Keiko

You will please excuse the bad English, but I am not writing in my home language. My name is Keiko. I am sixteen years old, and I live with my brother and sisters in the apartment where our parents had lived in. Our father died when I was six, my mother died a year later. We remained. My older brother, Takeshi, is seven years older than I am, and works in the Sebunsutā plant where he is spending all day putting together terminals for the company. I work in the noodle shop outside of the plant where workers go in to eat meals at their breaks. Takeshi was the person who helped me to get the job. I was very grateful.

It is happening on last Friday, when a large man in a blue suit walks in through the curtains that are in the doorway. He was so big, I was thinking he might not make it through, or he might be taking the curtain down with him! But no. He somehow squeezes through and looks around at the people. He looks so curious, he is looking around and around. It looks as if he is looking for something. Then he is seeing me. He walks over to me —he is so big!—and he sits down and he smiles at me—a nice smile, with straight teeth that are so white, and soft eyes—and then he points up at the food display and makes a “two” sign with his fingers—Unagi don. I call in the order to Tako—he is the cook—and then I give the man some water. All the time, I feel his eyes on me, even when he eats. Even so, he is not scary. Big, yes, but not scary. I think it is his eyes that are so not frightening. So soft and brown. When I look at him, when he sees me looking, he smiles again. Always, he smiles. He makes me smile. 

A few more people come in—workers from Sebunsutā, all of them covered in metal shavings and wearing blue jump suits—and I sit them down and take their orders and give them water, but still the man is not leaving. He sits there and eats so slowly—especially for such a big man!—and watches me and smiles. After the other customers leave, and after he is done eating, I come to take away his bowl and he asks me if I am speaking English and I say I speak only a little, and then he smiles and says something I don’t understand. He points to the back, toward Tako, and asks “English?” I nod and bring Tako over and they talk for a bit. When I ask what it is they are talking about Tako is telling me “it’s nothing, it’s nothing.” Every time I ask, he is saying the same thing, “it’s nothing.” He is not looking happy, though. I am wishing to know what the big man is saying to him, but then Tako makes me clean up in back. He says it is so we can be ready for the second lunch rush, but we are already read for it, and I know it is just to make it so I cannot hear them as they are talking. But after some minutes, Tako comes back into the kitchen. He is looking a little uncomfortable, or maybe scared? He is telling me that the big man wants to introduce me to someone. I ask him who, but he shakes his head and will not say. In Japanese, he whispers “don’t do it” but then the man walks over and looks at Tako with a strange, not-so-soft look in his eye and Tako gets scared again and goes outside to smoke a cigarette.

The big man turns back to me and his eyes are soft and kind again, and he smiles his big white smile and writes something down on a napkin. He shows it to me—on it, there is a street number. I am confused, but before I can say anything he says to me, “come to here tonight” in very bad Japanese. “Things. Money. All yours. Get anything you want. Seven at the night.” He is pointing, tapping on his wrist like a watch. “Seven. You go there?” I shrug. “Maybe,” I say. He nods and is giving me a wink and another smile. “You will not be sad if you do.” Then, he goes, squeezing again through the frame of the door. He pokes his head back through the curtains again, and he says, “Gidéon will be good to you. He is generous. A good man. Watashi wa anata o yakusoku shimasu.” Which means, “I am promising you.” Then he goes.

After the big man is gone, Tako comes back in. He is shaking, and then he is angry. He tells me to not go to there. He is telling me to rip up the napkin, to throw it away. He says I am too young, too young, he is not wanting to see me hurt. I promise him I am not going to go. He makes me say it two more times before I go to home. He will not let me leave until he hears me promise him I will not go. “Akunin,” he says. Bad man.

