REAL IS THE RARER THING
by Roger Topp
“It’s near checkout time and I need to escape the hotel without paying.” Imogen has abandoned me, never returning to the room last night. I send the text east. I hoist the backpack, not looking back at the tatami mat, the futon, the pillow the size of a laptop, the tea service, and the thin as grass bamboo walls. When my phone says a quarter past ten, I’m at a café. Feels like a safe place to wait as my calendar vibrates to remind me I’m going to miss a meeting in ten minutes and somewhere a long way away from here. I wipe the oil and crumbs from my hands. The croissant with ham and cheese, plus the small coffee, cost me 330 Yen. I have another 155 Yen in my pocket: three donuts and five chips of aluminum.
There’s a giant four-foot globe by the front windows, moves very slowly, not so much spins as turns in space. No friction. No motors. No injustice. The globe is imprisoned inside of an iron cage surrounded by four suns on black iron arms. The ring about Capricorn is wide enough to rest sixteen lattes. The planet is hand-painted, but any human paint would become a river in the heat. The brush strokes are clear as the impasto and running color, but the heavy cage exists to mount the lamps, not to make a statement. Some lonely bastard might be tempted to take a ride.
The coffee evaporates, and I count the change in my pocket, again, like there’s a hole. My eyes hurt and my inner ear is confused when I turn my head. I breathe slowly, trying to will away the cold symptoms. What would be awkward on a stage is easy in a crowd. If anyone looks, they’ll think this is how I am, scowling at the foam, at the phone, at a model of the planet, pushing fluid from one sinus to another like a submarine. I need someone to scream at me every time I touch my nose. A couple days in country and I imagine I look like I’ve brought the plague ashore.
The globe rounds Algeria and makes a great crossing out across the bean sea. Because I’m waiting, I wait for Pacific. The Aleutians are shortchanged. Islands have been forgotten and lost, because they go on forever. The painter has skipped the ‘i’ in ‘Central Amerca.’ This seems fair.
In this incarnation, the café is a loud European invention. Even if the woman in the camel jacket had followed me to Kyoto, she’d walk right by the franchise. She didn’t. She knew to avoid Kyoto today. A French couple took her place and the room next to mine at the ryokan. This morning, they rode away to adventure on bicycles. The real and the imaginary hang in the balance.
Yesterday I ate the contents of my bento dinner in the parking-lot outside my guesthouse. Twilight was dusting the roofs, and the alleyways of Kyoto were soft shadows gathering like grey drapes. Fewer bicycles then, and maybe the solitary putter of a moped beyond the continued and striking absence of dogs. Up the alley, the night’s last suitcase-on-wheels cut the gravel, and I could just about sympathize with the stones.
My guesthouse gave me slippers. My guesthouse greets everyone with a rack fit with costumes. The walls slide. The cube fridge hums. The toilet has a small and presumably waterproof brain in the armrest. Outside, the alleys are narrow and the electrics are close to the ground. Driveway gates come high as guardrails. The thin properties are locked together like tiny, beautiful blocks. The neighborhood reminds me of small town Europe, a long experiment in efficiency and filigree delicacies—as if the old settlers never realized they had left the ship. Now it’s good practice and how it’s going to be on Mars—except we won’t need money. This is all I can afford this morning, to wander about a warren of narrow streets where more bicycles clatter by than slender cars, where residents walk with grocery bags, and the open doors smell of old places. The streets remind me of village Wales, a perfume of infused of coal dust and diesel.
Of course, the architecture is unmistakable. We’re in Japan. Kyoto. Downtown. Old town. The roofs are curves. The walls are thin and pinstriped. Everything is wood. Parts of the stone sidewalk haven’t been repaired since the war. In other places, the paint is still wet.
