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H A R U ë Išš MURAKAMI
Acclaim for H A R U ë Išš MURAKAMI'S
DANCE DANCE DANCE
'An entertaining mix of modern sci-fi, nail-biting suspense, and ancient myth ... a sometimes funny, sometimes sinister mystery spoof . . . [that] also aims at contemporary human concerns.' - Chicago Tribune
'The plot is addictive.' - Detroit Free Press
'There are novelists who dare to imagine the future, but none is as scrupulously, amusingly up-to-the-minute as ... Murakami.' - Newsday
'[Dance Dance Dance] has the fascination of a well-written detective story combined with a surreal dream narrative . . . full of appealing, well-developed characters.'
- Philadelphia Inquirer
'A world-class writer who . . . takes big risks. ... If Murakami is the voice of a generation, then it is the genera-tion of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo.'
- Washington Post Book World
'All the hallmarks of Murakami's greatness are here: restless and sensitive characters, disturbing shifts into altered reality, silky smooth turns of phrase and a narrative with all the momentum of a roller-coaster. . . . This is the sort of page-turner [Mishima] might have written.'
- Publishers Weekly
'[Murakami's] writing injects the rock 'n' roll of everyday language into the exquisite silences of Japanese literary prose.' - Harper's Bazaar
'One of the most exciting new writers to appear on the inter-national scene.' - USA Today
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Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949 and grew up in Kobe. He is the author of A Wild Sheep Chase; Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World; and The Elephant Vanishes. He lives with his wife in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
books by HARUKIš MURAKAMI
South of the Border, West of the Sun
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Dance Dance Dance
The Elephant Vanishes
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
A Wild Sheep Chase
a novel by
translated by Alfred Birnbaum
A Division of Random House, Inc.
FIRST VINTAGE INTERNATIONAL EDITION, FEBRUARYš 1995
Copyright ¿ 1994 by Kodansha International Ltd.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American
Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Originally published in Japanese under the title Dansu Dansu Dansu
by Kodansha Ltd., Tokyo, in 1988. This translation first published in the United States in hardcover by Kodansha America, Inc., New York, in 1994.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Murakami, Haruki, 1949-ššš [ Dansu dansu dansu. English ]
Dance dance dance : a novel / by Haruki Murakami: translated by Alfred Birnbaum.
I. Birnbaum, Alfred.ššš II. Title
PL856. U673D3613ššš 1995
Author photograph ¿ Jerry Bauer
Manufactured in the United States of America 13579886420
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I often dream about the Dolphin Hotel.
In these dreams, I'm there, implicated in some kind of ongoing circumstance. All indications are that I belong to this dream continuity.
The Dolphin Hotel is distorted, much too narrow. It seems more like a long, covered bridge. A bridge stretching endlessly through time. And there I am, in the middle of it. Someone else is there too, crying.
The hotel envelops me. I can feel its pulse, its heat. In dreams, I am part of the hotel.
I wake up, but where? I don't just think this, I actually voice the question to myself: 'Where am I?' As if I didn't know: I'm here. In my life. A feature of the world that is my existence. Not that I particularly recall ever having approved these matters, this condition, this state of affairs in which I feature. There might be a woman sleeping next to me. More often, I'm alone. Just me and the expressway that runs right next to my apartment and, bedside, a glass (five millimeters of whiskey still in it) and the malicious - no, make that indifferent-dusty morning light. Sometimes it's raining. If it is, I'll just stay in bed. And if there's
whiskey still left in the glass, I'll drink it. And I'll look at the raindrops dripping from the eaves, and I'll think about the Dolphin Hotel. Maybe I'll stretch, nice and slow. Enough for me to be sure I'm myself and not part of something else. Yet I'll remember the feel of the dream. So much that I swear I can reach out and touch it, and the whole of that something that includes me will move. If I strain my ears, I can hear the slow, cautious sequence of play take place, like droplets in an intricate water puzzle falling, step upon step, one after the other. I listen carefully. That's when I hear someone softly, almost imperceptibly, weeping. A sobbing from somewhere in the darkness. Someone is crying for me.
The Dolphin Hotel is a real hotel. It actually exists in a so-so section of Sapporo. Once, a few years back, I spent a week there. No, let me get that straight. How many years ago was it? Four. Or more precisely, four and a half. I was still in my twenties. I checked into the Dolphin Hotel with a woman I was living with. She'd chosen the place. This is where we're staying, was what she said. If it hadn't been for her, I doubt I'd ever have set foot in the place.
It was a tiny dump of a hotel. In the whole time we were there, I don't know if we saw another paying customer. There were a couple of characters milling around the lobby, but who knows if they were staying there? A few keys were always missing from the board behind the front desk, so I guess there were other hotel guests. Though not too many. I mean, really, you hang out a hotel sign somewhere in a major city, put a phone number in the business listings, it stands to reason you're not going to go entirely without cus-tomers. But granting there were other customers besides our-selves, they were awfully quiet. We never heard a sound from them, hardly saw a sign of their presence-with the exception of the arrangement of the keys on the board that changed slightly each day. Were they like shadows creeping along the walls of the corridors, holding their breath? Occa-
sionally we'd hear the dull rattling of the elevator, but when it stopped the oppressive silence bore down once more.
A mysterious hotel.
What it reminded me of was a biological dead end. A ge-netic retrogression. A freak accident of nature that stranded some organism up the wrong path without a way back. Evo-lutionary vector eliminated, orphaned life-form left cowering behind the curtain of history, in The Land That Time Forgot. And through no fault of anyone. No one to blame, no one to save it.
The hotel should never have been built where it was. That was the first mistake, and everything got worse from there. Like a button on a shirt buttoned wrong, every attempt to correct things led to yet another fine-not to say elegant- mess. No detail seemed right. Look at anything in the place and you'd find yourself tilting your head a few degrees. Not enough to cause you any real harm, nor enough to seem par-ticularly odd. Who knows? You might get used to this slant on things (but if you did, you'd never be able to view the world again without holding your head out of true).
That was the Dolphin Hotel. Normalness, it lacked. Con-fusion piled on confusion until the saturation point was reached, destined in the not-too-distant future to be swal-lowed in the vortex of time. Anyone could recognize that at a glance. A pathetic place, woebegone as a three-legged black dog drenched in December rain. Sad hotels existed every-where, to be sure, but the Dolphin was in a class of its own. The Dolphin Hotel was conceptually sorry. The Dolphin Hotel was tragic.
It goes without saying, then, that aside from those poor, unsuspecting souls who happened upon it, no one would willingly choose to stay there.
A far cry from its name (to me, the 'Dolphin' sobriquet suggested a pristine white-sugar candy of a resort hotel on the Aegean Sea), if not for the sign hung out front, you'd never have known the building was a hotel. Even with the sign and the brass plaque at the entrance, it scarcely looked
the part. What it really resembled was a museum. A peculiar kind of museum where persons with peculiar curiosities might steal away to see peculiar items on display.
Which actually was not far from the truth. The hotel was indeed part museum. But I ask, would anyone want to stay in such a hotel? In a lodge-cum-reliquary, its dark corridors blocked with stuffed sheep and musty fleeces and mold-covered documents and discolored photographs? Its corners caked with unfulfilled dreams?
The furniture was faded, the tables wobbled, the locks were useless. The floorboards were scuffed, the light bulbs dim; the washstand, with ill-fitting plug, couldn't hold water. A fat maid walked the halls with elephant strides, ponder-ously, ominously coughing. And the sad-eyed, middle-aged owner, stationed permanently behind the front desk, had two fingers missing. The kind of a guy, by the looks of him, for whom nothing goes right. A veritable specimen of the type-dredged up from an overnight soak in thin blue ink, soul stained by misfortune, failure, defeat. You'd want to put him in a glass case and cart him to your science class: Homo nihilsuccessus. Almost anyone who saw the guy would, to a greater or lesser degree, feel their spirits dampen. Not a few would be angered (some folks get upset seeing miserable examples of humanity). So who would stay in that hotel?
Well, we stayed there. This is where we're staying, she'd said. And then later she disappeared. She upped and van-ished. It was the Sheep Man who told me so. Thewomanleftalonethisafternoon, the Sheep Man said. Somehow, the Sheep Man knew. He'd known that she had to get out. Just as I know now. Her purpose had been to lead me there. As if it were her fate. Like the Moldau flowing to the sea. Like rain.
When I started having these dreams about the Dolphin Hotel, she was the first thing that came to mind. She was seeking me out. Why else would I keep having the same dream, over and over again?
She. What was her name? The months we'd spent togeth-er, and yet I never knew. What did I actually know about her? She'd been in the employ of an exclusive call girl club. A club for members only; persons of less-than-impeccable standing not welcome. So she was a high-class hooker. She'd had a couple other jobs on the side. During regular business hours she was a part-time proofreader at a small publishing house; she was also an ear model. In other words, she kept busy. Naturally, she wasn't nameless. In fact I'm sure she went by a number of names. At the same time, practically speaking, she didn't have a name. Whatever she carried- which was next to nothing-bore no name. She had no train pass, no driver's license, no credit cards. She did carry a little notebook, but that was scrawled in an indecipherable code. Apparently she wanted no handle on her identity. Hookers may have names, but they inhabit a world that doesn't need
I hardly knew a thing about her. Her birthplace, her real age, her birthday, her schooling and family background- zip. Precipitate as weather, she appeared from somewhere, then evaporated, leaving only memory.
But now, the memory of her is taking on renewed reality. A palpable reality. She has been calling me via that circum-stance known as the Dolphin Hotel. Yes, she is seeking me once more. And only by becoming part of the Dolphin Hotel will I ever see her again. Yes, there is no doubt: it is she who is crying for me.
Gazing at the rain, I consider what it means to belong, to become part of something. To have someone cry for me. From someplace distant, so very distant. From, ultimately, a dream. No matter how far I reach out, no matter how fast I run, I'll never make it.
Why would anyone want to cry for me?
She is definitely calling me. From somewhere in the Dol-phin Hotel. And apparently, somewhere in my own mind,
the Dolphin Hotel is what I seek as well. To be taken into that scene, to become part of that weirdly fateful venue.
It is no easy matter to return to the Dolphin Hotel, not a simple question of ringing up for a reservation, hopping on a plane, flying to Sapporo, and mission accomplished. For the hotel is, as I've suggested, as much circumstance as place, a state of being in the guise of a hotel. To return to the Dol-phin Hotel means facing up to a shadow of the past. The prospect alone depresses. It has been all I could do these four years to rid myself of that chill, dim shadow. To return to the Dolphin Hotel is to give up all I'd quietly set aside dur-ing this time. Not that what I'd achieved is anything great, mind you. However you look at it, it's pretty much the stuff of tentative convenience. Okay, I'd done my best. Through some clever juggling I'd managed to forge a connection to reality, to build a new life based on token values. Was I now supposed to give it up?
But the whole thing started there. That much was undeni-able. So the story had to start back there.
I rolled over in bed, stared at the ceiling, and let out a deep sigh. Oh give in, I thought. But the idea of giving in didn't take hold. It's out of your hands, kid. Whatever you may be thinking, you can't resist. The story's already decided.
I got sent to Hokkaido on assignment. As work goes, it wasn't terribly exciting, but I wasn't in a position to choose. And anyway, with the jobs that come my way, there's generally very little difference. For better or worse, the further from the midrange of things you go, the less rela-tive qualities matter. The same holds for wavelengths: Pass a certain point and you can hardly tell which of two adjacent notes is higher in pitch, until finally you not only can't dis-tinguish them, you can't hear them at all.
The assignment was a piece called 'Good Eating in Hakodate' for a women's magazine. A photographer and I were to visit a few restaurants. I'd write the story up, he'd supply the photos, for a total of five pages. Well, somebody's got to write these things. And the same can be said for col-lecting garbage and shoveling snow. It doesn't matter wheth-er you like it or not-a job's a job.
For three and a half years, I'd been making this kind of contribution to society. Shoveling snow. You know, cultural snow.
Due to some unavoidable circumstances, I had quit an office that a friend and I were running, and for half a year I did almost nothing. I didn't feel like doing anything. The previous autumn all sorts of things had happened in my life. I got divorced. A friend died, very mysteriously. A woman
ran out on me, without a word. I met a strange man, found myself caught up in some extraordinary developments. And by the time everything was over, I was overwhelmed by a stillness deeper than anything I'd known. A devastating absence hovered about my apartment. I stayed shut-in for six months. I never went out during the day, except to make the absolute minimum purchases necessary to survive. I'd venture into the city with the first gray of dawn and walk the deserted streets, and when the streets started to fill with people, I holed up back indoors to sleep.
Toward evening, I'd rise, fix something to eat, feed the cat. Then I'd sit on the floor and methodically go over the things that had happened to me, trying to make sense of them. Rearrange the order of events, list up all possible alter-natives, consider the right or wrong of what I'd done. This went on until the dawn, when I'd go out and wander the streets again.
For half a year that was my daily routine. From January through June 1979. I didn't read one book. I didn't open one newspaper. I didn't watch TV, didn't listen to the radio. Never saw anyone, never talked to anyone. I hardly even drank; I wasn't in a drinking frame of mind. I had no idea what was going on in the world, who'd become famous, who'd died, nothing. It wasn't that I stubbornly resisted information, I simply had no desire to know anything. Even so, I knew things were happening. The world didn't stop. I could feel it in my skin, even sitting alone in my apartment. Though little did it compel me to show interest. It was like a silent breath of air, breezing past me.
Sitting on the floor, I'd replay the past in my head. Funny, that's all I did, day after day after day for half a year, and I never tired of it. What I'd been through seemed so vast, with so many facets. Vast but real, very real, which was why the experience persisted in towering before me, like a monument lit up at night. And the thing was, it was a monument to me. I inspected the events from every possible angle. I'd been damaged, badly, I suppose. The damage was not petty. Blood
had flowed, quietly. After a while some of the anguish went away, some surfaced only later. And yet my half year indoors was not spent in convalescence. Nor in autistic denial of the external world. I simply needed time to get back on my feet. Once on my feet, I tried not to think about where I was heading. That was another question entirely, to be thought out at a later date. The main thing was to recover my equi-librium.
I scarcely talked to the cat. The telephone rang. I let it ring. If someone knocked on the door, I wasn't there. There were a few letters. A couple from my former part-ner, who didn't know where I was or what I was up to and was concerned. Was there anything he could do to help? His new business was going smoothly, old acquaintances had asked about me.
My ex-wife wrote, needing some practical affairs taken care of, very matter-of-fact. Then she mentioned she was get-ting married-to someone I didn't know, and probably never would. Which meant she'd split up with that friend of mine she'd gone off with when we divorced. Not surprising, them splitting up. The guy wasn't so great a jazz guitarist and he wasn't so great a person either. Never could understand what she saw in him-but none of my business, eh? About me, she said she wasn't worried. She was sure I'd be fine whatever it was I chose to do. She reserved her worries for the people I'd get involved with.
I read these letters over a few times, then filed them away. And so the months passed.
Money wasn't a problem. I had saved plenty enough to live on, and I wasn't thinking about what came later. Winter was past.
And spring took hold. The scent of the wind changed. Even the darkness of night was different.
At the end of May, Kipper, my cat, died. Suddenly, with-out warning. I woke up one day and found him curled up on the kitchen floor, dead. He himself probably hadn't known it
was happening. His body was cold and hard, like yesterday's roast chicken, sheen gone from the fur. He could hardly have claimed he had the best life. Never really loved by anyone, never seeming really to love anyone either. His eyes always had this uneasy look, like, what now? You don't see that look in a cat too often. But anyway, he was dead. Nothing more. Maybe that's the best thing about death.
I put his body in a Seiyu supermarket bag, placed him on the backseat of the car, and drove to the hardware store for a shovel. I turned off the highway a good ways up in the hills and found an appropriate grove of trees. A fair distance back from the road I dug a hole one meter deep and laid Kipper in his shopping bag to rest. Then I shoveled dirt on top of him. Sorry, I told the little guy, that's just how it goes. Birds were singing the whole time I was burying him. The upper registers of a flute recital.
Once the hole was filled in, I tossed the shovel into the trunk of the car, and got back on the highway. I turned the radio on as I drove home to Tokyo.
Which is when the DJ had to put on Ray Charles moan-ing about being born to lose . . . and now I'm losing you.
I felt like crying. Sometimes one little thing will do the trick. I turned the radio off and pulled into a service area. First, I washed the dirt from my hands, then went into the restaurant. I could only manage a third of a sandwich, but I put down two cups of coffee.
What was Kipper doing now? I wondered. Down there in the dark. The sound of the dirt hitting the Seiyu bag echoed in my brain. That's just how it goes, pal, for me the same as you.
I sat staring at my unfinished sandwich for an hour. Until a violet-uniformed waitress came by and nervously asked if she could clear the plate away.
That's that, I thought. So now, back to society.
It takes no great effort to find work in the giant anthill of an advanced capitalist society. That is, of course, so long as you're not asking the impossible. When I still had my office, I did my share of editing and writing, and I'd gotten to know a few professionals in the field. So as I embarked on a free-lance career, there was no major retooling required. I didn't need much to live on any-way.
I pulled out my address book and made some calls. I asked if there was work available. I said I'd been laying back but was ready to take stuff on. Almost immediately jobs came my way. Though not particularly interesting jobs, mostly filler for PR newsletters and company brochures. Speaking conservatively, I'd say half the material I wrote was meaningless, of no conceivable use to anyone. A waste of pulp and ink. But I did the work, mechanically, without thinking. At first, the load wasn't much, maybe a couple hours a day. The rest of the time I'd be out walking or seeing a movie. I saw a lot of movies. For three months, I had an easy time of it. I was slowly getting back in touch.
Then, in early autumn, things began to change. Work orders increased dramatically. The phone rang nonstop, my mailbox was overflowing. I met people in the business and had lunch with them. They promised me more work.
The reason was simple. I was never choosy about the jobs I did. I was willing to do anything, I met my deadlines, I never complained, I wrote legibly. And I was thorough. Where others slacked off, I did an honest write. I was never snide, even when the pay was low. If I got a call at two-thirty in the morning asking for twenty pages of text (about, say, the advantages of non-digital clocks or the appeal of women in their forties or the most beautiful spots in Helsinki, where, needless to say, I'd never been) by six A.M., I'd have it done by five-thirty. And if they called back for a rewrite, I had it to them by six. You bet I had a good reputa-tion.
The same as for shoveling snow.
Let it snow and I'd show you a thing or two about effi-cient roadwork.
And with not one speck of ambition, not one iota of expectation. My only concern was to do things systemati-cally, from one end to the other. I sometimes wonder if this might not prove to be the bane of my life. After wasting so much pulp and ink myself, who was I to complain about waste? We live in an advanced capitalist society, after all. Waste is the name of the game, its greatest virtue. Politicians call it 'refinements in domestic consumption.' I call it meaningless waste. A difference of opinion. Which doesn't change the way we live. If I don't like it, I can move to Bangladesh or Sudan.
I for one am not eager to live in Bangladesh or Sudan.
So I kept working.
And soon enough, it wasn't just PR work. I got called to do bits and pieces for regular magazines. For some reason, mostly women's magazines. I started doing interviews, minor legwork reportage. But really, the work wasn't much of an improvement over PR newsletters. Due to the nature of these magazines, most of the people I had to interview were in show business. No matter what you asked them, they had only stock replies. You could predict what they'd answer before you asked the question. In the worst cases, the man-
ager would insist on seeing the questions in advance. So I always came with everything written out. Once I asked a seventeen-year-old singer something that wasn't on the list, which caused her manager to pipe up: 'That wasn't what we agreed on-she doesn't have to answer that.' That was a kick. I wondered if the girl couldn't answer what month fol-lowed October without this manager by her side. Still, I did my best. Before each interview I did my homework, surveyed available sources, tried to come up with questions others wouldn't think to ask. I took pains structuring the article. Not that these efforts received any special recognition. They never got me an appreciative word. I went the extra step because, for me, it was the simplest way. Self-discipline. Giv-ing my disused fingers and head a practical-and if at all possible, harmless-dose of overwork.
After that, my days were busier than ever. Not only with double or triple my regular load, but with a lot of rush jobs too. Without fail, jobs that had no takers found their way to me. My role in those circles was the junkyard at the edge of town. Anything, particularly if complicated or a pain, would get hauled to me for disposal.
By way of thanks, my savings account swelled to figures I'd never seen the likes of, though I was too busy to spend much of it. So when a guy I knew offered me a good deal, I got rid of my nothing-but-headaches car and bought his year-old Subaru Leone. Hardly any miles on it, stereo and air-conditioning. A real first for me. And I moved to an apartment in Shibuya, closer to the center of town. It was a bit noisy-the expressway passing right outside my win-dow-but you got used to it.
I slept with a few women I met through work.
I had a sense about which women I ought to sleep with. And which women I'd be able to sleep with, which not. Maybe even which I shouldn't sleep with. It's an intelligence that comes with age. I also knew when to call it quits, all
very nice and easy so no one got hurt. The only thing miss-ing was those tugs on the heartstrings.
The deepest I got involved was with a woman who worked at the phone company. I met her at a New Year's party. Both of us were tipsy, we joked with each other, liked each other, and ended up back at my place. She had a good head on her shoulders and terrific legs. We went for rides in my new-used Subaru. She'd call, whenever the mood struck, and come over and spend the night. She was the only rela-tionship with one foot in the door like that. Though both of us knew there was no place this thing could go. Still, we qui-etly shared something approaching a pardon from life. I knew days of peace for the first time in ages. We exchanged tenderness, talked in whispers. I cooked for her, gave her birthday presents. We'd go to jazz clubs and have cocktails. We never argued, not once. We knew exactly what we wanted in each other. And even so, it ended. One day it stopped, as if the film simply slipped off the reel.
Her departure left me emptier than I would have sus-pected. For a while, I stayed in again.
The problem was that I hadn't wanted her, really wanted her. I'd liked her, liked being with her. She brought me back to gentle feelings. But what it came down to was, I never felt a need for her. Not three days after she got out of my life, the realization hit home. That ultimately, all the time I'd been next to her, I might as well have been on the moon. The whole while I'd felt her breasts against me, I'd really wanted something else.
It took four years to get my life back on steady ground. I carefully dispatched each piece of work that came my way, and people came to feel they could depend on me. Not many, but a few, even became friendly. Though, it goes with-out saying, that wasn't enough. Not enough at all. Here I'd spent all this time trying to get up to speed, and I was back to where I started.
Okay, I thought, age thirty-four, square one. What do you do now?
I didn't have to think much about that one. I knew already. The answer had been floating over my head like a dark, dense cloud. All I had to do was take action, instead of putting it off and putting it off. / had to go to the Dolphin Hotel. That's where it all started.
I also had to find her. The woman who'd first guided me to the Dolphin Hotel, she who'd been a high-class call girl in her own covert world of night. (Under astonishing circum-stances, I was to learn this nameless woman's name some-time later, but, for reasons of convenience, unorthodox as it will seem, I'll tell it to you now. Pardon me, please. It was Kiki.) Yes, Kiki held the key. I had to call her back to me. To a life with me she'd left never to return. Was it possible? Who knew, but I had to try. From then would begin a new cycle.
I packed my bags, did double time to finish up outstand-ing work, then canceled all the jobs I'd penciled in for the next month. I said I was leaving Tokyo on family business. A couple of editors made noises, but what could they do? I'd never let them down before, and besides I was giving them plenty of advance notice to find other ways and means. In the end, it was fine. I'd be back in a month, I told them.
Then I took a flight to Hokkaido. This was the beginning of March 1983.
Of course, the family business wasn't over in anything near a month.
I booked a taxi for two days, and the photographer and I raced around Hakodate in the snow checking out eateries in the city.
I'm good at researching, very systematic, very efficient. The most important thing about this sort of job is to do your homework and set up a schedule. That's the key. When it comes to gathering materials beforehand, you can't beat organizations that compile information for people in the field. Become a member and pay your dues; they'll look up almost anything for you. So if by chance you're researching eating places in Hakodate, they can dig up quite a bit. They use mainframe computer retrieval, arrange the facts in file format, print out hard copy, even deliver to your doorstep. Granted, it's not cheap, but plenty worth the time it buys.
In addition to that, I do a little walking for information myself. There are reading rooms specializing in travel mate-rials, libraries that collect local newspapers and regional publications. From all of these sources, I pick out the prom-ising spots, then call them up to check their business hours. This much done, I've saved a lot of trouble on site. Then I draw lines in a notebook and plan out each day's itinerary. I look at maps and mark in the routes we'll travel. Trying to reduce uncertainties to a minimum.
Once we arrive in Hakodate, the photographer and I go
around to the restaurants in order. There are about thirty. We take a couple of bites-just enough to get the taste-then casually leave the rest of the meal uneaten. Refinements in consumption. We're still undercover at this stage, so no pic-ture taking. Only after leaving the premises do the photogra-pher and I discuss the food and evaluate it on a scale of one to ten. If it passes, it stays on the list; if not, it's out. We gen-erally figure on dropping at least half. Taking a parallel tack, we also check the local papers for listings of places we've missed, selecting maybe five. We go to these too, and weed out the not-so-good. Then we've got our finalists. I call them up, give the name of the magazine, tell them we'd like to do a feature on them-text with photos. All that in two days. Nights, I stay in my hotel room, laying down the basic copy.
The next day, while the photographer does quick shots of the food and table settings, I talk to the restaurant owners. Saves on time. So we can call it a wrap in three days. True, there are those in our league who take even less time. But they don't do any research. They do a handful of the more well-known spots, cruise through without eating a thing, write brief comments. It's their business, not mine. If I may be perfectly frank, I doubt that many writers take as many pains as I do at this level of reportage. It's the kind of work that can break you if you're too serious about it, or you can kick back and do almost nothing. The worst of it is, whether you're earnest or you loaf, the difference will hardly show in the finished piece. On the surface. Only in the finer points can you find any hint of the distinction.
I'm not explaining this out of pride or anything.
I just wanted you to have a rough idea of the job, the sort of expendables I deal with.
On the third night, I finish writing.
The fourth day is left free, just in case.
But since the work has been completed and we don't have anything else in the tube, we rent a car and head off for a day of cross-country skiing. That evening, the two of us set-tle down to drinks over a nice, simmering hot pot. One day's
relaxation. I turn over my manuscript to the photographer, and that's it. My job's done, the work's in someone else's hands.
But before turning in that evening, I rang up Sapporo directory assistance for the number of the Dolphin Hotel. I didn't have to wait long. I sat up in bed and sighed. Well, at least the Dolphin Hotel hadn't gone under. Relief, I guess. Because I wouldn't have been surprised if it had, a mysteri-ous place like that. I took a deep breath, dialed the number -and someone answered immediately. As if they'd been just waiting for it to ring. So immediately, in fact, I was taken aback.
'Hello, Dolphin Hotel!' went a cheerful voice.
It was a young woman. A woman? What's going on? I don't remember a woman being there.
It didn't figure, so I checked if the address was the same. Yes, it was exactly where the Dolphin Hotel I knew used to be. Maybe the hotel had hired someone new, the owner's niece or something. Nothing so odd about that. I told her I wanted to make a reservation.
'Thank you very much, sir,' she chirped. 'Please wait a moment while I transfer you to our reservations desk.'
Our reservations desk? Now I was really confused. I couldn't begin to digest that one. What the hell happened to the old joint?
'Sorry to keep you waiting. This is the reservations desk. How may I help you?' This time, a young man's voice. The brisk, friendly pitch of the professional hotel man. Curiouser and curiouser.
I asked for a single room for three nights. I gave him my name and my Tokyo phone number.
'Very well, sir. That's three nights, starting from tomor-row. Your single room will be waiting for you.'
I couldn't think of anything to say to that, so I thanked him and hung up, completely disoriented. Shouldn't I have
asked for an explanation? Oh well, it'd all become clear once I got there. And anyway, I couldn't not go. I didn't have an alternative.
I asked the concierge to check the schedule for trains to Sapporo. After that, I got room service to send up a bottle of whiskey and some ice, and I stayed up watching a late-night movie on TV. A Clint Eastwood western. Clint didn't smile once, didn't sneer. I tried laughing at him, but he never broke his deadpan. The movie ended and I'd had my fill of whiskey, so I turned out the light and slept straight through the night. If I dreamed, I don't remember.
All I could see outside the window of the early morning express train was snow. It was a bright, clear day, so the glare soon got to be too much. I didn't see another passenger look-ing out the windows. They all knew what snow looks like.
I'd skipped breakfast, so a little before noon I made my way to the dining car. Beer and an omelet. Across from me sat a fiftyish man in a suit and tie, having beer with a ham sandwich. He looked like a mechanical engineer, and that's just what he was. He spoke to me first, telling me he serviced jets for the Self-Defense Forces. Then he filled me in on how Soviet fighters and bombers invaded our airspace, though he didn't seem particularly upset about it. He was more con-cerned about the economics of F4 Phantoms. How much fuel they guzzled in one scramble, a terrible waste. 'If the Japanese had made them, you can bet they'd be more effi-cient. And at no loss to performance either! There's no reason why we couldn't build a low-cost fighter if we wanted to.'
That's when I proffered my words of wisdom, that waste is the highest virtue one can achieve in advanced capitalist society. The fact that Japan bought Phantom jets from Amer-ica and wasted vast quantities of fuel on scrambles put an extra spin in the global economy, and that extra spin lifted capitalism to yet greater heights. If you put an end to all the waste, mass panic would ensue and the global economy
would go haywire. Waste is the fuel of contradiction, and contradiction activates the economy, and an active economy creates more waste.
Well, maybe so, the engineer admitted, but having been a wartime child who had to live under deprived conditions, he couldn't grasp what this new social structure meant. 'Our generation, we're not like you young folks,' he said, strain-ing a smile. 'We don't understand these complex workings of yours.'
I couldn't say I exactly understood things either, but as I wasn't eager for the conversation to drag on, I kept quiet. No, I'm not used to things; I just recognize them for what they are. There's a decisive difference between those two propositions. Which is just as well, I supposed, as I finished my omelet and excused myself.
I slept for thirty minutes, and the rest of the trip I read a biography of Jack London I'd bought near the Hakodate sta-tion. Compared to the grand sweep and romance of Jack London's life, my existence seemed like a squirrel with its head against a walnut, dozing until spring. For the time being, that is. But that's how biographies are. I mean, who's going to read about the peaceful life and times of a nobody employed at the Kawasaki Municipal Library? In other words, what we seek is some kind of compensation for what we put up with.
Arriving at Sapporo, I decided to take a leisurely stroll to the hotel. It was a pleasant enough afternoon, and I was car-rying only a shoulder bag.
The streets were covered in a thin layer of slush, and peo-ple trained their eyes carefully at their feet. The air was exhilarating. High school girls came bustling along, their rosy red cheeks puffing white breaths you could have written cartoon captions in. I continued my amble, taking in the sights of the town. It had been four and a half years since I was in Sapporo. It seemed like much longer.
Along the way I stopped into a coffee shop. All around me normal, everyday city types were going about their nor-mal, everyday affairs. Lovers were whispering to each other, businessmen were poring over spread sheets, college kids were planning their next ski trip and discussing the new Police album. We could have been in any city in Japan. Transplant this coffee shop scene to Yokohama or Fukuoka and nothing would seem out of place. In spite of which-or, rather, all the more because-here I was, sitting in this coffee shop, drinking my coffee, feeling a desperate loneliness. I alone was the outsider. I had no place here.
Of course, by the same token, I couldn't really say I belonged to Tokyo and its coffee shops. But I had never felt this loneliness there. I could drink my coffee, read my book, pass the time of day without any special thought, all because I was part of the regular scenery. Here I had no ties to any-one. Fact is, I'd come to reclaim myself.
I paid the check and left. Then, without further thought, I headed for the hotel.
I didn't know the way exactly and part of me worried that I might miss the place. I didn't. How could anyone have? It had been transformed into a gleaming twenty-six-story Bauhaus Modern-Art Deco symphony of glass and steel, with flags of various nations waving along the drive-way, smartly uniformed doormen hailing taxis, a glass eleva-tor shooting up to a penthouse restaurant. A bas-relief of a dolphin was set into one of the marble columns by the entrance, beneath which the inscription read:
I stood there a good twenty seconds, mouth agape, star-ing up at it. Then I let out a long, deep breath that might as easily have been beamed straight to the moon. Surprise was not the word.
I couldn't stand around gawking at the facade forever. Whatever this building was, the address was correct, as was the name-for the most part. And anyway, I had a reservation, right? There was nothing to do but go in.
I walked up the gently sloped driveway and pushed my way through the shiny brass revolving door. The lobby was large enough to be a gymnasium, the ceiling at least two sto-ries high. A wall of glass rose the full height, and through it cascaded a brilliant shower of sunlight. The floor space was appointed with a fleet of luxurious designer sofas, between which were stationed planters of ornamental trees. Lots of them. The overall decor focused on an oil painting-three tatami mats large-of some Hokkaido marshland. Nothing outstanding artistically, but impressive, if only for its size. At the far end of the lobby a posh coffee bar beckoned. The sort of place where you order a sandwich and they bring you four deviled ham dainties arrayed like calling cards on a sil-ver tray with an embellishment of potato crisps and cornichons. Throw in a cup of coffee and you're spending enough to buy a frugal family of four a midday meal.
The lobby was crowded. Apparently a function was in progress. A group of well-dressed, middle-aged men sat on facing sofas, nodding and smiling magnanimously. Jaws thrust out, legs crossed, identically. A professional organiza-
tion? Doctors or university professors? On their periph-ery-perhaps they were part of the same gathering-cooed a clutch of young women in formal dress, some of them in kimono, some in floor-length dresses. There were a few Westerners as well, not to mention the requisite salarymen in dark suits and harmless ties, attache cases in hand.
In a word, business was booming at the new Dolphin Hotel.
What we had here was a hotel founded on a proper out-lay of capital and now enjoying proper returns. But how the hell had this come about? Well, I could guess, of course. Having once put together a PR bulletin for a hotel chain, I knew the whole process. Before a hotel of this scale is built, someone first costs out every aspect of the venture in detail, then consultants are called in and every piece of information is input into their computers for a thorough simulation study. Everything including the wholesale price and usage volume of toilet paper is taken into account. Then students are hired to go around the city-Sapporo in this case-to do a market survey. They stop young men and women on the street and ask how many weddings they expect to attend each year. You get the picture. Little is left unchecked. All in an effort to reduce business risk.
So the Hotel Dauphin project team had gone to great lengths over many months to draw up as precise a plan as possible. They bought the property, they assembled the staff, they pinned down flash advertising space. If money was all it took-and they were convinced they'd make that money back-there'd be no end of funds pouring in. It's big busi-ness of a big order.
Now, the only enterprises that could embark on such a big business venture were the huge conglomerates. Because even after paring away the risks, there's bound to be some hidden factor of uncertainty lurking around, which only a major player can conceivably absorb.
To be honest, this new Dolphin Hotel wasn't my kind of hotel.
Or at least, under normal circumstances, if I had to choose a place to stay, I wouldn't go for one that looked like this. The rates are too high; too much padding, too many frills. But this time the die had been cast.
I went to the front desk and gave my name, whereupon three light blue blazered young women with toothpaste-com-mercial smiles greeted me. This smile training surely figured into the capital outlay. With their virgin-snow white blouses and immaculate hairstyles, the receptionists were picture-perfect. Of the three, one wore glasses, which of course suited her nicely. When she stepped over to me, I actually felt a shot of relief. She was the prettiest and most immedi-ately likable. There was something about her expression I responded to, some embodiment of hotel spirit. I half expected her to produce a tiny magic wand, like in a Disney movie, and tap out swirls of diamond dust.
But instead of a magic wand, she used a computer, swiftly typing in my name and credit card number, then verifying the details on the display screen. Then she handed me my card-key, room number 1523. I smiled as I accepted the hotel brochure from her. When had the hotel opened? I asked. Last October, she answered, almost in reflex. It was now in its fifth month of operation.
'You know,' I began, donning my professional smile, 'I seem to remember a small hotel with a similar name in this location a few years ago. Do you have any idea what became of it?'
A slight disturbance clouded her smile. Quiet ripples spread across her face, as if a beer bottle had been tossed into a sacred spring. By the time the ripples subsided, her reassumed smile was a shade less cheerful than before. I observed the changes with great interest. Would the sprite of the spring now appear to ask whether the item I disposed of had a gold or silver twist top?
'Well, now,'š she hedged, touching the bridge of her
glasses with her index finger. 'That was before we opened our doors, so I really couldn't-'
Her words cut off. I waited for her to continue, but she didn't.
'I'm terribly sorry,' she said.
'Oh,' I said. Seconds went by. I found myself liking her. I wanted to touch the bridge of my glasses as well, except that I wasn't wearing any glasses. 'Well, then, is there anyone you can ask?'
She held her breath a second, thinking it over. The smile vanished. It's exceedingly difficult to hold your breath and keep smiling. Just try it if you don't believe me.
'I'm terribly sorry,' she said again, 'but would you mind waiting a bit?' Then she retreated through a door. Thirty seconds later, she returned with a fortyish man in a black suit. A real live hotelier by the looks of him. I'd met enough of them in my line of work. They are a dubious species, with twenty-five different smiles on call for every variety of cir-cumstance. From the cool and cordial twinge of disinterest to the measured grin of satisfaction. They wield the entire arsenal by number, like golf clubs for particular shots.
'May I help you, please,' he said, sending a midrange smile my way with a polite bow of the head. When he noted my attire, however, the smile was quickly adjusted down three notches. I was wearing my fur-lined hunting jacket with a Keith Haring button pinned to the chest, an Austrian Army-issue Alps Corps fur cap, a rough-and-ready pair of hiking trousers with lots of pockets, and snow-tire treaded work boots. All fine and practical items of dress, but just a tad unsuitable for this hotel lobby. No fault of mine, only a difference in life-style.
'You had a question concerning our hotel, I believe?' he voiced most properly.
I put both hands on the counter and repeated my query.
The man cast a glance at my Mickey Mouse watch with the same clinical unease a vet might direct at a cat's sprained paw.
'Might I inquire,' he regained his composure to speak, 'why you wish to know about the previous hotel? If you don't mind my asking, that is?'
I explained as simply as I could: A good while back I had stayed at the old Dolphin Hotel and gotten to know the owner; now, years later, I visit and everything's completely changed. Which makes me wonder, what happened to the old guy?
The man nodded attentively.
'In all honesty, I'm not entirely clear on the details my-self,' he chose his words guardedly. 'Nevertheless, my understanding of the history of this hotel is that our con-cerns purchased the property where the previous Dolphin Hotel stood and erected on the site what we now have before us. As you can see, the name was for all intents and purposes retained, but let me assure you that the manage-ment is altogether separate, with no relation whatsoever to its predecessor.'
'Then why keep the name?'
'You must forgive me, I'm afraid I really don't. . .'
'And I suppose you wouldn't have any idea where I could find the former owner?'
'I am sorry, but no, I do not,' he answered, moving on to smile number 16.
'Is there anyone else I could ask? Someone who might know?'
'Since you insist,' the man began, straining his neck slightly. 'We are merely employees here, and accordingly we are strictly out of touch with any goings on prior to when the current premises opened for business. So unfortunately, if someone such as yourself desires to know anything more specific, there's really very little ...'
Certainly what he said made sense, yet something caught in the back of my mind. Something artificial, manufactured really, about the responses from both the young woman and the stiff now fielding my questions. I couldn't put my finger on anything exactly, yet I couldn't swallow the line. Do your
share of interviews and you get this professional sixth sense. That tone of voice when someone's hiding something, that knowing expression of someone who's lying. No real evi-dence to go on. Only a hunch, that there was more here than being said.
Still, it was clear that nothing more would come from pushing them further. I thanked the man; he excused himself and withdrew. After his black suit had vanished from view, I asked the young woman about meals and room service, and she went on at length. While she spoke, I peered straight into her eyes. Beautiful eyes. I swear I almost began to see things in them. But when she met my gaze, she blushed. Which made me like her even more. Why was that? Was it that hotel spirit in her? Whatever, I thanked her, turned away, and took the elevator up to my floor.
