On Friday Jim got a shattering surprise from the states. A car ran over his mother. She was dead.The school had just closed. I heard Hiroda-san, the owner, growling at Jim to come to the phone, a call from America. Later, Jim tapped on my classroom door, moved sideways to the wall across from my desk as though propelled by a puff of air, and leaned against it. He rubbed his long fingers against his cheek. His face was paler than usual, nearly white, and the bones stood out on his face. I asked him what was wrong. His high, thin voice might have belonged to one of the children in my classes. “It’s my mom,” he cried.
Tomoko-sensei came from her classroom shortly afterwards. We huddled with Jim and tried to comfort him. “You’ll be okay, Jim,” I said. “Don’t worry.”
We took him to an izakaya that night. We got drunk. Tomoko broke into tears every few minutes and rubbed Jim’s shoulders. They’d only dated a short time. After five beers, Jim moaned, “my mom.” He lowered his head to the table.
I heard my voice slur. “What was she like, Jim?” He looked up from the empty plates and mugs. His eyes were moist.
“My mother? I don’t know.” He shook his head and gripped his beer mug. The muscles of his fingers twitched. “I really don’t know.”
The izakaya was a place near the school called the Bekuri Pub. The walls were latticed with a wild assortment of uneven mahogany shelves that crisscrossed the length of the main room in chaotic diagonals and gave the impression of panes of shattered glass.
“You don’t know, do you?” Tomoko nodded as she said it, and rubbed Jim’s shoulders some more.
“Are you going to call your father tonight?” When I asked, Tomoko fired a glance at me. Jim sucked in a big breath. “My father,” he explained, “left my mom years ago.” He drew the tips of his fingers against his cheek and left a track of red lines. “For a girl about my age.”
I looked at the floor. On the red paint, beside a pair of dropped chopsticks, was a feather.
Jim was a kid of twenty-three or so, and had come to Japan only six months before. He was an honest, good-natured boy whose beak of a nose preceded the rest of him whenever he moved forward. His chest was frail, and his body was thin.
He peered up from his beer again. “Yeah, now I remember.” An old country song by Johnny Cash warbled on the sound system. “One thing. When I was taking a bath sometimes, when I was about fourteen, mom used to open the door of the bathroom. She’d shove a camera in and take a bunch of pictures real quick, then run out.”
Jim’s voice trailed off. He became absorbed in the wooden, rectangular signs next to our table with spidering, calligraphic kanji characters that advertised the food served there. “Later.” Jim turned back to me and heaved a big sigh. “She’d leave copies of the pictures in my lunchbox.” He smiled weakly. “Or under my pillow.” His lips squeezed into a small red ring.
“Why did she do that?”
Jim brushed away whatever emotions he was experiencing with a flap of his hand. “Oh, I don’t know. She had a good sense of humor.”
The front door jingled. Three salarymen entered with briefcases. A great, fresh wind burst into the room, whipping up the backsides of their coats. A stray page of newspaper ambled past their feet like a tumbleweed. I glanced under the table in time to see the feather lifted into the air. I shot out my hand and grabbed it.
The others didn’t see what I’d done. Jim’s head hung on his wilted neck like a dying sunflower. Tomoko was still caressing his shoulders and nodding, like she understood. Did she? She was the grammar teacher at the school. Her book knowledge of English was better than most Americans, but she couldn’t speak it well.
Tomoko ordered us another round of beers. The waitress, in her pretty blue yukata, got up from her knees, bowed and shuffled away. Jim laughed. “She also used to, after I got home from school, sometimes, and I never would know when.” The Johnny Cash tune finished with a twang and a Japanese Enka song began to warble. “She would jump out from behind a corner, throw her hands up in the air, and shout, surprise!”
We finished our beers in silence. The Enka singer’s voice quailed through the atmosphere. I could only make out about half her words. A husband betraying a wife and, heavy with despair, drinking sake and dying. A couple at a nearby table broke into laughter.
Jim started up in his chair as if gripped with a sudden inspiration. He raised his hand toward the ceiling. “My mother was,” and his finger wavered in the air, “un-pre-dic-ta-ble.”
