by Michael Hoffman
“Must you put wasabi on everything?”
He looked at her in astonishment. Her tone, her face, were positively anguished. “What’s wrong?”
“Do you have any idea, any… you don’t, do you?”
“What do I cook for? What for? All you taste is wasabi!
“I’m sorry,” he said again. “I didn’t know it bothered you.”
He tried to think back to when he’d loved her. He thought of the time he’d wanted to die because she seemed to love him less; he’d imagine her sobbing helplessly over his corpse, understanding at last, too late, what real love is. It seemed so absurd now, so comical. Probably all couples, he reflected, are like this after thirty years. “Is Ko home?”
“What difference does it make? Whether he’s home or not, do we see him?”
After dinner Yoshifumi Goto knocked softly on the door of his son’s room. A listless, sullen voice, seeming to rise up from a great depth, murmured, “What?”
Goto opened the door and closed it gently behind him. Ko lay on the futon, propped up on cushions, a book in his hands. His sanctuary invaded, however gently, he seemed to shrink into himself, although perhaps this was Goto’s imagination, a reflection of his own discomfort. He looked around, as though to get his bearings. It never failed to surprise him how clean and tidy the boy kept his room. No dirty clothes lying about, books and CDs neatly lined up on shelves; you’d be hard pressed to find a speck of dust anywhere.
“What are you reading?”
With a vague gesture Ko invited his father to take the book and see for himself. Goto did so.
“Herodotus.” Goto shook his head. Many young men Ko’s age, he knew from the newspapers, sat home all day and night playing computer games, reading manga and so on. How many sat home reading Herodotus?
He cleared his throat. “We need to have a talk, you and I.” Suddenly he flared up. “Don’t look at me like that! I know Herodotus is more interesting, but – ” Calm, calm, he enjoined himself. Calm. Anger solves nothing; anger only makes things worse. He took a deep breath and resumed, more quietly, “Maybe what I have to say is more urgent.” He smiled and ventured a small joke. “More predictable too, I grant you.”
What did Ko intend to do with his life? When was he going to find a job, or go back to university and finish his degree? Did he think the present state of affairs could go on forever? Didn’t he have any ambition, any dream to pursue, any goal to aim at? Surely he couldn’t be happy living as he was?
“But I am happy.”
“I am.” He reached out a hand to take back the book his father still held; unconsciously Goto handed it to him, only then realizing that he had, in effect, been dismissed.
He lay awake far into the night. Having finally made up his mind to talk to Ko, having at last mustered the resolve to do so, having mastered, or at least temporarily suppressed, his shrinking dread of conflict, his sense of his own inadequacy as a father, he had confronted the boy, only to yield at the first show of resistance – not even resistance, mere disinterest! No, this was impossible, this was crazy! What time was it? 3:14, said the clock on the night table beside his bed – 3:14! And he had to be up at seven. What sort of work would he be fit for, after a sleepless night? Even at 3:14, Ko would surely be awake – who knew when he slept? He didn’t have to be up at seven in the morning! He would talk to him now, right now, only not as before. This time he would march down the hall, fling open the door, and say, “Listen, my young friend, you are twenty-three years old, I am no longer responsible for you, if you want to live without doing anything, contributing anything, accomplishing anything, that’s fine, only not in my house, not with my support, not on my money!”
“What’s the matter?”
“What? Nothing.” In his agitation he had wakened his wife; perhaps he had unconsciously been talking out loud. “Nothing. Go back to sleep.”
As far back as Goto could remember, he had had one overriding passion in his life. Bacteria. As a child, his fascination with these unearthly little creatures had set him apart from other children. He could recall no defining event that got him started on what turned out to be his life’s work. His earliest memory clear enough to be put into words was of a pigtailed little girl named Kanako running away from him in theatrical terror screaming “Bacteria! Bacteria!” How old would he have been? Four? Five? So his interest must already have declared himself, although how, in what form, was long since irrecoverably lost.
A single gram of soil, he’d read when still very small, contained some 40 million bacteria. Forty million! He took a clump of soil from the little garden his mother kept and weighed out a gram in the balance scale that came with his child’s chemistry set. One gram, the merest sprinkling, and yet… 40 million! He could not grasp it. Later he learned that there is no earthly environment so hostile to life that bacteria cannot live and thrive in it – in radioactive waste, in acidic hot springs, in the depths of the most loathsome entrails of the most loathsome beasts. That being so, he thought, they must inhabit other worlds as well, broiling hot Mercury, frigid Pluto, even beyond the solar system, to the vast outer reaches of the cosmos!
