Gradient

Stars and Chickens

     Takeshi Tsukemoto noticed there were white covered books, rolls of paper, rulers, a compass, protractors, colored pens, pencils, an electric pencil sharpener, and a right-angle square scattered on top of the dining room table when he got home at one in the morning. He had studied at the university library until it closed at midnight, as usual. His mother was a neat freak who never let items be disorganized. He would eat the dinner she left out and watch a rerun of Star Trek, as usual. Takeshi looked at the books. “My God!” he said. “Someone is studying Devil worshipping!”

     The white cover of each book had a full circle divided into equal slices. On the top of each slice was picture of an animal. A pig, a rat, a dragon, a snake, and others. Below each animal slice were year dates, and in the middle of each circle was a dragon. Takeshi could not eat his dinner or watch Star Trek.

 

 

     He told Claire, his every morning coffee drinking buddy, about what he saw.

     Claire laughed out loud. Several others in the university union started looking. “That’s not Devil worshipping, that’s astrology. There would be a five-point star inside the circle if it were Devil worshipping.”

     “Well, how do you know that?” asked Takeshi.

     “Because the Japanese still believe in that stuff, at the least the older ones,” said Claire. “I’m Japanese, so I know it.” She laughed.

     “You’re half Japanese.”

     “I have a friend whose mother studied it for fun. You should know that kind of stuff, you’re an FOB.”

     “Claire, don’t go there. I’m not Fresh Off the Boat. I came here when I was in the third grade.”

     “You speak the language and know the customs. You’re more Japanese that you than you want to admit.”

     “What makes you say that?” asked Takeshi.

     “You talk in your sleep in Japanese. You speak better Japanese in your sleep than when you’re awake.”

     “I know, it’s probably some subconscious thing. Besides, Japanese is my first language.”

     “Never seen someone so worried about their parents are doing like you. I understand that your family members make some stupid decisions and need to watch out for them, but you’re nearly obsessive,” said Claire.

     “Did I ever tell you about the teacups?”

     “Something about your father getting conned by a second generation Japanese American Nisei guy who told him about making teacups at home?” asked Claire.

     “Yeah, the Nisei promised to make my father a prominent teacup maker if he gave him fifty thousand for lessons,” said Takeshi staring into his coffee cup.  “I kept telling him that he was getting conned but wouldn’t listen to me. The city came out and told him to shut down the kiln in the background. That thing is still there. Before that, another Nisei offered to show him how to make traditional Japanese wicker baskets.”

     “You never told me about that one,” said Claire.

     “This character wanted lots of money. He told my father that it’ll make him rich and respected. I tried to tell him it was a con, but he wouldn’t listen to me. Hell, Japanese artisans spend decades mastering their crafts. What makes him think that it’ll take only a few years? It’s never ending,” said Takeshi.

     “What happened?” asked Claire.

     “The basket man got arrested for felony assault when he put one of his students in the hospital after the student told him he was a crook and wanted his money back. Problem solved itself.”

     “You would’ve smothered me if you were my kid,” said Claire.

     “Shouldn’t kids look after their parents?”

     “More in Japan than here. I’ve heard kids quit their good paying corporate jobs to take care of their parents, but you’re here and not there. Your parents are adults so accept it. Have you picked which graduate program you’re going to?  Let’s go to Kansas, we’ve both been accepted there,” said Claire.

     “I might have to wait another year. This really has me worried.”

     “Cut the damn cord” Claire yelled. Others in the union looked at them.  “You got your own life and can’t be doing this forever!”

     Takeshi knew she was right. Takeshi found himself staring at her.

     “Are you staring at me again?”

     “Of course,” said Takeshi.

     “Go ahead and stare but don’t make it so obvious. People might think we’re a couple,” said Claire laughing. “Will you be staying overnight again this weekend?”

     “Well, I don’t know. Need to work this out.”

     “Why do I put up with you?” she laughed and left for class.

     Why did she have to be so beautiful and especially so intelligent, he asked himself. Takeshi knew he had to cut the cord but did not want to be only attached to another one.

 

     Three days later, as usual, Takeshi came home at one in the morning to find his mother at the table with her instruments. “What are you doing?” he asked in Japanese. He always spoke Japanese to her and English to his father.

