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Samurai Bluegrass by Craig Terlson

 

Craig Terlson has been an illustrator, drawing for magazines and books for the past 20 years. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Psychology Today, Florida Trend, and many others. Out of a desire to tell stories more than a few panels long, he started an alternate career as a writer. His fiction has appeared in Hobart, Bound Off, Laura Hird Showcase, Thieves Jargon, Thirst for Fire and other literary journals. He was finalist for the Glimmer Train 2005 New Writers Award. He was recently awarded an arts council grant to complete his short story collection, The Plate Spinner.

Their harmonies teeter on the edge of sweetness and mournful whine. It’s that high lonesome sound. The bluegrass band enraptures the pierced patrons, their ghost-white faces tilt toward the stage. I’m sitting in the basement of the Apocalypse Club thinking of dogs carrying severed hands. It’s a scene from the Kurosawa movie I watched with my nephew Zack last weekend. I came here because Carol used to say bluegrass gets into your soul.

“This is beee-zar,” says a guy next to me with a giant safety pin in his nose.

“Reminds me of the Insect Gods,” says his tattooed girlfriend.

I wonder if she means some band that played here last week—or if she’s into a weird religion that I don’t want to know about. I wondered why a punk club would book a bluegrass band. Maybe they were going for irony.

The band finishes the mournful tune and the violin rips a string of notes. These southern guys don’t care if they’re at the Grand Old Opry playing to bad suits and big hair or here, cutting tunes in a black basement, playing to a crowd of anorexic vampires. The vampires are eating it up. Then an image clicks in, another Japanese one. The bluegrass band exudes honour. They are Samurai warriors, pure, facing the darkness, full of courage and blood. Give the violin player a dye job and a sword and he’d be a dead ringer for Toshiro Mifune.

Tomorrow is Saturday—I’m supposed to pick up Zack in the morning. I walk upstairs and ask a pink haired girl the time. She sneers at me. A large Asian guy with a soul patch says, “Twelve-oh-four.” The numbers leave his mouth as he exhales a huge smoke ring.

I close my eyes on the subway and roll these images of Samurai and dogs and bluegrass bands around in my head. Maybe there’s something to them, something I could paint. I think of other Kurosawa movies, and how they feel like westerns. I picture myself walking down a barren street, the wind snaps my kimono, I pull out this huge mother of a sword. The noon sun hits the blade and I squint into fiery light. The soundtrack is western of course, but not Bluegrass, more twangy. But who am I facing? I look down the street and all around me. There’s no one. It’s a ghost town.

. . .

Next morning, I’m at my sister’s house by ten. Susan really appreciates the break. Zack’s a cool kid and I like hanging with him; it gets me doing something else. I used to go to a life drawing class on Saturdays, but I’m not drawing anything these days.

We walk to the subway, take it downtown, and hop on a streetcar. I watch Zack stare out the window. He just turned five, but he seems a lot older. I mistake it for maturity, but I know it’s not that. Maybe it’s that his dad is Chinese and he’s inherited Susan’s genes; she was the calm, peaceful one in our family. I decided to try and be a bigger influence on Zack after I lost Carol. We’d talked about having kids, but I said I wasn’t ready. I wanted to see if I could get my career going. I had a couple of galleries feigning interest; I thought I was getting close. Carol was supportive, but she’d gently remind me that we still needed to pay the rent.

Susan started asking me to come to church after the accident. I said no for a few months. I didn’t want to hear about God being so good and answering prayers and sing happy hymns about him.

One night at Susan’s, I stayed up late drinking wine and talking. Stephen had put Zack down and, probably thinking he should leave us alone, he went to bed.

“Jim, anger’s part of grief,” she said.

“Not in the mood for this, Susan.”

“It happens. We’re human.”

I just shrugged. She was patient with me.

“If there’s anything you need, we can help.”

“There is something,” I started. “I’d like her back.”

That Sunday, I did go to church—more for Susan than anything. It neither bothered me nor soothed me. During the sermon, I nudged Zack and pulled a couple of faces. He giggled and Susan looked over at us. I thought I’d get the “this is serious, pay attention” look, but she just smiled. Stephen looked over and smiled at Zack, then me. He had thick hair like Zack’s, a couple of strands of white sparkled at his temples. I knew he and Susan were treating me with kid gloves.

The pastor was saying how parables were like an early form of movies.

I looked over at Zack and whispered, “I wonder if he’s ever seen Yojimbo.”

Zack smiled, Susan looked at me and smiled again. Christ, I was bored.

We went for lunch after the service. The four of us shared a giant bowl of hot and sour soup. We ate in awkward silence until I asked Zack if he wanted to go to the art gallery on Saturday.

“Okay.”

My sister liked that I was taking an interest in Zack.

“Do you really want to take a five year old to the art gallery?” she asked.

