The bookmobile had been built, Mr Watanabe said, on the frame of a smallish bus. That was exactly how it looked from the outside. The one major difference was the flaps on either side, which could be lifted up about as high as a penguin’s wings. The spaces underneath the wings were lined with bookshelves.
When Mr Watanabe first described the bookmobile to me, the image that came to mind was of an enormous building being transported from place to place, even though I knew it was basically just a vehicle he drove around, lending out books to kids in towns that had no library of their own. I found myself recalling that famous line from Archimedes about how if someone would just give him a place to stand, he could move the world with a lever.
We drove for thirty minutes or so along a mountain road on the Oshika Peninsula, then turned into a narrow lane. We were on our way to an elementary school in a remote area, far from the beaten path. We had timed our trip well, so that when we pulled up alongside the schoolhouse classes were just ending.
I hopped down from the passenger seat and heaved a deep breath. The lingering September heat clung to my skin.
We walked over to a bluff and saw the ocean below. Little by little I was getting used to the smell of the tide.
We got a folding table and a bunch of chairs out of the bus and set them up in a corner of the schoolyard; then we put paper cups and a big thermos filled with barley tea on the table. All this was for the children, so they could sit and read.
Soon the bell rang, and the children started coming out of the schoolhouse wearing their yellow helmets.
‘Mr Harada! You haven’t been here for ages!’ said one boy. ‘You came from Shizuoka again?’
‘Yep,’ I replied. Then, pointing at Mr Watanabe, who was inspecting the notebook he used to keep track of the books he had lent out, ‘He asked me to come.’
‘Isn’t Shizuoka really far away?’
‘I’d say so. Almost four hundred miles.’
The first time I had made the trip to this seaside town on the easternmost edge of Miyagi Prefecture was in April, almost six months earlier. Not once in all my twenty-two years had I participated in any sort of volunteer activity, and I had never visited the north-east of Japan, either. I’d met Mr Watanabe on that trip. He was thirty and single, and I gathered he lived in Sendai, not all that far from this area; he told me he had quit his job the day after the earthquake and came out here with nothing but a sleeping bag.
‘I’d been looking for an excuse to quit anyway,’ he claimed. ‘I’d come here to fish a lot, you know, so I guess I felt obliged to help out.’
I doubted that was the real reason. Occasionally, as we went about our work, I noticed a certain urgency in his expression – when we visited shelters, for instance, and he ran his eyes hurriedly over the faces of the people there, intensely focused.
I had asked him about this. ‘Are you looking for someone?’
For once, he seemed taken aback, and he dodged the question. ‘Actually, Harada, I’d say you’re the one who looks like he’s searching for someone. You’ve got that look.’
‘I am,’ I almost told him. But I decided not to. It would have been too difficult to explain. I was searching for someone, that was a fact, but I wasn’t sure who it was, or where I ought to be looking.
When I came in April, I had volunteered for two weeks and then gone back to Shizuoka. Part of me felt that I had done what I needed to. But after a while Mr Watanabe called and said he wanted to start taking footbaths around to the shelters, so I came again. After we had finished that and I’d returned home, he called again and said that this time he wanted to start up a bookmobile, and would I help. I kept going home and getting called back, then going home again and getting called back again. I almost felt like a library book myself.
‘Here Mr Harada, I’m done with these,’ said a girl, holding out a plastic bag of comics she had borrowed the previous week.
I took them. ‘Thank you for returning them.’
‘I’m going to borrow the next ones.’
‘Only five, okay?’
‘Make sure you bring them back.’
Most of the books in the bookmobile were kid’s comics. Mr Watanabe had been loaned the vehicle by some organization in Tokyo, and when it was delivered it had been filled with works of serious literature and old picture books. Mr Watanabe was furious.
‘Are you kidding me?’ he said. ‘Who the hell wants to read tedious books like these, when they’re living like this? Whoever chose these is obviously living in a fantasy world, thinking a good book or a good story can raise a person above their surroundings. Yeah, right.’
So he started gathering comics. Manga are great at keeping kids amused, he said. Naturally he recruited me to build the collection, too. I would raise funds playing pachinko and then make a trip to the bookstore.
The children were thrilled to see a bus full of comics, but there was one more difficulty. Often they wouldn’t return the books they had taken. There was no way of knowing when children living in shelters might be taken somewhere else, or where they would go – even the children themselves didn’t know. This made it incredibly difficult for us to keep track of who had how many books, and where they were. We had been worried about this even before we started, and sure enough many of the books went missing. In next to no time, the tidy rows of comics started looking like mouths missing teeth.
‘I don’t think we should worry too much,’ I said. The kids had lost so much, that spring, to the unforgiving force of the ocean. So what if they walked off with a few comics?
‘I disagree,’ Mr Watanabe snapped. ‘Library books have to be returned. That’s the rule. I mean, sure, I’d like to give them a book or two, but that’s not what this is about, is it?’
‘When you borrow something, you have return it. Isn’t that right?’
