Glen’s father left him when he was three. He’d only ever seen pictures, and hated them, and hated the man's receding hairline. Since Glen inherited the same gene, he was reminded of his absentee dad every time he looked in the mirror, or a marginally clean beermug.
He remembered sitting in Jersey with a Coors can on his stomach, newly discharged and gaining weight like it was his sole, God-bestowed mission. Knocking Xbox triggers with both pointer fingers and phasing out the world until it didn’t exist. He always thought he'd hated structure, with the meaningless attendant bullshit, the protocols and politics, until someone handed him discharge papers and kicked his ass out into complete freedom.
Marines to Army, man? You hate yourself that much?
At least the Army had gotten him back in shape.
14T: Patriot System Operator/Maintainer. A nice way of saying you drive a truck full of missiles from one parking lot to another and keep it dust-free, raising the launch platform, lowering the launch platform, never able to shoot so much as a rubber band into the air. Crucial part of our nation’s defense, though.
In the Army barracks he kept to himself. A pariah, self-chosen, even though he was decorated and a grunt. He had his stash, nothing pornographic—he couldn’t bring himself to do anything but imagine his prize. Comic books with pure fantasies: kids in uniform, frolicking, telling secrets, doing what he never could in his two-room hovel in New Jersey. Used to sit in the bathroom stall in the barracks, holding most of his weight above the toilet seat.
Today the teacher gave me an A-plus on my exam. How exciting! I was shaking with happiness the whole day. My parents will be so pleased. Maybe they will buy me that new skirt I’ve been after them to get. I hope so—I really do!
Killing them with a rock, he had said. Was that true? No, he wished them no malice. He felt a murky affection for his kids, out of some camaraderie with their lot in life. Same brotherhood.
“I’m in fifth grade now, sir,” Brandon had said.
“You don’t have to call me that. Just say, 'Dad.' I’m not like those hardass Marines.”
He could have made things different, but he hadn’t.
“Dad never had a Purple Heart,” he said. But he didn’t know, really. His own father was drinking somewhere, if he had to guess, fuzzed out in a foreign city, wondering what chubby Glen could look like now. Or maybe he thought about nothing. Most likely, the elder Margery was just peeling the label from a beer bottle and fretting over the next spike of pleasure on his list.
Yoshio lounged far from the window with a crick in his jaw, rubbing his hands and pouring sake while Etsu expounded on student life. She studied history under Haruki Tamashi, an eccentric but respected professor. Commuted four times a week from Naha to Okinawa City to hear him speak. From all the flattery aimed at the man’s teaching ability, Yoshio concluded he was handsome. As if in response, the hitman flaunted his own well-fashioned cheekbones, which involved deliberate and periodic smiling at each bon mot Etsu managed to dredge up.
“I have a present for you.” Proudly, he set down the bobble-head doll he’d bought from her that evening, already removed from its package. The paint was chipped on the left pupil.
“Fantastic, thank you. I actually don’t own any of these.”
“No toys in your room?”
Etsu scanned the far windows and the road beyond, flicking the figure’s movable dome of a skull. “No, not in my room. I just write, mostly.”
“Then we share a common bond. I just finished an article I’m hoping to publish in the Ryukyu Standard.”
Etsu lifted her face, mouth open, eyebrows bent in surprise. “I have a friend who works there.”
“It’s just political stuff, nothing important. It probably won’t get accepted.”
“Well, my friend is the junior editor of the politics section. You never know, maybe I could put in a good word—depending on your behavior, of course.”
With great gentility Yoshio pressed his hand to his heart and bowed his head, which was now combed through with pomade. “I promise to be honest and forthright in all my dealings with you, even if I find it difficult. Now tell me about your professor. You write together, correct?”
“Oh, he’s amazing. He sees every side of the issue so clearly. Like with the base relocation, for instance. Some of the more radical groups say he doesn’t push hard enough, but I think he’s just rational, that’s all.”
“So he thinks the Americans should stay?”
“He doesn’t say that. He sees their importance, even if he has major problems with the way they behave. He wants us to think critically, though. That’s the whole point.”
Yoshio turned and covered a belch. “I like Americans. They accept that life is all about the surface.”
Etsu puffed out one of her cheeks as she pulled her arms in to her sides. Her brow furrowed, giving her the air of a young philosopher or detective. This was her thinking pose, probably. “Do you really think so? Doesn’t that seem a little juvenile?”
“I think it’s more immature to pretend like we’re important.”
“But we are. Of course we are.”