Room 1523 proved to be quite a room. Both the bed and the bath were far too big for a single. A full complement of shampoo, conditioner, and after-shave was provided, as was a bathrobe. The refrigerator was chock-full of snacks. There was an ample writing desk, with plenty of stationery and envelopes. The closet was large, the carpet deep-piled. I took off my coat and boots and picked up the hotel brochure. Quite a production. They hadn't spared any expense on this job.
L'Hotel Dauphin represents a wholly new development in quality city center lodgings, the brochure stated. Complete with the latest conveniences and full twenty-four-hour ser-vices. Our guest rooms are spacious and sumptuously styled. Featuring the finest selection of products, a restful atmo-sphere, and a warm at-home feeling. 'Professional space with a human face.'
In other words, they'd spent a lot of money, so the rates were high.
Indeed, this was a very well turned out hotel. A big shop-ping arcade in the basement, an indoor pool, sauna, and tan-ning salon. Tennis courts, a health club with training coaches and exercise equipment, conference rooms outfitted
for simultaneous translation, five restaurants, three lounges, even a late-night cafe. Not to mention a limousine service, free work space, unlimited business supplies available to all guests. Anything you could want, they'd thought of-and then some. A rooftop heliport?
Intelligent facilities in an impeccable decor.
But what of the commercial group that owned and oper-ated this hotel? I reread the brochure from cover to cover. Not one mention of the management. Odd, to say the least. It was unthinkable that any but the most experienced hotel chain could run a topflight operation like this, and any enterprise of such scale would be certain to stamp its name everywhere and take every opportunity to promote its full line of hotels. You stay at one Prince Hotel and the brochure lists every Prince Hotel in the whole of Japan. That's how it is.
And then there was still the question, why would a hotel of this class take on the name of a dump like the old Dol-phin?
I couldn't come up with even a flake of an answer to that one.
I threw the brochure onto the table, fell back into the sofa with my feet kicked up, and looked out my fifteenth-story window. All I could see was blue sky. I felt like I was flying.
All this was fine, but I missed the old dive. There'd been a lot to see from those windows.
I puttered around in the hotel, seeing what there was to see. I checked out the restaurants and lounges, took a peek at the pool and sauna and health club and tennis courts, bought a couple of books in the shopping arcade. I criss-crossed the lobby, then gravitated to the game center and played a few rounds of backgammon. That alone took up the afternoon. The hotel was practically an amusement park. The world is full of ways and means to waste time.
After that, I left the hotel to have a look around the area. As I strolled through the early evening streets, the lay of the town gradually came back to me. Back when I'd stayed at the old Dolphin Hotel, I'd covered this area with depressing regularity, day after day. Turn here, and there was this or that. The old Dolphin hadn't had a dining room-if it had, I doubt I would have been inclined to eat there-so we, Kiki and I, would always go someplace nearby for meals. Now I felt like I was visiting an old neighborhood and was content just to wander about, taking in familiar sights.
When the sun went down, the air grew cold. The streets echoed with the wet sounds of slush underfoot. There was no wind, so walking was not at all unpleasant. It was still crisp and clear. Even the piles of exhaust-gray snow plowed up on every corner looked positively enchanting beneath the streetlights.
The area had changed markedly from the old days. Of course, those 'old days' were only four years back, as I've said, so most of the places I'd frequented were more or less the same. The local atmosphere was basically the same as well, but signs of change were everywhere. Stores were boarded up, announcements of development to come tacked over. A large building was under construction. A drive-through burger stand and designer boutiques and a Euro-pean auto showroom and a trendy cafe with an inner courtyard of sara trees-all kinds of new establishments had popped up one after the next, pushing aside the dingy old three-story blockhouses and cheap eateries festooned with traditional noren entrance curtains and the sweetshop where a cat lay napping by the stove. The odd mix of styles presented an all-too-temporary show of coexistence, like the mouth of a child with new teeth coming in. A bank had even opened a new branch, maybe a spillover of the new Dolphin Hotel capitalization. Build a hotel of that scale in a perfectly ordinary-if a bit neglected-neighborhood, and the balance is upset. The flow of people changes, the place starts to jump. Land prices go up.
Or perhaps the changes were more cumulative. That is, the upheaval hadn't been wrought by the new Dolphin Hotel alone, but was a stage in the greater infrastructural changes of the area. Some long-term urban redevelopment program, for example.
I went into a small bar I remembered, and had a few drinks and a bite to eat. The place was dirty, noisy, cheap, and good. The kind of hole-in-the-wall I always look for when I have to eat out alone. Places like this put me at ease, never make me lonely. I can talk to myself and nobody listens or cares.
After eating, I still wanted something else, so I asked for some sake. As the warm brew seeped into my system, the question came to me: What on earth am I doing up here? The Dolphin Hotel, such that I was seeking, no longer existed. It didn't matter what it was I was looking for, the place was no more. And not merely gone, it'd been replaced by this idiotic
Star Wars high-tech hotel-a-thon. I was too late. My dreams of the once-Dolphin Hotel had been nothing more than dreams of Kiki, long vanished out the door. Perhaps there was someone crying for me. But that too was gone. Nothing was left. What could you possibly hope to find here, kid?
You said it, I thought. Or maybe I had my mouth open and actually said it to myself. There's nothing left here. Not one thing left for you.
I clamped my lips tight and stared at the bottle of soy sauce on the counter.
You live by yourself for a stretch of time and you get to staring at different objects. Sometimes you talk to yourself. You take meals in crowded joints. You develop an intimate relationship with your used Subaru. You slowly but surely become a has-been.
I left the bar and headed back to the hotel. I'd walked a fair bit, but it wasn't hard finding my way back. I had only to look up to see the new Dolphin Hotel towering above everything else. Like the three wise men guided by a star to Jerusalem or Bethlehem or wherever it was, I steered straight for the main attraction.
After a bath, toweling my hair dry, I gazed out over the Sapporo cityscape. When I stayed at the old Dolphin, hadn't there been a small office building outside my window? What kind of office, I never did figure out, but it was a company and people were busy. That had been my view day after day. What ever became of that company? There'd been a nice-looking woman working there. Where was she now?
I had nothing to do, so I shuffled around the room before flicking on the TV. It was the same old nausea-inducing fare. Not even original nausea-inducing fare. It was phony, syn-thetic, but being synthetic, it wasn't entirely repugnant. If I didn't turn the thing off, though, I felt sure I'd be seeing the results of some real nausea.
I pulled on some clothes and went up to the lounge on the twenty-sixth floor. I sat at the bar and ordered a vodka-and-soda with lemon. One whole wall of the lounge was win-
dow, providing a sweeping panorama of Sapporo at night. A Star Wars alien city set. Otherwise, it was a comfortable, quiet place, with real crystal glasses that had a nice ring.
Besides myself, there were only three other customers. Two middle-aged men talking in a hush at a back table. Some very important matter by the look of things. A plot to assassinate Darth Vader? And sitting at a table directly to their right, a girl of twelve or thirteen, plugged in to a Walk-man, sipping a drink through a straw. She was a pretty girl. Her long hair, unnaturally straight, draped silkily against the edge of the table. She tapped her fingers on the tabletop, keeping time to the rhythm she was hearing. Her long fin-gers made a more childlike impression than the rest of her. Not that she was trying to act like an adult. No, not dis-agreeable or arrogant, but aloof.
Yet, in fact, the girl wasn't looking at anything. She was completely oblivious to her surroundings. She was wearing jeans and white Converse All Stars and a sweatshirt embla-zoned with genesis, sleeves rolled up to her elbows, and she seemed to be concentrating entirely on the music. Sometimes she'd move her lips to form fragments of lyrics.
'Lemonade,' the bartender volunteered, as if to excuse the presence of a minor. 'The girl's waiting for her mother.'
'Hmm,' I answered, noncommital. Certainly, you don't go into a hotel bar after ten at night and expect to find a young girl sitting by herself with a drink and a Walkman. But if the bartender hadn't broached the subject, I probably wouldn't have thought anything was out of the ordinary. The girl just seemed a part of the place.
I ordered another drink and made small talk with the bar-tender. The weather, the view, assorted topics. Then noncha-lantly I dropped the line that, hey, this place sure has changed, hasn't it? To which the bartender strained a smile and admitted that, until recently, he'd been working at a hotel in Tokyo, so he scarcely knew anything about Sap-poro. And at that point, a new customer walked in, termi-nating our fruitless conversation.
I drank a total of four vodka-and-sodas. I could have drunk any number more but decided to call it quits. The girl was still in her seat, grafted to the Walkman. Her mother hadn't shown, and the ice in her glass had melted, which she didn't seem to notice. Yet when I got up from the counter, she looked up at me for two or three seconds, and smiled. Or perhaps it was the slightest trembling of her lips. But to me, it looked like she smiled. Which-I know it sounds strange-really shook me up. I felt as if I'd been chosen. A charge shot through me; my body seemed to lift up a few centimeters.
A bit disarmed, I boarded the elevator and returned to my room. A smile from a twelve-year-old girl? How could any-thing so innocent have set me off so much? She could have been my daughter.
And Genesis-what a stupid name for a band.
But because the girl had that sweatshirt on, the name seemed somehow symbolic. Genesis.
Why do rock groups have overblown names like that?
I fell back onto the bed with my shoes still on. Closed my eyes and the young girl's image came to me. Walkman. White fingers tapping tabletop. Genesis. Melted ice.
With my eyes shut, I could feel the alcohol swimming around inside me. I pulled off my work boots, got out of my clothes, and crawled under the covers. I was too tired, too drunk, to feel much of anything. I waited for the woman next to me to say, 'Had a bit too much, have we?' But there was no such conversation.
I reached out to turn out the light. Will my dreams take me to the Dolphin Hotel? I wondered in the dark.
When I awoke the next morning, I felt a hopeless empti-ness. No dream, no hotel. Zilch.
My work boots lay at the foot of the bed where they'd fallen. Two tired puppies.
Outside my window the sky hung low and gray. It looked
like snow, which added to my malaise. The clock read five after seven. I punched the remote control and watched the morning news as I lay in bed. Something about an upcoming election. Fifteen minutes later I got up and went to the bath-room to wash and shave, humming the overture to The Marriage of Figaro as a wake-me-up. Or was it the overture to The Magic Flute? I racked my brain, but couldn't get it straight. I cut my chin shaving, then popped a button from my cuff getting into my shirt. The signs for the day were not good.
At breakfast, I saw the young girl I'd seen in the bar, sit-ting with a woman I took to be her mother. Wearing the same genesis sweatshirt but at least without the Walkman. She'd hardly touched her bread or scrambled eggs, seemed absolutely bored drinking her tea. Her mother was a small-ish woman in her early forties. Hair pulled into a tight bun, eyebrows exactly like her daughter's, slender, refined nose, camel-colored sweater that looked like it was cashmere over a white blouse. She wore her clothes well, clothes that suit a woman accustomed to the attentions of others. There was a touching world-weariness in the way she buttered her toast.
As I passed by their table, the girl glanced up at me. Then smiled. A more definitive smile than last night's. Unmistak-ably, a smile.
I ate my breakfast alone and tried to think, but after that smile I couldn't focus. No matter what came to mind, the thoughts spun around uselessly. In the end, I stared at the pepper shaker and didn't think at all.
There was nothing for me to do. Nothing I should do, and nothing I wanted to do. I'd come all this way to the Dolphinš Hotel,š but theš Dolphinš Hotelš that I wanted had vanished from the face of the earth. What to do? I went down to the lobby, planted myself in one of the magnificent sofas, and tried to come up with a plan for the day. Should I go sightseeing? Where to? How about a movie? Nah, nothing I wanted to see. And why come all the way to Sapporo to see a movie? So, what to do? Nothing to do.
Okay, it's the barbershop, I said to myself. I hadn't been to a barber in a month, and I was in need of a cut. Now that's making good use of free time. If you don't have any-thing better to do, go to the barber.
So I made tracks for the hotel barbershop, hoping that it'd be crowded and I'd have to wait my turn. But of course the place was empty, and I was in the chair immediately. An abstract painting hung on the blue-gray walls, and Jacques Rouchet's Play Bach lilted soft and mellow from hidden speakers. This was not like any barbershop I'd been to-you could hardly call it a barbershop. The next thing you know, they'll be playing Gregorian chants in bathhouses, Ryuichi Sakamoto in tax office waiting rooms. The guy who cut my hair was young, barely twenty. When I mentioned that there
used to be a tiny hotel here that went by the same name, his
response was, 'That so?' He didn't know much about Sap-poro either. He was cool. He was wearing a Men's Bigi designer shirt. Even so, he knew how to cut hair, so I left there pretty much satisfied.
Short of other options, I returned to my sofa in the lobby and watched the scenery. The receptionist with glasses from yesterday was behind the front desk. She seemed tense. Was my presence setting off signals in her? Unlikely. Soon the clock pushed eleven. Lunchtime. I headed out and walked around, trying to think what I was in the mood for. But I wasn't hungry, and no place caught my fancy. Lacking will, I wandered into a place for some spaghetti and salad. Then a beer. Outside, snow was still threatening, but not a flake in sight. The sky was solid, immobile. Like Gulliver's flying island of Laputa, hanging heavily over the city. Everything seemed cast in gray. Even, in retrospect, my meal-gray. Not a day for good ideas.
In the end, I caught a cab and went to a department store downtown. I bought shoes and underwear, spare batteries, a travel toothbrush, nail clippers. I bought a sandwich for a late-night snack and a small flask of brandy. I didn't need any of this stuff, I was just shopping, just killing time. I killed two hours.
Then I walked along the major avenues, looking into win-dows, no destination in mind, and when I tired of that, I stepped into a cafe and read some Jack London over coffee. And before long it was getting on to dusk. Talk about bor-ing. Killing time is not an easy job.
Back at the hotel, I was passing by the front desk when I heard my name called. It was the receptionist with glasses. She motioned for me to go to one end of the counter, the car-rental section actually, where there was a display of pam-phlets. No one was on duty here.
She twirled a pen in her fingers a second, giving me a I've-got-something-to-tell-you-but-I-don't-know-how-to-say-it
look. Clearly, she wasn't used to doing this sort of thing.
'Please forgive me,' she began, 'but we have to pretend we're discussing a car rental.' Then she shot a quick glance out of the corner of her eye toward the front desk. 'Man-agement is very strict. We're not supposed to speak privately to customers.'
'All right, then,' I said. 'I'll ask you about car rates, and you answer with whatever you want to say. Nothing personal.'
She blushed slightly. 'Forgive me,' she said again. 'They're real sticklers for rules here.'
I smiled. 'Still, your glasses are very becoming.'
'You look very cute in those glasses. Very cute,' I said.
She touched the frame of these glasses, then cleared her throat. The nervous type. 'There's something I've been wanting to ask you,' she regained her composure. 'It's a private matter.'
If I could have, I would have patted her on the head to comfort her, but instead I kept quiet and looked into her eyes.
'It's what we talked about last night, you know, about there having been a hotel here,' she said softly, 'with the same name as this one. What was that other hotel like? I mean, was it a regular hotel?'
I picked up a car-rental pamphlet and acted like I was studying it. 'That depends on what you mean by 'regular.''
She pinched the points of her collar and cleared her throat again. 'It's . . . hard to say exactly, but was there anything strange about that hotel? I can't get it out of my mind.'
Her eyes were earnest and lovely. Just as I'd remembered. She blushed again.
'I guess I don't know what you mean, but I'm sure it will take a little time to talk about and we can't very well do it here. You seem like you're pretty busy.'
She looked over at the other receptionists at the front desk, then bit her lower lip slightly. After a moment's hesita-
tion, she spoke up. 'Okay, could you meet me after I get off work?'
'What time is that?'
'I finish at eight. But we can't meet near here. Hotel rules. It's got to be somewhere far away from here.'
'You name the place. I don't care how far, I'll be there.'
She thought a bit more, then scribbled the name of a place and drew me a map. 'I'll be there at eight-thirty.'
I pocketed the sheet of paper.
Now it was her turn to look at me. 'I hope you don't think I'm strange. This is the first time I've done something like this. I've never broken the rules before. But this time I don't know what else to do. I'll explain everything to you later.'
'No, I don't think you're strange. Don't worry,' I said. 'I'm not so bad a guy. I may not be the most likable person in the world, but I try not to upset people.'
She twirled her pen again, not quite sure how to take that. Then she smiled vaguely and pushed up the bridge of her glasses. 'Well, then, later,' she said, and gave me a busi-nesslike bow before returning to her station at the front desk. Charming, if a little insecure.
I went up to my room and pulled a beer from the refriger-ator to wash down my department-store roast beef sand-wich. Okay, at least we have a plan of action. We may be in low gear, but we're rolling. But where to?
I washed and shaved, brushed my teeth. Calmly, quietly, no humming. Then I gave myself a good, hard look in the mirror, the first time in ages. No major discoveries. I felt no surge of valor. It was the same old face, as always.
I left my room at half past seven and grabbed a taxi. The driver studied the map I showed him, then nodded without a word, and we were off. It was a-thousand-something-yen distance, a tiny bar in the basement of a five-story building. I was met at the door with the warm sound of an old Gerry Mulligan record.
I took a seat at the counter and listened to the solo over a nice, easy J&B-and-water. At eight-forty-five she still hadn't shown. I didn't particularly mind. The bar was plenty com-fortable, and by now I was getting to be a pro at killing time. I sipped my drink, and when that was gone, I ordered another. I contemplated the ashtray.
At five past nine she made her entrance.
'I'm sorry,' she said in a flurry. 'Things started to get busy at the last minute, and then my replacement was late.'
'Don't worry. I was fine here,' I said. 'I had to pass the time anyway.'
At her suggestion we moved to a table toward the back. We settled down, as she removed her gloves, scarf, and coat. Underneath, she had on a dark green wool skirt and a lightweight yellow sweater-which revealed generous vol-umes I'm surprised I hadn't noticed before. Her earrings were demure gold pinpoints.
She ordered a Bloody Mary. And when it came, she sipped it tentatively. I took another drink of my whiskey and then she took another sip of her Bloody Mary. I nibbled on nuts.
At length, she let out a big sigh. It might have been bigger than she had intended, as she looked up at me nervously.
'Work tough? 'I asked.
'Yeah,' she said. 'Pretty tough. I'm still not used to it. The hotel just opened so the management's always on edge about something.'
She folded her hands and placed them on the table. She wore one ring, on her pinkie. An unostentatious, rather ordi-nary silver ring.
'About the old Dolphin Hotel . . . ,' she began. 'But wait, didn't I hear you were a magazine writer or some-thing?'
'Magazine?' I said, startled. 'What's this about?'
'That's just what I heard,' she said.
I shut up. She bit her lip and stared at a point on the wall. 'There was some trouble once,' she began again, 'so the
management's very nervous about media. You know, with property being bought up and all. If too much talk about this gets in the media, the hotel could suffer. A bad image can ruin business.'
'Has something been written up?'
'Once, in a weekly magazine a while ago. There were these suggestions about dirty dealings, something about call-ing in the yakuza or some right-wing thugs to put pressure on the folks who were holding out. Things like that.'
'And I take it the old Dolphin Hotel was mixed up in this trouble?'
She shrugged and took another sip. 'I wouldn't be sur-prised. Otherwise, I don't think the manager would have acted so nervous talking to you about the old hotel. I mean, it was almost like you sounded an alarm. I don't know any of the details, but I did hear once about the Dolphin name in connection with an older hotel. From someone.'
'One of the blackies.'
'You know, the black-suit crowd.'
'Check,' I said. 'Other than that, you haven't heard any-thing about the old Dolphin Hotel?'
She shook her head and fiddled with her ring. 'I'm scared,' she whispered. 'I'm so scared I ... I don't know what to do.'
'Scared? Because of me and magazines?'
She shook her head, then pressed her lip against the rim of her glass. 'No, it's not that. Magazines don't have any-thing to do with it. If something gets printed, what do I care? The management might get all bent out of shape, but that's not what I'm talking about. It's the whole place. The whole hotel, well, I mean, there's always something a little weird about it. Something funny . . . something . . . warped.'
She stopped and was silent. I'd finished my whiskey, so I ordered another round for the both of us.
'What do you mean by 'warped'?' I tried prompting her. 'Do you mean anything specific?'
'Of course I do,' she said sharply. 'Things have hap-pened, but it's hard to find the words to describe it. So I never told anyone. I mean, it was really real, what I felt, but if I try to explain it in words, then it sort of starts to slip away.'
'So it's like a dream that's very real?'
'But this wasn't a dream. You know dreams sort of fade after a while? Not this thing. No way. It's always stayed the same. It's always real, right there, before my eyes.'
I didn't know what to say.
'Okay, this is what happened,' she said, taking a drink of her Bloody Mary and dabbing her lips with the napkin. 'It was in January. The beginning of January, right after New Year's. I was working the late shift, which I don't gen-erally like, but on that day it was my turn. Anyway, I didn't get through until around midnight. When it's late like that, they send you home in a taxi because the trains aren't run-ning. So after I changed clothes, I realized that I'd left my book in the staff lounge. I guess I could have waited until the next day, but the girl I was going to share the taxi with was still finishing up, so I decided to go get it. I got in the employee elevator and punched the button for the sixteenth floor, which is where the staff lounge and other staff facilities are-we take our coffee break there and go up there a lot.
'Anyway I was in the elevator and the door opened and I stepped out like always. I didn't think anything of it, I mean, who would? It's something that you do all the time, right? I stepped out like it was the most natural thing in the world. I guess I was thinking about something, I don't remember what. I think I had both hands in my pockets and I was standing there in the hallway, when I noticed that everything around me was dark. I mean, like absolutely pitch black. I turned around and the elevator door had just shut. The first thing I thought was, uh-oh, the power's gone out. But that's impossible. The hotel has this in-house emergency generator,
so if there's a power failure, the generator kicks on automat-ically. We had these practice sessions during training, so I know. So, in principle, there's not supposed to be anything like a blackout. And if on the million-to-one chance some-thing goes wrong with the generator, then emergency lights in the hallway are supposed to come on. So what I'm saying is, it wasn't supposed to be pitch black. I should have been seeing green lamps along the hall.
'But the whole place was completely dark. All I could see were the elevator call buttons and the red digital display that says what floor it's on. So the first thing I did was press the call buttons, but the elevator kept going down. I didn't know what to do. Then, for some reason, I decided to take a look around. I was really scared, but I was also feeling really put out.
'What I was thinking was that something was wrong with the basic functions of the hotel. Mechanically or structurally or something. And that meant more hassle from the management and no holidays and all sorts of annoying stuff. So, the more I thought about these things, the more annoyed I got. My annoyance got bigger than my fear. And that's how I decided to, you know, just have a look around. I walked two or three steps and-well, something was really strange. I mean, I couldn't hear the sound of my feet. There was no sound at all. And the floor felt funny, not like the regular car-pet. It was hard. Honest. And then the air, it felt different, too. It was ... it was moldy. Not like the hotel air at all. Our hotel is supposed to be fully air-conditioned and management is very fussy about it because it's not like ordinary air-condi-tioning, it's supposed to be quality air, not the dehumidified stuff in other hotels that dries out your nose. Our air is like natural air. So the stale, moldy air was really a shock. And it smelled like it was . . . old-you know, like when you go to visit your grandparents in the country and you open up the old family storehouse-like that. Stagnant and musty.
'I turned around and now even the elevator call buttons had gone out. I couldn't see a thing. Everything was out, com-
pletely, which was really frightening. I mean, I was entirely alone in total darkness, and it was utterly quiet. Utterly. There wasn't a single sound. Strange. You'd think that in a power failure, at least one person would be calling out. And this was when the hotel was almost full. You'd've thought a lot of peo-ple would be making noise. Not this time.'
Our drinks arrived, and we each took sips. Then she set hers down and adjusted her glasses.
'Did you follow me so far?'
'Pretty much,' I said. 'You got off the elevator on the sixteenth floor. It's pitch black. It smells strange. It's too quiet. Something funny is going on.'
She let out a sigh. 'I don't know if it's good or bad, but I'm not especially a timid person. At least I think I'm pretty brave. I'm not the type who screams her head off when the lights go out. I get scared but I don't freak out. I figure that you ought to go check things out. So I started feeling my way blind up the hallway.'
'In which direction?'
'To the right,' she said, raising her right hand. 'I felt my way along the wall, very slowly, and after a bit the hallway turned to the right again. And then, up ahead, I could see a faint glow. Really faint, like candlelight leaking in from far away. My first thought was that someone had found some emergency candles and lit them. I kept going, but when I got closer, I saw that the light was coming from a room with the door slightly ajar. The door was pretty strange too. I'd never seen an old door like that in the hotel before. I just stood there in front of it, not knowing what to do next. What if somebody was inside? What if somebody weird came out? What was this door doing here in the first place?
'So I knocked on the door softly, very softly. It was hardly a knock at all, but it came out sounding really loud -maybe because the hallway was dead quiet. Anyway, no response. I waited ten seconds, and during those ten seconds, I was just frozen. I hadn't the slightest idea what I was going to do. Then I heard this muffled noise. I don't know, it was
like a person in heavy clothing standing up, and then there were these footsteps. Really slow, shuffle ... shuffle .. . shuf-fle ..., like he was wearing slippers or something. The foot-steps came closer and closer to the door.'
She stared off into space and was shaking her head.
'That was when I started to freak out. Like maybe these footsteps weren't human. I don't know how I came to that conclusion. It was just this creepy feeling I got, because human feet don't walk like that. Chills ran up my spine, I mean seriously. I ran. I didn't even look where I was going. I must have fallen once or twice, I think, because my stockings were torn. This part I don't remember very well. All I can remember is that I ran. I panicked. Like what if the eleva-tor's dead? Thank god, when I finally got back there, the red floor-number light and call buttons were lit up and every-thing. The elevator was on the ground floor. I started pound-ing the call buttons and then the elevator started coming back up. But much slower than usual. Really, it was like this incredible slug. Like, second . . . third . . . fourth ... I was praying, c'mon, hurry up, oh come on, but it didn't do any good. The thing took forever. It was like somebody was jam-ming the controls.'
She let out a deep breath and sipped her drink again. Then she played with her ring a second longer.
I waited for her to continue. The music had stopped, someone was laughing.
'I could still hear those footsteps, shuffle . . . shuffle . . . shuffle . . . , getting closer. They just didn't stop, shuffle . . . shuffle . . . shuffle . . . , moving down the hall, coming toward me. I was terrified! I was more terrified than I'd ever been in my whole life. My stomach was practically squeezed up into my throat. I was sweating all over, but I was cold. I had the chills. The elevator wasn't anywhere near. Seventh ... eighth . . . ninth ... The footsteps kept coming.'
She paused for twenty or thirty seconds. And once again, she gave her ring a few more turns, almost as if she were tuning a radio. A woman at the counter said something,
which drew another laugh from her companion. If only they'd hurry up and put on a record.
'I can't really describe how I felt. You just have to experi-ence it,' she spoke dryly.
'Then what happened?'
'The next thing I knew, the elevator was there,' she said, shrugging her shoulders. 'The door opened and I could see that nice, familiar light. I fell in, literally. I was shaking all over, but I managed to push the button for the lobby. When it got there, I must've scared everyone silly. I was all pale and speechless and trembling. The manager came over and shook me, and said, 'Hey, what's wrong?' So I tried to tell him about the strange things on the sixteenth floor, but I kept running out of breath. The manager stopped me in the middle of my story and called over one of the staff boys, and all three of us went back up to the sixteenth floor. Just to check things out. But everything was perfectly normal up there. All the lights were shining away, there was no old smell, everything was the same as always, as it was supposed to be. We went to the staff lounge and asked the guy who was there if he knew anything about it, but he swore up and down he'd been awake the whole time and the power hadn't gone out. Then, just to be sure, we walked the entire six-teenth floor from one end to the other. Nothing was out of the ordinary. It was like I'd been bewitched or something.
'We went back down and the manager took me into his office. I was sure he was going to scream at me, but he didn't even get mad. He asked me to tell him what happened again in more detail. So I explained everything as clearly as I could, from the beginning, right down to those footsteps coming after me. I felt like a complete idiot. I was sure he was going to laugh at me and say I'd dreamed the whole thing up.
'But he didn't laugh or anything. Instead, he looked dead serious. Then he said: 'You're not to tell anyone about this.' He spoke very gently. 'Something must have gone wrong, but we shouldn't upset the other employees, so let's keep this completely quiet.' And let me tell you, this manager is not
the type to speak gently. He's ready to fly off the handle at any second. That's when it occurred to me-that maybe I wasn't the first person this happened to.'
She now sat silent.
'And you haven't heard anybody talk about something like this? Weird experiences, or strange happenings, or any-thing mysterious? What about rumors?'
She thought it over and shook her head. 'No, not that I'm aware of. But there really is something funny about the place. The way the manager reacted when I told him what happened and all those hush-hush conversations going on all the time. I really can't explain any better, but something isn't right. It's not at all like the hotel I worked at before. Of course, that wasn't such a big hotel, so things were a little different, but this is real different. That hotel had its own ghost story-every hotel's probably got one-but we all could laugh at it. Here, it's not like that at all. Nobody laughs. So it's even more scary. The manager, for example, if he made a joke of it, or even if he yelled at me, it wouldn't have seemed so strange. That way, I would've thought there was just a malfunction or something.'
She squinted at the glass in her hand.
'Did you go back to the sixteenth floor after that?' I asked.
'Lots of times,' she said matter-of-factly. 'It's still part of my workplace, so I go there when I have to, whether I like it or not. But I only go during the day. I never go there at night, I don't care what. I don't ever want to go through that again. That's why I won't work the night shift. I even told my boss that.'
'And you've never mentioned this to anyone else?'
She shook her head quickly. 'Like I already said, this is the first time. No one would've believed me anyway. I told you about it because I thought maybe you'd have a clue about this sixteenth-floor business.'
She gazed at me abstractedly. 'Well, for one thing, you
knew about the old Dolphin Hotel and you wanted to hear what happened to it. I couldn't help hoping you might know something about what I'd gone through.'
'Nope, afraid not,' I said, after a bit. 'I'm not a special-ist on the hotel. The old Dolphin was a small place, and it wasn't very popular. It was just an ordinary hotel.'
Of course I didn't for a moment think the old Dolphin was just an ordinary hotel, but I didn't want to open up that can of worms.
'But this afternoon, when I asked you about the Dolphin Hotel, you said it was a long story. What did you mean by that?'
'That part of it's kind of personal,' I said. 'If I start in on that, it gets pretty involved. Anyway, I don't think it has anything to do with what you just told me.'
She seemed disappointed. Pouting slightly, she stared down at her hands.
'Sorry I can't be of more help,' I said, 'especially after all the trouble you took to tell me this.'
'Well, don't worry, it's not your fault. I'm still glad I could tell you about it. These sort of things, you keep them all to yourself and they really start to get to you.'
'Yup, you gotta let the pressure out. If you don't, it builds up inside your head.' I made an over-inflated balloon with my arms.
She nodded silently as she fiddled with her ring again, removing it from her finger, then putting it back.
'Tell me, do you even believe my story? About the six-teenth floor and all?' she whispered, not raising her eyes from her fingers.
'Of course I believe you,' I said.
'Really? But it's kind of peculiar, don't you think?'
'That may be, but peculiar things do happen. I know that much. That's why I believe you. It all links up somewhere, I think.'
She puzzled over that a minute. 'Then you've had a simi-lar experience?'
'Yeah, at least I think I have.'
'Was it scary?' she asked.
'No, it wasn't like your experience,' I answered. 'No, what I mean is, things connect in all kinds of ways. With me ...' But for no reason I could understand, the words died in my throat. As if someone had yanked out the telephone line. I took a sip of whiskey and tried again. 'I'm sorry. I don't know how to put it. But I definitely have seen my share of unbelievable things. So I'm quite prepared to believe what you've told me. I don't think you made up the story.'
She looked up and smiled. An individual smile, I thought, not the professional variety. And she relaxed. 'I don't know why,' she said, 'but I feel better talking to you. I'm usually pretty shy. It's really hard for me to talk to people I don't know, but with you it's different.'
'Maybe we have something in common,' I laughed.
She didn't know what to make of that remark, and in the end didn't say anything. Instead, she sighed. Then she asked, 'Feel like eating? All of a sudden, I'm starving.'
I offered to take her somewhere for a real meal, but she said a snack where we were would do.
We ordered a pizza. And continued talking as we ate. About work at the hotel, about life in Sapporo. About herself. After high school, she'd gone to hotelier school for two years, then she worked at a hotel in Tokyo for two years, when she answered an ad for the new Dolphin Hotel. She was twenty-three. The move to Sapporo was good for her; her parents ran an inn near Asahikawa, about 120 kilometers away.
'It's a fairly well-known inn. They've been at it a long time,' she said.
'So after doing your job here, you'll take over the family business?' I asked.
'Not necessarily,' she said, pushing up the bridge of her glasses. 'I haven't thought that far ahead. I just like hotel work. People coming, staying, leaving, all that. I feel com-fortable there in the middle of it. It puts me at ease. After all, it's the environment I was raised in.'
'So that's why,' I said.
'Why standing there at the front desk, you looked like you could be the spirit of the hotel.'
'Spirit of the hotel?' she laughed. 'What a nice thing to say! If only I really could become like that.'
'I'm sure you can, if that's what you want,' I smiled back.
She thought that over a while, then asked to hear my story.
'Not very interesting,' I begged off, but still she wanted to hear. So I gave her a short rundown: thirty-four, divorced, writer of odd jobs, driver of used Subaru. Nothing novel.
But still she was curious about my work. So I told her about my interviews with would-be starlets, about my piece on restaurants in Hakodate.
'Sounds like fun,' she said, brightening up.
''Fun' is not the word. The writing itself is no big thing. I mean I like writing. It's even relaxing for me. But the content is a real zero. Pointless in fact.'
'What do you mean?'
'I mean, for instance, you do the rounds of fifteen restau-rants in one day, you eat one bite of each dish and leave the rest untouched. You think that makes sense?'
'But you couldn't very well eat everything, could you?'
'Of course not. I'd drop dead in three days if I did. And everyone would think I was an idiot. I'd get no sympathy whatsoever.'
'So what choice have you got?' she said.
'I don't know. The way I see it, it's like shoveling snow. You do it because somebody's got to, not because it's fun.'
'Shoveling snow, huh?' she mused.
'Well, you know, cultural snow,' I said.
We drank a lot. I lost track of how much, but it was past eleven when she eyed her watch and said she had an early
morning. I paid the bill and we stepped outside into flurries of snow. I offered to have my taxi drop her at her place, about ten minutes away. The snow wasn't heavy, but the road was frozen slick. She held on tight to my arm as we walked to the taxi stand. I think she was more than a little inebriated.
'You know that expose about how the hotel got built,' I asked as we made our way carefully, 'do you still remember the name of the magazine? Do you remember around when the article came out?'
She knew right off. 'And I'm sure it was last autumn. I didn't see the article myself, so I can't really say what it said.'
We stood for five minutes in the swirling snow, waiting for a cab. She clung to my arm.
'It's been ages since I felt this relaxed,' she said. The same thought occurred to me too. Maybe we really did have something in common, the two of us.
In the taxi we talked about nothing in particular. The snow and chill, her work hours, things in Tokyo. Which left me wondering what was going to happen next. One little push and I could probably sleep with her. I could feel it. Nat-urally I didn't know whether she wanted to sleep with me. But I understood that she wouldn't mind sleeping with me. I could tell from her eyes, how she breathed, the way she talked, even her hand movements. And of course, I knew I wouldn't mind sleeping with her. There probably wouldn't be any complications either. I'd have simply happened through and gone off. Just as she herself had said. Yet, some-how, the resolve failed me. The notion of fairness lingered somewhere in the back of my mind. She was ten years younger than me, more than a little insecure, and she'd had so much to drink she couldn't walk straight. It'd be like call-ing the bets with marked cards. Not fair.
Still, how much jurisdiction does fairness hold over sex? If fairness was what you wanted, your sex life would be as
exciting as the algae growing in an aquarium.
The voice of reason.
The debate was still raging when the cab pulled up to her plain, reinforced-concrete apartment building and she briskly swept aside my entire dilemma. 'I live with my younger sister,' she said.
No further thought on the matter needed or wanted. I actually felt a bit relieved.
But as she got out, she asked if I would see her to her door. Probably no reason for concern, she apologized, but every once in a while, late at night, there'd be a strange man in the hall. I asked the driver to wait for a few minutes, then accompanied her, arm in arm, up the frozen walk. We climbed the two flights of stairs and came to her door marked 306. She opened her purse to fish around for the key. Then she smiled awkwardly and said thanks, she'd had a nice time.
As had I, I assured her.
She unlocked the door and slipped the key back into her purse. The dry snap of her purse shutting resounded down the hall. Then she looked at me directly. In her eyes it was the old geometry problem. She hesitated, couldn't decide how she wanted to say good-bye. I could see it.
Hand on the wall, I waited for her to come to some kind of decision, which didn't seem forthcoming.
'Good night,' I said. 'Regards to your sister.'
For four or five seconds she clamped her lips tight. 'The part about living with my sister,' she half whispered. 'It's not true. Really, I live alone.'
'I know,' I said.
A slow blush came over her. 'How could you know?'
'Can't say why, I just did,' I said.
'You're impossible, you know that?'
The driver was reading a sports newspaper when I got back to the cab. He seemed surprised when I climbed back
into the taxi and asked him to take me to the Dolphin.
'You really going back?' he said with a smirk. 'From the look of things, I was sure you'd be paying me and sending me on. That's the way it usually happens.'
'When you do this job as long as I have, your intuition almost never misses.'
'When you do the job that long, you're bound to miss sometime. Law of averages.'
'Guess so,' the cabbie answered, a bit nonplussed. 'But still, kinda odd, aren'tcha pal?'
'Maybe so,' I said, 'maybe so.'
Back in my room, I washed up before getting into bed. That was when I started to regret what I'd done-or didn't do-but soon fell fast asleep. My bouts of regret don't usu-ally last very long.
First thing in the morning, I called down to the front desk and extended my stay for another three days. It was the off-season, so they were happy to accommodate me.
Next I bought a newspaper, headed out to a nearby Dunkin' Donuts and had two plain muffins with two large cups of coffee. You get tired of hotel breakfasts in a day. Dunkin' Donuts is just the ticket. It's cheap and you get refills on the coffee.
Then I got in a taxi and told the driver to take me to the biggest library in Sapporo. I looked up back numbers of the magazine the Dolphin Hotel article was supposed to be in and found it in the October 20th issue. I xeroxed it and took it to a nearby coffee shop to read.
The article was confusing to say the least. I had to read it several times before I understood what was going on. The reporter had tried his best to write a straightforward story, but his efforts had been no match for the complexity of the
details. Talk about convolution. You had to sit down with it before the general outline emerged. The title, 'Sapporo Land Dealings: Dark Hands behind Urban Redevelopment.' And printed alongside, an aerial photograph of the nearly com-pleted new Dolphin Hotel.
The long and the short of the story was this: Certain par-ties had bought up a large tract of land in one section of the city of Sapporo. For two years, the names of the new prop-erty holders were moved around, under the surface, in sur-reptitious ways. Land values grew hot for no apparent reason. With very little else to go on, the reporter started his investigation. What he turned up was this: The properties were purchased by various companies, most of which existed only on paper. The companies were fully registered, they paid taxes, but they had no offices and no employees. These paper companies were tied into still other paper companies. Whoever they were, their juggling of property ownership was truly masterful. One property bought at twenty million yen was resold at sixty million, and the next thing you knew it was sold again for two hundred million yen. If you per-sisted in tracing each paper company's holdings back through this maze of interconnecting fortunes, you'd find that they all ended at the same place: B industries, a player of some renown in real estate. Now B industries was a real company, with big, fashionable headquarters in the Akasaka section of Tokyo. And B industries happened to be, at a less-than-public level, connected to A enterprises, a massive conglomerate that encompassed railway lines, a hotel chain, a film company, food services, department stores, magazines, . . . , everything from credit agencies to damage insurance. A enterprises had a direct pipeline to certain political circles, which prompted the reporter to pursue this line of investiga-tion further. Which is how he found out something even more interesting. The area of Sapporo that B industries was so busily buying up was slated for major redevelopment. Already, plans had been set in motion to build subways and to move governmental offices to the area. The greater part of
the moneys for the infrastructural projects was to come from the national level. It seems that the national, prefectural, and municipal governments had worked together on the plan-ning and agreed on a comprehensive program for the zoning and scale and budget. But when you lifted up this 'cover,' it was obvious that every square meter of the sites for redevel-opment had been systematically bought up over the last few years. Someone was leaking information to A enterprises, and, moreover, the leak existed well before the redevelop-ment plans were finalized. Which also suggested that, politi-cally speaking, the final plans had been a fait accompli probably from the very beginning.
