By Alex Austin
The news reports didn’t exaggerate. The waves were massive, as big as Hugh had
ever seen in California, though the slabs of water—mackers, the surfers called them, after
Mac trucks—didn't stop dozens of thrill-seekers in black wet suits from paddling into
But definitely too challenging for his sons. Although there were surfers not much
older or taller than the twins, none were quite as young, none with their slender builds
and narrow shoulders. If Setsuko had seen the surf, she wouldn't have considered letting
their sons go in. But his wife had remained at the condo, feeling ill, attributing it to the
dinner they ate on the drive down from L.A. As she kissed them goodbye at the car, Hugh
assured her that he wouldn’t let the boys go out if conditions were dangerous. She
responded with a half-smile, a doubtful smile.
Leaning back on his beach towel, Hugh scanned the path of a seasoned surfer as
he soared down the steep front of his wave, cutting white tracks, sending up sparkling
jets. No surfer himself, Hugh still felt the excitement, imagined the exhilaration. For such
ominous surf, the water was beautiful—light green and transparent. A bright, warm day
under innocent blue skies, another perfect day along the southern coast. Hugh pried the
lid off his coffee, the cup neatly screwed into the sand.
“They aren’t that big,” said Takumi, five minutes older than his twin, Hitoshi, and
the more assertive of the two.
“What if we stay close to shore, Dad?” asked Hitoshi.
“Just catch the wash,” added Takumi.
“The currents are too strong,” Hugh said, but so softly that he might not have
spoken at all. He sipped his coffee. A seagull swooped down and settled a few yards
away, eyeing their opened box of donuts. Hugh broke off a chunk of a jelly-filled and
tossed it to the bird, who snatched it up and flew off. Hugh closed the box and shoved it
in his gym bag.
“Not like we’re swimming. We’ve got the boards,” insisted Takumi.
Hitoshi clapped his brother’s shoulder. “We’ll stay close together.”
“We’ve surfed six-foot waves at Malibu.”
It was true but those were gentle compared to these.
A cadre of surfers soared down a wave’s slope like rocket streamers. How
“Why did we come here then?” asked Hitoshi.
“You’re always telling us how good we are,” said Takumi.
“You are good,” Hugh said with conviction.
“Then why can’t we go?”
Hugh pointed. “Look at the size of that wave.”
“We wouldn’t take that wave. We’re not stupid.”
“Of course not, but ... it’s not just one wave.”
“We’ll stay close together.”
As if to admit that they had given up, they worked their torsos out of their wet
suits, revealing the smooth slender bodies, identical down to the freckles on their
Hugh shifted on the sand and leaned into his sons, thinking he would hear their
whispers of consolation, but they were silent, staring at different horizons. His head felt
heavy, feverish. Was he coming down with the same bug that Setsuko caught?
Hugh moved behind his sons and put his hands on their shoulders. “We’ll come
back tomorrow, guys. The waves won’t be as big. You can surf tomorrow, okay?”
Their shoulders sunk as if his hands were heavy weights.
“How do cheese steak sandwiches sound?” Hugh asked, sticking his head
between theirs. Food usually got them out of their funk. He grinned and kissed Hitoshi’s
cheek, tasting the sunscreen Setsuko had meticulously rubbed in as they left the condo.
Hitoshi scrunched his nose, but nodded. Hugh turned to Takumi and was about to muss
the long black hair when something caught his eye. At the base of Takumi’s throat was a
bulge as if a gumball had lodged under his skin. “What’s this?” asked Hugh, pointing at
the protrusion. Takumi shrugged. “Did you injure yourself there?”
“No. It was just there.”
Hugh touched the ball. Not hard, not soft. “How long have you had it?”
“I don’t know. A couple of days. Why?”
”We should get it checked out,” Hugh said calmly.
“Look, dad,” said Hitoshi, “the waves are smaller.”
A swollen gland. Maybe a cyst.
“Come on, dad.”
“You know we’re excellent surfers.”
Nearby, the seagull Hugh had fed mewed loudly and insistently. Hugh searched
for adequate words to explain his refusal, but the words would not cohere. What was
something like that doing on his son? He squeezed their shoulders. Would Setsuko have
to know the exact dimensions of the waves? What the Hell...
“Ten minutes. I’ll let you go in for ten minutes.”
"All right, dad!"
Beaming, they slipped back into their wetsuits and folded the Velcro leashes
around their slender ankles. The leashes were made for thicker limbs and even fully
wrapped still had play.
Carrying his coffee, he walked with them into the surf. He was hip deep and the
backwash was enough to knock him off balance. The chaotic waters reflected sunlight in
a hundred directions, poking holes in his vision like a migraine.
Takumi and Hitoshi threw themselves onto their tiny surfboards and paddled
skillfully into the wash.
“Ten minutes,” he shouted, though he wasn’t sure they could hear him over the
booming waves. Through his fly eyes, he followed their lithe bodies as they fought their
way through the surf, paddling parallel, nosing down to let the broken waves crash over
They faced a set of big waves that carried surfers. They broke though the base of
the first wave, disappearing as the comber rose up to curl and collapse. He saw them
again, just as the second wave struck. They made it through the third and took their place
among the hundred other surfers on the flat water, waiting for the next set. Hugh calmed
a little then. He watched all the surfers drift to the right. The entire sea was moving north.
A wave formed, rising. The twins paddled side-by-side forcefully, belying their age and
size. Together they turned, shooting forward as the wave lifted them until they were on
the crest, held in suspension for an instant and then rocketing down, perfectly balanced,
soaring down the wave’s infinite face. Crouched, they cut right and then left with
dazzling synchronicity. As the wave folded and crashed, they rode parallel to the shore
and then rolled off their boards, disappearing into the froth, above which a seagull
shimmied as if caught in a cross wind.
When the twins reappeared, they instantly turned their boards around and started
paddling out again. He caught the fierce smiles. How long they had been out? He lost
track of time watching them. It was no time, all time. He followed them again as they
drove though the waves, getting farther out. As he backed out of the surf, Hugh lost his
balance, dropping his coffee cup. He walked out of the surf and back to the blanket,
where he watched them take another wave. He rubbed his thumb against his index finger.
Was a cyst hard or soft? He wanted to feel the lump again. He reached for his coffee and
remembered that he’d spilt it. A few hundred yards down the beach, adjacent to the
access road, there was a refreshment stand. It would take only a few minutes he thought.
He needed the caffeine.
By the time he returned with his coffee, most of the surfers had moved farther out,
where the swells had increased in size. He scanned the black wetsuits, looking for the
smallest. Beyond the surfers, a boat churned south, rising and falling in enormous waves.
His sons had been in at least thirty minutes. He walked to the water’s edge and called
their names. It was impossible to be heard over the ocean’s roar. With a bullhorn, he
would not have been able to reach them. The surfers were fighting against a current that
threatened to pull them off the break. The set came. The first wave was the largest of the
A dozen surfers turned their boards toward the shore and paddled furiously to get
ahead of the wave. He tried to pick out his sons from the other surfers being lifted on the
swell like chips of wood, half failing to catch it. For a few seconds, the pack was
invisible. The second wave rose. More surfers strove to take this one, arms wind milling,
heads raised like beasts sniffing their prey. When the third wave came, it was enormous.
The remaining surfers were determined to ride the monster. Hugh saw the two boys turn
their boards to shore and paddle madly.
Lodged ten feet high on the face, they simultaneously stood up and shot sideways,
moving dizzyingly fast. They cut trails, finally spreading apart as the wave carried them
As they toppled off their boards, Hugh yelled for them to come in. They were
close enough to have heard, but ignoring him they turned away and lay on their boards,
stroking seaward. He clawed his way out.
“Takumi! Hitoshi!” Hugh shouted.
Hugh’s coffee cup again slipped from his fingers, bounding away. “Goddamn it,
come in!” The next wave was easily the largest of all, a violent unforgiving watery claw.
The air rushed from his lungs. Come in! Come in!
Hugh dove. He drew himself to the bottom and swam. Thirty seconds later he
surfaced for a breath, coming up within the fury of a collapsed comber. He kicked to stay
in place, bobbing like a cork as he strained to see his sons among the distant pack.
He dove again, remaining underwater until his lungs burned. As he surfaced, he
was gripped by a current that ripped him seaward as if he were a weightless rubber
inflatable. Get beneath it. Get beneath it. Diving, he fought his way down three feet, six
feet, ten feet, until his fingers clawed the dark seabed. The riptide’s grip relaxed. For
twenty seconds, he swam perpendicular to the current and surfaced again. He was no
more than twenty yards from the pack. He spotted the two small wetsuits. His boys were
flat on their boards, turning now to get in front of the rushing wave. He screamed their
names, and in coming about for the wave, they showed their faces. Not his sons’ faces.
Not his sons. Hugh bobbed on the water’s surface as a dozen surfers rushed down the
wave toward him. Something flashed and the bright sea went black.
Later Takumi’s and Hitoshi’s boards washed up on the beach. The leashes
remained attached. The bracelets of Velcro were still fastened but no longer on the
It would be a day before Hugh knew that the sea did not return his sons.
TWELVE YEARS LATER
“Tonight at Huddle’s Books, we are honored to have Kazuki Ono, who joins
Kafka, Dickens and Orwell as a novelist whose name has become an adjective.”
The crowd that jammed Huddles, a small, independent Pasadena bookstore,
applauded. Many of the hundred or so fans raised copies of Ono’s Enrique the Freak
above their heads and banged them like tambourines, the sound echoing raucously off the
store’s high ceiling. Though almost giddy with excitement, each fan was careful not to
drop the numbered ticket that would allow them to queue up and meet the author after he
read from his latest work.
Ducking back into his aisle, Hugh Mcpherson drew ticket ninety-nine down his
unshaven cheek. He had arrived late so as to be camouflaged by the crowd. Across the
room his ex-father-in-law Ono, whose sight was never good, wouldn’t recognize him—
more than twelve years had passed—but should he happen to walk by and see Hugh, the
author known as the Lion of Ōsaka would surely roar. With luck, the crowd would
disperse by the time ninety-nine stepped up and asked for his favor.
Hugh had followed Ono’s work over the years, pored over the pages of each new
novel like a fly on a window searching for a way out. He sought a character’s mistake
that paralleled his mistake; for in his fiction, Ono sometimes found redemption for the
most repulsive of his characters. But in all eight novels since the tragedy, there had been
nothing connected with Hugh’s error. He had bought Enrique the Freak earlier in the day
but hadn’t read a page.
He expected no reprieve—only a simple favor.
Hugh glanced down at his book and turned up the back cover. The rainbow grid
that overlay the blurbs and biography framed Ono’s photograph, a head dominated by the
mass of now mostly gray hair, though it had been freakishly blond in his youth. A face
with the same bone structure as his daughter, Setsuko.
It had been five years since Ono had been in Los Angeles, when he appeared at
this same bookstore with Sleepwalk Spacewalk, his eleventh novel. Hugh attended that
night and heard Ono read from the book in his hesitant English (a mark of his modesty,
for in truth Ono’s English was perfect).
As on that night five years ago, Hugh had come tonight to ask Ono to take a letter
to Setsuko, for since she’d returned to Japan, the divorce final, there had been no further
communication between them. Hugh’s phone calls had gone unanswered, his e-mails
declared undeliverable, his letters returned, unread. That last letter, too, had met no better
fate, for in the middle of the reading, Hugh had heard in Ono’s voice the soul-shaking
voices of his sons. The guilt pressed Hugh’s chest like a hundred fathoms of sea, and he
But tonight he would draw the required courage from the decision he’d made
twelve years ago and failed to implement once, but would fulfill tomorrow.
Now the bookstore’s owner signaled for Ono, who stood at the rear of the
platform, to come forward. The crowd erupted with applause as the author stepped on the
stage, still looking trim and athletic at seventy. At his side, he held his novel.
Ono bowed several times, smiling. He closed his eyes and the applause tapered
off as he stepped up to the microphone.
He began, “Thank you. During my promotional tours, I visit many large
bookstores: vast bookstores, I might say. Most are part of chains, which is simply the
nature of bookselling these days, and I have no complaints about the way my books are
treated. But there remains something special about an independent bookstore like
Huddle’s, where can be found the obscure and the masterpieces, terms not mutually
exclusive. This is a house of words.”
The crowd applauded.
“Now in this house of words I would like to add a few more of my own.” He
lifted his book, set it on the podium and opened it. “Enrique the Freak, Chapter One.
“‘I leased an apartment in the Hatsudai District. ‘The landlord explained that as a
condition of the lease, the body would be kept in the living room as I had been kept by
the previous tenant. He would be visible, floating in liquid nitrogen in a Plexiglas
chamber, but the mechanisms for his maintenance would be silent. The building’s
electricity supplied power, but in the event of a power loss, an emergency generator
would take over. There was no need to pay special attention to the chamber, as it could be
cleaned of dust and grit with a common household cleaner.
“‘Any attempt to hide or cover the body, for example when guests came over,
would break the lease. The landlord advised against inviting children into the
apartment— not that the children would be disturbed by the sight, but because even the
best-behaved sometimes get into mischief, occasionally putting their own lives in
The floor shifted beneath Hugh’s feet so that he had to grab the bookshelf to
Ono went on: “‘Any damage to the chamber would be his responsibility. He
agreed, knowing he constructed this arrangement or did he was....’”
Ono looked up suddenly, as if someone in the audience had jeered. He tilted back
his head. His eyes danced around and his mouth fell open. As the audience murmured
around him, Hugh clasped the bookcase, bracing for the targeting finger and the terrible
accusation: “You dare! Murderer of my grandsons!”
But Ono said nothing. The crowd, following Ono’s gaze, turned their faces
toward the high ceiling and a soft clapping. Above them, a seagull beat its wings as it
calmly circled the assembled fans. The bird didn’t seem to be seeking a way out, and
there appeared no sign of how it had gotten in.
One of the keyed up fans shouted merrily, “Nevermore!” Several others took up
the cry, but it quickly ebbed as the seagull vanished as mysteriously as it had appeared.
Offering the crowd a bemused smile, Ono returned to his reading, not noticing
that one of the audience had gone missing.
Two hours later, Ono opened his eyes in the rented Mercedes. Driving the 134, he
and his driver Jack were descending the grade from Pasadena into Burbank, and the lights
of the San Fernando Valley spread uniformly to the distant shadowy face of the Santa
Monica Mountains. A burst of hot white fire appeared to the south, as a rocket rose in the
night sky, exploding into dozens of silver streamers, which in turn fragmented into ten-
thousand multi-colored sparks.
“Universal Studios,” said Jack, as the boom of the primary explosion rattled the
windows, followed by the small artillery of the streamers and the chattering of the final
Ono turned over the ivory envelope. He traced the handwritten letters of his
daughter’s name. As if his finger were a candle’s flame drawing out invisible ink,
Setsuko’s name in her own signature appeared in exquisite Kanji.
Ono sighed, “It was a good crowd.”
“You turn them on, Kazuki.”
“Because your words are round,” answered Jack happily.
Kazuki smiled and studied the envelope again. “The woman who gave you this
couldn’t describe the man?”
“She was trying to keep her place in line. She said he seemed nervous.”
“It’s surely his handwriting,” Ono said.
“I thought I might have seen him. If it was Hugh, he’s changed a lot. Thinner,
haggard, older. He was always a youthful bloke.”
“Kyōryoku,” said Ono, pinching a lock of his gray hair, drawing it to his lips and
sucking as if he might extract some nourishment.
“Oh, he was a powerful man. He could beat the stuffing out of me. What was that
name you called him? Uncivilized something?”
“Noble savage, you mean.”
“That’s the one.”
“I was younger too, Jack,” said Ono, releasing the lock of hair, raking the strands
back into place. “I have to see him, but not yet.”
The car raced past the Los Angeles River, channeled here in concrete. Ono
fumbled with the controls on his door.
“Open the window?” asked Jack.
The Mercedes window slid down. A warm wind perfumed with jasmine and citrus
whipped up Ono’s hair and took his breath. Pinching the envelope at one corner, he thrust
his hand into the rushing air. His hand vibrated and the envelope made a frightened
whistling sound like a trapped bird. Schopenhauer’s remark swooped in from the
darkness: We do not will our fingers to open; opening our fingers is the will.
Releasing the letter, Ono followed its swift flight into the dark above the
denatured river, and there he lost it.
Hugh executed an illegal U-turn across Topanga Canyon Boulevard, threw the car
into reverse, backed within six feet of the battered blue Sentra hooked up to a shabby
trailer, and then drove forward enough to make it easy for the trailer’s occupants to get
out when the police arrived.
For two weeks, Hugh had parked on the same stretch of hard-packed dirt
roadside, one hundred yards from the beach and at the base of the Santa Monica
Mountains. On every day but the first, the Sentra and the ancient Airstream had been
there. He’d watched the dust build on the car’s scorched hood, and the air seep from the
trailer’s scabby front tires, and he thought the tandem had been abandoned, until the
morning he heard the electric generator humming and saw that the yellowed newspapers
in the windows had been replaced with a new edition.
Hugh opened his car’s trunk, which smelled of lemons, Dr. Bronner’s Pure
Castile Peppermint Soap and rotten strawberries. He shifted his computer case and dug
through the layers of books, clothes, emergency kits, canned foods, bottled water and a
half-dozen empty Gator-Aid bottles to find his bathing suit and an extra pair of briefs.
The front passenger seat of the car too was cluttered; only the back seat was bare. That
was his bottom line, keep the back seat free in case it really was all a dream and the boys
needed to buckle up.
He hefted the computer case, fat with miscellaneous papers, and repositioned it.
The police would confiscate the laptop, thousands of pages of text, but Hugh had drained
all the incriminating evidence, like dirty oil from a crankcase.
He snapped the bathing suit a couple times and walked to the car’s passenger side.
He opened the front door, set the bathing suit and briefs on the hood, drew the large beige
towel off the seat and firmly wrapped it around his waist. He grimaced. Not since leaving
his parents’ house where family modesty—the dogged fear of offending anyone—
prevailed, had he worried about baring his ass in public. But now, so many years later,
that child’s shame taunted him. Do not let the towel slip.
He yanked up the trunks, checked his pockets and slipped on the sandals. He took
out the UV fifty sunscreen, and thought to put it back. No. Can’t. Nothing different. He
smeared his nose and cheeks, not bothering to smooth much, and pulled on his baseball
cap, which came with the car, a sturdy two-ton, steel-framed Volvo. Removing his wallet
from his Levis, but leaving the flash drive in the coin pocket, he folded the jeans, set
them on the passenger seat, put the extra briefs on top and locked the door, exactly as he
always did. Before setting the wallet in the trunk, he sifted through the currency and
business cards, taking out the carefully folded sheet of paper, unfolding it and once more
looking over the list of things he was to do in the next two months, including the
differentiated teaching seminar and the Napa wine tasting. Satisfied, he returned the
paper to the wallet and set it atop the computer. Everything was to be as it always was,
for as a bride wanted a perfect wedding, Hugh wanted a perfect suicide.
A gull glided overhead and rose sharply, squawking loudly.
Looking up, Hugh saw his sons sitting on the hillside, arms wrapped around their
tucked knees, smiling in anticipation of the next adventure. He threw Takumi a tennis
ball, which his son effortlessly snatched, raising his chin proudly. He tossed a second to
Hitoshi, who rose to catch it, his slender legs golden in the morning light. Hugh blinked
and his sons were gone, as always they were. Emptied out of the world.
He grabbed his gym bag, packed with beach gear and topped with several
paperback novels, slammed his trunk for the last time and set off briskly for the beach.
As he passed the trailer, it’s door opened and a woman wearing a lip ring, black
stud large as a marble, stepped out. She nodded to him and he nodded back.
She asked, “You got a cigarette, babe?”
“I don’t smoke,” said Hugh stiffly.
“That’s all right. I shouldn’t either,” she said. “Going swimming, huh?” she
added, glancing back as if to see the Pacific, but the trailer, parked at an angle to the road,
blocked any view of the ocean.
Hugh snapped, “Yes.”
She licked the stud and pushed her hand through unkempt black hair streaked
with red like an arrow’s fletching. “Your routine, right?”
“That’s right,” said Hugh, slowing only a little, perhaps losing five seconds. He
now resumed his quick pace. “Later.”
“Have a nice day, Buddha,” she laughed.
Hugh raised his hand above his shoulder and waved goodbye.
Hanna. Hanna and Kyle. They were a couple he’d heard arguing regularly at the
P & L Café three miles north. No doubt Buddha referred to his indifference to their
battles, which were more like tussling pups than the raging Rodans and Godzillas of
recrimination that he loosed upon himself as he sat on the deck of the Peace and Love, so
deep into his guilt that a thousand Buddhas could not have shown him the way back to
high-normal blood pressure, much less enlightenment. She had noticed his beach
“routine.” So what? All the better.
Behind him something squeaked, fell silent for a second and then squeaked again.
“I’ll cross the sea in a boxing glove,...” sang a gravely voice. Squeak. It was Jack the Hat,
one of the canyon’s Dickensian characters, never without his open crown Fedora. The
Hat pedaled by on his wreck of a bicycle, tipping his bonnet to Hugh in passing.
Walking on the north side of the road, Hugh swung his gym bag against his thigh
as he strode past the feed store and the outdoor furniture bazaar, where four brown-
skinned workers hauled a large stone table toward the bed of a monster pick-up. On
Pacific Coast Highway, the summer traffic stuttered and streamed, stuttered and
streamed. A few thousand feet above the sea, a small buzzing airplane pulled a banner
advertising Dos Equis. I don’t always drink beer, but when I do.... A homeless man,
barefoot, bearded, ragged, hopelessly stained, walked by, reviling invisible enemies. He
may have been the man Hugh assisted the week before, when Hugh found him kneeling
by the roadside, flushed and wheezing, eyelids clamshell thick, hand still clutching the tin
of peanuts. Hugh called 911 and waited with the man until medics arrived and injected
the epinephrine. Or it could have been another among the people that come and go.
Hugh pressed the flat-topped yellow dome with the concave center.
Two day-workers hunched down on the other side of the highway, waiting for
employment. Thick necked, big bellied, strong, durable. He liked and respected the looks
of men like that. He nodded pointlessly to them, and they nodded pointlessly back.
Beyond the birds of paradise, trashed bougainvillea and ice plant, the Pacific
spread tight as a child’s skin. A wave smacked the shore, growling as it rushed back over
a million pebbles. At the break, a hundred surfers sat frozen on their boards waiting for a
set. Beyond the surfers, a kayaker paddled vigorously past a buoy, and then slowed
against the vast sea.
Hugh reached the steps: twenty-two before he set his feet on the beach. He waited
a moment, sniffing the tar of the squat bulwark leading to the steps, the cracked brown
logs that when he left the beach, he would sit on to wipe the sand off his feet, the wood’s
heat radiating through his buttocks. It was there in the wood that someone had carved the
quotation that Hugh read a year ago, now whispered in his ear as if by a ghost.
Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving
above one’s head and listen to silence. To have no yesterday and no tomorrow. To forget
time, to forgive life, to be at peace.
Hugh glanced down to where the incision should be, but wasn’t. Someone had
ripped out the words, perhaps to discourage the very act that Hugh would commit.
At the base of the stairs, he looked for an open spot. Except for surfers, Topanga
Beach, strewn with flea-infested rotting kelp and innumerable rocks, drew few visitors—
a handful of Canyon residents, Europeans, Hispanic families, boys and girls bathing
naked like flower children or in their drooping underwear. When the tide was out,
thousands of softball-sized stones were visible below the tide line; these were the
bruising rocks that crackled under the waves of the incoming tide, smashing the toes and
ankles of any bather hardy or foolish enough to walk to deep water on the backs of the
stones. Fifty yards south on the beach, the rocks were fewer and smaller, pebbles, really,
and it was there, beneath the lifeguard stand, that most of the bathers spread their
blankets. Beyond that were a restaurant and a jetty. It was Hugh’s habit to walk out on
the larger rocks, bloodying his feet before at waist-deep he dove free. There was no pain
while he swam, the cold water an anesthetic.
When he was a boy in New Jersey, he would swim in the creeks of the marsh
behind his house, long before summer and not much after winter, when the cold salt
water would turn his lips and fingers purple, and leave his hands wrinkled as an old
man’s. He would dry off and change before coming home, hiding the bathing suit and
wet towel. His plunges would have shocked and disappointed his parents, who knew
nothing of any rebelliousness in their son. In truth there wasn’t much more to know.
Hugh set his gym bag down a short distance from the stairs, spread his towel and
found four rocks to hold down the edges, though the wind was negligible. He took off his
sandals, clapped them and dropped them into the bag. He removed his hat, carefully set it
down, and then his T-shirt. He placed his glasses and sunglasses in the upturned baseball
cap. He took out the sunscreen, smeared his nose, his forehead and the tips of his ears.
Putting back the sunscreen, he zipped up the bag, for the seagulls would raid an open
unguarded container. Not that he would need the two packets of peanut butter crackers or
the snack bars, nor the impregnable tins of salmon. He stood up, sucked in a lungful of
ocean air and touched the waistband of his bathing suit. He undid the cord’s bow, yanked
the ends tighter and retied the nylon. Satisfied with the snug waistband, he took a step
toward the ocean, and then remembered that Ono’s novel was in the gym bag. In the
hours after Hugh had seen Ono in the Pasadena bookstore, he slowly read Enrique the
Freak, taken with the idea that Kazuki had this time included something of Hugh in this
work. It was the possibility that Ono had tossed some crumbs of forgiveness his way that
caused Hugh to retreat from personally delivering the letter. For a few hours, he thought
that the next page might offer some new perspective on Hugh’s responsibility for the
death of his sons.
Beyond the passage that had raised his hopes at the reading, the book offered
Hugh no pardon. No child, no children, appeared. He discerned no parallel to his own
life. No hint that Setsuko might have forgiven him. Lacking that reprieve, rehearsals were
How would they interpret Ono’s book? Would they draw a motive from the dog-
eared pages? He meant to toss it, but there it lay. He picked it up, looked toward the
trashcan. “Still I look to find a reason to believe,...” he sang to a sharp-eyed seagull. “Tim
Hardin, 1965, covered by Rod Stewart, double-A-side with Maggie May, 1971.” No, they
wouldn’t make a connection.
A set of modest waves had drawn the surfers into frenzied paddling. Several
broke from the pack, rising on their boards in one seamless motion.
The kayaker, too, turned shoreward and rode the wave
Hugh walked across the beach, striding a hump of kelp attracting ten-thousand
gnats and landing on an ivory-colored crab shell, crackling under his weight. He lifted his
foot and bent for a closer look at the splintered creature, which evoked a memory.
“Dad, look!” the boys cried in unison.
Leaning over the bridge’s railing, the twins hauled in a crab trap from the fast-
flowing Navesink River thirty feet below. Inside the cage an outraged Jersey blue
snapped with thick pincers at the metal bars.
“Dad, that’s gigantic!”
“It’s a beauty. Hey, don’t lean so far over.”
But Hugh did not pull Takumi back. He never pulled them back.
With his foot, Hugh nudged some sand over the crab.
Near the water’s edge, a plump middle-aged woman lay on her back drawing her
fingers under the edge of her bathing suit at the crotch, tucking in the grayish blond hairs.
The woman found Hugh’s eyes. My ex-father-in-law’s hair is the same color as your
pubic hair, he silently explained, but scolding himself for staring too much as he rushed
away from the woman’s glare and strode into the water. An hour from high tide, the rocks
were barely visible. He stepped keenly, trying to retain his balance as he made it knee
deep. He was about to kneel when a wave rolled through him, bringing a sudden jolt of
pain. Fuck. He dropped, kneeling on the rocky base as if acclimatizing himself to the
water. His hands out of sight, he clawed up two medium-sized rocks with both hands and
shoved them into the bathing suit’s pockets. Rising up with his hands on the waist of his
slumping bathing suit, he walked seaward, every step painful and precarious. The water
was only two-feet deep, but the rocks were too thick to pick a path through the sand
bottom. It was heaven to reach the deeper water and dive into the shock. He swam
underwater, past a few large, mossy boulders that would wreck a surfboard. He labored
with the weight of the rocks, glad that if he stopped swimming, he would sink.
The waves that had energized the surfers broke over him. So as not to be thrown
back, he dove, feeling the ocean’s surge stroke his spine like loving hands. The rocks
crackled like voices in a crowd. He saw the surfers’ legs encased in bubble wrap. He
surfaced, a surfer rocketing toward him.
He swam with long strokes, keeping his face in the water for three strokes,
breathing on the fourth. His lower body sunk with the weight of the rocks, so that he had
to kick hard throughout the cycle. He did this for a hundred strokes, and then turned over
and kicked gently, catching his breath, smelling the salt-drenched air, and taking an
occasional backstroke. He swam another hundred yards, once again turning over and
catching his breath. The shore was a crescent, the surfers far behind him. Several pelicans
flew overhead, huge, graceful birds that would occasionally turn up beakless, caught and
mutilated by irate anglers.
The buoy was another twenty yards away. He would rest there for a moment,
before regaining the energy to start the long swim, which would take him beyond the
vigilance of the lifeguards, little concerned about strong swimmers, who could take care
of themselves, and he would take care of himself.
Once before, two years after Setsuko had returned to Japan, he’d tried to take his
That attempt was in mid-November and the water was still warm. He’d swum
westward until exhausted. He couldn’t swim another stroke. He thought that if he just let
go, it would happen. He relaxed, let himself sink. He went down four or five feet, trying
to pretend he was waterlogged, and would sink naturally. He opened his mouth and let
the seawater flow in, just breathe it, he had ordered himself. But he choked and choking,
he spewed the water back into the water. He lost control and fell toward the surface. The
air screamed into his throat. A flotilla of kayakers was cruising by. His arms were
grabbed by several of the kayakers and like a sea anchor they hauled him back to the
beach, advising him not to swim so far from shore next time.
It was then, his head buried in his towel, physically drained from the attempt, and
still tasting the sea salt in his mouth and throat, and the heaviness of the water in his
lungs, that he was filled with an unrecognizable emotion. It was not hope, for there was
nothing that he thought possible to hope for. It was that he might change and find hope.
That notion had carried him forward a decade. He abandoned his screenwriting
career and took up the noble profession of teaching, where he thought he might find some
redemption. He tried, God, he tried, and perhaps it worked ...
Until it didn’t ... dull the grief and guilt. Until it didn’t ... pan out.
So for a year he had planned a suicide different from his first attempt, not only in
result, but in interpretation. This was to be an undetectable suicide.
It was not money. No Double Indemnity maneuvers where the life insurance
payoff is doubled when death is an accident. In a spring class in the middle school where
he had taught for nine years, a student wrote a story in which the teenage narrator, bullied
unmercifully by schoolmates, committed suicide. According to the district’s suicide
prevention counselor, these events happened once or twice a week among middle school
children. Hugh didn’t think that the writer, a pretty, outgoing girl, was writing about
herself, but her story galvanized the students. Hugh spent the remainder of the class
making the case against self-destruction. After school, another student from the class
came in and confessed to Hugh that she had been thinking about taking her own life. She
had listened carefully to what Hugh had said and decided he was right. Things do change.
Things do get better. The entire district only had one suicide counselor, if budget cuts
hadn’t already eliminated that. Hugh touched on the subject in subsequent classes,
whenever he could. If he committed a clearly identifiable suicide, the students would
label him a hypocrite. All his earnest arguments would be labeled bullshit. What would
stop one—or more—from following his example?
It had to be death by misadventure.
Hugh took another stroke and reached the buoy. He clung to the cold metal ball
and felt his weight disappear. He needed to gather strength for the last stretch, by the end
of which his energy would have been drained to zero. He kept his eyes seaward, bobbing
rhythmically and trying to remember that black morning’s details, which would function
as the sedative administered before the general anesthetic.
He pushed off the buoy and swam toward the memory.
Ten minutes later, he dug the rocks out of his pockets, held them tightly to his
chest, opened his mouth and gave himself to the sea. As he dropped his arms, glad for the
end of his exertion, and sunk one, two, three feet beneath the surface, he heard a soft
rhythmic clapping. Someone swimming, swimming effortlessly. He hoped the swimmer
would not see him. He saw through the distorted lens of the deepening water a body pass
above, legs swaying like a sea creature, and then melting into the liquid. Elbows locked at
his hips, still holding the stones, Hugh lifted his forearms to draw himself ever downward
into the dark green depths. He sucked the water into his throat, urging his lungs to take it,
an inversion of the way a woman might urge her womb to eject a baby. The forms came
toward him like the shadow of something below. The forms closed on him. Two
swimmers, he thought vaguely. No. Go away. I want no help. But then he saw that the
swimmers were his sons. Takumi was on the right. Hitoshi on the left. Their hair floated
sensuously above the beautiful expressionless faces. Takumi held something in his hand.
Held it out to Hugh. Small, rectangular, ivory colored: Setsuko’s letter.
Hugh took the envelope, which was soft, falling apart. He drew his fingernail
along the top and the envelope sprung open. The letter floated out. The ink blurred and
I loved you and our children. Please forgive me now....
Kazuki Ono opened the balcony door of his Santa Monica hotel suite. A hundred
miles from the shore, the pale blue, cloudless sky met the placid sea. The atmosphere lay
still. Below, cyclists whirred along the bicycle path. On the walkway a pack of elderly
joggers broke their sweat. Smoke rose from the concession stands, carrying the scent of
huevos rancheros, Bánh mì tr ng and chicharon. Ono tightened the sash of his bathrobe.
He considered the day’s schedule. Later in the morning, he had an appointment
with the studio, where he would listen to preposterous plans for turning his new book into
a feature film. He had learned to smile graciously when they suggested this or that
director, this or that star. Rarely did anything come of any of it. Only one book had been
turned into a film, and the film had not been very good. In the afternoon, he had an
appointment to view some paintings from a Courbet-inspired artist whose subject was
cancer victims and schizophrenics. Ono had already bought one of his paintings. In the
evening he had another book signing. There was also some research to do for the book—
Jack would drive him ...
Most importantly there remained Hugh Mcpherson, who had turned up at the
signing to give him the letter that would never be delivered. Ono couldn’t wait much
longer to confront Hugh, but he was relieved that it hadn’t happened at the bookstore.
Finding another opportunity to meet with his ex son-in-law wouldn’t be difficult. Ono
knew where Hugh lived, worked, spent his leisure. For twelve years, Ono had been
keeping tabs on Hugh, no less than the previous surveillance, but with a different
purpose. The details provided a rich portrait of the man, sufficient for a main character.
At issue was his book in progress Fingal’s Cave. Kazuki had written four-hundred and
fifty pages of the novel in Japan, and his intention was to complete it during his three
weeks in Los Angeles. There were gaps to be filled, chapters to be rearranged, scenes that
required a first hand look at the settings, a few coincidences for which to arrange
plausibility, pages to cut. That aside, one major obstacle remained: redemption. With all
that in hand, he would meet with Hugh Mcpherson, and he would tell him the truth,
including why he had not delivered Hugh’s letter to Setsuko.
Ono’s stomach growled. He hadn’t planned on getting up so early, and room
service was late. He walked back into the suite and got his journal and laptop. He
returned to the balcony, set the laptop on the table and opened the journal. The writing
was in kanji and hiragana, but as he read from the journal, he translated into English and
inputted English text into the laptop. He usually didn’t translate to English until his books
were finished, but this time he was translating on the fly.
A short while later, a duck with her brood emerged from the brush. Following
mother’s example, each buttery duckling hopped into the rock pool and paddled smartly.
The chicks followed their mother as if on a string, the string that tied them to existence.
She led the ducklings across the length of the rock pool, their little beaks imitating their
mother’s, dipping and opening, fortuitously snatching gnats and other bugs from the
water’s surface, gradually absorbing that this was the means to stop that pain in their
little palpitating bellies. To keep the ducks in sight, Yuudai and his sons circled the pool
several times, when suddenly the ducks vanished under a fallen tree. Brent and James
insisted on finding them. His sons scampered down to the shore of the pool, climbed over
the fallen tree and scrambled through the underbrush in pursuit of the ducks. Losing
sight of his sons, Yuudai called out to them, but got no answer. Well, they were on the
hunt, which though bloodless, was just as important to his sons’ survival as the
ducklings’ imitation of their mother. Nature was reality, its lessons paramount, Yuudai
had declared many times to his sons and his wife, Sumiko, who was not so much
dismayed by this principle as by Yuudai’s equally adamant belief that formal education
and its goals were worthless, even anti-human much of the time..
Following the same path Brent and James had taken, Yuudai called out several
times, but still they didn’t respond. Finally catching sight of them, he was about to shout
for his sons, when he saw that they were uncommonly still.
James called out, “Dad, come here!”
When he got to where they stood, not more than a yard away was a large
rattlesnake, sizzling and coiled to strike. Yuudai put his hands on his sons’ shoulders and
told them to back away slowly, but their motion seemed to draw the snake upward.
“Stop,” whispered Yuudai.
He reached into his back pocket and took out his wallet.
“What are you doing?” asked James.
“When I throw my wallet, you get the Hell out of here.”
“I’ve seen this work.”
“You’re not the crocodile hunter,” said Brent.
“I’ll count to three.”
“Maybe we should just wait for him to go away....”
“One, two, three—” Yuudai jerked his arm back and threw.
Kazuki’s stomach rumbled again, but he doubted it was hunger pangs this time,
more like stomach flu or food poisoning. The previous evening, he ate at the hotel
restaurant, usually a safe bet, but he began with a salad, and Los Angeles was notorious
for its contaminated lettuce. In his younger days he had an iron stomach. As he had
grown older, his stomach had lost its integrity. Rarely did a day pass without a bout of
diarrhea. He sighed and looked down at the journal.
Oblivious to the feint, the rattlesnake uncoiled, striking so quickly that James’s
foot may as well have been fixed in concrete. Its fangs sunk into James’s ankle, covered
only by a white athletic sock. James looked dully at his father and mouthed, “Dad.”
“Shit,” shouted Yuudai, kicking the reptile. The snake’s body snapped furiously.
Yuudai grabbed the tail and yanked. “Sonofabitch, let go!” But the snake held fast.
Yuudai dropped the snake, bent his knees and jumped. He came down squarely on the
reptile. He jumped again, the snake as hard as a root under his sneakers.
“Here!” screamed Brent, who had fetched a big wet stone from the rock pool.
Taking the stone, Yuudai kneeled down beside the wriggling snake and slammed the stone
on its head. Again, again and again.
Like a hose when the spigot is turned off, the snake’s body went slack beneath
Yuudai’s knees, and the mouth melted from the white sock slowly turning red. Yuudai
laughed nervously, though he wanted to scream in triumph, for never had he seen the
world’s colors so vividly or heard its sounds so keenly. Was that a worm he heard
burrowing through the mud?
Someone knocked on the door.
The nearby hospital emergency room as well-stocked with an antidote for the
venom. From the doctor, Yuudai learned that snakes were thriving in the hills this year
and snakebites were as common as dog bites.
“What an adventure!” proclaimed Yuudai to his sons.
Hugh staggered from the sea. Bent and shaking like a sick old man, he hid his
face in his hands, while water streamed from the bulging pockets of his low-slung
bathing suit. He flopped on the tide line and coughed up acidy seawater. Crawling back
from the yellow pool, he dropped his head to his forearms and buried his face in the wet
hair and clammy shivering skin.
The mewing of the gulls and the clap of the waves vanished, and Hugh felt far
from the sea, and yet he was looking out at the sea, scanning the horizon for the twin
swimmers, his sons. The ocean turned grainy and white, and the sounds returned as if
from a speaker rolled closer to his ear. He pushed to his knees. His stomach convulsed,
and vomit filled his throat and mouth. He clamped his lips, but the hot salty mix gushed
out, splattering the crushed crab, which had resurfaced, and now shone with life. Hugh
scuttled sideways and collapsed again.
It was another ten minutes before Hugh rose and walked unsteadily into the
ocean. He bent and scooped up handfuls of water, tossing it on his chest. He felt filthy,
decrepit. Ignoring the pain, he stumbled across the rocks until he reached deeper water.
He lowered himself and washed, opening his mouth to taste the water that had almost
tasted him. As Hugh walked back to the blanket, he felt a weight in his pocket. He
stopped, looked around and dug out one small wet stone. Underwater, he had dropped the
larger stones. He fingered the rock, uncertain how it had gotten into his pocket. He went
to toss it but shoved it back. My lucky rock.
He dropped to his towel and scoured the sea. The surfers grazed on the gentle
swell. The kayaker cut his path. The sea spit up a trio of dolphins, like a jazz riff.
Hugh scratched at the warm sand as if it were a rash.
He was a coward. His boys had not been there. The letter had not been there. He
did not believe in ghosts. He did not believe in visits from the spirit world. When he saw
his boys sitting on the hillside, it was the projection of his memory, like photographs
pulled out of a wallet. The only thing left of his boys was the empty tethers. Swept out to
sea, probably devoured by sharks, though no one had said that to his face, to become a
delicacy for the ... Japanese. This is why you hang yourself. This is why you put a gun to
your head. You give yourself a way out and you’ll take it. This he understood.
“Hello, Mr. Mcpherson.”
The voice seemed to come from a distance or another time. What? he asked
himself. What is this? The voice repeated its greeting. Hugh looked up to see Anna, a
student from Period 4, the one with Fuck Like a Porn Star neatly printed on the cover of
her loose-leaf, elsewhere adorned with Tyrone, Pablo, Tasha and Austin—the one who
whispered to him her thoughts of suicide.
She twisted her mouth into a lopsided smile. Her eyes were small, mud-colored,
dull. But her face was finely shaped, and her olive skin glowed. Her arms were slender,
her legs shapely. She had a nice figure, body, though he hesitated to attach that word to
the observation. Despite her motto, she never dressed daringly, and the two-piece she
wore today was modest. She was fourteen.
“Oh, Anna,” he said searching for words, “... this is a surprise.”
“Yeah, me too.”
From his bag of disguises he drew out and slipped on his Clark Kent. “Having a—
nice break?” Lois.
“I’ve been going to summer school.”
“It’s all right. How have you been?”
“Fine. Just enjoying the beach. Getting tan.” He heard his wholesome words as if
they were being fed to him through headphones.
“You were way out.”
“You saw me?”
“Didn’t know it was you. Just someone far out. I thought you weren’t going to
Jesus Christ. “Cheaper than flying to Hawaii,” said Hugh jauntily.
She laughed then. He liked that about her. She laughed at the jokes he made in
class, even the ones that he didn’t expect anyone to get. She wasn’t bright but she knew
when to laugh. She could be funny too. She feared most elevators and rolly polly bugs.
He looked around for Aaron, her sometimes boyfriend.
“I don’t like to swim,” said Anna.
“That’s too bad. It’s great exercise.”
“But you get wet.”
Hugh laughed. He could see that she was pleased, though she hadn’t intended to
“Mr. Mcpherson, I want to ask you something but it’s embarrassing.”
“Well, if I can, I’ll be glad to help you.”
She drew in her lips as if she might laugh. Her eyes shone alarmingly. Twenty
feet behind her, a young boy watched them.
“Do boys have periods?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.”
Her face colored and she whispered, “Do boys have periods?”
“Do you mean like a menstrual cycle?’
“I didn’t think so.”
“Why would that ever occur to you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Am I the first person you’ve asked?”
“The first grown up.”
He looked beyond her for Aaron.
“I know it’s stupid, but I was thinking that women have to get rid of their old eggs
and what about the old sperm? Don’t the old sperm have to die?”
“It seems that way,” said Hugh, avoiding the honest answer.
“It would be only fair,” she insisted.
“Any more questions, Anna?”
“That story that we read in class. The one about the girl and the boy on the dock?”
“I liked it.”
“They were so sweet.” Anna looked away and then back. “Mr. Mcpherson?”
“I’ve think I’ve got a problem.”
“Do you want to tell me?”
“Yes and no.”
“If I can help, I will.”
“That time you came in after class—” said Hugh, alluding to the suicide
“No, nothing like that.”
“Please tell me,” he said, touching her wrist, and immediately drawing back as if
he had stuck his hand in fire.
Anna glanced at several huge birds that flew overhead. Pelicans. She followed
them as they dropped suddenly to skim the ocean for a hundred yards. She turned her
gaze back to Hugh.
Her eyes darted away. Coming up the beach was Aaron, walking slowly but with
martial precision, each step the same length and same duration. Aaron was another of his
students, a fourteen year old who in the fall semester had gotten a fifteen-year-old girl
from his neighborhood pregnant, and was saved by a miscarriage.
Aaron halted six feet from Hugh’s towel, his gaze over Hugh’s head. He was
maybe five-foot-ten, almost Hugh’s height, with a solid build and a stony expression. His
oversized plaid Dickies hung halfway down his calves. His friends said he had a mean
face, but Hugh thought it simply blank.
“Aren’t you going to say hi to Mr. Mcpherson?” said Anna.
“Hi,” said Aaron.
“So you guys like the beach?” asked Hugh, unable to dredge up a blander
“No. Not really.”
“Aaron doesn’t swim either.”
Aaron shrugged, shifting his eyes.
“You told me—”
But she hesitated. He grabbed her wrist, maybe harder than he had intended, for
she winced. He adjusted his grip. One click wider.
Aaron turned. Across the back of the boy’s neck was the tan rectangle that at mid-
semester had displaced the gang affiliation. Aaron reached back and fingered it, as if it
were a loose Band-Aid. Hugh had learned from another student that the girl’s pregnancy
had jarred Aaron into quitting the gang or at least taking a leave of absence.
“Have a nice day,” said Anna.
“Anna, if you want to ask me about that math problem, you can e-mail me from
the school’s website.”
“Oh, okay. That’s a good idea,” said Anna, and Hugh checked himself from
adding, But I’ll likely be dead, so don’t take it personally if I don’t get back to you.
Hugh smiled goodbye and watched them as they climbed the steps to the exit
road. He would not be surprised to see them hitchhiking north on Topanga, Anna with
her thumb out, Aaron a few feet away, pretending he wasn’t with her, and ready to jump
in the car the moment it stopped, deflating the faux kind stranger.
Hugh dug his fingers into the sand and considered another immediate try at offing
himself. But the ordeal had left him drained. He didn’t have the energy.
There was a hurricane off Mexico. A swell was coming. If he were lucky,
tomorrow the sea would rage. He wouldn’t fuck up three times.
