5. Hippopotamus

(The yarn goes on, no end in sight. -Ofc. Dirkins)

A Japanese mailbox (photo by Kikuchi)

I told my neighbor Nishihara-san about my troubles, limiting this extremely broad topic to my inability to properly order a meal in a restaurant and ignoring for the moment the more telling issues of my taking a job I was not qualified for and moving to a country I knew almost nothing about. Nishihara-san lived in the apartment right next door. I met him two days after moving in, while trying to drive a nail into the front door frame of my apartment to hang a mailbox I had to buy because I was told by the realtor that such things as mailboxes, window screens, working door locks, and hot water were the responsibility of the tenant and had nothing whatsoever to do with the realtor or building owner. He later relented on the hot water, which was really more like warm water or maybe water that wasn’t quite as cold as the cold water, but I suspect that was his strategy all along as it so endeared me to him that I immediately fell to my knees and began kissing the tobacco-scented backs of his hands. Looking up at Mr. Takahashi that afternoon through the tears that welled in my eyes, I never would have considered for even a moment being so impudent as to insult the man who had just bestowed upon me water that was very nearly warm with my selfish thoughts of window screens or mailboxes, and I think they call this the Stockholm Syndrome.

At any rate, as I was banging at the nail with my shoe, I felt a presence behind me, and turned just in time to see Nishihara-san standing there with a large hammer raised over his head. I instinctively flinched, but the hammer missed my head by a full half inch and splintered the wood just two and a half feet from the nail I was trying to set. “Close!” I cried, overcome with emotion at the sudden and welcome appearance of this kind stranger. Noticing the disappointment that so plainly showed on Nishihara-san’s face, I quickly wrestled the hammer from his surprisingly tight grip. “Hey,” I piped, “Don’t worry.” I rapped the nail sharply twice. “See, everything’s okay!” I turned back to hand him the hammer, but Nishihara-san was already walking away yelling, I guess at some kids down the street or around the corner, or somewhere else just out of sight.

Nishihara-san and I had become closer since that day, and though we shared no language, were both surprisingly poor at communicating through gesture, often found ourselves misreading facial expressions and subtle body language cues to arrive at grossly inaccurate interpretations of each other’s moods, and were furthermore faced with the sometimes seemingly insurmountable obstacle of Nishihara-san’s generally negative disposition towards Americans resulting from his two years in an American POW camp in The Philippines, I feel we were practically brothers. Or father and son. Or grandfather and grandson. Or simply two people with backgrounds and personalities that contrasted in interesting and unpredictable ways, like on that 1970s situation comedy “Chico and the Man,” except I wasn’t a Chicano or especially witty, Nishihara-san did not run a broken-down garage in East Los Angeles, and I am not sure we tackled any deeply divisive societal ills in a way that may be characterized as groundbreaking or fresh.

Nevertheless, it was the close and special relationship I imagined us having developed during the three months we knew each other that allowed me that day to open my heart to Nishihara-san. Using simple English, simpler Japanese, gestures, pictures drawn on what I was to later find out was Nishihara-san’s junior high school diploma, and a unique form of onomatopoeia I created that required special breathing techniques and the use of a muscle in the lower back not commonly associated with vocal production, I told Nishihara-san about the tempura shrimp, about my struggle with the language, about the humiliation of having to point at models of food in front of restaurants. After I finished, there followed a quiet stillness. My neighbor seemed to be deep in either thought or sleep. Then appearing to have come to some important conclusion, or perhaps having simply woken up, Nishihara-san made a gesture I thought at first was an invitation to go fishing, then interpreted as an offer of soup with some sort of round, flat object in it, but in the end finally decided was an offer to teach me Japanese. Yes, it was most likely an offer to teach me Japanese, and I nodded enthusiastically.

My neighbor went into a small room at the back of his apartment, and after ten minutes of much slamming, banging, and a mysterious scraping noise he emerged holding a colorful poster covered with pictures of African animals. He taped the poster to the wall, and pointed at a hippopotamus, then at the two Japanese hiragana characters next to it, reading each one as he pointed, “ka” then “ba.” He pointed at the first one again and waited until I said “ka,” then he pointed at the second one, and I said, “ba.” This pleased him.

Then he pointed at the second one, so I said “ba,” and then he pointed to the first one, and I said “ka.” And it was at this point that Nishihara-san toppled from his chair and crashed to the floor, inadvertently kicking the kitchen table and knocking over a tall plastic container of pickled squid guts, a three-liter drum of Kirin beer, and a tube of Pringles potato chips, creating on the table what may have turned out to be an uncannily accurate miniature reproduction of the island-studded Seto Inland Sea. Or maybe one of those apparitions of the Virgin Mary you hear about sometimes. I really wouldn’t know because, assuming this was one of Japan’s famous earthquakes, I had leapt over my prostrate neighbor and was outside before the Kirin beer found its way to the edge of the table.

from left: pickles, squid, guts, pickled squid guts (shiokara)

Then, standing outside gasping for breath as my neighbors walked calmly by, I got it. “Baka.” I had said, “baka,” the Japanese word for “idiot,” and that was why Nishihara-san had fallen from his chair and was now laughing beneath a steady trickle of Kirin beer, squid guts, and the occasional plop of a soggy potato chip. Baka.

It was a long way to go for a joke.

left, a hippopotamus; right, one backwards

(Mr. Trombone’s reference to a three-liter can of Kirin beer, which he chooses to call a three-liter “drum” for I suppose some smart-alecky purpose that escapes me, is a clue most readers may miss. Such large cans of beer, as shown in the video below, were in fact not commonly available after the mid 1990s or so, placing this portion of the manuscript most likely before that time period. The exact significance of this is not readily apparent to me, although it seems to have caused such great excitement and animated discussion among staff members here that I find myself too often having to leave my office and stroll among the cubicles to see that any work is being done at all. -Ofc. Dirkins)

(The realtor in this story is not the usual one. Almost realtors in Japan do certainly include without hesitation such amenities as mailboxes, hot water, and door locks. -Asst. Ofc. Kikuchi)

(Mr. Kikuchi’s brother-in-law is a realtor. -Ofc. Dirkins)

(So? -Asst. Ofc. Kikuchi)

(Just saying. -Ofc. Dirkins)

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2 Responses to 5. Hippopotamus

  1. Toby Dederick says:

    Mr Dirkins,

    I agree with your assessment regarding the age of this part of the manuscript. When I played the video of the beer commercial, my Japanese wife immediately began singing along with the jingle. She claims it was a popular song in the early 80’s, so the commercial (and the large beer cans) probably date before 1990. Too bad. I could use one of those right now.


    • staff says:

      Mr. Dederick,

      Thank you very much for relaying this important information. Funny how your wife was able to so easily recall those lyrics. Very funny, indeed. So funny, in fact, that, we here at the consulate cannot help but think your wife may know more about the mysterious disappearance of Eddie Trombone than she has already let on. Maybe quite a bit more. Consequently, I am afraid I have to request that both you and your wife remain available should further questioning be required. In other words, my friend, don’t plan on taking any long trips for a while. -Ofc. Dirkins


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