Short Story by Matthew Walsh
I stood at the kitchen sink running my wrists under the cold water, watching from my window the old man next door - his shoji doors pushed open, his futons airing on the fence post, his gnarled farmer hands curled around a small cup of tea. Mugi-cha, I thoughtthe cold barley tea that tastes like Cheerios. I bet he's drinking mugi-cha.
Cicadas buzzed in through every window, in stereo, electric, and made the humidity seem alive.
When the phone rang it was the first time I'd ever heard it ring. I'd been in Sasakami for a week, days I spent finding the post office, bank, and bakery, photographing the pink lotuses of Swan Lake, and sweating in the steaming heat that seemed to rise out of the rice fields, as if the standing water would boil over and there would be rice for thousands. When the phone rang, I thought it might be my neighbor's phone, my neighbor who was drinking his cold, cold cup of mugi-cha. But it was mine.
"Hello," I said. "Moshi mosh." No one answered, but the sound of cicadas pulsed through the line.
"Moshi, mosh.Hello?" I waited.
"Is this Mr. Adam?" I didn't recognize the voice as Kocho-sensei's, the principal of the junior high, or my supervisor, who imitated John Travolta when he spoke English. I was all out of familiar voices.
"Yes, this is Adam."
"This is Tanaka. Shall we drink together?"
"Sumimasen," I said. "Excuse me? Mr. Tanaka-san, are you a teacher?"
"No," he said. "I am no teacher. Shall we have a drinking party together?"
"Sure," I said. This seemed friendly enough. "Yes. Maybe Friday, or Sat - "
"Oh, thank you Mr. Adam. We wait for you now."
I walked across the tatami mat floor of my bedroom and out onto the tiny astroturfed balcony overlooking the White Bird Apartments parking lot. A young man in a suit leaned against a Mercedes, a cell phone pushed to his ear. In the back seat an older man sat in a cloud of smoke, and a driver sat in the front. The man with the phone gave me the thumbs up. I didn't know what else to do, so I got dressed and went out to meet Mr. Tanaka and his friend.
"Hello," I said, approaching the Mercedes. I bowed and extended my hand to the young man with the phone. "My name is Adam. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu."
"I am Tanaka," the young man said. "And this is Mr. Hayashi." The old man in the back seat nodded and I nodded in return. "We welcome you to a drinking party! Please join us."
Within ten minutes we had passed through Sasakami, and past the edge of my geography. Tanaka-san spoke English very well, and translated for Mr. Hayashi and for myself. So, I was an American. I had been a market analyst in Tokyo, but now I was a teacher. I was not married. I spoke some Japanese, but not much. Hayashi-san asked questions slowly and deliberately. The smoke from his Seven Star cigarettes swirled in the back of the Mercedes. He wore dark sunglasses, and a suit with a yellow vest. Mr. Hayashi, slowly sucking on a Seven Star, looked important.
"Excuse me," I said to Mr. Tanaka. "How did you know I was here? I mean, if you aren't from any of the schools."
"Yes, Mr. Adam," Tanaka-san said. "Mr. Hayashi is fond of foreigners, and he is fond of sake. As soon as Mr. Hayashi heard you had come to Sasakami he wanted to have a welcome party."
Hayashi-san leaned forward and pointed out to the driver a small dirt road that cut between the rice fields and the mountains. "Short cut," he said to me, in English.
"Is Hayashi-san your boss?" I asked. Mr. Tanaka smiled, and bowed his head to Hayashi-san.
"No. But Mr. Hayashi is a nice man. He makes computers. Fastest computers. He is a nice man."
At the Chouseikan onsen we traded our shoes for slippers. Tanaka-san and Hayashi-san were already trading their shorter bows for the more extended bows of the kimonoed hostess while I still fumbled with my laces. Tanaka-san said we would be headed straight into the bath, and moments later we sat naked together in the steaming water. Like my companions, I folded my small white face cloth and placed it on top of my head.
Mr. Hayashi spoke through Tanaka-san.
"Kono oyu wa, Gozu-san kara kiterun desu yo. Yama kara, sugoku atsui."
"This water comes from Mt. Gozu. It's hot, from below the mountain."
Mr. Hayashi pointed up the mountain. "Gozu-san niwa itsutsu atama ga arun desu yo. Ichi, ni, san, shi, go."
"Mt. Gozu has five heads. You can see them. There is a Shinto shrine on each peak, so this water has much kami, much spirit."
Hayashi-san motioned to his towel.
