Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tokyoites (Edokkotachi): The Sound of the Train, a short story by Jacob Ritari

Each Wednesday in September, author Jacob Ritari is sharing with us one of his unpublished short stories set in Tokyo. This week's story is primarily about two characters, two Japanese salarymen, riding the train home after a few hours at the bar after work. The train they take is one I used to ride a lot myself as we lived in that area for about 4 years before we moved last year. It made me feel like I was right there, taking the train with them. I'm curious what you'll think of the story so please let us know.
For more on Jacob and his writing, visit Jacob Ritari's website. You can also follow him on Twitter.
The Sound of The Train
Jacob Ritari

Is it really possibly to live in a city—and if so, for how long? The balance of tiny loss and gain being, like a day-trader’s furtive enterprise, uneven, the years or months or weeks show the gradual dip of the life-line below the point of tolerance. The city (Tokyo in this case, although it could be another) is meticulous in its accounting, but indifferent to the final balance. Millions of people perform this experiment every day. Three people were assembled on the platform of Kanda station, minutes before the arrival of the last Saitama-bound express train. The steps down to the indoor station lobby led up again to the outdoor platforms in deep night, long bars of concrete under fluorescent lights against which small insects beat their wings in the last exhalation of summer heat.
Three people, each listening to their own music. There was a university student in a cheap blazer, bent over the second volume of H.M.’s latest work. At the same time he was listening to Yui Makino through a pair of expensive Sony headphones. With his book, he hoped to show he was serious-minded, especially to passing women. In fact, he had been a top student who had his pick of the most prestigious universities; but had opted for a larger and more modest public university, where he had hoped to make friends. Classes had been in session for a week and he was returning alone to the dormitory in Higashi-Jujo.
Beside him on the bench was a woman, neat and plain, her hair in a bun. She was returning from an attempt, unsuccessful, to extricate her husband from the bar where he now spent most of his evenings. Now her mind was bent toward the future. While aware of a buzz from the student’s large headphones, she was listening to the insects that filled the world beyond the platform, out in the empty, black space where the train would arrive.
Among the insects, most prominent were the tsuku-tsuku-boushi cicadas whose call marked the end of summer. The Kanda district was among Tokyo’s densest, and she wondered if the cicadas attached themselves to the sides of buildings, taking them for trees; if in the course of a few generations, they had forgotten all about nature and gotten used to the new way of doing things.
The air was thick and the woman touched the hollow of her neck with a handkerchief.
In front and several feet to one side of the bench, a young girl was standing and dancing. A dance made up of slight lateral movements emphatically repeated; she trembled like a tuning fork stuck in the ground. The network of trains that crossed the city carried pulses to which her small body was sensitive. She looked about ten years old. Of the other two passengers, their situation was obvious enough from their appearance, but the girl’s participation in her private rite made her opaque; what was she doing here at this time, did she have parents? She was a creature of the city as much as the pigeons or cicadas.
Then the music of the train manifested for everyone: a series of notes that rose and fell with palpable sweetness, a variation on Pachelbel’s canon. A comforting sound—the promise of rest. The train had crept up unrecognized and even now was pulling in, filling the void with light and sound…
“Section Chief! Looks like we made it, now come on!”
Two men came rapidly up the nearby stairwell, one old and one young. They both listed back and forth with each step, for which the older man seemed mostly responsible; when he leaned entirely to one side, the younger man supported him like an big sack of flour.
The blue-striped train opened its doors to communicate with the platform. With no interruption in her routine, the young girl danced through the doors and vanished. The woman rose to follow her, revealing as she rose that she stooped. The university student fumbled his book as he followed. Last of all, the two latecomers lurched onto the train the instant before the doors shut.
Over their heavy breathing the announcement was spoken in a female voice, neither too distant, nor too warm to be mistaken for real:
“…tsugi wa Akihabara, Akihabara desu. Odeguchi wa miginawa desu. Gohashimoto, gochuuin kudasai.” Which was then repeated in English: “Ladies and gentleman, this is a Keihin-Tohoku train bound for Omiya. The next station is…Akihabara. The doors on the right side will open.”
