Discover Nikkei

https://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2023/6/4/aftershocks/

Aftershocks

The bricks of the plaza are damp with morning dew, and the lanterns hanging overhead are dark and still. The sky above is a dome of deep indigo, and the only sound is the freeway in the distance — a low hum, an occasional rumble. To the west, downtown buildings tower like sleeping giants, their windows dark.

* * * * * 

A few miles away, Kenji scrolls through his phone at the kitchen table.

“They got the guy. He’s dead,” he says without looking up, as his wife places a mug of coffee beside him. These are the first words he speaks today.

“I saw,” she replies. “Thank God.”

Kenji keeps scrolling.

A man’s voice, loud, bursts from the phone. “-ten confirmed dead-” Kenji’s thumb works quickly to turn down the volume. “-unclear whether it was a hate crime-” Kenji swipes the man away.

The refrigerator hums.

“Do you think we should close the restaurant today?”

He shakes his head as if he’s already thought about this. He stands, shoving the phone into his back pocket.

“No,” he says. “He’s dead. It’s all over.”

His coffee sits untouched on the table.

* * * * *           

The bus charges west down the 10, faster than Paul thinks such a large bus should go. But there is no traffic this early on a Sunday. Paul glances at his hands, gnarled like knobs of ginger, folded in his lap, and he notices his fingertips slightly blackened with ink from reading the morning paper. He sighs, and glances up to see the green road sign ahead – Monterey Park.

He turns his head to gaze out the window. He somehow expects to see flashing police lights, or a crowd of mourners, but of course from the freeway he just sees the little neighborhood, tidy and quiet. The thought of the people sleeping inside those houses—what they will feel this morning when they open their eyes and remember—lands like a weight in his chest. The houses blur outside the window.

Paul steps off the bus at Arcadia and Los Angeles St. The doors hiss shut as the bus pulls away, and the sky is just beginning to blush to life. Paul’s legs are always stiff after this journey. His morning walk is his time to stretch.

After a lifetime bent over a broom, his body has adopted that position as its resting point, so that straightening his back, raising his head, always takes some work. He rolls his shoulders back and starts walking. The streetlights begin to flicker off overhead. He reaches his arms one at a time, up into the brightening sky.

After two years of retirement Paul still can’t sleep in, even on Sundays. So every morning he gets up at 5:00 am and he takes the bus down to Little Tokyo, his routine for thirty years. He finds comfort in this. But he still feels slightly guilty every day — like a kid playing hooky from school.

He pictures himself for a moment as a little boy, skinny legs and knee socks, walking the two blocks from his childhood home to Dayton Heights Elementary. Paul shakes his head just slightly - that kid would never play hooky.

The thought brings a small smile to his lips just as he reaches the Yagura Fire Tower. Paul bends slowly to pick up an empty Boba cup on the sidewalk. He places it in the garbage bin and checks his watch. 7:29.

* * * * *

Danny’s mom pushes his bedroom door open. “Knock knock,” she says, bearing a stack of folded laundry. “Your work clothes are on top.” She places it beside him on the bed, and he lowers his phone to his lap.

She glances down. On the screen, a man in uniform stands before a mess of microphones, his lips moving silently. A row of other men in uniforms stand behind him, all wearing the same solemn expressions.

Danny can tell his mom has been crying. Every time something like this happens, she gets this weird look on her face and hugs him way too hard, but then pretends that everything is OK. The act never works, Danny thinks.

Danny remembers the last time—or maybe the time before—when an old Asian man was shoved to the ground in the middle of the day. It was all on video, that time, and they watched it together on the news, and she’d held her hand over her mouth and tried not to cry.

Later, he’d watched it on YouTube, more times that he should have. The grainy video had captured the moments before the attack, and as Danny watched the old man, what Danny saw was his grandparents, his uncles, his mom. The old man’s body seemed weightless as he was shoved backward. He didn’t even see it coming, Danny thought.

She gives the laundry a brisk pat and turns to leave. “Better get going. Don’t be late.”

But Danny is never late. He’s been working in restaurants since he was 15, and he’s never late. They both know that what she means is: Don’t be afraid.

When he gets downtown Danny parks by the courthouse, where it’s a short walk to his work in Little Tokyo, and the daily rate is cheap. This morning he walks briskly. He doesn’t like the feeling of being outside, exposed. Along the way he eyes each person he passes on the street, and he can sense somehow that yesterday’s news is on everyone’s mind.

