Soaring into the cobalt sky, Yamo’s basketball eclipses a huge harvest moon before crashing down through a chestnut tree. Spiky burrs, loosened by the circular assault, drop past Fay’s head. “Yamo,” she shrills. Such wicked, carefree laughter sprays from the boy. She’d willingly be pricked – pelted even – all night.
Mother and son aim flashlights at the ground, seeking fallen chestnuts from the towering Castanea Sativa trees, planted a century ago along the Crown of Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill.
After an afternoon of wresting a finite number of chestnuts from squirrels and cutthroat little old Asian ladies, obaasans, Yamo had suggested he and Fay come back for an after-hours basketball attempt. Late at night, the gnome-like grandmothers and the gravity-defying squirrels would be asleep and out of the way. Besides, the 13-year-old admitted, under the cover of darkness he’d be more willing to hang out with his mother.
Yamo heaves the basketball. Fay knows he wants to follow it into the sky. All his life, Yamo has exhibited great affinity for speed and high places: swinging out of trees, leaping from roofs, flipping off high dives. Clearly Eiji’s son. Fay, on the other hand, gets vertigo a few rungs up a ladder. She’d rather walk than run.
Yamo retrieves the ball and flings again. There’s a deluge of tumbling chestnuts. Before dropping the smooth auburn beauties into his backpack, Yamo rolls them around in his palms. He chortles over his haul.
Fay imagines tiny elders showing up at dawn, puzzled, and then pissed, that someone got to the trees before them. Behind tightly pressed lips, her teeth have begun chattering. Though her toes are like ice, it’s a small price for Yamo’s current, non-combative company. More often, she is the recipient of the eighth-grader’s snarls. “You just don’t get it, Mom.” He’s outgrown all his clothes. Black hair covers his legs.
“You are so becoming a man,” Fay had marveled just this week.
“Yeah? Check this out.” Yamo had slyly pulled off his T-shirt to display rust-colored curls coiled in his armpits. This sign of maturation and its hue produced an ironic half-smile from Fay. What a fitting place for the Irish ancestry to emerge. Her people, the Maloneys, were a bunch of red-headed stinkers. They’d been unable to pull themselves away from their neighborhood bars in New Haven to come west for the wedding or, later, to meet a half-Japanese grandson and nephew.
A chill breeze rustles through the leaves, thieves carrying off Fay’s thoughts. She checks her watch – midnight. Her nose and fingers are definitely frozen. “We’ve got more than enough chestnuts for the two of us. Let’s call it a night.” She walks in circles to warm herself, swinging her arms towards the benevolent moon and the grandfatherly trees. A shivering supplicant. A year ago the three of them had been here, Eiji, Yamo and she. Eiji, Eiji, Eiji. She calls out. Someone is running toward her. It’s him!
No, it is an Eiji-lookalike, Yamo. “Mom, shut up. You’ll wake people.”
Fay realizes she’d given voice to her fantasy. A croak escapes her lips. “I felt him here. He’s here.”
“What are you talking about?”
Throat constricted, she cannot respond upon hearing the thickness in Yamo’s voice, too. He knows very well who she is referencing. The one with whom he didn’t have enough time.
* * *
As usual, Fay is up early, despite the lateness of last night’s chestnut gathering. Often, before the newspaper thuds on the front stoop at dawn, a departing moon floats above her as she patrols the backyard for slugs. She’s after the gastropodous hold-outs pestering her end-of-season strawberries. She can see the moon sinking in the west, skewered and ingested by the Olympic Mountains. Robins blather and bitch at dawn’s trudging arrival this time of year. The morning chill penetrates her bathrobe. Her bare feet tense up inside her rubber boots. Time to start wearing socks.
Weekdays at exactly 6:30 am, Fay can count on hearing Mayumi Hashisaki’s anxious high heels clack down the steps of the house across the alley. Mayumi will back her compact out from underneath the carport and zip south down the alley, bouncing into ruts and over rocks. Thirty minutes later, Ken, Mayumi’s husband, and their sons, Jason and Michael, will throw sports bags and long sticks into Ken’s pickup, also under the carport, and drive north.
This morning, there is an odd sight on the alley side of Fay’s chain-link fence. Mayumi is squatting in the alley, placing stones next to Fay’s strawberry plants there.
