By Satsuki (Suki) Yamashita
I don’t what drove me to perversely show up at the Nippon Ichi-ban ramen house on our designated day and time as if we were still together. We’d shared the same table for lunch every Wednesday for three years. I was proving her point about my rigidity and boringness, which were the reasons she cited for dumping me. I chose to ignore the real reason; the pretty-boy, new trial attorney on the Sugarman case. No matter how many ways I came up to compare myself to him, I lost.
I stared out the cafe window, watching the growing crowd of people waiting for a table. Ramen is the new sushi and a recent article in the Huffington Post about Nippon Ichi-ban’s “divine” umami miso pork broth had let the cat out of the bag. Now all of L.A. knew about this Little Tokyo hole-in-the-wall with its twelve Formica table tops and the bright orange chairs with cracked leather padding.
I was glad for Mr. Nishimura, the owner and chef. He’d been on the brink of bankruptcy for years and now he had more business than he knew what to do with. But it made him cranky, and when he was cranky, the broth tended to be on the salty side and Miriam, the waitress/bus girl/hostess, became downright hostile. She kept giving me the stink-eye, looking pointedly at the empty chair in front of me.
Maybe that’s what made me do it. Or, maybe it was that she kept skipping over him, even though he was first in line, patiently waiting for a table. Maybe he reminded me of my recently departed Ojii. Or maybe I just couldn’t face eating alone.
Whatever it was, I stood up and walked over to him.
“There you are.” I made sure Miriam heard me as I patted the old man’s shoulder lightly, like he was an old friend. I got a whiff of him and understood why everyone else stood apart and downwind. But I’d already committed and was not backing down. “I’m just inside,” I said, as I bent down to pick up several of the large trash bags clustered around him. I guessed the bags contained all his worldly possessions, so I hoped he didn’t have a problem with me touching his stuff.
He looked confused but quickly caught on, giving me an almost imperceptible polite bow before gathering the rest of his bags. His skin was brown and leathery, weather-beaten by a life spent outdoors. A week’s worth of stubble grew on his chin, and his salt-and-pepper hair stood on end. His dirty clothes were rumpled and too big, and he wore those black tabi boots, the kind with the slit for the big toe that I’ve only seen on Japanese construction workers and rice paddy farmers. He shuffled behind me, his bags dragging on the floor. I made a neat stack of them against the wall, and pulled out a chair for him. He bowed one more time before sitting.
“I’m Andy. Andy Morioka,” I said, offering my hand to him.
“Ha-a-ah. Morioka-san. I’m-a Ichiro. Kitsune, Ichiro.” He bowed again, ignoring my hand. I’m a poor excuse of a Sansei; I didn’t know the etiquette, but I figured I should bow in return.
“You!” Miriam barked at Mr. Kitsune. “You got money this time, old man?”
“I got-a money. Plenty money,” he told her, rummaging through his pockets. I put a hand on his forearm.
“Kitsune-san is my guest,” I said. “Do we have a problem?” I used my best authoritative voice, mimicking the judge for whom I clerked.
Miriam gave me the double stink-eye as she slapped down two menus and stormed off. I didn’t need the menu; they only had one thing — ramen — the only variation being the three kinds of broth and the twelve levels of spiciness.
I noticed Mr. K’s mouth moved as he studied the menu, sounding out the words, so I grabbed him a Japanese-language menu from the counter.
“Ah. Much bettah,” he said.
Miriam returned for our order, tapping her foot in impatience so we’d eat and leave.
“Miso Ramen. Number One spicy.”
“You sure?” I could only tolerate up to Level Three spiciness. I’d tried Level Two once, but couldn’t taste anything else for a week afterwards.
“I sure,” he said. “I like da spicy.” He smiled then, his sun-browned face split by a gap-toothed grin. My Ojii had a gap-toothed grin too, and I was hit with a wave of emptiness.
Miriam returned with two steaming bowls of fresh ramen. My mouth watered in anticipation of the delicious, richly flavorful, spicy noodle soup. For a few minutes, the only sounds were the slurp of noodles and the glug of us chugging water to extinguish the fire in our mouths.
“So why you need old man for company?” Mr. K asked as he drained the remaining broth from his bowl.
I was taken aback, not expecting conversation from him. But I figured I’d never see him again, so I told him about my dismal existence. I told him how my Ojii had died and how I was engaged to her, and how she left me, and how now I had no one.
“You make-a new friends,” Mr. K said. “Gam-bat-te!”
