Published in: LitKit Journal, Salon.com, Milk Magazine, Exquisite Corpse, Heresiarch, Blue Moon Review, Tower of Babel, Unquiet Mind, Spoken War, Unlikely Stories
Books: The Curved Jewels, Kara-kun, Flip-kun, Hustling The East, Black Class Cur, Acting Alone, and Killing Bryce
Awards: Nominated for The Editor's Book Award, the New York University Bobst Prize, and the Pushcart Prize; finalist in the AWP Award Series in the Novel
THE BREADED SIDE OF THE MANDARIN
"Bah! I'm on my thirty-third mandarin."
A Hiroshima city bus, marked RADIATION EFFECTS RESEARCH FOUNDATION in both Japanese and English, worms its way through the acid rain-ravaged bamboo groves on the side of Hijiyama Mountain.
The passengers are people who were unfortunate enough to have been within one kilometer of the hypocenter, or their descendants. The sole exception is Sam Edwine, and he's one of the few lucky seated persons. The only reason he doesn't offer his seat to someone less hardy than himself is that he can't stand up. The bus is stuffed with humanity, tighter than an Osaka sex-tourist's overnight bag, and he can't even budge.
One side of his head is wedged, not unhappily, smack into the gravid belly of a second-generation hibakusha, who, like the other passengers, is on her way to the labs on top of Hijiyama to be prodded and skewered, solely for the selfless sake of increasing mankind's store of knowledge. No healing is done up there; otherwise, they'd lose their funding as a pure research institution.
An ancient semi-derelict seated nearby gets all chummy, as people like him are prone to do. He reaches over, rubs the colorless hairs on Sam's pale forearm, smiles awhile deeply into his eyes, and then decides to instruct this outsized American whippersnapper on a little local history.
Seemingly from thin air he produces a delicious-looking mandarin orange, which he stuffs, whole, into his toothless mouth. Sam is impressed with this act of mandibular virtuosity, and puzzled as to its import.
The thing comes out coated with colorless saliva. The old man grins, points to it and says, "Hijiyama." He waves a gnarled hand out the bus window, indicating the mountain they are ascending. "Hijiyama... Hijiyama desu."
He extracts a genuine imported Nabisco saltine cracker from his lunch bag and, very carefully, with his lips, removes its red, white and blue individual wrapper. Anticipating what it will symbolize, the neighboring passengers smile sadly and shake their heads.
The old man holds up his cracker and whispers, "Atom-o bomb-o. A-bomb desu." Then he swallows several times, emptying his mouth of saliva to an extraordinary degree, and parts his lips to allow Sam a look inside.
"Damn, you're good, Oji-chan. How do you dry yourself out so thoroughly? I have to snore in my bed at least twelve hours to get that parched. Must be a radioactive after-effect or something.
Like radical hair loss." Sam smooths a hand over his own emergent scalp.
The old man inserts the cracker and gums it into a dry, airy powder. Then he makes an airplane noise through his nose and skims his free hand over the sopping mandarin orange like the Enola Gay swooping low, but not too. He somehow produces a shrieking whistle, as of payload descending, holds the fruit in front of his face and goes, "Blooey-foom-baaaaa . . . wow!" to approximate the sound of that glamorous explosion.
The other passengers all laugh, sadly, politely.
Only one half of the miniaturized Hijiyama is coated with saltine sediment: the side which was facing directly into the blast. Smiling, Sam's mentor twists his wrist and displays the bright, shiny,
crumb-free side of the citrus, its skin moist and dewy. With a nod of the head, he directs Sam's gaze out the window, toward the side of Hijiyama they happen to be traversing at the moment. It's the pristine eastern slope.
Directly below the bus is Hiroshima's sole surviving feudal neighborhood, the chome that this mountain sheltered from the blast fifty years before. It's been virtually untouched since
Shogun times, and retains its narrow snaking roads, its miniature gardens, its human-scale houses with roofs that curl up picturesquely at the ends. A Shinto shrine pops up every two blocks, and everything is bathed in muted browns and grays, according to the austere traditional style observable nowhere else in this otherwise rebuilt town.
The old man's eyes get all sparkly at this point, and he holds Sam's hand, as if to say, "Pay attention, large barbarian person."
As the bus negotiates its spiral course, his blackened wrist turns on its pivot, slowly revealing the mushy, breaded side of the mandarin. Once again Sam's attention is directed out the window and through the sulfur-colored smog. They are now overlooking the atomic-windward western slope which, before Sam was born, was vaporized, cauterized, then allowed to heal over with a scar-tissue of American-style affluence. New wealth coats these volcanic foothills, just as Nabisco cracker crumbs do the orange.
Peace Park sprawls in the distance, the A-Bomb Dome marking Ground Zero; and, just beyond that, the cathedral's dummy steeple pierces the low-lying smog. But no edifice can vie with the handsome Mercedes-Benz dealership for the honor of being Hiroshima's most imposing.
When he sees his fellow passenger's eyes linger too long on the famous Mercedes Benz logo, the old man nudges Sam in the love-handle, and, with a peremptory hand, more or less orders him to complete his survey of Hijiyama's renovated western slope.
Sam is compelled to focus his gaze more sharply, on the foreground, on the mountain itself. There, in a sparkly, spanking-new residential neighborhood, Boom Town's nouveaux riches luxuriated behind their emerald gardens in a tightened prosperity, sublimed to its gemlike essence.
He's made his point, but, as the bus continues to switch back and forth, Sam's quaint guru keeps shoving his gross food item in everybody's faces. He makes "ka-boom-waaaah" sounds at the appropriate turns, spraying saliva ropes and cracker crumbs in all directions, cackling wildly, and irritating, even frightening the other radiation victims in the neighboring seats.
Sam doesn't mind at all. But he snuggles deeper into the maternal belly nevertheless, to spare himself the view out the window as the feathery bamboos thicken and darken into giant deciduous trees of unimaginable age, and the bus penetrates the cavernous hell of this town's blighted past.
In low gear Sam crawls up the side of the dank mountain that blots the sunrise from his bedroom every morning: a sinister peak of pre-rational alchemy plunked down, among rumors of genetic engineering run amok, at the edge of a necessarily modern metropolis.