And this is where the Dolphin Hotel entered the picture. It was the spearhead of this collusive cornering of real estate. First of all, the Dolphin Hotel secured prime real estate. Hence, A enterprises could set up offices in this new chrome-and-marble wonder as its local base of operations. The place was both a beacon and a watchtower, a visible symbol of change as well as a nerve center which could redi-rect the flow of people in the district. Everything was pro-ceeding according to the most intricate plans.
That's advanced capitalism for you: The player making the maximum capital investment gets the maximum critical information in order to reap the maximum desired profit with maximum capital efficiency-and nobody bats an eye. It's just part of putting down capital these days. You demand the most return for your capital outlay. The person buying a used car will kick the tires and check under the hood, and the conglomerate putting down one hundred billion yen will check over the finer points of where that capital's going, and occasionally do a little fiddling. Fairness has got nothing to do with it. With that kind of money on the line, who's going to sit around considering abstract things like that?
Sometimes they even force hands.
For instance, suppose there's someone who doesn't want to sell. Say, a long-established shoe store. That's when the tough guys come out of the woodwork. Huge companies
have their connections, and you can bet they count everyone from politicians and novelists and rock stars to out-and-out yakuza in their fold. So they just call on the boys with their samurai swords. The police are never too eager to deal with matters like this, especially since arrangements have already been made up at the top. It's not even corruption. That's how the system works. That's capital investment. Granted, this sort of thing isn't new to the modern age. But everything before is nothing compared to the exacting detail and sheer power and invulnerability of today's web of capitalism. And it's megacomputers that have made it all possible, with their inhuman capacity to pull every last factor and condition on the face of the earth into their net calculations. Advanced capitalism has transcended itself. Not to overstate things, financial dealings have practically become a religious activ-ity. The new mysticism. People worship capital, adore its aura, genuflect before Porsches and Tokyo land values. Wor-shiping everything their shiny Porsches symbolize. It's the only stuff of myth that's left in the world.
Latter-day capitalism. Like it or not, it's the society we live in. Even the standard of right and wrong has been subdi-vided, made sophisticated. Within good, there's fashionable good and unfashionable good, and ditto for bad. Within fashionable good, there's formal and then there's casual; there's hip, there's cool, there's trendy, there's snobbish. Mix 'n' match. Like pulling on a Missoni sweater over Trussardi slacks and Pollini shoes, you can now enjoy hybrid styles of morality. It's the way of the world-philosophy starting to look more and more like business administration.
Although I didn't think so at the time, things were a lot simpler in 1969. All you had to do to express yourself was throw rocks at riot police. But with today's sophistication, who's in a position to throw rocks? Who's going to brave what tear gas? C'mon, that's the way it is. Everything is rigged, tied into that massive capital web, and beyond this web there's another web. Nobody's going anywhere. You throw a rock and it'll come right back at you.
The reporter had devoted a lot of energy to following the paper trail. Still, despite his outcry-or rather, all the more because of his outcry-the article curiously lacked punch. A rallying cry it wasn't. The guy just didn't seem to realize: Nothing about this was suspect. It was a natural state of affairs. Ordinary, the order of the day, common knowledge. Which is why nobody cared. If huge capital interests obtained information illegally and bought up property, forced a few political decisions, then clinched the deal by having yakuza extort a little shoe store here, maybe beat up the owner of some small-time, end-of-the-line hotel there, so what? That's life, man. The sand of the times keeps running out from under our feet. We're no longer standing where we once stood.
The reporter had done everything he could. The article was well researched, full of righteous indignation, and hope-lessly untrendy.
I folded it, slipped it into my pocket, and drank another cup of coffee.
I thought about the owner of the old Dolphin. Mister Unlucky, shadowed by defeat since birth. No way he could have made the cut for this day and age.
'Untrendy!' I said out loud.
A waitress gave me a disturbed look.
I took a taxi back to the hotel.
From my room I rang up my ex-partner in Tokyo. Some-body I didn't know answered the phone and asked my name, then somebody else came on the line and asked my name, then finally my ex-partner came to the phone. He seemed busy. It had been close to a year since we'd spoken. Not that I'd been consciously avoiding him; I simply didn't have anything to talk to him about. I'd always liked him, and still did. But the fact was, my ex-partner was for me (and I for him) 'foregone territory.' Again, not that we'd pushed each other into that position. We'd just gone our own separate ways, and those two paths didn't seem to cross. No more, no less.
So how's it going? I asked him.
Well enough, he said.
I told him I was in Sapporo. He asked me if it was cold.
Yeah, it's cold, I answered.
How's work? was my next question.
Busy, his one-word response.
Not hitting the bottle too much, I hoped.
Not lately, he wasn't drinking much these days.
And was it snowing up here? His turn to ask.
Not at the moment, I kept the ball in the air.
We were almost through with our polite toss-and-catch.
'Listen,' I broke in, 'I've got a favor to ask.' I'd done
him one a long while back. Both he and I remembered it. Otherwise, I'm not the type to go asking favors of people.
'Sure,' he said with no formalities.
'You remember when we worked on that in-house news-letter for that hotel group?' I asked. 'Maybe five years ago?'
'Yeah, I remember.'
'Tell me, is that connection still alive?'
He gave it a moment's thought. 'Can't say it's kicking, but it's alive as far as alive goes. Not impossible to warm it up if necessary.'
'There was one guy who knew a lot about what was going on in the industry. I forget his name. Skinny guy, always wore this funny hat. You think you can get in contact with him?'
'I think so. What do you want to know?'
I gave him a brief rundown on the Dolphin scandal arti-cle. He took down the date the piece appeared. Then I told him about the old, tiny Dolphin that was here before the present monster Dolphin and said I'd like to know more about the following things: First, why had the new hotel kept the old Dolphin name? Second, what was the fate of the old owner? And last, were there any recent developments on the scandal front?
He jotted it all down and read it back to me over the phone.
'That'll do,' I said.
'Probably in a hurry, too, huh?' he asked.
'I'll see what I can do today. What's your number up there?'
I gave it to him.
'Talk to you later,' he said and hung up.
I had a simple lunch in a cafe in the hotel. Then I went down to the lobby and saw that the young woman with
glasses was behind the counter. I took a seat in a corner of the lobby and watched her. She was busy at work and didn't seem to notice me. Or maybe she did, but was playing cool. It didn't really matter, I guess. I liked seeing her there. As I thought to myself, I could have slept with her if I wanted to.
There are times when I need to chat myself up like that.
After I'd watched her enough, I took the elevator back to my room and read a book. The sky outside was heavy with clouds, making me feel like I was living in a poorly lit stage set. I didn't know when my ex-partner would call back, so I didn't want to go out, which left me little else to do but read. I soon finished the Jack London and started in on the Spanish Civil War.
It was a day like a slow-motion video of twilight. Uneventful, to put it mildly. The lead gray of the sky mixed ever so slowly with black, finally blending into night. Just another quality of melancholy. As if there were only two col-ors in the world, gray and black, shifting back and forth at regular intervals.
I dialed room service and had them send up a sandwich, which I ate a bite at a time between sips of a beer. When there's nothing to do, you do nothing slowly and intently. At seven-thirty, my ex-partner rang.
'I got ahold of the guy,' he said.
'A lot of trouble?'
'Mmm, some,' he said after a slight pause, making it obvious that it had been extremely difficult. 'Let me run through everything with you. I suppose you could say the lid was shut pretty tight on this one. And not just shut, it was bolted down and locked away in a vault. No one had access to it. Case closed. No dirt to be dug up anymore. Seems there might have been some small irregularities in govern-ment or city hall. Nothing important, just fine tuning, as they say. Nobody knows any more than that. The Attorney's Office snooped around, but couldn't come up with anything incriminating. Lots of lines running through this one. Hot stuff. It was hard to get anything out of anyone.'
'This concern of mine is personal. It won't make trouble for anyone.'
'That's exactly what I told the guy.'
Still holding the receiver, I reached over to the refrigerator to get another beer, and poured it into a glass.
'At the risk of sounding like your mother, a word to the wise: If you're going to pry, you're going to get hurt,' my ex-partner said. 'This one, it seems, is big, real big. I don't know what you've got going there, but I wouldn't get in too deep if I were you. Think of your age and standing, you ought to live out your life more peaceably. Not that I'm the best example, mind you.'
'Gotcha,' I said.
He coughed. I took another sip of beer.
'About the old Dolphin owner, seems the guy didn't give in until the very last, which brought him a lot of grief. Should've walked right out of there, but he just wouldn't leave. Couldn't read the big picture.'
'He was that type,' I said. 'Very untrendy.'
'He got the bad end of the business. A bunch of yakuza moved into the hotel and had a field day. Nothing so bad as to bother the law. They set up court in the lobby, and stared down anyone who walked into the place. You get the idea, no? Still, the guy held out for the count.'
'I can see it,' I said. The owner of the Dolphin Hotel was well acquainted with misery in its various forms. No small measure of misfortune was going to faze him.
'In the end, the Dolphin came out with the strangest counteroffer. Your guy told them he'd pack up shop on one condition. And you know what that was?'
'Haven't a clue,' I said.
'Take a guess. Think, man, just a bit. It's the answer to one of your other questions.'
'On the condition that they kept the Dolphin Hotel name. Is that it?'
'Bingo,' he said. 'Those were the terms, and that's what the buyers agreed to.'
'But c'mon, why?'
'It's not such a bad name. 'Dolphin Hotel' sounds fair enough, as names go.'
'Well, I guess,' I said.
'What's more, this hotel was supposed to be the flagship for a whole new chain of hotels that A enterprises was planning. Luxury hotels, not their usual top-of-the-middle class. And they didn't have a name for it yet.'
'Voila! The Dolphin Hotel Chain.'
'Right. A chain to rival the Hiltons and Hyatts of the world.'
'The Dolphin Hotel Chain,' I tried it out one more time. A heritage passed on, a dream unfurled. 'So then what hap-pened to the old Dolphin owner?'
I took another sip of my beer and scratched my ear with the tip of my pen.
'When he left they gave him a good chunk of money, so he could be doing almost anything. But there's no way to trace him. He was a bit player, just passing through.'
'And that's about it,' said my ex-partner. 'That's all I could find out. Nothing more. Will that do you?'
'Thanks. You've been loads of help,' I said.
He cleared his throat.
'You out some dough?' I asked.
'Nah,' he said. 'I'll buy the guy dinner, then take him to a club in Ginza, pay his carfare home. That's not a lot, so forget about it. I can write it off as expenses anyway. Every-thing's deductible. Hell, my accountant tells me all the time to spend more. So don't worry about it. If you ever feel like going to a Ginza club, let me know. It'll be on me. Seeing as you've never been to any of those places.'
'And what's the attraction of a Ginza club?'
'Booze, girls,' he said. 'Kind words from my tax accountant.'
'Why don't you go with him?'
'I did, not so long ago,' he said, sounding absolutely bored.
We said our good-byes and hung up.
I started to think about my ex-partner. He was the same age as me, and already he was getting a paunch. All kinds of prescription drugs in his desk. Actually concerned about who won elections. Worried about his kids' education. He was always fighting with his wife, but basically he was a real family man. He had his weaknesses to be sure, he was known to drink too much, but he was a hardworking, straightforward kind of guy. In every sense of the word.
We'd teamed up right after college and gotten on pretty well. It was a small translation business, and it gradually expanded in scale. We weren't exactly the closest of friends, but we made a fine enough partnership. We saw each other every day like that, but we never fought once. He was quiet and well-mannered, and I myself wasn't the arguing type. We had our differences, but managed to keep working together out of mutual respect. But when something unfore-seen came up, we split up, perhaps at the best time too. He got started again, kept up both ends of the business, maybe better than when we were together, honestly. That is, if his client list is anything to go on. The company got bigger, he got a whole new crew. Even psychologically, he seemed a lot more secure.
More likely I was the one with problems. And I probably exerted a not-so-healthy influence over him. Which helps to explain why he was able to find his way after I left. Fawning and flattering to get the best out of his people, cracking stupid jokes with the woman who keeps the books, dutifully taking clients out to Ginza clubs no matter how dull he found it. He might have been too nervous to do that if I were still around. He was always aware of how I saw him, worried about what I would think. That was the kind of guy he was. Though, to tell the truth, I didn't pay a lot of atten-
tion to what he was doing next to me.
Good he's his own man now. In every way.
That is, by my leaving, he wasn't afraid to act his age, and he came into his own.
So where did that leave me?
At nine o'clock the phone rang. I wasn't expecting a call -nobody besides my ex-partner knew I was here-so at first the sound of the phone ringing didn't register. After four rings I picked up the receiver.
'You were watching me in the lobby today, weren't you?' It was my receptionist friend. She didn't seem angry, but then she wasn't exactly happy either. Her voice was without equivocation.
'Yes, I was,' I admitted.
'I don't like it when people watch me while I'm working. It makes me nervous and I start making mistakes. I could feel your eyes on me the whole time.'
'Sorry, I won't stare at you again,' I said. 'I was only watching you to give myself confidence. I didn't think you'd get so nervous. From now on I'll be more careful. Where are you calling from?'
'Home,' she answered. 'I'm just about to take a bath and go to bed. You extended your stay, didn't you?'
'Uh-huh. Business got postponed a bit.'
Another short silence.
'Do you think I'm too nervous?' she asked.
'I don't know. It's a different thing for everybody. But in any case, I promise not to stare again. I don't want to ruin your work.'
She thought it over a second, then we said good night.
I hung up the phone, took a bath, and stretched out on the sofa reading until eleven-thirty. Then I dressed and stepped out into the hall. I walked it from one end to the other. It was like a maze. At the farthest recess was the staff
elevator, a little hidden from view, next to the emergency staircase. If you followed the signs pointing past the guest rooms, you came to an elevator marked freight only. I stood before it, noting that the elevator was stopped on the ground floor. No one seemed to be using it. From speakers in the ceiling came the strains of 'Love Is Blue.' Paul Mauriat.
I pressed the button. The elevator roused itself and started to ascend. The digital display registered the floors-1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6-slowly but surely advancing, to the rhythm of the music. If someone was in the elevator, I could always plead ignorance. It was a mistake guests were probably making all the time. 11, 12, 13, 14-and rising steadily. I took one step back, dug my hands in my pockets, and waited for the doors to open.
15-the count stopped. There was a moment's pause, and not a sound, then the door slid open. The elevator was empty.
Awfully quiet, I thought to myself. A far cry from that wheezing contraption in the old hotel. I got in and pressed 16. The door shut, soundlessly, again, I felt a slight move-ment, and the door opened. The sixteenth floor. Bright, fully lit, with 'Love Is Blue' flowing out of the ceiling. No dark-ness, no musty odor. For good measure, I walked the entire floor from end to end. It proved to have the exact same lay-out as the fifteenth. Same winding hallways, same inter-minable array of guest rooms, same vending machine alcove midway along, same bank of guest elevators.
The carpet was deep red, rich with soft pile. You couldn't hear your own footsteps. In fact, everything was resound-ingly hushed. There was only 'A Summer Place,' probably by Percy Faith. After getting to the end, I turned around and walked back halfway to where the guest elevators were and took one down to the fifteenth floor. Then I went through the whole routine all over again. Staff elevator to the six-teenth floor, where there was the same, perfectly ordinary, well-lit floor as before. And it was still 'A Summer Place.'
I gave up and went down to the fifteenth floor again, had two sips of brandy and hit the sack.
At dawn, the black changed back to gray. It was snowing. Well now, I thought, what do I do today?
As usual, there wasn't anything to do.
I walked in the snow to Dunkin' Donuts, chewed on a couple doughnuts, and read the morning paper as I sipped my coffee. I skimmed through an article about local elec-tions. I looked through the movie listings. Nothing I particu-larly wanted to see, but there was this one film featuring a former junior high school classmate of mine. A teen angst movie by the title of Unrequited Love, with an up-and-com-ing teenage actress and an up-and-coming teenage singer. I could guess the sort of role my classmate would play: hand-some, young teacher with his wits about him, tall, slim, all-around athlete, girls swooning all over him. Naturally the lead girl has a crush on him. So she spends Sunday baking cookies and takes them to his apartment. But there's a boy who's got his eyes on her. Average boy, kind of shy, . . . Typi-cal. I could see the movie without seeing it.
When this classmate of mine became an actor, I went to see his first few films, partly out of curiosity. But before long I didn't bother. Every movie was straight out of the same mold, and every role he had was basically the same: tall, handsome, athletic, clean-cut, often a student at first, then later teacher or doctor or young elite salaryman, adored by the girls around him. He had perfect teeth, a charming smile. Very suave. Though still not anything you'd want to pay money to see. Now I'm not a snob who only goes to see Fellini or Tarkovsky. No, not by any means. But this guy's films were the pits. Low-budget productions with cliche plots and mediocre dialogue, movies you could tell even the directors didn't care about.
Although, come to think of it, in real life the guy had been pretty much like the parts he played. He was nice
enough, but who actually knew anything about him? We were in the same class during junior high school, and once we shared the same lab table on a science experiment. We were friendly. But even back then he was too nice to be real-just like in his movies. Girls were already falling all over him. If he talked to them, their eyes would go moist. If he lit a Bunsen burner with those graceful hands of his, it was like the opening ceremony of the Olympics. None of the girls ever noticed I was alive.
His grades were good too, always first or second in the class. Kind, sincere, friendly. It didn't matter what kind of clothes he wore, he always looked neat and clean. Even when he took a leak, there was something elegant about him. And there's hardly a male around who looks elegant when pissing. Of course, he was good at sports, active in school government. There was talk that he had a thing going with the most popular girl in the class, but no one knew for sure. All the teachers thought he was great, and on Parents' Day all the mothers would be enchanted with him too. He was just that type. Though, like I said, it was hard to know what the guy was thinking.
His life was practically right out of the movies.
Why the hell would I pay money to go see a movie like that?
I tossed the newspaper into the trash and walked back to the hotel in the snow. In the lobby, I glanced at the front desk, but my friend was nowhere to be seen. I went over to the video game corner and played a couple rounds of Pacman and Galaxy. Nerve-racking. Games like those bring out the aggression in people. But they do kill time.
After that I went back to my room and read.
The day was impossible to get a handle on. When I got tired of reading, I looked out the window at the snow. It snowed the entire day. I found it inspiring that a sky could actually snow this much. At twelve o'clock I went down to the cafe for lunch. Then I returned to my room and read and watched the snow.
But the day wasn't a complete loss. Around four o'clock, while I lay in bed reading, there was a knock on the door. It was my receptionist friend, standing there in glasses and light blue blazer. Without waiting for me to open the door any wider, she slipped into the room like a shadow and shut the door.
'Hotel policy. If they catch me here, I'm fired,' she said quickly.
She looked around the room and sat down on the sofa, straightening the hem of her skirt at her knees. Then she breathed a sigh. 'I'm on my break now,' she said.
'I'm going to have a beer. Want something to drink?' I asked.
'No thanks. I don't have too much time. You've been holed up inside here all day, haven't you?'
'I didn't have anything special to do. I'm just whiling away the hours, reading and watching the snow,' I said.
'What's the book?'
'It's about the Spanish Civil War. The whole history, from beginning to end. Full of innuendo.' To be sure, the Spanish Civil War was rich in historical suggestion. It was a real old-fashioned war.
'Listen, don't take this wrong,' she interrupted me.
'Don't take what wrong?' I asked.
'You mean, your coming to my room?' I asked.
I sat down on the edge of the bed, beer in hand. 'Don't worry. I was surprised to see you standing at my door, but pleasantly surprised. I'm happy for some company. It's been pretty boring.'
She stood up and in the middle of the room removed her blazer. She draped it over the back of a chair, carefully so it wouldn't wrinkle. Then she walked over to me at the edge of the bed and sat down, her legs neatly aligned. Without the blazer, she seemed vulnerable, defenseless. I put my arm around her and she rested her head on my shoulder. Her
white blouse was pressed crisply, and she smelled nice. We stayed in this position for five minutes. Me just holding her, her just sitting there, head on my shoulder, eyes closed, breathing softly, almost as if she were asleep. Out in the street, the snow kept falling, without end, swallowing all sound.
She was tired. She needed somewhere to roost. I was the nearest tree branch. I understood. It seemed unreasonable, unfair, that a woman so young and beautiful should be so exhausted. Of course, it was neither unreasonable nor unfair. Exhaustion pays no mind to age or beauty. Like rain and earthquakes and hail and floods.
Then she raised her head, stood up, and slipped her blazer back on. She walked over to the sofa, sat down, and fiddled with the ring on her pinkie. In her uniform, she seemed stiff and distant.
I kept sitting on the edge of the bed.
'You know that weird experience you had on the six-teenth floor?' I began, 'did you do anything special or was there something out of the ordinary? Like before you got into the elevator, or while you were going up?'
She cocked her head quizzically. 'Hmm ... let me think. No, I don't think so. But I can't really remember.'
'There wasn't a hint of anything odd?'
'Everything was like always,' she shrugged. 'There was nothing unusual at all. And, really, it was a completely nor-mal elevator ride, but when the door opened everything was pitch black. That's all.'
'I see,' I said. 'How about dinner somewhere tonight?'
She shook her head. 'I'm sorry. I've made other plans for tonight.'
'How about tomorrow?'
'I have swim club tomorrow.'
'Swim club?' I said, smiling. 'Did you know they had swim clubs in ancient Egypt?'
'No,' she said, 'but I find it awfully hard to believe, don't you?'
'No, it's the truth. I learned that from some research I had to do once,' I explained. A token from the department of useless facts.
She looked at her watch and got up. 'Well, thanks,' she said. And slid out the door, as noiselessly as when she en-tered. So much for my only handle on the day. It left me wondering how the ancient Egyptians filled their days, what little pleasures they enjoyed as they whiled their weary way to death. Learning to swim, wrapping mummies. And the sum accomplishment of that you call a civilization.
By eleven o'clock that night I was out of things to do. I'd pretty well done everything. I'd trimmed my nails, taken a bath, cleaned my ears, even watched the news on TV. Did push-ups, sit-ups, stretched, ate dinner, finished my book. But I wasn't sleepy. I thought about checking out the staff elevator one more time, but it was too early for that. I had to wait until after midnight for the comings and goings of the employees to fall off.
In the end I decided to go up to the lounge on the twenty-sixth floor. I nursed a martini while gazing out blankly at the flecks of white swirling down through the void. I thought about the ancient Egyptians, tried to imagine what kind of lives they led. Who were the ones that joined the swim club? No doubt, it was the Pharaoh's clan, aristocrats, the upper classes. Trendy, jet-set ancient Egyptians. They probably had their own private section of the Nile or built special pools to teach their chic strokes in. Complete with handsome, likable swim instructor, like my friend the movie star, who'd say things like, 'Excellent, Your Highness, only perhaps Thou might extend Thy right arm a little further for the crawl.'
The sky-blue waters of the Nile, the scintillating sun (thatched cabanas and palm fronds a must), spear-bearing soldiers to beat back the crocodiles and commoners, swaying reeds, the Pharaoh's crowd. Princes, sure, but what about
princesses? Did women learn to swim? Cleopatra, for instance. In her younger days looking like Jodie Foster, would she have swooned over my classmate, the swim instructor? Most likely. That's what he was there for.
Somebody ought to make a film like that. I, for one, would pay to see it.
No, the swim instructor couldn't be of poor birth. He'd be the son of the King of Israel or Assyria or somewhere like that, captured in battle and dragged back to Egypt, a slave. But he doesn't lose an iota of his good-naturedness, even if he is a slave. That's where he differs from Charlton Heston or Kirk Douglas. He flashes his brilliant white teeth in a smile and takes a leak, aristocratically. Then, standing on the banks of the Nile, he takes out a ukulele and bursts into a chorus of 'Rock-a-Hula Baby.' Obviously he's the only man for the part.
Then, one day, the Pharaoh and entourage happen by. The swim instructor's out scything reeds when he sees a barge capsize. Without the least hesitation, he dives into the river, swims a magnificent crawl out and rescues a little girl and races the crocodiles back to shore. All with powerful grace. As gracefully as he'd lit the Bunsen burner in science class. The Pharaoh is most impressed and thinks, that's it, I'll get this youth to teach my princes how to swim. The previ-ous swim instructor had proven insubordinate and was thrown into the bottomless pit just the week before. Thus my classmate becomes the Royal Swim Instructor. And he's so likable everyone adores him. At night, the ladies-in-wait-ing anoint their bodies with oils and perfumes and hasten to his bed. The princes and princesses are all devoted to him.
Cut to a spectacle scene on the order of The Bathing Beauty or The King and I. My classmate and the princes and princesses in a grand synchronized swim routine in celebra-tion of the Pharaoh's birthday. The Pharaoh is overjoyed, which further boosts the youth's stock. Still, he doesn't let it go to his head. He's a paragon of humility. He smiles the same as ever, and pisses elegantly. When a lady-in-waiting
slips under the covers with him, he spends a full one hour on foreplay, brings her all the way to climax, then afterward strokes her hair and says, 'You're the best.' He's a good
For a moment, I tried to picture sleeping with an Egyptian court lady, but the image wouldn't gel. The more I forced it, the more everything turned into 20th Century Fox's Cleo-patra. Very epic. Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Har-rison. The 'Hollywood Exotic' mode-olive-skinned, long-legged slave girls waving long-handled fans over Liz, who strikes various glamorous poses to seduce my class-mate. A specialty of the Egyptian femme fatale.
But the Jodie Foster Cleopatra has fallen head-over-heels for him.
Mediocre fare, admittedly, but that's the movies.
He's pretty much gone on Jodie Cleopatra, too.
But he's not the only one who's crazy about Jodie Cleopa-tra. There's a dark, dark Arabian prince who's burning with passion for her. He's so in love with her that just thinking about her is enough to make him dance. The role is tailor-made for Michael Jackson. He's crossed the Arabian sands all the way to Egypt for her love. We see him dancing around the caravan camp fire, shaking a tambourine, singing 'Billie Jean.' His eyes gleam in the starlight. So of course there ensues a major face-off between Michael and my class-mate, our swim instructor. A rivalry between lovers. . . .
I'd gotten this far when the bartender came over and said sorry, closing time. It was a quarter past twelve; I was the last customer in the lounge, glasses were already drying on towels, the bartender almost through cleaning up. Had I been tweaking this nonsense all this time? What an idiot! I signed the bill, downed the last of my martini, and walked out, shuffling my way to the elevators, hands useless in my pockets.
Still, wasn't Jodie Cleopatra obliged to marry her younger brother? My dream scenario had a life of its own. I couldn't get it out of my head. The scenes kept on coming. Her shift-
less and crooked younger brother. Now who'd be good for the part? Woody Alien? Gimme a break. This isn't a com-edy! We don't need a court jester cracking stupid jokes and hitting himself over the head with a plastic mallet.
We'll work on the brother later. The Pharaoh's got to go to Laurence Olivier. Always got a migraine, always pressing fingers to his temples. Throws anyone who gets on his nerves into the bottomless pit or makes them swim the Nile with the crocs. Intelligent, cruel, and high-strung. Digs out people's eyes and throws the poor souls into the desert.
Oh, the casting, the casting, and then the elevator arrived. The door opened, ever so silently. I got in and pressed 15. And went back to my Egyptian movie. Not that I really wanted to, but there was no way to stop it.
The scene changes to the desert wastelands. Unbeknownst to all, in a cave in the wilderness lives a solitary prophet-recluse, cast out of society by the Pharaoh. With his eyes gouged out, he has miraculously survived his long trek across the desert. A sheepskin shields him from the merciless sun. He dwells in total darkness, eating locusts and wild grasses. He gains inner vision and sees the future. He sees the fall of the Pharaoh, Egypt's twilight, a world shifting on its foundations.
It's the Sheep Man, I think. The Sheep Man?
The elevator door opened silently, and I exited without thought. The Sheep Man? In ancient Egypt? Isn't this all meaningless pastiche anyway? I reasoned these things out, standing, hands in my pockets, in total darkness.
Only then did I notice the complete absence of light. Not one speck of light. As the elevator door shut behind me, I was enveloped in lacquer black darkness. I couldn't see my own hands. The Muzak was gone too. No 'Love Is Blue,' no 'A Summer Place.' And the air was chill and moldy.
I stood there alone, abandoned in utter nothingness.
The darkness was deathly absolute. I could not distinguish one shape or object. I could not see my own body. I could not get any sense of any-thing out there. I was in a great black vacuum.
I was reduced to pure concept. My flesh had dissolved; my form had dissipated. I floated in space. Liberated of my corporeal being, but without dispensation to go anywhere else. I was adrift in the void. Somewhere across the fine line separating nightmare from reality.
I stood. But I could not move. My arms and legs felt para-lyzed. I was at the bottom of the sea, the pressure dense, crushing, inexorable. Dead silence strained against my eardrums. The darkness was without reprieve. No mental adjustment could make it less absolute. It was impenetra-ble-black painted over black painted over black.
Unconsciously I groped around in my pockets. On the right was my wallet and key holder, on the left my room card-key and handkerchief and small change. All useless now. Now if I hadn't quit smoking, I'd at least be carrying a lighter or some matches. As if that would make a difference. I pulled my hands out of my pockets and reached out to touch a wall. I found one all right, alarmingly slick and chill, not exactly a wall you'd expect to find in the climate-con-trolled Dolphin Hotel.
Easy now. Think it through.
Okay, this is exactly what happened to my receptionist friend. I am merely retracing her steps. There is no need for alarm. She survived; I will too. Calm down; do what she did. Now, something funny is definitely going on here. Maybe it has something to do with me? With the old Dolphin Hotel? That's why I came here, isn't it? Yes. So go through the motions and finish the job.
I was scared, scared witless. I felt naked. Cast into the midst of violent particle drifts of intense black, thrashing about me like blind eels. I was overcome with my helpless-ness. My shirt was drenched in cold sweat, my throat felt raspy, dry.
Where the hell was I? I wasn't here, at 1'Hotel Dauphin, that's for sure. I had crossed a line and I had entered this world in limbo. I shut my eyes and breathed deeply.
I know it sounds ridiculous, but I found myself longing for 'Love Is Blue.' The sound of Muzak-any Muzak- would give me strength. I'd have settled for Richard Clayderman. Or Los Indios Tabajaras, Jose Feliciano, Julio Iglesias, Sergio Mendes, The Partridge Family, 1910 Fruitgum Company, Mitch Miller and chorus, Andy Williams in duet with Al Martino . . . , anything.
But enough. My mind went blank. From fear? Could fear lurk in empty space?
Michael Jackson dancing around the camp fire with his tambourine singing 'Billie Jean.' The camels entranced by the song.
I must be getting a little confused.
I must be getting a little confused.
Seems like an echo inside my head. An echo inside my head.
I took another deep breath, and tried to drive meaningless images from my mind.
I braced myself and turned right, arms extended. But my
legs would not move, as if they were not mine. The muscles and nerves would not respond. I was sending the signals, but nothing was happening. I was immersed in fluid darkness. I was trapped, I was immobilized.
The darkness was without end. I was being propelled toward the center of the earth. I would never resurface. Think of something else, kid. Think, or fear will take over your whole being. How about that Egyptian film scenario? Where were we? The Sheep Man enters. Move on from desert wilderness back to palace of the Pharaoh. Tinsel tow-ers aglitter with the treasures of Africa. Nubian slaves every-where. Dead center, the Pharaoh. Music, by Miklos Rozsa. The Pharaoh is pissed off. Something is rotten in the state of Egypt, he thinks. I smell a plot in the palace. I can feel it in my bones. I must set it right.
One foot at a time, I stepped forward, carefully. That was when it occurred to me. What my receptionist friend had been able to do. Amazing! Thrown into some crazy black hole and she's able to go check out everything for herself.
And now she's wearing her black racing swimsuit, doing her laps at the swim club. And who's there but my movie star classmate. Sure enough, she goes gaga at the sight of him. He gives her pointers on the right arm extension for the crawl. She gazes at him, her eyes aglow. And that very night, she slips into his bed. I'm crushed. I can't let this happen. She doesn't know a thing. Oh, he's nice and kind all right. He says sweet things and he gets her juices going. But that's as far as the kindness goes. That's just foreplay.
The hallway bent to the right.
Just like she said.
But she's in bed with my classmate. Gently he takes off her clothes, lavishing compliments on her about each part of her body. And he's being sincere. Great, just great. Got to hand it to the guy. But little by little the anger mounts inside me. This was wrong!
The hallway bends to the right.
I turned right, feeling my way along the wall. Far off up
ahead there was a faint light. As if filtered through layers and layers of veils.
Just like she said.
My classmate is kissing her all over. Slowly, with such finesse, from the nape of her neck to her shoulders to her breasts. Camera angle shows his face and her back. Then the camera dollies around to reveal her face. But it isn't my receptionist friend, no. It's Kiki! My high-class call-girl friend with the world's most beautiful ears, who was with me at the old Dolphin. Kiki, who disappeared without a word, without a trace. And here she is, sleeping with my classmate.
It's a real scene from a real movie. Every shot and cut according to plan. Maybe a little too planned-it looks so commonplace. They are making love in an apartment, the light shining in through the blinds. Kiki. What's she doing here? Time and space must be getting out of whack.
Time and space must be getting out of whack.
I kept walking toward the light. As my feet took the lead, the image in my head evaporated.
I proceeded along the wall. No more thinking. Concen-trate on moving feet forward. Carefully, surely. The dim light ahead begins to leak and spread, from a door. But I still don't know where I am. And I can barely tell that it's a door. It isn't like anything I saw when I made the rounds earlier. On the door, a metal plate, a number engraved on it. I can't read the number. It's dark, the plate's tarnished. But, at the very least, I know this isn't the Dolphin Hotel. The doors are different. The air is wrong too. That smell, what is it? Like old papers. The light sways from time to time. Candlelight.
I thought about my receptionist friend again. I should have slept with her when I could have. Who knew if I'd ever return to the real world? Would I ever get another chance to see her? I was jealous of the real world and her swim club. Or maybe I wasn't jealous. Maybe it was a matter of regret, an overblown, distorted sense of regret, although maybe
what it came down to, plunged in this darkness, was I was jealous. It'd been years. I'd forgotten what it felt like to be jealous. It's such a personal emotion. Maybe I was feeling jealous now. Maybe, but toward a swim club?
This is stupid.
I swallowed. It sounded like a metal baseball bat striking a barrel drum. That was saliva?
Then a strange vibration, a half sound. I had to knock. That's right, like she said. I summoned up my courage and let go with a tiny rap. Something that didn't necessarily demand to be heard. But it was a huge, booming noise. Cold and heavy as death.
I held my breath.
Silence. Just like with her. How long it lasted, I couldn't tell. It might have been five seconds, it might have been a minute. Time wasn't fixed. It wavered, stretched, shrank. Or was it me that wavered, stretched, and shrank in the silence? I was warped in the folds of time, like a reflection in a fun house mirror.
Then that sound. A rustling, amplified, like fabric. Some-thing getting up from the floor. Then footsteps. Coming toward me. The scuffling of slippers. Something, but not human. Like she said. Something from another reality-a reality that existed here.
There was no escape. I did not move. Sweat streamed down my back. Yet, as the footsteps grew closer and closer, unaccountably my fears began to subside. It's all right, I said to myself. Whatever it is, it is not evil. I knew. I knew there was nothing to fear. I could let it happen.
I felt aswirl with warm secretions. I gripped the door-knob, I shut my eyes, I held my breath. You're all right, you're fine. I heard a tremendous heartbeat through the darkness. It was my own. I was enveloped in it, I was a part of it. There was nothing to fear. It was all connected.
The footsteps halted. They were beside me. It was beside me. My eyes were shut. It is beginning to come together. I knew. I knew I was connected to this place. The banks of the
Nile and the perfumed Nubian court ladies and Kiki and the Dolphin Hotel and rock 'n' roll, everything, everything, everything! An implosion of time and physical form. Old light, old sound, old voices.
'Beenwaitingforyou. Beenwaitingforages. Comeonin.' I knew who it was without opening my eyes.
We faced each other across a small table, talking. The table was very old, round, set with one candle in the middle. The candle had been stuck directly onto a saucer. And that was the entire inventory of furnish-ings in the room. There weren't any chairs. We sat on piles of books.
It was the Sheep Man's room.
Narrow and cramped. The walls and ceiling had the feel-ing of the old Dolphin Hotel, but it wasn't the old hotel either. At the far end of the room was a window, boarded up from inside. Boarded up a long time ago, if the rusty nails and gray dust in the cracks of the boards were any indica-tion. The room was a rectangular box. No lights. No closet. No bath. No bed. He must've slept on the floor, wrapped in his sheep costume.
There was barely enough room to walk. The floor was lit-tered with yellowing old books and newspapers and scrap-books filled with clippings. Some were worm-eaten, falling apart at their bindings. All, from what I could tell, having to do with the history of sheep in Hokkaido. All, probably, from the archive at the old Dolphin Hotel. The sheep refer-ence room, which the owner's father, the Sheep Professor, pretty much lived in. What ever became of him?
The Sheep Man looked at me across the flickering candle
flame. Behind him, his disproportionately enormous shadow played over a grimy wall.
'Beenalongtime,' he spoke from behind his mask. 'Let's-ussee, youthinnerorwhat?'
'Yeah, I might have lost some weight.'
'Sotellus, what'stheworldoutside? Wedon'tgetmuchnews, notinhere.'
I crossed my legs and shook my head. 'Same as ever. Nothing worth mentioning. Everything's getting more com-plicated. Everything's speeding up. No, nothing's really new.'
The Sheep Man nodded. 'Nextwarhasn'tbegunyet, we-takeit?'
Which was the Sheep Man's last war? I wasn't sure. 'Not yet,' I said.
'Butsoonerorlateritwill,' he voiced, uninflected, folding his mitted hands. 'Youbetterwatchout. War'sgonnacome, nothreewaysaboutit. Markourwords. Can'ttrustpeople. Won'tdoanygood. They'llkillyoueverytime. They'llkilleach-other. They'llkilleveryone.'
The Sheep Man's fleece was dingy, the wool stiff and greasy. His mask looked bad too, like something patched together at the last minute. The poor light in the damp room didn't help and maybe my memory was wrong, but it wasn't just the costume. The Sheep Man was worn-out. Since the last time I'd seen him four years ago, he'd shrunk. His breathing came harder, more disturbing to the ears, like a stopped-up pipe.
'Thoughtyou'dgetheresooner,' said the Sheep Man. 'We-beenwaiting, allthistime. Meanwhile, somebodyelsecame-'round. Wethought, maybe, butwasn'tyou. Howdoyoulike-that? Justanybody, comewanderinginhere. But anyway, was-expectingyousooner.'
I shrugged my shoulders. 'I always thought I would come back, I guess. I knew I had to, but I didn't have it together. I dreamed about it. About the Dolphin Hotel, I mean. Dreamed about it all the time. But it took a while to make up my mind to come back.'
'I guess so, yes,' I said. Then I looked at my hands in the flickering candlelight. A draft was coming in from somewhere. 'In the beginning I thought I should try to forget what I could forget. I wanted a life completely dissociated from this place.'
'Yes. Because my friend died.'
'Butyoucameback,' said the Sheep Man.
'Yes, I came back,' I said. 'I couldn't get this place out of my mind. I tried to forget things, but then something else would pop up. So it didn't matter whether I liked it or not, I sort of knew I belonged here. I didn't really know what that meant either, but I knew it anyway. In my dreams about this place, I was . . . part of everything. Someone was crying for me here. Someone wanted me. That's why I came back. What is this place anyway?'
