Wednesday, July 31, 2013
There were so many faces. The sad sloughing man on the wall fresco frowning unknowable concern hundreds of years gone by. A metal statue worn nearly black, one eye shut, the other scuffed and wide, staring accusations at anyone who passed. Older men whispering and stern, watching children pass joyous handfuls of coins to people who hand them back sweet fried dough in the shape of fish.
I approached the temple's ceremonial rope cord and looked up. It reminded me of those times in school when they wanted you to climb the rope ladder for gym class. You saw everyone go before you. You knew how. But, finally first in line, you doubted yourself. One of my hands was open. The other clung to the 50 yen coin like a vice.
The woman behind me noticed my hesitation and laughed. She gestured to the rope, and then lightly clapped her hands.
"Arigato," I said sheepishly.
"Do not worry," she said, words heavily accented and slow, dripping with patience. "Just think of your family."
I nodded and tossed the coin into the slotted wooden box before me. The payment would help the temple fund repairs and sustain itself. I grasped the coarse rope, closed my eyes, and tried to focus on my grandfather, dead for nearly 23 years. A flash of his smile crossed my mind, from what at the time seemed like long walks for little legs through our West Los Angeles neighborhood.
I pulled the rope. The metal bell at its top rang out. I clapped my hands.
Tuesday, July 30, 2013
The mist was pungent, but not unpleasant. Other Americans who came before suggested it smelled faintly of rotting eggs. He couldn't disagree, but even across the room the pool's warmth pried open his sleep-filled eyes and cut through the morning mountain air.
He stripped naked, sat before a spigot on an overturned plastic bucket, and washed himself with soap and lukewarm water. When he finished, he stood over the pool and watched the steam that hovered in the room. The sun wasn't quite up yet, and the only sounds were the onsen's hosts preparing for breakfast by moving plates in the adjacent kitchen, and the water that trickled in through a stone lion's head on the opposite wall.
A shock of heat ran up his leg and into his hips as he settled into the water. Gradually he lowered himself deeper in until it came up to his neck. He closed his eyes and tried to let his mind go blank.
"What will I do," he muttered softly.
Pure meditation escaped him, and instead he saw flashes from previous days in his mind's eye: A beer can clipping steel as it dispensed from a vending machine; a sudden gust of wind across a grassy field that he wished would lift him off his feet; drops of rain collecting on a single red leaf until the rolled off and down onto his cheek; the gentle strokes of a woman washing the worn characters on a single headstone.
He propped up his arms on the tile floor and leaned his head back as he exhaled a rush of air.
Monday, July 29, 2013
I glanced up and saw a statue of a naked woman. Her hands were clasped behind her head, sultry and cold. Empty eyes stared ahead without pupils. Old bronze skin was sallow except for on her left breast and cheek, where dim orange light from an adjacent lamp vainly tried to bring her to life.
The stairs were narrow and twisted to the right. When I reached the bottom a hot spotlight shined in my eyes.
"Hello!" the barman shouted in a thick accent that split the word in two. "Can I get you beer?"
The man held court over a low wooden bar that barely came up to his hips. Eight stools were backed up against the left wall, awaiting customers to pull them forward. Half-full bottles of bourbon, Japanese Scotch, and shochu lined the wall behind the man.
"Kirin, please," I said.
He smiled wide, teeth nearly as yellow as his bleached blonde hair, which was spiked so high that it nearly touched the short ceiling. I sat at the last seat up against the wall, under a giant poster of a woman holding a machine gun and making a face that the bronze statuette wished she could make. I was the only person in the bar, but with the man and the liquor and posters of scantily-clad women towering over the stools, it felt it could barely fit another.
The man filled a glass from the tap and set it down quickly, causing a little foam to spill onto the bar.
"Ah, thank you," I said. "Arigato."
Thursday, July 25, 2013
The dirt and stone path used to be a road that cut upward, between the two hills overlooking the town. Now it was unused except by those bouldering over cobble and geometric rock for a better look at the volcanic forests that dotted the base of every mountain in this region.
