[Originally published in Prism International]
Yamamoto had not wanted to break up the work party, which is why he stayed until its end. When he arrived at Umeda station there were only four minutes to spare before the last train of the night would set off.
None of his colleagues had known Yamamoto wasn’t feeling well, sitting tall in his charcoal grey Armani suit in the izakaya booth. But then none would have claimed to really know Yamamoto in any personal way at all. They certainly wouldn’t have known that at the best of times going for after-work dinner and drinks at the pub wasn’t exactly the thirty-one-year-old’s favourite hobby. That he only ever had a single glass of beer at these all too common outings was of course joked about, but Yamamoto was such a good sport, laughing along, no one realized the young manager would rather have been at home.
The guys from the office liked talking about sports, baseball, soccer, so Yamamoto, who sometimes worried he came across as too work-oriented, would talk about his fitness routine: weight training and swimming 1500 metres every day before work. Yamamoto liked describing the specifics of his exercise regimen; it was easy conversation that wasn’t gossip or overly personal. Better to answer his colleagues’ probing questions about fitness than deal with inane ones about appearance. His co-workers, old and young alike, often made wisecracks about Yamamoto’s looks, and there was always an element of truth in their envy-tinged teasing. A favourite witticism involved asking about the quantity of seaweed he’d eaten as a child – the old myth about seaweed doing wonders for the luster of one’s hair. But really, what was his secret? They wanted to know. It was genetic, wasn’t it? Yamamoto had to admit it probably was.
One thing he didn’t share with his coworkers was his love of reading, in particular long nineteenth century English novels. He read them in Japanese, of course. He’d never been strong with languages. It didn’t matter. There were plenty of good translations, especially for Dickens. His favourite, though, was Trollope. Trollope for the everyday details of English life that took Yamamoto to that far off world. Trollope and a cup of English tea in his armchair by the window of his carpeted living room–that was the young salaryman’s idea of a perfect night. But he knew his colleagues wouldn’t understand. As he wasn’t yet married, they’d think him strange choosing not to join them more often.
On this night, though, a rather wet and muggy Thursday, he had to be out. Had to go along with his department at least a couple times a month. And as per always, he did so with good posture and social grace, his new navy silk pocket square in place to match the shiny blue of his new blue tie. He knew how often to smile and when to laugh, all the cues necessary to ensure everyone that he was having a great old time in the downtown Osaka izakaya. Anything not to burden the group, especially with something as embarrassing as a little stomach discomfort. It wasn’t easy, however, to hide the wince-inducing churns his stomach kept going through. Hard to laugh in that kind of situation or not feel a little isolated from everyone else. His head kept repeating its concern over the cramping. And now there were bouts of nausea as well. Was it one of the dishes he had eaten? The oysters?
Rushing off the escalator he shook out his long black umbrella with three quick, hard shakes, before wrapping it tight and buttoning it up. With equal deftness, he swiped his train pass through the card reader and raced down to Track Four where his train was waiting patiently. There were still three and a half minutes, but Yamamoto hurried, hoping to find a seat, afraid he might otherwise faint out on the platform in his best suit for all to see.
Up ahead an older man walked quickly, clearly on the same seat-finding mission. A thin-waisted man, he wore a chocolate brown corduroy jacket over a beige shirt tucked into brown pants he had hiked much too high. His grey sneakers had big looped laces, also grey, that flopped with each step he took. Instead of a briefcase, the old man had a white plastic shopping bag hanging from his wrist, banging against his leg with each step. The ojii-san walked at a good clip for a man his age but Yamamoto knew there would be no competition. He passed the old man easily, accidentally bumping him with his briefcase as he did. In fact, he bumped the ojii-san rather hard, and would have apologized had he not been so desperate to sit.
It was the last seat on the last car of the train, and for a brief moment Yamamoto closed his eyes in thanks. He had managed to squeeze into the narrow space in the middle of one of the soft moss-coloured benches that ran from one set of car doors to the next. He squeezed his way down between a high school girl in her tartan uniform and a heavy middle-aged man wearing a forest green suit that looked about two decades out of style. The man, in glasses with gold frames so big they covered half his cheeks, reeked of whiskey.
The doors hadn’t yet closed when Yamamoto was hit by another round of nausea. People continued streaming onto the train, but Yamamoto didn’t notice. He had hung his head in his hands to close out the world, anything to block out the smell—the rank, sour smell coming out the pores of the drunken fat man beside him—a stench too similar to his father for Yamamoto to ignore. He took a breath to calm himself.
