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Sunday, March 30, 2003

Lock & key


Special to The Japan Times

KAZUYOSHI UEHARA -- not the Kazuyoshi Uehara -- rang the doorbell. He sensed a pause, a hesitation, an interrupted action -- his imagination no doubt -- and tensed slightly as approaching footsteps grew audible.

News photo

"Yes?" said Shizuko through the door.

"It's me."

The lock clicked; the door opened. "Where's your key?"

"I seem to've lost it."

"You lost it?"

He bent to remove his shoes, then straightened to take off his jacket. "Bit chilly. Could've used a sweater. Is it April, or isn't it? Where's Ayu?"

"Where did you lose your key?"

He laughed. "If I know that it's found. Where's Ayu? Where's my little girl? Ayu! Daddy's home!"

"Shh, she's asleep."

"Asleep!" His voice sank to a whisper.

"She was running a slight fever. I put her to bed early."

"Fever?"

"She came home from school sniffling. I took her temperature -- "

"But I have a story for her, I made it up on the way home, it's a beauty, a classic! Is she really sleeping?" He hung up his jacket in the hall closet and followed Shizuko into the kitchen. "What's for supper? Smells good, whatever it is! Do I have time for a bath first?"

"Kazu, I'm worried about the key. Suppose somebody finds it?"

"So what? Who'd know it's ours? It doesn't have my name on it. Speaking of which -- my illustrious namesake is on no fewer than three magazine covers this week. Got himself a fresh squeeze. Woman comes up to the cash with a Chocopie, a Calpis Latte and a Women's Weekly, lays 'em on the counter, catches sight of my nametag as she's fumbling with her purse -- and . . . Her jaw drops! Her body goes rigid! 'Madam!' I cry. 'Are you all right? Is it your heart? Shall I call an ambulance?' She flushes crimson, shakes her head no -- bursts out laughing, tries to speak, can't . . . Hmm. So what else is new, right? Well, this: It only happened once."

"Everybody around here knows you already."

"True. I'm a back number. A has-been before I ever was."

KING IN THE HOT TUB, he tried to think of a tactful way to tell Shizuko that her hair, dyed the color of damp straw, was hideous. He could stress the beauty of its natural black rather than the comic ridiculousness of what she'd done to herself, but it wasn't that simple. Shizuko was prickly. She was sensitive. She stung easily. You could cushion your barb with layers of compliments; she'd still feel the barb -- and then it would be her turn. He didn't like her hair? Well, she had a few grievances of her own. Imagine a man of 42 working part-time at a convenience store! Is that the way a husband and father assumes his family responsibilities?

"Oh, I know," she would say, cutting off his feeble and predictable objection, "the economy's bad, lots of men have been laid off and must settle for what they can get -- but Kazu, you, unlike those others, are not struggling to set things right. As far as you're concerned, things are right! Things are just fine! They couldn't be better, could they, for 'the Kazuyoshi Uehara of Zenibako!' "

He sighed. Well, she was right. His lack of ambition was a flaw, a weakness. But what could he do? He loved this little village where Shizuko had grown up. Though less than an hour by train from Sapporo, something about it, some elusive quality, made it seem more remote and isolated than it was. He loved its quiet simplicity, its natural beauty. What more did he need? He had run the rat race, had lost, had shrugged off the loss and moved on. As for being "the Kazuyoshi Uehara of Zenibako" -- of course he got a kick out of it. Who wouldn't?

He closed his eyes and heard the waves lapping gently against the shore. Their house sat on a bluff overlooking Ishikari Bay. He smiled, imagining himself on a ship instead of in a bathtub, far out at sea, land with all its constraints and solidities hopelessly, delightfully remote. Kazu loved the sea. Tokyo born and raised, he was neither sailor nor fisherman, but he was a fine swimmer, and during the vast portion of the year when this far northern region was too cold for swimming he liked nothing better than to walk for hours along the beach -- "listening," he had once said to Ayu, "to the stories the waves tell."

He had been strolling along the beach before work. It was amazing, the debris that found its way there. A shoe, a refrigerator, a smashed-in car. Who had vented such rage against the unoffending vehicle? And the half-eaten carcass that a flock of crows had hastily abandoned at his approach -- they watched him balefully from a distance -- was it a shark? To his inexpert eye it rather looked like one -- but were there really sharks around here? Add to all these bits and pieces of life and death his key, for it was surely there, he reflected, that he had lost it.

