Read Snakeskin Shamisen Online
Authors: Naomi Hirahara
When the last bit of curry had been cleared off each plate, Lil rose. “I’ll make some coffee.”
Mas stood up to take his dirty dish to the kitchen, but was stopped by Tug.
“You gonna take my job, Mas?” Tug kidded, taking the plate from Mas’s grasp. He also followed Lil into the kitchen, and Mas found himself awkwardly alone with Stinky. Although Mas didn’t really care how Stinky was, he asked, just to make conversation, “So youzu busy?”
Stinky took a long sip of his water after picking at his teeth with the side of his thumbnail. “Life’s shit,” he proclaimed. Mas was surprised that he spoke so plainly.
“I mean, it don’t make sense. A man works hard for his dreams, and what does it get him. Nothing.”
Stinky wasn’t a philosophical man, so Mas knew that this observation came from something very personal. “Sumptin’ happen?”
“A new gardener comes into town. Old friend of a friend. Says he knows of a business deal. Will double, triple my money, he says,” Stinky explained. Mas had stopped hanging out at nurseries and lawn mower shops, so he was out of the loop.
“Japan stocks making a comeback, he claims. If a bunch of us pool our money together, we can buy a lot of shares. Foolproof deal.”
Mas resisted the impulse to shake his head. There were no foolproof deals, in his experience. Making money meant taking risks, and in both Mas’s and Stinky’s world, they were the ones who were usually on the losing side of the odds. If Mas had been there to hear the scheme, he would have thrown cold water on it—and fast.
“Some of us were getting returns right away. A guy puts in a thousand, gets five thousand a month later. Pretty soon, all of us want to get in on the action.”
Mas waited to hear the damage.
“I lost seven grand. A few other guys got taken for fifteen. None of us can get a hold of the guy now. Phone disconnected. Disappeared in thin air.” Stinky closed his eyes and rubbed his droopy eyelids with his arthritic fingers. “I’m goin’ to get it bad when Bette comes home.”
Even though Mas was no fan of Stinky, he didn’t wish him any ill will. He was an
to fall for these schemes, but apparently he wasn’t the only one.
Stinky had said that he had seen Wishbone a month ago and had no contact since then. Stinky and Wishbone had been thick as thieves; it was unusual for them to be apart longer than three days. Something was up, and Mas suspected it was money. “Wishbone in on dis deal?”
“How did you—” Stinky closed his mouth and nodded his balding head. He was one of those men who combed the few hairs they had over their bare scalp. For most men, it was vanity. In Stinky’s case, he was just too lazy to go to a barber. “He’s been giving me money to hold on to so he’ll qualify to get into a place like Keiro without paying an arm and a leg. I guess he doesn’t trust his own kids. So I thought that I’ll surprise him—you know, double his money.”
“How much lose?”
Stinky pulled at his comb-over, revealing his pimply scalp. “Twenty grand.”
Mas let out a silent whistle.
“Don’t have the nerve to tell him—especially with him being sick and all.” Stinky lowered his head, and Mas hated to admit that he felt sorry for him.
As the coffeemaker gurgled in the kitchen and cabinets were opened and closed, Stinky snapped his eyes open again. “Don’t say a word to them. The last thing I need is Mr. and Mrs. Christian to rat me out to Bette.”
Lil came out with a tray of coffee cups on saucers. Tug carried out the apple pie that Stinky had purchased from Marie Callender’s. “Ready for dessert?” he asked.
omehow Mas was able to get through the apple pie and decaf and into bed by ten o’clock. He woke up two times, once at four thirty and then at six. He was more anxious than he could readily admit to himself. Juanita had warned Mas that Tuesday would be a long day—she had mentioned something about meeting a musicology professor at UCLA—so he placed some squares of Salonpas over his achy joints, in particular his kneecaps and right shoulder blade. He tried to maneuver another adhesive square onto the middle of his back with a back scratcher he had received from Haruo, but the patch kept rolling up like a cigar. These were the times that Mas thought about the merits of a companion like Haruo’s Spoon, but the hassles outweighed the benefits. He would just have to suffer a sore back.
The next morning, Mas maneuvered his truck around the winding Pasadena Freeway, apparently created for Buicks and Fords just a generation away from the Model T. As he neared Elysian Park, the home of Dodger Stadium, Mas was always struck by the silhouette of the palm trees along a hill, giant frilled toothpicks stuck into a meaty mound of L.A. earth.
