Blossoms and Ashes: The Swordsman, Part 4

The Swordsman

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.”

            “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. Every gate.”

“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.

***

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.

“I will, brother,” I say.

Blossoms and Ashes, Lost in a Jungle, Part 3

Lost in a Jungle

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.”

            “Why?”

            “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.”

Blossoms and Ashes: Human +1, Part 2

Human +1

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.”

            “Like what?”

            “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.

“I’m sorry.”

“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.”

“What Japan?”

“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.

Tigers in the Thicket

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Screeching bottle rockets and hot ribbons from Roman candles ignited the orange night sky. He fell into me and swiped for my wallet. It was a poor attempt, frankly, a drunken attempt, and I expected it. His friends fixed their eyes on mine, worried, watching eagerly for my reaction. I was fine and he was light; I picked him up and set him down like a spilled drink. They yelled at him in Hindi—I imagined they said something like, “Dude, you’re an idiot.” However, it could have been anything. It was the early hours of the new year, at the foot of the Gateway to India, Mumbai.

I had already been in India for a fortnight, entering the country via Chennai, in the Southeast. Nearly every Western traveler that’s been to India has a story to tell about their first day, and it often sounds like a watered-down act stolen from the script of Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom. My memory of Chennai is sadly no different.

I traveled to India via Bangkok with a Kiwi. If you’ve ever traveled with a Kiwi you know that many make travel decisions as if they’re unaware that danger exists in the world. Their optimism of survival and thirst to enter spaces commonly observed to be dangerous often appears to the American traveler as an eagerness to satisfy some absurd dare. “A boundless naivety,” an Irish traveler once said to me in reference to this phenomenon (bear in mind, I never once saw him off our hostel’s sectional couch). On the flip side, the American’s self-proclaimed gift of “common sense” can easily appear as ignorant, fearful, and an utter waste of a “sweet as” overseas experience. In short, my travel partner, Joe gladly drank holy water from the hands of a Hindu priest and got sick; and I barely slept on the nights we bunked in shared hostel quarters and was usually grouchy except for when I was drunk. We balanced each other out.

 

Joe was nearly deported on our arrival into India. New Zealand is one of the few countries that hasn’t manufactured a terrorist, so India said Joe could sign for a travel visa upon arrival. However, the head of customs in Chennai—a short, bald man with pop bottle-lensed glasses—swore by his gold tooth that he had never heard of such a thing. We were called into his small green and blue office, and he hoisted a massive purple ledger out of his desk drawer. Taped on the wall behind him was a document titled Countries Allowed for Visa upon Arrival Thank You. Norway was crossed out with a thick black marker because of the domestic attack in Oslo the July before. New Zealand was not crossed out. I pointed out the list to Joe. He asked the customs agent to look behind him, but he refused. I couldn’t get over the blatancy of the bribe that laid in wait. Norway. Crossed out. Brilliant.

The bribe worked, but the transaction that we hoped was now closed remained a theme for the duration of the trip. We were in the country but eager to get immediately out of Chennai. In hindsight, I think it was our knee-jerk reaction to reject the cultural shift we were adjusting to. The experience in the airport and the game of bumper cars we played on the way to the train station only hardened our opinion that we needed to flee to Bangalore, as if Chennai were an island we could easily row away from. It was 1 am.

There were several hundred people sleeping on the stone floor of the Victorian-era station, so I cannot say what it looked like. However, the outer walls were constructed of red and white brick and the pillars that reached to the iron girded ceiling were thin and flaking. One painted brick per occupant, but no ticket window to be found. We ran from train to train until we found the one to Bangalore. We hopped on with no tickets. The ticket master said that we could stay on the train if we were willing to pay a penalty. We were already aware of the penalty. I spent the night looking out the train window thinking of all the tigers laying in the thicket that weren’t there. The transaction.

