A Small Matter of Consequence


He looks so familiar, I think—a man in his 30s, probably an immigrant from China, angry and talking to himself as he strides down the sidewalk toward me, and away from the scene of another man, also in his 30s but with a dirty-blond beard, driving a bright yellow snowplow violently against a massive mountain of snow. (I say “China” because, after ten years in Japan, I’ve developed an ear for Asian languages. I say “violently” because the driver is jerking the machine powerfully back and forth to clear the evidence of two days worth of Nova Scotia storm.)

When the driver sees me, a white woman, 40, in a fashionable coat, walking toward him with a young boy in tow, he immediately stops and backs his vehicle out of our path. I am grateful for the chance to pass because we are late collecting my daughter from the daycare down the street. Then I see the bus stop and also the bus pulling away from it, and I understand that the courtesy offered to us was most likely given by a man who, a few minutes earlier, had denied it to someone else.

With my son’s hand in mine, I stop and turn to see, in the distance, the man who looks so much like a neighbor and old friend in Japan, his name on the tip of my tongue—still walking stiffly, angrily toward the next accessible bus stop down the road. The other man, the plow driver, now again assaulting snow, continues to clear a path and build a barrier simultaneously. Boy says (has been saying over and over again the whole while), “Mama, Mama! Look—that snowplow is so big and strong!”

I think, I’m late, I’ll say something when we come back this way. Just something so that he will know that I know. The words will come to me as I walk. But then I don’t think of it again (we went home a different way, after all) until much later, when I am tucking Boy into bed, asking about the quality of his day and thinking back on mine, wondering how I could have forgotten that terrible detail, that small errand of conscience.

As I am about to leave his room, Boy asks, “In spring, when the snow is all gone, can I ride my bike?” And this reminds me of a moment in Kumamoto—standing on a street corner, waiting for the light to change, when a man hit me from behind with his bicycle, the force knocking me into oncoming traffic and him yelling, “Bakana gaijin!” Then the woman with long black hair leaping after me and screaming, “Abunai! Abunai!” She pulled me back, that reflex of human kindness, to the safety of the sidewalk as the man continued to call me names, but (notably) angled away from us, down a different path, shamed by the woman’s pure action.

But—that moment next to the bus stop—how could I have known for sure, for certain? And am I a better or worse mother for not having said or done anything?

Is writing this, now, enough?

And what of the boy who was standing next to me in the snow, awed by the raw power of the machine—and, by extension, the man inside it? “Mama, Mama—look! It’s so strong!” My son. What kind of man will he become?

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