Discover Nikkei

https://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2024/6/10/sustain/

Sustain

A day after the building manager removed the kanji from the furniture store window, I saw the letters still trying to live. The faint announcements were less loud but I could still spy the outline of them over the English word “dye.” Faded Japanese characters about discounts remained visible if you cocked your head just right under the streetlights of East First Street. Maybe only artists notice these things, or a grieving son clinging to his father’s last clarinet note.

My embouchure has faltered ever since that first weekend without him. I couldn’t get a firm grip on the mouthpiece with my lips without Daddy’s shadow over me. Papas were plucked from the Earth by the war, but mine caught a bug in the factory, one his body couldn’t squash.  He taught me when and where to tap the silver keys before I thought of car keys. Now I keep the shiny metal mostly hidden until Mama asks me for a song on Sundays. I’m no Johnny Dodds but Mama’s an enthusiastic audience anyway.

If a jazz lover wants the real deal, they’d best dart to the Finale Club. I’ve got a resident seat on the sidewalk most afternoons where their warm-up tunes blare out of an open back door. Tonight, however, I might take a chance and leave our crowded building for another woodwind player. The legendary Bird’s rumored to be flying to the Finale according to Hum.

Hubert, who our building calls Hum because he’d rather do that than bathe, stooped down to the hot bed we sleep in at different times. Sometimes I don’t blame him for not washing since thirty people go in and out of the bathroom at any given time. I feared disease more after Daddy and took three-minute trips there.

“The Yardbird’s playing the Finale with Miles tonight,” whispers Hum.

I turn my head on my dirt-flecked pillow, trying to find the lie in his hazel eyes.

“You know how many times I’ve tried to chase Charlie Parker down?” I mutter.

“You’re too scared to go out in the dark,” says Hum.

“There’s ghosts out there,” I tell him. “Wailing and asking questions...”

“Why?”

“Cause all those families left. You know, the ones that had to go.”

I often heard groanings whenever I passed Fugetsu-Do after sunset. There was a chorus of cries as I navigated my feet around fallen bits of mochi, only they weren’t weeping about the soiled treats. The moans were maternal and devastated, the anguished voices of a few elderly women asking me where their grandchildren went. Their grandkids left in a hurry after that order and I didn’t have the heart to tell them why.

“You’re fourteen and haven’t snuck out once,” teases Hum.

“So?”

“So who wouldn’t want to sneak out of here?”

Once in a while, Hum’s words resonate. The church basement didn’t give us much comfort but at least it was available. There are a dozen hot beds and it's hard to keep warm, and I had to face a wall whenever a woman got dressed for work. It’s March now, though, with longer days, so I’m less anxious to stay indoors.

Like almost all of our Bronzeville neighbors, my parents were lassoed here by the promise of jobs. Mama teamed up with two seamstresses and dressed up an abandoned building to make a new business. Daddy stopped crafting and selling instruments to learn shipbuilding, Grandpa’s trade that Daddy once vowed he’d never perform. But our bodies were getting leaner than flutes down in Mississippi and our trio was young enough to travel to Los Angeles.

Still, we weren’t prepared for the silence and sadness of Little Tokyo. It was a heavy kind of quiet, as if a marching band had never walked down their avenues or a toddler had never shaken a tambourine on the pavement. The pastor of a newly formed Baptist church told us about the sea of families on the move, the numerous suitcases, and the hands full of wet tissues. They left behind strung paper lanterns, with someone relighting a few, the only light that guided us to our new home. That was the first time I heard a ghostly voice, questioning me if I understood what the numbers 9066 meant. At ten, I didn’t know, four years before I figured out how deep hatred could run.

“I thought you said you’d do anything to see Charlie Parker,” recalls Hum.

“Promised my Daddy I’d see him before I died,” I say. “But those ghosts...”

“You’re an overalls-wearing chicken, Jeremiah!” laughs Hum.

“You just want the hot bed tonight.”

“Of course. But your mama will think you’re lying there instead of me. The dark's your friend sometimes.”

* * * * * *

Nobody knew Daddy’s ritual except me. He said it was his young man routine when he scurried to juke joints down South. Daddy would put a circle of Pomade on his head and rub it into his curls, Sweet Georgia Brown if he could get it. Then, he’d polish his clarinet so it’d be just as sleek and slip two reeds into his pockets. He wasn’t guaranteed a spot to play in the joints but there was always an intermission for the chosen band and he took advantage of it.

