Wednesday
Sep142011

ボブ (Bob)

Jonathan Callahan




This is Part Three of a three-part novella, serialized between July and September 2011, in Issues 24-26.

 

Bob looks up from his research on contemporary stylistic applications of the gray blazer to see Anna, the other new girl from upstairs and across the hall, whom Bob just hasn't done a great job of getting acquainted with (her wraith confirms she's been in Fukuoka the same three-and-a-half months as everyone else but is unforthcoming regarding her activities during this period, save to note that she's never struck it as especially important, almost more like a figurant than a character of flesh-and-blood), a development that seven train stops together will be a great first step toward rectifying, passing through the open automatic door and into the train at the other end of his car.

 

Hey Anna, he shouts. Several Japanese stir from lolling slumber or raise eyes from electronic displays to stare. Small world! If any of these Nihonjin had retained more from his near-decade-long compulsory pedagogical tussle with English than the ability to pose that inquisitional standard of American greeting, How are you?, or respond to this same query with rote assertion of high spirits and gratitude for the interlocutor's concern, or else name certain varieties of fruit, he might be able to follow at least part of the subsequent conversation, if not apprehend the nuance of every development or turn, as Bob lumbers over to join her in the little vestibular open area between the doors on the car's either side. But in this compartment the only comprehending eavesdroppers are wraiths, who are no more citizens of Nihon than they are of the earth.

Always nice to encounter a familiar—Bob hates to say non-Japanese—face after eight hours of all the teachers' gentle harrassment and the kids' stares and what not, you know?

 

What do you mean by "gentle harrassment," Anna asks. They pass a high school that is neither Anna's nor Bob's—there really are a lot of high schools in this country—and whose baseball diamond's right-field abets a section of Nishitetsu track, prompting Bob to lend brief credibility to a scenario whereby some left-handed power-hitter's best deep shot comes crashing through a northwest-facing window's glass, possibly injuring an inattentive passenger, or at least startling the shit out of the whole car, since you have to admit that this is a remarkably easily-startled race. Granting the profound unlikelihood of such an occurrence, since the conditioning modalities employed by athletes in this country lag behind the rest of the First World's by a good forty years, particularly when it comes to the cultivation of upper-body strength. To the point that Bob, who would be the first to come right out and admit that he's absolutely not in his life's finest shape, for instance this semester he can once again get away with donning the soft-pornographically embossed belt buckle that was basically the only thing the old man passed on when he went and that the Vice Principal'd had to ask his supervisor to suggest he maybe not wear to school anymore, at the very least on days when he was teaching classes—probably Anna can't even tell he has on a belt—due to its being tucked up behind the overhang of his bulging gut, which distension Bob attributes primarily to Chu-hi, plus—this is embarrassing—there's also been a certain ominous new bite to his recent sweat-output's bouquet that compels panicky speculation about some kind of organ-decay—you sort of have to suspect liver—yeah, sorry: it's gross— the smell's closest analog Bob can come up with off the cuff being actually natto, that famously ghastly native dish of rotten soybean paste, but so strength-wise Bob estimates ninety-percent of them he could probably take, in, say, an arm-wrestling contest, bench-press max-out, or one-on-three drunken brawl in the street—assuming in this final illustrative case that the heat didn't suddenly show up en masse right when the three little fucks were poised to break ranks and flee, and with the grim Aspergerian but not unjoyful focus that your Nihonjin male prides himself on applying to all tasks deploy the truncheons and the Pershing boots and special threat-neutralizing martial arts regimen Japanese cops are required to master before they can be dispatched to maintain civic peace against Bob alone, who perforce without a weapon of his own would eventually be subdued, while the three equally culpable limpdicks in their tailored suits cowered and whinged about damage sustained. Though he'd naturally give them the advantage on the judo mat, judo being a matter of almost pure technique where physical strength only peripherally factors in. (Good fun though, getting your ass tossed over some midget's shoulders and sent tumbling across mats redolent with the sweat of ages, if you're not too uptight about feeling like somebody's bitch.) And, again, it's not like Bob's Captain Planet or anything back in the United States, which speaks volumes about how you don't even have to have a background in physical conditioning or sport to be able to tell from just looking at these guys' arms that you'd need to commission a whole team if you wanted to transfer something heavy, for instance a piano or grandfather clock. Take for example this character with the elaborate cellular phone here, Bob says, indicating the individual whose cerise-and-steel-toned keitai is rather involved, even by the lofty standards of Nihon high-tech: Just look at the lack of any kind of muscular definition, he urges, and keep in mind all the men in this country were at one stage in their lives just high school-age boys, who you have to figure weren't exactly going to be more formidable in terms of as physical specimens back then, in their koukou ji dai—"high school days," or more accurately high school "era"—probably weren't being asked to pose for shots in so-called "muscle-mags," those glossy ad-rich panegyrics to steroid abuse and whey protein, considering that they train every day of the week, bar none, except for maybe during O-Bon, which is when they take time off to honor the dead. Which relentless workout pace with no time for beaten musculature to recover would be condemned by any personal trainer worth his consultation fee back home in the States, where we might without question have our own set of entrenched limitations on athletic achievement, particularly in the domain of cardiovascular conditioning and health, as well as questionable methodologies, but definitely know how to build mass, the forerunner of power and speed.

