It was a sunny morning in early October and the house was astir with activity. Katie and her grandmother Edna were busy slicing tomatoes at the kitchen table for dehydrating. Henry and Ryan were working on a plumbing project in the basement to re-route the kitchen waste water to a rain barrel outside.
With the exuberance of an eight year old on her birthday, the small Japanese girl, Sakiko, appeared in the kitchen wearing the new dress that Edna had made for her.
“I’m ready!” she announced bouncing on her toes and swinging her arms.
“My, my, don’t you look pretty” Edna said, pulling a loose thread from the dress she had made from one of her own. Sakiko had picked out the flowery print from Edna’s closet saying that the blossoms reminded her of home. Work in the basement stopped as Ryan bounded up the stairs to join them.
“Are we ready for some fun?” he asked wiping his hands on a handkerchief.
Although Ryan lived next door, he now considered the Duffels his adopted family. Katie had brought Sakiko home with her from Japan in early spring to live with her grandparents, Henry and Edna. Over the last several months, they had worked to establish a garden, a one room schoolhouse, and a new life together.
These extended family structures were common following the collapse of the economy several years ago. High oil prices slowly wiped out industrial and private sector demand burdened with un-payable debts. When the credit markets seized up, all confidence in the global debt-based monetary system was lost. The formerly affluent American middle class was left in ruins to make the best of an impossible situation.
And yet, hope remained in the eyes of a young girl ready to celebrate her birthday.
“Yes, can we go now please?” Sakiko pleaded. She had waited patiently all week. For her birthday, Ryan and Katie had promised to take her down to the Lot to pick out a birthday present and have lunch. Later they would have the pound cake Katie had baked, topped with homemade strawberry preserves.
Katie confirmed her shopping list with Edna one last time while Ryan dashed next door to change his shirt. Meeting them at the garden gate, the three set off eagerly for downtown.
At the shopping stall
After the formal economy disappeared, the residents turned the parking lot where the farmer’s market was held every Saturday into a year round bazaar. Known locally as “the Lot” it was the best place to find just about anything you were looking for.
As they waited in line to pay the modest entry fee, Katie asked, “Do you know what you are looking for, Sakiko?”
“Yes,” she replied shyly without offering any further hints. She had been to the Lot a couple of times before and knew where she wanted to look. As Ryan paid the fee, a guard with a holstered side arm stamped their hands.
Beyond the entrance to the left were rows of food and produce stalls. They were already full of shoppers weighing produce and chatting with the farmers.
“Mmm – I smell bacon” said Ryan breathing deeply through his nose. “Do you want to eat something first Sakiko, or start looking around?”
“Look around, please. I know where I want to go” replied the girl as she grabbed Katie’s hand and headed to the right. This section was more eclectic: household items, clothing, books, and toys.
Sakiko led them passed makeshift stalls filled with appliances and kitchen items. She passed the shoe emporium with its rows of boots and sneakers neatly displayed on brightly painted wooden benches. She paused for a moment in front of Barnes’ less than Noble Books, a modest assortment of stacked crates full of books. Then she moved on to The Toy Tent with it collections of lonely action figures, games, puzzles and dolls with hand-sewn dresses. Here she let go of Katie’s hand to wander and stare at the tempting variety of colorful playthings.
A middle aged woman wearing a smock embroidered with the name of the store, looked up to see Ryan wrapping his arm around Katie’s waist. She smiled as she directed her attention to the young girl standing at the doll table.
“Hi there; do you like dolls?” asked the woman in a friendly voice.
“Yes, but I’m too old for dolls. Their dresses are very pretty; did you make them?” inquired Sakiko politely.
“Yes, I did. You have a pretty dress too.”
“Thank you. My grandmother made it for my birthday today.”
“Well Happy Birthday!” she said smiling.
A moment later and the three were waving good-bye with Sakiko in the lead once more.
Moving in tune
“Where are we going? Katie asked aloud as they left the cluster of stalls and bustle of activity. Sakiko led them to the entrance of Harold’s, a consignment shop located in a former office building adjacent to the Lot. Its aluminum storefront windows were filled with an assortment of items, a Stratocaster guitar, pairs of women’s leather boots, and a beautiful English riding saddle.
