“Anata wa nansai desuka?” I said on the outside chance the man propped up on the bench near the giant pulsating worm was still alive. How old are you?
“None of your business, honky,” he replied. “And your Japanese pronunciation sucks.”
I was surprised because, one, I really thought the guy was dead, two, he spoke a very familiar colloquial English employing the nostalgic term “honky” that immediately brought back sepia-colored memories of me on the grade school playground running for my life from my black classmates in the days following the assassination of Martin Luther King, and three, I always thought my Japanese pronunciation was pretty good.
“It’s a shame what happened to King,” I said this time too.
“Diet of worms,” he spat.
I looked up at the giant pulsating worm.
“Not that worm, you nincompoop,” he growled. “The Diet of Worms. Where they railroaded Martin Luther.”
He met my blank, lost gaze with the familiar look of disappointment and frustration I had seen on the face of every math teacher I ever had.
“Edward, that is not what I meant by ‘trapezoid,’” Mr. Pate shouted, “Now, come down from there!”
“Are you having a flashback?” asked the man I mistook for a corpse.
I nodded sheepishly. “1973.”
“AD or BC?”
“Okay, so AD. You know how far I can flash back?”
“I sold Abraham his first pair of sandals.”
“What is it with you and race? No, not Lincoln. Abraham Abraham. The guy who invented monotheism.” He read my face, sighed, and explained, “One God-ism.”
“Oh, like the Pope.”
There was a long silence.
“Yes, like the Pope.”
Another long silence.
“You here for the worm?” I asked, pointing over his shoulder at the contraption that at that moment seemed to be trying to digest another patient at this seikeigeka, or Japanese orthopedic clinic. The poor fellow was wrapped from the very top of his bald head to the soles of his feet in the bulbous worm-shaped contraption that now shook and shuddered like a carnival ride gone horribly awry.
“The Vertebrator 2000. Yes. For my spine. Once a week. Seems to slow the decomposition.”
“That’s nice,” I said, then began to cry.
“Hey, don’t worry. I’m old. I’ve had a full life. I sold Abraham his first pair of sneakers.”
“Right, sandals. I was there when they invented the cotton gin. I remember the last time the Chicago Cubs won the National League pennant, which, by the way, was not long after they invented the cotton gin.”
At the mention of the Chicago Cubs, I lost my composure completely and began to wail.
“Hey, pull yourself together. They’ll be back. They look good this year. Good pitching. A little work on their infield and . . .”
“It’s not the Cubs!” I cried.
“Good, because they really don’t have a chance.”
“It’s the library! The Chicago Public Library!”
“Yeah, that Dewey decimal system can get complicated.”
“It’s not the damn Dewey decimal system,” I cut him off. “Well, maybe it is. I mean, those numbers are so long, and the decimal points and . . . no, no, it’s not that!”
I went on to tell my new friend about how I had borrowed the book Teach Yourself Japanese from the library just off Montrose Avenue and brought it to Japan. How I kept it more than a year beyond its return date and then, overcome with guilt and fear of prosecution, anonymously returned the book by mail. And how I now found myself the target of a special Hit Squad from the Chicago Public Library that had already made one attempt on my life by throwing me under a bus on a crowded street in Osaka, which is why I was at this seikeigeka in the first place.
“Yes,” my friend said at the end of all this. “They probably just couldn’t get by anymore on that two cents a day overdue charge.”
“Wow,” I said. “You are old.”