"The towel must never touch the water," Tanaka-san told me. "This water has kami. Only for the body, not for the towel."
We were quiet. Tanaka-san wiped the sweat from his face and put his towel over his head again. A single cicada kept its rhythm into the night, and I looked beyond the circle of rocks and the lights of the hotel to the edge of the sky and the mountain, tracing the crown of Gozu-san. Ichi, ni, san, shi, go.
The hostesses popped open the tall bottles of Kirin Lager and everyone's glasses were filled for the kampai, the opening toast. Tanaka-san, by his gestures and what words I could catch, paid homage to Hayashi-san, and his brief speech got respectful nods from the two men who had joined us for our enkai, employees of Mr. Hayashi's. I, too, found myself bowing at all the right moments.
"Mr. Adam," said Tanaka-san. "You are welcome to Japan. You are welcome to Sasakami-mura. Please, let's drink! Kampai, minasan. Cheers!"
Hayashi-san took a small sip of lager and pushed his glass to the side. Before he could pick up his sake cup he was flanked by his two employees, each offering a hot bottle of sake.
"In hot weather," Tanaka-san told me, "most people prefer cold sake. But Mr. Hayashi drinks nihon-shu hot, very hot. Even in summer. Here," he invited, "this is Chouseikan's specialty. Please try unagi, eel from the sea."
The table before us was laid with black lacquered plates of yellow and red and white sashimi - fluke, mackerel, marbled tuna - salmon, squid and octopus. Giant Hokkaido crab legs encircled a bowl of mountain vegetable tempura, poised to pinch a battered yam. The great gray head of a tuna stared dumbly at the river shrimp and pickled plums. On top of blocks of tofu, dried bonito shavings shriveled from the heat of grilled sea bass, and the hostess knelt down with the soup. There were only five of us.
When Hayashi-san reclined from the seiza position, I too sat down on my pillow and crossed my legs before me, sitting seiza only when pouring beer or sake for the others, which was anytime the small glasses neared the halfway point. Mr. Hayashi talked business on the other side of the table while Mr. Tanaka and I tasted the eel, savoring the sweet, smoked, musty bites.
"Mr. Hayashi likes foreigners," Mr. Tanaka said. "Here, please drink some more."
"Are there many foreigners in Sasakami?" I asked. I filled Mr. Tanaka's glass with Kirin.
"No," Tanaka said, dabbing a piece of mackerel into soy and wasabi. "There is just you. But there are other foreigners in Niigata City, and many Russians. Maybe you will meet them soon. Here, please drink."
When the hostess brought more hot bottles of sake to the table, I brought one to Hayashi-san. He smiled, rice in his teeth, and sipped first to empty his cup. He nodded to the two men, who returned to their seats and started in on the great head of the tuna.
"Domo, domo. Thank you," Hayashi-san said. He drank his cup, and I refilled it again. Already his face grew red.
"Seven Stars," he said. "Very good Japanese cigarette. Nihon-shu," he said, "very good, Japanese sake. Dozo, dozo. Nonde kudasai. Please drink up."
Never getting the chance to empty my glass of beer, I'm not sure how much I drank that night. What I do know is that Mr. Hayashi became very drunk, and he laughed, and he pulled at the blonde hair on my arms. And that Mr. Hayashi became very sad. He spilled his sake, and he told me about World War II, and Siberia, where he was a prisoner of war. How he lost a part of his life that he could never regain, as much as he tried.
Hayashi-san tapped my wrist and said, "Time." He held up his cup and Mr. Tanaka filled it again.
"But now," Tanaka-san said, "Mr. Hayashi is very successful, a very good businessman. He makes the fastest computers."
"I have no time," Hayashi said.
A week later I began my work for the Sasakami Board of Education, teaching English at the village's junior high, elementary school, and kindergartens. I spent my spare hours studying Japanese, making hundreds of flashcards and placing stick-its all over my apartment. Reizoko - fridge. Denwa - telephone. Toire - toilet.
For every group there was a welcome enkai. For the Board of Education, for the junior high, for the PTA. I learned to polish my self-introduction, and to never let a glass go empty. At the sports festival for Sasakami Junior High, I met a music teacher whose two children I taught. The next week we began trading English lessons for piano lessons and I struggled with Dave Brubeck, trying to make Take Five fit into time.
In the afternoons I drove my little white car through the small roads between the rice fields, the cicadas buzzing all around, trying to find the best route between schools. And once, I drove up Gozu-san, as far as I could up the mountain, where I found at the end of a rocky trail a cold, cold waterfall split by a maple sapling, and dragonflies - red dragonflies dancing over the river.