Closing his eyes tight, Yamamoto tried to concentrate on his stomach. He just had to control it. Just control it. Like the waves of nausea that kept coming up, so too now were childhood memories he wished would go away. Sickness was not something his father would abide. Crying was even worse. Yamamoto berated himself, commanded himself to swallow it down and just, Sit up straight! It didn’t work. The nausea was making him dizzy, as if he were caught out on a small boat in the middle of a dark windswept sea instead of a still unmoving train. It felt like a nasty bit of karma when he opened his eyes to find the ojii-san he’d bumped on the platform standing right in front of him, holding the rubber ring above him. Yamamoto quickly averted his eyes, afraid the guy had come to stand there and glare down at him. Only after he braved a quick upward glance did he realize the old guy wasn’t even looking in his direction. Yamamoto saw the hunched way the man stood, the frailty of the old man, of old men. The shopping bag hanging heavy from the man’s wrist, the six small hard-covered books Yamamoto could make out through the plastic that were weighing the tired, old man down. Of course the ojiisan had to be a reader, Yamamoto thought. The scruffy mismatched clothes, the plastic bag. Why did so many of the men who read on trains have to look like pathetic old homeless people? Still, Yamamoto knew he should give up his seat. He would have too if he didn’t have such a stomachache.
* * *
Nakamura was seventy-years-old but still worked everyday except Mondays when his two major outings were grocery shopping and going for a walk up to the temple on the hilltop near his house. Early that Thursday morning, still lying in his bed half-asleep, Nakamura knew it would be that kind of day—when artificial lights would be necessary the gloomy way through. It wasn’t raining yet when he awoke. The only rain that would fall throughout the day would fall in a thin drizzle that couldn’t satisfy the low hanging clouds with any sort of release. The morning commute was more unpleasant than usual, what with the humid weather and the lack of air conditioning. The Hankyu Railway wouldn’t turn it on until May; it didn’t matter how hot the last few days of April had been.
Nakamura tended the book shop himself. This wasn’t what bothered him; in fact he knew to be relieved at the distraction work brought. To pass the quiet, grey morning he stood at the store counter with a cup of coffee, his radio tuned softly to a classical station as he scoured the newspaper movie listings. It was after work that he was preparing for.
At twenty past seven in the evening, after Nakamura had swept the floor and dusted the counter and bookshelves, he locked up his shop and took with him yet another selection of books he had still to read. Like the Monday walks he took exclusively to his neighbourhood temple, Nakamura was compulsive about his need for a wide selection of books to choose from each night when he read in bed. Dependent on his particular mood he would pick from no less than 15 or 20 books he would have going at any given time.
Financial constraints usually kept him eating his dinners at home, but he could only make a late show tonight, and didn’t feel like he could wait till afterward to eat. It had always been a shock to his late brother that he could cook. His ex-wife and her friends—her friends because she had known them first and because they stopped being his friends after the divorce—used to tell him he had a knack for Italian food. They had adored his carbonara, and he had loved making it for them. Now though, he cooked only simple (usually boiled) Japanese dishes for dinner, muchhot potthrough the winter. For lunch he liked to make himself omelets. He preferred making foods that didn’t go well with wine. He didn’t drink anymore. Hadn’t for years. Now when he was blue he went to the movies.
Wet, and still angry with himself for losing yet another umbrella (left on that morning’s train), he brushed through the curtained entranceway of a tiny yakitoriplace and sat himself on a stool at the counter. There were no tables in the place. There was only enough room for the wooden counter , skewers of chicken sizzling on the hot grill behind. Nakamura wiped off his hands and face with the cool, wet towel he was given and, after ordering his food, released a large sigh. Two young salarymen looked over before resuming their conversation with the proprietor. Nakamura wished someone would have a conversation with him.
After dinner, he bought a bottle of cold green tea and a two hundred yen box of chocolate almonds in the sterile white glare of a convenience store. He took them through the mild rain and into the darkness of the giant old movie house. Nakamura loved this place for its grandiosity, for the red, velvety curtains that framed the screen which felt miles away, the place was so big. The few other audience members present weren’t sitting close to Nakamura so he didn’t have to worry much about the noise he made shaking chocolate almonds from their cardboard container after the movie started. It was a Korean melodrama, lots of tears and beautiful people. The film was supposed to be tragic but it was so pretty and far-removed from reality. Nakamura enjoyed the escapist ease of it.