I place two reeds in my own pockets tonight, a subtle way to honor him if I do meet our hero. We marveled at Parker’s improvisation and confidence, his creativity with scales, as we sat in front of the radio. He puffed his cheeks and blew into a saxophone and blasted away our boredom. Mama called Parker a “haunted man” with problems, but Daddy labeled him a genius. Daddy said “that man knows how to play our pain and joy, and he makes you want to live.” Little did I know that Daddy would be moving heavenward soon after those listening sessions. Before he left, I assured him I’d find Parker someday to thank him for the tunes that made our Bronzeville housing less unbearable.

Mama’s asleep on her cot which she tried to beautify with a floral quilt. She created it herself and was in the process of sewing one for a son who was disobeying her. I almost lie down on the floor and pray for penance especially when her head turns in my direction.

“Wait,” she murmurs, her eyes shut.

I want to hear the rest, though the performance is starting in less than thirty minutes.

“Wait and say good-bye,” continues Mama.

I feel like I’ve been hit with a tuba. It was the one instruction she gave me on the evening Daddy died. That was after Daddy convinced me to run to the store for a Rhythm Willie record. He promised we’d be playing along to it as soon as he got well. The thought made him want to jump out of the bed. Motivated by that hope, I didn’t wait like Mama wanted and he was gone before I returned with the bag.

Mama wipes a tear from her cheek and shivers. She must’ve not liked what happened next in the dream. Sometimes I wonder if the ghosts come to me because they didn’t get to say good-bye either, only they’re ancestors and I’m alive. Neither of us can talk to our loved ones because they’ve moved on, and it’s all out of our hands.

“Good-bye, Mama,” I whisper, waiting to make sure her breath is steady.

* * * * *

The Finale Club was beginning to buzz by the time my oxfords reached the intersection. Beyond the well-lit Civic Hotel, girls were trying not to touch their victory rolls too much so their hair would stay perfect. Eager beaver men were straightening their Donegal tweed jackets, sure to be ruffled by midnight. I was out of place in my usual plaid shirt and overalls, but nobody would be watching me when Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and the others strolled inside.

Cold air made me hungry for one of those Donegal jackets and I huddled in the alley for a while. I’d rush back out if I heard cheers coming from the Club entrance. There was a clang, and I instantly froze next to a cluster of trashcans.

The sound came from a dropped trashcan lid, knocked over by a shadow with a strut. It had the same posture as Daddy, pushed back shoulders and fast-moving feet. But he carried a bigger case, covered in newspaper clippings, complete with some kanji that was disappearing more and more these days. There was so much darkness I didn’t know if he was real or a spirit...until he spoke.

“They won’t let you in there,” says a deep and rich voice. “I wager you’re thirteen?”

“Fourteen and I usually stay in the alley and listen...” I begin.

He reaches me and that’s when the streetlight reveals his flesh, his face, those amazing fingers. Charlie Parker rests his saxophone case on top of a trashcan, rubs his hands in the muted light.

“You’re wandering around town in this cold air?” I blurt out. “When you could be in a warm room in the best hotel in town?”

He releases a booming laugh, which reminds me of a new French horn player’s first tentative notes.

“I’d rather be in the streets,” replies Parker. “That’s how you get better. Listening to different sounds.”

I give him a polite smile, considering how scared I was whenever I heard the voices around here, and Mama’s words certainly didn’t make me feel better.

“Came to meet you actually, but I didn’t expect it to be by a trashcan,” I admit.

This brings a laugh out of both of us. I take in his fine striped suit and buttons that sparkle even in weak light. His fingernails were cut and clean like I imagined. I wonder why I hadn’t been able to find him before then, bravely asking another question.

“Is Los Angeles your home now?”

Parker scratches his neck, and I detect redness in his eyes.

“It’s where I wound up,” answers Parker.

“I know how that feels,” I say.

“I tend to wander,” continues Parker. “Whenever I hear a familiar note, I feel less restless, though. Maybe the stage is home.”

“Looks like you’ve been to several stages,”” I say, nodding at his case.

Parker props his case up and I view all the articles about his terrific performances. Some were from his time at the Savoy in New York with Dizzy Gillespie. My head went hazy at the thought of being in the audience in those moments. There were even a couple Japanese articles with his photograph in the center, his name in the midst of characters I couldn’t read.

“You speak Japanese?” I ask.

“No, but I liked the picture,” says Parker. “It’s a shame what’s going on with them, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I hear reminders of it,” I say softly.

“You mean see. The empty buildings and homes?”

“No. See, I hear voices too, ghosts who can’t make sense of that order.”

“There's no sense in it,” says Parker with a scowl. “But I guess they chose to converse with you for a reason.”

