Flash fiction

Short-short stories

By William Wetherall

First posted 16 August 2015
Last updated 17 October 2019

Written since September 1992 after the Boundaries collection

The Refueler
The Key
The Toy
The Runaway
The Interview
The scent of a woman
Soapland Minister
Thinner than water
The Memento
Hoax Buster
Chipped tooth
Lost in transition
With you
Familiar eyes (Reunion fantasy 1)
A brief history of time
Fisherman's wife
Tadaima (Reunion fantasy 2)
Delivery box
Grapes of bliss

Story addiction

Writing a different story every week for the Boundaries collection proved to be very challenging. No matter what the front of my mind was doing, the back of my mind was constanting churning out story ideas. Most I eliminated in my head, but dozens got listed in an idea file. Most of the ideas included a few lines, and many were expanded into drafts.

The first several stories here were completed and ready to publish when Mainichi Daily News killed the culture page and all of its features including Boundaries. Some of the other stories developed from ideas I had listed for possible Boundaries stories. Most, however, originated after the Boundaries list was closed.

My brain is still a well of story ideas. I interrup conversations with friends to openly toy with something they've just told me as the germ of a story. When walking around town, or riding the train, or waiting to see a doctor, I constantly see stories. By now it's reflexive -- habitual and spontaneous, if not in the blood or innate.


By William Wetherall

Completed 1 March 1992, last revised 1 March 1992 (490 words)

Three children from a fishing village were playing on the beach when suddenly they saw something crawling out of the surf.

"It's just a big crab," pooh-poohed the first.

"Shhh. It's a giant merman," whispered the second.

"Look at that hair!" shouted the third. "It's a barbarian!!!"

The children raced through the village screaming at the top of their lungs. Then someone rang the village bell, using the code for barbarian sighting, and everyone rushed to the beach to size up the waterlogged face and bloodshot eyes beholding them.

"State your name, rank, and serial number!" the chief demanded in the halting English he had learned for just such an emergency.

"William Adams, English pilot of the De Liefde," the barbarian said in flawless Japanese. "I forget my number."

"Tokugawa Ieyasu'll have your head for that."

"Who's he?"

"Our leader."

"I didn't know you had one," Adams said.

A towering warrior bolted up on a silver stallion and halted right in front of him. All the villagers made like ostriches when the warrior threw his right leg over the rump of his steed to dismount, and so no one saw Adams reach out and break the man's fall when his left foot caught in the stirrup.

"For that you can keep your head," the warrior murmured behind his hand. Then, in a louder voice, he proclaimed: "I'm Tokugawa Ieyasu, the honcho of these small, resource-poor islands. What do you want?"

"Where can I get some of them snazzy rags and blades?" Adams asked while boldly pointing to Ieyasu's samurai suit.

"You gotta be a hero."

In dipped a delicate,
diminutive, demurring damsel
distressed by delusions of
duty, discipline, and death.

"What are the qualifications?"

"You hafta destroy half the people and then yourself."

"That doesn't make sense."

"This is an island country."

"But it looks like you're still at war."

"Help me unify the country, and I'll give you all my old clothes."

"Throw a geisha girl into the deal and you're on."

Later, back at the castle, Adams was taking the first bath he had had in several months when in dipped a delicate, diminutive, demurring damsel distressed by delusions of duty, discipline, and death."

"Delighted to meet you," Adams drawled while tipping his hat.

"To be clean in Japan is wise, ne?" she purred in his ear.

"Me love is for ye dake," he lied.

"And mine is thine itsumo," she threatened. Meanwhile, the geisha's patron was pawing the tatami in Ieyasu's chamber and begging an audience.

"That barbarian's disturbing my harmony," he bitterly complained.

"That's karma," Ieyasu consoled him. "Think of the contribution you're making to the new world order."

"I want to be a bonsai the next time around."

"So you can stay potted?"

"So I can get all the care that comes with the wires and snips."

"Life will never be the same with all those aliens around."

"They want to be called 'foreigners' or 'non-Japanese'."

"They're like a bunch of roosters laying eggs."

"Honto ni hen da ze."



By William Wetherall

Completed 1 March 1992, last revised 1 March 1992 (650 words)

Genta knew he was in a hospital. He remembered coming out of the ambulance and into the emergency room. But he had no idea how long he had been there. An hour, ten years, he had no way of telling, the way all the voices were whining at such unintelligible speeds, and then droning so slowly that he couldn't be sure if their owner's were still alive. Or maybe he was the one dying. He could feel nothing. No pain, no pressure, not a single pulse or twitch anywhere in his body, if he still had one. Was he on his back? Up and down meant nothing to him. The voices gave no clue of their direction. And everything was black, absolutely without light, form, detail of any kind. There were only those voices that made no sense to him. Then suddenly his brain was full of speech that he could understand as well as hear.

"We'll leave you alone to talk it over. Take your time. The nurse will be outside. She'll page me when you've made your decision. I'm going to alert the organ team in case you give your consent."

The door closed. Someone was sobbing. It was his mother.

"I don't want them cutting him up," she said. "He's suffered enough. Let him go in one piece."

"He's not going to know it," his father said. "But the world will. It'll make up for all the trouble and grief he's caused. How else are we going to face Miho's family?"

Miho. It all came back. They had been at the beach, and the sun had set, and they were going home. He was leaning into the exhaust of the empty dump truck in front of him, hugging the center line, squinting into the stream of headlights rushing his way in the right lane, looking for a break. Miho was saddled crotch-to-butt behind him. She had locked her arms around his waist and was pressing the side of her head against his back. When the opening came, he hit the throttle and jumped into the right lane. The bike shot up alongside the truck and began to overtake it. No sweat. Miho had tightened her hold on him. He could feel her through his jacket. Another half hour and they'd be near all those hotels. By the time he realized that the truck was swinging out to pass a car he hadn't seen, they were already being sucked into the gullet in front of the truck's rear wheels. He couldn't tell whether the scream that replayed in his brain was his or hers.

"His heart's still beating!"

"But his brain's dead. I say let's give them everything. They'll find new homes for him. What's left of his life can save many others. We could live with that, even be proud. I'm going to call the doctor."

The door opened. His mother sobbed while his father asked the nurse to get the doctor. The doctor invited his parents to follow him to a conference room. The door closed.

Genta knew that the nurse had stayed in the room, but all he could hear was his own breathing, and it sounded too regular, even distant. He didn't want to live if life meant being in a coma and hooked to an artificial respirator. And the only body he could imagine any part of himself being in was Miho's. He wanted only to be with her, dead or alive. If she was alive, then he wanted to go home and make things up with his parents, and hers. But his dream of resuscitation was abruptly interrupted by a new set of voices. Someone was calling for all kinds of things. Knife, cutter, retractors, scissors, bag, saline, ice chest.

Genta heard the lid close. When it opened an eternity of moments later, he was greeted by another set of utterly unfamiliar voices.


MultiCultural Crayola Crayola MultiCultural
Binney & Smith Inc. (1993)
"This Multicultural assortment contains 16 different skin, hair and eye colors for coloring people around the world."
Such crayons began to appear in 1992
Yosha Bunko scan


By William Wetherall

Completed 6 March 1992, last revised 2015-07-02 (860 words)

In the days when children were allowed to choose their own colors, crayon shops buzzed with talk like this between innocent coloring-book junkies like Boy, and hardened colored-wax vendors like Man.

Boy: You got Skin Color, sir?

Man: What color skin, son?

Boy: Koreans in Japan.

Man: Koreans? Chosenese? Or maybe Choreans? Zainichi? North? South? Neither? Former sansei? Japanese nationaltiy? What's it to you?

Boy: What's it to me?

Man: Not you, son. "What's it to you?" is a non-descript uni-color with an "attitude". Means "What business is to you what color I am?"

Boy: I was thinking of just plain ordinary average Koreans in Japan.

Man: Here's one called Ethnic Koreans.

Man: Does that cover Koreans in Japan?

Man: Son, it covers every kind of Korean immaginable.

Boy: Even a Japan-born Korean who's mom's half-Yamato and half-black?

Man: Like I said, son, any Korean you can define or refine. No matter where they're living, no matter their genetic or cultural makeup. Some self-styled Zainichiists will insist that you have to have at least a drop of Korean blood to qualify. But believe me, if you feel Korean, you're Korean.

Boy: Just any old red-blooded human being can be a Korean?

Man: That's right, son. People with names like Phelan or Kaminski or Wakabayashi. Even people who never ate kimchi in their lives, wouldn't know a Yi or Ri from a Li or Lee, and think Syngman Rhee's a psychotherapist or a friend of Winnie the Pooh. If you think you're Korean, who's to say you ain't?

Boy: How many kinds of Koreans in Japan are there?

Man: Never tried counting 'em, son, but there's a veritable zoo here. A doctor in Shinjuku. His patients in Kabukicho watering holes. Japan-born Korean students of English, some who use their Korean names in class, others who pass as Japanese. Two Akutagawa Prize novelists. Immigration Law protesters in trouble with the authorities. All kinds of yakuza. Baseball stars, and a green tea gum maker who owns an entire team. A potter who traces his peninsular roots 14 generations back to the 17th century. A naturalized LDP politician who is legally qualified to become the prime minister. A Korean Japanese who heads LDP's former-outcaste community improvement policy institute. Just for a starter, son. Outside Japan, the list gets even longer. From Korean Chinese who come to Japan to take part in human rights symposia and Korean Russians with White Russian wives, to reformed North Korean terrorists in South Korean choirs and Korean grocers in Harlem. Ad infinitum ad nauseam.

Boy: Gee, mister, it sounds sort of complicated.

Man: It is, son. Life used to be a lot simpler. All you had was one skin color, Flesh. If you weren't sure someone was Flesh, you colored 'em Brown or Yellow, or anything you liked.

Boy: Even Red?

Man: You betchum, Red Rider.

Boy: Wow! You sound just like Little Beaver!

Man: Then the Label Union came along and complicated things. Though I gotta admit, it's been good for business. Speaking of which . . .

Boy: Yeah, well, just give me Human, I guess.

Man: Sorry, son. Human's passé. The International Multicultural Crayon Union forced me to melt my entire stock of Human. Told me I'd lose my license if I didn't.

Boy: What's wrong with being just Human?

