“My husband’s father was run over by a streetcar three years ago and killed,” the woman said, and paused.
I didn’t say a word, just looked her in the eye and nodded twice. During the pause, I glanced at the half-dozen pencils in my pencil tray, checking to see how sharp they were. Like a golfer carefully selecting the right club, I deliberated over which one to use, finally picking one that was neither too sharp nor too worn but just right.
“The whole thing’s a little embarrassing,” the woman said.
Keeping my opinion to myself, I laid a memo pad in front of me and tested the pencil by writing down the date and the woman’s name.
“There aren’t many streetcars left in Tokyo,” she went on. “They’ve switched to buses almost everywhere. The few that are left are kind of like a memento of the past, I guess. And it was one of those that killed my father-in-law.” She gave a silent sigh. “This was the night of October 1st, three years ago. It was pouring that night.”
I noted down the basics of her story. Father-in-law, three years ago, streetcar, heavy rain, October 1st, night. I like to exercise great care when I write, so it took a while to get all this down.
“My father-in-law was completely drunk at the time. Otherwise, he obviously wouldn’t have fallen asleep on a rainy night on the streetcar tracks.”
She fell silent again, her lips closed, her eyes gazing steadily at me. She was probably waiting for me to agree with her.
“He must have been pretty drunk,” I said.
“So drunk he passed out.”
“Did your father-in-law often drink that much?”
“You mean did he often drink so much that he passed out?”
“He did get drunk every once in a while,” she admitted. “But not all the time, and never so drunk that he’d fall asleep on the streetcar tracks.”
How drunk would you have to be to fall asleep on the rails of a streetcar line? I wondered. Was the amount a person drank the real issue? Or did it have more to do with why he was getting drunk in the first place?
“What you’re saying is that he got drunk sometimes but usually not falling-down drunk?” I asked.
“That’s the way I see it,” she replied.
“May I ask your age, if you don’t mind?”
“You want to know how old I am?”
“You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”
The woman rubbed the bridge of her nose with her index finger. It was a lovely, perfectly straight nose. My guess was that she had recently had plastic surgery. I used to go out with a woman who had the same habit. She’d had a nose job, and whenever she was thinking about something she rubbed the bridge of her nose with her index finger. As if she were making sure that her brand-new nose was still there. Looking at this woman in front of me now brought on a mild case of déjà vu. Which, in turn, conjured up vague memories of oral sex.
“I’m not trying to hide my age or anything,” the woman said. “I’m thirty-five.”
“And how old was your father-in-law when he died?”
“What did he do? His job, I mean.”
“He was a priest.”
“By priest you mean a Buddhist priest?”
“That’s right. A Buddhist priest. Of the Jodo sect. He was the head of a temple in the Toshima Ward.”
“It must have been a real shock,” I said.
“That my father-in-law was run over by a streetcar?”
“Of course it was a shock. Especially for my husband,” the woman said.
I noted some more things down on my memo pad. Priest, Jodo sect, 68.
The woman was sitting at one end of my love seat. I was in my swivel chair behind my desk. Two yards separated us. She had on a sharp-looking sage-green suit. Her legs were beautiful, and her stockings matched her black high-heeled shoes. The stilettos looked like some kind of deadly weapon.
“So what you’ve come to ask me,” I said, “concerns your husband’s late father?”
“No. It’s not about him,” she said. She shook her head slightly a couple of times to emphasize the negative. “It’s about my husband.”
“Is he also a priest?”
“No, he works at Merrill Lynch.”
“The investment firm?”
“That’s right,” she replied, clearly a little irritated. What other Merrill Lynch is there? her tone implied. “He’s a stockbroker.”
I checked the tip of my pencil to see how worn it was, then waited for her to continue.
“My husband is an only son, and he was more interested in stock-trading than Buddhism, so he didn’t succeed his father as head priest of the temple.”
Which all makes perfect sense, don’t you think? her eyes said, but since I didn’t have any opinion one way or the other on Buddhism or stock-trading, I didn’t respond. Instead, I adopted a neutral expression that indicated that I was absorbing every word.