Here, a garage is so small the car’s boot is in the road, and none of the alleys are big enough to play a game of table tennis wall to wall. Here, the sidewalk is potted plants and college degrees in perfect parking. There is a little workshop that looks like it makes confectionery in the shape of tiny flowers. I cannot read the political posters—or maybe they are selling toothpaste. I try to imagine which street the truck and the woman and the megaphone came down last night. It sounded right outside, but I saw nothing, naked, breathing the night through the open window. Months from now, I’ll ask Noriyasu to listen to my recording. He’ll say it’s a publicity stunt, something to raise awareness of phone fraud. Listening to the recording, it sounds like a recording, not a woman standing in the back of a flatbed truck. Home is where you get the answers. Dreams are where I skip the ryokan in the dark of night for fear the walls will become a hundred feet high come morning.
There’s a robotic carpark blocks over. Every shelved sedan is white but one. I pass a barber pole at chest height, a boy with a soccer ball, a perfect rusted mailbox, and four green plastic chairs. A ceramic cat rests on a tabletop of mosaic stone amid pansies and snapdragon and something living and palm-like and prehistoric. There’s a vending machine on every block. Soft-drinks. Cold coffee. Beer. There’s a pattern: Asahi, Kirin, Coca Cola, Boss. Cigarettes. Repeat. The machines crowd doorways, and we have to suck our guts to get by. I look for the woman in the camel jacket. Dozens of trains have come and gone. She’s real, the woman in the camel jacket, but I know she’s not the same woman each time, only the rarer style in a sea of black coats. French couples? Maybe.
There are three vending machines on this residential block. Two streets down on a thoroughfare, I count six not including the cigarette machines. They work together. There is a bus stop hidden in the middle of the murderous gang of them. I suppose none of the machines discriminate—or ask for I.D. So, who’s the land of the free now? Home is where kids play ball in the street. Home is where eight girls with uniforms and badminton racquets cross Abbey Road. Home is where you don’t need your wallet, where a couple spare coins will buy you a beer and give you a chipped wall to sit on while the eaves swallows weave through the electric lines.
When I arrived at the Kyoto ryokan, communicating with the owner was awkward as talking to myself. My language skills are weak in English at the best of times, and part of the conversation required phoning the booking service, because, turns out, I’d broken the contract. The room was for two. Where was my traveling companion? Through gestures, ‘I’ll find someone, later.’ Would the owner have noticed if I’d manifested Imogen, skulking the shadows? Would his eyes have followed me to that empty space? Step up. Show the man we were just playing. Home is where you don’t shake hands at the door. Solitude is where they expect you to bring a date. Imogen is imaginary, but who is he to judge? I could have pretended out loud. I could have said she’d join me later. ‘Her train is late. She lost her way at the station.’ I pretend such things, but I do not tell the owner I have an invisible friend poking at his rack of costumes.
By the end of the call, I turned not getting a room for the night into getting a room for half the price. Magic, with short sentences. I kept the backs of my hands visible. Imogen could sneak up to the room later, after the rally, when they were done polishing the megaphone and the hood ornaments, and were satisfied they’d scared humans off telephones. I stared at the costumes at the bottom of the stairs. I tried not to shrug. I should have felt disappointed? A lot appreciative? I say, “Really, that’s okay.” I did not expect this. I was not angling for this. One time only? “Sure. I understand. Thank you for the good deal.” Good fortune. Good hospitality. I would have described the color of Imogen’s toothbrush if he’d asked. I would have described exactly where we’d first met. Would that make her real? I could pay for her—really!
This morning, the owner slipped a note under all the doors telling us we had to leave. The ryokan is shut for the rest of the month. I felt this too was a result of the call.
To pay, I reached into a pocket to pull out my wallet. It wasn’t there. It wasn’t anywhere, but, like a mime repeating a clue, I still checked all the pockets three times. I made more assurances, left my bags in a corner and took a walk, looked in every bush between the ryokan and the train station, but I had come round-about, first getting lost in the alleys and then backtracking to the main streets. The head cold had me going in circles, a vagrant looking at my shoes. What felt like fun now felt like covering my tracks. My wallet was gone, the cash and the cards.
