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1st Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest

Smile’s Sonata

“Can you loan me this book?” A lanky man in a pair of black slacks and a white button-down shirt held a book in his hands. He was very tall, enough for me to tilt my head to look at his face. His skin was smooth and youthful, and his cheekbones rose high on his face, giving him a feminine nature. The jawline snapped to a strong point, defying the womanly features that accompanied his shapely nose and fair complexion. His thin lips were turned into a warm smile. With his taut, black ponytail, he seemed misplaced among the stacked rainbow spines and brown bookshelves. A band member from the pop section in a music store, I thought, not a random Japanese customer in a small bookstore.

“I’m sorry. This store doesn’t lend books,” I said with my customer service smile, placing a silent wall between me and the patron. I learned from Haruki, the bookstore owner, that delivering bad news always came with this smile.

“Even a fake smile can make people a little nicer,” he had said, smiling at me with his service smile. He always taught me things that were useful in the most trivial situations. I always found myself as his mute apprentice. “But you never know. Some smiles can make an ugly guard look like a shiny piece of armor.” Haruki’s dark eyes became small and childlike, a sharp contrast to his chin stubble and growing wrinkles around his mouth. The smile on his lips melded his aging face into something raggedly handsome. Whenever he flashed it, upset patrons composed themselves.

The patron before me said or did nothing. An awkward silence, one that sought to be filled, fell between us. He seemed to be waiting for the words I didn’t say. His eyes were bright with amusement and his lips curled back enough to see his teeth. A childish guard, I noted, filled with a clouded intention I found uncomfortable. My hands felt sweaty, and my mind churned out a blank. He just stood there, waiting for me.

I wiped my moist hands on my apron. “If you would like the book, please purchase it at the register.”

His smile widened, making his dark eyes smaller. “Can you loan me this book?” he repeated, this time, in Japanese. For a moment, I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t tell if he was testing me as some Japanese customers did. I was the only American employee in Little Tokyo’s sole bookstore tucked inside an immaculate plaza near the community center. Americans hardly ventured in. Mostly elderly Japanese locals and exchange students frequented the shop, snapping up Japanese novels when they craved their mother tongue.

But this particular customer confused me. I thought of the man’s crisp Japanese. Each syllable neatly left his mouth and arrived into my ears as if he deliberately told them to do so. It was the first time I encountered the man’s singsong dialect. I usually heard functional Tokyo Japanese or strong Kansai-influenced Japanese at the bookstore.

“I’d really like to buy it, but I don’t have any dollars right now,” the man said, the words running along a hushed melody. “Can this shop lend it to me?”

“I apologize,” I said in Japanese. “If you would like the book, please purchase it.”

The smile waned, and surprise momentarily flashed through his eyes. “Ah, your Japanese is good,” he replied.

I dismissed the comment. I learned after five years in Okinawa that those exact words were part of an automatic response, along with, “You’re good at chopsticks” and “Where are you from?”

“If you’re not going to buy it,” I said, an old irritation rising inside me, “I’ll put it back for you.”

His smile widened again. “Can you buy it for me?”

“No, sir.” I looked at him more closely. Strands of white hairs mingled with the black hairs. He didn’t seem young or old.

“OK, I see,” he said in his melodic tone before reaching out and taking my hand. Warmth instantly filled my fingers and spread through my skin. I wanted to pull away before it started, but his soft and smooth hand firmly held mine. He pressed the book into my palm, his gaze steady. He leaned closer, only the top of his body tilting forward, until I smelled the mint on his breath. “Do you have a break soon?”

I shook my head. “I already took my break.”

“Oh, is that so? Then what time does this store close?”

I started to answer, but a grandmother in a grey Hawaiian shirt shuffled up to the register. Haruki had left me alone in the store again. “I’m sorry, sir,” I said, pulling my hand away. “I must look after the register.” I hurried to the cashier before the grandmother could place the book on the counter. I bowed out of respect and rang her up.

“You look like my granddaughter,” she remarked as I wrapped her book in brown paper. “She likes to play soccer, so she’s really dark.” She laughed, stained teeth flashing between her lips. I put the wrapped book in a bag and handed it to her. For a brief moment, her wrinkled fingers touched my smooth ones. It was only a moment, but it was all I needed.