“Sure. We’ll have a great time, hey, Zack?”

“Yep,” Zack said and gave his little nod. His mop of black hair moved as one shape. At a glance, Zack looked fully Asian, except he had Susan’s pale blue eyes. A lot of people did a double-take when they saw those eyes.

“Just keep him close, hang on to him, okay?”

“Zack’s not going to wander off,” I said.

“It’s not Zack I’m worried about.”

. . .

Last Saturday, Zack and I watched a Kurosawa movie. I told Zack I didn’t have any cartoons, but he could look at my collection and pick one out. I figured if he picked something really violent I’d suggest something else.

“That’s a favorite of mine,” I said.

“Why is it called Yojimbo?”

“It means, Bodyguard.”

“Oh,” Zack said. “Who does he guard?”

“Well, he used to guard a nobleman, someone rich, but now he doesn’t have anyone to guard.”

Zack looked at the picture. “He’s not Chinese.”

“No, he’s Japanese. It has these words that go across the bottom so you can understand. You sure you want to watch this one?”

“Okay.”

We get to the part where Toshiro Mifune tosses a long stick in the air.

“Why does he do that? Is he lost?” Zack asked.

“He’s just deciding which way to go.”

Zack didn’t say anything when the dog carrying the severed hand came on; he’s not the kind of kid that’d say eww, gross, or even be scared by it. Still, I decided to not tell Susan what we watched—she’s sensitive to that sort of stuff. That’s why she’s a better parent than I would have been. Carol would have been great, I know that.

I had to stop the movie once in a while to tell Zack what was going on. He’s a pretty good reader for someone in kindergarten, but the subtitles went by fast and there were words he didn’t know.

About halfway through, I thought Zack was getting bored. So, I shut off the movie and asked if he wanted to do something else.

“Did you paint that?” he pointed to a painting in the corner of the room.

“Yep.”

“What is it?”

“It’s not really supposed to look like anything.”

“It’s sad.”

It was the one I’d painted right after the accident.

“Do you have more?”

“No, I’m not painting much right now,” I told him. I hadn’t drawn a line in months.

Zack nodded.

I asked if he wanted something to eat. In the spirit of the film, I cooked up some Ramen and cut up little pieces of Chinese sweet meat and green onions.

“Can we watch the rest?” Zack asked as he slurped up a long noodle.

That’s how I knew I could take Zack to the gallery. He was interested in everything; especially things he’d never seen before. He’d never watched a Japanese movie, or looked at a Monet up close. I’d read how Miro and Picasso were always trying to see how a kid sees—a time when everything in the world was fresh, a new sensory experience. That’s how it was with Zack. He peered through the holes of the Henry Moores like he was looking through an alien telescope, one that cast new light on the ordinary.

I understood Susan’s concern about how I get distracted. The drift. It’s not some pretentious thing like the “artist’s mind”—but images often blow through my consciousness. In art school, I had an instructor that told us to shut off our interior monologue; shut off that part that says a tree looks like “this”; close that flow of information and start to really see. More than anything, drawing is about seeing.

In a room full of abstract expressionists, Zack points at a huge green canvas. “Is that a tree?” he asks.

“Could be,” I say. “Is that what a tree looks like to you?”

“Sometimes.”

We go into the impressionist wing, pastel colours swirl within gilded frames.

“Hey, Zack, squint when you look at this one.”

Zack scrunches up his face.

“Do you see it shimmer? Like the sun is really hot?”

Zack nods.

When my art school instructor thought we’d reached this new state of seeing, he’d pull out his weathered copy of Don Quixote and read to us. A while back, I told Zack about Don Quixote. I told him about the quest, the windmills he saw as giants, Sancho Panza, just broad strokes, to give him an idea. I’m never sure what Zack thinks about the things I tell him. Susan’s probably right, I treat him like he’s older than he is. But he’s a great listener and there are days I really need that.

I get us a couple of cokes out of the machine and we go and sit outside.

“What’d you like best?” I asked him.

“The paintings in that one room. The blurry ones.”

Zack and I finish our cokes and toss the cans in the recycle bin next to the gallery exit.

“You hungry? I know a great bakery close by,” I say.

A few blocks later, strong smells, made more pungent by the June heat, waft over to us. As we turn onto the first block of Chinatown, I watch Zack’s eyes go wide. It’s an exploded canvas of colour and sound. Chinese characters are slashed across the scarlet canopies that hang over vibrant fruit stands. Light bounces off a box of shiny mandarins and makes the oranges look like tiny planets, each with their own sunrise. Zack stops and stares at a crate full of strangely shaped golden fruit.

“Those are star fruit,” I say.

“They look like lips glued together.”

“You’re right, they do. But if you slice them, they come out in star shapes.”

