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The Walk to Makino

First Place 2014 Fiction Contest Winner

“My father is flying, my father is flying,” Rachel chants as they rush around the house in a panic, moving their mattress down to the tatami room and making their bedroom ready for the visit. 

“Do you realize he’ll be here twenty-one days? That’s one-fifth of our stay in Japan,” Sam says.

“One-fifth doesn’t seem like so much,” Rachel replies.

“It’s twenty percent.”

“Well, now that you put it that way. …”

She’s not actually sure he will be on the plane. When she talked to him last week, he was at home in California, and his voice was so filled with alcohol it was a river spilling over its banks, saturating everything in its path, including his daughter. “Don’ thing I’ll come, hate flying what’did ya talk me inta this for must be crazy yer crazy for even going to Japan it’s too far too far too far.” He called her back a few days later, his voice reined in, explaining he had been sick, but now he was better.

She and Sam spread out guidebooks on the coffee table and make lists of places to go. “Can he walk okay?” Sam asks. He has only met this father one time, a year ago, in the twenty years that he has been with Rachel.

“Walk? Of course he can walk,” Rachel says. “Well, he always used to be able to walk.”

“I just meant that he’s past eighty. He’s bound to have some limitations.”

“You’re right. Sorry for snapping. I guess we won’t be able to go to Nara to see the Daibutsu. I thought if he saw a Buddha fifty-three feet tall, there’d be a chance he’d remember it.”

Rachel goes over to the telephone table and takes out a bag from the lower compartment. She extracts a half-liter of whiskey and holds it up so a sunbeam threads through it, causing the amber liquid to glow.

“What’s that for?” Sam asks. He’s amused as he imagines Rachel negotiating in Japanese for this squat bottle of Suntory liquor.

She shrugs. “I thought it would be something to tide him over in case he wants a drink.”

“It won’t tide him very far”

“I know. But I’m not sure if he drinks scotch or whiskey, so I didn’t want to overspend in case I got it wrong.”  She places it in the dining area on the bottom shelf of the cart for the rice cooker.

• • •

Day two of the visit Rachel knocks on the door of the bedroom where her father is sleeping. “Come in,” he says. 

She finds him sitting on the edge of the bed. “I woke up in the middle of the night and I wasn’t sure where I was,” he said. “I had no idea. And then I tried to go to the bathroom, but I nearly killed myself getting down the stairs.”

“Dad,” she says, going over to him. “There’s a bathroom upstairs, and you have to be careful on the steps.”

“Well, they must be waxed or something.”

She pats his hand, noticing his crisp new pajamas. All the clothes she helped him unpack are new, most still with the price tags attached. His hair is white and combed back behind his ears, longer than he probably wore it when he was a judge, but not too long. His moustache is lean and bristly, yellowed from smoking. This is the first time since she was nine that she has stayed under the same roof with her father.

Downstairs she gives Sam the bad news. He’s Mr. Moustache too, only his mushrooms out from his face, looking frothy instead of bristly. “Guess what? We have to move the mattresses.”

“No.” He looks up from his bowl of hot rice and the Sumo magazine.

“He nearly fell going down the steps.”

“He’ll have to sleep with the mattress on the floor down here. There’s no way to lug the whole bed down, and besides, the straw mats would be destroyed.”

They tell him the plan of switching sleeping places and what it will mean. “That’s fine,” her father says. “Just fine.” He noses around in the tatami room, bending to touch the straw, imagining his new digs. When they bring the single mattress down and the double back up, he sits all the way on the floor and pats the mattress. “This is great. I think I’ll move my bed to the floor when I get back to California. This is how everyone should sleep.” 

Rachel carries down his clothes and rearranges them in the cupboard in the tatami room. It’s a six-mat room, good-sized, about the dimensions of her and Sam’s dining room back in the U.S. Her father rustles around behind her. She turns, and he’s buttoning his travel vest, which has ten pockets in front and a large, zippered one on the back. “I’m ready to see Japan,” he says. “I’ve been cooped up here too long.”

“We thought you needed at least a day to rest.”

“Well, I’ve had my day.” 

“We’re out of whole wheat bread. Maybe we can go to the store that sells it.”

“Let’s go.”

“It’s far, Dad. Over a mile. And there’s no bus.”

“I can walk. I don’t need a bus.”

“Are you sure?”

“Quite sure.”

“I’ll just get my sweater.” Rachel finds Sam trimming his moustache. She comes up behind him and peeks over his shoulder. “Not too much,” she cautions.

“I just have to get this side even,” he says. 

She shuffles her fingers through her short hair, then shakes it into place. “This is the plan. My dad and I will walk to Makino for bread.”

“Good plan,” Sam says. “I can grade a few papers.”

“Not necessarily. What if he can’t make it?”

“You can always catch a taxi by Makino Station. This way we’ll see if he’s able to walk. That will tell us what kind of stamina he has for sightseeing. And remember the bench half way, you can always sit on the bench to rest.” 

Their excursion begins. Outside the March day is cool and lovely with the wind rustling through the grove of take. How lucky to have this tiny bamboo forest across the road from the house. “When you come outside to smoke,” Rachel says to her father, “you can go out the gate and walk along here by the bamboo.”

“I’m not going anywhere on my own,” he says. “I can’t speak the language. If I take a wrong turn I wouldn’t know how to ask to get back.”

“But there are no turns along here. You could just walk down a ways and come back.”

“I might not remember the direction.” He fishes in one of his many vest pockets and plucks out a cigarette. “Now if I can just find the damn lighter.” They stop at the end of the grove and he pats the various pockets until he finds the red plastic.

 They’ve been walking about three minutes. “How are you doing, Dad?” 