I imagined the woman in the camel jacket had left me a voice mail. I knew it was her because I couldn’t listen to it. The phone prompted me for a password, and when I thumbed some obvious gibberish, it warned me perhaps I’d dialed the wrong mailbox. I stared at the phone, but the message was buried deep in the glass and aluminum. I went to a park. I looked for the obvious dead drops to see what happens.
A Tokyo city street is about as quiet as any city street. No horns. No yelling. Whole minutes between the madness. After rush hour. Before the shops open. Even with a detour to cross heavy traffic, I arrived at Hama-rikyu gardens ten minutes before they opened. I was not the first waiting. An old couple. A young couple. Two women on bicycles. Three men with cameras were easy to think of as belonging to a club. I propped myself up against a stone wall and took notes. An aphid landed on my glasses. I blew at it two or three times before it sensed danger.
Waiting in the bright sunshine, I didn’t go to the gardens to find Imogen, but they would’ve been her natural habitat. She has perfected the art of sitting on a park bench. Her posture says she’s willing to share it with pigeons, bright sisters, and goblin men. After all, we first met on a park bench in Philadelphia after I’d walked across from the zoo in Denver after visiting a grave in Vermont. A complicated day. We walked to a cafe that specialized in cake. We went back to her daylight basement somewhere in the haunted recesses of places I only half remember and now only partially co-opt. We met again at a loft in New York, toured the painted caves of a museum exhibit in Montreal, and cried the night away at a friend’s castle in the western desert. Forget that Imogen’s imaginary, that we’d gone beyond real places and gone looking for dinosaur bones, jostled together in the back of a jeep. Welcome to Tokyo. Solitude’s a lover you walk home in the morning. Her hand is thin as moonlight.
In the peony garden, old men with monopods had beat me to the urban patch of morning horticulture. A sign informed me “the time to enjoy the flowers is over.” Still, there were peonies in bloom, and amid the cherry blossoms, girls posed for their boyfriends. Hands up, near the face, expressions like Maraikan mannequins, eyes wide, chins out, shoulders hangers for scrappy dresses and bright jackets. Smile and they recite the news of the day. Then they hover motionless, as if waiting for the turn of the earth, their breathing a soft eternity, before the shutter fires.
I wandered past the komoba, where they once lured and hunted ducks, and into the center of the gardens, where a network of bridges leapt ponds and connected a teahouse and islands. I stood on the Nakajima-bashi and watched a giant, furry bee hover over the lake water, then dart in spirals as if to hunt parachute-motes of pollen.
A couple in traditional dress, like for a Friday wedding, were followed by a loose parade of camera phones. They passed the tea house and went north into the pines. An official photographer made camp with flowers strewn across the forest floor. The couple knelt. I’ve watched couples parade outbound from the alter in Honolulu, Montreal, and now Tokyo, each time followed by groupies and tourists and hungry birds picking at lost crumbs.
Two big splashes in the pond. By the time I turned, the disturbances were the size of a high school car wash. Nothing to see but ripples and soap. A noisy duck there earlier was gone, I supposed now eaten by a fish. I paused another couple of minutes because I think feathers float, but there was nothing but a scattering of tiny maple leaves. Then the fish jumped again, clearing four or five feet. Three times. It was fat off duck or what hovers close above a fish pond.
The sea bass wouldn’t jump again for another ten minutes, but Imogen wanted to wait at least that long. On the far bank, a small crew slipped the walls of a tea house from the east side, magically, around the corner and then down the south side of the frame. I watched them turn the building inside-out.
On the journey back downtown, I did not find the Tokyo Denny’s. It found me with the backside of the sign, a dirty thing burned transparent in parts where the bald light leaks through after dark. I passed underneath pretending it was nothing important. I could smell the gravy and the heaviness of mid-day eggs. I went inside. I ordered something that looked good in the picture and something to drink I am completely certain was mostly kiwi juice—with a ball of kiwi sherbet (less sure) and a sprig of mint on top. I took a picture of the sign but not the drink. Not even noon.
