“Monster” by Barbara Nishimoto

Ishigawa was walking west on Arizona. It was midmorning Wednesday, and he knew the weekly farmers’ market would already be crowded making it difficult to follow Arizona all the way to the ocean. But that was okay; he had a plan. “A system,” his father would say. He would detour, turn south on 6th, and enter the library where he would peruse the shelves of recent book releases, and then exit out to the wide sidewalk on Santa Monica, and stroll the rest of the way to the Pacific. A system. Like the precise way Ishigawa shuffled cards in solitaire.

Closer to the medical buildings there were more pedestrians on the sidewalk. Single young men and women in lab coats and scrubs. They walked quickly with short strides. Sometimes they carried tall paper cups of coffee, though Ishigawa never saw any one of them take a sip. Shoulders back, they strode through the crosswalk with never a glance at oncoming cars. Often they stared down at a cell phone. Not speaking or texting. Scrolling. Elegant moves with a single finger or thumb.

And here the traffic was busier, too. Cars jockeyed to the curb to let off patients. Often two doors would open. From the driver’s seat a person would quickly jump out, race around the car, then grab onto and pull the slowly opening rear door. That second passenger always needed assistance. Sometimes a cane or a walker. Sometimes the trunk was popped and out came a wheelchair. Like a muscle memory, Ishigawa remembered the surprising lightness of that chair; he had made many such trips. His father hadn’t wanted any help getting out of the car, and Ishigawa understood he must stand patiently like a gymnastic spotter while his father struggled. “Don’t ever get old,” the old man’s voice had strained with the effort.

But Ishigawa was old. Except for the plump women and fat bellied men who dog paddled or breast stroked before their water aerobics class, Ishigawa was the slowest swimmer in the pool. Even on his walks, others would step up to him and around him and pass him always so silently that their sudden appearance at his shoulder gave him a start. He’d watch them walk away from him, the distance ever increasing,. He was self-consciously slow now paying for his groceries; he fumbled with the coins and bills. The cashier at Ralph’s often turned away from him, sighed. Maylene would rest her hands on the closed register and begin to gossip loudly with the cashier in the next aisle. Some of this invisibility and shunning he was used to; he had felt it all his life. When he was young what he looked like, his race, and what he thought of himself inside were linked so tightly there was no separation. A playing card — the face and the backing. But now he felt himself buried, insulated like a marine animal. His reflection now caught him off guard. A stranger. “It doesn’t matter,” he shrugged. He was old.

As Ishigawa passed the entrance to one of the clinics a young woman in blue scrubs exited. For a moment she and Ishigawa walked side by side, and then she quickened her pace, and Ishigawa understood. It was a familiar move designed to lengthen the sudden, uncomfortably intimate space between them.

In front of him now, Ishigawa was free to stare at the woman. She was small and thin. She had her dark hair loosely pinned up, and as she walked she brushed her slender white hand along the back of her neck. A slight shimmy of her narrow shoulders, then she pulled at the hem of her top.

And then he realized he was still making her nervous. He could feel it. But instead of slowing down, dropping back, allowing the woman to put some distance between them, for some reason Ishigawa began to match her pace.

The woman stopped at the corner for the light. Other people were waiting, too, and Ishigawa stood shoulder to shoulder among them. They took no notice. When the light changed the woman stepped quickly off the curb, her stride even shorter. Ishigawa quickened his pace. Step for step like some kind of comedy act. He had to bite his lower lip to keep from laughing. Ishigawa watched to see if she would glance back at him, or turn her head slightly to catch him peripherally. But it seemed she didn’t need to see him; she could sense his presence. Arms crossed, she bent forward almost running. Ishigawa lengthened his stride, and he imagined what he must look like from across the street. Yet his breathing was normal, and he smiled briefly thinking he must be in good shape. Then Ishigawa immediately chided himself. For how long could he continue? He had thought she was going to turn and enter one of the medical buildings, and that would be the end of it. But she walked past the office buildings and parking garages and continued on into the residential neighborhood.

At the next corner he stood behind her so close he could see a mole on the back of her neck. If he laughed she would feel the force of his breath. Suddenly instead of waiting for the light, the woman dashed through the intersection. Cars honked. A driver yelled. Without a glance to the left or right she made it to the curb and continued half trotting down the sidewalk. “Jesus,” one of the pedestrians said. Ishigawa crossed to the opposite side of the street. The light changed, and he continued his walk. The woman was almost a block ahead of him now. She had slowed, unfolded her arms. She kept shaking her hands as if they had fallen asleep. He was able to catch up to her, keeping slightly behind, and watched to see when she would notice that she hadn’t lost him. Again without turning her head, she sensed his presence, and she folded her arms and tucked her chin, and began her silly quick gait.

At the corner she turned and ran up towards Wilshire, and Ishigawa stopped and watched her go. “There was this crazy, old man,” she would tell her friends. He pictured her out of breath, shuddering. Now her slim hand would be at her chest. She would frown. “This crazy Chinese man.” And then for a moment Ishigawa imagined what it would be like if their paths crossed again at the ocean. She would be startled to see him, and that’s all he would see. Not anything but her surprise and distaste and then fear. He smiled. Face to face with the monster.

nishimotoBarbara Nishimoto was born in Chicago and now lives in Franklin, TN. Her work has appeared in various reviews including Discover Nikkei, The Baltimore Review, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Emerge Literary Review, Limestone, Painted Bride Quarterly, and Chagrin River Review.