Monday, December 8, 2014


There are days when the
Sun dies young, behind houses,
Between bare branches
Long rid of their amber leaves.
My back and forearms ache as

I pull piles from the
Gutter so it won't clog when
It rains later; an
Alert on my phone says it's
Inevitable. My old

Rake is rusted, too
Often abandoned
Overnight in the yard. It
Greets me like a slighted friend,
Pushing splinters into bare

Hands. Who knew tools could
Be so vindictive? I plead
Sincerity in
Waning daylight: let us work
Together once more, and I

Won't forget to put
You back in the garage when
We're done.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

When it makes sense

Try loving me at
3 a.m. when the dark of
Nowhere is so bright,
Singled-out, vulnerable.
A woman hacks consumption

Across your car and
Skin tingles with train itch. The
Bathrooms are below,
Faucets shotgunning into
Metal catches as you washed

Your face with a hunched
Back, elbows jutting without
The train lurches to a stop
South of Klamath Falls. A child

Awakes and wails hot
Protest to a young dad just
Out of the army,
Whose sloping face contrasts sharp
Muscles up his arms, across

His shoulders. He looks
To me for anything, but I
Close my eyes and fake
Sleep. Love me then, with screaming
Children, with the woman who

Might have died, with my
Nascent tuberculosis,
With anything you
Have left. I gave everything
Else as a tip for bitter

Coffee underneath
The observation car just
Before it closed for
The night.

Sunday, May 18, 2014


Some years ago we
Were young and our eyes shined like
Polished metal. Back
Then we lived in Portland, where
Everything flowed like honey

From a tipped-over
Jar. Life came at its pace; we
Worked together by
Day, or at least alongside
Each other. At night you drank bourbon

Anything and I
Sipped beer. Once we floated the
Umpqua River in
Borrowed tractor tire tubes while
Steelhead jumped between us and

Greybeard fishermen
Huddled on the shore, lips wet,
Eyes tired, eager.
The shore was a hazy green
And brown, dotted with globs of

Yellow and purple
Paintbrush wildflowers. The
Water could have been
Invisible, or streaked
Choppy white, becoming a

Wide impressionist
Canvas. You wore that lilac
Bikini covered
With magenta polka dots.
I hid a blush behind my

Burnt skin. The suit hugged
You tightly as the river
Carried us under
A bridge where shadows cooled the
Fire on my face. I closed my

Eyes, picturing my hands
In place of the top, pushing
Just enough so your
Softness spilled out around
The sides of my fingers. I

Loved your skin. You laughed
And looked down the bridge of your nose
At me, through askew
Tan aviators smudged with
Your fingerprints and sunscreen.

Friday, May 9, 2014


Face half-pressed against
Glass, nostril fog floods and fades.
Air conditioning
Works best with the windows shut,
Only chilled temperature
Difference keeping
The city out. The sound of
Suction, doors open
To hot wind, gas fumes burning
Us up. It was all in vain.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The corner

And we saw, sidewalk
Burning our bare feet, diamonds
Disguised as broken
Shards of scattered glass. Your voice
Echoed off fading signs. Dust
Stung our eyes, pavement
Cracking to swallow us up, but
You wouldn't let it.
We stood on that corner, sweaty,
Hopeful, irrevocable.

Thursday, May 1, 2014


You let me get you
Alone, when your chapped lips bled
Until mint lip balm
Made us tingle, memory
Wax tasting like better times.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Pilot gas, 4 p.m.

Customer eighty,
Shower's ready at stall five.
Buy your single-serve
Soap and get the key from the
Desk. You have fifteen minutes.

Monday, April 28, 2014


Vivid percocet
Dreams. Antibiotics, crash
Of garbage trucks in
That place between waking sleep,
Haze memories, and nightmares.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


For anyone that might read this, I apologize for not updating in a while. I began writing my next project, and it's going so well that I've been focusing on it. 21 writing days in and I'm over 30,000 words.

I'll try to do a bit more short-form, mostly tanka I think. I also may update you on my writing progress now and then.

Hang in there. I am.


Volare. To fly,
Planes and clouds and wind
And me, up, up, far away.
Volare. Eyes shut, deep breath,
Face the sun. Here comes the drop.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


I stare at the sun
Until I see spots. Later
I'll read about death
Certificates and browse old
Magazines at vintage stores
While deciding how
Best to enjoy placebos.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Mason's house

The night before my grandfather dies, my parents send me to stay with the family of a friend. I am seven.

I eat dinner with my friend that night. His name is Mason, and his father drives him around on a motorcycle that makes me jealous and causes my parents to give him disapproving frowns.

At this point I usually go home, to my family, my stuffed bear, my little blue blanket, my nightlight, my 10-watt bulb. Instead, Mason and I return to his room, where we play more. I'm tired and confused.

Mason's mother explains to me that I have to stay overnight. She has long, blonde, soft hair. My mother's hair is coarse and frayed. I nod at her words.

It's early summer. The sun sets through a purple and orange sky. An hour later we are put to bed.

The room is dark. Mason asks me if this is my first sleep-over. I lie and say it isn't. He asks how many I've been to. Lots, I say. How many, he presses. I dunno, I search for a number, maybe five?

Later, Mason breathes softly in the bed next to mine. I can't sleep. In the rush to come over earlier, I forgot my bear, my blanket, and my pajamas. I borrow a pair of Mason's. They're too tight and red, the wrong color. I like blue.

I wake. I must have been asleep. I cry for my mom, but she's not there. No one comes. I'm scared. Strange shadows creep across the wall toward me. I pull the blanket up above my chin.

There's a purple streetlight outside Mason's window. It flickers on and off every thirty seconds. I practice counting. Sometimes it's shorter, sometimes longer. Always around 30 seconds.

My legs hurt and I want water and I want to use the potty. I get out of bed and put my feet on the floor. Mason turns over and I hold my breath. Another three flickers pass. I keep moving.

The hall is completely dark, the kind of place where monsters wait. I'm here because, without warning, my parents shoved me into a car and drove me here to visit my grandfather in the hospital. I asked if I could could come. They said no.

I find the bathroom and run the faucet, turning my head sideways and leaning in to drink. Then I hear a bang and I shriek and stumble backwards. I fall into the tub and hit my head. I cry out and wail.

A flashlight beam blinds me. It's Mason's mom. She lifts me out of the tub and asks what I was doing. I sniffle and say I needed to use the potty. She laughs and says don't worry, it was just a transformer blowing. Her hair smells like sweet flowers, and I let my tears run into her shirt.

Thursday, March 13, 2014


I've always loved you from the moment I saw you sit at the desk next to mine in second year composition, I tell her, although as the words come out of my lips they don't sound entirely like I was the one saying them. It's an answering machine, I think, a distant, tinny memory, played over an over until you accept that you must be the one speaking because there's no one else it could be, while at the same time harboring doubt at this alternative voice that speaks dark fears and intimate desires.

She laughs and I hear music. Her voice swims and I float alongside. She appreciates me, I know and she says. An awkward pause ensues and she squints her eyes and realizes my intentions. Adjust the lens and take another look; flush cheeks are either good or bad, I'm not sure.

Oh, she says, a word escaping her locked lips before she can wrangle it back. Insight dawns; she winces gently, an act I notice. I feel like a kid at the top of the roller coaster. A hand, her hand, touches my shoulder. My emotions are drawn there like one of those touch electric glass ball lamps that arcs energy at any fingers that touch it. My heart beats too fast and it's all I can hear and feel.

More words are said but I can't make them out. Sweat beads on my neck and behind my ears. I shouldn't have, I mumble, and force my way passed her and out of the room. Then she is gone and the sun beats down as the wind blows across my face, scattering freshly-fallen leaves.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


Four lines and five colors, a three-by-five portrait drying next to my furnace where it will collect dust until the light shines again and I remember my hands gripping a brush in an attempt to define vibrancy on a rainy Saturday afternoon while my wife sleeps on the upstairs sofa and the caffeine and beer in my stomach fight to a stalemate. A window one foot above and to my left frames the downpour; the sidewalk floods and the white noise furnace fire offsets the sound of water slapping concrete and hard-pack dirt. Somewhere nearby, a car backfires.

The colors I choose are red, blue, orange and green. Gluey paint gobs on heavy bristles until I swipe them across empty canvas. I divide the work into four sections, one for each color, and divide them with heavy black lines; I draw these with a separate brush so as to not pollute the other colors, but the efforts are in vain as streaks of black follow rogue strands, polluting my work. I shrug and switch to bourbon, pouring a healthy three fingers into a highball glass.

Paint fumes give me a stretching headache that claws its way up from my nostrils across my scalp. I set the brush down and leave the canvas to dry out of sight, behind the accordion door and into a closet next to our furnace. My Old Crow tastes like paint; I drink the glass down in one gulp and pour a second.

My wife awakes and shouts down from the kitchen what I want for dinner. I yell if she's cooking tonight for a change. She replies no, but she's hungry so I'd better figure out what I want and then cook it so she can have some too. My hands leave paint fingerprints on my glass. I tell her I'm cleaning up and will get to it as soon as I'm done.

We occupy a sterile town home. I paint in the basement, alongside the furnace, what I'm told is called a "half bath," and an empty concrete floor we intended to turn into a den. The kitchen is above me, and the bedroom is above the kitchen. I wash my hands and mixed paint runs black, red, and brown down the drain. Most of the color comes off, but some remains

I finish my bourbon, pour myself a third, and go upstairs. In the fridge I find a loaf of bread, half a jar of peanut butter, and an equivalent amount of grape jam. I scrape together two sandwiches and yell to my wife that food is ready. I head downstairs before she enters the kitchen.

I sit cross-legged next to the furnace and watch my painting. It isn't particularly good, but I feel accomplishment nonetheless; the lines are strong, and the color are deep. My wife yells down something, but I can't make out any of her words over the furnace and the rain. I finish my bourbon, set the glass on the stone floor, and grip the sandwich between both paint-stained hands as I eat.

The accordion door slams open and my wife gives me a perplexed look. What the hell are you doing, she asks. Eating, I say. She sighs and leaves the door half-open as she goes back upstairs. From my position I can see the falling water through the window above me. The only thing I can think of is how the lines of the painting would bleed if I took it out into the rain.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The last time

Jake Ocumanos towers over me. If you stand us against each other, face-to-face, my nose slides in just below his chin while his either pokes me in an eye or stands in the half-forest mess of a space between my two eyebrows. Up close, his face is a mixed-density minefield, a mess of stubble and pockmarks between scars set over sallow skin and brown-yellow teeth from a lifetime of coffee and cigarettes. Unpleasant, to say the least.

