WHAT IS A BEEHIVE HAIRDO?
By John Zeugner
At his first luncheon in Keio University’s Hiyoshi campus faculty cafeteria Moran slid into a series of dislocations. He noticed a slight, short professor wearing a Harris tweed jacket despite the late September heat—that was off-target enough, but, more significantly, the fellow sported a bow tie, the first Moran had seen on any Japanese academic. More unpredictably still, the fellow took his tray and walked directly to the nearly vacant table at which Moran was seated. It was clear he meant to engage Moran. Either he was a Tokyo Red Army lunatic who intended to butcher Moran, or, more likely, he had some very pressing linguistic inquiry.
“I’m Kondo-sensei,” the fellow said, “can I ask you a question?”
“Of course,” Moran answered, “please sit down.” Moran had not encountered a Japanese professor who ignored de rigeur introductions and additionally referred to himself as sensei. He wondered if he should have answered, “Hi there, I’m David Moran, Ph.D. Call me Doctor.”
Kondo sat down, then neatly lifted the teishoku luncheon slowly off this tray: Miso soup bowl, a tiny dish of pickled radishes, a large bowl of rice, and a small oval plate of apparently burned pork strips. Once those items had been arranged in what appeared to be a pretty careful semicircle, Kondo turned to Moran and asked, “What is a beehive hairdo?”
The query sent Moran’s mind scrambling. He remembered his first day at Keio’s main Mita campus, a colleague cornered him in the common room and remarked: “I’ve heard that a good speech in America is to say, ‘Tell it to the dragon puppet.’ I’ve heard that it’s a very popular expression in New York. Is it so?”
After an appropriate moment of reflection, Moran decided on a simple “Yes.”
Kondo elaborated: “You might be wondering why I am asking. It’s because I’m a professional translator and I have to produce Tom Wolfe’s Mauve Gloves by next week, and he has so many American expressions. I don’t know what a beehive hairdo is. Please help me.”
Moran set his chopsticks across his own soup dish, put palm heels into his eyes and then slowly dragged them down his face. Kondo leaned toward him to catch the explication as Moran said, “It’s a kind of automatic handgun that fires a 15-round banana clip. It sends its bullets spiraling, spinning as they tear into someone’s head, yielding a spiral arrangement of the victim’s hair. Thus the slang expression ‘beehive hairdo’ to describe a really vicious murder weapon.”
Kondo lifted his miso soup bowl so that Moran was pretty sure the bowl concealed Kondo’s smile. His eyes twinkled as he slurped the soup in.
Trying to keep the joke alive, Moran continued,” It’s a Detroit expression, very popular with black gangsters in that city.”
Kondo set the bowl back down. “I think you can really help me,” he said beginning to laugh. “But maybe you need to see the tattoos on my back.”
Moran added, “And the amputated fingers on your left hand too?”
“Yes, yes! I work for the Yamaguchi-gumi when I’m not teaching.”
“So we know each other’s stereotypes,” Moran said, “care to ask your question again?”
Kondo answered by producing a neat listing of terms to be translated: 1) beehive hairdo; 2) terribly butch; 3) off-hand; 4) somewhat Low Rent; 5) a grim nut; 6) Prince Valiant cut.
He slid the list over. “I notice you come to Hiyoshi campus on Tuesdays. We can lunch every week and you can help me.”
“But why would I help you?”
“To foster international good will among allied nations. Or I could pay you. Also I could show you the real Japan.”
“Something beyond Mt. Fuji and geishas, something more real than zen gardens?”
“Yes. How about a live sex show near Shinjuku station? You could participate, if you wanted to. But it’s better just to watch. Or maybe a concert. Uchida is coming to Tokyo Hall. I have tickets.”
“I admire Uchida.”
“Yes, she is truly superb, but not ichi-ban. It’s settled then. Explain me the list, while we eat.”
On the next Tuesday Kondo said, “I don’t remember what you said about ‘a grim nut.’ You eat nuts don’t you?”
“I’d have to see the context. But I think he means something is very difficult to solve.”
“Like trying to bite into a Brazil nut?”
Moran paused and then said, “Yes, exactly.”
“I will leave it out–elide it. That’s something my editor said I should do more often.”
“Yes, let’s do it now.”
Kondo looked irritated as he produced another list and a ticket for Uchida’s concert.
“Next I’m doing Martina Navratilova’s autobiography. I will bring my daughter to the concert. She played tennis in university. She’s helpful translating.”