 

Bob encourages his fellow ALT to recollect the debacle that recently threatened to annihilate the moral legitimacy of American professional baseball, in which members of our national pastime's time-immemorial MLB tainted the legacy of the game by making use of so-called "performance-enhancing drugs," which, and here is Bob's point, how did these drugs enhance performance? Did they improve batters' capacity to counter whatever the professional hurler might select from his nearly bottomless bag of deception and skill? Certainly not. They made these legacy-indifferent sluggers' bodies bigger, because increased size equals increased power, if we're talking about muscle-size, and one look at the Nihonjin's upper arm should be all you need in terms of reassurance, as concerning why passengers commuting past the high school baseball diamond that's several stops back now are probably safe. Though Bob does wonder if there's ever even once been some kind of anomalous incident. Would have been something to see.

 

But now he wants to know all about the book Anna'd probably been planning to read before lucking into her jutaku-mate here on the train: Any good? The author's quite famous now, she replies, but this was his first book, written in Japan, actually, while he was doing the same job as us, just an ALT, while he was still a very young man. He wound up marrying a Japanese woman, with whom he went back to his native U.K.

 

Figures, Bob snorts. He squints at the paperback's cover: What, so the deal is it's actually written by a ghost? Like a fucking poltergeist? Or is this an arty figure of speech. Bob offers to borrow it after she's finished, give it a good peruse. Maybe the two of them can get a little reading circle going. Or it wouldn't technically be a circle unless they brought some other ALTs into the fold, which they can cross that bridge when they get to it. Does Anna also write? Not Bob: way too much solo time in the old echo-chamber for—hang on: gotta take this. Bob flips open his keitai and shouts that he'll have to call back in a few because he's riding the train and you know how they revere the Silent Commute, already half the train is glaring at him side-eyed like he just puked in the middle of the aisle, yes, Hello there, I realize I'm ruining your afternoon, Bob shouts, Anyway, gotta run. Oh, but he did finally try the fucking cheese platter. Right on, brother! Ha! Ha! Over and out.

 

Bob turns to Anna, winks, and posits that fundamental differences between Japan and the West are ripe for observation in artificial social circumstances like the one they're privy to here, public spaces, in other words, where, Bob indicates, you'll notice how nobody actually talks on his cellular phone, this despite nearly unilateral possession of that felicitous modern device as evidenced by the parallel columns of black-haired heads bowed in quiet concentration, fingers negotiating tiny consoles. In other words it's not for lack of opportunity that they rarely, in Bob's experience, can be witnessed deploying their phones for an audio chat. No: it's the humorously-illustrated signs imploring them not to do so, since the noise would unsettle fellow passengers (who in the pictures have index fingers thrust into their ears, eyes abulge beneath epicanthic folds, or are clutching their heads in what looks like migraine-caliber pain) because, and this is Bob's insight, which he stresses is only the result of a year and a few months of being for the most part the only foreign resident in this semi-backwater, which is why he continues to feel truly blessed by the sudden influx of fresh ALT meat—not that he considers Anna "meat," per se, it's an expression—even if it's true that they haven't quite gelled as a social unit to the degree Bob'd envisioned yet, and there've been the inevitable bumps in the interpersonal road—Jake's rib being at ninety percent fyi, or so Bob's overheard while listening in from out on his balcony the other night when it sounded like everybody'd gotten together for a probably spur-of-the-moment pizza-beer-and-movie-type thing at Fondu's place one floor below Bob that Bob'd been down at the supa picking up the evening's Chu-hi when they probably knocked on his door to invite him to and so wound up only hearing snatches of from his balcony whenever they opened up a window or door, which was no big issue with Bob since he'd just picked up all that Chu-hi anyway, and the weather still being clement here for a couple of weeks he'd figured what better way to spend an evening than out on the balcony sipping Chu-hi, enjoying the fresh air and chatter of frolicking Nihonjin kids, since winter is dark, cold and terrible here like you wouldn't believe, plus the Japanese pizza tends to be sup-par and overpriced at its best. Oh, the ketai insight being just that his personal perspective on the Japanese is what you have here is basically a whole race of people who all just do as they're told.

