Friday, October 20, 2017

Ash Monday - TC Boyle - 2008 - short story in the New Yorker magazine

He’d always loved the smell of gasoline. It reminded him of when he was little, when he was seven or eight and Grady came to live with them. When Grady had moved in, he’d brought his yellow Chevy Super Sport with him, backing it into the weeds next to the garage on a sleek black trailer, which he must have rented for the day, because it was gone in the morning. That first night with Grady had fallen over Dill like an absence, like all the nights then, and most of the days, too, a whole tumble of nothing that sparked with a particle of memory here and there. But he remembered the trailer, and Grady—of course he remembered Grady, because Grady had been here in this house till he was eleven years old—and he remembered seeing the car mounted on cement blocks the next morning, as if it had gone through a wall at a hundred miles an hour and got hung up on the rubble. And he remembered the smell of gasoline. Grady wore it like perfume.
Now he was thirteen, with a car of his own, or at least the one he’d have when he was old enough to get his learner’s permit, and when he tried to picture Grady, what Grady had looked like, he could see Grady’s hat, the grease-feathered baseball cap that had the number 4 and a star sign on it in a little silver box in front, and he could see Grady’s silver shades beneath the bill of that cap, and below that there must have been a nose and a mouth, but all he could remember was the mustache that had hooked down over the corners of Grady’s lips, making him look like the sad face that Billy Bottoms used to draw on every available surface when they were in fifth grade.
At the moment, he was in the yard, smelling gasoline, thinking of Grady, and looking at his own piece-of-shit car parked there by the garage where the Super Sport had sunk into its cement blocks till his mother had had it towed away to the junk yard. He felt the weight of the gas can in his hand, lifted his face to the sun and the hot breath sifting down through the canyon, and for just a fraction of a second he forgot what he was doing there, as if he’d gone outside of himself. This was a thing that happened to him, that had always happened to him, another kind of absence that was so usual he hardly noticed it. It irritated his mother. Baffled his teachers. He wished that it wouldn’t happen or wouldn’t happen so often, but there it was. He was a dreamer, he guessed. That was what his mother called him. A dreamer.
And here came her voice through the kitchen window, her caught-high-in-the-throat voice that snapped like the braided tail of a whip: “Dill, what are you doing standing there? The potatoes are almost done. I need you to light the fire and put on the meat right this minute!
His mother was a teacher. His father didn’t exist. His grandmother was dead. And this house, high in the canyon, with bleached boulders all around it like the big toes of a hundred buried giants, was his grandmother’s house. And his piece-of-shit ’97 Toyota Camry, with no front bumper, two seriously rearranged fenders, and sun-blistered paint that used to be metallic gold but had turned the color of a fresh dog turd, was his grandmother’s car. But, then, she didn’t need a car, not where she was now. “And where is that?” he’d asked his mother in the hush of the back room at the funeral parlor where they’d burned up his grandmother and made her fit into a squared-off cardboard box. “You know,” his mother said. “You know where she is.” And he’d said, “Yeah, I know where she is—in that box right there.”
So he felt a little thrill. He had a can of gasoline in his hand. He was the man of the house—“You’re my man now,” his mother had told him when he was eleven years old and Grady’s face had swelled up like a soccer ball from all the screaming and fuck-yous and fuck-you-toos before he slammed out the door and disappeared for good—and it was his job to light the fire and grill the meat. Every night. Even in winter, when the rains came and it was cold and he had to wear his hoodie and watch the flames from under the overhang on the garage. That was all right. He had nothing better to do. And he liked the way the charcoal went up in a flash that sucked the life out of the air after he’d soaked it with gasoline, a thing that his mother had expressly forbidden him to do (“It could explode, you know that, don’t you?”), but they were out of charcoal lighter and the store was way down the snaking road at the bottom of the canyon, and for the past week this was the way he’d done it.
The grill was an old iron gas thing shaped like a question mark with the dot cut off the bottom. The tank was still attached but it had been empty for years, and they just dumped briquettes in on top of the chunks of ancient pumice that were like little burned-up asteroids sent down from space, and went ahead and cooked that way. Dill set down the can and patted the front pocket of his jeans to feel the matches there. Then he lifted the iron lid and let it rest back on its hinges, and he was just bending to the bag of charcoal when he saw something move beneath the slats of the grill. He was startled, his first thought for the snakes coming down out of the chaparral because of the drought, but this was no snake—it was a rat. A stupid dun-colored little thing with a wet black eye and cat’s whiskers peering up at him from the gap between two slats, and what was it thinking? That it would be safe in a cooking grill? That it could build a nest in there? He slammed the lid down hard and heard the thing scrambling around in the ashes.