“Will you translate at the concert?”
“Perhaps. There’s almost no time left. Also, I’m trying to keep her away from her awful husband.”
Moran looked at the latest list, yielding more time to formulate a response to Kondo’s surprising declaration of a daughter in marital trouble. The most disturbing thing about Japan, Moran had decided, was the proclivity of certain dysfunctional Japanese to reveal personal information casually and immediately, as if speaking English released them from the forms of usual Japanese conversation. Moran had discovered that to speak Japanese well was to lapse into structured responses so that sentences fit expected patterns of discourse, and templates of revelation rigidly followed predicted lines.
To speak well meant everybody knew what was being said. English expression detonated those strictures. It also crossed Moran’s mind that ‘awful husband’ might have been meant as praise. Maybe nothing more than a confusion between “awesome” and “awful.” One of his brightest graduate students had told him once as the capper to a discussion of composers, “I like Mahler either,” meaning, apparently, “also.” They both had laughed at the slip. But Moran decided the grimness of Kondo’s tone ruled out confusion over the terms of praise.
“When you say awful, what do you mean?”
“I mean he beats her and is seldom in the house,” Kondo answered.
“Sounds like a very Japanese marriage,” Moran said, and immediately regretted.
“He’s not Japanese. He’s Philippines. Now he’s in Luzon, so she can come out with us. He doesn’t want her to spend time with her father.”
“That must be hard for you.”
“Harder for her,” Kondo said, taking out a handkerchief and pressing it to his nose—another startling gesture for a Japanese. You never blow your nose in public. Moran realized it was an attempt to stop tears, an embarrassing cover-up, actually one of the terms on Kondo’s newest list along with: 1) dust-up; 2) cover-up; 3) lickety-split.
As Moran studied the list, Kondo said, “Here’s the ticket. We’ll meet you in front of the second gold door in the lobby.”
“Of course not. Besides, it’s not really a door, just a gold-painted panel, but you can see it easily from the lobby.”
Moran answered, “I know exactly what lickety-split means.”
Before the golden panel it seemed they were of equal height-–a generationally askew perfect couple, sartorially out of place amid the black-suited concert-goers. Vulnerable in the dark wave of predictable audience. Kondo, still in blue heather Harris tweed, and his daughter in an oddly long yellow dress, with a steel-colored jacket, and a black tote bag.
When Moran got to the top of the maroon-carpeted steps, he pointed to her bag and asked, “Holding Papa’s translations?”
She covered her mouth in mock humor embarrassment, and Kondo said, “My daughter, Mayumi, Professor David Moran. He is instrumental in my work.”
“Yes,” Moran repeated, “instrumental.”
“As in piano,” Mayumi said softly.
“Yes,”Moran said, “I’m the Sviatoslav Richter of American slang expressions, taking Kondo-sensei to places he’s never been.”
“You admire Richter?” Mayumi asked.
“Yes, he’s no longer the real ichi-ban, although your father doesn’t agree.”
“I like him so much, too. I wish he were still alive.”
There was an extended moment of deliberate non-eye-contact and then Mayumi said, “Papa, we should go in.”
She sat between them on the left side of the immense hall. Overhead there were slightly tilted white cloth-sheathed panels aimed toward the empty stage. Mitsuko Uchida, imperially thin and moving swiftly as if on casters, glided quickly to the enormous Steinway, cocked herself momentarily directly at the sold-out audience, and bowed energetically, at first fully and then incrementally with shorter and shorter, head-only acknowledgment.
She sat down, adjusted the gleaming ebony knob on the side of her square bench, and waited for the coughs and shuffling programs to silence. As that pause lengthened, thickening the hush until Moran wondered if a ceramic knife could have penetrated the nimbus of quietude. Then magically Schubert’s spare initial notes uncurled that beguiling opening melody out from the piano, rippling, Moran imagined, as an Austrian brook from the highest reaches of mountains near Steyr in that amazing summer which prodded from the chubby, bespectacled composer not only this wondrously enveloping Sonata but also the Trout Quintet. Uchida unfurled the healing, Austrian waters as if to transform grey cloudy Tokyo into some sunlit place with brilliant, icy air. The brook thundered for a moment and then slipped back up the mountains with slow magical, spacious, tentative exploration.
