Orel stood in his kitchen, frozen in a movement, forgetting where he put the butter. He reached for the cupboard below the cups and there was the butter plate. He returned his attention to the cutting board where four slices of bread lay waiting for his culinary artwork to begin. There was only one way to make a sandwich, according to Orel Meyer. He’d perfected the art throughout the years, making slight tweaks to the quantities as his tastes slowly changed. The main ingredient was not your typical bologna, but mortadella, the real stuff. It’s hard to acquire, but there’s an Italian delicatessen in San Antonio where he’d buy four pounds at a time, paper in between the slices, packaged in one-pound bundles, double-wrapped, ready for the freezer. The same went for the Provolone Picante, paper in between the slices, etc., etc.
He was stationed in Bologna, Italy during WWII, not far from Genoa, where he worked in the Navy as an underwater welder. There, mortadella entered his life, and it never left. That is why he spent so much care with his sandwiches because he cared about the past, what it meant to him, how it shaped him, and the good memories he had of a time when he helped save the world. Through the years, somehow all that, the totality of the war and his life in Europe had been reduced down to a sandwich; into a perfectly edible box of meat and cheese. To Orel, though the past gets smaller the farther you travel from it, like a pearl of light at the end of a tunnel, the essence of that time stays alive and should be cultivated and celebrated.
It was late, perhaps eleven in the evening. Orel stood underneath a hanging light just to the left of the sink. He was a big man, 6’2 220 pounds, but all muscle. He’d always been that way, the big boy on the farm, a juggernaut of a football player. He stood underneath that lamp and shadows clung to him. It was in stark contrast to the pure whiteness of the kitchen. White cabinets, white tile floor, white walls, and even white curtains alongside the windows. Orel prided himself on not updating the kitchen. If you take good care of the past it doesn’t need to be updated, he always thought. So, though it was 1981 the kitchen was a reflection of 1946, the year he and his wife bought the house, on a secluded tract of land in the Hill Country full of old sunburned oaks and plenty of cedar to choke on come January.
Orel finished his sandwiches, set the table, and sat the two plates down. He prayed. “Lord protector, I’ve seen your light, and once I saw that light, I’ve never looked away. Though that light was hidden, it wasn’t too far, as long as I was brave enough to look for it. Lord, when I found that light I finally understood what powers you have, how you can turn things inside out, and make anything possible. Lord, with your guidance, I’m not afraid anymore because I see how trivial this life can be when I’m caught up in distraction. I ask you, oh Lord, to bless this meal and may it not be my last. In your name, we pray, Amen.”
Orel looked at the empty chair across from him, to the glass of milk, and to the plate with the sandwich and froze like he’d lost the butter again. How long had she been gone? He thought, how long from this earth. Was it this decade or the last? He used to know quite well, but with present circumstances, her passing had become a blur, nearly a figment of his imagination, or rather a bad dream losing steam on the back of time. They met in ‘39, married in ‘46, had kids in ‘47 and ‘49, vacationed to Italy in ‘63, he began diving again in ‘74. She died in… Orel imagined she was sitting with him, that she was knitting at the table, that she was listening to the radio and letting go of her obnoxious laugh. “No, but up here, that’s gone,” he said to himself. “Up here it’s all gone.” He took another bite out of his sandwich and it tasted stale. He set it down and began to pace around the kitchen. He couldn’t remember when she died and the thought hammered him with guilt.
The kids in ‘47 and ’49, landed a job as a machinist in ’50. Italy in ’63. My first dive in ’74… nothing. He went to the living room and stood there looking at her empty recliner. He thought back to the days she used to sit there in her curlers listening to the radio. She always had a cigarette burning beside her and a fan on hot days. She’d yell at the boys to do their chores while reading passages from the Good Book. She died in… He still couldn’t remember.
He remembered the cancer, how she acted like she wasn’t scared, but shut herself away like she was infectious. She shed weight in multiples. Then, she went to bed one night and never woke up and the smell of death permeated the sheets, the walls, and the rug. However, Orel kept the room the way it was, to respect the past, to honor it. Never mind though that he hadn’t been in the room since.
Orel crept up the stairs afraid to wake the dead. He slowly made his way to their old bedroom and pressed his forehead against it. “For the love of God, what year did you die?” he asked, but it was still a gaping hole like the answer had been extracted from his brain. He opened the door into the darkroom. Switched the light but it wouldn’t turn on. Dead bulb. He could see the outline of the bed to his right, centered on the wall, and on either side of it a bedside table. The alarm clock flashed 6:42 am and he began to ache because he remembered that was the time he found her. But the ache was quickly replaced by confusion as the strong odor of cigarettes clouded the room. He rushed downstairs for a flashlight and when he came back to the room he heard a wheezing sound coming from the far side of the bed. He aimed his flashlight at the source of the wheezing and turned it on. His wife sat on the floor, her back against the wall, curlers in her hair, pale as an onion, black and white, smiling at him, but wheezing. Cigarettes were everywhere, put out on the carpet, and piled into mounds. She just stared at him with tarred-over teeth, smiling like she was so happy he decided to open the door. Orel slammed the door shut and ran downstairs.
“That is not my wife,” he yelled descending the stairs. “That is not my wife.” He began to pace in the kitchen again and noticing her place setting, ran his arm across it sending the sandwich and glass of milk across the kitchen. If there was one emotion Orel Meyer had little experience with it was fear, Orel was afraid. He’d been so close to God lately, so close to his wife, so how was it that a demon like the one upstairs could appear to a man like him? He needed answers and he needed them now. Against his better judgment, Orel decided to do what he said he would never do, dive at night, alone. It was the only way he could get answers.
He went down the basement stairs, pulling the light cord halfway down. The dark stone floor was clear of objects, all storage behind sliding doors, his tools curated in a museum of pegboard and matching hooks screwed into the rafters. He heard the radio switch on upstairs. He shuttered and went to a workman’s armoire, and opened it. There, he pulled out a wet suit, stripped, and slithered his way into the foam skin. He put on his fins, gloves, and goggles. Mounted his depth gauge and flashlights, and made sure his tanks were full. He connected his regulator, and double and triple checked his equipment like an experienced diver does.
He then made his way out into the yard. He saw the silhouette of his wife in the kitchen window pulling a drag from a cigarette. It was evening, but sweltering hot. He walked to the old well on his property and descended the ladder, into the darkness. At the bottom, he undid the lock and hoisted the wooden hatch. He looked up and saw a narrow circle of the night sky above him, the stars shining brightly like memories. He looked down and saw nothing but blackness. He said one last prayer before diving into the blackness, where the room of light is, to ask his real wife when she died.
It was a half-moon, so half the light, but enough to see the crazy outline of your friends’ faces laugh, pull drags off of their cigarettes, and bemoan the wild actions of their other classmates. It was Friday, a late spring night, graduation was near and there was an air of fervor amongst the class of 2000. The students were partying where they shouldn’t be, at a park called the Black Hole, deep in the Hill Country. Ivory bands of limestone tape the edges of the valley they’re in. Prickly Pear cactus were built with their paws up ready to slap any drunk high school student not paying attention. The juniper is there, just below the mesquite and oak. In the car park there’s a long line of trucks and for every truck at least three pairs of boots. And for every pair of boots, a belt buckle, and for every one of these boys a case of beer and a tin of dip. Kickers. There was everyone else too, the jocks, cheer, the rockers, the skaters, theater, yearbook, etc. everyone was in good spirits at first; everyone felt a connection to each other because high school was nearly over, but the beer began to kick in.
“Okay, here’s the scenario,” Travis Herder stated to his friends, “You’re plane crashes and you’re stranded in the woods. Months go by and no one has come to rescue you. Winter is coming and you’re starving. Your best friend goes off into the woods one day and he dies. What do you do with the body?”
“Well, bury it, stupid,” Courtney Lopez said.
“Wait though,” Travis interjected. “You’re starving, winter’s coming, there’s no rescue insight. God knows how you’re going to survive. Still, do you bury it, or something else?”
“Oh, you’re fucking sick man!” Andreas Bernal laughed.
“Sick as it may be this is survival, man.” Travis takes a big swig from his keg cup and pulls a drag from his cigarette. “Look, we know what the civilized answer is, but when you’re no longer in civilization and you become an animal in the woods, the game changes.”
A girl’s voice from outside their circle said, “Pray for the soul of your friend, wear his neckless as a keepsake, and cut him up for the fire.”
Everyone turned around and there stood Amelia Guzman. One star converse, Ripped jeans, a black slip underneath a Rage Against the Machine t-shirt and a doubled-up nose ring.
Travis loathed her because she was smarter than him and always reminded him of it. However, she seemed to be extending a cannibalistic olive branch, one he gladly took.
“Exactly, exactly. Now, the question must be asked,” Travis smiled, “what part do you eat first?”
“His dick!” Courtney blurted out, already laughing.
“You would,” said Andreas.
The group went into babbling disarray before Amelia chimed back in.
“His heart,” she said.
The group began to laugh again, but when they saw that Amelia was dead serious they unwound like a top losing momentum.
“It’s ceremony. You give thanks by taking his heart, eat it raw, and then move on to the hindquarters to butcher and cook.”
“Holy shit,” Andreas said with a rubber band between his lips, pulling back his hair to tie into a ponytail.
Travis looked at Amelia with different eyes. She was always such a bitch to him; so self-serious and stand-offish, but tonight her curtness rearranged his feelings, and beyond his understanding, he felt some brand of kinship with her. Perhaps it was her unveiled honesty, maybe her Rage t-shirt, or even the fact that under all the layers of angst and eyeshadow he thought she was pretty.
“I agree with Amelia,” he said. “You’ve got to eat to survive, and if ritualizing the act by honoring his soul by eating his heart does the trick, then so be it…”
Kim Stevens stumbled by with a few girls from the cheer squad. They were all wearing Daisy Dukes and formed a perfect palate of pastel halter-tops. “Fucking freaks!” Kim said. She let off a drunken cackle that ricocheted off the limestone crags around the perimeter.
The group of would-be cannibals was silent, all but Amelia who wedged her way into the group. “Kim, you’re just jealous because nobody would eat your anorexic ass.”
“Shut up, you ugly bitch, Cody eats me every night,” Kim said.
“I’m sorry, half of the kickers are named Cody, which one are you going to fuck in the woods tonight?” Amelia responded.
Kim turned around to confront Amelia, but Travis blocked her advance.
“Forget it, Kim,” he said. “You do your thing, and we’ll do ours.”
Travis looked into Kim’s eyes, he’d known her since they were in 1st grade. Her eyes always looked like two beach balls floating in a sea of milk, but the milk had been bloodied.
“You want to fuck her, don’t you?” Kim said to Travis. She began to laugh and lightly slapped Travis on the cheek twice. “Good luck with that one, Trav, she’s clearly a dyke.”
Amelia looked at Travis, but he couldn’t decipher if the look was a look of disdain or a silent call for help.
“There’s just no need for drama,” he said.
“Just go, Kim,” Courtney said.
“We’ll see you later,” Kim said menacingly, her friend pulling her arm to disengage.
“Byeee,” said Amelia.
“Bitch!” Kim yelled with her back turned, already walking away.
The group was silent for a second until Courtney began to laugh. “You straight-up called out Kim for being anorexic, that’s bold girl!” She said to Amelia.
“Fuck that skinny bitch,” Amelia said.
The car park began to empty as more students took the cat tracks down to the river to party amongst the scrub and soapy rocks. Only the moon provided light, a spectrum of subdued blue light that made their eyes turn black and their cigarette cherries glow like lava balls. The group of cannibals stuck together. At Sampson Valley High they were the weird ones. They were the ones that dressed differently, found unheard-of music on Napster and Limewire. They read the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and the Yaki Way of Knowledge instead of their assigned reading. They idolized Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley, Jim Morrison, and Lou Reed. Got high to Pink Floyd and Radiohead, and thought about life outside of Texas. Life after Texas. But, here they were, at a Keg, “fitting in,” drinking with the rest tonight to forget about the cliques their class has been cultivating and refining since 6th grade.
“Boo!” Two shadows popped up from the brush. “Ouch, fuck!” One of them said.
“Jesus Christ!” Travis belted.
“Shit, I got bit by a cactus,” Pearl said.
Pearl and Rico attached themselves to the group smelling like weed, cig, and cheap beer.
“Where have you two burnouts been?” Courtney asked, the moon causing her long black hair to look like an oil slick.
“Hiding from kickers and getting high.”
“So, the same as at school?” Amelia said.
“Oh shit, it’s Amelia Guzman!” Pearl said. He pulled something out of his cigarette pack. “Here, I want you to have my roach. It’s a gift of goodwill.”
To their surprise, she didn’t insult Pearl—which was the usual—and instead took it and put it in her own pack of Dave’s lights.
“Damn, son, the girl is cool, right?” Rico said, pulling his bandana headband up so he could see.
“I’ll always take free weed,” she said.
The group descended down, passing random groups of students until they reached the river. It glowed electric and Pearl and Rico stopped talking to trip on it for a second.
“What would you do, Andreas?” Travis asked.
“Would you eat your friend if you were lost in the woods?”
Pearl began to laugh. “Shit, guy, Travis is always on some weird shit.”