It started as a whisper snaking mischievously into my ear. The sound of someone’s breath—a gasp—was followed by a drawn pause. A voice in the distance yelled something. Someone’s car horn blared loudly in my ears as if it came from next to me. I flinched. Brakes and tires squealed. Something heavy collided with something else, and a muddled scream echoed within my ears. The tires grinded against the ground before it peeled off and disappeared into a group of voices.

A woman was on the phone. “911? Yeah, we need an ambulance,” she said, my ear the receiver. “San Pedro and Second Street. Weller Court.”

“Did someone call an ambulance?” The voice was calm, deep, a man’s voice. The woman with the phone said she had. “Please stand back.” Other voices melded together, but I couldn’t decipher one from the other. I didn’t try. I only wanted to hear the man’s voice again. “Unconscious. Brain trauma. Broken ribs and left femur.”

A bell rang from far and near. It pulled me out of the noise by the hand, gently placing me in front of the register. The old woman stared worriedly at me, her position unchanged from the time I entered my trance. “Are you all right?”

I smiled weakly. “I’m fine. Here’s your book.” She took it and headed for the door. Haruki stopped and exchanged greetings with her. After a few words, they bowed to each other, and the old woman left. My eyes followed her until she disappeared behind the store’s wall.

“Looks like I saved you from a ghost again.” Haruki patted me on the shoulder, a crease between his eyebrows. “Did you take your break? The coffee’s on me, if you want one.”

“She already took a break.” Haruki and I looked in the man’s direction. He stood near the register, the book still in his hand. The man’s smile was there, but its childish essence had diminished. “At least that’s what she said to me.”

Haruki regarded the man with interest. “Where are you from?” he asked in Japanese. Though Haruki’s face said that he was just making conversation, I knew he was digging into the man’s unusual dialect.

“You noticed, huh? Well, I guess it can’t be helped.” The man brought his free hand to his ear and tapped it. “Sometimes, I don’t get any sound here. Just quiet. So this is how my voice comes out, all neat and clean and abnormal.”

“Nothing’s wrong with abnormal.” Haruki genuinely smiled at him. “It makes you interesting, and I only concern myself with interesting people.” Haruki walked towards the staff room. “Just ask her,” he commented before pushing open the door and leaving me alone at the register again.

I stood still, trying to put my thoughts together. My hand, the one the old woman touched, shook. The sounds had disappeared, but the feeling remained. A shadow fell over it, and I looked up. The man in the ponytail stared at me without the smile. “She might die today,” the man in the ponytail announced.

“How did you…”

He reached out again and touched my shaky hand. The bookshelves and the spines flattened into a photo taken through my eyes. Only the man stood undisturbed, his body remaining whole and real. There was a flicker of movement behind his head. A hole ate through the papery scene, orange and red flames devouring the edges. Other holes began to do the same, joining each other when there was nothing to eat, until the entire bookstore was gone.

Over his shoulder, a large traditional Japanese knot guarded a plaza in its white stony armor. I looked around. Trees lined the sidewalk opposite of the plaza. A parking lot on the adjacent corner. Green flashed behind the man’s shoulder, and I turned my attention to the source: a pedestrian light. We stood at an intersection adjacent to the plaza housing the bookstore. People walked on, void of expressions, just by-passers, asphalt, and green pedestrian lights. Few cars drove through the intersection, but the sounds of cars and people and the outdoors didn’t reach my ears. The wind, the click of a woman’s heels, the cars’ motors, all were lost somewhere in a vacuum. Mute, I thought, this place is a host for muteness. The silence made the intersection empty, the sky closer, the hand holding mine warmer.

“I usually see things like this,” the man said. “And I see what happens to people like her.” He shifted in the direction of the plaza, and I watched the grandmother walk towards us. She walked with deliberate footsteps, her gait never yielding to the hurried steps of others as the pedestrian light blinked. In my peripheral vision, a blue car sped in our direction. Instinct pushed me in the woman’s direction, but the man held my hand firmly. I looked at him. He stared at me, and with robotic movements, he shook his head.

