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Nikkei Chronicles #2—Nikkei+: Stories of Mixed Language, Traditions, Generations & Race

Sammy's Shitkickers

I began to beat Sammy with his own leg braces, polished by mama to a new money shine, around the time people stopped looking at me, their eyes resting on Sammy, listening to his hospital stories, admiring his scars, a mountain range, crawling, stitch by stitch calf to heel. I would knock him in the head with his own hard, thick-soled boots.

“Siblings do that sort of thing,” daddy once said as he puffed on a well-chewed pipe, smoke connecting each word, slowing their delivery for our mother to translate his English to Japanese. Sammy’s burnished brown, hand-sewn boots had holes on the sides to allow gleaming silver bars to couple and make rigid walking sticks. For Sammy, the language of walking was as foreign as America to mama’s tongue.

It may have been watching mama cut Sammy’s zucchini and hamburger steak into bite size morsels, or lifting long railroad tracks of bones from his steamed fish, or giving Sammy the biggest piece of my birthday cake. It could have been her lectures, made louder by slamming drawers, disrupting my insides, shaking my mind awake, when she first showed me the meaning of being first, second, or third, the meaning of being last. All I remember now is the desire to smear Sammy with blood, our mother’s rouge, his own scabs, was part of me.

Sammy was my little brother, a punk by any other name, a twerp, a brat, a turd, full of cooties and snot and other disgusting things that made him more valuable to our parents than their older, more capable, and cleaner daughter. On New Year’s over miso soup and sashimi and on Sammy’s birthday, when he always got exactly what he asked for and more, mama would reflect, her eyes shut as if a movie were running beneath her lids, that her only son was her future.

Later, daddy would remind me it would be my turn to take care of Sammy when my parents were gone. “You mean dead, right?” I would confirm in a deep voice, hushed by his hand going up as if in protest, and he would bite down on his pipe, the meeting of teeth against hard, hand tooled wood, clenching in my ears for years after he did go.

But until my turn came, Sammy was going to care for mama, she was sure of it, when she became old and alone in this golden land that treated her as a foreigner, defining her as an alien on government forms. Even grandma spurred on her daughter-in-law’s hostility when she sideways suggested my brother’s “condition” resulted from mama being exposed to the atomic bomb.

America never felt like home to mama, and behind each perfect Maybelline lined smile, she silently stored my Southern born daddy’s stories of lynchings and cross burnings. She knew the whispered stories of the Nisei, who stayed in straw filled horse stalls awaiting camp assignments, some birthing their own babies only to have them die. Her Issei women friends would talk about these things in Japanese amongst the imported foods, bent-over bags of Botan Rose rice, pots boiling, windows dripping steam, while they huddled in one of their kitchens, distracted by whatever they were cooking, being loyal to their husbands, confused by their half-American children who argued and talked back.

As much as we were at war when our parents were around, Sammy and I had times of Hot Wheels and ant camps in wooden match boxes and Lincoln log cities where Barbie and GI Joe got it on. Such was the time when Sammy decided he would wear daddy’s new snakeskin trimmed cowboy boots.

“Shitkickers” that’s what daddy called them as he would strut and slap on Hai Karate after shoving his feet into his dress boots. Sammy would sit at daddy’s feet, smile up, blushing “see me” with every blink of his almost round eyes, encouraging daddy to do like the dancers on Soul Train. Daddy, all 300 pounds of him, would hustle into this get up for funerals and other special occasions like Cioppino night at the American Legion Hall where framed World War II newspaper clippings bragged of killing the “Japs” over mama’s head while she sucked up seafood in bowls deep enough to mix 7-layer cakes.

It was during one of these for grown-ups only evenings that it happened. I remember, because daddy had come home from work and bathed, leaving the bathroom floor wet when it was still bright outside. Mama complained the entire time to the towels while she dried the floor wearing only her bra and a half-slip. The pink rollers bouncing in her hair, sweat curdling the power on her neck, as she moved around on hands and knees.

My brother and I played in his bedroom, a wall of Sears boy’s plaid curtains, stretching across the wall of three windows. The last light of a long August day sat on the wide window ledge that served as Sammy’s headboard. The curtains barely touched the ledge, leaving enough room for his green, gun-toting army men and tank collection to stand guard against any window attack from below. Sammy’s 8-year-old radar had narrowed in on daddy’s shitkickers. There they sat, toes pointed out and up, heels high and angled thick, spit-shined and ready, waiting to party. They were waiting for daddy to take them out on the town, but it didn’t matter right now, because they were calling Sammy’s name.

“Come on,” he begged, and I, never being one to avoid trouble, especially when it meant Sammy was the one who was going to get it good, plopped him into one boot and then, the other. The boots went up to the top of his thighs, keeping his legs straight, pushing his seersucker shorts into a bunch around the boot tops. He clowned in the way Sammy did to keep people laughing and away from noticing his legs; now swallowed whole by the boots. He would fall and get up, laughing and making those faces daddy made when his pants were too tight after dinner. Sammy smiled widely, stretching his arm out, twisting his wrist as daddy would before flourishing his fingers with a sweep of the air, put on his Hop-Along-Cassidy watch, and hoisting himself up onto his bed. He kept slipping on the birthday quilt grandma had just given him, and fell again and again, both of us laughing the kind of laugh that makes for a headache or a belly cramp.

Then, it was as if we had walked onto the edge of a large, slippery cliff, the grass falling away and taking the dirt and beetles and rocks and everything else along with it. Sammy very slowly, while the final spurts of laughter still jiggled out of his narrow shoulders, fell sideways, crashing through the bedroom window. I grabbed for Sammy, but just got a Kiwi slicked boot, the rest of him still going out the window, glass dancing and shooting in different directions, and my brother continuing to fall out on top of the now pulled down plaid curtain, and me grabbing for his foot, a pale soft fishhook, and holding on, finally, to his thin leg, wondering where his muscles were hiding. I hung on suddenly aware of fear sitting hard on my chest, shortening my breath. “Sammy,” I yelled, still holding the leg of the one who had the biggest room, the one who was always first.

Then, it happened, as the glass landed around me and the curtain rod shook against the bottom of the window frame, and I could hear my parents shouting, their feet pounding up the stairs, the door jumping on its hinges as they got closer, I realized Sammy was more than my little brother. I stuffed the boots down between the wall and his bed, knowing we would always be fair, 50/50 down the middle, no matter what. I started pulling Sammy in by his calf, then his thigh. “Don’t tell,” the part of him hanging outside the window begged in muffled panic and in pain. I squeezed his leg tightly, pulled him in, and we looked at each other for the first time in a way that mama would never get between again.

*This article was previously published by The Salt River Review online literary journal; however, this is a variation of the original story with some notable content changes including the ending. It is part of a series of six stories that comprise Kimono Blues.


© 2013 Sakae Manning

5 Stars

Nima-kai Favorites

Each article submitted to this series was eligible for selection as favorites of our readers and the Editorial Committees. Thank you to everyone who voted!

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About this series

Being Nikkei is inherently a state of mixed traditions and cultures. For many Nikkei communities and families around the world, it is common to use both chopsticks and forks; mix Japanese words with Spanish; or celebrate the New Year’s Eve countdown with champagne and Oshogatsu with ozoni and other Japanese traditions.

This series introduces stories explore how Nikkei around the world perceive and experience being multiracial, multinational, multilingual, and multigenerational.

Each piece submitted to the Nikkei+ anthology was eligible for selection as our readers’ favorites. 

Here are their favorite stories in each language.

To learn more about this writing project >>

Check out these other Nikkei Chronicles series >>