We half-dragged Jim up to his apartment, stumbling up the stairs. I left Tomoko with him and walked the ten minutes home. My shoes clacked on the empty street.
The night was askew. The edges of the pavement bent upward, climbing the walls in front of houses. The contours of trees were fluid, like the skins of balloons. I came to a neighborhood shrine. A solitary bird cawed into the breeze and a higher, tragic voice harmonized with, then overpowered it. I stopped at the entrance of the shrine and glimpsed the silhouette of a man. His head was raised, black nose tilted upward at the night sky, the palms of his hands pressed together and moving up and down. He wailed out a rhythmic prayer.
I raised my hands as the man did and spread my fingers also to the stars. The feather I’d held in my left hand since I’d left the izakaya was ripped from my palm by a gust of wind. I lurched forward, grappling at empty air, terrified of losing it. Just as it was about to sail out of my reach, I leaped up and captured it. Under a streetlight, I peeped at it through the gaps between my fingers.
I staggered into my apartment and found the light. I moved through the capillary of a hall separating the entrance and my tiny bedroom. I opened the low cabinet, the one under my dusty pictures of Mount Fuji and my friends and my mother, and carefully removed a small metal box I keep hidden there. I lifted the lid and opened my left hand. From it dropped, now sweaty and crumpled, the feather.
I looked up at those old pictures. So many years had passed since I’d seen my mom. Would I even recognize my American friends anymore? I dropped myself on the futon and fell asleep. I dreamed of a great, smashed window and everyone I knew jumping through it, escaping.
On Monday, I came in early. Tomoko-sensei was there already, in the staff room, staring at the wall. She nodded meekly. I went into my classroom, took off my coat and draped it over my chair. When I turned around, Tomoko was a foot away.
I cried out. She waved her arms. “Doug-san, Doug-san, don’t worry.” Tomoko wore a yellow blouse and orange skirt. When she lowered her head, she was like a duck, deflating. “Can I ask you a question?” She tilted her head up enough for me to see her eyes. They were wet. “Doug-sensei, have you hear from Jim on the weekend?” She rubbed one hand with the other. “I tried to call him, but he was not home.”
“Are you sure? Maybe he didn’t answer his phone.”
“I go to his apartment five times, Doug! I knocked!” Tomoko stepped forward and stumbled over some toys on the floor. The brush of thick black hair that fanned out over her forehead jiggled. She started to cry. “He did a crazy message on his answering message. He wasn’t home on the whole weekend!”
She moved away from me and sat in one of the student’s chairs. I told her I’d be back. In the office area in the next room, I looked up the number in Hiroda-san’s address book, and called Jim’s apartment. The machine picked up. Jim’s voice started, sing-song:
“Hello, this is Jimmy. I’ve floated away to contemplate the purpose of existence. Boing, boing, boing, boing, boing, boing, boing, boing.”
I left no message after the beep. When I rubbed my forehead, it was moist. In my classroom, framed in the window on the door, Tomoko-sensei was still sitting on the chair, her head cradled in her arms. The schedule board on the wall said that ten Japanese children would burst into the school in less than an hour expecting an English lesson from Jim.
Hiroda-san would be furious. Long ago, even before I’d started working for the tough old lady, her husband, I’d heard through a gossipy manager at another school, had left her for a younger woman. The experience had left her a single, frightened working mother fighting to survive in a country where single working mothers, at least back then, were considered perverse. She sheltered herself over the years with layers and layers of flesh, which formed eventually an imposing body whose formidable kilograms she drove through her world the way a soldier drives a tank. With her tremendous girth, thunderous voice, and ferocious gaze, she kept her lifeblood, the school, running. Apart from lousy handwriting, a kind of scrawl I could barely decipher, she was an incredible businessperson.
I went back into my classroom. “Tomoko-san, are you okay?” Her wide eyes glittered under that pretty fan of hair. “Doug, do you think that Jimmy is okay?”
The bell on the front door jingled. I peeked out at the lobby. The owner, bulky and huffing, shut the door and started removing her shoes. A blast of chilly air followed her into the school and stretched itself all the way into the classroom, to us. Tomoko gripped the sides of her skirt, her knees pressed together.