He gets to work and his boss Kenji is outside, sweeping the sidewalk. With the broom gripped in both hands he greets Danny, and the tension in his jaw, the white of his knuckles, say what doesn’t need to be said.

Inside the restaurant the hostess wipes down the plastic menus with a faraway look in her eyes, and the waiters sit at tables silently refilling soy sauce bottles. It is strangely quiet. Even if no one talks about it, Danny knows what they are all thinking.

Danny begins to prep his station. He works the deep fryer, making tempura, karaage, dumplings. He leaves every night reeking of oil, with tiny red burns spotting his forearms, but he makes decent money and the schedule fits around his community college classes. Kenji always says he’s the best fry cook he’s ever had.

Danny switches on the fryers and stares into the vat of oil as it comes alive with a shimmer. Tiny bubbles form and his mind wanders:

To a faceless man walking into the restaurant, the hostess’s lips forming a silent “oh” as she sees the gun in his hand, families ducking beneath tables desperately hoping that anything could stop the bullets from finding home in their heads, their bellies, their soft necks. The crashing, the screams, the deafening, efficient pop pop pop.

The oil spits and jolts Danny back to reality. He glances back at the EXIT sign over the back door. He’s always doing that these days. Checking for the nearest exit.

He wants to pretend everything is OK. He doesn’t want to be afraid. But sometimes it’s hard.

* * * * *

Kenji sweeps the sidewalk outside the restaurant doors. Inside the lunch crew is busy getting ready for the day, and the thought stirs an almost paternal feeling in him – his people are safe inside. He turns his thoughts to the sidewalk. He likes to keep it tidy, just as all the businesses in the area do.

If you walk a few blocks in any direction, he thinks, you’re in the middle of downtown LA, and it’s different there. You can’t control that. But this patch of sidewalk - this he can control. He uses the thought to quiet the noise in his mind — the what-ifs, the why-why-why.

Kenji glances up as Paul approaches. The old man’s jacket and his pleated khakis seem too large for his small frame, and his head appears delicate, like a speckled egg in the morning sunlight. “Morning Paul,” Kenji greets him, but can’t bring a smile to his lips today. He wonders if the old man saw the news.

“Morning,” Paul says, with a small wave in Kenji’s direction. A pigeon lands in the street, pecks at the ground, then flutters away as a car drives past. “Going to be a busy one today?”

“Yep, maybe,” Kenji says. “Cup of tea?” He nods towards the restaurant doors behind him, keeps his hands on the neck of the broom.

“No, no, I’ll be back in a while. Going to walk a little first, get my blood going!”

“Got it. See you in a while then,” Kenji turns to go back inside.

“Be safe now,” Paul says.

Kenji pauses and thinks: He knows. “You too, my friend,” Kenji calls after the frail form, shuffling away.

* * * * *

Paul walks silently, passing many of the same shops and restaurants that have been here since he was a young man. A few have been around longer than he has. He begins at Weller Court, where Paul makes his way around each floor, then on to the Galleria, then to the market where he travels up and down each aisle.

His eyes remain trained on the ground in front of him, though when he passes anyone he gives a nod and a gentle smile. After a couple of hours his stomach begins to rumble a bit, so he heads back to the plaza, to Kenji’s restaurant.

When he enters he is glad to see the restaurant is still quiet; the lunchtime rush hasn’t yet begun. Paul sits in the last seat at the sushi bar, and before he has even settled in, someone has placed a small steaming cup of tea before him. He smiles and nods.

He wraps his fingers around the small teacup and inhales the earthy aroma. His eyes are drawn to a young man in the kitchen, through the window where food passes. The kid is moving slowly, staring at something in front of him though his eyes are not seeing. Paul can tell he is afraid – that the news has shaken him, leaving him in a space where he doesn’t know what to do with the fear.

Should he laugh at it? Rage against it? Cry about it?

These young people have been so safe, so protected, Paul thinks. They don’t know fear like our parents did, like we did.

I know, Paul wants to say to this boy. I know. I was just a kid when we came home from the camps, but still I remember. Fear will eat away at you – will make you stare into the distance when you should be working. It will draw your eyes down, in what looks like boredom or exhaustion or surrender, but is none of those things. I know how it feels to wonder. To wonder if you are hated. To wonder by whom. And to wonder why.