On my way home, I am thinking without stopping about the man and about what Tako said. The man did not seem so bad! And he had nice teeth. I am only seeing smiles like that on the sims my brother watches.  I am thinking so much about it, I walk straight past my apartment building! Then I am hurrying back, because I am late for dinner. I climb up the ten sets of steps and then I am home. I kiss the photograph of mother and father, and then I help Kaede with dinner. Kaede is my sister. She is only ten years, and is very sweet, but she has a split in her upper lip. Takeshi says it is called a “cleft palate.” We are too poor to fix her. She is a good sister, but she is often made to feel bad by the other children at the shoe factory where she is working. All the time as we are cooking, I am thinking that maybe Gidéon could help make her better. But then I am seeing Tako's round face frowning at me as he says "akunin," and I am remembering how much he made me promise, and then I am just trying not to think about it any more. After an hour, Takeshi is finally coming home, and Asuka and Kasumi as well—they are my sisters, and both of them are older than I am—and then we all sit down to enjoy dinner together. It is Friday, so it is the one day that we get to eat dinner all together as a family. All the other days, we all are working at different times and do not get to see much of the others. But today it is Friday, so we are eating together. 

Halfway through dinner, the people in the apartment next to our apartment begin to make loud noises—they are having sex. They always make those sex noises, sometimes angry, mostly not, all times of the day and night, moaning in Japanese and English and sometimes other languages. We have all become accustomed to their yells. It does not bother me. Takeshi does not like it, though. He says it is always the same woman, never the same man. He says she is a prostitute. I ask him what is wrong with that, but he just shakes his head and says she is a bad woman. I see her some times, when I am coming home from work. She is pretty, with bright green eyes and hair that is sometimes altered to be different colors. She sometimes waves at me, but Takeshi does not like me to wave back. I do not think this is because she is a prostitute. I think it is because one of her arms is mechanical, and Takeshi does not like people with mechanical parts. Most people don't. He calls them "grafters." Takeshi says that grafters are dirty, that they are perverted, and dangerous, that the body is sacred and they are destroying that. I ask him if maybe she did not have a choice. I say maybe she was born without an arm, or maybe she was getting in an accident, and could not afford to get the reconstructions the rich people are always getting. He did not answer that. He just told me to stay away. I do, mostly. But I have seen in her apartment. It is very clean, and very pretty. I am thinking Takeshi is wrong about her, but it is best not to argue. Besides, I do not mind the sex noises, even if Takeshi does. Kaede once asked if they were hurting each other. That made Takeshi laugh. 

Takeshi does not laugh very much. He does not laugh and he does not smile, because he is tired, and he is angry. He is tired because he works double shifts at the plant, to help us with our rent and other bills that we are owing—the land lord keeps raising up the prices, which Takeshi says is not legal, but when Takeshi complains he is saying that “this is not a charity,” and also “if you do not like it, you can leave.” We are not wanting to leave, so we do not complain, but it is getting harder to get enough money. That is why Takeshi is angry. Takeshi says that the land lord wants to sell the building, to tear it down and sell the rubble to High City people. He says the High City is starting to come to the Low City. Not in the far areas, they are still poor, but it is creeping over slowly. Places are appearing near the riverfront; they are more nice, more expensive. But always we are getting poorer. All of us work, but still it is not enough. Also the land lord does not fix anything if it breaks, or he makes us pay for it. Mostly, things that break stay that way. It is better than talking to him.

After dinner, Takeshi pulls Asuka and Kasumi and me away while Kaede is washing the dishes and he tells us we are needing more money, or we will not have enough to eat. He is telling us that yesterday, the landlord was knocking on our door and telling Takeshi that he will be needing the rent two weeks early. This news makes us all unhappy. “He cannot do that,” says Asuka, and Takeshi says that he knows, that when he told the land lord he could not ask for the rent so early, he just said, “if you do not like it, you can leave.” We do not have the money. We will be put out on the street, or we will be starving. I pull out the napkin, and am thinking about telling Takeshi, but I do not. I can see Tako, his plump face and thinning hair, and I can see how scared he was, and I am also scared. I crumble up the napkin and put it in the waste. That night I do not sleep. I am thinking too much.