By the time he was seven he had irrevocably settled on his life’s calling. He would be a bacteriologist. No other possibility so much as occurred to him. There were no competing interests, nothing in his world that had a comparable hold on his imagination. He was a normal enough child for all that, an excellent student, a fine athlete – he later became a member of his university track team, and still ran marathons from time to time – and good-natured enough that he never lacked friends. His friends made no secret of finding his single-minded preoccupation eccentric, but they respected rather than mocked him for it, and foresaw a brilliant future for him.
That, alas, never materialized. There must have been something lacking in him. At a critical point in his university studies he faltered, and never quite regained his footing. There had been a period when, in his heart (never outwardly), he blamed his wife. His inordinate love for her certainly had been a distraction. Nothing in his earlier relationships with women had prepared him for any feeling more overpowering than pleasure – and what quality had Rie possessed that set her apart? He didn’t know, it didn’t matter, he loved her, loved her to madness; to hell with his career; death was preferable to life without her, and more than once her chilly response to his frenzied courtship drove him to the verge of suicide. Marriage sobered him. No sooner were the formalities over than he saw her for what she was – a woman like any other, nice, pleasing in her way… but to think he might have killed himself over her!
Upsetting as all that had been, his failure all the same stemmed from other causes. It took time, but gradually he came to realize that even without Rie, even without his mad, inexplicable passion for her, he would still never have been a first-class researcher. His intelligence was quick and his observation keen, but his mind could soar only so high. Others’ soared higher, and he would have been left behind. Perhaps things had turned out for the best after all. His doctorate unfinished, he took a job culturing waste-digesting bacteria for a waste processing plant. It was good, useful work, limiting, but not intolerably so. It paid well and, unlike the jobs of many he knew, was stable, not subject to the vagaries of a slumping economy. He had no fear of being handed a pink slip one fine morning, or of his company going bankrupt. He would retire at sixty on a more than adequate pension. All in all, he reflected, he’d done well for himself – not brilliantly, but as one gets older, brilliance loses its luster.
The thought came upon him all at once as he sat on the train. “What if I don’t go home? What if I just vanish?” It had been a long day. Government inspectors had come by, and he’d had to deal with them. “I’ll quit my job, leave my family… if not now, when?” He was fifty-one years old, still young enough to start afresh. In another few years he wouldn’t be. Neither Rie nor Ko would grieve for him, the plant would replace him easily enough, and… why, he could go back to school, proceed with the doctorate he’d abandoned decades earlier, not to advance his career but for knowledge, understanding! He closed his eyes. He felt suddenly as though he had shed thirty years of dull, encrusted routine; he was young again, vigorous, his mind active, open, eager, yearning. Bacteria – what fascinating, fascinating creatures! To know them was to expand, to deepen, your view of life, the world, the cosmos. There are on Earth, it has been calculated, five nonillion bacteria. Five nonillion! Five million trillion trillion. If each bacteria were a penny and you stacked them one on another, the stack would reach a trillion light years high! How many people on this train knew that, had the faintest notion of it, or the ability to comprehend the enormity of it even if he were to stand up on his seat right now and announce it at the top of his voice? “I will announce it!” He could picture himself doing it, could vividly imagine the shocked expressions and exclamations all around him as people looked up from their newspapers, manga, cell phones, as they woke up from their half-sleep, their half-death… “I’ll wake them up, I’ll rouse them, I’ll – ”
His eyelids jerked open. Had he been dozing, dreaming? What was that noise? “What noise? There’s no noise…” But there was – a scuffle of some sort, somewhere behind him. A woman… moaning, whimpering… Was she in pain? Did she need help? What could he do? He wasn’t a doctor. “Please, please,” the woman seemed to be saying. “Please, no.” And then a masculine voice, growling as though through clenched teeth, “Shut up or I’ll – ” Without moving his head, Goto glanced furtively about him. Had anyone noticed anything? No one seemed to have; everyone was as absorbed as before in their newspapers, manga, cell phones, music. He strained his ears – no sound, nothing, just the humming of the engine and a slight creaking and rattling as the train passed over some points, or whatever they were. Then came an announcement through the overhead speakers, an amplified whisper. They were approaching a station; not his, but he stood up, gathered his things and made for the exit door – the one in front of him, though the one behind was closer. “Please watch your step as you disembark, especially passengers with children…” The train stopped, the doors opened and he got off. He would take the next one the rest of the way. How long would he need to wait? He checked the timetable and looked at his watch: twenty-seven minutes. Strolling aimlessly through the station, he noticed a little pub. He went in, squeezed into a space at the standup bar, and ordered a beer.
He looked up from his meal in astonishment. He had not heard the boy come in but there he was, hovering in the doorway, looking, it seemed to him, somewhat abashed.