* * * * *

The lunch rush is usually Danny’s favorite part of the day. The kitchen is full of steam and smoke, and pans sizzle on the cooktop. Danny and the other cooks stand almost shoulder-to-shoulder but each is focused solely on his own station. They each glance up at the window before them for split seconds, to grab a ticket, or to place a dish under the heating lamp.

“Order up,” they call, though it’s almost unnecessary now. The shelf in the window is crowded with food – platters of dumplings, bowls of noodles, plates of fried chicken and shrimp and vegetables – all waiting to be served.

The three cooks pivot and reach and veer around one another as they do every day at lunchtime. Still, they talk. They like to talk.

“Did you see? The Monterey Park guy? Chinese!”

“Order up!”

“Yeah crazy. I thought for sure it was gonna be another white nationalist or something.”

“Right? Same. They still blaming us for Covid!”

“Hey this is supposed to be ramen no toppings! It says it right there on the ticket!”

“Damn, that’s my bad. Comin’ up on the fly.”

“Nice to know we don’t have a target on our backs today.”

“Table 6 has been sitting forever!”

“Almost up!”

“I don’t know, man,” Danny says. “Feels like we’ve always got a target on our backs.”

* * * * * 

After the lunch rush has ended, Paul is still sitting at the end of the sushi bar, cupping his teacup softly in his hands. Danny steps out from the kitchen, wearing his street clothes. His apron is bundled in one hand. With the other hand he rakes his fingers once through his thick black hair, which flops immediately back into his eyes.

He heads to the computer at the end of the counter, to clock out for the day, when he glances up and notices Paul sitting at the counter. Danny pauses for a moment, then reaches for the teapot. “More tea?” he asks, though it is not his job.

Paul holds both hands up and leans back, laughing softly. “Oh! No more tea! I’ll have to swim home if I have any more!”

Danny nods and replaces the teapot. He begins to tap at the computer screen, his shoulders slumped with exhaustion.

Paul watches the boy. “All done for the day?”

Danny gives a small shrug. “Pretty much.”

Danny doesn’t explain that he’s actually headed to the library now. That he has exams tomorrow that he needs to study for. That his day is, in some ways, a long way from done.

Paul observes the boy for a moment, then stands.

“Well I better get going myself.” He stretches his arms wide, leaves a ten-dollar bill on the counter. He reaches the front door just as Danny rushes forward to open it for him.

Paul looks up, surprised, “Oh, thanks, thanks,” Paul says, and he steps out into the bright afternoon.

Kenji is outside, sweeping the sidewalk again, and is slightly surprised to see Danny and Paul together. He calls out, “See you tomorrow.”

Both give small waves, and Kenji watches as they begin walking toward First Street, side by side. He can tell Paul is walking a little faster than his usual shuffle, and Danny has slowed his typical lope. Both seem to be standing a bit taller, their steps lighter.

He watches as Paul turns to say something to Danny, and the young man seems to laugh, and Kenji watches their forms grow small in the distance.

Who is escorting whom, Kenji thinks, then reconsiders. Maybe both. He gives the sidewalk one last appraising look, then steps back inside the restaurant.

* * * * *

The sun sets red and brilliant in the sky, as it sometimes does in the winter in Los Angeles. One by one, the shop lights turn off, the doors are locked, and soon the plaza is empty once again. The bricks shine in the moonlight, and it is silent.

 

*This story received honorable mention in the English Adult category of the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s 10th Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest.

 

© 2023 Alison Ozawa Sanders

California crime hate crimes Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest (series) Little Tokyo Los Angeles United States
About this series

Each year, the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest heightens awareness of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo by challenging both new and experienced writers to write a story that captures the spirit and essence of Little Tokyo and the people in it. Writers from three categories, Adult, Youth, and Japanese language, weave fictional stories set in the past, present, or future. This year is the 10th anniversary of the Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest. On May 20, 2023 in a celebration moderated by Tamlyn Tomita, noted actors, Greg Watanabe, Mika Dyo, and Mayumi Seco performed dramatic readings of each winning entry.

 

Winners


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

1st Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
2nd 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 >>
9th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
11th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>

Learn More
About the Author

Alison is an attorney and mother of three, living with her family in Santa Cruz, California. She has published several essays and short stories and she is currently working on her first novel. Her father's family has been in Los Angeles since the early 1900s, and she has many fond childhood memories of visits to Little Tokyo. Writing this piece was a lovely opportunity to research how Little Tokyo has changed over the years, and to rekindle her own sensory memories there.

Updated June 2023

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