The second movement simply slumbered, as if the brook had found at last a pool of delighted repose. Moran and Mayumi exchanged a look that seemed to acknowledge something special was happening under Uchida’s artistry, something opening between them, among them all, a possibility unimagined so long as the Austrian brook flowed. A brook now so stilled as to propel longing in the imagined sunlight, some gorgeous misty affection linking them all beyond translated words, argued-over idioms, toward the new language of shared amazed feelings.
Abruptly in the third movement the brook trickled instantly to life again, pouring from the heights at the edge of the pool down the mountain in cascades of tinkling sound, each repeated cascade thickening, strengthening, then suddenly narrowing back to faintness, only to plunge suddenly full again. How could this gaunt, tiny woman get such roaring sound from the instrument?
At the end Moran and apparently Mayumi wanted to stand up in full cheering, but their lurch was curtailed when only moderate, controlled applause emanated from the rest of the audience. Moran felt the clamp of Japanese social expectation pinning him to his seat. He turned to Mayumi and said not quietly enough, “Deserves better than this.”
“Yes,” she answered, “but she’s Japanese. If she were Russian, they’d be cheering.”
“Yes,” Kondo said, “in Japan the protruding nail gets hammered down, but you knew that.”
“Please, Papa.” Mayumi said. And then as if to deflect from cross-cultural banalities, continued to Moran, “I hoped to meet your wife.”
“I hoped you would too, but Natalie’s work keeps her in America. But she’ll be here by Christmas, I’m certain.”
“It must be lonely for you.”
“Yes. But fortunately Tokyo has lots of distractions,” Moran said, responding to the dulcet quiet tones of Mayumi’s conversation, suddenly imagining that no distraction could equal what he remembered of Schubert’s melodies mixing with the sweetness of her voice and face.
“She didn’t take the repeats in the first movement. Richter always took the repeats, “ Kondo said, determined, Moran decided, to sour the moment. “I saw Richter in Osaka in ‘79. He took the repeats and maybe was softer, more flowing in all three movements.”
“I doubt he could have been more flowing in the third,” Moran said letting an edge show.
“He had bigger hands. He could handle the runs more swiftly.”
“I doubt it,” Mayumi insisted.
“The Japanese have short legs and small hands,” Kondo said.
“But not Uchida,” Moran answered, feasting on Mayumi’s congratulatory nod.
Outside at the taxi queue they were joined by a short, heavily tanned fellow wearing a beige windbreaker and wheeling a carry-on nylon luggage bag. Moran momentarily wondered if the fellow might be Middle Eastern, but Mayumi’s startled, “Anata . . . go shujin (husband) . . .” clarified everything. Moran faced the fellow and thought, he’s small for a genuine wife beater. Nor did he seem so compactly muscular as to command instant obedience. No, this sylph did not fit any preconceptions.
Kondo interrupted the reverie, “Professor Moran, my son-in-law,” Kondo lingered over the phrase as if to underscore its English tarnish, “Wicksburg Mendosa.”
“That’s a terrific name!” Moran blurted out, then, surprising himself, thought about how to take back the remark.
“The mix is pretty common in Manila,” Mendosa answered, “please call me Wick. Even the Japanese can say it easily. I came directly from Narita. I hoped to hear the last piece of the concert, or maybe the encores, but it wasn’t to be.”
“And how was the flight?” Moran said.
“Very long,” Wick answered. “And filled with unhappy babies.” He moved closer to Mayumi and almost it seemed was about to take her hand.
Moran wondered—was this the action of a loving husband or assertive predator? Surely the predator was improperly clothed and physically deficient. Wick was barely Mayumi’s height and he wore a dark loden American track suit and Asics sneakers. His side pack was made of beige canvas (Japanese men preferred black leather) with “John Muir” stenciled on its main compartment. This fellow surely is a flop abuser, Moran thought. He might be reckoned as a closeted sadomasochist, fantasized as holding a riding crop and gesturing toward radiantly black patent-leather shoes, but more likely he appeared as Moran imagined he was, a recent, confused Filipino in Tokyo.
“What is your work in Luzon?” Moran asked, happy to spread the impression of vague hostility in the question.
“Whatever the Lord directs,” Wick answered evenly, sweetly.
“And what did the Lord direct?” Moran said.
“Mostly to staff the St. Catherine of Sienna home for youths trying to leave prostitution. Prostitution is rampant in Manila.”
“So the Japanese sex tours advertise,” Moran continued, testing the parameters.
“ Far less now,” Wick answered.
“Yes, I understand they’re here—as maids and nannies and bar hostesses. Do you work for Catholic charities?”
