Following is an excerpt from Gene Oishi’s forthcoming novel Fox Drum Bebop, which will be released in December 2014 by Kaya Press.
Even before the war, the 10-mile ride from Hacienda to Santa Marguerita had been an ordeal. Father would often insist on taking Hiroshi on this road when he went to inspect his farms; it was his way of showing paternal affection. But Hiroshi had never liked traveling in the big Chrysler. It stank of cigars. Now, gazing out the windows of the school bus, the gray, flat monotony of fallow autumn fields gave Hiroshi’s eyes no place to rest. He could smell the rot left over from the harvest even through the closed windows.
Hiroshi imagined the passage from Hacienda to Santa Marguerita as being like the crossing of the Rio Grande—the muddy huts of Mexican peasants replaced by the clipped lawns and grassy estates of the gringos. Santa Marguerita High School was a cloistered adobe building covered by a red-tiled roof and surrounded by tall, graceful elms, broad lawns, sculptured boxwood bushes, and well-tended flower beds. Inside, the buildings boasted vaulted ceilings, terracotta floors, heavy oaken doors, and leaded casement windows. All the teachers and nearly all the students were hakujin.
For Hiroshi, Santa Marguerita had always seemed an alien land touched with enchantment and danger. But Hacienda was no longer a familiar haven, either. Its once bustling Japanese colony, with its Buddhist temple, language school, drugstore, fish market, and doctor and dentist offices, had disappeared. The few Japanese who had crept back to Hacienda after the war formed a shadowy half presence on the fringes of the community.
Like everything else, the ryoria restaurants were gone, so on his days off, Father would drink at home, chanting endless rounds of joruri—stories of fallen and hunted heroes, of murder and vengeance, of demons and foxes that took human form.
When Hiroshi commented on Father’s whisky drinking to his mother, she shouted at him, “How dare you criticize your father! Don’t you see what has happened to him?”
Hiroshi barely recognized the gentle woman who used to lie beside him and sing to him about hares and tortoises and mischievous monkeys in a soft, lilting voice. In the past, he and his mother had spent many long evenings alone together. Now Father was always home, and his parents seemed to have become closer. Alone in his room at night, Hiroshi could hear them talking through the thin wall that separated their bedrooms. Father’s low rumble and Mother’s clear, melodious voice seemed to carry an intimacy that was new to Hiroshi, further sealing his isolation.
Gradually, more Japanese families began drifting back to Hacienda, lured by the possibility of fieldwork. More Japanese kids were being bused to the high school as a result, but Hiroshi avoided hanging out with them. He would look away embarrassed when he saw them walking down the hallways in groups like mice creeping cautiously close to the wall.
The year before, Hiroshi had taken a Japanese girl, June Watanabe, to a movie, and the stupid girl had told her mother about it. Mrs. Watanabe had then spoken to Hiroshi’s father. That evening, Father was sputtering he was so angry. “I have never been so ashamed,” he said. “Mrs. Watanabe was laughing at me. Laughing! At me! Hiroshi, you are a high school student. How do you expect to support a wife? I’ve never been so ashamed!”
“The Watanabe girl is illegitimate,” Mother said. “It was a scandal when she was born. To bring such a person into our family.”
“Intolerable!” Father said.
“Hai,” Hiroshi said. It was simpler that way. There was no point in trying to explain that things were different in America—that taking a girl to the movies did not mean you were going to marry her. Father and Mother did not really live in America. They never had. Though Hiroshi cursed June’s stupidity, his parents would have found out one way or another. The Japanese community was not what it used to be, but nothing went on within the group that everyone did not know about.
Hiroshi stayed away even more from other Japanese after that. The feeling was mutual. Hiroshi imagined himself to be like the fox Father chanted about, an elusive and daring creature capable of changing his form to go where other foxes dared not. Like the fox, he could be brave and resourceful, keeping his wits about him and taking risks to show he was not afraid. He insinuated himself into an elite group of college-bound boys, even though not all of them welcomed his presence. One of them, Steve Bowles, blocked Hiroshi’s way once when he tried to join them for lunch, saying “We don’t want you here.” The boy’s blunt and naked hostility embarrassed the others, who said, “Aw, he can come,” and “Leave him alone, Steve.” Hiroshi merely ignored him, asking the others with feigned insouciance: “What’s his problem?”