 

I'm not so sure I'd be comfortable making that kind of claim about the whole country, Anna objects, and—ok, weird question, but… was there actually anyone on the line a minute ago when you were saying the thing about the cheese? Somehow I didn't hear any ringtone or buzz, as Bob deploys the towel—a necessity until winter tightens the knot on its gi and gets down to its annual business of cutting off citizens' joy-supplies so that by late January or so the whole country's locked in a choke-hold of anhedonic despair—to mop up face and neck. A quick wraith-consultation confirms that Anna hadn't found the pizza all that bad.

 

 

Bob invites any interested parties to come have a look at his new bike. It's a mountain bike. Probably won't see much mountain action under Bob's stewardship, but if called upon it absolutely could. Anyway, what kind of music is everyone into? Anybody partial to hip hop? Bob is―but he wonders whether you mean the same thing when you say the words "hip hop," because Bob's assessment is that what you're basically looking at is two nearly parallel universes of taste that coexist in much the same way that scientists hypothesize actual parallel universes coexist―in other words utterly unconnected, except for in the incredibly rare cases of wormholes, which if you've done even the most cursory independent research into space-time you'll appreciate are such an incredibly rare happenstance as to constitute a kind of exception that proves the rule of how never the two shall meet except under extreme duress. Which is exactly how you ought to view the anomalous cases of rappers who both Bob and your typical multinational-corporate-media-conglomerate-hoodwinked "fan" of what he mistakenly considers hip hop ("fan" being delivered in those effeminate scare quotes that Bob declines to physically provide but are conveyed via vocal modulation). So, that said, anybody into hip hop? Just please for god's sake nobody say "Lil' Wayne." Et tu, Dwayne? Hypocrite! Ha ha—Which by the way reminds Bob of something he'd maybe not even like to be reminded of tonight, since the emotional damage is still somewhat raw in the way he imagines Jake's chest must have felt like in the days immediately following the blow Bob still deeply regrets having floored him with but that he just couldn't come up with the proper way to apologize for face-to-face during either month of convalescence, as a man would have done, a will-failure of which he is likewise profoundly ashamed, which is why he'd like to take this opportunity to come forward and just say he's sorry, Jake, for probably ruining a good two months of your first half-year here in Japan, or at least hampering them somewhat, depending on your capacity to function through pain. Not that Bob is suggesting anything emasculatory in this direction whatsoever, seeing as how people simply vary remarkably in their separate capacities to countenance pain, it's one of the truly scary things about being alive when you think of it, this sense that no one can ever know the degree to which somebody else suffers—you might be a pain-exhibitionist, theatrically playing up the slightest disturbance in comfort for pity and love as easily as you might be more or less dying and seem totally fine, it's like how two people can look at the same cloud and perceive dramatically different forms.

 

Anyway, Bob doesn't want to go into details, but what happened was Bob's been studying his Nihongo hard this past couple of months, apparently unbeknownst to his native colleagues, and while he hasn't demonstrated much improvement on the speaking front, he's actually understanding more and more of what he hears being said, and what pained Bob today was to discover that his beloved co-worker, one Akimatsu Mirai, whom up until this very afternoon he'd counted his very best at-school friend, who frequently spoke to him in her adorably splintered English and leaned in over his desk most mornings to chirp Good Mahning! with unconscious punishing charm, might not think as highly of Bob as Bob has led himself to believe over the fifteen months of their burgeoning friendship, if his admittedly still middling comprehension of Nihongo is to be trusted, since what it sounded like she was saying to and laughing about with several other Senseis was in no way flattering to Bob, and seemed as far as he could tell to make numerous pointed references to both the new scent-development and the entirely Chu-hi-to-blame ballooning weight, and these observations were just by no means all she had to contribute to the project of belittling Bob. Very few things rattle Bob's cage worse than hypocrisy, and as far as he's concerned this country's awash in the shit. Of course, everywhere else is too, he suspects. This just happens to be the particular nation-state in which Bob tries his hardest—and it usually doesn't feel like enough—gagner sa vie.