We invited Hiroda-san into the auxiliary classroom for a meeting. She was frowning already when we brought her green tea, her lips wilting on her face and her eyes glinting within the folds of wrinkled flesh that clutched them. Her substantial behind was spread on the surface of the chair like that of a massive hen over its eggs.
“Jitsu wa,” I said after Tomoko had poured us each a cup of tea and we sat down across from the manager. “Chotto taihen desu ga.” I struggled for the words. “Jim-sensei wa, his mother died.”
Hiroda-san nodded very slowly.
“He is upset, and needs a break. He is very sick.” I gripped the arms of my chair and took a deep breath. “He can’t come in today.” Hiroda-san moved her face a couple of inches closer to mine. She exhaled long and slow, making a noise like a tire leaking air. I took another breath and plunged in. “He won’t come in, maybe, for a long time.”
Hiroda reeled backwards dramatically. She tilted her nose toward the ceiling. Flaps of skin loosened under her chin. She unfolded her arms. “Mmmm,” she spoke, “bad for business.”
“Zannen,” responded Tomoko in a jittery voice. “It’s awful. But poor Jim.” The fluorescent rods crossing the ceiling made tiny bars on her moist eyes. “He’s lost his poor mother.” Tomoko went into a flurry of Japanese I couldn’t follow. Hiroda-san’s eyes grew wide. Her face was becoming redder by the second. Mounting fury swelled her body so that she appeared to be rising into the air. Her chair let out a pitiful cry.
I tried to stop the impending eruption with a diversion. “Hiroda-san, how is your son?” After working with her for so long, I should have known it was the wrong question to ask.
“My son, chotto, bah!” Hiroda-san stood up. The floor groaned. She looked down on us. “Jim-sensei has business in the school. Very important obligations, ne?” She fixed me in her gaze as though readying a drop of missiles. “My son, at his valued job in New Zealand, importing cheese, never misses a day of work. Never.”
Invoking New Zealand cheese always prefaced doom.
She was about to leave us, but turned, her hand on the doorknob. The skin on her face slackened. “I am sad,” she announced, finally, “that Jim-sensei has died by his mother. Maybe Jim-sensei needs the days off on vacation time to see his private business in America. For funeral.” Her jaws clenched once again. “but he must talk to me. Do arranging. Do responsible things.” She shut the door so hard, my teacup rattled. Without thinking, I shot out my hand to catch it in case it fell.
We went to our classrooms to prepare our lessons. I heard Hiroda-san’s voice in the lobby, calling the parents and canceling Jim’s classes. As the time for the first lesson neared, kids flew into the school in twos and threes and gathered in an unruly cluster in front of the classroom door. I let them in. They gusted through the door like confetti in the wind, scattering past on either side of my legs to grab zabutons from the pile in the corner and collapse on them in a zagged half-circle. I sat down on my own cushion in front.
One of the kids asked me where Jim-sensei was. His classroom next door was empty. Several of the kids waited for my answer with wide eyes. “Jim is sick,” I told them.
After everyone gathered on their cushions, I fixed them in my gaze one by one until they were all silent. I shot my finger over my right shoulder in a gesture so sudden that some of them flinched. “WHAT,” I screamed, “time is it?” They sat frozen for a few seconds until I smiled. A few hands shot up. I pointed at Tomomi. The girl answered timidly, giggling at the clock on the wall behind me. “Eetou, eleven to twenty o’clock?”
Snickers. I scratched my head. “Hmmm,“ I said. “Maybe, almost.” Fumitaka, a bright student, corrected her. “Thirty eleven o’clock.” He looked at me confidently.
I glanced up at the clock behind me. More than nine hours before I could go home.
“Sensei, sensei!” I hadn’t noticed the boy. He was a stranger, behind the row of five kids in front, waving his hand.
“Sensei, you’re wrong!”
The kid’s English seemed to have no accent. His hair was lighter than an ordinary Japanese person’s, more brown than black. His nose was thinner and longer.