“I’m doing fine, just fine. How are you doing?” He chuckles at her when she doesn’t answer right away.

“I’m fine, too.” She loops her arm through his and she guides him around a bend and then around another, avoiding the raging shepherd dog contained in a yard with a too-short fence. Every house is fenced and gated with carefully trimmed trees and bushes. Forsythias are just out, a splurge of delicate yellows everywhere.

They come to a little area with dancing bears painted on the cement walk. People bring their dogs here. It’s a respite from walking on the narrow streets where there are no sidewalks. The bench that Sam mentioned is up ahead. “Dad, let’s rest over here for a minute.”

“Why? Are you tired? Okay, if you’re tired, we can stop.”

“I’m not tired.”

“Well, I don’t need to stop.”

They keep walking, across another street and walk along a ravine where they can look down to the Hotani, whose muddy trickle challenges the notion of river. They stay close to the guardrail, walking single file to avoid traffic. As they approach the station area, there’s a row of shops on the right. Bars, tofu shops, bicycle stores. In one drinking place the bar is very close to the sliding shop doors, which are glass on top and corrugated tin on the bottom. Wooden bar stools, splintered and scuffed are up against the door. The idea is that when the door slides open the patrons will be sitting with their backs to the street.

The glass is filthy, and Rachel peeks in seeing piled up dishes and containers of food left out on the counters. Her father is also pressed up to the glass looking in. Maybe he’s imagining himself inside drinking with the regulars when it opens later. She’s heard some of the students from the university where she and Sam are teaching for a semester mention this place. It’s called Tropic Heaven, even though there isn’t a coconut or pineapple in sight to attempt a tropic motif. Fifty yen will get you a glass of some kind of soapy looking beer.

“My god,” her father says. “Will you look at that?”

“What?” She moves closer to him, and sees.

“No,” she says. “I don’t believe it.”  Her father laughs, pushing the laughter through his nose so it comes out a snuffle. On one of the stools is a calico cat, one of the wretched, mangy cats that scrounges in the brush above the Hotani River. She’s lying on her side, nursing several kittens. It’s so astounding to see this inside the shop that they stare for a few minutes. 

Finally they walk on. “You know,” her father says. “I remember when your mother was nursing you.”

Rachel listens hard. She never remembers her father talking about her childhood.

“She’d always go to a rocking chair. We had one downstairs and one upstairs. You were so thirsty that we thought she would run out of milk.” He chuckles at the memory.

“I remember the green rocker upstairs. But I don’t remember the one downstairs.”

“That one might have been black,” her father says.

“Careful,” she calls out. She nudges him closer to the row of shops, avoiding a car by an inch on the narrow street. 

They go into Keihan—The Store! and down the escalator to the supermarket section. Rachel speeds up, her eyes on the bread aisle. She spots the loaves of whole wheat, four of them, on the top shelf. “This is more than they usually have,” she tells her father.

“The slices are too thick.”

“That’s how they are—double sized. I usually slice them in half.” She gives two loaves to her father and she carries two to the checkout. 

“There are only five slices in this bag, Rachel.”

“It’s okay, Dad. I’ll make them into ten when we get home.”

“Maybe they have another brand with thinner slices.”

“That’s it. That’s what they have.” She remembers they need milk and orange juice and dashes back to retrieve a liter of each, leaving her father to hold their place in line. When she returns, he’s up to the counter with the loaves already on the conveyer, and he’s looking warily around.

“You almost didn’t get back in time.”

“But I did.”

“What would have happened if you hadn’t?” His voice is strained.

“Nothing, Dad. Nothing would have happened. You could have stepped out of line and waited. I was just over there.”

They walk back more quickly than they came. Her father insists on carrying the groceries, and they don’t even give a thought to resting on a bench. “Can you remember anything else from around that time?” Rachel asks.

“What time?” Her father stops, putting the bags down on the road to light a cigarette.

“The time when I was very little. What else can you remember?”

“I can’t remember anything. It was too long ago. I wasn’t surprised though when I heard about your mother getting emphysema. She had problems breathing way before we divorced. She smoked more cigarettes than I do.” 

Day twenty-two—they have put her father on the airplane, after the trip to Hiroshima—day ten of the visit—where he started drinking again, after the trips to Kyoto and Osaka, to Iwashimizu Hachiman-gu, the shrine on a mountain you get to by cable car, after walking through o-hanami, the cherry blossom festival, after their visit to the fifty-three foot Buddha, he gets on the airplane, still wearing his travel vest, the pockets clinking with dozens of yen coins he’ll give as souvenirs. 

At home, near dark, they remember it’s recycling the next day. Most of their recycling this time is in the form of glass, specifically whiskey bottles of the Suntory persuasion, liter bottles that clash and clatter in the shopping bags as they carry them halfway to Makino through the quiet neighborhood to the drop-off spot. They leave their four bags slumping there in the crates. Who is this father who brought exactly one story with him about how thirsty Rachel was as a baby? If he hadn’t seen the calico cat, he might not have told it. He’s a man who is perpetually thirsty himself, whose kitchen counter holds dozens of glasses with puddles of whiskey in the bottoms waiting to be washed. Some families use photographs as evidence, as celebration of a reunion. For Rachel, it’s the bottles that serve as proof that her father came thousands of miles to visit.

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Contributors

Karen Loeb grew up in Chicago, and has called several states home since then: Ohio, Florida and, since 1988, Wisconsin. In 2008 her daughter, she, and her husband went back to China, their daughter’s birthplace, for an extended stay. Her poetry has appeared recently in The New Ohio Review, The Cape Rock, Hanging Loose and elsewhere.

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