“No, I wouldn’t,” Andreas said. “I’d die with dignity.”
“Is there dignity dying from hunger?” Travis said.
“It happened with the IRA,” Amelia said. “My dad told me Irish fighters against England would get caught and hunger strike in prison. A few of them died.”
“That’s fucking madness,” Pearl said.
“I heard there’s a point you can’t come back from, where your body starts to eat itself, you’re not hungry anymore, you’re just a shell of a human waiting for the light to go out, but like in a Zen way, so maybe there’s dignity in that?” Travis said.
They were quiet until a loud yip startled them.
“The kickers are drunk,” Courtney said.
The yips continued as did the refracted chatter of laughter and screams.
“They must be jumping into the Black Hole,” Travis said.
“Man, that place gives me the creeps at night,” Andreas said.
“It’s just a pool of water,” Amelia said. “I’m more pissed about how they’re going to trash the place.”
“I talked to a ranger here once, and he said they come out an hour before opening to clean up all the beer cans and scrub the puke off the rocks.”
“Gross,” said Courtney.
“Fuck the Codys,” both Travis and Amelia said at the same time. She smiled at him and he could have sworn he’d never seen her smile before.
“Love is in the air,” Pearl began to sing while walking away to the river’s bank.
“Shut up!” Amelia said.
Travis turned away to spare her any embarrassment.
They all laid down on the rocks and looked up to the sky. In the distance, their classmates played. But, they were still, contemplative, perhaps all thinking the same thing, “I wish the kickers were gone so we could go to the Black Hole.”
“You know,” Travis said after a moment, “they don’t quite know how deep the Black Hole is.”
“It’s 114 feet,” Andreas said.
There was a moment of silence before the group began to laugh.
“OK, OK, what I meant is that they don’t know where all the tunnels at the bottom of the hole go to.”
“There are tunnels? That’s crazy, man,” Pearl said.
“Yeah, man, divers have died down there,” Travis responded. “Ever heard of Orel Meyer?”
“He the popcorn guy?” Rico said, letting off his high-pitched giggle.
“Naw, naw,” Travis said, fighting off the group laughter. “Naw, he was this diver in the late 70s that went down and was never seen again.”
“Wait, I heard about that shit,” Andreas said. “Wasn’t that the case where they said he must have unhooked himself from his line?”
“Yes, but my dad said that the weird thing was that he was hooked up to a carabiner that had a screw lock, and when they pulled up the line it was screwed closed.”
“What does that mean?” Pearl said.
“It means, stupid, that he unlatched himself and screwed the lock back on the carabiner.”
“That’s weird,” Courtney said. “Why would he do that?”
“Maybe that’s the protocol?” Pearl said.
“Protocol?” Amelia said, “Where did you learn that word?”
“I think on Law and Order,” Pearl said. “My mom and I bond through that show.”
“Cute,” Amelia said.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Travis continued. “That’s the whole thing…”
“HOLE thing, good one, man!” Rico said.
“Shut up, Rico!” Everyone exclaimed.
“There are two possibilities,” Travis said. “One: he unhooked himself knowing he wouldn’t be reattaching himself, or two, he was ripped free from his line. Now, based on how he was hooked up, that would take 400 pounds of pressure.”
They were all quiet until Andreas spoke up. “You’re so full of shit, Travis.”
“No, I’m being serious. Look it up. And, he’s just one of ten divers that have gone missing in the Black Hole.”
“Hey, freaks!” They heard in the distance.
Spooked, Travis stood up and heard a rush of air come at his face and then an explosion detonated. The butt end of a beer bottle hit him square in the forehead. He staggered and fell onto the rocks.
Four kickers, Cody Lawson, Cody Cole, Cody Judge, and Ken Berg ran to Travis hoop’in and holler’in.
“Shit boy, you nailed him right in the forehead,” Cody said.
They circled around Travis and looked at him squirm on the ground like a dying fish out of water.
“You hurt, Trav?” Cody said. “Trav, you hurt?”
“Of course, he’s fucking hurt, Dickhead!” Amelia said, running over to Travis to check him out.
“What the fuck guys,” Andreas said. “Why did you do that?”
“Keep your pants on Maricòn,” Cody said.
“Fuck you, Cody,” Courtney said.
Another one of the Cody’s slapped her and Andreas made an attempt to leap at Cody, but stumbled under the rocks and fell short. He felt three pops land on the side of his head and he tucked into a ball to protect himself.
Pearls and Rico ran into the water waist deep and contemplated swimming to the other side. Amelia picked up a rock, ran over to Ken Berg standing over Andreas, and smashed him upside the head. Just then, her lights went dark, and she fell on her back.
While Ken stubbled about regaining his footing Cody Lawson, the leader sat on top of her, grabbed a hold of one of her nose rings, and ripped it out. Amelia screamed in pain. Courtney began to hit him in the back but was subdued by the other two Codys.
“Come on guys, leave us alone,” Pearl said.
“We just meant to startle you freaks, but Travis stood up into that bottle. Wasn’t our fault, y’all overreacted.”
The codys forced Courtney onto the rocks. She was crying. Lawson, with Amelia’s nose ring still in his hand, straddled Travis to check on him.
“He’s going to have a headache, but he’ll be fine,” he said.
He stood up, walked by Amelia, and threw her nose ring at her.
“Can’t fix this mess though,” he said.
Andreas laid still with his arms wrapped around his head.
“You fucking losers made this way worse than it had to be,” Lawson said, walking away backward.
Amelia picked up her head, a river of blood coming down her face, and screamed, “Get the fuck away from us!”
The Codys and Ken began to laugh and disappeared into the Juniper.
No one said anything. Courtney came over to Amelia’s aid.
“Got out of the water you fucking cowards,” she said to Pearl and Rico.
They complied with their heads down in shame.
“Give Amelia one of your t-shirts,” Courtney said.
“But,” Pearl said.
Pearl grudgingly pulled off his shirt and gave it to Courtney.
Andreas stood up and began to stagger towards the river not saying a word.
Travis began to laugh. Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at him, all realizing that they’d nearly forgotten he was hurt.
Travis lay on the rocks, kicking his legs about to control the pain, but his arms spread and still, each hand grasping a rock.
“So much for class comradery,” he said. “I fucking hate this place.”
“Me too,” Courtney said, wiping the blood from Amelia’s face and neck.
“I hate this place!” Andreas screamed at the river.
Pearl and Rico just stood there, bewildered, unsure what they thought, and unsure how to be useful.
We should all move to New York when we graduate,” Amelia said. “Let’s just fucking do it.” She spit blood onto the rocks like she was made a blood pact.
They sat there in silence for some time. Their thoughts stretched between their hatred for home and their fear of leaving. They were in pain, all of them, both physical and otherwise. The night began so well, but it had turned dark. They knew there was always a chance that it would, but they’d suspended their apprehension to come, to have fun for once and be a part of something. But, the fact was they didn’t belong.
Travis slowly stood up and wobbled. He felt the knot developing on his forehead.
“No… no…” he moaned, “I can’t go to school like this.
“At least you didn’t get your nose ripped off,” Amelia said, still with Pearl’s t-shirt pressed against her nostril to control the bleeding.
“At least you’re not a fag,” Andreas said, crouched at the foot of the river.
Courtney walked over to him and gave him a hug.
Travis had an idea to lighten the mood.
“Would you rather eat your friends or your enemies?” he said.
“God damn it,” Andreas said.
Amelia started laughing and sat back on the ground.
Courtney began to laugh too, Travis was such an idiot.
“What the hell are you guys laughing about?” Rico said.
“Oh, you didn’t know?” Travis said. “We’re cannibals now.”
Two hours passed. It was late. One after the other they heard the kickers’ trucks fire up and peel out of the car park. They were waiting for everyone to leave. A couple classmates came down to the river and asked if they were okay. They didn’t look okay but said they were. Soon it sounded like everyone was gone. It was finally safe to go to the Black Hole.
“I don’t want to go,” The shirtless Pearl said. “My pant are wet, I’m hungry.”
“Then walk home,” Courtney said.
“I’ll come,” he said.
Courtney steadied Travis and lead him to the trail. Behind, Pearl and Rico followed. Behind them, Amelia stumbled with a shirt still pressed to her nose.
“I think this shirt is stuck to my nose,” she said. “Thank god I’m drunk.”
No one responded.
Andreas took anchor, he hadn’t spoken since the fight.
Deeper they went into the oaks. The cicadas hissed frequencies beyond their comprehension. The trail leveled out and then rose gradually over a bank. When they cleared the embankment they saw the moonlight sprayed across the Black Hole. Two naked white bodies lay at the side of the pool.
“Fuck, it’s Lawson and Kim,” Courtney said.
“I’m seeing four of them, must be an orgy,” Travis said.
“Shhh…” Amelia said.
“Are they boning?” Pearl asked.
“Shut up, Pearl,” They said in unison.
“Follow me,” Amelia said, ripping the t-shirt from her nose.
Before they could discuss, she was gone. They looked at each other, silently negotiating who was going to respond first.
“Let’s go,” Travis said.
They quietly made their way down to the brush beside the dark swimming hole.
Kim and Cody stood up and began to make out. Their slender frames intermixing in the blue night. Their white skin reflected the moon and Amelia watched them in disgust. The rest of the gang arrived, each looking at each other and then at the prom king and queen to be, necking each other, ready for another go.
“Fucking gross,” Courtney whispered.
Kim stopped and looked around.
“Did you hear that?” she asked Cody. “Hello?” she said, covering her breasts.
“Get a good look!” Cody said and grabbed Kim to resume what they were doing.
Travis looked at Amelia biting her bottom lip and he realized what was about to happen. Amelia left and made her way forward under the protection of the brush. She finally stopped ten feet from the unknowing pair. Then, like a silent assassin, she made her move and rushed them. They were so startled they didn’t know how to react and with all her might Amelia crashed into their naked bodies and sent them into the hole. She sent them so far across the pool that she heard to dull knock of one of their heads, or both, hit against a rock on the far side of the pool. She picked up a rock and waited for them to surface, but they didn’t…
Kim and Cody both hit their heads against something as they made their way to the surface. It was made of wood planks and covered the opening to the pool. It was pitch black, the water was intolerably cold, they struggled to keep their faces above the water.
“Cody, Cody,” Kim pleaded. “Cody, what the fuck is going on?”
They began to bang on the wooded slats. Kim was tearing at them with her nails until they began to break and bleed. Cody used his shoulder to rupture the wooden lid, but it was solid like concrete. Kim continued to scratch the wooden lid and began to tire.
“We’re going to fucking die,” She screamed.
“We ain’t going to die,” Cody said.
Several minutes had passed and the two were exhausted. Kim’s head was barely above the waterline and Cody felt his cowboy strength wane.
“Where the fuck are they?” Andreas said.
“I think they hit their heads,” Amelia said.
“They wouldn’t sink though,” Travis said.
“Oh my god, I fucking killed them,” Amelia said.
“How long has it been?”
“Over five minutes.”
Holy shit, what’s going on?” Travis said.
In the distance, they heard voices and the diffused glow of flashlights were arriving from the other side of the embankment.
“We have to go,” Courtney said.
“No, we have to help,” Amelia said.
Travis grabbed Amelia’s hand and she shook it off, but Travis didn’t back down.
“We need to hide and see what happens.”
He pulled her away and they fled.
“Cody, I can’t stay up anymore,” Kim said. “Cody… oh my God,” she gasped and slipped into the blackness.
“Kim!” Cody shouted, “Kim!”
He dove down for her, but her body was gone. He labored back to the surface and hit his head on the wood planks. He began to cry and expend what little energy he had left on breaking the wood planks overhead. Soon after he tired. He was scared, not wanting to die, still baffled by what had happened. How did they end up somewhere else? Now, only his lips were above water, as his arms and legs began to go numb. He labored, pushed for more strength, channeled the will to live into his movements. Finally, he succumbed to the water and he sank below the line of survival.
The other Codys and Ken came back with more beer and investigated the scene. They saw Cody and Kim’s clothes, but no Cody and Kim.
“They must be at it in the woods,” Cody said.
“Freaks,” Cody said.
They laughed and cracked their beers.
The young cannibals watched from afar with the horror of knowing that something bad was happening, something they couldn’t take back. Then, Amelia saw it first, she saw Kim’s body subtly bubble up to the surface. The kickers hadn’t noticed yet; they were too busy and drunk. But then Cody Lawson’s body sprung from the water like a jumping fish and landed face down in the water with a crash. Ken spit out his beer and looked at the bodies of his two friends floating face down in the Black Hole.
“Cody, Kim!” The gang heard them yell, but no movement.
The Cody’s jumped in to retrieve the bodies and Ken dragged them to the rim of the hole.
They slapped Cody, tried CPR, and frantically paced around the king and queen.
“We’ve got to get the police,” Ken said.
The three boys took off through the twisted oaks and disappeared, leaving the dead where they lay.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” Travis said.
“Yeah, we need to go,” said Andreas.
Amelia stood up and began to walk to the pool like she was in a daze.
“I’m going with her,” Courtney said.
She took off too and after a moment of the boys looking stupidly at each other, they followed.