“For Caritas, the sponsoring organization.”
“The priests are too busy with pedophilia.”
Wick let the remark float among them, as he smiled at Mayumi. Presently the remark broke apart like a too-fragile dandelion blossom.
Kondo seemed to understand the source of Moran’s abrasiveness. He stepped in front of Wick.”Perhaps it’s too early to taxi away from here. Let’s get a nightcap, isn’t that the phrase, Dr. Moran?”
“Splendid idea!” Moran answered, but Wick intervened.
“Actually I’m quite tired. It was a lot of work near Manila, and I’d like to take my wife home so we could get some sleep.” He steered her away from them and moved toward the long taxi line, heading toward the sixth car away from the pickup gate, so as not to offend those still waiting in place. “I apologize for being such a wet blanket. Professor Moran, please accompany my father-in-law and explain my rudeness.”
“Will do!” Moran shouted, “I’ll even explain ‘wet blanket.’”
“I know, ‘wet blanket.’” Kondo said, “but I bet you don’t know ‘wet leaf husband,’ –it’s worse than gokiburi teishu.”
“I know the term,” Moran said, “and it doesn’t apply.”
When they had settled in on the last two stools of the eight-stool nomiya near the concert hall, Moran said, “How can he be a cockroach husband since he’s away so much.”
“Yes, not in the kitchen or the bedroom,” Kondo said.
“You’re too young for a grandchild anyway. And doubtless he doesn’t want responsibilities until he clarifies his career.”
“What career? Helping addicts in Manila? Putting whores on the path to redemption?”
Moran sipped the cold sake from his pewter cup. Something about the pewter added suave depth to the clear liquid. He set the cup down and stroked palms into his eyes. It was mysteriously wonderful how about the middle of October all Japanese bars stopped serving sake cold, as if acknowledging silently an imperial degree to warm the rice wine now. The cold soba noodles disappeared, too; hot broth poured down from Mt. Fuji in a tsunami that drove summer into the far Pacific. For a moment Moran heard his mother’s voice insisting that after Labor Day men must wear black tuxedoes at formal events, didn’t little David know and believe that? By what similar analogy could Moran understand Kondo’s statement that Wick was a brutal abuser? When he couldn’t find the analogy, Moran plunged ahead.
“Why did you say he was brutal to your daughter? I don’t think he’d hurt a fly. On the contrary, he seemed the sweetest, most sensitive and loving fellow. Open, utterly transparent, gentle.”
“Please don’t pile the adjectives up so.” Kondo said. Then he paused, apparently collecting himself into a professorial pose. “I’ve observed that Americans don’t really listen unless they find something that fits their minds. I’ve noticed they’re obsessed by violence and current topics in popular culture. Your Wolfe taught me that over and over again. So I know what’s really important now in America. It’s wife-beating. I knew you’d be listening carefully if I told you that. And even now you want to have me confirm my words. I know you’re disappointed I used your American obsession to recruit you.”
“Recruit? To what?”
“He’s going to take her away with him, back to Manila. To a life of what he calls ‘service’ in the name of his Jesus. I won’t let that happen and I want you to help me.”
“Maybe we should just keep it to translating slang terms.”
“I wish we could, but he’s pressing immediately. We haven’t time.”
“You mean you haven’t time.”
“I need you to help me.”
“She’s his wife. What can you do? Kidnap her?”
“Yes, we could kidnap her.”
“We’ll need duct tape,” Moran said smiling and errantly filling his own pewter cup, in direct violation of the Japanese stipulation–one must pour only for someone else.
“With a ‘t’ not a ‘k’.”
“It makes no sense.”
“Neither does kidnapping her.”
“I know that. I want you to talk to her.”
Moran took a long, slow swallow of the chill sake. Here indeed was temptation—a father offering his lovely daughter. What might intimate conversation lead to? There was a long time till Christmas before Natalie would appear. “Why would she listen to me?”
“Why did she marry a Filipino?” Kondo parried, then answered his question: “Maybe she only warms to foreigners. Plenty of parents warned me about having her study in Southeast Asia.”
“Plenty of parents would warn you about interfering between a daughter and her husband.”
“Not in Japan.” Kondo said emphatically.