     “I’m studying astrology,” she said, drawing some kind of line with the right-angle ruler.

     “Why are you studying astrology?” asked Takeshi. He wanted to laugh but couldn’t.

     “Astrology is a very respected profession in Japan. After I get my license, I will go back to Japan and be well respected and admired by others. My sensei said after three years, she will certify me and will sell me a franchise so I can practice here and in Japan. Sensei said I will become very rich.”

     “You’re crazy, this sounds like another teacup and basket scam jobs.” Not again, thought Takeshi.

     “What do you know about astrology? Don’t talk to me like that! Be more respectful!”

     “I’m being respectful.”

     “You are so critical about everything your father and I do. You constantly try to undermine us in our endeavors. Your father would have been a well-respected and famous teacup or basket maker by now had if it not been for your interventions,” said his mother.

     “Mom, he was being taken. Besides, it wasn’t me that stopped him it was the city, and the basket guy got arrested,” said Takeshi.

     “I’m done talking to you. You will not crush our goals again.”

     Takeshi could not eat his dinner or watch Star Trek, again.

 

     A week later, Takeshi came home, as usual, at one in the morning. His father and mother were sitting on the living room couch, his mother sobbing.

     “Why you weak?” yelled his father. “You weak!”

     “Dad, what are you talking about?”

     He turned on a cassette player. “Listen! We went Sensei Midori today, and she read you stars.”

     Was this a bad dream? thought Takeshi. This is worse than he imagined.

     “Takeshi’s stars look very good,” Sensei Midori said in Japanese. “They are aligned very well with these other stars.”

     Takeshi heard paper being shuffled.

     “Look at this star formation. Unfortunately, your son’s overall success in life is being covered by his father’s stars over in this region. Mr. Tsukemoto’s star formation covers Takeshi’s star so his father’s star will block him from any success in life. He will constantly struggle, never finding regular employment.  Drugs, gangs, poverty. He will never graduate from college. Takeshi by nature is a weak person. He cannot stand up to his father. The only way out is if Takeshi moves to Brazil where his father’s stars can no longer block Takeshi’s good star formation.”

     “See. You not graduate college! What other people say?” Takeshi’s father yelled as he turned off the cassette player.

     His father turned the player back on. “What will Takeshi do in Brazil?” he asked Sensei Midori.

     “I have a good friend in Brazil who owns a very famous chicken farm. He can work there. My friend stated she will provide housing and meals for him and can start applying for his worker visa right away.”

     “Dad, that’s it. Turn the damn thing off. Are you both nuts?”

     “What others say when you not graduate college? Cousins all doctors, lawyers, engineers in Japan. Can’t tell relatives in Japan you not graduate college,” said his father.

     “Dad, I’m graduating in two months.”

     “Major English. No good. No future. Can’t tell Takeshi degree worthless.”   

     “Dad, who gives a shit. They’re in Japan. Not here. I’m really tired about you telling people that I’m studying to be medical doctor. I don’t care what other’s think.”

     “We care!” his father yelled. “Sister go UCLA now famous teacher at famous private high school. All sister students go Ivy League.”

     “Dad, she flunked out of two junior colleges and is a part-time clerk at a public elementary school. Quit lying to others!”

     “No. Teacher! Mother and me go back to Japan. Me famous landscape architect, mother famous astrologer. Very respected.”

     “Dad, you’re a gardener. Nothing wrong with being a gardener.”

     “No! Famous landscape architect. All customers live Beverly Hills.”

     “You don’t have customers in Beverly Hills.”

     Takeshi had to stop and take a few deep breaths. “Dad, I beg you. Please stop this. I’m going to bed.”

     “Why you weak?” his father kept yelling and followed Takeshi up the stairs.

     “I’m just tired of you lying to others in our family and falling for those these get rich scams. You’re going to end up on the streets. This astrology quack only wants your money. Can’t you see that? She’s using something you believe in to rip you off.”

     “Why you care? My money.”

     “She’s after your retirement money. How much money is she charging you for a franchise?”

     “My business, not you.”

     Takeshi slammed shut the door.

 

     Coffee gushed out of Claire’s nostrils when Takeshi told her what happened last night. People started looking at them as he went to get more paper towels and more coffee for her. Then she put her head on the table and giggled for about ten minutes. “Your parents are really FOBs. Never had anything like that happened to me.”