Amelia stood over Kim’s body. She looked into those lifeless blue beach balls and felt deep remorse.
“I didn’t mean to kill them,” she said. She began to shake all over.
Courtney grabbed her as Travis knelt down beside Kim’s body.
“Look at her hands,” he said.
They saw her nails nearly ripped off and blood puddled below them. Travis went to Cody and noticed his hands were swollen and that his shoulder looked like it was out of its socket. Cody’s eyes were open and his face looked like he died in terror.
“We’ve got to go before the cops get here,” Rico said.
“Yeah, not trying to be gay Mexican in this mug right now,” Andreas said.
Courtney tore Amelia away and Andreas did the same to Travis.
“What’s going on here?” Travis said. “This doesn’t make sense.”
They first checked that the car park was empty and then piled into Andreas’s parent’s Buick. The band, Hole was blaring from the speakers.
“Turn that shit off,” Travis said.
Andreas ignored him, peeled out, and floored it through the country roads towards the highway. As they neared HW561 they could see a line of colored lights flicker in the distance.
“Hurry, hurry, let’s fucking go!” Pearl said.
They turned away from the lights and they watched behind them to see if they were going to be followed. As the lights neared they collectively held their breath. The lead car turned right and the rest followed. It was just the Buick on an empty road.
Amelia was weeping in the back seat with Courtney’s arm around her. Rico was sitting on Pearl’s lap and whispered if they should ask Amelia for the roach back.
“No,” Travis said from the front seat, ending that idea before it got too far.
Andreas was keeping the ship steady but rocking back and forth. No one was talking, they were all stuck in a nightmare, caught in some loop of choice and consequence. Finally, Travis said something.
“We need to make a plan.”
“How about a fucking time machine,” Andreas said.
“I’ve got to turn myself in,” Amelia said. No one responded. “I got us into this, I’ll face the consequence.”
“Wait a minute,” Travis said. “Did you see their bodies? Did you see Kim’s hands and Cody’s shoulder?”
“Not closely,” Courtney said.
“Her hands looked like they were shredded on a cheese grater and Cody’s shoulder was out of its socket.”
“I don’t think you killed them, Amelia. I don’t know what but something else happened.”
“Now’s not the time Travis,” Andreas said.
“They looked like they were beating on something, that’s all I’m saying,” Travis said.
“He right,” Amelia said. “They were all fucked up when I looked at them.”
“They hit their heads and drowned,” Rico said. “Enough said.”
“I looked at their heads,” Travis said. “I saw a bump on Cody’s, but nothing bad.”
Andreas turned onto FM1086 and drove down the center of the road.
“Well, what happened then, Travis?” he asked, appearing to lose his cool.
Travis hesitated. “I don’t know, but what I do know is that we have to know for sure what happened before any of us turn ourselves in.”
Andreas pulled the car over got out and sat on the hood.
Everyone else waited for the other to make a move and Rico was first because he was sick of sitting on his friend’s lap. The rest followed. Travis passed out cigarettes and they sat in silence for some time.
“How long did it take for the bodies to surface?” Andreas said, looking up at the stars.
“More than ten minutes,” Travis said.
“Could have they gotten those injuries falling in?”
“I doubt it, her fucking nails were ripped off and filled with a bunch of black pulp.”
“And, you’re sure Cody’s arm was out of its socket?”
“I’m sure,” Travis said.
“Okay,” Andreas said. “I believe you, but what are we supposed to do about it?”
“We keep a secret and go to school on Monday,” Amelia said.
They turned to look at her. She appeared hardened. Sure of the plan.
“We tell the whole truth until the moment we went to the Black Hole. We say we just stayed by the river. People will know we got jumped by the Codys and we don’t deny it. We’ll say that we hiked all the way to Murchinson’s Turn and looked at the stars until the beer wore off.
“Because the last cars in the parking lot were ours, Lawson’s and the Codys.”
“We have a motive,” Travis said, but we’ll have to stick to our stories; maybe the Cody’s didn’t even notice the Buick was yours, Andreas. But, to be safe, you can’t drive it to school or to parties anymore. I’ll drive.” Travis said.
A coyote howled in the distance.
Courtney began to laugh, “If I had to choose who to eat, I’d choose my friends,” she said.
They all looked at her and knew exactly what she meant.
Andreas began to cry on the hood of his parent’s car because his feelings of guilt had transferred to a bigger mystery. Adulthood.
Kyoto’s a steam room with a broiler for a celling. I’ve been to Arashiyama and somehow beat the crowds to bury Franny’s kerchief amongst the tall bars of bamboo. Sweat dripped off my brow and when I was finished I felt like I was one step closer to Franny’s death. I sat by a gem green river for a while wishing I had more control over what’s going to happen. I feel powerless and it’s distressing to know things beyond my control are on a collision course. I avoid a small Shinto shrine near me by the water’s edge because I’m not sure what to believe anymore. I decide to leave the forest and find food and air conditioning.
I’m still in Arashiyama, near the bamboo forest, at a small sushi restaurant. It’s a square shop barricaded with gridded paper screens. I’m sitting at a bar and next to me is a Japanese man wearing traditional Japanese clothing, which I assume means he works in the tourist industry. He’s pushing fifty. Freckles are chained underneath his eyes. His hair is greying. He’s lean and fit, and also oddly content to not have his food yet. He’s not reading on his phone, nor checking on a social media update. He’s simply staring forward, lost in his thoughts. Then, without turning to me he says, “Ahi tuna sushi is very popular in the States, but have you tried Yellow Tail? Now that’s a treat.”
“I have once,” I say. “But I’d had too much sake beforehand to properly taste it.”
“And today, too many cigarettes and Oi Ocha,” he says.
“He turns to face me and I see that he’s blind.”
“You’re right, can you smell it on me?” I say.
“As soon as the door opened and you entered. American. Smoker. Iced tea.”
“I hope it’ll not spoil your taste,” I say.
“No, but thank you.”
He remains turned towards me and seemingly hyperaware of my movements. As though, he can hear my eyes move and my facial expressions crane. He chuckles and turns back. He says something to the sushi chef in front of us and the chef looks at me briefly before continuing his work.
“I told him to not service you with the best fish because you’ve spoiled your tongue today,” he says, chuckling again.
I’m a little confused about how to receive this news, but I remain a keen participant.
“Maybe, that’s a good idea, I wouldn’t want him to waste his best product.”
Now, the blind man laughs.
“You’re not your average American,” he says. “Somewhere close to Canada, but with a Westcoast accent. Seattle, it must be. Yes, your restraint matches there as well.”
“Good guess,” I say.
His smile snaps shut and he says gruffly, “It is no guess.”
He loosens up again and smiles.
“Would you share a tokkuri of sake with me?”
The tokkuri soon arrives and we clink plates.
There’s an awareness to this man that defies explanation. He’s the one who grasped the tokkuri, he’s the one who pours the sake, he’s the one who clinked his sake plate onto mine. If it wasn’t for the fact that I can see his eyes rolled back inside his head, I’d have said he was a liar. Both of our meals come at the same time and we eat.
I mash a mound of wasabi into a pool of soy sauce and separate the leaves of pickled ginger from one another.
“That’s a lot of wasabi,” he says. “You like intense tasting things.”
“I suppose so,” I say.
“People who like intense tasting things are intense thinkers.”
“My thoughts are usually quite loud, can you hear them?”
“Yes,” he says, but then looks away and continues to eat.
“I hope I didn’t offend you?” I say.
“I was sure I had offended you.”
“No, I’m just unsure of your intensions, that’s all.”
He laughs and says, “My name is Akira.”
I introduce myself and we shake hands.
“Tell me, what tragedy brings you to Japan,” he says.
“How do you know that?”
“Because your demeanor is heavy and I’ve been around it enough to know when I sense it.”
“I wouldn’t want to bother you with it,” I say.
“You’re right, I’ve been rude,” he says, “it’s just that I don’t speak to many people, especially Americans from Seattle.”
I hesitate, something’s strange about this man, but to his defense, something has been strange with me since I arrived to Japan. Perhaps it’s not a bad idea to humor him—what’s the worst that could come of it?
“My brother is dying in Nagoya,” I say. “And, my mother is dying in Seattle.”
“I’m very sorry,” he says. “Is there anything I can do?”
“If you can ease their suffering and make it quick, I’d be much obliged,” I say.
“Of course,” he says and lifts his plate to toast.
“Well, that was easy,” I joke.
“You never know who you’ll run into at a sushi bar in Kyoto,” he says, chuckling.
The sushi chef looks up at me, then to the strange blind man, and then back to his fillet of tuna.
“Do you believe if two family members are dying at the same time they can bind to each other, and one feel the pain of the other?” I ask.
“It would take strong feelings to make something like that happen, but people don’t think like that anymore,” he says. “In old times if one person was showing the symptoms of another patient and visa versa, that’s what they’d think. Why do you ask?”
“It’s nothing,” I say.
“You find yourself thinking things you’ve never thought of before,” he says.
“Perhaps,” I say.
The man brushes his hand across the thick black cane resting beside him on the bar and smiles.
“We seek answers when there are none.”
“I’m just confused about what’s happening to me,” I say.
“Intense thinking leads to intense emotions,” he says, with his mouth full.
“Are both your mother and brother intense thinkers?”
“I’d say so.”
“Then the idea of their connection will be intensified by their legacy.”
“I don’t follow?” I say.
“When you ponder one, it will match their intensity, but if you ponder both the intensity is quadrupled. It sounds like they might be working out their past with each other. You must figure this is more important than their deaths.”
“So you do believe they might be bonded?”
“They are mother and son, of course they are, this isn’t magic.”
“I know, I—”
“You must sleep more,” he says. “Things won’t be as confusing if you sleep.”
I nod feeling as though this man is reading my thoughts.
We eat some more in silence, joke around a bit, and Akira tells me of some of his favorite shrines in the city. “From the train station you must walk to Fushimi Inari-Taisha,” he says. “When you arrive you must then walk through every gate.”
“I will,” I say.
He comes in close to my face.
“I mean it,” he says. “Inari is fickle and quick to anger. Every gate.”
“You seem like a good person, let the shrines cleanse you.” He turns his head around as if he’s hearing something far off and trying to identify where it’s coming from. “The rest of this sake is for you,” he says. He stands up, slips on a red yukata and grabs his cane, which looks more like a katana sword’s saya, and says, “I have a tour group to lead, I need to be sharp.”
“Of course you do,” I say, “Arrigato. Thank you for the advice.”
He bows and says, “It was a blessed chance encounter.”
He leaves. When I’m finished I ask for the bill. Akira’s meal is on the ticket. The extra sake softens the blow.
I could have taken the train to Fushimi Inari-Taisha, but instead I stabbed the hot concrete for an hour to get there because I didn’t want to deviate from Akira’s directions. I’m sweating profusely and out of Oi Ocha. I arrive to the great shrine of Inari and find that it’s a mountain. The old man made me walk all this way to the foot of a mountain and now I’m supposed to climb it. I begin snaking my way through crowds of tourists until I arrive at the first gate. It’s a large red gate comprised of two thick pillars called hashira holding up a two pieced lintel made up of a lower beam called the nuki and the crown called kasagi. I know this because I read the sign below it. Passing through it, there’s no other way to go, but up, so I remain with a large mass of hikers and climb the pathway.
Every several feet there’s another red gate. I turn a corner and look up to see a long train of gates stapled in a row up the mountainside. Like a dog, I want to run through all of them, but I’m frustrated because there are too many people in my way. However, the further I climb the thinner the masses become, but the more exposed I am to the hot sun. My shirt is soaked now, and my legs are beginning to burn. My pack is barely full, but it weighs a ton.
With each gate I begin to feel weaker, but I’m too hard-headed to stop. I feel as though I’ve been summoned to the shrine because there’s some meaning up there for me. I continue up. Soon, I pass through each gate alone. In between, tourists pass me and give strange looks. I ignore them. I’m weak and thirsty, uncharacteristically so, more than I should be and I wonder if something else is the matter with me. I tell myself, the struggle is part of the process, that this is a test of spirit. Akira told me to do it this way to challenge me. I accepted the challenge and I intend to finish it. I trudge on, the sweat on my skin makes it appear oily and iridescent. My mouth is as dry as a desert. My skin feels like it’s cracking like baked mud.
After an hour and a half I stumble to the top of Mt. Inari and I’m greeted with statues of foxes. I find a bench and sit. I feel as though I might be sick, but I concentrate on my breathing. I concentrate for so long that I stop thinking, and no longer thinking I stop remembering, and not remembering, I feel groggy. I fall asleep on the bench and remain there for some time. When I awake it’s night. Someone set a bottle of water by my head. I sit up and my head drains an ocean out from it and it feels as though all my hair could fall out. There are other people up here, so I’m not alone; I’m just surprised I wasn’t bothered by anyone. I drink the bottle of water in one go and try to stand up. I totter a little and realize the sun baked the energy out of my body. A group of University kids are laughing. One asks, if I’m alright, and I say too much sun, and they laugh some more. I’m not offended, because I’d think it’s funny too. I begin my descent, knees knocking all the way down, each gate reminding me I accepted a strange challenge with zero benefit. That’s yet to be determined, and all I should concentrate on is getting off this mountain to buy food and water.
