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From BAMBOO RIDGE Issue Number 5, December 1979 - February 1980, New Moon

Saturday, April 30, 2011 1:32 AM




The Shrine
          by Jody Manabe

                              I speak of him, father, because he is
                              There with his hands in his pockets, in the end
                              Of the garden listening to the turning
                              Wheel that is not there, but it is the world,
                              Father, that I do not understand.
                                                                 -- W.S. Merwin
                                                                  "On the Subject of Poetry"
                                                                 from THE DANCING BEARS

                                                                  I

      He visited the shrine again after his afternoon classes at the university. He told himself it was only because he needed a new typewriter ribbon, and the shrine happened to be on the way to the drugstore.
      Still, he didn't come this way often. For one thing, the street was murder around this time of day. As if the dust from passing cars wasn't enough, the trees the city had parked along the street after the real ones had been uprooted were drying up fast. What shade there was came from the pots they'd been stuck in, and these were barely high enough to cool off a dog. And what self-respecting dog would want to even lift his leg against one of them: a gray stick rising out of pale dirt covered with smashed cans and cigarette butts instead of leaves and flowers? He spit at it when he got within a few feet, smiling when he hit the thin trunk right on. Just like the white-green lichen on old rocks, he thought. What dog could make that claim?
      It was then that he noticed the guys at the service station across the street. They were looking in his direction. He flushed, feeling for the first time the sweat that ran down his sides gathering into a river that flowed along his waist. Damn these pants, he thought. Too tight for one thing. And why had he bothered to wear a tuck-in shirt today of all days?
      Then he remembered. He was getting closer to the shrine. He had to dress properly. Of course the shrine would look different in the daylight, but that didn't matter. He hadn't been ready that night he had gone up to the gate and stared at the stone lions until he finally caught their attention and they stared back. A traveler who could answer their riddle would win lodging for the night. He'd heard that somewhere. So he had waited, not knowing what he was waiting for. What are stone lions supposed to sound like, let alone say?
      From across the street he could hear them laughing at something. Just like the guys I knew in high school, he thought, deliberately ignoring the gate where the lions waited for him in stony silence. Even before high school -- intermediate, elementary. The guys that always hung around together at recess and made fun of other people. The guys that called him Howard- the-coward just because he never took his shoes off to play kickball. He could feel his toes tightening in the worn hollows of his slippers. His feet were beginning to sweat, and he could hear the sticky sound of rubber following him like a wounded bird.
      He hadn't thought about that for a long time. How, later on, it was the same kind of guy who called out to him from across the cafeteria, "Hey, Howwweird!" How the girl he'd been sitting with had laughed, turning her soft face in both directions. It was the kind of laugh that was a secret and a promise at the same time. Not for him, he realized now, but for that other guy.
      She was always chewing gum, he remembered. Not only because she liked to crack it like a pistol from the back of the room to make the teachers jump, but because she was saving the wrappers. She was making him a gumwrapper lei. Or so she said. A lot of girls were doing that then. They'd spend all their time in class cracking gum and folding the wrappers together until it looked like a zig-zag line of rick-rack.
      Some girls, he'd heard, made them the exact height, to the half-inch, of the guy they liked; then they set fire to one end. If it burned all the way to the other end, that guy would fall for them. He'd seen guys do the same thing, only smoking cigarettes. If the ash made it all the way down to the filter without falling apart, they'd get the girl of their dreams.
      He didn't smoke. But that didn't mean he didn't have hope. Even if it was just a "just-friends" lei, it was taking so long for her to finish it that maybe, he hoped, she was planning to make it longer. To burn it for him.
      He never believed that she would forget. Even after school had ended for the summer and he'd seen her at the shopping center. She and that guy walking together with their arms around each other. It wouldn't have been so bad if they hadn't seen him. If she hadn't said, "Howard! So. What are you doing here?" She didn't expect an answer. And when she didn't hear anything, she gave a little laugh, kind of high and airy. Then she walked away, cracking her gum, aiming each shot straight at his heart. And that guy went along with her, wearing a gum wrapper lei around his head like some Indian brave.
      He could still hear them laughing across the street. They haven't changed, he thought, heading for the shave-ice store next to the drugstore parking lot. Forget the ribbon; he needed to cool off.