We've only been in this situation three times: Once, on an elevator in Los Angeles when he started dating my aunt and was helping us move out of her apartment and into his Chevy Astro and we pressed up against each other between suitcases and boxes of old Harlequin novels destined for the dumpster; then again in the woods outside of Alturas, California, after a night of sleepless drinking on his part, where he charged into my tent, pulled me out, stood me up, and told me I was a miserable failure while the sun rose behind us; and a final time right before I grabbed hold of a desk lamp and broke it against his head, causing opaque glass to embed in his cheeks.

The last time is the most important. When the lamp crushes his face there's a hollow crack followed by the sprinkling of the glass that doesn't stick in his face dropping onto the laminate floor. I step back and drop the lamp. Jake topples onto my particleboard desk, and it breaks down the middle, splinters and dust billowing into the air, as he collapses with it to the ground.

When Jake meets me for the first time at my aunt's home in Los Angeles he is pleasant. He smiles broadly and musses my hair. I smell his aftershave and it tastes like metal in my my mouth. My aunt tells me this is Jake and he's a good man and strong and he's going to take care of us because she knows how I've lacked for a strong male presence in my life since my father died in the car wreck with fire and smoke and the bright, spinning lights from every direction. I smile and so does my aunt because I believe she's genuinely happy. This is fifteen years ago.

I stand over Jake. Each day I more closely resemble the picture of my father that I keep in my wallet, bulbous nose to bushy eyebrows down to the broad shoulders and pooch of a stomach that slumps over any belt I wear. Although and distended by age, signs of the chiseled, ex-Army man remain. He's entirely square, forehead, jaw, chest, body. I kick him. Don't you dare, I scream, because you've never been my father.

My aunt laments our arguments. Disagreements, she calls them. Jake strikes my face and I feel the heat of his hand and collapse to the ground. She clucks between parsed lips and sips her coffee and orders me to get up already because I'm embarrassing myself. Jake recoils like an undercard boxer having downed his over-matched opponent, retreating to his corner, seeing if I'll answer the count. Inevitably I get up and slide away, and he watches contentedly as I go.


There's only so far to go when you run. Physically I can go anywhere, up to the sky to hurl thousands of miles in a handful of hours until the world melts and people I don't recognize drone in odd tongues and scrutinize my passport in lazy attempts to determine whether I am the man with long hair and sallow skin under poor light on the picture. Mentally it's the same, between diving into a book or my mind while eavesdropping on nearby conversations about vacation plans and retreating through wet glass windows as I stare into darkness and only the flashing light on the tip of the plane's wing is visible against the unlit night.

The Airbus rocks as we hurl through the air. Flying terrifies me, and I feel like a bullet loaded in a gun pointed into the air by someone with a sick smile and dubious intentions. I half expect the cabin to depressurize the second we achieve cruising altitude, just as the speakers chime to life and the Captain begins announcing in a tired voice thick with forced attentiveness that we've reached some absurd height and it's now okay to rattle about in our hurtling tube if you need to stretch or use the bathroom or ask for peanuts because you haven't eaten in days and you can't wait for the in-flight service and the carts whose wheels squeak, pop, and lock as attendants in pastel suits push them forward like miniature battering rams.

I order double bourbon and water. I use the water to down a single Vicodin and then sip my drink. The man next to me wears a wrinkled black suit with a blue cream tie. He connected in Los Angeles, he explains, through Boston from Bangor, Maine and he's really tired, but he also notes that he can't sleep on planes and then apologizes for prattling on while he drinks generous gulps of Coca Cola. He's awash in caffeine, a string-less marionette. I lean forward in my seat and press my cheek against the cool window glass and bourbon split drips down my chin.

If the plane depressurizes the emergency oxygen masks will drop; they remind us at the outset you're supposed to assist those around you who need help before you tend to yourself. I imagine a scenario more vivid, with the emergency door many rows ahead blowing off into the sky for no logical reason whatsoever. The smell is vivid and welcome, fresh and wet, but everything else is disaster. Several rows of passengers and chairs and Skymall magazines fire out like the opening's the mouth of a blunderbuss. The suction pulls my hair but little else since I'm advisably strapped into my seat. My neighbor, Coca Cola and all, joins the exodus, and as he exits the plane the soda leaves his hands and he's left alone to have his eyes adjust to the screaming darkness as he becomes gyroscopic through the clouds before colliding with the ocean that hits like concrete. I decide to not help him first if the oxygen masks deploy at some point during our journey, and instead spend the next thirty minutes imagining how fast the plane could drop in the event of a disaster like fire or terror or the finger of god flicking us from the sky while I wring a Skymall into a tube and tense at each patch of turbulence.

My Vicodin hits as the cart passes by again and I feel suddenly lighter, like my head is a balloon and it doesn't matter if the plane splits in half because as the world falls away I'd keep on floating over the Pacific and land at Tokyo Narita without difficulty, only a little wet from the rain. I select vegetarian lasagne because I mistrust mass-produced and packaged meat served at 36,000 feet. I finish my bourbon and I'm rolling. After what might be several minutes but is more likely only a few seconds, I realize the flight attendant has asked me a question and awaits my reply. She smiles with broad, polished teeth. I smile back too-wide and emit a sound that's more a gurgle than a laugh.

Soon the cabin lights dim and people begin to sleep. My neighbor and I remain awake and we get to talking about more than whether either of us can float home in the event of sudden splitting or a water landing. His name is Allen something and he sells refrigerators in Bangor, Maine, where he lives with his wife of fifteen years, Janet, and their three children, Smith, Elizabeth Anne, and Donald. He got into refrigerators because his father got into refrigerators and it seemed like a reasonable solution to life after returning from serving in the First Gulf War. Refrigerators, he sighs, what a life. He laments his lost youth, lost physique, a lost girlfriend, lost time, lost dreams, and a lost edge in his mind which feels duller by the day no matter how much caffeine he pumps in.

I don't know if his name is Allen. He spoke, but I didn't listen. Between the pills and the booze my mind drifted away between lucidity and a blurry, drool-covered haze. The rest of the details are suspicions I fill in between a few choice words I do hear, including "refrigerator" and "First Gulf War." For all I know he's not served a day in his life. Between the stocky frame and extra chin and thinning hair pasted into a weak comb-over, "Refrigerator Salesman from Maine" does feel correct. Smiles and nods, and he's content to carry my end of the conversation as long as I feign attentiveness and grunt in the correct tones in appropriate places. He never does explain why he's going to Japan, I think.

Allen flags a stewardess and upgrades from Coca Cola to bourbon, like me. We clink glasses and toast how remarkable it is to be blasting along somewhere north of 500 miles per hour. He points to my glass but shake my head. The last thing this airline needs is someone losing consciousness somewhere between Alaska and Hawaii above empty Ocean and having to divert the plane to Juneau or Honolulu or wherever's closest because they don't want the bad press that comes with someone like me dying mid-flight. Instead I shake my head, close my eyes, and feign sleep until he shuts up and becomes engrossed in Skymall, no doubt planning how his family would find a ceramic garden gargoyle adorable, or a pet or more likely himself could use a silicone mat to more easily collect clippings during his misadventures in grooming. After an indeterminate length of time I hear his gently breathing coalesce into soft snores, and I look over and his chin is folded down onto his tie knot. The plane rocks and his can falls over, spilling the last drops of his soda next to his chicken with rice.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Down the stairs

There's only so much to it, stars in her eyes, and then gone, on an afternoon train from Shinjuku. I'm drunk. So is she. We hold each other for a length of time between awkward and desperate, and then she pushes me away and the doors close and the wind whips my hair into my eyes as the train fires out of the station like a bullet from a gun straight into my chest. I reel, slugged, against a tile wall. No one else in the station, not the hurrying businessmen, not the frazzled mother with three loud children, not the tourists lost in a map they turn every which way in attempted comprehension, notices the exchange or the heartbreak that blows past my lips, my living death rattle.

I flee the station depth and emerge into unwanted sunshine that fries my eyes. Despondent, I stumble toward a cigarette vending machine, where I purchase a pack of Mild Sevens and immediately smoke three, bang, bang, bang. My head swims in confusion and nicotine and beer. I decide to roll through it and fall into a bar whose name eludes me. When I say fall I do mean fall; I miss the fourth stair and tumble down five more, collapsing in a heap at the bottom.

The bartender rushes to my aid. He is impossibly tall, or I hit my head and my mind is hopelessly muddled, or some likely combination of the two. He pulls me into a sitting position and says several sentences that don't process correctly. I believe him to be asking me about the Hanshin Tigers, and I answer that I'm not from Osaka but would take a beer if he has the game on. He gets me to my feet and asks me, perhaps not for the first time, how does my head feel. I nod. It hurts. I lie and say everything's fine.

I ask for a beer and he helps me to the bar. Shouldn't we get you to a doctor, he asks. Nonsense, I say, never felt better in my life. I need a beer more than I need idle hands prodding idle body parts and asking if this hurts or if that hurts or how many fingers am I holding up or please turn your head and cough. He places a large, black Asahi and a small glass before me. Both hands reach for the beer and bring it to my lips and I drink and the cold liquid flows into my stomach and pieces my head back together.

The bartender says his name is Daisuke. He is only a little less tall than I first thought, with arms and legs disproportionately larger than his surprisingly-compact frame. Despite the features that would have made him an awkward teenager, he moves smoothly, cleaning glasses, replacing them on the shelf behind him, and a handful of other motions that pass in a blur. Kunichi, I say back. He pushes an ashtray on the bar and lights a Lark cigarette. I start to reach for my Mild Sevens but stop halfway and ask him for one of his Larks instead. He hands me one and holds out a lighter, flame already springing from the tip. I take pleasant ash and heat into my lungs.

I finish the first beer and he hands me another. I drop a mess of coins on the counter and he scoops up enough to cover the drinks, leaving several behind. He asks why I'm drinking so hard so early. Is it early? I slam a balled fist onto the counter, making the coins rattle. Because I damn well need to. He doesn't press the matter further.

