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Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest VIII

The Throw

Reggie strolled through Little Tokyo, feeling content and happy in his favorite part of Los Angeles. Angular office buildings cut into the clear blue sky like sleek, indifferent businessmen. Below them, the streets buzzed. Reggie could feel the energy, the life under his feet. He cut through the Japanese Village Plaza, just because he wanted to walk under the little trees and red lanterns that seemed to gaze down like round, benevolent gods on the tourist shops, manga stores, hibachi restaurants, make-up salons, and kiosks selling hats featuring Japanese characters. The shopkeepers sweeping the sidewalks and calling out to one another in Japanese comforted him, spoke to the routine of the beginning of another day, an ordinary day, the kind he liked, with no surprises.

A block from his restaurant, Sara Sushi Bar, a sea green-accented apartment building had recently replaced a concrete parking garage. As he stepped into its shadow, a cool breeze meandered by like a benign ghost and he stopped. On one of the apartment balconies, a woman played a violin. Her long, lean body swayed gently. He stared, trying to convince himself that she was really there, not just a vision conjured up by his restless mind. The underside of the violin obscured his view of her face, but he imagined it to be as perfectly formed as the music. He recognized the piece as Violin Sonata No. 9 “Kreutzer” by Beethoven. Each note floated from the instrument as if with no effort at all, like it wasn’t being created, but simply was. And yet, he could sense the emotion in the piece. The music was a story with conflict and characters. He couldn’t move. The performance captured and held him.

Then, she turned, and he had a glimpse of her face. Her skin was smooth as eggshell and seemed to gather in the sunlight like the moon did—absorbing and reflecting it all at once. Her eyes were closed, and then, gloriously open. She didn’t look at him, but up toward the sky as if she might take off and fly. Somehow, he almost believed that she could.

Someone jostled him and he wanted to scream, yell at the stupidity of whoever it was that didn’t recognize the importance of the moment, a beautiful, serendipitous event that he thought would never be repeated. And when he looked up again, she and the music were gone. It was over.

* * * * *

Reggie’s regular customers occupied most of the sushi bar stools—Mo who owned the mochi ice cream store two doors down, curator Rio Ito from the Japanese American National Museum, two giggling toy shop clerks named Nancy and Carl, and an artist who called himself Lotus and always paid in cash.

Reggie had fat, stubby fingers, but he’d taught them to move like dancers. He could slice fish fast enough to handle the bar completely by himself, even during the lunch rush. Dave, his only employee, said he wanted to learn to make sushi, but Reggie refused to teach him. The kid lacked the patience to learn as Reggie had—starting with filleting whole fish and the tricky art of making sushi rice. Reggie’s teacher, the now deceased Sara, had allowed him to do only those basic tasks until she felt that he had mastered them. That took two years. Then, she showed him how to make sushi rolls, nigiri, and finally, the most precise dish they served—sashimi.

Reggie arranged the glistening strips of fish flesh perched on their thrones of sushi rice in the middle of a rectangular ceramic plate. The clerks nodded in thanks and continued their half-whispered conversation. Reggie began the next order. A California roll, naturally, and a spicy tuna. As he reached for his bamboo sushi roller and placed it on the board in front of him, he heard a loud voice utter one of his least favorite sentences in the English language. “You’re that guy, aren’t you?”

“No,” Reggie answered, figuring that he wasn’t lying since the loudmouth hadn’t bothered to specify what guy.

But the man wasn’t listening anyway because the next thing he said was, “He is. Look.”

Reggie knew without looking that he was holding up a phone. Showing a picture or video of him. It didn’t matter which one. Reggie hated them all.

“Dude.” The man was approaching now, eyes still on his phone. Leaning over an empty seat at the bar, he stared at Reggie. “What happened?”

“I don’t know,” Reggie said. That was the truth. He had no idea what had happened that day, five years ago. He could remember every second of it, each footfall, the crowd noise like some kind of uncontrollable monster, the expression on the face of his furious coach, but he still didn’t know the answer.

“Leave him alone,” Mo said mildly.

