David Joiner, whose talk about promoting his first novel was well received last year, has kindly allowed us a sneak look at his current work in progress. This follows his time in Vietnam, since when he has moved to Kanazawa and married.
David writes: “Attached is the beginning of an untitled novel set in Kanazawa, which I’m hoping will be about an expatriate’s attempt to untangle himself from modern life in Japan and instead dedicate himself fully to a more traditional existence, putting him in conflict with his Japanese wife and others whom he’s close to. (“It needs a lot of work still. And it may not end up being my final choice of an opening for the novel – or may not appear at all in the book once it’s finished (if it ever is). But this is what I have now, along with a few other finished and unfinished chapters I’m playing around with.”)
Falling snow muted the wail of the ambulance and the illumination of its red emergency light. Leaning against the windowsill and looking outside, Emmitt couldn’t make out anyone in the vehicle, not even the driver in the near window. The ambulance’s interior was brightly lit, indicating that paramedics were working on a patient they were transporting. Peering through the heavy snowfall, Emmitt still saw no one inside, however.
The ambulance dissolved in the snow. Along the Sea of Japan, he thought, over the course of the long winter, February was the whitest month.
Through the window, a Japanese man in a heavy winter coat hurried in the direction of the far-off mountains. The man huddled against the cold beneath an umbrella covered in snow, its edges crumbling and falling to the undetectable sidewalk. Under the blurred streetlights, the scene looked like a Hiroshige woodblock print set in modern Kanazawa.
When the man was gone, what remained was a reflection in the window of his wife, Mirai, and his mother-in-law cooking dinner behind him. He watched Mirai until his father-in-law called out to him: “Your new house will be cold on nights like this. I expect you’ll want to come back and stay with us.”
He lay on the sofa facing the TV. He was wrapped in a blanket, unwilling, apparently, to admit that his own house was freezing.
The evening news had just come on. The main story was the betting scandal in sumo. Yesterday it had infuriated him, but today, hearing that the March tournament in Osaka had been cancelled for the first time in 65 years, he seemed reconciled to worse. Hearing this disappointment over a sport he loved softened him slightly.
“It isn’t our house yet,” Emmitt said, unsure if his father-in-law was listening. “But if we get it, we’ll have the renovators make sure it’s insulated enough.”
“Let’s just hope we can afford it,” Mirai said from the kitchen, “Eiheiji should hire them. Those temple rooms are uninhabitable in the winter.”
She was referring to photos of a temple in Fukui prefecture where Emmitt had suggested they travel to by train and stay the following weekend. Eiheiji offered Buddhist meditation classes and lectures on Buddhist life. His suggestion had quickly become something of a joke between Mirai and her parents.
“Are you back onto Eiheiji?” his mother-in-law said, scooping cooked rice into bowls. “A weekend there sounds nice, but it seems like a waste of money. Why not go to Daijoji instead? Their Buddhist meditations and lectures are free, and in better weather you could even walk there from here.”
“I want to spend a night or two in a temple,” Emmitt said. “Daijoji doesn’t offer accommodations.”
“But why spend the night? Isn’t the morning and afternoon enough?”
“We’d get something more by staying there. It would be a unique experience for us. Especially in the winter.”
Her mother turned to Mirai, who was wrapping a short towel around the neck of a ceramic saké decanter that she’d heated in boiling water for Emmitt and her father. “Are you interested in Buddhist meditation and lectures?”
“Not especially,” she said, and then laughed. “I guess it’s always nice to see someplace different, but I’d prefer to visit in the spring or summer.”
“I may be too busy then,” Emmitt reminded her.
She smiled without looking at him. “The house isn’t ours yet.”
She brought the towel-wrapped decanter to the dining room. Emmitt helped her set the table.
“Dinner’s ready,” his mother-in-law called out.
The four of them sat down in their seats. Placing their hands quickly together, they said in unison, “Ittadakimasu.”