     “First, it’s the lying and now Brazil,” said Takeshi. 

     “Your parents aren’t lying to others,” said Claire. “It’s saving face and you know that so admit it. It’s all about what others will say. Look at my mother. Her parents banished her from the family when she married a conquering barbarian lowly private American GI. Her parents said it was an embarrassment to the family, and what will others think. Her parents told others that she got married to a highly prominent American general.”

     “But didn’t you say your parents went back to Japan to see them some time back?” asked Takeshi.

     “After her parents learned that the lowly private became a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, they unbanished her and invited her back. Dad and Mom went back to Japan first class, stayed at a 5-star hotel on the Ginza and treated her parents, sister, and brother to a very expensive dinner. She gave her brother and sister elaborate gifts. She then gave her parents an envelope. They probably thought it was money, but it was a note saying that she was now banishing them. She has a mean streak.”

     “Good for her. Now, what am I going to do? And what about this going to Brazil thing?”

     “Let it be. They’re lying to save face,” Claire said. “They can’t tell others their son never graduated college, or their daughter isn’t a good little Japanese girl by not being a teacher like she’s supposed to be. They’re might be also trying to help you.”

     “Help me! How? “That makes absolutely no sense.”

     “To them it does. They care about you and want to see you succeed so you have to go to Brazil. That’s their belief. It’s that simple.”

     “There’s something more here than just face saving, lies, and Brazil,” said Takeshi.

     “Like what?”

     “I don’t know yet,” said Takeshi. “I need to figure it out.”

     “You don’t know it because there’s nothing there. If you don’t quit thinking so much about chickens, lies, teacups, baskets, astrology, Brazil, face saving, and others that might come up later, you’ll be going to a shrink for the rest of your life. Just accept it and get on with your life. If they want to lose money, let them!”

     “I can’t let them do that,” said Takeshi.

     “Just tell them you’re not going to Brazil. Who gives a shit what others say? 

     “Unfortunately, they do. Did I ever tell you about Chiyoko?” asked Takeshi. “Talk about saving face.”

     Claire laughed. “Was she one of your Japanese girlfriends?” 

     “No, you know I don’t like Japanese girls,” said Takeshi.

     “I know that, but you never told me why. Did Chiyoko dump you, and you’ve been traumatized since about Japanese girls.” Claire laughed.

     Takeshi did not laugh. “Where I grew up, most Japanese American girls were looking for potentially rich husbands so they can later brag to one another about how much money they’ll have. English majors don’t make the grade.”

     “I’m half Japanese. Maybe I’m looking for a rich husband?” Claire said laughing.

     “If you were, you wouldn’t be spending time with me. Hell, you’d be out there hunting.”

     “Hunting! What wit! As usual.” She laughed. 

     “You’d have your pick. I see all the guys staring at you.”

     “Tell me about Chiyoko.”

     “In elementary school, there was the perfect Japanese girl. Every day she wore a pressed outfit, glossy shoes, and different color bow every day. At the beginning of class, she would go to the teacher’s desk, hold her homework in both hands, bow, hand it to the teacher, and say, ‘It is an honor to be your student.’ The teacher ate it up. God, I still hate Chiyoko.

     “She doing what her parents are telling her to do, so don’t blame her,” said Claire.

     “To put fuel on the fire, her mother at every report card time would come over and tell my mother her Chiyoko got all As and asked what I received. My mother said I got As, Bs, and Cs. She said she couldn’t face Chiyoko’s mother again if she were to tell her I got Ds. Her mother knew that I was the only dumb shit Asian in school and always received Ds.”

     “What ever happened to Chiyoko? Did her mother ever come over and say her Chiyoko got into Harvard and ask where you’ll be going?” asked Claire.

     “I don’t know. She disappeared after the seventh grade. Heard something about her father got transferred back to Japan.”

     “It’s all about what others think. Did you do any of your smart-ass antics when you saw Chiyoko doing that? I know you did,” said Claire.

     “Yea, I once did a Chiyoko act.”

     “What happened?”

     “The teacher said to stop sucking up. She even called my father and said I was making fun of her number one student, and I should be more like her. First, it’s the lying then and also who can out do whom,” said Takeshi.

