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Authors: Naomi Hirahara

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BOOK: Snakeskin Shamisen
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A Sansei man in a windbreaker apparently observed Mas’s change of mind.

“You a friend of G. I.?” He had a raspy voice, like a coil of wire being unraveled.

Mas nodded.

“Well, come in, come in. Have some food, beer.” The man extended the Sapporo beer in his right hand toward the buffet line. “I’m Jiro. Another buddy from ’Nam.”

Mas introduced himself and stepped down so that he was on the same ground level as Jiro. The man was about Mas’s height, a little over five feet tall, and his face was marked by a spray of freckles, splatters of different sizes and shapes. When he closed his mouth, his lips both puckered out as if he were waiting for a kiss that would never come.

Mas looked back at G. I. and his entourage. Jiro followed his gaze. “Bunch of lawyers,” he said, pressing the opening of the beer bottle to his lips. “I tell him, where are all the good-lookin’ single women? He say all the good ones married. You believe that, Mas?”

Mas didn’t know if all the good ones were married or not, but one thing was sure—no good ones would gravitate toward this man.

“Now that G. I.’s back with Juanita, he’s no longer looking.”

Juanita? That was the first time Mas had heard that name. Sounded like someone from Mexico or South America. Mas was curious. He had never met a lady friend of G. I.’s.

“All the ones our age have
daikon ashi
—you know, those white-radish legs. I like mine hot, with legs that don’t quit. Now, these young Buddhahead girls have them.” Jiro gestured toward Tiffany and the rest of the waitresses with the hibiscus shirts. “Too young for me. I was born at the wrong time.” Jiro pursed his lips again.

No sense in having regrets about when one was born, thought Mas. No person had control of that. Mas could have had his own lists of “if only, if only.” If only my friends and I weren’t in Hiroshima in 1945, they would still be alive today. If only I was a different skin color and born a different time, maybe I’d be an automobile designer and not a no-good gardener. But those “if onlys” wouldn’t change his past, present, or future. It was better to just swallow your fate, the plain fact of your existence, than to be a
, a crybaby, mewing constantly like an abandoned kitten. Inevitably, people around you get sick of the noise and start thinking of ways to get rid of you rather than to help you.

Mas himself started to think of ways to escape from this pitiful man. “I go eat,” he announced, and Jiro didn’t put up a fight. He seemed to understand that hunger was a desire that could not be postponed.

Mas picked up a white ceramic dish and a pair of disposable wooden chopsticks. He tore the paper sleeve off the chopsticks and stuffed the paper in his jeans pocket. He knew all about these
types, fancy-schmancy women who folded this throwaway paper into a chrysanthemum-shaped chopstick holder. But this was a no-nonsense buffet where nobody cared about presentation or looks. The whole point was food, and lots of it. Hugging the plate to his chest, Mas snapped the chopsticks at the seam and rubbed the
against each other to shave off any splinters. Biting his lips, he was now ready to partake and to partake big.

The only problem was the old
man in front of him. He was at the Chinese chicken salad station, carefully maneuvering the tongs so as to avoid any wonton strips.
, thought Mas, like a fool. Mas didn’t have time for such nonsense and dug his chopsticks—at least he was
enough to use the back side of them—into a corner of the pan, lifting out lettuce, mandarin orange slivers, and, yes, plenty of wonton strips onto his plate. The leaves of the lettuce glistened in a dressing smelling of sugar and sesame oil.

“Mas? Mas Arai?” The man with the tongs had temporarily halted his mission and looked down. Mas nearly dropped his chopsticks.

“Mista Parker.” As soon as Mas said it, he wished he could take it back. When he had known Edwin Parker, he had only been a mister, but Mas had read that he was now a judge. Had been, actually, for twenty years.

“Good to see you, Mas. It’s been a long, long time. You look the same.”

Parker, for the most part, hadn’t changed either. He still had most of his thick hair, only it was now yellowish white instead of copper brown. He stood erect and wore his blue polo shirt as if he were in a suit and tie. The Parkers had lived in Pasadena in a white Southern-style house with an expansive wooden porch bordered by an insect-infested gardenia bush.

“You live in same place?”

“Yes.” Judge Parker nodded.

