R. Sebastian Bennett taught Fiction Writing at the University of California-Los Angeles and Muskingum University, where he directed the Creative Writing Program. From 1994-2000, He was Editor-in-Chief of the literary journal, The Southern Anthology. His writing has been widely published in venues including Columbia Journal, Fiction International, Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Oxford Magazine, Texas Review, Tulane Review, Wisconsin Review, Alécart (Romania), The Bombay Review and Modern Literature (India), The Nippon View (Japan), and Paris Transcontinental – Sorbonne (France). “Persistance” is from an unpublished collection, Seasons of Yen, which was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award.
Tokyo, Japan 1989
Early in the morning, Sanjo boarding house was as quiet as a tomb. Everyone else was still asleep. At least there would be warm water left for the shower. Sanjo’s tiny shower was located in the basement, at the bottom of a rickety old stairway. The shower was coin-operated. Five minutes of water cost two hundred yen. Youhad to shower fast and rinse furiously. I managed to finish before my time ran out and opened the shower door to grab my towel—suddenly, a middle-aged Japanese woman stepped out from behind the bathroom closet. She gazed up at me as if I were a mirage.
Quickly, I covered myself with the towel. “Excuse me,” I said. “I didn’t realize anybody was in here.”
The woman stared at my naked chest. She was attractive. Fine-featured and slim. She held a dirty scrub brush. With the back of her hand, she wiped the moisture off her brow. Finally she spoke. “I am finished. I am Fujiwara. Sanjo manager.”
“I live in room number seven.”
Her eyes swept over me now, lingering for a moment on the towel wrapped around my waist. “Nice young boy,” she said.
“Well thank you. Not so young, really.”
“Nice boy. Young. Like my daughter.” She squinted at me. Perspiration glistened on her upper lip. “You are early! You must teach Engurish?”
“No, I work for an advertising company.”
Her brow wrinkled.
“Advertising company—Koukoku no kaisha desu.”
She made a low humming sound. “A Japanese company?”
“Yes. Our company is called Japan Publishing Corporation.”
“Salary-man!” Fujiwara stared at my face now. “Nice boy. Young,” she said again, and let out a long sigh.
I pulled the towel closer. “Bye-Bye,” I said, and brushed past her into the hall. Then I caught a whiff, closed off my nose. She must have worked hard scrubbing…
Holding onto the loose banister, I climbed back upstairs. At the top stair, I readjusted my towel and—
“Ara!” A Fujiwara screamed from downstairs, “Ehhhh!”
I rushed back downstairs and peered into the steamy shower room. Fujiwara was bent over, holding two wires with bare stripped ends which led to an electrical outlet. She was motionless and peered straight ahead. Her skin had a grayish hue. A burning odor, oddly sweet, hung in the air.
“Dailjobu?” Are you okay?”I asked.
She shuddered and spoke in a higher-pitched voice than before. “Yes—only, small electric problem. Denki… Electricity….” Her hands shook.
“Amenai. Dangerous,” I said. “We need an electrical expert.”
Fujiwara nodded slowly. Her eyes widened. “You fix electricity?”
“Here. You hold…” she said, and offered out a bare strand of wire.
“No thanks. Sorry I have to go to work now,” I said. “Work. Isogashi. Busy. I have appointment.” Then I left her standing there in the humid shower room, and I hoped she had the sense to let the wires go.
That evening when I got back to my room, I decided to reorganize. I was a respectable salaryman now. No reason to live in sloth. First I took my suits out of the garment bag and lay them on the futon bed. I collected socks and tossed them into the green trash bag that was my bureau. I folded my boxer shorts and stuffed them into the bag as well. Where could I put the suits? They were getting wrinkled in the garment bag. I needed more space, but that was impossible. I considered the options. Put the suits out on the balcony? Ridiculous. I might get arrested for breaking some city laundry ordinance, not to mention the frequent rain… Were there any ceiling beams to hang the suits from? Any window edges that would work?
