At the culture center, I am given a stark reminder of the danger that lies ahead: less than a hundred yards away and in clear view from the windows of the fifth floor classroom is the Fukuoka Kōchisho (拘置所), the very jail I hope to avoid getting thrown into.
The Kōchishois enclosed in an old concrete wall, some forty or fifty feet high, with a bramble of razor wire at the top. Just beyond the wall, the top floor of the cell blocks is visible. In all the years I have taught at the culture center and looked out at the Kōchisho, I have never once detected a hint of life beyond the bleak enclosure.
What I do know about the jail is that prisoners are sometimes hanged there, the executions made public only after they have been conducted. There are no countdowns, no protests, no candlelight vigils, no dramatic eleventh hour stays of execution. This isn’t Hollywood, after all. It is Japan, where humorless bureaucrats oil the machinery of justice and the extinguishing of human life is as fittingly impersonal as a tick in a ledger in some governmental office.
And I’ll become a tick in a ledger myself if I fuck up tomorrow morning.
“You have nothing to worry about,” Adachi told me.
Big of the man to say so! The lawyer isn’t the one who is going to get the third degree, or have his head slammed up against the wall, or receive an education in the subtleties of a nightstick. Whatever happens on Sunday, I’m sure I’ll be seeing stars by the end of the day if blow it.
I have gotto get in touch with Naila, again!
I tried to contact my cousin twice before I left for the culture center this morning, but no luck. I still don’t know what I am going to tell the cops when I go in for questioning.
If only I could talk with Naila, and get her to corroborate . . .
Swallowing hard, I turn away from the window and sit down on the corner of my desk and wait for the students to arrive.
At a quarter to ten, students begin trickling in, filling the classroom with their sunny chatter. The pensioners don’t seem to have a care in the world, aside from bum knees, cataracts, and memory loss. Some of them, the older ones in particular who are in their eighties and still going strong, lived through the horrors of the war—one even experienced the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, another had been training to become a kamikazepilot as the war was coming to an end—but you’d never know it from the way they smile as they enter the classroom.
Dé Dale once commented that he didn’t know how I could bear to spend so much time every week with so many “losers”. I suppose if I also operated under the same opinion that my students were losers, I probably wouldn’t have lasted as long as I had in the profession. At the risk of my friend’s derision, I must confess that I actually like the vast majority of my students, and, for the most part, enjoy the time we spend together each week. Would I rather be doing something different? You bet! But for all intents and purposes, the job suits my lifestyle and places few demands on me other than I show up, do my thing, and collect my pay.
Now that the Kōchishois looming in the offing and I risk losing everything, this teaching gig included, there isn’t anywhere I would rather be than in this classroom chatting it up with pensioners about their enviably ordinary and peaceful lives.
I ask a diminutive woman by the name of Hideko (lit., child of the rising sun) if she did anything special this week. At the age of sixty-three, she is a spring chicken compared to the rest.
“Last week, I went toshopping,” Hideko begins.
“Wentshopping,” I correct.
“Yes, yes. I went to shopping and . . .”
“No, Hideko, it’s not ‘wenttoshopping’, it’s ‘wentshopping’.” I say. God only knows how many times I have corrected the group on this very point.
“I went shopping.”
“You, too, Sensei?”
“Oh, good grief. No, no, no. Not me. You!”
“Yes, that’s what I said,” she counters with a smug smile.
“Never mind. Please continue.”
“Last week, I went to shopping and . . .”
When she is finished with her story, I write “go to ~ ing” on the whiteboard with the “to” crossed out in red. Below it, I add several examples: “go hiking”, “go swimming”, “go fishing”, and finally “go shopping”.
After doing a quick run-through of the grammar, Hideko finally figures out what I have been trying to tell her. What’s more, it dawns on her that she made the very same mistake only a week ago.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“It’s quite all right,” I assure the woman. “There’s no need to apologize. This ismy job, after all. Like a gardener pulling weeds.”
“Oh, thank you. Thank you. You’re too kind.”
“Besides there are no stupid mistakes . . .”
“No, there aren’t any stupid mistakes, but there sure are a lot of stupid students!”
Back at my apartment, I try to place another call to my cousin. It is getting late on Naila’s side of the planet. If I don’t get through to her soon, the next window won’t be until the evening, my time. Trouble is I promised a friend I would throw her a small going away party.
I dial my cousin’s number and let it ring and ring and ring.
