Fiction | June 01, 1998
Distant Lights in the Foothills Beyond Owari-Eki
The emergency call from Central comes over the line at 20:42, but Matsuda has already decelerated the train. He often reacts faster than the automated shutdown system.
Central tells the motorman the tracks have become obstructed ahead at Katsubo Station. Central says, “Expect at least a thirteen- to fourteen-minute delay.”
“Hai,” says Matsuda, acknowledging the transmission. The train slides to a soft stop some three hundred meters short of the star cluster of shops and restaurants at Heiwa-cho.
Matsuda makes the announcement to his passengers: “Attention please. Due to a slight complication farther up the line, all outbound trains will be momentarily delayed. Thank you for your patience. We’ll be under way soon.”
A narrow, rain-glossed road runs along the tracks to the left of the train. Across the road, a dental clinic and a Sumitomo bank stand pale against the night sky. Empty and dark-windowed. The only life comes from a juku, a cram school, above the dental clinic, where a teacher’s agitated arms suggest his emphatic speech. The second-floor window cuts off the teacher at his belly. As for the students, Matsuda can see only the very tops of their heads.
Matsuda’s hand radio suddenly hisses and speaks. It’s Yoshida, the motorman at the rear of the train. He asks, “Did Central give you any details about the problem up the line, Matsuda-san?”
“Very few,” Matsuda answers. “An accident at Katsubo-eki.”
“I’m not certain. I believe so. They expect a thirteen- to fourteen-minute delay. Seems about right.”
“I’ll use the time to fill out the logs.”
“Hai,” says Matsuda, pleased with Yoshida’s initiative.
The evening is dense with humidity, and Matsuda quickens the flow of air through the train to relieve the passengers tightly packed in the middle cars. He checks the traffic grid on the control-panel monitor: up and down the line, dull, blinking orange lights represent static trains.
He looks across the street again, to the juku. The teacher continues to batter his students with historical dates, solid geometry formulas, or maybe English grammar. But because his back is turned to his class (he’s writing on the chalkboard), two students seated next to the windows have risked lifting their heads to peer out at the halted train. They’re twelve or thirteen years old. Already studying for their college entrance exams. Matsuda feels slightly nostalgic, the pull of a sad smile on his lips. A third boy now peers out, a boy who looks to be seated farther from the windows and who has had to stand to get a look. Soon, a fourth face appears in the window, and then a fifth and a sixth. They’re like puppies trying to escape a cardboard box. Matsuda blares the trains horn, a sharp sound that startles the juku teacher, makes him turn around, and spoils the mutiny.
Once Central gives the all-clear signal, the train accelerates again, clicking steadily. It passes through low stucco canyons of company housing blocks, ramshackle wooden houses half-obscured by hanging laundry. It drifts by the red paper lanterns of noodle restaurants, the empty stalls of fishmongers and vegetable sellers, the corrugated roll-down doors of corner shops stocked with radios or bicycles or cosmetics.
Matsuda has traveled tracks like these thousands of times. But tonight, this trip feels particular. Particular not because it’s one of the last he’ll ever make (he’s retiring next week), and not because a person has possibly leaped in front of another train up the line (a disturb-ing situation, certainly-but not out of the ordinary). He wonders if a “particular” trip is even conceivable at this point in his life, if this is just a trick of his mind. Whatever this sensation is, he struggles to put a name to it, to explain its sudden clutch on him. It feels original, and he assumes it will take time for him to understand it. He’ll be patient.
When Matsuda started with the company as a twenty-two-year-old junior employee, the urban terrain struck him as paradoxical. The individual pieces of the city seemed ordinary, even unsightly: endless white block buildings, thick cross-hatchings of power and phone lines, rows of deadened faces stretched along commuter platforms, dutiful housewives sweeping wet streets in front of their homes with bamboo-handled brooms. The scenes never seemed to change. Yet at times the view framed by the compartment’s wide, glinting glass stirred Matsuda.
