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2nd Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest

The Queen of Manzanar

In a museum in Little Tokyo there is a small space segregated by room dividers, and each of these artificial walls is covered with monochrome photographs. It was by accident that Ken came across this room. At first he was lured in by the pictures of old blue sedans and steam locomotives. Moving further along the wall, he saw pictures with crowds of people wearing overcoats and hats and carrying large suitcases. On the next wall, the scenes shifted entirely. Flat deserts dominated the foreground and mountains loomed in the distance. Children were playing ball, kicking up dust with their feet. Elderly men read newspapers while women stood in line with bowls and canteens in hand. It was near this collection of photographs that a particular image caught his eye.

It was a portrait picture of a young woman in her late teens or early twenties. She was sitting on a chair looking away from the camera, and concealing a smile as if someone behind the photographer was making a face. She wore a simple white dress with black buttons that ran from her lap up to the parting “V” neck, exposing only the barest glimpse of the collarbone running to the soft hollow of her throat. Something about her resonated with him. Maybe it was how she wore her hair up to reveal her bare ears, or the way she wore a little golden watch too tightly on her wrist. The small imperfections only seemed to enhance her appearance, the way hagi-yaki pottery seems more valuable when chipped. She had on her head a hand-made paper crown bearing the words: “Queen of Manzanar.”

Ken left the room puzzling over the name on the crown. It sounded like a faraway place—an imaginary place, even. He stepped out of the museum and headed to the plaza across the street. A fragrance that could only belong to the sizzling spices of chicken karaage wafted through the air. He stopped at the window where skewers of the Japanese fried chicken were resting on a platter just on the other side of the glass. He dug into his pocket and pulled out two crumpled dollar bills. That was enough for just one piece.

He looked back at the skewers, chewing his lip indecisively. That was when he saw her in the window’s reflection. Across from the cafe, a girl was seated on a bench outside the Shabu-Shabu house. She was wearing soft leggings and a sheer white top through which he could see a spaghetti strap undershirt clinging to her form. But the face looked impossibly familiar. He turned around to confirm his suspicions. As he did, the girl returned his gaze and smiled before getting up and walking over to him.

“So are you going to buy one or not?”

He looked dumbfounded until she pulled four neatly pressed dollar bills out of her own purse and pressed them until his palm. “Why don’t you get two for us and I’ll wait here,” she said, smiling prettily.

Ken quickly did so, handing the money to the cashier and retrieving the thin wooden skewers, each one laden heavily with seasoned chicken. He handed one over to the girl, who took one delightedly and immediately nibbled on the end.

“I don’t think we’ve met…” Ken began, at which the girl looked mildly offended.

“Of course we have,” she said, wiping her lip with the tip of her finger. “Just now—in the museum. You’ve already forgotten?”

His face flushing, Ken quickly put the pieces together. “You mean…you’re the queen of Manzanar?”

The girl laughed. “You can call me Maggie, though.”

“But how can you…I mean, that picture was from—”

“–A long time ago, I know.” She took another bite of karaage. “Now are you going to think of every reason why I can’t be real, or can we actually spend some time together?” She turned away casually and began to walk by the shops in the plaza, some of which weren’t even open this early on a Saturday.

Ken took a bite off his own skewer. The savory kick in the seasoning jolted him out of his bemusement, and he caught up with Maggie as she was observing the stone sculpture in the middle of the plaza.

“You changed your outfit from the one in the picture,” he said, indicating her top.

“Well you can’t expect me to show up here in that silly frock, can you?” Maggie readjusted the strap on her shoulder. Ken noticed that she was still wearing the same gold watch on her wrist.

They walked toward a platform where bystanders would often go up at night to sing karaoke. Now it was deserted, but background music still played throughout the plaza. Maggie stepped up onto the platform and tilted her head to hear the lyrics. It was Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.” She wrinkled her nose, light freckles stretching faintly.

“I have nothing against Frank Sinatra. His voice is fatherly—like breakfast in bed. But there’s only one version of “Fly Me to the Moon” that can move me. Tony Bennett. His interpretation is much, much slower, without the bounce and the bump of the bass. The music isn’t a carousel; it’s making love to you—slowly, luxuriantly taking time to hold each note until you’re breathless with anticipation. You know what words are coming next and you’re begging for them to be said. And that saxophone line…”

She stopped in midsentence and smiled at Ken, who was obviously still trying to figure out what she had said. “I can’t help it, sorry. I love the saxophone—and jazz as a whole. Some of the best jazz musicians in history were Japanese. There was a jazz café in Osaka that I used to visit all the time…” Her voice trailed off with memory, like a distant train vanishing around the bend.

“That’s cool—I like listening to jazz too, it’s just that I don’t know much about the technical stuff,” Ken said apologetically. “What else do you like—other than music?”

Maggie finished her karaage and tossed the skewer lightly into a nearby trash can. “Reading, of course. There’s a bookstore above Marukai that I like. We’re going.” She grabbed his hand and marched off.

They crossed the street to the nearby mall where the bookstore was located. The touch of Maggie’s hand felt solid in his, but Ken felt that something human was absent—as if not all of her was with him in that moment. The feeling was transient and left him as soon as they entered the bookstore. They took to drifting from section to section, remarking on the artwork on book covers and rummaging through the extravagant selection of pens, pencils, and erasers.

