Barbara Nishimoto


Barbara Nishimoto was born in Chicago, and grew up along with her two sisters in the western suburbs. She is a Sansei and spent most of her working life as a teacher in such locations as the Alaskan bush and the Marshall Islands. She now lives in Nashville with her husband and their dog, Koji. Her work has appeared in Discover Nikkei, Streetlight Magazine, Five [Quarterly], Cleaver Magazine, and is forthcoming in Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.

The Firebird

Route 56 was a two lane blacktop when I was growing up. From our home west to Warrenville and beyond there were woods and lots of open fields. When I was in high school my father bought a Firebird convertible, and we would take the car out on 56. “Let’s take her out,” he would say. We would head west at dusk sometimes with the top down. “Open her up.” He would stare straight ahead, lift his chin as though uttering a dare. “Open her up.” I never really went that fast, but the car rode low, seemed to skim along the highway, and with the top down it did feel as though we were flying. The fading light and the deep color of the sky reflected off the car’s long shiny hood, and I remember accelerating and feeling that sudden rush and the swelling of my heart, the air so clean and sharp that I imagined us slipping into someplace new.

My father bought the car with his share of the money from the sale of his brother’s land back in California. An extravagance. My mother wasn’t pleased. Raised on a truck farm, she was frugal (“Sewed her own underwear,” my sister and I giggled). “Your father spends money like water. Thank God they locked us up. Thank God.” That was her main comment about Relocation. My father had wanted to buy more property, wanted to start a small business. She would shiver, shake her head. “We would have owed money to everybody.”

The car was impractical. “She says it’s too small,” my father said.

That was true. But we weren’t looking for a family car. “It’s your project,” my mother said, shrugging. “Occupy yourselves.”

“We’ll splurge,” my father said. “A treat for us.”

I had never heard him talk like that. Before he got on at the post office, he had worked two jobs. He would come home in the afternoons, fill a tall green thermos with hot tea, and then go to work as the night custodian at Marshall Fields. Much later when I bragged about the status of the store, my father said, “You’re a big shot now.” He was sitting in the dining room, his forearms resting on the table. “I just meant that it’s a fancy store.” He didn’t look at me. “They let you shop there now.” I should have asked him to explain, but at the time I felt ashamed and couldn’t say anything more.

“How about this one? What do you think?” I pointed to one of the shiny slick magazine ads of long, low muscle cars.

“Yeah. Maybe. We’re in no hurry. It’s not like we got to buy right now.”

My sister and I used to cut out pictures from the magazines. Our own paper dolls. We made up stories about them like the plots from TV shows: the glamorous detective, the evil socialite, the timid scientist. We looked for the tiniest details. “This is the fabulous bracelet she wore.” “Here is the sparkling glass found at the scene.” Hours and hours we played in our room, holding up the pictures, telling our stories. And the hunt for the car felt the same. It did become a project. We talked about the car at dinner and afternoons when he came home from work. We had our own language. A Pontiac. Not quite an Olds, not nearly a Cadillac, but better than a Ford.

When I was much older I drove west to California. As a family we had driven that route, too. Interstate 80 then south on 15 through Las Vegas and on to LA. Like an expedition leader my father had explained how we would cross the Mojave. “You got to watch the overheating.” We drove it before dawn or late at night with the windows down, the air roaring around us. My father smoked, and he would flick the ash through the little vented window. But years later when I drove the route, cars had changed, and everyone sped through in the heat of the day. Tinted windows and air conditioners on full blast. “Hey, guess what I saw,” I told him over the phone from Barstow. “Guy with his top down in the middle of the day.” A tiny soft snort from my father. I didn’t need to say more. Our common language.

The car had to be on the lot for us to see, to inspect. We were looking for just the right shade of blue and the top had to be a perfect match.

“What if we don’t find it? What will we do?” I said.

“Don’t get excited. We have to be patient.”

“You can order one,” a salesman said. A young man in a gray suit and tie. Flawless pink skin. He had stood with his hands in his pockets, jingling his coins and keys. He turned his head and yawned. “Any color and combination you want, Mr. Yamanaka.”

My father dismissed him with a wave of his hand. “You think we’re assholes.”

“Oh, he used to be afraid to go into a store,” my mother later told us. “I’d say, ‘Go on, get in there. Who are they?’ But he was afraid.”

“Daddy?” I would say.

My mother smiled. “Hard to believe.”

One day after school my father said, “Come on. This guy claims he’s got one for us to see.”

“You think it’ll be what we want?”

“We’ll see, little girl. We’ll see.”

It was early spring, cold and windy, and the sky was already darkening. We drove through the newer suburban towns designed like villages with wooden signs hanging outside shop windows and copies of old-fashioned street lights sunk in smooth even sidewalks. No fast food restaurants or discount groceries. At the time I was growing up, we lived in an area that was unincorporated. I’m not sure what that meant except that our subdivision was not part of the wealthy townships, nor was it included in the older ones where the businesses were in smaller, plainer buildings with sun-faded posters in the windows and large asphalt parking lots.

