The Peach Boy

As an undergraduate and postgraduate at the University of Wyoming, ROBERT A. RORIPAUGH worked on his writing under the stimulating direction of the poel Joseph Lanyland. Drafted into the army in 1953, Mr. Roripaugh served a year in Japan, and his nostalgia for that country has taken him back there twice since.

ROBERT A. RORIPAUGH

THE evening before Bill Reno was to return to the States, he changed into civilian clothes after chow and walked out of the barracks just as the sun, disappearing behind the concrete wall on the west end of camp, splashed orange across the company street. After showing his pass to the MP in the guard shack, Reno followed the sidewalk which ran beside the barbed-wire-topped wall. Cherry trees along the road were in bloom with their pink flowers thinly outlined on blue sky. He crossed a patch of sidewalk where an old farmer was sweeping up wheat which he had placed over the hot concrete that afternoon to separate the seed from the hulls. A few grains of wheat crumbled beneath Reno’s feet. As he passed the wall at the end of camp, he could see a perfectly green expanse of young barley waving a little in the slight breeze. Beyond this field, dark blue mountains appeared as flatirons stuck up into the sunset.

At the edge of town a bus passed him on the dirt road; the dust swirled around and drifted across the road, obscuring even the mountains like some dirty eclipse before finally settling. A humped old man pulled a heavy cart around him and moved jerkily past on the rocky road. By the old man’s side, a rust-colored dog strained against the harness fastened to one corner of the cart. Kimono-clad women, bent into obtuseness from the weight of babies bundled to their backs, shuffled slowly down the edge of the road near a field of mulberry plants, and bicycle riders rang their bells in warning as they pedaled around the women.

Reno could smell the damp odor of Japan — a mixture of humid earth and excrement. After a year here, he still wasn’t used to it. But you’re going home, tomorrow, he thought. And the army will become an unpleasant dream, the country a memory of sights and smells. Tomorrow when the truck taking him to the processing center moved under the arched gate of the camp, he would start to forget. The stupidity of the army . . . lonely nights at camp . . . the mess officer who sold part of the post’s rations on the black market . . . the hare-lipped sergeant who yelled obscenities at his platoon . . . the Japanese bands dragging through American dance numbers at the EM Club on Saturday night . . . picking up cigarette butts around the NCO quarters. Tomorrow he would start to forget about everything.

Reno cut across the yard in front of a Shinto temple where a crumbling stone lion grinned down at him with long fangs. Barelegged children were bouncing a ball against a wooden wall near the temple. They cried shrilly as they fought for possession of each rebound, but paused to stare with intense brown eyes until he was out of sight.

As Reno passed a small fish shop, an old woman was washing in a copper pan by the side of the house. Her face was shriveled up like a piece of dried meat, and she silently watched him with the knife edges of her eyes. Reno could smell the fish and a more pleasant odor of steaming rice.

Farther on, a broad fence ran into a maze of little wooden shops and stores which seemed to cling to the edge of the dirt street. Reno turned through a gap in the boards and walked past a garden overgrown with shrubs and stunted trees.

Reno stepped out of his shoes before climbing onto the wooden walkway which led to the stairs. As it was mealtime, this part of the house was quiet, but when he started to climb the stairs he could hear wooden clogs on pavement and the voices of children playing on the street in front of the house. When he reached the end of the upstairs hallway, he pushed open the paper-covered sliding door. He could see Toyako kneeling on the mat floor near the back window of the large room. She was wearing a gray kimono. Her hair was swept up on top of her head, which gave her oval face a look of forced maturity. The room was almost bare except for a short-legged table in its center. Two quart bottles of Japanese beer and some glasses were on the table.

Usually Toyako ran quickly to greet him when he came back from camp, but tonight she watched silently as he slid the door closed behind him. She pointed out the window at the tile roof where two crows had begun to quarrel. One of them had a twisted, crippled wing which flopped behind it like a useless crutch. Its beak gaped open to expose the blue-black tongue. More crows spiraled from the trees onto the roof to attack the cripple with raucous croaks and driving wings.