There was an awkward silence then. The Parkers had let Mas go because they felt that he didn’t use enough color in his landscaping. What was wrong with green? Mas thought. Couldn’t these city folks see the different shades—from the waxy deep green of the gardenia leaves to the bright green of young palms to the blue green of certain pine trees? There was beauty in all those different hues. Were they so blind that they needed brash reds and silly pinks?

But Mas had taken his last check from the Parkers without complaint. The Parkers had always been on the
side, the type to always call Mas about a leaky sprinkler or dying ficus. His business was still going strong at the time, and who needed an
two-bit lawyer and his wife to spoil things?

“Whatchu—” Mas began, and stopped himself. Who cared why Judge Parker was there? None of my business, Mas told himself.

But the judge read Mas’s mind. “I’m on the board of the Japanese American Bar Association. G. I.’s the president, of course.”

So Judge Parker was running in the same circles as G. I. What a strange world this was. Mas didn’t know what a
judge would have to do with a Japanese legal group, but then again there would be merits in brushing elbows with the many high-profile Japanese judges these days. G. I. had told Mas that many had gotten into law because of camp—the American World War II detention camps that had held their parents, aunts, and uncles in barren deserts and swamplands simply for having Japanese names. Now these judges were meting out justice, but instead of preserving civil rights, their decisions dealt with sports stars and car designers.

“And you know G. I…?” Judge Parker asked.

Mas waited. What could he say? That G. I. had once bailed a friend out and also found a criminal lawyer to represent Mas’s daughter? That didn’t sound too good, so Mas instead offered, “Friend of a friend.” That much was true. Mas didn’t want to keep making small talk, because what good did it do either of them? Judge Parker must have been feeling the same way. “Well, good to see you, Mas. You take care of yourself,” he said, taking his wontonless salad into the crowd of people.

Finally alone, Mas went down the buffet line. There was no need for more salad, because lettuce took up too much room on the plate. A healthy spoonful of sesame chicken, globs of crunchy fried dough dipped in a sweet syrup and sprinkled with roasted sesame seeds. Then
, slices of roasted pork, the soft middle the color of worn shoe leather, but the outside a bright reddish pink like a harlot’s painted rouge. A pile of kalua pig, shredded like dried-up grass. Tofu salad, cubes of diced bean curd with diced tomatoes, green onion, and bean sprouts, soaking in a dressing of
—or soy sauce, as the
liked to call it—ginger, and rice vinegar. The obligatory bacon-fried rice and chow mein, soft noodles in a tangle of snap peas, carrots, and chicken. And last of all, a line of Spam
organized like soldiers marching to war.

Mas’s plate was so full that his Spam
rested on top of an ocean of chow mein. He headed first toward the bar, but lawyers had taken up all the seats. He didn’t want to sit at any of the round tables, because he didn’t want to make conversation with any old ladies or hear the whining of small children. He finally opted for the corner of the stage. It was abandoned; obviously the entertainment was over or yet to start for a while. Balanced on a stand beside the microphones was a Japanese instrument shaped like a banjo, the kind that geisha and old men in kimono plucked while sitting on their knees. A
. Usually the box of the instrument was covered with white animal skin, but this one had the skin of a snake instead, shiny and taut.

Leaning against the edge of the stage, Mas placed his overflowing plate a few inches away from the
. He decided to tackle his food in layers and first took hold of the Spam
. The taste and texture of the soy sauce–dipped Spam, salty and thick and juicy, merged perfectly with the bland gentleness of the sticky rice.

“It’s Okinawan.” A Sansei woman stood next to Mas. She wore a couple of colorful woven fabric bracelets around her tanned wrists.

Mas raised the half-eaten

She shook her head no and pointed to the musical instrument. “The
, I mean. I think it’s called a
in Okinawan. My grandfather used to play one.”

Why would I care? Mas wondered.

“Juanita Gushiken. I’m G. I.’s girlfriend.” She held out her hand.

Mas stuffed the whole
into his mouth and wiped the grease onto his jeans. Couldn’t the girl see that he was busy eating? Mas wondered as he quickly gripped her callused hand.

“And you’re Mas Arai, the detective gardener,” she went on.

Mas swallowed a lump of the Spam
. Detective? What kind of stories was G. I. spreading? “Detective” had a bad connotation in Mas’s mind. It was okay for television shows, but not in real life. Detectives stuck their noses in other people’s business, and worst of all, they took money for it.

