In April 1942, in Berkeley, California, a Japanese-American woman reads public signs, takes notes, and goes home to pack. Nine days later, she is still packing. She dresses up to go shopping. She buys soap and face cream. At the hardware store, she buys twine and tape and converses with Joe Lundy, who compliments her new glasses and red dress. Joe doesn’t want to be paid and gives her two caramels for her children. She pays him and goes downtown, where she discovers that duffel bags are sold out.
At home, the woman takes down mirrors, moves plants outdoors, moves valuables to the basement, and packs books and dishes in boxes. She packs her son’s books and maps but heeds the “Do Not Disturb” sign on her daughter’s room. She gives the cat to the neighbors and kills and cleans the chicken, which she will cook for dinner. She eats rice balls and gives the family dog, White Dog, leftovers with an egg. She thinks about her husband, who, despite being in an internment camp in Texas since December, writes faithfully. She ties White Dog to a tree, kills him with a shovel, and buries him along with her dirty white gloves.
When the children return from school, their mother reminds them that they must leave tomorrow with only what they can carry. The daughter, who loves her macaw, practices walking with a book on her head. She doubts her own looks, but her mother tells her that she is beautiful. The son calls for White Dog while his mother slices apples, but his mother does not tell him what she’s done. The family eats the chicken for dinner, the daughter plays the piano, and the son packs his suitcase. As the mother washes dishes, she pictures her husband and imagines him in the room with her. She lets the macaw fly out the window. She drinks plum wine, laughs and cries uncontrollably, and then hides the remainder of the wine in the basement. Her son crawls into bed with her. She puts out a bucket to catch rainwater from the leaky roof. She has forgotten to give her children the caramels, but she will give them tomorrow before they board the bus. She does not know where they are going.
It is September 1942. While riding the train, the daughter locates Intermittent Lake in Nevada on her map. The train is old, slow, and worn. The mother, daughter, and son have spent the last four and a half months at the Tanforan racetrack in San Francisco, and now they are going to Utah. The train’s rocking motion sickens people, including the daughter. A soldier orders, “shades down,” as they pass through a city because earlier, someone outside the train threw a rock through a window. When the son wants to see horses outside, the daughter recalls the racetrack, the horse troughs, the straw, the smells, and the flies. The train soon runs out of water.
The daughter meets a rich man named Ted Ishimoto. She tells him that her blue scarf was a gift from her father from Paris. She also lies that her father does not write to her. She points out her mother, who Ted says is beautiful. The daughter walks down the aisle observing passengers and sits with her mother. The daughter throws a deck of cards out the window, except the six of clubs. She reflects on when she got the cards during a family trip to Yosemite, where they ate lobster in a fancy restaurant. She then throws out the six of clubs.
That evening, the daughter and the son draw pictures, including one of their father and his mustache under the stars. While the son sleeps, the daughter takes her father’s postcards from her suitcase and reads several. A soldier orders, “shades down,” at sunset. The daughter falls asleep but wakes to the sound of breaking glass, disoriented. Another brick has been thrown through a window. Her mother says, “hush baby,” which triggers memories of White Dog and home.
The daughter dreams of her father singing “In the Mood” in a gondola in Venice. When she lifts the shade, the daughter sees a herd of wild mustangs in the moonlight and shows the son. The train enters Utah while they sleep. When the daughter wakes up, the rippling sound of the Great Salt Lake fills her ears. In the morning, the train arrives at Delta, where the passengers disembark, board a bus, drive through a town, and arrive at Topaz. In Topaz, the daughter sees hundreds of tar-paper barracks, barbed-wire fences, and soldiers. Topaz is dusty, and the hot sun is blindingly bright. When the son coughs, the daughter gives him her blue scarf to cover his face.