Walking Ginza to the train station, I chanced to follow a French couple. They abound, and she wore jeans and a loose shirt, tails flapping. He wore shorts and a tight shirt with a torso long enough he could touch the street lights. All of her hair was on her head. Most of his was on his face. Naoko struts in front. Toru stoops to look in windows and never seems to catch her until they reach the street light. At some point, I led. She jogged by me like a woman wearing the wrong shoes to catch a train. She turned right at a corner twenty-yards ahead and disappeared. By the time I made the corner, she was coming back, no duck between her teeth, only a silent, shake of her head. He of the cat torso was right behind me, wondering what I was doing with an open microphone. If they had the password for my voicemail, they did not let on and I did not ask. I’ve listened to the tape several times.
Maybe I recorded my walks because I wouldn’t have conversations to remember, or our conversations, Imogen’s and mine, are ghosts, and forthcoming, because there was a narrative there that insists on happening later.
We thundered through the world on the Hikari Shinkansen, less like a bullet, more like a torpedo on skis. The rails rumbled the way silk rumbles. The variable frequency drives spooled, and we were a magnetic flare buzzing along at over a hundred and fifty miles per hour. The photographs were digital sharp. The train banked and the turn was smooth as falling into orbit. We cut through ionosphere and mountains like a hot knife and glided like a canyon stream through cities. The aerodynamic envelope shook, the engine’s forward whiskers touching the concrete and clapboard. The pilot let me drive for a couple miles, but I got us lost so she took back the stick. Eventually we were on course, a white streak bisecting farms, villages, forests, and canals past towns and stepped paddies, parking lots, and factories. Everywhere, most automobiles were either black or white. The tractors were orange. My reservation was for the aisle, but between some stations I switched to the window. That rail line carries 150 million passengers a year, and there are up to thirteen trains per hour running each way. Sometimes, we were a little early, or the previous train was a little late. Their ghosts shifted forward and back, mixing with ours. Eventually, they pulled away and we occupied our seats alone. I didn’t see the woman in the camel jacket until Hamamatsu, where she left us.
When I left the Shinkansen in Kyoto, I found a ticket counter and reserved seats on the pair of trains I need tonight. I didn’t need a wallet for this. Whether I still had it then, I do not know. Kyoto was a pit-stop, a day with a little room to explore the alleyways, and I found myself on side streets quickly. The guest house was near, but I enjoyed the walk after three bright hours on the train.
I swam in the lingering aftermath of the plague and high-speed travel past scintillating architecture. A protest roared on main street. A line of people held signs. Two leaders, or the currently, momentarily euphoric, shouted up and down the line. A third person drummed like one does to make a point or to keep order. “Be careful,” said Imogen. It’s just a protest, I wanted to say, but her eyes were prescient. We slipped down an alley the width of our shoulders touching, which led to another thin canyon, which led to yet another. I checked the map. We were a stone’s throw from the train station and the crush of commuters—but here it was silent as elephants.
When I returned to the ryokan, after searching the whole of innocent Kyoto, I was still, nearly penniless. The owner ushered me upstairs. He’d waited to show me the room for more than an hour. He wanted to go to bed, worn out as I was from the call to the booking service. He gestured I could pay in the morning, once I discovered the whereabouts of my money. After I settled in, I found a small grocery where I bought the largest dinner I could afford and still afford coffee in the morning. Home is where you clean your plate. The change in my pocket: 530 Yen. Coffee in the morning I could do, sitting near a giant turning model of the world, but before I could get to sleep, more phone calls. Security procedures. Identification. Fraud prevention. Call backs, like for auditions—waiting through weeks of silence on the line while I boiled water for tea. I checked the fridge a couple times to see if food would appear when the light was off. Later, I tried to sleep.