“To who? The world? Hell no. To each other? People mostly fuck each other and tell themselves lies. They work soul-killing jobs and die without achieving their potential. As God most likely said, life is the aftermath of an explosion.”
Etsu brushed a hand through her short, dark hair and its gold filigree. Could those be highlights? “You sound like some nineteen-year-old Tokyo novelist.”
Yoshio laughed, too loudly, with his head thrown back. His tongue wobbled over headstone teeth that showed yellow at the incisors. “I think you should know, at this stage, that I am indeed from Tokyo.”
“I could have figured that much.”
“The accent. And attitude, I suppose.”
“Listen, I am not your average Tokyoite. I’m no working stiff.”
Etsu looked away, as if uncomfortable he was telling her so much. “So what do you do?”
“What do I do? Hm. That is a question for the professors. You should ask Dr. Tamashi what I do for a living.”
“Why, does he know you?”
“No. He wouldn’t know me from the next guy, as a matter of fact. But it would be an interesting exam question.” He poured another cup of sake and giggled.
“I don’t know how that would be interesting, I’m afraid.”
“Don’t fret about it. Here—to chance meetings.”
While they drank their wine, the waiter set two bowls of boiling pork broth ramen in front of them. A coy smile passed from mouth to mouth as fatherly shadows swaddled them in their otherwise empty corner.
“Music? You like music?”
“Some, yes.” Shyly, she brushed her hands over the table, avoiding contact.
“I prefer pop from the 1980s myself. Madonna, Yukihiro Takahashi.” He snapped his fingers and hummed a few bars of “Pretender,” off-pitch, wiggling in his seat with a rather liberal interpretation of rhythm.
“That’s a little weird.”
“Yes, and I readily accept that. Who isn’t weird? Now you go.”
Etsu averted her eyes. “Hip-hop. Rap music, I guess.”
The mainlander lifted his mouth into a half-smile. Subtly he shifted his weight and leaned forward over the table. “American?”
“MF Doom, Big L, Big Pun. I don’t tell many people this, because I don’t want them to get the wrong idea. I don’t advocate violence. But because your own taste is so odd, I don’t mind saying. Or at least it’s easier to say.”
“Another common bond,” he said, catching her eye.
As if chastised, she turned her face away, towards the wall. “I suppose. I just like the words, even if I can’t understand them. I mean, I look up translations online, but it’s the tone that makes it nice to listen to, and write.”
“It’s kind of a private thing, really.”
Yoshio tapped his foot to some inscrutable beat as he tugged his coatsleeve farther down over his wrist. “I respect the institution of privacy above all social laws. So did you ever date an American?”
Etsu laughed unexpectedly at his brashness. She chewed a piece from her pork chunk and let the rest slide down into the soupbowl.
“Only curious. I went out with a British woman once; left a bad taste in my mouth.”
“All those kippers, was it?” They watched each other, testing the joke’s success, then shared a nervous chuckle. “Americans are fine, but I don’t date them. No desire to.”
“I feel like they’re landlords, you know?”
He waited. Silence is important.
“Some are nice, some are mean. You interact with them once in a while, but usually you just want to go about your business separately. I guess it’s a weird metaphor, since they did run the island for a while.”
“And they don’t now?”
Etsu wrinkled her nose. “No. We do, of course. If we think like slaves, we’ll be slaves.”
“How appropriately college-age.”
“Hey! Easy for you to say, Mr. Tokyo.”
“My dear Ms. Okinawa, everything is easy to say out loud.”
The student puffed out her cheek again in confusion, or in some innocent form of meditative contemplation. “Even things that alienate you from everyone else?”
Yoshio lifted his brimming sake cup, which he had somehow refilled when she wasn’t looking. “Especially those. Once you’re used to saying them, there’s nothing in the world that’s easier. I promise you that.”
As if triggered, Etsu sipped her wine as well. “It sounds very lonely, though.”
“What’s loneliness? Just your selfish nature craving a buzz. ‘Oh, make me feel better, please!’”
“So you feel selfish right now? I mean you’re out here with me, presumably because you felt lonely and wanted companionship, in some form. Although I’ll say right now I’m not coming home with you on the first date. It’s a rule for me.”
“I’m not trying to scare you off, I just like to lay it all out on the table. Show my hand and beat you anyway.”
Yoshio pulled an exaggerated thumb at her and stage-whispered to the empty seat beside him, “Professional gambler over here.”
“Sometimes. Not a lot, I guess, but you know. I don’t practice.”
