By David Flynn
An American man walked along a street in Isesaki, Japan, returning from lunch at Starbucks. The street was crowded with traffic. Isesaki was not the picturesque Japan he had imagined before his emergency flight the week before, but a city famous for its auto racing stadium, visible above a pachinko parlor. He passed a business that sold funeral supplies. In front, among the concrete Buddhas and lanterns that would mark the ashes in a cemetery, was a new monument, a black tire with three cute dogs.
Dawson stopped, bewildered.
One dog stood with its paws on the tread on each side, and one stood on top. Their tongues hung out, painted red. Each had a blue ribbon around its neck. Their big black eyes stared ahead, at him.
The American continued down the street, made a left onto another four-lane street, and in ten minutes was in the ICU room at Isesaki Municipal Hospital, where his daughter lay in a coma.
"I saw a strange grave marker today," he said. Seated on one side of his daughter's prone body were his ex-wife, the daughter's cousin, and the daughter's boyfriend. Each had flown in from a different American city. Dawson lived in a fourth. "Three cute dogs and a tire."
"Let's don't talk about graves," the ex said. She was working a crossword puzzle from a book.
His daughter snored, but did not open her eyes. Her brown hair was gathered at the top, like a sumo. Her left, busted side was hidden by covers, and her right was bare. She was dressed in the hospital's green plaid pajamas.
He kept vigil with the three others until visitor's hours were over at 7pm. Mostly, they helped the ex with her crossword puzzles, and watched the monitor above the bed as his daughter's blood pressure, heart rate, and other vital signs rose and declined, colored squiggly lines. There was nothing else he could do, and aside from meeting the small-town Japanese neurologist when Dawson had first arrived, and greeting the occasional visitor from his daughter's school, where she had taught English, he felt useless. The boyfriend claimed she had squeezed his hand, but nothing like that had happened to the father. She was his only child. Two blood spots on her brain stem were the main worries. The neurologist wanted her to 'stabilise' for a few more days before he would say anything about her future.
The next morning he ate at Starbucks again, a sandwich and a scone, so he could see the marker. He walked past, with only a brief stop, but he thought of the dogs and the tire often as he sat by his daughter's bed. No change. Maybe, he worried, she would never emerge.
After passing the funeral shop every day, he entered the following Monday. The huge room was like a car dealership, except filled with stone monuments. A polite young man in a grey suit emerged from the back. He had no expression, not even when he spotted the foreigner.
"Sumimasen," Dawson said, "English?" Before the phone call to his condo with word from the school board member of the bicycle-van accident, he never had even an interest in Japan. Retired, he was on a plane within 48 hours.
"English a little," the man said. He held his hands at his sides stiffly, and looked put-upon. Certainly, he would rather be somewhere else.
"The monument, dogs and a tire," the American said, pointing outside. "What . . . is . . . it?"
"Ah, the inu," the man said. "You would like to buy?"
"No, but I am curious." Obviously, the salesman did not understand. He did understand 'no', however, and the quick shot of interest returned to indifference.
Dawson didn't know exactly the amount, but knew it was expensive, very expensive. Even the square foot of a cemetery might cost a Japanese family more than their house. Perpetual care.
"Who . . .?" he felt powerless to explain. "Arrigato." He gave up.
"Sumimasen. Gomenasai," the salesman said, a kind of nervous laugh added to the form apology. He took a business card from his wallet, and presented it to Dawson with two hands and a bow. The American had none to exchange.
"Sumimasen. Gomenasai," Dawson repeated the apologies, backing out of the room toward the glass door.
That afternoon at the hospital, a Japanese translator came. Mr. Higashi was a volunteer, a member of an English club called Wednesdays, because that is when they met, once a month. He came to help them with what the doctor would say. As the neurologist showed him the x-rays of her badly broken upper leg, her broken ankle, and the broken bone below her eye, all on the left side, the man, tiny even for a Japanese, tried, valiantly, to make the medical terms clear. He had even more problems with the CT scan. Two haemorrhages in the brain stem appeared as white coins on the computer screen. The hemorrhages had spread her first days in the ICU, but now were decreasing. The neurologist, with a spiky beard, answered Dawson's questions by saying he could not tell what would happen with her until those spots went away. That was why she had fever, he said; the area covered by the drying blood controlled body temperature.