“After my father-in-law passed away, my mother-in-law moved into an apartment in our condo, in Shinagawa. A different unit in the same building. My husband and I live on the twenty-sixth floor, and she’s on the twenty-fourth. She lives alone. She’d lived in the temple with her husband, but after another priest came to take over she had to move. She’s sixty-three. And my husband, I should add, is forty. He’ll be forty-one next month—if nothing has happened to him, that is.”
I wrote it all down. Mother-in-law, 24th floor, 63. Husband, 40, Merrill Lynch, 26th floor, Shinagawa. The woman waited patiently for me to finish.
“After my father-in-law died, my mother-in-law started having panic attacks. They seem to be worse when it’s raining, probably because her husband died on a rainy night. A fairly common thing, I imagine.”
“When the symptoms are bad, it’s like a screw’s come loose in her head. She calls us and my husband goes down the two floors to her place to take care of her. He tries to calm her down, to convince her that everything’s going to be all right. If my husband’s not at home, then I go.”
She paused, waiting for my reaction. I kept quiet.
“My mother-in-law’s not a bad person. I don’t have any negative feelings toward her. It’s just that she’s the nervous type, and has always relied too much on other people. Do you understand the situation?”
“I think so,” I said.
She crossed her legs, waiting for me to write something new on my pad. But I didn’t write anything down.
“She called us at ten one Sunday morning. Two Sundays—ten days—ago.”
I glanced at my desk calendar. “Sunday the third of September?”
“That’s right, the third. My mother-in-law called us at ten that morning,” the woman said. She closed her eyes as if recalling it. If we were in a Hitchcock movie, the screen would have started to ripple at this point and we’d have segued into a flashback. But this was no movie, and no flashback was forthcoming. She opened her eyes and went on. “My husband answered the phone. He’d been planning to play golf, but it had been raining pretty hard since dawn, so he cancelled. If only it hadn’t been raining, this never would have happened. I know I’m just second-guessing myself.”
September 3rd, golf, rain, cancelled, mother-in-law—phoned. I wrote it all down.
“My mother-in-law said that she was having trouble breathing. She felt dizzy and couldn’t stand up. So my husband got dressed, and without even shaving he went down to her apartment. He told me that it wouldn’t take long and asked me to get breakfast ready.”
“What was he wearing?” I asked.
She rubbed her nose again lightly. “Chinos and a short-sleeved polo shirt. His shirt was dark gray. The trousers were cream-colored. Both items we’d bought from the J.Crew catalogue. My husband’s nearsighted and he always wears glasses. Metal-framed Armanis. His shoes were gray New Balance. He didn’t have any socks on.”
I noted down all the details.
“Do you want to know his height and weight?”
“That would help,” I said.
“He’s five-eight and weighs about one-fifty-eight. Before we got married, he weighed about one-thirty-five, but he’s put on some weight.”
I wrote down this information. I checked the tip of my pencil and exchanged it for another. I held the new pencil for a while, getting used to the feel.
“Do you mind if I go on?” she asked.
“Not at all,” I said.
She uncrossed and recrossed her legs. “I was getting ready to make pancakes when his mother called. I always make pancakes on Sunday morning. If he doesn’t play golf on Sundays, my husband eats a lot of pancakes. He loves them, with some crisp bacon on the side.”
No wonder the guy put on twenty pounds, I thought.
“Twenty-five minutes later, my husband called me. He said that his mother had settled down and he was on his way upstairs. ‘I’m starving,’ he told me. ‘Get breakfast ready so I can eat as soon as I get there.’ So I heated up the frying pan and started cooking the pancakes and bacon. I heated up the maple syrup as well. Pancakes aren’t difficult to make—it’s all a matter of timing and doing everything in the right order. I waited and waited, but he didn’t come home. The stack of pancakes on his plate was getting cold. I phoned my mother-in-law and asked her if my husband was still there. She said he’d left a long time ago.”
She brushed an imaginary, metaphysical piece of lint off her skirt, just above the knee.