The bar is small and the walls are covered with framed portraits of American actors and actresses, past and present. What's with the pictures, I ask. The bartender smiles and swings a broad hand in a quasi-theatrical gesture. You're in Bar Hollywood, he says, fitting for your grand entrance, don't you think? I sip my beer. Most of the pictures are old, with stars from before either of us was born. The frames are all wood and several shades of brown. Half the pictures are monochrome, and most of the rest are faded. Where did you get all these, I ask. We finish our cigarettes around the same time and we each light another. Lots of places over lots of time, he says, never stop looking for another right shot for my little bar.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


We search the forest until the shadows stretched longer and Ueda insisted darkness was imminent. I follow Ueda closely and, after a final hour of stumbling across low roots and uneven terrain, we emerge into the parking lot where we began our adventure nearly eleven hours before. Ueda pats me on the back and we drive off in his navy blue Toyota Camry.

That night Ueda takes me into the heart of Fujikawaguchiko, to a bar called Lionheart's. It's called that, Ueda noted, because of the prominent mural of a pride of lions above the bar. When I go inside, it's impossible to miss; under-lit by warm orange-yellow light, the mural catches eyes and draws people deep into the room until they're faced by a mountain of a man, Kunichi Oe, who offers you beer and sake and something to nibble on. How can we refuse?

Oe laughs as his friend arrives and flies out from behind the bar to consume Ueda in a bear hug of an embrace. They could not be more opposite. Ueda is a thin, bony man with a dour expression who, in the wrong light, looks like he might be another Jukai specimen. Oe is jovial, everyone's favorite uncle, with round everything culminating in a blushing face specked with drops of sweat.

Ueda gestures with a grin to me. It's the first time I've seen him smile all day. Fresh meat, he says. Oe nods solemnly and puts a hand on my shoulder. Did you see any, he asks. Yes, I say.

A bottle of Suntory appears and Oe fills a lowball glass halfway with the pale amber liquid. I light a Lark and inhale a third of the cigarette as Oe fills two more and then hands Ueda and me glasses while keeping one for himself. To those of us left behind, he says. I close my eyes and force down a mouthful of whiskey.

Everyone has a first time, Ueda says, and it's always different and special and difficult. His was before I was born, he says with a sigh, in 1981. He sips his whiskey. Back then he worked as a salaryman in Tokyo, grinding out a long existence for a communications company as a strategist and copyeditor. Days and nights were long, but he relished the pace and the thrill that came with honoring the company and his family with each success. He rose quickly and his work compiled. He tips in a larger mouthful of whiskey as his eyes glass over. It was glorious, he says.

One of his co-workers at the time was a man called Kentaro Awaji, a heavyset man with a stutter but an impeccable sense for written words. Awaji was diligent but not cut out for the hectic life. Each late evening in Shinjuku bouncing between bars with his co-workers wore on him. Ueda didn't notice it at the time. I regret it every day of my life, he sighs.

Awaji killed himself after a client presentation went wrong, causing their company to lose face and a valuable account. What exactly happened remains a haze, Ueda says. Regardless, the company was furious and a despondent Awaji retreated to Jukai and took his life. I found the note, Ueda says, on Awaji's desk.

Ueda finishes his whiskey and motions for me to give him one of my Larks. He stuffs it between his lips and I light it up. I finish mine and fire up another. Oe watches us silently between sips of whiskey, which flush his cheeks and nose to even deeper shades of red.

Jukai is a vacuum, Oe pipes up, just like the Sahara Desert or deep space. Some enter and escape just fine, the prepared. Oe's throat rattled as he downs half his whiskey in a single, impressive gulp. Others, he says, enter knowing they're about to be swallowed up, and that's exactly what happens. You never see them again except traces of what might have been, a backpack, a water bottle, a small note.

I ask Ueda if they ever found Awaji. He shakes his head. They never found his body, he says, which surprised him consider that Awaji wasn't a small man. But, he says as he rotates the cigarette in his lips, smart and determined people can make it so they're never found.

More whiskey appears and we drink. Then Oe opens a bottle of sake and pours three glasses. I worry he neglects his bar, but an associate has taken over behind the counter, allowing us to retreat to a quiet corner. Ueda smokes more of my Larks and Oe lights up from a pack of Seven Stars. We sit in silence and drink. It gets easier, Oe says. I don't respond, as my mind retreats to the man in the maggot-lined suit who is still out there, forever absorbed by the Jukai.


There isn't anything I can do except stare through the trees and attempt to turn right-angled shadows into memories of faces gone by, picked clean by both nature and time. Trees encircle me and roots grab at my feet, threatening to drag me down to join them in pockets underground where the earth is wet and dark and the air tastes sour. Ahead, Ueda urges me to keep my feet and keep my pace; he jokes that the last person dropped off the back of one of their groups ended up lost in the forest overnight. He laughs as he says this.

Under the watchful eye of Mt. Fuji, trees and vines spring from ash-rich soil and water trickles through porous, black rock. Jukai is a forest of memory, Ueda says. As we scramble over root and rock he points aside on the trail, to a small plastic pile. Within he digs out two water bottles and a thin, mold-eaten paper booklet. The cover's mostly gone, but Ueda holds it up to a streak of light and examines its sides and flips through its pages. A suicide manual, he says, grunting with satisfaction. They find these scattered across the wood, a trail of expectations and truths. Not everyone goes through with it, Ueda says as he drops it and presses on.

Kintaro Ueda is a nervy man, long and twitchy. He moves slowly, deliberately through the forest, with an easy caution that speaks to his expectations and familiarity with these woods. Each step resets the mop of hair atop his head, and he often must brush aside the strands that run down his forehead. He carries a black military-style pack filled with water, dehydrated food, a flashlight, and an emergency health kit in case he or others become lost or are stranded overnight. Never seen use, he proudly states. Ueda is here because he lost his son to suicide in 1994, and each year since he comes out twice per month to assist with weekend anti-suicide patrols.

The forest is a lattice of wood and shadow that trap and hold back heat like a mesh net. I cannot see the sun and become disoriented easily. Compasses spin endlessly due to the metals in the earth. That's what Ueda claims, anyway. He bounds with confidence that increases with each step, almost gliding, with a happy grimace on his face formed through clenched teeth.

My job is to hold the camera, an old Samsung model chipped at the edges from several drops, but still reliable. Walking behind Ueda, I snap still shots of our progress and each discovery he makes. He picks up a severed section of rope formed into a small noose and holds it away from his body for me to shoot. I ask why is it left behind if they find a body. They job's not to collect trash, he says, setting it back on a bed of leaves at the base of a bushy, tall Japanese cypress.

Around mid-day on my watch we eat lunch in a small grove. We sit on broad roots under wide hemlock fir that grow close together and are lined with fuzzy, green moss. I eat four granola bars and a handful of mixed nuts. Ueda munches leisurely on a ham and cheese sandwich and stares absently through the trees. I ask him what he's thinking about. Past trips into the forest, he says in a soft voice. The forest is quiet, without the sounds of the usual animals that scurry underbrush or other signs of humanity. I ask if the Jukai is truly haunted, but don't get an answer.

Several hours later we find the corpse of a man. He's been dead a month or less, Ueda guesses. His exposed skin is leather, stained brown and pocked with white maggots that writhe in an excited feeding frenzy. The smell is astounding and drives me to tears. What remains of a threadbare, black polyester suit has become tatters, strips of fabric that dangle from bloated flesh. Souvenirs are scattered around the remains. A half-open purple backpack contains two empty soda cans and a worn paper map of the region. There is neither a wallet nor other identifying documents for this nameless man.

Ueda clamps a handkerchief to his nose and mouth and points at the body. Shoot, he says.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Leaves in his eyes

Sleep was impossible. I turned off the lights, put my head on the pillow, and burrowed under my blankets. The images found me all the same, ripping back each layer until we were alone in the darkness and everything was naked.

First it was his hair, black with touches of grey at the temples and in streaks like veins of silver. Despite the darkness I saw it perfectly. From there his eyes lit up, brown dots in the void, followed soon by the rest of his face, which appeared thinner and more worn than I remembered.

I was trapped. Opening my own eyes was useless and I realized that, in the night, this room was unsafe. His gaze locked on and each direction I looked, there he was, waiting. There wasn't sadness in his face; it was more apprehension, like he was concerned more for my well-being. The idea turned my stomach, that, even in death, my brother was protecting me.

The longer I watched his face the thinner it grew until his eyes receded into his skull and his jaw hung slack. It tipped forward slightly, revealing the rest of his body, a scarecrow patchwork of leathery skin and bleached bones under a loose, threadbare black suit. I recoiled in bed, bunching myself into a fetal ball, shouting at the image to go, but it only grew worse as the broken lips like dried pieces of wood began to move. No sound came except for a weak clicking like two stones knocking together.

A wind blew and I heard the rustling movement of leaves as they appeared before my eyes, rolling in like a fog under his feet until it appeared that his body stood on a cloud. The pile was stained orange and blood red, dry and bundled densely. It was still for a moment, and then it began to flow upwards, climbing his legs, consuming him bit-by-bit until, devouring suit, hips, stomach, arms, elbows, chest, and neck, until only his head remained.

His mouth opened again and leaves poured out, running wet and sticky down his chin, joining the rest of the flow as it rose up his face, past his eye sockets and hair, until he was gone, nothing but another part of the pile. Then the leaves surged again, this time forward, somehow through space, toward me. I screamed but no words came and I looked down and realized my body was already covered in leaves that were slowly crawling up my legs. They were heavy and cold and made my skin tingle and burn.

I awoke in the start. My waking nightmare had folded into dreams. The sun rose red, like it was covered in bright fall leaves.

Thursday, February 27, 2014


The days are hot and long. I am seven and standing in a room where everything's white, from the floor to the walls to the sheets on the bed. My dad sits in a stiff wood chair that wobbles when he leans back and to the left. He buries his head down in his hands and locks everything in place, controlling sobs so the tears only drop to the linoleum. The buttons of his plaid shirt are undone and it flaps down to his waist, sucking away from him each time the door across from his chair opens or closes.

I don't want to be here. It isn't fear. I felt fear once, but that was when the situation was further out of my control. I don't want to be here because there isn't anything to come from it. Nothing will stop dad's tears from carving microscopic river valleys in the floor, and nothing will bring mom back.

Her skin is still rosy, like she's been out in the cold too long only to happily come inside to a warm fire and hot chocolate with little marshmallows. Dad said she's resting, but that's a lie.

She died. Her breathing was shallow and sporadic and she struggled until there were no more breaths. At the point she stopped breathing dad's lungs exploded and he choked in the biggest breath I've ever seen anyone take. He did that five times, each one the slightest bit bigger than the last, before falling into the chair.

