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Ten Days of Cleanup

Chapter Twelve—The Reveal

I was familiar with the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena. It was where my ex, Stewart, taught some art classes in a conference room which overlooked a courtyard and a Chinese garden. I was amazed when Stewart first took me there. In the middle of a large boulevard in Pasadena was a re-creation of a Chinese imperial palace. What was it doing here, of all places? I learned that it had been commissioned in the 1920s by an antiques dealer, Grace Nicholson, who collected Native American art as well as artifacts from Asia. 

At first I wasn’t going to go meet my mysterious client at the Pacific Asia Museum on Memorial Day. Who knew who this man was, this Ryan Stone? He had paid me for my troubles for the past ten days, but based on the specific items left in his storage container, he seemed to have a hidden agenda. He didn’t want me to just get rid of the discarded objects but find either their rightful owners or at least someone who would appreciate them. Why me? Why had he given me that assignment?

“But Mom, we have to go. We’ve been working so hard. Maybe he’ll finally explain himself. Or give you a reward?” my daughter, Sycamore, said.

“There’s not going to be a reward, so don’t expect that. He may be mentally imbalanced. I mean, who else would create such a weird assignment?”

The pandemic was waning a little—at least California didn’t have a surge like other parts of the country. More potential customers were calling me. I was trying to see these past ten days as a gift to get us through a difficult financial time.

“What’s going to happen at a museum? It’s right next to a large street.” Sycamore kept working on me, wearing me down. These past 75 days were especially tough, with her working remotely at home and being separated from her classmates, her father, and even newborn half-brother. The project, I had to admit, had brought life back into her eyes and maybe in mine, too.

“Well, we’ll see,” I conceded. Sycamore cheered. She knew that she had won.

* * * * *

Before we left for the Pacific Asia Museum on the evening of Memorial Day, I called Stewart and explained the situation to him. I wanted at least one other person to know where we had gone to…in case we went missing.

“I wish I could go with you two,” Stewart apologized.

“I know, the baby and everything. How is he doing, anyway?”

“A little less colicky.”

“That’s good.” Sycamore had been a sensitive baby, crying for mysterious reasons that both Stewart and I struggled to identify.

“Do you think I should go? Maybe he’s a serial killer.”

“A serial killer at the Pacific Asia Museum? I doubt it. But program 911 on your phone, just in case.”

That piece of advice didn’t make me feel better. Stewart was a jokester, always trying to loosen me up. That contributed to our relationship problems, but I had to admit that I missed his lightness at times.

I made sure that I dressed in my running shoes and brought an umbrella, even though there was not a cloud in the darkening sky. I was ready to defend my daughter and myself if things got strange.

We were a few minutes late. I was able to easily find street parking—not many people were walking the streets. Sycamore jumped out of the truck and ran to the two statues standing guard at the doorway. “The stone lions!” Sycamore called out. She loved that their mouths were open, ready to protect the building from outsiders.

“Wait!” I called out. “You stay right next to me, okay.”

I poked my head into the walkway leading to the gallery and garden. There was a large sign on a stand. “Museum Closed. Special Event.”

“Oh, there must have been a mix-up,” I said, almost relieved. And then Sycamore ran ahead of me into the museum courtyard.

“Sycamore!” I wasn’t sure if there was some kind of Pied Piper song that had entranced my daughter.

I chased after her and found myself in the courtyard, alit with small decorative electric bulbs strung over the tinkling pond, colorful koi darting in the water. Even they were excited.

“What—” I stopped in my tracks and watched as Sycamore was jumping up and down like she was on a trampoline. She was waving her hands over her head.

“Dad! Dad!” she yelled.

At the top of the stairs of the courtyard building stood Stewart, his hair shaggier than I had ever seen. His girlfriend stood behind him with baby Benji in her arms.

“You—” I said out loud, but no one was listening to me. Stewart was Ryan Stone. Ryan Stone. Lion Stone. Stone Lion. I wasn’t sure how he disguised his voice, but he had plenty of friends who would have stepped in. I didn’t know whether to be mad or delighted.

“Sycamore, your mask!” I instructed and she dutifully pulled out her Hello Kitty mask from her pocket while Stewart and his girlfriend put on theirs. Stewart took Benji from his mother’s arms and held him out for Sycamore to see.

“Your brother!” he declared. Benji was technically Sycamore’s half-brother, but who cared? Especially in a pandemic, she needed blood relatives around her more than ever.

Stewart’s girlfriend retrieved the baby and walked down a few feet for my daughter to get a closer look. Because of COVID, Sycamore knew enough to keep her distance. “Oh, he’s so cute,” she cooed. “He’s much bigger in person.”

Stewart, meanwhile, remained up on the steps and looked down at me. “So I stumped you. You didn’t think it was me? Even regarding that car grille?”

I shook my head, feeling a little like a fool.

“Those guys were my friends. It was actually their grille in the first place.”

“So they were putting on a show? But why?”

“You wouldn’t take any money from me when the lockdown began. I couldn’t have you and Sycamore living on rice and natto.”

“There’s nothing wrong with natto,” I replied.

“I was worried when it was taking you so long. I had only a few things in that locker.”

I frowned. “What are you talking about?”

“I put in the perfume jars, the car grille, chinaware, and those old magazines. And just a bunch of trash.”

Sycamore overheard our conversation and came to my side. “No, Dad, there were the old photo albums, the wood name plates from a World War II camp, the old Motown records, the seeds. And the softball equipment and the arare molds.”

“I didn’t put those things in there.”

“Yes, you did,” I said. I didn’t understand why he was lying.

Stewart tightened his jaw. Was he telling us the truth?

My cell phone rang and I pulled it out to see that it was my parents from Japan. “What’s happened?” I answered, worried.

It was my mother. “Oh, a man named Ishi-san just called us to tell us to contact you,” she said in Japanese. “We were concerned that something unexpected had occurred.”

Ishi-san? Like Mr. Stone. “When did he call?”

“Just a few minutes ago.”

But Stewart had been here, speaking to us. And he would not go to the trouble to hiring someone to call my parents to complete his ruse.

I glanced at my daughter smiling at her newborn half-brother and father. There were pairs of stone lions everywhere in the courtyard. I wasn’t sure who had sent the message to call my parents but I decided that it didn’t matter. The point was, in this moment of May 31, 2020, I was connected to all the people who meant anything to me. And these ten days of cleanup had me enter the lives of other families and meet people devoted to drawing lines between the present and the past. We were all healthy and for a moment, happy. I decided then that some mysteries weren’t meant to be solved but only accepted.


© 2021 Naomi Hirahara

fiction naomi hirahara pasadena

About this series

Hiroko Houki, the proprietor of the cleaning business, Souji RS, reluctantly agrees to take on a mysterious client who wants her to clear out his storage unit. However, it’s the middle of the pandemic, and Hiroko’s usual recipients of used items—thrift stores—are closed. It turns out some of the items have historic value and Hiroko attempts to return them to various previous owners or their descendants, sometimes with disastrous results. 

Ten Days of Cleanup is a 12-chapter serial story published exclusively on Discover Nikkei. A new chapter will be release on the 4th of each month.

Read Chapter One