Weeks went by and the rice grew golden and heavy. The cicadas grew quiet and I never heard from Mr. Tanaka or Mr. Hayashi.
One night, drumming stirred me from my apartment. In the village center crowds packed the sidewalks, and in the streets men jousted with giant shrines on their shoulders. The fire department versus the mailmen, the tax office versus the farmer's association, twenty men a team ramming platforms of wood and paper and lanterns into one another, as spectators doused them with beer and threw firecrackers at their feet.
I joined a crowd from the village office for miso ramen at a nearby shop, and then we were off to a Snack, a whiskey bar full of lonely men singing enka, Japan's country music, while hostesses in skirts mixed expensive whiskey and waters. One of the men at the bar was Mr. Hayashi.
"Hayashi-san," I said, "Ohisashiburi desu! Long time, no see."
"Mr. Adam, dozo," he said, "oban narimashita," and he moved his suit jacket from the chair beside him. "Dozo, dozo. Sit down, please."
The barkeep took Hayashi-san's bottle from the wall, an expensive bottle of Suntory whiskey marked with the character hayashi, and poured me a whiskey and water.
"Hayashi-san, are you well?"
"Hai, hai, genki desu yo." He closed the book of enka songs and offered me a Seven Stars cigarette.
"Adam-san," he said. "How is Japan?"
Japan was good, I told him. Yes, I said, I was a bit homesick, but people in Sasakami were very friendly. I enjoyed teaching, and the teachers were very helpful.
Mr. Hayashi told me his daughter was a student at Sasakami Junior High. She did very well in school, but not in English. His son, he told me, was a doctor in Niigata City. He spoke English very well.
He asked me if money was okay, and yes, I told him. My salary was enough. Japan was expensive, but I was fine.
Hayashi-san asked the barkeep for two fresh whiskey and waters.
"Teaching is very important," he said. "But there is no money." He pushed the two glasses in separate directions, one to me, one to himself, and then paused.
"Tomorrow," he said, "you are busy?"
"No," I told him. Unlike the other teachers, I didn't work on Saturdays.
"Good, very good." Mr. Hayashi opened his wallet and counted ten ichi-man yen bills, about seven hundred dollars then.
"Tomorrow, you will help me."
I looked at the barkeep and then at Hayashi-san's money on the bar. The crowd from the village office waved goodnight and backed their way out of the bar bowing. I looked back at the bills on the bar. What the hell, I said, and took Hayashi-san's money.
That night Mr. Hayashi called a daiko taxi. Unlike a regular taxi, a daiko came with two drivers. One driver drove Hayashi-san's Mercedes, and the second driver followed in the taxi. At Hayashi-san's house the two drivers would leave the Mercedes and depart in the taxi, off to the next fare. As we cut through the village streets towards Swan Lake and my apartment, I wondered why there were no daiko taxis in America. Insurance, I thought. Lawsuits.
"Tomorrow," Hayashi-san said, "eight o'clock. I'll be here. Sore ja, mata." I stood in the parking lot of White Bird Apartments and watched Mr. Hayashi's Mercedes lead the taxi around Swan Lake and the sagging lotus stems, between the rice fields, and off towards Gozu Mountain.
At seven forty five, when I peeked out over my balcony, Mr. Hayashi was already smoking a Seven Stars cigarette and pacing in the parking lot. I showered quickly, took three aspirin, ignored the flashing light on my answering machine, and wondered what I was getting myself into.
Mr. Hayashi drove us off through the harvested rice fields. Golden stalks and stems still stood in the fields, tied together by other stalks and stems into small tepees, to dry, and to burn for heat when the winds from Siberia swept across the Sea of Japan and down on Sasakami Village. He drove us through the small village of Deyu, where old women carried bundles of giant white daikon roots and baskets of hard persimmons. We crossed the river that divided the rice fields from the mountains, and soon came to Ichido, the countryside headquarters of Mr. Hayashi's computer company, neatly tucked into the bamboo hillside.
"Jaa," Hayashi-san said. "We begin." On the hood of his Mercedes he laid out a map of Niigata Prefecture. "You," he said, "drive this car. Follow here." On the map, he drew a blue line from Ichido to route 460, leading back to Sasakami and eventually to Niigata City, and the Sea of Japan. "Here," he said, "turn right. Route four nine. North. Go to Shiibata. Here...turn left, Toyamagawa no tonari, along the Toyama River. Go straight. Ten point seven kilometers. Stop." He said I should wait for him at the gas station he'd marked on the map, to drive the speed limit only, not too fast, not too slow. He gave me a stopwatch, and from the back of the wood and concrete offices he returned with another black Mercedes. He started my stopwatch, pressed a button on his own watch, and reminded me, "Not too fast, not to slow." And off we went.