He could feel a quick pulse of excitement coming up in him; it took his breath away. He glanced over his shoulder to make sure that his mother wasn’t watching through the screen door, and he snatched one quick look at the blank stucco wall and sun-glazed windows of the house next door—Itchy-goro’s house, Itchy-goro, with his gook face and gook eyes and his big liar’s mouth—and then he cracked the lid of the grill just enough to slosh some gasoline inside before slamming it shut. He started counting off the seconds, one-a-thousand, two-a-thousand, and there was no sound now, nothing but silence. And when he struck the match and flung it in he felt the way he did when he was alone in his room watching the videos he hid from his mother, making himself hard and then soft and then hard again.
Sanjuro Ishiguro was standing at the picture window, admiring the way the light sifted through the pale-yellow-green leaves of the bamboo he’d planted along the pathway to the front door and down the slope to the neighbors’ yard. This was a variety of bamboo called Buddha’s Belly, for the plump swellings between its joints, perfect for poor soils and dry climates, and he fed it and watered it sparingly, so as to produce the maximal swelling. He’d planted other varieties, too—the yellow groove, the marbled, the golden—but Buddha’s Belly was his favorite, because his father had prized it and it reminded him of home. He didn’t care so much about the cherry trees on the east side of the house—they were almost a cliché—but Setsuko had insisted on them. If they were going to have to live so far away from home—“Six thousand miles!” she’d kept repeating, riding a tide of woe as they’d packed and shipped their things and said goodbye to their families in Okutama nearly a decade ago—then she wanted at least to make this house and this sun-blasted yard into something beautiful, something Japanese amid the scrub oak and the manzanita. He’d hired a carpenter to erect a torii to frame her view of the cherry trees, and a pair of Mexican laborers to dig a little jigsaw pond out front so that she could rest there in the late afternoon and watch the koi break the surface while the lily pads revealed their flowers and the dragonflies hovered and he sat entombed in the steel box of the car, stuck in traffic.
From the kitchen came the smell of dinner—garlic, green onions, sesame oil. His commute from Pasadena had been murder, nearly two hours when it should have been half that, but some idiot had plowed into the back end of another idiot and then a whole line of cars had joined in the fun and the freeway had been down to one lane by the time he got there. But he was home now, and the light was exquisite, the air was rich with whatever it was that Setsuko was preparing, and in his hand he held a glass of Onikoroshi, chilled to perfection. He was remembering the pond, the old one, the one he’d made too shallow, so that the raccoons had wallowed in it at night and made sashimi of the koi that had cost him a small fortune because he’d wanted to establish a breeding stock and his salary at J.P.L. allowed him the freedom to purchase the very best of everything.
The raccoons. They were a hazard of living up here, he supposed. Like the coyotes that had made off with Setsuko’s cat while she was standing right in front of the house, not ten feet away, watering the begonias. And that bird. A great long-legged thing that might have been a stork but for the pewter glaze of its feathers. He’d come out one morning at dawn to get a head start on the traffic, his car keys dangling from one hand, his lucky ceramic mug and a thermos of green tea in the other, only to see it there, up to its knees in the pond, his marble-white purachina ogon clasped between the twin levers of its bill as neatly as if the bird were a pair of animated chopsticks, hashi with legs and wings. That was his metaphor. His joke. And he’d used it on his colleagues at work, the whole story—from the snatching of the fish to his outraged shout to the bird’s startled flapping as it wrote its way across the sky—refining it in the telling till the fact that the fish had cost him sixteen hundred dollars only underscored the hilarity. He’d even called Setsuko from his cell on the way home and told her, too—hashi with wings.
Suddenly his eyes were drawn to the neighboring yard, to a drift of movement there, and he felt the smallest tick of irritation. It was that kid, that boy, the one who’d insulted him to his face. And what was he up to now? The grill, the nightly ritual with the grill—why couldn’t the mother cook in the oven like anyone else? These weren’t feudal times. They weren’t cavemen, were they? He raised the glass to his nose to feel the cold rim of it there and inhale the scent of his sake. He took a sip, then another long sniff, and it calmed him. This was the scent of pleasure, of unwinding after work, of civility, the scent of a country where people would never dream of calling their next-door neighbor a gook motherfucker or anything else, for that matter. And while he understood perfectly well the term “motherfucker” its significance escaped him, unless it had to do with incest or some infantile fixation with marital sex, in which case the preponderance of men were indeed motherfuckers. But it was the “gook” part of the equation that truly mystified him. Colin Andrews, at work, had flinched when Sanjuro had asked him its meaning, but then had put on the bland frozen-eyed look Americans assumed when confronting racial issues and explained that it was a derogatory term for the Vietnamese, deriving from the war there in the sixties, but that had only further confused him. How could this boy, even if he was mentally deficient—and he was, Sanjuro was sure of it—ever confuse him, a Japanese, with one of those spindly little underfed peasants from Vietnam?