I reach the streets and I have just enough phone battery to find my hostel. When I arrive I’m so happy to find Midori booked me a private room. I go to the bar and people from all over the world are partying. I order a hamburger and eat the whole thing in two minutes. I drink only water and I keep drinking glass after glass. During this whole process of recovery, from the foot of the mountain to the hostel bar, I’m not thinking and still not remembering. I just want food and water. I’m a machine for once and I’m happy. I eat and drink, resting in the total present, not taking on any responsibility, not administering guilt, nothing. That is until I receive a message from Midori.
“No time to discuss, you need to come home now. I’ve purchased a new train ticket for you. Can you be at the station in fifty minutes? Only answer if you cannot. Attached is your ticket.” [Text Message, Midori]
I get lost trying to locate the Kyoto train station in the dark, but I follow the Kyoto Tower and eventually find my way. I have a little time to spare so I order an iced coffee at Starbucks, and the teller can’t understand me. Finally I say, aisukōhī and she says, ohhhhhh, aisukōhī. Go fucking figure, if it’s not one way, it’s the other. I take out my change purse to pay her and I swear the coins pass though my hand. They splash across the counter and go everywhere. I pick up what I can and leave what I can’t see. I get to the train deck and step onto the Nozumi headed for Nagoya. It’s late, but there are still people on board. I have the isle to myself though, or at least an empty seat for Inari.
Something is following me or at least playing tricks on me. I have no proof, but ever since I nearly broke Franny’s feet, I’ve felt distressed. I’m losing it and I know it, but I’ve got no other choice than to remain on the road I’m on. I know it’s leading me to Franny’s death bed. It’s happening so fast, too fast. Franny’s never been the same since the seizure. I should have known then that he’d die while I was here. Even if I did know, nothing can prepare you. Soon, a brother I never really knew is going to die. I’ll be left putting together a puzzle of his image for years to come. But, the more I try to rebuild him, the farther away his true image will get.
I suppose that’s why I came here, to give it one last try to understand Franny and why he was the man he was. I figured if I put myself in his shoes, met his friends, and went to his haunts I’d know who he was. But, I’m no closer. Perhaps I’ve put too much into it, and pushed too hard to come to grips with a man that was rarely available, and certainly always gone. Selfishly, I’ve wanted more, too much, more than one life can give another. Still, I wish Franny was capable of being there for me because I’ve known this whole time he has what I have in my head. When his friends speak about his intensity, his creativity, his insatiable hunger for mood altering substances, I feel a profound force of empathy rumble though me. It makes me afraid to watch how he’s dying because I can’t shake the feeling I’ll succumb to the same fate. If not worse. I want to be more than that, but who I am won’t let me. Stability is a dream I’ll never acquire. Happiness is a fox hiding within a shrine.
Franny never found it, but he was so focused on his pain, how could he be? It’s such a shame mom and him are going to die together without seeing each other a last time. I wish Franny could have forgiven mom for her mistakes and that mom could have had a chance to ask for forgiveness. But, I hate Franny for hanging that over mom’s head, Aja too. At least Aja came to help out, but Franny did the Franny thing and went ahead and died.
Soon, I arrive at Nagoya Station and take the subway to Nagoya City University Hospital. There are barely any commuters, all is still and calm. I arrive Inside the hospital and a young man wearing a red Adidas track coat sits on a bench muttering to himself. He sees me and begins to speak in Japanese. He’s drunk and unhappy. I can’t understand him. I ignore him the best I can the take the elevator up to oncology.
Midori sits next to Franny’s bed holding his hand.
“Robbie, You’re brother is dying,” she says with tears down her face.
“I know,” I say and I sit on the other side of the bed and grasp her hand from across Franny body.
“I shouldn’t have gone to Kyoto,” I say.
“You couldn’t have known.”
“I feel so badly about what happened, I didn’t mean to hurt him,” I say. “If he was going to die I didn’t want our last words to be angry.”
I felt Franny’s hand squeeze mine and my whole body reacts.
“He squeezed my hand,” I say.
“Now your last words aren’t angry words. He talked to me about you last night,” Midori says, wiping her face. “He said he was worried that you dislike him,” she says.
“Of course I don’t. I love you, Franny,” I say to him.
“He said, he wishes you two talked more, that he had things to tell you.”
“I think I know what they are,” I say. “They’re things I have a hard time talking about too.”
“Robbie,” Midori says. “I’m sorry I took Franny away to Japan. I took him away from your family.”
“No, don’t think that, he needed to leave,” I say.
“I think he was happy here,” she says.
“He was happier here than he ever would have been in Seattle.”
“I hope so.”
We hold on as long as we can, but both of us fall asleep beside Franny’s bed. My dreams are troubled. Dying dogs, a Shinto figurine laying waste to the city. A homeless man set on fire. My mouth propped open with a dental gag and fish dropped in. Headstones regurgitating living skeletons like a bellowing smoke stack. An empty bed frozen solid. These images repeat themselves.
I’m roused by sobbing, and when I open my eyes I see Midori looking at Franny and by the pain in her voice I know my brother is dead. His mouth is open, his skin is yellowish grey, he’s more emaciated than before, he will be cremated soon.
“I love you, brother,” I say, and console Midori.
I look up, and behind her stands Franny.
“I’ll explain later,” he says, in usual fashion. “Just help Midori as much as you can before we leave for Seattle. In the meantime, I have a blind man to thank.”
My heart sinks because I know now this is all inside of me.
On December 26th 1944 Japanese intelligence officer, Hiro Onoda was sent on a mission to the Filipino island of Lubang. He was ordered to disrupt enemy attacks on the island by destroying airstrips and docks. It wasn’t long before Onoda joined forces with a group of Japanese commandos also sent to the island to jam the Philippine Commonwealth and Allied forces. Within a couple months most of the soldiers were dead. Onoda, now a lieutenant, ordered the rest of the unit to hide in the hills. They waged a guerilla war under the safety of the jungle canopy.
One day while burning a village’s rice supply they found a letter that said the war had ended in August and to please surrender. The surviving members of the Imperial Japanese Army went over the letter at length and after a fair bit of discussion decided the letter was a fake; Allied propaganda meant to trick them into surrender. Their reasoning was simple, Japanese soldiers do not surrender and their country would never ask them to because Japan would never surrender. There would be no Japan at all if the country had lost the war.
Years passed and every once in a while there’d be another skirmish. The propaganda continued. Family photos and letters were air dropped in, imploring the remaining soldiers to lay down their arms and surrender. Still, Onoda and the three men left felt that these efforts were disingenuous in nature and attempts to entrap and dishonor them. They continued to lay traps, kill innocents and hide.
In time, Onoda was the only man left in the group; the rest had died in shootouts with the enemy. He’d made the dense jungle his home and had learned to survive on what it provided. In his hut slept his fully functional Arisaka Type 99 rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition, a case of hand grenades and most importantly, his sword. Onoda was entirely self-sufficient and still unflinchingly dedicated to the inflexible components of Japanese military moral.
Then, one day a funny dressed Japanese man, with long hair and oddly shaped round glasses found Onoda in the jungle and said to him, I’ve been looking for you, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, and you were on the top of my list. Norio Suzuki looked so strange to Onoda, but Onoda listened to him anyways. Perhaps, Suzuki signaled within Onoda that things are not as they seem. Perhaps Onoda was just lonely? Suzuki asked him why he wouldn’t surrender and Onoda said he’d only surrender if his commanding officer relieved him of duty.
Major Hoshimi Taniguchi was a bookseller in Japan and was quite surprised when the Japanese government requested his help. He agreed to fly to Lubang Island and meet Lieutenant Hiro Onoda. On March 9th 1974 Onoda gave his sword to Major Taniguchi and surrendered. The war had been over for 29 years, but for Onoda it’d just ended.
Sleep is still hard to come by and the anime program I fell asleep to filled my head with oddly shaped spirits in need of arcane objects. I’m not hungover, which is a miracle. A strong tangle of competing odors emanate from the kitchen. Midori’s home and is making breakfast. She enters my room.
“Robbie, you slept with the television on, just like your brother.”
“Yeah, and now I have a party of anime creatures playing jazz in my head.”
“You’re weird like your brother too,” she says and returns to the kitchen.
I get up and pull on some pants and replace my shirt. I enter the kitchen and the table is set with a collection of bowls and steaming tea.
“Sit down and eat,” she says, rummaging around in the sink.
I sit and she takes off her apron and joins.
“That,” pointing to a bowl, “is rice,” she says.
“Very funny,” I say.
“That’s dashimaki tamago or Japanese style omelet. That,” moving her finger to the next bowl, “is unohana, which is soy pulp with vegetables. And, that is grilled fish. I also have Japanese style white bread if you can’t handle the Japanese food I made for you.”
“Oh, shut up, I’ve got this,” I say.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” She gets up and pulls a dish out of the fridge. “Nori, seaweed salad.”
“I love nori,” I say.
“Really, me too.”
We eat for a while.
“I even brought you a Japanese newspaper.”
“I wish I could read this,” I say.
Midori is happy for the first time since I got here. She watches me eat. The food is good, the textures are foreign to me, but not in a bad way. How food feels in your mouth is important in Japan, and so I take my time with every bite and consider the textures in my mouth in union with their flavor. I finish eating, no longer hungry, but neither too full. I pour more tea.
“I can’t believe you’re leaving soon; it feels like you just got here,” she says.
“I feel badly about leaving for Kyoto,” I say.
“No, you should see it.”
“Well, we have today,” I say.
“And a day when you return.”
We’re avoiding talking about Franny. His condition has worsened. He slips in and out of delirium. He hasn’t smoked for over a week and still asks for one every day. We both know he’s not going to get better, but neither of us are going to say anything about it. It’d be pointless anyways; it’s obvious what’s going on. I just didn’t think it was going to happen while I was here. But, it is. Midori is calm. Often distant and disconnected, but centered. She fills her day up going between the hospital and doing chores. She made me this breakfast and she didn’t have to. She booked my Nozumi (bullet train) to Kyoto and found me a place to stay. She bought me a map and marked all the shrines I should see. She took me out to sushi last night and the chef gave me a copy of his hand written menu. I don’t understand how she can be so accommodating at a time like this. She’s super human and her strength has rubbed off on me, though I worry that maybe I’m simply avoiding my emotions. If that is the case, I don’t care; I’m happy to be rid of feelings for a couple days.
“Remember Otōto, eat every grain of rice or else I’ll think you didn’t like the food,” Midori says.
I grip my chopsticks, bite my tongue, and concentrate to collect every last grain. She laughs.
“It looks like it hurts,” she says. “Eating should be enjoyable.”
“Picking up grains of rice with chopsticks is like threading a needle.”
I take a shower and when I come out Midori is nearly out the door.
“I’m going to the hospital, will you be coming for lunch or after? If you come for lunch I’ll buy you Hitsumabushi.”
“That’s grilled eel, right? Unagi?”
“Yes, it’s a Nagoya specialty.”
“I wouldn’t miss it,” I say. She leaves, and their cat, Tami comes out from the closet and begins to meow like crazy.
“You heard us talk about grilled unagi, didn’t you?” I say to her.
She looks at me and says, “Why yes I did and I don’t appreciate being left out of these events.”
“You should take that up with your mother,” I say.
“I have many times,” she says, “but Haha believes dry food is best for me.”
“Some people believe crazy things,” I say.
“You’re telling me. This is why I whine at night; to make her pay for the suffering she causes Tami.”
We go out to the deck and sit in the two weathered teak chairs.
“I’m sorry about your father,” I say.
She says nothing.
“If I could make him better I would.”
“He served Tami tsuna and saba. He sometimes reads Isaac Asimov and tells Tami about him. It’s very complicated and puts Tami to sleep.”
“What else would you and Franny do?”
“I would watch him write little plays and act them out with him. Sometimes he’d dance and sing, but sometimes he’d get frustrated and yell at me and cry.”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
She licks her paw and wipes her face.
“It’s nothing, he never hurt Tami, only himself.”
“How do you mean?” I ask.
“He’d pound his hand with his own fist, slap his face, scratch his chest with his nails.”
“Why, do you think he did this?”
Tami stops cleaning her face and hops off the chair.
“It happens when he drinks wine alone,” she says. “I just don’t eat or drink things that are bad for me, but master Franny doesn’t care, he drinks wine no matter what. Will you stay here and feed Tami and read Isaac Asimov to me now?”
“I don’t think so, Tami. I don’t live in Japan.”
“What is Japan?” she screeches. “You’re making up stories like my father,” she says. Tami walks back inside the apartment and to her sleeping pad in the closet.
I think about Franny and his life in Japan and it reminds me of something my dad said, that wherever you go, you have to take yourself with you, and I wonder if Japan was an escape or a destination for Fran? Here, he’s still at war with himself, just as much so as at home. But here, and alone in his apartment, he was undercover, in hiding for as long as he needed.
