Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Fiction #71: Tim Conley

Behind the Scenes

  Kowai mono mitasa.
   – Japanese proverb

Just before the salads came she noticed that he had something up his nose. The left nostril (his left), something solid. She leaned a little closer while he was telling her about how he had gone to university to study sports management but to appease his father he took a minor in business and that decision turned out to get him the job at the bank. She tried to lean in such a way that might suggest attentiveness rather than anything more, eating her salad and trying to get a better look at the thing up his nose. It was solid and, she thought, inorganic. She was fairly certain it hadn’t been there earlier. Now he was talking about salads, because he could see that she was enjoying her salad, and didn’t she think that salads were always great when someone else made them for you, but only when someone else made them? She nodded but he pressed on: did she know what the best thing about working in the bank was? (She remembered how Chiyo insisted on paying for their coffees as she admitted, well, he works in a bank, and Kiwa repeated, he works in a bank, and Chiyo tried to laugh it off, saying, it’s a job, that has to count for something, and Kiwa said, counting is the operative word.) No, she really did not know what the best thing about working in a bank was. It gives you, he said, excitedly trying to figure out how to end his sentence, it gives you a look behind the scenes.

When he was telling her that he had taken over his father’s investment portfolio and really made something of it, Kiwa determined that the object was metallic, a greyish blue. And when he was telling her that even his uncle, who had, as a matter of fact, always dismissed his nephew as a fool, had now not only recanted but repeatedly asked him for some financial advice, she thought that she could see some sort of writing on the metallic object up his nose, though whether it was lettering or numbering the restaurant lighting refused to let her discover. Could she take him after dinner to her apartment and find him a seating position next to a strong lamp? She found herself seriously exploring the question. After all (she told herself), most of the men she had taken back to her apartment in the past couple of years had been taken out of curiosity, one way or another. She took a deep gulp of wine and he remarked that the wine was good.

She decided to let him decide. (There’s a cold streak in you, Chiyo liked to say, with equal parts amusement and admiration.) She suggested that there must be a lot of risk involved in the kind of banking he did, and she could see him trying to balance the urge to reassure her of his utter competence, not to lay too fine a point on it, and thus play down the element of risk, and the urge to acknowledge what might be a compliment, a projected image of him as a man who savours the thrill of risk. It quickly became apparent that this tightrope act was too much for him. He swayed from one tack to another: a testy distinction between the solidity of the system and the fatal lack of conviction shared by some timorous elements within the system; then a concession that the system might be improved, of course, and that banking evolves as an economy changes, like a living thing; then an apology-question hybrid seeking assurance that he was not boring her with so technical a subject; but before she could reply, had she wanted to, he denounced Chinese communism which incidentally was a very good example of how the free market prevails in the end; then he started to tell a story about a time he had stood up to or gotten the better of or barely escaped from a gang of Chinese thugs, but his doubts about its relevance slowly brought him to a stop. After a moment of looking at it fiercely, he slurped his glass empty and refilled it.

Kiwa knew that she could say nothing, that he would probably now become aloof or resentful after having letting her see such a fumble. (The wisdom of Chiyo: men without women are men unsure of themselves. And here I am supposed to be the one with the cold streak, Kiwa replied.) She was not going to let go of her mystery just yet. The server came to tempt them with dessert – she pretended to think that tiramisu was an everyday word she could not place, but the server corrected her before her date could, so she asked the server for some time to consider, and considered instead how to save the banker some face without knowing for certain why she was doing so.

My grandfather, she said, was ninety-two years old when he passed away last year. The banker, silent since his saga of the Chinese gang petered out, blinked and waited for more, undoubtedly waiting to see what this new topic had to do with him. My mother’s father, she said, and slid hair from her bare shoulder that had not been bothering her in the slightest. It is hard to believe that he’s gone. The banker said that he was sorry to hear it: had they been close? He lived with us for some of the years I was growing up, she explained, and sometimes he could be kind, very kind, and he was quiet and gentle, but he was very disapproving of so many things. Even though he would say nothing, everyone could feel his disapproval in the air, you couldn’t miss it. He would disapprove of this. Of what? Of the whole situation: eating in an “Italian” restaurant, dinner alone with a stranger, this dress. At last the banker took up his role: though we owe great respect to our elders, this is a new age, a new country. For example, he bet that her grandfather disapproved of the internet. She laughed, he did, he did, and brushed that hair from her shoulder again.

It dawned on her then, as she got another half-decent look at the thing up the banker’s nose, why she should find herself thinking about her grandfather at this moment: his models. Nothing so fully absorbed the old man than meticulously painting his diecast models of warplanes. The more detail required, the greater concentration and more time required, the prouder he would ultimately be of his accomplishment, a pride that could be measured by the discerning observer by how modest he became when it was noticed. Very tiny numbers, historically correct designations, always perfectly written –as though stencilled, though of course it was all by untrembling free hand– on the sides of those little planes. It could not be a model warplane up his nose, of course, for the size and shape were all wrong, but now it was hard not to see the inscription as numerical designation of some kind, and she decided that she would not have dessert, thank you all the same, and that she was going to ask: what do you say to a glass of wine at my place?

He paid with a golden credit card that she was meant to notice and as she passed through the door he held open she glanced back to see whether the angle and the change in lighting helped make out what that thing was when she tripped and scraped her knee on the sidewalk. The banker was gallant but began talking about the possibility of infection in a cut, even a simple scrape like that one; she winced less from the little pain in the knee than from her inability to see a way not only to interrupt but to extend the invitation and make it plausible. He had an idea – she knew this because he told her he had an idea, and waited for her to ask what it was. Do you know The Midnight Whistle? he asked. It’s a nightclub, not far from here, we can go for a drink there and get your knee cleaned and bandaged. He reiterated the dangers of infection as he hailed a taxi. She did not protest. She got into the taxi and imagined herself telling Chiyo the next day: my knee hurt, your friend’s friend is way too much of an amateur epidemiologist, but I was determined to find out what that thing was up his nose.

