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Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest II

Floating Home

Life is a river 
Shall I fight the current or 
Let go and float home

Papa removed his hat and leaned into the cab window. “Can you take us to First and San Pedro?” he asked.

“Sure. Get in.” The cab driver snuffed his cigarette in the ashtray before getting out to open the trunk. Papa tossed in our suitcases, then took the front seat. Mama and I scooted into the back.

“Why didn’t Papa give him the address to our house?” I whispered.

She put her finger to her mouth. “Shhh!”

She’d been doing that a lot lately. Mama and Papa had both kept secrets on our journey back to California from the internment camp in Rohwer, Arkansas. Why, I didn’t know, but I wasn’t happy about it. I’d just turned fourteen, old enough to know what was going on.

I turned away so Mama wouldn’t see me roll my eyes and stared out the cab window at all the things I’d missed about California. Camp had been a dull place, surrounded by cotton fields in the middle of nowhere. We’d planted petunias and marigolds to try to brighten things up, but there was only so much we could do to improve a barbed-wire camp filled with black tarpaper barracks.

Outside the taxi window, the mountains I’d missed surrounded me like an embrace, welcoming me home. While in camp, I realized I’d taken so much for granted about home—the sound and scent of the ocean on a Saturday afternoon, the cry of a seagull, the twinkling lights of Los Angeles. A car sped by. I’d even missed the traffic.

A soft clicking noise drew my attention from the world that passed by outside. The sound came from Mama’s side of the cab, and I turned toward it. She was counting o-juzu beads, one by one over her fingers. Why was she praying? Wasn’t the worst over now that we were home?

“First and San Pedro,” said the driver, staring at me in the rear view mirror. “Where do you want to get out?”

“On the corner is fine,” Papa replied. He handed the whisker-faced man his fare while Mama and I got out of the cab.

Everything looked different. I’d changed a lot in three years, but somehow I’d expected our home town to look the same. Where was Fugetsu-do? In camp, my mouth had watered for the sweet taste, the gooey feel of omanju on my tongue. I couldn’t wait to eat so much my stomach would hurt. But the shop was gone.

And where were all the Japanese signs? I wondered why it even mattered to me—I couldn’t read what they said anyway. Still, they were part of what made Sho-Tokyo home, especially for my parents.

Papa adjusted his hat before picking up three of the suitcases. “Follow me,” he said.

Mama grabbed two bags, which left one for me to carry.

After a short walk, Papa set his suitcases down under the Civic Hotel sign and whispered something in Japanese to Mama—another secret.

She dropped her suitcases and sat on one. “Papa said to wait here.”

I thought about asking her why we were at a hotel, but decided she’d just tell me to “shhh” again.

About ten minutes later, Papa returned and told us he’d gotten a room.

“A room? Here?” I whined. “Why aren’t we staying in our house?”

“Mari, please!” Mama scolded.

Papa touched her shoulder. “Haruko, it’s time we tell her. Mari, I’ll explain everything to you when we get to the room.” He took a deep breath before confessing, “We’re on the third floor.”

I didn’t complain about the stairs, though I was tempted.

“One step at a time, Mariko-chan.” I swore there were times Papa could read my mind.

On the third floor, Papa inserted the key into the knob. I followed Mama into the dimly lit room that smelled faintly of bleach. It was better than our camp apartment, but I was not at all happy about the two beds in the center of the room. I huffed and dropped my bag onto the maroon carpet. For three years I’d shared a single room with my parents and couldn’t wait to have my own bedroom again.

Papa pointed at a bed. “Mari, sit there, and we’ll talk.”

I skimmed my hand over the white chenille bedspread and remembered my soft, yellow bedspread from home.

Putting his hands in his pockets, Papa asked, “Do you know what kawa no nagare means?”

I shook my head. “No.”

“The flow of a river,” he said, long and slow, as if I might not understand English either. He often took the long way around with his stories and sometimes I didn’t “get” it until the very end. So, I waited for more.

“Life is like a river, Mariko-chan. And though the flow of a river does not cease, the water is never the same.”

“I don’t understand, Papa.”

“Even if you return to the exact spot on the bank of a river, the water there will not be the same. And, sometimes we expect a river will flow one way, but it may take a different tributary. We must go with the flow of the ever-changing water.”

