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.