Once, pulling out of Kitazawa station into a feathery rain-the train high above the boulevard-Matsuda looked down on what he would later describe as an exquisite composition. He saw shimmering advertisements for cigarette companies; an endless lineup of green and orange taxis outside the Seibu department store; a throng of pedestrians, small puffs of breath rising in the cold; a lone dog dismally searching the crowd for its master. The sky was divided unequally. In the low distance where the sun would soon set, it was a narrow hazy-bright strip. But above, encroaching rain clouds had turned the sky the uneven color of a bruise. Without warning, the rains came, pattering the compartment window. Below, yellow and red blossoms of umbrellas opened like tulips. Matsuda felt an immense satisfaction as the scene slipped behind him.
When he got home, he spoke to his wife about the world he saw from his compartment: “This is the only way I can describe it. I hate to put it so plainly, but each time we run up the line, I feel as though an artist is painting my window. Like it’s a canvas, you see. Not an extraordinary notion, granted. But this is an artist obsessed by his subject. Always the tracks, prominent in the middle of the picture-always the tracks. They curve left or right, sure. But the artist can only paint slight variations. His subject has cornered him, you see. Who’s really in control-the subject or the man trying to capture it?”
Matsuda sipped at his evening Kirin lager as he spoke. A pot of udonnoodles boiled on the gas range, throwing up whorls of steam. Hiroko was holding Shuncho against her shoulder, facing the gas range, her back to Matsuda. The baby, barely seven weeks old, was sick and frail. Near the end. He needed constant comfort. Hiroko swayed to quiet him, cupping the infant’s head to her neck.
“If you spend enough hours out there,” Matsuda was saying, “which is all I do – this is all I see for hours and hours – these variations seem almost imperceptible. But that’s their power, of course. The tiniest of variations in themselves are exquisite. When I recognize them, I feel … I don’t know … I feel I’m on the inside of something. Something valuable, perhaps. Unspoiled.”
Hiroko finally turned and interrupted Matsuda. “I wish you would not do things to put your job in jeopardy.” Despite her small frame and smaller voice, she never withheld contrary thoughts. They often flew from her mouth in small furies. Her husband both admired and despised this part of her, though he had never confessed so.
“Jeopardy?” said the motorman sharply. “I don’t see how putting my mind to use would jeopardize my job. And like any muscle, the mind will become soft and feeble if one doesn’t exercise it.”
“True,” she returned, “if one applies his mind to his work, then he is doing a service to himself and his company. To his family. An exemplary man should do nothing less. But concerning oneself with ‘Where is the beauty here?’ or ‘Look how the light is striking the roof tiles ever so differently today’ – these are the thoughts of boys. Daydreams. Call them what you want. But they are terrible thoughts to be thinking now.”
Hiroko tried to pull the noodles off the gas range, but as she adjusted the baby on her shoulder, she set off the child’s cries once again. Shuncho had been in and out of the hospital since birth. When the doctors finally said there was nothing more they could do for the child, that the illness was too firmly settled into the boy’s body, Hiroko and Matsuda took him home for good. They did not want him to die in the care of strangers. They agreed to comfort Shuncho and love him, but not pity him. Or pity themselves. Pity was selfish. Yet to put up a pretense of strength was difficult, especially for Hiroko. Matsuda was sure she secretly believed she alone could nurse Shuncho back to health. That her words, her songs, her touch were what the boy needed. He’d held on longer than the doctors predicted, but the baby’s wails had become weaker over the last two or three days – still as constant as ever, but more horrifying because one could barely hear them coming from his tiny, enraged mouth.
The motorman was furious that his infant son prevented him from shouting at his wife. “You don’t understand,” he wanted to say. The fact that his anger appalled him did little to diminish it. He caught his tongue, which pleased him because it felt as if he’d deadened a whip already set in motion. Prevented the snap. With even temper, he said, “Shu-chan seems better, I think. Quieter than he was yesterday, but his lungs are sturdier. I can tell.”