I stiffened, feeling as if he was talking about me.
The children began horsing around in the schoolyard. Mr Watanabe and I went over by one of the soccer nets, stirred liquid detergent and laundry starch together in a bucket, then added water. We were making jumbo bubble fluid. We always played with the children after we had finished exchanging books.
A well-built boy came over. ‘One to three to six, right?’ he said to Mr Watanabe.
That was the ratio of detergent to starch to water.
Mr Watanabe dipped a plastic ring with a handle into the liquid, then waved it in an arc. A gorgeous, translucent sphere took shape – opalescent, glittering in the sun. Each glorious bubble was born soundlessly in the shifting breezes, hung suspended in midair for a moment, then silently vanished. The sight of those bubbles breaking always called up a twinge of pain in me. I had endured enough disappearances already.
‘Hey, Mr Harada.’ Looking in the direction of the voice, I saw that it was Ryōta – a thin, bespectacled third grader. ‘Know what?’ he said. ‘I saw a dead frog this morning when I left this morning. He was lying on his back. His guts were coming out.’
The frog had probably been run over. It happened all the time.
‘Huh. What do you think might have killed it, Ryōta?’ I asked. I had only asked to keep the conversation going, and I was tickled to see Ryōta consider the question seriously, cocking his head to one side as he thought. Clearly he was trying hard, mobilizing all his knowledge in attempt to get the right answer.
His expression turned grave. ‘Global warming?’ he said.
I burst out laughing. ‘No, Ryōta, I don’t think it was anything that big.’
Next to me, Mr Watanabe was blowing one big bubble after the next from a straw. They drifted up into the air, sparkling.
‘Oh.’ Ryōta said, tilting his head again and folding his arms. Then, fixing his gaze on me, he mumbled hesitantly, ‘Was it . . . the Lehman shock?’
This time Mr Watanabe laughed, too.
His breath shattered a few of the bubbles.
The bookmobile kept swaying back and forth as we drove back along the mountain roads, turning right and left. The vehicle’s movements were almost violent; it was like a giant beast struggling to shake off a pesky little creature that had latched onto its back.
‘Driving here reminds me of that day,’ Mr Watanabe said quietly. ‘That shaking.’
He had been in Sendai during the earthquake, and he had used that image to describe it: he had been the little creature about to be thrown off an enormous back. It was like the earth itself had flown into a rage, he said – it wanted us off. The earthquake had been significant even in Shizuoka so I’m sure in Sendai, that close to the epicenter, it must have been totally unlikely anything people had ever experienced.
The peninsula jutted out into the Pacific, as if it were jumping into the water. As we drove along the shoreline, we passed several houses not far from the road – or what had once been houses. In most cases only the foundations survived, though sometimes the buildings’ pillars had been left standing, while everything else, the houses’ innards, lay blasted across the earth. Floors buried under gravel and pieces of wood. Buildings reduced to frames. There was much, much less wreckage than there was the first time I came, but still I didn’t have the sense that any genuine healing was taking place, like when a scab forms over a cut. The wound hadn’t festered, but it hadn’t been treated, either; it had just dried. The skin wasn’t growing back.
The vehicle swayed again.
The bookmobile passed through a wooded area near of a cluster of houses and came to a halt at a clearing about halfway up the mountain where Mr Watanabe lived.
This was where he spent the night; this was his base.
‘Thanks for today,’ he said. He got out, and I followed.
Walking a few meters, we came to another bus. It felt odd leaving one bus and getting right back into another, but this second one was different: it served as Mr Watanabe’s home. This one couldn’t be driven anymore, because it had no tires.
There was no electricity, so it was pitch dark at night; there was no running water, either. The surrounding woods cast deep shadows over the entire area.
In spring, when the weather was still chilly, Mr Watanabe had been happy that it stayed warmer inside than outside. ‘Pretty neat, huh?’ he had said. ‘It’s almost like a trailer.’ When fireflies congregated in the clearing in early summer, he excitedly pointed them out: ‘Look at them, Harada! What kind of lighting could be more romantic than this!’ But that was before. Now the summer humidity was insufferable, and even the fireflies seemed to have lost some of their freshness. ‘I mean, if you think about it,’ he said gloomily, ‘they’re really just bugs.’ I found his increasingly frequent complaints somewhat amusing.
‘By the way, Harada, did you see Mr Mizuno?’
‘Yeah, I ran into him the day before yesterday, right after I arrived. I went to fetch some water after I left my car here, and he was there.’
Mr Mizuno owned land in the area, and lived in a house at the bottom of the mountain. When he realized that Mr Watanabe was living out in the open with nothing but a sleeping bag, Mr Mizuno had offered to let him use the tireless bus. ‘Hey, at least you’ll have a roof over your head,’ he had said. He was a good man.
‘His hair was all over the place, right?’
‘It did have a kind of lion’s-mane look, now that you mention it.’ Mr Mizuno had quite an imposing presence for a seventy-year-old; the hair style might have helped.