The rebuff returned Moran to his reverie. Perhaps on a cooler night there could be a little shabu-shabu dinner, perhaps in Jyugaoka, or better yet in the “American Restaurant,” Moran knew precisely how far it was from the Jyugaoka station—yes, an American-style conversation perfectly attuned to an American-style restaurant. Moran remembered getting a vanilla and chocolate sundae festooned with corn flakes and slivers of cucumbers, as the waiter hastily explained watching Moran’s disappointed expression, that the Kellogs and cukes were strictly American. The task would be difficult. It would have been far easier to extract her from the clutches and cuffings of a hairy abuser. He couldn’t offer a loving retreat from danger. Maybe a secular broadside would turn the trick. She was vulnerable to art, enthralled with music, and while Wick might have enjoyed Bach and Berlioz, surely a surfeit of such magnificence would not fit under Jesus’s servant law, would it? Perhaps leverage there. But leverage toward what? Kondo’s wishes? No, rather the incredibly smooth, eel-like pliancy of Japanese women’s skin, was that it? Memories from massage parlors in Juso, beyond Osaka, came streaming back on pewter rails into Moran’s vitals. It must be Kenbishi sake, Moran thought, and premier grade to revivify such memories.
“You are not listening to me,” Kondo said.
“You’re right. You’re absolutely right. I’ll do it. Set it up. In Jyugaoka. I’ll do it. I’ll convince her. You bet I’ll convince her.”
“Convince her of what?” Kondo asked hurriedly.
“Whatever you want. There’s no God. Jesus was a fraud, an itinerant trapped into believing Old Testament lies about Redemption. All that remains is purchase of stuff and very good sake. This has to be Kenbishi, isn’t it? Kenbishi in pewter cups–that’s the closest we ever get to the real meaning of existence. Charity is absurd. The helpless in Manila deserve to die, and out of sight. You name it, and I’ll convince her. She’s waiting to be convinced. I’m sure of it.”
“We’re all waiting to be convinced,” Kondo said quietly. “Convinced, not mocked.” He paused and pushed over his cup for Moran to fill. “He means to take her away from me. Forever. Don’t you see that? It’s not a joke. She’ll be gone and I’ll have to fly six hours to see her, feel her again. You don’t have a daughter. You don’t understand beyond your silly jokes. I’m not going to let it happen. Do you grasp what I’m saying? I’m not going to let it happen.”
“So you’re going down to Iwakuni and borrow a Marine’s gun?”
“If I have to. I’m not going to let it happen. That’s not just a phrase for translation. Perhaps you couldn’t translate it. I’m not going to let it happen.”
“So, set it up in Jyugaoka and I’ll help you.”
The outside of the American Restaurant was sheathed in mock chrome stripes as if to suggest the place had once been a diner, but that was only a facade. Inside there was a large U of green leather booths elevated approximately a foot above the main floor. Separation was very American, so Moran had been told, and therefore each booth had a faux mahogany partition blocking the view and the conversation to the next booth. Unnecessary, since none of the other patrons would grasp the dulcet English with which he’d work his faux seduction.
There was enough time for him to set up a “bottle-keep” with the waiter in starched beige Bermuda shorts and teal golf polo shirt, and sockless Nike sneakers. At the waiter’s suggestion Moran chose a bottle of Jack Daniels (a favorite of ‘all Americans’ the fellow explained). He poured himself a few fingers in the narrow circular glass filled with perfectly square mini-ice cubes, then bolted down the sweet crisp alcohol. He imagined suavely requesting Mayumi to sit with him on one side of the booth. Perhaps he could blame the request on the noise level of the room. Was it that difficult to hear? He poured another drink and pressed his head to the partition—yes, he could hear the conversation. Ah, sit beside me, Mayumi and let’s review the dangers of love and Catholic liturgy. Most of all, let’s pass well beyond meaningless service in Manila. Let’s contemplate Uchida’s notes and Mayumi’s thighs.
Moran was quietly and lovingly knocking his head against the partition, eyes closed and mind foraging among those Juso massage parlors, when he became aware someone was standing before the booth. Abruptly he opened his eyes and smiled at Wicksburg who partially concealed Mayumi. “Sorry we’re late,” Wick said.
“Ah, hehn! I’m so delighted you both could make it,” Moran said, thrashing about to keep his mouth above water. How had Kondo failed to set it up?
Far from Mayumi clambering into Moran’s side of the booth, the both of them stepped up and sat opposite him.
“It’s great to have both of you here,” Moran said.
“I didn’t want to miss it,” Wick answered with a smile.
