I knew about people touching me without asking long before the dry lipped, gap-toothed lizard man swooped around the corner of Coalman and Edgewater in a blue El Camino, all chrome and shine. I’d nearly cleared the half-way mark to the sidewalk. Two blocks from the market. A half block from home. He wanted directions and beckoned me to step closer on account of he couldn’t hear me over the engine. I scooted closer, hugging the carton of cold milk perspiring in my arms. He set his claws into my crotch and held on tight. Stringy hair fell, covering his wide forehead. His eyebrows peaked into oily points. I howled; my mouth reaching for the sky. Mourning doves broke loose from blue oaks lining Coalman’s block of small, boxy homes. The milk hung loosely to cover my down there—stinging and shameful. His tongue flicked in and out as his laugh whistled through the dark slots between gapped teeth. He smoothed his hair back over his lizard skin, revved the engine, and sped off. His tail flicked out the back car window. My fingers pressed against my eye, but it flinched anyway. It’s one of those things that started after the accident. That afternoon, I cried, a wooden whistle dangling from my neck, bobbing in the tub, scrubbing deep, where his nails pushed into me. A large, veiny bruise, the size of a skinny man’s hand, a lizard’s claw, cut across my soft bones for over a week fading from blue, to green, to yellow. I was twelve.
By then, Dad had left. The last thing he taught me was how to whittle a whistle from a pecan tree branch snapped by lightening in a dry storm. “Use it in emergencies,” he said blowing dust off the freshly sanded whistle, “and I’ll come running.” He ran a cord through the small hole he’d carefully carved, tied a knot, and dropped the whistle into my hand. “Remember,” he tugged, then squeezed, my ponytail, “people see what they wanna see.” He told me it was important for me to see truth and to know when to handle business or to run. “We’re surrounded by idiots,” he wiped the knife on his sleeve. “Don’t get mixed up with none and don’t be one.” He snapped the knife closed, hooked it onto his belt loop. I studied his words, applying them to a forever life without Dad and my brother, Aki, who always rode up front with Dad on account of he was older and the boy.
That’s how we sat, driving home after a long Saturday fishing on the coast. I was wearing my whistle, lying on Mother’s lap in the backseat. Dad was tired. Ocean air does that, makes people drowsy even when they aren’t sleepy. Mother and Dad were fussing about how the day got away from them. She said if we had left earlier, the fog wouldn’t have had time to set in thick as meringue. That’s what Mother called a certain kind of fog, “meringue.” She made lemon meringue pies for all American holidays. Dad smacked his lips, lowered the rearview to meet my eyes, “Your mama,” he said, smiling only at me, “she knows of what she speaks.”
Out of the meringue, a tractor bucked, hopped, and sputtered onto the two-lane highway. Dad’s headlights surprised the dairy farmer, who threw up a gloved hand. Dad slammed into the tractor, killing the farmer, Aki, and himself. All before I could blow the whistle, or he could utter a word. When I got up off the backseat floor, Dad and Aki were gone. They landed somewhere out on the dewy pasture grass, sucked up into fog, along with the windshield, picnic basket, and fishing poles. Mother was lying on the backseat moaning. I smelled gas, tasted iron and salt in the air, heard a cow bell in the distance, wondered aloud if the fish were okay.
This was when my eyelid started flinching and jerking as hard as a hook in a gasping, bulgy-eyed trout’s jaw. Nerve damage, the doctors determined. This was when Mother started taking little pills to sleep; to put away what she couldn’t unsee. This was when Ji-chan, that’s grandfather in Japanese, came to live with us. It is when he became comfortable bringing himself to my room. I was eight.
By the time I was fifteen, I learned to put up with womanless, slope-shouldered hakujin guys cruising J Street, hanging out pickup truck windows, whistling long and hard. Like dusty, nearly feral hunting dogs, with thin ears and thinner hind legs, they hollered, “Hey, China doll.” Their paws lifted beer cans higher, “You lookee for a good time?” Feet together, toes digging into my shoes, I was rooted to my spot behind the bus stop bench. They leered, manure and field sweat trailing behind them, to the sidewalk where I Sunday-school-prayed for the bus to come early. It never did, so each week, I dreaded the transfer ride after cleaning old issei Mrs. Kono’s house on the southside to the flats on the northside where I lived with Mother and Ji-chan. I kicked the sidewalk cracks, told myself the only thing keeping those cowboy hakujin alive, so they could go on, learn to pee in a urinal, marry some hope-chest keeping, hay-colored girl, were Dad’s words and straight luck.
