The Knocker

By William Wetherall

A young man sneers at Caesar and angers his own gods

Began 2005-08-01, last revised 2006-10-05 (8,880 words)

The Knocker

By William Wetherall

He had tried all kinds of work since squeezing through a college no one had heard of. He majored in economics like everyone else. Marx this, neo/post-Keynesian that. His professors didn't appear to have a clue but he couldn't be sure. After all, they wrote thick books and talked as though they believed their own big words. But now he knew. It was not about supply or demand or p-e ratios. It was only about money and work. And that morning he had neither.

He went out so he wouldn't be home when the landlord came. He stepped into the convenience store on the corner to escape the cold and thumb through some magazines. Nothing he hadn't seen before in the job zines. The usual hype about easy work for great pay. Which meant he'd have to bust his butt for nothing. And he was tired of wasting his life for nothing.

He read other magazines and comics until the manager glared at him. He headed for the door by way of the beverage shelves, then the wall of rice balls and boxed lunches and salads and sandwiches. At the front counter he eyed the corn dogs and the steamed meat and sweet bean dumplings, then gazed at the simmering pot of oden.

The week before he had spent the last of his change on a tub of daikon, konnyaku, chikuwa, konbu, and an egg, swimming in broth with dabs of mustard. The same girl who had served him then was on duty that morning. She had a terrific body and beamed when she asked him if he'd like some. He smiled back and was out the door before his eyes could betray his fear. He knew she'd seen his hunger.

Damned if he'd ask his old man or old lady for a handout after all they'd been through, he thought, walking down the street. His dad had erupted when he quit the company.

All those years, all that study, and finally you finish college and get a job. Sure the firm's small and doesn't pay much and its secretaries have been there forever. But it's been inspecting elevator cables for what, half a century? That's something you can count on. You can marry and have kids and someday buy a house on that. But you go and quit. On account of what? Your supe won't let you loosen your tie, even at your desk?

That's not the only reason. I need some time to figure things out.

What's there to figure out? You want to eat, you work.

I understand that. I was talking more about why we live, why we struggle.

You can ponder the imponderables while you're building your pension.

I want to think about that too.

There's nothing to think about. It's there. You do it.

It's not that simple.

You're saying I'm simple?

His father, a couple of years away from retirement at the post office, where he had never missed a day of work, and was now in charge of damaged parcel claims in the region, had clenched a fist in his face. His mother, on the verge of tears, had ordered them both to stop.

A few weeks later, tired of his father's badgering, he pounded the pavement in a new suit his mother said would change his life. He finally got on as a temp at the headquarters of a fastfood chain, where he sat in front of a computer all day and monitored inventory reports. The neighbors saw him leave and return in a pressed suit, fresh shirt, and different tie everyday. That part of the job his parents liked. It was fine with them if people thought their son might be on the fast track of a big company. Practically every evening, though, his dad would bug him about finding a job with benefits. Until one night he stormed out.

The next week he called his mom to tell her he had found a 1DK in a nearby town. She cried and made him promise to bring his laundry on weekends. When he didn't she began coming over to get it. While there she also cleaned and left enough food for a week. At least she didn't stay the night and wash him. She'd done that until his testicles dropped and he said he wanted to bathe alone. His dad, for once, had backed him up. A man's gotta do some things by himself, he'd said.

One day he told his mother she didn't need to come anymore because he had a girlfriend. She scolded him for the way he had put it but said she was delighted and wished him the best. Until she learned the girl was older, taller, and waited on tables. Then she, too, began to openly criticize him. But what did he care. He had a girl, and the only thing she bugged him about was finishing too fast.

The temp job ended in six months. They didn't want to extend and neither did he. He tried all kinds of work after this. He catered a couple of weddings, clerked in a manga rental shop, hawked mechanical dogs at a festival, hustled drinks and danced and more at a host club. Nothing lasted more than a few weeks before he quit or was fired. Even when fired he would tell his girl and friends he had quit, and there was some truth to this. He had started all these jobs with a mind to quit, sooner than later. Being told he didn't need to come back just made it easier.

One night, after being restructured at a secondhand shop that specialized in castoff golf clubs, he told his girl he was still looking for his true calling. She laughed and said she would marry him as soon as he found it. He beheld her playful eyes. She had changed so much in the year since he spotted her at the railing and they spent the night on the grassy embankment, watching the moon descend the river, talking, listening, sleeping.

He'd seen a TV interview with a computer game company president younger than he was. The guy had been the programmer on a high school team that had won a national robot contest. He had said to hell with college and set up a website to market an on-line game he'd developed. Asked about the mood at his company, which had grown in leaps and bounds as his game spread in Chinese and English, he said everyone was so gung-ho they worked late everyday until ready to drop, and came back early the next morning raring to go again.

He had never felt that way about a job until he started scouting girls for a porn flick producer. He was promised a modest retainer and a ringside seat at the shoots if he signed up at least one girl a month. He would get a bonus for every additional head.