“My husband disappeared. He vanished into thin air. And I haven’t heard from him since. He disappeared somewhere between the twenty-fourth and twenty-sixth floors.”
“You contacted the police?”
“Of course I did,” she said, her lips curling a little in irritation. “When he wasn’t back by one o’clock, I phoned the police. But they didn’t put much effort into looking for him. A patrolman from the local police station came over, but when he saw that there was no sign of a violent crime he couldn’t be bothered. ‘If he isn’t back in two days,’ he said, ‘go to the precinct and file a missing-persons report.’ The police seem to think that my husband wandered off somewhere on the spur of the moment, as if he were fed up with his life and just took off. But that’s ridiculous. I mean, think about it. My husband went down to his mother’s completely empty-handed—no wallet, no driver’s license, no credit cards, no watch. He hadn’t even shaved, for God’s sake. And he’d just phoned me and told me to get the pancakes ready. Someone who’s running away from home wouldn’t call and ask you to make pancakes, would he?”
“You’re absolutely right,” I agreed. “But, tell me, when your husband went down to the twenty-fourth floor, did he take the stairs?”
“He never uses the elevator. He hates elevators. Says he can’t stand being cooped up in a confined place like that.”
“Still, you chose to live on the twenty-sixth floor of a high-rise?”
“We did. But he always uses the stairs. He doesn’t seem to mind—he says it’s good exercise and helps him to keep his weight down. Of course, it does take time.”
Pancakes, twenty pounds, stairs, elevator, I noted on my pad.
“So that’s the situation,” she said. “Will you take the case?”
No need to think about it. This was exactly the kind of case I’d been hoping for. I went through the motions of checking my schedule, though, and pretended to be shuffling a few things around. If you instantly agree to take a case, the client may suspect some ulterior motive.
“Luckily, I’m free until later this afternoon,” I said, shooting my watch a glance. It was eleven-thirty-five. “If you don’t mind, could you take me over to your building now? I’d like to see the last place you saw your husband.”
“I’d be happy to,” the woman said. She gave a small frown. “Does this mean you’re taking the case?”
“It does,” I replied.
“But we haven’t talked about the fee yet.”
“I don’t need any money.”
“I’m sorry?” she said, looking steadily at me.
“I don’t charge anything,” I explained, and smiled.
“But isn’t this your job?”
“No, it isn’t. This isn’t my profession. I’m just a volunteer, so I don’t get paid.”
“Still, you’ll need something for expenses.”
“No expenses needed. I work on a volunteer basis only, so I can’t accept payment of any kind.”
The woman still looked perplexed.
“Fortunately, I have another source of income that provides enough to live on,” I explained. “I’m not doing this for the money. I’m just very interested in locating people who’ve disappeared. Or, more precisely, people who’ve disappeared in a certain way. I won’t go into that—it’ll only complicate things. But I am pretty good at this sort of thing.”
“Tell me, is there some kind of religion or New Age thing behind all this?” she asked.
“Neither one. I have no connection with any religion or New Age group.”
The woman glanced down at her shoes, perhaps contemplating how—if things got really weird—she might have to use the stiletto heels against me.
“My husband always told me not to trust anything that’s free,” the woman said. “I know this is rude to say, but he insisted that there’s always a catch.”
“In most cases, I’d agree with him,” I said. “In our late-stage capitalist world, it’s hard to trust anything that’s free. Still, I hope you’ll trust me. You have to, if we’re going to get anywhere.”
She reached over for her Louis Vuitton purse, opened it with a refined click, and took out a thick sealed envelope. I couldn’t tell how much money was inside, but it looked like a lot.
“I brought something for expenses,” she said.
I shook my head. “I don’t accept any fee, gift, or payment of any kind. That’s the rule. If I did accept a fee or a gift, the actions I’ll be engaged in would be meaningless. If you have extra money and feel uncomfortable with not paying a fee, I suggest you make a donation to charity—the A.S.P.C.A., the Fund for Traffic Victims’ Orphans, whichever group you like. If doing so makes you feel better.”
The woman frowned, took a deep breath, and returned the envelope to her purse. She placed the purse, once more fat and happy, back where it had been. She rubbed her nose again and looked at me, much like a retriever ready to spring forward and fetch a stick.
