20. Child Labor

“Robbed of their childhood.”

I was on a roll.

“Locked up in dark, airless rooms.”

I was trying to impress a pretty Canadian woman who I noticed was wearing a t-shirt asking people to save something. Save the whales? The trees? Jesus saves? I couldn’t tell. We had all been drinking so much, it was hard to focus.

“Getting a paltry nine cents a month.”

Okay, so now I was just making stuff up.

“An average life expectancy of nine.”

When I make up figures, I tend to favor the number nine.

“Working nine days a week.”

This all started when I had misunderstood a comment by one of the small group of teachers I was out binge drinking with. “Kids are where you make your money.” I thought he was talking about illegal child labor, but he was actually talking about private English lessons parents arrange for their children.

“Stuck inside all day, never to see the sun.”

Of course there was a lot of crossover.

“Let these kids out to play, to run free in the park!”

See what I mean?

In fact, I don’t think people even noticed my misunderstanding until I said, “All this so that we may buy Nike shoes just a few yen cheaper!”

“What the hell are you talking about?” someone finally asked.

I looked at the women’s t-shirt again and realized it wasn’t asking anyone to save anything. It was just an old Led Zeppelin t-shirt that had become, over the course of probably about 9,000 washings, almost impossible to decipher. I couldn’t tell if that was Robert Plant, or just a plant. Or a fountain. Or . . .

“Nike shoes?!” questioned another drunken teacher.

“Yes, made in Pakistan by tiny children!” I parried, falling back on that unexamined habit of mine to, when finding myself in a hole, dig faster. “Nine million tiny children!”

By the time I got to that last sentence, all but one of my colleagues had turned away and stopped listening, leaving me to address the end of my tired tirade to Mike Herdfordshireblumensonstein, who would listen to anybody who had a job, who never seemed able to get a job himself, who blamed his unemployability on the fact that nobody could pronounce his last name, including himself, and whose name was at any rate too long to fit onto any hanko, which meant he could never open a bank account even if he did get a job.

A hanko is a stamp bearing the family name of its owner, and is used in Japan in place of a signature for official documents. (photo by Kikuchi)

“Yes, I see,” Mike bleated obsequiously. Then, after impatiently fidgeting for a moment, “Are they hiring at your school?”

Later, slow dancing with a 57-year-old bar hostess to a snappy Tom Jones song. No, later than that, leaning against a postbox and vomiting onto the sidewalk. No, even later, trying to make an international call to an old girlfriend using dead leaves and sticks instead of coins or a phone card.

No, wait. Sorry. Much later. The next day.

I woke up and felt around the edge of my futon to see if there was something I might conceivably use to kill myself with. I grabbed the only object I could find, and brought against my throat with as much force as I could muster the soft, dog-eared copy of Teach Yourself Japanese, leaving me cruelly alive to confront a hangover so massive, so all-consuming that it seemed to be a living, breathing thing. With bad breath.

Then there was a sudden, piercing, otherworldly shriek from a spot just inches from my head. The promised revenge of the Hindu goddess Durga, I thought (see previous chapter). “Oh my God!” I cried, thereby ironically implying a monotheism any Hindu goddess would find discomforting, metaphorically conjuring a startled Abraham into the kind of the pagan universe he wore out so many sandals trying to leave behind, and waking up my neighbor Nishihara-san who lived on the other side of a wall so thin it was also kind of metaphorical.

Another shriek, and I lifted myself up from the futon, rearing back in horror to confront not Durga, but one of the many snarling visages of the multi-headed Hydra operated by Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp.

My phone.

It shrieked again, and I lunged for its throat.

“Hello.” I whispered, causing a relatively unimportant blood vessel near my brain to audibly burst.

“Eddie?” a voice roared back.

I paused, remembering.

“Yes,” I conceded. “This is Eddie.”

“They said to be there at one o’clock.”

“Yes, I see,” I said, not being entirely untruthful, for I did know what “one o’clock” was, even if I did not know who “they” were, or “there” was, or even the identity of the person on the phone.

After a pause, “You don’t remember, do you?”

Another pause, which the speaker took to mean I had forgotten, which I had, but the actual reason I did not answer is that I had fallen asleep. I saw a tunnel of light then, and some dead relatives. I began to run toward them.


My head jerked back and hit the wall behind me, causing a large bookcase next door to come crashing down on the futon Nishihara-san had been sleeping on just five minutes earlier. Startled, he looked up from the Formica table in the next room and dropped a thick slice of toasted shokupan, which landed, heavily buttered side down, on the sticky kitchen floor.

Shokupan (archive by Kikuchi)


“Excuse me?”

“Huh? No, that was my neighbor, Mr. . . .”

“If you’re busy, I can call back.”

“No, no, he’s not here. He’s next door.”

“Sounds like he’s right there next to you.”

“Yeah, well, the walls . . .”

“So can you make it at one o’clock? You said you could last night, and they’re counting on you.”

“Well, if they’re counting on me, then certainly,” I said. “One o’clock sharp. Oh, and by the way, who is this and what are you talking about?”

“This is Jerry.”


“Jerry. From last night at the Pig and Whistle. We talked for almost two hours.”


“I was wearing a polar bear suit from a part-time job I had earlier.”

John Wilkes Booth, believed by some to be the lone assassin of Abraham Lincoln. (archive by Kikuchi)

“Doesn’t ring a bell.”

“We placed second in the bar’s three-legged race? I used the Heimlich maneuver to dislodge a rubber ball from your windpipe? We discovered we’re second cousins through an uncle in Milwaukee who is himself a direct descendant of John Wilkes Booth?”

“Sorry, I just don’t . . .”

“You told me about the confusing, erotic feelings you had for Astro Boy when you were a child?”

“Jerry!” I cried. “How the hell have you been?”

“Fine,” he shot back, a little testy now. “So, one o’clock?”

Astro Boy, as he is known in some countries outside Japan. His original Japanese name is Tetsuwan Atom, or “Iron-arm Atom.” (archive by Kikuchi)

“Uh, sure Jerry. One o’clock. For what?”

“The children’s classes.”

“Children’s classes?”

“Yeah, you were going on and on about kids and not having any money and injustice and something about Led Zeppelin. So I told you about these kids’ classes that I have to give up.”

“Kids’ classes?”

“Yeah, 6-year-olds. Three 45-minute classes beginning at one o’clock, each class with about 45 kids.”

“Kids’ classes!” I cried, and slapped myself in the forehead, causing my head to bump against the wall again.

I heard another loud crash next door.


(The continuation of this particular misadventure will have to wait, Mrs. Doyle informs me, until she and Mr. Kikuchi have finished draping the entire office in inexpensive, off-brand Christmas lights, thus violating federal guidelines regarding religious displays on government property, and turning the fourth floor and its great many overflowing file cabinets into a huge, ticking firebomb. Happy holidays. –Consular Ofc. Dirkins)

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1 Response to 20. Child Labor

  1. Mark Renusch says:

    It sounds like a hangover that casts a shadow. They report those on certain weather channels in Japan.


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