He had promised Setsuko.
Hugh set his gym bag in the Volvo’s open trunk. He lifted the yellow beach
towel, backed up a step and snapped it. A volley of sand stung his face. “Shit,” said
Hugh, releasing the towel and clapping his right eye, as if it were not too late. He waited
a moment for the tears to clear the particle of sand, bending his head so that the drops fell
to his toes. On his white trunks he saw a blue smear. He scraped it with his fingernail. He
lifted his hand. A bit of ivory colored paper sat under his nail.
“Hey, boss,” said a new voice. “How long have you been parked here?”
“What?” asked Hugh, still gazing at his finger.
A hand tapped his shoulder. He turned to a bare-chested man, Kyle.
“Couple hours. Why?” asked Hugh.
Kyle looked away and smirked, as if to a conspiring friend.
“You see Hanna?”
“My old lady. Black hair. Pretty. Tats. You know her, man.”
“I don’t think so. Sorry.” Hugh drew out the sliver of paper.
“You never saw her here?” asked Kyle insistently.
“We said hello.”
“Where’d she go?”
“You don’t know?”
“We barely spoke.”
“She invite you in the trailer?”
Kyle again gave his self-assured smile to the invisible friend. He put the back of
his hand to his nose, as if sniffing. His left forearm was tattooed blue. Barbed wire tattoos
twined his right. His earlobes drooped, bearing large oblong holes. He had a boxer’s
stomach, lean arms and clothesline veins. A motorcycle crackled and roared as it
accelerated into the canyon, its chrome shedding sunlight. Hugh felt the engine’s throb in
his chest. The motorcycle disappeared around the first curve.
Hugh gazed at the sliver of paper, rolled it between his fingers and then flicked it
to the dirt. Stupid. He slammed the trunk, brushed by Kyle and slid into the car. Another
breath and he would have been beyond magical thinking and assholes like Kyle.
The interior was hot as a sauna. In the rear view mirror, Kyle walked toward
Hugh’s open window, twirling a tire iron in his fist.
“We weren’t finished talking,” Kyle snarled.
“Yes, we were.” Hugh fished in his pocket for his keys.
Hugh’s door swung open. “You ain’t going nowhere,” said Kyle, bracing the door
with his leg and grinning.
Hugh shoved the key in the ignition. Kyle reached across him for the key. With
his left hand, Hugh grabbed the man’s wrist. With his right hand, he clasped the elbow,
but he hesitated to apply pressure. Kyle’s grin faded.
“Hey, Mr. Mcpherson!”
Anna and Aaron sprinted across the boulevard toward him. “Mr. Mcpherson, can
you give us a ride?” Hugh released Kyle, who drew back from the door, tucking the tire
iron under his belt. He rubbed his forearm, staring hard and thoughtfully at Hugh, who
had all but forgotten him.
Never let a student get into your car.
“Sure. No problem. Get in,” said Hugh.
Ono stood on the balcony watching the huge yacht inch northward. It dwarfed the
nearby boats, which followed the yacht like pilot fish follow their shark. The owner of
the boat was a German nuclear physicist who spent half the year cruising the world with
his super-model companion. He was right out of a James Bond movie. Ono knew the man
Ono turned away and walked back into his suite. He had canceled the
appointment at the studio and had spent the morning in his room. A Tylenol had subdued
the headache, although his stomach remained queasy.
He hesitated before sitting down at the desk. The screensaver depicted a deep
forest with deer and other shy animals appearing occasionally between the trees. The
animal would gaze from the screen, gradually disappearing until all that was left were the
eyes, which would merge into one and fade. Kazuki shivered each time he watched the
transition. He sat down and tapped the touchpad.
While they were watching the Olympic pole-vaulting competition, Yuudai
mentioned to his sons that in high school he competed in the sport. They asked if he could
teach them. Yuudai demonstrated with broomsticks, vaulting across their coffee table and
teaching his sons the basic technique. But of course Brent and James soon grew
dissatisfied with the short unbending wood. Bamboo makes a good beginning pole-
vaulting stick, Yuudai told them. Alongside the freeways, Yuudai informed his sons,
bamboo grew in abundance, beautiful straight plants, eight, nine feet tall.
There was an off ramp close to home where Yuudai thought the bamboo might be
easily obtained. The off ramp skirted a familiar park to which he frequently took the
boys—they rode bikes and skateboards there—so Yuudai foresaw no obstacles .
Something flashed on the balcony. Ono looked up to see a huge seagull alighting
on the railing. Ono’s queasiness had passed and he remembered the uneaten pastry on the
balcony table. He stood and shouted, but the untroubled bird hopped to the table .
Ono slid back the screen door to see the bird snatching the pastry in its beak. The
bird beat its wings to take off, but the jelly-filled pastry was heavier than the seagull had
anticipated. Its take-off was delayed a micro-second, just long enough for Ono to grab its
tail. The bird cawed horrendously and flapped its lustrous wings. Was he only imagining
the seagull to be the same color and size as the one at the book signing? No matter. Ono
tore the pastry from its beak and tossed the bird from the balcony.
Ono returned to his laptop.
A tall chain-link fence separated the park from a steep slope with railroad tracks
at its base. The tracks emerged from a tunnel under the freeway’s off-ramp. The easiest
way to get to the bamboo would be to climb the fence, walk down the slope to the tracks,
follow the tracks to the tunnel and climb back up the slope, where they would have to get
over a second fence to reach the bamboo.
Yuudai demonstrated to his sons how to climb the first fence, but the boys
hesitated when told to ascend, pointing out to their father the numerous signs posted
about the area: PRIVATE PROPERTY. NO TRESPASSING. VIOLATORS WILL BE
PROSECUTED TO THE FULL EXTENT OF THE LAW. Nothing to worry about, Yuudai
told his sons. They were with their old man, weren’t they? We’re Huck Finns and Tom
Sawyers. Signs are meant for those civilized folks. Though not totally convinced, the
twins followed Yuudai’s instructions and were quickly over the fence. Yuudai followed,
jumping exuberantly from the fence top and hitting the ground harder than expected. For
a minute, father and sons gazed soundlessly at the rust-spotted tracks below, on which a
freight train crawled past once or twice a day, disappearing into a dark tunnel, rumored
to be a site of satanic ritual. Yuudai made a joke to ease his sons’ tension, for despite his
reassurance, they were in a forbidden place. Yuudai’s father would have found the act
They scrambled down the slope to the railroad tracks, followed the tracks for
twenty yards and then climbed the opposing slope to a second fence that paralleled the
sharply descending freeway exit, behind which was the bamboo. They waited until the
exit cleared of vehicles and then were over the second fence in a heartbeat. Hunched
down within the stand of bamboo, they felt the wind of the car. When a truck roared by,
the earth shook as if moved by an earthquake.
Yuudai marked the best canes with a pen and then slipped out the small saw he
stuck under his belt. He cut slowly, noiselessly, through a medium stalk, leaving it
leaning against its brothers. He offered the saw to the boys, who took turns severing the
stalks. In a quarter hour, six fine bamboo poles leaned against the fence
“Throw them over like spears,” said Yuudai, grabbing one and grinning as his
sons followed suit.
They drew back their arms but froze at a horrendous screech, followed by a
thunderous crash. The sky darkened. A few feet above their heads, its wheels turning
furiously, a red car floated over them. As it passed, the rear of the car lifted, the
undercarriage flashed perpendicular, then fell away. The red car sailed over the fence
and disappeared beneath the slope. The silence enclosed them like a block of ice,
deadening the first sound, then cracking to let in a sickening roar, a brilliant light and a
“Wait here,” ordered Yuudai to his trembling sons..
Yuudai scrambled up the fence and dropped to the ground. Below, flames leaped
from the broken car. Thirty yards away, he could feel the heat. Yuudai crab-walked down
the slope, but stopped when the heat became too intense. The car was crushed, an
inferno. Smeared across the windshield, the bodies steamed and popped. Already sirens
wailed. He returned to the fence and told the boys to climb over. They ran along the top
of the slope to the first fence and climbed back to the safety of the park. From the park,
they watched the police cars and fire trucks arrive.
“Are they dead?” asked James.
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
“We could have been killed,” said Brent.
“Missed us by a mile,” Yuudai declared.
The following day, Yuudai returned to get the bamboo.
Every time he took the freeway exit, he saw the bare patch, remembered the red
car flying overhead and thought how it could well have struck them.
But what an adventure!
Ono pushed away from the laptop and gazed at the back of his hands. His skin
was getting thin as onion paper. Bruises rose fecundly like mushrooms in the spring. The
chapter was ominous, but perhaps not ominous enough. The screw needed another turn.
Hugh pulled over at Ventura and Topanga, where a disabled eastbound bus with
its hazard lights on was discharging passengers into one-hundred-and-ten degree heat.
Expressionless riders stepped into the hard sun. The older ones held shopping bags from
Ralph’s and Rite-Aid; the young lugged bulging backpacks.
Anna pulled a sundress over her bathing suit, and Aaron an oversized white T-
shirt, his gangbanger attire. Sliding from the car, Aaron grunted, as close as he came to a
thank you. Anna gave the peace sign.
“The school website,” Hugh reminded Anna, but she knit her eyebrows as if she
didn’t know what he was talking about, and he realized that by tomorrow it wouldn’t
matter at all.
Hugh waited for his two students to join the crowd gathering at the light. He
turned the corner, drove a block down the boulevard and tempting a speeding SUV to T-
bone him, swerved across. He parked near the café.
Opening the trunk, he withdrew his wallet and cell phone. He was halfway to the
Coffee Bean before he realized he still had on his bathing suit, damp and sandy. There
was no point in changing, but he had no place to put the wallet. He walked back to the
car, took a few dollars from his wallet and dropped the wallet on the console. He pulled
out the solitary rock from his pocket and threaded it between his fingers as he entered the
Sitting at her usual table was the celebrity with the pink hair, pink miniskirts, pink
Corvette and enormous pink breasts. She found Hugh’s eyes sometimes, but Hugh always
looked away, sensing her desperate need to be seen, like a book with a garish cover.
As he waited in line to order, the rock slipped from his fingers, loud enough for
several people to turn his way. He stooped to pick it up, but the rock had disappeared. He
scanned the floor, aware that the barista was asking for his order, but unable to respond
until he had found his rock.
“This what you looking for?” asked an older woman whose trembling fingers held
the little stone. She was the frail, sun blasted woman who pushed her shopping cart down
the boulevard, searching trash bins for recyclables.
“Thank you,” said Hugh. He wanted to give her a reward, but she had already
turned away to fill a paper cup with water from the cooler.
“May I take your order?”
He chose an outside table under the water-mister. He put the stone on the table,
lifted it and tapped a couple of times until a woman reading The Kite Runner glanced his
way with annoyance. He tapped harder as if he were trying to punch a hole in the plastic.
He closed his eyes, immersed himself in the sea and watched his sons swim
toward him, holding out the letter. It didn’t mean anything. The letter was on his mind, so
of course it would flutter into his hallucination. Hugh sipped his coffee, staring at his nail.
He glanced down at his bathing suit. The dark streak remained, but its source could have
been one of countless things floating in the sea. Like ... but nothing specific came to
mind. Weaken for a moment. I’m fixing a hole, so the rain won’t—if it meant, what could
it mean? Had Ono not gotten the letter? Had the stranger Hugh urged it upon not kept her
promise? Had she dropped it on the floor and there was no kind old lady to return it to her
hands? Or had Ono received it, put a match to it, tossed in it the trash. Or was it now
traveling to Setsuko in a Fed-Ex overnight?
One of the local panhandlers, the flute player, strolled by, his face redder and
puffier than usual, nose like a stack of apples. Rosacea had disfigured J.P. Morgan, and
W.C. Field and put Bill Clinton’s charm to the test, but the flute player’s disease was of a
higher order. Even if one got by the nose, he looked brutal and deranged, but he was quite
gentle, and not deranged, unless deranged could be defined as playing the flute for spare
change for thirty years in a Ralph’s parking lot, while lesser, younger talents with
trombones and tubas encroached on your territory, soured your pitch. The musician
abruptly stopped and turned to Hugh.
“Cancer in the Rye.”
“Excuse me?” said Hugh.
“I got fucking cancer in my eye.”
“I’m ... sorry.”
“No biggie. You look like Eric Clapton, you know that?”
Hugh shook his head.
The water-mister hissed on, releasing a clammy sprinkle. “You got a stamp?”
asked the flute player.
“No biggie,” said the man, abruptly turning and walking away.
“Wait. In my car...” Hugh gestured and knocked over his coffee cup. He watched
the coffee spread across the table and drip to the concrete.
“Can you give us a ride to Van Nuys?” asked a voice behind him. He snapped
back his head. Anna and Aaron stood at arms length.
“Oh, Anna. I—” said Hugh.
“Hi, again, Mr. Mcpherson. Like, we need a ride to Van Nuys.”
Never let a student get into your car.
“Well, I wasn’t going that way...”
“Maybe you should be,” said Anna, with a mysterious smile
“But why should—” Hugh cut himself short. He felt as if someone had bodily
picked him up and set him on a moving sidewalk without horizons.
Anna got into the front seat. Aaron slid to the far left in the back. Anna chatted
away about missing the bus as Hugh pulled out onto Ventura and made the right at
Topanga to pick up the 101.
“How long have you had this car?” asked Anna.
“It’s nice. What kind is it?”
“Volvo,” declared Aaron.
“I’ve never heard of a Vovo.”
“Volvo,” corrected Aaron. “Swedish. Solid steel frame. Weighs over two tons.
It’s a little tank.”
That was a speech for Aaron.
“How much did it cost?” said Anna carelessly, gazing out the window.
He waited for Aaron to respond, but Aaron was through talking or maybe he just
didn’t know, though Hugh doubted that.
Hugh got in the right hand lane behind a dozen cars, then remembering he was not
alone, cut into the carpool lane, flooring the accelerator as they merged onto the freeway.
He tore past a moving van with “New York to California” written on the side in gold
“Are you married?” asked Anna.
“You’re wearing a wedding band.”
“I was married.”
“Oh. What was your wife like?”
“She was, um, Japanese. She liked to paint.” Hugh smiled. “She used these tiny
paint brushes to make lines thinner than a spider’s strand....” Hugh took his right hand
from the steering wheel, held his thumb and forefinger together and pretended to draw.
He clamped the wheel. “We’re divorced.”
“Well, that’s too bad,” said Anna.
Hugh had never mentioned wife or sons to his students. He wanted to tell Anna
more about Setsuko, her dry sense of humor and stoicism, her tolerance for Hugh’s
clutter and dreaminess, her love and respect for the natural world—her hand pressed to a
slab of granite as if might she draw out its thoughts—her serene transfixing beauty, but
Anna had moved on. She was digging intently through her purse. Hugh took his hand
from the wheel and gazed at his fingers.
“Where in Van Nuys are you going?” asked Hugh
Anna turned to Aaron. In the mirror, Aaron moved his head a centimeter.
“We’ve changed our plans, Mr. Mcpherson. We’re going to Studio City. It’s not
“Tujunga,” said Aaron.
“We’re not putting you out, I hope, Mr. Mcpherson.”
“No, it’s okay,” he lied.
“Mind if I turn on the radio?”
She settled on a hip hop station, but kept the volume low.
“Teachers aren’t supposed to give students rides, are they?”
Hugh’s throat tightened. “No, not generally.”
“It’s for the student’s and the teacher’s protection.”
“Why would they need protection?”
“The bitch says the teacher molested her,” said Aaron helpfully. “How can he
prove he didn’t?”
“But how can she prove he did?”
“Why did he give her the ride?”
“But why would she lie?”
“Maybe she asked him for money and he refused.”
“Maybe she did come onto him. Like this,” said Anna, putting her hand on
Hugh’s leg. One of her fingers brushed his genitals.
“Anna!” He threw off her hand and veered sharply into the right lane. “Why the
Hell did you do that? That’s disgusting.”
“I was joking,” said Anna.
“That’s not a joke,” said Hugh. One touch could kill a career. Put you in prison.
And you could only drown in prison if they shoved your head in a toilet. Despite the air
conditioning, sweat slicked his forehead.
“Yeah, Anna,” said Aaron.
“I touched his leg. Big deal.” Anna turned up the radio.
“Please, down the music,” said Hugh, breathing hard as if he’d just sprinted.
“Down the music? That don’t sound right,” said Aaron with a laugh.
Hugh jabbed the radio’s off button.
“Leave my radio alone, all right? Leave everything alone,” said Hugh loudly.
Anna huffed and crossed her arms. “God. Now everything’s all tense. You never
yelled in class. You were my only teacher who didn’t yell.” She reached over the seat and
took Aaron’s hand.
At the White Oak exit, Hugh changed lanes. The traffic was thickening and
approaching the 405, the 101’s lanes reduced to two. He pulled in front of a BMW and
behind a Mercedes. In the rear mirror, he saw Aaron’s head turn. The boy liked cars and
guns. In the computer lab, if he left Aaron alone for a moment, he’d be researching
assault weapons. The district’s computer system filtered out sex but not 45 Magnums.
When Hugh monitored his viewing, Aaron’s face colored a little, but he didn’t close the
page. Most kids would be slamming the X.
Would blackmail occur to them? Satellite surveillance captured such detailed
images of earth that individuals could be seen slipping into porn shops, buying drugs in
alleys, cheating on their spouses. At this moment, an employee of some bleak agency
could be considering a digital image of Anna getting into his car.
Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving
above one’s head and listen to silence. To have no yesterday and no tomorrow. To forget
time, to forgive life, to be at peace.
To be at peace.
The exit wrapped around so that if they turned right they’d be heading north not
south as expected. Hugh turned left. Two blocks north, there were cafes and street life.
He expected the area as their destination.
“What now?” said Hugh, driving slowly.
“Are you angry?” asked Anna.
“Disappointed.” He stopped at the light on Moorpark. “Should I let you out
here?” There were plenty of people around to watch them depart.
That fucking surveillance satellite might have caught him swimming, drowning.
The light turned green. Aaron and Anna still conferred.
“It’s actually about a mile from here. Where we want to go,” said Anna.
“Give me directions.”
“Go straight to Ventura.”
They drove though Tujunga Village. Outside the Aroma Café, a star of a TV
forensics team twice removed from the original series inspected his lunch. They passed
the Italian restaurant where Robert Blake had dinner with his wife before he murdered
her. The tour buses came by regularly.
Anna, refreshing her lipstick, instructed him to make a left on Ventura.
If she wasn’t already—if that wasn’t the problem she referred to—she would be
pregnant within six months. Aaron would have two conceptions under—on?—his belt
before he turned fifteen. With barely an intention, he would lead Anna into ruin. But if
not Aaron?... She had no defense other than to give them what they wanted. He caught
the sheen of her lips. Young, ignorant, impulsive. She thought boys had menstrual cycles,
but she would lay her hand on a man’s leg and think it a joke.
They went east on Ventura. As they approached Universal Studios, the traffic
thickened. Eager faces pressed the tour bus windows. A black BMW swerved in front of
Hugh and then like a mobbing bird glanced off a dull green Pontiac that blocked the next
lane. Billboards hawked the amusement park’s movie-themed rides.
“It’s such a rip-off,” said Anna. “All you do is stand in line or go up and down the
“I like the fireworks,” said Aaron brightly. “Boom! Boom! Boom!”
“I need directions.”
“Next street. Make a right,” said Aaron.
The right turn took him back twenty years. He, Setsuko and the boys driving over
to meet his brother’s wife and in-laws for the first time. What the fuck was happening?
"Hey, don't stop," said Aaron.
“This is the right street?” asked Hugh incredulously.
Hugh continued down the quiet street, a cul de sac. The house where he had met
the Hashemi family, his brother’s Persian in-laws, was the last but one on the west side.
“Pull over here,” said Aaron.
“Here?” said Hugh in astonishment, for Aaron was pointing to the curb across
from the Hashemi’s house.
Was he dead then? Or dying and dreaming? Was he twenty feet underwater
rubbing his back on the seabed? Were his experiences zipping by like the open files of a
computer shutting down.
“You gonna pull over?” asked Aaron.
“Hey, stop!” said Anna.
Hugh stopped in the middle of the street, leaving the car in neutral. He turned to
Aaron, incited to touch him, to establish whether he was flesh or shade.
“You okay, Mr. Mcpherson?” said Anna, kindly touching his shoulder. He
resisted taking her hand, turned back to the wheel, put the car into first and pulled to the
He didn’t turn off the ignition, but he would wait and see if they walked into the
Anna got out and walked to the driver’s side. She tapped on Hugh’s window. He
rolled it down. “Does my lipstick look okay?” she asked, licking her vermilion lips. The
“Do you like this color?”
“I forgot to return that book you gave me. The one about the girl. The mixed up
The back door slammed. Aaron stood in back of Anna. Leaning against her, his
chin on her shoulder, a two-headed youth.
“I’ve got to go. Sorry about touching your leg,” she said, thin eyebrows
disappearing in her bangs like the steps of an escalator.
“You have a good summer.”
“Hey, can I get my story back?” asked Aaron.
“Your story?” asked Hugh.
“Yeah. The one I wrote about my grandfather.”
The second story Aaron wrote for the class. Yes, the grandfather’s job as hit man
for the Mexican Mafia, until he erred and killed the boss’s son. “That may not be
“You ain’t got it?”
“Oh, no. I have it,” Hugh said, remembering the story’s key sentence: His
grandfather always finished the job. “Could you stop by my class in the fall?”
“Fall? I don’t know...”
Neither do I.
“Nah, gotta be sooner than that.”
“Maybe I could mail it to you.”
“No, that won’t work. Couldn’t you go get it?”
“You mean, now?”
Hugh said, “I don’t know if the school is even open.”
“Would you try?”
Hugh glanced toward the Hashemis. “Maybe in a day or so...”
“You got Anna’s number?”
Hugh didn’t want Anna’s number.
“Here, I’ll give it to you,” said Anna. “Got a pen?”
After taking Anna’s number, Hugh promised he could get the story from his
classroom and call her. They would meet to hand off the story.
They backed away from the car, standing in the middle of the street, waiting for
Hugh to leave, like parents sending their children to the school bus. He knew they
wouldn’t move until he drove away.
Hugh rolled up his window. He made a U-turn on the street of single-family
homes and drove slowly away, glancing in the rear mirror.
When he stopped at the first intersection, he saw that they were walking in his
direction. Continuing through the intersection, he drove another block. In his mirror, they
crossed from right to left, stopping on the sidewalk outside a house bordered by tall, thick
bamboo. He watched them wander the sidewalk for a minute and then disappear into the
Hugh parked his car at the curve, waited five minutes, did a U-turn and drove
back to the end of the dead-end street, where twenty years ago the freeway noise barrier
served as a backstop for his pitches to Takumi and Hitoshi, while his brother Eddie and
his son—the name, what was his nephew’s name?...
Jason. His brother’s son was Jason. Remembering the name, he remembered
Twenty years ago, too, behind the Hashemi home’s chain link fence, three black
Dobermans snarled so menacingly that Hugh sent Setsuko and the twins back to the car.
Hugh had stood a few feet away from the gate until the front door opened and a thickset,
mustached man stepped out onto the stoop. Mr. Hashemi, Eddie’s father-in-law, spoke a
few words to the dogs and they trotted to the side of the house, disappearing.
The dogs were gone, but a warning snarl came from the failing filament of a
concrete municipal lamppost, curved at the top and broadening into a tulip-like socket for
the light. Hugh studied the house for a moment, then looked down the street toward the
house into which Aaron and Anna had disappeared. He turned toward the noise barrier
and again remembered the hardball whizzing in the late afternoon, Takumi, bat in hand,
urging Hitoshi to throw harder. Jason, five years younger than the twins, warned to stand
back and haltingly miming their actions.
Turn around. Get in the car. Get the fuck out of here.
Hugh leaned back against the post, felt it cool against his leg, and glanced down
at his bathing suit.
He stretched his arm up on the lamppost. Smelling brine, he scratched a line in the
layer of salt and imagined his limbs under a trickle of water in a scummy 7/11 stainless
steel sink. The Hashemis were no doubt long gone.
He remembered how proud Eddie was to introduce his Persian in-laws to Hugh,
as if Eddie were carrying on the tradition that Hugh had started by marrying outside his
culture. But Eddie had always been a tag-a-long. Eddie’s and Hugh’s parents were
dismayed by both marriages. No, not dismayed, but puzzled and affronted. Hugh’s arm
slackened. Nothing but chance had brought him to this street. But all the same, he was
here. Gathering himself, tightening the strings as if he were both the willed and the
willing, puppet and master, he unlatched the gate and walked up to the steps. Planters on
either side once held stunning arrangements of flowers, but now housed only weeds and a
few gladiolas. In the dirt by one of the scraggily plants, a small American flag, discolored
and tattered, no doubt left by a real estate agent on a distant Fourth of July, fluttered. He
looked for the doorbell but it had been torn out. It was the right street, the right house. He
smelled the past. The Persian walnut cookies: Nan-E Gerdui. The boys called them
Nanny Gurdy cookies. He knocked softly. He waited a minute and then knocked again.
“Yes?” said a voice from behind the closed door.
“Is this the Hashemis?”
After a few seconds, a latch clicked. The door opened a crack. A strip of black
eye glared, softened by the sweet smell of cookies baking.
“I think you have the wrong address.”
“I’m Hugh Mcpherson. My brother Eddie—“
She did not cross her chest, but her eyes widened in dread. He had become the
military officer who had knocked at her door to inform her of death overseas.
Sensing her dismay, Hugh rushed to say, “Mrs. Hashemi baked cookies like the
ones I smell now. Nan-E Gerduis. She gave them to my sons.”
The door closed, but then opened to the width of the woman. Twenty years ago,
Mrs. Hashemi was a trim, well-dressed woman of fifty. She had thickened. Her face was
now round and darkened by dull black hairs on her chin and cheeks. Her neck hung in
pleats, and the curves of her figure, admired by the men, had vanished. She had squeezed
into a stained, white dress, her bosom pouring from the low-cut neck. She dabbed at her
cleavage with a handful of tissues.
“Hugh,” she said, or perhaps “You!”
“Yes. Eddie’s brother.”
“I thought you were selling magazines. Please come in.”
The room was as remembered. The couch, love seat, and ottoman, which shared a
striped fabric, the color ranging from bronze to greenish gray, had not moved. On the
walls hung a tapestry with an intricate, neato design; in the room’s corners, decorative
urns in red, blue and gold stood guard. Echoing the colors of the couch and ottoman, the
coffee, end, and dining tables stood bare and sullen. A large chest of drawers was the
playground of a dozen mythical animals. The room smelled of meats and cinnamon,
stewed lamb and garlic. The dining room was to the right, separated by a hall that led to
the kitchen, bathrooms and bedrooms.
In the hallway, a figure sat in a wheelchair, her head bent, but her eyes looking up
as if from under reading glasses.
Hugh held out his hand, which Mrs. Hashemi tapped with her left as if testing the
temperature of an iron.
“My mother,” she said, nodding toward the woman in the wheelchair. “She hasn’t
been feeling well. Valy un dohhtare khabi mishe. Na madar? It’s the heat.”
It was at least eighty-five degrees, thought Hugh, perhaps ninety. He nodded to
the old woman, who had changed little, like dried fruit, once drained, forever shaped.
“We’ve had a problem with the air conditioning. Please have a seat.” She directed
him toward the couch.
Hugh gestured, “I’ve just come from the beach. I may have sand....”
Hugh eased onto the couch, whose fabric clung to his leg like Velcro. A bead of
perspiration nestled in the outer corner of his left eye. He looked for a fan. There was a
faint smell of cat urine. He remembered the Hashemis’ white Persian cats, four-footed
“How is your wife? Setsuko, yes?”
“Yes, Setsuko. Fine.”
“My sons—” There was an instant before the instant in which he considered his
answer that he was capable of telling the truth. Mrs. Hashemi would listen patiently, and
as the light left the room, she would nod, just as Hugh had nodded in his hospital bed in
Oceanside, where after lying unconscious for twenty-four hours, he had listened numbly
to Setsuko as she told him that their sons had drowned. Mrs. Hashemi would exonerate
him, like they all did. As even Setsuko had done at first, for he was essentially a good
man, wasn’t he? But the moment closed on him too quickly; the wave was uncatchable.
In considering the answer, he had already made his choice to lie, and in the back room
the deals were being made. An entire parallel history was being created, a genome for the
lie. As if he had pulled a photograph out of his wallet, his sons appeared, standing on the
beach in their wet suits, holding their boards upright, behind them the bright blue
crushing sea. Something rapped against a window, like the beak of an errant bird. “My
Takumi and Hitoshi hung by their feet from heaven and shouted warnings, but
Hugh saw no way back.
Maybe you should be....Anna had said.
“Here—I gave them cookies.”
“Nanny Gurdy,” he said with his sons’ pronunciation.
“Yes. Nan-E Gerdui.”
He glanced at the tapestry. Among the brilliant floral pattern, a tiger waited
indifferently, and it was that indifference that was menacing. When he looked back, Mrs.
Hashemi was glaring at him, but the glare disappeared so quickly, he thought he had
She asked more about his sons, and having lied about their very existence, he
found it easy to project their lives into a past that was really no time at all. Nor was it the
first time. For months after their deaths, in quiet moments, he’d opened the album to their
middle school graduation. Thirteenth birthdays. First dates. Smooth hands holding Quad
razors to creamed cheeks. The driving permits. Voices deepening. Growing taller than
their father. Shoulders broadening. Chins bulking. The high school graduation. Tattoos
and piercings. Picking them up at the police station for underage drinking. The college
applications. Hugging them teary-eyed as they packed the car for the drive to university
and dormitory life. Beyond that even. As he elaborated, Mrs. Hashemi nodded and smiled
wider and wider at the heartening biographies, but her mouth froze eventually into an
inexplicably mocking grin, and his fictional biographies trailed off.
“That is nice to hear,” she said simply.
“So, and your family ... Sherry and—Jason?”
“You remember,” she said, and he waited for her to finish the sentence, to make
explicit what he remembered, but it was not an elision.
Instead, she spoke lightly of the deterioration of the house and landscaping, the
changes in the neighborhood. She had not asked him yet the most obvious of questions.
How did he come to be at her door, in his bathing suit no less? What was the purpose of
this visit? He would wait a little longer before he brought it up.
She asked if he wanted coffee. When she left the room, he watched the old
woman, her breathing the only sound in the room. He smiled at her again. She moved her
lips. She formed words, plenty of words but all unvoiced. An insect crawled across her
forehead, descending into a gray rivulet. He waited for it to emerge, and then wondered if
it had been an insect at all. She must have been at least ninety. She was room
When Mrs. Hashemi returned with her silver tray of coffee, he asked, “And your
“We are divorced.”
“It would not have happened in Iran. The bonds are loosened here.”
I, too, am divorced, he wanted to admit, but it had gone too far.
“I wish my brother and your daughter had stayed together.”
“It might have been different,” said Mrs. Hashemi.
“Yes.” Six months after his brother and Sherry had separated, Eddie had died. A
diabetic coma. Eddie had had the flu and neglected to pick up his insulin from the
drugstore. He died in his bed. It was as simple and sad as that. At the time, his son Jason
was not quite four.
“How is Sherry?”
“She has remarried.”
“Ali. A Muslim.” One eyebrow lifted above a darkened eye. The grandmother
grunted, spoke a few words in Farsi. The Hashemis were not Muslim, but Eastern
Orthodox. He vaguely remembered a voiced bias. Mrs. Hashemi rose from the chair and
walked over to the chest of draws, opening the top, stirring the roc, azhdar and griffin.
She took out a white photo album, opened it and set it on the coffee table before Hugh. In
the wedding photo, Sherry stood beside a tall, handsome, dark-skinned man. She was
dressed in a white traditional Western wedding dress, and he in a black suit with a white
shirt but no tie. On his head he wore a white cap. Hugh studied the picture, wondering
why Mrs. Hashemi would show it to him. Something was different about Sherry. She was
prettier than he remembered her.
“I was not comfortable at the wedding.”
Hugh turned a page. More pictures of the wedding. He recognized Mr. Hashemi
and the uncle.
“Is Jason’s picture in here?”
“He wasn’t at the wedding. Ali didn’t want him there.”
“He wanted them all to believe he was marrying some virgin. A virgin with a
child. She was almost thirty years old. I think she believed it herself. She could change
one thing, why not another?”
“What else did she change?”
Mrs. Hashemi moved close to him, so that her leg was touching his leg. He
smelled her perfume. “Do you remember a dainty little nose like that? Such full lips? She
was always a pretty girl but not that pretty. I don’t believe we should alter out faces.
Keep what God has given you.”
“She had her mother’s nose,” said Mrs. Hashemi, drawing her thumb and
forefinger down the bridge of her thick nose. “Her grandmother’s nose. What’s wrong
with the nose?” Mrs. Hashemi dabbed at her breasts with the tissue, now damp and
shredding. “Change your nose to catch an Arab? Better you cut it off.”
“Khoda komaket kone,” muttered the grandmother, her voice like a fleeting
shadow. Hugh turned another page of the album.
“It’s difficult to find a husband after thirty. And after fifty, not to mention sixty—
as a man, how do you see me? Do you find me attractive? Am I a candidate for E-
Huge pretended he hadn’t heard.
“Why are you here?” asked Mrs. Hashemi.
“I don’t—I dropped someone off in the neighborhood. I just recognized the street,
the house. I thought I’d just...”
“Drop in? How nice.”
“It’s just that I remembered.”
“You remembered? What did you remember?”
“I would like to see Jason,” said Hugh.
“After fifteen years, why?”
“I promised his father to give him something.” For his tenth birthday, Hugh said
in his throat.
“When he was five, he called you many times. Left messages.”
“I know, I—”
“Was it too much responsibility?”
“I had my own sons...”
He heard labored breathing and a squeal. The mystical animals stirred. The
grandmother rolled toward him, purposeful as a suicide bomber. From under her shawl,
she produced a photo and held it up in a hand made of crumpled butcher’s paper. He
remembered the recorded message and the little voice that would not quiet without the
photo propped up on his chest: his father’s picture in his hand, his brother’s picture in his
nephew’s hand. He left it untouched like a penny on the sidewalk, not worth taking the
trouble to pick up. But the grandmother showed her broken teeth as her lips jerked a
smile. Not accusing him, just showing him that she remembered. For Edward had thrown
his arm across her shoulder and called her madar bozorg. Hugh stepped back. The old
woman smelled, or perhaps it was just the shawl.
Hugh studied the photo. His brother was about thirty in the picture, his son two
years old. His brother had two more years to live.
“I’d just like to give him something....”
“Jason is in Iran with his mother and step-father.”
Hugh looked down. The Ottoman’s legs were thick, as if it wore heavy boots. The
legs of the couch too. But the legs of the chair on which Mrs. Hashemi sat were thin,
stiletto heels, the coffee table too.
“Ah, then....” Hugh shook his head. “I was hoping to meet with him.”
“It’s too late.”
“When will they be coming back?” he asked.
“I don’t know. He doesn’t say.”
“Do you speak with your daughter?” he asked, but already he didn’t care. It was
all a dead end. He had been brought to this house for nothing.
“She calls me. I don’t have a phone number for her.”
But she didn’t meet his eyes. Who was he to come back twelve years later looking
for something? It occurred to him that Mrs. Hashemi had forgotten about the deaths of his
sons and then he remembered that he hadn’t ever told her.
“I wanted to call him,” said Hugh
“But you didn’t,” she snapped, yanking on a fold of her neck as if she might pull
“One more little boy?”
“Well, I’d like to speak with him now,” he said, feeling sick at the heat and the
accumulation of lies.
“I’m sure. However, I can’t help you. I don’t have a way of contacting them.”
“Let me at least leave my phone number. If Sherry or Jason do call...”
Mrs. Hashemi shook her head, but pushed herself from the chair and walked over
to the chest of drawers. She opened a drawer and withdrew a pen and pad. She handed
them to Hugh. He carefully wrote his full name and number, and handed them back to
her. Not bothering to look at the pad, she dropped it back in the drawer, which she shoved
closed with her hip.
“Has there been some sort of falling out between you and your daughter?” asked
“Why do you think our family came to America?”
“People migrate, new opportunities.”
“We came when the Shah fell.”
“They said we killed thousands, tortured more.”
She had chosen the wrong pronoun. He met her eyes as he waited for the
correction. She smiled broadly, glancing at her tattered tissue and then dropping it to the
floor. She smoothed her skirt over her knees.
“But Sherry went back?”
“She married a Muslim. She has converted.” Mrs. Hashemi made the sign of the
cross. “She knew what she was doing.”
“Doroste,” murmured the grandmother, leaning forward in her chair and emitting
a snore or a snarl. Hugh walked over and set Jason’s photo of his father on her lap.
Hugh sat in his car with a talk radio station on. He sunk deeper into the seat, as if
his body was turning into some denser material. The highway was straight, but he had
wandered off on a side road to nowhere. His cell phone rang from within the console. As
he opened his console to pick it up, he saw his wallet was gone.
From his hotel room balcony, Kazuki watched an airplane tow a banner along the
coast. A Dos Equis did sound good, but if he took a sip, he wouldn’t work. When he was
younger, a drink or two greased the cogs of creativity, setting that stubborn machine in
motion. Now it was sand in the gears. He plucked a cube of Crenshaw melon from his
fruit plate and admired the glistening green symmetry. What immortal hand or eye?—
—an undocumented worker in the kitchen.
Kazuki closed his eyes and nibbled his melon.
He had been revising the scene of Yuudai’s first meeting with Sumiko’s father
The restaurant at the hotel in the Rappongi District was quiet, dark and candlelit.
Ito sat at a table with a drink and a notebook. He stood to receive Yuudai, and his driver
and assistant, Nigel. Ito was a tall man by Japanese standards with black hair pulled
back and top-knotted like a Samurai. Yuudai was struck by the sharp resemblance
between father and daughter.
“Good evening. Thank you for coming,” said Ito.
“It’s my pleasure to be here,” said Yuudai in Japanese.
“Please sit down. What do you drink?”
“Beiro,” said Yuudai.
To a server who quietly appeared, Ito said, “Two beers.”
“Scotch and water,” said Nigel, Ito’s driver and confidant.
After the drinks came, Yuudai was left on his own with his beer as Ito spoke in
Japanese with Nigel. The conversation was too fast-paced for Yuudai to pick up on much,
though he mentioned Yuudai’s name several times. The isolation ended when the server
brought sushi. With Nigel translating, Ito asked about Yuudai’s tastes in food, his
reaction to Japanese culture and his judo training, for Yuudai following his dying
father’s request had his first week in Japan joined a dojo, where instructors and students
alike had remarked on Hugh’s strength. He quickly learned the basic techniques and
subsequently fell in love with the sport. Yuudai answered some questions in Japanese,
and Ito didn’t seem displeased at the attempts. More drinks were brought, exotic dishes—
blowfish, sea urchin, eel heart soup—followed by huge bloody steaks and perfectly-
cooked rice. Ito and Nigel dug into the steaks and the conversation turned to sports. The
atmosphere seemed like that of warriors preparing to go to battle. Everything would be
drunk. Everything would be eaten. It was only after they were sated, when Yuudai was
half-tanked and filled to bursting, and the desserts lay on the table untouched, that the
serious questions began. They were of two general categories; the first, Yuudai’s
Kazuki hit PgDn several times.
When Ito asked why Yuudai had come to Japan, Yuudai forthrightly told the story
of his father. Herb O’Keefe had been the assistant tail gunner on the Enola Gay, the
plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan. The bomb missed its central target
and fell on a hospital. Initially troubled and then profoundly depressed by his part in the
mission, Herb spent his life trying to make amends from afar. He gave his children
Japanese names, tithed his salary to send money to Japanese charities, studied the
country’s history and people, and fought the racism, the incessant three-letter slur, that
flowed through America in the post-war years. But he had never gone there, never gone
back. To that he left his oldest son, who was made to vow on his father’s deathbed that he
would scatter his father’s ashes over the site of the hospital that the Enola Gay had
inadvertently made ground-zero.
Ito accepted Yuddai’s answers at face-value, even appreciatively.
To all questions, Yuudai told the truth, and then Ito asked the question that would
draw a lie. Had Yuudai met with Sumiko outside of Japan?
“No,” Yuudai lied, “Only Japan.”
“Have you ever heard the fable of the Jellyfish and the Monkey?” asked Ito, after
a few minutes of silence.
“No, I don’t think so,” replied Yuudai.
Ito then proceeded to tell the awful tale of the two creatures.
Ono hit PgDn a few more times.
Driving Yuudai back to his apartment, Nigel played a tape of a British rock group
called the Squeeze.
“I hope you were straight with Kazuki,” said Nigel.
Ono nodded, feeling for a moment Ito’s self-justification, which no longer resided
in the heart of the person from whom Ito drew his breath. Yuudai’s lie had set the plot in
motion, and like the jellyfish, Yuudai would be beaten to a pulp. But, too, it would be a
metaphor of the metaphor that would give him back his shell.
Ono looked up. A few feet from the balcony that seagull was hovering.
Hugh had not gotten two blocks from the Hashemi’s neighborhood, when the
clutch pedal refused to depress enough to change gears from first to second. He pulled
into a gas station, parked and turned off the ignition. He got out and squatted in front of
the open door to check out the problem. His wallet sat at the base of the clutch pedal.
Christ, what a mistake.
He didn’t care about the money—fifty dollars—or even the credit cards. But he
needed the intact wallet to be found after the suicide. He had created the anti-suicide list
that he kept in his wallet to ensure the police that he was a person with concrete plans for
the future. In addition, for the wallet not to be found would be troublesome to the police,
and might eventually lead to Anna and Aaron. But he wanted more than just his wallet
back. He had helped the two teens, and they had betrayed him. He wanted an explanation
and an apology, just as he would have insisted upon in class.
He had then gone to the nearby house that Aaron and Anna had vanished into.
With difficulty he found the gate among the bamboo. From the house, “Ransom”
by Lil’ Wayne bludgeoned the windows. He knocked on the front door numerous times.
No one answered. They couldn’t hear him. The music was too loud. The obnoxious
music made Hugh even more determined to confront Anna and Aaron. He walked to the
back of the house.
Hugh was only going to knock on the sliding glass door. He had no intention to
see inside, but the blinds were drawn. There was nothing unexpected about what Hugh
saw, but still it affronted and sickened him, and he would have immediately turned and
walked away, foregoing the recovery of his wallet. But there was something else in the
room, other than melded adolescent bodies.
He was staring at it and not them when Anna turned.
By the time he got to his car, he had dismissed what he saw as a delusion. In his
heightened emotional state, he had projected the chamber from Ono’s new novel on
whatever oddball storage box in front of which the two teens were joined.
That his wallet had merely fallen off the console made the incident all the more
absurd on this day of absurdities. He dreaded what the two teens would think....
In his first months living in Topanga Canyon, pleased with his rustic environment
and careless about doors and windows, Hugh would return to a house buzzing with flies
and mosquitoes. He would have to sleep with the sheet over his head, and still the flies
would crawl through the hair of his chest and arms, and he wished he were a lizard that
would have seen the annoyances as prey and consumed them as such. The mosquitoes
bred in the creek that ran not far from the house, and though lengths would dry up over
summer, there were numerous pools in which the insects flourished. There too, a few
hardy brown trout circled. Hugh’s backyard was mostly bare with some stunning weeds.
When he moved in, he’d planted a few flowers. He liked turning over the soil, drawing
out the roots from the balled plant, shoveling in the planter’s mix and patting it down like
talcum on a bare bottom. But in bloom, the geraniums and other annuals were quickly
eaten by the rabbits. There were some flowers they wouldn’t eat, but those the birds
would. He planted a small vegetable garden and covered it with chicken wire. He’d get a
few oddly-shaped tomatoes and a handful of scraggily carrots. His backyard furniture
was two lounge chairs and a frayed wicker table, painted metallic blue, on which sat a
small Buddha, which he bought at a garage sale because it reminded him of the one at the
Peace and Love. The Buddha’s face was badly chipped, as if the Taliban had passed its
way. When he was taking the Fuguelle sleeping pills, which promised restful sleep but
delivered only comforting delirium, he would take the Buddha inside and set it on the
floor before the couch. He stared at the figure until it danced and multiplied into dozens
of damaged Buddhas. Though far from meditation, the state was comforting and freed
him for awhile from thoughts of his sons. Curious about the sleeping pill, he researched it
on Google, discovering a site where fans of the drug discussed its hallucinogenic
properties. One enthusiast claimed his hallucinations with Fuguelle were was far more
intense than anything he’d experienced under LSD. Eventually it was noted on the
website that the drug’s manufacturer had added a coating to the drug that eliminated its
hallucinogenic properties. One link away, there was a recipe to restore the drug to its
original potency, but if he did that, he was sure he would be a certified addict. So he
drank Hibiscus tea from Nile, Texas, slept restlessly and shit red stools... until the new
drug came along.
The sunlight retreated from the canyon. Even with the CD player turned up, the
British band’s songs didn’t carry well into the yard, but so familiar were they that Hugh
could increase the volume in his head and drown out the throbbing engines of the
commuters’ cars climbing the twisting grade
Cars came through regularly until midnight, when the traffic slowed to a trickle.
Hugh sometimes sat outside until nothing could be heard but the rustling of birds and the
howls of coyotes. During the winter months and early spring, the creek splashed and
gurgled. These were the times he imagined he could hear his sons softly snoring inside
the tent, their occasional murmur in a dream, and he remembered Setsuko’s smooth warm
body against his, their sleeping bags joined together. Sometimes while camping, he
would get up in the middle of the night to stand guard by the dying embers to protect
them from the bears and wolves and lions.
He moved to the canyon after a few month’s of living in a Woodland Hills
apartment, one of ten-thousand in the Warner Center, the city’s corporate heart. He’d
rented the one-bedroom after selling the house, unnecessary after Setsuko returned to
Japan. But Hugh had stayed in the house for two years, unable to clear out what remained
in the boys’ room. Setsuko had taken the skateboards, bicycles, radio-controlled cars,
baseball bats, footballs, spinning rods and surfboards to Goodwill, but Hugh was
reluctant to part with the less recyclable: the wheel-less trucks and toy soldiers who
refused to stand upright, the dim laser swords and the soft, stained pliable playthings of
their early childhood. Each night for two years, he settled in the room, choosing a toy to
touch and smell, as if he might find his sons anima within the polyethylene.
