Motel of Lost Companions

Keep a grip on what passes for reality as you check into this strangely normal fiction story for fall by Hillel Wright

by Hillel Wright

It was a foolish argument . . . the worst kind of argument too, over food. And not even food exactly, but over salad dressing.

She’d left his dinner on the table while she was out shopping for groceries. There was a bowl of yakisoba noodles and a plate of gyoza dumplings to heat up in the microwave. And there was a salad. Not a very fancy salad, just lettuce, tomato wedges, grated carrot, cucumber and slices of hard-boiled egg. The salad was in a medium-size bowl, an individual serving. Next to the salad was a small plastic pitcher of dressing. It looked and smelled like one of her homemade concoctions of olive oil, rice vinegar, garlic, diced tofu and a dollop of Caspian yogurt. It looked like a lot of dressing for one salad, but then again it might not have just been for a single serving.

It presented a classic avoidance-avoidance conflict: avoid her displeasure if he didn’t eat everything she so painstakingly prepared for him; avoid her anger if he didn’t leave her half the dressing.

So it was a foolish decision that led to the foolish argument.

He’d gone out to the library after dinner and then over to the International Center to use the free 30 minutes of Internet service available there. He could just check his e-mail and leave their home computer free for her to use when she got back from shopping. She liked to search for punk-music performances on YouTube or play violent video games like “Postal” or “Grand Theft Auto.” She said they helped her to relax. She was, after all, old enough — at 34 — to be able to distinguish fantasy from reality. He didn’t suspect she’d ever actually go on a shooting rampage in Yokohama or Tokyo. For one thing, where would she get a gun?

An ex-lead singer in an all-girl punk-rock band, she still had some contacts in the hardcore punk scene in Tokyo, but those people were artists, not gangsters, and in spite of their black leather jackets and Doc Marten boots, they were not part of the world of organized crime.

Joe Strummer might have easily bought a gun in Memphis, but Jun Togawa was highly unlikely to be able to get hold of one in Kawasaki. She was not, certainly, a potential serial-killer, but she was, against her own better judgment, a serious drinker, and when he came back home from the International Center, he found her, as he had expected, sitting at the computer with a half-empty glass on the shelf beside her, playing “Postal.” He was slightly unhappy to realize that it was cheap sake she was drinking. She could handle beer all right; even shochu, but cheap sake made her a mean drunk. He decided to stay out of her way by taking a shower.

It was when he came out of the shower that the argument began. In reality, it was more a shower of abuse than an argument. It takes two voices to argue. He was merely stopped dead in his tracks, towel wrapped around his waist, reaching for Q-tips to dry the water in his ears when she began spouting her vicious stream of invective about the salad dressing.

Once she’d built up a head of steam, there was no more stopping her than there was stopping a bullet train at a station in the sticks. Defense, rationalization or arguments, he knew from long years of experience, were non-options. They would only stoke her angry fire into a raging fury. He tried an apology, which came out sounding feebler than he would have wished. She ignored it and continued venting her well-lubricated spleen.

He could see no choice but to flee. After hastily retreating to the bedroom, he dressed hurriedly, threw on a windbreaker over an old sweat shirt and headed down the stairs. She didn’t pursue him. He sat down on the front step and laced up a pair of walking shoes. The night was cool and clear, it being 10 days after the vernal equinox. He knew that he was in for a long walk. It would take her an hour or two to chill out. When he returned she’d either be asleep — passed out more than likely — or back bleary-eyed at the computer watching music videos and slowly sobering up. She was volatile but pretty predictable.

It was a half-hour walk to the Tamagawa River, so that was an ideal destination. Once there he could walk along the bank on the dirt trails for an hour, letting the sounds of the water and the stillness of the starry sky calm his nerves. Then he could walk home and hopefully enter a quiet, if not completely harmonious house and go to bed. The residual emotional flak might carry over to the next day in the form of “the silent treatment,” or it might dissipate and end in an apology — “gomen ne.” He could never be sure. She wasn’t that predictable.

So down to the river it was, winding his way through late-night alleys and empty shopping streets. A slight breeze stirred the cherry trees along the route, causing their last few fading blossoms to flutter down, dotting the black asphalt with flickers of pink. Past the shuttered shops he trudged, past the little yakitori bars with their red lanterns hanging outside, and past those more private and mysterious “snacks,” with one or two customers nursing a cold beer or sake, and mama-sans silently topping up glasses of shochu for lone men staring into the clear liquid as if in search of meaning. Occasionally a burst of laughter came from the doorway of an izakaya as a gaggle of dark-suited office workers exited the bar & grill with a stumbling female colleague or two, and staggered out into the starlight.