I wasn’t so sure I liked what he was trying to tell me.

He paced the floor as he spoke. “You expected to return to the home we left, as did I.” He paused and took a deep breath. “Shortly before we left Rohwer, I received a letter from our neighbor, Mr. Patterson. He told me our house had been rented to another family.”

“What? But that’s our house,” I complained, unable to imagine another family living in our house. The same shiver I’d felt when I found a girl in camp reading my journal crept over me.

Papa paused and stared out the window. I wondered what he thought about the city below. “It wasn’t really our house,” he continued. “We leased it. When we left, the owner leased it to another family. You see? The river took a turn. There’s nothing to be done but float in its current. We’ll find another place to live.”

“You mean…here?” I asked, anger rising inside me. We’d been floating with the current for three years. I was tired of it, tired of going where we were told, living where we didn’t want to live. “But Papa, I want to go home,” I argued.

“We’ll find another house.” He furrowed his brow at me. “But perhaps you should try to remember that we are more fortunate than many of our friends. At least The Rafu Shimpo will go into circulation again and I’ll have the same job I had before the war. Some who have returned don’t know what they’ll do for work.”

Maybe he was right. Not only did Papa have a job, we’d also been lucky to stay together in camp. Many families had been separated. Most of all, we hadn’t lost anyone in the war. I could still hear the cries of those in camp who learned their sons or brothers would not be coming home.

I gave in, reluctantly. “Maybe it’s easier to go with the flow than to fight the current.”

Papa’s eyes crinkled—the best part of his smile. “Yes, Mariko-chan. And remember, too, the water is never the same.”

A few days later, after Papa left for work and Mama left to run errands, I decided to walk to our old house. True, it wasn’t ours anymore, but I saw no harm in saying “goodbye” before floating down the river to whatever was next.

I turned onto our street. As with San Pedro, I was surprised at how it had changed. Maybe everything only seemed different because of how I’d longed for home while in camp. Had I remembered the well-groomed lawns greener than they actually had been? And did the houses seem to need a new coat of paint, only because I remembered their colors more vibrant as I stared at gloomy black barracks?

Walking the same sidewalk I’d walked a thousand times before, I recalled Papa taking me to the park, when I’d skipped to keep up and took care not to step on any cracks. I smiled, realizing that part hadn’t changed. Even at fourteen, I found myself stepping over cracks to avoid bad luck.

The passage of time felt greatest when I stared up into the sun-splashed trees that lined the street, their branches higher, their trunks thicker. The autumn before we were sent away, I’d chased their fallen leaves down the street on my way to the bus stop. Three months later, Pearl Harbor was attacked and our world changed forever.

It hadn’t mattered that I’d avoided all those cracks.

As I approached the house that wasn’t ours anymore, a strange and unexpected worry settled like a stone in my stomach. I wanted it to look just the same, but what if it didn’t? What about the family who lived there? Had they taken care of Papa’s plum tree in the front yard?

Then, there it was. My house. With the same driveway and the same plum tree, now in full bloom with pink blossoms. The lawn was greener than most, but not as green as I remembered. I stared at the front door and remembered Mama standing there in the apron she wore every day, reminding Papa to stop at the butcher after work.

My gaze drifted to my bedroom window, just to the left of the big front porch. My bed with the yellow chenille bedspread used to be under that window, where, when the moon was full, I’d open the blinds and hold my arms in the striped moonlight. When it rained, I’d watch droplets of water race each other to the bottom of the window pane.

“Can I help you?”

The voice ripped me from sweet memories of my past and back to the scraps of my present. I turned toward the porch.

A black girl sat in the porch swing. A black girl. Was that who lived in my house?

The familiar, sad squawk of the swing, back and forth, drew me instantly back to my past, until she spoke again. “I said, can I help you?”

I had the urge to hide, like a prowler caught in the act. What could I say? Yet, I had to answer, so blurted, “Uh, no. That’s okay.”

She rose and the swing continued its mournful song as she walked down the steps, slowly, like she, too, thought I was as creepy as I felt. “Mind if I ask why you’re staring at our house then?” she asked.

My heart pounded, as if nailing a lid on any excuse for why I’d be standing in front of my house—her house. I wanted to run away, but the fierce determination in her eyes warned she’d chase me.

