by Lee Douglas
“Ahh, now that’s a fine French word. Ricochet. I love it. Just roll the r. Rrricochet. Rrrrrico. Chet. Ricochet,” the homeless man said and handed me the tire iron. I threw it in the toolbox and latched it.
He held out his hand, “John.”
“John,” I shook his hand.
He adjusted the “America: Two Time World War Champs” cap that concealed most of the grey frizzle protruding from the sides. “Couldn’t help but notice you’re going west. Think I could catch a ride?”
John had helped me change my tire. I couldn’t turn him down. “Yeah. I’m only going to 45 then I’m turning north.”
“45!” He yanked open the passenger door. I closed the trunk. He seemed normal. I mean he helped me out.
“So you want to be dropped off at 45?” I pulled onto the highway.
“Yeah. Damn, you see how many cats were on that porch?”
“Had to have been at least ten.”
I nodded, “Cool.”
“You can see every row of corn if you close one eye and move your head like this,” he bobbed his head back and forth. His nose was pressed against the glass. I could imagine the grease and other things oozing onto the window.
“Yep,” I said.
“You sure don’t like to talk.”
“I’m probably making you uncomfortable.”
“No. I’m just…just tired.”
“Want me to drive?”
“Not that tired.”
The steady roll of the tires on the highway filled the car. John cracked his knuckles. He scratched his beard. Adjusted his cap. He was trying, I could tell, not to talk. He was trying to make me comfortable.
“Why you going west?” I asked.
“What you do for a living?”
“I’m a writer. What do you mean ending?”
“A writer? You gonna put me in your stories?”
“Well, I’m finishing something now, but maybe my next story you could be in.”
“Oh yeah? What’s it about?”
“I don’t want to spoil it for you.”
He took off his cap smoothed his hair down and put it back on. He turned sideways in his seat facing me, “I’m waiting.”
“It’s about an evil Emperor and one girl who can stop him.”
“So what we talking about here? Sci-Fi? Fantasy?”
He stroked his beard, “Ok. So the problem is you don’t know how the girl kills the Emperor?”
“What? Why would you say that?”
“You said you’re finishing it and all fantasies end with the evil guy getting killed by the hero.”
I couldn’t believe I was talking to a homeless man about my story. “That’s my problem. I don’t want the ending to be cliché.”
“Ahh, now there’s another fine French word. Cliché. Cliché, Cliché, Cliché.”
“If my ending is cliché nobody will want to read it.”
“People love clichés. Hell, even the word is fun to say. CLICHÉ!”
“No, they don’t,” I said.
“Yes, they do.”
“You see, they’re clichés because people love them.”
“They’re lazy,” I said.
“You’re lazy,” he said.
I shut my mouth before I said something like: at least I’m not homeless.
“Hey,” he turned in his seat and faced the front, “I’m sorry.”
“Almost there,” he said.
“You want to listen to the radio?”
“Nah, I like talking.”
You don’t say? “Ok.”
“You got a cell phone?”
“Can I use it?”
“Sure.” Maybe he’d use it to talk to somebody else. I handed him my phone. He tapped on it.
“Could you unlock it?”
I unlocked it. He tapped it again. Started typing. I glanced over. Was he texting?
“When did Facebook change its setup?”
“You’re on Facebook?” I asked.
“Yeah. Gotta let them know I’m coming.”
“Thanks,” he handed the phone back, “Now this evil Emperor, he’s into your hero?”
“You know…into. Like…” He made a hole with one hand and stuck his finger into it with the other.
“You’ve seen the covers of fantasy books. The girls are always smoking. How could you not want to be into that?”
“She’s not like that.”
“So she’s ugly? How do you expect anybody to read your book if your girl isn’t hot?”
“She’s not ugly.”
“So she’s hot?”
“Uhg. Even worse.”
“Hold on. I misspoke she’s an everyday girl but she’s…special.”
He raised his eyebrows, “Retarded?”
“For fuck’s sake.”
John cackled, “I’m just messing with you.”