As usual when he was late, Rie had prepared his dinner and gone to bed; all he had to do was reheat it. She was a first-rate cook. In what looked like a gesture of reconciliation she had laid on the table his tube of wasabi, as if to say, “Please yourself, I was being silly.” But no, he admitted in a sudden access of contrition, she’d been right. Wasabi had become a mere habit with him, he spread it on everything, it was like an addiction almost, and the truth was that food – as she cooked it, at least – tasted better without it. It was too bad Rie was asleep. It would have given him pleasure – so he’d been thinking when startled by Ko’s sudden appearance – to tell her of this discovery. He pictured the smile on her face, that shy smile of hers, as she heard him out, and was overcome with tenderness. Shy… yes. All those years and years and years ago – it had not been coldness on her part, not a failure to reciprocate his love, but shyness. She was embarrassed to show her feelings. Did that mean she didn’t have any? Of course not. How had he failed to see it then, and why did he suddenly see it so clearly now? The human mind is a mystery. There is no accounting for the way it works. A man sits down to dinner, and suddenly his entire past appears to him in a whole new light.
Ko sat across the table from his father. His eyes were lowered. He said nothing. Goto regarded him quizzically. It was rare, in fact unprecedented lately, for Ko to seek his father out, or even acknowledge his existence except grudgingly, when he absolutely had to. Did he have something on his mind? They had been close once, during Ko’s childhood. They had played chess together, and soccer; they’d gone jogging around the pond in Nakajima Park; sometimes after jogging Ko would say, “Let’s rent a rowboat!”, and they’d do it; when Goto worked Saturday or Sunday mornings, as he sometimes did, he would take little Ko with him, explaining this and that about the marvelous organisms he worked with, glowing with inward satisfaction when Ko showed an interest. “Wouldn’t it be good,” he’d think to himself, “if Ko too goes in for bacteriology! It’ll give us something to talk about all our lives; maybe we’ll even work together someday…” But that was all long ago; Ko the adult was a stranger, a silent, uncommunicative stranger. What had happened? Nothing; the usual; it happens in all families; a child grows up and becomes a different person; regrets and sadness are natural but useless.
He groped for something to say. “Are you hungry?”
He ate a mouthful in silence. “Your mother,” he ventured, “is the best cook in all Japan.”
“Do you know, it’s funny…” And he told the story of the wasabi, of his sudden conversion to Rie’s point of view on that question. Desperate to engage the boy, he told it with exaggerated high spirits that sounded unpleasantly in his own ears.
“Dad… Would you lend me a hundred thousand yen?”
“I’ll pay you back.”
“How?” it was on the tip of his tongue to demand, but he checked himself and asked instead, “What do you need a hundred thousand yen for?”
“I’d rather not say.”
“You’d rather – ” Silence, he admonished himself; bite your tongue. Words once spoken can’t be unspoken. He looked at the boy through narrowed eyes. The boy’s own eyes were still lowered – not from embarrassment, it seemed to Goto, but simply from a desire to reduce the contact between them to the barest minimum. What could he want a hundred thousand yen for? His wants were few; he received a small – very small – monthly allowance, and had never asked for more. Had he fallen into debt? Was he in trouble of some other kind? Had he made someone pregnant? He studied the boy’s face but saw on it no hint of desperation, or enthusiasm for some hopeful venture he might have in mind, or pleading, or anything, in fact, but a faint suggestion of boredom, of annoyance at having to come out of his shell into this dull, polluted, oppressive world we call “reality.”
“All right.” The sound of his own voice almost startled him. He’d been visualizing a scenario in which he acceded without demure to the request; the boy would be as grateful for his trust as for the money, and maybe, just maybe, something would flow from that, something good. And without quite meaning to, seduced by a vision he well knew was unrealistic, he had spoken.
Without another word Ko got up and left the room.
The next morning on the train Goto read in the newspaper about how a young woman had been raped the night before on that very train, and no one had lifted a finger to help, everyone had pretended to be unaware anything was happening. The rapist had had a knife. He was described as being thirty-five to forty years of age, about 175 cm tall, stocky and muscular, with a shaven head, an unshaven face and a livid white scar, five centimeters long, on his left cheek. Next to the article was a police sketch of the face, based on the woman’s description. Goto shuddered. It was a fearsome face, feral, murderous. What could a man like Goto have done against a man like that?
He arrived at the plant to find a group of elementary school children lined up behind their teachers, ready for a tour. He had forgotten. He was to conduct it. Whenever possible, the plant’s management assigned this task to Goto. Goto had a gift, perhaps nothing other than his native sense of wonder and mystery, which the children instinctively responded to. They came associating bacteria with dirt, runny noses and upset stomachs, and left as awed and thrilled as though they’d discovered another planet, swarming with hitherto unknown life forms.
