The End of the Affair

Friday night at Lala’s Last Resort. Snowflake sat in a dark booth at the rear, beyond the long, gleaming bar that dominated the room, lit up like a cabaret stage. Struggling to calm herself, she stroked the naugahyde of the bench fretfully. It was one of the reasons she came here. She abhorred leather.

She glanced at her reflection in the glass of a forgotten singer’s photograph. Her lashes were preposterously long and her eyes, well. Snowflake’s eyes had been the ruin of who knew how many reckless supplicants. She was stunning.

That wouldn’t make this evening any easier.

Late as always, he shouldered his way past the swinging doors, and Snowflake felt a dangerous heat enter her, a potent cocktail of menace and arousal. His sheer physicality was overwhelming, an animal presence that became, instantly, the white-hot center of every room he entered. With the standard short-list of reactions, the other patrons registered his implacable progress down the long room. Snowflake fought an urge to flee, to overturn the table, to run and not stop running.

Buttons reached the booth, heaving and straining to press his powerful frame into the space between the bench and table. His enormous hump set the lamp spinning. At the next booth, a fat man frantically waggled fingers at the waiter as his date succumbed to hyperventilation.

The bench sagged with a crisp crack as Buttons settled himself, then turned the full, awful weight of his attention on her. A searching, accusing gaze.

“Moo,” he said.

She dipped her chin, shaking her head lightly side to side.


Buttons’ eyes traveled the periphery of the room once, twice, marking its power centers and potential threats, avenues of escape, lines of attack. He snorted, and turned back to Snowflake. The dark of his eyes dilated, the uncanny light in the depths holding her as if she were caught in a squeeze chute.

“Moo?” he asked, with disarming gentleness.

She glanced away. “Moo,” she thought. It was time to be firm, time to stand on her own four feet. Never mind how the grey hair deepened to black across his shoulders, hump and throat. And the huge ears that hung heavy and furred beneath the thick, ribbed horns, curving proudly up and back, she mustn’t dwell on that, or on the heady, exotic reek of his sebaceous glands. She had to close the door on all of that, tonight, or issue her final surrender. She turned, meeting his gaze directly.

“Moo,” she said, with a resolve that surprised them both.

Buttons bellowed softly and slammed his skull against the wall, causing a shower of publicity photos of yesteryear’s starlets. By now most of the customers had remembered other places they had to be. The lone waiter scurried from table to table handing out checks.

Suddenly, the man strayed into Buttons’ flight zone. Buttons stamped his foot twice and bent his massive neck dangerously, directing the stiff arch at the waiter. With a tiny scream, the man fell back and crabwalked toward the cashier stand. The few remaining customers scribbled hasty IOUs on their bills and hightailed it. You paid a little extra for a joint with atmosphere, but this was too much even for the uptown crowd.

Snowflake stretched out a forefoot and laid it lightly over one of the enormous, striated hooves, manicured and polished until it glowed like black onyx.

“Moo,” she said, soothing him. “Moo.”

He softened slightly and his breathing slowed, though his tail remained stiff, held away from his body. He looked at her, all the pain and injured pride of his breed laid bare on the long face.

“Moo?” he demanded.









Snowflake sighed, exasperated. They’d been over this a half dozen times. She wasn’t here to dance the same sad tango again. She’d come to extricate herself, at last, from his labyrinth of lies, degradation and casual cruelty.

She was still young, wasn’t she? She was beautiful. Why, she descended directly from President Taft’s pet cow, who had grazed the White House lawns. And she still produced over forty thousand pounds of milk a year, that was a fact! She was a girl with options.

She looked at Buttons, and the truth hit her like a mallet to the head in a cold room. A visible tremor raced down her silken white and black flanks. She didn’t love him. Not anymore.

She took a deep breath, raised her chin, and let the big bastard have it. The facade fell away, and she spoke without fear, giving voice to years of waiting and hoping and hurting. She held nothing back.