Juanita lived in Silverlake, named after the concrete reservoir that seemed more for show than for any usefulness. He headed toward Hollywood and got off around Echo Park, passing another fake lake, which bloomed with lotus blossoms, their leaves as large as plates, once a year. More curves, more cracked concrete, more hills that tested the Ford’s failing shock absorbers. The page for Silverlake in Mas’s Thomas Guide map had been torn out years ago, indicating how often it had to be used; Silverlake was like Culver City on hills—a web of roads that didn’t know the meaning of a straight line.
Luckily, Juanita had been good at giving out directions, and Mas only had to backtrack once. She had said that her house was a little red castle, so Mas spotted it a block away. She had a large wooden trellis that supported healthy vines of bougainvillea, also bright red. His daughter, Mari, had once told him that the bougainvillea was her favorite plant, as it somehow reminded her of the California missions along the coast. Mas thought that it was because it was able to grow wild and flourished in full sun, much like his daughter.
This PI business was lucrative, Mas thought to himself. For how could a single woman afford such a house? He parked the truck in the driveway in back of Juanita’s Toyota, since all the street parking was taken. The doorbell seemed to have been rusted for a while, because it emitted no sound. Mas instead took hold of the metal knocker and bore down on the wood door.
A Japanese man in his sixties opened the door. He was tall and thin, with a well-groomed mustache over his thick lips. “Yes?”
“Hallo. Juanita here?” With the same body type as the girl, this must be the father. Mas felt kind of funny asking for a girl young enough to be his daughter.
“She lives out back. Here, I will show you.”
The man led Mas through a side gate and down some concrete steps.
“I’m Juanita’s father, Antonio,” he said when they reached a patio in front of a small back unit. Mas detected a slight clipped accent more reminiscent of his Latino helpers than Japanese Americans.
“Mas. Mas Arai.”
“You must be one of Juanita’s clients.”
“Workin’ together,” Mas said. He wanted to make clear that his involvement with the daughter was purely professional.
“Juanita.” Antonio banged on the door. “Mr. Arai is here for you.”
The door opened, revealing Juanita in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. Her hair was wet, and a towel lay on her shoulders. “Hello, Mr. Arai,” she said. “I’m running a little late. I’ll be right out.” She told him to wait in his car and repark it in the driveway after she moved her Toyota truck.
Antonio obviously thought his job was done, and excused himself back to the main house. Mas found this father-and-daughter relationship interesting. Living side by side yet somehow able to keep walls between them. The Gushikens were not that Japanese-y, Mas figured.
He returned to his car and watched a couple of squirrels scamper from one side of the road to another. The squirrels here looked different from the ones in Altadena. Instead of being chestnut brown and plump, their tails were shaggy and black. Mas was wondering what that difference meant, when he finally saw Juanita wave to him from the side of her truck. He waited for her to back out of the driveway and then eased the Ford onto the far-right side of their sloping driveway.
“I dunno you live wiz family,” Mas said after he had settled into the passenger seat next to Juanita.
“Yeah, it works out pretty nicely. They have their space, and I have mine. My parents have a restaurant business. Peruvian food. A chain of three restaurants. Antonio’s.”
, Japanese Peruvian. Mas had had a hunch. He had had dealings with Japanese Peruvians, namely a gambler named Luis Saito, who had fed him a powerful liquor, pisco, in a black bottle in the shape of an Indian warrior. Mas was even familiar with Antonio’s; he passed by the Hollywood one whenever he went to a friend’s house in the Uptown area above Koreatown.
“That’s probably why I can’t have a desk job. I’m not used to sitting around. I can’t stay in one place.” Typical
girl, Mas thought. Like Mari, before she had a
baby of her own.
Mas mentioned what he heard at the Yamadas’. “Some ole lady named Gushiken ova there at Keiro. Some relation?”
Juanita shook her head. “My relatives are all back in Peru. I just barely knew my grandpa. He came to visit every other year. He died last year.”
“Yeah, it’s almost surreal, you know. When someone you don’t see often dies. It seems like they are still around in their part of the world.”
Mas felt like that about his own parents, who had passed away after he had returned to America. He had not been back to Hiroshima for more than fifty years. He hadn’t taken the trek up to his mountain family grave site, looked at the names of his mother and father carved in the long granite obelisk. That would have made their deaths final, and Mas preferred their demise to lack finality.