Toyako rose from the floor to watch the crows from the window. “They don’t like sick crow,”she said, “so they try to kill.”

The tangled, squalling mob flapped across the roof with wings drumming against tile until the injured crow was forced to plummet off the edge onto the ground below, where it was followed by the attackers.

Toyako moved away from the window and knelt down by the table. She opened a bottle of beer and filled the two glasses.

“The crow will die soon,” she said. She drank from the glass of beer and then began to laugh softly, almost under her breath, as though crooning to herself. “Crow is a sign that something’s going to die, Reno.”

Reno swallowed a glass of the slightly warm beer. When he placed his empty glass on the table top, a fly sluggishly dived into the glass and clung to the sticky surface. He brushed it out with his finger. “No one’s going to die, Toyako. Every day you see many crows and no one dies.”

“Something dies all the time, Reno. During the war many people died here. Always there were crows.” She poured beer carefully into their two glasses. “At first I get scared, but after a few times bombs never mattered. I just stood and watched B-29s and bombs falling. Oh, sometimes they were very pretty.”

Reno raised his glass and sipped at the beer. Outside the children’s voices sounded urgent and close in the evening quiet. Tomorrow, he thought. Tomorrow you will start to forget about this girl too. They had lived together for six months in this room, yet he didn’t understand her: often her thinking seemed as strange as the catlike cast to her heavy-lidded eyes or the songs she liked to sing while cooking his supper in the kitchen below. She had helped him hold on to his sanity, but he didn’t really need her. He didn’t really need anyone. The army had taught him that.

Toyako began to talk quietly again. “During wartime the planes came in very low, just over the mountains like sea birds. Many bombs fell and everywhere people die. All down this street there is blood, Reno.” She sighed softly and then began to laugh. “But now I have lived with American soldier. Don’t you think funny?”

“Many girls live with soldiers,” he said. “They like to have money to buy food and good clothes, and a soldier needs a woman.” It was as though he were trying to justify it to himself now, rather than to her. “Many girls need money for their families,” he said.

“Of course,” Toyako said. “Soldiers come to Japan and live with girls. Soon soldiers gone and then more soldiers come to Japan. Then like trains again gone. Many girls wait at station and one train leaves for trip to the States. Soon another train comes and brings more boys.”

“Maybe it’s like that,” Reno said. “Are you going to wait at the station when I leave?”

Toyako just watched his face and did not answer at first. Then she laughed and raised her glass. “Compie, Reno,” she said. “To wonderful journey to the States.” She quickly drank her beer.

FROM outside in front of the house came the sound of drumbeats. Reno stood up and in his bare feet crossed the mat flooring to the window. A small man in an old woolen army uniform with ragged puttees had begun to march up one side of the street. He looked into the houses, tapped the drum with a long stick, turned, and marched the near side of the street. As he passed under the window, three little girls clattered from nearby houses to follow the drum. When the old man reached the end of the block, almost a dozen children were crowded around his bicycle-drawn cart parked tut the sidewalk.

With thin arms moving rapidly, the old man distributed candy sticks from the drawers of the cart and clinked the copper yen pieces into a wooden box. The children squatted along the wall of the building opposite the cart. They quietly licked their candy sticks while watching the old man set up a frame of picture slides on top of the cart. When the first frame was in place, he began the story. He had fastened his drum on top of the cart behind the frame, and as he explained each picture he would beat the drum in accompaniment.

“He is telling about Momotaro-san, the Peach Boy,” Toyako said. “It is a famous story. He is showing them the picture of the poor woodcutter and his wife who lived alone in the mountains.”

The old man tapped on the drum and changed the slide with his incredibly thin arm.

“Now the old woman is washing her clothes in the stream and a large peach is washed down the stream,” Toyako said. “It is maybe this big, Reno.” She indicated the size of the peach with her arms that looked pale yellow in the evening light. “When they got the peach home, the old people worked very hard to split it open, and a small, cute boy walked out.”

Below, in the street, the story man was holding up one of the smaller children to show his audience the size of the Peach Boy. Then the children stared at the wonderful picture of the boy crawling out of the huge peach.

