River Train, 2016 First Place Adult Division
By Terri Picone
Irving’s face was splotched red as he left history class at the junior high. “Gosh, I thought it was a real air raid.”
John scoffed. “I knew it was a drill.”
“Did not.” Irving punched John’s shoulder.
“Knock it off, fellas,” Samuel pushed both friends. “What about the matinee Saturday?”
They stepped outside into the still-warm sun. Irving slipped on his baseball cap, adjusted the bill. “It’s sure been hot. I think we should go fishing instead,” he said, luring his friends with a challenge. “Whoever catches the biggest bass can be boss for a week.”
But they didn’t fall for it.
Irving kicked a rock from the sidewalk. “Come on, guys; the island hobos say the fish are biting.” After a few shoves, his friends found out that Irving’s spending money was tagged to pay for a stack of dishes he’d dropped at his family’s restaurant.
John and Samuel slapped each other’s backs and laughed. “No way.”
Irving blustered. “Some friends.” He sprinted away, heading south toward Eighth Street Grade.
He echoed rat finks, rat finks, rat finks in his mind, keeping time with the pounding of his feet. At the bottom of the hill, he slowed. He had wanted to see that movie. He slowed, kicked a rock from the sidewalk.
Voices sounded from the alley. Jeering, insistent.
A gang of older boys crowded into a circle. The tall boy who’d shoved Irving last week, the one who’d said Irving’s dad was a “Jap lover” towered above the rest. Irving turned to go, but loud shouting riveted his attention back.
The crowd opened slightly, revealing someone on the ground. Irving scrambled to a bush and crouched behind it. He grumbled at himself for running off alone.
The fallen boy in the alley clambered up. A large white button showed on his chest, and Irving knew what it said. The Chinese kids wore them everywhere because they didn’t want to be mistaken for Japanese after Pearl Harbor. I am Chinese.
It was the boy whose family owned the Chinese restaurant. Ho Chang. Irving didn’t know him since he was older than Irving, but Ho was small for his age.
Like a pack of rabid dogs, the gang circled him.
Irving held his breath. What could he do to help? He was no match for those boys.
Several pushed Ho around and, when he managed to stand, punched him again and again and knocked him over and kicked him until finally Ho stopped fighting them. He curled into a ball on his side.
They kicked him a few more times but eventually sauntered off toward downtown.
Irving stayed behind the bush. What if he went to help Ho and the gang came back? What if they had seen Irving and were now circling around for him? Maybe they thought he was a Jap lover like his father.
He had to leave now. But as he stood, Ho Chang rose, too, and ran toward Irving with his head turned in the direction the bullies had left. Had he seen Irving?
Irving ducked deeper into the bush, but Chang came up fast. A few yards away, Ho skittered sideways, yelped. His eyes were puffed almost shut, his lip bleeding, his black hair stuck up, his shirt ripped.
Neither spoke. Ho turned and slogged up the hill. Irving paced himself a few yards behind Ho. But he didn’t speed up or slow down or stop to confront Irving, didn’t seem to notice that Irving left the sidewalk to scuff up the back steps of his two-story house.
Irving was shaking when he opened the unlocked door and went inside. He clicked the deadbolt and leaned against the door in the semi-dark house.
The telephone rang, morphing into the school’s air raid siren in his mind. He dropped to the floor and crawled under the kitchen table, hands over his head. Each ring pulsed into his bones. When it finally stopped, Irving stayed there until he woke sometime later and groped his way to the living room without turning on any lights.
The sun set red on the radio against the wall.
Irving clicked the knob on, twisted and turned the dial, and found his way through the static to Buck Rogers and his escape from evil.
The next morning, Irving’s dad said he needed his help at the restaurant. Another trainload of Japanese men, who’d volunteered to leave their families to build a road in the wilderness and gain some dignity, were stopping in Lewiston for lunch before traveling on to the Kooskia internment camp.
Later that day, Irving stood alone near a table he and his father had set up on the grass at the train station. Irving pulled down his baseball cap, shielding his eyes from the sun, which was even fiercer than yesterday’s.
His parents were finishing the meal preparations at the family’s restaurant, the White Spot, across the street.
