A Maplopo Original:
by Doc Kane,
© All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior permission of Maplopo.
Nobuo stares at the stillness of his coffee—perched above it as if he’s waiting for some sudden movement that will set things in motion. A ripple, even, would feel like an improvement. It’s 6:59, which means his old Sanyo alarm clock will soon ignite, just as it has these last 21 years since retiring, and the last four he’s spent alone without Michiko.
click… Ohayo, Muroran!
The immediate high-pitched chatter of the radio morning show host is a bit more grating than inspiring, and if the radio weren’t across the room on the countertop, he’d wish to turn it off as quickly as it started.
The freight train just out of Jinyamachi Station zooms by at its appointed time, shaking the wire legs of the kitchen table as it barrels by. Finally, some movement. Time to head into the day. There is goodness at its end, he assures himself. Down goes the coffee… his long held reflection in it, now a thing of the past. The remaining cold egg, one of a pair he boils to near doneness every morning, he leaves behind for lunch. It’ll be okay, he figures, unwrapped in the fridge.
When Michiko was there with him she would, of course, never have allowed such a thing. Neatly wrapped it would go into its own small container barely big enough to contain it’s size, no matter its size. Unlike other wives in the neighborhood, she never had more than five or six bento boxes, always content to challenge herself to finding the correct fit for whatever needed to go into whichever box. There was always enough room. And, maybe a little extra even for the proper amount of jostling of the chopsticks when diving in for the first scavenging bite.
Their life together was a fairly quiet one when viewed from the outside—Nobuo was always as proper as could be—despite the physical nature of his work. He wore a collared shirt with a tie each day to work under his overalls, no matter the weather, and in Hokkaido, that was often an advantage. Despite appearances, the two shared a vibrant personal life. Without kids, their weekends were filled with outings to the local izakaya, their nights at home with a bounty of Michi’s cooking (better than the izakaya anyway). There was always lots of drink, the occasional bit of dancing here and there, and a robust sex life. They lived for each other only, and did everything together—especially pedal.
“Hang on! You’re going too fast… ”
“Ahhh, Mi-chan, you’ll be fine, I promise—I’m as strong as an ox! And my balance is unmatched!” I’ve got you… just grab my waist… you’ll be fine!”
Grabbing a boy’s waist in 1939 wasn’t exactly something a nice girl wanted to be seen doing in public in the little town of Horomoe-cho, but Michi did like Nobuo and his confidence, and she figured well, why not. And, so away they went down the hill in their escape from school, weaving along mottled sidewalks, and past the makeshift gardens in town. They sailed out and alongside the river, soaking up the view of those beautifully tall cedars, and the lush meadows as they neared the sole Sakimori-cho cherry tree. For a half hour they rode, Nobuo pedaling as fast as he could, and as strong as possible when he wanted to show off and force Michiko to grab him tightly, and more slowly those other times when he wished to feel her soft breath on the nape of his neck.
This first ride, past the sparsely dotted hills of their Hokkaido home would be the first of many they would take together, and the first where they would share a coffee at a roadside kissaten. Nobuo always paid for the cup, and never took the first sip. Once he started working a part time job, and had a little extra money, he’d buy two, and they’d offer one another an enthusiastic “Cheers!” pretending to be the adults they were too eager to become.
There were rides through the mountains, and rides through the city. After graduation, to celebrate a special occasion, or to forget a loss, they’d journey together on long Sunday jaunts to Etomo-cho, or start out just before darkness to see the sunset as it fell on Cape Chikyu. No matter the day or time, they always made time for pedaling, and for each other. Even through the war and its aftermath, they found occasion to ride, though necessity had them borrowing a bike from Mrs. Tamura, the bicycle shop owner—each of theirs having been destroyed during the bombing of the port.
“I like this,” Michiko said one rather somber day in March of 1946 still long before they could afford another bike of their own.
“What’s that, Michi?”
“Riding behind you on this single bike. It reminds me of that first day we rode together, when you scared me so with your weaving through the streets and I had to hold onto you so tight like there was nothing in the world but the two of us.”
“The war was long.”
“I’d like to keep doing it this way.”
“You mean on one bike?”
“I’d love that.”