The solution—I would take down the large Tokonoma dragon tapestry, pull away the prayer table, move a tiny etched mirror, and hang all the suits from the span of wood which ran across the back wall. Then I wavered… The Tokonoma was the spiritual center of a Japanese room. If I took it down, I was ripping out the sacred heart of the room.
Remove the heart and save the patient.
Using my Swiss army knife, I worked to dig out the antique nail from which hung the long silk tapestry. It gave up, with a vicious squeak. Fluttering and ruffling, the tapestry fell into a colorful pile on the floor. Filaments of red and gold lay quivering, exposing black ink marks on the dragons’s back, the signature of its maker. The tapestry lay still and lifeless. What would Manager Fujiwara say? Would she be shocked? Would she yell? Would she understand that I had done only what was necessary? Would she realize that anything which occurs is in fact destiny?
I hung up my suits, wedging the hangers behind the wooden plank. Then I felt a sudden ache in the pit of my stomach. My vision blurred. The hatch-window bobbed like a porthole. The tapestry swayed and my head swam. I walked and whirled through the spinning room toward my futon bed. I lay down. Instantly it was too hot in the room. Stifling hot! I managed to stand again and slide open the window to let in some cool night air. There was a moment of relief. But only a moment. Soon I heard the insidious whine of a mosquito and saw its tiny form. I slapped at it—but missed. Damned mosquito. I couldn’t see it, but knew the insect was still there… I stood perfectly still and utterly alert until I heard its high-pitched singe, as fine and sharp as a dentist’s drill, right over my head, Then there were more mosquitoes. Many more. Hundreds. They had been waiting outside the window. And now they had been summoned to swarm.
Closing the window didn’t help. The mosquitoes were already inside, on the attack. I had no weapons to fight back. They bit, simultaneously inserting their piercing proboscises into the skin on my neck, my forearms, and my legs—even through the fabric of my pants. The itching was immediate and intense, but I couldn’t scratch all the bites at once. And now the mosquitoes were on my face, too… I dashed out of the room and into the street.
A few blocks away, on a corner under a green awning, stood one of the tiny jam-packed Japanese appliance stores. It was chock full of alarm clocks, bikes, locks, portable fishing rods, fans, flashlights, screwdrivers, zipper canvas bags, nylon rope, needle-nose tweezers—the place had everything, crammed to the ceiling like a nineteenth century bazaar stall. A hunched and wrinkled man crept around the counter when I entered the store. He looked up at me over the frames of his thick glasses. “Irrashai. Wel-come,” he croaked.
“Do you have anything to kill mosquitoes?” I inquired, breathing heavily. “For the inside of a room.”
The man closed his eyes halfway and gave a prescient nod as if he could visualize the rooms in Sanjo swarming with insects, the foreigners slapping and cursing. He motioned with an open palm to a tall glass display. I was glad to see that he had quite a good selection of mosquito killing devices, including a silver electric zapper with a spiked top and two strange horseshoe-shaped machines, a big one and a little one. Each horseshoe machine came with a stack of tan wafers.
“Which one is the best?” I asked. “The bugs bite again and again.” I made quick pinching gestures on my forearm, pulling at the hairs for emphasis.
The man closed his eyes completely and gave a wide smile, a grin which understood the world and all things within it. All people, animals, plant life, and insects. And especially, all insect-plagued foreigners. He nodded for a long time. Finally he spoke. “Japanese mosquitoes are unique,” he said. “Very persistent.”
I grit my teeth. “What’s best to kill them?”
“The big one, you know.” The man’s eyes slid toward the shelf. Then, reverently, he lifted out the larger of the white horseshoes, its cord trailing like a stingray barb.
I pointed at the wafers. “What do you do with those?”
What happened next transcended the bounds of language. It obviated the need for words. In an amazing series of noises, grunts, and gestures, the tiny old man showed me exactly what occurred when you slid in a wafer: “Suhhhh” and a hand jerk à shut the catch: “Ccckkk” and a clenched fist à plugged the machine in so the wafer heated and sent up a poison mist: “Pwfff–Pwfff” circling hands, fingers wiggling à reached a mosquito: “Eeeeet” and a wide-eyed clap à asphyxiated the bug: Uguh—Uhhhrr,” hands around neck à and sent the bug tumbling to the floor dead: “Shiiiiinn Kah,” head shaking in mortis tremens. Exhausted, the old man stared down at the floor.
