Toilets and cars. That's what Mr. Eguchi had trained Gabriela Stanton to notice whenever she made house calls. She was to report the year, make, and model of the cars, and-her boss's pet obsession-whether the toilet seat was padded, heated, musical, or equipped with a panel of buttons that produced douche sprays of various strengths and temperatures. Toilets tell truth about people, Mr. Eguchi insisted. He might be right, but Gaby wouldn't want anyone to analyze her by her toilet. Or her car: an old stick-shift Honda with broken air-conditioning.
She drove slowly, straining to see through a blurry cascade of water the frantic windshield wipers couldn't slap down fast enough. When the traffic light turned green, the white sedan ahead of her abruptly halted, and she barely braked in time to avoid tapping its rear bumper. She rolled down her window to see what the problem was. The storm had completely flooded the intersection, turning it into a shallow lake. No one dared to be the first to cross it.
Rain blew on her hair and Gaby closed her window. She could take advantage of the traffic jam to determine if she had passed the temple Mr. Aoshima had mentioned in his directions to his house. While rain pounded the roof, she carefully opened her well-worn map of Shizuoka City, trying to keep the fold lines from breaking apart in her hands. After living in Japan almost five years, she was used to nameless streets and addresses coded with nonsequential numbers only the post office could decipher. The trick was to steer by landmarks. She counted the intersections she had gone through. A small temple was hard to spot in the middle of a storm. She'd assume it was in this block and hope for the best.
A delivery truck boldly crossed the street, leaning on its horn all the way through, spraying up rooster tails of water. Other cars began to move, and Gaby took her turn, keeping a steady speed through the sunken intersection. After she turned left, the road got narrower and houses grew larger and farther apart. This was one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city. She wasn't surprised; since she'd started to work for Gone With The Wind ten months ago, all of her clients had been rich. At the end of the road, she checked the two kanji characters on the gatepost: "blue" and "island." She had reached the Aoshima residence.
The Aoshimas owned a double lot, and their extended front yard was an impressive rock garden. Rocks that large cost the equivalent of $8,000 each. The pine trees were well pruned, with stakes and wires to contort their branches against gravity. A three-car garage was nearly as large as the house behind it, an old-fashioned farmhouse with a wraparound porch and a steep roof made of curved ceramic tiles.
Gaby parked in the ample driveway. She twisted the rearview mirror, licked her finger, and tried to flatten the few wayward white hairs that sprang out of her dark brown French twist. The fine lines in her forehead and around her eyes hadn't been there when she'd arrived in Japan. At thirty-six, she felt too old to be starting over in a job that had nothing to do with her education and experience. Last year at this time, she had been an English professor at Shizuyama University. It still rankled-getting fired, out of the blue, for no reason. But in Japan, she had learned to expect the unexpected. Gaby took a deep breath and grabbed her briefcase. She had to stop longing for the job she used to have and get to work on the one she did.
She opened her car door and her umbrella before getting out. While the wind whipped her pink linen skirt against her legs, she tiptoed between puddles in the gravel drive. Under the eaves of the front porch, she leaned her umbrella against the wall and rang the doorbell.
A short, suspicious woman opened the door. Gaby handed her a Gone With The Wind business card, and they bowed for a few minutes.
"Namae-wa Gaby Stanton. Yoroshiku onegaiitashimasu."
"Hajime-mashite. Aoshima desu."
Mrs. Aoshima wore a faded blue housedress with an apron. Her gray hair had a touch of purple, and two of the teeth among the crooked tangle in her mouth were gold. She didn't look like a rich man's wife. Although she had used polite verb forms, her eyes burned with hostility as she stared first at the top of Gaby's head, then at her breasts, and then down to her legs.
The constant gawking still made Gaby uncomfortable. Her dark brown eyes and hair and fair skin hadn't helped her blend in as she had hoped. Her five-foot-seven-inch height and her figure always stood out. Wherever she went, whatever she wore, men and women alike scrutinized her breasts and legs.