He had found three girls the very first month, a company record, he was told by the producer, his employer and boss, a woman in her late thirties who was also the director and occasionally made a cameo appearance. She was also shorter than him by a couple of hands. This much about her his mother would have liked.

The producer gave him what she had called a junior achievement award one afternoon at a hotel after sending the actors, camera crew, and gaffers home. She chided him for rushing things, then put her tongue in his ear and said he'd get a double bonus if he recruited his girlfriend. He finally broached the offer with her, she demurred, he persisted, she relented, he bought a camcorder with the bonus to document the occasion, and she moved in with the leading man.

That was a year ago and he hadn't worked since. He went through some savings then began hawking practically everything he owned. He sold his books, CDs and videos, and most of his better clothes, save one good suit, shirt, tie, belt, and pair of shoes, in case he needed to impress someone. He sold his audio hardware, then his watches and cameras, including the new camcorder, and finally even his laptop, which he'd listed on Yahoo! the day before his broadband service was cut, forcing him to finish the transaction at an Internet cafe.

Now he was at the intersection down the street from the convenience store, waiting for the light, hiking up his jeans, wondering if the oden girl would go out with him if he had a job, some bills in his wallet, and didn't look like he'd just been a month in the desert.

He glanced at the traffic to his right and met the large eyes of a bald man with salt-and-pepper brows and a stubble beard perched behind the wheel of a small white dump truck with a motorbike and refrigerator lashed to the sides of the bed. The man continued to study him until the light changed and they both started across the street. The truck shot ahead and parked on the next block. The man got out, watched him amble toward him, and smiled as he got closer.

Hey, how are you? the man said.

Okay, he said, though he didn't recognize him.

How'd you like to make some money?

First I need some breakfast.

Come on. I'll treat you.

They introduced themselves while walking.

Eat up, Adachi said at the Doutor on the corner. He ordered a double espresso. Maebara got a peppered ham bagel and a large grapefruit juice. They sat on stools at a small round table.

They chatted about baseball and China-Japan relations for a while. Then Adachi said he needed help hauling away some junk a woman had accumulated after her husband died. She didn't have the heart, he said, to throw anything away. Even his ashes were still in the house somewhere, and she hoped to find them and scatter them in the river where he'd drowned while fishing. He said the work would be easy and figured it would take a week, maybe two. He'd pay him ten thou a day plus all he could eat and drink.

Why not, Maebara said, and immediately ordered a roast-beef sandwich and an extra tall mocha latte to go. Grabbing some tubs of cream and syrup and a fistful of napkins, he followed Adachi to the truck.

Sitting in the cab, while chomping on the sandwich and strawing the latte, he studied the levers that raised, lowered, and tilted the bed, and all the stuff on the dash. His eyes lingered on a box with a lot of knobs and toggles and a microphone.

That's the best they make, Adachi said. My wife did the recording. I'll show you how it works when we finish this job. She's quite a babe. We've been together thirty years.

Sure, Maebara said, smiling at Adachi. He'd wait a few days before telling him he probably wouldn't be staying.

He almost quit when Mrs. Sugimura opened the door and they followed her in. The foyer was so backed up with bags of garbage and trash they could barely squeeze by. The place was infested with maggots and flies. Roaches scurried everywhere. What little was visible of the floor was covered with rat dung. The stench almost brought up the ham and beef.

They had to go to two hardware stores to get enough bug bombs and rodent traps to drive the enemy off the beachhead. They set the traps, set off the bombs, and took Mrs. Sugimura to a hospital for an annual check up. They talked in the cafeteria while she followed the colored lines to all the clinics. When she was done they returned to the house, opened what windows they could get to, and turned on a couple of fans. While the place was defumigating they went to a family restaurant, where Adachi treated Mrs. Sugimura and Maebara to an early dinner. Again Maebara ate and drank his fill.

On the morning of the second day, they mounted stake extensions on the sides of the bed, and filled the bed with the garbage bags they cleared from the entrance and hallway. In the afternoon they drove to the dump and hosed off the truck. On the second day they cleared trails to the windows of both bedrooms, so full that Mrs. Sugimura had taken to sleep in the living room, itself almost full of trash.

It took six days to empty all the rooms to the closets. Still they hadn't found the ashes.

Do you want us to do the closets too? Adachi asked Mrs. Sugimura.

She'd been in one of her more alert states that day. That morning she had immediately recognized them. Some mornings she had gazed at them as though she'd never seen them before.

Might as well, she said. No telling what you'll find.

The next morning they had to tell Mrs. Sugimura who they were and why they were there. Adachi told her how much work they had already done and how much the bill would be including the closets, which they had come to do that day. His mention of the closets, or maybe it was the money, triggered recognition.

Ah, yes. Come in. I haven't been in the closets for years. I'd be hard pressed even to tell you what's in them. It can all go to the dump for all I care. Just let me know if you find the ashes. And there should be some photographs. I want those too of course.