“Good,” I said, and bought the thing. Happily, I carried it back to Sanjo, back to my soon-to-be-mosquito-less chamber.
When I opened the door to my room, my chest tightened. The breath left my lungs. I blinked and stood motionless. Kneeling in front of me with her hands on her knees, staring at the wall as if in a trance, her small frail body hunched forward—was Fujiwara, the Sanjo Manager. She wore a white silk kimono. Her hair was more neatly brushed than before. Her face was scrubbed and clean. She had reattached the dragon tapestry to the wall and moved the prayer table back into position. All of my suits were neatly folded in little piles on the futon bed. Fujiwara was gazing at the Tokonoma dragon. Its serpentine body had uncoiled. Its piercing eyes were vibrant and triumphant.
She didn’t look at me for a moment, didn’t make a sound. We were motionless, co-existing in the silence. Then she turned. The twist of her neck was slow and staggered. Her eyes seemed clouded and far away, but her expression was calm and patient as if she had awaited me for a hundred years, pondered the moment, and knew that I would arrive. Now she was savoring the experience. She spoke softly, “I fix… your room.”
“Thank you,” I said.
Fujiwara nodded for a long while, then leaned further forward and placed both hands on the floor in front of her, as if in Arabic prayer. With a tremble and a lift of her small buttocks, she stood up. She wavered for a moment, pushing down on the balls of her feet as if they were numb. Then she took a step toward me and stumbled—I rushed forward to catch her, but she was all right. She found her balance and walked toward the door. Then she turned to me, exposing her long white neck like a floating swan. Her eyes opened and closed in sloe-eyed blinks. “I want… to show you… something,” she said, beckoning with two slender fingers.
I dropped the mosquito-killer on the tatami mat and followed her out into the hall. Together, we descended the stairway. Each stair had a different sound, a musical wail in the night. Downstairs in the entry way, Fujiwara’s eyes had a quiet expectation. Somehow she looked more attractive in the evening. “This way,” she whispered and turned to unlatch a door under the stairs.
I ducked under the stairwell and was surprised to find myself in a dusty, hidden suite. Ancient tatami mats lay under foot. There was a large Western-style double bed and a tall brass lamp, black with age marks. Inthe back of the room were wooden shelves, clogged with yellowing books and papers. An armoire stood in the corner, and a pant leg was caught between its doors. I inhaled and felt the stuffy air wrap around me like a musty blanket. It was hard to breathe.
“Look!” said Fujiwara, holding out a stained photo of a very pretty but buck-toothed girl who sat smiling under an oak tree. “This ees my daughter. She is in New York.” Her voice lilted like a guitar string being tuned. “She told me she has American boifurendo who looks, like you…” Fujiwara stared at me and moved closer. I could feel the heat of her body. I could smell her jasmine perfume.
Fujiwara pointed toward the bed. “This ees where my husband slept. This was our bed…” She opened her palm, gesturing toward the shelves. “These were his books and his papers.” She reached for a framed photograph, dusted off the glass, and held it out to me. It was a picture of a foreign man with a beard. He was big-framed, handsome but very thin, with a jutting Adam’s apple and a protruding collar bone as if he had lost a lot of weight very quickly.
“You see…” Fujiwara’s eyes were moist now. Her words seemed to choke in the back of her throat. “He was like, cherry blossom. He was, most beautiful, before he… died.” She said the last word slowly, reverently. More heat emanated from her body. In the darkened room, she seemed to glow. Again her eyes had a trance-like, faraway look. “I told him go… go to Nara.” Her voice was hoarse, nasal. “I told him go, go to Pokkuri temple to pray for… for…” She struggled as if unable to get out the words, then shivered and continued, “to pray for peace…”
I took a step back and something crumbled under my foot like an old cracker, powder now. At Pokkuri temple, the dying Japanese went to pray for a quick and easy death. They brought their underclothes as an offering to put on the stone shrine.