They declined drinks but Moran insisted on iced tea for all, and pushed the Jack Daniels to far end of the table, among the condiments. Scrambling, Moran thought about a Jack Daniels and mustard cocktail. He pressed his palms into his eyes and finally said, “Can you tell me about your life in Manila. I mean your life together in the future?”
“We’ll live at the pensione in a third floor apartment. Not much space but adequate,” Wick said.
“Air conditioning?” Moran asked, helpless before its banality.
“No, of course not.”
The inquiry lapsed, and blessedly, the waiter returned with the iced tea. Moran felt he and Wick were uneasy in the silence, but Mayumi seemed quite at home, slowly unfolding her napkin and delicately placing the heavy silverware in neat position for use. She seemed to enjoy the ritual, and their uneasiness. There was something beguiling in her acceptance of her utterly silent centrality. Moran wondered if Kondo-sensei had stumbled on the term, “cat-bird seat”? Even more impenetrable than “beehive hairdo.” Moran watched her smooth small fingers smooth out the napkin on the Formica for Wick. Moran knew he’d have to unfurl his own roll of implements. Natalie would have dismissed Mayumi’s wifely concern, first with a smile and then if any explanation were offered with a soft-voiced but belligerent recitation against patriarchy.
It was not until they had finished with the double order of fried calamari that Moran returned to his imagined task. The appetizer Moran had ordered without their consent since he had learned that in Japan prior research always superseded personal choice–you took the time to ascertain and plan for your guest’s desires well before the actual event. Else why would you have invited them?
Moran began, “I think Professor Kondo is worried his daughter may find living in the Philippines very different from Japan. The quality of life may be more harsh than she anticipated.” Moran wondered if he and Wick could pretend she wasn’t sitting there.
“Life is easier in Manila,” Mayumi said.
“Oh, I didn’t mean their behavior,” Moran said, worried now about the their. “Just the difference between a first and third world level of development.” He regretted such stupid, ranking language.
“Women have more freedom in Southeast Asia,” Mayumi continued. “We’re not so watched in the Philippines, even if the conveniences are not so heavy.”
“Professor Kondo is worried that his precious and beautiful daughter will be taken away to a very alien place and her bright future subject to depression.” Moran said hastily, as if to distance himself from the sentiment, and aware, too, that he himself was detaching from the conversation, floating above it, removed and impotent.
“When you come to understand and accept God’s will, depression is banished.” Wick said, and such certitude, Moran noticed, seemed not to sit well with Mayumi. Was there an opening there, some possible leverage to pry them apart? And why should Moran serve Kondo’s purposes?
“In America pharmaceuticals are God’s will,” Moran said, but the frolic remark slithered into nothingness before Wick’s sweet demeanor.
“Following Jesus’s example frees you from such concerns,” Wick continued. “In God’s grace those kinds of worries really do recede. Once you get to a certain point whether you tithe at 10% or 100% becomes a silly issue. In the Lord’s grace you truly want for nothing. Wanting itself dissolves. Outside of that grace, Kondo-sensei’s fears are of course real enough, and you should reassure him.”
“I don’t think I can convey that message,” Moran said.
“Don’t worry about the words or what you will say until the very moment. The Lord will give you the words. I know that for sure. Scripture says so over and over again. The earliest apostles were illiterate fisherman, but they converted thousands. The Holy Spirit spoke through them. God will shape your sentences.”
“I don’t know if I want to convert Professor Kondo,” Moran said.
“Then why are we meeting here, having this dinner?” Wick asked. “Only to lead you both to see why Mayumi and I are going back to Manila. To understand the Lord’s purposes in our plan for the future.”
Moran thought: So that’s why we’re meeting! My venality can be dismissed, erased. It occurred only in my stupid, pitiful mind. God’s plan needs acceptance, nothing more. But Mayumi sees deliverance in Southeast Asia from daddy’s oppressive hand in Tokyo, could that be it? And Wick strides forth in absolute certitude of God’s grace and plan, and Kondo is determined to take up a father’s responsibility. And Moran struggles with message delivery, and turns out to be a piss-poor translator, an illiterate fisherman.
At the next relentless Tuesday luncheon Moran accepted his inevitable list from Kondo and said, “I failed utterly. We ate our American-style fried chicken and made small talk and at the end I wished them well on their new life in Manila. I apologize profoundly. I am so sorry.”
“I did not expect you to work miracles. I expected you to see how things were, how set they were, so I could understand what I have to do. And you have succeeded in that.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You have strengthened my resolve and clarified my task. It won’t be as easy as I had hoped, but I am more than ever determined. She’s not going to leave me.”
