Archive for April, 2013


Illustration by Max Currie

Beside Azuma’s train terminal and under a pedestrian bridge, Kent spotted a group of Iranians huddled near a telephone booth. At train stations all over Japan, the immigrants had fashioned a surrogate world. They assembled around minivans and kiosks, peddling cheap silver and gold, phony telephone cards, hashish, prescription pills hard to come by with Japan’s conservative national health program, and shabu. Kent fingered the bills in his jeans pocket, thinking about how far he could go if he spent a little more than he should. Walking past the group of Iranians, he looked for recognition from any one of them. He pretended to use a pay phone nearby and when finished with the charade nodded to a man who nodded back but didn’t speak. He was tall and wiry, his black hair shaggy over his weathered face. He fidgeted beneath an oversized black silk shirt in gold damask. A gold medallion in the shape of a dollar sign on a thick, braided chain hung from his neck. Following a practiced assessment of the white gaijin, the Iranian smiled and held out his hand. With the handshake, he and Kent were old friends, the imminent exchange understood.

The Iranian patted Kent on the back and spoke in English. “Hello, my friend. How are you? I am Oscar.” A light wind seemed to circle him in the shade of the station, his shirt rippling like a sail.

Kent stood sweating in the humid air, reduced to squinting in the dark corner. “Nani ga arimasu ka?” He didn’t care what Oscar had, only what he wanted.

Oscar switched to Japanese. “Nihongo wakaru?” Thus began a dance of efficient nods and gestures that signaled Kent’s purpose and the beginning of a buy. It was a choreographed routine, other Iranian men nearby appearing then vanishing inside a minivan. The terminus speakers broadcast a waltz as if in time to their movement. Within seconds, Kent had lost sight of all but Oscar as the others vanished.

Oscar pulled Kent by his arm into the shade of the stairwell. “Do I know you? You have been here before?”

“No.” Even in the shadow of Azuma’s train station under the cloud of a drug deal, Kent felt a tingle of satisfaction at being recognized. He nearly swept his glasses from his face.

Oscar took his hand again, squeezing it for another five seconds, as if searching for credibility. “I think I do know you, but it’s okay. Maybe I don’t. So, you want something from Oscar?”

“Yes, I want something from Oscar. Whatever you got.”

Like a magician pulling a quarter from mid-air, Oscar opened his hand, a matchbook-sized plastic baggie in his palm. “Is this what you want?”

“That’s a start,” Kent said.

“What are we talking about?”

“About five times that. And some hash. Whatever you got.”

“Come back at six. I’ll meet you at Uncle Bob’s Burger House. You know, up the street?”

“I can find it. Can you give me what you got now?”

“Take it all, friend. I can take off work early and go see my girlfriend. She’s always complaining I don’t spend enough time with her.”

In a telephone booth, Oscar left two grams of shabu, a gram of hash, and an assortment of painkillers, their identities for Kent to sort out. Kent replaced it with ¥15,000 inside the pages of the telephone book after pretending to make another call. Oscar’s compatriots reappeared from the shadows, huddling and nodding to Kent. The sweet smell of cheap cologne found in most public onsens lingered around the telephone booths and over the sidewalk, clouds of it under the stairs. As Kent turned to leave, Oscar smiled, his mouth growing wider until Kent thought it would stretch to his ears, and waved him off as if they were old friends.


Illustration by Max Currie

After an hour down a narrow, winding road, Kent was back in the center of town. The morning was damp and cold, and the umbrella did little to protect him from the rain. His clothes were soaked, his shoes sopped, and water ran from his wet hair inside his shirt. His glasses fogged over and he feared the sad umbrella would lose its battle with the wind. Rivers rushed by him in the gutters, so many streams of water and debris that he gave up avoiding them.