Reggie spread rice onto the bamboo sushi roller, judging the amount needed by feel alone. Next, he laid a sheet of nori over it and placed the avocado, crab meat, and thin sticks of cucumber in the exact center, then quickly rolled. As he removed the roller, he looked up. The loudmouth was gone.

* * * * *

A month later, Reggie was making another California roll, the most popular item on the menu. Unlike most sushi chefs, who used imitation crab or king crab legs shipped frozen from Alaska, Reggie always put in locally caught rock crab. Most of the customers didn’t know the difference, but he liked making a little tribute to his home state. Mo was at the counter again. Reggie figured his son must be working the mochi ice cream shop because he’d been there for a while, nursing a pot of matcha tea.

As he sliced the roll, a woman walked in carrying a violin case. He might not have recognized her except for that, even though he saw her almost every day now. Twice a week, he had to make a trip to the fish market and then drive to work, but whenever he walked, he saw her on the balcony, playing. It was always the same piece, yet it sounded different each time. Some days, he thought she must be sad since the notes were melancholy, as if they didn’t want to leave the body of the violin. Other times, the music sounded guardedly optimistic, not exactly happy, but hoping for good things. One day, he felt her anger roiling under the melody, threatening to tear the notes apart. The piece was always beautiful, though, and he always stayed a little too long, risking her seeing him staring. But she never did.

She set down the violin case and sat at the counter. Reggie’s hands shook. It was too much to see her up close. He felt like a kid face to face with the real Santa Claus. There was no way he could tell her that he’d heard her playing without her thinking he was a stalker. He started to give the California roll to Mo, who hadn’t ordered it. Mo raised his eyebrows at him. Reggie ignored his unspoken question and handed the roll to Dave to take to the group of tourists in the corner.

“You play violin?” he said, stupidly.

“Yes,” she said. “You’d be surprised how many people think I have a gun in this case. How many twenty-two-year-old Japanese girls walk around with gun cases?”

Reggie shrugged, figuring the conversation was over. Here he was, finally talking to this incredibly talented woman and he couldn’t think of anything to say.

“I just won the Amerigo contest. The Olympics of solo violin contests.” She cocked her head to the side. “Wait a minute. You’re the discus thrower. From the actual Olympics.”

Reggie sighed. “Yes.” Suddenly, he didn’t want to talk to her anymore. If they hadn’t met, he could have held onto his vision of her. Instead, they were going to repeat the same conversation he’d had a hundred times. Then, she’d turn into an ordinary person and his life would become dull again. He didn’t like to admit how much he enjoyed seeing and hearing her play.

He waited for the next question, but it didn’t come. “I won and I don’t even care. I’ve worked for this my whole life. Like you must have with the discus. What’s wrong with me?” she said.

“I didn’t do it my whole life,” he said. “I started in junior high. I joined the track team because my friends were on it, but I was too fat to run, so they made me do shotput and discus. I was pretty good at it.”

“And?” she leaned forward and rested her chin in her hands like a stereotype of a listener. But, unlike the tourists who just wanted to laugh at him, she really was listening.

“And I practiced a ridiculous amount, lifted weights, all that. My high school track team went to state. I was first in discus. So, I just kept doing it. It wasn’t so much that I loved it, just that everyone expected me to do it. And somehow, I ended up on the Olympic team.”

“L.A. boy makes it big. Almost,” she said.

“It would have been okay if someone else was just better,” Reggie said. Dave handed him a ticket and he started making the tuna nigiri and tiger roll. The Russian Olympian might have thrown his discus farther than Reggie could have. Watching it arc up and slice through the air, he’d known Michail would be the one to beat. He’d been eager for the challenge, ready to go. “But I tripped over my own feet.”

“Which isn’t really possible.” She tilted her head to the side again, but somehow to him it didn’t look silly. She seemed to already know what he was going to say and yet he still wanted to tell her.

He focused on slicing the tuna. Each kind of fish and more than that, each piece of fish, felt different under his knife. This particular square of flesh, which he’d carved from a whole tuna the size of an ironing board, was firm, yet not tough. It pushed against the knife, but ultimately lost, yielding into exactly the shape he wanted. He draped it over the rectangle of rice on the plate and said, “One foot went wrong. I don’t know why. I’d practiced that move thousands of times. The spin was always the same. People do it differently and change it over the course of their athletic career. Usually, you begin as a junior high student and by the time you graduate high school, you’re taller, maybe heavier, so you have to adjust it. The force of motion shifts. Your center of gravity isn’t the same. Mine, though, didn’t change that much. My body has felt pretty much the same to me ever since I started track. That day, though, something happened. It was my body, and then it wasn’t. And everything went wrong.”