She stopped in front of me and crossed her skinny, dark arms across her chest, waiting for my answer. Yet, her amber eyes had softened.

“You look pretty harmless,” she said. “Still, I’d like to know what you’re doing standing in front of my house.”

An unexpected surge of adrenaline whipped through me so fast I hardly had time to think about what spewed from my mouth. “Your house? It’s my house. Or, at least it was. Three years ago.”

Her right brow rose and she cocked her head. I’m not sure who was more surprised by my outburst. After all, it wasn’t her fault I was sent away from my home. It wasn’t even her fault that she lived there now.

I bit my lip. “Sorry. We just got back, and I wanted to see my house—this house—one more time.”

“Back from where? And if you liked this house so much, why’d you leave it in the first place?”

Dreaded tears began to burn my eyes. My voice would tremble next. Darn it all. I would not cry in front of this girl who lived in my house.

I steadied my voice. “It was not our choice to leave.”

“Whose choice was it then?”

I mirrored the girl and crossed my arms. “Blame it on whoever you want, but we were sent to an internment camp after Pearl Harbor was attacked.”

She was quiet for a moment, and the way her gaze darted all over, I was pretty sure she wasn’t used to being tongue-tied. Finally, she spoke. “My name is Joey. That’s short for Josephine, but I hate that name. What’s yours?”

“Mariko,” I said. “But my friends call me Mari.”

“Sorry about you being sent away and all. That must be why Mr. Patterson would never say much about who lived in this house before us.” She sat on one of the porch steps. “Where’d you go to camp?”

“Arkansas.”

“Arkansas? We moved here from Mississippi! Daddy worked at Lockheed, but got laid off after the war. At least Mama’s still got her job checking coats at Shepp’s. You heard of Shepp’s? Someone told me it used to be a Japanese restaurant…Kawa-something or other.”

I giggled. “You must mean Kawafuku Restaurant.” My mouth watered as I wondered where we’d eat sashimi now that my favorite restaurant was gone.

“Yep, that’s it. Kawafuku. It’s a jazz club now. Maybe Mama will get you in sometime.”

My gaze kept drifting back to my bedroom window. What did my house—Joey’s house—look like inside?

“Hey,” she said, like she’d read my mind. “Want to come in? My daddy’s home, but he won’t mind. Especially if I tell him you used to live here.” She loped toward the front door. “Come on!”

I followed her up the same porch steps I used to sit on to watch Papa pick plums.

When I stepped over the threshold and into the house that used to be mine, I expected the scent of cedar incense. Instead, I smelled the coffee her daddy was drinking as he read the newspaper—in the same corner where Papa used to read The Rafu Shimpo.

“This here is Mari,” Joey announced. “She lived here before us.”

He lowered his paper and smiled. “Well now,” he said. “Happy to meet you.” He started to get up, but Joey pulled me toward the kitchen.

“Daddy, we’re gonna go have us some of Mama’s plum preserves,” she said, tugging my arm.

I’d returned to my house, that very exact spot on the river’s bank, and it was true the water was different. But as Joey and I talked about the last three years over her mother’s tasty preserves made from plums from my father’s tree, I realized Papa was right. Rivers do change course, and the water is never the same. But I had something to add to his story.

Even a changed river has a sweetness of its own.

 

*This story was one of the finalists in the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest II.

 

© 2015 Jan Morrill

california concentration camp fiction home little tokyo Los Angeles post-war resettlement rohwer short story World War II

About this series

The Little Tokyo Historical Society conducted its second annual short story (fiction) writing contest which concluded on April 22, 2015 at a reception in Little Tokyo in which the winners and finalists were announced. Last year's contest was entirely in English whereas this year's contest also had a youth category and a Japanese-language category, with cash prizes awarded for each category. The only requirement (other than the story could not exceed 2,500 words or 5,000 Japanese characters) was that the story had to involve Little Tokyo in some creative manner.

  • First Place English: “Fish Market in Little Tokyo” by Nathaniel J. Campbell from Fairfield, Iowa
  • First Place Japanese: “Mitate Club” by Miyuki Sato from Muroran, Hokkaido, Japan (Japanese only)
  • First Place Youth: “Kazuo Alone” by Linda Toch from Corona, California

Some of the Finalists to be featured are:

      English:

      Japanese (Japanese only)

      Youth:

 

*Read stories from the first Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>