“Well, there’s your first mistake. Luck is the best and only thing you should practice.”
Etsu lowered her head, tucked her arms more tightly into her ribs. She looked suddenly like a child, too much so for Yoshio’s liking. “I see. And how do you propose to practice this?”
“Well, that’s easy: by keeping your cards to yourself. Unless you know you can win.”
“Which is when…”
“…the game is unimportant, Etsu.”
“And this? It’s unimportant?”
“No, obviously not. I twisted your arm to come out here. Because I wanted to risk myself for once.” Yoshio thought of his dead otter, the fucking thing whose name escaped him. He finished his alcohol in one sip.
After the meal they walked to Kana Beach, where the rumble of Chinese surf murmured under their words. Etsu led him two kilometers down the shore to a great, archlike stone surrounded by cycads and unblossomed deigo trees. This was the utaki: a connection point to family spirits. A holy place, its inner sanctum meant only for a female priestess. Orchids all around like ladies-in-waiting at the Shuri court. Etsu came here for solace; a reprieve from papers and screens. Day and night tended to blur with the shifts at Family Mart and early mornings in the library. Sleep came in fits between alarm clocks. This link to the greater world kept her sane, gave her an anchor amid bottomless lines of inquiry, for to her all history was gray.
Did Yoshio have anyplace in Tokyo that served a similar purpose? A smirk. Aokigahara, the suicide forest near Mt. Fuji. So silent and overgrown you could wander for hours without hearing a noise. The police and locals sent expeditions to sweep for bodies, since people came there to end their lives.
A silence crept in. Yoshio clenched and unclenched the fingers on both hands. The young woman’s sandals brushed like vinyl across the sand.
“This reminds me of a joke,” said the hitman. “What did the anthropologist say to the radish farmer?” He angled his neck like a crane, half-stooping, still walking, and looked at her, then quickly looked away. The wind passed between them and stirred the grains of the beach into a musical whisper. Yoshio said, “It’s a shame you didn’t learn to cultivate some imagination.”
Etsu stopped, watched him a second in darkness. Yoshio halted, too. A second wind blew off the sea into the oats and dunes beyond them.
“Why would the guy need to be an anthropologist?”
“I don’t know. Why not? He likes humans.”
“I don’t really get it.”
“Then I’ve helped you along life’s arduous and salty path.”
She laughed a pure, bobbling note that charged the shore with lightness. “You are a little strange, Yoshio.”
“I am but a sea anemone perched on the gravelliest elbow of life, fluttering my tentacles for a clownfish to clean me.”
“I can’t tell if that counts as poetic.”
He laughed deeply and long. Clapping on his body for the cigarettes he’d purchased from Etsu earlier in the evening, he brushed against the butt of his Sig Sauer.
“You know, you’re lucky I keep weird hours and give others the benefit of the doubt. Midnight is a pretty weird time for a date, especially with a stranger from Tokyo.”
“What can I say? You’re a trusting soul; I’m a bold spirit.”
“That’s slightly more poetic, isn’t it?”
“I am truly an awful judge of poetry. I’ve never read it. Better with jokes.”
“I don’t know if I’d say better.”
“I’m sure you have many fantastic ones, though!”
“And you. Do you just listen to rap, or do you write verses, too?”
“I’d rather not say…”
“Hah, that’s a yes. Would you share one now?”
“No, I couldn’t, no.”
“I bet I can get you to rap for me.”
“Only my closest friends have ever heard them.”
“Intimate, I see. I bet you really stun people with your phrases.”
“No, I just try to write what goes on in my head. Take my feelings and express them in an interesting—wait, what are you doing?”
“Simply testing the comfort of the East China Sea.”
Yoshio stripped off his suit jacket, his shirt and shoes and pants, and wallowed with upheld arms into the breakers. Water sloshed across his chest like a knife and hissed into his mouth.
“Feel that! So warm I’m rising like active dry yeast.”
“Try it out.” He splashed in her direction.
“It’s pitch dark, why would you be in the water?”
“Aren’t you in college? You don’t do things impulsively? Come here.”
“It’s graduate school. And this is odd, Yoshio, I have to say.”
“You only live once? People said that when they thought the world was ending. How about I’ll tell you that story I promised if you come out here?”
He watched her outline waver and tap its sole in the damp sand.
“Is it funny, at least?”
“Etsu, I wouldn’t have promised it to you otherwise.”
“You say that, but I don’t know. I don’t even have a bathing suit. It’s different for a woman.”
“Come in with your clothes on, then, it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t do anything improper on the first date.” He smiled blithely, although it was far too dark to see.
