Flash Fiction: Okaeri!
Flash Fiction Fridays is an online series from Stone Bridge Press devoted to bringing readers short stories from and about Japan. This month's piece comes from landscape architect and Stone Bridge Press author Marc Peter Keane and tells the tale of a man's uncanny encounter with the absurdity of his life and life in general.
Marc Peter Keane
A man leans against the door of his apartment, steadying himself, staring at the key in his hand. This can’t be, he thinks through a late-night drunken haze. He squints up at the door number. 25. Machigaenai, he mutters, No mistake, and looks back at the key. What on earth…? He casts a bleary eye down the open-air hallway trying to get his bearings. The naked ceiling lights buzz, ringed by galaxies of infinitesimal lives orbiting their private suns. He looks out at an identical building across the courtyard and beyond that to seven more just the same. Where am I, he mutters and tries the key once more. It slides into the lock easily enough but when he attempts to turn it, the lock won’t budge. He sighs and thumps his fist against the door to wake his wife. Then again. Thud.
Hypnotized by the orbiting insects above him, he retraces his steps from the train to the danchi with its many time-worn, nondescript apartment buildings. Each five stories tall, each with the same open hallways at every landing and endless rows of identical metal doors that keep close the lives within. Concrete honeycombs, he would tell anyone who asked, built during the Great Economic Expansion to house us little worker bees.
The door clicks and swings open. A girl in a high school uniform is standing in the entry typing furiously on her cellphone with one hand, a glistening thumbnail chattering across the keys. Without looking up she says okaeri in a voice flattened by boredom and disdain. Welcome home. The man stands there, key in hand, mouth agape. He recognizes the acid tongue but not the girl. Osake-kusai zo, she adds, flashing him the evil eye, nose wrinkling. You stink of sake. She yanks him into the entry by the sleeve. Close the door! The bugs’ll get in, she hisses, then flicks her long hair with a quick turn of the head and stomps down the hall, glimpses of white panties showing from beneath a dangerously short plaid skirt. It’s the same uniform as his own daughter’s but, Wait a sec, he thinks, Kimi-chan would never hike her skirt up that short. Would she? Same school though. I wonder if they know each other. He makes to speak, some kind of explanation for what he’s doing there, but the girl is already gone. He lays a hand on the door handle to let himself out.
Okaeri! calls another voice, this one older. He turns to see a woman step briefly out from the kitchen and point to the phone she’s holding to her ear. She mouths, It… is… your…. mo-ther, winces to show her disapproval and steps back into the kitchen.
The man doesn’t know what to think. Get going while the going’s good, he mumbles to himself, and pushes down on the handle to open the door to leave. The woman pops back out of the kitchen door, still on the phone, and looks at him sharply. He turns to catch her gaze and freezes. Her forehead furrows, a shadow darkening her eyes, and she extends a finger toward him accusingly. Or is it just to say, I’ll be done in a moment. She glances down and whispers into the phone, I’m so sorry to hear that, Mother. I know you two were such good friends. She steps back into the kitchen.
A single moth he let in circles the ceiling light casting frenzied shadows down the hall, strange leaping shapes of the kind that bring terror to the hearts of boys at midnight bonfires. Ofuro haitteiru yo, the woman calls from the kitchen. The bath is ready. Her voice is not pleasant but not unpleasant. Just that particular hollow tone born of familiarity.
The moth slaps itself onto the glass fixture, its wings lifting and falling imperceptibly, its shadow coalescing on the wall into the form of a standing figure, shoulders lifting and falling in preparation for some monumental effort.
An apology rises in the man’s throat. His lips prepare to fling the words down the hall, his mouth already shaping the first syllable, but he stops. His hand inexplicably releases the door handle and he sets his briefcase on top of a shoe cabinet next to a photo calendar of famous gardens. We have the same one, he thinks, leans in and realizes it’s from a different bank. For just a moment, he stands in the quiet entry allowing the emptiness of the world to fill in all the space around him, then slips out of his shoes and steps lightly down the hall into the infinite possibilities of his anonymity.
Landscape architect and author Marc Peter Keane lived in Kyoto, Japan, for nearly 20 years and specializes in Japanese garden design. Presently, he maintains a design office in Ithaca, New York. He has authored several books about garden design and is a fellow at the Research Center for Japanese Garden Art in Kyoto, the East Asia Program at Cornell University, and the Institute for Medieval Japanese Studies at Columbia University. His new book, "Japanese Garden Notes: A Visual Guide to Elements and Design", comes out this spring, and if you pre-order a copy before February 18th you’ll get a custom-printed 8 x 12" photograph from the book.
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