‘His barber has closed. A young guy, maybe thirty or so, had a place on the ground floor of a building in town. It’s been shuttered ever since the day of the earthquake.’
‘Why doesn’t he just go to another barber?’
‘He’s afraid his usual barber will be disappointed if he comes back and Mr Mizuno has had his hair cut somewhere else.’
A sad smile rose to my lips. ‘Is there a chance the old barber might open again?’
‘Who knows? He shut the place up after the earthquake, and there’s been no sign of him since. Apparently he lived down near the ocean, and drove up every day.’
I groaned. There was no telling what might have happened to his house. He had survived, it seemed, but his family might have suffered a loss. Even if everyone was okay, their home might have been destroyed. And even supposing there had been no major damage of that sort, they might still have decided to move away. If you asked me, the barber had probably closed its doors forever.
‘Mr Mizuno was asking about you,’ I said. ‘He was wondering if you came to look for a woman.’
Mr Watanabe frowned. ‘Give me a break.’
‘So you aren’t?’
‘If I were searching for a woman, don’t you think the smart thing would be to go straight to her house? And have you seen me trying to find some woman’s house? No, you haven’t. And why not? Because I’m not looking for a woman. I just want to help.’
It was true that he didn’t seem to be actively looking for anyone.
‘The thing I’d like to know is why you’re always doing that.’ Mr Watanabe directed his gaze at my hands, and pointed. ‘What’s the deal?’
I started. I had been rolling a five-hundred-yen coin across the fingers of my right hand. I pinched it between my thumb and my pointer finger, then flipped it over onto my middle finger, then on from there to my ring finger. I had begun doing this when I was a student as a way of limbering up my joints; by now it had become a habit.
‘I saw a movie once where pickpockets trained themselves like that.’ Mr Watanabe said. Presumably he had no idea that he had hit the bulls-eye.
‘Have you seen me picking people’s pockets?’ I said. ‘I don’t think so.’
The grass on the racetrack was a sumptuous green; just looking at it purged my heart of everything unpleasant. I felt the way I would gazing at a white beach unmarked by footprints, or the soft. It washed away all the nastiness that had built up inside me.
Today was a Sunday like any other. No one had an idea that the following Friday would witness the eruption of a catastrophic earthquake.
The horses were galloping down the sun-drenched green of the elliptical, one-and-one-eighth-mile track. The thundering of their hooves approached. The ground rumbled.
I was standing by the fence in front of the finish line. A roar of excitement rose from the stands at my rear, then surged around me.
The afternoon sun, hitting the track at a low angle, made it look like a river. It shone.
All around me were people in baseball caps, clutching newspapers. They kept looking up at the huge screen to see how the horses were doing as they galloped toward us from the left; some spectators were clenching their fists, some had their mouths shut tight, while still others yelled at the horses, either berating them or cheering them on.
Immediately behind me was a man in a suit, probably in his forties.
His presence there was not a coincidence. I had waited for him to take up a position and then stepped around him from the side.
I had set my sights on him after the results came in from the previous race. The favorite had stumbled at the gate, leading to an upset. Two all but unknown horses had won, yielding unbelievably high payouts. It didn’t escape my attention that among the crowds sighing over the unfairness of it all, one man was clearly thrilled. It was the man in the suit.
After checking his slip several times, he nodded to himself, convinced that he really had won big, and tucked the piece of paper into his right inside pocket – presumably he was left-handed. His excitement was unmistakable.
I observed him, followed him, and then, a short while earlier, went to stand by the fence, immediately in front of him.
The lead pack was approaching the stretch turn, and the crowd had reached such a fever pitch that you could practically feel the heat.
Every eye was fixed on the pack of horses to our left; the spectators were so absorbed in the race you would think they were watching to see how someone’s life was going to turn out, not just a bunch of horses. My own head, too, was facing left. At the same time, my right hand was on the move. I bent my arm up behind me as if to scratch my back, lifted it up.
Only the upper of the two buttons on the man’s jacket was fastened.
I unbuttoned it. I practiced slipped watches off people’s wrists every day, again and again, so slipping a button through a buttonhole posed no challenge at all.
I tilted my head slightly, peering further to the left. I sensed the man behind me shifting his own gaze, refocusing his attention, following my lead. I raised my right hand further up, just a little, and slipped it inside his jacket.
The horses galloped on, seeing nothing but the track.
The crowd roared.
My fingers felt leather in his pocket. I shifted my center of gravity backward, once again stood taller, lifting his wallet out, and then I let it go. It’s less obtrusive to drop a wallet than to pull it all the way out. The wallet fell noiselessly through the air. I spun my body half way around and brushed my left hand against the hem of the man’s jacket. I caught the wallet.
It was all over in an instant.
Just then, the horses passed in front of us. Everyone was so intent on the finish, that rush of energy barreling by like an express train or a sudden gust, that no one even suspected that I had pinched the man’s wallet.