In the ten years Fay has lived across from the Hashisakis, she has had only a few exchanges with Mayumi and Ken. She’s noticed that on rainy mornings before leaving for work, Mayumi towels off Ken’s pickup. Who dries a car in Seattle? Fay has drawn her own conclusions about the power sharing – or lack thereof – in the Hashisaki household.
She and Eiji had swapped control and culture like trading cards. She’d learned to make sweet rice from his mother. Eiji was just as happy eating Fay’s corned beef. Fay’s study of ikebana had filled their house with angular floral arrangements but ended after Eiji commented that “Dr. Seuss’s florist has been here again.”
Sure, like other couples, they’d bickered, especially over the bike shoes, helmets, and bike paraphernalia lying around the house. Fay worried, too, about Eiji’s daredevil velocity while cycling in the rain. When it really poured, she’d insisted he call her after arriving in the office. On the rare snow days, he’d cackled triumphantly, “Trumped everything else with wheels on the road.”
Mostly, they were a team, Eiji amused as she rhapsodized about new accessories for the kitchen store where she worked, and Eiji appreciative of her efforts to keep Yamo connected to his Japanese heritage. “Beats green beer in March,” Fay had asserted.
Now, in her tidy back yard, Fay surveys rows of frost-kissed strawberry plants. Strawberry runners zigzag everywhere, including the alley side of the chain-link fence where she’d weeded and mulched all week. She’d dug out small stones and scattered them in the alley’s potholes, knowing they’d recede into the ground over time from the jouncing garbage trucks and alley residents’ cars.
Fay shuffles over to the fence and crosses her arms, sticking her hands into her armpits for warmth. She and Mayumi are barely ten feet apart. “Ohayo gozaimasu. Good morning. Is everything okay?”
Surprised, Mayumi shoots up, smoothing her suit before backing away. “My husband doesn’t like driving over all these stones,” she murmurs.
Fay masks her pity for Mayumi with good cheer. “I was tucking in the strawberries before winter. Come spring, there’ll be oodles of them. I hope you’ll help yourself.” She bobs her head, a habit acquired from Eiji and his relatives. Mayumi flicks her head as well.
A year without Eiji has given Fay a more candid tongue. “Ken should talk to me if he’s got a problem with the stones,” she says. “Especially, if it’s not a problem for you.” Mayumi’s smile tightens before she scurries over to her car.
Back in the kitchen, Fay sets a plastic container with a few slugs on the counter and slides her feet into fuzzy slippers. When she calls for Yamo, he lurches out of the bathroom, showered, hair whisked, a towel wrapped suggestively around his hips. “I really am ruggedly handsome.”
Fay laughs. A fine start to their day. Let it stay this way. “Will you take care of these slugs?”
Yamo turns on the garbage disposal and upends the container. Over the machine’s decimation he crows, “Human ingenuity conquers nature.” Fay decides not to mention that nature will reassert its primacy tomorrow with more slugs.
Yamo slides his palms past each other in a showy “all done” fashion. “No mercy for the gooey goniffs.” Goniffs? He must have picked up the word (Yiddish?) from all that late-night big-city TV he watches. Yamo wanders over to the dining room table where last night he’d dumped out his backpack. Chestnuts cover the tabletop.
“Serious booty. I want to go back.”
“Why? We have enough.”
“Just saying.” Yamo heads for his room.
What he’s saying, Fay presumes, is that he wants to see if he, too, can detect Eiji. “I don’t know about another late night this week.” She turns on the kettle. “There’ll still be chestnuts left this weekend.”
Fay takes a cue from the bold rays streaming into the windows. Keep things light. “What a fabulous morning.” Only a few more minutes and Yamo will vanish for the day. She wants to avoid angry leave-takings. Exasperated sounds emanate from the entryway. She pads over to where Yamo, now dressed in jeans and sweatshirt, is shoving books and papers into his backpack.
“I’m late,” he grimaces, his former good humor gone.
Fay hurries back to the kitchen to grab a juice box and snack bar, pressing them into his hands seconds before he slams the front door closed without a good-bye. Hoo-wee, touchy. Maybe it’s time for Yamo to check in with his grief counselor. He sure doesn’t talk with Fay. Night after night he holes up in his room, headphones on, gaming with strangers from other time zones or glued to some action movie on his laptop. There are only shard-like responses when she tries to engage him in conversation.
