“If you look up anachronism in the dictionary,” my cousin might say if he knew the word anachronism, but he doesn’t, and would more likely use a word he did know, like say ugly, “there’d be a picture of Japan,” he’d finish, hypothetically still talking about anachronism, but, again, he probably wouldn’t be, and would instead have used a word like ugly, leading him therefore to wind up finishing the sentence with something like, “there’d be a picture of your mother” which would be followed by the kind of nasty barroom brawl that would not have occurred if my cousin had finished high school and learned words like anachronism. But then again, my cousin is a paramedic, saving lives and making twice what I make as an English teacher in Japan, a land that is the very archetype of anachronism, a fact which, combined with my high school diploma, still didn’t help, as I myself had to look up the word, which fortunately was not far from archetype.
And there was a picture of Japan. Several, actually, as mine is a special picture dictionary for functional illiterates. It says so right on the cover. I think. I looked over the glossy photos on one of the “extra large, easy-to-turn pages.”
A sleepy centuries-old Shinto shrine just meters from the electric doors and brilliant fluorescent lights of an all too this-worldly 7-Eleven.
A high school girl, her school skirt rolled up high, chatting away on a cell phone as she hurries past an ancient sweet shop selling Edo-period wagashi, and built of stones singed by the World War II fire bombing of Tokyo.
A robed Buddhist monk on a Vespa.
A 3-meter-high, research-grade transmission electron microscope powered by half a dozen kerosene space heaters—pools of fuel set ablaze, sizzling, ominously pinging metal cans full of flaming and smoking petroleum, barely controlled only semi-enclosed conflagrations we are told may be easily and accurately adjusted using the partially-melted plastic levers on the front of the tin incendiaries. And to assuage the entirely reasonable fears of consumers and local fire departments, there is next to these levers a motion-detecting shut-off safety switch which in fact seems to work best detecting the tremors caused by, say, the placing of a coffee cup on a table in the next room, but has historically proven less effective in picking up the vibrations of a 7.2 magnitude earthquake.
And beneath the massively powerful lens of this cutting-edge microscope, Mr. Sumihara of Sumihara Coffee Shop, his profusely perspiring back to the blazing kerosene heaters, slides my point card while my interpreter and I wait in great anticipation of what spoils may come my way. Mr. Sumihara nudges the card this way and that, looking for the print so fine its very presence cannot be detected with the naked eye, while I wonder what I’ve earned through my devotion to this coffee shop over the past two years. What is the payoff, I ponder, for drinking coffee that doesn’t taste even remotely like coffee and is probably some other kind of bean, legume, or animal dropping, this acidic potion that has often kept me awake late into the night not because of its caffeine content but as a result of violent stomach cramps and diarrhea three doctors have told me is clearly caused by this coffee-colored concoction that I have steadfastly refused to abandon because of my “Sumihara Coffee Club” loyalty-oath, point-card promise of some unspecified great reward in the general offing, or “pie in the sky,” as my cousin once snorted, which confused me because I like pie but the way he snorted it, and also because he was an atheist and was talking about why he didn’t want to go to Midnight Mass, led me later to believe he might have been insinuating the existence of some sort of scam or trickery, the memory now of which added to my already considerable anxiety as I watched Mr. Sumihara turn up the heaters until the flames leapt to within inches of one of the three wooden beams that by my reckoning were the only things keeping this modest shop from falling flat onto its packed earth foundation.
“Atta!” Mr. Sumihara cried.
“He found it,” Hiroko, my new bilingual friend and translator, translated (see previous post).
“Mr. Sumihara says,” Hiroko continued, “he would first of all like to thank you for your years of loyalty to his shop.” Mr. Sumihara stopped, snapped to attention, and bowed deeply. Hiroko placed her hands together in front of her thighs and bowed exactly 30 degrees. I smiled awkwardly and bobbed my head a couple times like I was trying to swallow a large bug.
“He would like you to know that you are the first customer to actually fill up an entire point card,” Hiroko went on, referred to the smudgy name stamps Mr. Sumihara or his wife would press into the checkerboard squares on the loyalty card.
“One person came close a few years ago, Mr. Sumihara says, but was found murdered on his way to the shop to buy the coffee that would have completed his point card.”
A smile spread slowly across Mr. Sumihara’s face, partially concealing the scar that ran across his left cheek. The kerosene heaters flared angrily behind him.
“But it’s too late for that, he says,” Hiroko continued. “as you’ve already purchased 100 grams of coffee beans from my wife who, without alerting me to the situation, put the final stamp onto your card.”
There was an odd noise from the backroom, like several large objects falling off a shelf or someone struggling to free themself from heavy ropes.
“Because none of our point cards have ever been completed,” Mr. Sumihara continued through Hiroko once the noise subsided with a final grunt, “I have never had to concern myself with the terms of the card, which were brushed onto washi by my great great grandfather nearly 150 years ago, and only recently copied onto our point card by my steady-handed nephew, using this microscope and a specially designed nano-stylus.”
“How can he justify the cost . . .” I began, but the heaters flashed again, and Hiroko cut me off with a nervous glare.
“I have only now read these words for the very first time,” he went on “They are in a very old style of Japanese, and may be difficult for your friend to translate. I will read the passage slowly.”
Mr. Sumihara turned to the microscope and began to recite. Hiroko did her best, often missing bits and sometimes filling in the gaps with “something.”
“The terms of this card . . . something . . . great good fortune from . . . generous gods . . . something, something . . . you should be happy for your . . . state of affairs because . . . something . . . kids these days . . . don’t know the meaning of . . . something, something . . . when I was a kid we had to walk 10 miles to school . . . uphill . . . both ways . . . something, something . . . was a nickel and . . . something . . .”
“About the points . . .” I tried to interject but there was no stopping him. Hiroko struggled to keep up with the torrent of increasingly angry classical Japanese.
“. . . worked my fingers to the . . . something, something . . . lazy . . . ungrateful . . . no-good . . . children of unmarried . . . something . . . now you want points just for buying coffee! . . . something, something . . . just for buying coffee!”
Hiroko and I backed slowly toward the door.
“Oh, I’ll give you some points alright!”
Mr. Sumihara suddenly spun in our direction, and we heard the dull thud of the ninja throwing stars against the door as it closed behind us.
“Take these points!” Hiroko unnecessarily continued to translate as we ran pointlessly down the narrow lane.