Monday, July 22, 2013

Orangeberry Book of the Day – Eyes Behind Belligerence by KP Kollenborn

P A R T  O N E

They Will Live in Infamy

Chapter One

NO ONE turned off the radio as the sheriff and mortician carried a body down the stairs; their large feet popping the creaky steps. A sheet covered the boy’s face, hiding his lips that were frozen in a death grin. He was only seventeen. Jim watched the two strangers haul his older brother on a stretcher as if he were luggage; as if scraps. The broadcaster’s voice straggled up the staircase, pursuing a haunting image. Each whitewashed wall, with flowered borders peeling at the tips, reflected streaks of drizzle and snow from the windows. Jim stared out the window.  Away from the body.  Away from his parents. He felt like vomiting. Only five hours ago he had asked John if he could borrow one of his Count Basie records.

“Take the whole damn collection,” his brother retorted. “Ka-mai-ma-sen.” He then crumbled a Valentine’s card he made for his girlfriend, uttering, “Worthless!” and tossed it into the trash.

Jim didn’t understand his brother’s sarcastic tone. He didn’t take any records, fearing his brother would lash out, or that it was some sort of test. Because his brother had been irritable all month, Jim maintained an amicable distance. John’s bruises had remained dark after arguing with their father. And that was unusual. Normally their father showed restraint by keeping his fists relaxed; calmed. But John’s girlfriend was pregnant and dishonor had blighted the family name.

The mortician’s wide shoulder bumped into a family portrait, slanting the frame. Jim recoiled. His brother’s rigid mouth suspiciously resembled a smirk.

“Harold!” the sheriff snapped. His leather coat squeaked with his movements. “Watch yerself!”

The mortician scowled. His youthful appearance implied clumsiness like a newborn calf in the field. Glancing up, he uttered, “Sorry!”

They proceeded to step down; their knuckles grazing by the wooden rail on one side; family photos on the other. The mortician trampled to the bottom of the staircase, and balanced the stretcher to his chest.  He shifted and crimped the rug. Swinging his head back and forth, grumbling, he tried to avoid bumping into the radio that sat on an end table. The sheriff thumped down the last two steps. A dizzy odor of fried shrimp and seaweed wafted under their broad noses; the stench of an unfinished dinner lagged in the air. The sheriff and mortician never got used to the odd smell of the Japanese. Even after all those years living on the same island.

Jim’s father calmly sat on the couch with his hands over his knees. His clean, shaven face became petrified; his small frame transformed into frigidness. He had forgotten to remove his polished shoes and damp coat, not realizing he still had them binding his body. Jim’s mother cradled Bethany, Jim’s youngest sister, in her lap. Her cotton yukata, a delicate housecoat, wrinkled underneath the child’s heat. Both parents retained composure in front of the strangers as they sipped down their son’s death like a glassful of razor blades. To expose their pain to outsiders was simply not done. They felt once they cried out they would never stop bleeding.

Stroking Bethany’s hair, the mother wondered how much of John her daughter would remember. At seven, she was too young to comprehend everything. The mother was only two when her eldest brother was killed during the Russo-Japanese war. She had no memory of him. The familiarity of her brother came from an old, discolored photograph that hung with her other ancestors’ portraits.  Every week she was forced, by her parents, to pay respects to an unknown dead brother. She would not do the same to her daughter. She accepted the grief and agony she felt for her son, but would not force guilt onto her daughter as if her life bore less value than her brother’s death.

Dr. Ellis, a middle-aged man with reddish hair, stood in the living room with the family. He wiped off droplets of sweat from his forehead. “Mr. Yoshimura,” he said. “We’ll take care of the rest. Don’t you worry.”

