Dark wood of indeterminate pedigree, it is unfinished but organically varnished by human handling. Eighty-odd years old, corners rounded, several of its convex beads nicked, it’s as sturdy as ever, still functional. White paint markings painstakingly deposited into carved grooves are intact. Its craftsman meant it to last, but we’ll never know its origin, just as we’ll never know many things we didn’t think to ask. No point asking now. The long goodbye, they call it. Vacuity and gestures inexorably supplanting cognition and speech, she motions for it to be brought near, though she no longer uses it.

She rose early. You gotta have good breakfast. Before leaving, she cooked for us two youngest, whatever we wanted: eggs scrambled, over easy, omurice, poached in misoshiru, or if they were fresh and the rice steaming hot, raw, with shoyu; fish if we had it, what breakfast meat we had if not; maybe tsukemono or furikake; but rice always. Once my brother spread butter on his rice, like he had seen his friend do. I never heard her shriek like that before or since. After cleaning up, she styled my hair, whatever I wanted: pigtails, ponytail, one bun or two; then she got ready for work. I hope she doesn’t ask, I’d repeat to myself, pointlessly. Just before her exit came the order: Cook breakfast for your brother. Whatever he wants. From experience I knew to keep my protests to myself: Why does he get to sleep in? Because he’s the oldest? Why don’t you do it? I’m not skilled like you. He’s gonna want eggs sunny side up, and if I break the yolk, he’ll get mad. Sometimes I got lucky, sometimes not.

In my homework seat, back table next to the wooden bead curtain disguising the hallway to the restrooms, my afterschool snack was whatever I wanted: tekkamaki, tempura udon, chawanmushi, ramen, kushiyaki. Homework done, I napped in one of the ozashiki, if I wanted; if they were occupied, on the big chest freezer in the storeroom behind the kitchen. Early evening brought the dinner rush. Inexplicably, unlike the waitresses in their yukata, she wore a brocade cheongsam. Japanese patrons called her Okusan; non-Japanese, Mama-san. I bristled at the latter (hybrid perversion; and she wasn’t their mother), but if she minded, she didn’t let on. When the cash register stopped ringing, it was time to go home.

Showered and pajamaed, I feigned sleep under my futon with book and flashlight. The soundtrack of my childhood nights ensued: Tic-tic, tic-tic-tic-tic, tic-tic-tic, the soft staccato of beads sliding on their rods, click-counting, then BRA-A-AT! in unison, ratcheting noisily to their home positions. Under my reading canopy, my child-mind guessed she was an hour tallying the day’s receipts – or was that just how long it was before I really did sleep?

Pointing, she asks, so there it is bedside, now idle and silent, echoing only in memory, her soroban. Whatever she wants.


(an old Japanese abacus)

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