Monday, December 10, 2007

Blogspot Blues...
I just can't seem to get the hang of editing once my piece has been transferred into the Blogspot space. Any indents, bolds or italics are automatically removed. The italics and bolding I can fix. The indenting... it just won't let me. So, if you're reading this and have any insight, please drop me a line. The story below is the worst yet in terms of formatting. I haven't posted here in a while, so I'm not sure if the options have changed. I just can't format the quoted text to be indented properly.

The Insider

Jerry Jersey was sitting in his favourite neighbourhood café, flirting with his new favourite waitress. He did his best flirting by using colloquial Japanese. It was something he’d picked up when studying karate in downtown Osaka twenty years before. This style of Japanese was more guttural, harsher, less polite than everyday Japanese. Osakan Japanese came from the wrong side of the tracks. If James Dean had spoken Japanese, it would have been Osaka-ben, the language of Yakuza gangsters and television bad guys. Jerry Jersey had decided early on that it would be his jargon of choice when flirting with any particularly cute specimen of waitress. As far as he was concerned, it was his grasp of Osaka-ben that made the girls remember him. Never mind the fact that he was six foot five, had steel grey hair and wore traditional Japanese wooden geta on his size thirteen feet.

On this particular day, Jerry had his writing equipment spread out in front of him, managing to take up three of the café's tables. He had six pristine calligraphy brushes lined up to his right. To his left was the brush stand and small inkpot, still virgin, waiting for the black fluid to be added. In front of him he had spread out a white sheet of the finest silk-thread paper, purchased moments ago from Suzuki-san in the shop across the street. Suzuki-san, the ancient owner of the stationery shop, suffered from osteoporosis so severe it had her doubled over into an imperfect letter C. Looking through her shop’s plate glass window earlier, she had seen Jerry coming from almost five blocks away. Soon the sound of his wooden geta could be heard kicking up pebbles on the road. She had made her way upstairs where she and her husband had a small apartment, and added a quick dab of cream rouge on her cheeks and a swipe of red on her lips. She made her way carefully back downstairs and into the shop, and before Jerry had even walked in the door, Suzuki-san had chosen the finest silk-thread paper, rolled it up and had it wrapped and ready to go on the counter. A soft chime indicated his arrival through the sliding wooden door. Jerry crouched down when entering to avoid hitting his head on the doorframe.

Irraishaimase! Jersey-san, konnichiwa!” Her booming welcome made Jerry glow, and he bowed deeply towards the owner. He used his formal, polite Japanese with Suzuki-san; he never used Osaka-ben with the older ladies.
“Ah, Suzuki-san. You knew I was coming. You’re looking spry today. What have you been up to?” He bent over, matching Suzuki-san’s posture in order to see her face-to-face.
“Ah, Jersey-san. You know, it’s the same old thing. Aches, pains and a son who never calls…”
She shook her head, looking to the floor and shrugging her shoulders. She stole a peek at Jerry, her head still bobbing in resignation. He knew the look. She wanted something, and he was only too pleased to comply. He stretched out one of his long arms, wrapped it around her shoulders and pulled her in close. Suzuki-san melted into the crook of Jerry’s arm, and accepted his comforting pats on her shoulder with a long sigh.
“Suzuki-san, you should take a vacation. You get that husband of yours to fly you down to Okinawa. A bit of sunshine and some Okinawan sake are just what you need.”

He continued patting the shop owner’s shoulders, oblivious to the fact that he was the only person in Suzuki-san’s seventy-five years to have the honour of giving her such an informal, affectionate gesture. Whenever Jerry Jersey entered her small shop, she suspended reality for the moment, and imagined herself somewhere exotic, a place where everyone had the hands of giants and hair tinged gold and silver from a never-setting sun. That place was Gai-koku, “outside country”, the land where Jerry came from. But, Suzuki-san knew better than to ask Jerry about Gai-koku.

When she’d first met him, in the days when her back was a little straighter, her hair not so streaked with grey, and Jerry Jersey was a blonde, she’d asked what she thought was an innocent question in her faltering English remembered from grade school;
“Please tell me, what country come from? Where is home?”
It was the only time she had ever seen anger in his pale eyes. He had answered in perfectly polished Japanese;
“Pardon my rudeness, but please speak to me in Japanese. Japan is my home.”
There was an uncomfortable silence, but it lasted for only a few moments. It was broken by Jerry’s admiration of the horsehair calligraphy brushes behind the glass case in Suzuki-san’s front counter. That day, so long ago, he had purchased the most expensive brush in the shop, along with a tablet of creamy white rice paper. He returned monthly, chatting about calligraphy technique with Suzuki-san, always purchasing at least one or two items in the shop. Jerry Jersey was her best customer.