I pointed at myself with exaggerated surprised. “Me? Machigatta?” Tittering.
“Yes, wrong.” The boy’s voice was pure and confident. I couldn’t tell if he was making fun of me. He spoke with the tranquil tone of an adult desiring nothing more than to be helpful. “Jim-sensei isn’t sick.”
I took me a moment to realize that the kid was one of Jim’s students. Hiroda-san probably couldn’t reach his parents, and he’d been added to my class. I shrugged off his comment and went on with the class, trying to shape children’s notions of time into coherence. Whenever I needed to ask the newcomer a question, he answered it perfectly from his zabuton, upon which he remained in the same cross-legged position, that gentle smile unchanging and making everyone in the class nervous.
As we prepared to leave that night, I approached Hiroda-san. She was pushing things around, closing the record books piled on her desk with mighty slams of her fists. The glass Christmas knick-knacks decorating the shelf above her, the little Santa Claus and his tiny reindeer, trembled in terror. For people who didn’t know her, Hiroda-san, when angry, seemed capable of causing earthquakes with her voice, eyes and hands. I tiptoed away from her to the kitchen. I poured some hot water from the electric kettle there into the teapot and made green tea for us. I put it on a tray with some cookies and carried them to her.
Tomoko had gone home. Outside, across the street from our building, three stories down, we could hear the sad clang of the train.
“Hiroda-san,” I started. We both took a sip of tea. “Jim-sensei wa, taihen desu ne.”
“Yes, taihen. But shoganai.” She shook her head. She was right. It was tough, but there was no helping it. Teachers did this sometimes. In the six years I’d worked with her, how many had disappeared? Four? Where did they go? Sometimes I wondered whether there wasn’t some hidden village in Japan, filled with thousands of refugee English teachers.
When a teacher left suddenly, it meant canceling classes, which meant losing money. Teachers were hard to replace quickly. In time, a vanished teacher could cost Hiroda thousands of dollars.
How many cups of tea had Hiroda-san and I sipped together quietly, talking for a few minutes with scarcely a word being exchanged? While we clashed sometimes, we’d developed an understanding that went deeper. She wasn’t a bad person.
“Hiroda-san,” I started. “There was a new kid in the class today, a boy. He wasn’t on my schedule. He was one of Jim’s students, I think?”
She looked at the clock. “No, no students.”
“So we had an observer?” Prospective students often attended the classes.
“Iie, chigau. No observers.”
We were silent a long time. The school seemed unnaturally still. I couldn’t even hear the ticking of the clock in the lobby. “Doug-sensei?” Her voice sounded haunted. “Will he come back?”
“I don’t think so, Hiroda-san.”
Her head drooped. “Doug-sensei?” She said it so softly, I at first wasn’t sure she’d said anything. “Doug-sensei? I will tell you. My son, in New Zealand.”
“I don’t hear about him for ages.” A deep sigh. “For years and years.” Hiroda-san, with smooth movements of her fat hands, picked up my cup and placed it on the tray. “His mother, he don’t want.”
“Oh, Hiroda-san. I’m so sorry.” I wanted to touch her. “What happened?” She stood up. She collected the cups and the teapot. She lifted the metal tray with her pudgy fingers.
At the doorway, she turned to me. Her eyes were red. “No words, ne?”
I watched the surface of the table. Distorted bars of light reflected from above clashed against the grain of the wood. When I finally left the room, she’d vanished.
I had two messages. One was from Tomoko. “He put a note in my mailbox, Doug.” Her voice was tattered. “He said he’s on another planet!”
The second call came from Jim himself. His skittery voice spoke not of another planet, but of something worse—Hokkaido, from which, he announced, snickering, he was embarking the next morning on a “tramp steamer” to “either China or Russia, whoever bags me first.” He ended saying that he was the saucer and his mother was the cup. I switched off my ringer and opened a beer.
For the next few days, a frost settled in the rooms of the school. We moved slowly, arms folded or pressed to their sides, heads tilted downwards. The students, sniffing tension in the air, did their best to break it up by causing problems. Tomoko and I couldn’t find time to talk to each other at work. I called her a couple times at night. Jim hadn’t contacted her, she told me in a voice drained of vitality, and as for how she was, she didn’t want to talk about it.