I stepped around the man and walked off. I took a tightly folded sheet of newspaper out of my pocket and wrapped my catch inside it. Ambling slowly toward the stands, I opened the wallet. I found the slip right away. I removed it, and the cash. There was a driver’s license tucked into one of the card holders. I saw the man’s name and birthday, and the address just below.
Only after I had tossed the wallet in the garbage did I discover the small piece of paper between the bills. It looked like it had come from a memo sheet. On it, there were four short words written in a childish hand: ‘Dad, no more affairs!’
I was sitting in Mr Watanabe’s ‘house’, holding a newspaper.
I had seen the picture in the article before. Any number of times over the past six months I had stared at this illustration: a simplified diagram of the reactor at a nuclear power plant.
Something about the shape – two spheres affixed to something resembling the base of a rocket – made you think of a penis, but for some reason that image didn’t stick. I was always reminded, instead, of a laboratory flask. The caption read: ‘Hydrogen discovered in pipes.’
‘Is that bad?’ I asked. ‘If there’s hydrogen?’
‘Evidently if the concentration of hydrogen gets over four percent and the oxygen goes over five percent, there’s a risk the thing will explode,’ Mr Watanabe said.
I leaned back, surprised. ‘Wouldn’t that be kind of a catastrophe?’
In March, a similar explosion had spewed radiation everywhere.
‘They’re pumping in nitrogen, so there isn’t a lot of oxygen in there. For the time being, at least, they say we don’t have to worry about an explosion.’
‘Is that true?’ I couldn’t help sounding skeptical.
‘Don’t ask me,’ Mr Watanabe said, just as doubtful. ‘As far as I can tell, no one seems to know for sure what’s happening. I mean, back in March everyone was insisting there was absolutely no way the containment vessel had been breached, and then it turns out a hole had opened up immediately after the earthquake.’
As our grasp of the situation improved in the months after the earthquake, we could only shake our heads in disbelief. The containment vessel had a hole, and the fuel rods had melted. What the hell were all those pictures they showed us on the news, claiming they represented ‘the current situation’? The fuel rods had been there in every picture, clearly outlined. People took it for granted that they hadn’t melted. In the end, it turned out those weren’t pictures of how things were after all; they had represented how people hoped things were.
‘You know, Harada, the other day I read something in the newspaper. Remember those spent fuel rods in the pool in Reactor 4?’
‘Yeah.’ Over the past months, we had all become experts on nuclear reactors. We had acquired a grasp of their basic structure, and of the terminology.
‘Their first guess was that the water in the pool would rapidly have evaporated, leaving us in very dire straights. But then when that hydrogen explosion blew the roof off and they looked inside from a helicopter, they discovered that there was still water in the pool, right? The level hadn’t gone down that much. For a long time, it was a mystery why the water hadn’t evaporated.’
‘And they solved the mystery?’
‘Water at the top of the reactor flowed into the pool on the side through a hole in the wall between the two.’
‘That water that fell into the pool is what saved us.’
‘Was it some kind of safety thing or something?’
‘Nope. Pure coincidence.’
‘We were just lucky, that’s all.’
I sighed. In the end, the whole thing had been out of our control. I felt incredibly grateful to the workers who had struggled desperately to get things back on line, exposing themselves to enormous danger, but the thought that ultimately no one seemed to have been unable to do more than hope for the best was so awful I almost fainted.
‘Even now no one is sure whether it’s dangerous or not. It’s possible the all-important radiation monitor is broken . . . anything could happen.’
‘Yeah, really.’ I’m a pretty straightforward guy, so by the time I finished the article I had been reading, I was terrified – I expected to hear a tremendous explosion at any second, off to the south, and I would be blown away, my consciousness shredded. I’m going to die, I could be gone any second now. I was so scared I could hardly stand it.
‘You have to wonder. I mean, what are the politicians and all the other important people who were involved in all this nuclear stuff thinking now?’ Mr Watanabe said.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Setting aside the question of whether their intentions were good or bad, I think if I had done something that led to a situation like this, I’d feel so guilty I’d be shut up in my house, trembling in the corner.’
‘I bet they are,’ I replied, not that I believed it. This was just more wishful thinking.
‘If they were, at least we could have some hope.’
‘That reminds me,’ I said. ‘Not long ago a foreign acquaintance of my dad’s asked him why he didn’t just leave Japan, considering how dangerous it is.’
‘Why? You’re all the way down in Shizuoka.’
‘I guess it seems close from outside, even if it’s four hundred miles away. I mean, if you look at a world map, the whole of Japan looks like a little leaf or something.’
‘What did your dad say?’
‘That he didn’t have anywhere to go, and he figured things would work out.’
Mr Watanabe grinned. ‘There’s truth in that. I feel the same – almost defiant.’
‘I know what you mean.’
‘The thing is, people’s lives are rooted in the places they live in. We live with the people around us, our communities. It’s not easy to pick up and move. We’re like stickers.’