Buttons stiffened, his eyes bulging from the sockets. His tongue lolled and the coarse hair along his back lifted and shook. He raised his tail and struck the edge of the table with the heavy black switch.

“Moo,” he snarled. She flinched, tears starting in her eyes, but held her ground.

And then it was finished. Buttons heaved out of the booth and moved with affected swagger for the entrance, throwing his head left and right. A crash as he battered a door off its hinges, and Snowflake was free.

She listened as the hoof-falls receded. She didn’t know what to feel. Joy lingered close by, but she didn’t yet dare claim it as her own. It would take time, but perhaps not much.

Lala’s was empty but for Snowflake and the little waiter, cringing by the kitchen doors. She turned to him.


Posted in writing | 2 Comments

Little Women

For weeks, they’ve arrived late afternoons, as the sun begins to beat the rim of the hills to bronze. They boil out of gaps in the hardwood at the Wagon Wheel Lanes, and the known world takes a shuddering, leftward lurch.

As they stream beneath the Comfort Curve™ sofas and across the scarred linoleum, the anopheline hum of their gossip sets the beer glasses in the lounge ringing in sympathetic resonance. Whiskey dances in bottles laid against the mirrored tiles. Opalescent ripples, like light on insect wings, flash across the floor as their minuscule sunbonnets turn this way and that. Witnesses swear that fleeting messages show in the patterns, images and drifting script. A Fredericksburg kindergarten teacher is gladdened by a glimpse of the word ‘fandango’ and can’t say why. A produce manager from Salt Gap hears, in the calico murmur, the night wind in the bodark tree beside his bedroom window in a house that burned down thirty, no, forty years back.  ‘God is great,’ he says, and the little women swirl around the ball return on lanes seven and eight.

It was learned early that they come for the wieners, brittle, skinless franks that have done penance since morning atop the rolling grill. All present hand them around, solemnly breaking them into pieces and casting them into the shimmering throng, where they vanish.

Until Friday, when a toddler drawn by the rosy flush on an infinitesimal cheek pitched forward from his chair. In the instant it took to fetch the boy back, already lapsing into shock, his thigh melted away. The bone shone pink in the light from a caged bulb.

When the maple approaches are stripped, resurfaced and conditioned, wonder will pass out of the world. Unless I can get there first, and gather them up,  and run. A pilgrim carrying her destination with her, we’ll turn tramp, feeding on pinkelwurst and boudin rouge, on sharp mīrkās and slices of pickled bison’s tongue, white pudding in egg yolk and fragrant xue chang. We’ll be out there, and there is sausage everywhere. Follow when you can.

Posted in overwrought fat man, random, writing | Leave a comment


Meet the newest citizen of sunny Hagoromocho.

Born the day before Halloween, 2010, we named her Lila.

It wasn’t until this morning that I actually bothered to check the name Lila online.  Seems to mean lilac in several languages, enjoyed a little surge of popularity in the 1920s, and is poised to make a demographic splash in the next few years.   I made the same mistake when I named her older sister Ema, unaware that Emma was the number 1 or 2 name the year she was born.  Guess I’m just another whore to the Zeitgeist.

Of course, the real reason she’s named Lila is that in the months leading up to her birth I was on a little western, cowboy kick, and Lila just sounded right.  It was going to be Lila, Juanita, or Belle and Lila is the only one I could make fly.  Congratulations, sweetheart.  Your dad’s an idiot.

In Japanese, of course, Raira, or 來良, if you’re thinking of a snazzy tattoo.

Posted in family, lila | Leave a comment

Life Beneath the Lash

This new version of Wide Island has no poll on the sidebar, which is just as well.  In the last poll, fully 75% of you reported smelling cheese while reading this blog. Were I a less trusting man, I’d say that was probably a lot of crap. Remember, market research is serious business. Imagine living in a world where small children were abandoned to the mercy of fiends who lie to opinion researchers.