At work the next day, Tako keeps asking me if I had gone, and I say no. Tako is pleased, and tells me I made the right choice. He tells me he is proud of me, that I made a good decision. He says I will be grateful. I ask what made the man bad, that he seemed very kind and friendly, but Tako only shakes his head. "Yōtō inu niku," he says. I ask him if I can take any extra hours, I tell him I need some more money, but he says that he is sorry, he wishes he could help, but no. I ask him if I could be getting my pay early, but again he is saying no. I tell him of the landlord and what he is doing, and he says he will see what he can do. 

He gives me my wages for the week early, but says he can't give any more.

Back home, and I am counting our money. It is with my wages, and the money Takeshi, Asuka and Kaede bring in, it may be close, but I do not think it will be enough. I do not know what to do. If we pay, we will starve. Our neighbor finishes up with one of her guests, and everything gets quiet. I think maybe I can ask her for help, maybe she will be kind, but I do not think Takeshi would like that. I think about doing it in secret, asking her to help and then telling him that I am finding the money somewhere. But I do not think he would believe me. I am not a good liar. That night, Takeshi comes home. He is more tired than usual. He is not angry, though. Just sad. When I ask him what is wrong, he tells me that it is nothing, that everything will be okay, that I should not worry.

He does not notice when I go through his jacket and find the piece of paper telling him he has been fired.

That night, I wait for everyone to go to sleep, and then I go and take the napkin out of the waste bin and sneak out the door. I take the walk slowly, in case I get too scared and am wanting to go back. All the time, I am hearing Tako in my head. “Akunin,” he says, over and over again. Bad man. But now I am thinking about my family, and I am not much caring now if he is a bad man or good. Maybe, even if he does not want to hire me, the Gidéon man will listen to me, and will help me. Maybe he will be kind, like the big man who worked for him. I cut through the Beijing Circuit —so much more quiet at night— and walk up to the edge of the Low City. The buildings are bigger here, but still nothing like the buildings across the river. From here, I can see the Tower. I am wondering what it is like to live up there. I imagine it must be nice, to be up so high, to look at the world as if you were a bird, or a plane.

I get near the address, and am expecting a house or apartment, maybe a headquarters to a big business. Maybe, I think, he is in a casino, like the old Yakuza from the Kung Fu stims Takeshi is always watching when he is home. The Bad Men are always in the back rooms of casinos, smoking and drinking, cleaning their guns, all of them plotting to bring down Akio, the hero. I am thinking about this as I am walking up to the address the big man gave me, and then I realize I have walked past it! I turn to see the location, and I am letting out a laugh. It is only a Laundromat! I laugh to myself as I am looking at this, what a strange place it is. A laundromat is no place for a “bad man.” Peeking through the window, I am seeing four other people, one boy and three girls. They look like they are all my age, and are all of them dressed in the Harajuku clothing. As I am peeking, a man steps through the door. He is thin and tan, and has wild black hair and thick stubble. I am pausing; he looks like an animal! Is this Gidéon? Is this my bad man? But no. This man is shabby, he is worn out. He walks on a cane and has a mechanical brace supporting his leg. He sighs and rubs his eyes, and then is seeing me; he shows me a smile and holds the door for me, gesturing to ask if I am going in. His smile is kind—kinder than the big man’s—but is also so sad. I smile back at him and decide to go in. “Thank you,” I say to him. He does not reply.

Inside is so hot! The Harajuku boy and girls all look at me. I am thinking that they are judging me, though I think that may just be how I feel. They are all dressed so nice, and I am dressed in only my work clothes, black shirt with short sleeves and also black pants. But then I am seeing it—they are all grafters! I stand and stare, but I am realizing that I am being rude, and so I walk in and give a small wave to them, and then I come to be near them. Then the big man is coming over to me with his smile. He tells me I was supposed to come yesterday, and I say that I am sorry, but I had to stay late at work, and am asking if it is okay if I am here now. He thinks about it a moment, and then he is saying yes and handing me some clothes in a dry cleaning back with a zipper.