I followed Hayashi-san's blue marker route without incident. Route 460 grew denser as I neared the city, blurring past the neon of Pachinko parlors, supermarkets and video shops. The 49 led back to the countryside, the Toyama River, and to Mr. Hayashi at the gas station, leaning against the Mercedes and smoking a Seven Stars cigarette.
From the gas station we split up again, and I followed Hayashi-san's blue routes to a bank in Niitsu, a golf club outside Shiibata, and to a whiskey bar near Niigata City. At each destination Mr. Hayashi had arrived first, except for the last. From the city we took two routes back to Sasakami, and the road was clear ahead of me for the forty minutes it took to return. I followed the blue marker across the river and to a small village south of Sasakami named Takaseki. We were to meet at a small shrine at the base of Mt. Gozu, but I saw no sign of Mr. Hayashi. I passed through the red torii gate and climbed the steep steps to the shrine, a faded, rain-washed, simple wooden shrine. I was surrounded by tall cedars, and a mountain of red maples and bamboo stretched up ahead of me. No Hayashi-san. There was no priest at the shrine, just an old rope hanging from a bell, and autumn light filtering through the cedars. The stopwatch in my pocket beeped to mark the hour that had passed, and at last the black Mercedes appeared on the road below.
Mr. Hayashi slowly climbed the stone stairs, his Seven Stars and sixty years catching up with him, and sat down beside me on the stairs of the shrine. There had been construction along the Toyama River outside Niigata, and he had been delayed for 17 minutes. Still, he said, examining my stopwatch, the main road had been faster, at least on a Saturday.
I asked Hayashi-san why we were driving everywhere in two cars. It was clear he was trying to see which routes were fastest, but why? And why did he need me? Mr. Hayashi lit up a Seven Stars and took two five-yen coins from his pocket. He rose and turned to face the closed shrine doors.
"Here," he said. "Tie the coin like this." The old rope hanging from the bell had been tethered and the end tied in a large knot. Hundreds of five yen coins, which had holes in the center, had been tied to the strands and looped back into the knot. "Go," he said, "in Japanese means five. It also means luck." We tied our coins to the rope, and Hayashi-san rang the bell three times. He clapped his hands together, and bowed his head. Then he sat back down on the stairs and drew from his Seven Stars cigarette.
"Shinto," he started, "is Japanese religion, but not religion. These shrines are built where there is already strong spirit." He paused for a moment as I fumbled with my dictionary, finding the words I didn't know. There: animism. "Yes," he said, pointing to the Japanese. "The shrine doesn't bring the spirit, no. The shrine brings the people, to where the spirit is already strong."
I waited for Mr. Hayashi to continue, but he was silent. Why, I wondered, was he giving me a thousand dollars to drive around all day? After another Seven Stars he told me.
"Time," he said. "I lost too much time." After the war, he said, he spent three years northwest of Vladivostock working with hundreds of others at an oil refinery. The war was over, but they could not return. Though he spoke slowly and carefully, I missed much of what he said. He spoke about trading his charcoal sketches of Mount Fuji for bread, and of trying to dig graves in the ice. A thousand days he spent in Russia after the war, and when he came home he never stopped trying to make up the time. He studied engines, hydraulics, and eventually computers. He worked the hardest, the longest, and found ways to make the smallest improvements. Soon he had his own company, his own contracts, but even less time.
Today, he was testing the routes he drove the most, to see which were the quickest. He couldn't do this alone, he said, because the conditions would always be different. He needed to follow two paths at the same time, and that was the only way he could know he'd made the right choice. And that day he had chosen the fastest route, each time, except for this last drive to the shrine.
"There is no priest here," Hayashi-san said, "but this place is very important to me. I thought of this place when I couldn't be here, when I was very far away. It is so peaceful. So quiet. There is so much kami."
A faint wind pushed through the cedars and rubbed the rope gently against the bell.
"Come," Hayashi-san said. "It is time to go."