I’m depressed, not a novel sensation but one which I’d managed to sidestep for the few brief weeks of my summer holiday. But now it’s all over, and I’ve gone from festivals with entertainment like this

and hanging around after dark with my little girl eating frozen treats like this

and lolling about like a drunken circus bear in clear, swift mountain streams as depicted here

to a return to this, the school teachers room.

This picture should relieve you once and for all of your image of the Japanese Interior as a clean, minimal construct of bamboo, straw matting and a winsome teapot simmering alongside a flower arrangement. This is the real deal. Anyone up for a stiff drink?

Posted in life, overwrought fat man, work | 12 Comments

"The old priest’s eyes are bright."

I’ve never posted a student assignment here before. There have been some good ones. Personal favorites include the girl who finished her report on “Pirates of the Caribbean” with the confession, “I like a jolly roger,” and another student who had the Greek gods tell Narcissus, “When you awake, you will fall in love with the first parson you see.” Another girl shared a special memory of how, after she had won an English Recitation contest, “all my friends were crapping for me.”

Generally, though, I don’t think teachers should put forward student work for laughs. But one of my favorite students, a real “beat of a different drummer” seventeen year old, just handed in a spectacular report on her recent homestay in Australia. Her classmates all wrote more or less the same essay about cuddly koalas and cute boys on the Gold Coast and how they “persevered every day to make a treasured memory,” a phrase that appeared so often that I think the homeroom teacher must have written it out for them on the blackboard. Then I came to this. Even the title is a trip.

No Attention, Please

I saw a lot of nervous friends.
There are many flying insects for everyday experience.
In my house, many ants are walking every day.
And, there are cockroaches, geckoes, and many flying insects.
I made friends with geckoes.
People are not afraid of them. I could not believe it.
Every student has their own computer.
Pronunciation in Australia is different from the Queen’s and the Americans.
I don’t know why my lunch is a sandwich.
There are many products made in China.
They are very low priced, but, indeed…
The young priest is odd.
The old priest’s eyes are bright.
No one can escape from him.
Everyone often eats mashed potato.
Rulers are long.
Water is expensive. And also juice.
Everyone eats a lot of apples which are not cut.
Young girls with dyed black-color hair are really into punk fashion.
We don’t have an under five-cent coin.
The color in the sky is vivid. The sea is lovely.
Meat is dripping blood. (I bought it in a shop)
People often use wrong Japanese word.
Ninjas and sushi don’t connect.
Rice salad is incomprehensible for Japanese.
Some children have Japanese games.
(Almost Chinese)
Some women show their underwear.
—–But when we look from the universe,
we have no frontiers.
And we may be able to be friends.

Posted in funny, poetry, work | 9 Comments

All Phone Calls are Obscene

Tomorrow the school smoking room will be converted to storage space, and there will be no more smoking anywhere on school grounds. Good news, it will make it easier to quit. But a lot went on in that room, and I’m reposting an entry from three years ago as a farewell:

The smoking room doesn’t offer much to a first glance, but it is a sanctuary for the weary and persecuted soldier of secondary education. There are no students, no teetering stacks of homework to be graded, not a trace of chalk in the still, poisoned air. Between each class half the men in the school stand shoulder to shoulder, silently handing round cigarettes. Lighters appear and are struck. 18 men inhale, nod appreciatively to one another, and release. The air instantly turns that perfect 20th century blue, the color only of television in strangers’ homes and dense tobacco smoke in narrow rooms.

The walls, last papered in the 80’s, are lustrous amber. A late history teacher’s still-life hangs near the door, a thick gloss of tar lending it the gravity of centuries. There is one machine for coffee and one for tea, both of which frequently work. There are two scruffy tables, across which two couches and six chairs face off. One couch is so soft that you are really, if we were to be absolutely honest, sitting on the floor. The other has boards beneath the thin cushions; sitting on it is like perching on a window ledge while the crowd below urges you on. The tables are set with four cut glass ashtrays, one smaller wooden affair with buxom native dancers carved around the rim, and one with beach sand and discolored seashells trapped in glass. The last two are souvenirs of K. Sensei’s Oahu wedding.

