His Flashing Blades Each Thursday

The house I grew up in was the most ordinary of Los Angeles houses, built sometime in the vague middle of the twentieth century: white clapboard siding, front and back yards, the driveway leading to a matching garage in back. It was a quiet neighborhood then, and it’s quiet now, on the rare occasions I pass through. It was so quiet then that it felt empty. Maybe it still does, to the children who live in it, if any do. The endless procession of square green lawns and dusty-looking white housefronts, each thrusting forward a shy little concrete porch covered by a pedimented roof …. There was a two-story house on our block, and I considered it somewhat magical, especially as it was painted not white but a sort of a pudding-yellow color which, while not pleasing, was at least daring. A friend of mine lived there, so I went inside now and then, and marveled at the stairway and the glorious mystery of an attic. Also, the porch was on the side. That house was like another country. Ours was the standard model.

The front yards were permitted certain whimsies: a banana tree or a cluster of birds-of-paradise hunkered around the porch, leaving the patchy lawn itself, unadorned and proud, to signify our middle-of-the-middle-class status. In our own front yard, which, like all the others on the block, was raised about a foot and a half above the public sidewalk, there were two small cypresses flanking the shallow concrete step down to the sidewalk. These guardians of our dignity were maybe five feet tall, and were kept tightly trimmed by our Japanese gardener, Tanaka.

Most of the gardeners were Japanese in those days, just after the Eisenhower years. They showed up once a week in faded pickup trucks laden with noisy lawn mowers, rakes and shovels, and memories of Manzanar — something I myself didn’t hear about till decades later. Tanaka came from I don’t know where, but he became an adjunct of the family, though in no way a servant. As a contractor, he could argue with my mother and father, and often did, though never loudly. Tanaka was never loud. And in the end he would do what he wanted with the yard. Every Thursday, his blades flashed brightly around the sentinel cypresses, the round boxwoods with their tiny leaves, and the knee-high hedge of what, years later, I realized were tiny ficus trees that his relentless steel kept humble. Of course he mowed the lawn as well, but pruning was his passion.

He might have been half in love with my mother. She was beautiful though temperamental, and as long as she was married to my father, no other suitor had a chance. Still, men orbited around her in a quaint gravity of desperation, and she very much enjoyed the attention. She always made sure it entailed no obligation whatsoever on her part. I think Tanaka had a taste for her structured irritability; when they squabbled over the garden he was always smiling, secure in the knowledge that once the shrubs were trimmed to the Marine-haircut standards he preferred, only time would bring them back. The two may actually have been friends. Friendship was rare for my mother, whose hobby was condescension. Tanaka’s stubborn independence kept them on an equal footing, especially as sometimes he would refuse to be paid, making his services a gift from a peer.

Tanaka’s dream was to be a commercial strawberry farmer. He told me this one dusty summer afternoon in the back yard, while he rested from decimating a woebegone lemon tree. He had failed at this twice, for reasons he never specified, and always returned to gardening. Instead of raising strawberries, he got married; he had been a bachelor till nearly fifty. He announced one day that he was going to Japan for six weeks, and that he would bring back a wife. His nephew mowed the lawn, with reluctant efficiency, while Tanaka was gone.

The expedition completed successfully, Tanaka brought the wife around. She was a plump, sharp-eyed widow only a little younger than Tanaka himself, with a stiff American-style hairdo. Tanaka smiled mildly as he introduced her to us. She grinned and nodded but did not speak. She did not know English yet. The glint in her eyes reminded me of Tanaka’s steel. Once in America, Tanaka told me later, she discarded the pose of the submissive wife. He rarely spoke of her, but he rarely spoke of anything personal.

Once, when I mentioned that I was reading a novel of Mishima’s, Tanaka spoke at length about that harsh-souled and complex writer, all of whose works he had read. I had had no idea. Behind his silence and his restricted English was an entire universe I couldn’t see. I was twenty then, and soon left the house.

Years later, Tanaka would come to my own house, at random once or twice a year, and attack the unruly flora which I pretended to manage on my own. My mother, displeased with my tolerance of vegetable self-governance, had given him my address. My wife found him frustrating but was also charmed. He could have chosen to retire then, but he was still strong, and he kept working. I suspect he wanted to avoid staying home with the wife, whom he once described, with a certain amazement, as stubborn and demanding. He shook his head and smiled his little smile, then turned his attention to the tangle of bougainvillea by the porch. It was a Thursday, still his day to visit my mother’s house two miles away. The vine’s angry thorns were no match for his blades, and the branches, heavy with dark glossy leaves and fuschia petals, piled up in heaps round his feet. Tanaka worked diligently, sweating lightly in the summer heat. Here, at least, the corners could be squared and all put into perfect order, till the earth’s blind urges forced forth leaves and blossoms one more time.