This post is a continuation of a previous story “Tuna and Rice”
I was about to begin kindergarten when my great-grandfather – my grandmother’s father – died from his fourth cancer. There was a funeral. My family and I went, dressed in black, to pay our respects.
My father drove. The rest of us – my sister, my grandparents, my pregnant mother, and me – squeezed into our family car, the grey 1987 Honda Civic.
A hefty man, my grandfather slouched in the passenger seat, and my sister sat tucked between my mother and my grandmother on the faux-leather seats. I was small enough to sit on my grandmother’s lap. The crowded Civic, its windows rolled down by my grandfather’s request, chugged along the tight but smooth Japanese road with ease.
The funeral was large, both in the number of people that attended and the location at which it was held. Nestled at the bottom of a mountain fifty-five kilometers northeast from our home, an hour-long trip by car, the rising figure of the grey funeral site could be seen from a good distance away. What could not be seen were the furnaces for cremation and the Shinto temples behind it and the spacious reception hall inside. A parking lot sprawled in front of the building with black Toyotas, blue Nissans, white Hondas, and silver Mitsubishis filling it. My father parked in the corner furthest away from the building entrance. My mother, clutching her baby bump, complained to him as we got out of our car. I held my grandmother’s hand, slim, veiny, and warm. I remember looking up at her in her plain, black kimono and a black shawl that would have been too much for any other occasion in the summer. Her make-up was perfect, and it concealed everything. From below, I couldn’t see her eyes.
“Mama, where are we eating dinner?” I asked.
“Don’t ask such a stupid question,” responded my sister instead of my mother. I didn’t think it was a stupid question. I didn’t want to be hungry by the time evening rolled around.
The mourners gathered inside the building, its interior and exterior decorated by circular flower decorations with diameters measuring four feet meant to signify someone’s death. Some of these decorations were purple, but most were colored white. Large windows that lined the walls let sunshine into the lobby, but the air conditioning chilled the room and negated any warmth that may have happened to walk in on the affair at hand.
The black-clad group that consisted of family and friends, business partners and strangers, spoke in hushed whispers within the cool walls. Flower-patterned napkins dabbed the wet eyes of the women, and hard clenched features grafted the faces of the men.
My grandmother’s younger sister greeted us as we walked in.
“How’s Okā-san?” My grandmother asked of her mother.
“Tired, I think. Very tired.” My great-aunt answered. She, too, wore a black kimono similar to my grandmother’s but larger due to her height. Her face, which was narrower than her older sister’s and lined with less wrinkles (save for the conspicuous crow’s feet perched around her eyes from years of laughing), turned to each of us as she spoke and tried its best to mask the somber tone of her voice. I had always thought my mother resembled her aunt more than she resembled her own mother.
My great-uncle with the gold, yellow, and white teeth approached my grandfather to talk to him, and my mother and father began to busy themselves with one of my mother’s cousins. Surrounded by black pants and kimonos, I tugged at the hem of my sister’s black dress and asked her if she wanted to go outside to play.
“Ugh, Hikaru. It’s not time to play.” She was busy trying to listen to the conversations of the adults.
“So … no?” I wanted to go outside, explore the parking lot, just get away from the legs and their swivels, pivots, shifts and shuffles. My sister spun her head around to meet my gaze. She had at least twelve inches on me, and she knew how to use her height advantage to give the most patronizing glares. She narrowed her eyes and grabbed my left arm.
“Duh. Stay inside and quit being so… shitsukoi.” She finished the sentence with a quick shove, knocking me to the floor. No one noticed. As I got up, I noted how my sister’s attention had gone back to the adults, and she craned her neck as if doing so would allow her entry into the world of adults.
I hung my head and stalked through the lobby, wondering what wouldn’t be considered annoying to my sister. As more and more people arrived, it became difficult even for my four-year-old body to squeeze through the gaps of people standing around. I walked between two men conversing, the constant bowing and elongated sentences of the younger man denoting respect for the elder. Neither acknowledged that I had almost stepped on their shiny dress shoes. Teen feet away from the two men, three relatively young women wearing black dresses – one of whom recognized me from afar and nodded at me even though I couldn’t recall her round, small face – displayed agitated discomfort: the first grit her teeth without showing them every time she forced a smile during her interaction with the others; the second rubbed her legs and the back of her neck while stealing glances at the door that lead to the funeral ceremony room; the third, the one who recognized me, displayed a visible amount of sweat on her forehead despite the temperature of the lobby, and she sighed as if something weighed down on her shoulders that caused her to sigh in such a way and resulted in her hunched posture. Rouge lips, concealers, and dark mascara – they all wore heavy make up.
