Dedicated to writer and educator Aaron Fai
Margaret Morri lay in a quickly darkening field of silverleaf tomato weed and Arizona creosote poppies. She had plucked one of the hard, yellow nightshade tomatoes and was pressing it like an unfurled rosebud to the end of her nose. Beside her lay Kenji Hirayama, half-asleep, a half-expired cigarette riding his bottom lip, vaguely attempting to adjust his cheap, shag wig. With the exception of the wig, Ken was naked, though the low-hanging smoke seemed fitted to his body like a white tuxedo. Margaret brushed at her arms, calves, dust that’d caked along with her sweat, and then reached across Ken’s body, picked her blouse up from off the sand, and began buttoning it.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Tonight I’m going over the southern wires, Margaret,” Ken said. “I’m going over the southern wires and into Casa Grande.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“There are four guards securing the southern wires,” Margaret said. “Four guards. Four rifles. You’re asking to get yourself shot.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Tonight there will be only two guards posted,” Ken said. “Two guards, and I’m friendly with them both. There’s Clarence, and there’s Gerry something. Or maybe it’s Bernard. Clarence and Bernard. Anyhow, they’re both alright.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Alright,” Margaret chewed on the word. “Meaning they speak to you from the other side of the wires. They smoke your cigarettes and tell you which of us they’d like to screw. Tell you how when they’re in their towers they can look down their rifles and into our rooms while we’re changing into nightgowns.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“I mean it that they hate their jobs and hate Gila River the same as us. And they understand they’re part of a problem, but don’t have any power to change it.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤFrom the petal of a nearby creosote blossom, a tick the width of a fingernail tumbled belly-up onto Margaret’s beach towel. She held it down using the last of her smoldering cigarette.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Then, letting you cross at the southern wires when they can be reported is not likely,” Margaret said. “If they say they’re men without power, that’s saying they’re a link in the power of another man who doesn’t believe in being lenient with Japs.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“I’m going over those wires,” Ken said. “There’s a diner in Casa Grande. It has a counter that sells cigarettes and whiskey. I’m going to bring it all back and sell it. People want to have parties again. People want to listen to records and dance and get tanked. I can help them do that, and I can make money.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“What good is your money? If we never make it out of Gila River, there’s nothing to own. You want to buy your own barrack from them?”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“We aren’t going to die in Gila River,” Ken said. “The war will end. We’ll go home together. We’ll need money to start again. I want to begin in the right way.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Stay here tonight,” Margaret said. “Be with me. Go to Casa Grande next month.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“No,” Ken said. “It’s tonight. I’m going tonight. And if I come back, if I can make us a lot of money this way, I want you to consider having a baby with me. It’s been a year. We don’t have to wait until we’re back in California to start a family. There are good doctors and a decent hospital here.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤMargaret stared hard into Ken. She was mostly dressed now, an unlit cigarette bucked upon her lips. She struck a match and drew it to her face. The tobacco crawled in the fire. A white moth of smoke climbed into the air.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Stay here tonight,” she said. “I want you to be with me. Go to Casa Grande next month.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“I’m not staying,” Ken said. He flicked at a spot on his chest, a dark circle he thought was a biting insect. But it was only a small, raised mole.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“You don’t remember,” she said. “You don’t remember what to say next.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“I remember,” Ken said. He ground his cigarette into the hot sand and struck up another.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“You remember,” she said. “Only you won’t say.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“That’s right,” he said.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Stay here tonight,” Margaret said it a little louder. “I want you to be with me.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“I want to be with you. There was never a question.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“What you say —what your line is —is Margaret, I’ll stay if once we leave Gila, you have three daughters. Three daughters just like you.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“It isn’t right to say that Margaret,” Ken said. “I’m writing my own lines now.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“You aren’t allowed to write your own lines. I’ve explained this before. I’ve explained this to you, Ken. You say what I’ve given you or you have to go. That’s all there is.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“I know that isn’t true,” Ken said. “It’s been nearly a year. I know you can get past this. I know there’s a way for you to start again.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“I’ll stay with you, Margaret,” she said. “I’ll stay if you promise you’ll have my daughters. Three daughters like you.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“That isn’t what happened,” Ken said. “Your husband didn’t stay. He never promised you he would. He left over the southern wires. He didn’t come back to camp alive.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Not in this version,” Margaret said. “In this version he stays. And I promise to give him three daughters.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“There aren’t any goddamn daughters! You aren’t a mother yet, Margaret. Don’t act like this!”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤKen removed his wig and threw it into the dirt. Beneath the wig, Ken was nearly bald. What hair remained looked green and dismal in the remaining light. He wiped the sweat from his scalp and flicked it. The nearby rocks darkened with his sweat.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“If I wasn’t clear with you, then I apologize,” Margaret said. “What all this is about, it means we aren’t ever going to be together. You play a role. You play it because if you don’t play it, then it has to stop.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“I know this isn’t the first time you’ve done this,” Ken said. “You think it’s a secret what you do? I’ve heard this before from Jack Shinoda. He told me there were others before him. Men you made wear this wig and Kane’s old clothes. And made them say the same goddamn crazy things.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“You’re right about everything, Ken,” she said. “It’s just the role that’s irreplaceable, not the actor.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤMargaret picked the wig from off the ground and shook the hot, golden debris from it. She held it out to Ken.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“You’re good at playing Kane,” she said. “You don’t look like him. You’re a little small. And you have a small, sad face. But you’re kind like him. You can go on if you like.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“No, Margaret,” he said. “You know Kane is gone.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤKen reached out for his clothes and began to dress.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“I’m going over the wires tonight,” he said.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤMargaret wasn’t looking at him anymore. She was combing her fingers through the wig as though in search of something.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Why would you do that?” she asked.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Because Kane was right. There’s good money in it if I come back. People are desperate to feel different. They’re drinking wine made from sugar water and raisins. They’re drinking vanilla extract. They’ll pay three or four times what a bottle of whiskey is worth.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“And what’ll you spend your money on? Is it money for chewing gum in the canteen? Money to rot like leaves beneath your mattress? It’s worthless today as it was two years ago.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤMargaret set down the wig beside her. A brief current took it for a moment and it rolled once, covering itself in a fine golden dust.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“More people are leaving Gila,” he said. “I have family in Detroit and Colorado. I’m going to Detroit in a month. I’m staying until they open the coast to us again. You can come with me.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“That isn’t ever going to happen Ken,” Margaret said.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤKen was dressed now. He was back in his own clothes. Kane’s clothes lay in a folded pile beside the wig.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“The same tower guard patrols the south,” Margaret said. “He carries the same rifle.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“I’ve talked to him about it,” Ken said. “He’s taken some money as a security. He understands I’m going and coming back.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“You can’t count on him for anything.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“I’m not afraid.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“How do you plan to find your way in the desert?”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“I have a light. I’ll follow the road.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“You should let him keep your money,” Margaret said. “And you should go to Detroit next month.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThe sun had fallen and steeped the sky in red. A scorpion shuffled out from a tent of bark and slipped into the crown of Kane’s wig.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“This is your chance,” Ken said. “I’m afraid for you, Margaret. Your obsession with this unattainable thing. This ghost. If you keep doing this to yourself, I’m afraid of what you will become.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“You don’t understand what you’re talking about,” Margaret said. “When you’ve been loved so badly by someone who dies, you already live between this place and the world over. That is who the ghost is. She is the one who can’t leave.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤMargaret folded Kane’s clothes and tucked them beneath her arm. She walked out of the silverleaf tomato weed, the Arizona creosote poppies, and back toward the southern barracks of Butte Camp.