Angry now, angry all at once, he called over his shoulder to Setsuko, “He’s at it again.”
Her face appeared in the kitchen doorway, as round as the moon. He saw that she’d had her hair done, two waves cresting on either side of her brow and an elevated dome built up above it. She looked almost like an American, like a gaijin, and he didn’t know whether he liked that or not. “Who?” she asked in Japanese—they always spoke Japanese at home.
“The kid next door. The delinquent. The little shit. He’s using gasoline to cook his hot dogs or hamburgers or whatever it is, can you imagine?”
She glanced at the window, but from where she was standing she could likely see only the sky and the tips of the bamboo waving in the breeze. If she’d taken five steps forward, she could have seen what he was talking about, the kid dancing around the rusted grill with the red-and-yellow gas can and his box of kitchen matches, but she didn’t. “Do you like my hair?” she said. “I went to Mrs. Yamamura at the beauty parlor today and she thought we would try something different. Just for a change. Do you like it?”
“Maybe I should donate a bottle of lighter fluid—just leave it on the front porch. Because if he keeps this up he’s going to burn the whole canyon down, I can tell you.”
“It’s nothing. Don’t let it worry you.”
“Nothing? You call this nothing? Wait till your cherry trees go up in smoke, the house, the cars—wait till the fish boil in the pond like it’s a pot on the stove, then tell me it’s nothing.”
The kid struck a match, pulled back the lid, and flung it in. There was the muffled concussion of the gasoline going up, flames leaping high off the grill in a jagged corona before sucking themselves back in, and something else, something shooting out like the tail of a rocket and jerking across the ground in a skirt of fire.
It was the coolest thing he’d ever seen. The rat came flying out of there squealing like the brakes on the Camry, and before he had a chance to react it was rolling in the dirt and then, still aflame, trying to bury itself in the high weeds behind the garage. And then the weeds caught fire. Which was intense. And he was running after the thing with the vague intent of crushing its skull under the heel of his shoe or maybe watching to see how long it would take before it died on its own, when here came Itchy-goro, flying down the hill like he was on drugs, screaming, “You crazy? You crazy outta your mind?”
The weeds hissed and popped, burrs and stickers mainly, a few tumbleweeds that were all air, the fire already burning itself out because there was nothing to feed it but dirt and gravel. And the rat was just lying there now, blackened and steaming like a marshmallow that’s fallen off the stick and into the coals. But Itchy-goro—he was in his bathrobe and slippers and he had a rake in his hand—jumped over the fence and started beating at the weeds as if he were trying to kill a whole field full of rattlesnakes. Dill just stood there while Itchy-goro cursed in his own language and snatched up the hose that was lying by the side of the garage and sprayed water all over everything like it was some big deal. Then he heard the door slam behind him and he looked over his shoulder to see his mother running toward them in her bare feet and he had a fleeting image of the harsh deep lines that dug in around her toes, which were swollen and red from where her shoes pinched her, because she was on her feet all day long. “Can’t you get up and get the milk?” she’d say. Or, “I’m too exhausted to set the table, can’t you do it?” And then the kicker: “I’ve been on my feet all day long.”
Itchy-goro’s face was twisted out of shape. He looked like one of the dupes in a ninja movie, one of the ten thousand anonymous grimacing fools who rush Jet Li with a two-by-four or a tire iron only to be whacked in the throat or the knee and laid out on the ground. “You see?” he was shouting. “You see what he does? Your boy?” Itchy-goro’s hands were trembling. He couldn’t seem to get the hose right, the water arcing up to spatter the wall of the garage, then drooling down to puddle in the dust. The air stank of incinerated weed.
Before his mother could put on her own version of Itchy-goro’s face and say “What on earth are you doing now?,” Dill kicked at a stone in the dirt, put his hands on his hips, and said, “How was I supposed to know a rat was in there? A rat, Mom. A rat in our cooking grill.”