The sinking feeling returned when he exited the cinema and saw the drizzle coming down under the street lamps. Couldn’t he just snap out of it? More than anything, Nakamura wanted the day to end. He looked at his watch and realized he only had a few minutes to catch the last train of the night.
He moved quickly along the sidewalk, hot and frustrated by the feelings he had no explanation for, his plastic bag of books swinging by his side. As he was boarding the train his shoulder was nearly knocked off by a rude young salaryman who hadn’t even apologized as he rushed by. No one apologized these days, Nakamura thought, as he side-stepped through the crowd and onto the train. He hadn’t noticed the selfish young man when he first walked over, but when he did, it was a strong temptation indeed to glare down at the salaryman. It was a rage Nakamura felt building – a feeling he thought he’d outgrown – a rage at the self-centred ways of the world, boiling up inside of him. When he looked around it was as if the whole train, everyone, looked angry or sad or drunk-awful. No one cared about anyone else anymore. Nakamura knew to catch it though, this angry wave of heating thoughts. He’d put too much conscious effort into his reactions to let something this small work him up. So young people never gave their seats to the elderly anymore—what else was new? He could stand; it was good for him to stand. He’d spent too much of the day sitting anyhow. But still he let out a sigh. Could it never be easy?
The familiar musical warning trumpeted along the platform and in through the open train until its lingering last note when twenty-four sets of car doors closed simultaneously. The train started with a thrust. Yamamoto’s grip tightened on his briefcase, which was on his lap. He looked up as the train exited the terminal station into the spring night. The old man and the other ring holders were bobbing toward Yamamoto and back again in rhythm with the jerky movements of the train. Seeing the outside world suddenly seemed terribly important, like getting an eyeful of fresh air, but the crowd blocked the window view above the opposing seated passengers. Yamamoto couldn’t see a thing. He heard it, though, when the train shrieked and took a sudden turn.
He hurried to unzip his leather briefcase, burrowed his hands deep inside, finding and clenching the empty plastic bag he had used to take fruit to work. He didn’t pull the bag out; he didn’t want to believe he’d have to use it. He closed his eyes, swallowing and swallowing as he did. It had to have been the oysters. He was sure of that. He was less sure that he could hold them down all the way home.
It came up the way a train makes its sudden start. A jerk followed by a thrust. Yamamoto barely managed to hold on to it, sealing his lips and feeling the soft warm-wet food, like porridge, fill his stretched cheeks. That was the jerk. The thrust came as a second jolt went through his stomach and up his throat and out his mouth like a jaundiced waterfall. He retched into the plastic bag, but not the one he had been holding. He hadn’t had time to get it out of his briefcase. It was instead the bag of books the ojji-san standing in front of him had opened and offered for him to use.
The vomit didn’t all land in the bag; a good deal of it splattered across the old man’s one pant leg. The ojii-san wiped himself off with his handkerchief and then offered Yamamoto a hand. “Do-zo,” he said and helped the boy up as the train slowed into the next station. “Here you go.”
Everyone on their car stared as the young salaryman walked through the crowd, wiping the dribble from around his mouth with the sleeve of his Armani suit. He couldn’t use his hands as they were holding shut the two sides of his unzipped briefcase. Nakamura glared at the onlookers. “Mind your manners!” He was still shaking his head as he helped the young man off the train. “They think it’s a bloody television program they can just stare at.”
There was a men’s toilet off the platform and Nakamura quickly moved the boy towards it, hurrying him into the only stall in the empty bathroom.
Yamamoto dropped to his knees at the oval hole that was the squatter’s toilet. He could feel the old man crouch behind him, put a hand on his back as he threw up all over again. There was no way for Yamamoto to move or even arch his back out from under the man’s touch. He was too busy convulsing with aftershocks. Then came the bile. After that nothing but empty gagging. While he stroked Yamamoto’s back, the old man hummed a familiar bit of classical music. It wasn’t Mozart. It was sadder music, gentler even. Chopin, perhaps? Djorak? The music helped calm Yamamoto. So long as the ojii-san kept offering the slow and haunting melody. Take him to that other place. It was enough to keep him kneeling there, even after he’d finished gagging, hunched as he was so close to the floor, his hands—two fists—supporting him against the rubber pads meant for feet on either side of the squatter toilet. But he didn’t move. He didn’t want to, listening to the old guy’s repeated refrain, like the gentle lullaby he’d never been sung to as a child.