“The actions you’ll be engaged in,” she said in a somewhat dry tone.
I nodded and returned my worn pencil to the tray.
The woman with the sharp high heels took me to her building. She pointed out the door to her apartment (No. 2609) and to her mother-in-law’s (No. 2417). A broad staircase connected the two floors, and I could see that even a casual stroll between them would take no more than five minutes.
“One of the reasons my husband bought this condo was that the stairs are wide and well lit,” she said. “Most high-rise apartments skimp on the stairs. Wide staircases take up too much space, and, besides, most residents prefer the elevator. Condo developers like to spend their money on things that attract attention—a library, a marble lobby. My husband, though, insisted that the stairs were the critical element—the backbone of a building, he liked to say.”
I have to admit, it really was a memorable staircase. On the landing between the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth floors, next to a picture window, there was a sofa, a wall-length mirror, a standing ashtray, and a potted plant. Through the window you could see the bright sky and a couple of clouds drifting by. The window was sealed and couldn’t be opened.
“Is there a space like this on every floor?” I asked.
“No. There’s a little lounge on every fifth floor, not on every floor,” she said. “Would you like to see our apartment and my mother-in-law’s?”
“Not right now.”
“Since my husband disappeared, my mother-in-law’s nerves have taken a turn for the worse,” she said. She fluttered her hand. “It was quite a shock for her, as I’m sure you can imagine.”
“Of course,” I agreed. “I don’t think I’ll have to bother her.”
“I really appreciate that. And I’d like it if you would keep this from the neighbors, too. I haven’t told anyone that my husband has vanished.”
“Understood,” I said. “Do you usually use these stairs yourself?”
“No,” she said, raising her eyebrows slightly, as if she’d been unreasonably criticized. “Normally I take the elevator. When my husband and I are going out together, he leaves first and then I take the elevator and we meet up in the lobby. When we come home, I take the elevator by myself and he comes up on foot. It’d be dangerous to attempt all these stairs in heels, and it’s hard on you physically.”
“I imagine so.”
I wanted to investigate things on my own, so I asked her to go have a word with the building super. “Tell him that the guy wandering around between the twenty-fourth and twenty-sixth floors is doing an insurance investigation,” I instructed her. “If someone thinks I’m a thief casing the place and calls the police, that would put me in a bit of a spot. I don’t have any real reason to be loitering here, after all.”
“I’ll tell him,” the woman said. She disappeared up the stairs. The sound of her heels rang out like the pounding of nails to post some ominous proclamation, then gradually faded into silence. I was left alone.
The first thing I did was walk the stairs from the twenty-sixth floor to the twenty-fourth and back a total of three times. The first time, I walked at a normal pace, the next two times much more slowly, carefully observing everything around me. I concentrated so hard I barely blinked. Every event leaves traces behind, and my job was to tease these out. The problem was that the staircase had been thoroughly scrubbed. There wasn’t a scrap of litter to be found. Not a single stain or dent, no butts in the ashtray. Nothing.
Going up and down the steps without a break had tired me out, so I rested for a minute on the sofa. It was covered in vinyl, and was not what you’d call high quality. But you had to admire the building management for having had the foresight to put a sofa there, where few people were likely ever to use it. Across from the sofa was the mirror. Its surface was spotless, and it was set at the perfect angle for the light shining in the window. I sat there for a time, gazing at my own reflection. Maybe on that Sunday the woman’s husband, the stockbroker, had taken a break here, too, and looked at his own reflection. At his own unshaven face.
I had shaved, of course, but my hair was getting a bit long. The hair behind my ears curled up like the fur of a long-haired hunting dog that had just paddled its way across a river. I made a mental note to go to the barber. I noticed that the color of my trousers didn’t match my shoes. I’d had no luck in coming up with a pair of socks that matched my outfit, either. Nobody would think it strange if I finally got my act together and did a little laundry. Otherwise, though, my reflection was just that—the same old me. A forty-five-year-old bachelor who couldn’t care less about stocks or Buddhism.