Man: Its increasing popularity was threatening the Union with extinction. Race-box lovers screamed. Scholars insisted their sociology theory's required minorities. And the more minorities, the more demand for such scholars.

Boy: Can anyone join the Union?

Man: You don't join, kid. You're joined the moment you come of age.

Boy: Will I get to carry a card?

Man: Not only do you get but you have to. A Racioethnic Identity Certificate. It's a mandaory privilege. You're Smart Door won't allow you to leave home without it.

Boy: Can't wait to get one.

Man: You don't have to wait. I've got some application forms right here. See? 0nly one page, and it's super easy. Just write your name and ID number, and the names and IDs of your biological parents, and of your foster or adoptive parents if you have any. Then write the numbers of any of the 8,000 races and ethnic groups in this pamphlet here. Keep it if you like. Up to 5 colors and 5 ethnicities. Rank each in importance on a scale of 0 to 9. You can assign the same importance to more than one. Read the instructions and examples.

Boy: So I can be whatever I want?

Man: Except Human. You can't be just Human. That would be like being stateless. You have to belong to a racioethnic category of Human. The Union's computer uses a number of algorithms to determine your Racioethnic Status. And your RS will be on your RIC.

Boy: Why do I need such a card?

Man: Oh, they're quite useful. You can get personalized crayons with your name and the name of your own mixture on them. Just show me your RIC, and I confirm your RS and make them for you. You can give them to people to make sure they color you the way you like.



By William Wetherall

Completed 21 March 1992, last revised 21 March 1992 (710 words)

Kumiko no longer hated the face that stared at her from the photo. In a fit of rage one night, she had tried to kill its owner. But the chipmunk cheeks, cow eyes, pig nose, carp lips, and mouse chin had lost their power to trigger such fury. Seeing them now only moved her to marvel at how much a knife could change a woman's life. The doctor had called her old face "a plastic surgeon's dream", and she had begged him to use every trick in his book to give her a new one.

"Will there be scars?" she had asked.

"A few," he had answered. "There's no way you can cut the skin and not leave a mark. But most of them will be hidden, and the others will be small enough to cover with light makeup."

"Will it hurt?"

"You'll feel some discomfort until everything heals and your body gets used to the new forms. But moderate pain killers will reduce this to at most a sensation of pressure."

"A doctor sometimes resorts to honesty to gain a patient's trust," a weekly magazine expose of cosmetic surgery practices had advised her. Only after the clinical interview did she realize how rushed everything had been. The computer simulation had been so hypnotic that, by the time the doctor had finished showing her what he could do with her face, she had been too numb to ask him the unanswerable questions. When only twenty minutes after calling her name he had smiled and very politely wondered if she had any questions, she had come up with only the dumbest ones, like would there be scars, and would it hurt. Not a word was said as to whether she might be saner to accept what she had been born with. Or about what she ought to do with the photos of her old face.

All but one of the photos she had gladly, then, thrown away. Yet she had come to treasure that photo for the way it fleshed out all those now more tolerable memories of the face that nature had given her. Most people in her present life, not even her husband, could connect her with that face. She knew, though, in that part of the brain that refuses to deny the truth, that underneath those fine scars, the carved implants and the shaved bone, the old face was still there. And no pill in the world could relieve her of the pain that had revisited her as a mother.

Kumiko had known from a very early age that she was not beautiful. Her father had been handsome, according to her mother, who anyone could plainly see had given Kumiko most of her face and body. Her figure, at least, had turned heads, and motherhood had not spoiled it.

"Fortunately, she takes after her father," her mother had told all the boys who Kumiko had dated after her operations. "We lost everything in a fire," she herself had explained to the one she would marry when he had asked to see her childhood pictures.

Kumiko had voraciously read her mother's magazines. She had sent away to all the famous cosmetic surgery clinics for pamphlets, books, even video tapes. Then one day her mother announced that she had been squirreling away money for enough operations to make Kumiko beautiful. By her high school graduation, Kumiko had planned what she wanted done, and that summer she went for her first consultation. Two years later, she had celebrated Adults Day with a new face.

Kumiko's thoughts were disturbed by her daughter crying. After wiping an oily smudge from the photo's glossy finish, she returned it to the double bottom of her sewing box. Then she changed her daughter's diaper, and plugged the girl's mouth with her milkiest nipple.

While peering at the busy face at her breast, Kumiko saw her own past in its future. The high, uneven cheeks, skewed chin, meaty lips, cavernous nostrils, bridgeless nose, and eyes too far apart on account of the thick folds of skin that arched down over their inside corners.

Both of those tiny eyes were now watching their mother. And the mother was wondering if she ought to start putting away money.


The Refueler

By William Wetherall

Completed 3 April 1992, last revised 3 April 1992 (750 words)

Saburo's definition of food was extremely broad and instrumental: anything that could pass into the mouth, was reasonably chewable, could slip by the throat, slide down the esophagus, fall into the stomach, and stay there long enough to get softened up for the rest of the journey along the alimentary canal. He equated the human body with the tube of an earthworm: one end for ingestion, the other for elimination, and the middle for the absorption of whatever happened to go through the gut that the body was chemically disposed to admit, no matter how it might affect the owner's health. Saburo left all questions of nutrition and balance to the people who put edible things in the way of his mouth.

"What a lucky guy you are to have such a good chef for a wife," one of Saburo's colleagues had said to him at a dinner party his wife, Minako, had hosted. "He's never once said anything about my cooking," Minako said, then looking at Saburo: "Not a single word, in praise or otherwise." Minako had meant this remark as a put down, but Saburo had beamed as though she had paid him the highest possible compliment. When hungry, Saburo was incapable of asking for food by name. "Anything to eat?" was about all Minako had ever heard him say. It was almost as though he had never learned the words for even the most basic foods. Most of the time he just walked into the kitchen and started sniffing around like a dog. He'd grab anything that was lying on the counters. If they were bare, he'd open the refrigerator door. The cupboards were last only because they required more effort to reach.

One day Minako put some old rice in a big bowl, and mixed in all kinds of odds and ends that had sat too long in the refrigerator, some of it green with mold. She was about to put the bowl outside for some friendly raccoons that served the neighborhood as garbage disposers, when the phone rang. It was a woman she used to work with, before they had married, quit their jobs, and gone their husbands' separate ways. They had been best friends, and remained so, to the extent that if one didn't call at least once a week, the other did. The friend told Minako that her teenage daughter had managed to get herself pregnant, and then wondered what advice Minako could give her about abortions. By the time Minako had repeated conversations they had had years ago about her own two encounters with the voluntary termination of pregnancy--one when a condom had failed, the other when Saburo had taken her by surprise in the kitchen one night while the children were bent over their desks and she was making their lunches ("It was all I could do to hold on to the edge of the counter, and he reached right over my shoulder and snacked on the cherry tomatoes and chicken nuggets I had put in the kids' lunch boxes!")--she had totally forgotten about the raccoon food. An hour or so later, while Minako was sitting at the table reading a magazine, Saburo came down from upstairs, where she thought he had been napping, with a bowl that was empty except for the big spoon she had left in it when the phone rang. Nothing stale, sour, or spoiled was safe with Saburo around. He would have eaten the bath sponge had Minako put it on a saucer with some ketchup and a spot of parsley.

This would have to stop, she thought to herself one night while clearing the table for desert. She had gone to three hours of trouble, but gotten not a word of thanks, not even from the kids.

"We're having your favorite dessert," she called from the kitchen while heaping some rum-raisin ice cream into a dish only Saburo used. Instead of topping it with butterscotch chips, the way he especially liked it, though, she spooned on a lump of slimy fermented beans.

Saburo picked up the dish of ice cream and examined it like a tea master would a precious bowl. Then he brought it to his nose as though savoring the bouquet of a postprandial brandy. When he had played with a bit of the stuff in his mouth, he smiled at Minako like a boy who had just been told he could see the cockpit, and said, "Wonderful."


The Key

By William Wetherall

Completed 10 April 1992, last revised 10 April 1992 (725 words)

"Good morning!" the doctor said to the chief nurse, whose large face worked into a hard smile as she stood up from her desk and bowed, much deeper and longer than convention required, to see if her boss's boots were clean. Every morning, at nine sharp, he stomped into her clean hospital straight from that smelly ranch of his where he raised pedigree steers with a group of socially burned-out men. The hospital, right above the ranch, had a closed ward for schizophrenic women.

"Don't worry," he said. "I left the manure on the front mat." The chief nurse blushed, then frowned at her two underlings, who had giggled. She'd have to scold them later, though, for the doctor was already in the waiting room next to the ward, and it was all she could do to grab her charts and be at the door when he unlocked it.

The doctor turned the key in the lock, but before he could twist the knob, the door swung into the foyer of the ward. Several faces, most of them dull or tense, suddenly appeared from behind the door. Some eyes fell on the doctor, while others gazed at the nurses behind him, but the two that slightly protruded from the most youthful and animated face seemed to be looking in both directions.

"What a surprise!" the doctor feigned in response to the regulars, who always hid behind the door, where they could not be seen through the glass wall that separated the ward from the waiting room. The girl with the divided attention grabbed his arm and pulled him past the large tatami play room, now empty, to the bay where he would start his rounds.

"Did you sleep well?" the doctor asked the girl, who parted her lips to show her teeth but not, this morning, to laugh. Her parents had committed her three years ago, when she was fifteen, and she'd probably spend the rest of her life there, alternating between the quiet euphoria she displayed now, skipping alongside the doctor as he and his retinue went from bay to bay and bed to bed, to the stubborn lethargy that she'd be expressing by the time they reached her bay, stopped before the bed in the farthest corner, and waited for her to get in it.

"Let's see a smile," the doctor said when the girl had finished rubbing the sleep from her eyes. Her right eye met both of his while the left one idled on the ceiling. He took her hand and watched her mouth tremble with the words that had tormented him for over a year.

"When is my mother coming?" she asked.

"This afternoon," he said, then to the chief nurse, "isn't she?"

The chief nurse nodded. The girl pulled her hand free, rolled to her side, and with her back to them all, stared at the wall.

The doctor continued his rounds. When finished with the bays, he observed the patients who had come to the large play room. An old woman with slender limbs lay sprawled on her back, her head flung back on the tatami, mouth open. The taut skin of her long, white throat could have been the neck of a dancer in her prime, but her cheeks were hollow, and her lips had molded around her toothless gums. "Is she breathing?" She was. "Slide a zabuton under her head and put a blanket on her."