 

As the years have gone by, I’ve wondered what India was like. In my emotional memory banks tigers laid waiting in the thickets, but in actuality there were only failed attempts of connection lost amongst the weeds of meaning. The journal I kept of our journey still conjures many feelings inside me, but few memories outside the text. I’m the unreliable narrator of my own past. At times, it reads like a Victorian-era boy’s adventure novel and at others like a gothic phantasmagoria riddled with episodes of anxiety, estrangement and monsters. It also contains the popular features of an exotic Indian adventure: colorful spice markets, a straight-razor shave, performing as an extra in a Bollywood film, cow’s making cud of garbage, getting lost in a slum, chased by dogs, vehicular decapitation, and yes, bribery and endless haggling for tuk-tuk rides. All very strange. Very other. But more importantly, all elements that when reduced down to their core are based on my failure to find any greater meaning from my transactional relationships. Giving, buying, haggling and bribery did the opposite of breach the cultural divide, but harden the preconceptions that defined its walls. In the absence of such connections, I began to create an image of India and its people that I had heard and read about before—applying the clichés, constructing a universe less foreign made the cultural transition more palatable. The real penalty.

However, this is not a story about a Westerner making good on his original cultural and perceptual miscues; this is a story about real and imagined barriers and how the lines between the real and imagined get blurred when trying to make sense of things, on both ends.

 

Lenny, the cook and barman of the small café connected to our accommodation in Cavelossim Beach, Goa, spent Christmas getting hammered after work and slept on the faux-marble floor of the café. Joe and I were the first downstairs for breakfast and found Lenny on the floor.

“I got drunk for Christmas,” was the first thing out of his mouth.

“So did we,” Joe said. “But no worries, mate, get yourself sorted; we’ll be on the patio.”

We let Lenny pull his hair into place and reset his swollen eyes while, in the meantime, we talked about our plans after Goa. Lenny came with coffee and an apology, where we told him it wasn’t necessary.

“All I do is work,” he said.

That night, after Joe and I investigated our share of old Portuguese churches from the worn cobbled footpaths of Panaji, and met the brown waters of the Arabian Sea in the afternoon, we went back to Lenny’s. He was still there, same swollen eyes, but in a new shirt. He joined us for a cigarette after our dinner of pomfret.

“How did you like the fish?” he asked.

“It was amazing. Very delicate and rich.”

“Delicate is the right word,” he said.

He put his face into his hands and sighed.

“I’m so tired,” he said. “I’m sorry about this morning. I haven’t been to mass in six years, and I went last night and then couldn’t stop drinking.”

“I know the feeling,” I said.

I learned that most from the area are Catholic. I learned that there are still Portuguese held up in their private plantations. I learned that Lenny had a daughter two hours north of us who he didn’t get to see on Christmas. I learned that my good time, at least partially, was at Lenny’s expense.

We make choices based on the limitations of our circumstances, and Lenny’s hangover was not my fault, but I couldn’t help but feel involved. I paid next to nothing for an amazing meal. Lenny got a fraction of it and spent the holiday with us instead of his daughter. The idea of her seemed to keep him going and that at least was something no one could take from him. Even if, everything else was fair game.

 

In Jodhpur, the goats wore pajamas and many young Western tourists wore some article of Indian textile to blend in. We went to the market to buy supplies. We were no longer in the South, and the nights were cold. I found a scarf I liked and prepared myself for the purchase war. I had one hundred Rupee in one pocket and two hundred in the other. It was all part of the game. I asked about the scarf and the merchant tried to tie it around my neck. I said, “No, how much?” and he gave me an inflated price. From there we flashed looks, strange smiles, counter offers and re-counter offers. It can be fun or ugly, depending. I enjoyed it; I felt like I was connecting with the culture. But haggling is a dialogue of financial inequality, so it was really just fun for me.

I wouldn’t accept his price and tried to talk him down another 50 Rupee. A young man, running the booth next to us was with a group of other young Indians and he began to laugh at me.

“You realize, you’re refusing to pay half an American dollar,” he said.

I became defensive.

“If I let everyone take me for extra, it adds up.”

“But you get to leave,” he said.

My embarrassment quickly turned to shame and I paid the agreed amount. That was the most alone I felt in India and the last time on the trip I enjoyed haggling.

We slept in a two-story hotel at the foot of the Mehrangarh Fort. The owner was the best chess player I’ve ever lost to. She pitied me for my poor performance. She told me so and that was okay. We were on the patio. It was dusk. A loud group of young women from London sat close by. They wore shalwar kameez, and dupatta over their head, and it annoyed us.

“I hope they’re having a good time,” Joe said.

“Just subtly soaking up some culture,” I said.

