|Chagrin River Review||
Paper, Scissors, Rock
There were places in the house that smelled like an old person’s bed. Sato searched a bottom cabinet for a skillet. Squatting, his thighs trembled. “Stiff,” he said to himself. But he was certain his step, his rolling gait, was the same. “When you and Bryan walk together you look like twins,” Aimee had laughed. “I can’t tell you two apart from behind.” And then she had mimicked his swaying walk. She kept her hands clenched between her breasts, and Sato had frowned and looked past her, but he had loved what she’d said.
He was old and fat. Yes. His big belly made him struggle to tie his shoes, but at least he didn’t have that damn tottering walk. “I can still out run you. How much you want to bet?” He was glad no one at work had ever called him on that. “Lucky,” he had told Aimee, “I’m lucky they’re such assholes.”
Sato straightened and bent forward, one hand on his thigh, the other poking between pots and pans. He stretched and reached and there, as if he’d uncovered it, was that smell.
“It stinks in here.” He opened the windows. The maples had grown untrimmed; their limbs dripped red leaves that blocked the wind, and inside the kitchen the odor remained.
Bacon and eggs and fried potatoes. “Use the same skillet,” he had once told Bryan, “and you get all that good grease.” The boy shook his head, tiny hands covered his mouth. Fingers like twigs. “Is this Hansel?” At bedtime Sato teased the boy. “Let me touch your boney little finger.” Sato’s shadow loomed, covered the child’s face. Bryan squealed and wrapped his arms around Sato’s neck. “Daddy.” It had been so easy to make Bryan laugh. A look, a gesture. “Oh Daddy, stop. Stop it.” His son would giggle, sometimes falling into Sato’s own body. Daddy.
“Daddy, I’m afraid.” “You’re afraid?” He rubbed Bryan’s warm back. The boy used to wear T-shirts to bed and the clean cotton cloth made Sato’s fingers tingle. “I’m afraid.” Elbows and knees burned black in the summer. Small face so dark, Sato teased the child, “Where are your eyebrows? Where is your nose?” In the bathtub Bryan’s brown stick arms and legs and tiny penis always made Sato laugh. “Daddy, I’m afraid.” “You’re afraid?” He lay beside Bryan, the boy’s narrow back curled like the tail of a shrimp.
What was it now? What was it? Sato stood by the open window and felt his body heavy and slack as if he’d spent the night on a plane or boat or car. He was clumsy and fat and old, that was all. But his stomach and head were queasy, his tongue thick. The smell of the food filled him like something solid and he couldn’t breathe. He stood in front of the sink, gripped the counter’s cool edge and held his breath. A pulse beat in his throat. He sighed and inhaled and the first scent he recognized was that awful, stale, cloying urine stink.
That smell. Aimee’s mother had lived with them, and in the end the old lady couldn’t move; she lay in her bed in the back room and only the sound of her crazy high voice and that damn clammy stink came into the hallway.
“She went to bed and she was fine, but in the morning she couldn’t move her legs and I ask her and ask her and she says she doesn’t hurt anyplace and she’s all right except for her legs.” Aimee bent to take off her slippers and below the soft fall of hair he saw the bumpy line of her spine. Strands of hair didn’t curl and lay at the nape of her neck. It made him dizzy to think of his thick fingers stroking down that line. And then she had lain beside him and her warm arm wrapped around his chest. Pressed without air between them.
“Aimee-san,” the grandmother sighed. She laughed and talked to herself. A girl again, a young girl. “Ahh.” At her throat her good hand opened and closed, pumping like a heart. “Ahh.” Cool dry skin, soft as silt. And that smell. Sato held the old woman while Aimee stripped the bed. The sheet slipped away and there were stains on the mattress. Old blood and piss. Later Aimee made a cover, a bright crazy quilt. Crisp flick and it floated straight out in the air. “Is it any better, Tommy?” Beads of sweat pimpled her gleaming brow. “Oh yes, much.”
“What’s wrong with her?” Bryan had asked. ‘Is she dying?” The boy had been just a child and Sato had said, “Never mind. She’s sick.” But he remembered an argument he and Aimee had in front of the boy, “What’s the matter with you, Tommy” She stared at him, shoulders hunched. Sato squeezed his fingers together, hid them in the pockets of his pants. And then came the sound of the old lady’s sigh. Gentle and high-pitched, it floated down the hallway. “Ahhh.” Sato turned to his son, poked the boy’s arm and grinned. “Listen to her. Listen. She’s crazy, you know. Nuts.” Bryan’s eyes wet-rimmed. The boy covered his mouth and began to giggle, and Aimee turned away, shoulders relaxed, neck and back a more graceful curve. “Ahhh.”