Hiroko turned from the gas range and looked at her husband as if from the far side of a vast room, though their six-mat apartment was anything but vast. Her lips pinched hard, and a pink bud spread outward from the center of her forehead. She said nothing. The motorman decided he would let his wife think she had won this battle. If she could not see the importance of his ideas-how they gave him hope-then it was better to explore them quietly, in the solitude of his train compartment, where he often made better sense of the world.
When he returned to work the morning after he’d spoken to Hiroko, the first early snow of the season was powdering the city as though it were the face of a withered kabuki actor. The motorman, away from his apartment, away from his sick child and his cheerless wife, thought, I’m traveling through a museum. He repeated it aloud, with force, as if to test the truth of the statement. When he did, he experienced delight for the first time in weeks, a glimmer of happiness that almost seemed foreign. He felt he’d made an important connection between distinct worlds – life and the representation of life. He sensed he was traveling along a seam, the exact fold where two worlds merged. Because none of his passengers could see this seam through his window, he was sure they couldn’t imagine it was even there. The idea of it had probably never occurred to any of them. And even if it had, surely none had worked it out as elaborately as he, for Matsuda had begun to catalogue and title the cityscapes so familiar to him now: “Reluctant Fog at Hashiyama Crossing,” “Pale Light on Wet Rails after Storm,” “Night Descending on Tracks near Suidobashi in Russet Autumn.”
Now, as the train rushes through the night, the motorman feels he’s approaching a scene for which he has no title. And perhaps this is what makes this trip ishijirushi. Particular. What he suddenly senses is this: there is a man standing on the platform of Katsubo Station, a man Matsuda knows. Yet Katsubo Station is still more than seven hundred meters up the track, and the commuters on the platform don’t even look like people yet. The station, in fact, sitting atop the apex of track where the rails come together far up the straightaway, has the look of a distant cook fire. The motorman thinks, So this is what it has come to, Matsuda old boy, forty-one years of service and your mind is now slowly turning to wood.
It is likely that less than a half-hour ago a jumper took his life at Katsubo Station. A body crushed, a crowd horrified. Or perhaps someone carelessly fell from the platform. As sober as these possibilities are, Matsuda’s thoughts push elsewhere.
This is an express train, and the station in question is a local stop. So if there is indeed a man on the platform, an old acquaintance whom Matsuda might recognize, what does it matter? They’ll have no opportunity to lament the persistent accumulation of years since their last meeting. No time to exchange family pictures. Yes, in fact my wife and I had two boys, though the first died quite young. Yes, a heavy blow to us at the time. But my other boy has his own family now. Two children. My son’s an associate professor at Keio University. He travels to Papua New Guinea every winter to study endangered birds. Oh, you should see the lovely blue plumage. Yes, he’s quite successful. Yes, yes, thank you. You’re most kind to say so.
Perhaps, thinks Matsuda uneasily, this man waiting on the platform is no friend at all. It’s quite possible that he’s an old enemy, is it not? Life turns that way at times. Coincidences are not necessarily happy. But if this is the case (and somehow Matsuda now senses this isunavoidably the case), the motorman fears he will not have an opportunity to make amends. To right a wrong. To ask for forgiveness, or to forgive this other gentleman as the case may warrant.
This train will pass through Katsubo Station without stopping.
At twelve, Matsuda and his friends often raced to school in the morning. They loved how the long hill that sloped from the station seemed to force them into a run. Invariably it was Matsuda who arrived at the school gate first. But one day, as he and three schoolmates ran through the mist, Matsuda’s friend Yamata kicked his legs out from under him. The wet road suddenly burned along Matsuda’s arms and hands. His friends clomped past, yelling jubilantly, “Ha, Matsuda, you’ll be last this time!”