“Yal’la, Naila, answer the goddamn phone!” After ten rings, I slam the receiver down. “Fuck me!”
It is tempting to give my mother a call to see if she might be able to contact her sister, my aunt Michelin, and tell Naila to call me. The poor woman, though, already has enough on her plate caring for my father. My old man is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and the last thing Mama needs is one more thing to upset her. No, I’ll have to try again in the evening.
After lounging about the swimming pool all morning, dé Dale and I got itchy feet and decided to go out and explore Bangkok until it was time to leave for the airport.
A few blocks from our hotel was a canal, one of the many noisome tributaries that flow through the city carrying human waste and pestilence and God only knows what else. Every now and then boats roaring in either direction and churning up the muddy waters pull up to jerry-built piers, unload their shaken and rattled passengers, and speed off again.
Well, I’ll tell you, the boats are probably deathtraps, but to the two of us they looked like a hell of a lot of fun. The gods may struggle in vain against boredom, but there is no shortage of things that will amuse two lads hopped up on drugs.
We boarded an inbound boat, sitting at the very front of the boat, near the pilot, with the delight of two boys climbing into the first car of a roller coaster.
The pilot floored the engine and the boat hurtled forward at breakneck speed, down the canal under a canopy of trees. The boat banked sharply at the Ban Bat temple and continued thundering ahead, passing under a low-lying bridge and just barely averting a collision with an approaching boat. Several minutes later, when we arrived at a pier along the great Chao Phraya, the River of Kings, the two of us hobbled off, shaken and rattled ourselves.
We spent an hour wandering around Khet Dusit, where the royal palace and parliament are located, then jumped onto the backs of motorcycle taxis that zipped us back to Siam, weaving wildly through the bumper-to-bumper traffic.
The rest of the afternoon was idled away at Gaysorn Plaza and Siam Center, where you would have thought that Christmas and Chanukah had come eight months early the way we shopped, picking up souvenirs and presents like there was no tomorrow.
In the evening, we rendezvoused at the airport with Nori, dé Dale’s leggy Amazon, who had just flown in from Japan. The three of us then caught a connecting flight to Ko Samui, an island off the southeastern coast where we planned to stay for a few days before moving on to the neighboring island of Ko Pha Ngan in time for the full moon party.
Perhaps it was the altitude or the deafening drone of the twin propellers that triggered it, but midflight I began to peak again. Leaning across the narrow aisle, I asked my friend how he was feeling. More than twenty hours had passed since we had taken yabaand I was still soaring. He looked back at me and grinned like the Cheshire cat.
When my workday has finally come to an end, I consider trying to give my cousin another call, but it is still early in the morning for her.
Better to try again in an hour.
In the meantime, Azami and I go out for a quick bite, dropping in at Gyoshu Danshiro Shoten, an Okinawan pub just down the street from my apartment.
Without looking at the menu, I rattle off the order as soon as the waiter comes to our table: “Tofuyo, goya chamburu, rafuté, Okinawan soba, grilled Ishigaki beef, and Orion beer.”
Okinawa. Now there is a place I would not mind being, and to hell with what dé Dale thinks of the place.
For years, I’ve been operating sullenly on the soppy emotion “anywhere, but here”, but my melancholic longing for greener pastures does have a destination—several, in fact—and Okinawa is near the top of that list.
A friend of mine checked out of life’s fast lane and moved to the southernmost island of Yonaguni where she is now spending her days hanging out at the beach, and lolling about on the engawa deck of her home, plucking a kind of banjo called the Ryūkyū sanshin and drinking the local fire water, awamori.
Although I may not be ready to live the life of a cloistered monk just yet, Ishigaki, the largest, most populous island in the Yaeyama archipelago located halfway between Okinawa and my friend’s new home of Yonaguni, would suit me just fine. The pace of life is slower there—perfect when you have nowhere in particular to go and nothing special to do. When you are rushing from one commitment to another like I usually am, just doing nothing, absolutely nothing, as dé Dale often reminded me, is a luxury.
A dip in the turquoise sea, snorkeling among coral reefs and tropical fish, a bottle of Donan 120-proof awamori and a bucket of ice to ease you into the evening, and an old man strumming away on the sanshin, singing in the Okinawan dialect, “Nankuru nai sah” (Everything’s gonna be all right) sounds like heaven to me right now.
