The House on St. Clarens

Fiction

Daddy tears at the Styrofoam cup, making snowflakes. I stare out the window at the real snow, longing for the bite against my cheeks.

“How have you been sleeping?” he asks.

“Every night, out like a light,” Granny says.

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“That’s not what the nurse told me. She says you’ve been waking up, screaming out. Like you did when I was a child. Do you remember, Mom?” He wanders over to the dresser and begins examining her bottles, messing them up, clinking glass.

When I see Daddy get like this, I feel protective of him, as though I’m seeing him through the eyes of a social worker. A neglected child screaming out for attention. Now that I teach grade one, it’s particularly weird. I wish I could help him, but I know from experience it’s best to leave him alone.

“I’ve always slept well,” Granny says.

“That’s not what I remember.” Daddy laughs. His salt-and-pepper hair looks bristly as a scouring pad. “What did you dream about after Kaz was gone? Did you imagine that he was still alive, chasing you around the house?”

It used to seem strange that Daddy referred to his father by his first name. All my friends, when I was little, had grandpas—or at least stories about grandpas who’d died in wars and hunting accidents. All I had was this man called Kaz, who’d popped off when Daddy was a little boy. Whenever someone mentioned Kaz’s name, his face would tighten like a fist.

He seems to enjoy asking her all kinds of personal questions now that she can’t walk away.

“Kaz was never the same after his stroke,” Granny says.

“I’m sorry that I never got to meet him,” I say. “I’m sure he was nice before he got sick.”

“He wasn’t,” Daddy says. “I’m glad you never had to meet him.”

“It was the stroke,” Granny says. “First he had one, then another.”

“Wasn’t he kind of young to die of a stroke, Mom?”

“I don’t know.” She shakes her head.

Something has come over Daddy since Granny’s decline. He’s actually eager to talk about the past. He went to my great aunt Tetsuko’s house and unearthed several albums from the basement, sifting through the black-and-white photos for hours. Searching websites and online archives about the Japanese immigrant experience have become his new pastime.

When we visit Granny at the nursing home, he pulls out a notebook and turns on a tiny digital recorder that clips to his belt. Considering that she doesn’t have much time left, I guess it makes sense.

And yet, he’s after more than just the facts. Interrogating his mother leaves him energized, his cheeks rosy. He seems to enjoy asking her all kinds of personal questions now that she can’t walk away.

“The last time I was here,” he says, “you started to tell me about how you met Kaz. Could you talk a bit more about that time in your life?”

Her eyelids flutter, purple, powdery wings. A butterfly on the verge of dying.

“When I was growing up in Vancouver, we lived in a house with a garden out front. One day I was out watering the flowers. A group of young men drove by. They called over to me, and I went up to the car to talk. Kaz was behind the wheel.”

“How old were you?” Daddy asks.

“Fifteen, maybe.”

“You became friendly with the boys very early.”

“I won a beauty pageant for Japanese girls on the West Coast.”

“So Kaz heard about your reputation,” Daddy says.

“He was already enrolled in dental school. He was looking to get married after graduation.”

Daddy stares at the pea-green wall. “Why didn’t he go to med school to carry on the family tradition?”

Ever since childhood, I’ve been hearing about how my great-grandfather was the first ever Japanese-Canadian doctor. People at the Japanese-Canadian Cultural Centre still run up to me, telling me about how he delivered their parents and bandaged up broken noses.

She blushes. “Kaz failed the med school exam. Dental school didn’t have an exam.”

“That must have been hard on him, since Haruki became a doctor,” I say.

There’s a photo that my father recently showed me. It’s the three of them: Granny, Kaz and Haruki. Kaz stands in the middle, tall and good looking, his hair parted on the side and lifted off his forehead, an elegant wave. Granny is clasping his hand, her head cocked to the side, her rosebud lips barely visible from behind the fox stole. On the other side of Kaz stands Haruki, a half-head shorter. His eyes are near-set and quizzical, squinting in the sun. By contrast, Kaz’s smile appears all the more vivacious. The sun splashes over his forehead.