“I think that’s a little unbalanced,” Moran said, but Kondo looked so downcast Moran turned to the list and the lesser intensity of translating peculiar Americanisms.
After surveying the list and finding there a wonderful underscoring item, Moran slowly and rather triumphantly said, “In general the expression ‘at the end of the day,’ means when some action or thought or argument is finally concluded, then some reality must be stated and accepted. Thus we could say, couldn’t we, that ‘At the end of the day Professor Kondo will have to accept the life his daughter has chosen in Manila.’”
“No, ‘at the end of the day, he will insure his daughter’s safety and happiness by keeping her close to him, next to him, holding his hand until the very end.’”
“A lovely thought, and very fatherly I imagine, although I don’t have any children, but entirely too selfish a stance.”
“You Americans know all about selfishness, all right. Your stupid individualism and liberty are pure selfishness. But I’m not in a stance, whatever that word means. It’s not a stance. It’s an action,” Kondo said with remarkable finality.
After a bit of mutual slurping of their miso soups and the downing of clumps of rice, Moran said, “I’m aware of the very Japanese equation of individualism with selfishness, but acceptance of marriage entails something pretty different, don’t you think?”
“She’s not going to Manila,” Kondo answered.
“I really doubt that your conviction can topple Wick’s assertion of God’s plan. Not that I give a damn about either. A plague on both your houses. That’s Shakespeare, incidentally. Not Biblical. I really resent being caught in the middle of this familial shit. Are you familiar with ‘familial shit?’”
“Are you familiar with bakayaro?” Kondo asked.
“I’m not the idiot here.”
“Oh, but you absolutely are!”
For an instant Moran imagined fisticuffs might actually ensue, and that vision of two professors slugging it out in the kaikan cafeteria was healingly comic. Instead, he returned to the list. “I think we’ve dealt with ‘at the end of the day.’ Let’s go on to ‘I’m from Missouri on that,””
But Kondo abruptly got up, took his tray close to his chest and said, “Next week,” and walked away.
“That’s a good illustration of the phrase,” Moran said loudly but Kondo did not turn around.
The rest of the afternoon amid automatic recitation of his lecture to the semi sleeping students Moran kept thinking about being called bakayaro. Did Kondo regret the lack of hostile phrases in Japanese? Alone among the Japanese academics Moran had met it seemed Kondo surely appreciated the limits of his native language–the utter paucity of obscenities, the systematic stuffing of rage expressions, the the linguistic denial of ferocity. You could scream bakayaro or nothing. Since you couldn’t impugn the sanctity of your enemy’s motherhood or express excrement covering his vitals, since description of his evisceration or rape of his orifices was not possible, only the sword of madness could be employed. I cannot tell you my disgust, but I can physically slice you up. There was linguistic self-discipline right to the final second before moral detonation and resulting bloody murder. Was that truly it? Or did linguistic stuffing continue down the slope till final self-destruction? Unutterable hatred turned finally inward?
Such musings carried Moran through the remainder of the week and across the weekend. He worked his way through the list, tightening and sharpening his explications of phrases that required native speaking familiarity. But even Common Room automatic conversations at the main campus hardly engaged him as the imagined next meeting on Tuesday at lunch. For a while Moran was certain Kondo would bring his daughter with him, and she of course would add Wick, and nothing would advance. But what did “advance” mean? On the next Tuesday Kondo did not show up. Moran ate all of his rice, drank all of his soup, consumed every bit of pickled radish and charred pork. He was rewarded for his leisure by the appearance just before his departure of an office lady carrying a narrow envelope. She pointed to the label on the envelope and looked imploringly at him, “For Prof. Moran.” He nodded and tore it open, as she turned away. There was a single small tablet sheet with only one item on the list: “a good bye–it’s a tennis term, isn’t it?”
Moran thought, yes, it’s a tennis term–by dint of your past achievements you were given a pass through an opening round of a tournament and got to watch two opponents fight it out to see who would meet you in the next round. But why weren’t there more items for explication?
An answer appeared in the weekend edition of the Asahi News, a small headline-less paragraph on page 9: “Professor Taro Kondo, a well known translator and professor of linguistics at Keio University, and his daughter Mayumi Kondo, a recent graduate of Ritsumeikan University, plunged to their death in front of an express train at Ikebukuro Station Friday evening.”