I finish getting ready, slug a glass of cold green tea, and pop in my headphones. Franny loves Peter Gabriel, so I turn on Solsbury Hill, and I’m eight years-old again watching Franny practice his golf swing in the back yard. His hair is long and he has a single thin braid hugging the back hip of his right ear. His t-shirt is pink and large, his shorts are khaki and short. His golf shoes are black and white wingtips. He’s smoking and his skin is young and tight. He says, catch, and hits a golf ball at me. I miss it and it hits my chest with a thud. It hurts, but I’m already embarrassed enough for not catching the ball, so I suck up the sting, throw the ball back to him and say, another. He hits another, and I leap and catch it. He says nothing, but is smiling. I know he’s thinking of something to say to take me down a peg, but decides against it. He gives me this win.
I’m in Chikusa Station and the ushers are here. They’re wearing suits, bright white gloves, and peaked hats. The platform is crowded, my train arrives, a flood of people spill out, I’m lifted off my feet and poured in. We are all stuffed inside, the bodies of strangers touching mine. Still, no eyes on eyes. I have to change trains and I’m anxious about getting off, but when the time comes packs of passengers liquefy and drip off the exits, allowing me a pathway to escape through. I want to high-five everyone, but this exercise is not exceptional, it’s just the right way to go about things—to-step-off-to-step-on-again.
I eventually arrive to the hospital and step up to the Starbucks counter inside and order an aisukōhī with bullet-between-the-teeth confidence. After a minute or two, In perfect English, the girl at the counter says to be, here’s your iced coffee, sir. Again, on the elevator, a middle-aged man asks me point blank in English which floor I want. The rest of the people in the elevator don’t even flinch. Business as unusual. I arrive to Franny’s room concerned that maybe I look lost today and in need of an extra hand, but why should people going out of their way bother me? I put it aside.
Franny’s awake, laying on his bed, looking out the window like I’ve seen mom and Liam look out a hospital window. I’m sure I’ve looked out a window the same way, but from home, when I’m alone. I pull a chair next to him and hope he’s not delirious.
“Are you delirious?” I ask.
“No, I’m Francis,” he says.
“Midori made me breakfast,” I say. “And Tami says you read her Asimov.”
That sparks his interest and he turns to me.
“She wasn’t supposed to do that,” he says.
“What, make me breakfast?”
“No, Tami wasn’t supposed to tell anyone I read to her.”
“She’s got a lot to say.”
“You’re telling me,” he say. “I try to go over my scripts with her, but she won’t shut up about her favorite kinds of fish and the power of bonito flakes!”
We pause to take in a breath and see the sun pouring into the little room.
“Where’s Midori?” I ask.
“I think she went out to pick up your unagi lunch.”
“Are you eating with us?”
“I hate unagi,” he says. “It tastes like kippers in old slippers to me.”
“Kippers in slippers? Wow, sounds as fun as Bananas in Pajamas.”
“God that was a weird kid’s show,” he says.
“Tell me about it, all the sexual tension between B1 and B2 sleeping in separate beds. I couldn’t take it.”
“Man, that’s the truth,” Fran says, laughing.
Midori comes into the room.
“It’s nice to see the brothers laughing,” she says.
“We’re not laughing,” Franny says, pretending to act grumpy. “Now go eat your kippers in slippers in the cafeteria and leave me to my ice water and unlimited supply of rescue shots. I might just take a rescue and trip out to the X-Files while you guys are away poisoning yourselves on grilled sea snake.”
“Someone’s in a good mood,” Midori says. “Okay, Mr. Francis, we’ll be back.”
We make our way to a small dining area located on the same floor. My favorite feature of this room is the green tea machine. It comes out either hot or cold. It’s a true miracle maker.
We sit down, unpack our lunch, and Midori explains to me the condiments and broths, which come on the side. We dig in and say very little until only grains of rice are left.
“Who will I offend if I don’t eat these grains of rice,” I say.
“Me,” she says. “I bought this meal for you and it’s my favorite.”
I keep picking away.
“You know, thank you so much for being here. Franny didn’t say a single word today until you got here; you make him feel better.”
“I hope so,” I say.
“Through all these years why didn’t any of you ever come to see Franny? It hurt him a lot.”
I want to believe it was a money issue for us, which is partially true, we’re always broke, but that’s an issue of misappropriated funds, rather than hurting from want. I want to tell Midori I’m not included because look, I’m here now, but honestly I could have found a way here before the cancer. As for the family: mom, Aja and Liam, maybe they were scared to, but I cannot say for certain. I know that I didn’t because I wanted to go to other places, and when I was away I was too preoccupied with my own life. I don’t have an answer for her without throwing someone, including myself, under a bus. We’re all guilty.
“You were young,” she continues, and you are here now, but what about Liam and Aja? What about your mom?”
“I think they thought there’s always time, and now there’s not,” I say.
“It’s too late now because I cannot accommodate them,” she says.
“Yes, that’s what I mean,” I say.
“You Americans,” she says. “You Americans like tragedy, especially if you live through it. It makes you feel strong, but in reality it makes you weaker because a piece of you has been bitten off. A chunk you cannot recover.”
“A lot of our stories are about overcoming obstacles,” I say.
“People and their condition aren’t obstacles, and when they die there’s damage, even if you jump over their bodies.”
“I know,” I say. “That’s what I believe too.”
Despite a few bits of rice still left in my bowl she collects what’s left of our lunch and throws it away. All of a sudden, Midori isn’t well, and I feel it’s partially my fault. I stop her.
“My family doesn’t make much sense, and they can appear self-centered and callous, but I promise you, that isn’t the case. The truth is, many of them never thought Franny wanted to see them, they thought they’re too much for him, and they should stay away unless Franny asks for them. My family feels love for each other, but never says it, and barely ever shows it. It’s a mystery, but not simply a situation where they don’t care.”
“I don’t understand that,” she says, and leaves the room.
“I don’t understand either,” I say to myself.
“I understand,” a nurse says to be, again in perfect English. “They’re shy with emotions. My family’s the same way.”
“Perhaps they are,” I say. I think on it for a moment and decided I like the sound of it. “Doumo arigatou gozaimasu,” I say.
“No problem,” she says, holding in laughter.
Franny and I go on a walk and we’re sitting by the shrine where he had his seizure. He’s distant, either sullen, or lost in thought. He looks awful, fatigued and emaciated. He drops his head like he’s sleeping. I look into the little shrine and I see a figurine of a woman in a red Kimono. There are offerings of fruit and yen in little bowls surrounding her. I look at her closely and see she’s smirking. I wonder if she knows something about Franny I don’t? That’s the thing about Shinto kami, they always know what’s up and they always have a plan. At least, that’s what I’ve surmised in my short time here.
Franny wakes up and looks at me like I’m a polished figurine myself.
“Hi brother,” he says. “When’s the game?”
“What game?” I ask.
“The Mariners game.”
“Not until later,” I say. “Since that win streak in April we’ve been nothing but poop stain and skid mark.”
“It’s the Mariners, Robbie,” he says.
“I wish they’d just make a deal with the devil already and win the pennant.”
“They already did in ’95, and we’ve been suffering the consequences ever since.”
“What about Ichiro and 2001,” I say. “One of the greatest hitters ever to play and we won 116 games, which tied the all-time record?”
“I know the stats, but look at the results. We lost to the Yankees in the first series of the playoffs and haven’t been to the post season since. One of the greatest feats of underperformance in the history of baseball.”
“I see your point,” I say.
I get a message from Aja.
“Hi little brother. How’s Franny doing? I miss him so much and it kills me to not be there. Instead, I’m here with mom, or at least, what was mom. I suppose, it still is mom, but the mean 1974 version of mom who ruined my life. I don’t mean to spoil your trip at all, but you should know mom’s really slipping. When she’s not catatonic, she does this thing where she thinks everyone around her is a demon and she begins to hyperventilate until she’s shot with a sedative to knock her out. It’s distressing to watch.
“Liam was here the first time it happened and it sent him away in pieces. Just so you know, Ronda somehow broke Liam’s contract with his horse dealer, and bought the horse out from under him and took it to her property. Least to say, Kayleigh’s now at her mom’s nearly all the time. Watching mom freak out sent him over the edge and no one has seen him in a couple days. Have you heard from him? Margo and I are worried. Sorry to dump this on you, but you need to know. Is it bad to want mom to die? How’s our brother doing? Kiss Franny for me. Hugs.” [Message, Aja]
I look up at Franny and he says, “That bad, huh?”
“Mom’s doing real bad and Liam had Ronda do one over on him again,” I say.
“What did she do?”
“She bought a horse out from under him,” I say.
Franny lets out a fantastic laugh.
“Come on, man,” he says. “First of all, what the fuck is Liam doing buying a horse to begin with—leverage to win over his daughter? Secondly, if he were Ronda and saw the opening, he’d do the same thing. Never forget he and Ronda are more the same than different.”
“I just want to be left out of it,” I say. “I could give a shit about their fucking horse. It’s so bizarre anyways, like a total cliché.”
“And so coded in their bizarre hang up with appearing high class.”
“You can learn a lot from watching Masterpiece Theater,” I say.
“Table manners, back handed compliments, and yes, the finer aspects of horse care,” he says.
I let the air out of the bag, “We should stop talking shit, but I know how hard it can be with those two.”
“Kayleigh’s joined the club, huh?” Franny says.
“What club?” I ask.
“The Family suicide club.”
“Apparently, a two time member.”
“Fuck, before 16, she’s on pace for greatness. I wish there was something to say to her to make her see her parents’ affection isn’t worth the labor,” he says.
“Speaking from experience,” I say.
“I’m still stuck where Kayleigh is, Trauma does that to you; I still want everyone to feel badly for me. That’s what’s getting me through.”
“If you know you’re doing it, then why don’t you stop?”
“Because I can’t see the forest through the trees—makes it hard to escape.”
We sit in silence for a few minutes and I look back inside the tiny little shrine and see the figurine now smiling.
“What if I told you, you could walk in any direction and find an exit,” I say.
“I’d say it’s a trick.”
“Because childhood trauma doesn’t just keep you bleeding, it’s also a shield which keeps you safe from adulthood trauma, but at the price of normalcy and happiness. I don’t want to be right, I just want to feel right.”
“So, you’re saying you knowingly stay locking inside your childhood trauma even if it means you miss out on a chance of normalcy and happiness?”
“It’s not as easy as that. I’ve got too many mistakes to face up to,” he says. “That’s when all my addictions take hold and I blame mom again for her mistakes. It’s a loop.”
“Like I said, stop walking in circles and aim in one direction,” I say.
“That’s not an option now,” he says. “I’ll be dead in a few days.”
“Don’t talk like that.”
“Why, does it offend you?”
He rolls away from me, stops in the middle of the narrow side street, and then rolls back to me.
“ Speaking of which, buy me a pack of cigarettes, will you? I want one more before this is all over.
“I can’t, doctor’s orders.”
“Who cares,” he says.
“I do. I don’t want to be the reason you get kicked out of the hospital. Plus, it’s wrong,” I say.
“This isn’t about your feelings,” he says, growing dark, “This is about me having a moment of joy and relief before I go back inside.
“Franny, I can’t do it. Don’t ask me to do it again.”
“I’m going to fucking die anyway, give me a cigarette,” he says.
I ignore him and the wide grin now pasted on the face of the Shinto goddess. She must have something to do with death, or at least trickery and deception. Maybe, she’s the goddess of cigarettes? It’s no matter. I get up, unlock the wheelchair brakes and begin to wheel Franny back to the hospital. As long as we’re outside he’s going to keep working on me.
“I don’t want to go in yet,” he says. I ignore him and keep wheeling him through the parking lot.
Suddenly, he stomps both feet onto the pavement to stop the wheel chair, but instead of stopping the chair, both feet roll underneath themselves and under his seat. Fran howls in pain.
“You fucker,” he says. “You rotten little shit.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“You fucker,” he keeps repeating while rocking in his chair, reaching down but failing to grasp his feet.
I don’t know what to do, I look at his feet and one appears dislocated. Several people look at us and one woman says something to be in Japanese, but I don’t understand. I make a sign for a telephone and point to the hospital, which seems to make sense and a couple people jump on their phones. An older man walks up, looks at Fran like he’s a hurt animal, and begins to speak with several onlookers. He looks at me and says in a thick accent, “doctor?” I say, hi. A couple people walk quickly towards the hospital. The pack of good Samaritans pass an expressionless Midori who’s standing like a dagger buried into a card table. The wind brushes passed her and she’s looks right at me. I jog to her.
“Franny’s feet got caught underneath the wheelchair. He’s hurt.”
She makes a quick phone call, the Japanese words fly by my head like sparrows, and she hangs up. She remains lost in thought and doesn’t move.
“Midori, he just stomped on the ground while I was pushing him, it happened so fast.”
She says, I know, to me and places her hand on my shoulder before leaving me to see Franny. I follow behind her a minute after and Franny’s head is slumped forward and he’s crying. Midori hugs him and speaks to him gently. He nods to her song and I see in front of me a side of Franny seldom available. Around him a jungle forms and he shrinks down to his seven year-old self. He has a wooden sword, a pirate’s hat and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. I begin to laugh, but quickly realize that it’s inappropriate. In fact, it’s rather sad. The whole fucking scenario is sad and tears form in my eyes. A hand grasps mine and an older woman appears beside me. Her hair is grey, her shawl is red and her scarf has foxes printed on it. She’s saying things to me in Japanese and I understand them; they’re the universal words one delivers to another who’s grieving.