                                                                  II

      This time the line wasn't long at all. Only two ladies with those shorts and matching muumuu outfits that made them look more pregnant than petite. One of them was pushing the drugstore shopping cart into the shade of the one tree on the street that had more leaves than branches, while the other one ordered. Packed in between the packages and disposable diapers was a baby whose head reminded him of a water chestnut. The little hair she had was tied up with a piece of fat pink yarn. The bow had come undone during the ride, and now the loose ends hung down her round cheeks like rabbit ears on a toy some kid had gummed to death.
Looking at her was worse than looking at her mothers, and not much better than looking at those guys looking at him, so he pretended to watch the shave-ice man and the shave-ice lady, even though he had seen their shave-ice ritual a hundred times before.
      Her hands worked fast under the spinning ice. Of course. It must have been cold. But you'd think she would have worn those thick rubber gloves like the packing ladies at the cannery wear to keep the pineapple juice from eating away their skin, instead of a plastic bag. She didn't even look like one of those ladies, kind of pinched and always cackling about something or singing in their high voices, "Hey, boyyeee, come heah and fix the cans!" He was glad none of them had ever bothered to find out his name the whole summer he worked there.
      She looked like somebody's grandmother. Maybe even his, if she'd still been around. Which made it even worse. Here was maybe his grandmother, packing ice into a paper cone with a thin plastic bag around her hand. A hand that should be dry and soft as a puppy's belly -- he couldn't think of anything more alive than that -- not so red and angry-looking. He looked away again, above the turning ice.
      He tried to imagine how many times the shave-ice machine had been painted. And when the raised letters in Made In Occupied Japan had been painted over for the first time. Probably just as soon as they'd bought it; they both looked old enough to be ashamed. Only, instead of being more concealed, the words had become more pronounced through all those years of white paint. True, someone, maybe the lady when her hands were still warm, had carefully outlined the skyrocket above the words in red paint. It did sort of leap out at you, exhaust blazing, through a thick white sky. But then, there were her hands again, running blindly like some wounded animal through the snow, calling him back, again and again: Made In Occupied Japan. He couldn't help himself.
      "What you like, boy?" The shave-ice man fixed him with a cold stare.
      "One . . . small." He smiled quickly at the man, who had already turned away, lifting his bottles of syrup one by one, as if to see if they needed refilling; which they didn't. But this was part of the waiting ritual he went through while the lady acted out her part.
      She finished packing the ice into the cone. Then she cradled the loose mass of ice on top in her plastic-covered hand, turning the cone with the other. Like she was making a musubi one-handed, smoothing the ice and compacting it at the same time. He felt relieved. She probably needed to feel it taking shape, he thought. A rubber glove wouldn't work half as well. Only she wasn't shaping rice into a triangular cake. This one was round. The kind they serve at funerals. He shivered as she patted the top like it was a good child before handing it over silently to the man, who had just slipped the last bottle back into place. The yellow, green, blue, orange, and two red bottles sat side by side in the pan of clear water, strings strung between each bottle to mark off territory. Six perfect islands, waiting for for something to happen.
      "Flavah?"
      The man didn't even bother to look up this time, but stood studying his syrups with the air of a general inspecting the troops he would send on a suicide mission.
      "Red . . . . Strawberry!"
      He had corrected himself in time. The man didn't look at him as if he was still a child who couldn't tell the difference. He added, "Can make it real light?" feeling he had won a major victory, having asked the next question himself.
      The old man grunted to show he had heard, lifting the bottle of red liquid out of the water without disturbing the others. The cracks in his hand were the color of the syrup; it was the most popular flavor. The nozzle half-hidden in his fist glinted silver in the sunlight as he passed his hand slowly over the smooth dome of ice. Then he circled back along the slopes like he was clearing a space on a frosted window without touching the surface. The ice became the color of roses that are red only on the edges of the petals, filtering down into a darker pink at the bottom. Not too heavy.
      Unimpressed with the masterpiece nearing completion just a few feet away from her, the lady looked out the window. It was as if the dusty street and skinny trees were all a part of a travel poster, inviting her to a place she had always dreamed about but could never afford to visit. Her hands hung limply over the sides of the shallow pan, where already the ice was melting. They were not a part of her anymore. She seemed to have left them behind in some colder country.
      "Twenty cenn."
      An indisputable fact.

