Spring 2011

By William Wetherall

"The shaking stops. Silence returns, save the dogs and birds,
then we hear neighbors and imagine Tokyo broken and burning."

Began April 2011, last revised June 2011 (2,080 words)

Written for and published in
SWET Newsletter (Society of Writers, Editors & Translators)
June 2011, Number 128, pabes 17-22

Spring 2011

By William Wetherall

An old friend M, born and raised in Iwate, had come for lunch. I had made some genmai and miso to go with the food he had brought from a recent trip to Korea. The crown of a dead tooth had broken off two days before, and I was teasing a piece of egoma leaf off its jagged stub with the tip of my tongue, listening to him describe his current research, when the room began shaking.

The shutters rattle. A couple of books fall to the tatami and M jumps up. We'd better go outside, he says. Those books always fall, I say. Several seconds later, many more spill off the shelves, the television crawls a few centimeters, and I stand.

We turn off the kerosene stove and hurry out to the front path. The swaying train lurches. We grab for straps that aren't there and wait for the house to collapse. The shaking stops. Silence returns, save the dogs and birds, then we hear neighbors and imagine Tokyo broken and burning.

M goes back inside while I walk around the house. Bins and buckets have shifted, a bicycle is on its side. One of the four children next door says everyone is safe but things fell and some dishes broke.

I find M ankle deep in a choppy sea of books and video tapes, clutching the TV remote and staring at the screen. Tohoku, he says, as I take in the map of seismic levels and tsunami warnings. News about Tokyo took longer to reach us than news from the northeast provinces, and word of local conditions traveled at the speed of sound.

We make a tour of the house, an older seven room home dedicated to books, clipping files, and magazines. My study is a mess and my libraries are studies of disassembly. The forces of organization -- of system, relationship, arrangement, order -- had lost to those of chaos. I would be weeks restoring the stacks.

Neither of us had cell phones. The house phone had a dial tone but we couldn't call out. M sent email to his wife and son, I to my children, in Tokyo.

The postman roared down the front path and dismounted at my mailbox, on a post by a utility pole that serves only my home. He headed for the front door and I opened it before he could knock. Everything okay? he asked, passing me a small rectangular package and a tube too large for the box. Yes, thank you. Yourself? Fine, he said, bobbed his head and left. I dropped the items on the floor.

The postman roars away and again the house starts shaking. This time we walk to the street and talk with a couple of neighbors. Water pressure is down but there is power and no smell of gas. The ridges of the roofs of two nearby homes had toppled and shattered. They're the same color and vintage as mine, I say, and we gaze toward my roof. It is strewn with chunks of tile and other debris, from the ridge to the snow catches along the rain gutter.

Long waves lick away the towns of coves, ports, and estuaries. Still no phone or mail. There would be no trains that night. Did I have a hot water bottle? No. M went out to get information at the station and buy some body warmers, while I set out bedding in the three-mat guest room in back.

M's son mailed he had come home after finishing his afternoon deliveries. M's wife had been grocery shopping near their home. A few things had fallen and they were cleaning up. No word yet from M's university. He went downstairs to watch the news. I took a sleeping pill and checked my mail. Saori asked if I was okay but said nothing about herself or Tsuyoshi. I sent both a longer report and repeated my concerns about them. I also posted queries and replies to K and H and others, then went to bed.

I was up at five, M by six. Saori had posted a message to me and her brother at 0:28 reporting that she was exhausted and not yet home. She wondered if I was okay and asked me to contact her. What about our plans for lunch? Tsuyoshi, in mail sent to both of us at 0:41, suggested we meet the next day. I still had no idea where either of them was or how they had spent the night.

M confirmed that his department's entrance exam had not been cancelled. He left as soon as we heard that a few trains would start running from Abiko around seven. It took him six hours to reach his campus, in time to help proctor the afternoon exam. He cleaned his office before going home to his family that evening.

I finally reached Saori by phone. A nutritionist who manages the food services at a group of hospitals, she had abandoned a company car halfway and walked. Her condominium in central Tokyo was fine except Tuna, my granddaughter, who looks like a bulldog but thinks she's human, had confused the hardwood floor for her poop pad. Tsuyoshi and I live in different time zones and would not talk on the phone until Sunday. He had walked to Shibuya and holed up at a club where he had done some DJ sets. We postponed our lunch for a week as Saori had to start scrambling for new food suppliers.

K, whose framed drawing above my desk now hangs at an angle, lives in a Tokyo suburb. Mail sent at 21:20 said she was still at her company and expected to spend the night. I worried because she's not the heroic type, but neither are most heroes. She had grown up with literature, aspired to be a writer, had trouble finding a job she liked, and was hoping that the company, a temp agency, would place her with a firm that would use her fluency in Chinese. In the meantime, she had been assigned to the personnel division, her mission: recruit more temps.