Last month, a client had begged her to model his department store's new line of shoes for a television ad. "You have the legs Japanese girls dream of!" Gaby tactfully made him aware that he didn't make shoes big enough to match her American size eight. Five minutes later, he wanted her to model brassieres. "You wouldn't have to show your face. We'll put a Japanese head on you." Gaby, alarmed at the idea of her body appearing on TV in part or whole, claimed her boss wouldn't allow it, though, in fact, Mr. Eguchi probably wouldn't mind and might even get a kick out if it.
Gaby stepped out of her damp shoes and into a pair of slippers lined up at the border of cement and tatami. She had learned to wear loose pumps that came off quickly inside the door, and industrial-strength nylons that resisted runs in case the floor was old and splintering. Not every house had guest slippers. She followed Mrs. Aoshima to the room where her husband waited.
Mrs. Aoshima, believing herself out of earshot, whispered in Japanese, "That foreign woman is here, you stupid fool." Then she turned to Gaby and gestured for her to enter the room as she spoke in her formal voice. "You are most welcome to our poor, shabby home. Please sit. I will bring some tea."
Gaby heard the television snap off, and Mr. Aoshima stood up and said in English, "Come in, come in." He shook her hand and didn't do a bad job of it. He must have been a businessman who dealt with Westerners. Unlike his wife, he had dark skin, a curious, small-featured face, and a thick brush of white hair. He continued in English. "How do you do? How are you? I'm fine thank you, and you?"
"Nice to meet you," Gaby answered.
"Your English is very good!" Mr. Aoshima laughed at his joke.
Gaby smiled. "So is yours."
"Oh, no, no. I don't speak English now that I'm retired." But he looked pleased. "Guess how old I am."
In America, she would guess sixty; that meant around seventy in Japan. "Fifty-five?""No!" he crowed, delighted. "Guess again."
"Sixty?""Older, older!""Oh, you can't be," Gaby protested.
His wife came back with a tray of teacups, a pitcher of iced tea, and cookies. Pepperidge Farm Milano-a good sign, indicating a willingness to break with tradition. Mrs. Aoshima knelt on the floor, arranging the cups on the low table. She served her husband first, then Gaby. She took nothing for herself, a bad sign. She sat on her knees, looking sullen."
We're going to speak in English," Mr. Aoshima said. "My wife majored in English in college." His wife responded by slapping his arm and muttering something in Japanese Gaby couldn't catch.
Gaby switched to Japanese. "I noticed your large garage. Do you collect cars?""English, English! Where are you from?"
"I knew that by your accent. Which city?" His English actually was very good.
"Portland. You probably haven't heard of it."
"In Washington, right? South of Shiatteru?"
"Yes, south of Seattle, just across the Oregon state line. How do you know about Portland?"
"I did a lot of business on the West Coast. I like America. I like American freedom. Americans are so creative."
"You're too kind," Gaby said.
"That's why I called Gone With The Wind. A big American book, eh? Scarlett O'Hara, right?" He pronounced O'Hara like the Japanese name, OH-hah-lah. "So, tell us about your services." He glanced at his wife. "In Japanese."
Mr. Aoshima was efficient in his own flamboyant way. Gaby often had to endure an hour of small talk before introducing the business of her visit. He fit the Gone With The Wind client profile perfectly, but his wife might cancel the order behind his back. Gaby opened her briefcase and placed a brochure on the table as she began her pitch.
"Our basic departure party is fully catered at our own Gone With The Wind ballroom and accommodates an unlimited number of family members, up to one hundred guests, and ten chanting monks. The honored person enters with a laser light show, circulates through the room on a conveyor belt, and leaves for his ultimate destination in a stunning display of dry ice to his favorite Japanese song, or if you prefer, an American song-"
"Which one?" Mr. Aoshima cut in."