But she took Itchy-goro’s side, the two of them yelling back and forth—“Dry tinder!” Itchy-goro kept saying—and pretty soon they were both yelling at him. So he gave his mother a look that could peel hide, and stalked off around the corner of the garage and didn’t even bother to answer when she called out his name in her shrillest voice three times in a row.
He kept going till he came to the shed where Grady used to keep the chinchillas, and then he went around that, too, and pushed his way through the door that was hanging by one hinge and into the superheated shadows within. She could cook her own pork chops, that’s what he was thinking. Let her give them to Itchy-goro. She always took his side, anyway. Why didn’t she just go ahead and marry him? That’s what he’d say to her later when he was good and ready to come in and eat something and listen to her rag on him about his homework: “Marry Itchy-goro if you love him so much.”
It took him a moment, standing slumped in the half-light and breathing in the shit smell of the chinchillas, which would probably linger there forever, like the smell of the bandages they wrapped mummies in, before he felt his heartbeat begin to slow. He was sweating. It must have been twenty degrees hotter in there than outside, but he didn’t care. This was where he came when he was upset or when he wanted to think or remember what it had been like when Grady was raising the chinchillas and they’d had to work side by side to keep the cages clean and make sure that there was enough food and water for each and every one of them. You needed between eighty and a hundred pelts to make one coat, so Grady would always go on about how they had to keep breeding them to get more and more or they’d never turn a profit. That was his phrase, “turn a profit_.”_ And Dill remembered how his mother would throw it back at Grady, because he wasn’t turning a profit and never would, the cost of feed and the animals themselves a constant drain—that was her phrase—but nothing compared with what they were spending on air-conditioning.
“They’ve got to be kept cool,” Grady insisted.
“What about us?” Dill’s mother would say. “We can’t afford to run the air-conditioning in the house—you jump down my throat every time I switch it on as if it were some kind of crime—but God forbid your precious rodents should do without it.”
“You’ve got to have patience, Gloria. Any business—”
“Business? You call sitting around in an air-conditioned shed all day a business? How many coats have you made, tell me that? How many pelts have you sold? How many have you even harvested? Tell me that.”
Dill was on Grady’s side and he didn’t even think twice about it. His mother didn’t know anything. Chinchillas were from South America, high in the Andes Mountains, where the temperature was in the cool range and never went above eighty degrees, not even on the hottest day in history. At eighty degrees they’d die of heatstroke. She didn’t know that. Or she didn’t care. But Dill knew it. And he knew how to feed them their chinchilla pellets and little cubes of hay, but no cabbage or corn or lettuce, because it would give them gas and they would bloat up and die. He knew how to kill them, too. Grady had shown him. What you did was pull the chinchilla out of the cage by its tail and then take hold of its head in one hand and give the back legs a jerk to break the neck. Then it twitched for a while. Then you skinned it out. Grady didn’t like to kill them—they were cute, they were harmless, he didn’t like to kill anything—but it was a business, and you had to keep sight of that.
That fall, the Santa Ana winds had begun to blow. Dill’s science teacher, Mr. Shields, had explained it to them—how, when a high-pressure system built up inland and low pressure settled in over the coast, all the air got sucked down from the deserts and squeezed through the canyons in gusts of wind that were clocked at as much as a hundred miles an hour, drying everything to the bone—but Dill knew the wind as something more immediate. He felt it in the grit between his teeth, the ring of dirt in his nostrils in the morning. And he could taste it when he was out in the back yard, the whole world baking like the pizza ovens at Giovanni’s, only instead of pizza baking it was sage; it was the leaves from the sycamore trees along the dried-up streambed and the oil of the poison oak that was everywhere. He came home from school one afternoon and the wind was so strong it shook the bus when he stepped off. Immediately a fistful of sand raked his face, just as if it had been blasted out of a shotgun, and somebody—Billy Bottoms, most likely—shouted “Sucker!” as the doors wheezed shut.
He turned his head to keep the dirt out of his eyes. Tumbleweeds catapulted across the yard. Scraps of paper and plastic bottles spewed from the trash can in a discontinuous stream, like water blown out of a sprinkler, and he could already hear his mother going on about how somebody had been too lazy and too careless to take one extra second to fasten the raccoon clamps on the lid. He pulled down the brim of his cap, the one Grady had given him, with the silver-and-black F-14 Tomcat on the crown, hiked up his backpack to get the weight off his spine, and went on up the walk and into the house.