A middle-aged woman, her skirt hiked up to her thighs, hunkered by the window, embracing her shins. She was humming a song, but her knees were swollen. "Stand her up and walk her around."

Several patients flocked around the doctor at the door. Just as he was about to leave, the girl came running down the hall, grabbed his arm, and tried to drag him back. He humored her hands free, and while she was still smiling, he crossed the threshold into the waiting room and pulled the door shut behind him. After locking it, he pocketed the key and walked straight out of the hospital. All the way back to the barns, and long after the pungent straw on the floors of the pens had driven out the putrid bed pans and sore flesh, the back of his head could see one face in particular watch him leave.

Though entirely fictional, the story was inspired by a visit to a private psychiatric hospital in Ibaraki prefecture run by a doctor who had been a student of Katō Masaaki, my mentor and first sponsor at the National Institute of Mental Health when it was at Kōnodai in Ichikawa in Chiba prefecture. The Ibaraki clinician raised wagyū with the help of some of his staff and a number of long-term in-patients as part of their therapy. One of his wards was closed, and one of its inmates included a young girl who acted somewhat like the girl in this story.

I visited the hospital in the company of Karel van Wolferen, who was writing his first major book, Enigma of Japanese Power, at Morigane in Ibaraki prefecture. I had been helping him edit the book, and we often took breaks to do things locally. He had met the clinician somewhere and had an open invitation to stop by the hospital, and so he chose that time to do so. Only then did we learn of my common acquaintance with Katō Masaaki.


The Toy

By William Wetherall

Completed 22 May 1992, last revised 22 May 1992 (670 words)

"You can toss all the rocks you want!" the man shouted across the front seat of the car to his son. The boy peered at his dad, who had taken his eyes off the road to grin at him. The boy's eyes were blank. How could anyone get so excited about throwing a bunch of dumb rocks? he thought. He just wanted to run his boat on the pond his father had said would be at his classmate's farm. He had snapped the boat together with clear, watertight, plastic balls that had gears and shafts inside. He held it in his lap, and his grip on it tightened when his father jerked the car off the paved road and into a long, rutted, dirt driveway that ended in front of a weathered trailer house. Sticking his head out the window like a dog, the boy gazed at the cows which were grazing among the rusty machinery that was strewn in the field beside the driveway.

A short, husky, bearded man came out of the trailer and studied the car. He beamed and started waving both hands. The driver got out, picked up a rock, clanged it off the side of a rusty pickup halfway out in the field, winked at the boy beside him, then turned to his friend. "Not bad for an old man," his friend laughed.

"Except for this, you're looking pretty young yourself," the man said, punching his friend in the belly, then pumping his hand.

"Been a long time. The boys are at the pond."

"Then let's go on down," the man said, then to his son, who was hanging back, holding his boat, "Hey, Tsuyoshi, get over here and teach Ken how to pronounce your name."

"Tsuyoshi," the boy said, avoiding Ken's eyes.

"Hi, Choshi," Ken said.


"Tsushi?" Ken said. "Sounds like that raw fish stuff."

"See my boat? It's got paddle wheels!"

"Wow! You got some real neat stuff in those Tokyo stores," Ken said, flashing a stubby-toothed smile. "Don't think Eddie and Jack have ever seen anything like that."

The two brothers put down their poles and stared at the strangers who had come down the hill with their father.

"Who's the China boy?" said the bigger brother, Eddie.

"Tsushi," Ken said. "He's from Japan, and so's his boat."

Everyone looked at the boat.

"Let's see it go," said Jack, the smaller brother.

"Watch this!" Tsuyoshi said. He set the boat in the water and flipped the switch. The paddle wheels turned, but entirely underwater, since he had put them too low, and so the boat just drifted.

"The stupid thing doesn't even move," Eddie said.

Eddie, and then Jack, started throwing rocks at the boat, but Ken put a stop to it, fished the boat out of the water, and got Tsuyoshi fixed up with a pole and some tackle. Later they all had lunch together, and then it was time for the guests to leave.

Tsuyoshi opened the front door of the car and tossed the boat onto the back seat. Then just as he was about to get in, Eddie picked up a handful of rocks and began firing them at the rusty truck in the field. But all the rocks fell short or veered to the side.

"I'll bet they don't even have rocks in Japan!" he said, kicking the gravel toward Tsuyoshi.

The boy looked at his father. Then he picked up a rock from the road and heaved it with all his might toward the truck. The rock arched over a calf that had wandered from its cow, and it came down on the roof of the truck with a loud, hollow bang that started the calf bawling."

"Way to go!" said Jack.

The boy returned the waves while his father kept the car on the road. Not until they were back on the pavement, and he had honked the horn, did the man meet his son's eyes. This time they were not empty.



By William Wetherall

Completed 27 May 1992, last revised 27 May 1992 (700 words)

The lady next door was sure that the smell from Jiro's apartment was another one of his cats. He had often gone on the road and left the animals locked inside with barely enough food and water for a day. He'd come back in two or three weeks and hear their piercing cries from the street, and the lady next door would come out to complain as soon as she heard the key in his lock. But it no good.

Once Jiro had stayed away for five weeks, and one of his cats had died and started stinking so badly that the lady called the landlord. He had entered the apartment squeamishly, expecting to find Jiro on the floor, putrefying in front of his TV set, a silent raster flickering on its screen, and a rewound porn tape idling in the video deck.

That first time it had been one of the cats, half eaten by the others. This time, though, it was Jiro, and after puking, the landlord called the police. The police took one look at the scene and radioed the Medical Examiner's Office, which dispatched a forensic pathologist.

The apartment had been locked from within, and there were no signs of violence or foul play. Jiro was sprawled on his back. His right cheek bone and jaw bone were exposed from his mouth to his ear. His lips, and part of his nostrils and right ear, were gone, and there were bites and scratches on what remained of his face. The larger wounds were infested with maggots that must have been the second, even third generation offspring of the flies that the place had been abuzz with.

Jiro was naked from the waist down. A dark, putrid cavity gaped open where his penis and scrotum had been, and the rest of his groin was covered with tiny bites and scratches. Small lesions dotted the skin of his legs. The place had been crawling with roaches, and a scrawny cat had shot out of door the moment the landlord had opened it.

There was no bleeding from any of the injuries, all of which had been caused by gnawing and other encroachments after death. The autopsy also showed that Jiro had choked on a piece of raw tuna that had caught deep in his throat. The right side of his face had slumped a bit toward the floor, and some drool from his mouth had probably run down that side of his face to his ear. The cat, after eating all the food in its bowl, and perhaps what was left of the tuna on the low table in front of the TV set where Jiro had been eating, had gone for the lump of fish in its master's throat, but unable to get it, had settled for his flesh.

The missing sexual organs must have come next. But why had they been exposed? And while certain carnivores might regard them the most tender morsels of the adult male body, why had the cat been drawn to them? The weather had been cool. Jiro was wearing a light jacket, and there was no indication that he had been about to bathe or retire. And so one of the investigating officer's speculated that Jiro might have anointed his organs with juices from the tuna, for the cat to lick off.

The prosecutor was unable to charge the tuna with murder, for it had already been executed to satiate the human gullet. The cat, though found, and confirmed to have been the consumer of Jiro's tissue (indeed, its teeth and claws perfectly matched the bites and scratches on Jiro's skin), went free because no law forbade a neglected pet from biting the hand that fed it. And the lady next door was considered blameless, for she had been within her rights to refuse to feed an animal she detested.

Jiro, a seasonal laborer, left only enough money to cover the rent and the utilities for the first month of his death. The electric bill was higher than ever. The security deposit went to clean up the mess. The landlord had to return the rental video and pay the overdue charge.

This story is a fictionalized version of an actual case reported by Ueno Masahiko, M.D., former chief of the Medical Examiners Office of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, in his bestselling book, Shitai wa kataru [Bodies talk], Jiji Tsūshin Sha, 1989, pages 10-16.


The Runaway

By William Wetherall

Completed 30 May 1992, last revised 30 May 1992 (760 words)

Kayo sighed when she found a box of four seats to herself on the second earliest local from Kanita to Aomori. By spreading her things on the other three seats, she might be able to spend this short first leg of her journey in the solitude she needed to weigh the awesomeness of leaving home, or running away as she knew her parents would see it. On the express from Aomori to Morioka, and from there on the Shinkansen to Ueno, the seats beside hers had been reserved, Goro had told her.

"By someone rich and handsome, I hope," she had teased him.

"Handsome, maybe," he had smiled, not the least bit jealous.

Good old Goro. Tall, tight-assed Goro with the strong cheek bones, straight nose, white teeth, and deep eyes. Goro whose ears were always hers, to hear her complaints and listen to her dreams, and to drive crazy with her breath and tongue. Goro the proud railway clerk, maestro of the ticket machine as he punched in the stations, routes, dates, and times, and then gazed at her full mouth while the console blinked and the printer chattered. Goro the jerk, who had passed her the envelope with the one-way tickets, covered her hands with his, and deadpanned, "Give my regards to your seatmate, but be careful."

"Good old sweet dumb Goro!" Kayo whispered, after she had dropped her leather shoulder bag and plastic sack of snacks on the other seats, lifted her suitcase to the luggage rack, and sat down. If only he were more ambitious! The only boy in the village who had ever made her feel like a woman, and he seemed to want to stay on the Tsugaru peninsular, and mildew in the union job he had gotten through his track hand uncle.

Goro was good at touching her with those eyes of his, but getting him to kiss her, even when no one was looking, had been harder than jerking on her shrink-to-fit jeans after washing them. He had never allowed himself to go much further, and as thoughts of all the things they might have done filled her body with a tingling warmth, she began to eye the people on the platform. No one seemed to be looking for her, and again she sighed. If she could get this far without anyone trying to stop her, the rest of the trip would be a piece of cake.

