THE late afternoon resided in peace. The wind finally fatigued from its persistence, enabling people to enjoy the outdoors. Radios echoed through thin walls alongside a cheering crowd from a women’s volleyball match. Children ran through the streets. Strollers strayed from their blocks, searching for something to do within the dull compound. The movie house was full. The few shops were closed. An amateur play in the makeshift community building was still in the process of rehearsals. Jim’s barrack remained quiet. Everyone was either at the movie or the volleyball game. He took Russell’s toy car from the Monopoly board and set it in the jail square.
Grinning, he said, “This is the second time you’ve been in the dog house.”
Frustrated, Russell replied, “I hate these cards! They really don’t give you a chance to do good!”
“I’m doing well. I have a hundred dollars and counting.”
“And I don’t even have two bits to my name!” Glancing at Jim’s iron piece, he murmured, “I should of been the hat. Seems to bring better luck!”
“Luck is only a frame of mind,” he said, avoiding his nervousness about the confrontation with Shikami later on that evening. He knew Russell had to be equally as nervous, otherwise he wouldn’t have been so agitated about the game. Normally his friend couldn’t care less whether he was winning or losing in Monopoly.
GERTRUDE continued to drop her dresses onto her bed from the handmade closet; a darkly stained pine box. Frustrated, she tugged each dress at the waist. None of her dresses fit her anymore. She was too skinny! Without a sewing machine, refitting her clothes by hand proved a real nuisance. She had already taken them in twice so far! And buying new dresses either from the camp store or catalogs were expensive compared to the little income Meito brought home. Meito and Sadaye’s incomes were the only resources that supported eight people. A total of thirty dollars for two families for the whole month. How were they able to rebuild their lives on Meito’s fifteen dollars? Even when the Depression had fallen to its worst year nearly nine years ago, at least they were still bringing in fifty dollars more!
Gertrude threw a dress on the floor. She couldn’t understand why Russell resisted looking for a job to help out. He was in good health; strong. There was farm work outside of camp this past spring and summer he could have taken. Or even construction work inside the camp. There was always construction.
She stood for a moment, clenching her fists. Looking around the barrack, it almost resembled a home. They finally had real mattresses. All of them. Even if used, and thankfully none of the mattresses harbored bedbugs. Dresser drawers. Shelves with thin books and ceramic animals. Curtains and throw rugs. A broom and ironing board in the corner. Her sons’ drawings from school pinned on one side of the wall, showing their old home with green trees and blue waters. Zasshu, the family mutt. She closed her eyes to keep the tears from burning her cheeks. She heard her mother-in-law stuttering over English words, repetitiously, monotonously. It really was getting on her nerves.
She asked, “Are you using the kerosene lantern, Mama?”
Mrs. Hamaguchi stopped and glanced around her space. “I am not. And I do not see it. Why?”
“It is getting dark outside and I would like to do some reading after dinner.”
“Perhaps,” she thought, tapping her bony finger on her mouth, “perhaps Meito has misplaced it. He used it last night.”
“Perhaps,” she whispered.
Sighing, Gertrude opened her eyes and walked over to a window. Sweeping aside her loose tears, she stared out the street, beside her father-in-law who sat in a patio chair with a Pepsi bottle in hand, and stared at the western mountains. The sun was falling sooner this time of year. Dinner was near. Her husband at work. Suddenly, she held her breath. Where were her two sons? Panicking, she rushed out the door. She should never have let her father-in-law keep an eye on them in the first place, the drunk!
“Where’s Joe and George, Papa-san?” she cried. “You were supposed to watch them!”
Mr. Hamaguchi squinted and slowly turned to look at her. His prickly face and glazed eyes bore little responsibility. He seemed confused. Wetting his lips, he sluggishly replied, “They should be near.”
Angered, she began yelling out her son’s names. They were not yet seven years old; too small to be by themselves; too young to use the best of judgment. Last week a woman was raped by one of their own people three blocks from where they lived. There were criminals loose in the congested camp. Loose! How could he be so stupid? Her shrieks rang in desperation. Soon, Joe and George jumped from behind their barrack, coughing. Stunned, relieved, Gertrude walked to them. Guilt smeared their tiny faces. They were up to something.
