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3rd Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest


Little Tokyo, 1989

One night, Mario Martinez, a struggling musician from Boyle Heights, was sitting in a booth at the Atomic Café in Little Tokyo when punk god Sid Vicious walked in with his entourage and ordered fried rice. Suddenly rice balls were flying through the air but no one seemed to mind or notice. It wasn’t unusual for that kind of craziness. Other punk bands would come by such as X, The Bags, The Ramones, even David Bowie and the avant-garde artist Andy Warhol once paid a visit. Even though punk music wasn’t Mario’s cup of tea, he liked the eccentric mix of people and their free bohemian flair. There was no place quite like it in L.A., a rare intersection of misfits and genius’s from all neighborhoods and walks of life. But it was the waitress and the jukebox that was the real draw. At least it was for Mario.

They called her Miss D., D. for dynamite and she was something to behold with her wild theatrical hair, makeup, and clothes. She loved punk music and its free nonconformist lifestyle, very unusual for a Japanese American girl: a true one of a kind L.A. rebel. And, Mario was fascinated with her.

“Hey Miss D., what do you recommend on the jukebox?” “Everything,” she replied. “Got any Aretha?” “Of course!” Mario got up and dropped a few coins in the box and “Respect” started playing. “Miss D., this is dedicated to you,” he said. “Thanks, Mario. That’s one of my favorites.” “What do you recommend on the menu?” “Everything. Everything is everything here,” she said with a playful wink and smile.

Mario was recently separated from his marriage. It was a painful separation. He dearly loved his wife Luz and seven year old son Diego, a gifted young artist, but couldn’t take the shame of not being able to support them, causing many ugly arguments that finally took their toll. “Don’t make me choose between music and the family!” he would shout. “I play for the family. You’re my inspiration, why can’t you see that?!” But his wife could only see the bills that had to be paid and the cost of raising a son which he wasn’t providing. “You need to put the family above the music, Mario. Get a day job or get out!”

After a long sleepless night of anguish he finally decided to leave and wound up at the Little Tokyo Hotel trying to figure out what to do with his life, music, and marriage…and…what to do about Miss D. She was such a perfect distraction from his lonely misery, and…a perfect muse.

Mario grew up in Boyle Heights and the only Japanese American girls he knew were from his high school days at Roosevelt. They were very proper, poised, and polite with a sweet subtle sense of honor that made him feel awkward in their presence since he was such a rowdy kid. But he loved the way they would always say hi, and asked how he was doing. Little did he know that beneath that sweet surface was a very strong willed woman, ready to take care of whatever business came her way.

When times were good Mario used to take his wife and son to the Suehiro Cafe on First Street. Tatsuro Yoshimoto, the owner’s son was a big fan of Diego’s drawings. Once he drew Godzilla with a Santa Claus hat on and gave it to Tatsuro for Christmas. He liked it so much he had it framed and hung it on the cafe wall. They all became very close friends.

One night as Mario was sitting at the counter having dinner, Tatsuro asked how his wife and son were. Mario was too ashamed to say they had separated and simply said, “Oh, they are fine. Thanks for asking.” “Say hi to Diego. I hope he’s still drawing.” “Oh, yes, he is,” Mario proudly beamed. “You must be very proud of him.” “He’s my inspiration, Tatsuro,” Mario replied as his heart broke a little.

Mario and his band The Mean Soul Machine luckily got a gig playing at Al’s Bar in the nearby Art’s District and he invited Miss D. “Aw man, thanks, I’d like to go but I gotta hold down the fort here for my parents. I’ll try to get a sub and make it down sometime soon. What kind of music do you play, Mario?” “Nothing but soul,” he replied.” “Well alright! By the way, I sing a little soul myself, but can’t get it together because of having to work here.” “I thought you were only into punk.” “I’m into anything that moves me.” “Right on, I can dig it. By the way, we could use a good singer in case you’re interested in auditioning.” “Okay, thanks. I might take you up on that.” “Just let me know, Miss Dynamite. I have a feeling you’re pretty good.” “I can hold my own,” she said with that playful wink and smile.

