The truth is, I haven’t been taking advantage of my Storyville app as much as I should be. Last night, wired from an ill-advised cup of coffee at my writing group, I read “Ms. Yamada’s Toaster” by Kelly Luce. What a great story to fall asleep after.
Luce’s tale has several facets: Superstition, mortality, mob mentality. It’s the ultimate curiosity-killed-the-cat story, except in this case, humans are the cat and the curiosity is morbid, about the way in which they will actually be killed. The story is set in China, narrated by a child who makes deliveries for his father’s liquor store and retrieves the empty bottles from the customers.
He makes childish observations about his father’s customers, and especially about the woman who owns the toaster that reveals the ways that people will die. You heard me right, the toaster. The inquiring person toasts a piece of bread and out pops a Chinese character describing the way that person will meet her maker. The narrator observes one woman sobbing, her toast reading “suicide.”
The story’s language is simple, matter-of-fact. The images are concrete and grounding: “I could see the hilltop behind us and the bamboo growing there. The stalks moved slightly in a breeze I couldn’t feel, revealing and concealing slivers of blue that formed words faster than I could read them, a marvel for anyone who cared to look.” This, the final sentence in the story, shows the lesson the narrator has learned in the whole chronicle-of-a-death-foretold debacle: There are wonders everywhere, words and truths we can see if only we care to look.
My favorite mini-anecdote in the story – there are accounts of how each person who uses the toaster reacts – is of the couple who cancels their trip to Hawaii when their bread reads “air.” Vague enough to mean either “plane crash” or “carbon monoxide poisoning,” it brings into question the value of the predictions. Without a definite answer such as “cancer,” like Ms. Yamada, owner of the toaster, receives, people are left to interpret their futures and plan accordingly.
The story is deceivingly simple. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. There is no question if the toaster’s prediction will come true. There is only the question of how much power these people have over their own fate, how much knowing about death can actually do for living.