And, for fifty years they rode this way… Nobuo pedaling in his straight and passionate manner, always catering his movements to thrill and comfort Michiko at the same time.
Nobuo’s dashed career hopes.
The building of their new house.
Their shared misfortune of not being able to have kids.
They rode, through it all.
Decade after decade they rode those regular roads, always on one bike, and stopping at least once, sometimes, twice, for a coffee. The advent of vending machines made their trips even more enjoyable, and they could travel even further out from their homes knowing a coffee was always within reach. Michiko liked hers black, Nobuo preferred his a little on the sweeter side.
He missed those days. He missed her.
It had been a long time now since she’d ridden behind him, shared a coffee with him street side—the bike resting against the machine, or, in the country just lying in the grass where he’d like to toss it. Something about that bit of abandonment he appreciated. It was in him.
He still longed for her presence. And so it was today.
At 86, Nobuo can still pedal with the best of ‘em—strong legs from decades of squatting along the factory floor makes for a sturdy constitution he’s always said. And so, with the coffee that had kept him company for so long this morning a distant memory, Nobuo locked the door behind him, took the bike lock key out of it’s special pouch, set free the wheel, tossed back the kickstand, and pedaled away.
He dashed past the neat rows of homes that filled in next to them in their seventy years together… through the expanded shotengai with it’s tea roaster, the overflowing drug store, the flower vendors, and the vegetable hawkers… along the seaside, and into the less desirable part of town where he found himself traveling now each morning… and through the somewhat deserted old shop district that was once a lively part of town. It was early, as it always was when he departed… the only way he knew to shake the loneliness that chilled his soul before noon.
Each day, he’d stop at one of the four vending machines that peppered that final street before he’d park, pause, then with less verve make the return trip back home. He still bought two coffees, zippering each tightly within the key pouch as he pedaled that final stretch.
As always at this hour, the non-descript green building marking his final destination rose just below the sun. That large van that never seemed to budge remained sheltered beneath, in its single parking space. Quiet, it was.
He walked toward the sliding door. At this hour, it’s opening mechanism was disengaged, and had to muscle it open a bit, squeezing his 86-year-old body through a gap just wide enough to pass. Behind him, he dragged it shut as he did each of the seven mornings he’d make this trip, with the engine that normally propelled it forward with grace fighting him the entire way.
Inside, he bent around the corner to the left, keen on smelling what was on the fire for breakfast. Smells like shoyu tamago, today, he thought… a little stewed daikon, and definitely some saba. He liked saba in the morning.
A quick hello to the chefs, and a few more steps into the dining room. There was Sana and Yono and Hitoshi… up early as always. They could be a real hoot, those three. And, in the corner, with the biggest smile on her face, Michiko.
Nobuo pulled out the two cans of coffee from the key pouch he carried with him into the nursing home and sat down. One at a time, he silently placed both on the table, and offered Michiko that slightly upturned eye over his glasses that she loved so much. He opened hers, then his. She reached out and touched his face. He smiled.
This story was inspired by all the very beautiful people at Happy House Rokken. Everyone in this magical place welcomed me with open arms when I first arrived in Japan, and they are the reason I decided to stay in Kobe. I love them all deeply. They also were instrumental in helping me along the path toward securing a life with my lovely wife, Reiko, and I am forever endebted. Please visit their wonderful space if you are ever in Shinnagata, Kobe! –> Happy House Rokken
If you’re at all interested in any of the places mentioned in this story, the below Kanji and links might help. This story was first envisioned as an animated short, so if you’re reading this, and happen to know anyone who would like to help put it in motion, so to speak, don’t be afraid to say hello. Thanks! We hope you liked the story… onto the links!
Here’s a link to information about the lone cherry blossom tree in Sakimori-cho… it’s been there for about 100 years, and has even been featured in film and commercials here in Japan.
Also, here’s a nice, albeit somber promotional film about the city of Muroran. Very nicely done.
Want more original short stories? On deck… the story of civic-minded thirteen year old girl coming to age just as the flag does as well. Check out the beginnings of “49 Stars” and each of our other Maplopo Originals!
To further support our work, and purchase stories in paperback or Kindle form, please visit Amazon.com