She scolded, “Stay out where I can see you both! You two know better than that!”
“Yes, Mama,” they replied; their hands at their backs, their eyes as wide as raccoons caught rummaging through garbage.
She carefully glared at them. “What were you doing?”
“Nothin’ Mama,” they replied.
“I just bet,” she murmured. Pointing at her side, she persisted, “Out where I can see you. Got it?” They nodded. Unsure, she folded her arms. “On second thought, the both of you get inside. It’s getting dark anyway.”
George whined, “But I don’ wanna!”
“You’ve got games in there. Play those.”
Joe immediately trotted up the steps, his brown socks slumping at his ankles, his knickers dusty from rolling in the sand. George fiercely frowned. He refused to move.
“Now!” she snapped.
He glanced at his grandfather, hoping for support, but he was falling asleep again. George huffed and griped, “It’s not fair!”
“Now!” she yelled, grabbing his collar and pulling him forward.
He reluctantly moved, stomping his feet. Gertrude rolled her eyes and muttered up to the sky, “Give me strength!”
The boys resettled at their own table near their beds. Joe had already retrieved a box with a jigsaw puzzle of cowboys and Indians and spread it out. George sulked, slouching in the chair. Gertrude picked up her dress from the floor and began hanging her clothes back in the closet. She’d sew tomorrow. She didn’t feel like it tonight. Glancing at George again, she firmly stated, “If you’re going to pout all night then you’ll go to bed early.”
He whined, “I’m not pouting.”
George reached across the board to play with the piece between his fingers. Gertrude tightened her lips, not in the mood to argue. Loudly sighing, she stopped and sniffed the room. Joe stared at his brother, scared, but George retained a rigid glare, silently warning him to keep quiet. He continued to put pieces together while Joe fidgeted, his young forehead crinkling with worry.
Sniffing again, Gertrude looked at her sons. “Do you smell something burning?” she asked.
Joe and George stared at each other without blinking. George said, “No.”
She lifted her chin, sniffing. “I smell it. Must be coming from outside.”
Mrs. Hamaguchi rested her palms on the English book and also sniffed. She remarked, “I do smell something burning.”
Smoke climbed from the cracks of the floor, spreading like dust clouds. Gertrude gasped and jumped away from the corner where the smoke filtered through. She quickly grabbed both her sons’ hands and yanked them outside. Mrs. Hamaguchi instantly followed. Thick waves of smoke pushed from underneath the barrack. Suddenly a flame flickered on the side as if wildly escaping, wanting to bite and sting. Mr. Hamaguchi opened his eyes. Turning his head, feeling the flame fan out, crackling and heating the desert air, he vaulted out of his chair, dropping his secret bottle. Joe began crying.
Gertrude shrilled, “Fire! There’s fire! Somebody help us!”
A crowd gathered in the middle of the soft street, watching in horror and awe as the vehemence orange flame lit their faces. Instantly, seven men and two women began tossing sand into the fire, powerlessly, frantically. A couple of the residents ran with tin buckets, flinging sparse splashes of water from the meager pump. It was better than nothing. Mrs. Hamaguchi heaved, pointing to her decaying home, covering her shocked mouth. Not again, she wept. Not again. She had left her childhood home when she first married, then left her second home after her husband’s death to flee to America. She had lost her third home when they were forced to leave because of the war. And now this? Now this? Why? Were her ancestors punishing her? Instructing her that she should reveal Mieto the truth? Or that she should had never left Japan and should have married her first husband’s brother? Her fate deemed a harshness cursed by her former in-laws.
Russell sprang out of Jim’s barrack. Horrified, he stared at the bright fever consuming his barrack. Jim chased him, bumping into him when Russell halted on the street. Feeling the panic, Jim worried the fire would skip over to the other barracks, including his. A breeze tickled the fire and the thirsty air would drink anything, including fire. The tight quarters would make chaos more tempting. What would happen if half the camp burned? Would they have to relocate again?
Russell suddenly gasped, “The radio!”
