An Excerpt from Ash
The year we lived in Japan, the volcano at the edge of town hiccupped, covering everything in six inches of heavy golden dust. The sky turned yellow, with clouds so low they were like ceilings. No one could remember anything like it.
Businesses and schools closed that first day; there was no way to handle the ash, no plows on hand in that tropical city. It was a nuisance, we were told, but not really dangerous; children poured outside to play wearing bathing suits and surgical masks. Housewives vacuumed the street. Dust got into the air raid siren and it blared over the city for the first time since World War II. Our family was freed from obligation?Lou from teaching at the university, Alex from a day of second grade, and me from filling time. We steered our bicycles through the fine dust and joined other families making ash angels in the park; we communicated through exclamations and gestures and in that bizarre world I felt, for the first time in three months, part of something.
I got arrested on the way home from the park. A policeman flagged us down and checked the registration numbers on our bicycles; the name on mine did not match the name on my alien registration card and I was put in the backseat of a police car while my husband and child stared. He told my son, whose brain had soaked up Japanese without even trying, not to worry, that I would be calling them soon, to go and play and enjoy his day off of school. Lou kept pointing to the bike and repeating the name of the university. His voice shook and rose. In shock, I watched them get smaller from the backseat, half expecting my husband to chase us on his bicycle.
The police station was dark; the power must have gone out. A man with eyes too big for his face sat next to me at a card table. Five older men looked on, smoking and chatting. Occasionally they laughed. The man opened a laptop computer, then typed something and angled the screen toward me. A window popped up:
Why do you steal a bicycle?
Ah, the misunderstandings never ended. My fingers flew as I explained.
He read the translation carefully, as if inspecting a scroll. He shook his head and typed. The record of bicycle is not found. University worker has no availability today for the confirmation.
I argued my point. Suddenly one of the older men flicked his cigarette butt to the ground, bent down and shouted, ?Why you steal??
A bored-looking woman arrived in uniform, her black hair still wet from washing. She sat on the other side of me.
When can I go home? I typed.
That is difficult.
Why is it difficult?
Yes, I see. You see, it is not believing you tell the truth. He said something to the woman. They both stood up; she took my wrist. I jerked it away. I yelled, ?I didn?t steal the goddamn bike!? They looked embarrassed, as if I were a senile grandmother they must humor.
Handcuffs. Photographs. Fingerprints. Somewhere I gave up speaking; no one could understand me. The jail was half an hour away by car, and before I went outside, the woman fastened a leather belt around my waist. A rope hung from it like a leash. She gripped it in her fist and avoided my eyes.
Credit: Gettysburg Review, Winter 2007