Some telepathic wave must have carried a hint of this thought to Shizuko, for just then she poked her head in the door and said, "Kazu, I think we should get a new lock." Kazu sighed. "We don't need a new lock. I told you -- even if someone does find it, there's nothing to connect it to this house. Relax. We have nothing worth stealing anyway."

"Supper's ready."

"OK. I'm coming."

News photo

HIDEKI SHIMIZU SNEEZED. From the breast pocket of his blue suit jacket he removed a handkerchief and discreetly blew his nose. "Funny," he thought, his face grim. "Not a soul, not a soul in the outside world -- not my wife, not my daughter -- has the slightest, the faintest, the remotest conception of where I am now, and what I'm doing!" It was not a new thought, it visited him countless times each day, yet it never failed to cause him a fresh wave of anguish. "How long will this go on? How long will I languish here? Supposing I go insane. Maybe I'm insane already. Can a man be insane without knowing it? But I do know it! I do! If this isn't insanity . . . "

He looked up from his empty desk and surveyed, by the light of an unshaded overhead bulb, the boxes and crates that surrounded him. Into this windowless storeroom had been crammed years-, decades-worth of boxed and crated company correspondence. With nothing better to do, he occasionally amused himself by poking through it, though the dust that flew whenever he opened a box watered his eyes and made him sneeze.

"June 23, 1974. Dear Mr. Hasegawa , We most sincerely thank you for your order of June 4, and wish to assure you . . . " Where would Mr. Hasegawa be now? he wondered. Yoshisaburo Ito, the letter's author, was dead; his son, now head of the sales department, was approaching retirement age. And Shimizu? What would he have been doing on June 23, 1974 while the late Mr. Ito senior was penning this missive? He had been 8 years old; he would have been at school, in second grade at Zenibako Elementary, as his daughter was now. 1974 -- that was the year he had sat beside Shizuko Kamiya, casting shy glances at her and every now and then -- oh, bliss! -- drawing a shy glance from her in return! To her he owed his life's greatest happiness -- when he was 8! But he went his way and she went hers; he to the commerce faculty of Hokkaido University, and she -- it scarcely bore thinking about.

After university he landed a job with Ogawa Marine Products, from which secure and congenial posting he had been lured by a representative of his present firm, Hamano Food Processing. It was his energy and initiative that had attracted Hamano's notice, but once he had accepted, fool that he was, their very tempting offer, he discovered too late what he should have known to begin with, that a newcomer recruited from an outside firm never wins acceptance among colleagues hired directly from college. His successes were resented, and his occasional lapses pounced on with malevolent zeal. Clearly they wanted him out, and when he refused to go quietly they stuck him away in this basement "office," in the hope he would eventually succumb to the futility of it all and resign. Well, we'll see, he thought, who bends first. The Labor Standards Bureau to which he'd appealed had pleaded powerlessness but tossed him a small scrap of encouragement: "Look -- they can't afford to pay you to do nothing forever. If you can just hold out . . . "

From the right pocket of his trousers he removed his wallet -- as full of bills as ever, since despite the indignity inflicted on him he remained on full salary. From the change purse he extracted a bronze-colored key. He replaced his wallet in his pocket. The key was cold to the touch. He held it between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, but seemed almost immediately to forget its existence as, once more, he surveyed the gloomy, dusty storeroom. His eyes rested briefly on a cobweb in a corner just beneath the ceiling. A faint sound startled him. He wheeled around. Was someone coming? A client? A colleague? He smiled mirthlessly. More likely a rat. He let the key fall from his fingers. It landed with a clatter on the metal desk. As though it had called his name, Shimizu lowered his eyes to it and fixed upon it an interrogative look. "I wonder," he thought, "if they've changed the lock?"

Six weeks had passed since the key fell out of Kazuyoshi Uehara's pocket and, so to speak, into his, Shimizu's, hand. It was in April, the day of his daring experiment. Without calling in sick, without a word to anyone, he had simply not gone to work. Would he be reprimanded? Would anyone even notice? He had left the house as usual, but instead of going to Zenibako Station and taking the train to Sapporo he spent the day wandering along the beach, where he saw Uehara sitting on a log staring dreamily out to sea.