My woolen trousers make my legs itch and crawl like they're covered in bugs. I want to move but I don't want to disturb the silence. An invisible barrier blocks the open door. Each nurse that walks by the room slows but doesn't enter; they look at me and my father's rocking body, and mumble something about how sad it is and how it never gets any easier. We can't hear the words but we don't need to because we've heard them before.

I walk to my father. I smell his Old Spice and Barbasol shaving cream. In the last several days he refused to leave mom's side, not even to see me out of the hospital when grandma came to take me home at the end of the day. Each night he half-slept in two chairs pushed together, he said, so he could be near mom. And each morning he rose with the sun, bought coffee from the vending machine at the end of the hall, and, without showering, applied fresh deodorant and shaved.

He flinches when I put my hand on top of his head. The tears flow freely for another minute and then he looks up, his eyes a bundle of fire. He smiles but somehow it comes out wrong.

"Hey there Benny," he sniffs. "Sorry." He wipes under his eyes. "I'm so sorry."

I don't respond and stare at the floor. Dad picks me up and sits me in his lap facing mom. He buries his face back in my back and I feel the heat of his breath and his tears with each sob that jerks both of our bodies.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


The Marunouchi Line from Shinjuku is a swarm. I fail to find a seat and stand between the shut door and a man whose umbrella pokes my leg so hard I imagine it's a packet dripping with sarin and he's a jittery Aum Shinrikyo member steeling himself against the inevitable fury. Four pricks and he's certain. Sarin drips down my leg, pooling under my loafer, quickly becoming an invisible wisp that claws its way unseen up suits and slacks and jeans until its forcing everyone in our train car down dark tunnels in their eyes until nothing's left.

Of course the man isn't an Aum Shinrikyo member. Random wickedness exists in the world for fits and starts on crazed minds that spread the gospel like smallpox. People might not be born into it, but visions have a way of sliding a knife across your temple and peeling everything back. After a particularly violent stab into my ankle I glower visibly enough that the man gets the idea and threads his way through the crowd, to another train, rather than incur my continued wrath.

Each person infected with Sarin on that day carried tidings with them, on their clothes and in their hair, across trains, into offices, shaking hands and embracing friends, co-workers, or complete strangers. It wore them like a suit, and rode them like they rode the train, across Tokyo in a flash. Before anyone knew that they weren't just sick with the flu hundreds, thousands were sickened and several were drawn down a darker road.

A woman next to me sees my protests and smiles in sympathy. I try to smile back, but it melds with my scowl to become more of a panicked, teeth-gnashing uncertainty. She laughs, more a anxious reaction than genuine amusement at being crushed in a tube alongside the weirdo who imagine sarin scenarios involving hapless salarymen clutching 500 yen umbrellas with metal tips for dear life.

The doors open at Yotsuya station and I fall out of the train. Literally. As I step out my feet become entangled in another's and I spill onto the floor face-first. My teeth absorb the blow, wobble, and hold. I taste blood. The people in the train gasp back in too-sincere horror until the doors slip closed and the train blasts off once more, carrying their uncertain indignation away toward Akasaka.

I lay on the ground, feet threatening to dangle over the tracks if I slide further back. A station attendant eventually notices how I'm not getting up and comes to ensure I'm not going to get him in trouble with his supervisor by being either dead or drunk or a delinquent. He offers his white gloved hand and I rise. He gives me a stern look, having decided I'm neither dead or drunk. I can barely make out his pupils through the smears on his thick, metal-framed glasses.

This man is dedicated. This man is serious. He rises early and commutes to this station, where he has worked for years with the train company. In the evenings he goes home to his wife and children, eats a nice, hot meal, and relaxes. He's attentive; nothing about his navy and white uniform is out of place. We move away from each other and I look back. He walks with urgency although his destination is only a few meters away.

I imagine the sarin again, dripping from bundled newspaper in his hands as he forces it into a waste bin, unwittingly sending him down a one-way street he never envisions until it's a pained blur and the last thing he ever sees.

Monday, February 24, 2014


The world is a tunnel, a corkscrew slide with opaque walls where children slide and scream in delight as someone, anyone awaits their arrival at the bottom. Megumi leads me by the hand down narrow corridors stained with spit and ash and spilled beer. Every movement met with swaying protest, my equilibrium undone thanks to the tender directives of Suntory Holdings Limited. My lips take aim and try to clamp down on a Seven Stars cigarette floating clumsily in my left hand, but I fail and the stick splits in half and tobacco explodes over my lower lip.

We slump in two chairs facing a wall plastered with colorful pictures of men and women dressed in clothes I don't recognize. A woman brings me more Suntory, served up in a highball glass. The liquid is smooth and the color of melted amber and it moves in a hurry down my throat. Megumi touches my elbow as I swallow and the off-yellow mixture dribbles down my chin and onto the table we share. Her skin is yellow too under a spotlight, partially from her tan, partially from the whiskey that somehow defies gravity until my pupils are two fish in bowls of stinging putrescence.

The highball vanishes and so do we, down a stairway, around a corner, and into orange lights alongside the Sumida, which roils in blackness that mirrors the clear, starless night. Large and yellow, the dried-out moon hangs in defiance. I feel I should say something profound, but my breath is hot and tastes bad, so I keep my mouth shut and just listen to Megumi's long breaths like air being forced from a bellows and the scuffs of her boots on the concrete as she inches closer to me.

I try again with my Seven Stars, and this time I find success as the stick is forced between my lips. Megumi takes one for herself and lights both. The air is smoke and a mix of her perfume and lip gloss that muddles in my nose and comes up cotton candy and everything else in the world is still except for the gradual trail of smoke as it floats from ashen tips and from our lips. Then, movement. We fly across the river and into a crowded train where we rock back-and-forth against annoyed salarymen and wide-eyed tourists who think it's all such good fun.

Disembarking at Shinjuku, suddenly the stars return, a smear of bright lights, from gas giants to distant novas. I focus my telescope eyes as best I can, squinting and propping myself on Megumi as she props herself on a metal railing while other couples scuttle past, dodging us like we're a car stalled in traffic. We eventually get things restarted and putter to an udon stand. Megumi orders two egg-and-onion bowls and we slurp them down between ashen-suited men between bars or Pachinko parlors. When the food is gone I throw down a handful of money and we explode off on another adventure.

Friday, February 21, 2014


Underground is nothing. I ride the Emperor's bronze chariot in plain sight, entombed above ground, buried in plain sight among bartenders schoolchildren awaiting a bus that never comes, stuck with dirt and terracotta slowly peeling away like rind from an orange. My eyes are resolute and true and I swallow fire like a professional without a contract begging the world to give him a second chance on a life he dreams awake each morning only to drown in the sludge that remains at the bottom of his coffee cup. If I try to read fortunes from this same sludge it melts the brown enamel paint before burning a hole in the table that bores deep into the ground until it partially fuses with the core of the world and makes everything spin so fast until the days grow shorter and the government mandates a nine day work week before the three day weekend where we'll go to the coast and hold hands and watch the waves thread together and crash ahead of the candy apple sunset.

I suck a candy drop and hold your hand. The world is butterscotch Chanel, and when you laugh your perfume jumps from your neck and caresses my cheek and insists that the world is mine and so are you.

Butterscotch Chanel shocks me awake and I see the sun flee behind adjacent apartment buildings, stolen each day by charlatans I'm powerless to stop. There's nothing left in the mirror except a skeleton inside a terracotta guard animated by convenience and fate, so I shave and brush my hair and drink canned coffee that tastes like yesterday and the day before and a blur of time until memory clouds like a cataract and the only thing left is to guess a direction and proceed to the train station and ride the Hibiya Line to Roppongi and ride the escalators in billion-yen leviathans until the security guards decide I'm too much of a nuisance and sternly point to the exit. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

I wash ashore in Shinjuku, a dejected castaway, and salve wounds at pocket bars where bubblegum twenty-somethings laugh and mumble nothings like Shakespearean lovers packing sonnet pistols. I slam two Suntory highballs and regain momentary sympathy and recall a fleeting scent that floats on the tides as it carries time and memory out to sea like so much flotsam.

Things distend. I stretch across stalls where attractive women coo seductive offers staked together, yakitori on the grill, and salarymen inhale noodles in water-oil broth while others line up awaiting their turns grasping Seven Stars cigarettes like sailors lost at sea with only the thin rubber of a flimsy lifeboat between them and a gentle response. I prefer Marlboros.

I bypass the horde and slide into a Cafe de Crie tucked between dueling pachinko parlors. Inside each man ordering coffee is worth ten packs of cigarettes, and I breathe deep and imagine the odd looks I get when I close my eyes and seem to be enjoying myself too much. The woman behind the counter gives me the withering not-another stare as I wobble in place and squint up her bright yellow board with blue letters before attempting a self-effacing laugh while trying not to stare at her breasts.

"Cappuccino?" I mumble-ask.

She pretends not to hear me and looks past my face to the next suit, an older man whose wobble I recognize as the Suntory shake, evidenced further by the burst capillaries of someone who dips in a bit too early and often. His grey three-piece suit is a nice accessory. I look back at him, and his response grunt shakes loose his glasses enough for them to slide gradually down the bridge of his nose.

"Can I help you?" Her impatience endears.

"Cappuccino," I say with more flair.

She rolls her eyes and moves aside to make my drink. She's somewhat gorgeous, I decide, chocolate-skinned and creamy in complexion and movement. My pockets hemorrhage hundred-yen coins and I hold myself up on the counter and await deliverance.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The mail

A click. A displeased grunt. Paper shoots through metal and my mail slot spits out a mess. Thin sheets entice with cardboard meals. South Dakota return addresses announce exclusive offers. For me. How nice. I stare through the window adjacent to the mail slot and catch my reflection. If only my parents had prudently named me "Current Resident."

Rain slicks the brick walkway up to my front door. The mailman trudges onward, back to me, wearing every possible shade of blue, head trained on the wet concrete, plotting no missteps. Wind rustles leaves and rattles the tin flap over the mail slot.

I spy an error. At the intersection of brick and concrete lays a fallen solider, a single letter slipped from the carrier's satchel. It awaits help, half-consumed by a depression in the concrete where water puddles; none comes. The man is parked down the street and I hear his mail truck sputter to life and depart.

I open the door. Droplets whip sideways onto my forehead and arms. I shield my eyes with a hand and slip-slide down brick to the street. My robe and slippers are vanity, soaked sponges before I make the sidewalk. Each movement is an Olympic trial in agility to prevent disaster.

