19. Hindu Christmas

(Mrs. Doyle and Mr. Kikuchi have combed the remaining rumpled remnants of the manuscript “Teach Yourself Japanese,” and it seems the author’s entire two-week suspension from Joyfull English, during which he intended to “make something of himself,” came to an end without him, unsurprisingly, “making anything of himself.” There also appears no further mention of the author’s crackpot theory of a connection between the Latin and Japanese languages. Because the pages are not numbered and the author suffers from his generation’s wandering inability to concentrate on a single topic for any significant length of time, it is difficult to determine the exact order of the manuscript, if indeed an order it has, but to the best of my staff’s understanding, what follows is what follows, if anything in this manuscript can be said to follow. –Consular Ofc. Dirkins)

I was hypnotized, and on the verge of discerning a pattern in the timing of the flashes between the two separate strings of lights. Then,

“Christmas is a Hindu holiday.”

Distracted, I lost my place. The lights carried on, flashing their inscrutable code, and I found myself in the back room of Sameer Bhatia’s tiny market under the El tracks, celebrating Christmas with Sameer, Butch Rizzo, Tommy O’Rourke, and Alan Goldblatt.

The Chicago El (archive by Kikuchi)

Sameer continued, “And Jesus was a Hindu.”

I rolled my eyes and looked over toward Tommy with exaggerated exasperation and one of those what-are-we-going-to-do-with-this-guy kind of looks. Correcting Sameer gently, in the spirit of Christmas, I intoned, “Jesus was not a Hindu, Sameer.” Then I realized I was not looking at Tommy at all, but rather at Alan Goldblatt, who had changed places with Tommy while I was staring at the lights on the Christmas tree.

“Jesus was a Catholic,” Tommy said from way off to my left, where he was sitting in Alan’s old spot, on a case of RC Cola. And because the marijuana we had smoked earlier was so very powerful, I could actually hear Alan’s eyebrows rise, like a high-pitched cartoon squeak, and Sameer laughed for ten full minutes.

– – –

I had jet lag. I had been in Japan for a year, but I still had jet lag. I woke up every day at 8:30 am, four hours earlier than I usually woke up back home. It was maddening.

My first class was at 3 pm, so I had less than six hours to shave, dress myself, and eat. I hated being rushed like that. I began to pick up the empty beer bottles scattered about my apartment. Well, “scattered” is perhaps not the right word, as things cannot go too far afield in a space measured by six tatami mats.

I pulled at one bottle that seemed to have become entangled in some sort of plant life sprouting from the tatami mat. It was the rainy season, so it was not unusual to come across a bit of mold here and there, notice a gathering of moss in a poorly lit corner, or trip over the fully formed root system of some tropical flesh-eating fern.

I grabbed the bottle with both hands and yanked, pulling it free from the grasping greenery but also bringing up with it some sort of rectangular object about an inch and a half thick. I sat with my back against the cool surface of a bamboo tree that had taken root overnight in the middle of my apartment, and pulled the object free from the bottom of the beer bottle. I removed the vines, soil and centipedes. and laid before me that which had haunted me for so long. My White Whale. My Tell-Tale Heart. My Odyssean Sirens calling from the rocky cliffs of the island Nihongo.

“suikazura,” or Japanese honeysuckle (archive by Kikuchi)

I laid before me on a carpet of suikazura one extremely overdue Chicago Public Library copy of Teach Yourself Japanese.

– – –

We had just struggled through another rendition of the Ten Days of Christmas, a song Sameer insisted was a Christmas classic in India and included several references to a goddess named Durga. Visibly moved by the song or homesickness, or maybe just sick from having eaten half a bag of pork rinds that, like nearly everything in the store, was more than a year beyond its expiration date, Sameer pried himself from the stool he spent 14 hours propped against every day of the year, his weight over time eventually bending the stem of the stool until it bowed gracefully like a sunflower towards its life-giving energy source, which in this case was the shiny polyester seat of Sameer’s inexpensive gray dress trousers, and he walked over and plopped himself down between me and Butch on a two-legged green couch. He put his arms over our shoulders, and thanked us again for bringing the Christmas tree to his store.

“The tree was expensive?” he asked, looking up at Butch, who was on the side of the couch with the two legs.

“Was very cheap, Sam,” Butch said downhill.

“I will pay you for this tree.”

“It was free,” I said, pushing Sameer up the couch a little so I could breathe. “It didn’t cost anything.”

“Nothing in this country is free,” Sameer sighed, and started to slip into his more characteristic, non-Christmas mood, which, while not giving itself over entirely to depression or despair, certainly moved in that direction. It was kind of like a listlessness that tired and stopped just short of angst.

“It is if you don’t get caught,” Butch said, shaking a bit of marijuana into a Zig Zag rolling paper.

– – –

How does one learn another language? Is it simply a matter of memorizing masses of new words? Should we focus more on the rules, or grammar, of the thing? Should we practice simple phrases at first, slowly adding vocabulary as we develop some fluency? Should we read first then speak, speak first then listen, listen first then speak, watch movies, listen to tapes, find conversation partners, see hypnotists, drink alcohol, try yoga, speak louder, speak softer, get plenty of sleep, sit up straight when we eat, don’t pick that or it’ll never heal, or try the Berlitz Method?

I chose to go shopping. For cards. Looking over the stern, uncompromising cover of Teach Yourself Japanese, I chose to go shopping for cards to make flashcards with. Yes, shopping, that’s a good idea I said inside my head, and quickly pushed the book to one side. I felt instantly better.

