Stepping into the hotel, it was like being dropped into a truly alien world. Nothing shiny, no excess of glass and marble. A simple dark wooden reception desk, a clerk in black with a white vest. A bow upon approaching. Your room is simple, no internet, a single light on a small desk. A tatami mat in the corner. A hard wired phone. And you know, in the distance, the Daibutsu awaits you in the morning. Here there is no CNN International, nothing that isn’t Japanese. Your computer is essentially useless, a fax machine in the office for emergencies. And the nearest business center, sorry closed, is in the city. The Internet is coming soon, they promise . But on your morning run, as you catch your breath on the step outside the Todai-ji Daibutsu-den, a deer comes up to you and licks your face and you know this morning Daibutsu is smiling.
He should have known that the day was doomed from the moment he woke to see his alarm clock in pieces on the floor by his bed, the cat grinning at him from the place where the clock had always sat.
Finally arriving at the office, he was no sooner at his desk when the fire alarm bell rang. Within moments of reentering after the all clear, it rang again, and his own, very private Chinese fire drill was under way.
The day calmed until, after lunch, the Regional Manager arrived, gathered everyone at the great round conference table, and demanded to know who had made a simple error, and watched as the inevitable circular firing squad began.
We sat at the table, sucking the last of the djej from the bones piled along the edge of the platter. “I played for seven years” he said, “under Tilson-Thomas and later Rudel, bad years those, I sat two rows back second from the stage edge.”
He was unremarkable, forgettable until he nestled the violin under his chin. Balding even then the fringe of hair clownish, lacking only a red nose. At the old metal desk he struggled over applications for insurance policies, forever asking if he had the premiums calculated right, stumbling over the pitch, dreading the word death, preferring to talk of his bow dancing across the strings. He sold just enough policies to make his monthly draw and generate an override commission to help pay our mortgage but he would, my father said, never make much of a career in insurance. When I sat in the office on the old leather sofa he asked me to marvel that an old man, bitter and stone deaf, could hear so clearly, alone in a small room. I listened politely, waiting until he might be distracted and I could return to neatly arranging the pink sheet between the whites feeding it carefully through the rollers, and slowly peeling it back to reveal the dark sepia copy.
He sits on the metal bed fingers bent into talons and cringes at the screech of the walker dragging along the hall. He wrestles with the radio knob and hears the strains of the concerto as a tear runs down his cheek and he waits for the nurse to change his incontinence pad.
First Appeared in Licking River Review, Issue 28, Winter-Spring 1996-1997.
1. An older, silver-haired woman in neon green pants, a brown blouse and black shop apron stoops and carefully scrubs the alleyway outside her small shop.
2. Salarymen fill the tunnels of Kokkai-gijidomae station at 6 P.M., 7, 8, and in fewer numbers, 9, shuffling down the long corridors to the Chiyoda or Marunouchi Line trains, where they will sit stiffly, faces in books or papers, or they will hang from the straps another day complete, ticked off the schedule. They will dream of trading polyester suits for wool, and a desk not pressed against half-height cubicle walls.
3. Akasaka-mitsuke Station: the electronic sign marks the next train for Shibuya at 17:52. It is 17:54 and the face of the stationmaster is a mix of anger and frustration for such tardiness cannot be accepted.