“Haruki was the more studious of the brothers,” Granny says. “But Kaz had other talents.”

“Like what?” Daddy asks.

“He was very sociable.”

“Oh, that’s nothing,” Daddy says. “He was just a show-off. He liked to swagger around, talk big, buy drinks. Aunt Tetsuko told me how much he liked to party.”

“He was a good dancer.” Granny lapses into silence.

“Are you tired, Granny?” I ask. “Should we let you rest?”

“What else?” Daddy says. “I want to hear more.”

“Kaz was musical.”

“My grandfather was musical? What instrument did he play?”

“He messed around on the saxophone,” Daddy says, “but he was hardly a Coltrane. I can remember him playing at the house on St. Clarens, where we moved after the war. He used to practise in the basement, isn’t that right, Mom?”

“Kaz was a dreamer.” Her voice remains bright. “We had a beautiful life, didn’t we?”

“Oh, right. A beautiful life. Mom, did we live in the same house?”

She turns on her side, closing her eyes. Her hair cascades over the pillow. Although it’s dyed pitch black, the roots are growing in, shocking white.

 

“Do you like it?” Daddy points to the doll on her dresser.

When Granny moved into the nursing home, the doll was one of the few things she brought with her. Throughout my childhood, it sat on the credenza in her living room.

I can remember as a child wanting to play with the doll—run my fingers over her eggshell face, loosen the white sash on her red kimono to see how the draped layers would unfold. But of course I wasn’t allowed to touch it. The doll was rare and valuable, Granny told me. A man in Japan, who’d wanted to marry her, had given it to her when she was seventeen. That was the summer her parents sent her to Japan in hopes that the matchmaker would find a rich husband. She showed me a photo of herself back then: her face was as gentle and vacant as a child’s, framed by a dark cloud of hair. It isn’t surprising that three men proposed. But Granny defied her parents by secretly boarding a ship and coming back, because she’d already decided she wanted to marry my grandfather—a mere Japanese Canadian, in their eyes.

She casts her marriage as terribly romantic, but Daddy says she’s watched too much General Hospital over the years.

“You’re going to inherit the doll,” he tells me.

I smile, while dampness nips at my armpits. The branch slung over the doll’s shoulder has always fascinated and frightened me. From the end of the branch dangle three masks: a beautiful woman, a demon and a chubby-cheeked man who looks imposing enough to be an emperor.

 

My grandmother used to wear beautiful shoes. Never granny shoes. The last time I saw her outside the nursing home, I remember watching her cross the parking lot behind the hotel where we were meeting for brunch. Despite her Parkinson’s, which made her stride slow and robotic, she was wearing a pair of delicate taupe sandals, whose heels narrowed like the stems of tulips. Over the gravel she wobbled in mincing steps, clasping her cane.

I embraced her with a flutter of my hands, afraid that if I touched her, I would throw her off balance. As we walked, her toes caught my attention, poking out the pointy ends of her sandals, bulging through the cocoon of her stockings. Her toenails were dabbed in coral varnish, brushstrokes as messy as a child’s.

“It’s important to walk light on your feet,” she said. “In Japan, it’s considered a sign of beauty in a woman.” She proceeded to reminisce about how the year she’d lived in Japan, she’d met a cousin who walked so gently that she appeared to be floating on air. “The Japanese have a word for that kind of floating. The word is . . .” Her eyes glazed over.

The conversation struck me as ridiculous at the time. My feet felt as heavy as an elephant’s, and they itched to clomp ahead.

When we finally entered the restaurant, my parents were already seated. It was Mother’s Day, and Daddy had bought something enclosed in a silver bag with plumes of yellow tissue paper shooting up. He was drinking coffee and looking edgy—elbows on the table, static rising from his hair.

The images were stark and unreal, reminding me of sets for western films—buildings shoddily constructed to be torn down at a moment’s notice, litter left blowing on the ground.

It was around this time that Granny started her rapid decline. Daddy had told me earlier on the phone that he was worried she was losing her memory.

“Mom, do you remember where we first lived in Toronto after the war?” His eggs Benedict remained untouched, getting cold.