     “My mother mentioned something about the con artist selling her a franchise. Can she do that?”

     “Look it up. You’re in the library all day and night. Why don’t you come over this weekend and take a break?”

           

     Takeshi spent the next three nights researching California franchise and business laws. He had never spent time researching subjects other than his studies, not even one night. Takeshi could not find any laws or regulations if astrologers needed a license. He also could not find a law that required a business license to practice astrology. So, anyone can claim to be an astrologer and set up shop, thought Takeshi. Certifications were later available from the International Society for Astrological Research, National Council for Geocosmic Research, the American Federation of Astrologers afterwards, but they weren’t required.

     However, he did find that franchisors are required to register their Franchise Disclosure Documents with the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation. He could not find anything for franchise laws in Japan. But Takeshi found that Sensei Midori could be committing a bunco scheme.

 

     He went to the city of Torrance Police Department; he had never been inside a police station before and saw the officer at the front desk with the Japanese name of Kumoto, an older Japanese American. Maybe he would understand what was happening. After telling Officer Kumoto the story, Takeshi had to wait until the officer stopped laughing. “Isn’t this a bunco scheme?”

     Officer Kumoto removed a thick blue cover book from under the counter and opened it. “Do you know what bunco is?”

     “I think so, where someone gets tricked and robbed.”

     Officer Kumoto read from the book. “According to California Penal Code, Theft by Trick or Device - Penal Code Sections 488 and 487, also Penal Code Section 332. More commonly referred to as a ‘bunco’ or confidence game. This is a form of swindle in which a theft is committed by use of trick, device, secret, stealth, or fraud.”

     “That’s it!” said Takeshi. “It’s fraud. I want to talk to a detective.”

     “There’s a problem.”

     “What’s that?”

     “No crime has been committed. Have your parents given money to the astrologer?” asked Officer Kumoto.

     “I don’t know. Probably for the lessons.”

     “There’s no violation of the law for paying for piano lessons either.”

     “I researched it. She needs to register with the state if she’s selling a franchise.”

     “Has she even sold the franchise? If she needs legal papers to sell a franchise but hasn’t sold it yet, there’re no criminal violation. This isn’t like practicing medicine where you need a licenses and certifications out the ass.”

     “But she’s going to rob them.”

     “This sounds like a civil matter. I’ve been doing this for twenty-five years, and at this point, it’s not criminal. Even if your parents pay her the franchise fee and her promises don’t pan out, it’s not a crime. It’s like a fast food franchise. If they can’t stay open due to lack of customers, it wasn’t a crime by the seller even though the seller promised big bucks.”

     “Well, once the crime’s been committed, wouldn’t that be too late. It makes no sense.”

     “Yes it does. We can’t arrest people on something that might happen.  How would you react to being arrested for something that might happen in the future?”

 

     Takeshi had to agree with the officer. “Can I at least talk with a detective?”

 

     “Once a report is reviewed and if a case is going to be investigated then the detective will call you and make an appointment.”

     “Can I at least make a report?” asked Takeshi.

     “Sure. I’ll get you the form and use that desk in the corner.”

     “Are you a first-generation Issei?” asked Takeshi.

     “No, I’m a Nisei.”

     “How about you?”

     “I’m from there but lived here nearly all my life.”

     “Why do you ask?” asked Officer Kumoto.

     “Just wondering. So you must be familiar with some of the ridiculous Japanese beliefs?”

     “Very familiar. It’s forgivable to cuss out your boss when you’re drunk. Or giving your landlord additional money to show your gratitude that he rented to you. The best one is that you give a deceased person’s family money at the service. I didn’t even know that you had to give money at the ceremony until ten years ago. I heard that you have to give more money at certain intervals.”

     “Technically, you give them money at the service, on the seventh forty ninth day, first year death anniversary, three years, fourteenth year, and twenty-third years if you’re invited to the memorials,” said Takeshi. “But no one does that anymore. Most just give at the first service.”

     “That’s nuts. Over here the family buys a plot and a box, and that’s it. You don’t keep giving more money later.”

     Takeshi was taught Japanese rarely committed crimes, and he was curious if that were true. Officer Kumoto, being Nisei, would probably know better than non-Japanese officers. “Are there lots of Japanese crimes here?”    