Late at night, someone moved slowly and steadily down the streets. She was armed with a megaphone. I couldn’t see her, but I imagined there was a skinny, flatbed truck and she was standing in the back, one hand on an aged, green, slat-wall, and the other cramped against a megaphone’s switch. I woke to the shouts and crawled stiffly across the tatami to the open window. I turned on the recorder and propped it against the windowsill. I had no idea what the woman was saying. I’d spent an evening and a late night proving to people and computers I wasn’t a computer, that I was real and entitled. I had no idea what the woman with the megaphone was shouting, but it sounded important.
The room was warm. The night was cool. Imogen was not there. I could hear the French couple in the next room, their voices, low enough I couldn’t follow.
In the morning, I left the ryokan without paying. I waited and watched the world turn. The cash shop opened eventually, an hour later than advertised. The calls stateside produced results, and head cold or no head cold, I must have passed as me. I returned to pay for the room and to collected my bags.
I leave Kyoto by train, pass field after flooded field of rice, and see civilization by the light of vending machines. Flickering tunnels. Apartment towers. Exterior stairs. A brief glimpse of a family round the dinner table, something being served. My eyes are glad the sun has gone away. I have ten minutes for the Kanazawa transfer. It takes four and that with the inbound a minute late. So, “Yes,” I tell the fellow in Kyoto when he asks how difficult I find figuring out the trains. “No problems,” I tell him. The trains are numbered. The tracks are numbered. The cars are numbered. The seats are numbered. What’s that they say, ‘By the numbers?’ I wait for the Thunderbird at platform 0.
I follow the map on my phone as we push up the coast, zooming in and out on the names of towns as they shoot by. We pass Fukushima late on the way up and I imagine events, even though this is not that Fukushima. I see houses and fields and more houses and fields cut by canals. A light touch here and we’re gone. Tonight, the fishing port will be lights and more lights. The hotel check-in takes seconds.
Tomorrow. Toyama. Bright sunlight. Ainokura Gassho, the ancient village. We step off the tour bus together. She turns. We both turn, begin walking the same direction. We walk as far as the folklore museum without looking at the map. Back to the monument and the primitive Gassho-Zukuri, as far as the Footprint before turning again, stopping at the Jinushi shrine. Marie Luise. She’s German, a student at Stockholm. We wander the village—we’ve been wandering. I apologize for my head cold and that her English is better than mine. Imogen is smoke. I wonder if Marie can imagine how much cash I have in my pocket.
I once attended an empowerment seminar sponsored by the office, a lecture on positive thinking—or something stupid like that. I remember two things about it. One, the presenter wore jeans and a ball cap. Two, he had a hundred-dollar bill in his left-front pocket. He talked about this, presented the banknote to us, his audience, with both hands. The physicality of the thing meant the world to him. He wanted it to mean something to us. He had a hundred in his pocket, and he was very sure we did not. This elevated him.
A couple years on, I visit with Marie Luise at a café in Hamburg. At lunch, I talk about my ideas about carrying the imaginary in my pocket, about how real is the rarer thing, and how ghosts fit easily into the spaces between recorded sounds. And no, solace is not the money in our pockets, it’s that there really are other people. The world is not populated by our mysterious strangers.
After lunch, I watch Marie tip the wait staff with a one euro coin. The value is token, but she goes up to the waitress and presents the coin with both hands, as if the imprint is coded and contains vital information. This is not ten dollars left wet under a water glass, but gratitude walked back to her hotel.
About the Author:
Roger Topp’s writing has appeared recently in West Branch, The Maine Review, Dunes Review, Whiskey Island, Into the Void Magazine, and other journals. At the extremes, he is a national champion fencer and a prize-winning slam poet. More typically, he directs museum exhibits and travels to photograph research expeditions funded by the likes of the NSF and National Geographic; read more at thewellandthewicked.com.