“I don’t remember. Now, isn’t this tasty?”

“St. Clarens Avenue,” Daddy said.

“Dave,” Mommy said, “would you lighten up?” Her silver earrings jangled.

“Where’s St. Clarens?” I asked.

“It’s a slummy neighbourhood, full of strip clubs, near Lansdowne,” Daddy said. “A lot of Japanese Canadians lived there after being released from the internment camps.”

A few years ago, I’d seen an exhibit about the internment at a gallery on Queen West. The black-and-white photos depicted ghost towns in British Columbia, places with names like Sandon and Greenwood. These names sounded more like country houses in Jane Austen novels than desolate landscapes. The images were stark and unreal, reminding me of sets for western films—buildings shoddily constructed to be torn down at a moment’s notice, litter left blowing on the ground. Small, pale faces clustered in the corners, timid and ghostly. I couldn’t imagine my grandmother inhabiting such a place for even a day. It was even harder to believe that my father had been born there.

My grandmother sprinkled salt on a wedge of watermelon and turned to me with a sunny smile. “In Japan, everyone puts salt on their fruit. It brings out the sweetness.”

“Mom, stay focused,” Daddy said. “What do you remember about the house on St. Clarens?”

“Nothing.” She shook her head. It amazed me that her face could remain so composed while my father bristled and prodded her. But he couldn’t get to her, he couldn’t shatter her surface. What was going on in her mind? She was like a child who deals with being punished by retreating to a fairytale land in her head.

“Well, I remember,” he said. “I remember the night when we arrived on the train from BC. We were exhausted. Uncle Haruki and Aunt Tetsuko were already in Toronto. They must have been the ones who found the house. They had taken the apartment on the second floor, and we were going to be on the ground floor. There was only one bed, where you and Kaz slept. That first night, I woke up on this big armchair—it was covered in green plaid—and I woke up itchy all over. The chair was infested with fleas. I woke up covered in welts. I looked over at the bed and the covers were rumpled, but you weren’t there. Kaz had taken you out somewhere. To a bar or out dancing.”

 

“Oh, Dave, you must be imagining things,” Granny said, fluttering her lashes. “I’m sure I wouldn’t have left you alone.”

“Dave,” Mommy said. “Give it a rest. Let’s look at dessert.”

“It’s good to talk about the past,” he said. “Isn’t that what you’ve been telling me all these years?”

Mommy rolled her eyes. I stayed out of it, quiet as a mouse.

“Mom,” Daddy said, “why did we move to Toronto in the first place?”

Granny nibbled at her toast. “After the war, Kaz didn’t want to continue with dental school. He wanted to try his hand at something else. His mother had a bit of money squirrelled away, so Kaz started his own business manufacturing ladies’ clothes in Vancouver. But that didn’t work out.”

“The business went bankrupt,” Daddy said.

She nodded, averting her eyes. “Kaz had cousins in Toronto. They ran a dry-cleaning business. So I thought we could move here, and Kaz would help out. Plus, Haruki and Tetsuko were here. Haruki was finishing med school.”

“But Kaz thought he was too good to work in dry cleaning.”

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“It’s difficult to work in a family business if you come in late. Especially if you’re older than the cousin who’s running it.”

“How long did Kaz stay?”

“Not long. Maybe a year. So I started work as a secretary at an engraving company. I liked working there, getting dressed up for work.”

Daddy’s eyes widened. “That must have been hard on Kaz’s ego.”

“Well, someone had to earn money.”

“That must have been when he started hearing voices in his head.”

“Who told you that?”

“Aunt Tetsuko.” Daddy smiled. “I do talk to her from time to time. We’re actually getting pretty close.”

“That woman’s always been a busybody. What did she tell you?”

“She told me that Kaz started to hear voices of people he hadn’t seen in twenty years,” Daddy said. “Voices of all his friends from back in Vancouver—Jimmy Shimoda, Takashi, the Japantown gang. He thought he was a teenager again. Apparently, there was this jazz singer named Lily Edo whom all the guys adored. Kaz had dated her briefly, but then she went on a trip to Japan. Never came back. Broke his heart. It seems that Lily had also come back as an imaginary friend.”