'Yesterday,' 'My Way,' or 'Whistle While You Work.'" Gaby coughed until she had stifled her urge to laugh. Japan: where reality was absurd. This was why she had gradually stopped writing letters to friends in America; it hurt too much that they simply would not believe her firsthand perceptions, so unlike their preconceived ideas about modern Japan. Her own sister resolutely claimed nothing could happen in Japan that didn't happen in New York City. Even her mother, who had recently moved to Brazil with her new husband, continued to think all expatriate experience was like the Peace Corps. The job Gaby held now sounded like science fiction, yet here she was, in Japan, at work. She went on: "But more popular and memorable are our theme departures. We have three theme parks fully equipped not only for your ceremony, but for future anniversaries of your special trip.
"Gaby took a videotape out of her leather briefcase and gestured toward their television system. The screen was almost one meter across, which was a good sign. Mr. Eguchi always said, Big screen means big dream. "If you please?"
Mr. Aoshima looked surprised, but turned on the set and inserted the video. Gaby spoke as the video deftly shifted between rotating computer graphics and close-up film, constantly moving to make the theme parks appear much larger than they were. "First, our Field for Dreams. The honored person is carried around the bases as he makes his way safely home, accompanied by the song of his high school baseball team. Family members may play baseball at this theme park to observe anniversaries of this home run."
She waited for the GWTW logo to appear and spin itself into a ball before starting her next speech. "Next, our exclusive golf shrine Whole in One, distinguished by its moss and rock gardens maintained by Zen monks. The honored person rides among the guests in a golf cart, receiving flags at each hole. As a bonus, family members may play golf at the shrine on the one-year anniversary party. Notice the fine rake work done every morning on the sand traps.
"After the logo appeared, revolved, and fractured into fireworks, she moved to her conclusion. "Our most impressive package is our Star Flight Memory. Family members join the honored person on an indoor roller coaster ride, similar to Space Mountain." Gaby could safely assume the Aoshimas had been to Tokyo Disneyland. "The theme songs are 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star' or 'Fly Me to the Moon.' For the finale, the first car, carrying the honored person, breaks away and rises through the roof in a display of shooting stars while the guest cars slow and form a circle to wave goodbye." Gaby reached over to turn off the TV before the video stopped. A sudden switch from tape to television could lose the sale. A few seconds of a samurai drama or a beer commercial could lure the client back to tradition and waste all her work. "And, all veterans of this package will receive a trip to the moon."
"Really?" Mr. Aoshima exclaimed.
"Liar!" Mrs. Aoshima said at the same time.
Gaby nodded solemnly. "By the year 2020, gardens on the moon will be a reality. Of course, prices will be much higher in the future, but everyone who purchased a Star Flight special before then will be launched on the first available spaceship."
"You can't own the moon," Mr. Aoshima muttered in English, but his eyes showed a hint of appreciation of the idea.
Gaby switched to English to match him. "That's a technicality we're working on," she agreed, packing away the video and producing a gift-wrapped box. "A present from Gone With The Wind for letting me talk to you today. Please."
Mrs. Aoshima didn't touch the box, but glared at her husband.
Gaby knew whose party it would be by who took the box. When Mr. Aoshima absently untied the silk ribbon, she felt a bit sad; she was getting to like him. "Of course, you don't want to make a decision today. But if you were going to order one of our parties, which one would you like?"
"To the moon," Mr. Aoshima mumbled. He took the fan out of the box and absently started fanning himself.
His wife snatched it out of his hand with a sharp cry. "No! It bad idea! It your Korean heart say such thing. We are Japanese. We Japanese die Japanese way!" Mrs. Aoshima ran from the room, pulling her apron skirt up to hide her face as she cried.
Gaby pretended not to notice and concentrated on a long sip of cold barley tea.
Mr. Aoshima looked hurt, then turned to Gaby with a face prepared for photographs-straight, serious, revealing no emotion. "There you have it. My family tomb won't accept my Korean heart. Do you allow Korean hearts at Gone With The Wind?"
Gaby didn't know how to answer. Mr. Eguchi had not prepared her for this. "I think it is not disallowed." In matters of caution or delicacy, Japanese preferred to use the double negative. "Hearts, you see, are muscle, and muscle burns away, all turns to essence." She thought of a hedge in case his wife wouldn't want his remains in an integrated tomb. "As for entire bodies, now, I'm not sure-"
"No body," he said. "I'm Japanese except for my heart."
