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Gordon Ball

Gordon Ball’s story is from a volume of short fiction, On Tokyo’s Edge: Gaijin Tales from Postwar Japan. He lives and teaches in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

 

The Breaking

It was Tokyo l950, before the end of the American Occupation. In the parents’ bedroom closet stood a Russian submachine gun, in the father’s dresser lay an unfirable German Luger, trigger melded into housing. Five hundred miles away raged the Korean War, the source, through multiple hands, of the Soviet weapon.

The boy had seen Russians once or twice from afar in the hotel across the street from his father’s office building. They were always men, and though in coats and ties and overcoats–even “western” hotel lobbies were cold–they seemed rougher, gruffer than other grownups: Americans of commerce and finance; French and Germans and British of many years’ experience in Eastern trade; wiseacre tieless young journalists just arrived from the States or Singapore or London; self-effacing Japanese in brisk, herring bone double breasted business suits who worked with–for–his father. “They are Russians,” someone would say. Their faces, with their heavy eyebrows, looked vaguely asiatic, like his father’s.

Sometimes after school the boy would play by himself at home, ten miles from Tokyo’s hotel and business center, in the shadowy side yard bordering their white stucco French colonial house. There, crepe myrtle trees and aucuba bushes abounded, making for his small frame a forest to stalk in. With his toy rifle he’d hunt enemy soldiers–the enemies being American–through the bushes and trees, and around the small tool shed adjoining them at one end. The Russians were not involved, but it excited him to imagine himself a Chinese Communist, calves wrapped in layer upon layer of cloth leggings as he’d seen in photographs.

At the same time, he’d draw pictures of American war heroes, celebrating their exploits and the numbers of Chinese and North Koreans they’d killed in a single encounter. He’d get this information daily on Armed Forces Radio. “Why don’t you draw something constructive?” his older brother, serious with horn-rimmed glasses, asked as he looked at the boy’s drawings.

The boy didn’t know the meaning of “constructive” nor of the shadows of branches he’d see on his pale wall at night, but the patterns frightened him. He was even more frightened one evening when he heard loud voices from his mother and father’s room, where Luger and machine-gun were stored. He didn’t know if the machine-gun had bullets but it was so heavy he couldn’t imagine anyone using such a thing–yet he knew they did every day in Korea.

“I’d rather be strangled than kept here,” he heard his mother wail at his father one evening. “I want to go back to Marietta!” Their door was open, but he was afraid to draw close. It was dark and the only light was broken by bony configurations of branches on the wall.

The next day two friends of his parents, Major Grimes and Mrs. Grimes, came to visit. She was carrot-haired and he had big ears that stuck out from the sides of his head, reminding the boy of Sad Sack in the stateside funnies they’d be able to get every once in a while.

Major Grimes and his wife lived in the U.S. Army compound at Pershing Heights. They brought him a gift for his birthday, a khaki U.S. Army overseas cap and various gold and blue and white insignia. “Where are you from, young man?” the Major asked.

“The world,” the boy responded.

“What do you like to eat?”

“Food,” he answered.

He behaved like that for several minutes before leaving the room, then after the guests were gone he overheard mother and father talking there, in the space between the white mantle and the large brown metallic gas stove from whose dusty white porcelain teeth blue flames flared. It was near the very spot where he’d lain on the carpet some evenings, staring at the pictures in a strange, large, heavy and musty book by a man named Hogarth. He’d taken it from the glass bookcase, and as he looked he’d wondered if those people with their intestines falling out were real. “I think he needs a spanking,” he heard his mother say.

The next day was Saturday and there was no school. The squat little tool shed that bordered the shadowy place with the acuba bushes and crepe myrtles had a sliding door with windows of translucent glass about a foot square. Inside were various old tools and contraptions he’d rummaged through before; this morning he slid open the door and took one of them, a small short-handled dusty axe with a dented blade. Then he slid the door closed and broke every window on it, and every window to its left and to its right. “I know this is wrong,” he said to himself, with every stroke.