 

Anyway, speaking of clouds, Bob avails himself of the opportunity to fill the newbies in on this quintessentially Japanese linguistic touch, whereby, unlike how in, say, the U.S., where a common-to-the-point-that-it's-practically-a-cliché feature of your ordinary American person's fond recollections of childhood is those times when said American and his or her mother would sojourn to some bucolic haunt like a neighborhood playground, or publicly-accessible beach, if, like Bob, you grew up in a place with numerous beaches close at hand, and spread out a blanket or military-surplus poncho or what have you and lie supine and attribute―often dubiously―the shapes of, say, farm animals or geological features or figures of popular legend and myth to the slowly mutating cumuli forms, that one looks like Sonic the Hedgehog, and so forth, the point or purpose obviously being to indulge the child's whimsy and imaginative ignorance of the way shit really is, and maybe simultaneously allow the parent to reminisce back to a probably nonexistent time when such flights of fancy were not delusive indulgences but the way things might be. So now on your other hand the Japanese, it transpires, have approximately several-hundred prefab designations for cloudshapes built into the language, so that in what Bob identifies as an archetypal Japanese move, the goal of any such parent-kid cloud-observation excursion here in Japan would basically be to inculcate the kid with another list of terms he's supposed to memorize and learn how to apply with precision in appropriate future circumstances―That is a "horsecloud," son, and so on―which is just so depressingly typic in Bob's view of this automated place, but also makes Bob feel sometimes—and is he the only one who feels this way?—that there's actually maybe something fundamentally wrong with him for not only failing to know and be able to apply the appropriate cloud-shape nomenclature, but then also to have ever even allowed himself to believe in things like whimsy or chance and the possibility of spotting a cloud with no agreed-upon name.

 

One noteworthy feature of this somewhat free-associative discourse being that, in theatrical parlance, it is what's known as a soliloquy, a monologue undertaken by a cast member alone on-stage, with the unseen wraith-contingent filling in nicely here for the dark-shrouded silent audience looking on as Bob struts and frets from one tatami to the next in his jutaku's gloam, nursing the tallboy of lemon Chu-Hi he fortuitously encountered behind a tray of sashimi that no longer looked well, thus postponing the switch to the more potent and dangerous shochu that will inevitably come next, delivering himself of his lines. And "lines" is also appropriate here, as he is in fact rehearsing: tomorrow's the Big Day of the outing he's proposed via online mass-invite and flyers posted conspicuously all around the apartment complex. It's a habit Bob's fallen into lately, wanting to make sure beforehand he knows what it is he's going to say, because he so often seems to wind up saying things wrong, and there's nothing like a little advance-preparation to ease the performing artist's nerves when at last he takes the stage, and he will be ready tomorrow, when it's time for everyone to gather out in the jutaku lot and saunter as one over to the Nishitetsu stop for the train ride to Daizenji, that justly renowned garden temple they're all lucky to live so close to for what Bob's enthusiastically envisioned as One Last Group Outing, some sake and bonhomie before the weather turns vehemently bad, and as he rehearses his lines one last time, not even the wraiths, whose powers of insight fall short of prognostication can discern—though, being intelligent wraiths, they might very well guess—that what will happen of course is that no one will show.

 

 

 

There's legitimate cloud action coming in from what looks like due north, if you judge by the nearly-down sun, but Bob reassures all present, as they spread out the blue tarp they'll be spectating from and settle in with the footwear-removal and begin to produce and distribute bentos and bags of the promisingly-labeled but generally not very good local snack products, that the weather forecast, which in Japan is reliable on the level of Swiss-designed clocks, is for clouds but no rain. Fortunately so for all at hand, since firework festivals in Japan are nobody's idea of a joke. The backing is corporate and intense, with different prominent kaisha squaring off to see whose sponsorship will generate the most scintillating sequence of blasts. Kirin took the crown at this past summer's display, in Bob's assessment, with a closing enfilade of swanworks gliding on a fizzy golden sea toward a fiery gate somehow finagled to imply spacial depth, the swans fading softly off into a distant night tableau having passed beneath the arch inscribed with that globally familiar brand-defining slogan: Ichi-ban. Wish you all could have been there to take it in with me. But the michi-level word he's got upwind of holds that this loosely winter-themed affair (note for instance, the vast makeshift presence of heavyweight U.S. pressure-fried-chicken purveyor KFC in the form of booths set up at numerous points alongside the more familiar yakitori and takoyaki stalls established throughout the byzantine sustenance arcade, because Japanese couples and families traditionally consume the famed Colonel's enigmatically seasoned crisp drumsticks, breasts and thighs on Christmas Eve; this tradition's origins can't be traced as far back in the cultural annals as, say, the Samurai Code, but it's still quite important to them) is up for grabs. Monolithic Coca-Cola naturally figuring to muscle into the upper tier. And he hears good things about Honda. Michi means street, as at this point everyone ought to know without Bob having to step in, though anyone still in the comprehension-dark might want to give a little thought to the still-standing offer described in those handbills Bob'd personally deposited in each gaijin postbox a month-odd back of weekly, bi-weekly, or even nightly conversation practice sessions, which he's still, as advertised, willing to provide free of charge.