The train pulled out, and at every station, Kayo resisted the urge to get off and go back. She imagined herself still at home in her warm futon, coming awake to the news from the radio in the kitchen, dreading another day of work at the cannery. Never again did she want to stand beside that smelly conveyer belt, for the minimum wage and a back ache, to cull out all those creatures of the sea that didn't belong in a can of crab meat. She saw her mother getting up half an hour after she had snuck out of the house. Before discovering that her only child had run away, she would dress and wash, turn on the rice cooker, sweep the hall and foyer with the front door open to the breeze off the sea, then clean the tub while running the laundry through the washer with last night's bath water. When the rice was done, she would spoon a steamy morsel on a small white saucer, set the dish on the offering shelf above the TV, and twice clap her hands to the gods that, properly appeased, protected village men at sea. Kayo's father was out on a whaler and wouldn't be back for another month.

Kayo had six minutes to change to the express. She found her seat just where Goro had said it would be, by the window facing away from the morning sun. There was no one in the next seat, however, and she prayed that whoever had reserved it would fail to show.

There was a telephone by the Kiosk beside Kayo's car. She had just enough time to call her mother, to tell her not to worry, she'd be okay. Then hearing some rustling in the aisle, she cautiously turned her head to see who she would have to share the trip with. And there, tall and straight, a pack on his back, a sports bag and jacket in his hands, a ticket sticking out of his shirt pocket, and a longing in his eyes that she would never forget, was good, sweet, handsome Goro.

In 1997 I began expanding this story into a much longer story I retitled Miho and Goro, which I will probably continue to expand.



By William Wetherall




By William Wetherall

Completed 25 September 1999, last revised 9 August 2015 (1030 words)
Inspired by a conversation with Rie Oikawa in the late 1990s

I spent part of the summer of my third year in middle school with my aunt and uncle and cousins in Shikoku. It was quite an adventure for me because I trained and ferried all the way from Sagamihara to Kochi where my relatives picked me up. They lived at nearly the end of a slow road an hour's drive from Kochi, on the apple orchard where my father was born and which my uncle still ran. I packed very light as my cousins, twins, were a year and a half younger than me but about the same size and they had lots of clothes to share with me.

One night I got up to piddle and sleepily traipsed went to the toilet. After finishing, I traipsed down the long hall to the kitchen to get a drink of water. It was one of those older houses where the hall runs between the inner rooms and the glass sliding doors on the outer wall facing the garden. The storm shutters had been left open, it being the height of summer, and the moon illuminated the hall so well I didn't need to turn on a light. Part of the hall was also brightened by lights shining through the papered sliding doors of the living room. The adults were still up. As I passed the room, I could hear them talking.

"Has she ever said anything?" my aunt said.

"No. She hasn't a clue," my mother said.

"She's beginning to look like me," my aunt said.

"Apparently she hasn't noticed," my mother said.

"But I worry about her finding out," my aunt said.

"Don't you think it's time we tell her?" my uncle said.

"She's going to figure it out someday," my mother said.

"Only if you tell her," my aunt said.

"I don't ever want to tell her," my mother said. "But someday she's going to see the family register."

"Her teachers have seen it, right?" my uncle said.

"I talked to them, though, so they'll keep it to themselves," my mother said.

"Who brought the register to the school?" my aunt said.

"She did, but in a sealed envelop," my mother said.

"I'm having trouble sealing my feelings," my uncle said.

"It's too late for that now," my aunt said.

"We could tell her now if we wanted to," my uncle said.

"Tell her what?" my aunt said. "That you're sorry you didn't want to even touch her?"

"We all should have been stronger," my father said.

"It's so painful to see her and want to hear her call me Mama," my aunt said.

"She always asks why you cry when you visit us," my mother said.

"She looks so much like her father," my aunt said.

"That used to really bother me, but not any more," my uncle said.

"Well," my mother said, "I think we should wait until she's older. Maybe after she's finished her schooling."

"What do we say if she asks questions?" my father said. "I don't want to lie to her."

"Just tell her the truth," my mother said. "We've all had fourteen years to think of ways we might respond. The only way now is to tell her exactly what happened."

"Up to a point," my aunt said. "I'm not sure she needs to know the name of her real father. Not that I know where he is or want to protect him."

"Maybe she should decide that," my uncle said.

"My, my," my mother said. "You really have changed."

"Do you think she might already know and be keeping it to herself?" my father said.

"She sometimes looks at me kinda funny," my uncle said.

"That's because you're funny looking," my father said.

Everyone laughed.

"And maybe a little paranoid," my aunt said.

"Look who's talking," my uncle said.

"Now, now," my mother said. "We've got a long day tomorrow. We'd better go to bed."

I could hear them stir and gather things from the table so I quickly returned to the bedroom I shared with my cousins. They were still sound asleep. They probably don't have a clue either, I thought. My bags, two now, full of hand-me-downs and apple butter, stood packed by the door.

I couldn't get back to sleep and I was pensive all the way home. My cousins and I, and my aunt and even my mother, had cried when parting. My mother would attribute my sadness to my vacation in the country coming to an end.

Back home, I busied myself giving my friends jars of apple butter I and my cousins had helped my aunt make from a recipe she said she had gotten from a younger sister who had married a Canadian and lives in Salmon Arm, wherever that is. My friends, most of them snow white from emulating their mothers, who never went out in the sun without parasols, couldn't get over how black I was from working in the orchard.

Of course, everything I had heard my folks and relatives say refused to be bumped from the higher registers of my waking thoughts and even intruded in my dreams. It took a few weeks for me to stop obsessing about who I was and wasn't. I even entertained the possibility that the adults had been talking about someone else, but no. They had to be referring to me.

Knowing what I think I know has been a burden I should never have had to bear. At the same it's been fortuitous, for I've had to think of the true significance of what it means to have a family.

Almost needless to say I've rehearsed the many ways I might respond when my folks decide it's time to tell me the truth. The simplest way, I've concluded, is to smile and say I've known for a long time -- then pass my mother the nearest box of tissue paper, and join her, and probably my father too, in a tearful embrace unlike any other most children will ever have with their parents.

I'm assuming, of course, that they remain clueless about my knowing what, five summers ago, my mother declared I was clueless about.


The Interview

By William Wetherall

Completed 19 November 1999, last revised 19 November 1999 (820 words)
Inspired by a conversation with Rie Oikawa in the late 1990s

The ad said university graduates. I called anyway, and the woman who answered the phone said the ad meant what it said. I could come to the general meeing if I wanted, and fill out an application, but I wouldn't be invited to take the exam. So I went to the meeting and filled out the form, and personally confronted one of the men who who had talked about the futures market and what kind of people the company was looking for.

"Why limit applicants to college graduates?" I said. "What does going to college have to do with being smart?"

He looked at me and I kept looking at him.

"You've been out of high school a couple of years?"


"What have you been doing?"

"I lived by myself in Canada for a year and half, took care of my grandmother for a year, and now I'm going to an English school."

"Doing any part-time work?"

"I'm delivering the morning Nikkei."

"Nikkei? Do you read it too?"


"And you want to work in futures?"

"Most of the information in the paper is a day or two old. I can get better digests and analyses of history in the weeklies and monthlies. If I want to know what's happening right now in corn, I'll check the wires, the Internet, or pick up the phone and call someone who knows."

"What did you do in high school?"

"Swam, played volleyball."

"Did you study?"


"Have you ever worked in an office before?"


"Had you ever heard of futures before today?"


He was still looking at me and I as still looking at him.

"Okay. Give me your application and I'll see to it that you're invited to take the test. I can't promise anything about an interview, though."

"Thank you very much."

I gave him the application, bowed, and walked away.

The test was not particularly difficult. It was more about psychology than knowledge. This much was explained at the meeting. They assumed that most college grads would be able to read and write, and knew the difference between Beijing and Chile. All the knowledge in the world wouldn't help you if you couldn't use it to make an intelligent decsion. And, as the executive himself had said, the better decisions sometime flew in the face in convention. Common sense was important, but it was just as important to know when common sense was suicidal.

I received a notice that I had passed the test and would be interviewed with five other applicants. The panel of interviewers would include three people.

I arrived a few minutes early and sat in the waiting area and read a fashion magazine. Most of the other women were pouring over guidebooks and notes they'd written. Outwardly I didn't look any different. I was among the majority who wore a navy blue suit, white blouse, and black pumps. A few of the girls wore gray or tan variations of the standard job ap uniform, colors I thought less useful in the world I was about to enter.

Four names were called and then mine. We were seated in the order that our names had been called. It later became clear that the others had graduated from college.

Each of us was asked why we wanted a job at the company.

The others recited lines they had obviously memorized. "This company is the leader in the field." "I like the corporate philosophy."

"I want to make money," I said.

Each of us was ask if we'd applied to other companys.

Two said yes. Two said no. One who said no had a clear plastic case on her lap, a standard job-ap accessory, through which you could see a guide to financial companies.

"Of course," I said.

The final question was put to us as a situation.

"You are the inventor of a marvelous machine that will save the world. There is only one such machine, and only you know how to build it. We hire you to further develop your machine in our laboratory. One day there is a huge explosion in the building and fire rages through the lab where you are testing your machine. What do you do?"

"I'd stay with the machine," said the first girl.

"I'd help other people then try to save the machine," the second girl said. The third and fourth girls basically agreed with the first two girls.

"I'd get the hell out of there," I said.

"And abandon the machine?" said one of the interviewers. "What would happen to the world?"

"If I die with the machine, it will end anyway," I said. "But if I save myself, I can build another machine."

I got the job. Six months later, though, I quit. All everyone talked about was what colleges they had gone to. And the best assignments went to the people from the best colleges.


Black Hole

By William Wetherall

Completed 6 November 2000, last revised 6 November 2000 (580 words)
Inspired by a conversation with Akiko Sugimoto in November 2000

Clutching the bag of comic books to her chest, she ran home, keyed herself in, flew up the stairs to her room, spilled the new books by the pillow of her bed, and joined them under the reading light. She had just started the third volume when her mother got home from work, and she finished it in snatches while helping with dinner and other chores. The last two volumes had to wait until after she had done her homework and bathed. Then, in the white sleeping gown her mother had given her for her birthday, she climbed under the covers and plunged back into the black hole that connected her world with his.

It was after two when she closed the final volume and went to the toilet off the landing at the top of the stairs outside her room. Before going back to bed, she stepped out on the veranda and gazed at the sky. Orion was hunting Tarus above the forest behind her house. She gazed at the void between the top two stars in Orion's sword. Sure enough, as her eyes got used to the dark, she could just make out the fuzzy glow of the stellar cloud M42. She watched it for awhile but nothing changed. Was he not there tonight? Or had he seen her but changed his mind?