A break in the pattern came with a newspaper that had been left on a patio table at
a Ventura Boulevard Starbucks with morning sun and afternoon shade, where he spent
most days watching traffic, half-listening to and wholly not understanding conversations
in Farsi, Spanish, Hebrew, Russian and Vietnamese. He hadn’t intended to read the story,
but the headline drew him to the first paragraph, and that to all the subsequent paragraphs
found so deep into the paper that they ended in the obituaries. It was about a teaching
program for professionals who wanted a second, meaningful career. As he contemplated
the idea, the word meaningful seized him with the intensity of a desired but unexpected
sexual encounter. His palms smeared the torn and badly folded sheet. If he had lost his
own children, perhaps he could help others. Yes. Yes. He passed the required tests and
applied to a teaching program designed to put him in front of a classroom within six
months. At the end of the six months, a school hired him.
The change from screenwriter to educator prompted the change in housing. When
he began the teaching program, he called the Salvation Army. It was springtime, and
while the workers hauled out the donations, he sat in the backyard watching swallows
build their inverted nest in the eve of a neighboring house. The nest half completed, the
neighbor appeared with a length of PVC pipe. As the birds darted about in dismay, the
pipe penetrated the little mud and straw hut, chipping unmercifully. The structure
tumbled down until all that was left was a dark stain like a shadow. When the neighbor
and his pipe disappeared, the birds came back to inspect, could not accept the eviction
and set about to rebuild their house. The PVC pipe was soon mocking their effort.
Despairing, they flew away, never to return. When the Salvation Army had finished,
Hugh went back into the house, which now seemed vast, infinite. He was afraid if he
didn’t leave that one day he would lose himself forever in its depths.
The Warner Center apartment was the opposite, the walls closing in on him like a
treacherous room in an old Flash Gordon movie. At the Coffee Bean, he overheard a
couple discussing Topanga, where seclusion could be found without foregoing access to
the city. Within two weeks, he’d signed a lease on a small house and moved in.
He’d hoped the new career and home would divert his thoughts, and for some
time they did. Controlling classes of thirty-five students, hormones raging, personalities
sharpening, ethnicities clashing, guiding them through the thickets of English grammar
and idiom, providing solace for the homesick (they were all from other countries, most at
war), sympathizing with the lovesick (of course, he likes you. That’s why he kicked
you.), and ministering to the real sick (put your head down for awhile. Get an icepack
from the nurse. Juan is doing what, Parisa?) left scant time to dwell on guilt or to tour
memory. But as the years passed and dealing with chaos became routine, the specter of
his sons’ deaths entered the classroom, sitting in the back of the room like some cynical
observer. Whom are you trying to fool? Who teaches your children? When Pouya and
Adel, Camille and Natasha spoke, he heard Takumi and Hitoshi, but the observer laughed
and asked, “Do you forget your own children’s voices? Do you forget your own
children’s suffocating screams?” His students were not his children. He had not marched
these children from life. His sons’ deaths were the abyss that he couldn’t crawl out of.
Good deeds would not buy him salvation.
Later, he sat up in bed, holding a Lunesta between his thumb and index finger.
The little gray tablet was almost invisible at night. He would use them for a month
at a time and then stop cold turkey so as to meet the prescription program requirements,
which would only renew the drug every sixty days. The three milligram tablets didn’t
quite do the job, for he would awaken after four hours of sleep and then wrestle for three
hours more, a few more minutes of oblivion. He asked his doctor to raise the prescription
to five milligrams, but his GP resisted. Hugh had ten tablets left. Regular nightmares
He thought that the nightmares repeated themselves, but he could not be sure. He
may only have had each nightmare once, but remaining in his memory it may as well
have been a dozen or a thousand times. This would go on for weeks, so that when he got
to school in the morning, he wondered if he could teach. Severe headaches, nausea and
memory loss demanded that he constantly gather himself. As he spoke, he feared he was
lagging his words, or his words were lagging him. He was afraid to interact with the other
faculty, for fear that what he would say would be gibberish. And yet he suspected that
students and faculty alike saw him as normal. Perhaps he was as normal as anyone else.
The withdrawal (and it was withdrawal, not as romantic as heroin or cocaine
withdrawals, but no different as far as he could determine) symptoms would go on for
two weeks, and then like an oasis appearing on an unpromising horizon, an honest night
of sleep would come, and perhaps one or two others until the two a.m. awakenings began,
and would continue until the prescription was renewed. There would be another couple of
good nights’ sleep, and the cycle would begin again.
But with the pills, the falling into sleep was always pleasant. For a few minutes,
only what was in front of his eyes would be taken in. He would be with Dickens’s Paul
Dombey, deathly sick and contemplating his fading world. Forgetting. He popped in the
pill, took a sip of the red tea and lifted the book he would read until sleep. Before he gave
himself to the words, he glanced at his bedroom closet, in which sat the trunk that held
the paper trail of his life. Eddie’s package for Jason, too, was in there. He wondered if it
would ever find its way to that little boy. He wondered, too, if the letter to Setsuko had
made its way across that vast ocean. Was she at this moment breaking the seal or had
Kazuki Ono tossed it into the sea? Did anything ever get where it was supposed to go? Or
anyone? for that matter.
Hugh slept until dawn, surprised when he opened his eyes not to the light of day
but the dark of night. Something covered his face. He pushed until the darkness became
letters on an ivory background.
In the kitchen, he quartered two oranges and ate them from the peel, spitting the
pits in a plastic grocery bag. He never felt alone when he was alone, not like he felt at a
café or a bar, where he sometimes drifted from his chair into outer space, gazing back at
those tiny occupants of earth. He boiled the water again and had high-fiber maple and
honey oatmeal. After eating, he was alert enough to realize that he stank. The
accumulation of the ocean and the exertion. He took a shower, put on fresh jeans, made
another coffee and went out bare-chested into the backyard. The sun was breaking over
the eastern ridge. He watched the hills light up.
A couple of rabbits nibbled at the weeds... Sometimes deer would be there,
walking from the higher elevations to the creek. Hugh glanced along the path that
paralleled the stream, which fed into a deep wide rock pool. Something moved in the
water, and he thought it might have been one of the brown trout that were illegal to fish.
Larger than that, he thought. He saw a hand break the surface, and then a body sideways,
turning. The morning light struck a slender tapered back, raven hair spreading across the
smooth white shoulders. Hugh rose, dropping the coffee cup.
He saw a woman swimming face down, her butterfly strokes taking her to the far
end of the pool.
“Setsuko—” cried Hugh wildly.
The pool was no more than twenty feet across and ten wide, and he could see the
body underwater, turning like a screw as it reached the far bank.
The swimmer’s arm came out of the water. The long, elegant fingers dug into the
moist soil. She pulled herself onto the bank, and then scampered into the brush, almost on
all fours, the way an animal would escape.
Hugh ran down the path along the creek, halting at the rock pool. He looked for
movement within the brush. It was insane to think the swimmer had been Setsuko. He
hadn’t even seen her face. Some back-to-nature hippie chick taking a cool morning bath.
Hugh strode along the bank to where the water resumed its slow flow in a shallower area,
the creek clogged with deadwood and rocks. He picked his way across the debris,
realizing he was barefoot. He walked toward the spot where the woman had disappeared.
Something stirred in the brush.
He looked back at the pool, where several small brown trout glided a foot beneath
the surface, passing over a motionless crayfish and disappearing into clouds of sediment
stirred up by the swimmer. Hugh climbed the slope, scanning the ground for broken
twigs, footprints, signs. Through the trees, a house was visible, one of those dark stone
houses that from the road might be taken for a rock formation. Solid as a fort and
uninviting, along the sides, there was a wall of bamboo. A path appeared.
He felt a prick of pain. A trickle of blood appeared beside his right toe. He
thought about returning to the house for his shoes, but the woman would be long gone by
then. On either side of the path, the brush was thick. Despite the open wound, he sprinted
along the path.
As he ran barefoot, his heartbeat rising to the effort, the adrenalin flowing, he felt
the urge to remove the rest of his clothes, to run naked on the hard dirt in pursuit of the
woman who would not be Setsuko. He ran several hundred yards and stopped, panting
and dripping sweat, his ears abuzz, his skin tingling. Flat initially, the path now sloped
sharply upward, vanishing into a thicket of briars. He must have kicked something as he
ran, for his left toenail bent up at a right angle like an empty clam shell. He pinched it in
his fingers and tore. Beneath, the pink baby nail begged to rot. Hugh rose and brushed the
severed nail against his lips, smelling the stink. He wanted to eat it so as not to leave a
trace, but flicked it into the brush as he walked forward into the thorns. They had not
grown there naturally. They were not rooted. Someone had cut them up and stuffed them
in the path as a barrier. He looked around for a stick, found a divining rod and stuck it
into the clump of briars As he worked it out, a radio played softly, and the odor rose of
roasting fish. He dislodging the barrier. One hundred feet down the path, under a scrub
oak, smoke swirled above a small fire around which sat several men. The men looked
like the day workers who waited outside the post office. Not old, but aged, not worn, but
weary. As he walked closer, they turned to him, their eyes sharp and defensive. He
expected to see the woman hidden among them. But there was no woman, just two small
fish roasting on a spit.
Hugh shook his head and backed away.
So this is insanity full blown. Today it would end.
Kazuki glided past the slender thighs of a pubescent girl swaying like a reed in the
shallow end of the pool. He slid his hands across the second step and pushed, so that he
rose with an explosion of water. Grabbing the silver rail, he yanked himself to the deck.
He walked swiftly on the warm stone, halting a few feet from the lounge chair to tilt back
his head, grab his hair and twist. He faced the sun for a few seconds, grateful for its
cancerous rays, then strode to the shade of his umbrella and lounge chair. He toweled off,
waved away a beautiful hostess, and dropped to the chair. He felt feverish. The swim
hadn’t helped. He lifted his glasses from the laptop, asleep on the hardwood table,
checked the thick lenses for smudges and jerked them on. He swiveled sideways on the
chair, poked the touchpad. The screen lit up. He read—
The rock pool and stream were bone dry. The ducks, frogs and crayfish had
disappeared. Hoping to find water and life further downstream, Yuudai led the boys
along the cracked brown track. Following the dry bed for fifty yards, they found not a
drop of water or sign of life. Yuudai, who thought his spirit that of a noble savage,
pressed them to continue. The trees and brush thickened and Yuudai felt the earth soften.
They moved cautiously. There was more than one rattlesnake in the hills. They came to a
spot bundled with broken branches carried by the winter streams. Yuudai hunched down,
pressed his hand to the earth and felt moisture. Glancing beyond the interlaced branches,
he saw a glistening. He pointed and urged the boys to move closer. Though it was only a
yard in diameter, the little pool seemed miraculous. As they moved toward it, their feet
sank into the increasingly soft earth. When they were two yards away, a second pool
revealed itself. Something moved in the second pool. A brilliant orange movement. A
claw revealed itself as a creature entangled with another of its kind. Two crayfish, either
mating or having lived beyond their cycle trying to eat one another. The boys were
fascinated and wanted to get closer, but they would have to cross the first pool. Yuudai
made them gather dead branches and lay them down over the first pool. They crossed on
the dead branches and then hunched down to see the crayfish. They were a good four
inches long. Yuudai snapped off a twig and touched the claw. The crab scuttled back,
under cover of a fallen tree. The boys wanted to try to get it out, but Yuudai told them to
wait. In the silence insects buzzed and birds chirped. Eventually, the larger of the two
crayfish crawled out. Yuudai instructed James to keep him occupied with the twig while
Brent grabbed his tail. Is there a claw on his tail? No. No claw. No stinger. The boys
were thinking of scorpions. James stuck the stick in front of the crayfish, its protruding
eyes darting about, it pinched the stick. Brent dipped in his hand and drew the crayfish by
its tail. The boys were laughing. The crayfish madly flashing its claws. It didn’t looked
quite so brilliant orange out of the water, and was not the monster crayfish that had first
appeared to them. Brent set it on the mud. It waited a moment before scuttling back into
the water, where it immediately disappeared beneath the fallen tree.
They wanted to try to catch it again, but Yuudai said it was getting late. Their
mother would be getting worried. James asked if crayfish could be eaten. Yes. What do
they taste like? Crab. I want to eat a crayfish. Yuudai promised they would camp in Big
Bear during the summer. There were many crayfish in the lake. They would catch them
and cook them. But they never did, and the promise blew away like dry moss.
A seagull alighted on the stone deck a few feet from Ono’s table. In size and
coloring it was identical to the one he had caught on his balcony, which was identical to
the one in the bookstore. It padded about, snapping at specks of food and paper, looking
occasionally at Ono as if it might want a word with him.
The scene could not end so peacefully. Yuudai’s failure as a father was that he did
not know when to call it quits. Ono pushed back his chair and rose. He walked over to the
far side of the pool with its view of the Pacific. A mile from shore, the enormous yacht of
the German motored north. Had the story reached the point where Brent and James would
be taken from Yuudai? The crayfish had disappeared in the little pool, perhaps dug in
under a rock or broken branch. The boys would plead to be allowed to catch it one more
time, and though it was getting dark in the noxious dry swamp, where radioactive
isotopes had seeped into the soil, Yuudai would urge them to recapture the crayfish. They
dug their smooth slender hands into the muddy bottom of the pool. Laughing in the warm
dusk, they reached deeper until the mud was up to their elbows. How deep could the
crayfish bury itself? Could it rip through the underlying bedrock? Was it a real crayfish at
all? Titanium claws, digital brain.... Wincing, Ono remembered that in Enrique The
Freak he used the mechanical crayfish that he should have saved for Fingal’s Cave. He
steadied himself against the rail, closed his eyes and drew a long breath. For most things
his memory was no better than average, but he could summon up his own words as if
they were projected before him on a screen. He scrolled the pages of the books he had
written during the last twelve years for other errors of inclusion. For everything his
grandsons had told him, he had only one intention, which was to supply the raw material
for Fingal’s Cave. But he had drawn in the words accidentally, as one practicing casting
from the shore might snag a fish by its tail. He pinched a strand of his still damp hair and
drew it to his lips, nibbling and tasting chlorine. On the periphery of his vision, through
the crawl space of his not completely closed eyes, the strands were like steel cable.
Whether he stood there a minute, an hour or a hundred years, he was uncertain, but when
he stepped back, his hands shaking like those of an alcoholic savagely deprived of his
next drink, he watched the last page of Enrique the Freak crawl into the rafters like the
final credits of a movie. He had found no other betrayals in the thousands of pages, but
yet something gnawed at him. Had he transformed an artifact of his grandsons’
experience into a shape that he no longer recognized? Had a memory stored in the
Fingal’s Cave neural network seeped into a nearby other and donned a disguise?
He glanced at his fingers, something whipping in the sea breeze. It was a dozen
strands of his hair that in his concentration he’d torn away. The whip ends looked red, but
it may have been the sun reflecting off the bougainvillea. He drew the strands apart.
Closer to white than silver, but for the odd still blond thread. Many thought it dyed, but
he was truly born with a Viking’s hair, his brows and beard yellow too. A freak, he kept
it close-cropped as a youth, and it drew little attention. In the 1960s, he let it grow like
everyone else, and as his reputation as a writer grew so did his hair, longer and wilder,
going years without an inch trimmed. It was the mane of a lion, or the costume of a
kabuki actor. When Setsuko was a toddler, he would get down on all fours and flop his
hair forward to the floor. Setsuko would crawl under it as if behind a waterfall. She
would laugh deliriously as she poked and peeked through the strands. He watched her
enchanting face as if a god who had parted the clouds to look down from heaven.
Gimme head with hair / Long beautiful hair / Shining, gleaming, / Streaming...
But though inseparable from his image, there were times, it seemed a burden. He
wore it with the feeling he was carrying someone on his shoulders.
He tied a knot in the strands and snapped it against the rail. How old would his
daughter be? Fifty? They hadn’t celebrated her birthday in many years. She wanted no
part of that. She was here, that’s all. He never forced it on her. There were no special
days; each day the same in its emptiness. When her mother, his wife, died, she reacted
similarly. Melancholia for a millennium, usurped by depression. When it didn’t pass, he
told her the story, gave her the mirror. She believed in the story, so the mirror worked.
She was eight when her mother died, ten when she came out from under the black
umbrella. He tried to make her life joyous. She asked for nothing, he gave her everything.
But not enough. Huck Finn paddled up on his raft.
The German’s yacht was gone.
He swung the knotted strands like a weapon. Released. it whirled like a bolo,
stretching and thickening as it flew above the walkway and beach, a monstrous propeller,
whipping and blowing the sands until like snowdrifts only the vague shape of what the
sand covered was visible.
Ono returned to his laptop. The muddy pool would open up like the earth under
the singing Persephone, and Hades’s golden chariot would take the boys away.
Hugh parked the Volvo, crossed PCH and climbed halfway down the stairs to the
beach where he would set sail for oblivion—then a voice called him from the memory he
had packed like a box lunch for the journey.
Standing at the top of the steps, Hanna grabbed the rails and swung up one leg.
Lines of text ran across the ball of her foot.
“I’m sorry about the other day. About Kyle, I mean.” She fingered her black lip
stud. Her hair was now red with a blue streak.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Hugh.
“I didn’t know he was home. The sneak was hiding under the newspapers. Scared
the shit out of me.”
“Kyle has been collecting newspapers to sell to the Chinese. He heard they’re
paying big money for cardboard boxes. He figures newspapers will be next. Anyway,
he’s got them stacked up five feet high all around the trailer. He’s got little tunnels in
there. He’s like a gopher.”
Hanna dismounted from the rail and scampered down the steps, stopping two
steps above Hugh. “Do me a favor?”
“I’m kind of busy,” said Hugh.
Ignoring his response, she glanced at her shoulder, where a beige bra strap ran
across the pink skin. She stuck a finger under the strap, held a shrug and tilted her head,
sniffing at the strap.
“Smells funny. Does it smell funny to you?” She offered him her bare shoulder.
Hugh took a perfunctory sniff.
“No,” he said, smelling only skin, his eyes turning to the ocean.
Behind her, a family composed of two heavyset women and a half-dozen kids
gathered at the top of the stairs. They were loaded like pack mules and catching their
breath. The oldest child, a heavyset boy of nine or ten, carried a watermelon and was
doubled over with the weight. As Hugh and Hanna stood aside, the boy awkwardly
climbed down. The weight was too much and the melon slipped from his grasp, falling
disastrously toward the hard steps.
Hugh flung himself forward and grabbed the watermelon, his knuckled brushing
“Gracias!” said one of the women.
“Do you want me to carry it for you?” asked Hugh.
“No, I got it,” grinned the boy, taking the melon. “My hands were just slippery.
Hugh stepped aside as the family descended the steps and tramped across the
beach, the boy twice turning back to nod and smile at Hugh.
“Pretty good goalie,” said Hanna. “Down for another swim?”
“Mind if I tag along?”
She jutted out her hip and nibbled her lip. “I don’t want to be rude,” said Hugh,
“but I’d rather you didn’t.”
“Kyle’s not around, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Hugh looked toward the point. The ocean was flat. A hundred surfers floated
motionless, dead in the water. The storm had not yet generated the promised swell.
“I have some reading I want to get done.”
“That’s all right.”
“I really don’t want to talk.”
“That’s cool by me.”
She was like one of those students who wanted to sit in the classroom while Hugh
ate lunch, promising that they would not say a word, and then talking from the moment
Hugh opened the door. He would try not to listen, but the vacuum of their questions
would suck answers out of him. Once that happened, he may as well have tossed the tuna
fish sandwich and newspaper in the trash. But what could he say? Pardon me, young
lady, I have to commit suicide.
“I only have one towel.”
“Oh, that’s a real dilemma,” she said, tugging at her ragged red bangs and then
tapping her lip ring.
She followed him as he trod down the beach, halting near the lifeguard stand.
He set his bag down, removed his towel and spread it on the sand, anchoring it
with two nearby rocks. He took off his sandals, putting them neatly beside the towel, and
then removed his T-shirt, conscious of Hanna staring at his chest and back, not quite as
hairy as an ape. For some women it was a turn on, for others it was repulsive. Except for
the bouquets of hair at his nipples, her boyfriend Kyle was sleek as a porpoise. Hugh
folded his T-shirt and tucked it neatly in the bag. He took out his sunscreen, rubbed
another layer on his face and offered it to Hanna. She declined brightly. He put away the
sunscreen and took out his cell phone, conscious of fulfilling the steps of his ritual and
how ridiculous they must seem to the young woman.
He powered the cell phone, floating for a few seconds on Radiohead’s oceanic
melody. There were no messages. Setsuko had not called. Jason had not called. His sons
had not called....
It was an old piece of shit.
He took out Ono’s book. As he was driving to the beach, thinking about his
morning hallucination, he remembered the brown trout and the crayfish. It occurred to
him that there was something about crayfish in Enrique. Mechanical crayfish. The
narrator was describing a dinner at a bizarre restaurant and mechanical crayfish was one
of the items on the menu. With his sons he had hunted crayfish, and there was that one
He planned to skim for twenty minutes before dog-earing the page, returning the
book to the gym bag and then going for the long swim. He opened to Chapter Seventeen:
“Cat Lap Blues....” He read a page and then thumbed backwards.
Hanna cleared her throat loudly, her eyes begging attention. So ignored, a puppy
“Hanna, I told you…”
“I know, I know. Can I read one of your books?”
Hugh thumbed the pages of Enrique. So there was a crayfish—so what? He
handed her Ono’s book.
Opening to the first page, Hanna read aloud, looking into his eyes every few
sentences to gauge his interest, just as he had done when he read to Takumi and Hitoshi
as they settled into their bunk beds. In the morning, Setsuko read to them in Japanese, but
at night it was Hugh reciting English. He read from Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian
Anderson. The Grimm stories were dark, violent and erotic. The Anderson tales were
romantic, filled with lost love and small heroisms. When he read the stories to the twins,
he felt he was weather-coating their brains and emotions for storms to come. Their
favorite was “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” which told the story of the one-legged toy
infantryman who fell in love with the beautiful ballerina doll who sat on a nearby mantle,
both residents of a child’s bedroom. Pushed from the room’s windowsill, the soldier fell
into a toy boat floating in the gutter and traveled miles and miles to sea. But eventually,
he had been returned to the bedroom and the ballerina, and their rendered up body and
soul for love.
Hugh studied the hill where Tennyson’s stately ships disappeared. He would
swim farther than he ever had. He would swim until he couldn’t swim anymore and then
he’d swim some more just to be safe. In his imagination, he projected the effort, felt the
sea in his eyes, mouth and throat.
Hanna read aloud, “… Any attempt to hide or cover the body, for example when
guests came over, would break the lease. The landlord advised against inviting children
into the apartment, not that the children would be disturbed by the sight, but because
even the best-behaved sometimes get into mischief, occasionally putting their own lives in
danger. . . .”
“Why are you crying?”
Hugh looked toward the voice. He pressed the back of his hand across one eye
and then the other.
“It’s the salt. There’s a lot of salt in the air today.”
“Come on, tell me. Why are you sad?”
He had not been aware that he was crying. Was there something in Ono’s
mysterious words that affected him subliminally? Had that clever man found a way into
the thicket of his emotions? He snatched the book from Hanna, but couldn’t see the
words through his tears. No, it was not Ono’s story, but Anderson’s...
Hugh leaned into Hanna. His head fell drowsily and his tears pooled in the hollow
of her shoulder. When the boys sucked at Setsuko, the clear milk was indistinguishable
from her clear white skin, leaving her ruby red nipples like islands.
His chest heaved as if to throw off a weight, and he realized his arms were around
Hanna, his lips pressed to her neck as if there he might find a nipple and a drop of
mother’s milk. He whimpered and then it was done. Drawing away from Hanna, startled
but not uncomfortable, he met an older woman’s disapproving stare. Hanna more than the
tears he supposed. He drew up a laugh like phlegm, bellowing as if the funniest joke in
the world had just been told.
The older woman, who nibbled a sandwich, a bright red slice of tomato hanging
out like a second tongue, eyed him now with pure hostility. Her tomato slid out from the
sandwich and dropped to the sand. She looked at the tomato and then back at Hugh as if
it were his fault. Old men with young girls, enough to make a sandwich fall apart. But
Hanna’s presence made suicide an even less likely interpretation, Hugh thought, and to
confirm his old goat status, he patted Hanna’s thigh.
“You okay?” she asked.
“Sorry, it was just, nothing, a memory.”
“Memories aren’t nothing.”
Hugh nodded, backing away from the girl.
“I broke up with Kyle,” said Hanna.
“It was time for a change.”
“I knew it was a mistake. From the beginning, I felt like I was giving up
something to be with him. But I was sick, you know? In a weakened condition.”
Hugh nodded. She wanted him to ask questions, to entangle his life with hers.
Don’t get tied to a dead man, he wanted to warn her. You might sink with him to the
Last night, she slept over at a friend’s. In the morning, she hitchhiked back to the
trailer. She came back to tell Kyle that she was moving out, but he wasn’t there. She
didn’t have anywhere to move out to anyway, though.
She was fishing for shelter. He would be dead before the afternoon was over, so
what difference would it make if she squatted at his place for a couple of days? When the
rent became due it would become her problem. But how would it strike the cops? How
would it look in the newspapers to his students? Not that they read the papers, but a
parent might see the story. It was one thing to sit on a blanket at the beach, but it would
be spun as a middle-aged teacher shacked up with a girl barely out of her teens.
A film crew of a dozen people marched up the beach and made camp a short
distance from Hugh and Hanna. With dazzling speed, like a video on fast forward, they
fixed a camera to a tripod at the water’s edge and set another on a long board, which was
balanced by a cameraman in a bathing suit. Light reflectors were positioned. The actors, a
boy and a girl in their early teens, carried short boards into the water. The cameras were
positioned to follow them as they lay on their boards and paddled. On a bullhorn, the
director, or the man Hugh supposed was the director, instructed the crew in a thick
Australian accent. Eating a slice of his saved watermelon, the boy Hugh had assisted on
the stairs padded into the scene and was gently guided to a less intrusive spot by the
director’s assistant. Grinning, the juices running down his chin, the boy glanced toward
Hugh and gestured expansively with his watermelon toward the shoot.
“I want to go back to school,” Hanna blurted as if the thought had struck her for
the first time. “I want to study astronomy. I want to become an astronomer.”
“An astronomer,” said Hugh, “that’s ambitious. That’s a lot of school.”
“Oh, I know. You think it’s crazy, right?”
“Not at all. It’s just ... unusual.”
A bee landed on Hugh’s Gatorade.
“Go away, bee,” said Hanna.
“It’s just a honeybee,” Hugh said. “They don’t sting.”
“Can you kill it?”
“It thinks the Gatorade is a flower.”
“Is it retarded?”
He pushed his finger under the bee, felt its legs as it crawled on the back of his
hand. It didn’t feel unnatural to have the insects crawl over him, as if he were already
under that ground, the waving grasses overhead, the bugs doing their job.
While the bee was still occupied, he used his left hand to put away the drink in his
gym bag. The bee ventured down his wrist to the thicket of black hair.
“How can you stand that?”
Hugh wanted to press his wrist to his lips, suck in the bee, swallow it. Sensing the
danger, the bee stumbled out of the thicket and bolted into the blue.
Hanna pointed at the sky. “Right straight over there is Hercules.” She swept her
arm to the right. “Over there is Ophiuchus. That means the serpent bearer.’ She dropped
her arm. “That’s Scorpius.” She laughed. “Of course, you can’t see them now. But
tonight that’s where they’ll be.”
“I’m impressed,” said Hugh. “How did you learn all that?”
“My grandfather had a telescope. Sometimes he’d wake me up at midnight just to
show me a constellation. I probably could name one hundred.”
“I didn’t know there were one hundred,” said Hugh.
“A thousands,” said Hanna. She gazed across the sky as if she were seeing all of
them. Perhaps she was...
A cool breeze touched the back of his neck, and it was seconds before he realized
it was Hanna’s hand. “How’s that feel?”
“Do you live in a house, Hugh?”
“I can’t give you shelter, Hanna.”
“It wouldn’t be right. I’m a school teacher.”
“Well, I’m hardly your student.”
“There’s a principal involved,” said Hugh with sad slyness. “I’ll loan you some
Hanna licked her black stud.
Hugh took the Gatorade out of the gym bag. It was still cool. He offered her the
bottle, but she shook her head.
Something drew the film crew into the water. The director tugged on his pant
“They’re from Australia,” said Hanna. “They follow those two kids around the
world. I’ve seen it on TV.”
Her hand remained on his neck.
“I’m going to go for a swim,” he said, gently taking her hand away
“I’ve made you uncomfortable,” sighed Hanna.
“I came down for a swim.”
“You want me to leave?”
“If you like...”
“I can take a hint,” said Hanna. But he could see she wasn’t angry. She walked a
few feet away, turned and smiled at him and then continued toward the stairs, off to solve
her own problems. Maybe to start a new life, but most likely to move back in with Kyle
and keep the old one going.
Good luck with your astronomy career.
The film crew had lost and were now frantically searching for the surfboard
camera. A short distance from where the crew members hunted, Hugh waded out and
dove, skimming the bottom. He pulled himself through the silence. An arm’s-length
ahead, sand spurted as a stingray abandoned its disguise. Hugh swam without rising to
breathe. Sixty seconds. Seventy seconds. His blood pulsed terrifically. The biggest sound
in the big sea. He swallowed the swell of his tongue, a trick he’d learned as a boy in the
creek behind their home. His lungs burned as he drew a few oxygen molecules from the
stale air. He passed over the whirring camera, vaguely discerning the lens as it took him
in, following him without desire. The camera swung back to capture a strand of kelp
whipping like a barbed worm. A second strand struck Hugh’s chest, like a man making a
point. And then he was in it, a tangle of slick smooth snarled tubes, which should have
embraced him, but instead provoked a drunken brawl. As he struggled in the kelp like a
fish in a collapsing net, his movements drove the mass to the surface, where it popped up
like a space capsule, his inhalation a cheer from ground control. He kicked to stay on the
surface, working to extract his upper body from the kelp until he realized he was merely
batting the water like someone learning to swim. The kelp was gone. He turned three
hundred and sixty degrees, scanning the rising swell. He turned on his back and stared at
the sky until his breathing became regular. Someone blew a whistle. Someone called. He
looked toward the shore.
Ignoring the whistle, he swam west, tugged now by a current that took him toward
the surfers. A hundred yards away, the first wave of the set rose. The pack maneuvered in
anticipation. Pressed to their boards like lovers, they paddled tenderly, waiting for the
sign to attack. The wave rose higher and drew into itself, moving faster now, casting off
light and signaling to the experienced where it would crest. Hugh swam hard to keep his
distance, but the current pushed him closer. With certainty, the pack broke. A dozen of
the strongest arms broke free of the others and paddled furiously to reach the wave at its
height. Unable to turn away, Hugh watched the sea hollow out before the wave’s base, as
the water was sucked into the form. Twenty surfers met the wave and turned, now
soaring down its face as they leapt to their feet. Oh, how beautiful!
A surfer soared toward him. If Hugh could leap like a dolphin, he could catch the
surfboard’s tip in his chest, if lucky, piercing his heart like a spear. He would rise to his
sons. But he could only watch as the surfboard passed overhead and he fell beneath the
wave. Below the surface, the sea turned in on itself, unleashing gravities that pulled him
in a dozen directions. He was helpless but couldn’t open his mouth to let it fill him, to let
the sea fill him. Fucking coward he silently screamed. When he came to the surface he
was encased in a cloud of bubbles, in the midst of the surfers who having missed the first
wave were preparing for the next. No one saw him or no one cared. The second wave was
not far off.
In a moment, the lifeguards would spot him among the surfers. He dove, trying to
get beneath the boards. If he could just swim until the wave passed overhead, he would
have lost the surfers and could continue out to sea. He pulled himself ten feet down,
kicking hard and pulling forward. A boat’s motor whined. If he could reach the boat,
swim into the propeller.
Where are you, sons?
Just as his breath was exhausted, the wave passed, its force shaking him. He
waited five seconds and rose to the surface. As he broke, a light flashed brilliantly. He
turned to its source and saw a boat coming toward him at an oblique angle, so that the
name on its prow was visible and expanding exponentially like a movie title filling the
screen. Cassandra. Cassandra, he thought wonderingly as the hull glanced his face.
For three hours straight, Ono wrote furiously, unaware of the sun’s passage or the
transformation of his hotel’s pool. The story in outline: Brent and James having
disappeared into the muddy abyss, Yuudai followed, squirming through the jagged hole
in the pipe that his sons’ efforts to flush out the crayfish had uncovered. The signs had
warned of danger: BEWARE INDUSTRIAL LABYRINTH! GATEWAY TO THE SEA OF
SHIT! IF YOU CAN READ THIS, YOU’VE ALREADY FUCKED! But Yuudai with his
usual contempt had dismissed the cautions as the joy-killing exaggerations of officious
stick-in-the-muds. Bursting with regret and guilt, he crawled frantically down the dark
winding passage, deeper into the underworld into which his sons had disappeared. Along
the way, he encountered numerous other fathers searching for their children. One had
encouraged his son to get his bowels eviscerated in Iraq. Another paterfamilias had a
hungry heart and left his wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack. Another fixed his daughter’s
whining by shaking out her brains. Bad dads all, and of no help in tracking Brent and
Ono stopped, suddenly and painfully aware of an atmospheric shift. When he
looked up from his laptop, there were hundreds of beautiful young men and women
dancing and preening to thunderous music. A banner had been strung across the pool
proclaiming Mid-Week Pool Party. Behind an elevated table, a DJ sat at the controls of a
massive sound system. On the top of one speaker, Ono’s seagull perched, gnawing an
Returning to his room, Ono considered calling Hugh. The writing was not going
well. With each new scene or revision, the story’s shape became less defined and he
feared he was losing control of his vision. Fingal’s Cave was divided into three books:
The first chronicled Yuudai’s relationship with his father. The second book followed
Yuudai’s journey to Japan, his increasingly surreal attempts to obey his father’s guilt-
ridden schematic for reparation and his meeting and love affair with Sumiko. The
remainder of the second book told the story of the marriage, the birth of the twin sons,
Yuudai’s relationship with Sumiko’s family, the Itos, the argument with Katashi Ito, and
the subsequent return of Yuudai and family to America. Many pages of the second book
were devoted to Yuudai’s exhilarating but increasingly dangerous adventures with his
sons, Brent and James, and the growing estrangement between Yuudai and Sumiko. It
was toward the end of the second book that Yuudai would lose his sons and begin his
difficult and painful journey to untangle the great mystery of their disappearance.
The third book: the horror and the battle.
Kazuki had thought that a few weeks in California would furnish him with the
scenes, information and inspiration that he needed to realize his final work. With the
completed manuscript, he could approach Hugh in good conscience. But if he didn’t or
He had started writing Fingal’s Cave almost twelve years ago, but he had put the
first rough chapters away for a decade. In the years since the boys’ deaths, he had thought
about those scenes many times, but he evaded responsibility by launching into one new
book after the other. True escapist fiction.
Ono sat down before the laptop. It was his duty to finish what he had started.
One more time. Hugh’s stomach heaved. He spewed into the frothy yellow
puddle. On the farther shore, a small brown foot shoveled sand over the mess.
“Oh, God,” rasped Hugh.
“You’re going to be all right, sir.”
Hugh licked his tongue across the roof of his mouth, gathering the residue of the
vomit and spitting. He lifted his head. A young man with bright blue eyes and several
days’ growth of blond beard straddled Hugh’s torso.
“You almost drowned.”
“Did I?” whispered Hugh.
“Got smacked pretty bad.”
“The boat—” said Hugh.
“You may have a concussion. You have one Hell of a bruise.”
“No, it was a boat,” insisted Hugh, trying to rise.
“Take it easy,” said the young man, gripping Hugh’s shoulder.
“Brad. I’m a lifeguard. What’s your name, sir?”
Sirens drew closer. “Can you tell me your name, sir?”
Hugh touched his forehead, inspecting the contours of a golf ball-sized lump.
“Am I bleeding? It doesn’t feel like I’m bleeding.”
“Not any more. I called an ambulance. It’s coming.”
“I don’t need an ambulance. Would you please let me up?”
“I don’t advise that, sir.” The lifeguard glanced back over his shoulder toward the
service road, where flashing red lights penetrated the maddened bougainvillea.
“Best you get checked out. The paramedics will take you to emergency. Better to
be safe than sorry, boss.”
“Get off me.”
The lifeguard stepped away as Hugh got to his feet. A dozen beachgoers
surrounded him, unmoving as Hugh tried to leave. He pushed through the stubborn
spectators. The lifeguard followed him.
“Where did the boat go?” asked Hugh, walking to the water’s edge and scanning
the horizon. Had no one seen it? He touched his hand to his chest and winced. A streak
the texture and color of ground beef ran diagonally across his left breast. Blood welled at
his touch. Two paramedics jogged up and scuffled with him as they attempted to get a
blood-pressure cuff around his arm. One shone a penlight into Hugh’s eyes and asked
him what day it was.
Later, Hugh would wonder if he responded at all, for separating him from his
inquisitors was that seascape of the Oceanside beach where his sons had died. Beyond the
frozen cresting waves glided a boat. Below its bow, nine bold black uppercase letters
formed its name: Cassandra. The boat that had been there that day in Oceanside had
smashed him moments ago. The lifeguard was mistaken. It had not been a surfboard.
Hugh pulled away from the paramedics.
“Did you bring me in?” he asked the blue-eyed lifeguard.
“Only the last ten yards. A swimmer grabbed you.”
“A swimmer? You mean a surfer?”
“Did you ask—the swimmer?”
The lifeguard’s attention had been drawn elsewhere. Hugh tapped his arm. The
lifeguard slowly met his gaze.
“About the boat that hit me.”
The lifeguard glanced at the paramedic and rolled his eyes. “No, I haven’t had
time. I’ll make sure I do that...”
“Which one was it?” Hugh gestured toward the pack.
“I told you he wasn’t a surfer.” The lifeguard looked around. “And he didn’t stick
“What was his name?”
The lifeguard shrugged. “I don’t know. He did his good deed and left. Maybe he
went back into the water. Maybe he went home. What do you want me to say?”
“Someone had to have seen the boat.”
“I’m not crazy.”
But the paramedics weren’t so sure and made him rattle off the day, his name, his
date of birth and social security number. They asked him if he’d had a previous head
injury but he declined to mention the similar one he’d had twelve years before, the one
that had left him unconscious for twenty-four hours. The one that let him awaken to the
news of his sons’ deaths.
The paramedics spent another ten minutes trying to persuade Hugh to visit
emergency, but Hugh refused. Shrugging, the paramedics gave him a sheet listing the
warning signs of a concussion and then marched off. The crowd had long dispersed,
except the watermelon boy who stood beside him gazing toward the unseen Cassandra.
“What’s your name?” asked Hugh.
“Apollonius,” said the boy.
“Did you see it, Apollonius?”
“The boat, you mean?”
“Yes, the boat that hit me.”
“You weren’t looking, though?”
“I might have seen a boat,” said the boy.
Hugh turned to him, looking for a shred of corroboration, but the boy’s shy eyes
and drawn lip indicated only a sympathetic lie.
Hugh remembered the story on mirages. How under the right atmospheric
conditions a real object could be reflected off sheets of air to be projected a hundred
miles away. And could it project an object from the past? Or was it a sunken wreck
brought up by rogue currents?
“Why did you want a boat to hit you?” asked the boy.
“No, I didn’t want...” Hugh patted the boy’s head. “Thanks.”
“Apollonius,” shouted the boys mother, “vete aquí.”
The boy looked toward his blanket, “It’s okay, Mom. He’s my friend.”
The mother frowned and said something to the other woman, who stared at Hugh.
“My mom’s afraid of kidnappers. She thinks they’re everywhere.”
Hugh shivered. He pulled his forearm to his mouth and blew on the goose bumps.
“She’s wise to be cautious.”
“Do you have children?” asked Apollonius.
“How old are they?”
“They’re ... they would be...” He veered from the calculation. “They’re gone.”
“Where did they go?”
“I don’t know, Apollonius.”
“Were they kidnapped?”
He thought the parents paranoid who drilled fear into their children, making them
run from every stranger’s smile. How many Phillip Garridos were out there? But of
course it had become like that in some places. Not pedophiles so much as thugs
terrorizing families for ransoms. He had several Mexican children in his classes, sons and
daughters of the upper class, who were in the U.S. because of that real threat.
“Did the boat take them?” asked Apollonius.
Hugh glanced down at the boy, whom he forgot was there. “The boat? The
“I guess,” said Apollonius.
“No, the boat didn’t take them.”
“Who did?’ asked the boy, bristling with concern.
Hugh gestured toward the sea.
“That sucks,” said Apollonius, scuffing the sand.
“Appolonius, ven a comer su bocadilla.”
“Well, see you later. Sorry about your sons.”
“The man who pulled me out of the ocean. Did you see him?”
‘You mean the lifeguard?”
“No. There was another man. Surfer—no, swimmer.”
“Oh, yeah. I saw him.”
“What did he look like?”
“Pretty tall, like you. Skinny. Tattooed like crazy.”
“What kind of tattoos?”
“He had this really cool tiger on his back.”
The boy’s mother called out again.
“Later,” said Apollonius.
Hugh returned to his towel. A half-mile away a party boat crawled north. There
had been a boat at Oceanside, perhaps fifty yards beyond the most distant surfer. He had
not thought of it once until today, but now it was a certain thing. The boat’s name was
Cassandra. Not a sailboat, but a cabin cruiser or a speedboat. There was something
futuristic about it, almost fantastic. The boat had been upon him today. The lifeguard was
mistaken or he had lied. Hugh scooped up a handful of sand. The sand rippled as a buried
bee broke the surface. Three times he had tried to kill himself. From one angle, it was
slapstick. But from another?... Surfboard or boat, he just as well could have been dead.
He acted in good faith. The bee should have been dead, but an undirected act, at least an
act that had nothing to do with the bee, had given it a few more minutes of life and
freedom. To what end? To transport a few more bits of pollen? A young woman walked
by staring at his forehead. He had forgotten about the wound. His forehead throbbed. He
should put ice on it. The sea had calmed and again the surfers floated listlessly. The bee
crawled on his hand and seemed in no hurry to leave.
Perhaps his sons had gotten dragged into the boat’s propeller. He had read how
large objects could become lodged against a hull, stay there for hundreds of miles. Or
perhaps tangled in kelp, and the kelp caught on the propeller. There were nets, too. It
would explain why the bodies were never found. He would not consider the stupid thing,
which deserved to be slapped out of its hysteria.
But the stupid thing had already set up residence and was arranging the room. The
rip tide carried Takumi and Hitoshi toward the boat, where those aboard had plucked
them from the sea. Then came the rags soaked with chloroform—or whatever they used
in 1994—and then the ropes or handcuffs. Set a course for—Mexico? Central America?
The stupid thing was on a roll.
Your sons are alive, whispered the sea.
Your sons live, cried the wind.
Alive! shouted the sun.
Alive! Alive! cawed a seagull, and a hundred more joined in. Alive! Alive!
Dead, said reason with thudding finality.
Hugh gathered his things and shoved them in the gym bag.
At the crossing, where he usually stopped to wipe off his feet and put on his
sandals, an old primed Camaro was parked on the roadside with its hood up. A young
man was leaning over the engine and smoking a cigarette. He wore baggy, low-slung
jeans, aviator sunglasses and a wrinkled dress shirt, sleeves stained with grease marks. He
glanced at Hugh, who nodded to him as he sat on the guard rail. As Hugh wiped the sand
from between his toes, he looked at the man’s profile. He had a firm jaw, broad
cheekbones and long wavy black hair. His lips were fine, but his nose bent and blunt. He
looked again at Hugh.
“How you feeling?” asked the young man.
“Yeah, better. You saw what happened?”
“You almost bought it.”
“Were you the one who pulled me out?”
“Naw. I don’t go for that hero shit.”
Hugh slipped on his sandals and stood up. The man set a chrome cover over the
air filter. He held up a chrome nut and said, “Call this a wing nut. You know why?
Because it has little wings on it.” He drew the nut in an arc above his head. “Butterfly,
same kind of word. Like butter flying.” He grinned. “Back to your nest, little bird.” He
screwed it down quickly and turned back to Hugh, wiping his hands on a rag, though his
fingers appeared spotless. The Camaro’s engine compartment was cherry.
“Hey, you got your light,” the young man said, pointing to the highway.
Hugh glanced back at the blinking walk sign.
As Hugh reached the north side of the intersection he looked back to see the
young man getting into his car. He’d taken off the shirt. His back and arms were covered
with the full-body tattoos that the Japanese call iridenzi. In the center of his back was a
tiger identical to the tiger in the tapestry on the wall of Mrs. Hashimi’s sitting room.
Hugh called out, but the young man had started his engine and was soon gone like
Fuuu-uck. Fifteen fucking years.
I slammed the hood shut, leaned my cold ass on the fender and watched Uncle
Hugh dash across Topanga and disappear behind an old trailer.
When I spoke with Grandma two nights ago, I knew something was up. I visit
madar bozorg two or three times a week and rarely let a day pass without buzzing her.
On the phone, she was talking too fast and bringing up subjects she wouldn’t talk about
in a million years. That meant she was avoiding the thing she really wanted to discuss. It
took a little prodding to get her to talk, but then it all spilled out. Uncle Hugh had stopped
by her house. That surprised me. But I’d soon learn something that would blow me away.
I followed up the phone call with a drive over to her house, which is only fifteen
minutes from my North Hollywood crib. The first thing she showed me was the sand on
her couch. He had come from the beach: Topanga. Topanga? Are you kidding me? “No,”
she barked, slapping at the sand like it was the side of Uncle Hugh’s head..
From my grandmother’s perspective, Uncle Hugh had left his fatherless nephew
to the wolves, abandoned his flesh and blood. She was pissed, all right, had been pissed
for fifteen years. He was lucky she didn’t shoot him. She had Grandfather’s gun and
knew how to use it.