Come to think of it, Paul Gauguin had been a stockbroker, too. But he wanted to devote himself to painting, so one day he left his wife and kids and went to Tahiti. Wait a sec. . . . I thought for a minute. No, Gauguin couldn’t have left his wallet behind, and if they’d had American Express cards back then I bet he would have taken one along. He was going all the way to Tahiti, after all. I can’t picture him saying to his wife, “Hey, honey, I’ll be back in a minute—make sure the pancakes are ready,” before he vanished. If you’re planning to disappear, you have to go about it in a systematic way.
I stood up from the sofa, and as I made my way up the stairs again I started to mull over the notion of freshly made pancakes. I concentrated as fiercely as I could and tried to picture the scene: You’re a forty-year-old stockbroker, it’s Sunday morning, it’s raining hard outside, and you’re on your way home to a stack of hot pancakes. The more I thought about it, the more it whetted my appetite. I’d had only one small apple since morning.
Maybe I should zip over to Denny’s and dig into some pancakes, I thought. I’d passed a sign for Denny’s on the drive here. It was probably even close enough to walk. Not that Denny’s made great pancakes—the butter and the syrup weren’t up to my standards—but they would do. Truth be told, I’m a huge pancake fan. Saliva began to well up in my mouth. But I shook my head and tried to banish all pancake thoughts for the time being. I blew away all the clouds of illusion. Save the pancakes for later, I cautioned myself. You’ve still got work to do.
“I should have asked her if her husband had any hobbies,” I said to myself. “Maybe he actually was into painting.”
But that didn’t make sense—any guy who was so into painting that he’d abandon his family wouldn’t be the type to play golf every Sunday. Can you imagine Gauguin or van Gogh or Picasso decked out in golf shoes, kneeling down on the tenth green, trying to read the putt? I couldn’t.
I sat down on the sofa again and looked at my watch. It was one-thirty-two. I shut my eyes and focussed on a spot in my head. My mind a total blank, I gave myself up to the sands of time and let the flow take me wherever it wanted. Then I opened my eyes and looked at my watch. It was one-fifty-seven. Twenty-five minutes had vanished somewhere. Not bad, I told myself. A pointless way of whittling away time. Not bad at all.
I looked at the mirror again and saw my usual self there. I raised my right hand, and my reflection raised its left. I raised my left hand and it raised its right. I made as if to lower my right hand, then quickly lowered the left; my reflection made as if to lower its left hand, then quickly lowered its right. The way it should be. I got up from the sofa and walked the twenty-five flights down to the lobby.
I visited the staircase every day at around 11 a.m. The building super and I got pretty friendly (the boxes of chocolates I brought him didn’t hurt), and I was allowed to wander the building at will. All told, I made about two hundred round trips between the twenty-fourth and twenty-sixth floors. When I got tired, I took a rest on the sofa, gazed out the window at the sky, checked my reflection in the mirror. I’d gone to the barber and got a good trim, done all my laundry, and was able to wear trousers and socks that actually matched, vastly reducing the chances that people would be whispering about me behind my back.
No matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t pick up a single clue, but I wasn’t discouraged. Finding a key clue is a lot like training an uncoöperative animal. It requires patience and focus. Not to mention intuition.
As I went to the apartment building every day, I discovered that there were other people who used the staircase. I’d find candy wrappers on the floor, a Marlboro butt in the ashtray, a discarded newspaper.
On Sunday afternoon, I passed a man who was running up the stairs. A short guy in his thirties, with a serious look, in a green jogging outfit and Asics sneakers. He was wearing a large Casio watch.
“Hi, there,” I said. “Do you have a minute?”
“Sure,” the man said, and he pushed a button on his watch. He took a couple of deep breaths. His Nike tank top was sweaty at the chest.
“Do you always run up and down these stairs?” I asked.
“I do. Up to the thirty-second floor. Going down, though, I take the elevator. It’s dangerous to run down stairs.”
“You do this every day?”
“No, work keeps me too busy. I do a few round trips on the weekends. If I get off work early, I sometimes run during the week.”