In the kitchen, he poured himself a tall glass of root beer and drank it down in a gulp, never so thirsty in his life, then poured another one and took his time with it while his Hot Pocket sizzled in the microwave. He was planning on going out to the shed to see what Grady was doing, but first he flicked on the TV in the kitchen just to have something to do while he was eating. There was nothing but news on. The news was on because everything was burning everywhere, from Malibu through the San Fernando Valley and into L.A. and Orange County, too. On every channel, there was a woman with a microphone and some seriously blowing hair standing in front of a burning house and trees gone up like candles—change the channel and all you did was change the color of the woman, blond, black, Mexican, Chinese. Mr. Shields had told them that a wildfire could come at you faster than you could run and that that was how firemen sometimes burned to death, and homeowners, too—which was why you had to evacuate when the police came around and told you to. But nobody had believed him. How could a fire go faster than somebody running all out? Dill thought of Daylon James, the fastest kid in the school—how nobody could even touch him in flag football, let alone swipe the flag—and the idea seemed preposterous. But there were helicopters on the screen now, the camera jumping from one angle to another, and then just the flames, sheets of them, rippling from red to orange to yellow and back, and the black crown of the smoke.
He was picturing himself running as hard as he could through a field of burning bushes and trees as a whole mountain of fire came down on him, and he must have zoned out for a minute, because when he looked up the TV screen was blank and the L.E.D. display on the microwave had switched off. That was when Grady burst through the back door. “Quick,” he said, and he was panting as if he couldn’t catch his breath, and his face wasn’t Grady’s face but the face of some crazy person in a horror flick in the instant before the monster catches up to him. “Grab all the ice you can. Quick! Quick!”
They ran out the back door with every scrap of ice from the icemaker in two black plastic bags and the bags rippled and sang with the wind and the dirt blew in their eyes and the door to the shed didn’t want to open and when it did it tore back and slammed against the bleached-out boards like a giant fist. The shed was still cool, but the air-conditioning was down—the power was out through the whole canyon—and already the chinchillas were looking stressed. Dill and Grady went down all four rows of cages, cages stacked three high with newspapers spread out on top of each row to catch the turds from the cages above, tossing ice cubes inside. Half an hour later, it was up to seventy-eight in the shed, and Grady, his eyes jumping in his face like two yellow jackets on a piece of hamburger, said, “I’m going to make a run down the canyon for ice. You stay here and, I don’t know, take off your shirt and fan them, anything to work up some breeze, and maybe run the hose over the roof and the walls, you know? Just to cool it a little. All we need is a little till the sun goes down and we’ll be all right.”
But they weren’t all right. Even though Grady came back with the trunk of the Camry packed full of ice, thirty bags or more, and they filled the cages with the little blue-white machine-made cubes and draped wet sheets over everything, the heat kept rising. Till it was too hot. Till the chinchillas got heatstroke, one after another. First the standard grays started to die, then the mosaics and the black velvets, which were worth twice as much. Grady kept reviving them with ice packs that he squeezed around their heads till they came to and wobbled across their cages, but the electricity didn’t come back on and the ice melted and the sun didn’t seem to want to go down that day because it was a sci-fi sun, big and fat and red, and it wanted only to dry out everything in creation. By the time Dill’s mother got back from school—“Sorry I’m late; the meeting just dragged on and on”—the chinchillas were dead, all dead, two hundred and seventeen of them. And the shed smelled the way it still smelled now. Like piss. And shit. And death.
It was a thing they did on Fridays, after work, he and some of his colleagues who tracked CloudSat, the satellite that collected data on global cloud formations for the benefit of meteorologists worldwide, not to mention the local weatherman. They met at a sushi bar in Pasadena, one of those novelty places for gaijin, featuring a long oval bar with the chefs in the middle and a flotilla of little wooden boats circling around in a canal of fresh-flowing water, from which you plucked one plate or another till the saucers mounted up and the Filipino busboy slid them into his wet plastic tub. It wasn’t authentic. And it wasn’t good, or not particularly. But you could special-order if you liked (which he always did, depending on what the head chef told him was best that day), and, of course, the beer and the sake never stopped coming. Sanjuro had already put away two sakes and he was thinking about ordering a beer—or splitting one with Colin, because he was going to have to switch to tea, eventually, to straighten himself out for the drive home. He gazed absently down the bar, past his co-workers and the mob of other people crowding in to ply their chopsticks and drip cheap sake into little ceramic cups as if it were some exotic rite, and saw how the sun took the color out of everything beyond the windows. The cars were white with it, the trees black. What was he doing here?