But Topanga? I had been there that day to swim my five miles. Point to point, just
like I did three or four times a week. Long-distance swimming, dude. That was the way I
got all the crazy urges out of me, found peace through that flood of endorphins. Those
swims were the center of my life. Anyway, I must have been down there when Uncle
Hugh was down there. What a pisser, huh?
I’d never mentioned my long-distance swimming to my mother or grandmother. It
would make them nervous knowing I was paddling so far from shore alone. I didn’t lie
much to my mother or grandmother, but I didn’t always volunteer information, like when
I got a new tattoo (to say they didn’t like my tattoos would be an understatement). Not
only would it have troubled them to learn of my open ocean swims, but if I had admitted
to being at Topanga on the day Uncle Hugh stopped by Grandma’s, Topanga’s sands still
on his bathing suit, they would have both attributed it an act of God. They would have
been praying for a revelation. No way they would have accepted it as coincidence. But
coincidence it was.
Worse, if they didn’t think it was God, they might have concluded that I was
following my uncle, which was not impossible. More than once, I’d vowed to track the
creep down and make things right. Not that things could ever be made right. Twenty
years of pain and self-loathing were not remedial. Freud was mostly bullshit, but the stuff
he wrote about emotional disorders having their roots in early childhood was right on.
It sure held true for me, would have been true even without Madar Bozorg’s
reinforcement. Most grandmothers supplied their grandchildren with cookies and milk,
read to them from fairytales and picture books, but Madar Bozorg fed me a steady diet of
recriminations against my father and uncle. She read to me from her book of revenge.
“They abandoned you, bache. A boy needs a man to become a man.”
I had some doubts about my father’s guilt. He couldn’t be blamed for checking
out during a diabetic coma, but Grandmother said that that he should have been careful
for my sake, for his three-year-old child. He had been selfish. It wasn’t for himself that he
should have taken the insulin, but for me.
I knew my father only from photographs. There was the photo that I used to take
to bed every night after my father died. I wouldn’t sleep unless that picture was in bed
with me. I gazed at it until my eyelids sealed out the nightlight. Asleep I clutched it to my
chest like a teddy bear. It was a picture of my father holding me when I was one, a spoon
overflowing with strained peaches or apricots hanging from my mouth, and my father
was laughing. It was a nice photo until I pissed all over it. Not on purpose. I was a bed-
wetter from the day my father died. There were other pictures, but none with the two of
us together. For those, I had to close my eyes.
A fuzzy one of my father and me by a stream. A dark one of my father setting me
on a pony. A sun-soaked one of my father holding my hand as we walked into a blue blue
sea. I went crazy sometimes trying to bring those images back, trying to develop photos
never taken, memories of moments that may not have happened at all. Juiced up one time
by some magazine photos of a local mountain range, I’d gone out to a stream that I
thought might be the stream in my memory. I sat on a boulder, dangling my bare feet in
the current, waiting for it to carry me back to the moment when my father placed the rod
in my hand and whispered that a fish was lurking in a deep pool on the far side. If I could
get back there, perhaps I could get at those other memories, the days when I was happy.
For surely those were the days when I was happy. There weren’t many others.
When I heard about Topanga and Uncle Hugh, the first thing I thought of was that
maybe I had seen the guy. Maybe I had swum right past him. Wouldn’t that be fucking
something? Even as I was talking with Madar Bozorg, I was putting together my little
plan, like I used to strategize my assaults on freeway overpasses back in tagging days.
Pretty much the same crowd went down to Topanga Beach daily in the summer,
and I thought the odds were good that Uncle would show up if not the next day, then the
day after. Foregoing my long-distance swim, I camped out on the beach. At 8 a.m., I was
settled in on my towel, snacking on Doritos and Red Bull. It was noon when I spotted
Uncle Hugh descending the stairs. Interestingly, he was accompanied by a woman that
sure couldn’t have been his wife: Setsuko was Japanese and by now much older. I
remembered my aunt. She painted pictures, and I still have one hanging in my room,
hanging over my heart actually.
Behind my sunglasses, and baseball cap pulled low, I watched my uncle and the
woman, until the woman took off as if they’d had an argument. That’s when Hugh went
in for a swim. I followed with the vague plan of waiting until he got out a distance and
then swimming by him. “How you doing, fucking Uncle Hugh?” That would freak him
But things worked out considerably different. Uncle Hugh was in trouble from the
get go. First, he got tangled up in some gnarly kelp, then a current carried him toward the
point and the pack of surfers.
As I swam after him, I saw him disappear beneath a macker carrying a half-dozen
surfers. The clown surfaced just in time to get slammed by the last board. I sure as Hell
wasn’t planning to rescue my uncle, but when I got there and saw him bobbing on the
surface unconscious, some stupid instinct kicked in, and with the instinct a question. I got
my arm around his neck and chest and started hauling. Before I had to drag him all the
way in, two lifeguards on long boards showed up and took Hugh off my hands.
I wasn’t interested in a hero designation or to be introduced to Uncle Hugh at this
time. I already half-regretted my merciful act. I watched the paramedics show. But Uncle
Hugh wasn’t going for any of their stuff. He seemed to have something else on his mind.
When I saw my uncle packing up, I left the beach, retrieved my car from the lot
and drove one hundred yards to park at the exit. I popped the Camaro’s hood to have an
excuse to be there. I didn’t have any intention of speaking to my uncle, but there was
something about having touched his body as I dragged him through the water. His skin
brought back the memory of my hand in his. The warm strength of his arm around my
back, behind my heart. But maybe I didn’t really remember that. In my shrink’s office,
I’d read an article on retaining memories from an early age. From the first three or four
years, you remember almost nothing. They call it childhood amnesia, and it’s pretty much
true for everybody, scientists out at JPL and crack heads down on Skid Row. I can’t
vouch for the scientists, but I sure can for the crack heads.
But I’m certain I remembered leaving the messages on Uncle Hugh’s answering
machine. “Hi, Uncle Hugh. This is Jason. When are you gonna come get me?” I think I
was four when I started leaving the messages and six when I stopped, despairing that my
uncle’s voice would ever come out of the little holes in the plastic. Of course, I wouldn’t
have used the word despairing then. I don’t know what word I would have used or if I
would have used any word at all. It would merely have been a question. Why doesn’t
Uncle Hugh call me back?
My grandmother said it was a special kind of evil and called Uncle Hugh a Div,
Persian for demon.
But why didn’t the devil love me?
Twelve years ago, he’d put the San Diego newspaper with the story of his sons’
drowning in the trunk he’d had since college.
As Hugh slid the trunk from his bedroom closet, he tried to recall when he’d last
opened it and for what reason. Perhaps to deposit the pink slip for the Volvo or a copy of
an income tax form... He’d taken nothing out. He set the trunk beside his bed and
snapped back the latches.
He remembered the trunk overflowing with a lifetime’s paperwork, but it was less
than half full. He sorted through the envelopes, cancelled checks and faded memorabilia.
CDs and ancient tapes. High school and college degrees. Warranties, loan papers and
instruction manuals. Setsuko had taken the boys’ documents: the report cards and birth
certificates, the sports plaques and medals. She’d taken the photographs too, all of them.
He suspected she’d burned them—for what really was the point of these two-dimensional
memories, false positives of life.
He envisioned the San Diego paper as clearly as if it lay before him. The large
photo of the angry surf, the insets of Takumi and Hitoshi, their names appallingly
reversed, and in the upper left of the photo, the boat. He dug deeper into the trunk’s
contents. A few layers deep, he found a manila envelope addressed to Jason Mcpherson,
written in his brother’s fine longhand. He traced the letters, marveling at the precision.
Remembering his brother’s hand, he thought of his brother’s face, the bright blue eyes,
broad chin and sensual lips. The face of the young man at the beach bled through. His
face was darker, heavier, but the resemblance to Eddie was there. The young man who
might have been the swimmer who rescued Hugh, but he wouldn’t even admit to that. In
his mind’s eye, Hugh pictured the four-year-old Jason and aged him sixteen years ... but
Jason was ten thousand miles away.
Hugh set the envelope on the bed. In ten minutes, he’d dug through to the bottom,
scratching the ribbed silky fabric. He leafed through everything again, turning each item
upside down, snapping and shaking. He separated a large white envelope from a brown
and after a moment of doubt, recognized the sender’s name and smiled. High Meadow
Mortuary and Cemetery, Simi Valley. What was her name? Gina. Yes, Gina. Gina was
the most persistent salesperson he’d ever encountered.
Gina’s years of phone solicitations started not long after Hugh, Setsuko and the
twins had left Japan to settle in Los Angeles. The sales calls came the last Thursday of
each month, seven p.m. exactly.
Hugh remembered how he would lift the phone knowing whom the caller was but
pretending ignorance. “Hello, is this my butcher? Are the steaks ready?” “No, no, Mr.
Mcpherson. Sorry. It’s not the butcher. This is Gina from High Meadow. How are you
“You suggested I call back in a month.”
“I did. Have you been well?”
“Oh, yes. And you?”
“Same old complaints.
For years she had called him to make her low-key pitch: “We have the most
beautiful sites and very affordable...” Hugh merely played with her, asking inane but not
totally unbelievable questions. What was the history of the land? Were there any Indian
burial grounds nearby. Was the ground hard or soft? Clay or loam? What sort of insects
were there? What kind of birds? (He didn’t like crows or vultures.) How often was the
grass cut? Did they employ a night watchman? Was a gravesite ever marred by graffiti?
Did they bury atheists at the same depth as Christians or did they give them short shovel?
He had thought that Gina would sooner or later catch on to his whimsical game and stop
calling, but Gina had stamina. No matter how outrageous his questions, she would try to
answer or say she would research it and get back to him. He did not think she ever got the
joke, but if so she hid it well. Eventually, he gave up jokes, but then he didn’t have the
heart after all that to tell her he wasn’t interested. In that lush season of young manhood
and success, who can take the grave seriously? And so he put her off with innumerable
excuses. He could not remember when Gina stopped calling. He could not remember
when the Thursday ritual ended. He wondered if she were still out there, pitching her
plots. He would be surprised. Her voice was meek and frail and he imagined her then as a
woman in her late sixties, perhaps earning a deserved discount on her own grave.
“Where were you when I needed you, Gina?” Hugh said, tossing the envelope on
the bed. Continuing his search, he found things he hadn’t seen the first time, but none
was what he sought. He took each item from the bed and set it back into the trunk until
only one remained. He lifted the envelope addressed to Jason, which weighed no more
than a few ounces—a few sheets of paper, a letter, photos, perhaps. He recalled the
conversation with Eddie.
“His tenth birthday?” Hugh had asked.
“Yeah. It’s special. Double digit,” explained Eddie.
“Why me? Why not you?”
“Might be pushing up daisies,” Eddie had answered.
Hugh hadn’t taken Eddie’s disease seriously. He didn’t know enough about it to
realize that the disease could kill his brother, so he thought his brother was joking. But
still Eddie insisted that Hugh take responsibility for the package. Put it somewhere safe to
dig out when Jason reached double digits.
A time capsule that had lingered a decade too long. He set the envelope on his
bureau. If he couldn’t get it directly to his nephew, at least he could drop it off at the
How difficult would it be to get another copy of the newspaper? He could go to
the university library. Perhaps it was available online. Again, he imagined the picture of
the surf, the boat. There might be a serial number, some sort of registration...
The newspaper was called The San Diego Sol. A bright-yellow smiling sun above
Hugh slipped his cell phone from his pocket and dialed information. The operator
informed him that there was no listing. She suggested the San Diego Union.
“No, I’m sure it was the San Diego Sol. Do you have a phone number for a San
“Do you have a name, sir?”
“I don’t know ... San Diego News.”
She came back almost instantaneously with, “Here is your number.”
“What paper?” asked the gravel-voiced man who answered the phone at the
“The San Diego Sol.”
“Christ, that paper’s been out of business ten years or more.”
Hugh hung up and flopped back on the bed, feeling tired and heavy, weighted by
the awareness of how Quixotic the search was. Next he would be attending séances. He
would be like the woman he encountered at the Coffee Bean who had lost her dog. She
searched her neighborhood and the surrounding neighborhoods for weeks, hired people
off Craig’s List to put up reward posters. In local papers and online, she devoured the
descriptions of found pets. She haunted the pounds and animal shelters. At the café, she
asked everyone she met, strangers even, for ideas on how to find her dog. Some buoyed
her with suggestions, some just shook their heads. One day he heard her talking about a
psychic and on a subsequent day she described the method the psychic suggested to get
her pet to return home. Turn a spotlight on your house at night. Show your pet that you
still love it. More than one person told her that certainly a coyote had gotten little Jack,
but she rented a spotlight to illuminate her house and beckon home her pet...
The newspaper no longer existed. Somewhere there might be an archive, but...
What could he really see in the photo? The boat was hundreds of yards away. He
knew the boat’s name. What else could the photo give him?
The scent of marijuana, an odor that after the sun went down wafted through the
canyon like mist, seeped early through his open window. Pushing off the bed, Hugh
peered through the screen.
Hanna sat on the patch of crabgrass beside his vegetable garden and fed apple
slices to a rooster standing between her legs. In her other hand, she held a lit joint. She
wore cut-off jeans and a wrinkled green blouse, the tails knotted at her belly, protruding
slightly, the canvas for a plump tattooed infant, likely Jesus. Her tan skin glowed, but
couldn’t hide the pitted hollows of her cheeks. She opened her mouth wide to pick
something tensile from the gap between her two top front teeth. She weighed maybe
ninety pounds, not much more than his sons. Her eyes were pale blue, pretty. She wanted
to be an astronomer.
As Hugh approached, she rid herself of the bird, wiped her fingers on her jeans
and turned. “Why that bruise looks awful. Are you all right?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Put raw meat on it. That really helps.”
The rooster struck out for the garden, attacking the mesh that kept the birds and
rabbits out of the blueberries and tomatoes. The sun hung above the crest of the farthest
hill, still spreading its warmth down the canyon. High above, a hawk circled lazily.
“How did you find my place?” Hugh asked.
She stuck out her tongue and generously moistened the black lip ring, as if it were
a plant that needed watering. “Asked around the café. Alphonse the plumber told me he
did some work for you. I walked up here.” She offered the joint to him.
“Now you can walk back down.”
“Jesus, like I broke into your house or something.”
She took a long drag, looked around. “This is like paradise. Adam and Eve, you
know?” She picked up the open penknife lying beside her foot and closed the blade. She
offered the joint again. He shook his head. Hanna grinned. “You going to expel me and
my rooster from the garden?
“Finish your smoke and go.”
Ten minutes later, Hugh flopped down in his lounge chair, pressing an ice-filled
sock to his forehead. He took the sock away to adjust the ice.
“Looks like a kiss,” said Hanna. She sat on the second chair, lay back, closed her
eyes and beamed. The two of them were stretched out like his own parents in their
backyard lounge chairs, drinking iced tea and nibbling from a shared bowl of snacks.
Hanna hiccoughed, laughed and opened her eyes. She leaned to one side, smiled
and tapped his shoulder.
“This is really nice, you know?”
“Hanna, I’ve got work to do.”
“You always say that. You a workaholic?”
She pulled at her blouse, letting the air in, and then rolled over on her stomach
and nestled her head against her arms. He hadn’t noticed her perfume before, a flower
child fragrance that smelled like raspberries cooked for a pie. Hanna laughed to herself
and then raised her head. “You think they make you work in Hell?”
“Why would you ask that?”
“In case I go there.”
“How do you know that?”
“I just know it.”
“Well, do they?”
“What’s that mean?”
“Hell has circles. A circle for gluttons. A circle for the carnal. A circle for
“No. There are many circles. And in some, the sinners work.”
“Well, I’ve never worked. Never had a job.”
“Hardly. If I needed something, I’d steal it. When I was fourteen, sixteen, I’d steal
things all the time, and never get in trouble. They’d always let me go, like I couldn’t have
done whatever it was I did. Even if someone saw me, they didn’t see me. I was young,
blond and pretty.”
“A get out of jail free card.”
“That’s it.” She laughed. “You ever steal anything?”
Dogs bark, boys steal. But in his father’s domain, theft was not a prank. His father
had never stolen anything in his life, not an apple off a tree, a fallen apple even. Once, he
and his father had been walking and came upon a five dollar bill lying on the sidewalk.
As Hugh stopped to pick it up, his father said leave it, that the person who lost the bill
might come back to look for it, and that person surely needed it more than Hugh needed
it. Hugh politely argued that it would likely be another person who found the money and
took it. Pirie didn’t bend. We can’t be responsible for that person’s actions, his father
said, only for our own. His father was weak-kneed in the face of the physical world but
his morality was granite.
Hanna slipped off her lounge chair and sat at the bottom of Hugh’s. They watched
the hawk circle.
“So what happened?” she asked, leaning back and resting her head against his
He nudged her away. “No.”
“It feels so nice.”
“I mean it, Hanna. I don’t want you to.” But his leg felt carved away where her
head had lain. One stupid thing jostling another stupid thing for attention. He was afraid
that if she touched him again, he’d have her on the ground.
“You don’t like me?” she whined.
“I’d rather you sat in the other chair.”
After Setsuko left, he’d been with other women. He’d tried to lose himself in their
warmth and sympathy. Life goes on, life goes on, life goes on. It wasn’t long before a
stranger occupied his body, shared the Pasta Caprese, applauded the band, held the
woman tenderly afterward. Hugh Mcpherson wasn’t really there. A simulacrum. The
affairs trailed off and then weren’t any at all. He hardly noticed, but here was Hanna to
Hanna pushed against Hugh to get up. The heat of her hand sunk into his leg,
radiated to his groin. His throat constricted.
“It wouldn’t hurt you to get a job,” he said, hoping to divert his own thoughts.
“You wouldn’t need Kyle then. You could take night courses at the community college.
If you want to be an astronomer, do something about it.” Be all you can be. Could he be
any more insincere? Hugh dug out his sunscreen, poured a dollop and spread it over his
nose and cheeks.
“Who’s gonna give me a job? Work experience: zero, zilch.”
“Make something up. Say you worked at one of those chain stores that went out
of business. They won’t check.”
“It slips away quickly.’
“Everything. You go for a cup of coffee and it’s gone. The whole world vanishes
in an instant.”
“Then why bother?”
“Don’t be lazy, Hanna.”
“I’m not, really. Okay, I’ll look for a job, maybe. Happy?”
Hugh nodded, thinking again of the Cassandra. That was his job now.
She brightened. “You read a lot, huh? I see you reading at the P&L. What books
should I read?”
“I don’t know. Frankenstein, maybe.”
“Frankenstein? I don’t want to read that.”
“You might be surprised.”
“What’s that story about the guy who goes down to Hell to get his girlfriend?”
“Why all this interest in Hell?”
Hanna waved her arm. “The flip side of Paradise, isn’t it?”
“Orpheus,” said Hugh wearily.
“I like that story. I’m glad he did that. I mean, get her back.”
“He didn’t get her back. Orpheus’s wife Eurydice was to follow him out of the
Underworld, but Hades ordered Orpheus not to look back at her until they both reached
the upper world. Just as they were almost there, just as they had it made, Orpheus fucked
up. He looked back. Eurydice disappeared then, never to be seen again.”
“Why did that guy who ran hell—what’s his name?”
“Why did Hades not want him to look back? Why did Hades have that rule?”
“You have to follow the rules, in this world or the next.”
“Maybe he’s like Kyle. Kyle tells me to do things all the time. He doesn’t care
about them being done. He just wants to see I follow his orders.”
A fly landed on Hugh’s arm, jumped to his neck, then his cheek. He swatted,
missed and imagined queasily that he’d squashed it. The fly relocated to the back of his
hand, then his arm again, where he could feel each leg snagging the hairs. Why had he
gone for that coffee? What the fuck was he thinking? If he had stayed. If he had stayed...
He touched his forehead, saw the letters on the hull again, Cassandra. It was absurd. Was
the name really Cassandra? Could it have been Calliope? Cassava? Cassandra, shit,
Cassandra. The P & L closed at two p.m., too late to use their WiFi. He’d have to drive
to the Coffee Bean on Ventura. Get on the Internet. He gazed at the deep green leaves of
the dollar tree, then the ones on the ground. The fallen were pale brown and pale red. One
turned redder. Hanna held the knife to her wrist.
“What the Hell?”
She calmly handed him the knife.
The last drop of blood fell. It was not a deep cut, not a suicide cut.
“I don’t want you doing crazy things like that. You can’t be here if you’re going
to do things like that.” Be here? Why did he say that?
“Jesus, it was a mistake. You never cut yourself?” She licked her finger, drew it
over her wrist’s red smear. “Like on paper or anything?” Her veins looked as narrow as
kite string. He imagined the vein separating from her skin, rolling out like kite string
while Hanna floated in the air like a kite over the canyon.
She offered him a shy grin. “I won’t do it again. Promise.”
He would wait until morning to Google Cassandra. Google. Right. He glanced at
her as she folded her tongue over the lip ring. She was starting to penetrate him. He
wanted her to go. He wanted her to stay. He wanted her.
Hugh sliced the clove of garlic and tossed it into the pan with the tomatoes,
mushrooms and oil. Hanna sat at his kitchen table, a solid bamboo and glass affair that
Setsuko had chosen and Hugh had inherited after the break-up. The table and chairs had
to be twenty years old but showed no sign of weakening except for a few broken strips of
raffeta. He saw Setsuko sitting across from him, knife held firmly in her long uncolored
fingers, cutting up the boys’ steaks into perfect half-inch squares. She obsessed about
what they ate and how they ate it. No canned anything, everything fresh with strict ratios
of vegetables to grains, fruits to meat. Meat separated into safe symmetrical pieces.
“That smells good.”
“We’ll eat and then I’ll drive you back down.”
“I love Italian food,” she said, pretending not to have heard. “Mexican, of course.
Thai too. You know those flat noodles with lobster sauce? Yum. The only thing Kyle and
I eat is Top Ramen and those plastic cans of soup, which is all right. My mother was a
good cook. Roast beef and potatoes. She tried to teach me to cook, but I never listened. I
didn’t want to know, just seemed like something else I’d have to do if I ever learned it.”
“That’s very ... practical.”
Hanna yawned and stretched her arms. Her shirt rose on her belly. Hugh glanced
away and turned on the gas under the pot of water. In the days following the boys’
deaths, there were several nights when the passion was as strong as during courtship. It
usually started with Hugh talking about the boys, and Setsuko coming on to him as if out
of dream. She would go to sleep immediately afterwards, though Hugh would lie awake,
touching her hair, breathing in her delicious scent, pressing his lips to her cool arms.
One night Hugh dragged her to a support group, composed of people who had
recently lost sons and daughters. They listened to other people’s stories and they were all
painful, but had no bearing on their own loss. They were just stories and Hugh knew that
this was true for all the others. But the others had at least buried their children. Even the
ones that had been in horrible automobile accidents like the Orange County couple who
were driving home from buying Christmas presents when a tractor-trailer plowed into
them compressing the rear half of the car to three feet and the two children to shadows.
They buried shadows. But better shadows or skeletons than ... nothing.
But on that night, too, Setsuko and he had made fierce love.
Before he set the plates down, he opened a bottle of white and set it on the table
with two glasses. He asked Hanna if she liked wine and she nodded. He filled the glasses
and then set the plates.
“You’re not going to lay a napkin on my lap?”
She seemed transparent, not hiding anything, and yet he wondered if it was a
clever mask. Perhaps she and Kyle plotted to rob him in the night. She’d leave the door
open, and in the morning his money and valuables and Hanna would be gone. Hugh
twirled the linguine onto his spoon.
“Why do you do that?”
He put the linguini in his mouth and chewed slowly, enjoying the texture of the
tomatoes and the earthly taste of the mushrooms.
“The pasta doesn’t trail over your chin,” replied Hugh.
“I always thought it was just showing off. You know, the way people do these
little things so others will notice them. The way they always want the pepper ground over
their food, or their martinis dry.”
She drew up a forkful of the pasta and shoved it in her mouth. “Wow, this is
good,” she said, her mouth open, the pasta gushing out, childlike. He didn’t watch her eat
after that, staring at the reddening sky. She cleaned her plate, leaned back and burped.
Hugh expected her to draw out a toothpick and pat her stomach. No, he didn’t desire her.
“Shit,” said Hanna, jumping up.
“Pecky. I forgot about my rooster.”
He followed her outside.
“Here, Pecky! Here, Pecky!”
Hana dashed about the yard, looking under bushes, behind trees. Ten yards down
the path, a small coyote emerged from the underbrush, its head turned away. It didn’t
move, perhaps assuming it couldn’t be seen in the shadows. Hugh walked to the path,
held his finger to his lips. The coyote remained frozen. As Hugh drew closer, the coyote
turned, its mouth filled with rooster.
The coyote made eye contact, and keeping its Hugh in view, started walking
away. It didn’t seem in a hurry, as if it knew that Hugh had no chance of catching him.
Hugh walked slowly, and tried not to panic the animal, which kept its distance. The
animal stopped again and Hugh charged forward. The coyote didn’t move. Would it turn
into Setsuko as in some magic-realist tale? But the coyote remained a coyote as Hugh
slammed into it, and it was still a coyote as it rose on its hind legs to hold a shaft of
bamboo between its paws. The animal took three quick strides and vaulted into the
“Dad, let’s chase it!” shouted the twins.
“Go, right, Takumi! Left, Hitoshi!”
“Hugh! What’s happening?”
Hugh picked up the bedraggled but live rooster and carried it back to its mistress.
Holding her rooster in her lap, Hanna sat on the couch and watched television as
Hugh cleaned the dishes. By the time he was finished Hanna was asleep. The rooster
watched Hugh with interest and admiration.
Hugh turned on the local news. Budget cuts. A brush fire near the Getty. A picture
of the surf at Trestles. The reporter announced that for the next few days the surf would
be enormous. Seven and eight foot swells were coming. The video showed surfers and
boogie boarders. There would be a riptide.
He watched Hanna and the rooster, wondering if the rooster might shit on her. It
would get cold later. He put a blanket over Hanna and the rooster, who winked at Hugh.
In the dream, Hugh was teaching. The class was unruly and he was being
observed, officially observed, though the observer was not to be seen. He had nothing to
teach. No lesson plans. The observer who could not be observed was taking notes. If he
could get the children in their chairs. He yelled a few words in Farsi.
“Gooshkan! Book Sha!”
A young Israeli girl, perhaps eleven but younger looking, raised her blouse,
revealing her belly. Another girl, Indian, turned her head and blushing cried out his name.
“Please put that down,” said Hugh. “You can’t do that. Cover yourself.”
The students were marching in single file. There had been a fire alarm. But they
weren’t marching toward the PE field, but toward the library. From which flames were
Hugh coughed up blood. The observer was angry. “Where are your lesson plans?”
A hand moved across his thigh, the touch hard, insistent. It wasn’t a dream touch.
He recognized the thing beside him as a body, its contours firm, but giving. The calf bone
His penis hardened and she moved to it. He remained still as she wrapped her
hand around him—lips at this ear.
“Let me, huh?”
"No,“ he said turning away. "Go to sleep, Hanna. Just go to sleep.”
But Hugh did not sleep.
Kazuki did not sleep. He tore the sheet away to see his erection leaning leeward
from the slit in his boxer shorts. He had neglected to draw the curtains and a light from a
passing ship found the glistening tip, so that it glowed like some exotic sea plant, gently
undulating in the currents. The ship passed, leaving his penis in darkness and soon pan
caking like a Twin Tower. He had been trying to sleep for three hours, but the story’s
gaps poked viciously at his consciousness, like the miniature devil children who poked
poor Mr. Hood. In the old days, he would have turned to his wife and fit himself against
her like two pieces of a puzzle. She would have wriggled closer, reached back to take his
hand and whispered, “Now you will sleep,” and he would have slept.
But Manami was gone, only returning in dreams, which were never nourishing,
and most times depleting. Manami had been two years old at the time of the Hiroshima
blast, miraculously escaping external injuries though her family lived within four
kilometers of the hypocenter. But the radiation had damaged enough cells that she died of
leukemia aged thirty-four, leaving Kazuki with their young daughter.
Kazuki rolled out of bed, took three long breaths and walked to the balcony.
Tolstoy would not mourn even for the death of his youngest son. It was God’s will and
plan. What was there to mourn?
What to remember?
Only enough to write.
At the P & L, the patio was empty except for The Poet, an older denim-clad man,
who sat on his bench, rocked furiously and muttered a mantra as he awaited customers.
He sold his poems ten-for-a-dollar, but Hugh, like most of the regulars, refused to
purchase, fearing it would become the expected gesture, so most of the poet’s customers
were strangers, visitors. Occasionally, Hugh would place a dollar on the deck where the
poet could find it, only suspecting that it came from Hugh, and that was their amiable
relationship. Hugh nodded to the ever-nodding Poet, took the table under the dollar tree
and plugged his laptop into the extension cord that ran out of the café. The blue power
light didn’t come on. He checked all the connections, but the light still remained off. The
battery wouldn’t last more than an hour. He followed the extension cord into the cafe
where it was plugged into an outlet beneath the table of a customer whose back was to
him. He peered under the customer’s legs. The plug hung loosely from the outlet.
“Excuse me,” said Hugh.
Bending back, Kyle looked at Hugh from eyes beneath his mouth and then twisted
the inverted head to smirk at his invisible friend embedded in the ceiling.
Kyle pushed aside his chair and rose. Hugh backed to the window, but Kyle
stayed with him like a dance partner. The man’s hot skin radiated through his tattered T-
shirt, which smelled of dried perspiration and tobacco. Hugh went soft under the man’s
weight, like a dog that bellies up to avoid a fight, but Kyle wasn’t letting him off that
easy. Hugh prepared for a head butt.
“What’s she see in an old man like you?” asked Kyle.
“Nothing. And there is nothing.”
“I smell her on you.”
“Do you mind if I plug in?”
“What is it, old man?”
The café had grown quiet.
“What the fuck you got on her?” asked Kyle.
“Just let me plug—”
“I thought we were beyond this stuff,” said Melinda, the taro card reader.
“Hey, you guys, take it outside,” said Rick.
“You paying her?” asked Kyle.
“Not your son, asshole.”
“Right you are.”
Simone walked up. “This will stop immediately.”
Kyle grinned at Simone. “Just messing around.”
Hugh nodded. “It was nothing, Simone.”
“I hope so,” said the café owner, shaking her head and walking back to the
counter where a customer waited. “Garçons sont des garcons,” she sniffed.
Kyle stepped aside, allowing Hugh to bend down and insert the plug. Kyle
wouldn’t jeopardize his day job.
“See you later,” said Kyle, as Hugh pushed through the screen door.
When the desktop icons appeared, Hugh clicked on Internet Explorer and waited
for the AOL homepage to appear. As the hourglass cursor shimmered, he considered the
keywords he would type in to search. Cassandra, 1996, Oceanside, boat. He shut his
eyes to picture the boat. He thought the craft to be the size of a sport fishing boat. But
how big was a sport fishing boat? Several times, he’d taken the boys on a party boat out
of San Pedro. What was its name? Misty Sea? Sea Mist? He typed in “sport fishing, San
Pedro.” The fleet of sport fishing boats came up, one of which was the Sea Mist. Beneath
photographs of the boat was a box of information. Length: fifty feet. So the length of the
Cassandra was about fifty feet, maybe a few feet more, or less. Hesitating at the photo,
he vaulted the fifteen years to clap his boys’ sturdy shoulders as the Sea Mist glided
through the maze of jetties protecting the harbor, the thick fumes of the chugging diesel
engine, the acrid grease on the galley grill. His sons’ questions shouted over the cries of
the trailing seagulls, exchanging places like runners in a relay race.
He brought up Google and clicked on advanced search. He typed Cassandra in
the “exact wording” box, boat and Oceanside into the “all these words” box. His search
produced seventy-thousand responses. He spent a half-hour browsing the responses,
which linked in every conceivable way to women named Cassandra. But there were no
links to boats named Cassandra. He added “boats for sale” to his search. This reduced
the responses to ten thousand, but browsing through these, no boats named Cassandra
appeared. He clicked on a couple of links that took him to yacht sales. One could choose
to search for boats by length, age, price, category, manufacturer and several other
parameters. It was not a sailboat. Was it a yacht? A powerboat? A power yacht? When
was the boat manufactured? Had he remembered the name correctly? He would not find
the boat, and if he found it, what then? What would he do?
But then there was Jaycee Dugard, who disappeared from the world at age eleven
and was found eighteen years later. She could not have been alive and yet she was. How
many thousands having lost someone took hope from this story? That the desert was not
gnawing away at the bones of little Melissa? This was what he hoped. This was the stupid
thing. That somehow his sons had not died and were yet alive. That it had all been a big
mistake. That he would wake up from the nightmare to find that he was not irrevocably
separated from his sons as he knew he was, and knowing felt his heart plunge as if to that
first harrowing drop on a roller coaster.
Hugh pushed back his chair. That he could find his answer through this plastic
screen, that he could dig through the digital world and bring his sons back from the dead,
was the idea that had stolen upon him. Wasn’t that the promise of this depthless vault of
information? That everything could be retrieved—even the dead.
A loose slat groaned. Hugh looked up. “Peace and love, brother,” said Kyle,
snapping off a branch from the olive tree and scratching his neck with it. “Just want to
give you some news. Your friend was looking for you.”
“The banger. Kid you gave a ride to down the beach.”
“How do you know that?”
“Came into the café and asked for Mr. Mcpherson.”
“Did he say why?”
“Just wanted to know if you came here.”
“What did you tell him.”
“Said you were here just about every day.”
“Did he have a car?”
“An old El Camino. Pretty nice.”
“Was there anyone with him?”
“Yeah, the one driving. Another banger. Big tattoo around his neck.”
Kyle shook his head. “When you see Hanna, tell her I want to talk to her, huh?
Tell her I’m sorry. Will you do that?”
“Yeah. If I see her.”
“That’s what I meant,” said Kyle smiling affably.
Hugh dropped his eyes to the screen. Kyle took out a cigarette, lit up and took a
puff. Blowing out a delicate smoke ring, he nodded solemnly, turned and walked toward
the parking lot, where he stopped, glanced back at Hugh and then smirked at his invisible
friend. Waiting until Kyle got into his old Sentra and chugged onto the boulevard, Hugh
returned to Google, clicked advanced search and typed in boats and kidnapping.
Ono watched the young woman draw the panties up her smooth legs. She turned
her back to him. The thong settled between pink-hued cheeks. She had a small tattoo on
her right shoulder, but without his glasses he was not sure if it was a flower or a face. He
didn’t want to see the woman clearly. He did not want to recognize her on the street. He
wanted her to be no more substantial than a dream. He, himself, was not much more than
a dream when they kneeled beside his bed and he touched them, pretending to paint them
with his fingers. He painted a woman on them, identical to the woman that kneeled by his
bed. She had no thought of him, this old man who paid more than was required, who
offered her orange juice and goat cheese, who paused to write a note, to take a piss, to
scratch a pimple on his sagging ass. Her clothes floated toward her. Shimmering.
“Is it a flower or a face?”
“On your shoulder. Flower or face.”
At the door, she stuck her tongue in his ear. For an instant, he forgot whether she
was leaving or arriving.
“Sayōnara,” she said, as if to remind him.
The woman’s scent remained strong when he put on his glasses and returned to
the laptop. For an hour she had taken him out of himself. In Japan he alternated two
prostitutes for the anodyne services. Since Manami died, he’d had no other sex life. He
tapped the touchpad.
This touch was his life.
Hugh caught the light at Topanga Center. In Abuleita’s parking lot, the attendant
scrambled to keep up with incoming cars. At the restaurant’s entrance, a waitress brought
margaritas to waiting patrons, laughing, gesturing animatedly and swaying to “Cielito
Lindo,” flowing from an outdoor speaker. Hugh considered stopping at the restaurant,
having a drink at the bar. After six hours of searching the Internet at the P&L, and finding
little in the way of leads, he had gone back to his house to clear his head, glad to find that
Hanna had left as she promised. But it was two hours of tossing and turning on the couch,
typing in Cassandra on the keyboard in his brain. He wanted to continue Googling, but
the café shut its doors and turned off its WiFi at four o’clock. He needed to drive to the
Coffee Bean in the Valley to continue. Waiting for the red light to change—shouldn’t it
have gone green already?—his blood pressure felt astronomical, and his head ready to
crack, spill the whole mess. He turned on his car radio. The singer’s voice climbed as he
pleaded for his body to be set free. Hugh smelled the bar’s tequila. He wanted to turn into
the restaurant, but the light flashed green and the car behind him honked, pushing him
forward, pushing him onto Old Topanga.
Hugh drove fast, his tires squealing on the turns, the headlights glancing off the
granite walls and the occasional fugitive house behind the trees. The sun had an hour
before it set, but the mountains were blocking its light. Night fell early in the canyon. The
road straightened and the houses grew more substantial. He drove past the school, the
paddock, where the horses looked up under the headlights, the globular brown eyes
perfunctorily curious. The road ascended then, climbing at every turn. There were several
hairpins where it would have been easy enough to twist the wheel, left or right and go
sailing into the night. At the peak of the road, a vista opened. He glanced at the lights and
remembered when the universe seemed to radiate from his fingertips, as if he had thought
it all up himself.
It was eight o’clock by the time he’d crossed the raging boulevard, dodging
twenty-something Persians in BMWs, windows down, hip-hop blasting from their radios.
He walked toward the café entrance accompanied by the random notes of the flute player
serenading a man in a parked van, in the back of which a goat chewed straw and stared
contentedly at a group of helmeted motorcycle riders standing beside their bikes and
speaking in German. Hugh stopped and stared at the helmets. As he continued to stare,
one of the man looked aggressively at him. “Can I help you?” the biker asked.
“Your helmet,” said Hugh, smiling. “I was admiring the design. What do they call
“I don’t know,” responded the man. “It’s a helmet. So I won’t break my head.”
The others laughed.
The helmet reminded Hugh not of the boat, but the boat’s pilot house. Nodding to
the Israeli bunch, smoking cigars and talking boisterously, Hugh entered the café, ordered
his coffee and sat down at the handicapped table with its view of the parking lot. On a
brown napkin he sketched one of the bright yellow and blue helmets. He erased and
redrew until the napkin fell apart. He went through four napkins before he was satisfied
with the drawing. The part determining the whole, he then drew the deck and hull.
He set the napkin beside the keyboard. He brought up yachtworld.com. On the
search form, he typed in the length as forty feet minimum and seventy feet maximum. He
checked powerboat and the year of manufacture as between 1960 and 1996. He hit
search. There were nine-thousand results. He went back and clicked the advanced search.
He read the additional search parameters, but he couldn’t think of anything else he could
key in. He went back two screens. He scanned the first page, which took perhaps thirty
seconds. Finding nothing close to the boat in the picture, he clicked next. The page took
maybe five seconds to appear. He scanned the second. Each page had ten photos. He
could browse twenty photos in a minute. That made twelve hundred in an hour. He could
see every photo in the course of a night. Two hours later, there had been a half-dozen
times when he thought he had found the boat, but bringing up a larger picture, he could
see that each was significantly different from the boat that had motored off Oceanside
that day. It was already eleven p.m., the café closing down, but he didn’t want to stop.
The motel across the street had WiFi.
After checking into a room at the motel, he made a pot of Folgers on the room’s
coffee maker and powered-up his computer. An hour later, he found a boat so similar to
his drawing that he might have traced it. He brought up a larger photo whose caption read
KHACHING, 50’, Twin 3208 turbo charged Caterpillar diesel with 575 hours.
Tempest Pilothouse Boat. Very Fast, 1989.
He continued to read.
BEAUTIFUL HIGH PERFORMANCE EXPRESS PILOTHOUSE MOTOR
YACHT. LIMITED PRODUCTION MODEL. ONLY ONE-HUNDRED AND TWENTY
BUILT! Must Have A New Owner With A Vision for Interior Design and a Love For
Speed In A Big Boat. She Is An Eye Catcher Wherever She Goes Melding the Advantages
of Arneson Surface-Piercing Drives with the Durability of Straight Inboards. A
WINNING COMBINATION OF BEAUTY AND PERFORMANCE. VIEWING BY
The boat was being sold in Brandenton, Florida. He clicked through a dozen
pictures showing the boat from various angles. One on the stern showed the name
Magnolia. The name could have been changed, as his sons’ names could have been
changed. What had Dugard called Jaycee?
A million to one. A billion to one.
He returned to the search form and typed in the new information. There was one
response: The Brandenton boat. He Googled “yacht sales” and found a dozen sites. He
searched on all twelve and found three of the Tempest Pilothouses for sale. The first
Tempest was in Turkey, the second in Mexico and the third in Redondo Beach. Saving
Redondo for last, he brought up the boat in Turkey. The boat was identical to the
Brandenton boat. The description and contact information were in English. There was an
e-mail link. He clicked on it but then cancelled. How many of these boats were there?
Was it common for these boats to move half way around the world? What could he ask?
He brought up the page for the boat in Mexico. There was only one picture of the boat
and it didn’t show its name. But it too could have been the Cassandra. Hugh thought that
even the colors were the same. But if this many were for sale, how many existed that
were not. Why should one of them be the boat?
He clicked on the Redondo Beach boat....
At 3 a.m., he took two Lunestas, drank a beer and quickly fell asleep.
When he awoke, he was staring at the computer screensaver. He reached across
the bed to jiggle the mouse. The screen took its familiar form. The AOL logo showed
three hundred and forty-five messages. He had made six inquiries, writing under the
pseudonym Pirie Mullen, Hugh’s middle name (his father’s first) and a second cousin’s
last. He rolled out of bed and climbed into the chair, clicking on the link. The messages
appeared on the screen. The first was from Zazzle. The second was from Barnes and
Noble, the third was from papandokolis.J@gmail.com. The subject line was Re: Tempest
Pilothouse. He clicked on the message.
Dear Mr. Mullen,,
I regret to inform you that my boat has been purchased. The advertisement should
have been removed. Thank you for your interest.
Hugh clicked reply.
Thanks for the quick response. I’ve been interested in acquiring a Tempest for
about fifteen years now, since I viewed one in Southern California. Just curious if that
could have been your boat. Have you ever sailed your boat in Southern California ?
Without showering, he dressed and dodged the early morning traffic on the
boulevard for a coffee and bagel. When he returned to his room, there were two new
messages. One was from the Greek: No.
The second message was from email@example.com Subject: re: Tempest
I was pleased to hear you were interested in the Tempest Pilothouse. She’s an
amazing boat, and there are very few on the market. The boat is now docked in Marina
del Rey. I live aboard so it’s possible for you to view the boat anytime. Just give me an
hour’s notice to tidy up. Looking forward to meeting you.
Hugh clicked reply.
Kazuki carefully placed the CD in the player. Finding the volume too low, he
turned the knob another quarter turn and restarted the disk: Mendelssohn’s Symphony
Number Three, the Scottish Symphony.
A visit to Scotland had inspired Mendelssohn to compose the symphony; the
overture was the composer’s musical response to the eerie magnificence of the grotto
known as Fingal’s Cave in the Hebrides, a rocky, windswept archipelago off the west
coast of Scotland. Mendelssohn called the sea cave a natural cathedral, the sounds of the
North Atlantic waves breaking and reconstituting—dying and aborning—at its entrance,
repeating themselves in stirring, weirdly unsettling variations against the basalt walls and
Twelve years ago Ono had formulated Fingal’s Cave while listening to the
symphony. In Tokyo, he had played it a hundred times as he sat before the computer,
reading, inputting and transforming his journal of conversations with Takumi and
Hitoshi, which would provide much of the content, though altered to suit his vision.
The book had taken its title from the overture.
“Grandpa, why do you like that music so much?” Hitoshi asked, on the last day of
summer, when the Tokyo rain came in torrents, and two months after the twins had
perished in the surf.
Ono looked down at Hitoshi, sitting on the floor with his brother, the game cards
spread out between them. “I hear in it things passing away.”
“You mean dying,” said Takumi.
“Yes, I suppose.”
“What kind of things?” asked Hitoshi.
“Waves, an infant’s cry, lovers holding hands.”
“I hear the waves,” said Hitoshi, glancing at the speaker.
“I don’t hear anything,” declared Takumi.
“You may be right,” agreed Ono. “Maybe it’s not there at all.”
“I hear my father,” said Hitoshi, who continued to gaze at the speaker.
“That’s dumb,” said Takumi. “Dad isn’t dying. He’s dead.”
Ono reached out to his grandson. He was close enough to clasp Takumi’s neck,
but Takumi pulled back, his cheeks pulsing as he set his jaw.
“Bullshit,” said Takumi, spittle running down his lip. “He’s dead and you can’t
make it better.”
Ono let his arm fall. The rain pounded savagely on the roof, as if it might shatter
the tiles, splinter the wood, rent the ceiling, leaving them unprotected from the storm.
Their mother would arrive soon. Takumi’s anger would pass.
“Come here,” said Ono, holding his arms open to his grandson, but Takumi turned
and left the room, leaving Ono alone with Hitoshi. “Perhaps you could tell me another of
the adventures you had with your father. I want to hear them so much.”
Hitoshi looked down at the cards. He touched a monster card, moved it slowly
back and forth.
“Not now, Grandpa. Not now.”
Swelling, crashing, flattening, reconstituting.
Swelling, crashing, flattening, reconstituting.
Ono closed his eyes, put his grandsons to sleep and dwelled within the sound. He
thought of Yuudai with his bottle of father, uneasily walking the periphery of the Shima
Hospital, surprised by its existence, and wondering where to pour out Herb O’Keefe’s
ashes, only they were not ashes but gravel, exactly like gravel. Watching the nurses and
doctors enter and exit, Yuudai shook the bottle nervously. There was a patch of lovely
flowers where the rocks might sweeten the earth.... It was then that the beautiful Sumiko
walked up to him, curious as to the intent of this red-headed man, this American natural
man, this American beast—
Swelling, crashing, flattening, reconstituting.
Swelling, crashing, flattening, reconstituting.
Oh, Hitoshi. Oh, Takumi.
Twenty years had not altered the fissured and weedy parking lot at Mother’s
Beach. So unchanged was the flat gray slab that Hugh turned to reassure himself that his
sons were there, but they were not there, just the bare back seat awaiting the infant car
seats. As their cries of anticipation faded, Hugh reached for the pale intruder tottering at
the edge of the seat. He pinched the white rectangle, settled back into the driver’s seat,
fought an impulse to crush the photo unseen, and flipped it up. Resting in his hand was
Anna’s slim naked body.