“My wife’s sick,” Sato told the mailman. He was a chubby faced kid with long gangling arms. In the summer Sato kept ice water in the refrigerator and when the mailman came to the door, he gave the kid a glass. “Listen,” Sato said, “I used to have a walking route. I know how it is.” “Do you have a system?” Sato asked. “You know what I mean don’t you? A system?”
The kid smiled, only his fingertips pressed the glass; he sipped.
“My wife’s sick.”
“Sure,” Sato was going to say, “that’s why it smells so damn funny in here.” But he changed his mind and waved his hand to dismiss the kid. “Forget it.” Sato thought he could smash the boy’s face between his hands.
Aimee didn’t look sick. When he rode the bus with her to the doctor’s she sat quietly, her cheeks clown red, her hair neatly coiled on top of her head. ‘You look like an Issei,” he said. But he whispered so softly she didn’t hear. “I’m an American.”
Aimee frowned, lids closing. She drew in her lips and turned towards the window, the skin at her throat folding. Raised caramel colored mole. He had once touched the tip of his tongue to it and the rest of her body had fallen away. As if she knew what he thought, she covered the spot, fingertips pressed to her neck.
“There’s nothing wrong with you. I can see. You’re not really sick.” Sato stumbled into the doorway, turned on the light. “It’s just a waste of money. You’re so damn stupid. Do you know what these bills are running?” Aimee sat up, her hair in one long snakey braid. When she moved in front of the light he saw through the nightgown heavy breasts and the dark shape of her round belly.
When they were first married, he had brought Aimee presents, dropped each one beside her on the sofa when he came home at night. That was the best part. His casual toss. The tiny packages arced in the air. “What’s this?” She cradled the box in her hands and the wrappings crackled like hot beads. Her hair was short and curly and in bed it brushed against his face and smelled clean as soap. “A compact. It’s real gold. There’s a place for cigarettes, too.” She laughed, shaking her head. “I don’t smoke.” “I know, but I thought you might like it.” Her ears lay flat to her head, her breasts small, the line of her body a smooth edge.
“Thick-waisted.” Aimee stood in front of the mirror, her hands pressed flat against her abdomen. She turned from side to side and then glanced up at his reflection, smiled. “My daikon legs.” Her legs. Her beautiful brown legs. In the doctor’s office she had sat with her hands in her lap, her back rounded like a child’s. The stiff paper gown rose in creases from her soft body.
He was getting old, that’s what was happening; he was getting old and fat.
“I’m retired now,” Sato told the mailman. “You know how it is. I got a lot of time to kill.”
The kid nodded at him, smiled. “My folks are both retired.”
“I was a mailman, too, you know.” Sato pressed his lips together; he’d forgotten to put in his teeth. “I don’t got my teeth.”
The mailman laughed, shook his head, and Sato grinned. “Like a turtle,” Aimee had laughed, “you look like a turtle.” He put his hands in the pockets of his sagging pants; the cuffs almost covered his bare feet. Nubby turtle feet. “I’m a slob now.”
He was making the kid nervous, Sato could see. “You’re obnoxious,” Aimee had told him. “You don’t understand,” he answered and tried to catch her eye, but she’d already turned away. There was that pose again. Round fat neck pushed forward, stiff. The caramel colored mole a marker. Her hand slid along the banister as she climbed the stairs. Dry palm against the wood. Shhh. He followed her, stood in the hallway. “Listen,” Sato whispered and grinned, his hand a fist against his chest. ‘I’m an old man now and I know these things.” It must be true. He was old and fat, but inside he’d gotten stronger. “My eyes’ a bug’s eye,” he laughed to himself. “I see a thousand things at once and that’s how I know.”
“I’m a writer, a poet, an actor, an artist.” Sato spread his hands on his broad stomach. “Spread out, that’s what I am.” He stood, back straight, feet pointed outwards. The muscles in his calves pulled with the odd twisted angle. ‘But there’s no money in it, is there?” He reached in his pocket and pulled out a leather bracelet. “What would you pay for something like that handmade?” The mailman nodded, turned his face to hide his smile. The young man’s cheek was sunburned, fat as a baby’s. Sato grinned, “I know what you’re thinking.”
Bryan’s room was cluttered now with Sato’s hobbies and tools; they spilled out into the hallway. Ugly figures, tubes of paint, unfinished plaques and jars of stiff brushes. He kept everything on layers of newspaper and when he worked the pages crackled like fire beneath his hands. Sometimes he napped on Bryan’s bed. The window open, he heard the leaves like sea and he pretended he lay inside a great ship. “Ahhh,” the grandmother had sighed. “Ahhh.”