It was a large group, three classes of third- and fourth-graders, about one hundred children in all. The lobby rang with their voices and their laughter. What a beautiful sound! What beautiful music! Goto closed his eyes, basking in it. He loved children – at least it seemed to him now that he did, and yet there had been a time when Rie had wanted a second child and he’d been opposed. Why? He no longer knew. The expense, the worries… Bitterness was uncharacteristic of Rie, but when roused at last she could be sharp, and once she had flung at him, “If children were bacteria you’d want a houseful!”
“Well, children!” They quieted at once as he approached. “Come with me.” He led them to a fountain of water gushing into a basin. “What do you see?”
“Look into the water.”
He’d done this any number of times over the years – hard as they looked they saw nothing but water, and yet in each drop of water, each droplet, were a million bacteria, a million, think of it, in one single droplet of water, living organisms, living, like you and me… – but now it was as if his throat had closed, his voice no longer functioned; the words shaped themselves in his mind but his voice refused to utter them; he closed his eyes and heard a woman moaning, “Please, please no,” and he wanted to admonish her, “Sh! Not in front of the children!” He opened his eyes to find the children staring at him in mute astonishment; it seemed to him they were seeing everything, everything in him, everything inside him, everything about him, not only what had happened on the train but everything, everything; he had lost all powers of concealment; the children couldn’t take their eyes off him; they would never, all their lives, be able ever to unsee what they were seeing and couldn’t help seeing, however much it terrified them.
“Mr. Goto? Are you ill?”
One of the teachers, a young woman, had approached him and was looking up into his face with concern.
“He’d have killed me.”
“He’d have killed me, do you understand? I’d be dead. Dead. Is that what you want?”
He came to in a train, and frowned in bewilderment. How had he got here? He was seated by a window; bright sunlight struck him full in the face; he had to avert his eyes from its glare. Was it summer already? No, impossible. The train interior, to his dazzled eyes, was dark, and for a time he could make nothing out at all. The overhead speakers came to life and named the next station, from which he inferred that he was on his way home. Someone from the plant must have taken him to the station and put him on the train. Yes, he’d had an attack of some sort. The children… what would the children be thinking? With adults you can apologize and make excuses – fatigue, overwork – but children, children are a different matter! Children are impressionable, their minds must be nurtured, protected…
He started. “What?”
His eyes, less sun-struck now, made out, standing over him, a young woman… no, a girl she must have been, she was wearing a high school uniform. Did he know her? She evidently knew him, but as best he could judge he had never seen her before in his life. How would he have? He knew no one in this neighborhood; knew no high school girls in any neighborhood, unless… could she have taken one of his tours? Of course, that must be it. His manner softened. “Sit down,” he said, but she made no move to do so. She regarded him in silence. The silence lengthened, became awkward, stifling, but Goto, squirming, somehow could not bring himself to speak. “Who are you?” he wanted to demand, and sternly too, for her behavior was insolent in the extreme, but a kind of unreasoning terror held him back; if he asked she would answer, but there was no telling what her answer would reveal, and… wasn’t it better not to know?
“You’re thinking it’s better not to know,” she said at last. She grinned, showing a wire brace on her upper teeth. “You’re right. You don’t know how right you are. But you will.” Her grin widened. “You will know.”
“What? What will I know?” His voice was a hoarse croak. “Who…?”
“…am I? No one. You don’t have to worry about me, I’m just a hallucination.”
“What will I know?”
“That hallucinations are as real as anything else, that’s one thing. And another…”
“But I have a question for you. May I?”
His bewilderment deepened; she spoke now like a real high school girl, modestly and respectfully, a young person addressing an older one.
“Why didn’t you help that poor woman last night? How could you… how could you…” Her voice quivered, she seemed on the verge of tears.
“But… I’d be dead,” he murmured.
“And aren’t you dead now?”
“What will your wife say?”
“And your son?”
“They… they won’t say anything, they won’t know…”
The girl shook her head sadly. “You don’t yet fully understand,” she said, “what has happened to you. It will take time. I’m afraid I have to go now.”
Heads turned in his direction. People were staring at him. He shrank into himself, overcome with embarrassment. But their interest was fleeting, soon reclaimed by their cell phones, manga, music and so on. Satisfied he was unlikely to cause further disturbance, they were happy to leave him to his thoughts, whatever they might be.
Editor’s Note on What Happened to Mr. Goto on the Train:
This is not the first piece Eastlit has published by Michael Hoffman. His other work is listed below:
- They Were Standing in Line at the Airport appeared in Eastlit May 2014.