I didn’t know what the last word meant, despite several years of Japanese school.
“Means ‘hang in there,’ gonna get better,” he said.
My confession and his words eased the dark cloud I’d been living under. I looked at the clock, shocked at the how quickly the time had flown. I made my excuses and went to pay the tab. When I looked back, Mr. K and his bags were gone.
The following Wednesday, I walked the two blocks from the courthouse to the ramen house carrying a Mitsuwa bag full of Ojii’s clothes. Was I pathetic to hope he’d be there? Who looked forward to buying lunch for a homeless man?
I tried to hide my excitement when I spotted him. I opened the door, waving him inside, but stopped short. There was already someone at my table. I looked to Miriam in confusion.
“No more reservations,” she smirked.
“Bb-b-b-but— ” I sputtered. I’d been one of their most loyal and regular customers.
“We too busy.” With that she turned away.
“She one oni-baba,” Mr. K said.
I wasn’t sure what the exact translation for ‘oni-baba’ was, but I got the feeling it rhymed with ‘witch.’ Smiling, I followed Mr. K back outside. We were stepping over the threshold when we heard a squeal. Miriam was on the floor, covered in wet noodles, broken crockery pieces around her. She was fine, just spitting mad.
“She got a bachi,” Mr. K said. “Bad luck because she mean lady.”
I figured he was probably Issei or Nisei and still believed in the old, complicated Shinto system of superstitions that had me sparing the lives of spiders and putting on new pairs of shoes on the sidewalk.
I trailed Mr. K across the street to the Japanese Village Plaza. He shuffled past the symbolic Yagura tower and stopped in front of the Mitsuru Café.
“We eat here today,” he said.
I shrugged. Why not? I was out of my comfort zone and every place was new. We joined the crowd looking into the display window. A woman was loading spoonfuls of black goo onto what looked like hockey puck-shaped pancake batter.
Mr. K ordered five hockey pucks for each of us. “Imagawayaki.” Yeah, try saying that five times fast. We took our plates and sat outside.
“Eat, eat, eat,” he said as he bit into one, explaining the gooey black middle was anko – sweet red bean paste.
I tasted a bite; the outer shell was golden brown and crispy, surrounding the warm sweet paste. Heaven.
“Natsukashii,” he sighed. “Makes me think of home.”
“Where is home?” I asked, curious to know his story.
“My family from Kyoto, near Fushimi Inari. It very beautiful now. Leaves all turn orange and yellow. Not like here — green all the time.” He stuffed a whole puck into his mouth, putting a hold on conversation.
I waited patiently for him to continue. I wanted to ask him how he ended up in Little Tokyo, where he slept, what he did for food. But he didn’t say any more, only smiled, rubbed his belly, and pointed to my watch.
I looked down and groaned. How did time go by so quickly? I made my apologies and gave him the bag of clothes.
“Youz a good boy,” he said, and for an instant, I was ten years old again and it wasn’t Mr. K standing before me, but my dear Ojii, making me feel like I’ve saved the world.
Wednesdays became my “food adventure” day. Mr. K always waited for me under the Yagura tower. Together, we ate at sushi bars with rolling conveyor belts, a half-dozen ramen places, Korean BBQ places, a shabu-shabu place and even a Hawaiian plate lunch place.
To the casual observer, it might seem Mr. K was using me for free meals, but I found his sympathetic, non-judgmental listening was therapeutic. I told him everything about work, about Ojii, and her. And I could feel myself gradually changing. I smiled more, and interacted with my co-workers instead of burying myself in legal research. I felt part of humanity. I felt… alive.
That day, the last day, I’d discovered a little metal shopping cart in the back of Ojii’s closet. It was the kind with two wheels that I’d seen the seniors pull behind them down the narrow aisles of Nijiya or Mitsuwa market. I helped Mr. K load the bags into the cart and slipped a twenty into one of them. Even after we’d been seated at The Curry House, he wheeled the cart back and forth, like a stroller.
I was watching idly, when she walked in with her attorney boyfriend. She hadn’t spotted me, so I took the opportunity to size him up. I could take him, I decided. I was bigger and taller. He had a lean fitness club-type body I could snap like a twig.
But then I looked at her. She looked… blissful. She never looked that way when she was with me.
“That her?” he asked.
I nodded as we watched them get seated. Without warning and to my utter embarrassment, Mr. K whistled to them.