The Sheep Man looked me hard in the face and shook his head. ''Fraidwedon'tknowmuch. It'srealbig, it'srealdark. All-weknow'sthisroom. Beyondhere, wedon'tknow. Butanyway, you'rehere, somust'vebeentime. Timeyoufoundyourwayhere. Wayweseeit, atleast. ...' The Sheep Man paused to rumi-nate. 'Maybesomebody'scryingforyou, throughthisplace. Somebodywhoknewyou, knewyou'dbeheadinghereanyway. Likeabird, comingbacktothenest. . . . Butlet'sussayitdifferent. Ifyouweren'tcomingbackhere, thisplacewouldn'texist.' The Sheep Man wrung his mitts. The shadow on the wall exag-gerated every gesture on a grand scale, a dark spirit poised to seize me from above.
Like a bird returning to the nest? Well, it did have that feel about it. Maybe my life had been following this unspo-ken course all this time.
'Sonow, yourturn,' said the Sheep Man. 'Tellus'boutyourself. Thishere'syourworld. Noneedstandingonceremony. Takeyourtime. Talkallyouwant.'
There in the dim light, staring at the shadow on the wall, I poured out the story of my life. It had been so long, but slowly, like melting ice, I released each circumstance. How I
managed to support myself. Yet never managed to go any-where. Never went anywhere, but aged all the same. How nothing touched me. And I touched nothing. How I'd lost track of what mattered. How I worked like a fool for things that didn't. How it didn't make a difference either way. How I was losing form. The tissues hardening, stiffening from within. Terrifying me. How I barely made the connection to this place. This place I didn't know but had this feeling that I was part of. ... This place that maybe I knew instinctively I belonged to....
The Sheep Man listened to everything without saying a word. He might even have been asleep. But when I was through talking, he opened his eyes and spoke softly. 'Don'tworry. Youreallyarepartofhere, really. Alwayshavebeen, alwayswillbe. Itallstartshere, itallendshere. Thisisyour-place. It'stheknot. It'stiedtoeverything.'
'Everything. Thingsyoulost. Thingsyou'regonnalose. Everything. Here'swhereitalltiestogether.'
I thought about this. I couldn't make any sense of it. His words were too vague, fuzzy. I had to get him to explain. But he was through talking. Did that mean explanation was impossible? He shook his woolly head silently. His sewed-on ears flapped up and down. The shadow on the wall quaked. So massively I thought the wall would collapse.
'It'llmakesense. Soonenough, it'llallmakesense. Whenthe-timecomes, you'llunderstand,' he assured me.
'But tell me one thing then,' I said. 'Why did the owner of the Dolphin Hotel insist on the name for the new hotel?'
'Hediditforyou,' said the Sheep Man. 'Theyhadtokeep-thename, soyou'dcomeback. Otherwise, youwouldn'tbehere. Thebuildingchanges, theDolphinHotelstays. Likewesaid, it'sallhere. Webeenwaitingforyou.'
I had to laugh. 'For me? They called this place the Dol-phin Hotel just for me?'
I shook my head. 'No, not strange, just amazing. It's so
out-of-the-blue, it's like it's not real.'
'Oh, it'sreal,' said the Sheep Man softly. 'RealastheDolphinHotelsigndownstairs'sreal. Howrealdoyouwant?' He tapped the tabletop with his fingers, and the flame of the candle shuddered. 'Andwe'rereallyhere. Webeenwaiting. Foryou. Wemadearrangements. Wethoughtofeverything. Everything, soyoucouldreconnect, witheveryone.'
I gazed into the dancing candle flame. This was too much to believe. 'I don't get it. Why would you go to all the trou-ble? For me?'
'Thisisyourworld,' said the Sheep Man matter-of-factly. 'Don'tthinktoohardaboutit. Ifyou'reseekingit, it'shere. The-placewasputhereforyou. Special. Andweworkedspeciallhard-togeyoubackhere. Tokeepthingsfromfallingapart. Tokeep-youfromforgetting.'
'So I really am part of something here?'
''Courseyoubelonghere. Everybody'sallinhere, together. Thisisyourworld,' repeated the Sheep Man.
'So who are you? And what are you doing here?'
'WearetheSheepMan,' he chortled. 'Can'tyoutell? Wewearthesheepskin, andweliveinaworldhumanscan'tsee. Wewerechasedintothewoods. Longtimeago. Long, long-timeago. Canhardlyrememberwhatwewerebefore. Butsince-thenwebeenkeepingoutofsight. Easytodo, ifthat'swhatyou-want. Thenwecamehere, tolookaftertheplace. It'ssomewhere, outoftheelements. Thewoodsgotwildanimals. Knowwhatwemean?'
'Sure,' I said.
'Weconnectthings. That'swhatwedo. Likeaswitchboard, weconnectthings. Here'stheknot. Andwetieit. We'rethelink. Don'twantthingstogetlost, sowetietheknot. That'sourduty. Switchboardduty. Youseekforit, weconnect, yougotit. Getit?'
'Sort of,' I said.
'So,' resumed the Sheep Man, 'sonowyouneedus. Else, youwouldn'tbehere. Youlostthings, soyou'relost. Youlostyour-way. Yourconnectionscomeundone. Yougotconfused, think-yougotnoties. Buthere'swhereitalltiestogether.'
I thought about what he said. 'You're probably right. As you say, I've lost and I'm lost and I'm confused. I'm not anchored to anything. Here's the only place I feel like I belong to.' I broke off and stared at my hands in the candle-light. 'But the other thing, the person I hear crying in my dreams, is there a connection here? I think I can feel it. You know, if I could, I think I want to pick up where I left off, years ago. That must be what I need you here for.'
The Sheep Man was silent. He didn't seem to have more to say. The silence weighed heavily, as if we'd been plunged to the bottom of a very deep pit. It bore down on me, pin-ning my thoughts under its gravity. From time to time, the candle sputtered. The Sheep Man turned his gaze toward the flame. Still the silence continued, interminably. Then slowly, the Sheep Man raised his eyes toward me.
'We'lldowhatwecan,' said the Sheep Man. 'Though-we'regettingoninyears. Hopewestillgotthestuffinus, hehheh. We'lltry, butnoguarantees, nopromisesyou'regonnabe-happy.' He picked at a snag in his fleece and searched for words. 'Wejustcan'tsay. Inthatotherworld, mightnotbeany-placeanymore, notanywhereforyou. You'restartingtolook-prettyfixed, maybetoofixedtopryloose. You'renotsoyoung-anymore, either, yourself.'
'So where does that leave me?'
'Youlostlotsofthings. Lostlotsofpreciousthings. Notany-body'sfault. Buteachtimeyoulostsomething, youdroppeda-wholestringofthingswithit. Nowwhy? Why'dyouhavetogo-anddothat?'
'I don't know.'
'Hardtododifferent. Yourfate, orsomethinglikefate. Ten-dencies.'
'Tendencies. Yougottendencies. Soevenifyoudidevery-thingoveragain, yourwholelife, yougottendenciestodojust-whatyoudid, alloveragain.'
'Yes, but where does that leave me?'
'Likewesaid,š we'lldowhatwecan.šš Trytoreconnectyou,
towhatyouwant,' said the Sheep Man. 'Butwecan'tdoitalone. Yougottaworktoo. Sitting'snotgonnadoit, thinking's-notgonnadoit.'
'So what do I have to do?'
'Dance,' said the Sheep Man. 'Yougottadance. Aslong-asthemusicplays. Yougotta dance. Don'teventhinkwhy. Start-tothink, yourfeetstop. Yourfeetstop, wegetstuck. Wegetstuck, you'restuck. Sodon'tpayanymind, nomatterhowdumb. You-gottakeepthestep. Yougottalimberup. Yougottaloosenwhat-youbolteddown. Yougottauseallyougot. Weknowyou're tired, tiredandscared. Happenstoeveryone, okay? Justdon't-letyourfeetstop.'
I looked up and gazed again at the shadow on the wall.
'Dancingiseverything,' continued the Sheep Man. 'Danceintip-topform. Dancesoitallkeepsspinning. Ifyoudo-that, wemightbeabletodosomethingforyou. Yougottadance. Aslongasthemusicplays.'
Dance. As long as the music plays, echoed my mind.
'Hey, what is this world you keep talking about? You say that if I stay fixed in place, I'm going to be dragged from that world to this world, or something like that. But isn't this world meant for me? Doesn't it exist for me? So what's the problem? Didn't you say this place really exists?'
The Sheep Man shook his head. His shadow shook a hur-ricane. 'Here'sdifferent. You'renotready, notforhere. Here's-toodark, toobig. Hardtoexplain. Likewesaid, wedon't-knowmuch. Butit'sreal, allright. Youandustalkinghere'sreal-ity. Butit'snottheonlyonereality. Lotsofrealitiesoutthere. Wejustchosethisone, because, well, wedon'tlikewar. Andwe-hadnothingtolose. Butyou, youstillgotwarmth. Sohere'stoo-cold. Nothingtoeat. Nottheplaceforyou.'
No sooner had the Sheep Man mentioned the cold than I noticed the temperature in the room. I burrowed my hands in my pockets, shivering.
'Youfeelit, don'tyou?' asked the Sheep Man.
Yes, I nodded.
'Time'srunningout,' warned the Sheep Man. 'Themore-
timepasses, thecolderitgets. Youbetterbegoing.'
'Wait, one last thing. I guess you've been around all this time, except I haven't seen you. Just your shadow every-where. You're just sort of always there.'
The Sheep Man traced an indefinite shape with his finger. 'That'sright. We'rehalfshadow, we'reinbetween.'
'But I still don't understand,' I said. 'Here I can see your face and body clearly. I couldn't before, but now I can. Why?'
'Youlostsomuch,' he bleated softly, 'thatnowyoucan-seeus.'
'Do you mean . . . ?' And bracing myself, I asked the big question: 'Is this the world of the dead?'
'No,' replied the Sheep Man. His shoulders swayed as he took a breath. 'Youandus, we'reliving. Breathing. Talking.'
'I don't get it.'
'Dance,' he said. 'It'stheonlyway. Wishwecouldex-plainthingsbetter. Butwetoldyouallwecould. Dance. Don't-think. Dance. Danceyourbest, likeyourlifedependedonit. Yougottadance.'
The temperature was falling. I suddenly seemed to remem-ber this chill. A bone-piercing, damp chill. Long ago and far away. But where? My mind was paralyzed. Fixed and rigid.
Fixed and rigid.
'Youbettergo,' urged the Sheep Man. 'Stayhere, you'll-freeze. Butifyouneedus, we'rehere. Youknowwheretofind us.'
The Sheep Man escorted me out to the bend in the hall-way, dragging his feet along, shuffle . . . shuffle . . . shuffle. We said good-bye. No handshake, no special salutations. Just good-bye, and then we parted into the darkness. He returned to his tiny room and I continued to the elevator. I pressed the call button. When the elevator arrived, the door opened without a sound. Bright light spilled out over me into the hallway. I got in and collapsed against the wall. The door closed. I did not move.
Well . . . , I thought to myself. Well what? Nothing came after. My mind was a huge vacuum. A vacuum that went on
and on endlessly nowhere. Like the Sheep Man said, I was tired and scared. And alone. And lost.
'Yougottadance,' the Sheep Man said.
You gotta dance, echoed my mind.
'Gotta dance,' I repeated out loud.
I pressed the button for the fifteenth floor.
When the elevator got there, 'Moon River' greeted me from the ceiling speakers. The real world-where I probably could never be happy, and never get anywhere.
I glanced at my watch. Return time, three-twenty A.M.
Well now, I thought. Well now well now well now well now well now well now . . ., echoed my mind.
Back in my room, I ran a bath. I undressed, then slowly sank in. But strangely, I couldn't get warm. My body was so chilled, sitting in the hot water only made me shiver. I considered staying in the tub until I stopped shiver-ing, but before that happened, the steam made me woozy, so I climbed out. I pressed my forehead against the window to clear my head, then poured myself a brandy which I downed in one gulp before dropping into bed. I wanted to sleep with-out the taint of a thought in my head, but no such luck. I lay in bed, conscious beyond control. Eventually morning came, heavy, overcast. It wasn't snowing, but clouds filled the sky, thick and seamless, turning the whole town gray. All I saw was gray. A sump of a city slushed with sunken souls.
Thinking wasn't what kept me awake. I hadn't been thinking at all. I was too tired to think. Except that one hardened corner of my head insisted on pushing my psyche into high gear. I was on edge, irritable, as if trying to read station signs from a speeding train. A station approaches. The letters blur past. You can almost read something, but you're traveling too fast. You try again, when the next sta-tion careens into view, but you fly by before you can make anything out. And then the next station . . . Backwater flags in the middle of nowhere. The train sounds its whistle. High, shrill, piercing.
This routine went on until nine, when I got out of bed. I shaved, but had to keep telling myself I'm shaving now to get me through. I dressed and brushed my hair and went down to the hotel restaurant. I sat at a table by the window and ordered coffee and toast. It took me an eternity to get through the toast, which tasted like lint and was gray from the sky. The sky foretold the end of the world. I drank my coffee and read and reread and reread the menu. My head was too hard. Nothing would register. The train raced on. The whistle screamed. I felt like a dried lump of toothpaste. All around me, people were devouring their breakfasts, stir-ring their coffee, buttering their toast, forking up their ham and eggs. Plates and cutlery clink-clink-clinking. A regular train yard.
I thought about the Sheep Man. He existed at this very moment. Somewhere, in a small time-space warp of this hotel. Yes, he was here. And he was trying to tell me some-thing. But it was no good. I couldn't read it. I was speeding by too fast for the message to register. My head was too thick to make out the words. I could only read what wasn't moving: (A) Continental Breakfast-Juice (choice of orange, grapefruit, or tomato), Toast or ...
Someone was talking to me. Seeking my response. But who? I looked up. It was the waiter. Immaculate in his white uniform, coffee pot in both hands, like a trophy. 'Care for more coffee, sir?' he asked politely. I shook my head. He moved on and I got up to go. Leaving the train yard behind.
Back in my room, I took another bath. No shivers this time. I took a long stretch in the tub, softening my stiff joints. I got my fingers moving freely again. Yes, this was my body all right. Here I am now. Back in a real room, in a real tub. Not aboard some superexpress train. No whistle in my ears. No need to read station signs. No need to think at all.
Out of the bath, I crawled into bed. Ten-thirty. Great, just great. I half considered canning the sleep and going out for a walk, but before I could focus, sleep overtook me. The house-lights went down and suddenly everything went dark. It hap-
pened quickly. I can remember the instant I fell asleep. As if a giant, gray gorilla had sneaked into the room and whacked me over the head with a sledgehammer. I was out cold.
My sleep was hard, tight. Too dark to see anything. No background Muzak. No 'Moon River' or 'Love Is Blue.' A simple no-frills sleep. Someone asks me, 'What comes after 16?' I answer, '41.' The gray gorilla steps in and says, 'He's out.' That's right, I was asleep. All rolled up in a tight little squirrel ball inside a steel sphere. A solid steel wrecking ball, fast asleep.
Something is calling me.
A steam whistle?
No, something else, the gulls inform me.
Somebody's trying to cut open the steel ball with a blow-torch. That's the sound.
No, not that, chant the gulls. Like a Greek chorus.
It's the phone, I think.
The gulls vanish.
I reach out and grope for the bedside telephone. 'Yes?' I hear myself saying. But all I hear is a dial tone. Beeeeeeee eeeeeeee, comes a noise from somewhere else. The doorbell! Somebody's ringing the doorbell! Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.
'The doorbell,' I mumbled.
Gone are the gulls. No one applauds. No 'bingo,' no nothing.
I threw on a bathrobe and went to the door. Without ask-ing who it is, I opened up.
My receptionist friend. She slipped inside and shut the door.
The back of my head was numb. Did that ape have to whack me so hard? It feels like there's a dent in my skull.
She noted my bathrobe, and her brows knitted. 'Sleeping at three in the afternoon?' she said in disbelief.
'Three in the afternoon?' I repeated. It didn't make much sense even to me. 'Why?' I asked myself.
'What time did you get to bed? Really!'
I tried to think. It took real effort. Nothing came.
'It's okay, don't bother,' she said, shaking her head. Then she plopped down on the sofa, adjusted the frame of her glasses, and looked at me straight in the face. 'You look ter-rible.'
'Yeah, I bet I do,' I said.
'You're pale and puffed up. Are you okay? Do you have a fever?'
'I'm okay. I just need some sleep. Don't worry. I'm gener-ally pretty healthy. Are you on break?'
'Yes,' she said. 'I wanted to see you. I hope I'm not intruding.'
'Not at all,' I said, sitting down on the bed. 'I'm zonked, but no, you're not intruding.'
'You won't try anything funny?'
'I won't try anything funny.'
'Everyone says they won't, but they all do.'
'Maybe everyone does, but I don't,' I said.
She thought it over and tapped her finger on her temple as if to verify the mental results. 'Well, I guess probably not. You're kind of different from other people.'
'Anyway, I'm too sleepy right now,' I added.
She stood up and peeled off her light blue blazer, draping it over the back of the chair like the day before. This time, though, she didn't sit next to me. She walked over to the window and stood, gazing out at the sky. Maybe she was surprised to find me in such a haggard state, in only a bath-robe-but you can't have everything. I don't make my living looking great all the time.
'Listen,' I spoke up. 'I didn't tell you, but I think we have a few things in common.'
'Oh?' she said without emotion. 'For instance?'
'For instance-,' I began, but right then my mental transmission stalled. I couldn't think of a thing. I couldn't get words to come. Maybe it was only a feeling. But if it was a feeling between the two of us, however slight, that at least meant something. No for instance or even so. Knowing it was enough.
'I don't know,' I picked up again. 'I need to put my thoughts in order. A method to the madness. First organize, then ascertain.'
'Wow, that's really something,' she addressed the windowpane. While her voice didn't she entirely cynical, it didn't quite have the ring of enthusiasm either.
I got into bed, leaned back against the headboard, and observed her. That wrinkle-free white blouse. Navy blue tight skirt. Stockinged legs. Yet, even she was tinged gray, like an old photograph. Actually quite wonderful. I felt like I'd connected to something. Next thing I knew I had an erec-tion. Not bad. Gray sky, exhaustion, hard-on at three in the afternoon.
I continued to watch her. Even when she turned around and saw me looking, I kept looking.
'Why are you staring at me like that?' she demanded. 'I'm jealous of your swim club,' I said. She shook her head, then broke into a smile. 'You're a strange guy, you know?'
'Not strange,' I said. 'Confused. I need to put my thoughts in order.'
She drew close and felt my forehead. 'Well, no fever,' she said. 'You should get some sleep. Pleasant dreams.'
I wanted her to stay here with me. By my bedside, while I slept. But I knew that was impossible, so I didn't say any-thing. I watched her put on her light blue blazer and leave. And then the gray gorilla entered the room with his sledge-hammer again. 'That's okay, I was falling asleep anyway,' I started to tell him. But the words weren't out of my mouth before another blow fell.
'What comes after 25?' somebody asks. '71,' I answer. 'He's out,' says the gray gorilla, Surprise, surprise, I thought. Hit me that hard and I'm not going to be in a coma? Darkness overcame me once again.
Knots. It was nine P.M. I was eating dinner alone, having awakened from a deep sleep at eight. I got up and was awake, about as abruptly as I'd fallen asleep. There was no middle ground between sleeping and waking. And my head seemed to be back in working order. All postcranial gray gorilla lesions had vanished. I wasn't drowsy or sluggish and I had no shivers. I remembered everything with great clarity. I had an appetite-I was ravenous. So I headed out to the local watering hole I'd gone to the first night and had a few nibbles with drinks. Drinks and grilled fish and simmered vegetables and crab and potatoes. The place was packed, thick with smoke and smells and noise, everybody and his neighbor screaming at each other.
Need to organize, I thought.
Knots? I queried myself in the midst of the chaos. I brought the words softly to my lips: You have but to seek and the Sheep Man shall connect.
Not that I completely understood what that meant. It was a bit too figurative, metaphoric. But maybe it was the sort of thing you had to express metaphorically. For one thing, I could hardly believe the Sheep Man had chosen to speak that way for his amusement. Maybe it was the only way.
Through that world of the Sheep Man-via his switch-
board-all sorts of things were connected. Some connections led to confusion, he'd said. Because I lost track of what I wanted. So were all my ties meaningless?
I drank and stared at the ashtray in front of me.
What had become of Kiki? I'd felt her presence very strongly in dreams. It was she who'd called me here. It was she who needed me. She was the reason I'd come to the Dol-phin Hotel. But I had yet to hear her voice. Her message was cut off. As if someone had pulled the plug.
Why was everything so vague?
Perhaps the lines were crossed. I had to get clear what it was she wanted from me. Enlist the help of the Sheep Man and link things up one by one. No matter how out of focus the picture, I had to unravel each strand patiently. Unravel, then bind all together. I had to recover my world.
But where to begin? Not a clue. I was flat against a high wall. Everything was mirror-slick. No place for the hand, no place to reach out and grab. I was at wit's end.
I paid my bill and left. Big flakes of snow tumbled down from the sky. It wasn't really coming down yet, but the sound of the town was different because of the snow. I walked briskly around the block to sober up. Where to begin? Where to go? I didn't know. I was rusting, badly. Alone like this, I would gradually render myself useless. Great, just great. Where to begin? My receptionist friend? She seemed nice. I did like her. I did feel a bond between us. I could sleep with her if I tried. But then what? Where would I go from there? Nowhere, probably. Just another thing to lose. I don't know what I want. And, if that's the case, as my ex-wife said, I'd only hurt people.
Once more around the block. Snow quietly coming down. Sticking to my coat, lingering a brief instant, then disappear-ing. I tried to put my thoughts in order. People walked past, puffing white breaths into the air. It was so cold the skin of my face hurt. Still, I kept going around the block, kept trying to think. My ex-wife's words stuck in my head like a curse. Worse, because it was true. I hurt everybody. If I kept going
like this, I'd go on losing them too.
'Go home to the moon!' were my last girlfriend's parting words. No, not departing-returning. She was braving it back to the big, bad, real world.
Then along comes Kiki. Yes! Kiki's got to be the touch-stone. But her message had vaporized midway.
So where to begin?
I closed my eyes and struggled for an answer. But in my head no one was at home. No Sheep Man, no gulls, no gray gorilla. I was abandoned, sitting in a vast empty chamber, alone. No one could give me the answer. I'd sit, grow old, and shrivel in that room. No dancing here. Very sad.
Why couldn't I read the station signs?
The answer was to come the following afternoon. As usual, with no prior warning, out of nowhere. Like a gorilla whack out of the gray.
Strangely enough-but not that strangely, I suppose- when I hit the sack at midnight, I fell asleep immedi-ately. And I didn't wake until eight in the morning. Precisely at eight, as if I'd come full cycle. I felt rested- and hungry. So I went back to Dunkin' Donuts, and then went for a walk around town. The streets were frozen solid, feather-soft snow drifting quietly down. As ever, the sky was heavy with clouds. Not exactly weather for a care-free stroll, but getting out was good for my spirits. The cold was bracing and cleared my head. I hadn't resolved a thing, so why a simple stretch should make a difference was curious.
After an hour, I made my way back to the hotel. My receptionist friend was on duty at the front desk, together with a colleague busy with a guest. My friend was on the phone, smiling her professional smile, unconsciously twirling a pen between her fingers. I walked up and waited until she finished her call.
She shot me a look of reproach, but she didn't let it interfere with her manual-perfect professional smile. 'How may I help you?' she asked politely.
I cleared my throat. 'Excuse me,' I began, 'but I heard that two girls were tragically attacked by an alligator at the
swim club last night. Do you know if there's any truth to that story?'
'Well, one never knows about these things, does one?' she replied, the fastidious artificial flower of her smile pinned in place. Her cheeks blushed slightly, her nostrils taut. 'I can't say I know anything about it, sir. Excuse me, but are you certain that was the story you heard?'
'It was a huge alligator, by all accounts, the size of a Volvo station wagon. It came flying through the skylight, shattering glass everywhere, and it swallowed the two girls in one bite. Then it had half a potted palm for dessert. I was wondering if the creature was still at large. Do you think it's safe to go out?'
'Forgive me,' she broke in, without a flicker of change in her expression, 'but have you considered contacting the police yourself, sir? I'm sure they could provide you with the most recent developments on the case. There's a police sta-tion not far from here. You might try asking there.'
'Thank you. I'll do that,' I said. 'May the Force be with you.'
'Not at all, sir,' she said coolly, adjusting her glasses.
Not long after I returned to my room, she called.
'Would you care to tell me what that was all about?' Her calm monotone scarcely disguised her anger. 'You weren't going to do anything funny during business hours. Didn't I ask you that? I hate pranks like that when I'm working.'
'I just had to talk to you,' I said apologetically. 'I wanted to hear your voice. It was a dumb joke. I'm sorry. I only wanted to say hello. I really didn't mean to bother you.'
'It's very upsetting. I told you that. When I'm on duty, I get tense. So please, don't do anything like that again. You promised not to stare too.'
'I wasn't staring. I was just trying to talk to you.'
'Well, then, from now on, no more talking like that. Please.'
'I promise, I promise. No talking. No staring and no
talking. I'll be as quiet as granite. But you know, while I've got you on the line, are you free this evening? Or do you have mountain-climbing lessons tonight?'
There was the sound of a dry laugh, half of it silence, and then she hung up.
I waited for thirty minutes, but she didn't call back. I'd pissed her off. Sometimes people don't know when I'm kid-ding, any more than when I'm being serious. At a loss for something better to do, I went out walking again. With luck, I might run into something new. Anyway, the idea of exer-cise seemed more appealing than sitting and doing nothing. May the Force be with me.
I walked for an hour and succeeded only in getting cold. The snow kept coming down. At twelve-thirty I popped into a McDonald's for a cheeseburger and coke and fries. I didn't even know why. For reasons that escape me, I sometimes just find myself eating the stuff. Maybe my physical make-up's been programmed for periodic ingestion of junk food. Maybe I did 'need a break today.'
After McDonald's, I walked for another thirty minutes. Still no major revelations. The snow picked up. The storm was getting fierce. I zipped my coat all the way to the collar and wrapped my scarf around over my nose. Even then I was cold. And I had to take a leak. Why'd I have to go and drink a coke on a day like this? I scanned the area for a place where I could use the toilet, but the only possibility was a movie theater. A real deadbeat establishment, but they had to have a toilet. And it was probably warm in there. Why not? I had time to kill anyway. So what was playing? A domestic double bill, one of which was Unrequited Love, that movie starring my former classmate. Well, fancy that.
After relieving myself at length, I bought a hot coffee and took it into the theater. The place was empty, as expected, and warm. It was thirty minutes into the film, but it was hardly like walking into a complicated plot. My classmate played a tall, handsome biology teacher, the object of a young girl's adoration. Predictably, she was gaga over him,
practically fainting at the sight of him. And of course, there was this other guy-who did kendo in his spare time- earnestly in love with her. Talk about an original concept. Hell, / could've written this movie.
Even so, I had to admit, my classmate-whose real name was Ryoichi Gotanda, not exactly the stuff for making girls swoon, so he'd been given some dashing screen pseudo-nym-played his role with a little bit of complexity. Not only was he handsome and nice, etc., but he also exuded traces of a troubled past. Common garden-variety wounds, to be sure-maybe he'd been a student radical or maybe he'd gotten a girl pregnant and abandoned her-but better than nothing. From time to time, the film would have these flash-backs-CUT TO ACTUAL FOOTAGE OF STUDENT TAKEOVER OF TOKYO university-inserted with all the subtlety of a mon-key lobbing clay against a wall.
Anyway, Gotanda played his part to the hilt. But the film was ludicrous and the director such an obvious zero talent and the script so embarrassingly infantile, with an endless succession of breathtakingly meaningless scenes and close-ups of the girl, that Gotanda was doomed from the start. No matter how much real acting he did, you couldn't bear to watch.
Then, at one point in the film, Gotanda's in bed in his apartment on a Sunday morning with some woman when the girl who's in love with him shows up with homemade cookies or something. Good grief, I did write this movie. Gotanda's oh-so sweet and slow and sincere in bed, close to what I'd imagined. It's very nice sex. And he probably has very nice-smelling armpits too. His hair has been mussed sensuously. He's caressing the woman's back. She's naked. The camera dollies around to zoom in on her. And suddenly I see her face-
I froze in my seat. I could hear the sound of an empty bottle rolling down the aisle. Unbelievable! This was the exact same image I'd seen in that dark corridor of the
Dolphin. Gotanda sleeping with her!
That's when I knew: We were all connected.
That's the only scene Kiki appears in. Sunday morning, in bed with Gotanda. That's it. Gotanda had gone to a bar on Saturday night, picked her up, and brought her home. Then they fuck one more time in the morning. That's when his love-smitten pupil, the girl lead, enters. He's forgotten to lock the door. That's the whole scene. Kiki has only one line. And it's a pretty awful line at that. This is how it goes:
What was that all about?
After the girl lead runs out in shock and Gotanda's all in a daze, that's the line Kiki says.
I wasn't even sure if it was her own voice. My memories of her weren't very clear, nor were the movie theater speak-ers too sharp on audio fidelity. I could remember her body, though. The shape of her back, the feel of her neck, her silky breasts-yes, it was she all right. I sat there riveted to my seat, staring at the screen. The scene couldn't have lasted more than a couple of minutes. Kiki's in Gotanda's embrace, she flows to his caresses, she closes her eyes in a state of bliss, her lips tremble slightly. She lets out a little sigh. I can't tell whether she's acting or not-but let's suppose it's acting. This is a movie, after all. Not that I believe for a moment that Kiki could act. Which poses definite phenomenological problems.
Suppose Kiki wasn't acting, then that meant she really was coming on to Gotanda's lovemaking. But if she was act-ing, then that meant she wasn't the woman I knew. She didn't believe in acting. She wasn't meant to act. Either way, though, I was burning with jealousy.
First a swim club, now a stupid movie. Was I capable of getting jealous of anything? Was this a good sign?
Now the girl lead opens the door. She catches sight of the two naked bodies embracing. She swallows her breath. She shuts her eyes. She turns and runs.
Gotanda is stunned. Kiki says: 'What was that all about?' Close-up of Gotanda's dazed face. fade out.
Aside from that cameo, Kiki appeared in no other scene. Forget the dumb plot, I was all eyes at the screen, and I know she wasn't anywhere. She was destined to be a one-night stand, witness to one fleeting scene in Gotanda's life, before vanishing forever. That was her role. The same as with me. Suddenly she's there, she sees what there is to see, then she's gone.
The movie ended. The lights came up. Music played. I remained in my seat, transfixed by the blank white screen. Was this reality? The film was over, but I didn't get it. What was Kiki doing in a movie? And together with Gotanda, no less. Absurd. I must have been mistaken. Got the wrong cir-cuit. Got my wires crossed somewhere. How else could I explain it?
I walked around again for a while after leaving the the-ater. Thinking about Kiki the whole time. 'What was that all about?' she whispered into my ears.
What was that all about?
It had to have been her. It couldn't be a mistake. She'd made the same face when I made love to her, her lips trem-bled like that, she'd sighed like that. That wasn't acting. No way. But this was a movie.
It didn't make sense.
The more I walked, the less I trusted my memory. Maybe the movie was a hallucination.
An hour and a half later, I went back to the same movie theater. And I watched Unrequited Love again from the beginning. Sunday morning, Gotanda is making love to a
woman. The woman's back is to the camera. The camera dollies around. The woman's face comes into view. It's Kiki! Plain as day. Enter the girl lead. Who swallows her breath. Shuts her eyes. Runs. Gotanda, dazed and confused. kiki: 'What was that all about?' fade out.
Exactly the same, down to the last detail.
I'd seen it a second time and I still didn't believe it. Not at all. There had to be something wrong here. Why would Kiki be sleeping with Gotanda?
The following day, I went to the movies again. I sat stiffly through Unrequited Love another time, waiting for that one scene. Antsy and impatient. At last the scene came up. Sun-day morning, Gotanda is making love to a woman. The woman's back is to the camera. The camera dollies around. The woman's face comes into view. It's Kiki! Plain as day. Enter the girl lead. Who swallows her breath. Shuts her eyes. Runs. Gotanda, dazed and confused. KIKI: 'What was that all about?' FADE OUT.
There in the dark, I let out a deep sigh.
Okay, okay. You win. This is real. There's no mistake. We are connected.
I sank back into my seat, folded my hands in front of my nose, and asked the old familiar: What to do? The same question. But now I knew I really needed to think things over calm and collected. Needed to put things in order. Needed to sort through the confused connections.
Something was confused here, that was for sure. Some-thing was amiss. Kiki and Gotanda and I were all connected, in a tangle, but why? I had to untangle us. I had to recover my own sense of reality. But maybe the connections weren't confused, maybe this was a totally unrelated, new connec-tion. Still, I had to untangle the entangled threads. In order not to break any.
Here was a clue. I had to get moving. I couldn't stand still. I had to dance. So light on my feet that it all keeps spin-ning.
You gotta dance, the Sheep Man said.
Gotta dance, echoed my mind.
Time to return to Tokyo. Nothing more for me here. The Dolphin Hotel had fulfilled its purpose. Once I got back to Tokyo, I'd have a lot of knots to untie.
I bundled myself up and left the theater. Snow was falling thicker than ever, nearly obscuring my way. The entire city was as icy as a corpse, and every bit as depressing.
Back at the hotel, I rang up All Nippon Airways and
booked a flight to Tokyo that evening.
'Because of the snow, there's a good chance of delay or even cancellation,' the reservation lady informed me. I didn't care. I'd made up my mind and the sooner I got back to Tokyo the better. Then I packed and went down to settle my bill. My friend with the glasses was on duty at the front desk. I asked to speak to her at the car-rental desk.
'Urgent business came up and I have to go back to Tokyo,' I explained.
'Thank you very much. Please come again,' she said with a professional smile. Could she have been hurt that I was giving her so little notice?
'I plan to be back soon,' I said. 'When I do get back, we'll go to dinner and talk things over. There's a lot I want to tell you. First I have things to straighten out in Tokyo. But when I'm done, I'm coming back. I don't know how many months it'll take, but I'm coming back. There's something-I don't know how to put it-special about this place. So sooner or later I know I'll be here again.' 'Hmm,' she said, rather dubiously. 'Hmm,' I countered, rather positively. 'I'm sure what I'm saying sounds phony.'
'Not at all,' she said, expressionless. 'One can't be sure about things so many months down the road.'
'It won't be so many months. We'll meet again. I really feel that we share something special too,' I said, as sincerely as I meant it. 'Don't you have that feeling?'
She tapped her pen on the countertop in lieu of a response. 'And I suppose you're going to tell me you're tak-ing the next flight out?'
'Well, uh, yes, I planned to. If they're flying, that is. But with this weather, we may not get off the ground.'
'Well, if you do leave by the next plane, I have a request.'
'There's a thirteen-year-old girl who has to get back to Tokyo. Her mother had to leave suddenly on business, and
the girl's been left here in the hotel. I realize it's a terrible imposition, but could the girl possibly accompany you down to Tokyo? She's got a lot of luggage, and I'm afraid to send her off on a plane by herself.'
'I don't really understand,' I said. 'Isn't it kind of off-the-wall for a mother to run off somewhere and leave her child behind?'
My friend shrugged. 'I suppose, but she is off-the-wall. She's an artist, a famous photographer, and she can be quite eccentric. An idea popped into her head, and she was off and running. She completely forgot about the child. Later on, we got this call from her, about her daughter being somewhere around the hotel, and could we please put her on a flight back to Tokyo. That was it.'
'Shouldn't she come and get the girl herself?'
'That's not for me to say. Besides, she's in Kathmandu on this job, and she said she'd be busy for another week. She's very famous and she's a regular guest at the hotel, so who am I to contradict her? She said that if I got her daughter to the airport, she'd be fine by herself the rest of the way. Maybe so, but really, the girl's a child, and if anything were to happen to her, it'd be our responsibility.'
'Great,' I said. Then the thought occurred to me. 'It wouldn't happen to be a kid with long hair and rock 'n' roll sweatshirts and a Walkman, would it?'
'The very same. How did you know?'
'Fun for the whole family.'
My friend snapped into action immediately. She phoned ANA and reserved a seat for the girl on my flight. She buzzed the girl and told her that someone-someone she knew-was going to take her back to Tokyo and that she should gather her things together right away. She called the bellboy and sent him up to the girl's room for the bags. She summoned the hotel limousine service. I couldn't help expressing my admiration.
'I told you I liked my job. I'm cut out for it.' 'But if someone gives you a hard time, you'd rather cut out.'
She tapped her pen. 'That's different. I don't like being
the butt of jokes.'
'I didn't mean it that way. Please believe me,' I said. 'I was only trying to be funny. No offense intended, honest. I only joke around because I need to relax.'
She pursed her lips slightly and looked me in the face. With the look of someone surveying the lowlands from a hill after the floodwaters have subsided. Then she spoke in a voice that was almost a sigh, almost a snort. 'By the way, could I ask you for your business card, please? As a professional measure, of course, seeing as how I'm entrusting a young girl to your care.'
'As a professional measure,' I muttered and pulled out a card for her. For what it's worth, I do carry business cards. For what it's worth, at least a dozen people have told me how necessary for business they are. She eyed my card as if it were a dust rag.
'And could I ask what your name is?' I had to try.
'Next time, maybe,' she said, pushing up her glasses with her middle finger. 'If we meet again.'
'Of course we will,' I said.
Soft and silent as a new moon, a smile drifted across her face.
Ten minutes later the bellboy and the girl appeared in the lobby. The bellboy was lugging two huge Samsonite suit-cases. Each could have held a full-grown German shepherd, standing. A bit much for a thirteen-year-old girl to haul to the airport all by herself, to be sure. She was wearing tight jeans and boots, and her sweatshirt of the day read talking heads. Over which she wore an expensive-looking fur stole. There was the same transparent sense about her as before. A beauty that was so vulnerable, so high-strung. A balance too delicate to last.
Talking Heads. Not bad, for a band name. Like some-thing out of Kerouac.
The girl looked me over, blase. She didn't smile. But she did raise an eyebrow, then turned to my receptionist friend with glasses.
'Don't worry, he's all right,' my friend said.
'I'm not as bad as I look,' I declared.
The girl looked at me again. Then she made an oh-well-I-suppose sort of nod.
'Really, you'll be fine,' my friend went on. 'The old man tells funny jokes-'
'Old man!' I gasped.
'He throws in a nice word from time to time,' she con-tinued, paying me no attention, 'he's a real gentleman to us ladies. Besides, he's a friend of mine. So you'll be just fine.'
The two of them proceeded to the limousine at the entrance of the hotel. I followed, dignity deflated, quietly behind.
The weather was terrible. The road to the airport all ice and snow. Antarctica.
'What's your name?' I asked the girl.
The girl stared at me, then shook her head briefly. Gimme a break. Then she slowly looked around as if searching for something, but all there was to see was the blizzard outside. 'Yuki,' she said. Snow.
'You can say that again.'
'It's my name!' she hissed.
Then she pulled her Walkman out of her pocket and plugged in to her own private pop music microcosm. The rest of the way to the airport she never gave me so much as a glance.
Snow, eh? Such a charming character, so full of social grace. You'd think she'd at least offer me a stick of gum every time she helped herself to some. Not that I wanted any, but hadn't she heard of polite? It would have made me feel like I was riding in the same car with her. I sank into my
seat, aging by the minute, and shut my eyes.
Only later did I learn that 'Yuki' actually was her name.
I thought about when I was her age. I used to collect pop records myself. Singles. Ray Charles' 'Hit the Road, Jack,' Ricky Nelson's 'Travelin' Man,' Brenda Lee's 'All Alone Am I.' I owned maybe a hundred 45s. I used to listen to them day in and day out. I knew all the lyrics by heart. The things kids can memorize. Always the most meaningless, idi-otic lines. Stuff about a China doll down in old Hong Kong, waiting for my return. . . .
Not quite Talking Heads. But okay, the times they are a-changin'.