Holding the photograph against his thigh, Hugh marched to a nearby trash can and
shoved it between Styrofoam and Pampers. He walked a few steps toward the beach and
stopped. Returning to the trash, he recovered the photo, folded it in half and carefully tore
Anna into a hundred little pieces. He let them sink into the garbage like hot pistols into
Under the covered patio bordering the beach, smoke rose from barbecues tended
by seniors in sunhats, Venice, California, silk-screened on their baggy T-shirts, from
whose sleeves hung frail arms bright with sunspots. As breakfast patties sizzled and
cranberry juice flowed, a wilted flower child bopped to Led Zepplin’s “Whole Lot of
Love,” while her man smoked his doobie, thrusting his hips. Leaning against the wall of
an outdoor shower, a homeless man with a face like dying embers clawed at his
despairing yellow dog.
“You need coolin’, baby, I'm not foolin’....”
Across the dull brown sands, mothers spread their blankets, distributed juice
packs and donuts. Seagulls watched greedily, tenderly. A sailfish tacked the inlet, and
one hundred yards away, a cabin cruiser pulled out of its marina, gray exhaust bubbling
up from the water. Hugh took off his sandals, cuffed his jeans and walked down the
It was here that the twins had been conceived.
Nearly twenty-five years ago, Setsuko and Hugh had eaten dinner and danced at
Sol Luna, a restaurant that overlooked the Marina.
It was midnight when they left the restaurant and strolled down to the sands of the
little bay, pleasantly buzzed by several Silver Margaritas. The boats’ lights sparkled on
the water and reflected off Setsuko’s glossy black hair as they passed under the Mother’s
Beach sign and toward the water
“Yeah, it’s just a little bay. Water’s shallow. No waves. No riptides. Safe as your
bathtub. Mothers come here with their toddlers and can relax. Safe.” Hugh laughed.
“It’s also known as Stretch Mark Beach.”
“I don’t understand.”
Setsuko’s English was getting better, more advanced than Hugh’s Japanese, but
she was challenged by idioms and wordplay. Hugh took her hand and puffed out his
belly. He held her hand to his skin and separated her fingers. “Marks left when the
woman’s skin stretches during pregnancy. Stretch marks.”
They wrapped their arms around each other, shrugged off their shoes and stepped
into the still-warm sands. It was August and in Los Angeles it had been in the nineties
during the day for the last two weeks. It was mild compared to a Tokyo summer, and
perfect beach weather, but Setsuko, wary of the sun, would only go to the beach in late
afternoon, and even then hide beneath an umbrella. How relaxed she felt now. In two
days, she was to return to Japan. A week later, he would follow, back to his job at the
school where he taught English to adult Japanese who wouldn’t say a word unless
specifically instructed to, and where Setsuko as his student had been no less reticent.
To meet Hugh in the U.S., Setsuko had lied to her father, and her misgivings,
though largely unvoiced, had troubled Hugh, but tonight she seemed unburdened and
completely in the world. His world.
At the water’s edge they stopped, swaying to the music that slipped from an open
door of the restaurant like a bird escaping from a cage. Hugh dug his toes into the moist
hard packed sands, surprised at how quickly the water pooled around his foot. He took
Setsuko’s arm and guided her out into the shallow water. They walked hand-in-hand in
the warm bay toward a shadowy bulkhead. Beyond the bulkhead was a dock which rented
kayaks and sailboats. The bulkhead threw a darkness on the water. They sat under the
dark pilings, bound against each other.
“I would like to paint this,” said Setsuko, gesturing at the shimmering lights on
the gentle water. She framed the scene with her arms and laughed softly. “With just two
“What two colors?”
“Your skin and my skin,” said Setsuko.
“My Japanese Emily Dickinson.”
“But she was a poet.”
“Not a painter?”
“Emily could be very mysterious. Like—” Hugh kissed Setsuko’s nose and then
her lips, shaping them to his.
He took off his shirt and laid it on the sand. He unpeeled Setsuko’s jeans. She
trusted him wholly. He held his hand against her and stared back across the beach at the
restaurant’s picture windows where the dancers were so densely packed and their
movements so similar that they appeared as one organism. At one of the docks, a boat
was tying up, its hull tapping rhythmically against the wood.
“Let’s go for a swim,” said Hugh.
Hugh took off his jeans. Setsuko slipped off her T-shirt. They crept across the
sands, staying in the bulkhead’s shadow. They slipped into the water like amphibious
creatures tired of the obstinacy of land. At first, the water was too shallow for them to
swim, so they crawled, digging their fingers into the mud and sand, their bodies still on
the water’s surface, but eventually the water became waist deep, and they let loose the
seabed. Setsuko had swum on her high school team. Hugh had to labor to keep up with
her, but it was not long before they reached the rope and buoys that signaled the limits of
the bathing area. They clung to the rope. Hugh held his hands up and let himself drop to
the bottom. His feet touched in an instant. It was not even seven feet, but deep enough in
which to drown. Bending his knees, and then straightening, he resurfaced. With arms
resting on the rope, they clung to each other, kissing hungrily, faces sinking into the sea
until they remembered their breaths. The water had the faint smell of oil, and he tasted it
on Setsuko’s lips. A pelican swooped down out of nowhere, skimming the surface, its
huge whiteness unexpected. Setsuko stared into his eyes as he slipped off her panties. She
wrapped her legs around him. His hand barely held the rope and later he could not have
said if it happened above or below the water’s surface.
Hugh never mentioned the odd pulse of the water as they made love and he could
not have guessed that its source was a hundred circling sharks. Nor did he mention the
vague, solitary creature hunched down on the shadowy sands fingering their garments,
for when Hugh and Setsuko returned to the beach, Hugh found nothing missing, and he
didn’t want to frighten her.
The calculations that Setsuko would later make, put the conception of the twins at
Mother’s Beach, and it was to Mother’s Beach that they would bring the boys as toddlers
a hundred times.
A hundred times...
It was low tide. Rippled sand and mud—smelling of oil—stretched in a broad
crescent like a black quarter moon. As he walked along the tide line toward the docks, he
stopped to watch two boys dig a moat for their castle. A woman, hugely pregnant, came
quickly to their side, eyeing Hugh suspiciously. He smiled at her and moved on. The cool
wet sand sunk beneath his feet, exuding another memory, a memory of mud.
Takumi and Hitoshi, a year old, sat at the bay’s edge, water lapping their toes.
They dug into the mud, ripping out handfuls to toss aside, only occasionally tasting it to
provoke their mother’s quick catch and release.
“It won’t hurt them,” said Hugh, lazing on the blanket, digging a beer from the
ice chest, and wondering if the mud would truly not hurt them.
Their chubby white backs glistened with sunscreen. Setsuko meticulously coated
them before they left the apartment, leaving not a sliver of skin unprotected. Their
diapers protruded over their bathing suits like the petals of flowers. Their hair was not so
dark as their mother’s, but still black and dense. They looked so damn cute. Hugh drank
his beer, walked to the water’s edge and dropped to his knees before them. He held out
his hands palms up. Both boys got it right away, dropping the mud into his hands until it
“We should go,” said Setsuko.
“We just got here an hour ago,” said Hugh, dipping his hands and shaking them
clean. He hoisted both boys under his arms like sacks of flour and strode out knee deep.
He dropped to his haunches, balancing each boy on a knee. They slapped giddily at the
“Too much sun is not good,” said Setsuko.
“Ten minutes,” he lied.
She turned and walked back to the blanket, where she would refuse the beach
chair to sit cross legged beneath the umbrella and sketch seascapes, later to turn some of
the sketches into delicate, iridescent watercolors. He followed her prideful walk up the
beach. As with everything she wore, her bathing suit was modest, hiding her shape.
Though he detected little change, she insisted that the pregnancy had permanently
deformed—Henkei shi ta— her body. She didn’t dwell on it, and if it wasn’t for the loose
clothes that she preferred to wear, in contrast to the revealing dress of their dating days,
Hugh would have thought that she wasn’t aware of it at all, though he suspected,
considering the sharpness of her occasional self-criticism, that she wanted him to be
aware. She wanted him conscious of her flaw. But it was only at the beach, where her
pronounced concealment betrayed her self-consciousness, that Hugh took notice. Hugh
scuttled backwards like a crab, carrying his sons deeper into the water, so that the
yellowish suds came up to their chests. He shook and bounced them until they were near
Jesus, he loved their warm little bodies.
“This is where it all began, guys,” he whispered, gazing at the safety rope that
Setsuko had held as she floated upward to catch him in her legs. “Well, your mama says
it began so.”
The Tempest was docked in Holiday Marina, a small anchorage less than two
hundred yards from the beach. A concrete walkway and chain link fence ran
perpendicular to the quays. Hugh reached the gate to the first dock and paused to watch
an elegant sailboat pull out of its slip, the water rushing across its hull. He placed his
hands on the gate and let the metal’s heat burn his skin. Failure rose in his gut like bile. A
Quixotic quest like those that drove on the hapless detectives in the noir screenplays he
once wrote. His sons were gone. He could not get them back. He could not get Setsuko’s
love back. It was all fucking over. He stopped, a gloom settling on his intentions. He was
like Roadrunner’s Coyote, having vaulted off a cliff, he was trying to find purchase in the
thin air, but succeeded only in climbing to the top of his vaulting stick, which upon
pivoting left him at the bottom again, plummeting ever downward to the dusty canyon
floor where Coyote’s previous falls had etched in the sands
Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving
above one’s head and listen to silence. To have no yesterday and no tomorrow. To forget
time, to forgive life, to be at peace.
For an instant he took solace in that promised death, that green current passing
over him. But at the periphery of his vision, Setsuko’s letter floated into view.
He had no choice. He had to believe in the absurd fucking quest. Click my heels
three times and believe.
Two minutes later, he was at the gate of Dock three thousand. He dialed Albert’s
The phone rang a half dozen times.
“This is Mullen. I’ve come to see the boat.”
“You make an appointment?” asked a rough, sleep-drenched voice.
“What’s the name?”
“Mullen. Pirie Mullen.”
“Oh, yeah, yeah. Where are you?”
“Outside the gate to your dock.”
“Um. Give me a minute, and I’ll buzz you though. Last slip on the right.”
It was several minutes before the gate buzzed and unlocked, the click like an
errant heartbeat. Until now, his thoughts had been tangled, snagged on their own
implications. His sons had been taken. An opportunist. A barren couple or lonely man
who wanted a child to nourish. Young women snatched infants from hospital incubators,
conscious only of their own need to care and nourish. One could almost sympathize. But
equally there were others whose carnal and sadistic desires recognized no boundaries.
That was the black sickening thought he couldn’t accept. If you believed the radio talk
shows, the predators were behind every tree, at the wheel of every dark van, at the helm
of yachts trolling the beaches. Drugged and bound. Hidden in a shed in the high-hedged
backyard. Forced to—his thought shriveled up. He couldn’t bring his imagination to that
foul place. He breathed deeply and walked slowly down the quay, staring vacantly at the
vessels. On half of the boats there was activity, middle-aged men in polo shirts and shorts
inspecting winches and inboard motors. Pretty young women applying sunscreen and
brushing their hair. Day laborers lugging supplies aboard for voyages to faraway, exotic
places. An old man with a rheumy eyes and gray beard looped a line around his hand and
elbow, smiling knowingly at Hugh as if he knew a secret.
The boat sat between the fingers of the outermost slip, bow abutting the dock.
Hugh glanced from the pilothouse to forward hull, reading the boat’s name: Pearl in
arced black letters. Showing through the white paint at each end of the arc were faint
traces of additional letters. Or was he creating the pale letters? He walked to end of the
dock where the transom was visible. Pearl again with the faint trace of other letters. He
looked up at the eye-catching pilothouse. Even among the larger and no doubt more
expensive crafts, the boat stood out. It evoked speed and though twenty years old seemed
of the future, the way Orwell’s 1984, a year now sunk into the past, always seemed of the
future. The Pearl rose and fell gently in the backwash of a monstrous motor yacht.
A tanned, hulking shirtless man stood at the transom, pointing to the yacht
motoring by. Hugh’s lips felt dried and cracked.
“How—big was that?” Hugh managed to ask.
“Ninety feet. That’s as big as this marina can handle. That what you’re looking
for?” asked the man, his booze-soaked breath hanging in the air.
Hugh turned his gaze from the over-sized yacht and pointed to the Tempest.
“I like this,” said Hugh,
“You ever been on one?”
Hugh hesitated. “No.”
“I’m Albert Abe.”
Hugh took Abe’s hand, big and soft as a kitchen mitten.
“Come onboard,” said Albert. “I’ll give you the twenty-dollar tour.”
Albert could have been Hugh’s age or ten years younger, his age deferred by the
deep tan and enormous dreadlocks that came halfway down his back, bundled black and
gold ropes. Vile tattoos erupted down the heavy body. Hanging against his belly was a
thick silver necklace with a crucifix and horn. A silver cross dangled from his right
earlobe; a screw projected from the top of the same ear. His ethnicity was indeterminable.
He smelled of alcohol, marijuana and a swampy cologne.
“You own a boat now?” asked Albert.
“You have though?”
“Like making your first car a Shelby Cobra,” said Albert, picking something
scabrous out of his ear. He examined the flake before flicking it over the side.
“I’ve read about the Tempest Pilothouse,” offered Hugh
“Reading’s not racing—or motoring. Excuse me.” He retrieved a Bloody Mary
from a cup holder. He stirred the drink with his celery, sucking the red from the celery
before taking a gulp.
“Make you one?”
“Thanks. I’ll pass.”
“Good. I ain’t got any. Let’s make you salivate,” said Albert, gesturing for Hugh
to follow him.
“Now here,” said Albert, as they entered the pilothouse, “is what makes this baby
special.” Albert spun. “Three-hundred and sixty degree visibility. Air-conditioned, two
Cat Vision monitors....” Albert recited a dozen features. “Beauty, huh?”
Hugh nodded affably and asked polite questions as Albert touted his merchandise.
“How long have you owned the boat?” asked Hugh.
“Ten years for me, twenty years in the family.”
“My father bought it new.”
“It looks new now.”
“Takes a shitload of work. My old man drummed that into me. Last thing he said
was to make me promise to take care of the boat. Loved it, he did. She was his mistress.
He couldn’t part with it. I can. How serious are you?”
“Pretty damn serious,” said Hugh.
“You want to go for a ride?”
“Give me five,” said Albert, exiting the pilot house.
When he returned, Albert took a helm seat and ordered Hugh to sit in the other.
Albert started the engines.
“You dig my tattoos, huh?” he said, catching Hugh staring.
“Who doesn’t like Renaissance art?”
“They all have profound meaning. Deep stuff.”
Hugh pointed. “Frigidity, right? Very Freudian, Albert.”
Albert laughed. “Shitting you. If any of them mean something, I sure as fuck
don’t know it. Just pretty pictures.”
In a quarter hour, they were motoring past the breakwater. On the rocks,
fishermen held their casts to follow the boat’s progress, the way a man follows a woman,
or a pedophile a child.
“Hold on now,” said Albert as they reached the open sea. The engine went from a
throb to a roar as the bow rose. The acceleration pushed Hugh deep into his seat. The hull
slapped the water, flinging up great white bells of ocean.
For a moment Hugh was caught in the exhilaration of speed. The shore receded.
They were on the open sea. They continued at that speed for another five minutes. Albert
pulled back on the throttle.
“Here take over. I’m going below to mix up another drink .”
In Albert’s absence, Hugh steered due west. When after five minutes, Albert
didn’t return, Hugh moved the wheel a degree to the right. The boat responded. The
speedometer read fifteen knots per hour. Albert had had it up to sixty. Hugh increased the
speed. He drew in a lungful of the moist, salt-drenched air. The sky was baby blue and
went on forever. Over the rushing air, he heard his sons’ voices.
“This is a cool boat,” said Hitoshi.
“Let me drive,” said Takumi.
Were you here, boys? Was this the boat that took you?
“Get the fuck away,” said a muffled voice.
Hugh backed off on the throttle. He looked around for Albert, though it wasn’t a
man’s voice Hugh had heard. He had heard a voice. It wasn’t in his head. Someone had
shouted. He looked at the deck.
Albert came back carrying two Bloody Marys. He handed one to Hugh, who took
it without protest. Hugh sipped the drink as he piloted.
“Three hundred thousand is a deal for this,” said Albert.
“Like buying a home,” said Hugh.
“Better than a home. You can’t buy a shitbox in LA for three hundred thousand.
The slip is no more than homeowner’s fees: three hundred a month. No property taxes.”
A half mile away three pelicans glided across the ocean’s surface.
“How does it handle in rough water. I mean storms.”
“Like a bullet through plaster board.”
“Have you always kept the boat at the Marina?”
“Most of the time. Redonda now and then. San Diego once.”
Hugh swallowed. “In 1996?”
“It was in the nineties. Could have been ninety-six. Why?”
“I thought I saw it there. Oceanside. ” He wondered if Albert would see his heart
ramming through his breastplate.
“This boat sticks in the memory, but still that’s a long time.”
“Yeah... a long time.”
Albert took a step back, looking over Hugh as if he were about to take him on in a
fight. “What do you do for a living?” asked Albert.
“I’m—I’m a teacher.”
“And they pay you that kind of money?”
“I’ve got the money.”
“Yes, in a way.”
“Give her the gas then.”
“That’s all right.”
“Give her the gas.”
Hugh eased back the throttle. The engine roared. The bow leaped, obscuring the
sea, and then slowly falling.
“If you turned the wheel fifteen degrees now, what do you think would happen?”
“You’d flip us. We’d both be dead men.”
“Doesn’t seem like much, does it?”
The hull beat on the sea, sending up white flames. Hugh pulled the throttle. The
boat left the water altogether, gliding above like a seabird.
“Easy now,” said Albert, putting his hand over Hugh’s and pushing back the
throttle. The bow dropped. Hugh was breathing hard. He steadied himself.
“Was Pearl its original name?”
“That was mine. Before that she was the—Jesus, what the Hell was that name?”
“Cassandra,” said Hugh.
“Yeah, Cassandra. You psychic?”
“I told you. I’ve seen this boat before.”
“Summer of 1996. Why was the name changed?”
Albert gazed curiously at Hugh. The three pelicans were gliding a few hundred
yards away. “Bad luck,” said Albert. “Cassandra’s a name that brings misfortune.”
His hands slipping from the wheel, Hugh gazed at the owner.
“You all right?” asked Albert, as he took the controls and turned the boat toward
“Would it be possible to see below decks?” asked Hugh, as Albert finished tying
the boat to the dock.
Albert glanced at his watch. “Love to show you, but I’m running late. Got to meet
my lawyer in Century City.”
“Just a quick look?”
Albert shook his head.
“I’ll give you an answer within twenty-four hours,” said Hugh.
“Five minutes. In and out,” said Albert, leading Hugh below.
“Galley and eating bar,” said Albert with a sweep of his arm. “Pardon the—
untidiness.” He pointed forward to a small closed door. “In the forepeak you’ve got the
guest berth. Queen-size bed and shower.”
Hugh grinned. “May I see it?”
“Not today,” said Albert sharply. “Let’s take a look at the salon and then I’ll show
you the master stateroom.”
Hugh gazed at the forward door, which seemed to expand as if about to explode in
the way they depicted such a thing in cartoons. Albert called for him to follow, but Hugh
froze as from behind the door came a distinct cry.
“Guest,” explained Albert with a wink.
“Ah,” said Hugh. Of course, why not?
“Impressive,” said Hugh, as he followed Albert into the salon.
“Custom made for the boat.” Albert flopped down on the salon’s leather couch
and slapped the fabric. Hugh walked to a bulletin board covered with photos which
depicted the Abe family on the boat in different marine settings. There were many
children, who grew older or younger with each photo, but his sons were not among them.
Perhaps Abe had been following his boys for some time. Perhaps it was because they
were beautiful half-Japanese boys, his predilection. From the photos, Hugh picked out
Albert’s father easily. White haired and trim, the older man was deferred to by the others
whom the camera captured. Albert was in several photographs. A slimmer, healthier
Albert, whose Asian features were more discernable. Had Hugh seen either of them
twelve years ago? He closed his eyes and let the projector display a hundred scenes from
those days, but there was no Abe, no Albert. At the top right corner of the bulletin board
were several photos that contrasted with the other happy scenes: a funeral. A large
headstone, the family gathered around a gravesite, a procession of cars driving through
the gates of the cemetery: Ornate letters spelled out High Meadow. Hugh stepped closer
to the photographs.
“My old man’s funeral,” said Albert over Hugh’s shoulder.
“The cemetery. Where is it?”
“Simi Valley. Why?”
Albert shrugged and then placed his hand on Hugh’s back. “Sorry, but I’ve got to
throw you out.” He directed Hugh back toward the galley. Hugh stopped to gaze at the
“Here you go,” said Albert, stretching over the rail to hand Hugh a manila
envelope. “It’s got all the information you’ll ever want on the boat. Copies of
maintenance, repairs. Everything.”
A boy of fourteen skateboarded noisily down the dock. Hugh followed his
progress, glancing at Albert, who was also looking at the boy.
“Good-looking kid,” said Hugh.
“Hey, Satch, come here,” Albert called to the kid.
The boy leaned back on his skateboard, skidding to a stop. He kick turned and
faced Albert. “Yeah?”
“I’m missing an iPod.”
“Don’t look at me.”
“You or one of your buddies.”
The boy picked up his skateboard and strutted over.
“Here’s the deal. You get me my iPod back or you find yourself another boat to
crash in when your father is looking to kick your ass.”
“Dude, I wouldn’t rip you off.”
“I’ll ask around.”
“Yeah, you ask around.”
The boy shrugged, dropped his skateboard and zipped away.
“Sorry, man. What were you saying?”
“Nothing,” said Hugh, his insides in knots.
Albert tapped the envelope in Hugh’s hand. “So, you’re interested?”
“Absolutely. It’s a Hell of a boat.”
“Good. By the way, what happened to your face?”
“Be careful, man.”
Hugh set his foot on the ladder. “I’ll be in touch.”
“Good.” Albert checked his watch. “Gotta run.:.
Hugh walked slowly down the dock, glancing back to see Albert descending into
the boat’s interior.
On Mother’s Beach, Hugh sat on the sands and applied sunscreen to his face.
From where he sat, he could see the Pearl’s transom and some of the dock. But he had a
clear view of the walkway and the entrance that it afforded to the tenants’ parking lot.
No more than ten minutes had gone by when Albert strode down the walkway and
entered the parking lot. Hugh waited another ten minutes.
At the gate to the dock, Hugh didn’t hesitate, vaulting the gate like a yachtsman
who didn’t have time for such bullshit. Smiling winningly at all those he passed, Hugh
boarded the Pearl with incident or question.
Clasping the door handle, Hugh turned. “Bless you, Albert,” he whispered as he
drew back the door. The light was on in the galley. The guest berth door was still shut.
Hugh took out his cell phone and set it carefully near the sink.
He knocked softly on the forward door. Nothing. He knocked again.
“Go away, Albert,” said a voice from the interior.
“I’m not Albert. It’s all right.”
Something clattered in the room, followed by a thump.
“Do you need help?” asked Hugh.
The door swung open. A woman of about forty, her body wrapped in a sheet,
stared in bewilderment at Hugh.
“Who the fuck are you?” she asked.
Hugh stepped back. “I’m sorry. I came to see the boat. I think I left my cell phone
here. I just came back to—“
Hugh smiled with embarrassment and looked around. “Jesus, I see it. There it is.”
He scrambled over to the sink.
When he turned back, cellphone in hand, the woman had stepped out of the room
and the sheet had fallen a couple of inches.
“What a drink?” asked the woman, tightening the sheet, but not pulling it up.
“All right, sure,” said Hugh.
“Let me change.”
She left the door open as she dropped the sheet, looking back at Hugh as she
gathered some clothes. She came out a minute later in an oversized T-shirt, no less
revealing than the sheet.
“I’m Janet,” she said, moving to the bar. “What you in the mood for?”
“A beer is fine.”
“I’ve told you my name, what’s yours?” she asked as she scanned the
“Hugh. Hugh Grant. Hugh Hefner. Hugh Laurie. Do you watch that show?”
“House? I’ve seen episodes.”
She popped a beer and handed it to him. He watched her pour a vodka and tonic.
Drink in hand she moved close to Hugh.
“Skoal,” Hugh repeated.
She sipped her drink, looking at Hugh over the rim of her glass. “I love that
show,” she said.
“It’s very funny,” said Hugh.
“Yeah. I like all those mysterious diseases. If I ever get sick, I mean, really sick, I
hope it’s from a mysterious disease.”
“I’ve had a dull, dull life. If I’m going to go out, I want it to be with a little
suspense.” She tilted her head forward and moved closer, brushing her breasts against his
“Aren’t you afraid Albert will come back?”
“Oh, he wouldn’t mind.”
“Albert or me?”
She touched Hugh’s lips. “Albert a libertine. You know what that is?”
She pushed her index finger into Hugh’s mouth. He tasted confectioner’s sugar.
“Not anything. Not anything.” She grinned. “No animals or that.”
“Boys?” She took her finger out of Hugh’s mouth and pressed it to her tongue.
She sucked for a second and then drew it out. “Am I wasting myself on you?” she asked.
“What make you say that?”
“You into boys?”
“No. I was wondering if Albert was.”
“It’s an odd question.”
“He’s not then?”
“No way, Jose. I suppose he’d be into young girls if he could get them, but he
can’t. He’s stuck with me. But you could do worse.” She put her hand against Hugh and
Fingal’s Cave/Chapter 27
Having followed Brent and James into the underworld, which resembled Dante’s
Inferno in all ways except for the absence of the guide and the writer himself, Yuudai
wandered about the several circles (the Carnal, the Gluttonous, the Heretics, the
Suicides), in search of his sons until he dropped from exhaustion at the spectator’s booth
for Circle Four, where the Wasters and Hoarders endlessly assault each other with great
weights, diminishing their souls to faint disarray.
Falling asleep among the din of the clashing weights, Yuudai dreamed of his
children. In the dream, Sumiko had returned to Japan to comfort her ailing father. In his
wife’s absence, Yuudai took the boys into the Sierra for a weekend of mountain-biking.
Not far from the campsite was a roadhouse. The boys wanted to stay at camp while
Yuudai drove back to the tavern for pizza and subs. He made Brent and James promise to
ride their bikes only within site of the tent.
Like most roadside bars in the mountains, the tavern was an accumulation of
discards and thereby familiar and comforting; its walls were covered by license plates
from every state and its log tables etched with countless visitors’ names, many long out of
fashion: Jeds and Mabels. A nice place to have a beer, but Yuudai would order his food
and go. Adjacent to the take-out counter, a worn hardwood bar supported the arms of a
few rustic patrons. A woman occupied the nearest stool. Maybe a year or two older than
Yuudai from the lines around her mouth when she smiled at him, she was very pretty with
a petite figure, the slope of her breasts visible within the unbuttoned collar of her worn
flannel shirt. When Yuudai glanced at her, she took off her glasses and set them on the
bar, pushing back her straight auburn hair. Her soft green eyes stayed on his and her full
lips broke into an amused smile. Why not have a beer while he waited? From the rough-
hewn bartender he ordered a tall beer and slipped onto the chair beside her. She was
pretty and laughed easily at his remarks, but he certainly wasn’t looking to cheat on
Sumiko—even if he had a second beer, bought the pretty woman another Jack and Coke
and held his breath when she pressed her leg against his.
“I’m Carol, what’s your name?”
“Yuudai? What kind of name is that?”
She pulled back her head. “No offense, but you don’t look Japanese.”
“It’s a long story.”
She lifted her drink. “I’m in no rush.”
Yuudai began, “My father Herb O’Keefe was assistant tail gunner on the Enola
“Wow, that’s one hellacious tale,” said Carol, as Yuudai drummed his fingers on
the pizza box that had cooled during the length of his family chronicle. Remembering his
obligation, he fairly jumped off his stool, accepting her hug and promising sincerely that
he would see her later.
By the time he got back to camp, it was eight p.m., an hour later than when he’d
told the boys he’d return with dinner. He wasn’t surprised when they weren’t at the
campsite. They’d gotten bored and were no doubt riding their bicycles on one of the
nearby paths. He waited for ten minutes, as the forest squeezed out the remaining
sunlight and an owl hooted drearily. By flashlight, he walked the paths, calling out their
names. Each breath growing shorter, he drove back to the bar, thinking that his restless
sons might have taken their bikes to find him. Another woman had replaced Carol,
nudging up to another man, downing another Jack and Coke, her flannel shirt opened
another button. Yuudai leaned across the bar, calling to the bartender. “My sons ... I
The ranger who showed up an hour later assured him that they would find his
children. A mile deep in the woods, hungry and crying, but okay.
The ranger did not find them, nor the police, nor from a nearby Air Force base,
the company of enlisted men who fanned out through the woods for two days. Nor the
dogs and helicopters. Nor the psychic.
Having gone without sleep for two days, Yuudai collapsed in his tent from
exhaustion. While he slept, he dreamed of following his sons into a swampy hole where a
crayfish had disappeared. The hole led to the underworld, and when he got there, his
sons had vanished. Yuudai searched desperately but found them nowhere among the
tormented citizens. “Brent! James!” he screamed. “Where are you, my sons?”
Drenched with sweat, Yuudai awoke under canvas in the Lower Sierra, for a
moment thinking that he had only lost his sons in a nightmare and that he would find
them slumbering beside him in their sleeping bags. But his hand sunk to the hard earth
when he patted the empty bags. His heart careening, he knew that the descent into Hell
was the dream. Brent and James had vanished into the forest.
His children were gone.
For the next five years, Yuudai lived in despair. He divorced the inconsolable
Sumiko, who returned permanently to Japan to live with her father in double mourning.
He quit his Hollywood job to spend his days stapling Xeroxed photos of his sons to
telephone poles and bulletin boards throughout the lower Sierra. He followed up every
lead, haunted police stations and hospitals. He visited the camping area a hundred times,
stalking the paths in the most violent seasons, searching for a clue, a sign, the echo of a
voice, but the universe was silent.
After five years, he gave up. His sons were dead. Either at the bottom of some
remote canyon or in some shallow backyard grave.
For another ten years, he lived without solace.
In the twelfth year, as winter turned to spring, he returned to the site of their
disappearance. Not much had changed, and when he walked into the roadhouse, he half-
expected to see his old girlfriend sitting on her stool, her flannel shirt thin and faded. The
seat was empty, but the bartender remembered Yuudai, and that sad night. Yuudai got
drunk, cried and finally raged at the woman who tempted him. Where did she live? He
wanted to put his hands to her throat. The bartender calmed him down, revealing that the
woman was a stranger. He had only seen her that night and never again.
It was as though her purpose was to draw Yuudai into his fate....
Yuudai set his chin on his fists and closed his eyes. There was a tap on the bar.
“She left these.”
Yuudai looked down to see a pair of glasses.
“I tried to catch her to give them back but she was already burning rubber. A
sweet little red Mustang.
Yuudai lifted the eyeglasses. “She’s never been back?”
“If she ever does....”
“Not really going to hurt her, are you?”
Yuudai shook his head. “I’d just like to ask her a question.” Yuudai took off his
own glasses. The wall of license plates blurred. He put on Carol’s. The license plates still
blurred without a degree of difference.
“Maybe this will help,” said the bartender, setting a scrap of paper on the bar.
Yuudai exchanged glasses and looked down at the paper.
“Her license plate number. I caught it as she was taking off. I thought I might try
to contact her to get her back the glasses. Never bothered.”
The bartender gestured to the wall. “My hobby. I dig license plates.”
Yuudai read the letters: CSNDRA.
Hugh took an outside table at the Coffee Bean. The temperature was one hundred
and ten, but the table was in the shade and the water-mister functioning, rendering the
heat bearable. He wiped cigar ash from the table and set down his coffee and Albert’s
manila envelope. He took the lid off the coffee, placed it on a brown napkin and sipped
from the open cup. Hearing a familiar crackling sound, he looked up. At the trash can, the
old woman who had given him back his rock fished plastic bottles out of the garbage,
carefully crushing each and depositing it in a bloated bag in her rusty shopping cart,
which squeaked mouse under each new weight. Dressed in a white toga of sorts, the
woman was speckled with dust, but not dirty. Her slow cautious movements betrayed her
fragility. Plagued by tremors and unhealed wounds, homeless and harmless, she pushed
her cart daily along the boulevard and never begged, never asked for a penny or a smoke.
It was to her that Hugh gave the heap of empty Gatorades collected in the trunk of the
Volvo. He would wait until he saw her wheeling her cart, hustle to the car, gather his
plastic and set it discreetly in her path, as if God had placed it there for her to find. Today
God had no empty bottles, but he smiled at her as she deposited another treasure in her
bag, and she smiled back.
“Good luck,” she mouthed to him.
“Thank you,” Hugh said, a little dumbfounded. He watched her push her cart
away. Why had she said that? he wondered, but fearing a mundane response, let her
disappear down the boulevard.
He drew up the arms of the brass clip and opened the envelope. He pulled out the
contents and spread them across the table. There were a half dozen glossy brochures,
copies of maintenance records, copies of registrations and permits. He didn’t know what
he expected to find among the material, whose only purpose was to sell a boat. He leafed
through the maintenance records, the registrations. Pointless. There were several
brochures for the Tempest. He scanned the information and then pushed that group aside.
Despite the woman he had encountered on Albert’s boat, he wasn’t convinced that Abe’s
predilections were confined to adult females, and who could know about his father? What
he sought was a newspaper clipping of Abe arrested for pedophilia. The last piece he
opened was the most substantial and the least promising: The annual report of the the
Khaching Corporation, the boat’s manufacturer. He leafed through glossy color
photographs of the company’s boat manufacturing operations and detailed captions of the
materials and processes that went into a Khaching motor-yacht. There were financial
tables and earnings reports, messages from the director of this and predictions from the
director of that. Toward the end of the report were smaller photographs depicting other
branches of the corporation. They were impressive in their diversity: Pharmaceuticals,
Agriculture, Restaurant Equipment, Newspaper Chains, Nursing Home Chains. On the
inside cover of the brochure was a list of all Khaching’s holdings, with accompanying
Internet addresses. Hugh scanned the list. One of the companies drew his attention: High
Meadow Mortuaries and Cemeteries USA. He thought of the envelope in his trunk, and
then of Gina.
The water-mister came on. Hugh closed his eyes, tilted back his head and let the
vapor cool his skin. Wet his eyelids. The pages of a calendar blew away like leaves, a
device in an old movie. Gina had persisted with her solicitations until, until.... He opened
his eyes underwater.
He felt like a child who has been turned about a dozen times to induce dizziness.
Giddy with the loss of balance, afraid but compelled to move. She stopped calling when
the boys died.
Fetching his computer, he found a free table inside, plugged in and powered up,
sitting with his back to the window. The Vista ringworm went round and round as if
burrowing into a host. He brought up the WiFi Coffee Bean connection and acquired the
five-digit code from the café’s television.
Hugh typed in High Meadow’s URL. The site came up. High Meadow Mortuaries
and Cemeteries, the logo’s graphics earth-toned, dignified and compassionate. Beneath
the logo, a modest gravesite surrounded by brilliant flowers housed pull-down menus.
Among the choices was one for locations. Hugh clicked to get the list, found Simi Valley,
CA, and clicked again. The page that loaded was identical to the first except the logo now
read High Meadow Mortuaries and Cemeteries of Simi Valley. The same large photo was
used but the pull-down menus had changed. As he drew the cursor across the photo, a
roll-over photo appeared revealing the entrance to High Meadow Simi Valley. The same
wrought iron gates in Albert’s photo opened to show an asphalt road winding through the
inviting grounds. Broad fields of tall grasses, flowers and artificial brooks.
Hugh clicked on A Visual Tour of High Meadow. A dozen small photos
appeared, each captioned with the name of particular sections of the cemetery: Oak
Knoll, Sunrise, Little Pond… Clicking on the section took him to more photos of each
section and further nested photos within these. He chose a section and surfed through its
photos. He paused at one gravestone, whose dates surprised him: Born March 4, 1841.
Died January 16, 1888. He wouldn’t have supposed that the cemetery was that old, for it
seemed like a modern corporate enterprise. No doubt Khaching had acquired the original
cemetery, expanding it exponentially. He thought he remembered reading that Forest
Lawn had started that way. He considered the dates on other tombstones. That a life
could be encompassed that way seemed to miss the point. Well... He clicked through to
Little Pond. Here was a child whose life had not spanned three years. He doubled-clicked
to enlarge the photo. Roberto Gomez, born August 27, 2006. Died June 7, 2009. In loving
memory....He imagined the parents’ sorrow, their hearts like brittle leaves.
Hugh jerked back, smacking his head against the window.
“Oh, Jesus, I’m sorry,” said Hanna, who stood in front his him. “Are you all
right?” She reached out to him, but he checked her arm.
“It’s nothing,” said Hugh, ignoring the pulse of pain.
“Want me to get some ice?”
“Really, I’m fine.”
“Are you mad at me?” she asked. Her eyebrows formed a chevron.
“No, of course not.”
She smiled, relieved.
“Have you gone back to the trailer?” Hugh asked.
“Not in a million years.” She glanced at the adjacent table where a woman was
sipping a whipped cream topped drink. Hanna’s tongue flicked at the lip ring.
“Do you want something?” asked Hugh.
“No. Well, maybe a vanilla latte.”
As he handed her the latte, she kissed his cheek. She’s not my responsibility.
“So where are you staying?”
She shook her head.
“You need money,” said Hugh, reaching for his wallet.
“I’m going to get a job. I swear. I’ve put in applications at Target, Kinko’s,
Staples, Home Depot and, let me see, Office Depot. Just like you recommended.”
“That’s great.” He handed her two twenties.
“This is just a loan,” she assured him. “I’ll pay you back.”
“Okay, I believe you. I hate to chase you, but I’ve got work to do.”
She sipped her latte, pretending she hadn’t heard him.
“Where will you sleep?” asked Hugh.
“Oh, I’ll find someplace. I’ve got a sleeping bag, anyway. I’m not afraid of the
“If you can’t find any other place—”
“Don’t you like me a little?”
She pulled her lips from the straw. The little black lip ring was now white. “I’ll let
you alone.” She stood up, bent over the table and kissed his lips, leaving the taste of
vanilla. A she left she called back, “Stop working so hard.”
He waited until she had disappeared down the block and then returned to Roberto
Gomez. Hanna was not his responsibility, nor Anna. Nor any of them. Not even little
As he touched the mouse to escape, he pulled back his hand. He leaned closer to
the screen, staring at the gravestone behind the child’s. The name on it was Mcpherson.
For a moment he couldn’t remember if his sons had been buried, not buried of course, for
there was nothing to bury. Had there been a service even? No, Setsuko would not agree to
any sort of formal service. In her own way, she refused more than he did to believe they
were dead. He moved the curser over the gravestone and zoomed closer. H. Mcpherson.
He slid the photo up to see the birthdate: Born: April 16, 1955. Hugh’s birth date. He
drew up the photo: Died July 18, 1996: the day his boys had drowned. The epitaph read:
“In Loving Memory.” It did not say whose memory. He right clicked on the image,
selected Save Target and stored the photo in his pictures folder, naming it High Meadow
1. There was a math problem that asked what was the probability of two people in a
group of twenty-five—a classroom of students, let’s say—being born on the same day?
The math worked out that it was highly probable that two in thirty were born on the same
day. It was counter intuitive, but the math was there. Surely there were numerous H.
Mcpherson’s, and certainly if there were more than thirty, many would have the same
birthday, but it was not just the birthday it was the year, the probability would drop with
that. And then the same date of death as his sons. The coincidence seemed improbable,
and yet, what other explanation?
That he really was dead?
Since I saw Uncle Hugh, I’ve been down to Topanga a couple more times. I was
hoping to run into him again, maybe reveal my identity and true feelings. He never
showed. Maybe he’s gotten scared of the ocean. The last time, after I’d had my swim, I
sat on the old brown log at the top of the stairs. Mostly to warm up my butt (that
redwood—I think it’s redwood— just soaks in the heat), but also to ponder my life.
Sitting there, I slid my fingers across the lighter colored spot where I’d hacked off the
Lao Tzu quotation. That was okay because I’m the one who carved it in the first place. I
was feeling pretty down that day. I can’t remember why, but there were plenty of good
reasons. It wasn’t the kind of thing I’d usually carve or tag. Mostly that was my moniker:
Jassy, which was still there on the log, just as it was in spray paint in about 500 spots in
the Valley. High above freeways. On the concrete banks of the LA River. A water tower,
a few scabby billboards. Dumpsters and old buses. I believed in tagging, getting my name
out there. Even after I got caught and spent a month in county, I kept doing it ... until it
just didn’t seem important. I lost my ambition.
I don’t know what’s important now. My tattoos, I guess. Grandmother and Great-
grandmother. My mom. I’ve got a girlfriend but she’s not around much. Actually I
haven’t seen her in six months. Uncle Hugh’s important, in a negative sort of way.
There’s my job, but it’s shitty and boring. It pays the bills.
So that’s what I thought about sitting on the log, until it was time to go home, get
few chores done and get ready for work.
At home I washed my car, took a shower, made a turkey sandwich and watched
CNN for an hour. Right over my television, I’ve got Aunt Setsuko’s painting. My
grandmother told me that she had given it to my father, and he left it for me, in a way. It’s
a seascape, and right in the center is a boat with such a cool name that when I was
sixteen, I had the letters tattooed right across my chest: CASSANDRA. Sick, huh? She
was this old Greek bitch who used to tell the future, but nobody believed her. The letters
are in Katana, which is Samurai style. That was the tattoo the gangbanger from down the
block raved about when I gave him and his girl a ride down the beach that day. The
banger wanted to get one just like it. That didn’t thrill me.
I’ve been thinking about my dad a lot, maybe more than what’s good for me. On
my day off, I’m going to head out to the San Gabriels again, take another look for that
place where my father and I used to spend our happy days.
On account of not seeing him, and out of curiosity, I looked up Uncle Hugh on the
internet. Something weird is going on. I mean something off-the-fucking-wall weird. I’m
going to have it checked out.
Hugh took Valley Circle to Box Canyon, driving the winding road at almost twice
the speed limit, roaring down the grade that opened into Simi Valley.
He drove seven miles north on the 118 and took the exit for the surface street that
led to High Meadow. The mortuary and cemetery were at the end of the street, which
intersected a road that extended several blocks and set the limits of the complex. The
mortuary was to the left, adjacent to a parking lot, which was separated from the
cemetery by a row of Eucalyptus trees. The gate to the cemetery was a half block to the
right. Hugh turned and drove through the gate, stopping at a booth where a guard smiled
“Here you go,” said the guard, handing him a folded map. “Are you here for a
The guard smiled. “Take your time.”
Hugh followed the one-way road that wound through the park, pulling to the
roadside shortly after passing the first section of graves. As he unfolded the map, a hearse
cruised past. Fifty yards further down the road, a number of cars were parked. The
mourners were gathered around a priest reading from a bible. Men were peeling back
their jackets. Women fanning themselves with their programs. The priest looked up from
his bible. Several of the mourners followed his gaze. A dense white cumulous cloud
formed the shape of an inverted mountain, which rendered the cemetery upside down,
relocating the graves into the sky. The gravedigger’s dirt fell to the earth like dirty snow.
Hugh returned to the map and located Little Pond. He drove past the mourners and
continued for another quarter mile, pulling up behind a Prius. A few yards away a woman
kneeled before a grave and arranged flowers. For awhile the gravesites were unbothered
except for the alighting birds and scampering squirrels.
He reached Little Pond and parked at roadside. There were several hundred
gravesites in the area, but without effort, he spotted the one he sought. As he approached,
he saw that flowers had been left at H. Mcpherson’s grave.
Hugh studied the stone’s inscription for several minutes, but could draw nothing
else from the engraving. He picked up one of the flowers and sniffed. The fragrance was
“She is High Meadow,” answered the guard when Hugh returned to the gate to
inquire if Gina still worked at the cemetery.
“Where could I find her?”
“She’s out showing some properties. You want me to call her?”
“No, that’s all right. Where is she?”
“Oak Knoll.” The guard pointed.
Following the guard’s direction, he walked toward the Oak Knoll section, in the
center of which three people were standing. Two, apparently a husband and wife, faced
him. The third was a tall dark-haired woman in a pant suit. She gestured gracefully about
her, touching the arms of the couple as she made her points. Hugh waited. The cloud
mountain was dissipating, its peak rounding as if a million years had passed.
By the time Gina shook hands with the couple and turned them toward their car,
the mountain in the sky had completely vanished.
As the couple drove off in their red Escalade, she snapped her notebook against
her thigh. She turned toward Hugh as if she had known he was there all the time and
walked briskly toward him.
It was not just Gina’s height and features, nor the straight black hair, parted in the
middle and falling two inches above her shoulders, but the authority with which she
approached him, like someone who could walk to the guillotine with self-possession. As
she approached, the differences appeared, but not so much that the resemblance wasn’t
“May I help you?” she asked.
“Yes. And you are?”
Gina appeared no older than forty-five, which meant she couldn’t have been more
than twenty-five when he first spoke with her, yet at the time he had thought her at least
sixty years old. Rather than someone hawking gravesites, she looked more like an ex-
ballerina. Her voice seemed feeble on the phone. Here it was strong, resonant. Her
appearance was the antithesis of the telephone saleswoman.
“Pirie,” he said.
“Hello, Pirie.” She had a firm handshake. Her fingers were long and supple like
“Are you looking for a wife?” she asked in a musical voice.
“Are you looking for a site?”
“Oh, yes. I am ... looking.”
A loud clunk drew his glance in the direction of Little Pond. An indistinct figure
drove a shovel into the earth. There was a second clunk.
“We’re having problems with the backhoe. We have to do it the old-fashioned
“Is there another Gina here?” asked Hugh, unable to reconcile the voice.
“Perhaps fifteen or twenty years back?”
“No. I’ve the only Gina that’s been here. Why do you ask?”
“Many years ago you tried to sell me a site.”
“You called many times. You were persistent.”
She laughed. “I’ve heard less flattering descriptions.”
Hugh smiled. “I imagine persistence is the most important quality of a
“That and know what the customer really wants, even if the customer doesn’t
“I didn’t recognize your voice. I recalled it much differently.”
