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Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest II

Kazuo Alone

Kazuo embraced Mondays like no other, and that was because of its silence. Mondays were sweet, a sweep of semi-peace in the streets of Los Angeles. The typical street-crawlers were in school and the typical tourists at their nine to five jobs, and so Kazuo chose Monday to roam, map, conquer his neighborhoods unperturbed. Mondays were a convenience only when eighty-five of your years had passed and your company along with it. It was nice timing for those who desired solace. The old man had fit this criteria to a tee.

People talked about him, of course; no one who walks alone can keep his name out of others’ mouths. They say he had a wife once. They say his marriage was a spectacle, a whirr of harmonies—he, a striking man, she, an incandescent beauty—he, solemn-faced, she, the embodiment of joy. She was his joy. Small talk still lingers about their wedding to date, a legend left for the gossip mill to disperse. 100 brown doves. That was how many they released that day. Rumor had it, birds swirled around the couple, drawing a ribbon with their synchronized bodies before soaring up and beyond sight.

They called this God’s miracle, God’s blessing on a beautiful union.

A year later, when the wife’s cheeks ran out of ruby colors to make room for pallor, they called it God’s apology instead. His solemn face turned sorrow. He hadn’t remarried since.

Years past and people trickled in and out of his life, and Kazuo never put forth the efforts to make them stay. He, ever the true Buddhist, held no attachments. Religion had nothing to do with this, of course; he simply couldn’t be bothered with anyone else to begin with.

Yet in spite of this, there was something that drew him back to Little Tokyo time after time. Kazuo knew his streets well, but he was mindless when he walked. He lived in his head, in a world far detached from realities, from earth—perhaps that was the sole reason why he enjoyed his solo strolls. When he returned, unaware of the lefts and rights he chose, he found himself wound up on First or Alameda. Always. He’d spot the museum’s large puzzle cube, listen to the paper lanterns crinkle above his head, feel the gust of wind as children breezed by him with an excitement so distantly familiar to him…it was the way wide streets became smaller and then wider again, and the way the tiny shops were cramped so closely. He’d be a dead man before he admitted it, but Little Tokyo had wormed its way into his heart.

The streets were by no means empty on Mondays, but Kazuo didn’t need to bump and squirm his way through crowds among crowds. It was mostly college students flocking to the modernized corners, anyway. The sushi joints. Yogurtland. Anything with bright letters and an appearance that promised a good time. Kazuo rested in a quieter area, a little sector of a street filled with mom and pop shops.

He sat in front of a bakery store of the Japanese Village Plaza, listening to a performer improvise a song for a family next to him. The singer’s voice, mellow and pleasant, was a charmer. It was as if people paid for the happy ambience his keyboard brought instead of the performance itself. The tip jar was filled to the brim. High school ditchers passed by him, the corners of their mouth dribbled with ice cream. The infectious bliss that came from the musician seemed to make them younger and younger. Such a gift, to be able to have your keyboard turn the elderly to adults, the adults to teens, the teens to children…and the teens laughed joyously, ecstatically, their heads thrown back the way a seven year old’s would. Kazuo’s heart stung a little. He remembered how it was, to be young and enamored. No one else existed but the person by your side; nothing else was tangible except the hands brushing against your own.

“And you, sir!” the performer called, suddenly, index finger pointed straight at Kazuo.

“What is your name?”

“Ah, I…no, I didn’t tip you,” Kazuo responded sheepishly, waving his hands to the artist. “No money.”

Smiling, his inquirer replied, “I’m here to talk, not much else. How are you?”

His words reverberated from the microphone and bounced around in Kazuo’s ears. I’m here to talk…when was the last conversation Kazuo had? It was with his insurers, wasn’t it? Or his doctor? The nurses?

“I…I’m fine, thank you.”

It felt like all of Little Tokyo stared at him, their eyes digging into his skin. Even the pigeons that scattered among the Plaza seemed to look into the old man. Seemed to look into how he sat, crookedly. How his back hunched and his teeth yellowed even more in bare sunlight. How his forehead wrinkled and sagged his face downward into a perpetual frown. He finally felt like his age in his skin, and he’d never been more aware of eighty five years than that day.

“Ah, before I launch into a song, do you want me to dedicate it to someone?” the performer continued.

Again with the questions.

“A loved one, maybe?” he pressed. Kazuo merely shook his head.

“No, no one. There’s no one.”

“You were in love, weren’t you? I can tell by the way you look down.” The performer pressed a few keys, his fingers cascading over them with a feathery lightness. The sounds floated melodiously into the air, drawing in more and more of a crowd. Kazuo shuffled his feet in embarrassment. “Let me ask an easier question, then. How did you meet?”

The grin the musician gave coaxed an answer out of the reluctant Kazuo. He stuttered, yelling it half-heartedly, just loud enough for the other man to hear.

“We met by the Aoyama tree!”

Too loud, Kazuo thought, cringing. I was too loud. Too much noise…

The performer’s eyes glinted, and his smile widened. He continued pressing down more keys, more and more, a stream of gorgeous sounds making way to Kazuo’s ears. But he sang nothing into the microphone. Kazuo was startled by the silence, but sat still to enjoy the music regardless. A minute had passed before the man proceeded with more questions.