The letter is wet but not irredeemable. Water soaking through the envelope drips down my arm, under my robe, under my cuffed sleeve, under my watch. I slide the half-pulp mass under my shirt and retreat. The oil in my hair wages a losing battle and surrenders to the inevitable as chunks of itchy brown droop down my face.

Survival. Inside I peel off my clothes until only my boxers remain; the rest go in my bathtub in a pile above the drain. I watch my clothes and pretend I have contracted a nefarious melting disease where my loved ones can only gasp in horror as what's left of my life trickles down the drain.

I recover the letter, lay it on my bathroom counter, and deduce. The return address is melted by rain, but the recipient address is still visible and that of my neighbor three houses down. A Statue of Liberty "Forever" stamp peels up from the envelope, glue half-dissolved.

Inside the envelope I find one note and one mass of wet paper. The mass used to be a note, I suspect, torn to pieces, now fusing back together thanks to the rain. Thick black ink in heavy strokes bleeds away and stains my hands. I set this pile aside to dry.

The note, on the other hand, is intact if damp, a purple Post-It folded in half and scratched with thin blue think from a fast hand. I unfold and read:

"Here's your letter back. Stop writing to me. Any more and I'll go to the police."

The conversations we don't have

"Last night I awoke in the middle of the night and had a mild panic attack," I said.

Brillson sipped his coffee and fingered the smoldering cigarette in the ashtray. "Something in a dream get you?" he asked.

"Maybe. You know when you're still in the dream but you know you're in the dream? That few seconds of lucidity before you wake up and can distinguish between what's real and what's imaginary?"

"Sure," he said. "So it was a dream?" He picked up the cigarette, inhaled smoke, and held it in, awaiting my reply.

"Not exactly." I shoved my hands in my pockets and leaned back in my chair until it teetered on two legs. "After I awoke and lay there and tried to fall back asleep, but my mind drifted. Somehow it got to trying to think about what it was like the moments after someone dies."

"It's dividing by zero." He exhaled and tapped his forehead with his thumb. "Breaks the calculator."

"My legs were jellied at first, then it was as if they were filled with jittering ants. I get to the point where the lights go out and then there's a blank spot, like a missing film reel at the end of the movie, and then the credits roll."

Brillson pursed his lips and tapped ash. "Can you remember anything from the dream?"

"No." I sighed. "But after I calmed down the only thing on my mind was Jeff Bridges' in that remake of True Grit."

"Jeff Bridges," he said flatly, somewhere between confusion and indignation. "Go on."

"There's a scene in the movie where he's in an old hideout of a shack in a canyon deep in the Choctaw Nation interrogating a couple of bandits he's caught, one young and one older. Long story short, the older bandit turns on the younger, cuts off the younger one's fingers, and stabs him in the chest."

"I never saw it," Brillson admits. "His fingers?"

"Just one hand," I say. I put my chair back on all fours and motion to my lips. Brillson hands me one of his Seven Stars. "The younger bandit's barely a man, and he dies right there in that shack."

"What about the one who does the stabbing?"

I light the cigarette and breathe deeply. "He gets shot in the face by Jeff Bridges."


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What happens next

Nothing happens next, says the skeleton, says me, except to get undressed. My skin speckles and my limbs go rigid. Rain falls on the flaps of tent and sounds like an army of impatient old men in expensive ties rapping fingers. I can't decay fast enough for them.

My skin blanches and becomes like wax. If you want to try a staring contest, says the skeleton, now's your last chance for a long time. Soon I'm the only one left and to stare into sockets is to glance the universe's uncertainty mixed with bone. Blink and you miss my eyes saying a quick goodbye and fade away in a puff, a bad rainbow of maggots and rot.

Things would go faster outside of this tent, but it frames the picture too perfectly to complain for more than half a sentence, or a wistful moment under a sleeping bag as foam drips from my mouth at some point in the not-too-distant past.

Time is a consideration. Then it's a windup into a sinking Hideo Nomo split-finger fastball, darting out of reach just when you thought you had it figured. Strike three. Stand in the batters box. Look indignant at being fooled so badly. Turn your head to the umpire. Grouse. Walk back to the dugout. Slap on the butt. Good try. Get him next time.

I meet a man, a skeleton like me. His glasses sag down on his nose and his jaw is clenched shut. He fears failure and my success exacerbates his worry. The 5,000 yen suit that cloaks his true form is thin and stained, candy apple where he cut himself on a branch and brown sugar, hands in the dirt. He pushes the glasses up his nose and apologize for the intrusion.

Thoughts become thin, bourbon with too much water. I reach for my head but the skeleton laughs. The air in here is piped-in from last summer's family picnic in Mitaka Park, a cooler left in the sun and then the storage space, sealed better than an astronaut's suit. I lament for wind and leaves and crawling critters in the mulch.

The tent blurs. If I focus I can see it again. Flaps and zippers ripple and flow in wind. My sleeping bag is yellow.

There are people occasionally. Not like the other skeleton; these are ghosts, men and women. I hear their voices. There's familiarity. I know these people but cannot see their faces or remember their names. I used to have a name. I try to form a single word, but nothing moves and no air passes my lips.

The skeleton cackles; it's all I hear.

My skin feels funny.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The plateau

I'm naked and thirsty. The water in the reservoir below is a fetid green-brown and full of slimy debris. I sieve a handful of water-muck and take it into my mouth before spitting it out. No use curing thirst if I'm just going to give myself a nasty parasite.

I walk down to the dirt road away from the reservoir. The sky's red and so's the ground. Each step burns as my feet churn loose sand. Scattered obsidian, black needles in a sea of red, would cut deeper if my feet weren't already hardened like mistreated old leather.

The day gets worse. Early chill gives way an insufferable heat. I hide for stretches in cool dirt under large patches of sagebrush so dry the exposed roots have turned mostly white. Shade's insignificant so I curl into a fetal ball to hide as much of me as possible from the angry sun.

I sleep without dreams. When I wake the sun's directly above and my hiding place is overrun with heat. I rise and force myself to walk. In the road I see a cow's bleached skeleton, bones picked clean and scattered as critters searched for anything left over. One of the femurs is broken and looks like it could cut a man.

Hours pass and the road goes mostly north. The sun roasts my head and cooks my brain. I know this area but can't think straight, so I stick to the road and keep walking. Unsteady legs wobble but I hold my balance. Blood takes turns streaming from my lips and clotting until it breaks to stream more. Red lines roll over my chin and down my chest.

Movement is agony. Burnt skin stretches and folds in fiery pain. The sun's halfway down the western horizon on my left and it's hotter than ever. I rest again under a juniper for an hour. I hold my knees and try not to move.

I start out again and, fortunately, salvation finds me as the sun threatens to dip down for the night. Up on the right, maybe a football field's length off the road, there's an old shack with a beater Toyota pickup parked out front. I think I recognize the car. I'm not sure. I veer toward it and nearly reach the door when I hear a man's yell.

"Who that there?" the voice cries.

I try to say anything but the sand in my mouth gums the words, mixes with blood, and turns them to mud.

"Jamison? That you?"

The man was behind me but emerges into my field of vision. First thing I see is his rusted shotgun Then it's his face, scarred leather with a dominating beard. I recognize the man as Old Zeke, who's lived on the plateau his whole life.

I try to nod but end up rolling my head. My jaw goes slack and red spittle hangs off my lower lip for a moment and then falls to the dirt.

"By the Holy Spirit son," Zeke says. "Better get you inside."

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


She takes my hand and her body springs to life. Impunity and mischief cross her mind and then her face as she jumps out of her chair. The table rocks and our porcelain cups treble until cold coffee spills over the edges and darkens the cotton tablecloth. Her hand squeezes mine and her eyebrows implore action so I rise too and we flee the bakery before other couples or tired servers can pass public or private judgment.

We sprint the Nakameguro streets. She turns unexpectedly block-to-block and my arms tense like rope but her grip only strengthens and never threatens to let me snap off into adjacent markets or business complexes. I can't breathe and my heart skips but she has enough oxygen and energy for two, as rolling, light laughter bubbles out of her and floats away and she appears to move faster as we ricochet against wet-lit thoroughfares and dark alleys, passing confused salarymen and nothing at all.

She kisses me and my back's arced against a cold stone stair but her lips are soft and warm and taste like bao fresh from the steamer. My hands are braced under me, against steep rubble steps with pebbles that jab my fingers, and hers cup my chin, framing my face for her lips. After each kiss she gasps, inaudible for the rest of the world but I hear it perfectly.

Then we are back on our feet, streaking through a train station, up narrow stairs and through men and women who clutch umbrellas and briefcases like she's clutching my hand while they stare at the ground until we're breezing past them in an explosion of limbs and laughs and sumimasens. My head is back on the stairs and my eyes are on her lips as she turns her head and forms words I can't hear.

We pass a convenience mart and she diverts inside. I buy beer and packaged sushi. She selects a one cup of sake which I also purchase. The clerk is a younger man with thick black hair dotted with early grey. His mouth is scrunched in a sour expression he doesn't spare for us. I return a shit-stupid broad grin that makes matters worse, so we explode from there, food and drink in-hand, like bullets from a gun. We run until she plows us until a narrow building that shoots too high above for me to understand where it ends.

In an elevator ride that never stops she kisses me again, tangling her hands around my back and pushing me against the back panel. The plastic bag slips from my hand and hits the floor, causing her to look down at it and then up at me with an incredulous expression. I laugh and she does too and she kisses me more, hands back on my chin, pulling my face forward like we can't connect quickly enough.

When the elevator opens we're many stories up, looking out on a roof that overlooks Tokyo. She takes the bag in one hand and walks head, leaving me alone in the elevator. A sliver moon rises over Nakameguro, lit and forced up by millions of lights across the cityscape that shimmer like a second universe of stars.

"Are you coming or what?" her voice picks at me as the elevator doors try to slip shut. I grin, force them open, and join her on the roof.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


When I wake the sun is above me in the sky so I can look at it without moving. I struggle to rise, my skin tingling like it's being forcibly stretched and pulled away from my body and stapled to the ground, holding me in place. My mind is fog. Eyes blink slowly, unsure what came before and what happens next.

Managing to lift my head until my chin squishes against the hairs on my chest and I see brown and red, sun and caked dirt, skin and aching burn. I'm naked on sloping stone, head above feet, with enough of an angle that the sun reflects off the murky, green water and into my eyes. Red dirt encroaches, drawn by wind and gathering like each speck is a member of a tiny tribe come to pay tribute to the golem that is my body.