“Ah, well, I do have my little tactics.” She cleared her throat. “He-hello, this is
Gina from Hi-High Meadow,” she said in the quavering voice that Hugh remembered.
“It this business it’s a turn-off to sound too slick.”
Hugh nodded and said, “In Little Pond, there’s a grave with a headstone that says
“Oh, then you’re visiting.”
“I’m Hugh Mcpherson.”
She gazed at him. “Doesn’t Pirie begin with a P?”
“Pirie’s my middle name. I’ve been using it … lately. My first name is Hugh.”
“Ah,” said Gina.
“Just a coincidence, I guess,” said Hugh. “I mean about the names.”
“I think we can safely assume that,” said Gina, stretching her neck to one side as
if getting out a kink.
“You called for over ten years, and then you stopped.”
“Well, I guess I got my Mcpherson. I always get my man,” she said, offering an
innocent look that might offset her frivolity.
“You confused him with me?”
“I doubt that.”
“But you stopped calling?”
“Coincidence, I suppose,” said Gina flatly.
“Could I get some information on H. Mcpherson?”
“Are you related?”
“It’s possible. That’s what I’m trying to find out.”
“There are these great sites online—”
“I know, but I’m here now. I just want to know a couple of things.”
“Where he lived. What he did for a living.”
“I’m really quite busy. What are you trying to accomplish?” asked Gina,
stretching her neck again but in the opposite direction.
“I want to fix a hole so the rain can’t get in.”
“And stop your mind from wandering?”
“Yes. That’s it.”
“Where it will go. This way.”
He followed her back to the mortuary where she had Hugh wait in the lobby while
she went back to her office. Behind a solitary desk sat a small, expressionless man in a
suit. On one coffee table, a half-dozen magazines were arranged in the shape of a cross.
From the transverse, Hugh took a gardening magazine and leafed through it. He
exchanged the gardening magazine for a National Geographic, thumbed through it and
then set it back.
He walked about the lobby. There were a half-dozen closed doors, viewing rooms
no doubt. He came to a door marked Display Room, tried the handle, which turned, and
opened the door.
The room housed a dozen elevated caskets, arranged along a circular wall from
least to most expensive—plain as a packing carton to elaborate as a king's crown. Hugh
walked the circuit, noting that each had an individual tune that played while the viewer
stood near the coffin. From a speaker, David Byrne sang, “Heaven, heaven is a place
where nothing, nothing ever happens....” Men, women and children advanced in line until
the music stopped and the lucky found their resting place. He reached the last coffin, an
ivory beauty with golden handles. He pulled up, but the casket barely budged.
“Be careful. That’s ten thousand dollars.”
A child stood at the entrance. A Beatles haircut and loose Khaki painters overalls
rendered the child sexless. Perhaps nine or ten, the child had a lovely delicate face. He or
she walked over to Hugh’s side and standing tiptoe peered into the casket. She, for Hugh
had determined it was a girl, stroked the silk lining.
“Silk. Very expensive.”
“Do you know how silk is made?” she asked.
“I think so. But why don’t you tell me,” he suggested.
“They breed thousands of worms and then they mash them.”
“Mash them? Are you sure?”
“Like mashed potatoes. Do you like mashed potatoes?”
“My favorite kind.”
“I like the ones from the Stonefire Girl.”
“That’s what I said. They have garlic in them. Garlic is what you use to ward off
“Does it work?”
“I don’t believe in vampires. There is—are certainly none here.”
Hugh bared his teeth. She bared hers back.
“My name is Lily.”
“Lily. What a pretty name. I’m Hugh.”
“No you’re not. You’re yourself.”
Hugh respelled his name, but it was unnecessary. Lily smiled at his naïveté. She
reminded him of Thelma, the little girl who had been misplaced in his English Learners
class at the middle school. Thelma was only ten years old, but her English was perfect
and she was always a step ahead of his instruction.
“Do you know who my mother is?”
“Gina?” said Hugh.
“How did you know?”
“You look like her.”
“I put letters in envelopes.”
“I bet you’re good at it.”
“It’s boring. Fold the paper in three, stick it in the envelope, damp the adhesive
with a sponge and seal the envelope. That’s it. Easy. But you try it two-hundred times.
What do you do?”
“What do you teach?”
“I speak English, Japanese and Spanish. English is the most difficult, actually, but
it’s easy for me. Do you know any Japanese?”
“A little. I lived there once.”
“Tokyo,” he said, thinking the small suburb that he actually lived in wouldn’t
mean anything to her. To his surprise, she asked, “Where in Tokyo?”
“Aaargg,” she growled, like a dog whose food was being taken away. “I hate
Edogawa. It’s boring. Nakono is much more interesting. We’re going there in two
“We go back to Japan every summer. It’s so hot. Almost worse than the Valley.
But nothing is worse than the Valley.”
“Do you have relatives in Japan?”
“Many. We have relatives in—
Gina entered carrying a manila folder. “There you are, Lily. I looked all over for
you. Your lunch is getting cold.”
“I was talking to Hugh. Actually,” she pointed, “I was talking to him, not you.”
Gina said, “Lily, you really shouldn’t be in the display room without my
“I heard a noise. I thought another bird had gotten in. We’ve had three birds get in
since the New Year. Why a bird would want to be in here makes no sense. There’s
nothing to eat and nothing to drink. All they do is poop on the caskets. Very messy.”
“Come on, Lily. Go back to the office and eat.”
“Ahh, don’t want to eat. It’s boring.”
“I wish she’d never learned that word.”
“In English, boring. In Japanese, taikutsuna. In Spanish, abburido. ”
“If you’re good, maybe we’ll go see a movie, after work.”
Lily grinned. “Goody. None of that G-Rated stuff. I want to see the one in which
the world ends.”
“We’ll see, we’ll see.” Lily stomped toward the door and left.
“She’s a handful. Well, here’s the file on Mr. Mcpherson. Death certificate from
the country coroner. Contract for funeral arrangements. There’s not much.”
“Could I see it?”
“I can’t do that, but ask me specific questions and I’ll see if the answers are
Hugh nodded. “His occupation?”
“Yes, that must be.”
Hugh took out a pen. He grabbed one of the spec sheets from the holder beside
the casket. “Last employer?”
“Cause of death?”
Gina flicked an invisible speck from the glitzy casket. “Excuse me one second,”
she said, walking away. He watched her walk to the entrance, bend down and attend to
something. She pressed a button and there was a whirring sound. She stood up. A round
object about the height of a book moved back and forth across the carpet. It was a robotic
“They work remarkably well. It will clean the entire carpet before its batteries run
out. I can even turn off the lights. It works in the dark.”
Hugh watched the little round robot shuttle around a casket.
“Myocardial infarction. Heart attack.”
“He was young.”
“It is not uncommon.”
“The H. What does it stand for?”
Gina perused the papers. “No first name recorded. Just H. Mcpherson.”
“Does it mention if they did an autopsy
“Let me check.” Turning from Hugh, she pulled out the contents and leafed
through them. “No, nothing mentioned. Perhaps he had a history of heart problems.”
“Yes. That must be it. What about next of kin?”
“Now that poses a problem—”
The door opened and Lily entered, her mouth and chin bright red as if she’d been
“It’s doing it again,” said the girl.
“Stay there, Lily,” said Gina. “She gets nose bleeds all the time. It’s so dry in
“Mama,” moaned Lily.
Gina strode to her daughter, drawing out a large white handkerchief from her
blouse and setting the manila folder inside the pine casket.
The robot vacuum cleaner buzzed about her feet. Gina kicked it away. The
machine whined for a few seconds and then resumed its task.
“Let’s attend to this,” said the mother, leading her daughter out of the room.
Hugh waited until the door had closed. He walked to the casket and took out the
folder. Had it all been done on purpose? The nose bleed a fake. The folder placed where
he could browse through it. But more likely, a simple oversight. His father spoke sternly
to him. No different than stealing. Hugh lifted the folder’s edge, and then jumped as
something knocked his foot. He looked down at the robot, bumping frustratingly into his
shoe. He waited until the thwarted robot retreated, the motor grumbling throatily like
Popeye. Hugh opened the folder and glanced at the papers, wishing he could press PrtSc
and copy. He saw a name, an address. Lily was too pure to play a part. Or was there
anyone too pure to play a part? He tried to memorize the information. At Coffee Bean, he
would have to stare at the five-digit code for a full five seconds before he was sure of
taking it back to his computer screen. Hugh felt his chest tighten as Mcpherson’s might
have done. No fuss here. Right into the casket. Hugh tucked the folder under his shirt and
exited the display room.
On the lobby floor, Lily’s blood still glistened.
Hugh drove San Fernando Road past the auto salvage yards, cars stacked fifty-
feet high, tributes to Ozymandias.
Have you ever stolen anything? Hanna had asked.
He was eight years old, sailing on an Indian summer that extended deep into
November. His father had taken him and his brother to a salvage yard in search of a
driver’s side mirror: replace the one the kids had bashed during Mischief Night.
Lean German Shepherds stalked pens on either side of the gate, snarling and
dripping juices as they pawed the chain link. Father and sons passed by towering pallets
of radios and carburetors, a wall of hubcaps like a thousand-eyed monster, palisades of
cars and volcanoes of tires. Pirie smoked his pipe, the safety of the cherry tobacco lost
among the iron oxides, oil-soaked earth and sweet green ponds of ethylene glycol.
His father held the broken mirror at arm’s length from his body, while a worker
guided them to the shelves of glass and chrome. They spent an hour shifting four-inch
reflections of fingers, faces and blue skies until they found a replacement.
On the way back, Hugh passed a shelf of gear shift knobs, beautiful chrome ones.
As his father waited in line, Hugh ran his hands over them—round, smooth, cool—picked
them up and set them down until he kept one, dropping it in his pocket, where it felt so
big and heavy as to break the seams.
He waited with his brother, watched a worker take apart a transmission, removing
a plate and exposing the gears, floating in blood-red oil.
As he stood there, an older man with a gray beard, glasses and fierce eyes walked
over and told him to empty his pocket.
Hugh hesitated, pretending not to understand the man. The man grunted, then
reached into Hugh’s pocket and took out his hand still holding the ball, trying to hide it in
his palm. The man peeled back Hugh’s fingers, took it, then smacked Hugh hard across
the cheek. Hugh swung sideways from the blow, and his brother, watching, yelped. The
man set the knob back on the shelf and walked away.
Hugh never knew who the man was, an employee of the junkyard or some mere
moral enforcer. He remembered it for years. The slap, heat, the humiliation, how he’d
walked on his father’s right side as they exited the junkyard, keeping his right cheek from
his father’s vision.
When Takumi and Hitoshi were nine, Hugh had taken them on such an outing to
find a rear light. He brought his own screw driver and let his sons remove the part from
the junked car. In the same car, he found a pair of dice and a hula doll. He handed them
to his sons and told them to stuff the loot in their pockets.
The first street east of the last junkyard, Tuxford, was all informal salvage.
Cannibalized cars and car parts spread across the dead lawns, guarded by listless dogs
stretched out in the shade of fenders and engine blocks. The houses sat in disrepair, the
lawns weedy or bare where not littered with iron, plastic and dog shit. 2409 was halfway
down the block. Throwaway newspapers, shrunken and yellowed, were strewn across the
walkway. He parked at the curb behind a beat-up Toyota pick-up, its bed overflowing
with gardening equipment. He shut off the engine and stepped out into the choking heat.
Above the house, he saw the San Gabriel Mountains encased in a reddish brown haze.
Bent and dusty venetian blinds covered the windows. The mailbox beside the
door held dozens of wilting flyers. But above the mailbox was a letter plate that said,
“Mcpherson.” And what if H. Mcpherson answered the door? H. Mcpherson alive, Hugh
Mcpherson dead, tossed up on some distant shore, a banquet for the crabs, a nursery for
the flies, and all this travail a mere dream...
He pressed the clotted bell. A bee buzzed. Something moved at the periphery of
his vision. On the neighboring lawn, a brown pit bull with a huge tumor hanging from its
belly looked at him mournfully. The price of consciousness is death, the dog whispered.
He pressed the button again.
He looked at the San Gabriels, where in pre-dawn darkness, they had clambered
over invisible rocks to fish in the swift flowing river.
The door shivered.
“Who is that?” said a voice.
“Is this Mrs. Mcpherson?”
“Who are you?”
“I’m from High Meadow Cemetery.”
“High Meadow Cemetery. It’s about your son?”
“My son is dead,” she said.
“I’m from the cemetery where he’s buried.”
The door opened. A small, deeply wrinkled woman in a red jump suit peered up at
him. “What do you want?”
“Your son is Hugh Mcpherson?”
“Harry. His name’s Harry. That was his father’s name.”
“It’s been nearly twelve years since he’s been gone. He wasn’t an easy boy, but
he never hurt anyone. Himself excepted, of course.” A cat meowed at her feet, rubbing
and burrowing between the red scaly ankles. Her slippers had orange and green daisies
and ladybugs. The house smelled of cat piss and deeper in the dark room several lurked.
She would subscribe to Cat Fancy and in the backyard, there would be mounds topped
with named stones. Someday a child would dig up the plastic bags, a bit of fur and bone
in each. The child would lay them beside each other like soldiers on a battlefield and do
“What’s your cat’s name?” asked Hugh.
“This one? Lily.”
Hugh laughed. The woman tilted back her head and looked at him askance. “You
think that’s a funny name? I’ve named all my cats after flowers.”
“Do you name all your flowers after cats?”
“I’m just an old woman, not a crazy one.”
“There was a girl at the cemetery. Her name was Lily. I spoke with her only
“I don’t see—”
“My name is Mcpherson. H. But Hugh not Harry. I was born on the same day as
your son, Harry.”
She studied him. A second cat approached. Snowball white with penetrating green
eyes. “I don’t know what kind of scheme you have in mind. But I’ve told you, I’m not
crazy. I have no money. I have only this house.”
“Please, I’m just trying to understand why.”
“You were born on the same day as my son?”
“The same day and year.”
“You’ve had a hard life then.”
“Why do you say that.”
“You look to be in your fifties.”
“That’s right. Much older than Harry.”
He recognized what was confusing her. She remembered her son in his early
thirties. She’d forgotten that he would have aged. The dead stop aging. He was reluctant
to remind her.
“He would be 36 this September,” she said thoughtfully.
“But he was born in 1958.”
“1975. September 13, 1975.”
“Not September 15?”
“I’d forget my son’s birthday?”
“And this is the son that is buried at High Meadow?”
“I saw the date on his tombstone.”
“That was a mistake. They were supposed to change it.”
Hugh took the paper out of his pocket and unfolded it. “But that’s what it says on
“That’s how it happened. The tombstone maker got the wrong information.”
“And they didn’t change it?”
“They were supposed to. But who was I to complain? They had him buried. It was
a nice spot. Harry had no insurance, so I was glad they paid for it.”
“Who paid for it?”
“A man came here. He was from the—it sounded like a cash register. Before they
had all those computers. I used to work as a waitress and I remember the sound
“Khaching. The Khaching Company. They were doing a promotion.”
Lily kept her head down, bringing back the mallet a few inches, flicking her wrist,
so that the mallet touched but did not hit the red ball. She took a full swing. With a crack,
the ball shot across several gravesites, skirted a wall of rose bushes and then passed
through a thin hoop, beyond which sat a blue ball. The second ball smacked the first,
which rolled at an angle for several feet.
“Mama’s mad at you,” said Lily, raising her head to meet Hugh’s eyes. “‘He’s a
thief and a liar.’ That’s what she said.” Lily set her mallet between her legs and tapped
the earth. “Well, are you?”
“Yes, I suppose I am.”
“You could be lying. Are you from Crete? Cretins always lie, said the Cretin.
That’s a paradox all right. Do you play croquet?”
“Would you like to play me? I’m getting very tired of competing with myself. If I
win, I lose. If I lose, I win. It’s not very satisfying. In fact, it’s—”
“How did you know?”
“How did you know I knew?”
“The little gray matter, monsieur,” she said tapping her head and smiling.
“I’m a cheat, too.”
“Ha. That’s a good one.”
Hugh held out the folder. “I brought this back.”
“Please set it down on Eli Pritchard.” She pointed her mallet at the headstone with
that name. They were in an older section of the cemetery, directly behind the mortuary.
As he’d gotten out of his car, the clack of the striking mallet drew his attention. “Do you
know the rules?”
“I once played it with my sons.”
“We play the six-wicket game here. Don’t worry, I’ll explain everything.”
“I would love to play, Lily, but....”
She put the back of her hand to her nose.
“Are you all right? Is it another nose bleed?”
“I’m not a hemophiliac. Look.”
She dropped her mallet and slapped her hand against a rose bush. Lifting her hand
to him, she revealed a speck of blood on her palm,
“You told me that you visit Japan.”
“If you’re not going to play croquet with me, may I recite a poem?”
“Have you ever heard the name Kazuki Ono?”
Lily cleared her throat.
“Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?
I've been to London to visit the Queen.
Pussycat, pussycat, what did you there?
I frightened a little mouse under her chair.”
To Hugh’s applause, Lily curtsied.
“If you mean Kazuki Ono, the famous novelist, he is my second cousin, once
removed, which is a very odd term.”
Fingal’s Cave/Chapter 28
YUUDAI PLAYS DETECTIVE
A call to the California Department of Motor Vehicles got Yuudai nowhere.
Apparently in the age of stalkers, numerous obstacles had been set up to prevent a citizen
from tracking down someone through their license plate number. He suspected that even
his preliminary phone call was being recorded. Before he took the step of falsely
reporting a hit-and-run, he turned to Google.
CASNDRA was of course Cassandra. Carol was Cassandra.
“Cassandra California” produced 2,890,000 results.
“Cassandra’s 1972 Mustang” produced 1,260,000
“Cassandra’s 1972 Red Mustang” produced 105,000 results.
He closed his eyes and returned to that night. He was the one who had done most
of the talking, but she had used an odd word.... Bodacious? No. Delicious? No. Bitchen?
No. Hellacious. Hellacious. Yes.
He typed in “Cassandra’s 1972 Red Mustang Hellacious California.” 79 results.
Within an hour, he reduced the field to three candidates who had posted 1972
Mustangs for sale and described their cars as “hellacious fast.” One Cassandra was in
San Francisco. Two were in Los Angeles. That there might be dozens of 1972 Mustangs
not for sale whose owners favored the word hellacious didn’t dismay him, for he felt
caught in a current that he neither wanted to nor could resist, and were he tossed up on
some barren bank a hundred miles downstream, he would be no worse off than in his
present state. He called the phone number of San Francisco’s Cassandra Gissing. No, the
Mustang, which had been her recently deceased husband’s car—hellacious fast, he
called it—hadn’t been sold. She was retired, confined to a wheel chair and had no use for
it. She offered to reduce the price by three hundred dollars, if he bought the car within
forty-eight hours. He thanked her and told her that he would consider.
Of the two remaining Cassandras, one was in North Hollywood, close to where
Yuudai lived, and the other in Topanga Canyon. Neither listed a phone number, so he e-
mailed both expressing his interest in the Mustang and asking for an appointment. The
North Hollywood Cassandra responded within an hour with a phone number and
address. He phoned her back immediately, could not tell if her voice was Carol’s, and so
arranged to see the car. The North Hollywood Cassandra was the right age, but the
wrong height—by a good six inches—and the wrong color. In ten minutes of
conversation, he learned that she was a bookkeeper, recently divorced—from a
loudmouthed drunken asshole— and unemployed. Yuudai agreed that the Mustang was
meticulously cared for, certainly a classic and a bargain at her price. Recognizing that
she might have found a buyer, she stroked the car’s hood, dabbed her eyes and offered
him an ice tea. With misgiving, he promised to get back to her within a day. Unhappiness
was well distributed.
When Topanga’s Cassandra did not get back to him with forty-eight hours, he
drove out to L.A’s rustic and close-knit community of artists, free-thinkers and aging
hippies, unfettered by even a traffic light until recent decades. Yuudai had commuted
through the Canyon for several years and knew well its few café’s and restaurants. The
most popular was the Peace and Love Café, near the Canyon’s center, and always
buzzing with left-of-center opinion, magical thinking and nonjudgmental gossip.
Kazuki ordered his coffee and took it to the café’s deck. A few minutes before
noon, it was a glorious day. He took a small table in the shade of a dollar tree. Vines
threaded through a cedar lattice. There were only two people inside the café, and one on
the deck. Hugh might very well show up, but Ono chose to risk it. If it happened, it
happened. With Gina’s phone call, Kazuki suspected that Hugh had figured out the plot
and would soon be seeking him out. But the prospect of the finished book had invigorated
and strengthened Kazuki for the confrontation.
Yuudai would play it cool. He would drink his coffee until an opening appeared.
He settled into a table on the deck and leafed through a latte-stained issue of the
Topangan Times that had been left on the table.
Only one other customer was on the deck, an older man rocking desperately on
his bench, eyes closed, a cigarette clinging to his cracked lips, brittle white hairs
springing from the open neck of his greasy green fatigue jacket. Yuudai took the lid off
his coffee, set it on the napkin and sipped, gazing at the mountains and smelling the
jasmine, occasionally returning the man’s glance.
“Would you like to hear a poem?” asked the man.
“Of course,” said Yuudai.
The poet glanced at Yuudai uncertainly. “Uh, well....” The poet turned his head.
“I charge a dime a poem.”
“I’ll take ten.”
“That’s all I got today.”
“You won’t use them up. You can say them again.”
“That’s right, I guess.”
“I’ll pay you for ten, but just read six.”
“Six, huh?” He pulled a dirty black notebook from his flannel pocket, and
removed the pen that had hitched a ride. He thumbed through the notebook, notching
“What you want to hear first? I got one about angels.”
“No. No angels.”
The poet cleared his throat. “Well, let’s see....” He flipped through the pages. “I
got one about flowers.”
“The flower one is pretty good.”
“All right. Flowers then.”
“What about the sea?”
“The sea? Sure.”
The poet stood up, holding the notebook with two hands like a preacher with a
bible. He studied his words for a moment, his eyes danced around until they settled
boldly on the open page.
“The world is a pisser in many respects....”
Yuudai listened politely, applauding each time the poet looked up hungrily, which
Yuudai supposed to be the end of each poem.
The poet’s last poem was titled “Rock Pool,” and Yuudai was surprised to find
that it resonated with him.
“A rock pool can be calm, but deep,
A rock pool can be shallow and stormy.
A rock pool can be cold as dry ice
A rock pool can be warm as shit.”
The poet repeated the stanza, the fourth line becoming the first line, the first line
the second and so on. Using this formula, he read the remaining stanzas, and then raised
his glittering eyes to Yuudai’s.
“I like that very much,” said Yuudai.
“You got four more coming.”
“Great. Hey, do you know a Cassandra?”
The poet grinned. “Damned straight. Calls my poetry hellacious, Cassy does.”
Opening his eyes, Hugh smelled the stench of alcohol on his breath. His nose felt
numb and his lips gluey. A two-cycle engine throbbed. He ran his tongue along his
bottom teeth, dislodging grit. The unfamiliar room slid to the right. He was in the motel
room. If it continued to rotate, he’d be sick. He concentrated. The room turned another
few degrees and stopped. There. Stay there.
He remembered leaning over a cushioned bar. The Irish bar on Sherman Way.
The Irish bar with all the rules. No colors. No sleeveless shirts. No swearing. No baseball
hats worn backwards. No cell phone conversations. Strictly enforced. You didn’t fuck
with the old bartenders. They kept sawed-off shotguns behind the bar, which had never
been robbed—successfully. He sat and drank, staring into the tea leaf eyes of his sons.
Not black holes. Not pennies. Not the ivory-framed windows of some opportunistic sea
creature. The living eyes of his sons. If he had moved an inch, he would have danced a
jig. But the only move he made was to slide another bill to the bartender and nod his head
at his drink. To the others arranged like hogs at a trough, he was invisible. The visible
invisible. The party’s in my mind. Yet one white bearded Old Testament saint leaned into
him and offered to take his burden. Facing the man, he reached between his thighs, drew
up Enrique the Freak and slapped it on the bar. He halved the book and thumbed to page
one thirty-seven. He placed his index finger on the highlighted text and in competition
with Al Hirt’s trumpet read, “He smeared the mechanical crayfish with butter.” He
smiled into the Saint’s beard.
“Poor light to read in,” said the Saint.
“I promised my sons crayfish.”
“Oh, no. We’d catch and eat them. But we never did. We would never go to Big
Bear and catch the crayfish.”
“That’s too bad.”
“They told him the story.”
“We’d seen the crayfish in the water that shouldn’t have been there. That
moment, those moments ... that’s all there is and he stole it. He stole it and he put it right
here.” Hugh tapped the book.
“You’re a little hard to follow.”
“He stole my sons.”
Hugh tapped the book again, harder. “Kazuki Ono”
“Good luck, brother,” said the Saint, patting the lunatic on his back and turning to
Hugh shoved the book back under his legs and continued dream drinking.
His sons were alive and would reunite with him. There was no longer the
insuperable barrier of life and death. They would be twenty four years old. He tried to
remember himself at eleven, the age at which his sons were separated from him—how
much did he remember of that year and the previous years? Much would be lost, but there
would be enough ... the ecstatic adventures, the plunge into mystery. The father comes
back from the dead as well, considered Hugh, gripping tightly his drink. Everything had
to be carefully planned. Should he try to speak with them first by phone? Skype? There
was also Ono himself to deal with. Could he go around Ono or did he have to go through
him? The evil bastard. He had Hugh under a microscope from the beginning. From the
cradle of the twins to Hugh’s grave. Hugh left the bar to find the song on the juke box. As
he scanned the columns of song titles, Johnny Cash roared from the speakers.
“I hear the train a coming....”
Later Hugh drove drunk down Topanga Canyon Boulevard, stopping at Ralph’s to
buy a fifth of Golden Tequila. He didn’t want to drive home on Old Topanga, kill himself
on one of its curves when he was so close to recovering his sons. Propped up in bed at the
motel room, he sipped from the bottle, the days events flash fiction. The boat, the
cemetery, the little girl, the old woman.
Ono had prepared for that opportune moment, when Hugh’s back was turned and
the twins vulnerable to a compassionate kidnapping. With Setsuko’s help he had gotten
them out of the United States and back to Japan, where he was impregnable.
To prevent any resistance from Takumi and Hitoshi, he had told them that their
father was dead. Perhaps Ono had told the twins that their father died trying to save them.
Your father was a hero, boys. We will always honor his memory, here in the land where
you were meant to grow up.
The sons were dead to the father; the father dead to the sons.
A double fiction.
Fingal’s Cave/Chapter 29
Yuudai drove toward Cassandra’s house, which the poet had described in detail.
But the detail was not necessary, for when Yuudai came within fifty yards he saw the
Mustang and the license plate.
Yuudai knocked on the door. There was no answer. He knocked again.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m coming,” a woman shouted.
A half minute passed. A lock clicked, a chain rattled and the door opened a few
“You the guy who called about the Mustang?” the occupant asked as she drew
back the door. Her face was bloated and splotchy, her soft green eyes rimmed with red,
and her dark hair now streaked with gray, but the twelve years produced no disguise.
Nor had the years so changed Yuudai, for her eyes went big with recognition. She
slammed the door shut, but Yuudai had already stuck his foot in the jam. As he entered,
she backed up toward a table glowing with lit candles.
“What do you want?” she said, pulling the collar of her flannel shirt tighter.
Cassandra backed toward the flames.
Yuudai dashed across the room and grabbed her shoulders. “Where are my
“I don’t know hardly nothing about your sons. I was paid to get you to buy me a
drink and talk.”
“Did Ito take them?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“Where are they?”
“I told you—”
Yuudai pushed her back against the table. A candle tumbled off, flickering on the
“My house! You’re going to burn down my house!”
“Did Katashi Ito hire you?”
“No. I don’t know—”
Yuudai’s hands slipped around her neck.
Yuudai smelled the melting wax. He kicked the table, knocking it over and spilling
the remaining candles to the floor.
“Oh, my God,” she rasped as his hands tightened.
“Katashi Ito?” asked Yuudai.
“Please, huh?” She coughed and her eyes brimmed with tears. “Yeah, yeah, it
was the Chinese guy!”
“Chinese, Japanese, whatever!”
Yuudai’s hands fell. Cassandra dropped to the floor, crying with relief and
snuffing out the candles.
Yuudai turned toward the door.
“You shouldn’t fuck with him,” said Cassandra. “I’m sorry about your sons, but
you shouldn’t fuck with him. You listen to me.”
But Yuudai was gone.
Ono’s final appearance in Southern California was Sunday afternoon at
Moonlight Books on the Promenade in Santa Monica. The reading and signing were to
begin at four o’clock.
Hugh arrived at five.
At five-thirty, Hugh entered the alley behind the bookstore’s back door, where he
assumed Ono, who preferred to keep a low profile after his public appearances, would
exit. Hugh had gotten almost to Moonlight’s rear entrance when what appeared to be a
Hummer, swaying like an empty ship on high seas, bore down on him. Atop its roof,
several children shouted and waved energetically. Hugh dashed to the wall. Closing on
Hugh, the Hummer swung its nose, raised its head and bellowed. An elephant. The
children atop the animal laughed deliriously. Draped over the creature was an enormous
satiny sheet with Hare Krishna Festival July 20-25, Venice Beach. Hugh gazed after the
creature’s huge rear-end from which catcher’s-mitt-sized stools erupted, setting the
alley’s flies swarming and circling about the steaming shit, orbiting in time with the
nearby pier’s hurdy-gurdy music, which was carried on the sea breeze.
Hugh visualized pushing Ono’s head into the elephant dung and holding it there
until Ono admitted everything.
More likely, Hugh would fall to his knees and beg.
The rich and powerful did as they liked, and if occasionally one got caught doing
as he liked, it was accepted by the well-heeled herd as their token sacrifice to the masses,
who no longer made much demands on their millionaires and billionaires anyway, so
convinced were they that their turn would come shortly.
Would Ono see that Hugh posed no threat? If Hugh once took the lives of his
children lightly, though this was a suffocating thought, a distortion of Hugh’s love for his
sons, a love that couldn’t deprive them of the world’s wonder and beauty, though it took
them to the edge of the Valley of Darkness, he no longer posed that threat. They were
men now, in Dylan’s phrase beyond his command. Truly in his heart, Hugh could forgive
Kazuki, to touch his sons warm faces again, he could forgive all the world’s villains, but
one. No, he could not forgive her.
T’was then when the Hurdy Gurdy Man came singing songs of love
Moonlight’s door opened. A middle-aged couple exited, each holding Ono’s book
and giggling. They linked arms as they zigzagged down the alley, the man singing a U2
song and keeping time by smacking his book. Next out were two young Asian women,
their hair as dark and shiny as blackbirds. Each said one word and then flew off. An old
man with a white beard and ebony cane followed, probing the elephant dung before Hugh
could warn him. A tall young woman with short blond hair stepped lightly from the
doorway. She wore a black blouse, its loose back cut low; on her spine a barbed wire
cumber bund bound an outraged white duck. A gray hand alighted on her shoulder. She
placed her young one atop the old one and turned, not releasing the hand as she drew Ono
from the bookstore into the alley. She glanced at Hugh, his back to the wall like an
assassin, and smiled coyly. Laying his hand atop her bound duck, Ono danced with her
across the indecent asphalt. They drew up in mid-step to bend their heads over a mound
of the still steaming dung. She laughed, kissed Ono full on the cheek and with echoing
farewells glided down the alley. Ono stared after her. Hugh stepped from the wall as if a
figure from a mural. He walked toward the novelist who gazed dreamily toward the
Startled by his own warning, Hugh fell back, searching his mouth for the dregs of
the words, but the sound had not come from Hugh. Someone had stepped between Ono
and Hugh, and it had been he who spoke Ono’s name. “Oh, are you here then, Jack?” said
Jack walked to Ono’s side, threw his arm across his employer’s shoulder and put
his lips to Ono’s ear. Ono turned slightly. Hugh pushed off the wall and strode to the
center of the alley.
“Kazuki—” said Hugh
Jack turned, raised his arm and turned his palm toward Hugh in supplication.
Hugh stepped forward and then fell back.Jack conferred with Ono for another thirty
seconds. Ono shrugged, drew his fingers through his hair, shoved off Jack like a sailor
pushing his boat from a dock, and shuffled down the alley toward the parking structure.
“Kazuki,” shouted Hugh.
The novelist didn’t turn.
Hugh felt like one of those frozen minor characters in an old Twilight Zone
episode where time has stopped and only the hero, unchecked by the spell, could move.
Had he just lost his sons again?
Jack strode back to Hugh. “It’s Hugh Mcpherson, is it?”
Jack extended his hand and grabbed Hugh’s. Thawing now, the water dripping
down his brow and chest, Hugh took in Jack’s curly orange hair and glittering green eyes.
Dressed in a pinstriped shirt and pleated trousers, Jack could have freshly emerged from
that night twenty years ago when he dug into the blowfish and eel-heart soup.
Hugh spoke but heard nothing. Jack put his hand on Hugh’s shoulder and
squeezed gently. “Are you all right, mate?”
“Plenty of time.”
“Plenty of—” Hugh shook his head, grabbed Jack’s wrist and threw off the hand.
“I want to speak with Kazuki.”
“Yes, yes. He wants to speak with you, but ... not yet. You have to talk to me
“We’re not in Tokyo.”
“Bloody miserable there in July.”
“Don’t fucking do that. Not after—you know. Don’t tell me...”
“Know? Well, I know. Sure I know.”
“My sons. I want to know.”
“I have to explain some things. The letter to Setsuko...”
“No chance, was there? Will you tell me?”
“Let’s go someplace. Have a drink. Talk.”
A few more people came out of the bookstore. Jack smiled broadly at them and
they raised their hands for exuberant high fives.
“Love Americans,” chimed Jack.
“Look, let’s put some distance from that pile of elephant shit. There’s a British
pub around the corner. Beer. Fish and chips. What say?”
There were empty tables at the King’s Head, but Jack preferred sitting at the bar,
which smelled of Guinness and vinegar. From a conversation he’d had with the barmaid
five years ago, Jack recalled that she had been taking SCUBA classes. She happily
reported that she’d completed her course, got her license and went diving once a month.
She was going to Catalina in a week for three days of diving. In a loud voice Jack sang—
“Twenty-six miles across the sea. Santa Catalina is awaiting for me. Romance,
romance, romance, romance.”
“Ssshhh. You’ll bloody wake up the customers,” the buxom barmaid warned.
“I’d of thought you’d want that,” said Jack. “A man can’t drink when he’s
“Tell those Rip Van Winkles.” The barmaid jerked her thumb over her shoulder at
a couple of octogenarians, arms folded on the bar, lips resting on the rims of their mugs.
But for a sliver of eyeball, they might have been dead.
Jack stuck his hand over the bar. “Jack. Mate here is Hugh.”
“Peggy,” said the barmaid. “Peggy MacArthur.” She took Jack’s hand and then
Hugh’s. “What you be wanting to drink?”
“Pint of Guinness for me. Hugh?”
“Two pints of Guinness. You hungry?”
Jack glanced at Hugh. “Mate?”
Hugh shook his head.
“You got any pig knuckles?”
“Do you think you’re in the Brighton? It’s cockles you’ll be wanting next.”
“And then the tripe. Oh my. No, we’re fine, Peg.”
The barmaid walked to the taps. Jack clapped Hugh on the shoulder. “I like to fit
in. You have to go out of your way to fit in, sometimes.”
“Where did Kazuki go?”
“Back to his hotel room. He’s working.”
“I thought you were his driver.”
“Oh, that I am.”
“But you’re here.”
“Let’s leave it a mystery.”
Peggy set the beers down. A perfect half-inch of cocoa-colored foam floated atop
the glasses. “Cheers.”
“Cheers,” said Jack, lifting his glass and pouring half down his throat.
Hugh sipped his beer. “Am I the man in the chamber?”
“In Ono’s book. The man in suspended animation.”
“I couldn’t tell you. I don’t read Ono’s books. Never read a page.”
“I’m serious. I’ve never cracked one.”
“Is that a requirement of employment?”
“I’m not a fan of fiction.”
“I think I’m that man.”
“What are you talking about, mate?”
“Not quite dead.”
“Well, you’re not quite dead, are you?”
“My sons didn’t drown.”
Jack put his hands on the bar and pushed back, so that his stool tilted precariously.
On the jukebox, The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” played. At the table directly behind
them, a couple argued loudly. Carrying two plates of crackling fish and chips, a waitress
skirted by Jack and Hugh to deliver the food to the arguing couple. It would sit there and
go stone cold before the couple ate it. Jack rocked back and forth, so that the legs of the
stool cracked. He put his arm around Hugh and pulled him close.
“Your sons are dead, Hugh. God rest their souls.”
Hugh shrugged him off. “Where are they?”
“Ah, that’s the riddle. Where do they go? All our loved ones taken from us as we
will be taken in our time.” Jack raised his eyes to the ceiling. “We’ll all meet again.
Somewhere down that long and winding road. That’s what I think, Hugh. I truly do.”
Peggy came over, put her hands on her cheeks and leaned her elbows on the bar.
“Are you two handsome fellows ready for another round?”
“He is a good-looking man, isn’t he?” asked Jack.
“You both could be actors,” said Peggy.
“Why that we are.”
“Oh, I love serving thespians.”
“Lesbians? Are we that good?”
“Jeremy Irons both. Two more?”
“Sure, darling. Always ready for another. And why not? Why we could walk
outside and a meteorite could fall from the sky, bonk us. Or a bloody elephant could run
us over. That particle accelerator in Cern could birth a black hole. Did you hear? The
Cern scientists are always announcing that they’re surprised at this and that. And yet,
they say there is nothing to fear. Surprised twice a day they are, but they’ll have no
One of the old men on the other side of the bar piped, “Birds fall from the sky,
“Oh, yes. And fish from the sea,” said Peggy, taking their glasses.
A high-pitched scream. A young woman jumped up and down in front of the dart
board, pointing to a flight lodged in the bull’s-eye. Her other darts were all over the
board. Nearby, a second young woman clapped. They wore bright summer dresses that
clung to their bodies. They clinked their beer mugs and smiled at the world.
“I just want to see them,” said Hugh.
“That’s all, yes...”
“What I’ve lost—what they’ve lost—can’t be restored. But to see them would be
something. My heart aches for that, Jack. Can’t you tell Ono that? Will you tell Ono
“Oh, Hugh, if I could make them rise up before you again. If I could put your
hands on their faces—wouldn’t I do it? Wouldn’t Ono do it? He’s only a writer, Hugh.”
“I was on the boat that carried them away,” said Hugh. “I was at the cemetery
where H. Mcpherson is buried. I met with Kazuki’s cousin Gina, who for a decade called
me every month to sell me a plot. I wonder where she got the lead?”
“Dig and delve.”
“I guess I should be grateful that it wasn’t me down there in that hole. That would
have been easy enough.”
“Sounds like MI5 stuff.”
“You’re off base, Hugh.”
“Just tell me where my sons are.”
The woman behind them shouted. Hugh glanced back. A shaft of light from the
lowering sun struck her arm, setting her skin afire.
“Don’t fucking taunt me, Jack. Just tell me they’re alive.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Those are his rules?”
Jack frowned. “You shouldn’t hope—”
Hugh waited, but Jack let the sentence go unfinished, and then excused himself to
go to the restroom.
Someone had left a paper clip on the bar. Hugh picked it up. Was it three, four or
six turns that made a straight wire into a paper clip? Hugh straightened the clip, counting.
He returned the bends to the wire, but it resisted its original shape. He would abide by
Ono’s rules as long as he could be reunited with his sons. He straightened the wire. One
more time and it would break. Hugh poked the wire’s tip into the fleshy part of his
thumb. When he was a child and out of his father’s sight, he dug sewing needles into his
flesh to dig out splinters. He would stick a sewing needle under the first layer of skin,
prick away the flesh around the splinter. There wasn’t much pain at all and what pain
there was he didn’t mind. He never thought it odd. He never thought it masochistic. He
liked that feeling of going under, right down into the most painful place. The straightened
paper clip had no point and was not needle thin, but he wondered if he could stick it
under his skin. He probed his flesh, but the blunt tip couldn’t find its entry. Hugh pressed
harder, gripping the metal tighter. He put all his weight to it and felt his skin give, the
thin rod penetrate. A drop of blood spilled on the weathered floor.
“I want to see Ono,” said Hugh after Jack had returned to his seat.
Jack bent his head. “I’ve told you the truth, Hugh.”
“There are laws against what he did.”
“What laws are they, Hugh?”
“Fabricating a death. Two deaths. Three deaths. I will go to the police.”
Jack sipped his beer. “Give me a moment.”
Jack rolled off the stool. Striding toward the door, he dug out his cell phone.
Hugh drank his beer and watched the darts find their marks.
Five minutes later, Jack walked back in smiling. “All’s well, mate. Ono will meet
you in two hours at Hermes, that’s the bar across from the gymnastic equipment adjacent
to the Santa Monica Pier. Know where it is?”
Hugh arrived early for the meeting with Ono. The sun was sinking, the horizon
ablaze, the ocean calm. The palms threw a thousand shadows across the beach, bike path
and walkway, gently striking the passersby, like children pelting each other with fronds
on Easter morning. Crimson faced, drained of expression by the sun and surf, beachgoers
lugging coolers, blankets and umbrellas trudged to their SUVs, beside which mothers
bent to wipe sand from wriggling pink and brown toes, their owners’ half-closed eyes
dreamily scanning that face which had always been and always would be.
Cyclists whizzed along the bike path, preternaturally avoiding meandering
pedestrians. On the walkway, the human tide had turned north toward the pier, its lights
growing more dazzling by the moment, within an hour to become the center of the night.
On the beach, steel clanked, as a muscular young man swung Tarzan-like down the ring
circuit. Nearby were the hanging rings, where Hugh had hoisted Takumi and Hitoshi
who, though hardly a year off their mother’s milk, gripped the warm steel like little apes.
Hugh would grab their ankles and pull them back until their chains were near parallel
with the sand, and then release. Smaller they grew as they traveled the swift arc, larger as
they rushed back. On return, he’d catch their hips and push. Three or four times and
they’d be swinging rooftop high, their faces glowing, eyes big with excitement and fear.
After their arms had weakened—he’d see the doubt in their eyes—he’d shout for them to
let go as they swung toward him. Trusting him completely, they released at the arc’s
apogee, flying through the air toward his hands. He caught them every time, even as they
grew older and heavier and their weight would set him back on his heels. He faltered but
never missed. He always carried them safely back to earth.
Hugh walked over to the climbing ropes. Three hung from the apparatus, each
running up twenty feet to a clamp on the horizontal bar. A young man held the rope on
the left, demonstrating to his girlfriend how to grip with her hands and then wrap her
ankles around the hemp. Pull, slide, grip. Pull, slide, grip. Hugh watched as the woman
made several attempts, getting two or three feet off the ground and then dropping back.
Hugh walked over to the far right rope. This too he had taught Takumi and Hitoshi,
though Setsuko paled as they clung twenty feet above the sand. Hugh gripped the rope
above his head and using only his hands rapidly ascended halfway to the top. There he
caught the rope with his ankles and secured himself. He looked toward the sea, which
rose on the north and fell on the south. The entire sea continued in this pattern, but the
motion getting less extreme with each cycle, until the sea was flat. He thought of the
incalculable volume of water that had moved. What force!... But it had only been him,
teeter-tottering on the rope.
He continued to the top, where he twisted on the rope to view the walkway.
Threading the crowds with dazzling skill, two men on rollerblades revealed the
topography, the random river through the throng, carving it the way a master butcher
effortlessly separates the meat from the bone. The men wore cargo jeans, their lean chests
bare. He saw them full face, and then in profile. They were in their mid-twenties and
Asian-American. They had lips like his, eyes like Setsuko’s. “Takumi! Hitoshi!” The two
men must not have heard! He waved his arms and screamed again. He forgot and let his
grip slacken. He fell six feet, regained his hold, lost it again and hit the ground hard. The
jolt stunned and knocked the wind out, but he stayed somehow on his feet. He lumbered
across the sands, but by the walkway had fully caught his breath. He pushed into the
crowd, searching for the river and his sons. But the river had dried up, and no sons were
to be seen.
He stood in front of the bar and studied the procession, hoping that the men might
appear again. An actor whom Hugh recognized walked by in a grimy sweatshirt and
tattered baseball cap. With his thin, hunched shoulders, the actor looked older and frailer
than Hugh remembered, though his eyes, when they glanced into the bar remained hawk
like. Not long ago, Hugh had seen him as a young man in a three-star movie. He was
hulking, fearsome. Now he had only his eyes. Somewhere Hugh had read that the actor
was dying of cancer. The actor locked his eyes on Hugh, grimaced and mouthed, “I’ve
seen your sons.”
“What?” asked Hugh stepping into the crowd to catch the man’s shoulder. The
actor turned as if he were made of cardboard. But it was not the actor at all. The stranger
stared back, stupefied.
“I’m sorry. I thought you were someone....”
From the distance came a voice. “Here are your sons.”
“No, here,” said another voice.
Now a hundred voices from a dozen directions called out to Hugh. He spun about,
stepping one way, then the other—
Wiping his face with his hand, Hugh retreated to the bar. He found a place next to
a long-legged woman in a micro-skirt who was chatting it up with a Schwarzenegger
lookalike rammed in next to her. Distancing himself, Hugh leaned against a narrow
bookcase projecting from the back wall, glancing occasionally at the shelves of rotting
and discolored novels, titles barely visible on the spines.
Twenty minutes later Ono entered, backlit by the sun which restored the gold to
his shoulder length hair. He had changed into a white silky shirt, open halfway down his
pink and hairless chest. He did not stand out in this crowd of beach bums and bikers,
aging hippies and artists .
Hugh waved his hand, but Ono didn’t move from the entrance. He wasn’t wearing
his glasses. He looked helpless as he joined thumb to forefinger and seemed to poke at an
invisible canvas. Hugh wanted to scream, but he smiled an imbecile’s foaming grin, and,
legs shaking from the effort, approached his father-in-law to stammer, “Ha-ha-how are
“I apologize. It’s been—”
“Yes, and I’m almost blind. I left my glasses at the hotel. Bear with me while my
eyes adjust to the light.”