The following Monday, the door blasted open and children, like birds rocketing in unison from a tree, ran into my room. They elbowed and shoved and knocked each other down as they dived toward the zabuton pile. It took about four or five seconds, and when they were finished, they sat in their line in front of me, uninjured.
As I took my place on my own, larger zabuton in front of them, I caught sight of the same, strange kid from the class a week before. He sat on the side, a small distance apart from the others, his head turned toward the left. He was absorbed in a picture on the wall. A big blue lake flecked with sunlight. Across a background of craggy mountains, a flock of migrating birds, their formation the shape of a V, headed toward the horizon.
I decided to have the class practice saying their names. We went around the circle. “What’s your name?” “My name is Yuki.” “What’s your name?” “My name is Kennichi.” We came to the new kid. Every face turned to him. “What’s your name?”
He turned to me from the picture. The boy’s face was the picture of serenity. His smile was utterly calm. When he looked at me, his eyes seemed touched with pity. He reminded me of a monk I’d talked to one time at a Temple, who gave the impression of possessing the secret of existence and feeling sorry for me because I didn’t.
“My name is Taro.”
Under the neon rods that ran along the ceiling, whose harsh illumination was tamed by the natural light that flowed through the window closest to the boy, the class continued through drills of What’s this? and What are these? When we finished, and the boy left with the group, I felt like some of the air inside me had fled.
I mentioned the boy again to Hiroda-san that night. She was tilted over a pile of papers on her desk, the skin between her eyes furrowed. Since Jim had vanished, she’d been working twelve hours every day. She glanced up and raised a finger.
“Ah, yes, yes. Doug-sensei. Gomen nasai. I found out. The new boy is returnee. His mother rang me this morning with information.” She pulled a slip of fax paper out of a pile. Hiroda-san looked at me and smiled. “She pay for lessons by faxed credit card receipt. She never come to school in person herself. Omoshiroi, ne?”
“Yeah, that is strange.”
“She live in America a long time, I think that’s why she is strange. But I don’t care.” Hiroda-san used her thumb and forefinger to make an O, which she wiggled at me, smiling. “Because she pays.” She put the paper back on the piles.
“How long was he in the states?”
“Almost his life. He cannot speak Japanese, I think.”
Another returnee. That explained a lot. The parents of returnees were sent by their companies in Japan to work overseas for years. Their children went to non-Japanese schools. When they returned to Japan, parents sometimes signed them up for lessons so they wouldn’t forget their English.
The mystery fizzled about the new boy. He was an American, so his behavior was different. Simple. Still, there was something mysterious about the kid, like he knew a secret joke and was laughing inside because he never needed to tell me the punchline.
The following week felt almost normal. Apart from the extra work, I hardly noticed Jim’s absence. No more weird messages. Tomoko even started to look alive. I saw her smile once. She still didn’t want to talk about Jim.
Friday night, classes had ended. Tomoko, Hiroda-san and I sat in our separate spaces, doing paperwork. The school was quiet. The forlorn ding, ding, ding of the night train moved up to my window from Shukugawa Station. I laid down my pen and walked to the sliding glass door. It made no sound as I opened it. I stepped outside. The streets below were nearly deserted. A few night revelers heading through the turnstiles of the station, the men with their expensive suits, the women in thigh-high skirts. Blue and red neon blinked on their hair.
The front door of the school jingled. Who? Too late for visitors. Jim jumped into my mind. I ran out of my classroom, heart pounding, ready to punch or hug the guy. Tomoko ran out of her classroom at the same moment.
Instead of Jim, a massive foreigner stood in the entranceway. Her dress was a green tent. Her blonde hair was long and tangled at the ends. Her grin made fat dimples on her pink face. She spread two pudgy arms as if to hug anything in her path. That’s when Jim’s mom called out, “surprise!”