The chestnuts, lustrous in the sunlight, draw Fay back to the dining room table. Wabi sabi. Eiji taught her the Japanese concept the first day she’d met him. Embrace transient beauty. She scoops up a handful of chestnuts and brings them close, as if to splash her face with them.
Eighteen years ago, plodding around the Crown of Queen Anne after work, Fay had nearly collided with an ancient Asian woman collecting fallen chestnuts. “What do you do with these?” she’d called to the old woman.
The woman gabbled something to her equally ancient companions and shook a knobby stick at Fay.
Fay persisted. “Do you cook them? Eat ‘em raw?” No answer. Fay increased her volume. “Does anyone speak English?”
“I do.” A young Asian man, laptop open, sat on the curb. A bike lay next to him. Sticks that had been prodding hulls on the ground stopped and several scarfed heads swiveled in Fay’s direction. Fay noticed the honey-red glow of the man’s eyes, so like the chestnuts. Suddenly self-conscious, an interloper, she lowered her neck into her shoulders. “I’m just curious how you eat them.”
“We mostly roast kuri.”
Those eyes, toying with her. She blurted out something quick rather than credible, pointing at the laptop. “You got recipes there?”
The man swept his hand in a giant, contemptuous C. “This scene, as quaint and comical as white folks might think, is a manifestation of universal forces. Wabi sabi. Exhilaration over life-giving bounty and despair that in a week it’ll all be nasty, empty husks.”
Fay, defensiveness rising, posted her hands on her hips. “Sorry, I didn’t know I’d entered a cosmic chestnut zone.” She got her first smile out of him, and, emboldened, stuck out her chin towards the laptop. “Poetry is it, then?”
“I’m working on a piece for The Seattle Times, so more people might comprehend the complex fusion of contrasting emotions.” He read from the screen. “Beauty confronts death. We can’t have true happiness without sadness.”
Pompous ass. Fay adjusted her running shorts and turned to go.
“Besides, my grandmother wanted company. She’s giving me the stop-flirting- with-girls-you-don’t-know look as we speak.” One of the old women near them had turned to stone, barely blinking.
Fay recalculated: semi-pompous ass. The man got his first smile out of her. “I look forward to reading it,” she’d said politely, before jogging around several crones headed for chestnuts on a manicured lawn nearby.
Fay had bought a copy of the newspaper for a week. There it was, on a Sunday, an op-ed essay by Eiji Watanabe, entitled “And You Thought They Were Just Chestnuts.”
She’d emailed him – his address was at the bottom of the piece – which led to an exchange of phone numbers, and two years later, an exchange of rings. Yamoto Seamus Watanabe was born as the chestnut trees pushed out fragrant white blossoms in May.
Each October, Eiji, Fay and Yamo milled around underneath the chestnut trees with Asians and a growing number of Asian-White families. It was Seattle, after all. Life percolated along uneventfully, except for the miscarriages — one, two, three — until Fay and Eiji had stopped trying.
Fay’s reverie is interrupted by the grinding gears of a passing school bus. She, too, has a bus to catch. Mrs. Cooks, where she is the buyer, opens in an hour. She sweeps some chestnuts off the dining room table and into a canvas bag for a visit she’s planning.
Fay has a proposition for her neighbor Ken. Yamo needs a Japanese male role model in his life. Ken might do, his proximity offsetting his personality. Eiji’s only brother lives in Portland, three hours to the south. Ojiichan, Eiji’s father, is quietly succumbing to Parkinson’s disease. Fay thought she’d recognized the sticks Ken and his boys always had with them as shinai, from Kendo. Japanese martial arts would be good for Yamo. It would be a relief to have someone besides herself act as an enforcer.
Fay changes into work clothes and dashes out the door, leaving the chestnut-filled canvas bag hanging from the door knob of the back door. That way she won’t have to explain anything to Yamo, yet.
* * *
After dinner that evening, Yamo pulls out his Washington State history book. A class assignment, they both agree (amazingly!) overrides another chestnut excursion. “Mom, I want to show you something.”
Fay looks over his shoulder at black-and-white photos from 1942: Japanese women and children, tagged like sale items; well-dressed Japanese families boarding ferries; a white soldier hoisting a baby onto a train and into his anxious Japanese parents’ arms.