“You live in this building?”
“Sure,” the runner said. “On the seventeenth floor.”
“I was wondering if you know Mr. Kurumizawa, who lives on the twenty-sixth floor.”
“He’s a stockbroker, wears metal-framed Armani glasses, and always uses the stairs. Five feet eight, forty years old.”
The runner gave it some thought. “Yeah, I do know that guy. I talked with him once. I pass him on the staircase sometimes when I’m running. I’ve seen him sitting on the sofa. He’s one of those guys who use the stairs because they hate the elevator, right?”
“That’s the guy,” I replied. “Besides him, are there a lot of people who use the stairs every day?”
“Yeah, there are,” he said. “Not that many, maybe, but there are a few you could call regulars. People who don’t like to take elevators. And there are two other people I’ve seen who run up the stairs like me. There’s no good jogging course around here, so we use the stairs. There are also a few people who walk up the stairs for exercise. I think more people use these stairs than in most apartment buildings—they’re so well lit, spacious, and clean.”
“Do you happen to know any of these people’s names?”
“I’m afraid I don’t,” the runner said. “I just know their faces. We say hi as we pass each other, but I don’t know their names. This is a huge building.”
“I see. Well, thanks for your time,” I said. “Sorry to keep you. And good luck with the jogging.”
The man pressed the button on his stopwatch and resumed his jog.
On Tuesday, as I was sitting on the sofa, an old man came down the stairs. Mid-seventies, I’d say, with gray hair and glasses. He was wearing sandals, gray slacks, and a long-sleeved shirt. His clothes were spotless and neatly ironed. The old man was tall and had good posture. He looked to me like a recently retired elementary-school principal.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hello,” I replied.
“Do you mind if I smoke here?”
“Not at all,” I said. “Go right ahead.”
The old man sat down beside me and pulled a pack of Seven Stars from a trouser pocket. He struck a match, lit his cigarette, then blew out the match and placed it in the ashtray.
“I live on the twenty-sixth floor,” he said, slowly exhaling smoke. “With my son and his wife. They say the place gets too smoky, so I always come here when I want to have a cigarette. Do you smoke?”
“I quit twelve years ago,” I told him.
“I should quit, too,” the old man said. “I smoke only a couple of cigarettes a day, so it shouldn’t be too hard. But, you know, going to the store to buy cigarettes, coming down here for a smoke—it helps pass the time. Gets me up and moving and keeps me from thinking too much.”
“You keep smoking for your health is what you’re saying,” I said.
“Exactly,” the old man said with a serious look.
“You said you live on the twenty-sixth floor?”
“Do you know Mr. Kurumizawa, in 2609?”
“I do. He wears glasses and works at Salomon Brothers, I believe?”
“Merrill Lynch,” I corrected him.
“That’s right—Merrill Lynch,” the old man said. “I’ve talked with him here. He uses this sofa sometimes.”
“What does he do here?”
“I don’t really know. He sort of just sits here, staring off into space. I don’t believe he smokes.”
“He looks like he’s thinking about something?”
“I’m not sure if I could tell the difference—between just staring into space and thinking. We’re thinking all the time, aren’t we? Not that we live in order to think, but the opposite isn’t true, either—that we think in order to live. I believe, contrary to Descartes, that we sometimes think in order not to be. Staring into space might unintentionally actually have the opposite effect. At any rate, it’s a difficult question.”
The old man took a deep drag on his cigarette.
“Did Mr. Kurumizawa ever mention any problems at work or at home?” I asked.
The old man shook his head and dropped his cigarette into the ashtray. “As I’m sure you know, water always picks the shortest route to flow down. Sometimes, though, the shortest route is actually formed by the water. The human thought process is a lot like that. At least, that’s my impression. But I haven’t answered your question. Mr. Kurumizawa and I never once talked about such deep things. We just chatted—about the weather, the apartment association’s regulations, things of that nature.”
“I understand. Sorry to have taken up your time,” I said.