“Oy!” he said, waving for attention. I fought the impulse to bury my face in my hands.
“Go talk,” he urged.
“What are you doing here?” she asked when I reached their table.
“Branching out,” I shrugged.
“I’m glad,” she said, looking like she meant it. She introduced me to my replacement.
“Who’s that?” she asked, indicating Mr. K.
“A friend,” I said. And then there was only awkward silence, so I returned to Mr. K.
“How it go?” Mr. K asked.
“Good,” I said, realizing I wasn’t just saying the word. It didn’t hurt like I thought it would. “Really good,” I smiled.
Towards the end our lunch, Mr. K cleared his throat. I wondered if the spiciness had finally affected him.
“I going retire,” he said.
Retire? Retire from what?
“Youz a good boy, you be fine now.” He rose from his chair.
When I realized it was goodbye, I started to panic. “Are you going to be all right?” I didn’t know how he survived between Wednesdays. I wrote my number on the back of my curry-stained placemat. “Call me, day or night, if you need anything.”
“Youz a good boy,” he repeated, and then he was gone.
* * *
I still go to Little Tokyo every Wednesday for lunch but a bunch of my co-workers come with me now. There’s a pretty redhead in the group and there’s a spark of something there. It’s new but it has potential.
But this Wednesday I get a call, right before lunch.
“Morioka-san?” Only Mr. K added “san” to my last name, but the voice isn’t his.
“Yes?” My heart beats triple time, worried that something happened to him.
“I have some things with your name on them. Can you come and collect them?”
I make my excuses to the lunch group and hurry to the address: 342 East First Street, the heart of Little Tokyo. I double back twice before I find it, hidden behind two storefronts. It’s a small Buddhist temple.
Inside a scholarly-looking man in his twenties identifies himself as Reverend Iwamoto. He’s wearing jeans and a faded blue T-shirt; not at all how I pictured a reverend to look.
I immediately recognize the shopping cart the reverend wheels out. Inside are the neatly folded clothes I gave Mr. K.
“How did you know to call me?” I ask.
He lifts a curry-stained placemat with my number on it.
“So, did you see him? Talk to him? Is he okay?” I ask eagerly.
“No, the cart…appeared. I was here all morning. I stepped away for a minute, came back and there it was.” He pulls a battered envelope from his pocket, which he hands to me. “Oh, and this.”
I recognize the Japanese characters of my name. I tear open the envelope and a rubber-banded wad of bills falls to the floor. There’s also a letter, but it is written in Japanese. My face must reflect my disappointment because the reverend asks if I would like him to translate for me.
“Thank you for lending me these things,” he reads. “Now that I’m retired, I don’t need them. You are good boy and you have my blessing. Signed, Ichiro Kitsune.” His voice catches on the last word. “Ah, Kitsune. I see…”
“What? What about Mr. K?”
“You know ‘kitsune’ means fox. In Shintoism we believe kitsune is a ‘yōkai,’ a spiritual entity.”
“What, like a ghost?”
“No, more like mischievous spirit. Kitsune shapeshift, mainly to human form.”
The reverend’s words are crazy. The kindly homeless man I’ve been having lunch with was some kind of shapeshifting fox spirit?
“So, what? I’ve got some kind of curse on me or something?”
“On the contrary. The letter says you have the blessing of the kitsune. Did you do something nice?”
“Bought him lunch, gave him some of my grandfather’s clothes.”
“That makes sense. The kitsune always repay their debts.”
Walking home that evening, I roll Mr. K’s cart behind me, debating whether I believe the young reverend and his shapeshifting theory. I turn the corner at First and Central and I spot it, under the colorful mural. At first I think it is a white dog, or coyote but the nose and ears are too pointy.
It’s a white fox.
In the middle of metropolitan L.A.? Could it be…?
We stare at each other for a brief second before the creature bows politely, then trots away, disappearing into the golden rays of the setting sun.
Satsuki (Suki) Yamashita is the third-place winner of the inaugural Little Tokyo Short Story contest, sponsored by the Little Tokyo Historical Society. She works for Kondo Wealth Advisors and also runs her own outdoor advertising consultancy. Her parents lived and worked in Little Tokyo for many years, and the family used to meet every Sunday for dinner. Her story was the third-place winner in the Little Tokyo Short Story Contest.
Little Tokyo Historical Society was formed in 2006 to commemorate Japanese American and Japanese history and heritage through various means such as archival collections, photos, exhibits, lectures, and workshops.