At length she went back inside, torn between relief and pain, glad that she would spend the night alone in her own bed, yet sad that her love had been rejected without so much as an acknowledgement of her existence. That's life, her mother would have said, she consoled herself as she lay back on her bed. But the moment her head hit the pillow, the shadowy ceiling of her room became a field of galaxies, and suddenly her body was adrift in space, a leaf on a lake at once placid and choppy.

During one interlude of quietude, a softly glowing star she'd been watching exploded into a brilliant ball that rushed toward her, as though she had called it, and before she could remember where she'd seen it before, it was right in front of her, not a star but a man who smiled at her, then turned and strolled away, showing her a broad back that beckoned her to fall in behind him.

The girl followed a few paces behind the man, ever gazing at his back, wishing she could climb it and look at the universe over his shoulders. It must look very different from there, she thought. She opened her mouth to tell him as much, and felt her throat strain, but nothing came out that she could hear. Yet she felt much lighter, as though the man had sucked from her mouth everything she had wanted to say in audible words but couldn't, and not just for want of air to propogate them.

An entirely different sort of emptiness had kept them apart all these years of her existence on Earth. How long it had been since the dreams had begun, when she'd started having visions of a romantic rendevous in a suitably remote recess of deep space. Or would it have been a reunion? She had read somewhere that dreams could be replays of events in previous incarnations, if not during an acarnal interlude when the soul was free of all burdens of flesh -- the needs and wants that even now were driving her crazy with one hunger after another.


The Vial

By William Wetherall

Completed 5 August 2015, last revised 5 August 2015 (780 words)

I experienced the Cuban Crisis in 1962 when an electrical engineering student at Berkeley. We were too cynical about the political condition of the world to be shocked. We figured San Francisco was a target. Even a direct hit on the city would effect us in Berkeley across the bay. We joked, though, that Soviet guidance systems were not very accurate. A missile programmed with San Francisco coordinates would probably veer east and hit the Campanile.

The campus, however, was dotted with bomb shelters and other Civil Defense facilities. Like many third-year engineering students at the time, I had studied radio activity, not just theory but also countermeasures. A second-year physics course had included a field exercise in which we staked out a grid in a park and walked it with a Geiger counter. We measured the level of radiation at each point in the grid, plotted the data on a map of the park, and located the hot spots, which in a real situation would have been either decontaminated or marked off-limits.

It was like an Easter egg hunt, but the eggs were vials of radioactive material the instructor had buried in the ground. Unlike eggs, the vials were invisible. We had to detect them with our instruments.

The professor was smart enough to know that we might spot the disturbances of the ground around where he'd buried the vials. He was clever enough to restore the ground around where he'd buried the vials to its undisturbed state, leave the ground around a few vials disturbed, and disturb the ground in some places where there was no vial. He told us all this when briefing us. "But," he said, a big grin on his face, "I forgot to map the vials, so you'll have to find them!"

We found exactly 14. He recounted them three times, looking glummer each time. He stared at the sky so long we all followed his eyes to a jet trail. "If that were a Soviet bomber," he said, "we'd be dead." Then looking at us he said there were 15 vials.

We swept the grid again and again, while he himself paced it every which way, but to no avail. We called it a day without finding the missing vial.

The professor said nothing about the vial in class. We joked among ourselves about it. All of us accused each other, and all of us denied knowing anything. And we speculated. The vial was a dud. The professor dropped it on his way to the park. He miscounted. He mistook it for a cod liver oil pill.

One day he marched into the lecture room from his office in the lab off the back. As usual everyone turned to see what kind of tie he was wearing and the color of his tennis shoes. Ordinarly he didn't look at us until he got to front of the room. But that day he ran his eyes up and down the rows of eyes watching him, while carrying his lecture notes in one hand, waving a radio-active vial in the other, and not smiling.

He glared at us from behind the work table at the front of the room, where he'd set up an optics bench for demonstrating his lectures. "I found this on my desk this morning," he said at length. "I wonder how it got there. I dusted it for fingerprints but it's clean. I'll be watching each of you for signs of premature baldness."

While we all looking at each other, he cleared his throat and that day's lesson on the principles of the refraction of light and other electromagnetic waves.

We made a point, when passing the professor on campus, of examining each other's heads for spotty hair loss. One day the class clown came in a few minutes after the lecture had begun and everyone waited for the professor to comment on his tardiness. We couldn't help but notice the blotches of missing hair on the crown and temples of his flat top. The professor called him to the front of the room and inspected his head.

"You shaved these?"

"My girlfriend did, sir."

"At your request? To put me on?"

"Wouldn't think of it, sir. She just thought it would look cool."

"Tell her it looks . . ."


"Sit down and don't be late again."

The class clown took a seat and the professor resumed his lecture on sound waves while whispers spread around the room seeking the name of the class clown's woman.

That was the last time we heard of the incident. To this day I still have most of my hair.

This story is autobiographical up to the missing radioactive vial. Everything after that point is purely fictional -- except that we did give the professor a hard time because at times he'd get lost in the careless errors he'd make when solving problems on the blackboard.


The scent of a woman

By William Wetherall

Completed 2000, last revised 2000 (80 words)

She abhorred fragrances, which suited me fine. I hate stores and homes filled with potpourri and deodorizers. People into aroma therapy drive me crazy. I'm repelled by commuters who reek of cologne or aftershave. She showered every morning and bathed every evening. She never splashed herself with toilet water or dabbed perfume on her wrists or behind her ears. And she eschewed underarm sprays and creams. Still damp or freshly towelled she smelled divine. By dusk, any time of year, she exuded a musky scent that made me want to get closer.


Soapland Minister

By William Wetherall

Completed 2001, last revised 13 February 2003 (1,010 words)

A House of Representatives parliamentarian, who was once the Minister of Health, is a regular at a certain Ikebukuro health club. He leaves his secretary-cum-bodyguard with the car and disappears into the club. Two hours later, he comes out ten-years younger and, if he'd been drinking, sober.

He's been patronizing the club for over two years now. He's gotten to know the girl well and she's figured out who he really is. She'd broken her cardinal rule a few times and met him at a hotel, and last year he paid for an abortion.

Except for the first time he's booked her in advance so he's never had to wait for her to finish with another client. The first time he'd come in street clothes. He chose the girl from a folder at the reception counter.

"She's our most popular girl," the receptionist said, and only after he'd paid her did she tell him there was someone ahead of him. He checked his watch and was about to canel, when the girl came out and greeted the uniformed taxi driver who was sitting in the waiting room. "I'll wait," he said, then called his bagman and told him to see a movie or something.

He told the girl he was a weekly weekly magazine reporter. "Asahi Geino?" No, he said, and she didn't press him. "Are you writing about the club?" He told her he wrote mostly about political scandals. "None of my clients have been politicans." How would she know if they didn't tell her? he asked. "If they keep coming back, I'd know." And everything they tell her stays with her? he wondered. "Don't count on me for tips."

He figured she liked to talk, at least about herself, so he pumped her with questions while she ministered to his needs.

"I work here because it's a good job. You bathe them, massage them, let them play around a bit, and give them a hand massage. It's over in an hour. Extended for special services. I average five clients a day, ten on a good day. That's 20,000 yen a shot and I get half. They directly tip me 10 thou for an o-fera and I kick back half to desk, which pockets it off the books. You're a reporter, so you know how it works. Now and then I do it for real as as a gesture of appreciation to a regular. You ask me for it and I'll say no. And no manner how romantic I treat you, keep in mind I have a boyfriend. He studies archaeology, and we've travelled all over Japan, and to Korea, China, and the Mediterranean, mainly to see old tombs. He knows what I do, and he knows why I do it, and he doesn't ask a lot of questions. He knows he's the only man I love. I pull in a million a month, pay taxes, and don't buy designer bags or clothes. In a couple of years I'm going open up a coffee and snack shop somewhere and walk away from this. I'll probably get married and have kids."

She had him turn over on his back.

"What are the alternatives? Slave in the office of a famous brokerage firm that's steals from the poor and gives to rich? Work overtime without pay so the executives can bribe off the gangsters to keep their mouths closed about the company's illegal transactions? Put up with boring, insecure husbands and middle-aged bachelors trying to look up my skirt, catch me alone in the supply room, or steer me into a love hotel after work? I listen to my mother and girlfriends talk, and read the gossip magazines, and I think, if I'm going to be anyone's woman, it might as well be on my terms. We've got a nice apartment a ten-minute subway ride from here. I'm safer here than in a rush-hour train. Even an ordinary business office can be more dangerous for a woman than a Turkish bath. No one fools with me here. There's a fee schedule. You get what you pay for. Anyone gets smart, I push a button, or scream, and the manager comes in and straightens things out. It's clean and orderly. I'm a good draw, and no one messes with me. If I said I was leaving, they'd try to get me to stay, cut me another 10 percent or throw in a bonus or something. But if I wanted to walk, they wouldn't stop me. I feel very free and I'm practically my own boss. Can you say that?"

He couldn't and he was wise enough to know he couldn't fake it with her. The third time he visited her she greeted him by his former Cabinet title. "Don't worry, I'm discrete." Within a few months she knew, from his own mouth, the leash which tied him to his party was so short he envied the family dog, his wife's actually, which he didn't like but had to walk on weekends while she went shopping with other political wives to see how much they could outspend each other.

She called him the Minister of Soapland when they were absolutely alone. Three years later she washed her feet of her sudsy line of work and opened a stylish but affordable sweet shop in Hongo Sanchome, where she lived with her fiance. He was just completing his doctorate and would remain at the university as a research associate specializing in ancient burial systems in Northeast and Central Asia.

Over lunch one day a few years later she asked him to be the guest speaker at her wedding. He'd be standing for election before the wedding and wasn't confident he'd win this time, he told her. "I'm not asking you because you're a famous politician," she said. "In fact I'm taking a risk because you're now rather infamous." Then, briefly brushing her immacuately manicured fingers across the back of one of his liverspotted hands, she said, "I'm asking you because you've been a good friend."


Thinner than water

By William Wetherall

Written 7 January 2004 and last revised 11 August 2014 (390 words)
Based on a story told me by RO

This is a true story. My cousin is going to divorce. His wife is one year older than me. She's a wonderful good-natured woman, and personally I really like her. They've been married five years and have two children, four and one. They began living at the wife's home in the country, but two years ago everything started falling apart. The wife had a minor mental problem, and her condition deteriorated to the point that she needed counselling. During this same period, my cousin found himself out of a job in the country and began living alone in another prefecture.

