Mushy footprints track an aisle through the rain-shelled neighborhood. Yoshio walks alone, seven or eight years old, gripping a plastic bag full of candy. People hiss at him from the corners.
“Hey, you lost?”
“Where you going, kid?”
“What’s in the bag?”
He ignores, hustling with a tough front. His hands and feet are muddy. Scar above one eye from a feral cat, to which he’d reacted by cracking a bigger kid’s tooth.
He passes clapboard houses, each with a steaming kettle that vows to wake him from nightmares. Golden riffles of sun through a smudged window, then weeds, plentiful and ragged.
A man slaps him in the face.
“You’ve done it wrong again. You stupid boy.”
Yoshio takes the blow. Pain in his lip. Suddenly he is a man, and he kicks the attacker across the street, spits on his chin. See how he likes it. He climbs into a cherry droptop and cruises the glowing lower alleys. Night falls.
An enormous cat’s head descends from the sky, licks him with a gritty tongue.
“I’ve been waiting for you.”
“Have you seen my Yellow Magic Orchestra CD?” asks Yoshio. “I’ve misplaced it.”
The cat titters at some private joke and offers a falsetto meow. “Oh, that’s not important. Such impermanent objects. Say, do you know where there’s a litterbox nearby?”
Yoshio shrugs. Somehow he’s still driving.
“Too bad. You don’t mind if I piss in Asakusa, do you?”
Yoshio waves his hand, as if to say by all means.
“Thanks,” says the cat. “Hey now, do I know you from someplace?”
Yoshio hedges his bets; if this is the cat who scratched him, he better play dumb. He shakes his head.
“Oh. Okay, just checking.”
The cat lumbers off, sending tremors through the asphalt. Yoshio drives to McDonald’s.
“Where have you been?” asks the manager. Apparently he doesn’t know about the cat.
Standing in line, Yoshio looks at the mousy-faced man behind him. He looks back to the manager. “You’re talking to me?”
“Yes, of course; where the hell have you been? Your shift started an hour ago.”
“Listen man, you got the wrong guy.”
“Get back here and start flipping burgers!”
Yoshio spits on the guy’s chin. He steals a Big Mac and speeds off, blaring Madonna’s “Stay” at top volume. Hallucinatory colors—fuchsia, lime-green, marigold—burble and eddy as the pop legend scats over the peppy beat. Ginza skyscrapers bob in place like Disney cartoons, complete with disembodied hands in gloves and sterilized smiles. Yoshio looks down at the burger to find eyeballs staring out at him, innocent. He swerves into a lamppost.
The Big Mac is gone. Yoshio is in a deep pit, with seagulls flying around high in a blue circle far away.
“Where is everyone?”
Blood pours into the cavity. Seeps in through the soil. It stains his white suit, his sharkskin shoes. The taste of salty metal fills his mouth.
“Hey! Help up there!”
He sees a distant head peer over the lip of the pit.
“Hey you—go get help, quick!”
Legs and arms are squeezing through the dirt walls. They bob in the frothing blood like potatoes. The figure at the top just watches.
Yoshio does not want to die. Not like this, anyway. Gunned down in a brothel, perhaps, with a pistol in his hand. Or hacked to death by vengeful opponents. Here it is just him and that voyeur.
The watcher rolls a rope ladder down into the hole. It is not long enough for Yoshio to reach, but he jumps anyway.
“It’s too short!” he yells. The blood is up to his waist.
He tries ten or eleven more times. His legs hurt. It is difficult to leap with heavy, drenched clothes.
Laughter greets his plea. Terrible, echoing, television laughter. It worms into his brain and plants the seed of lonely death. He turns around wildly, refusing to see this pit as his grave. Drowning: not an option.
What if the blood lifts him up to the ladder? Will he float? He must, of course!
Now he needs the blood to rise faster. It is shooting in torrents, along with eyes and livers and lengths of intestine. He doesn’t mind. He has sawn apart bodies before. He has garroted people and stabbed them and shot them from close range. Their blood will help him survive.
He claws at the lowest rung, scrabbling against the dirt wall. He hisses through his nostrils. The head above is still watching, obscuring its tiny corner of the sky. Gulls continue to circle.
His fingers touch the ladder. He grabs hold; slips. Cursing, he tries again, and manages to wrap both hands around the swaying crossbeam. Bracing his foot against the wall, he hoists himself up to the next rung, jams his dripping sharkskin shoe into the lowest rung, and scrambles up the long, reeking pit.