Colin turned to him then and said, “Isn’t that right, Sange?”
They’d been discussing sports, the usual topic, before they moved on to women and, inevitably, work. Sanjuro hated sports. And he hated to be called Sange. But he liked Colin and Dick Wurzengreist and Bill Chen, good fellows all, and he liked being here with them, even if he was feeling the effects of the sake on a mostly empty stomach—or maybe because he was. “What?” he heard himself say. “Isn’t what right?”
Colin’s face hung there above half a dozen saucers smeared with soya and a bottle of Asahi with a quarter inch of beer left in it. He was grinning. His eyes looked blunted. “S.C.,” he said. “They’re thirty-five-point favorites over Stanford—can you believe it? I mean, how clueless do you have to be not to bet against the spread—am I right?”
There was something like merriment in the drawn-down slits of Dick Wurzengreist’s eyes—Dick was drunk—but Bill Chen was involved in a conversation about alternate-side-of-the-street parking with the woman seated beside him, and everyone knew that the question was for show only, part of a long-standing joke at Sanjuro’s expense. They were all what the average person would call nerds, but it seemed that Sanjuro was the prince of the nerds, simply because he didn’t care two pennies for sports. “Yes,” he said, and he wanted to flash a smile but couldn’t seem to summon the energy. “You’re absolutely right.”
Everyone had a laugh over that, and he didn’t mind—it was part of the routine—and then the beer came and things quieted down and Colin began to talk about work. Or not work so much as gossip revolving around work, how so-and-so kept a bottle in his desk and how another had tested positive for marijuana and then slammed into a deer right out in front of the gate, that sort of thing. Sanjuro listened in silence. He was a good listener. But he was bored with gossip and with shoptalk, too, and, when Colin paused to top off both their glasses, he said, “You know that kid I was telling you about? The one that called me a gook?”
“A gook motherfucker,” Colin corrected.
“Well, you know how the wind’s been blowing, especially in the canyon—and I told you how the mother sends the kid out there every night to start up the grill?”
Colin nodded. His eyes were like camera lenses, the pupils narrowing and then dilating: click. He was drunk. He’d have to call his wife to drive him home again, Sanjuro could see that. And he himself would soon have to push the beer aside and gear himself up for the freeway.
“You know, he’s been using gasoline all week, as if they couldn’t afford charcoal lighter, and I tell you last night he nearly blew the thing up.”
Colin let out a short bark of a laugh before he seemed to realize that it wasn’t funny, that Sanjuro hadn’t meant to be funny, not at all—that he was worried, deeply concerned, nearly hysterical over it, and right on the verge of calling the police. Or the fire department, Sanjuro was thinking. The fire marshal. Wasn’t there a fire marshal?
“And there was a rat in it, in the grill, and he set the rat on fire.”
“A rat? You’re joking, right?”
“No joke. The rat was like this flaming ball bouncing across the driveway and right on into the weeds behind the garage.”
“No,” Colin said, because that was the required response. And then he grinned. “Let me guess,” he said. “Then the weeds caught fire.”
Sanjuro felt weary suddenly, as if an invisible force, cupped to fit around his back and shoulders and arms like a custom-made suit, were pressing down on him with a weight that he couldn’t sustain. He was living at the top of a canyon, far from the city, in a high-risk place, because of Setsuko, because Setsuko was afraid of Americans, black Americans, Mexicans, whites, too—all the people crowding the streets of Pasadena and Altadena and everyplace else. She watched the TV news, trying to learn the language, and it made her crazy. “I won’t live in an apartment,” she’d insisted. “I won’t live with that kind of people. I want nature. I want to live where it’s safe.” She’d sacrificed for him in coming here, to this country, for his career, and so he’d sacrificed for her and they’d bought a house at the end of a road at the very top of a wild canyon and tried to make it just like a house in Mitaka or Okutama.
He paused to give Colin a long look, staring into the weed-green shutters of his eyes—Colin, his friend, his amigo, the man who understood him best of anyone on the team—and he let out a sigh that was deeper and moister and more self-pitying than he’d intended, because he never showed emotion, or never meant to. That wasn’t the Japanese way. He looked down. Made his face conform. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s just what happened.”
So tonight it was chicken—and three of those hot Italian sausages he liked, and a piece of fish, salmon with the skin still on it that his mother had paid twelve dollars for because they were having a guest for dinner. One of the teachers who worked with her at the elementary school. “His name’s Scott,” she said. “He’s a vegetarian.”
