A Missing Mother: The Transfer

“I remember staring at barbed wire and armed sentries,” Yuki said. “I remember being engulfed by scattering dust in the whirling wind. I remember laying in my bed at the Topaz internment camp wishing I could raise my voice and say people should not be mean to one another.”

Short Story by George Wynn

Biff’s day was going nicely, a good night’s sleep at a small South of Market shelter and even some morning coffee with rolls, jam and butter.

Before he got on the California street bus a few blocks up from the Embarcadero Center, he checked his watch: 12:25. Long-haired, clean-shaven, and carrying a duffel bag, he stood patiently trying to get the attention of the driver who was surrounded by tourists asking for specific directions.

Finally they made their way towards the rear of the bus and he showed his transfer. The driver studied the transfer, glanced at his watch and exclaimed, “Expired.”

“What?” yelled Biff.

“Transfer’s only good till 12:30.”

“I got on before 12:30.”

“I got a schedule to keep. Pay your fare or get off my bus!”

Biff let out a heavy sigh, hesitated and turned to get off.

“I’ll pay his fare,” a voice shot out.

Biff turned his head from the first step, “You don’t have to, ma’am.”

“Yes I do,” said a 70ish Asian woman in jeans and white jacket. She approached the fare box and slid in two dollar bills. “Transfer please,” she said, her head held high, gaze steady and focused. The driver handed her a transfer, frowning, bowing his head as if to evade the intensity of her black eyes. She handed Biff the transfer, looking at him in a familiar way with her now soft eyes. “Come sit with me.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

They sat down in a two-seater near the exit. “What’s your name?” she asked.

“Biff,” he said, extending his hand.

“Yuki,” she said with a warm handshake. “People like the bus driver once had control over me,” she said. “To be at the mercy of someone’s biases and temperament is so darn unpleasant.” Biff listened intently to the serious tone of her voice. “I guess my legs and memory had a will of their own when I saw the bus driver lose his manners,” she explained.

“Sometimes when people see me with this big heavy bag, they profile me as homeless — which, right now, I am.”

“It makes me angry to see anyone excluded,” she said and then she told him the story of being interned in Topaz, a relocation camp in Utah, far from her home in San Francisco’s Japantown. “I remember staring at barbed wire and armed sentries,” she said. “I remember being engulfed by scattering dust in the wild and whirling wind. I remember laying in my bed at Topaz wishing I could raise my voice and say people should not be mean to one another. My mother taught me back then when I was a little girl that no matter how bad the day was, tomorrow would be different and better if we maintained our dignity.”

Biff was lost in silence. “Where are you going?” asked Yuki.

“Out to Ocean Beach. I like to watch the rhythm of the waves coming in and receding. It comforts me and washes away my anxiety. My mother died of ovarian cancer last year.” The memory of blood trailing her as she entered her apartment building by a country-and-western theatre in downtown Wheeling, West Virginia, is beyond grief.

“I’m so sorry for your suffering,” said Yuki.

“Thanks,” he said, eyes holding back emotion. “I’m leaving in the morning. Got a job in the Grand Tetons in the kitchen at one of the lodges,” Biff said, grabbing the notification letter out of his pants pocket.

“Wonderful,” Yuki said, reading the letter carefully. “Can I treat you to lunch?”

“Yes ma’am. I’d like that fine.”

At Fillmore Street, Biff started for the front of the bus. Yuki nudged him, pointing to the back exit. “I always follow the rules.”

They walked down Sacramento Street, down streets Yuki used to play on until they reached the Peace Pagoda by the Japantown mall. Biff stared at the memorial statue and said, “I wake up to a lot of anxiety. The ghost of my mother appears and I’m low for the day.”

“Let’s eat,” said Yuki. Over teriyaki salmon, salad, miso soup, avocado sushi and hot tea, Yuki related how in the Japanese language there is no original word that communicates depression. “I had a roomer born in Japan who worked in my garden almost daily till three days before he died at 99,” she said.

Biff nodded. “I’ll work my way out of the blues.”