So they started on the closets, armed with garbage bags, a spray for flies, another for roaches, a broom and a dust pan, a vacuum cleaner and masks. They'd gone through three of four masks a day. For the closets they could dispense with goggles but not masks, their only defense against the thick dust, mold spores, and mites. There was nothing they could do about the spider webs but bat them aside.

By ten o'clock they had finished the closets in the two bedrooms, filled mostly with futon, blankets, sheets, and clothing far too stained or musty to save, and the carcasses of insects in abandoned nests. She must have had a bag of sesame seeds in here, Maebara said, sweeping out a closet they had just relieved of moldy bedding. Black? Adachi said. Yeah, Maebara said. That's cockroach shit, Adachi said.

One closet had yielded a box of photograph albums, notebooks, diaries, and bundled letters. The albums were full of snapshots of Mrs. Sugimura and her husband in their younger, middle, and more mature years. Portraits of their wedding, pictures of them at New Years with his folks or hers, with his father or her mother, then just of them. Apparently they had both been only children and they had not had children. If you studied just her eyes, she hadn't changed. What was it that gave eyes character.

They had finished the bedrooms and it was time for a break. They brought the box into the living room, where Mrs. Sugimura was reading the ad inserts from the morning paper. The paper itself sat on the edge of the altar, beside a fresh glass of water, an unpeeled mikan, and a senbei in a plastic wrapper. In the middle was a picture of Mr. Sugimura, an urn with some of his ashes, and a mortuary tablet bearing his posthumous name.

Maebara imagined her spending a few moments with her husband every morning and night. He pictured his mother doing the same thing in the not-so-far future. She had told him the doctor said his father's liver was worsening. His father went on as though nothing was wrong, but now and then his eyes betrayed a longing to say something.

Maebara's parents had replaced the altar they had bought when his grandfather passed away with a larger one. His mother collected some catalogs, hoping to get a new one. No telling whose spirits could be lingering in a used one, no matter how much you paid a priest to exorcise it. His father, though, prevailed in his wish to get an older one. Maebara even helped him find one on the Internet at a price his mother now bragged about. It was over a century old, entirely hand made, had a few scratches and nicks, and its fragrant patina gave its black lacquer stillness a shimmer of life.

Maebara couldn't picture himself becoming so concerned about the afterlife. Sure, his parents would leave him someday if he didn't go first. And despite everything he would miss them. But he couldn't bring himself to believe their spirits needed water and food, much less booze and smokes for his dad. He doubted they needed an altar, and he knew he himself didn't want a grave.

If people do leave behind attention-please spirits when they die, then pity this woman who makes daily offerings at an economy-model altar so small it sits on a book shelf, Maebara thought. No one would be claiming her, or it, when she dies. She'll probably have been dead a month before anyone even finds her. Her property will go to the state. The city will have to cremate her. Whoever is sent to clean the house, before it is disposed of at public auction, will probably condemn the altar, Mr. Sugimura still in it, to the dump, unless someone rescues it at personal expense.

Mrs. Sugimura gleamed when she saw what was in the box Maebara had set on the low table in front of the sofa. So that's where they were, she said, opening the album on top. I thought maybe I'd thrown them out. Not much use in keeping them, really. No one to leave them to, you know. Besides, they're all in my head. But I'll look at them anyway and read ever letter. The letters are on the bottom if I remember. Did you read any of them? Of course not. He was very gentle and he wrote in such a graceful hand.

She served them tea, with the senbei and mikan they'd brought her, then she busied herself with the contents of the box until her program started. Now and then they heard her sniffle.

They started in on the living room. Built as a sitting room that could also be used for sleeping, it had a large double closet with two little closets toward the ceiling. They, too, were stuffed with things the Sugimuras, and before them his parents, had accumulated simply because they were there.

Maebara recalled Say's Law. It had been on one of the few exams he'd truly studied for and aced. Maybe Say was right to think supply creates its own demand, though Keynes had stressed accumulated demand. Then he remembered another law. Did Parkinson get his idea about work expanding to fill the time available from Say? His professors hadn't said anything about that. Maybe when this job was over he'd write a book and become an economic guru, he thought, as he reached for a large but thin box in the corner of the closet.

He lifted the lid, expecting to see a framed picture or photograph. Inside was a large binder full of glassine sleeves. He opened the cover and couldn't believe his eyes.

Adachi was right beside him, pulling moldy cushions out of the closet and stuffing them into garbage bags. Mrs. Sugimura was on the sofa, totally absorbed in the gossip show she had watched every morning, the volume cranked up enough for Mr. Sugimura to hear.

Look at these, he said to Adachi through his mask.

Adachi looked, glanced at Mrs. Sugimura, and slid over a bag he'd just started. Maebara's brows shot up as he gripped the neck of the bag. Adachi pushed some air into an imaginary bag. Maebara's eyes widened. Adachi smiled. Maebara kept his eyes on Mrs. Sugimura while he opened the bag and slipped the box, with the folder back in it, inside. Then he threw in some hopelessly soiled antimacassars, and a bunch of discolored doilies he would bet she crocheted, knotted the tails of the bag, and set the bag with others by the door.