"Please ask Dr Yonbai if my daughter will have brain damage when she wakes up," he asked, flatly as he could. Inside he was churning.
"Dr Yonbai says it is too soon to tell. The brain is unpredictable. The spots are too big. When the blood is fully absorbed by the brain, he might tell more."
In the hall he asked if Mr Higashi would call the funeral supplies store.
"But your daughter is breathing and swallowing. She will not die," he said, puzzled.
"The call is not about her. I have a question," was all he could say. He himself did not know why he wanted more information about the memorial with the tire and the dogs.
After returning to the ICU room, first disinfecting his hands at the sink, then pushing the button to be buzzed through the door, he and the translator stood above his daughter. She yawned, her lips churning, but she did not open her eyes. Her right hand rose straight up, the fingers in graceful arches, then lowered to the bed again. This was new, and the boyfriend, cousin, and his ex were thrilled.
Mr Higashi later waited for him in the lobby, big as a hotel's. He held an electronic dictionary.
Dawson gave him the salesman's card, with the telephone number, and Higashi entered it on his cell phone. He offered the salesman a quick introduction, then looked at Dawson, studying him.
"Please ask the gentleman why the statue with the dogs and the tire was made," Dawson said.
After an exchange, Mr Higashi turned to him. "Mr Kobayashi says it was a…" – he looked up the word in his dictionary – "…custom model, made by a local artist. It was made for the son of a retired sea captain who died in a race car accident. The son raced cars in the stadium. He and the whole family also raise the famous Japanese Imperial dog the Shiba Inu. It is very expensive. But the captain did not like the memorial, so he bought a butsudan instead. You know the butsudan?"
"Yes. I like it very much."
The butsudan was a cabinet, often elaborately designed with black lacquer and gold, where the ashes of ancestors were stored by Japanese families. Often the cabinet was kept in the living room, so the family could be together, the living and the dead. Maybe the cemetery plot was too expensive. Maybe the captain thought the memorial's style was too much like a cartoon, which had been Dawson's first thought.
"Because the captain said no, Mr Kobayashi now has to sell the memorial. He is very angry."
"Will you call the sea captain for me?" Dawson asked his translator. He didn't know why he kept after the memorial. He was surprised at the question himself.
"Ah," Mr Higashi said. He looked puzzled. Dawson imagined the Wednesday Club discussing this American behavior. "Why do you want to call Mr Kubota?"
"I want to tell him I am sorry about his son."
Mr Higashi apologised profusely to the salesman. He laughed into the phone. The salesman must have said something about the crazy American. Privacy was a not a concern in Japan. He pushed the captain's telephone numbers.
"Yes. Sumimasen," he said, and offered profuse apologies again. He spoke hesitantly and offered no report until he had talked with the person on the other end for awhile.
"Why does the American stranger want to know about my son? He is dead. That's what he said. He sounds very old," the translator said.
"I am curious about the cemetery marker," Dawson said. He wanted just to forget the whole embarrassment.
More Japanese on the phone.
Mr Higashi laughed. "Mr Kubota would like you to come for dinner. He is confused, and wants to talk with you."
"Thank him, and tell him I will be there."
A time for the dinner, the next night at 6 p.m., was established. That was early.
"Would you like me to translate for you at the dinner," Mr Higashi asked.
"No, I would like to go alone," Dawson said.
That night the others wanted to try an udon restaurant nearby, and someone had to stay with his daughter. It was Dawson's turn. While they were gone, the fingers on her right hand tightened into a fist.
"Linda?" he said, his heart pounding. He stood. The hand unclenched slowly. "I love you," he said. But he didn't know if she could hear.