Skin cracks and burns under withering heat and light. With great pains in my lower back and the places where my skin folds on itself, I assume a sitting position, hands in my hair, elbows on my knees. Every last drop of moisture in my body is being used to keep my eyeballs from shriveling into husks.

Fog eases. I take stock. My pack is gone. My gun and knife are gone. My food is gone. Even my clothes are gone. Blood drops from chapped, cut lips as I try to open my mouth, mixing with the dirt under my legs into a red spot of gluey mud.

I stand. It hurts. Joints creak like abused machinery. My legs splay sideways to keep my body from toppling but nearly buckle from the exertion. Anyone watching is treated to inventive interpretive dance as limbs fire and jut.

The stone under me is part of a boat launch that used to run to the edge of a reservoir. Now, the only boat visible is a rusted wreck of a rowboat turned over at the edge of the water, now several dozen feet down from where the stone ends, dropping to dried-out reeds mixed with bird and cow shit. Target practice holes pock the boat's underbelly, both small from popgun pistols and big from sawed-off shotgun blunderbusses.

Unsteady feet lead me up the ramp. At the top a rock pins down a note. No hard feelings. At least we didn't take your skin.

I spit but nothing comes out. Muscles loosen and I move more freely. Dirt burns and rocks jab. I move away from the ramp.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Under the plateau

The land is big for small eyes, somewhere north of a couple hundred acres. It's mostly forest, tall trees with needles that shine in the summer and dry out as the heat starts to go. There are also boulders bigger than me and dirt so red that when it rains it looks like the ground bleeds.

Our home is hidden away behind a wall of juniper and a ridge that shoots into the sky. Above there's a plateau where the important people go for important meetings. I'm not allowed to go up there until I'm older, they say, and not until I demonstrate that I'm truly committed. I ask how others demonstrate their commitment, but they don't answer except to say that I will see in time and to please not ask any more childish questions.

My friends and I work in the garden with a few adults who watch over us. Without help, the adults teach, the land is inhospitable. Bushes and twisty trees thrive and are all around, I point out. They are hard and inedible. Unsuitable for growing a movement, let alone sustaining a single person. Soil is imported and it's a different color, so dark brown it's almost black. We put it down and I help grow carrots, red and yellow potatoes, lettuce, a rainbow of tomatoes, onions, and several types of beans.

Each day is like the day that came before it and like tomorrow. I wake with the sun, put on my robe, and eat breakfast, usually a stew of our vegetables over white rice they make for us. It tastes like water and dirt and vegetables, but I usually feel pretty full after eating. The robe is threadbare and in the morning the breeze makes me cold, but once the sun shines I warm up quickly.

Then we go to school until the sun is high in the sky, where a man and a woman teach us like we used to learn before we moved here. Their names are Brother Richard and Sister Abigail, and they wear better robes that aren't as worn because they spend less time working in the garden and more time preparing lessons for us.

After school we eat again, some fruit and cheese with milk and bread. I am told this makes me strong to build our community. Then we work in the garden for a few hours, helping water, weed, plant, and harvest. If it is too hot or we get tired, we rest and recover our strength. In the summer they only let us work a few hours because the heat is terrible, even in the cover of junipers and in the shade of our cabins.

By the time the sun drops behind the plateau I am hungry and tired and can't even think about playing with other children who might have more energy. We eat more stew, this time with a little meat, and drink milk for strength. By now the darkness is near and a fire is built in the middle of the compound. We gather and listen to stories told by many brothers and sisters about how our home is beautiful and essential.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The door

I sit in my coffin of a flat and drink barley sochu and watch television I don't understand because there is nothing else to do at sunrise. When I knock the bottle over the clear liquid spills onto the torn tatami floor, puddles for a hesitant moment, and disappears between the gaps in the mat leaving only a wet stain and a regretful odor.

The early sun is oppressive, the harbinger of one of those awful days that everyone loves, where the alley beneath my patio buzzes with smoke and airy foreign voices, inevitably commenting on just how beautiful of a day it is. I force my curtains shut and collapse on the bed while personalities on the screen across from me giggle like children being chased in a park. Cartoon suns with broad smiles dance across the screen with predictions of gentle weather, ignoring the ominous clouds with equally-ominous smiles at the back end of the week.

Two mouthfuls of sochu are left in the bottle. I gulp the first and take the second into my cheeks until they blow out wide. Droplets dribble from my full mouth and down my cheeks and neck. I imagine I look something like a squirrel, prudently ignoring the suns on the screen and saving his hoard for the dark times on the horizon. But then greed gets the better of me and I force the rest down my throat until my eyes and nose burn and I'm sputtering sochu on the sheets.

I light a Seven Stars and lazily smoke, waiting for the drink to kick my brain. The few drinks already in me are the warm-up, a pleasant, floating feeling. Next comes a pressure on the front of my face and elation. The road gets rocky from there, but right now everything is pleasant and smoke hangs above my bed like a netting waiting to be unfurled.

Bang bang bang. A knock on my door. No, a pounding. Someone with purpose. I take a deep drag on my cigarette. Do I get up? Bang bang bang. Perhaps it's the landlord, although rent's not due for another week. Or maybe it's my neighbor for whatever reason he has to bother me. Did I wake him? Doubtful. He needs to get ready for work. Bang bang bang bang. This person is insistent. Now I'm curious. Maybe the building's on fire. That could be fun. I sigh and rise from the bed.

"I'm coming, I'm coming," I mumble. On the way to the door I stop at the refrigerator and pull a can of Asahi. Sochu's working, but not fast enough. This will speed things up. "Hang on!" I say a bit louder. I pop the top and drink and the beer spills out of my mouth and runs down my chin and bare chest.

I amble to the door, lean forward, and peer into the peep hole. Empty. I open the door and look out into the hallway and it's the same emptiness, a gray concrete and stucco corridor. Around the corner I think I might hear heavy footsteps, maybe a man wearing boots or carrying around significant weight. I stand for a minute and let the breeze that pushes already-warm air down the hallway run over my face and chest. Then I nub out my cigarette on the door frame, sip my beer, and retreat into my hovel.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


"You're American?" The question comes from a woman's voice as I ponder apples in the produce section.

"That's what I hear," I respond without looking up.

The apples fascinate me and I'm hungry so I take one in each hand, weighing them against each other, rolling them in my palms. Each is doubly wrapped. The first layer is a thick foam webbing to protect to protect from bruising. Second comes a mummification of plastic wrap, ensuring the apple cannot escape its destiny to be purchased and eaten.

"Do you live nearby?" Her speech is insistent yet unrefined. The words fall out of her mouth like heavy marbles, slowly, clinking against each other, fighting to get in the correct order as they roll along.

"In a building down the street, above the Enzo bar." Instead of trying to describe the intersection or the building exactly, I find people respond better when I tell them my location in relation to landmarks like the wine and beer bar that's housed in my building's first floor.

"Enzo!" She squeaks. "Nice place."

I look up into round eyes and a smiling face. The woman can't be much older than I am and wears a blue apron emblazoned with "LAWSON" in bold white letters. Her perfume has hints of vanilla. "You work here?" I ask the dumb, obvious question.

"Yup!" she beams with a smile to melt the wrapping around my apples.

"Do many of your colleagues speak English?"

"Colleagues," she struggled out the word.

I point to another Lawson employee shelving jars of pasta sauce. "Other workers."

"Oh! No. Only me."

She holds out a flimsy-looking plastic bag and nods. I deposit my two apples inside, giving them a third layer to protect them from spoilage, exposure, and Act of God.

"Thanks," I say, taking the bag.

"Ayame," she points to her chest and her name tag, where two dense, white block characters built from many linked lines characters are stamped onto a blue background. "My name."


She waves and leans her head to the left with a smile. "Good to meet you!"

And then she flits off, vanishing between two pallets and behind a tall shelf, out of sight, leaving me holding the bag of apples.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The veranda

I chain-smoke Seven Stars cigarettes on my diminutive veranda, squeezing my feet sideways because they won't fit any other way. A rusting, corrugated metal wall separates me from my neighbors, who proudly own an identical outcropping that juts a foot or two from their equally coffin-like tube of an apartment. The metal is splashed rudely with sky-blue paint, heavier in some patches and thinner in others.

A couple lives next to me. The man is young and wears inexpensive suits he purchases in a bag as demoed by pale mannequins at clothing stores in acridly-let underground malls adjacent to a subway stations. He's drunk when he returns from work outings with his colleagues and demands more sake. I sip Suntory and smoke while leaning over the railing that guards my veranda, listening to him inhale his drink in sloppy gulps that's more akin to a dog lapping water from a dish.

The wife asks him where he was, a question he avoids at first. He's only a few feet away from me now, having slipped out onto the veranda for a smoke of his own. Our lighters click in time and smoke drifts above and below the corrugated metal. I taste the Camel on his lips and my own Seven Stars stick. The wife's voice trembles as she tries asking the question again, but then there are words I don't understand tinged with unmistakable drunken rage followed by a clap as he slaps her. I cringe, finish my whiskey, and pour myself another.

The suits the man purchases are thin enough that you can see the outline of his undershirt and any sweat stains that develop over the course of an exhausting day and night working and drinking. They also don't quite fit, bulging around the gut and waist. He tucks them in obsessively trying to hide these facts. Plastic, too-new and similarly-cheap shoes and briefcase complete the ensemble and clash hideously with his tar-stained teeth and liquor-drenched sags under his eyes.

When I'm out on the veranda during the day and her salaryman husband is away at work, the wife sings. Cracking the sliding glass door to her veranda a few inches, she cleans house and belts a tune in words I don't understand. Her voice wobbles at times, untrained but perfect for the tiniest of Tokyo flats with only me as an audience. I know she knows I listen, and I'm glad that she knows and I think that probably makes her happy. The words have an airy tone, rising like the smoke from my cigarette but not dispersing in the breeze, instead carried from the room, down the alley that runs beneath our apartments, and away into the city.

I flick my cigarette over the railing, close my eyes, and lean my head back and let her wash me with water from a well sunk deep into the earth and filled to the brim with sadness.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Imperial Palace

When I awake it's still dark with not even the hints of light cracking the stout shadows cast down on my building by neighboring skyscrapers. My apartment smells stale, like medicine and sweat, and I throw open the window over my bed, which pops with an audible suction gasp as bad air escapes.