Keeping his distance, Shimizu watched unobserved. "Is he going to sit there all day?" No. Some few minutes later Uehara started suddenly. Glancing at his watch, he got hurriedly to his feet. Shimizu, unseen, watched him stride rapidly toward the village. Looking at his own watch, he saw it was 10 past 2. "He's late." Uehara's shift started at 2.

He saw the key, glinting in the early spring sunshine, as he walked past the log. "Well well. Hmm." He stooped to pick it up. He turned it over and over in his hands, frowning, as though this object he held was not merely a neighbor's door key but something uncanny, mysterious, imbued with vast but obscure meaning. He raised it to his mouth and blew a grain of sand off it. Then, with the faint shrug of a man emerging from a momentarily absorbing but patently foolish meditation, he tossed the key in the air, caught it, slipped it into his pocket, shrugged again, and continued his walk.

His anxiety the next morning surprised him. What if someone challenged him, demanded what right he had to simply absent himself without notice? What would he say? Supposing they fired him?

He needn't have worried. He had not been missed, and the day passed without incident. Nevertheless, though tempted, he did not repeat the experiment.

UYOSHI UEHARA. It was probably the most famous name in all Japan. A promising baseball player whose career had been cut short by an injury, he had gone into show business. He appeared on talk shows, starred in a "home drama," had written a bestseller and even recorded a chart-topping CD. He was as handsome as he was talented, and every new hairstyle, every "fashion statement," every rumor of a romantic liaison drew press coverage that the prime minister himself might have envied.

Of course, Kazuyoshi Uehara was a common name, there must be hundreds of Kazuyoshi Ueharas across the country, but still, what a bizarre coincidence. What had little Shizuko Kamiya -- she wasn't little anymore -- what had Shizuko seen in that . . . that . . . Shimizu groped for a word to describe him -- in vain, so featureless was he. A nobody, a nonentity, a perfect child. That was it -- a child. He had never grown up. He had a child's heart, a child's brain, in a man's body.

Had Shizuko been seduced by his name? Was it conceivable? "Supposing" -- he began speaking aloud, as people alone sometimes will, often without being aware of it -- "supposing I'd been a little less shy, a little more daring -- she would've known I loved her when I was 8! And no less when I was 18. And 28. And now. Yes, now -- married, the father of a little girl who is Shizuko Kamiya's daughter's best friend -- even now! If she'd known, if she'd only known. If only I'd let her know. Maybe she wouldn't have gone to Tokyo; she'd never have met that . . . that infant who calls himself Shizuko's husband and (blind fool that he is) the father of Shizuko's child -- she wouldn't have met him, wouldn't have thrown herself away on him, wouldn't have ruined her life!

"Does she think I don't know what she does when 'the Kazuyoshi Uehara of Zenibako' is behind his cash register at Family Mart? He doesn't know -- of course not! He, in his idiotic innocence, has no idea; it never so much as crosses his mind that the money he brings home isn't enough to support a family. It would barely feed a single man. Where does he think the money comes from? But that's just it -- he doesn't think! His mind hasn't developed to the point of thought. All it can do is burble about the beauty of the waves, the beauty of the sky, the beauty of nature . . ."

He fell silent. The key was on his desk and his eyes were on the key, but they were vacant and saw nothing. "I must . . . I must . . . " With a wrenching effort he brought himself back to reality. The storeroom, the desk, the key -- the key! Snatching it, he sprang to his feet and rushed out of the room.

OM ZENIBAKO STATION, Shimizu ascended a steep path through a thicket of dwarf bamboo. A bright sun shone in a cloudless sky. It was warm for May, and his back and underarms felt uncomfortably damp. As the path leveled off he became aware of the ocean, visible below through the branches of newly budded trees. He strode purposefully on, his briefcase clutched in his right hand. The path was narrow and winding, but he knew its every twist and turn, and could have walked it blindfolded. Birds sang. A crow cawed once and was silent.