 

No takers yet, although Dylan, who's trundled along the classy semi-acoustic acquired with one-third of a paycheck last month, does commence a brief michi-themed refrain over a couple fingerpicked self-penned bars, in his tender country-mountain drawl. It's true that no one technically invited Bob to come along, or even mentioned the Bob-excepted consensus that this festival held along the bank of the river Kurume would be worth getting trashed together and taking in, but the Futsukaichi foreigner community is sufficiently small and self-contained that all it would take for a person to catch wind of plans from which he'd been probably unintentionally excluded might be, say, a surreptitious slip out to the balcony, with inside-lights shut off, while other community members confabbed and batted back and forth logistics, together out in front of the jutaku, milling around by the square concrete benches below.

 

As practically everyone knows, firework display spectation is made measurelessly better by the sensory enhancement brought about by bong or joint or blunt or pipe. Any marijuana delivery system will obviously do, even a one-hitter, though Bob's always been partial to the so-called lung, which he could explain the complex architecture of any time, but only to pupils with a genuine enthusiasm to learn, as the requisite engineering is somewhat involved.

 

Of course, good luck procuring here. Roughly ninety percent of outdoor music fest attendees in Bob's Aloha State home base will be in possession of felonious quantities—we're talking ounces, not grams—and will happily provide any paying consumer, with little to no concern about potential legal fallout, Five-Oh contingent, many in mufti, notwithstanding, assuming you didn't want to just drift along with the contact-high that envelops all comers by the second or third act's taking stage. But it's tricky in Japan. However Bob lets it be known that he's relatively deep in discussion with certain extremely reliable and solid-seeming potential local sources, in case anyone else is interested in testing the acquisitional waters with him. The relentless admonishment not to take the risk at just about every new Assistant Language Teacher Orientation he'd had to sit through last summer had put Bob off the pot for this whole past year, with the somewhat dire repercussions associated with a swap-in of that legal CNS-depressant for what ought to be a legal mildly psychoactive herb. But it might be worthwhile now that he's made this whole batch of new foreign acquaintances, many of whom he feels comfortable already calling close friends, you know who you are, and all of whom have felicitously joined him in the apartment complex where he was the only non-Nihonjin resident all last year, a situation that wasn't so bad, really, Bob made the most of his time, but that did once in a while, particularly during the winter months when it was cold and got dark early and the only warm sector of his apartment was beneath the kotatsu heater under the low table, which set-up Bob imagines might facilitate a kind of cozy intimacy with a koi-bito (i.e., beloved: important word) or even a brood of little half-Japanese kids, but gets to be a drag some nights when you're the only person at same table watching incomprehensible television programming and trying but mostly failing to memorize the kanji characters that are at least part of what renders this language so darn near impenetrable to foreign folk like Bob, who had always seen himself as quick to pick up new things, but, he's kind of embarrassed to say, still isn't really satisfied with his development so far, which shouldn't discourage any prospective Conversation Session participants from at least popping by the Residence du Bob and giving it a trial run; language-acquisition is a cooperative endeavor, and there will inevitably arise situations wherein the designated teacher can be taught.

 