As the weeks went by, I found myself falling deeper and deeper into the world that was Sasakami Village, engaging in Japanese life in a way that had been impossible for me during my months in Tokyo. Tokyo, for me, had meant ex-pats and business associates, all following the booming economy, lured from their homes by dreams of neon and yen in a futuristic gold rush. And that is what I had come for toothe expense account, the high-rise apartment, thoughts of making a killing and coming back home set for life. At the height of the market, they say, the real estate value of Tokyo alone surpassed that of all America, plus the value of the New York Stock Exchange. Back in the States, it was "them Japs" again, buying up Rockefeller, buying up America. And I had a chance to get in on it all.
So I rode the market by day and hit the gaijin spots by night. Then I finally accepted an ongoing invitation to Niigata, to visit the hot springs with Yoshi, another market analyst, and Mr. Hideki, our branch supervisor. There, in a small onsen town in Niigata, that weekend, I realized what I was missing. When I returned to Tokyo, the subway was too crowded. I craved the buzzing of the cicadas and the old wooden houses, the rice fields and the mountains. I began to daydream through meetings and skip the after work parties in Roppongi, the gaijin capital of Tokyo. Three months later, with many bows of apology, I handed in my letter of resignation and signed a contract to teach English in Niigata.
"You're gonna do what?" the business buddies said. "Teach what? And leave this fucking market? You're crazy, man. Absolutely nutters."
And I hadn't been back to Tokyo since.
I traded the Nikkei Exchange for giant ABC flashcards and field trips to persimmon orchards with kindergartners. The groundskeeper at the elementary school taught me wordlessly how to paint the strokes of the kanji characters: press, drag, and sweep. The principal at the junior high, Kocho-sensei, taught me judo after school, barefoot in the cold dojo that judo shared with kendo. Gripping each other's collars, we practiced ashii baraii - foot sweep, hiza guruma - the knee wheel, and ippon zeoi - the quintessential judo hip throw.
One day after practice I sat on the tatami floor, watching the lines of kendo students drill, step, step, thwack! with their bamboo swords, anonymous under their black hoods and masks. Kocho-sensei joined me on the floor, pointing to the nearest pair.
"That is our young kendo master," he said. "Very fast."
"What's his name," I asked.
"Junko," he said. "She is Junko Hayashi."
Junko stepped, stepped, parried a blow, and tapped her sword on her partner's head. When the drills were finished, and Junko removed her mask, I recognized her from one of the second-year English classes. She had never spoken in class, but she took notes furiously. So, this is Hayashi-san's daughter. Young kendo master.
Soon winter came to Sasakami Village, and with it came thousands of swans from Siberia to fill up the lake by my apartment. Snow covered Mount Gozu and snow filled up the rice fields. Warm water from underground was pumped into the streets, washing away the snow but never freezing, and I had my first visitor from Tokyo, Gerald. Gerald had the best numbers of all of our team at the firm and an uncanny sense for trends in the market, like he was reading from a script. And he had the expense account to match. In a night he would drop thousands of dollars, hundreds of thousands of yen, taking clients to the posh Snack bars and exclusive clubs of Ginza, and he always brought out at least one gaijin from the team. Usually it was me, and I had worshipped him then - for his success, for his confidence - but I couldn't see him in Sasakami. I didn't want to see him in Sasakamibut one day he'd caught me on the phone, and here he was.
Gerald arrived at Niigata Station with a suitcase in one hand and a six-pack of Budweiser in the other.
"When's the last time you had one of these babies?" he asked.
"Not since Tokyo," I said.
"I didn't think you'd find one out here in the boonies. Niigata! For fuck's sake Adam, of all places."
That night we watched a tape of an NFL game Gerald had brought with him, and then I took him to Daikichi, my favorite yakitori bar for anything on a stick and for the freshest draft beer. As we drank into the night Gerald caught me up to date on the business world back in Tokyo.
"It's been unreal," he said. "Too fucking good. Damn, Adam, you lost six good months out here. But the shit's about to hit the fan, big time, and you can quote me on that. I'll be setting up shop somewhere else soon enough. I'm cashing in while the cashing's good."
On the tiny television set behind the bar Reagan and Gorbachev sat in leather chairs, posing for photographs, shaking hands forever.
"And it won't be Moscow," Gerald said. "Singapore," he said. "Maybe Hong Kong. Come on," he said. "Show me what excuse for a night life you have in this town of yours."
