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Mariko was getting used to the United States.  She now knew when she said, “Excuse me,” to someone who replied, “You’re good,” it was not appropriate to ask, “I am?” She had finally realized that this exchange was not a discussion of moral character, but a way to make an impersonal meeting something more intimate without encouraging actual authentic interaction.  The Americans could dance around a point almost as well as the Japanese.

So, when she struggled to hoist her luggage up onto the carry-on shelf, she answered, “I got it,” to the man who asked, “Need some help with that?” Unfortunately, she definitely did not have it, and when the train lurched right at that moment, Mariko stumbled and she and the suitcase slammed against the side of a seat. The man put out a hand to steady her and then helped her lift the suitcase.

“What’s in there?” he asked, “An anvil collection?”

Mariko smiled and nodded. She had no idea what an anvil collection was, but she was pretty sure she hadn’t packed one.  

“I’m just in the next car,” the man said, still smiling as his eyes scanned Mariko’s face. “I’ve got an empty seat next to me.”

“I’m good,” she replied, and sat down where she was. His smile rattled her. She didn’t understand it. Mariko wrote about smiles in her journal. Her favorite smile was the maternal smile, which softened the edges of cheekbones and clouded the eyes. She didn’t appear to notice the man’s expression changing as he slowly turned away from her and walked down the aisle. Mariko did notice; her freedom depended on her ability to notice.

Across from Mariko sat a mother and her son. The mother was trying to get the boy to stop staring at Mariko.

“Jimmy,” his mother whispered, “Stop it.”

Mariko smiled at Jimmy. She was practicing her maternal smile.

“You’re good.” She turned to show her right profile, “Good, right?”

Jimmy nodded. He responded to the motherly warmth. Mariko turned to show her left side.  

“Not so good, huh?”

Jimmy winced.  

“I was in a fire,” Mariko said, matter-of-factly.

“I’m sorry,” the mother said. Mariko made note of her smile. Sympathetic: slightly upturned lips, eyes clear and open.

“My son died. He was about his age,” she said, and tilted her head towards Jimmy. The mother’s smile curdled and died.

They sat in silence. The train entered a tunnel and the echo of its wheels on the iron track sang a melancholy ode. When the train exited the tunnel, Jimmy and his mother had left, deciding to find other seating companions.

Mariko had never had a child. Mariko had never been in a fire.

At Spokane, another woman with a child, this time a girl, started down the aisle and Mariko turned her face, so that the damage was out of view. She smiled a welcoming smile (mouth closed, wide lips, puppyish), the mother smiled an answer, and the two sat down across from her. Mariko adjusted her smile and turned slightly. The mother dropped her eyes and became very busy with adjusting the top of her daughter’s ponytail. The daughter, of course, could not stop staring. On the daughter’s lap, the girl held a plastic bag with a goldfish waving its tail in a fistful of water. The goldfish stared at Mariko with globular eyes. The mother, having fixed the crap out of her daughter’s ponytail, was now gazing out the window to avoid looking at Mariko. Mariko took her switchblade out of her pocket. She pressed the button. The blade sprung mutely. Silent weapons were important to Mariko. Firearms had been almost impossible to buy in Japan, but knives were plentiful, especially from Filipino bar hostesses. Mariko sliced the plastic bag and the goldfish poured out on the floor.

“The monster lady cut my fish,” wailed the little girl.

Mariko stood up, purposefully using the flapping fish as a stepping stone.

In the next car, she sat down and crossed her leg over her knee. She peeled the flattened goldfish off the bottom of her shoe and tossed the corpse under the seat.

Mariko filed the man’s smile under a new category: “awed.”

“Plastic surgeon?” she asked.

The man nodded, “How did you know?”

“People don’t usually smile at this,” Mariko said, pointing.

“Birth defect?” the doctor asked.  

“Something like that,” she said. “I got born into the wrong family.”

“You can pick your nose,” the man began.

Mariko’s smile telegraphed confusion.

“I’m from Japan,” she said. “My English is not very good.”

“But you can’t pick your family,” the man finished.

Mariko rifled through her catalog of smiles, forwards and backwards through her list, searching for the perfect choice, the smile that would continue the conversation.

“You can laugh,” the doctor said.

Mariko’s lips fluttered, silently.

“You’re good,” she said. And she made a sound she liked, an imitation of her Shiba Inu barking happily at his filled food dish. She would have to start categorizing laughs she decided.

The train leaned towards the right, and the goldfish’s sad remains slid across the floor, stopping only when its fin came into contact with my shoe.

Back across the aisle, the murderess told a story of her life. The doctor sat, enthralled.

At the next stop, they exited the train and went into the terminal. At the building’s entrance, the woman with the scarred face took the man’s hand. I have no idea if she ever gave it back.

I rode all the way through to Chicago. At Union Station, two police officers carried Mariko’s heavy suitcase off the train. On the platform, a film crew from a Chicago affiliate of ABC waited for them to open it.

Behind the cameraman, a crowd was gathering around a screaming woman clutching a framed photograph against her chest.

“Open it!” she screamed, “For God’s sake, open it already.”  


Catherine Noble

I love adventure. I’ve been in an 8-seater plane over the Sahara with an injured pilot and 5-minutes of fuel. Oh, we were in a sandstorm. I’ve been stung by a jellyfish in the Andaman Sea. Also, I had a memory wipeout climbing Mt. Fuji where I sat down and stared through the icicles hanging from my eyelashes trying to remember where I was and what my name was. Through all, I’ve learned that adventures are not always pleasant. For this reason, I’ve signed up for Deathmatch. I know I can write. I’ve got ideas and they’re strange and unique, but what do other people think? I’m not sure I can take it, but I’m up for the challenge. With fingers crossed on the left hand and a finger of Macallan M 1824 Single Malt Scotch in the right. I say “Game on.”