The last 10 minutes of the walk took him through a quiet residential neighborhood, dark houses presiding over hushed streets, here and there a light in a window, now and then a cat disappearing behind an azalea hedge. Then the kaido, the two-lane blacktop he had to cross before reaching the river bank, a solitary traffic light casting a gratuitous glow of color into the dark of the night.

The road climbed slightly as it neared the kaido, and the view of the river was blocked by a steeper rise on the other side. About 100 meters north of the signal was a 24-hour convenience store, its fluorescent lighting giving out a ghostly luminescence. Another 50 meters or so further on came a flash of scarlet neon, advertising the presence of some apparently new building, which he’d never noticed before. This didn’t surprise him — buildings came and went unceasingly in Tokyo. The convenience store hadn’t been there six months ago.

The traffic light was red, the odd truck roared by and as he waited for the light to change he looked more closely at the new neon sign: MOTEL! Now that was strange. There weren’t any motels in Japan. Most Japanese didn’t even know the word. But new things appeared regularly on the Tokyo landscape and soon became commonplace and entrenched. Fifteen years ago, when he’d first arrived, there’d been no Starbucks and now they were everywhere, sometimes less than 100 meters apart, like the two near the west exit of Yokohama Station. He looked again to make sure it was an “M” he was seeing and not an “H.” And then he saw two smaller signs: HEATED POOL. BAR.

The light turned to green and he instinctively took a step forward, but then he changed his mind. Although it made sense to build a motel beside a busy road, especially near a convenience store, it was still so alien that it warranted verification. So he turned left and walked along the kaido and turned into the parking area of the motel. It didn’t seem to have a name, but if it was, as he suspected, Japan’s first motel, it would probably be named later as rival motels were built and motel signs began to dot the urban nights like fireflies: HEATED POOL! BAR!

He found himself entering the bar, which was wide, spacious and very Western in appearance and decor, with lights and posters advertising Budweiser, Miller High Life and even Molson’s Canadian.

There was one customer seated on a stool, a broad-backed man dressed in jeans and a plaid flannel shirt, with short, roughly trimmed graying hair. He chose a stool just one down from the other man and ordered Jameson’s Irish whiskey on the rocks, water on the side. Casting a sideways glance, he made the man out to be around his own age, his blue eyes just slightly cloudy in a sun-leathered working-man’s face. Strong-looking calloused fingers gripped a bottle of Miller’s.

“Cheers!” the man exclaimed, raising his bottle. Our midnight rambler lifted his glass. “I’m Jim,” the beer drinker declared in a hearty, friendly voice. “Ken,” the newcomer responded.

“That must be your pick-up truck out in the lot,” Ken said. “It’s the only vehicle out there, after all.”

“Well, you got that right,” Jim said. “It belongs to an American company I’m working for. I’m a framing carpenter from New Hampshire. We’re building a bunch of post-and-beam houses out in one of the new Tokyo suburbs — the one that’s gonna get a Wal-Mart in a year or two.”

“Wow, first a motel, then American-style houses, after that a Wal-Mart — fits right in with McDonald’s, Mister Donut and KFC. Pretty soon the whole area’ll look like Boston or Seattle.”

“Nothin’ wrong with that, I guess.”

They drank in silence for a few minutes, then offered to buy each other another round. Jim won the toss. “So what d’ya do around here?” he asked.

“I teach at a university in Yokohama,” Ken answered. “I’m married to a Japanese girl — been here about 15 years. My name’s Ken Shulman.”

“Jimmy Higgins” the carpenter replied.

“Really! My best friend when I was a little boy was named Jimmy Higgins.”

“That so? Where was that exactly?”

“Hartford. Hartford, Connecticut.”

Jimmy Higgins looked intently at Ken and didn’t speak. Ken felt a bit uneasy and didn’t speak either. Finally Jimmy Higgins broke the silence. “I’m originally from Hartford, too. And my best friend when I was little was called Kenny. Kenny Shulman.”

“Did Kenny live at 76 East Burnam Street? And did you live at 75 East Venice Street, and did your backyard touch Kenny’s at the corners?”

“Yes, that’s exactly right.”