The table was quiet for a minute or two and only dinner sounds and the TV announcer’s voice could be heard. Emmitt’s father-in-law stopped eating to watch a reporter discuss the robbery of a convenience store near the elementary school that Mirai and her younger sister Akiko had attended. Two high school students had been caught. Mirai and her mother turned their attention to the TV, too, as the reporter related that the boys had threatened the convenience store employees with knives and made off with less than what it would cost Emmitt and Mirai to spend the weekend at Eiheiji. The three of them agreed that it was stupid of the boys to have ruined their lives over what amounted to less than $200.
“If they got part-time jobs, they could have earned that much together in a day,” Mirai remarked. “Now that they’re in jail, I wonder if they regret what they did. I’ve always wondered about people like that. If they could go back to the moment they stood in the convenience store doors, would they go inside and do the same thing? Maybe they’d think they’d have better luck the second time.”
“Kids their age always focus on now,” Emmitt said. “I doubt they gave much thought about the consequences of getting caught.”
Her father turned to Emmitt and stared at him. He was chewing strangely, as if he’d just broken off a front tooth, but then Emmitt realized that his mouth was only twitching. He seemed either angry or terribly sad.
“Why do you need to spend two days in Eiheiji?” the old man said.
Emmitt wasn’t the only one surprised by the return to their earlier conversation. Mirai and her mother both laughed at the clumsy question. But Emmitt’s father-in-law wasn’t to be put off.
“Do you plan to become a monk one day? If not, it sounds like the dream of a young man pretending he has no responsibilities, and I have to agree with mother – it’s a waste of money. Of course, if you were still working neither of us would mind.”
“Perhaps you should be more circumspect,” his mother-in-law added, “especially considering your financial situation. Mirai has a stake in what you do, too, remember.”
Emmitt poured his father-in-law a cup of saké, then filled his own. Emmitt had given the cups to him on his birthday, bought during a trip with Mirai to Kurashiki and the Inland Sea last year. The cups were examples of bizenyaki pottery and more expensive than they probably could afford. Mirai had divulged the price to her parents when they’d opened the gift box. Her father was grateful for the gift. No one had complained then about the money Emmitt had spent.
“I haven’t officially quit my job. But even if I do, I’m salaried until the end of March,” Emmitt said. “That’s almost two months of getting paid to do nothing. But I’d rather not do nothing. I’d rather look for some way to improve myself.”
“I still don’t understand why you want to quit. It’s good money, and teaching at university is a respectable job.”
“They’re going to let me go next year anyway. Foreigners aren’t eligible for tenure at the university, and once my current contract ends I’m on my own.”
“But you have another year on your contract,” his mother-in-law said. “You could easily parlay that into a position somewhere else.”
“I’ve said it before, I’m not interested in teaching English in Japan. I feel like I’m wasting my life trying to forge a path forward.”
“If you don’t move forward, do you propose to move backward?”
Emmitt held his father-in-law’s gaze for a moment, until the latter glanced at his saké cup and reached for it. How could he tell his father-in-law that it was a more interesting question to him than he might guess? Finally he said, “I would if I could.”
His mother-in-law spoke quickly. “Even so, as Father said, your salary is good, and working at a university is considered fine work.”
“Maybe for others, but not for me. Five years is long enough for me to know.”
Mirai feigned absorption in the TV news while she ate and didn’t return her mother’s doleful stare. His father-in-law, his mouth still twitching, grabbed the remote control and turned off the TV. “Is there nothing but bad news in the world?” he said, dropping the remote on the table.
Mirai continued to look at the blank screen, then returned her attention to her food, her head hanging down.
The room fell silent in the way the snow was silent. Something cold was falling around Emmitt and made him wish for its cessation followed by warmth. But Kanazawa winters were long and cold, and it was only the beginning of February.
He thought their dinner together would have a more celebratory air, as the machiya, which was a further commitment between he and Mirai, and a lifelong commitment to Kanazawa, would soon be theirs to move into, but something heavy hung in the air. Perhaps it was only the result of a particularly hard winter. Or maybe his in-law’s worry about their future went deeper than he realized.