“The Aoyama tree…what a beautiful place to meet a beautiful woman, no?”

Kazuo nodded. “It was,” he agreed softly. “It was.”

His mind drifted back to the 1980s, a time when his heart was filled with inexplicable emotions, a mesh of pain and thrill and hope and fervor and heat. There was the sting of leaving his family behind. He could not touch his mother’s face anymore, or help his father walk in old age. But on another hand, he had made his way into LA. The city of the greats. The giants. The powerful, the dreamers. The city to get lost in, to get found, to be anonymous, to make a name—LA. It was an achievement all on its own, making it there.

And then there was her. He remembered meeting her perfectly: the clumsiness that ensued, the awkward exchange of greetings that followed. He stumbled, and she tripped, and he fell, and she toppled over. And he said hello. And she gifted him a smile.

“I’ve seen you a couple times, sir,” the performer continued. “You come here often. I want to give thanks for showing love to our little world.”

Kazuo remembered the shops, the nooks and crannies found in them, and the entanglement of histories and modern culture. The celebrations, the festivals. The morning prayers. Kazuo remembered all of it. And he remembered her traversing by his side the entire time, exploring the “little world” that only seemed to get bigger the more they stayed in it.

And he remembered the happiness. Where was the crying child in Little Tokyo? The frowning human? They didn’t seem to exist. The streets were flooded with happiness, a happiness like no other. And it was still flooded today. But the idea of joy was so faint in his heart, as time wrung out the euphoria in all his memories, that Kazuo only now began to feel again. There was bitterness locked inside of him, a bitterness that never left him since her passing.

And so he exhaled this bitterness with the timing of the music. In and out. Just like the morning meditations she used to accompany him to, around the temple near their precious love-tree. He breathed in the piano notes and breathed out the heaviness in his heart.

“The Aoyama tree,” the performer started, “is a sign of resilience. It’s a sign of forever. Of going on. It’s an old, old survivor in the city…much like you, I’d imagine.” Again, the performer smiled. “And much like your love. The tree is entwined with your past, my friend, and that’s a beautiful honor.”

Kazuo lifted himself up slowly and walked toward the performer. His hands shook. He leaned forward and put a five dollar bill in the tip jar. It was all the money he had.

“Thank you. Thank you. I feel light again,” Kazuo whispered.

The performer shoved the microphone out of the way, and whispered back, “Your joy is long overdue…you needed to visit your roots again. Back to where it all started. No thanks are needed for that, my friend.” But with a twinkle in his eye, he added, “I thought you had no money, Kazuo.”

It was Kazuo’s turn to smile.

He made his way to the Aoyama Tree, this time, his mind clear of directions. Somehow, his feet remembered the paths he had taken with her decades ago.

Back to the tree’s roots, back to his roots, back to the roots of his first and only love. He felt his heart pump vigorously to keep up with his pace. A part of him wanted to touch the bark. Stroke it. Carve initials into it. He wanted to interact. To feel. But he stayed behind, admiring the piece of art nature invested into this land. What made Little Tokyo magical was the people around it, he realized. The children, the teens, the adults, the families, the couples. The performer. Her. And him. He was a part of it, the city, the culture. He always was.

It was six o’clock by the time Kazuo finished. His legs tired of the walk, but he walked in a daze, a wonderment of the new Little Tokyo he was seeing. With every street was a new memory he uncovered once more. There was no more pain heaving down in his chest. He walked a little straighter, stood a little taller.

He would visit the tree next Monday, he decided. And the week after that, and the week after that. And forevermore. He would visit the tree for as long as the tree stood there, and as long as he stood alive.

There was no more remorse in his reminiscence. Just joy.

Kazuo grinned as he thought of the performer. He relived the entire ordeal in his head as he made his way back home. And then it struck him—how did the performer know of his name in the first place? How did the performer know anything at all? And, most importantly, did any of that matter? His spirit felt rejuvenated, youthful. Twenty years old at best. And that was the greatest gift anyone had ever bestowed on him since her smile. For that alone, Kazuo didn’t need the answers to his questions.

The sunset settled down and the darkness cloaked the colorful skies with black. He stepped into his house, exhausted by this Monday’s elongated walk. The loneliness always kept on his shoulders had all dissipated by then. Certainly he lived by himself, but that didn’t mean he was alone, no. Not any longer. And before he could lock the door shut, Kazuo could swear he heard the faint coo of a dove outside…a sound that made his eyes dampen. He pressed his palms against his cheeks, surprised. The tears were his own. The emotions were his own.

Because where was the crying child in Little Tokyo, anyway? Where could you find the frowning adult?

He sunk into the comforts of his home and drifted into sleep, his ears filled with the sounds of music and doves. The man was at peace at last.

 

*This story is the first place winner in the Youth division of the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest II.

 

© 2015 Linda Toch

aoyama tree fiction japanese village plaza little tokyo Los Angeles short story

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 other Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contests:

Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest I >>
Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest III >>