“And did you and Kenny have an imaginary friend, a spaceman named Dim?”

“We did, and why did we call him Dim?”

“Because at night we could both see a dim light from our bedroom windows and we figured that was Dim’s spaceship, out in the distance.”

“And what happened to the boys’ friendship?”

“They went to different elementary schools. Kenny went to a public school and Jimmy went to a Catholic school.”

“And the nuns told Jimmy he mustn’t play with Kenny any more because Kenny was Jewish and the Jews killed Christ, Our Lord.”

Ken held his breath.

“It’s been over 50 years,” said Jim. “I’m so happy we can finally be friends . . . once again.”

Madoka was asleep when Ken returned home. She was lying peacefully in bed, not passed out on the floor as he’d half expected. He guessed she’d taken a bath or had a shower before getting into bed. He made a pot of green tea and sat at the kitchen table, drinking slowly and thinking about the strange new motel and the incredible coincidence of the reunion with his lost childhood companion, Jimmy Higgins.

Ken and Madoka ate dinner together the following evening. She’d been quiet all day, but not particularly “silent.” She’d made miso soup, spaghetti with clam sauce and gobo salad. After dinner, Ken watched the bilingual news in English on television and Madoka played video games in another room. After the news, Ken announced he was going for a walk. It was his habit to walk for an hour for exercise six days a week.

Although he usually walked along the small Shibugawa River through their neighborhood, Ken this time set out immediately for the Tamagawa. It was earlier than the night before and there were more people on the streets, but he strode briskly through the shopping district and once more became engulfed by emptiness as he came within a few minutes of the river. And soon, as he ascended the rise to the kaido, there it was again, flashing in blood-red neon through the night: MOTEL! HEATED POOL. BAR.

No temptation to cross the road and descend to the riverside deterred his determined steps as he headed, as if pulled by magnetic or gravitational force, to the motel. And once inside the bar he again saw one lone figure there on a stool. Without hesitation he sat himself down, leaving one empty stool between himself and the stranger, and ordered a drink.

The other customer was drinking Budweiser. It was clearly not Jimmy Higgins, but something immediately impressed upon him that this man, too, was someone he had once known well.

The beer-drinker smiled at him, tilting his bottle slightly in Ken’s direction. “Yes, I know who you are, but don’t say anything — the walls have ears.”

So it was him, Bull Gordon, his best friend in college who was a fugitive from the FBI. As best as he could remember the details, Bull had gone beyond the pot-smoking and antiwar protesting of their ’70s circle and got himself addicted to heroin. His addiction and its inevitable lifestyle caused his girlfriend to leave him, and in a bizarre variant of revenge coupled with a need for hard cash for hard drugs, he broke into the house of her father, a University of Wyoming history professor and avid gun collector. After stealing most of the valuable armory, Bull crossed several state lines before selling the guns to the Black Panthers in Seattle. Eventually, the FBI tracked him down and in an escape that became legendary on the Colorado State University campus, Bull squeezed out through a back window while the Feds, armed with both guns and an arrest warrant, were breaking down the front door.

No one Ken knew had ever seen Bull again. Until tonight.

“Feel like a swim?” Bull asked him. “They rent bathing suits and goggles down at the pool. We can talk more there.”

The pool was deserted and the two long-lost companions swam silently side by side for a couple of lengths. Then, pulling up to the deep end, they stopped, arms resting on the tiled side, feet kicking up a noisy froth in the azure stillness of the pool.

“Of course I ran like hell, and I knew the town a lot better than they did. I think they wasted some time looking through the house for me. They probably didn’t think I’d really run — and it was a pretty big house as you remember.”

Bull quit kicking the water. “I think we can talk OK down here. Can’t be too careful though, ya know.”

Ken nodded his assent.

“I hid out for a week in the rock formations at Vedauwoo. Just drinking creek water and eating frogs and lizards raw. Kicking junk too, of course. Probably the weirdest withdrawal story of all time if I ever get around to writing it.” They’d both been aspiring novelists when they were at university together.

“After that week of cold-turkey hell, I woke up in a kind of heaven. I was a free man, cleaned up from drugs and in spite of the mess I was in, I was in the best mental and physical condition of my life. Those old Indian spirits in the stones must’ve approved of me, so I followed the old spirit trails north, up through the Badlands and the Dakotas, up to Canada.”

Bull stopped for a few seconds, but Ken said nothing, so he continued.