But if anybody's got an interest, Bob figures he might as well be the point man in terms of trying to sniff out a little herbal recreation for the group, particularly in light of the psychic devastation long-term dipsomania is known to wreak. Just ask Malcolm Lowry, e.g. Granted, just about everyone seems to agree the stuff you'll find here if you do manage to find any without getting snitched on and tossed into the legendarily draconian Japanese penitentiary system is crap. It's just he's lately been wondering how many times in one lifetime a body can bounce back from benders that terminate in all black. Besides: all you have to do is keep your eyes peeled and be on the lookout for potential sources in the right kinds of spots, for instance izakayas off the beaten path, if you're for-real about procuring this so-called contraband, is Bob's revised current position, because no matter what you might have had rammed down your throats by the shitbags at Orientation, it's a well-known fact that there is no accessible geographical coordinate on this perishing planet whereat you can't find fellow enthusiasts for the green, if you know how to maintain the previously indicated peel-eyed state, at all times, which is what Bob intends to make it his business to do, in case anybody's keen on jumping in. Probably even in the few remaining non-accessible locales, Bob reflects, such as parts of what's left of the Amazonian rainforest, your more intrepid canabis-sniffing-out type would most likely come across a healthy bud-smoking primal community. Though why the hell these explorer-type morons you see on popular reality television programs broadcast on a certain variety of premium cable network that Bob no longer has access to but used to watch a fair amount of, evenings after work, eating frozen French-bread pizzas (which are really not half-bad), hands faintly redolent of feet, back at his most recent bachelor pad in the States, why these clowns want to go roving around the last remaining ass-cracks of total non-civilization is a mystery that's entirely beyond Bob. Your thrill-seeker is at heart a man who won't admit he's running away.

Anyway, who's in?

 

Nobody leaps at Bob's offer to get in on the ground floor, which is fine: if Bob has learned one thing in life it's that the weed'll still be there, long after we've reverted to dust. It's time to hike down to one of the many kiosks erected along the riverbank, catering to nearly all imaginable Japanese culinary tastes. Plenty of beer, but Bob's hoping he'll find further Chu-hi, even though at these festivals it's shamelessly overpriced. This is his third or fourth trip downhill—nobody's counting but the wraiths, who confirm four and were privy to a certain ill-advised last-minute imbibing of a certain prescription grade sleep-aid that Bob has lately discovered can be taken recreationally if you're constitutionally-sound enough to fight through the drowse and probably didn't work through the old decision tree as carefully as he might have been advised to do, had wraiths been serving in an advisory as opposed to strictly observational capacity—and we're witnessing an eruptive facial pigmentation that would hold its own against any of the crimson-hued blasts in the forthcoming pyrotechnic display. During this brief interval of Boblessness, the conversation applies itself to a number of uninteresting topics, and Jake keeps requesting songs that Dylan either can't or wordlessly refuses to play. Anna's looking over her pink-rimmed glasses at it looks like Dylan's deftly-working hands (wraiths confirm), John Fondu can't read a word of Japanese, but might or might not be amused to discover that the flavor of synthetic-potato-chip he's already polished off half the bag of is in fact "rich cheese fondu." Jake withdraws to the blanket's southwest quadrant, next to Alyssa's handbag, which she's entrusted the group with on her way down to the food stalls, in search of fried squid, and takes an enormous hardcover from his messenger bag and begins to laugh at high volume in little belches of private hilarity that if anyone were giving it a thought, which no one is, they'd probably suspect is some kind of nebulously-intended thespian display, to plant precisely what seed of insight into the Jakeian condition it would be anyone's guess, and the wraiths, themselves sounding a touch weary of Jake, confirm that he hasn't read an actual sentence yet, even though he's hunched close over the open tome, mechanical pencil poised for marginal commentary a few millimeters from the page.

 

Bob returns and spills three-quarters of a Chu-hi on Jake's head (luckily he's got several more), which development Dylan has just begun to work thematically into a new improvisation when Alyssa also returns and an apologetic Bob settles in next to the shoe-pile along the blanket's eastern rim, running fingertips nonchalantly along the strap of one of Anna's open-toeds.

 

The five members of a Japanese family seated amid bento boxes and a few cans of fake beer for Dad on a pretty cherry-blossom-patterened quilt to the gaijin contingent's starboard side all wear surgical masks. Bob reflects on the cognitive dissonance inherent in such a rigorously logic-oriented race of people so readily donning these flimsy barriers to infection that any airborne microagent worthy of dread will zip right through in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred like salt through a sieve. Though it's sometimes the case that they're worn to ward off allergens, of which, by the way: Bob notices Jake's been sniffling and rubbing his eyes as if they itch. It's hayfever season, fyi, and as Jake surely doesn't need to be told by Bob, you can develop an allergy at any season in your life, so who knows, maybe some mutation in the Japanese strain is triggering this multi-symptomatic response. Which possibility calls to mind an experience Bob had with frozen processed vegetables.