‘Say you put a sticker somewhere, and then someone asks you to move it. Well, it’s hard to get it off, right? You have to be very careful, peeling it off a little at a time, or the whole thing comes to pieces.’
‘It ends up ribbons.’
‘That’s what it’s like when you leave the place you’ve made your home – it’s like ripping up something that’s extremely important to you.’
That didn’t feel quite right to me, so I just gave a vague response.
‘If you don’t take a lot of care, and do it just right, you can’t get a sticker off in one piece. You have to be cautious. I mean, how hard do you think it must be to make up your mind to do that?’ Mr Watanabe paused for a moment, as if absorbing the truth of what he had said. ‘It’s like telling a woman whose husband is abusing her, ‘Just leave the jerk! Get out of there now!’ If it were so easy divorce him,’ he said softly, ‘she would have done it ages ago.’ His voice was strained, as if he had just forced himself to say something vital.
His intensity made me wonder. ‘Someone you know?’
‘The woman. I thought maybe you were talking about someone you know.’
‘I’m talking generally,’ Mr Watanabe said coldly. ‘I’m talking about leaving home.’
‘When you think about it, it’s kind of cruel – violent, even – when companies order their workers to move from one city to another.’
‘Yeah, it’s cruel all right.’
‘But maybe that shows that you can move if you want to.’
Mr Watanabe nodded. ‘That’s a good point. Hell, you can even move a library!’ he said, glancing at the bookmobile parked outside.
I found myself musing about different kinds of movement. People who move, or stop moving. Who are able or unable to move. Objects that pass from one person’s hands into the hands of another, like the wallet I had stolen. Books that keep moving after they have been borrowed, without ever being returned.
I folded the newspaper and tucked it down behind the end of the seat.
‘What are you reading, Mr Watanabe?’
He showed me the book’s spine: Gulliver’s Travels. ‘A kid’s book, from the library.’
‘Is it good?’
‘It’s okay. This guy Gulliver travels to a land populated by tiny people, it’s called Lilliput, and then he goes to a land of giants. That sort of thing.’
‘Certain parts are weirdly realistic – that’s kind of neat. For instance, when Gulliver goes to Lilliput. Hold on a second.’ He flipped a few pages. ‘Here it is – they called together two hundred seamstresses to sew Gulliver a shirt, a bed cover, and a tablecloth. And it took three hundred cooks to prepare his meals.’
‘That’s a lot.’
‘This gets right to the heart of employment issues.’
‘I think you’re reading too much into it.’
‘All it takes is one giant, and you get employment for a few hundred or even a thousand workers. That’s how you produce jobs.’
‘Like public works and so on, you mean?’
‘You know what just occurred to me?’ Mr Watanabe said, speaking a little louder than before. ‘Maybe that’s why the barber hasn’t returned.’
‘The barber? The one Mr Mizuno is waiting for?’
‘How does this strike you? After the earthquake, he went away for a while with his family. You couldn’t buy things you needed here, and they had a baby. It was an emergency evacuation.’
‘Did they have a baby?’
‘This is just an example. So after a while, the barber decided to make the trip back here, to this town, but on the way his car ran out of gas.’
I laughed. ‘I don’t get it. So what if he runs out of gas, obviously he just has to go fill up the tank again, right?’ In the immediate wake of the earthquake gasoline had been so scarce you almost felt as though all the wells must have suddenly disappeared or something – there were even some crazies who started saying that OPEC wasn’t doing its job. I thought they were going overboard, though I understood how they felt; everyone was shocked, and irritated. These days, however, there was just as much gasoline as before the quake.
‘So just then, a truck came driving along. It was the self-defense forces.’
‘The way you talk, you’d think you saw it happen.’
‘The barber waved, and then he climbed up into the back.’
‘Why did he go with them?’
‘The self-defense forces needed him. They were on an important mission. In that sense, it wasn’t just chance that the truck happened by.’
‘Next you’re going to tell me someone arranged for the car to run out of gas.’ I laughed. ‘Anyway, what’s this big mission they’re on?’
‘This.’ Mr Watanabe held up the book in his hand. ‘At the conclusion of his travels, he ended up washing ashore at the tip of the Oshika Peninsula.’
‘The giant. That’s how the giant got here. Like I said, the giant creates a need for people. Tailors and cooks, someone to wash him. And . . .’
‘People to cut his hair. A whole lot of them.’
‘Sure,’ I said, with a wry smile. ‘And that’s why the barber couldn’t return.’
‘Exactly. He was taken off in the self-defense force’s truck to wherever the giant is living, in order to do that important, secret work. They had the barber cut the giant’s hair every day.’ Mr Watanabe spoke forcefully. ‘Who knows? Maybe the government is hiding Gulliver on some beach somewhere. Concealing him behind a curtain of construction vehicles.’
‘Maybe eventually someone will find him on Google Earth or something. Once they get higher-resolution satellite pictures of this area.’