                                                                  III

      He was in such a hurry to get away that he collided with a shopping cart. The two ladies and their baby had finished their shave-ice in the shade of the shave-ice building and were starting off again.
      The baby looked up at him, startled. Her lips were stained from the syrup, which had flowed down her chin and onto her dress. One of the ladies had tied up her bow again, and now she looked like one of those panda bears boys win at carnivals for girls who sit them on their shelves until they're nothing but sawdust and smile. She lifted her fat arms up to him and gurgled. Her mouth was a new rose, only its dark heart showing.
      He mumbled an apology to the ladies, who were looking at him suspiciously, then bolted toward the drugstore. Halfway through the door he discovered the No Food Or Drinks Allowed sign and stopped. It was signed The Management, who must have been the guy next to the sunglass display who at that moment was leaning over the counter and whispering something that sounded like, "How weird," to a girl who was trying to look serious. He had already turned around when he heard her let out a squeal that sounded like The Management had just knocked down all the sunglasses on the display shelves for her amusement.
      Outside, he tried to imagine if he had really heard her or if it was just the sound of the door closing behind him. He wondered if they were still looking at him from behind the sunglasses, and whether, from their vantage point, they could tell that he'd been holding a shave-ice, and that that was why he'd come and gone so fast. Not that he cared what they thought either way. Let them keep their little secrets. He had more important things to do.

                                                                  IV

      The night he had first gone to the shrine had been different from other nights, when he passed by the gate on his way somewhere else. It was one of those nights when there is no wind. Yet something stirred the paper chains that hung down from the roof like an old lady's hair, loose around her shoulders. And it was that sad, faraway music that first called out to him, until he stopped and waited. For what, he didn't know. The lions never spoke.
      It was as if a cloud of dust had settled over everything. Only it wasn't from cars but from the moonlight. He couldn't tell if the bougainvillea flowers that pressed their faces against the fence near the gate were white or the palest green. From across the courtyard, two foxes grinned mirthlessly at the lions, who continued to stare at him in silence. Why hadn't they spoken to him? Perhaps the foxes had warned them against it. He looked back uneasily at their stone teeth. The fine snow on their coats told him that they had been traveling for days through bitter weather. So they too had come here to wait, with that sharpened sense of purpose only hunger brings. Whoever passed the lions' riddle would have to answer their question, which was older than mere words.
      It was a question he couldn't answer. A silence he couldn't bear to hear. His head filled with the empty sound of his own footsteps on the stones of a courtyard he could never cross; and he had been afraid. The cold metal of the gate burned his fingers; and he had run away.

      He listened intently for the sound of voices from across the street. There were none. Still, he refused to look at the service station, to make any moves that might call attention to his purpose. That old man forgot the straw, he observed without breaking his stride. Not worth going back for. It would only make his throat ache to drink from a straw. Too much sweetness. And it was mostly melted ice now anyway. Taking care not to stop too suddenly, he reached the gate.

                                                                  V

      The lions didn't even bother to turn their heads when they heard him stop. He listened long and hard at the gate, but still they refused to speak. The foxes hadn't moved at all from their place across the courtyard. He saw that what he thought had been snow was really only bird droppings on their stone backs. He laughed quietly to himself. They might have fooled the pigeons into thinking they were stone, but they didn't fool him. Their hard eyes continued to watch him. The bougainvillea branches still clung to the fence, and the faces looked out at him like orphans. What were they trying to say to him?
      Then he heard the sound of the chains, this time dry, almost brittle. And he saw that they were not an old lady's hair. They were sharp-edged and zig-zagged, and the music they made was her laughter.
      He looked down at his hand. It was red. The ice had melted through the sides of the cone where he had been squeezing it. The syrup had begun to flow between his fingers and drip down onto his slippers. He shuddered and flung the cone away. It hit the fence, splattering the faces of the orphan flowers, which he saw now were white with the faintest trace of pink at the edges.
      Of course, he thought. He bent down slowly and picked up the torn cone. He lifted it gently to his lips and caught the small red drop that was hanging from the end of the cone, ready to fall. It was sweet and still cool on his tongue. Then he folded the top down to form a triangle and threw it at the nearest tree, where it landed like a bloody present. He knew they were still looking.


* * * * *

Bio: Way back then, Jody was simply listed in the issue as an "old" friend. Let's just say she must be a long-time friend : )

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