The Last Time?

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Charlie Thrun


I watch from a window seat of a Douglas DC-3, as the large aircraft circles a small island south of Japan. It’s February in the year 1953, less than ten years after the war. Another war is drawing to an end in Korea, but I managed to avoid that particular altercation. This time I’m a civilian, never having been in the service. This time around, I do as many others have done, and buy a politician.

The aircraft lands at the only airport, a military one that shares space with civilian flights. There’ll soon be another field, but right now the other is still damaged from WWII. Because it’s a charter flight, and there are no other planes arriving for awhile, I easily pass through customs.

“You got any dirty pictures, explosives, or large amounts of American money,” the bored American customs agent asks, glancing over my passport. The document isn’t really required since the island is under American Military Law—as part of the reparations agreement with Japan. Although relatively small, with a population of something like 100,000 poor souls—half American Military, the island is getting crowded. There are two bases, along with an air force contingent at the airport. The last three times around, I had been an army sergeant stationed at the one base. Not bad duty but I was getting tired of the military bull.

Finally getting smart on my third time around, I made a point of memorizing certain facts, such as winning sports teams and stock market reports. This time I’m well set up, a millionaire at eighteen. Money is the least of my problems. Amiko is the only thing on my mind.

Amiko. The very name gives me chills and stretches my nerves raw. Maybe this time? I can only pray. I take out a faded photo, taken with my arm around her in 1969, a long time ago. No, not a mistake, 1969. Married to her then. It’s the closest I’ve gotten to the girl in the last 180 years.

This is the earliest I’ve been here. I kind of wish I had a way to see the base, how it looks before I’ve been stationed here. I flag down a taxi. This one is a beat up Jeep painted bright orange. After WWII the military sold a lot of these Jeeps, mostly worn out and shot up, to natives. Better than hauling them all the way back to the States.

“Take me to Shansabaru.” I order the driver, in Japanese, and throw my bags on the small back seat.

“You don’t want to go there, nothing to do in Shansabaru, sir. I take you to Blue Moon bar, maybe? Many girls?” he answers in English.

“No. Shansabaru,” I state emphatically. Obviously he thinks I’m in the military, young men my age are never civilian visitors, unless with their parents. Shrugging at losing his commission from the bar, he turns the key and we leave for the village.

I look around, trying to keep my mind off Amiko. I can almost sense her presence as we get closer to her mountain home. Shansabaru is a small village about halfway up the small volcanic mountain that dominates the island. Leaving the airport, and its ocean breeze, we enter a two-lane paved road. At one point, I can see road workers making repairs. They consist of not only men, but also women, some with small children strapped to their backs. As the female workers swing picks and dig with shovels, the children sleep quietly. After a half-mile, we turn onto a one lane road, also paved. From there, we enter a dirt lane. Only four more miles, I think, as we proceed uphill on the winding path.

Even the smells of the jungle remind me of Amiko; everything reminds me of my lost love. We pass a large grass hut that serves as a one room schoolhouse. I sit forward, almost touching the startled driver, as I peer past his hands and head. Maybe I can see her, I think, as we pass; but all the children are inside. A few minutes later, springs protesting, we jerk to a stop in the center of the village. The road splits and goes off on two tangents, neither wide enough for the vehicle.

“You owe me fifty-cent American.” The driver reaches out his hand and turns off the key, not bothering to exit the vehicle. With a village that small, he doesn’t bother to ask my final destination. After I pay him, he starts up again and backs up until he finds a place to turn around.

I watch the Jeep disappear, melding into the jungle. Looking around, I check the place out. It’s both familiar and strange. An old hut with a shed where Mr. Mori’s house will later stand. Some of the homes look the same, except for being newer than I’m used to.

Seeing Grandma Yoshi’s store, I pick up my bags and walk toward it. There’s a nice looking middle-aged woman behind the counter, shapely posterior raised as she bends to search under a shelf. It takes me a few seconds to recognize her as Grandma Yoshi herself.

“‘Ello GI… Wa’ ya’ want?” I almost laugh at her struggling with English. Later, I knew her as a busybody whom would never shut up, in Japanese or English.

“Do you know where I can find Matsu?” I ask, in Japanese, eliciting a smile of relief.

“You know Matsu?” she gives me a nose crunching frown, as though something about me puzzles her.

“Well, in a way, we go way back. Do you know where I can find him?”

“I think Matsu would be in his field. You go to the left for…”

“I know the field. Thank you, Miss—.” I have to leave it at that. I never have known her last name.