‘It’s possible.’ Mr Watanabe laughed. ‘Anyway, you know what I liked best in this book? The part where he visits the country of giants.’
‘No, after that. He visits the land of the giants. All the people there are enormous, and they treat Gulliver like a pet. It’s kind of a cool idea, don’t you think? Gulliver himself isn’t any different, but when the countries around him change, he changes. He can be a giant, but he can also be a pet.’
‘Eventually he manages to make it home from the giants’ country, too. He brings back a bunch of souvenirs, like a weird comb made from a clipping of the queen’s fingernail.’
‘A comb made from . . . ?’
‘And the captain of the boat that carries him back to England asks him, ‘One thing I’ve been wondering about – why do you always shout like that?’’
‘He shouts? Why? I don’t get it.’
‘Gulliver had been living with the giants for a while, right? So he always had to shout at the top of his lungs, like he was yelling up from the road at a man at the top of a tower. That was the only way the giants could hear him.’
‘So he kept shouting even when he came back. That’s great.’
‘In short, you’d better keep a look out.’
‘If you see some sort of transport aircraft flying way up high . . .’
‘It’s probably on its way to get Gulliver.’
Two days after our conversation a self-described ‘movie director’ visited from Tokyo. He said he wanted to see what kinds of volunteering people were doing in the town, and Mr Watanabe agreed to show him. Apparently Mr Watanabe was the only one who could do this. The director was in his mid forties, but he didn’t treat us differently because we were younger and he made a fairly good impression on me. We ended up taking him around in my car with Mr Watanabe driving, me in the passenger seat, and the director in back. It took about half the day to show him everything, from the coastal areas to the downtown.
Mr Watanabe’s mood began to sour when, as we were walking downtown, the director commented about a line of apartment buildings nearby, ‘It doesn’t look like there was much damage around here.’ That was the first thing that got under Mr Watanabe’s skin.
I knew what the director was trying to say. Compared to the strip along the ocean where whole houses had been swept away, destroying everything, the landscape in this residential area didn’t look like it had changed much from before the disaster.
That said, I could also see why Mr Watanabe took it so badly. For instance, there was a mother who lived with her one-year-old son in one of those apartments. Evidently she had been playing with him near the harbor when the earthquake happened, and she had rushed with him to the local junior high, which served as a shelter. The water from the tsunami took ages to subside, however, and in the meantime she couldn’t go home. No one came to help, and people in the shelter began to feel increasingly isolated. At some point, a struggle broke out over a carton of milk someone had brought. I doubt it was an actual fight, with people snatching the carton from each other and so on; most likely it was just a little disagreement. But it can’t have been pleasant. It wasn’t anyone’s fault – their children’s lives were at stake. And when the mother went back with her son to their apartment, she hated herself. She confessed to us once how awful she felt, when we went to distribute rice. She wanted to tell someone, I suppose. Neither Mr Watanabe nor I knew what to say.
Mr Watanabe waited until after we had finished looking around the town, driven back to the bus, and gotten out of the car to really take the director to task. The man had repeated his earlier comment: ‘I’m sort of relieved,’ he said. ‘At least the downtown areas emerged unscathed.’ I wasn’t particularly troubled by this, but Mr Watanabe was livid.
He spoke quietly at first. ‘You know, the buildings may be standing and the streets don’t look any different from before, but the people who live there had to endure terrible anxiety and fear.’ As he grew more emotional, he began to raise his voice. ‘Do you really think that unless the landscape has changed, there can’t have been any damage? You think people aren’t hurt unless their houses are destroyed? Even when their everyday lives have pretty much been destroyed? You just want to visit the scene of a natural disaster and look around, comment on how terrible it is, how it leaves you speechless. That’s all this means to you. How is that any different from going to see a meteorite in the desert somewhere? And if you’re going to come here, why don’t you go visit areas that have been destroyed by typhoons or had cracks open up in the ground?’
The director seemed taken aback, overwhelmed by the fury on Mr Watanabe’s face, and he tried to explain. ‘You’re misunderstanding, that’s not what I meant . . .’
‘Like you even know!’ Mr Watanabe shouted, and threw himself at the director. The next moment, Mr Watanabe, not the director, lay sprawled on the ground. The director must have done a bit of boxing – he was pretty quick. He had leaned to one side and landed a punch in Mr Watanabe’s ribs.
I ran over to where they were standing. ‘No violence, please!’
‘He threw the first punch,’ the director said, and of course he was right.
You can be right without being persuasive, though. ‘That may be, but –’
The director cut me off. ‘Look, you came here from Shizuoka, right? You’re an outsider. I don’t need you lecturing to me. Why did you come here, anyway? What do you want?’
I couldn’t immediately think how to respond. In a sense it was true that I was an outsider, but what did that mean, anyway? Was I no different from the director? As I struggled for an answer, my temper rose.
Mr Watanabe got to his feet, clutching his stomach, and steadied his breathing. His eyes were bloodshot. ‘You’re a director, so you’re interested in images, right? Well we don’t need you to come look at the landscape. If you’re going to come, come look at people’s hearts.’