The father shook the doctor’s hand and bowed his head. Dr. Ellis couldn’t disguise his pity. The circumstances of John’s death would torment Mr. Yoshimura for the rest of his life. Having children of his own, Dr. Ellis understood the fear of not only losing a child, but also claiming responsibility for that child’s death. He had known his friend since he stepped off the boat to work in the lumber mills. Their friendship lasted through war and Black Tuesday, never wavering under the pressures of politics. He had always perceived Mr. Yoshimura as a good man.

“We’ll get you through this,” Dr. Ellis continued, “if that’s what you want. Anything else I can do, let me know.”

Mr. Yoshimura said nothing, and only bowed his appreciation. He was grateful for his friend’s immediacy and discrepancy, declaring his son’s death as accidental. No other white doctor would have done the same. He was grateful, and yet all he felt were shards of grief and guilt; his tongue shackled by pain. No father could ever prepare himself for the death of his oldest son. Especially in that fashion. Especially when he had pushed his son to that brink. The pride he had possessed now seemed ridiculous. It wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t worth it.

The sheriff and mortician paused to listen to the radio. Reports of the Japanese Imperial Army ravaging China amplified the details of executions, beatings, and violations against women. The sheriff shuddered with a series of grunts, and glanced at the mortician.

Walking through the front door, Jim overheard one of them disdainfully utter, “These Japs don’t even cry for their dead son! Go figure!”

The doctor quickly shut the door, nervously looking at Jim, wondering if he had heard the cruel remark.

Jim bruised his tongue with his teeth until it bled. Hate began to bloat inside. These outsiders knew nothing, not a goddamn thing, about his family. About his grief. About being Japanese in America. Now the war in China began castrating horrible images, and the public winced. What Jim couldn’t believe was how these men spat out judgment on the day of his brother’s death. What goddamn right did they have?

The car door slammed. He heard their large feet sloshing over the mud. Roughly exhaling as if breathing out boiled water, Jim looked at his father. His father had not protected John, and now John was dead.

“Doc!” the mortician yelled. “Ready when you are!”

Jim turned his attention to the doctor; although avoided eye contact. He knew Dr. Ellis was observing him while he tightly folded his arms across his chest. The doctor’s worried expression only aggravated him. He hated pity. Pity meant stupidity.

The doctor gently rested his hand on the father’s shoulder, and said, “I’ll give you a call tomorrow.”  He then reached for his hat and long coat that lay on an easy chair. He browsed through the drafty house, examining the painting of Jesus on one wall, and two Japanese scrolls on the other. It was a superbly tidy home. Too tidy, in fact. Organized, dust free, and not cluttered. Unlike his home. His four children, all teenagers, managed to overrun his household. Swing music blaring. Magazines, coats, lipsticks, and jock straps crowded him out of his living room and into his tiny office. But he wouldn’t have it any other way. As frustrating as it often was, at least they were content. Glancing at the father, then the son, he opened the door and left.

Jim finally gazed out the window. He relived the image of John’s face and body as he lay beside a box of rat poison; stiff like an iron rod; lips curled over his teeth like a decomposed corpse. There Jim found his brother dead on the attic floor.

The men started the hearse. Mist outlined the black vehicle like pebbles in a pond, enforcing the unwanted change. It pulled down the dirt driveway. A soft layer of snow sunk in the dusk’s darkness.

Jim suddenly ran upstairs to his bedroom; the very room he had shared with his brother. The walls were covered in stripes, but bare of pictures except one. The portrait of their great-grandfather hung in an oval frame glared down at their beds. Dressed in traditional Japanese garments from the Meiji era, his stern expression locked an implication of customs. His deteriorating portrait seemed primitive in a modern world. Jim spat at the picture. Slamming the door, he fell on his bed, and plunged his face into the pillow, weeping. He felt like his chest had been crushed by an avalanche of rocks. Choking on his saliva, he had difficulty breathing. He wanted to die. To end this piercing pain. To escape. Jim knew once the doctor departed, John’s name would never be repeated in the house. It would be as if he had never existed.

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Genre – Historical Fiction

Rating – R (strong language)

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