“Look at this mess,” Aimee pushed her hands into the pockets of her robe. “I used to work all day and then clean house. Now look at this. Look.”
“I could make a million dollars.”
"What would you pay for something like this handmade?” Sato chuckled, slid his finger down the clay figure. His breath ticked against the newspapers. This wasn’t what Dollinger wanted. “Use a mold, Mr. Sato.” Asshole.
“What are you doing?”
“Something for class. I have lots of projects now.”
She smiled, sat down on Bryan’s bed. “What is it?”
“Really?” She used to roll her hair in curlers, the wisps taped to her forehead. Both of them had laughed and she pursed her lips, patted the baby hairs with the tips of her fingers. “Maybe that means I’ll never be bald.”
“It’s not what I’m supposed to be doing.”
"I can see that.”
“Listen,” Sato grinned, “Friday I’ll be a man with a baby in the oven. Do you get it?” The air was fragile now, and what he had to do was slide the words out. Slipping stones into water without making a ripple. He almost laughed.
Aimee smiled, shook her head. “Oh, you.” She hunched forward, and he saw the freckled skin above her breast, caught again that faint powdery scent. Her body was now very small, wrapped in the thick robe. “Oh, you.”
From a distance he had seen Aimee standing by the roadside. Black curls covered by a green scarf. He was a kid then and he rode his motorcycle on the flat roads of the San Joaquin Valley. A cylinder of air he traveled through, following the line of a curve so sharply the footpegs scraped the asphalt and there were sparks.
“I’ll fly off. I’ll fly off.” Aimee’s arms around his waist, she pressed her forehead against his back, and Sato laughed, imagining her thin body behind him strung like a flickering pennant. Then he slowed and stopped and she climbed down. Cool air at his spine as she stepped away. Her skin flushed. She drew off her scarf and the slick cloth slid over her black hair and bare arm. Slow silky ripple.
Green Thompson grapes and strawberries so sweet they were almost black. Sato stole fruit from the truckbeds. “What will you do if they catch you?” Aimee hunched her shoulders, grinned. She held the grapes in cupped palm and when she ate them, she raised her chin as though drinking. “They’ll beat you up.” “No,” he shook his head and smiled, “no.” She was laughing and she turned her head to let the wind blow the strands from her brow and when she looked up at him her eyes were bright with tears.
“What does Dr. Saunders say?” Bryan asked. “Should I come home?”
“No, not yet, I don’t think,” Sato said.
“How are you holding up?”
“Fine. I have lots of projects now. I take classes.”
“Oh yeah?” His son’s soft laughter came out of a sigh. Breathy as though he were a boy again whispering in his father’s ear.
Paper, scissors, rock. That child’s game. He’d played it with Bryan and sometimes knew what the boy chose before he saw that tiny hand. It was a trick. Separating images, keeping them from bleeding one into the other. “How did you win?” His famous leer, “I knew what you were thinking.”
“It’s good you’re keeping busy.” Daddy.
Sato’s reflection in the hall mirror: scooped neck of his T-shirt, sagging chest. He heard again the creak of the stairs, the sound of her hand as it slipped along the banister. Polishing the wood. That’s what he had imagined. And suddenly his throat closed so tightly he couldn’t breathe. “No,” he had said, “no.”
The mattress still bore the imprint of the old woman’s body. Cremated. Ashes in an urn resting on the dresser. That was odd. Ashes on the dresser yet the mattress still sagged from her weight. Sato sank comfortably into the old woman’s bed. All that was left were his legs and hands and even these were falling away.
Soft circle of light. It had glistened through strands of her hair and when she bowed her head it glowed against her nape. Sato stepped into the room. The warm scent of his own home like steam against his eyes and cheeks; the cold air still clung to his jacket and arms. The curtains weren’t drawn, he knew, because she had been watching for him. She was framed by the black window. Aimee started to rise but before she could speak or stand he had tossed the package towards her, and it arced and fell into her lap. “What’s this?” She looked up at him and smiled and he imagined himself standing there forever.
“Good-bye you. Good-bye.” The old woman had wrapped her hand around Aimee’s thumb and his wife, her back supple and lovely, leaned closer, her free arm curled above the grandmother’s small head as though she meant to gather the old woman up, carry her like a child. For a moment both women were frozen in their embrace. “Good-bye you.” Sato’s fingernails bit into his palm, his fists shook with sorrow.
“What’s this?” She tilted her head and before he could answer she had nodded and smiled and said, “I know.”
Barbara Nishimoto was born in Chicago and now lives in Nashville, TN. Her work has appeared in various reviews including Discover Nikkei, The Baltimore Review, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Emerge Literary Review, Limestone, and is forthcoming in Painted Bride Quarterly.