I leave my bags alongside the store and turn left. As I walk closer, I can smell composted piles of human shit. Fermented with native leaves and garbage, it will be used as fertilizer. Kenji Matsu is kneeling in his taro patch, pulling weeds, when I approach. Since he’s an old friend, the two of us often getting drunk together on the local sake, I have to remind myself we are again strangers.

“Mr. Matsu? Could I talk to you a minute?” He glances at me, straightens up, and stretches.

“Yes. I am Kenji Matsu?”

“I would like to know if you have any houses to rent?” Kenji owns half the village and rents many of the homes. I also remember him telling me of the hard times right after the war. Most of the natives left when the Japanese army occupied the island. At that time, they had a lot of land but few to farm it. He ran a little sake plant during the war, making the strong wine like beverage out of sugarcane he grew himself. It had been a hard life since the Japanese paid little, but wouldn’t let him quit making it. “Hey, it built up my muscles,” he would brag, flexing them.

“I have houses, several, GI. But no inside water, no power.” Damn, I thought, I haven’t considered that point, the village hasn’t gotten electricity yet. Well, I have money. Maybe I can get power up here, anything to make Amiko comfortable.

“No matter, Mr. Matsu. I can get by without them. I’m a determined man.”

“You speak good Japanese for such a young American.”

“I studied the language for a long time, Mr. Matsu. Don’t worry, I won’t cause any trouble.” I have known him long enough to almost read his mind. He will have visions of me making noise, having parties, and making an ass out of myself. “I’m a civilian, here to study your customs,” I lie.

He rents me the house I want. I’m surprised it’s even there at this early date. The two-room building, made from split tree-trunks and sporting a thatched roof, had looked new when I owned it, two lifetimes ago and sixteen years later. I want that particular building because it stands between Amiko’s parents’ home and the school. I can watch her on her way back and forth to study.

I never met her parents, living on the army base the first two times around. On the third, I remembered enough ball scores to make some money. I still hadn’t adjusted to my condition. But, just in case, I made a point to study such things, which makes me a millionaire this time around. In any case, on the third swing, I had enough money to not only buy the house but make even more of an ass of myself with drunken parties.

*

I sit at the window of the rented house, smelling the thatch roof and other odors of a scenic jungled countryside, waiting for my love to walk by. So far, there have only been three old men, and a huge water buffalo led by a small child.

I’ve been waiting for only a couple of hours or fifty years, according to your viewpoint. Kenji had insisted I have a few drinks of his homemade sake before leaving me to my own devices. I once owned this house. It’s made from rough, hand-carved planks, with a straw roof two feet thick. When it starts to leak, like it will in another seventeen-and-a-half years, you just add another layer. Of course old Lisumo, the roofer, will have been dead about two years by then. Time is really subjective when you live the same years over and over again, ad infinitum.

I hear the gong of a school bell, a faint but distinctive sound, in the distance. She will be walking by, on the dusty one lane dirt road, in a few minutes. My legs go into an uncontrollable shiver as sweating hands clasp the windowsill tightly, unconscious of splinters from the rough wood. I can’t control my emotions. I haven’t seen my love for almost fifty years. I wonder if I will recognize her, after all this time and her being so much younger. I have the old photograph propped up on the windowsill. I don’t know how, but somehow, I find the photo in my pocket every time I cycle back to the past. It’s a village photo taken in front of the little store.

I see some schoolchildren coming down the road toward me. There are some in groups and others walking by themselves. I search their faces as they walk closer. There! One of the girls, about twelve years old, is walking alone on the edge of the dusty road, inky-black hair shining in the sunlight. As she approaches, I look closer, trying to see through my veil of tears.

Could it be my love? I’m not sure, and can only wipe my face with my sleeve and return my gaze to the road.

When she’s almost abreast of my open window, I see the familiar face. The lovely nose that I so long to touch, beneath those beautiful, dark, slanted eyes. The lips that have smiled at me both in the past and in my endless dreams, those lips I long to taste again.

This time around, she’s only twelve years old. I wanted to try early this time. My body is eighteen but my mind and memories are those of a very old man, an old and frustrated man.

I have an affliction that occurs every sixty-eight years. After I fall asleep on my seventy-eighth birthday, I wake in my own ten-year-old body, keeping all my memories and the picture. It’s happened three times already. The feeling isn’t so bad at first, but at the onset of puberty my feelings get steadily stronger, and stronger yet as the years and decades roll by. My curse is that I have yet to win her love. Although I know her every nuance and thought through constant study and repetition, have even married her once, I cannot seem to earn her love.