We moved on to a Snack bar until Gerald had too many drinks and grew too loud, openly mimicking an old man at the bar who sang away his off-key soul. I recognized one of the other men at the bar as a PTA dad. He laughed at first when Gerald whined along with the old man, but now he rubbed his neck and looked at the floor. When Gerald kept up with it, I bowed gently to the PTA dad and decided to take Gerald to the giant karaoke complex on the other side of Swan Lake. The snow filled the sky and the streets of Sasakami, Snow Country, inches in minutes, and the warm water rushed out from spigots in the middle of the street, washing down the small canals and out to the sea. Soon we came to O.K. Karaoke, its bright blue and pink neon pulsing up into the sky, and in the lobby was Mr. Tanaka, carrying back a tray of chu-hai and Asahi.
"Adam," he said, "This is your brother?"
"No, Tanaka-san, this is my friend Gerald. From America, but he lives in Tokyo."
Tanaka-san bowed to Gerald, and struggled to hold his tray and shake Gerald's hand.
"Come join us," Tanaka-san said. "Mr. Hayashi is here. Come on!"
I had hoped to keep Gerald out of the public eye, to let him sing a few American tunes in a karaoke room and then make our way back around the lake to my apartment, so I paused, usually enough to back out of an invitation without anyone losing face. But Mr. Tanaka insisted. He asked for more chu-hai, more Asahi, and led us to Hayashi-san's karaoke room.
Around the table of the "karaoke deluxe room" sat Mr. Hayashi, two Ichido employees, and a young woman, the first foreigner other than Gerald that I'd ever seen in Sasakami.
"Hayashi-san," I said, "this is Gerald, my friend."
"Domo," said Mr. Hayashi, banging his glass on the table. "This is Natasha, very, very beautiful Russian woman."
Natasha put her microphone down and shook our hands firmly. Gerald sat next to her and snapped open a can of Asahi.
"Sing, sing," Tanaka-san said. "Here, okay, I will sing a song!"
As Tanaka-san crooned out a Carpenter's song, Gerald learned Natasha worked in a museum in Niigata City, and also as a hostess at a Snack bar near the harbor. She had been here for two years, and sent money back to Moscow every month. Mr. Hayashi often invited her to karaoke.
"What's with this guy," Gerald said, jerking his thumb at Mr. Hayashi. "What's his deal?"
"He likes to go out," I said. "He likes foreigners. And he owns Ichido Computers."
"Ichido," Gerald said. "Man, they're history."
"You know Ichido?" Mr. Hayashi asked. He leaned across the table and offered us Seven Star cigarettes.
"Oh yeah," Gerald said, "I know Ichido." He pushed whiskey breath into my ear and hoisted his glass of chu-hai to Hayashi-san, as if to toast. "Ichido is fucked," he said.
"Sumimasen," said Hayashi-san, stabbing his cigarette into the ashtray. "Ichido-kaisha ga, you sayfucked?"
Gerald put down his chu-hai and one of Hayashi-san's men lit his Seven Stars cigarette. Mr. Tanaka finished his happy tune and pushed the song book across the table.
"No, no" I said. "Ichido is fucking cool," I said. "Sugee kakuii."
Mr. Hayashi smoked his Seven Star cigarette and Tanaka-san filled his glass with chu-hai.
"Iie," Hayashi-san said. "Mr. Gerald is right. Ichido has big trouble. Many kaisha, companies, have big trouble soon. But Ichido, we can fix problems."
"Sing, sing," Tanaka-san said to Natasha. "Rolling Stones!"
Gerald picked up the phonebook-sized karaoke book and flipped the pages to the English section. He pointed to a song and Tanaka-san pushed the numbers into the remote.
"It's okay," Gerald said to Hayashi-san. I nudged him with my knee under the table.
"Easy," I said. "You're wasted."
"No, no, no," Gerald said. "It's okay. Ichido was very strong, all-star stockfor a while.
But now, well, that company's a waste of time."
"Ichido is still strong," Hayashi-san said, "but we need many changes. I need more time," he said, "just more time."
"Here we go," Tanaka-san said, passing the microphone to Gerald. Gerald drank some Asahi from the tall can and stood up, wobbled, and sang his song.
"I'm leaaaaaaaving, on a jet plane, don't know when I'll be back again." Gerald sat down again next to Natasha, and put his hand on her bare thigh, just below her skirt. "I don't know when I'll see my Natasha again."
Mr. Hayashi stubbed out his cigarette and stood up. He took the service phone off the hook and said, "daiko."
"I must go," Hayashi-san said, and despite my entreaties, and those of Mr. Tanaka, Hayashi-san headed home.
