I crouched down, leaned forward a bit, and said, “Rokubute,” immediately after which the child pulled from behind him a samurai sword as long as he was tall and struck me six times in the back of my neck, shattering three vertebrae but stopping far short of actually beheading me, and a full 3 millimeters shy of any significant spinal cord injury.
“He hit you with the blunt side,” the doctor said, fearful I might come away from this experience with a diminished respect for Japanese steel or craftsmanship.
“I like pretty yellow horses,” I replied because of all the morphine.
“And he was just a child,” the doctor went on, undeterred.
“I can see a rainbow inside my head,” I told him.
“If he was a grown man and hit you with the sharp side, why, he would’ve cut right through . . .”
“Doctor,” interrupted a man whose wrinkled suit and jowls hung loose as postal sacks on the wall of a post office in a very small town. Postal sacks that needed a shave. “Let us not get ourselves lost in speculation.”
That was a long word, “speculation,” and in my altered state, it sounded like a balloon being dragged across a styrofoam cup, and that’s when I saw it, the styrofoam cup filled with vanilla pudding on the little rolling table next to my bed. So I smiled a big Christmas morning smile and reached toward the table only to have Mr. Postal Sacks meet my hand in mid-grasp not with the creamy yellow dessert but rather a densely worded document of some sort.
“Wouldn’t you like to sign this pretty paper,” he said. His English was good, even if it did come with a slightly exaggerated American pronunciation. The final “r” on his “paper” was so strong it made the pudding jiggle and the little TV up in the corner go all fuzzy.
“Is that TV for me!?” I cried, and I mean, really cried, as I navigated a dip in the emotional morphine roller coaster. My eyes filled with pulsating manga tears. “It’s all mine!?”
“Yes,” Postal Sacks said, “The TV, the pudding, this private room, it is all a gift from the family of little Manabu, who accidentally bumped into your spine the other day with a small sword,” and I recoiled in horror, not at the realization that I had nearly been decapitated by a small child, but because in the sibilating s’s sprinkled so generously at the end of Mr. Sacks last sentence (“. . . spine with a small sword”) I could see through his pointy teeth a long, narrow tongue with a little pink fork flashing at the very tip.
“You are a lawyer!” I cried, the other way this time, without tears, like how you might proclaim your love, or call attention to a dog with rabies.
“You arrived at my client’s home in a drunken state intending to teach English to small children!” little Manabu’s attorney countered sharply, causing his jowls to undulate wildly.
I waited for him to get to the point, then in the ensuing silence realized that that may have already been his point, and then further realized that it was a pretty damn good point. I did show up to teach an English class after having drunk several cans of what I thought was some sort of lemonade or maybe even a sports drink but what turned out to be chūhai, which when drunk in great quantities over a period of time does not replace precious vitamins and minerals, but instead removes your job, your family, your self-esteem, and sometimes even you from your own home. (see previous post).
“But he tried to cut my head off,” I whined.
“You said, ‘rokubutte,’” the reptile rebutted.
He had me. I did say, “rokubutte.” Well, rokubute, which is close enough.
You see, the fiendish child had asked, “tebukuro no hantai wa nani?” (how do you say tebukuro backwards?) and I simply couldn’t believe my luck. This was actually a word I knew. Te, or hand, plus fukuro, or bag. A bag for your hand—tebukuro, the Japanese word for glove. It was one of those words that was easy to remember, especially since I had seen some people back home in Chicago, following the ocassional economic correction in my country, actually use plastic bags to keep from losing their fingers while sleeping in doorways and between garbage dumpsters.
Tebukuro backwards. I concentrated. Te-bu-ku-ro. I began to daydream about what I would do with the winnings from this game show, then remembered it was not a game show at all, but a schoolyard riddle.
“Tebukuro no hantai wa?!” the child repeated impatiently, rattling some metal object behind his back.
This child and I had met for the first time only 15 minutes earlier and we got off to a bad start from the very beginning, when he told me, as I stumbled about drunkenly in the entranceway trying to remove my shoes, something about a neighborhood cat dying, mistakenly assuming, as small children often do, that, one, adults are interested in their lives and, two, we are at all surprised by the arbitrary and indiscriminate nature of death.
“Zannen,” I kind of slurred, and the kid’s eyes opened wide and started to get all watery. What I meant to communicate here was something like, “That’s too bad!” or “What a shame!” but apparently “zannen” is more appropriate when you don’t win the lottery, or drop a coin into a sewer. In this particular situation, “zannen” probably sounded more to the kid like, “Tough luck!” or “Life’s a bitch” or “Get used to the arbitrary and indiscriminate nature of death, kiddo.” Something like that. He went into another room, and returned holding something behind his back. That’s when he asked me the riddle.
“Tebukuro no hantai wa nani?”
“Ro-ku-bu-te,” I said softly to myself.
Roku, “six,” and bute, or actually butte (pronounced “bootay,” like a 1970s disco/soul lyric “shake yo’ bootay!”) meaning “hit” or “strike.” Put together, this can be interpreted as “Hit me six times,” especially by a child first saddened by the death of a neighborhood cat and then made angry and bitter after having his feelings trivialized by a carelessly tossed off “zannen.”
“Rokubute!” I remembered having hollered sometime before waking up in the hospital surrounded by a doctor, a lawyer, and a styrofoam cup of vanilla pudding.
“If I sign the pretty paper . . .” I paused and raised one eyebrow.
“Yes,” he hissed, “You may have the pudding,”
And I didn’t even go to law school.