“He was just confused,” Granny said. “He was under a lot of stress.”

“Oh, come on, Mom. He was more than a little confused. He was wandering around the house and up and down the street, whiskey bottle in hand. Having conversations with people who weren’t there. He thought he was back in Japantown, which no longer even existed. The place had been razed during the war.”

“Do you remember him doing all that?”

Daddy smiled. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”

I continued chewing, forgetting to swallow. My eggs tasted like soggy bits of rubber. I stared at my grandmother’s delicate ankles; the straps of her sandals had cut into them, leaving red marks.

“He was sick,” Granny said.

“Sick in the head, you mean. He thought there was money hidden in the house. He thought he’d hidden it—to prevent the government from taking it—but he’d forgotten where it was. So he would fly into these rages, tearing apart the house. I remember you started screaming, Mom, when he slashed open the couch.”

Granny finished off her last crust. She fished a lipstick from her purse and painted her lips in delicate strokes, refreshing the colour to a rich magenta. I was amazed she could apply lipstick with such precision without using a mirror.

“Mom, don’t you have anything to say?”

She blotted her lips and stuffed the soiled tissue back in her purse.

 

But beneath the show of arrogance: a small, hard kernel of disappointment.

“Where are we?” I ask. “Aren’t we going to the nursing home?”

“I thought we’d take a different route,” Daddy says.

We drive past the yellow signs of Caribbean restaurants, a Goodwill and a wig shop. The dark blockaded front of the House of Lancaster Gentlemen’s Club looks like a mausoleum.

“Lansdowne. The old neighbourhood. Want to get out, walk around?”

It’s spring, but when the wind blows, the air feels icy. I’m wearing a short trench coat that catches the wafts of wind and billows up to my waist.

Heads draped in tinsel-shot scarves float by. Men with jutting bellies swagger past. When I bump into someone, a bulbous face spins around, scrunching up like a bulldog. He barks something in a language I don’t understand. But beneath the show of arrogance: a small, hard kernel of disappointment. I can see it glowing through the lines etched into his face.

I catch my father gazing down the street at a veiled woman holding a little boy’s hand. The boy pulls his mother forward with the pent-up energy of a puppy.

We turn onto St. Clarens Avenue. The houses have a pieced-together appearance: scraps of brick veneer, cheap siding and wrought-iron railings are stuck onto the bungalows, according to no apparent design. Christmas lights dangle like gaudy chandeliers from the trees in front.

“Has the neighbourhood changed much?”

“Back then, it was full of German and Chinese immigrants, whom Kaz didn’t like. Now, it’s full of other people, whom he’d like even less.”

I wonder what memories are coming back to my father. Kaz stumbling down the street, tripping on the sidewalk? Laughing into the empty air?

Daddy pauses in front of a three-storey brick house. It has a large porch; the paint is peeling like a sunburn. A dingy, flowered sofa sits in the middle, surrounded by beat-up bicycles and bins overflowing with beer cans.

“Here it is,” he says. “We had the apartment on the first floor.”

My eyes keep zigzagging along those ugly Christmas lights. I don’t know what to say.

Daddy leads me down the muddy driveway. It dawns on me that we’re trespassing when I see the “Beware of Dog” sign attached to the wire fence. Pebbles dot the mud, crusted with ice.

“That’s new.” He points to a flimsy sunroom.

My eyes travel down to a small window that sinks into the ground. The glass is streaked with grime and the air looks as murky as an abandoned aquarium. The basement where Kaz used to practise his sax.

“What songs did Kaz play?” I ask.

“Um . . . My Funny Valentine? No. That’s my favourite song.”

Looking through the window turns my stomach. I feel like I’m trapped in that dark space, swimming through the dank, dusty air. I wonder whether my father feels the same way. It’s hard to tell what he’s thinking and if I ask, he might snap. Now he has wandered to the back of the yard, where he’s examining some saplings coming uprooted. I ought to go over and say something—but what? Maybe just give him a hug. But I’m not sure he wants to be touched.