“Just trying to integrate here,” he said.

We stopped ourselves and laughed—seriously, what Westerner really has the moral high ground over another Westerner when it comes to negotiating the obscure footholds up India’s cultural wall? The sun had set and the temperature dropped. I tied my Indian scarf tighter around my neck, and the girls put on their down-feathered parkas and fleece/Gortex jackets. Our hostess stared at them and then looked back at us.

“Too cold to be Indian now,” she smiled. “Time to go inside.”

I asked Joe what he thought about it.

“Just because you put on another woman’s dupatta, doesn’t mean you’ve seen what she’s seen.,” he said, being cheeky.

“And, another man’s scarf,” I said, running my hand over my own Indian artifact. We smoked cigarettes until late and listened to the dogs wage war across the blue city.

 

Jodhpur was the turning point. As we traveled north, news came that a winter storm had crossed over the Himalayas, and Delhi would freeze. I didn’t understand what that meant.

 

In Delhi, a social storm developed in tandem with the freezing temperatures and meant that everyone was cold and upset. Bus rides tripled their travel time. Indian time expanded from “Give or take a couple hours” to “Don’t plan ahead because who knows?” An icy fog consumed the Taj Mahal so we wrapped ourselves in thin wool blankets and disappeared into the smoky marble. On the frozen highway up to Delhi, we saw a man get run over and killed in front of our bus. Two days before, a girl was beaten and gang-raped on a Delhi bus and died. Riots burned there and cases of death by exposure loomed on the homepage of the BBC India news website. Delhi was frozen but on fire and we were headed straight for it. Or, this is at least the scenario I prefer to remember.

My past transactions had taught me that these were Indian issues and not mine, but I could walk as deep into them as I pleased and leave anytime. Delhi was going to provide me with a good story. That was then. Now, if I try and recall the more basic details of our stay a new set of events surface, all disappointingly mundane. In truth, the people of Delhi had a lot going on during that span, but from our vantage point, life there appeared quite ordinary. Merchants were selling and we were buying. Drivers were driving and we were riding. Restaurants were cooking and we were eating.

I’ve come to the embarrassing realization that I was disappointed that I wasn’t even given the opportunity to be rebuffed in my attempt to infiltrate the city’s woes. Rereading my journal, I believe that’s why I focused so much on the death we witnessed in my Delhi entries; to prop up the frail-bodied narrative of our Fear and Loathing-esque stay in Delhi, which was utter fantasy. Life was ordinary. We walked the streets—like visible ghosts—not participating, not shying away, just not knowing the city well enough to seek out it’s darkest recesses—the tigers in the thicket. There were many transactions and exchanges of currency, but no stories to steal to make up for the bribe in Chennai.

 

We arrived into Amritsar and to the Sri Harmandir Sahib, or the Golden Temple, the holiest Gurdwara of Sikhism. It was zero degrees when we entered and a guard with a two-foot beard and a six-foot spear walked us quietly into a dark room with eight cots and gave us a sign of respect before leaving. I was apprehensive to leave my backpack on my bed but I had to just let it go; I was honestly too tired to care about my stuff anymore. We were asked to remove our shoes and socks when we entered the inner sanctum of the temple. The pool was still. Thin leaflets of ice floated by the unrobed men bathing in the frigid holy water.

“You know, in the last 500 years,” Joe said, “this place has been destroyed and rebuilt countless times. Enemies knocked down the temple, filled the pool with trash and bodies. But it’s always rebuilt.”

There wasn’t much to say to that and neither one of us felt like talking much more so we kept walking around the fiery golden ember in the middle of the pool and listened to the music coming from the temple play on and on over the compound’s loud speakers. The marble footpath surrounding the pool was slick and cold as ice, but I let my feet go numb to match the resolve of the men in the pool. I respected them immensely.

When it was time to eat we entered a mess hall full of worshipers both eating together on the floor and waiting patiently with their plates in front of them. It’s a meal that never ends. Joe and I waited with them and we ate together in silence. At the end of our meal we walked outside and to the rear of the kitchens and saw men stirring massive cauldrons full of lentils and others turning out roti from hot earthen ovens. We washed dishes in silence next to other men washing dishes in silence. But, it wasn’t for more than one meal before we realized that the silence was mutually self-imposed and a smile or nod easily broke the divide. I didn’t find peace in Amritsar, but it came as a welcomed reprieve and readjustment at a juncture in the trip when I was losing faith in myself. When it was time to leave, I left my scarf on my cot.