Trains had rumbled in and left all morning. A Lewiston Morning Tribune reporter snaked through the unusually large crowd—interviewing people, snapping photos, waiting for the 12:30 train like most people there.
Irving rearranged the food on the table for the third time. Molasses beans, pickles, radishes, and bread and butter sandwiches. His mouth watered at the baked ham, which had been scarce with war rationing, but his mom was serving it to prisoners. He shook his head.
Sure hope this mob doesn’t see it.
The stationmaster announced an outgoing train. As people departed, bystanders milled about, jockeyed for better positions on the platform. They talked in low voices and peered west.
His dad arrived with deviled eggs and potato salad, and they squeezed them onto the table. “There’s a plate for you at the White Spot when we’re done here. Big piece of ham on it.” A whistle blew to announce the train’s arrival. “Perfect timing.”
The Jap Special rumbled into the station, the crowd roused to attention. A quiet hush set in among the old men in cowboy hats, the ladies and babies dressed in their Sunday best, assorted businessmen, and several clusters of school-aged children.
Like a vigilante mob in a Saturday matinee Western.
The white noon sun was large in the blue sky. The engine screeched to a stop, gray smoke hovering above it.
Guards emerged from the cars, machine guns up. A tall man in a dark suit and fedora descended from the first car, eyed the large mob, and talked excitedly to a guard who soon appeared in front of us.
“The inspector won’t let them off the train with this swarm of folks.” He shook his head as if to allow no argument.
Inside the three cars, the Japanese men with their uniform dark blue work clothes and caps remained seated.
“Then we’ll bring the food to them.” Irving’s father bustled about, sending Irving across the street for trays and to get his mother, too.
The three dished up food, carted it to the guards to bring to the internees inside the cars. Unable to move about outside, some Japanese men paced in the aisles.
Irving delivered a tray to the second car. As he approached, an internee walked to the door and stepped outside the car, onto the bottom stair. Two guards and the inspector watched him, and Irving slowed a few feet back. The internee removed his hat with one hand and held onto the grab bar with his other, blocking the door. He closed his eyes, submitted to the sun, looking like a boy.
A flash to Irving’s left. The Tribune photographer had snapped a photo of the Japanese man boy. He skittered inside as if he was shot.
Cigarette smoke curled from the cars’ open windows. A few peered out at their audience as some elementary school kids crowded toward the cars. Three girls in pretty dresses and bows taunted the men, laughing and carrying on like they were at a pep rally. Their fingers flashed the letter ‘V’ while they chanted, “Victory, victory, victory!”
An internee stood, shut his window and, on the glass separating them, his finger traced a swastika symbol. The girls scattered, the throng filling in their place as if it hadn’t happened.
Irving told his father what he saw. “Dad, why’d he do that? What did he mean?”
His father shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe that’s his way to find peace in this impossible situation.”
“You mean by scaring the girls away?”
“Maybe. Just being Japanese after Pearl Harbor . . . that’s pretty impossible, too.” His father peered beyond Irving and sighed. “The swastika was a symbol long before Hitler. For centuries, some religions like Hinduism and Buddhism and even Christianity, used it to mean something good.”
“Honest? But how do we know what he meant?”
“We can’t.” His father handed him a tray to take to the train.
Irving thought about what his dad said as he walked again to the train. At the door, he handed the tray to the guard, but the guard, busy with a pad and pencil, indicated for Irving to do it. His heart beat a little faster as Irving stepped up into the car.
He forced himself to act like a man, to meet their gaze as his father would want him to, but many looked down into their laps or out the window instead, and the few who did meet his look wore no expression.
Near the back, just when Irving decided his father might be right about these men in their impossible situation, an internee met Irving’s stare. The man took off his reading glasses, laid aside his newspaper, and when Irving offered him a plate, removed his hat. “Thank you.”
Just as naturally, Irving answered, “You’re welcome.”
The man asked Irving about the place they were going. “Do you know it?”
“I’ve fished up the Lochsha River, past Kooskia, with my father. It’s beautiful there—paradise, Dad calls it.”
“Paradise,” the man tasted the word.