I stationed Yuki in the waiting room and went to pur-chase our tickets. The flight was running an hour late, but the ticket agent warned that the chances were it'd be delayed even longer. 'Please listen for the announcement,' she said. 'At the moment, visibility is extremely bad.'
'Do you think the weather will improve?' I asked.
'That's what the forecast says, but it may take some time,' she said grimly. She probably had to say the same thing two hundred times. Enough to depress anyone.
I returned to Yuki with the news. She glanced up at me with a hmmph sort of look, but didn't say a word.
'Who knows when we'll get on, so let's not check in yet. It might be a disaster trying to get our luggage back,' I said.
A whatever-you-say look. Again, not a word.
'I guess there's nothing we can do but wait. No fun get-ting stuck at an airport for hours, though.' No one could accuse me of not keeping up my end of the non-conversa-tion. 'Have you eaten?'
'What do you say we go to the coffee shop anyway? We could get something to drink. Whatever you want.'
An I-don't-know-about-this look. She had a whole reper-toire of expressions.
'Okay, let's go,' I said, rising to my feet. And off we went, rolling her Samsonites along.
The coffee shop was crowded. All flights out of Sapporo were delayed, and everyone looked uniformly on edge. We waded through waves of irritability. I ordered a sandwich and coffee. Yuki asked for hot chocolate.
'How long were you staying at the hotel?' Well, some-body had to try to be civil.
After a moment's thought, a real live answer: 'Ten days.'
'And when did your mother leave?'
She looked out the window at the snow a bit, then: 'Three days ago.'
I felt like we were practicing a Beginning English language drill.
'So your school's been on vacation all this time?'
That did the trick. 'No, my school hasn't been on vaca-tion all this time. Don't bug me,' she snapped. She retrieved her Walkman from her pocket and plugged her ears in.
I finished my coffee and read the paper. Was every female in the world out to give me a hard time? Was it just my luck or a fundamental flaw in me?
If I had a choice, I'd rather it be just my luck, I decided, folding up my newspaper and pulling out a paperback of The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner, and Philip K. Dick too. When besieged by groundless fatigue, there's something about them you can always relate to. That's why I always pack a novel-for times like these.
Yuki went to the restroom, came back, changed the bat-teries in her Walkman. Thirty minutes later the announce-ment came: The flight to Tokyo, Haneda Airport, was delayed four hours due to continued poor visibility. Great, just great. More agony sitting here.
Look on the bright side, I tried cheering myself up. Use the power of positive thinking. Give yourself five minutes to consider how you can turn a miserable situation to your benefit and that little light bulb is going to click on. Maybe it will, and then again maybe it won't. But something had to
beat sitting and killing time in this noisy, smoke-filled hole.
I told Yuki to stay put while I went back into the lobby. I walked over to a car rental and the woman behind the counter quickly did the paperwork for a Toyota Corolla Sprinter, complete with stereo. A microbus gave me a lift to the lot, where I was handed the keys to a white car with brand-new snow tires. I drove ten minutes back to the air-port and went to fetch Yuki in the coffee shop. 'Let's go for a three-hour ride.'
'In the middle of a blizzard? What are we going to see? And where are we going anyway?'
'Nowhere. Just around,' I said. 'But the car's got a stereo and you can play your music as loud as you want. Better for your ears than listening to that Walkman.'
A you-gotta-be-kidding shake of the head this time. All the same, as I got up to go, she stood up too.
I got her suitcases into the trunk, then pointed the car out into the snow-swept no-man's-land. Yuki fished a cassette tape out of her bag, popped it into the stereo, and David Bowie was singing. Followed by Phil Collins, Jefferson Star-ship, Thomas Dolby, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Hall & Oates, Thompson Twins, Iggy Pop, Bananarama. Typical teenage girl's stuff.
Then the Stones came on with 'Goin' to a Go-Go.' 'I know this one,' I boasted. 'The Miracles did it ages ago. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Years ago when I was fifteen or sixteen.'
'Oh,' said Yuki with not a flicker of interest.
Next it was Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson singing 'Say Say Say.'
The wipers were going full force, batting away at the flakes. Few cars on the road. Almost none in fact. We were warm, riding around in the car, and the rock music pleasant. I even didn't mind Duran Duran. Singing along, I kept our wheels on the straight roads. We did this for ninety minutes, when she noticed the cassette I'd borrowed from the car rental.
'What's that?' she asked.
'Oldies,' I said.
'Put it on.'
'Can't guarantee you'll like it.'
'That's okay. I can handle it. I've been listening to the same tapes for the last ten days.'
No sooner had I punched the PLAY button than Sam Cooke's 'Wonderful World' came on. Don't know much about history . . . Sam the Man, killed when I was in ninth grade. Then it was 'Oh Boy,' by Buddy Holly, another dead man. Airplane crash. Bobby Darin, 'Beyond the Sea.' He was gone, too. Elvis 'Hound Dog' Presley. A drugged stiff. Everyone dead and gone. Everyone except maybe Chuck Berry with his 'Sweet Little Sixteen.' And me, singing along.
'You really remember the words, don't you!' Yuki said, genuinely impressed.
'Who wouldn't? I was just as crazy about rock as you are,' I said. 'I used to be glued to the radio every day. I spent all my allowance on records. I thought rock 'n' roll was the best thing ever created.'
'I still listen sometimes. I like some songs. But I don't lis-ten so carefully, and I don't memorize all the lyrics anymore. They don't move me like they used to.'
'Yeah, how come? Tell me.'
'Maybe it's because after all this time I think that really good songs-or really good anything-they're hard to find,' I said. 'Like if you listen to the radio for a whole hour, there's maybe one decent song. The rest is mass-produced garbage. But back then I never thought about it, and it was great just listening. Didn't matter what it was. I was a kid. I was in love. And when you're a kid you can relate to any-thing, even if it's silly. Am I making sense to you?'
The Del Vikings' 'Come Go with Me' came on, and I sang along on the chorus. 'Are you bored?' I asked Yuki.
'Uh-uh, not so much,' she answered.
'Not so much at all,' I threw in.
'Now that you're not young anymore, do you still fall in love? 'asked Yuki.
I had to think about that one. 'Difficult question,' I said finally. 'You got any boy you like?'
'No,' she said flatly. 'But there sure are a lot of creeps out there.'
'I know what you mean,' I said.
'I'd rather just listen to music.'
'I know what you mean.'
'You do?' she said, surprised.
'Yeah, I really do,' I said. 'Some people say that's escapism. But that's fine by me. I live my life, you live yours. If you're clear about what you want, then you can live any way you please. I don't give a damn what people say. They can be reptile food for all I care. That's how I looked at things when I was your age and I guess that's how I look at things now. Does that mean I have arrested development? Or have I been right all these years? I'm still waiting on the answer to that one.'
Jimmy Gilmer's 'Sugar Shack.' I whistled the riff during the refrain. A huge expanse of pure white snow spread out to the left of the road. Just a little shack made out of wood. Espresso coffee tastes mighty good .... 1964.
'You know,' remarked Yuki, 'anyone ever tell you you're . . . different?'
'Hmmph.' My response.
'Are you married?'
'I was once.'
'So you're not married now?'
'Wife walked out on me.'
'Are you telling the truth?'
'Yeah, I'm telling the truth. She went to live with some-one else.'
'You can say that again,' I said.
'But I think I can see how your wife must've felt.'
'What do you mean?'
She shrugged her shoulders but didn't say anything. I made no effort to probe further.
'Want some gum?' she asked after a bit.
By now, the two of us were chiming in on the back chorus of the Beach Boys' 'Surfin' U.S.A.' All the dumb parts. Inside-outside-U.S.A. Maybe I wasn't entirely relegated to the dustheap of 'old men' after all.
The snow was starting to lighten. We headed back to the airport, turned in the keys at the car rental, checked in, and thirty minutes later were at the gate.
In the end, the plane took off five hours late. Yuki fell asleep as soon as we left the ground. She was beautiful, sleeping next to me. Finely made, exquisite, and fragile. The stewardess brought around drinks, looked over at Yuki, and smiled broadly at me. I had to smile too. I ordered a gin and tonic. And as I drank, I thought about Kiki. The scene played over and over again in my head. Kiki and Gotanda are in bed, making love. The camera pans around. And there she is. 'What was that all about?' she says.
Yes, what was that all about?
After collecting our bags at Haneda, Yuki told me where she lived. Hakone.
'That's a pretty long haul,' I said. It was already past eight in the evening, and even if I got a taxi to take her, she'd be wiped out by the time she reached there. 'Do you know anybody in Tokyo? A relative or a friend?'
'No one like that, but we have a place in Akasaka. It's small, but Mama uses it when she comes to town. I can stay there. Nobody's there now.'
'You don't have any family? Besides your mother?'
'No,' answered Yuki. 'Just Mama and me.'
'Hmm,' I said. Unusual family situation, but what busi-ness was it of mine? 'Why don't we go to my place first? Then we can eat dinner somewhere. Then afterward, I'll drive you to your Akasaka apartment. That okay with you?'
'Anything you say.'
We caught a cab to my apartment in Shibuya, where I got out of my Hokkaido clothes. Leather jacket, sweater, and sneakers. Then we got in my Subaru and drove fifteen min-utes to an Italian restaurant I sometimes go to. Call it an occupational skill; I do know how to locate good eating establishments.
'It's like those pigs in France,' I told her, 'trained to grunt when they find a truffle.'
'Don't you like your work?'
'Nah. What's to enjoy? It's all pretty meaningless. I find a good restaurant. I write it up for a magazine. Go here, try this. Why bother? Why shouldn't people just go where they feel like and order what they want? Why do they need some-one to tell them? What's a menu for? And then, after I write the place up, the place gets famous and the cooking and ser-vice go to hell. It always happens. Supply and demand gets all screwed up. And it was me who screwed it up. I do it one by one, nice and neat. I find what's pure and clean and see that it gets all mucked up. But that's what people call infor-mation. And when you dredge up every bit of dirt from every corner of the living environment, that's what you call enhanced information. It kind of gets to you, but that's what I do.'
She eyed me from across the table, as if she were looking at some rare species in the zoo.
'But still you do it,' she said.
'It's my job,' I replied, then suddenly I remembered that I was with a thirteen-year-old. Great. What did I think I was doing, shooting my mouth off like that to a girl not half my age? 'Let's go,' I said. 'It's getting late. I'll take you to your apartment.'
We got in the Subaru. Yuki picked up one of my cassettes and put it on to play. Driving music. The streets were empty, so we made it to Akasaka in no time.
'Okay, point the way,' I said.
'I'm not telling,' Yuki answered.
'What? 'I said.
'I said I'm not telling you. I don't want to go home yet.'
'Hey, it's past ten,' I tried reasoning with her. 'It's been a long, hard day. And I'm dog-tired.'
This made little impression on her. She was unbudgeable. She just sat there and stared at me, while I tried to keep my eyes on the road. There was no emotion whatsoever in her
stare, but it still made me jumpy. After a while, she turned to look out the window.
'I'm not sleepy,' she began. 'Anyway, once you drop me off, I'll be all alone, so I want to keep driving and listening to music.'
I thought it over. 'All right. We drive for one hour. Then you're going home to bed. Fair?'
'Fair,' said Yuki.
So we drove around Tokyo, music playing on the stereo. It's because we let ourselves do these things that the air gets polluted, the ozone layer breaks up, the noise level increases, people become irritable, and our natural resources are steadily depleted. Yuki lay her head back in her seat and gazed silently at the city night.
'Your mother's in Kathmandu now?' I asked.
'Yeah,' she answered listlessly.
'So you'll be on your own until she returns?'
'We have a maid in Hakone.'
'Hmm, this sort of scene happens all the time?'
'You mean Mama up and leaving me?'
'All the time. Work is the only thing Mama thinks of. She doesn't mean to be mean or anything, that's just how she is. She only thinks about herself. Sometimes she forgets I'm around. Like an umbrella, you know, I just slip her mind. And then she's outa there. If she gets it into her head to go to Kathmandu, that's it, she's off. She apologizes later. But then the same thing happens the next time. She dragged me up to Hokkaido on a whim-and that was kind of fun-but she left me alone in the room all the time. She hardly ever came back to the hotel and I usually ate by myself. . . . But I'm used to it now, and I guess I don't expect anything more. She says she'll be back in a week, but maybe from Kathmandu she'll fly off to somewhere else.'
'What's your mother's name?' I asked.
I'd never heard of her.
'Her professional name,' she tried again, 'is Ame. Rain.
That's why I'm Yuki. Snow. Dumb, huh? But that's her idea of a sense of humor.'
Of course I'd heard of Ame. Who hadn't? Probably the most famous woman photographer in the country. She was famous, but she herself never appeared in media. She kept a low profile. She only accepted work that she liked. Well-known for her eccentricity. Her photos were known for the way they startled you and stuck in your mind.
'So that means your father's the novelist, Hiraku Makimura?' I said.
Yuki shrugged. 'He's not such a bad person. No talent though.'
Years back I'd read a couple of his early novels and a col-lection of short stories. Pretty good stuff. Fresh prose, fresh viewpoint. Which is what made them best-sellers. He was the darling of the literary community. He appeared on TV, was in all the magazines, expressed an opinion on the full spectrum of social phenomena. And he married an up-and-coming photographer who went by the name of Ame. That was his peak. After that, it was downhill all the way. He never wrote anything decent. His next two or three books were a joke. The critics panned them, they didn't sell.
So Makimura underwent a transformation. From naif novelist he was suddenly avant-garde. Not that there was any change in the lack of substance. Makimura modeled his style on the French nouvelle vague, rhetoric for rhetoric's sake. A real horror. He managed to win over a few brain-dead critics with a weakness for such pretensions. But after two years of the same old stuff, even they got tired of him. His talent was gone, but he persisted, like a once-virile hound sniffing the tail of every bitch in the neighborhood. By that time, he and Ame had divorced. Or more to the point, Ame had written him off. At least that was how it played in the media.
Yet that wasn't the end of Hiraku Makimura. Early in the seventies, he broke into the new field of travel writing as a self-styled adventurer. Good-bye avant-garde, time for action
and adventure. He visited exotic and forbidden destinations in far corners of the globe. He ate raw seal meat with the Eskimos, lived with the pygmies, infiltrated guerrilla camps high in the Andes. He cast aspersions on armchair literarians and library shut-ins. Which wasn't so bad at first, but after ten years, the pose wore thin. After all, we're no longer liv-ing in the age of Livingstone and Amundsen. The adventures didn't have the stuff they used to, but Makimura's prose was pompous as ever.
And the thing of it was, they'd ceased to be real adven-tures. By now he was dragging around whole entourages, coordinators and editors and cameramen. Sometimes TV would get into the act and there'd be a dozen crew members and sponsors tagging along. Things got to be staged, more and more. Before long, everyone had his number.
Not such a bad person perhaps. But like his daughter said, no talent.
Nothing more was said about Yuki's father. She obviously didn't want to talk about the guy. I was sorry I brought him up.
We kept quiet and listened to the music. Me at the wheel, eyes on the lights of the blue BMW in front of us. Yuki tapped her boot along with Solomon Burke and watched the passing scenery.
'I like this car,' Yuki spoke up after a while. 'What is it?'
'A Subaru,' I said. 'I got it used from a friend. Not many people look twice at it.'
'I don't know much about cars, but I like the way it feels.'
'It's probably because I shower it with warmth and affec-tion.'
'So that makes it nice and friendly?'
'Harmonics,' I explained.
'The car and I are pals. We help each other out. I enter its space, and I give off good vibes. Which creates a nice atmo-
sphere. The car picks up on that. Which makes me feel good, and it makes the car feel good too.'
'A machine can feel good?'
'You didn't know that? Don't ask me how, though. Machines can get happy, but they can get angry too. I have no logical explanation for it. I just know from experience.'
'You mean, machines are like humans?'
I shook my head. 'No, not like humans. With machines, the feeling is, well, more finite. It doesn't go any further. With humans, it's different. The feeling is always changing. Like if you love somebody, the love is always shifting or wavering. It's always questioning or inflating or disappear-ing or denying or hurting. And the thing is, you can't do anything about it, you can't control it. With my Subaru, it's not so complicated.'
Yuki gave that some thought. 'But that didn't get through to your wife? Didn't she know how you felt?' she asked.
'I guess not,' I said. 'Or maybe she had a different per-spective on the matter. So in the end, she split. Probably going to live with another man was easier than adjusting her perspective.'
'So you didn't get along like with your Subaru?'
'You said it.' Of all the things to be talking about to a thirteen-year-old.
'And what about me?' Yuki suddenly asked.
'What about you? I hardly know you.'
I could feel her staring at me again. Much more of this and pretty soon she'd bore a hole in my left cheek. I gave in. 'Okay, of all the women I've gone out with, you're probably the cutest,' I said, eyes glued on the road. 'No, not proba-bly. Without question, absolutely, the cutest. If I were fifteen, I'd fall in love with you just like that. But I'm thirty-four, and I don't fall in love so easily. I don't want to get hurt any-more. So it's safer with the Subaru. All right?'
Yuki gave me a blank look. 'Pretty weird,' was all she could say.
Which made me feel like the dregs of humanity. The girl probably didn't mean anything by it, but she packed a punch.
At eleven-fifteen we were back in Akasaka.
Yuki kept her part of the bargain and told me how to get to the apartment. It was a smallish redbrick condo on a quiet back street near Nogi Shrine. I pulled up to the build-ing and killed the engine.
'About the money and all,' she said before opening the door, 'the plane and the dinner and everything-'
'The plane fare can wait until your mother gets back. The rest is on me. Don't worry about it. I don't go dutch on dates.'
Yuki shrugged and said nothing, then got out and dropped her wad of gum into a convenient potted plant.
Thank you very much. You're quite welcome. I bandied with myself. Then I took a business card out of my wallet. 'Give this to your mother when she returns. And in the meanwhile, if you need anything, you can call me at this number. Let me know if I can help out.'
She snapped up the card, glared at it a second, then buried it in her coat pocket.
I pulled her overweight suitcases out of the car, and we took the elevator to the fourth floor. Yuki unlocked the door, |nd I brought the suitcases in. It was a dinette-kitchen-bed-room-bath studio. Practically brand-new, spick-and-span as a showroom, complete with neatly arrayed furniture and appliances, all tasteful and expensive and without sign of use. The apartment had the unlived-in charm of a glossy magazine spread. Very chic, very unreal.
'Mama hardly ever uses this place,' Yuki declared, as she watched me scan the place. 'She has a studio nearby, and she usually stays there when she's in Tokyo. She sleeps there, and she eats there. She only comes here between jobs.'
'I see,' I said. Busy woman.
Yuki hung up her fur coat and turned on the heater. Then she brought out a pack of Virginia Slims and lit up with a cool flick of the wrist. I couldn't say I thought much of a thirteen-year-old smoking. Yet there was something posi-tively attractive about that pencil-thin filter poised on her sharp knife-cut lips, her long lashes luxuriating on the updraft. Picture perfect. I held my peace. If I were fifteen years old, I really would have fallen for her. As fatefully as the snow on the roof comes tumbling down in spring. I would have lost my head and been terribly unhappy. It took me back years. Made me feel helpless, a teenage boy pining away again for a girl who could almost have been Yuki.
'Want some coffee?'
I shook my head. 'Thanks, but it's late. I'm heading home.'
Yuki deposited her cigarette in an ashtray and showed me to the door.
'Mind the cigarette and heater before you turn in.'
'Yes, Dad,' she replied.
Back in my own apartment at last, I collapsed on the sofa with a beer. I glanced through my mail. Nothing but busi-ness and bills. File under: later. I was dead, didn't want to do anything. Still, I was on edge, too pumped up with adren-aline to sleep. What a day!
How long had I stayed in Sapporo? The images jumbled together in my head, crowding into my sleep time. The sky had been a seamless gray. Implicating events and dates. Date with receptionist with glasses. Call to ex-partner for back-ground on Dolphin Hotel. Talk with Sheep Man. Movie showing Gotanda and Kiki. Beach Boys, thirteen-year-old girl, and me. Tokyo. So how many days altogether?
You tell me.
Tomorrow, I told myself. It can wait.
I went into the kitchen and poured myself a whiskey. Straight, neat, and otherwise unadulterated. Plus some
crackers. A bit damp, like my head, but they'd have to do. I put on an old favorite of the Modernaires singing Tommy Dorsey numbers. Nice and low. A bit out-of-date, like my head. A bit scratchy, but not enough to bother anyone. A perfection of sorts. That didn't go anywhere. Like my head.
What was that all about? Kiki repeated in my brain.
The camera pans around. Gotanda's able fingers sail gen-tly down her back. Seeking for that long-lost sea passage.
What was going on here? I was thoroughly confused. Gone was my self-confidence. Love and used Subarus were two different things. Weren't they? I was jealous of Gotan-da's fingers. Had Yuki put out her cigarette? Had she turned off the heater? Yes, Dad. You said it. No confidence at all. Was I doomed to rot, muttering away to myself like this in this elephants' graveyard of advanced capitalist society?
Leave it to tomorrow. Everything.
I brushed my teeth, changed into my pajamas, then pol-ished off the last of the whiskey in my glass. The moment I got into bed, the phone rang. At first I just stared at the thing ringing there in the middle of the room, and finally I picked it up.
'I turned off the heater,' Yuki began. 'Put out my cigarette. Everything's okay. Sleep easier now?'
'Yes, thank you,' I replied.
'Nighty-night then,' she said.
'Good night,' I said.
'Hey,' Yuki started, then paused, 'you saw that guy in the sheepskin up at the Sapporo hotel, didn't you?'
I sat down on the bed, holding the telephone to my chest as if keeping a cracked ostrich egg warm.
'You can't fool me. I know you saw him. I knew that right away.'
'You saw the Sheep Man?' I blurted out.
'Mmm,' Yuki skirted the question, then clicked her tongue. 'But we can talk about that later. Next time, huh? We'll have a long talk. I'm beat right now.'
And she hung up, just like that. Click.
I had a pain in my temples. I went to the kitchen and poured myself another whiskey. I was trembling all over. A roller coaster was rumbling under me. It's all connected, the Sheep Man had said.
All sorts of strange connections were starting to come together.
I leaned up against the sink in the kitchen and downed the whiskey. What should I do? How could Yuki have known about the Sheep Man? Should I ring her back? But I really was exhausted. It'd been one long day. Maybe I should wait for her to call. Did I know her phone number?
I climbed into bed and stared at the phone. I had a feeling that Yuki might call. If not Yuki, somebody else. At times like this, the telephone becomes a time bomb. Nobody knows when it's going to go off. But it's ticking away with possibility. And if you consider the telephone as an object, it has this truly weird form. Ordinarily, you never notice it, but if you stare at it long enough, the sheer oddity of its form hits home. The phone either looks like it's dying to say something, or else it's resenting that it's trapped inside its form. Pure idea vested within a clunky body. That's the tele-phone.
Now the phone company. All those lines coming together. Lines stretching all the way from this very room. Connecting me, in principle, to anyone and everyone. I could even call Anchorage if I wanted. Or the Dolphin Hotel, for that mat-ter, or my ex-wife. Countless possibilities. And all tied together through the phone company switchboard. Com-puter-processed these days of course. Converted into strings of digits, then transmitted via telephone wires to under-
ground cable or undersea tunnel or communications satel-lite, ultimately finding its way to us. A gigantic computer-controlled network.
But no matter how advanced the system, no matter how precise, unless we have the will to communicate, there's no connection. And even supposing the will is there, there are times like now when we don't know the other party's num-ber. Or even if we know the number, we misdial. We are an imperfect and unrepentant species. But suppose we clear those hurdles, suppose I manage to get through to Yuki, she could always say, 'I don't want to talk now. Bye.' Click! End of conversation, before it ever began. Talk about one-way communication.
Actually, the telephone looked rather irritated.
It-or let's call it a 'she'-seemed pissed off at being less than pure idea. Angered at the uncertain and imperfect grounds upon which volitional communication must neces-sarily base itself. So very imperfect, so utterly arbitrary, so wholly passive.
I propped myself up on my pillow and watched the tele-phone fume. A perfectly pointless exercise. It's not my fault, the phone seemed to be telling me. Well, that's communica-tion. Imperfect, arbitrary, passive. The lament of the not-quite-pure idea. But I'm not to blame either. The phone probably tells this to all the boys. It's just that being part of these quarters of mine makes her-it-all the more irritable. Which makes me feel responsible. As if I'm aiding and abet-ting all the imperfection.
Take my ex-wife, for example. She'd just sit there and, without a word, put me in my place. I'd loved her. We'd had some really good times. Traveled together. Made love hun-dreds of times. Laughed a lot. But sometimes, she'd give me the silent treatment. Usually at night, subtle, but unrelenting. As punishment for my imperfection, my arbitrariness and passiveness.
I knew what was eating her. We got along well, but what she was after, the image in her mind, was somewhere else,
not where I was. She wanted a kind of autonomy of commu-nication. A scene where the hero-whose name was 'Com-munication'-led the masses to a bright, bloodless revo-lution, spotless white flags waving. So that perfection could swallow imperfection and make it whole. To me, love is a pure idea forged in flesh, awkwardly maybe, but it had to connect to somewhere, despite twists and turns of under-ground cable. An all-too-imperfect thing. Sometimes the lines get crossed. Or you get a wrong number. But that's nobody's fault. It'll always be like that, so long as we exist in this physical form. As a matter of principle.
I explained it to her. Over and over again.
Then one day she left.
Or else I'd magnified that imperfection, and helped her out the door.
I looked at the telephone and replayed scenes of me get-ting it on with my wife. For the three months before she left, she hadn't wanted to sleep with me once. Because she was sleeping with the other guy. At the time, I didn't have the least idea.
'Sorry dear, but why don't you go sleep with someone else? I won't be mad,' she'd said. And I thought she was joking. But she was serious. I told her I didn't want to sleep with another woman, which was true. But she wanted me to, she said. Then we could think things over from there.
In the end, I didn't sleep with anyone. I'm not a prude, but I don't go sleeping with women just to think things over. I sleep with someone because I want to.
Not long after that, she walked out on me. But say I had gone and slept with someone like she wanted me to, would that have kept her from leaving? Did she really believe that that would've put our communication on even slightly more autonomous grounds? Ridiculous.
Already past midnight, but the drone of the expressway showed no sign of letting up. Every now and then a motor-cycle would blast by. The soundproof glass dampened the noise, but not much. It was right out there, up against my
life, oppressing me. Circumscribing me to this one patch of ground.
I grew tired of looking at the phone and closed my eyes.
And as soon as I did, the surrender I must have been wait-ing for silently filled the void. Very deftly and ever so quick. Sleep came over me.
After breakfast, I thumbed through my address book for the number of a guy in talent management I'd met when I needed to interview young stars. It was ten in the morning when I rang him up, so naturally he was still asleep. That's showbiz. I apologized, then told him I had to find Gotanda. He moaned and groaned, but eventually came across with the goods. The number for Gotanda's agency, a midsize entertainment production firm.
I called up and got his manager on the line. I said I was a magazine writer and wanted to talk with Gotanda. Was I doing a piece on him? Not exactly, this was personal. How personal? Well, I happened to be a junior high school class-mate of his, and this was urgent. Fine, he'd pass the message on. No, I had to talk to Gotanda directly. Me and how many others?
'But this is very important,' I insisted. 'So if you'd be so kind as to put us in touch, I'm sure I can return the favor on a professional level.'
The manager considered my proposition. Of course it was a lie. I didn't have any strings to pull. My whole claim to editorial sway consisted of going out and doing the interview I was assigned to do. A glorified gofer. But the manager didn't know that.
'And you're sure this isn't coverage?' he said. 'Because all media have to go through me. Out front and official.'
No, this was one-hundred-percent personal.
The guy asked for my number. 'Junior high school class-mate, eh?' he said with a sigh. 'He'll call tonight or tomor-row. If he feels like it.'
'Of course,' I said.
The guy yawned and hung up. Couldn't blame him. It was only ten-thirty.
Before noon I drove to Aoyama to do my shopping at the fancy-schmancy Kinokuniya supermarket. Parking my Suba-ru among the Saabs and Mercedes in the lot, I almost felt as if I were exposing myself, the twin of this narrow-shouldered old chassis of mine. Still, I admit it: I enjoy shopping at Kinokuniya. You may not believe this, but the lettuce you buy there lasts longer than lettuce anywhere else. Don't ask me why. Maybe they round up the lettuce after they close for the day and give them special training. It wouldn't surprise me. This is advanced capitalism, after all.
At home, there were no messages on my answering machine. No one had called. I put away the vegetables to the 'Theme from Shaft' on the radio. Who's that man? Shaft! Right on!
Then I went to see Unrequited Love yet again. That made four times. I couldn't not see it. I concentrated on the critical scene, trying to catch every detail.
Nothing had changed. It was Sunday morning. Every-thing bathed in peaceful Sunday light. Window blinds drawn. A woman's bare back. A man's caressing fingers. Le Corbusier print on wall. Bottle of Cutty Sark on table at side of bed. Two glasses, ashtray, pack of Seven Stars. Stereo equipment. Flower vase. Daisies. Peeled-off clothes on floor. Bookshelf. The camera pans. It's Kiki. I shut my eyes invol-untarily. Then I open them. Gotanda is embracing her. Gen-tly, softly. 'No way,' I say. Out loud. A young kid four seats away shoots me a look. The girl lead comes into frame. Hair in a ponytail. Yachting windbreaker and jeans. Red Adidases. She's holding a container of cookies. She walks right in, then dashes out. Gotanda is dumbfounded. He sits up in bed, squinting into the light, following the girl with his eyes. Kiki rests a hand on his shoulder, her words drenched with
world-weariness. 'What was that all about?'
After I left the theater, I walked around the streets of Shibuya.
I walked, through the swarming crowds of school kids, as Gotanda's slender, well-mannered fingers played over her back in my mind. I walked to Harajuku. Then to Sendagaya past the stadium, across Aoyama Boulevard toward the cemetery and over to the Nezu Museum. I passed Cafe Figaro and then Kinokuniya and then the Jintan Building back toward Shibuya Station. A bit of a hike. It was getting late. From the top of the hill, I could see the neon signs com-ing on as the dark-suited masses of salarymen crossed the intersection like instinct-blinded salmon. When I got back to my apartment, the red message lamp on my answering machine was blinking. I switched on the room lights, took off my coat, and pulled a beer out of the fridge. I sat down on my bed, took a sip, and pushed PLAY.
'Well, been a long time.' It was Gotanda.
Well, been a long time.' Gotanda's voice came through bright and clear. Not too fast, not too slow. Not too loud, not too soft. Not tense, not inordinately relaxed. A perfect voice. I knew it was Gotanda in a second. It's not the sort of voice you forget once you've heard it. Any more than his smiling face, his sparkling white teeth, his finely sculpted nose. Actually, I'd never paid any attention to Gotanda's voice before, couldn't really recall it either, but obviously it'd stuck subconsciously to the inside of my skull, and it came back to me immediately, as vivid as the tolling of a bell on a still night. Amazing.
'I'm going to be at home tonight, so call. I don't go to bed until morning anyway,' he said, then enunciated his telephone number, twice. 'Be talking to you.'
From the exchange, his place couldn't have been so far from here. I wrote the number down, then carefully dialed. At the sixth ring, an answering machine kicked on. A woman's voice saying, 'I'm out right now, but if you'd care to leave a message.' I left my name and the time and said that I'd be in all evening. Complicated world we live in. I hung up and was in the kitchen when the phone rang.
It was Yuki. What was I up to? My response: Chewing
on a stalk of celery and having a beer. Hers: Yuck. Mine: It's not so bad. She wasn't old enough to know things could be a lot worse.
'So where are you calling from?' I asked.
'Akasaka,' she said. 'How about going for a drive?'
'Sorry, I can't today,' I said. 'I'm waiting for an impor-tant business call. How about another time? But first I got a question. When we talked yesterday, you said you'd seen a man in a sheep suit? Can you tell me more about that? I need to know.'
'How about another time?' she said, then slammed the phone down.
I munched on the celery and thought about what to have for dinner. Spaghetti.
First slice two cloves of garlic and brown in olive oil. Tilt the frying pan on its side just so, to pool the oil, and cook over a low flame. Toss in dried red peppers, fry together but remove before oil gets too spicy. Touch-and-go. Then cut thin slices of ham into strips and saute until crisp. Last, add to al dente spaghetti, toss, sprinkle with chopped parsley. Serve with salad of fresh mozzarella and tomatoes.
Okay, let's do it.
The water for the spaghetti was just about to boil when the telephone rang. I turned off the gas and went to pick up the phone.
It was Gotanda. 'He-ey, long time. Takes me back. How're you doing?'
'All right, I guess.'
'So what's up? My manager said you had something urgent. Hope we don't have to dissect a frog again,' he laughed.
'No, nothing like that. I know this call is out of the blue, but I just needed to ask you something. Sorry, I know you're busy. Anyway, this may sound kind of strange, but-'
'Listen, are you busy right now?' Gotanda interrupted.
'No, not at all. I had some time on my hands, so I was about to fix dinner.'
'Perfect. How about a meal? I was just thinking about looking for a dinner partner. You know how it is. Nothing tastes good when you eat alone.'
'Sure, but I didn't mean to ... I mean, I called so sud-denly and-'
'No problem. We all get hungry whether we like it or not, and a man's got to eat. I'm not forcing myself to eat on your account. So let's go have a good meal somewhere and talk about old times. Haven't seen you in ages. I really want to see you. I hope I'm not imposing. Or am I?'
'C'mon, I'm the one who wanted to talk to you.'
'Well, then, I'll swing by and pick you up. Where are
I told him where my apartment building was.
'Not so far from here. Maybe twenty minutes. So get yourself ready to go. I don't know about you, but I'm starving.'
I'd hop to it, I said, and hung up. Old times?
What old times could Gotanda possibly have to talk about? We weren't especially close back then. He was the bright boy of the class, I was a nobody. It was some kind of miracle that he even remembered who I was.
I shaved and put on the classiest items in my wardrobe: an orange striped shirt and Calvin Klein tweed jacket, an Armani knit tie (a birthday present from a former girlfriend), just-washed jeans, and brand-new Yamaha tennis shoes. Not that he'd ever think this was classy. I'd never eaten with a movie star before. What was one supposed to wear anyway?
Twenty minutes later on the dot, my doorbell rang. It was Gotanda's chauffeur, who politely informed me that Gotanda was downstairs. In a metallic silver Mercedes the size and shape of a motorboat. The glass was also silvered so you couldn't see in. The chauffeur opened the door with a smart, professional snap of the wrist and I got in. And there was Gotanda.
'Who-oa, been a while, eh?' he flashed me his smile. He didn't shake my hand, and I guess I was glad.
'Yeah, it has, hasn't it?' I said.
He wore a dark blue windbreaker over a V-neck sweater and faded cream corduroy slacks. Old Asics jogging shoes. Impeccable. Perfectly ordinary clothes, but the way he wore them was perfect. He gave my outfit a once-over and offered, 'Tres chic.'
'Thanks,' I said.
'Just like a movie star.' No irony, just kidding. We both laughed. Which let us relax.
I sized up the interior of the car.
'Not bad, eh?' he said. 'The agency lets me use it when-ever I want. Complete with driver. This way there're no acci-dents, no drunken driving. Safety first. They're happy, I'm happy.'
'Makes sense,' I said.
'But if it were up to me, I would never drive this baby. I don't like cars this big.'
'I like cars even smaller,' I said.
'Subaru,' he repeated, nodding. 'You know, the first car I ever bought was a Subaru. With the money I made on my first picture, I bought a used Subaru. Boy, I loved that car. I used to drive it to the studio when I had my second support-ing role. And someone got on my case right away. Kid, if you want to be a star, you can't drive a Subaru. What a busi-ness. So I traded it in. But it was a great car. Dependable. Cheap. Really terrific.'
'Yeah, I like mine too.'
'So why do you think I drive a Maserati?'
'I haven't the foggiest.'
'I have this expense account I got to use up,' he said with a tilt of his eyebrow. 'My manager keeps telling me,
spend more, more. I'm never using it up fast enough. So I went and bought an expensive car. One high-priced auto-mobile can write off a big chunk of earnings. It makes every-body happy.'
Good grief. Didn't anyone have anything else on their mind but expense account deductions?
'I'm really hungry,' he said, running his hand through his hair. 'I feel like a nice, thick steak. Are you up for some-thing like that?'
'Whatever you say.'
He gave directions to the driver, and we were off. Go-tanda looked at me and smiled. 'Don't mean to get too per-sonal,' he said, 'but since you were fixing a meal for yourself, I take it you're single.'
'Correct,' I said. 'Married and divorced.' 'Just like me,' he said. 'Married and divorced. Paying alimony?' 'Nope.' 'Nothing?'
'Nothing. She didn't want a thing.' 'You lucky bastard,'š he said, grinning.š 'I don't pay alimony either, but the marriage broke me. I suppose you heard about my divorce?' 'Vaguely.'
It'd been in all the magazines. His marriage four or five years ago to a well-known actress, then the divorce a couple years later. But as usual, who knew the real story? The rumor was that her family didn't like him-not so unusual a thing-and that she had this cordon of relatives who mus-cled in on every move she made, public and private. Gotan-da himself was more the spoiled, rich-kid type, used to the luxury of living life at his own pace. So there was bound to be trouble.
'Funny, isn't it? One minute we're doing a science experi-ment together, the next thing you know we're both divorced. Funny,', he forced a smile, then lightly rubbed his eyes. 'Tell me, how come you split up?'
'Simple. One day the wife up and walked out on me.'
'Just like that?'
'Yup. No warning, not a word. I didn't have a clue. I thought she'd gone out to do the shopping or something, but she never came back. I made dinner and I waited. Morning came and still no sign of her. A week passed, a month passed. Then the divorce papers came.'
He took it all in, then he sighed. 'I hope you don't mind my saying this, but I think you got a better deal than I did.'
'With me, the wife didn't leave. I got thrown out. Liter-ally. One day, I was thrown out on my ear.' He gazed out through the silvered glass. 'And the worst part about it was, she planned the whole thing. Every last detail. When I wasn't around, she changed the registration on everything we owned. I never noticed a thing. I trusted her. I handed everything over to her accountant-my official seal, my IDs, stock certificates, bankbooks, everything. They said they needed it for taxes. Great, I'm terrible at that stuff, so I was happy for them to do it. But the guy was working for her relatives. And before I knew it, there wasn't a thing to my name left. They stripped me to the bone. And then they kicked me out. A real education, let me tell you,' he forced another smile. 'Made me grow up real fast.'
'Everybody has to grow up.'
'You're right there. I used to think the years would go by in order, that you get older one year at a time,' said Gotanda, peering into my face. 'But it's not like that. It hap-pens overnight.'
The place we went to was a steak house in a remote cor-ner of Roppongi. Expensive, by the looks of it. When the Mercedes pulled up to the door, the doorman and maitre d' and staff came out to greet us. We were conducted to a secluded booth in the back. Everyone in the place was very fashionable, but Gotanda in his corduroys and jogging shoes
was the sharpest dresser in the place. His nonchalance oozed style. As soon as we entered, everyone's eyes were on him. They stared for two seconds, no longer, as if it were some unwritten law of etiquette.
We sat down and ordered two scotch-and-waters. Gotanda proposed the toast: 'To our ex-wives.'
'I know it sounds stupid,' he said, 'but I still love her. She treated me like dirt and I still love her. I can't get her out of my mind, I can't get interested in other women.'
I stared at the extremely elegant ice cubes in the crystal
'What about you?' he asked.
'You mean how do I feel about my ex-wife? I don't know. I didn't want her to go. But she left all right. Who was in the wrong? I don't know. It sure doesn't matter now. I'm used to it, though I suppose 'used to it' is about the best I
'I hope I'm not touching a sore spot?'
'No, not really,' I said. 'Fact is fact, you can't run away from it. You can't really call it painful, you don't really know what to call it.'
He snapped his fingers. 'That's true. You really can't pin it down. It's like the gravity's changed on you. You can't even call what you're feeling pain.'
The waiter came and took our orders. Steak, both medium rare, and salad and another round of scotch.
'Oh yeah, wasn't there something you wanted to talk to me about? Let's get that out of the way first. Before we get too plastered.'