“That’s what G. I. calls you,” Juanita went on. “He said that you probably could beat my butt. I’m a PI myself. You know, a private investigator. G. I. and I met on a slip-and-fall case. The insurance company hired me to spy on his client. Of course, my client won the case. One thing about G. I., he’s not a sore loser.”

Mas had a hard time making sense out of Juanita Gushiken. He didn’t know where she came from, but Gushiken was a one-of-a-kind name. An Okinawan name that went with the snakeskin
. Mas didn’t know much about Okinawa, other than it was a string of islands right below the main southern smudge of Japan. Okinawans were Japanese by citizenship, but there were some distinctions. Okinawans were known as being hairy and big boned. Peace lovers, yet the ones who had developed karate. Pork eaters who lived forever, or at least longer than any other humans in the world. Mas knew his share of Okinawan gardeners, but most of them kept to themselves, just like Mas stuck to other Hiroshima people, like Haruo.

Mas took a better look at Juanita. Although she did have a full head of jet-black hair cut bluntly at her chin, she didn’t look particularly hairy, aside from her eyebrows, furry like freshwater lures. One sign of her Okinawa roots right there, thought Mas. Her body wasn’t squat but lean. She wore a sleeveless top, which showcased her muscles. Mas figured that Juanita was at least forty years old but in a body most thirty-year-olds could only dream of. The kind of body that Jiro chased around in the little imagination that he had.

G. I. and his entourage had circulated throughout the room and back to the stage.

“Mas,” G. I. said, “you’ve met Juanita.”

G. I. looked happy, the happiest Mas had ever seen him. The scars on his cheeks, remnants of a teenage skin condition, were barely noticeable in the dim light. He had trimmed his ponytail so that it didn’t look like a horse’s tail anymore. In lieu of a watch, he had the same woven bracelets as Juanita around his wrist. In addition to the white lei, he had on a white shirt; in fact, his whole body seemed lit up as if he and not his friend had won the half million dollars.

G. I. put his arm around a man next to him. “This is the jackpot winner, my good buddy Randy Yamashiro. Randy, this is Mas, Mas Arai. The gardener I was telling you about.”

“Hey.” Instead of extending his hand, Randy merely nodded his head toward Mas. Mas blinked his eyes in return. Mas didn’t care for shaking anybody’s hand, and apparently this Randy felt the same way. For Mas, it dated back to Chizuko’s preoccupation with the dirt underneath his fingernails. He was trained to hide them, and certainly not show them off to strangers.

Randy was barrel-chested, sturdy as a bag of fertilizer. His eyes looked a bit puffy, as if someone had banged his eye sockets a couple of times—a sign of hard living and one too many beers, Mas thought. Randy had an unlit cigarette in his lips. Mas couldn’t help but feel a pang of envy; he wouldn’t have minded a Marlboro just about now. Randy seemed to read a recovering addict’s mind.

“At Vegas I got used to smoking indoors,” he said, removing the cigarette from his mouth.

“Mas kicked the habit a couple of years ago,” G. I. explained. “Got to live long for his grandson.”

Mas grunted, and Randy reciprocated with a grunt of his own.

Mas sensed that Randy was a quiet man, nothing much like his photo in
The Rafu Shimpo
. Mas had a notion that men from Hawaii were always smiley and full of laughter. But it was obvious that laughter had left Randy Yamashiro long ago.

“Saw youzu pic-cha in the newspaypah,” said Mas.

“Yeah,” Randy said, looking embarrassed. “The casino PR chick wrote all that stuff and had our picture taken.”

“C’mon,” said G. I. “Don’t be so Japanese. Five hundred grand! That’s a big deal.”

Randy returned his cigarette to his mouth and shrugged his shoulders.

Mas didn’t know what to say to the sullen winner. “Youzu see Haruo or Tug?” he asked G. I. instead.

“They left already. They didn’t want to stay too late, I guess.”

In a way, Mas was relieved. He could take only small batches of people at a time, and today he had already met enough strangers to last him the rest of the year.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” interrupted a tall man carrying a camera. He wore a safari vest and red-framed glasses. “May I get you all together for a group photograph?”

BOOK: Snakeskin Shamisen
2.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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