It was hard to argue with his in-laws, who had promised to pay a quarter of the machiya’s renovation costs as a wedding present, and then co-signed on their loan application, even though they didn’t approve of the investment. The house was a mid-Meiji period merchant house, built nearly 120 years ago, and located within walking distance to the train station. It needed much work. They had negotiated to lease the house for fifty years at an extraordinarily low rate, but the renovations, which they were free to undertake, were expensive. It had belonged to the family of a successful fishmonger and included two enormous storehouses called kura. The renovators would need several months to complete the work. Emmitt and Mirai were supposed to sign the lease tomorrow and enter into negotiations soon after with the renovation company. Emmitt and Mirai had talked about turning the house into a small inn.
His in-laws had grown up in machiyas. Mirai and Akiko had, too, until her parents had enough money to tear it down and build a new house, which they did twenty years ago, when Mirai was nine or ten. That house now looked much older, and from the outside it begged a thorough cleaning and a few more layers to make it appear sturdier. To Emmitt it was an aluminum box with windows. Too often, it seemed, that was what modernity meant in Japan.
Mirai’s phone rang, breaking the silence. She looked at Emmitt while listening to the caller, whose voice he could hear but not understand. In Japanese so polite he hardly understood what she was saying, she thanked the caller for phoning and promised that now was a fine time to talk, then excused herself to another room and shut the door.
“Who was that?” his father-in-law asked, but his mother-in-law didn’t know and neither of them expected Emmitt to answer. But Emmitt had an idea of who it was.
“Hopefully it’s the institute I applied to,” he said.
“For a job?”
“No, to study traditional architecture and craftsmanship.”
“Oh, yes, I remember,” his father-in-law said. “More bad news, I wonder.”
As if embarrassed by the insult of this pessimism, Emmitt’s mother-in-law reached across the table to refill Emmitt’s cup and then her husband’s.
Mirai returned to the table a few minutes later.
“It was the school, wasn’t it?” Emmitt said.
She nodded. “They suggested you apply again next year if you’re still interested.”
Her parents asked what the matter had been. Both of them thought it was because of his limited ability to read and write in Japanese.
But no, she said, his application to a local architecture university had been turned down because he had applied without taking the normal entrance exam, which technically didn’t guarantee rejection but was highly uncommon. They were sufficiently impressed with his degree from America and his work history in Japan, but not enough to take him on such short notice. The only surprise about the rejection was that he’d been encouraged to apply in this way, relying on the influence of a Dean, an old family friend, who had promised to get him accepted and insisted that he not waste his time with a conventional entrance exam and application.
The three of them turned to Emmitt as if to see how despondent the news made him. He smiled and shrugged. He was slightly disappointed, but not at all despondent. He had expected the rejection, in fact, and even by late December, thinking he would soon quit teaching, had already started considering “a path backward.” He had even taken a first step down it, with Mirai’s help and guidance, but neither he nor she had shared this with her parents. There had been no need.
His in-laws wore on their faces the despondency that Emmitt refused. Their reactions might have angered him if they hadn’t struck him as so funny. For all their worry and lack of confidence in him, and their criticism over his ability to support Mirai, he felt completely in control of his fate. He also reminded himself that he would soon move out of their home and into one he would share only with Mirai, assuming everything went smoothly with the lease-signing tomorrow night. This gave him all the patience he needed.
Mirai stepped into the kitchen to refill and reheat the sake decanter. Her father needed him to drink with, and Mirai and her mother were usually only good for a single cup, though if given a choice they would drink plum wine and soda, not saké. He imagined it would be for this that his father-in-law would most regret their moving out.
“What will you do now?” his father-in-law said, leaning back in his chair and resting his arms on the postprandial mound of his stomach.
Emmitt answered him quickly. “First I need to make reservations at Eiheiji. The webpage I was looking at warned that only a few rooms were still available.”
No one responded to this. He knew they were referring to “after the rejection” and not “after dinner.” He guessed, too, that they knew he knew.
As always once the meal was over, or even before everyone was finished, his father-in-law reached for the remote and turned the TV back on. Holding the remote in one hand and the saké bottle together with his bizenyaki cup in the other, he walked back to the sofa and sat down.
Emmitt was thankful for the noise. He was tired – not of being asked about the future, but of not being asked about a future he’d decided on, a future no one but he seemed to agree with.
© 2016 David Joiner