Myth or man: A conversation with Akira — Excerpt from The Green Turkey

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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.”

“My apologies.”

He loosens up again and smiles.

“Would you share a tokkuri of sake with me?”

“Yeah, sure.”

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.”

“I understand.”

“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.

Snippets—On Character

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There’s this recurring character who appears in my stories. He’s not of one fixed identity; she can be another. Together, they build and destroy, damage and revive memories under a chain-linked arbor of narrative. I’ve called him Simon, her name has been Mary. They’ve both meant the same to me: an undisturbed arc of life after death.

The Elusive Salmon

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Across my little apartment is the city locks. The locks see every boat coming in, or going out to sea. Though there are a lot of boats coming and going there’s also a good portion of the day when the locks are empty, and when they’re empty in the late summer and early autumn, schools of spawning salmon enjoy the peace by leaping out of the water, and going plop back in.

I say plop because that’s usually all you hear. It’s not as easy as you might think to spot a jumping salmon. Try as you may, staring in one spot and waiting for a salmon to jump is a fool’s errand.

Today’s Friday, and I have no work to keep me from the locks. I was also here this past Monday, and the Friday before last, not working, instead listening to the salmon go plop.

The rest of my time spent has been in my apartment. I’ve been on the computer, looking through job postings. With the click of a button, another resume goes into the blackness. For each prospective employer, I tell them that I’m qualified, a quick learner, and nearly perfect. I wait and watch for a reply. I wait, and watch.

While I wait, I try not to think about how hard I’ve worked to be broke, how maybe my quest to define myself as independent, unique, and a stand-alone has greatly compromised my ability to write a good resume and cover letter—I can’t seem to connect.

I finally pull my eyes away from my computer screen and make something to eat, and when I return, another rejection letter has been sent from a web address that begins with, “donotreply.” Cowards.

All these rejections come when I’m not looking. It’s the second I break my will to force good news that the tech world tells me to keep fishing (and to follow them on Twitter, etc.). I get angry, and then sad, and then I tell myself that I’m an anomaly, a force of nature that their vetting algorithms cannot grasp or define. When these half-truths escape my lips, I become thirsty for alcohol; for a cigarette before I return to my seat at the gambling table.

Yesterday, I spent the day doing something different. My mother had called to tell me that my brother lost custody of his daughter and threatened to kill himself. He texted me later and asked me to take care of his life insurance policy. He then turned off his phone and disappeared. I spent yesterday hunting.

When a salmon goes plop and you turn to the noise there’s a gentle wake. It spreads and rolls from its starting point in perfect symmetry. The succession of arches spread until they are swallowed by the bigger currents surrounding them. They die into the fold.

My brother’s wake continued for some time before he jumped. Not off a bridge, or a building, but by text message. He contacted his daughter to tell her that everything’s fine. He was alive.

I spent yesterday guessing where my brother could be, but I didn’t know until I did. I haven’t seen or talked to him. I’m not at all ready for that.

Some boats have arrived now. In particular, a fishing vessel with three deckhands chattering in Italian. The salmon are still jumping, and I can hear that language too. I’m too tired today to apply for jobs. It’s a fool’s errand anyway.

Today, I came to the locks and saw a large salmon, looking green and pink, she jumped right in front of me while I was looking at the boats waiting to go out to sea. She went plop and I saw the whole thing.

 

THE STORIES THAT ENDURE

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There were good times and then there were the other times where my hair started to fall out in clumps in my hand and when I’d ask people to tell me how I looked they’d say fine and I thought they were just being nice until I looked in the mirror and everything was in place and I was just imagining things. I’d get a pint and we’d all drink together and I’d wander off in my head every so often thinking about a new story and how we were all going to be a story once the night was done when all of our clothes would be scattered on our bedroom floors, our conversations echoes, and the looks shared between us absorbed and stored away. There were many of those occasions, the times when we would all text each other from locations around town and slowly but surely tighten our proximity to collide at the pub and recite the happenings of our respective days in the cadence of comedy. There were good laughs, and the more there were the greater the magic to multiply empty glasses and fill ashtrays. But the whole time I was feeling this eruption in my heart that I couldn’t explain or control and I knew that something big was growing in me and I couldn’t tell anyone because I didn’t even know what was happening and it was too much anyway.

At night I’d feel like I was drowning — but I eventually learned how to be a submarine in the murk of my subconscious. I’d wake up wet in my room and feel really cold and alone and would want to talk to somebody about it but there was no one except the end of a cigarette and they were the wrong kind of little mouths when I needed a big hug and some self-love to carry me through. But I knew I’d get over it eventually; all I had to do was put more effort into others and get outside of myself.

I’d take walks to the harbor from my office and imagine packs of wolves combing the stretched green skin of the hills on the other side and watch them scatter in a wisdom of full-sprint and hunter’s architecture — chasing down my anxiety and devouring it so I could be normal again. They would tire and look around confused like their prey had disappeared into thin air, leaving no scent to retrace.

When I was a boy I used to watch my father sit at the breakfast table with the cereal box, jug of milk, bowl and spoon always in the same spot. He was in his uniform, but he seemed seldom in his body and I remember being scared if I’d be a ghost like that in the mornings. And at the height of my depression, I’d carry myself around in a sack sewn from my father’s old post office uniform like a bag of hollow bones licked clean by my own wolves. I knew that I was eating myself alive and I was both the hunter and the hunted — so I stopped eating and stopped running. I knew that my anxiety was temporary and that I would get over it; the last thing I wanted was to leave and return home to America. That would be accepting defeat.

This all sounds rather morose and sad when in actuality I was still enjoying my friends, the green hour before sunset, coffee dates, music, cooking, baseball… I was still laughing, still having fun, but quietly housing hungry wolves in my stomach. I couldn’t write anymore. I was all locked up, dry, mouth full of sand, in dream still sinking to the seabed. I was falling apart. It was terrifying to know that I loved what I had so much but would have to leave it for my own good. Most frustrating was not even having a reason. Not knowing what was wrong with me. Not being able to figure it out. Not being able to make it all better. Watching things fall to pieces without needle or thread to repair the damage. Just having to watch it all float down stream. It was heartbreaking. And I remember laying in a cobblestone alley on my last weekend with my shirt off, feeling the cold cobblestones press in my ribs, so in a daze about leaving this old town behind that I couldn’t understand what leaving really meant and what it would mean to everyone. I was near collapse I guess and all the laughs and comedy and pints and filled ashtrays from the good times were just as I predicted, stories, but of a sad nature at that moment because the ease of those moments was temporarily suspended and replaced by melancholy and I felt like it was all my fault. I just wish I could have gotten better. Maybe I should have told someone that I wasn’t well and it wasn’t their fault.

Now that I’m back home and there are no longer any wolves, or a submarine, or anxiety, or little mouths not doing their job, and big hugs at the ready, self-love appears to be blossoming in the dead of winter. I have so much, the same as I had when I left, but even more. I didn’t burn down as much as I thought. I guess people’s capacity to love is greater sometimes than your madness. I feel nothing but gratitude for those I call my friends. Everyone of them.

So, I suppose this is an apology for a poorly written chapter. Perhaps it’s an admission of honesty. It’s maybe just another one of my stories. However, our stories of the times when we were all smiling outside the pub planning adventures together and just being kids are the best. I like those stories most because they’ll be the memories that endure.