They never did find the ashes. At the door, as they were leaving, Mrs. Sugimura stared at them and said, Well, I must have thrown them in the river. He'd let me know if I didn't, and he hasn't, so I guess I did. Adachi smiled and said they'd be back tomorrow to take her to the bank.

They met at a coffee shop the next morning before picking her up. Adachi had told her how much it would be, but he would now present her with an itemized bill in the name of Adachi Recycling. That was the name on his truck and business card, and on the billing pad he pulled from a zippered bag.

It's a limited company, Adachi told him. My wife and I own it. A typical set up. She does all the paperwork and an accountant does the taxes. We write off everything except condoms. Now watch. If you're going to work for me, you need to know this stuff.

Maebara paid attention. He'd been awake most of the night thinking about what they'd done. Maybe he could talk Adachi into returning the prints. They could say they made a mistake. Then he'd quit.

Adachi explained the fees. Ten days of labor times two. A daily truck fee times ten. Dump fees as per attached receipts. Ditto for the bags, bug bombs, traps, masks, sprays, and gasoline. And ten percent for office costs and incidentals.


The lunches, dinners, senbei, cookies, water melon, what else . . . mikan, flowers, all that stuff. It all adds up, you know.

Maebara couldn't remember any flowers, but he let it go. His mind was on the prints.

They took Mrs. Sugimura to the bank and she withdrew the amount Adachi had underlined at the bottom of the bill. Adachi gave her a receipt with a revenue stamp he'd cut with his chop. On the way back they stopped by a flower shop and Adachi came out with a nice rustic earthenware pot of white and red cyclamens in full bloom. He set it on the shoe cabinet inside the front door of Mrs. Sugimura's home and told her she looked every bit as beautiful. They left her standing at the head of the hall, so recently impassable with filth, now empty but for her frail frame, bent toward the cabinet, her hollow face raised, squinting at the blossoms.

They went to another coffee shop. It's good to spread your business around, Adachi said. He took out the envelope of bills Mrs. Sugimura had given him. We came out pretty good, he said. We could have squeezed her for more, but she was nice, and she gave us a little bonus, right? Maebara opened his mouth but closed it when Adachi smiled and said, We worked hard and did her bidding. She said to get rid of everything but the ashes and the photos, and we did.

His smile disappeared as he counted out fifteen bills. You earned every bit of this, he said, passing them to Maebara. His hand went into his bag and came out with two slips of paper. This shows how much I paid you and why. What you do with it is your business. I suggest you keep it. This is a receipt, and I need it back with your chop, now or tomorrow. I assume you intend to keep working for me.

Maebara remained silent while he counted the bills. He had never made so much so quickly. It would cover his back rent and then some. Adachi just sat there, as though at a fishing pond, half watching him, half watching the butt of the waitress wiping the table beside theirs, knowing that, before he left, the float would dance.

For the time being, Maebara said.

Adachi's face broke into the slightest of smiles. It's not usually like this, he said. It's actually very interesting. And you don't have to commute or wear a tie.

I get a lot of books, Adachi said the following day while they were hauling a load of old furniture to a secondhand store. I sell most of them by weight to local dealers. But once in a while I pick up something that's worth a run into Kanda. Next time I go, we'll bring the prints and see what we've got.

Sure enough, a couple of weeks later they were cruising around an upscale neighborhood in another town, letting the voice of Adachi's wife do all the soliciting -- "old appliances, furniture, books, anything you longer longer need, just taking up space, collecting dust, you pay us or we pay you, on-the-spot appraisals free, Adachi Recycling at your service" -- when a man came out a gate, waved us down, and said he'd been thinking of selling his father's library.

The man led them into his father's study and Adachi scanned the shelves of a couple of oak bookcases crammed with seismology journals and monographs. Adachi whipped out his cell and called his wife. She gave him a couple of numbers and he made another call, then another, and began reciting titles and commenting on conditions. Once in a while he'd break, examine a book very closely, and get back on the phone.

Half an hour later, bent at the waist, his chest parallel to the floor, practically crying, Adachi offered the man ten thou for the lot. The man asked for thirty and they settled for twenty. Adachi paid him, and the man, signing the receipt, sighed, smiled, and said, Thanks to you they'll be going into a respectable store. He'd like that.

The next day they headed for Kanda. The bookseller paid Adachi eighty thou then introduced him to a woodblock print dealer up the street. The dealer examined each print. Two thou each, he said. Twenty, Adachi said. I'll have trouble getting more than ten, so the most I can give you is five, and that's only because they're not in bad condition. Adachi said he would accept that if the prints were his, but they belonged to Maebara's father. Maebara agreed the offer was reasonable but he would have to consult with his dad.