'It's kind of a strange story,' I began.
He floated me one of his pleasant smiles. Well-practiced, but still, without malice.
'I like strange stories,' he said.
'Well, here goes. The other day I went to see the movie you have out.'
'Unrequited?' he said with a grimace, his voice dropping to a whisper. 'Terrible picture. Terrible director, terrible
script, it's always like that. Everybody involved with the thing wishes they could forget it.'
'I saw it four times,' I said.
His eyes widened, as if he were peering into the cosmic void. 'I'd be willing to bet there's not a human alive in this galaxy who's sat through that movie four times.'
'Someone I knew was in the film,' I said. 'Besides you, I mean.'
Gotanda pressed an index finger into his temple and squinted. 'Who?'
'The girl you were sleeping with on the Sunday morning.'
He took a sip of whiskey. 'Oh yeah,' he said, nodding. 'Kiki.'
'Kiki,' I repeated.
Kiki. Kiki. Kiki.
'That was the name I know her by anyway. In the film world, she went by Kiki. No last name, that was it.'
Which is how, finally, I learned her name.
'And can you get in touch with her?' I asked.
'Let's take it from the top. First of all, Kiki wasn't a pro-fessional actress. Actors, famous or not, all belong to some production company. So you get in contact with them through their agents. Most of them live next to their phones, waiting for the call, you know. But not Kiki. She didn't belong to any production group I knew of. She just hap-pened through that one time.'
'Then how did she land that part?'
'I recommended her,' he said dryly. 'I asked her if she wanted to be in a picture, and I introduced her to the direc-tor.'
He took a sip of whiskey. 'The girl had-maybe not tal-ent exactly-she had the makings of ... presence. She had something. She wasn't really beautiful. She wasn't a born actress. But you got the feeling that if she ever got on film,
she could pull the whole frame into focus. And that's talent, you know. So I asked the director to put her in the picture. And she made that scene. Everyone thought she was great. I don't mean to brag, but that scene was the best thing in the movie. It was real. Didn't you think so?'
'Yeah, I did,' I had to agree. 'Very real.'
'So I thought the girl would go into movies. She could've cut the ice. But then she disappeared. Vanished. Like smoke, like morning dew.'
'Like literally. Maybe a month ago. I'd been telling every-one she was exactly what we needed for this new part, and she was set. All the girl had to do was to show up, and it was hers. I even called her up the day before to remind her. But she never showed. That was the last time we ever
He raised a finger to call over the waiter and ordered two
'One question, though it's none of my business,' Gotanda said. 'Did you ever sleep with her?'
'So then, well, if I were to say, supposing I slept with her too, would that bother you?'
'Not especially,' I said.
'Good,' said Gotanda, relieved. 'I'm a terrible liar. So I'll come right out with it. We slept together a few times. She was a good kid. A little mixed-up maybe, but really a good person. She should've become an actress. Could've done some good things. Too bad.'
'And you really don't know where to contact her? Or what her real name is?'
'Afraid not. I don't know of any way to find her. Nobody knows. 'Kiki' is all there is to go on.'
'Weren't there any pay slips in the film company account-ing department?' I asked. 'They've got to put your real name and address on those things. For the tax office and all.'
'Don't you think I checked? Not a clue. She didn't bother
to pick up her pay. No money accepted, so no record, nothing.'
'She didn't pick up her pay?'
'Don't ask me why,' said Gotanda, well into his third drink. 'The girl's a mystery. Maybe she wanted to keep her name and address a secret. Who knows? But whatever, now we have three things in common. Science lab in junior high. Divorce. And Kiki.'
Presently our steaks and salads arrived. Beautiful steaks. Magazine-perfect medium rare. Gotanda dug in with gusto. His table manners were less than finishing-school polished, but he did have a casual ease that made him an ideal dining companion. Everything he ate looked appetizing. He was charming. He had a grace you don't encounter every day. A woman would be snowed.
'So tell me, where did you meet Kiki?' I asked, cutting into my steak.
'Let's see, where was it?' he thought out loud. 'Oh yeah, I called for a girl and she showed up. You know what I mean, there are these numbers you call. Right?'
'After my divorce, for a while there I would call up and these girls would come and spend the night. No fuss, no muss. I wasn't up for an amateur and if I was sleeping with someone in the industry it'd be splashed all over the maga-zines. So that's the companionship I had. They weren't cheap, but they kept quiet about it. Absolutely confidential. A guy at the agency gave me an introduction to this club, and all the girls were nice and easy. Professional, but with-out the attitude. They enjoy themselves too.'
He brought a forkful of steak to his mouth and slowly savored the juiciness.
'Mmm, not bad,' he said.
'Not bad at all,' I seconded. 'This is a great place.'
'Great, but you get tired of it six times a month.'
'You come here six times a month?'
'Well, I'm used to the place. I can walk right in and no
one bats an eye. The employees don't whisper. They're used to famous people, so they don't stare. No one coming to ask for your autograph when you've got your mouth full. It's hard to relax and eat in other places. Really.'
'Rough life,' I kidded. 'Plus you can't slack off on that expense account.'
'You said it! So where were we?'
'Up to the part about call girls.'
'Oh right,' said Gotanda, wiping his mouth with his napkin. 'So, one time I call for the usual girl. But she's not available. Instead, they send these two other girls. I get to choose, because I'm such a special customer. Well, one of the girls was Kiki. It was tough to decide, so I slept with both of them.'
'Hmm,' I said.
'That bother you?'
'If I were still in high school, maybe. But not now, no.'
'I never did anything like that in high school, that's for sure,' chuckled Gotanda. 'But anyway, I slept with both of them. It was a funny combination. I mean, one girl was absolutely gorgeous. I'm talking stunning. Some expensive work on that body, let me tell you. Every square millimeter of her dripping with money. In my business you run into plenty of beautiful women, and this girl was no slouch. She had a nice personality, intelligent too. And then there was Kiki. Not a real beauty. Pretty enough, but no pizzazz, not like the typical club girl. She was more, well,...'
'Ordinary?' I offered.
'Yeah, ordinary. Regular clothes, hardly any makeup, not a super conversationalist either. She didn't seem to care a lot about what people thought of her. No one you'd give a sec-ond look. And the strange thing about her was, somehow she was more attractive, she interested me more. After the three of us got it on, we were sitting on the floor, drinking and listening to music and talking. I hadn't enjoyed myself like that in ages. Not since college. I felt so relaxed with them that the three of us got together a few more times after that.'
'When was this?'
'This was about six months after I got divorced, so that makes maybe a year and a half ago,' he said. 'We had this threesome five or six times. I never slept with Kiki alone. I wonder why. I really should have.'
'Yeah, why not?'
He set his knife and fork down on his plate, then pressed at his temple again. Seemed to be a mannerism of his. And a charming one too.
'Maybe I was scared,' Gotanda said.
'What do you mean?'
'Scared to be alone with her,' he said, picking up his cut-lery. 'There was something challenging about her, almost threatening. At least that was the feeling I got. No, not exactly threatening.'
'Sort of suggestive? Or leading?'
'Yeah, maybe. I can't really say. But whatever it was, I got only a hint of it. I never got the full frontal effect. So anyway, I never felt like sleeping with just her. Despite the fact that she attracted me more. Does this make any sense to you?'
'Somehow, if I'd slept with Kiki, just the two of us, I wouldn't have been able to relax. I'd have wanted to go a lot deeper with her. Don't ask me why. But that wasn't what I was after. I only wanted to sleep with girls as a kind of release. Even though I really did like Kiki.'
We ate in silence for a moment or two.
'When Kiki didn't show for the audition, I rang up her club,' Gotanda went on, as if he'd just remembered. 'I specifically asked for her, but she wasn't there. They told me they didn't know where she was. True, she could've told them to say that if I called. Who knows? But in any case, she evaporated, just like that.'
The waiter cleared the table and asked if we wanted coffee.
'No, but I'd like another drink,' said Gotanda. 'How about you?'
'I'm in your hands.'
And so we were brought our fourth round.
'What do you think I did today?' Gotanda asked out of nowhere.
I told him I had no idea.
'I assisted a dentist, all afternoon. Background study for a role. Right now I'm doing this series where I play a dentist. Ryoko Nakano's an optometrist, and we have clinics in the same neighborhood. We've known each other since child-hood, but something's always conspiring to keep us apart. Pretty harmless stuff. But, well, TV dramas are all the same. You ever seen it?'
'No, can't say I have,' I said. 'I don't watch TV. Except the news. And I only watch it twice a week.'
'Smart,' said Gotanda. 'It's a stupid program anyway. If I wasn't in it, I wouldn't watch it myself. But it's a popular show. The ratings are pretty high. You know how the public loves this kind of stuff. And you wouldn't believe the mail I get every week. Dentists writing in, complaining about how such-and-such a procedure wasn't rendered right or the treatment for such-and-such a toothache should have been something else. And then there are these jokers who say they never saw such a poor excuse for a show. Well, if you don't like it, don't watch.'
'Nobody's forcing them to.'
'The funny thing is, I always get stuck playing a doctor or a teacher or somebody wholesome and respectable like that. I've played more doctor roles than I can count. The only thing I haven't been is a proctologist! Imagine how much fun that would be! But I've been a vet and a gynecolo-gist and of course I've been a teacher of every curriculum in the book. I've even taught home economics. What do you make of all this?'
'Well, obviously, you radiate trust,' I laughed.
'Yes, a fatal flaw,' Gotanda laughed back. 'Once, I played
this crooked used-car salesman. A bullshit artist with one glass eye. Boy, I had fun with that. The role had some bite to it, and I wasn't bad either. But no way. The letters came pour-ing in. It was too mean a role for the noble likes of me. Some-body even threatened to boycott the sponsor! Toothpaste, if I remember correctly. So my character got scratched in the mid-dle of the season. Written right out. A pretty important part, killed by natural selection. And ever since then, it's been doc-tors and teachers, doctors and teachers.'
'Or a truly simple one,' he laughed again. 'Anyway, today I was doing time as a dental assistant, studying tech-nique. I've been doing this for a while now, and I swear, I can probably do a simple procedure myself. The dentist-the real live dentist-even praised the way I handle the tools. I have this gauze mask on, and none of the patients knows it's me. But still, they all relax when I talk to them.'
'Can't stop radiating that trust, can you?'
'Yup, that's what I'm beginning to think. Matter of fact, I get to feeling so relaxed I wonder if I wasn't cut out to be a real dentist or a doctor or a teacher or something. I could've done that, you know. Maybe I'd be happier doing something like that.'
'You're not happy now?'
'Don't know,' said Gotanda, finger in the middle of his forehead this time. 'It's this trust business I'm such a pro at. I don't know whether I trust myself. Everybody else trusts me, sure, but, really, I'm nothing but this image. A push of the button and-brrp!-I'm gone. Right?'
'If I really was a doctor or a teacher, no one could switch me off. I'm always there.'
'True, but even with acting, you always have to be there.'
'Sometimes I just get tired,' said Gotanda. 'I get headaches, and I just lose track. I mean, it's like which is me and which the role? Where's the line between me and my shadow?'
'Everybody feels that way, not just you.'
'I know that. Everybody loses track of themselves. Only in me, the slant is too strong. It's, well, fatal. I've always been this way, since I don't know when. To be honest, I was always envious of you.'
'Of me?' I was incredulous. 'Why the hell would you be envious of me?'
'I don't know, you always seemed to get along just fine doing your own thing. Didn't matter what others thought, you didn't really care. You did what you wanted, how you wanted. You were solid.' He raised his glass and looked through it. 'I, on the other hand, was the eternal golden boy. I never did anything wrong, I got the best grades, I won elections, I was a star athlete. Girls liked me. And teachers and parents believed in me. How do things like this happen? I never really understood what was going on, but you sort of get into a groove, you know. You probably can't even imag-ine what I'm talking about.'
No, not really, I told him.
'After junior high, I went to this school that was big in soccer. We almost made it to the nationals. So it was like an extension of junior high. I kept on being good. I had a girl-friend. She was gorgeous. Used to come cheer for me at the soccer matches. That's how we met. But we didn't go all the way, as we used to say. We only fooled around. We'd go to her place when her folks weren't home and we'd fool around. We'd have dates at the library. High school days right out of NHK Teen Playhouse.'
Gotanda took a sip of whiskey.
'Things changed a bit in college. There was all this cam-pus unrest, the United Student Front. I got put in a leading role again. And I played the role all right. I did everything. Put up barricades, slept around, smoked dope, listened to Deep Purple. The riot squad broke in and we got dragged off to jail. After that, there wasn't much for us to do.
'That was when the girl I was living with talked me into doing underground theater. So I tried out, partly as a joke,
but gradually it got interesting. I was this beginner, and I lucked into a couple decent roles. Pretty soon I realized I had a talent for that kind of thing. I'd have this role and I could actually make it work. After a couple years, people started to know who I was. Even if I was a real mess in those days. I drank a lot, slept around all the time. But that's how every-one was.
'One day a guy from the movies came around and asked if I'd ever considered acting on-screen. Of course I was inter-ested, so I tried out and I landed a bit part. It wasn't a bad part-I was this sensitive young man-and that led to some-thing else. There was even talk of TV. Things got busy, and I had to quit the theater group. I was sorry to leave but, you know how it is, you think, there's a big, wide world out there, gotta move on. And, well, you know the rest. I'm a doctor and a teacher and I hustle antacid lozenges and instant coffee in between. Real big, wide world, eh?'
Gotanda sighed. A charming sigh, but a sigh no less.
'Life straight out of a painting, don't you think?'
'Not such a bad painting, though,' I said.
'You got a point. I haven't had it bad. But when I think back on my life, it's like I didn't make one choice. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and it scares me. Where's the first-person 'I'? Where's the beef? My whole life is playing one role after another. Who's been playing the lead in my life?'
I didn't say anything.
'I guess I'm running off at the mouth.'
'Doesn't bother me,' I told him. 'If you want to talk, you ought to talk. I won't spread it around.'
'I'm not worried about that,' said Gotanda, looking me in the eye. 'Not worried in the least. There's something about you-I don't know what it is-somehow I know I can trust you. I trust you from the word go. But it's hard to be open with people. I could talk-well, maybe I could-to my ex-wife. For a while there, until everyone around us screwed up the works, we really understood and loved each other. If
it was just the two of us, things might have worked out. But she was too insecure. She needed her family too much, couldn't get out from under them. So that's when I ... No, I'm getting ahead of myself. That's a whole other story. What I want to know is, is all this talk a drag?'
Nope, I said, not a drag at all.
After that he talked about our science lab unit. How he was always uptight, having to see to it that the experiment came out right, having to explain things to the slow girl. How, again, he envied my puttering along at my own pace. I, however, could scarcely recall what we'd done in science class. So I was at a total loss what there'd been to envy. All I remember was that Gotanda was good with his hands. Set-ting up the microscope, things like that. Meanwhile, I could relax precisely because he tended to all the hard tasks.
I didn't say that to him. I just listened.
At some point, a well-appointed man in his forties came up to our table and tapped Gotanda on the shoulder. They exchanged greetings and talked show business. The fellow glanced at me, pegged me immediately as a nobody, and continued his conversation. I was invisible.
When the fellow left, after a promise of lunch and golf, Gotanda fretted one eyebrow a few millimeters, raised two fingers to gesture for a waiter, and asked for the check. Which he signed, with no ceremony whatsoever.
'It's all expenses,' he said. 'It's not money, it's expenses.'
Then we rode in the Mercedes to a bar down a back street in Azabu. We took seats at one end of the coun-ter and had a few more drinks. Gotanda could hold his liquor; he didn't show the least sign of inebriation, not in his color or his speech. He went on talking. About the inanity of the TV stations. About the lamebrained directors. About the no-talents who made you want to throw up. About the so-called critics on news shows. He was a good storyteller. He was funny, and he was incisive.
He wanted to hear about me. What sorts of turns my life had taken. So I proceeded to relate snippets of the saga. The office I set up with a friend and then quit, the personal life, the free-lance life, the money, the time, . . . Taken in gloss, an altogether sedate, almost still life. It hardly seemed to be my own story.
The bar began to fill up, making conversation difficult. People were ogling Gotanda's famous face. 'Let's get out of here. Come over to my place,' he said, rising to his feet. 'It's close by. And empty. And there's drink.'
His condo proved to be a mere two or three turns of the Mercedes away. He gave the driver the rest of the night off, and we went in. Impressive, with two elevators, one requir-ing a special key.
'The agency bought me this place when I got thrown out
of my house,' he said. 'They couldn't have their star actor broke and living in a dump. Bad for the image. Of course, I pay rent. On a formal level, I lease the place from the office. And the rent gets deducted from expenses. Perfect symmetry.'
It was a penthouse condo, with a spacious living room and two bedrooms and a veranda with a view of Tokyo Tower. Several Persian rugs on the hardwood floor. Ample sofa, not too hard, not too soft. Large potted plants, post-modern Italian lighting. Very little in the way of decorator frills. Only a few Ming dynasty plates on the sideboard, GQ and architectural journals on the coffee table. And not a speck of dust. Obviously he had a maid too.
'Nice place,' I said with understatement.
'You leave things to an interior designer and it ends up looking like this. Something you want to photograph, not live in. I have to knock on the walls to make sure they're not props. Antiseptic, no scent of life.'
'Well, you've got to spread your scent around.'
'The problem is, I haven't got one,' he voiced expressionlessly.
He put a record on a Bang & Olufsen turntable and low-ered the cartridge. The speakers were old-favorite JBL P88s, the music an old Bob Cooper LP. 'What'll you have?' he asked.
'Whatever you're drinking,' I said.
He disappeared into the kitchen and returned with vodka and soda and ice and sliced lemons. As the cool, clean West Coast jazz filtered through this glorified bachelor pad, I couldn't help thinking, antiseptic or not, the place was com-fortable. I sprawled on the sofa, drink in hand, and felt utterly relaxed.
'So out of all the possibilities, here I am,' Gotanda addressed the ceiling light, drink in hand also. 'I could have been a doctor. In college I got my teaching credentials. But this is how I end up, with this lifestyle. Funny. The cards were laid out in front of me, I could have picked any one. I could've done all right whatever I chose. Not a doubt in my
mind. All the more reason not to make a choice.'
'I never even got to see the cards,' I said in all honesty. Which elicited a laugh from Gotanda. He probably thought I was joking.
He refilled our glasses, squeezed a lemon, and tossed the rind into the trash. 'Even my marriage was by default, almost. We were in the same film and went on location together. We got friendly and went on drives. Then after the filming was over, we dated a couple of times. Everyone thought what a nice couple we made, so we thought, yeah, what a nice couple we make, let's get married. Now I don't know if you realize it, but the film industry's a small world. It's like living in a tenement at one end of a back alley. Not only do you see everybody's dirty laundry, but once rumors start, you can't stop 'em. All the same, I did like her, truly. She was the best thing I ever laid hands on. That really came home to me after we got married. I tried to make it last, but it was no go. The second I make a conscious choice, I chase the thing away. But if I'm on the receiving end, if it's not me that's making the decision, it seems like I can't lose.'
I didn't say anything.
'I'm not looking on the dark side,' he said. 'I still love her. Maybe that's the problem. I still think of her. How it might have been if we both had given up acting and settled down to a quiet life. Wouldn't need a condo that looked like this. Wouldn't need a Maserati. None of that. Only a decent job and our own little place. Kids. After work I'd stop some-where for a beer and let off steam. Then home to the wife. A Civic or Subaru on installment. That's the life. That would be everything I needed-if she was there. But it's not going to happen. She wanted something different. And her family -don't get me started on them. Anyway, I guess some things just don't work out. But you know what? I slept with her last month.'
'With your former wife?'
'Yup. Do you think that's normal?'
'I don't think it's abnormal,' I said.
'She came here, I couldn't figure out what for. She rings up, wants to drop by. Of course, I say. So we're drinking, the two of us, just like old times, and we end up in bed together. It was great. She told me she still liked me and I told her how I wished we could start all over again. But she didn't say anything to that. She just listened and smiled. I started going on about having a normal life, a regular home, like I was telling you now. And she listened and smiled, but she wasn't really listening. She didn't hear a word of it. It was like talking to a wall. Futile. She was feeling lonely and wanted to be with someone. I happened to be available. Not a nice thing to say about yourself, but it's true. She's a world apart from somebody like you or me. For her, loneliness is something you have others remove for you. And once it's gone, everything's okay. Doesn't go any further. I can't live that way.'
The record finished. He raised the cartridge and stood thinking in silence for a moment.
'What do you think about calling in some girls?' he asked.
'Fine by me. Whatever you want,' I said.
'You never bought a woman?' he asked.
Never, I told him.
'Never occurred to me,' I said, honestly.
Gotanda shrugged his shoulders. 'Well tonight, I think you should. Play along with me, okay?' he said. 'I'll ask for the girl who came with Kiki. She might know something about her.'
'I leave it up to you,' I said. 'But don't tell me you can write it off as expenses.'
He laughed as he refilled his glass. 'You won't believe it, but I can. There's a whole system. This place has this front as a party service, so they can make out these very legitimate receipts. Sex as 'business gifts and entertainment.' Amazing, huh?'
'Advanced capitalism,' I said.
While waiting for the girls to arrive, Kiki and her fabu-lous ears came to mind. I asked Gotanda if he'd ever seen them.
'Her ears?' he said, puzzled. 'No, I don't think so. Or if I did, I don't remember. What about her ears?'
Oh, nothing, I told him.
It was past twelve when the girls arrived. One was Gotanda's stunningly beautiful companion to Kiki. And really, she was stunning. The sort of woman who'd linger in your memory even if she never spoke a word to you. Not glitter and glamour, but refinement. Under her coat she wore a green cashmere sweater and an ordinary wool skirt. Simple earrings, no other adornment. Very well-bred university girl.
The other woman wore glasses and a soft-colored dress. She wasn't beautiful like her companion. She was more what you would call appealing and fresh. With long legs and slen-der arms, and tan as if she'd spent the last week on the beach in Guam. Her hair was short and neatly pinned up. She wore silver bangles that played on her wrists with her brisk movements, her flesh trim and taut, like a sleek carni-vore.
Memories of high school came to mind. These two dis-tinct types were to be found in any class. The elegant beauty and the quick-witted mink. It was like being at a reunion. Especially with Gotanda there, so relaxed and effervescent. He seemed to have slept with both of them before, so it was all, 'Hey there, how's it going?' Gotanda introduced me as a former schoolmate, now a writer. Both smiled warmly, fine-we're-all-friends-here smiles.
We sat on the floor with brandy-and-sodas, Joe Jackson and the Alan Parsons Project playing in the background. Gotanda put on his dentist act for the girl with the glasses. Then he whispered something to her and she giggled. Then
the Beauty was leaning on my shoulder and holding my hand. Her scent was lovely. She was every man's, every boy's dream. The high school girl you'd always wanted, now come back years later. / always liked you though I didn't know how to tell you at the time. Why didn't you try to reach me? I put my arm around her, and she gently closed her eyes, seeking out my ear with the tip of her nose. She kissed me lightly on the neck, breathing softly. Then I noticed that Gotanda and his girl weren't around. Why didn't I turn the lights down a bit? my coed cooed. I got up and switched off the overhead lights, leaving only a low table lamp on. Bob Dylan was droning it's all over now, baby blue.
'Undress me nice and slow,' she whispered into my ear. So I took off first her sweater, then her skirt, then her blouse and stockings. Out of reflex I almost started to fold her things, but then realized that in this scene there was no need to do that. She in turn undressed me. Armani tie, Levi's, T--shirt.
She stood before me in scanty bra and panties. 'Well, what do you think?' she asked with a smile.
'Super,' I said. She had a beautiful body. Full, brimming with life, clean and sexy.
'How super?' she wanted to know. 'If you tell me better, I'll do you the best ever.'
'It's like old times. Takes me back to high school.' I was being honest.
She squinted curiously, then smiled. 'Unique, I'll say that.'
'Did I say something wrong?'
'Not at all,' she said. Then she came over next to me and did things nobody in my thirty-four years had ever done for me. Delicate, yet daring, things you wouldn't think of so readily. But somebody obviously had. The tension slipped out of my body as I closed my eyes, giving myself over to the flow of sensations. This was utterly different from any sex I'd known before.
'Not bad, huh?' she said, whispering again.
'Not bad,' I agreed.
It put my mind at ease, like the best music, released the pockets of tension from my being, sent my temporal senses into limbo. Instead, there was a quiet intimacy, a blending of time and space, a perfect self-contained form of communica-tion. And to think it was tax deductible! 'Not bad,' I said again. What was Dylan going on about now? 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall.' She snuggled into the crook of my arm. What a world, where you can sleep with gorgeous women while listening to Bob Dylan and then write off the whole works! Unthinkable in the sixties.
It's all just images, I found myself thinking. Pull out the plug and it'll all go away. A 3-D sex scene. Complete with eau de cologne, soft touchie-feelies, hot breath.
I followed the expected course, I came, then we took a shower. We returned to the living room, wrapped in over-sized towels, to listen to Dire Straits and sip some brandy.
She asked me about my work, what kind of things I wrote. I explained briefly and she said, how uninteresting. Well, it depends, I told her. What I did was shovel cultural snow. To which she responded that her work was to shovel sensual snow. I had to laugh. But wouldn't I like to shovel some more snow, right about now? And so we rolled over on the carpet and made love again, this time very simply, very slowly. And she knew just how to please me. Uncanny.
Later, both lying full-length in Gotanda's luxurious tub, I asked her about Kiki.
'Kiki?' she said. 'Now there's a name I haven't heard in a while. You know Kiki?'
She pursed her lips like a child and tried to think. 'She's not anywhere now. She just disappeared, all of a sudden. We were pretty close too. Sometimes we'd go out shopping or drinking together. Then, without warning, she was gone. A month, maybe two months ago. But that's not so unusual. You don't need to hand in a formal resignation in this line of
work. If you want to quit, you quit. You don't have to tell anyone. I'm sorry she left. We were friends, but that's how it goes. We're not girl scouts, after all,' she said, stroking my thighs and cock with her long graceful fingers. 'Have you slept with Kiki?'
'There was a time we lived together. Four years ago.' 'Four years ago?' she said with a smile. 'That's ancient history. Four years ago, I was still in high school.'
'Hmm.' I let it pass. 'You know of any way I could get
to see Kiki?'
'Pretty difficult, I'd say. I honestly don't have any idea where she went. It's like I told you, she just up and left. Prac-tically vanished into a blank wall. Haven't a clue how you'd go about looking for her. So, you still got a thing for her?'
I stretched out in the tub and looked up at the ceiling. Was I still in love with Kiki?
'I don't know. But that's almost beside the point now. I just have to see her. Something's been telling me Kiki wants to see me. I keep dreaming about her.'
'Strange,' she said, looking me in the eye. 'I sometimes dream about Kiki, too.'
'What sort of dreams?'
She didn't reply. She only smiled and said she'd like another drink. She rested against my chest and I threw my arm around her naked shoulder. Gotanda and his girl showed no sign of emerging from the bedroom. Asleep, I
'I know you won't believe me,' she then said, 'but I like being with you like this. I enjoy it, no business, no acting.
It's the truth.'
'I believe you,' I said. 'I'm enjoying myself, too. I feel really relaxed. It's like a class reunion.'
'Unique, again,' she giggled.
'About Kiki,' I pressed on, 'isn't there anyone who'd know? Her real name, her address, that sort of thing?'
She shook her head slowly. 'We almost never talk about those things. Why else would we bother with these names?
She was Kiki. I'm Mei, the other girl's Mami. Everyone's four letters or less. It's our cover. Private life is out-of-bounds. We don't know and we don't ask. Manners, you know. We're all real friendly and we go out together some-times. But it's not really us. We don't actually know each other. Mei, Kiki. These names don't have real lives. We're all image. Signs tacked up in empty air. That's why we respect each other's illusions. Does that make sense?'
'Perfect sense,' I said.
'Some of our customers take pity on us. But we don't do this just for the money. Me, for example, I do it 'cause it's fun. And because the club is strictly for members only, we don't have to worry about crazies, and everyone wants to have fun with us. After all, we're all in this made-up world together.'
'Shoveling snow for the fun of it,' I threw in.
'Right, shoveling snow for fun,' she laughed. Then putting her lips to my chest, 'Sometimes even snowball fights.'
'Mei.' I said her name over again. 'I once knew a girl whose name really was Mei. She worked as a receptionist at the dentist's next to my office. From a farming family up in Hokkaido. Skinny, dark. Everyone called her Mei the Goat Girl.'
'Mei the Goat Girl,' she repeated. 'And your name?'
'Winnie the Pooh,' I said.
'Our own little fairy tale.'
I drew her to me and kissed her. It was a heady kiss, a nostalgic kiss. Then we drank our umpteenth brandy-and-soda, and snuggled together while listening to the Police. Soon Mei had drifted off to sleep, no longer the beautiful dream woman, but only an ordinary, brittle young girl. A class reunion. The clock read four o'clock and everything was still. Mei the Goat Girl and Winnie the Pooh. Images. Deductible fairy tales. What a day! Connections that almost connected but didn't. Follow the string until it snaps. I'd met Gotanda after all these years, even come to like him, really.
Through him I'd met Mei the Goat Girl. We made love. Which was wonderful. Shoveled sensual snow. But none of it led anywhere.
I made some coffee, and at half past six the others woke up. Mei had on a bathrobe. Mami came in wearing a paisley pajama top and Gotanda the bottom. I was in my jeans and T-shirt. We all took seats at the dining table and passed around the toast and marmalade. The fm station was play-ing 'Baroque for You.' A Henry Purcell pastoral.
'Morning at camp,' I said.
Cuck-koo, sang Mei.
At seven-thirty Gotanda called a taxi for the girls. Mei kissed me good-bye. 'If you find Kiki, give her my best,' I said. I handed her my card and asked her to call if she learned anything.
'Hope we can meet again and shovel some more snow,' she winked.
'Shovel snow?' Gotanda asked.
Gotanda and I sat down to another cup of coffee. It was like a commercial. A quiet morning, sun rising, Tokyo Tower gleaming in the distance. Tokyo begins its mornings with Nescafe.
Time for normal people to be starting their day. Not for us though. Like it or not, we two were excluded.
'Find out anything about Kiki?' asked Gotanda.
I shook my head. 'Only that she'd disappeared. Just like you said. No leads, not a clue. Mei didn't even know her real name.'
'I'll ask around the film company,' he said. 'Maybe somebody knows something.'
He pouted slightly and pressed at his temple with the han-dle of his coffee spoon. He sure was good at it.
'But tell me, what do you plan to do if you find her?' he
asked. 'Try to win her back? Or is it just for old times?'
I told him I didn't know. I hadn't thought that far.
Gotanda saw me home in his spotless brown Maserati.
'Mind if I call you again soon?' he said. 'It really was terrific seeing you. Don't know anyone else I can talk to like we did. That is, if it's okay by you.'
'Of course,' I said. And I thanked him again for the steak and drinks and girls and . . .
He gave a quiet shake of his head. Without a word, I understood everything he meant to say.
The next few days passed uneventfully. The phone rang, but the whole time I kept the answering machine on and didn't bother picking up. Nice to know that my services were still in demand, though. I cooked meals, went into Shibuya, and saw Unrequited Love every day. It was spring break, so the theater was always packed with high school students. It was like an animal house. I wanted to burn the place down.
Now that I knew what to look for, I was able to find Kiki's name, in fine type, in the opening credits.
Then after her scene, I'd leave the theater and walk my usual course. From Harajuku to the Jingu Stadium, Aoyama Cemetery, Omotesando, past the Jintan Building, back to Shibuya. Sometimes I'd stop for a coffee along the way. Spring had surely come, bringing its familiar smells. The earth persisted in its measured orbit of the sun. I always find it a cosmic mystery that spring knows when to follow win-ter. And how is it that spring always brings out the same smells? Year after year, however subtle, exactly identical.
The town was plastered with election posters. Ugly and repugnant. Trucks were making the rounds, blaring out speeches by politicians. So loud you couldn't tell what they were saying. Noise.
I walked and I thought about Kiki. And before long I
noticed I'd regained my stride, a lift had come back to my step. My awareness of things around me had sharpened. I was moving forward intently, one step at a time. I had focus, a goal. Which somehow, quite naturally, lightened my step, almost gave me soft-shoe footwork. This was a good sign. Dance. Keep in step, light but steady. Freshen up, maintain the rhythm, keep things going. I had to pay careful attention where this was leading me to next. Had to make sure I stayed in this world.
The last four or five days of March passed in this way. On the surface, there was no progression at all. I'd do the shopping, make meals in the kitchen, see Unrequited, go for long walks. I'd play back the answering machine when I got home-inevitably calls about work. At night, I'd read and drink alone. Every day was a repeat of the day before.
Drinking alone at night, I fixated on sex with Mei the Goat Girl. Shoveling snow. An oddly isolated memory, unconnected to anything. Not to Gotanda, not to Kiki. But ever so real. Down to the smallest details, in some sense even more vivid than waking reality, though ultimately uncon-nected. I liked it that way. A self-bound meeting of souls. Two persons joined together respecting their illusions and images. That fine-we're-all-friends-here smile. Morning at camp. Cuck-koo.
I tried to picture Kiki and Gotanda sleeping together. Did she give him the same ultra-sexy service as Mei gave me? Were all the girls at the club drilled in such professional know-how? Or was Mei strictly her own technician? I had no idea, and I couldn't very well ask Gotanda. All the time Kiki was living with me, she was, if anything, rather passive about sex. Sure, she warmed up and responded, but she never made the first move, never had demands of her own. Not that I ever had any complaints. She was wonderful when she relaxed. Her soft inviting body, quiet easy breath, hot vagina. No, I had no complaints. I just couldn't picture her delivering professional favors to anyone-to Gotanda, for instance. Maybe I lacked the imagination.
How do prostitutes keep their private sex separate from their professional sex? Before Mei, I'd never slept with a call girl. I'd slept with Kiki. And Kiki was a call girl. But I didn't sleep with Kiki the call girl, I slept with Kiki. And conversely I'd slept with Mei the call girl, but not Mei. There probably was nothing to gain from correlating these two circum-stances. That would only make matters more complicated. And anyway, where does sex stop being a thing of the mind? Where does technique begin? How far does the real thing go, how much is acting? Was sufficient foreplay a spiritual con-cern? Did Kiki actually enjoy sex with me? Was she really acting in the movie? Were Gotanda's graceful fingers sliding down her back turning her on?
Caught in the cross hair of the real and the imaginary.
Take Gotanda. His doctor persona was all image. Yet he looked more like a real doctor than any doctor I knew. All the dependability and trust he projected.
What was my image? Did I even have one?
Dance, the Sheep Man said. Dance in tip-top form. Dance so it all keeps spinning.
Did that mean I would then have an image? And if I did, would people be impressed? Well, more than they'd be impressed by my real self, I bet.
When I awoke the following morning, it was April. As delicately rendered as a passage from Truman Capote, fleet-ing, fragile, beautiful. April, made famous by T.S. Eliot and Count Basie.
I went to Kinokuniya for some overpriced groceries and well-trained vegetables. Then I picked up two 6-packs of beer and three bottles of bargain wine.
When I got back home, there was a message from Yuki, her voice totally disinterested. She said she'd call again around twelve. Then she slammed down the receiver. A com-mon phrasing in her body language.
I dripped some coffee, then sat down with a mug and the
latest 87th Precinct adventure, something I've failed to quit for ten years now. Then a little past noon, the phone rang.
'How's it going?' It was Yuki.
'What are you doing?' she asked.
'Thinking about lunch. Smoked salmon with pedigreed lettuce and razor-sharp slices of onion that have been soaked in ice water, brushed with horseradish and mustard, served on French butter rolls baked in the hot ovens of Kinokuniya. A sandwich made in heaven!'
'It sounds okay.'
'It's not okay. It's nothing less than uplifting. And if you don't believe me, you can ask your local bee. You could also ask your friendly clover. They'll tell you-it really is great.'
'What's this bee and clover stuff? What're you talking about?'
'Figure of speech.'
'You know,' said Yuki, 'you ought to try growing up. I'm only thirteen, but even so I sometimes think you're kind of dumb.'
'You mean I should become more conventional? Is that what you're telling me? Is that what growing up means?'
'I want to go for a drive,' she ignored my question. 'How about tonight?'
'I think I'm free,' I said.
'Well, then, be here at five in Akasaka. You remember how to get here, don't you?'
'Yeah, but don't tell me you've been alone all this time?'
'Uh-huh. Nothing's happening in Hakone. I mean, the place is on top of a mountain. Who wants to go there to be alone? More fun in town.'
'What about your mother? She hasn't returned?'
'Not that I know of. I can't keep track of her. I'm not her mother, you know. She hasn't called or anything, so maybe she's still in Kathmandu.'
'What about money?'
'I'm okay for money. I've got a cash card that I pinched
from her purse. One less card, she'll never notice. I mean, if I
don't look out for myself, I'll die. Mama's such a space
cadet, as you know.'
My turn to ignore her. 'You been eating healthy?' 'I'm eating. What did you think? I'd die if I didn't.' 'That's not what I asked. I said, are you eating healthy?' Yuki coughed. 'Let's see. First there was Kentucky Fried
Chicken, then McDonald's, then Dairy Queen, . . . And what
'I'll be there at five,' I said. 'We'll go somewhere decent to eat. You can't survive on the garbage you've been putting down. An adolescent girl needs nourishment. You're at a very delicate time of life, you know. Bad diet, bad periods.' 'You're an idiot,' she muttered.
'Now, if it's not too much to ask, would you give me your phone number?' 'Why?'
'Because one-way communication isn't fair. You know my number, I don't know yours. You call me when you feel like it, I can't call you. It's one-sided. Besides, suppose some-thing came up suddenly, I wouldn't be able to reach you.'
She paused, muttered some more, then gave me her num-ber.
'But don't think you can change plans anytime you feel like it,' said Yuki. 'Mama's so good at it already, you wouldn't stand a chance.'
'I promise. I won't change plans. Cross my heart and hope to die. You can ask the cabbage moth, you can ask the alfalfa. There's not a human alive who keeps promises better than me. But sometimes the unexpected happens. It's a big, complicated world, you know. And if it happens, don't you think it'd be nice if I could get through to you? Got it?' 'Unforeseeable circumstances,' she said. 'Out of the clear blue sky.' 'Nice if they didn't happen,' said Yuki. 'Nice if they didn't,' I echoed. But of course they did.
They showed up a little past three in the afternoon. I was in the shower when the doorbell started ring-ing. By the time I got there, it was on ring number eight. I opened up, and there stood two men.
One in his forties, one in his thirties. The older guy was tall, with a scar on his nose. A little too well-tanned for this time of the year, a deep, tried-and-true bronze of a fisher-man, not the precious color you get from the beach or ski slope. He had stiff hair, obscenely large hands, and a gray overcoat. The younger guy was short with longish hair and narrow, intense eyes. A generation ago he might have been called bookish. The fellow at the literary journal meeting who ran his hands through his hair as he declared, 'Mishima's our man.' He had on a dark blue trench coat. Both guys in regulation black shoes, cheap and worn-out. The sort you wouldn't glance at twice if you saw them lying by the side of the road. Nor were the fellas the type you'd go out of your way to make friends with.
Without a word of introduction, Bookish flashed his police ID. Just like in the movies. I'd never actually seen a police ID before, but one look convinced me it was the real thing. It fit with the worn-out shoes. Something in the way he pulled it out of his pocket, he could have been selling his literary journal door-to-door.
'Akasaka precinct,' Bookish announced, and asked if I was who I was.
Fisherman stood by silently, both hands in the pockets of his overcoat, nonchalantly propping the door open with his foot. Just like in the movies. Great!
Bookish filed away his ID, then gave me the once-over. Me in bathrobe and wet hair.
'We need you to come down to headquarters for ques-tioning,' said Bookish.
'Questioning? About what?'
'Everything in due time,' he said. 'We have formal pro-cedures to follow for this sort of thing, so why don't we get going right away.'
'Huh? Okay, but mind if I get into some clothes?'
'Certainly,' said Bookish flatly, without the slightest change of expression. If Gotanda played a cop, he'd do a better job. That's reality for you.