“The parents are very happy now because their new son is healthy and very good. Oh, yes, Reno, all the animals and birds like to come around him for he is so gentle.” The old man tapped softly on the drum.

“The Peach Boy grew up to be strong, and one day he heard about a valley where many bad devils were making trouble for the farmers.” Outside the drum began to beat rapidly and the children were shouting in their shrill, strangely thin voices.

“The Peach Boy’s mother made him special food and he went to the deep-in-mountain place where the devils live. On the way he met a monkey, a pheasant, and a dog. They want to eat the food the Peach Boy is carrying, so they go with him to fight the devils.”

Reno could hear the children clapping their hands at the picture of the Peach Boy and his animal friends.

“When they got to the devils’ country, there was much trouble,”Toyako said, “but the monkey opened the gate to their house, and the pheasant pecked at their eyes, and the dog bit their feet. Oh, there was a very big fight.”

The story man was putting the last picture into the frame. He wove his stick in the air before the children as he finished telling the story.

“The Peach Boy won the fight,” Toyako said. “All the devils promised to become very kind farmers and they gave the Peach Boy much gold. The picture shows devils helping him carry gold to his parents’ country.”

Outside, the story man took down his pictures, tied his drum tightly to the side of his cart, and pedaled the bicycle slowly off down the street. The children watched the cart disappear and then, shouting excitedly, they ran off to play. Soon the street was quiet again.

Toyako turned away from the window. “Tomorrow you go back to the States. Why do you go back to the States, Reno?” She knelt by the table. “Many soldiers stay here if they have girl friends.” She rocked gently back and forth from the waist up. In the fading light she looked quite small. “Why must you leave our house here?” she asked.

WHEN the ship left Yokohama, Reno was crowded against the railing on the side of the ship which lay against the dock. The army band was playing, and everyone was shouting wildly. A small crowd of people had gathered against the wall of the dock’s warehouse. Two or three Japanese girls were waving to boy friends on the ship and attempting to call out their good-bys. The soldiers closest to the edge of the ship’s railing yelled obscenities at them.

A small girl dressed in a blue suit walked slowly out from the railroad station near the dock. She was looking up at the men who lined the rail of the ship. She was dressed very carefully, but in her high-heeled shoes she looked like a doll that a child had prepared for a make-believe party.

“Good-by, Slant-eyes,” someone yelled at her. “Somebody else can wear his kimono.”

Reno wondered whose girl friend she was. She looked a little like Toyako, which made him vaguely unhappy. As she walked along the side of the ship, she held her bottom lip between her teeth as she searched the faces of the men on board. Many soldiers waved or called out to her, but her eyes moved through and past them as she walked along the deck. The tugboats had started to move the ship out toward the bay, and the band began to play more loudly. As the ship moved away, the girl stood very quietly and waved once. Reno watched her change from the still figure of a girl into a patch of blue color, and finally into a small dot. At last he could barely see the outline of the dock; the girl was no longer real, and the country shrank into a wood-block print.

All afternoon the ship sailed along the coast. When the sun set that evening, Reno could see the trees on the steep little mountains turning into purple. The lights in the occasional houses along the coast seemed tiny lanterns. As it grew darker, small lights appeared on the fishing sampans that passed between his ship and the coast. Darkness painted out houses, trees, mountains, until finally only the lights of the sampans could be seen.

As Reno stood against the ship’s rail, he could barely see the sea gulls pivoting swiftly in the ship’s wake as they picked up garbage thrown from the fantail. Their harsh cries were unpleasant. He thought he could hear the softer wail of another bird high over the ship, but soon he heard nothing except the creaking of the ship in the rougher waters away from the coast.

WHEN Reno came home that summer the whole valley was ripening into greens and yellows. Wearing a white T shirt, levis, and a pair of loafers which were ripping out along the seams, he squinted his eyes into slits like a drowsy cat as he walked down the road into the late afternoon sun. His shoes scuffed up little puffs of dust from the road, and the dust powdered over his shoes.