Sometimes I’d yell in my head, but mostly, I said Dad’s words out loud. Talking to myself, the saggy slacks wearing guidance counselor told me, is why kids say I’m crazy. I explained to Mrs. Osborne, a white woman the color of pancake batter, some things have to be said loud and clear to lay claim to the words. That’s what Dad said when he told me to speak up for myself after a teacher accused me of lying, “You gotta lay claim to the words.” She rubbed a Virgin Mary chained into the thick creases of her jowly neck. I told her how the words are so strong I can see them. She wrote furiously, stopped, slowly rubbed her left thumb in circles across the Virgin, while tapping her pen on the notepad with her right. “Why’d you stop writing?” I said, staring at her hard, “Write ‘Michiko Rainwater says there are ice cube words knocking around inside her.’” I pressed my finger into my forehead, “‘She says she’s got to let them out.’” I sat up tall, pushed the notepad towards her, “Write, ‘to set the record straight.’”
Mrs. Osborne stared back at me, picked at the outside corner of her eye with a pointy nicotine yellow nail, before studying the mascara flecks on her finger, her crinkly cleavage heaving, shifting all kinds of red, and began writing, pressing the pen hard into the yellow pad. Deep ink ravines on a lined landscape.
“Thank you for getting this right,” I said, shining my fake smile, as I studied sad Jesus on the wooden cross hanging over her desk. “I like your necklace.”
It was important to correct the wrongs in life. Like those round-eyed cowboy cruisers calling me Chinese. I yelled at them, “I’m hafu,” flipped them off, “Half-Japanese.” They yapped, as I screamed, “You fucking idiots.”
Besides, I’ve never been a doll. Ji-chan would agree if he were still around, but he had an angry kami living inside his swollen heart, protected by his thick rib cage. I told him so many times to stop following me to the bathroom. Stop coming to my bedroom. Stop touching me. I smelled the kami’s rotten fish breath through the alcohol Ji-chan drank, and I knew one day I would have to wrestle with them both.
On a rainy Friday in April, I peed pink and spent English class crying in the restroom. I imagined Sister Joan, her smooth, mochi colored face, azuki bean eyes, glancing over her thick glasses, at the clock, to my desk, to the clock, as she read Shakespeare before sending the cool sansei girl to check on me. Her white sneakers, socks rolled down to feature small, bony ankles, breezed in, called my name.
She huffed, “You owe me a dime.” A click, followed by the sound of a gumball machine knob turning, then something released and dropped. She wagged a tissue-wrapped stick under the stall door. It was bad enough I had no idea where the moon blood came from, or if the pointy thing went in my butt or in my pee hole. I stopped blubbering long enough to ask if this was the blood of Christ.
She was calm, told me it was my blood, peered through the crack between the toilet stalls, whispering, “Clean yourself up before someone comes in.”
I asked Mother why I peed pink. She dug around in the hall closet, pulled out a large box, a funny elastic belt, and told me tampons steal virginity.
“Do not use tampons until married,” she warned, pulling the heavy boiled wool drapes shut in her bedroom. She closed the door to keep Ji-chan out of our womanly business, made me stand on her bed and put her head down there, “Good Japanese girl not touch self. She have plan—wait to marry nice husband, wait to marry up. Once you spoiled, no good husband want you.” The tip of her tongue peeked out, as she snapped and tugged the elastic belt to make sure it fit my waist. “Open,” she ordered, pushing my legs apart to attach the pad-to-belt, first from behind, and then in front of me. She leaned in, inspected my pee hole, asked if I’d been touching myself. “Your lips too long,” she looked up, frowning, blinking fast.
I wanted to tell her it was Ji-chan and the kami. Both of them hungry for girls’ souls; instead, I bit hard into my tongue, shrugged, ran my middle finger over the white hair dividing her brain into two halves. The ice cubes formed, melting, “h-a-t-e-y-o-u.”
“Nice Japanese girl make sure she keep-a-her legs closed.” She pulled the pad until it fit tight against my cramping groin. Patted it like a puppy. “There.” Pat, pat, “Good.”
She pulled my panties up. I pulled my St. Dominic’s pleated skirt down, straightened it, hoping the bulky pad didn’t show. She pulled the drapes open, the ones she made from remnants at the factory where she sewed, and clicked her tongue, as she balanced each pleat by snapping it sharply into position. I rushed past Ji-chan with my new box of womanly things and heard his tongue slide across his lips, a loud, slurping lick, exhaling, spit clumping in the corners of his mouth, “Whatcha got there, Michiko-chan?” In that instant, his skin flashed iridescent before returning to human Ji-chan.
On Saturday, Mother went to the beauty parlor. With an oversized Kotex wedged between my aching thighs, I decided out loud, “It’s time to take care of the kami and Ji-chan’s non-listening self.”