Back at the table, Irving worked quietly with his father. The Japanese man spoke like a native English speaker, like any American Irving knew, and maybe he was born here, too.
As he stacked and sorted dirty dishes, sweat trailed down his back. He wiped his brow with a towel. “Oh, man, it’s hot.”
“Yep.” His father held out a large stack of platters. “I’m bringing these back. You okay here?”
“Yes, sir.” Irving was ready to be finished but, just as he’d organized a load of silverware to follow after his dad, an armed guard rushed across the grassy area toward him. “Hey, kid.”
Irving had to look way up to the guard’s face. “I’ll get my dad.”
“No.” The sun glinted off his gun and his brass buttons. “I want you.”
Irving looked over his shoulder, wishing his father forgot something and was hurrying back.
“The inspector wants the silverware counted.”
“I was just bringing it across the street to wash.”
“He don’t want it washed; he wants it counted.” He adjusted his gun. “A hundred-and-four prisoner means exactly that many forks, knives, and spoons.” He leaned close, his breath sour on Irving’s face. “Got it? Exactly a hundred-and-four.”
“Okay.” But why? Irving didn’t ask, but the guard leaned forward.
“We don’t want any surprises at camp, do we?”
“Oh.” Irving nodded and wiped his sweaty hands on his pants. Head down, he went to work. Knives, all there. Spoons, okay. Irving felt a little lighter, a little cooler though the sun had not shifted.
He fingered the forks into a pile but came up one short. Okay. He must’ve miscounted.
He straightened his back, took a deep breath, and from the corner of his eye peeked across the grass at the guard before he began again, by twos. He was well into his twenties when his mother appeared behind him and asked what he was doing.
He jumped, losing count.
He explained and recounted while she watched, still coming up short.
“Did you check the ground?”
Irving dropped to the ground, and there it was under the table. He held it high. “Thanks, Mom.” He waved to the guard, who turned to the inspector, and suddenly Irving felt like going fishing. Even all alone.
Irving gathered the last load, but yet another guard stopped him from leaving. “What?” His voice rifted. Why can’t the guards leave him alone?
“Son.” The guard’s fist held something to his chest. “I have something for you.”
Irving studied his face. Was it just a mean trick to drop a small snake or a dead bird into a kid’s hand to see his reaction? Irving couldn’t see beneath the surface of the guard’s stare.
“One of the Japs,” he indicated the train with his head, “asked me to give you this. Inspector says it’s okay.”
The train, its engineer shouting orders, whistled to signal the soon departure of the special train and also released the crowd, trickling out of the station.
“Well,” the guard barked, “do you want it or not?”
Irving didn’t know if he did, but both palms floated under the guard’s.
The engine’s pistons fired up in front of him. Couplings clinked. A smoky cloud rose in the sky, blocking the sun.
The guard opened his fist, and something small and flat and hard plopped on Irving’s hand. He fought the reflex to spring back, to drop it and see what it was before he accepted it. Silver, like the side of a fish in sun, flashed on his palm.
A quarter, warm from the guard’s hand. Irving stared. “What? I don’t get it.”
“Me either.” The guard laughed and sprinted to the train.
Irving turned the quarter over in his hand searching for the answer, but the coin was the same as any other. He traced the raised the eagle and the words with his fingertip. United States of America. E Pluribus Unum. His social studies teacher’s voice echoed in his head: Out of many, one.
The train squealed and lurched forward, wheels turning, building speed to gain the river it would trail for ninety miles.
Irving squeezed the quarter. He could do a lot with twenty-five cents. He flipped it into the air, and in the same motion, caught it. He cut across the track, raced the train up the small hill above the Clearwater. At the hillcrest, a locust tree in full bloom offered a moment of shade. Irving ducked under its branches, waiting, waiting, waiting for the train.
And there it was. He swooped his cap from his head, releasing a wave of heat, to fold it into his back pocket. Would the men see him here under the tree?
Most windows were open as the train pulled past Irving. Arms and hands and faces revealed as the cars filed by.
Irving edged closer and raised his hand, the quarter grasped inside his loose fist. He grinned, waving back at the men.