By the time the two men got their bearings, the other people from the platform had disappeared. The car was filled with indifferent faces, lowered into books or pressed against windows. Some were turned toward each other in conversations that started and ended fitfully. Unusually, there were few people standing; but then it was only Tuesday night. The younger man scanned the car for a seat but still found none.
He was Yuki Tomosaka, which name, in the fashion of the time, had been shortened from the common masculine name Yukihiro. He was an fiber-optics specialist with a large Kanda-based firm. The older man was his supervisor, Uchida.
Uchida leaned on the doors and wiped his forehead, oozing sweat, with the heel of one hand. His eyes shut, he chuckled to himself.
“Section Chief…” Yuki tugged on his sleeve. “It’s dangerous, so please come away.”
The tone of his thoughts was different.
Didn’t you hear, you fat old idiot, the doors on the right side will open. How many years have you been riding this train? Or have you heard it so many times you don’t understand anymore?
Opening his eyes, Uchida placed his own hand on Yuki’s sleeve. In a grave voice he spoke:
“Tomosaka-kun, you’re a fine young man. Your parents raised you well.”
Then he began to laugh again, drawing big wheezing breaths.
“What’s so funny?” asked Yuki, unable to keep a slight edge from creeping into his voice.
“Oh…it’s simply, this is rather an adventure, isn’t it? Men like us need a little adventure in our lives. Especially old men like me.”
Hardly listening, Yuki was maneuvering them toward the center of the car. He caught one of the handstraps and Uchida leaned against a pole, doused in his sweat, seeming to expand and deflate like a balloon.
Twice every week, the nine-person team to which they belonged went drinking after work at one of the small pubs nearby. Since both men lived in Saitama along the Keihin-Tohoku line—Yuki in Warabi, Uchida somewhat further along in Urawa—it usually fell to Yuki’s lot to escort his supervisor home. On certain nights when Uchida got too drunk to make the last train, they had ended up side-by-side in the coffinlike “rooms” of a capsule hotel. But, as Yuki’s teammates were fond of teasing, it wasn’t as if he had a girlfriend waiting for him.
In spite of it all, Yuki was proud of not resembling an office drudge. He was thin and straight-backed as an iron file, paid meticulous attention to his hair, and wore the finest pair of steel-rimmed Bulgari spectacles he could afford. He was a graduate of Waseda University and had chaired their English debating club, where his nickname had been the Spider; for the skill with which he entrapped his opponents.
Such was his reputation for cleverness—and also for personal coldness—that Yuki had wondered at times if he might not possess a real capacity for evil. But he had since resigned himself to the knowledge that, in the above-average milieu he had entered, he was dead average. His dreams of being a fearsome human being were as vain as those of the student, Raskalnikov, in his favorite novel.
The proof of his unsuitability for a life of evil was that he had yet to push the drunken Uchida in front of a train. Yuki despised everything about the man, from his profound stupidity, to his beer-laden breath, to the way the bottom of his slacks didn’t touch his shoes. But most of all he despised Uchida’s blind conformity to the ways of society. Like every supervisor he had known, Uchida seemed to think that his unsolicited chumminess on drinking nights somehow made up for his remoteness, inflexibility and condescension as a supervisor. Everything he said, either at work or after hours, could have been generated by a machine.
Uchida had gotten his position in an age where you moved blithely from good home to good school to good company, and provided you didn’t screw up too badly, your gradual but steady advancement with the company was assured. At that time, Yuki supposed their firm had designed pocket watches. He was convinced Uchida didn’t know a fiber-optic cable from a piece of string—but by keeping to the broad clichés he was fond of in any case, he was able to give the illusion of managing them.
“The next station is…Oji. The doors on the right side will open. Please watch your step as you exit the train.”
As the train pulled out of Oji, a group of schoolboys vacated their seats and Yuki helped Uchida down; but for his own part, he felt like standing. They were nearly in Saitama.
Before reaching Akabane, the train had to cross the long bridge over the Ara river. At night, the river was visible only as a vague distortion in outer darkness; but in daylight, people claimed you could see Mt. Fuji far off to the West. Yuki had never tried to look, preferring not to be disappointed.
“The next station is…Akabane. The doors on the right side will open.”
Uchida had been drowsing with his chin in his collar, letting spittle pool in one corner of his mouth. When they were halfway across the bridge, he looked up suddenly and said with startling clarity:
“Where to? Where next?”
“Home, sir,” said Yuki, without looking at him. “It’s past midnight.”
Uchida looked up at him and as his face flushed with recognition, he slipped back into his slurred and meaningless familiarity: “Tomosaka-kun! Let’s got to karaoke, you’ve such a splendid singing voice.”
“Some other time,” said Yuki.
