Authors: Natsuo Kirino
In Japan the school year begins in April and ends in March of the following year. It consists of three terms, separated by short vacations in the spring and winter, as well as a monthlong summer break. Students attend elementary school for six years, middle school for three years, and high school for three years.
’m penciling in my eyebrows when the smog alert siren starts blaring. It’s happened every day since summer vacation started, so it’s no surprise. “May I have your attention,” this woman’s voice drawls over a loudspeaker. “An air pollution advisory has just been issued,” and the siren continues to drone on, like some kindly old dinosaur groaning away.
Most of these advisories happen in the morning, usually just as I’m about to leave for cram school. Nobody does anything because of them. Everyone kind of goes, Oh,
again. What I’d like to know is where they hide those speakers. To me, that’s creepier and weirder than anything about smog.
I live in a crowded residential area on the outskirts of Suginami-ku in Tokyo. It used to be a nice, laid-back neighborhood, but all the old, larger houses got torn down, replaced by smaller single-family homes and apartments. When I was little, several neat but tiny buildings went up where there used to be plum orchards and farm fields. They slapped fancy names on these—
or whatever—to help sell units. Nice-looking families moved in, and on weekends you’d see them out walking their dogs or driving around in expensive foreign cars. But the paved roads that run through the neighborhood, which must have been just dirt farm paths at one time, are so narrow that I heard the family two houses down from us had so much trouble parking their Mercedes-Benz in their garage that they ended up getting rid of it.
The siren keeps on droning. Right in between one of its groans, I hear a loud sound, something breaking next door. Our houses are so close that if you open the window, you can hear the parents yelling at each other, or the phone ringing. I’m thinking maybe a window broke. Seven years ago the boy who lives in the house diagonally across from us kicked a soccer ball that shattered a window in our house in the room where we keep our Buddhist altar. The kid completely ignored what happened, and later on he was transferred to a school in Kansai. I remember the abandoned soccer ball sitting there under the eaves of my house forever.
Anyway, the sound I’d heard was just like that time. There aren’t any little kids living next door, so it’s weird to hear something shatter so loudly, and the whole thing was kind of alarming. Maybe a burglar broke in. My heart beating like mad, I listened carefully but didn’t hear anything else. Total silence.
The neighbors moved in two years ago. We’ve had hardly anything to do with them. Sometimes, when I take the neighborhood association bulletin to them, I’ll press the intercom bell and the mother will come out, this phony smile pasted on her face. All I know for sure is that there’s a mom and a dad, and a boy the same age as me who lives there. Sometimes the mother is out front, sweeping with a bamboo broom. She has on silver-framed glasses and this bright red lipstick you know is going to leave marks on any teacup she uses. Get rid of the glasses and the lipstick, though, and I don’t think I’d recognize her.
Once when the woman next door saw me in my school uniform she asked, “Are you a high school student?” When I said yes, she said, “So is our son,” and named the prestigious high school he attended, smiling happily. When I told my mom this, she clicked her tongue and looked disgusted. The woman was obviously bragging about her son and Mom must have thought she was insulting us, since I was going to a less-than-stellar private girls’ school. But I just thought the woman next door was simple and naive, and I felt sorry for the boy for having such an embarrassing mother.
This son of hers was a lanky, stoop-shouldered boy with small, gloomy eyes. Reminded me of a worm. He had a sluggish way of walking with his head tilted to one side, and zero in the way of spirit. Even when our paths happened to cross at the station he’d avoid looking at me and edge off into the shadows of the building. Like if he stepped into the shadows he could hide from the world. In that sense he was just like his father, who looked like a typical office worker. The father ignored me as if I didn’t even exist. Once I went out to get the evening paper when he was just coming home. I nodded to him but he gazed off into the distance like I was invisible.
“I wonder what that guy does for a living, anyway,” my mother once said. “Kind of stuck-up with that ascot of his.” Who cares about ascot ties? was my reaction. To me people are divided into two groups: the nice and the un-nice. And the family next door was definitely in the second category. If my grandmother were still alive she would have sniffed out all kinds of gossip about them, but my mother couldn’t be bothered, so the only details we knew about them were that their son looked like a worm, the mother wore red lipstick, and the father, an ascot.