Al’s Bar was the only place downtown where you could hear live blues and R&B and this night it was a full house of mostly regulars from the Atomic Café. The packed bar was filled with heavy smoke and loud with laughter, people shooting pool, and playing the well stocked jukebox. Suddenly Miss D. walked through the door and the whole place noticed and cheered. “Hey Miss D.!” they shouted. “Why aren’t you at work?” “Hi everybody, I took a break and came here to audition with the band!” she yelled out. “Well, allll-right, Miss D.! Tear it up!” “Thanks! I’ll do my best!”

Mario spotted her and made his way toward her. “Hi Miss Dynamite, so happy you made it. Can I get you a glass of wine?” “Sure. Make it Red, please.” “So, feel like singing a song or two?” “That’s why I’m here.” “What tunes?” “Do you know ‘Ain’t No Way’ by Aretha? I do it in the key of C, and for the second one, ‘Goodbye, So Long’ by Tina in A.” “Yeah, we can do those. Very cool choices, gutsy, too.” “Well, I love singing soul. It’s my medicine. I sing every song as if it’s my last. I don’t have time to lose. It’s now or never. The only thing real is right now. Can you dig it?” “Right on! I can dig it Miss D! And you’re right, the only thing real is what’s happening right now,” he said as his heart pounded.

Miss D. got up and tore it up with Aretha’s scorching heartbreak ballad then with Tina’s brazen breakup song. But there was one line in the Aretha tune that really hit home for Mario: “Ain’t no way I can love you if you won’t let me,” and he thought of Luz.

The packed house went crazy over Miss D.’s performance. Most of her customers never knew she was a singer so the response was tremendous. “Ladies and Gentlemen, can we hear it again for Miss D.?!” Mario shouted. The crowd roared back her name. “Miss D.! Miss D.! Miss D.!”

Mario got off the stage and gave Miss D. a big hug. “Hey now, be cool m’ man. Let’s not get too cozy,” she joked. “Yeah well you blew the roof off Miss Dynamite, just like I thought you would. Damn, you are one incredible singer! You healed the whole damn joint with your soul medicine! You’ve got the gig if you want it. The owner just extended my contract for another four weeks thanks to you.” “Oh cool, Mario. Thanks! I’ll have time for my career now. The Café is closing in a month. Parents are burned out. It’s been nonstop for 28 years for them and for me too.” “Cheers!” they toasted.

Mario took a sip of wine then boldly asked, “I’m curious Miss D. Are you single?” “Why do you ask?” she shot back. “Well, I’d like to know you a little better if you are. I love your pure spirit and your voice. Not too many women around like you.” “Are you single?” she asked. Mario didn’t know what to say. Finally he admitted, “I’m separated and heading for a divorce. It’s just a matter of time.”

“Why did you separate if you don’t mind me asking?” “Are you a prosecutor or a defense attorney?” Mario said jokingly, trying to avoid the question. “Well?” “My wife put me on the spot making me choose between music and the family. I got tired of the arguments over that. So I left. I can’t quit playing music. It’s who and what I am.” Miss D. stared at him then asked, “Do you have kids?” “Yes, a seven year old son. He’s an artist and a genius.” “Mario, you’ve got your priorities messed up: since you brought a child into this world that’s your first and only priority. Your son is who and what you are—not your career. You’ve got to man up, m’ man. You’ve got to go home.” Mario was stunned silent with her blunt truths. “I’m just telling it like it is. That’s my style, no time for BS.” “Wow, you are one tough cookie.” “I have to be. It’s a man’s world, remember?” There was uncomfortable silence, then, Miss D. said, “Mario, I’ll have to pass on the offer to sing in your band. Sorry. It would never work out. But thanks for giving me a shot. I’m inspired now to get back on it. Thanks again. You take care now, okay?” She got up and gave Mario a light hug and joined her friends at the bar.

It was close to midnight Christmas Eve while Mario sadly sat at the counter at the Suehiro Cafe. He sat remembering how he, Luz, and Diego, would celebrate the Mexican tradition, la noche buena, the good night, on Christmas Eve by staying up past midnight opening gifts, making and eating tamales, while he made his specialty, pozole, a soup of hominy, pork, chicken, and red chili sauce. Oh, how he loved those nights. But tonight, he was alone with only a few bucks in his pocket, just enough for a bowl of rice and some miso soup.