An immediate rush of words froze my brain. The rain cleared, leaving a blanched sky, air as still as death. Ji-chan complained about the sunlight and that his hangover wouldn’t let him a loose. It was already hotter than the devil’s balls. Being considerate and all, I suggested a bath. I scrubbed the tub with Comet, swirling foam into circles, humming “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” until the porcelain shined as bright as salt bleached bone. He was pacing, touching the hall wall every few steps to stay on his feet, complaining about Honey, our old cocker mix. He said she smelled; wanted her thrown outside. In my head, I said, Blah, blah, blah.
My outside voice pinched into a single wet thread, “I’ll give her a bath.” I scrubbed faster, “Later,” and went right back to humming.
I rinsed the tub one more time to make sure it wasn’t gritty from the cleanser and drew a bath using only hot water, the way he liked it. I added baby oil, spreading it around with my fingers, pretending snowy egrets were flying wide and free over rice paddies before I faced Ji-chan. The smell of rancid whiskey spewed from his black hole mouth with every uneven step, causing my stomach to lurch. I remembered an unfed kami is way worse than a horny toad lizard, and this kami was impatient with Ji-chan. The old man stumbled and coughed. I looked for the kami’s spirit inside Ji-chan’s droopy eyes, cupped each knobby elbow gently, first left, then right, as if I were carrying just-shelled hardboiled eggs. I walked slowly backwards, leading him until we reached the tub. The clever and always suspicious kami had to be tricked with flattery and kindness. Ji-chan complained, but I hummed “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” was up to the sixth animal, promised him the bath would help his headache and cool him off. I reminded him in my softest voice, “Mother says to drink hot tea to cool off so a steamy bath makes good sense, eh?”
Ji-chan liked that I untied his pajama pants, folded them up for after. I held his hands until he sat down. The water rose to the tub’s edge nearly overflowing. He complimented the soft-flowery oil. Said it smelled like a baby’s butt.
I pushed a smile to the front of my teeth, and in my best singy-songy voice said, “It’s going to make your skin so soft.”
He smiled, asked me to sit with him, pulled my hand, gave me that hungry look I’ve known since I was eight.
I told him, “You’re sick,” jerked my hand away, “Remember?” I wiped my hand on my shirt, kept my voice little girl sounding, eyes cast downwards, the way he liked me. “Got you a clean towel, skivvies, and socks.” I patted a bundle on the toilet lid. “For when you’re all done.”
He grunted, leaning back into the steaming bath. Honey was standing next to a wet bar of soap and the open baby oil bottle. She leaned in, sniffed the water, head tilted towards Ji-chan. I called her, clapping my hands, “Let’s go, Honey.”
Between her thumping tail and tits sagging so low they nearly swept the floor, Honey was a cow in a china shop. That’s what Mother called her, “A cow in a china shop.” Honey’s tits swung from side-to-side, knocking over the bottle. Oil gurgled a couple of times before traveling between the worn tiles, flooding the grout. She bounced, slipped on the oil, shooting the bar of soap towards the sink, her chunky body sliding to the bathroom door, and into the hallway. Ji-chan leaned his head back, closed his old foldy eyes, exhaled loudly, “Aiii, stupid dog.”
Honey trotted alongside me, leaving a shiny spotted trail on the thin linoleum, the color walked and waxed out long ago, all the way to the kitchen. I looked at the stove clock and decided to fry up Spam and eggs for a late lunch. Before choosing the sharpest knife to score six even pieces on the luscious meaty loaf, I tied my hair up into a knot, smacked my lips, “Pork parts.” I pointed the knife at Honey, “Yum.” Ji-chan called me. I looked at the clock. Only four minutes had gone by. I gave Honey an exaggerated, wide-eyed, “Oh, my,” look, flipped him off, yelled back, “Just a minute.” I pricked the loaf, carefully pushed the knife into the first slice, considered what Ji-chan might look like mechanically separated and pressed into a Spam can. “Watch, Honey.” I ran the knife through the air in a complete cross, like nuns do when they see a car crash or a hearse cruise by. “See, how I magically stretch the meat to make two meals.”
Ji-chan hollered something about the water getting cold; he wanted to get out. I yelled, “Okay, just a minute,” and pushed the back of my hand against my eye. The flinching became a hard pull. The kami might get angry, I thought, but my feet didn’t move. “His ass can wait,” I hissed. “Just like I had to wait until the music box stopped tink, tink, tinking out ‘Waltzing Fucking Matilda.’” I frowned, remembering my old music box, the one with the twirling pink-skirted ballerina, a spot of red for a muted mouth on an unfinished face, the one Ji-chan wound up and told me to watch. He promised when she was done dancing, he’d be finished. Honey’s tail thump-thump-thumped. My eye relaxed. The Spam smoked and spit. I glanced at the clock. Ji-chan yelled again. I sucked on my bottom lip, dabbing grease spots off the stovetop with a wet rag.
