International Writers Magazine: Life Stories:
A Puff of Smoke
James C Clar
was reading Paul Therouxs The Happy Isles of Oceania.
She found the author somewhat arrogant and mean-spirited at times
but Oh how he could write. And, she had to admit, he did have a
wonderful feel for the Polynesian mentality. The elderly Japanese-American
woman had spent the last six weeks working her way through the Travel
Essays section of the Borders Bookstore at Ward Centre. Before that
she devoured a good portion of the titles in Biography.
Just last summer,
she put a pretty hefty dent in Hawaiiana (her favorite!) and Local History
Basically, thats how Natsuko spent her time now. Four or five
days a week she would ride the Bus from her apartment to Borders where
she would read from, maybe, 10:15 in the morning until it was time to
go home and make herself something to eat around 7:00 or so each evening.
Everyone on staff here knew her and, in fact, she had been adopted by
them as a kind of eccentric grandmother figure. Of course no one ever
gave her any trouble about loitering or about actually reading the books
and magazines; this was Hawaii, after all, and thus most everyone took
things like that a little less seriously than they might have on the
Natsuko used to go to the library, but once they opened this store she
was hooked. It took weeks, sometimes months, for the library to get
the latest titles. And, even then, the selection just wasnt very
good. Besides, you werent supposed to talk in the library
though these days she imagined that there would be cell phones and pagers
going off all over the place. Here, on the other hand, you could talk
yourself blue in the face if you wanted to the staff, to the
customers. In fact, one of Natsukos greatest joys was meeting
the tourists who visited the islands from all over the world. Theyd
stop in to buy a book to read at the beach or on that long plane ride
back home. Shed often recommend something or offer a brief book
review if she thought it might be appreciated. There wasnt much
in the Fiction and Literature section she hadnt read. All of that
plus the little coffee shop up the stairs on the second floor; what
did the library have to offer compared with that, a leaky old porcelain
All of that aside, it was still the staff and her relationship with
them that most attracted Natsuko. If those youngsters only knew how
much she had grown to love them, theyd probably blush.
There was Gerald who worked Tuesday and Thursday during the day
and weekends in the evening. He fancied himself a writer but, as far
as Natsuko was able to discover, he hadnt actually published anything
yet. She didnt care one way or the other and, God-forbid, shed
never ask, but she suspected that he might be gay. Shed done a
great deal of reading on that subject but, in the end, she was as baffled
and confused as most of the so-called "experts."
Bryan was a graduate student at the University of Hawaii. He
told Natsuko one day that he was studying "film." She had
no idea what hed ever do with a degree in that, but she had spent
some time browsing in Photography and Film Studies so that she could
converse with him in a knowledgeable way. Bryan seemed to appreciate
her efforts and, in fact, there had even been a few times when he solicited
her opinion concerning the usefulness of various texts and resources
related to the research he was doing for school.
Maile was a beautiful young thing but she had very little self-confidence
and even less luck in matters of the heart. The poor girl was always
going on about breaking up with this fellow or about how she was pining
after some other guy who didnt even know she was alive. Maile
didnt come in most days until the afternoon and, so, Natsuko would
dawdle for a half-hour or so each morning in the Psychology, Self-Help
and Relationship areas. Unfortunately, she found much of what was written
there to be pure twaddle. Most often shed settle for patting Maile
on the back and telling her that, eventually, nature would take its
course and that, assuredly, shed find herself a life-partner.
Secretly, however, Natsuko wasnt so sure. After all, here she
was almost eighty and shed never been married. Never even came
close; though, truth be told, shed had any number of "flings."
Oh well, she adored Gerald, Bryan, Maile and all the others as well.
She didnt know what shed do if she didnt have them
to fuss and worry over. Not to mention the fact that their individual
stories and personal travails helped organize and focus her reading.
Two years ago theyd hired that girl from Paris. Of course Natsuko
had to pop over to the Modern Language section and teach herself French.
You should have seen the look on Maries face when Natsuko began
conversing with her en Français.
Maybe things would turn out for Maile, after all. Who could say? Besides,
there were worse things than being alone. Natsuko had been alone most
of her life and she was reasonably happy. Her parents had died in an
internment camp just after December 7, 1941. Natsuko was ten at the
time and she barely remembered those days. Her memory of the conflict
that ensued in the years that followed surrounding the Japanese language
schools in Hawaii, however, was quite vivid. She had been a participant
in that drama. When the dust finally settled and cooler heads prevailed
as they most often did she spent the rest of her adult
life teaching in just such an institution. She had been loved and respected
by her students, to be sure, but, in all honesty, her colleagues always
seemed to find her more than a little strange and intimidating. Natsuko
had always known that she marched to the beat of a different island
drummer. And there were times in the past when she wished she had been
more like everyone else; as she had grown older, however, and especially
in the years since she had retired, she absolutely gloried in her uniqueness.
In any case, the foibles of the aged tended to be accepted with the
same benevolent condescension as the solipsistic behavior of the very
Predictably, it was Gerald who first realized that Natsuko hadnt
been seen in the store for almost a week. Maile asked around to see
if anyone knew where the old woman lived. She figured that, even though
no one could come up with Natsukos last name, they might be able
to make a few phone calls (for all of its size and cosmopolitan ways,
Honolulu was still very much a "small town") and find out
if anything were wrong. A number of the "regulars" seemed
to recall Natsuko getting on and off the bus that went to Salt Lake.
Others thought that maybe she lived in Pearl City while a few of the
part-timers on staff swore the weird old Japanese woman resided in Waikiki.
Bryan, who seemed to be the one who most recognized and appreciated
the old ladys particular talents and thus he was also the
one most in awe of her quipped that she had probably been picked
up by Homeland Security or spirited off to a secret government "think
tank" somewhere. The jokes and jibes abounded but, try as they
might, no one who worked at the bookstore could hide their concern as
the days, and then the weeks, passed and Natsuko failed to re-appear.
Bryan really began to worry as the deadline for his next graduate paper
drew near. In time, however, and in the press of daily duties and events,
the memory of the ancient Japanese woman faded like the morning mist
that often hovered wraith-like over Oahus many lush, green valleys.
Meanwhile, Natsuko lay strapped to a bed in a geriatric facility over
near Ewa Beach. Her neighbors had found her one morning, unresponsive,
on the floor of her apartment. The old woman who, unbeknownst to everyone,
had been suffering from a rare cerebral-vascular condition called moyamoya
(Japanese for "puff of smoke") was the victim of a massive
stroke. As well as being partially paralyzed, she had also lost the
ability to speak.
Mercifully, or perhaps not, her mind was largely unaffected. Each day
now she traveled mentally to far distant climes and, in the late watches
of the night, she recalled and thus, in a sense, re-read every book
she had ever opened. As a complete prisoner of her memories and
with nothing whatsoever to do but think she had even come up
with a solution for Maile and formulated some sound advice for Gerald.
The topic of Bryans latest paper remained somewhat problematic
but, if given enough time, she was sure she could work that out as well
© James C. Clar August 2008
JCC55883 at aol.com
BIO James C. Clar is a teacher and writer from upstate New York. His
work has appeared in a variety of print and Internet publications. Most
recently, his short fiction has been published in The Magazine of Crime
& Suspense, Everyday Fiction, Flashshot, Long Story, Short, Coffee
Cramp Ezine, Powder Burn Flash and the Taj Mahal Review.
stories in Dreamscapes
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