I thank the older woman kindly and approach my brother. Two doctors are working on Franny’s feet. I see him grimace in pain whenever the doctor tries to manipulate his ankles. Words are exchanged and indeed Franny dislocated an ankle and the other is sprained. Midori keeps Franny company, but he’s nearly unresponsive, either to control the pain, or because he realized this is another turn for the worst he won’t recover from. After some time Franny is hoisted onto a gurney and wheeled away.
Midori remains, as do I. We look at each other and it’s nothing like how we were at breakfast; now it feels like things are speeding up and that Franny wants it that way.
“I’m so sorry,” I say.
“You have to be gentle with Franny,” she says. “I say that to him too. You have to be gentle with yourself, Franny, I say this to him and he drinks and smokes. I don’t know why he lives like that.”
Her face stretches into the amorphous shape of profound sadness and I feel something inside me begin to break. I hug her to make her feel better, but she cries instead, and she cries for a while in spite of the onlookers. When she pulls herself away from me and asks me for a cigarette. I go to the market across the street from the hospital and do for her what I couldn’t do for Franny. She’s sitting on the bench next to the little Shinto shrine and I light her cigarette for her.
“You must go to Kyoto and take this scarf to Arashiyama bamboo forest and tie it somewhere,” she says.
She hands me the scarf, which is more so a handkerchief and says, “Franny loved Arashiyama, he’d want this there.”
“Of course I’ll take it.”
Midori smiles and takes a drag.
“I wish he’d let go of the past,” I say.
“It’s important for your mother that he does,” she says.
“How do you mean?” I ask.
“Your mother is tied to Franny because of his anger. That’s why they’re sharing symptoms. Franny’s making her death worse by not letting go. Nothing works, I’ve tried, he won’t let go.”
“I’ve tried too,” I say. “So you think they’re linked because they’re dying at the same time?”
“I think so,” she says. “At the very least, they’re tied together by an unhappy accident of fortune.”
I don’t know what to think of this, but it’s interesting, and at the very least would explain Franny’s delirium.
“I just want Franny to surrender,” I say. “All that hurt was from so long ago.”
“That’s Franny,” Midori says.
I think, what if the world was actually as magical as Midori says it is? I’d prefer that to the other school of thought that life is just a cosmic pool table of balls hitting balls in a chaotic game with no premise or object. I like the idea that’s there’s an unseen orchestra of actors walking among us, making both good, and trouble. The idea that mom and Franny’s deaths are linked gives the unfortunate coincidence of their dual demise meaning. It’s tragic, but at least it’s not pointless. I look inside the tiny little shrine next to us and notice the statuette is gone.
“Which god lives here?” I ask. “The statue’s gone.”
“Inari is the god of foxes.”
“Wasn’t the shrine of a woman?” I ask.
“Inari can be either a man, a woman or a fox. I’m sure she’ll be back once she’s finished playing.”
My shoes are off and I’m seated at a low standing table on a raised bench with aching knees smoldering underneath. There are framed impressions of red hand prints covering the walls—they’re the hands of sumo wrestlers who have come to eat chicken wings At Fry Bo in Gokiso. I’m with two of Franny’s film director friends and we’re drunk. The college kids around us are also drunk. The grandma who owns the restaurant is wrapped in an orange kimono and pegged with wooden sandals, and she might also be drunk. She sees me fussing with a chicken wing and begins to tell me off in Japanese. Franny’s friend George begins to laugh and says, “She says you’re too apprehensive and must treat the wing more like your girlfriend.”
“That’s a pretty weird thing to say,” I say.
She grabs a wing from my plate and holds one end in front of my mouth. She says bite it and I do. She turns the wing around and says to George, tell this silly man to put the whole wing in his mouth and slurp it clean. George tells me what she wants me to do and I do as I am told with most of the restaurant watching and laughing as I do. She does one more with me and together we throw the empty bones down on my plate like we’re rolling dice on a concrete stoop.
“Sake,” I say, and everyone laughs. My new grandmother yells for sake and then leaves us.
George is about my size, late 40s, kind-faced and gentle. Ryan’s a bit larger, African American, hairline as even as a fence line. He shaves every day and looks up from the sink to a set of grey eyes. He says to me, “Some people wait for years and never receive a Japanese grandma, but you got yours in your first week.”
“The ignorant shall always win your treasure,” I say.
“Sounds like a proverb,” George says.
“I just made it up.”
The sake arrives and we fill our plates with the chilled liquid and drink. I love the feeling I have right now. Despite not sleeping the past three nights, I’m great. Being somewhere else has me on a high. Being drunk with English speakers in a foreign land reminds me of my traveling days and I don’t want to stop.
“What are you writing right now?” George asks.
“How do you know I write?”
“Franny says you’re published.”
“I’m not writing right now,” I say, feeling that George is ruining my reprieve from worry. “I’ve been blocked up the past year.”
“I hate that,” Ryan says. “When I get writer’s block I get depressed. Then I’m stuck in a vicious uncreative loop.”
“I know what you mean,” I say. “Better than you know.” I add, inaudibly.
A university student approaches our table and in English he asks if he can speak to us for a few minutes. He begins to tell us that he went to college in Georgetown and Cambridge. How he’s back in Japan to become a doctor. He tells us how much he loves the States and how thankful he is for letting him practice English with us. I find the whole exchange remarkable. He speaks to us with a reverence I don’t feel we at all deserve. That being said, and despite his over use of respect, I can’t help but to reciprocate respect for him in exchange because his journey abroad must have been a difficult one. He asks for a picture with us and then departs to rejoin his friends.
“That happens a lot,” Ryan says, slurping down another hot wing.
“Strangers asking you to speak English?”
“Yeah, It’s pretty cool but can get a bit tiring.”
George switches the subject.
“What’s up with your brother, something felt off at the hospital today.”
“He had a seizure a couple days back,” I say.
“shit,” Ryan says.
“Since you guys are his friends and I know how hard it is to get the truth in terms of his condition, I’ll let you know that I heard from the doctor that his case is terminal and the cancer has spread throughout his entire body. He’s tanking.”
Grandma approaches with another tokkuri of sake and fresh plates. It doesn’t escape her that the mood of the table has changed. She sets down our sake and silently departs.
“It’s bad luck to say bad things out loud because they might come true,” George says.
“I know it feels wrong, like it’s lying, but try and get used to it.”
“I get it,” I say. “There’s a ton of shit I’ve said to myself that’s come true only because I said it.”
“You’re a piece of shit. You’re a bad writer. You’re a fraud—entertaining that kind of poison gives it legs. In short, I get how rejecting the assertion that you’re going to die is essential to focus on healing.”
“But, do you believe that?” Ryan asks.
“I can entertain it, but in terms of myself, I doubt I could ever keep things civil with myself for that long—I’m always at my own throat.”
George laughs. “For having writers block you sure have entertaining stuff to say.”
“We’re all drunk,” I say. “It’s an illusion.”
“Your brother’s the same way,” George continues.
“Man, he can be the funniest guy in the room with enough energy to go all night,” Ryan says.
“But sometimes, he could be the angriest drunk at the bar,” George adds.
Ryan looks slightly surprised George went there, but I seize the chance to ask.
“Was he up and down a lot, like you never knew which Fran you were going to get?”
“I’d say so,” George says. “But, usually, once he was intoxicated, he’d perk up. He could be cruel though, but he could also be passionately gregarious, it really all depended on the day.”
“He’s a man of excess,” Ryan added. “But, the fucker can act and hold a room.”
“Excellent actor, carries his lines well, knows how to act outside the spotlight. His joy and confidence on stage makes other actors feel comfortable. He was guilty of stealing scenes early on, but he learned quickly,” George adds. “Very much meant for the stage; film was touch and go for him, but he got a high acting on stage.”
There’s a pause and Ryan has a look in his eye like he knows why I’m asking about Franny.
“Your brother’s definitely bi-polar, he even told me so,” Ryan says.
“I’ve heard that too, but I’ve never spoken with him about it,” I say.
“He has his secrets doesn’t he?” George says.
“More than any of us can know.”
“You must yourself though? Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” George says.
I’m not taken aback by George’s assertiveness; in fact, he’s giving me an excuse to talk about myself, which when drunk, I love to do. But, for some unknown reason I can’t tell them the most obvious, that I’m bi-polar too. The words form a brick in my mouth and all I can say is that it runs in my family.
“My brother’s schizophrenic,” George says.
“My father used to disappear for days at a time,” Ryan says. “Turns out he’d go for these massive walks around Minneapolis and stay in motels. He later said, once he got on lithium, that he was trying to out run the bug.”
I think about the bug and want more sake and another cigarette.
“Is he better now?” I ask.
“He killed himself a few years back when I was away at college,” he says.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Don’t be, I’m only direct about it because it’s not an illness to tiptoe around,” he says, examining my body language.
“Some bad baggage comes our way,” George says.
“What do you mean, George?” Ryan asks.
“Well, look, two of us are directors and all three of us are writers. Franny’s an actor and writer. We’ve all come clean about our family history, so it’s more or less obvious we have our own beef with mental illness. Countless other creative people I know have the bug as you say. It’s hard to not think that creativity and mental illness are linked, like you can’t have one without the other.”
“Creating stories is the process of unpacking, that is, if we’re to continue using the baggage metaphor,” I say.
“I like it,” says George.
“And the craft is in the details of how you re-fold it and put it away,” says Ryan.
“I can drink to that,” I say.
We polish off another tokkuri of sake and order another. It arrives and we make a toast, this time to mental illness. It feels stupid though, or maybe I just feel dumb for not talking about my diagnosis. Maybe it’s because I feel so good right now, so confident and inspired to go wherever and stay up as long as I want. I rarely feel this good, rarely do I have energy like this. I feel like I’m a normal human being for once, but a smidgen more so, like a human +1. It’s hard to admit I’m supposedly bi-polar at a time like this. Not when I feel invincible.
“Are you alright?” George asks me.
“I’m great, why?” I ask.
“Nothing, you just seem a bit agitated.”
“I’m just feeling the alcohol,” I say.
“Do you want to go to Fran’s favorite bar after this?”
“Yeah, I would,” I say.
I’ve vomited already, but luckily brought a travel tooth brush and toothpaste in my bag. I look in the mirror and see a sick clown struggling to keep the show going. I’m at an ex-pat bar called the Black Rock. It’s very much in the English Pub style, but adorned with Australian flags, photos of the Aussie rugby team, and several posters of Crocodile Dundee. I splash my face with water but the room is still moving. Eventually, I find my footing and rejoin the crowd.
I’m at a table with a group of directors, actors, postgrad students, and random English speakers who come here to take a break from the Japan outside. They all know my brother for better or worse. No better than George.
“I remember when Franny first moved here and picked up his first acting gig as Captain Morgan. It was perfect for him because he got paid to dress like a pirate and drink. He’d walk into bars with a group of models, pose for pictures with people and take shots with them. It was always mayhem.”
“Until he fell down a flight of stairs and broke his leg,” Meikko says. She’s American born, but grew up in both worlds. Her hair is dyed platinum blond, she’s nearly as tall as me, and an illustrator here in Nagoya. She’s married to Ryan, but older than him. It’s impossible to decipher how old she is, but I’m guessing early 40s.
“He went to go pee,” she laughs, “and his peg leg went out from under him and he ate it down the stairs.”
“He broke his leg,” George cut in, “which was terrible. A couple of days after the incident though Franny showed up at the bar on crutches and wanted to continue playing Captain Morgan. He tried to convince the reps he could act the part while sitting down, but they didn’t go for it and neither did Midori.”
“I remember,” Ryan reminisces, “the time he showed up to the bar with a pair of Japanese newlyweds wearing Western wedding garb. White dress, veil, tuxedo, the whole nine yards. He’d just gotten a job as a western wedding officiator and had such a good time with these newlyweds he invited them, and their friends back to the bar. The bar owner here, Al was trying to get out early that night, but instead hosted a wedding party all by himself. He made a killing that night, but told Fran off for it. Franny just smiled at him and said he wanted half the profit. Fucking priceless.”
They continue laughing and telling stories about Fran and I’m trying my hardest to concentrate, but I cant. I excuse myself to have a cigarette and walk out into the warm night air and neon lights. I’m not seeing double, which is good. I look at my phone to catch up on some messages.
“Hey brother, I’m with your friend Dana. We’ve been going to Goth bars and talking about Super Hero movies. Anyway, you’re cats are fed and in good hands, enjoy Japan and get a hand job, I mean Kimono for me lol.” [Message from Kimono Greg]
“Hey dumb ass, how’re things going? How’s your brother doing? Your other brother is losing his shit because Ronda bought a horse out from under him for Kayleigh. Their relationship is so fucked up, no way I’d be involved with your brother now, not after seeing how ugly those two are. WOW. Poor Kayleigh. Anyway, I’ve been worried about you. I know you’re a world away, but you seem distant. I know the situation with Shannon, on top of everything else is a lot, but you can pull through it. Just get back to me when you can… Asshole ;)” [Message from Margo]
“Are you ignoring me? I still care about you and I’m worried. You’ve never been the type to stay silent, it’s actually one of the things I like about you. Where are you? Are you okay?” [Message from Shannon)
“You’ll never guess what Ronda did but it’s totally cool I’m doing great. How’s our brother?” [Message from Liam]
“Ifffffds foundnnd tt .” [Text message from Franny]
“Your brother tried to smoke in the bathroom again and when we took the rest of his cigarettes away he had to be retrained because he was so upset. I know you have a night off, but can you come here whenever you’re finished with George and Ryan? Thank you, brother.” [Text message from Midori]
I have to sober up and get to the hospital. I text Midori and let her know I’ll be there when I can. George comes outside and stands next to me with his hands in his pocket. Scores of evening pedestrians holding smart phones flow past us like we’re two reeds in a digital river. I see a stream of taxis roll past and they look like a fleet of ’89 Toyota Corollas. The buildings make me think of the 1980s too.
