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The International Writers Magazine: Life Stories:

A Puff of Smoke
James C Clar

Natsuko was reading Paul Theroux’s 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 as well.

Basically, that’s 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 Mainland.

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 wasn’t very good. Besides, you weren’t 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 Natsuko’s greatest joys was meeting the tourists who visited the islands from all over the world. They’d stop in to buy a book to read at the beach or on that long plane ride back home. She’d often recommend something or offer a brief book review if she thought it might be appreciated. There wasn’t much in the Fiction and Literature section she hadn’t 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 drinking fountain?

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, they’d 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 hadn’t actually published anything yet. She didn’t care one way or the other and, God-forbid, she’d never ask, but she suspected that he might be gay. She’d 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 he’d 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 didn’t even know she was alive. Maile didn’t 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 she’d settle for patting Maile on the back and telling her that, eventually, nature would take its course and that, assuredly, she’d find herself a life-partner.

Secretly, however, Natsuko wasn’t so sure. After all, here she was almost eighty and she’d never been married. Never even came close; though, truth be told, she’d had any number of "flings." Oh well, she adored Gerald, Bryan, Maile and all the others as well. She didn’t know what she’d do if she didn’t 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 they’d 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 Marie’s 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 young.

Predictably, it was Gerald who first realized that Natsuko hadn’t 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 Natsuko’s 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 lady’s 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 Oahu’s 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 Bryan’s 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

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.

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