 

As a youngster Bob was a hearty consumer of this affordable produce, and might eat an entire bag at any given meal. Carrots, broccoli, green beans, peas: you name it, excepting lima beans, which no one on the planet actually likes. Then one evening he found his system had abruptly reversed its position on frozen processed vegetables. After supper he threw up for several hours, at first in a kind of lurid Technicolor revisitation of the offending mixed-vegetable bag, then eventually a graying paste as the hues began to drain until finally all there was was stomach bile, which feels terrible to puke. And this happened once again some few weeks later at a friend's house, during the dinner phase of a sleepover, when the friend in question's mother served frozen processed peas, and Bob, caught up in both the thrill of the recreational hours to come, and a never-quite-gotten-over zeal for frozen processed vegetables, forgot himself and ate every pea that wasn't on another diner's plate (and actually half of his friend, Jose's, who ludicrously didn't care for peas) and so what was to be an evening of ice cream sundaes, frightening movies, Mortal Kombat, was quickly transformed into several hours spent purging himself of probably three-quarters of a bag of frozen processed peas, which just makes it clear in the event that it wasn't already that you never know with allergies. He has plenty more to say on the subject, however: Behold: the first firework has scraped light and sent sound cracking across the skies of Kurume.

 

Maybe you've heard of the famed Japanese track-jumpers, famous in the sense of their interchangeable nameless deaths, their collective anonymity. So frequent an occurrence that they mainly make no more than annual news, numerical contributions to the yearly tally of self- and public-transportation-inflicted death, a stat that, with the odd anomalous dip, is for the most part on the rise. So commonplace that the Japan Rail customer-assistance counters include on laminate English-language placards listing common causes of service interruption, to be produced preemptively and offered to the frequently impaired foreign passengers before they can work up enough indignation over the delay's impact on their personal business or recreational itinerary to get unpleasant this placating communique: CAUSE OF DELAY: PASSENGER FATALITY. There's a moment of intense eye-communication while the JR employee searches your expression for some sign of comprehension, perhaps spurred by his own seven-year stint of blanket incomprehension to doubt the capacity of these strange ugly symbols to convey sense or meaning to anyone, even large pink-faced foreign businessmen with sweat darkening more than half of the cheap material of their ridiculously poorly tailored suits.

 

In other words they're cleaning up the tracks. You can imagine the particulars of this janitorial task with whatever degree of specificity you wish, but your train is not going anywhere until the situation has been addressed. It should be noted that this entire procedure it not without its attendant costs. Not just the immediate material consequences of a blood-, bone-, organ-, skin-smear-spattered track and chassis, presumably the front and undercarriage of at least the first several forward cars, though scouring this human residue is by no means cheap, but the considerable loss in revenues the Company incurs during the period of inactivity, which can be and is calculated with that tenacious Nihonjin precision the Japanese apply to everything they do. Given the frequency of track-jumping suicidal events, it's only natural that official Company policy is to abide by the contract implicitly binding potential patrons of JR services the moment they set foot in any JR station, or on any JR-affiliated track or company real estate, which holds that in the event said patron elects to make use of JR-controlled company machinery in any non-sanctioned manner, such as availing himself (the perpetrators of these transgressions against the common transportational ease being predominantly male, though not exclusively, of course) of a JR passenger train's velocity and mass and precision-engineered nigh-indestructibility as a means by which to destroy the freight car carrying his mortal vessel and perhaps even soul via voluntary collision, it will be incumbent upon the deceased deviant customer's immediate family or closest solvent kin to defray the as-noted not-inconsiderable costs. So that, in light of the material costs piled onto the presumably not-inconsiderable emotional expense he'll be leaving his loved ones to pay, your Japanese track-jumper really needs to be in a bad way to go ahead and jump.

 

And yet they do it all the time! Reside in any backwater shithole of cicada swarms and rotting teeth for six months and you'll be incommoded thus. Any metropolis of decent size, forget it―you could be platform-bound and late for work on just about any day of the week. And why are the Japanese so suicide-prone? What makes these men so keen to die? We should resist the foreign resident's intractable impulse to engage in La-Z-Boy anthropology. The reasons may be complexly interwoven with the whole socio-cultural tapestry so seemingly every-citizen-inclusive that it presents as a kind of uniform national psychopathology. Perhaps it's as difficult for the foreign observer to analyze or comprehend as are other, less thanotopic characteristics of the Japanese. For instance, the fucking relentless bowing. The sugar in practically every dish. The uniform requirement that participants wear what amount to uniforms for every conceivable activity, be it conducting a Nishitetsu train, cleaning a high school, or going out for a jog. The idiotic staring. The maniacally tedious explanations that even I don't need more than half of to get the gist of, and I barely speak elementary-student-level Japanese. The ludicrous misuse of a language the entire nation is taught to speak from an age young enough that its average citizen ought in adulthood to be able to do more than name the apple or point out that "I am Japanese!" Maybe they can't bear to follow orders anymore. Maybe decades of fourteen-hour corporate days have finally dripped them dry. Maybe it's something that no mere expatriate should dare presume to comprehend. Perhaps there is unparsable complexity, but perhaps the explanation is not so complicated as all of that.