I’m nobody special because I’m going in and out of their grandchildren’s buildings. That’s how Bronzeville was birthed, with them leaving and hundreds of us streaming into the same streets. Why would they seek me out with people like Charlie Parker walking down these roads?

“Maybe you’re sensitive to that...to noises others don’t hear,” suggests Parker.

“I’m a musician,” I say. “Clarinet.”

“That so? My other favorite horn.”

I pull out the reeds as proof. The simple wood glows in strands of streetlight.

“Then, those ghosts must want you to ease their pain,” guesses Parker. “I’ve heard the voices of lynched men in Kansas City. The yells of ghosts who still shriek about the race riot when I was in Harlem. They want to be heard. And them being heard and you playing will lift that pain.”

“But...I’m not like them,” I say.

“You never lost somebody?”

Parker’s words pummel me. I nod.

“If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn,” shares Parker. “Sounds like you’ve lived it.”

 I hand him one of the reeds.

“My daddy would want you to have that,” I say. “You lifted us when there was a lot of sadness.”

Slipping it into his pocket, Parker salutes me.

“Now you go on home and listen to the broadcast. Watch me play something they won’t forget.”

* * * * *

I return to where the voices first vexed me, Fugetsu-Do, with my instrument. The other reed was already in my pocket so I didn’t have to fumble around our room for one and wake Mama, Hum, or the forty sleepers who were becoming family. I stood under the confectionary store and breathed, waiting for the voices to talk once more.

Instead, Mama’s panicked yell cuts through the silence.

“Jeremiah, what are you doing out here?” exclaims Mama, running to me.

“Listening,” I reply.

“I had to listen to Hum go on about you being at some nightclub!” shouts Mama. “Imagine seeing somebody else’s son’s feet hanging off the bed. It’s enough to stop a mother’s heart.”

“Sorry.”

Mama glances at the unpeopled First Street and crosses her arms.

“It seems so haunted here,” says Mama.

“I think we’re all haunted,” I say. “By what happens. I didn’t get to say goodbye to Daddy, Mama.”

She pats my shoulder, then fixes the left strap of my overalls.

“You gotta let go of that pain, honey,” says Mama.

“I’m trying to,” I say.

Though my lips tremble initially, the mouthpiece becomes familiar again, the reed damp and comfortable against my tongue.

“What are you going to play?” questions Mama.

“Rhythm Willie’s Boarding House Blues,” I respond.

“The record you went for,” recalls Mama.

“His last request,” I say.

I gather it’s what the ghosts would wish to hear if they are around. In this space, they may not be able to utter their hurt anymore, but I can fill in the silence at least.

I remember the right embouchure, an emphasized smile. My mahogany hands travel over the upper and lower joints with the freedom of a bebop artist. The sounds coming from the clarinet bell are spotty but fearless. They fill the block of unlit businesses and Mama closes her eyes.

Besides the notes, I detect delighted chuckles, and I imagine deceased chess players drinking green tea on a stoop. There are whistles from students who lived too short, and they head into the abandoned cafe for Chop Suey. I listen to pleased gasps from the gathered grandmothers who’d rather hear me than give an ear to the rambunctious melodies at the Finale Club. I was playing our mutual pain and helping them remember joy again.

“I hear something,” says Mama.

“What?”

“It’s faint,” replies Mama. “But it sounds like applause.”

I hear them too, my friends in the dark.

 

*This story received honorable mention in the English Adult category of the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s 11th Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest.

 

© 2024 Monique Hayes

Bronzeville California fiction 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 11th anniversary of the Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest. On June 1, 2024 in a celebration moderated by Sean Miura, noted actors—Ayumi Ito, Kurt Kanazawa, and Chloe Madriaga—performed dramatic readings of each winning entry.

Winners

  • Adult Category:
    “When Next We Meet” by Brandon Tadashi Chung
     Honorable mention 
  • Youth Category:
    “Little Things” by Madeline Thach
     Honorable mention
    • “Dreaming in Lil' Tokyo” by Pablo Matias Hernandez Martinez
  • Japanese Language Category:
    New Otani Wedding” by DC & Satsuki Palter
     Honorable mention
    • “Am I a Stranger or a Foreigner?” by Koh Hirano 


*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 >>
10th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>

Learn More
About the Author

Monique Hayes is a fiction author, poet, and screenwriter from Maryland. A Pushcart Prize nominee, Brooklyn Poets Fellow, and Hurston-Wright Fellow, she's currently working on a Revolutionary War novel.

Updated June 2024

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