Today, as he continued to give her reassuring pats, Suzuki-san knew Jerry would be going next to Sakura Baba, the café across the street. He always claimed Sakura Baba had the best green tea in Seki, maybe in all of Japan. But Suzuki-san knew the real reason Jerry was a regular customer. Baba-san, her close friend and owner of the café, had a knack for hiring attractive waitresses. Jerry could sit in Sakura Baba for hours, his calligraphy brush never once invading the inkpot, chatting with Baba’s newest waitress in his best Osaka dialect, making her laugh and blush.

It was late afternoon, and after giving Suzuki-san his word that he would come by her shop tomorrow to show her his newest calligraphy brushwork, he made his way across the road, and walked into the empty café, settling comfortably into his favourite table. Jerry Jersey liked to sit close to the doorway of the kitchen. It was a spot where, if he was at just the right position, he could peek through the slit of the half-curtain that separated the cooking area from the café itself. It was back there that the waitresses and Baba-san would sit, sometimes catching quick puffs off of slim cigarettes before patting carefully at their hair and straightening their skirts to join the customers out front. He liked watching them while they were unaware and un-self-conscious. He liked too, to watch the change that would come over their faces when they stepped into the café from the kitchen. For Jerry, it was all about the eyes and the lips. There was the smile that he was sure Baba-san had taught them on their first day of the job, seeing as they all did it so well. It was a smile that said; “I’m genuinely happy to see you.” The waitress’ eyes also conveyed this with a warmth and sincerity that made Jerry Jersey weak in the knees. He never understood how, in all these years, each and every waitress at Sakura Baba managed to make him feel like he was the most important man in the world.

On this day, he hadn’t even begun to pull his calligraphy gear from Suzuki-san’s well-wrapped package when Sakura Baba’s newest waitress set a cup of green tea, a ceramic chopstick rest in the shape of a cherry blossom, and wooden chopsticks on the bamboo placemat in front of Jerry. She may have been new, but she already understood the routine. Jerry came to the café every day.

Before he had retired from the Seki Arts, Communication and Travel Council, Jerry could visit Sakura Baba only once or twice a week, and he had always been eager to try out the special of the day. It was back in those early days, dining with his supervisor Kobayashi-san, that a waitress-in-training had witnessed Jerry Jersey’s blue eyes flash in anger. Just as today, there was the incredible smile offered with the ceramic cup of green tea, which had been placed just so in front of him. The chopstick rest and chopsticks, however, were placed only in front of Kobyashi-san. A fork, knife and spoon were carefully arranged on Jerry’s bamboo placemat by the attentive waitress. The young woman then addressed Kobayashi-san, not acknowledging Jerry as she held up her order pad and pen.

“Have you and your guest decided on your meals?” She waited for Kobayashi-san to answer, but before he could say a word, Jerry stood up, his knees banging the underside of the table so hard that the Soya sauce bottle tipped on its side and started bleeding black liquid onto the white tablecloth. Baba-san had come running from the kitchen when she heard the commotion out front. The scene that greeted her in the café stopped her in her tracks. Jerry Jersey, all six feet five of him, stood with his hands on his hips glaring down at the waitress. Kobayashi-san was on the verge of standing up himself, but thought better of it when Jerry stopped looking at the waitress long enough to shoot him a look that clearly indicated; “Don’t move.” Kobayashi-san settled back into his seat. Jerry then spoke to the waitress who was staring intently at the floor.

“I am a customer. I have read the menu, and I know exactly what I would like. Please get your pen ready and take my order.”
His Japanese flowed smoothly, his stress and intonation perfect. The waitress, although shaken at the initial confrontation, regained her composure and wrote down Jerry Jersey’s order. She then asked Kobayashi-san for his choice, and bowed deeply to the men before going back to the kitchen. Baba-san followed her into the back, where a low and indiscernible exchange of words took place. A few moments later, the waitress came out from behind the half-curtain, and once more made her way to Jerry Jersey’s table. He was now sitting in his chair, both he and Kobayashi-san silent as they attempted to sop up the spilt Soya sauce with the hand towels they had been given earlier. Kobayashi-san noted to himself that the dark stain on the table had taken on a shape not too dissimilar to that of Italy, but thought that now would not be the best moment to point it out. The waitress was now at Jerry’s side, and was gently removing the silverware from the bamboo mat. In its place, she set down a chopstick holder and chopsticks, along with a fresh bottle of Soya sauce. She bowed once again, and moved swiftly back to the kitchen. Both men took a sip of their tea. The anger in Jerry’s eyes was gone now, and he was looking at the stain on the table. He pointed at it and looked at Koyayashi;
“Looks a lot like Italy, doesn’t it?” Kobayashi-san now felt it was okay to laugh, and the two of them resumed their previous conversation.