Matsuda lay on the sloping road, fighting the sting in his hands by clenching his teeth, hurt and angry at the betrayal. When he finally sat up and wiped his eyes, he discovered bloody rips in the elbows of his uniform.
“They’ve made a fool of you,” came a voice from a beer house behind Matsuda. “Baka dai-yo.” If the boy’s own dog had spoken to him, he wouldn’t have been more amazed. An Occupation soldier leaned in the doorway, tilted like a garden rake set against a house. The soldier’s hair was the color of beach sand. His hands were in his pockets as if he were saving them for a more important purpose. Behind the soldier, unfathomable shadow lurked, but from out of this shadow, around the soldier’s waist, came two pale arms, so thin and delicate it seemed the lightest touch might hurt them. The arms were connected above the soldier’s brass-clip belt by slim white fingers, woven together. Their nails gleamed coral red.
“Look there,” said the American, nodding down the hill. “Mite.”
Matsuda’s three friends appeared at the bottom of the slope, dipping and rising from the waist as they laughed. They looked like finches drinking from a rain puddle. “Come on, Matsuda,” they called up to him. “Master will be waiting for us with his cane.”
Matsuda turned back to the soldier. “You like this?” the American said. “Suki?” He unclasped the girl’s hands, taking a finger and lifting it to his mouth and putting the tip inside as though it were a piece of candy. The boy wondered if the man tasted cherries. The American let the finger move of its own accord, and it slowly traced the contours of his lips. Big-band music began playing from the second floor. Girls laughed. With a knowing smile, the soldier backed into the shadow until all Matsuda could see was the uniformed arm reaching to slide the fusuma shut. But the soldier didn’t completely close the door, and the slat of darkness seemed like an invitation for Matsuda to follow. Instead he limped back up the hill toward the train station.
Later that evening, the boy’s mother took a reed of bamboo to the back of his knees. “That’s what happens to little devils who skip school and ruin their uniforms,” she said.
In bed he cried with a controlled quietness that made him proud. Under the thin sheet, lying with his back to his mother, he pulled his knees to his chin. His raw hands held the back of his scorching knees. He imagined they were not his hands, but the hands with red nails and wet fingers.
As the train bears down on Katsubo Station, it no longer resembles a distant fire, but two halves of a phosphorescent moon, cut by the perfect parallel lines of the train tracks.
Matsuda is passing right through it. The motorman barely has enough time to look at the faces along the platform, some six or seven deep.
Is there a particular face looking back? It’s difficult to tell at this speed. But yes. There – leaning out over the track, clearer than others, a man outlined by a glow of familiarity. He stares through the compartment window at Matsuda, and as Matsuda looks back, he knows he’s looking at himself. Or a man he might have become, like others he might have become, men who once traveled with Matsuda but who, at different moments since 1935, took their own paths, like branches of lightning flashing independently of the primary vein. The man on the platform was once a boy who slid back the fusuma of a beer house, in a part of the city that had no official name but that people called with disgust “Little Yoshiwara,” a boy who decades ago played hooky to follow the scent of tobacco and foul tatami, the sound of a big-band orchestra and the clomping of feet up a dark stairway, into a second-story room hidden from the world by wood and rice paper. This, while another boy stood helpless against the slope of a hill on the street outside, a boy who ran away and spent a morning along the banks of the Taimagawa, digging up frogs already packed away in the cold, hard mud for winter.
At the end of the platform, the stationmaster salutes Matsuda, white glove at the bill of his cap. And the motorman, for the first time in his forty-one years of service, forgets to return the salute.
Out into the night again, the train rushes onward. Matsuda feels something like anxiety or regret shatter and then release skyward. It dissipates like a startled cluster of pigeons. He calls his partner on the radio, the motorman at the other end of the train, Yoshida, who will take over when the train reaches the end of the line and reverses direction, passing back over these same tracks.
“Yoshida, can you see Katsubo-eki behind us?”
