Mrs. Tanizaki


Mrs. Tanizaki

By Alexei Esikoff (Fukushima-ken, 2001-02)

(Winter 2006 Issue)

Our neighbor growing up was Mrs. Tanazaki. There were a couple black families but she was the only Japanese. “Oriental,” my father called her, and my mother, who had some college, said “Asian” in consternation, but that was before my father left and my mother only had us to yell at, which she did whether or not there was reason to.

Mrs. Tanazaki’s house was the same size as ours, as were all the houses in the development. But her lawn had no broken tricycles or deflated balls. Instead, she had dotted the perimeter of her house with shaped hedges-topiary, my broken-spined dictionary told me. Most of them were circular, and my brother Toby and I called them puffs. There were different kinds of puffs-commanding puffs that must have been six feet in diameter, snowman-shaped puffs in increasing size, and tall puffs that looked like a champion poodle’s leg.

One more thing was that even though we knew it was Mrs. Tanazaki’s house, Toby and I had never seen her up close. It was obvious she was short-she dragged an aluminum ladder around the length of her property (her grass never showed tracks), to clip the tops of the plants into shape. But she always wore a floppy blue hat with green polka dots.

“Mom,” I asked one day, “how old is Mrs. Tanazaki?”

This was back when my mother had long hair, which was thick and blond, her great vanity. “I don’t know.”

“Haven’t you met her?”


“Well, how old did she look?” I asked.

My mother hesitated. She was sitting at the table patching a pair of Toby’s overalls with a bright blue square, my brother’s favorite color. “I couldn’t tell. She’s a burn victim.”

I didn’t yet have a sense of delicacy or tact. I looked confused.

“Her face is melted,” my mother continued.

Melted? To a young girl, a melted face is beyond frightening. It was incomprehensible.

“How?” I whispered.

“In the war-not the one your father was in, an earlier one-there were bombs. In Japan. Some of the people who survived the bombs were disfigured.” I knew what disfigured meant.  My mother, unlike my friend’s mothers, didn’t talk down to me. “It was a terrible decision.”

Again, I didn’t understand. When I asked, she said, “It’s important to know. You’ll learn about it in school soon.”

But I didn’t learn about it in school. It was Thanksgiving time and instead we learned about Columbus and the Indians. And I had a reputation for asking too many questions, so when I mentioned a Japanese bomb, my teacher, shriveled Mr. Greaves, told me “Not now.”

That winter, as usual, only Mrs. Tanazaki’s puffs showed any color in the neighborhood. My father was staying in his mother’s house, watching “it while Grammy’s in the hospital.” Grammy had lung cancer, that was true, but I knew my father’s reason to be false. Perhaps because I kept up appearances for Toby’s sake, my father thought I believed him. Back at home, my mother started making calls for a living, and I hated that voice she used, sweeter than candy corn, to convince people to donate money for children she had never met. Trudging through the lawn’s dead gray leaves on a Saturday cold as metal, Toby with our father, Mrs. Tanazaki made an appearance in her floppy hat. In her right hand she clutched heavy shears.

I stood on the imaginary boundary between our crinkly grass and hers. She saw me and waved, the brim of her hat still pulled low.

I yelled, “I like your topiary!”

Mrs. Tanazaki stopped mid-clip. With her head lifted her chin was exposed, ridged and rippling. I wasn’t about to let myself be afraid.

“Thank you,” she said. The ripples held firm like clay when she spoke.

“I’m Sharon.”

“Sha-ron,” she repeated, “it’s very cold out.”

“Yes,” I agreed.

“Would you like hot tea?” Her accent was round like her plants.

“Yes please.”

Mrs. Tanazaki set her shears down next to an oblong puff. Her walk back into the little house was that of an old woman, swaying from side to side. When her screen door closed, I crossed the invisible line to her side of the property. Then I waited patiently on her stoop, not daring to peek in. Mrs. Tanazaki’s house, I imagined, was home to swirly potions and hairless cats.

“Are you to come in?” Mrs. Tanazaki was on the opposite side of the screen door.

“I’ll stay out here.”

Her ridged chin quivered, and she disappeared again into the house. When she came back, she held two steaming, chipped mugs, like the ones we used at home. But this tea was pale green. “Thank you,” I said. I took a bitter sip.

“Japanese tea doesn’t have sugar,” she said.

We sat on her concrete stoop. Mrs. Tanazaki’s trousers were flimsy cotton; I wondered if she felt the seeping cold like I did through my jeans.

“I like it,” I told her, lying. The warmth traveling down my throat did help. She only nodded.

“My mother told me you were in a bomb.”

What I expected was Mrs. Tanazaki to have a very serious adult discussion with me about living through a bomb attack. What she did was throw her head back in a great genuine laugh. And for a couple seconds her face was exposed. Her nose was shaped like a collection of wax drips. Her cheeks were speckled pinkish, her eyes mushy slits.

I must have appeared consternated because Mrs. Tanazaki cleared her throat and apologized for laughing. “Children say funny things!”

Being called a child had me rumpled. “Bombs aren’t funny.”

“You are right. Not funny.”

“But you’re laughing.”

Mrs. Tanazaki shrugged. “Now my life is good.” She removed the hat, welcoming me to stare.

“But your face,” I whispered.

“I have health. I have a beautiful daughter.”

“Where does she live?”


“Does she look like you?”

“My daughter was born in America,” she said, not answering the question.

I gulped down the rest of my tea, which had cooled off. Chills rose through my legs. Mrs. Tanazaki cupped the mug in both hands and stared ahead. Next door, I saw my mother step outside. She called my name.

“Your mother,” said Mrs. Tanazaki.

“I guess I should go home.”

“Say hello to your mother. She’s a good lady.”

I stood and spoke politely. “Thank you for the tea, Mrs. Tanazaki.”

“You’re welcome. Please call me Midori.”

“Is that your first name?”

“Yes. It means  green.'”

“Goodbye, Madori,” I said, stumbling a little. She remained on the stoop as I dashed to my own front door. My mother waved at our neighbor and pushed me inside.

“Why were you bothering poor Mrs. Tanazaki?”

“She gave me tea.”

My mother sat back down in front of the squat telephone. It was the exact color of the inside of an avocado, but I didn’t know what an avocado was then. “Don’t bug her too much. She’s had a hard life.”

“She told me she’s happy. She has a daughter who lives in California.”

“I hope you didn’t ask about her burns.”

“I didn’t.”

“You know we were the ones that dropped that bomb.”


“We did. Americans.”

I was speechless. Americans win wars over bad guys. Bad guys were Nazis. Only bad guys would leave someone looking like a raisin.

“I feel guilty every time I talk to her.” My mother reached for the avocado phone and opened the manila folder next to it. “Toby will be back soon. Will you cut the veggies?”

It was my mother’s conviction growing kids have fresh vegetables every day. Nothing canned or bagged. She went to the farm stand run by Indians several times a week, the only white lady wandering the aisles for the perfect broccoli. I took out the wooden cutting board, marked by years of vegetable chopping, and arranged three carrots in a row. As I cut perfect slices, I thought of ways to trick Mrs. Tanazaki into giving me tea again. Next time I’d go in her house.

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