It took him a moment to register the information: guest for dinner, teacher, vegetarian. “So what does he eat? Spinach? Brussels sprouts? Bean burritos?”
She was busy at the stove. Her wine glass stood half full on the baked enamel surface between the snow peas sautéing in the pan and the pot where she was boiling potatoes for her homemade potato salad. He could see the smudge of her lipstick on the near side of the glass and he could see through it to the broken clock set in its display, above the burners and the shining chrome-framed window on the door of the oven, which didn’t work anymore, because the handle had broken off the gas switch and there was no way to turn it on, even with a pair of pliers. “Fish,” she said, swiveling to give him a look over her shoulder. “He eats fish.”
She’d come straight home from school that afternoon, showered, changed her clothes, and run the vacuum over the rug in the living room. Then she’d set the table and stuck an empty vase in the middle of it—“He’ll bring flowers, you wait and see. That’s the kind of person he is, very thoughtful”—and then she’d started chopping things up for a green salad and rinsing the potatoes. Dill was afraid she was going to add, “You’re really going to like him,” but she didn’t, and so he didn’t say anything, either, though after the fish comment he’d thought about pitching his voice into the range of sarcasm and asking, “So is this a date?”
Her last words to him as he slammed out the door with the platter of meat, the matches, and the plastic squeeze bottle of lighter fluid that had appeared magically on the doorstep that morning were “Don’t burn the fish. And don’t overcook it, either.”
He was in the yard. The wind had died, but now it came up again, rattling things, chasing leaves across the driveway and up against the piece-of-shit Toyota, where they gathered with yesterday’s leaves and the leaves from last week and the week before that. For a long moment, he just stood there, halfway to the grill, feeling the wind, smelling it, watching the way the sun pushed through the air one layer after another and the big bald rock at the top of the canyon seemed to ripple and come clear again. Then he went to the grill, set down the platter of chicken and sausage and the fat red oblong slab of fish, and lifted the heavy iron lid, half hoping there’d be another rat in there—or a snake, a snake would be even better. But, of course, there was nothing inside. It was just a grill, not a rat condo. Ash, that was all there was, just ash.
The wind jumped over the garage then and the ash came to life, sifting out like the sand in “The Mummy Returns,” and that was cool and he let it happen, because here was the grill, cleaning itself. And while that was happening and the meat sat there on its platter and the plastic container squeezed in and out like a cold nipple in his hand, he was back in school, last winter, and Billy Bottoms, who wasn’t scared of anybody and never showed any weakness or even a flaw—not a single zit, nothing—had a black thumbprint right in the middle of his forehead. It was an amazing thing, as if Billy had turned Hindu overnight, and Dill couldn’t resist calling him out on it. Or no, he didn’t call him out on it. He came up behind him and wrestled one arm around his neck, and before Billy knew what was happening Dill touched his own thumb to the mark there and it came away black. Billy punched him in the side of the head and he punched back and they both got sent to the office and his mother had to come and pick him up after detention because there was no late bus and it was your hard luck—part of your punishment—to have to have your mother come for you. Or your father.
Her face was set. She didn’t ask, not right away. She was trying to be understanding, trying to make small talk so as not to start in on him before they could both have a minute to calm themselves, so he just came out and said, “He had this spot of ash on his forehead. Like a Hindu, like in ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.’ I wanted to see what it was, that was all.”
“So? A lot of kids in my class had it, too. It’s Ash Wednesday.” She gave him a glance over the steering wheel. “They’re Catholic. It’s a Catholic thing.”
“But we’re not Catholic,” he said. There were only seven cars left in the parking lot. He counted them.
“No,” she said, shaking her head but keeping her face locked up all the same.
“We’re not anything, are we?”
She was busy with the steering wheel, maneuvering her car, her Nissan Sentra that was only slightly better than the piece-of-shit Toyota, around the elevated islands that divided the parking lot. The radio gave up a soft hum and a weak voice bleated out one of the easy-listening songs she was always playing. She shook her head again. Let out an audible breath. Shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know. I believe in God, if that’s what you’re asking.” He said nothing. “Your grandparents—my parents, I mean—were Presbyterian, but we didn’t go to church much. Christmas, Easter. In name only, I guess.”
“So what does that make me?”
Another shrug. “You can be anything you want. Why? Are you interested in religion?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, you’re a Protestant then. That’s all. Just a Protestant.”
