(Thanks to a writer’s block Mrs. Doyle claims to have encountered a page and a half into her recently begun debut novel, we are now able, with the grumbling and grudging help of the frustrated as-yet-to-be-published authoress, to pick up where we left off last time, at which time our missing miscreant “Eddie” Trombone was crafting a confession to the Chicago Public Library about his theft of a book from a branch library just off that city’s Montrose Avenue. It should be clear to the reader this is nothing but a pathetic last-ditch attempt by this ne’er-do-well to avoid prosecution in this life or hell in the next. Or perhaps simply to avoid the library’s overdue book charges, which, seeing as how Mr. Trombone’s recovered manuscript places the borrowing of the book in the late 1980s or early 1990s, would today come to about $20,000. What with the current yen-dollar exchange rate and all. So without further ado . . . -Gerard K. Dirkins, Consular Officer)
I had to come clean. I had to confess, or “fess up,” as they say in the charming vernacular of that area of my home country where willows weep, men wear white shoes to barbecues, and human beings bought and sold other human beings until prevented from doing so by an invading army of their relatives.
I had to admit to my role in the theft of Teach Yourself Japanese from the Chicago Public Library, though using the phrase “my role” may be slightly misleading, as it suggests there was a conspiracy with other roles to be had, when in fact this was strictly a one-man job, with the full weight of the crime lying entirely at my feet, which were now being put to the fire. Literally, as I had just switched on my kotatsu for the first time this year and it immediately burst into flames, which it is not supposed to do.
A kotatsu, for readers unfamiliar with this particularly clever Japanese invention, is a low table with a massive heat lamp attached to the underside. Sandwiched between the frame of the table and the tabletop is a highly flammable blanket of sorts that drapes down to the tatami made of dry rice straw. The user, and occasional victim, of a kotatsu sits on the floor with his or her legs under the blanket and table, keeping everything below the chest nice and toasty, or sometimes toasted if the massive heat lamp is not kept dust-free and well-maintained, or if the massive heat lamp, which is designed to stay at a temperature just this side of Fire, doesn’t.
Or, in highly unusual cases, two children a neighbor lady dropped off for you to babysit find a book of kitchen matches under your kitchen sink and then put about 20 of them head-first into the grate covering the kotatsu’s massive heat lamp, one of the few scenarios not covered in the exhaustive manual that comes with the average kotatsu warning the user, among other things, not to use the super-heated table as a storage area for seat cushions, laundry, and aerosol cans, probably because of the massive heat lamp.
There is no mention of matches, or misbehaving children, or what to do once the kotatsu does burst into flames. Fortunately, recently passed legislation had forced my landlord only one week earlier to install smoke alarms on the ceiling of each room of my apartment, and because my apartment was typical of the small, low-ceilinged Japanese abodes famously referred to as “rabbit hutches” by a visiting Occidental, I was able to reach up and tear the plastic cover off one of those silent, apparently decorative smoke alarms and use it to beat back the flames rapidly spreading along the tatami, which as I mentioned earlier, with a significance that may have been overlooked by the casual reader so I will repeat it here, is made of dry rice straw, a dry rice straw, I may add, while I am repeating things, that is usually only about a 12 inches away from the massive heat lamp I mention here for the sixth and let’s hope final time.
All’s well that ends well, I didn’t think even for a moment, watching the smoke rise from the charred tatami that had probably never been replaced, repaired, rewound, or re-whatever-you-do-to-tatami since that rainy afternoon when my building had been carelessly thrown together by unskilled gangsters with city building inspector friends, and I would no doubt be forced to forfeit the entirety of my $2,000 deposit in order to “replace” these ratty, blackened mats even though the grandchildren of those unskilled gangsters who now owned the building would probably just turn them over to hide the burned side.
All’s well that ends well, I didn’t think even a little bit.
The kids I was babysitting, the ones who had moments earlier attempted to kill me, had lost interest in events mid-blaze, and were now in the kitchen playing with some tableware and an electrical outlet, so I returned to the confession I had been writing on the pad of Winnie-the-Pooh stationery. I wiped the long blob of wasabi the boy had shot onto the sheet earlier, but it left a damp seaweed-colored line, like the trail of some sort of oily, green snail. So I tore that Eeyore-themed page off, and was greeted with a light pink sheet bordered by a series of Piglets in three regularly alternating poses. This improved my mood immediately. I began:
I, Edward “Eddie” Trombone, am writing to confess to the theft from the Chicago Public Library of the book Teach Yourself Japanese.
Piglet looked so happy, twisting and turned as he danced around my apology. I continued:
I am sorry. But to be fair, it really wasn’t a very good book.
Piglet smiled at me encouragingly.
In fact, it has caused me nothing but trouble. I have shouted at old women in stationery stores, terrified waitresses, irritated my old Latin teacher and may have even broken the poor woman’s hip, shrieked at three small Indian girls who I mistook for a many-armed goddess, shown up drunk to a children’s class, nearly had my head cut off, attacked two perfectly harmless Mormons, and generally made a nuisance of myself.* All because your crappy book could not teach me Japanese.
Piglet held up a little pink thumb and winked.
In light of this fact, the title Teach Yourself Japanese could not be more misleading. Indeed, it is you who should be apologizing to me! Upon reflection, I regret having paid the postage from Japan to Chicago in order to return this wretched book. And if my friend is correct, and you have managed to trace the package back to me despite my best efforts to cover my tracks, and you have dispatched a team of blood-thirsty, highly-trained assassins to cut me down in the very prime of my life, then . . .
Piglet’s eyes widened. I stopped writing, tore off that sheet of stationery, and on the next page, just below a drawing of Winnie the Pooh falling head first from a skinny tree branch, began again:
I, Edward “Eddie” Trombone, am sorry. I stole a book from you but I’ve returned it. Call off your dogs.
(*All these things, incredibly, are true, as anyone unfortunate enough to have followed the manuscript this far can attest. -Gerard K. Dirkins, Consular Officer)