(The story continues, testing the limits of plausibility and the tolerance of its readers.–Ofc. Dirkins)
Having taught me in a way I was not likely to soon forget that “idiot” in Japanese is “hippopotamus” backwards, and cleaning up the resulting seascape of beer, pickled squid guts, and soggy potato chips this particular lesson seemed to require, Nishihara-san finally got around to teaching me the word “tendon,” which is what you call that ubiquitous Japanese dish of tempura shrimp on rice, which is what I tried to order and couldn’t and wound up at Nishihara-san’s apartment rapping on the door frame which always caused the little two-story apartment building to shimmy and make me think there was an earthquake like I thought when Nishihara-san fell out of his chair while teaching me that “idiot” in Japanese is “hippopatamus” backwards after letting me into his apartment that was still shimmying a little from me rapping on the door frame.
(Readers unable to follow Mr. Trombone’s ridiculously convoluted sentence above may wish to re-read the previous chapter. Or, then again, they may not. -Ofc. Dirkins)
“Tendon.” I practiced it in a sentence. “Tendon kudasai.” I practiced it standing, then sitting. I tried it looking to the left, then with my head turned ever so slightly to the right. I practiced saying it loudly, softly, slowly, impatiently, and once in a distant, inexplicably melancholy tone. I spoke it in a young man’s voice, an old man’s voice, a small girl’s voice, and finally the voice of a 55-year-old woman with a deviated septum, and all this eventually brought Nishihara-san banging on my door holding his now familiar hammer behind his back just in case it was the hostage situation it sounded like through the wall so thin it’s hard to say it actually divided our apartments.
After a little more testing in different wind conditions (speaking directly into my electric fan, facing away from it, high setting, low setting, etc.) I regained my old confidence and, had it not been for the automatic sliding glass door, would have burst into the restaurant around the corner. Instead, I waited patiently for the opening squeak of that poorly maintained door, stepped inside, and took a seat at one of the six small tables, all empty now because it was four in the afternoon.
Though I spoke a little too softly, my voice cracked halfway through, and I laughed inappropriately at the end, I was finally able to order for the very first time this dish, this simple tempura shrimp nestled coyly in its bed of white rice, this prone prawn, this warm welcoming bowl of goodness both readily available yet playfully elusive, this thing they, and now I too, call “tendon.” I ordered it for lunch the next day, then dinner. Then lunch again. For about two weeks, for both lunch and dinner, I ordered this dish, this limp, oil-sodden cockroach of the sea lying beaten on a gummy glob of empty white carbohydrates. I walked through clouds of fragrant yakitori smoke, passed the lunatic screams of sushi shops, and watched my reflection float across display cases filled with models of Chinese food, all the hand-painted vegetables wriggling on their oblong platters. For two weeks, no matter what other warm, tempting dishes lay just beyond my trembling reach, I ordered, could only order, tendon.
I had to eat something else, but I did not want to learn the name of another African animal, or whatever else Nishihara-san had up his sleeve, and I found myself one day simply unable to pass a Chinese restaurant. I stood there staring at the shelves of plastic food, glistening green peppers, quivering slices of meat, and randy bamboo shoots twisting and turning in their oily orgies of delight. I finally settled on the dish that had the easiest name to write, and even then it took me 20 minutes and every scrap of paper I had on me. After using up both sides of my tiny subway ticket, an expired coupon for powdered donuts from Jewel Foods in Chicago, and either two receipts or one receipt and a form I would eventually need in order to leave the country (I really needed to learn how to read Japanese), I wound up making the final version of the dish’s three-character name on the back of the only copy I had of my original birth certificate from Saint Joseph Hospital (I had been carrying my birth certificate with me for two months, meaning all the while to copy this important document at a convenience store, of which there are at last count 7.4 for every person drawing breath in Japan).
So, with birth certificate pressed to the glass case, I carefully wrote on the back what I decided was a reasonable facsimile of the name of this Chinese dish of scrambled egg floating in something translucent on top of rice. The waitress inside smiled warmly when I handed her my birth certificate, and believing I was looking for a place to dispose of a bit of unwanted trash immediately crumpled up this one remaining proof of my existence and threw it into a large plastic bucket filled with the remnants of what people were either unwilling or unable to eat that day. I watched for a moment uncomprehending as my birth certificate began to sink slowly into Chinese leftovers. There was a sucking sound just before the paper went under that woke me from my stupor and sent me to the bucket just in time to pluck, well more like tug, the paper from the swirling gray, purple and orange concoction.
I unfolded the document and showed it again to the woman. She looked at it, then turned to me and shrugged. I saw then that I was showing her the front of the birth certificate, not the back. I turned it over, and noticed for the very first time that the date of my registered birth was one year earlier than I had always thought, which put it a few months before my parents got married. This understandably gave me pause, and it was during that pause that the woman walked away. Wait! I cried in Japanese, suddenly finding in me the kind of supernatural power you hear about that allows a mother to lift a car off her child after an accident. “Matte!” I cried, and dashed after the now panicking woman. I overtook her only after she slipped on a noodle while pivoting toward the kitchen. Standing to block her escape to the swinging doors and the ominous cleaver sounds beyond, I held up my birth certificate with the correct side, the back side, the side that did not question the legitimacy of my birth, facing her. I flicked a bit of green pepper off the paper with as much composure as can be managed while flicking a bit of green pepper off a limp, greasy birth certificate held with trembling hand before a terrified mother of two in a cheap Chinese restaurant on the industrial outskirts of Osaka. And holding the document like that, I came face to face with the unplanned nature of my life and the randomness of the universe.
(During a quarrel between Mrs. Doyle and Mr. Kikuchi over who would be sent to Chicago to do a follow up investigation at St. Joseph Hospital concerning Mr. Trombone’s birth certificate, it was revealed that for two years there was a CIA mole in the Osaka Consulate who spoke no Japanese but was given a list of words to listen for, and on this list was the word “sekigun,” the Japanese name for the revolutionary Red Army organization, and that this mole one day overheard Mr. Kikuchi saying over the phone the word “sekihan,” which is a type of red bean and rice dish, and that believing Mr. Kikuchi was instead talking about the Red Army this mole promptly reported the overheard telephone conversation to his CIA handler who in response began a file on Mr. Kikuchi flagging him as a possible enemy of the United States. All this was revealed early in the argument, when Mrs. Doyle, who had somehow gotten a copy of the file, produced the one-page report with dramatic flourish. While I may suspect Mr. Kikuchi of being many things, I do not believe he is an enemy of the United States, at least not an intentional one. Still, I have no choice but to send Mrs. Doyle to Chicago and place a travel ban on Mr. Kikuchi until this Red Army matter is cleared up. Mrs. Doyle has been on the phone all afternoon making travel plans, including arranging a visit to a place called Wrigley Field which she tells me is a police office of some sort, like Scotland Yard. –Ofc. Dirkins)