Blood Hina: A Mas Arai Mystery
By Naomi Hirahara
Hardcover, 240 pages
Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books
List price: $24.99
"And do you, Sutama Hayakawa, take this man to be your husband?" the minister asked, the third time that night.
Mas Arai, his hands shaking and wet, wasn't going to miss his cue again. He pulled out the simple gold band from the pocket of his windbreaker and, pressing hard, as if he had captured a sand crab from a California beach, held it toward his best friend, Haruo Mukai. And then, before it could be successfully transferred to the groom, the ring slipped from his sweaty fingers and plopped into the fishpond below them.
"Ah, oogoto!" screamed an old Japanese woman holding a clipboard and standing on a concrete walkway on the other side of the pond. "I think that koi is going to swallow it."
Before Mas could take any kind of action, Haruo's grandchildren had jumped into the pond, followed immediately by the grandchildren of Sutama, who was better known as Spoon. Fish tails of milky white and neon orange thrashed through the water in between soaked pant legs. Would Haruo's or Spoon's side of the family take the prize?
Spoon, Haruo's pear-shaped bride whose bulky sweater was no benefit to her ample oshiri, held on to the railing of the bamboo bridge, shell-shocked. Haruo, his skunk hair carefully arranged to cover the keloid scar on the left side of his face, tried to smile. "Howsu one more try, Mas?"
This wedding rehearsal was a disaster from the very start. Spoon showed up forty-five minutes late, saying her youngest daughter had taken her car without telling her, so she had to wait for another daughter to pick her up. All the grandchildren, meanwhile, had arrived, pulling at mondo grasses, terrorizing the koi, running through the bamboo, and hopping on the worn bridge. Mas could just imagine the reaction of his fellow gardeners who tended the Japanese garden in Los Angeles's Little Tokyo for close to nothing. The Gardeners' Federation was big on "volunteer" -- Mas didn't believe in it because you usually ended up losing more than you put in. And for what? A pat on the back and maybe a photo in the federation's newsletter. Mas preferred his charity be less visible, if visible at all.
As the bridge shook from all the commotion below, the minister, dressed in slacks and blue sweater, desperately held on to a stack of three lacquer bowls that were part of the san-san-kudo. Three, three, nine -- fortuitous numbers, eternal numbers. Both Haruo and Spoon had sipped from the empty bowls two times each during the rehearsal. Tomorrow the bowls would be filled with sake -- Mas wouldn't mind imbibing some rice wine right now.
Why was Haruo, at seventy-one years of age, even thinking of getting remarried? Might as well just buy two cemetery plots right next to each other and put a bow tie on one headstone and a veil on the other.
The two of them had met at the flower market, and their romance had bloomed while Mas had been answering an exceedingly rare call for help from his daughter in New York City. Perhaps if Mas had stayed in L.A., Haruo and Spoon's relationship would have never ignited. Because if anyone could put a damper on love, it would definitely be Mas.
Spoon was all right, Mas guessed. She was pretty quiet for a Nisei woman, the second generation to be in America, and when she talked, she was assari, a plain speaker who didn't bother to smooth out rough edges like those straight from Japan tended to do. Mas remembered how his late wife Chizuko could shuffle and arrange Japanese words like a master magician so that the unsuspecting wouldn't even realize that they were being rebuffed or insulted. She would have thought Haruo's remarriage was kurukuru-pa, plain-out crazy, but if she had been here at the wedding rehearsal, a perpetual smile would have been plastered on her face.
Even the men at the Eaton Nursery last week seemed mystified at Haruo's upcoming nuptials. "Why don't he just go to Vegas?" asked Stinky Yoshimoto, examining the sharp teeth of one of the metal rakes for sale. Stinky was king of bad ideas and he was fortunate that most in their circle didn't bother to listen to him. "There he could sneak in a game of pau gow and poker between the ceremony and honeymoon."
Except that Haruo was a former gambler, a recovering one, as he liked to say. Gambling fever had ruined his first marriage and he sure wasn't going to let it grab hold of his second.
"So you some kind of big shot in the wedding, I hear," Wishbone Tanaka chimed in. Wishbone, the former owner of his own lawn mower shop, was always concerned with status, even in the puddle of a world that they all inhabited. "Best man -- oshare, ne."
"Best man" did sound highfalutin. Mas had never been best at anything in his life, other than perhaps regrets. Haruo could have easily selected Tug Yamada -- a medal-laden veteran who was trusty and dependable and would never do anything like lose the bride's wedding ring to a giant fish. Or even Wishbone, who limped around with a walker, its back metal legs protected by two neon green tennis balls, would perhaps have been a better choice.