For sure my cousin has things to say, but from my point of view, he's just spoiled, and I wonder what's gotten into his head. To begin with, why does he want a divorce? He's given his wife various reasons, which sound like excuses, for basically he just wants to be alone. And my gut feeling is . . . there's got to be another woman.

The most ridiculous actors in this drama, though, are his parents. Why are they so easily in favor of a divorce? They listen to only what their own son says, and worse, they say they will raise the children themselves. My cousin, too, persists in telling his wife that he will take the children. In my view, this is unreasonable in terms of just common sense. To start with, the wife frantically persuaded my cousin to stay with her a year before he began saying he wanted to divorce. It was from that point I secretly became her confident. He was saying to her really senseless things like "I want to be alone" and "Don't tie me down." I was like, How can anyone who wants to be alone raise children?

Now that the talk of divorce is out in the open, I've become more actively involved. The problem, though, is whose side I take in this drama -- meaning if they go through with it, who would I cooperate with? Of course I side with the wife, but among my kinfolk, I'm the only one.

They complain to me. You'd stand behind an outsider rather than a relative you're tied to by blood?

I tell them I don't give a damn about such things. I tell them sometimes blood is thinner than water.


The Memento

By William Wetherall

Written and last revised 10 August 2014 (390 words)
Inspired by a conversation with Saori Sugiyama

My daughter told me sometime ago that she had a story she wanted to tell me someday. Today she told it. Or rather she showed it.

She pulled a small photograph out of her purse and handed it to me. A portrait of a boy in a high school uniform, black and white, face and upper torso, not unlike the kind you see on driver licenses. It was mounted on a slightly larger card and his name was printed at the bottom. She reached out and turned it over. Pasted on the back was a newspaper clipping. It ran barely a dozen lines and completely filled the card, or you might say the card filled it. She had neatly written 11 May 1995 along one of the margins.

The article began like a typical news brief, The day before, at a certain time and place, so-and-so of such-and-such an age, residing in a certain neighborhood of a certain town in a certain prefecture, in his 1st year at such-and-such high school, had been riding his motorbike when he was hit by a car driven by so-and-so, age and residence such-and-such, and killed. His home was close to where my daughter had grown up, and where she was now again living, nearly 20 years later, with her 3-month old daughter, who was born on 10 May.

"We were classmates in middle school," she said. "We became good friends. I visited his family and he visited us," she continued, referring to herself, her younger brother, and their mother. I had left by then, and though we'd been in close touch, it wasn't close enough. "One day he told me he planned to marry me when he got out of school," she went on, "and I told him I felt the same way. I've visited his grave every year, and now and then I go to his home to say hello to his parents and light some incense at their family altar."

She put the photograph back in what I now saw was a special place in her purse. Her voice hadn't broken, but she took out a handkerchief to dab a tear in the corner of each eye. Only then did I recall the name she had said she had in mind for my first grandchild before she learned her baby would be a girl.


Hoax Buster

By William Wetherall

Written on 4 September 2015 (260 words)
Inspired by an email from Mark Schreiber

A journalist hears on the noon news that someone had spotted a twister in his home town.

A skeptic among skeptics, his hoax alarm went off.

"No way!" he said. "Not in my back yard!"

Seeing an opportunity to debunk another hoax, he began canvassing the neighborhood, beginning with his next door neighbors, many of them older timers than him.

"Never heard of one in all my years here," one said.

"Must have been smoking something," another said.

But as he talked to people in other parts of town, he began to hear more reports that he couldn't dismiss as hallucinations. He noted the directions and times of each account in his notebook. The times were about the same, but the directions depended on where the witness lived in relation to the alleged twister.

Back in his study, he plotted the data on a map. All the lines intersected at the same point.

"No way!" he said. "This is my backyard!"

The problem nagged him all afternoon and was still on his mind that evening when his wife called him to dinner. They ate in silence. It had a been tense day. One deadline after another, and then that silly twister story. He was about to apologize to his wife for taking his anger at a flakey editor out on her that morning when she spoke first.

"You're unusually silent. Something wrong?"

He explained what was puzzling him.

"That's easy," she said. "That's precisely the time you started bellowing at me for disturbing your work, and you farted."



An anomaly creates havoc in immigration lines

By William Wetherall

Began 26 October 2015, completed 28 October 2015 (880 words)

Passengers arriving at Narita on several international flights meandered toward the quarantine, immigration, and customs counters of Japan's border control system. I and my children and granddaughter were in the middle pack as we passed under two signs, one おかえりなさい, the other Welcome to Japan 欢迎光临日本 잘오셨습니다. "O-kaeri nasai" in Japanese welcomes Japanese nationals home, and "Welcome to Japan" and "Huānyíng guānglín rìbŭn" and "Chal-osyŏsssŭmnida" in English, Chinese, and Korean greet even foreigners returning to Japan as long-term or permanent residents on a par with tourists and transients.

After clearing the quarantine gates, unattended but for a couple of officials off to the side looking for feverish faces, we converged on the Immigration Inspection hall, where a couple of officials stood ready to make sure people got in the proper lines -- "日本人 Japanese Passport" for Japanese, "外国人 Foreign Passport" for foreigners. The number of lines set up for each category could be changed to accommodate the ratio of Japanese to foreigners.

The bottle neck at the entrance to the immigration hall restricted the flow to about three abreast. My daughter holding her daughter, flanked by my son and I to their right, formed one row. As the flow broke into the hall, we veered to the right, toward the Japanese gates, which came before the gates for foreigners. As we did so, an official stepped toward my daughter, and speaking to her in English attempted to steer her into the stream that was angling toward the lines for foreigners at the farther end of the hall. When she and my son flashed their passports, the official turned his attention toward me. My daughter said in Japanese that I was with them. He asked her in Japanese if I had a Japanese passport, and she said I did. And that was that.

I was fully aware of what was going on but kept my eyes on the Japanese lines, which were rapidly changing. A couple of inspectors had just opened up two gates near the entrance into the hall, and another official was directing people toward these gates. This official announced in Japanese that the Japanese lines, though long, would move quickly, so people needn't worry about having to wait very long.

Then the fun started. Anyone who had been standing behind us when the official accosted my daughter, speaking first in English, then in Japanese, who didn't understand the conversation, might have thought my son was my daughter's husband, and taken me for an unrelated old man, as I had practically turned my back to the exchange. By the time I veered into one of the Japanese lines, though, some people behind us might have noticed me talking to my children and concluded that we might be related. In any event, there we were, an infant with naturally very curly and fluffy brown hair, two young adults some people might dub Eurasians, and an old man with round eyes deeply set in a bearded zombieesque face, standing in the line for Japanese.

As the front of our line grew shorter, the back grew longer, and the man who had accosted my daughter went into action, pulling out people in our line and the immediately adjacent lines he thought should not be there. While watching him, and the reactions of those he approached and of those around them, our line shrunk more, and when the woman in front of me stepped up to the immigration counter, I stepped up to mark on the floor right in front of the gate, gripping my passport, ready to step forward the moment the inspector waived her through. But the inspector, seeing her passport, said something to her while pointing toward the lines for foreigners, and the woman stepped back from the counter, looked at me, smiled and sighed, and walked off toward the lines for foreigners clutching a Malaysian passport.

Meeting the inspector's eyes, I stepped up to the counter, and with just a hint of what I took to be an official smile, she scanned my passport and welcomed me back to Japan without batting an eye.

After angling around the counter to the other side of the immigration gate, I turned to wait for my children. While they were being cleared, as quickly as I had been, I observed what I could of the chaos unfolding on the other side. It was difficult to see much, since the immigration cubicles enclosing the immigration counters all but blocked my view of the mobs of people on the other side. But I could see the confusion and hear the strident voice of the official as he looked at people's faces and their passports, his face brightening a bit, I imagined, when his hunches of who wasn't Japanese proved true. I concluded he was just doing his job.

I've never seen an Immigration Inspector training manual. I study the different reactions of officials and people at large everywhere, though. The official who attempted to divert us was perhaps more neurotic than most. The inspection officers are almost always the calmest and most detached. The most probing stares come from people en route to the lines for foreigners. Who knows what goes through minds that are programmed with equations of faces and nationality that capsize when encountering anomalies.


Chipped tooth

The aftertaste of a visit to the dentist

By William Wetherall

Began 11 January 2017, completed 12 January 2017 (300 words)

I cook my evening meals from fresh food stocks -- unpolished rice, tofu, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, spinach, lettuce, chicken breasts, saury, salmon, sardines, occasionally beef or pork, and the like. A couple of times a week I buy boxed lunches with lots of cooked side dishes and split them between the evening meals for variety.

One evening, chomping and chewing a forkful that included a couple of pieces of raw carrot, I bit into something hard, that had more the feel of a fragment of a shell than piece of bone. I pulled it out with my thumb and index finger and saw what appeared to be an edge of the crown of a tooth. I ran my tongue and then a finger around my teeth but couldn't feel where the tooth fragment might have chipped off. Later, while brushing my teeth, I examined my teeth with a dental mirror, but the light was not very bright and I couldn't tell where the chip might have come from.

The next day I made an appointment with my dentist. I was due for a visit anyway, following up an adjustment to a denture made after a couple of molars that had been problems for many years finally broke off, painlessly but irreparably, and had to be pulled.

The dentist probed around while cleaning and looking for cavities and old fillings that might need redoing. All my teeth were in good condition. He concluded that the tooth chip was not from my teeth. I shared the story with the receptionist while paying the 10 percent of the fee that is otherwise covered by Japan's very efficient one-payee national insurance scheme. She made a face, and we agreed that such experiences, though best forgotten, are the most unforgettable.


Lost in transition

An impartial account of toothless detection

By William Wetherall

Began 1 February 2017, completed 31 March 2017 (410 words)

They should have been in my shirt pocket where I had dropped them while at the restaurant. Perhaps they fell out when, bent into the bitterly cold wind on my way home from the station, I pulled out the handwarmers which had also been in the pocket.

I was hungry but dinner could wait. First things first. I put on my warmest jacket and knit cap and took off for the station on my bike.