The next evening, his taxi pulled up at a house a short distance from the hospital. Captain Kubota lived in a typical neighborhood of modern Japanese 'rabbit hutches'. Dawson paid the driver, who wore gloves. No tips in this country. The back seat where he had sat was covered with lace.
Sea captain. The American had an image of an eye patch, but the man who answered the doorbell was tiny and delicate. Isesaki was in the middle of Japan, landlocked.
"Dozo," the elderly man said, inviting him in the door.
"Arrigato," Dawson said.
Inside, the house was cute, too cute. Pink lace and ribbons everywhere. White trim. The living room was Western style, with a sofa and chairs. A tan little dog, Shiba Inu, barked sharply at his feet.
They stood awkwardly. Captain Kubota finally spoke, in soft English, "I don't understand."
"It is hard to explain," Dawson said. "My daughter, musume, is in the Isesaki Shimin Byoin."
"Ah," he said. "Muzukashi."
"An accident. She has been in a coma for two weeks," he said, hoping the man knew the words. The captain's career had taken him around the world, however, where English was the second language. A woman rushed from the back, his wife. She was fat and much taller than the sea captain, although also elderly. She smiled at the American stranger, but stood in the doorway. Kubota translated for her.
"Dozo," Captain Kubota said, indicating the sofa. His wife bowed and hurried away. By time he had sat in the sofa she came with a tray of tea.
Why am I here? Dawson thought. This is a mistake. These are strangers.
"I don't understand why you wanted to talk about my son. Did you know him?" The captain sat in a chair.
What an embarrassing question. He didn't have an answer.
"I saw the cemetery marker with the dogs and the tire, and I wondered . . ."
Suddenly Dawson felt an urge grow so strongly within him that he couldn't control it. He was aware that his face began twisting. The American fought the emotion so hard that the sea captain looked at him in horror. But he couldn't help it. The American started to cry uncontrollably. He had never cried in his life, not even as a child. He hated crying. His father would have forbidden him.
Captain Kubota looked away in shame. A Japanese man wouldn't cry; a woman might but shouldn't cry. His wife again came from the kitchen, with a troubled look.
"Ah," the little man said, ignoring the tears. "Mr. Dawson, your daughter is dead?"
A few second passed before the American controlled himself. Finally he could answer.
"We don't know," he said, ashamed by his outpouring. "She lies in her hospital bed without opening her eyes. We sit by her, watching the monitor. Her heart beat, her breathing goes up and down, but she doesn't wake up. There is a brain injury. I saw it on the CT scan. I don't know if she is alive or dead inside."
The host explained what he said to his wife. Her hands went to her face. "Muzukashi," she said, and started crying. Before long, Captain Kubota started crying too, and only Dawson remained dry.
They are thinking of their son, he thought. I shouldn't have come. I am only reminding them that their son died while still a teenager.
"I am sorry," he told the couple. "I didn't mean to upset you, but when I saw the memorial, it seems so personal, like an individual. The other memorials were impersonal. I had to find out. I am sorry."
"No, no," the sea captain said. "We have not talked about our son to anyone. I understand. Individual is not something we Japanese understand, but I do."
The captain cradled the little dog in his arms and rocked, and the wife reached over to pat its head. Yaps of other dogs came from the tiny back yard.
"Our only child," the captain corrected. "A good boy. He was no problem at all in school, and went to juku without a murmur. He had passed his examinations to college, and we hoped he would attend a good university in Takasaki. He loved engineering. I saw him once or twice a year, because I was always with my ship, but the woman raised him well."
His wife didn't understand a word, but when he looked at her, she wiped her eye with her handkerchief, a Hello Kitty design. Their marriage likely was arranged, and with the captain gone at sea so much, they had not been close, Dawson speculated. Now, retired and together, maybe they were falling in love.
"Excuse me for asking this, but how was he killed?" Dawson asked. This was the most shameful night of his life, but he had to know the facts.