“There’s so much about this city that’s hyper modern, but built beside a bed of ‘80s ruble,” I say.
“And by ‘80s ruble you mean a blanket of well-maintained structures built in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.”
“Yeah, I guess so, didn’t mean to sound rude.”
“I see it too. Buildings with an excessive amount of glass didn’t arrive until the 2000s.”
“So many of the structures here are white, I guess that’s what’s different.”
“Uniformity plays a different role here than in the States.”
I ponder George’s words while he reloads.
“I’m sorry about your brother,” he says.
“Me too,” I say.
“He not a bad guy, by the way,” George says. “I know some of our stories make him sound like a fuck up, but he’s a good friend. He’s practically a legend in Nagoya. Every ex-pat here knows him, and every repatriated traveler who called Nagoya home knew Franny. He was just that electric.”
“Was, is the sad bit,” I say.
“Please, don’t be. But, yes I don’t see him surviving this too much longer.”
“The one thing about Franny,” George says, “is he was always reckless. The chain smoking, the drinking at all hours, he lived like he didn’t want to sometimes. And now that he’s sick it’s the same, like he’s punishing himself. I just wish I knew why?”
“It’s a routine for him,” I say. “A constant intake of shit he believes he needs to feel good.”
“And it’s going to kill him,” he says.
“It already has.”
“It’s good you’re here for him—I know Nagoya makes him feel lonely sometimes.”
“I wanted to see his life here, I felt like I owed him that much,” I say.
“Why owe him anything?”
“Because he never thought anyone in the family cared about him enough to visit.”
“Is that true?”
“Most of the people in my immediate family are so wrapped up in their own bullshit they miss some of the more important features of life—empathy being one of them. Fran’s far from perfect but he can at least be honest to himself about his flaws.”
“Franny can be an asshole but he cares about people and is good at making people feel a part of something. He can tap into a strangers’ interests within minutes and find common ground. He’s so intelligent. That said, I don’t totally agree with you. Fran can maybe be privately honest about his flaws, but publicly he did little to change them.”
“I guess I’ve built him up a bit,” I say.
“You’re his little brother and he’s been away, what else would you do?”
“Did he at least look like he was trying to gain control over himself?” I ask.
“More like he was at war with control,” George says. “Sometimes he’d get down because he couldn’t control himself, and other times he tipped the needle so far in the other direction it was as if he was trying to break the meter. There’s no other way to put it, Franny’s either a man distressed or a man possessed.”
“I’m sure it drove him crazy never knowing calm,” I say.
“That’s what the heroin was for,” George says. “Yes, he told me.”
“I’m not surprised,” I say. “I just feel so badly for him, that this was his life.”
“No, the whole thing. From 0 to 56. His life as it is.”
“You don’t have to go back in you know, I’ll say you’re sick.”
“I feel sick,” I say.
I say goodbye and begin my walk towards the subway station when I hear Ryan asking me to hold up. He ran to catch up and is breathing heavily.
“I just wanted to say I don’t talk about what I have either,” he says. “I also wanted to properly say goodbye and that you’re always welcome here. Lastly, I’m not sure what you’re trying to write, but write about this, about the Fry Bo in Gokiso, about the bar and your brother’s friends. About him dying, man.”
I thank him and take the stairs down to the Sakura-dōri Line, beginning to feel a glimmer of a story form in my mind.
The station is like the others, a maze with clues to solve the mystery home. Each tile is clean, each light is on, all passengers are aboard, but I’m the only one on the platform. It’s an eerie feeling for this is the first time outside the apartment I’ve felt alone in this city. I sit down on a bench and consider what Ryan said. He figured me out, which tells me others have too. More importantly though, he gave me a road map to find my way out of the blockade I’ve made for myself. I don’t feel so unique and it’s a relief. My problems don’t feel unequivocal to what others have experienced. Ryan let me know I’m just caught up right now, and I have to distance myself, while at the same time engage with my life and reckon with it. Joy overtakes me, but it’s mixed with a feeling of loss. My eyes begin to fill with tears. It’s the first time I’ve had someone say they understand me in a long time and it’s meaningful. My train arrives and I board, a leaf.
I contemplate if I’ve been thinking about things the wrong way, but I let it pass; I want music instead of the voices in my head. I put my headphones on and get lost in The Cure, Just Like Heaven. I’m sitting across from a young couple holding hands. The feeling I have is a reprieve from the self-inflicted violence I wage on myself every day. Robert Smith is telling me to just believe in something even if it goes wrong and to love on something even if it’ll leave. The sentiment is nice, but it scares me. I push the bad thoughts out of my head and try to breath all the way in and out. I realize I haven’t been breathing the past few days, maybe even longer. I miss a lot of things about myself, probably the things Shannon misses to, and the things my friends have held onto. I breath in and out. In and out. Let it pass.
I want to sleep tonight, but I know I can’t. I’ll be up watching my brother’s chest push up and down like a broken hand is trying to punch through it. I’ll be there when he calls for a rescue. I’ll tell him everything’s fine and he’s not alone. I’ll repeat the words, Just Like Heaven, and he’ll know what I’m talking about and the thought of The Cure will calm him. There’s something about the baseline, how it bumbles about like a pink basketball full of hope; something about how it expresses positive tension, which is such a unique feeling to have squeezing you, unique because it’s void of anxiety and so there’s nothing negative to dye the feeling black. He’ll be dying, but also not at the same time because he won’t be thinking about it.
I’m going to try and not think about Fran dying, and not think about mom dying too, and not think about my other brother, Liam’s endless war with his ex, Ronda and how it makes his daughter want to die, or of all the things I could have done differently to protect Shannon from wanting to die. Even on a personal level, I’ll forgive myself for being in my 20s, for being a teenager with a flaming brick and a syringe in his hands, a child holding a candle that keeps blowing out. I’ll try and forgive my past selves even though my old identities strive to deface my present. I must forget them. —I switch to the Higashiyama Line and my cynical self is left to keep traveling on the Sakura-dōri. I feel like several metals of dishonor have been unpinned from my shirt. Let it pass.
Though I know that things are only going to get worse, I know it for certain and so I have a chance to prepare. I’ll go see Franny and have a talk with him because there are not many opportunities left and I should make the most of them. Like I said, I’ll keep holding his hand as many times as he needs and play music for him as often as necessary to make him feel better. I can make the most of what time I have left here and hope it’s enough. All the while, I’ll try and heal a bit before the dying begins. I mean that in the best possible way, but death can’t come soon enough. I’m drunk though, and all these good ideas won’t feel applicable in the morning when the anxiety returns. Until then, I’ll just shut up and listen to The Cure.
The myth goes that there’s a giant catfish who whips around in the mud below Japan and his name is Namazu. He’s the cause of earthquakes and seismic devastation in Japan. In ancient times, Namazu was out of control, causing many earthquakes, one right after the other. Finally, a hero came, the thunder and warrior god, Kashima Daimyojin appeared with the kaname-ishi, or pinning stone. Kashima dug deep down into the soil and inserted the rock, pinning Namazu’s head and keeping him still. The story says that this stone still controls Namazu and lessens the intensity and frequency of his fury. But, every so often, Kashima lets down his guard and Namazu struggles out from under the kaname-ishi and all hell breaks loose. Japan’s earthquakes are caused by a giant catfish. This story was told to me by Midori.
I’m somewhere by the planetarium. I wanted to go, but after spending two hours in the Nagoya Science Museum, which doesn’t cater to non-Japanese speakers, I wasn’t up to spend another hour trying to decipher what was being said about our galaxy. I suppose I’m being fussy. I found a vending machine on the street corner and bought a cold Ooi Ocha green tea. I’ve drank so many bottles already I think I smell like it. It’s warm out and muggy. I find a bench in the park adjacent to the museum and take a break beside the giant sphere of the planetarium. I have a couple more hours until I’m supposed to be at Nagoya City University Hospital to relieve my sister in-law, Midori and hang out with my brother, Franny.
I’ve been in Nagoya 36 hours and in that span I’ve learned to exchange basic pleasantries, order food, and take the subway. Nagoya is organized, the infrastructure is insanely well imagined, people are courteous beyond measure. There’s an organizing principle that unites these attributes and it goes beyond the necessity of order in a highly populated city, it’s a philosophy of harmony. The balance is achieved through engineering and mathematics. The subway is a prime example of this. Nearly 60 miles of track and a total of 83 stations are dispersed within 6 lines. 5 lines cover north, east, south and west, and a sixth line, the Meijo Line, is in the shape of the circle—it lassos the heart of the city. The three major city lines all intersect with the Meijo line twice. This system, when all is working, functions like the gears of a pocket watch—one train intersects with another line at the same time that line’s train arrives. Commuters rush out and swap trains and again the platform is clear. It’s a work of art to watch people move the way they move here.
Despite the wonder of the city, and the newness and strangeness of being in a foreign place, something’s not right. And, when I say not right, I mean not right with me. Anxiety comes for me at the strangest times. Like, when I’m watching television, eating, or visiting Franny in the hospital. Even when I’m buying snacks at the hospital cafeteria I suddenly feel like the floor is going to open up and swallow me. The worst is at night when I’m alone in Midori and Franny’s apartment. On their balcony, I look over the sweeping blanket of city lights and my nerves begin to twitch like the red lights on top of the buildings flash. The immensity of the city takes my breath away and I feel lost, or more precisely, that I’m losing my soul and disappearing. There’s so much about my brain I cannot control; I have so many intense feelings that travel into my blood faster than I can stop them. A profound absence of self-worth and existential merit floods in, then retreats, to later return, like an ocean tide. I’m caught feeling I ought to always be moving, but I’m too scared to go anywhere. Yet, I find myself in a Japanese park, next to I giant sphere, so I’ve been able to go somewhere and do something, but still the poison persists in my head and ravages my insides. Like I said, it’ll be gone in an hour, and then come back. Still, unmovable, my brother is dying.
I get up and walk. Walking helps and I slither through the streets to outrun my anxiety. I check my phone for messages and things are more or less the same. I haven’t texted my ex, Shannon. I did hear from my mom’s nurse, Margo, and mom is slipping further away into the void of Alzheimer’s. Mom has barely spoken since I left and is refusing food. Margo said my other brother, Liam is stepping up and has been all over mom’s care while she’s been working. Apparently, it’s still awkward between them, but at least Liam said sorry for being rude, which she admitted made her feel better. Still, despite what good Liam is doing, mom is getting worse. The end is speeding up.
An old woman passes me on the sidewalk and I think about how long she has left to live. I think about what she’ll die from, how she’ll die, who will be there, what it’s like to die alone, what a Japanese funeral is like, are they buried or cremated, how do people mourn in Japan? The questions swirl in my head and I create little vignettes of how different scenarios could play out. I think about the flower arrangements and figure there’s a whole practice around what type of flowers to use is order to celebrate, to mourn, and to remember. I’d like to go to a Japanese florist and see how they’re displayed. Flower meaning is so ingrained in Western culture you don’t even think about it relative to other cultures.
I can’t take the humidity any longer and my tea is gone. I go underground, underneath the city to the markets connected to Nagoya Train Station. I take it easy at first. There’s a shit load of people walking with intension. Some are going to the subways lines, some to the local train lines, others to the bullet train lines. There are ushers with white gloves, there are people with different colored masks, there are no homeless people, panhandlers or buskers. I work my way deeper into the shopping centers and marvel how large the spaces are. The further I go in the greater the mall expands. There are no windows, skylights or clocks. I stumble upon a food market. Fruit, vegetables, dumplings, packages goods and a massive fish market in the back. Thousands of dead fish ask me with their eyes how complex the HVAC system down here must be to keep everybody breathing fresh air. I don’t know, I say, very complex. But, you don’t like air anyways, so why does it matter? They all blink at once in recognition of this fact.
I take a moment and sit down on a bench. I’m a little overwhelmed by the magnitude of this underground bunker and the thousands of people coursing through it like blood. They march through in a constant stream, obviously used to being so tightly packed. In fact, everyone is calm, going with the flow, positioning themselves well ahead of time for when they’ll break off. The people around them help with their exit and then fill the empty space upon their departure. I watch these tidy negotiations of crowd dynamics and laugh at the absence of any American equivalency; things are more chaotic back home.