The sky grew brighter as Kent followed a river tributary through a small park. Old men and women in polyester athletic suits shuffled along a tarmac path; dogs trailed on leashes. He was eager to get back to the hotel and clean up, look presentable for whoever he was supposed to meet, especially if the documentary crew was with them. Then there he was: Ozman, weathered and torn on the side of an abandoned building in an old poster advertising Airship Japan. Kent stopped and bent, his hands on his knees as he struggled to breathe. That face through a fish-eye lens, trademark mohawk rising in the sky like a shark fin, his eyes bugged, his mouth in a scream, his pierced tongue lapped over his bottom lip. A short samurai sword—a chisa katana used in ritual suicide—ran in one ear and out the other.


no sex love hotel

Illustration by Max Currie

The last time he’d been in a love hotel he shared a bed with Monique. The day ended with a surgeon trying to piece together the puzzle that had become her face.

Comment ça va, Monique?

Kent first met the Quebecois expat at a club opening in Shibuya. He smiled at his good fortune. He’d never cheated on Kumi, but flirting with beautiful women was part of his job. And at 5’11”, with blond hair to the middle of her back, the woman from Montreal glowed a ghostly white in the club’s darkness. She seemed to believe that Kent might serve as a springboard for a career in television and the movies. He let her believe it, though he couldn’t do much for her. He worried enough about his own career. His role on The Strange Bonanza kept his bank account healthy, but he was being offered fewer and fewer roles beyond his regular gig. His renditions of

“Yesterday” and “Imagine” were included in the script less and less. Negotiations for the nighttime drama he hoped for had stalled, and Lark had not renewed his endorsement contract. That went to Ozman, smoke streaming from his ears in the train station advertisements. Kent sold the cigarettes with class, at least in the beginning, before they asked him to wear chaps and a cowboy hat on a horse in a fake desert. In the beginning, he wore a gleaming blue suit as he swaggered down Tokyo streets. Kent looked a giant, his walk of success photographed at street level, an angle that reminded Kent of John Travolta’s opening scene in Saturday Night Fever. His gait was like an alien’s who had conquered the city as pedestrians, frozen in the still shot, stepped aside and pointed in recognition and awe. That’s RI-CHU-MAN-SAN! and he smokes Lark! He knew the whole scenario meant little, but believed the approach did the trick. The next time smokers, particularly men, went for a pack at a vending machine, they would hear that groovy song and recall Kent Richman striding down the sidewalk. They’d press the button under Lark and, for a moment, believe they were that cool.

Ozman, on the other hand, looked ridiculous, a cartoon, a clown with smoke shooting from his ears. Who wanted to see that? Who wanted to be that guy? By sleeping with Monique, Kent had returned Ozman’s many insults and cautioned him that the RI-CHU-MANSAN! brand still held some sway in Tokyo. Two months later, Kent and Monique were still seeing each other, still cheating on their spouses.



Illustration by Max Currie

The shabu surged, pulled his head straight and tightened his neck, speed rushing through his bloodstream. His heart rate and blood pressure shot up, and with the second hit he felt increased focus, a familiar alertness and energy that had been absent. His nose itched and his fingertips tingled. He felt grand. And with thoughts of Midori waiting outside, he forgot about Ozman as another surge lifted his spirits and gave him an erection. Any appetite for food was erased. He’d be up all night and well into the next day.

Kent glared at the mirror, searching for someone he knew. He lowered his head, pulled his glasses off and smirked. He auditioned his once popular line for the mirror. “A-re?” A familiar face scratched with fear and fatigue returned the smirk. Midori had been kind to laugh when he so wrongly tried the line on her. Perhaps there was more kindness where that came from. He squeezed Kumi’s Saint Christopher medal around his neck. She’d always worn the medal—a gift from a childhood pen pal in Peru—despite protests from photographers, handlers, and her agent. It eventually became an iconographic piece of the Kumi brand. Young girls all over Japan, with no understanding of Catholicism or saints, wore the medal, which became known as the Seinto Shi—Saint C

With his jaw clenched and his heart racing, Kent returned to the bar and Midori, who smiled and took his hand as if she had done so a thousand times before.