He ran inside the smoke. Jim and the rest of Russell’s family stared, crippled, shocked. Soon Gertrude and Mrs. Hamaguchi screamed out his name, telling him to come back out. Jim held his breath. He couldn’t believe Russell was that idiotic! It was only a radio, for Christ’s sake! The residents who were assisting hesitated, stupefied that someone was that insane, nevertheless continued their mission. If they didn’t stop the fire now, it would jump over to other homes, inflicting more damage.
Russell covered his mouth and nose with his shirt’s collar. He was amazed how quickly the fire had infected his barrack, reaching, burning. The heat stabbed at his body and he felt as though his skin would instantly peel. His eyes stung and he choked. Coughing, squinting with watery vision, he pushed the table out of way and grabbed the radio. Yanking the cord from behind as he dashed to the door, he glanced at his father’s still. Shit! He stumbled out of the door, sweat flaking from his forehead.
“Get back!” he yelled. “Get back! It’ll explode!”
Gertrude trembled as she pulled her sons on the other side of the long street. How she wished Meito were there! She really needed his comfort! Russell’s parents followed. Jim stared at Russell’s dirty face and wild eyes. All he could do was stare. Russell snatched Jim’s arm and forced him to move. Three residents ignored Russell’s warning, perhaps not believing him, perhaps not hearing him. Standing twenty feet away, Mrs. Hamaguchi smacked the back of Russell’s head, scolding him for being stupid. He cringed, but took-in her fearful frustration. He knew she was right, but at least he saved something. At least they could still have something left. The crowd expanded like poppy seeds blowing into a barrel of tar. Smoke staggered upward; rupturing; revealing its rage for miles. The entire camp understood. People driving on the isolated highway recognized it. Even the rural town of Independence saw a faint reflection from the crumpling sun.
Tom ran down the street, shoving people aside to reach to his family. When he saw it wasn’t his barrack on fire, he exhaled in short relief. He squeezed Rose’s shoulder and kissed his baby’s cheek in her arms. Rose sniffled, wiping her tears off her scared face. It could easily have been her home. Tom hugged his mother-in-law and patted Bethany’s head. He then searched for the Hamaguchis in the thick crowd and saw some making an attempt to put out the fire. When he detected them huddling in the middle of two other barracks, he strode over to offer them reassurance.
“I’ve contacted the fire department,” he started, resting his hands on his hips like John Wayne. “We have an emergency phone there. We should get everything under control.”
Russell bellowed. “There’s a still in there!”
“A still! You know, for making booze!”
Tom’s strong profile fell. He gazed at Russell as if he had been shot. “You’re kidding me. It’s illegal to have one!”
Russell rolled his eyes. “No shit! How is it you’re the only bozo in camp who didn’t know?”
Jim snickered. Tom had been so occupied with Tanaka’s group he rarely observed his own surroundings.
Embarrassed, Tom glanced down. “Jesus! These people need to get away from it!”
Russell sat his radio on the ground and replied, “Yeah, I know!” He again snatched Jim’s arm and urged, “Come on!”
Pushing through, Tom began yelling to the people to move further back. Soon, Russell and Jim echoed the warning, trying to swing their arms to propel the crowd behind the flames. The reluctant brood slowly shifted, too slowly, only a few wise ones listening and helped along. A thunderous blast. Glass exploded. Recoil of screams. Shards of people dropped to their knees. Black smoke punched through the desert’s draft. A man’s voice yelled, “Move back, dammit!” People spread like split water, evaporating into alleys and down the streets. The fire truck siren penetrated the terrified silence, rushing to the northeastern sector. Russell jumped up and looked around him. His hysteric heart pounded in his ears. Tom darted off. Where was Jim? Rubbing the sand out of his eyes, he frantically skimmed the messy area where splintered glass and wood laid.
“Jim!” he choked. “Jim!”
Jim crawled. Russell rushed to him, easing his friend to stand. The back of his white shirt revealed black tears and red scratches. Without saying anything, Russell guided him off to the side. An ambulance siren hollered on the opposing boundary, competing with the other shrill. It was almost like Manzanar was being bombed! Russell triggered into laughter. He couldn’t stop himself. Leaning against a neighboring barrack, releasing Jim, he sagged his belly and laughed. Jim, befuddled, feeling his back prickle with pain, thought his friend had just lost his mind.