Dusk darkened as I pumped, but the darker the better to spot them. If I dropped them along the way, surely they would still be there, and I would see them in the illumination from the streetlamps if not the headlights of cars. The lamp on my bike was useless except to make myself more visible to approaching vehicles and pedestrians.

You could drop a glove and it would stay there until someone set it to the side of the street or hung it on a fence. A neighbor's fence has sported a black leather glove long enough for the parts facing south to have faded. So with hope of finding them I kept my eyes fixed on the ground, the edge of the pavement, and the curbs and gutters along the more recently constructed stretches that had them. But I didn't see them.

Nearer the station, along the street-side of the sidewalk, were long planters and an occasional bench, but I didn't see them there either. At the station I turned around, and walking my bike, I retraced my steps, eyeing everything in the direction of my home, turning now and then to scan my flanks and even look back.

While sweeping my eyes along the pavement under a bench I had just passed, I spotted them, sitting on the end of the bench toward the station, not easily seen because they sat just inside the shadow cast by the sign marking the bus stop. They were just sitting there as though someone had tried to take a bite out of the bench, and discovering that its boards were plastic made to look like wood, pulled away in surprise and left their denture.

Picking it up I knew it was mine, from the manner in which it was designed, to fill the gap left by the loss of my lower left 1st and 2nd molars, and the adjacent 2nd premolar that had never come in. I could now go home and eat.


With you

In memory of Mary Ellen

By William Wetherall

Began 15 March 2017, completed 2 April 2017 (670 words)

ME Skype

Two nights ago my nephew, Ditta, informed me by email, not having my phone number, that local police had woken him up to inform him that his mother, my sister Mary Ellen, or just ME, had been found unresponsive. I rarely turn on Skype but launched it, searched for his ID, and left a message. He immediately replied that he was unable to sleep.

We talked for more than an hour -- the longest conversation we have ever had one-on-one. He would not know what had happened until the next morning when the police bureaucracy in her home town, north of his in another state, woke up. He would go up and do what had to be done. He would be busy but would tell me what had happened after he got there.

As I am in Japan, I use Skype mainly to call my siblings in America. Practically all my calls are to their land lines. My sister, though, had occasionally used Skype, at least when she was well enough to click the right buttons. Recently, however, she had stopped responding to Skype, and she seldom picked up calls on her phone.

She had the habit of leaving her computer on, however, so her Skype icon always showed that she was on-line. And this morning, when I turned on Skype to be available to my nephew and other siblings, Jerry and Clara, sure enough, ME's icon showed her to be on-line. When checking it this evening, however, her status had changed to off-line. I figured my nephew had arrived and shut off her computer.

The familiar snapshot of her face still smiled at me, though, as if to say I'm here, give me call. So I Skyped her land line, and the phone rang. And as always it rang and rang, and finally someone picked up. I heard her voice. And as always she said she wasn't at home now, please leave a message. I was used to the routine. I would leave a message, follow it with email, and eventually she'd get back to me with a day and time she'd be there and pick up.

I told her "I miss you" as in the song with the line "Those unfinished conversations / we used to have / still speak to me". Then I left a message for my nephew and rang off.

I stepped toward
her virtual mirage
in the cyber desert

Seeing her face and hearing her voice, I had felt for a moment that I had only imagined Ditta telling me she had passed away -- apparently in her sleep, he later told me. Though knowing I would never talk to her again, I had stepped toward her virtual mirage in the cyber desert, her pixelated face on my monitor from binary code in a database on a server somewhere, and the analog reverberations of her digitized voice emanating from my monitor speakers, both sensations totally detached from her remains, perhaps by then already reduced to ashes.

What does this say about the state and fate of my own existence? Is my grief -- but also relief, for she had been suffering -- little more than chemically induced emotions? Will I leave in my own wake, if anything, only emulsions on old photographs, and data trains of 0s and 1s on vintage electromagnetic or optical media, in a shoebox? Will it end up in the closet of a descendant who, when moving, decides it's time for the "Billy" or "Daddy" or "Grandpa" or "Others" box to be tossed?

Some of your things will be tossed, ME, and some will be kept, for as long as there is someone to miss you, someone who remembers your smile, your love, your generosity, your humor. And you will be remembered, for as long as someone down the line hears the legends about your quest for beauty and peace, and wishes they could have lived in your time, or you in theirs, to hold your hand, dance and laugh, or just be with you.


Familiar eyes

Reunion fantasy 1

By William Wetherall

Began 18 April 2017, last reviwed 15 October 2019 (81 words)

I rechared my train pass, turned toward the nearest gate, and caught the eyes of a woman who had just come out the furtest and happened to glance my way. I would have gone in, but she held her stare, and I realized I was peering at a face I hadn't seen for 30 years, I stepped back from the gate and mouthed her name. She smiled, and we started walking toward each other, oblivious to the people flowing around us.


A brief history of time

A logarithmic journey through the ages

By William Wetherall

Began 4 May 2017, completed 7 May 2017 (190 words)

             .0000000002 lips brush earlobes
             .000000002 bodies tingle
             .00000002 bodies tangle
             .0000002 big bang
             .000002 1 minute later (or less), sperm migrate through uterus to fallopian tubes
             .00002 10 minutes later (at most), a sperm finds an ovum in a fallopian tube
             .0002 2 hours after conception, zygote is rapidly developing
             .002 1 day after conception, zygote moves down fallopian tube
             .02 1st week after conception, zygote migrates to uterus
             .2 2 months after conception, embryo becomes fetus
            2 years old, 1st year after birth, 2nd year after conception
           20 years to come of age, marking a generation
          200 years of recent history, encompasses 10 generations (most are forgotten)
        2,000 years of recent early history, encompasses 100 generations (few are remembered)
       20,000 years of early global migrations and spread of technology and civilization
      200,000 years of recent homonid evolution, rise of Homo sapiens, demise of Neanderthals
    2,000,000 years of homonid evolution within the Pleistocene period
   20,000,000 years -- florishing of mammals and flowering plants during the Cenozoic period
  200,000,000 years -- evolution, dominance, and demise of dinosaurs
2,000,000,000 years -- age of solar system and earth (both about 5 billion years)


Fisherman's wife

Crabbing in San Francisco

By William Wetherall

Began 7 November 2017, last edited 15 October 2019 (1,378 words)

Public lice Pubic lice
A pubic louse mounted under the cover glass of a microscopic slide at two magnifications
Photographs taken in the summer of 1966 by William Wetherall, Laboratory Technician
Pathology Laboratory, 106th General Hospital, Kishine Barracks, Yokohama

Rarely does a stranger approach me in English on the streets of Japan. When it happens, it's usually someone who takes me for a foreigner, assumes I must speak English, and wants to practice his or her conversation. And when it happens, it's usually pretty boring. This time it was somewhat different.

I was sitting with an old friend on a bench in a plaza near JR Iidabashi station, where we had agreed to meet for lunch. As usual he was waiting for me, and I had just arrived. I had spotted him from the intersection by the station, sitting there as always, gazing toward the intersection, at the crowds of pedestrians that would swarm across the street to the plaza when the light turned. When it turned, though, I walked up the street to the left, circled around behind him, and caught him watching a couple of office ladies so intently he failed to detect my approach in his peripheral vision.

As I sat down beside him he turned just enough to realize he was not alone.

"I thought I heard something," he said. He had just seen his ear doctor, who now and then slaps a tiny patch on the hole in his ear drum, a treatment that improves his hearing for a day or two, a week at most, if the patch doesn't slough off in just few hours.

"You probably smelled me."

"That too," he laughed.

We do this every time. It's always a bit different, but the formula's the same, like a Tora-san movie.

We chatted for a while and were about to get up and head for the restaurant where we had planned to each a long lunch over wine, when a clean-shaven middle-aged man in a sports coat and tie stepped over and asked, in English, "Where are you from?"

My friend and I looked at each other. It wasn't clear who, if not both, the man was addressing. Seeing an opportunity for some fun, I was tempted to ask my friend to translate what the man had said, but I decided to answer his question. I had no idea why he had asked it -- whether just to practice his English, or to actually join our conversation, or possibly even to ask for directions. He had stopped to regard us, possibly curious about our gray beards, informal attire, and my friend's New York Yankees baseball cap, as well as the fact that we were speaking English. My friend and I were both Japanese, though most people would contend -- as did a cabin attendant on a recent international flight -- that I didn't look Japanese. She would probably have thought my friend and the man were Japanese, but there was no telling what the man was. He could have been Japanese. He could have been Chinese. He have been Nigerian or French. He could also have an American who thought that we were Americans, judging from our English. In any event, I answered his question -- in Japanese.

"We're both Japanese," I said. "I'm from Chiba prefecture."

He peered at me as though that was not the answer he expected.

"How about you? Where are you from?" I asked him.

I got the impression he didn't expect my question either, but he answered it.

"Tennodai in Abiko in Chiba prefecture."

"That's an NEC town," I said.

"That's right," he said.

"And the Abiko Central Post Office is there," I said."

"How do you know that?" he said.

"I live in Abiko," I said.

"Really?" he said. "Where did you live before that?"

"Nagareyama," I said. He'd know that was right next to Abiko, also in Chiba. "And before that Nakano-ku, and before that Urawa," I continued. I figured he knew where they were too.

He stood there, apparently wondering what was going on. I was about to add that, before Urawa, I had lived in Berkeley, and before that Grass Valley and the woods in the foothills of the Sierras in Northern California, and before that Kishine-cho in Yokohama. But as though he had abandoned that line of questioning, he changed the topic.

"I play golf."

"Good for you," I thought but didn't say it. The conversation was beginning to sound like a television commercial for a set of learn-English-while-you-bathe CDs. I was thinking of asking him if he knew Aoki Isao, a retired pro-golfer from Abiko, who every older denizen of the city could tell you had become well known in America. I could tell him my barbers, a husband and wife, are enthusiastic amateur golfers, and have a photograph of themselves with Aoki in their shop. Instead, I told him a story.

"You play golf? Then you know that there are lots of stray dogs around golf courses. And sometimes they wander onto the fairways and greens when people are playing.

"Yes, I've seen some," he said.

"Well, one day a dog was crossing the fairway just as someone was teeing off. The dog stopped halfway and yawned, just as the ball was coming down. The ball fell into the dog's mouth, and the dog swallowed it.