We led her to the staff room, where she spread her wide bottom over her seat like a turkey covering her eggs. Over cups of green tea served in ornate ceramic cups on dainty, hand-painted saucers, Jim’s mother, who ordered us jovially to call her Ruth, told us about the mistake. She was in an accident, but had, as we could see, not died. Tomoko, skin so milky I could see the chaos of tiny veins in her cheeks, sat in the corner with the dazed look of someone severely malnourished. Hiroda-san listened silently with her lips pressed together as Ruth described in a homely Midwestern accent how a mix-up at the hospital had resulted in the phone call prematurely announcing her demise. She tried to reach Jim to tell him about her rebirth. When she called his apartment, all she’d gotten was a strange message. “Couldn’t make a mite of sense out of it.” She grinned at us. “I could’ve just called this school and talked to Jimmy, but it hit me that this’d be a great way to give him the surprise of his life.” She chuckled and looked around the room. She glanced out the window of the classroom to the front lobby, as though expecting her son to walk in the front door.
Hiroda-san and Tomoko were staring at me. I cleared my throat. “How long has it been since you’ve seen your son, Mrs., um, Jim’s mom?”
“Oh, such a long time, I can’t tell you. And call me Ruth. Seems like forever.” She played with a piece of her big dress. Her features were like Jim’s, with a hundred extra pounds. With her billowing arms and merry blue eyes, she looked so inflated with affection she might wrap her enormous bosom around anyone within reach in a tender, suffocating embrace.
I told her straight. Her face fell by inches as I spoke. First the skin of her cheeks sagged, then the happy puffs of flesh under her eyes, then her nose, and her head itself sagged on her neck like a bloom perishing under its own weight. I finished by saying, “no one knows where he is. He might never come back.”
In the seconds that followed, the creases on Ruth’s face mingled weirdly, the lines criss-crossing when they should have been parallel. Even her eyes seemed askew. Tomoko, years older than she was a week before, crumpled so far into her chair that she could have vanished under the table. A long silence followed. I flinched when Hiroda-san’s voice shattered the air. With a pontifical gesture of her arm, she thundered “I will take her!” She pointed a finger in the air.
Tomoko’s frightened face didn’t help me understand what was happening. Another outbreak of madness?
“I will take her,” Hiroda-san bellowed even louder, as if to clarify things. She hoisted herself from her seat and put a calm hand on Ruth’s shoulder. “Ikimashoo. Come,” she said.
The two large women moved from the classroom, one with her chubby hand on the other’s shoulder. They didn’t exchange a word. By the time I got to the lobby, they already had their shoes on. Hiroda-san held the door open for Ruth. Bizarre. They were smiling. Ruth was patting Hiroda on the back.
It was bad of me, maybe, but when I saw the two enormous women standing side by side in the little entranceway, the first thing that jumped to my mind was to compare their sizes, to see which one was fatter. I decided they weighed about the same.
They were so happy, like a pair of twins, long-separated, having a reunion. Despite their tonnage, they practically floated through the front door, their heels immune to gravity, their bulk evaporated and propelled by a magical breeze.
Three weeks later they hadn’t returned. There was no answer at Hiroda-san’s house.
Although the owner was gone, everything else was the same. Tomoko and I taught our lessons. I took care of the small administrative things that came up. Tomoko helped me with the Japanese when necessary. Each evening, after the school closed, we had green tea and talked. We wondered when, or if, Hiroda-san would return. We didn’t think about going to the police. Something in the air told us that, wherever she and Ruth had run away to, they were safe. I could manage the school indefinitely if I had to, especially with Tomoko’s help.
The only change was the disappearance of Taro. The new boy was missing from the next two lessons. Then a fax came, in a kind of childish, scrawled English. The note only had three words on it: Taro won’t return.
There was a strange feeling in the city, like the air was charged with an invisible dynamism. Peculiar winds kicked up from every direction, competed with each other, and shattered the normally sluggish autumn days. Anything was possible.
When would they return? Would I recognize them when they did?
JOHN EIDSWICK teaches English in Japan. He is also a graduate student at Temple University, Osaka. His writing has appeared in Amarillo Bay, Cinemad, and Poor Mojo's Almanac(k).