“Sometimes we don’t need words,” the old man said, as if he hadn’t heard me. “Rather, it’s words that need us. If we were no longer here, words would lose their whole function. Don’t you think so? They would end up as words that are never spoken, and words that aren’t spoken are no longer words.”
“Exactly,” I said. “It’s sort of like a Zen koan.”
“That’s right,” the old man said, nodding, and stood up to go back to his apartment. “Take care, now,” he said.
“Goodbye,” I replied.
After two the following Friday afternoon, as I made my way to the landing between the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth floors, I found a little girl sitting on the sofa, gazing at herself in the mirror as she sang a song. She looked just old enough to have started elementary school. She was wearing a pink T-shirt and denim shorts, with a green daypack on her back and a hat in her lap.
“Hi, there,” I said.
“Hi,” she said, and stopped singing.
I wanted to sit down on the sofa beside her, but if anybody passed by and saw us they might think something strange was going on, so instead I leaned against the windowsill, keeping a distance between us.
“Is school out?” I asked.
“Don’t want to talk ’bout school,” she said, in no uncertain terms.
“Well, then, we won’t,” I said. “Do you live in this building?”
“Yes,” she said. “On the twentyseventh floor.”
“You don’t walk all the way up, do you?”
“The elevator’s stinky,” the girl said. “The elevator’s stinky, so I’m walking up to the twenty-seventh floor.” She looked at herself in the mirror and gave a big nod. “Not always, but sometimes.”
“Don’t you get tired?”
She didn’t answer. “You know something? Of all the mirrors in the staircase, this one reflects the best. It’s not at all like the mirror in our apartment.”
“How do you mean?”
“Take a look yourself,” the girl said.
I took a step forward, faced the mirror, and looked for a while at my reflection. And, sure enough, the image of me reflected in the mirror was a few degrees removed from what I was used to seeing. The me in the mirror looked plumper and happier. As if I’d just polished off a stack of hot pancakes.
“Do you have a dog?” the girl asked.
“No, I don’t. I do have some tropical fish.”
“Hmm,” she said. Her interest in tropical fish seemed nonexistent.
“Do you like dogs?” I asked.
She didn’t respond, but asked a different question. “Do you have any children?”
“No, I don’t,” I answered.
She eyed me suspiciously. “Mom says never talk to men who don’t have children. Mom says there’s a likely-hood they’re weird.”
“Not necessarily,” I said, “though I do agree with your mom that you have to be careful when you talk to men you don’t know.”
“But I don’t think you’re weird.”
“I don’t, either.”
“You’re not going to show me your weenie, are you?”
“And you don’t collect little girls’ underpants?”
“Do you collect anything?”
I had to think about it. I did collect first editions of modern poetry, but bringing that up wouldn’t get us anywhere. “No, I don’t really collect anything. How about you?”
The girl gave it some thought, and shook her head a couple of times. “I don’t collect anything, either.”
We were silent for a moment.
“Hey, at Mister Donut which doughnut do you like the best?”
“Old-fashioned,” I said right away.
“I don’t know that one,” the girl said. “You know which ones I like? I like full moons and bunny whips.”
“I’ve never heard of those.”
“They’re the ones with fruit or sweet bean paste inside. They’re great. But Mom says if you eat sweets all the time you end up dumb, so she doesn’t buy them for me much.”
“They sound delicious,” I said.
“What are you doing here? I saw you yesterday,” the girl said.
“I’m looking for something.”
“What is it?”
“I have no idea,” I admitted. “I imagine it’s like a door.”
“A door?” the girl repeated. “What kind of door? There are all shapes and colors of doors.”
I thought about this. What sort of shape and color? Come to think of it, I’d never once thought about the shape and color of doors. “I don’t know. I wonder what shape and color it might be. Maybe it isn’t even a door.”
“You mean maybe it’s an umbrella or something?”
“An umbrella?” I said. “Hmm. No reason it can’t be an umbrella, I suppose.”
“But umbrellas and doors are different shapes and sizes, and what they do is different.”
“That’s right. But I’m sure I’ll recognize it when I see it. Like, ‘Hey! This is it!’ Whether it’s an umbrella, a door, or even a doughnut.”