Something about how they looked made me walk away from them, and in doing so, I passed by an old, shriveled woman sitting alone in a chair next to one of the large windows. She looked at me with sunken eyes, both of them light blue despite her obvious Japanese ancestry, and her faded black kimono gave off a scent that one finds inside an ill-maintained and neglected Shinto shrine. I later recalled that the scent was that of rotting wood.
The woman croaked something to me, but there was too much talking inside the lobby for me to make out what she had said. I leaned closer to where she sat, and I eyed how small both her feet and her nose were. She had as much hair on her head as she had on her indiscernible eyebrows. Her shrunken mouth opened again, revealing a cavernous black hole that seemed to suck in all light.
“Are you related to Mr. Saito?” I nodded. The whiskers above her upper lip quivered when she spoke. “How?”
“He was my hī-ojīchan.”
“Is this your first osōshiki, little boy? How old are you, little boy?” I answered that it was and that I was yon-sai. “Eh, eh, eh,” she began to laugh coarsely. “Eh, eh, eh, eh.” The woman rubbed her outsized hands together, and her bony fingers, covered in blotches and veins, looked like claws from how pointed the fingertips were. I waited for her to say something else, but after a minute of waiting and no change in her behavior, I decided that I would leave the woman alone.
I made my way to the men’s bathroom, located on the opposite side from where my family stood. I had considered walking back to where my family was and joining them, but then again, I reasoned, that might have incurred the wrath of my sister once again.
That had to be avoided at all costs.
The bathroom stank overwhelmingly of piss while the aroma of an un-flushed john lingered noticeably in the air. I walked to the side of the wall where a row of white awaited to be yellowed on, pulled down my pants and my Ultraman underwear, and let the yellow stream flow with my hands on my hips and my elbows forming ninety-degree angles.
I heard the door open, and a man with a flushed face and an uncomfortable grin waddled into the bathroom mumbling “Gotta go, gotta go, gotta go…” He noticed me, stopped in his tracks, and asked where my mother was. I replied with a stare and continued waterworks. He stared back at me for three or five seconds – but definitely not four, because that’s “shi,” which is bad luck – and stumbled into one of the stalls and closed its door.
“Obbo-chan,” the man addressed me from behind the silver steel door. “Obbo-chan, you’re still there right?” I was finishing up.
“Obbo-chan, what do you think happens when you die?” I replied that I didn’t know – maybe heaven, I suggested. “Or jigoku, ain’t that right?” I heard a grunt and a plop.
“Where do you think my hī-ojiichan is going?”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know.”
“Was he a good man?”
“I think so.”
“You know,” the man began after a pause, “I wonder if I’m a good man. I mean, I’m not, uh, a bad man – no, no, I don’t think I’m a bad man. But there are things that I know that I can… I can work on. Do you understand, ‘bbo-chan?” I said nothing.
“I’ve got a son. Not like you, ‘bbo-chan. He’s older. Much older. He’s not here; he’s at home. He’s big, and strong, and he’s studying for his entrance exam for high school. Sakushin – do you know Sakushin Highschool Academy? No, what am I sayin’, of course you don’t, you’re too young.
“Shuuhei’s a good kid, ‘bbo-chan, a really good kid. He’s quiet, he’s very nice to his mother, and he loves his Gundam models. Loves them. Makes them all the time in his free time – when he’s got the money to buy them, that is, because they’re not necessary cheap, you know, and we don’t hand out allowances like candy, although his grandmother does – and they’re really something. Paints them. Very beautiful. And, you know, his friends are nice and they like building models, too, and he always makes sure his room is clean, which I think is really, really admirable.
“I don’t think Shuuhei believes in an afterlife.
“I know I’m hard on him. Sometimes, too hard on him. He’s not the best kid in the class. That is, you know, his teachers always think he’s polite and everything, but… his grades aren’t the best. And that’s okay. But they’re not the worst! And he’s maybe what you’d call mediocre, ‘bbo-chan, and, sure, his hair’s too long for my liking, but he’s a good kid. You understand? He’s a good kid, and that’s why it upsets me that he doesn’t always get the best grades and isn’t at the top of his class – because he’s a good kid. Shouldn’t good kids like him get something for being polite? And respectful? And helping his mother prepare the cucumbers for dinner?
“I know I yell at him too much. Maybe I’m too personal when I tell him he spends too much time on those models. I wish I could take back a lot of the things I say to him. He’s our only child, our only son. I love him. I wish I could express that better. And I wish he would understand that I – I only do the things I do because I want what’s best for him. And for me. I want what’s best for both of us: to go to a good school. And—“
The man cursed and I, without washing my hands, tiptoed out of the bathroom. The funeral ceremony was starting and my stomach had begun to growl.