“You tripped, but you didn’t fall.”

Obviously, she’d seen one of the many videos circulating thanks to cell phone cameras. “I guess that was something—that I managed not to end up splat on my ass,” he said.

“What if you’d won?” she asked. “How would you have felt?”

No one had ever asked him that question. They always wanted to know how it felt to lose. “I don’t know. I lost.”

“Do you think you would’ve been happy?” she pressed on.

Would winning have made him happy? Was it what he ultimately wanted? He’d worked hard to get to the Olympics, so he must have wanted to win, or at least come home with a medal. He could have hung it in the restaurant. But other than that, would his life be that much different now? Either way, five years after the Olympics, he’d be making sushi. Living alone in his spare apartment, watching anime after work. “I don’t think it would have made me happy, really. I’d still be in the same place I am now.”

“But at the time, when it happened, you would have felt something, right?” She sounded desperate, like his answer was more important than any other question that had ever been asked.

“I think so,” he said, trying to be honest, but also to give her what she was seeking. “But I’m not sure. When you work so hard for something and it finally happens, it can be kind of a disappointment. You expect fireworks, an orchestra. But the world just goes on. There’s no fireworks.” He paused. “I’ve seen you practicing.”

“I just started playing on the balcony,” she said, not seeming surprised that he’d noticed her. “I wanted to challenge myself. I thought it’d make me nervous to know that anyone could hear.”

Dave gave her a glass of water and then took the finished plate from Reggie.

“You deserved to win,” Reggie said.

“So did you.”

“Don’t tell me you’re a track and field fan.”

“Not really. But they showed the clips on TV. Showed you throwing farther than the other contestants in the state and regional contests. And now you’re making sushi.”

Quickly, he sliced some of the best salmon, a piece he’d kept aside just for sashimi. He fanned it out in a bowl, and then added thin slices of tuna and yellowtail.

“I’m not sure what to do next,” she said as he set the bowl in front of her.

“I was already working in this restaurant. When I made the throw,” he said. “So it was easy to just give it up and come back here. But your career is just beginning. You’re too good to stop.”

Using her chopsticks, she picked up a piece of salmon, just as deftly as he’d expected, and ate it slowly. He could tell that she appreciated the quality of the fish, and the way he’d sliced and served it. One artist recognized another. She finished the bowl and then said, “I started at three years old, so I didn’t choose violin. My parents did. And now they’re both gone. My mother died of cancer and my father passed away right after her. I’ve thought about doing something else, but this is all I’ve ever known. I didn’t even go to college. I went to a conservatory, where they only teach music.”

“You could get a position in an orchestra.”

“I know. I could be one of the thirty violins in a symphony. All of them just as good as me, or better.” She hung her head for a moment, a curtain of long, straight hair on either side of her face. “How much do I owe you?”

“Nothing,” he said. “I’ve been enjoying your music for free. I owe you.”

She picked up her violin case and he thought he saw tears in her eyes. But too quickly, she turned and left. Reggie stared at the empty stool. He felt more lonely than he ever had in his life.

 

*This story received honorable mention in the English Adult category of the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s 8th Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest.

 

Emily Beck Cogburn

fiction Imagine Little Tokyo little tokyo

About this series

Each year, the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest heightens awareness of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo by challenging both new and experienced writers to write a story that showcases familiarity with the neighborhood and the people in it. Writers from three categories, Adult, Youth, and Japanese language, weave fictional stories set in the past, present, or future. On May 23, 2021 in a virtual celebration moderated by Michael Palma, noted theatre artists, Greg Watanabe, Jully Lee, and Eiji Inoue performed dramatic readings of each winning entry.

Winners


*Read stories from other Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contests:

Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest I >>
Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest II >>
Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest III >>
Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest IV >>
Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest V >>
Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest VI >>
Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest VII >>