‘Nice!’ I cried, and clapped. Come look at people’s hearts – my thoughts exactly.
Mr Watanabe’s nostrils flared, as if to say Good line, huh?
I glanced at the director; his face was flushed. Maybe he was annoyed by Mr Watanabe’s retort, or maybe he was jealous that Mr Watanabe had come off looking better than he had. For that matter, he might have been excited, thinking he could use that line in his next movie. He clenched his fists and took a step forward, so I stepped between them.
‘Take it easy, okay,’ I said, blocking his way, seizing his left wrist. As a matter of course, my fingers started moving. I pressed the catch on his wristwatch; there was a tiny click, and the buckle loosened. I smoothly drew my hand away, slipping the watch off and concealing it in my palm, and slid it into my back pocket.
Next, I slipped my left hand into the pocket of his jacket and lifted out his leather wallet as I shoved my body up against him.
‘Take it easy, just take it easy,’ I kept saying as I put the wallet in my pocket.
At last, Mr Watanabe regained his composure and apologized to the director. The director bowed his head, saying it was his fault, he had been childish. Things had been nicely resolved, it seemed: they were reconciled.
‘By the way,’ I said, handing over the wallet and the watch, ‘you dropped these earlier. It seemed a bit ridiculous to keep them.’
The director looked at his wrist, puzzled, wondering when that could have happened.
The next day, Mr Watanabe and I headed to the northwest to visit an elementary school on the other side of the river. We set out the folding table, lined up the chairs, and mixed the bubble fluid. We were standing there, staring blankly into the air, when the bell rang inside the school and the children started wandering out a few at a time.
‘Hey, Mr Harada,’ a girl said, coming over. She was a very tall sixth grader with an adult air about her.
‘You want to borrow a book?’
‘No, actually, I want your car.’
‘What? My car?’ What did she mean she wants my car?
‘My dad just got a job,’ she said earnestly. ‘But he says it’s going to be really hard to get there. If he had your car, he could just drive, right?’
‘So your dad found work! That’s great.’
‘Yeah, that’s why I need your car. Hey, did I ever tell you about my dad?’
‘He lost a lot of money.’
‘I love hearing about other people’s losses. Tell me all.’ I leaned forward. ‘What was it? Bad investments? Stocks?’
‘Once when he was in Tokyo on business, he won at the races, but he lost his slip.’
‘His betting slip? At a horse race, you mean?’
‘Yeah. Where you bet on who will come in first and second. You pick two numbers, you know? My dad always uses my birthday when he buys these things, and he won an enormous amount, apparently. Like hundreds of thousands of yen.’
‘Wow, that’s amazing,’ I said. At this point, it still hadn’t clicked. But then, when the girl said, ‘Yeah, and then he lost the slip,’ something came together in my brain.
‘He lost the slip?’
‘He dropped his wallet. At the track.’
I gave a little gasp, and for a second I couldn’t move.
I swallowed, tried to arrange my thoughts. It wasn’t possible, I thought, and yet I couldn’t help thinking that it was. ‘Did you, by any chance, give some kind of note to your dad?’
I hurriedly took out my wallet. I opened it. My fingers never tremble when I’m pinching someone else’s wallet, but now they were shaking so hard it was almost funny.
‘Actually, I did.’
‘Did you write, No more affairs!, by any chance?’
The girl’s eyes widened. ‘What! How did you know?’
My jaw dropped, and I almost fell over backward. My heart was racing. I felt as if a huge number of soap bubbles were forming inside me, glittering as they flowed through my veins, circulating around my entire body. I knew what substance filled those thin, transparent films: it was joy. Bubbles of joy were streaming through me, around and around. When they burst, they would release their joy inside me.
The girl kept talking as I stood there unable to move. ‘My dad got friendly with another woman once, and my mom got mad at him. He was having an affair, in other words – a love affair. So I wrote that note as a charm. Maybe that’s not the right word, but you know what I mean – a deterrent, is that it? Anyway, how did you know about that, Mr Harada?’
I searched for the right words. I held the slip I had taken from my wallet out to the girl. ‘I found a note with those words on them once. Along with this.’
I had stolen a wallet, and along with the bills and the betting slip, I had found that piece of paper inside. No more affairs! The words amused me, but at the same they also made me feel guilty. They conveyed the straightforward honesty and the desperation of a child trying to find some way to hold her family together when it was beginning to lose its balance, and made me realize how brutish and arrogant I had been to steal from her father. It was as if some man had come along out of nowhere to topple a stack of blocks a child had worked hard to erect, just for the fun of it.
I began to harbor doubts about being a pickpocket. Then, a few days later, the earthquake happened. One of the towns whose names was listed on the news as a disaster area sounded familiar to me from the address on the driver’s license in that wallet. I became increasingly certain that it was so. And before I knew it, here I was volunteering.