I know I already have some cards, I replied to a voice I hoped was just my conscience, but they’re not quite the right size. Yes, not the right size. I need cards at the very least one inch shorter, and about half an inch wider. Yes, half an inch wider, I might have even said out loud, pulling on a pair of damp jeans I had hung up to dry two weeks earlier. “And one inch shorter.”

– – –

“What is the meaning of this?” Sameer asked in a panic.

Butch just looked back, confused. It was really good marijuana.

“What are you meaning, ‘if you do not get caught?’” Sameer persisted.

“We stole it, Sam. We stole the Christmas tree.”

And there followed a great hullabaloo, in which Sameer moved easily back and forth between English and Hindi and possibly one other language. It was hard to follow, but it sounded to me like we should not have stolen a tree during this time of the year because it was an insult to the goddess Durga. And Jesus too, Sameer sometimes threw in when he noticed Tommy looking askance.

Oh, he was mad.

“Jewels,” local vernacular for Jewel Foods, a Chicago area grocery store chain. (photo by Barbara “Snaps” Whalen)

“From the guy in the empty lot by the Jewels on Ashland,” Butch added quickly, like this was going to help. “He’s got lots of trees. How’s he going to miss just the one?”

And of course this just made Sameer angrier, maybe because he himself was a small business owner, making in three months about the same amount of money the Christmas tree guy made in three weeks living in a small, beat-up trailer he dragged down from Wisconsin every year and parked on the weeds, broken glass, and cigarette butts that carpeted an empty lot lit faintly orange each night by a large Jewel Foods sign across the street.

Sameer would make more if he just threw out all the out-of-date and damaged stock, and filled all the shelves with soft drinks, salty snacks, and cigarettes, since that’s all he sold anyway. But I figured this was not the best time to bring that up, because what had started off as a steady tirade now bloomed into a full-fledged rant, again with lots of Hindi and what I had come to suspect might be Aramaic thrown in.

And by now it was really all about Durga, the hell with Tommy and his dirty looks, and Sameer finished it all off by telling me and Butch that we had committed a grave sin, and he swore that we would someday be punished harshly, but we couldn’t understand what he said because he was holding a large cloud of marijuana smoke in his lungs. We waited until he exhaled. He said it again, more slowly, this time adding, with a wide smile, that we would nevertheless always be the best of friends. Then he turned back to the Christmas tree, and we could see the tiny lights blink in his dark, shiny eyes.

A couple days later, Butch didn’t even remember.

“But he put a curse on us,” I said.

“He can’t put a curse on anybody. It’s just Sam.” Butch was not worried. But Butch was never worried. About anything, and I think sometimes you ought to be worried.

“The thing with Durga . . .”

“He knows we don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. He pulls that mysterious Indian shit all the time. I don’t even think he’s from India.”

“Well, then where . . .”


Butch and I had never been to Michigan either, so this was certainly plausible, but still, I could not shake the feeling that there was something to this whole curse thing, that some terrible punishment awaited us. This dread was to follow me from that day on. A faint, lingering apprehension, everywhere I went, even all the way to Japan.

– – –

I had been to more than 20 stationery stores by two o’clock, but still had not found the perfect size card to use for my flashcards, though I had come close on two occasions, one in particular where another eighth of an inch in length would have sealed the deal. I called Mr. Inoue at Joyfull English and told him I would be unable to teach my 3 pm class. I apologized, and began a long, complicated and not completely true explanation of why I could not make the class, but he cut me off and said he could find someone in less than 10 minutes that could do twice the job for half the pay, then hung up.

Thus abruptly freed from my obligations for that afternoon, and possibly beyond, I continued my search, expanding it to Kobe, a charming city less than an hour from Osaka by train, and home to a large Indian population, though I did not know that at the time, and was therefore a little surprised to be met by the cheerful “Can I help you?” of the Indian proprietor at the very first stationery store I entered near Kobe’s Sannomiya Station.

“Just looking,” I replied.

I moved expertly through the narrow aisles, having become quite familiar with the layout of Japanese stationery stores, and came quickly to the collection of blank cards. There were the typical sizes I had seen at all the other places, and my eyes moved impatiently over these, most of them made by Kokuyo, a company it seemed that must have cut down an area of forest just a little bit bigger than the world.

Then I saw it. On the bottom shelf, the perfect size card, a card that would send me soaring into Japanese fluency, a game changer, a deceptively simple paper product that would profoundly change my life in ways I could not yet even begin to comprehend. And all for just 630 yen, which was exactly 129 yen more than I had in my pocket. And there was also the ticket back to Osaka I had not yet purchased.

Oh you paper temptress!

I would steal one package. No, I would borrow a package. I would borrow a package, and then I would absolutely return and pay this Indian fellow back. With interest. I looked across the tops of the aisles at this pleasant-looking man reading his newspaper at the register. Such a trusting man, I thought, pushing the package of cards down the front of my jeans.

The goddess Durga (archive by Kikuchi)

And that’s when I heard it. A wild, supernatural shriek. Startled, I turned, and came face to face with the terror that had dogged me all these years, the dark and horrible vengeance Sameer had promised me years earlier, come all the way to this little Japanese paper shop. I stood staring directly into the face of the multi-armed goddess Durga, sitting on a silver throne against the wall, one of her six (weren’t there supposed to be ten?) arms extended, a tiny forefinger pointed accusingly at me, then another shriek, this time mine, and I charged toward the door, knocking over an entire shelf of scented erasers. I was out the door and halfway down the street by the time Mr. Sayed’s three daughters came tumbling off the small, folding chair where they had been sitting quietly on each other’s laps until a strange foreigner blocked their view of the TV perched on top of the shelves two aisles over.

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