Shug Arai didn’t have any shoulders, or at least it looked like he didn’t have any. So when Mas Arai peered into the statin-lined casket to gaze at the body of his second cousin, one of the few relatives that he had in the United States, he was startled to see that someone—most likely the country mortician—had completely stuffed the top of Shug’s suit jacket à la Jack LaLanne. “Mah—okashii,” Mas’s late wife, Chizuko, would have exclaimed under her breath if she were there at the viewing at the Watsonville mortuary. Funny looking. She would have been right. Even as a young man, Shug had been stooped over, bicep-free. But whatever was missing from his frame was in his brain. Shug was about the smartest man that Mas had known in both Hiroshima and California.
“I wanted the casket lined with strawberries, but the family wouldn’t hear of it.” A rough-hewn voice boomed behind Mas. “In fact, I thought he should be buried in his strawberry plot.”
The familiar voice belonged to a familiar face. Rectangular like a television set, piercing eyes and thick lips. Deep lines were on the forehead and the hair had thinned out and become the texture and color of fishing line. But Mas still could make the ID. “Oily?” he asked.
“Fifty years later, and I still can pick you out from across the room. Glad you were able to make it.” Oily grabbed Mas’s head and hugged it to his chest like a pigskin football. Mas normally wouldn’t have tolerated such behavior, but he was back in his birthplace and the town where he spent his early adult years. He’d allow Oily one hug for old time’s sake. But just one.
“Everyone will be here tomorrow. Everyone. Be a mini-reunion of our time in the Stem House. How long did you live in the house, anyway?”
“Three year. But not straight through. I’zu go ova to Texas, pickin’ tomatoes. And San Francisco, schoolboy, before they kick me out.”
“Then you made your way to L.A. You diversified, just like Shug. The rest of us homebodies, we just stayed here.”
Mas couldn’t put himself in the same category as Shug. Mas was a no-good gardener in L.A., while Shug was a famous breeder, the father of new strawberry varieties, informally referred to as Dr. Ichigo, or Dr. Strawberry. Shug was wanted in places, like France and Chile, just for his horticultural expertise. After he circled the world a few times, he had plopped back her in Watsonville, California.
“I was surprised, too, that he decided to retire here. But he told me he had some unfinished business in Watsonville.”
Mas scratched the back of his right ear. Unfinished business.
Oily nodded. “Who knows what that meant? Maybe he knew that strawberry yellows was going to hit Watsonville again.”
“Yeah, yellows. A disease as mean as you can get. Stunts the growth of the fruit, for one thing, and also the leaves start curling up, get spotty and yellow. Worst yet, it spreads all over the place—not only to the second generation, but back even to the mothers. Nasty business. Practically wiped out strawberries in California in the twenties. And now it’s taken up here again.”
Copyright © 2013 by Naomi Hirahara
The above excerpt is the beginning of Strawberry Yellow, Naomi Hirahara’s current installment in her Mas Arai mystery series. Her work can be read, as well, in the just-released Literary Pasadena: The Fiction Edition—in stock at Vroman’s as of today! (3 April 2013)
Both books are published by Prospect Park Books of Pasadena.