It’s time to take a train to the hospital. There’s only standing room. No one will look at me unless they’re sure I’m not looking. A disproportionately large percentage of the commuters feign sleep and most others are on their phones. I’m reading a book on Japanese etiquette and feel out of touch, like I’m missing the deeper subtext. I have to remember that so much is the opposite here. People don’t wear masks to protect themselves from you, but to protect you from them. Strangers don’t look at you out of respect. There are thousands of other codes I don’t know. I must be breaking a code per minute.
I switch lines at Imaike Station and it’s less crowded. Everyone is seated and in a controlled sleep. In fifteen minutes I’ve taken two trains to cross town and I’m now underneath the Nagoya City University Hospital. Seamless. I need something to drink, an iced coffee, something to keep me awake. I go to the Starbucks in the hospital lobby and Google how to say iced coffee in Japanese. The translation is aisukōhī, which literally sounds like iced coffee. This is a trend I’m beginning to pick up on. I exchange arigatos and head to the elevator and when it opens there are several people inside. They make space for me and slightly bow. I bow back without thinking and join the fray. Nearing the eighth floor I make a subtle gesticulation towards the door the everyone repositions. The doors open to oncology and I say thank you very much.
Franny’s sitting up on the side of the bed with his back facing the doorway. He looks over his shoulder to see me and holds out his hand. I grasp it and he holds onto it and presses the outside of my hand to his face. His skull is well defined from underneath his skin, as are all his other bones, besides his legs, which currently hold forty pounds of fluid. They look like rubber chew toys for a crocodile. His skin is yellow and diaphoretic. He’s shaking, or maybe just rocking. Which is worse?
“It’s the fucking anxiety I can’t take,” he says, in a raspy cigarette chokehold. He’s no longer in the grip of delirium.
He presses a call button and a nurse comes in.
“Rescue, kudasai,” he says to her and she walks out to retrieve what I gather to be the chemicals which comprise a “rescue.”
“Just sit with me,” he says, rocking in place.
I put my arm around him and we wait out the anxiety attack. He gets one nearly every hour or two. When they arrive he grows scared, irritable, and inconsolable. I can’t imagine the fear of staring down the hallways to death’s door. The nurse comes in and she says rescue to Franny.
“Rescue, kudasai” he says.
The drugs are pumped into his IV and within a minute I feel his body loosen up. He takes a deep breath and runs his fingers through his curly hair.”
“Fuck me,” he says.
He lays back in his bead and I help position his pillow. He’s staring up at the ceiling like he’s looking for something lost in his mind and it’s hard to look at him because he doesn’t look
Like Franny. He’s emaciated, grey, a bag full of organs. He asks me to fix his compression socks. One at a time I pull them into place and re-cover the swollen calves. I lay them elevated on a pillow and cover them with a blanket.
“All situated?” I ask.
“Yes, thanks brother.”
I sit across from him on a small chain and take a drink of coffee.
“How’s mom?” He asks after a while.
“she’s not too good,” I say. “She’s not really herself anymore.”
He nods in understanding.
“I’ll tell you later what the doctors say about my condition,” he says.
This is the second time he’s said this and I don’t expect he’ll ever talk about it.
“sure, bro, whenever you’re ready,” I say.
I hear Midori speaking Japanese in the hallway. She comes into view speaking with Fanny’s doctors/care team. She appears upset, but is listening attentively and asking questions. They all come in and I stand up to greet them.
“Mr. Francis,” the doctor says, “we have test results that the tumor in your stomach has shrunk. This is good news. We also have medicine to take the swelling down in your legs.”
“Thank you,” Franny says, distantly.
“We hope these treatments will make you more comfortable.”
Again, Franny acknowledges the doctor with a diffident thank you and looks out the window.
The doctors, the head nurse, and Midori resume speaking in Japanese and it’s another long conversation, which appears to me as a meeting between civil strangers trying to make useful arguments, counter arguments and offers in order to devise a full-proof plan. They leave the room after five minutes still engrossed in the logistics of it all.
“What you saw is so Japanese,” Franny says. “Every minute detail is explored and considered and hammered into paper and ground into powder. It takes forever to get anywhere.”
I’m not sure that’s what’s going on, but Midori did appear to be growing agitated.
The more surprising aspect of the meeting was the fact Franny showed no sign of understanding them, or at least very little. He had told me he could speak Japanese and passed his J2 language competency test. However, whenever Japanese is spoken he appears lost in the surf. It’s nothing I’ll call him on, but another facet of his life in Japan incongruent to what I imagined. Perhaps, his medicine has a hand in his confusion.
I look over and he puts his headphones in. I look out the door and the doctors have just left Midori. Her shoulders are caved in and she looks like she might fall over. I leave the room, approach her and she grabs my hand and guides me away from the door to be out of Franny’s sight. She begins to cry.
“The doctors say Franny’s condition is terminal. The cancer in his throat hit his lymphatic system and is everywhere. He doesn’t have long at all.”
“What about his stomach tumor?” I say. “Why did they give him good news?”
“Franny needs hope now and it’s bad luck to consider the worst outcome,” she says.
I want to grill her and say they lied to him by omission, but something holds me back and I realize I need to look at it oppositely, and that they told him what they did to give him hope. Still, it’s a hard pill to swallow as I’ve always been told clinical is clinical and the truth, in medical matters, must always be delivered to the patient. However, in this application, it’s up to Midori if and when. I withhold my judgment to remain sympathetic.
She picks her head up and a black bob surrounds a pairs of warm crying eyes, perfect nose, and fresh pink lips. A childhood scar from fire ripples from her chin down the left side of her neck. She’s wearing a Van Halen t-shirt and skinny jeans.
“I don’t know what to do?” she says.
“We make him as comfortable as we can,” I say.
“I just can’t keep living at the hospital. There are so many bills and I haven’t been able to work. I’m afraid I’ll lose my job and what will we do then?”
I don’t have an answer for her, but I’m listening. It scares me to think she’s been dealing with this alone, with no family to help until now. It frustrates me because Franny didn’t do a thing to prevent this calamity from happening. When his voice first shrank, and he was diagnosed with polyps in his throat, he refused to quit smoking and drinking. When the cancer finally arrived they said they could operate, but he’d lose his voice, so he opted for radiation and chemotherapy. Even then, he didn’t quit smoking and drinking.
“Otōto,” I hear from the room.
We go in and he’s in his wheel chair.
“Let’s go for a walk,” he says.
Midori wipes her face and begins to untangle his IV for the journey. I put his slippers on and grab his sunglasses. We wheel him out into the hallways and the head nurse says something to Midori, which boils down to, no smoking. We stuff ourselves into the elevator and I notice a little girl staring at Fran and Fran smiling back at her. The girl buries her face into her mother’s thigh and waits us out—I can’t tell if she’s afraid or not. At the ground floor the security guards give us a slight bow and we walk out into the afternoon sun. Fran puts his sun glasses on and says, let’s blow this popsicle stand, so we wheel ourselves to the far corner of the hospital where there’s a Shinto shrine and a stone bench. Once there, Fran fiddles around for his cigarettes and lighter. He exhales with a sigh of relief.
He’s committed himself to a feedback loop of equating a cigarette break with relief, but they actually make him feel worse.
“Don’t look at me like I’m a criminal,” he says, halfway jokingly to me. “Two a day isn’t going to kill me.”
“I’m the one who feels like a criminal,” I say.
And, I do. Yesterday on our walk he directed me all the way to a store, asked the clerk for a pack, and then said they were for me and had me pay. The situation made me so uncomfortable I couldn’t think and I just bought them for him. It was a total set up which exposed a side of Fran I’d forgotten. He can be manipulative, but in such a cunning way you know he’s having fun while he’s doing it. I think it gives him a false sense of power to direct other people, but it makes me feel invaded and disrespected. I want to say something to him about it, but when I look at him I see a dying man with the look of desperation in his eyes. At this point it’s true, it’s too late for him, so if he wants to smoke, let the fucker smoke. But, the sentiment makes me feel empty and culpable for his poor decisions.
What I can’t tell is if Midori is in denial, or if she really believes he can get better. She heard the doctors say Fran’s case is now terminal, but now she acts like the news isn’t ideal, but not catastrophic either. I suppose I have no right to judge and perhaps there’s more to it than simply a case of denial. She’s been through so much, and has been going through this for so long, she’s become a prisoner to it. The worry becomes a routine, the fear, a friend, and the slivers of hope fuel her to continue around the wheel. But for Franny, he’s not buying it. He knows he’s paying for his decisions and it’s hard to watch.
He sits in his wheelchair lost in thought, holding his cigarette like a French Existentialist while working out the difficult questions to do with life and death. His mouth is slightly open and his teeth hang like individual pillars of smoke-damaged ivory inside a burned out temple. He’s monking it. Midori is lost looking at the mini shrine we’re sitting next to.
“What are you looking at?” I ask her.
“Inari, god of Foxes, amongst other things. She can be temperamental—or he. Inari has many shapes. Maybe we shouldn’t be smoking so close to her?”
“Yes, dear,” Franny says, making light of her worry.
Franny disappears again in thought.
“What are you thinking about?” I ask Fran.
He looks up like I’ve thrown a bucket of water on him.
“Mom,” he says.
“What about her?”
“She used to put on these extravagant dinners, do you remember?”
“I remember Christmas dinner was always massive.”
“She had it dialed in to name cards and individualized party favors.”
“I remember that.”
He kept his smile, but looked away again like he’s accessing more memories.
Do you remember when we made a home movie out of one of your nutcrackers and the Little Mermaid? Who’s doll was that?”
“Erin’s,” Aja’s, our sister’s daughter.
“We pressed her back so she would sing and then set her in the spinning microwave. Erin was fucking horrified. AAAaaaAAAHHHAAAaaa,” Franny began to sing, mimicking Ariel’s song.
“Man, that was mean, but so funny.”
“I don’t know what she was so worried about; we set the microwave to defrost.” He looked at me, recalling more, “Liam dropped your nutcracker and broke it,” he says.
“I remember that too.”
Fran lights another cigarette.
“You were so lucky you weren’t around mom when she was drinking.”
“I guess,” I say, annoyed to have to hear the insinuation of how easy I had it, but also to have to listen to another bad mom story.
He reads me.
“But you were,” he says.
“I was lucky to grow up with two heroin addicts for brothers,” I say.
“It’s not comparable. Before you, in our family the only member you could count on was the Green Turkey (mom’s parrot), and that was just for a good swear word or two. Everything was always crazy, there wasn’t an adult you could count on, it always felt like I was drowning.”
“I get that,” I say, “but to dismiss my experience because yours was worse doesn’t provoke any feelings of compassion inside me. You and Aja have held mom hostage for her mistakes for decades now without taking an inventory of the lives you’ve effected.”
Franny looks me in the eyes.
“I don’t have to. The damage was so great I barely know the bad I do most the time. It’s not that I’m upset at mom for her bad decisions, I’m upset she let us become corrupted by them. When my dad left I had a nervous breakdown and I needed nurturing—I didn’t get it. I was permanently changed, different than other people, capable of anything to get what I wanted, without the impulse control to stop myself. I’m defective and I’m pissed about it.”
“Fanny, you’re not a bad guy,” Midori says. “I know your childhood was traumatic, but you’re a good man and husband.”
“Thank you, dear,” he says, not believing her words.
“You’ve come so far from there. You don’t do drugs anymore, you came to Japan for a new life with me. These are all great things,” she says.
“They are great things,” I say.
“They’re maneuvers from underneath the waterline,” he says, lighting a third cigarette.
“What does that mean?” she asks.
“I’ve always lived in the negative,” he says. “Those things just got me back to zero and once I got to zero I went back down into the negative again.”
“That’s not true,” Midori says.
“I don’t know,” he says, sounding exasperated. “Nothing I can do about it now.”
“Why’re you ripping on yourself?” I ask. “All I was getting at was things weren’t great for me either and my experience doesn’t have to be measured next to yours.”
Franny grows grim and his skin becomes pale. I can see sweat forming on his forehead.
“You were there when I tried to kick heroin at Aja’s weren’t you,” he asks.
“Yes,” I say.
“I’m sorry I asked for so much ice cream,” he says, smiling. “I mean, I’m sorry you had to see that.”
I’m left feeling wounded, wounded for the adverse reason, being that this is the first time he’s ever apologized for anything. Perhaps, it’s self-recognition of an unhealed injury which smarts. Maybe the apology ripped off the scab. I’m thinking of something to say when I notice Franny’s looking up to the sky. He yawns, but then freezes. His mouth is open. He looks grotesque. Midori gets up to touch him and right then he begins to shake. The tremor grows in intensity and I remove the cigarette from his hand and tell Midori to get help. She runs away and I do what I can to let Franny’s body move where it wants without hurting himself. Eventually, his quaking body begins to only tremor and slowly slide down the wheel chair. I hike him back up and look up to find a small crowd has gathered to watch. A woman is motioning at the hospital. I say in English, help is on the way. Someone understands and translates. Franny’s in a fugue state, breathing heavily, unable to prop himself up. A doctor, nurse, orderlies and a security guard arrive. They work on him and call an ambulance. Midori is back and cupping her hands around her mouth. I slip into the back ground and put my arm around her. Franny is loaded onto a stretcher and taken to the emergency side of the hospital for observation. I pick up his bag, but leave the pack of cigarettes on the ground.