This time around I’m starting when she’s younger and, hopefully, more impressionable. This time, having money and being a civilian, I intend to back her father in his dream business, one she’s often mentioned. He works on a fishing boat and has always dreamed of owning his own. Hell, I can buy him dozens.

I’ve tried many other methods, like learning the language, customs, even the Shinto religion. I gave up drinking long ago to impress her, anything to show my eternal devotion. Of course, I study her to learn her preferences and have changed my image more than once.

When learning she had a fad for medical training, I graduated from medical school. I’ve tried to acquire every skill I could think of to impress this little girl. All to no avail. Although I often come close, I’ve never really won her complete affection. Remember, I’ve had a lot of time to try, better than spending those long years in pining my life away.

Money’s no problem. I’ve memorized almost every Irish Sweepstakes number, even State Lottery winners in the future, along with all the pertinent stock market fluctuations.

Now, I can only wipe my tears and watch the gorgeous, eminently desirable young schoolgirl, strolling unconcernedly down a narrow dirt road. As I see her stop to pick a stalk of cut sugarcane from a pile in a nearby field, I wonder if I am in my own personal brand of hell. Doomed to reach out for her love, in vain, throughout eternity.

*

“So, Mr. Yoshiro, sir,” I tell him, we’re sitting on the edge of his small porch. I can hear Amiko and her mother arguing about something inside the house, a rich home for this community. “I came to the island to invest. I think this place has a great potential in the fishing industry,” I lie like a pro. “I’ve paid for studies that show that, since the war, aquatic animals are proliferating offshore. I’ve been checking things out and think you might want to invest in a boat.

“Because of current and projected laws, and limitations on foreign investment,” Blah, blah, blah, “the craft would be in your name, with me as a silent partner.” I lay it on thick. Of course, it’s exactly what he wants to hear. “You don’t have to pay me anything up front. Just repay me, with slight interest of course, from your profits. As far as anyone else knows, you’re the boss.”

While he’s considering the offer, one he can hardly refuse, I see lovely young Amiko peering from the window, observing us. It takes all my reserve effort not to stare back. I force myself to look over and smile, secretly taking a mental snapshot for posterity.

“When will this begin, Mr. Adams?” he asks.

“Immediately,” I answer, “You can quit your job right away, if you prefer. I’ll write you a check right now, if you like my offer, and you can start the ordering process tomorrow. I’d like a brand new, and large one, if you concur.”

Although he tries to hold to his Oriental inscrutability, it’s a lost cause. He can see all his dreams coming true. We shake hands and I write him out a check, huge by his standards, but chicken feed from my point of view.

Of course, Mr. Akio Yoshiro has to take me inside and introduce me to his family, Michiko his wife and, of course, the beautiful Amiko.

We all squat at a low polished wooden table and have tea that Michiko brews. I have almost forgotten how delicious real Japanese green tea tastes. In the US we only get a pale imitation. Why is it, that the US rarely gets the real thing in imported food items? Any store in the Orient has dozens of types and brands of rice, for instance, yet in the US we have two or three.

Maybe I clasp Amiko’s hand too long, I don’t know, but she has to jerk it away. I can see some sort of emotion in her young eyes. After all, at twelve or thirteen, a tall good looking boy of eighteen might well interest her. I sincerely hope so.

I’m happy—hell, elated—as I walk home at the dusky end of a good day.

*

I have to go to town in the morning. I came here directly from the airport and Grandma, excuse me, Yoshiko’s store carries very few items. A really nice looking and friendly middle-aged woman, she hardly looks like a grandmother.

In any case, I step into the store.

“Good morning, Mr. Adams.” Yoshiko hurries around the counter to greet me with a smile. It doesn’t take long for word to get around, I think, that a rich American lives here. I imagine she thought I was only another GI the first time. I grin back.

“Good morning, Miss Yoshiko, can you call me a taxi, please?”

“Of course, Johnny. Do you wish a soda? I have Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, and Nehi?” she asks, “And may I ask how you know my name?”

“Maybe a Coca Cola. Oh, and I guess someone told me. It fits you well. You look like you have had a lot of it.” Yoshi means good luck.

“Yes, I have, Mr. Adams. It took a lot just to stay alive during the war.”

I do what shopping I can at the store while I wait for the taxi. It’s no doubt more expensive than in town, but good public relations.

Finally the taxi arrives, another rebuilt and painted Jeep.