The dealer sold them a mulberry paper folder for each print, a stiff cloth wrapper with ribbon ties for the folders, and an airtight paulownia box for the wrapper. The box of prints now sat in a plastic bag in Maebara's nearly empty closet. Adachi told him they should let them sleep for at least two years before trying to sell them. The two years became more than twenty.

A year later, still working for Adachi, earning a decent living and enjoying the freedom, surprises, challenges, and responsibilities of a recycler cum knocker, Maebara married the daughter of a curio shop proprietor to whom he had sold an early model Victor Talking Machine. He had cleaned and fixed it himself after buying it from a rice distributor who had found it when rebuilding a warehouse. Under the grime was a beautiful plate of the Nipper himself, his ear lifted a bit as he listened to "His Master's Voice" from the polished horn.

One mid-August morning, a couple of months after their marriage, two uniformed officers came to their apartment to inform Maebara that his father, apparently taking a curve too fast, had spun off the shoulder and plunged into the sea. The car had not yet been pulled out but divers had confirmed that his mother, too, was in it.

His parents had been on their way to Matsushima, where they had grown up, met and married, and where he had been born and schooled until his early teens. They had wanted him to go with them, as he usually did, but especially now that he was married. His cousins were eager to meet his new wife and initiate her into the family rituals.

Maebara had told them he and his wife would not be going because she was pregnant. She was, in fact, several months along. But in truth even he no longer looked forward to the inevitable drinking and mahjong with his relatives and friends. And he had no desire to fight off mosquitoes and gnats in the sweltering heat while making the rounds of all the ancestral graves.

Now they had to go. The cliff the car had gone off was just an hour from Matsushima, which was where his parents would have wanted their funeral anyway. Their ashes were deposited in the Maebara family tomb, behind the temple the family had patronized for generations. Maebara brought back two small urns containing some of the ashes and mortuary tablets he had asked a priest to engrave, and there was plenty of room for them in the altar he had helped them buy.

As soon as Maebara and his wife returned, they moved into the house. They have offered at least water, incense, and prayers every day since. Insurance paid off what was left on the loan. The car, too, had been covered, but it was old and Maebara had to pay the costs of pulling it from the sea. The postal ministry cited a regulation permitting it to give him his father's severance pay less the amount he had borrowed from the civil service employees credit union to pay Maebara's tuition, plus interest. Among the passbooks in his mother's dresser was one for an account she had set up in his name when he was a child and substantially built over the years.

So tragedy had left them fairly comfortable for a young couple. His earnings from Adachi easily met their monthly expenses, and his wife, with her mother's help, continued to work at her father's shop even after giving birth to a son. When the twins came three years later, she decided to stay home, though her mother looked after the children a couple of days a week so she could help Adachi's wife.

Adachi retired and sold Maebara the truck, by then a newer model with a crane behind the cab. Maebara also bought the computer, records, and good will of Adachi Recycling. Maebara's wife now ran the business side of Maebara Recycling from the house while making sure their son and daughters went to school with homemade lunches, did their homework, and stayed out of trouble.

Maebara often wished his parents were there to see how well he and his family were doing. He wanted his father to know that his concern and discipline had not been in vein. He was always telling the kids how hardworking and honest their grandpa had been. He had tender memories of his mother, too. His wife, for all her qualities, didn't quite have her touch when it came to bathing him.

One day a few years later, seeing the prints in the cabinet under the altar, Maebara resolved to return them. He put on a suit and tie and drove to Mrs. Sugimura's home, stopping on the way to buy a couple of very nice cantaloupes. He had no trouble finding the lot but the house was different and the name on the plate by the intercom at the gate was Koide. Mrs. Koide came out when he rang and said he had come to inquire about Mrs. Sugimura.

Mrs. Koide said they had bought the property at an auction six years ago and rebuilt. Neighbors had told her that Mrs. Sugimura had collapsed on the street on her way home from shopping and died a week later. That was all she knew. He had been the first person to ask about her. Are you a relative? I heard she didn't have any. No, just someone who did some work for her many years ago. I just thought I'd drop by and say hello. But it looks like I'm too late.

Maebara gave one of the melons to Mrs. Koide and drove home by way of some of the places he and Adachi had worked. Nothing had changed yet everything was different. How did that go? Hojoki. Kamakura period. Kamo no Chomei had likened people and their houses to the flow of water in a river, always there but never the same.

He pictured Miss Yoshida, tense and practically shaking, her eyes unblinking, shifting from the stare of one student to another, and finally to his, while expounding on the significance of every word and particle. She had been the only reason he had studied for the entrance exams. He wondered if she was still teaching, if she had ever married, if she had published any of her poetry, if she would remember him and how he had almost laughed at her that day.

Part of him wanted to throw the prints in the nearest trash box and be rid of them. Or maybe incinerate them, since Mrs. Sugimura had undoubtedly been cremated. He imagined their smoke mingling in the air somewhere. But it would be wrong not to keep them. As Adachi had said, they were not merely recyclers of natural resources. They were also guardians of culture. It was their professional duty to rescue fragile artifacts from the ravages of human neglect.

