By CODY UYEDA
Following is the 2019 winner in the English Category of the Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest.
5:00 p.m. was when the phone call came, telling me you were gone. Engine failure, they said. Explosion over the Pacific, just a few miles past the Hawaiian islands. No survivors.
The little apartment we had bought on 2nd street so you could be close to Little Tokyo feels so small now. On my pillow, I stare at a lone hair; yours, I can tell, from its scent of coconut shampoo. From our room, through the door, I can see the window above the kitchen sink, faintly lit by morning light. The shadows that trace around the edge of the sink are the only indication that time continues to pass. On the counter to the right is the cup of green tea you left, now cold and half empty. “You can finish it for me,” you laughed as you walked out the door. I can’t bear to throw it out.
The day I finally got out of bed, I didn’t think I’d make it out the door. I didn’t want to. But I knew you’d want me to. I put on the soft black sweater you liked.
“Soft and warm, like a cat,” you said, the first night I met you.
Was it only a year ago?
I had just come out of Far Bar on 1st street, though it wasn’t the same Far Bar as before. The new managers had kept the name, but it was devoid of personality, just one of dozens of identical bars that occupied the bottom floors of the high-rise office complexes that now comprised Little Tokyo. The ones that replaced the Japanese storefronts after the Los Angeles earthquake, seventeen years ago. The labyrinth of office buildings had sprouted like weeds out of the rubble, shooting up fast, sending hungry concrete fingers up into the sky. Pushy and insistent, they crowded out the last of Little Tokyo’s former tenants, too weak to resist the push of gentrification any longer.
“Excuse me sir! Please take a flyer! Can you spare a moment to save Little Tokyo’s Japanese Garden?”
I heard your voice before I saw your face. Bright and assertive, it cut through the winter air like a bell.
“Garden? What garden? It’s not even Little Tokyo anymore,” an indifferent voice replied. I turned around to see who was talking.
“Of course it is. This place will always be Little Tokyo.” Dressed in black, with a rose-colored coat and long hair pinned back with an amber clip, you were standing under the glow of a street lamp two doors down.
“Yeah, in name only,” the man snorted, straightening his coat collar and walking away.
“Excuse me sir, do you have a moment?”
Caught before I could feign indifference and slip away, but slightly drunk and with nothing better to do, I obliged. “Sure.”
Shuffling through the stack of flyers in your hand, you held one out to me. “You’re the first person who’s wanted to listen to me all day,” you said. “I’ve been out here since 10 a.m. this morning.”
“Really? What’s so important that you would stand here all day for?”
“We’re trying to save Little Tokyo’s Japanese Garden,” you said simply. “The City Council has put the garden up for demolition next year. They said it was a waste of space, and that the city doesn’t have the funds to hire a caretaker anymore.”
“It might look like a losing battle, but we had to give it a shot,” you said, looking out behind me at the cars lumbering by into the night. “It’s the last remaining part of Little Tokyo from before the earthquake. I would do anything to not see it go.”
“Are there more of you around? Who’s this ‘we’ you keep referring to?” I teased, trying to lighten the melancholy silence that had settled over us.
“Well, there used to be the Little Tokyo Preservation Association that fought to maintain the town’s landmarks, but most of the members have since retired. Then there was Mr. Nomura from the former JACCC, who helped manage the office and make phone calls, but his age is really starting to get to him now. I also had a student assistant, Lin, but she just moved back to San Francisco last week to be with her boyfriend.”
“So you’re alone then?”
“I guess I am, aren’t I.”
Imperceptibly, we had inched closer together until we were now only a foot or so apart. “Why do you care so much about the garden?” I asked.
“Someone once told me that a garden is a reflection of a culture’s soul,” you replied, smiling a little. “I don’t know how true that is, but after my family moved here from Japan, I would visit the garden whenever I was feeling sad or upset. Its peaceful there, and it reminds me of who I am and where I came from.” You pointed to a picture on the flyer in my hand; “Have you ever seen it?”
“Oh, I haven’t.” I had never cared much for things like culture or gardens, but I still felt embarrassed.
“Do you want to see it?”
It was now close to midnight as we stood outside the gate to the Japanese garden. There was yellow caution tape stretched across its length and over the surrounding fence.
“No one’s around at this hour anyways,” you said, pushing aside the tape and unlocking the gate.
We walked down the garden’s gravel path, then across the wooden bridge over the little stream that ran the length of the garden. We stopped in a splash of moonlight under the lone maple tree that stood at the bottom of the garden, half hidden in the shadow of the business complex that had replaced the former Aratani Theater.
We sat down in silence for a while, the leaves of the maple rustling softly overhead in the cool breeze. Somewhere in the distance a car honked, setting off a smattering of other honks and beeps. L.A. traffic never ceased.