The fellas waited in the doorway while I got some clothes on and turned off switches. Then I stepped into my blue top-siders, which the two cops stared at as if they were the trendiest thing on the market.
A patrol car was parked near the entrance to my building, a uniformed cop behind the wheel. Fisherman got into the backseat, then me, then Bookish. Again, like in the movies. Bookish pulled the door shut and the car took off.
The streets were congested, but did they turn on the siren? No, they made like we were going for a ride in a taxi. Sans meter. We spent more time stopped in traffic than mov-ing, which gave everybody in all the cars and on the street plenty of opportunity to stare at me. No one uttered a word. Fisherman looked straight ahead, arms folded. Bookish looked out the window, grimacing like he was laboring over a literary exercise. The school of dark-and-stormy meta-phors. Spring as concept raged in upon us, a somber tide of longing. Its advent roused the passions of those nameless multitudes fallen between the cracks of the city, sweeping
them noiselessly toward the quicksands of futility.
I wanted to erase the whole passage from my head. What the hell was 'spring as concept'? Just where were these 'quicksands of futility'? I was sorry I started the whole dumb train of thought.
Shibuya was full of mindless junior high students dressed like clowns, same as ever. No passions, no quicksand.
At police headquarters, I was taken to an interrogation room upstairs. Barely three meters square with one tiny win-dow. Table, two steel office chairs, two vinyl-covered stools, clock on the wall. That was it. On the table, a telephone, a pen, ashtray, stack of folders. No vase with flowers. The gumshoes entered the room and offered me one of the steel office chairs. Fisherman sat down opposite me, Bookish stood off to the side, notepad open. Lots of silent communi-cation.
'So what'd you do last night?' Fisherman finally got going after a lengthy wait. Those were the first words I'd heard out of his mouth.
Last night? What was I doing? I could hardly think last night was any different from any other night. Sad but true. I told them I'd have to think about it.
'Listen,' Fisherman said, coughing, 'legal rigmarole takes a long time to spit out. We're asking you a simple question: From last evening until this morning what did you do? Not so hard, is it? No harm in answering, is there?'
'I told you, I have to think about it,' I said.
'You can't remember without thinking? This was yester-day. We're not asking about last August, which maybe you don't remember either,' Fisherman sneered.
Like I told you before, I was about to say, then I reconsid-ered. I doubted they would understand a temporary memory loss. They'd probably think I had some screws loose.
'We'll wait,' said Fisherman. 'Take all the time you need.' He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket and lit up with a Bic. 'Smoke?'
'No thanks,'š I said.š According to Brutus magazine,
today's new urbanite doesn't smoke. Apparently these two guys didn't know about this, Fisherman with his Seven Stars, Bookish with his plain Hopes, chain-smoking.
'We'll give you five minutes,' said Bookish, very dead-pan. 'After that you will tell us something simple, such as, where you were last night and what you were doing there.'
'Don't rush the guy. He's an intellectual,' Fisherman said to Bookish. 'According to his file here, this isn't his first time talking to the law. University activist, obstruction of public offices. We have his prints. Files sent to the prosecu-tor's office. He's used to our gentle questioning. Steel-rein-forced will, it says here. He doesn't seem to like the police very well. You know, I bet he knows all about his rights, as provided for in the constitution. You think he'll be calling for his lawyer next?'
'But he came downtown with us of his own volition and we merely asked him a simple question,' Bookish said to Fisherman. 'I haven't heard any talk of arrest, have you? I don't think there's any reason for him to call his lawyer, do you? Wouldn't make sense.'
'Well, if you ask me, I think it's more than an open-and-shut case of hating cops. The gentleman has a negative psy-chological reaction to anything that resembles authority. He'd rather suffer than cooperate,' Fisherman went on.
'But if he doesn't answer our questions, what can we do but wait until he answers? As soon as he answers, he can go home. No lawyer's going to come running down here just because we asked him what he was doing last night. Lawyers are busy people. An intellectual understands that.'
'Well, I suppose,' said Fisherman. 'If the gentleman can grasp that principle, then we can save each other a lot of time. We're busy, he's busy. No point in wasting valuable time when we could be thinking deep thoughts. It gets tire-some. We don't want to wear ourselves out unnecessarily.'
The duo kept up their comic routine for the allotted five minutes.
'Well, it looks like time's up,' Fisherman smiled. 'How
about it? Did you remember anything?'
I hadn't. True, I hadn't been trying very hard. Current sit-uation aside, the fact was, I couldn't remember a thing. The block wouldn't budge. 'First of all, I'd like to know what's going on,' I spoke up. 'Unless you tell me what's going on, I'm not saying a thing. I don't want to say anything that may prove inopportune. Besides, it's common courtesy to explain the circumstances before asking questions. It's a breach of good manners.'
'He doesn't want to say anything that may prove inop-portune,' Bookish mocked me. 'Where is our common courtesy? We don't want to have a-what did he call it?- breach of good manners.'
'I told you the gentleman was an intellectual,' said Fish-erman. 'He looks at everything slanted. He hates cops. He subscribes to Asahi Shimbun and reads Sekai.'
'I do not subscribe to newspapers and I do not read Sekai,' I broke in. Had to put my foot down somewhere. 'And as long as you don't tell me why I'm here, I'm not going to feel a lot like talking. If you want to keep insulting me, go ahead. I've got as much time to sit around shooting the breeze as you guys do.'
The two detectives looked at each other.
Fisherman: 'Are you telling us that if we're polite and explain these circumstances to you, you'll cooperate and give us some answers?'
Bookish, folding his arms and glancing high up the wall: 'The guy's got a sense of humor.'
Fisherman rubbed the horizontal scar on his nose. Proba-bly a knife gash, and fairly deep, judging from how it tugged at the surrounding flesh. 'Listen,' he got serious. 'We're busy, and this isn't a game. We all want to finish up and go home in time to eat dinner with the family. We don't have anything against you, and we got no axes to grind. So if you'll just tell us what you did last night, there'll be no more demands. If you got a clear conscience, what's the grief in
telling us? Or is it you got guilty feelings about something?'
I stared at the ashtray.
Bookish snapped his notepad shut and slipped it into his pocket. For thirty seconds, no one said a word. During which time, Fisherman lit up another Seven Stars.
'Steel-reinforced will,' said Fisherman.
'Want to call the Committee on Human Rights?' asked Bookish.
'Please,' Fisherman and his partner were at it again, 'this is not a human rights issue. This is the duty of the citi-zen. It's written, right here in your favorite Statutes of Law, that citizens are obliged to cooperate to the fullest extent with police investigations. So what do you have against us officers of the law? We're good enough to ask for directions when you're lost, we're good enough to call if a robber breaks into your home, but we're not good enough to coop-erate with just a little bit. So let's try this again. Where were you last night and what were you doing?'
'I want to know what's going on,' I repeated.
Bookish blew his nose with a loud honk. Fisherman took a plastic ruler out of the desk drawer and whacked it against the palm of his hand.
'Listen, guy,' pronounced Bookish, tossing a soiled tissue into the trash, 'you do realize that your position is becom-ing worse and worse?'
'This is not the sixties, you know. You can't keep carry-ing on with this antiestablishment bullshit,' said Fisherman, disgruntled. 'Those days are over. You and me, we're hemmed in up to here in society. There's no such thing as establishment and antiestablishment anymore. That's passe. It's all the same big-time. The system's got everything sewed up. If you don't like it, you can sit tight and wait for an earthquake. You can go dig a hole. But getting sassy with us won't get you or us anywhere. It's a dead grind. You under-stand?'
'Okay, we're beat. And maybe we've not shown you proper respect. If that's the case, I'm sorry. I apologize.'
Bookish's turn again, notepad open again. 'We've been working on another job and hardly even slept since yester-day. I haven't seen my kids in five days. And although you have no respect for me, I'm a public servant. I try to keep society safe. So when you refuse to answer a simple ques-tion, you can bet it rubs us the wrong way. And when I say things are looking worse for you, it's because the more tired we get, the worse our temper gets. An easy job ends up being not so easy after all. Of course you got rights, the law's on your side, but sometimes the law takes a long time to kick in and so it gets put in the hands of us poor suckers on duty. You get my drift?'
'Don't misunderstand, we're not threatening you,' Fish-erman interjected. 'He was just giving you a friendly warn-ing. He doesn't want anything bad to happen to you.'
I kept my mouth shut and looked at the ashtray. A plain old dirty glass ashtray without markings. How many decades had it sat here on this desk?
Fisherman kept slapping his hands with the ruler. 'Very well,' he gave in. 'I'll explain the circumstances. It's not the procedure we follow when asking questions, but since we want your respect, we'll try things your way.'
He picked up a folder, removed an envelope and pro-duced three large photographs. Black-and-white site photos, without much in the way of artistry. That much was clear at a glance. The first photo showed a naked woman lying face-down on a bed. Long legs, tight ass, hair fanned out from the neck up. Her thighs were parted just enough to reveal what was between them. Her arms flung out to the sides. She could have been sleeping.
The second photo was more graphic. She was turned over, her pubic area, breasts, face exposed. Her legs and arms arranged stiffly at attention. Her eyes open wide, glassy, her mouth contorted out of shape. The woman was not sleeping. The woman was dead.
The woman was Mei.
The third photo was a close-up of Mei's face. Mei. No
longer beautiful. Cold, ice cold. Chafe marks around her
My mouth went dry, I couldn't swallow. My palms itched.
Mei. So full of life and sex. Now cold, dead.
I stopped myself from shaking my head, from showing any reaction. I knew the two guys were watching my every move. I restacked the three photos and casually handed them back to Fisherman. I tried to look unaffected. 'Do you know this woman?' asked Fisherman. 'No.' I could've said yes, of course, but then I would've had to tell them about Gotanda, who was my link to Mei, and his life would be ruined if this got out to the media. True, he might have been the one who coughed up my name. But I didn't know that. I'd have to risk it. They weren't about to bring up Gotanda's name.
'Take another look,' Fisherman said slowly. 'This is extremely important, so do look again carefully before you answer. Have you ever seen this woman before? Don't bother lying to us. We're not babes in the woods. We catch you lying, you'll really be in trouble. Understand?'
I took a lengthy look at the three photographs. I didn't want to look at all, but that would have given me away. 'I don't know her,' I said. 'But she's dead, right?' 'Dead,'šš Bookishšš repeatedšš afteršš me.šš 'Veryšš dead. Extremely dead. Completely dead. As you can see for your-self. This fox is naked and dead. Once a very fine specimen, but now that she's dead it cuts no ice. She's dead, like all dead people. You let her decay, her skin starts to crack and shrivel, the rot oozes out. And the stink! And the bugs. Ever see that?' Never, I said.
'Well, we've seen it plenty. It gets to where you can't even tell that it was a woman. It's dead meat. Rotten steak. And once the smell gets in your nose, you don't think of food, let me tell you. It's a smell you never forget. True, if you let things go for a long, long, long time, then all you got are bones. No smell. Everything's all dried up. White, beautiful,
clean bones. Needless to say, this lady didn't make it that far. And she wasn't rotting either. Just dead. Just stiff. You could tell she had to be some piece when she was warm. But seeing her like this, I didn't even twitch.
'Somebody killed this woman. She had the right to live. She was barely twenty. Somebody strangled her with a stock-ing. Not a very quick way to go. It's painful and it takes time. You know you're going to die. You're thinking why do I have to die like this? You want to go on living. But you can feel the oxygen drying up. Your head goes foggy. You piss. You lose the feeling in your legs. You die slow. Not a nice way to die. We'd like to catch the son of a bitch who killed this gorgeous young thing. And I think you're going to help us.
'Yesterday at noon, the lady reserved a double room in a luxury hotel in Akasaka. At five P.M., she checked in, alone,' Fisherman recounted the facts. 'She told the desk her hus-band would show up later. Phony name, phony telephone number. At six p.m., she called room service for dinner for one. She was alone at the time. At seven p.m., the empty tray was put out in the hall. The do not disturb sign was hang-ing on the door. Checkout time was twelve noon. When the lady didn't check out, the front desk called her room at twelve-thirty. No answer. The do not disturb sign was still on the door. There was no response. When hotel security unlocked the door, the lady was naked and dead, exactly as you see in this first photograph. No one saw the lady's 'hus-band.' The hotel has a restaurant on the top floor, so there's a lot of people going in and out. Very popular place to rendezvous.'
'There was no identification in her handbag,' said Book-ish. 'No driver's license, address book, credit cards, no bank card. No initials on her clothing. Besides cosmetics, birth-control pills, and thirty thousand yen, the only item in her possession, tucked, almost hidden, in her wallet, was a busi-ness card. Your business card.'
'You're going to say you really don't know her?' Fisher-man tried again.
I shook my head. I wanted to give these guys all the coop-eration I could. I really did. I wanted to see her killer caught as much as anyone. But I had the living to think about.
'Well, then, now that you know the circumstances, why don't you tell us where you were last night and what you were doing,' Bookish drummed on.
My memory came rushing back. 'At six o'clock I ate sup-per at home by myself, then I read and had a couple of drinks, then before midnight I went to bed.'
'Did you see anyone?' asked Fisherman.
'I didn't see anyone. I was alone the entire time.'
'Any phone calls to anyone? Anyone call you?'
I told them I didn't take any calls. 'A little before nine, one came in on the machine. When I played it back, it was Work-related.'
'Why keep the answering machine on, if you're at home?'
'I'm on a break. I don't want to have to talk business.'
They asked for the name of the caller, and I told them.
'So you ate dinner alone, and you read all evening?'
'After washing the dishes, yes.'
'What was the book?'
'You may not believe it, but it was Kafka. The Trial.'
Kafka. The Trial. Bookish made note.
'Then, you read until twelve,' Fisherman kept going. 'And drank.'
'First beer was around sundown. Later brandy.'
'How much did you drink?'
'Two cans of beer, and then I guess a quarter of a bottle of brandy. Oh, and I also ate some canned peaches.'
Fisherman took everything down. Also ate canned peaches. 'Anything else?'
I tried, but it really had been a night without qualities. I'd quietly read my book, while somewhere off in the still of the night Mei was strangled with a stocking. I told them there was nothing else.
'I'd advise you to try harder,' said Bookish with a cough.
'You realize what a vulnerable position you're in, don't you?'
'Listen, I didn't do anything, so how can I be in a vulner-able position? I work free-lance, so I hand my business card out all over the place. I don't know how this girl got ahold of my card. Just because she had it on her doesn't mean I killed her.'
'People don't carry around business cards that don't mean anything to them in the safest corner of their wallets,' Fisher-man said. 'We have two hypotheses. One, the lady arranged to meet one of your business associates in the hotel and that person killed her. Then the guy dumped something into her bag to throw us off the track. Except the card, that single card, was wedged too deep in her wallet for that. Hypothesis number two, the lady was a professional lady of the night. A prostitute. A high-class prostitute. The kind that fulfills her duties at luxury hotels. The kind that doesn't carry any iden-tification on her person. But for some reason the john kills her. He doesn't take any money, so it's possible he's a psycho, a nut case. Those are our angles. What do you think?'
I cocked my head to the side and kept silent.
'Your business card is the central piece of evidence in this case,' said Fisherman leadingly, rapping his pen on the desk.
'A business card is just a piece of paper with a name printed on it,' I said. 'It's not evidence. It doesn't prove any-thing.'
'Not yet it doesn't.' He kept rapping on the desk. 'The Criminal ID boys are going over the room for traces. There's an autopsy going on right now. By tomorrow we'll know a lot more. So you know what? You're going to wait with us. Meanwhile, be a good idea if you start remembering more details. It might take all night. Take your time, you'll be sur-prised at what you can remember. Why don't we start from the beginning? What did you do when you woke up in the morning?'
I looked at the clock on the wall. Ten past five. I suddenly remembered my date with Yuki.
'I need to call somebody first, okay?' I said to Fisherman. 'I was supposed to meet someone at five. It was important.'
'A girl?' questioned Fisherman.
He held out the phone to me.
'You're going to tell me that something came up and you can't come,' Yuki said immediately, beating me to the punch.
'Something unforeseen. Really,' I explained. 'I'm sorry, it's not my fault. I've been hauled down to the Akasaka police station for questioning. It'll take too long to tell you about it now, but it looks like they're going to hold onto me for a while.'
'Police? What'd you do?'
'I didn't do anything. There was a murder, and the cops wanted to talk to me. That's all.'
'What a drag,' Yuki remarked, unmoved.
'You didn't kill anyone, did you?'
'Of course I didn't kill anyone. I'm a bungler, not a mur-derer. They're just asking about, you know, circumstances. But I'm sorry I'm going to let you down. I'll make it up to you.'
'What a drag,' said Yuki, then slammed down the receiver in her inimitable fashion.
I passed the phone back to Fisherman. They had been straining to listen in, but didn't seem to come away with much. If they knew it was a thirteen-year-old girl, you can be sure their opinion of me wouldn't have shot up.
They had me go over the fine points of my movements all day yesterday. They wrote everything I said down. Where I'd gone, what I ate. I gave them the full rundown on the konnyaku yam stew I'd eaten for dinner. I explained how I shaved the bonito flakes. They didn't think I was being
humorous at all. They just wrote everything down. The pages were mounting fast.
At half past six they sent out for food-salty, greasy, tasteless, terrible-which we all ate with relish. Then we had some lukewarm tea, while they smoked. Then we got back to questions and answers.
At what time had I changed into pajamas? From what page to what page of The Trial had I read? I tried to tell them what the story was about, but they didn't show much interest.
At eight o'clock I had to take a leak. Which they let me do alone, happily. I breathed deeply. Not the ideal place to breathe deeply, but at least I could breathe. Poor Mei.
When I got back, Bookish wanted to know about my soli-tary telephone caller that evening. Who was he? What did he want? What was my relationship with him? Why didn't I call him back? Why was I taking a break from work? Didn't I need to work for a living? Did I declare my taxes?
My question, which I didn't ask, was: Did they actually think all this was helpful? Maybe they had read Kafka. Were they trying to wear me down so that I'd let the truth escape? Well, they'd succeeded. I was so exhausted, so depressed, I was answering everything they asked with a straight face. I was under the mistaken impression that I'd get out of here quicker that way.
By eleven, they hadn't stopped. And they showed no sign of stopping. They'd been able to take turns, leave the room and take a nap while the other kept at me. I hadn't had that luxury. Instead, they offered me coffee. Instant coffee, with sugar and white powder mixed in.
At eleven-thirty I made my declaration: I was tired and wasn't going to answer any more questions.
'Aww, c'mon, pul-eeze,' Bookish said lamely, drumming his fingers on the table. 'Listen, we're going as fast as we can, but this investigation is very important. We have a dead lady on our hands, so I'm afraid you're going to have to stick it out.'
'I find it hard to believe these questions have any impor-tance at all,' I said.
'Petty details serve their purpose. You'd be surprised how many cases are solved by petty details. What looks like petty isn't always petty, especially when it comes to homicide. Murder isn't petty. Sorry, but why don't you just hang around a while. To be perfectly frank, if we felt like it, we could designate you a prime witness and you'd be stuck here as long as we liked. But that would take a lot of paperwork. Bogs everything down. That's why we're being nice, asking you to go through this with us nice and easy. If you cooper-ate, we won't have to get rough.'
'If you're sleepy, there's a bunk downstairs,' Fisherman said. 'Catch a few hours of shut-eye, you might remember something.'
Okay, a few hours sleep would be nice. Anywhere was better than this smoke-filled hole.
Fisherman walked me down a dark corridor, down an even darker stairwell, to another corridor. This was not bod-ing well. Indeed, the bunk room was a holding tank.
'Nice place, but can I get something with a better view?'
'All due apologies. It's our only model,' said Fisherman without expression.
'No way. I'm going home. I'll be back tomorrow.'
'Don't worry, we're not locking you in,' said Fisherman. 'A cell is just a room if you don't lock the door.'
I was too tired to argue. I gave up. I stumbled in and fell onto the hard cot. Damp mattress, cheap blanket, smell of piss. Love it.
'It won't be locked,' Fisherman repeated as he shut the door with a cold, solid thunk.
I sighed and pulled the blanket over me. Someone some-where was snoring loudly. It seemed to come from far off, but it could've been in the next cell. Very disturbing.
But Mei, Mei! You were on my mind last night. I don't know if you were alive at the time, but you were on my mind. I was slowly taking off your clothes, and then we were
making love. It was our little class reunion. I was so relaxed, I thought someone had loosened the main screw of this world. But now, Mei, there's nothing I can do for you. Not a damned thing. I'm sorry. We lead such tenuous lives. I don't want Gotanda to get caught up in a scandal. I don't want to ruin his image. He wouldn't get work after that. Trashy work in a trashy world of trashy images. But he trusted me, as a friend. So it's a matter of honor. But Mei, my little Goat Girl Mei, we did have a good time together. It was so won-derful. Like a fairy tale. It's no comfort to you, Mei, but I'll never forget you. Shoveling snow until dawn. Holding you tight in that world of images, making love on deductible expenses. Winnie the Pooh and Mei the Goat Girl. Stran-gling is a horrible way to die. And you didn't want to die, I know. But there's nothing I can do for you now. I don't know what's right or wrong. I'm doing all I can. This is how I live. It's the system. I bite my lip and do what I got to. Good night, Mei, my little Goat Girl. At least you'll never have to wake again. Never have to die again.
Good night, I voiced the words.
Good night, echoed my mind.
Cuck-koo, sang Mei.
The next day wasn't much different than the previous. In the morning the three of us reassembled in the interrogation room over a silent breakfast of coffee and bread. Then Bookish loaned me an electric razor, which was not exactly sharp. Since I hadn't planned ahead and brought my toothbrush, I gargled as best I could.
Then the questioning started. Stupid, petty legal torture. This went on at a snail's pace until noon.
'Well, I guess that about does it,' said Fisherman, lay-ing his pen down on the desk.
As if by prior agreement, the two detectives sighed simultaneously. So I sighed too. They were obviously stall-ing for time, but obviously they couldn't keep me here for-ever. One business card in a dead woman's wallet does not constitute sufficient cause for detention. Even if I didn't have an alibi. They'd have to strap me down-at least until the fingerprinting and autopsy yielded a more plausible suspect.
'Well,' said Fisherman, pounding the small of his back as he stretched. 'About time for lunch.'
'As you seem to have finished your questions, I'll be going home,' I told them.
'I'm afraid that's not possible,' Fisherman said with fake hesitation.
'And why not?' I asked.
'We need to have you sign the statement you've made.'
'I'll sign, I'll sign.'
'But first, read over the document to verify that the con-tents are accurate. Word by word. It's extremely important you know what you're signing your name to.'
So I read those forty-odd sheets of official police tran-scriptions. Two hundred years from now, I couldn't help but think, they might be of some value in reconstructing our era. Pathologically detailed, faultlessly accurate. A real boon to research. The daily habits of an average, thirty-four-year-old, single male. A child of his times. The whole exercise of read-ing it through in this police interrogation room was depress-ing. But read it I did, from beginning to end. Now I could go home. I straightened the stack of papers and said that every-thing looked in order.
Playing with his pen, Fisherman glanced over at Bookish. Bookish pulled a single cigarette from his box of Hope Reg-ulars on top of the radiator, lit up and grimaced into the smoke. I had an awful feeling.
'It's not that simple,' Bookish spoke in that slow profes-sional tone reserved for elucidating matters to the unordained. 'You see, the statement's got to be in your own hand.'
'In my own band?'
'Yes, you have to copy everything over. In your own handwriting. Otherwise, it's not legally valid.'
I looked at the stack of pages. I didn't have the strength to be angry. I wanted to be angry, I wanted to fly into a rage, I wanted to pound on the desk and scream, You jerks have no right to do this! I wanted to stand up and walk out of there. And strictly speaking, I knew they had no right to stop me. Yes, but I was too tired. Too tired to say a word, too tired to protest. If I wasn't going to protest, I'd be better off doing what I was told. Faster and easier. I'm wimping out, I
confessed to myself. I'm worn out and I'm wimping out. Used to be, they'd have to tie me down. But then again, their junk food and cigarette smoke and razor that chewed up my face wouldn't have gotten to me either. I was getting weak in my old age.
'No way,' I surprised myself by saying. 'I'm going home. I have the right to go home. You can't stop me.'
Bookish sputtered something indecipherable. Fisherman stared up at the ceiling and rapped his pen on the desk. Tap-tap-tap, tap, tap-tap, tap-tap, tap.
'You're making things difficult,' said Fisherman suc-cinctly. 'But very well. If that's the way it's going to be, we'll get a summons. And we'll forcibly hold you here for investi-gation. Next time won't be such a picnic. We don't mind that, you know. It'll be easier for us to do our job that way too. Isn't that right?' he tossed the question over to Bookish.
'Yes sir, that's going to be even easier in the long run. That's what we should've done earlier. Let's get a sum-mons,' he declared.
'As you like,' I said. 'But I'm free until the summons is issued. If and when the summons comes through, you know where to find me. Otherwise, I don't care. I'm outta here.'
'We can place a temporary hold on your person until the summons is issued.'
I almost asked them to show me where it said that in Statutes of Law, but now I really didn't have the energy. I knew they were bluffing, but it didn't matter.
'I give up. I'll write out my statement. But I need to make a phone call first.'
Fisherman passed me the telephone. I dialed Yuki's number.
'I'm still at the police station,' I said. 'It looks like this'll take all night. So I guess I won't make it over today either. Sorry.'
'You're still in the clink?'
'A real drag.' This time I beat her to the punch.
'That's not fair,' she came back. There's a lot of descrip-tive terms out there.
'What have you been doing?'
'Nothing special,' she said. 'Just lying around, listening to music, reading magazines, eating cake. You know.'
The two detectives tried to listen in again.
'I'll call you as soon as I get out of here.'
'If you get out of there,' said Yuki flatly.
'Well, okay then, lunchtime,' announced Fisherman, soon as I hung up.
Lunch was soba, cold buckwheat noodles. Overcooked and falling apart. Hospital food, practically a liquid diet. An aura of incurable illness hovered over it. Still, the two of them wolfed the stuff down, and I followed suit. To wash down the starch, Bookish brought in more of his famous lukewarm tea.
The afternoon passed as slowly as a silted-up river. The ticking of the clock was the only sound in the room. A tele-phone rang in the next room. I did nothing but write and write and write and write. Meanwhile the two detectives took turns resting. Sometimes they'd go out into the corridor and whisper.
I kept the pen moving. At six-fifteen I decided to make dinner, first taking the yam cake out of the refrigerator . . .
By evening I'd copied twenty pages. Wielding a pen for hours on end is hard work. Definitely not recommended. Your wrist starts to go limp, you get scribe's elbow. The mid-dle finger of your hand begins to throb. Drift off in your thoughts for a second and you get the word wrong. Then you have to draw a line through it and thumbprint your mis-take. It could drive a person batty. It was driving me batty.
For dinner, we had generic take-out food again. I hardly ate. The tea was still sloshing around in my gut. I felt woozy, lost the sense of who I was. I went to the toilet and looked in the mirror. I could barely recognize myself.
'Any findings yet?' I asked Fisherman. 'Fingerprints or traces or autopsy results?'
'Not yet,' he said. 'These things take time.'
I kept at it until ten. I had five more pages to go, but I'd reached my limit. I couldn't write another word and I told them so. Fisherman conducted me to the tank and I dozed right off.
In the morning, it was the same electric razor, coffee, and bread. The five pages took two hours. Then I signed and thumbprinted each sheet. Then Bookish checked the whole lot.
'Am I free to go now?' I asked hopefully.
'If you answer a few more questions, yes, you can go,' said Bookish.
I heaved a sigh. 'Then you're going to have me do more paperwork, right?'
'Of course,' answered Bookish. 'This is officialdom. Paperwork is everything. Without the paper and your prints, it doesn't exist.'
I pressed my fingers into my temples. It felt as if some loose object were lodged inside. As if something had found its way into my head and ballooned up to where it was impossible to remove.
'This won't take too long. Be over before you know it.'
More mindless answers to more mindless questions. Then Fisherman called Bookish out into the corridor. The two stood whispering for I don't know how long. I leaned back in my chair and studied the patterns of mildew on the ceil-ing. The blackened patches could have been photographs of pubic hair on dead bodies. Spreading down along the cracks in the wall like a connect-the-dots picture. Mildew, cultured in the body odor of the poor fools ground down in this room the last several decades. From a systematic effort to undermine a person's beliefs, dignity, and sense of right and wrong. From psychological coercion that fed on human inse-curity and left no visible scars. Where far removed from sun-light and stuffed with bad food, you sweat uncontrollably. Mildew.
I placed both hands on the desk and closed my eyes,
thinking of the snow falling in Sapporo. The Dolphin Hotel and my receptionist friend with glasses. How was she getting along? Standing behind the counter, flashing that profes-sional smile of hers? I wanted to call her up this very second. Tell her some stupid joke. But I didn't even know her name. I didn't even know her name.
She sure was cute. Especially when she was working hard. Imbued with that indefinable hotel spirit. She loved her work. Not me. I never once enjoyed mine. I do good work, but I have never loved my work. Away from her work, she was vulnerable, uncertain, fragile. I could have slept with her if I'd felt like it. But I didn't.
I want to talk to her again.
Before someone killed her too.
Before she disappeared.
The two detectives came back into the room to find me still lost in the mildew. They both stood. 'You can go home now,' Fisherman told me, expres-sionless. 'Thanks for your cooperation.'
'No more questions. You're done,' Bookish added his comments.
'Circumstances have changed,' Fisherman said. 'We can't keep you here any longer. You're free to go. Thank you again.'
I got up from my chair and pulled on my jacket, which reeked of cigarette smoke. I didn't have a clue what had hap-pened, but I was happy to get the hell out of there. Bookish accompanied me to the entrance.
'Listen, we knew you were clean last night,' he said. 'We got the results from the coroner and the lab. You were clean. Absolutely clean. But you're hiding something. You're biting your tongue. You're not so hard to read. That's why we figured we'd hold you, until you spit it out. You know who that woman is. You just don't want to tell us. For some reason. You know, that's not playing ball. We're not going to forget that.'
'Forgive me, but I don't know what you're talking about,' I said.
'We might call you in again,' he said, digging into his cuticle with a matchstick. 'And if we do, you can be sure we'll work you over good. We'll be so on top of things that lawyer of yours won't be able to do a damn thing.'
'Lawyer?' I asked, all innocence.
But by then he'd disappeared into the building. I grabbed a taxi back home.
I ran a bath and took a nice, long soak. I brushed my teeth, washed my face, shaved. I couldn't get rid of the smoke on me. What a hole that place was!
Refreshed, I boiled some cauliflower, which I ate along with a beer. I put on Arthur Prysock backed by the Count Basie Orchestra. An unabashedly gorgeous record. Bought sixteen years before. Once upon a time.
After that I slept. Just enough sleep to say I'd been some-where and back, maybe thirty minutes. When I woke up, it was one in the afternoon. Still time in the day. I packed my gear, threw it into the Subaru, and drove to the Sendagaya Pool. After an hour's swim I was almost feeling human again. And I was hungry.
I called Yuki. When I reported that I'd been released, she gave me a cool that's nice. As for food, she'd eaten only two cream puffs all day, sticking to her junk-ridden regimen. If I came over now, though, she'd be ready and waiting, and probably pleased.
I tooled the Subaru through the outer gardens of Meiji Shrine, down the tree-lined avenue before the art museum, and turned at Aoyama-Itchome for Nogi Shrine. Every day was getting more and more like spring. During the two days I'd spent inside the Akasaka police station, the breeze had become more placid, the leaves greener, the sunlight fuller and softer. Even the noises of the city sounded as pleasant as Art Farmer's fliigelhorn. All was right with the world and I was hungry. The pressure lodged behind my temples had magically vanished.
Yuki was wearing a David Bowie sweatshirt under a brown leather jacket. Her canvas shoulder bag was a patch-
work of Stray Cats and Steely Dan and Culture Club but-tons. Strange combination, but who was I to say?
'Have fun with the cops?' asked Yuki.
'Just awful,' I said. 'Ranks up there with Boy George's singing.'
'Oh,' she remarked, unimpressed with my cleverness.
'Remind me to buy you an Elvis button for your collec-tion,' I said, pointing at her bag.
'What a nerd,' she said. Such a rich vocabulary.
We went to a restaurant where we each had a roast beef sandwich on whole wheat and a salad. I made her drink a glass of wholesome milk too. I skipped the milk for myself, got coffee instead. The meat was tender and alive with horseradish. Very satisfying. This was a meal.
'Well then, where to from here?' I asked Yuki.
'Tsujido,' she said without hesitation.
'Okay by me,' I said. 'To Tsujido we shall go. But what's there to see in Tsujido?'
'Papa lives there,' said Yuki. 'He says he wants to meet you.'
'Yeah, you. Don't worry, he's not such a bad guy.'
I sipped my second cup of coffee. 'You know, I never said he was a bad guy. Anyway, why would he want to meet me? You told him about me?'
'Sure. I phoned him and told him how you'd helped me get back from Hokkaido and how you got picked up by the cops and might never come out. So Papa had one of his lawyer friends make inquiries about you. He's got all kinds Of connections. He's real practical that way.'
'I see,' I said. 'So that's what it was.'
'He can be handy sometimes.'
'Papa said that the police had no right to hold you there like that. If you didn't want to stay there, you were free to go. Legally, that is.'
'I knew that myself,' I said.
'Why didn't you just go home then? Just up and say, I'm going. Sayonara.'
'That's a difficult question,' I said after some moments' thought. 'Maybe I was punishing myself.'
'Not normal,' she said, propping up her chin.
It was late in the afternoon and the roads to Tsujido were empty. Yuki had brought a bagful of tapes with her. A com-plete travel selection, from Bob Marley's 'Exodus' to Styx's 'Mister Roboto.' Some were interesting, some not. Which was pretty much all you could say about the scenery on the way. It all sped past. Yuki sank into her seat silently listening to the music. She tried on the pair of sunglasses I'd left on the dashboard, and at one point she lit up a Virginia Slim. I concentrated on driving. Methodically shifting gears, eyes fixed on the road ahead, carefully checking each traffic sign.
I was jealous of Yuki. Here she was, thirteen years old, and everything, including misery, looked, if not wonderful, at least new. Music and places and people. So different from me. True, I'd been in her place before, but the world was a simpler place then. You got what you worked for, words meant something, things had beauty. But I wasn't happy. I was an impossible kid at an impossible age. I wanted to be alone, felt good being alone, but never had the chance. I was locked in these two frames, home and school. I had this crush on a girl, which I didn't know what to do about. I didn't know what love meant. I was awkward and intro-verted. I wanted to rebel against my teachers and parents, but I didn't know how. Whatever I did, I bungled. I was the exact opposite of Gotanda.
Even so, there were times that I saw freshness and beauty. I could smell the air, and I really loved rock 'n' roll. Tears were warm, and girls were beautiful, like dreams. I liked movie theaters, the darkness and intimacy, and I liked the deep, sad summer nights.
'Hey,' I said to Yuki. 'Could you tell about that man in
the sheepskin? Where did you meet him? And how did you know I'd met him too?'
She looked at me, placing the sunglasses back on the dashboard, then shrugged. 'Okay, but first, will you answer something for me?'
'I guess so,' I agreed.
Yuki hummed along with a hangover-heavy Phil Collins song for a moment, then picked up the sunglasses again and played with them. 'Do you remember what you said after we got back from Hokkaido? That I was the prettiest girl you ever dated?'
'Did you mean that? Or were you just trying to make me like you? Tell me honestly.'
'Honestly, it's the truth,' I said.
'How many girls have you dated, up to now?'
'I haven't counted.'
'Oh, come on,' I laughed. 'I'm not that kind of a guy. I may play the field, but my field's not that big. I'd say fifteen, max.'
I nodded. This gave her something to puzzle over.
'Around there,' I said. 'Twenty on the outside.' 'Twenty, huh?' sighed a disappointed Yuki. 'But out of all of them, I'm the prettiest?'
'Yes, you are the prettiest,' I said.
'You never liked the beautiful type?' she asked, lighting up her second Virginia Slim. I spotted a policeman at the intersection ahead, grabbed the cigarette out of her hand, and flung it out the window.
'I dated some pretty girls,' I went on. 'But none of them was as pretty as you. I mean that. You probably will take this wrong, but you're pretty in a different way. Nothing like most girls. But please, no smoking in the car, okay? You'll stink it up. And I don't want cops poking their nose in.
Besides, don't you know that girls who smoke too much when they're young get irregular periods?'
'Gimme a break,' she cried.
'Now tell me about the guy in the sheepskin,' I said.
'The Sheep Man?'
'How do you know that was his name?'
'You said it over the phone. The Sheep Man.'
We were stopped at an intersection, waiting for the light to change. Traffic, as we neared Tsujido, had picked up, and the light had to change twice before we could move on.
'So about the Sheep Man. Where did you see him?'
Yuki shrugged. 'I never saw him. He just came into my head, when I saw you,' she said, winding a strand of her fine straight hair around her finger. 'I just had this feeling. About a guy dressed in a sheepskin. Like a hunch. Whenever I ran into you at the hotel, I had this . . . feeling. So I brought it up. That was it.'
I tried to make sense of that. I had to think, had to wrack my brains.
'What do you mean by like a hunch?' I pressed her. 'You mean you didn't really see him? Or you only caught a glimpse of him?'
'I don't know how to put it,' she said. 'It wasn't like I saw him with my own eyes. It was more this feeling that someone had seen him, even though he was invisible. I couldn't see anything, but inside, the feeling I had had a kind of shape. Not a definite shape. Something like a shape. If I had to show it to someone, they probably wouldn't know what it was. It could only make sense to me. I'm not explaining this very well. Am I coming through at all?'
Yuki raised her eyebrows and nibbled at the frame of my sunglasses.
'Let me go over this again,' I tried. 'You sensed some-thing in me, some kind of feeling, or ideation-'
'A very strong thought. And it was attached to me and you visualized it, like you do in a dream. You mean some-thing like that?'
'Yeah, something kind of like that. A strong thought, but not only that. There was some thing behind it. Something powerful. Like energy that was creating the thinking. I could just feel that it was out there. They were like vibes that I could see. But not like a dream. Like an empty dream. That's it, an empty dream. Nobody's there, so you don't see any-body. You know, like when you turn the contrast on the TV real low and the brightness way up. You can't see a thing. But there's an image in the picture, and if you squint real hard, you can feel what the image is. You know what I mean?'
'Anyway, I could sort of see this man in a sheepskin. He didn't seem evil or anything like that. Maybe he wasn't even a man. But the thing is, he wasn't bad. I don't know how to put it. You can't see it, but it's like a heat rubbing, you know it's something, like a form without a shape.' She clicked her tongue. 'Sorry, awful explanation.'
'You're explaining just fine.'
'Really,' I said.
We continued our drive along the sea. Beside a pine grove, I pulled the car over and suggested we go for a short walk. The afternoon was pleasant, hardly any wind, the surf gentle. Just a rippling sheet of tiny waves drawing in toward shore. Perfect peaceful periodicity. The surfers had all given up and were sitting around on the beach in their wet suits, smoking. The white smoke trail from burning trash rose nearly straight up into the blue, and off to the left drifted the island of Enoshima, faint and miragelike. A large black dog trotted across the breakers from right to left. In the distance
fishing boats dotted the deeper waters, while noiseless white clouds of sea gulls swirled above them. Spring had come even to the sea.
Yuki and I strolled the path along the shore, passing jog-gers and high school girls on bicycles going the other way. We ambled in the direction of Fujisawa, then we sat down on the sand and looked out to sea.
'Do you often have experiences like that?' I asked.
'Sometimes,' said Yuki. 'Rarely, actually. I get these feel-ings from very few people. And I try to avoid them if I can. If I get a feeling, I try not to think about it, I try to close it off. That way I don't have to feel it so deep. It's like if you close your eyes, you don't have to see what's in front of you. You know something's there, like with a scary part in the movies, but you don't have to see it if you shut your eyes and keep them shut until the scary part is over.'
'But why should you close yourself up?'