That had been many years and many waitresses before. Kobayashi-san was long gone, transferred years ago to the arts council in Fukuoka. Jerry, on the other hand, never left Seki, witnessing the rapid changes in the town, feeling the growing pains as much as the locals. Through it all, he could count on Sakura Baba, its strong green tea, and its beautiful waitresses to keep him occupied.

Today Jerry was chattering away in Osaka-ben, the calligraphy brushes untouched, the ink poured but unused. The waitress, Sayaka, stood beside Jerry’s table, offering her brightest Sakura Baba smile and nodding intently at his story, when they walked in. Four of them. Three guys and a girl. They all looked strangely similar, each with a hooded blue sweatshirt, khaki trousers and black and white Converse sneakers. The tallest of the group, one of the guys, had blonde dreadlocks partly covered by a knitted black cap. He was holding court, the others following him into the café as he announced their presence, his vowels distinctively long and drawn-out Californian;
“What the fuck is a “Baba”? Is that like short for “Barbara”? His friends laughed as they scanned the café, free of customers save for Jerry Jersey sitting by the kitchen doorway. As soon as they had entered, Jerry grabbed one of his brushes and stared intently at the white paper in front of him. He ignored the four new arrivals as the waitress hurried over to show them a table. Sayaka had paused only momentarily when she saw the four new arrivals, her initial surprise almost not registering at all. She smiled at them and offered a greeting;

“Irraishaimaise! Hai, dozo.” She gestured towards a large table in the centre of the café. They followed, still laughing. She left for a moment to go into the kitchen when one of the guys spotted Jerry at the far table. Pointing at him with one hand, he used the other to punch the dreadlocked boy in the arm, motioning towards where Jerry was seated. Jerry still ignored them, dipping his brush into the pot of ink. He started brushing the paper in long, easy lines, pulling up at the end of each stroke with a flick of his wrist. The boy with the dreadlocks grabbed at the girl beside him, pushing her towards Jerry’s table;

“Go on Justine. You like the older, artsy types. He’s a regular Pablo Picasso right in the middle of bum-fuck Japan.”
Justine refused to be pushed, and backed into one of the boys, who in turn fell into the table behind him.
“Matt, you’re an asshole.” Matt righted himself and cuffed Justine on the back of the head;
“Christ, girl, you don’t know your own strength.” He grabbed one of the chairs and sat down, pulling Justine with him so that she was sitting on his lap. Sayaka came out from behind the kitchen curtain carrying a large tray with four cups of green tea. She stood at the table as the remaining two in the group sat down opposite Matt and Justine. She placed each cup gently in front of them. Matt grabbed for his cup, taking a long swig. He immediately spit out the contents, spraying tea all over Justine and the table in front of him;
“What the hell is this crap? That is not coffee!” He was sputtering, pushing Justine off his lap and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. The waitress stood on the side, unsure which direction to go. Matt looked right at her and pointed at the spilt tea on the table;

“Well, what the hell? It says “Barbara Café” on the sign outside. You call that shit coffee?” At this point, Baba-san came out of the kitchen. She looked over to Jerry Jersey. He hadn’t moved from his seat. He appeared to be frozen, his calligraphy brush hovering over the paper, mid-stroke, unmoving. Although his head appeared to be facing down to the lines he had already drawn, Baba-san was quite aware, from her angle, that Jerry’s eyes were in fact taking in the scene in the middle of the restaurant. Sayaka was attempting to wipe the mess from the table, and started speaking in broken English;
“I, I,… very sorry. I,… so sorry.”
She offered bows to each of them, still attempting to sop up the mess. And, grasping for more English, she attempted an explanation;
“Café” is only style. Café is style.” She put the emphasis on “style”, but with her pronunciation, it came out more like “Sty-u-ru”. Her explanation was met first with blank stares, and then giggles, first from Matt, followed soon by the three others. Justine was the first to respond;

“Yeah. Whatever. Just get us some coffees. Four creams, three sugars. Right?”
The waitress looked blankly from Justine and then to the others. Whatever the girl was saying to her was incomprehensible. She looked over to Baba-san who was rooted to her spot by the kitchen curtain. She was still looking at Jerry, who hadn’t budged. There was a momentary silence, broken only by the buzz of the electric clock hanging on the far wall. It was Matt who broke the lull.
“What the fuck does someone have to do to get a goddamned coffee around here?”