I shower and dress in near-darkness, only allowing for yellowed light from the bulbous lamp on the dresser across from my bed. It doesn't adequately do the job, but I don't want to let my neighbors or passers-by on the street that I'm already awake. That sort of knowledge breeds questions that I'd rather not have asked in silence while people stare at the door to my complex. The man in 302 was up before the sun, they think, playing detective in their minds. What does that gaijin do while others sleep?

While I peel on clothes I boil water for my instant coffee, and when it's done I sip it on my unmade bed and listen to the garbage trucks begin their runs on nearby alleys, the cracking of metal on metal serving as an alarm clock for anyone within earshot. The coffee tastes like wet dirt, so I add some Suntory Yellow from the bottle conveniently kept next to my bed. The sickly sweetness evens things out, the mix of caffeine and alcohol holding hands as they slide down my throat and shoot into my veins.

Sunrise means Saturday. Saturday means I go to the Imperial Palace. I leave my apartment and descend into Bakurocho station just as streaks of sun first reflect off the glass of the apartment buildings behind me. In my backpack I have a thermos of more instant coffee mixed with Suntory, a cap for when the sun rises high enough to beat on my thinned hairline, and a notepad with several ball-point pens if I decide I want to take notes. I hop the JR Line and the air's just as stale as in my apartment, only this is a prolonged staleness, pushed around by trains to the point where it smells and tastes normal while you huddle between salarymen leaving for another day in the office.

I get off the train about a mile from the Palace. Although I could end up closer, I like the brisk walk; it helps me wake up and gives the sun time to fully take its place -- although, as usual, the financial district skyscrapers adjacent to the Palace grounds snatch daylight and give everything a sickly pallor. The salarymen who got off the JR Line with me push their coats together and lean into the breeze funneled between pillars of glass and stone, their briefcases held behind them, lugged like it's cuffed to their hands and weighs more than they can manage.

Water encases the Palace grounds in an old-fashioned moat. I sit on a stone guardrail on one of the many bridges over the water and picture a scenario involving the financial salarymen banding together and retreating into the palace for safety in the case of some ineffable disaster or a stock market collapse. In either case, I sit on the stone as they rush along, drinking my coffee mixture. As they pass I'm sure one Samaritan stops and shouts something at me in hurried Japanese that I don't understand. His tie is undone and he never quite stops moving away from whatever terror sets out against him. I wave him off and light a Seven Stars cigarette. He runs off as I blow smoke and the sun finally crests one of their monoliths and embraces my face in warmth.

I eventually continue into the Palace, and that's when I hear it. Beginning as a dull whir not unlike a low-flying airplane, the noise gets louder the farther I walk. I light a cigarette and inhale deeply. A colored blur between the trees and my smoke catches my eyes; my pace quickens.

The road before the Imperial Palace is a a long, narrow oval loop of more than a mile filled with men and women on bicycles of every conceivable shape and size. Many are sporty and fast, piloted expertly by individuals forcing bodies into stretchy spandex clothes and hunched over handlebars, leaning into turns trying to gather as much speed as possible and show off for each other. Others are unwieldy, steered by wobbly-handed children on training wheels while their doting parents amble behind and laugh. Together they are a harmony of color and noise that you can't see during the week because the road's open to normal traffic.

I close my eyes and lay on the grass under a massive zelkova tree and nothing's in my mind. Not salarymen fleeing unknown horror. Not the garbage trucks banging around outside my apartment. Not any judgments against a gaijin cramped away. I just smoke and sip my coffee mix and listen to the sound of the bikes as they blaze past, the chorus of shifting gears and spinning wheels on asphalt.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The elevator

The sun sets. Shinjuku is bright but only selectively, a flashlight flicking on and off between spots you're not supposed to see at night. I wander until I look up and the Kinokuniya bookstore shoots out of the ground before me, a hive of brick and soft shoes plodding fixed lines in and out. I bite my nails and watch the people come and go like ants as I prepare to join them.

I enter the store and make straight for the elevator. I go inside and count the buttons from the bottom until I get to number five. I take a deep breath, hold it, and press the button. An amber bulb flicks to light and off I go.

Elevators are curious. Each time the door closes and opens, I wonder if I've left behind my reality. Have I stepped into an alternative universe where things are mostly identical except for one critical component I don't realize has changed? The thought makes me anxious and I bite at my thumbnail.

I'm alone for four seconds until the elevator shudders to a stop and the doors swing outward on the third floor. A mother and a child enter wearing matching salmon-colored skirts. The elevator is narrow, little more than a phone booth, so the woman and I are nearly touching without trying.

The door shuts. Reaching past me to press the eighth, top button, the woman's hand brushes against my arm. My head snaps up instinctively. Sumimasen, she says. I nod but don't look away and we stare at each other. Her high cheekbones are painted with touches of foundation to cover any blemishes and her lips shine with gloss that smells faintly of lychee, all offset by obsidian hair. She finally has the decency to blush and that's my cue to realize how absurd I must appear staring at her in an elevator.

The door opens once more on the fifth floor and I rush off. I look back and the girl waves at me with one hand while clutching her mother's salmon skirt with the other. I scrunch my face. Am I smiling? The mother and I make eye contact once more. I think I might be blushing now.

The girl waves until the door slides shut and the elevator and the elevator continues its journey without me.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The platform

The platform at Tsukiji is a knit mass of humanity, a collection both perfectly still but also humming with tiny, insect-like movements. There's a way people stand in anticipation, leaning slightly forward and peering out of the corners of their eyes, waiting for something to change but not wanting to delay its onset. A watched pot, and all.

The woman in front of me has long black hair that shines dully under the fluorescent lights and runs down to her back. Wind from the coming train down the tunnel buffets her hair and pushes it to the right, into the arm and shoulders of a man who loosely holds her hand.

A man's at my side. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder. He tries to hide his cough beneath his gauze mask, but his whole body shudders, rattling down his body, from his pressed three-piece charcoal suit to the black umbrella with its brown faux-leather tip.

The train arrives. More wind carries across the platform and we all sway like wildflowers in a breeze, hair, suits, and coats. I can't see the man behind me, but I hear him shift his folded newspaper from his left armpit to his right armpit and huff a short sigh.

The train is six cars long and when it comes to rest before us is when the frenzy begins. I face the fourth car from the front, the doors open, and out spill the salarymen, shoppers, and even a couple gaijin like me. Stuffed into the packed compartment, they flood out like a wave crashes on a breaker, finding cracks between waiting passengers to move, brushing aside me in spaces I didn't know could fit them.

For a few seconds the train is only part-full, a vacuum about to be filled. There's a silence that lasts for the time it takes to check my watch to see how long it will last. This is the only moment where everything is completely still and I hold my breath because I couldn't breathe even if I want to.

Then the train's speakers chime and I surge forward, and the water that just flowed out ebbs back, carrying me into the train and out and away from the station, no longer one in a densely packed mass. Suits stitch together, umbrellas interlace, and hair and skin become a tangle of flesh and mass where one person is indistinguishable from the next.

I'm the sagging-faced salaryman commuting an hour each way to work and unable to get a seat, clutching my briefcase lest it be torn from my hands and carried off beyond my grasp. I'm the young mother burying her child's face in her purple blouse while I bury my face in his shoulder and rock back and forth, held up by larger men who also can't move.

I'm the woman from the platform with the long hair who has lost the hand of her companion. I'm the man whose newspaper has fallen to the ground and is unrecoverable. I'm the man in the dapper suit with a cough that shakes the train starting at the tip of his umbrella. I'm the young white gaijin with the nonetheless receding hair and a burgeoning beer gut clinging to a hanging hand-hold, eyes wide.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Super Dry

Asahi Super Dry tastes like I imagine I look when I'm done drinking it: Spent and unpalatable yet somehow still managing to allure.

I remove the packet of cold tempura from the plastic 7-11 bag and shove it past my balled up gloves into my coat pocket. All that's left is the can and a sloshing, bubble-burning noxiousness.

The bag's for modesty. Opaque and green and white, it covers all but the metallic can top. Who are we fooling? Anyone bothering a glance would know I'm sitting on a low stone wall in an alley adjacent to the store; it doesn't hide anything.

They don't look; they never do. Eyes-to-shoes so polished you could lose a staring contest with yourself. Any that do happen a glance see through me, just another part of the alley, blending back into stained rock and leftover puddles from overnight rain.

I drink the Super Dry slowly, savoring each disgusting, tinny sip until only a few mouthfuls remain.

I can't remember what my goal was when I first got to Tokyo. Sure, I know what I tell people, about research and immersion and interviews that generate hours of materials I've failed to transcribe. But that was ages ago, back up a churning series of train transfers and cold nights where the rain seeps into the cracks and begins to dissolve anything it touches.

Across from my at the alley's mouth there's a tomato red post office box. People trickle up to it almost haphazardly with a look of bemusement on their faces. like depositing the paper in their hands is a confusing afterthought. One man approaches and dumps dozens of small envelopes in the box. He's as red as it is, and his fat face looks like it has invisible hands squeezing it from every conceivable direction.

Once fat face plods off, I finish my Super Dry and walk to the post box. I pull back the metal lid and shove it inside, bag and all, watching it disappear and hearing the satisfying clink as it settles on the heap of freshly-deposited letters.

I take one of my Seven Stars from my pocket and light it up as I return to my perch in the alley.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The nurse

The woman on the Ginza Line wears a surgical mask that covers her nose, mouth, and most of her chin. She could be a nurse, with that eggshell jacket over grey pants. I bet she has a cute mouth under that nickel's worth of filtration fabric, the kind that curves up a little even when she's not smiling.

I should introduce myself. Maybe I wink and tell her I have an illness. That probably earns me a slap, or she pulls the emergency stop lever, sending the train into a lurch a few hundred yards shy of the station. The people on the platform would lean over the cautionary yellow lines and gawk at the train that stopped short. That is, if she understands me at all and my words win more than a puzzled glance.

We're alone in the car. She reads a glossy, crumpled copy of Vogue. An airbrushed vixen as pale as the moon's on the cover. I don't recognize her.

The train stops at Shinjuku station and she gets off. It's not my stop, but for some reason I get off too. I think I'm bored. I could use a drink.

I follow my nurse at a distance. Pachinko parlor lights shine like stars in my eyes because in the city there are no stars and sometimes no sky. When she stops to poke around a newstand I buy a pack of Seven Stars from a vending machine and light one. The smoke burns and dances down the back of my throat.