In class, Hiroshi established a reputation for himself as a wit, or perhaps just a smart aleck. When young Miss Taylor, the English teacher, gave out a lengthy reading assignment that made everybody groan, Hiroshi said in a stage whisper, “Just listen to her, she’s drunk with power.” Then, like a fox, he skipped nimbly out of the room before she could respond.
Once, during an open discussion session during a school assembly, Hiroshi went up to the microphone and argued that jazz performers should be brought to the school instead of classical pianists and violinists because jazz was an American art form. After that, some of the football players began calling him “Jazzbo,” sneering at him in an Amos-and-Andy accent.
For all that, Hiroshi did well in his classes and was generally liked by his teachers despite his wisecracking. Miss Sherman, the vice principal, was an exception. She was an ungainly woman who was friendly enough with hakujin but who avoided even looking at the Mexican and Japanese students. She took an active dislike to Hiroshi early on because of his cheekiness. Once, during assembly, she made him stand up for having feigned a cough while she was making an announcement concerning a flu epidemic. “Stand up,” she said. “Yes, you there. You know whom I mean. Do you wish to make this announcement?”
“No, ma’am,” Hiroshi mumbled and tried to sit down.
“I didn’t say you could sit yet. I will not have any more interruptions from you. Have I made myself understood?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Hiroshi said softly. Only then was he allowed to take his seat.
It seemed to Hiroshi that Miss Sherman had been waiting for a chance to put him in his place, to expose him. It was common, after all, for students to make irreverent noises during assembly, and the teachers were usually good-natured about such things.
There was only one student whom Hiroshi could think of as a friend, a girl named Imogene McPhearson. At Hacienda Elementary School, Hiroshi had taken up the trombone, practicing on an instrument the school had on loan. When he started going to high school, his parents had, after much pleading on his part, bought him a used trombone for forty-two dollars. This meant he could play in the band. That was where he’d met Imogene.
Imogene played the glockenspiel in the band. She also played piano for a jazz combo that performed at school assemblies. Hiroshi was enchanted by the group—and in particular by their theme song, “Dream.”
“I can’t get that song out of my mind,” he confessed to Imogene. “It’s always in my head.”
Imogene, round-faced and slightly chubby, was not one of the popular girls in school; if it had not been for her piano playing, nobody would ever have taken any notice of her. But to Hiroshi, she was the nicest girl he had ever met. She even invited him, along with Dave Linquist, to her house, where the three would listen to jazz records together. Dave led the jazz combo and played lead trumpet in the dance band. Hiroshi knew it was really Dave that Imogene wanted to spend time with, and that she’d only invited him because she felt awkward about asking Dave to come over alone. But he convinced himself that it didn’t matter. He just liked being with her.
Imogene’s favorite records were those by George Shearing. “Don’t you just love his chords?” she would say. “They’re so different.” She gave Hiroshi her beginning piano books so he could practice on the piano in the school music room and maybe even learn to play some chords himself. Hiroshi bought every George Shearing record he could find and played them at home when he was alone. Imogene was right; Shearing’s chords did have a different sound; they had an acid sweetness, a poignancy that made him tingle.
When Hiroshi turned 16, his parents allowed him to work summers in the fields, and he made enough money to buy a used upright piano. He began taking lessons with Mrs. McKenzie, a skinny, gray-haired woman with steel-rimmed spectacles who drilled him on scales, arpeggios, and tinkling children’s pieces that didn’t sound anything like George Shearing. But he persevered. With his piano and trombone, he was finding his own way, creating a world away from the wretchedness of his rat-infested house and Father’s incessant tales of murder and mayhem.
Gene Oishi, former Washington and foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, has written articles on the Japanese American experience for The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Newsweek, and West Magazine, in addition to the Baltimore Sun. His memoir, In Search of Hiroshi, was published in 1988. Now retired, he lives in Baltimore, Maryland with his wife Sabine.