The prints, though in good condition, had a few worm holes and some spotting from fungus. A few had been trimmed, others folded or torn. They would only suffer more if left in that closet. Even had they been pulled right off the blocks, their pigments still damp, most people in their own time would not have seen them as beautiful. Most would have been uncomfortable with the blood-spurting violence and spread-leg frankness. They must have belonged to Mr. Sugimura, for he couldn't imagine her wanting them. But who was he to say what she might have liked.

Most copies of such prints had long since been thrown out, destroyed, lost like most things that outlive their novelty or utility in the eyes of those who determine their fate. The few that survive prove that human life before the age of steel, concrete, gasoline, electricity, plastic, and the Internet, was not that different from life today, Adachi had said.

Adachi had also told him that, when someone dies in a home where they had been living alone and in isolation, and dementia had nullified even the most primitive standards of hygiene, no one wants to go in the place, much less go through the closets. Someone will mask up just long enough to recover what documents and valuables they can find in the most predictable and accessible hiding spots. Then the house will be demolished, everything else left where it is, mostly unexamined.

Say she died the day before we got there, Adachi had said. No one would clean the house and then disassemble it to salvage the lumber. Wreckers would reduce it to a pile of rubble in a day. All those personal photos and letters, and the prints too, would be stirred in with the broken tiles, crushed mortar, splintered boards, shattered glass, burst bags of soiled adult diapers, and ratlings squirming at the teats of their crippled mothers. They'd stop the machinery only for a safe or sack of money. A front-end loader would scoop the debris into a convoy of dump trucks. Eons later the mess would be petroleum.

The prints went back into the cabinet and remained there for a few more years. He had practically forgotten about them until one winter evening they came up in a conversation while walking with his son.

The twins were just finishing high school and had been accepted into the law department of a major college. His son, after squeaking through high school, had spent a couple of years trying to figure things out, as he'd put it, and at dinner that night he'd announced he wanted to go to college and study economics. Great, great, was all Maebara had said at the table.

"Why economics?" Maebara asked when they reached the park.

"Because you're always saying it all comes down to money and work," his son said. "And you're writing a book on it, right?"

"How do you know that?"

"I'm your son."

"You've been in my desk."

"Mom asked me to get something once and I saw it."

"Okay. But be warned that whatever I've said or written is not what you're going to be learning in school."

"I like what you wrote. About economics being a continual recycling of labor and material that inevitably entails irrecoverable loss. When an economic system breaks down or gives out, life as we know it, life itself, is over. That dovetails very nicely with the Second Law of Thermodynamics and even with Unified Field Theory."

"It does?"

"According to Wetherall."

"Never heard of him. Anyway, the academic economics you're going to get in college won't make half as much sense, and it's not supposed to. It's intended only to impress and intimidate."

"What you said about the economics of art was also awesome. I'll bet you were thinking about those prints. I get the impression you feel a bit guilty about keeping them."

"They belonged to your grandfather. That's the only reason I still have them."

"But according to your theory, nostalgia's no excuse for not putting them into circulation so others can see and appreciate them."

"They are being appreciated."

"You always told us to leave them alone."

"You were children."

"So now it's okay if I show them to my friends?"

"I'd rather you didn't."

"So they do embarrass you."

"They're just personal, is all."

Maybe his son was right, he thought that night in bed. Maybe it was time to sell them, time to release himself from their curse. They would probably auction for several times what that Kanda dealer had quoted. It wasn't as though he needed the money, but with all three kids about to start college, it wouldn't hurt to have a little more.

As for the prints, he believed his own big words. They contributed to economic life in its broadest, spiritual sense, only if they were circulated. They had no meaning just sitting there in a cabinet under an altar, of all places. So long as they still existed, even there, they had the potential of contributing to what he called the vitality of art economics. By this he meant nothing so uninspired or static as culture economics, culture industry, art marketing, or other theories that reduced art to a matter of commodity fetishism or similarly treated art materialistically.

Art was mystical and religious. It's intrinsic worth could not be measured by scarcity or demand. Even the most commonplace and mundane work was priceless if it moved its beholder. Art was never about symbolic capital, prestige, fungible value, or possession. It was only about personal taste and capacity to be possessed. You either liked something and were moved by it, or you weren't. If you wanted it, you wanted it at any price, or your want wasn't sincere.

Maebara had never really wanted the prints. Though he had learned a lot about them, he couldn't really say he liked them. He would not have bought them for the cost of a beer, but any tangible price would have been better than the price he'd been paying, and would continue to pay if he sold them and used the money for his kids. He'd try to get as much as he could, and donate it to a charity or something.

One evening a few months later he'd just got home from work when the doorbell rang. His wife and children were out. Two men in coats and ties showed him their police IDs, confirmed that he was Maebara Keizo, 53, and invited themselves inside.