And that’s when Jerry Jersey had enough. When he lurched up from his seat, the table in front of him nearly toppled to its side. He caught the edge just before it tipped over completely, but wasn’t able to stop the inkpot from upending all over his silk-thread paper and the white tablecloth. There was black ink everywhere, on his hands, on his trousers, right on down to his traditional wooden geta on his size thirteen feet. He didn’t care. He pushed the table out of his way, and in three easy steps was standing in front of the group of four. He towered over them. They stared up at him, their mouths open, no sound coming out. And he let them have it. His face was crimson, appearing especially flushed against his shock of silver hair. When he spoke, the force of his words produced a spray felt by all four. His speech was short and succinct;
“You low-life mannerless scoundrels are the reason I hate foreigners. Go back to where you came from until you learn to speak properly and treat people with respect.”

When he finished speaking, the room was once again silent save for the clock-buzz, which was sounding even louder than it had before. It took about ten seconds, but then it happened. Matt pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up and over his capped head, the others following suit. Without a word, he stood up and, with Pied Piper efficiency, led his group out the door. It wasn’t until they were down the steps and across the street, standing in front of Suzuki-san’s stationery shop, that Justine finally spoke.
“What in the name of Christ was that old bastard saying? Could you understand a word of it?”
They shook their heads in disgust. Matt started walking again, the others still following. He pulled the hood off his head, the ends of his blonde dreadlocks popping out from under his cap. He was smiling.
“Yeah, they say those old ex-pats lose it after awhile. I’d say he’s well off his rocker. The Japs can have him for all I care.”
He linked arms with Justine, and the group continued walking towards a more familiar sight glowing in the distance; two golden, yellow arches, with writing underneath announcing, in English, that over 2 billion had been served. Matt let out a whoop, and they ran the distance to the beacon glowing in the night.

In Sakura Baba, Jerry Jersey was beaming. His new favourite waitress was in awe and couldn’t stop praising him. Baba-san had been busy wiping his wooden geta, now almost ink-free and drying on a sheet of paper on the floor of the kitchen. It was a special occasion, and all three sat together with steaming cups of green tea in front of them. Baba-san proposed a toast;
“To Jersey-san, our very own Osaka gangster. May he always protect Sakura Baba. Kanpai!!”
They clinked their cups of green tea, and took long, deep sips of the bitter drink. Sayaka was still staring at him, and finally spoke;
“Jersey-san? I know it’s not exactly ladylike, but will you teach me some of that Osaka dialect? It may come in handy someday.”
Jerry Jersey put his cup down, and lay his two hands on the table, palms down in front of him. He closed his eyes, and a serene smile came over his face. He didn’t move, save for a slight sway in his shoulders. Sayaka and Baba-san looked at each other, and then back at Jerry. Baba-san finally spoke;
“Jersey-san? Are you okay?”
A small tear had squeezed out of the corner of one of Jerry’s closed eyes. It was the perfect drop, pear-shaped, and it was making its way slowly down Jerry’s cheek, moving in and out of well-worn crevasses before settling on the corner of his smiling lips. He finally opened his eyes and wiped the small drop away with a brush of his thumb. Jerry looked into Sayaka’s eyes, stood, and offered a polite bow.
“I would be honoured to teach you Japanese. We shall begin tomorrow.”
He turned to Baba-san, offering a slightly deeper bow;
“Thank you for the delicious tea.”

The inkpot and brushes had been cleaned and packed away into the bag Suzuki-san had given him earlier that day. He tucked it under his arm, and walked towards the kitchen. Bending below the curtain, he reached for his wooden geta and slipped them on his feet. With two more slight bows, he made his way to the front door, slid it open, and let himself out. Baba-san and Sayaka stood side-by-side at the door, waving good-bye until Jerry Jersey was at the bottom step. He turned left and made his way home.

Suzuki-san, in her apartment above the stationery shop, was tucked safely in her futon beside her snoring husband. She could hear the wooden shoes hitting the pavement outside as Jerry walked by. She smiled and closed her eyes, falling asleep immediately. That night, Suzuki-san dreamt of a sun-drenched Okinawan beach, where she sat, sipping sweet sake with Jerry Jersey by her side.

1 comment:

Deborah said...

What interesting viewpoints you come up with, Sarah. Once again--ex-pat with brushes at a tea shop. How was it going to work? Osaka-ben and Little Suzuki-san. .. very nice, compact. Perfect as it is.


PS My best friend and I were chattering at umpteen decibels in our local Starbucks when a lady stopped to say she was interested and where were we from? Jerry Jersey's original angst. We had just been discussing something of the sort, so we told her it was personal and went back to yacking. I've had some latter Jerry experiences, but so few and far between--I can remember them all!