Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Boy Who Could Ignore Nothing

Hideyoshi Azuma kept his manju shop open about five minutes longer than usual.  He stood outside the tenugui -- strips of fabric hanging from the entrance -- that spelled out "manju" in Japanese letters, in a perhaps vain hope another customer would come.

He sold many kinds of Japanese sweets:  fish-shaped cakes filled with red bean paste, rice gluten balls covered in kinoki powder.  He had about ten regular customers who came in on about the same days every week.  On top of that, he had a steady trickle of tourists who arrived in shorts and t-shirts (even on the foggiest and coldest of days) with cameras on straps around their necks.  They often took pictures of the rustic-looking interior, and came every afternoon, in at least twos and threes.

Azuma-san earned his craft from old man Nozaki, who died in the year 2000.  Every second Sunday at temple, Azuma-san would offer oshoko, incense, at the shotsuki hoyo service where his senpai was named among the deceased (the man's family all lived in Japan).  Learning the secrets of preparing manju, like learning most secrets, did not take much time at all.  It was a brief yet magical apprenticeship.  Nozaki-sama always reminded Azuma-san of a monkey.  The old man had a habit of scratching his brow from behind his head -- a somewhat comical tic.

Azuma-san was at the end of his Cabin cigarette (he bought a pack each day at the grocery store on Post), when who should approach but little William Way, shouting, "Chotto matte kudasai.  Mada akateiru no?"

"Hai, sou da.  Irasshai!"

"Thanks."  William was dressed in all black -- black, long-sleeve pullover, black leggings, and big ugly black shoes.  "I need to pick up some okashi and a drink."

"No problem.  I'm closing up right after, though, okay?"

William was one of Azuma-san's regulars.  He usually came earlier in the afternoon.  He was a white boy with the bluest eyes and a shaved head -- rather handsome, and not too "kusai."  He lived far away, on Larkin Street, and walked to the Japantown shop from Nob Hill.

"Do you have any koala biscuits?"

"I'll get them from the back.  I was going to shelve them tomorrow."

Azuma-san soon found himself growing nervous as he cut the tape fastening closed the cardboard box full of smaller boxes of chocolate-filled, koala-shaped cookies.  He wondered why, and in a moment realized the cause might be William himself.

He liked William a lot.  William spoke beautiful Japanese in a lovely, rich and resonant Wakayama accent, which Azuma-san, who hailed from Yokohama, somewhat envied; his own Japanese sounded almost tepid by comparison.  But rumor had it, the boy was cursed.  Many who knew of him did so because of some vast, vague shadow of evil that seemed to pursue him.  Knowing William was almost a paranormal experience in this otherwise humdrum world.

One day, a woman came into the shop with a pamphlet.  She bought one little bean paste cake, but insisted she was there to give the pamphlet to the proprietor.  All she said was, "Look out for that boy, the one with glasses who looks like an angel.  They are coming for him and he is before them."

Azuma-san was puzzled by this visitor.  The pamphlet was full of strange writing about angels, shadow people, and djinn.  Bake-mono, as some of these things were called back in Japan -- ghost stories to frighten teenage girls when out camping in the woods.  "This boy needs all our help," the woman said, "and he may still lose in the end."  Azuma-san gave her a quizzical look, took the pamphlet (and soon threw it away), and wondered if she meant William.

Back at the register, William stood patiently with a can of soy drink in one hand and his wallet in the other.

"Ne, Uiriamu-kun, dou desu ka?  Atama no koe-tachi, tte."

"Kage-no-hito no koto kai?"


"Ma-ma -- gaman shiteimasu.  Ganbatteimasu.  Chotto hidoi, toki doki."

"Naruhodo.  You know, once in a while I hear a voice in my head."

"Really?  What does it say?"

"Sell the shop and move to Hawaii."

"I hope you don't, but good luck if you do.  I'm lately always thinking of leaving San Francisco.  I just applied for a couple of jobs, though, so I won't leave right away."

"Just remember, William, there is no today after tomorrow."

"Wakarimasu."  William tendered five dollars for his snack and beverage, took his change, and left, saying, "Maido ookini," as he opened the door.

"Douitashimashite," replied Azuma-san, and turned off the register and lights soon after.  "Sokkuri tenshi mitai da na," he muttered, locked the door to the shop behind him, and walked up to Geary to catch the 38 home.