Something happen? Maebara asked, suddenly aware that the two men had been gazing at him, waiting for him to respond. He had thought of the couple next door. They were either screwing their brains out or threatening to kill each other. The screaming last night, the worst he'd heard in months, had suddenly stopped and was not followed by the usual thrashing and cries that he could hear even in winter, when the cold forced even them to close their windows and shutters.

The detectives were from the property crimes division, though, he recalled the shorter one had said, while leading them into the living room and motioning them toward a slab of ancient cherrywood he'd practically stolen from a widower who was forced to move into a tiny apartment. They squatted on the tatami along the side nearest the altar, ignoring the cushions.

Some tea or coffee? Or maybe a beer? Sorry my wife's not home to whip up something.

We're fine, the taller detective said.

Nice table, the shorter one said.

Yeah. Something I bought from a man who was moving into a retirement home. I was going to resell it but liked it so much I decided to keep it. So how may I help you?

We have some questions about a woodblock print you recently sold on Yahoo!, the taller detective said.

Oh? He couldn't have hid his surprise if he'd tried. The buyer hasn't complained to me. He acknowledged receipt and gave me a five-star rating.

I'm aware of that, the taller detective said, smiling for the first time. He set on the table, so Maebara could read it, a printout of an email transaction. The aliases and real names and addresses of the seller and buyer were underlined in red. Again the detective showed his ID, this time beside the printout.

Maebara studied the names on the printout and ID. Hmmm, he said. Sorry I didn't recognize your name when you introduced yourself. But what's the problem? The print's real, you outbid two or three others, and you said you liked it.

I'm an investigator, not an art collector. I bought the print because it's on a stolen art list.

Stolen? I don't understand.

Did you clean the home of a widow by the name of Sugimura Meiko in Ichikawa about twenty years ago?

Maebara took a few seconds to think, then said, It sounds like the first job I did with Adachi. He's the guy who got me started and sold his business to me when he retired. He's dead now. His wife's still alive, though. Anyway, I don't remember the woman's name. It might have been Sugimura.

Do you recall that she had some woodblock prints?

Woodblock prints? Maebara said, his eyes wide open. He closed them in thought. Tell a story, Adachi had said that day they had taken the prints to Kanda. He'd been telling the same one since.

I can't remember seeing any woodblock prints, he said, looking at the tall detective. In any case, the print you bought could not have been hers, because it was part of a collection that's belonged to my dad's family for several generations.

Can you prove that?

There's nothing in writing, if that's what you mean. The prints came out of a storage shed on my grandfather's farm in Matsushima. I spent a lot of time there when I was little. I vaguely remember seeing them when playing. I'd forgotten all about them until my grandfather died and my dad brought them home, meaning here. My grandmother didn't know where they originally came from either. She'd heard that my great-great-great grandfather had made a trip to Tokyo in the early years of the Meiji period and brought them back as souvenirs. But that's just family legend. The only thing I know for sure is that my dad put them in the cabinet under the altar there, and that's where the others are now. Would you like to see them?

Maybe later. So he never made a list of them or took photographs?

No. Or maybe he did and I threw them out.

Why would you have thrown them out?

What I'm saying is, I've never seen a list or photographs. I would never have thrown such things out intentionally. But I did throw away a lot of stuff when my folks were killed and I moved back here.

A terrible thing, the shorter detective said.

Maebara met the detective's eyes.

The way your parents went, he said.

Thank you. It was a long time ago. But they are still close to us.

Both detectives followed Maebara's eyes to the altar and nodded.

Mrs. Sugimura's husband drowned in a boating accident, the taller detective said.

I remember her saying he drowned in a river while fishing. She thought she might still have his ashes, but we couldn't find them.

Did you find a list or photographs of the prints? the taller one said.

Among my dad's stuff? No, like I already said.

Among Mrs. Sugimura's things.

I said I don't remember seeing any prints.

Not prints, but a list or photographs related to prints.

No. All I remember us finding was a box of family pictures and letters. She was real happy to see them, too.

The shorter detective, Maebara knew, was studying his responses to the taller one's questions.

Have you sold other prints in the collection?



Yahoo!. Everything is still on my disk and the server. Would you like me to pull it up?

Actually, we're aware of them too.

I thought you might be. You seem to know everything else about me.

We're just doing our job.

I realize that. Still, I don't understand why you're here. I can't believe Mrs. Sugimura is saying I took her prints?

The both detectives were watching him very closely now.

She filed a missing property report, the shorter one said. She said that a folder of prints her husband had owned was missing. And she believed someone had taken them.

And she said Adachi and I took them?

She was unable to say who took them. All she knew is that they must have been taken, because they weren't in the house when she looked for them.

When did she say this?

About ten years ago, the taller detective said?

Ten years ago?

That's right.

And you're just now investigating?

There were no leads until we spotted your prints on Yahoo!, the shorter detective said.