'Because it's horrible to see it,' she said. 'When I was small, I didn't close up. At school, if I felt something, I just came right out and told everybody about it. But then, it made everyone sick. If someone was going to get hurt, I'd say, so-and-so is going to get hurt, and sure enough, she would. That happened over and over again, until everyone started treating me like a weird spook. That's what they called me. 'Spook.' That was the kind of reputation I had. It was terrible. So ever since then, I decided not to say any-thing. And now if I feel like I'm going to feel anything, I just close myself up.'
'But with me you didn't close up.'
She shrugged. 'It was an accident. There wasn't any warning. Really, suddenly, the image just popped up. The very first time I saw you. I was listening to music . . . Duran Duran or David Bowie or somebody . . . and I wasn't on guard. I was relaxed. That's why I like music.'
'Then you're kind of clairvoyant?' I asked. 'Like when, say, you knew beforehand that a classmate was going to get hurt.'
'Maybe. But kind of different. When something's going to happen, there's this atmosphere that gives me the feeling it's going to happen. I know it sounds funny, for instance, with someone who's going to get injured on the high bar, there's this carelessness or this overconfidence that's in the air, almost like waves. People who are sensitive can pick up these waves. They're like pockets in the air, maybe even solid pockets in the air. You can tell that there's danger. That's when those empty dreams pop up. And when they do ... Well, that's what they are. They aren't like premonitions. They're more unfocused. But they appear and I can see them but I'm not talking about them anymore. I don't want peo-ple calling me a spook. I just keep my mouth shut. I might see that that person over there is maybe going to get burned. And maybe he does get burned. But he can't blame me. Isn't that horrible? I hate myself for it. That's why I close up. If I close myself, I don't hate myself.'
She scooped up sand and sifted it through her fingers.
'Is there really a Sheep Man?' she asked.
'Yes, there really is,' I said. 'There's a place in that hotel where he lives. A whole other hotel in that hotel. You can't see it most of the time. But it's there. That's where the Sheep Man lives, and all sorts of things connect to me through there. The Sheep Man is kind of like my caretaker, kind of like a switchboard operator. If he weren't around, I wouldn't be able to connect anymore.'
'Yeah, when I'm in search of something, when I want to connect, he's the one who does it.'
'I don't get it.'
I scooped up some sand and let it run through my fingers too.
'I still don't really understand it myself. But that's how the Sheep Man explained it to me.'
'You mean, the Sheep Man's been there from way back?'
'Uh-huh, for ages. Since I was a kid. But I didn't realize he had the form of the Sheep Man until not so long ago.
Why is he around? I don't know. Maybe I needed him. Maybe because as you get older, things fall apart, so some-thing needs to help hold things together. Put the brakes a lit-tle on entropy, you know. But how do I know? The more I think about it, the stranger it seems. Stupid even.'
'You ever tell anybody else about it?'
'No. If I did, who would believe me? Who would under-stand what the hell I was talking about? And anyway, I can't explain it very well. You're the first person I've told.'
'I've never talked to anybody about this thing I have either. Mama and Papa know about it a little, but we never discussed it or anything. After what happened in school, I just clamped up about it.'
'Well, I guess I'm glad we had this talk,' I said.
'Welcome to the Spook Club,' said Yuki.
'I haven't gone to school since last summer vacation,' Yuki told me as we strolled back to the car. 'It's not because I don't like to study. I just hate the place. I can't stand it. It makes me sick, physically sick. I was puking every day and every time I puked, they'd gang up on me some more. Even the teachers were picking on me.'
'Why would anyone want to pick on someone as pretty as you?'
'Kids just like to pick on other kids. And if your parents are famous, it can be even worse. Sometimes they treat you special, but with me, they treat me like trash. Anyway, I have trouble getting along with people to begin with. I'm always tense because I might have to close myself up any moment, you know. So I developed this nervous twitch, which makes me look like a duck, and they tease me about that. Kids can be really mean. You wouldn't believe how mean ...'
'It's all right,' I said, grabbing for Yuki's hand and hold-ing it. 'Forget about them. If you don't feel like going to school, don't. Don't force yourself. School can be a real
nightmare. I know. You have these brown-nosing idiots for classmates and these teachers who act like they own the world. Eighty percent of them are deadbeats or sadists, or both. Plus all those ridiculous rules. The whole system's designed to crush you, and so the goodie-goodies with no imagination get good grades. I bet that hasn't changed a bit.'
'Was it like that for you too?'
'Of course. I could talk a blue streak about how idiotic school is.'
'But junior high school is compulsory.'
'That's for other people to worry about, not you. It's not compulsory to go someplace where you're miserable. Not at all. You have rights too, you know.'
'And then what do I do after that? Is it always going to be like this?'
'Things sure seemed that way when I was thirteen,' I said. 'But that's not how it happens. Things can work out. And if they don't, well, you can deal with that when the time comes. Get a little older, you'll fall in love. You'll buy brassieres. The whole way you look at the world will change.'
'Boy, are you a dolt!' she turned to me and shook her head in disbelief. 'For your information, thirteen-year-old girls already wear bras. You're half a century behind, I swear!'
'I'm only thirty-four,' I reminded her.
'Fifty years,' said Yuki. 'Time flies when you're a dolt.'
And at that, she walked to the car ahead of me.
By the time we reached Yuki's father's house near the beach, it was dusk. The house was big and old, the property thick with trees. The area exuded the old charm of a Shonan resort villa. In the grace of the spring evening all was still. Cherry trees were beginning to fill out with buds, a prelude to the magnolias. A masterful orches-tration of colors and scents whose change day to day reflected the sweep of the seasons. To think there were still places like this.
The Makimura villa was circumscribed by a high wooden fence, the gate surmounted by a small, traditional gabled roof. Only the nameplate was new. We rang the doorbell and soon a tall youth in his mid-twenties came to let us in. With short-cropped hair and a pleasant smile, he was clean-cut and amiable-not unlike Gotanda but without the refine-ment. Apparently Yuki had met him several times before. Leading us around to the back of the house, he introduced himself as Makimura's assistant.
'I act as his chauffeur, deliver his manuscripts, research, caddy, accompany him overseas, whatever,' he explained eagerly. 'I am what in times past was known as a gentle-man's valet.'
'Ah,' I said.
I felt sure Yuki was about to come out with something
rude, but to my surprise she said nothing. Apparently she could be discreet if she wanted to.
Makimura was practicing his golf swing in the backyard. A green net had been stretched between the trunks of two pines. The famous writer was trying to hit the target in the center with little white balls. When his club sliced through the air, you'd hear this whoosh. One of my least favorite sounds. Asthmatic and hollow. Though it was pure prejudice that I should feel that way. I hated golf.
Makimura set down his club and wiped his forehead with a towel. 'Good to see you,' he said to Yuki, who pretended not to have heard. Averting her eyes, she fished a stick of gum from the pocket of her jacket and began to chew with loud cracks. Then she wadded up the wrapper and tossed it into a potted plant.
'How about a hello at least?' Makimura tried again.
'Hello,' Yuki sneered, plunging her hands into her pock-ets and wandering off.
'Boy, bring us some beer,' Makimura called out rather
'Yes sir,' the manservant answered in a clear voice and hurried into the house. Makimura coughed and spat, wiped his forehead again. Then ignoring my presence for the time being, he squinted at the target on the green net and concen-trated. I concerned myself idly with the moss-covered rocks.
The whole scene seemed artificial-and more than a little absurd. There wasn't anything specific that seemed odd. It was more the sense that I had happened upon the stage of an elaborate parody. The author and his valet-except that Gotanda could have played either role better and with more sophistication and appeal.
'Yuki tells me you've been looking after her,' said the famous man.
'It wasn't anything special,' I said. 'I merely got her onto a flight coming back from Hokkaido. More important, though, let me thank you for the help with the police.'
'Uh, oh that? No, not at all. Glad to be able to return a
favor. It's so rare that my daughter asks me for anything. I was very happy to help. I hate the police. I had a run-in with them at the Diet way back in the sixties when Michiko Kanba was killed. Back in those times-'
At that he bent over from the waist and gripped his golf club, tapping its head on his foot. He turned to look me in the face, then glanced down at my feet and up at my face again.
'-when a man knew what was right and what wasn't right,' said Hiraku Makimura.
I nodded without much conviction.
'You play golf?'
'I'm afraid not,' I said.
'You dislike golf?'
'I don't like it or dislike it. I've never played.'
He laughed. 'There's no such thing as not liking or dislik-ing golf. People who've never played golf hate golf. That's the way it is. So be honest with me.'
'Okay, I don't like golf,' I said.
'I guess it strikes me as silly. The overblown gear, the cute carts, the flags and the pompous clothes and shoes. The look in the eyes, the way ears prick up when you crouch down to read the turf. Little things like that bother me.'
'The way ears prick up?'
'Just something I've observed. It doesn't mean anything. But there's something about golf that doesn't sit well with me,' I answered, summing up.
Makimura stared at me blankly.
'Is there something wrong with you, son?'
'Not at all,' I said. 'I'm perfectly normal. I guess my jokes aren't very funny.'
Before long, the manservant brought out beer on a tray with two glasses. He set the tray down, poured for us, then quickly disappeared.
'Cheers,' said Makimura, raising his glass.
'Cheers,' I said, doing the same.
I couldn't quite place Makimura's age, but he had to be at least in his mid-forties. He wasn't tall, but his solid frame made him seem like a large man. Broad-chested, thick arms and neck. His neck was thick. If it were trimmer, he could have passed for a sportsman, as opposed to someone with years of dissipated living. I remembered photos of a young, slender Makimura with a piercing gaze. He hadn't been par-ticularly handsome, but he had presence, which he still had. How many years ago had it been? Fifteen? Sixteen? Today, his hair was short, peppered with gray. He was well-tanned and wore a wine-red Lacoste shirt, which couldn't be but-toned around the neck.
'I hear you are a writer,' said Makimura.
'Not a real writer,' I said. 'I produce fill on demand. Negligible stuff, based on how many words they need. Somebody's got to do it, and I figure it might as well be me. I'll spare you my spiel about shoveling snow.'
'Shoveling snow, huh?' repeated Makimura, glancing over at the golf clubs he'd set aside. 'Clever notion.'
'Pleased you think so,' I said.
'Well, you like writing?'
'I can't say I like or dislike it. I'm proficient at it, or should I say efficient? I've got the knack, the know-how, the stance, the punch, all that. I don't mind that aspect.'
'If the level of the job is low enough, it's very simple any-way.'
'Hmm,' he mused, pausing several seconds. 'You think up that phrase, 'shoveling snow'?'
'I did,' I said.
'Mind if I use it somewhere? It's an interesting expres-sion.'
'Go right ahead. I didn't take out a copyright on it.'
'It's exactly the way I feel sometimes,' said Makimura, fingering his earlobe. 'That it doesn't amount to a hill of
beans. It didn't used to be that way. The world was smaller, you could get a handle on things, you knew-or thought you knew-what you were doing. You knew what people wanted. The media wasn't this huge, vast thing.'
He drained his glass, then poured us two more glasses. I declined, said I was driving, but he ignored me.
'But not now. There's no justice. No one cares. People do whatever they have to do to survive. Shoveling snow. Just like you say,' he said, eyeing the green net stretched between the tree trunks. Thirty or forty white golf balls lay on the grass.
Makimura seemed to be thinking of what to say next. That took time. Not that it concerned him, he was used to people waiting on his every word. I decided to do the same. He kept pulling at his earlobe.
'My daughter's taken to you,' Makimura began again, finally. 'And she doesn't take to just anyone. Or rather, she doesn't take to almost everyone. She hardly says a word to me. She doesn't say much to her mother either, but at least she respects her. She's got no respect for me. None whatso-ever. She thinks I'm a fool. She hasn't got any friends. She doesn't go to school, she just stays in her room alone, listen-ing to that noise she calls music. She's got problems with people. But for some reason, you, she takes to you. I don't know why.'
'Maybe you're a kindred spirit?'
'Tell me, what do you think of Yuki?'
This was starting to feel like a job interview. 'Yuki's thir-teen, a terrible age,' I answered straightforwardly. 'And from what I can see, her home environment's a disaster. No one looks after her. No one takes responsibility for her. No one talks to her. She's lonely and she's hurt. She's got two famous parents. She's too beautiful for her own good. And she's acutely sensitive to everything around her. That's a pretty heavy burden for a thirteen-year-old girl to bear.'
'And no one's giving her proper attention.'
'That's what I think.'
He heaved a long sigh. He let go of his ear and stared at his fingers. 'I think you're right, absolutely right. But I can't do a thing about it. When her mother and I divorced, I signed papers that said I would lay off Yuki. I can't get around that. I wasn't the most faithful husband at the time, so I wasn't in any position to contest it. In fact, I'm sup-posed to get Ame's permission even before seeing Yuki like this. And the other thing is, like I said before, Yuki doesn't have a whole lot of respect for me. So I'm in a double bind. But I'd do anything for her if I could.'
He turned his gaze back toward the green net. Evening was gathering, darker and deeper.
'Still, things can't continue the way they've been going,' I said. 'You know that her mother flew off to Kathmandu and it was three days before she remembered that Yuki was still in that hotel in Hokkaido? Three days! And after I brought Yuki back to Tokyo, she stayed in that apartment and didn't go anywhere for days. As far as I know, all she did was listen to rock and eat junk food. I hate to sound wholesome and middle-class, but this isn't healthy.'
'I'm not arguing. What you say is one hundred percent correct,' said Makimura. 'No, make that two hundred per-cent. That's why I wanted to talk to you. Why I had you come all the way down here.'
I had an ominous feeling. The horses were dead. The Indi-ans had stopped beating their drums. It was too quiet. I scratched my temple.
'I was wondering,' he began cautiously, 'if you wouldn't like to look after Yuki. Nothing formal or anything like that. Just two or three hours a day. Spend time with her, make sure she's all right and eating reasonable meals. That's all. I'll pay you for your time. You can think of it as tutoring without having to teach. I don't know how much you make, but I can guarantee you something close to that. The rest of the time you can do as you like. That's not such a bad deal,
is it? I've already talked to her mother about it. She's in Hawaii now, and she agreed that it was a good idea. Even if it doesn't look that way, she has Yuki's best interests at heart, really. She's just . . . different. She's brilliant, but sometimes her head's off in the stratosphere. She forgets about people and things around her. She even has trouble with arithmetic.'
'Right,' I said, smiling without much conviction, 'but what Yuki needs more than anything else is a parent's love-you know, completely unconditional love. I'm not her parent and I can't give her that. She also needs friends her own age. Which leads me to another thing: I'm a man, and I'm too old. A thirteen-year-old girl is already a woman in some ways. Yuki's very pretty and emotionally unstable. Are you going to put a girl like that in the care of some guy out of nowhere? What do you know about me? I was just hauled in by the cops in connection with a homicide. What if I was the murderer?'
'Are you the killer?'
'Of course not.'
'Well, then what's the problem? I trust you. If you say you're not the killer, then you're not the killer.'
'But why trust me?'
'You don't seem the killer type. You don't seem the statu-tory rapist type either. Those things are pretty clear,' said Makimura. 'Plus Yuki's the key here, and I trust Yuki's instincts. Sometimes, as a matter of fact, her instincts are too acute for comfort. She's like a medium. There've been times when I could tell she was seeing something I couldn't. Know what I mean?'
'Kind of,' I said.
'She gets it from her mother. It's her eccentric side. Her mother focused all of it on her art. That way, people call it talent. But Yuki hasn't got any place to direct that side of her, not yet anyway. It's just overflowing, with no place to go. Like water spilling out of a bucket. I'm not like either of them. I'm not eccentric. Which is why neither of them gives
me the time of day. When we were living together, it got so I didn't want to see another woman's face. I don't know if you can imagine what it was like, living with Ame and Yuki. Rain and snow. Ame's private joke! Frigging weather report. They wore me out completely. Of course I love them both. I still talk to Ame now and then. But I don't ever want to live with her again. That was hell. I may have had talent once, but living like that sapped me dry. That's the truth. But even so, I haven't done badly, I must say. Shoveling snow, huh? I like that. But we're getting off track-what were we talking about?'
'About whether you should trust me.' 'That's right. I trust Yuki's intuition. Yuki trusts you. Therefore I trust you. And you can trust me. I'm not such a bad person. I may write crap, but I can be trusted,' he said, spitting again. 'Well, how about it? Will you look after Yuki? What you've said about the role of the parent isn't lost on me. I agree entirely. But the kid is, well, exceptional. And as you can see, she'll barely talk to me. You're the only one I can depend on.'
I peered down into the foam of the beer in my glass. What was I supposed to do? Strange family. Three misfits and Boy Friday. Space Family Robinson.
'I don't mind seeing Yuki that often,' I said, 'but I can't, I won't, do it every day. I have my own life to look after, and I don't like seeing people out of obligation. I'll see her when I feel like it. I don't need your money, I don't want your money. I'm not hard up and the money I spend with Yuki won't be any different than the money I spend with friends. I like Yuki a lot and I enjoy seeing her, but I don't want the responsibility. Do you read me? Because whatever happens with Yuki, the responsibility ultimately comes back to you.' Makimura nodded several times. The rolls of flesh beneath his ears quivered. Golf wasn't going to trim away that fat. That called for a whole change of life. But that was beyond him. If he'd been capable, he'd have changed long ago.
'I understand what you're saying, son, and it makes a lot of sense,' he said. 'I'm not trying to push any responsibility onto you. No need to assume responsibility at all. I just don't have any other options, so I bow to your judgment. This isn't about responsibility. And the money we can think about when the time comes. I'm a man who always pays his debts. Just remember that. I leave it to you. You do as you like. If you need money, you get in touch with me or Ame. Neither of us is short in that department. So don't be a stranger.'
I didn't say a word.
'I'd say you're one stubborn young man,' Makimura added.
'I'm not stubborn. I just work according to my system.'
'Your system,' he said. Then he fingered his earlobe again. 'Your system may be beside the point these days. It went out with handmade vacuum tube amplifiers. Instead of wasting all your time trying to build your own, you ought to buy a brand-new transistor job. It's cheaper and it sounds better. And if it breaks down they come fix it in no time. When it gets old, you can trade it in. Your system may not be so watertight anymore, son. It might've been worth some-thing once upon a time. But not now. Nowadays money talks. It's whatever money will buy. You can buy off the rack and piece it all together. It's simple. It's not so bad. Get stuck on your system and you'll be left behind. You can't cut tight turns and you get in everybody's way.'
'Advanced capitalist society.'
'You got it,' said Makimura. Then he fell silent.
Nearby a dog was baying neurotically. Someone was fum-bling through a Mozart piano sonata. Makimura sat down on the back porch with his beer, thinking.
Darkness was swallowing the whole scene. Things were losing their shapes and melting together. Suddenly there was Gotanda, his graceful fingers stroking Kiki's bare back; there were the snow-swept streets of Sapporo, Cuck-koo from Mei the Goat Girl, the flatfoot rapping the plastic ruler in
the palm of his hand, the Sheep Man at the end of a dark corridor, ... all fusing and blending. I must be tired, I thought. But I wasn't. It was only the essence of things leaching away, then swirling into chaos. And I was looking down on it as if it were some cosmic sphere. A piano played, a dog barked, someone was saying something. Someone was speaking to me.
'Say, son-.' It was Makimura. I glanced up at him.
'You know something about that murdered woman, don't you?' he was saying. 'The newspapers say they still don't know who she is, and the only lead is a business card in her wallet. They were supposed to be questioning that party, but your name didn't come out. According to my lawyer, you pulled one over on them. You said you didn't know anything, but that's not to say you don't, am I right?' 'What makes you think that?'
'I just do,' he said, picking up a golf club and holding it straight out like a sword. 'The more I listened to you talk, the more it kind of grew on me. You fuss over tiny details, but you're awful generous with big things. There's a pattern that builds up. I figure you know more than you say, maybe you're covering for somebody. You're an interesting charac-ter. Almost like Yuki that way. You have a hard time just surviving. This time you came through okay, but the next time you may not be so lucky. Remember, the police aren't so nice. I've got no beef with your system-I actually have respect for it-but you could get hurt, sticking to your guns like that. Times have changed. You got to adapt.'
'I'm not sticking to my guns,' I said. 'It's more like just a dance. Something the body remembers. It's a habit. The music plays, the body moves. It almost doesn't matter what else is happening. If too many things get in my head, I might end up blowing my steps. I'm clumsy, not trendy.' Hiraku Makimura glared at his golf club in silence. 'You're odd, you know?' he said. 'You remind me of something.'
'Same here.' Picasso's Dutch Vase and Three Bearded Knights?
'I like you, son. I trust you as a person. I'm sorry that I have to ask you to look out for Yuki. But I'll make it up to you someday. I always repay favors. Like I said before.'
At seven o'clock, Yuki came sauntering back. She'd been walking on the beach. Would she like dinner, then? Not hungry, she said. She wanted to go home.
'Well, drop by whenever you feel in the mood,' said her father. 'This month I'll be in Japan straight through.' Then he turned to me and thanked me for making the long trip, apologizing for not being able to be more hospitable.
Boy Friday saw us out. As we turned the corner from the backyard, I spied a four-wheel-drive Jeep Cherokee, a Honda 750cc, and an off-road mountain bike parked in a corner of the grounds.
'Heavy-duty living, eh?' I commented to Friday.
'Well, it's not namby-pamby,' Friday responded after a moment. 'Mr. Makimura doesn't live in an ivory tower. He's into action, he lives for adventure.'
'A bozo,' Yuki mumbled.
Both Friday and I pretended not to have heard her.
No sooner had we gotten into the Subaru than Yuki said she was famished. I pulled into a Hungry Tiger along the coast road and we ordered steaks.
'What did you talk about?' she asked me over dessert.
There was no reason to hide anything, so I gave her a general recap.
'Figures,' she sneered. 'Just the sort of thing he'd dream up. What'd you tell him?'
'I said I wasn't cut out for an arrangement like that. It wouldn't be bad, us getting together and hanging out, when-ever we wanted to. That could be fun, but no formal arrangement. You know, I may be an old man next to you, but we still have plenty to talk about, don't you think?'
'If you didn't feel like seeing me, you could just say so. People shouldn't feel obligated to see each other. See me when you feel like it. We could tell each other things we can't say to anyone else, share secrets. Or no?'
She seemed to hesitate, then nodded, 'Umm.'
'You shouldn't let the stuff build up inside. It gets to a point where you can't keep it under control. You got to let off the pressure or it'll explode. Bang! Know what I mean? Life is hard enough. Holding down the fort all by your lone-some is tough. And it's tough for me too. But the two of us', I think maybe we can understand each other. We can talk pretty honestly.'
'I can't force you. But if you want to talk, just call up. This has nothing to do with what your father and I dis-cussed. And try not to think of me as a big brother or some-thing. We're friends. I think we can be good for each other.'
Yuki didn't respond. She finished off her dessert and gulped down a glass of water. Then she peered over at the heavyset family stuffing their jowls at the next table. Mother and father and daughter and baby brother. All wonderfully rotund.
I planted my elbows on the table and drank my coffee, watching Yuki watch them. She was truly a beautiful girl. I could feel a small polished stone sinking through the darkest waters of my heart. All those deep convoluted channels and passageways, and yet she managed to toss her pebble right down to the bottom of it all. If I were fifteen, I'd have been a
goner for sure, I thought for the twentieth time.
How could her classmates be so rotten? Was her beauty too much to be around everyday? Too pointed? Too intense? Too aloof? Did she make them afraid of her?
Well, she certainly wasn't cool like Gotanda. Gotanda had this remarkable awareness of the effect he had on oth-ers, and he held it in reserve. He controlled it. He never lorded it over people, never scared them off. And even when his presence had inflated to star proportions, he could smile and joke about it. It was his nature. That way everyone around him could smile along and think, Now there's one nice guy. And Gotanda really was a nice guy. But Yuki was different. Yuki was not nice.
She didn't have it in her to keep tabs on everyone else's emotions and then to fit her own emotions in without stomping on people. It was all she could do to keep on top of herself. As a result, she hurt others, which only hurt her-self. A hard life. A little too hard for a thirteen-year-old. Hard even for an adult.
I couldn't begin to predict what the girl would do from here on. Maybe she'd find a way to express herself, like her mother did, and make her way in art. Maybe she'd channel her powers into something positive. I couldn't swear to it, but like her father, I could sense an aura, a talent, in her. She was extraordinary.
Then again, she might become a perfectly normal eigh-teen-year-old. It wouldn't be the first time.
Humans achieve their peak in different ways. But who-ever you are, once you're over the summit, it's downhill all the way. Nothing anyone can do about it. And the worst of it is, you never know where that peak is. You think you're still going strong, when suddenly you've crossed the great divide. No one can tell. Some people peak at twelve, then lead rather uneventful lives from then on. Some carry on until they die; some die at their peak. Poets and composers have lived like furies, pushing themselves to such a pitch
they're gone by thirty. Then there are those like Picasso, who kept breaking ground until well past eighty.
And what about me?
My peak? Would I even have one? I hardly had had any-thing you could call a life. A few ripples. Some rises and falls. But that's it. Almost nothing. Nothing born of nothing. I'd loved and been loved, but I had nothing to show. It was a singularly plain, featureless landscape. I felt like I was in a video game. A surrogate Pacman, crunching blindly through a labyrinth of dotted lines. The only certainty was my death.
No promises you're gonna be happy, the Sheep Man had said. So you gotta dance. Dance so it all keeps spinning.
I gave up and closed my eyes.
When I opened them again, Yuki was sitting across the table from me.
'You okay?' she said, concerned. 'You looked like you blew a fuse. Did I say something wrong?'
I smiled. 'No, it wasn't anything you said.'
'You just thought of something unpleasant?'
'No, I just thought that you're too beautiful.'
Yuki looked at me with her father's blank stare. Then silently she shook her head.
Yuki paid for dinner. Her father had given her lots of money, she informed me. She took the check over to the reg-ister, peeled a ten-thousand-yen note from a wad of five or six, handed it over to the cashier, then scooped up the change without even looking at it.
'Papa thinks that all he has to do is fork over money and everything's cool,' she said, piqued. 'He's real dim. But that's why I can treat you today. Makes us even, kind of, right? You're always treating me, so fair's fair.'
'Thank you,' I said. 'But you know, all this goes against classic date etiquette.'
'On a dinner date, even if the girl is paying for it, she doesn't run up to the register with the bill. She lets the guy do it, then pays him back, or she gives him the money ahead of time. That's the way to do it. Males are very sensitive creatures. Of course, I'm not such a macho guy, so I don't care. But you ought to know that there are lots of sensitive fellows out there who really do care.'
'Gross!' she said. 'I'll never go out with guys like that.'
'It's, well, just an angle on things,' I said, easing the Su-baru out of the parking space. 'People fall in love without reason, without even wanting to. You can't predict it. That's love. When you get to the age that you wear a brassiere, you'll understand.'
'I told you, dummy. I already have one!' she screamed and pounded me on the shoulder.
I almost plowed the car into a dumpster, and had to stop. 'I was only kidding,' I said. 'It was a stupid joke, but you ought to give your laugh muscles some practice anyway.'
'Hmmph,' she pouted.
'Hmmph,' I echoed.
'It was stupid, that's for sure,' she said.
'It was stupid, that's for sure,' I said.
'Stop it!' she cried.
I was tempted not to, but didn't, and pulled the car out of the lot.
'One thing, Yuki, and this is not a joke. Don't hit people while they're driving,' I said. 'You could get us killed. So date etiquette lesson number two: Don't die. Go on living.'
On the way back, Yuki hardly said a word to me. She melted into her seat, and appeared to be thinking. Though it was hard to tell if she was asleep or awake. She wasn't lis-tening to her tapes. So I put on Coltrane's Ballads that I'd brought along. She didn't utter a word, barely noticed any-thing was on. I hummed along with the solos.
The road was a bore. I concentrated on the taillights of the cars ahead. When we got onto the expressway, Yuki sat up and started chewing gum. Then she lit a cigarette. Three, four puffs and out the window it went. I was going to say something if she lit up a second, but she didn't. She could tell what was on my mind.
As I pulled up in front of the Akasaka condo, I announced, 'Here we are, Princess.'
Whereupon she balled up her wad of gum in its wrapper and placed it on the dashboard. Then she sluggishly opened the car door, got out, and started walking. Didn't say good-bye, didn't shut the door, didn't look back. Okay, a difficult age, I thought. She seemed like a character out of Gotanda's movies. The sensitive, complex girl. No doubt, Gotanda could have played my part loads better than I did. And prob-ably Yuki would be head over heels in love with him. It wouldn't make a movie otherwise. Good grief, I can't stop thinking about Gotanda! I reached across her seat and pulled the door shut. Slam! Then I listened to Freddie Hub-bard's 'Red Clay' on the way home.
After waking the next morning, I went to the train sta-tion. Before nine and Shibuya was swarming with com-muters. Yet despite the spring air, you could count the number of smiles on one hand. I bought two papers at the kiosk, went to Dunkin' Donuts, and read the news over coffee. Opening ceremonies for Tokyo Disneyland, fighting between Vietnam and Cambodia, Tokyo mayoral election, violence in the schools. Not one line about a beautiful young woman strangled in an Akasaka hotel. What's one homicide compared to the opening of a Disney theme park anyway? It's just one more thing to forget.
I checked the movie listings and saw that Unrequited Love had finished its run. Which brought Gotanda to mind again. I had to let him know about Mei.
I tried calling him from the pink phone in Dunkin' Donuts. Naturally he was out, so I left a message on his machine: urgent. Then I tossed the newspapers in the trash and headed home. Walking back, I tried to imagine why on earth Vietnam and Cambodia, two communist countries, should be fighting. Complicated world.
It was my day for catching up on things.
There were tons of things I had to do. Very practical mat-ters. I put on my practical-minded best and attacked things head-on.
I took shirts to the cleaners and picked some up. I stopped by the bank, got some cash from the atm, paid my phone and gas bills, paid my rent. I had new heels put on my shoes. I bought batteries for the alarm clock. I returned home and straightened up the place while listening to fen. I scrubbed the bathtub. I cleaned the refrigerator, the stove, the fan, the floors, the windows. I bagged the garbage. I changed the sheets. I ran the vacuum cleaner. I was wiping the blinds, singing along to Styx's 'Mister Roboto,' when the phone rang at two.
It was Gotanda.
'Can you meet me? I can't talk over the phone,' I said.
'Sure. But how urgent is it? I'm right in the middle of a shoot right now. Can it wait two or three days?'
'I don't think it can. Someone's been killed,' I said. 'Someone we both know and the cops are on the move.'
Silence came over the line. An eloquent silence as only Gotanda could deliver. Smart, cool, and intelligent. I could almost hear his mental gears whirring at high speed. 'Okay, how about tonight? It'll have to be pretty late. That okay?'
'I'll call you around one or two. Sorry, but I won't have one free minute before that.'
'No problem. I'll be up.'
We hung up and I replayed the entire conversation in my mind.
Someone's been killed. Someone we both know and the cops are on the move.
A regular mob flick. Involve Gotanda and everything becomes a scene from the movies. Little by little reality retreated from view. Made me feel like I was playing a scripted role. Gotanda in dark glasses, trench coat collar turned up, leaning against his Maserati. Charming. A radial tire commercial. I shook the image off and returned to my blinds.
At five, I walked to Harajuku and wandered through the teenybopper stalls along Takeshita Street. There was plenty of stuff inscribed with Kiss and Iron Maiden and AC/DC and Motorhead and Michael Jackson and Prince, but Elvis? No. Finally, after visiting several stores, I found what I was looking for: a badge that read elvis the king.
Then to Tsuruoka's for tempura and beer. The sun went down, the hours passed. My Pacman kept crunching away at the dotted lines. I was making no progress. Getting closer to nothing. Even as the lines seemed to be multiplying. But lines to Kiki were nowhere to be seen. I'd been sent off on detours. Energies expended on sideshows, never on the main event. Where the hell was the main event? Was there a main event?
Free until after midnight, I went to see Paul Newman in The Verdict. Not a bad movie, but I kept losing myself in thought and losing track of the story. I was expecting Kiki's naked back to appear on screen at any moment. Kiki, Kiki, what did you want from me?
The end credits came on and I left the theater, hardly hav-ing any grasp of the plot. I walked, stepped into a bar, and had a couple vodka gimlets. I got back home at ten and read, waiting for Gotanda to call.
I eventually tossed my book aside and lay back in bed. I thought about Kipper. Dead and buried, quiet in the quiet ground.
The next thing I knew the room was flooded with silence.
Waves of helplessness washed over me. I needed to rouse myself. I closed my eyes and counted from one to ten in Spanish, ending in a loud finito and a clap of the hands. My own spell to conquer helplessness. One of the many skills I'd acquired living alone. Without these tricks I may not have survived.
It was twelve-thirty when Gotanda called.
'Things have been crazy. Sorry about the late hour, but could I ask you to drive to my place this time?' No problem, I told him, and I was on my way.
He came down immediately after I rang the doorbell. To my surprise, he really had a trench coat on. Which did suit him. No dark glasses though, just a pair of normal glasses, which gave him the look of an intellectual.
'Again, sorry this had to be so late,' Gotanda said as we greeted each other. 'What a day it's been. Incredibly busy. And I have to go to Yokohama after this. A shoot first thing in the morning, so they booked me a room.'
'Why don't I drive you there?' I offered. 'We'd have more time to talk, and it'd save you some time too.'
'Great, if you're sure you don't mind.'
Not at all, I assured him, and he quickly got his things together.
'Nice car,' he said as we settled into the Subaru. 'Hon-est, it's got a nice feel to it.'
'We have an understanding.'
'Uh-huh,' he said, nodding as if he understood.
I slid a Beach Boys tape into the stereo and we were on our way. As soon as we got on the expressway to Yokohama, it began to drizzle. I turned on the wipers, then stopped them, then turned them on again. It was a very fine spring rain.
'What do you remember about junior high?' Gotanda asked out of nowhere.
'That I was a hopeless nobody,' I answered.
I thought a second. 'You're going to think I'm nuts, but I remember you lighting Bunsen burners in science class.'
'It was just, I don't know, so perfect. You made lighting the flame seem like a great moment in the history of mankind.'
'Well of course it was,' he laughed. 'But, okay, I get what you mean. Believe me, it was never my intention to show anybody up. Even though I guess I did look like a prima donna. Ever since I was a kid, people were always watching me. Why? I don't know. Naturally I knew it was happening, and it made me into a little performer. It just stuck with me. I was always acting. So when I actually became an actor, it was a relief. I didn't have to be embarrassed about it,' he said, placing one palm atop the other on his lap and gazing down at them. 'I hope I wasn't a total shit, or was I?'
'Nah,' I said. 'But that's not what I meant at all. I only wanted to say you lighted that burner with style. I'd almost like to see you do it again sometime.'
He laughed and wiped his glasses. With style, of course. 'Anytime,' he said. 'I'll be waiting with the burner and matches.'
'I'll bring a pillow in case I swoon,' I added. We laughed some more. Then Gotanda put his glasses back on and turned the stereo down slightly. 'Shall we get on with our talk, about that dead person?'
'It was Mei,' I said flat out, peering out beyond the wipers. 'She's been murdered. Her body was found in a hotel
in Akasaka, strangled with a stocking. Killer unknown.'
Gotanda faced me abruptly. It took him three or four sec-onds to grasp what I had said, then his face wrenched in realization. Like a window frame twisting in a big quake. I glanced over at him out of the corner of my eye. He seemed to be in shock.
'When was she killed?' he asked finally.
I gave him the details, and he was quiet again, as if to set his feelings in order.
'That's horrible,' he finally said, shaking his head. 'Hor-rible. Why? Why would anyone kill Mei? She was such a good kid. It's just-' He shook his head again.
'A good kid, yes,' I said. 'Right out of a fairy tale.'
He sighed deeply, his face suddenly aged with fatigue. Until this moment he had managed to contain an unbearable strain within himself. Yet, even fatigue was becoming to him, serving as a rather distinguished accent on his life. Unfair to say, I suppose, hurt and tired as he was. Whatever he touched, even pain, seemed to turn to refinement.
'The three of us used to talk until dawn,' Gotanda spoke, his voice barely a whisper. 'Me and Mei and Kiki. Maybe it was right out of a fairy tale, but where do you even find a fairy tale these days? Man, those times were wonderful.'
I stared at the road ahead, Gotanda stared at the dash-board. I turned the wipers on and off. The stereo played on, low, the Beach Boys and sun and surf and dune buggies.
'How did you know she'd been killed?' Gotanda asked.
'The police hauled me in,' I explained. 'I'd given Mei my business card, and she had it deep in her wallet. Matter of fact, it was the only thing on her with any kind of name. So they picked me up for questioning. Wanted to know how I knew her. A couple of tough, dumb flatfoots. But I lied. I told them I'd never seen her before.'
'Why'd you lie?'
'Why? You were the one introduced us, buying those two girls that night, right? What do you think would've hap-pened if I'd blabbed? Have you lost your thinking gear?'
'Forgive me,' he said. 'I'm a little confused. Stupid.' 'The cops didn't believe me at all. They could smell the lies. They put me through the wringer for three days. A thor-ough job, careful not to infringe on the law. They never touched me, bodily, that is. But it was hard. I'm getting old, I'm not what I used to be. They pretended they didn't have a place for me to sleep and threw me in the tank. Technically, I wasn't in the tank because they didn't lock the door. It was no picnic, let me tell you. You think you're losing your mind.'
'Know what you mean. I was held for two weeks once. Not pleasant. I didn't get to see the sun the whole time. I thought I'd never get out. It gets to you, how they ride you. They know how to break you,' he said, staring at his finger-nails. 'But three days and you didn't talk?'
'What do you think? Of course not. If I started in mid-way with 'Well, actually-,' it'd be all over. Once you take a line, you've got to stick by it to the end.'
Gotanda's face twisted again. 'Forgive me. Introducing you to Mei and getting you caught up in this mess.'
'No reason for you to apologize,' I said. 'I thoroughly enjoyed myself with her. That was then. This is something else. It's not your fault she's dead.'
'No, it's not, but still you had to lie to the cops for me. You got dragged into the middle of it. That was my fault. Because I was involved.'
I turned to give him a good hard look and then went straight to the heart of the matter. 'That isn't a problem. Don't worry about it. No need to apologize. You got your stake and I respect it, fully. The bigger problem is, they weren't able to identify her. She's got relatives, hasn't she? We want to catch the psycho who killed her, don't we? I would have told them everything if I could. That's what's eating me. Mei didn't deserve to die that way. At the least, she should have a name.'
Gotanda closed his eyes for so long I almost thought he'd gone to sleep. The Beach Boys had finished their serenade. I pushed the eject button. Everything went dead silent. There
was only the drone of the tires on the wet asphalt.
'I'll call the police,' Gotanda intoned as he opened his eyes. 'An anonymous phone call. And I'll name the club she was working for. That way they can get on with their inves-tigation.'
'Genius,' I said. 'You've got a good head on your shoul-ders. Why didn't I think of it? But suppose the police put the screws to the club. They'll find out that a few days before she was killed, you had Mei sent to your place. Bingo, they've got you downtown. What's the point of me keeping my mouth shut for three days?'
'You're right. You got me. I am confused.'
'When you're confused,' I said, 'the best thing to do is sit tight and wait for the coast to clear. It's only a matter of time. A woman got strangled to death in a hotel. It happens. People forget about it. No reason to feel guilty. Just lie low and keep quiet. You start acting smart now, you'll only make things worse.'
Maybe I was being hard on him. My tone a little too cold, my words too harsh, but hell, I was in this pretty deep too. I apologized. 'Sorry,' I said. 'I didn't mean to light into you like that. I couldn't lift a finger to help the girl. That's all, it's not your fault.'
'But it is my fault,' he insisted.
Silence was growing oppressive, so I put on another tape. Ben E. King's 'Spanish Harlem.' We said nothing more until we reached Yokohama, an unspoken bond between us. I wanted to pat him on the back and say it's okay, it's all over and done with. But a person had died. She was cold, alone, and nameless. That fact weighed more heavily than I could bear.
'Who do you think killed her?' asked Gotanda much later.
'Who knows?' I said. 'In tha