“Of course I can.”
“For me,” says Matsuda, “it has already disappeared. Tell me what it looks like.”
Yoshida says, “Nothing much to report. No emergency vehicles. No sign of an accident. It’s as if nothing happened, I’ll confess.”
“It might not have been a jumper.”
“Very true, Matsuda.”
“Tell me what it looks like, Yoshida. The station.”
“The glow is getting duller every second. What can I say? It’s a station like any other.”
“Would you say it looks like the death of a star?”
Yoshida doesn’t answer right away. He’s taking time to give the question serious consideration. Matsuda respects this quality in the younger man, a quality lacking in most young Japanese. Yoshida says, “I suppose if one’s imagination had the freedom, yes, then it might appear so. But Matsuda-San, I’m just a junior motorman. What do I know of dying stars?”
Matsuda says quietly, “Yes, true,” but by agreeing, he feels as though he’s just betrayed himself.
The next stop approaches and Matsuda makes the announcement: “Sugi wa Akigawa desu. Akigawa desu.” Everything is methodical again. The train pulls into Akigawa Station, slows to a stop. The train unloads and loads. The stationmaster blows his whistle when the doorways clear. The train moves on.
The motorman speaks to his partner again over the radio. “My son is going abroad next week, Yoshida. To Papua New Guinea. His annual trip.”
“To study his birds?”
“What a fine memory you have, Yoshida. Yes, the blue birds of paradise. It’s courtship season. Have I told you? To attract females, the males swing upside down from the branches of trees, making calls to potential mates. Can you imagine – hanging upside down? Like bats! They have fat red breasts, but their magnificence is really in the plumage of their wings. Blue as pure water. As the bird swings, the wing feathers fall outward, like a fan opening. My son has never tired of the sight. He says he feels like an alien on his own planet every time he sees it. He keeps telling me, Father, when are you going to join me in Papua New Guinea? You must see this bird. You must. You must. Yes, well, I tell him, one of these years, I just might.”
“Matsuda-san, forgive me for suggesting we cease communication. This conversation is exceeding the scope of official train operations, don’t you think? You have always been disciplined with respect to this policy, and I have you to thank for passing some of this discipline on to me.”
The track bends, and the train lists and screeches metallically as it makes the turn. The white blaze of the train’s lamps catches something scampering out of harm’s way. Perhaps a stray mutt.
“Matsuda-san? Don’t you agree?”
“Yes,” says Matsuda heavily. “Thank you for reminding me.”
“Forgive me, sir, for overstepping my bounds.”
“Nonsense, Yoshida. I’m getting old and forgetful.”
Matsuda sets his hand radio down as if putting it to sleep. The gentle clicking of the train’s motion on the track fills the compartment, and Matsuda enjoys how it softly hammers the soles of his shoes. “There is something simple and graceful and pleasurable about feeling a sound,” he thinks aloud. “I shall miss it when I retire.”
The city thins out here. Periodically, rice fields back up to the line, mostly irregularly shaped plots no larger than Matsuda’s apartment. Matsuda calls this piece “Rice Stalks and Silhouettes of Distant Hills.” It’s one of his favorites.
Moving through “Rice Stalks and Silhouettes of Distant Hills,” the motorman wants to reproduce a sense of floating wonder he often experienced when as a teenager he accompanied his father out to sea beyond Tokyo Bay. Matsuda’s father was a commercial fisherman. During school holidays, Matsuda helped his father set the nets and bring the catch in to the buyers before sunrise. Matsuda liked to swing in a hammock his father had stretched across the foredeck, studying how on certain moonless, starless nighs – when his father indulged him by cutting the boat’s running lights – the sky and sea lost their identities. No hint of a horizon. Water and air, amalgamated by pure blackness. The sea gently slapped at the boat, and the motor droned under the water, but one might have imagined these were the sounds of a much more distant place. These moments both frightened Matsuda and exhilarated him. Swinging, feeling suspended, nearly weightless, he had the notion he was the only solid thing in the universe.
