(Mr. Trombone’s tale continues, degenerating as I predicted into pathos and self-pity. –Ofc. Dirkins)
Since frightening the woman at the stationery store, I had gradually lost my nerve, becoming more and more hesitant to speak Japanese and living almost entirely on rice crackers purchased at inflated prices over at a little open-air storefront where a man sat on a folding chair and watched a small portable TV right up until you were about a foot away from him, when he’d look up like you had just passed through some nonexistent door which rang some nonexistent bell. And he’d smile. He’d smile because I was buying a $7 bag of rice crackers at 6 in the evening. He smiled, and he sometimes made a remark to someone sitting just beyond a curtained doorway which I suppose led to where he lived with his old wife who was sewing something, or watching another portable TV, or maybe just grinning and looking at the world through marble eyes like Anthony Perkins’ mom in Psycho.
I really needed to learn Japanese.
I moved the empty beer bottle off the book, and opened it to the bit of cellophane I had torn from a rice cracker package and used as a bookmark two months earlier. As the sun slipped behind the ragged, sagging outline of Sweet Dreamy River Home apartment building across the narrow street in front of my apartment building, and clouds of mosquitoes wafted through my screenless doorway and windows to gather on my electronic mosquito repellant machine and laugh at me, I finally arrived at the end of Chapter One of Teach Yourself Japanese, all the way over on page nine.
I could now fluently and more confidently talk about pencils being there and here and over there. After Chapter Two the very next day, I could with remarkable sophistication discuss the pencil being on, then near, then under a table. With these two chapters, and a few other basic words I had picked up, I burst into a restaurant down the street and told the waitress there that a fried shrimp was on white rice. She was alarmed, then puzzled, then intrigued. She waited for the rest, but there was no rest. I had given my order in the only way I could, in the form of a description, like you’d have at the beginning of a story. I had set a scene, then stopped. There was no story, no continuation, and in the end no bowl of warm white rice with a big tempura shrimp on top. Nothing to stop the dizzy spells I got from eating rice crackers for three months.
After staring at each other for a bit and waiting, me for dinner and her for some sort of closure, we both turned and took the slow walk of shame out to the front of the store, where I pointed at a dusty plastic model so gray and forlorn it almost took my appetite away. I had failed, and this was my very public punishment. Neighbors walked by, and without slowing down or turning their heads they observed and recorded every detail of the incident for dissemination later that evening in the neighborhood’s apartments, hostess bars and public baths.
I knew my neighbors were doing this thanks to a magazine article I had scanned at O’Hare International Airport titled “The Japanese Psyche,” which dealt with the complex cultural make-up of the Japanese public and its roots in centuries of pre-industrial, feudal history. The article was written by Professor Jonathan Applewhite, who made his case in six pages, two if you took out the ads, subtitles, picture of Prof. Applewhite with brief resume beneath, boxes with quotations in larger type taken from the article, and an impressionistic drawing of a bespectacled samurai on the Tokyo subway. Also contributing to this paranormal ability of mine to see into the souls of these passersby, and indeed into the very core of Japanese society, was the acute and debilitating paranoia brought on by stress and a diet composed almost exclusively of rice crackers. I smiled knowingly at an elderly man down the street who appeared to be waiting for a bus, leaning on what would seem to be just a cane.
(To be, Mrs. Doyle warns, continued . . . -Ofc. Dirkins)