     “I remember my first training officer telling me the Japanese never committed crimes. Bull shit! Ever since I’ve started here, we’ve been arresting more and more Japanese every day. I’m always the record holder.

     “How about compared to other Asians?”

     “Other Asians commit usually straight forward crimes like robbery, assault, and burglary. But the crimes committed by Japanese differs by the Japanese from there and Japanese from here.”  

     “How’s that?”

     “The Japanese here or the ones who have been here a long time commit more sophisticated crimes. Some of them are pretty damn complex!”

 

     “How about the ones from there?”

     “Simple ones, and they play cultural games all the time like, ‘I assaulted him to save the family honor,’ or ‘the money I gave is considered a gift in Japan, not a bribe.’ In most cases, they don’t understand that certain cultural norms there is a crime here. And I hate it when they say, ‘How can you this to your own kind.’ ”

     “How do you deal with it, knowing that they really don’t understand?” asked Takeshi.

 

     “If they can’t differentiate what’s wrong or right, that’s their problem. I also tell them I’m not their kind.”

           

     “You said the ones from here commit sophisticated crimes. Like how?” asked Takeshi.

     “More elaborate and complex schemes. At first there’re lots of pieces that seem unrelated. Those pieces eventually come together and make sense at the end. They’re more cleaver than the rest so that’s why they don’t get caught like the others. The most important part: You have to think like them.”

 

     Elaborate and complex, thought Takeshi later as he sat in the living room chair at three in the morning. Different pieces that at first don’t make sense later come together. Takeshi went back to the library after the police station. At least he was able to study at the library until midnight but kept thinking what Officer Kumoto said about different pieces and think like them. Takeshi now understood what was really happening. Why the astrology and going to Brazil now made sense. All the pieces came together. Think like them.

 

     Takeshi wanted to try one more time to convince his parents they were being scammed. Even the teacup and basket debacles didn’t take so much effort and time. It was another night of not studying late at night. “Dad, did you know she doesn’t the correct paperwork to sell a franchise. California requires certain documents to be filed.”

     “You wrong!” he yelled. “She show papers.”

     “Did she show you papers from the Franchise Disclosure Documents with the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation?”

 

     “Yes. Posted on wall.”

     “Really, did you read them?”

     “She said it real. Okay to sell franchise.”

     “Did you know you don’t need a license to practice astrology? You can get certifications from astrology organizations later on but not required. In other words, anyone can say they’re an astrologer and set up shop.”

     “You wrong. Show astrology license. Wall full papers. Lots award on desk.  Pictures distinguished astrologers all over house.”

     “Dad, they’re for show. Con artists do that all the time trying to impress others.”

     “She honorable person. She very nice.”

 

     “God damn it!” Takeshi yelled. “She’s using that astrology shit and trying to send me to Brazil to get me out of the way. She knows I’ll protect you from being taken. She wants me gone. For the last time, she’s after your money. Look at all the lawns you mowed just to lose it. And I’m not going to Brazil!” Takeshi had never spoken to his father like that before, not even during the teacup and basket incidents. He went upstairs to his room. Even from there, Takeshi thought he could hear his mother crying.

 

     At three in the morning, Takeshi searched the dining room table looking for any information about Sensei Midori. He found her business card in an envelope. Her name was Midori Saito and lived in Rancho Palos Verdes, where only the rich lived there. He hadn’t watched an episode of Star Trek since when this dilemma started. 

 

     “Don’t do it!” yelled Claire. People in the union were staring. “You’re only going to make it worse! You can’t go to her house and confront her.”

 

     “She might back off when I tell her that she wants me out of the county so I can’t prevent my father giving her money. I told my father that, and he didn’t believe it.”

     “You know she’s going to call your father and lie. Just don’t go to Brazil and let them do what they want.”

     “Stand by while my parents lose everything. I can’t let that happen,” said Takeshi.

 

     “How are you going to prevent him from paying money. Nothing’s worked so far. He’s not going to let you take over his financial affairs or any property. Come with me to Kansas. They’re adults, and if you’re in Kansas with me you wouldn’t be responsible for your father’s action,” Claire said. “Tell them it’s all my fault.” 

 

     “Would you let your parents get taken?”