But Mas and Haruo shared something that none of those men did -- the Bomb. While the experience was written all over Haruo's scarred face, it remained hidden in Mas's heart and mind. The two men hadn't known each other in Hiroshima, but when they learned that they both had been in the city during World War Two, their connection was forever fused together. Haruo talked too much, but his overflowing words often greased Mas's disjointed emotions.
So when Haruo asked him to serve as his best man, Mas hemmed and hawed, but they both knew that Mas would eventually give in. He always did.
Haruo now must have been regretting his choice, after Mas had presented him with the ring at the wrong time two times at the rehearsal and now it might be lost forever. The children were soaked and their parents, including two of Spoon's daughters, crossed their arms, their anger ricocheting from the hubbub onto Mas.
Haruo's grandson stood up in the knee-deep water. "I got it, I got it," he said, holding up a glint of gold like a prospector with a lucky find.
"Ah, yokkata," the old woman, the wedding coordinator, said in relief. She then studied the sky, weighed down by gray. "It's going to rain tomorrow," she predicted. "That means good luck." Mas hoped the wedding coordinator was wrong. Good luck, in Mas's experience, seemed to always be followed with bad.
From Little Tokyo, the three generations of Spoon's and Haruo's families -- with Mas and a couple of others tagging along -- headed deeper into the city toward downtown Los Angeles's industrial Four Corners, where the Garment District, Produce Market, Toy Town, and the Flower Market all collided. It was amazing that so much down-and-dirty commerce happened downtown, merely blocks away from the svelte high-rises and fancy hotels. Some of the business -- at least at the produce and flower markets -- happened before the crack of dawn, when trucks and forklifts moved bunches of gladiolas and carnations, boxes of strawberries and tomatoes, in the transfer of goods that would continue onward to Des Moines, Iowa, or even foreign countries.
It was a secret world, where only nocturnal men and a few women like Spoon and her daughters dared to tread. At night, outside the aging and sometimes crumbling concrete buildings, the human residents of Skid Row, as well as rats and cockroaches, ruled the streets. Those fooled by superficial appearances might think that Four Corners L.A. was only for the impoverished. But scratch deeper and there was money to be had.
Some of these deals were forged inside nondescript diners that seemed to have been around from the beginning of time, or at least the beginning of Los Angeles. These diners had plain-Jane faces and sometimes bars on their windows, but insiders felt as drawn to their counters and tables as they did to their own mothers' kitchens.
If old-fashioned breakfasts, mounds of hotcakes, melting butter, and fat, swollen sausages were the king in this neighborhood, then chop suey, a mishmash of tastes from the Old West and Far East, had to be the queen. So it was no surprise to anyone that Haruo and Spoon's rehearsal dinner was held at one of the standard chop suey houses in the neighborhood. This particular one was even a favorite of a former manager of the city's baseball team.
Mas's own mouth was salivating as the oval plates of tomato beef, egg foo young, and crunchy chow mein were placed on the lazy susan on their table. He was sitting in between Haruo and Spoon's oldest daughter, a middle-aged woman who seemed destined to droop in the same places as her mother. The daughter, Debra, seemed distracted by her teenage sons horse playing at the next round table, so Mas thankfully could ladle his chicken soup to his mouth in peace. With the plastic plates of food arriving, the boys calmed down, allowing Debra to sink her teeth into her food and also Mas.
"So, Mr. Arai, are you still working?"
Mas removed a chicken bone that was caught in between his dentures. He hated that question. Seemed like once you hit seventy, everyone expected you to be good for nothing anymore. "Yah, gotta work." Even if it just meant a handful of customers.
Debra proceeded to ask question after question -- Mas felt like he was the target of a firing squad, only here the shooter kept going even though he was dead. Did he have any children? Yah. Boy or girl? Girl. Mari. Did she live close to him? Nah, New York. East Coast? Why so far? It went on and on and on.
In desperation, Mas surveyed the table. He knew that Spoon had three daughters, the three D's. There was Debra next to him, Donna across the way, and Mas tried to remember the third D. He had run into a vanful of Spoon's girls and grandchildren at Haruo's Cracker Jack box–sized apartment in the Crenshaw District. The third daughter didn't look like the others, Mas remembered. She was skinny, but there was something else. Mas remembered that she was some kind of black sheep of the family.
Mas knew that the only way to stop Debra's prying was to aim some questions of his own. "Where's your sista?"