"Really. Do you know that they call that?"

"A dog swallows a ball on a tee off?"

"Right. What's that called?"

"I don't know," the man said.

"A hole in wan," I said.

It was one of the dumbest jokes I have ever heard in Japan, years ago, from the mouth of Sakai Masaaki, an emcee, actor, and comedian, who had been a singer with The Spiders, a popular Sixties group-sounds band. My granddaughter, only three, wouldn't get it. She knows that a dog goes "bow wow" in English and "wan wan" in Japanese. And like most children, she calls dogs "wan-chan" and knows that English "one" is "wan". She also knows what a "hole" is because she's made holes in pieces of paper, and it's just a matter of time before she pokes her fingers through the shōji in my home. But she has no idea what "golf" is. Someday, when she's bigger, if I tell her this story she may giggle. My daughter will groan, because she's heard me tell it before. And even my granddaughter may think it totally dumb.

My friend groaned, and the man laughed a bit, perhaps to be polite while thinking of a way to make a getaway. But his next question came like a bowel movement after a bout of constipation.

"Where were you born?" he asked.

"San Francisco," I said.

The man beamed. "I've been there. I like San Francisco."

"It's a nice city," I said.

I half expected him to say "I've had some good wine there" -- like in the TV commercial for a painless way to learn English. What he said was quite similar -- to a point.

"I ate fresh crabs at fisherman's wife."

That's what I heard him say. That's what my friend heard, too, for we looked at each other and smiled.

"Fisherman's Wharf", we said practically in unison.

The man laughed. "Yes, Fisherman's Wharf."

"Actually, I like the idea of a fisherman's wife better," I said, as some photographs I took half a century ago, of pubic lice, came to mind. I had seen several cases of such lice, called crabs in the vernacular, during my military service as a lab tech in the pathology laboratory of the 106th General Hospital, a U.S. Army medical facility at Kishine Barracks during the Vietnam War. Two photographs captured a the louse I had mounted on a slide I had made from a specimen collected from a wounded soldier. Who knows where he had picked them up. Maybe from a fisherman's wife or daughter. Perhaps from another soldier in the close quarters of a drawn out siege, or from a Vietnamese prostitute. Or possibly a Viet Cong sympathizer had sprinkled some lice in the patient underwear bin while working in the laundry room of the evacuation hospital where the soldier had been treated before being sent to Japan. War is hell.

My friend and I stood, and the man stepped back as though he, too, had had enough such conversation for one day. We wished him a good day, he reciprocated, and we went our respective ways.



Reunion fantasy 2

By William Wetherall

Began 8 November 2017, completed 18 February 2018, last edited 23 September 2020 (805 words)

The movement of a shadow caught the edge of my eye. I turned my head from the monitor to look down the stairs and saw the projection of a single person against the front door.

From the desk in my study on the second floor, I can see the door beyond the entrance way at the bottom of the stairs. The door is of the older sliding kind with textured glass. I can tell whether the visitor is a cat or a human.

My nearest neighbor, bearing persimmons or kiwi, always knocks very weakly on the door and stands to the right, toward the boundary between our gardens. Mailmen and delivery people knock and stand in different ways and I can often tell the regulars. Two people, one standing slightly behind the other, generally turn out to be members of a local church who periodically come to hammer away at my agnostic anvil.

Some people just stand there pushing the button, which used to ring a buzzer, and they never see the small note asking them to knock. Postal and delivery people and neighbors familiar with my routine immediately knock. Some even call my name and announce their purpose.

Halfway down the stairs, I heard three slow but hard knocks and said, "Hai! Chotto matte kudasai!". I habitually acknowledge hearing a knock and bid the caller to wait a moment. In the winter I may need to slip on a jacket before descending into the glacier-like entrance way. In the summer I may have to slip on a t-shirt and even shorts. That day I was decently dressed in my less tattered house clothes.

The silhouette was fuzzy but dark, back lit by the afternoon sun. There was no bulge suggesting a handbag or briefcase. The large object, just to the left of the figure's legs, could have been a wheeled travel or shopping bag. The caller did not seem to be a neighbor, and she -- I surmised -- was definitely not a deliverywoman, who by now would have knocked again or called my name or both, and been standing closer to the door to catch some sign that I was at home and coming.

Stepping into the entrance way I combed my hair with my fingers, and unlocking the door I braced myself for the caller's show of surprise when seeing my bearded smile and hearing me say "Konnichi wa." Beating the caller to the greeting of the hour, while putting on a friendly face, put some callers at ease but puzzled those accustomed to cautious, even icy welcomes. My hope was to deter remarks about my Japanese or queries about where I had come from.

Perfunctory compliments about the beauty of my garden or the lushness of my strawberry patch were more tolerable, for they gave me an opportunity to say, "Praise the soil, sun and rain, and the birds, moles, and insects. All I do is pull the weeds."

This convinces first comers I'm either a good guy or a weirdo. Either way, their mission is to give me a spiel about the advantages of joining a spiritual circle, taking out a life insurance policy, signing up for regular deliveries of fresh produce and prepared foods, or selling them any jewelry I might have with gold or precious stones. Visitors peddling milk or yogurt would flash a catalog, and pull some samples from a bag like doves and rabbits from a hat.

But standing there was a neatly dressed woman I hadn't seen for a decade. Her hair was now shoulder length and she may have been wearing makeup -- she wore little or none when she'd lived here.

The stiffness of the smile I had affected when opening the door drained from my face and every muscle in my body relaxed. She said nothing, but from the way her mouth slightly widened, as her eyes narrowed, she didn't have to.

"Tadaima," she said, as she stepped forward with her bag in tow.

"O-kaeri," I said, as I stepped back.

"O-jama shimasu," she said, removing her shoes inside and stepping up into the hall.

Ignoring the slippers for guests, she padded straight down the hall to the bathroom in her stocking feet. I lifted her bag from the pebble floor of the entrance, set it inside the kitchen door, and put on some water for tea.

A few minutes later, she emerged from the bathroom and found me in the living room. Her face was fresh, her lips bare, and her damp hair was scented with the shampoo she had found under the sink where she'd left it.

I was waiting for her with some jasmine tea, a plate of coconut sables, and questions I would forget or not have to ask, by the time she stopped talking an hour later.



Till memory lapses do us part

By William Wetherall



Delivery box

For parcels when you're not at home

By William Wetherall



Grapes of bliss

Happy endings come in strange forms

By William Wetherall

Began 11 October 2019, last edited 23 September 2020 (299 words)

A man and a woman quarrelled over their different likes and dislikes. When it came to health, he preferred no or minimal treatment and was proud that he took only one enteric aspirin a day to reduce the risk of clotting in the arteries of his heart, brain, and eyes. She, though, was a true believer in supplements and essential oils, who attributed the improvement of her mother's condition to them, and was known to encourage even people she'd just met to use them.

They disagreed on other matters too, like skinship. He liked to squeeze and be squeezed where she wanted only to touch and be touched. They both liked natto, but he mixed mustard with the natto before stirring in soy sauce, while she thought it tasted better if the soy sauce was added first.

One day they had some grapes. He counted 23, she confirmed his count, and each had 11 whole grapes and half of the 23rd grape, surgically split between its seeds with an ergonomic Swiss paring knife. As they ate the grapes, she swallowed the seeds and spit out the skins, while he swallowed the skins and spit out the seeds.

Afterward, they beheld the bowl of skins and seeds, each longing for what disgusted the other. He chewed and swallowed one of the skins and declared it delicious. She rolled a couple of the seeds around inside her mouth with her tongue, let them glide down her throat, and sighed. The bowl was soon empty.

From that day forward, they agreed to disagree and never quarrelled again. He said nothing when she cut her finger with the Swiss paring knife, which he refused to use. And she didn't comment when one day he reached for the paring knife to cut a sandwich.



Financing the next world

By William Wetherall

Began 23 October 2020, last edited 23 October 2020 (509 words)
Inspired by email from Kunioki Yanagishita

Yesterday I made a pilgrimage to my father's ancestral tomb in a graveyard associated with a certain temple in Kamakura. The crypt underneath the tomb holds the urns that consecrate my father's and mother's ashes. They sit in the crypt with the urns of several generations of my father's ancestors, most of whom even he never knew.

The semi-annual visits have become annual visits, and I foresee them becoming less frequent, until there are none. Not because I don't like them. I actually look forward to going, now alone, to reflect on the reason I exist. And, I admit, to delight my nostrils with the incense I can smell a minute or two before arriving. When a boy I went with my parents, to feast on the sweets they would buy me from a vendor near the temple grounds.

When consecrating my father's ashes, 10 years after my mother died, I decided not to join them there. My children will scatter my ashes around an outcropping of rocks on the beach near the Imperial Villa at Hayama, to be washed into the Pacific Ocean and drift to every shore of the world. Only my son knows -- though probably he's told my daughter and half his friends -- that I lost my virginity there at a beach party when in college.

The only thing I dislike about the pilgrimages is the need to make a donation to the resident priest. The donation is voluntary, but the way the temple guidelines read, you're made to feel guilty if you don't personally present the priest, in fancy robes, with bills in a proper wrapper. The ritual involves an exchange of greetings, which consist of two grunts and perfunctory bows. "Arigato gozaimasu" from me. "Gokurosama desu" from him.

Now and then the good priest chants sutras for all the transmigrating souls whose ghosts linger around the graveyard. If I want to replace the old wooden pagoda slabs with new ones, on which he brushes some Sanskrit and posthumous names in Chinese, it costs a lot more.

The graveyard keeper digs even deeper into my pockets. His standard fee is 12,000 yen. I could buy a 10-year supply of flowers and incense for that, but I am supposed to patronize him. He also provides a wooden bucket and ladle for water to wash the tombstone. The bucket is only half full. If he filled it, he says, half would be spilled on the way to the tomb.

He works out of an office that doubles as a flower-and-incense shop at the entrance to the graveyard, where there is a rack of buckets and ladles, a faucet, and a garbage basket for wilted flowers, weeds, and trash, including sake bottles and soggy cigarettes. There's a toilet by the office but a sign reads "Those who do not buy here, shall not use the bathroom."

On my way out, I spot the keeper, garbed like a gardener, hosing down a black Mercedes in the parking lot, while sharing a moment of laughter with the priest.