On our way to the massive pulsating worm, the seikeigeka receptionist and I passed several other machines either built specifically for physical rehabilitation or later adapted for the industry from gymnasium equipment or 1960s-era horror movie torture devices. We passed a short, pudgy bald fellow sitting on a weight machine bench. This man, who I took to be nearly 100 years old, was with one leg lifting the entire three-foot-high stack of weights. He gripped the sides of the bench tightly, his arms shuddering, and while staring intensely at a point across the room muttered something over and over to himself.
“I’m never going to die,” the receptionist whispered in my ear, speaking English now for the third time in her 50 years of study. Startled, I let out a little squeak of surprise that was lost in the various squeaks, creaks, and clatter of the machinery surrounding us.
“I’m never going to die,” she repeated. “That man is saying, ‘I’m never going to die.’”
I looked patronizingly at the little, pudgy fellow and smiled. The receptionist frowned.
“He isn’t,” she said.
“He isn’t? Then what is he saying?”
“No. I mean, he isn’t going to die.”
“What to do you mean? We’re all going to . . .”
“No. You’re all going to die. Not us.”
“Japanese people. As a rule, Japanese people don’t die. Occasionally, after a very long time, one of us might simply turn to dust. And some of the young people who eat too often at McDonald’s or Yoshinoya will occasionally and without warning drop dead.”
“And accidents. There must be accidents.”
“See that man there at the weight machine? He broke that leg in 27 places just last week.”
“Rush hour on the Tokyo subway.”
“Hit by a train?”
“Too many people in the train. Just snapped the leg.”
“Well, I have heard Japanese people have high life expectancy. Something like 80 or 90 years old.”
“He just turned 377.”
“Yeah, or 377. I forget exactly. Anyway, something about all the fish you eat or something. Green tea?”
Here, the receptionist guffawed. I mean, she actually shouted out, “Guffaw!” I guess she got most of her English from reading novels, and thought you were supposed to actually say “guffaw” when you guffawed.
“Fish? Are you kidding me? Cackle! Have you taken a look at the ocean lately? Enough to make you puke. And if you did, it would be instantly lost in the crap that was already floating in the ocean before you leaned out of the boat to look down at it. Chortle, chortle!”
Her English, except for her saying “guffaw,” “cackle,” and “chortle,” was really good, and it seemed to be getting even better the more she spoke.
“Green tea?” she continued, “Tsk and cluck! If it wasn’t for all the hippies, yippies, yuppies, and health nuts . . .”
“Actually, the Yippies were a political . . .”
“. . . we would have stopped growing that stuff long ago,” she finished, ignoring my interruption about the Yippies. It wasn’t important anyway.
“Then it must be the rice, right?”
“Guffaw!” she cried for the second time in this conversation.
“I don’t think you are actually supposed to say the word, ‘guffaw.’”
“Tsukemono,” she continued, again ignoring me. And again, it wasn’t really important anyway. So little of what I say . . .
“Tsukemono,” she repeated, now interrupting even my unspoken thoughts, “It’s the key to our immortality.”
Tsukemono, for those readers unfamiliar with this particular Japanese food product, is made by taking a variety of fresh vegetables, such as cucumbers, eggplants, or Japanese white radishes, and burying them in salt, brine, rice bran or some other acidic concoction until all the nutrition has been successfully leached from these once life-sustaining gifts lovingly provided by God, Mother Earth, the goddess Pomona, or whoever you may say your serenity prayer to. They are then bathed in a noxious potion of brilliant food colorings until the tsukemono attain colors so fluorescent some of them actually emit a soft buzzing noise. Shimmering greens, dazzling yellows, and piercing purples.
“It’s what preserves us.” She said. “Literally.”
“Gasp!” I said.