Still, I couldn’t figure out what that sound was. A burglar could break into their house for all I cared, but I didn’t want him coming into ours. I started to panic. My parents were both at work, I had slept in late and was about to have some cup ramen before heading out to summer cram school—I was a senior in high school—and the last thing I wanted was for some burglar to flee into our place. Dad always said that the scariest thing was a thief who gets cornered and turns violent.
I heard another crash, this one louder than the first. It rang in my ears, and I flinched and messed up my left eyebrow. Maybe I should redo it, I was thinking, staring into the mirror, when my cell phone on the table buzzed.
“Yo!” It could only be Terauchi. “Dude, it’s me.”
“I just heard this weird sound from next door—maybe a robber or something. What should I do?”
But Terauchi wasn’t paying any attention.
“That essay on Mori Ogai we’re supposed to write? I’ve done over a hundred pages, right? Just kidding…But I think it’s going to turn out okay, know what I mean?” She rambled on like this for a minute or so.
to me. A burglar might have broken into the house next door.”
Terauchi was finally surprised and her usual greeting now turned into an interjection. Terauchi was a cute-looking girl, but her voice was really low and cool. Among my friends, she was the smartest and the most interesting.
“I just heard glass shattering,” I said. “Someone breaking in, maybe.”
“Probably just the husband and wife having a fight.”
“At this time of the morning?” I said. “The guy next door should be at work.”
“Well, maybe the wife lost it and smashed a teacup or something. It’s gotta be that,” she declared. “You know, one time when my mom got into a fight with my dad’s mother she went nuts and tossed both of their teacups and plates out the second-story window.”
“Your mom’s kind of extreme.”
“You got that right,” Terauchi said. “She just casually tossed the plates and cups out, aiming at the stepping-stones in the garden. See, Dad was using the plates Yukinari used as a baby. Anyway, Toshi-chan, I wanted to see how you’re doing with your essay.”
My name’s Toshiko Yamanaka, the characters for
meaning “ten and four,” because I was born on the fourth day of the tenth month, October. Obviously not a lot of thought went into naming me, but since I’ve hardly ever met anyone with the same characters, I don’t mind the name that much. Terauchi’s first name is Kazuko, which she can’t stand. Her grandfather in Akita gave her the name, apparently. My friends all call one another by their first names or by nicknames, except for Terauchi, who insists that we call her by her last name.
“The thing is, I haven’t done it yet,” I admitted.
When we got to be seniors our Japanese teacher assigned us to write an essay on Ogai’s story “The Dancing Girl.” Terauchi was always good at exams and assignments. Whenever we had to write a book report, she copied parts of some published essay on the book without the teachers ever catching on. I was a little too honest—honest to a fault, you could say—to try to get away with something like that. So unfortunately it took me a lot of time to finish up assignments and my grades were never as good as hers. I never thought of what she did as dishonest; I was kind of vaguely worried that someday her cleverness might really her get in trouble. I worried about her because I liked her so much.
She went on, rumbling in her low voice: “I was thinking of, like, doing a psychological analysis of the main character.”
“Nah—not her. Her name’s in katakana. What’s his name—Oda?”
I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about.
“That’s not it,” a different voice replied. Now it was Yuzan on the phone. “She’s gonna do a psychological profile based on the Chinese characters used to write the name. Can you imagine getting away with that?”
“Yuzan, I didn’t know you were there,” I said.
I must have sounded a little disappointed. I wasn’t exactly happy to find out that she and Terauchi were hanging out without me. It made me feel left out. I really liked Terauchi, but Yuzan was harder to deal with. She had such extreme likes and dislikes. She hated smokers violently, for instance. Human garbage, she said. Which was kind of unfair from the smoker’s viewpoint. On the other hand, if she liked somebody she’d stand up for them, no matter what. Extreme and hard to read—that was Yuzan.
“Terauchi wanted to do homework together. I told her we’re not in grade school anymore. Duh!”
“I bet that it was
idea,” I countered.