Fay scrutinizes a photo of Japanese farmers in conversation with white soldiers. “They were so damn obedient,” she sighs, reading. “They even helped put up their own evacuation notices.”
Yamo looks up at her. “Would I have had to go?”
“I guess, but I’d have gone with you and your father.”
Father. They follow their own thoughts. Fay tries to smooth the brittle moment with a finger on the caption of another photo. “I wonder if our neighbors are related to these Hashisakis.” Aha, a possible opening for her upcoming visit. She heads to the bathroom for a quick brush of her orange-turning-gray hair and silently practices in front of the mirror. Mayumi, Ken: my son is working on a report about the evacuation of Japanese-Americans from Bainbridge Island. I wonder, by chance, if your relatives were impacted and if there’s anyone left to talk with him? It’s important for Yamo to be exposed to his people’s history. Could you suggest someone for him to interview?
Fay tells Yamo she is going out back for a minute. Like he cares. He’s on his cell phone before she closes the back door. Her prolonged absence won’t be noticed.
Canvas bag in hand, she knocks on the Hashisakis’ door. One of the sons opens and stares. “Yes?”
Ken’s voice calls from within the house, “Who is it?”
The son swivels and yells over his shoulder. “I don’t know.”
Ken rounds a corner. “Hi, Fay.” He puts a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Michael, this is our neighbor.”
Fay holds out the canvas bag. “Kuri.”
There is no offer to come inside. “Sorry, what are these?” Ken asks, seeming irked more than curious. Mayumi comes up behind him.
Fay wants to drop the bag and run, but persists since she feels her son’s life hangs in the balance. “Kuri. You know, edible chestnuts?” Apparently Ken doesn’t know. Fay powers on. “I wonder if I could meet with you and Mayumi.”
“About what?” Ken is going to make her talk on the doorstep.
“Being hakujin, I’m not able to teach Yamo about Japanese culture the way Eiji would have. And I hoped I could ask you, Ken, in particular, to step into that empty place…a little, please?” Fay trembles. Here she is imploring the guy she’d only recently urged Mayumi to stand up to.
Mayumi’s eyes are on the floor. “Hakujin, not Japanese, white person,” she translates softly to Ken’s “huh?” A grumpy groove courses down his glabella.
Fay tries again, with a vague wave towards the carport and Ken’s pickup. “Maybe some tough-guy Asian activity, like Kendo…those sticks.”
Crossing his arms, Ken looks like he is thinking of a polite way to refuse her. No, he is trying not to smile. “Fay, those sticks are for pole vaulting. Jason and Michael vault for their high school. I’m their coach. I’m an architect only during the day.”
Fay considers falling to her knees. “Please, could Yamo go with you some time?”
“Sure, it’s the off-season. I can probably authorize a middle schooler to practice with us. Have him meet us at the track tomorrow after school.” Ken accepts the canvas bag and looks inside. “So, how do you eat these?”
The next afternoon, Fay picks up Yamo after school. He’s tired. He says he doesn’t really want to do this. He’s not going to know anyone. He’s hungry. Fay keeps her eyes on the road. “Eat something.” She points to a bag of snacks at his feet.
Parking the van next to the high school track, she and Yamo watch boys and girls in motion around the pole vault pit. Fay starts to open her door. “Mom, stay inside,” Yamo orders. “Come back when turnout is over…and, what’s wrong with your hair?”
Fay sighs. “I had it cut.” No fun being related to a teenager. She starts up the van and parks out of sight before walking to a far corner of the football field where Yamo cannot see her. Ken has him and another boy harnessed to tires. They struggle to pull them up and down the field.
“We only did form skills,” Yamo huffs at Fay afterwards. “He wouldn’t let me touch the poles.” Yamo is dubious about the whole enterprise until he goes online that night at home. He learns that Kenneth Hashisaki set collegiate pole vault records while at the University of Oregon in Eugene – practically the birthplace of American track and field, home of runner Steve Prefontaine and jumper Dick Fosbury. “I’ll give it a week,” Yamo allows. Fay senses a retrieved gauntlet.
The second week, Yamo runs and jumps – still without poles. Week three consists of marching, knees high, around the track with poles held aloft. Like knights who have lost their horses, Fay thinks. She hears Ken bark at his sweaty squad. “Four more laps, you slackers!” Ken is proving a better iron ass than a Japanese culture keeper.