On both sides of the road the fields of hay rippled smoothly. Reno broke off a stalk of hay and chewed on it carefully, tasting the slightly sweet juice and feeling the fibers crush between his teeth. As he moved on up the road, three sage hens whirred up in heavy-bodied flight from a culvert and sailed on set wings across the meadow toward the river. Reno could feel the sun burning on his back and arms; the sweat ran down his face to drip onto the T shirt. A car rattled up the road behind him, passed, and a woman in the front seat turned around to look at him. The two childien in the back pressed their noses up against the rear window and stared at him.

Down on his right in the valley, Reno could see the stream winding in gentle horseshoes through the hay meadows. In back of the fields shadows inched up the rounded, sage-dotted hills as the sun began to set. Reno stopped to take off his shoe and remove a piece of rock. His brown army socks had big holes in the heels from the rubbing of the loose loafers. He looked at the steep descent of road that cut through the sagebrush before spanning an irrigation ditch and dropping on a sharp pitch through the green waves of hay to wind among the huge cottonwood trees which shaded a whitewashed house.

As Reno walked through the gate and started down the road toward the house, he heard a dog begin to bark. Now he could see the red barn he had painted one summer, the corral with two horses standing head to tail in one corner, and the set of elk horns fastened to the crosspiece of its high gate. Under his feet the dry dirt of the road was hot as he crossed the bridge over the irrigation ditch. A cock pheasant in summer drabness scuttled off through the hay.

Reno could see his mother and father standing by the house and looking up toward the road to see why the dog was barking. As he came nearer the house, the black-and-white dog circled him excitedly but with caution. She would stop for a minute and watch him closely, then jump suddenly to one side and run a short distance away. All the while she kept barking.

Reno was home.

At first the letters from Toyako, incredibly thin in the narrow envelopes which opened at the end and were stamped with two delicately etched goldfish, came about once a week. Reno’s parents laughingly questioned him at first, but it came to be like the other subjects connected with his two years of service — after a few attempts to discuss frankly his experiences, he realized that his parents did not want to know anything unpleasant, or perhaps it was just that there was no common ground for discussion. He soon kept himself from talking to them about the drinking, the stupidity and brutality he had known, or about Toyako. And after a few weeks the letters stopped coming.

One afternoon Reno stood in front of the kitchen window of the ranch house as his mother began to wash the dishes. She seemed much older to him than he had remembered; fat was creased on her arms, and the features of her face looked as though they had melted slightly since he had been gone. The kitchen smelled unpleasant ly of burned grease, but by the window he could smell the ripening hay meadows.

“Jean called this morning while you and Dad were irrigating,”his mother said. She turned her head so she could watch his face.

“That’s good,” he said. Looking out the window, he could see the undulating surface of the oats on the sloping field behind the house. Far below, next to the river, was the large, chickenwire magpie trap. Two of the black-and-white birds were hopping around inside the trap; several others were sitting on top of the wire or in nearby trees. Reno could faintly hear their excited quarreling.

He turned from the window and watched his mother’s hands disappear into dirty dishwater. “She called because she hadn’t seen you since you got back,” she said.

“I wrote her about everything.” He felt a vague panic. What did they all want? “She knows it’s all over with us. I wrote her about it.”

Down by the river, more magpies were clustering around the trap. Two of them dropped through the slot on top to get at the rotten meat below. Others spiraled to the ground outside the trap. The croakings became more urgent and frenzied.

“I just wanted to tell you about it,” his mother said. “I guess it doesn’t matter to you, does it?”

“No, it doesn’t matter any more.”

“Maybe you’ll change your mind after you’ve had a chance to settle down. The Cullins boy had trouble adjusting after he got out.”

He watched intently as two of the birds in the trap fought over a piece of meat. “Maybe the Cullins boy and I are different. Some people even like the army. Some people live like that all their lives.” He heard her sigh and begin washing the dishes again.

“Anyway, Jean’s a nice girl,” she said. “You ought at least to stop by and see her.”