Juanita explained that she had never gone to Peru. Her relatives ended up there after the quality of life in Okinawa had become so poor. “I mean, Okinawa is so beautiful, even better than Hawaii, but after the Japanese took over, they made everyone work on the sugar plantations, taxed them up the wazoo. No wonder when Peru, Brazil, and the rest of the Latin American countries started recruiting laborers from Okinawa, a bunch of them went over. Turns out that life in Peru wasn’t much easier, but it became home, at least for my grandparents. And my dad for a short time.”
During World War II, Antonio Gushiken and his parents had been literally kidnaped by the Peruvian government and brought over to a detention camp in Crystal City, Texas. It had been a deal made by the U.S. and Peruvian governments. With a fresh batch of people with Japanese surnames, the U.S. could now trade these hostages for American POWs. It didn’t matter that the Crystal City prisoners had little connection with Japan and that their first names were Antonio, Pedro, Juanita, and Maria.
“My dad doesn’t talk about it much,” said Juanita. “He was a kid, of course. My grandparents eventually decided to go back to Peru, but my father stayed.
“I’d like to visit sometime. Go to Machu Picchu—you know, the lost city of the Incas.”
Mas nodded. He had seen video footage of the ruins on a Japanese TV show on UHF and was amazed that such a place could exist. It was a sprawling stone palace amid jagged mountains and swirling mist. Mas knew that he himself could never see Machu Picchu, but sincerely hoped that someone he knew could.
They made more small talk until Juanita revealed the day’s plan of action. “We’ll meet the UCLA professor and then go over to the
player’s house. Luckily, the professor lives in the South Bay. She agreed to meet us for breakfast in Gardena, not too far from the
player’s home. That’s where he has his music studio.”
“He knowsu weezu comin’?”
Juanita had put on a pair of sunglasses, and it was hard to see any life in her face. “Sometimes it’s better to catch them off guard.”
Mas didn’t like surprises, and he figured that the
player was not so different.
“So whatsu youzu gonna say?”
“Well, I may not be saying anything, Mr. Arai. I’m not sure that he can speak English.”
Mas stayed quiet. He hoped that Juanita wasn’t saying what he thought she was saying. He wanted to just go along for the ride, like a dog in the passenger seat of any other pickup truck. Dogs liked the window open so that the wind could hit their faces. They had no intention, however, of taking control of the entire car.
“Whyzu those people at G. I.’s party in first place?”
“I think that the restaurant contacted the Okinawa group. All of the halaus—you know, the Hawaiian dance troupes—were booked. I’m not sure why they went Okinawan.”
Mas tried not to stretch his mind to connect the dots too early. His experience was once you thought you figured something out, you inevitably ended up surprised in the end. He instead looked out the window. To the west of the freeway were clumps of palm trees in between rows of square homes that held precariously to their bits of dirt. Satellite dishes sat aimed at their targets in the sky while clothes dried on the lines. Life as usual in L.A.
They passed the huge monster Hustler gambling casino. Mas remembered when there had been only a small circle of card clubs in the area. Now that circle had exploded, and giant gambling dens as big as warehouses were clustered by the freeway.
Juanita finally parked the truck in a business district that seemed to be hanging on to the new and the old with each hand. An Italian deli with its crowd of suited men and women standing outside—early business meetings, perhaps? Across the street, customers waited their turn inside a Mexican pan dulce bakery to select pink and brown pastries with pairs of tongs and place them on pastel plastic trays.
Mas and Juanita walked two doors down from the Mexican sweet bread house to a meeting place, another Hawaiian restaurant, called Bruddah’s, but this one looked nothing like the place where G. I.’s party had been. Instead of a resurrected chain pancake house, it was in a narrow ramshackle storefront, the kind of place where bleary-eyed fishermen would feel at home. Simple booths on the sides and then a row of tables and chairs in the middle. The photocopied menu was folded next to the
(not just any kind of soy sauce, but the Aloha brand, made in Honolulu), ketchup, and Tabasco. There were some old men, probably part-time gardeners like Mas, sitting scattered in a few of the booths. In the corner was a young couple with tattoos all along their arms and legs, and sitting at a middle table, a black woman who looked to be in her sixties.