“Canada was hot and I don’t mean the weather. Lotta draft dodgers around and the cops were forever I.D.-ing anyone they didn’t know. I made it to Halifax in Nova Scotia and worked my way to Amsterdam on a freighter.

“Then I hit a dark spell, soldiering in a private army in Zaire — Roland the heartless Thompson gunner — but I don’t wanna talk about it and you don’t wanna hear it.

“After Africa, I island-hopped around the Indian Ocean, but ended up spending most of my time in Goa. Lotta weirdos there, so it was easy to blend in, and as long as you weren’t a child molester — plenty of those around — the cops pretty much left you alone.”

“So what brings you to Japan?”

“Well, a kind of R&R to tell the truth — a sojourn to a strict, orderly society where the yakuza gangsters control the streets instead of the army or the cops.”

“But speaking of strict, it must be pretty tough to get through Immigration.”

“Well, through the years I’ve made some pretty good contacts in the passport-forging business. I bet you’ll never guess who I am now.”

“Beats me — Seymour Glass, maybe. Quentin Compson?”

“Not bad — Jay Gatsby, actually.”

“Yer kidding!”

“Yeah, in a way. Actually, James Gatz.”

Once again Ken came home to find Madoka sound asleep. And in the morning, just as on the day before, he kept his evening experience to himself. But later, after dinner, he mentioned that a motel had gone up along the kaido, right across the road from the Tamagawa. Madoka just shrugged. No new Western influence infecting Japan surprised her. Not after a youth spent singing Sex Pistols covers in an all-girl Japanese punk rock band.

Later that evening, Ken set out on his customary walk, this time aiming directly for the motel. There were no customers when he entered, so he took a stool just off-center and ordered his regular drink. For a long time no one entered, and although he wasn’t a big drinker, he had two more glasses of his favorite Irish whiskey and began feeling pleasantly high. When he returned to his seat after a quick pit stop, he immediately recognized his old friend and former colleague at university, the poet John Richards.

“John! Long time no see!”

John raised his glass of red wine and the two drank a toast. They passed the time catching up on recent events in their lives, Ken doing most of the talking, John encouraging him by playing the interested listener. Soon Ken found himself rather drunk and noticed it was nearly midnight. He’d been gone much longer than his usual one hour, and he didn’t want Madoka to worry, so he shook John’s hand, bid him good night and set off for home.

Or so he thought . . . but once outside the bar he felt rather dizzy and, since the night was warm, he decided that a quick dip in the Tamagawa would sober him up. So he crossed the kaido and carefully picked his way down the bank to the river.

He stripped, bundled his clothes under the bridge and waded into a deep pool close to the shore. The water was cold but refreshing. He submerged briefly and came up shaking the water out of his hair like a dog.

It was then that he realized with a shudder that John Richards had died four years ago — the same day that Yassir Arafat died.

When Madoka woke up late the following morning, she didn’t miss Ken at first, because his morning routine was to go out to buy a paper and take it to Starbucks to read while having a coffee and a muffin or scone. It wasn’t until he didn’t show up for lunch that she began to be concerned. And when it got to dinner time and there was still no Ken and no phone call, she decided to go out and have a look.

As he often talked about how he enjoyed walking along beside the Tamagawa, she decided to search there first.

She got out her bike and headed for the river. But when she reached the kaido the signal was red, and while she was waiting for it to change she saw the bright red-neon flash on her left, just past the convenience store: MOTEL! HEATED POOL. BAR.

On an impulse, she turned and pedaled toward the motel that Ken had mentioned.

She rode her bicycle into a car-parking spot, locked it and went in. The parking lot was empty, but the outdoor lights of the motel were blazing. She entered the softly lit Western-style bar, and as soon as her eyes adjusted to the light she made out a lone figure seated on a stool, toying with a drink. Slowly, slowly, the bar stool turned and there was her husband smiling at her.

Stunned, she was speechless, but Ken broke the silence: “I’ve been expecting you.”

CHRIS MACKENZIE ILLUSTRATION

Hillel Wright’s inspiration came from the story “The Restaurant of Many Orders” by Kenji Miyazawa, the album “Rust Never Sleeps” by Neil Young and the film “Ghost Dog” by Jim Jarmusch. Wright’s latest books are the novel “Border Town” and the anthology “Jungle Crows,” both published by Printed Matter Press (www.printedmatterpress.com).