 

There are as many strains of sadness as there are hearts to provide them with rhythmic support, and there's a huge supply-demand imbalance, a surplus far in excess of what would suffice to fill and burst the several billion hearts that each mark time in keyless penitentiary cells designed to hold one member of the human diaspora each, within which each lone detainee waits to face the thing that can't be known, and if the sadness doesn't stop when it's too much to contain, if it flows on from its ruined vessel like some miracle water source without relent, a room-filling deluge of pain, then for the drowning man who knows there is no surfacing from this, only the long slow asphyxiating death, what's the terror and uncertainty of a micro-second's rendezvous with some streaking late-night steel, the whole horrifying prospect obliterated in an instant's intercourse between the flesh and super-express?

 

The sloppy trainward trek from the Kurume River's bank. Retinae still retaining optic memory of the marathon pyrotechnic display, gaits unsteady, carriages not exactly what you'd call erect. Laughter without pinpointable source. Proposals for a pre-ride konbini-run for further beer and snacks. Rampant hilarity at the idiosyncratic host nation's expense. Five young frolicking ex-pats, uniformly in the tank, giddy with the understanding that they'll have to clock in tomorrow, in all likelihood feeling like ass (to degrees varying from one reveler to the next according to precise volumes of intoxicant consumed, constitutional heartiness, long-term patterns of consumption, and so forth), have to get suited-up and mouthwashed and generally abluted no matter how potent the aftermath of tonight's free-for-all and be at their respective desks in their assorted teachers' offices for the 0830 start of their respective high- and junior-high schools' morning meetings, where it's their duty to show an as-much-as-possible jovial, smiling, easily-approachable-seeming friendly foreign face―and that's pretty much it.

 

I.e., no one present can think of a single work-related task, language-instructive or otherwise, that he or she will be expected to carry out tomorrow beyond being present and it goes without saying properly dressed and genial at their desks at 0830 to show face. Well, Fondu's wraith breaks with protocol to remind him he might have to teach a two-o'clock class, but still. After the unintelligible meeting they probably ought to stick around in deference to the remote possibility of a Japanese English Teacher actually wanting their assistance with some paperwork, or in class, but since none of the Japanese English Teachers can converse in the language it's his job to teach, none of them is likely to want this lack of expertise demonstrated in humiliating real-time for a class-full of forty ordinarily too-sleepy-to-give-a-shit young-adult Nihonjin, who you'd better believe would find the presence of their tall-nosed huge-foreheaded horror-film hirsute and odd-smelling native speaker's in-classroom presence more than compelling enough theater to restrain drooping eyelids and raise heads from desks in order to witness their already strongly held convictions re their supposed English Teachers' utter incapacity to use the language they instruct get confirmed firsthand… So they'll probably have plenty of time to sleep off the damage in some remote unused classroom, for which contribution to the Japanese educational programme they'll continue to receive a considerably higher monthly wage than what their native colleagues (who are assuredly not at liberty to sleep off their hangovers, though the entire male contingent of faculty members appears most mornings to be dehydrated to the level of spiritual pain) pull in. It's a sweet gig. Hence the whooping and hollering here at going-on-midnight as the drunkards lurch toward the station hoping to snag one of the last northbound trains.

 

A massive crowd spills down the station steps, total logjam; no one's boarding any trains. The jutaku crew'd expected a wait, but this? Official Nihongo booms from unseen P.A.s, there are gendarmes at hand, but the crowd mostly seems befuddled and confused, an edge of unsober annoyance to the polite milling around, it's as close to anarchy as you're likely to find in this self-policed, obedient state, but the foreigners are considerably less patient when it comes to interruptions in the smooth functioning of public-serving systems that they've already come to presume as their right, only nothing seems to be happening here: What's the hold up? Why this massing passenger presence, how long are they expected to wait, can anybody at least make a little sense of what the station guys are trying to say? Jake would be the logical interpretive choice here, since he does speak some Japanese, but Jake is not in a very good way, and is being more or less tugged along by a Dylan who doesn't look much worse for wear but doesn't speak word one, and what Jake says the Japanese are saying is roughly as comprehensible to the others as is the actual Japanese. None of the other newbies has picked up enough to decrypt the encoded pageantry that is official Japanese, which really only leaves one option: So has anyone seen Bob?