I told K it sounded like a pyramid scheme. If all new recruits became recruiters, the company would soon employ the whole world. As frank as we've learned to be with each other -- and we're both Snakes -- my attempts at humor can upset her. She had just begun to enjoy her job, and I'd likened her work to rat reproduction. We hadn't talked for a month.

She finally called to tell me that she and a female coworker with a bad leg had started for the subway, but seeing the situation there, returned to the office. Other employees had figured out ways to get home. When leaving the building with her coworker Saturday morning, she had snapped photos of cracks that hadn't been there before.

Monday morning, weighing the odds of getting to work and back, K stayed home. She waited for word about the cracks, having sent the photos to her supervisor and some others. The supervisor told her she was the only one who had not come in, and no one else had questioned the building's safety. Did she care nothing about the company?

Two days later, the supervisor was in tears for sending K derisive email and ridiculing her in front of other employees, and the president was begging her to come back. K told him Rakuten had treated its employees differently. He could arrange a position there, he said. What about Shanghai? she asked. That too was possible, he said. Good, I said. But I quit, she said. That's good too, I said. Do you think I was crazy to worry? she asked. Look at what happened in Christchurch, I said.

H's condominium, like my daughter's, is in the heart of Tokyo. He was in the midst of translating the draft of a talk by a certain novelist from Japanese into English, which I would vet, though H is truly bilingual as most bilingual people are not. H told me that, after the explosions at the Fukushima plant, he had sent the writer, through an Internet distributor, the last box of bottled water in the warehouse. The writer faxed his thanks but said he would drink tap water, for there were babies in need of bottled water. H faxed his apologies, and the writer called to repeat his thanks and say he had given the water to his daughter and infant grandson.

The daughter was just visiting and planned to stay a month. Her husband, winding up a job in Southeast Asia, was to come for a few days before starting a new position in Europe. Hearing about the radiation, he insisted she leave right away. She argued there was no need to worry. He came on the next available flight to collect his family. H suggested I write a story about a deliveryman who trades in gossip about celebrities.

On Tuesday I made an emergency pit stop at my dentist's office in Tokyo. The train was twice as packed and I held my bladder twice as long. I thought the tooth would need to be rebuilt or pulled, but no. Micro infiltration, he called it. In minutes he had it back together. Good work, huh? he grinned. His drills need only compressed air and water and his records are still on paper. In the waiting room was a new poster, for the sweetshop on the ground floor. Do they reciprocate? I asked. They make cavities, the receptionist smiled.

On Friday I left home three hours early to make a regular heart checkup at a semi-rural hospital with more computer terminals than ballpoint pens. The EKG technician told me exactly where she had been and what she was doing at 14:46 the week before. I promised not to tell. My coronary problems were stable, but the local train was suffering an acute arrhythmia. I barely made the last one back before a power outage.

I have taken to wearing my underwear to bed, and keep my clothes, a waist bag with my wallet, coin purse, extra glasses, memory sticks, medications, water, radio, flashlight and batteries, and a backpack with more water and other essentials, by my futon. I have two Swiss Army knives -- one to keep, the other to give the police.

The eaves of the newer, stronger home of my neighbor to the south kiss mine. This side of my house, with all the glass, will buckle and fall against the neighbor's house but not fully collapse. The other side is buffered from the homes of my fence neighbors there by huge yards, one a park, the other a field and orchard. On that side is a steel shed stuffed with tools, garden supplies, vinyl sheets, a hand truck, and a crate filled with sandstone fossils of mollusks I harvested in California many years ago, during a field exercise in the coastal range, which used to be the floor of the Pacific.

I will crawl from a second story window, jump to the ground, then pry, chop, saw, claw, and shovel my way into the kitchen and toilet, and closet under the stairs. I've stocked a month of water, dry foods and canned goods, half a year of tissue and toilet paper, and all manner of other supplies. I've got enough stuff to share and barter. Seeds can be planted. There will be rain and plenty of night soil.

I could fashion a decent shelter with the rubble, and a fire pit from stones in my garden and a grill if I don't by then have a wood stove. There will be lots of kindling for cooking and warmth, and to drive off wolves -- and tens of thousands of books, and SWET newsletters, when other fuel runs out or walks off. My kids and friends can camp with me if they tire of life in shelters.

I will need one more thing, though -- a mobile phone, but not just any phone. Mr. Son has agreed to give me the dumbest one he has for the rest of my life, and double his contribution to disaster relief, in return for an idea that will double his profits: mount, by the camera and other gadgets, a Geiger counter and dosimeter.

My roof has flowered with blue tarps. The blossoms around my home could not be in fuller bloom.

William Wetherall has been residing in Japan continuously since 1975 and permanently since 1983. He has published a few translations of Japanese short stories, collaborated on the translation of a novel, and written many original shorts stories, some of them published in magazines and anthologies. He begged SWET to keep its red pencils sheathed and its style sheets closed, as in this story he minimizes, shifts tense, punctuates for lips and ears, and eschews italics, diacritics, and quotation marks.