The owner, Mrs. Yoshimoto, a gentle elderly lady, walked up to him and with an outstretched hand gave him a small bundle wrapped in a napkin. “Here, Mario-san. It’s for you. You forgot last time.” Mario looked at the bundle and it read “For Diego’s Dad.” He opened it and there was $10.38 in cash. It was the change from the last time he had dinner there with Luz and Diego before the separation. His heart sank. “Thank you, Mrs. Yoshimoto!” He then ordered a full dinner, silently gave thanks, and wept.

“Thank you for your honesty. You are a very honorable woman,” Mario said as he was paying the bill. “You are very welcome.” As he was leaving Mrs. Yoshimoto said, “Wait, almost forgot. This gift is for Diego. Please give to him. Merry Christmas, Mario-san. You go home now. Yes?” After a long pause Mario looked up and replied with tears in his eyes, “Yes. Arigato, I go home now, Mrs. Yoshimoto, and Merry Christmas to you and Tatsuro.” He took the package turned and walked out into the cold Christmas night.

He walked past the Atomic Café and saw a sign that read, “Closed for good. Thanks for stopping by all these years.” He thought of Miss D. and her fierce integrity. “What a woman,” he sighed. “Damn! She’s just like Luz!” he realized, as he drove in circles trying to work up the courage to go back home.

He finally arrived and nervously rang the doorbell. Luz opened the door, stared, and froze up, not knowing what to say. “Hi Luz.” “Come in, Mario. You look tired. Why didn’t you call first?” “Sorry, I should have,” he apologized. “Luz, I have a confession to make if you’ll hear me out. I’ve realized that I’ve been terribly wrong and unfair to you and Diego. Yeah, I love music, but it never loved me enough to support the family and that’s what really matters, what really counts. I see that now. Luz, I want to be a better father and a better husband. I’ve been too selfish, too wrapped up in my music and not in the family. I’ve been one big egotistical jerk. What do you think, Luz? Am I worth a second chance?”

There was a long silence. “You mean you’ll put music aside for us and get a good job?” “Yes. I recently got an offer to teach sax at a music store. At first I turned it down but now I’ve changed my mind. They say that music teachers are failed musicians, but I’d rather be a failed musician than a failed father and husband. It wouldn’t be much at first but it would be a start. Then, I’ll enroll at a college and get a music teaching credential. What do you say, Luz?”

There was another long pause. “You promise to follow through?”

Mario looked straight into her beautiful teary eyes and said, “I promise, Luz. I promise.” Mario reached out to put his arms around her. She was hesitant at first then slowly put her arms around him and whispered, “We’ve missed you, Mario. We’ve missed you a lot. Sorry I was so tough on you.” “You were only doing what any mother would do, looking out for her child.”

Suddenly Diego burst into the room and ran to his Dad shouting, “Papi! Papi!” and threw his arms around him. “Here, mijo, a gift for you.” Diego took the package and excitedly opened it. It was full of art supplies of all kinds. And, there was a card that Mario read: ”Dear Diego, you will be a great artist and a great man one day because you are very talented and because your mother and father love you very much…and so do we. Never stop painting. Merry Christmas, the Yoshimoto Family.”

Luz then turned to Mario and asked, “Would you like some pozole?” “I would love some, gracias.”


*This story is the English Language Runner Up in the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest III.


© 2016 Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara

Atomic Café christmas fiction Imagine Little Tokyo little tokyo Los Angeles music musician short story suehiro

About this series

The Little Tokyo Historical Society’s third short story contest has concluded with more creative stories related to the Little Tokyo community. As in the previous year, there were winners in the English language category, the Japanese language, and also the Youth category with cash prizes for the First Place winners. This year there was a special donation made by the Bunkado gift shop located in Little Tokyo in celebration of Bunkado’s 70th Anniversary of doing business after World War II.


Runner Ups

  • English Language Category: “Merry Christmas Mario-san” by Rubén Guevara
  • Youth Category: “Home is Little Tokyo” by Yuriko Chavez
  • Japanese Language Category:
    • “Father & Daughter and Little Tokyo” by Akira Tsurukame
    • “Fusion City” by Takiko Morimoto

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

1st Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
2nd 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 >>