At the top he croaks awkwardly for breath, guts swollen with fatigue and—yes, definitely—fear. When he turns to the rescuer, he finds his own childish face staring back at him. A slender, short-haired boy with circles under his eyes.
“Yoshio,” the adult says.
“I thought it was you,” says the boy.
They stare at one another like panthers who happen upon each other in the dusk, prowling for meat.
“Why did you laugh?”
The boy looks away toward the beach. Gulls peck at an upturned horseshoe crab whose legs wriggle in mute distress. Clouds roll in from over the skyscrapers behind them.
“Why did you laugh?”
Little Yoshio hops to his feet and runs away. The hitman is too exhausted to give chase.
The boy vanishes in the dunes. Rain patters the sand in fat drops; he realizes for the first time he is in sand. He looks to the pit and it is gone.
“Where are you, man?”
He begins to scream. Gaps open in his face and arms. His skin is dissolving in the rain, as if the drops were sodium hydroxide. Blood runs over his clothes, but thankfully they are already dyed red.
He staggers in the direction the boy has gone, knowing there is no shelter. He is exposed, out here with the gulls, with the stranded crab. More than anything he wishes to see the waves, but he forces himself instead toward the city towers, the steel grades of human progress.
His hair is gone, his cheeks and nose. He watches planes arc over the skyscrapers and pummel them with bombs.
The tang of burning wafts to him over the dunes, and he wants to cry but his eyes have been seared away. He can’t remember when the blackness began, so he howls in disappointment, brays and yammers until his ears trickle into the sand to remove his useless whining.
At dawn Juzo burst in through the window and began whipping Yoshio with a flashlight. The bronze-hued prostitute had made good on her promise: Juzo had come to fuck him up. And here Yoshio had been sleeping without nightmares for once.
“Hey! Hey motherfucker, stop, I’ll kill you!”
The intruder elected to ignore this threat. In fact, he hurled Yoshio’s phone across the room so the plastic housing cracked. Then he pulverized the empty liquor bottle and kicked its glittering shards across the carpet like a child booting sand into another’s eyes. With a grunt, he swung the flashlight over his head into Yoshio’s stomach, again and again, until spit shot from the victim’s lips onto the handle.
“You fuck up my girl?” said Juzo.
Yoshio hadn’t even put on underwear. “I didn’t do a thing, asshole, she was crazy. Why are hookers so fucking different here?”
Juzo hit him for a while; the room spiraled, swelled up, and shrank to the size of a sake box-cup. Though the attacker was a hefty man, Yoshio could’ve crushed his windpipe with little issue. Broken his wrists and shins—of course. Except a man doesn’t kill another man in a hotel unless he wishes to leave immediately.
“Asshole,” said Juzo, spitting on the lotus tattooed to Yoshio’s shoulder. “Your ink looks like a blind woman did it. A crusty old Yankee woman.”
“God damn. God damn it, Okinawa.”
The assailant climbed out the window and dropped down to a rolling motor. Dodge Charger, maybe, with the hemi. A second floor does not a proper deterrent make.
When the management knocked, Yoshio answered in his purple robe, blood trickling from his eyes and nose.
“Sir, we must ask, we have heard a great deal of noise: are you all right?”
Yoshio lit a cigarette and blew unhurried plumes toward the scattered bedcovers. He plucked his Ray-Bans from the robe pocket and slid them on. “Hey, don’t blame the injured party,” he said. “You guys must live in a high-crime area.”
Thanks in part to a hundred-thousand yen donation, the hotel refrained from reporting the damage. Nevertheless, in lowered spirits Yoshio masturbated in the shower to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and smoked a cigarette, then took his motorcycle to Shuri Castle. He worked his jaw back and forth to lessen the pain, but it only made a sharp clicking sound. Walk off the bruise or collect more; so screams Boss.
At the former capital of the Ryukyuan Kingdom, Yoshio probed the nature of servitude in his free brochure, which featured a badly Photoshopped shisa dog above a bright, pristine beach. In the fifteenth century, it read, King Sho Shin unified a cluster of islands east of Taiwan, and his people flourished as maritime tradesmen. They forged relations with China, and for many years they paid tribute to the Ming Empire as a relatively happy vassal state. At some point, however, the Tokugawa shogunate got its shit together and conquered the kingdom, which forced the Ryukyus into the unique position of pacifying two giants: Japan and China. The Japanese shogun used the island as a middleman for Chinese spices, carefully controlled under Edo’s policy of isolation, until the Emperor was restored and he annexed the place officially as Okinawa. After that came rampant starvation, poverty, and World War II. It went downhill from there, although the people maintained their trademark resilience and sunny disposition.