I laughed along until his cackle turned into a cough. He hunched over. Covered his mouth and coughed and coughed.
“Hey, you ok?”
“Never better,” he pointed, “Don’t miss your exit.”
I exited off on 45 and pulled into a gas station. I parked and said, “It was a pleasure to ride with you.”
He opened the door. “The pleasure was all mine, monsieur.”
“I hope you get to where you’re going.”
“I always do. Good luck on that ending.”
John turned and walked into the sunset. Well, the Sun-Maid Raisin delivery truck where he asked the driver if he was heading east.
“Made in Japan”
by Samuel Adams
So what these Kansans say is true: I was born in Japan. My parents are Caucasian American Citizens and we only lived there until I was two and half, but if you look at it my passport it says it right there: Place of Birth: Tokyo, Japan.
Growing up in diverse, suburban Northern California, I enjoyed sharing this cute factoid about my origins with other kids, many who were born in locales far more exotic than Japan and travelled regularly. Every now and then some dunce would ask, “You were born in Japan? Does that mean you’re Japanese?”, but this tapered off after Elementary School. Plus, I was and am towheaded as Hansel, so even the confused didn’t stay confused for long.
I have since grown and moved to a small town in Kansas called Feldspar, and I learned that being born in Japan is not a small incidental factoid: it is the defining feature of my existence. My origins are as troublingly foreign as Godzilla’s, and I answer for them every day of my existence.
My time in Japan did have an impact on my life that I won’t discount, even if remember nothing. Those first two and a half years are crucial ones, and I experienced mine in Japan. I met all the necessary developmental milestones in Tokyo, and I met them in a more Japanese fashion than my American counterparts. I occasionally wore kimonos and said “Konichiwa” to Japanese nationals but, like pooping my pants and crying when my mom left the room, these are habits I’ve kicked since I left toddlerhood, and Japan.
Do other Japanese traits still persist? Perhaps. I still eat seaweed (“nori”), a childhood staple, but not obsessively. These yokels would have you think I hang out on wet rocks coating myself in the stuff, but it’s not true. Seaweed is delicious and healthy; ditto for Green Tea and Raw Fish.
Now California is pretty different from Kansas and I came here expecting an outsider’s reception. Few in Feldspar were born far beyond the borders of the Sunflower State. This one guy Mitch was born in Minnesota and oh boy is he full of stories. As an (adoptive) son of the Golden State, I was all well and ready to be called “Broseph” or “Doc Hollywood” or even “Monsieur Gluten-Freelove.” I was less prepared to be addressed as “Hello Kitty” by tittering school children or to field suspicious questions about the bombing of Pearl Harbor from clerks at a Dairy Queen.
Everything started with my P.O. Box. Not wanting to furnish my CA Driver’s License, get pegged immediately as that “Asshole from California” and stoop towards a punitively low box, I presented my passport to the Postal Worker, and she smilingly noted the place of birth and gave me my key. That’s all I saw anyway, but apparently after I left she alerted the town to my imminent invasion.
At first, signs of my neighbors’ misperceptions were subtle. I was at Luanne’s Diner eating eggs and potatoes and reading the Feldspar Gazette when I looked up and saw a bottle of soy sauce had appeared next to the ketchup and Tabasco. I looked around and saw that mine was the only table honored with this condiment. I drizzled a few drops on my breakfast and felt heads swiveling my way from a neighboring booth. In hindsight, I should have raised my neck in a “what’s up” gesture. Instead I bowed my head appreciatively, which was foolish: seeming Japanese is a situation you cannot resolve by bowing.
The next incident occurred at a fundraising dinner for a local Rotary chapter. I was helpfully unfolding tables and chairs when a matronly Rotarian approached me holding a rice cooker. “They say y’all are good with these things,” she said. My practiced politeness kept me from saying 1) it was patently racist to assume Japanese people excel at cooking rice and 2) it strained credulity to think Kansans cannot cook rice without expert guidance, and that, oh yeah, 3) I wasn’t Japanese. But instead I sighed and cooked up what was later deemed an excellent and authentic version of the dish.
