This is an excerpt from my Journey Prize–nominated short story, “Mrs. Fujimoto’s Wednesday Afternoons.”
The sun sparks off the newsstand’s metallic sign. The date on the Yomiuri reads Wednesday, June 6, 1951. It is noon and Mayuko, along with two new friends, is strolling the main street of the city in that neighbouring prefecture. All three sport trendy polka-dot dresses with full skirts, but while the friends have opted for slim belts that cinch in their waists, Mayuko has wrapped a wide sash, obi-style, just under her breasts. The three swing handbags, coil hair behind ears, dash across the street to the record store.
On the empty lot beside the store, two American soldiers slouch against a shrivelled willow tree. Whiffs of smoke drift from the cigarettes between their stubby fingers, and reckless laughs flee their throats. Mayuko’s friends whisper excitedly. She catches the words “Frank Sinatra.” But to Mayuko these men do not resemble Sinatra. One has the spotty yellow skin and bloated belly of a fugu, the poisonous blowfish. The other resembles a crab, with his sunburnt face and gangly limbs.
Is it because of them that all this has happened, Mayuko wonders. That her father was beaten that night a decade ago? That, weary and dispirited, he recently sold his company to wealthy Mr. Hampton of Rhode Island? That her mother, weakened from post-war diphtheria, no longer has the strength to lift the big pitcher to water her irises?
A third man joins the others. He is not like anyone Mayuko has ever seen. His skin is pale and luminous as that of a peach, his blond hair soft and wavy. His uniform hugs his slim, slightly muscular frame. From the tips of his long fingers dangles a three-inch wooden amulet. An amulet from a Buddhist temple. He speaks—his voice is low and sonorous as the murmur of the ocean in a seashell.
Fugu grabs the amulet, hangs it from his nose, and waddles around the tree. Crab cracks up. The third man smiles but his eyes cloud over. He grabs the amulet and cups it in his hand. The others guffaw.
She feels a poke in the ribs. “Go talk to them, Mayu.” Mayuko shakes her head. “Yes,” says the second friend. “Didn’t your father used to teach you English? Talk to them in English. Ask them their names.” “Ask them if they have girlfriends,” says the first. The two giggle.
Mayuko looks down. “That was a long time ago. I don’t remember any English.”
“Con-itchy-wall!” Fugu shouts. He and Crab beckon the girls. Mayuko’s friends titter, then scamper over. She follows, careful to remain behind them.
Fugu and Crab make several embarrassing attempts at Japanese, to the tinkly delight of the friends. The third man gazes at the amulet. Then Fugu notices Mayuko. “Geisha!” he exclaims, pointing to her sash. He and Crab look past the other girls to Mayuko, their eyes moving over her body like snakes slithering up and down hills. She looks at the pavement.
The other girls exchange looks. One fumbles in her handbag, pulling out a camera and gesturing to it. Fugu claps and shouts, and she shoves the camera into Mayuko’s hands. “Here, you take the picture.”
Mayuko retreats several paces and when she looks up, a tableau is in place. Crab in the middle, beside the tree, one drooping branch looking as if it is sprouting from his ear. Fugu slouching on the right. The girls in front, faces stupid with shy giddiness. The third man to the left, a couple of paces away, his eyes like blue topaz. Mayuko holds the camera to her face. His gaze intensifies through the prism of the lens. She names him Romeo. Romeo from Massachusetts.
Fugu shouts. Her friends exhort her to hurry up. She positions her finger on the button. At the last second, she shifts the camera so that Romeo is the focal point, cutting off her friends’ legs and slicing Fugu’s body in half. Click.
Her friends are upon her, their boldness evaporated, and she is pulled towards the record store. Nails claw into her tingly skin, bubbly voices hammer at the shell encasing her ears.
Two weeks later, the friend with the camera moves away. Mayuko never sees the picture.