Yuzan just laughed this off. Her voice was even lower than Terauchi’s, and when she wore her school uniform she looked like some guy doing a lousy job of dressing in drag. Her personality and the way she spoke were totally like a guy; but her name, Kiyomi Kaibara, was very feminine. The nickname Yuzan, of course, came from Yuzan Kaibara, the father character in the manga
When she was in junior high, her mom died after a long stay in the hospital. Since then Yuzan’s lived with her father and grandparents. Yuzan and I were only children, the only ones in our group. After her mother died, Yuzan started acting even more eccentric, even more like a guy. Terauchi said Yuzan must be a lesbian, but I couldn’t really see it. Even if she were, I wouldn’t know, I guess, because I wouldn’t be her type. I switched the phone to my other hand and heard this sort of grabby sound as Terauchi came back on.
“That’s the story, dude.”
“Fine, whatever—but should I just ignore what’s going on next door?” I asked.
“That’s their business, not yours. Don’t you think so?”
Terauchi’s cool reply made me feel better. “I guess you’re right,” I said. “Well. I gotta go to cram school. Talk to you later.”
“See ya,” she said, and hung up. I switched off the AC and checked my left eyebrow in the mirror again. I didn’t like what I saw, but didn’t have time to redo it, so I set off. I was wearing jeans and a black sleeveless shirt. A nothing sort of look, but something I felt comfortable in.
It was blindingly hot outside. I slipped on the new sandals I’d bought at the bargain shoe store that was a two-minute walk from our house, and unlocked my bike, which I’d left next to the front door. The handlebars and seat had baked in the sun and my hand sizzled when I touched them. Just then the front door of our neighbors’ house slammed shut and their front gate creaked open. Someone was coming out. Anxious, but curious, I turned around. It was Worm, dressed in jeans and a navy blue T-shirt. There was a tiny white Nike swoosh on the chest of his shirt. He was carrying a black backpack I remembered seeing before. Thank God. It wasn’t a burglar after all. He’d been at home. Relieved, I looked at him and our eyes locked. He looked happy and excited somehow, like he was going off on a date. That kind of look didn’t suit him, and I quickly turned away. It was a strange feeling, like I’d seen something I shouldn’t have.
“Sure is hot.”
This was the first time he’d even spoken to me. I nodded vaguely. So that’s the kind of guy Worm is. The kind who talks about the weather—and to somebody like me who’s the same age. Humming a song, he squinted up at the sun. He looked so healthy that the nickname Worm no longer seemed right.
“I heard some loud sound from your house a few minutes ago and it startled me.” I had to say something.
Still squinting up at the sky, he tilted his head. “Yeah? You must be mistaken.”
“Sorry,” I said.
Worm bounded off like he was heading off on a school outing. Embarrassed, I straddled my bike, shoved my bag into the front basket, and, without a glance backward, started pedaling toward the station. Soon I passed Worm, but I didn’t say hi.
My cram school is near the south exit of a large station that connects up to the Chuo Line, four stops down the line from the station near my house. I was still thinking of Worm, actually about the sound I’d heard next door, and I got snagged by one of those people with clipboards asking you to fill out questionnaires. I’m usually careful enough to keep at least thirty yards between me and them, but this time I blew it. The questionnaire guy was dressed in a serious-looking outfit, white dress shirt and black pants, with the kind of black-framed glasses that are popular now.
“Are you a student?” he asked me.
“I’m in a hurry.”
“It won’t take long. You’re in college?”
“A four-year college or community college?”
“Four-year. The education department at Tokyo University.”
I stood there with this can’t-be-bothered look on my face. The guy looked surprised for a second, then scribbled down “Tokyo University” in crappy handwriting. A sneer came to his face, like maybe he thought I was bragging. Or like he’d seen through my lie.
“May I ask your name?”
“How do you write it?”
“Hori is the character for ‘moat,’ and Ninna is written the same as the
in the Ninna Temple in Kyoto.”
“The Ninna Temple?” the man muttered, and I used his moment of hesitation to make my escape. This was the first time I’d said I was a Tokyo University student. Usually I tell people I’m a secretary in an office, but with the crummy outfit I had on and my aggressive attitude, it seemed to fit. Whenever you have to write down your name and address for a questionnaire or membership form or at a store, it’s best to use a phony name and address. Terauchi taught me that. The first time I did it I felt kind of nervous about lying, but after I’d used the name for a while, Ninna Hori started to feel like a real second name. In our four-girl group all of us have a second fake name that we used when we rented a karaoke box. You have to be careful, Terauchi always warned us, or you’ll wind up in some database. Then adults will