A small silver bell attached to the door by wire, tinkled as they pulled open the glass door. The air was heavy inside, full of the smell of a lifestyle fading from memory. Sitting in an armchair in the soft glow near the entrance, a shop keeper put down his book.
“Can I help you?” asked the elderly gentleman standing to greet them.
Sakiko lost her confidence for a moment and waited for one of her guardians to speak first.
“Hi, we’re….looking for something” offered Ryan, “It’s her birthday today.”
“Oh, Happy Birthday, young lady. My name is Mr. Harold; how can I be of service?”
Sakiko’s eyes quickly scanned the room. Amidst the coils of rugs, stained furniture sets, shelves of books and display cases, she spotted what she had wished for since arriving in the US. She moved to a side wall where a collection of musical instruments were carefully arranged behind a glass counter.
“May I see the violin, please?” she asked.
“Of course,” replied Mr. Harold, gently removing the violin from its bracket mount and handing it to the girl. “That,” he continued, “is a hand made concert violin – from Germany I believe. I bought it from one of the professors in the music department at the university several years ago. I’ll never forget it, he cried when he sold it to me.”
Mr. Harold produced a bow from beneath the counter and Sakiko immediately put the instrument to her shoulder. She knew she wanted to have a musical instrument since she was always reading instrument reviews on places like The Sound Junky.
At her newly established Garden School, some of Katie’s students had musical instruments, but no one had a violin. Sakiko had played since she was five and had brought one with her when they left Japan. But somewhere along their month long journey, the violin was stolen or lost.
While Sakiko tuned and played the dark red instrument, the pair pulled Mr. Harold aside to discuss the price. Despite his generous “birthday discount” the instrument was still more expensive than they were prepared for. Katie and Ryan spoke quietly of the money they had saved from his job working at the train depot.
“Excuse me, but did I hear you say that you work for Thomas Stafford at the depot?” asked Mr. Harold.
“Yes, sir. I’m on the weekday cargo crew and I also do some inventory work for him” replied Ryan.
“That’s fine. Tom and I go way back. I’ll tell you what, pay me what you can today and you can bring me the rest next payday; how does that sound?”
“That’s very generous of you, sir – thank you.”
“Yes, thank you very much” echoed Katie.
Sakiko stopped playing and looked anxiously at the adults. “Does this mean I can have it for my birthday?” she asked innocently.
“Yes,” Katie and Ryan responded together.
While Sakiko hugged them, her cheeks covered in soft tears, Mr. Harold placed the violin, the bow and a small piece of rosin in a worn black case. It was the second time someone had cried over the violin and he was certain that he would never forget it.
They decided to eat lunch in the Lot at a small Mexican grill with glass patio tables and faded yellow umbrellas. They ordered grilled chicken salads with corn chips and fresh salsa. The popular spot was busy with families and couples enjoying a warm afternoon under brilliant blue skies.
“You can use my violin too, Katie,” offered Sakiko.
Katie laughed, “I’m not sure I remember; it’s been a long time since either one of us has practiced.”
Sakiko slowly sipped her tea, suddenly withdrawn and quiet. With a far away stare she said, “I remember the last time I played. It was a recital at school in Tokyo and Papa was there. I wish he could hear me play again.”
“Hey, look over there” said Ryan pointing toward the open masonry grill. Lying in the shadows beside the masonry grill, was the dog Ryan had seen on several occasions. He held out a chuck of chicken and beckoned for the dog to come. The dog recognized Ryan and wagged his tail but refused to budge.
“See if you can feed him,” he said handing the morsel to Sakiko.
Slowly the girl approached the dog with an outstretched hand. The dog rose cautiously, accepted the treat, licked her fingers, and disappeared behind the grill.
For the rest of the afternoon, they wandered the Lot picking up the items on their shopping list. Candles for the cake, cheese cloth, salvaged hose clamps for the plumbing project, and some thread.
They kept an eye out for the dog, but didn’t see him again that day.
–J.B. Sties, Transition Voice