“Thank you, Mr. Adams. Don’t worry about this,” she says, pointing to my goods piled on her counter. “I’ll deliver them to your home.”

While in the nearby and larger town of Tairabaru, I stop and buy my own vehicle, also a rebuilt Jeep of course. Driving myself home, I see Mr. Yoshiro in one of the stores as I pass. He doesn’t see me, but looks to be very happy.

Parking among some bushes behind the thatched hut, I carry my other purchases inside. It’s much cooler there, with a breeze from the open windows. In a semi-darkened corner of the bedroom, I see a vase I never noticed before. It contains three Higo Camellias, in three different colors: red, white, and blue. Very distinctive. During my last time around, I had become enamored of them. Amiko had brought me the same combination, inspired by the red, white, and blue of the American flag.

Can she have been to my house while I was gone? It must be, since who else knows my favorite? But then, at the moment, how the hell does even she know?

I put away all my purchases, both from town and the small village store, hoping Amiko will return.

*

Having forgotten bread, I walk to the little store the next morning, to find it closed. Thinking something might well be wrong—Miss Yoshiko is always open at this hour—I stop my knocking on the door, and hurry around to the back. I remember that there has never been a lock on that door. The original owner only feared thieves from out of town and kept losing keys, so the only lock he installed was inside the front door. The unlockable back door was common knowledge in the village. Intra-village thievery is almost unknown.

I find Miss Yoshiko slumped on her stool, head and upper torso sprawled across the counter. An empty sake bottle balances on its side at the outer edge of the surface. It over-balances, and drops to the floor with a dull clunk as I raise her hand to check her pulse.

It’s hard to check hers with my own beating so fast. Her face is now uncovered and turned to the side. The mixed odors of sake, perfume, and woman reach my nostrils, quickly replaced by a sour odor as fluids gush over my hand and the counter. Obviously, the woman is alive.

I find a shallow pan for her to finish vomiting in, then wipe her face with one of a display of dishtowels. She’s obviously only dead drunk, I decide, having been in that condition myself. Since she can’t sit up, and I don’t want to lay her on the nasty looking counter or floor, I pull over another stool and sit there holding her erect.

I don’t know why, but I’m worried about the woman. It’s the first time I’ve known her to drink, in all these years. Grandma Yoshi has always been a stabilizing influence to us all.

My face inches from the side of her head, she turns—eyes glassy—looks at me, and throws her arms around my neck. Like a long lost lover, I think.

“Johnny, my Johnny. It is you, after all this time. You’ve really returned,” she mumbles, kissing me full on the lips, forcing sake breath into my mouth.

As the words penetrate my mind, I go into some sort of shock. All this time? Returned?

“What are you talking about? What do you mean?” I shake her gently.

“I—I— I don’t know, Johnny. I died. I died, and came back, as a little girl,” she tells me. “I don’t understand, I died?”

I’m frozen, literally frozen, between her drunken sobs and flowing tears. I can’t understand my feelings of fear, understanding, weariness, relief, so damn many emotions and all together, as she continues.

“I fell in love with you, many years ago. But you only wanted the young girl, that Amiko. You wouldn’t look at me. You wouldn’t look, and I was only six or eight years older than you. You wouldn’t look. Then I died. I died and came back. Why? Why does God prolong my suffering?

“Now, take it easy, Yoshiko. I’m here. Take it easy. Please. I have a lot of thinking to do.” I was also crying. We would have been one hell of a sight, if anyone were watching.

“Why? I hate God, I hate Him. To do this to me. Now—how can He be so heartless—now you come back, and still chase after that same girl. Lemme have another drink, the same girl, the same damn girl.” She pounds her fists on the counter, splashing vomit around the room. Head twisting, tears flying like violent rain, she collapses into my arms.

I hold her for hours, my mind in a muddle, as I finally understand. I now know why, though not how. The ways of the Lord are strange, and often beyond our understanding. I remember that she’s also in the picture.

A week later, I sign my share of the boat over to Akio and, holding Amiko tightly for the last time, kiss the little girl goodbye. Yoshiko and I have to hurry to catch a boat. She wants to be married in Japan. Maybe this will be the last time around for both of us, but then, that’s up to God.

pencil

“New writer, old man, sometimes fulla crap. My best buddy is a rat, if that means anything. Wanta be a riter, an tryin hard at it too. Live in upper Ohio. To find me, you start at Sandusky, and go downriver, until you reach the crotch.” Somehow, appropriate. E-mail: hvysmker[at]woh.rr.com.

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