Only when the tears came did Yamamoto open his eyes again. He’d not regained as much composure as he hoped, but already he heard himself saying, “Sumimasen. I’m sorry.” He was still facing the toilet, but saying “Gomen Nasai.I’m very sorry.” He tried sniffing the runny snot back up his nose, and for the first time allowed himself to turn his head; it was enough to see the plastic bag still hanging from the old man’s wrist. The ruined books! Suddenly he was that eight-year old boy all over again, his face twisting up in the awful anticipation that came before you got hit for making a mistake. The pain inflicted for all your “feminine” weaknesses, as his father called them whenever Yamamoto began to cry.
“I’ve ruined your books.”
The flat manner with which Yamamoto delivered the line was on account of the fear he was working to hide.
The flinch, however, was all instinct–what he did when a man came in towards him, as the old man did now, to cup a hand over Yamamoto’s shoulder.
“Sh sh sh. Don’t worry about that now. You’re going to be OK,” the ojiisan said. “Sh sh sh. You’re going to be OK.”
“Please,” Yamamoto said, more harshly that he intended, pressing with the back of his hand to hard-wipe away the wet from his upper lip and nose. “Just go.” He shut his eyes tight and the way he was pursing his mouth, his fists, the way his nostrils flared with the air pumping in and out of them. When it came it came to him in full. A complete vision. He saw just exactly what he would do and how he would do it, and how much the doing would satisfy something very deep and something very wrong inside of him.
“I’m happy to help.” It was the old man. He was still talking. “So please, don’t you worry.” The old man was still talking and swaying with rhythm, staying just as close–staying just too close–with Yamamoto. “Don’t you worry now. You’re gonna be OK.”
The ojiisan said, “I’m glad to help,” and it was then that Yamamoto felt the man’s breath at his cheek.
He didn’t hesitate a moment longer. When he got up, he got up so quickly he nearly knocked the old man over in the act. He grabbed his briefcase like he was yanking the hand of a small misbehaved child. The bathroom stall was too narrow for him to pass the old man, though. He had to wait for the ojiisan to hoist himself up off the floor before he could leave. When finally they walked out of the bathroom, Yamamoto watched the old man toss the bag of books in the trash.
“Old and used, anyway, eh?!” The old man laughed.
On the long escalator ride up Nakamuraasked the young salaryman where he lived, if he was anywhere near Takarazuka so that maybe they could share a cab. The young man apologized and said that he unfortunately lived near Uneno off the Nosé line.
“Naruhodo. I see. Never mind then,” Nakamura said. A thought was dawning on him. “I think I might just walk then.”
“Sure.” They had gotten off the escalator and were standing by the turnstiles at the station exit. “Why not?”
“But it would take you almost an hour from here!”
Nakamura smiled “It very well might.”
“But it’s raining.”
“I think I’ll survive,” he said and offered the young man a wink. What heavy burden there had been weighing down his day had finally lifted. A night walk in the rain might in fact be just what he needed.
“Please.” The young salaryman took a five thousand yen bill out of his wallet and moved in toward Nakamura. “For your trouble, so you can take a cab home.”
“Thank you, but I genuinely would rather walk. First exercise I’ve gotten all day.”
“You don’t even have an umbrella. Please. I insist.”
“Now who’s worrying about who?”
They walked out the station together. It was drizzling but warm. The young man apologized and said he had to go. Before he did he opened his expensive looking umbrella and held it out for Nakamura.
“It’s almost big enough for two,” Nakamura joked. This time though he didn’t refuse the offer.
Before the young salaryman set off, Nakamura rummaged through his pants pockets and produced a dog-eared business card. “If ever you’re in the market for an old foreign book,” he said with another wink. “You’re welcome at my store any time. Have a cup of coffee and a chat, eh?”
Yamamoto thanked the man with a deep nod.
He stepped into a waiting cab.
“Evening,” the cabbie said.
Yamamoto didn’t greet the man as he closed the door. “To Takarazuka,” he said looking out the rain soaked window that he unrolled just a crack. He took in a deep breath and turned round to watch as his taxi drove by the old man. In the light rain there was the ojii-san walking brisk and tall under Yamamoto’s large, black umbrella, what looked like a grin on the man’s face. Yamamoto faced forward again, counted 60 seconds in his head, looked through the rearview mirror to make sure the cabbie wasn’t watching and dropped the business card out the window before shutting it tight. He didn’t want to get wet.