Hugh took the author’s outstretched arm and led him to the back of the bar. The
stool adjacent to Arnold had been vacated. Hugh gestured, but Ono declined.
“But if you would order for me?”
“Yes, neat. I envy your memory. The time bandits who have been plundering
mine will soon have slim pickings. A melody or two. A few faces. A moonlit night in
Ōsaka watching a beautiful young woman reddening her mouth.”
Yes, yes, pretty shit. “Water back?”
“No, no water,” said Ono, blinking rapidly.
Hugh directed Ono to a space at the bar’s end, which offered a sliver of worn
mahogany. Hugh ordered the Jack Daniels and another beer. While they waited for the
drinks, they stared past each other, like shy strangers on a packed commuter train. A
mediating third party had always separated them.
“Takumi and Hitoshi,” said Hugh. “Tell me.”
But Ono seemed not to have heard. He looked around, taking in the varied life
like a gaping tourist. Spotting the bookshelf, Ono stepped to it, poking at the titles.
Clucking, he drew one out. He opened it. “Is this a joke, Hugh?”
Ono displayed the cover to Hugh. “Black Nebula by Todd Ostermann. I read this
book when I was a boy. Science fiction. It was one of dozens that were sent to me
regularly by an American company—a book of the month club, I suppose. Perhaps a two-
or three-book-a-month club, for I recall many books arriving in their stiff resistant
packing.” Ono leafed through the book as he spoke. “All were hard covers with bold,
frequently nightmarish, dust jackets, I joined the club by tearing out a coupon in Popular
Mechanics or perhaps it was Popular Science, which were my favorite magazines. The
books were printed in English and each one science fiction, which I would discover was a
very broad genre. They weren’t good books. They would come with chapters missing or
reversed. Many typos. Paragraphs transposed. Some pages blank. Faint print on one page,
out of register print on another. Characters’ names changed from chapter to chapter.
Those books had a great influence on my life and writing. I thought that was how books
were supposed to be written. That in a nutshell is the secret of my style. Bad books.”
Let him talk, thought Hugh.
Ono continued, “Or do I only remember them that way? It seems that a publisher
would go out of business quickly if he published books like that, month after month.
Unless these were printing press mistakes, defective books early in the run that publishers
normally threw into the trash. Perhaps publishers realized there was a way to make
money on these monstrosities by selling them at discount prices overseas, where the
problems would be overlooked, especially if the readers were young boys and girls. Or
perhaps the books were perfect and I have imposed my own flaws on them, which I’ve
transposed to my own books.”
Draining his glass, Hugh rocked it noisily on the wood. The bartender looked
over. Hugh held up his glass.
“I’m here for Takumi and Hitoshi,” said Hugh
“Jack told me what you think.”
“Have I seen them?”
“What do you mean?”
“While I was waiting for you, two young men went by on rollerblades. They
looked like Takumi and Hitoshi—would look like as men. Are they with you?”
“No, Hugh, they are not with me.”
“I haven’t paid enough? Twelve years in hell isn’t enough?”
“Suppose what you think is true,” said Ono, holding up his glass to catch a ray of
the setting sun. “Suppose your sons and my grandsons were alive, and I had put together
this intricate plot to keep them from you. Part of that hypothesis is that I have had access
to them. That I have had their love. Suppose I confessed to them that I had done this and
separated them from their father. Do you think they could possibly forgive me? Would I
then not lose their love? And what of their love for their mother? For she would have had
to participate. She would have had to lie to you and to them.
“But there is an answer to this. We separated you from them to save their lives.”
“But then my sons are alive?”
“The only way Takumi and Hitoshi can be alive is for you to go back to that
moment, and say— no. You can take them as far as the beach. Your sons will argue,
flatter and beg to enter that surf, and you must say no. And in your refusal, they will hate
you, and from that day forward they will lie to you. They have never lied to you before,
but now they will lie to keep being what you have raised them to be. Fearless,
adventuring, immortal. There is no alternative. Even if you recognized they were in
danger and you tried to swim to them, you would not be able to save them. They would
drown—and you would drown.”
“My grave wasn’t fiction. The Cassandra was no dream. I tried to kill myself,
Kazuki. Something intervened, something that wanted me to find the truth. I don’t know
what it was. I don’t believe in God. I just believe in—”
“Yoko and me?” said Ono.
Hugh flared. “Is that funny? Why the fuck would you say that?”
“I wasn’t aware I said it aloud.”
“Beatles on the brain. Lyrics and melodies. I’m helpless. Help! I need somebody.”
Smiling, Ono pushed the book back into its place. “Something has altered your path.
That’s for sure.”
Hugh turned his glass upside down and smashed it on the bar. He held the jagged
edge inches from Ono’s right eye. If Ono didn’t blink, didn’t cover his bare disregard,
Hugh would drive the lovely little crag into the calm brown iris. Ono’s face seemed to lift
from his head like a mask and float toward the glass. Hugh struck. The membrane
snapped, blood spurted. Hugh cupped his hands, caught an ounce and poured it into the
sudsy pool of beer and broken glass. Sticking the shard in again, he wedged out the eye,
set on the floor and crushed it with his heel.
“Did you really try to take your own life?” asked Ono.
“I’d be surprised if you don’t have it on tape.”
“I thought you would come to terms with your own life.”
“I’m not much, am I?”
“I used a rope,” said Ono. “I miscalculated the elasticity of clothesline. My toes,
and then heels were firmly on the floor. The rope was a little tight around my neck, but I
had no trouble breathing. I would have to adjust the rope I thought, and then I
remembered my daughter. I thought of her walking in on me. I thought of her alone...”
“I remember your daughter too. Does she remember me?”
Ono took a long sip of his drink. A surfing song by a band that didn’t surf played
on the juke box. The harmonies held both men for a moment. Hugh wondered if Ono was
lying about the book, trying to misdirect him.
“You stole my sons.”
“It was when my wife died,” his eyes glazed, remembering.
“Our love was the real thing.”
Grunting, Hugh brought his glass down on the bar. There was a crack, but the
glass stayed intact. Plastic. Big hard hands, familiar with drunks and rage, clamped
Hugh’s arms, squeezing them until the glass slipped from Hugh’s fingers.
“Gulf syndrome,” said Ono. “My friend meant no trouble.”
“That’s all, huh?” asked the bouncer.
“I’ll take him outside,” said Ono.
“You want me to call a cop?”
The giant bouncer who had grabbed Hugh released him as the odd old man put his
hand around his companion’s shoulder and guided him outside.
“It’s all in your book isn’t it? Enrique has committed a horrible crime—”
“Ssshh,” said Ono, rubbing Hugh’s back. “You’ve been reading the wrong book.
Give me two more days, and I’ll lay the truth in your hands.”
I like to swim at night. At night, if it’s a good swell, you’ll find some surfers, but
no swimmers. Once you swim out fifty yards or so, no one can see you, much less hear
you over the breakers. Lifeguards don’t work at night. Sharks do.
The water was warm, the waves small and the tide out, so I walked a distance
before I dove. Oh, man, gliding down there in the black, passing through liquid space,
nothing existing but your own body. That first half-minute, you don’t breath, which is
like closing off the world, closing off all the pain you ever had. But then it starts to hurt
and your lungs get hot, and then despite wanting to stay down you have to come up.
Break the surface. Your head lifts up out of the water and you suck in that good air. And
it’s night and you’re looking up at a million stars, heaven maybe.
I went in at Sunset and swam north toward Topanga. Guys were surfcasting, using
metallic gray frozen squid, trying to catch those sharks. They’d stay out there all night if
you’d let them. I didn’t want to find a hook in my ass, so I swam out one hundred yards.
That’s happened to me, you know. Swimming in the surf, some asshole casting off the
shore, not looking or not caring that I’m swimming by. So I swam north toward the lights
of the Charthouse Restaurant at Topanga. I swam in long strokes, just gliding through the
water, not kicking my legs, but holding them together and swaying them like a fish. My
mama told me that my father swam that way. Sometimes I think of him out there. The
waves lifting me up like tender hands, like a father’s hands when he’s teaching you to
doggy paddle. Four strokes underwater, sway my legs and then turn my face up for a
breath. I pretend I am my father, and then I’m not pretending. That night, it was me and
my father out there, the two of us swimming in one body.
It wasn’t until the end of my swim that Uncle Hugh came back into my thoughts.
What I was going to do about him. Something white fell from the sky, like the moon fell
into the sea. The pelican sat on the water gobbling down its catch, a couple of seagulls
dropping down beside it, hoping for leftovers.
Leftover love. I’d have settled for that.
It was eleven p.m., when Hugh stopped for the light on Pacific Coast Highway.
On the radio the singer declared, It’s the edge of the world/And all of western
civilization... A line of midnight cyclists, glowing like bioluminescent jellyfish, streamed
silently out of the canyon and turned with choreographed precision north on the highway,
vanishing into the slipstream. Hugh glanced toward the Pacific, where six-thousand miles
away his sons might be sitting down to a dinner of Sukiyaki or Sashimi.
The car behind him honked. Hugh slowly accelerated onto Topanga. Continuing
to scold him, the car veered in front of oncoming traffic to rip past.
In the morning Hugh would make a reservation for a flight to Tokyo. He wouldn’t
leave Japan without taking Takumi and Hitoshi in his arms.
Kasuki had lied to him, and Hugh expected nothing but more lies and evasions
when he met with him in forty-eight hours.
Pulling up to his Topanga home, he hoped that the car’s headlights would find
Hanna and her rooster sitting in his backyard. He needed someone to lie with and listen to
his story. He needed someone to hold and to wake up with in the night. Someone to
reassure him of his own existence.
Under the hard white beams, the lounge chairs were empty and the scrawny
blades of glass were still.
He took a pill, poured a glass of wine and sat in bed reading Barnaby Rudge.
Sleep came before he could finish dog-earing the page.
Waking up hours before dawn, unable to draw in a thought that seemed like a
fishing line snagged on submerged wreckage, Hugh got in his car and drove to Aaron’s
He knocked boldly on the front door, but no one responded. He tried the
doorknob, which turned easily but did not open the door. At the back of the house, he
yanked on the sliding glass door’s handle, but the door was latched and the blinds drawn.
Walking to the side of the house, Hugh kneeled before the crawl space entrance. It was
covered by wire mesh, along which several fat green caterpillars crawled. He pulled off
the caterpillars, which spewed cool electric green juice over his fingers, and lined them
up at his feet, where they browned and withered. A baby rat or small rat wobbled by
squeaking painfully as if poisoned. Unhooking the mesh, Hugh poked his head into the
opening and scanned. To his right was the bathroom, its copper pipes glowing. If he
crawled straight forward, he’d be under the hallway. The outer wall of the third bedroom
would start twenty-feet forward. The closet would be six feet from the path below the
hallway. How familiar it all was. If he had a flashlight.... But light did come in from other
crawl space openings. He wouldn’t be completely blind down there. He put one hand
inside and felt the cool coating. It wasn’t dirt or dust, but a soft gray particulate, almost
like powder, that the builders layered over the dirt. He remembered doing it once before.
It was like crawling through soot, and it left a resilient gray stain. He touched it
tentatively like a cat testing water, his fingers curved so that only the smallest amount of
flesh or claw would be polluted.
Hugh shimmied through the opening. As he crawled, he unearthed lumps of rat-
shit beneath the dust. Something scampered on his periphery. He rammed his head on a
cross-beam. Shit. A foot in front him, a protruding nail gleamed wickedly. Bang your
head on this, dearie. He lowered his head and crept forward. Why had he not just broken
a window? Couldn’t I break a window once, Dad? Just once? He crawled another ten
feet. Light seeped in from several places on the perimeter of the house, and also where
pipes broke through. But just as his eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, suddenly all
light withdrew, as if a dense fog had rolled into the neighborhood or one of those striped,
canvas, poison-filled tents had been dropped on the house. Hugh heard more scampering,
longer flights. A sheet of light appeared a short distance away. Hugh padded toward it.
Now four sheets of light, a rectangle of light outlining the trapdoor. He crawled beneath
it. Turning on his back, he rested his head against the ground, bent his arms and raised his
hands, fixing his palms firmly on the wood. He pushed, but it held fast. He shifted his
position for leverage, drawing up his knees. He exerted more pressure, as if it were last
repetition of a barbell. The wood groaned and gave a fraction on one side. He whispered,
pushing harder. The side raised another inch. Above something shifted, fell with a clunk
and the trapdoor now rose without resistance. He pushed the panel higher until he saw a
row of shirts and pants hanging above. He slid aside the panel, hooked his hands on the
carpeted floor and pulled himself through the opening.
Sitting in the closet, he caught his breath. A large steel ammo box lay on its side.
Hugh lifted the box, which had to weigh seventy-five pounds, and opened the lid. Shells
of various sizes filled a half dozen compartments.
Exiting the closet, he waited for a moment in the bedroom, on whose walls were
numerous posters of guns and race cars. Aaron’s room. Hugh stepped before the room’s
full-length mirror, slapping away dust.
In the living room, he walked to the chamber, slid his hand across its cover. He
looked for a way to open it, but seeing none walked over to the picture window, where
the blinds were swaying as if from a breeze. He peeled back the blinds and drew them,
letting them clap against the glass. Breathe. Just breathe. He took the blinds in hand
again. He bent his head to look down at a busy metropolitan street, six stories below. The
signs on the shops and restaurants were in Japanese: the Rapongi District.
He returned to the chamber.
Inside a body lay at length, covered in a gray residue. The closed eyelids
flickered. Hugh gazed through the Plexiglas to see himself staring down.
Hugh awoke to feel daylight on his eyelids. He breathed in the familiar and
comforting scents of a Topanga morning, the laurel sumac and jasmine, the black sage
and buckwheat. The chamber was a dream. He hadn’t crawled through the dust and rat
shit beneath Aaron’s grandfather’s house. He hadn’t looked out the window to see
Tokyo. He was home, in bed. Not far from his left arm, something radiated warmth. He
opened his eyes. Hanna’s naked back. The sheet draped over her hip as artfully as in a
painting. He followed the curve to her shoulders, slender and revealing their mechanics
as surely as if the skin was transparent. Beneath her shoulder blade spread a patch of little
rock candies. He pinched one between his thumb and forefinger.
“Don’t. Let me sleep,” Hanna murmured.”
He tugged on the protuberance.”
She shrugged the shoulder. “You’re hurting me.”
He pinched harder. An electric-green fluid seeped from the growth. The body
turned in annoyance. Anna stared at him, her tongue lolling out the corner of her mouth
like an imbecile’s.
“Wake up, Mr. Mcpherson.”
Hugh jerked up his head. The bits and pieces of dreams within dreams whirled
around like food in the teeth of a garbage disposal. The pieces screeched as the steel teeth
chewed them up to nothingness. He gazed at Anna’s dumb smile and dull eyes. Her hand
held his shoulder, squeezing him reassuringly. Behind Anna, stood Aaron.
“Sorry to disturb you,” said Anna.
“What do you want?”
“Don’t be scared.”
Hugh sat up. Aaron stepped closer.
“You like live in the wilderness, Mr. Mcpherson. I’ll bet there are deer around
here. Deer and bears.”
He gazed at the two children.
“What is it? Why are you here?”
“Why were you spying on us?” asked Aaron.
“I thought you stole my wallet. I went to the house to get it.”
“Didn’t steal no fucking wallet.”
“I know—it was a mistake.”
“You’re bad, Mr. Mcpherson,” said Anna.
“If that’s why you’re here, I apologize. I don’t have anything else to say.
“We wouldn’t steal from you,” said Anna. “You’re our teacher. Your class was
“That’s nice to hear. That’s very satisfying.”
“Aaron needs his story back.”
“Yeah. Remember? I asked you for it. You were going to get it to me.”
“You broke into my house because of that?”
“Your door was wide open,” exclaimed Hanna.
“That’s not—” His voice trailed off.
“My grandfather doesn’t like it being out there.”
“It’s not out there.”
“You got it here?”
“Your story? Of course not.”
“So where is it?”
“I think I threw it out.”
Anna sat down on the bed. “Wow this is nice. What kind of bed is this?”
“I think this is the nicest bed I’ve ever been on. Really. I would love to sleep in
this bed.” Anna pulled back the sheet, flattened herself out and pulled the sheet over her.
“This is heaven, Mr. Mcpherson.” She pushed up against him. “Man and wife.”
“Where’s the story?” demanded Aaron.
“I don’t know... It may be in the classroom. I’m pretty sure, I kept all the stories
from the last semester. I’d have to check.”
“Let’s go,” said Aaron.
Anna threw back the sheet and bounced up. “You are so cool, Mr. M.”
As they drove, Anna explained that they hitchhiked to Hugh’s house and walked
the one mile incline that ended in the winding dirt road that had brought them to his door,
which Aaron had no trouble jimmying. In Hugh’s car, Anna fell asleep halfway through
Topanga. Hugh turned on KUSC. Two violins played Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in
D Minor. Aaron appeared to be listening.
In the middle school’s faculty parking lot, there were three cars. Budget cuts had
eliminated summer school, but a few staff were required on campus. Hugh had Aaron and
Anna wait outside while he got the keys to his room. The main office secretary was
surprised to see Hugh. He chatted with her for a minute. They were losing another
The roses, unseen and unpicked, were dazzlingly abundant. Squirrels took their
time crossing the walkways. The quad spread uniformly green. As if newly painted, the
murals shone brightly, revealing a pristine California of Spanish missions and industrious
natives. Like a fire-scorched forest, the campus was restoring itself. Seedlings shot up
Hugh opened the door to Sharona Hall. Sunlight danced down the corridor,
laboriously waxed of ten-thousand spilled Jamba juices and a million Nike treads. It was
so quiet and still, though like a seashell, it contained the echo of five hundred students
screaming and banging lockers. Occasionally when he negotiated the corridor, he
remembered that transcendent moment in high school when walking down a similar hall
during passing period, he felt the chains of flesh fall away. He floated past the other
students, super-aware of this girl’s skin, this boy’s gait, a hand spinning a combination
lock, but he was not of them—a ghost, a spirit, a disembodied sense, inviolable. He could
not regain that moment, that bliss, only remember. But remembering was not it.
He opened the classroom door and turned on the lights. The room looked pristine.
It was not just the freshly-painted walls and polished floor or the refinished desktops
stripped of graffiti. It held the prospect of starting over.
Each year when he returned to his classroom in the fall, he forgot the intractable
students, the noisy, the bored, the hostile, the clowns, the irreverent, the irresponsible, the
insatiable. He forgot the pens thrust in pencil sharpeners, the wads of gum pebbling the
undersides of desks, the obscenities carved on the backs of chairs and heavily inked in
textbooks. The scrawled hearts and libel penned on the whiteboards with pilfered
markers. The incessant guerrilla warfare aimed at toppling the teacher’s fragile order.
What he remembered was the little Israeli girl reminding him to clap syllables. The
Persian boy delighted with transitive verbs and direct objects. The Mexican girl who in a
day had memorized and could recite “Puss and Boots.” The twenty hands that jumped up
when he asked for an antonym for evil. Not once in the hours of the years of teaching had
he forgotten his sons, but there were moments when the weight lifted, and he thought that
perhaps he could become worthy of forgiveness. Each year it did begin that way. He did
lose himself for awhile... He had almost forgotten.
He walked to the row of filing cabinets in the rear of the room. In one of the
drawers he stored the material for the creative writing classes, every story written. He
kept them because he couldn’t bear to throw away even the most inane and poorly written
story. The student had committed something of her heart. If it was trashed, it would
forever disappear. Aaron’s story was there. The fiction that was not fiction, which was
mostly fiction anyway. Thinly or thickly disguised autobiography. What else could the
writer drawn upon? Even Ono’s work, as strange as it was, as unsettling, was in some
way a reflection of Ono’s life, his experiences stretched and twisted into shapes that little
resembled the original, but somehow were more true to it than if they had not changed at
all. Hugh found the manila folder with the spring semester’s stories. He thumbed though
them. Here was Anna’s. Here was Roy’s. Here was Saba’s. But where was Aaron’s?
Aaron and Anna stood deferentially near the door. He went through the folder again, and
then turned to the fall semester’s folder. Aaron’s may have gotten into it by mistake. He
carefully went through those stories,. As he leafed through, a line of type or a scribbled
phrase sparked the memory of the story. But Aaron’s story was not there. He went
through all six semesters and returned to the last spring. It was not there.
He turned to the two students, who had finally entered. They had dug markers out
of his desk and were writing gang script on the wide-eyed whiteboard.
“Your story isn’t there. It must have gotten thrown out.”
“That’s not good,” said Aaron, putting down the marker.
“Is my story there, Mr. Mcpherson?” asked Anna.
“I want it.”
Hugh went to the file for Anna’s story. As he walked to the front of the classroom
and handed it to her, Aaron lifted his T-shirt revealing a gun tucked into his waistband.
“My grandfather said to get the story,” said Aaron.
“It’s not there, Aaron.”
Aaron followed Hugh back to the cabinet. Hugh withdrew the file.
“Show me. One by one.”
Hugh presented the manuscripts to Aaron, who scanned each and tossed it to the
Anna laughed. “I can’t believe I wrote this.”
Scampering by their feet, a thumb-sized cockroach took refuge under a story titled
“Kitties from Hell.” With a stomp, Aaron summarily critiqued paper and roach.
When all the stories in the spring folder had been dismissed, Aaron ordered Hugh
to continue with the other folders. The fiction piled up like snowdrift.
“What’s the difference? It’s gone. Isn’t that what your grandfather was worried
“He’s not going to believe that. He’s paranoid,” said Aaron. Hugh smiled with
gratification. He had taught Aaron that word.
“What would I have done with it that would cause him harm?” Hugh asked.
“They kill journalists, writers, musicians. They chop off their heads for writing
songs wrong. If it gets out what my grandfather did....”
“I can’t make it appear like magic.”
“I can’t go home without it.”
“Write it again,” snapped Hugh.
“Sit down and write the story again.”
Aaron looked confused. “You can’t do that, can you?”
“Why not? Just sit down and write it in longhand and then we’ll do it on the
computer. You can show him both papers.”
“I’d be lying to him.”
“The paper doesn’t exist. Maybe I spilled coffee on it.”
“I don’t think so, but maybe. I must have thrown it out.”
As he said that, Hugh recalled that he didn’t throw it out. After the class in which
Hugh had read Aaron’s story to the students, one of the boys remained behind to say that
he really liked Aaron’s piece. Could Hugh give him a copy? Pressed for time on his way
to a parent conference, Hugh had given him the original, extracting a promise from the
student to bring the story back. He didn’t. And so Aaron’s story was in the world, as the
grandfather had feared. But surely even if the boy, Miseal, had read it, he would have
thrown it away. It was remarkable that Miseal, who read and wrote almost nothing,
wanted it in the first place. But Hugh remembered that as he read the story to the class,
for Aaron refused to read aloud, Miseal had sat riveted.
Well, Miseal was OT’d and long gone.
Hugh sat Aaron down with a pen and piece of paper. Aaron squirmed, but
Anna turned on the class boom box, found an acceptable radio station and danced.
Aaron toiled over the paper, writing nothing for awhile and then slowly forming the
letters. Letters. Words. Sentences. His penmanship wasn’t bad, so that Hugh could read
the words as they filled the paper.
When Aaron had finished writing, Hugh read his story. As he recalled the
original, this was 90 percent alike. Something had changed, but not enough to matter.
This it seemed was better, tighter. It was all there.
“Is it good?” asked Aaron.
“This should do it,” said Hugh.
“I’m bored,” said Anna, flopping down on the teacher’s chair and sticking a pen
in the electric pencil sharpener.
Hugh turned on the computer and had Aaron type in the story, which took him
longer than handwriting the original.
As Aaron typed, Hugh sat on his desk facing Anna. How small and young she
looked sitting there beneath him.
“Anna,” he said softly.
“There was a photo of you in my car.”
“Was it a nasty photo?”
Hugh glanced back at Aaron, fingers hardly daring to touch the keys, as if he were
defusing a bomb.
“Is that what you wanted to talk with me about?”
“Speak with you. Isn’t that the way you’re supposed to say it?”
“Speak, right. Good.”
“You taught us.”
Hugh nodded. “Is Aaron or someone making you pose for such photos?”
“It wasn’t like porn.”
“You’re fourteen. In the authority’s eyes—“
“I wondered what happened to it. Must have fallen out of my bag. It’s no big deal,
“I wanted to know what high school you thought I should go to.”
“High school. High school?”
“What, that’s not important?”
Two hours later, Aaron’s story saved and printed out, the pros and cons of the
Anna’s high school choices thoroughly discussed, Hugh turned off the lights and closed
As instructed, he dropped them off a block from Aaron’s grandfather’s house
“I am sorry about the wallet,” said Hugh as Aaron closed the door.
“No sweat,” said Aaron, walking away.
“When I was at your house, I saw something.”
Aaron halted, turned. His eyes blank, lips closed. He would wait for Hugh to
“Some sort of container. Looked like it was made of Plexiglas. Futuristic looking,
like something out of Blade Runner. It was on the floor....”
“What’s Blade Runner?” asked Aaron.
“Just an old movie. The container—it’s big. Maybe six feet long.”
“Oh yeah, yeah.
That old box. I think my grandfather keeps tackle in it. But I don’t know.”
“Could I take a look?” asked Hugh.
“You want to come in?”
His grandfather was fishing, Aaron explained. He fished every day from morning
until late afternoon. He never came back with many fish, but it was a way to pass his
time. The living room looked identical to when Hugh had last seen it. He expected that
the chamber had been removed, but it was there in exactly the same place as it had been.
Both in reality and in his dream.
“That it?” asked Aaron.
“Yes,” said Hugh, bending down.
“Just an old plastic box,” Aaron commented.
Hugh had imposed Ono’s fictional description upon the box. It was not made of
Plexiglas but ordinary plastic like something Target or Office Depot sold as a storage
container. Like the endless storage containers Setsuko brought home. The top had plastic
“Long as you don’t break anything.”
Anna had turned on the radio and was spinning to the music, so that her hair flew
The latches undone, Hugh lifted off the top and set it down.
He was back in his high school corridor, disembodied, floating, devoid of any
recognizable emotion. Inside the plastic chamber, fitted like reversed forks whose tongs
intertwined, were Hitoshi’s and Takumi’s surfboards. Hugh lifted the top one. He ran his
hand along the smooth bottom, followed the curve of the fins.
“Where did these come from?”
“The landlord,” said Aaron. “Stores lots of shit here. Got a roomful of old toys
and crap. I think they give my grandfather a break on the rent.”
“Do you know the landlord’s name?”
“No. They live just down the street.”
“End of the block. Last house on the left.”
“Hashemi? Is the name Hashemi?”
“Could be,” said Aaron
Hugh gently fitted the surfboard back on its mate.
Mrs. Hashemi invited Hugh to sit on the couch, but this time offered him no food
“I lied,” said Hugh.
There was a squeal behind Mrs.Hashemi. The grandmother appeared in her wheel
chair. Her head hung to her chest, but her eyes found their way to his.
“Lied? About what?”
“About my sons, my wife.”
“But you knew?”
“Your lies didn’t trouble me.”
“Because you knew my sons were dead.”
“Yes, I knew.”
The old woman made a croaking sound. He had never heard her speak a word of
English, but her eyes were glistening with comprehension. She scratched at the wheels
and inched forward. Her mouth opened, revealing a pink wad of gum.
Mrs. Hashemi shook her head. “Dahnet Bahzkon, Madar bozorg.” She plucked
the gum from her mother’s mouth. She then lifted the shawl that covered her mother. A
pack of gum and several wrappers tumbled to the floor. In the grandmother’s lap was a
book. “Jason brings it to her. I tell him not to, but he’s been doing it for years. It’s bad for
her teeth. “Baz abahz.”
Jason? How could?...
“I lied to you,” said Hugh. “Did you lie to me?”
Shrugging, Mrs. Hashemi walked out of the room with the confiscated sweet. The
grandmother stared hopefully at Hugh.
“Do you speak English?” he asked the old woman..
Her thin eyebrows floated apart. Of course she did. When he had sat in this room
twenty years ago, he had missed it, missed everything. Secret police. Politics.
Assassinations. The entire family was performing an act for him. It must have amused
them to know that he was so innocent. In fact they didn’t have to play any parts; he only
had to play his part. He was the act and they were the audience.
Mrs. Hashemi returned, carefully fixing the shawl around her mother. She kissed
her on the cheek, and then returned to the couch.
“How did you know that my sons had died.”
“Your wife told me ... indirectly.”
Mrs. Hashemi laced her fingers and slowly set her hands in her lap. “Your wife
mentioned nothing. She was not a woman who talked much, and she said little that day. I
knew something was wrong.”
“What was her purpose in coming here?”
“To give their things away. She wanted Jason to have their baseballs, archery
equipment ... surfboards.”
“She brought all that here?” Hugh remembered how Setsuko had cleaned their
room, saying she was taking it all to Good Will. She said nothing of the visit to Mrs.
“Then she did tell you,” said Hugh.
“No. She just said that Hitoshi and Takumi wouldn’t need them.”
“And from that you concluded that they had died?”
“Not that they had outgrown them?”
“The surfboards were like new. The big fancy box she stored them in was new.
Besides, she brought none of their clothes.”
“Perhaps we were going to move—”
“An easy thing to mention and one of many possible explanations. Your wife
“And you didn’t ask?”
“When they are about to die, people give away their personal possessions. I
remember several of my husband’s associates dropping by to give him watches and rings
before they went home and....”
“Setsuko gave you my son’s things and you were supposed to give them to Jason,
but you didn’t.”
“He didn’t need dead children’s toys.”
“Why didn’t you just throw them out?”
“I wish I did. But it’s not so easy. We had bought the house down the street as a
rental property, but no one was living in it at the time. We stored them in a room there.”
“Everything is in that house?”
“The tenants were required to keep them. Mr. Rodriguez has been there ten years,
a good tenant. He pays his rent and does his own repairs.”
“So on the basis of a few discarded toys, you concluded my sons were dead?”
“I told my husband Joseph of my suspicions and had him make a few phone calls.
We got the report from the San Diego Police.”
“Marco Polo,” Hugh muttered.
“It’s a game you play in a pool. You’re blinded and you seek out random voices.”
“What were you thinking, leaving them?”
“I was gone five minutes.”
“An hour, you mean.”
She studied him mercilessly and then spoke. “But still, Joseph thought that
something else was going on. The police reports, the follow-up were not done correctly.
Mr. Hashemi is thorough.”
Mrs. Hashemi rose. She walked over to the grandmother and said a few words in
Farsi. The grandmother reached under her shawl and drew out something flat and square.
Mrs. Hashemi brought it over to Hugh and set it in his lap. It was a photo album. Hugh
opened it. There were pictures of Takumi and Hitoshi when they were five and six.... He
remembered the photos, which were taken by Eddie with his top-of-the-line Nikon.
Several of the pages were blank, waiting. Mrs. Hashemi urged him to keep turning. They
were blank, all blank. He turned another page. What was the purpose—
A photo of Takumi and Hitoshi taken by a camera of lesser quality. The photo
showed his sons on a farm, a tractor behind them. It was not a good picture, perhaps
taken from a distance, but detailed enough to show their features. Their faces were at
least a year older than the day they had died. Their hair, which on the last day he had seen
them fell below their ears, was shorn. Hugh brought the album to his lips. “Takumi.
“I promised myself that the day you called to see your nephew, I would show you
this picture, show you that your sons were not dead. You never called.”
Hugh carefully pinched the photo’s edge. He gently lifted. It was only held with
paste, perhaps the same mix was used for the Nan-E Gerdui cookies. Still, the photo tore
as he separated it from the paper. He looked from the photo to the tiger and back at Mrs.
“His father, his uncle, his cousins. All gone. He was a lonely boy and very
confused. To lose a father like that.”
“I had my own sons.”
“To Jason, you were his father. You became the second father that left him. It was
a crime, but a crime done by increments. He would call and I’d promise that you’d call
back. If only in day. And then a week.”
“Why didn’t you call me? Why didn’t you pick up the phone.”
“If you could not find it in yourself, I couldn’t help. Such actions must come from
your own heart. When you came that day, I thought. Now I may tell him. You may have
come one or more times, but that would have tapered off.”
“For twelve years, I’ve lived with the death of my sons.”
“One act of compassion would have freed you.”
“Yes, one act of compassion.”
Mrs. Hashemi sniffed. “My husband found a young blonde with fat ankles and
bad teeth. It only took her three years to kill him.”
“Do you know anything else about my sons?”
“What do I know? Why should your sons mean anything to me, when my
grandson means nothing to you? Go. Leave us alone.”
As Hugh closed the door he heard, “Americans. Selfish.”
But he held the photo that confirmed his boys’ existence.
Kazuki handed the clerk the thumb drive that some clever engineer had designed
as a child’s thumb, complete with translucent plastic nail and metallic whorls. For the
third time, the clerk asked Ono if he wanted only one copy.
“One is fine,” said Ono, tapping the empty red box on the counter. He glanced at
the bowl of courtesy mints. The black ones would be liquorish.
“What’s the name of the file?” asked the clerk, a hesitant young woman with
green hair. Her name tag read Hanna.
“I don’t see it,” said Hanna, squinting.
“I’m looking under documents.”
Ono peered over the counter at the monitor at the blurred letters. He asked the
clerk if he could come closer.
Peering down at the screen, Ono wondered if the clerk had brought up the wrong
folder. He didn’t recognize any of the files.
“Are you sure those are the files on my thumb drive?” asked Ono.
“Yeah. You see it?”
“I don’t recognize any of the files.”
The clerk clicked the up arrow twice. Under My Computer was HP v115w (E:).
She glanced up at Ono, who nodded, and clicked once on the drive, which showed one
folder: Documents. Hanna clicked on Documents, bringing up the same list of files as
Ono had previously seen.
“Something is sure wrong here,” said Ono.
“Maybe under a different file name?”
Ono scanned the files. He still didn’t recognize any of the names. It was either not
his thumb drive or he had made a terrible mistake or the clerk had somehow erased the
files, an incredible screw-up.
“Please, would you give me that back?”
The clerk shrugged, clicked the up arrow twice again, right clicked and choose
eject. She pulled out the flash drive and handed it to Ono. Ono rubbed the thumb drive
like a lucky rabbit’s foot.
“Do you mind if I insert it?” asked Ono.
“I’m not sure,” said Hanna. She looked around. “I’ll have to find out if they let
the customers do that. I’m kind of new here.”
“You’d never know it,” said Ono.
“Really?” Hanna laughed, “Oh, hell with it. Go ahead.”
Ono carefully reinserted the drive. A small screen popped up showing options for
the drive. Ono chose “Open Folder to View Files.” Fingal’s Cave was the fifth file from
“Where did that come from?” asked Hanna.
“It’s just the story continuing to be difficult,” said Ono, opening Fingal’s Cave.
Sucking on one of the black mints, Ono watched the copier spit out the pages,
which piled up swiftly and inexorably like snowflakes rising on a window pane during a
blizzard. The last page, the title page, was ejected so forcefully that it fell to the floor.
Hanna picked it up. Her eyes widened.
“You’re Kazuki Ono?”
“Wow. I’ve read one of your books.”
“Enrique the Freak.”
“I hope you enjoyed it.”
“Oh, I did, yeah.” Hanna set the title page on top, lifted the manuscript and set it
in the proffered box.
This was not the end. He needed the hard copy to make final revisions. He would
read and make notes on the pages, do a final revision, and print that out. The red box
would weigh two pounds when he handed it to Hugh.
“That will be forty-eight dollars and fifty cents with tax,” said Hanna.
Ono handed her an American Express.
“By the way,” said Hanna, handing him back his card, while the receipt printed
out. “Who was that man in the chamber anyway?”
“You,” said Ono.
“Hugh?” asked a startled Hanna.
Ono stared for a few seconds, unsettled by Hanna’s pronunciation of the pronoun
and annoyed at something rising in his gullet like a piece of bad food. “You, the reader, I
meant,” said Ono.
“Oh, me,” said Hanna.
Ono thanked Hanna, gathered his red box and moved swiftly toward the exit. His
fever had returned. His gut churned. He remembered where he got the idea for the
Hanna watched him slide into the front seat of a waiting car. “Wow. First day on
the job and I meet a famous author.”
Ono’s choice of meeting place, surprised Hugh. Hardly a tourist attraction, the
Rancho Park Archery Range was little know even to Los Angelenos. But Hugh had
momentarily forgotten the knowledge that his odyssey bequeathed. For twelve years, his
sons were in Ono’s company. What had he not drawn out of them? What experience
remained only Hugh’s?
The boys were eight when Hugh had taken them to play basketball at the hilly and
sprawling park, which sat adjacent to a golf course, but after shooting hoops for an hour,
the boys became restless. Hugh suggested that they explore, see what else the park might
offer. The archery range, an unexpected feature of the park, delighted them. There were a
half dozen colorful targets, and behind the targets a wall of stacked hay bales, which were
backed up by a grassy hill.
As Hugh and the boys watched the archers, an older, black man with a mysterious
air came up to them. He laid his bow on a nearby picnic table shaded by a huge scrub oak
and beckoned them to come closer. He showed them an unshelled peanut, which he then
carefully placed on the top of his baseball cap. Immediately a large blue jay darted out of
the tree and alighted on the hat. Perched comfortably, the jay took the nut in its beak,
cracked the shell and ate the peanut. When the bird had finished, the man put another
peanut up there. He smiled at Hugh and the boys.
“I’m Francis,” he said, extending his sinewy hand to the twins, and then to Hugh,
who introduced Takumi and Hitoshi.
“And this is my friend, Bob,” said Francis, pointing at the jay.
“Hi, Bob,” said the boys, fascinated.
“Want to give him a peanut?”
Francis supplied the boys with peanuts, which they fed to the cooperative bird.
For many minutes, Francis regaled the boys with the colorful history of archery. As one
of the founders of the range, Francis saw himself as a spokesman and recruiter for the
sport. With Hugh’s permission, Francis spent the next hour teaching the boys the
rudiments of archery, allowing them to hold his bow and even insert the arrow, which
had a blunt tip, the only kind of arrow used at the range. Hunting arrows had razor tips,
explained Francis, which if shot skillfully could slice through the hide of an elephant.
They were deadly. Even the blunter tipped target arrows could kill, a fact that mightily
impressed the boys. Francis said his bow was too strong for the boys, but there were
some practice bows that he could find for them. But first they would have to take a safety
Soon after, Hugh bought them their own equipment, beginning another weekend
ritual. But a year later, their initial passion cooled, and they were on to other things. when
the twins gave up the sport, Setsuko was relieved, for the boys didn’t confine their sport
to the range, taking the bows into the hills and fields when Hugh was away at work, and
despite their mother’s denial of permission. Hugh thought it no big deal. They had only
blunt arrows and they knew the safety rules. Setsuko wanted the bows locked up, but
Hugh though tentatively agreeing, postponed and sidetracked the action so many times
that Setsuko stopped bringing up the subject. In the end nothing happened, though one
night Hugh came home and found all of the boys’ arrows snapped in two. When Hugh
asked what happened, Setsuko said she had broken them, but wouldn’t explain why.
Hugh bought more arrows.
Arriving at the range ten minutes before the appointed time, Hugh spotted Ono
among a half-dozen archers on the shooting line. He wore a striped polo shirt, beige
cargo pants and a Dodgers cap, his gray ponytail jutting up jauntily over the rear band
like a rooster’s coxcomb.
Ono set his arrow and pulled back the compound bow, holding the string at the
base of his ear for several seconds before he released. With a soft swoosh, the shaft flew
true to its target, the yellow bull’s-eye of the colored concentric circles. With the barest
glance across his shoulder, Ono acknowledged Hugh’s presence, and then continued
shooting until he’d emptied his quiver. Not every arrow found the yellow, but none were
outside the red second circle. Three were grouped so tightly that they seemed like a single
thick shaft. A whistle blew. The archers lowered their bows and exchanging praise and
consolation retrieved their arrows.
The whistle blew again.
Ono and the other archers set their shafts.
Don’t hurry for me, you bastard.
When the round was done, and he had returned his arrows to their quiver, Ono
walked over to Hugh.
“Good morning, Hugh. Remember?”
“Yes, I remember.”
Hugh had no sooner said that when Ono placed a peanut on his hat. Out of the tree
a blue jay flew down, landed on Ono’s hat and ate the peanut.
Ono’s skin darkened and his hair colored and drew in like paper on fire. Francis
smiled and set another peanut on his cap.
Takumi’s arrow struck the bullseye. Hitoshi’s fell into the second circle. His
mouth twisted up, while Takumi smiled with satisfaction.
“Good shot, Hitoshi. Good shot, Takumi.”
Nine years old. If only it all stopped. All of it. Right there. With their fingers on
the cheeks. The flight vane pointing left. The blue jay on Francis’s hat. The echo of the
“I’m here. Tell me the truth you promised.”
“The novel I’ve been writing is based on you,” said Ono.
“I hope it’s a success. I hope it gets a million readers.”
“I only want one reader.”
Ono undid the band around his ponytail and let his hair unfurl. There was a class
in safety instruction taking place behind them. Several adults with an equal number of
children were listening to the instructor.
“Number one rule: never point a bow and arrow at another person. Number two
rule: never shoot an arrow off into the distance where you cannot see where it will land.
Again, you could end up hitting another person. Number three rule: never shoot an arrow
straight up into the air. You can end up hitting another person or yourself.”
Ono glanced at the safety class, and then back at Hugh. “Do you remember
Setsuko breaking the arrows?”
“Why did she do that?”
“She wanted me to lock up their bows. The boys liked to go out on their own and
shoot. She didn’t think if was safe.”
“But you did?”
“There’s risk in crossing the street—with the light.”
“In the book the character that represents you,” Ono smiled, “is named Yuudai,
Hugh took his sunscreen from his back pocket, squeezed a few drops on his
fingertips and applied it to his nose and forehead.
“Yuudai’s twin sons are named Brent and James, which correspond to Takumi
“What’s the point of this?” asked Hugh. “A Roman è clef isn’t exactly a
breakthrough. Why are you writing what I already know?”
“May I borrow that?” said Ono, pointing to the sunscreen.
As Ono rubbed the sunscreen into his forehead, Hugh watched the archers. The
projectionist threaded his film.
Takumi and Hitoshi dashed to the firing line. They stood arm’s length apart and
took identical poses, their slender fingers crooked over the strings as they drew back
their arrows with such concentration that humanity’s survival must depend on piercing
that painted yellow foam—simultaneously, a poor word for the indistinguishable
movements—the boys released. The arrows flew. Halfway, three quarters, seven-
eighths...would the fractions continued to infinity.
Handing the sunscreen back to Hugh, Ono whispered in a crafty stage voice, “In
the open field, Brent and James would shoot their arrows toward the heavens, watching
them shrink to the width of an eyelash, a distant dash against the pale blue California
sky. Undetectable for an instant, the shafts regained identity as they fell slowly and then
with increasing velocity, finally disappearing again before striking the earth with a
decisive thump. Brent and James emptied their quivers, but for one last arrow in Brent’s.
It was the hunting arrow that Brent had bought on the sly. High above a hawk circled.
‘Bet I can hit it,’ said Brent.
Brent withdrew the arrow and gazed at the razor-sharp, blue metal tip.
‘Let’s get our arrows,’ said James, gesturing at shafts embedded in the earth at a
distance of one-hundred to two-hundred feet.
Ignoring his brother, Brent set the arrow on the nylon bowstring. Bending back,
he drew the arrow and aimed. He should not aim directly at the hawk, but a few feet in
front of its path, so that the arrow would arrive when the hawk reached that point on its
slow circle. Brent’s brain whirred with calculations, so that he failed to see James
scampering toward the fallen arrows. ‘Now,’ Brent whispered, sliding his fingers from
the bowstring. He watched the arrow climb. Higher. Higher. Oh, the hawk was unaware
of the deadly sharp metal ascending to meet him. Closer. Closer. There! But no, the
arrow passed before the hawk, which jerked vertical at the intrusion and then soared
away. Missing the hawk, the arrow reached its apogee, turned, floated for an instant, and
then gathered speed. The arrow would strike the ground at 150 mph.
‘Did you see that?’ said Brent, glancing toward his brother, who had vanished.
Brent’s heart leaped as he saw James one-hundred feet away, beneath the very spot
where the hunting arrow would fall.
Brent dropped his bow and ran toward his brother, who plucked his arrows
merrily like a child picking dandelions.
‘Get out of there!’ screamed Brent. ‘Arrow!’
But James only lifted his head to look toward his brother. Nor could he have seen
the now invisible arrow. The arrow’s loud crack broke Brent’s chest. He fell to his knees.
‘James,’ he whispered to his brother who remained standing, head leaning to one side as
if listening for the earth to speak.
James twisted, ‘Where did that come from?’
Brent ran blindingly to his brother, yanked him around and punched him in the
face. James spit blood, laughed and covered up. A foot in front of James, the arrow was
lodged in a stone, splitting it in two..”
“This never happened,” said Hugh.
“Hitoshi wouldn’t tell his mother unless she promised not to tell you.”
“I don’t believe it. Fiction.”
A young pretty woman carrying a bow crossed their path. Ono followed her
trajectory. Ono said, “You spoke with my cousin Gina.”
“I saw my grave,” said Hugh. “You kept tabs on me from the moment I left Japan
with Setsuko and the twins.”
“I wanted to protect them—and you.”
“I protect you. You protect them.”
“That was my responsibility,” said Hugh.
“It broke her,” said Ono.
“It never fucking happened.”
“Your mulish refusal to lock up the bows.”
A shaft of sunlight broke through an opening in the branches above, gilding Ono’s
hair where it lay on his shoulder. The archers turned toward Hugh and laughed
uproariously, bending and holding their bellies. Their arrows fell from their quivers. Shut
up. Shut up.
“When Setsuko told me, I knew my instincts were correct. I should have offered
you money before it all went to far.”
Someone was drawing his blood. Lighter and fainter. Soon the wind of the
laughter would blow him away. He could not hold his ground against this little man who
had written his life.
“I suppose I should thank you for not bribing me directly.”