 

     “No! But my parents don’t have any cultural hang-ups like yours. You’re just making excuses for yourself and quit being so stubborn. You’re obsessed with this! You haven’t been in the library at nights recently. You might not graduate if you don’t let this shit go! And if you don’t graduate, you’ll have proven he was right! You don’t need this crap right now! Finals are right around the corner so get your shit together! Please,” said Claire.

 

     Claire was always right. But he still couldn’t let his parents get conned.

 

     Takeshi drove to Rancho Palos Verde in the late afternoon that day. The fog was starting to come in. Another night of not studying late. Her house was at the end of the cul-de-sac. Bamboo plants surrounded the front wall. He drove into the driveway. Lots of bonsai trees and even a stone pagoda. What a house thought Takeshi, a huge two-story. Big money. Takeshi rang the doorbell.

     “Who calling?” a female answered through the speaker.

     “I would like to talk to Midori Saito.”

     “Who you?”

 

     “Takeshi Tsukemoto. You’ve been giving my mother astrology lessons.”

     “Okay. Me come out.” She came out and bowed. “Hello. Finally glad meet you.  You handsome man.”

     Sly one, thought Takeshi.

     “What do for you?”

     “I would really appreciate you not giving my mother anymore lessons.” He wanted to keep this civil. “This entire astrology stuff is dividing my family.”

 

     “But mother wants study. She go back Japan respected and rich.”

     “You mentioned to my parents that you will sell them a franchise. Do you have a Franchise Disclosure Documents filed with the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation?”

 

     “Yes. On wall.”

 

     “May I come inside and see them.”

 

     “Better not.”

 

     This civil approach wasn’t working. “I know what you’re up to. You told my parents I had to go to Brazil to get me out of the way and prevent you from conning them. Yes, I know your scam!” Takeshi said louder than usual.

 

     “No, No. Try help you.”

 

     “You’re pretty tricky. I know exactly what you’re trying to pull. You’re not going to get away with this.” Besides his father, he had never talked like this to anyone else.

 

     “You goddamn sonofabitch,” she suddenly yelled. “It’s none of your fucking business! You hear me, you loser. What your parents and I do is our business!”

 

     “You’re nothing but a con artist. Is this how you bought such a nice place?” Takeshi yelled.

     “Get the fuck out of my face and get off my property before I call the police!” she screamed.

 

     “What are they going arrest me for? All they’ll learn is that you’re damn crook!”

           

     “Get out! Get out!” she screamed while waving her arms and jumping.

     “Takeshi saw lights turning on next door. He also saw people looking out from their windows.

 

     “Get out! Don’t fucking threaten me! I’ll get my lawyers to fry your sorry yellow ass!”

 

     Takeshi had never been spoken to like that. “I didn’t threaten you. Now just fucking leave my parents alone!” Takeshi screamed. He had never screamed with that much intensity to a person in his adult life.

 

     “What you do?” Takeshi’s father yelled. “What you do?”

 

     “I told her the truth. That I knew she wanted to get me out the way. She was using that astrology shit you believe in against you.

 

     “She call crying. Said you call her bad names and you burn house.”

Takeshi’s mother sat on sofa crying.

 

     “I never said such things. I raised my voice and yelled at her, but I never threatened her.”

 

     “She in shock. So upset. She not sell franchise to family with horrible son.”

     Maybe confronting her did work,” thought Takeshi.

           

     “Now want two hundred thousand for franchise. Before hundred thousand. Extra money as apology for horrible son.”

 

     Takeshi almost started to cry.

 

     “Me take second mortgage.”

 

     “Are you out of your fucking mind!” Takeshi screamed.

 

     Takeshi saw his father started to cry, walked to his mother, and hugged her. He had never seen his father cry, nor had he ever seen them touch each other. They cried, embracing each other, saying something to each other.He then saw his father kiss her on her forehead. Takeshi could no longer fight. 

 

     He went to his room and put whatever belongings he could into plastic trash bags. He went outside and waited for Claire to come. Takeshi now felt anger towards his parents for they could not comprehend that they were in a cultural vise, thus never able to escape.

 

     Claire came and picked him up. He told her what happened and about the vise.

 

     “Makes you wonder what vises we might be in and don’t know it yet, doesn’t it?” asked Claire.

 

     Takeshi could not respond. Claire was always right.

Published by The Plentitudes.  July 2021.