“You are very strange,” she said again, but removed her sandals and dropped her phone and wallet on the ground and waded in.
Floating together, they watched the stars blink through the clouds.
“Expect a typhoon?” said Yoshio. The back of his head soaked in the water.
“We had a brutal one two weeks ago. The pressure has been getting weird around here, so I wouldn’t be surprised if another one sprung up. The news mentioned a front moving up from the Philippines, but it wasn’t expected to get stronger.”
“Ah, that’s too bad.”
“Too bad? Do you want a storm, are you kidding me?”
“I mean, I was literally next to Tokyo Harbor during the Tohoku tsunami, and I’ve ridden roller coasters with more punch. A little rattling, a little smoke. Granted, that’s pretty far from Fukushima, but for an earthquake that moved Honshu by almost three meters, it was a poor show in the capital. Not our biggest disaster.”
“So you’re a thrill-seeker, then? Jump out of planes and stuff?”
Yoshio lifted his head to listen to the drops streaming from his hair. In the right slice of moonlight, his tattoos would frighten away his date.
“Did you know twenty-thousand visitors had to spend the night in Tokyo Disneyland the night of the earthquake? Imagine that. All those people. I wonder if they were charged.”
“I would hope not. That would be unethical, especially in an emergency like Tohoku.”
“You’re right, of course, you have courtesy. But think—at least some percentage of them would have paid, don’t you think? Lots of wealthy tourists, Americans, Australians.”
“Possibly, but that would be a pretty outrageous move for Disney.”
Yoshio chuckled. “Outrageous. Sure. Do you happen to know a woman named Hidari Wasayama?”
Etsu flurried her feet to keep steady, and when she circled her hands she agitated the water’s surface into a low foam. In the otherwise placid sea her sloshing was very loud. “The activist? She writes for the Ryukyu Standard sometimes.”
“That’s her. What would you say if I was hired to shoot her in the throat?”
Etsu withdrew. Bells of alarm swarming in her head. The two of them drifted east, treading with discretion like dugongs in a reef. The stray panes of moonlight spared them any further revelation.
“Are you confessing?”
Yoshio raised a hand from the waves and popped his knuckles against his chin.
“I have to be honest here. Someone paid my boss a great deal of money to have Ms. Wasayama killed, and my boss paid me a substantially lesser amount to perform the physical deed. But enough for me to do it, of course.”
“So you kill other people, you’re saying? Like eels or fish. For money?”
“You’ve stated it perfectly. I am a contract killer for the Kintsugi-kai.”
“Killer, of course. So then you have the tattoos and everything?”
“Oh, don’t even get me started. I’ve been trying to remember this otter’s name all day.”
“Suffice it to say that if I’m telling you this, it’s because I’m confident you’ll maintain confidentiality.”
Etsu said nothing.
“I’m not going to kill you, I’ll say that. Why would I? It’d be a lot of unneeded explaining. Well, not that much, actually. But don’t worry.”
“This is a joke, right? Another gag attempting irony. Only it’s the least amusing one you’ve said yet. And definitely the most psychotic.”
Yoshio paused for a beat and a half, void of stimulus. His lips, invisible though they were, widened like the crack in a house’s foundation, his eyes lidded and drooping as though he was drunker than he honestly was. The wind passed over his slicked-back hair and raised bumps all over his shoulders. Then he chuckled.
“I’m afraid you’ve got me there. I was going for the serious stuff, social commentary. I read about Ms. Wasayama in the paper. She wants Okinawa to secede from Japan, you know.”
Etsu didn’t answer right away. She crumpled into herself, wishing to be elsewhere, studying Ainu culture or the customs of the Yaeyama Islands. She looked to the utaki, as if for safety. The inner ibi where noro would kneel and pray.
“I’ve offended you, I see.”
“No, it’s not that. Do not worry. I think…well I’m ready to go now, in any case.”
“I can understand the decision. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“That’s fine. No apology needed.”
They dressed on the shore without speaking. In the dark Yoshio’s skin buried its markings.
“Good night,” said Etsu.
She padded toward the drowsing, lambent city, sandals wet and dangling from two fingers, her form piercing and joining the shoreline. When she got home she found her cat crucified to her bathroom door with an empty garbage bag draped across the floor, to catch the blood. As though cleanliness was important.
Pinned to the cat’s chest was a photo of Dr. Tamashi and her from the Ryukyu University website, which had featured them as part of an interview about ancient bones found in the north of Okinawa.