From Leslie Shimotakahara’s Novel

Apr 10, 2017 by

From Leslie Shimotakahara’s Novel

 

After the Bloom

 
The Desert, 1943
 

At first, he faded into the mountain’s shadow. Lily’s eyes played tricks on her. That dark presence at the edge of her vision, could it be nothing more than sand and wind and her lonely imagination? The ground was a mess of chalk dust flying up and mixing with the powder on her cheeks, sticky as cake batter. Should she turn around? Cast a flirtatious glance over her shoulder? But that would seem immodest, and she had to leave those days behind.

The farther she walked, the more certain she became that someone was following her. An admirer in the middle of the desert? That meant she still looked pretty — at least, somewhat. The rush of adrenalin jarred her mood from the falling grey skies.

All the barracks looked the same: the same sagging, makeshift steps and filthy mop perched outside, dried laundry stiff and grey, dismal as skinned rabbits. Despite everything, an air of refinement still surrounded Lily, or at least she liked to think so, as she bent down to adjust the tiny buckle on her high-heeled shoe. Really, she just wanted an excuse to look back at her admirer, without making it too obvious, of course.

Oh, God. Him again.

She’d seen him gazing at her across the mess hall the other day, a dreamy smile melting across his lips. Before the war, she’d never had to associate with guys of this sort, their hats tied on with scarves, dirt-smeared shirts. They had a different way of standing, boys of that sort, bending their knees as though their toes had sunk into the earth. Her father would have slapped her silly if he’d ever caught her mixing with them. Although, in truth, he was once no different than these peasant boys, these kitchen boys, fresh from Japan.

The guy froze in his tracks. A teasing smile lingered. He knew he’d been caught, and like a little kid about to be punished, he kept on mocking her, daring her to look away.

Everyone was aware they were the ones stirring up trouble. Spreading rumours about sugar vanishing from mess halls, pointing fingers, getting people riled up. Sure been a long time since we had anything sweet. Yesterday, another fight broke out and a couple more nisei boys showed up at breakfast with black eyes.

“Why are you following me?”

“I’d like to take your picture.”

He must be soft in the head. He didn’t have a camera, none of them did. A crude wooden box that looked more like a breadbox was nestled in the crook of his arm.

Salt air, solitude. All she could think about was how desperately she missed the ocean. The sound of the waves whooshing in and out…. They used to go to the ocean often before the war. Her father had a car back then, a black Studebaker, which he needed to make deliveries. Sunday was his day off, and she could still feel the sticky hot seat against the backs of her thighs as he’d look at her with a half-disapproving, half-indulgent smile. “Sit with your legs crossed, young lady. Never forget you’re representing the Japanese-American life.”

How quickly things could change. No longer was there any such thing as “Japanese-American.” And how could she hold on to a shred of dignity with these thugs following her around?

Maybe he’d been watching her for a while now. Every day she was out here, practising her walk. In the last pageant the judges criticized Lily’s walk as too American: her stride too long and fluid, too much swing to her hips. They docked her points. The nerve of them. For the next Cherry Blossom Pageant, she had to learn to walk properly in a kimono: slowly, evenly, in small steps — the Japanese way of walking. She should try to turn slowly, showing off the nape of her neck and that petal-soft slip of skin at the top of the back, the only bit of nudity allowed. If she was lucky, she’d have a flatter backside, less inclined to twitch back and forth.

So every day she had to practise her walk, an old pair of pantyhose tied around her thighs under her skirt, binding her legs together in delicate, mincing steps.

With each step, she relived her moment of glory, or near-glory at least. Men of all ages had sat in the front rows, staring with appraising smiles at the girls. Receiving so much attention was novel and intoxicating, and she loved how it continued after the contest was over as the men lingered by the curb waiting for the convertible draped in red, white, and blue bunting to drive through Little Tokyo and part of downtown LA. The queen’s crown glittered like shattered glass as Lily sat in the back seat. First runner-up. How tantalizingly close she’d come to wearing that crown.

“Can’t I take your picture, miss?”

She shook her head, backing away as he looked inside that strange wooden box — his imaginary camera. Sweat had soaked through her dress in grey blotches, making her all too aware of the astringent smell of her own basting flesh.

“Don’t worry. I’m not working for the government. I’m not making a documentary. I just like to take pictures of beautiful things.”

“I’m not even supposed to be here.” The words flew from her lips with the authority of a headmistress, as though it were all some administrative mistake that her name had been put on the list.

“None of us are supposed to be here.”

Her cheeks on fire, she turned away. The sun beat down and she continued to walk until everything started to look the same throughout this God-awful place. The tarpaper barracks went on and on, block after block. Thirty-six blocks and counting. At the southern end, she saw men — her men — swinging axes to clear the sagebrush. Their chests glistened as they worked with a force that scared her.

It was unsettling to see these once distinguished men reduced to beasts of burden. The stoic, polite behaviour, once said to elevate the Japanese above the other Oriental races, was slipping away, rapid as the wind-blown sand. Out here no one knew how to behave — or who they even were. Would Mrs. Sato have gotten into a screaming match with that surly Matsumoto boy in the old days? Unheard of. Would bags of sugar vanish in the night, dragged off by God knows whom? A fistful of dollars exchanged for a few burlap bags. There are bad apples here, people were whispering.

The ground began to waver and clumps of brush on the horizon reminded her of ocean waves, frozen at an instant. The Art Building had to be around here somewhere, but she might have already walked past it, and dust was getting trapped in her eyes and nose and ears. It flew up her skirt, sticking to her thighs, and she couldn’t stop thinking how much she missed the ocean.

A fuzzy feeling crept into her head, a great dark pressure expanding across her brain. A wave of lightheadedness, sweat dripping down her back. The wind had muted to a strange buzz and everything was moving in a kind of slow motion, like the blades of a fan in those seconds after it’s been flicked it off. Her thoughts also ran in circles…. The nerve of him — speaking to her like that. None of us are supposed to be here. She struggled to hang on; the gritty air forced its way into her lungs. She’d show him. In the next pageant, she’d walk across the stage as delicate as a little boat floating in the breeze. The sky covered her and she fell to her knees, everything spinning, until the thud of darkness.

 

Excerpted from After the Bloom by Leslie Shimotakahara

© 2017, Leslie Shimotakahara. All rights reserved. Published by Dundurn Press

Leslie Shimotakahara’s memoir The Reading List won the Canada-Japan Literary Prize, and her debut novel After the Bloom is available April 15, from Dundurn Press.

 

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