The taxi went east within Shinjuku, the driver talking with the banker about traffic conditions the whole way. The words Midnight Whistle were lit in lavender and even before entering she could tell that without question it was a gay club. Kiwa felt her plans drop out of reach as they stepped inside: the only lights were the blue glow of the bar and itinerant flashes of cellphones. A beefy DJ in a sleeveless tuxedo, ducking out of one set of headphones into another, was doing something with police sirens, a skipping base beat, and Cat Stevens hoping you make a lot of nice friends out there. The banker steered her to the corner of the bar. Do you come here often? she asked. He grinned: as a matter of fact, he recently became one of the owners of the building. Did he own many buildings? she dutifully asked and rubbed her knee. He obtained a clean cloth from one of the bartenders and handed it to her as he shared with her the confidential fact that he owned a few. She probably thought it was expensive, and she would be right. But as a matter of fact, he said, and here the music rendered several words inaudible, then something about a terrible slump with no good projections for the future. Something after that and then something about the bubble economy of a dozen years ago were going to be felt for a long time to come. We have to start thinking differently, he concluded. What would you like to drink?

He recommended something and she sipped it: cold and sweet, difficult to say just how potent. Almost all of the customers were men, as far as she could judge; the bartenders were a blurrier blend. Bad and beware, Cat Stevens was stammering, bad and beware. She did not like clubs and tried to show it discreetly, but turned to see the banker, whose name she realized she could not remember, downing a small row of brightly coloured shots and getting cheered on by a few guys at the bar. She looked carefully at them but saw nothing protruding from any nostrils. Nor did they seem to notice anything sticking out of his nose, but then even she could only just see it and she was standing next to him. How’s your knee? All right, she said, but thought to add: it would help if I could sit down somewhere for a few minutes. Hang on, he said. He got a beer from the bar, took her hand, and led her slowly through the jostling bodies to a staircase at the back. She saw that he was speaking as they went but she heard not a word.

Down the narrow stairs and past the toilets, he led her to a door at the end of a long hall and, releasing her hand, fished a key out from his jacket. I want you to know, he was saying when she found she could hear him again, that I appreciate your telling me about your connection with your grandfather. I appreciate your sharing that with me. He unlocked the door and reached inside for a light switch, which took him longer than it would a sober man. He told her again how much he appreciated it. And because she had shared something (he hesitated) so close to her (he hesitated, found the light) with him, he wanted to (he hesitated) share something special with her. Inside the door was another even narrower, much longer staircase leading down. (It’s all fun and games until how does the rest of it go, Chiyo whispered in her mind.) He felt her stiffen, lifted up her hand to his chest and looked straight at her. Tell me what you’re thinking, he whispered hoarsely and she could smell the rainbow of liqueurs in his breath. Her mouth, she knew, was open, might have been open for several seconds now.

The big picture, she answered after what seemed like a very long time. The pulsating music of the club was very distant. Apparently satisfied with her answer, he led her down the stairs, lightly holding her wrist as though she were somehow more fragile than before. Dozens of stairs, over a hundred, she lost count, kept going down, down, until they came to another door.
 He seemed exhausted when they stopped at the door. Kiwa could just make out the outline of the object in his nose when he showed his profile. This one is for you, he said, gesturing to the door. I can’t go in.

Her grandfather promptly reappeared in her thoughts, looking up from his devotional painting of numbers on the side of a miniature warplane, giving a stern glare. She wanted to tell him that tiramisu is a Japanese dish, just say the word a few times and you’ll know. The language and the cuisine and the world have changed, they are changing all the time, unforgiving grandfather, and I am reaching out and opening the door.

The door closed decisively behind her and she was in complete darkness but for a distant point of light ahead, towards which she began to walk. The metallic sound to the echoes of her footsteps suggested that she was in some kind of tunnel, an impression that grew stronger as the point of light by degrees expanded to a circle as she grew nearer. Her pace did not change. It’s all fun and games, Chiyo, she said to herself, and then repeated aloud a few times, a complement to the rhythm of her walking.

What was from a distance a blurry circle of light came into focus as an aperture and she could see beyond, through, out of the tunnel. She came to a halt when she realized that this was no doorway but a window; her outstretched hand pressed against a screen or lens of some kind, more than twice her height in diameter. And with astounding clarity she could see the polish on the silverware, the slightest crease in the tablecloth, as though it were all magnified and made more vibrant than anything she had seen before, and the extraordinary hand, how it managed the feat of engineering to so gracefully pick up the shimmering glass with its delirious ocean of wine, bring it up, up, up to the lips, perfectly timed to shape themselves to catch the downpour without a drop spilled. There was so much, so enthralling much, she did not know where to look: all of these gigantic movements, fluctuations in detail, arrays of differences between fractions of moments.

And the eyes, it took a little while (how long?), a long while, it took a while for her to see them as wholes, to distinguish one part and colour and motion from another, and as she did she saw them as she had never seen them before, being seen by them but not knowing what they see. Again and again they flashed directly at her, those curious eyes, at just where Kiwa was looking out, and she knew that she was trying not to be seen looking, eating her salad and smiling and regularly scrutinizing that point of observation where Kiwa stood, looking out.

She glanced back into the tunnel behind her, knowing that there was a door somewhere back there in the darkness, an entrance if not an exit, but it was only a glance, an unseeing glance, and she turned again to see what she would do next.

*

Tim Conley's most recent book of fiction is Dance Moves of the Near Future (New Star Books, 2015).

Photo credit: Alice Callas

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