For the last weeks of that fall in Hiyoshi, Moran chose a different empty table on Tuesdays. He perfectly understood Kondo would not turn up, but he didn’t believe it. Sitting at the same vacant table seemed sacrilegious, so Moran kept out of the center of the room. For a while he imagined Wick would join him. He surely knew about the “instrumental” Tuesday luncheons, but Wick never came. Moran thought about going back to the American Restaurant, sitting in the same booth and listening for Wick’s easy explanation of God’s Plan and the Kondo suicides. But that seemed too grotesque. Natalie called it a “self-indulgent stunt” when he skyped her suggesting he was thinking about doing that. “Stop confusing puzzlement over their motives with genuine sadness over their loss. Not that genuine sadness has ever really been yours,” Natalie said. “You don’t experience genuine emotions apart from your self-worship.”
“You’re always such a bracing presence,” he answered to the sputtering LED image on his laptop.
But she may have been right. Moran wondered if his sadness, if that was the term, came because he didn’t have Kondo’s weekly pestering to look forward to, or his plotted (but never executed) sweet seduction of Mayumi had never materialized. Indeed had been severed before it even began by Wick’s implacable religiosity, his enviable certainty and its consequent fencing-off of God’s, and his, property. Wick firmly yanked her in one direction and Kondo just as firmly and devastatingly yanked her in another. Moran couldn’t, wouldn’t, didn’t, believe for an instant that she took the leap with her father voluntarily. His ferocious determination to deflect God’s Plan was perhaps momentarily matched by her ferocious determination to save her father. But body weight determined the tug-of-war and his grasp was greater into express train deliverance. Were they stenciled permanently on the front of the densha screaming through Ikebukero station, or did they thud/smack downwardly to be ground up, sliced and diced by the rubber wheels so that three or more cars scissored them up before the express came to a frenzied halt. Were shreds of Mayumi’s wondrous skin sprayed out from under the blood-spitting wheels?
Would Wick’s Lord merely touch a piece of that skin so as to run the movie backwards and provide greater strength to Mayumi, who pulled her father back onto the platform as the train passed? Moran understood he wouldn’t get a chance to ask Wick that question. Doubtless the very diligent Japanese immigration authorities upon receipt of the newspaper report revoked Wick’s six-month spousal visa and sent him back to Manila. And once there, the nuns and brothers doubtless suggested the healing recitation of a thousand Hail Marys.
But maybe prayers didn’t turn the trick. Mantra recitation proved inadequate and Wick suddenly saw his life as inseparable from the lost sheep his Lord had designated him to “serve.” And thus that Lord retracted invisibly into the vortex of Manila life, merely one more chrome horse mounted on the hood of Jitney existence cruising up and down Roxas Boulevard.
Moran wondered if the Deity’s retreat truly was a comforting scenario. Or should he focus on the inexplicability of the Japanese acceptance of suicide as a viable, honorable path, or on the inexplicability of God’s Plan to shatter Wick’s life? A lovely dual inexplicability, but not one worth wallowing in. Come, sweet Natalie, and yank me out of this very over-heated bath.
But she would not arrive for weeks, and at each luncheon Moran fashioned a conversation with Wick at first letting him explain, as God might, what had happened and why. And then rebutting those arguments while chewing on the inevitable burnt pork strips and then railing against the Lord of Hosts, creator of all reality, redeemer of all suffering, but not, alas, the tearful Wick before him now swallowed up in confused trauma, doubting everything, capitulating to Moran’s remorselessly questioning logic—sobbing as Moran remembered he himself sobbed at age twelve just when he gotten the better of the neighborhood tomboy who had been chiding him, embarrassing him before his seventh grade friends, gotten her down between his knees, and was preparing to batter her wide-eyed, amazed face when suddenly through her rimless glasses he saw her stunned acknowledgement that everything going on was contrived, meaningless, and pointlessly vicious because of some random malevolence winding them up into a parade of idiocy washing them downward, pit-ward, on the chill leading edge of a Schubert melodic brook into oblivion. Was it Mayumi’s or Natalie’s cold hand reaching through the cloudy steel meshing, latching onto his wrist and yanking him clear of express-speed salvation?
John Zeugner has published short stories in several venues: Ohio Review, December, Perspective, Southern Humanities Review, South Carolina Review, and the anthology SHORT STORIES FROM THE LITERARY MAGAZINES. A recipient of a Discovery Grant for Fiction from NEA, his novel, “Soldier for Christ,” (Wipf and Stock, 2013) will be published shortly.