But perhaps Uchida had been joking in his drunken way, as he went on, without seeming to hear his subordinate: “You’re such a good young man, always looking after me like this. I doubt I could have put up with this sort of thing when I was your age.”
For his part, Yuki reasoned that Uchida was too far gone to understand anything, and peered through the window into the night that swallowed up Tokyo and Saitama both. For members of society—those with responsibilities—it meant six hours or so of respite. Then the sun rose, the only identifiable taskmaster in a world of mutual obligation and irresponsibility, and it was back to work.
Uchida himself was staring through the window. When he spoke again to Yuki, it was as if from some distance: “Akabane, eh? I once knew a girl in Akabane.”
Yuki was silent.
Uchida went on, wiping as he did so his mouth and leaving a trail of saliva along his cuff: “Sweet girl. Always so happy to see me. They tell you otherwise, these days, but take it from me, Tomosaka-kun; nothing makes a woman happier than to look after a man. It’s their purpose in life.—Truth tell, I hardly know what she saw in me. I didn’t have a lot of money, but still—her face’d light up like a bulb; I’ll put on the tea, she’d say. I’m so happy to see you. A typist, she was. Back in those days they had to type out everything by hand. Well, we still do…You know what I’m talking about.”
How can a man talk so much and say nothing, Yuki thought.
When he remained silent, Uchida raised his large head, drawing out the delicately wrinkled wattles of his neck, like a tortoise emerging from its shell. He saw Yuki poised, none the worse for wear except for sweat marks under the arms of his light blue coat, and one or two hairs out of place that waved gently under the air conditioning.
“Back then,” he said, “Akabane was a quiet little place,” and even as he spoke, the red light from the sign of a massive pachinko parlor—Dragon’s Palace—washed over his face, “even Shibuya was just offices…” The train had arrived in Akabane.
Three more stops, thought Yuki.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is a Keihin-Tohoku train bound for Omiya. The next station is…Kawaguchi. The doors on the right side will open.”
Uchida spoke at the same time, eyes glimmering mischievously: “I bet a young man like you has plenty of girlfriends. That’s one thing that never changes, surely.”
With a slight downturn of his mouth Yuki answered: “I’m pretty sure it has changed.”
Then Uchida’s hand attempted to find his shoulder, but although he stood only a foot away, it grasped weakly at the air before settling back on its owner’s knee.
“Tomosaka-kun. Make sure you enjoy your youth, you hear? Try to get as many experiences as possible. Then you’ll have something to look back on…Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I regret anything. I don’t love my wife, but I love my daughter. It will be worth it if she can have a shot at happiness. You’re a Waseda boy, aren’t you? I’d love for her to go to a place like that. She’s only in high school, you know. I married late. Part of me never wanted to. I got scared of missing my chance…”
“The next station is Nishi-Kawaguchi. The doors on the right side will open.”
“I married a good woman. She’s never complained about anything.” Then Uchida’s eyes, moving slowly around the car, widened and reflected the cold public light. “These trains are a marvel. Tomosaka-kun, how old are you?”
One more stop, thought Yuki, and replied: “Twenty-five, sir.”
“You ever see one of those old…steam trains?”
“Only in a museum.”
“You know, I used to live by the railroad tracks. Out in Gunma. You’d hear them going by at all hours of the night. I used to be mad about trains.”
The car by now was half-empty. The few people who remained, thought Yuki, had an especially defeated look—students falling asleep, office workers staring at nothing—as if even fifteen minutes on the train, from central Tokyo to the Saitama suburbs, had sapped the last of the day’s resolve.
He saw his own reflection in the glass and judged that he looked as sharp as ever.
“The next station is…Warabi. The doors on the right side will open. Please watch your step as you exit the train.”
“Good night, sir,” he said crisply, and bowed.
“What!” Uchida started. “Leaving so soon! Come on, let’s have one more round. It’s my treat.”
The faint chiming from the platform—Pachelbel’s canon—was audible, just fading, as the doors slid open.
Yuki felt like a robot as he retreated backwards, still making slight bows; but the difference, he reflected, was that he chose to be. He wasn’t like those scores of people who still imagined they were human beings.
He stood on the platform and repeated the formula, the spell that ended the working day: “Thank you for your efforts.”
This time it was Uchida who didn’t answer, gaping at him. Then the doors shut and the old man resembled a fish in an aquarium.
The moment before the train pulled away, Yuki observed that his supervisor’s eyes were filling with tears.
He remained standing there for one moment, his briefcase limp at his side. Again he was in the warm night air, quieter now, around him the last traces of public life receding as a tide. He felt as if he had just been slapped lightly on one side of his face.