He walked away from the window. “But I don’t want to see her,” he said. “ I’m not I ike the Cullins boy and I don’t want to see her. I just want everyone to leave me alone.”

His mother was silent. The room was completely quiet; he wished everything could always be this quiet, but his mother began moving dishes into the sink.

“I think I’ll go in for the mail,” he said. “Do you want anything from town?”

“No,” she said. “Nothing at all.”

Reno drove the three miles into town that afternoon and parked the pickup on the dusty street near the post office. He walked up the dirty stone steps and entered the stale-smelling interior of the building where the rows of little boxes were aligned in sterile similarity. As Reno moved to his box at the building’s far end, his eye caught the recruiting poster, which displayed a clean-shaven young man in immaculate khaki holding a rifle at port-arms. Lettered on the poster in red, white, and blue were the words: “He’s Guarding You.”

It seemed to Reno that he could see in the young face the reality existing beneath the illusion of the painted paper: the cruelty of frightened authority in the mouth, the ingrown hardness behind the eyes which came from accepting injustice every day, not being able to protest until the bitterness came to be sustaining. When will you forget? he wondered.

THAT evening Reno went with his father down to the meadow below the house to tend the magpie trap. His father wore leather gloves and carried a large canvas sack. Tiny veins blotched across the bridge of his nose which curved in a short hook between pinched blue eyes. “Decided yet what you’re going to do?” his father asked.

“No,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about it, but I don’t know.”

In the chicken-wire enclosure, a mass of blackand-white magpies croaked harshly as they fluttered against the wire and sought for escape. His father entered the trap through a door and with gloved hands trapped each protesting bird in turn to push it into the sack.

“Some of the boys are going to school.” his father said. “The government pays them, I understand. You used to talk some about going to college.”

“I don’t want anything from the government. They’ve done plenty for me.”

When his father crawled out of the trap, they walked down to the willow-lined creek which twisted in a narrow slit through the meadow. His father dropped the lumpy sack into a deep, clear pool where the rocks lay smooth and rounded on the sand that glistened like salt beneath the water. A beak would thrust up through the sack, and Reno pushed the sack down with a stick until the thin streams of air bubbles ceased and the sack lay barely moving in the current.

“Lots of people been in the army,” his father said. “You’re lucky to be finished with it. Mother and I think you’re making too much out of it. Some boys were in Korea.”

“That’s right,” he said. It was the same thing they had told him in the army. Don’t complain, it could be worse. You’re lucky you’re not in Korea. It doesn’t help to fight it. Conform. Conform. Conform. “You’re right. Dad.”

Reno watched his father empty the shrunken birds into the brush. Then the two of them walked back up to the house through the ripeningoats which rippled like a girl’s hair.

After he had cleaned up, Reno left his mother and father sitting in their small living room and drove into town. He drove up the main street and back down before parking in front of the Union Bar. For several minutes he sat watching the people walk past on the sidewalk and listening to snatches of conversation. Many people were in town for Saturday night. They moved slowly along the sidewalks, looking for friends and staring in the shop windows. Some were tourists who were stopping only for the night. They stared at the drably clothed Indians from the nearby reservation and the men in from the ranches who wore big hats, boots, and levis with the leather labels still sewed on above the back pocket.

Reno finally went into the bar, where the cigarette smoke drifted about the laughing, quarreling faces, the brightly labeled bottles, and the glistening taps.

“Hello, Buddy,” the bartender said as he sat down. “Been a hot day, hasn’t it?”

“Yeah, it has, Chuck,” he said, “I’d like a shot, please, with a beer chaser.”

“Sure thing, Buddy,” Chuck said, sticking a wide-lipped glass under the tap and carefully drawing the beer.

He placed the glass on the bar, poured amber into a shot glass, and picked up the coins.

“Thank you, Buddy,” Chuck said. “Been working hard?”

“No,” he said.

“Me neither,” Chuck laughed. “I’m allergic to work.”

The beer tasted very cold after the warmth of the bourbon. At the far end of the room the juke box began playing hillbilly music with sad, twanging lyrics about lost loves, death, and hopeless sorrow.