In September 1942, the son describes his and his mother’s and sister’s meals, their small room, the radio, and the window near his bed from which he sees the guards in their towers. When no one can hear him, the son whispers the emperor’s name: “Hirohito.” The temperature rises to 110, and the son reflects how life feels full of waiting: for bells, for meals, and for the war to be over. He describes the deranged Mrs. Kato on the other side of the wall and other residents and their former lives. Sometimes, the son wakes at night not knowing where he is or why he is there. He dreams of water and his father. He gets letters from his father and recalls his polite, wise demeanor and his fastidious habits.
The mother worries about her skin, and her face cream is nearly gone. Everywhere is permeated with fine, white dust. The son watches the sunsets with the daughter. She has not wound her watch since they arrived, so it is always 6:00. Some young adults leave the camp to pick crops and return with stories of hate and mistreatment. The son remembers his neighbor, a girl named Elizabeth Roosevelt, who writes to him and sends him small gifts.
In October, the son goes to school. He dreams of doors behind which a picture of the emperor resides, but the son can’t reach him. He recalls the night the FBI took his father in his slippers. The next day, his mother destroyed everything Japanese in their house, and they began to say they were Chinese. Dust storms turn to frost and then snow. The son’s pet tortoise dies, and the daughter buries it. A picture of Jesus hangs above the mother’s cot. Men plant trees at the camp. The mother tells the son about a pearl earring she lost on the train. As the temperature drops, they are given three large coats.
December 7 marks one year since the father left. At Christmas, the son receives a pocketknife from a woman in Ohio. The daughter spends most of her time with her friends, and their mother seldom leaves her room, loses her appetite, and recounts childhood memories. In February, they take loyalty oaths to avoid deportation. In March, a tulip the son planted earlier blooms. In April, a man is killed by guards. In May, street signs appear. There’s been no mail from the father for weeks. With summer’s heat, time seems to stand still, and the son paces and draws to pass the time, imagining his father’s return.
It is autumn when the mother, daughter, and son return home, the mother unlocking the door with the key that has hung around her neck for three years and five months. The rosebush is missing, and the house is a mess and empty of furniture. But they welcome the smell of the sea and the working faucets. The mother goes into the backyard and stands among the trees and shade. The bedrooms are dirty and painted with bad words, so they sleep downstairs on blankets in the same configuration that they did in the camp.
The mother goes to the market for pears, eggs, and rice. They try to return to some old ways, drinking Cokes and eating chocolates. Always, they imagine the father’s return. The mother was issued $25, so she buys shoes, underwear, and a thick mattress. One night, a whiskey bottle shatters their window, so they move upstairs to sleep. Soldiers from the war return to the neighborhood, many of whom had been tortured by the Japanese. At school, the daughter and son are shunned by former friends, so they keep their heads down and try not to attract attention. The mother spends her days cleaning and repairing the house.
By November, the family’s money is running out, so the mother looks for a job, but most people will not hire her. Finally, she decides to clean houses for wealthy families and take in laundry on her days off. They slowly begin accumulating furnishings again. One morning in December, they receive a telegram stating that the father will arrive home on Sunday at 3 p.m.
When the father gets off the train, the daughter and son hardly recognize him. He appears worn, aged, and thin and has dentures and a cane. He never talks about what happened to him while he was away. The father is suspicious, impulsive, and easy to anger. He never returns to work and spends his days reading newspapers, doing small chores, and greeting and feeding the daughter and son when they return from school. The mother continues to work hard. The father begins spending more and more time alone and sleeps poorly. In the spring, as the trees blossom, the daughter and son look for the mother’s rosebush, convinced the bush is somewhere in their neighborhood, but they never find it.
The story ends with a passage told from the father’s point of view. He confesses to all the outlandish crimes that Japanese-Americans were accused of, including lying. He admits that he poisoned water and food, murdered children, and betrayed his country. He claims to be everyone Japanese: waiter, grocer, florist, farm hand. He claims to be every Japanese stereotype and racial slur ever known or used. Finally, he begs for punishment, saying he will sign off on every crime, and apologizes. He then asks one final question: Now can I go?