For my anemic wages I taught cinema at the community college. And, despite a gnawing desire to nip this Japanese origin myth in the bud, my curriculum included The Seven Samurai. And wouldn’t you know, the students who had drooled and blinked through Lang, Renoir and Ford became suddenly full of exciting questions as the samurais and villagers scurried about the screen.
“Excuse me professor, do you still have sandals like they did?”
“At what age did you start wearing the Samurai thong and when did you stop? Is it like a rite of passage, or a sex thing?”
“I never started. People in Japan dress like we do. This movie is set hundreds of years ago.”
“Are you concerned about having paper doors and walls in Tornado country?”
“I rent an apartment. It’s made of bricks.”
“Could we please pause the movie while you cut up this bamboo? I only came for the Katana demo.”
“What? Who said anything about a demo?”
“Probably the person who made the flyer with your head, sword, and a bunch of Japanese writing on it.”
It kept on like this for months and I became reclusive, like the Hikikomori, a social phenomenon I’m unfairly presumed to understand. I came to dread even my quick and perfunctory trips to the grocery store where I’d generate, variously, pained looks of sympathy, snarky mutterings of gossip, and earnest but delusional requests to fix Sony and Toyota products.
My pity party wasn’t without perks: I did drink some of the Saki and eat some of the tempura and udon noddles left charitably in baskets outside my door. As to whoever sent that body pillow with the anime chick on it—thanks, but not for me.
I continued my voluntary internment through Thanksgiving and Christmas, sulking as Kansans drove by my spot, saw my Christmas lights and misted their truck windows with ponderings about what that Japanese guy celebrated and what traditions of the orient he was tearfully missing.
On December 31st I sat in my barstool nursing a bourbon and sadly wondering whether the coming year wouldn’t be a good the time to embrace my Japanese heritage. I decided to leave my house and hit the Tannery Tavern to celebrate the countdown in American fashion, hoping my fate was not yet written out in beautifully calligraphic Kanji and sealed with whatever wax Japanese consumers deem the best.
In the Tavern I was greeted by sheepish waving and a room of smiles more confused than welcoming. I saddled up to the bar and ordered a nondescript domestic beer.
A doughy bald man I recognized as a crossing guard came my way and raised his glass. I raised mine.
“Well, hi there. We weren’t expecting you here.”
“No fun loafing at home. Thought I’d join the revelry. Be patriotic.”
“That’s great. Pardner. Truly a good thing.”
He nodded. I nodded. Was this a new era of nodding tolerance and understanding? No, because the instant Crossing Guard ceased nodding he looked nervous. He chugged the beer he’d been sipping when I came in.
“One question, friend. Isn’t your New Year’s a couple months off?”
“That’s Chinese New Year,” I said, instantly hating myself for giving him an opening.
“Oh. Huh. And what are you again?”
I suppose I should have said, “An American, just like you, your friends, and the millions of people of different ethnicities and national origins who make this nation great.”
But I didn’t say anything like that.
Instead, I swung my foot roundhouse style to his ear and toppled the crossing guard. I spun around and karate-chopped a barfly’s pool stick into neat pieces before leaping into the air and braining him with my knees and elbows in rapid succession. After screeching a “Hii-yahh!” I flipped backward onto the bar and began flinging coasters like ninja stars at the crying American faces around me. It came unnaturally easy; they fell from the bar like sheaves of wheat before the thresher.
“Long live the Emperor!” I shouted, as behind me Televised Manhattanites counted down the arrival of a strange new era.
The power of my newfound identity surged through me with the force of a nuclear accident, burned in the veins like Wasabi, and left the mind feeling as clear and clean as the snows of Hokkaido, and the body as beautifully strong and mammalian as the sable, foxes and bears that inhabit said snows.
Soon it was just me in an empty bar, feeling victorious, if a little sweaty. I was fated to be an outcast, but if this is what being Japanese felt like I’d take it, and I’d have Mochi afterward.
And if morning finds me melancholic or lonely I can always write haikus. They’re short and simple enough to write in jail.