“Hmm,” the girl said. “Have you been looking for a long time?”
“For a long time. Since before you were born.”
“Is that right?” she said, staring at her palm for a while. “How ’bout I help you find it?”
“I’d really like that,” I said.
“So I should look for something, I don’t know what it is but it might be a door or an umbrella or a doughnut or an elephant?”
“Exactly,” I said. “But when you see it you’ll know that’s it.”
“Sounds like fun,” she said. “But I have to go home now. I have a ballet lesson.”
“See you later,” I said. “Thanks for talking with me.”
“Tell me again the name of the doughnut you like?”
Frowning, the girl repeated the word “old-fashioned” over and over. Then she stood and vanished up the stairs, singing all the while. I closed my eyes, gave myself up once more to the flow, letting time be pointlessly whittled away.
On Saturday morning, I got a call from my client.
“My husband’s been found,” she said, skipping a greeting. “I was contacted by the police around noon yesterday. They found him sleeping on a bench in a waiting room in Sendai Station. He didn’t have any money on him, or I.D., but after a while he remembered his name, address, and phone number. I flew to Sendai right away. It’s my husband, all right.”
“But why would he be in Sendai?” I asked her.
“He has no idea how he got here. He just woke up on a bench in Sendai Station with a railroad employee shaking his shoulder. How he got all the way to Sendai without any money, how he ate for the last twenty days—he doesn’t remember a thing.”
“How was he dressed?”
“He had on the same clothes as when he left our apartment. He had a beard and he’d lost more than twenty pounds. He’d also lost his glasses somewhere. I’m calling from a hospital in Sendai right now. They’re running some tests. CT scans, X-rays, neurological exams. His mind seems entirely fine now, and nothing is physically wrong with him. But his memory’s gone. He remembers leaving his mother’s place and walking up the stairs, but, after that, nothing. Anyway, we should be able to come back to Tokyo tomorrow.”
“That’s great news.”
“I really appreciate all you’ve done trying to find him, I really do. But now that things have turned out this way I don’t need you to continue the investigation.”
“I guess not,” I said.
“The whole thing’s been so crazy and incomprehensible, but at least I have my husband back safe and sound, and that’s all that matters.”
“Of course,” I said. “That’s what’s important.”
“Are you sure, now, that you won’t accept anything for your services?”
“As I told you the first time we met, I can’t accept any kind of payment whatsoever. So please don’t trouble yourself over that. I do appreciate the sentiment, though.”
Silence. A refreshing silence that implied we’d come to a mutual understanding. I played my own role in supporting this, appreciating the calm.
“Take care of yourself, then,” the woman finally said, and hung up, her tone carrying with it a hint of sympathy.
I put down the phone. For a while I sat there, slowly twirling a brand-new pencil, staring at the blank memo pad in front of me. The white pad reminded me of a freshly washed sheet just back from the laundry. The sheet made me think of a calico cat stretched out on it for a pleasant siesta. That image—of a napping cat on a freshly laundered sheet—helped me relax. I started to search my memory, and I carefully wrote down on my memo pad, one by one, all the salient points the woman had made: Sendai Station, Friday around noon, telephone, lost twenty pounds, same clothes, lost his glasses, memory of twenty days gone.
Memory of twenty days gone.
I laid the pencil on the desk, leaned back in my chair, and stared up at the ceiling. The ceiling had some irregular spots here and there, and if I squinted it looked like a celestial chart. I gazed up at this imaginary starry night and wondered if maybe I should start smoking again—for my health. My head was filled with the click of the woman’s high heels on the stairway.
“Mr. Kurumizawa,” I said aloud to a corner of the ceiling. “Welcome back to the real world. Back to the three sides of your beautiful triangular world—your panic-attack-prone mother, your wife, with her icepick heels, and good old Merrill Lynch.”
I imagine my search will continue—somewhere. A search for something that could very well be shaped like a door. Or maybe something closer to an umbrella, or a doughnut. Or an elephant. A search that, I hope, will take me where I’m likely to find it.
(Translated, from the Japanese, by Philip Gabriel.)