“My God, it sounds magnificent,” I hear you murmur among yourselves, and so it is but for one thing, a lone serpent fouling our Eden. The telephone.

It broods in the corner on a tall pedestal, its plastic-sheathed tail lashing menacingly, the sticky push-buttons and reeking mouthpiece making quiet threats. So long as that is all it does, we are content to overlook it, as we might ignore a fellow commuter fondling himself on a late-night streetcar.

But that is not all it does. It also rings. Or rather it bleats, it yawps, it sometimes quacks, in tones devised by some soulsick student of sonic warfare. At the sound, 18 men flinch, jitter a few inches across the scarred linoleum floor, and the game begins. The game, of course, is to decide who will answer the phone. In theory, the job belongs to whoever is nearest the thing when it commences its shrill gabbling. In practice, though, the room’s geometry allows several men to be equidistant from the phone, bringing a fascinating calculus into play. Who is junior? Who was the last call for, and how likely is it that this is a follow up to that call? Who is junior? Who last answered? Who is junior? Do we really think it’s for one of us? No one has called me on this phone, for instance, since November. Am I obliged to pick it up if I feel reasonably certain that the desired party is not present? What constitutes reasonable certainty? At any rate, isn’t someone here my junior? Eventually, often around the fourth ring, a determination is made and a trembling hand goes forth. The receiver is lifted, showering damp bits of bean cake from the last conversation.

“Yes, this is the smoking room. You want N. Sensei? He’s not here. No I don’t know where he is. That’s alright.”

Everyone relaxes. Everyone but the 24 year old PE teacher with the hunted look, who’s thinking, “Goddammit, I knew it wasn’t for me. Why the hell do I always have to answer the damn thing? What am I even doing in this room? I teach gym.” Worse, though, is when the recipient is present, but on the room’s far side. This requires a nimble hop over tables, a sliding step between chairs and around the corners of couches, a careful dance performed with 17 partners, each clutching a tiny, white-hot blowtorch in his hand. It’s an operation that demands rock-steady nerves and a relaxed outlook on the state of your necktie.

Our smoking room is also, during classes, a retreat for contemplation, for quiet downgrading of ambitions and spiritual certainties, and of course for deep, restful slumber. This is especially true for several older teachers.

I am thinking now of one man in particular, who is in his last year of teaching. He is old. He is peevish. He is tired, a special kind of fatigue reserved for slightly smelly, out-of-touch old guys who spend their days in girls’ schools. Don’t judge him too harshly. You’d be smelly too if you napped in our smoking room, or simply moved through it at a dead sprint. The consolations of teaching are lost to this man. He is waiting out the clock. His personal life is a disappointment too, perhaps. His only child, a daughter, lived under his roof until she was 36, when she very abruptly (it seemed to him) married a foreigner and moved to Sydney. Now he spends three minutes a week on the telephone with a five year old grandson who doesn’t speak Japanese. Lately he’s discovered his wife is stashing money away, in large sums, and he tries not to dwell on her possible plans for it. She’s stopped cooking his favorite meals, and no longer airs out the futons as often as he’d like. This time next year it will be just the two of them, together day and night, locked in a terminal staring contest across the tiny kitchen table.

I don’t anticipate much argument if I suggest that this guy needs the nap. And in fact it seems to do him a world of good. Not after he wakes up. He reverts to form more or less immediately upon waking. But if you were to watch his sleeping face, it would be clear he’s somewhere else entirely. In his father’s home, perhaps, in the mountainous north of the prefecture. It’s late autumn and he and his older brother, whom he loved very much, are sitting at the garden’s edge, shelling peas while they talk. A beautiful child runs out of the house, calling him grandfather in flawless Japanese. They play ball, the boy missing more than he catches but throwing well, very well. When the sun is down behind the pines, they enter the house, a newer house now, in the city, where his favorite dishes are laid on the broad table. Later he creeps into his own fresh, well beaten futon. His wife, young and bedwarm, stirs…

The phone rings. He reels up out of sleep with the kind of snort you mostly hear in zoos. He’s alone in the room, but it might be for him. Tottering around the tables to the pedestal where the thing lies mooing at him, he picks it up just as the other party disengages, and in the instant before the dial tone comes up he hears the chill whispering of a million kilometers of dead line.