You've been holding them for a while, the taller one said.

Holding them? They've been in the family for generations.

Why are you selling them now?

My wife's never liked them. My kids could care less. And I've kept them mainly because they've been in the family so long. But frankly, the nostalgia's worn off.

You didn't just throw them out there, though. You described them very accurately. And your reserves were very close to what most appraisers would quote as their current value.

I did some investigation, of course. It's not that difficult, really. A little time on Google told me all I really needed to know. But being so close to Tokyo, I also made queries at a few print shops.

It is pretty easy, the shorter detective said. We've got several databases of stolen and missing property. One is dedicated to art. That's my baby. We RSS all the auction sites with the names of the artists and works and monitor the feeds. When we get a match, we check it out.

That's how you found my prints?

That's right.

Still, they were mine.

The evidence Mrs. Sugimura gave the police suggests otherwise.

I don't want to bad mouth her, but she had problems remembering things. Some mornings we'd go to her place and she wouldn't even recognize us from the day before.

We've never met her, the shorter detective said, but we're aware of problems like that. The officers who interviewed her when she filed her claim wrote in their comments that she had lapses of awareness of who they were and why they were at her home. However, they also witnessed some moments of extreme lucidity. Like when she explained to them how she was going through a box of things and found an envelope containing a memo with some negatives and photographs.

His mind was full of questions he knew he must not ask, not then, perhaps never. They probably knew he knew she was dead. Had he given Mrs. Koide a business card or told her his name? It didn't matter. Had they been to her place, she would have told them about the man with the large bag and melons. Would the fact that he had tried to return the prints mitigate his sentence? Or could they even charge him? There had to be a statute of limitations, but how would that work? Was that why they thought he'd been holding the prints? And when they asked to see the other prints, they would spot the passbook for the account he'd set up to receive the proceeds for the prints. How would he explain that? Would it matter what he intended to do with the money?

For the moment, though, he had to push away such thoughts and focus on the material in the folder the shorter detective had placed on the table in front of him. The detective had opened a folder and set out a handwritten memo. Though a copy, it was clear that the stationary had been subjected to moisture, as there were stains, and some of the writing, done with a fountain pen in a semi-cursive hand that had learned the older orthography, was blurred. It was dated the 7th day of the 1st month of Showa 64 and signed Sugimura Ikuo.

In the memo, Sugimura stated that the prints listed and described on the attached sheets, and shown on the accompanying photographs, had been given his father by the widow of a comrade he had served with in China. His father had told him she had given him the prints on New Years Day of Showa 21, the day the emperor had issued the imperial rescript in which he denied that he was a living god. The last sentence of the memo simply remarked that, at 6:33 that very morning Sugimura was writing the memo, Emperor Showa had deceased.

Beautiful calligraphy, Maebara said.

Nobody writes like that anymore, the shorter detective said, showing Maebara a copy of the list and descriptions of the prints. There were small red circles in the margins by the three prints Maebara had already sold. He read Sugimura's description of the print the taller detective had bought.

Yubin hochi shinbun No. 1127. Single oban with an otodoke date of 22 December 1876. Picture by Taiso Yoshitoshi, story by Ikusu Sanjin, carver not indicated, publisher not determined. The theme of the print is the Shinpuren Rebellion that began in Kumamoto on 24 October 1876. Ikusu says the rebellion was suppressed by the following night. The picture shows Ueno Kengo gallant on his horse, armed with only a lance, though probably carrying a sword or two that we can't see, dodging bullets in an uprising against the new Meiji government. Behind Ueno is a banner displaying the name of Tensho Kodaijin, the legendary Amaterasu Oomikami, who created Japan and the Yamato race. The rebels were protesting the government's termination of the samurai caste, and its desecration of the land of the emperor by allowing foreigners to live and conduct business in the country, under their own laws no less. Their action sparked the Seinan War, which flared in January the following year and ended with the suicide of Saigo Takamori. The Shinpuren saga inspired Mishima Yukio's Runaway Horses. Mishima killed himself after failing to turn the the Self-Defense Forces against the government in November 1970.

Sugimura really got into it, Maebara said. I didn't know half what that print was about.

Who would? the taller detective said. That was what, a century and a half ago? My kids don't even know who won the Pacific War.

I doubt if mine know who fought in it, the shorter one said.

Everyone laughed.

Are you still convinced this print was yours? the taller detective asked.

I thought it was mine, Maebara said, wondering if he looked as tired as he felt.

Maybe these will help you resolve your doubt, the shorter detective said, spreading five photographs on the table, as though they'd been playing poker.

One showed the Yoshitoshi Shinpuren print from the front. Another showed the back of the print. A third and fourth were close-ups, one of Yoshitoshi's signature and seal, the other of the date seal and other publication particulars. The last photograph was of just the upper left corner. It showed patterns of worm holes and foxing which Maebara knew the criminalists had already matched, beyond reasonable doubt, with those on the print he had sold and would have to confess had not been his.