Now, twenty-five years after the death of his father, Matsuda has the sudden urge to re-create those moments, to make Left, Right, Up, Down, Backward and Forward meaningless. He switches off the train’s headlamps and waits for the obscuring black. The moon, however, casts the greater plain in a dull, ashy glow, distinguishing it from the distant violet hills and the hills from the deeper violet of the sky. On the water of the rice plots, the moon burns silver, and it seems its reflection is a great shivering fish. It’s racing the train. “Ha!” says Matsuda, driving the accelerator forward. “Swim, moon! Swim!”
“Matsuda-san?” comes Yoshida’s voice over the hand radio, an accusatory sound.
“Hai,” says the startled motorman, already easing the throttle back. His neck is tight and hot. “Forgive me, Yoshida. I’m clumsy tonight. I bumped the throttle. Give me your current train speed reading.”
“Back to normal.”
“Yes, confirmed here as well.”
“Hai,” says Yoshida.
Matsuda turns the beams on again. The rice plots are gone, and they have taken the silver fish with them.
Child! he scolds himself, or perhaps it’s the scolding voice of his wife. A memory of her voice. You should have listened to me, Matsuda. Matsuda with the wooden head. Matsuda who makes a paintbrush of rain, a canvas of the black night. Why do you idle away your time thinking of such nonsense?
It’s not so much nonsense.
Look at you. Are you even capable of operating this train anymore? Your hands are shaking. Your mouth is full of saliva you can’t swallow fast enough. You’re chasing the reflection of the moon.
It was only a small game. I do my best. The company values me.
Matsuda, look at yourself. You don’t see what I see. Look.
Hiroko has been gone only a year now. It seems odd to the motorman that the memory of his wife’s voice should still be so vivid to him, while the memory of her face peers at him as if through sea water.
Hiroko and Matsuda had stayed with each other through many unpleasant years. They’d formed a pact of tolerance much in the way employees who otherwise want nothing to do with each other work together for the good of a company. Early on, their marriage had been agreeable enough, filled with cooperation, sometimes laughter, even moments of romance. But in the months after Shuncho died, Hiroko rarely spoke. When she did, her speech was sometimes afflicted with a slight stammer. Unable to sleep, she often left the tiny apartment late at night, wandered the streets. On more than one occasion, Matsuda, having woken up to an empty bed, found her on a park bench where she’d previously sat with Shuncho. She sang “Bird in the Cage,” her arms cradling the air under her bosom.
Hiroko recaptured some of her old self when she gave birth to their second son, Harunori. But as she recovered her cheerfulness and warmth, she directed most of it toward the new baby and merely suffered the third member of the household for the child’s sake.
When Hiroko had passed away last year, Harunori, now a university lecturer, placed the butsudan altar in his own home, which, he argued, provided a larger space for the family to gather and offer their prayers than did Matsuda’s eight-mat apartment. The photograph of Hiroko in the center of the butsudan was taken nearly thirteen years earlier, on the day Harunori graduated from college. She looked as proud and happy as a mother could look.
On the first morning they prayed around the butsudan, Harunori asked his father to sit and talk about the future. Harunori’s wife, Yuka, served the men o-cha and kept the children from disturbing the room. Harunori proposed that his father retire and come live with his family. They owned a house in one of the new communities beyond the Tama River, where each residence had extra room for grandparents, a Western-style oven in its kitchen, a small veranda, a carport.
“After all,” said Harunori, “next year you’ll have to retire, Father. And if they moved you to a desk job – would you be happy? I don’t think so. That’s a misery you’ve talked about for years.”
Matsuda said, “If I have only one more year to drive, then I will drive. All the more reason I shouldn’ t retire early.”
“But you can still collect nearly a full pension. Plus you’ve saved so much over the years. You and Mother were almost cruel in the way you saved.”