Summoning my courage, I reached into my jacket pocket and pulled out a small, flat white box. I opened the lid slowly, revealing two perfectly packed suama mochi, green and pink stripes bright against their smooth white softness. “Do you want one?” I held the box out between us.
“Oh, I love this one,” you said, smiling. Carefully, you lifted one out, cradling it in your hand as if it were a little bird. “I used to get this all the time from Fugetsu-do, until they were forced out by that new coffee shop. Where did you get this?”
“There’s a little shop near my home that still sells some. I always get it when I go back.”
“I’ve missed this taste so much.”
“I can get a few more the next time I’m back home,” I said, surprised at my own boldness. “The shop owner knows I like them. No problem.”
“Really?” You smiled for a moment, then looked back out at the garden. “I would love that. Thank you.”
Eventually, I stood up and stretched. You stood up too, and turned towards me, slipping your warm hands under my sweater, and leaning into me softly.
“There’s something else I want to show you,” you whispered into my chest.
I followed behind you as we made our way back through the garden and out the gate. A short walk down an alley revealed a makeshift staircase of repurposed cement blocks and salvaged wood panels descending down and around the foundation of another business complex. eventually, the stairs opened up into a small room with a partially open ceiling showing the night sky above.
“Where are we?”
“I’m not sure exactly. I think it may be part of a former basement of a building that existed before the earthquake. When they built these high-rise offices and bars, they did it fast and didn’t always bother to rip out the remnants of what was here before.”
Feeling along the concrete wall, you flicked a hidden button, turning on a little string of lights that had been rigged up on makeshift hooks hammered in along the wall.
“This is what I wanted to show you,” you said, smiling and pointing to the center of the room.
In the center, invisible until the lights had been turned on, was a small collection of pots. There was a mix of plastic and terra cotta, some big and some small, arranged in a loose semicircle. Inside each pot was a little plant, the leaves of each one glimmering in the flickering shine of the lights.
“Aren’t they beautiful?”
“What are they?”
“They’re probably all that will be left of Little Tokyo now,” you replied, looking down at the pots. “I found out yesterday that the city is also going to cut off the water to the garden in a few weeks. Everything is going to die, even if we could have stopped the demolition. I can’t dig anything up without drawing suspicion. All I can save are the seeds, so these are the descendants of the Japanese Garden.”
I touched the little paper tags tied with cotton string onto each of the pots. Maple, Cherry, Camellia, Pine. “What are you going to do with them?”
“Well, someday I’d like to buy the garden back from the city and plant them there.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Then at least I’ll know that some part of Little Tokyo survived,” you said, turning to look at me. “There’s almost nothing left now; the Japanese markets are gone, so are the restaurants. They just dismantled the museum last year. How can they still call this place Little Tokyo?”
I didn’t have an answer.
A year later, we moved into the apartment on 2nd Street together. The one with the balcony, where you moved your community of seedlings.
“Promise me something,” you said one night, looking at me over the rim of your mug of green tea. “Promise me that one day, even if I’m not around, these plants will have a home again.”
“Sure,” I replied, half listening as I answered emails from work. “We’ll get around to that someday.”
I guess today is someday.
In front of the mirror, I smoothed down the front of my black sweater, running a finger lightly over the little flowers you had stitched in silver thread along the bottom hem to cover a hole eaten out by a moth. I slipped on my shoes and closed the apartment door behind me, and walked slowly down the stairs, through the vacant lobby, and out onto the street. The sunlight hurt. Hands in my jean pockets, I made my way down 2nd Street, then turned down the sidewalk to towards the garden.
The caution tape was still in place, tattered and faded. But there was nothing left to keep people out of. What had once been a landscape of flowing streams and layered trees was now an abandoned dirt lot. Unable to sell it as planned, the city had simply left it to sit. Even now, faint tracks from the bulldozers and dump trucks still checkered the ground. Pushing open the gate, I made my way down through the hardened dirt to where the maple tree was, though it had been felled and was now nothing more than a ragged stump.
I sat down beside the stump, already feeling the tears welling up. “How can I do it alone?” I cried to no one in particular.
But Jamie, you haven’t forgotten, have you?
A solitary plane trailed across the sky as afternoon slowly faded to evening. In the distance I could hear the steady hum of traffic on 2nd Street, ceaseless and incessant.
I got up to go, but stopped and looked down when I felt a light brush against the back of my hand. Nestled in the craggy bark of the maple’s stump, a single tiny green leaf pushed outwards, quivering in the evening breeze. I smiled.
A garden just needs a chance to grow again.
“I know,” I whispered softly, looking up at the night sky. “Of course I haven’t forgotten.”
Cody Uyeda is a fourth-generation Japanese American and a student at USC’s Gould School of Law. The winners in the Japanese Category and Youth Category will be published at a later date. For more information on the short story contest, visit the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s website, www.littletokyohs.org.