Yoshio tore the brochure to pieces. Propaganda. He criticized the red-tiled pagodas of Shuri Castle and thought of his final New Year’s with his foster parents. When he was nine, the Machimotos had given him a foam samurai outfit, complete with facemask and kuwagata. He’d stalked the house screaming “Bonzai!” and ordering his serfs (Mr. and Mrs. Machimoto) to carry his other presents. Only mom listened to that part. Three months later they died in a fire.
Yoshio shuffled out a cigarette from his pack. Fragile, combustible, stuffed full enough with drugs to keep him satisfied for a good minute. He tucked the roll behind his ear and ambled by the castle’s limestone bulwarks, armorless, imagining them as they must have burned to dust under shelling from the USS Mississippi. Below the fortress ran a network of tunnels used by the Imperial Forces as headquarters during the Battle of Okinawa. Cannon and howitzers had failed to penetrate the labyrinth, but even so, when defeat was certain on the little nub of land yamato had staked out for its final fight, the officers jammed swords in their bellies while the privates cradled grenades to their hearts. As for Okinawans, who had been conscripted for manual labor, they were buried alive or ordered to toss themselves in the ocean. Some were even made to murder their children, so they wouldn’t fall into sinister American hands.
All bullshit, thought Yoshio. No one cares.
He wandered to the royal mausoleum, where chambers of kingly bones met him with silence. Japanese and U.S. tourists dotted the gravel approach to the buildings, and behind thick itaji evergreens rose up like stolid guardians, sure in the knowledge that no warhead could destroy the foundations of the island kingdom.
A man with a ponytail sidled up to Yoshio and snapped a picture of the tombs. Without looking at the hitman, he said, “Mikazaki Supply Depot near Hosa Beach, off Route 58. Box YAKU—.”
Yoshio hooked his thumbs into his belt. He fluttered his toes inside his tight sharkskin shoes. “You know a prostitute named Izuma?”
The man turned and walked away.
Yoshio realized he should have brought a camera, for professionalism, but no one noticed. He left the grounds and smoked another cigarette.
Ramen for lunch, then Orion beer. Yoshio tugged at his sleeve and counted the carbon dioxide beads in his glass, tasting pork broth on his tongue and sighing at the deep warmth of soup in his belly. So Maruka knew. The man wasn’t a rival, exactly. Another amateur, like all Okinawans, it seemed. Pigs with Hawaiian shirts.
He motioned to the waitress for a second glass. Boss loved his spy games. Send me here, send me there. Just let me do my job. He felt the oyabun toying with him on some level, a lonely child messing with figurines. At the top of the brotherhood, this was probably an accurate assessment. Power is proportional to human detachment.
At night Yoshio rode the motorcycle to the supply depot and walked around. No fence, no guard. Shipping crates stacked in colorful rows. Here’s where you need a flashlight. Not in a hotel room to assault a guy.
Box YAKU— was unlocked and empty but for a brown package. Without gloves, Yoshio removed the pistol and shells and stowed them in his jacket and drove to Kokusai-dori, the main street in Naha.
“You know a prostitute named Izuma?” he asked a beggar.
Yoshio smiled. He could help this man with no effort. Ninety thousand yen in his pocket, buy him food for a month. Get him in off the street. He stared into the man’s cloudy eyes until he lowered his head.
“I’ll give you change if you tell me about Izuma.”
“I don’t know her.”
“Then I have no idea what food is.”
He asked two more beggars but neither knew. Then he walked into a bar and inquired in the kindest tone he could manage, given his bruised condition. The fat man behind the counter looked him up and down.
“I don’t know her.”
Yoshio lay twenty-thousand yen on the table and leaned against the bar with both palms. He whistled a few notes from Depeche Mode’s funky white song “Policy of Truth.” The bartender stared at him for a while.
“I’ll take that,” he said, “but I don’t know her.”
With great nonchalance Yoshio picked up his money, stuffed it into his pocket, and scanned the bottles behind the counter. “You’re a dirty half-Chinese pig,” he said.
“I think you’ve had enough to drink.”
“I’m 100% sober, my deformed and corpulent friend.”
“Then I think you should leave.”
Yoshio smiled. He seemed genuinely intrigued by what the man had to say, what his private life might be like. Eating, probably. In another world, another time, they might be at a table together, throwing back shots of Johnnie Walker. “What did the insurance salesman say to the dead cat?”
Clinking of beer glasses, soft bongos in the background. The bartender didn’t breathe, but only deepened the folds of his neckfat by lowering his head.
