Ash Monday -- Reviewed by Mimi
There was the thirteen-year-old Dill in the yard, and Dill pausing before lighting the grill, and his mother yelling from the kitchen, "Dill, I need you to light this fire, right this minute." They lived in a canyon, the yard was untidy, and it was a hot summer day. And Dill was caught for a moment from the odor, the smell of gasoline, and the absence.
Because gasoline brought up Grady and the absence. Nothing in Dill's whole life could ever replace Grady, and the things Grady taught him about Chinchillas and how Dill must learn to accept death, when the Chinchillas were killed for business. Or about the fire and what happened to the Chinchillas. Grady smelled like gasoline, even his baseball cap, the silver shade, his Chevy Super Sport car mounted on cement blocks, (which Dill's mother had hauled off to the junk yard), and the way Grady finally slammed out the door after another brawl with Dill's mother when Dill was eleven---and Grady had been there Dill's whole life—and even now at thirteen, the smell of gasoline did it, as if it was Grady again, hidden in some pocket of his memory, like the odor ot Grady's hat.
But he was the man of the house now, his mother, her hands full as a teacher, and he's neither a Protestant nor Catholic, but he can be anything, his mother says, when he asks who they are. And they had burned his grandmother, her ashes were right there every day, in a box, so burning was no big deal. And he had to hurry to please his mother, and everything, so wasn't that why he did it? Why he lit the match? So what if there was a rat in the grill when he lit it? That was fun. So what if the rat looked at him scared? And when he struck the match, and the thing exploded, it was as exciting as every secret thing he ever tried.
Way at the top of the Canyon, Sanjuro Ichiguro, (Dill called him Itchy-goro) amidst his great patches of bamboo, seeing the smoke below, hollered to his wife, Setsuko, "The kid has done it again... The kid next door. The delinquent. The little shit. Now he's using gasoline to cook his hot dogs or hamburgers or whatever it is, can you imagine?" Sanjuro, a kindly Japanese man and his wife left their country for better opportunities; they live high in the canyon to get away from the horrors going on in the city, the kind of people who live in apartments, the gaigin. And now at the kid's home, Sanjuro can't help the situation either. There's Dill, telling his side of the story; As if a rat running in the flames, the weeds afire, was some kind of a crime, and how was he supposed to know there was a rat in a grill? Sanjuro in his bathrobe shaking, telling them they will burn down the canyon. Dill's mother taking sides with Sanjuro. As she always did, as if her son didn't do all the cooking, and everything, Dill thinks, as he stalks away to Grady's old shed.
Afterward, Sanju, in his nerd position in the group, (people just don't see the humor in his talk) in the Friday night after work get together at a sushi bar, talks about the incident when the kid, the one that called him a gook, well, with a rat in the grill nearly set the whole canyon on fire. They laugh, and remind him the kid called him a "gook motherfucker," but this is real, no joke to Sanju, who wanted to be embraced, be part of this new country. Even so, he keeps a straight face.
Tonight everything depends on setting the table just right, a vase, and yes, of course, the chicken, the fish, nothing Dill cared for, but his mother is entertaining, and she knows this guest will bring flowers, because he's a good man, a vegetarian, and Dill better cook the fish just right, she says, in her new dress. Outside, the ashes in the grill stir in the breeze, but why not; a grill is for ashes, not rats, and it reminds him of how his mother had explained why Catholics wore ashes on their forehead on that one day. But he thinks, for him, every day is made of ashes.
Up in the canyon, Setsuko, along with incense, and rice balls, and all the other foods of her country she left, she must have the red flowers, the bougainvillea (a substitute for the native Higanbana) a tradition for this Japanese holiday. It's Monday, she's alone , and even though the wind blows as if it's mad at the earth, the flowers she wants are right there by the fence, and Setsuko with the belief of her ancesters, moves against the wind, and sets her table with with an incense burner and the Buddha with its burning eyes.
After it happened, and she knew all the things she should have done, like calling 911, something joyful happened and she laughed when she looked at the flames, as they swept down below, in a moment of joy as if some playful god had doled out justice.