by Christopher Seiji Berardino
A crowd of people gathered under the streetlamp on the corner of Alta and 5th. Moths clumsily tumbled under the electric bulb, each struggling to stay above the dust kicked-up by nervous boot heels.
Mike clutched the side of his jacket and held it against his belly. He felt sleepy and sore. His eyes moved sluggishly across the other faces in the crowd.
“Can’t say he didn’t have it coming,” said an old man through frayed beard hairs.
“Could have been spying,” added a ragged fieldhand, “the papers said lots of ‘em are spying.” Some of the others nodded in agreement.
“Somebody go get the law?” asked a voice from further back in the crowd.
“Johnston ran over to the station after he found the body,” answered the fieldhand.
“Law won’t do no good. This Jap is dead,” the old man remarked in a tone that approached something like wisdom, “nobody saw him go down. Just the bang.”
The constable pushed his way through the gathering, hand on his gun. He was gasping, and sweaty. The tin star on his chest bobbed with each labored breath. “Everybody back up,” he shouted, “back up!”
The men took a few steps back. Mike held his jacket close. His head felt dreamy.
The men nodded yes.
Mike watched the constable tip toe around the bits of skull scattered around the cavity where the man’s cheek had been.
“Anybody see what happened?”
Johnston pushed his way through and stood next to the body.
“Nobody was here when I found him. I heard that crack, and I come over” said Johnston, “I didn’t see anybody running away or nothin’.”
“That true? None of you saw nothin’?”
The old man spoke for the crowd. “I was here second. And everybody gathered around after. God as my witness.”
Mike tried to take a picture with his mind so he could remember later. He told himself this would be important. Sometime, a long time from now, when he was crumbling, he wanted to be able to recall every detail. He wanted to be able to tell his grandkids and theirs how he was there that night. But he could not make it feel important. He wondered where his hatred had gone. The fire in his chest. The gnashing of teeth. Now there was nothing. Just a body. Just flesh and bone. As ordinary as taxes.
“Jesus Christ, we don’t need Japs dying around here. We don’t need nobody dying around here. Now everybody go on home. Go on now. Go!”
The men slowly began to disperse and the constable covered the body with a wool blanket.
As Mike turned to walk, a few strands of black hair blew out from under the cover. They slid across the illuminated dirt, each weighted at their root by a tiny pearl of coagulated blood. Like maggots they crept slow out of the rounded edge of light and into the surrounding dark.
Each step felt heavy as he walked further down 5th. Husky grumbling followed behind. Mike looked over his shoulder. The old man waved and hastily flicked his skinny thighs frontward. “Mike,” he called, “Mike, oh what a thing!”
Mike stopped and spit into the dirt.
“Can’t say he didn’t deserve it. Can’t say. Can’t say,” the old man sucked his teeth, “but justice has a way of coming for those who commit evil acts. Even if it isn’t the Law that does it.”
Mike forced out a dry “guess so.”
“Come have a drink with me.” The old man slapped Mike’s back, “over at the Pony.”
Before he could push his tongue against the roof of his mouth to start a “No,” the old man was tugging Mike down the road by the bend in his arm.
A neon sign with the “The Red Pony” glowed against a decaying wooden sign with the same name. The old man herded Mike through the heavy door. A few men from the crowd were there, talking in low tones, smoking cigarettes and sipping beer. No music from the jukebox. The old man drummed his mottled fingers on the bar. The bartender ignored him and asked Mike what he would like to drink.
“Make mine a whiskey,” the old man corrected. The bartender shifted his eyes to Mike’s. Mike nodded that that would be alright.
It felt good to sit. Mike clutched his beer and knocked a few grains of celery salt into the foam. The old man took his whiskey and called to the others in the bar. “What a thing! Can’t say he didn’t deserve it! Can’t say! Can’t say!”
Mike watched the white flecks at the bottom of his glass spew silver bubbles.
“I thought there would be a few more that would be thirsty after,” the bartender said, “but I guess I was wrong.” Mike kept his eyes on his beer. “I wanted to go and see, but I have no stomach for blood.”
“There was lots of blood.”
“You were there?”
“You think he was spying?”
Mike dipped his finger into the beer and let drops form and fall back in, one after another.
The bartender tried another question, “you feeling alright?”
“I don’t feel much like drinking.”
Mike reached into his jacket pocket and froze. The hairs on his arms stood straight. He wiped his finger on his pants and carefully reached in again, fishing out two crumpled dollar bills. He placed them on the counter and got up to leave.
“Let me get your change.”
The bartender took the bills and beer, and quickly ragged away the watery ring left on the counter top.
“Mike!” The old man called from across the room, “you’re going? I forgot my wallet. I will have to pay you some other time.”
Mike nodded and pulled the handle of the door.
The moon was down. Far off, he could see the light from the corner. The body was gone.
Mike trudged up his porch steps. Before he could reach for the knob, his wife pulled the door open.
Mike pushed past her into the house.
“Why didn’t you come straight home? That Trask boy came running and told us they had shot that Jap.”
“I went to see it, then I stopped and had a beer.”
“It couldn’t have taken you that long.”
“It took me that long.”
The woman narrowed her eyes. “You went to see her again didn’t you?”
“I bet that’s what you think huh? I bet that’s what you really think.”
“I don’t know what to think. You missed supper and the children heard that man was shot and you weren’t here and I didn’t know what to think.”
“Rose,” Mike said, “I walked slow.”
The woman choked back a tear. “Go into the wash room, and take off your dirty clothes. I will have some supper for you on the table.”
Mike cautiously took off his jacket. He slipped off his shoes, socks, shirt, and pants and tossed them into the laundry basket. He rolled up his jacket, and gingerly stuck it behind the dryer.
Mike sat alone at the kitchen table in his underwear. He peeled off the foil from his plate and weakly jabbed at a cold slab of ham loaf with his fork.
His teeth hurt, and his gums ached. He stood up to get a glass of water. A face looked back at him through the window.
It was a familiar face. A face he had seen often, but now, emaciated, as though it had been locked away and hidden from the sun for many years. Its jowls hung low and loose. Its eyes were milk white and lidless. The face peered in closer and opened its mouth in a perfect circle, black and bottomless. The mouth grew larger and larger, dislocating at the hinges of its jaw with two violent cracks. The slack from its cheeks stretched taut around the yawning hole. The face, screaming now, floated through the pane. Mike turned away, shattering the glass across the floor, only to find his wife staring back with a bewildered look.
“I started to put your clothes in the wash,” she said, “and I found this in the cuff of your trousers.”
In the center of her palm, lie a bloody, human molar.
About the Author:
Christopher Berardino is a writer of Japanese-American descent from Orange County, CA. He received an MFA in Fiction from Cornell University in 2018. He has completed his first novel, Infamy, about the oft-forgotten Japanese internment camps. His work has previously appeared in Connu Magazine, Flash Fiction, and is forthcoming in The Copperfield Review.