“I told you you shouldn’t have smoked.”
The man pushed his lips into a scowl. He reached for a baseball bat hidden by his knees. “I think you should leave,” he said again.
Yoshio drew his gun and leveled it at the bartender’s quivering chins. “I think you should swing very hard at my head.”
The bartender dropped his hands to his sides as though an officer had commanded him to stand at attention. The room fell quiet but for the low music.
“Have a good evening,” said Yoshio. “And tell Maruka he hogties his mother and tickles her with a calligraphy brush.”
In the hotel shower, he jerked off to Rockwell’s spooky pop hit “Somebody’s Watching Me” and sobbed uncontrollably during the chorus. He sat on the bed in his towel, holding his head, gritting his teeth and uttering low growls of hunger.
He smoked cigarette after cigarette but found no relief from the drumming behind his eyes. An SMS arrived from Sub-Boss, flashing on the screen that had somehow survived Juzo’s outrage:
The pistol was a Sig Sauer P228, 9mm bullets. Boss preferred Smith & Wesson; only gangsters carried Glocks, he said.
Yoshio tried to masturbate again but couldn’t. He fondled his jaw and slapped the wall and ran tight, stupid circles to piss away his energy. While he was out, the management had installed plywood over the broken window, plus an apologetic note on the headboard. Top-notch service with the Hotel Henka.
“What the fuck is that otter’s name?”
He hacked up phlegm into a paper cup. The television was off and he groped for the remote but lost the desire and just lay on the bed. Reduced to Okinawa, burning the chaff of society. At one time he’d angled for the head of the Kintsugi-kai family; rise up and spread threads over Japan, across oceans, across continents. But power, like all the accoutrements that trickle down from power, only bored him.
He wandered Naha City, hands in pockets, sunglasses and a powder blue suit, chewing his Seven Stars. His hair emerged in wild licks. His maroon shirt boasted a mustard stain from McDonald’s.
“Please, sir, spare change.”
Yoshio glared at the old woman, but she couldn’t tell because of the Ray-Bans. He jangled coins in his pocket and turned the corner as a pair of U.S. Marines passed.
“So then I was like, fuck that, and dribbled around him to the goal and just—pshh, you know that twitch in Davis’s face when he’s doing push-ups?”
Twin pitches of laughter.
Yoshio turned his head to gauge their hulking frames. He pictured their girls, their cities, their pretty swirls of mixed-up nation. Americans were okay with him; when he was little, an American tourist gave him twenty bucks, just because. One of a few kindnesses in his life: pre-fire Machimotos, charity change, the lucky smooch of a prostitute.
At the Family Mart (he thought it was the right one), Yoshio bought a pack of Seven Stars, plus a bobble-head doll poised on the counter. He studied the cashier’s nametag and pupils and buried them in his memory and said, “I would like to buy you dinner this evening.” Smoothed his hair down for effect.
The woman looked off toward the magazine rack, blinking. Long face and low, pumpkin cheeks. Paler than the other islanders. You could do worse.
“Thank you, sir.”
“That’s a yes?”
“Oh, thank you sir, but I…”
He inclined slightly over the counter, jaw hurting but smiling anyhow. He plucked off his sunglasses with thumb and index.
“I’m not taking no for an answer.”
The line was okay because his tone was cheery and his cheekbones sat high on his skull in the manner of professional actors.
“Oh, of course…it’s already 8pm, though…”
“Young people eat dinner late.”
“Oh it will be very late…”
He waited with two people behind him, under sharp fluorescent lights. The bobble-head and his cigarettes sat in their plastic bag next to the cash register.
“No? You’re saying no?”
“Sir, please, the people behind…”
Yoshio glanced at the other customers, who were standing politely like ferns.
“If you accompany me to a restaurant of my choice, I will tell you the best story you have heard in your life.”
The woman looked behind her at the packs of cigarettes arrayed on shelves. She puffed out one cheek in polite bemusement. Her hair was dark, shot through with blonde, and slanted and short.
“Okay, sir, but I must serve the other customers now.”
“You said yes? That’s a yes?”
“Yes, you can come by at midnight. Please allow me to serve the other customers now.”
“Of course! I’m Yoshio by the way.”
“Lovely to meet you, Etsu. I will return at midnight.”
“Have a good evening, sir.”
Outside the night washed him in restorative warmth. He knuckled a crick in his neck, smirked, thrust his hands in his pockets with his back in a teenage slouch. A date, as seen in regular lives. Before he’d have to kill someone, but after it would be nice. Some wine, conversation, bonding. They could eat taco rice.