He was dumping more briquettes into the grill now, the wind teasing the black powder that wasn’t ash off the hard-baked stony little things that weren’t really charcoal at all. Then he was squirting them with the clear, dry-smelling fluid that was nothing like gasoline, with its heavy, rich petroleum sweetness, soaking them down, thinking that every day was made out of ash, Ash Monday, Ash Tuesday, Ash Saturday, and Sunday, too. He glanced up to see a car pulling into the driveway in front of the house, the gravel crunching. The car door slammed, and a man his mother’s age stepped out into the wind with an armload of flowers and a bottle that was probably wine or maybe whiskey. Dill looked toward Itchy-goro’s house, the windows painted over with sun so that he couldn’t see whether Itchy-goro was watching or not, and then he lit the match.
It was a Monday and she hated Mondays most of all because on Mondays Sanjuro always went to work early to set an example for the others, stealing out of the house while it was still dark and the little thieves of the night, the raccoons, coyotes, and rats, were just crawling back into their holes. She’d awaken with the first colorless stirrings of light and lie there in the still room, thinking of her parents and the house she’d grown up in, and feeling as if the ground had gone out from under her. This morning was no different. She woke to grayness and for a long while stared up at the ceiling as the color crept back into things, and then she pushed herself up and went down the hallway to the kitchen and lit the stove under the kettle. It wasn’t till she was blowing softly into her second cup of tea and gazing out the window into the crowded green struts of the bamboo that she remembered that today was different, today was special: Shūbun-no-hi, the autumnal equinox, a holiday in Japan even if it passed unnoticed here.
Her spirits lifted. She would make ohagi, the rice balls coated in bean paste that people left at the graves of their ancestors to honor the spirits of the dead, and she’d put on one of her best kimonos and burn incense, too, and when Sanjuro came home they’d have a quiet celebration and neither of them would mention the fact that the graves of their ancestors were six thousand miles away. She thought about that while she was in the shower—about that distance and how long a broom she’d have to find to sweep those graves clean—then she put on the rice and went outside to the garden. If she were in Japan, she would have arranged flowers on her parents’ graves—red flowers, the higanbana of tradition—but here the closest thing she could find was the bougainvillea that grew along the fence.
The wind rattled the bamboo as she went down the slope with her clippers, and the cedar-shake roof of the house below rose to greet her. This was the boy’s house, and as she bent to cut the brilliant red plumes of the flowers and lay them over one arm, she saw the cooking grill there in the yard and thought back to two nights ago, or was it three? Sanjuro had been beside himself. He’d gone out of his way to buy a plastic squeeze bottle of starter fluid for these people, the boy and his mother, thinking to help them, and then the boy had stood out there in full view, looking up at the windows and smirking as he fed the fire with long iridescent strings of fuel till the strings were fire themselves. He wasn’t thankful. He wasn’t respectful. He was a bad boy, a delinquent, just as Sanjuro had said all along, and the mother was worse—and a teacher, no less. They were bad people, that was all, no different from the criminals on the news every night, stabbing each other, screaming, their faces opening up in one great maw of despair.
Setsuko felt the weight of the sun. A gust flailed the bamboo and flung grit at her face. She made her way back up the hill, the wind whipping her kimono and sawing at the canes till they were like swords clashing together, and there was wind drift all over the surface of the pond, the koi moiling beneath it like pulsing flames. The mouth of the brass urn took the flowers, a spray of them, and she went down on her knees to get the arrangement just right. But then the wind shifted them and shifted them again, the papery petals flapping against the bamboo that framed the pond, and after a while she gave up, figuring she’d rearrange them when Sanjuro came home. She was thinking of her mother when she set the incense cone in the burner and put a match to it, the face of the ceramic Buddha glowing through its eye holes as if it were alive.
But the wind, the wind. She got up and was halfway to the house when she heard the first premonitory crackle in the leaves that were gathered like a skirt at the ankles of the bamboo. She jerked around so violently that her kimono twisted under one foot and she very nearly tripped herself. And she might have caught the fire then, might have dug a frantic scoop of water out of the pond and flung it into the bamboo, might have dashed into the house and dialled 911, but she didn’t. She just stood there motionless, as the wind took the flames out of the bamboo and into the yard, rolling on across the hill away from her house and her garden and her tea things and the memory of her mother to set them down in a brilliant sparking burst that was exactly like a fireworks display, cleansing and pure and joyful, on the roof of the house below. ♦

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