Zack picked one up and the vendor spoke to him in Chinese. Zack looked up and nodded. He set the fruit back down and we kept walking.

“Could you understand that?” I ask.

“Not all of it. He sounds like my dad. He said the fruit made a good drink, but it could give you hiccups.”

“Do you think that’s true?”

“Maybe. I’ll ask my grandma.”

We pass another fruit stand and Zack stops again. “I’ve seen some of these in her house.” He points at a table overflowing with durian. The spiked fruit teeters on a thin board that sits atop a crate. Durian reeks like no other fruit I know.

“It looks like an armadillo. It smells like an armadillo,” I say.

Zack laughs. Then he says, “They look dangerous, like they could hurt you.”

I pick one up; it’s heavier than I think. I hand it to Zack.

“A yojimbo could use it. To protect someone,” he says.

“You’re right.” Zack’s memory always amazes me.

A pair of side-by-side electronics shops blast frenzied Chinese melodies. The two singer’s voices shoot up and down the scale, and twist into one cacophonous song. Zack and I walk a little quicker to get past the noise. We bump into a few people as we hurry.

Zack tells me his dad has brought him down here a couple of times.

“He doesn’t like it.”

“Why not?” I ask.

“Too many people.”

The street is even more crowded than when we first entered. In front of the bakery, an older Asian lady lugging two huge canvas bags stops and nods to Zack. The warm sugary smell is a welcome replacement from the stench of crab and oily trout that hit us when we went by the fish market. I buy us a couple of steamed pork buns and a large coconut tart. The bakery had been a regular stop for Carol and me. I haven’t been here in months. Zack plunges into the pork bun. I hand him a napkin to wipe the red off his chin. He smiles and says through a full mouth, “Good.”

We finish the buns and the tart and share a drink so sweet that even Zack screws up his face after he sips. We go into the shop next door and I buy a bottle of water. We each take huge gulps, trying to wash away the sugar.

Zack peers into each shop we pass. He studies the different fruit of each stand, remarking on the shapes and colours. Bananas look different when they’re next to a box of dragon fruit; it’s like the exotic makes even the common seem unfamiliar. A few of the vendors wave at Zack, they say something in Chinese, Zack nods and smiles. I feel envious not understanding this other language. It’s more than the language—Zack sees every colour, smell, and face as a new and wondrous thing. The world opens up and offers its beauty to him; Zack takes it in with deep breaths and wide-open eyes.

Carol and I used to spend Saturday mornings at the Art Gallery and then head over to Chinatown for hot and sour. I marveled at the slight, and sometimes vast, differences in the soups. Some jiggled when we spooned into them; some of the broths were dark and murky; others had a pinkish hue. Sometimes the spiciness was barely noticeable; other times our lips went numb and we waved at the waiter for another jug of ice water. Then we’d go over to the bakery and get a few pork buns for the subway ride home. Every time we went it was different. I wanted to be able to see things that way again, like Carol did, like Zack does.

Zack walks up the stairs to a shop that has tables full of little blinking toys. I decide to stay at the bottom and wait for him. I wave to let him know it’s okay. Next door, in a restaurant window, hangs a row of barbequed ducks. It’s a common sight in Chinatown, but these headless birds look different. It takes me a moment to realize it’s because they’re not glistening. Usually, the ducks are covered in a shiny glaze, for taste and I guess visual appeal. These ducks are unglazed—maybe, it’s some different technique. The skin is dull brown, and looks like leather. It reminds me of the shriveled bodies that spring out of coffins in old Vincent Price movies. I turn to tell Zack to come down and look at the scary ducks. I can’t see him, so I go upstairs to the shop. He’s not by any of the tables. It’s odd he didn’t yell down to me. I’m already chastising myself for letting him go by himself.

Inside, a shopkeeper sits behind a glass counter full of more blinking toys. He has on black suspenders, a set of round glasses perch on his bald head. I bend down and look up one of the aisles and then another, thinking maybe Zack was crouched down studying a lower shelf. The shopkeeper must have picked up on my increasingly frantic movements.

“You lose something?” he asks.

“No, I don’ t think so.” I go quickly over to the last aisle and bend down again. “Is this all of your shop?”

He shakes his head.

“I mean, is there another door, at the back or—”

“What you lose?”

“I didn’t—” I take in a deep breath. “Did you see a little boy come in here?”

“No. I see no boy.”

I race outside. How did I miss him? I bolt down the stairs and run into a woman coming out of the restaurant. She yells at me in Chinese.

“Sorry. Did you see a little boy anywhere here?” I put my hand out at Zack’s approximate height. “Like this? He had black hair and a red shirt, or wait, orange, damn, I can’t remember the colour!” I can see she doesn’t understand what I’m saying. I turn and yell, “Zack!” and then turn again, “Zack!”