“Do you read manga?” Maggie asked as they meandered toward the comics section.

“A little,” Ken said, reddening. It wasn’t something he necessarily wanted an attractive girl like Maggie to know.

“Bet you don’t know how it became so popular,” she said, picking up one of the closest novels and flipping through it from right to left.

Judging by some of the manga covers around, Ken had his suspicions, but doubted Maggie was thinking along the same lines.

“American soldiers occupied Japan for seven years after the war was over,” Maggie explained, still engrossed in the manga she had picked up. “They exposed the Japanese to popular comics imported from the States. Most of these were too expensive for the Japanese to buy—as a result, we started to produce our own. Now, manga has come back to the States. Everything comes around in a full circle. It has to,” she added, sounding a little sad all of a sudden. There was a silence following her words.

Ken shuffled his feet, his hands in his pockets, not quite sure of what to say. Maggie seemed to be in two places at once—or to be more precise, from two places at the same time. He didn’t how to explain it, but it was as if part of her was still linked to the photograph in the museum.

“Cheer up,” he said, trying to add some comfort in his voice. “You’re the queen of Manzanar after all—wherever that is,” he finished lamely.

Maggie looked him painfully in the eyes. “Manzanar was a Japanese internment camp during the war. It’s really hot there, and the dust gets everywhere—it seeps beneath the doors, collects on the windows and gets into your shoes. It’s freezing at night too.”

She hesitated a little before continuing. “I’m not the girl you saw in the photograph, Ken. It’s just a form I took so you would recognize me. It would be more appropriate to say that I’m the Spirit of Manzanar. Here and there are both in the present for me. I flicker between spaces like a memory. You might even say that’s all I am: a solid, autonomous memory.”

Ken was silent for a while before speaking again. “Why did you come here of all places?”

Maggie stepped close to him and took hold of both his hands. As she did, Ken felt a whooshing feeling in his stomach, as if he was in a rapidly accelerating elevator. The bookstore melted away; dust and grit whipped through his hair and stung his face so that he had to close his eyes. When he opened them again, he was standing on thin air, high above Little Tokyo. It was as if there was a high glass ceiling for his feet to rest on. “You better not let go,” he muttered to Maggie to keep himself from panicking. But the more he took in the view, the more he relaxed. On his right he could see the Hollywood sign on the mountain side. The cranes at Long Beach Port were barely visible in the distance, and beyond that, blue ocean and blue sky until the horizon bent out of sight.

“This is…pretty amazing,” he breathed. Maggie smiled softly, still holding onto his hands.

“In Manzanar we are so displaced that home feels an ocean away, and yet we never left the continent. We are Japanese; we are Americans. Because we are both, we are neither. Those responsible for our plight couldn’t understand what we were, so we became what they feared. Or perhaps it is because they feared us that they could not see us clearly. So Manzanar is where they put us.”

She looked down below. The shops were opening up, and couples young and old were beginning to fill the plaza Ken and Maggie had just vacated. “I like coming here because it reminds me that we do have a place that feels right for us. And because it is a place that remembers us. Is that enough for you?”

Ken nodded. “I can live with that explanation,” he said. “Now if you’d like to let us down…”

A few minutes later they were seated outside the Shabu-Shabu house. On the bench to their left, an elderly man wearing a Giants hat was decidedly ignoring the miniature terrier gnawing on the leash he was holding. Once in a while, Maggie would glance warily at the dog.

“He won’t bite,” Ken reassured her. “Wait here, I’ll get us some ice water.”

As he got up, the terrier began to bark at Maggie. Ken glared at the dog’s owner, who refused to return his gaze. He gave Maggie one last apologetic look, then went into the cafe opposite to retrieve the water cups. When he came back out, the dog was still barking, but the bench beside the old man was now vacated.

He was seized with an immediate panic, and quickly looked down both ends of the street, hoping to glimpse a sheer white top about to vanish around the corner. All his senses peaked for an instant. He heard sounds he hadn’t noticed before—the grainy crackle of a coffee grinder in the café; the rumble of a plane trundling overhead; the creak and slide of sneakers and sandals against the brick pavement. The sunlight glinted off a car in the distance, and with every movement of his head, distorted reflections shifted like Van Gogh paintings across the tinted shop windows, some with closed signs still hanging. But Maggie had properly vanished.

The old man got up to leave, and Ken spared an extra moment to glare at the dog as they both shuffled away.

It was many weeks before Ken could will himself to return to the room in the museum where he had first seen Maggie. When he eventually went back, someone had moved the picture. He stared crestfallen at the empty space. As he willed his eyes to look elsewhere, he came upon a blurred image of a woman with a baseball mitt in the act of catching a ball. Though he could not see her face, he imagined it was Maggie, leaping up and down with her arm stretched to the sky as the bottom of her skirt lifted a little higher up on her bare thigh. He found himself wishing her happiness there.

Walking out of the museum, Kentaro once again smelled the salty-sweet taste of karaage in the air. He clenched the twenty-dollar bill in his jean pocket. This time, he was ready.


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


© 2015 Hans Weidman

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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.

Winners (First Place)

Some of the Finalists to be featured are:



      Japanese (Japanese only)

*Read stories from other Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contests:

1st Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
3rd Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
4th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
5th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
6th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
7th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
8th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>