‘I . . . I never thought I would actually be able to give it back.’ I was more surprised and shocked than moved; the muscles of my face were twitching.
‘What’s up with you, Mr Harada? You’re totally weirding me out,’ the girl said, taking the slip. ‘Wait a second! Is this that slip? He won with this?’
‘He can use it to help pay for a car.’
The bubbles of joy were about to pop, and my eyes were getting teary. Maybe this wasn’t a big enough miracle to light up the whole country, but the coincidence of our encounter made me so happy I felt like sunlight, filled with warmth.
Then the girl spoke. ‘Hold on. Hey, Mr Harada, this isn’t it.’
The tears I was on the verge of shedding dried up.
‘I was born on May sixth, so my dad always puts money on 5-6. This one says 1-2. It’s a different slip.’
‘Are you kidding me?’ I groaned. I felt like a batter on first challenging the umpire who had just called him out. ‘I was totally safe!’
‘Safe? What are you talking about?’
‘I mean, there was a note and everything. No more affairs.’
‘Well then some other kid’s dad was having an affair, too. This isn’t it.’
How could this be? How many men in this world were having affairs? It was astonishing. Well, I thought vaguely, I guess things don’t work out so easily. Our stories were linked, but they didn’t lead to a solution. I wasn’t disappointed, though. I felt pretty good.
Glancing to the side, I saw Mr Watanabe a little distance away peering down at the screen of his cell phone, a serious expression on his face.
Mr Watanabe was pressing down on the pedal a lot harder than usual. Comic books kept dropping from the shelves in the back of the bus as we barreled around one short curve after the next on the steep mountain road, but he didn’t care.
I looked at his profile. He stared straight ahead, his expression unreadable.
I was more nervous than he was.
Just before we left the elementary school, when Mr Watanabe passed me on his way to the toilet, I had extracted his cell phone from his pocket. Something about the gravity of his demeanor as he read whatever text message had come in caught my attention, and I decided, purely out of curiosity, that I wanted to see it for myself. I thumbed the buttons, opened the inbox. The newest message was titled ‘From Kanako’s husband’. The message itself opened with the words, ‘I’m writing to you out of the blue like this because . . .’
I stopped reading there.
I had no idea who this woman Kanako was, but when I imagined the reasons her husband might have for texting Mr Watanabe ‘out of the blue’, none of the possibilities that came to me were very pleasant. It certainly looked as though the lover Mr Watanabe was looking for was married. Maybe that was why he couldn’t carry out his search openly. He must have sent her a text after the earthquake, to make sure she was all right. He had been volunteering in this area so that he could rush to her immediately if he got a reply. At any rate, that seemed like the most likely explanation.
And when the text finally came, it was from her husband. Why would he reply? Why was Kanako unable to write back herself? I didn’t want to know. So I put the cell phone back in Mr Watanabe’s pocket right away.
He didn’t seem sad or anguished when I looked at him from the passenger seat. I got the sense he was driving more roughly than usual as a way of emptying his mind.
The bookmobile leapt. It lifted off the ground for an instant, then landed.
Then we left the mountains behind. We drove straight along a narrow road bordered by fields. The sun was beginning to set, and soon the mountains in the distance were touched by red, as if they were blushing faintly. The bookmobile kept moving. Mr Watanabe’s text, shut up in his phone, moved with us, and so did the betting slip in my wallet. I wondered what had become of Kanako and her feelings for Mr Watanabe.
After a while, we passed Mr Mizuno on the road. I didn’t recognize him from the back, but Mr Watanabe had recognized his face in the side mirror after we drove by.
Mr Watanabe pulled to the side of the road and got out, and I followed.
‘Another day of hard work?’ Mr Mizuno said. He smiled a bit sheepishly, covering his face in wrinkles. Then he rubbed his head.
‘You didn’t need to cut it that short. Man, I didn’t even recognize you!’ Mr Watanabe said, teasing him.
Mr Mizuno’s head was shaved like a Buddhist priest’s.
‘I know, I know,’ he said nodding. ‘But I was so happy. It’s kind of a celebration.’
‘Where was the barber all this time?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know, he didn’t seem inclined to say,’ Mr Mizuno replied.
No doubt he had his reasons. Maybe he had decided to relocate, but in the end he couldn’t get the sticker all the way off. Who knew, maybe he was still planning to move away?
I glanced at Mr Watanabe. He was wiping his eyes, so I looked away.
‘It’s funny, though,’ Mr Mizuno said quietly.
‘The barber – he talks really loud now.’
‘Even when he’s just chatting, it’s like he’s shouting.’ Mr Mizuno tilted his head, puzzled. ‘He showed me this weird comb, too, some kind of souvenir I guess.’
Mr Watanabe and I exchanged glances. No way. Then we burst out laughing.
A transport aircraft unlike any I had ever seen droned by overhead.
Photograph © Hajime Nakano
This story is part of our 20 for 2020 series, featuring twenty timely and exciting new works from the Japanese published here at Granta.com. Find out more about the project here.