The old woman neared the center of the crosswalk, a few steps away from us, and she looked forward, eyes squinting as if to see the lit red hand. I stepped towards her, ignoring the tug on my hand. “Wait!” But the sound fell to the street unheard.

She passed through me. Her body hovered within my body, my blood going cold, until her feet carried her through. The man pulled me against his body.

“It’s no use,” he said tonelessly. “This isn’t happening in real time. This will happen in several minutes.” The car came. Its speed didn’t slacken, even as the old woman walked in oblivion. I opened my mouth, knowing that I, an apparition from the man’s ability, was useless.

The grandmother slowly turned her head in the car’s direction. Her eyes widened. Wrinkled lips opened, trembled with muteness. A flash of white and black. The woman was pushed away. She tumbled backwards, mouth open in a silent scream. As she hit the ground, the car slammed into a man in black and white. The silence disappeared on impact, and the crash produced sickening sounds, metal and glass and manmade things conquering flesh and bone. His long legs gave into the hood and his shoulder went into the windshield. He twisted around, over the roof, until there was nothing else to hit except the asphalt. The merciless car kept its straightforward pursuit and disappeared from the scene with streak marks.

Other pedestrians hurried to the fallen man and grandmother. A woman held a cell phone to her ear. “911? Yeah, we need an ambulance,” she said in a trembling voice. “San Pedro and Second Street. Weller Court.”

“Did someone call an ambulance?” Haruki asked from beside the crumbled man. The woman with the phone said she had. The older man waved off the worried pedestrians. “Please stand back.” They murmured some words but moved aside for him. “Unconscious. Brain trauma. Broken ribs and left femur.” He continued to speak, his mouth moving, but words did not come out. I strained to hear his words. The volume was on mute again.

“I only see these things,” the man’s voice said, filling in the silence. It left me cold, empty. This side, this place, the man on the floor, the same man breaking the sound barrier, were all on this side of the world. I heard it. He saw it. Both of us understood what it all meant. Significant events, unchangeable events. I stood there, watching the blood stain the asphalt underneath the man’s head, trying to find a way to hear something.

This side was cruel. It burned away in the same manner I entered, and the edges of the merciless world disappeared with silent flames. I looked down. My hand and his hand were an inch apart on the counter.

“Why did you show me that?” I lifted my eyes to find his guarded smile gone.

Sorrow came and went. His smile returned, but it was a sad one that shrugged away any urgency in my question. “I just needed to show someone,” he answered, then he scratched an itch behind his ear. “You’re the first person I could reach out to.”

“But why? If you’re going to die, why reach out in the first place? Why borrow a book? Why do any of those things?”

“It’s normal, isn’t it? Borrowing books, talking to folks, watching people. It’s all normal.” The sorrow in his smile dissolved. He was a normal man in black and white. “For once, I wanted to try and be normal. Walk in and not think what would happen next. But then, I saw your expression with that old lady, and I just knew. You’re just like me. A little abnormal. Tainted with insanity. So I thought, ‘Why not trade insanities?’ And then, whatever happened next, I’d accept it.”

I stared at him. “And you’re going to go out there, just like that?”

He shrugged. “I don’t have much of a choice. You saw it, right? I’m meant to die just like everyone else. It’s probably the most normal thing about me.” The man held out a blue book for me. On its cover, it read Smile’s Sonata in simple black letters. Once again, he was a stranger with a book and I was the employee in the bookstore.

Something hopeless and free blended with his smile. I stood rooted to the new present time, to a present me who knew nothing about the future.

Slowly, I reached for the book.


*This story was one of the finalists in the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest.


© 2014 Jeridel Banks

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About this series

As part of Little Tokyo Historical Society’s 130th Anniversary of Little Tokyo (1884-2014) celebratory activities throughout the year, Little Tokyo Historical Society held a fictional short story contest that awarded cash prizes to the top three. The fictional story had to depict the current, past, or future of Little Tokyo as part of the City of Los Angeles, California.


  • First Place: “Doka B-100” by Ernest Nagamatsu.
  • Second Place: “Carlos & Yuriko” by Rubén Guevara.
  • Third Place: “Mr. K” by Satsuki Yamashita.

Some of the other Finalists:

*Read stories from other Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contests:

2nd Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
3rd Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
4th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
5th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
6th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
7th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
8th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>