All the night, all the day . . . since you’ve been away . . . who’s kissing you . . . just drinking and thinking . . . alone and I’m blue.

The colors shifted on the juke box and the bubbles endlessly drifted across its face. He ordered another drink. Vaguely he thought about what he was going to do tomorrow — or the next week. He had been out of the army for two months.

At the end of the bar a waitress coming off shift sat down and ordered a beer. Reno noticed that when she smiled she exposed a missing front tooth. She was a washed-out blonde with a puffy bruise smeared under one eye. A knife-faced man sat down by the waitress and they began to argue loudly above the soft moan of the juke box.

“So go ahead and sleep with him,” the man said. “You think I don’t know that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Yeah, I suppose you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” She twisted up one corner of her mouth as she talked. “Then you could run to that little Indian slut of yours.”

“She may be a slut,” he sneered, “but she’s more of a wife than you are. You get what I mean? She don’t sneak around behind my back and shack with half the town.”

The waitress twisted around on her stool. “You’re a hell of a one to talk to me about shacking. Oh, sure, I’m supposed to pretend that I don’t know about your Indian chippie.” She squinted up her bruised eye so that it was almost closed. “You chippie-chasing bastard.”

“Go to hell,” the man said. Then he turned and strutted out of the bar. The waitress sat tinkling the ice in her glass. She rested her chin on the fat palm of one hand; the bruised eye twitched as she stared across the bar. The juke box clacked a new record onto the turntable.

Reno watched a drunken Indian and his thin girl friend in the back room as they shuffled jerkily to the music. The girl tried to keep him from stumbling as they danced. When Reno twisted back to the bar, the waitress was sitting on the stool next to his, “You’ve got a kind face,” she said.

He could see the missing tooth and the bruise plainly now. Her skin had the texture of biscuit dough. “I’m very kind,” he said.

“Yes, you’ve got a kind face,” she said, as though he had not spoken. “My husband has an ugly face. Have you ever seen his face?” One of her eyes pulled into a tiny clam.

“He’s very handsome,” Reno said. “Like a movie star.”

“Don’t let him fool you,” she said. “He’s a chippie chaser.” Her voice slid upward. “He’s got an Indian chippie over in Pogue’s trailer camp. He thought I didn’t know about her, but I seen him pick her up one night.”

She pushed her face closer to his and narrowed her eyes against the smoke from her cigarette. “He ain’t got a job and he ain’t got my money any more,” she said, and winked at him knowingly. “Just that chippie’s all he’s got now. But she’ll leave him, too, when his money’s gone.” She slapped on top of the bar with one pudgy hand. “I’ll have fixed him then, and he’ll come crawling back.” She stepped off the stool and started to leave. “An Indian chippie,” she laughed. “But wait till he comes crawling back.”

That night as Reno went to bed he tried to close his mind completely as though it were a book he no longer cared to read. Lying there in the hot closeness of his small room he could hear the cottonwoods rustling in the slight breeze. Far away a dog was barking harshly against the quiet murmur of the creek below the house. He began to think about the waitress in the bar, the people he had known in the army, and Toyako. Each face would appear as a vague memory he couldn’t quite grasp, to be replaced by another and yet another until the whisky lulled his senses into sleep.

Then he dreamed of Toyako, as he had on the boat coming back and in the separation center, and she whispered, “Reno-san, Reno-san, why you go back to States?” Why. Why? And he called her name, but there was no one beside him— nothing except the darkness. His eyes flicked open suddenly and he was awake again in the same room but the room was shaking now. The walls seemed to be toppling toward him with a slowness, a sort of majestic awfulness that was beautiful. And he began to laugh, quietly at first and then louder and louder until he could no longer control it.

“Momotaro-san,” he laughed. “Wonderful Peach Boy.”

He was sweating and the sheets clung damply to his body. He was cold and he stopped laughing. Very carefully he raised himself up and stared toward the window, where the curtains shifted uneasily in the hot air. But there was nothing outside except the curtains rustling against the screen like the faintly beating wings of a tired bird.