“Is this visit helping you?” I ask.

“Oh, yeah.” Sarcasm drips from his voice. “It’s just great being back.”

We make our way around to the front. He snaps a photo of the house.

Across the street, a stout woman in a housedress comes out and scowls at us. Her curlers bob as she sweeps the porch with such aggression that she’s practically beating it.

“She probably thinks we’re speculators,” I say.

“Christ, I wouldn’t buy in this neighbourhood if someone held a gun to my head.”

“Let’s get out of here,” I say.

We walk in silence toward College.

 

The funeral home is packed. Some of the relatives we haven’t seen in a decade. Tetsuko’s two sons, whose names escape me, look gaunt, with the onset of middle age, while she has become pudgier than ever. Flying around in her loose black dress, her beaded necklaces clinking, Tetsuko could be answering the door on Halloween. But at least she takes the pressure off my father. Since she’s greeting everyone, he can be a wallflower.

Everyone keeps commenting on how beautiful Granny looks in the coffin. But if you ask me, her makeup’s all wrong. She would have never worn that orangey shade of lipstick.

My mouth is full of chocolate cupcake when Tetsuko sidles up.

“So how are you folks holding up to the shock?” Her eyes widen as she peers into my father’s face.

“Fine,” Daddy says. “We were expecting it.”

“Your mother had such a tragic life, and now this!” She splays open her hands, showing off an array of silver rings.

“Granny wasn’t exactly young,” I say.

“But after all Kaz put her through—she should have lived till a hundred and twenty to make up for those lost years.”

The smell of whiskey—sharp and sour—wafts off her breath. She must have had a few before coming.

Tetsuko pulls out a heavy album from the shopping bag she has been holding. “Look, Dave-chan, I found another one in the basement. There are photos of me in here, too.”

“I don’t want it,” Daddy says. “And I’m giving the other albums back to you.”

“What? But I thought you were interested in our past.”

“It’s too much effort,” he says. “I’ve decided to just live my own life.”

She pouts, like a child who has lost her audience. I smile at my father’s erratic streak. Without a moment’s notice, his mood suddenly turns.

Daddy walks off. Tetsuko moves unsteadily around the table, smiling at me.

“Poor Dave-chan,” she says. “It’s a wonder he’s normal after all that’s happened.”

“Everyone dies,” I say. “It’s natural.”

“Committing suicide isn’t natural.”

“What are you talking about? Granny died in her sleep.”

Her eyebrows shoot up. The spoon in her teacup rattles. “Oh, I’m not talking about Mitsuko—I’m talking about Kaz.”

“He died of a stroke,” I say.

“Oh, didn’t you know? That’s just what Mitsuko liked to say. Actually, he hanged himself.”

“What do you mean?”

Tetsuko licks the icing on her cupcake, taking her time. “Your father ran down to the basement one morning and found Kaz hanging from the rafters. Haruki and I lived on the second floor—I can still hear his shriek filling the house.”

She continues talking—saying something about the need for more open communication in families—but I back away. The chocolate has left a gritty residue on my tongue. Like dirt.

Moving to the window, I can hear the pitter-patter of little feet, running down those basement steps. Echoing my pulse. Within seconds, an image forms in my mind, like a Polaroid coming into focus, working its horrible magic. The sooty pane sinking into the ground. That hot, cavernous space. Suddenly it makes sense why my father refused to get too close. While I was peering in the basement window, he waited at the back of the yard, drawing circles with his toe. If only I’d known.

I stare out at the parking lot and try to focus on a yellow tractor, poised to break up the cement. Behind me, Daddy greets people, his voice rising and falling into the sobs and laughter. A glass shatters, followed by a lot of fuss. Someone gets paper towels and a broom. As my eyes well, the yellow object wavers and dissolves into a splotch that doesn’t really resemble anything.


Emma Donoghue read this piece in manuscript, helping develop it for TOK.
View Leslie Shimotakahara’s author profile.
Photo of Leslie Shimotakahara
TopArt by Gilbert Li and Lauren Wickware

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