It took until the coffee stopped percolating. Eleven minutes. He rose from the tub, water falling, sloshing. A muffled yell, not as loud as I hoped, some banging and splashing around; then, silence. The eggs were crusty. The Spam stuck to paper napkins, grease curdled around the edges. I threw Honey a slice. She swallowed it whole. I wrestled open a new jar of Miss Vina Maye’s Original Straight from Texas-to-your-Table Pickled Beets, stabbed one with the sharp knife, and popped it into my mouth. “We won’t have to buy these anymore now that Ji-chan won’t be eating with us,” I whispered, eyes flitting around the kitchen, hoping a kami can’t become a ghost.
A good kind of shiver tickled my brain. “Ah, old Ji-chan,” I murmured, slowly catching the dark juice as my finger ran down the thin blade. I licked the vinegary remnants trickling from my finger, brightened my voice, “Coming Ji-chan.” I glanced at the clock. Only eleven minutes had gone by. Honey was right behind me, panting, jumping, tits steadily flopping up and down. I pretty much knew before I got down the hall but wanted to see. “It is important for me to see,” I told myself. “For the memory,” I sang opera style, twirling, arms outstretched. I paused at the bathroom doorway, “I had to finish making your…”
Ji-chan was sprawled. His legs wide open. One short fat leg hung limp over the tub’s edge, the rest of him slumped in the water, small oil puddles clung to his body. I tip-toed, avoiding the slippery floor, turned to look in the mirror, checked my teeth for beet stains. “Making your yummy lunch,” I cooed, and blew myself a kiss. In the mirror’s reflection, I saw bloody marks from his baldy head on the tiled wall, more blood, darker, dribbled down, and even more colored the tub, making it look like Ji-chan was soaking in communion wine.
Honey sniffed his foot. He had the thickest, meanest toenails. Reminded me of dry, curled pine bark. Those are the toenails of a kami, I told myself, satisfied I guessed correctly. Ji-chan was a kami pretending to be my grandfather. “O-ji-chan?” I leaned towards him, tried to sound concerned. “Are you okay?” Honey licked his puffy foot and the tree bark toenails. I unfolded the towel and held it out to him. Long drops of water stretched from the bath tap into the still water. One eye was swollen, bruising, slightly opened, looking at nothing in particular. The other was wrinkly closed. “Are you winking at me, Ji-chan?” I stifled a laugh. The water dripped. “Oh, okay, your head hurts,” I said, wrapping the towel around his cracked open head. I wadded up toilet paper and wiped his bloodied nose. “There, is that better?”
“No?” I shrugged. “Good.”
I bit down on my whistle, gave it a short blow, squatted down on my haunches, flicked his shriveled-up man stick. I wanted to stomp on it, but everybody—Mother, the ambulance man, the police—would know. I flicked it good and hard a few times; watched it bounce around. One thing for sure, Ji-chan didn’t look like in movies. If there was a last gasp for breath, it happened before I got there. A thought dangled in my throat, what if he was still alive? I rubbed my tongue against the roof of my mouth, did what Dad taught me—“finish whatever you start.” I pulled Ji-chan’s chin down, opened his mouth just enough for a tooth to fall out and swirl down into the tub, making sure his mouth and nose were fully submerged.
“Let’s get a treat,” I shouted, tapping Honey’s nose. She jumped, knocking the bottle. Oil trickled out. I blew my whistle, as we raced down the hall. We slid into the kitchen and banged into the icebox. I tossed her a Spam slice and dialed “0.” By the time the police and ambulance arrived, Honey was sleeping with a full belly out back under the fig tree. I was crying hysterically or hysterically crying.
There I sat, looking younger than my fifteen years, flat chested, skinnier than most, bangs wet with tears, clutching Dad’s pecan whistle, surrounded by a house full of uniformed men. One with polished boots and creased black pants, the wide nose and pointed forehead of a horny toad lizard, asked through barely moving thin lips, “Does she speak English?” He wasn’t fooling me. I could see his tail wriggling inside the back of his trousers. Another, a policeman with a military head, looking like a brush and a box all at the same time, spoke out of the side of his mouth, “Poor thing. She’s soaked through from trying to save her old man.” His voice the sound of a bamboo rake smoothing gravel in Mother’s garden. I felt a rush of moon blood, warm and alive, between my legs, remembered what Dad used to say, “People see what they wanna see,” and shivered, turning a giggle into a whimper.
Cover Art by Siri Margaret Stensberg
Note: This story was the runner-up in the 2019 Blood Orange Review Fiction Contest, as selected by Aimee Phan.