The class bell. The tumbling entry of half the men in the school. The dance, as the saying goes, begins anew. Cigarettes out, the flare of lighters, the hiss of intake, the nod, the release. No one looks at the phone.

Posted in life, tobacco, work, writing | Leave a comment

"Littlefoot, 32" made into a Wordle

Charles Wright’s poem, run through Wordle. Thanks to Paul over at the Get Hiroshima blog for pointing out the best timewaster I’ve seen in weeks. Click to see at full size. Pretty cool.

Posted in random, web | 3 Comments

The Firefly Tribe

In the evening the shadowed verandas of the large apartment block near my house are lit by the orange embers of cigarettes. They rise and fall, tracing wild arcs through the air to emphasize a thought, each inhalation marked by the flaring and dimming of the little glow. Sometimes there are ten or more at once, for the most part completely unaware of each other. It’s a common enough scene across the country that the Japanese have invented a wonderful word for it: hotaruzoku, the firefly tribe, smokers who choose or are exiled by families to the balconies. Sometimes the tribe has a voice as well, one hacking cough sounding in the darkness to be answered by another, slightly deeper. If it were blues or church singing it would be a beautiful call and response, but the effect is more like a flock of ill wading birds trying to find one another in the midst of a swamp fire.

I know all this because the hotaruzoku is one of the very few Japanese tribes I’ve gained full access to, and by far the easiest. It’s also the entirety of my interaction with those neighbors in the apartment block. There in the gloaming, I gaze thoughtfully through the intervening space at their indistinct outlines and they gaze thoughtfully back at me. Then we turn and go inside. And that is all. I’ll leave you now. Through the open window, my people are calling to me.

Posted in Japan, life, random, tobacco | 3 Comments

…and a time to cast away

I think my long term relationship with National Public Radio is coasting to an end. It’s time. I think we hit a new low this morning when “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” used the Black Eyed Peas as a musical interlude, and the damned thing got stuck in my head. For obvious reasons, it’s ill-advised for a 140 kilo bald guy in his early forties to be strolling down the halls of an all-girls high school obliviously crooning, “My hump, my hump, my hump, ha! My lovely lady lumps. Check it out!” in a breathy falsetto, even if no one understands what he’s saying.

Unfortunately, that’s all I really took away from NPR this morning. That and the weather forecast for Minneapolis, nearly 9,000 kilometers away. I no longer care who gets Carl Kasell’s voice on his home answering machine. The Car Talk guys sound increasingly bizarre, though I freely concede that’s entirely my problem. The Driveway Moments are blending into one prolonged howl of bathos, and the promise of never hearing David Sedaris talk about his mother again fills me with a sense of hushed and happy exultation.

Why NPR, anyway? It’s just a sort of sonic security blanket. Listening over the internet, I could be listening to any English programming in the world. The BBC, or Australian Broadcasting, both of which are great by the way. Or why not go farther afield? Surely there’s something interesting coming out of South Africa, or New Zealand, or even Belize or Guyana. I always tell my students English is the key to a thousand doors, for which I suffer a great deal of eye-rolling, and here I am suckling at the teat of Liberal America. Well, no more! Goodbye, Peter, Karl and company. So long, Terry. Tom and Ray, old friends, I bid you adieu. And Sylvia Poggioli, you sorceress, how you inflame and unhinge me! But we can’t continue like this. We just can’t.

Posted in news, overwrought fat man, random | 4 Comments

Japan Sings the Turkish National Anthem

Posted in Japan, random, web | 6 Comments