“No! Whap!” he said, and hit me in the side of the head with the telephone book.
“Yeah, you’re right,” I assured him so he’d stop. “That’s the sound it makes. Whap!”
“And it doesn’t leave a mark,” he said for like the millionth time.
“Yeah, you were saying.”
My new friend at the seikeigeka, Japanese for orthopedic clinic or bone doctor, was explaining why the conviction rate is so high in the Japanese criminal justice system, and why such a high percentage of those convictions are based on confessions.
“Over 100 percent,” he said.
He mistook my puzzled expression for the disbelief one with a basic grasp of mathematics might have when presented with such a statement. Actually, my head just hurt from being hit with an Osaka phone book.
“You’re probably wondering how it could be more than 100 percent.”
I wasn’t. I have no basic grasp of mathematics. I was taught mathematics by teachers who didn’t use the word “teach” or “teaching” or “teachers.” So technically, I was not “taught” anything. Rather, I was set free to discover numerical solutions to real-world problems by kind and caring counselors. I used that time to draw dirty pictures and practice Indian sign language with my friend Elliot who sat across from me, on the other side of the circle my kind and caring counselor made us sit in because there was something bad about rows. As a consequence, I could not add or subtract, let alone grasp the concept of percentages. I winced, not from the painful knowledge that I was ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of the modern world and its all too real problems, but because I had just been hit in the head with an Osaka phone book.
“It’s more than 100 percent because sometimes we get more than one person to confess to the same crime,” he boasted.
I winced again.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he continued, though, again, he didn’t. “How can we do it?” And then he hit me in the side of the head again with the phone book. Whap. “How do we achieve such stunning results.” Whap again.
“Ouch!” I yelped.
“Exactly!” he shouted. “Once we get going with this phone book, the beatings can get so loud and upsetting, sometimes passersby will stop in and spontaneously confess, or people living near the koban will come in and confess just so their neighbors can get a good night’s sleep.”
I grabbed my head with both hands.
“Yeah, fantastic huh?”
The ringing in my head stopped. I looked up and asked, “And you think the Chicago Public Library hit squad will use this technique on me?”
“Well, they’ve already tried to kill you.”
“It might’ve been just an accident,” I said, my voice one octave higher on a trembling platform of false hope and self-deception. “Maybe that guy just bumped into me by accident. Then accidentally peeled my fingers off the utility pole, turned me towards the traffic and kicked me, inadvertently, in the small of the back so that I flew directly into the path of an oncoming city bus.”
“Why did you do that?” I asked, feeling for a bump where he had hit me, this time on the very top of my head.
“Knock some sense into you,” he said. He walked over and put the phone book back on top of the pay phone against the wall, then came and sat back down next to me on the bench.
“It’s not right,” he said.
“Well, I was more than a year late in returning the book.”
“But you were trying to improve yourself.”
“Yes. Teach Yourself Japanese. The title makes it clear. I was trying to improve myself.”
“God knows there’s plenty of room for that.”
“Right,” I said, then, “Huh?”
“Count to ten in Japanese.”
“ichi, ni, san . . .quatro . . .”
“Plenty of room.”
“But I was trying,” I piped, returning to that happy refrain.
“Yes, you were trying.” Then in a voice distant, as if lost in thought. “It just isn’t right, throwing a person under a bus for being a year late in returning a library book.”
“More than a year late, actually.”
“And it wasn’t technically under a bus. More like in front of one. Though I suppose eventually . . .”
“Still,” he cut me off.
“Still,” I repeated cheerfully, sensing my friend intended somehow to help me.
“What if the hunter were to become the hunted?” he said slowly, as if the idea was at that very moment taking shape in his head.
“Yes!” I cried, having absolutely no idea what he was talking about. I stood up and pumped my fist in the air. “The hunter becomes the hunted!” A few of the 20 or so patients at the seikeigeka looked up from their various rehabilitation contraptions. “Let’s do it!”
“I dunno. Your idea?”
“Plenty of room,” he said darkly, to himself, then to me, “Look around you. What do you see?”
“Lots of old people. Lots of weird machines. Insurance fraud . . .”
“Exactly. An army of the unemployed. Healthy people with nothing to do, so they spend their days getting their bones and muscles twisted, tweaked, and electrocuted while making small talk about their pets and great grandchildren with other old people and the young, underpaid staff. An army without a mission.”
“No mission,” I intoned.
“A rudderless ship.”
“No rudder!” I summarized.
“But now we have a mission for this ancient army. We have a rudder for these geriatric GIs.”
“Actually,” I interrupted reluctantly, “the term ‘GI’ would refer to soldiers in the US military, whereas these folks . . .”
“are going to save you!” he cried, finishing a thought I didn’t really have. “These folks are going to come to your aid, and rescue you from the death squad sent out from the Chicago Public Library. We are going to save your life, young man!”
Tears streaming down my face, I embraced my ancient, partially mummified friend, breaking three of his ribs and crushing two vertebrae.
“Why are you doing this for me?” I managed through my sobs, “Why are you helping a stranger like this?”
It was difficult to hear his answer because of the punctured lung, so I put my ear close to his gray-whiskered face.
“Because,” he wheezed, “This place closes at three and none of us have jobs.”