s back. “Why have you been following us?”

The man pushed himself up, brushing dirt from his hands and his expensive slacks. He then faced Juanita, his chiseled features stern and menacing. “What did that coroner’s clerk tell you?”

“What does that have to do with you? Or who you work for?”

“Just watch your back. People are watching.”

Juanita returned the wallet to him, and he pressed a business card in her palm. “Call me. We can help each other.” Police sirens wailing in the distance. “You better get out of here,” the man said.

The man continued to brush dirt from his fancy suit. Mas noticed that in spite of his spill, not a hair was out of place. “Go now,” he said more forcefully.

Juanita and Mas left from the front door—the sirens were only about a block away. Mas felt his heart working overtime; even his fingertips were pulsing. He was shocked that his legs were moving so fast as he and Juanita went down a side street to get back to the car. He couldn’t feel his feet, his worn-out joints and knees. If he hadn’t heard his own loafers slapping against the pavement, he wouldn’t have believed that it was really him running.

Once they were back inside the cab of the Toyota, Mas asked, “Whozu he?”

Juanita handed Mas the man’s business card. It read:


he ride back to Juanita’s house, where Mas had left the Ford, was dead quiet. What had Randy been involved in? How was his death related to Homeland Security? And why had this special agent been following them?

Mas knew that after the World Trade Center towers went down, America had changed—but for how long, who knew? He himself had felt his gut fall down to his knees as he watched on television the towers crumble, disintegrate, leaving survivors covered in gray ash. He, too, had anxiously called to see if his daughter, grandson, and son-in-law were all right; he knew that Brooklyn was across the water from Manhattan, but compared to the distances in L.A., it was right next door. But Mari and her family were safe in their underground apartment, and Mas even whispered a prayer of relief before he realized what he was doing.

He felt the worst for those actual eyewitnesses. Mas knew the curse of surviving, of looking normal and unblemished years later but feeling the Bomb still burn in his chest at the strangest and most unpredictable times. Now Homeland Security was supposed to protect them all, but Mas knew they were only words. What was home, and what could be secure? Was it only an excuse to push out the poor and unwanted? And what about that statue in New York Harbor, the one that Mas had seen when he had visited his daughter? Wasn’t she holding a torch for newcomers? Or was it now a warning that immigrants should keep their distance?

Like the G-man who had brought Sanjo’s body to Hajime, was this agent sending a message to Mas and Juanita?

Mas left Juanita’s house without saying good-bye or making plans to meet again. He figured that she needed to talk things over with G. I. Mas also needed a sounding board, so he stopped by Haruo’s that evening.

It was cool, with a dampness that seemed to soak into the top layer of their clothing, but they sat outside in lawn chairs anyway. Tomato and cucumber season had passed, but now Haruo was facing a bumper crop of persimmons, or
, so much so that he had lined up plastic grocery bags full of the fruit against the side of his rented duplex like mini sand bags. There were two kinds of persimmons in Mas and Haruo’s world: the pointed, mushy kind, called Hachiya—overproduced by Haruo’s small tree—and then the Fuyu, which was as hard as a squished baseball. Mas preferred the Fuyu; in the days before getting false teeth, he had crunched them like apples. Hachiyas were better for drying, and Haruo had hung them up by their stems with strings on his laundry line. The full moon was out, reflecting an eerie blue light on the hanging persimmons above them.

“So whatsu it again?” Haruo said.

“Homu-lan-do Security,” Mas repeated.

“What, like FBI?”

different. FBI still around; Homeland swallow up INS, I thinksu.”

“Whatsu dat gotta do wiz Randy-
’s murder?” Haruo muttered, and Mas didn’t know what to tell him. He then remembered the folded paper in his pocket.

“You gonna see Spoon at work tonight?” In three hours, Haruo would be on his way to his graveyard shift at the Southern California Flower Market, which was where he had first met Spoon. She had inherited her route business, basically a wholesale floral delivery business, from her dead husband in the fifties. Now Spoon’s daughters had taken over the business, renaming it Spoon Sisters Route Services.

“Yah, she comin’.”

Mas handed him Judge Parker’s photo. “Datsu Judge Parker. Maybe Spoon rememba if he da one with the

“Youzu gotta ask her directly. None of my bizness.” Haruo left the photo on his chair and went into the house.

Mas cursed. When didn’t Haruo want to stick his nose in someone else’s business? And “directly”? When did Haruo ever use words like that? This must be some kind of hocus-pocus from Haruo’s counselor, Mas said to himself. Mas thought that Haruo had abandoned his Little Tokyo counselor after dating Spoon, but apparently he was still going in for mental tune-ups.

Haruo returned to the backyard with a cordless phone and the ripped edge of a newspaper with a phone number. “Call her youzuself and ask.”

Mas shot Haruo a killer look.
. Damn him. But he still accepted the phone. After a couple of tries, he heard a woman’s voice on the other line. Mas cleared his throat. “Spoon-


“Su-poon,” Mas repeated, louder and slower.

BOOK: Snakeskin Shamisen
3.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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