“Money is no concern to me now.”
“But Father, your apartment will be too quiet.”
“That apartment has been quiet for years, Harunori. Little has changed.”
Harunori sat in thought. He had many of his mother’s features, and he’d also inherited Hiroko’s frankness, her strong head. He said, “Think about Keiko- and Aka-chan, Father. When I do my field research, there’s no man around the house. For two months every year, Yuka has complete influence on the children. I need to have someone here to make sure she doesn’t turn them against me.”
“I think your mother would want me to stay where I am – far from your affairs.”
“Father, you’re being unfair to Mother, now.”
Perhaps I am, thought Matsuda but didn’ t say it. Instead, he said, “What about these trips, Haru-chan. Your birds. It seems to me you could use a hand at times. I’m not talking about the entire two months. But for a week or two, I could be useful to you. I have some vacation time coming to me.”
Harunori put a hand on Matsuda’s knee. “Father, I’m pleased you’re interested in my work. But it’s no place for you. The heat is terrible. Sometimes we hike as many as twenty kilometers a day. Why don’t you take a vacation in Hawaii? You’ve always wanted to go.”
“You won’t consider my joining you? Won’t at least think it over?”
“Father, there’s no funding. Trust me, you would hate it there.”
“You mean I would be a burden.”
“Enough. I want to talk with my grandchildren. I haven’t seen them in weeks.” Matsuda yelled past the closed door, “Keiko-chan, Aka-chan – come see your grandfather. Come pull on my old ears for a while.”
As if propelled by the metronomic clicking, Matsuda does something he’s never considered before: he passes through the door of his compartment into the passenger carriage. Yoshida, at the other end of the train, will immediately know compartment security has been compromised. He’ll take over. Matsuda has faith in the younger man because Yoshida reminds him so much of himself at that age.
The few passengers remaining pay little attention to the motorman. Some stand, some sit. They read comics and evening newspapers. Many stare passively at the floor, lost in the music of their Walkmans. At the far end of the car, a small boy – perhaps four or five years old – sits with his grandfather. The old man’s hand rests on the boy’s bare knee, as if it’s keeping the boy in his seat. The boy’s legs are plump and dangling, fitted with snug white knee-high socks and small blue sneakers. He has a child-size backpack and wears a Seibu Lions cap – it will be years before his head fits into it.
As the motorman approaches them, only the boy looks up, the first of any these passengers who seems alarmed. You are the motorman! What are you doing here? The boy leans out into the aisle, grandfather holding him back. He’s trying to see past the commuters into the operator’s compartment. Who’s driving the train?
“My son Harunori was a pull hitter,” says Matsuda, standing above the boy. “He played first base. But you look like a shortstop to me. Am I right? A good arm from deep in the hole? Quick as a cat?”
The boy is too frightened to answer. His grandfather looks up and nods warmly to Matsuda. “Yutaka wants to be a pitcher,” he answers for the boy. “Isn’t that right, Yutaka?” The boy looks uncertain, and not about the question. The motorman eases into the empty bench seat next to the boy. “A pitcher. That’s a good thing. Yes, a pitcher. Your feet won’t tire like a trainman’s. A pitcher gets rest.”
The grandfather winks at Matsuda, then stares straight ahead.
Beyond the windows opposite them, over the heads of the silent office ladies and salary men, thin bands of red and yellow and blue neon interrupt vast stretches of black.
“It’s like a movie,” Matsuda says, and points.
The boy looks up at him, eyes almost covered by the too-large hat.
“How would you like to see the view from my compartment, Mr. Pitcher? Have you ever been inside a motorman’s compartment?”
The frightened boy appeals to his grandfather for help. “Would you like to see where the driver works?” the grandfather asks him. The boy shakes his head no.
Matsuda stands, puts his white-gloved hand out for the boy to take. “You don’t want to come with me? Only very important people get to see the view from my window. You want to drive the train?”