He demanded, “What the hell could be so funny?” Russell shook his head, laughing harder, unable to speak. “What the hell are you laughing at, Russell? Did the heat scorch your brain?”
He rested his palms on his knees, gasping, aching. “Oh boy!” he wheezed. “Oh boy, you shoulda seen their faces! Boom! Ahhh!” He closed his runny eyes, shaking his head, heaving out his hysterics. The two sirens screeched in his already ringing ears. Both vehicles would be there very soon. He irrationally resumed, “I wish I had a camera for that one! Ka-boom!”
Jim cried, “Stop it, Russell!”
Russell sluggishly groaned, gradually regaining his composure. He watched the yellow fire truck speed up the street and abruptly stopped next to his dissolving home. The firefighters, all Nisei robed in slick flaxen coats and helmets, hurtled out of the truck. Two sprinted past by him, hauling the flat hose and quickly tied it to an outside pump near the showers. They dashed back, signaling the crew to proceed. The hose began spitting, the pressure weakened by restrictions of water used daily in the camp. Irritated, two firemen sprayed the best they could while others retrieved buckets of sand to toss. Volunteers emerged with shovels and buckets, aggressively struggling to put out the fire.
“We didn’t mean to, Mama!” Joe suddenly wailed. George glared at him. “George knocked over the lantern! But I had the matches!”
Everyone turned to stare. Disbelief wrinkled their faces.
Gertrude bent down to her sons’ level, resting her hand on Joe’s knee, not blinking. She asked, “Where did you boys get the matches?”
Joe heaved, looking down, sniffing. He whispered, “From Papa’s coat.”
“Why were you in his pocket?”
Again he sniffled, rubbing his dirty finger under his ruby nose. “To get- to get,” he stuttered, “to get some money.”
Gertrude tried not to lose her temper, feeling her muscles tighten. Despite their young age, they should have known better. She sharply snapped, “You boys have no idea how angry I am! If you want money, you ask! If you’re looking in anybody’s pockets, you ask!” She bit her lip, tasting the dried sand, tasting her own failure as a mother. “And you certainly don’t play with matches! How stupid! How so very stupid!”
Russell gazed ahead, numbed. At that moment it didn’t matter who started the fire. He’d rather not think about it because it would hurt too much. He watched the structure collapse as the fire chewed everything his family had left. What they had left. At least he saved the radio. At least that much.
Worried about his friend’s state of mind, Jim leaned into his ear and said, “Maybe you shouldn’t fight today. Not after this, Russell.”
Clearing his throat, he firmly replied, “I need to. I really need to.”
Author Bio: KP Kollenborn
Even though I am from Kansas, I enjoy venturing into other worlds from around the globe which is why my writing focuses on diversity. With fluid accessibility to modern media and traveling opportunities, my Midwestern world can expand and explore beyond my own backyard. I take pleasure in studying history. Submitting to a moment in time allows us to remember, or to muse even, over our society’s past. Although writing can educate as well as entertain, yet what makes art incredibly amazing, to that of paintings, photographs, and music, it transposes emotion into another form of humanity, and therefore, it is our humanity which keeps all of us striving for an improved future.
And as a mother of two daughters, I understand the idiosyncrasies of balancing work, family, and creative endeavors. If life weren’t a bit off kilter than what is the point of crossing that high wire in the sky? It’s all about making our lives productive, interesting, and adding value for the next generation. By the very nature of my existence, I am an artist. And by the very nature of my husband’s insistence, I have adapted to become an entrepreneur. We have ventured a music store, a restaurant, real estate, several internet businesses, and two recording studios. I have worked as a graphic designer and in the publishing market since 1994. Aside from having a graphic arts degree, I also have a history degree. I am fortunate to have been trained by one the top ten writing teachers in the US, the late Leonard Bishop, and author of Dare to be a Great Writer. I owe my love of writing to him. Eyes Behind Belligerence is my first published novel.
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