"Donna, she's right there." Debra gestured her fork toward the pear-shaped woman across from her.
"Nah, the otha one."
Debra's distaste for her youngest sister was apparent. "She couldn't make it."
She then bit down, even though it was apparent that nothing was in her mouth.
Mas's strategy worked, because the middle-aged woman promptly turned her attention to the person seated on her other side -- Haruo's daughter, who was as sweet and gentle as her father.
Mas felt bad, but only for a minute as he scooped another helping of the fried rice drenched in soy sauce. He remained blissfully alone with the sound of the crunching of his food until someone began clanging his water glass with his fork. Others joined in and soon all the guests were focused on Haruo and Spoon.
"Kisu, kisu," he heard someone, most likely an old gardener who had drunk too many beers, chant from a corner.
Mas covered his face with his right hand. He had already witnessed his friend kiss his fiancée on the mouth three times at the rehearsal. Did he have to be sitting right next to him when he did it again?
Haruo noticed Mas's discomfort and began to laugh when he finally caught his breath after one especially long smooch.
"Mas, youzu just wait. Your turn's comin'."
Mas knew what Haruo was getting at. Haruo had invited their professor friend, Genessee Howard, to the wedding tomorrow. Genessee was just a tomodachi, a friend. How could she be more? She was a professor at UCLA, after all. Why would any woman with a head on her shoulders want to be romantically involved with Mas? He was out of her league and Haruo was so blind with his own version of love that he couldn't see it.
Mas picked up an almond cookie from the lazy susan as Itchy Iwasaki, one of the heads of Lopez, Sing, and Iwasaki Mortuary in Lincoln Heights, approached their table. Mas wasn't quite sure why he was there -- this event was for the living (well, at least barely), not the dead -- but Mas remembered that Itchy was distantly related to Spoon through marriage.
"Good to see you at the track, Haruo." He tugged at one of his trademark enormous ears. "Haven't been there in years. No need to bet on-site with computers and everything."
"Oh, yah, good to see you, Itch." Haruo awkwardly tried to change the subject to the mortuary -- "business good, must be with all these funerals" -- but Mas's ears kept ringing. The track was off-limits to Haruo, at least according to his counselor in Little Tokyo. What was Haruo doing at the track, especially now that he was going to be a married man?
"I'm not feeling too well, Haruo," Spoon pronounced loudly, her fortune cookie, broken but not eaten, on a napkin in front of her.
Both daughters, Debra and Donna, looked across the table with concern and accusation.
"It's probably from the MSG."
"I told them no MSG."
"But you know there's always MSG."
As the two sisters argued, Mas's head started to pound. Leftovers had been scooped into take-out boxes and bagged. Only more small talk awaited. As the best man, Mas was obligated to hang around, but assisting the bride-to-be was as good an excuse as any to make his getaway. He turned to Haruo, who was holding Spoon's wrinkled hand. "I take her home," Mas said.
"You sure, Mas?"
"Yah. Get there faster if I go."
Haruo glanced over to the adjoining table of teenagers throwing chow mein noodles at each other and nodded his head. "Think you're right."
Spoon was obviously of the same mind because she nodded as Haruo whispered their plan in her ear.
The two daughters were not happy -- each vied for the right to escort Spoon home until the old woman finally had enough. "Mas is taking me home. He is alone and has no one to worry about but himself and Haruo needs to pay the bill."
With that, the daughters finally complied. Mas could have taken Spoon's words the wrong way, but she had spoken the truth, no denying it. Mas was indeed very much alone.
They walked out of the room, past the counter where crooked framed photos of Dodger baseball stars were displayed on the wall. Mas grabbed two plastic-covered toothpicks and offered one to Spoon as they left the restaurant. She shook her head and Mas led the way toward his Ford truck parked on the far corner of the gravel parking lot. Since it had been stripped after being stolen some years ago, Mas had been busy improvising. In addition to the banana peel–colored car seat from a 1970 Chevy and a dashboard from another Ford truck, he had found a side mirror from a semi in the junkyard. With help from his friend Tug, Mas was able to weld and screw on the mirror on the driver's side. It was guaranteed that no other 1956 Ford could boast such an impressive mirror. While Mas was proud of the Frankenstein surgery on his vehicle, he sadly realized in the dim light of the chop suey parking lot that others might have a different opinion.
Excerpted from Blood Hina by Naomi Hirahara. Copyright 2010 by Naomi Hirahara. Published in 2010 by Minotaur Books. Excerpted by permission of Minotaur Books.