"Well, I believe that's all right."
He smiled and slapped his knee. "Because my heart will burn! Burned out, all gone, bye-bye, right? Yes! Send me up in flames! Fry me to the moon!"
He scooted on the floor to a cabinet and pulled out a bottle of rice wine. "Now, we drink sake. I tell you about my heart."
Gaby thought about the half-million-yen commission for a "moon package." "Oh, yes, please."
He poured two small cups and knocked his back in one gulp after the kampai cheer, obliging Gaby to do the same. He poured again. "I was a marathon runner, always in good shape. But my beat got off. My heart was too big, maybe. It couldn't pump hard enough. Breathing became a chore. I had white pills, yellow pills, pink pills. Nothing worked. Going upstairs was like climbing Fuji-san. In the hospital, they told me I should prepare to die. Only a transplant could save my life. And as you know, we Japanese don't donate organs when we die. My doctor is progressive and he put me on a special list for a transplant at another clinic. But there are so many people in the world, and so few hearts! I was dying with my name at the bottom of the list. And then, a very lucky event happened. A Korean laborer got in a bad traffic accident. His death was very nice; he hit his head on the road, so his middle was in good condition. His blood type matched mine, so when he died they cut his heart out of his chest-snip, snip-and put it in mine! And here I am, still alive today. A miracle."
Gaby felt queasy. "That is amazing."
Mr. Aoshima filled the cups again. His face was flushed. "That's when I began to believe in God. God killed this man for me-for me!"
"Indeed," Gaby said. "That's quite a story, isn't it?"
"And when I die"-Mr. Aoshima tipped his head back to drain another shot-"I want my heart to fry to the moon!"
"Gone With The Wind can do that for you," Gaby said. She worried about his drinking-was alcohol allowed for transplant patients? "Eguchi-san will call to make arrangements tomorrow. But perhaps your wife needs time to get used to the idea?"
Mr. Aoshima waved his hand and settled it on Gaby's knee. "She'll complain, but she will do whatever I say. I am the man of the house. Are you married?"
Every time. She never managed to avoid that question. "I was," she said, "but no longer." The words were true, but she was acting stoic-in-the-aftermath-of-tragedy when, in fact, she wished she'd divorced the jerk earlier.
Mr. Aoshima looked sympathetic. "He is dead, isn't he?"
Gaby pulled out her handkerchief and pretended to stifle tears. "I'm sorry...I can't talk about his...departure."
"Here, drink this." Mr. Aoshima pushed more sake at her. "So, that is how you got into this business. Naturally, you didn't work before he died. Suddenly, bills to pay. You don't know what to do. You stay with your husband's body as long as you can. The funeral man whispers that it's time to leave. You look at him with your big brown eyes and ask if he has a job for you. You poor thing. You are very brave."
Gaby put the handkerchief down and sniffed. "Thank you for your kindness. I'm sorry for my rude outburst. Could I...could I please use your toilet?"
"Please, go ahead. Down that hall."
Driving back in the rain, Gaby telephoned Mr. Eguchi with news of her success. "The toilet is a Toto Home Sound Princess, with a button that produces a fake flushing sound to disguise your own noises, and above the tank there's a wedding cake-like thing with ballerinas that rotate to the tune of 'Swan Lake' when the water drains. We've got a big dreamer here."
"Wonderful!" Mr. Eguchi exclaimed. "I'll call him tomorrow to finalize the details. Does he know you're not married?"
"He thinks I'm a widow. Invented a romantic story about me."
"Good, good! We'll take this one to the moon, Gebi-san. Good job."
She turned the telephone off. Half a million yen, she reminded herself, as the wipers dejectedly batted the rain left and right. The moon, invisible behind storm clouds, was growing full.
Excerpted from AMERICAN FUJI © Copyright 2001 by Sara Backer. Reprinted with permission by Putnam Pub Group, an imprint of Penguin Putnam. All rights reserved.
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 416 pages
- Publisher: Penguin
- ISBN-10: 0425230090
- ISBN-13: 9780425230091