Big-shouldered men crowd out late-night TV viewing in the Maloney-Watanabe house: Olympic pole vaulter Toby “Crash” Stevenson; Tim Mack; and the Ukrainian god, Sergei Bubka. “He’s the only pole vaulter to win six world titles in the same event,” Yamo enthuses.
Week four, Ken lets Yamo plant and lift. “Drive, drive, drive.” Fay can hear Ken bellow from her peeking-out place behind the bleachers. Yamo thrusts his pole into the box at the base of the pole vault pit and swings his legs, but there is no going over any bar.
November rains force the vaulters to move indoors and share practice space with ponytailed gymnasts. Fay, who is washing sweats nightly, picks up Yamo at his middle school with slightly damp gear for his workout with the high schoolers. “Sorry, I got home late from work. These have only had a few minutes in the dryer.”
Yamo smirks and pats her head patronizingly before he swans away. “I’m so hot they’ll dry on my body.” Oh, does Fay love her boy.
With a proviso, Yamo finally invites her into the gym one afternoon after school. “Don’t clap or yell. It’ll make me nervous.”
His turn comes. He raises his pole, puffs out his cheeks, and blows out audibly. A strong forward hop, a leap and his big feet pound the runway. A perfect takeoff on his toes. Up, up, up, Yamo goes over the bar. Fay’s spine is his pole, his trajectory her heart. Eight feet, nine feet, ten feet! Flyboy! Skyboy! All his flinging and imaginary childhood play with sticks and swords and lances come back to her. How could it not have culminated in pole vaulting? He’d been preparing for this all his young life…a wonder.
Ken waves Fay over at the end of practice. “Yamo has the perfect body for this. Long and lean…and still growing.” Old family photographs pop into Fay’s mind — the lanky great-great-grandfathers as tall as the stone houses they’d built back in Goleen, County Cork. Finally, a worthy contribution from the Maloneys. Fay’s brothers both are over six feet.
Ken thwacks Yamo on the back. “He’s going to be a great vaulter.” Yamo is stoic only until they get in the van. On the ride home, he sings, he whoops, he makes Fay crazy with the volume of the radio.
As they pull into the driveway, Yamo stops dancing in his seat. He turns off the radio and gives her a shocked look. “Mom! We never went back to get more chestnuts!” Fay draws in a sharp breath. She had forgotten, too. Their eyes lock, startled. There are no bearings readily available for where they are. The state of Definitely Different does not exist on any map sitting in the van’s glove compartment.
Yamo brushes away his surprise with bravado. “Next year, I’ll vault into the chestnut trees.”
“Only if you wear a helmet.” Fay pushes Yamo’s unruly bangs off his forehead, getting a vigorous head shake for her affectionate display.
“Let’s go tonight.”
“Oh honey, the chestnuts are long gone.”
“I just want to go.”
The last thing Fay wants to do is go out into the black drizzle. Once inside the house, she distracts Yamo with a humungous plate of scrambled eggs. With it, he downs a quart of chocolate milk. Minutes after finishing, he is asleep on the couch.
Watching her slack-mouthed angel, Fay is unsure who or what to thank for the well-being she feels. She wishes she could talk to Eiji. She’d say: what you can’t comprehend from analysis, you can get from awe. She imagines his side of the conversation. How she misses their nightly recaps — she and Eiji ticking off what went well during the day, what not so well.
She reads through The Times without recognizing any by-lines of reporters with whom Eiji had worked. An hour later, she moves on to sorting laundry, whispering into one of Eiji’s old sweatshirts, appropriated by Yamo, “Wabi sabi, baby.” Fay tiptoes into the living room and lays the sweatshirt over Yamo. She wakes the boy with her movement.
“What time is it?” Yamo widens his eyes and blinks.
“It’s almost midnight, honey. I’m going to bed. Good night. Sweet dreams.”
“Wait, let’s go.”
“Now?” Fay does not want discord after such a serene evening. Reluctantly, she accompanies Yamo to the entryway where they pull on coats and hats before ambling over to the deserted, moonless Crown.