The boy climbs into his grandfather’s lap to get away from the hand.
“Thank you for offering,” says the grandfather. “It’s very kind. We’ll be getting off soon anyway.” He shakes his head at Matsuda as if to say, No matter how hard you try, he won’t come with you. He’s just that way. A shy boy.
Suddenly the boy claws his way up to his grandfather’s face and says, “I want to get off now. Right now.”
“We have to wait,” says the grandfather. “Patience. We need patience.”
But Matsuda thinks of the possibility: Why not stop the train now? Feeling foolishly happy with the notion-as if it’s an obvious solution to a problem – he says, “What a clever little boy.” And then he makes his way back through the passengers toward his compartment with a sense of purpose.
An announcement drones over speakers. “Next stop, Owari Station. End of the line. Next stop, Owari-eki.” Yoshida’s voice sounds appropriately calm, though Matsuda figures he’s quite concerned by now. But Yoshida is a capable young man. Matsuda decides he will praise him in the report he’ll prepare next week, the last report before he retires. He’ll recommend him for promotion. The company has a good man in Yoshida, and Matsuda is proud he’s played a role in shaping the younger trainman.
When he reaches the control panel, Matsuda figures he has less than a minute before the train enters the last station on the line. He eases back the throttle and engages the brakes. The train slows and stops. Owari-eki is a still few hundred meters up the line.
“Matsuda?” says Yoshida’s voice over the radio. “Do we have an emergency? Matsuda, are you there? What’s our status, please? Over.”
Matsuda overrides the automated door controls and then passes back into the passenger carriage, where everyone now stares at him, some panicked, some looking for guidance. In their faces he reads, Why have we stopped? What should we do? What’s wrong? Are we in danger? The grandfather of the small boy looks horrified, as if he feels he and his grandson are responsible for this turn of events.
Because the doors are open, the sound of stuttering hydraulics from the trains undercarriage fills the car. The passengers make way for Matsuda, yield to the authority of his blue uniform. He stands at the threshold of the doors, a meter and a half above the track. He wonders if his legs will absorb the landing. It’s been so long since he’s tested them. He drops down to solid earth, surprising himself. He rolls, forward. He feels no pain. He stands. The ballast rattles behind him as a few of the passengers touch down. He hears Yoshida yell, “Matsuda-san!” down the length of the train.
Everything Matsuda feels connected to-the locomotive, the tracks, his passengers, his partner – remains at his back. He begins running, something he hasn’t done in years, something he thought he wasn’t capable of doing. His lungs are as large as ten-kilo sacks of rice. He climbs over the retaining fence without care. On the other side, he finds himself bounding through the high grass of a derelict soccer field. Nets torn. Goals collapsed and rusted. The high grass pulls at his feet so hard, it seems a signal to slow down.
He stops for a moment to take in the composition before him. He’s without his compartment window to frame it, but the scene defines its own boundaries. Above the glow of Owari – the station platform suffused with the luminous red of Coca-Cola machines, the streets whitewashed gauzy by night lamps, the roof tiles of tourist shops catching the gleam of the moon – ascending above all of this is the dark indigo prominence of the foothills. And in this expanse of indigo flicker several lights like torches, guideposts, zigzagging their way up toward the summit of Nakao-san, the last of them so weak and distant it seems merely a figment.
Matsuda looks back to the train. A tiny crowd of figures moves about uncertainly. Station men bound down the track, whistling, their flashlight beams caroming off earth and track and night. The train looks helpless. Melancholy iron and steel. But Matsuda places this scene outside the frame, cropping it off at the corner of his eye, as though it were something unseemly.
A breeze cools the sweaty back of his neck, and laughter sweeps in upon him like an updraft, suggesting his next direction. And now, running again, the high, heavy grass slapping at his feet, he leans toward the lights in the distant foothills, feeling like an artist who’s escaped the prison of his own work.
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