But the reason Uchida was crying had nothing to do with Yuki. He felt only vague, drunken embarrassment at having failed to properly see off his subordinate. He had been struck by a memory that lodged more deeply in his flesh than the others.
He sat back and let it run its course, the tiny sobs, absorbed by his large body, causing it to tremble only slightly. The tears had a strange feeling, like unknown fingers, against his dry skin. Nobody took any notice.
The steam trains that passed in the night. The rice fields of Gunma that glowed and undulated under a full moon. The distant trains that passed in opposite directions and called to each other: that high, single note, that pure cry of grief. Animals too could sound unspeakably mournful, although an animal couldn’t know what grief was. And he, lying in his narrow, hard bed, the bed of a farmer’s son, heard the cry and felt reassured.
If animals and machines expressed human feelings, there was no danger those feelings would vanish with their owners, down into the private wells each man sunk in his plot of land. And at five years old, Uchida imagined that was why trains made that sound, like the bells at a Buddhist temple or a Christian church.
But now the trains were sleek and quiet, and spoke with human voices: “The next station is Urawa. The doors on the right side will open.” Only that, the distant chimes from the platform, and the steady rhythm, projecting forward into an infinity of routine, of the wheels along straight steel track:
Gatcha-gatcha-gatcha. Gatcha-gatcha-gatcha.

Read more about Jacob's debut novel, Taroko Gorge, including an excerpt, at the Unbridled Books website.

Buy Taroko Gorge at:  Amazon.com | BookDepository | via IndieBound

The small print:  Links in this post to Amazon, or The Book Depository, contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively.  Purchases made via these links earn me a very small commission.  For more information please visit my About Page.


  1. Somehow, I saw this post in my Google Reader yesterday. And when I clicked to leave a comment, it didn't let me.

    What an amazing short story. I'm really glad that you're going to be featuring these because they're fantastic. Definitely something to look forward to, Nat!

  2. And I hadn't seen this story, until I finished reading "Futaride" earlier today and saw your comment, Nat, that a story had been posted last week. I'm so glad you did because this is another very good story.


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