The waiter brings a chilled mug of Orion draught for me, utchin cha  for Azami, and a small plate of tōfuyo.
Even in a land like Japan where delicacies abound, tōfuyo still manages to stand out.Made with the Okinawan variety of tōfu, it is first packed in salt to remove the excess water, and then fermented a second time in awamori, rice malt and red yeast until it takes on a rose-colored cheese-like consistency.
I shave off a bit of the tōfuyowith a toothpick and pop it into my mouth.Just then, Azami’s cell phone rings.
“Moshi-moshi,” she says. “Yes, he’s here with me. Hold on a moment, I’ll give him the phone . . .”
The airplane touched down on the tarmac of Ko Samui’s small airport by and by.
Dé Dale, Nori, and I shambled off the plane, ears ringing, and made our way to an improvised baggage claim area where we huddled with the other woozy passengers. Once we had our bags, we hailed a taxi that took us to the other side of the island where a pair of bungalows was waiting for of us.
By this point, dé Dale and I had been awake for over forty hours, and still “high like the kite” for most of that time. Only now were the effects of the yabafinally subsiding; the rope we had been dangling from all night and all day finally slackened enough to let our feet touch the ground.
After a trip as long as that, you might think I would have been ready to hit sack, but no, I was still having too much fun—strange fruit, indeed—and didn’t want the party to end.
Dé Dale and Nori, however, had the good sense to call it a night. With a toodle-oo, the two retired to their bungalow. The door to their bungalow shut and the curtains drawn, for the next two hours the quiet of the evening was broken every now and then with giggles and moans, and the thud of a headboard banging against the wall, steady as a metronome.
Left alone to my own self-destructive devices, I took the roll of yaba out of my pocket. There were still five more of those crazy pink pills left. Splitting one in two, I popped half into my mouth.
Good God, what was I thinking?
The following morning, dé Dale said he wanted to get in touch with nature while on the island, so the three of us went on a quest for magic mushrooms.
I was still hopped-up on yababy then, having spent half of the night wandering around the dimly lit, sparsely populated village in a fruitless search for a party or a go-go bar or a show featuring genital acrobatics—anything that might fight back, if only temporary, an imaginary army of ants that was crawling all over me.
Unfortunately, little was open, nothing but a dismal little cyber café with two lousy computers and dial-up Internet. A hippy with blond dreadlocks dressed in what looked like pajamas sat before one of the computers. He hunted and pecked at the keyboard, clicking the mouse with the frenzied urgency of a day trader. Watching him reminded me of something dé Dale had once said: Most hippies today are phonies.
Returning to the bungalow, I plopped down on the bed and turned on the boob tube. A Thai soap opera was on. It featured beautiful people with gleaming white teeth and alabaster complexions living lives of such material abundance it made me wonder what the people in the shantytowns along the train tracks and stinking rivers of Bangkok must have made of it all. Flipping the channel, I caught CNN just as it was breaking for a commercial. Imagine that. Changing the channel, MTV was showing Crazy Town’s “Butterfly”—shugah baby—again. On another channel, NHK Worldwas stultifying viewers with its bone-dry reportage of the news . . .
“Ah, fuck it,” I said, and, turning the TV off, headed out to the beach where I waited for the sun to rise.
Later that morning, when dé Dale, Nori, and I were walking along the beach, we happened upon a beach bar, the walls of which were painted in a wildly psychedelic motif, like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
“Bingo,” dé Dale said, snapping his fingers.
He sauntered up to counter and asked the bartender, a scrawny Thai man of about thirty, and the only person in the joint, if he knew where we might be able to score some shrooms.
The bartender laughed and in impeccable English told us that five years ago magic mushrooms would have been easy to get hold of, but now? “Sorry, but you’re fresh out of luck, mate.”
Dé Dale sat down at the counter and ordered a round of Singhas.
When the bartender brought the beers over, he whispered something to the effect that if it was partying we were after, he might be able to arrange for something.
Dé Dale was game and gave him a nod, warning, “Better not disappoint us!”
“You won’t be,” the bartender replied and took off down the beach, giving us the run of the bar. When he returned half an hour later, he produced a small case of pink pills with WY imprinted on them.
Dé Dale and I looked at each other and started laughing.
 Utchin cha (うっちん茶) is jasmine tea from Okinawa.
The first posting/chapter in this series can be found here.
Rokuban: Too Close to the Sun and other works are available in e-book form and paperback at Amazon.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.