“Yes, you will,” said Yuki. “You are a survivor like me who understands suffering.” She paused to wipe her mouth. “Where are you staying tonight?”

“On a friend’s floor.”

“You need a good night’s sleep. All that bus traveling. You’re welcome to sleep on my couch. I live alone. Only a few blocks away.”

“You’re very trusting, but you don’t even know me.”

“I know you. You’re a good young man in touch with your real self and real feelings. Sometimes you get labeled like they did to us Japanese Americans but you search for that path back to the humankind.”

“I accept,” Biff smiled grateful.

He left quietly in the morning before Yuki woke. On the couch he left a note: “Thank you very much for your kindness.” On top of his note he left a black-and-white photograph of Biff and his mother, smiling in front of the country-and-western theatre when Biff was a teen.

Memorial at the Topaz internment camp in the Utah desert where thousands of Americans of Japanese descent were confined.


The Missing Father: A Dream Story

Short Story by George Wynn

I swear I will not return to the shelter. I leave my bags in my father’s small room in a residential hotel on Laguna Street in San Francisco. In the far corner, the slender 60-ish homemaker complains: “Your father is so darnn bossy.”

I pat her on the shoulder. “I know,” I say, with a medium sigh.

My father stares at me even though his hearing has declined, so he could not have heard her concern. He does not say a word but holds me with his stiff lips and focused eyes.

She continues, “If I’m five minutes late, it’s a capital crime. Nothing is ever clean enough for him.” With a gleam in her eye, she adds, “He raises his voice to me more often than my first love raised my skirt.”

Her regression to coquetry takes me aback and not knowing what to make of it, I rush off to a journalism class at the Media Alliance.

In class, I cannot concentrate. Instead, I daydream about the father who I always took for a puritanical type and the recent rumors buzzing around the hotel, especially by the women, that he was quite a ladies man before I was born.

After school, it begins to rain and, for a moment, I regain my focus as I pass the Old Mint on Fifth and Mission Streets. The plague on the building wall says: “Old United States Mint (1874-1937) designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961.” I’m a San Francisco history buff.

The rain intensifies, so I enter a bookstore specializing in books written in Tagalog.

A big tome of black-and-white photographs enthralls me, especially shots of Filipino merchant seamen in front of the International Hotel and heroes of the cultural left: San Francisco labor leader Harry Bridges and the poet George Hitchcock.

The rain subsides. A few blocks further down Mission Street, I begin to feel disoriented because the streets seem different. This could be Detroit or Chicago.

I walk around a few blocks in a fog. I blink my eyes hard as I pass a medical marijuana storefront. Across the street, a spike-haired punkette sitting on a milk crate with a cute smile offers me a thick joint. I take a succession of puffs for over five minutes, relaxing me.

Turning left towards Market, a pack of gangbangers are punching each other hard in the chest. They are about a half block away. Scared, I turn back to Mission until I reach Van Ness and wind up a few blocks from Church and Market.

I have a migraine headache and vertigo has set in.

I encounter a wide-bodied black man with big, blue, plastic sunglasses and brown-leather jacket and jeans and his pale-shirted, silent friend. “How far to Haight Street?” I ask.

“Five blocks,” he says firmly but cordially.

“Is Laguna Street that way?”

“Yes, I believe so,” he says in a reassuring manner.

I walk so fast, I do not remember a single thing I pass and am amazed to see a red brick building on the corner where I thought my father’s residence was.

Instead, it is now the San Francisco Zen Center.

Am I in a dream? Did the punkette lace the cannabis? Is the spirit of Kafka alive and well? Am I the protagonist in a short story that I did not write?

I go inside and sit in the courtyard and bow my head for a quarter of an hour, desperately trying to quiet my mind — to no avail.

Taking a massive deep breath, I march downstairs to meditate. The cushion under my butt seems to send a vacuum of air up my spine to my brain, cleaning out some of the soot of confusion.

I am the lone person meditating. After an hour, I look up at the ceiling and begin to chant. “Father is here somewhere. Father is here somewhere.”

Afterwards, I go upstairs. Dog-tired, I fall asleep in the courtyard. When I awake in the morning, my bags are next to me.

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