“Korera o oku,” he says to me. Put these on. He shows me to a bath room and closes the door behind me. I unzip the clothing bag. Inside is also Harajuku clothing! It is a bright blue skirt with a big silver bow, and also a pretty white blouse with lace. It is pretty, I think, but also I am confused by it. Why am I here, and the others as well, and why are we all of us dressed in Harajuku outfits? Tako comes back into my head, but I wave him away. I put on the outfit and think that I look so pretty! I have not ever had clothing this nice before. I laugh to myself, because I am looking a bit like a princess. As I am staring at myself in the mirror, I look up and see a camera pointed down at me. My stomach is tying itself in knots, and I think I am beginning to understand what is going on. I blush and start to take off the clothing, and then I freeze. I do not want the person to watch me undress again. I think to myself that Tako was right and I should be going home. But then there is a knock on the door and the big man asks me if I am all right. I tell him I am not all right because there is a camera watching me change. Then he is laughing. He tells me that the camera isn’t on—it is only to scare shoplifters or people who want to do perverted things in there. Then, I am embarrassed. I come back out of the changing room and I blush and tell him I thought someone was watching me change. He is patting me on the shoulder with a big hand and telling me not to be worried.

Another big man comes out and they talk, big man to big man. The second man asks us to stand in a line. Then I am seeing another camera pointed at us on the ceiling, and another on the wall. So many cameras! I wonder why a Laundromat is needing so many. After a moment, a voice comes on over a speaker in the corner and it asks in Japanese for us to turn around. The voice sounds nice, I think, like honey. It is sweet and gentle. I wonder if this is the voice of Tako’s “bad man.” It seems not to be likely. Such a sweet voice, so young and soft! 

We turn. It has us turn around twice more, and then it asks us to smile at the camera. The accent of the voice is strange, not one I know, but his Japanese is good, much better than the Big Man's. After a moment, the voice calls the two big men back, and we are all left standing in our line. We wait, though it is hot and I am beginning to sweat in the clothes. I am looking at the grafters, and they are looking around also. I am thinking that none of us knows what is going on. A few minutes, and then the second big man comes out and tells everyone “thank you” for their time, but we are no longer needed. He asks us to give back the clothing.

Back in my own clothes, I am feeling both relieved and also disappointed. The voice seemed like it belonged to a nice man, and maybe Tako was wrong, and now I am realizing that this is my last hope. As I walk out, I see again the wild man from before. He is smoking a cigarette and looking far, far away. He looks down at me with his far-away eyes and then smiles again. I decide I am going to go back home but I am not going to tell Takeshi or Tako anything. No need to make them worry about me. I will find a way to make more money for us. I will think of something.

But then, as I am leaving, the big man comes back out and asks me to stay! He is saying his boss is having a change of his mind and would like to speak to me. The wild man with the cane sighs and leaves. As he leaves, he is giving me a sad look, as if his heart is breaking. Then he is gone. The big man asks me if I will come in, but now I am scared. I ask to myself if I should just go, but I think that just to meet him would not do any harm for me, and I need to help my family. The big man leads me to the back and opens a green door. Inside is smoky and even hotter than the front of the store. He pushes me in gently, saying something in English with a tone that is very reassuring. I walk in and see a row of monitors built into the wall, all of them connected to the cameras. One is off. None are showing the bathroom, just like the big man said to me. I sit down in a chair.

Gidéon is very handsome. He is older than his voice made me think, but still quite handsome. It is hard to tell how old he is, but that I common with the rich. He must have had work done on his face. His skin is tan and his hair is bright white, and his eyes are mismatched, one brown, one green. He is smiling. “Kon’nichiwa, tamago.” He offers me a kiss on the hand, and I think I am blushing a little at that. His lips are soft and his eyes are so kind. I am about to ask him a question, but he holds up a finger for silence. He looks at me, very serious, for a bit of time. Then he nods and leans back and turns back on the final monitor. He doesn’t look at me, but he speaks in very good Japanese. “Anything you want, you can have. Any money you need, clothes, things to buy…ask me and then they will be yours. All you need to do is be keeping me company. But I am making one request. How would you enjoy having a mechanical arm?”

The final monitor on the wall shows a view of the bathroom. I do not know what I will do.