On Sunday afternoon I dropped Gerald off at Niigata Station, and then I walked the streets of Niigata in the fading blue winter light. I walked past the glass and steel-paneled office buildings, past the department stores and coffee shops, restaurants and banks, to the wide docks of Niigata harbor, the third target after Nagasaki and Hiroshima that had been spared the atomic bomb. A cold wind pushed east across the sea and into the city. I pulled my jacket up around my neck and walked down a small street through an alleged yakuza neighborhood, where I found Rosebud, the Snack bar where Natasha worked as a hostess. I took the narrow staircase up to the small second floor Snack and sat at one of the empty tables until Natasha came in from the back.
"Konbanwa," Natasha said. "So you found me."
"Yeah, I just wanted to say sorry for last night, for my friend."
"Oh, that was nothing," she said. "Mr. Hayashi is a good man. Better - " she looked over to man in the opposite corner with long sideburns and a silver suit, rolling the last bit of whiskey in his glass and looking back at Natasha - "than some of the, what do you say, sukebe, in here."
"Sleazebags," I said.
"Yes, sleazebags. But Mr. Hayashi is one of my favorites. He is happy just to talk, or to sing an enka song. And he gives me something to send back to my home. For now," she said, "it is okay. But it is hard to be Russian in Niigata. Maybe someday I will meet somebody nice, you know? Maybe I will move to America."
Natasha looked over her shoulder when the silver suit man knocked back his drink and tapped it back down on the table.
"Would you like a drink, Adam?" she asked. "Mr. Hayashi has a good bottle, and I'm sure - "
"No thanks," I said. "I have to get back. I'm learning to play Take Five."
I drove through the snow that Sunday evening back to Sasakami, to Mrs. Koide's yellow house. Through the bay window of the music room I saw Mrs. Koide playing at the piano, and Junko Hayashi sitting beside her. When I entered the genkan, I skipped my usual greeting, a boisterous "sumimasen" to announce my presence, and listened to Junko join in with Mrs. Koide as I cleaned the snow from my shoes and stepped into a pair of guest slippers.
When Mrs. Koide saw me through the glass door of the music room, she stopped playing and closed the music book, as if to say, time's up. Junko handed over her envelope for the day's lesson and bowed to her teacher. I headed into the music room.
"Adam, I'm so glad you could make it," Mrs. Koide said, "with the snow coming down like this."
"It's Sunday night," I said. "Of course I'd come. Hey Junko," I said. "How was your lesson?"
"I'm fine thank you, and you?" she said, with the perfect inflection and practiced melody of each English class greeting.
"No," Mrs. Koide said. "Your lesson, Junko. How was your lesson?"
Junko held her breath, bowed to the two of us, and picked up her violin case. "Thank you," she said. "See you," and headed to the sofa just inside the genkan to wait for her ride.
"Here Adam, I have something to show you," Mrs. Koide said, and we sat down to read her journal, a book of her thoughts with kanji characters and vocabulary in the margins, stapled with crossword puzzles in progress, her translations of news items, and jazz reviews from far away Tokyo. Mrs. Koide practiced her English skills by explaining her journal to me, the thoughts she said were too un-Japanese, that she had to write in English. About what is to be a Japanese housewife, to take care of her parents and her husband's parents, to live in a small town, to grow old and feel less attractive, to wonder about wearing makeup.
"But that's enough from an old woman for today," she said. "Please, play anything, and I will get some tea."
At first I played the black keys only, where all the chords seemed to work. I couldn't read music, not much, and the black keys meant a mood - a melancholy meandering of missing home and that Sunday night feeling of closure and renewal, too abstract for timing and too random for a refrain.
Then I took out my Brubeck sheet music and started in on Take Five. I didn't hope to learn to read music, not in twenty minutes every week, but I wanted to learn this one song, and hoped memory and sheer will would get me there. My left hand set the stage like a stand-up base, and my right jumped in with the five in four timing. This opening I'd memorized, but as soon as the score for the left hand changed, I could only follow the right. I squinted at the music sheet, but when the melodies diverged I couldn't keep both hands together, not both at the same time.
Junko slowly opened the door to the music room and bowed.
"I'm sorry," she said. "My book."
"Oh, here you go Junko," I said. I reached behind my Brubeck book and handed Junko her score.
"Thank you, Adam-sensei," and Junko bowed again. It was strange to see her in red corduroys and a hooded orange sweatshirt instead of her school uniform or judo gear, but still so rigidly formal.
"Junko," I said, "Do you like playing the piano?"
"Yes," she said. "I like the piano very much."
"Here," I said. "Sit down. Help me play this."
Junko hesitated. "I will play too?"