“My daughter was infatuated with you. You were open, joyous, innocent, self-
deprecating, funny, a dreamer, yes, but not driven. You didn’t want to fly to the sun. You
didn’t have dreams that would kill you. My daughter didn’t know men like you. The
young Japanese men of that time were intense. They were devoted to their jobs, their
companies, their country. But you know, you’ve heard the stories. The sixteen-hour days.
The seven day work-weeks. The after-work drinking parties with colleagues. The
sleeping cubicles in train stations. Life was work or the celebration of work. Oh, not all,
of course. But this was how Setsuko saw it. She was ready for an American, especially
one that was tall, strong and handsome and cared nothing for conventional success. I
thought it would pass, and then hoped it would pass and finally knew it would not pass.
Setsuko loved like her mother loved, without limits.” Ono paused. “My daughter and I
were very close. My only child. My wife gone. I didn’t want to lose her. You were the
devil who would take her to the underworld and leave my world cold and barren. So, I
did what I could...”
“I want to see my sons,” said Hugh softly. “You promised the truth.”
“I wish there were a softer word. But your sons are dead.”
Hugh’s feet had left the earth and he would soon be above the trees. He reached
for the only tether remaining. As he drew it from his wallet, a shadow glanced his hand.
Looking up, he saw a gull floating lazily. Ono, too, gazed at the gull, and then at photo
that Hugh had thrust in his face.
As they took the last steps on the path before the parking lot, a black Mercedes
pulled up with Jack at the wheel. Hugh and Ono got into the back seat. From a bucket of
ice, Ono drew out a can of beer and offered it to Hugh, who turned it away. Ono popped
the cap and drank the beer wordlessly as they drove through West LA traffic. After they
had driven a mile, Ono leaned forward and from the floor lifted a red stationary box. He
set the box on his lap and removed the lid. Inside were a stack of printed pages. Ono
thumbed through the pages, extracted a quarter-inch and set them on top of the remaining
pages. With a silver-plated pen, he jotted notes in the right-hand margin of the first page.
Hugh glanced at the page and the notes, but read nothing, turning instead to the
familiar streets. Before he discussed Hugh’s sons, Ono wanted Hugh to accompany him
while he fact-checked some details of the new book. Sure. Why the Hell not?
What was Ono trying to tell him by insisting that Takumi and Hitoshi were dead
when Hugh knew they weren’t? That he should have found his boys long ago? That he
had not expended enough resources? That he should have been suspicious of their deaths
from the beginning? It was true that he wondered at Setsuko’s calm, when most women
would have gone to pieces. But Hugh attributed it to Setsuko’s iron will, which she had
demonstrated so many times.
Hugh gazed at the familiar streets. When the twins were infants, they were
colicky and refused to sleep on the same schedule, leaving one always awake. This went
on three days. Setsuko did not sleep, not any sleep that Hugh had seen. She spurned
Hugh’s offers of help. He couldn’t feed them anyway, and they cried unremittingly in his
arms. She never complained. She never even sighed at these impossible responsibilities.
After three days, the babies settled back into their normal sleeping patterns, which was
for both to sleep for two to three hours. Now Setsuko slept, Takumi nestled on one side
of her, Hitoshi the other. How still and silent all three were, like moonlit winter snow.
When the babies woke to be fed, Hugh kissed Setsuko’s hand. It took nothing else to
wake her from her first sleep in sixty hours. She sat up and fed Hitoshi first, singing
softly to Takumi to conciliate him. Ono nudged Hugh with a can of beer, the wet cold
metal like a rebuke of his tears. Hugh took the beer this time, popped the top and drank
They approached Overland, and Hugh expected they were getting on the Santa
Monica Freeway. But instead, the limousine crossed north on the overpass and pulled
into a familiar parking lot. Here were a library, a basketball court and a small park. Hugh
and the boys called it the Jump Park, because beyond the visible grass, the park sloped to
a ravine where a small motocross track had been built. On weekends, dozens of children
with helmets, kneepads and oval placards attached to their handle bars raced BMX bikes
around the track of jumps, rollers and berms. When the boys were two or three he took
them there to ride their big wheels and later when they got their BMX bikes, he brought
them after work and on weekends. Big scrub oaks grew along the track, determining its
layout and assuring punishment for egregious mistakes. At the limits of the track, a high
chain link fence bordered a rough, brush slope at the base of which were railroad tracks
and a tunnel. When the boys were small, freight trains chugged down the track. passing
through the tunnel to a siding and an unloading platform. The trains had stopped years
ago, and weeds drove up through the ties that bound the rusty rails. On the south another
fence separated the park from the freeway exit, which was landscaped with bamboo. It
was there that Hugh had cut down bamboo for vaulting poles and had watched with
disbelief a red car fly over their heads like an angry beast.
Ono rolled down his window, “I don’t see it. Is this the right place?”
Jack nodded. “Fifty yards that way, the park slopes. The track is at the base of the
slope. Those trees are right above it.”
“What’s going on?” asked Hugh.
“I told you—” began Ono.
“Why are you dragging me here?”
“I thought you might enjoy seeing your old haunts.”
“I want to see my sons.”
With the suddenness of an earthquake’s first tremor, Ono said, “You’ll see them.”
The car’s interior blurred. Hugh threw back his head and breathed his first true
breath in twelve years. But as he let out his breath, he met Jack’s eyes in the rear-view
mirror, like the eyes of a dog in a commercial for unwanted pets.
Ono drew out two more beers. He handed one to Hugh. “Let’s take a look, shall
we? You can show me around.”
Carrying their beers, Hugh and Ono crossed the basketball court where a small
bald man shot baskets with his son of seven or eight. The boy would start running far
from the basket, leap and throw the ball. On his third try the ball hit the rim, wobbled for
a second and then fell through the hoop. The father hoisted his son above his head and
Hugh looked back to the car, where Jack leaned against the hood, smoking. On
the grass, to the north, a woman sat on a blanket beside one of the new strollers with the
sets of double wheels in case one blew out. Not far away, two little girls somersaulted in
Ono smiled as the grass fell away, and the track unfolded beneath them, shadowy
and cool. A solitary boy road his BMX on the course that had not changed over the years.
Hugh remembered the twins pumping their legs furiously to get their big wheels going
fast enough to climb the hills. He saw their shoulders hunched forward, heads tucked, the
Hugh followed Ono to the base of the slope where a bench offered a view of the
track. Ono sat down, popped his beer and opened the red stationary box. Hugh remained
standing, drinking his beer, watching and listening to the boy ride the course, the click of
his chain on the sprocket, the hiss of the wheels on the dirt, the thump when he landed
after a hill. The boy was good. He went around three times before he took a break. He
removed his helmet and looked over at Ono and Hugh, measuring the possibility of
danger. They were not a likely pair.
Ono wrote intensely for perhaps fifteen minutes. The ghosts were here. The
ghosts of a day that could not be recovered.
“There was an injury...”
“Are you writing a novel or an indictment? You’ve proven your point ten times
over. I was a menace, an endangerment to my own children. I plead guilty.”
“A fractured wrist?”
“Did Takumi tell you about the stinging nettle? The split forehead? Slipping from
a moss-slicked rock into a raging current? Losing them at the race track?”
Ono smiled. “I just want to write about it accurately.”
“They were riding in a race, side by side, leading. Hitoshi made a mistake. He
leaned into Takumi who was slightly ahead. Takumi flipped. He broke his fall with his
hand. His wrist was fractured. It’s a common injury in BMX. They loved the sport. Do
you think I should have stopped them?”
Ono wrote something. “Was Takumi screaming?”
“Of course he was screaming. It hurt like Hell.”
“I’ll bet. How long did it take to heal?”
“Six weeks. He was back to riding his bike a week after he got the cast. I couldn’t
have stopped him.”
“No, I suppose not.”
Hugh walked over to the fence. He grabbed the mesh high with his left hand,
staring at his wrist, narrow like his sons. This was the price he would pay for a glimpse.
He finished the beer, crushed the can and threw it over the fence, where it landed atop a
mate, who squawked at the rough treatment..
Hugh pressed his forehead to the mesh. The chain sunk into his flesh.
“And those are the railroad tracks?”
Hugh didn’t turn. “You can hardly see them.”
“How deep is the tunnel?”
“How deep is the tunnel? You want to see? Come, I’ll show you how fucking
deep it is. Let’s make sure you get it right.”
Hugh grabbed the fence with his other hand and pulled himself up, digging his toe
into the mesh. He climbed to the top, swung his leg over and climbed down the other
side. He caught his breath and looked at Ono through the pattern.
“You want to see? Come on, number three son.”
Smiling, Ono closed his box, secured it with the rubber bands and tossed it over.
Hugh caught the box and set it down. Ono climbed slowly but surely. He had done this
before. When Ono reached the top and swung his leg over, Hugh offered his hand. Ono
refused, climbed quickly down. Though breathing hard, Ono dusted himself off and
“It’s been awhile. I used to be quite a climber as a boy,” said Ono.
Walking sideways, Hugh started down the rough steep slope. Several times he
slipped, but never fell. At the bottom, he looked up to see Ono making his way down.
Walking straight, Ono leaned back to keep his balance. With each step, his hair rose and
fell like the tentacles of a jellyfish. His steps quickened and then he was running out of
control, each step taking him higher, until he was bounding, holding his red box before
him like a shield.
“Shit,” said Hugh.
Breaking free of the earth, Ono dove toward Hugh, who pivoted out of Ono’s
path, but grabbed the author around his waist. Ono’s momentum carried them back,
taking Hugh’s legs out. The tandem barreled forward. Hugh slammed the ground, his
shoulders skidding against gravel, his head snapping back on something hard. Ono lay
atop him, unmoving. Hugh pushed against the gravel, sitting up.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m not sure,” Ono muttered.
Hugh wriggled out from under Ono, who lay face down, still unmoving.
Ono breathed deeply several times. Hugh touched Ono’s leg, asking if he felt the
pressure. Ono said yes. Hugh followed with a check of the other limbs, asking Ono to
move each in turn.
“What about your chest?”
“I think I’m all right.”
Ono pushed to his hands and knees. He remained that way for a minute, just
breathing. “I’m going to try to stand up.”
“Let me help,” said Hugh, slipping his hands under Ono’s arms. He was even
lighter than Hugh expected.
On his feet, Ono smoothed his clothes. “Not very bright. I forgot I’m seventy
“Best to crabwalk down.”
“Now you tell me.”
“You should have followed my example.”
Ono nodded. His eyes widened. “You’re bleeding?”
Ono stepped around Hugh. “Your head.” Both men looked down at the rusty
Ono’s fingers gently probed his scalp. “You may need sutures.”
“Is it still bleeding?
“Yes. Shall we go to emergency?”
Hugh touched the back of his head, felt the warm blood. “Doesn’t feel like much
is coming out.”
“It is slowing.”
Hugh grabbed his T-shirt at the neck and carefully pulled it over his head. The
back was bloodied. He took the T-shirt in his teeth and tore it. He ripped away the bloody
back. Folding the cloth into a four inch strip, he wrapped it around his head and tied it
“How far is the nearest hospital?” asked Ono.
“Head wounds always appear worse than what they are.”
Ono nodded. “I’m grateful that you broke my fall.”
“Did they tell you that we came down here? Did they tell you that too?”
Ono looked away, his face coloring.
“It would be nice to have one private memory.”
“To put pennies on the track. Do the children do that in Japan?”
“No, or at least not many.”
“You don’t want to disrespect the currency.”
“Bullet trains travel at 200 miles per hour.” Ono stepped over the track. He gazed
at the ties, between which weeds grew.
“You could walk faster than the trains that came through here.” Hugh dug in his
pocket for change and frowned. Ono handed Hugh a penny, which he put it on the rail.
He looked up toward the tunnel. “It’s a strange thrill, waiting around for a train to crush a
penny. But when the train runs over them, something leaps in your heart.”
“Do they stay on the rail? Once they’ve been flattened?”
“Half the time.”
“Perhaps it depends whether they’re placed heads or tails up.”
“We experimented. Doesn’t make any difference. Half stay on the rail, half don’t.
Another interesting thing is that they never become flattened circles. Always ovals, thin
as eggshells. If you put down a thousand, you’d never get a perfect circle.”
“What do you do with them?”
“Do? You lose them.”
“What else did you do here?”
“We walked through the tunnel. We walked down the center of the tracks.”
“My book—” said Ono, whirling about.
The box had opened and scattered about the brush were sets of pages. It took
several minutes to gather all, which Ono returned to the box in no particular order. When
all had been placed in the box, Ono sat down on the tracks, his eyes flitting from his
pages to the surroundings while making notes.
The tunnel was dark at first, revealing nothing, but then the shabby mattresses and
broken furniture of makeshift homes appeared. Crumpled food wrappers and empty
rusted cans. The droppings of birds and rats. Articles of clothing twisted together as if to
comfort each other. Piles of magazines once bright now faded. An old Magnavox console
television, still in good shape. Half-hearted graffiti covered the curved concrete walls.
Many “fuck yous.” Gang letters. A few praises of Jesus. Hugh walked in front, the
warrior. Behind him Ono breathed with difficulty.
They emerged from the tunnel. The track split in two, the rails on the right leading
to an elevated loading platform. The other track appeared to go on forever, but Hugh
knew that it ended one-hundred yards ahead. The loading platform was part of a
warehouse structure, which to Hugh’s surprise, remained intact, though heavily boarded
and scarred with graffiti dense as old ivy. Hugh remembered his hands on his boys’
shoulders as they watched a fork lift unload the train. No matter how close they moved to
the operation, no one told them to go away. He waited for Ono to catch up.
“Pretty desolate, huh?”
Ono nodded. In addition to the red box tucked under his left arm, he carried
another object in his right hand. Ono waved his arm and light flashed from a hand mirror,
which he must have salvaged from the junk in the tunnel. He held the mirror’s face
toward Hugh, so that Hugh could see the chipped plastic frame and ugly crack. Ono
manipulated the mirror until it found the sun, whose reflected light dashed across a
shadowy corner of the loading platform.
“I’m feeling a little faint,” said Ono, whose face had paled. “Perhaps we could sit
in the shade over there.”
They climbed the stairs to the platform and dropped down against the cool
concrete wall. Oddly, the surface was as clean as if it had been swept. Perhaps the wind...
They sat in silence for a few minutes, Ono turning over the mirror.
“Yes. I’m tired of writing.”
“I didn’t think you ever got tired of that.”
“This will be my last book.”
“I know, but will it be your best?”
“You will judge, Hugh.”
“I read your books before I met Setsuko. A friend gave me The Pool of Giraffes.
It was mesmerizing but disorienting. I’d read a chapter and I’d forget how to get to the
“Ha. The directions are in Chapter Four.”
Hugh laughed, harder than the joke deserved or required. Now he felt tired. “How
could she do it Kazuki? Did she doubt my love?”
Ono turned over the mirror a couple of times. “There’s a Japanese folktale called
The Mirror of Matsuyana. Let’s see....
“Long ago in an remote village lived a man and his wife. They had one child,
Masumi, who was beloved by them. One day, the man was called away on business in
distant Kyoto. Before he left, he told Masumi that if she were good and dutiful to her
mother he would bring her back a wonderful present. Mother and daughter watching him,
he started on his journey to Kyoto.
“After considerable time, he came home to his wife and his daughter. After, a
good meal and a restful nap he got out the bamboo basket he had brought home and
under the eager gaze of Masumi, he opened it. He took out a wonderful doll and a box of
cakes and put them into her waiting hands. Again he reached into his basket, and drew
out a metal mirror, which he presented to his wife. Its convex surface shone brightly,
while upon its back there was a design of pine trees and storks.
Ono paused while he turned over the mirror.
“His good wife had never seen a mirror before, and upon gazing into it she
thought that another woman looked out upon her. She gazed with growing wonder. Her
husband explained the mystery and told her to take great care of the mirror.
“Not long after this happy day, the woman became very ill. Just before she died
she called to Masumi, and said, “Dear child, when I am dead take every care of your
father. You will miss me when I have left you. But take this mirror, and when you feel
most lonely look into it and you will always see me.” Having said these words she passed
“For a time the man lived in sorrow, but eventually, he married again, and his
wife was not at all kind to her stepdaughter. But Masumi, remembering her mother's
words, would retire to a corner and eagerly look into the mirror, where it seemed to her
that she saw her dear mother's face, not drawn in pain as she had seen it on her deathbed,
but young and beautiful.
“One day the stepmother saw Masumi crouching in a corner over an object she
could not quite see, murmuring to herself. This ignorant woman, who detested the child
and believed that her stepdaughter detested her in return, fancied that this little one was
performing some sorcery—perhaps making a human image and sticking pins into it. Full
of these notions, the stepmother went to her husband and told him that his wicked child
was doing her best to kill her by witchcraft.
“When the master of the house had listened to this alarming report, he went
straight to his daughter’s room. He took her by surprise, and immediately the girl saw
him she slipped the mirror into her sleeve. For the first time her loving father grew angry,
and he feared that there was, after all, truth in what his wife had told him, and he repeated
her tale forthwith.
“When his daughter had heard this unjust accusation she was amazed at her
father's words, and she told him that she loved him far too well ever to attempt or wish to
kill his wife, who she knew was dear to him.
"What have you hidden in your sleeve?" said her father, only half convinced and
still much puzzled.
"The mirror you gave my mother, and which she on her deathbed gave to me.
Every time I look into its shining surface I see the face of my dear mother, young and
beautiful. When my heart aches—and oh! it has ached so much lately—I take out the
mirror, and mother's face, with its sweet, kind smile, brings me peace, and helps me to
bear hard words and cross looks."
“Then the man understood and loved his child the more for her filial piety. Even
the girl's stepmother, when she knew what had really taken place, was ashamed and
asked forgiveness. And this child, who believed she had seen her mother's face in the
mirror, forgave, and trouble forever departed from the home.”
Hugh let the story float away like a balloon.
“When do they get here?”
Ono positioned the mirror so that it reflected both his own and Hugh’s faces.
“Look, don’t you see them?”
“This is it? This is the way I see my sons? Our faces in a fucking mirror?” Hugh
grabbed the mirror and hurled it against the platform. The glass shattered into a hundred
Hugh dug his fingers into Ono’s arm until he could feel the bone.
“When? When do I see my sons?”
“The day after tomorrow,” said Ono.
“Where it all began.”
Every Saturday morning, I take my grandmother and great-grandmother out to
lunch at this old restaurant on Ventura Blvd in Sherman Oaks. The restaurant has been
there a hundred years. The walls are plastered with photos of ancient movie stars with
their signatures. “Best Pastrami in Los Angeles—Joey Bishop.” “I adore your cheese
blintzes!— Debbi Reynolds.” The waitresses all wear white uniforms and hats and are
about a million years old. Most of the equipment looks like it should be in a museum.
Some of it is kind of interesting, actually. And you’ve got to climb a long flight of stairs
to get to the bathroom. But the food’s not bad. Grandma likes the atmosphere. Old
Hollywood, she says, and she likes that stuff. They’ve got a parking lot out back and I
wheel Great-Grandma into the restaurant. They always make a fuss over us, I guess
because Grandma leaves a nice tip. When I say take them out, I don’t mean I pay for it. I
always have a Spanish omelet. Grandma has hot pastrami. Great-Grandma has Soft-
boiled eggs with wheat toast, and tea. The place serves breakfast all day long. It’s kind of
like Canter’s on the West Side, but they don’t get all the punks and flash Hollywood
types. I could see Grandma was a little nervous. She’s usually very cool, calm, much
more so than my mother, who flies off the handle at every little thing. She didn’t order
her usual, but kept putting her menu up and down, finally fanning herself with it. I asked
her if anything was wrong. She put it off at first, but I kept nagging at her until she
“I have to tell you something, Jason.”
“I’ve seen the devil again.”
The waitress brought the food. We didn’t have to tell her who got what. I like
people who know just what they’re doing in their job. She didn’t fuck around. Her name
was Lynn. It said it right on her name tag.
She topped off our coffee, patted Great-grandma’s back and bade us have a good
breakfast, although it was technically brunch. That was another one of those two-words-
in-one words, but most people had figured out that one. I whispered it to myself.
Breakfast and lunch.
Grandma lifted her hot pastrami sandwich, the pink meat thick as a phone book.
She took a big bite, a man-size bite, and placed her sandwich down. On the first bite, she
closed her eyes, just enjoying the taste. I liked to see her like that. She enjoyed food.
Some women, like my mother, took bird bites and they ate like they were embarrassed,
like catching them eating was like catching them shitting. But we all eat, we all shit,
don’t we? Otherwise we wouldn’t be around for long.
I dug into my Spanish omelet.
When Grandma had got it down, she leaned into the table. “He thought his sons
That didn’t mean much to me. I mean it was like someone telling me that my head
was upside down. Like that “Star Trek” guy said, It didn’t compute. My tongue found
something slick: green pepper. I love green pepper. I like it raw, just bite into one as if it
were an apple. Something about eating green pepper that makes me feel like Superman,
although that would be pretty ironic.
“I don’t understand.”
He thought your cousins had died. But it was all a trick to take them away from
“Who tricked him?”
“His wife. His father-in-law.”
“The writer dude?”
“Yes. They wanted the twins to live in Japan. They wanted them away from that
“He bought it?”
Grandma took another big bite of her pastrami. While she chewed, she nodded. I
watched Great-grandma for a minute. Her hand shook as she dug her spoon into the soft-
boiled egg. Somehow she got it to her mouth without spilling any. Then she kind of
sipped it, so you could see the yellow and white sliding over her lip, which looked like a
dead dried-up worm. It wasn’t pretty.
“If once he had found his heart and remembered his brother’s son, he wouldn’t
have spent all these years in mourning. It was his own selfishness and self-reference.
While you sat at the window looking up at heaven, he dried his eyes until he wiped them
away. A blind devil.”
“So you’ve known about this for a long time, Grandma?”
“Why could he not pick up the phone? Even when he came to me, he lied. He told
me his sons were alive, but he thought they were dead. I could have brought them back to
life for him. He chose otherwise.”
“But now he knows?”
“Oh, how joyous, he is. He will reunite with his sons. His sons will be in his arms,
Father and sons. But you, Jason. What will you have? Where is the father to hold you in
his arms, to take your hand. I wish they would die in front of him. That is what he
It’s funny. I’d thought of killing Uncle Hugh. But killing someone isn’t hurting
him all that much. But killing one of my cousins, his sons. That would be punishment.
Who could punish the devil more?
“Uhh,” said great-grandma.
A piece of toast hung halfway out of mouth and her eyes were bugging out.
“Mother!” yelled Grandma.
Great-grandmother didn’t make a sound. I got up and tried to get her mouth open.
She was choking silently, maybe trying to be polite. Grandma was yelling for help and
people were starting to crowd around us. “Get the fuck back!” I shouted, and most
backed off. Stuff was happening in the background. I was tugging with all my night, but I
couldn’t get Great-grandma’s mouth open. Christ, she was 90 years old. I got behind her,
bending over the wheelchair and lifting her up to try that Heimlich maneuver. On the
other side Grandmother was trying to open her mother’s mouth with a spoon. I got my
arms around great-grandmother’s chest, underneath her flabby breasts and pulled up. As I
squeezed, she whispered, “Kill the Div.” In my arms, I felt Great-grandmother turn into
Without taking sleeping pills, Hugh slept poorly. In the morning, he put on his
sneakers and shorts and ran three miles. He ran through the hills and then on the roadside,
and then back into the hills. It was his rule that when he ran, he never rested until he
finished the distance He pushed on through watery legs, negative thoughts and burning
lungs. He ran with Gatorade strapped to his hip and his ear leashed to an iPod, Radiohead
playing at maximum volume. Today, Ono’s promise replaced the lyrics of every song.
The day after tomorrow you will see your sons. The day after tomorrow you will see your
sons. The day after tomorrow...
The last leg of his run was the most difficult. For seventy-five yards, the path
climbed a bare hill, the slope increasingly steep toward the summit. During the final ten
yards, his breathing became pure pain, his heart a burnt-out motor, his legs leaden. But
today he ran the uphill stretch as if he were bounding across the moon. By the end of his
cool-down, it was seven a.m., and though there was plenty of light, the sun hadn’t yet
broken above the eastern hills. He uncapped the Gatorade, drank so thirstily that he
choked, spewing the green liquid over a lizard that scrambled away in terror.
Sitting on the ground, Hugh assumed the yoga position that he had learned ten
years before, while sitting beside a woman with a serene face and breasts like half-loops
Who had set him on the path to the truth? These were the things that God did,
when God was around. He took out the picture of his sons in Japan. Their shorn heads
made them look like Buddhist monks. How did they adapt to the Japanese language?
How did they do in high school? What were their first girlfriends like? Did they play
sports. But of course they played sports. Basketball, he supposed, although they were
good baseball players, too. He envisioned a continuum of activities and he saw them
growing along the continuum. The sun broke over the hills behind him, its warmth on his
back. The light spread across the hills to the sea, on which a white line slowly advanced.
Did they ever surf again? He imagined of course that they would have. He thought of the
two surfboards, which he had neglected to take from Aaron’s grandfather’s house. He
hadn’t taken the surfboards.
Walking back down the hill to his house, he resolved that he would get the
boards. Ono was not supposed to call him until late afternoon. He had plenty of time.
It was 11 a.m. when Hugh pulled up in front of Aaron’s grandfather’s house, and
parked behind a gray pick-up with a couple fishing rods sticking out of the bed. Hugh
opened the gate. The house was silent, but he knocked loudly. He knocked again, and
then tried the door knob. The knob turned. He pushed and the door opened.
“Hola,” he shouted. “Hola. Maestro Mcpherson.”
It wasn’t as if he were stealing. The surfboards were his, or at least his and his
sons. Again he called out.
He waited a moment and then walked into the house.
The surfboards were no longer in the box, but tossed casually beside it. He
kneeled down and touched Takumi’s with its painting of a sailfish. The old wax cracked
under his touch. He then touched Hitoshi’s, which was decorated with a dolphin. He
lifted Hitoshi’s and tucked it under his arm. He envisioned his boys emerging from the
sea and there he would be holding their surfboards, as if it never happened. He lifted
Takumi’s board, but then glanced at the chamber, chamber—the case that went with the
surfboards. Laughing, he set down the boards. He undid the first latch of the cover. He
smelled an unpleasant odor as he worked the second latch, which did not come up as
easily as the first. He pulled harder and it released. The container made a sucking sound
as the top rose. The unpleasant smell became a bad smell. Inside the chamber was
movement. He thought for an instant it was a hand rubbing a stomach, but it was the
accumulation of very small things. The tiny white things formed a circle on the man’s
naked mid-section. More crawled out of the man’s mouth and nose. Flies commuted
along his thin legs. A bee rotted in his matted chest hair. He was naked but for his soiled
briefs. A note was taped to his chest. No, it was not a note. It was Aaron’s story. The
original where Hugh had marked an A in bright red ink and the words: Very realistic.
Sharp dialogue. Good work, Aaron!
“Gross, isn’t it?”
Hugh spun to see Anna. She wore a towel around her, and her hair hung wetly.
“They made me watch them kill the old man. I got some of his blood on me. That’s why I
had to...” She tugged on her towel.
“He ran away when they came. He went to Colorado.”
“You should go too.”
“I don’t know how to get to Colorado. Where is it?”
“I mean, go home.”
“That’s not a good idea.”
He met her indecipherable gaze for a moment and then looked at Aaron’s ravaged
grandfather. Aaron was there in the broad jaw, cleft chin and stone lips. Miseal had been
too interested in the story. The head of Aaron’s grandfather probably fetched a nice
reward. Miseal had a large and notorious family.
“They would have killed Aaron too. If he hadn’t had to get out so fast, he would
have taken me. To Colorado, I mean. I hope he texts.”
“I hope he doesn’t, Anna.”
“He liked you, Mr. Mcpherson.”
“We should get out of here.”
“I’m sorry about touching your leg. That was stupid.”
“It’s okay. If you don’t want to go home, do you have a friend or a relative that
you could stay with?”
“Could I stay with you?”
“No. You’re my student, Anna.”
“You’re not my friend?”
“Sure, Anna, I’m your friend. Now get your clothes on.”
Anna nodded and walked toward the bedroom. She paused to look back at
Aaron’s grandfather. “He always fished but he never caught nothing.”
Still clutching the warm cell phone, Kazuki walked out on the hotel room’s
balcony. He felt weightless, insubstantial. A mile off shore, the monstrous vessel from
which the phone call came motored north. There was no forewarning.
As Hugh turned south on Pacific Coast Highway, the shadows of palms swept the
Volvo’s hood, and the loose end of a nylon strap, lifted by the onshore breeze, tapped
against the windshield as if counting the fleeting silhouettes. Tick, tick, tick.
Hugh bought the car rack at Val Surf on Ventura Boulevard. He was pleased to
see that the surfboards on display hadn’t changed in twelve years, when last he and the
twins had toured its rows of Roberts and Channel Islands boards, stroking the Rustys and
Losts, debating the merits of each surfboard shaper, like wine enthusiasts judging
vintages—still the same size, still the three fins.
In his backyard, he set his sons’ surfboards on the ground and carefully scraped
off the old wax, hard like an old man’s stubble, and rubbed on the new, still sold under
the brand name Sex Wax, which set him giggling like Scrooge on Christmas morn.
Finished waxing, he held the boards at arm’s length and thought that his boys would
appreciate his effort.
He brought the surfboards into the house for the night and giddily placed them on
either side of his bed. Without a milligram of drug, he fell asleep quickly and deeply, for
in the forty-eight hours since Ono had promised to reunite him with his sons, he had
sailed into calm waters, which even the murder of Aaron’s grandfather had not disturbed.
Hugh would meet Ono at Mother’s Beach at four o’clock, and his sons, Ono
seemed to promise, would arrive subsequently. To keep himself occupied, he spent the
day creating lesson plans, though it was weeks until school started. Working in
PowerPoint, he built three presentations. The first was a lesson on distinguishing vowels
from consonants. He illustrated it with dozens of pictures of mouths and lips and tongues.
He recorded his own voice to go with the pronunciation of the letters. A, E, I, O, U ( and
sometimes Y). The vowels are the letters you pronounce with an open mouth, no
obstructions. Cartoon photograph of open mouth. Hugh saying A-A-A-A-A. B. Closed
lips, coming apart evenly. B. C. A snake. Hugh hissing. It took four hours for Hugh to
prepare the basic presentation, and there was much work still to be done. But by then it
was two and he had to get moving.
Before he left, he received a phone call. There was nothing much more that could
surprise him, but all the same, he was surprised. The phone call required him to pack one
more thing in the car.
Along the coast, it was a perfect afternoon. Hugh drove with the windows down,
luxuriating in the cool breeze, irresistibly drawn to the dazzling moves of the surfers at
the endless breaks. Atop the rock seawall, departing beachgoers appeared, faces serene,
sated. Saturday, simply Saturday. Minutes later the Santa Monica Pier appeared like a
sluggish barge, but soon sharpened, its thicket of amusements thinning until the Ferris
Wheel and roller coaster revealed their spokes and tracks and cars. He and the boys must
have spent a hundred days on the pier, striding past the rides to the pier’s farthest reaches,
where they baited up and dropped their lines. These things they had done and would do
He exited PCH at the California Incline and continued south along Ocean
Avenue, past the sleek hotels and restaurants, and soon into the Venice funk and flow. As
he approached Marina Del Rey, he barely noticed the old muddy canals where Takumi
and Hitoshi had seined for bait, or the bordering rainbow of exotic houses. Turning onto
Via Marina, where dozens of sailboats glided across the wide expanse of the channel, he
saw at the harbor’s entrance the biggest yacht in the world. It looked as if it were stuck,
heaving as it tried to break through the protective jetties.
At Mother’s Beach, Hugh took the same parking space as when he met with
Albert. As before, the seniors were cooking, perhaps dinner but not much different than
what they had been cooking for lunch. There were a few more visitors on the beach, more
families. But it was so similar as to be the week before, and Hugh supposed, the week
before that. He looked for Ono, but his ex-father-in-law was nowhere to be seen. Ten
yards from the tide line, where the family had unusually encamped, Hugh set down his
gym bag, the brown envelope for Jason sticking out. He returned to the car, removed the
surfboards and carrying one under each arm walked back to his chosen spot.
“No surf here,” said a boy of twelve or thirteen, dismally sitting nearby with his
mother, who was offering him a red pail and yellow shovel.
“It comes up later in the day,” said Hugh gleefully.
Hugh stuck the boards in by their tails. He spread out his beach towel and sat
cross-legged, facing the barbeques and parking lot. He didn’t doubt that Ono would show
up, just as he didn’t doubt that his boys would follow. Minutes passed. The odor of
barbecuing beef and chicken filled his nostrils, and then the smell of fresh coffee. He
wasn’t hungry, but the coffee was tantalizing. Not far north on the beach was a motel
with a patio restaurant. If would take only a minute to walk over there and purchase a
coffee to go. How nice that would be, sitting on the towel between the surfboards,
drinking his coffee as Ono and his boys approached. Approached not from the sea, but
from the land. Not quite full circle. But then he considered whether he would take the
surfboards with him or leave them by the blanket. He could walk backwards, well, not
backwards, but he would turn from time to time to check on the boards. But if some
swift-footed urchin grabbed one, well... This was the mistake he had made twelve years
ago at Oceanside. He thought nothing would happen in his absence, and yet everything
had happened. He had left his post. He checked the time on his cell phone. It was four
twenty. He looked toward the lifeguard stand. He stood up and called out.
The lifeguard gradually looked at him. “Would you watch these boards for a
minute. Just want to grab a coffee.”
The lifeguard adjusted his sunglasses and nodded. He didn’t look thrilled.
As Hugh waited at the cash register for his small coffee to go, a woman walked
up and stood beside him, as if they were waiting together. He hardly glanced at her, but
he saw that she was pretty and radiant in her summer dress. She was wearing a light,
flowery fragrance that carried memories within its scent. He only wanted his coffee to go,
but she smiled at him and asked him a question. He turned to her and gazed into the dark
green eyes filled with promise. It did not happen that way. But it did not happen that way.
Without answering her question and without his coffee, Hugh turned and walked toward
He had not gone ten yards when he saw that the surfboards were gone.
“Fuck!” he took off across the beach, kicking up sand. Several people yelled at
him as he ran. It was only when he got within fifty feet of his towel did he see that the
boards were still there, lying flat on the sand. A breeze must have knocked them down.
He caught his breath. He brushed off the sand sticking to the fresh wax, and restored the
boards to their upright position. He sat down on the towel. How swiftly it could all slip
away. How swiftly it slips away.
As if his ex-father-in-law had been buried in the sand, Hugh heard a greeting
behind him and turned to see Ono.
Ono pointed back at Sol Luna. Hugh gazed at the restaurant’s dark windows,
wondering if Hitoshi and Takumi were in there. Had Ono and his sons been standing at
the glass watching Hugh’s slapstick? Would Ono signal to them to emerge? Hugh took
his eyes from the window to gaze at Ono, who stood as still and as straight as the boards.
He was dressed in baggy black pants and a button-less shirt cinched tightly at his waist.
The shirt’s open neck revealed a V of sunburned skin. In his right hand he carried the red
Ono slipped off his sandals, testing the warm sands. “Were you getting worried?’
“Sorry, I had to get a new print-out.” Ono sat down on the sand, legs crossed,
back straight. He set the red box on his lap.
“Are my sons here?” asked Hugh.
Ignoring Hugh’s question, Ono gazed across the tranquil beach. “This is where it
happened. You and my daughter conceived the twins here.”
“I, we, think so, yes.”
“Mother’s Beach. It’s not much.”
“No. Not much.”
Ono studied the surfboards. He touched Takumi’s, catching a bit of the fresh wax
under his fingernail. He worked it between his thumb and forefinger.
“Do you remember Half-Dome?” asked Ono.
“If you mean in Yosemite, yes,” replied Hugh, preparing himself for another
indictment. Fine. Another nail.
“It was late October, wasn’t it?”
Hugh nodded. “We stayed at the Ahwahnee. It was decorated for Halloween.”
“You took the boys hiking. It was just the three of you because my daughter had
sprained her ankle from a fall on the previous day’s hike.”
“Yeah, well that’s what you do at Yosemite.”
“You climbed Half-Dome with your eight-year-old sons.”
“During the first snowfall of the season.”
“It wasn’t snowing when we left.”
“When you reached the base it was snowing.”
“I don’t know. Maybe a few flakes.”
“You climbed anyway.”
“Do you think I pushed them? Shoved them up that mountain? Why are you
bothering to ask me, anyway. I’m sure it’s all in your book. Your red box.”
Ignoring him, Ono said, “Takumi climbed in front, then Hitoshi, then their father.
For their first two hours on the rock, the snow fell lightly, gently, melting, evaporating,
but when they came in sight of the rope by which hikers drew themselves up the final
hundred yards, the snow thickened and fell faster, sticking to the granite and building a
slick layer. Moving too quickly, Takumi slipped and cracked his head against the stone,
‘Is it bleeding?’ asked Takumi, lifting his gashed forehead to his father. ‘Yes. Do you
want to turn around?’ asked Hugh. ‘No! We’re almost there. I’m okay.’ Hugh looked
toward the top of the steep white slope and nodded. They would continue. As they hauled
themselves up the last one-hundred yards, Takumi’s blood seared through the fresh
flakes. At the top of the dome, the boys beaming triumphantly at the valley floor, radiant
in its fresh white blanket. It was then that they heard the cries of another hiker who had
slipped and was falling eight-hundred feet to her death.”
“I was behind them. I would never have let them fall,” said Hugh.
“You didn’t tell Setsuko.”
“Of course I did.”
“You left out the snow.”
“Where’s my court-appointed lawyer?”
“Why did you take my daughter, Hugh?”
“Why did you take my sons, Kazuki?”
“Here,” said Ono, handing Hugh the red box. “This is my answer. This is my
Hugh hefted the box. “Young men take women from their fathers,” said Hugh.
“Did you really love her, Hugh or was it just another adventure?”
“The two men on the walkway. The ones in rollerblades. Those were Takumi and
Hitoshi, weren’t they? Are they staying at your hotel? Did you take them out to the
cemetery to put flowers on my grave?”
Behind them someone shouted. Hugh turned around. It was a woman thrashing
through the water toward shore. She was pulling a small child behind her.
Behind the woman a dorsal fin appeared, and then a second and a third.
Screaming children stumbled toward the shore. Hugh dropped the box, stood up and ran
toward the children. Behind Hugh, the lifeguard blew his whistle furiously. Hugh
envisioned a child going under like a bobber, blood on the water. The counting of heads.
Who was missing? A dozen dorsal fins cut the surface, moving in a tightening circle.
Wading out thigh deep, Hugh grabbed a child who had fallen and was thrashing in the
water. Hugh carried the child to the beach, deposited her in her wailing mother’s arms
and then dashed back for another child.
Standing at the tide line, the lifeguard spoke through a bullhorn.
“Wait! Don’t panic!” He waved at the people. But the water had cleared. The
bathers gathered around the lifeguard.
“They’re just leopard sharks. They’re harmless. They’ve been showing up every
other summer for the last twelve years.”
Several people expressed disbelief.
“They’re shy. Docile,” explained the lifeguard. They just eat worms and clams.”
“What are they doing here?”
“They come every year with their young. It’s safe. Usually they don’t come in
these numbers, but they’re harmless.” The lifeguard waded out as in demonstration. He
pointed. “There’s one right there.” A few yards from the shore a shadowy form rose to
show a dorsal fin and then disappeared.
One man waded out. “Why it’s just like the Galapagos.” He took a few more
steps. “Hey, I see one!”
Some of the bathers hesitantly returned to the water.
Ono stood beside Hugh. “Come, Hugh, let’s walk out and see them. Let’s stand in
the midst of sharks, what better place for the truth.”
Above their heads, a seagull circled.
It was quite a scene at the restaurant. Ambulance, fire truck, paramedics. But I
knew it was over as soon as I put my arms around my great-grandmother. Jesus, it’s
funny that it happens that quickly. You’re here and then you’re gone. She was old. I
guess she’d had her allotted years, and a few more, but I was sad just the same. Two
hours later, Great-Grandmother was at a funeral home (when someone’s that old, the
authorities don’t bother with the coroner’s office), and my mom and Grandma were
making the arrangements. I was there with them. I figured it was my responsibility. I was
feeling like the man in the family.
When I dropped my grandmother off at her house, I stayed for Persian coffee,
cookies and Uncle Hugh’s phone number, which he’d left the first time he’d stopped by. I
called him from the car (hey, I was parked. None of that talking while driving stuff when
you’re at the wheel of a vintage Camaro). It was an awkward conversation. He seemed to
have a lot on his mind, and I only added to his confusion. He asked me if I’d just returned
from Tehran. I explained that I never was in Tehran. My grandmother had lied. He pretty
much accepted that and then started apologizing for not calling me, etc. I cut him short
and told him I wanted to see him, had to see him. “Great,” he responded, “I have
something for you. A present.”
I pretended I was interested and then asked him if we could meet that day, so I
could get my present. He began telling me that he had something to do, but without my
saying much, I guess the guilt kicked in, and he agreed to meet me that afternoon. He
asked me if I knew where Mother’s Beach was. Sure, I knew. He would meet me there.
We named a time. He said he was looking forward to our reunion and then hung up.
The traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway sucked, as usual, so I got to Mama’s
Beach a little late. I was wearing jeans and my old white silk shirt, which covered the gun
tucked under my waistband at the small of my back.
When I got to the beach, there was screaming and people running out of the
water. I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. And then I heard talk of sharks and I’m
looking out over the water and damned if there aren’t shark fins everywhere. That blew
You come into a situation like that and it takes you awhile to put it all together,
but then I saw my Uncle Hugh and this Asian dude. There’s supposed to be a shark attack
and they’re out there walking in the water. What’s that about?
Then I saw the two surfboards standing up in the sands, and I’m thinking my
cousins. It’s their surfboards.
So where were they?
So I started walking in the water, pants and all. I wanted to catch up to Uncle
Hugh before the sharks got him. Maybe it was the breeze or just the loose buttonholes of
my shirt, but as I worked my way out, the front of my shirt just kind of opened up
showing all my tats.
As I got closer, the old Asian guy did something weird. He lifted this red box
shoulder high and flung it. The box skimmed across the water like a flat stone, skipping a
half-dozen times before it stopped, opened and a couple hundred pages flew out all over
Hugh watched the pages of Ono’s novel spread across the green water, sailing
seaward like little paper boats.
Ono said, “On their thirteenth birthday, they were struck crossing a street in
Tokyo. The car couldn’t stop in time. They were together as always. They were killed
The sharks vanished from the water’s surface, their presence signaled only by an
Something flashed in Ono’s hand. “In here, I see them. Look—”
Hugh pushed away Ono’s hand. “I don’t believe you.”
“Just look in the mirror,” insisted Ono.
Hugh turned from the crushing light to see the young man from Topanga standing
a few feet away. The young man drew up a handful of water, splashing it on his chest so
that the dense canvas of images and letters shone brilliantly. Hugh saw but one word of
nine letters, and the word swum in his head. He met his nephew’s eyes and then pointed
toward the surfboards and the towel, on which lay the brown envelope.
“It’s from your father, Jason. It’s for you,” Hugh called out.
“He has a knife,” said Jason.
Hugh turned back to Ono who held the knife at the base of the shirt’s open collar.
“It’s okay,” said Hugh to his nephew, pointing again at the envelope. “Please.”
Jason turned and dove. The tiger glided a few inches beneath the surface. The
seagull hovered above them.
Hugh dug his feet into the bay’s primordial mud. “It was an accident then.”
Ono shook his head. “They didn’t want to live without their father.”
“Oh, Jesus, don’t tell me that!”
“Yes. The cruelest irony.”
“How do you know? They left a letter, a note?”
“Nothing. But I know.”
“You know? How the fuck do you know?”
“I wrote it.”
“You stole my sons, you arrogant bastard, and you say you wrote what was in
“Did they identify them correctly?” Hugh asked, thinking how cold the water had
“Their mother wanted ... but I, I thought—”
“Did they identify them correctly?”
“Brent and James,” said Ono. “Identical except for that scar on Brent’s ankle
where the snake had bitten him.”
“What scar? What snake? Who are you talking about?”
“Yuudai’s sons, of course.”
Ono gestured at the pages, dispersing rapidly across the bay. “Yuudai O’Keefe,
whose father was the assistant tail gunner on Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first
atomic bomb on Japan.”
A shadow fell on the two men. Above, the seagull hovered.
“But my sons—Hitoshi and Takumi?”
“Will you help me, Hugh? I am old,” said Ono, holding the blade to his belly.
“Did the car strike Hitoshi and Takumi? Whose sons died in that accident?”
“It was not an accident. They chose to die. Without their father, they didn’t want
to live. They chose to walk out into that street.”
“Who is dead?”
“Help me, Hugh.”
Hugh put his hands atop Ono’s on the hilt of the knife. He put his cheek against
his father-in-law’s cheek, whispering, “My sons. What of my sons?”
“On their thirteenth birthday, Hitoshi and Takumi thinking they had been lied to
about their father’s death, stole a boat in Tokyo Bay and set sail for America. Before their
mother became aware of their escape, a storm came up in the Pacific Ocean. Their boat
was found but not their bodies. Their mother, Setsuko, refusing to believe her sons were
truly lost, left her father’s home to search for them.”
“Did she find them?” asked Hugh.
“In her endless search, Setsuko never returned to her father.”
The water reddened and the sharks appeared again. They only ate clams and
worms, if you didn’t tempt them.
Hugh held to Ono as the sharks drew closer. “But did she find them?”
“Why would a daughter lie to a father who had given her everything?”
“Kazuki. My sons. My sons.”
Ono pressed his lips to Hugh’s ear and whispered, “Hugh turned from Ono and
saw on the beach Setsuko standing with Hitoshi and Takumi, grown into men who had
survived the most amazing adventure. Using the skills they had learned at their father’s
side—to capture lizards with a reed, to climb slick rocks, to hold their breath underwater,
to outwit bad men, to eat wild berries and roots, to bring down squirrels with an arrow, to
friend wild birds, to shape blades under a train’s wheels, to lure crabs from the bottom of
the sea, to dive beneath the most violent waves, to lie when needed and tell the truth
when required, to dig tunnels and build ice fortresses, to allow poisonous snakes to go on
their way, to escape confinement, to make their way back home—to the beginning of
Hugh turned toward the shore.