She descends down a random stairway. The back-lit sign above reads "BAR: Second Chances" with what I guess are the appropriate characters beneath in angular faux brush-strokes painted in thick black lines. It's too perfect. I leisurely finish my cigarette, flick it away, and follow her down.

I emerge into the bar. What does she do? Scream? I might scream if I realized someone was following me. Then I'd probably get perplexed looks from a hive of salarymen that would rather watch their shoes or follow precise lines from home to work and back again. That lanky white man, they'd think in words I don't know. Does lanky even translate? Baka gaijin.

The room would be better lit if not for the smoke like a veil on the lights. It's sterile otherwise, with white walls accented by red and blue lights that take turns going on and off through the haze. Of course this a place a nurse would come.

My nurse doesn't scream or even notice me. She sits at the end of the bar. There are a few others in the narrow bar, but they're no concern. Her mask is off and she's smoking a cigarette and rotating a pack of Camels in her hand. She even already has a drink, a full glass of pale amber, maybe umeshu.

I sit three stools away from her. Why risk it? I raise my hand and order an Asahi, dropping a 500 yen coin that rumbles and settles on the opaque plastic bartop.

"Weren't you on the train?" I only turn my head at the slightest angle when I speak. Her posture stiffens. She heard me but doesn't respond.

My drink arrives and I nod to the bartender. He's small and twitchy. Like me. Only his hair's luxurious and nearly draped over his eyes.

"The Ginza Line?" I try again, still not looking at her. "Don't worry, I'm not following you or anything like that." I laugh a little too hard, and when I realize it I pull another Seven Stars and light up. She's inching away, leaning into the wall on her left like she's hoping it will swallow her up and take her away. Sometimes I wish the same thing for myself.

Sumimasen, she mumbles.

"Gotcha," I say. Can't press my luck. My Asahi's barely cold and I drink it in ten straight gulps. Each tastes like smoke. The bartender and my nurse both watch. He's astonished and I can't see her eyes which are hiding behind the smoke wafting from her Camel. Sumimasen, I tell her.

I stumble back from my stool and leave without looking back. Her cigarette hangs limply from her mouth. It's beautiful, by the way, just a bit upturned. Like I always imagined.

Friday, January 24, 2014


I wake up like I never slept. The fluorescent lights above me flicker to life one at a time over several seconds. It's not quite dark outside, but it's not morning.

I sit on the edge of my bed and open a rainbow can of coffee that I bought last night from the vending machine in anticipation of this exact moment. Cold and sweet syrup runs down my chin with the first, awkward sip.

There's a lowball glass on the bedside table next to a half-full, face-down flask bottle of Suntory yellow. I pour the glass halfway full of gold and dump in enough coffee drink to put the liquid line just below the rim, stirring with my right index finger as I go. I suck on my finger and get a hint of what's to come.

The mix is astringent and sweet, but the coffee cuts the burn of that first 6 a.m. drink going down rough. I down somewhere between a third and half the glass in one big gulp and refill it with more Suntory.

At this point the color's not too far from the yellow label on the bottle, a creamy, washed-out dandelion. Half of the glass disappears in the next surge, but with the pump primed it all goes down so easy.

I sit for long minutes staring down into the glass. The sun's only just clawing its way out from behind the blockade of buildings outside my window above my bed. Come to think of it, the first wisps look like the bottle, too.

One more surge and the glass is empty. I drop it sideways onto the nightstand and stumble to my feet. I feel a power slosh down to my feet and up to my head for a moment before finally settling in my stomach.

I wipe my mouth on my bare arm, pull on my jeans, and grab my wallet and keys from on the nightstand. The rainbow coffee can's still in my hands, so I take a final slug to even things out and drop the can on the carpet.

By then the sun's earnestly peeking above the buildings and has found its way to my window.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Seven Stars

I removed the last Seven Stars stick from its package and shoved it between my lips. "Never enough," I mumbled to no one in particular as I took out a faded baby blue lighter from my green and white flannel shirt pocket and lit the cigarette. Although the Seven Starts container was empty, I bundled it with the lighter and put both back in my shirt pocket.

I sat on a splintering bench next to a lime green vending machine emblazoned with Tommy Lee Jones' stern, wrinkled face over the word BOSS. The marketing always worked on me, and I scrounged 180 yen among ten small coins and fed them one-by-one into a slot just below the face. The slot clicked receipt of each coin until they were all deposited and I pushed the button for a Rainbow Mountain Blend, whereupon the machine hummed to life and spat out my drink with an appreciative thunk.

The can warmed my hand and my face as I took turns sipping the coffee and inhaling small drags of my cigarette. Each action brought pain to my cracked lips, but I didn't care about that or the spots of blood on the Seven Stars filter.

"Man got a quick spot for me?" A voice said in perfect English. I looked up into an ancient face full of so many bends and divots it seemed more a series of used up riverbeds running through steep, pock-marked canyons. Was this the man talking? Had Tommy Lee Jones peeled himself off the machine to ask me for some change?

"I'm all out," I replied, shaking my rainbow can at him.

"Then how about a smoke." His eyes were big and black; in them I saw my reflection in miniature, from balding head with wisps of hair to the pinprick of light on the tip of my cigarette. "One little pick-me-up?"

I laughed and tapped ash. "Just lit my last one."

He grunted with each movement as he sat down next to me on the bench. "Never enough," he said.

I took a big drag on the cigarette, tapped the ash one more time, and stuck it out to him as I exhaled a thick cloud. There was no wind, so the smoke hung in the air before us.

"Thanks son," the old man said, taking the cigarette and shoving it roughly between his lips. He leaned back and blew smoke above us. "Seven Stars?" I nodded and sipped my coffee. "Always my favorite."

"Glad to hear it."

"Why do you think they call it Seven Stars, anyway?" he asked with a smile that stretched the lines on his face to the point where he looked less like hardened stone and more the man he might have once been.

"It's just a name."

"So's Kaito," he said tapping his chest. "My name. My father gave it to me. But it's meaning also varies depending on how you write it out." He inhaled more smoke until the cigarette was reduced to just a filter, which he dropped at his feet while pushing out a rush of smoke from his lungs. "I always sort of thought it meant soaring over the ocean."

"Soaring over the ocean?" I finished the coffee and continued to cradle the rainbow can in my hands. The colors were reflective like abalone, shooting pearly metallic patches of reds, greens, and blues on my hands where any light connected.

"It makes me feel free."

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


"Your lips are as red and juicy as this limp fish," I said.

"Really?" Janice stared at me down the bridge of her nose but above her tortoiseshell glasses.

"Gorgeous." Holding the headless, gutted fish close to my face so the brown wax paper that held it brushed against my cheek, I puckered my lips and moved them rapidly.

"Cut it out Benjamin." She tried to suppress a giggle but failed. Her hair was the color of creamed coffee and bounced on her shoulders as she laughed.

"My darling," I said as I held the fish out to her. Between my squeezed-together lips, the words sounded vaguely tinged with a bad French accent.

"Get it done with already," she blurted between laughs.

I handed the unwrapped carcass back to the woman with purple hair behind the glass counter. Her ivory name tag said "Vanessa" in blocky crimson letters the same-color as the snaking veins in her bloodshot eyes. I guessed she was more tired than annoyed with my antics.

"Will that be all," Vanessa sighed out, more a statement than a question. Her hair was dyed a light purple the color of children's cough medicine. The too-cold, recirculated air in the market tasted faintly of the thin, sticky syrup my parents would give me with the slightest sign of almost any illness.

"Sure thing," I said.

Vanessa weighed the fish, wrapped it with more of the brown wax paper, and stuck it with a price tag from a little machine that spat sticker price-tags. She handed me the completed package. I nodded to her and turned my head to Janice.

"I believe this is yours?" I handed the wrapped fish to Janice, who used it to smack the back of my head before dropping it into the blue carrying bin that sat by her feet.

"Now that you're done, let's get some beer and get out of here," she said.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Jamison lay on the ground and spread dead leaves like a quilt across his legs and stomach. Once candy red mixed with pale yellow, the leaves were now were uniformly brown as the year pushed deeper into winter. Each day colored the ground another, darker shade as no new leaves fell and the ones on the ground faded.

The leaves were dry and each gust of wind pushed around the top layer. To his eyes it seemed like his blanket was alive and moving. The olive-colored tips of his boots stuck out from under the leaves, and when he tried to wiggle his toes he found it difficult given how the boots were a little too tight on his feet.

Above Jamison was the only visible tree with any foliage left, a striking pine that jutted toward the sky as if challenging wind and cold. He imagined it was strident about how the rest of its neighbors were taken apart one bright leaf at a time. A few thick green-to-brown needles were interspersed between the other leaves on the ground, but they must be inconsequential to such a mighty tree, single skirmishes lost in an endless war it was winning.

With the sun filtering down through the needles and branches, Jamison curled into a ball under the leaves and slept.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The waterfall

I couldn't see more than a dozen feet ahead as I forced my way past branches like massive claws that raked my face. The light from my pen flashlight hit up against the fog between trees that settled in as the temperature dropped. It could have been a harbinger of coming rain, but my bald spot was cold and cracked and always the first to know when rain arrived.

As I walked, I began to hear a hum. From afar it was gentle, like the earth exhaling a never-ending sigh. Forging ahead, I soon recognized the noise of a waterfall, relentless water pounding on stone. Stumbling between tricky rocks that jutted out suddenly like a prankster's leg, the sound grew into a rumbling roar, a shout in the dark both beckoning and warning.

Then the world gave way, feet under mossy boulders, down an endless slope, face to earth. Wet dirt shot up my nose and forged its way between the cracks in my teeth. There was a momentary ringing in my ears that soon blended the deafening sound that blocked all others.

My flashlight was lost. I groped in the dark, but each movement of my hand was like a limb pushing through water. Instinct drove the search, as I could barely think over the noise of the falls. My face and the top of my head were wet with chilled, beaded drops that banded together and found their way to my face's grooves and rushed down like fast tears.

The waterfall was unyielding. Each movement was met by angry shouts drilling holes in my eardrums. I think I screamed, but it was impossible to hear whether or not that actually was the case.

I shook my head in an attempt to think clearly. I looked down at my watch only to realize that, without light, the dial would be impossible to read. It was supposed to be only hours from sunrise, but that felt like a lie told by my memory so I could remember there were places in this world not made of darkness and sound.

Abandoning my search for the flashlight, I clutched my knees, curled into a ball, and tried to fight thoughts through the waterfall's blockade one thought at a time.