 

In Mumbai, my body collided with a young Indian man trying to swipe my wallet. He had every right to. If I could turn India into a booby-trapped wildland of lawlessness, inequality and exotica, he surely had the right to view me as a big dollar sign and the repository of some ill-conceived plan to literally grab the wealth away from me and make it his own. It was another transaction, but instead of exchanging money, we declared our cultural misconceptions to each other. The sad part was we couldn’t surpass the language barrier to iron it out and correct our false assumptions. We just stood there and smiled at each other like it wasn’t all our fault because we were just playing our bit parts in a much larger game. It was a new year, but the same tired story persisted—the story we tell ourselves to know where we are and who we are not.

 

INDIA JOURNAL—DEATH ON THE ROAD TO DELHI

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January 8th 2013

There was no more fire blanket in Agra. No more mixing of heat waves and smog. Garbage fires burned like tea lamps. Seven boys and a full-grown cow hovered over a dying flame smoking on the street beside a burned out garage to keep warm. We mixed with the cold fog that suffocated the dirt alleyways. The soot soaked precipitation: an amorphous breath storm of nothing, pasted us to the walls, and we roved within it like moving pictograms appear to float in air.

A tuk-tuk chariot dropped us to the bus stop an hour early—an hour 45 in Indian time. We killed the added minutes conversing with two Germans about a tourist wearing a hospital mask taking pictures of a cow eating garbage on the side of the road. Some travelers here keep their head behind a camera, their senses hidden, everything at a distance to remain unaffected and deaf to the present.

We boarded the bus and sat in the very front. Above our heads, a 23-inch television sat precariously inside a cube cutout, propped up by a bible to keep it from falling forward. The bus was over-booked, so there was predictable chaos. Loud words slowly settled into begrudged acceptance. The Germans got on late and had to sit with our 22 year-old driver and his friends. Sardines were running this tin can. Two hours later we fought our way out of Agra proper, and the clock started. This was not going to be a 4-hour bus ride to Delhi.

The highway was a devil’s promenade. Grain trucks, hatchbacks, and motorcycles followed the dragon’s tongue north. The lizard’s cheeks were caked with bulbous sores of poverty—shacks, and camps, and mud hovels inhabited by the damned by circumstances beyond their control. It’s their birthright.

4-hour in, we had progressed 60 kilometers out of the 170 to Delhi. Endless tongue and timeless flatness swallowed time and left us stranded. I was fighting to finish the last two sections of On the Road: Kerouac’s decent into Mexico. At that moment I didn’t share his fascination or his feelings of freedom. Maybe two weeks ago when I was caught up in the bright storm of Bangalore’s flower market, but not now, not on this grey dead road, not on this rusted bus. The breaks hit, we slowed.

I saw the truck veer, the van pull, I saw the motorcycle flip and tumble like a weed of clipped springs. I saw the body of a young man lay like a baby on its side. He had baby feet. Their naked soles, fresh and pink, lay one on top of the other, toes curled in rest.

Time stopped because traffic stopped. Horns blared like trumpets calling the dead to action. Young men leapt from their hatchbacks and motorcycles and surrounded the baby, and like boys, stood there apprehensive to pick up the gentle soul lying so vulnerable and fresh. So, he just lied there alone. Like kings with myrrh and frankincense, the men on the bus all wanted to look at the child, they wanted to see the first born introduced to the world on the tip of the lizard’s tongue, in this universe that had lost meaning. I wanted to see the baby too, but just his feet.

Why no shoes? I asked myself. Why on earth would you ride a motorbike with no shoes on?

Our driver had a schedule to keep and forced his way to the shoulder to pass. The feet were no more, just a pulverized head lying bent back, an ugly retched throwaway face, no longer a beautiful baby boy. The apprehensive boys took pictures with their phones. I saw shoes stranded up the road.

I did something I haven’t done in years. I prayed. I prayed so hard that I curled up like a baby boy in my stomach and wished for the dragon to blow a breath and end this all right now. But, the devil sleeps in Delhi, and we were yet not close enough for him to care.