My father drove us through these older townships past the Jewels and White Hens and gas stations with service bays that rang with the sound of metal tools dropped on the concrete and the whine and cough of high speed drills. The dealership was in a squat white building with large, untinted windows. The Pontiac logo along with the dealer’s name was on a weathered sign above the parking lot. There were small pennants strung from the light poles, and behind the showroom was a dark brick garage.

A group of men was standing by the windows when we entered. I have always hated entering rooms that are filled with people, and when I saw my faint reflection in the tall windows, I cringed. Maybe that’s what my father used to feel. The men turned and stared at us, and my father said, “I’m looking for Lamb.”

“Here.” A man stepped out from one of the office cubicles. I thought he was my father’s age. Very tall and potbellied. He had taken off his jacket, and his shirt was wrinkled and thin. I could see his undershirt through it. “You called about the Firebird?”

“You said you got one here. Is it here?”

“You think I lied to get you down here.” The man smiled, extended his hand. “Warren Lamb. Mr. Yamanaka?”

“All right, all right.” My father took his hand. “Let’s see it.”

“Yamanaka.” He said the name slowly, then nodded. Solemn. “You’re a hard-working people.”

Aside from the family, my father suspected everyone’s motives. “Or so he claims,” he would say. “He can do it, or so he claims.” (“The high-pressure customer,” my sister giggled.)

“Are you his daughter?” Mr. Lamb turned to me, cocked his head. He had blue eyes and wore his hair short like a soldier’s. “What do you think about this car? You’re going to be real popular.” My high school was filled with kids from middle-class families, most only three generations in the country—just like me. I tried to pretend I was invisible, moving without reacting to the shoves and taunts. It was my sister who fought back, and they hounded her mercilessly. To be told I would be popular felt like one of those shoves, a taunt.

“Your dad thinks I’m lying.” Mr. Lamb winked. “Come on. It’s in the garage.”

He walked ahead of us, led us through the building and out the back. He had a limp. I followed behind my father who was still wearing his mailman pants with the dark stripe and his shiny black shoes. I was in my school clothes. Both of us had been in too much of a hurry to change.

Mr. Lamb sorted through a heavy ring of keys and unlocked the garage door and turned on the overhead lights. It was dim, and the building smelled of dirt and grease and gasoline. The sound of our footsteps on the concrete was sharp and loud.

“Did I lie?” he said. The car was tucked in tight along a wall. It was our perfect shade of blue with the perfect matching top. “Wait, I think there’s enough room. I can pull her out a little and you can get a better look.” He wound through the row of cars, got into the Firebird, and started it up. When the engine turned over, my father and I looked at each other blankly.

Mr. Lamb began to move the car out from the wall. My father watched as the man turned the tires and inched forward and back. Then my father held up his hand. “Ho.” His voice was deep and loud. “Ho.” Later he told me, “I knew that was the right car. I didn’t want him to scratch it. I could tell he didn’t know what he was doing.”

My father was the best driver I knew. I am stupidly frightened riding with others. Afraid to relax, sometimes nauseated. But never with my father. When we drove together he kept a running commentary about what was happening on the road around us. Not nagging or scolding, but as though he were telling a story. “You see that guy up there? Watch how he rides his brakes. You don’t know what he’s thinking. Better to get around him when you can.”

“Let me get some help and we can move her out.” The salesman had rolled down the window. He leaned out, his left arm on the door panel, his hand flat. He wore a silver wedding band. “You can take it for a test drive,” he said.

“I don’t need a test drive. I can see it from here.”

“You sure?”

My father wrinkled his nose. It was a habit, a way of lifting his black frame glasses closer to the bridge of his nose. “I’m sure.”

“Was I lying?” Mr. Lamb climbed out of the car. He walked toward us, his right hand cradling his left elbow as though he had an itch. My father put his hands in his pockets. He continued to stare at the car. “What do you think, Mr. Yamanaka? It’s the color you want, right? Let me get somebody to look at your car. We can offer you a good deal.”

He turned to me, tilted his head. “What do you say, Miss? It’s a cool car, isn’t it? Tell your dad this is the one. Go on. Take your time. Let’s talk about it. No hurry.” He looked at me and chuckled, “Besides, I got you locked in.” He dangled the ring of keys in front of me and grinned. “What do you say, Miss? Tell dad this is the one.”

“I’m not trading,” my father said.

“Oh?” Mr. Lamb dragged the word out like someone in a school play. “So what are you telling me?”

My father did not look at him. I could hear him breathing deep and steady beside me.