Without leaves, the chestnut trees appear to lean away from the street lights, bashful at having their nakedness exposed. Yamo leaps towards hanging branches. Not even close. He grabs a stick and throws it up into a tree. Yawning, Fay labors after Yamo, pretending to be an old Asian gatherer. “Young man, give me back my stick!”
An ominous floodlight blinds them. A cop, watching from his cruiser for who knows how long, illuminates and stops their antics.
“Should we make a run for it?” Yamo whispers.
“We haven’t done anything bad. He’s looking for drug dealers or burglars.” Fay can’t be sure, though.
Yamo breathes fast at this sudden, high adventure. “He’s probably got night-vision goggles.”
The cop puts the cruiser in gear and rolls alongside them. When he lowers his window, his face –some kind of Hispanic– reflects the turquoise glow of screens and dials. This is the closest Fay has been to a police cruiser since the one in her driveway last fall. Then, a small white woman officer and a strapping, black male officer had gotten out and approached her. She’d seen them pull in and had opened the front door.
The lady cop had never dropped her gaze. “Mrs. Watanabe? We regret to inform you that your husband has been involved in a life-threatening traffic accident.”
This had made no sense to Fay. “He rides a bike.”
The lady cop continued. “The dark and the rain made for poor visibility. The collision involved a garbage truck. He’s at Harborview Hospital right now.”
Fay had grabbed the white cop’s arm. “What are you saying? I just talked to him before he left the office.” Fay could not remember their conversation, what with her visions of a garbage truck’s sickening lurch, a skidding bike, and a sprawled rider.
The officers took her to Harborview, Eiji’s hospital room filling up with friends and Watanabe relatives. Countless times Fay relived that eternal night: Eiji’s body as it shut down, never regaining consciousness; poor pre-teen Yamo trying to protect and distract her.
Bereaved and exhausted, the living had dragged themselves out of the hospital doors and into a feckless dawn. The Olympic Mountains, like geologic superheros, had stepped towards them out of the mist as if to the rescue. How would I even know about superheros without Yamo? Fay had thought dully, the boy’s hand tight in hers.
Tonight, the cop’s words are convivial. “Good evening, folks. Coupla night owls, eh? Do you know the Crown of Queen Anne is actually a city park and all city parks close at 11 pm?”
Together, Fay and Yamo say, “Oh.” Fay takes in the officer’s nametag, A. Gomez. There is a bike on the cruiser’s back rack.
“Is this your son?”
Fay edges closer to Yamo. “Of course.”
“Doesn’t he have school tomorrow? I think you oughta head home and get that boy in bed.”
“Yes, officer, we’ll go tuck him in right away.”
At a decibel level meant only for Fay, Yamo clears his throat, disgusted.
A voice crackles out of the officer’s radio. He is needed elsewhere. “Have a good evening.”
Fay watches the receding tail lights. “Thank you, officer,” she whispers, disoriented. She head-speaks to the departing cop, wishing he was Eiji. We can find our way home.
A breathy whistle of relief comes from Yamo. “That was close.”
Fay considers disabusing him of how much trouble they had not been in. Aw, let him think of his mother as a protector for a bit longer, she resolves, albeit a protector unfairly hoping Yamo will play out her fantasy that the cop and Eiji’s spirit are one. “Wow, what a coincidence. The officer’s initials were A.G.” It could be Eiji contacting them. She didn’t really go in for ghosts visiting from the other side. Still… “A, period, G, period. The initials of his name were A.G. Sounds like Eiji,” she stresses, glancing at Yamo. Will he bite?
“A cop with a bike.” Yamo slugs her arm. “Maybe…that was cool…oh Mom.”
The parent-teenager rules suspended, Yamo wraps his boy-man arms around Fay. She sobs, feeling his chest contract and release like hers.
“Oh, God, what a pair of blubbering wackos,” Fay sniffles, squeezing her nose with a glove. “C’mon, Officer Gomez says it’s past your bedtime.”
“Who you calling a wacko?” Yamo pretends to be offended and swats at her. She feints and circles him, around and around, Eiji there between them under the chestnut trees.
Wendy Marcus‘s debut collection, “Polyglot: Stories of the West’s Wet Edge,” won the 2009 Serena McDonald Kennedy Award from Georgia’s Snake Nation Press and a 2010 National Jewish Book Council Fiction Award. She is Music Director at Temple Beth Am in Seattle and sings in Yiddish at the slightest provocation.