Emerging from the path, he turned left and proceeded without pausing. The streets were unpaved lanes. Not a soul was in sight. Gravel crunched beneath his feet. Here was his house, on the left. He passed it without a glance. No one would be home. His wife was at work, his daughter at school.

The Kamiya house, on the right, was the only one in the neighborhood that had not been modernized. It remained substantially as he had known it in childhood, a badly, almost comically designed wooden structure overlooking the sea, looking more like a boat than a house. Once he had thought it charming.

He marched boldly up the walk, ascended the two steps to the porch, drew the key from his left trouser pocket and inserted it into the lock. The door yielded at once, as if it had been expecting him. Not bothering to remove his shoes, he passed through a long corridor into the kitchen.

"Well, Mr. Kazuyoshi Uehara," he said. His voice echoed strangely in the empty house. He shuddered. Suddenly, he could not have said why, he felt afraid. As if to conquer his fear, he cried out at the top of his lungs, "Anybody home?" He listened intently. All was silent. What had he come for? He knew the answer, though not once since abruptly leaving the office had he troubled to formulate his purpose in words. He had come to destroy, to smash, to reduce to rubble the horror which the clownish Mr. Uehara had, without even knowing it -- "so much the worse!" -- made of the house and life of Shizuko Kamiya.

But now here he was, the house at his mercy, no one to defend it -- why didn't he act? What was this lassitude that came over him? He sank down onto a chair, exhausted. "I'm ill," he thought. "I need a doctor."

How long he remained without moving he could not have said. At last he stood up. His knees trembled. He feared he would fall. The ground rose like a wave, and it took all his concentration to hold it down. The key was still in his left hand, the briefcase clutched in his right. He stared at the key for a moment as though not quite sure what it was. "What is happening to me?" Never before had he felt such loathing, such revulsion.

At a slight sound he raised his eyes. Little Ayu hovered in the doorway, her schoolbag strapped to her back. How long had she been standing there, observing him? What thoughts would have been passing through her child's brain? He must speak kindly to her, reassure her . . .

But before her could frame the appropriate words, she broke the silence. "Are you going to kill me?" she asked.

Horrified, Shimizu nonetheless forced a smile. "Kill you! Ayu-chan -- don't you recognize me?"

Her face expressionless, the little girl slowly shook her head.

Shimizu's self-possession now altogether deserted him. Pushing past the child, he rushed through the corridor and out the door into the lane. Fortunately he met no one. Clutching his briefcase, his breath issuing in short, jagged gasps, he ran at top speed along the path, righting himself violently when he nearly tripped on an exposed root and not slackening his pace until he reached the station. His luck held out: a Sapporo-bound train was just pulling in.

"SHIMIZU."

He was about to descend to the storeroom when Mr. Ishikawa, the firm's vice-president, accosted him. "I was looking for you."

"I -- "

"Ito in sales has announced his retirement. Noda will take his place. You will take Noda's. Effective June 1. Speak to Noda. He'll fill you in. Ah, Kato, there you are! Step into my office, I want a word with you."

"Mr. Shimizu?"

He turned to see one of the office ladies standing timidly at his side. He didn't know her, she must be new; how did she know him? "There's a telephone call for you."

"A telephone call! But I -- I have no phone, I -- "

"It's all right, you can take it in my office." Noda, having materialized from somewhere, lay a friendly hand on his shoulder. "Come." Smiling, he steered him through a maze of desks, tightening his grip briefly when Shimizu stumbled over a computer cable.

"Sit down, make yourself at home. There's your call. I'll wait outside. Give me a shout when you're done. We'll have a talk. I have big plans for the department, Shimizu, big plans. New thinking for new times! You're our man, I've had my eye on you."

The phone shrilled five, six, seven times, then was silent.

Dazed, bewildered, blinking in the brilliant fluorescent light, Shimizu sat numbly, his churning thoughts lacking all coherence.

"Well!" said Noda, his eagerness such that he seemed to fairly fling himself into the cubicle. "To business." The phone rang. Noda snatched the receiver. "Noda. Eh? Oh -- yes, sure, one moment." He handed the receiver to Shimizu. "It's for you."

"Who -- who -- who is it?"

Noda chuckled good-naturedly. "He said his name was Kazuyoshi Uehara, ha ha!"



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