"Sure," I said. Junko sat to my left on the bench. "Here," I said. "You can play this hand," and I pointed to the score. "I'll play this one. Okay?"
Junko studied the music and spread her left hand over the keys. Cautiously she sounded the chords, one by one, and then played through.
"Great," I said. "That's really good Junko!" and she smiled.
"Okay," she said.
We played through the opening and when we came to the junction Junko played on with her left and I followed Brubeck with my right. Junko lost the timing for a second, and I jumbled a few notes, but we found our way onto the second page. The phone rang in the background but we kept on playing, back to the chorus and on to the next junction.
"That was great Junko," I said, when our duo finally unraveled.
"That was fun," Junko said. "But thetiming, it's so strange!"
The door to the music room opened and Mrs. Koide came back without her tray of tea. She was wringing her hands.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"There was an accident," she said.
"What happened? Is it your children?"
"No, no. They are still in cram school," Mrs. Koide said. "It's Junko's father, you know - Mr. Hayashi." I nodded.
Mrs. Koide explained to Junko that her father had fallen while shoveling snow from the roof. It was not unusual in Sasakami, where it routinely snowed two, three, or four feet in a night, to see ojiisans, grandfathers, standing on roofs all over the village pushing the heavy snow to the ground to save the hundred year old cedar and tile frames.
"It's okay Junko," Mrs. Koide said. "They think maybe it's just his leg. Your brother is driving out from the hospital in Niigata City, and your mother says you should wait here until he arrives at the house, then she can come and get you."
Junko stared at the floor and fidgeted with the zipper of her sweatshirt.
"I'll drive you home Junko," I said.
"Really?" she asked.
"Of course," I said. "Let's go see if your father is okay."
We drove between the white rectangles of rice fields, over the river, and up Mt. Gozu, up the steep road that led to the Hayashi house, up into the snowy Sasakami night.
The Hayashi house was set back from the end of the small dirt road that my tiny car had struggled to climb. I followed Junko through the front garden path that wound between burlap-wrapped bonsais, tied up for the winter, and on into the house. Junko had her mountain boots and backpack off in a flash and hurried inside, then stopped to wait and lead me into the common room.
Mr. Hayashi was lying on a futon, covered in many layers of blankets. A woman much younger than Mr. Hayashi, maybe ten years younger, knelt beside him, trying to make him drink tea, but he refused.
"Junko," he said. "Mr. Adam." Mr. Hayashi tried to lean forward but the woman put her hand on his chest and he rested.
"Daijobu, Junko," Mr. Hayashi said, looking at his daughter. "It's nothing."
"Adam," he said, "Welcome to my house. This," he said, "is my wife."
Mrs. Hayashi bowed deeply and, kneeling already, it seemed an especially formal greeting. I knelt on the tatami as well, and bowed down just as deeply. Mr. Hayashi laughed, and Junko too was giggling.
"You are very funny, Mr. Adam," Hayashi-san said. "You have very good manners!" At another time I might have been embarrassed, but I was glad to have lightened the mood, until Mr. Hayashi shifted his weight and let out a small cry.
"Be still," Mrs. Hayashi said, "Masaki will be here soon." Gently she lifted the small tea pot from the tray by the futon and poured a cup of tea. "Adam-sensei," she said, "please have some tea. Junko, why don't you play for us? Show us what you learned today."
Junko took her music book from her backpack, walked across the tatami, and stepped up to the wooden platform of the addition that extended out of the common room. While the center of the room was traditionally Japanese - the tatami mat floor, the small Buddhist altar to parents and grandparents with urns and photographs, the heated kotatsu table and sliding shoji doors - the addition was modern, Western. The table and chairs, grandfather clock, and piano itself, all stood in contrast to the rest of the house. Junko opened her music book and then looked up at me in surprise.
"Adam-sensei, I'm sorry," she said. "I have your book too."
"That's okay, Junko," I said.
"Adam-sensei," she said. "Will you play too?"
I sat down next to Junko and she opened Brubeck to Take Five. As we had done earlier, Junko played with her left hand and I played with my right. Junko tapped the floor with her leg, and at first I thought she was nervous, but I realized that she was keeping time, making five fit into four, and doing it flawlessly. When Masaki, Junko's brother, entered the house, I stopped playing, but he motioned for us to continue. So we played on, and Mr. Hayashi, with his broken leg, smiled and took his wife's hand in his. The wind blew snow from the top of Mt. Gozu up against the Hayashi's house, and Junko kept on keeping perfect time.
strong> 2004 Matthew Walsh
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