Mr. Lamb sighed, drew a deep breath and straightened. He stared at my father for a few moments before he spoke. “What? A second car? A gift?” He raised his eyebrows. “For your pretty little daughter here?” He stooped so that we were eye level. He had a way of staring as though his gaze stopped before it reached my face. “Oh, I see. The two of you riding down the road together. Is that it?” He grinned. “You’re a generous man, Mr. Yamanaka.”

“Yeah.” My father was still staring at the car. “I’m a big shot now.”

I felt something awful, as if we were on display, and at that moment I didn’t want the car at all. “Daddy?”

“Don’t rush your daddy, Miss.” Mr. Lamb smiled, uncurled his fingers to show the keys resting in his open palm. “We’re going to get that car for you tonight.”

My father stood with his shoulders rounded, his wrists crossed in front as though he were handcuffed. I had seen him stand like that on the sidelines during a father-daughter school event. At the time it was my one clear memory of him. He stood along the third-base line with the other fathers. Plain white t-shirt and khakis. Dark skin. Short. It was a game of kickball, and he didn’t seem to be paying attention, wasn’t cheering like the other fathers. But when the ball came sailing down the line ahead of one of our runners, my father stuck out his foot and kicked the ball into the infield. It happened so quickly, he never changed his expression, or moved his arms. We were all stunned for a moment, and then the other team began to shout and wave their arms and complain, and in all that commotion my father never changed his posture or flinched or gave anything away. The other fathers stepped back from him.

“What do you say, Mr. Yamanaka? You ready to buy? Car won’t be here forever.”

“What are you offering?”

“Do we have a deal?”

“What are you offering?”

“It’s a popular car.”

“Give me the tires.”

Mr. Lamb snorted, shook his head. “I can’t give you the tires.”

“Give me the tires.”

“You want me to just give you the car. I’m not going to just give you the car.”

“You got to come down on it. Give me something.”

“You going to buy tonight?”

“You got to give me something. Give me the tires.”

“I can’t.”

“Okay,” My father lowered his head, pursed his lips. “The radio, then.”

“Mr. Yamanaka,” the salesman sighed, shaking his head. He stepped around us and headed for the door. “Let’s sit down in my office and talk about it.”

I watched the man use the key to open the automatic garage door. He flicked off several banks of lights and then stood outside in the dark and waited for us. My father still faced the car, though now it was mostly in the shadows and looked very small. I felt the draft against my cheeks and throat, and I hunched my shoulders. My father’s hands were in his pockets, his shoulders hunched, too. I glanced back at the salesman who was pretending not to watch us. The wind ruffled his hair and the cuffs of his pants, and I wondered why he didn’t seem to feel the cold.

The garage was large and empty in the dark. My father took a deep breath, sighed. We had never been comfortable looking directly at one another for very long. Even as we both aged, we watched each other’s expressions peripherally.

He glanced at me. A tiny smile. “You think we were going to spend the night?”

“I was a little afraid,” I said.

My father used to tell my sister, “Hit them in the face right off. Hard. Be first.” But to me he would say, “You get too scared. But you’re small and fast. Better you just run.” My sister and I still laugh at the advice. “Oh please,” my mother would say, frowning in disgust. “They’re just little girls.”

He nodded, looked over his shoulder at the salesman who waited just beyond the threshold. “What the hell kind of name is Lamb anyway?” He snorted, turned. “Well, let’s see what this asshole’s got.” His voice was clear and distinct, and I was sure Mr. Lamb had heard, and I was certain, too, that that’s exactly what my father had wanted.

I wish I had a picture of that car. Not the Polaroid with the chrome grill peeking out from the background, but one of those glossy full-page magazine ads. I can imagine how worn and creased and soft it would get through the years, and I would keep it folded and hidden and pull it out from time to time and remember what it was like all those years ago. “Wide tracking,” my father had joked. He bought a cap to wear for our drives and would go to the hall closet and, in a kind of ceremony, put it on, place it just so. He bought me a pair of thin leather gloves that were soft and supple and had tiny holes in the palms and backs. “Silly,” my mother had said, but she had smiled. And on the loveliest of evenings we did as he said; we took the car out. Sometimes my mother and sister would come along for the ride. Cramped in the tiny backseat they leaned forward to join in the conversation. I imagined I felt their breath on my shoulder, my arm. I remember backing out our drive, the smooth little click when I shifted out of reverse. “Let’s go as far as the orchards.”

“Farther,” my sister teased. “California.”

Our porch light and living room lights were on, and our house seemed now in my memory to glow like the houses on Christmas cards.

“Biggest house on the block,” my father said. “Remember that.”

We glided down our street and onto 56, and then accelerated, and the neighborhood and small side streets slipped away. On and on. To the open fields and scrubby woods. “Wide tracking.” It felt like we had the whole road and could follow it as far west as we wanted. “Open her up.” We laughed and joked and admired the beauty around us and the clean shiny perfection of that car. We were all together in that capsule of air and for that time we just ran.