"Where are you?" I shouted.
Just off the road grass grew wild, up to my eyes and so strong it grabbed you for a moment as you tried to push through it. My wife was ahead of me, somewhere beyond a narrow trail of matted stalks that jutted from the road and was littered with coffee and soda cans from the vending machine a half-mile back the way we had come.
I pushed along. Sharp reeds snagged in my hair and caught on my arms. Then the way opened, and I found her standing in a circular pocket no more than six feet across, facing away from me.
"Found you," I said.
She turned and smiled back, but said nothing, instead pointing a finger forward. The grass at our backs was tall, but ahead it dropped off significantly, like a flowing river of pale gold, nearly white, running down to the backs of houses at the edge of town. The sun had already set, and the sky over the distant hills was shot through with crimson lines that splashed down onto the field. The wind picked up and tasted like wheat and freshly cut flowers.
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
The old man struck a match and breathed in the sulfur and smoke. Then he dropped it to the ground, onto the stack of gasoline-soaked rags at his feet.
"Off you go," he whispered.
He backed off and struggled to bend over and pick up his cane. Flames flickered and followed the trail of rags which lead along the soft sand and dirt path up to the wooden cabin. He gripped the cane with white knuckles and dug its black rubber base into the ground. Soon the fire had jumped onto the door and wooden panels alongside, both also liberally sprinkled with gasoline.
Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a folded piece of paper, which he rubbed in-between his thumb and forefinger before letting it flutter to the ground.
He turned and walked to the road. Behind him, the house sizzled and cracked in the inferno.
Friday, July 12, 2013
The hallway was dim. A single lightbulb hung loosely from wires on the ceiling. Jimmy Cobb grasped for his flashlight, but it wasn't there, left behind at his kiosk. He squinted ahead.
The sensor went off five minutes earlier. Flickering blue lights on his display board roused him. He sloppily tucked in his tan uniform in as he lumbered through the lobby and into the service elevator that led to the basement.
"I've called the police," he lied.
Quick footfalls echoed from behind. He spun around to see an empty hallway. Hundreds of feet of stone floor twisted out from the elevator, through shadows and around corners to storage rooms and the building's generators. He was the only guard on duty tonight.
"They'll be here in five minutes," he whispered.
Tuesday, July 9, 2013
"I've been everywhere man," the young man with ratty blond hair said. "North and south, side to side, across America on these rails more times than I've got fingers."
"Not missing any, right?" I asked.
The Coast Starlight's observation car was half-full. Mostly it was people like me, people who don't sleep on trains, who don't change their clothes overnight.
"Want a beer?" the man asked.
"Concession's closed," I said. "Have to wait a few hours."
"Thought of that." He tapped his nose and grinned. "Got a few extra last night."
He pulled out a couple Heinekens from his backpack and handed one to me. I popped the top and took a sip. It was warm and tasted sweet, almost rotten.
"Thanks," I said.
"Man, it's a pleasure."
We drank and watched the sun rise over the eastern hills. Everything was red. The sky was red, bleeding up from the ground. The bark on stripped trees was red. The dirt was red, rich with iron. Dried shrubs were red, stained by the dirt.
"This is the life, huh?" He pushed his bare feet up against the window.
"Yup." I leaned forward and pressed my forehead against the glass. "Sure is."
Monday, July 8, 2013
I pushed the spindly bramble aside. Thorns stung my hands. The air smelled sweet and earthy, rotting berries mixed with dirt and green leaves.
"We going the right way?" I asked.
"Sure," Linsell said. He flashed a thumbs up and grinned. "No worries, boss."
Linsell only had about half his teeth. He lost them as a teenager, and his parents couldn't afford to get them replaced. He wore the gaps as a badge of pride, each wide smile a tacit challenge for someone, anyone to make something of it. I first met him when we were freshmen, and he had just beaten up some kid for giving him shit about his face, as he called it.
"Whatever," I said. The early summer humidity jumped off of the vines like it wanted to choke us. Beads of sweat streaked down my forehead and down my glasses.
"Trust me man. It'll be worth it."