"He died while practising for a race at the stadium. Cars were his sport. Isesaki children love cars. It is very mysterious, because he was a good driver, and won many races in his age group. The mechanics told us what happened, but the reason is very technical."
"The police are investigating now. His ashes are there," the sea captain pointed to an elaborate butsudan by the sofa. There were many drawers, so the son's ashes were stored with other relatives. In time, the captain and his wife would be in the cabinet, though where that would be kept, he couldn't guess.
"She was riding her bicycle, and was hit by a van, a Sambar. The driver was a Brazilian woman," he said. What were the odds? The woman herself had appeared in the ICU, with her sister and another woman from Peru. Dawson had stood awkwardly, as the driver made her apology, then held out a bag of presents.
"I am not angry," he had told her, and the tension escaped like air. "If my daughter had been hit by lightning, would I be angry with the lightning?" The presents were cakes and fruits. Now the driver and the Peruvian woman came almost every day with more food.
"Ah Brazilian," and it seemed to relieve the Captain that the driver was not Japanese. "I am so sorry."
"We just don't know. Her breathing and her heart are good, but she doesn't move or open her eyes. She has no responses to anyone. She is my only child too."
"And her mother?"
"She is here. We are divorced." The captain understood, but did not push for more. Dawson had not remarried.
The captain reported all this to his wife, and she, though puzzled, rose, beckoning him into the dining room. A Western style table and chairs waited. The little dog followed them, and took its place in a chair between the captain and his wife. Dawson sat on the other side. Between them was a large bowl on a burner. They would have sukiyaki. The captain poured the liquid until it was several inches deep, then heaped sugar from a jar until it was a mountain that rose above the bowl. Dawson could not believe that much sugar would be in the meal, but gradually it melted down and joined the liquid. The wife brought plates of raw ingredients, like beef and vegetables. The American imitated what the two Japanese did, using his chopsticks, hashi.
The captain wanted to talk about other things, anything it seemed except their son. He asked about Chicago, where Dawson lived, about the hotel where Dawson stayed, a cheap one a few blocks from the hospital, about so many things. His ships had traveled the world's oceans, and he often was without sight of land for weeks at a time. Once he had a route to Africa.
"Being at sea for so long is boring. The water is gray and flat. Every view is the same, and it never changes," he said.
The dog was fed first. The dog, it seemed, liked meat, so he put strips of meat into the bowl first, then fed the little thing directly with his hashi. "Eat up, little one," the sea captain said. "My little baby." Clearly the dog was a substitute for the son. The couple were too old for a new child.
"Do you raise the dogs for sale?" Dawson asked.
"Our son did. They are emperor's dogs. Commoners were forbidden them until the last one hundred years. As soon as we place the puppies in back we will stop, except our precious one here," Captain Kubota said.
And the sukiyaki was sweet, but not as powerfully sweet as the American imagined.
After dinner Dawson asked that a taxi be called. In the few minutes before it arrived, the couple stood with him by the door.
"Thank you for having a stranger to dinner. I am very sorry about your son," he said.
"And I wish your daughter good health," Kubota said. "Please." He took a card from his billfold and handed it to Dawson with two hands. One thing Dawson regretted was having no card to return. He made a writing motion and the wife rushed for a pen. On the back of another of the captain's cards he wrote the hotel room where he was staying, and the hospital room.
"We will visit your daughter," the captain said, telling the mother too. She bowed deeply, as did the captain. Dawson bowed too, "Arrigato," and was out the door.
He gave the taxi driver the name of the hospital, and although it was past visitor's hours he walked to the night door. But it was a warning that if the patient thought he had bird flu, he had to call first. The hospital was almost deserted. No one stopped him on the fifth floor.
He pulled back the sliding door to his daughter's room. She slept, stretched flat in the dark. The colored lines on the monitor rose and fell. Dawson arranged a chair against the wall, and another for his feet. He sat for a long time staring at her face. He thought of the sea. Then he fell asleep.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 2 Apr 2012