“He would not go to Pokkuri.” Fujiwara closed her eyes as if this refusal implied an unspeakably horrible period of suffering for the man. “But I said I would go to pray for him.” She nodded as if it was a profound solution. “But then, too much time…” She shook her head. “I was too late.”
My dry tongue pressed against the roof of my mouth. The tongue felt hard, extraneous, swollen. Dust from the room clung to the back of my throat and made each breath painful, an arid spear of air. Instinctively I moved—two steps only—toward a tiny window, half obscured by piles of cups and saucers and a thick leather belt which snaked across the glass.
Fujiwara shuffled forward. Her expression had softened. She was more relaxed, as if somehow she had swept her memories aside. Her hand grasped my arm and her hot fingers burned my skin. “I had other boyfriend,” she said. “From Egypt, like movie-star Omar… But after five years, he also got sick.”
“I’m sorry…” I coughed and wanted to shove out of the room, to clear a path toward the door and out into the cool air. But I only stood and looked at Fujiwara. She was trembling again now.
“My Omar told me if I ever sleep with another man, he would come back in next life to kill me…” She gazed down at the floor.
I didn’t know what to say. I glanced at the bed, which seemed to have a dark stain near the pillow.
Fujiwara tucked a stray wisp of long black hair behind her ear. “He said he would come back—but I do not believe him.”
“That’s good.” I nodded slowly.
“This was our room together,” Fujiwara looked around. “Omar slept here. You can sleep here, too. You can use closet.”
I felt my eyebrows rise, my chest tighten. I coughed to clear my throat until I could speak. “My room is okay though, really.”
“You don’t like this room?” Fujiwara had a sad expression. She leaned against the wall for support.
“Yes it’s nice, but…”
“Something is right when the heart is quiet.” She touched her chest. Then she laughed—a sharp and insane note in the darkness. She moved toward the bed and stroked it. “Feel… Feel my bed. Feel how soft it is…”
“Well thanks, but I better go.” I took a step backward toward the stairway, back toward my own room. “I have to—go. Thanks again.”
Fujiwara let out a soft moan. “I want to make tea ceremony for you now. I want to show you tea leaves at the bottom.” She inhaled rapidly, as if she were about to cry, and closed her eyes. “I can make tea for you, every night…” She tip-toed closer to me, closer to the bed.
I side-stepped, avoiding her, avoiding her arms which were extended and spotted like tentacles in the strange light of the room. “Unfortunately I’m allergic to tea.” I rushed an answer, any answer.
Fujiwara stood perfectly still, a statue in the evening, a stone-sculpted maiden of the night. Her white kimono shone and hinted, glimmered like a diaphanous specter. Then it stopped shining. The whiteness paled and the old room came back into focus. The sadness was written on her face, written in her sagging cheeks and lips, and in her dulled eyes. But suddenly, the sadness went away. The sorrow was gone. The pain had left and been replaced, amazingly, by a tight-lipped smile. A resignation. Then the smile opened wider, opened up into her cheeks; and her eyes gleamed in a poignant bliss, an utter acceptance, almost an enjoyment of suffering as one enjoys life… She didn’t move from her spot in the center of the room.
Neither of us spoke. I walked around Fujiwara, barely brushing her shoulder. I found my way to the door and outside, where the cold night air stung my face.
But I had nowhere to go, so I turned back and headed for my room. The entry way was dark. Pitch black. The naked single light bulb on the landing had burnt out. I found the stairway and took a step up. The wood creaked and sang out. Step by step, holding on to the banister which wobbled on old nails, I groped my way upstairs.
Safe inside my room, immediately I unwrapped the mosquito-killing machine. I inserted a wafer in the appropriate slot and plugged the cord into an outlet. I touched the device, felt it vibrate. An acrid smell filled the room. Soon, overhead, a mosquito was flying in a skewed circle. Then it fell from the air and landed directly in front of me on the tatami mat. I could see its swollen, blood-engorged body and twisted wings. I could see its twitching legs. Then it stopped moving.
The killing machine throbbed with an electric pulse.