I head back toward the electronic shops. The street is clogged with bodies and I have to bump and jostle through the crowd. People are yelling at me in Chinese and I catch pieces of English curses. I say, “excuse me” a couple of times, but then give up and just yell Zack’s name over the crowd noise. There’s a wall of people in front of the fish market. I dart into the street and stride quickly, but have to leap to get out of the way of an oncoming streetcar.

I spy a small head bobbing next to a woman. The kid’s got black hair and he’s holding the woman’s hand. I almost knock over two older men trying to get to him.

“Zack?” I’m right behind the boy and touch his shoulder. He turns his head and I look into his dark Asian eyes. The mother stops walking and turns around. She gives me a quizzical look, the boy moves to her side.

“What do you want?” she says with barely a hint of accent. She is smartly dressed and quite beautiful.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.” I’m out of breath. The mother takes a step back, her son moves closer. “I’m looking for a little boy, I thought your son was—”

“You have a Chinese son?” she asks. People are moving quickly around us.

“No, I don’t, he’s my nephew, but his mom, I mean his father…” I trail off. The crowd moves around us like a fast current. I feel like a stone—immobilized by this woman and her son. “I’m sorry.”

And then I run back into the street and cross again. I see another electronics store and rush up the stairs. It looks like the one we had passed, but I can’t be sure. There is a table full of blinking toys, similar to the store where I last saw Zack. But I left that store, didn’t I? My pulse pounds in my head and I’m having a hard time concentrating. I take some deep breaths, try to focus. For some odd reason, I’m reminded of my instructor, his calm voice reading from Quixote, how it relaxed me as I painted. I stop; rest my hands at my side. I can do this. He isn’t lost, he hasn’t been taken.

I walk back down the stairs and stop on the sidewalk. The crowd has become one flowing mass, their voices a deep thrum. The sun dips behind a cloud and casts a grey light on the street. The harsh reds are drained of their strength. I barely feel the people as they swim by. I pace up the street, confident, looking intently at each shop. I will find him.

A minute later, I push down another wave of panic that surges within me. What will I tell Susan? My God. I have to find him. I stand on the edge of the street and imagine myself far away, in another place, even another time. I’ve felt this way before. It was when I picked up the phone and heard Susan telling me about Carol’s accident. How she didn’t suffer. It was like she was calling me from a different country. She said she was gone. Where? I asked, in a whisper, barely comprehending what I was being told.

I hear the squeal of a streetcar approaching. I take another step into the street. I step again and my foot knocks against a long stick. It’s bamboo. It looks misplaced lying against the asphalt. I bend over and pick it up as the streetcar brushes past.

The street is empty, which strikes me as strange, as if the streetcar wiped away all the traffic behind it. I wade into the street, holding the bamboo. I toss it high and watch it do one, then two and a half turns. It hits the street and rattles. One end of the stick rests against my foot; the other points back to where I’d last seen Zack. The street and the people come back into focus. A nearby ghetto blaster plays an Asian melody, but with a twangy guitar. I don’t know the words, but the tune is unmistakable, Wayfaring Stranger. I walk past the fish market, moving deftly through the crowd—they seem to part for me. I pass a fruit stand, then another, and then I stand in front of the hanging ducks. At the top of the stairs stands Zack. He’s holding a blinking toy. I rush up the stairs, kneel down and hug him.

“Zack, what happened?” He looks surprised at the anger in my voice.

“I—” He starts to cry.

I hold him tight against me. “Are you okay?” I ask softly. “Did someone take you?”

“Yes.”

The old man steps out of his shop, round glasses still perched on his head.

“She has lost her son, long time,” he says.

“Who are you talking about?” My voice rises. I look back at Zack.

“I tried to tell you, but you didn’t hear.” Zack is sobbing, his words come out in gulps. “She walked so fast.”

“She saw your boy and he was like him. She missed her son very much.”

I pick up Zack and stand to face the shopkeeper. “Where is she?”

“I will call police?” the old man asks.

“Did she hurt him? Zack did she—” Zack shakes his head, then buries into my shoulder. The shopkeeper says more, but I’m barely listening: she was crying, ran away, disappeared, fish shop—I hear just bits of it. I know I’m standing on the edge of what could have happened. No one who loved Zack would have ever seen him again. It’s like her son—she probably remembers the last day she saw him.

“No.” That’s all I say to the old man.

I stroke Zack’s hair. I say, I’m sorry, I tell him he’s safe. I won’t let him go.

He lifts his head. “I was scared.”

“Me too.” Zack tucks his face back into my shoulder, it feels good.

As we descend the stairs, Zack hugs me tighter. We pass the last block of Chinatown and turn onto College Street. The sun is back out, making its afternoon descent. I’m glad for the light, it feels hot against my forehead and I lean into the warmth.